Just finished watching the BBC series Sherlock Holmes which is set in modern-day London. These British dramas have only three episodes each year and we zipped through three seasons worth in a week’s time. The first season was good,  the second so-so and the third excellent. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Sherlock Holmes and the supporting cast is a match for him. The series is available on Netflix streaming . Do watch it if you can.

However, that is not  what I want to write about. What struck me about this series is that there were no car chases, no crashes and no explosions. ( There was one scene that showed the Houses of Parliament come tumbling down as a result of a terrorist bomb but it was just Holmes imagining what would happen if he didn’t stop the terrorists in time.) Despite this, these were all first class mysteries with their fair share of tension.

I have no doubt they would have been much more explosive had they been made for American TV.  Why ? Do really need to see cars ramming into each other and buildings being blown up to get our jollies ? I remember the car chase in The French Connection and how thrilling it was but we seem to have gone overboard with such scenes. With the advent of computers and CGI, such scenes have proliferated. For instance, the climax of an American made movie had Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes  fighting the villain on  London’s  iconic Tower Bridge  as it collapsed about them. Computer generated effects are fine but when they are used to show events that are patently false, the drama enters the realm of fantasy.

At least, when buildings and bridges are depicted tumbling down, no actual destruction takes place. This is not true of on-screen car crashes which really happen. Whenever I watch one of these, I can’t help thinking ” What a waste!” and I wonder why these are necessary and how the British and the Europeans manage without them. Is it because we Americans like them so much ? Is it because overseas productions do not have the lavish budgets that Hollywood and the American studios enjoy? Or is it an example of our wastefulness ? Or perhaps it is because of all of these? I don’t know.

Unfortunately, Indian movies seem to be modeling themselves on Hollywood. Recently, I saw two Bollywood movies and they were replete with car crashes ( and explosions) and the thought crossed my mind ” Are these really necessary?”


Atlantic Monthly recently asked readers and celebrities which fictional city ( or locale) they would most like to live in. These were some of the responses:

London from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. a world like ours, only more delightful.

Rivendell. Featured in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it is the home of elves, a timeless realm hidden in a valley.

Atlantis. Plato’s fictional island that sank beneath the ocean waves.

Gotham, home of the comic book hero, Batman

Bedrock, home of  the Flintstones.

The island from the TV series Lost.

Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland where Alice has all those adventures.

Dr. Seuss’s Who-ville.

The Matrix.

Innisfree, the scenic Irish village that John Wayne retires to in The Quiet Man. (In reality, there is an uninhabited island of the same name in Lough Gill, near Sligo, Ireland that is the subject of a poem by W.B. Yeats.)

Some of these choices strike me as strange. Gotham may be the home of Batman and Robin, but arch-villains The Joker, the Riddler, and others live there too and it is always depicted as being a very dark place. Wonderland is a weird, vaguely menacing place as I remember it. As for the island from Lost, it doesn’t have any mod con. Definitely not for me!

If this question had been asked fifty or sixty years ago, I have no doubt that Shangri- La would have been the number one response. It is a mythical place, an earthly paradise hidden from modern man and located somewhere in the mountains of Tibet. It was the brainchild of the British novelist, James Hilton, and is featured in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. With the passage of time, the novel and its author have faded from memory, as has the name Shangri- La.

My own choice would be Darrowby, the fictional village in North Riding, Yorkshire where the beloved veterinarian James Herriot lived and worked. It is a composite of four other villages in the area. Herriot combined their characteristics into the fictional Darrowby because he did not want his life disrupted by admirers of his books. It was a good idea because even today, years after his death, busloads of tourists descend upon these villages to get a glimpse of the setting for his wonderful stories. Apparently, I am only one of many who were charmed by his description of the life of a village vet. Doing the work one loves and earning a comfortable living, secure in the love of  family,  having the respect and friendship of  neighbors and living a peaceful life in a scenic, beautiful English village… Isn’t that what we all would love?

When friends of ours invited us to go with them to watch the new Steve Jobs movie, I was not sure I wanted to. I had read Walter Jacobsen’s authorized biography of Jobs and I didn’t see how it could be made into an interesting film. Jobs was a driven man , obsessed with his work and oblivious to most everything else. His name will forever be associated with Apple and the slew of amazing products that it generated but he was also a cold, ruthless, tyrant who hired and fired employees at will even as he drove others to perform to the limit of their capabilities. The book was a detailed account of the way Jobs operated and while it focused on Jobs’ role in making Apple as one of the leading companies in the world, it also gave us some insight into the man’s personal life. We came to know that he was an adopted child whose step-parents made sacrifices to send him to college only to see him drop out before he hooked up with Steve Wozniak and founded Apple. It also told us about his quirks and eccentricity which alienated most everyone he came in contact with and his mellowing with age particularly after he was diagnosed with cancer. I just didn’t see how all this could be compressed into a two and a half hour movie.

My fears were well founded; the movie was a disappointment.

The movie is framed by three seminal moments in the history of Apple: the launch of the Macintosh, the unveiling of the NeXT computer and how it helped put Jobs once again at the helm of Apple and finally the launch of the iMac. The last of these presaged the slew of iconic products that followed( iPod, iPhone, iPad) but those are not part of this movie. Director Danny Boyle uses these events and the moments preceding them to flash back to events in Jobs life. The device just doesn’t work. Steve Jobs( Michael Fessbender) is at his most obstreperous, disregarding the efforts of his long-suffering executive assistant, Joanna Hoffman ( Kate Winslett) to keep things on track, clashing with subordinates and others and engaged in an ongoing dialog with his estranged daughter. The three episodes blend into one another because of the lead character’s unchanging behavior; his change in appearance is not enough to signal to the viewer that these are different chapters in Jobs life. Also,it is unrealistic to depict Jobs as dealing with all these distractions at such critical junctures in his career.

Even though I had read the book on which the screenplay was based, I found it difficult to follow what was happening onscreen. For those unfamiliar with the book and with Jobs life, it is well-nigh impossible to do so and boring besides. My wife took a nap midway through the movie and I completely understood.

The movie also departs from the book in several important details, not least the characters of Joanna Hoffman and John Sculley. I do not remember Joanna as having any significant role in the book . As for John Sculley( Jeff Daniels), he is portrayed as a likeable man who turns up to offer Jobs his best wishes . This is at odds with the book which paints him as completely out of his depth as CEO of Apple, one who clashed with Jobs and orchestrated his firing.

A biography, whether in print or onscreen, has to be interesting and factual. This movie is neither. The only positive is the acting which I thought was uniformly good, despite the lack of appeal of the characters themselves. When the movie was first  released it garnered favorable reviews from the critics but it has since tanked at the box office and is unlikely to recoup its investment. I am not surprised. Two stars( ** ).

The neighborhood of Somerset, N.J that we live in has been developed recently, much of it over the past fifteen or twenty years. Earlier, it used to be farmland and there were many wild creatures, including deer, roaming about freely. As humans encroach on their habitat , the deer have come under increasing pressure. They have nowhere else to go and as they try to make their way to water, they fall victim to drivers. Not a week goes by that I do not pass the carcass of a deer lying by the roadside. The authorities try their best to avoid such accidents by posting ” Deer Crossing” signs along well known routes that the deer take to their waterholes, However, deer turn up in the most unpredictable places and , particularly at dusk and at night, they are impossible to see in time .

Cut to Buchholz, Germany where we were recently: This town too is surrounded by farmland and, I was sure, frequented by deer ; yet I never saw a deer carcass by the roadside in the three days I spent there. I asked our German host about it and he said that yes, the drivers there also had such accidents with deer but the rules were very strict. Any driver who collided with a deer was expected to pull over, call the police and wait until they arrived. When the police came to the scene, they would put the deer out of its misery if it was still alive and arrange for the carcass to be immediately removed. The driver faced no penalties except if he left the scene of the accident before the police arrived; in that case ,he faced heavy penalties. I thought to myself that this was a sensible arrangement, so much better than the situation here in the U.S where deer carcasses are left lying by the roadside for days, sometimes even a week before the authorities are notified and set about removing them.

Then, in the course of another unrelated conversation, our host told me the following story: His adult daughter was biking through a village when she came to a crossroads and a STOP sign. She looked both ways and there was absolutely no car in sight. Thereupon , she crossed the road without coming to a full stop. Out of nowhere, a police car came roaring up and a policeman stopped her and demanded to see her license. He then proceeded to write her a ticket for not having stopped at the sign. The infraction cost her a whopping one hundred euros( about $ 120) but , even worse, she got penalty points on her driving license. She pleaded with the policeman that she was not driving a car and that she should at least be spared the points on her license. No dice, he said. ” The rules apply whether you are in a car or on a bike”.

I’m all for rules but I felt that the policeman’s actions were an abuse of power. I hope it was just an isolated incident with this one policeman throwing his weight around. I would hate to think that his behavior was the norm.

(In my previous post, I had written about going to Luneberg, Germany and taking a jitney ride through the town to learn about its rich history).

As we were waiting for our horse-drawn jitney to arrive, the doors of the church across the street opened and a young couple emerged to the sound of cheers from a group of their friends gathered on the sidewalk. Apparently the two had just been married for they were still in their wedding finery. He was dressed in a suit and vest and she in a ivory colored wedding gown. They were both very young, perhaps in their early twenties. He was slim and tall with sharp features, and a little fuzz covering his cheeks and chin. She looked a little older than him, full figured, with a pretty face framed in a mass of brown ringlets. As we watched, they accepted the congratulations of their well-wishers and stepped through a giant tissue- paper heart held up by two of their friends. Then they seated themselves on a bicycle built for two with a “JUST MARRIED” sign on the back and set off for a spin around the square, the cheers of their friends ringing in their ears. He bent himself to the task manfully and she did her best to balance herself as there were some initial wobbles before they got into the proper rhythm. They both had big smiles on their faces and were so obviously happy that it made me feel good to just look at them. I know the other onlookers felt the same too.

Our jitney was a little late in arriving and we were still there on the corner when the couple completed their circuit of the square and got back to where their friends were waiting. By now, they were perfectly in sync and they glided to the curb and dismounted smoothly. Their friends were waiting with ice-cold bottles of champagne in an ice-bucket. Corks were popped, glasses filled and toasts offered amid a shower of hugs and kisses.

Just then our jitney arrived and we clambered aboard. As we clattered away, I took a last look at the wedding celebration. The beaming couple were surrounded by their friends and well-wishers, accepting their congratulations, sipping champagne and looking happy, happy, happy. I have attended many weddings, many staged with great pomp and at great expense, but rarely have I been so touched. Such a pleasure to see two young people so in love setting out together on their journey through life. Every day, the news shows and newspapers bring us a full measure of atrocities and tragedies happening all over the world but for a few moments I was able to forget them all. As the church and the couple receded from view, I sent a silent prayer to the Universe wishing them a smooth untroubled path through life, one in which their every wish comes true.

(We had been away for much of this month attending a cousin’s wedding in Hamburg, Germany and then making brief stops at Amsterdam and Brussels. The next few posts will be about my experiences on the trip. Not the usual touristy stuff but sidelights about some of the interesting things I saw and my impressions about the different cultures we experienced).

Luneberg  is a pleasant university town of about 70,000 which is undistinguished today, but in the middle Ages, rose to prominence because of its salt mines. We drove there from Buchholz, a suburb of Hamburg that is about an hour away. Tourism is the mainstay of the Luneberg economy today and we took a jitney ride through the town as a guide gave us the town’s history. He was very good and it was a most interesting experience.

Luneberg sits atop a huge underground salt dome which was discovered by accident. According to legend, a hunter saw a wild boar wallowing in a pond and shot and killed it. He took the carcass home, skinned it and hung the skin to dry. When it did, he found white flecks among the bristles on the boar skin. They were salt crystals. The hunter retraced his steps, located the salt pond and the underground deposits and thus began the salt industry in Luneberg, way back in the 12th century. Initially, the salt was mined and hauled to the surface in buckets; later,the salt deposits were dissolved in water in situ and the resulting brine was pumped to upper levels, still underground, where it  was boiled and purified to reconstitute the salt. Luneberg was a member of the Hanseatic League and is on the river Elbe. So, the salt was packaged  and transported up the Elbe to the port of Lubeck and thence to  other parts of Germany and southern Sweden. Today , we take salt for granted but it’s importance cannot be overestimated. It is an essential both for humans and livestock and, in the middle ages, it was vital for the preservation of fish ( mainly herring which were caught in large numbers then). Luneberg salt was prized for its quality and the burghers grew rich on the profits they made off the salt trade.

As we drove slowly through the town, the guide pointed out the elaborate town hall and the luxurious houses that medieval merchants had built. We were also told that, as the salt was mined , parts of town started to settle… some as much as six feet. This caused some buildings to shift and we saw several that leaned drunkenly against each other. Salt mining tapered off after the 16th century as salt became more easily available and prices fell. A sudden drop in the herring catch did not help. In 1980, the mines were  closed for good and the subsidence in town has stopped.

History focuses on the winners and those who are successful, but , too often, the human cost of these successes is forgotten.Thanks to our guide, we got some insight into the toll that the salt mines of Luneberg exacted on those who worked in them.The working conditions were, to say the least, hellish. The brine was drawn in buckets and dumped into a huge rectangular iron pan that sat atop a wood-burning furnace. As the brine boiled, impurities were removed by the addition of certain catalysts which caused them to form a scum that was carefully removed. The brine had to be stirred continuously during the process until it resulted in fine crystals which were dried in conical baskets. These were then packaged for export. Work went on twenty-four hours a day. The salt pans were in use continuously except for a once-a-week cleaning. The entire operation required only three people: a master salter, an assistant and a boy to stoke the furnace. Very often, these were members of the same family: a man, his wife and his son. Children were conscripted into the business at the age of seven ( seven!) and spent the rest of their lives toiling in the salt mines. Temperatures near the pans were as high as 55 degrees Celsius( 131 degrees F) and workers had short lives, often dying by age forty. Our guide pointed out a row of houses which were meant as retirement homes for workers. They were never occupied as none of the workers reached retirement age. Eventually, the houses were used as an elementary school.

In the States, office workers heading back to work on Mondays sometimes remark facetiously” Well, I guess it’s back to the salt mines!”.
If only they knew.


I love the scent of lavender. One of my indulgences is scented soap and, among the many different varieties, the one that I get most often is lavender. It’s scent is fresh, natural and subtle yet insistent. When I smell it, I am reminded of a poster I once used to own that showed fields of flowers in Provence. Vibrant reds, deep yellows and purples. The purples of course were lavender. The whole effect was like seeing a painter’s palette.

Much as I like the smell and the color of lavender,  I don’t care for its taste.

Recently, we had been to a French-Thai fusion restaurant in Somerville and , for dessert, we decided to order something different, not the ubiquitous crème brulee. One of the desserts we ordered was a trio of ice creams. One of the three flavors that day was lemongrass-lavender and I had great hopes for it. Sadly, it was a disappointment. Very strong and, at bottom, unpleasing. Could it have tasted better if it had not been so strong? I don’t think so. Could it have been more palatable had it been just lavender instead of lemongrass and lavender? No. The best thing that I can say about the taste of lavender is to use that most damning of words,,,, interesting.

Lavender is a scent, not a flavor.

P.S The other two flavors were blueberry and peach ginger. They were both good.

Golden Ripples

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