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!

Lines on the Fifth Day of a Multi-day Challenge

Aside

I was working on a draft for Day Five of the challenge, when I found a crumpled poem on my kitchen floor.  Did one of you leave this??

This girl seems rather self-obsessed
to never give her blog a rest.
She thinks we’ve nothing else to do
But read whatever she chooses to spew!
She walked away for quite some time,
but now she thinks she’s in her prime.
We wish that she would lose her pen,
so she’d stop telling us where she’s been!
Reminds me of a poem I read
about the cow and how it’s dead,
And all because this Terrence bloke
He spoke and spoke and spoke and spoke

“…but oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
it gives a chap the bellyache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead.
It sleeps well, the horned head:
And we poor lads ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time…”
(from “Terrence this is Stupid Stuff,” by A.E. Houseman)

Please, Chaos girl just make it stop,
Give us a night without your slop.
You can give your commitment a pass
if we can only have some pax!

Well, I really can’t argue with that, can I?  Tomorrow I’ll get on with the catchup blogging… Hey!  Where are you all going?  Will you be back?  I’ve got this great kebab story to tell…Wait!  Really?  OK, then, I’ll see you tomorrow, right?… Guys?

Cafe Cortado: A Valentine

Breakfast in Spain.  Sometimes you have to make the tough choices, like whether to have the coffee or the sangria... (note how they're both so ready at hand!).

Breakfast in Spain. Sometimes you have to make the tough choices:  like whether to have the coffee or the sangria… (note how they’re both so ready at hand in the Mercado in the morning!).

Cafe Cortado: two words to make a coffee lover’s heart leap.  Clay and I discovered this perfect, perfect little espresso drink for ourselves many years ago in a hotel on the coast of Spain.  It was love at first encounter.  We had the room service waiter bring us a second round, and then a third!  (And then we ran caffeine-induced laps around the marble lobby… no, not really).

November 28 marked a milestone wedding anniversary for us.  The age-old question has a little twist in our family:  Instead of “What do you get for the man who has everything?” it’s “Where do you take the guy who travels everywhere?”  Somewhere with good coffee, of course!  But, hmmm.  Italy has good coffee.  So does France, and Spain, as I’ve just said.  And Scandinavia and Belgium and Turkey– and Ireland, if you count Irish Coffee.  So maybe coffee isn’t such a good way to decide.  Just a thought.  Though I do much of the actual travel planning for us, I never decide all on my own where we are staying, much less where we are going.

Here’s how it normally works.  We talk about three or four places we might go on the next break, then I jump online and start looking for places to stay and deals to be had in each.  I look and look.  And I look.  And then, when I’ve narrowed it down to a list of something like forty-three possible accommodations in half a dozen different cities, I start asking Clay (or anyone else who will listen) for their opinions.  I do this for as long as they will listen, and then when they walk away, I start looking at new ones.  By this time, they are all blending together anyway.  Now, Clay hates dithering, and I’m pretty sure he also hates looking at lodgings online– though it could just be that, with me, looking at anything online tends to turn into dithering.  Maybe I am sort of obsessive about reading the reviews.  But, we always get to a decision.  Eventually.

This time I was on my own, though.  It was relatively easy to settle on Madrid, because– well, cafe cortado!  No, not really.  Actually, it was one place Clay hadn’t been yet in all his work travels.  Also, I wanted to surprise him with tickets to a Real Madrid football (soccer) game.  At the time I booked, tickets weren’t available yet, nor was the time of the game definite– in fact, they had not yet determined if the game would be Saturday or Sunday that weekend!  And it’s not like I was planning months in advance– haven’t I already conveyed that I’m not that organized?  But I think those La Liga people are even worse:  three weeks ahead of time, they don’t even know what day the game will be played!  I booked our return flight for as late as possible on Sunday, hoping I would be able to pull off the surprise– but in the end the game was set for Sunday night and we weren’t able to make it.

Looking over the Gran Via-- busy shopping street in Madrid.

Looking over the Gran Via– busy shopping street in Madrid.

Never mind.  We consoled ourselves quite well with food and drink.  Oh, the tapas!  Fried artichokes to die for… and the Iberico ham!… and manchego… and I can’t even remember it all!  I wish I had taken pictures of the food, as Will likes to do (before and after pics, in his case!).  We were given a lovely room with two balconies looking out over the Gran Via.  We could just cross the street and be instantly in the warren of little streets that make up part of the centro and huertas barrios– which is where people go for everything from protest marches (some big one about hospital workers was going on while we were there) to live music at night (the jazz kind more than the dance kind).  We spent a lot of time walking those streets, soaking up the vibe, trying restaurants and tapas bars, and simply crossing through on our way to the museums and the royal palace.

One of the peaceful streets curving off of a busy plaza.

One of the peaceful streets curving off of a busy plaza.

One moment you could be in a pretty, peaceful looking street with lots of old world character, and the next moment you stepped out into a Plaza, where vendors were hawking their cheap souvenirs and  street performers– the kind who try to get you to pay to take your picture with them– were using their little voice changing toy to make themselves sound like crying babies.  Yes, it could be an assault on the senses!  The most famous plaza, the Plaza Mayor, was half taken over by a Christmas market.  This was disappointing, as the #1 must-do in the Madrid book we bought was to “watch the passing parade in Plaza Mayor.”  The accompanying picture in the book shows cafe seating all around the Plaza and people strolling along in the sun.  Oh well, next time! This time we got to see market stalls full of crazy hats and cheap toys– which I suppose is just another part of the parade, right?  And there wasn’t a lot of sun, but then it didn’t rain too terribly much either.

Part of the Plaza Mayor.

Part of the Plaza Mayor under Christmas siege.

Sometimes we saw things we didn’t really understand– small wonder, I guess, since neither of us really speaks Spanish.  We were walking along a pedestrian street one morning when this band of singers and strummers in their Zorro-esque dress came by.  By the time I fished my phone out for the picture, there was no time to film the musical part– I could only snap a photo.  It seems like there is always a procession of one sort or another going through the streets in Spain.  I really ought to learn Spanish…

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Along these same lines of misunderstanding, we found ourselves speaking French with a palace security guard who was trying to explain to us that our ticket did not allow us to be in the rooms we were walking through.  She was very kind and all, it was just a little surreal to find that we could communicate in French, though she didn’t speak English and we didn’t have enough Spanish.

I could be misidentifying this, but I think it is a view from the side of the Royal Palace.

I could be misidentifying this, but I think it is a view from the side of the Royal Palace.

This conversation with the security guard came about because we had skipped by the ‘weird’ miniature grotto or nativity that people were queuing to see in an anteroom to the Palace tour.  It was enormous, and people seemed to think it was wonderful– but we skated by so we could see the Palace rooms we’d queued to view.  Ironic then, that the free ticket the lady had handed us as we filed in the palace after patiently waiting in line for some time, was really only for the grotto!  How surprised was I to later read in the in-flight magazine on our way home that this grotto was an amazing, not-to-be-missed Madrid at Christmas experience.  Oops.

We did go to Museo del Prado to see the Goya and Velazquez paintings and a host of others.  El Greco blew us away, though.  Room after room of stiff, subdued, medieval and renaissance religious art, and you walk into a room filled with El Greco, and it’s so vibrant and different you think you’ve hit the modern wing of the museum, and then you look at the inscriptions and realize that he, too, painted in the 16th century!  And you wonder how some people can be so visionary that they see beyond, and dare beyond, all conventions of their time.  What must that be like?  Could you walk around in a cloud of inspiration, or would it just become incredibly frustrating to deal with a world that can’t see what you see?

On that note of high culture, I’m going to segue to haute couture.  How could I NOT take a picture of the Manolo Blahnik shop– for Chloe if nothing else!

A museum of beautiful (possibly not wearable) shoes!

A museum of beautiful (possibly not wearable) shoes!  Look at the pom-pons in the lower left front…

And I’ll close with just a few more shots from the streets of Madrid…

Giant gecko made entirely of CDs!

Giant gecko made entirely of CDs!

Inside the Mercado San Miguel.

Inside the Mercado San Miguel.

Pretty sure this store has one of everything... in the world!  Question is, does he know where to find it?

Pretty sure this store has one of everything… in the world! Question is, does he know where to find it?

Universal!

Universal!

A little snack at the Mercado.  Are those olives gorgeous?

A little snack at the Mercado. Are those olives gorgeous?

Lest I forget to say it, we had a wonderful weekend exploring Madrid together.

The cafe cortados were marvelous, but the company was even better!

An “uncle”– with advice and a warning

Aside

IMG_0640Alright, Uncle. Uncle!!  I’m falling asleep here five or more time zones ahead of you.  I hereby rename this blog series “Five Months in Six Days.”

Thanks for understanding, friends.  So happy to be back in the freshcuppachaos cafe with you!  I’ll be here early tomorrow, and I’ll save you a seat at the big round table by the window…

In the meantime, two signs from various outings in London this fall:  advice, and a warning.  Can you guess where each was posted?

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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?