Sunday, December 18, 2016

Joyeux Noel, A Movie We Watch Each Year

German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment pose with men of the Royal
Warwickshire Regiment in 'No Man's Land' on the Western Front in
December 2014. Photo is in the Public Domain. You can read the
article HERE
Every year for the past three years, I've returned to an earlier post about a film that continues to move me deeply: Joyeux Noel, the 2005-2006 film that was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film. This has become my favorite Christmas movie, and I watch it each year. (You can order it from Amazon here: )

The individual stories highlighted in the film (among them, a German opera singer gets permission to join her lover at the front for Christmas Eve) were fictitious, but the over all story is based on a true happening on a Christmas Eve in 1914, in the theater of war: Scottish, French, and German troops agreed to a cease fire, and put down their weapons to celebrate Christmas Eve. Bonds were formed. The next day, troops  even warned each other of planned shellings and offered refuge in each other's trenches when the shellings occurred.

A few years ago, Sacramento Bee published an article about this phenomenon, a phenomenon that actually occurred in several places across Belgium and across the Western Front. One such place was Flanders Field, (the site of John McCrae’s famous poem later, comparing the blood of slain British warriors to red poppies.) You can read the article by pressing "HERE" under the photo above.

In Joyeux Noel, on Christmas Eve, German soldiers began playing music familiar to both German and Scottish soldiers. Then the French joined in. Soon an informal truce was struck. Troops visited each other, gave each other food and small gifts. Some played games. For a little while, peace broke out. The Christmas mass was conducted out in No Man's Land with all of the soldiers responding in their different languages.But afterwards, (as happened in the movie), army generals took steps to make sure it couldn't happen again. In the following war years, at Christmastime, generals stepped up the fighting to ensure that no one would even think of a truce.

In this case, for all three military groups, the only thing that saved troops from being tried for treason was the fact that 200 or so in each case would have to be tried. Instead, all the participants were transferred to other fronts to prevent future occurrences.

Joyeux Noel is a remarkable film--a reminder that we are human first, and that the human impulse is toward peace. It is the political impulse that moves nations to war. Basic decency is core to the human heart.

So here it is again: The New Year is on its way. We still live in a troubled world, wondering how to meet the challenges, though the Christmas message is clear—one we should be thinking of as we decorate our trees, hang our lights, send our cards: Peace on earth, good will to all.

Best wishes for a time of true peace, when love is stronger than fear, and people can be united again in their common humanity.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

October in Galicia

Early October.

Little lambs everywhere. So cute.
Our trip to Galicia this fall seemed to fly by. When we arrived, the weather      
seemed like summer. Except for a couple of rainy and windy days that were chilly, the temperatures have been fabulous. Blue skies and warm afternoons, with moderately  chilly mornings or evenings.  You can see in the picture below that even now fall is only beginning.
Now the trees are starting to turn.

On the far hill is a small village called Piñeiro. It used to show more completely, as well as another small village below it called San Lorenz. But as the population ages and the young people move away or go abroad for jobs, there is less farming. The trees aren't cleared. Also, for the older people, the calefacción is replacing the wood-burning stove for heating the home, and so fewer trees are chopped down for firewood.
 Due to my eye surgery, we couldn't come to Trasulfe until October, and then we squeezed in 4 days of that time to go to Braga, Portugal. (I've been posting pictures of Braga on my Facebook Timeline.) But this was one trip where I didn't work much through the week. I had rewritten my mystery for the trillionth time and sent it off, and except for a couple of book reviews, I let myself kick back and relax on this visit. Rajan and I just spent time with neighbors and friends, or going into Monforte, the nearest big town, and joining others for coffee or lunch or dinner. It was great! Rajan, of course, was better about taking his daily walks and taking black-and-white photos everywhere on country roads and in the small hamlets.

I did take loads of pictures, though. Despite the fact we are about to go home in three days, I'll be posting about the trip, starting today with a post about the feria. Ah, the feria!

We love it! It's simply the old village fair, although there's a fair or market day in every town or village, no matter what size. Monforte de Lemos (Monforte for short) has three each month, always on the same dates: the 6th, the 16th, and the 24th. The 24th is the biggest one, though, and simply packed with stalls and people. Other towns around have at least two, but Monforte is our favorite. You can buy anything: shoes, clothing, dishtowels, tablecloths, winemaking supplies, stills to make aguardiente, a killer brandy that goes into café or is used to make flavored liquors in every home. (It's legal here to distill brandy for home use, although you can't sell it.)

These made us laugh.

Rajan passing produce stands.

Wine-making vats.

Yup. Stills in all sizes for the home.

We went with our neighbor Miguel, as we do at least once each trip.

In the big hall you see pictured below, the specialty is pulpo (octopus). Now, at first, the idea of eating octopus had me wary, but both Rajan and I were surprised to learn we like it—a lot! We look forward to lunch with Miguel on every trip, now.

The way they prepare pulpo at the fairs is to boil it in a copper pot until it is tender, then cut it in small pieces and provide toothpicks instead of forks. Once on the wooden plate, they sprinkle paprika or red pepper, depending on whether you like it picante — we do — and drizzle it with olive oil. (You can also get broiled meat, but we are vegetarians, although we do eat seafood.)

Sonia preparing the pulpo to serve. We see her at all the ferias, including at Ferreira and at Escairón. (She's actually neighbor to an acquaintance near Tuiriz. Slowly you learn these things.) Since the fairs in each town are all on different dates, it works out well for her to make the rounds.   The meal includes a bottle of the house wine and a long loaf of bread to tear into pieces and dip in the olive oil on your plate. (Mmm, good!)

The olive oil.

Miguel, savoring pulpo. 

The pulpo.

Wine, bread, and pulpo. A great trio.

We arrived early, and sat at one of the long tables while Sonia prepared our order. As you can see, the place hadn't filled up yet, but by the time we left, the regulars had arrived—whole families—and the air was full of laughter and greetings.
Before the crowd.

Later—a good time being had by all.

Then it was time to go home. Hope you have enjoyed your afternoon at the feria! More photos and posts to come. Meanwhile . . .

Have you ever been to a village fair? Have you ever eaten octopus? If so, how was it prepared? Have you ever eaten a dish you never expected to eat? What is your favorite "new" food that you tried for the first time?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Two Follow-up Videos of the Musicians at the Greek Festival.


Rajan took these two videos at the Greek Festival, and they really capture the music. But for some reason I can't get the sound to work on this blog. Any suggestions?

Meanwhile, they do play on Facebook, if you want to go to my Facebook Timeline HERE.

 Happy listening!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Sacramento Greek Festival and a Master Musician - Opa!


Those of you who visit my blog often know how much I love travel and other cultures, whether  I physically travel to another country, vicariously travel through books or go to local multicultural events. The Sacramento Greek Festival on Labor Day week-end is one such event. I always call it my "free trip to Greece." Above, you can see some of the displays of Greek costumes. This is probably the closest I will get to Greece, but I've always been charmed by it ever since reading and seeing the movie, Zorba. What I am most pulled by is the music. It's so haunting. It lingers in your mind afterwards. Those minor notes . . .

At the Greek Festival,
 there is also an agora (marketplace) where you can shop for anything from imported clothing, jewelry, art, ceramics, etc. And a little garden shop.

The food is also delicious. (See how contented these diners look?) There are also Greek cooking lessons. Wine and beer 
are also available, as well. (Where else can you get an intriguing retsina--that resin-flavored wine I really enjoy) than at the festival? And displays are set up to celebrate Greece's history.
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A big event each year is when the noted artist, Greg Kondos, shows up. To support the event,  Kondos usually donates prints to the Festival to sell; those who buy one can get his autograph. We missed seeing him this year, but we have two  autographed prints from other years that have pride of place in our home. 

An important feature of the festival is the performance by young people of traditional greek dances--by age group, from elementary school age, middle school, high school, and finally the college group that performs late in the evening, choreographing their own special performance at a facsimile of a Taverna. Unfortunately we didn't stay for this part of the program, as we had to leave early the next morning for a trip we were taking. And pictures we took at earlier festivals print -- digital ones-- got accidentally erase (evil computer problems.) But we have more or less watched a whole generation grow up, advancing from group to group. (We've gone to the festival for about 32 years!)

A live band plays later in the evening, and between sets, Demetre Paraskevas, the DJ and host of the evening ,usually plays taped music while people get out on the dance floor and circle dance, if they know how. If they don't, as the evening wears on, Demetre gives free dance lessons. You can go to the Greek Festival site to see and hear more HERE

But now I'm coming to the real treat for us this year--a concert by two musicians, one playing the bouzouki, (a Greek stringed instrument that looks somewhat like the Portuguese guitar I've mentioned in earlier posts about Fado) and the other playing an acoustic guitar. Both instruments blend so beautifully.

I've always loved acoustic guitar, but the bouzouki just swept me away, and Rajan as well. We felt so lucky to have come early! The bouzouki player's name is Orestis Koletsos, and he records with his trio, HOLAX. Last Friday he explained to the audience that the bouzouki expresses the soul of the Greek people. I can believe it. There was so much fire, excitement, sadness, happiness, conveyed by turns on this marvelous instrument. I wish I could share the sounds of it right here on the post. The best I can do is send you to his website HERE  His trio also includes a violinist. The three instruments together just take you to a different world, and the guitarist, in addition to playing so beautifully, is a fine vocalist as well. You can hear some of their songs on YouTube HERE and HERE. You can also follow Orestis on Facebook HERE.

Check out these sites, including the Greek Festival. I'll close with the one Greek word I know--Opa--which means, I've been told, a great many things. So that, frankly, I'm still not sure what it means. If  you can find out, please let me know.

How about you? Are you smitten by travel? Have you always wanted to go to Greece? What is your favorite Greek novel or movie?

Friday, August 26, 2016

An Interview with Mark Noce


Today I am happy to have as my guest Mark Noce, author of the fine historical novel set in post-Arthurian Wales, Between Two Fires. (Last week I review his novel on this blog, and you can re-read the review HERE.)

I was fortunate to be able to read a PDF of the book in advance. I also preordered a copy of the book to have signed and was notified by Amazon that it will arrive tomorrow. (Yay!) For those of you in the Sacramento area, he will be signing books at the Avid Reader at 2:00 p.m., Saturday, September 2nd.

Mark was kind enough to answer some interview questions about his book and his writing process, so I hope you will enjoy learning more about both. After the interview you can read more information from the publisher and also get order information and Mark's contact information. And now . . . here's Mark

1. Between Two Fires is set in sixth-century Wales. How did you get interested in this period?
I’m always interested in any “dark age” period on history. Not just some technologically backward time or an era where civilization collapses, but an epoch that has left very little trace for modern historians and archaeologists. As an author, historical fiction allows me to bridge the gap and extrapolate a little further than a historian might feel comfortable doing. I love giving life to these time periods, such as early medieval Wales, where we’ve literally lost the names of some of the kings and kingdoms, let alone what the common people were doing. My novel is a small attempt to shed light on the supposed “darkness” of this age.

2.  Did you have to do much research for your story? What kind of sources were available?
I certainly did plenty of research, but the clues left behind are few indeed. The longest piece of text to survive the time period is only a few dozen pages! Couple that with a few ruins and some oral legends and the trail can go very cold very quickly indeed. But I find that applying some common sense with what makes for a good narrative often turns into a complimentary process. Legends definitely provided plenty of inspiration!

3. Are there any legends of a strong woman leader in the Celtic Wales of that era?
There are hints, for instance, references to a queen who ruled like a man in one kingdom long after the Romans were gone. Also, many tribal Celtic customs survived in places like Wales and Cornwall, and they definitely had a matriarchal bent to them. Goddess worship mixed with concepts of the Holy Virgin and the Saints, and voila older forms of thought suddenly become Christianized, but still very much existed. Also the actual Mabinogion legend of Branwen is set without any firm date in antiquity, simply supposing to have occurred sometime in the distant past. So as an author, you get a lot of leeway considering the vagueness of dates and times in the oral legends.

4. Your settings were full of rich details so that the landscape came alive. Have you been to some of the locations your story mentions?
I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the UK and Ireland, but I found that not as useful in this novel, mainly because the landscape and sometimes even the culture itself has changed so dramatically in the last millennium-and-a-half. Deforestation, alterations of laws or customs, and subsequent invaders have given us a modern Wales that looks pretty different. The visualizations for me came more from the legends themselves, which paint a picture of a very wild landscape with people as untamed as the land they inhabit.

5. Between Two Fires is both history novel and a puzzle mystery, both with lots of plot twists, and a dynamic protagonist. Tell a little bit about your writing process: Do you start with the plot or with the character? 
For me they’re a bit of the same thing. That being said, I definitely start with the character. If I know the protagonist inside and out, I know what they’ll do and what their story will be. For me it all started with that first line, “Today I will marry a man I have never met.” From that point on I knew Branwen and had to tell her story.

6. Can we expect to see any more of Branwen in future novels?
Definitely! I already have the sequel with the publisher, although no firm release date as of yet. The Long Defeat will showcase the Welsh dealing with a new threat, the Picts, and a very different set of circumstances than when they dealt with the Saxons.  

7. Any hints about what you are presently working on?
I’ve always got something going, although I admit that with all the marketing efforts for Between Two Fires, I haven’t been writing as much as I prefer. I write contemporary short stories, and even sometimes Sci Fi or fan fiction. I’ve also written a draft of a Viking story that follows a female warrior amongst the Norse. But mostly, I just let inspiration lead me where it wants. Even I don’t know what I’ll write next!

Thanks again for having me here, Elizabeth! 

My pleasure!

What others are saying, where to buy the book, and how to contact Mark:

Praise from Bestselling Authors for Between Two Fires
“A spirited ride through a turbulent slice of Welsh history!” – Paula Brackston, NYT Bestselling author of The Witch’s Daughter

“A fast-paced read that has a wonderfully visual style and some memorable characters. Mark Noce combines Welsh history with a touch of folkloric magic in this promising debut novel. Lady Branwen is a strong and engaging narrator and the turbulent setting of early medieval Wales makes a fine backdrop for an action-packed story.” – Juliet Marillier, Bestselling author of Daughter of the Forest and Wolfskin

Synopsis of Between Two Fires
Saxon barbarians threaten to destroy medieval Wales. Lady Branwen becomes Wales’ last hope to unite their divided kingdoms when her father betroths her to a powerful Welsh warlord, the Hammer King.

But this fledgling alliance is fraught with enemies from within and without as Branwen herself becomes the target of assassinations and courtly intrigue. A young woman in a world of fierce warriors, she seeks to assert her own authority and preserve Wales against the barbarians. But when she falls for a young hedge knight named Artagan her world threatens to tear itself apart. Caught between her duty to her people and her love of a man she cannot have, Branwen must choose whether to preserve her royal marriage or to follow her heart. Somehow she must save her people and remain true to herself, before Saxon invaders and a mysterious traitor try to destroy her.

Places to Order Between Two Fires

Author Bio
Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion, and eagerly reads everything from fantasy to literature. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he’s an avid traveler and backpacker, particularly in Europe and North America. He earned his BA and MA from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he also met his beautiful wife. By day, he works as a Technical Writer, having spent much of his career at places like Google and Facebook. In addition to writing novels, he also writes short fiction online. When not reading or writing, he’s probably listening to U2, sailing his dad’s boat, or gardening with his family.

His debut novel, Between Two Fires, is being published by Thomas Dunne Books (an imprint of St. Martin's Press and Macmillan). It is the first in a series of historical fiction novels set in medieval Wales.

Social Media Links 

For those of you stopping by today, can you recommend other books set in a historical period in Wales? (I have a thing about Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and love to find novels with those settings.)

Friday, August 19, 2016

New Book Review -- Between Two Fires, by Mark Noce

I've had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Mark Noce through blogging, and the equally good fortune to get an advance reading of his debut novel, Between Two Fires. Mark is on a blog tour now, and -- lucky me -- I had the good fortune even again to get an interview with Mark. Next week I'll be posting that interview, so please do return to learn more about him, his book, and his writing process. 

Meanwhile, here is the review of his book I posted on Goodreads yesterday:

I love a good mystery, and I love fiction that takes place in historical times. I’m also hooked on stories set in Celtic Britain. So these are three great reasons to be delighted with Mark Noce’s debut novel, Between Two Fires.

The book opens in the year A.D. 597—post-Arthurian times, when Wales is in disarray from the invading Saxons. The Romans are gone. Arthur’s Camelot is distant history. Christianity coexists with remnants of the old Druid religion. Fragmented Wales is riddled by power struggles between kings want to be sole ruler of Wales, if it can ever be united enough to withstand the Saxons. The ambitious King Vortigen of Dyfed has decided to marry his illegitimate daughter Branwen to King Morgan of Caerleon and Caerwent, also known as the Hammer King. Illegitimate or not, it’s to Morgan’s advantage to breed sons by Branwen for the future, and it’s to Vortigen’s advantage to have his daughter strategically placed to spy on Morgan. Yes. It’s that kind of world, full of intrigue and counterplots set in motion by those who have other plans for Branwen.

At first, sixteen-year-old Branwen, smart but dutiful, is resigned to her destiny. Then several attempts on her life force her to make her own destiny, one very much at odds to the future her father had planned. Choosing love over duty, using healing skills she learned from her mother, trusting her own natural leadership, Branwen becomes a legend throughout Wales. The story is told throughout through her eyes in present tense, which gives a sense of immediacy to every scene. Subplots abound, all of them well-resolved. From the opening line (Today I will marry a man I have never met), the main story’s builds tension, and each chapter ends on a page turner.

The story takes place over a three-year period, during which Branwen evolves into a revered figure the people call Mab Ceridwen, with the love of her life by her side. I can’t tell much more of the storyline beyond this without spoilers. But this is a book to settle into, as you become immersed in history, legend, and a great love story.

You can learn more about Between Two Fires and the author HERE. And you can preorder the book HERE  (I did, and I can hardly wait for it to arrive, so that I can take it to his book signing in Sacramento next month -- September 3rd).

How about you? Have you had the opportunity to get a book signed by an author you like? Do you like historical fiction? If so, what period of time and what setting?