NZed Dispatches: New Plans

And that’s when things went a bit sideways.

You may be familiar with the old military maxim that a war plan never survives first contact with the enemy. The same might be said of vacation plans.

Once Carol and Sherry and I got to the south island and hooked up with Carol’s brother Graham and his daughter Jo, the plan was to get all our trekking gear together and backpack the Abel Tasman Track, one of New Zealand’s famous Great Tracks. It was to be a four day trip, and all the details were arranged: overnight accommodations in the huts along the track; water taxis to transport the group’s extra gear; buses to get us to and from the endpoints of the track. Graham had prepared several days of food in advance, and Jo had even packed individual pouches of trail mix.

The night before we flew down from Auckland to the south island, I got almost no sleep; so after we landed in Nelson, when I felt freakishly tired and sleepy, I put it down to a lack of shuteye. That evening, after Graham and Jo arrived and we packed our gear, I studiously ignored the building wave of head- and body aches and stomach cramps. I went to bed early and told myself I’d be right as rain with a good night’s sleep. It was only in the middle of the night, when a spike of chills and fever heralded the arrival of some unspeakable intestinal symptoms, that I knew it was no use.

It was the flu, of course. It was also a disaster: Not only would it derail the carefully-planned backpacking trek for all concerned (with the concomitant loss of sunk costs); absent the overnight lodgings and transportation arrangements we would have to forego, it would leave the five of us, at the apex of the tourist season, with no place to go and no way to get there. So at 4 AM — two hours before we were supposed to be leaving the house to catch our bus — I gingerly woke Carol and broke the awful news.

And then followed one of those occasional moments where my wife goes beyond being merely wonderful and becomes positively post-human.

Telling me to hunker down and get some more rest (which I was desperate to do at that juncture), Carol set about working her particular brand of magic: so that by the time we were scheduled to check out of our airbnb that morning, she had apprised everyone else of the situation and formulated an alternate plan; located and booked a perfect airbnb for a reasonable price in nearby Golden Bay; hunted up a suitable rental car when even Kayak said there weren’t any to be found; set the process in motion to get us a refund for our bus fares; and got us ready to head out the door.

No, you can’t have her. I saw her first.

Anyway, that was two days ago. Yesterday, while I slept off the worst of the flu, the others went out for a long tramp in an all-day, cats-and-dogs rainstorm, and returned soaked and laughing. Personally, I kind of feel like I got the sweet end of that deal, though I am told that I will need to brave a similar meteorological challenge in the coming weeks if I am to be considered a True Kiwi. Until then, I suppose I’ll just have to muddle through as a dry Outworlder.

In the meantime, the grippe was sufficiently attenuated by this morning that I could once again venture out — and boy howdy, did I make up for lost time.

After breakfast, we drove out to a short walking trail to see Te Waikoropupu Springs — a crystal-clear spring sacred to the Maori people. It is forbidden to touch the waters; and indeed, the water is so pristine, and the submerged colors so otherworldly, that it would seem like defilement to touch. As it is, the sense of tranquility and beauty is enough to make you want to linger like Narcissus by the waterside forever.

Take a run through the photo highlights of the day »

After reluctantly taking leave of the spring, we drove about an hour west, past Puponga and Cape Farewell to Wharariki Beach. Walking from the car park over a ridge of emerald hills, we descended onto an enormous expanse of mostly deserted white sand stretching away to the ocean. A series of small rock islands stood out from the beach. On the nearest of the formations, moored partly on the strand, a group of seals loafed in the sun while a small audience of beachgoers vied like paparazzi to get photos.

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We ranged far and wide along the beach as Phoebus’s chariot rolled through the stations of early afternoon, then we headed back to the car. The day’s highlight’s weren’t quite done, though. Once again passing by Cape Farewell, the northernmost point of New Zealand’s south island, we stopped to take the view from the cliffs.

And what a view!

Despite being mostly comatose as recently as yesterday, I was so energized by the green cliffs and the sun-washed sky that I was soon running from one overlook to the next like a hyperactive kid. (The others managed to keep their dignity somewhat more intact, like the proper descendents of British forbears they are.)

At length, we all piled back into the car and headed back to our unexpected lodging in Takaka. It wasn’t a day I would have anticipated when I boarded the plane from Auckland. But I’m definitely not giving it back.

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NZed Dispatches: Piha

So, yesterday (Feb. 6) Carol and I flew into Auckland from Bali, and our New Zealand adventure began. Not that we were compos mentis enough to really recognize the fact, having zombied through our last redeye from Denpasar to Sydney, and thence another three hours to NZ (which is pronouned Enn Zed by the cognoscenti, by the way). We were at least awake enough on arrival to recognize what a sweet airbnb we had landed in; the unit we reserved was unavailable at the last minute, so our host upgraded us to a much nicer place overlooking Piha Beach, a few minutes further outside the city.

After a decent night’s sleep we once again had a few brain cells to rub together, and we trekked back to the airport to pick up our friend and traveling companion Sherry. All settled back at the lodging, it was time to do some exploring — and where better than the lovely beach right down the hillside from us?

Stick your toes in the surf on Piha Beach! »

Piha is a beautiful black-sand beach ranged to either side of a dramatic rock formation called Lion Head. While it is possible to swim and surf in a tightly constricted area off the beach, powerful rip tides prowl most of the area to devour the unwary. I opted for climbing Lion Head instead, and then joined Carol and Sherry for a refreshing walk along the surfside.

Sherry seemed suspiciously frisky given that she’d just stepped off a nonstop from LAX to Auckland. Premium economy on Air New Zealand must be a pretty sweet ride.

Anyway, tomorrow we’ll have one more day in Piha, then the next day it’s down to Nelson and the south island for our backpacking adventure!

Five Things About Bali

Sometime last year, Carol and I resolved that we would take an opportunity to visit her brother Graham — and cleverly escape the northern european winter — with a February trip to New Zealand. So late in January, we bade farewell to Susan in Edinburgh, packed off the Fuzzy White Dog to his well-loved temporary caregiver Catriona, and headed for the airport.

I’m confident it will not shock you to learn that New Zealand, tucked away Down Under near Australia, is a bit of a long commute from the United Kingdom; so Carol thoughtfully built in a four night rest stop along the way, in Bali.

In case you’re as geography-challenged as I am: Bali is a sort of fan-shaped island in the Indonesian archipelago, between the big island of Java and the not-so-big island of Lombok. Given that Mount Agung, a volcano on Bali, started playfully blowing up in December, Carol and I experienced a little bit of pucker factor over whether it might be foolhardy to do five days and four nights in the path of a pyroclastic exhalation. But we needn’t have worried; the volcano was on its best behavior while we were there.

I’d like to be able to tell you everything that might conceivably interest you about Bali; but the truth is, once we landed in the main city, Denpasar, we got a ride directly to our seaside lodging, and clung there like barnacles until our last day on the island. Why? Because we were coming off about 36 hours in airplanes and airports — and the hotel included inexpensive room service, wifi, and an infinity pool. Also, books were involved.

On our departure day, we did manage to visit Ubud, the culture and crafts capital of the island, as well as the nearby UNESCO-listed Elephant Temple, on our long way to the airport. But since that hardly qualifies me to be Minister for Tourism, what I’ll do instead is just tell you the five things that I do know about Bali.

(Okay, we did see some stuff in Bali. Take a stroll through the gallery »)

  1. Everything in Bali is a three hour drive from everything else.

    On Google Earth, Bali doesn’t look all that big. So when I asked our driver, “How long will it take us to get to the hotel?” — a distance of maybe 60 miles — and he said “Three hours,” I figured maybe he was planning to drive backwards, or by Flintstones car. The roads are paved, after all. Nevertheless, three hours seems, in fact, to be a Bali standard. How long to drive to Singaraja for snorkeling? Three hours. How long from there to Ubud? Three hours. What if we just go straight from here to Ubud? Two hours. Wait, no, three hours.

    The biggest problem is traffic — a chaotic maelstrom, with legions of scooter pilots flirting with self-immolation as they contest the road with four-wheeled mastodons. Between the ensuing anarchy and the ubiquitous potholes, which get larger in direct proportion to your distance from Denpasar, you can probably run most places on the island faster than you can drive there.

  2. Balinese people are really polite. And strong.

    All the Balinese we encountered spoke at least passable English, and all were extremely helpful and very courteous. And though often small in build and quite thin, they were able to manhandle our suitcases — each of which feels like it’s carrying the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his entire dumbbell collection — like it’s an afterthought. (On our last day, after I struggled out of our room dragging one of our monoliths, a young woman on the staff who couldn’t have weighed more than 85 pounds soaking wet hefted the thing like a toy and practically sprinted up the stairs to the front desk while I wheezed behind, agog.)

    On the other hand, there’s a kind of dignified reserve to the Balinese people I met that makes it hard to imagine making friends easily, or establishing intimacy. When interacting with the drivers, the hotel staff, and others, I couldn’t help remembering the tagline of one of my favorite movies: “Clerks. Just because they serve you doesn’t mean they like you.”

  3. The gods of Bali have a pretty cushy gig.

    No matter where you go on Bali, you’re never far away from the gaze of the gods. Most Balinese follow a religion of Hinduism overlaid onto older indigenous traditions of animism. Driving through Denpasar and environs, we passed one workshop after another whose yards spilled over with stone, wood, or concrete statues of Hindu deities; and their siblings teem throughout the island, in a host of temples and domestic settings.

    And make no mistake, those gods are well looked after. Every day, fresh offerings — often featuring fruits, plaited bamboo creations, and incense — are set out before shrines on the street, in temple yards, in markets and other public places, and in homes. As you can tell from a glance at our photos, the gods seem pretty cheerful about the deal, with their round bellies and great teeth. In Bali, there’s no “diet” in “diety”.

  4. If your favorite place at the zoo is the reptile house, Bali just slithered onto your short list.

    With a land area a little smaller than Fresno County, Bali boasts 35 different varieties of snakes; though you’ll no doubt be relieved to hear that only about a half dozen of them are actually deadly. Those include the king cobra, its jealous royal cousin the spitting cobra, and the just stupid-poisonous banded sea krait. Fortunately they only tend to show up in hotels during the rainy season, which is, coincidentally, when we happened to be there. And almost none of them are found in toilets when you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I checked.

    At least there are no komodo dragons on the island. Apparently they all emigrated elsewhere in Indonesia, no doubt out of frustration with the Balinese highway system.

  5. On the other hand, if your dream vacation looks like West Palm Beach, then Bali is probably not your huckleberry.

    Neat, manicured, upscale, elegant, luxe — adjectives like these are not the sort that will naturally attach themselves in your thoughts to a first-person encounter with Indonesia. That’s okay; there are lots of applicable terms like intriguing, ethnic, colorful, bargain-priced, and real that work instead. Bali is not a wealthy place. It’s congested, distressed and unkempt in many places, and it lacks a lot of the amenities of the first world. It also boasts culture and arts that can make for a fascinating visit for the right person. If you prefer your vacation real rather than regal, that person just might be you.

Haggis

Last night was Robbie Burns Night in Scotland. Burns is revered here as the national poet, and his life and work are celebrated annually on January 25th. To the Scots, Burns Night is kind of like Guy Fawkes Night to the English — except instead of lightheartedly burning an effigy to commemorate a 17th century terrorist, the Scots eat a large dinner in honor of a fellow whose only known acts of terrorism were against the English language.

The menu for Burns Night dinner is tightly prescribed by tradition: it must include neeps and tatties (mashed turnips, or “swedes”, and potatoes), a “wee dram” of scotch, and the centerpiece: haggis.

You may be wondering, “What is a haggis, exactly?” and well you might wonder, because I need a rhetorical question like that to introduce this section. One of the few dictionaries willing to discuss the subject defines haggis as “a Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s or calf’s offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasoning and boiled in a bag, traditionally one made from the animal’s stomach.” There may be a few words in that definition that are not revolting, but none of them are nouns. Essentially, a haggis is a sausage made of sadness. As I had never before been sufficiently reckless to try it, Burns Night would be my first tasting.

Our splendid host Susan worked through much of the day preparing the supper, while Carol polished her pronunciation for the address. An important feature of Robbie Burns night is “addressing the haggis,” which I at first assumed to mean that we would select an address at random from the phone book and send them our haggis — rather like a Secret Santa at the office, when you’ve pulled the name of someone from Internal Audit out of the hat. But as you will no doubt have surmised, addressing the haggis is instead the act of making a speech to the insensate lump, in the manner of addressing the troops or a joint session of Congress (more like the latter, I should think).

Fortunately, lest one have difficulty summoning appropriate words for an encomium to a tube of entrails, auld Robbie himself composed the official address to the haggis, which would be repeated down the ages over tables throughout Scotland. The only challenge for Carol would be to pronounce it.

At the appointed hour, Sue laid out the serving dishes atop the hob, and we loaded our plates. We trooped single-file into the living room and sat for Carol’s recitation. Rather than burden you with the entire text, which is full of admirable words like sonsie, thairm, kytes, and luggies, I’ll offer a very free prose translation of the most important passages:

In elder days, the wisest of our ancestors sailed from these shores to discover tropical lands with umbrella drinks and Reggae music. And they stayed there, leaving the rest of us poor bastards to muck around in the peat bogs and eat shite like this here. At least they didn’t take all the scotch. Hail, hail and l’chaim.

Solemnities done, it was time to turn the sound back up on the television, and eat.

I feel complete confidence in saying that nothing else in the world tastes quite like haggis. Upon first sampling it, one understands immediately why the traditional Burns Night menu specifies whiskey as a chaser. Short of refined petroleum, nothing less robust than a good belt of single malt is capable of scouring the flavor of haggis from the palate. Pairing haggis with wine or beer would be like trying to smother a dumpster fire with a moist towelette, or unclog a rest area toilet with an eye dropper.

At this point, you are no doubt wondering, ‘So, why do the Scots eat haggis?’ I will tell you the answer: God alone knows. Why do the Scots live in a place whose climate makes Seattle seem like Morocco? Why do they wear short wool skirts into battle against bladed weapons? Why did the inventor of the highland bagpipe not receive jail time?

It’s a mystery, my friend.


Public Notice: The author of this article has been sacked due to gross misrepresentation of Scotland’s cherished institutions. Against all reasonable surmise, haggis is in fact quite pleasant to eat, and as far as we know may even be good for you. And no one has a go at Robbie Burns except over our cold corpses. Accordingly, you should regard the entire content of the essay as complete rubbish. Except the part about wearing kilts into battle. Even we admit that’s just barking mad.

The Scotland Tourist Board

Royal Mile

Last week-ish — I don’t remember the exact day (sue me, I’m retired) — Carol and I went out for an afternoon and evening on the Royal Mile. That’s the street that runs from Holyrood Palace, one of the Monarchy’s royal residences, up a long steep hill to Edinburgh Castle. It was typical Scotland “good times” weather, which is to say damp, chilly, and overcast. (At this point I’m sufficiently dialed into the local Weltanschauung that I welcome such weather as a good excuse for investigating pubs.)

We started out with a self-guided tour of Holyrood. I’d like to be able to show you what it looked like inside, but unfortunately the palace is one of those historical sites where you’re not allowed to take pictures. Carol and I speculated it’s probably for security purposes, since the Queen lives there for a short time each year. One doesn’t want terrorists to get ahold of some tourist photos and triangulate the mortar coordinates of Prince Philip’s place setting in the formal dining room. Which could absolutely happen.

So in lieu of visual aids, I’ll describe the palace for you.

I want you to imagine a lofty, square room, with a tall window set in a deep stone embrasure. The interior walls are covered in dark wood paneling, rather resembling Littlefinger’s brothel in Game of Thrones. Throw in a couple very large, faded tapestries; some paintings of people with trowel-shaped faces in Renaissance Fair costumes; and a massive square bed decorated so as to ensure vivid nightmares.

Right. Now read that paragraph over, ten or a dozen times. There you are, you’ve just toured Holyrood Palace.

Yes, yes, I’m joking of course. There was also a dining room.

Every great house needs a murder story, and Holyrood is no exception. In 1566, David Rizzio, faithful private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death in her presence by henchmen of her husband, Lord Darnley, who was also on hand. Presumably this made dinner conversation awkward between them for some time thereafter. Signage in the palace is unclear as to the motive for the secretary’s murder, though at the time rumors swirled that his typing was execrable and his shorthand even worse. His body was dragged away to Mary’s Outer Chamber, where the blood stains are still visible on the floor, owing to the sixteenth century’s lamentable dearth of effective liquid floor cleaners.

For me, the highlight of my Holyrood visit was seeing the Queen’s Gallery. What I expected to find was a dolorous lineup of portraits of the usual royal suspects; but instead, the gallery was given over entirely to artifacts brought back by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), from an expedition to the Indian subcontinent. The precious items were gifts from local potentates. There was no prohibition to photographing them, so see if you can spot them in our extensive and growing Edinburgh Gallery. Hint: they’re nearly all sharp. It is said that you can tell a great deal about someone by the sorts of gifts they give; but in this case it may say more about the recipient and his forbears, that the crown prince came away with enough knives, daggers, and pikes to take on an entire army of private secretaries.

After exhausting all the possibilities of Holyrood, Carol and I ascended the Royal Mile to find a place for dinner and suitable liquid refreshment. And this being Scotland, by “suitable” I obviously mean “whiskey”. I’m not a professional drinker, but a draught of excellent single-malt scotch from the land named after it is something to warm the haggis of any reasonable person, especially on a raw Edinburgh evening.

And since it was to be my birthday present from Carol, we felt we had license to look out a nice place, even if the price was a little beyond our usual guidelines. Despite the chill, there were plenty of people on the streets, window shopping and enjoying the old town vibe. We stopped at several pubs, previewing menus and scouting ambience, before settling on The Whiski Rooms, a cosy place on the Mound. (Crossing the Mile a few blocks down from Edinburgh Castle, the Mound runs down steeply on either side toward the parallel streets below.)

We both opted for a safe food choice with fish and chips, and saved our adventuring for the drinks menu — though the fish turned out to be a bit unusual in its preparation, and quite tasty. With some trepidation for what I was getting into, I ordered a flight of four whiskies. I needn’t have worried: the pours were quite modest and I was able to walk unaided by the time we were ready to settle up. All of the four scotches were excellent, but the Glenfarclas 15 and the Glendronach 18 were the stars.

We left the Whiski Rooms with a lovely feeling of well-being, and strolled the rest of the Mile up to the castle. Looking out from high parking lot over the brightly-lit city below, I felt a real affection for Edinburgh, and a sense of growing familiarity. We have spent time here off and on since last August with our wonderful host Sue, and it has come to feel like a second home.

Turning our faces back down the Mile, we directed our steps through the colorfully-lit streets and into the night.

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View from the Pentlands

One day it’s sunny, and you go out. The next day it rains, so you settle into a comfy chair and write. (And maybe the next day and the next.) That’s the rhythm of life, and blogging, in Auld Reekie.

Carol and I are back in Edinburgh, after arriving in the rain last Friday.

Yesterday (Sunday) dawned crisp and sunny, with a few high, wispy clouds. At least, that’s what I imagine; still jet lagged, Carol and I didn’t manage to prise open a bleary eye until about 10. But with scrubbed blue skies and brilliant sun persisting through the day, it was time to go tramping in the Pentlands — the hills ranging south and west of the city. With our lovely host Susan and Pippin the Wonder Dog, we drove a short way out to Flotterstone.

The car park looked to be overrun with people eager to take advantage of the fine weather; but as we entered, the angel chorus rang out from on high and a space miraculously opened at our approach. After a quick genuflection, we all donned our cold weather bits, and Carol and Sue set out on the low road with Pip, following the asphalt drive from the Flotterstone Inn back to Glencorse Reservoir. I, lusting after a more scenic view, took the high road — climbing the ridge above the reservoir up the grassy eminence of Scald Law.

Pentlands hike gallery »

The highest peak in the Pentlands, Scald Law is still only about 1900 feet in elevation. The climb up is steep enough to be challenging, nevertheless, and even without a pack I was panting like a dog by the time I’d negotiated the undulating trail and reached the stony crown. (It’s been three months and a few hundred desserts, donuts, Christmas cookies, and full-fat mochas since backpacking Yosemite. Apparently, gravity has gotten stronger in the interim.)

All the exertion was well rewarded by the 360 degree panorama from the top. To the south, the pale winter-green hills folded into the distance. Hundreds of meters below me, at the feet of the near slopes, the reservoir was a silver mirror reflecting a row of black trees. To the north whence I came, brightly clad hikers climbed the trail past fat white sheep; and further on, the hills flattened out to pastures stretching to the borders of the city.

My delight at the view began after a while to give way to hunger. Looking forward to meeting up with Carol and Sue in the Flotterstone Inn pub, I prepared to go — and realized that the climb down might be nearly as challenging as the ascent. The steepest parts of the trail were slicked with snow and ice crystals, and churned by many boots to near-freezing mud. Digging in hard with the soles of my hikers, though, and moving where necessary at the speed of a beetle carrying a bowling ball, I managed to make it back down without going ass over teakettle.

There is nothing quite like a British pub for warmth, good humor, and the best comfort foods. Carol recharged with pheasant and a pint of Strongbow, while I feasted on a generous steak and ale pie, jacket potato, and a local IPA. Sue, the vegetarian of the group, enjoyed a robust-looking lentil soup, and Pippin lazed contentedly beside our chairs, enjoying the attentions of the nice woman at the adjacent table.

It’s comfortable to be back in Scotland.

Masters of the Everyday

On Thursday, in the hours before we left the US to return to Edinburgh, Carol and I made time to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Having cleverly orchestrated a winter weather calamity on the east coast, we were able to suppress visitor turnout to the museum, so that when we arrived at the west wing we were able to walk directly in without a wait.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry is a show the likes of which I dreamed of when I was a grad student in Art History. It not only assembles the world’s greatest Vermeer paintings under one roof — an astonishing achievement, given their value and rarity — but also establishes them in the context of other great 17th century Dutch genre painters whose work informed, and was inspired by, Vermeer’s. Gabriel Metsu, Gerrit Dou, Caspar Netscher, Frans Van Mieris, and the divinely talented Gerard ter Borch are all superbly represented here.

Genre painting is simply the depiction of scenes from everyday life. In Netherlandish art of the 17th century, genre images are most often scenes of women doing things in their homes, people interacting in taverns or brothels, or occasionally men going about their professional activities. Often there is a humorous or moralizing aspect to the pictures. The image at top, for instance, is an excerpt from ter Borch’s Young Woman with a Soldier and an Onlooker, c. 1650, from the collection of the Musée Fabre. It probably takes place in a brothel, though if you’re wondering what the young woman is up to with the sleeping soldier, I haven’t the faintest idea. Whatever it is, both she and the onlooker find it pretty entertaining. It’s impossible to miss the absolutely dazzling technique the artist shows off here with his depiction of surfaces — the woman’s dress, the sheen of the soldier’s breastplate, the sparkling highlights of the brass ewer. More subtle, but no less masterful, is the composition, with its rhythmic massing and diagonal momentum that draws your eye directly to the woman’s left hand.

I absolutely loved this show — not only because it pulled together such a remarkable haul of iconic paintings from Vermeer, but also for its prominent inclusion of equally brilliant artists and pictures that are not as universally known. Gabriel Metsu’s Man Writing a Letter, for instance, is a flawless gem, as good as nearly anything else in the exhibition.

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Ironically, having had the opportunity now to see the greatest works of Vermeer’s sublime oeuvre together in the same place, I believe the very best of them is the one I’ve seen so often in Washington’s permanent collection: the Woman Holding a Balance (above) from about 1664.

Notwithstanding the poor photo quality from my phone camera, it is, simply, a perfect painting. We see a young woman holding a jeweler’s scale, with gold, pearls, and other valuables spread out around her. Her scale’s empty pans hang at equal height, in the moment before she adds weight to one and breaks the equilibrium. In keeping with the theme of balance, the scene is divided into halves of light and shadow, while the floor is half white tiles and half black.

The painting-within-a-painting dominating the wall behind the woman provides the key to the full meaning of the picture. Vermeer liked to include paintings within his compositions, and they often add a layer of meaning. In the Woman Holding a Balance, the background painting is a Last Judgment, wherein the risen Christ judges the souls of the dead to separate the elect from the damned — the saved to our left and the damned to our right. Last Judgment scenes in medieval painting and sculpture often included a figure holding a balance, in which the souls of the dead were weighed — a motif with which Vermeer would no doubt have been familiar. In his painting, the protagonist herself holds the scale, and it is her own soul in the balance.

17th century Dutch painting is rife with examples of “vanitas” imagery — beautiful objects, luscious foods, lovely flowers presented to the beholder as a sort of test. Don’t be led astray by such things, they whisper, when your true treasure awaits in heaven. In Vermeer’s picture, the woman straddles the border between light and shadow; tempted by the golden blandishments of earthly life, she is tellingly framed between the saved and the condemned in the Last Judgment, standing directly beneath the celestial judge.

Beyond its intellectual content, the painting is just achingly beautiful. Unrivaled in any age as a painter of light, Vermeer washes the room in velvety shadows, deftly highlighting the hand holding the balance. He eschews his customary lemony palette in favor of cool grey, sumptuous cobalt, rich brown — suitable to the contemplative mood. The young woman regards the scale with an unreadable expression; her left hand rests on the table as she hesitates before loading the pans.

Poised at the crossroads between dark and light, which path will she choose?