Saturday, November 28, 2015

Pilgrims' Revenge

Wait, no...
Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday. It's not about presents (though I really have no objection at all to presents). It's not about Hallmark cards, or romance, or patriotism, or trees. It's about family, friends, and, most of all, about food.

That's closer....

Yeah, okay

Oddly, there is no Thanksgiving here. Instead, they start decorating for Christmas immediately after Halloween. As one of Phil's students put it, "They don't have a bridge holiday! They jump right into Christmas!" The holiday lights do shine prettily in the rain. But there was no way we were going to give up the opportunity to stuff friends and family with far more food than they could comfortably eat.

We had a little infusion of family with Ben's arrival on Wednesday. He conquered jet lag with a twelve-hour sleep (ah, youth!) while we cooked up a storm upstairs.  When he finally arose, we took him to the Soane Museum, the house of Sir John Soane, a nineteenth-century architect and collector of -- well, of everything.

We were lucky enough to enter the paintings room just as the docent opened the walls (they folded back in an almost indescribable way) to reveal and describe Hogarth's wonderful series of paintings The Rake's Progress, the opera version of which Ben and Phil had seen the previous year. The paintings detail the fate of a paradigmatic man who does not spend his money and his youth wisely. (No lesson intended, and none taken, I'm sure.)

We were missing our usual holiday infusion of dozens of Sickers and the Chatham Zahlers, but we invited our adopted British family to take their place. Klauser and Sue, Sue's father John, and our new friend Cynthia kindly agreed to eat themselves into oblivion, obeying the Phil rule of Thanksgiving: ingest.

We'd ordered a turkey from the Smithfield butcher shop, and though it was by far the most expensive turkey we've ever had, it may also have been the tastiest. We made corn pudding. We made cranberry-orange relish, with lots of brandy. We made stuffing with chestnuts, pancetta, and raisins. We made yam-squash casserole with carmelized onions (and brandy). We made green beans with pine nuts just so we could say there was something green on the table. And to help our British guests feel at home, I made sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce -- and the rest of the brandy. Sue brought a delicious cheese-raisin Yorkshire tart, and Cynthia made Palmier biscuits, which were divine. We ate excessively, and John regaled us with fascinating tales of his travels all over the world.

There was more prosecco and wine consumed than I am comfortable reporting. Everyone was slightly nauseous by the end of the evening, which to us indicates a successful celebration, and Klauser was overheard saying, "They'd better go back to America soon or we shall have to order all new clothes in a larger size."

To that end, the following day Klauser came by to take Ben shopping for shirts at his Italian tailor's. (We were horrified to discover that Britain has joined in the nightmare of Black Friday, including the required fisticuffs over huge flat-screen TVs, without even the excesses of Thanksgiving Thursday to excuse it. But exclusive tailors don't take part.) We stayed home to recover, but we understand that it was quite an  expedition. Ben, it turns out, is a perfect Italian size 15, and the tailor was thrilled to be able to fit him so well. Attractive Italian actors wandered in, we were told, and they also were pleased with the fashion show. And the results are fabulous.

Phil met the gentlemen at the National Portrait Gallery, where they found a portrait painted on wood of our local benefactor, Sir Christopher Hatton. Then Sue and I joined them at a Soho moviehouse to watch Todd Haynes' moving and gorgeously filmed Carol. Look for it on the Oscar lists. And thence to Chinatown, where we had wonderful Chinese food, though liver was involved.

Ben and Phil took off for the British Library and in search of Scotch eggs in the early afternoon on Saturday, and when they returned we walked to St. Paul's to see the Advent carol service. It included a poem, "Advent," by the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that struck all three of us with its beauty. The ceremony, focusing on the metaphor of motion from west to east in the cathedral, from darkness to light, from death to life, was a remarkable way to end the week.

Our pubs :
I didn't go -- Phil met an ex-colleague
and his daughter there

like the one in Stockbridge, but old

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Close to Home

home in London --
the scaffolding is down!
We're a little shaken.

The whole world, it seems, is a little shaken.

So we were just as glad to stay close to home this week.

There's no such thing as
too British, right?
Klauser has been threatening to take us to a real afternoon tea since we arrived, and finally we were able to set a time and place -- Fortnum & Mason, Wednesday after class, when Phil would already be dressed up. A friend of ours referred to the store as "Fortune & Mason," and the bill proved him quite right. But in the meantime, what a tea!

There were sandwiches. There were scones, both savoury and sweet. There were pastries, both savoury and sweet. There were cakes. There was endless tea, and any of the comestibles could be replenished as well (only the scones were, and we took some home, as by then we were all popping buttons). There was a pianist who played "Night and Day" and "I Get a
Kick Out of You" and the theme from Downton Abbey. (In a strange moment that must have been an auditory hallucination, I could have sworn I heard him playing Country Joe and the Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" in tinkling tones. And when I took a look at him, there was a certain "I've been to Woodstock" vibe going on beneath the pastel jacket and well-groomed coiffure. But it can't really have happened.)

We checked out the Christmas decorations on the first floor, and the dear Klauser bought me chocolate truffles to make up for having missed the opportunity to buy myself a box of Neuhaus in Belgium. And we didn't need to eat again for 24 hours.

We discovered a local pub, The Dovetail, that has more than a dozen Belgian beers on tap and many more in bottles. This too helped us feel less deprived about curtailing our Belgian trip. And we had lunch with our friend Kries, whom we were supposed to meet for dinner in Gent, when he stopped in London for a conference.

On the weekend, we were both touristy and nontouristy. With Klauser and Sue, we ate excellent Chinese food and saw a not-so-excellent movie, Steve Jobs, which we all agreed was well acted and badly written, bearing out my belief that everything is all about the writing.

Yes, a codpiece
We were thinking of going to the seacoast on Sunday, but frigid temperatures and a certain amount of exhaustion led us to stay in London. Instead, we went to the Museum of London to see the medieval rooms -- with, as always, a brief stop to look at World War I materials. The exhibits were very nicely done, though the written explanation of the fourteen-century plague pandemic noted that experts are still not certain if the disease was actually bubonic plague or another disease. I'm pretty sure that recent DNA analyses have found that remains of plague victims were definitively infected with the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis.

We've spent a lot of time this week watching the BBC News, with Phil's favorite newscaster, Moxie Croxill. I'm not sure what the attraction is -- her name, maybe? Or is it her blond hair? Anyway, the news about Brussels is alarming, and we hope that all our Belgian friends stay safe.

Next week -- Ben! And Thanksgiving! We've ordered a turkey from the butcher near the Smithfield Market, where this happened:
On the upper left is an advertisement for a wife sale,
which apparently went on at Smithfield when divorces
were difficult to come by

 Our many pubs for the last two weeks:
filled with wooden carvings
of fat, happy friars

makes up in beer what it lacks in signage

just around the corner, named after
Elizabeth I's possible lover and the
owner of our property in the 16th century

nice craft brews

winner of weirdest name to date, full of
people with nice buns (both kinds) and extremely good
posture from the nearby Sadler Wells dance theatre
where Marx and Engels -- and Kries as a
student -- ate and drank


Sunday, November 15, 2015

In Flanders Fields; Or, Belgium Interruptus

By now, the world knows what occurred in Paris on Friday.

Ypres in the rain -- many thanks to
Kamrun for all her great photos
We just happened to be in Ypres, Belgium, at the time with nine of Phil's students. This was a long-planned trip to visit the World War I battlefields and sites around Ypres, which was the place where trench warfare was made still more miserable by a sea of mud in which thousands of soldiers died, some by drowning, and where the front line stayed almost unchanged for three years as the Germans tried to reach the port towns on the coast. The town itself was completely destroyed, as was everything around it, but it was rebuilt with meticulous accuracy, often using the same materials that had been used in the original buildings.

We arrived via Eurostar from London at Lille, France, on Friday morning and caught another train across the border to Ypres. After settling into our hotel, Phil and the students took taxis to the
barbed wire at the Passchendaele
Passchendaele Museum, a few miles from town. The museum features a 100-meter long reconstructed trench and subterranean quarters where officers and men retreated for safety and planning, as well as a lot  of information about the battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, fought from July to November 1917.

fondues fromages
After the museum, the students gathered in our large and comfortable hotel room to sample some of the delicacies of the region. These included products made by Trappist monks, which led to a spirited discussion of hops. Almost none of them had been to Belgium before, and it was a pleasure to introduce them to the country and its specialties. We went on to dinner in the Grote Markt, the main square, where we ate fondues fromages and carbonnade a la flamande, two of our all-time favorites.

Then we walked to the Menin Gate at the edge of town, which was erected to honor the more than 30,000 Allied soldiers whose bodies were never recovered, and whose names are engraved on the edifice. Every night there is a solemn and beautiful ceremony commemorating the soldiers who lost their lives at Ypres. Each night the ceremony is different, with songs, poetry readings, and other performances, but it always includes trumpet music and
the laying of wreaths. There were many hundreds of people there, and we were told that it is always that crowded -- every single night of the year.

We were pretty tired, since we'd been up before six to catch the train, so we planned for an early night. But when I turned on the TV, we saw the news that terrorists had attacked Paris. It was only about ten minutes after the attacks had happened, and we watched with growing horror as details flooded in. At the point that President Hollande closed the French borders, we realized that we had a problem: we were stuck in Belgium with nine students who were supposed to go back to London the next day and whose train tickets took them through France.

Acting on the assumption that the borders would be closed indefinitely, I found out that our hotel was fully booked for the next several days, but I located a nearby place that had rooms available. We decided not to book the rooms until the morning, though, hoping that the situation would turn out to be less dire and that the return trip would be possible -- though as we watched the news, it looked pretty clear that our hopes would be in vain.

In the morning, after a more or less sleepless night, we learned that the borders indeed had been reopened, though the descriptions of events in Paris were ever more dreadful. A flurry of emails with administrators helped us decide that we'd go ahead with the day's activities as planned, and then in the late afternoon we'd accompany the group to Lille, where they would catch the Eurostar and we would pick up a rental car to return to Belgium and visit friends in Gent. The students were all fine with this; though they were shaken by events, they realized that they were probably as safe in Ypres as they would have been in London.

We had booked a 4-hour battlefield tour with Salient Tours, based on my Internet research, and we met with our tour guide, Lucas, who piled us into two vans. Our first stop was a cemetery where John McCrae, the surgeon who wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields," had tended to the injured. Lucas gave us a remarkably cogent and thorough ten-minute explanation of the reasons behind the start of the war, and he recited the whole poem from memory.

We've been on a lot of tours, and it was clear from the start that Lucas wasn't an ordinary guide. We learned a lot about him as we drove around the Ypres Salient (a salient is a battlefield with a slight rise that is surrounded by the enemy on three sides). He has an advanced degree in history, has written a book about World War I, and has been obsessed with the war since he was a young child.
His tour, which stopped at the German Langemarck cemetery, the Canadian Brooding Soldier Memorial, Passchendaele Ridge, Tyne Cot Cemetery, and the Hooge trench and crater, was thorough, passionate, and packed with information that I doubt we would have gotten elsewhere. (It didn't hurt that he was not unattractive, though that had absolutely nothing to do with why I decided to sit up front in the van. The seats were simply more comfortable there.)

Among the fascinating bits of info he gave us:
  • German cemetery tradition emphasizes the collective rather than the individual. Both cemeteries include mass graves, but rather than regretting this, the Germans emphasize how lives were lost for a collective good.
  • The plants in the Canadian memorial have symbolic significance: the evergreens are clipped in the shape of artillery shells, and the ground cover is meant to replicate the creeping advance of chlorine gas along the earth.
  • An enormous 40-foot-deep hole in the earth -- once a favorite place to photograph newlywed
    giant detonation hole in the ground
    couples -- is actually the site of one of seven gigantic underground Allied explosion that vaporized the enemy troops in the trenches above. There is still a site where one of these explosions was planned. The ordinance lies beneath a farmer's field, but it is too dangerous to try to remove it.
  • Every day local farmers still dig up rusted shells and bones. They place the artillery pieces beside telephone poles along the road and call the office in charge of pickup. We saw a chlorine gas canister leaning against a pole as we drove along. This would be picked up within 24 hours, according to Lucas, as it was very dangerous. The last casualty resulting from one of these finds was the previous March, when a curious construction worker unscrewed the fuse cap from a mortar.
I've placed more photos of our stops with explanations at the end of this post if you're interested.

As we moved from place to place on the tour, the skies grew darker, the air colder, the wind harsher, and it began to rain. Some of the group had dressed for this possibility, but I'd trusted in and was wearing a jean jacket. Eventually the temperature got down to about 40, and my shoes soaked through completely. Though we were absolutely freezing and wet as could be, the conditions added to our understanding of the misery the soldiers experienced during their years -- years! -- in the muddy, cold Salient.

After the tour, we had hot chocolate in an attempt to stop the shivering. As we sipped our cocoa ("I don't think they make this with water and a mix!" said one student) and watched CNN, we could see on the faces of the group the realization that the world we live in is still as frighteningly unstable and violent as it had been a hundred years earlier. But the students also confirmed what we'd hoped: they'd had a rich, illuminating experience seeing war sites in Flanders after reading so much about the conflict, and were delighted at their two-day immersion in Flemish culture (and also delighted by their comfy hotel rooms).

Phil and I bought beer and chocolate and sent dozens of emails to administrators and parents explaining that all was well. At about 4:30 we set off for the train station.

Students' phones started to ring around that time. Everyone had checked in earlier with family, but parents were calling in concern. Fordham administrators began phoning and emailing. We tried to reassure everyone -- we were all fine! We were taking the students to the train! -- but the calls continued. By the time we changed trains at Kortrijk, the university president was expressing his desire that Phil and I accompany the students back to London.

At that point, it was clear that this was something we had to do. In Lille, I exchanged our Eurostar tickets for tickets leaving on the students' train. I cancelled our hotel and rental car, sent emails to our friends. I won't say we weren't annoyed. I won't say that words like "overprotective" didn't pass between the two of us. But we didn't have all the information, it turned out.

At about 4:30 or 5, the news channels had begun to report that three people had been caught at the Belgian border in a car used in the Paris attacks. A traffic ticket in the car linked them to other Belgians. Arrests were made in a Brussels suburb. And the Eurostar train the students were to take originated in Brussels. I suppose we weren't told this because those in charge thought we might panic, or that the students might. But they wouldn't have. All the students -- Gabrielle, Mary Kate, Kamrun, Kelsey, Jungsuh, Kristen, Austin, Dominique, and Siena -- were exemplary, mature and calm in the face of what must have been for them a new and terrifying reality.

In the words of one of our Belgian friends, "There is no doubt: Paris November 13 is our 9/ll. Nothing will be the same anymore."

In the Ypres Salient:

munitions found by local farmers

a fifteen-year-old's grave

the Brooding Soldier Memorial, commemorating
Canadian soldiers who were killed by poison gas

Tyne Cot British Cemetery, the largest World War I cemetery
a German bunker

an actual British trench uncovered in the Salient -- part of
what was the front line in 1915

in the German cemetery
"the crosses, row on row"