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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Berlin Noir: Nazis, Russians, and a taste of war

Sometimes when I read I just want to be mindlessly entertained.  I get tired of analyzing brilliance and working what Poirot calls “Ze leetle gray zells,” or what high-brow publications call literature.  A little violence.  Sex to the breaking point. A plot that dares me to put the book down.

But, mindless does have its limits. Please don’t make me suffer through TV shows of endless teenage angst, or sports show experts who’ve already used their ration of live brain cells and are working on the dead ones.

Yes, there are books that stoop to the same level of ignorance.  Here’s an example:

“He walked into the house, carrying a large bag.  It was almost too heavy and he didn’t want to carry it, but he carried it into the house.  It was not a large house, but the bag was not as big as the house. “

Ok.  Got that.  Big bag.  Carried it into the freaking house!  Now, move it along, Jo-Jo.

I’m broadminded, but willing to shoot and dismember the man who wrote that and his brain-damaged editor.  I may keep it up, Torquemada style, until the entire editorial staff confesses to long-standing love affairs with Alsatian Wolfhounds.

No.  When I say mindless, I’m talking about well-placed sentences that easily lull me into enjoyment.  Pleasant and effortless.  A book I can read, while sitting on the beach with a large and juicy tumbler, almost toxic with alcohol.

Gotta have prose that flows.  Gotta have characters that don’t make me want to fling the book against the wall.  Gotta have a plot that grabs me in a vulnerable portion of my anatomy and makes me scream for the next page.

Is that so hard?  Not for Phillip Kerr, in his mid-1930s trilogy, Berlin Noir.  The three book package takes the reader through Germany during the rise of the Nazis, into the heart of the war era, and forward to the uneasy peace that followed.

Bernie Gunther is a former Berlin policeman who got fed up with having to choke down the Nazi bile and went out on his own as a private detective.  

Takes some careful treading to solve a crime when the streets already run red with blood, and concentration camps overflow.  You have to be careful whom you question and which questions you ask.  And, you damn sure better watch your back.

The heart of these novels are not the crimes per se, although Kerr’s plots drive things at the speed of heat.  The real guts of these mysteries are the interweaving of three societies and how everyone is affected by the turmoil and change. 

Society One:  March Violets.  The Nazis taking over, enforcing new rules, with raw vengeance.  Gives you a glimpse of how the Nazis were anything but a cohesive group.  Thugs and warlords here and there vied for political favor and the attention of the dictator.  If someone patted you on the back, best to make sure he didn’t have a knife in his hand.  To do one high official a favor was to piss another official off.

Society Two: The Pale Criminal.  Germany is at war. Still, the intrigues continue, along with the crimes.  Shortages of almost everything turn everyone into a suspect, all for their own reasons and needs.

Society Three:  A German Requiem.  The war is over, or is it?  America and the so-called allies jockey for power in a Germany that is now a vacuum. Renegade Nazis scurry into the shadows, but still pull invisible strings. No one trusts anyone and even within the same nationalities, intelligence services guard their territory like rival gangs, exposing little, hiding much.  Russian, American, and Germans tangle in a web of power and deceit.

Through all of it, Bernie Gunther has to make his living, solving crimes, getting the information he’s paid to get, keeping his soul intact and his head above water.  It’s not enough to merely follow the trail, ask the questions, and get the answers.  He finds people want to use him and his services for their employers, for own their countries, and especially for their own purposes.

Bernie has to find the cheese, but he’s not only in a room full of mousetraps, but he’s often the mouse.

I’ve had it with wishy-washy novels where everyone is equally guilty and “who can really judge?”  Give me some solid villains and at least one guy who’s a straight shooter.  If he bends the rules, it’s only because it’s best for everyone.  If he kills, he has a reason.  And don’t give me this ‘gone rogue’ bullshit.  Bernie is a man and a great detective.  If he walks a fine line, so much the better. He trusts few, but believes in himself.

My kind of guy.  My kind of detective.  My kind of books.  The Berlin Noir trilogy connects the dots, from the rise of the Nazis, to the war, and into the raw beginnings of the cold war.  Puts you in the middle of it all. Makes you feel as if you lived in Berlin through some of the most vicious times of the last century.

When you finish reading Berlin Noir, you’ll be searching for Philip Kerr’s other Bernie Gunther novels.  He’s a man with a gun and a mission to bring the light of truth into the darkest of corners.  If he’s lucky, he won’t get himself killed.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Strasbourg's Notre Dame and MORE!

The huge cathedral casts its shadow over the whole city.
In front of the cathedral, street musicians play The Theme From The Godfather

Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, is only about an hour and a half away.  Well, unless you have no GPS, and no map.  Then you pick and feel your way along the byways, or pull out your sextant…whoops, only works at night.  Sun shots are tough and even tougher when you’re driving on what in the U.S. would be a practice stretch at the Daytona Speedway.

Germany into France is seamless these days.  The signage changes, the speed drops from blazing to scorching.  Houses in the small towns seem a little more down at the mouth.  Rolling green, wooded hills and miles of open green pasture, strewn with languid cows and sheep don’t change.

I got to the center of Strasbourg in under two hours, which immediately called for cold beer at an outdoor café.   I like an Alsatian brew, Fischer. Fortunately, there are cafés aplenty, sprawling out in the plaza in front of the famous cathedral. 

Quench your thirst and hustle over to the Tourist Information Center, in the same square as the cathedral.

First question:  What do you like to do when you get to a new city?  Take a tour?  Pick out the best of the best from a guidebook?  Pull out the mandatory list acquaintances you don’t even like forced on you? 

Cast off that shadow of shame and doubt.  Be bold.

Gugelhupf - something like a Bundt Cake, in every bakery window.

I say, screw ‘em.  I like to pick out a spot or two that appeals to me.  If you said bars and outdoor cafés you’d be on the right track.  But, also I have to give the deity his/her/its due. Sentences get so complicated when you do your best to appease everyone’s point of view.  I should have added non-deity somewhere, but I do have my limits.

Back to Strasbourg and it’s cathedral.   Can’t miss it.  Center of the city.  A single tower makes it look a little cockeyed, because they never got around to building the twin. Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg is the proper name, but its also called Strasbourg Minster.

Parts of the cathedral were begun in the early 13th Century, but it wasn’t complete and open until a hundred years later.  Very impressive Gothic construction, over 460 feet high, with huge flying buttresses and lace-like stonework.  One of the many points of interest is inside, at the Astronomical Clock, where the twelve apostles parade before Christ every day at 1230.  Get there early.  The faithful and the gawkers press in like poor relatives at the reading of the will.

“Built” and “complete” are interesting terms.  Places of worship have occupied the site of this cathedral since Roman times, including several previous Christian churches.  Used to be the tallest cathedral in Europe until the Lutherans in Hamburg outdid themselves in the middle of the 19th Century and built St. Nicolas Church.  Still Strasbourg’s Cathedral of Our Lady is still the 6th tallest church in the world. And you’re still walking where Roman sandals scuffed the stones.

Want a thirsty experience?  Climb the 330 stone stairs…steep, narrow stairs…to the top.  Worth the gasping trip for a beautiful panorama of the entire city.  While you stroll above the rooftops, note all the graffiti from the Middle Ages.  Etchings crowd around the arched doorways.  Along the way, you’ll get a fantastic view of the flying buttresses.

Yes, there’s more to Strasbourg than a cathedral. There are museums and architectural wonders to keep you entertained, but I went to the heart of the old quarter, called Le Petite France.  Lots of half-timbered buildings.  Right on the canal and a perfect spot to find an outdoor café, bite into some lunch and sample some of the justly famous Alsatian wines or beers.

Most of the buildings in the old quarter belonged to tanners, who made use of the canal.  The buildings date mostly from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Passing out of the narrow lanes of Le Petite France, you won’t want to miss the long covered bridge and the old city towers.  Near the towers, right on the canal is one of my favorite Strasbourg restaurants, L’Ami Schutz. Beautiful interior, yet cozy.  Alsatian specialties galore.

The Covered Bridge, designed by the famous military engineer, Vauban, around 1681, gates within could be opened and the southern part of the city flooded for defense.

Stroll the streets some more. Check out La Place Gutenberg, with a statue of the man himself and one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in the city, the former city-hall, built in 1585.  By the way, although he was born in Germany, Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg for ten years or more, developing his printing press.

La Place Gutenberg

Time to wander again, but not too far.  Pick out a bakery.  Eat some macaroons.  Grab a cup of coffee.  Feel more like a beer?  Ok.  No quarreling with that.

With the Cathedral tolling near six post meridian (meridiem in Latin), it’s time to find my car, pay the toll and figure out that taking the highway North means heading toward Paris, even though Paris is west of here.  No GPS, no map?  No problem.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Cherub's Nest - What a Bed and What a Breakfast!

When is a bed and breakfast more than a bed and breakfast?  When it’s the 17th Century Cherub’s Nest in Dartmouth, Devon, England.  It just feels like home.

In Dartmouth, all things are connected to the sea, from the present day oystermen, who ply their ancient trade along the banks of the brackish river, to the history that glides us back to the days of Drake and the pilgrims, and forward to the Britannia Royal Naval College and the D-Day invasion.  The Cherub’s Nest is no exception.

Peculiar name.  Somehow also connected to the sea?  Yes.  Perhaps called a ‘nest’ because it’s a residence that sits beside an even older building, dating to the 14th Century, a pub called The Cherub.  And how did The Cherub pub get its name?  Local lore has it that the pub was built from the timbers of a ship of the same name.

Next Door is The Cherub Pub

The Cherub’s Nest may be old, but the accommodations and service most assuredly are not.  Well, let’s amend that, but not in a bad way. 

I’m particular. Here’s a tidy list of my bed and breakfast requirements:  friendly innkeepers, soft bed, clean room, clean en suite bathroom, and a tasty breakfast, with good coffee. A little atmosphere doesn’t hurt either.

The Cherub’s Nest met all those conditions, then added a long list of the delightful and unexpected.  The first things you notice as you step inside this compact, but comfortably elegant home are the cheery smiles and booming, barrel-chested “Welcome!”  Instant rapport. 

In a 17th Century building don’t expect huge rooms and an elevator.  You have to deal with steep and narrow stairs, but, I ask you, when you’ve traveled far to experience life in an historic fishing village, home to the likes of famous English sea-captains, pirates, kings, and other nobility, do you really want to get a room with the modernity of a standard hotel?  So, yes, it is old, but that’s part of the delight.

Thank your lucky stars, you’re not going to ever truly live like they did in the 17th Century, with rats and dogs in the streets, garbage tossed from the upstairs windows, open sewers, guests packed into shared beds, and personal hygiene …Oh, please let’s not discuss it.

The Cherub’s Nest offers quaintly furnished and comfortable rooms. All the modern day conveniences overflow in abundance:  Cleanliness, including a small, but spotless bathroom.  Sleep-in-comfort beds.  Ample closet space.

The service and breakfasts are what a member of the royalty might expect.    Everything from a full English, to any combination your wealthy imagination can devise.  I opt for salmon and fried eggs, which came perfectly done, served with spotless silverware and  on Royal Dalton plates.  The coffee and tea were equally fine, in cups that would outshine even the finest hotels.  Jams and jellies galore, many of them local.  In fact, most of the food is local, including farm fresh eggs that come from the innkeeper’s sister-in-law.  I was told the sister-in-law has eight hens, which each lay one egg each day.

 Another high point of the Cherub’s Nest is the locale, right in the middle of downtown Dartmouth.  In a large city that might or might not be a positive point, but in Dartmouth, a scenic seaside town, centrality is essential to putting everything within an easy walk.  The riverfront, open parks, and historic alleys all demand your attention. Not to worry. Step out the front door and go for pint at The Cherub Pub, or wander the historic town.

I find only one fault and that is we did not have the time to stay longer at the Cherub’s Nest.  It’s a gift from the past with all the opulence of today.  And the breakfast…oh, goodness…

Monday, May 12, 2014

Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes: Comfort Food Supreme

Who hasn’t dug into some meatloaf?  So many varieties and subtle variations.  Maybe that’s the attraction.   We all strive for individuality.

Fortunately, they don’t sell meatloaf at “Gimme-yer-bucks.”  There could be fistfights and broken teeth when the guy in front of you orders meatloaf latte with low fat, organic goat’s milk.

You know more about meatloaf than you think you do.  You’ve eaten the best and the worst, from Mom’s meatloaf heaven to the brown-fungus slopped on your tray in the school cafeteria.  You may even have had meatloaf at a “Grab-your-wallet-and-pray” restaurant.

Folks, you can concoct a wonderful meatloaf without taking a twelve-month course at the Paris Cordon Bleu.  Nothing complicated.  Just use fresh ingredients and you’re on your way back to the childhood you wish you’d had, before your parents spoiled things.

We’re going to make this meal in three parts, and bring them together at the end:  Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

Let’s get down to it.  Heat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC)

First, the Meatloaf.

1 lb Freshly ground beef
1 lb Freshly ground pork

Don’t screw around!  Get the butcher to grind a fresh batch!

½ Cup green onions, white and light green parts thinly sliced
½ Cup regular onions, diced
6-8 Ounces white cheddar, coarsely grated
½ Cup plain breadcrumbs (I put a stale baguette in a food processor)
2 Eggs, well beaten
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper and white pepper

1 Cup Homemade pizza sauce to top the meatloaf.  To make the sauce, use whole tomatoes, canned or fresh.  In either case, hand-squeeze, or chop the whole tomatoes into a sauce pan.  If using fresh tomatoes, peel them and cook them long enough for the water to evaporate.  Add some finely diced onions and seasonings of your choice.

Put everything except the pizza sauce topping, in a medium-sized mixing bowl and hand mix it to form a loaf.

The fuzzy looking stuff is only breadcrumbs!

The inner pan is on the right and the outer pan on the left.

Pack it into a double-layered meatloaf pan.  The top pan has holes, so the juices run out and collect in the bottom of the second pan.  You’ll use the juices for gravy.

Put the meatloaf in the hot oven and cook for about 40 minutes, or until the top is very brown.  

Meanwhile, read on…

Mashed Potatoes

6-8 Medium sized, light skinned potatoes, washed and cut into chunks.  Do not skin the potatoes. (Normal, heavy skinned baking potatoes are too dry and flaky.)
1 Stick of butter
1 Cup of reserved potato water
Strong dash of both onion and garlic powder
Salt and black and white and cayenne pepper

Heat a pot of water, deep enough for the potatoes to be covered.  When the water boils, drop in the potatoes and cook until the potato chunks are easily pierced with a fork.

Drain the potatoes, reserving one cup of the potato water.  Put the potato chunks in a large mixing bowl and mash roughly with a pastry cutter.  Add a whole stick of butter and use an electric mixer to blend.  If the potatoes are too dry, add some of the reserved potato water.  Careful!  You want moist, not soggy. Add  garlic and onion powders, salt and peppers to taste.


Pull the meatloaf out of the oven, add the pizza sauce to the top, and slip it back in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the pizza sauce sets.

When the meatloaf comes out, make the gravy

Pan drippings
2 Heaping tablespoons of white flour
1 Cup water
1 Cup milk
salt and pepper to taste

After you pull the meatloaf out of the oven, leave it in the top of the pan and  put it on a plate to cool.  Take the bottom part of the pan and pour the collected drippings into a frying pan (medium heat).  As the dripping start to bubble, add two tablespoons of flour and stir with a whisk until creamy.  Add a cup of water.  Mix.  Quickly add a cup of milk. Mix. Taste and add salt. 

Hey, folks, that’s it!  Slice the meatloaf, add a scoop of mashed potatoes to each plate, and spoon some gravy over the potatoes.

Now, ain’t that comfortable?