Monthly Archives: April 2010

May Day

Belgian boy presents May Day flowers to American tourist -- Bois de Boulogne, Paris

If you have a look at your calendar, you’ll notice that May 1st is labeled “May Day”.  Then, if you live in the United States, you’ll probably say, “Yeah?  So?”  It’s a holiday that hasn’t gained traction in most of America, but it’s a big deal in many European countries.  What is peculiar about May Day is that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what the holiday celebrates.

Everyone knows that Mother’s Day is about mothers, and Christmas has something to do with a baby and a jolly fat guy who brings gifts… but what’s the significance of May Day?  That seems to vary from one country to the next, and even within the same country there are differing views.  Basically, it is a celebration of spring and, especially in northern climes, a big “hooray” for the return of sunshine.

This is observed in the United Kingdom with maypoles and Morris dancing, a folk dance which might be described as rhythmic trotting while brandishing sticks and handkerchiefs.  Think Monty Python.  In Scotland, the onset of warmer weather is embraced at dawn of May Day by running into the North Sea, often naked.  Also sounds like Monty Python, doesn’t it?

Incidentally, maypole dancing is not just a British custom; it is a May Day tradition in Germany, Sweden, Austria, Finland, and other countries as well.  Regardless of nationality, though, twirling around a pole decorated with flower garlands and streamers is more charming when performed by children than by middle-aged drunks.

The French associate May Day with the lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime.  A woman is given a floral sprig (see photo); it is traditional for the recipient to give a kiss in return.  The origins of May Day go back to pagan festivals, but more recently May 1st has also become known in some countries as International Workers’ Day.  It nominally commemorates the battle for the 8-hour workday and other achievements of the labor movement, but is frequently marked by political marches and demonstrations, which occasionally turn violent.  May Day, one might conclude, seems to be an opportunity to celebrate spring by getting kisses and cracking skulls.

It should be noted that there is no connection between May Day and “Mayday!”, which is the international distress signal.  That mayday is used by ship captains and aircraft pilots in life-threatening emergencies; it has nothing to do with spring festivals.  The term originated in England in 1923 and is derived from the French phrase (venez) m’aider, meaning “(come) help me”.  For TV trivia buffs, “Mayday” was also the nickname of Sam Malone, the main character on Cheers.

I hope that clears up any May Day questions you might have.  If you want instructions about how to prance around a maypole, you’re asking the wrong person.

No, Gracias

Waiting to Pounce

If you’ve done any traveling, you’ll probably agree with this premise:  persistent street vendors do not enhance the experience.  I’m all for free enterprise, but while taking in a splendid view, I find it distracting to have someone trying to sell me something or steal my wallet.  The ruins of Ephesus or the Leaning Tower of Pisa would be even more awe-inspiring without the relentless chorus of “You want to buy — ?”

The colonial city of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, was once a hub of slave trade and gold shipments.  It has some sights worth seeing — but to do so requires patience and determination.  Here are a few observations from my journal of April 5, 2000…

Our first visit to the South American continent did not begin well:  we were greeted by a couple of dozen taxi drivers and tourist guides, loudly vying with each other to convey us around town.  It was rather intimidating, but we finally agreed on a price with one of the drivers.

It was about a ten-minute drive from the ship dock to the Old Town section of Cartagena.  Our driver dropped us off at a place other than our stated destination, so we had to try to get our bearings.  This effort was made considerably more difficult by the swarms of street vendors and would-be tour guides.  Everywhere we went in Cartagena, we were hounded by very aggressive street merchants — we must have said “no, gracias” several hundred times in the few hours we were in the city.

We found our way to the Plaza de Bolívar, which had been our original destination.  On the Plaza is the Palace of the Inquisition, a crumbling relic of colonial times.  It was interesting to see the torture chambers, which were used to elicit confessions from suspected heretics and witches.

We returned to the contemporary torture of the streets of Cartagena, again running the gauntlet of T-shirt salesmen and trinket vendors and pickpockets.  We sought refuge in La Catedral, which gave us a place to sit quietly and study our map for a moment.  Built in 1575, the cathedral is still a working church, and a number of worshippers were kneeling and praying around us.

Sally and I wandered the narrow streets — rather, we walked purposefully, so as to discourage the pests of Cartagena.  Our destination was the Church of San Pedro Claver, named in honor of a Jesuit priest who served the many slaves who were brought through Cartagena in the 1800s.  There was an emerald shop next to the church — we were offered some “bargains” for what were, even to the untrained eye, not high-quality stones.  Once again, we said, “no, gracias”.

We took another loop through the streets, headed for the wall which once guarded the old city.  In the old days it served to keep the pirates out; now it seems to keep the thieves in…

Pub Grub

Travelers have always seemed to come home from France or Italy raving about the wonderful meals they had there.  People returning from England, though, rarely mentioned the food.  If they did, it was lumped in with other trip misfortunes, like lost luggage or a nosebleed.  British food may have gotten its bad reputation back when restaurants there had relatively few choices on their menus.  Those tended to be organ meats, and the method of preparation was either boiled or burned.

In the last decade or so, however, the quality has improved greatly; I’ve had excellent meals in London at places like J. Sheekey and Le Caprice.  I also have to confess that I’ve enjoyed the food in places with names like Bag O’ Nails, Lamb and Flag, Museum Tavern, and The Prospect of Whitby.  It may not be fashionable to admit, but… I like pub grub.

A few pubs offer little more than peanuts and pickled eggs; others serve burgers, lasagna, and so help me, even Thai cuisine.  I like those things too, but they aren’t really what I think of as classic pub food.  Among my favorites in that category are:

•  Ploughman’s Lunch   This is served with various components, but is always a cold meal.  It usually consists of cheese and bread, complemented with a salad or half an apple or occasionally a hard-boiled egg.  The cheese is the attraction for me.  As you probably know, the Brits make some good ones.

•  Jacket Potato  In the U.S., this is known as a baked potato, but the pub version is frequently served with jazzier toppings, such as peppercorn sauce, bacon bits and/or cheese.  Jacket potatoes can also be “twice-baked”; that is, the baked innards are scooped out, mixed with other good stuff and put back into the oven — basically it’s seasoned mashed potatoes in a crispy potato skin.

•  Shepherd’s Pie  This dish has mashed potatoes as the “pie crust” that encases ground meat, vegetables, and gravy.  Shepherd’s pie is often made with lamb mince; when ground beef is used, it is sometimes called Cottage Pie.  Either way, it’s delicious.

•  Fish and Chips  are a mainstay on pub menus; you probably don’t need a description, do you?  A couple of items that may need some explanation are…

•  Bangers and Mash  This is a dish made of sausage (“bangers”) and mashed potatoes, often accompanied by fried onions.  It’s a little too greasy for my taste, but some patrons find that a generous application of ale helps it go down more easily.

•  Bubble and Squeak  is something like hash browns; it’s made from leftover vegetables, primarily potatoes and cabbage, which are fried.  The name supposedly derives from the sound it makes while cooking, and it may also apply to the sound it makes when it reaches your stomach.  For some reason the Brits tend to think of Bubble and Squeak as a breakfast food, but it shows up on pub menus, too.

Pub food isn’t elegant (or healthy), but it tastes pretty darn good.  The bonhomie or fellowship or whatever you want to call it is nice, too — eating in a pub is sort of like a church social, only with lots of beer.

I Feel the Earth Move

A 6.7 quake did this to our kitchen.

There are no certainties in life, unless you live in California.  Then you can be certain that another earthquake will be along shortly.  As a native Californian, I have experienced scores — probably hundreds — of earthquakes.  Most are relatively mild, only eliciting a wide-eyed response from those who have moved to the state within the last couple of weeks.  Old-timers don’t feel them.

There are some quakes, though, that rattle windows and rearrange furniture — when they occur, even veterans look at each other uneasily.  Beyond those are the big ones that topple buildings and kill people.  The intensity of each quake is quantified on something called the Richter Scale.  It is another of life’s certainties that within minutes of an “event”, news outlets will check with the earthquake experts at California Institute of Technology so they can breathlessly report the quake’s magnitude:  “It was a 5.3 on the Richter Scale,” the anchorman will say as if he knows what that means.

Most anchorpersons, I’m fairly sure, don’t have a clue that the Richter Scale is a base-10 logarithmic scale derived from the horizontal amplitude of the largest displacement from zero on a torsion seismometer.  In fairness, I didn’t have a clue either, and even after looking it up, I still don’t know what it means.  Well, I do know this much:  on the Richter Scale, the magnitude is ten times greater for each whole number.  In other words, a 6.0 is ten times stronger than a 5.0.  I also know that the scale is named for a guy named Richter.

Charles Richter was a Cal Tech scientist who developed the scale in partnership with Beno Gutenberg in 1935.  The name Gutenberg was already claimed by the inventor of movable type, which may be why Beno gets no credit for the earthquake scale.  It probably also has to do with Charles Richter showing up at the press conferences, while Beno Gutenberg was notoriously shy.

Even if you are not math-challenged (as I admit I am), the Richter scale numbers are difficult to comprehend.  Two recent earthquakes illustrate  the point.  The January quake that devastated Haiti was measured as a 7.0; the one in Chile a month or so later was an 8.8 — almost twenty times stronger.  I don’t know about you, but I have trouble wrapping my mind around such a vast difference, and what that must have felt like on the ground.

Even though the math is much simpler, it is also hard to grasp the magnitude of earthquakes when measured in lives lost.  There were 230,000 deaths in Haiti this year; about that same number died in the 2004 Indonesian earthquake.  Throughout history there have been thirteen quakes that have each killed more than 100,000 people, including a mind-boggling 830,000 in the Shaanxi, China, earthquake of 1556. 

Viewed in that grim context, there are much worse places to be than California when an earthquake hits.

Grinning From Shell to Shell

They may burst into song at any moment.

The other day someone said about a mutual acquaintance of ours, “He’s as happy as a clam.”  It was surprising to hear that figure of speech brought out of retirement.  Happy as a clam was a cliché decades ago, but in recent years had been supplanted by other similes on that theme, including one about pigs and their environment.

It did get me wondering what it is about their existence that brings clams happiness, and how anyone can tell when mollusks are bubbling over with joy, or when they get depressed and think life is nothing but chowder.  Were scientific studies ever done to measure the contentment level of bivalves?  Are cherrystone clams innately jollier than, say, the Pacific geoduck or any of the other 12,000 species?  I’m not one to take a clam’s happiness at face value, partly because it has no face.

Most similes sort of make sense.  Strong as an ox?  Sure, I get that.  Sleeping like a baby?  Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, since infants tend to wake up crying every couple of hours — but when they’re asleep they certainly do look peaceful.  Sick as a dog?  No explanation necessary.  Fit as a fiddle?  Hmm.  OK, fiddles have slim waists; maybe that’s the wisp of logic that supports that figure of speech.  Drunk as a skunk doesn’t make literal sense, but at least it rhymes.

I’m fairly certain that no research has been done that compares a raw January day to a welldigger’s rear end, or to a specific portion of a witch’s anatomy.  I once met a woman who claimed to be a witch — insisted she was, really.  It would not have been appropriate for me to ask about the temperature of her bosom, so I can only supply scant anecdotal evidence.  A furtive glance at the front of her shirt did not reveal any obvious signs of frost.  I made my escape from her company as soon as possible, so I have nothing more to add to that line of scientific inquiry.

I was, however, able to track down an answer about clams.  According to the Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris, the saying is puzzling to us because it has been abbreviated.  “The reason for the aphorism becomes clear,” the authors state, “when we give it in full:  ‘Happy as a clam at high tide.’  Clams, you see, can be dug only at low tide, when the mud flats in which they grow are exposed.”

Ah, so that’s it:  The secret of happiness is being hidden in mud.   I don’t know… It may work for clams, but for humans, that’s not true happiness — it’s merely a spa treatment.

Personally, I think we need to put the clam simile back into retirement and come up with something that’s a little more plausible.  How about “happy as a dolphin”?  At least they seem to be smiling all the time.

Day Jobs of the Famous

Would you buy a Swedish car from this man?

As a get-rich-quick scheme, being an artist is a lousy idea.  In fact, occupations like sculptor and writer and composer are often just euphemisms for “unemployed”.  Oh, there are certainly exceptions — guys like Handel and Michelangelo and Brahms and Velázquez seem to have always had steady income from their principal profession — but most didn’t.  Some people who are now highly esteemed often struggled to make ends meet; they had to take day jobs in order to pay the bills.  Here are a few examples…

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wasn’t widely recognized as a musical genius until the 19th century.  He had two wives (not at the same time) who bore him a total of twenty children, which is a lot of mouths to feed.  Bach spent over 25 years as an employee of the town council of Leipzig; his main responsibilities were teaching music to young people, and providing musical compositions for the town’s two biggest churches.

Relatively little is known about the personal life of 17th-century painter Jan Vermeer, but he seems to have made his living as an art dealer, doing his own painting on nights and weekends.  Novelist Kurt Vonnegut had a job in public relations for General Electric for a while, and at another time, was the manager of the first Saab dealership in the U.S.  The dealership (on Cape Cod) went bankrupt in the early’60s; Vonnegut proved to be better at writing than at running a business.

Two French composers held the same job at different times.  Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) and Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) both served as organist at Le Madeleine, a prominent church in Paris.  That’s an advantage composers have:  they know how to play one or more musical instruments, so between movements of the symphony they’re writing, they can get a gig somewhere — in a church, or a piano bar near the airport.  Some composers didn’t even have that as a revenue source, though.  Pyotr Tchaikovsky worked as a civil servant in the Russian Ministry of Justice for three years, and American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954)  had a long career as a life-insurance executive.

French post-impressionist painter Henri Rosseau (1844-1910) was a toll collector for many years; when he retired from that government job, he supplemented his pension by playing his violin on street corners.  Before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, William Faulkner had failed at a number of menial jobs, including a stint in 1930 on the late shift at a power plant.  Poet W.H. Auden taught English at University of Michigan and Swarthmore College, which I suppose was preferable to the other money-making option for a poet — writing greeting cards.

One of the oddest day-job stories is that of William Sydney Porter, who was supporting his family as a bank teller.  Porter was either terrible with numbers or too good with them; in 1898 he was convicted of embezzlement and sent to the Ohio Penitentiary.  During the three years he was incarcerated, Porter had fourteen short stories published, all under the pseudonym O. Henry — which was probably more commercially acceptable than his other pseudonym, which was Federal Prisoner #30664.

I never really considered “prisoner” as a day job, but it might not have been too much worse than some of the ones I did have.  What about you?  What’s the worst job — day or otherwise — that you ever had?