Grace's Mosaic Moments

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

England at 3mph, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my photo essay, “England at 3mph.” So far, I note, the comments here, and those I’ve received elsewhere, have all been in favor of travel at an early 19th c. pace. If you’re interested, Duke & Duchess are still offering tours. The owner/captain, David, sings opera during the winter and travels Britain’s canals in the summer. I traveled just one short portion of the route. Details for this summer can be found at:

We saw a remarkable number of thatched houses, including this farm. Evidently, the skill of thatching is still alive and well in England.

We spent several days negotiating a long series of locks that lowered our narrowboats to the level of land below the chalk hills. At the bottom we stopped to view the two steam boilers at Crofton that used to pump the water released by the locks back up to the top of the hill. They are now lovingly preserved as a museum, along with the huge pumps they powered.

When canals were Britain’s lifeline, transporting goods to all parts of the country, there were many inns providing food and a comfortable night’s rest. A few have survived and are undoubtedly even more picturesque than they were two or three hundred years ago.

To the right is a two-hundred year-old aqueduct over a valley and a train track. It is still solid enough to support the considerable weight of the canal that passes over it.

The top of the aqueduct.
Knowing we’d all want to take pictures, our narrowboats tied up long enough to let us walk back and take pictures of the remarkable aqueduct we’d just crossed.

My canal map revealed that we would be passing through Sydney Gardens just before reaching our mooring in Bath. I was particularly interested as I’d had my heroine in Lady Silence watch narrowboats pass by in Sydney Gardens. I tried to find this particular spot during the RWA’s BeauMonde chapter’s Regency Tour in 2003, but turned back because of the dance scheduled that night at the Bath Assembly Rooms. So the minute we were moored, back I went to Sydney Gardens, discovering I was only about fifteen feet from the canal when I gave up. I have since revised that section in Lady Silence to incorporate my updated knowledge about Sydney Gardens and narrowboats. For those who know her, that's Sally Roberts walking the towpath.

Interestingly, the Kennet & Avon canal comes into Bath about three-quarters of the way up the side of the steep-sided “bowl" Bath sits in, giving me an opportunity for this panoramic shot.
To the left, David, owner/captain of Duke & Duchess is in the rear, plus Vehan & Mikhail, our stalwart crew. Below, our very British passengers around the table we shared for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and cooked by David’s marvelous chef, his mother. At the head of the table, BeauMonde members who were on the Regency Tour in 2003 will recognize Sally Roberts, who was kind enough to join me for this very special adventure. On the first day of our trip, the 80-year-old gentleman on the left announced very loudly that he didn't like Americans! After that, he ignored me. By the way, he walked almost the entire trip on the tow path, helping with every lock. Amazing.

Don’t forget: if you’d like to know more about Britain’s canal system and details of this very special journey from Newbury to Bath, please see - Random Musings. Special Note: Duke & Duchess aren't just generic. They are named for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, with a special signed dedication on the dining room wall to prove it.

Thanks for stopping by. At a later date, I plan to do a photo essay on what Sally and I did the week following our narrowboat adventure, including English gardens, ancient ruins at Avebury, a haunted Tudor mansion, a naughty falcon, and a magnificent Roman tile floor.

Next week, however, I’ll reveal some of the worst mistakes, or near mistakes, I’ve made as an author. So come on back.

Friday, February 11, 2011

England at 3mph

Welcome to my very first Photo Fest! I've centered the canal scene above because I consider it the best photo I ever took. Time: Sunday morning, c. 8:00 a.m., along the Kennet & Avon canal in Newbury, England. A moment later, a swan swam past, disturbing the glassy surface.
Directly after returning from a week floating at 3mph along the K&A canal, and considerable effort from crew and passengers to traverse seventy-two locks in the process (!), I wrote a saga of the whole trip, which can be found on my website at If you'd like to view more details about Britain's canals and this trip, in particular, please look under "Random Musings." Today's blog is mostly photos. Special note: these photos are scanned from traditional photos. My old "film" Nikon survived until December 2010, when I finally, reluctantly, went digital.

If you need to get anywhere in England, Scotland, or Wales, you have only to look at the train schedules. I was worried about getting from Gatwick to the small town of Newbury where my seven-day canal journey to Bath would begin. Big laugh. Trains ran almost every hour. Then a short taxi trip to the canal - so efficient, in fact, that I beat our Hotel Boats, Duke & Duchess, to their mooring.

This is how we traveled, one boat towing the other. The two boats coupled, side by side, however, to go through locks and for meals and overnight. Most of the cabins were on one boat, kitchen and dining on the other. We had to be nimblefooted enough to step from one to the other.

After a crew member uses a windlass to "unlock" the swing arm on each lock, the long board that opens the heavy wooden gates, is customarily swung open by "putting the bum to it" as the Brits say, a task usually performed by passengers instead of crew. As the gates swing open, the water begins to pour in, filling the lock.

As we left Newbury, we went "uphill" for some time. When we reached the top and started down the other side of the long climb, the narrowboat moved straight into the lock. Through a similar procedure to the above, the gate is closed behind it, then the front gate is opened to drain the water out and lower the boat. All openings and closings are manual. No handy-dandy electrical switches to magically move all those tons of water for you.

The scenery was consistently bucolic. Except for the moments when trains zipped by on tracks that frequently paralleled the canal, we had the feeling we were truly traveling as narrowboats did a hundred or more years ago. Well, we didn't have a horse on the towpath, of course, but we did pass a tourboat that was giving its genuine tow-horse a rest in the shade.

We ate five times a day, not counting the captain himself bringing coffee to our cabins at eight a.m. Meals were: Breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, and supper. The photo on the left shows how elevenses and tea arrived while the boats were moving. And keep in mind that Vehan (from the Netherlands) had to jump from one boat to the other before walking that 6" catwalk carrying a tray!

Grace note: Because of the difficulty of maneuvering all these photos into place - they insist on loading at the top of the page! - I'm going to continue the canal photo essay next Friday. This will include photos of crossing a ravine and railroad tracks on a 200-year-old aqueduct, a truly eye-popping experience.

I'd also appreciate your comments on this very unusual trip (at least by U.S. standards - all the other passengers were British). Who among you would enjoy the peace and quiet, and who would go stark, raving mad with seven days at 3mph?

If you're a peace and quiet fan and would like to know how to take a canal trip on Duke & Duchess, here's the website:

See you next week.

An Inside Peek at the CIA & Postal Inspection Service

This week's blog at Grace's Mosaic Moments is a continuation of my 2009 tour of the FBI, State Department, Postal Inspection Service, and the CIA, which was arranged by the Mystery/Suspense chapter of Romance Writers of America. Today: the Postal Inspection Service, the CIA, and a Summary of my impressions of all four government agencies.

The Postal Inspection Service
After we enjoyed an all-too-quick picnic lunch at the National Arboretum, our bus rumbled off to the regional headquarters of the Postal Inspection Service. This group describes itself as “The Silent Service.” After hearing all the things the Service does, I told them they should do more to blow their own horn. And they certainly tried while we were there—they even told us, rather wistfully, that they’d be really happy to have us write about them!

Yes, they carry guns. Yes, they investigate weapons, drugs, and bombs being sent through the mails. And any other dangerous substances. Yes, they have portable X-ray units, Geiger counters, hazmat suits, etc. They also have vans set up as portable labs that can be driven to suspected mail crime scenes. In other words, they are constantly vigilant over what enters our households or businesses.

One of our speakers was the agent in charge of investigating the anthrax letters. Since the suspect has been caught only recently and is awaiting trial, the agent couldn’t give us details, but he did show slides of two quite different types of anthrax that were used. When I asked if they had developed a theory about why the samples were so different, his answer was, “Yes.” Big pause. We all laughed. Finally, after he thought over what he could tell us, he finally gave us a vague sort of explanation of why the two samples were so very different.

They also spoke to us about mail fraud through the years (scams conducted through the mail) and about identity theft. And they provided us with several DVDs outlining individual Postal Inspection Service cases.

Oddly enough, while we there, a mail carrier van was attacked and several agents had to rush out. They did not tell us the why of the attack—they probably didn’t know yet. We saw the van right outside headquarters as we drove out.

The Postal Inspection Service is yet another example of people dedicated to protect and serve. People who really care about what they were doing and feel good about their role in protecting the public. I think most of us began to realize for the first time that we may not have much personal contact with the FBI, the CIA, or the State Department, but mail comes to us six days a week. The role of the Postal Inspector in protecting us on a daily basis is a constant effort of which we should be more aware and more appreciative.

Having the CIA willing to share itself with fifty mystery/suspense authors was, in itself, mind-boggling. I should say, by the way, that the Kiss of Death chapter of RWA went to a great deal of trouble to prepare gift bags of books for every single person involved in all four tours - from the PR people who arranged our tours to all the various speakers.

Although all of us had been pre-screened, we had to get out of the bus at the guardhouse and be checked in, person by person, and given personalized visitor badges. Then back in the bus for a drive through the CIA’s wooded grounds to the original building, site of the famous circular floor emblem. Since no cameras are allowed, of course, an official picture of the group (in two sections) was taken with us lined up behind the emblem. (I, naturally, chose a bright white smock top that day and stand out from the crowd like a whale in a group of guppies.) Interesting note: at all times, not only did we have to stick close to our group leaders, but two guards traveled with us, watching our every move. No wandering! (The FBI settled for one leader for each group and a mild warning about not wandering off.)

We were shown the CIA memorial wall and the stars in the memorial book, where only a few names are included, since most CIA officers remain as anonymous in death as they were in life. We walked through the CIA museum, which is housed in their broad corridors, as there is no dedicated museum space. There was an almost infinite array of spy gadgets, from ladies’ jewelry and tieclip cameras to a single-shot lipstick gun. We saw an image of Washington, D.C., imbedded in that floor and were asked to figure out the time of day, the time of year, the day of the week, and some other question my mind isn’t resurrecting. I was impressed by how quickly some of our members managed it. Time of day from the shadows, time of year from the trees, day of the week from lack of traffic.

We had a briefing which included the four Directorates of the CIA - case officers, the front line in foreign countries; analysts, formerly in Langley, but now often posted overseas so they can get the feel of the places whose information they are analyzing; the techies, whom are speaker explained as the “Qs” of the CIA; and the support directorate that makes life run smoothly at Langley. Also included were many, many questions. Our group leader, for example, had been an analyst for many years, then decided to switch to public information to get a broader outlook on how the CIA operated. (Also, I suspect, after she did a tour in Iraq!) So, naturally, she was bombarded with questions. She admitted she loves the agency so much she comes out to Langley on weekends to run on the track that surrounds the complex. One of the PR girls with our group had been a dancer, but a cousin was killed in 9/11 and she felt she had to do her bit to contribute. So now she’s conducting tours at the CIA.

Speaking of the CIA complex, it’s immense, and all hidden in the woods. The fence around it is electrified. We were only in the original building, the one that houses the VIPs on the top floor (the 7th), but there are several newer, more modern buildings, and other lesser outbuildings. For lunch we were turned loose in the CIA cafeteria, which has stations offering almost every kind of food imaginable. But if you don’t like any of those, there’s a Subway and a Starbucks.

A CIA officer was assigned to every lunch table occupied by our group. They were representatives of the different directorates, and we were allowed to ask questions. One of the interesting things that came out is that the CIA has many family groups. Since they can’t talk to outsiders about their work, it’s quite common for CIA employees to marry each other (same rules as the State Department), and not uncommon for their children to work for the agency also. You might call it a “family” business. When asked by outsiders what they do, the standard answer is, “I work for the federal government.”

One absolute no-no for writers: be sure you understand that case officers may only recruit foreign nationals. They do not recruit Americans. Can they socialize with foreigners? Yes, but if it’s more than seeing someone once or twice, they must report it so the person can be checked out. (The same rule applies to the FBI and State Department.)

To end our tour on a lighter note, we were allowed to shop in the CIA gift shop. Yes, they actually have one. I have kept my shopping bag that proclaims “CIA” in large letters. The greatest irony, however, is that the gift shop sells the most beautiful, and expensive, matrioshka dolls (“mama” dolls, aka wooden nesting dolls), all of them Made in Russia!

Looking back, we were left with the impression of an absolutely enormous organization, where people work because they are devoted to what they do. For example, there are actually three employees left from the OSS, the precursor of the CIA which functioned during World War II. We saw one of them in the hallway, and he appeared to be about ninety, his back bent nearly double as he hobbled down the hall. But he was still there, still doing his job. Amazing.

Over the past two blogs, I have merely skimmed the highlights of these four dedicated agencies. So often in the news we hear only about their failures, or in the case of the Postal Inspection Service, we don’t hear about them at all. Perhaps we see headlines about a local FBI raid (ho-hum, just another federal fraud case), or note that Hilary Clinton is off on yet another visit to a foreign country. After a terrorist attack, we hear the CIA failed to communicate, etc. But they’re all out there, every day, doing their best, for far less money than they could make in the private sector. Who arranged for airplanes to get Americans out of Egypt just recently? You got it—the State Department. Who is constantly vigilant to protect you from everything but junk mail? That’s right—the Postal Inspection Service. And did you know the FBI handles all investigations involving Americans, even if the incident locations are Iraq, Somalia, or Mumbai? I once asked an FBI agent about that. (He’d been in charge of the investigation of the first World Trade Center bombing a number of years ago.) His answer: The CIA are spies. The FBI has the training and equipment to investigate.

And the CIA? I was overwhelmed by the love of country and love of the job I witnessed while there. And of course the atmosphere sparkled with a high level of intelligence. All in all, a truly mind-boggling experience.

So next time you hear someone grouse about their taxes or someone badmouth these four federal organizations - the FBI, the State Department, the Postal Service, or the CIA - stop and think where we’d be without them. Are all their employees as dedicated as the ones we saw? Of course not, but I’d bet the great majority are. They could earn more almost anywhere else, but there they are, working for us, dedicated to Protect and Serve. I consider my visits to these four agencies one of the highlights of my life, something any American should truly appreciate, and not just as a writer looking for background for his/her books.


Thanks for stopping by. Next week: A Week at 3 mph - my travels on Britain's canal system

Grace, aka Blair & Daryn &

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Inside Peek at the FBI & State Department

Right after I returned from the RWA Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2009, I wrote a guest blog for Terry’s Place that included all four federal agencies we toured, thanks to arrangements made by RWA’s Mystery/Suspense chapter, Kiss of Death. The four agencies were the FBI at Quantico, the State Department, the U. S. Postal Inspection Service, and the CIA at Langley. Today I’m going to share with you the FBI and State Department tours, saving the Postal Inspection Service and the CIA for next week. These tours were one of the great experiences of my life. I came away completely awed by the opportunity to glimpses behind the scenes of these four powerhouse federal agencies. I’m glad to be able to share a bit of that here.

* * *
As our bus drove toward the FBI Academy at Quantico at the ghastly hour of 6:00 AM, I could only imagine the smirks on feds’ faces as a group of fifty romance writers climbed down from the bus. Yes, we were mystery/suspense writers, but . . . Instead, we were treated like royalty from the moment we left the bus until we dragged ourselves back on at after five that afternoon. Among the highlights: a visit to Hogan’s Alley, a complete small town set up in the Virginia woods, which has everything from a movie theater and stores to apartment buildings, warehouses, and trailers (manufactured homes). All built with help from Hollywood scenery makers. When crime started moving into suburbia, they added two classic single-family homes. While we were in Hogan’s Alley we witnessed a highly authentic-looking chase scene and shoot-out and a street stop that almost went wrong. These scenarios are part of recruit training, and the bad guys are played by volunteers, many of whom have been doing it for years.
We then went to the shooting range (there are several ranges with giant berms between them). (Behind the berms on both sides trainees were shooting shotguns - the noise was incredible.) Four tables had been laid out - one each for handguns, shotguns, tommy guns, and HK MP-5s. We were allowed to go from table to table, shooting whatever we liked (with lots of help from the instructors at each table!) I was quite good with the Glock, caught the target in the shoulder with the shotgun, but not so good with the rifle as I’m unable to close my left eye by itself. Frankly, I didn’t try the tommy gun, but the girls who did said it was very heavy. The next day, I had a slight shoulder bruise from the shotgun, and I had to pick gunshot residue out of two places on my arms. Wow!

After lunch several agents spoke with us about their experiences. One had been undercover for most of eighteen years of service, mostly as a Mafia soldier since he had the correct ethnic background. He had us in hysterics when he described how he’d resurrected his character (at his wife’s urging) when they found a long line for some event they wanted to attend in Vegas. The Mafia attitude, a flash of money, a bit of name dropping, and they were ushered straight in. Naturally, he also told us about some of his most harrowing take-downs when they were in as much danger from the local police as they were from the bad guys.

The most striking experience, however, was that of the agent who was the sole interrogator of Saddam Hussein for eight months. He described the “soft” methods he used, the dependency he built up as Saddam’s only contact with the outside world. This relatively young agent also, in a suitably deprecating manner, explained how he was chosen for this amazing role. As he put it, there might be 12,000 FBI agents, but only 12 were native Arabic speakers. (He came here from Lebanon when he was twelve.) He’d also had ten years’ experience as a homicide detective and, hence, a good deal of experience as an interrogator. He did not apply for this Number One interrogation. He simply got a phone call telling him he’d been chosen.

Saddam eventually talked a great deal. When one girl in our group asked, “Didn’t he know why you were there?” the agent responded that he must have, but Saddam’s need to communicate his side as a “legacy” - plus, of course, his need as a human to communicate with the only person available - led him to speak. When the agent was asked how he avoided identifying with Saddam, he said he only had to remember how the dictator poison-gassed his own people.

Among the small bits of info - the FBI agent mentioned that he shared cookies sent by his mother with Saddam, and that his mother was angry about it when she found out. On the last day of interrogation, he brought in Cuban cigars and he and Saddam sat outside and smoked and drank coffee. Saddam cried when he left.

The FBI agent then spent several more months writing the prosecution’s case against Saddam (at the request of the Iraqi government). We all know how that turned out. No doubt why the agent is now a showpiece on FBI tours.

A marvelous contrast to end our day: as we walked down a glass-sided hallway toward yet another part of the building, we saw two deer happily grazing across the road from the gun ranges (which had obviously gone silent in the late afternoon). I doubt anyone on our tour will ever again be able to refer to an FBI Special Agent as a Feeb. Yes, they probably set out to dazzle us, and they surely succeeded.

The State Department
After our experiences with the FBI, I think most of us figured the State Department would be pretty tame. Far from it. To start with, they must not have checked us out ahead of time as the FBI and CIA did. There were one hundred of us on this tour, and we had to go through airport-style security checks, through just one station. (We’d been warned to allow enough time for security, which wasn’t a burden as a 8:00 AM start was infinitely better than 6:00 AM the day before!) We were then ushered downstairs to an auditorium they use for general meetings, many with foreign diplomats. It was set up with the glass-fronted translation booths in back and built-in speakers at each seat. The speakers arranged for us were not only interesting but spoke with both great sincerity and humor. And seemed delighted to be addressing a group of female authors. Like the FBI speakers, they urged us to interrupt with questions at any time - which our group certainly did.

Our male speaker described how his family had been evacuated under fire three times during their years in Africa. The first time he was out of town while his wife threw herself over their nine-month-old baby while gunfire ripped through their kitchen. He described the various alert levels, how warnings go out to families, etc. It is all right for both husband and wife to work for an embassy as long as they are in different departments; i.e., one is not the boss of the other. Why did he do it? Because he was serving his country. This is the attitude we saw everywhere - FBI, State, Postal, CIA. These people were here, as opposed to the private sector where they could get more money, because they wanted to be. Because they felt they were doing something that mattered.

Our female speaker, a career diplomat now high up in the consular service, started by saying she loved our kind of books. Now there’s a way to warm up a crowd! She explained her portion of the State Department as the people whose sole job is to help Americans in trouble abroad. For example, they help those who have been robbed. They replace passports, contact relatives, even give out small loans if no relatives or friends can be found to help out. In one case where a young man had his car and all personal items stolen when he was wearing nothing but a bathing suit, they even found him interim clothes. And our speaker actually teared up when describing what they’d gone through to identify a skeleton found on a Scottish mountainside and finally track down a long-lost relative. And if you’re traveling in a country known to be dangerous, you should register with the embassy. They can’t evacuate you if they don’t know you’re there!
Needless to say, both speakers were constantly interrupted by questions, to which they gave patient and excellent answers. I believe I can say that we all came away with a much greater understanding and respect for the State Department.

* * *
Thanks for stopping by. Please come back next week for an overview of the Postal Inspection Service and the CIA.