Saturday 8 March 2008


“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” – Charlotte Whitton

This is International Women’s Day, 2008. The first International Women's Day was launched on 8 March 1911 in Copenhagen by Clara Zetkin, Leader of the 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party in Germany. This followed many years of women's campaigning dating back to British MP, John Stuart Mill, the first person in Parliament calling for women's right to vote. On 19 September 1893 New Zealand became the first self-governing nation in the world to give women the right to vote.

Equality is still a long way away for many women around the world, especially in developing countries. However, even in developed countries many women are still struggling - women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and women's education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men.

Each year on 8 March, thousands of International Women's Day events occur all around the world from Alaska to Zambia. IWD events range from small random informal gatherings to large-scale highly organised events that have been planned for many months. As 2011 approaches, marking the centenary of celebrations for Women’s Day, we would hope to see more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass of women's visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life.

For Music Saturday, an iconic song from 1972 “I Am Woman” by Australian singer Helen Reddy, who also wrote the lyrics, with music by Ray Burton. A nice twist is the tribute to the great actress Helen Mirren.

To all daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, workers, housewives, nurses, doctors, surgeons, policewomen, company directors, artists, writers, musicians, actresses, journalists, waitresses, firewomen, directors, women,

Friday 7 March 2008


“Cooking is at once child's play and adult joy. 
And cooking done with care is an act of love.” 
Craig Claiborne

One of the memories I have from my grandmother’s house is the smell of baking whenever she used to cook her delicious cakes, pastries and biscuits. The kitchen could be dark and mysterious with the heater on while the rain fell from wintry skies outside. The oven contributed to the cosiness of the kitchen those evenings when I did my homework on the kitchen table. Or it could be the sunlit mornings of summer when the baking was done early before the room was attacked by the ardour of the sun.

The aroma was often the heady floral scent of vanilla beans, conjuring up images of some dark green and moist jungle with the beat of drums in the distance (I used to read adventure stories at the time!). Often, it was the spicy sweetness of cinnamon in long rolled up pieces of bark and full of stories of long sea voyages and pirates and swashbuckling adventurers defending the precious cargo of spices from the Indies. Other times, quite exotic spices, all mixed up – the nutmeg and the allspice, the star anise and cloves, cardamom and tamarind.

Sometimes the herbal, resinous smell of gum mastic, closer to home, gathered from the island of Chios and ground up in a mortar pestle to make the fine powder used in sweets. I was always given a piece or two of the precious tear-shaped gum to chew. And as soon as one placed the clear, hard drops in one’s mouth, they softened and one could chew them like gum. A fresh, invigorating, slightly woody, aromatic and a tad bitter taste – more suited to maturer palates, but nevertheless enjoyable.

Here is a recipe of my grandmother’s. They are the typical Greek rusks, made from a sweetened, bread-like dough, but baked twice so that they achieve that hard yet crumbly texture typical of rusks. This recipe uses the gum mastic typical of a lot of Greek sweets. It is available in Greek shops and delis. If you cannot get hold of it, flavour the rusks with a mixture of cinnamon and cloves. 1.5 teaspoonful of ground spices should be enough. This is a big recipe and if you make like it is here you’ll be in the kitchen for several hours of labour intensive baking. You can always halve the recipe.
GREEK RUSKS (Paximathakia)
2 cupfuls light vegetable oil
3 cupfuls caster sugar
1.5 cupfuls milk
1 glassful freshly squeezed orange juice
0.5 teaspoonful finely ground gum mastic
self raising flour (about 2 kg)

Whisk the vegetable oil in a mixer until it becomes milky and then add the sugar, continuing to whisk, adding the orange juice gradually. Whisk well until the sugar is dissolved and add the milk little by little, mixing all the while. Add the ground gum mastic and the flour in small lots until the dough becomes soft and elastic and just comes off the hands. Knead well. Shape into small thin flattened loaves, about 3 cm wide and 30 cm long. Score into slices, about 1.5 cm wide. Bake in an oven until golden brown. Remove from the oven and cut into slices along the scored lines. Bake a second time, until the rusks are dry (it may be necessary to turn them over so that they dry out evenly). Once cool store in an air-tight tin, whereupon they will keep for several weeks.

The Mastic tree (Pistachia lentiscus) grows on the island of Chios in Greece. Although the trees and shrubs grow all over the island, the production of gum mastic resin is carried out only in the medieval villages in the southern region of Chios called Mastichochoria (=Gum villages). This is the only place where gum mastic is produced, thus explaining the very high price of this product, which is exported all over the world. The Mastic tree is related to the pistachio nut tree, Pistachia vera.

Gum mastic is obtained by the incising of the tree trunk and branches with a sharp tool. The gum mastic resin then exudes through these incisions. The word “mastic” is derived from the Greek verb “masso” which means “to chew” (cf: masticate).

Mastic is soluble in ether and alcohol, but insoluble in water. There is evidence that even low doses of mastic gum (1 g per day for two weeks) can cure peptic ulcers very rapidly. This is probably due to the fact that mastic is active against the bacterium Helicobacter pylori.

Gum mastic is used in dental products; it cleans the mouth as well as strengthening the gums. Gum mastic is also used in perfumery and creams. It cleans the skin and brightens the complexion. Both the scent and taste of Mastic is pleasant, and Mastic is also used to flavour sweets and cakes.

Mastic is much valued in the paint industry; it is added to varnishes and artist oil colour. An oil is obtained by alcohol extraction of the resin. Used as incense, the scent of Mastic is fresh, slightly lemony, and very purifying in its quality. Although expensive, it should be tried by all incense lovers. Mastic blends well with a lot of scents, including benzoin, chamomile, eucalyptus, juniper, lavender, lemongrass, marjoram, and sage.

Thursday 6 March 2008


“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” – Abigail Adams

The ragged robin, Lychnis flos-cuculi, is the birthday plant for this day. The generic name is derived from the Greek word, lychnos = lamp, in reference to the bright flowers of this herb. The specific name means “cuckoo flower” in Latin and refers to flowering of the plant when the cuckoo is in full song. In the language of flowers, it symbolises wit and ardour.

Several notables were born today, many of them literary figures or artists:
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Italian artist (1475);
Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, writer (1619);
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, English poet (1806);
George (Louis Palmella Busson) du Maurier, novelist (1834);
Oscar Straus, composer (1870);
Louis Francis Cristillo (Costello), actor (1906);
Frankie Howerd, comedian (1922);
Wes Montgomery, guitarist (1925);
Andrzej Wajda, director (1926);
Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel laureate (1982) writer (1928);
Lorin Maazel, conductor (1930);
Valentina Nikolayevna Tereshkova, Russian astronaut first woman in space (1937);
Kiri Te Kanawa, NZ soprano (1944);
Mary Wilson, singer (1944).

Here is a well known poem by birthday girl Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Sonnets from the Portuguese - Sonnet XLIII

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, – I love thee with the breath
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall love thee better after death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

And the word of the day is ardour (ardor for our American cousins), which was certainly shown by many of our notable birthday boys and girls:

ardour |ˈärdər| noun
enthusiasm or passion : they felt the stirrings of revolutionary ardor.
ORIGIN late Middle English: Via Old French from Latin ardor, from ardere ‘to burn.’

Wednesday 5 March 2008


“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” - Oscar Wilde

Oh, heady days when our brain empties and our heart fills up! How different the world seems when love saturates every single cell of ours. Days full of sweetest pains, most hurtful pleasure, delightful agonies. And then again, when heart empties, the cold light of reason illuminates its deserted spaces and the echoing chambers make of it a place of ghosts and elusive memories.

And as time passes and wounds heal, the scars fade and the heart hardens. Time will heal all wounds, they say. But time also toughens us and the once tender heart becomes encased in a tough carapace that may grow inwards and strangle our heart in an inevitable petrification. This poem looks at shifting perspectives with the passage of time. Reason conquers emotion, but at what price?

A Year Later

A year later…
(I count the days)
I see you:
And your heart is like a house,
In which I’ve lived
For years and years –
Now, it’s up for sale.

A year later…
(How the years pass)
I see you:
And even now, maybe,
I’d like to clasp you
Close to my crystal heart –
Even if that caused it to break.

A year later…
(Yes, I have changed)
I see you:
Rarely now; I’ve got over you.
And although my heart has turned to stone,
You no longer have
The power to break it
Even if it were made of eggshell.

Tuesday 4 March 2008


“Music is the shorthand of emotion.” - Leo Tolstoy

Today is a special day for the world of music as it is the anniversary of the birth of the famous Venetian composer, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Antonio Vivaldi was aged fifteen and a half when he received the tonsure, and grew up to become the prete rosso (“red priest”) of Venice, so called on account of his red hair. Although he remained a deeply religious man, he stopped saying Mass soon after his ordination; later in life he cited a long-term ailment as the reason for this (probably asthma). From September 1703 to February 1709 he was violin teacher at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice (an orphanage for girls which offered musical training). In addition to teaching violin, directing, and composing instrumental works, Vivaldi also taught the viole all' inglese and was responsible for acquiring and maintaining string instruments for the orchestra.

By this time he had begun to establish himself as a composer He was an avid traveller and one of the most prolific composers of his time, having written over 350 concerti, many church compositions and numerous operas. His popularity in Venice had declined considerably by 1739, and this may have prompted him to travel to Vienna, where he arrived by June 28, 1741. He died there the following month, and was given a pauper's burial at the Hospital Burial Ground.

Vivaldi was most influential as a composer of instrumental music, particularly concertos, in which his regular use of ritornello form in the fast movements and of a three-movement plan were influential. A skillful orchestrator, he favored effects such as muting and pizzicato. A number of his orchestral works are programmatic, the best-known examples being the concertos Il Gardellino, La tempesta di mare, and Le quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) of Opus 8.

One of his concertos that I particularly like is the concerto in A minor for two violins, opus 3 no 8. It has a brilliant first movement that is rich in ideas that contrast between themselves and contains a lyrical theme despite the rapid allegro marking. The second movement is marked larghetto e spiritoso, contrasting again the lyrical beauty of the theme and the accompanying ostinato style. The last movement is another allegro, but this time less structured with the two solo violins conversing and arguing in succession. Johann Sebastian Bach seems to have also admired this concerto as he transcribed it, amongst others of Vivaldi, for keyboard.

The rose geranium, Pelargonium capitatum, is the birthday flower for this day. When bruised, the leaves exude a rose-like scent. In the language of flowers, it stands for preference.

Monday 3 March 2008


“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” - Tom Stoppard

Last week we visited some friends of ours. Their 8 and 10 year-old children who are right into Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Artemis Fowl, etc were surprisingly ignorant on the subject of E.T. This was a matter of great wonder to us “oldies” and it was only on reflection that we all realised that this is a 1982 film! Ancient history to these children, who weren’t even a twinkle in their father’s eye when the film was released. Well we rectified the situation and gave them a DVD of E.T. as a gift. The following film review of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” (1982) is by Kate (8 years) with some help from John (10 years), put on here with their permission (I have edited it slightly, correcting some spelling errors):

My name is Kate and I am 8 years old. I have a brother John who is 10 and a dog called Jerry (he’s 2 years old). Nick gave us a DVD called ET. He said that they had watched this when he and his friends were young and they liked it. This was a sad movie. I cried when I watched it and John nearly did but he didn’t in the end because he’s a boy. I told him it was OK because Elliott cried too, when ET was leaving and Elliott and his brother cried too. But it was funny too and adventurous.

ET is a spaceman who comes to earth from far away from his home planet. It’s very, very far away. I think ET is a kid and he wandered off his parents’ spaceship when they came to have a picnic on earth and they forgot to take him with them. John said ET wasn’t a kid, but he was a scientist who was absent-minded and he forgot to go back to the spaceship on time, that’s why they left without him.

Elliott is a little boy who has an older bother called Michael and a little sister called Gertie. They find ET in their shed and they get a real big fright. ET got a fright too. Eliott becomes friends with ET and teaches him to speak English. If I was Eliott I’d get ET to teach me spacetalk and nobody would understand what we said when we talked. I liked this part of the film because it was funny. ET got drunk when was drinking beer and Elliott got drunk too because he felt like ET felt.

ET wanted to go home and he wanted to phone home for his parents to come and get him. He couldn’t use a phone because it was too far and because mobile phones weren’t invented then. This was in the old times. ET got Eliot to give him stuff and he made a special big phone to call his parents. They had to go into the forest on top of a mountain to do that because it was closer to ET’s home. ET phoned home but both Elliott and ET got sick because they stayed out all night (it was Halloween). But Elliott got into real big trouble with his Mum and the police because he stayed out at night. The police were really creepy and scary, the way they came into Elliot’s house. And the spacemen were scary too, but these spacemen were from earth and looking for ET. Elliot’s mum went ballistic when she found all these strange people in her house looking for ET.

ET died but not for real. I think he was trying to pretend he was dead so he could escape. Elliott found out that ET wasn’t dead and they (him and his brother) took ET away in a truck. Michael was too young to drive and he was going all over the road and nearly crashed. It was funny how the police couldn’t catch them. But then they had to get on their bikes to get away. They had really good mountain bikes and ET helped them get away by making them fly. I wish I could have a friend like ET who would help me fly like that on my bike. John says it was the power of our brains. John says you can do anything you really, really want if you think about it really hard. I don’t think I can think that hard so I can fly. Anyway, ET found his parents’ spaceship and he went away back home. It was so sad for Elliott and his family. But I was happy for ET too because he went back home. This was a really ace movie. Thank you for the present Nick, we’ll watch it again.”

Well there you have it, out of the mouths of babes… E.T. has two news fans, gained 26 years after it gained its first few millions. And it will go on having fans because it is a story that appeals to everyone. It’s a modern-day Lassie story, with the right amount of humour and fun and pathos and adventure and the kind of situational incident that brings out the child in every one of us.

Sunday 2 March 2008


"One kind word can warm three winter months."
- Japanese Proverb

A single painting for this week’s Art Sunday, Pieter Brueghel’s “Hunters in the Snow” of 1565. Oil on canvas, 46 inches x 63.75 inches. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

And here is a poem inspired by the painting:

Hunters in the Snow: Brueghel
By Joseph Langland

Quail and rabbit hunters with tawny hounds,
Shadowless, out of late afternoon
Trudge toward the neutral evening of indeterminate form
Done with their blood-annunciated day
Public dogs and all the passionless mongrels
Through deep snow
Trail their deliberate masters
Descending from the upper village home in lovering light.
Sooty lamps
Glow in the stone-carved kitchens.

This is the fabulous hour of shape and form
When Flemish children are gray-black-olive
And green-dark-brown
Scattered and skating informal figures
On the mill ice pond.
Moving in stillness
A hunched dame struggles with her bundled sticks,
Letting her evening's comfort cudgel her
While she, like jug or wheel, like a wagon cart
Walked by lazy oxen along the old snowlanes,
Creeps and crunches down the dusky street.
High in the fire-red dooryard
Half unhitched the sign of the Inn
Hangs in wind
Tipped to the pitch of the roof.
Near it anonymous parents and peasant girl,
Living like proverbs carved in the alehouse walls,
Gather the country evening into their arms
And lean to the glowing flames.
Now in the dimming distance fades
The other village; across the valley
Imperturbable Flemish cliffs and crags
Vaguely advance, close in, loom
Lost in nearness. Now
The night-black raven perched in branching boughs
Opens its early wing and slipping out
Above the gray-green valley
Weaves a net of slumber over the snow-capped homes.

And now the church, and then the walls and roofs
Of all the little houses are become
Close kin to shadow with small lantern eyes.
And now the bird of evening
With shadows streaming down from its gliding wings
Circles the neighboring hills
Of Hertogenbosch, Brabant.
Darkness stalks the hunters,
Slowly sliding down,
Falling in beating rings and soft diagonals.
Lodged in the vague vast valley the village sleeps.

And here is Kyung-Wha Chung who plays and conducts Vivaldi's “Winter” from the Four Seasons, with a group of young musicians she herself got together and trained. Filmed in 1997.