Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Seventy two years ago this week Paris was liberated

Denise Damensztein is fifteen years old in this photo. It was taken at Leon, a Jewish restaurant, that operated during the Occupation. Denise worked serving here on Sundays and lived upstairs in the apartment on the first floor. In 1942, her parents and sister answered a knock on the door to the French police. Because they were foreign born in Poland they were on a list. Denise, fourteen at the time and born in Paris at the Rothschild Hospital, wasn't. Still the police wanted to take her. But her father bribed the policeman not to take her with a bar of soap. Denise lived in the apartment for two years by herself, thinking and hoping they would return. She went to beauty school, worked partime at a coiffeur outside Paris. Everyday she took a train and a bus, wore a yellow star as required by law but covered it with her shoulder bag. Downstairs, the family who ran the Leon bistro, fed her dinner and she earned tips on Sunday. Her family were close friends of Monsieur and Madame Bellalisse who ran a leather factory next door to their apartment. Monsieur Bellalisse was a Greek Jew and his wife, a German. The couple treated Denise as a niece during the Occupation. after her parents and sister were taken. Here is the remembrance of the Muguet, lily of the Valley, when the couple took They took Denise for her 16th birthday to the famous Pied au Cochon at Les Halles.
Here are the papers that enabled her to emigrate to the US in 1948.
At the end of the war, now 16 she received her Carte d'Identitie.
At Liberation in 1944 Denise learned her parents and sister had died at Auschwitz. But here she is, seventy two years ago during the week Paris was liberated, sitting next to a GI in his jeep in front of the restaurant Leon and below her apartment. She's the one smiling.
Denise loves chocolate. Here she is a few days ago topping off lunch with a dessert of chocolate mousse.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, August 22, 2016

Longing for Africa


Without a planned trip in my future, I am bereft.  Bear with me while I reminisce.  

Two years ago today, I had just arrived in Nairobi, on my own in Africa for the first time, and so looking forward to all that I would see.

That trip started with a Google search more than a year before.  I was doing some general research for my African series.  I have no recollection what terms I had typed in, but there on the first page of results was the entry for Old Africa Magazine.  Be still my heart.  One click, and there it was: the website of my dreams.

“Subscribe now,” it said.  Faster than you can say “Jack Robinson.”  Back issues?  “Please send all you have.”

Once they arrived.  I began to read them in date order.  (You do remember that I went to Catholic school?)  They gave me exactly the kind of thing that moves my imagination most—stories of people who had lived there and then, photos of life at the time of my novels.  There was also, in each issue, a contest to identify some past event.  Nothing I could ever hope to do.

But then I came to Issue No. 12, which was by then seven years old.  And I found this:


The words carved on the rock were given in the magazine as: “Benvenuta, ELIA, NATO, 7.2.1912. PARATICO, BRESCIA, WL ITALIA, WRE.”  The page went on to say that though the contest was over, answers were still welcome.

The thing was, I could read that rock.

So I emailed the editor—Shel Arensen—and asked if they had ever gotten an answer.  He responded that they had only a partial translation.  So I sent him mine:

Dear Shel, the magazine copy says that the carving says “Benvenuta"— which would be “Welcome" in the feminine as if to a girl.  But from the photo, it could be “Benvenuto,” which would make more sense considering what the rest says.  
"Elia (usually a masculine name), “Nato” born in the masculine.  It goes on "7 February 1912 Paratico, Brescia,” which is town in Lombardy. The W in "WL Italia" could stand for VV, which would mean  “Viva L’ Italia” (Long live Italy.)  WRE would really be VV RE, “Long live the King.”

So my take: It says.  "Welcome, Elia.  Born on 7 February 1912 in Paratico, Brescia.  Long live Italy.  Long live the King.”

Paratico a hundred years after Elia's birth,
In his first email, Shel had also asked what sparked my interest in his magazine.  An understandable question since he could see no connection between a woman of Italian descent living in New York and a nostalgia magazine about Kenya and Tanzania.  I told him about my forthcoming Strange Gods.  And he offered to review it.


I sweated that review.  After all, Shel and his readers were the descendants of the people I was writing about.   Every mistake I made would glare at them.  I am gratified to say that he liked the book.  He even found convincing my characterization of Vera McIntosh, born in East Africa, the child of a missionary, which Shel himself is.

And then came the magic invitation.  Old Africa was about to sponsor a hundredth anniversary tour of the World War I battlefields of Kenya.  With ten books planned in my series and three of them to deal those very places and times, how could not go.

And so I did.

Some if you have read here about my visit during that stay to the wonderful nuns and the splendid Maasai girls at Emusoi, and about my overwhelmingly thrilling safari in the Masai Mara.  I am saving the details of the battlefield tour for when those books come to the fore, numbers five, six, and seven of the series.  In the meanwhile, on the two-year anniversary of that trip, hungry as my heart is to be in Africa right now, I can’t think of anything else to share with you today but these thoughts and the photos that take me back.

My hotel in Nairobi

First destination: Karen Blixen's House

James Wilson's book: the definitive history of WWI in Kenya

Jim recounting the story of the war.  He went and sought out the places
where he took us.  I want him to sit next to me when I write those stories.
Jim found this building.  The first shot of the war came from this window,
as German troops attacked what was then a police boma in the Tsavo.

Our headquarters during the week-long tour was a lovely safari camp.
BIG bonus for me, there were game drives every evening.

The view from my bedroom window.

The tracks of the narrow gauge railway the Brits built to supply their troops.

My fellow travelers--with their LONG lenses, made fun of my little camera, but I love it.

They had trouble capturing Kilimanjaro at sunset.  My camera got the best shot.
We knew there was a lion under that tree and waited and waited for him to stand
up.  The others were packing their cameras away, but I stayed zoomed in and I
whispered, "Come on, honey.  Just raise your head." Just then, he did!  CLICK

They made me prove I had gotten the shot by showing it dinner that night.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Power of Letting Fuji-san Decide

-- Susan, Every Other Sunday

A Japanese proverb says: You cannot decide to see Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji decides who gets to see him.

All the traveler can do is show up and hope the mountain wants to be seen.

During my travels abroad, I've always tried to prepare a careful itinerary, but also keep myself open to whatever experiences the trip and the country might also have in store for me. I don't believe in coincidence, and I do believe that keeping your eyes, mind, and heart wide open often result in experiences we never could have planned on our own account.

Last year's research trip to Japan is a perfect example of what happens when you decide to "let Fuji-san decide" what you should see.

Six months before that trip, my son sent photos of coffee jelly he enjoyed while studying in Kyoto. I'd never tasted coffee jelly, and envied his experience--especially when he told me how delicious and refreshing coffee jelly was with cream.

I hoped to taste it in Japan, but neither he nor I knew how to track it down (he had it in his college cafeteria, a place I could not go). On our first morning in Kyoto, we went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, and guess what I found waiting for me in the buffet line?

Coffee jelly. With cream.
It proved exactly as delicious as my son had said that it would be.

While in Kyoto, we walked the Philosopher's Path, a road that runs along a canal in the northeastern part of the city. The path is famous for its lovely scenery, as well as the many shrines and temples that lie along the way. My son and I visited each of them, including a little temple called Ootoyo Jinja that lay about five minutes' walk from the beaten path. (In fact, we almost missed it.)

There, I discovered the shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi--a Japanese god whose story I first read and loved as a child, when my mother gave me a book of Japanese myths. In the story, a field mouse saves Okuninushi's life and helps him win the hand of his true love, Suseri-hime, daughter of the storm god Susanō. (If you want to hear the entire story, I blogged about it here.)

Guardian mouse at Ootoyo Jinja.
The shrine even has two statues of guardian mice, symbols and messengers of Okuninushi. 

But for my willingness to step away from the path, I never would have seen this childhood favorite come to life.

While climbing the slopes of Mount Inari (at Fushimi Inari shrine), I once more left the beaten path to follow an unmarked trail into the trees. Though clearly meant for visitors, it wasn't the pilgrim trail up the mountain, and I was the only one who took the route.

A quarter of a mile ahead, through an old-growth bamboo forest:

The road less traveled, Japanese style.

I discovered a hidden dragon shrine I didn't know was there.

Dragons are excellent hiders.

It was clearly set up for visitors, but none of my research and no one I spoke with told me it existed.

The "coincidences-that-aren't" continued to follow me throughout my trip, from the crows that appeared ahead of me when I approached important spots (in Shinto belief, the crow is a messenger of the gods and a harbinger of their favor):

Waiting for me at the entrance to Kasuga Shrine (where I plan to set a novel).

To my tearful arrival at the base of Itsukushima Shrine's Great Torii on the eve of my mother's 70th birthday (she went to Japan with me last year)--where I'd reserved a once-in-a-lifetime evening for us without fully realizing which night I'd booked it for...

... to the magical moment the following morning, when I arrived at Itsukushima just after dawn, as one of the Shinto priests began his morning meditations by playing a shakuhachi (flute).

(I tried to upload the video, but Blogger wouldn't let me - so I posted it on Facebook instead)

The Great Torii at dawn.

Some people may call these random events, but I see a larger plan. Each of them gave me something I had always wanted, but didn't even realize I did. Each of them added magic to an already spectacular trip, and gave me memories I will carry for a lifetime.

Even without these experiences, my journey to Japan was amazing, but remaining open to the adventures that might come along (instead of gluing myself to a plan that left no room for improvisation) the journey itself truly became more important than any given destination.

Sixty-four days from today, I'll board a plane to return to Japan. I'm teaching at the Japan Writers Conference in Tokushima (on the island of Shikoku) October 28-29 and then spending 17 days traveling across Japan to research the next four Hiro Hattori mysteries. Although I'm going with "things in mind" and a detailed itinerary of places to do and things to see, I'm also determined to remember that, when it comes to travel, amazing things happen when we release our grip on "the plan" and just let Fuji-san decide.

(And, since I'm actually planning to visit the Fuji region on this trip, here's hoping Fuji-sama appears for me, for real, this November. If he does, I promise to bring back pictures.)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mykonos and Stuff


The other day an old-time Mykonian stopped me along the harbor front.  “What’s happening to our Island, Jeffrey?”

When he calls it “our” island I know what’s coming ain’t good. “My” island brings on bragging about something good.

“What are you talking about?” I asked in my most innocent voice.

“You know exactly what I mean.”

Oh, we’re playing that game.  Yeah, I might know what he’s about to tell me, but if I say it, rather than waiting until he can’t resist blurting it out, he’ll be telling everyone what “Jeffrey said,” rather than generating the gossip on his own.  Nope, I’m not biting at that one.  Been down that road before.

“Sorry, my friend. Not sure what you’re getting at.  If it’s the economy you’re about to complain about, get real.  You’re living in a blessed bubble here on Mykonos.  The German Bertelsmann Foundation just this week ranked Greece last among 41 countries in terms of its future viability with regard to economic policies, and that’s just for starters.”

He waved me off. “No, I know all about that.  What has me riled up is… is...” he began waving his hands as if juggling pizza dough, “all the stuff I’m hearing people say we need to keep on the island to keep it popular.”

“Stuff?” I said.

“Yes, stuff.  You know stuff.”  He started in again with the hands.

“Okay, are you talking about there being more cars, motorbikes, quads, and private vans on the roads, than during rush hour on the LA 405 Freeway?”


“About no place to park them?”

He gestured no with a quick upward jerk of his head.  “No, not that either.”

“I’ve got it!  Drivers who think of themselves as somehow protected by the gods of Delos, no matter the condition in which they’re driving.”

“Forget about the cars, Jeffrey. I’m talking about stuff.” He practically shouted the word.

“Oh, we’re back to that.  Is this stuff animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

“Stop fooling with me, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  It’s everywhere and everybody knows about it.  Every day I hear Mykonians arguing over how important a draw it is to our island.  Can you believe it?”

“If you say so, who am I to disbelieve?”

He shook his head.  “We’re loosing our moral compass.”

“That seems a bit dramatic.  After all, the needle on the island’s compass has been a bit wobbly for a quite a while.”

“But now it’s threatening to draw us way off course.  This may be a party island, but we’re not party people. We’re different than those who come here.”

Ah, philosophy.  How could I resist jumping in?  “It’s certainly nice to think so, but unless you’re willing to act as if you truly are different, just saying so doesn’t mean a damn.”

“Are you suggesting that because we take their money in exchange for showing them a good time we’re like them?”

This time I shook my head.  “What you just said strikes me as what’s called ‘a distinction without a difference.’  But to be fair, there is a difference.  Those whom you allow to come here and party in an anything goes environment, will at the end of their holiday return to someplace else to live normal civil lives, while you and your families are left to deal with what they’ve left behind.  Of all the messes they leave for you to clean up, one you cannot ever thoroughly erase is the basic lesson you’ve allowed your children and grandchildren to learn first hand: The sort of conduct the island tolerates in its visitors must be acceptable behavior to live by elsewhere on the planet. If you can live with that, who am I to quibble?  But don’t disagree with the result, for that sort of self-deception will only prove disastrous to your families.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say. You’ve got to write something about the stuff.  Before it’s too late.”

“Here’s the bottom line.  Whatever this stuff is that has you so worked up, if you want to stop it you better get serious. Otherwise shut up and learn to live with the consequences. Besides, you’re giving me a headache.”

“I have some stuff that might help for that.”



Friday, August 19, 2016

Truth...stranger than fiction part 2.

It’s a question I’m often asked – why do you keep working? And indeed sometimes it’s a question I ask myself.

And then there’s the people at work who come up and say to you ‘I have a great idea for a story’ and inevitably it never is.

But sometimes somebody does come up with a little gem. I know a forensic archaeologist and you would think they would be a ripe furrow to plough but the basic thing about her job, as any job, is that 99% of it is totally mundane. I suppose that in itself is an interesting point for a novel.

She did tell me of an interesting one many years ago and now in the public domain of what she called the Magic Eye picture scenario. So to set the scene. Think of a inner city, a famous market with another ‘market’ nearby – more infamous for a weird kind of second hand ( usually stolen), all sorts of dealing going on underneath the arches  of an old railway line.

I’m sure every inner city on the face of the planet has an area like “Paddy’s Market”. On the far side of Paddy’s market in those days and area of land was hoarded up ready for a development that was never going to happen. And while that was an attempt to keep undesirables out it also gave shelter to those exact same undesirables who used it  shoot up, lie down and fall about.

 One day two assessors from a building company undid the padlocks and went in. The area would be the third of the size of a soccer pitch, it had a few trees, oil drums, wheelie bins, ASDA trolleys – typical exotica of urban decay that tend to pose questions of how that stuff got over the 8 foot hoarding. The grass is waist high with areas flattened, various outcrops of concrete but everywhere covered in litter, syringes, mattresses, bin bags etc.

And in this case, a head.

Or to be more correct, a skull.

 So the authorities were called in, the pathologist looked at it and was a little confused – and I’m glad to say so was I when I heard the story -  as that skull was stripped clean   but showed no rodent teeth marks, or canine marks.  So standing there, the pathologist called the archaeologist (as they work in the same University and it’s less than a 10 minute drive ), and they were probably sitting in a meeting about budgets and would much rather be knee deep in rats and mattresses looking at a skull.

But it wasn’t an old skull. The skull had good teeth and good quality filings. So by now there’s a few fair people standing in the middle of the proposed building site, the skull hasn’t been moved. It’s still lying on the ground. The pathologist believes that the victim might have been hung and therefore they were looking for a body.

                                                                 tell tale teethmarks..

So the story goes  5 or 6 of them stood in the middle of the area in a circle looking outward scanning the area with their eyes trying to see the body in amongst the mosaic of urban detritus. It was a mosaic of colour with a distinct lack of definition. It was very difficult to see anything with any clarity among the kaleidoscope of shapes. But the best way to work out what had happened would be to get a visual on the body in relation to what was known as ‘the runaway skull’. It was a quarter of an hour of pointing  and asking ‘is that it? No, it’s a bin bag!’ before the picture became clear. Obviously the first place to look was under the trees – nothing. But one of the oil drums looked as though it might have rolled from place A to place B. And under the oil drum, looking like neatly folded up clothes, they could just make out that it might be a folded up body, like a sandwich and barely discernable. But there he was, a young man who had climbed behind the hoarding and strung himself up on a tree using the upright oil drum as a platform to stand on. The body hung there for a very long time, long enough for the noose to separate the head from the body.
                                                            Nope, I don't see it!

What happened then is conjecture but it would appear that the body must have hit the ground and knocked over the oil drum which then rolled and the body, in some way, ended up folded up underneath it, headless and lay there for many months. The head rolled some distance and what happened then? Did a toothless fox lick it clean?  It is very unusual that a bone like that would have no trace of tooth marks, but stripped clean nonetheless. And what happened to the noose? Why did nobody else notice? Most important of all - who was he? How long had he been there for? Is he still sitting on a missing persons list somewhere, maybe not even in this country?
                                                       Still can't see it...
 But I know that if that every appeared in a crime novel somebody would say ‘that would never happen’

Caro  19 08 2016

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Wither the Universities?

Michael - Thursday

From time to time I’m asked by people I meet how things are going with South African universities. Have standards fallen? They know that I’m still a part-time professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). I don’t want to speculate about what motivates these worries, but recent student protests and wrangling with the government have certainly brought them to the fore, and I hear these concerns from black acquaintances as well as white ones. My answer is that as far as my subject area is concerned (mathematical sciences), I feel standards have risen, research is stronger than ever, and graduate students are as good as before and there are far more of them. Whatever failings we’ve seen in government primary and secondary education in this country (and there are many), the government has been supportive of quality tertiary education and research, especially in the science, technology, and health areas.

This week a report came out from one of the organizations that rates universities worldwide and tracks established universities' relative positions in the top 500 in the world from a research perspective. Only 34 countries made the 500 cut and, although all these types of ratings can be criticized on a variety of fronts, if we accept their criteria and look only at relative position over time, the situation for South African universities is encouraging. 
University of the Witwatersrand
Shanghai university ratings
The graph shows the relative position of my university over the last 13 years. Starting in 2003 just making the cut, and then being in the 300-400 position range (not terrible in view of the number of institutions worldwide and the quality and funding of many of them), we have now moved to the top university in Africa at 203. This seems to indicate either that Wits has improved as a research university or that many others have weakened. I believe both are true. What’s more a further four South African universities also made it onto the list.

Minister of Education
Blade Nzimande
So does this indicate that all is well? Hardly. The universities here are currently facing what may well be the biggest threat since the previous government segregated them by race and thus subsequently largely isolated them from the rest of the world. The current threat comes from an unlikely quarter. Our own students. And they have a lot of arguments on their side that will not be alien to people in the US and many other countries.

Fees Must Fall protest at Wits
Last year’s student demonstrations were sparked by an ill-considered announcement before the end of year examinations of fee increases ranging between 9% and 11%. This in an environment where inflation was running at around 6%. Of course the local currency was weak and many academic requirements – books, journals, equipment - were escalating at very much higher rates. This sparked the Fees Must Fall campaign that led to mass student protests, some not so peaceful. Last year I wrote about it here. The protests escalated to government level (where they really belong) and the solution was a zero fee increase for 2016. The government promised to fill the revenue gap. It filled part of it.

A year has passed. The government is talking about an inflation-related increase, too little for the universities. The students want free tertiary education for all who qualify academically. The left wing EFF (which became king-maker in the elections of a week ago - see Stan’s post here) has cheerfully adopted a policy of free quality education at all levels. They know they won't have to fund it. Students have already closed two university campuses for several days, and have threatened to close them all for a year if necessary to achieve their demands.

Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor at the University of the Orange Free State, points out in an article in the Herald Live - Demise of Universities Near - that there are three choices: Free education and the government foots the bill. This is pretty well universally accepted as unaffordable in terms of South Africa’s economy and priorities. Or a well thought out plan that allows all qualifying students to attend university, but involves payment either now (if they can afford it) or later in some reasonable way. (Yes, we have heard of the student loan trap in the US, for example.) The third option is that we stagger from year to year with zero fee increases and the government supplying more of the budget, but with the cake shrinking over time.  Another zero fee increase this year will see some universities closing programs and retrenching staff. As Jansen puts it: “What happens in the next week or two can determine whether your children and grandchildren will have respectable universities to go to in the future, or any university at all.” And he goes further: “When a country loses its universities, it loses self-respect.”

Really, it’s the people of South Africa who must decide what they want in terms of tertiary education. The sad thing is that the public seems uninterested, content to see it as an issue to be sorted out between the students, the universities, and the government. As for Jansen himself, he's heading for Stanford. 

Watch that graph turn sharply downward over the next few years.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In the last weeks of summer I've headed to the archives at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford Campus. There's a delicious tingly feeling coming from requesting historical documents and actually having them delivered to your desk. Touching them! Here's a few pics:
Off to the archives - I love research Cara - Tuesday