- Premium reviews
- Express reviews
- Reviews rated
- Ratings received
When Pope John Paul II visited and prayed at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, he spoke eloquently about his personal sorrow and the Catholic Church's sorrow over the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history.
Predictably, Israeli responses to the Pope's visit varied considerably. Some Israelis regarded the pontiff's presence in Israel and his expressions of concern about the Holocaust as much too little far too late. Nonetheless, most expressed appreciation for this visit to Jerusalem and for the Pope's outright rejection of Christian antisemitism. Needless to say, most Israelis would have liked to hear John Paul make a strong statement of regret about the Church's passivity during the Holocaust itself. And of course, many would have liked to hear him acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel's rightful capital.
Be all that as it may, John Paul's response to Yad Vashem appeared genuine enough, and Israelis were by and large appreciative. In fact, I noted that the Pope's response in many ways mirrored my own: For almost any thinking, feeling human being, Yad Vashem evokes an overwhelming sense of sorrow.
Yad Vashem consists of many elements, each designed with a specific purpose (or set of purposes) in mind. As a whole, it constitutes a powerful illustration that sorrow is not a monodimensional emotion; rather, it is multifaceted and extremely complex. Accordingly, the 45-acre Yad Vashem site on Jerusalem's Mt. Herzl includes a library, archive depository, and resource center as well as a number of gardens, exhibition halls, and monuments. Yad Vashem is not simply "a museum."
The International School of Holocaust Studies and the International Institute of Holocaust Research are both centered at Yad Vashem. Together they provide a practical basis for ensuring that the Holocaust, with all its horrors and injustices, is remembered by future generations. These two elements of Yad Vashem provide classrooms and educators that currently reach about 200,000 participants each year, and they support an international program of research, conferences, and publication related to the Holocaust.
After passing the dramatic 6-branched candelabra near the entrance of the site, the visitor finds that Yad Vashem includes a series of moving exhibits and monuments, including the Hall of Remembrance with its eternal flame; the Hall of Names, which provides memorials to individual victims; the Children's Memorial, honoring the slaughtered innocents; the Pillar of Heroism, commemorating the valor of those fought back; the Garden of the Righteous and the Avenue of the Righteous, honoring Righteous Gentiles who risked their own safety to help the helpless; and the Valley of Communities, created in memory of a lost way of life for European Jews.
Each of these memorials (one hesitates to label them "attractions") offers its own unique testimony to the vitality of the human spirit as well as to the consequences of prejudice and evil. Indeed, if one leaves Yad Vashem only in sorrow, then much of the point of this unique place will have been lost. Part of the explanation for the overwhelming impact of Yad Vashem involves its ability to touch so many seemingly conflicting responses: despair and hope, grief and rejoicing, death and rebirth. Taken as a whole, Yad Vashem's key mission is remembrance. It challenges visitors to remember the best and the worst of the human condition and to carry that knowledge forward toward building a better, more just future for all the children of Earth. It is my firm conviction that one visitor leaves unchanged. Certainly, I did not.
Yad Vashem's exhibits and memorials are open to the public Sunday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Friday and holiday eves, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free, and English-speaking guides are available. For further information on specific aspects of the Yad Vashem complex, visit the web site managed by The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority at http://www.yadvashem.org.
Himself and Yours Truly recently spent the night in a Comfort Inn located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We were headed for a day's outing along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we planned to make our way there by cutting through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in order to catch the parkway at its southern end. We chose a Comfort Inn because they generally provide the courtesy, comfort, and cleanliness our aging bodies crave. We find that Comfort Inn generally means affordable quality, and I admit to allowing past experience and expectations to make me lazy. Clearly, I didn't ask enough questions when I called for reservations.
Comfort Inn on the River has a great location--close to downtown Gatlinburg with all its attractions and right on banks of the Little Pigeon River. The hotel is located on a narrow strip of land between the river and the highway. Standing on the room's small balcony, one cannot help but enjoy the sight and sound of a small mountain river as its waters rush past. From the room itself, however, it's the traffic on the highway that one hears. It's almost as if the designers decided to soundproof the hotel against the sounds of the river while allowing the noise of traffic to pass unmuffled.
Of greater concern than the noise was the grunge found lurking in the corners of the bathroom. I've come to realize that there are two basic types of hotel rooms: those in which housekeeping has kept the corners and edges of bathroom floors clear of buildup and grunge, and those in which the grout between the tiles (especially at the corners and edges of the room) are characterized by the unsightly buildup that casts doubt on the general cleanliness of the whole establishment. Comfort Inn on the River belongs to the latter category--not disgustingly filthy, mind, but also clearly not inclined toward indulging those of us who regard grunge with a sense of suspicion and foreboding.
That said, the beds seemed clean--as did the toilet and basin--though we spied a touch of mold around the tub. (Folks, there is just no excuse for mold, not when chlorine-based cleaners can solve the problem cheaply and easily.) The beds seemed to have been upgraded to meet the latest standards, and they were reasonably comfortable. (Nonetheless, sleep was interrupted precisely at midnight, when the bedside alarm clock unexpectedly sounded. I suppose I should have checked to disable old settings.) Amenities included a microwave, mini fridge, coffee station, and hair dryer. The television was large, but not a flat screen, and the cable package included HBO and a reasonable variety of free-access channels.
The complimentary continental breakfast was ordinary but sufficient. It included such choices as cereal, waffles, boiled eggs, pastries, toast, juice, coffee, and tea. The breakfast room was simply but pleasantly decorated and overlooked the river. Service was managed by a member of staff who conducted her duties while making personal phone calls in a voice loud enough to confirm that the calls really were personal. There was the sense that hotel guests were interfering with her private life, which in my opinion is a serious lapse of professionalism and courtesy.
Check-in was cheerfully and efficiently handled by the night manager, and check-out was conducted between personal phone calls by the same woman who managed the breakfast service. Note that there are no ground-level rooms in this hotel. The building is designed to accommodate parking and provide access to hotel services on the ground level. Guestrooms located on the second, third, and fourth levels are accessed by both elevator and stairwells. All corridors between rooms consist of exposed walkways.
Would we stay here again? Not happily. The hotel has great potential and reasonable amenities. In terms of cleanliness and professionalism, however, this hotel simply does not meet the standards we've come to expect from Comfort hotels. Lessons learned from this experience will encourage me to ask more questions during the reservations process--questions about soundproofing and whether the hotel has earned recent recognitions through its corporate structure (always a good sign that quality will be high). Final lesson learned: check the alarm to make sure the alarm feature is set to 'off'.
Like many readers who have enjoyed one or more of Jean Auel's Earth's Children series, I anticipated The Shelters of Stone with varying degrees of eagerness and annoyance over several years. In the real world, more than 12 years passed between the release of this latest volume and its predecessor, The Plains of Passage. No doubt, had the story of Ayla and Jondalar been proceeding in real-time, this final leg of their journey to the caves of the Zelondonii would have found them arriving at Jondalar's home surrounded by a bevy of children. Note that after another 8 years, a release date for the sixth book is still not confirmed. Sometime in 2010 has long been rumored, but the rumor mill is uncertain--bring on the grandchildren!
When the fifth book finally hit the shelves, I rushed to my nearest bookstore and bought my First Edition copy--one among several hundred thousand printed, no doubt. I read the introduction and exactly four pages of the book. The next time I visited my friendly bookstore, I purchased the unabridged audio version. Why? Because I was already a captive of Auel and her series, but I didn't have the time or energy required to tackle the book itself. I needed an easy way to wander prehistoric Europe with Ayla and Jondalar.
Why the cop out? Because The Shelters of Stone is a 753-page book (plus the introduction), the lengthiest offering to date of Auel's Earth's Children series. Not only is it long, it is at times characterized by turgid prose. Auel, who conducted painstaking research for all her books, can't seem to decide whether she's a novelist or an anthropologist. As a result, with each new volume of this series, she has bombarded her readers with ever-increasing attention to detail on everything from the nature of the European landscape during the last ice age--complete with long discourses on the geology of the areas described--to the construction of prehistoric tools and speculation about how social groups in humanity's ancient past may have been organized.
Listening to the book, as opposed to reading it, can be a joy. Auel is a skillful writer, and even her long descriptive passages on the medicinal properties of various plants can be reasonably interesting to hear. Not only that, but much of what Auel is trying to approximate with this work involves the oral tradition that ancient peoples must have followed. It is only right and proper that the material should lend itself well to the oral medium of our own age--audio cassetts and CDs played in the car while traveling back and forth to work. (How's that for rationalization?) In fairnesss to the printed form required by this review category, I recently went back to my first-edition hardback and read the actual book--years later and after retirement.
Auel's plots, overall for the series as well as for each volume therein, are relatively simple. Through her characters, we follow the lives and adventures first of Ayla (introduced as a child in The Clan of the Cave Bear) and then Jondalar (introduced in the second volume of the series, The Valley of Horses). From the point where Jondalar makes his entrance, the plot resolves into classic form: "Boy meets girl." "Boy and girl fall in love." "Boy and girl overcome many obstacles." This latest volume, The Shelters of Stone, provides the context for "Boy takes girl home to meet his mother, get married, and start a family."
Auel uses these simple plots to frame her efforts to address an extremely broad range of social, political, religious, technical, environmental, and scientific issues. Ayla and Jondalar, as readers will be amazed to discover, are on the cutting edge of innovation. Ayla pioneers the domestication of animals, develops basic surgical techniques, and discovers how to create fire by striking two stones together. She even intuits the fundamentals of sexual reproduction--deciding that it is the physical joining of a man and woman that creates new life, not the more esoteric joining of a man's spirit with a woman's that forms an essential part of the belief system for Stone Age man as developed by Auel. For his part, Jondalar revolutionizes hunting by developing the spear thrower. And during their travels, they learn about and perfect such new skills as how to make pottery from "mud," advances in flint knapping to produce finer points, and how to use a soft rock that burns to fuel fires. In The Shelters of Stone, Ayla and Jondalar bring all these wonders (and many more) to the Zelondonii, changing their lives and how they look at the world around them in ways that are both subtle and profound.
As depicted by Auel, the social and political order of prehistory parallels and foreshadows our own in more ways than we might wish. The social structure she creates has rankings that approximate class. Her characters are prone to both greatness and meanness. Through them, she shows that the effects of good and bad leadership in the caves of our ancestors aren't really so different from corresponding effects in modern nation states. She reminds us that the phenomena of spousal and substance abuse are not new. Auel also forces us to acknowledge that the fundamentals for prejudice--particularly against people and cultures that are different and unknown--were likely solidly in place in humanity's distant past.
Auel uses her novels as a medium for commenting on all these issues and more. Indeed, in many ways--perhaps in all the ways that really matter--the prehistoric men and women she depicts are not terribly different from us. In fact, they enjoy many of the same luxuries and tastes indulged by their modern descendants. Their lives are not shallow or overly burdened with the necessity of hunting and gathering any more than are ours are overwhelmed by work--some measure of balance is always left to the individual's discretion. Earth's Children have time for storytelling, reflecting on the nature of life and the universe, engaging in communal festivals, and building the family and friendship groupings that give their lives focus and depth.
In my opinion, however, no aspect of the prehistoric world created by Auel is more fascinating than her treatment of religion. In the Earth's Children series, the religion of the Zelondonii, indeed of all Cro-Magnon peoples of the prehistoric world, is that of the Great Mother Earth. Auel bases her conjectures on widespread finds of female fertility figures dating from the Neolithic era. Using anthropological and archeological evidence gleaned from a multitude of sources, she creates an entire religious ethos.
The worship of the Great Mother is essentially monotheistic and charges humanity with the duty to use and protect the earth and its bounty, which will in turn provide for all their needs. Conversely, abuse of the earth or lack of respect for other creatures created by the Mother invites the potential for all manner of calamity.
Within the framework of this ancient religion, sexuality is a matter of far greater innocence than in our own age. The sexual act is described as the "sharing of the Mother's gift of pleasures"--and such sharings, as long as they are approached mutually, are a way of honoring the Mother. The sharing of pleasures occurs naturally between husband and wife but is not exclusive to that relationship--and sharing may occur in homosexual as well as heterosexual venues. Auel does not depict sex as an indiscriminate act, but she does give socially acceptable sexual behavior a very wide latitude. Her descriptions of Ayla and Jondalar in their sharing of pleasures are respectfully and blatantly erotic. The reader (or the listener) can have no doubt as to the lead characters' shared passion, or the pleasure derived therefrom. Nonetheless, these scenes are handled with such care and dignity that I feel no embarrassment or misgivings in recommending Auel's fiction, erotica and all, to either my mother or my daughters.
The Shelters of Stone is a very long read. It's also a very long "listen." The unabridged audio version lasts approximately 33 hours. Sandra Burr, the narrator, has a pleasant voice that's no chore to follow through Auel's ancient world. If you have the time and inclination, read the book. But if you have the inclination but not the time, listen to the audio version. However you choose to experience this novel, you will find it both remarkable and mundane. In my opinion, however, it's worth the effort.
Just what is it that constitutes horror in literature? There are undoubtedly many answers to such an absurd question. For Stephen King fans, horror is generally something extraordinary and paranormal that intrudes on what would otherwise be ordinary lives. Such is clearly the case in Pet Cemetery and Carrie, two books in which the otherworldliness of the paranormal brings horror into the lives of ordinary mortals.
The central horror that pervades Dolores Claiborne is far more mundane--that of a mother who learns that her adolescent daughter is being sexually stalked by her husband, the child's own father. No mother can conjure up a more terrifying scenario, and no mother would wholly discount Dolores's solution: murder--or rather an "accident," which is (as Dolores's employer Vera Donovan points out) often an unhappy woman's best friend.
Other mundane (and generally interrelated) horrors abound in this King novel, including the impact of infidelity, losing a child (literally and figuratively), the indignities of rural poverty, loneliness, gossip, the devastating effect of long-term illness, and living with irrevocable choices. Dolores Claiborne and Vera Donovan cope with these horrors by turning into first-class b*tches, a designation in which they take a measure of genuine pride. These women survive by developing a mutually dependent relationship characterized both by a superficial antagonism and by a deeply held mutual affection.
Then of course, there are the dust bunnies--imaginary creatures with teeth and claws that inhabit the hidden recesses of Vera Donovan's mind, appearing without notice to terrorize her by forcing unwanted recollections of old agonies. The dust bunnies that plague Vera are so powerful that even sensible, non-superstitious Dolores is sometimes susceptible to their torment. The dust bunnies and them symbolism remind us that this really is a Stephen King novel.
Throughout this novel, Stephen King demonstrates a surprising empathy for and understanding of women and the way gender sometimes narrows their field of choices. Indeed, one suspects that somewhere in his past there must have been a real-life model for the character of Dolores Claiborne, who was presented with respect as well as sympathy.
Murder, for example, isn't Dolores's first choice for ridding herself and her children of an abusive husband and father. Her first choice is a nest egg gathered in small increments over a period of years and intended as a meager college fund. This small cache is viewed as a means of escape. On finding the account surreptitiously emptied by her husband, Dolores confronts the bank manager who invoked the good-ole-boy code of assistance in lieu of serving the interests of the female customer who had opened and maintained the account. Her dignified condemnation of the manager's behavior would warm the heart of the most ardent feminist.
King's prose is sometimes trite and predictable, but in Dolores Claiborne his penchant for storytelling is undeniable. I've put aside any number of false starts on King novels because they simply didn't resonant in a manner that was either meaningful or entertaining for me. In this case, however, the material is real and the characters are believable. Even the nonlinear presentation of Dolores's recollections seem appropriate to the context.
When Himself and Yours Truly travel, we're always on the lookout for gifts to take back to the grandchildren. In part because Mom and Dad approve, and in part because we're so inclined anyway, books tend to be high on our list of perspective purchases.
One of our several trips to Britian took us, among other locations, to the great university city of Oxford. Now I ask you, what place on earth is better suited than Oxford for seeking books? Few, if any, I'll wager--even with regard to books for children. Anyway, while browsing the available offerings in this category, I noticed an abundance of Winnie books--Winnie the Witch, that is. And since my browsing coincided with the beginning of Britain's hottest summer in living memory, naturally I chose Winnie in Winter.
Winnie is Winter is the winsome story of wishes gone terribly wrong. Don't misunderstand: Winnie herself, witch that she might be, is not particularly wicked. And few among us who have endured the weariness of long, cold winters have not, as Winnie did, wished for a brief summery respite. The difference between us and Winnie is that, within the pages of this charming children's book, Winnie casts a spell to make her wish come true.
Suddenly granted a summer oasis in the garden of her rambling wreck of a witchly residence, Winnie and her faithful cat Wilbur are able to shed their winter mufflers and mittens, settling into the pleasant rituals of summer sun worship. Lounging in their garden, cold drinks in hand, all seems right with their world . . . until the neighbors notice!
What follows is a depiction of the normal irritants of summer (pesky birds, plants, and bugs), coupled with the discomfort caused to Winnie and Wilbur by having the outside world clamor to share the warmth of their summer garden in the midst of winter.
In the end, and somewhat predictably for the crass adults among us, another seasonal adjustment is necessary. Thereby are Winnie and her faithful companion able to settle back into their beloved privacy and gain a better appreciation for the quiet joys of winter--quiet being of particular importance to Winnie and Wilbur. The moral is obvious, of course: Be careful what you wish for. But the process of reaching that conclusion is entertaining and reassuring.
As created by author Valerie Thomas and illustrator Korky Paul, Winnie the Witch is neither a comely, wholesome creature nor a cruel crone. She is cranky and irritating, but she is also sympathetic. Most adults should be able to see ourselves or someone we know and love as Winnie, if we but possessed witchly powers.
Thomas's story is wholesome and child oriented, full of humor and interest. It is not an adult story writ smaller and richly illustrated--though I hasten to add that the inner child of an adult is easily charmed by this endearing story. Paul's illustrations are colorful, full of humor and humanity, and serve as a near-perfect complement to the story.
Beyond the moral and the sheer joy of a good story, there are the reinforcements to the educational curriculum required of children's literature by today's "experts." Winnie in Winter offers children a fairly complex science lesson focused on the annual cycle. It also offers intrinsic pointers on basic sociology. The vocabulary is challenging without being overpowering for children at about the second-grade reading level. In-context clues provided by the illustrations encourage young readers to work out the complexities of learning new words. For younger listeners, the illustrations themselves provide a good story, and the process of being read to reinforces and builds vocabulary.
My then 7-year-old grandson mastered the vocabulary and took immediately to reading the book to his 4-year-old brother. At his age, the occasional differences in spelling between British and American English went virtually unnoticed. The 4-year-old in turn loved the illustrations and laughed happily at the unexpected predicaments Winnie and Wilbur found themselves enduring. In time, the book fell into the clutches of their younger sister, who likewise cherished the notion of wishes and the magic they contain. That magic included two big brothers to read her what had become a much-loved book. And Grandma? Well, she is captivated not only by the whimsy and humanity of Winnie and Wilbur, but by the responses of her grandchildren.
She exists quietly in corners of the house--our house, that is. "Our house" being hers and mine, of course. She was here first, and apparently she wants those of us who dwell here now to understand that fact. We've no idea how long she's been here. We've never seen her. Rather we've felt her presence occasionally, and heard her even more rarely. We're sure she's a "she" because the rustle of her skirts gives away her approach. Well, actually it's more like the hint of a rustle. I imagine her clad in a high-necked, long-sleeved, bell-skirted dress that is fitted tightly at the waist and of a modestly dark color--something practical and prosperous for the early 19th century.
We bought our 18th-century Federal-style house (that's 'Georgian' to you folks across the Pond) because I fell in love with it. I found it vaguely graceful and alluring, and it really was love at first sight. Nearly everyone else discouraged this new love of mine as a fit of madness, but the nay-saying only made the allure grow stronger. So we bought the old house with all its problems--the saggy kitchen floor, the lack of closet space, the damp (at times truly wet) cellar, and the lack (absolute and total lack) of kitchen cupboards. In the process, we got a good deal of authentic period craftwork throughout the house, old Southern pine floors with their boards of variable width, six fireplaces, hand-hewn chestnut ceiling beams exposed in the kitchen and dining room, a variety of good and bad chandeliers, and an elegant formal entry hall complete with a wide staircase and black walnut handrails. It all seemed, and to me still seems, a fair exchange.
We also got our quiet, well-mannered ghost who was almost certainly once the mistress of the house. She chides gently at the edge of my consciousness when the housework isn't properly kept up (as she is doing now). She hovers at the window nearest my latest efforts at gardening. She lobbies quietly but insistently in favor of the higher priced renovations. And she sends out special maternal vibrations whenever one of the grandchildren seems in difficulty.
Our ghost is caring and gracious, as she must have been during her mortal life. She endeavors to ensure that hospitality is maintained, even when circumstances are less than optimal. She exacts standards, and we obey--much, I imagine, as servants once bound to the house must have obeyed. We too are bound to the house, to its history, to its obligations. Our lady mistress in her quiet way ensures that we honor the legacy of the house and that we pass it all along to the future in better condition than we found it. She has become the conscience of the house. She demands integrity in all things. She is the mistress caretaker, the head housekeeper, and she no doubt carries smudged white gloves at all times and in all places.
Clearly, however, the powers of our lady mistress are limited. She did not, for example, have the strength to prevent the house from falling into neglect and disrepair. Perhaps she requires a kindred spirit to enforce her will--someone who loves the house much as she does, someone willing to dedicate lots of time and a little money to putting things right. Thus she has learned patience in the wake of her long connection with the house . . . or perhaps it was patience that bound her. Regardless, her persistence and the power of her gentle persuasion are enough--just as they hold me in her thrall, a willing captive.
I know, as our lady knows, that all will occur in its own good time. The house endures and gradually returns to its former integrity. We do what we can, when we can, and we try to pass along the whole to the next generation in better shape than we found it. We aren't intended to make it perfect, just better. So our lady mistress must have learned in life, and in her afterlife, she shares the lesson.
There are, as we Yanks know, many reasons to cross the Pond to visit the Mother Country. There are the great monuments representing so much of our own social and political heritage. There is the pageantry of royalty. There are the grand institutions of banking and commerce--the latter including Harrods and Jenners, not to mention Marks & Spencer and the Edinburgh Woolen Mill. There are the magnificent centers of education. And, possibly less important but certainly as close to our hearts, there is Cadbury.
With all else that it represents, crossing the Atlantic to the Mother Country means an endless supply of Cadbury Diary Milk--the fabulous DM. It can be found in vending machines and on shop counters. It waits for us in hospitality corners and at souvenir stands. It draws us into shopping binges at Morrisons and Tesco. And as we leave to return home, it lurks invitingly in every possible nook and cranny of the vendor malls in Britain's international airports.
What is it that makes so many of us so passionate about Cadbury DM? After all, we Americans have our own homegrown chocolate industry. We honed our addiction on Hershey's and Mars. We are not suffering from chocolate deprivation, like children in a war zone. What makes Cadbury so special?
That's a tough question to wrap one's taste buds around, but trust me, it is special. There is a creaminess to the taste and consistency of a Cadbury DM that simply cannot be matched by a standard Hershey bar. Try them side-by-side, and you will immediately taste and feel the difference. Hershey leaves a slightly (but discernibly) more gritty, chalky aftertaste.
Or perhaps it's the gentler impression left by the chocolate itself, not nearly so harsh as the corresponding impact left by Hershey. This observation should not be understood to imply that Cadbury DM is less chocolaty! No, no, not at all!! For many of us in the know on this side of the Pond, Cadbury does, in fact, define the taste of milk chocolate.
Furthermore, Cadbury DM is sweet, but not so much so that it drills straight through the gems and into the roots of your teeth, which is the sensation a Hershey bar seems to have on me.
We can, of course, routinely acquire Cadbury DM here on the soil of the contiguous 48. Indeed, it comes wrapped in the familiar purple foil. It beckons invitingly from the shop shelf, looking so attractive and so beguiling. But when one peeks closely at the fine print on the back of the wrapping, it almost always proves to be made in the U.S. by Hershey--and unhappily its taste reflects its point of origin, not its appealing but oh-so-deceptive wrapper.
Whenever Himself and I make our treks across the Atlantic to enjoy the golf courses and culture of Britain, to sample the products of its grossly underrated and underrecognized institutions of haute cuisine and its well-recognized distilleries, and to wander amid the monuments of our common past, we always come home with a substantial supply of Cadbury DM. And given that a declining store of this wonderful stuff always requires a periodic restocking, it provides yet one more welcome excuse for another trip.
Hmmmm, I seem to be down to my last 400 g bar. See you all soon!!
Last spring, Himself and Yours Truly took our eldest grandchild on his first trip abroad. The destination he selected, perhaps with a bit of coaxing from Grandma and Grandpa, was the UK. In planning our 2-week trip, we set aside 4 days for London. Once that was decided, I went off in search of a base of operations for those 4 important days. Acting as the family trip planner, I selected the New Linden, a small hotel straddling Bayswater and Notting Hill, not far north of Kensington Gardens. The location was handy for buses and the tube, easily facilitating our forays around and about London.
In the end, that choice came down to space and price. I wanted a space that would provide both our grandson and us with an opportunity for privacy, and I wanted to do so without paying the usual London prices for a 'suite'. Our room at the New Linden was billed as a quadruple, though effectively it was a suite. It consisted of two bedrooms, one with two twins and one with a double, a small sitting area, and a generous bath. The double bedroom was several steps down (just short of a full flight), connected by an attractive staircase complete with columns, built-in shelves, and a small landing about midway down. There was no door between the two sleeping areas, so the layout provided access as well as privacy--both of which were needed by an 11-year-old so far away from Mom and Dad. For a London hotel, this was an incredibly delightful space. Our grandson loved it, and so did we.
The lower-level bedroom with the double bed was cheerful and fully adequate in terms of floor space and amenities. It had a small flat-screen television on the wall opposite the bed, with a long narrow desk/bureau space along the wall beneath. The shelves near the upper end of the stairs to the main level were perfect for collecting cameras, shopping bags, guidebooks, and the miscellany that goes with sightseeing. They did a good deal to keep down the clutter of travel.
The upper level of our quad was long and narrow. The two twin beds were placed width-wise at one end, access to the stairs down and sitting room were in the middle space, and the separate bathroom was at the opposite end--next to the door to the hallway. The bedroom area included a fairly large flat-screen TV facing the beds and a desk area with Internet access. If there is a criticism to offer for our lodging, the bedroom end of this upper level felt a tad crowded in terms of space available near the foot of the twin beds. That space was perfectly adequate for young children but a bit tight for adults. Any closeness in floor space around the beds was at least partially compensated by a 15-foot Victorian metal ceiling, freshly coated with white paint.
The sitting area proved a godsend, just large enough to provide a space where we could all sit comfortably around a small lounge table. It was a good place for planning a day's outing or reflecting on the day's adventuress--not to mention writing postcards home. Desk space was available in each bedroom area, but the sitting room proved more inviting for most of our in-room activities.
Our quad had recently been refurbished, and it was clean and neat as a pin. The bathroom tiles sparkled, the paint was fresh, the linens might well have been new, and the carpets and furnishings were clean. There were no chips, scratches, or scuff marks visible anywhere. Maid service was careful, yet unintrusive. Towels and trash bins were kept fresh, but things were left where we put them. I liked that.
Breakfast was a generous continental buffet with a selection of cold cuts and cheeses, boiled eggs, soft yoghurt, fresh fruit (bananas and apples at a minimum), prepared fruit, sweet rolls, a choice of breads, cereals, and a range of beverages. We were always fully satisfied, and the quality of the offerings easily passed our personal sniff tests. The staff ensured freshness by putting out moderate quantities of food, then replenishing as needed, which I much prefer to putting everything out to sit for the entire breakfast period.
The hotel is set among a block of Victorian townhouses, and the neighborhood still retains its residential charm. The small lobby's décor is quietly East Asian, and the staff is polite and attentive. As might be expected for a townhouse conversion, hotel facilities were limited. We dropped our baggage off early in the day after our overnight transatlantic flight, and though there was no official baggage hold, the desk clerk volunteered to stow our belongings away under watchful eyes while we went off in search of a late breakfast. The elevator was small and located along a narrow hallway. Our party of three travelers with suitcases and carry-ons filled it completely. All public areas were clean and inviting, though perhaps not quite to the level of our quad.
The New Linden is listed on various hotel sites at 2, 3, or 4 stars. Take your pick. I venture to approximate 3 stars based on its lack of urban hotel facilities. In the final analysis, however, it's the experience that counts. Based on our experience, we would happily return to this charming hotel. It combines convenience with value for money, and we left with happy memories. Who could ask for more?
Imagine yourself transplanted 4000 years in time to an ancient Irish landscape. You are poling a small boat up the River Boyne, and high on a hill in the near distance you see the sunlight dancing off the white quartz and granite facade of what is already a time-honored and mysterious monument--the huge passage tomb of Newgrange. Even now, in the early 21st century, one cannot approach this sacred site without being moved by the power and discipline its creation required. Four thousand years ago, the sight of it, gleaming from its high place above the river, would have struck awe in the hearts and minds of all who saw it. Then as now, the monuments of the Brú na Bóinne, the Palace of the Boyne, have possessed the power to overwhelm visitors.
Constructed in stages over several centuries between 3200 and 2700 B.C.E., Newgrange, together with two other enormous passage tombs designated as Knowth and Dowth, form the nucleus of a ceremonial and cemetery complex that is older than either the pyramids of Egypt or Stonehenge. If you share my passion for 'seeking the stones' of the ancient world, then this destination is a must for your list. Everything known about these monuments suggests that they were always associated with some form of magic: Their original purpose was tied to the magic of the afterworld and astronomy--in particular, the winter solstice. They later became a focus of Celtic paganism in tales of gods, goddesses, warriors, and tragic love. And according to the myths and legends that flourished in Christian Ireland, they were connected with fairies and were regarded as cemeteries of the High-Kings of Tara, indeed the High-Kings of Ireland itself.
For modern visitors, like Himself and Yours Truly, the Brú na Bóinne offers a tangible link to the distant past. The international importance of that link is so great that the complex has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. In acknowledgment of its importance to Ireland's historic and cultural identity, it has also been designated as a Duchas (heritage) site.
Access to the Brú na Bóinne complex is carefully limited and managed through the Visitor Centre located near Donore in County Meath, less than an hour's drive north of Dublin. Centre personnel greet all visitors and provide basic information about the availability of tours and other activities. Fees are relatively modest and include a variety of options--including fees for the Centre itself, for Newgrange, for Knowth, or for both Newgrange and Knowth. Special rates are available for groups, seniors, children, students, and families. We were lucky to visit Brú na Bóinne on a weekday in May, before the summer crowds arrived. But be warned, during high-traffic seasons, visitors should arrive early in the day. Otherwise, they risk long waits for the limited spaces available or they may miss out altogether. This warning holds true particularly for those hoping to visit Newgrange.
Once itineraries have been chosen and fees paid, visitors are encouraged to wander through the Centre's exhibits and view an orientation film. This facility is attractive and informative on many levels, and an onsite gift/book shop and cafeteria are also available. The gift shop includes a selection of higher quality merchandise than one is accustomed to finding at a remote historical monument. The assembly point for tour buses to Newgrange and Knowth are a short walk from the Centre along a path that leads across the Boyne.
Modern excavations at and restoration of the Newgrange tumulus occurred between 1962 and 1975, with the site opening to the public shortly thereafter. The Newgrange mound stands 11 meters high and is 85 meters in diameter at its widest point. The base of the mound is surrounded by 97 immense kerbstones, some of which are highly decorated with geometric and spiral markings and well as with 'cup marks.' At first glance, the structure's most striking feature is its facade, formed of white quartz stones interspersed with small round boulders of dark granite. The facade extends almost half way around the mound's circumference.
At the entrance to the 19-meter-long passage leading into the heart of the Newgrange mound is an elaborately carved 'Entrance Stone,' which features a triple spiral design. The triple spiral is unique to Newgrange and has come to symbolize not only this site, but all of Ireland's historic and prehistoric monuments protected under a government agency known as the Duchas, or the Heritage Service.
The Newgrange passage is lined on both sides with large standing stones, some with carvings. The passage leads to a 'burial' chamber that is protected by a high corbelled roof formed by overlapping layers of large stones. This roof was so well designed and constructed that it has kept the chamber dry and intact for more than 5000 years. All three alcoves extending from the main chamber contain large stone basins that were undoubtedly used for ceremonial purposes in the ancient past. As is usual in Irish passage tombs, the alcove to the right of the entrance is the most elaborate. This one contains a rare combination of two stone basins, one inside the other, and overhung by an intricately decorated roof stone. The foremost or rear alcove includes a carving that is a simpler version of the triple spiral found on the Entrance Stone.
Another key feature of Newgrange is the so-called 'Roof-Box,' a lintel-like opening above the entrance. Looking southeast along the passage from the central chamber on the morning of the Winter Solstice, one can see the rays of the rising sun caught by the box and following the passage. The result--even today, despite a minute shift in the Earth's alignment with the Sun--is a relatively bright illumination of the central chamber, with the Sun's rays ultimately coming to rest on the stone basin in the chamber's rear alcove. One can only imagine what such an event must have meant to Neolithic worshipers at Newgrange.
Other striking features at Newgrange include the 12 remaining stones of a great circle that once surrounded the mound. The circle must once have had a diameter of more than 100 meters. Markers indicating the location of a smaller passage tomb, now largely eroded or otherwise destroyed, and of a variety of smaller landmarks are found around the perimeter of the mound. Unfortunately, given the hour allocated for each tour, offers visitors too little to explore and appreciate these collateral monuments.
Excavated concurrently with Newgrange, the Knowth tumulus is 12 meters high and 95 meters in diameter at its widest point. Unlike Newgrange, however, it contains two passages. The Knowth passages point east and west--almost meeting at the center of the mound. Each of the two passages is roughly twice the length of the one at Newgrange. The western passage (more than 34 meters long) ends in a square chamber, whereas the eastern passage (more than 40 meters long), as at Newgrange, ends in a central chamber with three alcoves. Visitors are not permitted to explore the passages at Knowth, but they are allowed to enter a specially designed room near the entrance of the eastern passage and gaze down the lighted passageway. Tour guides use the small room to explain the construction of Knowth and to illustrate various aspects of its excavation.
The base of the Knowth mound is surrounded by 127 kerbstones that are, on the whole, more elaborately carved and more exciting to explore than most of those found at Newgrange. Moreover, the great mound at Knowth is the central feature of an ancient tomb complex that includes 18 satellite mounds--plus a scattering of other relics, ranging from a Neolithic timber circle (circa 2500 B.C.E.) reconstructed on the basis of excavated postholes to the remains of a Norman stone structure with oratory built atop the mound. A few of the smaller satellite mounds are believed to pre-date the large central mound.
Perhaps because of the complexity of the site, Knowth has been less completely restored than Newgrange. Moreover, because much of the hour allowed for the tour is not spent inside the structure, there is more time to explore the outside. From the site of the Norman oratory on the mound's summit, weather permitting, it's even possible to glimpse Newgrange to the southeast.
Dowth, the third great passage tomb at Brú na Bóinne, is comparable in size (15 meters high and 85 meters in diameter) and age to Newgrange and Knowth, but is not currently open to public tours. Like Knowth, Dowth has two passageways--though both face in a westerly direction. In general Dowth is less well preserved than the other two tumuli, and it has been more abused by both man and the elements. Of the three mounds, Dowth is located nearest to the Visitor Centre, and it seems to be accessible to foot traffic--at least on an occasional basis. Its passages are closed to the public.
Brú na Bóinne is a must-see attraction for anyone with a fascination for ancient stone monuments built by human hands. Indeed, these tumuli overlooking the Boyne Valley in Ireland are among the most ancient manmade structures to survive into the present, and they apparently served our ancestors as temples and scientific instruments, as well as cemeteries. The construction of these enduring monuments is testimony to the ingenuity of our forebears and confirms their passion for responding to the natural and supernatural realms in which they dwelt.
I've long been a lover of British teas. Whenever I come back home from that "small island," it's a sure bet my luggage will contain a restock on my standard favorites that are either hard to find or unavailable here in the States. There is, however, one brand among my favorites for which this is not a problem--Twinings. Twinings is easy to find on the shelves of our American supermarkets. As a result, Twinings English Breakfast Tea always has a place in my cupboard.
MY RELATIONSHIP WITH TEA
First, honesty requires me to admit that I am far from monogomous where tea is concerned. There are many teas with which I take up a dalliance. And there are a few that are constants in my life. Twinings English Breakfast is one of the latter. It is always there because it produces a good cup of hot, black tea. If I'm to be even more honest, it is also there so I can guiltlessly hoard my other harder-to-come-by British teas for private use and still offer my guests good quality. Twinings English Breakfast makes a statement that says I believe in tea, and I am willing to pay for the good stuff. My guests appreciate that. (They know about my hoard but are unfailingly polite, leaving me to my eccentricities.)
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT TWININGS ENGLISH
I trust Twinings English Breakfast because it consistently makes a hearty, flavorship cup of tea. It tastes good. It is richly aromatic, and accepts my dollop of milk happily, giving me the sense of well-being that I want when I choose to drink tea. Its advertising claims it to be "refreshing and invigorating," and I can buy that (quite literally). It gives the morning enough extra zip to get going, and it's good any time of day that requires a bit of oomph to get the adrenaline flowing. Conversely, it's also good for a quiet settling down in the evening. It helps keep me awake in front of my favorite BBC America programs, ensuring that randon nodding in front of the TV does not contribute to a poor night's sleep.
Finding Twinings at a hotel or restaurant is also an assurance of quality--not just of the tea but of the business in general. When I see Twinings on the menu or in the beverage basket, I'm inclined to think better of the other offerings.
PRODUCT AND COMPANY
As presented by Twinings of London, English Breakfast Tea is at the forefront of a large and interesting product line. The company is a well-established firm, even by British standands. Founded in 1706, Twinings could well have been a guest of honor at the Boston Tea Party. Twinings prides itself on seeking out and using tea varieties from around the world. English Breakfast is one of the company's Classics collection, all of which are traditional black teas, and is created from a blend of Kenyan and Assam varietals.
TEA AND HEALTH
Americans are known as coffee drinkers, and that's certainly still true. But in recent years, more and more of my countrymen are re-learning the joys of tea. Tea, even the non-decaffinated types, are significantly lower in caffiene than coffee. Further, the antioxidents in tea are now more appreciated than even by health-conscious Americans. Tea may not cure all of what ails, but it certainly doesn't hurt--and that's the point. Tea is more healthy than coffee, and it is unquestionably more healthy than the sugar and chemical cocktails offered by the soft drink industry.
PACKAGING AND PRICE
I don't attach much meaning to packaging, but here goes. My English Breakfast Tea comes in a 1.41 ounce box containing 20 individual tea bags. The box is red-orange and bares the black Twinings logo in a white oval. Each bag is wrapped in an individual package that uses the same design elements as the box. I do care about these individual packets, as they help ensure that the tea will stay clean and fresh. The cost of this standand box of 20 ranges from $2.99 to $3.99 in the States, though I usually purchase mine during specials offering 2 boxes for $5. In the UK, this package is widely available for under £1.50, and I've seen it for as little as 99 p. Larger packages with 50 bags are a better value in the UK, but this option is scarce where I live.
HOW TO MAKE A GOOD CUP OF TEA
I have found that the most common error in providing a good cup of tea has less to do with the choice of tea than with the preparation. Hence, I'm going to be presumptuous enough to remind British readers just how it should be done. First, lets acknowledge that there are many fine and upright individuals who insist that one simply cannot make a good cup of tea using a tea bag. Granting at least a small measure of truth in that assessment, this review is about tea bags, and we must cope accordingly.
To make a good cup of tea--
~ Be sure to start with fresh water, not something left standing in a pot to collect metalic and/or plastic residues. My tap water gives me soft water of high quality, so that's what I use. Whatever your water source, start fresh with each preparation.
~ Bring your water to a full boil. I don't care about the vessel used--be it an open pan, a traditional kettle, or an electic kettle. Just boil the water. No microwaving, please.
~ It's a fine idea to warm up your cup with a bit of the freshly boiled water. This borrows a step from making a pot using loose tea. It acclamates the cup in preparation for its ultimate purpose, and it helps the tea stay hot. Swirl the hot water to warm the cup, then empty.
~ Place the tea bag in your cup and add the freshly boiled water. Allow the tea to steep until it reaches the desired strength, then remove the bag (no squeezing, please).
Add milk, sugar, or other desired accent to your tea and ENJOy!!
Americans have come a long way baby since the Boston Tea Party. We are drinking tea again and loving it. And one of the tea brands we frequently drink is Twinings.
"Yes, but what of the women?"
Over the centuries, this plea has been uttered by countless women who have sought a reflection of themselves in the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity. Because these texts were almost universally written, interpreted, and canonized by men, little of the spiritual history of women was preserved. Still, despite patriarchal control, hints of the power and wisdom of women survived: The Mosaic tradition that created the Torah left us with the astonishing portrait of the prophetess Devorah (meaning "Oracle"), who served as the political and religious leader of her people. And whereas the misogynistic Paul of Christian scripture decreed that women should keep silent in the churches, a far more magnanimous Paul sent greetings to several woman who were actually leaders of the early church, including the deaconess Phoebe at Cenchrea.
In response to the relative absence of role models in capacities other than as wives and mothers, feminist theologians have in recent decades called on time-honored techniques to restore women--and the female side of the Supreme Deity--to their rightful place within the modern religious dialog. Thus, by applying a midrashic formula (taking sacred texts and supplementing them with information gleaned from Jewish folklore, literary and archeological evidence from the ancient past, plus a fair measure of psychology and inspiration) Anita Diamant has recreated the life of Dinah (pronounced "Dee-nah"), daughter of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob and his first wife Leah. The result is the delicious fiction of The Red Tent.
The Red Tent is a remarkable portrait of the lives of women in the ancient world--their joys and their triumphs as well as their often prescribed circumstances. Of Dinah, the central character, we know from the Bible that she was raped by a prince of the city of Shechem and that her brothers, led by Simon and Levi, wreaked a terrible and--even by Biblical reckoning--dishonorable revenge. We also know from the Biblical account that Dinah had "gone out to seek the women of the land." Traditional commentaries interpret this latter observation to mean that Jacob's daughter had somehow caused her own rape through inappropriate behavior--by leaving the safety of her home and going out on her own among foreign women.
Diamant's Dinah turns the ancient tale on its head. Telling her own story, as opposed to having it told by her father and brothers, Dinah corrects the record by returning her life's story to the keeping of women. In so doing she introduces her audience to the world of the red tent--a place where women honored the rise of each new moon and the moon flow of their own bodies by seeking seclusion from the world of men. As presented by Diamant, the seclusion of the red tent was a celebration controlled by women, not a segregation required by men. It was a world governed by women's rituals and honoring the pantheon of gods that ordered their daily lives. It was a time of rest and renewal, not of banishment for being "unclean."
This Dinah was an only daughter nurtured by the four wives of Jacob--four sisters whom she honors as her beloved "mothers," each one bestowing her with special gifts. This Dinah shared a childhood with her famous brother Joseph and, like him, suffered a supreme betrayal by her jealous brothers. This Dinah went out among the women of the land to practice the ancient craft of midwifery, not to behave wantonly in the midst of foreigners. This Dinah was not raped, but dared to make her own choice on matters of love and sex--a choice that the Biblical account admits earned a fabulous bride price for her father, up to and including the circumcision of all males living in her prince's city. And this Dinah responded to her brothers' betrayal by hurling a curse on the men of her family and seeking refuge among her mother-in-law's people, the ancient Egyptians.
Indeed, Diamant herself has chosen well by focusing on Dinah as her heroine. The story of Joseph and his many-colored coat and of the dishonorable behavior of his older brothers, once again led by Simon and Levi, make their betrayal of Dinah imminently believable. If such brothers would sell their father's favorite child into slavery out of petty jealousy, what wouldn't they do to preserve their advantage against a sister who was positioned to become queen over the land in which they dwelt? According to Genesis, they slipped into Shechem under cover of darkness, while the men of the city slept feverishly from the pain of their mass circumcision. Then the brothers murdered every male (including infants), looted the city's riches, and abducted and despoiled the women of their choice. So much for Dinah's wanton behavior!
The Genesis account of Dinah ends with her rape and her brothers' revenge. Diamant's historical novel goes on to establish the rhythm of her heroine's life in Egypt--a long life filled with the details of widowhood, motherhood, her vocation as midwife, and a new marriage to a kind and gentle man. It visualizes the impact of her reunion with Joseph at the height of his power as the pharaoh's grand vizier and of her anonymous reunion with her patriarchal family during its sojourn in Egypt. And in the end, Diamant's conclusion is a woman's conclusion: what really matters in life is love, supplemented by a full measure of personal honor. Position and power as exemplified by Jacob and his sons, including the famous Joseph, are inadequate as the basis of a fulfilling life and a meaningful legacy. Power only has value when it is tempered by love, honor, and wisdom.
If Diamant's novel has a flaw, it is in that she has been unable to escape fully the stereotypes of male and female traits in dealing with her characters. Perhaps it is inevitable that this should be so, given the state of female character development in the scriptures. To take the feminist corrective from this novel would undermine its effectiveness. All things considered, Diamant is more generous than most of her male and female colleagues in attributing positive and negative traits to characters of both sexes. Besides, it is not her purpose to create a milieu in which men and woman are alike. Rather she aims toward restoring woman to a credible presence in the ancient world, and in that, she succeeds brilliantly.
Long ago during the summer of our youth, Himself returned from a business trip with a gift that changed my life forever: He presented me with my first bottle of Opium. Since that time, I've never truly been the same.
I still dabble occasionally with White Shoulders and Narcisse. Obsession and Green Tea are welcome on my dressing table--my tastes in scent remain eclectic. But it is Opium that friends remark upon and new acquaintances ask about. It is Opium that clings to my sweaters and jackets. It is Opium that announces to all and sundry that Herself has recently passed this way. The other fragrances are mere flirtations. As all my family and friends know, Opium has long since become my signature scent.
Indeed, Opium has become my addiction. Whenever my supply runs low, serious effort is expended to ensure procurement of a new bottle before the old one is dry. I have been known to go to extreme measures to replenish my supply. I'm not too proud to drop heavy hints before birthdays, holidays, and other occasions when gift-giving is merited. For example, as Himself and I approached our 34th wedding anniversary, my then-current bottle was over two-thirds empty. This meant that the possibilities for negotiating my resupply were, um, promising. . . .
Opium has an exotic spicy fragrance that overlays just a hint of musk. It is neither overpowering nor subtle, and it tends to accentuate each wearer's body chemistry in a way that is as unique as the individual herself. The result is a wondrously earthy sensuality that is the aromatic counterpart of a low raspy voice.
Opium addicts who like to layer their scent know that the parent company, Yves Saint Laurent, offers a number of additional products in the Opium line, including soap, shower gel, body creme, body moisturizer, dusting power, and body oil.
Opium is known almost as well for its presentation style as for its scent. The classic terracotta and gold stoppered container pictured in this review category is always on my dressing table--even if the bottle itself is empty. It sets a worthy standard. The outer packaging for the classic bottle is a sturdy oval case made of molded plastic and/or pressed board, depending on the product it protects. The outer container for my .26-oz parfum bottle even includes a space in the base to hold the corded tassel that is part of the design. The outer container repeats the terracotta and gold of the stoppered bottle, adding golden foliage and black accents. The overall look is quite striking.
A simpler design borrowing many of these same elements is used for the eau de toilette spray bottle. The spray bottle is much more practical, especially for travel, less likely to leak or spill than the stoppered bottle. Nonetheless, men wishing to score higher points with the women in their lives should opt for the classic version. Its impact is rather like the difference between a diamond and cubic zirconium!
Of course, Opium is a costly addiction. In the States, a 1.6-oz/50-ml bottle of eau de toilette sells for $50-55 at the cosmetics counters of upscale department stores (though persistent shoppers can find sales and discounts courtesy of both brick-and-mortar and online retailers). In the UK, the price is comparable at £30-40. The department stores may be a bit more costly, but their supply is reliable and, unlike the discount sellers, they maintain a full range of other items within the Opium product line.
In my own experience, there is no question that wearing Opium makes me feel more attractive and desirable--a situation from which Himself is satisfied to reap the advantage. After all, it was he who started the whole thing with that long-ago gift. . . . Still, as a matter of record, just because I took the fall doesn't mean I didn't notice the push!
An Opium for Men is now also available--though I confess that this fact leaves me feeling a vague kinship with those members of Augusta National Golf Club and Royal Troon who express mild outrage over the possibility of having women join their ranks.
"It's no' th' tea," said my Scottish friend. "It's th' water. Ye kin take th' tea home, but ye kin no' take th' water."
Hmmmm, well, I grant that most places I've visited in Scotland have wonderfully soft and pleasant-tasting water. Still and all, we also have very nice soft water in my little corner of America. We don't, however, have ready access to Scottish Blend tea. Fortunately, this particular problem is easy to solve--just fly off to Scotland often enough to keep a ready supply on hand! (Failing that, Scottish Blend can sometimes be found in the States at specialty shops stocking UK foodstuffs.)
You may think I'm jesting with this flippant remark about flying off to Scotland. I'm not. Scotland and I have been involved in a torrid love affair for just over a decade now, and I cross the Pond to this bonny piece of green earth about once a year. Rarely do I return home without a fresh supply of Scottish Blend.
Why go to so much trouble for a good cuppa? Well, it isn't really trouble. It's actually more like an excuse, an act of homage. . . . That confession aside, Scottish Blend simply makes a great cup of everyday tea--far better than Lipton or Tetley, and more satisfying in many ways than PG Tips, which I also love. It's a calming, comforting blend of black tea--flavorful without being quite so robust. When you need a more serious caffeine high, go for PG Tips--or even coffee. But when you need a bit less caffeine effect and a tad more comfort (and who doesn't regularly need comfort?), go for Scottish Blend.
By now it will come as no surprise that I first encountered Scottish Blend in Scotland. The Scots take their tea very seriously, and Scottish Blend is a bit like the Scots themselves--gentle yet steadfast. As Scots will tell you and the packaging will confirm, Scottish Blend is especially blended for "our soft Scottish water."
Like PG Tips, Scottish Blend is a product of Unilever, which helps to explain why both products have such similar packaging and "engineering" for their pyramid-shaped tea bags. The shape of the bags allows more hot water to flow easily through the tea leaves and infuse more flavor into the finished beverage. In addition, Unilever's so-called "freeflow fabric," is "webbed" rather than perforated to keep out bits and pieces of the tea leaves, allowing only the liquid to pass through the tea bag.
The end product is a perfect cup of tea, ready to be completed in the manner than suits you best. I usually add a bit of milk to mine. Himself prefers two sugars. Mother wants a teaspoon of honey. Any way you drink it, Scottish Blend delivers--provided, of course, you have soft water and are willing to let your tea steep for the proper amount of time (5 minutes works for me).
Once my cup is ready, it's time to kick back, sit quietly, hold the cup, close my eyes, and dream of Scottish landscapes.
Airfare is a necessary evil for those of us who insist on traveling abroad. I love my international travel, and I'll not give it up willingly--not even in these days of high oil prices--though I do wish there were a better and more affordable means to get from here to there.
MY AIR TRAVEL "DRUTHERS"
When I travel, it's what happens on the destination end that I value most. To be honest, I hate paying a fortune merely to get "there"--wherever "there" might be. So quite frankly, I look for bargains. I surf the Net, look for special fares, and attempt to save most of my limited resources to spend in the places I'm actually traveling toward. In the past, that's meant some good experiences with the Atlantic crossing and some not-so-good experiences. I'm not particularly happy to report that in providing my transportation back and forth for a trip to Scotland, Continental Airlines managed to align itself more squarely with the latter than the former.
Despite my thrifty approach, I consider more than just price when I select a transatlantic flight. In choosing Continental, I considered the itinerary. As published, the itinerary provided two modest layovers in Newark, New Jersey, one each way, for a total one-way travel time of about 8 hours, start to finish. These days, a bargain fare often includes very long layovers, and I had the option of choosing cheaper flights with 10-12 hour layovers in London or Amsterdam. Ten hours in an airport is a long time--a long, numbing time--and not an experience to be freely chosen.
I then considered available seating. I don't mind occupying a middle seat when traveling with Himself, but if I'm alone, I want an aisle seat. I'd rather get up to accommodate other passengers needing the lavatory than ask them to move. My Continental flight itinerary offered aisle seating for both Atlantic crossings and for the return from Newark. I could live with one short flight (to Newark) in which I likely wouldn't need to disturb my seatmates.
I also considered how full the plane was when I actually booked my flight. Based on past experience, I've learned that a full flight is more stressful and uncomfortable than one that is partially empty. Choosing a less-than-full flight is not an exact science--any given flight can fill up after your own reservations are made, or a flight cancellation can send a long stream of travelers to occupy what would have been empty seats. Indeed, my careful planning netted me one for two in this regard. My flight eastbound filled to the max at the last minute, but on my flight west, I drew three adjoining seats all to myself. Hence my flight to Glasgow was characterized by the extreme form of New-Age steerage--a packed flight--whereas the flight back was merely steerage with a bit more elbow room.
CHECK-IN AND BOARDING
Check-in and boarding were relatively standard--which in these days of e-tickets means increasingly impersonal. Nowadays, even passports can be verified through self-service check-in. "Circuit-rider" agents roam the check-in area to assist passengers having difficulties. Some circuit riders are pleasant and helpful, while others are gruff and lecturing. It's the luck of the draw. You pay your money, and if you need help, you hope for the best.
Stateside boarding at the Continental gate was not handled efficiently. A wheelchair-bound passenger received too little help in completing his early boarding. The gate agent seemed to lose interest about halfway through the boarding process and stopped announcing seating rows. Passengers proceeded to board at will, no matter where their seats were assigned. In the cabin, this made for more congestion and confusion than need be--and indeed, more than is usual. This was, after all, a full flight.
A long delay on the return connecting flight was also poorly handled. Despite hours of waiting by some passengers, information was scarce and updates were few and far between. Unfortunately, this sort of gate-area service is all too common, and most passengers just coped.
Check-in for my flight leaving Glasgow was far more personal than what I've become accustomed to for flights originating in the United States. I was greeted by real people at every turn--a real person to conduct my pre-flight security interview, a real person to check my itinerary and issue my boarding passes, and real people to provide me with updates about delays and to update my itinerary and boarding passes accordingly. So much personal attention!! I've become so accustomed to handling these processes for myself that I wondered if I were suspected of something!
A long delay before take-off resulted in a familiar sense of frustration in the gate lounge, but boarding was handled far more efficiently than on the Stateside of Continental's pre-flight operation. One just couldn't help but notice that more real people were involved with gate operations than is the norm in the States. Anyone who thinks that personnel cuts don't make a difference in the quality of service isn't paying attention.
IN-FLIGHT WITH CONTINENTAL
I don't know how to say this generously: hospitality extended by flight crews aboard airliners continues to diminish. Each time I fly, it seems a bit worse. There was a time when the service extended by an international flight crew was unmatched for attention to detail--yes, even in economy class. No more. Gone are the relativity good meals. Gone are wine and beer as part of "free" beverage service aboard international flights ($5 per serving now), and even a full container of soda, juice, or water must be requested. Gone are the handy warm towelettes and mints that once appeared at the end of a meal. Gone are most of the beverage services that once occurred regularly and frequently to help passengers keep hydrated. Gone are the small goodie bags filled with amenities to make the long trip more pleasant and comfortable (toothpaste, pen, small note pad, socks, etc.). Indeed, gone is practically everything that once said, "Thank you for your patronage."
Let me point out that by hospitality, I do not mean courtesy. Flight attendants still adhere to a form of courtesy, although it is now cool and practiced rather that warm and welcoming. In terms of service, it feels a bit like the difference between Wal-Mart and Harvey Nichols. At Wal-Mart, too, customers are often met and greeted as they enter, but just about any personal service provided inside is the result of a special request.
Indeed, this lack of service and hospitality seems to apply in first class as well as coach. My seatmate on the eastbound flight had an acquaintance in first-class seating who made two or three forays back for quick visits (travel in the opposite direction being prohibited). First class aboard this plane was almost an extension of economy, separated from the rest of the cabin only a curtain. Having paid a substantial number frequent flyer miles for her ticket, she expected more than a larger seat and free booze. She expected service. What she got was a slightly larger seat, a slightly better bad meal, and slightly better cool service--but in her opinion, both the meal and the service failed to live up to economy, much less first-class, expectations. Not only that, she was herded away from her brief visits with her economy-class friend, and was coolly chastened for blocking the aisles. All in all, first class (at least on this flight) was simply "less bad."
My transatlantic flights with Continental were aboard Boeing 757-200 aircraft. Don't get me wrong, this is a large plane, but it is far from a jumbo jet. Seating in coach was configured 3x3, not 2x4x2 or 2x3x2 as was once de rigueur for most international travel. The smaller plane "feels" smaller, and the configuration down a single aisle adds to the sense that one is traveling in steerage. No doubt, it requires less fuel and is therefore cheaper to fly. That's a fair consideration these days.
Legroom aboard the 757-200 was standard as far as I could tell--suitable for my 5-ft, 5-in frame--but there's no doubt Himself at 6 ft would have had his knees tight against the seat in front. Seats in coach are cramped at best, so these were no more cramped than usual.
The onboard entertainment system left a good bit to be desired. Small monitors swung down from overhead, with two movies and a selection of CNN and Continental features shown in-flight for each direction. The monitors were too small and too far apart. The movies were current, and there were audio options for English and Spanish, as well as for music. The size and spacing of the monitors meant that viewing for many passengers was difficult. I can't speak for all passengers, but I found the audio (or at least my reception of the audio) to be very poor. As a result, I didn't bother, even though I really would have liked to view (and hear) one of the films. Thank goodness for my backup entertainment-a book of my own selection.
The effort required to fly coach at a fare that is truly economical has likely never been more challenging. The price of my off-season tickets has rarely been higher. (Indeed, this was my most expensive ever transatlantic ticket.) But in terms of service, in the true sense of the word--service has never been poorer. There are many reasons for this: the price of oil, the changing face of the airline industry in terms of job satisfactory, security demands, the number of travelers. Why the demographics seem to lend themselves generally toward declining customer satisfaction is no doubt a question that is both complex and still wide open. Nonetheless, as a customer, I can't help but feel that I don't get what I pay for.
To me there seems something inherently contradictory about overbooked flights, with free tickets and lodging to passengers willing to modify their itineraries, and personnel cutbacks that make customer service more difficult. All these processes were readily observable during my flight with Continental. I can't help wonder why all those smart executives who run the so-called "legacy airlines" can't find ways to increase both passenger and employee satisfaction--and provide a bit more efficiency in the process. One thing I know for sure, continuing cuts in everything but the price of the ticket will not reverse the situation. Moreover, my better experience with Continental based on their UK operations suggests that the overall experience can be, and should be, better.
Web Site: http://www.continental.com/
Toll Free Number: 800-525-0280 (from the United States)
Set alternately in the Congo and the United States during the mid-to-late 20th century, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is a stirring indictment of cultural and political imperialism. Speaking with the voices of the five women of the Price family, Kingsolver chronicles the impact of white Europeans on Africa and of Africa on the white men and women who ventured into its largely unknown and misunderstood vastness.
Pastor Nathan Price, the not-so-gentle patriarch of the Price family, served Kingsolver well as the arrogant and passionate voice of all those who went to Africa armed with little more than good intentions and ignorance. As a Christian missionary haunted by his own troubled past, Pastor Price sacrificed everything to leave his Georgia congregation and pursue his calling to save the souls of Africa's children--and frankly, the reverend regarded all black Africans as children. Nothing could sway him from his appointed path: not an indigenous rebellion against colonial masters, not civil war, not the orders of his mission league, and certainly not the safety and welfare of his wife and four daughters.
As depicted by the woman of his family, Pastor Price was the quintessential ugly American: Had the Congo been misused by its colonial masters? Well, perhaps, but Africa had benefitted far more than it had been abused because Europeans had brought civilization and Jesus in their wake. In the reverend's eyes, this was more than a fair exchange for the Congo's mineral ores and diamond reserves. And if accusations of laziness or theft caused Congolese workers to lose their hands to the machetes of overseers--well, that was all part of a righteous bargain.
In recounting their African tale, the voices of the Price women are complementary, if not harmonious. On one point they all agree: Africa insinuated herself into their very essence, changing their lives forever:
~ Ruth May, the youngest of the Price children, was the first to be co-opted by African ways--and the one to die suddenly at a tender age and lie forever in the Congo's timeless soil.
~ Adah, handicapped by congenital hemiplegia (a condition usually producing a right-sided motor weakness), found a degree of acceptance in Africa she had never known at home. In a land where people matter-of-factly wore their scars and infirmities as testimonies to survival, Adah's disability did not seem out of place. Ultimately, Adah's African experience would provide a basis for freeing herself from her own quiet anger and her father's dictatorial rule.
~ Leah, Adah's perfectly formed twin, embraced Africa most completely. Arriving in the Congo as a devoted follower of her father's religious truths, she would ultimately embrace the language, culture, and philosophical truths of her adopted homeland. And she herself would become the mother of African children.
~ Rachel, the eldest sister, would embrace the other side of Africa--the one characterized by apartheid and exploitation, the one where whites thought nothing of living in ghettos of opulence and privilege while turning a blind eye to the poverty of their black servants.
~ And Orleanna, mother of them all, would bear Africa in her soul for the rest of her life. Returning to Georgia with Adah, Orleanna would mourn the loss of her child but not of her marriage. She would prize the strength she had found to establish her own priorities, and she would invoke simplicity into her life--a fitting tribute to hard-won lessons from her time in the Congo.
Kingsolver's narrative is filled with vivid images of African landscapes and with glimpses into the wisdom of an ancient and rich culture. It is also a politically potent rendering of historical events affecting the retreat of Belgium from "her Congo" and the challenges facing the Congolese as they sought to fashion a structure for governing themselves. For those of us who know little of Africa--and let's face it, that includes most of us--it was fascinating to consider the dilemma imposed on the Congolese by their effort to develop a suitable system of government.
For example, how would people who prized unanimous consent at the village level learn to cope with the concept of democracy imposed on a national scale? As Leah's Congolese husband would note, when you have an election in which 49 people vote for one thing and 50 vote for another--well, that's just naturally bound to lead to trouble. Or elsewhere: if you have a pot balanced on three stones, what will happen when one is pulled away?
Although Kingsolver has been broadly criticized for using the The Poisonwood Bible to showcase her own political views, it is difficult to escape her principal conclusion: Africa had a vibrant and effective cultural milieu in place long before Europeans arrived with their own version of civilization. And even after centuries of imperial domination and exploitation, Africans were far more atuned to their own ancient traditions than they were to those brought by their colonial masters. Imposing Western political institutions on Africa was thus almost certain to lead to confusion and confrontation--if not bloodshed. However much we may debate the root causes of these consequences, it cannot be disputed that the people of the Congo endured the full impact of the clash that resulted. Whatever else she may or may not have accomplished, Barbara Kingsolver has helped us to gain a fuller understanding of that struggle.