Monday, February 19, 2018

First Impressions...

I try not to make snap decisions particularly on places that I visit as very often they are totally wrong. Years ago I made up my mind about a man at the tennis club where my brother Jan and I played a lot and it wasn't good. As it turned out he was one of the nicest men that you could know. So I try to keep that in mind.

Mind you, quite often the first impression you get is the one that stays with you longest too. A bit like the current environment of accusation for this and that, particularly through social media. If I was to say, for example, someone had a big nose and put it out there on social media. Chances are that that would stick irrespective of the fact that that person may indeed not have a big nose, but a very nice one. That is almost irrelevant these days it seems. What will stick is the 'big nose' comment. You see it in newspapers which may make wild accusations one day then 3 days later print a retraction on page 16 after the obituaries or something. Now I know that I don't have a huge following and that anything I may say will never see the light of day, which incidentally is fine by me, but still I don't really want to have to print a retraction at some later date.  So I've waited a bit, just about a month actually, before I address our arrival in Penang.

Map of Malaysia with Penang to the toppish left
What, where, why?

Penang is an island originally settled by some rascals from the East India Company in 1786 but of course it had a massive history before that which you can find on Wikipedia here (and do please contribute to their coffers as I think they are pretty wonderful. Everything you may want to know is there. I think it's even better than YouTube which in itself is also pretty wonderful). But for us it was the modern period that has the most relevance.

We've wanted to travel more in the Far East as to this point most of our travels have been using Bermuda as a base which has therefore given an emphasis in the west. So we thought that using Penang as a base out here would do the same job for us. In addition Viv's brother Anton plus family moved here something over a year ago and waxed very lyrically indeed about the place so we thought why not.

Penang is about 60% ethnically Chinese, 10% Indian, 20% Malay and the rest is a mixture of expats and other nationalities and races. In fact it is a real hodge podge as even those who are ethnically not Malay are more Malay in many ways than they are their original ethnicity... if that makes sense. And they all seem to get on. Certainly the religions here (and there are quite a few) get on. Practically immediately we arrived came the festival called Thaipusam, a Tamil hindu festival which was a public holiday here -- read about Thaipusam here again on Wikipedia. There are plenty of others too, currently we are in the middle of Chinese New Year, another public holiday.

For Thaipusam, people dress up in their finery and parade along a route that takes  in a number of temples passing by stalls erected by others, associations and companies who provide food and drink for the pilgrims all in a party atmosphere. Imagine Indian rap music and people dancing! From Bermuda it reminded me very much of Cup Match.
Talk about noise and colour with a 'u' not the washed out version which drops the 'u' as that is one of the biggest things I have noticed here. It was to me a total all out assault on all my senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

First of all sight, my goodness what sights to see. Coming from Bermuda, a small relatively quiet little place with few people where everything is ordered or at least compared to Penang it is, the sights were amazing. Many people, huge vibrant colours, absolutely nothing held back or in any way understated....

Penang is very religious. For Thaipusam, hindus who'd had something good happen in the previous year dressed up, were impaled by spikes and in this case hooks upon which were balls which dug into their skin and which they wore on their pilgrimage. It is a way for them to say thank you for a great year.
The sounds are all different too starting with the language or should I say languages. With all the ethnic backgrounds the lingua franqua is English but what a variety of English! We are staying for the moment at a serviced apartment and the manager was speaking to the cleaner about something and we asked him to confirm a couple of things as we couldn't understand one another and she said that she hadn't a clue what language he was speaking, so it may be tricky. It sounded to us that they were speaking the same language so we asked where he was from and the manager said he didn't know and sure enough after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing he found out (it wasn't a simple where are you from Q&A session it included much gesticulation and commentary) that the cleaner was from Myanmar which is right next door. Well the country is. The language apparently is nothing like Malay or any other languages the manager spoke but somehow they managed to communicate and that is how it is here. You may not share the same language originally but you are here in this melting pot so you just have to get on and talk. Take a look at the map and you'll see all the different countries around. None speak the same language really except English.

Today is one of the many days of Chinese New Year (year of the dog) and we went into a shopping centre to find a couple of dragons dancing to the beat of deafening drums and other musical instruments. This troupe worked their way bit by bit around every shop doing their bit of dancing and prancing before moving on to the next shop. Exhilarating, colourful, noisy.... yup.

We ran into this troupe time and again in the shopping centre. They were welcomed by the shop staff and danced all around the shop inside and out accompanied by a deafening band behind them. First impression is that it would have driven me nuts but then again this is Penang...
Smell is the sense that most westerners would nod sagely at and believe the smell differential is to do with the plumbing etc. and whilst those are shall we say different to what may be expected to be the norm in the west (although I have had some horror experiences in France particularly the trains, and now that I think of it Italy too... again trains) it absolutely is not what I think of when I think smells. It is the plants, the humidity, the spices... Penang is a spice island so if you fancy a mind boggling adventure with spices whose names you've probably never heard of but which are essential components of shall we say 'curry', come here. We went to a museum and one of the things we looked at was cooking and one such item was a Musselman Curry, one of the great foods in my opinion. But the number of ingredients!  Probably 20 if not more separate spices all available fresh in any downtown market. And that's before you get onto the meat, potatoes, etc.

That leads nicely to taste and there again wow. I'm not sure I have the words to describe the new tastes I have experienced in just about a month here. I thought I'd eaten a lot of different types of food particularly 'curry' but the difference with what Patak, for example, puts out in their Madras Curry paste and what I have eaten here is night and day. And that is all down to the availability of the underlying spices and the methods used in preparation.

Some staples in this food city: chicken rice and Hainan chicken. Just phenomenal!
Forget Gordon Ramsey and the celebrity chefs. Some of the best curry I have tasted comes from some guy or lady on the street with a single burner (always gas) which sends up a volcano of heat into the massive single pan in which everything is prepared. Into this goes the oil to start then onions, garlic and the plethora of spices. After a while the final result is simply unbelievable. Never hot, I mean never chilli hot. Forget vindaloo, that doesn't exist. The hottest food I have eaten here so far is a Thai salad which was almost nuclear.

Street food during Thaipusam
Finally touch. Not sure how to describe but the array of things that are totally different here makes you want to touch everything to make sure they are real. They are. In Penang they are entirely normal.

So summing up, Penang has been an assault on all of my senses, so far in a great way and I love it!

Gong Hei Fat Choi!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

23 Construction Cranes... Count 'Em

We stayed just about 3 months in Toronto after leaving Bermuda as there were several things we wanted to do in our apartment as well as enjoy some time there before our adventure in the Far East began. The two things that made the most impact on my psyche this time around were the extreme cold and the fact that I could see 23 construction cranes building all new tower blocks in the downtown area from our living room window. I know. I counted them.  Further when I went outside to look north up Yonge Street, I could see a dozen more. All in varying stages of completion. All of massive size.

Our condo has a south east aspect towards the Beaches of Toronto with the downtown area to the south... Except that what was once an unobstructed view has become one where we will soon have a 50 stores monster block 100 yards away directly to our south which WILL block this downtown view. AND if that's not bad enough there's an 80 storey behemoth planned right next to the 72 storey Aura already in our face and a 65 storey tiddler a further couple of hundred yards away.

Enough already!

I asked our building managers how many apartments there were in our building (441) which means probably 1,000 people as residents. If our building is 46 storeys on average this means 20 people per floor. So with 23 plus 12 at least more condo monsters on the blocks of on average 60 storeys (the average is getting ever higher), that means 35 times 1,200 people in new condos in the next 2-3 years that I can see with on average a further 35 times 600 new cars in the city .... I do hope the planners are taking note and are doing something about public transport, parking, traffic control, facilities...

More to the point is I wonder who are buying all these new places and moving to Toronto and why. For sure Justin Trudeau the current PM is supposedly making it easier for immigrants to come into the country and the recently introduced 15% tax on non-residents buying property may have crimped speculative local investment, but this sounds to me that all this new build really isn't being impacted that much by the new tax (prices aren't falling). Again I asked in our building who the main current buyers are and found that they are mainland Chinese and Saudis. This is a common theme in many places and is a function of the new wealthy wanting to invest money outside their home countries.

The city is really buzzing too so I expect that this new spurt of building is warranted but for goodness sake could they please do it somewhere else. Somewhere that doesn't block our view!

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Year That Was

First of all let me just say Happy New Year to everyone before I forget. As one ages even gracefully, the grey matter sometimes takes a little longer to boot up and connect properly.

I like to read, and that is not an apology, merely a statement, but that appears to be a declining art. It may seem to everyone that the world runs on 20 second sound bytes and a maximum 144 characters of text. That's all the time that anyone has to make a point. Certainly the US President seems to communicate exclusively in this way but even though those of us who believe we are smarter than he is may smugly nod our heads knowingly, he actually knows what he is doing. Well in this regard anyway.

We have had a full 12 months of him plus for an expat Brit like myself, we have had the unlikely sight of another unelectable, this time from the left, morph into the most unlikely next PM of Great Britain that there probably has ever been. All on the back of the highest level of incompetence from the elected elite and a massive groundswell of young support (and social media assistance) from the young people of the country. I read somewhere recently that Jeremy Corbyn has the support of something like 70% of all young people in the UK. And how do they communicate these days? Certainly not in debating societies, major newspapers or God forbid books. It is by 20 second soundbyte and those 144 miserable characters.

I just did a quick count of this blog post and discover to my dismay that 144 characters (includes spaces and punctuation) is about one and a half lines of my text. How on earth do you get your point across in such a limited way?

Perhaps the very fact that communication has come to this depressing and very superficial level will cause a reaction. Certainly I have been reading some commentators who are saying that their New Year's Resolution for 2018 is to come off Twitter or at the very least curtail their usage of it. My contribution has been to delete the Twitter app from my phone... but then again as I have never used it, I don't think that will tip any balance.

Reporting has been never endingly depressing in 2017 underlining the fact that only bad news is newsworthy so I was really, really happy to read an article from a website called Quartz (I was put onto this page by Bloomberg whom I have increasingly come to rely upon for impartial news, even though I still do take some things with a pinch of salt) that listed 99 things to be grateful for that took place in 2017. Here is the link but at random, here are some fantastic things that I never saw in the news but are fantastic, fantastic developments for the human race:

If you’re feeling despair about the fate of humanity in the 21st century, you might want to reconsider. In 2017, it felt like the global media picked up all of the problems, and none of the solutions. To fix that, here are 99 of the best stories from this year that you probably missed.
1. This year, the World Health Organisation unveiled a new vaccine that’s cheap and effective enough to end cholera, one of humanity’s greatest ever killers.
6. Trachoma, the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, was eliminated as a public health problem in Oman and Morocco, and Mexico became the first country in the Americas to eliminate it.
16. And on the 17th November, the WHO said that global deaths from tuberculosis have fallen by 37% since 2000, saving an estimated 53 million lives. 
21. A province in Pakistan announced it has planted 1 billion trees in two years, in response to the terrible floods of 2015.
27. Eleven countries continued their plan to build a wall of trees from east to west across Africa in order to push back the desert. In Senegal, it’s already working.
30. In 2017, the ozone hole shrunk to its smallest size since 1988, the year Bobby McFerrin topped the charts with ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy.’
35. 275 million Indians gained access to proper sanitation between 2014 and 2017.
46. In 2017, the UK, France and Finland all agreed to ban the sale of any new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040.
54. Solar energy is now responsible for one in every 50 new jobs created in the United States, and the clean energy sector is growing at 12 times the rate of the rest of the economy.
69. As plunging crime closed prisons across the Netherlands, the government started turning them into housing and cultural hubs for ten of thousands of refugees instead.
80. You didn’t see this story in the evening news — in June, we heard that the homicide rate in Australia has dropped to one victim per 100,000 people, the lowest ever recorded.
98. One of China’s richest women, He Qiaonv, announced a $2 billion donation for wildlife conservation, the largest environmental philanthropic pledge of all time.

2017 was also the year that saw the passing of a close personal friend of mine as well as some greats of rock and roll: Tom Petty and Gregg Allman from my list of personal favourites. Fats Domino and Chuck Berry also passed away; even greater influences on the history of contemporary music. Sad to lose them all but each time I go somewhere and hear the soundtrack to buying groceries, waiting for the train, being in an airport, etc., and that turns out to be an instantly recognisable tune from the 1960's and 1970's, it makes me happy to know that they will be remembered by their music... even though people may not know the name of their great tunes rather like I recognize much classical music but cannot for the life of me remember who wrote what or when.

But then again this does provide me with an opportunity to ending this post with a wonderful live clip from YouTube with the full original band. I forgot that Butch Trucks, one of the drummers, also passed away in 2017. Gregg is on keyboards and sings.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Errata and a Conundrum

After I pushed 'Publish' on my last blog post I did something I should have done first... namely, I read up a bit more on the real history of the things I wrote about and now shamefacedly acknowledge that I got wrong. On Wikipedia of course! Who else? So please accept my apologies for the blue.

The pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire
This is what I got wrong. For some reason I didn't pay attention to the map. Derr! The light blue at the top showing Bohemia and Moravia is essentially the new Czech Republic and the muddy brown bit to its bottom right is Slovakia. I had it around the other way. Sorry.

Anyway do read some fascinating more history from Wikipedia about the dissolution here and follow the links to the Prague Spring of 1968 and the war time story of Slovakia including its fantastically brave but ultimately disastrous uprising against the Nazis in summer 1944. It broadly coincided with the Warsaw Uprising and the failure of both was ultimately due to the Soviets stopping in their tracks to wait for the mainly middle class fighters (and therefore anti-Soviet) to be crushed by the Nazis. Those guys have a lot to answer for.

But that isn't the reason why I chose to write this new post, it is due to an article I read from the New Yorker Magazine today called "Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds" -- you can find the full article here but do note that it is quite long and for me anyway quite difficult to follow in parts as I am of course precisely the kind of person they are talking about. This post is to try to show that I am not!

The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight -- New Yorker Magazine, Feb 2017
This is the bit that got me:

A recent experiment performed by Mercier and some European colleagues neatly demonstrates this asymmetry. Participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them if they identified mistakes. The majority were satisfied with their original choices; fewer than fifteen per cent changed their minds in step two.

In step three, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. Once again, they were given the chance to change their responses. But a trick had been played: the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. About half the participants realized what was going on. Among the other half, suddenly people became a lot more critical. Nearly sixty per cent now rejected the responses that they’d earlier been satisfied with.

Even when presented with incontrovertible proof that we are wrong about something, we simply do not believe it and continue believing what we want to believe. How on earth does education work then?

The article ends with the following conundrum:

Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.

I don't know the answer either, I'm afraid. I'm still trying to digest the conundrum.

Friday, December 29, 2017


There's a brilliant book written by Simon Winder that provides a marvellous history of the countries, cities and people that inhabit the regions around the Danube in central Europe and at the same time provides a historical perspective of the old Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburg family that ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the cataclysm of WWI brought everything crashing down.

I read it voraciously and couldn't wait to visit the area now that the Iron Curtain is no more so when Viv and a friend said they wanted to visit the Christmas Markets in the area, of course I wanted to be a part of it. Particularly so when Viv said the itinerary would be Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg and then Prague.

At its peak, the Empire had over 60 million inhabitants and covered a vast area of central and eastern Europe. The economic powerhouse was Hungary... when it had Transylvania. The manufacturing powerhouse was Bohemia.
I have written a detailed blog tracked on the marvelous Track My Tour app which you can read here but plenty didn't make it to that blog hence this ramble.

Budapest is only 2 1/2 hours from Heathrow but courtesy of 50 years of the Soviet yoke it seems light years behind, except that isn't the right word. Western Europe has had 50 years of Marshall Plan stimulus followed by growth whilst the nations behind the Iron Curtain simply stopped dead. The catastrophe of WWII when the Nazis turned the city into a Fortress City (Festung Budapest) condemned it to almost total destruction. Our tour guide said that 70% of the city was destroyed in the process of 'liberation'. The Germans used the castle on the Buda side of the city as a base and consequently great aiming point for the terrible Soviet artillery.

Nearly half a million people died in this final battle. This is the Royal Palace. It still hasn't been restored.
One of the things I love about Wikipedia is that it provides massive amounts of insights nobody ever teaches you at school. My history taught me nothing about Hungary, Czechoslovakia or any other of the Iron Curtain countries other than the fact that the 'liberating' Red Army took them over and the Iron Curtain was created. Sort of makes you wonder if there was a specific desire to re-write history and gloss over the fact that the Soviet era was just as bad if not worse and regrettably much, much longer than the Nazis in Germany. The Yalta Conference was all about the Soviets getting what they wanted from a sick and ailing FDR and a marginalised Winston Churchill who could realistically do nothing to thwart Soviet intentions. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet era, much new information has been learned and more importantly disseminated so that nobody can gloss over the unpleasant facts any more. Or rather shouldn't.

Historians agree that it was the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that essentially paved the way for the rise of the Nazis in Germany, but it was also the catalyst for the right wing, ultra-nationalist regimes that spread across the new nations created by the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after WWI.

Hungary lost all the green parts, some 75% of its previous size.
Hungary, for example, lost 75% of its territory including the ultra important province of Transylvania which provides practically all the natural resources of the country. Yes, that one. The same as the one popularised by that guy in a cloak with funny teeth, violent habits and curious taste for blood. Its intra-war government was right wing, just as annoyed with the Treaty of Versailles and favoured the Nazis to the point of formally allying with them and joining their armies with the Wehrmacht in Russia, Yugoslavia and elsewhere.

The very brief rewards of being allies with the Nazis.
The Soviets therefore in their advance during 1944 showed little mercy. Over 900,000 Hungarians died in WWII, two-thirds civilians, and in the immediate aftermath over 100,000 ethnic Germans were deported to Siberian labour camps (few returned) and an additional 600,000 were 'transported' to the Soviet Union for what was termed 'little projects' -- massive rebuilding projects to repair war damage. Only half survived to return to Hungary with the final 'volunteer workers' only returning after Stalin's death in 1953. This is a staggering event in the history of a country of fewer than 10 million inhabitants.

All of this is dealt with by the House of Terror Museum just up the road from our hotel on Andrassy Ut, the main street of Budapest, equivalent to the Champs Elysee, Oxford Street or 5th Avenue. The building is eerie and fobidding as is the subject matter covered by the museum -- far more of the Soviet era than the Nazi era which was comparatively short as the countries were in fact allies for much of the time. I had the same feeling as when Viv and I visited Dachau which is in a lovely, very green suburb of Munich right next to people's back gardens. But for me (and I do reiterate that this blog is my story, not a history book) all that took place in WWII was before I was born and is therefore history to me, albeit very recent history. What transpired behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet era took place when I was growing up listening to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead thinking of nothing more than love, peace and happiness and making the world a better place. For the people there it was all about survival each and every day. They couldn't even begin to hope to plan as I could and as for the occupying forces, well the Soviets had zero need to build up these puppet nations. All they ever were were buffer states between the motherland and the west for the impending WWIII, so therefore completely expendable. This can be seen particularly in Budapest where war damage was never repaired, new building rarely if ever took place and on any street downtown, there could easily be a gap between row homes which had never been rebuilt or which had been turned into the now famous ruin bars.

The really interesting thing about visiting new places if you take a local guide is that they provide you with anecdotal snippets that don't make it to the history books or guide books but are those normal, day to day things that impact people. A particularly good guide can be a revelation. Our guides were terrific. Whether they are historically accurate or not, I don't know but they were certainly entertaining and if you're like me and like trying to piece together the why's and how's of places, even the smallest thing can be eye opening.

In Budapest for example, we talked about what Hungary actually does -- answer it doesn't other than agriculture really. Part of the reason for this is that they no longer control Transylvania, Romania does. And Romania was neutral at the start of the war and allied with the Soviets at the end. So no surprise that in the post WWII division of the world they got what they wanted. What Hungary does is agriculture and my visit to the Terror Museum was largely about the post war persecution of the farmers by the Soviets. Farmers were the closest thing to bourgeoisie in Hungary and the Soviets really focused their nastiest attention on the middle classes everywhere they were. As a result average earnings are around USD 400 per month today. That said, our guide and driver (Attilla, really) were very upbeat and well educated and spoke 4-5 languages.

We loved the place and cannot wait to return.

The difference between Hungary and Austria is enormous. Pre WWI, Austria even though it is the ancestral home of the Hapsburgs did essentially nothing. The economy of the empire was driven by Bohemia (maunfacturing) and Hungary (agriculture and whatever came out of Transylvania). According to our very humourous guide who kept on calling us "my dears" the Austrians were really bad at choosing allies for much of their history and were very much in favour of union with the Nazis despite whatever recidivist post WWII history may say. However they were still 'the West' and so in the post WWII division of Europe were lucky enough to come up on this side of the line... and so they thrived.

We really enjoyed Vienna. The Hofburg is a wondrous place and clearly the entire empire depended on the wise choices of one very strong woman at a very key moment in history -- the Empress Maria Theresa. Her father realising he had no male heir tried to get ahead of things and got all the interested heads of state around Europe to recognise his daughter as empress, something they changed their minds about the minute he died and which came to be known as the War of the Austrian Succession (in my history books anyway).

Pretty much all I remember is that there was something to do with a Captain Jenkins' Ear, the Prussians marched into Silesia (the empire's coal district so really important), King George II actually led British troops into battle at a place called Dettingen (the last time this has ever happened incidentally) and overall the British lost so had to give up a few possessions in the West Indies and India that they recovered only a decade later. Austria also lost a few possessions but importantly the peace treaty did ensure Maria Theresa's succession, particularly so as she got married and fairly promptly had 16 children, 10 of whom survived, 6 males in the total so her succession woes would not be repeated.

There was still time to nearly lose everything when the Turks nearly reached Vienna again but they prevailed with Polish help. Ha! And what did they do to say thank you? They, Prussia and Russia promptly 'partitioned' Poland between them! Ever heard of that phrase put not your trust in princes?

So much for just leaving it at 'Thank You'.
In the mid 19th century as the Ottoman threat had gone away, the then emperor had the city walls demolished and built the inner ring road that we see today. The land left over was sold off (mainly to Jewish merchants) which financed the building of the Hofburg to its current size.

Brilliant city. We want to return and spend more time there.

Salzburg was nice but the final highlight was Prague which is simply a lovely, huge medieval city. For some reason it did not suffer the same fate as Budapest in WWII and survived pretty much unscathed even though the Nazis wrought terrible oppression on the non-German people.  We didn't have the chance to visit many of the contemporary museums as the Castle on top of the hill in the centre of the city was so large and demanded our time.

The lovely Charles Bridge over the Danube
Our guide again was great fun and provided plenty of interesting insights but as with many people there are clearly subjects that you do not talk about. I think I found one and its all about the Sudetenland. I think. Certainly Slovakia.

In the map of the Empire at the start of this blog, if you look at the part that says Bohemia, think Slovakia and the Czech Republic for today. Back then it was all Czechoslovakia. Slovakia is the closest part to Germany and those reddish parts show where the 'German' population lived. The term 'German' is not what it means today as if you remember your history, German unification only happened in the 1850's and 1860's under Bismarck. Before that 'Germany' was dozens, if not hundreds of mini-states which together comprised a decent chunk of the Holy Roman Empire which became defunct in 1809 courtesy of Napoleon Bonaparte. This is why if you travel down the Rhine there are so many castles in the middle of relatively nowhere and comparatively speaking close together. They could be dukedoms, princedoms, archbishoprics or a host of other structures. As I said hundreds of them. Germanic was the loose term that held them all together in the same way as Italian related to the people that live in that republic today, in the past they weren't the same nationality at all. And that was how they wanted it too. In Germany, it was the Prussians who were the driving force and even they couldn't call the now unified 'Empire' Prussia, it would be Germany. So Germanic relates to ethnicity not nationality. (Simon Winder's previous book called Germania focuses on just this).

Austria is the orange part, Prussia the blue part. The smorgasbord of other colours represent the mass of other states and statelets that were subsequently swallowed up by Prussia
Hitler didn't care about the niceties, he just used it as an excuse for expansion and would have continued to do so if not stopped. Why Sudeten? I don't know I'm afraid. Today it is Slovakia and even though there was a bit of opposition to the move, it wasn't that severe. Any opposition that there was came from the Czechs who realised that Hitler wouldn't stop at just the Sudetenland (he didn't).

A couple of days ago I was reading an article on the BBC about the current Ashes Test match and for some reason went off on a tangent to look at something about the Timeless Test of 1939 which only ended because England had to leave to catch their boat home from South Africa (there can't be too many games in history where the team batting last and chasing scored 654-5 and didn't win but if there's a cock up to make, England will).

Wonderful quote from a SA player that he hadn't played in two many games where he'd had to have two haircuts during the course of play.
At the end of the article there were some headlines from major events that were happening at that time elsewhere in the world one of which was about Slovakia's ruling party allying themselves with the Nazi party line and philosophy. I wish I could find it again as I hope I have this right for it may be central to my story in that when I asked our Prague guide why after 500+ years of Slovaks being joined at the hip to the Czechs, mostly under the Austrians, that when the Soviet era ended it took about one minute and a half to decide to go their own way.

Her answer was that the Slovak language is flippant as are they as a people whilst the Czechs are serious as is their language, so why on earth would they want to be joined up to one another?

I think I am missing something here.

Prague today is doing slightly better than Hungary due to its manufacturing prowess but still lags the west and remains outside of the European Monetary System so doesn't have the Euro. It is a great place too and one that we want to return to again at much greater length. So much to explore and find out. So much more to enjoy.

Can't wait!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Tribute Bands

In Canada there is this wonderful thing where a bunch of musicians roll up and play an album of great classic rock, cut for cut, note for note and then play a whole bunch of other tunes by the same band. Last week my son, Ali, and I went to see the Led Zep version of LZ IV at Massey Hall downtown in Toronto.

Great stuff even though Vivien doesn't want to see anything but the original artists. Trouble is many are dead so there'll never be a chance to see them live again. Led Zep disbanded when drummer John Bonham died in 1980. No 'lets try someone else', it was just that's it. Done!

LZ IV was one great album though. One of the biggest sellers of all time with some great tunes, my favourite being Rock & Roll. However the tune on the night I enjoyed the most was Immigrant Song. And yes this is an opportunity to play two versions of that great tune from You Tube. The first is from the real Zep, the second a cover. Which do you think is best?

... And the cover version.

Holiday still?

Our first point of call on our "Life Stage 2" was in Hilton Head, South Carolina where we were to meet up with a bunch of friends from Bermuda: Judy & Keith, Sarah & Earl, Kathy & Bruce although as it turned out Kathy and Bruce's house in Costa Rica had been threatened by one of the many summer hurricanes as heavy rain was threatening to wash the house away down a mountain, so Bruce went there rather than to HH... and happily things turned out not to be quite as bad as feared.

I've already tracked my tour on the great app here so won't go into great detail about what we did on any given day.

High spots that immediately tick all imaginable boxes were:

  • Two more states off the list (South Carolina and Georgia) -- we are trying to visit them all and think we are about 25 or so.
  • Paula Dean's southern fried chicken -- the buffet at her restaurant was just ridiculous. I didn't feel like eating for two days. The chicken was great too.

  • Shrimp & Grits -- I'd seen this on the TV super chef programmes on Food TV and wondered what the big deal was. If the ones we'd eaten were typical, this dish is fantastic!

  • Plenty of really interesting history which of course I love -- I hadn't realised for example that the British were ready to call it quits in the Revolutionary War until they captured Savannah as a result of massive incompetence by the French (of course) and the Americans in 1779 or 1780. This single act made us think that having a second foothold (the only other being New York) could make a difference. As a result thousands of troops were sent over and Yorktown happened a couple of years later. We'd been repulsed at Charleston a while earlier so if the same happened again at Savannah, we'd have been spared the agony of the next two years. 
  • South Carolina was the catalyst in both Revolutionary War as well as the Civil War -- both were about economics. The first was taxation by the Brits to pay for the standing army in the west keeping the peace on the border with the Native Americans. It was stupidly introduced and repealed as soon as the Brits realised it. Despite that the colonists still preferred to go their own way. The second was economics too but combined with stubbornness. Slavery was just a part of it, although an important part.
  • Beware regional airports -- our flight from Savannah was delayed because of engineering problems. The Delta lady said that in such cases the first flights to be cancelled are regional airport flights and that hub flights wouldn't be. So fly through a hub wherever possible.
  • Bugs made a real difference to life in the 1600/1700's -- lousy medicine meant that the chance of making it through childbirth was pretty slim so out here in the islands, few plantation owners actually stayed on site. They moved where it was safer. This meant they left the place in the hands of overseers and slaves, most of African origin, so a whole different rhythm of life developed as did the language used seeing as few shared a common language. This is unique to this area.
  • The guy that owned HH was a big techie like the Facebook, Amazon, Google guys -- he was the guy who organised the first splitting of the atom and funded the Philadelphia Project initially. MIT was basically him. He finished off radar for the Brits in WWII as we'd hit a wall and only gone part of the way. He used HH as a shooting lodge until the 1950's when he sold it to loggers who then decided to develop the deforested island.

  • The weather was really great! Off the plane it was 85 and humid. No snow, little chance of frost. This is pretty nice weather! We will be back.
  • Flat -- if you were a skier, not great on many counts but for a golfer, tennis player and someone who likes to ride bikes, HH is pretty darn good.
Cycling on the beach at low tide was special
  • Flag raising at Fort Sumter -- this was brilliant. It is very easy to roll your eyes and be cynical at mindless jingoism but being proud of the flag and getting involved in its raising, even if only on just the one occasion in your life, has got to be a high point. I couldn't get near the flag and felt that I'd missed out on a small piece of something. I'd have preferred the union jack of course, but that was never going to happen and will never likely happen as we are keener these days in apologising for everything we've ever done rather then celebrating what we have accomplished.

  • Cocktails -- I've said it before and will say it again that I think that there is nobody better at making great cocktails than Americans. We had many and it was a very happy series of empirical tests.

  • Colonial muck ups -- back in the early days of these colonies, much of the administration carried out was focused solely on the economics of exploitation. The sugar states in the West Indies were testing beds for the huge plantations in the southern states of the US and at the time were more profitable. So this was how the plantations came to be set out. This also meant less focus paid on them by the mother country. As Colonialists helped the Brits in the 7 Years War against the French primarily (George Washington was a general in that conflict), in so doing they discovered how good they were and how little attention was being paid them... except for taxes. The result was revolution.
  • Willie Nelson at 84 -- in his day Willie was a phenomenal performer and continues on his merry way on the road. A review that I read of the show we saw in Savannah reported that there is rarely a set list, the band simply joins in when they hear what Willie starts to play. His voice was strong and the notes that he hit were fine and reminded us that despite the aging process he remains one heck of a performer. He stood through the entire 90 minute show as well so he's still in reasonable nick. He is one guy that will keep on going.
  • Colonial muck ups 2 -- the success of the colony at Charleston (after the usual slow start) was the catalyst for the new colony at Savannah. Proximity to the Spanish in Florida was another with Savannah being seen as a buffer. The first governor was a Major Oglethorpe who came up with the grid pattern and chose the site on top of the bluff. He made friends with the local Native Americans and led successful punitive expeditions against the Spanish and set things up as his vision of utopia which was no hard liquor, no slaves, no lawyers and no Roman catholics. His massive and total success against the Spaniards did away with the no RC rule but the others slid in as soon as he was recalled to England to answer charges of mismanagement (pretty much like every first governor of the colonies all over the world). However the man in charge at the time of the Revolutionary War was imprisoned, then freed when the British took the city again and proved so popular that he was asked to remain in the job after the British lost the war. So while Oglethorpe probably put people off with his high principles (which were likely the real reason for his recall), Governor Wright proved to be a stellar administrator and had one of the squares in Savannah named after him to boot. 
  • The Christmas present that saved Savannah -- rather than torch Savannah as most other southern cities that he captured, General Sherman chose to give it along with thousands of bales of cotton that could not get past the blockade to President Lincoln as a Christmas present in 1864. The result is the lovely city that we see today... and a whole bunch of much needed foreign currency into Union coffers. You cannot get too far away from economics.
  • The trees -- fabulous live oaks with Spanish Moss and cedar trees.
This cedar dates back to the late 1500's or early 1600's, before the colony began
  • Carmine's in New York -- I was introduced to Carmine's during a business trip to NYC back in the 1990's when I asked for a restaurant recommendation, preferable Italian family style. I wasn't ready then (or now) for the huge portions but at lunch time they are half size which is still twice as much as any normal human being can eat. Having failed to get tickets to see Springsteen, we needed a filip. Linguine and clam sauce Carmine's style did it!
I've forgotten lots of stuff that a quick re-read of the Track My Tour blog will refresh but one of the things that stick in my memory the most came as a result of a refreshment stop at a roof top bar in Savannah. 

We were having a drink after a longish walk around town and shared the table with another couple and began to chat. The guy was a chemist from North Carolina who worked in a contact lens manufacturer and did most of the talking for the couple. They were looking for a retirement place and had spent a day in HH, then Charleston the night before and were staying in Savannah for that night before driving back 12 hours in all.  I said that this sounded like a long way, a lot of effort and a small amount of time to be able to accomplish this and was met with a blank look (as in what are you talking about buddy? This is normal). He said that their preference looked to be HH as he wanted to play some golf. We said something along the lines of that's a great way to meet friends and do some exercise at the same time to which he replied "That would be nice. I don't have time for any friends at the moment. All I do is work".

I didn't know how to respond to that.