From Shofars to Car Horns.

The Ericle & Son Of Ericle returned from Israel early on Tuesday, just in time to celebrate the start of the Jewish New Year on Wednesday evening. It was an odyssey that took us from Jerusalem (4 nights) to Masada (1) on to Safed (3), via Nazareth, and then on to Akko (1), ‘Acre’ in old money. Our fortnight ended in ‘Modern Israel’ via Caesarea (2) & Tel Aviv (4). It was a journey where one of our party was looking at Israel with a disposition to approve and the other was more disposed to criticism or being ‘objective’ as he would put it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 17.00.49

Ever since I was old enough to engage in ‘more educated’ conversations on the subject, I have found Israel to be both a welcome and unwelcome obligation.

Modern-day Israel, as legitimised by the UN mandate, came into being some 15 months before I was born. So, we kind of grew up together. As a child, I collected pennies to plant trees there. By the time of my bar mitzvah in 1963, Israel had already fought 2 major wars in pursuit of its right to exist. The Arab in invasions of 1966 (The Six Day War) & 1973 (The Yom Kippur War) straddled my time at Sussex University. Indeed my major, International Relations, meant that I had an academic, as well as an emotional, investment in the subject of Israel.

1

As a result of being a Jew in the UK, I have very often found myself having not only to defend the actions of Israel but also its very right to exist as a state. This is not the place to set out the myriad of dimensions to such multi-layered debates. This notwithstanding I would care to believe that, whereas I have agreed with most of what Israel has done in its national interest, I have also expressed critical opinions on such matters as the protracted 1993 incursion into Lebanon and the settlements policies. In such debates, though, I am always dismayed by the lack of sympathetic understanding for the policies of a country whose right to exist is contested by many of its neighbours & near neighbours. Moreover, I am continually astounded by the standards many expect of Israel, which are way beyond the practices of other countries and, in many cases, their own.

The Ericle’s one and only other visit to Israel occurred exactly 40 years ago. I was intrigued to find out how much the passage of time had changed Israel and whether this would affect my opinions in any way. I had heard that Israel was a much-changed country and this was clear from the get-go. In 1977 Israel exercised security practices that were not only unique but a quantum difference to those deployed elsewhere. On this occasion, the security check-in at the airport was no different from any other flight and once in the country, besides a couple of ‘pinch points’ such as The Damsacus Gate in Jerusalem and when we travelled through to Masada via the corridor that borders The West Bank, that I really did not notice an unusually high level of security. That is because, in broad terms, today security has become an international commodity. Israel has become normalised; in some ways because the rest of the world has had to share its values & concerns, in others because the country itself has grown & prospered and become more mainstream as a result. So what appeared as an under-populated country 40 years ago today has a density of population with a social infrastructure to match. All of this is not to say that a great deal of the country, especially the bit that is away from the Mediterranean coast, does not have singular features. Israel’s unique location at the crossroads of modern and ancient civilisations entails that it offers an unrivalled intensity of experience; especially when one considers that the country is scarcely the size of Wales. But you can get all this from any travel book of the area, with whom I have no intention to compete or compliment. However, I do want to offer a few words on what travelling to Israel means to a diaspora Jew, such as myself.

A sort of stasis exists for places in the world with ‘heritage’ and Israel’s Holy Places are no different. One travels to such places with a sort of pre-nostalgia, knowing what to expect and seeking the same out. There is change, of course. The Jewish part of Jerusalem’s Old City, which had been almost totally destroyed under Jordan’s stewardship has been majorly rebuilt since 1966. The Wailing Wall now offers an air-conditioned part where the devout can pray in more comfort. The basilica of Nazareth’s Church Of The Annunciation is modern, while Akko’s underground city is under on-going archaeological development.

As a Jewish tourist to the Jewish national homeland, I realise that one’s disposition to find affirming meaning in the experience is a self-actualising process. And yet, nonetheless, the Israel experience still gave me a true sense of ‘belonging’. On our first day in Jerusalem, on a pre-ordained track, I bought a ‘kippah’, (a.k.a. ‘ a yamulka’), a Jewish skull cap. On a whim, I put it on my head there and then and there it remained for most of my waking hours until we reached Akko. When this behaviour was, quite reasonably, challenged by my son, I was unable to come up with an immediate answer. But then it dawned on me. In London, wearing a kippur is a non-mainstream occupation; something that marks one out as being in the minority. In most of Israel this proposition is turned on its head (sic!). It’s not that I want to go about the place declaring my religion or ethnicity but doing so in a Jewish state enhanced that afore-mentioned state of comfortable belonging that I genuinely felt and really enjoyed. Not surprisingly in Akko, a predominantly Arab city, wearing my kippur seemed strange and I put it in my pocket and also in Tel Aviv, where wearing such head-garb is surprisingly low on the ground.

My kippur-wearing behaviour would seem to be a good example of the Social Cognitive Theory of learning, which equates individual behaviour to the observation of others within the context of social interactions, experiences, and outside media influences. In our visit to Israel 2 extremes of behaviour intrigued me greatly – that of the Chasidic communities in Jerusalem & Safed and, at the other extreme, the secular behaviour of Jews in Caesarea & Tel Aviv.

In London, the Chasidic community is largely centred in 2 areas – Golders Green & Stamford Hill. In Golders Green they are part of a larger Jewish community, in Stamford Hill they are THE Jewish community. However, in both cases, I believe it fair to say that to the outside observer, Jew & non-Jew, the Chasidic community seems a self-centred one, which keeps itself to itself. As a consequence, I cannot recall any meaningful interaction with a Chasidic Jew that was anything more than cursory. As a result, even though I have some knowledge of Chasidic beliefs & practices, I would describe the attitude of the London Chasidic community as one of ‘don’t bother us/we don’t want to bother you’. It was a revelation to see Chasidic people in Jerusalem doing the same kinds of things as most other people: zooming down the roads on electric scooters & bikes, eating out at restaurants and, yes, even busking Beatles songs. This was further amplified in Safed which, to all intensive purposes, is a Chasidic town. We arrived in Safed just before the inauguration of The Sabbath and I was amazed to witness the blowing of shofars all over town. The prevalence of Shofar-blowing all over Israel – even in Tel Aviv for all sorts of reasons – is perhaps the image of Israel that remains with me the most.

static1.squarespace

At the other end of the spectrum is the behaviour of Jews in the more modern centre of Israel of Caesarea & Tel Aviv where, if it were not for Hebrew writing, one could be hard-pressed to know that one was in a Jewish city. (A bit of an overstatement but I trust you get my drift.) Here, as mentioned,  kippur-wearing is a minority occupation, pork is on some menus and The Sabbath finds most people on the streets doing things & enjoying themselves; (as opposed to Safed, which turned into a ghost town). One element of behaviour in Israel became another unique symbol for me of that country – the impatient blowing of car-horns when another driver does not react immediately to a light change or does anything at all that irritates. Initially, I put this down to an unkind thought that this behaviour says something inherent with regards to the Jewish personality. That is as may be but I have come to realise that this view really does miss the point. The sounding off of car horns is not different to the blowing of shofars. Israelis do it because they can!

image

This above example of social cognitive behaviour really has brought home why Israel reaches out to me, and most other Diaspora Jews. It is a place where Jews can be themselves. I am not saying that every Jew wants to go about the place blasting shofars or car horns. Nor that being a Jew outside Israel is particularly problematic in most places. In London I do not feel inclined in London to wear a kippur on a daily basis, (it’s not that important to me that I want single myself out), whereas in Israel it felt good to be doing so.  And for me being in Israel as a Jew felt pretty, pretty, pretty (Xref: Larry David) darn good.

Shana Tova, Chag Sameach!

12335fa11de2f7a5b1cb00fcf7b68ce3--passover-greetings-passover-feast

High Time for a Haiku?

It’s strange how the mind works at times.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 07.46.32

The Ericle & The Prodigal One are currently sitting in seats 13B & 13C of an Airbus A320 en route for Israel.  Yes, they are exit row seats with added legroom which in easyJet terms must be all of 3 inches; however in this case size really does matter and those 3 inches are the difference between bruised knees & relative discomfort. Leaving home at an inordinately early hour for our 7.15 flight to Israel, we are now 2 hours into the flight. I’ve listened to some sounds, tried to sleep, read a paper, played gin rummy on my pad and eaten my breakfast biscuits. Amidst all this excitement, The Well Travelled One mentioned that this was the longest flight he had been on since his trip, last year to Japan. With this thought ringing in my mind (should that not be ‘ears’? – Ed), I find myself writing a blog piece – yes, another short term distraction – and thinking not about the symbolic journey I am undertaking to The Holy One with my Eldest One but of my own travel to Nippon. And then I remembered the fact that I had, for some not-so-strange reasons taken to writing haikus while travelling round Japan. And for the life of me, I can see no reason why they should remain my guilty secret, so here are quartet of them

 

3-IMG_3478

Seventeen syllables

Three lines of five, seven, five

Comprise a haiku

J5NAO02b

The girl with no mask

Knows I’ve taken a photograph

Of the mask she wears

Geese_1050x700

In Japan the birds

Fly in a tight formation

It is expected

J5NAO34

Unscheduled pit-stop

“Pain will go?” “Arigato

Japanese Dentist”

——————-

Israel, Schmisrael, can wait. It’s Haiku Time in the Skies!

Thoughts at 32,000 feet.

I am writing this on board a British Airways Boeing 777, en route from London to Boston. It’s a pretty old plane – not very impressive – with bits of it that don’t work; in my case the at-seat entertainment centre.

750x500-boeing-777-300-2

The hop across the puddle is not unfamiliar territory for me, having made the journey at least 2 times a year, between 1974 and 1979, when I was in the employ of The American Leadership Study Groups (ALSG). ALSG, a leading US educational travel company, were based in Worcester, Massachusetts. I will be returning there at the end of our trip to celebrate Independence Day at the home of Richard, erstwhile fellow alumni of Sussex University & colleague at ALSG, and Karen. (There will be, no doubt, more about ALSG in a later post.)

International

Working for ALSG was not my first long-term experience of life in the USA. In the late Sixties, I spent a year between school & university in Ohio courtesy of an American Field Service (AFS) Scholarship. The year involved living with an American host family and attending the local high school in Cuyahoga Falls, a white middle-class bedroom town on the outskirts of Akron ‘The Rubber Capital Of The World’. I enjoyed the high school, immensely. Also the travel afforded by the AFS but to say that I didn’t get on with my host family would be an understatement. (The subject of another possible blog article in the future?) When I got back to the UK in August 1968, I really did not expect to be spending a huge chunk of future time there again. At that time, I really did think that the Atlantic Ocean was not only a great maritime divide but also that the cultural gap between the USA & Europe was so wide as to be unbridgeable in my lifetime.

c95d6090d4364f4fbc55c93c3fa203dc_6

However in 1974, with the UK in the economic doldrums, I headed west again when offered the opportunity for a more senior position and a quintupling of my income. The 6 years between my first trip to the USA, and my next, had wrought changes that I really hadn’t accounted for. In 1968, I believed that Europe was relatively impermeable to the American lifestyle but I had not really factored in the speed with which the global village would develop. In 1968, one still had to book a telephone call via the operator to speak across The Atlantic and positional orbital satellites were not yet in situ as to enable 24 hour real-time broadcast connections. And when SkyTrain ushered in the era of low-cost long distance mass travel the effect was exponential. The Seventies were indeed a watershed decade.

LakerTick

Since 1979, my almost every-other-year dose of Stateside has been to the West Coast, where I have close family, and which is very conveniently half distance to New Zealand; which after 1987 became another geographical reference point in my life. I espoused the opportunity to live permanently in the USA in 1979, despite being a holder of the proverbial Green Card and similarly returned to the UK in 1995, after another decision not to abandon life in the UK. In 1968, when I came back to the UK from Ohio, there was such a clear difference between ‘over there’ & ‘over here’ that the American way of life did really seem alien to me. By 1979, this was no longer the case and today, though obvious distinctions can still be made, the similarities seem to me to be as consequential as the differences. Of all the Englishmen, and there were almost a dozen during the Seventies, most decided to stay on at least for a while and most remained in the travel industry. I decided otherwise without regrets, but – especially on a trip like this – one does wonder about the ‘what-ifs?’.

NE Trip

Our 2016 New England Trip

June 20 – 22: Boston; June 23 – 25: Provincetown;

June 26- 28: Portsmouth NH; 29 June – July 1: Camden ME

July 2: White Mountains; July 3 – 5: Worcester MA

 

 

 

It’s Complicated!

Dennys

Ever since I first went there in 1968 it’s been a ‘tradition’, (cue: Tevye + violinist), whenever I visit my cousins in Los Angeles to go and have a breakfast at Denny’s.

This time was no exception. And, as per usual, it was as much a quintessential Californian experience as it was a meal. After the usual meeting, greeting and table-ushering ceremonies were completed, we settle into our booth to study the menu and to order exactly what we knew we would order in the first place:

Hi, I’m Vince and I’ll be serving you today. Are you ready to place your order?

 Yes, I’ll have the Lumberjack Slam please.

 Which juice will you have? We have orange, apple or mixed berry.

 Mixed berry, please.

 Will that be with pancakes or French toast?

 French toast, please.

 And how would you like your eggs?

 Fried, please

Over-easy or sunny-side up?

 Sunny-side up, please.

Soft, medium or hard?

Medium, please. 

Bacon and sausages?

 Yes, please.

 How do you like your bacon?

 Pardon?

 Crispy?

 Yes, that would be nice.

 Which syrup would you like, berry or maple?

 Maple please.

 And toast?

 Yes, please.

 Brown, white, rye or wheat?

 Brown wheat, please?

 Any butter or spread?

 Butter, please.

 Any jam, marmalade or honey?

 Some marmalade would be nice.

 Coffee?

 Yes please.

 With milk or cream.

 Milk, please.

 Sugar or Sweetener.

 Neither.

 That’s a Lumberjack Slam with French toast and maple syrup; eggs sunny side-up with crispy bacon and sausages; brown rye toast with butter and marmalade. And a mixed berry juice. I’ll be right back with your coffee.

 Wonderful, thanks. (Exhausted).

Lumberjack 

I’ve never dared to have a lunch at Denny’s ……..

 

And in today’s Times …..

 

ix43b

The song ‘Overs’, from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters LP, contains the following lyrics

No good times, no bad times
There’s no times at all
Just the New York Times

Well, from where I am sitting now, make that The Bay of Plenty Times.

The Bay of Plenty Times, which is delivered daily to my ‘rellies’ at a cost of NZ$9 a week, is really quite a good local paper – as local papers go. One should not have too much expectation of national, let alone global, news from any local paper and The Bay of Plenty Times does not disappointment in that department. There are 2 pages of national/international news – one titled Nation and the other World, which does provide small-scale coverage of the major international news stories of the day; two of today’s featuring the contrasting fates of 2 foreign correspondents – one having been released and the other being, tragically, executed.

What one does get from such august organs are tasters of what interests the local community. Today’s headline “What a scorcher’, (yes, really), highlights the fact that the past month has been “just 6 minutes shy” of being the sunniest month for 80 years in Tauranga – which, certainly, was good news for us. Other news stories are:

  • a new $NZ4.5m local cycleway is being built
  • a report on the first day back at school after the summer break
  • safety concerns regarding a local highway
  • cleaning up toxic mould on local municipal buildings

More folksy stories include:

  • a local resident’s search to find his mother’s childhood home
  • the headline speakers who will feature at the annual meeting of The Photographic Society of New Zealand
  • an empty ‘white elephant’ building’s likely future use (as a sports centre)
  • a story about Hunter Furniture’s commitment to Tauranga. (Advertorial surely? – Ed)

Interestingly, though there are 2 pages of national/international news, 4 of the paper’s 32 pages are devoted to financial news and another 4 to sports news; including stories on the Premier League, The Superbowl and The Australian Tennis Finals.  Draw your own conclusions.

There is – not unexpectedly – a goodly, (but not OTT), amount of local retail and small space advertising.

And, oh yes, there is a page called Local Opinion. Yesterday’s piece, written by Tommy Wilson, “a best-selling local author and writer”, was entitled ‘iTune out of it for a healthier brain’, (gettit?). The article trawled through some of the well-trodden gripes about how smart phones are a modern obsession that is ruining all the virtues of polite society. Today’s column features a missive in response from a correspondent that you might recognize.

photo 2

As Plato said: “Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.”

See Tauranga And Die

Tauranga_map

It seems only right that, having become becalmed on the Bay Of Plenty, the Ericle should report back on Tauranga its principle ‘metropolis’.  Over the years I have visited Tauranga quite a number of times, being that Mrs Ericle’s parents reside here and this is where she spent her formative teenage years. So Tauranga has always been a strong point of reference for me, nonetheleast at times when I am ‘reminded’ by Mrs E. as to what she has given up in order to spend married life with the likes of me.

The name ‘Tauranga’ derives from the Māori ‘Place Of Safe Anchorage’ – the name they gave to it when in the 13th century, as the first known human visitors to Aotearoa (The Land Of the Big White Cloud), they chose it as their landing place of choice. The Tourist Board’s brief and to-the-point description of modern Tauranga identifies the city as:

“… the largest city in the Bay of Plenty and one of the fastest growing population centres in New Zealand. It is about 15 minutes drive from one of New Zealand’s most popular beach towns Mount Maunganui.”

These bland couple of sentences, lacking somewhat in any real descriptive qualities, do however reveal the underpinning of KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERATauranga’s raison d’etre. The city itself is relatively ‘ordinary’ but its situation is spectacular. During New Zealand’s summer holidays (mid-December through January), Mount Maunganui is ‘heaving’ – not that any European would come up with that description. In modern times, the invading hoardes come principally from Auckland – not surprising given its proximity and the fact that 1/3 of all Kiwis live there. Naturally the locals make some hay of the pre-occupations and lifestyle choices of their guests, who have bid-up the property prices along Marine Parade and its immediate surrounding. Today any modern property, with a decent view, will fetch north of £1,000,000 with the gin-palace editions selling for considerably more. ‘Nostalgists’ will pour scorn on these relatively modern edifices – which really, for the most part, are mostly single or double storeys and by no means ‘eye-sores’ –  and bemoan the times (until circa 1980) when ‘batches’ formed the principle housing-type to be found at The Mount. What they tend not to mention was that at those times The Mount was also a pretty seedy place, being that as a place of ‘safe anchorage’ Mount Maunganui is a major deep-water port of significant national economic importance. Today this means not just industry but cruise-ships. This year 85 of these humungous floating hotels are scheduled to stop at Mount Maunganui, mainly for day-trips to Rotorua & Lake Taupo but still leaving just a little time for them shop locally too. The building & completion of The Harbour Bridge marks both the cause and effect for the transformation of Mount Maunganui. When I first visited Tauranga in 1986, it took the best part of an hour to drive to Mount Maunganui. The $1 toll (up to $4 for larger vehicles) to cross the bridge, which was opened in 1988, was lifted in July 2001 when it was deemed that the bridge building costs had been recovered!

The significance of Mount Maunganui, within the wider New Zealand context, is much more than as a beach paradise. Known to Gate PaMāoris as ‘Mauao’ (“Caught By The Light of The Sea”), the extinct volcanic outcrop itself – known locally as The Mount – holds huge importance to Māoridom. The site is sacred to the local and national tribes. It is a very special place and walking round its base and/or trekking to the summit is one of the great Kiwi experiences. In many ways it is a symbol of the place of Māoridom within New Zealand; suitably so as Māoris comprise about 15% of the population locally – almost exactly the same proportion as is the national average. The significance of Tauranga to both Māori & Pākehā (the White European settlers) is underscored by the 6 month Tauranga Campaign, which culminated in the Battle of Gate Pā on 29 April 1864, which effectively marked the final colonisation of New Zealand by the settlers. The scale of that battle reflects that of the country itself, as the day was won by a force of just 500; of whom 31 were killed and 80 wounded in achieving their victory.

However there is one other dimension to Tauranga that singles it out as unique. Known widely as ‘God’s Waiting Room’, it is the retirement community of choice for older Kiwis. The most recent New Zealand census, that of 2006, indicates that 18% of Tauranga’s population is over 65. That compares to the national average of 12%. i.e. 50% above the national average. I would be very surprised if the 2016 census doesn’t show an increase in that proportion. The social impact of this is very apparent at pavement level and in the lifestyles of the locals; especially after the Aucklanders have returned to base after their summer break.

For even more prosaic information on Tauranga click here and for the top 12 tourist attractions here.

For my part, though I have been known to unkindly refer to Tauranga as New Zealand’s ‘Eastbourne’, I would encourage any visitor to the North Island to visit Tauranga. (For some reason, Tauranga is often missed out as tourists head for Rotorua, to smell sulphur and watch a water-spout, and Taupo, which is undoubtedly beautifully situated but lacking in much else to offer beyond clichéd attractions.)  If you do so simply to pay a subscription to the maxim that ‘Life is a beach’ you won’t be disappointed; but if you dig deeper you’ll find a lot more – in fact, you’ll be going a long way to discovering what makes New Zealand the country that it is.

Around The World in 100 Days

EarthMap

Mrs Ericle & I leave tomorrow on an odyssey that will, hopefully, see us circumnavigating our pebble in exactly 100 days. As a child I was greatly inspired by Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days, which I must have read at least a dozen times, but it will not come as a surprise to you to learn that this particular journey has not come about as an instant response to a wager; rather one that has been a while in the planning. However, I do hope that our trip will still somewhat be in the spirit of Phileas Fogg’s motif that: “The chance, which now seems lost, may present itself at the last moment.”

Unlike the fictional Victorian adventurer, we will be heading off norwegian-com-787-8-ei-lna-02-sonja-henieapr-osl-norwegianlrwin a westerly direction. Our first (scheduled) stop will be Los Angeles. We will also be forsaking the joys of the packet steamer for the far less comfortable pleasures of economy seats on a jet airliner. And in this particular case I am not being economical with the word ‘economy’, as the tariff for a seat on this sector will set us back the amazingly low sum of £198 for a journey of some 5445 miles as the crow flies. For this price one gets no sustenance or entertainment, but I am assured that we will not have to stand.

Our full itinerary is:

Jan 7th – 11th: South California. Visiting The Ericle’s cousins

the-beach-boys

Jan 11th – 13th: Flying across the Pacific to Auckland, touching down briefly at Papete, Tahiti, en route. Amazingly the first 4100 miles of this journey will take 8 hours, whereas the second stretch of 2550 miles will take 1 day and 5 hours. Go figure!

Tahiti

Jan 13th – March 13th: New Zealand. We will be spending much of our time with Mrs. E’s family – her parents in Tauranga and brother’s family in Napier – but will also spend 3 weeks exploring the South Island in a campervan.

images

March 13th – 16th: Sydney. Visiting good friends

sydney_harbour-3_1911055

March 16th – April 17th: India. We land in Delhi, where we will spend 3 days. We then fly to Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, and proceed immediately to Mahabalipuram. We have booked 3 nights at the Sri Harul Guesthouse on the beach but after that have no fixed itinerary excepting that we have a flight on April 14th from Trivandrum, in Kerela, to Mumbai, where we will spend our last couple of days in India.

sri-harul-guesthouse

 

April 17th: Return to Blighty, when we hope to find you – our most valued reader – in good health and spirits. In the meantime stand by further dispatches.

 

 

 

 

 

This Little Piggy Stayed Home.

My Reader will recall that The Ericle spent last weekend in Romania and that pig-killing, on The Webmeister’s insistence, had been set up as the centrepiece of that particular odyssey. On the surface of it, this exercise in animal husbandry seemed to be more of a challenge than anything else – His Webfullness calling into question whether my cosy Western European outlook could Pigaccommodate the realities of the Food Chain. From my end, the visit was purely motivated to see a little of rural life in Romania and if pig-killing was to be on the menu, so be it. In the end, paradoxically, the pig-killing proved to be both an irrelevant and quintessential part of the experience. The irrelevance stems from the act’s ordinariness within the context of Romanian country life. As a result, it was neither a traumatic nor ghoulish experience but simply a consequence of the life situation of my hosts. In fact, I would think that witnessing the hand-dispatching of a seasonal family pig is a significantly less gruesome process than the journey of a pig from farm to slaughterhouse. One moment the pig is in the sty, where it is has been for the whole of its life – a period just short of a year – and within less than a minute it has been led out into a yard it knows well and efficiently dispatched, at the hands of a man whose life’s education had brought him to this point on countless other times from his earliest days.  The preparation and dismembering of the animal was no less accomplished.  Within 2 hours the pig was cleaned and butchered; every morsel of its anatomy cut-up and prepared with an efficiency that only routine can accomplish. The truism is that relevance is contextual and that is what made witnessing a pig-killing in a Romanian farmyard quintessential to my visit. By 21st century standards my hosts have so very little compared to the perceived material wealth of most other EU countries. What dictatorial communism hasn’t taken from their lives, inefficiency and corruption since then have contributed. And yet these people on certain levels have a quality of existence that is enviable. Theirs is not a cash economy by any stretch of the imagination – perhaps 95% of what their survival and material existence is derived from self-sustenance and barter. Their cow has to produce milk, their hens eggs and their maize is needed for polenta and animal feed; the vegetables they eat are home grown and their protein derived from butchering their own animals. In the end, my weekend in Dumitresti  was more time travel than tourism which raised for all sorts of questions as to what we, in Western Europe and beyond, may have lost on the way. I don’t envy the harshness of my hosts’ day-to-day lives but their co-dependence and synchronisation with the seasons have qualities that bear admiration.

A Pig Is For Christmas, Not For Life!

Pigmeat

The Ericle has been having a pig of a December. Yesterday I chauffeured The Prodigal One, who has a ham-scam on the go for Xmas, to Smithfield Market. Tomorrow I’m off to Romania for a long weekend, with a traditional pig-slaughtering at its centre-piece.

The background to this visit has been a long-standing invitation by The Webmeister for me to accompany him to visit his homeland, and to experience this highlight of the Romanian village calendar.  My initial reaction to his suggestion was something along the lines of: “I’d really like to visit Romania, but is a pig-killing absolutely a necessity? If I’d want to visit an abattoir, I can do this here in the UK!”.  But the Web Maestro was unrelenting in his claims that this was something ‘at the heart’ of the Romanian spirit and something well worth experiencing.  Faced with such conviction and persistence, corroborated by some research on the matter*, I relented and plans were put in motion.

On the eve of our trip, I must admit to having misgivings over the enterprise but they are not of the intellectual variety. From a purely Western perspective, I have no illusions as to whence cometh the cellophane-wrapped objects on supermarket meat counters. And after all,  it is the zeitgeist – Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall et al – to get more in touch with the realities of the food-chain. I’m also very wary of city-folk who run the rule over long-standing country-practices, such as fox-hunting and the like. Additionally, though not strictly connected, I am not a nay-sayer when it comes to the two European principal bête-noirs of foie gras and bull-fighting.  All this notwithstanding I hope I don’t let the side down when the deed, which is scheduled for Saturday morning, is done. Will report back next week.

* (For Wiki on the subject see here),

Take Me Out To The Ballpark

During the final fortnight of this October I was up in the early hours of the morning no less than 6 times. I’m not a great sleeper, butredsox my early risings on these occasions were intentional – I wanted to watch the 2013 World Series Of Baseball, and in particular ‘my’ team The Boston Red Sox. It is very ‘now’, in ‘these parts’ to pour scorn these days on most things Yankee Doodle Dandy, but if you are so minded I would ask you to put those thoughts aside for an American product that is truly great. Even though baseball is not a game that one can understand instantly, if you give it a little bit of time it will reward you uniquely.

Most competitive sports have simple objectives; such as you line up alongside any number of like-minded and try to run a set distance faster than them, or you team up with others and try to hurl the ball through a hoop more times than an opposing team, etc etc.  The complications come in with the number of people involved and the rules. So it is with baseball, the game is simple enough but the ‘complications’ are many.

baseball_diamond3A baseball field consists of an outer perimeter, which is on average about 350 feet away from ‘Home Plate’ and an inner perimeter defined by the diamond of  Home Plate & the 3 other bases, each 90 feet apart from each other.  The game consists of 9 innings, each of 3 ‘Outs’.  If you hit the ball such that it lands between the inner and outer perimeter, in almost every case you will have hit the ball far enough for you to ‘get on base’ via running to one of the other bases, before the ball is thrown to that base. If it’s caught without landing (a ‘flyball’) you’re ‘out’.  And if one of your team-mates achieves a similar feat in the inning, your aim is continue onto to the furthest base possible before the ball is returned to that base. Make it back to Home Plate and your team scores a run. If you hit the ball over the outer perimeter without it being caught you score a Home Run and you & every player on base scores. When you’re not hitting you’re fielding and you take up one on the 9 positions as either the ball-thrower (‘Pitcher’), ball-receiver (‘Catcher’), one of 4 ‘infield’ positions or 3 ‘outfield’ ones. The Pitcher throws the ball and tries to throw it to The Catcher across the strike zone (defined horizontally by the ‘batting box’ and vertically by the batters knees and shoulders) without the Batter being able to either hit it at all or reach a base by not hitting it far enough into play. Each time the pitcher does this it is called a ‘Strike’. If The Pitcher  does this 3 times The Batter is ‘struck out’. The only proviso to this rule is that a 3rd strike has to be a ‘clean’ strike – one that does not hit the bat. If the game is tied after 9 innings, each side plays ‘extra’ innings until the issue is decided. That’s all there is to it – simples!

Now do you remember that I mentioned that there are a number of ‘complications’? In baseball’s case there are many. Among other things there are many different ways to get out (some not even involving pitching or hitting), many specialised skills required by players’ positions, rules that define when and how one can progress between bases, (see here for Wikipedia on thebabe ruth Infield Fly Rule), substitutions & tactics – to mention but a few. And the very pinnacle of the game, Major League Baseball – whose 2 Conference winners compete for The World Series – throws up a variation all of its own with the ‘Designated Hitter’ rule which allows another player to hit for the pitcher in one league (The American) but  not the other (The National).

I’m sure that at least one of my American, or British expats who live ‘over there’, friends will take issue with my above description of The Game. But that is the point – it is a game of subtleties, any of which can come to the fore at any particular stage of the game. Beyond the result, Baseball has many perspectives which define the contributions of every one of the players and the roles that they play in the game. No other game has the opportunities for statistical analysis that baseball has, which in its way indicates that no other game has such intricacies. The higher the level of competence of the players involved, the greater is the impact of appropriate decision-making & execution. At the very top the executions required turn the game into one of sublime tension and veritable beauty.

Like Hamburgers and Pizza, baseball is not an American invention. The origins of Baseball are a matter of some debate but almost certainly the game found its way to The New World via immigration of the game of Rounders in some form.  However in baseball’s case the ‘improved formula’ has evolved into a product worthy of the description ‘Americana’ and that goes for all that travels with it – the stadia, the food and the rituals. If you are ‘over there’ and you get a chance to experience it, do take it!

And oh yes, The World Series* – The Red Sox won it in 6 games.  Joy of joys!

Sox-win-World-Series

*To those of you who have a ‘problem’ with the MLB – an American sports association, albeit with a Canadian team playing in it –  claiming that theirs is the ‘World’ series I can only say: “A rose by any other name…..”