Friday, February 24, 2017

Doris Day

Thanks for tolerating my rant yesterday! I'm glad many of you agree with me and have experienced similar levels of political and social frustration. I feel less alone.

Yesterday was much better, fortunately. Whenever I found myself feeling agitated, whether with library issues or political ones, I tried to go back to some of my Zen practice -- conscious breathing, slowing down -- and that really did help alleviate the stress.

I read a fascinating article that a colleague posted to Facebook about a certain variety of young, male Trump supporters -- the Internet-addicted gamer types who frequent the website 4chan -- and why many of them have funneled their frustrations into right-wing politics. It's a long article, so be prepared to invest some time if you check it out, but I found it quite interesting and worthwhile.

Meanwhile, we had quite a bit of excitement in Great Britain yesterday with Storm Doris, a big spiraling windbag that blew across the island and caused a considerable amount of damage and at least one death. People were calling yesterday "Doris Day," which was kind of cute, although the real Doris Day certainly wouldn't want to be associated with this storm. (She's still with us, by the way, and either 92 or 94 years old, depending on which source is cited.)

While Doris wreaked havoc across England and Scotland, here in West Hampstead she wasn't too fierce. We had a terrific burst of wind and rain as I got ready for work, but it passed within about 15 minutes, and then it was just a windy day. Very windy, admittedly. The only damage we suffered was to a potted poppy plant that Dave bought over the weekend at Waitrose -- it was sitting on our patio table, and when he got home from work, the empty pot had blown over to the other side of the house and the plant was nowhere to be found. I eventually located it, wedged against the patio table leg, with nearly all the soil blown away from its root ball. I think it may actually survive, poor thing.

At some point we lost electricity -- our digital clocks were blinking -- and when Dave went to Waitrose in the evening the refrigerated food cases were all closed and the store said it couldn't sell the food within because the power had been out. I hope Doris feels well-fed, having consumed all the perishables in our supermarket!

(Photo: Camden town, on Sunday.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Long Rant, with Redeeming Street Signs

I have been super-cranky lately. Yesterday morning I snarled at Dave for taking so long in the bathroom that I was afraid I'd be late for work. (To be fair, he was in there a really, really long time.) And then I just had this big, snarling grizzly bear of a day where everything seemed difficult.

On the surface, it was the little things -- having to remind the same kids to turn in their computer chargers by the end of the day, and then having them not do it; having the five-zillionth fifth grader ask me for a book recommendation, and then having them reject all my suggestions; having yet another brand-new book disappear into an alternative universe when it was supposed to be on the shelf.

But then there are deeper frustrations. I'm sick to death of news. I'm sick of the stomach-churning pseudo-administration of Donald Trump and I'm sick of hearing arguments about what is and isn't "fake news" and I'm sick to death of "populism," which seems to imply in its name that it's somehow beneficial for people when it's actually their enemy. I'm sick of ignorance and misinformation.

I don't understand when being polite became a bad thing. Where I come from, being polite is a virtue -- as is being intelligent. But these days, being careful about other people's feelings and tolerant of others' perspectives gets sneered at as "political correctness." If being courteous and respectful and understanding and caring continues to be mocked as eggheaded weakness, well, that's the downfall of our civilization, isn't it?

But ironically, I'm sick of being tolerant, too. The other day a coworker came and stood over my desk and launched into a monologue about the difference between economic conservatism and Trump conservatism, and after about ten minutes I thought, "WHY am I being subjected to this? It's not a discussion, it's a lecture."

Which maybe displays my own anti-intellectual, intolerant, impolite impulses. What goes around comes around. I silently endured the rest of the lecture, biting the inside of my cheek.

Remember those old Robert Young commercials from the '70s? "Relax, Jim! You should drink Sanka-brand decaffeinated coffee!"

I am feeling like Jim.

In transcribing my old journals recently, I've been struck by how certain I seemed about so many things when I was in my 20s. I guess that's the province of being young -- being certain. The older you get, the more you realize that nothing is certain and you actually know much, much less than you thought. That's wisdom, right?

Well, I'm feeling cranky and feeling like nothing is certain. Our governments, our Democratic ideals, all the things we learned going back as far as "Sesame Street" about the value of cooperation and working together. Instead we're just pulling apart and apart, getting more and more extreme, and we reward the most extreme people -- no matter how clueless -- with wealth and fame and political office.

I am not going to put the name of this person on my blog, but the recent downfall of his career has been gratifying in that it at least proves it's still possible to go too far. We'll see whether the downfall is merely temporary.

How did we get here?

On a positive note, at least I don't have French class to contend with anymore. I must say, I am not missing it at all. It's been really great to have my Saturdays free. When I hit that wall, I hit it hard.

Also, I found this intersection on Google Streetview, in Fort Myers, Florida -- how I found it is a long story -- and I'm thinking Dave and I need to visit the next time we go to the Sunshine State!

(Top photo: A discarded doll in Margate, last week.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Black Cap

I've written before about the gradual disappearance of some of London's historic pubs. With real estate prices so high and development opportunities abundant -- especially for pub buildings, which are often quite ornate and stylish -- the pubs themselves often come under tremendous financial pressure.

Here's a pub that closed back in 2015. The Black Cap had the added distinction of being a well-known LGBTQ venue, featuring drag performers and cabaret acts. The pub was made an Asset of Community Value (ACV), a government designation that's supposed to help protect pubs from redevelopment, but sadly that distinction couldn't keep it open.

I'd been reading about this pub for a while but didn't know quite where it was until I happened to walk past it on Sunday.

This rather dandy-looking fellow is perched up by the roof. (Not the pigeon, though he's dandy too.)

Apparently The Black Cap's owners had applied to convert the two floors above the pub into flats, but their application was rejected. I gotta say, those look like they would be amazing flats, although one wonders about noise levels, especially with drag performances going on downstairs!

At least they didn't simply tear the place down.

There's now a public campaign to buy out the pub and keep it open. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Rooster Express, Part 6

Longtime readers may remember that when Dave and I first moved to London in 2011, I was photographically infatuated by the rich variety of fried chicken restaurants. (Examples here, here, herehere and here.) These restaurants always have red and/or blue signage -- it's apparently an unspoken industry rule -- and their names often refer back to the southern USA.

Here's a good example with an unusually cumbersome name that I came across Sunday in Camden. I wonder if they had to pay by the letter for that sign?

And I wonder how "new" Tennesseeland differs from "old" Tennesseeland? Was there even an "old" Tennesseeland? Questions to ponder.

Anyway, what can I say about yesterday. It was Monday, and I was back at work. It may not seem like it but we're already on the downslope of the school year! (That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.)

I've tried to write a politically-themed post several times but I just don't have it in me. It brings me down and I know it would bring you down, too. Rest assured I'm thinking about it all, worrying about the stability of the American government and cringing every time I open The New York Times web site.

I'm pretty sure voters in the real Tennesseeland love Donald Trump, though.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Street Art and Old Books

Last Wednesday, when Dave and I took a taxi to get to St. Pancras train station for our trip to Broadstairs, we passed through Camden Town and saw lots of great street art. I realized it had been quite a while since I went walking in that area.

So yesterday I set out on what I intended to be a brief meander. The sky was gray, which is actually ideal for photographing street art -- you don't get distracting shadows on the walls. One of the murals I visited was this flaming spray can piece (above) by Irony.

I normally avoid the area around Camden Market because it's tourist hell and the sidewalks are packed. There are always various costumed characters (yesterday I saw The Mad Hatter) wandering around, looking to make a pound or two. But what makes the area so obnoxious to walk through can also make it fun if you're in the mood for that sort of thing.

So I walked for an hour or two through Camden and into Primrose Hill, where I became distracted by a secondary mission. I happened upon a bookshop with a bin of used books outside, and when I browsed through them I came across this volume (left). I love that cover -- those '50s graphics! "The Green Singers," from 1958, is set in Australia, and I had to have it -- and it was only £3! But of course I didn't have any cash on me, and I didn't want to try to make such a minor purchase with a debit card. (I may be wrong, but the shop didn't seem like the kind of place where they'd go for that.) So I schlepped through Primrose Hill and back to Camden Road to find an ATM, and then back to the bookshop.

In the end, success -- and I also got a second old book (right, below, just £2). I've never heard of either of these authors, but I liked the old-fashioned dust jackets so much. Apparently David Leslie wrote numerous books including some with homoerotic elements. (Score!) And Ralph Arnold's "Hands Across the Water," from 1947, is about trying to find a newly incarnated Tibetan lama in England.

So, who knows -- they might be rubbish. But maybe one of them will be another H. E. Bates -- an author I'd never heard of before I took the plunge on some thrift store books that I turned out to really like! I'll report back.

I walked from Primrose Hill up to Adelaide Road and caught the C11 bus for home. By this time it was past noon -- nothing like a good morning of urban exploration.

Dave and I spent the afternoon in the garden, continuing to prune and prepare for the new growing season. Yesterday I mentioned the crocuses coming up around town, and we found a few in our own flower beds. We also filled three lawn bags with leaves and trimmings. It's amazing how much debris a garden can accumulate.

Last night we went on a "Gogglebox" TV bender. Dave reheated his Sauce Bolognese, but added tomatoes to make it a more traditional red sauce. He was not impressed with his low-tomato-content initial attempt!

And apropos of nothing, here's the word of the day: "broigus." I saw it used in a headline in the Jewish News, which I happened to pick up for free on the high street yesterday morning. (See page 12.) Apparently it's a yiddish word meaning a fight -- in this case, between air passengers mid-flight! It's a great word -- I think I could find room for it in my vocabulary.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

En Plein Air

Olga may have seemed exhausted when we got back from Broadstairs, but after a good night's sleep she was raring to go. So we went to the Heath yesterday morning and took a long walk.

We came across this guy painting en plein air in Hampstead. He seemed to be finishing up -- I think he was cleaning his brushes.

The walk went well, and on the way home we found about a million crocuses in the Hampstead Church cemetery. Signs of spring!

Dave experimented for dinner and made a real Bolognese sauce for pasta. Apparently the red meat sauce all of us think of as Bolognese really isn't -- the authentic variety is paler, with less tomato and more veg and even a touch of milk. It wasn't bad, but I don't think either of us were a huge fan. I get why red sauce is so popular!

We also did more garden cleanup. I raked the parking space in front of our house, which was full of last autumn's piled-up blown leaves and tiny bits of street litter. (Technically the parking space is the responsibility of the upstairs neighbors, who actually park there, but we own a rake and they don't, so I didn't mind doing it. Probably should have done it weeks ago, in fact.) Dave pruned our buddleia and some other plants, hopefully getting everything ready to bush out again in a few weeks.

Last night we watched "Beginners," with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer. It's an earlier movie by Mike Mills, the same guy who wrote and directed "20th Century Women," which Dave and I saw last week in the theater. "Beginners" is excellent. I loved it. If you haven't seen it, download it and check it out!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Broadstairs Proper

Yesterday was our day to explore the town of Broadstairs itself. After a light breakfast at our hotel, and a romp with the Kong on the windy, chilly beach, we all took a taxi into town. (Dave was very emphatic about not walking.)

We got dropped off at the bottom of the high street, where the town meets the water at Viking Bay. There's a wide arc of beach guarded by a line of colorful bathing cabanas -- one sign referred to them as "chalets," which sounds oddly alpine.

We promptly found a pub named after Charles Dickens, who summered in Broadstairs and wrote "David Copperfield" there. In fact the big house on a cliff overlooking the bay where Dickens lived is now known as Bleak House, though apparently the namesake novel is actually set in Hertfordshire.

It was a bit too early to eat again, so we walked through town to the train station, passing some intriguing artwork along the way (the result of a local contest among children to decorate some vacant shopfronts).

Olga found her favorite shop. It was all we could do to keep her out of there. I hope the proprietors appreciate our dedication, because otherwise she would have been doing full-body rolls in the meat case.

We wandered back down to the bay -- Bleak House is the castle-like brown structure at left. There's also a Dickens museum in town, but we didn't go.

Instead we went back to the Dickens pub, where had pints and a sausage sandwich (in my case) and Olga sat on my lap because she was a bit shivery on the chilly pavement.

We finally caught our train at 2 p.m., and I finished the second of my "Blind Date with a Book" novels on the way back to London. Dave read too, as did a pink-haired girl with a nose ring across the aisle -- she was engrossed in a book of Tennyson's poems. (There'll always be an England.)

We got home and Olga promptly fell into a deep, snorey sleep on the couch. She was happy to be back in familiar surroundings -- as were we all!

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Shell Grotto

Yesterday Dave, Olga and I walked along the seaside cliffs to Margate, the next town along the coast to the northwest of us. It took a couple of hours to walk there and back -- I don't know how far it is, but surely a few miles at least. We looked down from the clifftops upon the mysterious blue maps and abstractions left in the sand and seaweed by the retreating tide.

Olga got about as much exercise as a dog could stand, I think. She enjoyed chasing her Kong in all the grassy areas along the way. (It's basically one big park.) And once again, we had a sunny day!

I figured we needed a destination in Margate, and while checking out the town on Google Maps beforehand I saw an intriguing landmark called "The Shell Grotto." Turns out this is an underground passageway and chamber covered with 4.6 million seashells in various patterns. What saves it from being a merely kitschy tourist attraction is that it's really old and mysterious -- apparently it was re-discovered in 1838 and opened to the public, but its origins are murky.

Is it a medieval devotional chamber? A Renaissance curiosity? A Roman relic?

My guess is, it was some wealthy guy's garden decoration, but who knows? Apparently carbon dating is expensive -- and it's unreliable unless they test several portions, because the grotto has been repaired and restored over the centuries -- so that hasn't been done. But it is historically listed and I love weird stuff like this, so I got a kick out of it. Dave stayed up in the cafe with Olga, watching an over-energetic boy break not one, not two but three items in the gift shop, which his poor beleaguered mother then had to buy.

We walked back along the cliffs, wearing the dog (and Dave) out even more. When we got back to the room, Dave declared, "No more walking!" But we did manage to stagger out to a nearby pub, the Captain Digby, for an evening pint before dinner. Unfortunately Olga wasn't allowed inside so we spent a chilly half-hour at a picnic table in the "beer garden" (aka the parking lot). That brisk ocean air!

Today we're going to check out the town of Broadstairs before getting on our train for home.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Olga at the Beach

The beach is a new experience for Olga. All that sand! And weird, fishy-smelling sea things!

Kelp, we learned, must be peed upon. By dogs, at least.

We also learned that chasing the Kong toy on the beach leads to a Kong covered with sand. Which of course mean's Olga's lips and nose become covered, too.

Not that this particularly bothers her.

She doesn't show much enthusiasm for the water itself. She'll approach the retreating waves and then back up when they surge forward again, hesitant to even wet her toes. My fears that she would leap into the ocean and be swept away by a rogue current appear to be unfounded.

We are in an area of Kent famous for its chalky cliffs. The porous nature of the stone leads to some very unusual, Swiss Cheesy beach rocks. (I kept this one.) There are also scattered seashells of limpets and mussels and periwinkles.

Here's our hotel. We're on a bluff atop the cliffs, and there are steps down to the sea nearby. (Not the famous "Broad Stairs" of Broadstairs, which apparently really was named after a set of steps. Technically, we're in Kingsgate, just north of Broadstairs on an inlet called Botany Bay.)

Our journey here went smoothly yesterday. Before we left home, I put my Valentine's Day tulips on the windowsill in the alcove next to the front door:

I figured if we're not home to enjoy them, at least our neighbors can!

The train trip was a little more than an hour, and Olga handled it admirably. Once off the train, we walked to the hotel, which was a bit of a schlep but allowed us to both exercise the dog and see the town.

I did a terrible job packing -- forgot my toothbrush and deodorant and Olga's dog towel! We can make do without the latter, but even two nights without the former would be unacceptable. I suppose I'll have to pop into a neighborhood shop today...

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tulips and Another Day of Sun

Yesterday was much nicer than I expected, weather-wise. The sun decided to hang around and grace us with its presence for at least another day. Overall, the seasons seem to be turning -- it's a bit brighter out, more spring-like, and we neatened up the garden a bit.

And it was Valentine's Day, which wasn't really on our radar. We made no special plans, but Dave came back from getting his hair cut with a bouquet of red tulips, which was cute. I sort of had it in my head that our trip to Broadstairs today would be Valentine's celebration enough, but I did tell Dave how much I love him and how glad I am that we found each other. I gave him a verbal bouquet.

This feeling was especially acute because I worked more yesterday on transcribing my journals, and reading about all my struggles to meet people and go on dates -- especially when I was living in Southwest Florida more than 20 years ago -- made me appreciate what I have now all the more. It's actually somewhat exhausting to re-read parts of these journals, the moments of youthful drama and loneliness. I don't transcribe those pages! Seriously, editing can be a challenge -- to represent the mood of the entry and my state of mind, yet eliminate the superfluous (and embarrassing) self-indulgence.

Overall, though, it's a very fun project and I hope it's creating a useful and accessible record.

In the afternoon Dave and I went to see "20th Century Women," which I enjoyed. It was another slow-paced talker of a film, about a single woman raising a teenaged son in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s -- a time period with which I can identify! The film is well-acted by Annette Bening and others, and visually beautiful. I loved the cinematography, the shots of turbulent blue ocean and brilliant magenta bougainvillea and golden West Coast sunshine. I'm thinking Dave and I need to go to California sometime.

We considered going out for a martini afterwards but navigating the crowds around Piccadilly Circus made us decide to come home instead. A gin & tonic on the couch is hard to beat!

(Photo: A workman's lunch break, Monday in Chelsea.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Sunny Day, and Hockney

We had beautiful, clear skies yesterday! Pretty much unheard of for this time of year, and if the weather reports are to be believed it's pretty much the only sunshine we'll see through the middle of next week. And yet, there was not a cloud to be seen. Are the weather gods toying with us, or what?

I seized the opportunity to take a photo walk through Chelsea and Battersea. I took the 328 bus down to the Chelsea neighborhood known as World's End, which is exactly what it felt like after 45 minutes on a city bus. London bus drivers must be the most Zen people on Earth. They seem utterly unfazed by cars cutting in front of them, pedestrians stepping out into the street, construction zones. They politely wave drivers to turn in front of them and proceed in slow dignity along their routes. (Sometimes very slow dignity.) If I were a bus driver I would be consumed with rage.

When I finally got to World's End, I explored the neighborhood around the old Lots Road power plant, now under redevelopment, and then crossed the Albert Bridge to Battersea. I visited the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park (above), which I'd only seen from a distance before. It has brilliant gold sculptures of scenes from the Buddha's life on its four sides.

I crossed back over the Chelsea Bridge and got a good view of the old Battersea Power Station, which has changed dramatically since I visited more than five (!) years ago. It's also being redeveloped, including rebuilding the smokestacks and apparently some of the walls. Eventually, it will be surrounded by (and contain, I believe) apartments, like the ones at right in the photo above.

I remember John Pawson, in his book "Minimum," about his minimalist architectural aesthetic, citing the Battersea Power Station as an icon. I bet he hates the thought of these apartments cluttering up the view.

My goal for the day was to attend the David Hockey exhibit at the Tate Britain. I'd bought an entry ticket the day before, anticipating crowds, and sure enough it seemed well attended. I was introduced to Hockney's paintings as a kid because they were used in the opening credits of Neil Simon's movie "California Suite," and I've loved them ever since. I used to have a poster of "A Bigger Splash" when I lived in Florida.

I'll say this for Hockney -- he's a master at painting the shimmery, rippling quality of light in a swimming pool. I was also unaware of his earliest work -- which was remarkably gay, at least for its time period in the early 1960s. More recently he's done photo and video collages involving multiple shots of the same scene, taken at different moments or slightly different angles, and giving an overall impression of depth and movement. Hockney likens traditional photography to the view of a Cyclops -- the single lens and flat plane. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, but the collages were interesting and effective.

As if in keeping with the bright subtropical theme of Hockney, we saw a parrot on one of our bird feeders! They've come around before, but I hadn't seen one in our garden in a while, so it was an unusual treat -- like the suet balls undoubtedly were for the parrot.

Last night we had dinner with our friend Tim, visiting from the states, and his friend Mark, who lives in Bournemouth. We went down to Kensington (on the 328 bus, again!) and had a good time, although I burned the roof of my mouth on my overly-hot cottage pie. I hate that.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Oscar Movies

Olga and I often pass this house on our morning walks. I've always found the marble wall and front walkway a curious addition.

This photo was taken Saturday, and you can see flecks of snow falling. Yesterday's weather wasn't a whole lot better. It was definitely an indoor day. We seized the moment to walk over to Hampstead and see one of several movies we've been wanting to catch in the theater: "Manchester by the Sea," which was terrific. Casey Affleck entirely disappears into his character, and although it's slow-paced it's deeply moving and quite beautiful to watch. It's not everybody's thing, though -- I overheard one guy emerging with his wife saying, "That was terrible!" She replied, "Oh, I thought it was alright."

Even Dave liked it, though, and that's saying something for a serious drama. Recall that he did not feel the same way about "Boyhood."

So, one down, and a few more to go. I definitely want to see "20th Century Women," and I think we should see "La La Land" since it's probably going to be the big thing at the Oscars. Dave is interested in both "Arrival" and "Passengers" as well. The fact that all the good movies come out at once, in order to be fresh in the minds of Oscar judges, is quite annoying.

I slept more than nine hours last night! I feel like a new man!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Hearts and Gloom

Yesterday was one of those days you'd just really rather not be outside. We got a dusting of snow flurries, which clung to our newly planted primroses, and Olga and I managed to get our morning walk despite the frozen precipitation. (She won't go out in rain, but she doesn't seem to mind snow -- which I can understand.) We walked the black path, which seemed even blacker than usual.

When we got back home I dragged a chair into the kitchen, got out the cream cleaner and cleaned the upper shelves and cabinets -- a job I've been avoiding. That thin layer of kitchen grease just finally got to me. It looks a million times better in there now.

I finished Paul Kanithi's "When Breath Becomes Air," which I enjoyed although it's not exactly a happy book. Kanithi was a neurosurgeon and all-around brilliant guy who fell victim at a young age to cancer -- a cruel irony. Here's a little etymological oddity I gleaned from his book: the word disaster literally means a star coming apart. Dis-Aster. (Actually, the dictionary says it comes from the Latin for "an ill-starred event," which isn't quite the same thing, but I like that image of a disintegrating star.)

Etymological questions are always interesting. The other day I used the term "field day," as in, "So-and-so will have a field day with that." And I got to wondering where that term comes from. Apparently it's an old military term for a day spent in field maneuvers, but its literal meaning is almost never used anymore. Dave and I have questions about this kind of stuff all the time. Language is fascinating!

I spent part of the afternoon watching birds at our feeders. We got coal tits, blue tits, pigeons (of course), crows, blackbirds and the starling above. A fairly mundane day.

At least, until this Eurasian jay showed up looking for peanuts. I set some out on the table and watched it come and go several times. (Not the best photo -- Juanita was in the way.)

Our "Blind Date with a Book" event on Thursday and Friday seemed to be a hit with the kids. Above was my wrapped book -- some parent volunteers helped with the wrapping, and let's just say this one looked a little rough. Rather than rewrap it and waste the paper, my boss plastered it with stickers to spruce it up. It turned out to be a novel called "Small Acts of Amazing Courage" by Gloria Whelan, and I know nothing about it, but I'll give it a read this week.

(Have I mentioned that we're on February break now? We don't go back to school until a week from tomorrow. Lots of reading time!)

One kid came into the decorated library on Friday, looked at me blankly and asked, "Why are there hearts everywhere?"

Ummm...Valentine's Day?

"Oh yeah," he said. (This was the same kid who did the freedom survey. Kind of spacey, between you and me.)

Anyway, back to yesterday -- Olga and I finished the day with a gloomy afternoon walk through the cemetery. It was gloomy to me, anyway -- once again, the dog had a great time and didn't seem put off by the weather at all. She did need a bath when we got home, though.

I've finally finished posting all my photos from our December cruise to Flickr. I already blogged some of them, but if you want to check out the rest they're here.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

More African Beer Labels

Proving that I really can take this blog just about anywhere, I thought I'd share with you the rest of my West African beer label collection. As I revealed in the last post, these are souvenirs of my trip through West Africa in autumn 1994. None of them top the Mamba label for excitement, but they're cool in their own right.

First, Castel beer, which we drank in Mali. I believe it's available in other West African countries, too. I think a lot of these beer brands were licensed by various local brewers from one country to another.

So. B. Bra was a beer from Burkina Faso. Although it touts itself as "Bière de Qualité," in my journal I proclaimed it "really nasty."

Another Burkinabe beer. I don't remember anything about this one.

Flag is another common multinational brand -- in fact, we had Flag beer in Morocco, though with a different label. This one was from Burkina Faso and must be brewed by the same company as the one above -- they share the same yin/yang trademark.

I bought Star beer in northern Ghana, but I think -- based on what I've only now seen online -- it may be a Nigerian brand. I remember being amused by the little expiration dates at the bottom of the labels. Does beer really ever expire?

I think Gulder is Nigerian, too, though I got it in Kumasi, Ghana. From my journal entry of Oct. 15: "Then we went drinking – stopped at a bar and had Gulder beer, and then another – by the middle of the second one we were toasted. These 66 cl beers are not to be believed."

(Many African beers come in big bottles. These were roughly 22 ounces, with alcohol at 5 percent.)

I got Club and Club Dark in Accra. Again, I made no mention of it in my journal, so I have no memory of whether it was any good or not.

And now, for no particular reason:

Here's a picture of my friends Pam, Kelly and Carolyn in front of the New York Cafeteria in Banfora, Burkina Faso -- a little town in the southwest corner of the country, near the border with Cote d'Ivoire. I just thought it was funny that we were in such a remote location -- and back in those pre-Internet days, it felt really remote -- yet we found traces of the Big Apple!

Friday, February 10, 2017

West African Memories

Well, it's certainly wintry here in London. Yesterday the gray sky was spitting hard pellets of snow/ice, and today we'll have a high of 38º F with rain and snow tonight. Time to stay indoors! (I realize 38º is downright balmy to some of my Canadian readers, but here it's cold!)

In my mind, though, I am in the tropics. I've been having the best time transcribing my journals from my trip through West Africa in 1994. I traveled through Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire with some friends from the Peace Corps, and we had some amazing adventures.

Like the time we went to church in Kumasi, Ghana: "We sought out an English church, and landed at Grace Outreach Church. Oh my – it was a sizzler – a hotbed of loud music and evangelism! It was a big building with pink interior walls, and banners reading 'Jesus is Lord' and 'This is the time of our destiny,' and purple and white streamers overhead. At first we all felt pretty silly, but the music was so raucous that eventually we just got carried away. It was crazy. All those incredibly well-dressed people were literally dancing in the aisles – and not in place, either – they were ALL OVER. There was maximum emphasis on the music and minimum on the preaching, which was fine – I felt like I was at a gospel concert. It wasn’t cheesy like gospel in the states, either – it was fun, and the people just glowed as they sang. Then, in the middle of all this, Victor and Olivia got married – these two complete strangers (to us) whose wedding we stumbled into. There was a procession, an exchange of vows, rings, all the trappings of a slightly scaled-back American wedding. Someone was wandering around with a video camera – Victor and Olivia will spend the next 60 years wondering who the four white people in the audience are!"

Or the time I went to a Ghanaian barber: "Got my hair cut last night in Accra at Kennedy’s Hair Salon – a roadside shed where I bargained the price of my cut down to 1,000 cedis, then walked in and saw '500 FLAT' painted on the wall. I told Kennedy he should paint over that, and paid 1,000 anyway."

Or a memorable meal in Ghana: "We went out to dinner last night at a place called the Pearl of the East, reputed to be one of the best Chinese restaurants in Ghana. For $5 or so I had corn chicken broth soup, vegetable mix with rice and red wine and coffee. This place was fancy, too – we had impeccable service and hot napkins, heated plates, all the little touches. We also got the benefit of a hilarious menu, with items such as 'shredded sea blubber,' 'shark lips in cream sauce,' 'three kinds meat in clear soup' and 'fry duck balls.' We were in hysterics! I couldn’t speak, I was laughing so hard."

Or our long bus ride from Bamako to Mopti, Mali: "The landscape was green and lush all the way here, though once we got up to Mopti I could tell that in dry season there’s probably nothing around but red earth. Near Bamako it was dense and shrubby, but as we traveled the shrubs thinned out to green grass. There were occasional cabbage palms, huge baobabs (how exciting!) bearing pendulous green fruit, and villages filled with conical mud buildings. Women pounding millet – and every once in a while the bus would stop and people (mostly kids) would swarm around with unidentifiable food. There were oranges (green and tart), soft peanuts, little sweet cakes, and all kinds of fibrous, root-like things – I have no idea what they were. We finally got to Mopti about 10 p.m. or so, and a local guy showed us the Peace Corps house. You can tell this is a tourist town – we were swarmed by guides! We were also swarmed by thick clouds of insects – when we ate dinner last night, little flies kept landing in my beer and locusts 1 ½ inches long were crawling up and across the tablecloth."

Throughout the trip I collected beer labels. Each country had its "local" brews, and fortunately, when condensation gathered on the bottles, it was usually pretty easy to slip off the labels. Here's my favorite, from Cote d'Ivoire:

I remember that one was really hard to peel off. I've never understood why Mamba beer had an alligator on the label -- isn't a mamba a snake?

Anyway, it was truly an amazing trip, though I got ill several times -- once pretty dramatically, with a fever that made me hallucinate. I'm still working my way up to that point in the journal. Crazy times!

(Photo: A schoolyard near our lodge in Kumasi, Ghana, October 1994.)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Crocus in the Driveway

As I was walking Olga yesterday morning I noticed this little crocus -- the first I've seen this year, I believe -- blooming between the paving stones of my neighbor's driveway. I wonder how on earth it got there? It must have seeded itself. Persistent, like Elizabeth Warren!

Here's another tiny bulb, a snowdrop in our back garden. I don't recall ever finding snowdrops here before, so where it came from I'm not sure! I have a feeling not every bulb blooms every year -- wouldn't it make sense that they might take a year or two off?

Dave feels better today. His fever was gone yesterday afternoon, so he's headed back to work. Last night he called someone to come and clean our oven. That's one job neither he nor I have the energy to tackle!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wonder Woman Stands Guard

I saw these kids on their way to a birthday party (or some kind of party) when I was walking Olga a couple of weeks ago. The boy's Spider Man suit cracked me up. I wish I'd been closer to get a better shot, but c'est la vie.

Yesterday morning was devoted to decorating the library for Valentine's Day. Now it's decked out in hearts and all our "Blind Date with a Book" volumes are wrapped and ready. The kids will come in later this week to select their choices. My boss, coworkers and I plan to choose one too, so I'll be reading something entirely random in a week or so. Meanwhile I'm about to start "When Breath Becomes Air," a doctor's memoir of his fight against a cancer that ultimately kills him. I hear it's terrific, although not exactly uplifting.

When I checked the Olga Cam in the morning, this is the view that greeted me -- Olga peeking out from behind Dave's "Wonder Woman" mug. It's good to know Wonder Woman's super powers are guarding our household, but I wish she'd make Dave well. His fever continued yesterday afternoon and he's staying home from work again today.

Yesterday he texted me a blurry iPhone photo of our goldfinch feeder, which had two goldfinches on it! This is the first evidence I've seen that they know it exists. That feeder has been hanging out there, apparently lifeless, since I bought it last September. I wish I'd been home to see them, armed with my camera and zoom lens, but I'm sure they'll come around again, now that they know where to find food.