Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bon Appétit

A few days ago, I made some pesto. Today, I chopped up some lovely fresh tomatoes, cubed some mozzarella cheese, squeezed a few cloves of garlic, and mixed them all up with a couple of tablespoons of pesto. I cooked some pasta – spaghettini – and while it was hot, dumped it on top of the pesto mixture. I tossed it all together, mixed in a bit of diced ham and voilà – a prize-winning dinner.

This isn't it but this is what it looked like:

I hope you had a delicious dinner too.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Putting on a show

The hanging plants and flowers at the front of the house always look their best this time of the year. They like to put on the end-of-season show.

Monday, September 28, 2015

4.9 million is just a number

It’s pretty darn hard to criticize the business of tourism and the presence of millions of tourists when you’re one of them. That’s my dilemma as I think back to several travel destinations and locations over the past few years.

We recently visited – for obvious reasons – Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s the birthplace of one William Shakespeare and because of that, 4.9 million people visit the town every year.

Many of them were there the same day we were.

(As always, a reminder to click on the photos to get the enlarged version.)

I don’t really mind the crowds. I feel safer when there are lots of people around – pickpockets aside – and in some of these famous places, I don’t mind lining up or being jostled around.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite though because I recognize the climate change threat of millions of people flying all around the world and I can understand the damage control that officialdom is forced to take in order to preserve ancient works of art from millions of hands and feet all of which are out to despoil valuable antiquities.

I suppose my point is that I think it should be okay for me to travel to wonderful places but other people should stay home.

Imagine what it would have been like at the Spanish Steps in Rome if only I – and maybe a few other deserving people – were there on this day a few years ago.

Having said all that, Stratford is a lovely town and tourism has given the people there a better life than they would have if they had to depend on call centres and the other small businesses that are non-tourism related. Many towns in England are not doing well and by comparison – in fact, even without making any comparisons – Stratford is doing very well indeed.

The house where Shakespeare was born and grew up is still there and some of it is the way it was when he was there. There is something thrilling – it’s almost child-like – about walking on a floor and knowing that William Shakespeare himself walked there. Don’t ask me why.

Shakespeare was baptized, married and buried in Stratford.

I don’t want to come off sounding disillusioned about Stratford. It’s a beautiful town and I very much enjoyed visiting it – crowds or no crowds.

It was raining but we did the walking tour anyway. Look how pretty this is.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

All the world's a stage (2)

This is the garden behind the house where William Shakespeare grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was walking here, admiring the lushness and the flowers when I turned and saw a man in a wheelchair a few steps away from me.

I smiled at him. He looked at me intently and said, “Is there something I can do for you?”

He watched me patiently while I considered his question.

“The ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy from Macbeth,” I said.

He lowered his head and looked at his hands for several seconds. When he looked up again, he was a different person. He began to speak in a low anguished voice.

There would have been a time for such a word.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

When he finished – several other people had gathered as he spoke – we gave him a warm round of applause. He bowed modestly and turned and wheeled himself away. It was only later I wondered if I should have given him a couple of quid. Everything does seem to have a dollar/pound value these days although he didn’t look as if he expected payment.

I confess, I wasn’t completely surprised by his question. We had come to Stratford with a charming small touring business called The English Bus. Our guide had told us before we arrived that there are often actors in the grounds or in the houses, always willing to play a part.

More about Stratford and Shakespeare and The English Bus tomorrow.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Working at retired

(There's time for a jigsaw puzzle when you're retired.)

One of the regular email notices I get from LinkedIn is about my contacts’ work anniversaries. Most of them are pretty straightforward: Congratulate Lucy Brown. Lucy is having a work anniversary – 20 years this month working at CBC.

I’m often interested to see the notice but I don’t usually offer congratulations. I would if it seemed spectacular – like 50 years at the same job or something like that.

There is one notice though that always makes me smile. Lately, it’s also made me think. It’s this one, which I see a lot – different names, same message:

Congratulate Jack Sprat. Jack is having a work anniversary – 10 years this September working at retired.

It makes me smile because it’s awkwardly expressed. It makes me think because I hope it’s true.

Retiring from one’s life work is a huge step. For many people – usually men – it can be a traumatic end to the only identity they’ve ever known. We all know the stories of men who retire and too often, are dead within a year or two.

My father worked for NB Power. I’m sure they had no flexibility around retirement age and Dad retired at age 65. He never expressed it but I’m pretty sure he felt vital and energetic and felt put out to pasture.

He was a stationary engineer and within a fairly short time, he was hired to work at one of the mills near our town. He worked there for a number of happy years, well into his 70s. He was lucky because I’m pretty sure that kept him alive.

Whenever I hear people talking about looking forward to retirement, I always make a point of asking, “And what are your plans?” I don’t always get an answer that suits me but I try to make people think about it. I firmly believe that everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning. (Well, not too early, of course.)

I never use the word “retired” about my own life. (It’s well-known that I deny any suggestion that might involve aging.) When I’m out and about and people ask me if I’m retired, I always say no. I’m a writer and editor and I always have some evidence I can provide to show that I’m writing.

Dan (my husband) has been advised not to refer to himself as retired because people will look to him first when they want someone to volunteer for something. He does some excellent volunteer work but he also keeps busy at a whole variety of things. I tell Dan he's too young to be retired.

I appreciate being busy – retired or not – and my advice to anyone who is nearing retirement is: make definite plans about what you’re going to do with yourself. It really isn’t that enjoyable to get up in the morning with nothing at all to do although, to be sure, it’s nice if your daily agenda is made up of things you like to do.

The more I think about it, the more I think LinkedIn is on to something when they congratulate their members for “working at retired.”

Friday, September 25, 2015

A stroll around Arras

It would be possible to feel quite sad in the areas of the north of France that were the sites of so much death and destruction and are the final home of so many of the young people who went to war. I thought a lot when I was there about the collective memory of the towns — how the past must permeate even today's generation and the small children growing up there, surrounded as they are by so many reminders of what took place there.

But maybe I'm projecting and maybe if one lives there, it's so much a part of life that it has less effect on the residents than it has on the visitors.

The fact is, the people who live in Arras live in a very attractive town and the people whom we saw out on the streets, in the restaurants, in the shops seemed to be enjoying life so what can I say?

Because the weekend has come and I've had a disorganized and distracted day, I'll just share some photos with you. Our tour guide said, in his opinion, Arras has one of the prettiest town squares in all of France. The town squares are surrounded by a unique architectural ensemble of 155 Flemish-Baroque-style townhouses. The Town Hall belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What do you think of Arras?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Memories of war

I came away from our tour of the great World War I battlefields and memorials in the north of France knowing more but understanding less. Looking at the unending fields of graves as we drove through – hundreds of thousands of graves, often as far as the eye could see – left me, as always, in the dark about the fascination with war across the generations.

I cared deeply about the young men – 16- and 17- and 18-year-olds – who had gone happily to fight for King and Country – and whose gravestones in France often represent a whole family or a whole street or a whole neighbourhood of boys who enlisted together, who travelled together and who were killed together, same day, same battle.

We had an excellent tour guide in France. Our family had him booked and he was picking us up at our hotel in Arras when another hotel guest overheard him asking at the desk for us and heard why he was there. When we joined him, she chatted with us – she turned out to be a fellow Canadian (from Vancouver) whose daughter is living in The Hague and she was visiting there. She decided to come to Arras to look for the grave of her great-uncle which no member of her family had ever visited.

To make a long story short, we were happy for her to join us on our tour and our guide was so great, he took that great-uncle’s name and a couple of details about his death and before the end of the day, he took us to the fairly new and very impressive Circle of Memory where Karen found her great-uncle’s name.

For our last stop, our guide took us to the cemetery where Karen’s great-uncle was buried and she was able to visit his named grave. It was quite amazing. She never would have found that grave, among the hundreds of thousands, without our guide. William took photos of her at the grave and by that evening, she had sent them to her family. It was a moving experience for all of us and we were glad to be there, to share it with Karen.

I’ll be back in the days to come with more about our often heartrending tour of World War I sites.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

First day of Fall

People love Fall, don't they? I hear it wherever I go. "Oh, I love Fall. It's my favourite season. I can't wait to make soups and stews and get out the sweaters."

I bite my tongue and I say not a word. . . but I don't like Fall. When I feel that first chill in the air that others find so invigorating, I feel a great sense of foreboding. I seem to be the only one who has made the connection that when Fall comes, can Old Man You-Know-Who be far behind?

I love summer. I love the heat. I don't care if it's humid. I feel alive and expansive when the temperature is approaching 30 and, brrr, I feel myself shrinking into nothingness when the January temperatures dip way down into the minus column.

But Fall has some nice symbols and some pretty characteristics. If you look right here, you'll see some lovely quotations about Fall and see some lovely pictures and even hear some music.

Don't worry about me. I'll be fine.

Happy Fall everyone.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Life and shopping at the Palace

Our visit to Buckingham Palace’s State Rooms was overwhelming. There are many state rooms – 19, I think – they’re big, they’re elegant, they’re filled with paintings and sculpture and furniture that would knock your eye out.

I enjoyed walking around, looking at everything, imagining Her Majesty coming in to check that everything is ship-shape when company is expected. I can picture her swiping her index finger along the banister of the grand staircase to make sure no one missed a spot when they were doing the dusting.

We did walk up this very staircase on our tour. We didn’t take this photo as photos are not allowed in the state rooms.

We saw the Throne Room, the room where HM hands out honours, the ball room, the state dining room and countless reception rooms of various sizes and shapes. They’ve done a nice job of setting up displays to give their guests an idea of what happens in each room.

We learned how the kitchen functions when a major state dinner is being prepared, how the tables are set, how the guests are seated. I’m pretty sure it all runs like clockwork.

There was also a display from the Queen’s dressmaker and milliner, showing a recent dress, coat and hat creation – that I remembered seeing her in!

I kept thinking how Mum would have loved these displays.

If we weren’t allowed to take photos in the state rooms, clearly someone was allowed. If you’re planning a visit and want a preview of what you’ll see, just do an image search for Buckingham Palace State Rooms and you can be overwhelmed too.

I can’t leave Buckingham Palace without mentioning the gift shops. There are several – as there are everywhere these days. Gift shops in the palaces, in the museums, in the Tower of London, in the galleries – no shortage of places to begin your Christmas shopping. (Please note those crown ornaments.)

The Palace may be elegant and tasteful but the gift shops are no less tacky than anywhere else. I’m afraid we chuckled with a sense of superiority as we looked over some of the very strange souvenirs but we happily bought some embossed tea towels for Cousin Dale, HM’s biggest fan, and we resisted all crowns and orbs and sceptres.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The art of Queens

I’ve already done the background and the intro so I’m afraid I’ve procrastinated long enough and I’d better move on to the real thing.

Our first stop on the visit to Buckingham Palace was at the Royal Mews. It’s one of those places one hears of but it doesn’t quite have the glamour of the art gallery or the state rooms.

We’ve been to many historical museums and have seen lots of coaches and other conveyances. They always look uncomfortable to me – and I suspect they are – and I think if I were a passenger in one, I’d always be a little worried that it was going to tip over. They’re top-heavy but they must have sufficient stability because I’ve never heard of HM having to be extracted from a tipped-over coach.

This (above) is Queen Alexandra’s State Coach. It’s used to carry the crown and other essentials over to Parliament on the days of the State Opening.

Other coaches (above) are used on special occasions – weddings, funerals etc.

This (above) is the showpiece, without a doubt. This is the Gold State Coach. It was built for George III in 1762 and has been used at every coronation since then to transport the monarch.

The stables are beautiful and were quiet the day we were there although we did catch this fellow having a snack break.

We went from the Mews to The Queen’s Gallery. The exhibit changes and the one that's currently running is called Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden. The gallery’s own website describes it this way:

Whether a sacred sanctuary, a place for scientific study, a haven for the solitary thinker or a space for pure enjoyment and delight, gardens are where man and nature meet.

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden reveals the way in which gardens have been celebrated in art across four centuries.

Bringing together paintings, botanical studies, drawings, books, manuscripts and decorative arts, the exhibition explores the changing character of the garden from the 16th to the early 20th century. It includes works by Leonardo da Vinci, Maria Sibylla Merian and Carl Fabergé, and some of the earliest and rarest surviving depictions of gardens and plants.

The exhibit included depictions of the Garden of Eden, ancient Persian poems about gardens, the origins of gardening for food, the beginnings of the formal garden and much more. It was an amazing and original display of art and an inspiration. It was different from many of the art museums we’ve visited.

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words so here are a few examples of the art:

The art has overwhelmed me. I'll be back with a note about the visit to the state rooms.