Saturday 8 December 2007


“I worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.” - Johann Sebastian Bach

Today I shall let two great musicians talk for me using music rather than words to say what is in my heart. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is my favourite composer, and what better interpreter of one of his keyboard pieces than Glenn Gould? I immerse myself in such music and words become superfluous, unnecessary, redundant.

Glenn Gould is playing here the Bach Partita No.6 in E minor for keyboard, its first movement titled: Toccata. Luxuriate in it and let the beautiful sounds wash over your soul.

Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday 6 December 2007


“Every autumn, when the wind turns cold and darkness comes early, I am suddenly happy. It's time to start making soup again.” - Leslie Newman

You may have heard a lot about phytoestrogens in the news, on TV, or your reading in newspapers and magazines. Phytoestrogens are natural compounds that are found in plants, which when consumed may act somewhat like oestrogen, the body’s own hormone (found in females in high concentration, and in males in low concentration, in the blood). Foods high in phytoestrogens include soy products (soy milk, tofu, tempeh and soy yoghurt), flaxseed, legumes (lentils, beans, peas, etc) and whole grains. The phytoestrogens in soy foods are also known as isoflavones.

As phytoestrogens have a very similar chemical structure to the body's own oestrogen hormone, phytoestrogens can bind to oestrogen receptors on the surface of body cells. The effects of phytoestrogens on the body are not fully understood, but it is believed that phytoestrogens may act like weak oestrogen in some situations, or also block the actions of oestrogen in other situations.

Phytoestrogens have the ability to interact with the actions of sex hormones (oestrogens and androgens –female and male sex hormones respectively) in the body. Phytoestrogens have become a topic of interest for the possible prevention of hormonal cancers. High levels of sex hormones (oestrogen in women and androgens in men) over a person's lifetime are believed to be associated with an increased risk of hormonal cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.

Lower rates of breast and prostate cancer in some Asian countries, where soy is very common in the diet, have led scientists to investigate if there is a link between eating soy foods and protection against breast and prostate cancer. It is important to remember that people in these countries also differ from Westerners in many other aspects of their diets: For example, they eat more vegetables and fish, and less meat. They may also have different risks for these cancers because of genetic factors. So it is not completely clear whether it is the soy in the diet, or some other factor, that is responsible for the lower rates of cancer in these countries.

Animal and laboratory studies do support the hypothesis that phytoestrogens have a direct anti-cancer effect. Overall in large studies on people it seems like a high consumption of soy foods may lower the risk of breast and prostate cancers, but only a little. There is no association between soy foods and the risk of other types of cancers. More studies are needed to examine if phytoestrogens have a protective effect against breast and prostate cancer. From the current evidence, it is believed that a moderate consumption of soy foods (eg 1-2 serves of soy foods/day) along with an overall healthy eating plan is unlikely to have adverse effects. This is consistent with The Cancer Council's recommendations and dietary guidelines to eat a diet rich in plant foods. There is no evidence supplements that contain high doses of soy or soy isoflavones are effective in preventing cancer, and are therefore not recommended.

At the same time, it is important to mention, that it is not known whether a diet high in phytoestrogens for women who have breast cancer is safe. Tamoxifen is a common treatment for women with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer. Tamoxifen works by blocking the actions of oestrogen, and therefore stopping or reducing tumour growth. For women with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer who are taking tamoxifen, it is still unclear whether eating soy foods or taking soy supplements will block or enhance the actions of tamoxifen. The results of scientific studies are contradictory, and unfortunately there are no clinical trials to definitively answer this question. A moderate consumption of soy foods, as part of an overall healthy eating plan, is unlikely to have any harmful effects.

Supplements that contain high doses of soy or soy isoflavones have not been tested for safety in women who have breast cancer or who are taking tamoxifen. The best advice is to eat soy foods in moderation as part of an overall healthy eating pattern, and not to suddenly increase the amount of soy phytoestrogens in the diet. The Cancer Council recommends that women with breast cancer avoid soy and phytoestrogen supplements.

Research is underway looking at the types of eating patterns that are protective for women who have had breast cancer. Evidence is starting to emerge that maintaining a healthy weight by eating a low-fat diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and being physically active can improve survival and the overall health of breast cancer survivors.


Lentil soup is mentioned in the Bible: In Genesis 25:34, Esau is prepared to give up his birthright for a pot of fragrant red lentil soup being cooked by his brother, Jacob. The ancient Greek dramatist, Aristophanes, mentions lentil soup in his plays and describes it as the "sweetest of delicacies."

• ½ cup of olive oil
• 3 onions
• 4-5 cloves of garlic
• 2 ripe tomatoes
• 500 mL of tomato puree
• 250 mL of V8 juice
• 500 g of lentils
• 2 vegetable stock cubes
• 2 bay leaves
• Pepper, salt, a few leaves of rosemary, touch of oregano, some paprika

Soak the lentils overnight in about 2 litres of water. Drain the next day and reserve the lentils until later – reserve half the water. Heat the oil and add the chopped onion stirring until golden-brown. Add the sliced garlic and the diced peeled tomatoes. Cook for a few minutes and then add the drained lentils. Stir thoroughly in order to coat the lentils with the oil and onion mixture. Add the tomato puree and V8 juice. Heat to boiling point and add the stock cubes, bay leaves and seasonings. Stir for a few minutes until the stock cubes are dissolved. Add some of the reserved water to obtain a thick soup-like consistency. Simmer for about 1.5-2 hours until the lentils are thoroughly cooked, adding water from time to time so that the lentils do not dry out or become too gluggy. Serve very hot with herb foccacia bread and kokkineli wine (Greek dry red wine).

Nice vegetarian dish with lots of phytoestrogens! You never know you may be able to trade someone’s primogeniture with it too!


“The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.” - Oprah Winfrey

Today is St Nicholas’ Day, celebrated by Catholics, Orthodox and some other Christian groups. As my name is Nicholas, it is also my Name Day, or Onomastic Feast Day, to be more precise. In many countries, and certainly including Greece, one’s Name Day (which is celebrated on the Feast Day of the saint whose name one bears) is a big personal cause for celebration, equivalent to (or even more so) importance to one’s birthday.

Usually in Greece, the person celebrating their Name Day has an open house that day so that friends and relatives may drop in and give their wishes, give presents of flowers, sweets or drinks and in turn be regaled with various treats in return. Formal dinners may also be given, but generally the celebration is an informal reception at one’s home. As everyone should know what Saint’s Feast Day falls on what calendar day, it is rather a big insult not to wish one’s friends’ celebrating their Name Day, Χρόνια Πολλά (Chrónia Pollá - “Many Happy Returns of the Day”), or not to visit.

I’ve had a very nice day already, with family, friends and colleagues wishing me well. Tonight we have a dinner party for some close friends and we shall celebrate quietly with some good food, a little wine and pleasant conversation. Fittingly, my word for this Thesaurus Thursday is:

onomastic |ˌänəˈmastik|adjective
Of or relating to the study of the history and origin of proper names.
ORIGIN late 16th cent. (as a noun in the sense [alphabetical list of proper nouns], from Greek onomastikos, from onoma ‘name.’ The adjective dates from the early 18th century.

To all my 360 friends called Nicholas, Nick, Nicky, Nikos, Nikolas, Nikolaus, Colin, Col, Klaus, Klaas, Nicolette, Colette, Colinne, I wish you Many Happy Returns of your Name Day! Χρόνια Πολλά!

Wednesday 5 December 2007


“A person who knows how to laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.” - Shirley Maclaine

December the 5th is a very special day in Holland (where I lived on and off for a few months). It is the day when the Feast of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) is celebrated. This is an annual event which has been uniquely Dutch and Flemish for centuries. St. Nicholas' Feast Day, December 6th, is observed in most Roman Catholic and Orthodox countries. But it is only in the Low Countries, especially in the Netherlands, that the eve of his feast day (December 5th) is celebrated nationwide by young and old, Christian and non-Christian, and without any religious overtones.

Sinterklaas is always portrayed in the vestments of the bishop he once was, but his status as a saint has had little to do with the way the Dutch think of him. He is thought of as a benevolent old man, who is intent on been kind to children who have been good all year, by giving them all sorts of goodies as a reward. The eve of his feast day is observed by exchanging gifts and making good-natured fun of each other. Hence the corruption of “Sinterklaas” (= St Nicholas) into Santa Claus.

The legend of St. Nicholas is based on historical fact. Nicholas lived from 271 AD to December 6th, 342 AD (or 343). His 4th century tomb in the town of Myra, in Anatolia in present-day Turkey, has even been dug up by archaeologists. Nicholas was brought up as a devout Christian by his wealthy family. When his parents died in an epidemic, he distributed his wealth among the poor and became a priest. Later he became Archbishop of Myra, and it is from here that the fame of his good deeds began to spread across the Mediterranean.

Sailors especially venerated him, as they believed he had the power to calm the stormy seas. Young children were saved by the saint from the butcher's knife and he dropped dowries into the shoes of penniless maidens. Over time, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and merchants, but especially of children. After his death, the cult of St. Nicholas spread rapidly via southern Italy throughout the rest of the Mediterranean and eventually to coastal towns along the Atlantic and the North Sea.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Holland built no fewer than 23 churches dedicated to St. Nicholas, many of which are still standing today. Amsterdam adopted St. Nicholas as its patron saint, and Rome decreed that December 6th, the anniversary of his death, should be his official Feast Day. St. Nicholas' strong influence in the Low Countries (heavily engaged in trade and navigation) was primarily due to his role as patron of sailors and merchants.

However, his fame as protector of children eventually became more important in these countries. In the 14th century, choir boys of St. Nicholas’ churches were given a gift of money and the day off on December 6th. Somewhat later, the pupils of convent schools would be rewarded or punished by a monk dressed up as the Good Bishop, with his long white beard, his red mantle and mitre holding his golden crosier just as he is still represented today.

All Dutch children know that Sinterklaas (the name is a corruption of Sint Nikolaas) lives in Spain. Exactly why he lives there, remains a mystery, but that is what all the old songs and nursery rhymes say. He spends most of the year recording the behaviour of all children in a big red book, while his helper, Black Peter ("Zwarte Piet") stocks up on presents for the next December 5th. In the first weeks of November, Sinterklaas gets on his white horse, Peter ("Piet") swings a huge sack full of gifts over his shoulder, and the three of them board a steamship headed for the Netherlands. Around mid-November they arrive in a harbour town (a different one every year) where they are formally greeted by the Mayor and a delegation of citizens. Their parade through town is watched live on television by the whole country and marks the beginning of the "Sinterklaas season".

The Dutch are busy shopping for, or more importantly, making presents. Tradition demands that all packages be camouflaged in some imaginative way, and that every gift be accompanied by a fitting poem. This is the essence of Sinterklaas: Lots of fun on a day when people are not only allowed, but expected, to make fun of each other in a friendly way. Children, parents, teachers, employers and employees, friends and co-workers tease each other and make fun of each others' habits and mannerisms. Another part of the fun is how presents are hidden or disguised. Recipients often have to go on a treasure hunt all over the house, aided by hints, to look for them. They must be prepared to dig their gifts out of the potato bin, to find them in jelly, in a glove filled with wet sand, in some crazy dummy or doll. Working hard for your presents and working even harder to think up other peoples' presents and get them ready is what the fun is all about.

The original poem accompanying each present is another old custom and a particularly challenging one. Here the author has a field day with his subject (the recipient of the gift). Foibles, love interests, embarrassing incidents, funny habits and well-kept secrets are all fair game. The recipient, who is the butt of the joke, has to open his/her package in public and read the poem aloud amid general hilarity. The real giver is supposed to remain anonymous because all presents technically come from Sinterklaas, and recipients say out aloud: “Thank you, Sinterklaas!”, even if they no longer believe in him.

Towards December 5th, St. Nicholas poems pop up everywhere in the Netherlands: In newspapers and magazines, at school, at work and in both Houses of Parliament. On the day of the 5th, most places of business close a bit earlier than normal. The Dutch head home to a table laden with the same traditional sweets and baked goods eaten for St. Nicholas as shown in the 17th-century paintings of the Old Masters. Large chocolate letters (the initial of each person present) serve as place settings. They share the table along with large gingerbread men and women known as "lovers". A basket filled with mysterious packages stands close by and scissors are at hand. Early in the evening sweets are eaten while those gathered take turns unwrapping their gifts and reading their poems out loud so that everyone can enjoy the impact of the surprise. The emphasis is on originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of the gift, which is one reason why Sinterklaas is such a delightful event for young and old alike.

A Sinterklaas Poem for my 360 Friends

A funny day, a lovely day,
A zany day so full of play!
To friends, with wishes sung
A happy day to old and young.

As Sinterklaas comes by again,
With Zwarte Piet from Spain,
I wish to you his gifts does bring,
A toy, a book, …a golden ring!

We all enjoy the fun, the laughter
And lots of sweets to eat straight after.
There’s cake and chocolate lots of candy,
But as for me, I’d rather drink the brandy!

Seek high and low, go out and in
You’ll find your presents with a grin:
In sawdust smothered, under beds,
In socks, in wardrobes or in bread!

The kindly saint, he smiles and blesses,
The youngsters’ heads bends and caresses.
To all who’ve been good all year,
Old Sinterklass will give good cheer.

Happy Sinterklaas Day to all!

Monday 3 December 2007


“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.” - Mark Twain

Do you like lists? Are you a compulsive jotter-downer, lister, organiser? Do you sit there religiously writing out your shopping lists, laundry lists, Christmas card lists, birthdays lists, invitation lists to parties, weddings, funerals? I must confess that I went through such a phase and then I grew out of it. Still, I do catch myself sometimes writing one or another list. Rarely, well not often, anyway!

For our Book Tuesday today, I give you the ultimate book of lists. It is a book of books. A must for the book lover, a perfect Christmas gift for yourself of any other special bibliophile in your life. It is Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”. Now just a little simple arithmetic will tell you that if you read an average of two books a week, then it will take you 10 years and three-and-a-half days to read 1001 books! There you are, I’ve solved your “I-don’t know-what-to-read-next” problem for the next 10 years!

Dr Peter Boxall is a young English academic who together with his colleagues at the University of Sussex, chose the 1001 books and wrote 300 words about each in this book of “lists”. About 70 per cent of the editors’ choices are from the 20th century, but surprisingly there is also good representation of books written originally in languages other than English. The Australian contingent was rather under-represented with only 6/1001 being by Australians (Grrrrrrrrrr!). Of course any list of “favourites” is quite subjective and it is hard to find within the list all of one’s personal favourites. However, I was delighted by this list book and I was surprised by the gems of information that the editors have crammed into it.

It really is a book for book lovers and serves to give you a brief introduction to classic and cult books and authors, that you may have heard of but know little about. It contains more than 600 photos and book covers and is a good check-list of what you have read and what you are yet to read. Obviously, one would not read all that is recommended, but it really is a piquant menu for your mental nourishment and one delights in making up an elegant reading dinner party for the next month.

The ISBN for the book is 9780733321214 and in Australia it was published in July 2007. It follows the success of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” by the same author (also a good read!).

Sunday 2 December 2007


"Let Them Eat Cake..." - Misattributed to Marie Antoinette

Last weekend we watched Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” (2006) on DVD. We had heard conflicting reviews about this movie and it was interesting to watch it and compare it with the 1938 MGM classic “Marie Antoinette”. Visually, the Coppola version is sumptuous and stunning. The cinematography, the costumes, the sets, the sweeping landscapes and the brilliant colour bring the decadence of 18th century Versailles to life. It is a beautiful movie in terms of this visual feast. Kirsten Dunst cast as the ill-fated young queen plays well, although she has to deal with a difficult script and dialogue that totters between modern slang and stilted “olde-worlde” period-speak. Good supporting performances by Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Marianne Faithfull and Asia Argento make the film watchable.

However, there are many problems and things that cannot be forgiven. This is definitely a movie where “Hollywood-does-history” in a self-indulgent and ultimately “box-office success” way so as to reassure the producers of a reasonable profit for their investment. The film has been made so as to appeal to a young audience. One reviewer called it “Gidget Goes to Versailles” and it was with good reason, too. The film concentrates much on Marie Antoinette’s life in Versailles on her occasional escapades to Paris, but there is nothing there to place her fairy-tale existence into context, no suggestion of how the final scenes in the film came about. One can expect a young impressionable person with little knowledge of history to see it and go away thinking: “Poor, sweet thing, whatever did she do to deserve a beheading? She was extravagant and owned lots of shoes and clothes and jewels, but she had to, didn’t she? She was a queen after all!”

I was uneasy about the other devices used to attract the young film-viewers. The anachronistic touches were heavy-handed and gimmicky. Putting in a pair of sneakers amongst the period shoes in the closet, for example? Funny? Hmmmmm. The soundtrack where modern rock alternated with 18th century music was particularly grating. It made the scenes where this occurred to look like some modern costume party. Hot pink dresses and pastries were really an eyesore, and in there obviously to appeal to the young irises that need the stimulation so that they do not wander away. I’ve mentioned already the language and slang used – perhaps the most forgivable of the anachronisms.

The other objection we had to the movie was the superficial way in which the politics of the era was handled. In the scenes where Louis XVI is having conferences with his advisors, matters of momentous national and international importance are treated in seconds and are oversimplified, as though the young things that watch the movie couldn’t possibly handle anything except “fun” and “exuberance” and “joie-de-vivre” and “pot-parties” and “love affairs”. That is really pandering to much of the youth of today, but at the same time it is making the mind-rot that has set in even worse.

The film was over-long at two-hours and there was only so much partying and extravagance and wild dancing and court parading that one could take. Contrasting scenes with what the ordinary people were experiencing in the streets of Paris would have made the movie more powerful and more engaging for me.

The earlier version of “Marie Antoinette” even though in black and white (sepia-tone) provided an equally sumptuous recreation of 18th century Versailles, but was balanced by more of the underlying sociopolitical situation in France at the time. Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette does a good job, although there is some melodrama (but it was the 1930s, remember!) and she is complemented by Robert Morley and Tyrone Power as Louis XVI and Count Axel respectively. This version of the film was based on Stefan Zweig’s biography, as opposed to Antonia Fraser’s biography, which was the basis of the Coppola film. There are flaws in this earlier film, also (history according to Hollywood can be very patchy and flaky), but overall, I enjoyed the earlier film more.

Do I recommend seeing Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”? Yes, I do. However, if you have not done so already do read a good history book on the French Revolution first. And watch it at home with lots of popcorn and a few members of the family and friends around so you can amuse one another when the movie starts to drag.


La Butte rouge de Monthéus

« Sur c’te butt’-là, y’avait pas d’ gigolettes
Pas de marlous, ni de beaux muscadins ;
Ah ! c’était loin du moulin de la galette…
La Butt’ roug’, c'est son nom
L’ baptêm’ s’fit un matin
Où tous ceux qui montaient
Roulaient dans le ravin
Aujourd’hui, y a des vign’s
Il y pouss’ du raisin
Qui boira ce vin-là
Boira l’ sang des copains »

“La Maison Bernot” – 1924, Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie


The finest examples of this are shown throughout his White Period. In his paintings of the White Period, calm and serenity reign, enhanced by the colour white that Utrillo, better than any other painter, could modulate to such poetic effect. During this period, Maurice Utrillo was experiencing one of the happiest times of his life with his marriage to Lucie Valore in 1935 and an established career – he signed his first contract with Paul Pétridès, who was to be his art dealer until the artist’s death in 1955.

“Le Lapin Agile” – 1910 Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou


For most of his life, Maurice would be in and out of hospitals and institutions for drunkenness and mental illness due to drinking. His mother, herself an alcoholic, was a great contributor to the problem. For many years they lived together in Montmartre and in Brittany (where they later had a large country house), the elderly Madeleine, Maurice, Suzanne, and her lover and then husband, André Utter. They drank and fought and scrounged for money, living from the sale of a painting here and there. Utter began to act as agent for both Maurice and Suzanne, and gradually they both became respected artists in Montmartre and with this new found success, life became slightly easier for Suzanne and Utter. Maurice, however, would never lead a stable life. He drank and painted, and when it was very bad would ask his friends to lock him up and not let him drink. He would scream until someone let him out or he could escape.

"Windmills of Montmartre" (1949) Collection Dr. and Mrs. Harry Bakwin, N. Y.


For Art Sunday, today, a tragic figure who is associated with Paris and Monmartre, more than any other painter, perhaps. It is Maurice Utrillo, born in Paris on December 26, 1883. He was the illegitimate son of Suzanne Valadon, the model and painter. She was only 18 when he was born and even she had very little idea of the father’s identity. It seems that it could have been any one of several artists in Montmartre, though, the strongest evidence seems to point to a young artist/wanderer by the name of Boissy.

Suzanne adored her son, but in his infancy he inconvenienced her lifestyle and so she often neglected him. His maternal grandmother, Madeleine, raised him. She lived with them and took in washing to add to her daughter’s income. At that time, Suzanne was one of the most popular models in Montmartre. Madeleine started giving wine to baby Maurice to put him to sleep, thus forming his future penchant to drink excessively. He was known as a drunk from before the age of thirteen.

Utrillo got his name from Miguel Utrillo, a friend of his mother’s, who agreed to adopt Maurice so that the boy would appear to have a father. Maurice became “Maurice Utrillo” on April 8, 1891. At first, Maurice resented this change terribly and he refused to use the name, adopting it only when he was 27, finally settling on “Maurice Utrillo, V.” Maurice, was untrained as an artist, like his mother, but he had a raw, natural style. He almost always painted Montmartre and often it was from memory. In this, Suzanne did all she could to encourage him, and he gradually developed his own style.

"View of the Sacré-Coeur from the Rue St Rustique"


“Sometimes I have a terrible feeling that I am dying not from the virus, but from being untouchable.” - Amanda Heggs

The first of December is recognised internationally as World AIDS Day. It is the culmination of AIDS Awareness Week, which begins annually on the 24th of November. Both events aim to raise community awareness throughout the world about HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), including the need for support for and understanding of people with HIV/AIDS, and the need for ongoing education and prevention initiatives.

The theme for the 2007 Australian World AIDS Day campaign is: ‘HIV/AIDS: Prevention is everybody’s business’. The theme was chosen to remind people that HIV/AIDS remains a serious disease for which there is still no cure, and that awareness and prevention remain the best defences against its spread.

The campaign aims to increase knowledge about the impact of HIV/AIDS on everyone in the community. It is a health issue that affects everyone and therefore prevention is everybody’s responsibility. The World AIDS Day campaign also aims to inform people about the important care and support services that are available for people affected by HIV, and to emphasise that people with HIV/AIDS need encouragement, understanding and acceptance.

Africa remains the country in which AIDS exacts the greatest toll and it still is the place where poverty, warfare, corruption and misinformation make HIV infection difficult to prevent and treat. Many countries are becoming grossly crippled socially and politically by the increasing numbers of AIDS deaths Malawi is one of these. Hundreds of thousands of deaths mean that an equally high number of AIDS orphans are found in the population.

Here is an AIDS orphans musical group singing out in hope, with their spirit soaring high above their poverty and their adversity. Their instruments are discarded gas cans, animals hides and whatever else they can scavenge to produce a tune. But they do make music. Listen to the music of children orphaned by AIDS and visit