Thursday, December 15, 2022

1944: Arthur learns to use a submachine gun (chapter draft)

 Ok, so my grandfather didn't talk much about the submachine gun he used in the maquis; he only said that it was a Sten and not very good, and that he'd heard that the American-made Thompson (aka"Tommy Gun") was pretty good. That's about all I know directly from him.

As I researched what life in the maquis was like, I realized that I needed to write about my grandfather learning how to use it. So, I researched how they trained on the weapon given that they a) didn't have enough to go around, and often passed one gun from unit to unit for training purposes, b) in the absence of adequate supplies of ammunition, they learned to assemble and disassemble the weapon in record times.  

As I wrote the scene below, I had to balance two things: the character's experience and perspective, and the author's experience and perspective.  Now, my perspective should be entirely absent. It should be all about my grandfather and who he was, but some of myself may have slipped in.

So let me describe the relevant parts of my grandfather's personality: he wasn't a pacifist, but he was also very ... peaceable and non-violent. He spent most of WW2 avoiding war zones and escaping to safer places, so he could protect his family. He also never served in the army, so had zero combat training.  But in the maquis, he DID learn to use a Sten.  And as an engineer, he was also very curious about how things worked.  But, I don't believe he ever owned a gun, even after living in Oklahoma (where the Second Amendment is sacrosanct) for 40 years. Even after surviving the Holocaust.

[Correction: I now have reason to believe he did serve in the military - in Belgium, all men served mandatory military training after high school or college]

Now for my background: I too am not a pacifist, but I am also pretty strongly anti-war under most circumstances.  And while I've fired a gun a few times in my life, I am very inexperienced.  I've never held a submachine gun (or even seen one except in the movies) and know little about how they work or what they are like.  I am only a couple of baby steps above novice.  

Now what that means is that in order to write about the Sten in an - ahem - authoritative way, I researched the hell out of them. To my surprise, there is a group of people who really like firing and teaching about antique firearms, so there were lots of youtube videos for me to watch. I also found animations that showed how to disassemble and reassemble it, both into the four main parts, but also all the way down to the 50-ish individual components.  I watched videos of a man reviewing what it was like (how awkward it was) and firing it at a range to demonstrate its accuracy and he showed how the 4 main parts went together. I read lots and lots of stuff, too, and pestered a friend when I couldn't find certain details (like how to switch it between automatic and single-shot mode, or whether it was a centerfire or rimfire weapon). I even read the f-ing manual for heaven's sake (people have scanned the WW2-era paper manuals and put them online). Ok, I only skimmed the manual. It's hard to absorb the info without the actual item in your hands.

Anyway, I wrote a scene describing how Grandpa learned to use it.  But ... it might reflect my own curiosity and I might have over-compensated for my ignorance, and I might have gone into too much detail. Will readers be curious about what it's like to fire an obsolete, cheap, poorly-made, mass-produced submachine gun? Or does it drag?  Does it allow you as the reader to experience Grandpa's gun-ignorance and reluctant-yet-curious personality?  I'd love any feedback you might have.

    As he was putting the casing back on the radio, he felt a tap on his shoulder. 

     It was Lucien. “Biscuit, you need to learn the Sten. Only one other person besides you hasn’t, and it should go to the next unit soon.”

    Arthur sighed. “All right. Let me finish this.”  He tightened the screws that held on the metal casing. “I am ready.”

    Lucien led him to the worktable where more than a hundred men had learned the Sten. First, he taught Arthur the names of all the parts and how to assemble and disassemble the gun. “We don’t need to strip it down to the individual pieces. Only down to the four main ones.”  Lucien picked up the main part of the gun. “Receiver assembly.”  He then grabbed a thin tube protruding about 7 centimeters from a wider tube. “Barrel screws into the front of the receiver assembly.” He quickly hand-twisted the barrel into place.  “Butt stock.” He picked up the stock, which had a locking mechanism on one end, lined it up with the other end of the receiver assembly, and slid it upwards until a small button clicked into place.  Lucien picked up the magazine. “This one last.” He clicked it into the side of the receiver assembly.

    Within a short time, Arthur could put it together and take it apart, if not quickly, then at least correctly, and he could do it from memory and without coaching.

    Then Lucien taught Arthur to use the selector button a little forward of the trigger. “Push the side marked A to put it in fully automatic mode. Push the side marked R to take single shots.”

    “What does the R stand for?” Arthur asked.

    “Repetition.”  Lucien shrugged. “It makes no sense. But you use it when you want to take single shots.” Then he pointed to the magazine protruding from the left side of the gun. “It attaches on the side instead of underneath, so you can crawl without catching the magazine on the ground.”

    Finally, Lucien taught him to “safe the gun” by locking the charging handle into a slot at the top. If he dropped a safed Sten while it was loaded, it could not accidentally fire.  

    “And now, let’s learn to use it.”  Lucien showed Arthur how to use the sights to aim and how he had to use his left hand to cradle not grasp, the underside of the barrel shroud. It was hard to brace the weapon — it had no real grip for the right hand when pulling the trigger and every good spot to grab the gun with the left hand caused problems. Not the magazine because it wiggled slightly, and the play caused the bullets to misfeed. Not the barrel, which got hot, and not the barrel sleeve because that obscured the weapon’s sights. So the only way to brace it with the left hand was to cradle (but not grab) the barrel sleeve from below. It was an awkward weapon to use.

    “Also, don’t dry fire the gun,” Lucien said.

    “What is that?” Arthur asked.

    “Don’t pull the trigger with no ammo in it.”

    “Why not?”

    “Because it could damage the firing pin,” Lucien told him. “I’m not sure it’s true because it’s a centerfire weapon — the firing pin doesn’t strike anything when it’s not loaded. But it’s a cheap weapon, so who knows?”

    Arthur practiced firing the gun by pointing it at a target and pretending to pull the trigger while Lucien placed his fist under the barrel and smacked it upward repeatedly as fast as he could while Arthur tried to hold it steady.  

    “Firing with live ammunition is pretty different,” Lucien said. “In automatic mode, the kick will be much faster than we can simulate — but this was the best we could come up with,” he said. “Now, it’s your turn to teach the last person.”


    “Yes. Captain Sanglier says the best way to reinforce what you’ve learned is to teach someone else.”

Monday, November 7, 2022

August 1944: Nearly Liberated: A Woman's Experience

    One difficulty I've had when writing Biscuit - most of my information is from my grandfather, and the story focuses primarily on his (the soldier/husband) point of view. But wherever I could, I tried to show my grandmother's world.  Her stories -- the few that I have -- were often quite powerful.

    One involves her experience just before her area of France was liberated, and she encountered American soldiers and German soldiers in the same day.  The info I have about the story is actually from my grandfather (I don't recall my grandmother ever telling me the story herself) who said in the recordings:

    By the way, Roma could tell you the story. She was in the village, in the town of Beaumont, and Americans came -- A jeep or two, and people were extremely happy and women kissed them, and everyone was enthusiastic, fantastic. And then they disappeared and a few hours later, the Germans came. The Germans came. 

    And a German told her, asked her: “Where is your husband?”

    “He is working in Germany.”

    And he said then, “I don’t believe you; he is with the French Forces of the Interior. Here is the Armband of the FFI, and when we see them, we kill all of them. Maybe your husband is like him.”

    But in any event it was very unpleasant. 

I turned it into a chapter from my Grandma Roma's point of view, and fleshed it out a little, and discovered that the story took on incredible power when the reader experiences it along with her. Here's the chapter:

—25 August 1944—

    Roma was working on the books for the town of Beaumont-Lès-Valence, and Liliane was playing quietly on the floor nearby, when they heard a commotion outside city hall.  Roma went to the window and peered outside, then jumped a little when she saw several open military vehicles pull to a stop just outside the building

    Then she saw that the soldiers were wearing foreign uniforms, and there was a white star on the door of the vehicle. Were they … Americans?  Then she saw a woman —her friend Thérèse — rush to one of the vehicles, and enthusiastically kiss the driver on the lips.  Yes, they had to be Allied soldiers.  

    “Liliane, come here, little one!” Roma said, and scooped up her daughter and rushed outside.  

    Within moments, it seemed the whole town had turned out to welcome these soldiers, and there was cheering, and men were shaking the Americans’ hands, and women and even children were hugging them, and pressing tiny gifts into the men’s hands.  Roma saw several people pass the soldiers bottles of wine that they’d been carefully saving and hoarding since the war began. 

    The Americans were enjoying the attention, but it was clear that they wanted to ask questions but they didn’t speak enough French, and the townspeople didn’t speak enough English.  So, taking Liliane by the hand, she walked up to the men, and said in English, “Hello, you have questions?” 

    The man looked relieved. “Yes, ma’am.  Can you please tell us if there are any Germans in this area, and if any are billeted in this town?  And are there any ammunition or fuel dumps?”

    “Speak slowly, please.”

The soldier repeated his questions.

    “Billeted? I do not know that word.”

    “Living here, in people’s homes,” he answered.  Liliane had been peeking at the men, sending them grins from behind Roma’s skirt. He winked at the little girl, and she giggled.

    “Oh … No, none live here.  And I do not think weapons or fuel are here, but I must ask the … important people of the village.  Germans are here sometimes, though.”

    “Thank you, ma’am. Yes, please ask.”

    Roma smiled at the man, picked up her daughter and went to find the mayor and town council. They confirmed that they knew of no ammunition or fuel caches, and Roma returned to the soldier to report her findings.   

    “Thank you, ma’am.”

    Roma then held out her hand. “Thank you. It is good to see you here.”

    The man grinned and briefly shook her hand.  

    But before they could go, Liliane said, “wait, Mama!” and she too held out her hand to the soldier, who gravely shook the little girl’s hand.

    “Beautiful little girl,” he said, then he and his men drove out of Beaumont-Lès-Valence.

    An hour later, Roma had finished working on the books and visiting with her friends, and was preparing to go home, when a small convoy of Germans came through.  She stood and watched them impassively, as they walked past her, boldly entering the town hall.  One stopped and looked at her, his gaze slowly sliding over her breasts and hips, before returning to her face. He glanced at the little girl standing next to her, hand held firmly in Roma’s. 

    Roma pushed Liliane behind her slightly. That seemed to annoy him.

    “Where your husband?” The man asked in bad French.

    “He is working in Germany,” Roma answered, just loudly enough to be heard.

    “I don’t believe you,” he said with a slow, ugly laugh. “He’s with the French Forces of the Interior.” 

    Roma’s heart started to pound and her stomach roiled. “What?” she asked, weakly.

    The man pulled out a wad of FFI armbands from his pocket and held them up. There were three of them, and they unfurled downward from his fist like tiny wrinkled French flags. The buckles clinked together, a muffled chime.  “Here are their armbands.  When we see them, we kill all of them.  Maybe one of these is your husband’s.”

    Roma’s heart skipped a beat, and she managed to stifle a gasp, but she couldn’t stop the involuntary tears from filling her eyes.   She couldn’t find a single word to say.

    The soldier seemed satisfied with the effect his petty cruelty had on Roma, gave her a mean grin, and then followed his officers inside.  

    Roma turned toward home and started walking as quickly as Liliane’s short legs would allow.  

    She was halfway home before she realized the armbands he held were a different style than Arthur’s.  She stopped, ignoring Liliane’s questions, and closed her eyes and breathed a long sigh of relief.  “Oh, Arthur, please come home to me.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Simplicity 1800: Amazing FitPattern Line - Slim, Standard, or Curvy shape?

 I came across the new (to me) AmazingFit Collection from Simplicity, and this dress caught my eye:

I also liked that on their online site, Simplicity showed the dress both on a skinny model (on the pattern envelope) and also on a more normal-sized model and I thought it looked good on both of them:

Kivi liked the pattern too, both for the cool neckline, and for the pockets, and she approved a lovely light-weight batik I had in my stash from a failed closet ceiling covering experiment.  

I hated, HATED the fabric in the ceiling of my closet.

But, even thought the fabric failed to please me when it covered the ceiling of my fiber closet, it WAS a gorgeous fabric:

So, onward.  It's an unusual pattern in that it provided 4 different bodice pieces, for women with B, C, D, or DD busts.  It also gave very clear instructions on how to pick. Measure the bust as usual, and also high bust (the torso above the breasts, basically in the armpits). If the bust was 1-2" bigger than the upper bust, then use bodice B. If 2-3" bigger, then bodice C, and so on.

But it ALSO gave three different skirt back pieces, for a slim, average or curvy fit.  From the pattern envelope, it gave me finished garment measurements, but that just showed that the slim fit was 1/2" smaller than the average fit, and the curvy was 1/2" bigger than the average version.  The difference in circumference is fairly subtle; who's going to notice 1/2 - 1" difference in a skirt with more than 10" of ease. (I.e., the skirt is supposed to be 10" bigger around than the woman's hips.) I noticed one other thing - the curvy version had two darts on either side of the back zipper, whereas the average and slim had only one.  

But it gave ZERO guidance how to choose.  The fact that the curvy skirt had two darts instead of one, suggested it was for women with a bigger than average difference between hips and waist, but ... the lack of guidance felt like an oversight. Was it to fit differently? Or was it personal preference? Or was the skirt itself more or less full (no - I later verified that the skirts were the same circumference at the hem).

Turns out, it was an oversight.

I did some online research and I wasn't the only person befuddled by the omission, so I contacted Simplicity's customer service, and we managed to talk past each other for awhile. They kept telling me to refer to the pattern envelope and the sizing there, and I kept trying to reword my query so they'd understand and not jump to the wrong conclusion, and while that was happening, I posted about it on a sewing forum, and someone THERE found a discussion thread on a different sewing forum, and YES WE STRUCK GOLD.

In other AmazingFit patterns, the following blurb appeared:

DETERMINE CORRECT FIGURE TYPE Three separate pattern pieces have been given for the skirt back- slim, average and curvy fit. To determine which figure type you are, use the waist and hip measurements for the size pattern you have selected. Compare the difference of your hip measurement to the standard. If your hip measurement matches the standard or is within 1/2” (1.3cm) in either direction, then choose the Average pattern piece; if your hip measurement is 1/2” - 1-1/2” (1.3cm - 3.8cm) less than the standard choose the Slim pattern piece; if your hip measurement is 1/2” - 1-1/2” (1.3cm - 3.8cm) larger than the standard, choose the Curvy pattern piece.

Someone else paraphrased it:

  • Average: hip measurement is within 1"-1 1/2" (2.5-3.8cm) in either direction of standard
  • Slim: hip measurement is more than 1"-1 1/2" (2.5-3.8cm) less than standard
  • Curvy: hip measurement is more than 1"-1 1/2" (2.5-3.8cm) larger than standard

I immediately shot off another email to Simplicity asking if this guidance holds true for this pattern as well. I got a quick response that they were checking with the design team and would get back to me.  I breathed a sigh of relief - that meant they'd finally understood the issue, and realized that I wasn't just another customer that hadn't RTFM.

Half an hour later, they emailed me again - yep, that is indeed the criteria I should use. The pattern was actually one of the very first in the AmazingFit line, and the criteria was added to later patterns.  (A not-so-private note to Simplicity: maybe consider publishing an errata and/or FAQ on your site for stuff like this?)

So onward. I'm making a size 18 (I do wish the pattern sizes matched retail sizing), D bust, slim-fit skirt.  Also, this page is a big help with sizing and it applies to all of their dress and top patterns:

Unlike the pattern envelope which just lists bust, waist, and hip measurements to help determine which size to use, the site above also lists the upper bust measurement.  If someone is bigger than a B cup, they suggest sizing using upper bust instead of bust.

The pattern is also designed for the seamster to adjust the sizing a LOT to get a good fit. So it includes a 1" seam allowances instead of the usual 5/8", and it has you sew the front bodice as usual (princess seams, and darts), and the skirt as usual (pockets, and front pleats). But then things get weird:

You then sew the bodice front to the skirt front inside out (i.e. so the seam allowances are on the outside). 

Then you repeat for the back pieces, constructing the bodice back and skirt back normally (with darts on the inside/wrong side the fabric) then attach them inside out out again.  

Then you attach the front to the back inside out, then you construct the sleeves inside out and attach them inside out, all machine basted.

Then you figure out your adjustments, mark it on the seam allowances, UNPICK all the basting, then sew it together normally.  

I've read it and re-read it, and I can't figure out why this is better.  As far as I can tell, the only advantage is that you can try it on and do all your adjustments with the pretty (right) sides showing.  

But, why not construct the entire dress as you normally would (i.e. sewing with right sides together), but with basted seams.  Then just turn it inside out and put it on that way to do all the adjusting?  

You could make all your adjustments (pick out the too-tight seams and re-baste, or sew new tighter seams where it's too loose) with it inside out, then when it is right ... just sew over the basted seams with a normal machine stitch.  No wasted time picking out all the basted seams, and no risks of sewing it back together wrong. 

Another technique is to sew it the way they say (wrong sides together so it's inside out) but with 3/4" seam allowance instead of 1" and plan to make it a French seam. Once everything is right, you sew the vertical seams over the basting, trim the seam allowances to about 1/4" then you turn the dress right side out and sew them again with a 1/4" seam allowance.  That way the raw edges are fully enclosed and there's no chance of basted stitches showing on the outside.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

My Tortilla Memoir: Mexican food and learning to make tortillas from scratch

Taco filling:
Beans, cheese, arugula, tomatoes, avocado lime crema.
Not shown: cauliflower, jackfruit, salsa, guacamole. 

On and off (mostly off) over the last decade, I've been teaching myself how to make corn tortillas from scratch.

It's pretty funny, considering that I have no tradition of Mexican food in my family;  I'm Polish-Jewish on Mom's side, English/Irish/Swiss WASP on Dad's.  None of those groups are known for their corn/beans/chile traditions.  My Polish grandmother was an excellent French cook (funny story - when I was about 14, my grandfather once said, "how come you never make me French food anymore?" and my grandmother replied, "Arthur, I only make you French food!"), and my mother is pretty great at cooking savory foods, but with zero bite (she hates spicy food).  So, spicy food and corn and beans (other than a 3-bean salad which I didn't care for) were not a big part of my childhood. 

In college, my friends introduced me to Taco Bell, which was pretty good for fast food, but nothing special. If you'd asked me then what my favorite ethnic food was, I'd probably have said Italian, because, pizza, I guess?

And then in grad school, I met my my future husband, and he loved Mexican food.  He'd grown up in SoCal and even though his family isn't any more Latin-American than mine, he lived in proximity to many Mexican restaurants. And unlike my family, his parents both tolerated some spice, and liked Mexican cuisine.  

Anyway, when we went out, he always steered us toward Mexican restaurants. Los Bandidos in Columbia, Missouri had the best spinach queso.  Blue Cactus had GREAT spinach enchiladas, but to his horror, I ordered mine in (gasp) flour tortillas, because for years I preferred flour tortillas to corn, which Chris found unfathomable. I also grew up thinking I didn't really like beans, and after tasting frijoles from his plate a few times, I realized beans were pretty good, too. I love them now.

Back then, it seemed like corn tortillas came in two varieties: fried taco shells which break as you eat them, or soft ones that broke when you tried to fold them up. I did figure out that if you wrapped the stack of corn tortillas in damp paper towels, set the stack on a plate, and placed another plate upside down over the stack, forming a covered dish, you could microwave it and that this would steam-soften them enough to eat as tacos without splitting. (Usually, anyway).

Somewhere along the way, I guess I picked up a wooden tortilla press at the grocery store - and Chris said I made them a couple of times but they were pretty thick as I recall, and I preferred the store-bought kind for their pliability. 

Then, about 8-10 years ago, I acquired a copy of Crescent Dragonwagon's The Cornbread Gospels, and there was a recipe for tortillas, and I thought what the hell, and gave it a try again using Maseca masa harina, which is a type of corn flour. You add water until it's the consistency of play dough, press it flat, and fry them on a griddle.  I knew I didn't like the wooden press which couldn't get them thin enough, so I upgraded to an inexpensive cast iron model (which I am still using) that was capable of getting them quite thin.  They turned out great, so I started making them occasionally as a treat.

Through all this, my dad was in declining health - he had an illness called multiple systems atrophy which looks a lot like Parkinson's, but is terminal, usually within 8 or so years of diagnosis.  In November of 2012, a family friend called me and said it was time to start driving home to see him more often, that it wouldn't be long; they were guessing a few months at most. So my brother and I made the 9-hour drive in November, January, and again in late February to see him as often as we could. In February, it became obvious that Dad would die soon, so we stayed for almost three weeks.  It was a painful time, but I'm grateful we could be together the way we were, to be there for each other, and for Dad as his life coasted to a stop.

On the Sunday before Dad died, I offered to make taco fillings and fresh tortillas (I'd brought my press and some masa harina along) if Mom made the taco meat. She agreed and we invited a few friends over for an impromptu dinner party. Dad sat at the table in his wheelchair, and didn't talk much, though he seemed to enjoy being surrounded by his family and friends.  Dad was under 100 pounds by then, and wasn't eating much, but as he sat at the table for this last quiet dinner party, he ate a few bites of my fresh tortillas and taco fillings, and I will always remember his eyes widening as he whispered, "oh, it's good!" That night he went to bed, and never really woke up again (He did say "hi" to the hospice nurses on Wednesday, though).  He passed on Thursday, March 6th, 2013.

It gives me a sublimely painful joy knowing that I cooked my father's last meal, that I introduced him to fresh tortillas, and that he liked them, too.

I didn't make tortillas again for more than three years. It just hurt too much. But, about a year after Dad died, I did decide that corn tortillas - even store-bought ones - really were superior - that while I liked flour for burritos, the flavor of corn was just so much better, and I will always remember Chris's delight - it was as if I'd seen the light, at last.

Then in the spring of 2019, my daughter went to Costa Rica with her HS Spanish Club, and during the homestay, she was served fresh tortillas, that were made from fresh masa, not masa harina, and they were even better than the ones I made.

So I did a little research: it turns out that masa harina isn't just finely ground corn meal; rather it is ground dried hominy. Hominy is corn that has been cooked/soaked in an alkaline solution, in a process called nixtamalization (note the the root word 'tamal;' it share the same root as tamale).

Turns out that more than 1000 years ago, people figured out that if you cooked corn with wood ash, that made the corn healthier to eat, and safe to use as a staple food.  Today we know that the process also reduces mold toxins present in the corn by almost 100%, so people were also less likely to get food poisoning, and it radically increases the bioavailability of niacin and other nutrients including calcium.

During the Columbian Exchange, corn was taken back to the old world, but without the knowledge of nixtamalization, and where corn became a staple, people wound up a niacin deficiency called pellagra that can be fatal. And one of the weirder symptoms of the disease is light sensitivity, and get this - historians theorize that pellagra may be the origin of the vampire myth.

But ... wood ash. I wonder how they figured that out?  Cool that they did, though.

Anyway, the nixtamalization changes the chemistry of the corn enough that you can form a dough with the ground masa by adding a little water to it.  Can't do that with cornmeal, no matter how finely ground it is - it falls apart.

We wanted to experience real tortillas as Kivi had (but without the expense of flying to central America).  I had to start from scratch, and acquired some pickling lime, and used some plain yellow field corn I had on hand. It's pretty easy. Add 1.5 tsp of lime to a gallon of boiling water, then drop 4 cups of corn into it.  You know the solution is properly alkaline if the base of the kernels turn from white to yellow. Simmer it for 40 mins (until the corn is soft enough to break open with your thumbnail) and the inside is about 50% chalky/uncooked and 50% translucent from cooking. Turn off the heat, and let it soak in the alkaline solution overnight.

Next day, you rinse away the pericarp (the clear shell enclosing the kernel) and grind the now-swollen corn. I did it in my food processor.  You have to add a lot of water when using that tool to get the corn to continue blending, and that makes it too wet (think hominy baby food). So then you add masa harina to it until it's dry enough to form a dough. From there the process is the same. Form it into golf-ball sized chunks, press it, and fry it on a hot, dry griddle. Wrap the cooked tortilla in a dish towel to steam.

And holy mackerel it was GREAT. Much better than when starting with masa harina flour.  And no comparison with the ones from the grocery store.  The corn aroma is stunningly strong with these tortillas. Kivi said they were just like the ones she had in Costa Rica.

I was so inspired by my results, that I ordered a variety of 5-lb bags of heirloom corn varietals from Mexico from a distributor in California (Masienda), that had been bred for hundreds of years to be great in tortillas and tamales, etc. I figured that if my nothing-special yellow dent corn turned out so well, that actual Mexican corn varieties would be even better. Right?

I also ordered a Victoria corn mill because they've been successfully used for generations, too. Seems like it should be more consistent than my food processor, and with a proper mill, masa won't come out too wet. 

And … the next two batches were failures. Tasted like cardboard and they broke when bent around taco fillings. After spending several hundred dollars on fancy corn, it was … disappointing. I went into a 3 year tortilla sulk and I haven’t made them since. Part of it was the move - I just haven't had time, and I didn't know where my press or my corn mill were and the corn sat waiting for me in an airtight pet-food vault.

Then, a week ago, Kivi (who was evidently planning really far ahead), and requested them for her birthday dinner (in December) so I decided I needed to a) get over my sulk, b) start practicing, and c) figure out a trial-and error plan until I figured out how to make them right.  I nixtamalized the corn on Friday and yesterday afternoon, thinking that maybe I didn’t grind the masa finely enough before, I decided to put it through the grinder a second time. And maybe that WAS the issue because these turned out pretty well.  Soft enough to bend without breaking, strong enough to hold together until the taco is consumed:

Strong, yet tender and pliable.  

My goal is to make masa in bulk, and freeze it in meal-size portions. So when we want tortillas, just defrost the masa, adjust the moisture levels, roll into balls, press and cook.  Aside from the defrost time, it takes no more than 15 minutes to make enough for a meal, and that's totally worth it for such good tortillas.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

1941: Hiding from Nazi Soldiers in a Labyrinth Under a French Convent

 So there is one story from my grandfather's oral testimony that is very exciting: When they were crossing from occupied to unoccupied France, they spent the night in a convent in or near Besançon. And during the night, the nuns took the men who were hiding there and took them into some sort of underground labyrinth to hide from the German soldiers. Here's how he described it:

         All right, so they took a … he gave me a false identity card, the man.  And in the train, first there was a control between Belgium and France, German control. Okay, so we passed it easily.

     And then to get unoccupied France, we – the train didn’t go – we had to go out, and be guided by a guide in the countryside. The guide was subcontracting from our guide who was supposed to get from France, from Belgium to France, from France to Spain, from Spain to Portugal, and then we go from Portugal to America, and my friends, they go from Portugal to the Congo.

    Well so we are told to spend the night in a monastery – sisters – monastery, and I don’t know what happened over there, but there were Germans were suspicious.

     So, they – I don’t know what happened to Mother and to Lillian, to Roma and to Lillian – but me, and many, many, many other men – the sisters came in a hurry and say, “Let’s walk,” – and we walk underground in some sort of a maze; labyrinth. Labyrinth, maze – is the same?  And going for hours and hours, and they told us we are walking that way, so as the Germans, who will go wherever they wanted, will never find us because we kept walking. And then after a few hours, we stopped and I slept somewhere, and in the morning we went. 

     Well, we went through; it was in Besançon.  It was in the French city of Besançon, and from there we went to … I think to the city of Artois by walking. 


It kind of reminds me of the scene in The Sound of Music where the sisters hide the von Trapp family.  It's interesting that my grandmother was separated from my grandfather that night.  I wonder if they just hid my grandmother in a cell in their dormitory, and pretended she was a nun? She had a 17-month-old daughter so maybe not. 

After trying and failing to figure out which French convent in or near Besançon has an underground labyrinth, I wrote to the Museum of the Resistance and Deportation in Besançon to see if they might know.  It took awhile, but I just heard back from them (translated via Google Translate):

Bonjour Madam,

Thank you for your message, which we read without problem. On the other hand, it is difficult for us to respond to your request because we do not know of a sufficiently large underground to correspond to your grandfather's description. At the time, there were indeed several monasteries known in the region such as Acey, Grace-Dieu, Mouthier, Baume les Dames, Luxeuil. Given that your grandfather came from Belgium and therefore from the north or north-east, it would be logical for the place you were looking for to be in Haute-Saône. I am thinking in particular of the former abbey of Bellevaux. There is also Montbenoît and Saint-Hippolyte. There would also be a long underground of several hundred meters on the side of Geneuille. We would have to know if it was a long underground, or rather a space like cellars forming a labyrinth. Did they then come out to walk uncovered to Besançon and if so for how long?

I had been looking up the various convents they mentioned, trying to figure out as best I could, whether any of them seemed like good candidates. I was able to eliminate at least one, because it was held in private ownership and wasn't in use as a convent in 1941.  Before I could respond with further questions, they wrote me again this morning, with more info and what I think is a far better candidate:

Bonjour Madam,

Following a call that I launched around me, I had the answer of a woman who did research on the undergrounds of Geneuille. I send you what she wrote to me. In addition there were also large underground passages leaving the Citadel of Besançon and probably joining the cloister just below. But was your grandfather outside or inside Besançon? That's what you should know. 

We found the entrance to the underground at the level of the former convent of the Chapter of Geneuille built in 1724 and the church of Geneuille (attested since 967 linked to the Chapter of Saint John) about 300 meters away in a straight line. No excavations having been made in this village, there is no archaeological evidence.

The nuns of the convent used it to reach the church without getting wet.

On Saturday 22/10/1870, the Prussian troops invade Geneuille: the Prussians searched in vain for the mayor of the time to shoot him but André Toussaint was able to hide in the underground. He never wanted to say where he had taken refuge and he died 6 months later with his secret.

The inhabitants of Geneuille have all heard of this underground without anyone being able to locate it.

It was during the renovation of the residential building that replaced the convent that the entrance to the underground was discovered. The first occupants lived there for 50 years. It was the investor who was alerted by his architect to the abnormal width of a cellar wall. The entrance was sealed off and the meter-wide hallway never explored.

The first garden to cross to go from the underground entrance to the church is 1 rue de l'abreuvoir. On the door, there is an engraved stone from 1727. Immediately after its portal, on the right, perpendicular to the axis of the underground, just below ground level, there is a rectangular room the size of a big car and about 1m90 high. It is entirely in stone, with no visible opening and no starting gallery.

Continuing in a straight line towards the church, you come across the Lyautey vault. Historically (until the construction of the new cemetery in 1878), there was a cemetery all around the church but only these few tombs remain, at the foot of the bell tower.

Not far in Chaudefontaine, there was archaeological research in 1996 which led to the discovery of a Roman road considered important because it could come from Lugdunum (Lyon), touching Vesontio (Besançon) crossing the countryside in front of In Marcaleo (Marchaux in 967) to very probably reach Epomanduodurum (Mandeure) via Rubeomonte (Rougemont) and the site of Loposagio (Luxiol).

 The Via Francigena passes through Geneuille.

Digging underground in waterlogged land is technically difficult to say the least. I don't believe that the undergrounds were dug but that there were corridors built which were buried to hide them, on the principle of what was done at the citadel.

So, if I'm reading this correctly, there are two possible locations, one within the city of Besançon, connecting the ancient Citadel of Besançon, to a nearby cloister (maybe St. Jean's Cathedral?). 

Citadelle de Besançon

And the other possibility for the convent that hid my grandfather in their underground tunnels was Église de la Nativité-de-Notre-Dame de Geneuille.  Geneuille is about 14 km north of Besançon, and is logically on the way from Brussels to Besançon. It had secret tunnels that everyone in Geneuille knew existed (like, for centuries), but no one ever found, until an entrance was recently discovered.)

 Église de la Nativité-de-Notre-Dame de Geneuille

If you like maps. This one shows the Geneuille church at the far north end, and the Besançon Citadel on the south. I had initially thought they were connected by long tunnels, but upon re-reading, I now think they are unrelated. Just two separate locations that had tunnels, one inside Besançon, one outside of it.

I'm leading toward the Geneuille location, as there was a strong German presence in Besançon particularly in/around the Citadel during the war, and it seems foolhardy to have stopped there.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

1960s: Anna Marly, My Grandparents, and the Tulsa Chapter of the Alliance Française

It all started with a photo.

Specifically, THIS photo:

L-R: Roma Lubinski, ?, and ?

It's a big photo, nearly 13" tall, and it was tucked in the back of my grandparents' photo album. It was too tall to fit in the album (which is probably why the bottom is damaged), and I recognize only one person in the photo: My grandmother, Roma Lubinski is the woman on the left. 

The photo looks almost like it was for a cooking show, and my grandmother was an excellent French cook. So I asked my mother and aunt, and they both told me the same thing. It was for a Tulsa World article about the Tulsa chapter of the Alliance Française (AF).

That caused my relatives to start reminiscing:  evidently a French folk singer named Anna Marly visited Tulsa as part of an AF program. She was very famous back in France because she was pretty much the voice of the French Resistance, and they played her songs on the radio in the 1940s, and she inspired a lot of people to resist the Nazis.  

That lead me to her most famous song from that era, Le Chant des Partisans (sometimes Complainte du Partisan) or Song of the Partisan, and it was so popular among the Resistance that after France was liberated and resumed its independence, many people proposed that it become the national anthem of France.  You can read the lyrics (French and English side-by-side) at the bottom of this post.  Here's a little bit more about the song, and how important it was: 

Anyway, my grandfather was really excited to meet her when she visited Tulsa, and she actually became pretty good friends with my grandparents.

Anyway, here's her song (in French).  

But here's where it gets personal for me... I discovered that it was translated and arranged for English by Leonard Cohen, and Joan Baez (one of my favorite American folk singers) did an English-language cover, and sang it when she visited France in the early 1970s:

I totally inherited my love of Joan Baez from mother, and in the early 2000s, Mom and I went to see Joan Baez live at The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri.    

Here's a more modern interpretation (English at the beginning then in French) that I think is particularly lovely:

And finally, here are the lyrics in French with their English translation. Note: the English version of the song itself is slightly different, and I've included those lyrics below a well (in blue).  But I can see why my grandfather liked the song, and the singer.

Complainte du Partisan/Chant des Partisans (French lyrics)
Song of the Partisan (direct English translation)
The Partisan (English lyrics)

Les Allemands étaient chez moi
The Germans were at my house
When they poured across the border

On m'a dit résigne-toi
They told me resign yourself
I was cautioned to surrender

Mais je n'ai pas pu
But I could not
This I could not do

Et j'ai repris mon arme
And I picked up my gun
I took my gun and vanished.

Personne ne m'a demandé
nobody asked me

D'où je viens et où je vais
Where I come from and where I'm going

Vous qui le savez
You who know

Effacez mon passage
Delete my passage

J'ai changé cent fois de nom
I changed my name a hundred times
I have changed my name so often

J'ai perdu femme et enfants
I lost wife and children
I've lost my wife and children

Mais j'ai tant d'amis
But I have so many friends
But I have many friends

Et j'ai la France entière
And I have the whole of France
And some of them are with me

Un vieil homme dans un grenier
An old man in an attic
An old woman gave us shelter

Pour la nuit nous a cachés
For the night hid us
Kept us hidden in the garret

Les Allemands l'ont pris
The Germans took it
Then the soldiers came

Il est mort sans surprise
He died unsurprisingly
She died without a whisper

Hier encore nous étions trois
Yesterday again we were three
There were three of us this morning

Il ne reste plus que moi
Only me left
I'm the only one this evening

Et je tourne en rond
And I turn in circles
But I must go on

Dans la prison des frontières
In the border prison
The frontiers are my prison

Le vent passe sur les tombes
The wind blows over the graves
Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing

La liberté reviendra
freedom will return
Freedom soon will come

On nous oubliera
We will be forgotten

Nous rentrerons dans l'ombre
We will return to the shadows
Then we'll come from the shadows

Thursday, July 14, 2022

1930: New Year's Eve at the Chantilly Jazz Club at the Hotel Terminus in Antwerp

 So, yesterday, I wrote about how my grandparents went out partying on New Year's Eve. My grandfather recorded the exact date (December 31, 1930) and exact time (10:30 pm) and that they were going to the Chantilly after the photo was taken.

Now, I haven't scanned all the photos in the album yet (I'm about 1/3 of the way through), but this is the only example so far of my grandfather's writing on the back of a photo. Most are blank.  One has what is probably my great-grandmother's handwriting on it. The others have what I suspect is my grandmother's handwriting.   

The romantic in me, sees the significance of my grandfather going to the trouble to recording the exact date and time and what they are going to do next. He didn't do that for any other photo, so it seems important somehow, like maybe ... he asked my grandmother to marry him when they were at the Chantilly, or something like that?  

Or maybe he just recorded it because they were young (18 and 20) and it was a fun night for them. 

Anyway, through the help of some friends, I've found out that the Chantilly was a jazz club in the Hotel Terminus on Pelikaanstraat in Antwerp. Friends found genealogy records of musicians who actually worked there in the 1930s.  And they found this old postcard that shows the hotel, and in the lower left, you can see the Chantilly (click to enlarge):

I "walked" up and down Pelikaanstraat (Pelican Street in English) in Google Maps using street view, and didn't find the building, though several of them looked sort of like it.  

I did a few more searches and found the following page (it's written in Dutch/Flemish), with this image:

The text on the page says in English:

Hotel Terminus, Pelikaanstraat, c.1910 | 2020
Another fine piece of work done by Antwerp, Wish You Were Here. It's great how the old photos are incorporated into the current street scene!

In the photo you see the former Grand Hotel Terminus in the Pelikaanstraat. This beautiful building was built in 1902 by Joseph Hertogs. The hotel was graced by luxurious interiors, dazzling banquet halls and majestic entrance halls. The clientele consisted of the then Antwerp bourgeoisie and wealthy tourists. Unfortunately, in the second half of the 20th century, this building too had to be demolished to make way for office buildings.

The Pelikaanstraat used to be a really prosperous street full of stately mansions. You also found a cigar factory and the presence of catering was evident here.

Alas, the building is gone.  But, there you have it: the jazz club my grandparents went out dancing on New Year's Eve in 1930.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

1930: My Grandparents Party on New Year's Eve

The battered photo below was on the first page of my grandparents' photo album.  In December of 1930, my Grandpa Arthur was just 20 years old, and my Grandma Roma was 18.  

My grandfather was born in Belgium, but grew up in Poland.  My grandmother was born and raised in Poland, and they were childhood sweethearts. Grandpa's family went back to Belgium in 1927 so he could finish high school and attend University.  Eventually, in 1931, my grandmother moved to Belgium where she too attended the university.  

The front of the photo tells me a few interesting things:  My grandmother visited my grandfather in Belgium before she started at the University as a college student in the fall of 1931 (keep in mind that traveling from Łódź to Antwerp took two days by train in those days).  They look like they are dressed for a party, and my grandfather had a full head of hair (he had significant hair loss by 30 and was bald by the time I knew him).  

Oh, and those look like martini glasses to me.  

The back of the photo gives a bit more information:

The photo was taken on December 31, 1930, in Antwerp (Anvers) Belgium. So it wasn't just any day in December; it was New Year's Eve.  And it was taken not just that evening, but at 10:30pm.  Google Translate told me the phrase "avant d’aller au Chantilly" meant "before going to the whipped cream," which doesn't make much sense (but is kind of funny). Then, I realized Chantilly was capitalized on the photograph, which indicates a proper noun.   As soon as I fixed that, Google Translate told me it meant "before going to Chantilly."    

So, does that mean Chantilly, France or something else?  Chantilly was about 4 hours away from Antwerp by train and it seemed odd to be going there when they look as if they are dressed for partying rather than traveling.  

A French friend came to the rescue and told me that if it were a city, it would be "á Chantilly". Because it's "au Chantilly" (which is literally translates as "the Chantilly") it strongly suggests a club or bar or restaurant. 

Anyway, this event was important enough for my grandparents to record the city, and the exact date and time, and that it was before they later went to the Chantilly, an event which was itself meaningful enough to memorialize on the back. And when my grandparents escaped to France, they left pretty much everything behind, but this photo (and a few others) went with them.

I can't know the importance of the Chantilly, but I love the mystery, the idea of it, and that my grandparents were once young party-goers.  

Monday, June 27, 2022

1920s - 1940s: The photographs mentioned in _Biscuit_

 Currently, there are three photographs mentioned in Biscuit:

It was a photograph, and it captured her perfectly. Her head was cocked slightly to one side and the top of her short hair was pulled sleekly back from her face, with short loose strands curling around her cheeks. She was wearing a dark dress and the heart pendant he’d given her for her birthday earlier that spring. She was looking up at the photographer with a small, secretive smile. 

My grandmother, Roma Neufeld, 1927 (about).
She was about 15 years old here.

As it turned out, Arthur’s mother didn’t have a photograph he could send to Roma. But Masia arranged for a photographer to take one. Arthur got a haircut from his father’s barber, borrowed a suit, and wore a black bowtie. He thought he looked rather grown up.
My grandfather, Arthur Lubinski, 1927 (about).
He would have been about 17.

Arthur retrieved his camera, and asked to take a picture of Roma, Paul, and Liliane.  They agreed, happily posing, though Roma asked him to frame the picture so that  her belly didn’t show. Arthur snapped several pictures, then put his camera away.

Great-Uncle Paul (Lubinski), Aunt Lilly (with the bow), and Grandma Roma,
Probably taken in December 1945.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

1940s: I have a copies of my manuscript

I ordered six proof copies of my manuscript and they arrived on Wednesday, and all I can say is WOW. It's impossible to describe how exciting it is to hold an actual physical copy of the book I wrote. 

I do wish the "Not for resale" banner was about an inch lower, and didn't go RIGHT THROUGH MY GRANDPARENTS' faces, but it's still really quite sweet.  I put a copy of it on the coffee table, and as I watched TV, I just kept glancing down at and grinning at it.

Four of the copies have been shipped to various beta readers, one was handed to my daughter (she's a beta-reader, too) and the final one is going to my last beta reader when he visits in a few weeks.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

1940s: The Book Title is: "Biscuit"

Ok .... Biscuit.  You might be wondering why I used that as the title. Well, it's simple: "Biscuit" was my grandfather's code name during WWII.  Seemed like the perfect title for a book that is primarily about his experiences during that time.

Two things:

  1. It's not pronounced "BISS-cut" like it would be in English. Rather you should use the French pronunciation, which is "Biss-KWEE."   
  2. In France (and England for that matter), a biscuit isn't a savory quick bread that you slather in gravy. Rather it's a dry dense crispy sweet dessert. So in essence, they called my grandpa "Cookie." (He was the radio operator, and was named after the metal tin his radio was packed in -- the radio itself was commonly nicknamed the "biscuit tin radio" by the Allies.)

It was my husband Chris who came up with the title.  

I had been thinking about calling it "The Maquisard," or "The Armband."  I like calling the French Resistance "the Maquis" and I kind of like calling Maquis members "maquisards" (which is what they were actually called). And I have his actual armband that he was given a few weeks after D-Day hanging on my living room wall.

Anyway, I told my husband the titles I was considering, and he looked thoughtful and said something like, "I dunno... I think maybe you should call the book Biscuit."  And I considered it for about two seconds and knew he was right, and that was that.  

Friday, June 17, 2022

1940s: Well, I have a book cover (sort of)


This is the cover of the manuscript draft

Well, I uploaded the book to Kindle Direct Publishing today. It's saved as "draft" so it won't go for sale, but it did allow me to order 5 proof copies (grrr... I need 6), for $5 each.  That's unbelievably inexpensive. Printing it through Barnes and Noble would have been $9 per copy. Lulu was going to cost $16.    Office Max would have cost (gulp) $40.  The latter two would have allowed me to have it spiral-bound which would have been nifty (and easier for beta-readers to mark up), but it wasn't worth $11 per copy, so it's being bound like a regular paperback book. It's also big, 8.5 x 11", and 342 pages (171 sheets).

Because I was trying to make it as inexpensive as I could to print, I didn't start each chapter on a new page ... there's just a triple-line-break between the end of the chapter, and the numeral that heads the next chapter. So that means I have a lot of "widows" and "orphans" and stranded chapter headings and stuff like that. Definitely not formatted nicely for printing, but that's OK for a galley proof for my beta-readers.

I also had some fun with the cover. It's been 20 years since I used Photoshop regularly, and I was REALLY out of practice, both with graphic design, and using the software. But I had some fun with it, and the lack of professional artwork is OK for an early draft of the book.

Here are the original pictures of my grandparents: The pictures of Roma Neufeld and Arthur Lubinski and were taken in the late 1920s, when they were still teenagers, well before they got married, in 1935. For the cover, I was trying to make them look like they were standing together, but the photos were very likely taken in different countries. The photo of my grandmother was probably taken in Poland, and the one of my grandfather was taken in Brussels, Belgium.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

1944: My grandfather's FFI papers

 My aunt (thank you!!) found a treasure trove - a bunch of papers and letters and documents all concerning my grandfather's time in WWII.  

This is the first:  His FFI (French Forces of the Interior) ID cards that show that he volunteered for and fought in the French resistance during WWII. This is the equivalent of a military ID.

Front of FFI ID

Back of FFI ID

Friday, May 13, 2022

Spring 1940: So ... who was "Foch's Pupil"?

My grandfather wrote in his Journal 1940 about what he saw on May 11, 1940 (the day after the Nazis began their invasion of western Europe). 

A few things of note: 

  1. I preserved his British spelling and occasionally incorrect verb tenses. (He wrote this journal to practice his English, which he was still learning. I'm still in awe of how clear and well-written it was, for someone who was writing in a foreign language).
  2. I corrected his capitalization
  3. I used American-style quotation marks.
  4. I used hyperlinks to provide extra info for what are probably unfamiliar terms for most Americans.

     In the first important street near the maternity I saw a big crowd. Something happened on the pavement. A noise of many cars, motor-cycles and trucks could be heard. Setting myself on tiptoe I understood at once the matter. The British motorised infantry hurried to the front. The soldiers weared an uniform unknown to me. A very plate helmet on the top, short trousers and a shirt with large pockets in the front. They were all very young and merry. 

Gurkha Shorts

     The crowd was happy to see them coming so speedy to the rescue of Belgium. Men shrieked (shouted!), waving their hats. Women and girls send kisses and throwed flowers. The Englishmen replied showing the thumbs of their right hands directed down, which meaned, I suppose: "We shall show the Germans what we are!" The Crowd was obviously optimistic. In the Rue de la Loi where were the ministries I noticed three high French officers. I remember quite well the oldest of them. He had gray hair, big, lively eyes, seemed thoughtful but quiet. A man of the street trusted him. He was perhaps Foch’s pupil, or another great chiefs, winners of Verdun or Chemin des Dames, makers of the victory of 1918.

So, does anyone know who [Ferdinand] "Foch's pupil" was?  Was there anyone in particular who that might have been? A friend pointed out that my grandfather probably didn't know who the man was, and was speculating, and he may be right. But that doesn't mean there wasn't someone who was known by that or perhaps "L'élève de Foch." 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Summer 1937: Discovering My Grandparents Delayed Their Honeymoon

 So, my grandparents got married in 1935. In 1988, Grandpa told me:

And then, I forgot when it was, a year later, we got married. Married in ‘35. In January of ‘35.

Somewhere along the way, my aunt told me it was January 12th, and that they eloped to the Brussels Town Hall, a building built in the 1400s:

Brussels Hôtel de Ville/Stradhuis 

Later, a historian in Belgium initiated a search for my grandparents in the Brussels city archives, and she was able to corroborate their wedding date: January 12, 1935.

Now, here's the detail we discovered that caught us by surprise: My grandparents evidently delayed their honeymoon for 2 1/2 years.   We think they went to the seashore (So when I was writing that chapter, I simply decided they went on holiday in Ostend).  They never told their daughters or me that they didn't take their honeymoon until the summer of 1937, but I'm virtually certain that that's what happened.

The one thing they DID tell us about it was that Grandpa read a biography of Marie Curie out loud to Grandma while they were on their honeymoon.   We think the biography in question was Madam Curie by Éve Curie because: 

  1. My family is pretty sure that that was the book based on memories of family stories.
  2. My grandfather nicknamed my grandmother "Ciupcia" (pronounced "choop-chah"), something he was inspired to do by the book he read to her on their honeymoon. The book described Marie's nickname, and was something that sounded a little like "anchupichu" (it's Polish). And that book has the following quote:

‘Manyusya’ a name of affection, and ‘Anciupecio’ a comic nickname dating from her earliest infancy. ‘My Anciupecio, how mussed your hair is! And how red you are!’”

That feels like very strong evidence that Éve's Madame Curie was indeed the book they read on their honeymoon.  And that book wasn't published until the summer of 1937 (simultaneously in France, Britain, Italy, Spain, the United States), two-and-a-half years after my grandparents got married. I looked for earlier books published about her but didn't find any (it doesn't mean there weren't any, just that I didn't find any -- it's hard to do searches in foreign languages).

I have no actual knowledge about why they delayed their honeymoon for that long, but I do have a guess: they wanted to wait until they had the money to take real honeymoon. Grandpa graduated from college in 1934, just six months before they got married, and would have been just starting out as an engineer. Grandma didn't graduate until early summer of 1935, six or so months after they got married. Waiting two years meant they had time to establish themselves a little, and save up some money for a nice holiday by the sea.