Travel during the pandemic on the Netflix Express

Compared to the worldwide suffering wrought by the Covid pandemic during the past year, our  personal complaints may stand as frivolous, even self-indulgent: Stew and I miss traveling. 

So albeit a poor substitute, Stew and I have turned foreign television serials and movies into a vicarious travel jamboree. So far we’ve visited Brooklyn, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, to name a few destinations, and now we’re in thrall of a serial about the travails of an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem. Bombay and Nigeria may be next.   

Our televised tour of the world began in Britain (actually through BritBox, a channel of Amazon Prime), and The Great British Baking Show, in which twelve amateur bakers compete fiercely but remain calm and carry on, even when their tarts develop soggy bottoms or fondant-heavy, ten-layer cakes topple over. The latest season, its eleventh, was filmed in isolation because of the pandemic. 

Most striking about the show, apart from the ridiculous complexity of some of the confections, is the grace and good manners of the contestants, who sometimes help and console each other when their efforts go awry. The grand prize at the end of a grueling campaign of ten shows is not a Jaguar convertible or lunch with the Queen, but just a commemorative crystal plate, a bouquet of flowers, and a sincere round of applause from the other contestants and their families, at a final ceremony on the lawn of a vast English estate where the series is filmed. Very British.

Noir, way too noir. 

As a brief intermezzo afterward, we watched Paul Hollywood, the beefy “Baking” judge, travel through Italy, France and Germany, in a serial about driving race cars, his other obsession. 

Mary Berry, a famed chef in Britain, left the show after a few seasons, but we caught up with her on another serial about great British estates, in each of which she gives a tour, talks to the owners, and prepares some simple but fabulous dish. Worth mentioning are Berry’s good looks: At age 86 she can fill a pair of skinny jeans without looking ridiculous.  

We touched down, briefly, in Iceland, one of our favorite actual travel destinations, for a murder-mystery called “Trapped.” Detectives doing autopsies on frozen stiffs and slogging through the dark and dismal Icelandic winter looking for clues was enough to make anyone double up on Prozac.  We bailed after a couple of episodes. 

Far more cheerful was “House of Flowers” a Mexican spoof of the already ridiculous genre of Mexican telenovelas. A wealthy family, who owns a prominent a flower shop, and a gay cabaret with drag shows, lives in a garish mansion, where, naturally, all sort of ridiculous liaisons develop. After the first season, though, we grew weary of the heavy-handed Mexican schtick. 

Back in Britain, we spent an evening in “God’s Own Country,” a critically acclaimed 2017 gay romance drama on Amazon Prime, starring Josh O’Connor, who portrays a frustrated young Yorkshire farmer who falls for a comely Rumanian migrant worker. Unlike so many gay docudramas, this one has a happy ending. O’Connor went on to play, also to critical acclaim, the emotionally constipated Prince Charles in the megahit “The Crown.”

Over in Finland, we met young Leevi, who faced a similar romantic dilemma. In a “Moment in the Reeds,” on Amazon Prime, he returns from his studies in Paris to help his dad do some repair work at the family’s summer cottage. Fixing a porch railing took forever, as Leevi became distracted with a torrid affair with Tareq, a hirsute Syrian refugee hired as a carpenter. Summer on a Finnish lake is beautiful, and so are the characters, but this romance doesn’t end happily. 

While in that part of the world, we got hooked on “Borgen,” a Danish riff on “House of Cards,” that I thought was actually more interesting. The series starts with the unexpected rise to Prime Minister of Birgitte Nyborg, an otherwise small-fish politician and the first woman to occupy the post. It astonishes how much political intrigue and personal problems can develop in a country of only six million people. There are a myriad political parties elbowing each other for a slice of the parliament and a chance to name their own prime minister. A heaping tray of Danish pastries and a pot of coffee accompanies all negotiations. Birgitte’s own marital and personal problems also grow under the weight of her new position. Great television, suitable for binge watching. Three seasons, each with ten episodes, and a fourth season in the works. 

We then spent several weeks in the Korean peninsula, courtesy of “Crash Landing on You,” a 16-episode soap about a young South Korean socialite who goes hang-gliding, and kaplow! lands on the Communist side of the demilitarized zone, which is only 15 miles from Seoul. 

Visit to the Hermit Kingdom

While on the Communist side, she falls in love with a stunningly handsome North Korean army captain. Each episode is 90 minutes long, and the show turned out to be an engrossing peek at life in North Korea. The plot is as hard to summarize as remembering the names of the characters—Yoon Se Ri, the girl, and Ri Jung Hyuk, the guy. Whatever: this serial was addictive. 

Much less addictive was kimchi, a Korean delicacy made of fermented cabbage that was mentioned several times in the show. Stew and I bought a jar of it at Luna de Queso, a specialty deli here. Meh. A little goes a long way. 

After Korea, we stopped at Las Novias Club, a whorehouse in Spain, in “Sky Rojo.” The raunchiness of the story and the sexual specialties mentioned would have made Larry Flynt blush. 

But then three of the hookers escape from their pimp Romeo, and their story becomes so compelling, even moving, that you mentally fast-forward through the smut and get hooked, so to speak, and keep coming back one episode after another. For sure, you don’t learn much about Spanish society except that men there seem very fond of brothels. 

As a far more chaste counterpoint, our next serial was Netflix’s “Unorthodox,” set in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, and the drama of a young woman trying to escape from an arranged marriage and ends up living in a community of musicians in Germany that is anything but religious. Most of the dialogue is in Yiddish, supposedly a rarity in television serials, and the plot and storyline about life in a strict, rules-bound religious community is fascinating. 

We are now engrossed in “Shtisel,” an international Israeli hit serial, also about ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, set in Jerusalem. Now in its third season, the story, in Hebrew, doesn’t deal with the controversies over the politics of this group, or pass judgment on their beliefs. Rather, it’s a convoluted story of family, romance, religious practices, that is mostly about people, not groups or religions, with some comedic moments in between. My favorite characters are the two grandmothers. At the end of the first season, one of them landed in heaven. Did she die as a result of an accident? Or is she coming back? Stay tuned. (Spoiler: The grandma comes back but the real actress who played the part died in real life.)  

A friend mentioned that there’s a growing film industry in Nigeria, and I’ve found a couple of soap operas made there, though they seemed rather crude, like Mexican telenovelas ten years ago. 

Busty Bombay Babes

There’s also “Bombay Begums,” a Netflix serial set in contemporary India, about “five women, across generations [who] wrestle with desire, ethics, personal crises and vulnerabilities.” That sounds like a tasty chicken tikka masala of a storyline.  

But before we get there, Stew and I may soon get our second Covid vaccine, and two weeks after that, make a quick getaway to San Antonio. 

Texas won’t be as exotic as Jerusalem, Bombay, Finland or the English countryside, but after a year of lockdown, a perfect excuse to get away, as in out of here.   

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