Sunday, May 31, 2009

We're havin' a heat wave...

Here in the land of slugs and moss, we're still usually having rain this time of year. Frequently we're still even having the occasional fire in the woodstove! But not this year. This year we're having warm - dare I say "hot"? - weather. Not hot like in South Florida or other parts of the south and northeast, but still... Mid-80s is pretty darned hot for us in May!

Of course, hot weather has some advantages. Such as yesterday's barbecue at Ben & Briana's, with Christina, Ada, Julie and Erich - and Addison, of course! It was a gorgeous day, spent mostly outside admiring their garden, watching the kids play, and complaining about the heat. But what else can you do about the weather?

We finally got the deck furniture out today. Well, Jim got it out while I played inside on the computer. Later this afternoon we'll sit out there with glasses of wine, enjoying our yard that we love so well. Our new honeysuckle vines are twining around our newly-installed arbor, and the star jasmine has exploded with growth and lots of buds that hold the promise of sweet smells in a few weeks.

The maple trees we planted 3-1/2 years ago are now providing enough shade that we don't hide from the afternoon sun any longer. And our ducks will swoop in later to enthrall us with the simple fact of their return.

As a teen in Florida, I loved the summer. It meant beaches, shorts, long and lazy days. As a young mother I was less thrilled with it, but can still conjure up the smell of sun-drenched little boys, all sweaty and puppy dog-like in their odor and behavior. And now - dare I confess? - I have occasional flashbacks to what summer in Miami was like and there's an elemental longing for hot afternoons, cold drinks, and then retreating inside to the airconditioned house.

Here, we don't have a/c - seems a little wasteful to us for these few days or weeks of heat. And, here, too, I know that these hot days will be quickly followed by drizzly rain, and then before I've had a chance to get a really nice tan, it will be fall!

So, here's to summer: However long it lasts, however hot it gets, it's a lazy time of year and I'm enjoying it so far!

Ask me again, though, in August when we start edging toward 100 degrees. I will likely be singing the praises of rain and snow by then!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Traveling Fool

Over Memorial Day Weekend, Jim and I - as is our custom - headed east to the tiny Oregon town of Spray to watch their rodeo. Spray boasts a population of about 150 people, but it swells to nearly 15,000 over the Memorial Day Rodeo weekend! There is one motel, with only five rooms, and in-town camping facilities for about 30 trailers. The rest of the folks camp either in "nearby" towns (meaning anywhere from 40 to 50 miles away) or in the Umatilla National Forest. And that is where we choose to camp.

To add to our enjoyment, we took the grandkids with us this year, leaving on Thursday. Ada's mommy and daddy joined us on Friday evening, and my sister and brother-in-law arrived on Saturday. The kids were not particularly impressed with the rodeo, but did enjoy seeing the animals and definitely enjoyed the freedom of playing in the forest! We arrived home on Monday, exhausted, but with lots of happy memories.

Upon my arrival home, I found an email from one of my eFriends, commenting on our recent travels to Europe, and outlining her adult children's travels, along with a few of her own. She closed her email with a question: "Don't you think it would do most people good to travel outside the US to see how others live?" (I do hope she doesn't mind that I'm blatantly using her comment in my blog!)

I've thought about that over the past couple of days, in light of our recent European travels as well as our trip across the US last year, and even this past weekend in a small Oregon town. And I've come to the conclusion that travel of any kind is good for us. It opens our minds and broadens our horizons. It keeps us from becoming too comfortable with our way of life, and it challenges our assumptions.

By encountering people of different cultures - whether it be a foreign culture, or just the culture of a different region of our own country, or a town of a different size - we frequently come face to face with people whose ideas are opposed to ours, but who hold those ideas with the same fervor we feel. By taking on the role of guest in another culture, we have the opportunity to experience what it is like to be in a minority position - language, religion, government policies, food preferences - the list is long! - and to be for a short time in a position that is outside our usual comfort zone.

I am a woman who is not known for being submissive or feeling insecure. However, in a foreign country, or even in Spray, Oregon, I am much less assertive than I am in my "natural" environment. I am aware that I am a guest (with all that this status implies, thank you , Mom!), and I am always aware that my views on everything from politics to religion to the environment may be diametrically opposed to those whose space I have invaded. It makes me listen more carefully, examine my own comments more carefully - perhaps even editing what I want to say, and even putting myself in others' places to try to understand why they feel as they do.

So, yes, I do think it would be good for all of us to have the experience of travel. Not just outside the US, but outside our communities, our cities, our states, our geographic regions. I think the key to understanding is meeting each other face to face. It doesn't mean we will change our minds about anything, but it at least allows us to see that those who think differently are not demons, but our fellow travelers on this planet. Broadening our horizons in whatever ways we can will only make us more whole, and will certainly go a long way toward lessening our fear of that which is "other."

Thank you, Holly, for asking!

Monday, May 18, 2009


Although we had been scheduled to make a coach tour of Rome as soon as we arrived, our Rome tour guide had changed the plan and arranged for us to check into our hotels early and get some rest. What a welcome relief that was! None of us had slept much on the train, we had been unable to use the bathrooms, due to the unbelievable stench that I will forever associate with trains, and we needed some time to relax and acclimate.

Following some down time, we were treated to a motorcoach tour of some of the Rome highlights, with stops at Vatican City, a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, and a visit to the Colosseum. Vatican City is an interesting city-state, with Swiss Guards stationed near every entrance. They are very carefully chosen for their position as bodyguards for the Pope, and are allowed to serve a maximum of two years. Apparently, the Church feels that two years in Rome is enough temptation for these young men!

At St. Peter’s, I was finally more impressed than I was with Westminster Abbey, although for different reasons. Westminster seemed – to me – a more intensely prayerful place than St. Peter’s. Part of the reason, I think, is because regular worship services are still held there and St. Peter’s is used primarily for special occasions. Our guide, Salvatore, told us that for years any Italian child could be baptized at St. Peter’s, but no longer. Now the family must have some kind of connection or relationship to the Pope. The wedding chapel is the same. Salvatore (who was a wonderful guide, as nearly all of them are) lamented that St. Peter’s is no longer a holy place, but simply a tourist attraction. He seemed sad about it and regretted that he had been unable to have his daughter baptized there.

Our stop at the Colosseum was – well, I really can’t think of a superlative that is superlative enough! To see that magnificent structure, still standing after so many centuries, and after it has been cannibalized to provide marble and other materials for newer structures, well, it was the dream of a lifetime. We could almost visualize the people who attended events there so many years ago, and who could never have dreamed that centuries later people would be marveling at something they had created.

There are so many ruins in Rome and they turn up in unexpected places. We saw a portion of an ancient wall that had been incorporated into a newer apartment structure, and it was common to see remnants of pre-Christian-era walls alongside the modern roadways that we traveled.
We then made our way to Trevi Fountain, where I threw the coin from my right hand over my left shoulder, to ensure that I will someday return to Rome! It’s a magical city.

That evening we had dinner at a local restaurant. Everyone who had unexpectedly downsized accommodations on the train had the dinner comped as partial repayment. The food was the best we’d had so far in Europe, and the strolling singers were an enjoyable bonus. I laughed so hard that my sides hurt and it was truly an evening to be remembered. Well, except the wine has fogged some of the memories…

On Saturday, our last day, we had the exquisite treat of a visit to the Sistine Chapel. There were no photos allowed, but we had lots of time to soak up the glories of Michelangelo’s exquisite works. As before, it was different from what we had imagined – and yet, the same. The ceiling is about 69’ high, so nothing looked as large as we expected, but with no frame of reference, it was difficult to judge. Seeing the work in person gave both of us a new appreciation for the work that was accomplished more than 500 years ago. The colors are still so vibrant, and the depiction so vivid, that it’s hard to believe it has withstood the elements for so many years. As with St. Peter’s, it has largely become a tourist attraction and has very little to do with religious life today. It’s very sad.
We concluded our day of sightseeing – and our touring – with a visit to the Pantheon. As with so many of the ancient sites, the Christian church has co-opted the structures and created places of worship and memorial from what were essentially pagan sites.

The Pantheon is very well preserved, and is touted as the largest unsupported dome in the world. Of course there is support in the form of the arches, but it’s an impressive structure nonetheless!
Following the tour, we had time for lunch and shopping. Jim and I chose to have an al fresco lunch at a restaurant adjacent to the Pantheon, followed by a few purchases. We then joined the tour bus to return to our hotel.

That evening we had a final dinner with our group, and it was a highlight of the tour! We were serenaded by the restaurant owners, Fernando and Reinaldo, and their incredibly powerful tenor and baritone voices. They brought me to tears. So I bought their CD. Hey, how could I refuse?
We returned to our hotel and fell, exhausted, into bed. The next day we would say goodbye to Europe and return home. We’re tired (still recovering), but already talking about our next trip!

For you intrepid souls who have read this far - and who are still interested! - I have posted photos of the trip at


We had a very early wake-up call on Monday, since our itinerary called for us to drive by motorcoach to Dover, board a ferry to cross the English Channel, and arrive in Paris mid-afternoon.

So, we were up at 3:30 a.m. and on the road by 4:30. Since some of our fellow travelers were staying at another hotel, we had to pick them up before we got on the road. The English countryside is very pretty, but we were tired and dozed part of the drive to Dover.

The white cliffs of Dover are as advertised, and Denise told us that they almost glow in the moonlight. She also told us that there are tunnels and caves inside the cliffs that were used during WWII, and that the cliffs themselves were a welcome beacon to the British pilots returning home from bombing missions.

After arriving in Calais, our first stop in France was at Vimy Ridge, where 11,000 Canadian soldiers died defending the French during WWII. The land at Vimy Ridge was given to Canada as a thank-you for the sacrifice of their nation. The memorial is beautiful and very peaceful, and all of the names of those who died are engraved around the perimeter. The men and women who staff the Memorial are all Canadian. Much of the site is off-limits since there is an unknown number of unexploded bombs and shells still in the ground. There’s also a network of caves and tunnels here that were used for communications. The grass grows thick and tall, but the devastation to the ground is still evident – huge gouges out of the landscape everywhere you look.

We loved the beauty of the French countryside as we continued our way toward Paris. Many of the houses are really old, and even the newer houses have those distinctive rooflines that always make me think of thatched roofs and French farmhouses of centuries past.

On arrival in Paris, we had our first view of the Eiffel Tower and we were both amazed at how enormous it is! Once again, something we thought we were familiar with surprised us! Our hotel was only about four blocks from the Tower, so we were fortunate to see it many times during our stay.
Our hotel was – well, different. The room was VERY small, the twin beds were tiny, and there were no amenities such as coffee, hot water, tea, etc. Denise, our guide, was very careful to explain the elevator system to us: Before you get in the elevator, you select your floor from the buttons outside the elevators, then you are told which elevator to board, A, B, or C. There are no buttons on the inside of the elevator, so if you enter the wrong one, you just have to wait until it stops, then you get off and once again make your selection. Okay, it was different, but not impossible. However, when we entered our room none of the lights worked and we couldn’t turn the television on! So I called the front desk and the young woman on duty managed to make clear to me that we had to put our room key into the slot just inside the door, thus activating the power in the room! Every time we left, we had to remove the card and all the power was interrupted.

We weren’t as fortunate with our hotel bar in Paris as we had been in London; the bartender was rude and ill-tempered so we didn’t return. Instead we found the bar in the hotel next door and ended each of our days in Paris having wine and sharing a crème brulée while looking out the window at a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower! It was spectacular.

On Tuesday, our first full day in Paris, we had a tour of the Eiffel Tower, taking the elevator to the second floor and enjoying a bird’s eye view of that beautiful city. In the afternoon, we boarded a bus for an impressive tour of the Palace of Versailles. Wow! We were awestruck! The Palace is huge, and the grounds go on as far as you can see. It was easy to understand why the citizens of Paris rebelled against the monarchy and stormed the Palace, leading to the eventual beheading of the King and Queen. We saw the private compartments of the king and queen, including the original bedchamber of Marie Antoinette and many of the fabrics – bed canopy, bedspread, wall hangings – that were there when she was alive. In the photos that I’ll post you’ll see lots and lots of gold accents on gates, fences, ornaments of all kinds; it’s not gold paint, but is all gold leaf! Paris still spends enormous amounts of money maintaining and restoring the gold leaf. Although it does last a long time, it’s very expensive when it does have to be replaced.

On Wednesday, a driving tour of the City was followed by a trip to Montmarte to see the beautiful Cathedral of Sacre Couer and a light lunch in the art colony before heading back to Paris and the true highlight of our trip: a tour of the Louvre!

As with so many buildings in Paris, the Louvre started life as a palace and it covers an enormous amount of real estate. We did see the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and other incredible works of art for which the Louvre is renowned.

We ended our day with a boat ride on the Seine River, followed by dinner (Jim had escargot; they arrive in the shell in Paris, not in a neat little plate floating in butter!), and then our wine and crème brulée in our last night in Paris.

Although Paris is an incredibly clean city – the streets are all swept, garbage is picked up, and sidewalks are all washed every single day! – it was filled with pickpockets, gypsies, and beggars of every description. We were warned at every stop to watch out for them. Gypsies work in teams: one to distract, the other to pick, and often use children as part of the ruse. That in itself made Paris unpleasant to us, but overall it was our least favorite city for a variety of reasons.
Thursday was the day we had most anticipated: our much touted trip to Rome via train! We had the morning free (didn’t have to leave for the train station till 4:00 p.m.) so we took a cab to Notre Dame Cathedral. Jim was very tolerant of my church-visiting, and Notre Dame is quite impressive. I confess I liked Westminster Abbey better, however, and not just because of denominational preference! I did get a ticket to visit “The Treasury,” where all the old, ornate holy hardware is housed, and there were some impressive sights. There were also a number of relics on display, as is the Roman Catholic custom.

After our tour, we decided to have a cup of coffee at the sidewalk café outside the Cathedral to complete our “Paris experience.” The “experience” came with a price tag of € 11,40, which translates to about $15.85! Expensive coffee, no? And the only good coffee we had the whole trip was from McDonald’s!

We returned to our hotel where we spent about an hour-and-a-half visiting with our fellow tourers prior to heading for the train. This is the part of the story where the music becomes discordant, the skies cloud over, and ominous strangers appear in the background.

We had paid extra – quite a bit extra, in fact – for upgraded accommodations throughout the trip. We were in very nice hotels, in excellent locations, and were to have a two-person sleeper car on the train. Our tour guide very apologetically advised us that there had been an overbooking of the train and we would not be getting our sleeper compartments. Instead, we would be sleeping in “couchettes” – a small (about 5’ wide) compartment, with sleeping arrangements for SIX PEOPLE. However, they thought perhaps they could work it so we had ONLY four people to a compartment, and as compensation, we would get a free dinner in Rome.

This was not good. Neither of us sleeps well at night and were not only upset (as everyone was) that we would have to share, but also concerned that our erratic sleeping habits would be disturbing to others in the cabin. So I spoke privately to our guide and she assured me that she would try to get us a cabin for just the two of us. And, in fact, she did. But it was awful. Not only did we spend 14 hours in a tiny compartment while young people on holiday (the reason the train was overbooked) ran up and down the halls, but the “beds” were barely the width of our bodies, AND we had to keep our luggage with us “for security reasons.”

To add insult to injury, at about 3:00 a.m., at the France/Italy border crossing, we were awakened by a rattling of the door and a loud, officious knocking. Jim opened the door, and a stern-looking Italian policeman began barking at us in Italian! We were startled and a little frightened (this was a foreign country, remember), but managed to convey that we only speak English. He then demanded our passports and tickets, asked if all of the luggage was ours, where we were from, where we were going, were we traveling alone or with a group. We answered all of his questions, he slammed the door shut, and went on. A short time later we saw several police officers herding a couple of young men across the boarding platform. Needless to say, our sleep was even more fitful the remainder of the night!

When we spoke to our touring friends, we learned that none of the others had gotten the third degree, only Jim and I. We assume that they were looking for two people, and when they found two people they questioned them. The others were assumed to all be traveling together. We also assume that the miscreants were freeloaders, illegal entrants, or criminals of some sort. But we’ll never know!


We arrived in London around 7:00 a.m. Heathrow Airport is HUGE, and we had our first taste of being strangers in a strange land. We weren’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. We were directed into a large room, along with perhaps 1,000 other passengers arriving from various parts of the world. We waited – and waited – while approximately six people checked passports and entry papers. No one was hurrying – in fact, they seemed almost purposefully slow – and the wait seemed interminable. In truth, by the time we had been in London for an hour, we had collected our luggage, been through the entry process, and were in the Arrival Hall looking for our tour company. Over here – at least at Heathrow – arriving passengers aren’t thrown out on the street after collecting luggage, nor do they have to hang out in the ticketing area while waiting to be picked up. There’s actually a large portion of the airport where you can be greeted and collected. Kind of a nice touch.
After a short wait, we boarded a shuttle which took us to our hotel. There are many shuttle companies, and passengers are delivered to various hotels around London, so we spent about an hour in the company of people we’ll never see again, talking about our various tours and home countries. It was fun and a nice start to our vacation.

When we arrived, exhausted and rumpled, at our hotel, it was only 9:00 a.m. We were NOT happy to be told that we would have to wait until 4:00 p.m. to claim our room! London is a large, intimidating city and we were in no mood to set out to look at the sights. Especially since we had no idea exactly where we were, how to find our way back if we got lost, and were just damned tired! So I found a very nice man whose title was “Customer Relations Manager,” pleaded age, exhaustion, and medical issues (Jim’s back, my knees), and within 10 minutes we were exploring our new digs.

The Thistle Marble Arch, where we stayed, is a very nice hotel. The hotel rooms in Europe are much smaller than what we’re used to in the US, but still very comfortable. We could actually open our windows and look out to the street below, and we had all the amenities except coffee pot in the room and washcloths! Fortunately, there was a McDonald’s close by, so it was my early morning routine to take my walk and pick up large cups of coffee before we even showered.

The buffet breakfast provided by the hotel was plentiful but not particularly good. Neither of us is fond of the way the English prepare food – beef is overcooked, fish tends to be greasy, and some of the meat is mysterious – but there was always plenty of fruit and croissants, along with unlimited coffee and juices, so we did just fine.

The hotel bar – The Glen Miller Bar – was a friendly and welcoming place for us to stop each evening for a glass or two of wine and hors d’oeuvres. The wait staff always remembered what we drank and we really loved the atmosphere. The bar has lots of Glen Miller memorabilia, and is named for him since it was the hotel where his military regiment stayed, and where he slept the night before he left on his last mission. It was nice to be greeted after each day’s sightseeing by a bartender who remembered that Jim drinks red and Cheryle drinks white. A pleasant place.

Saturday was our first day officially touring. We did mostly “drive-bys,” giving us just a taste of the city along with a good bit of history. Our tour guide, Denise, was very efficient, funny, and very knowledgeable about the area. Since she lives there, I guess that isn’t surprising!

We saw the gorgeous memorial that Queen Victoria built to Prince Albert, the Tower Bridge, walked along the River Thames, and then drove by the buildings of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, where we stopped for a while, but didn’t go inside. We then made our way to Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard. The crowds around the castle are unbelievable – London has a huge daytime population, and it increases to almost unimaginable proportions when the tourists are included! We gathered across from where the Guard musters and watched them march down the street to the castle. I think the only way to get close enough to the fence to see them inside the grounds would be to arrive first thing in the morning for the noon change. We finished touring shortly after noon, and Jim returned to the hotel and I took off on my own.

With some help from Denise, I was able to figure out the tube and made my way to the Victoria and Albert Museum (known locally as “The V & A”) where I immersed myself in 600 years of Britain’s history. It was marvelous and I wished many times that Jim had come with me, but we would never have left! After the museum, I took a short walk to Harrod’s. There’s really no way to describe this, the mother of all department stores! Each room is themed, the food court is surrounded by cuts of nearly every meat and seafood imaginable, and there are guards at every turn. I made a few purchases, spent some time figuring out which bus I needed, and climbed on one of London’s famous double-decker buses to make my way back to the hotel.

Our plan for Sunday was for Jim to visit the War Memorial Museum while I attended Mass at Westminster Abbey. We then had a planned tour to the Tower of London. Jim was impressed by the museum, and saw many things he had only read about before. I was thrilled, awed, and somewhat unbelieving that I was actually attending Mass at the Abbey – the Mother Church for Episcopalians!
All went as scheduled, and we met up at the tour office at 2:00. We were unable to start the tour on time because of a traffic accident that had roads blocked off. Our bus driver backed our bus up for about four blocks in order to make our way out of the jam. Throughout the trip, we were all amazed at the skillful drivers we had, getting us out of tight places, around hairpin turns, and down unimaginably narrow streets!

Our tour began with a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s was the first cathedral built to be Church of England; all the ones prior had been Roman Catholic cathedrals and were taken over by Henry VIII when he separated from Rome. St. Paul’s was also a sign of hope for Londoners during WWII, and there were people who were specially designated to put out any fires started by German bombs. Each day the news that “St. Paul’s is okay” gave heart to a city badly in need of good news.
After St. Paul’s we headed to the Tower of London. One of the things that has amazed us is that, although many of these sites are familiar from the news, books, television shows, etc., they have still been very different from what we expected. Although there is a specific building called “The Tower,” it is part of a much larger complex referred to as “The Tower of London.” We didn’t make it to the Crown Jewels – the line was very long – but we did get to peek into a lot of historical places, including the monument where Anne Boleyn is believed to have been beheaded. We were also treated to the spring mating ritual of a couple of ravens who were conducting their amorous activities in the middle of the lawn!

We left St. Paul’s on a boat, ending our day’s activities with a ride on the Thames River. A thoroughly enjoyable day!

Catching up, briefly

Wow! It's been a long time, hasn't it? I'm going to beg your indulgence and post my travelogue of our trip to Europe in three parts: London, Paris, and Rome. We had a great time - as you will note if you decide to read them all.

But, as always, it's best to be back home.

Yesterday, we hosted a baby shower for my youngest son and daughter-in-law. It was so much fun and I always enjoy seeing my children's friends. All those high-school years I spent worrying about the people he ran around with are just distant memories now. He and his wife have a wonderful group of friends, and we had some family here, too.
We look forward to welcoming our little girl in just a few short weeks, but for now the lovely late Spring days make for a time of lazy anticipation.
I'll get back into the blogging routine soon!