Scottish Rhapsody

Scottish thistle... symbol of Scotland.

Scottish thistle. It’s an ancient symbol of Scotland– some say because a Norse invader’s yelp after stepping barefoot on one of these thistles alerted a party of Scottish warriors of an imminent attack.

“Gosh, look at those cobwebs!  Here, let me just knock those down and do a quick sweep up.  Claire?  Would you please wipe off the table, honey?  And Quinny, prop that door open, will you?  It smells a little musty in here.”

“That’s better.  Now.  I’ll just rinse out the basket and we can make ourselves some coffee.  Cappuccino?  Latte?  Or was it double espresso macchiato?  It’s been so long…”

I would apologize for going AWOL for six months, but that seems a little conceited– as if you were all hanging around waiting for my words and my figment-blend espresso (yes, figment of my imagination…)  But I did miss writing to you over the last several months.  You may not realize it, but when I write this blog, there’s a dialogue in my head between us– the author and the theoretical reader.  (If you think that’s creepy, then maybe you could leave a real comment so the conversation is not all imaginary!)  In any case, I do hope we can wash up the coffee mugs, clean the big window in front– so the sun shines in on the old round table again– and get back to meeting here to catch up every week or two.

Last weekend was a school holiday here– fall break for the American School kids– and we’ve just come back from a long weekend in Scotland.  I know that sounds exotic, but from here it’s really not… just four hours on a train from King’s Cross, it’s a comparatively easy out-of-the-city getaway.

Croquet on the lawn at the Roxburghe Hotel.

Croquet on the lawn at the Roxburghe Hotel.

We were meant to be fishing and doing archery and such.  But the country hotel had to drain the trout lake on account of some algae thing, so while Clay still did his salmon fishing on the river Tweed with the ghillie (Scottish fishing guide), the kids and I did not fish.  This fly fishing on the river is actually kind of a big deal– the number and location of fishermen are regulated, with each fishable river having a certain number of “beats,” or stretches of river from which a person or a small party can fish.  There are reservation systems for the various beats, and the Roxburghe sporting estate owns four beats on two rivers.  The ghillie Clay worked with has an international reputation as one of the best, and he kind of reminded me of a Scottish Steve Irwin (you know, the Crocodile Hunter?).

The archery also fell through– for the simple logistical reason that it turned out to be 40 miles from the hotel rather than onsite.  So we took long walks around the grounds, learned to play croquet on the front lawn (which the kids totally loved), and Clay and I got to try clay pigeon shooting (which we both loved!).  And who knew? The clay pigeons do not look at all like pigeons!  They are just clay discs that get shot up like frisbees from behind a little rise.  I have to say that I did really well and hit the first several attempts, with the great coaching of the shooting instructor, Alastair, whom I could mostly understand (when I leaned back too far, he said, “dinna dae agin!” and then translated, ‘don’t do that again.’)  My triumph only lessened ever so slightly when I realized that I was shooting buckshot rather than single small bullets.  So my fantasy that I was a sharpshooter was maybe a little overblown, but still…

Anyway, on the more cultivated side of things, inside the house, Claire enjoyed having tea in the drawing room each afternoon; and the grownups enjoyed sampling a different whisky (or two) in the library before dinner each night.  It was really like being in a grand country house for the weekend– all Downton Abbey-esque!  We even got to know the staff by name; and if there was any drama going on there, we were as oblivious as the Lord and Lady Grantham.

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Contemplating the sheep.

On one of our walks, the kids and I met a really nice local lady and her dog, who was so like our Gus in the face and in his manner… I hardly know whether it was more pleasant or painful.  He played with the kids, and then he came over and laid his head against my leg, and just like that my heart felt like a drippy little squeeze toy.  After we said goodbye and walked back toward the house, the sound of bagpipes suddenly rose up from somewhere on grounds.  Seriously– does everyone find that sound so stirring, or do I have more Scots blood in me veins than I thought?  Turns out the piper was for a wedding taking place at the house, so the kids and I sat on a bench a ways out front by the croquet lawn and watched the gowns and kilts go in.  Unfortunately, the hotel also forgot to communicate that they were not serving Saturday lunch because of the wedding.  So we found ourselves in a cab headed for the village after Clay came in from the fishing.

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Floors Castle, seat of the Duke of Roxburghe

That’s how we wound up at Floors Castle, which is the home of the Duke of Roxburghe (our hotel was one of his houses, too).  It was the first time, I think, we’d been through a castle where people actually reside.  Very strange to see all the modern family photographs sitting around on the shelves, right alongside fairly priceless antiques and art by the likes of Matisse.  Apparently, when tourist season is over, they simply remove the ropes from the walk thru area and the family settles back in to the whole castle (after a summer of confinement in just one wing– quite a hardship, as you can see in the photo above).  Incidently, a turn-of-the-century Duke of Roxburghe married an American heiress from New York, whose immense fortune and personal attention oversaw the refurbishment of the castle (and undoubtedly the topping up of the family coffers).  More Downton Abbey, anyone?

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Secret Gardens?

After a quick tour, we walked across the grounds to the garden cafe for a late lunch.  I insisted then on walking through the castle gardens, and we were rewarded with a gorgeous stroll and a really fun playground for the kids.  Inside the walled garden, which led to other walled gardens, I really could put myself in one of my favorite childhood stories, The Secret Garden.  Clay sat in the sun near the playground, while the kids played on the zip line and the climbing structure.  I walked along the paths, taking pictures and imagining a little girl with her skipping rope, watching the robin near the ivy-covered wall… and fitting the key she found into the rusty door lock.  Loved it!

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It was also the weekend of the Kelso Horse Races in the local village, so we cabbed back in on Sunday for a really nice gastropub lunch and then to watch some races on the big turf track– steeplechase, like in Mary Poppins!  It was neat that the jockeys and horses were right in among the crowds at times.  And the Scots, like all Brits do fancy a flutter (like to place a bet, that is) when given the chance!

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Quinn picked himself a cracking new Scottish tweed cap at the races, which is quite a change from the one he sported around Edinburgh and throughout the Highlands on our last trip to Scotland, back in May.  That older hat, in fact, has acquired its own name and personality as my-other-son-Hamish (see photo below)!  He travels with us sometimes– went to Ohio this summer, actually, and we left him behind… er, I mean, he got to stay a couple extra weeks with Grandma and Grandpa, eventually catching up with us via first-class on the US Postal Service.  Quite the posh life that Hamish is living– none of us got to fly first-class!

Meet my other son, "Hamish!"

Meet my other son, “Hamish!”

In fact, I really must dredge up a few old pictures from the earlier trip to Scotland– the Highlands are so beautiful.  Here is where the blog differs from real coffee with friends in an actual cafe:  I would never carry on so long and show you all these pictures in person.  But then again, the advantage of the blog for you is that, if you get bored and walk away, I will never know!  My cappuccino has gone cold, and it’s time to load the dishwasher and get a few things accomplished.  Have a wonderful day, friends.  Meet you back here soon?

Of Falcons and Field Trips

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A real, live falcon perched outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square– right in the middle of London!  One of those moments it did pay to look up at what everyone was staring at.

Just when you thought you had escaped my endless narratives of what we were doing while I was on my unscheduled blogging sabbatical… well, you still have time to click away from the page…   I’ve been reminded I never finished the five months part of the deal, though I did give you the five days.  So tonight I give you:  January!  (cue trumpet trills, or at least kazoo calls).

The week the littles went back to school, I got run over by some virus.  I was down hard for a day, and then really weak and tired.  But Will and Chloe were here, and I wasn’t going to waste our precious time recuperating in bed.  So once the fever passed, I dragged myself out to spend time with them– doing pub lunches, making a visit to the National Gallery, and taking a boat trip to Greenwich.

The day we went to the gallery we noticed a bunch of people pointing their cameras up toward the building facade.  Chloe and I rolled our eyes at each other, not understanding the compulsion that makes people take pictures of random things that “might be important landmarks.”  Not that anyone elected us the culture jury, mind you.  But then we looked up.  And we saw what they were photographing– a falcon come to perch near the front entrance.  Upon further observation, we saw that there were actually two or three flying in Trafalgar Square, and they were accompanied by handlers, to whom they returned periodically– perching on their arms, just like the falconers you might see in a King Arthur movie!  Pretty amazing.

Inside the museum, Chloe was pleased to note that she had absorbed something from her Italian Renaissance Art class in the fall (yes, liberal arts degree).  And Will was happy to admire the Turner landscapes, though I think he still prefers Bierstadt’s American West landscapes.  As for me, any day I get to visit the Leonardo da Vinci cartoon is a good day.  (No, it’s not animated and it doesn’t have a zany laugh track playing in the background).

On the water... (river photos from a 3rd grade field trip in the fall).

On the water… (river photos from a 3rd grade field trip in the fall).

Unfortunately, Chloe fell hard to whatever bug we had going (I swear it wasn’t my fault!), so she couldn’t join us the day we took the boat up the River Thames.  It was cold and slightly miserable that day, but fortunately we were sitting inside.  If you’ve never done this little trip, it’s well worth it– London looks different from the river.  And it’s so mind-boggling, because the river twists and turns so much you can hardly figure out where you are– it seems like St Paul’s Cathedral ought to be somewhere up ahead on your left and you suddenly see the dome off on your right.

Cruising past the HMS Belfast-- if you're very lucky, the officers on deck will wave, as they did that day to the 3rd graders!

Cruising past the HMS Belfast– if you’re very lucky, the officers on deck will wave, as they did that day to the 3rd graders!

Depending on where you board, you see the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, the Globe, the HMS Belfast, the Tower of London… well, most everything!  The transit boat is much faster, but the slightly slower tourist boats give you a narrative with all kinds of landmarks and interesting bits of London history thrown in (like pirate executions, famous riverside pubs, histories of the many bridges, and what that building-that-looks-so-familiar-but-you-have-no-idea-what-it-is actually is).  Both kind of boats leave from Westminster and Embankment, and the people in the ticket office at Embankment are really helpful.  Also, if you have an Oyster card, you can show it to get 30% off your ticket…

Looking back at the Shard after coming under the Tower Bridge.

Looking back at the Shard after coming under the Tower Bridge.

Our destination by boat was Greenwich, which is the maritime town that hosts the world’s Meridian Line and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT? the zero point for time zones around the world).  It also happens to be a charming place with lots to see– The Old Royal Naval College (designed by Christopher Wren), the Royal Observatory, and The Cutty Sark (fastest clipper ship of its time).  Of course, there’s also a Byron Burger restaurant with its siren song right on the pier when you step off the boat in a January chill.  That was our first stop, as Will and I couldn’t resist having a ‘proper burger,’ as their slogan calls it.

The hull of The Cutty Sark-- the new museum design lets you admire the shapely bones of the fastest clipper in history.  It's a very cool space-- also with a masthead collection and a coffee shop.

The hull of The Cutty Sark– the new museum design lets you admire the shapely bones of the fastest clipper in history– while sipping an espresso from the cafe.

Then it was on to The Cutty Sark, which has a colorful history as a China tea trade ship beginning in the 1860s, then a cargo-hustling ship (with mutinies and murders, even!) once steam ships took over the tea trade, an Australian wool-trade ship, and finally a Portuguese cargo ship.  Eventually she was brought back to England and finally placed in dry dock in Greenwich as a museum in tribute to that era of shipping history, as well as to the ship’s speed record-breaking past.  A fire on board nearly destroyed her, but led to a major preservation effort that encased her hull in molten gold.  Okay, it’s not molten gold, but it looks like it, and I got your attention back after my humdrum history lesson, right?  Anyway, it’s a good example of how to turn a really bad thing into something good.  We went to the museum when the kids were little, before the fire, and it has seen a serious upgrade, with the encased hull becoming a major feature rather than a tragic ending for the ship.

From there we trudged through the town and up a hill to the Royal Observatory, going through Greenwich Park, which was still all torn up and muddy from the Olympic Equestrian events held there last summer.  Did you catch any of those?  I did not, but what a cool setting for them: between the Royal Observatory and the Old Royal Naval College.

The Old Royal Naval College, with the remains of the Olympic Equestrian venue in the foreground, and Canary Wharf (London's newer financial district) in the background.

The Old Royal Naval College, with the remains of the Olympic Equestrian venue in the foreground, and Canary Wharf (London’s newer financial district) in the background.

At the top of a very steep hill is the Royal Observatory.  It’s hard to imagine any place in London being a good spot for observing a clear view of the night skies, but I suppose this is as good as it gets.  The clouds do part occasionally.  IMG_0995At any rate, they were able to work out from here a randomly inserted vertical line across the globe to divide East from West– the Prime Meridian, Zero Degrees Longitude.  Yes.  There is an actual line.  You can just see it painted down the window in the photo at left, and it runs across the courtyard then stops at a sculpture that points off in the continuation of the line, much like the old arrows in geometry that tell you the line goes on and on forever.  We also enjoyed climbing up into the dome of the old observatory and seeing the massive apparatus and its housing.

Shall we just say the telescope is 'bigger than a breadbox'?

Shall we just say the telescope is ‘bigger than a breadbox’?

I wish I could remember specs, or even how it compares to other telescopes around the world, but those facts just don’t stay in my head.  (And I’m sure you’re glad of that, as this whole post has been a bit schoolmarmish).  But fear not… I’m nearing the end of the field trip.  We did stop in a museum at the Old Royal Naval College on the way back to our Thames boat, and we caught a very nice Ansel Adams exhibit.  Definitely on target with the East meets West theme, to see all those gorgeous photographs of the American West.  As if he needed any encouragement, I do think it made Will more ready than ever to get back to his Colorado home– where he would be headed within a few days.  Actually, it made me want to go there, too!

IMG_1001Before the big kids left, we took the opportunity to celebrate Claire’s 9th birthday.  Our special guest was Marblehead friend Madeline, who was on her way back to university in Scotland.  The girls probably didn’t like me snapping their photo on the tube, but it was a good thing I did, as I don’t have any other pictures of them together this time.  On Saturday, Claire took a birthday entourage including Mom, big sister Chloe and friend Madeline to the salon to get her ears pierced.  But by Sunday noon, all the big kids were gone and we were left feeling a bit desolate again.

Hampstead Heath in snow.

Hampstead Heath in snow.

Because I just can’t end this on that sad sentence, I will slip in a photo of late January snowfall in London.  Quite the big doings here.  Just a week before the snowfall, I had been kind of making fun of the little shop down the street with the enormous pile of plastic sleds (or sledges, as they call them here) for sale.  It really doesn’t snow much in London, you know.  Day of the snowfall?  Yes, I was queued up with half a dozen other locals to buy a sled or two.  Sometimes a gamble pays off, eh?

This one is for the grandparents!

This one is for the grandparents!

That, my friends, was January.  February’s Harry Potter studios and the London Eye, plus running tours and whatever else, will have to wait for another post– or maybe we will just Spring Ahead to March.  On that note, sorry about your lost hour this weekend, U.S. friends– now I will be even more confused about the time differences separating us.  Perhaps I should return to Greenwich for a recalibration…

Roman Holidays, Part I

St. Peter's at sunset from the Borghese Gardens.

St. Peter’s at sunset from the Borghese Gardens.

IMG_4108So you’ve heard about the Pope stepping down, and the Vatican subsequently being struck by lightning?  Super weird, huh?

No lightning when we were there in December.  It was business as usual, except that they were setting up St. Peter’s Square for New Year’s Mass.  Sorry, by the way, for the trite blog title.  Such a toss-up:  use the obvious and be a cliche? or skip it and wonder if people think it didn’t occur to you?

I snapped this when I noticed the sun illuminating the fountain-- I love that the Sister walked through as I snapped.

I snapped this with my iPhone when I noticed the sun illuminating the fountain– I love that the Sister walked through as I snapped.

It should have been obvious to us that the Vatican would draw a crowd at Christmas.  It was certainly obvious the minute we stepped into the Vatican Museums.  It was a little less magical than the first time we went there, when we went through with a guide who skillfully led us through ahead of the crowds and landed us in the Sistine Chapel before anyone else got there.  Twenty minutes alone with Michaelangelo… that was something.  This time we went on our own and, consequently, had to contend with the huge tour groups and the swell of people all pressing on to the same destination: that amazing painted chapel.  It’s 500 years old now, and I’ve read that they may have to start limiting the number of viewers, as all our breath and sweat are beginning to ruin the frescoes.

IMG_4092As we left the museum, we found ourselves exiting via a spiral staircase we hadn’t seen on our previous visit (because that fancy guide took us round by some private staircase used by people who have an audience with the Pope!).  My family patiently allowed me to send them ahead and make them pose for a photo on the spirals across from me.  They even stayed still long enough for me to zoom in so you can actually see them (but not the staircase– funny how that works– and I chose the picture that shows the staircase better).  But they weren’t patient enough to wait around while I tried to get a good shot of the tall Christmas tree in the center of the spiral.  I never did manage a great shot, but I did get a couple of angles to help me remember what struck me about the scene.  With my lack of technical skills in photography, that is usually what I have to aim for!

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There are just a few other things to see in Rome, of course…

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I think this photo credit actually goes to Clay.

IMG_4142We did hook into a tour for the Coliseum this time, because waiting in line on our own would have taken hours.  We listened and learned for a bit, and then went our own way after a while on the inside.  What a pleasure it was to turn our pasty winter faces to the sun for a few moments.  I could claim that we were imagining the scenes of old.  IMG_4141

But I might as well admit we were mostly soaking in some Vitamin D.  Although, I’m not sure what Quinn is doing in the picture– possibly shining Will’s Timberlands?  The littles were pretty into the Coliseum.  We read up on it– even the gory parts– in the “Not for Parents” Rome book they got for Christmas, and Quinn brought home one of those mini models.  I confess, one of us taught the 7-year-old to deliver the line, “Are you not entertained?” with exactly the right inflection while we were in the Coliseum.  I fear I will insult your cultural intelligence, but I can’t resist throwing out the question… Can you name the movie?

A favorite view from within the Coliseum.

A favorite view from within the Coliseum.

A favorite view into the Coliseum.

A favorite view into the Coliseum.

And then there is the Forum.

And then there is the Forum.

There’s so much more of Rome to tell.  Come back for another if you have the patience, and I’ll share some stories and photos of just being out and about in the city.  In the meantime, Arrivederci!

Having a Look About

Covent Garden gets its Christmas on!

Covent Garden gets its Christmas on!

It’s Day Two of the “Five Months in Five Days” series, and we’ve arrived at… drumroll…November!

What’s that?  No suspense?  No surprise?  You guessed that was coming?  Hmmm.  Why was there no spoiler alert??

One of my favorite kinds of street entertainment!

One of my favorite kinds of street entertainment!

Jump Start the Holidays

One Saturday night early in November, we took a little outing down to Covent Garden.  What a nice surprise to find the halls all decked and the crowds feeling festive!  I usually hate it when any season starts before its time.  Don’t show me Easter candy before Valentine’s Day; and please keep the red foil hearts in the warehouse until after New Year’s Eve!  But then, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.K., so what’s to keep us from starting the Christmas season in early November here?  In any case, the early Christmas vibe at Covent Garden that night was working.   A string ensemble entertained on the lower level– dancing around, spinning their cellos, and rocking the garden with the rockin-est of classical music– while a crowd watched from the tables nearby and the steps and balconies above.

IMG_0796This year’s decor featured spinning disco balls that cast snowflake lights all around the halls.  It was like some well done mashup of a party and a stage production– I kept feeling that tickle of anticipation I always feel when the Nutcracker Overture starts and the curtain comes up to all the people going to Clara’s family Christmas party.  (Does anyone else love that scene and get that same feeling??)  I snapped a thousand pictures on my iPhone– very few of which actually turned out at all.  We peeked at the macarons in Laduree, I ogled the soaps carved so beautifully into flowers at one of the stalls, and Clay let the kids pick candy at the ‘penny candy’ stall.  I think we even went upstairs in Pollock’s Toy Shop to see the puppet theatres and other old-fashioned toys.  When we’d soaked in the atmosphere for a while, we stopped for mulled wine and hot chocolate at one of the outdoor cafes with those tableside heaters that look like torches inside glass tubes?  It was too cozy!  (In fact, it was  probably was a little too cozy for the 20-somethings on a date at the table approximately 30 millimeters from ours… but it didn’t bother us!)

About Town

The Horseshoe pub is always on the list of stops.

The Horseshoe pub is always on the list of stops.

We had a full house for Thanksgiving, with Will and Chloe home for the holiday.  Since they had already traveled several time zones to be with us for a few days, we decided to stay in London.  We managed to procure a nice, farm-raised turkey– for something like an elbow and an ankle, if not an arm and a leg, as most of the British turkeys were apparently not on the market until December.   But we celebrated a proper American Thanksgiving, right down to the pumpkin pie.  And we had American guests– two of Chloe’s friends (one ASL, one Marblehead) who were in London without their families.  I was so grateful to have the whole family together this year.  We packed a lot into those days.  Here’s a look…

View across the courtyard at The British Museum.

View across the courtyard at The British Museum.

I love this bookshop across the street from the British Museum.  Can anyone place the name Jarndyce?  Leave your response in the comments! (no fair googling it!)

I love this bookshop across the street from the British Museum. Can anyone place the name Jarndyce? Leave your response in the comments! (no fair googling it!)

My favorite umbrella shop.

My favorite umbrella shop.  Yes, they have whole shops devoted to umbrellas in London.

Quinn was so happy to have the Bigs home.

Quinn was so happy to have the Bigs home… we ALL were!

Before Will went back to the U.S., Quinn decided he really wanted a #4 buzz cut like his big brother.

Before Will went back to the U.S., Quinn decided he really wanted a #4 buzz cut like his big brother.

And a Few Other Things

Also in November?  Mudlarking– digging around in the muddy banks of the Thames at low tide for whatever you can find!  It’s a time-honored tradition– and a way that some folks made their living back in Victorian times.  Claire’s class had a field trip to see what it was like, as well as to study the ecology of the Thames.   One kid dug up the sole of a hob-nailed boot– perhaps not valuable, but certainly old and interesting.  But mostly we did a lot of fishing around in tidal pools for freshwater shrimp and other “treasures” of the biological kind.  The group I was chaperoning collected a great Chinese Mitten Crab specimen– the guide looked it over and was excited to show the kids because he was obviously a ‘warrior’ who had survived a lot as he was missing some of his limbs.  Trouble is, while the children were mucking in pools down the way from our bucket, our little crab became a seagull’s lunch.  We’d left the poor old warrior out like a buffet for the birds!  Yes.  I felt bad about that.  What?  You think I should have let the kids go play near the river while I stayed close to the crab?  Still, it was fun to be down on the Thames, and the kids loved it, which is always so great to watch.  Coincidently, not long after the trip I picked up a book called DODGER, by Terry Pratchett.  It was a treat to read, with all kinds of Victorian characters– real and fictional– springing to life.  And yes, there was mudlarking in it.

We closed out the month with another bit of Christmas: a carol singalong at the church of St Martin in the Fields.  It’s one of my very favorite places in London to hear live performances, and it was really special to hear all those English carols we’ve listened to from the Chieftains for many years.  Last year Clay and I went to hear the Messiah by candlelight there.  This year we went to the sing along with the Littles instead (because they were begging me to take them out caroling, and I simply had to find a different way to scratch that itch!)  The church is in Trafalgar Square, so it’s also a great place to go for a nice little hit of London spirit– what with the National Gallery, the Nelson column, the fountains and the lion statues, all the theaters and all the diverse London people.  It’s also a beautiful, beautiful place.  I love the window behind the altar (look closely and pick out the cross and the Light in the center).  It was created and installed after the old, traditional stained glass window was shattered during the Blitz.

The sanctuary of St Martin in the Fields during a Christmas concert.

The sanctuary of St Martin in the Fields during a Christmas concert.

The older I get, the more I want to pause at this time and breathe.  And call it cultural conditioning if you want, but most of all I want to be thankful.  November seems like a very good time for that.

Five months in five days?

Time to pay the piper

Time to pay the piper

Much as I’d like to blame my blogging lapse on something dramatic and interesting– like an extended backpacking trip in the Himalayas with no satellite uplink for blogging.  Or perhaps an amnesia-inducing, but otherwise injury-free fall from a scenic overlook in Scotland?  Or more realistically, British Telecom and Virgin media internet services were down… for FIVE months!  Could happen, you know.

But no.  It was just me.  I checked out for a while.  I don’t know why, exactly, but every time I sat down to write (which was, admittedly, not that often), I could hardly finish a paragraph, let alone write a coherent blog.  Please hold your thoughts on whether I am ever really coherent.  With encouragement from a friend (you know who you are), I am back.  And I’ve set myself a challenge:  to summarize the last five months in five blogs over the next five days.  I don’t know if any of us has the endurance for this, but here goes…

Edinburgh in October

Edinburgh Castle from across the Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh Castle from across the Princes Street Gardens

The Scottish countryside above Edinburgh.

The Scottish countryside above Edinburgh.  Nearly at the top of Arthur’s Seat.

It only takes a little more than a 4-hr train ride– part of it shockingly gorgeous, with the North Sea on one side, and the vast, rolling, sheep-dotted Scottish countryside on the the other– to get to Edinburgh, Scotland from London.  And what a great city it is!  We spent a glorious weekend there at the beginning of October: sunshine and architecture and history and bagpipes and castles and hiking to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an enormous bluff (or crag or small mountain or something) at the edge of the city.  And haggis and whisky, of course.  One must have the whisky to get past the thought of what is in the haggis…(hint: comes from a sheep and is cooked in a sheep stomach! I know, ewww!)  Maybe once was enough for the haggis, but we will definitely head back to Edinburgh again.

With Madeline and Bo near the University.

With Madeline and Bo near the University.

Added to the fun was seeing Chloe’s good friend (and our family friends), Madeline and her dad, Bo.  Madeline is a student at Edinburgh University now, and her dad was in town for the weekend.  Seeing old friends in a different part of the world always gives me a comforting sense of continuity despite all that has changed in our lives in the last two years.  Kind of a reminder that those years in Massachusetts are part of who we are, and we carry with us the experiences and friendships from those days.  Nevertheless… we had breakfast with our friends, and then we left them to their time together, and we went off to explore Edinburgh.

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The Firth of Forth in the background… no, I don’t have a lithp! Maybe I should just say it’s a bay on the North Sea.

An Edinburgh street...

An Edinburgh street at dusk.

A doorway into a courtyard bearing one of our family names:  Jollie.  The city is a warren of little courtyards and alleyways, and even old ruins of streets and city under today's city streets.  Fascinating place!

A doorway into a courtyard bearing one of our family names: Jollie. The city is a warren of little courtyards and alleyways, and even old ruins of streets and city under today’s city streets. Fascinating place!

The city is a fascinating and lovely place.  I’ll spare you the history lesson this time, but we can’t wait to go back there!

Arthur's Seat looms over the city, and makes a lovely afternoon hike if you want to feel like you're in the highlands.

Arthur’s Seat looms over the city, with Holyrood Park and its walking paths, which make a lovely afternoon hike if you want to feel like you’re in the highlands.

View over the city.

View over the city toward the castle (elevated in the background on the right).

Regatta in a Hurricane

Team meeting by the tent-- Chloe is in the royal blue shirt.

Team meeting by the tent– Chloe is in the royal blue shirt standing back by the boat trailers.

Just a couple weeks after our Scotland getaway, I jetted off to Charlottesville to spend Parents’ Weekend at the University of Virginia with Chloe.  When we booked the flight shortly after leaving Chloe at school last summer, we didn’t know that she would make the UVA women’s rowing team, which would mean she might be traveling to New Jersey for the “Princeton Chase” crew race.  So, after landing at Dulles and learning that she had made the roster for this event, I drove the two hours to Charlottesville for a late dinner with Chloe on Friday night, then took her early the next morning to the boathouse for her bus to NJ, then jumped back into the rental car by myself later in the morning for the 5-hr drive to Princeton (okay, it was a 7-hr drive if you factor in my pit stops at the US Postal Service and at Target, where every American expat longs to visit!).  My Parents’ Weekend experience at UVA was about 12 hours long, and I was only on campus in the dark!

Though I’d been feeling sad that the change in plans meant I would see a lot less of Chloe than I’d hoped, I was excited to see her row.  But then I kept hearing more and more about some incoming storm called SANDY (heard of it?).  Fifteen minutes with the Weather Channel early Saturday morning was all it took to classify me officially freaked out.  As I drove into New Jersey Saturday afternoon, big flashing signs in the highway medians read:  “State of Emergency Declared.”  Not a good idea, really, to drive into a state of emergency.  “Hmmm,” thought I, “I was under the impression there were some pretty smart people at Princeton.  I wonder why they think it’s a good idea to have a boat race in a hurricane?”

Okay, everyone.  There's a hurricane coming, so let's get these boats in the water!

Okay, everyone. There’s a hurricane coming, so let’s get these boats in the water!

I did get to hang out with Chloe some that evening in Princeton, and she spent the night in my room (which was right down the hall from her teammates).  After she left for the race, I put in more time with the Weather Channel, and then some quality phone time with United Airlines– trying to figure out if there was any chance my 11pm flight would actually make it out that night, and looking for anything earlier, or flying from any city I could possibly reach with a direct flight to London (Boston? Chicago?).  All to no avail.  They did offer me flights for the following Wednesday with no ticket change fees!  I decided to stay on the 11pm flight; but, envisioning panicked evacuation scenarios on my way back to DC for the flight, I did stock up on water and snack bars, and I even bought a mid-Atlantic map in case highways were jammed or closed and I needed to navigate without the highway-dependent GPS.  Then, hoping for the best, I went to watch Chloe row.

Chloe post-race.  So proud of her!

Chloe post-race. So proud of her!

What an atmosphere!  The river and the boathouse were gorgeous, and all the teams (a Who’s Who of prestigious universities) had tents cooking barbecue and serving food and drinks for their rowers and fans (mostly parents).  It was a thrill when I finally found Chloe with her team.  I couldn’t believe our little Chloe was part of this!

But despite the big race excitement, there was also a distinct feeling of foreboding in the air.  Everyone knew the hurricane was bearing down, and many of the people there had a really long way to go after the chase.  I heard a couple of the rowers worrying about it in the breakfast line at the hotel (“OK, this is not funny anymore!  I want to go home.”)  Chloe’s novice class race was almost the last one, and by the time it started the wind was beginning to pick up, though the rain held off.  I walked down to a bridge near the halfway point and fell in with some UVA varsity parents who were really nice (well, one guy was a crew snob who didn’t deign to talk with me because my daughter was only a walk-on– why do people act like that??).  What a thrill to watch Chloe’s eight approach the bridge, glide under, and be off!  All in a matter of about two minutes.  But still.  I am SO proud of her for stretching and daring to try it!  She is amazing.

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Just through the bridge. Chloe is in royal blue, near the front. My other pictures had the blades in better sync, but this one is the closest photo, so that wins over form!

A Travel Tale

After a sad goodbye (because Chloe had to return with the team), I hurried off to join the evacuating masses– which turned out not really to be masses at all.  Traffic was fine, and it didn’t even start raining until I was well into Maryland.  I made it to Dulles much faster than I’d thought I would, returned the rental car, and went into the terminal to see just how many flights were already canceled.  The answer?  MOST!  But mine was still on, so I somehow circumvented the massive lineup of people trying to rebook their canceled flights, and got myself checked in.  Then I sat down to wait.  Here’s where it gets interesting.

Some of you may know I have a severe case of “line anxiety”– I am extremely afraid I will be in the wrong place and miss something, or people will all stream around me and I will be caught out, or… I don’t know, maybe I might starve waiting at the end of a poorly disciplined line?  I hate it that I’m that way, but it’s deeply, painfully ingrained from way back in grade school– remember? “No budging!”  You should have seen what a mess I was when we would go to the movies in Paris– where they do not understand what a line is!  At least the Brits are brilliant at queues… even if they are useless at sauces and vegetables.  Tradeoffs…

Anyway.  For some reason, I was able to calmly find a spot and sit down to kill some of the 4+ hours before my not-yet-canceled flight.  I had that surplus of water bottles I hated to just throw out before going through security; and it seemed like a good idea to get my phone fully charged– just in case I ended up waiting out a hurricane in the airport, or elsewhere, without power.  I watched some families waiting nearby, and it made me miss mine.  Chloe called to say she’d made it back to campus.  I decided to work on my Bible study homework for the following week.  Guess what the topic was?  Trusting– really trusting– God.  I read and answered questions, and finally said, “Oh, all right then, God!  I’m honestly going to let go of all this worry and trust You to get me home.”  I meant it.  And then I closed the book, feeling like it was time to go through security to my gate… four hours early.

So I did that.  I stopped at the flight monitor screen just outside the cluster of gates from which my flight was departing.  As I looked at the screen, it suddenly penetrated my consciousness that my flight was being called to another gate way on the other side of the terminal.  So I sped all the way across to that gate– hoping, hoping– and sure enough, they put me straight onto the 7pm flight that had been overbooked just hours earlier when I tried to switch to it.  Apparently people don’t like to fly into hurricanes.

Not only was the flight no longer overbooked, it was practically empty.  They seated me in a window seat with an empty seat beside me (bliss!).  I hadn’t had time to get a water bottle before boarding the plane– no problem, the flight attendants brought water around at least twice before we even took off.  Though the woman sharing the row with me was freaking out about flying into the storm, I felt perfectly peaceful and, I hope, helped her feel more peaceful.  We finally took off some time well after scheduled departure– and we were the last London-bound flight (possibly the last flight at all) to leave from Dulles before Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S.

I felt bad for all the people who were about to get pounded by the storm– while hoping, of course, that it would not be as bad as they were saying it could be.  But I was so happy to be on my way to my younger kids instead of stuck in a soggy airport for three or four days.  As we bounced through the initial turbulence climbing to our altitude, I fell sound asleep and I didn’t wake up until it was time for breakfast over Ireland.  Even then, the nervous lady in my row had to give me a gentle shake.  I have never slept more than a couple of hours on a transatlantic flight.  Nor have I ever landed at Heathrow feeling fresh and rested!  Oh, and passport control/customs was a breeze, because there were no other flights arriving from the East Coast.  It was the easiest flight and arrival I have ever experienced.

I’m pretty sure that’s how it works when you stop worrying and put your trust where it ought to be (would it be inappropriate to say ‘when you put your trust in that Great Travel Agent In the Sky’?)

Reunions and Happy Endings

One of my favorite moments of the summer– when Gus realized it was us! Yes, Q and I are both crying…

Until I was twenty-two, I mostly thought of the word “reunion” in the sense of potluck lunches in the park pavilion, with multiple variations on baked beans and seven-layer salads, and distant relatives you were supposed to know but didn’t.

Then I moved far away from home for the first time and learned how it feels to anticipate seeing loved ones or dear friends after months or years apart.  Then I had kids and learned the joy of bringing your children and their grandparents together after time apart.  A year turned into twenty-five years away from my little hometown and the friends and family there.  Now I thoroughly understand the word “reunion.”

I look forward to every trip back to my hometown to see my parents and my sister and her precious and adorable family.  I’m grateful to get to see my sweet grandma, who still has a sense of humor at 92 and only stopped zipping circles around everybody with her walker this year because of a knee injury.  I’m so happy for any time I get to spend with my aunts and uncles, and cousins (like drinking Pimm’s in the front yard with Aunt Terri, my cousin Jason and his new wife Laura; or the too-short stop by Aunt Lana’s house one afternoon).  And there are still a few close friends who live in the area– like Sue (who shared a nuns-on-a-tour-bus sighting with me this summer), and Jill (who waited patiently while I drove circles around her brother’s house, trying to find it).  Sometimes I get lucky and a friend who has moved away just happens to be in town at the same time I am– as was the case this summer with my fun childhood friend, Emily, who happened to be in from Chicago the very day I chased her mother down on the downtown sidewalk just to say hello.

Visiting Grandma– love that lady!

Sometimes we try to orchestrate a big family gathering– not quite the old-style reunion with seven-layer salad, but maybe a party at the town pool, or a picnic at the park (okay, that sounds kind of reunion-y, doesn’t it?).  I always end up feeling weird about that– like we’re demanding that everyone come see us now instead of letting it just happen or not.  But then if we don’t do one big activity, we end up running around a lot of the time to see people, or waiting at home for them to come see us.  So it’s kind of a tricky thing, and even after twenty-five years I still wouldn’t say we’ve got it right.

This summer there was a different kind of reunion for us.  If you’ve been around here sharing a cuppa with us for a while, then you know of my heartbreak over leaving my sweet, rescue dog, Gus, behind in the U.S. when we moved to London last year.  If not, well, I did write about it a few times– like here, and here.  My amazing, fun, big-hearted cousin– she is my hero– took Gus to her home in Indiana.  He has acres and acres to romp in, a pond, two doggy brothers (including Marley, his best friend and larger twin brother– who’s actually a Great Dane…), and loving ‘parents’ in Josie and her husband, Mike.  Gus’ life is wonderful, and I am so grateful!

I wasn’t sure what to do about trying to see Gus this summer.  His home is a few hours away from where we were staying with my parents.  But more than that, I was worried about how the kids and I would feel after seeing him.  Of course, it did occur to me not to rock the boat for Gus and his new family as well, but anyone who has read a book about dog behavior knows that that is more something we project on dogs than they actually feel– given that they live in the present and all.  Right?  (I was so sure of this when I was reading Cesar books, but how can we really know?)  Anyway.  All these things were swirling around in my head leading up to and during the first week of our trip, and in typical me fashion, I simply chose to do nothing.

Look how happy the kids are: )

Then one day I woke up knowing I deeply, deeply wanted to see Gus.  It all clicked into focus and I realized that, for example, even though I really missed Will last year when he went to college, and even though I knew I would cry when he left again after a visit, that didn’t mean I didn’t want to see him when I could.  The same could be said about Gus, my fuzzy, four-legged son.  I also realized that though I was worried about protecting the smaller kids from more hurt, they really wanted to see him, too.  How could I have forgotten Claire’s poem about Gus?

So I got in touch with Josie and she– wonderful lady that she is– went way out of her way to make a reunion happen for us.  We spent a few precious hours with her, my aunt, and Gus.  He knew us and was ecstatic to see us (photo, above), but he clearly loves Josie as well, and is her dog now.  He would lie down by me for a while, then get up and go for a drink and lie down by Josie.  Seeing that was like balm to my soul and closure to all my wounds about betraying the rescue dog I had promised to give a ‘forever’ home (as they say at the shelter).  I felt peace about something that had pained me for the last 12 months.  That is, indeed, a happy ending.

I do love happy endings.  As an aspiring writer of fiction, I struggle with my innate desire to orchestrate a happy ending, versus the prejudice against a tidy and upbeat wrap-up in contemporary fiction.  Things are supposed to be messy in serious fiction, as well as in our dystopian world.  Maybe that’s part of why I keep stalling out near the end in my fiction efforts (the other part is that I’m afraid to finish things– but that’s another blog and another course of therapy).  I’ve written three-quarters or more of three novels.  Mathematically, that should be 2+ novels, right?  But I guess it doesn’t work that way…

And then there’s a fourth piece, for which I’ve written a very rough, but complete first draft.  This one I wrote for Quinn and Claire– it’s a middle grades story involving a dog and his family caught up in the conflict between rebels and establishment in a magical world they didn’t realize was right under their noses.  The dog is a hero in the story, but the wounds he sustains in saving the children make it impossible for him to come back to the children’s world with them.  He must remain in the magical land.  And though he can be happy there– and the children know he will be happy–  they are heartbroken to lose their beloved pet.  Are you getting any ideas about when I wrote this and why?

I finished that draft a year ago, but have never been happy with the ending.  My kids really liked the first chapters, but I’ve never read any further with them.  Maybe now it’s time to go back and try a rewrite– you know, now that I’ve seen an unhappy ending transformed?  I have no idea how our reality changes the fiction, and I won’t write something that ends in some folksy bit of wisdom about time healing all wounds.  But I think if I could find a happy ending in the real life story, there must be some way to pull out a better ending for the fictional Gus and family.  Any ideas out there?

Tears on the Traffic Island

This post is NOT going to be another chronicle of my tears. Really, it’s not. Well. Mostly not.

A quieter island than the one I cried on… but you get the idea.

Quinn and Claire went back to school this week. The most notable difference between last year’s first day and this year’s first day is that I didn’t find myself crying on a little concrete pedestal– the traffic island in the middle of a busy London street after drop-off.

Granted, Quinn started kindergarten last year. That’s a vulnerable moment for every mom. And I had only just left my oldest child at university a continent away for his freshman year. So double whammy vulnerability. Oh, and I didn’t know anyone here yet, and the time difference made it ridiculous for me to call my mom or my sister or any friends back home where it was 3:30 am. So I was feeling pretty isolated– the traffic island was an amazing metaphor, come to think of it. And possibly some of those tears were in the nature of, “Oh Lord, what have we done? What are we doing here?”

First Day of School, Aug. 29, 2012

This year was So Very Different. I had no nervous butterflies about getting to school via public transport (aka, big red London buses) in time. I was hugging people in the hallway, greeting the librarian and the assistant principal like old friends, giving the new families whatever help I could (even if that was just sending out friendly vibes)… It felt good to feel not quite so not-in-control, and it felt great to be able to offer a little help to people who were where I had been.

My life, I realized, has felt out of control for a long time. Nearly two years, in fact– from the time we decided we might move to London that fall, just when our oldest was starting his Senior year and all the stressful gearing up for college. Moves and graduations, leave-takings and growing ups. Yeah, that stuff will make a parent feel like she’s not the boss– of anything. (I’m smiling as I write, at a momentary flashback to itty bitty Chloe– hands on her skinny hips, strawberry blond curls sticking out– saying, for the millionth time, “You’re not the boss of me!” to her older brother. Now they text each other regularly from their colleges on opposite sides of the country.) So maybe boss isn’t the right word– it’s not like I ever really acted like the boss in the first place. Maybe being in the driver’s seat is a better metaphor. The mom is driving the family carpool for years and years, and then– suddenly– she’s not.  That’s the kind of loss of control that happens when the kids start the college thing.  Then throw in a move overseas, and, well…

But the moves are done, and for now we’re ‘sorted,’ as the Brits like to say.  Now that Will and Chloe have both left home for college, I have nothing left to dread in that regard for a long time (Claire is only in 3rd grade).  It feels like the major tumult might be done.  (God help me for saying that.) So I’m coming out of this 2-yr-long storm and surveying the damage. Mostly I’m pleased at the things that held up through it all. Not that I’m not battered. There are way more gray hairs and wrinkles than there were in Marblehead. But I have more compassion for myself and my body. After all, we’ve been through some things together. The gray hairs have sprung from the stress of moving, and worry about the kids (far and near) and the daily details of making a new life. The wrinkles have come from– I’m not gonna lie– a lot of tears through the last couple years. It sounds cliché, but those outward signs of aging represent the experience, the wisdom, the empathy I’ve gained through these hard transitions.

Don’t look now, but I think I’ve finally learned to be gentle with myself. And sister, right now I am positively exuding empathy for women in all stages and walks. I want to be an ear, a shoulder, a comforting hug. I want us each to respect the walk we’re on, and know that whatever trials we encounter, they tend to be universal. We love till we think our hearts will explode. We hurt until we think the sun cannot possibly rise again. But it always does. We condemn ourselves for what we don’t get done. We condemn ourselves for what we do. We create elaborate plans to improve ourselves, our lives, and even our loved ones. But we are still ‘just’ ourselves, and never the perfect version of anything we set out to be.

But we’re walking on this path. All the while we’re walking.

Maybe you have to have been on the trail for quite a while before you get to look back and actually realize you’ve covered a lot of challenging ground. You turn around and appreciate that you’ve climbed over rocks and boulders, across streams and through muddy bogs; and when you pause and look up, you realize that the view is… just breathtaking.

You can see others further back the trail, perhaps a woman wading through the exhaustion of having two or three littles at home. Losing her mind piece by piece. Making unrealistic plans for what she hopes to accomplish during nap time or during the two hours the oldest is in preschool. Disappointment and self-condemnation that she couldn’t get it done. Utter exhaustion by dinnertime. Falling asleep while reading the bedtime story, then staying up later than she should because she’s so desperate to have a little time to herself. You try to shout back, “It’s okay! Don’t be hard on yourself! All of us up here were just like you on that part of the trail– you’ll make it! And it doesn’t matter if the toys are picked up every night…” But she probably doesn’t hear you, because she is where she is on the trail, and the sounds of her busy life are roaring in her ears as she does her best to cross that river.

Or there’s another one resting on a trailside boulder (or possibly even a London traffic island), crying as she watches her 5-year-old walk away from her wearing a backpack. You smile at his sweetness and you wish you could reach out and touch her shoulder. “Yes, it feels like such a change, doesn’t it?” you’d say. “But he will still hug you after school today, and the day after that, and… you’ve got lots of time to love your little one.” Silently, you might add, Just pay attention! It all goes so fast, and you’ll barely realize it’s happening and then you wake up one day and realize his feet are bigger than yours and he doesn’t really hug you after school anymore. But you wouldn’t say that out loud because, well, how is that edifying, and why would you want to add to her sorrow?

It’s not just moms, either– that happens to be the trail I’m looking back at right now, but there are lots of junctions along the way: jobs and school, boyfriends and girlfriends, weddings and births. Funerals.  Something about the start of a new academic year this fall– and the first anniversary of our life in London– has me looking back, and looking at others, with a new view and a deeper tenderness. I suppose scientists would say there’s some hormone at work– that’s fine, because there’s plenty of room for science right here alongside this more metaphysical view. I mean, why wouldn’t God create hormones like little instruction codes to help us along this whole road: eat, grow, run away, reproduce, love…?

I also see better than ever that you can’t walk someone’s walk for them. That kindergarten mom has to go through her moment and her reactions (and maybe her reaction is ‘wahoo! freedom!’– which is also legit!) in her own time; just like no abstract knowledge that everything will be okay could stop me from shedding tears on the tarmac flying away after my term-long goodbyes to Will and Chloe in the last 10 days. Traffic island to tarmac, it’s a part of my walk, and I just have to feel what I’m going to feel.  The best we can do for one another is simply to be there, as our sisters and friends and parents and grandparents have been in their turn.

And we mustn’t forget to look back, and up and out, over where we’ve been. We might be kinder to ourselves and to others if we occasionally take another look at all the road we’ve covered.

Besides, the view is fantastic.