The New Tree Callister Mystery Is Now Available on Amazon

wives_cover3dThe Four Wives of the Sanibel Sunset Detective has just become available on Amazon. You can download an ebook copy immediately or pre-order the print version and have it on your doorstep when it is published November 21.

For your copy of the new book, simply click HERE.

I think The Four Wives is the most intriguing Tree Callister novel yet–certainly it is the most complicated since it involves matters of the heart.

Tree, happily married on his fourth try, must nonetheless confront his past when his three ex-wives show up on Sanibel Island. All three wives are in some kind of trouble. Tree must try to get them out of the hot water his exes find themselves in, free his best friend from prison, outwit a Russian oligarch who doesn’t like him, solve a murder or two…

And, oh yes, deal with Marilyn Monroe who shows up with marital advice.

It’s another page-turning fun read in the Sanibel Sunset Detective series of mystery novels.

Order your copy now. I think you’ll enjoy it!

Get your copy of The Four Wives of the Sanibel Sunset Detective HERE.

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Justin Trudeau’s Dad and Me

Pierre and Me

In Donald Brittain’s powerful 1978 television documentary The Champions, about the lifelong battle for Canada’s destiny between Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque, there is a shot of Trudeau being interviewed in the midst of the 1968 Liberal leadership convention.

Days away from becoming prime minister, Trudeau is seated in a glass-walled TV studio in the midst of the convention. The camera pans around delegates and members of the media pressed against the glass for a look at this emerging phenomenon.

The panning camera comes to a stop and briefly focuses on a skinny kid in a trench coat fumbling with a camera.

That skinny kid is me, in grainy black and white, trying to take Pierre Trudeau’s picture. I must say, I am no better with a camera today than I was way back then.Kid With A Camera

To my amazement, I found Brittain’s documentary online (at the National Film Board’s web site). I sat watching it on my computer screen, fascinated all over again, not only by my (very) brief appearance but overwhelmed by the realization  I have now lived long enough to witness not only the ascension of Pierre Elliott Trudeau into Canadian life, but now his son, Justin.

To view scenes from that convention all these years later is to be reminded  how much we have changed in this country.

Today, as Pierre’s son becomes Canada’s twenty-third prime minister, I’ve become an old man, contemplating the end of things, not their beginnings. Back then I was just starting out, everything in front of me, a not-very-enthusiastic student at Ottawa’s Algonquin College journalism school. Somehow, our teacher, a quiet, patient man named Merv Kelly, had scored accreditation so our class could attend the Liberal convention.

I can’t imagine the press today having the kind of unfettered access we had that weekend at the Ottawa Civic Center. It seems to me we could wander just about anywhere, and rub shoulders with all the candidates, although, in truth, the only one that interested me was Trudeau. I trailed him around everywhere.

Trudeau in 1968 by KarshFriday night we all crowded into the lobby of Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel  to hear the  folk duo of Ian and Sylvia–very popular at the time–performing live. Suddenly, there was a stirring at the back of the lobby, followed by a wave of excitement as Trudeau appeared unexpectedly and was hoisted through the cheering crowd. If there was security, it wasn’t evident. There seemed to be only Trudeau up on a makeshift podium with Ian and Sylvia, making an impromptu speech, the crowd going crazy.

None of the other leadership candidates caused anything approaching this kind of excitement. They all seemed old and worn out. Trudeau, on the other hand, not unlike his son nearly five decades later, was new and exciting. No one had seen anything quite like him; he was a breath of fresh air in what was then such a staid and conservative country.

Anyone who looks back on those times and remembers the good old days probably didn’t have to live through them. It was a mostly all-white society, in many ways still under the colonial shadow of Britain (Canada had achieved its own flag amid much rancor only a couple of years before). The white men who ran the country closed everything up tight on Sundays. You could not even go to a movie.There were still separate tavern entrances for men and women.

If you wanted to buy booze, you went to the government-operated liquor store, filled out a form, signed your name, and then took it to the counter and handed it to a clerk who then disappeared behind a partition to reemerge minutes later with your purchase in hand–in a plain paper bag, so no one would know you were a shiftless drunkard.

Everything was overcooked and bland. There were only a few decent restaurants and eating out was still considered a special event. In retrospect, Trudeau’s major achievement other than repatriating the constitution from Britain, may have been opening the flood gates to immigration, thereby making it possible to get a good meal in this country.

Books such as Peyton Place, James Joyce’s Ulysses,  and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were banned outright in many quarters. In Toronto, people went to jail, literally, for displaying art that was considered pornographic.

The first time I encountered Trudeau, I was still in high school. Our Brockville Collegiate Institute class came to Ottawa to tour the Parliament buildings–you could just walk into the place back then.

We were supposed to meet with John Matheson, our very popular Liberal member of parliament (probably the last time Brockville ever elected a Liberal). However, Matheson, whom I admired tremendously, was ill that day. He did speak to us over the phone, though, and said he was sending a close friend to substitute for him.

In walked Pierre Trudeau, who was, at the time, Minister of Justice. What did I think of him that day? Was I mesmerized by the man who was soon to lead the country? Not at all. I thought he was boring.

But not at the convention a couple of years later. By then, Trudeau was electrifying the country. Those of us who were part of that time never quite lost our affection for him or forgot the sense of excitement he brought to dull Canadian life. As most Canadian politicians do, he over stayed his welcome, and, as has been the case  with President Obama in the U.S., the reality of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau never quite lived up to the promise of the sports car-driving, movie star-dating young maverick (not so young after all; it turned out Trudeau was forty-eight when he was elected leader of the party).justin trudeau

I won’t be so melodramatic as to say that weekend at the Liberal convention changed my life. But certainly much changed that year. A couple of months later, school behind me, I was a reporter working for a daily newspaper, The Oshawa Times, while Pierre Trudeau crisscrossed the country in his first election campaign as prime minister, mauled by huge crowds everywhere he went. Trudeaumania was in full flower.

My first day at work I was preparing to cross the street to the Times when I glanced around and saw a lanky, bald-headed man standing on the corner. I realized with a start that this was Robert Stanfield, the leader of what was then called the Progressive Conservative Party, the guy running against Trudeau to be prime minister. I couldn’t believe it. He was all alone, not a soul around him. I went over and shook his hand, understanding at that moment Stanfield didn’t stand a chance in the election. And, of course, he didn’t.

Much has happened since Pierre Trudeau stepped into Canadian life, both to me and to the country. Now, as Justin Trudeau becomes Canada’s second-youngest prime minister, I suppose there is a certain closing of the circle.

I wonder if Justin would like his picture taken.

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First Look: Ron Base’s new novel, “The Four Wives of the Sanibel Sunset Detective”

Tree Callister and his old friend Rex Baxter were having lunch on the screened-in terrace at the Lighthouse Restaurant, just off Sanibel Island, when Rex said, “I’m getting married in the morning.”

Medium“The song from My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe,” Tree said.

“No,” Rex said. “I’m getting married in the morning.”

“I would argue My Fair Lady is the best musical of all time,” Tree said. “The blend of story and song in exactly the right measure, the ability of Lerner and Lowe to conjure a Shavian sensibility that echoes the original play without being slavish to it. The inspired, witty score, each song a singular achievement in that once you hear it, you can’t stop humming the tune.”

Rex looked irritated. “Have you gone completely nuts? Don’t answer that. This has nothing to do with Lerner and Loewe. I, Rex Baxter, plan to marry tomorrow morning.”

Tree looked at him in amazement. “You’re getting married?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Rex repeated.

“Who are you marrying?”

“Who do you think?”

“My ex-wife?”

“You see?” Rex said. “People underestimate you. Given the opportunity, exercising a little patience, you can figure these things out for yourself.”

“You’re marrying Kelly. Kelly Fleming.”

“You seem to be having trouble with the concept,” Rex said.

“You have talked to Kelly about this?”

“I may have passed the idea by her, yes.”

“I see,” Tree said.

“I’d like you to be my best man,” Rex said.

Most of the luncheon diners on the terrace had departed. The marina beyond the restaurant sweltered in the afternoon sun, the lines of yachts, glistening white, unmoving, hardly a stir in the air.

Finally, Tree cleared his throat and eased himself forward, leaning his elbows on the table. “I’m going to be the best man for my best friend who is marrying my ex-wife.”

“Do you have a problem with that?” Rex asked.

Tree thought about it for a moment. “No,” he said. “I don’t suppose I do.”

Rex and Tree had been friends, as Rex liked to say, “Ever since the earth cooled,” or at least going back to Chicago when Tree was a newspaperman and Rex, a former actor in mostly B pictures, hosted an afternoon movie show on WBBM-TV. This was before Rex became the station’s weatherman, beloved of all the Chicagoans who ever wanted to know when the next snowstorm would batter the city. By the time Tree, and his wife, Freddie, moved to Sanibel-Captiva, Rex was already embedded in the community, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, once again beloved, and therefore in his element.

It was Rex who had found an office for Tree at the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center so that Tree could set up The Sanibel Sunset Detective Agency, a move Rex had lived to regret, Tree’s misadventures as a private eye on Sanibel Island having caused him untold amounts of grief, and had, according to Rex, interfered with the thriving tourist trade.

Now Tree supposedly had retired, tired, he said, of the constant jeopardy he found himself in on an island where nothing ever happened—except to him. Rex, meantime, had met and fallen in love with a former Chicago newscaster, Kelly Fleming, who, as it happened, was once married to Tree—the second of Tree’s four wives.

In fact, Rex had originally introduced Kelly and Tree.

Life certainly could be complicated, Tree mused. Well, he was open-minded about these things, wasn’t he? As long as his friend was happy, that’s all that counted. Wasn’t it?

“This is all happening pretty fast,” was all Tree could think to say.

“Not that fast,” Rex countered. “I’ve actually known Kelly longer than you.”

“That’s true,” Tree had to admit.

“Besides, I wanted to get her before she changes her mind.”

Rex was kidding, Tree thought. Wasn’t he?

4 Wives Cover1

A heavyset woman appeared at their table. She focused on Rex. This was not unusual. Rex had been a star television weatherman throughout Heartland America. Sanibel attracted tourists of a certain age from that Heartland, all of whom seemed to recognize their old TV pal.

The woman said in a gentle, breathy voice that Tree immediately recognized, “Rex? Rex Baxter. Is that you?”

Rex gaped in surprise before he said, “Judy? Judy Blair?”

“It’s me, Rex,” she said with a big smile.

He lumbered to his feet in time for Judy to embrace him. “I thought it was you,” she said. “I can’t believe it. What are you doing here?”

“Well, for one thing,” Rex said, “I’m having lunch with someone you might remember.”

She turned and for the first time took a good look at Tree. Her eyes widened. “Tree!”

Now it was Tree’s turn to rise awkwardly. Only Judy didn’t embrace him. Various emotions played on her smooth, round face—a face Tree barely recognized after all this time. Rex said to Judy, “You don’t recognize the guy you married? The father of your children?”

“Yes, of course,” Judy said, the warmth in her voice cooling. She mustered a smile. “It’s been a long time, Tree.”

“Yes,” Tree said.

A man appeared behind Judy. Tree had a quick impression of a large, extremely solid fellow with a bull neck, a dramatically-lined face topped by bristling hair he immediately identified as dyed—the male of the species, no matter how prosperous, seemingly incapable of hair coloring that looked at all natural.

Judy turned nervously and said, “Alexei, there you are.”

“Yes, I am right here,” her companion said. “Would you like to introduce me?”

“My husband, Alexei Markov,” Judy said. “Alexei, these are friends from Chicago. Rex Baxter and Tree Callister.”

“Good to meet you,” Rex said, sticking out his hand.

An attempt had been made to hide the bulk of Alexei Markov beneath a radiant Tommy Bahamas shirt, not tucked in at the waist. The attempt had failed. When he smiled, the dramatic lines of his face softened somewhat and you were given the impression that behind that rock-hard countenance there lurked the charm that would have attracted Judy. He took Rex’s hand in his.

“A pleasure,” he said. Then he turned to Tree, and the soft smile was wiped away. “I think you are less a friend, more the ex-husband, am I correct about that?”

“I’m afraid so,” Tree said. He was holding out his hand.

Alexei Markov looked at the proffered hand but did not take it. “I have heard so much about you,” he said. “None of it very good.”

“Alexei, that’s enough,” Judy said in a stricken voice.

Tree took his hand away and looked at Judy. “It’s good to see you, Judy.”

Judy gave another nervous smile. “Yes, certainly a surprise.”

“How long are you here for?” Rex asked.

“We have bought a house here,” Alexei Markov said. “We plan to spend much time in this beautiful place.”

“I’m the president of the Chamber of Commerce on Sanibel and Captiva,” Rex said. “If there’s anything I can do to help you settle in, please let me know.”

Rex handed Judy one of the business cards he seemed able to produce with a magician’s sleight of hand. She took the card and gave a fleeting smile. “That’s very kind of you, Rex. You always were so kind.”

Tree noticed he was not included in Judy’s kindness category.

Markov, demonstrating an equal ability at sleight of hand, plucked the card out of his wife’s fingers. “Yes,” he agreed. “That is kind of you, Mr. Baxter. We are most appreciative.” He looked at his wife. “Judy, I believe he had better have some lunch.”

“Good to see you,” Judy said to no one in particular.

Markov shot Tree one final, speculative look before taking his wife by the arm and leading her away. Rex watched them disappear into the dining room. “This confirms my suspicion that if you live long enough on this island, you will eventually meet everyone you ever knew from your past life.”

“Hard to disagree with you,” Tree said.

“Judy didn’t seem very happy to see you,” Rex said.

“I can’t blame her,” Tree said. “I wasn’t much of a husband.”

“You’ve improved,” Rex said. “What’s more, it only took you three marriages to do it.”

“I’m a slow learner,” Tree said.

“That’s certainly true,” Rex said, getting to his feet. “Just make sure you’re at the Island Inn tomorrow morning at eleven.”

“You’re getting married at the Island Inn?”

“I’ll be the guy on the beach with a big smile on his face,” Rex said.

“I’m happy for you, Rex,” Tree said. “You know that, don’t you?”

Rex gave his old friend a skeptical look.

And then he winked.

4 Wives Cover2

The Four Wives of the Sanibel Sunset Detective will be published in November by West-End Books.


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A Month In Provence: What? I’m Not In Provence?


The black bulls are charging outside our apartment in Uzès.

We are in this medieval French town to spend the next month experiencing the joys of Provence. Who knew about bulls?

Les tauraux  are part of the tradition and commerce in the region, and we have arrived for the Fete Votive, an annual celebration highlighted by the running of the bulls along the Boulevard Gambetta, the town’s main drag—an unexpected start to our time in Provence.Sunday in Uzes(Aug.9,2015) 085

Except, monsieur, désolé, but you are not in Provence.


As usual, my geography in these matters is shaky, although in fairness, pinpointing what part of France we are in depends on who you talk to. Peter Mayle, author of A year in Provence, a local resident and something of an expert in these matters, while acknowledging the confusion over what exactly constitutes Provence, pronounces that anything east of Avignon is Provence. Anything west is not.

Uzès is, ahem, slightly west.

For the purposes of tourism, and with a bow to a certain amount of snobbism, there is an inclination to attach the town to Provence, my lame (and snobby) excuse for thinking that’s where we were headed. Accuracy and the French government places it in the department of the Gard, in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon in the arrondissement of Nîmes.

Rooftops of Uzes

Never mind. Wherever you choose to locate it, Uzès occupies its own unique space, a sort of timeless French Brigadoon rising out of the misty countryside, surrounded by vineyards and fields of lavender, graced by plane trees, overseen by The Duchy, not quite a fairy tale castle—too many rough and tumble architectural influences for Disney-type fantasy—but a looming reminder that this is an ancient town of old stones, medieval stones built upon Roman stones topped by Renaissance stones.

Someone has lived here since the dawn of civilization. The Romans put it on the map, constructing an aqueduct from a spring in Uzès that ran fifty kilometers to the town of Nîmes where the first century inhabitants enjoyed running water and flush toilets.

That ended after five hundred years with the arrival of the Visigoths who did not wash, thus entering an unfortunate era where nobody much bathed, which led to the invention of French perfume. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The remnants of what used to be called Gaul are very much in evidence throughout the region, from the Roman ruins in Lyon to the well-preserved amphitheater in Nîmes (where they still hold bullfights twice a year) to the region’s piece de resistance, the Pont du Gard, not far from Uzès, built to bring water across the Gardon River, and still very much as it was in Roman times—except now you can kayak on the river beneath the bridge’s arches, something that presumably the Romans never did.

Saturday Market in Uzes(July8,2015) 022

Our large, airy apartment overlooks the Place aux Herbes, known for its Saturday morning market, bursting out of the square, crowding both sides of the Boulevard Gambetta. In August, the market attracts almost as many visitors as the bulls. You can hardly move for people clamoring for figs, and melon de Cavaillon, strawberries, locally produced sausage, olive oil, chickens with their heads still attached (so you know they are fresh?), lotte, durade (or sea bream), tuna the size of a small shark, pâtés, men’s and women’s clothing, local art.

Not everything you can imagine, but close, all of it erected in a clamor beginning at five in the morning, disturbing the starlings in the plane trees, waking the weary outsiders in the apartment above the square, ready by nine o’clock and then stripped down again at one.

The merchants around the Place aux Herbes are delighted with the influx of tourists. Business has never been better, they say, what with all the French families here for the traditional August holiday. In the cafes surrounding the square and on Boulevard Gambetta you can barely find an empty seat. If you do, you are soon reminded of an abiding fact of French life in the twenty-first century: everybody still smokes.

It remains an astonishing phenomenon coming from the comparatively smoke-free environs of North America. Here mothers stroll along pushing a carriage or pulling a child with one hand, casually and unselfconsciously puffing on a cigarette with the other hand. Cigarette butts are everywhere, clogging the cobblestones.

In Paris, the problem of cigarette butts is so great—three hundred and fifty thousand tons collected each year—that you can be fined for dropping one on the street. That doesn’t appear to have changed anything. The streets are littered not with dog merde but discarded cigarettes.

There is no escaping the smokers, but you can drive out of Uzès to investigate the neighboring towns, each featuring a singular attraction.

Nearby, Saint Quentin la Poterie is known, as its name suggests, for pottery. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, picturesque under a blazing sun on the Sorgue River, boasts antiques markets. The hilltop redoubt that is Ménerbes is the scene of author Peter Mayle’s bestselling A Year in Provence, although he no longer lives in the farm house outside of town featured in the book.

Pont d'AvignonAvignon provides ancient fortress walls, Le Palais du Papes, or the Papal Palace, the seat of Western Christianity during the fourteenth century, and the iconic le Pont d’Avignon, the bridge across the  Rhône River that doesn’t quite reach across the Rhône, but never mind, everyone comes to stand on it, anyway.

An hour or so away, the seaside town of Le Grau-du-Roi offers—exactly what it offers eludes this visitor, save for sea views, a wide plage, and impressive sand castles whose artists accept a Euro or two in payment for your admiring looks.

Anduze sits not far from the Grotte du Trabuc, twelve kilometers of vertigo-inducing underground caverns that only Nature’s wildest imagination could create. Anduze itself turns out to be an unpretentious gem with a restaurant, Le Cévenal, offering more luncheon escargots that this lover of snails has ever seen.

You can quickly become caught up in the dreamy, sun-drenched rhythms of life in the Gard: the walks through cobbled streets, the daily ritual of the baguette, the Comté cheese, the duck liver mousse (definitely the duck liver mousse), the morning smell of freshly baked croissants escaping from the local patisserie, not to mention—God help you—the cheap allure of accordion music drifting up through open windows into your apartment from the Place aux Herbes. All the clichés of living in the south of France that you swear are not going to seduce you, seduce you.

This is the fantasy of a life in France, of course, the unreal made real for a time. Not so far away thousands of desperate refugees fight and die to escape Middle East wars while European governments procrastinate and debate. In Paris, the government wrestles with what to do about a growing and restive ethnic population, not far removed from the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

None of this penetrates the timeless stones of Uzès. Brigadoon dreams on through the summer heat, making it far too easy to ignore reality.

Soon enough, though, August is swallowed into cooler September and the crowds abruptly are absent from Place aux Herbes and the Boulevard Gambetta. Everything quiets. It is nearly time to return to a place where no bulls run on the street, where they do not bake the baguettes daily, and where, sadly, you can once again understand what people are saying, and where, most of the time, you don’t need your wife to translate.

There is a final romantic dinner in the garden at Le Bec a Vin, a last moonlit stroll through the old town, shadows dancing off the stone walls, those old, old stones, a saddened sense that you are leaving…where?

Well, you are not leaving Provence. Or are you?

Blvd. Gambetta

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The Cutting of the Olive: Lessons in Life and Cooking From the South of France

Finished Product

I have learned how to cut an olive in half.

I now know that in order to make pissaladière, a traditional and very popular French pizza-type dish, one sweats the onions, one does not brown them.

Adding olive oil to bread dough makes kneading much easier.

I have also learned that Spanish olive oil has more guts than French olive oil, but don’t tell anyone, particularly the French.

There is an art to cutting anchovies in half with scissors that I was not able to master.

Do not buy spices already ground. Buy them whole and then grind them to bring out the true flavor. But do not use anything other than a mortar and pestle made of lava stone.

These and other life and culinary lessons are gleaned from Madame Petra of the Pistou Cookery School in Uzès, France. Madame Petra is Petra Carter, a lively Irish woman, who has so far jammed several lifetimes into a single life.

Petra at WorkBorn in Indonesia, raised in Dublin, she speaks six languages, has managed tented safari camps in Kenya and Tanzania, has written restaurant reviews for the Irish Times, edited the food pages of the Irish Tatler, published her own food magazine, and now gives cooking classes in a kitchen hewn out of 16th century stones sitting upon Roman ruins.

There are readers of this blog who may raise eyebrows in surprise, unaware that the author’s interest in food extends much beyond the eating of it. Those eyebrow-raising skeptics might be onto something.

However, the author’s wife Kathy is a combination of passionate foodie and avid Francophile, and just about anything she wants to do turns out to be a lot of fun. Thus we have cooked with a chef in Barcelona, and attended the Ritz Escoffier School in the kitchens of the Hotel Ritz in Paris where I am a graduate, and where my tarte au abricot inspired such envy from my wife that she knocked it onto the floor. She claimed it was an accident. Ha!

In addition to allowing me to swagger around announcing to the disbelieving that I cooked at the Ritz and have a diploma to prove it, these classes are a great way to better know the place where you are eating. They provide a closer view of how the locals live, and invariably one meets unusually lively and entertaining people from all over the world.

Even better, after throwing myself on the mercy of the chef (“I promise you, I am the worst student you will ever have”), I usually don’t have to do much more than look interested, and enjoy a wonderful meal.

There are six of us present for Madame Petra’s class: Suzanne and Grant, a young couple from Sydney, Australia who have just married and are on their honeymoon; Traudl, from Salzburg, Austria; Kerstin from Germany who has lived in France for over thirty years; a couple of Canadians spending the month in Uzès.

As is usually the case, most of those present have more than a passing interest in food and its preparation. There is ordinarily only one outlier in the group.


“I will be the worst student you ever have,” I tell Madame Petra, repeating my usual mantra at the start of a cooking class. Madame Petra’s ready smile slips only briefly.

She then takes us through a basic course in preparing what she calls the little dishes of Provence. There will be nine in all, including the aforementioned pissaladière, where my ability to cut an olive in half came into play and which, I suspect, made me the envy of the class.

However, the dish also requires the cutting vertically in half of anchovies, a task I took one look at, panicked, and turned over to Kathy, who not only accomplished this with alacrity but also laid out the thinly cut anchovies in an attractive latticework pattern atop the pastry of the pissaladière.

I then swept in and added the half-cut olives, accompanied by gasps of admiration from my classmates.

Kathy and Ron Art Work

Goat cheese was marinated in olive oil. Salted duck breast, a French delicacy that requires a lot of gros sel or sea salt and then must sit for two weeks (patience is required to be a Provençal cook, I learned).

Other dishes: moules pesquieres, a dressing made with sweet onion, green peppers, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and fruity olive oil (Spanish, of course) that brings the taste of mussels to dramatic life; faisselle or fresh cheese, also traditionally French, served as a savory dish made with fresh herbs and crushed spices; and prawns flambéed in pastis.

Best of all were the figs. They are cut into quarters almost to their base, then pressed at the sides until they open up to allow for the insertion of a piece of goat cheese before being wrapped in thinly sliced dry-cured ham, drizzled with a lavender honey balsamic glaze, and warmed in the oven. Superb!


The price that must be paid for all this food preparation is, of course, the eating of it. When we finally sit down to lunch, Madame Petra, who also teaches a course in the stuff, brings out generous amounts of local red and white wine. Her smile loses a bit of its elasticity when she discovers that not only am I her worst student, but I also don’t drink alcohol, the sort of revelation that can get you run out of town in these parts.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of wine drinkers. The meal is, as we all suspected it would be, outstanding. But the best part—and this is true of any of the cooking courses I have encountered—is the delightful company. Everyone talks up a storm.

When it comes to lively and entertaining, Madame Petra certainly fills the bill. The story of how she met her current boyfriend is worth the price of admission: he was the one bachelor among twelve hanging out in the town square at Narbonne who had good teeth. She arranged a lunch, and invited these village bachelors. The only bachelor who didn’t attend was the guy she actually wanted to meet—the one with the good teeth. Undaunted, Petra made sure he came by later; they have been more or less together ever since.

By the time we finish the meal, accompanied by a desert of fresh peaches swimming in local muscat wine, and have gotten to know one another, it is nearing four o’clock in the afternoon.

In the glow of the end of a wonderful day with a charming, talented chef, everyone agrees that the highlight was the way in which the olives were cut in half.

I look suitably humble.

Class of 2015

Petra with class of 2015

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How We Won The War–and Those Other Guys Didn’t

Courtyard at 14 avdnue Berthelot

The building where the Gestapo tortured, maimed, and killed hundreds of French men and women, and from where thousands were dispatched to gas chambers in the east, sits at fourteen avenue Berthelot near the River Rhone in central Lyon.

Lingering beneath the cooling plane trees lining the courtyard outside a structure that was originally a health college run by the military, it is not difficult to imagine trucks pulling up to disgorge prisoners into the interrogation rooms and dungeons run by the notorious Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. There are not a lot of distractions as you sit here; few visitors come to what is now Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation or, in English, simply the Museum of the Resistance.

If the history of war is written by the victors, the victors also get to create the museums and the memorials dedicated to those wars. In Britain, visits to Bletchley Park outside London, and the Churchill War Rooms, not far from Westminster, leave no doubt as to who won World War II.

The French at the Museum of the Resistance are less certain. They resisted, unquestionably, as the war went on, and Lyon was a center of that resistance.

But the museum must deal with a darker, more complicated reality: a covenant with the Third Reich that allowed the Vichy government to maintain control of southern France after the defeat of the French army in 1940; the dictatorial anti-Semite, Marshal Pétain, who ran Vichy, and had no trouble announcing that the Jews were responsible for the defeat of France; a population that had even less trouble believing him. As the museum points out, it was not the Germans who rounded up Jewish citizens. They didn’t have to. The French did most of the rounding up and deporting for them.

NazisaluteThe British don’t have to deal with these unpleasant facts of history—or do they? This summer, Britain was rocked by ancient black and white footage showing then Princess Elizabeth, her mother, and her sister, Margaret, in 1933 practicing their Nazi salutes, egged on by a happily enthusiastic Uncle Edward, who didn’t think the Third Reich was such a bad idea.

No sooner had the Nazi salute controversy flared, than Britain’s Channel 4 broadcast a documentary on Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, featuring a photo of him marching at his sister’s funeral with Nazi officers in full uniform. Turns out three of his sisters married German aristocrats who became top Nazis. One sister, Sophie, was pictured at Hermann Goering’s wedding, seated opposite Hitler.

The controversies swirling around the Royal family’s German ties, the close proximity of the sites where history unfolded, all of it has the effect of reminding a visitor just how close the Second World War remains here seventy years after its end.

In North America, the war tends to fade into the background. In Britain, it remains an ever-present reality—and a popular one at that.

On a hot, humid July afternoon the crowds line up down the block from the impressive bronze entranceway of what are now called The Churchill War Rooms located beside the Clive Steps next to the Treasury Building in Whitehall.

Surprisingly, there are large numbers of millennials for whom the world wars started by their grandparents shouldn’t hold much interest. But all ages and nationalities push through the cramped rooms where Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his cabinet huddled underground during the worst days of the Blitz. The rooms on display are a mixture of what was originally there and what has been recreated since they opened to the public in 1984 (the Churchill bedroom had to be reconstructed; it had been used for years as a storage area).

The Map Room

Visiting the site, you are overwhelmed by the sheer size and complexity of the effort to defeat the Nazis, particularly when peering into the map room where a small band of men and women gathered information and somehow kept track of a conflict that literally raged around the world, more or less held together by a lot of colored pins poked into a big wall map. High tech is not exactly a word that comes to mind when visiting the war rooms.

It doesn’t even fly off the tongue at Bletchley Park where another band of stout-hearted Brits broke the Nazi codes and thus, according to what they tell you at the park, shortened the war by at least two years—“The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled,” as Churchill memorably put it.

The crowd poking through The Mansion, the headquarters pile built in 1870, is older, much closer to their parents’ war than the kids lined up outside the Churchill rooms. But then the Bletchley estate isn’t easily reached,  located in Buckinghamshire, an hour’s drive through a series of roundabouts outside London. What’s more, the men and women who worked here were unknown for nearly thirty years after the war.

Bletchley Mansion (July16,2015)Even now, the reason most people visit the park on a perfect summer afternoon, has a great deal to do with the popularity of The Imitation Game, the Academy Award-nominated film about Alan Turing, the conflicted genius who helped create the massive computer, the Bombe, that could quickly break German codes and led to the computer age of which we are all forever a part.

Turing is barely mentioned in either the story about the effort to break the German codes presented by the park or by the guide who shepherds us through a tour of the facility.

In fact, it becomes clear after a few hours at Bletchley that a great deal of The Imitation Game is well-done fiction: no Russian spies, no Eureka moments, and a lot of Poles who played an important part in creating the machines that broke the German Enigma codes.

However, the Bletchley overseers are well aware that the movie, to paraphrase Churchill, is the modern-day equivalent of the goose that laid a golden egg of publicity. Thus, not only is there no effort to confront the falsehoods of The Imitation Game, the movie is actually celebrated with an exhibit of costumes and a couple of sets used when the production filmed inside The Mansion.

The truth of Bletchley is much more complex than any film depiction. No matter how much you read about how they went about  it, the whole business of breaking the Enigma codes still leaves most of us scratching our heads. But thankfully, a lot of people knew what they were doing. By war’s end, close to ten thousand people were working at Bletchley, codebreaking on an industrial scale. You cannot help but be impressed by the level of dedication, the breadth of the cunning, and the absolute determination it took to do what they did.

Back at the Museum of the Resistance in Lyon, one leaves the various exhibits and returns to a shadowy courtyard less certain of cunning and determination. Instead, there is a gloomy sense of the immense waste of the war, the brutal and unending ways in which it managed to take so many millions of lives. In today’s world, the fundamentalist killers of the East are the barbarians, but they have nothing on what the Europeans did to one another through two wars of the world over a span of less than thirty years.

Exiting fourteen avenue Berthelot, you think over the experience of the Imperial War Museum, Bletchley Park, the Churchill War Rooms, arriving at the uneasy and unheroic conclusion that there is peace in the Western World largely because an entire continent finally exhausted itself killing one another.

The victors don’t advertise that part so much.

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Gone London

London Changing

The London of Dickens, the London of countless Masterpiece Theatre portrayals, the black and white London of the British movies of my youth—in other words the traditional London that tourists flock here to experience, that London is fast disappearing.

At the bottom of Portobello Road the jaws of a mechanical monster right out of a CGI-infested superhero movie chew into the ruins of a long-standing structure. Luxury flats are to be built in place of what’s there now. The rich have arrived, and they are demanding changes to the landscape.

London Falling

In his informative non-fiction book, Portobello Road: Lives of a Neighbourhood, author and resident Julian Mash laments the continuing gentrification of this most iconic London neighborhood.

“Shops that had been a feature of the street for decades,” he writes, “were being forced out by huge rent hikes, replaced by impersonal high street chains.”

All over the city similar complaints are heard as local residents fight various luxury developments that threaten the uniqueness of their neighborhoods. The battle is mostly futile. Luxury is winning the war at the expense of historic London.

This is certainly evident at Arnold Circus in London’s East End, not far from Brick Lane. When they were built in 1890, the dramatic brick buildings surrounding the circular park with a bandstand at its center, formed the first so-called council estates—what we would call in North America, affordable housing. Today, although there is some council housing, flats in these buildings sell for prices  nudging toward a million American dollars.

Arnold Gardens

To be sure there are still lots of the monuments one associates with London. You can’t get rid of those. No tourist wants to stare at blocks of new Mayfair flats he or she can’t get into. So Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London digs, is still here, as is Kensington Palace where Kate and William reside  along with Prince Harry.

The Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace loom impressively as does the Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the best-known symbol of London, the double-decker red bus.

The West End continues to be synonymous with theatre, and it is still exciting to cross Piccadilly Circus in the evening to attend a show like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Disappointingly, though, as they do everywhere else, unimaginative juke box-type American musicals reign—Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra are both dead, but somehow still alive on West End stages.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, which survived German bombs during the Blitz, fights a losing battle against the colossal totems to modernity rising around it, homages to the architecture of Dubai, with derisive nick-names like the Shard, Cheese Grater, the Gherkin, and the Walkie Talkie.

The Shard(July25,2015)

And this is by no means the end of it.

According to the Guardian newspaper, two hundred and thirty new towers are due for construction in the coming years. “Like a cigarette butt stubbed out by the Thames,” is how the Guardian describes one of the proposed towers.

“The overall impression is of an unplanned free-for-all,” says the newspaper.

Carnaby Street is a tourist trap. Harrods, choked with tourists, looks more and more like any other high-end department store, so does Selfridge’s. The posh shops along Mayfair and Bond Street have been taken over by the luxury brand names you can find in just about any major city.

The average price of a London home has soared to five hundred thousand pounds, nearly one million American dollars. And that’s the average. London, as everyone points out, is increasingly for the world’s very rich, and the rich crave luxury.

The city is doing its best to provide it. The Victoria and Albert Museum even devotes an entire exhibit dedicated to the investigation of the subject.

“Luxury has a long history of controversy,” the exhibit points out. “More recently, the increase in prominence and growth of luxury brands against a backdrop of social inequality has raised new questions about what the term means to people today.”

The exhibit argues that luxury is the result of an investment of time and skill by dedicated artists passionate about what they create. It is the uniqueness of their products and their quality that makes them objects of luxury.

Fair enough, one supposes, but—and the exhibit makes less of this—cost increasingly replaces craftsmanship and uniqueness as an arbitrator of modern-day luxury. The luxurious flats are smaller, the soles come off the Marc Jacob shoes, the Gucci watches don’t work, the five star hotels nickel and dime guests to death.

In Charing

What used to be affordable isn’t, and so just about everything in London becomes something of a luxury that fewer and fewer people can afford. In order to escape this and perhaps find a more recognizable England, one climbs aboard a high-speed train (also a luxury) at St. Pancreas Station that whisks you southeast to the bucolic delights of country living in Ashford, Chilham, and Charing in Kent.

Yet even on the rolling green (a trifle brownish, actually, due to lack of rain) of the Kentish countryside, tradition is harder to find. My friend and local guide, Ray Bennett, grew up in Ashford and he says that so much has changed since he was a boy, he barely recognizes the place. The steeple of the church where he married many years ago used to dominate the town. Now it’s barely visible.

Down the road, Charing features a traditional high street where a friend occupies a small, charming English house fronting an English garden dominated by a bay leaf tree and overflowing with flowers and herbs. Here one has a brief sense of the England of clichéd imagination. That sense is amplified by lunch at the sort of—there is that word again—traditional pub one still expects to find in Britain, and often does.

Then it’s off to Leeds Castle where the English continue to do what so few of us do in North America, maintain and celebrate historic roots. Of course in the cradle of western civilization—at least the English section of it—there are plenty of roots to maintain.

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle, according to faithful guide Bennett, is one of Britain’s most beautiful castles. What’s more, it provides a combination of Wolf Hall and Downton Abbey for the visitor with limited time, evidence conveniently gathered under one roof, so to speak, that the rich through the centuries lived a lot better than the rest of us. There are not, as it turns out, a whole lot of poor people’s homes available for tours.

First built on an island in the River Len by a Norman baron during the reign of William the Conqueror, Leeds has played many roles throughout history, most prominently as the palace away from the palace of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Lady Baillie and daughtersLeeds in 1926 fell into the hands of, and was probably saved by, a wealthy Anglo-American heiress, Lady Baillie. It was she who decided that after her death, her beloved Leeds should be enjoyed by anybody with the price of a ticket—which is how they came to allow the likes of me into the place.

You wander out of the castle, pause for a final look at its imposing battlements, and it strikes you: the rich wrote English history, and they preserved their luxurious surroundings so the peasants could see how they lived. Perhaps there is hope for traditional London after all. The new traditional London that is. Hundreds of years from now our children’s children’s children’s children may be able to see where the rich and the ruling once lived.

For the moment, luxury is the multi-million dollar development I pass on the No. 23 bus back to our flat at Trellick Tower. No chance of ever getting into any of that in this lifetime. As the electronic voice on the London tube reminds you just before the doors open: “Mind the gap!”




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