Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Murder of Crows Takes Flight

"A Murder of Crows Takes Flight"
Steven B. Rogers - Watercolor (2018)
My wife is the true artist in our family. Even our son has the gift. A gifted photographer, painter, jeweler and mosaicist, she knows what she is doing having read about and studied her crafts in the studio. Me? I’m a dabbler although when I dabble I take it very serious. Artists should always be serious about what they do regardless of their abilities and the degree of talent. Use what the Muse throws at you!

When I was a kid my father found relaxation painting by numbers and I tried to emulate him. Like most of my life, I have never been happy staying inside the lines. And like most young students I received some basic art instruction in elementary and junior high school. I also enrolled in a couple interesting studio classes when I attended a German university in the early 1970s. I learned basic principles about color, perspective and composition and I experimented with oil and acrylic media. The results are thankfully long lost and forgettable; I never found a comfort zone in either. What I learned, however, made it possible for me to appreciate the work of others far more talented than I and I love to ramble through galleries and art museums. The humorist David Sedaris, when asked why he did not continue with his art school education, admitted that most of his fellow students had something he did not. "They were on fire for the visual arts . . . I was on fire for writing, not for painting." As an artist I have also found it easier to paint with words than with pigments.

I find my dabbling in paints is in a way cathartic, something my writing is normally not. I write about things that have deep meaning for me, or as a way of putting order to a position or debate; I do not necessarily look at writing as an emotional release. With painting I do. Having lived with a visual artist for the past 40+ years it is difficult not to think about painting. SallyAnn works mainly with watercolors and gouache and she has taught me an appreciation for what one can do with these media. Add to this the minimal muss and fuss they entail and I have grown comfortable using them for what I am trying to accomplish when I dabble. Perhaps it is an emotional release as colors appeal to the eye, black on white print may not.

That said, my watercolor/gouache paintings tend more
Steven B. Rogers - Watercolor
toward "abstract expressionism" for want of a better description. They rely on a more vigorous gestural expression of self, a personal expression of emotion whatever it might be. Perhaps what I like about it is the fact that, according to Picasso, "painting is just another way of keeping a diary." This appeals to the journal keeper in me. "Painting is self-discovery," the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock claimed. "Every good artist paints what he is . . . Today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves. Most modern painters work from a different source. They work from within." This is all I want to accomplish. "It doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement." This is exactly how I feel about it. On occasion I will stray into less abstract formulations yet for no specific reason. Something just clicks. My last posting introduced a new watercolor based on a strong memory I have from last year’s visit to South Africa: SallyAnn has done a number of such paintings and I felt I wanted to see if I could capture my own memory.

I recently finished Alyson Richman’s The Last Van Gogh (2006), a historical novel dealing with Van Gogh’s final two months painting in and around the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise in the summer of 1890 before he allegedly shot himself. He died two days later at the age of 37 having sold only one painting in his lifetime. Since I like many of the dozens of paintings Van Gogh executed during those final two months of life in Auvers, I was curious which is considered to actually be his last. Many experts seem to agree that it was "Wheatfield with Crows," painted circa July 10, 1890 (he died on July 29) although it is difficult to date his final paintings with any accuracy.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

There is something strangely compelling about this painting. The wild, turbulent sky, the broad brush strokes of what appears to be a wind-swept field, the lonely road headed nowhere in particular, and the crow taking flight into the distance. Some say Van Gogh was foretelling his own demise. Having studied the painting in detail I turned to my own palette, not so much to copy what Van Gogh created. I would never consider such a thing. The painting did, however, pique my interest and I tried to picture something somewhat similar but in a more local and familiar setting . . . in this case northern New England. The result was "A Murder of Crows Takes Flight." To quote van Gogh: "I do not say that my work is good, but it’s the least bad than I can do."

Friday, July 27, 2018

Bless the Rains Down in Africa

Bless the Rains Down in Africa
Steven B. Rogers - Watercolor (2018)
This evening I watched as a rain squall approached across the lake out of the western Maine mountains and I thought back to an afternoon in April of last year when I was up in the northeastern region of South Africa, in the borderlands of Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces. This region is also a transitional sub-tropical landscape of lowveld and bushveld with broad-leaf and acacia trees scattered across a relatively open plain of long grasses.

It was autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and the landscape was rich in earth tones, the sky a faint blue running to gun metal gray. In the distance the Drakensberg Escarpment was draped with rain clouds headed in our direction. Still we had time to pause during our morning safari to enjoy a pot of hot chocolate and Ouma rusks, a twice-baked dry biscuit that would last us until we returned to the lodge for a proper breakfast. A giraffe was enjoying the upper reaches of the nearby torn trees while a herd of Cape Buffalo kept a weary eye on us from across a water hole where a pair of hippos snorkeled about. I have been replaying that scene in my mind for months. Today some of it wandered off my watercolor palette. Blessed are the rains that they held off until after our return to the lodge.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Madiba at 100 - Thinking About Nelson Mandela

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

     – Nelson Mandela

Today marks the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela. There is no debate that he is one of the most significant and influential personalities of the 20th century. A modern day founding father of a new democratic nation rising out of the ashes of Fascism and apartheid.

I am commemorating Madiba’s birth by reading the honest and eloquent letters he wrote during his 27 years – 10,052 days – of incarceration. These letters were written between the time of his arrest in 1962 and his eventual release on February 11, 1990.

They are an inspiration and evidence of how Mandela was able to keep his spirit and his hopes for a new and just South Africa alive. Despite the draconian rules governing the quantity and content of prisoner correspondence, Mandela’s letters were written to his wife Winnie and his five children, as well as to his police captors and prison authorities, his fellow activists in the African National Congress [ANC], and the white government officials who arrested the 44 year old lawyer, tried and sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1964, and disappeared him into its frightful penal system, especially the stark existence and isolation of Robben Island situated seven miles off Cape Town. Nevertheless his inherent moral values remained intact and were never compromised in the face of uncommon punishment. Mandela chose not to be invisible, and although his voice may have been silenced, his pen remained a mighty sword against the injustices of apartheid and those who like him suffered its brutal suppression of equal rights for all South Africans. "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."  

A lawyer by training, Mandela advocated for prisoners’ human rights, including for Winnie during her own period of incarceration, and outlined his own strong philosophy on human rights with unfaltering optimism. "Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark & grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation & even defeat." His fellow South Africans did not forget him. And neither did the world.

What a wonderful scene that was in February 1990 when the world finally watched Mandela walk out of the Victor Verster Prison near Stellenbosch a free man and into the hopeful future of his country. Not long thereafter I watched Mandela paraded through the streets of Washington, DC. He worked tirelessly to dismantle the policy of apartheid and to build a nation on the foundation spelled out in the Freedom Charter of the South African Congress Alliance in Soweto. Mandela was elected in 1994 as the first president of a free and democratic South Africa where blacks and whites could live together and throw off the chains of oppression that held them as prisoners in their separate worlds. He and the African National Congress ushered their country into the world community of democratic nations. "Madiba’s words give a compass in a sea of change," former President Barack Obama said of the man who stood as a mentor to his own desires to forge a new path in this country, "firm ground amidst swirling currents.

SallyAnn and I visited South Africa last year. I will not say there are not still problems and inequities in South Africa. Yet the tools are there to remedy them if the people choose to do so. That is promise. That is progress. During our visit, we had an opportunity to visit Mandela’s home in Soweto, outside of Johannesburg, as well as the nearby site in Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was established in 1955. Later, while in Capetown, we visited Mandela’s world for
19 long years . . . his prison on Robben Island. Having read so much about his long incarceration in his memoir, A Long Walk to Freedom (1994), how moving it was to arrive at the wharf where Mandela and hundreds of political opponents of the old regime were unloaded to begin their long imprisonments. Some would never leave. We saw where the prisoners worked long hours in the quarries, and in the barracks courtyards where they sat all day breaking larger stones onto gravel. There was Mandela’s spartan cell. The iron gates, the tall walls topped with concertina wire. The guard towers. The seven miles of cold South Atlantic waters with the beautiful city of Cape Town and the magnificent backdrop of Table Mountain. It made the isolation even more palpable. Back on the mainland, walking along the seaside promenade at Mouille Point outside our flat, I could see the Robben Island lighthouse blinking on the horizon. Too different worlds so close but yet so far apart.

Today I fly the ANC banner from our deck here at the cottage in Maine. I honor Nelson Mandela - Madiba - on the centenary of his birth and all he stood for and accomplished. He has been gone from us for five years. He will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Hermitage With a View

Thunder is rolling across the Oxford Hills and the foothills of the White Mountains. There is a nice breeze blowing across Sabbathday Lake and there is a light staccato of rain on the roof. Off in the distance I can here the faint, high pitched piping from the convocation of bald eagles that nest across the lake. Farther away still is the distinct tremolo yodeling of our resident family of loons. I can think of no other place I would rather be at the moment.
There is no television, and no mobile phone and Internet services unless I choose to turn them on. There is hardly ever a distraction and one day unspools just like its predecessor, and probably much like the day that will follow. The only thing that ever seems to change around here is the weather and the seasons. Otherwise I am happy to be here undisturbed with my pens, my brushes, and a pile of books to keep me company. Finestkind.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

In Search of Three Pines - On the Road in Québec’s Canton de l’Est

Place de l'Hotel de Ville - Freleighsburg, Quebec
I am a fairly recent convert to the Gospel According to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec.  Those of you who have read this wonderful series of thirteen (2005 to date) murder mysteries by Canadian novelist Louise Penny will immediately know to whom I am referring.

One of my oldest friends first told me about these books.  He and his wife had both read them and he suggested I might enjoy them seeing as they are set in one of my favorite places - Québec’s Canton de l’Est [the Eastern Townships] which stretch from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River at Montréal to the US-Canada frontier with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  I have been a regular visitor to this region for many years and so I followed my friend’s recommendation.  I have not been disappointed.
I must make a confession.  I read very little popular fiction, and have never demonstrated a proclivity toward murder mysteries.  Yet Penny’s books are more than this as they are heavily character driven with a strong sense of place; in this instance the village of Three Pines, Québec, which apparently very few people in the Québec of Ms. Penny’s books have ever heard of.  “Three Pines wasn’t on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road.  Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in the valley all along. Anyone fortunate enough to find it once usually found their way back” [Still Life, 2005].  One is curious how a town nobody seems to know much about, or how to get there even if they did, manages to remain peaceful and serene while residents and visitors keep turning up dead.  And, I should add, not by natural causes.

Three Pines is a fictional place; it does not exist.  That said, however, Ms. Penny freely admits that she drew inspiration from several Eastern Township villages and towns she has come to know since moving to the region with her late husband after working as a broadcast journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Company in Montréal.  There are the bucolic towns of Sutton and Sutton Junction, where they first lived, and Knowlton, where Ms. Penny currently resides when she is not traveling the world.  Farther afield are North Hatley, at the head of Lac Massawippi, and Georgeville, on Lac Memphrémagog.  Then there is Stanbridge East, where the television production of Penny’s first novel, Still Life, was filmed.  I have visited all of these locales and none of them have what I would call a village green, a key feature in Three Pines, and they all strike me as too large to be compared with the minuscule hamlet that is Three Pines.  Its roads are unimproved and there are only a few cottages, a small church, a bistro and bed and breakfast, and a few shops arranged around a green with its three stately pines.  A country inn was added in later books.  That’s it.  Strange that the bistro and B&B do such a brisk business in this modern day Brigadoon.   More than a few have managed to find it.

Other than the murders, which are either referred to or described in the vaguest of terms, there is almost no violence found in any of the books.  No sex either, although the language is occasionally coarse . . . sometime in French . . . and the f-bomb is dropped here and there.  The inhabitants of Three Pines are just plain nice folks who are mostly kind and generous and look out for one another.  “I think of Three Pines as a state of mind. It’s a place that has chosen its society wisely. It becomes self-selecting; there is a reason these people are there in this particular village,” Ms. Penny admits. “It’s known grief and sorrow and will again. Yet there’s something potentially redemptive here—because I believe in that. I think bad things do happen but it’s in an envelope of many blessings.”  The stories are full of twists and turns and there are a lot of red herrings.  They have been described by Patrick Anderson of The Washington Post as a “kinder and gentler” murder mystery.  Others have compared them to the “cozy mysteries” of Agatha Christie, or to the plots of the popular television series Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) starring Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, an amateur sleuth in Cabot Cove, Maine.
Critic and reviewers seem to think these types of stories appeal mainly to women, and in fact a great many fans of Ms. Penny’s mysteries are women.  But there is no reason why they can’t appeal to men in equal measure.  Chief Inspector Gamache is no amateur sleuth.  Penny admits she created “someone who is kindly and strong, and has integrity and isn’t a bully, and has a sense of humor, and is literate without being pompous, and loves his food—someone not unlike my own husband, oddly enough!”   Based in Montréal, Gamache is head of the homicide division of the Québec provincial police and he has jurisdiction for the entire province.  Still, he manages to investigate the alleged tiny, isolated Three Pines murders personally supported by a phalanx of Sûreté officers and forensic specialists.  Although Canada is officially bi-lingual, French is the only official language in Québec.  At one time there were many well established English-speaking communities throughout the Eastern Township although they are fewer and farther between these days.  Three Pines, however, has remained a village of anglophone Quebeckers.  Thankfully, Inspector Gamache, who studied in England, is fluent in English which he speaks with a gentle Cambridge  accent to the surviving village inhabitants, many who through the series become personal friends as he ingratiates himself with the community over time as he returns in each book to solve yet another murder.

This past autumn I took a road trip across Québec south of the St. Lawrence River and I used the opportunity to explore in more detail the various Eastern Township locales which have come to be associated with Ms. Penny’s books.  More particularly, I set out to search for the mythical and mystical village of Three Pines where most of the action of these mysteries is set; if not the actual village, then those towns and places which provide Ms. Penny with her inspiration.  Others have done this before me, and as far as I know, none have ever claimed to find a village with a central green, especially one featuring three tall pines and a river nearby and no cell service . . . certainly none of the ones Ms. Penny has suggested as a possible model for her fictional village.  Listening to my friend who introduced me to these books describe Three Pines, a particular town, one of my favorites in the Townships, immediately came to mind – one that I picture when I reading the mysteries, even though it is not among the locales proffered as a model for Three Pines.  I decided I would have a closer look.

After spending the night in Bécancour, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence near Trois Rivière, half way between Québec City and Montréal, I spent a pleasant morning driving through the rolling hills and farmland, past Drummondville and Granby and into the heartland of the Eastern Townships.  I passed through Cowansville, where the closest Sûreté du Québec post to the fictional Three Pines is supposedly located, and from there I drove Route 2020 along the Route de Vin through vineyards in their rich autumnal colors until I arrived at my first stop - Stanbridge East, in the Stanbridge Township.

Ms. Penny describes Three Pines as a small hamlet situated on the fictional Bella Bella River just a few miles north of the US border.  Its village green has three large white pine trees supposedly planted by the local inhabitants to let loyalists fleeing north during and following the American Revolution that they had reached safety in British Canada.  Ms. Penny freely admits, however, that she first heard the three pine trees anecdote at church supper, and there is nothing to confirm this as historical fact.  Add to this the simple fact that such trees would take too long to grow to be planted intentionally for this purpose as stated in the mysteries.
Stanbridge East, situated on the Rivière Aux Brochets and its mill pond, is just a few miles above the border and its diminutive size could easily fit the bill.  The township was established in the year 1792 and opened for settlement, reversing the earlier policy prohibiting settlements near the American frontier.  The only screen adaptation of any of the Three Pines mysteries - Still Life - was filmed here and released on CBC Television in 2013.  Unfortunately many of the TV critics received it with less than favorable reviews when compared with the many character-driven BBC mysteries.  One Canadian critic, however, confessed that it was “ easy on the eyes and the brains,” which of course, the novels are.  They don’t pretend to be anything more.  Such is the definition of a “cozy mystery.”   I walked around and recalled many of the scenes from the film, but there is no village green to speak of . . . and no three pines or any larger stand of pines in any prominent town location.

My next stop was Frelighsburg Township and its eponymous village situated just a few miles southeast of Stanbridge East on Route 237 and less than three miles above the border with Vermont.  The village has long been one of my favorite spots in the Eastern Townships which I visit as often as I can.  This was my first visit since I began reading  Ms. Penny’s novels.  Even though it is not among the locales frequently cited as a possible model for Three Pines, I have always pictured Frelighsburg in my mind’s eye when envisioning the layout of and the action taking place in the fictional village.
Like its neighboring village of Standbridge East, Frelighsburg is also situated on the meandering Rivière Aux Brochets.  It is not as isolated and “off the grid” as Three Pines (none of the locales mentioned are), yet it exudes the quiet and (relatively) peaceful charm of Ms. Penny’s fictional village, especially the bistro where the villagers and Inspector Gamache and his cohorts frequently meet to discuss the case at hand while enjoying a drink and a good meal near a glowing hearth.   Frelighsburg happens to be the home of one of my favorite mealtime redoubt in the Townships . . . Aux 2 Clochers . . . located streamside in the very heart of the village.   I made certain my road trip brought me to Frelighsburg come time for lunch.  As I parked my car in front of the restaurant I looked across the road to Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and what did I spy there on the village green but three stately white pines!!.  Now I realize that there is little if any truth in the anecdote about the symbolic three pines, but my jaw dropped.   How could Frelighsburg not be Three Pines, if such a place ever existed?  I enjoyed a delightful lunch staring out at the three pines and the gentle flowing river. 
Leaving Frelighsburg I headed east following the road skirting the Canadian-US frontier to the border village of Abercorn and Route 139 which I them followed north through Sutton Station and  Sutton where Ms. Penny lived when she and her late husband first moved to the Eastern Townships from Montréal.  With a population approaching 4,000 it is far too large to be a true model for Three Pines although certain establishments in town have served as models for those in found in the novels.
Next on my list was Knowlton [Lac-Brome], yet another former loyalist village where Ms. Penny currently resides.  It is also the home of Brome Lake Books.  Situated on the banks of the town’s small pond (it has since moved to larger quarters on Knowlton Road, the town’s main thoroughfare), the bookstore has been made famous as the exemplar for the small bookstore in Three Pines, and it has become a mecca for Ms. Penny’s many devotees and fans.  Of course I stopped.  

From Knowlton I continued farther east, past the resort town of Magog, to North Hatley, at the northern head of Lac Massawippi.  It is the home of Manoir Hovey which served as inspiration for a similar auberge in one of the mysteries.  President and Hillary Clinton, who are both fans of the Three Pines mysteries, vacationed here shortly before my visit.  North Hatley’s large homes and architecture styles evidence the original residents who were mostly wealthy industrialists and land owners from the American South who moved their summer retreats north of the border after the Civil War.  The town is small and quaint much like Frelighsburg and it is another of my favorite destinations in the Townships, if for no other reason than the Pilsen Pub situated directly on (and over) Rivière Massawippi.  I’ve been eating there for years, and I can also picture it when the bistro in Three Pines is described.
My last stop is Georgeville, on the eastern shore of Lac Memphrémagog where the Canadian actor Donald Sutherland still maintains a home.  It, too, is very quaint, and faces across the lake to the Saint-Benoît-du-Lac abbey, and was established by American immigrants arriving after the Civil War.  It is a beautiful spot, but like North Hatley, it bears little resemblance to the fictional Three Pines.  Frelighsburg still remains my favorite choice.
I have always enjoyed reading books set in places I have visited and come to know beyond the cursory knowledge of a tourist.   And I have that in spades with Louise Penny’s Three Pines novels.  And even though these are technically murder mysteries, the bucolic and easy going demeanor of the Three Pines villagers give us, in these uncertain times we live in, a look at life the way it ought to be (without the murders, of course).  The fact that all this takes place in Québec’s Eastern Townships . . . even better! 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Enjoying the Summer Days in Maine

Can it really be that time of year again?? It seems like it was only yesterday when we packed up and left Sabbathday Lake last October after several delightful months at the lake cottage. And now we are here again (for two weeks already) and enjoying our little piece of heaven despite a few scorcher days with high humidity. The weather has returned to more reasonable temperatures and I have even had small fires in the woodstove when I have been up writing in the hours around dawn.

What can be more inspiring than sitting at my table and staring out at the placid lake? Steam rising and drifting across to the far shoreline, the western skies turning pink as the sun rises above the ridge line running behind our cottage (they call them "camps" in Maine regardless of their size and decor). There is the welcoming thump from the coffee pot as the morning coffee begins to perk and the cottage fills with pleasant morning aromas. Coffee and breakfast cooking on the stove. I put the writing aside for a bit and eat in the company of a good book.
I stand on the deck overlooking Sabbathday Lake as the day begins to take shape. Its surface only slightly disturbed by a gentling breeze as the flags fluff and flap. A blue heron glides low across the lake and lands in the alders that border a nearby cove. On the far shore a convocation of bald eagles has taken up residence in a tall pine. If I am lucky, I’ll see one or two of them hovering over the lake before swooping down to capture a fish in their talons and returning to the nest to feed the youngsters who are growing day by the day. And who can forget the family of loons that returns annually? They are frequently seen cruising the lake, occasionally diving only to surface far from where they submerged.

Throughout the day the shadows shift as the sun makes its journey to the western horizon. I find rest and respite on the deck under a large umbrella, or in the cottage’s shadow to continue reading, or to work on a watercolor, if the urge to paint strikes me. And there is the overstuffed chair in the sitting room where I occasionally park myself for a short afternoon nap as I enjoy the breezes blowing in off the lake.  

Besides the quiet early morning hours I most enjoy the two hours on either side of sunset as the day begins to cool down and the breezes subside. There are the mournful distant cries of the loons as the evening shadows lengthen across the lake as the sun sets below the far forested shore. The powder blue sky is etched by the pinkish contrails of jets headed to and from Europe. Just three years ago I was in one of them on my way to Frankfurt and I was able to look down on our lake and the surrounding country before heading out across the Gulf of Maine and the North Atlantic darkness.

With the onset of night I light the citronella torch and the bug punk. With the last vestiges of daylight, and with very little ambient light, the stars begin to come out. First just a few, then familiar constellations appear. Soon the sky is drenched in stars and on clear nights the Milky Way is there. If I stare up long enough I can usually catch a glimpse of a passing satellite . . . or even the International Space Station. Later, in August, we are treated to the Perseid meteor showers. Always a treat. If the conditions are just right, and if one is patient, the northern lights glimmer above. Reason enough to come to Maine in the summer.

Finally retreating inside, it is time to settle down with a good book, or perhaps write some letters while wondering what the next day will bring. Another day like the one just ending? Or perhaps it will be a day for exploring . . . . up into the foothills of the White Mountains, or even into the Presidential Range, in New Hampshire. Or over to Midcoast Maine and its rocky shoreline. Perhaps a lobster or two and some fresh steamers at a favorite lobster pound. So much to do and so little time to do it.

Maine . . . The Way Life Should Be! Amen to that!!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Queueing For Sarnies - Another Adventure In Bacon

I arrived in England for the first time in mid-March of 1972. It was during my semester break while attending university in Germany, and tired of speaking German all the time, a fellow American student and I decided to make our way across the English Channel for a few days of intense Anglophilia. And what better way to celebrate my 21st birthday. After interim stops in Cologne and Brussels, we arrived at Calais, on the French coast, where we jumped a ferry for Merry Ole England. What a treat it was to disembark on the wharf at Dover where all the signs were in English. It was not the same thing as coming home to America, but it was close enough for us.

I arrived with a song on my lips, or at the very least a mysterious lyric from a song. Shortly before our departure from Freiburg, Jethro Tull, still one of my favorite groups of all time, had just released its fifth studio album, Thick As a Brick. It was not your traditional album but a concept album (some think a spoof thereof) consisting of a single 44-minute composition full of curious and impressionistic images framed with an odd assortment of British colloquialisms, many of which I frankly had never heard before. One more than any other caught my attention – "while queueing for sarnies at the office canteen." Now what the hell could this mean? At the time I was not even familiar with the term "to queue" - to line up - which the British tend to do when waiting for a bus or a taxi etc.. More than this, I had not the slightest notion what a "sarnie" was. It would not be long before I found out.

After settling in at the local youth hostel in Dover my companion and I strolled through town looking for something to eat. As we walked back toward the waterfront I figured we would end up at a Wimpy Bar for a helping of greasy burgers and chips (french fries), or perhaps a fish and chips shop. The shops we passed by, including a well worn Wimpy Bar we finally discovered on a back street, were all less than appealing to the eye and we assumed equally unwelcome to the palate. The search for a suitable meal continued.

We were practically back to the waterfront when I by chance spied a corner café offering sarnies. And there was a queue in front and so I took this to be a good sign. That mysterious lyric - queueing for sarnies at the office canteen - still stuck in my head I had the perfect opportunity to find out what a sarnie was. And perhaps eat one or two, if they appeared at all appetizing on first blush. Nothing I had spied so far came close to that. We wandered inside and grabbed an empty table near the window where we could watch the activity on the waterfront.

So what is a sarnie you ask? There were no photographs on the menu card and so I inquired with our spike mohawked wait person. It turned out there was no real mystery at all; a sarnie is nothing more than a bacon sandwich. Two slices of nothing fancy white bread slathered with butter or mayo to which one adds several slices of back bacon (what we in America commonly refer to as Canadian bacon). Streaky bacon, which is more similar to what we are familiar with in the USA, is also perfectly acceptable. Whichever, just include plenty of it. To this one often adds ketchup, but the traditional British brown sauce (my favorite is HP) is considered essential by many like myself who take their sarnies seriously (even though I had never really had one like the British serve them). The bread can be toasted, but why bother? One does not eat a sarnie to enjoy the bread; it’s only there to keep the bacon orderly. Stated simply, a sarnie is a BLT without all the unnecessary healthy accouterment!

That evening I had my first sarnie. I did not have to queue for it (as it happened the queue outside was for take away fish and chips); rather I ordered it and it was brought to my table. And I was not the only one there eating one that evening although my travel companion opted for the sit down fish and chips and wish he hadn’t). And it would not be the last one I would enjoy during that first visit to England. Nothing flashy about a sarnie. Why does there need to be? Plenty of bacon, that’s all. Plenty of bacon! Walking back to our hostel later that evening I kept thinking of that once mysterious lyric. Now I finally knew what it meant.

After Dover we continued to London where we spent a week sharing a room near Victoria Station with a fellow I took to be roughly the same age as ourselves. He told us he worked at a bookstore in Charing Cross Road and he was an interesting chap to talk to over breakfast in the morning (frequently sarnies) although we both thought he had the oddest British accent we had ever heard . . . sort of a mix of George Harrison (Liverpool), Sean Connery (Scotland), Michael Caine (East London), and Mick Jagger (Kent). Turned out he was just as American as the two of us, hailing from a small town in western Nebraska. I discovered this when he did not know what a sarnie was.

Any self-respecting Brit worth a jot knows what a sarnie is. Her Royal Majesty, who has probably never eaten one or even seen one up close, knows what a sarnie is! It is the comfort food and the guilty pleasure of an entire nation whether it be called a sarnie, a bacon butty, a bacon bap, or a rasher sandwich. Whether it is made with back or streaky bacon, it is a fully serviceable meal. Not only will it satisfy one’s hunger as a meal or in between snack, it is also highly recommended as a cure for too many pints at the pub the night before. The bread and grease soak up the excess alcohol while the bacon nourishes your debauched soul.

I must confess I had more than my fair share of sarnies whilst in London. I saw people queueing for them here and there and I took my place in line. It was usually worth the wait. Back in Dover after an early morning train from Victoria Station and while waiting for the ferry that would return us across the Channel to France I found myself once again queueing for a couple sarnies at the wharf canteen.

Note Bene: While in London my friend and I attended Jethro Tull in concert at the Royal Albert Hall. They played an abridged version of "Thick as a Brick," including that once mysterious lyric that now had a special place in my heart.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Dog On a Short Chain: A Belated Tribute to Anthony Bourdain

CNN / Parts Unknown
Anthony Bourdain was the Hemingway of gastronomy.
           – Marco Pierre White, chef and restauranteur

For almost a month I have had a great deal of difficulty trying to capture the impact Tony Bourdain has had on me. Not just his revelations surrounding the culinary arts, but his overall and consuming look on life and the best ways to enjoy it to the fullest. How could I maintain proper reverence while at the same time paying tribute to Bourdain’s compelling irreverence?

Anthony Bourdain took his own life in his hotel room in the small village of Kaysersberg, in eastern France near Strasbourg, on Friday, June 8. He was approaching his 62nd birthday. I was dumbstruck when a good friend texted me with the news early that morning. The wind left my sails and I sat quietly unable to drink my morning coffee. Once I slowly gathered my wits about me I began to search the Internet and social media for details which still remained murky at best. How was it possible that a seemingly vibrant and vital alpha male known for his frequent acerbic, sardonic, and no holds bar opinions, could succumb to suicide? What was the fount of his pain from which there seemed no escape? The answers escaped me. They still do.

Later that evening Anderson Cooper eulogized his friend and colleague, as so many of us realized we had also lost "a friend, a travel companion, who was always up for an adventure." For Bourdain, food was an entré to new and exciting discoveries, some beyond the restaurant and home kitchen and table . . . and more often than not at a street food stall in some far away back alley in some little known locale. Patrick Radden Keefe, in a profile of Bourdain appearing in The New Yorker last year, called him an "evangelist for street food." The bottom line . . . "food isn’t everything." The place where it is prepared and consumed, are also important. That said, Bourdain was a firm believer you can eat anything, and wherever he traveled, when someone offered him food, they were telling him a story about themselves. He proved this time and time again, even when he ate the "nasty bits" along with culinary triumphs. Bourdain tweeted: "Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you . . . You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."

Known as a one of the earliest "celebrity" chefs, a culinary and cultural critic and bad ass, a philosopher, even a poet of sorts, he was on location near Strasbourg filming an episode on Alsatian food and culture for Parts Unknown, his most recent travel series on CNN. In announcing his passing, his network colleagues praised him and his exploration of "different cultures with intrigue and respect," adding that "Bourdain embraced the unknown without trepidation. He allowed the people he met to tell their stories, all while encouraging others to listen and learn." That seems to be a general consensus. "What struck me most about him was his curiosity and his passion not only for food but for the people behind the food,"writes Yotam Ottolenghi, chef, restaurateur, and cookbook writer. "He was someone who challenged us to see the world and its cultures through food." I am one of them. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly put it succinctly: "Tony made the world seem smaller, and reminded everyone that what we all have in common is greater than what divides us."

Upon learning of Bourdain’s sudden and tragic death in eastern France, I recalled my own culinary discoveries in Kaysersberg and the nearby Riquewihr 47 years ago while attending university on the other side of the Rhine in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. I joined some of my German friends and neighbors when we frequently crossed the nearby French border and traveled the short distance to these villages in the foothills of the Vosges mountains which I could see from my apartment window in Freiburg. There we sampled dishes which challenged my Midwestern meat and potatoes sensibilities. I was still eating meat and potatoes, but not in any fashion I would have recognized had I not done what Bourdain taught so many of us. How better to learn about a people and their culture than to eat their food and in the manner in which they prepare it? Dishes like choucroute, fleischnacka, quenelles de foie, and bibeleskas reflect the strong German influences in a region passed back and forth between Germany and France. These dishes were similar to ones I had first discovered in Germany, yet still they were different in some way that made them a new discovery. My favorite though were the Escargots à l'Alsacienne. I had never eaten snails before, and I would come to measure all I have eaten since by this version prepared in a butter sauce rich with garlic, shallots, and parsley . . . and washed down with a local Riesling, or better yet, a cold and frothy Kronenbourg, the local Alsatian beer. I was doing then what Bourdain would later preach every chance he got. "If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them wherever you go." I did just that. I’m still doing it.

I have been an allegiant Bourdain fan ever since I first read his 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential described as adventures in the "Culinary Underbelly" of New York where he was the executive chef of Manhattan’s now defunct Brasserie Les Halles. I caught glimpses of this culture while attending high school. For a year I worked in the kitchen of a local "upscale restaurant" in Richmond, Indiana. The fact that it was a restaurant attached to the local Holiday Inn tells you that it is probably not in close proximity to New York’s underbelly. I also worked for two years in the kitchen of a nursing home in my native Chicago. Still not quite the same thing. My father-in-law was in the hospitality industry when my wife and I first met and were married, and I had another close look at this culture in Tulsa and suburban Kansas City. More recently my son worked at a restaurant in DC after graduating from college, and the stories he told resurrected old experiences and memories. Again, perhaps not in the same league with Manhattan eateries, yet many of the things Bourdain wrote about in Kitchen Confidential resonated with me and rang true.

I have read all of Bourdain’s books and I have been a regular and religious viewer of his Cook’s Tour on the Food Channel in 2002-2003; the subsequent No Reservations (2005-2012) on the Travel Channel (in 2011, the Travel Channel added a second Bourdain show, The Layover, to its roster); and for the past eight seasons CNN’s Parts Unknown. "Shows which could naively be reduced to being about food or travel, yet were really just brilliant meditations on culture, boundaries, sociology and the human condition," The Observer reported. "He was an eternal student, hungry to absorb the essence of that which was placed before him, not so that he may simply consume it, but so that he could translate its essence back unto us." Their collective episodes are a testament to Bourdain choosing the road less traveled. "We are, after all, citizens of the world—a world filled with bacteria, some friendly, some not so friendly," Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential. "Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico, and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafés and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once."  Bourdain was honest to a fault when asked to sum up the purpose of his television series. "I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want."    

"Bourdain was hesitant to call himself a journalist," writes Monica Burton and Erin DeJesus in Eater, citing a comment he made in a 2016 interview in that publication. "A journalist has to have an agenda — who-what-why-where — and I don’t want to ask those questions," Bourdain claimed. "That’s a prison to me. I’m not here to ask you specific questions, I’m here to ask general questions. What’s your life like? Tell me a story." Helen Rosner, writing in The New Yorker, disputed this, believing Bourdain "was a writer himself" and was always willing to share what he knew in guest commentary and interviews. "Every newspaper, every magazine, every Web site that asked got its Bourdain quotes—and good ones, too! Not pre-scripted pablum but potent missiles of cultural commentary—bombastic wisdom, grand pronouncements, eviscerations of celebrities, flagrantly named names."

Tom Philpot, writing for Mother Jones, touches upon another important facet of Bourdain’s writing and television series. "He used the enormous reach and cachet he amassed to stick up for the marginalized . . . He spoke up often, from the Kitchen Confidential days to the present, for immigrant restaurant workers. In his hit CNN show Parts Unknown, he prided himself on straying from the Michelin Guide path and discovering and documenting culinary pleasures among ordinary, often marginalized people."

Perhaps the most unique of the dozens of episodes spanning the globe is one featuring Bourdain’s visit to Hanoi, Vietnam which aired on CNN in September 2016. Unique for the fact that this visit coincided with former President Barack Obama’s official visit to Vietnam in May of that year. Despite his busy schedule he took time to share a meal with Bourdain in a back street noodle house in the Pan Chu Trindh district. Though Bourdain was more familiar with Vietnamese cuisine and the manner of its consumption, the two men quickly discovered they were kindred spirits. "I believe what’s important to him is this notion that otherness is not bad," the President commented. "Americans should aspire to walk in other people’s shoes." This idea resonated strongly with Bourdain. Sitting in plastic chairs pulled up to a small table, Bourdain introduced Obama to a local pork noodle specialty called bún chå served with spring rolls and washed down with a bottle of cold Hanoi beer. "Dip and stir," Bourdain counseled the President as they added the grilled pork to the bowl of noodles. "And get ready for the awesomeness." One final instruction: "Slurping is totally acceptable in this part of the world." The President slurped.

Watching this episode I was reminded of my own introduction to bún chå the previous year at Com Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant situated off the Alexanderplatz in what was once East Berlin. It was run by former North Vietnamese guest workers from Hanoi and it offers dishes, such as bún chå which you can’t find in Vietnamese restaurants at home in Washington, DC. As they ate Obama noted that the world is getting smaller. "The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left." Learning of Bourdain’s passing the President recalled their meal together. "This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him." That just about says it all.

Almost a month has passed since Anthony Bourdain left us. I still grow melancholy when I think there will be no more culinary adventures to parts unknown; no more of Bourdain’s brash claims mixed with considered opinions. Since his death I have gone back and watched some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown. I can’t help but smile as I watch Bourdain wander here and there, tasting and relishing this and that. But the melancholy always returns. Never so much as the May 2016 episode in which he explores Montana where, according to the CNN blurb, he "finds big sky, big hearts," including that of poet and author Jim Harrison who shows Bourdain the many marvels of his adopted state (Harrison was also featured in an August 2009 episode of No Reservations filmed in and around Livingston, Montana). Harrison, who is perhaps my favorite modern American writer, died of a heart attack in late March 2016 at his other home in Arizona, just two months after the filming of the Parts Unknown episode. Bourdain noted Harrison’s passing at the end of the episode. "We show you a lot of beautiful spaces and very nice people in this episode, but its beating heart, and the principal reason I've always come to Montana, is Jim Harrison -- poet, author and great American and a hero of mine and millions of others around the world." Bourdain shared one of Harrison’s poems. " It seems kind of perfect now that Jim's finally slipped his chain."

The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
That I didn't die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there's no chain.

Bourdain’s final comment about Harrison struck me deep. "There were none like him while he lived. There will be none like him now that he's gone." I think the same can be said for Anthony Bourdain. Alas, like Harrison, he has slipped his chain much too soon. I’ll miss him.

Suicide Prevention and Crisis Hotline: If you are in crisis and need to talk to someone right away, call 1-800-273-8255 / 1-800-273-TALK. Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour crisis line is here to provide a safe, non-judgmental source of support for individuals in any type of crisis.