01 August 2015

Queen of the Desert

You heard it here. Release date September 15th.

The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2015. That's how long I've been waiting.

Official blurb:
Queen of the Desert is a 2015 epic biographical drama film written and directed by Werner Herzog and is based on the life of British traveller, writer, archaeologist, explorer and cartographer Gertrude Bell.

Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis.

So why is his head bigger than hers in the poster, eh? Eh?!

Early reviews of the movie are mixed although all seem to agree it's stunningly filmed in grand proportions.

Some say Kidman "completely embodies" Gertrude Bell.[1] 

Others are underwhelmed by some "regrettable dialogue" finding it all "the tiniest dull."[2] 

"What drives her is never really illuminated."[3]

Not to denigrate Kidman's acting skills, but she seems miscast to me. Apparently she replaced Herzog's first choice, Naomi Watts. What? Who? (How about someone not conventionally beautiful? Laura Dern? Tilda Swinton?) There was talk for some time of Angelina Jolie producing and starring in a Gertrude Bell movie but perhaps she came to her senses.

I would not be surprised if the magnificent scenery of Jordan and Morocco overpowers Gertrude's extraordinary career. Hoping they don't overdo the T.E. Lawrence association.

[1] Justin Harp, 8 July 2015,"Nicole Kidman journeys across the Middle East in breathtaking Queen of the Desert trailer," Digital Spy (http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/movies/news/a657019/nicole-kidman-journeys-across-the-middle-east-in-breathtaking-queen-of-the-desert-trailer.html#~pjc4LBUoPvGUJQ). 
[2] Peter Bradshaw, 7 February 2015, "Berlin 2015: Queen of the Desert review – a towering Nicole Kidman goes there and back again," the guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/06/queen-of-the-desert-film-review-berlin-nicole-kidman-werner-herzog).
[3] "'Queen of the Desert,' Berlin Film Review," 6 February 2015, The Hollywood Reporter (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/nicole-kidman-werner-herzogs-queen-770806).

22 July 2015

Friends Send Me ... camel things (3)

Well yes, there are more.
How about this cushion from Judy?

Or this treasured camel bell from Jackie?

Thanks, Anne. I'm still trying to memorize that one.

Irrepressible Kim found this (gasp!) ad. Whatever were the publishers thinking? But you have to admit, can't beat a grin like that. Camels have dentists too. Believe it.

Cathy and Kim, you should know you preempted a blog post about this ... Mr. Dashdondog Jamba delivers home library service Mongolian style.

 Possibly the source of the much-maligned cigarette. I have personally witnessed a camel inhaling.

Fred spotted THIS. JFK airport is world class, no question. Just the perfect arrival point for a mate for my Rahmi.

And if anyone remembers who sent me this, remind me? I think it's called anthropomorphism.

Facebook camel friends (yes, hear us roar) are an endless source of gifts. Some friends have sent photos or news clippings of such magnitude they deserve their own posts. We're not done here yet.

P.S. You can all stop sending me the fabulous National Geographic (Steinmetz) photo of camels and their shadows in the desert. Thank you.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

11 July 2015

Rockies ... Nostalgia

Throwback nostalgia time ... travel to and from Alberta. For three summers I stayed at the Banff School of Fine Arts. Sweet times! Now the complex is called simply the Banff Centre, much expanded to include literary arts, conference facilities, and "leadership training." Today I hardly recognize the buildings and the programs ...
Postcard ca.1955
In hindsight, all the programs then were somewhat limited in scope, facilities, and the number of participants that could be accommodated. But all programs were full every year. The artists, the singers and musicians, the dancers, the actors, all thrilled to the collegiality and the highest quality of faculty instructors. A rather uninformative video about early days: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmXMLZj-bjw   

When I first went in the late 1950s, my mother and two friends were signed up for an art course. The four of us crammed into her car and drove from the Lakehead to Banff. The 1,000-mile trip involved a fully packed car short on comfort and temper for people with long legs but the blurting of bad language was kept to a minimum. Our stay was a tiny rented suite in someone's house on the town outskirts, everyone uneasy with the lack of privacy, but mostly we were away all day doing lovely artistic things and absorbing a great deal of Banff. Ballet classes were in the town hall auditorium on Banff Avenue; Gweneth Lloyd introduced us to her Greek Rhythmics.

Fun during Banff's "Indian Days" to see Chief Walking Buffalo leading my mother in a dance. Once we went for tea with portraitist extraordinaire and friend Nicky de Grandmaison at his vintage log home.

Honestly, girls and boys: we really did have coloured film in those days. (Didn't we?)

Betty and Gweneth
The next time I went out west on my own. Changes had been made. There were residential chalets and a gigantic dance studio space on the side of Tunnel Mountain. Betty Farrally from my (Winnipeg) home dance school had joined the faculty. Every program presented a performance or exhibit at the end of the courses. And because we all more or less lived on top of one another, we all showed up to applaud our peers.  

So exotic it seemed, meeting all those Albertans and western Canadians! To be sure, Toronto and the east were often represented. I recall John Arab and Arlene Meadows as stars in the vocal program; Andy Dawes and Ken Perkins were there, later to found the Orford Quartet. Ken's sister Marnie was our piano accompanist for the dance classes. I had a huge crush on Marek the shy pianist, accidentally lingering outside his practice room, perfecting my knowledge of Rachmaninoff. The hills echoed joyfully with the sound of music.

Dress rehearsal, Walton's Facade Suite
In those days we seldom thought of capturing great moments with our cameras. We were kept so busy with classes because rehearsals for the grand finale performance began almost immediately. Our programs naturally featured Gweneth Lloyd choreographic works.

It's a wonder we had any time to explore. But we did manage to ride horses in the Hoodoos; we met visiting international dance stars; we climbed Sulphur Mountain. As far as we were concerned, the best attraction of the main street was the corner coffee shop where Iand a few others ‒ first encountered the seductive butterhorn. A flaky pastry, I recall, served after a quick sauté in (more) butter. The melt-in-your-mouth result was addictive. No cholesterol problems at that age!

In my last summer there, what fun rooming with my good buddy Ginny, and double-dating. How did we get time for that? Gweneth's "Finishing School" was an ironic lark because both of us were on summer reprieve from boarding school. Ginny later became a Vegas showgirl and Mary Tyler Moore's body double.

DeeDee and Virginia went on to join ballet companies in the U.K.; Dalton joined the Moulin Rouge troupe in Paris where I spotted him in the chorus a few years later so late-night drinks and catch-up were on the menu. 

Does it still hold magic for young people, this town?

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

29 June 2015

Cruising Up the River, Egypt 2008

A modern Sun Goddess, unlike the ancient figures we've been visiting, greets us dockside on the Nile at Luxor. Cruising is a novelty at this point of my travels and looks oh-so-appealing after our long sweaty trek through and around the enormous Karnak Temple site. Karnak was the pilgrimage centre of worship for several ancient gods and covers about two hundred acres. It felt like we walked all of it. 

The famed temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor are on the east bank of the Nile, the "side of life," so says Hami Habiba our guide. There is so much to see and linger for, but Hami likes to keep us moving with “mooshi! mooshi!” which means hurry up you dumb tourists.
So the river scene is enough to help us cool down. The ship is comfortable, enjoyable; ninety cabins, each with two beds and not much room for anything else. Doesn't matter; being up top when sailing is the main thing. There's a pool on deck and the food is wonderful. From dining room at the bottom to the sundeck, five flights of stairs, 80 steps who's counting? opportunity for more exercise training (they do have elevators!). We are one of a score of similar ships plying up and down the river. However it's rush-rush through our first impressive five-course dinner because Luxor Temple is waiting for us before sunset.
Again, everything is on a gigantic scale. Once the ages-old city of Thebes, the stone remains were uncovered beneath the sand and the town that superseded it. Once again we are overawed with the magnitude of proportion and design. We are bone-tired by the time the sun goes down. It goes down fast in Egypt. Our companion Joe still shaken by a stubborn camel at Giza causes a stir, getting lost and confused in the blackness pierced only by strategic floodlights. With relief I could finally settle on the ship's deck for a nightcap, keen to watch the quayside activity. A wedding party is whooping it up at a disco and passersby are merrily invited to join the celebration.
National Geographic, Keith Garrett
 Next morning, still Luxor, early rising. A group of fifteen is going to the west bank of the Nile, the "side of death." We are bussed, trammed, bussed, to the immense Valley of the Kings. The heat in this extraordinary desert bowl is ferocious, the reason we started so early. Ancient labourers dug down to bedrock to excavate the royal burial chambers. Tutankhamen’s tomb is not open to the public right now. We are allowed to visit three tombs that are mainly empty, i.e. none of the original accoutrements or sarcophagi. No warning that the first, for Ramses IV, was a horridly steep, narrow descent crammed with tourists moving each way; one line going down, one line coming up. The press of bodies, the stale air, and lack of circulation are too much for me. Wuss! ... halfway down I join the going-up line.
The next tombs are less daunting to access — the artwork on the walls and ceilings is amazing to behold in their original colours, many depicting the guide to the underworld. The symbolism, the gods they worshiped, the history, are complicated as the centuries rolled on. Hundreds of tourists file slowly back and forth, heads canted up for best viewing. Disturbing the rhythm by lingering invites nasty remarks or trampled toes. Security here seems pretty relaxed for protecting the priceless sites.
 Absorbed in the magnificent frescoes until a shove in the kidneys snaps me out of it, I lose my group somewhere. But I find a third tomb to visit on my own. Later I manage to relocate my buds in time to move on to the memorable tomb/temple of Queen Hatshepsut, dedicated to the sun god; she was a queen who actually ruled.
Then we go on to the nearby Valley of the Queens where we climb a zillion stairs. Here are buried many royal consorts and notables, dozens and dozens of tombs! Did I mention the temperature in this valley must be close to 50 degrees celsius? The unlucky few of us hit with the Egyptian flu are desperate for the W.C. There goes Joe. Did someone put a curse on the poor guy before he started his travels?

Back to the ship, a very full day already, and it's just lunch time. Now our cruising upriver begins. Every day features tea on deck at 5 pm. The group checks their various bruises, sprains, and shaky limbs did we know that hiking, scrambling, stumbling over archaeological sites required fitness training prep? The first lock on the river appears after dinner; it takes two ships at a time so we are jockeying in a lineup.
Despite the darkness, the “boat boys” are out in force to sell their wares. What a hoot for a couple of hours. They throw parcels up to the deck on request ... dresses (djellabayas), carpets, scarves, jewellery ... and we throw down the packaged money after a great deal of boisterous price haggling. Shoppers gone berserk!

Arriving at Edfu means a carriage ride to the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Horus. It was equally interesting to see the streets of the town as we drove through. “No shopping, no shopping,” Hami cries as we eye the vendors. A river of people streams through the monument. Built by the Ptolemaic dynasty to honour Horus, mythologized as the son of gods Isis and Osiris, the temple is on the site of a battle won by Horus. His life and myth are memorialized throughout; pilgrims would come to bring ritual offerings to the god. Later Ptolemies added their own royal self-depictions.
 Back to the ship for a sail to Kom Ombo. It feels like royalty to sit on deck watching scenery and agricultural life go by. Marshy islands. A few passing pleasure ships. Little or no small boat activity. Late afternoon docking at Kom Ombo with a short walk to the Greco-Roman temple. When we see tourists by the hundreds being funnelled into a very small entrance, once again I say no way. Later I hear almost everyone had been dismayed by the claustrophobic and chaotic crowds. The strongest elbows and shoulders won the shoving matches; apparently the Germans prevailed.
Instead I wander off toward the shops and stalls along the quay. The vendors are thick as flies but I don’t mind. Good humour is the key. Then I run out of shops after the sun sets and the remainder of the quay leading to the ships is inky dark and deserted. I approach Mr. Policeman to ask if it's safe to walk to my ship along the unlit section. No English, but he recognizes the word “ship” and escorts me along to the Sun Goddess in companionable silence. Just as well, because the ship moved from the position where we left it.
Tonight the ship decrees we dress up like Arabs for buffet dinner on the deck. My buddy looks very exotic, right from the desert. I do an Aw-renz (Lawrence) imitation with my camel shirt and makeshift keffiyeh. Another camera fail! There is belly dancing entertainment and the party goes on but the elbowing and shopping and the heat took their toll and we have to rise at ...

... 4:30 a.m.! That’s the call for a few who booked an optional excursion (flight) to the greatest highlight of the entire cruise: Abu Simbel!

Worth every extra penny. Our ship has taken us to Aswan overnight, Nubian country. Here is Lake Nasser created by the dam, over 500 km in length. We are shuttled across the famous dam and do the airport-waiting thing; it's a gorgeous airport. Our flight passes over the famous towering statues into a very steep landing at Abu Simbel.
Ramses II Temple
Queen Neferteri Temple
Creating the dam would have submerged the monumental 3,000-year-old statues and temples erected by Ramses II for himself and his Queen Neferteri. And so they were moved higher from their original position carved into a cliff a gigantic international engineering venture in the 1960s. Incredibly painstaking planning and equipment managed the process of new site preparation, the dis-assembly and reassembly. The inner rooms of one temple reach sixty metres back into the mountain. There's more effort here at security, and fewer crowds. More leisure time to enjoy the temples' masterpiece interiors. All this and the day is only half done when we return to Aswan for a city tour. 
 A felucca sail is fun the next day. Sailing is a two-man job and the men prove admirably skillful with the huge sail on an unusually windy Nile. We spot the tomb of the former Aga Khan on a hill. Eventually the main crewman produces a drum-like, tambourine-type instrument and gives us a few Nubian songs. All is authentically pleasing until he breaks into “She’ll be comin’ around the mountain.” Spontaneous laughter but I feel sorry about the disconnect. Hami then announces a “commercial break” with a straight face and the same crewman unfolds his jewellery table for us all to pounce on. Total disconnect :-D !

Rather soon we are leaving the splendid Sun Goddess which will take another load of tourists back downriver to Luxor. 

Egypt ... always a bundle of contradictions.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

22 June 2015



High Arctic Camel, mid-Pliocene period
(drawing by Julius Csotony, Canadian Museum of Nature)

17 June 2015

Hammamet, Tunisia 2012

In a beautiful Mediterranean resort outside the town of Hammamet, fellow travellers were reporting that camels were on the beach every day and where was I? the only committed camel-phile in our little group.

Where I was most of the time, was wandering with travel buddy in Hammamet's old medina, the magnetic focal point in this location. The adjacent cemetery also required lengthy browsing. It was good to start our explorations early morning along with the residents, enjoying countless cups of excellent coffee at every opportunity. Thus plenty of attractions kept me away from the beach.


The very first day travel buddy had an experience that by rights was mine ... as I slumbered obliviously from jet lag under a distant nook of palms. Strolling on the beach, waiting for an optimal photographic shot of the sunset, what to her wondering eyes should appear but the likes of a desert sheik or prince astride his camel. He beckoned. She went. Insisted she sit on the camel so he could photograph her. Have a ride, no charge. She urged, come back for my friend tomorrow.

Whenever I had time to reach the beach, no camel in sight. No sign of the prince. Unseen forces were obviously working against me. Fate did not kick in until our last day.

Off we went that morning to visit a rather un-promoted but splendid 1920s seaside villa of classic minimalist design — “close to architectural perfection” — a comment attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright. Absolutely; Dar Sebastian is a gem, built by a wealthy Romanian who migrated to Tunisia. He is credited with putting Hammamet on the map for the rich and famous in the post-First World War period. Many European artistic worthies visited Dar Sebastian such as Cocteau, Gide, Klee, Sitwell, and so on. What jolly times the guests must have had in the Roman-inspired communal bath! One also boggles at the juxtaposition of Rommel, having commandeered the villa for his Tunisian campaign headquarters, and Churchill (later, obviously) spending time here to write his memoirs.

From the height of the villa overlooking the sea, our plan was to walk back along the beach to our hotel for lunch. Said plan fell short in finding actual access to the beach because the villa and gardens are securely fenced. Some walking time in the town outskirts was involved and some discussion of whether a coffee in yet another sidewalk café full of vaguely disapproving men would reduce our creeping hunger pangs. However, a passing man on a bicycle genially led us to the public access path. More discussion dillying over appropriate baksheesh for his assistance and who had the appropriate coins. But finally, there was the beach and the distant prospect of our hotel. Somewhat more distant than we expected.

Then like a genie out of a bottle, a camel and his handler popped up before us on the shoreline. As I was about to embrace this opportunity, travel buddy said No, Wait! She spotted another. Her very prince leading his recommended camel. She and he ~ Felipe ~ fell into excited dialogue like old friends (90% incomprehensible on both sides). Travel bud herself had had enough of camels, rejecting the first offer. Among the three of us and one camel, we negotiated a fair price for “voilà hotel ... oui ... montez ... d’accord ... .” 

My first camel ride on a beach was just as perfect as I could wish — bare feet, a quietly lapping sea, and the wonderful air in that part of the world giving a clearer, cleaner hue to all around me. To my immense satisfaction, it took a long time to reach our hotel front. The downside was travel buddy staggering along the entire way through the sand. That’s a kind of brand loyalty. And friendship. Her camera always ready, I treasure her photos.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman