Friday, May 31, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: The Voice of the Tango—Bandoneón

Our guest today is, Annamaria Alfieri, the author of Blood Tango, which takes place in Buenos Aires in 1945 and imagines the murder of an Evita Perón lookalike.  Kirkus Reviews said of her Invisible Country, “Alfieri has written an anti-war mystery that compares with the notable novels of Charles Todd.”  Deadly Pleasures Magazine called her City of Silver one of the best first novels of the year.  The Washington Post said, “As both history and mystery, City of Silver glitters.”     A world traveler, Annamaria takes a keen interest in the history of the places she visits.  She lives in New York City. You can learn more about Annamaria and her work at her website
Research sparks my creativity as does nothing else.  In studying up for my new book Blood Tango, I learned about some wonderfully interesting people, places, and things.  Like the endlessly fascinating Evita, Buenos Aires—a city both exotic and familiar, and tango, both the music and the dance.  Since I put a lot of romance in my historical mystery novels, tango cried out to be an important part of the story.  I had in mind a couple falling in love while dancing.
One can’t get very far into learning about the dance without studying the music.  And as soon as you start listening to tango music, you hear the bandoneón, an instrument that literally breathes before it sings.  The details of the journey it took from Germany, where it was invented, to the waterfront boites of Buenos Aires are not well documented, but we do know it was born for the Church and ended up in the hands of desperate men who used it to entertain people of the night.

Its inventor Heinrich Band (1821-1860), called it bandonion and intended it to take the place of an organ in poor churches that could not afford the real article. There is no readily available information about the bandoneón's eventual use in religious establishments. What we do know is that German sailors and Italian seasonal workers and immigrants brought the first ones to Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century.  Bandoneón arrived just as working class newcomers in the sailor’s bars were evolving a fabulous new music and dance art form: the tango. When bandoneóns came on the scene, they changed forever how tango music would sound.

Cousin to the concertina, the bandoneón has buttons—not the typical piano keyboard of an accordion.  This instrument is what makes that wonderful almost-human breathing, gasping, and sighing sound that gives passion to tango music. It is central for tango ensembles, which can also have a piano, often a violin, a guitar maybe or a bass.
It seems a tricky instrument to play. The musicians pull the bellows apart and squeeze them together. The buttons on the ends change the notes, and here's what knocks me out—the buttons play different notes depending on whether the player is pulling the bandoneón apart or pushing it closed.  On top of that, the layout of buttons is different for the right and left hands.  The first instruments were constantly being changed and most of the early versions have different numbers of buttons in different positions on the face plates. In 1924, the number and positions of the buttons were standardized to include 72 buttons that cover a five octave range.   As you can imagine, it takes a lot of concentration, coordination, and talent to master it.

Astor Piazzolla
The most famous recent bandoneón maestro was also the great composer, Astor Piazzolla. Here is a lovely little film of one of his compositions in a performance that brings the bandoneón back to its intended locale—a church. The elegant scene is the wedding in Amsterdam in 2002 of then Prinz (now King) Willem Alexander of the Netherlands to Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti, an Argentine woman of BasquePortuguese and Italian ancestry. The name of the piece is "Adios Nonino," which given the Italianized Spanish of Buenos Aires, I make out to mean, "Goodbye, Little Grandfather." That may account for the beautiful bride's emotional reaction. Then again, the plaintive voice of the bandoneón could easily have moved her to those tears.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Practical Traveler: Mariana Starke

By Patricia Winton

People have been writing about travel since they learned to write. Homer’s epic tales; exploration reports by the Polos, Columbus, Vespuci, and others; 18th century novels by DeFoe and Montesquieu who created imaginary manuscripts documenting “voyages” of their characters; guides to art and culture that led young men taking the Grand Tour. All this writing about travel documented what the travelers, real and imaginary, saw and did or what they should see and do. It was not until Mariana Starke published Letters from Italy in 1802 that travelers received practical advice about modes of transportation, places to stay, and where to eat. Starke’s work, frequently updated (and sometimes retitled) until her death in 1838, directly inspired the Baedeker and Murray Guides that dominated European travel in the 19th and 20th century and indirectly inspiring later guides such as Foder, Frommer, and Steves.

Starke examined the various ways to travel from England to the mainland. She wrote “the most convenient way of visiting the Continent is to go from London to Calais in a Steam-Packet; and…resting one night at Calais, (where Roberts' Hotel is particularly comfortable).” She noted that “Mr. Roberts is a Wine Merchant; and his wines are particularly good.” She went on to recommend other hotels. Before Starke, travelers were left to fend for themselves or to follow recommendations of friends who had previously traveled. Her work is sprinkled with hotel and inn suggestions, sometimes saying that a particular inn offers “tolerable beds” or that another is good enough for a meal but “unfit for sleeping.”

She commented on cuisine as well. The Florentine “markets are constantly well stored with excellent eatables, fish excepted, which is never fresh but on Fridays and Saturdays. The Florence wine is good and wholesome, but the same report cannot be given of the water, except that which comes from Fiesole.” She went on to say the Florentine water passes muster as safe, but that it isn’t good to drink.

Her concern for reader’s health was sprinkled throughout the work. “Persons who wish to preserve health in Tuscany, should be careful never to eat sweet things made with orange-flower water, falsely so called; it being, in this country, a distillation from Italian laurel-leaf.” She also noted that “Doctor Kissock, a skillful and experienced English Physician, resides in this City (Florence). Of Rome, she wrote, “all the land is ill cultivated and worse drained; so that fogs and noxious vapours prevail there during night: it likewise abounds with sulphur, arsenic, and vitriol: hence, therefore, in some measure, perhaps, may arise that fatal Malaria which never affected ancient Rome.”

She commented on safety, noting that in Tuscany “no offense is punishable with death.” This first abolition of the death penalty took place there in 1786. Starke wrote that the repeal “and many other equally wise regulations…[contribute] to the almost total exemption from robbery and murder which this country has long enjoyed.”

Sometimes her advice was practical. She mentioned one Gasperini, an innkeeper, whose “dinners, generally speaking, are better cooked, and more comfortably served, than at the other hotels.” She also pointed out that “Gasperini builds carriages, sells anti-friction grease for wheels, and likewise repairs English traveling carriages remarkably well.”

She often included tidbits about local custom that might otherwise have taken the traveler by surprise. In Acquapendente, for example, she reported “every Passport must be examined and sealed by the Police Officers, who demand, in consequence, one paul [a coin] per passport.”

Roman Ruins by Wenceslas Hollar
She felt that there was too much to be seen in Rome and arranged her itineraries “to prevent travelers from wasting their time, and burdening their memory, by a minute survey of objects not particularly interesting; thereby, perhaps, depriving themselves of leisure to examine those which merit sedulous attention.” She didn’t have much admiration for the ruins of antiquity and advised “whoever wishes to see these wrecks of ancient splendour advantageously, ought to visit them, for the first time, by the mild and solemn light of the moon; which not only assimilates with fallen greatness, but throws every defect into shadow; leaving imagination to supply every beauty, and array every object in its pristine garb of magnificence.”

Not everything she wrote was practical. Like travel writers before her, Starke included detailed descriptions of the paintings and sculpture in museums and churches. She painstakingly moved from room to room listing the things she saw. She devised the first rating system of the works as well, applying one to five exclamation points for the items she deemed the most interesting, beautiful, or worthwhile. Here is one rating at the Pitti Palace in Florence: “the Madonna della seggiola, by Raphael !!!!”

Mariana Starke continued traveling through Europe, and especially Italy, and updating her travel guide all her life. She died in Milan in 1838 at the age of 76. She was on her way home to England from Naples where she had been researching a new guidebook.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Myra, Turkey

By Jenni Gate

A destination spot for travelers in the ancient world, Myra was part of the Lycian empire along the Turquoise Coast. It had a long history as part of the ancient Greek and Roman empires with a port important to trade throughout the Mediterranean. Myra is rumored to have been the birth place of St. Nicholas in the 4th century AD (the Byzantine era). In Biblical times, St. Paul is said to have changed ships in the harbor. Great travelers throughout time have marveled at the cliffs housing the necropolis, and its amphitheater was one of the largest of the Lycian empire.

Cliffside necropolis at Myra, Turkey

Amphitheater at Myra, Turkey

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shooting the Moon - Yuri Gagarin, First Earthling in Space

By Kelly Raftery 

Soviet heroes, including Yuri Gagarin were interned in the red brick walls
(denoted by the black plaques) of the Kremlin near Red Square.
Photo by Bern Rostad.

In Moscow, a visit to Red Square is a must. When you are there, you will see the worldwide symbol of Russia, St. Basil’s Cathedral’s colorful domes, stand at the spot where Ivan the Terrible beheaded his loyal guard, gawk at the expansive commercialism of the central department store, GUM, and just across the square, you will see a squat little red granite building that has the name Ленин emblazoned across the top. It has been many years since I was a tourist in Moscow, but in my day, the official guide led the group into the cool dimness of Lenin’s Tomb, past the preserved leader (wax, not wax –the debate continues), and back outside again. A long pathway takes one back to the main square. To one side is a deep red wall with black plaques denoting the burial or internment spots of Soviet notables, on the other side are graves, including those of Stalin, Brezhnev and Chernenko.

Internment or burial under, near, or in the actual historic red wall of the fortress was a place of great honor granted to very few individuals. One of those is perhaps one of history’s greatest travelers—Yuri Gagarin. 

Yuri Gagarin,
first person in space.
Without the bravery of Yuri Gagarin, there would have been no Neil Armstrong, no “Houston, we have a problem” and no International Space Station. Gagarin was the first man to be strapped to a rocket and catapulted into space. Yes, as much as we celebrate our own moon landing, the simple fact is that the Soviets beat us into space initially. Not many Americans know that fact or anything about the man who is a Soviet hero. Today, the crew of the international space station still leaves earth from the same place Yuri Gagarin did in 1961. Americans would not visit the moon until years after this accomplishment. 

The Russian archive entry on Gagarin states, “he was the first man to see that the earth was indeed round, indeed mostly water, and indeed magnificent.” What an incredible journey that must have been for a child of a rural Russian village who spent years of his youth in a 3x3 meter mud dugout after the Nazis confiscated the family home and sent his elder siblings to Germany as slave labor. Yuri Gagarin’s father was a bricklayer, his mother a milk maid on a collective farm in southern Russia. 

Having left home to continue his education, Yuri Gagarin learned to fly biplanes as a teen-ager; he was later drafted into the Soviet military, which taught him to fly a MiG. At the time Gagarin was serving, the Soviets had begun their search for pilots for their space program. The diminutive Gagarin (five feet two inches tall) was among around twenty pilots chosen for the initial training who went through extensive physical and psychological testing before being narrowed down to just two men—Yuri Gagarin and German Titov, both short men who were better able to fit into the Vostok capsule. Gagarin would go on to make history.
The Vostok-1 Capsule.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviets launched Vostok-1 into space, with 27 year-old Yuri Gagarin on board. The Vostok capsule was hurled into space at a speed of about 5 miles per second. Gagarin orbited the earth one time, his entire flight lasting a mere 108 minutes from beginning to end. He described seeing rivers and geographic terrain from space and commented on the odd feeling of weightlessness. The capsule had been packed with supplies in case Gagarin landed somewhere far away from civilization and had to walk back.   

The Space Race had begun. Yuri Gagarin returned to earth a national hero deemed too valuable to the Soviet Union to be risked on any further flights. Gagarin traveled the world and graciously accepted the cheers of adoring crowds. Always a social drinker, Gagarin at some point developed a problem with alcohol, drinking heavily, even by Russian standards. In 1968, Yuri Gagarin was killed during a training flight, an incident that has become the focus of speculation and conspiracy theories. Gagarin left an incredible legacy behind, including a pre-flight tradition that continues on to this day. 

At the last minute, Gagarin hopped off the transport on the way to the capsule, wanting to relieve himself one more time before leaving earth. To this day, departing (only male) space explorers (of all nationalities) get off the bus and take a quick moment to grace the back tire of the vehicle with urine before continuing on to the launch pad. If you don’t believe me, you can see a photo of this tradition. 

Yuri Gagarin is among the great travelers of history, the very first earthling to have seen our big blue marble from the perspective of space.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Great Travelers in History: Mary Kingsley


By Jenni Gate

The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.

Albert Einstein

Mary Henrietta Kingsley traveled paths few in history had ever explored in a time when women never traveled alone. Her journeys within West Africa expanded Europe’s knowledge of the region. Despite the inherent racism of colonialist England during the Victorian era, she became an advocate for the people of West Africa, often suffering ridicule as a result. Ignoring popular opinion and the expectations of society, Mary Kingsley paddled up little-known estuaries, walked through jungles, endured insects and reptiles, climbed mountains, and stoked fires on steamships. She met and befriended cannibals and missionaries alike, though it would be fair to say she preferred the former to the latter. She collected specimens of fish wherever she went, and took copious notes of her experiences. Her life was extraordinary but short.

Although she had no formal education, Mary Kingsley grew up in a house full of books about science and memoirs of explorers. Her father, a doctor and writer, traveled extensively throughout his own life. He contracted rheumatic fever on his last journey and returned home where his daughter cared for him until his death. She had nursed her mother for years. Coincidentally, both parents died within a few weeks of one another. Mary Kingsley, then age 30, decided to travel. She had a few academic connections through her brother, who was in law school at that time. Mary read what was known about Africa, asked her acquaintances for advice about traveling there and was roundly told not to go. She was repeatedly warned that it was too dangerous to go to West Africa.

Ignoring all advice, in 1893 she headed to Liverpool and boarded a ship for the Canary Islands, then pushed on to Sierra Leone. She arrived in West Africa with few possessions other than her high-necked shirts and floor-length skirts. Traveling the coastline by steamboat, she made her way past the oil rivers of Nigeria and on to Angola. 

Region traveled by Kingsley
It was the Victorian era, and women did not travel alone. Her shipmates assumed she was a missionary, and they were scandalized to find her still on board the ship after all the other missionaries disembarked at the Canary Islands. Even in Africa, local women continually asked where her husband was. She frequently went into dangerous areas alone, but most often journeyed with African men who helped her by cooking, translating, making camp, and finding pathways.

On her second journey to West Africa a year after the first, Kingsley traversed the rivers of the French Congo and climbed Mount Cameroon (the first English person to climb it). She met and befriended the Fan (or Fang as some sources name them) people, who were known to be cannibals. Exploring by steamboat and dugout canoe, paddling the swamps and streams of the Ogooué River in Gabon, she collected fish from the rivers and lakes to take back to the British Museum as specimens for study. She was thrilled to have this work taken seriously by the zoologist who helped sponsor the trip, Dr. Albert Gunther. At least three previously unknown species of fish were named after her.

Mary Kingsley documented travels on the rivers throughout West Africa. Her writing is evidence of a humorous and curious mind. In Travels in West Africa, she described the dangers of paddling through the tidewaters of African rivers in dugout canoes:

Now a crocodile drifting down in deep water, or lying asleep with its jaws open on a sand-bank in the sun, is a picturesque adornment to the landscape when you are on the deck of a steamer, and you can write home about it and frighten your relations on your behalf; but when you are away among the swamps in a small dugout canoe, and that crocodile and his relations are awake – a thing he makes a point of being at flood tide because of fish coming along – and when he has got his foot upon his native heath – that is to say, his tail within holding reach of his native mud – he is highly interesting, and you may not be able to write home about him – and you get frightened on your own behalf.

About encounters with insects in West African Studies, she wrote:

But it’s against the insects ashore that you have to be specially warned. During my first few weeks of Africa, I took a general natural historical interest in them with enthusiasm as of natural history, it soon became a mere sporting one, though equally enthusiastic at first. Afterwards a nearly complete indifference set in, unless some wretch aroused a vengeful spirit in me by stinging or biting. I should say, looking back calmly upon the matter, that 75 per cent of West African insects sting, 5 per cent bite, and the rest are either permanently or temporarily parasitic on the human race. And undoubtedly one of the many worst things you can do in West Africa is to take any notice of an insect. If you see a thing that looks like a cross between a flying lobster and the figure of Abraxas on a Gnostic gem, do not pay it the least attention, never mind where it is; just keep quiet and hope it will go away – for that’s your best chance; you have none in a stand-up fight with a good thorough-going African insect. …

Of course you cannot ignore driver ants, they won’t go away, but the same principle reversed is best for them, namely, your going away yourself. 

And later in the same work:

While in West Africa you should always keep an eye lifting for Drivers. You can start doing it as soon as you land, which will postpone the catastrophe, not avoid it; …it may be just as well for you to let things slide down the time-stream until Fate sends a column of the wretches up your legs. … The females and workers of these ants are provided with stings as well as well-developed jaws. They work both for all they are worth, driving the latter into your flesh, enthusiastically up to the hilt; they remain therein, keeping up irritation when you have hastily torn their owner off in response to a sensation that is like that of red hot pinchers.

After her second trip to West Africa, Kingsley toured England and spoke widely of her travels. She lectured on diverse topics from opening trade to Europeans in the region to the harm caused by missionaries converting native people and destroying whole ways of life in the process. Her opinions, formed from personal experience and observation, were controversial, sometimes creating a backlash in the press. Yet her work was influential in establishing perceptions of West Africa in Europe, and many of her observations are still relevant.

Volunteering as a nurse for the Second Boer War, Mary Kingsley returned to Capetown, South Africa in the late 1890s where she died of typhoid on June 3, 1900. In England between journeys, she had met Rudyard Kipling, striking up a friendship of mutual respect and admiration. In her work, Kingsley often quoted Kipling. At her death, Kipling gave her eulogy before her burial at sea with full military honors.

About her own writing, Mary Kingsley was humble and humorously self-deprecating, as the following story illustrates:

Alas! I am hampered with bad method of expression. I cannot show you anything clearly and neatly. I have to show you a series of pictures of things, and hope you will get from those pictures the impression which is the truth. I dare not set myself up to tell you the truth. … It is a repetition of the difficulty a friend of mine and myself had over a steam launch called the Dragon Fly, whose internal health was chronically poor, and subject to bad attacks. Well, one afternoon, he and I had to take her out to the home-going steamer, and she had suffered that afternoon in the engines, and when she suffered anywhere she let you know it. We did what we could for her, in the interests of humanity and ourselves; we gave her lots of oil, and fed her with delicately-chopped wood; but all to but little avail. So both our tempers being strained when we got to the steamer, we told her what the other one of us had been saying about the Dragon Fly. The purser of the steamer thereon said “that people who said things like those about a poor inanimate steam launch were fools with a flaming hot future, and lost souls entirely.” We realised that our observations had been imperfect; and so, being ever desirous of improving ourselves, we offered to put the purser on shore in the Dragon Fly. We knew she was feeling still much the same, and we wanted to know what he would say when jets of superheated steam played on him. He came, and they did; and when they did, you know, he said things I cannot repeat. Nevertheless, things of the nature of our own remarks, but so much finer of the kind, that we regarded him with awe when he was returning thanks to the “poor inanimate steam launch”; but it was when it came to his going ashore, gladly to leave us and her, that we found out what that man could say; and we morally fainted at his remarks made on discovering that he had been sitting in a pool of smutty oil, which she had insidiously treated him to, in order to take some of the stuffing out of him about the superior snow-whiteness of his trousers. Well, that purser went off the scene in a blue flame; and I said to my companion, “Sir, we cannot say things like that.” “Right you are, Miss Kingsley,” he said sadly; “you and I are only fit for Sunday school entertainments.”

Mary Kingsley wrote two books, Travels in West Africa, published in 1897, and West African Studies, published in 1899, and she published several articles. Her writing was descriptive and full of detail about the surroundings and observations of the people she encountered. The humor infusing her writing makes reading her work still a joy today.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: Calas—The Tale of a Rice Donut

Buffy Andrews began cooking as a young girl at her grandmother’s side in New Orleans. Buffy’s grandmother showed her how to make recipes that are handed down for generations along with all the tips and tricks for preparing them. While Buffy has taken cooking classes along the way, she has found that the foods she grew up eating are still her biggest source of inspiration. More tasty tales and recipes can be found in her upcoming book, The Creole Table; Contemporary New Orleans Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Cuisine.

Calas were, some believe, the precursor to the modern beignet donut you can get in the French Quarter of New Orleans today. The word “calas” hails from the West African word nupe kara, which translates as “fried cake.” Calas are soft, sweet rice donuts covered in powdered sugar and best served warm.

Historically, Creole slaves sold them on the streets of the French Quarter in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The story of the cala illustrates what a unique and beautiful melting pot of culture New Orleans is at its roots. New Orleans has brought the world Creole cuisine, jazz music, and a unique city unlike any other.

As a native New Orleanian, I always felt, in my heart, there was something special about the city of New Orleans. The Cala story begins to illustrate the subtle uniqueness that makes up New Orleans. The cala has all but fallen into obscurity, though it can still be found in a few of the old French Quarter restaurants as well as in the homes of some New Orleanians. The beignet has replaced it in popularity over the last 100 years or so but, at one time, it graced the tables where the beignet now resides.

The French Quarter
The cala, for me, is a story of hope and transformation. What moves me about the story of the cala is how a simple food like a rice donut was able to change the lives of some slaves.

I know it seems strange but, yes, slaves. To give a bit of background, there were laws that slave-owners had to adhere to.

The two local laws that are key to this story are:

1. Slaves were given Sundays off.
2. If a slave came up to their owner and asked to buy their freedom, the slave owner had to oblige.

These two rules set up the poetic beauty of such a simple food. If a slave was industrious enough, he or she could work on Sundays for herself making and selling calas. She could save her money and buy her freedom. So it was common back then to hear Creole girls carrying baskets full of hot donuts shouting Calas! Tout chaud! (“Hot calas!”) in the streets.

I love the thought of slaves being able to buy their freedom by making and selling calas. It makes my heart sing.

Growing up on the same rustic streets where calas were once sold, I can imagine a Creole girl walking the streets of the French Quarter selling her freshly made calas with the dream of buying her freedom.
So never underestimate the power of food, no matter how small. It can transform lives in so many ways...

A number of New Orleanian families have a wonderful tradition of serving calas. Typically, these families are descended from Creole slaves and have maintained this tradition of making and eating calas for many generations. And what an outsider, not from New Orleans, might miss at first glance is the true melting pot that is uniquely New Orleans. Many of the families that have a cala tradition are white but, as they look back along their family history, they probably have ancestors who were slaves.

So this is how I see New Orleans: we are all the same, joined together with a passion for food, music and a love for a city that most people can’t understand. New Orleans is a city that defies explanation; it must be experienced.

I have added here a recipe for calas. I have adapted the recipe printed in the Times-Picayune to make it gluten-free.


1/2 cup warm water
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 pkg active dry yeast
3/4 cup cooked white rice
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
3/4 cup all-purpose gluten-free flour
1 pinch Kosher salt
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg or cinnamon
Optional peanut oil for frying
Powdered sugar for a heavy dusting

Directions:  The day before you make your calas, combine the water and sugar in a small bowl. Add the yeast and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the rice and stir well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and leave at room temperature overnight. This step will really give your calas a distinctive flavor; think sourdough.

The next day, stir the rice mixture and kind of mash the rice against the side of the bowl with a wooden spoon. Don’t go too crazy though, as you’ll want a bit of texture in the finished product.

Add the remaining ingredients to the rice mixture, and mix well with a wooden spoon. The mixture should be a fairly loose batter, a little thicker than pancake batter. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.  This step will make your calas as light as air when fried!

Heat 3 inches of peanut oil in a large saucepan that’s been heated to 365 degrees. Drop spoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, turning once. Serve with lots and lots of powdered sugar sprinkled over them, like beignets, or else drizzle with cane syrup. Recipe makes about 6 good-sized calas.

I do hope you enjoy the calas as much as I do.