100% Fast Response from Florida Department of Citrus

Just over one week ago, I posted my 100% Fresh Orange Juice? piece. 

This follow-up story focuses on how the orange juice industry is trying to manage its brand positioning with consumers  in the aftermath of Alissa Hamilton’s book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice.

The explosion of blogs, personal websites, discussion boards and myriad other social media has given anyone with a computer the ability to broadcast any message, image or video they care to share with the world.  For individuals, that explosion can be liberating and empowering.

But just how much is actually seen or read by anyone? Or by anyone who actually cares?  Organizations that care about their own reputation constantly monitor the web to keep track of what people are saying.  Governments, corporations, not-for-profit organizations, etc. use automated tools to find out what’s being said about them and who is saying it.

This can be a tricky business for organizations.  How far should they go to monitor their online reputation?  When they don’t like what’s been said, what should they do?  Should they try to find out about the person who posted something they don’t like to see if that person might be a real threat to the organization’s reputation and brand?  Should they check them out using tools and resources like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flicker, etc.? 

When they see something online that they don’t like is it worthwhile to try to do something about it?  Or does doing so just enlarge the discussion and perpetuate the very storyline that they don’t like? 

Many corporations that monitor online comments and discussions about their products and services will join the conversation.  When done well, they appear to care about their customers.  Sometimes they’ll apologize for poor service; I’ve even seen companies promise refunds or replacements for products purchased by a dissatisfied customer.  Doing so online, in the discussion forum, demonstrates to consumers that the company actually listens to consumers and really does care.

My story 100% Fresh Orange Juice? has attracted (painfully, for me!) few readers to date.  Using blog tools on my site, I know that in the five days following publication, less than 20 people opened that story.  Just how many people actually read it?  Less than 20 for sure, because many people who found it in an online search would have quickly decided it was not the sort of thing they were looking for. 

One of the people who did read it shortly after it was published is Karen Mathis, Public Relations Director, with the Florida Department of Citrus in Bartow Florida.  Just five days after my story about orange juice, I received the following message from Ms. Mathis:

“On behalf of the Florida Department of Citrus, I am writing in response to your article entitled “100% Fresh Orange Juice?” Please allow me to share further information.

One of the healthiest morning beverages, people choose 100 percent orange juice for its great taste and nutrition benefits. Both “from concentrate” and “not from concentrate” orange juice provide a variety of nutrients. In fact, an 8-ounce glass of 100 percent orange juice contains a host of phytonutrients that may help the body’s natural ability to support good health throughout life. Additionally, orange juice is more nutrient dense than many commonly consumed 100 percent fruit juices, such as apple, grape, pineapple and prune[1].

Approximately 68 percent of Canadian orange juice comes from the United States. By utilizing state-of-the-art technology, Florida is able to provide a consistent supply of high quality, nutritious orange juice year round.  This orange juice is processed in strict compliance with all Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations.

The basic principle of orange juice processing is similar to how you make orange juice at home. Oranges are washed and the juice is extracted by squeezing the oranges. Seeds and particles are strained out.  Orange juice is pasteurized to ensure food safety.

Please visit www.OrangeJuiceFacts.com for more information about orange juice. 

Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss in more detail. Thank you for your time and consideration.


 Karen Mathis

Public Relations Director, Florida Department of Citrus

 [1] Rampersaud GC. J Food Sci. 2007;72:S261-S266.”

As soon as I received the above message I replied:  “Good morning. Thank you for your interest. Please advise if anything I have posted to my blog is factually inaccurate. I would like to correct any content that is not true. What, if anything, needs correction?”  If I do receive a response, I will definitely want to correct any misinformation.

As I mentioned at the outset, monitoring what’s being said online is standard practise in most organizations of any size that want to (try to) manage their reputation and protect their brand.  Alissa Hamilton’s book has really put the orange juice industry on the defensive.   The industry spends huge sums of money to ensure that orange juice is seen by consumers as a healthy, fresh and wholesome product.   Hamilton’s book told the inside story that has shaken consumer confidence in that product.

People like Ms. Mathis have a tough job to do.   There are few absolutely right or wrong steps to take in these situations.  However, in this case, I don’t think I would have responded to a little-read blog.  I think I would have preferred to let it go, and not do anything to perpetuate a story my organization may have not liked.  

But, given that she did respond on behalf of her organization,  here are my perspectives on what she shared.

1)   The response refers to “100 percent orange juice” twice.   Yet, as I recounted in my story, Hamilton noted it is legal to label something as 100 per cent orange juice even when it is, in fact, actually 90 per cent orange juice and 10 per cent tangerine juice.  As I said in my last post, this is analogous to labelling a meat product 100% beef when it actually includes 10% horsemeat. 

2)   It’s also noted that “Approximately 68 percent of Canadian orange juice comes from the United States.”  I now know that approximately 32 per cent of Canadian orange juice does not come from the United States.  I thought 68 percent was a rather low number, so her information was very interesting to me.  I am also confident that one year from now, the figure will be lower as Florida orange growers continue to get ‘Squeezed.’

3)  It is noted that  “…orange juice is processed in strict compliance with all Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations.”  While orange juice producers may well strictly comply with Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations, these regulations, with respect to orange juice are not necessarily strict.  The CFIA website notes that:   “Orange Juice is not specifically listed in (the) Processed Products Regulations (PPR). It falls under the generic standard of identity “fruit juice” in Schedule II, Item 13, of the PPR.”  Canada relies heavily on the oversight and standards of U.S. agencies when it comes many food products that are imported into Canada.  With respect to orange juice, Hamilton’s book is often times highly critical of American food industry overseers.

4)   I was also intrigued by the statement that “The basic principle of orange juice processing is similar to how you make orange juice at home. Oranges are washed and the juice is extracted by squeezing the oranges. Seeds and particles are strained out.”   Really?  When I squeeze oranges at home, I don’t use a multinational blend of oranges and tangerines. I don’t separate the orange oils and essence from the juice.  I don’t boil it, de-areate it and store it for up to a year.  And I certainly don’t buy the flavour for the juice from a third-party company and then recombine everything back in that frosty glass. 

The “Bottom Line?”  I read Hamilton’s book.  I enjoyed it. It’s well-written.  However, it’s a scathing and revealing indictment of the major (and powerful) orange juice players, including large manufacturers, industry groups, marketers and government agencies.  

How to respond to criticism and ‘manage’ online reputations is a challenging thing for all organizations of any size.  In the ‘old days’ when a negative print story was published, the media and public relations professionals typically had a straightforward choice to either write a letter to the editor or not.  In the vast majority of cases, those letters—if they were written at all—were not sent. Why?  It’s very hard to write a response that does not sound defensive.  It is especially difficult if the ‘offended’ organization appears to be taking on a ‘little guy’.  Besides, that approach also ensures that if the letter does get read, it will only perpetuate a story that most readers had likely already forgotten about.

A final thought.  By the time you read this story, it will have already been caught in the search tools employed by the Florida Department of Citrus.  Yes, you can be absolutely certain that “Alissa Hamilton”and “Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice.” are standard search terms in a number of organizations!

Pantheon    |     John Ecker

Posted in Branding, How about that?, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

100% Fresh Orange Juice?

(Click here to see the reaction and Response from Florida Department of Citrus to this story.)

When I was a young kid growing up in the 60s, I enjoyed squeezing fresh orange juice as a treat.  I’d use a little plastic juicer and then pass it through a strainer to separate the pulp and seeds.  Nothing tasted better than fresh squeezed orange juice from Florida.  There was no doubt about it.

The ‘everyday’ drink in our house was frozen juice from concentrate.  Our favourite brand was Old South, only purchased when it was on sale, since it was the more expensive label.

These days, most of the orange juice consumed is picked up in the dairy cooler section of the supermarket.  It’s kept there because it’s a fresh product that needs to be refrigerated.  Right?  After all, it’s nothing but 100% fresh squeezed juice from Florida oranges.  The oranges were probably hanging on a tree in some pretty Florida orange grove just days or maybe weeks previous.  It was rushed to your supermarket to keep it fresh—that’s probably why it’s so much more expensive than frozen juice from concentrate.  Right?  

The truth is quite amazing.  From a consumer standpoint, one could argue that there is a tremendous amount of deception in the marketplace when it comes to good old-fashioned orange juice. 

From a branding standpoint what the multinational orange juice producers have done is nothing short of sheer marketing brilliance.  So, as a communications and marketing guy I’m rather impressed with the radiant glow of orange juice in the marketplace. 

I recently read Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice, by Alissa Hamilton and published by Yale University Press.  Hamilton has done a terrific job in her highly readable and well-documented 220 page book.

Here’s what the major marketers would like you to believe about the orange juice you see in those big jugs and cartons in the coolers near the milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, etc.  They want you to think it’s:

– fresh;

– ‘simply’ orange juice, an uncomplicated product;

– nothing but 100% orange juice;

– come right from the grove;

– worth paying a premium for;

– better and less processed than frozen orange juice from concentrate;

– from Florida.

Here are 10 reasons I don’t drink this stuff much any more, now that I’ve read Hamilton’s book.

 1)     It’s heavily engineered and processed.  Through pasteurization, fresh juice is heat treated and stripped of oxygen.  The process is called deaeration and prevents oxidation (and therefore the spoiling) of the product.

2)    Now stripped of oxygen, the juice can be stored for months, even up to a year in tanks that hold up to 7 million of gallons of juice.

3)    The flavour in orange juice is largely derived from the oils and essence in the oranges.  These too are stripped from the orange because they are volatile and would spoil the product. The oils are then sold to companies that specialize in the manufacture of flavours with specific profiles and qualities.

4)    Each juice manufacturer desires a specific flavour profile that defines their product and projects a fresh flavour.  The manufacturers then buy back ‘flavour packs’ from those companies.  That’s how manufacturers maintain a consistent flavour, regardless of the time of year and where the oranges were grown.

5)    Those flavour packs, derived from oranges produced all over the world, including from countries without stringent standards, are recombined with the deoxygenated ‘juice’.  (Think about it, the orange juice you end up buying has likely spent more time in a tank and a chemist’s laboratory than it has in some idyllic orange grove.)

6)     The phrase you read in big type on the cartons states: “Not from Concentrate” (NFC) which to most consumers suggests that concentrated orange juice (i.e. frozen concentrate) is an inferior and not fresh product.  They are counting on you, the consumer, to conclude that since the product is not from concentrate… it’s fresh!

7)      The Florida Orange Grove is fast becoming a myth as farmland there is ploughed under for development.  Agricultural and environmental standards are higher in Florida and the United States than in virtually every other orange growing region on earth.  The Florida orange grove is being supplanted by industrial operators in Brazil, where land is cheaper and environmental regulation is, by comparison, non-existent.

8)     100 % orange juice?  U.S. regulations permit up to 10% tangerine juice to be added and still be called 100 % orange juice.  (It’s a bit of a stretch, but imagine if something labelled 100% beef could legally include 10% horsemeat!).

9)     Ever notice that the phrase “Orange Juice” does not appear in large type on the cartons you buy? It’s no coincidence. That’s because by U.S. law, if the product is labelled “Orange Juice” and has been pasteurized, the word “Pasteurized” must appear in type no smaller than half the size of the phrase “Orange Juice.”  You’ll notice (see photos above) that the word “Pasteurized” is invariably noted on the back of the label, in narrower type, positioned to be far less noticeable than other, desirable information about the product.

10)   Even though you may perceive you are drinking a fresh-squeezed product, because of the processing involved, the product is never labelled “Fresh.”  Why?  It’s not.

If the brand “Simply Orange” was called “Simply Orange Juice” instead, the word “Pasteurized” would be required to appear, according to U.S. food regulations, in type half the size of “Simply Orange Juice.”  It would have to be over 1/2 inch tall!  So, the manufacturer wants you to mentally fill in the word ‘juice’ when you see the product in the clear container that is shaped like an old time juice jug.  Amazing marketing, yes?

Some orange juice in the cooler section is made from concentrate and is labelled as such. It is always cheaper than the NFC product.  That’s not because it’s an inferior product. It costs less because it has been reconstituted closer to the point of sale and therefore costs less to ship. And, it’s a less expensive product to produce when compared to NFC.  Finally, for those concerned about the environment, shipping the concentrate is far more eco-friendly.

So, from a branding and marketing perspective, it is easy to see that the manufacturers of these products have been wildly successful.  From a consumer standpoint, well… there’s no doubt about it.  What we see… or think we see, is not what we get. 

Try this at home: Buy the following three products:  A popular brand NFC orange juice from the supermarket cooler, a can of a popular brand “frozen juice from concentrate” and some good quality fresh oranges, like Valencia.   Combine the NFC orange juice with water as directed.  Squeeze the juice from the Valencia oranges.   

Taste test them all, side by side, with the juices at the same temperature.  These are my opinions:  The fresh Valencia juice has a thinner consistency than NFC and definitely conveys a fresh, uncomplicated flavour.  The frozen juice actually tastes pretty good.  The NFC tends to have a thicker and slicker consistency though it leaves a good overall first impression, and it’s sweeter than both the frozen and fresh products.  But when you actually focus on the three products, NFC, among the three does taste most like an artificial product, at least in my opinion.

Click here to see the reaction and Response from Florida Department of Citrus to this story.

By the way, Tropicana is owned by the folks at PepsiCo.  Simply Orange and Minute Maid are owned by Coke. 

John Ecker   |    Pantheon

Posted in Branding, How about that? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks, Brantford, Ontario, Canada

Growing up in Brantford, our family would occasionally visit Mohawk Chapel.  It was a must-see stop for visiting friends and relatives. I also remember the late 1970s community fundraising drive that helped restore the Chapel.  And, in 1984, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were there to celebrate the Six Nations Bicentennial.  My last visit was in 2007 when I  stopped by for a visit with a business colleague.  While there, a wonderful woman from the Six Nations, in traditional dress, escorted us around the site.  The story she shared was an important reminder of the Chapel’s rich heritage and significance of the Six Nations to Brantford’s cultural history.

My family’s interest in the Chapel, also the site of the Mohawk Village that was established there in the late 1700s goes back many years.  Around 1915, my great-grandmother Frances Mitchell produced this watercolour.   The Brantford Centennial edition (1977) from the Brantford Expositor includes this entry:

“A Mohawk village was established in 1785 in part of the Grand River country that was eventually to become Brantford.  St. Paul’s, Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks and other buildings were erected, including 15 to 20 homes built of log and frame, a school, a sawmill, and a grist mill.  Joseph Brant lived in one of the houses— the large one at the upper right in this watercolour impression by the late Frances Henderson Mitchell, wife of Brantford’s first automobile dealer, Charles J. Mitchell.  

 This watercolour is based on a sketch by a Mrs. Brown and was done about 1915 by Mrs. Mitchell.  Executors of the estate or her son, A Gordon Mitchell of Brantford have granted permission for this first time publication of the watercolour.  Mrs. Mitchell, a native of Ingersoll, resided in Brantford most of her life and died here on Sept. 7, 1943, at the age of 78.  In 1931 she won the $100 first prize in the annual Canada-wide Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire Christmas card design contest.  Mrs. Mitchell also worked in oils, pastels and charcoal and was an ardent painter of fine china, a craft which she taught for many years in Brantford. The two storey council building – ‘Big House’ or Ji-ka-non-so-deh-go-neh according to the sketch, is at the left of the painting.”

I understand that the above-mentioned Mrs. Brown, an elderly woman by 1915, based her sketch on childhood memories of the village.  The Frances Mitchell watercolour and Mrs. Brown original pencil sketch are cherished family heirlooms.  The Chapel is a National Historic Site.  Please see History of Mohawk Chapel for more information.

Pantheon     |     John Ecker

Posted in How about that? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Decay and Renewal at Bletchley Park

This wonderful historic site is clearly at a crossroads.  Located north of London, in Bletchley, Bletchley Park (aka Station X) was home to Britain’s famous WWII codebreakers. 

I have wanted to visit the place for years, having read about it and seeing many documentaries.  I had also heard that much of the site was in bad shape, but I was frankly not prepared for what I saw.  As you can see in the photos, many of the buildings are in an advanced stage of decay.  Blistered paint exposes bare wood, exposing the structures to rot and insects.  Some eavestroughs are packed with composted material, providing a home to rooting plants, further damaging the buildings. Rodents have merrily chewed their way through neglected structures.  The roofs on many buildings clearly require repair or replacement. 

This all sounds pretty bad, yes?  Yet behind the crumbling buildings a very dedicated group of volunteers is highly committed to Bletchley’s preservation.  And after years of struggle, they may have finally raised enough awareness about Bletchley to attract the financial support necessary to help save it.

The site is run largely by volunteers, deeply committed to stemming the decay and telling the story of one of World War II’s most secret operations.  Their enthusiasm is simply amazing.  The tour guide on our visit was very knowledgeable as he expertly guided us around the grounds.   I think that touring the grounds without a guide would have been pointless.

But they have done such an amazing job there that Bletchley Park is finally getting the attention—and some of the funding it richly deserves. 

In December 2010 the Prince’s Regeneration Trust will share plans for some vital improvements to Bletchley that will both conserve some buildings and enhance the visitor experience.  Bletchley Park’s Trustees have approved a new masterplan that will see the restoration of some buildings, including the original huts.  The plan also calls for more capacity to handle school and tour group visits—an important revenue stream.  A professional exhibition design firm will create new interpretation and exhibit elements.

In 2009 the Trust received £460,000 from Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund.  Then the Prince’s Regeneration Trust was appointed to help move toward a further application from the Fund for £4.1 million.

In a November 2010 news release, Simon Greenish, Chief Executive Officer of Bletchley Park Trust said, “Bletchley Park is a huge local asset and we want the whole community, including those involved with the site to local residents in and around Milton Keynes to regard it as their asset. We already have an enormously dedicated team of staff and volunteers who help deliver our story and have provided valuable input into our future plans, and now we want to hear from other members of our community.” 

I certainly agree with Mr. Greenish.  At the same time, it is not a stretch to say that Bletchley Park is a Commonwealth, if not world heritage site, as well.  The codebreakers at Bletchley Park saved countless Allied lives.  It is beyond doubt that the work accomplished there hastened the end of WWII.

Some highlights of Bletchley Park:

–        Numerous Enigma machines, all of which can be seen up close

–        The main building (pictured) featuring a hodgepodge of numerous architectural styles by original estate owner Sir Herbert Samuel Leon (1850-1926)

–        Stephen Kettle’s 2007 statue of Alan Turing

–        Colossus Rebuild Project, an authentic working rebuild of the world’s first semi-programmable computer.

–         The Bombe Room, home to the giant machines that made code-breaking possible.

–        The gift shop, which contains a good collection of books about Bletchley, intelligence, counter-intelligence and World War II history.

 The Bletchley Park website includes lots of information about the site that will help you plan a visit. 

Bletchley Park’s future is a bit more assured, now that it is getting more of the attention it deserves.  Public support, government advocacy and more visitors will help sustain this important site and stem the decay.

You too can Donate to Bletchley Park and help its rebirth and preservation.

There is also a drive underway to purchase the papers of brilliant codebreaker Alan Turing.  Please Help Save Turing Papers via this link.

John Ecker / Pantheon

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blast back to the 70s

I just got back  from seeing Roger Hodgson, formerly of the 70s rock group Supertramp.  He played at Casino Rama in Orillia, Ontario, in what is now an annual ritual.

It was a blast.  Six couples, most of us friends from high school, got together for the trip down memory lane.  We all came of age when Supertramp was at the height of its popularity.  So, there were plenty of flashbacks as Hodgson– note for note and lick for lick, reminded us all that he was clearly the driving force in the Hodgson/Rick Davies rock marriage. 

Hodgson’s voice and musical talents have not diminished in the thirty-plus years since he first wrote and  performed Supertramp’s iconic hits.  The music was flawless.   Hodgson’s voice is amazingly fresh– he’s in his sixties now.

Canadian Aaron MacDonald expertly channelled John Helliwell’s saxophone and Davies’ vocals with his exceptional talent.  MacDonald, with the urging of Hodgson in the past few years, has also mastered the harmonica and several other brass instruments.  The rapport between the two was obvious throughout the night in their team effort.  And, for even more Canadian content, the Elora Festival Singers joined in for several songs, providing terrific vocal depth. 

Listening to Crime of the Century’s great hit Hide in Your Shell,  I was suddenly propelled back to memories of my old highschool buddy Roy, air-drumming to the song played at full throttle in his parents’ rec-room.  For me, it was Fool’s Overture, one of last night’s encores, that was the highlight of the night. It was played with all of the richness of the original, right down to the slice of Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Never Surrender’ speech from 1940. Vocals from the Elora chorus were spot-on.   

Hodgson’s introduction to Breakfast in America provided some truly giddy moments as he recalled that his girlfriend of the time was clearly not impressed by the lyrics (“Take good look at my girlfriend, not much of a girlfriend…”).  Hide in your Shell was also performed note-perfect and rendered all the more meaningful with Hodgson’s introduction.  He says he continues to receive mail from fans who credit the song with helping them through a rough time. 

Hodgson has great rapport with his audience– many of whom now make it an annual ritual to see him at Rama.  One had to wonder if his sincerity was the practised fake sort of an accomplished performer.  But Hodgson appears to be the real deal.  He’s developed quite an on-line following and  the rave reviews he consistently garners speak of his ability to connect.   He clearly values his spiritual life.  In a 2009 Interview  he was asked if he had been able to fulfill all of his dreams.  In reply he said, “I think I have to serve others. With my life or with my music. Every day I wake up very grateful for what I have. And now my dream is to share my heart with my audience, help them a bit … Give a little bit … to be happy.”

Hodgson’s 2010 tour wrapped up with last night’s show at Rama.  He’ll kick off his 2011 Tour  with a February 25th date in California before he’s off to several dates in Germany. On May 25th, he’ll be at London’s Royal Albert Hall, an awesome venue for his show. 

When I got home this morning, the first thing I did was flip The Very Best of Supertramp
into the CD player.  But I also checked my bins of old vinyl albums.  Why?  Apparently one in fifteen Canadian households have both Crime of the Century and Breakfast in America in their musical libraries.  Yes, I have them both.

Hope to see you back at Rama next fall, Roger.  Special thanks to my friend Jim for organizing the trip. Roy, wherever you are, keep on rockin’.

John Ecker / Pantheon

Posted in How about that?, In the News | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembrance Day, Compiègne, France, Part 2

Part Two, a reflection on Remembrance Day.

On June 22, 1940, Adolf Hitler oversaw the signing of the French surrender in the very same car where Germany surrendered in 1918.  On that day, the eagle monument was bedecked with banners and swastikas. And in the railcar, Hitler sat in the same seat as Foch did in 1918.     

In the days following, the site was mostly destroyed, though the statue of Foch was left in place, leaving him to preside over the destroyed glade. The coach was unceremoniously pulled from the display building and taken to Berlin.  Unlike the 1918 signing, extensive photography and filming took place, to document and widely broadcast France’s humiliation. 

What happened next with coach 2419D is the subject of some debate.  It was either destroyed  by Allied bombs or on the orders of  Hitler.  With Germany’s defeat all but certain, Hitler knew where Germany would sit in any third signing of an armistice in coach 2419D. 

The site was rebuilt and in 1950, it was rededicated.  The famous coach was replaced with a replica.  The interior was recreated to look as it did in 1918 and includes many original artifacts from the 1918 signing. 

The coach is not accessible to visitors.  They walk along a raised platform to peer inside.  An audio track plays in various languages.  Behind the coach room visitors can see displays and other artifacts associated with the site.  A small gift shop is located at the exit. 

The whole effect here is definitely not one of  celebration.  On the day of my visit, a large group of young French school students were on a class trip.  While my French is not great, it was clear the students were receiving a thorough and balanced presentation about the importance of the site in French history. 

Keeping these memories alive and sharing them is hugely important.  Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

John Ecker | Pantheon

Posted in France Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembrance Day, Compiègne, France, Part 1

Today is Remembrance Day and I was recalling my recent visit to northern France.  Here’s part one.

When I visited the Armistice Wagon in the forest outside Compiègne, France, I could think of few places in modern times with more history per square inch.  It was the location for the signing of the WWI armistice.  It was here where Hitler staged the signing of France’s surrender in 1940.  (And in nearby Compiègne, on May 23, 1430, Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians, then sold to the British.)

The time of my visit was a rainy, somewhat cool June morning. It lent additional gravity to an already serious place.  Near the entrance is the memorial erected by WWI French soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine who fought to recapture the disputed territory.  The memorial depicts a sword impaling the vanquished German eagle.  It was removed by the conquering German forces in 1940 and stored in crates.   

The whole site is known as the Armistice Glade.  On the side opposite to the Alsace-Lorraine  monument is the building that houses the famous Wagon Lits Company coach, marked #2419D (more on that later).  It was in that car where hostilities officially ended 11:00 a.m. Paris time, November 11th, 1918 (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month).  Today, visitors can tour the small building that houses the coach.

It was here in this secluded spot that the French delegation, led by Marshall Ferdinand Foch met with the Germans, led by Mattias Erzberger (Ezberger was later killed in 1921 by a right-wing German faction for his ‘betrayal’ of Germany).  The victorious allies were represented only by the French.  No British, Canadian or American delegates were in attendance.  

These arrangements, according to Canadian scholar Margaret MacMillan constituted a mistake.  She states in her excellent book, Paris 1919, that “The mistake the Allies made, and it did not become clear until much later, was that, as a result of the armistice terms, the great majority of Germans never experienced their country’s defeat at first hand.  Except in the Rhineland, they did not see occupying troops.  The Allies did not march in triumph into Berlin as the Germans had done in 1871.”

After the war, the coach went back into service for a brief period, before it was put on display in Paris.  It was returned to Compiègne in 1927.

John Ecker | Pantheon

Posted in France Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beaumont-Hamel, France, Battle of the Somme, 1916

The battle of Beaumont-Hamel, July 1st, 1916 is seared in the collective consciousness of Newfoundlanders.  As we approach Remembrance Day, 2010, I find myself reflecting back on my first visit to the battle site.  Many battlefields from the Great War have been preserved, but perhaps none better than at Beaumont-Hamel.  Soon after the end of the war, Newfoundlanders banded together to acquire the site as a permanent memorial to the fallen from that bloody day at the Battle of the Somme. 

Overall, the battle saw 57,470 casualties; 19,240 were fatal.  The Newfoundland Regiment sustained a wildly disproportionate number of casualties.  Canada’s Veteran’s Affairs  website notes “So far as can be ascertained, 22 officers and 758 other ranks were directly involved in the advance. Of these, all the officers and slightly under 658 other ranks became casualties, but exact figures are not available as casualties were reported for the day as a whole. Of the 780 men who went forward only about 110 survived unscathed, of whom only sixty eight were available for roll call the following day.”

Today, the site has a special, serene quality to it.  Visitors can take escorted tours of the site, all led by knowledgeable Canadian youth.  Trenches remain.  Spikes that used to hold barbed wire also remain in place.  The excellent visitor centre is a great place to start a visit to this somber place of remembrance. 

While the red poppy is the symbol of remembrance elsewhere in Canada, in Newfoundland, it is the forget-me-not that reminds of Newfoundlanders of their losses.  July 1st is Canada Day across the country.  In Newfoundland (which became a Canadian province 1949) that day is also a day of remembrance for the then colony`s terrible losses in 1916.

Continue reading

Posted in France Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rome’s Basilica of San Clemente

Rome’s Pantheon is a consecrated Roman Catholic church, though that is hardly apparent to the vast number of daily visitors.  Rome’s history is very much Catholic church history. 

Visitors to Rome visit the major sites– St. Peter’s Basilica, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon and many others.  Just a short walk from the Coliseum in Rome is the Basilica of San Clemente. A visit there is to take a backwards journey through the last 21 hundred years. It’s a literal and physical tour of how Christian faith took root, struggled, matured and continues to change and adapt—as it must– to this very day. No matter how many times I visit this beautiful place, I leave in awe.  Before the birth of Christ, the site, next to a stream, was home to Roman families in the time of the Caesars. Then, at the same time that Christianity began to take root, worshippers of the pagan god Mithras gathered in those homes. Next, they built a Mithraic temple on the site.

In the third and fourth centuries, Christianity grew, as did Christian persecution of the Mithrics. The site then became a place where early Christians gathered. These early Christians built a church– right on top of the Mithraic temple and former homes. St. Clement’s Church was named for the third Pope, Pope St. Clement, a former Roman noble who died a Christian Martyr. That church thrived, had set backs, and grew, as Christianity did, until 1084 when it was almost destroyed in the Normans’ sack of Rome. The basilica you visit today was completed in 1108.  And, as you may have guessed, it is built on top of the ruins of the earlier church. San Clemente is both a literal and visceral touchstone to Christian and western history.

It’s a church. Built on top of a church. On top of a temple. Next to ancient homes. On a small stream. When you visit the church’s lowest reaches, you will even hear the subterranean stream that has flowed for millennia. Could those first Christians, who gathered there, possibly have known the foundation of faith they were building?   History is not just something that has happened in the past. When you visit Rome you are living history.

John Ecker | Pantheon

Posted in Italy Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pantheon blog


This blog began in November 2010.  It’s named in honour of the Pantheon in Rome, my most favourite building in the world.   I love history, architecture and photography.  I follow Canadian and world affairs– particularly Canada’s place in the world.  I’m also very interested in the not-for-profit sector where I’ve spent most of my career.  I also follow the Toronto Blue Jays, travel whenever I can, drive Mazda sports cars and love gourmet cooking.  

In this blog, I’ll cover a wide array of topics, explore some ideas, show you some photography and comment on what I find interesting in the world. 

All of the opinions expressed here are my own and not those of any organization with which I’m associated.

John Ecker    |    Pantheon

Posted in About | Tagged , , ,