Monday, October 31, 2011
Can I just point out something? You can pick almost any location on this planet and chances are there is going to be at least one pizza place nearby. The reason for this is obvious. Pizza tastes good. Now, answer this question. How many haggis huts have you encountered on your travels? Exactly.
One of my favourite things was the side dish of stewed plums that would be served every morning, ready to spoon over our breakfast porridge. I don't think this is necessarily just a Scottish thing, but I am giving the Scots full credit since that is where I was introduced to it.
Here's my recipe for "a wee taste of Scotland."
8 cups pitted plums (I used Italian prune plums)
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
the juice of one lemon
Bring all the ingredients to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. It's that simple.
The stewed plums can either be canned or put in the freezer. I ended up doing both (I had a plethora of plums).
I promised to include some links from the trip once I returned home. When I was travelling I was using a blogging app on my iPad called Blogsy. I highly recommend this app to anyone interested in blogging from their iPad. I should add it was possible to include links in a post when using the app, but I hadn't figured out how to do it before I left, which is why these links are coming to you now.
Our accommodation in London was through LSE Vacations. They open up student residences for travellers when university is not in session. The rates are fantastic, the locations are great, and the rooms are clean. It's the perfect combination! We were at Northumberland House, which was a one minute walk from Trafalgar Square.
Our walking holiday was booked through Glentrek. They did a great job of booking us accommodation and moving our luggage from point to point. If you are planning a walking tour in Scotland these are the people to contact!
The night before we started our walk on the Cateran Trail we stayed in the town of Blairgowrie at the Gilmore House B&B. This is where we were introduced to that amazing thing called a Perthshire Breakfast, including the stewed plums featured in this post.
The first day of our walk ended up in the village of Kirkmichael, where we stayed at the charming Strathardle Inn.
The next two nights we stayed at the Falls of Holm B&B. This is the B&B where I sat in front of the fireplace while the rain and wind raged outside, writing a blog post as Kath read aloud some Robert Burns poetry. It is a moment that will stay with me forever. I absolutely loved this B&B.
Of course this whole trip would never have happened if it hadn't been for my favourite blogger Jean Miles.
Reading her blog is what inspired me to visit Scotland, and she was the person who told me about the Cateran Trail. Meeting her in person was one of the highlights of my trip!
Thursday, October 27, 2011
After doing a bit of research, meaning I asked my walking partner what she did, I decided to try a kettle weight program. Not sure this was going to be something I would stick with I didn't want to spend a lot of money. I found a very reasonably priced program called Kettlenetics at Amazon.
This great idea happened back in July. The box has been sitting in the family room, unopened, until this week. Three months from the parcel being delivered to me opening it. No sense rushing into a new exercise program. After all, there is always the risk of injury.
Monday was the great unveiling of the contents. Feeling exhausted by this huge step forward in my fitness routine I decided to wait until Tuesday to actually watch the DVD and figure the program out.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Monday afternoon found us driving out of Spokane into the rolling hills of the Palouse. It was a beautiful fall day, with splashes of red and gold against the backdrop of the recently worked grain fields. Bev and Larry live amongst these rolling hills in a place that is as close to ideal as you could ever find. You will have to take my word for it since I forgot to take my camera.
A few days earlier Bev had had surgery for a detached retina. She was recovering nicely, but I think being confined to the house and having to keep still was beginning to wear thin. We had a great visit, but I have to admit it got off to a shaky - and I mean that quite literally - start.
The minute I sat down I started knitting on my current sock project. I knew Bev wouldn't care, as she is a knitter herself. Understandably the first topic of conversation was her eye. As she went into the details of the story I found myself feeling a little bit weak. You know that feeling - the one where suddenly you aren't sure if you have a spine, and your head goes a little fuzzy? Until that moment I had no idea that discussing eye surgery would make me feel that way. This was the first time it had ever come up in a conversation I was a part of.
Due to our medically complicated family I have lots of experience with GI and kidney issues, amputations and prosthetic limbs, with a few broken bones thrown in for good measure. Until the topic of eyes came up I would not have thought of myself as being squeamish. The funny thing was, in that moment I remembered Karsten telling me a couple years ago that the one thing he had trouble dealing with in the emergency room was an eye injury. It must be genetic. All I know is I was very thankful for my knitting needles, which I was holding onto like they were a lifeline.
In case you are wondering exactly what kind of needles I was hanging onto for dear life, they were inexpensive Hiya Hiya bamboo needles. They are my standard "go to" sock needles. I also like the Harmony double pointed needles from Knit Picks, which are also very reasonably priced.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but there probably isn't a brand of double pointed needles I haven't tried. This is just a small sample. If I threw them all down on the table it would take hours to sort them all back out again.
So here they are. If you go from left to right, that is from most expensive to least expensive, you have the Signature Needle Arts, Blackthorn, Harmonies, and Hiya Hiyas. If you want to go from most used to least used simply reverse that order.
I must say that as I was listening to the description of the eye surgery I would have been happy with any of these!
Saturday, October 15, 2011
During the war years Jay's mom Romaine was training to be a nurse. This picture of her was taken when she graduated from Vancouver General's nursing program in 1944.
Unbeknownst to her, the very day this picture was taken was the day her brother Wib was shot down. Two days later the Bentz family would receive the horrible telegram - the one every serviceman or woman's family lived in fear of - informing them that their beloved son and brother was missing in action. His official status did not change from "missing" to "killed in action" until the excavation of the bomber in 1997.
Now I am going to explain our family's connections to the Smith family I visited while I was in Kent, England. It also has its roots in World War 2, but is a much happier story. Romaine's parents (my husband's grandparents) were living in Medicine Hat, Alberta while Romaine was training to be a nurse way out west in Vancouver. There was a military base near Medicine Hat where pilots were being trained for the war. The RAF would send instructors over to the base, and one of those instructors, Fred Smith, boarded with Romaine's parents. Over the course of her visits home Romaine and Fred fell in love.
However, the war got in their way, as Fred was sent back to England while Romaine was in Canada coming to grips with the tragedy that had struck their family. They eventually decided it just wasn't meant to be, and they went their separate ways. Sort of.
Even though they had called off their relationship they kept in touch. We are talking about the 1940s, 50s and 60s here, so keeping in touch was limited to the occasional letter. When Jay's parents decided to travel to Britain in 1972 they contacted Fred and his wife Margaret and were able to visit in person. They also met Fred's brother and sister-in-law. That sister-in-law was Pat, the lovely lady I am with in this photo (the picture is taken at Chartwell, in the playhouse that belonged to Churchill's daughter).
Through the years our families have become quite close, and we have visited back and forth several times. But, as you can see, it is a complicated story. Which is why I am glad that immigration agent at Heathrow didn't start asking too many questions. If he thought the fact I was visiting someone named John Smith sounded a bit sketchy, imagine how he would have reacted to this tale of love, loss and enduring friendship.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Terminal 5 is used mainly by British Airways. This would have been fine except for one small detail. That was the airline I used to go to Luxembourg. It wasn't the airline I was using to fly home. Air Canada operates out of terminal 3, not 5. Heathrow is huge. The number 5 might be close to 3 when you count, but this isn't the case when you are talking about the layout of terminals at this airport. An analogy using cities would be someone driving a person to Toronto, only to arrive on the outskirts of the city and have that person say, "Oh, did I say Toronto? What I meant was Vancouver."
I still made it to my flight with plenty of time to spare. Once I cleared security I bought some water to have with me on the long journey home. About 45 minutes into the flight I was thirsty so I opened the bottle of water. I couldn't believe it as I sat holding an exploding geyser, one that was soaking my pants, my backpack and my knitting. Which brings me to an important travel tip. If you buy water to take on a flight do not accidentally buy sparkling water. It doesn't do well at high altitudes.
The plane was due to arrive around noon, and I had an hour and a half to connect with the small commuter flight up to Kamloops. The connection was a little tight, but I wasn't worried. Not, that is, until I checked the time and noted it was noon and we hadn't even started our descent into Vancouver. It turns out we had been flying into extremely strong headwinds the whole way and it had added on some extra flying time. Forty minutes of extra flying time. My connection time had just been upgraded from a little tight to almost impossible.
Still hopeful, the minute I got off the plane I ran, hoping I could beat the other passengers to customs. What I hadn't factored into this plan was that our flight coincided with the arrival of at least a dozen other international flights. The line moved slowly along, while the minutes on the clock screamed by. My turn finally came, and I was on the run again. I grabbed my backpack from the luggage carousel and quickly headed to the point where I needed to check it in for the connecting flight (I had to walk this portion due to the fact I was carrying about 35 pounds on my back). Once I handed off my backpack I sprinted the length of the airport to the far end where my plane was. This would have been challenging enough empty handed, but I had a carry on bag and a day pack with me.
I arrived at the gate, out of breath but hopeful. Everyone had boarded, but the plane was still there. The Air Canada lady saw me, opened the door, and waved me through. I reached into the side pocket of my pants to grab my boarding pass and was horrified to find it wasn't there. It must have fallen out when I was running. The lady said never mind, just go. As I was standing on the tarmac in front of the plane she called out to me, asking if I was someone I wasn't. Stupidly I said that no, I was not that person. I figured my name would be the next one she would call off her list. Big mistake. She told me I would have to go back inside.
I remained standing by my plane, saying I had a seat on it and could she please have them open the door. She refused. It turns out that Air Canada had already bumped me off that flight while I was airborne, having determined there was no way I could make my connection. I argued with her, pointing out that I had made it, that the plane was sitting right outside the door, and it had room for me. She answered by waving the plane on. Without me.
To say I was mad would be the observational equivalent of the captain of the Titanic announcing they would just be stopping off the coast of Newfoundland for a bit. I was given a $10 meal voucher and allowed to make a phone call home to say I would be on the 7:00 flight instead of the 2:00 one. When Jay answered the phone I told him what had happened and how mad I was. Jay responded by saying, "Well, since you are already angry I might as well tell you this now so you can get all your anger out at once."
Before I continue I have a wee bit of advice for husbands around the world: Not A Good Plan.
It turns out that David has temporarily moved back home. Please don't misunderstand. I love my kids. But there comes a time when having them live in your basement has lost its charm. I should have been suspicious when I saw the Facebook message from David saying he had bought me a present. The present turned out to be a box of Purdy's chocolates. When he gave them to me Saturday night I accused him of trying to bribe me, and he assured me that they were the chocolates he had promised me when I agreed to do the TV interview last spring. The fact that he couldn't say this with a straight face said it all.
It has been an amazing adventure, but I have to admit I am happy to be home. The fall colours in our neighbourhood are at their peak, I have a big batch of pizza sauce made with the last of my garden tomatoes simmering on the stove, and I was able to spend Canadian Thanksgiving with my family. And did I mention the chocolates were salted caramels?
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Friday was the last day of my big adventure. In the morning Pat, Jill, John and I headed out to Bodiam Castle. It is the quintessential Medieval castle. In fact, it looked so much like the Lego castle my boys played with when they were young I wondered if it had served as the model for the Lego version.
A lady dressed in period costume explained the clothing of that time. Think practical, not pretty.
Our next stop was Sissinghurst Castle. This was really more of a manor house than a castle, complete with a lovely garden.
Sprinkled throughout the countryside of Kent are circular buildings called oast houses. They were used to dry the hops as part of the brewing process. They reminded me a bit of landlocked lighthouses.
Friday night we were joined by Pat's daughter Linda and granddaughter Olivia at a local pub that served traditional English food. The names of some of the dishes sounded a bit sketchy. John ordered the dessert with the most worrisome title. As you can see from the picture it turned out to be different than one might have expected.
I went to bed Friday evening feeling quite sad that my big adventure was almost over. It was the trip of a lifetime, and had exceeded my expectations in every possible way. As I drifted off to sleep I thought of how incredible it was that I had just spent three weeks traipsing around Scotland, England and Luxembourg without a single thing going wrong. However, I wasn't quite home yet.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
I landed back at Heathrow on Wednesday, where I was met by an old friend and a new friend. What my old friend had neglected to warn me about was his name - John Smith. When I was going through customs I handed in my landing card, minus the address stating where I would be staying. The reason I left it blank was I didn't have it. I knew I was being picked up at the airport, and had a phone number in case I needed to get in touch. It never crossed my mind to have jotted down John's street address.
When the rather somber customs guy asked me where I was staying I said Kent. Apparently he thought this wasn't specific enough and asked me exactly where in Kent I would be. I said I didn't know. Then he asked if I knew the name of the person I was staying with. Relieved that it was a question I could answer, I smiled and said, "John Smith." He didn't smile back.
Instead, he gave me a disbelieving look and asked if that was really the name of the person. I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy. Not quite sure what the guy's problem was, I told him that yes, that really was the name of the person. This led to a lecture about how, in England, if someone got stopped by the police and didn't want them to know his real identity he would say he was "John Smith." It wasn't until I pulled out my iPad and showed him I did indeed have an email with a phone number that he allowed me to go on through.
John's partner Jill was waiting for me at the arrival area, while John kept his car moving out front so as to avoid paying parking fees. (I was glad the customs guy didn't witness this!) Jill and I hit it off immediately. She is a lovely person, and we shared a lot of good laughs together (scumbags!!).
The Queen continued to avoid me. Wednesday afternoon we went to Windsor Castle to see her but she wasn't home. So much for tea.
Thursday found us at Chartwell, which was the home of Winston Churchill. We went through the house, walked through his gardens, and viewed some of his paintings. I was amazed to learn he did over 500 in his lifetime! He even took his painting supplies with him when he traveled. The brick wall in the bottom right picture was built by Churchill, and the lovely lady in the black sweater and red shirt is Pat, John's mom.
There was a Canadian connection that day too. We went to Quebec House, the childhood home of General Wolfe.
We got back to John and Jill's in time to go for a walk through Swanley Village, the picturesque community where they live. Those are bee hives in the middle picture on the bottom. I was interested to see these in the village, as there is a move to have them allowed within the Kamloops city limits.
Then it was home for a cup of tea. They are much more hospitable than the Queen.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Covering just under 2600 square kilometers (1000 square miles), Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in the world. It might be small in geographic terms, but it is immense when it comes to history.
The Mergen's home is located in Diekirch, a village with about 6000 people living in it. Much of the village is built over Roman ruins. The Mergen's house happens to be built over a Roman hospital. They casually mentioned this to me in a conversation as of it was quite normal for one's home to be built over Roman ruins. I guess when you live in Diekirch that is the case, but I live in Canada. The Romans didn't quite make it this far.
This mosaic is just one example of what the ancient Romans left behind. It is a strange feeling to walk across the cobblestones knowing there are Roman ruins buried beneath.
The National Museum of Military History is located in Diekirch. Most of the museum is dedicated to World War 2. Luxembourg was occupied by Nazi Germany during the war, and in the final months of the war the Battle of the Bulge was partially fought on their soil. Visitors from all over the world come to see the museum, including many US soldiers who fought in that battle.
Almost seven decades later it is still an emotional experience for Ernie and Monique to speak of that horrible time. When they tell their stories it is as if it had just happened yesterday. The memories they share are heart wrenching, and told with such fine detail that you feel yourself drawn back to that time in history.
Monique talked about how her family had to flee on a moment's notice because the battle was overtaking their village. Her mom had to make instant decisions as to what they would carry away with them. These were decisions that could mean the difference between life and death. Imagine having fifteen minutes to decide what your family would need to survive while hiding in a cave or the woods, keeping in mind you had to be able to fit it all into your small cart. Monique said this diorama at the museum perfectly captures what it was like.
She also shared a more light-hearted memory. When the American soldiers arrived they were trying to give the children a strange looking object. They didn't know what it was, so were hesitant to take it. The soldiers used gestures to show them it was something to eat. It was the first time in her life that Monique ate chocolate. She said she will never forget the kindness of the Americans.
There were also stories they shared that had no dioramas illustrating them, stories that were too awful to bring to life in that way. Stories of family members that were sent to the concentration camps - beloved grandparents and an older brother. Stories about seeing posters displayed by the German soldiers naming the boys they had shot that morning because they refused to serve in the German army. Stories of fear and hunger. Stories of life and death.
My final evening in Luxembourg was spent with Frank's family. I was so happy to finally be able to meet his wife Marie Ann, and their children - Catherine, Claire and Paul. I think I now have two kindred spirits in Luxembourg. Marie Ann is a knitter! Not only that, she is interested in cooking with whole, healthy, local foods. For dinner I was served some local cheeses, along with local wine and bread. Her son Paul contributed the cherry tomatoes for a vegetable dish and I think he was very proud of that fact. Catherine is only at the start of her second year of studying English, but already speaks fluently. I was impressed, especially given my rather dismal performance learning Chinese. Claire was a sweetheart, and I was so happy to be seated next to her at dinner. It was an evening of sharing stories, laughter and friendship. A lovely way to close out my short visit to Luxembourg.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
I won't lie. Kath and I both cried when we said goodbye at Heathrow Airport. She headed back to her home in Idaho, and I was Luxembourg bound. It was a very lonely feeling to suddenly find myself on my own. A bit scary too, given my gift for getting lost.
My reason for traveling to Luxembourg was simple. I was going to visit some very dear friends, friends I had not seen in over 15 years. The story of how that friendship came to be is not quite so simple. Some 25 years ago, when Jay was the regional fisheries biologist in the far north of British Columbia he received a letter. This letter had been written by a student from Luxembourg who was studying pharmacy in Belgium. The student, Frank Mergen, was interested in coming to Canada to fish and wanted some information.
This letter came not long after Jay had discovered the location where his uncle's Halifax bomber had been shot down over Belgium during World War 2. In Jay's response to Frank he mentioned this discovery. Curious, Frank went out to the site a few weeks later. This set in motion something bigger than either Jay or Frank could have imagined at that time. The crash site was eventually excavated, the remains of the bomber crew recovered, followed by a full military funeral for the crew in Belgium. Veteran's Affairs arranged for the immediate family members of the crew to be flown over for the funeral. It was an emotional experience for everyone involved.
We also came to know Frank's parents, Ernie and Monique, and a close friendship has developed with them as well as their son Frank. It had been many years since I had been able to visit with them in person so I decided there was no way I could be as close as the UK and not cross over to the continent to say hello. Ernie and Monique are very special people. Ernie is a gentleman, and during my stay with them I was reminded over and over again of my dad. And Monique is, as Anne of Green Gables would say, a "kindred spirit."
I was treated like royalty for my stay. In keeping with that theme, on my first day I was taken to visit a castle in Vianden. It was a spectacular site, looming over the village below. It was made even more spectacular by the fall colours on the surrounding hillsides.
Before we toured the castle we had lunch in the village. I had been warned not to get my cholesterol levels checked right after I had eaten in Luxembourg, and now I understand why. A mouth-watering main dish with chicken in a cream sauce, covered by a puff pastry was followed up by vanilla ice cream. This might not sound like a spectacular dessert, but I should add that the two generous scoops of homemade ice cream were made with 100% cream. Just cream, sugar and little brown flecks of vanilla. I think I better delay scheduling that cholesterol test until 2012.
After the castle we drove up a narrow country road to catch the view and were surprised to see a group of guys getting ready to go paragliding. We watched while they made a running start, lifting off the ground just before the abrupt edge. It was beautiful seeing their brightly coloured sails against the blue sky, with the river and valley bottom below.
It was a picture perfect day!
Sunday, October 2, 2011
After our meet-up with Jean we decided to explore Edinburgh Castle. Last night while sitting in our hotel room in London we rated various parts of our trip. This castle tied for first place in our "favourite historic site" category with The Churchill War Rooms, which pretty much sums up how fantastic it was.
Walking down the Royal Mile we went by these mirrors that captured the before and after effects of eating one too many Perthshire breakfasts.
Edinburgh is a beautiful city, and it would have been nice to have had a few more days there to explore.
On day two we visited the Scottish National Gallery where we got to see depicted on canvas scenes very similar to those we had walked through in the Highlands. A whole day could have been spent there admiring the artwork! Next we headed to the National Museum of Scotland. This won in our category of "best museum." Shocking, I know, but it actually scored considerably higher than the British Museum in the Hammond/Howard rating scale. I especially loved the Pictish stones. Their designs reminded me of knitted cables.
On our way to the museum Kath happened to glance across the street and saw a familiar name. It was The Elephant House, the tea and coffee house where J.K. Rowling wrote some of her Harry Potter novels. Do you suppose writing genius could be contagious? Hoping to catch even a mild case, we headed in for a bite to eat. By the way, the bar with chocolate on top is what I ordered. It is called millionaire shortbread, and is Scottish in origin. Oh my. In what had to be a first for me, I actually didn't finish the whole bar because it was so rich. Also, notice the chip (or, if you are in the UK, crisp) flavour: ham and English mustard. I could do a whole blog post on odd flavoured chips!
In one of those great accidents that can happen when traveling, we walked by a church and discovered they were about to do a Celtic tour. It was free and sounded interesting, so we tagged along. Our expectations weren't high, but this ended up being a fascinating glimpse into the religious history of Edinburgh. They even offered free tea and coffee at the end of the tour but sadly we couldn't stay. We had happened upon the church tour on our way to the Whisky tour, and needed to hurry if we were going to make it before it closed. Rather shocking, I know.
Many pubs and restaurants advertised "haggis, neeps and tatties." We didn't partake, having given haggis a try in Kirkmichael. Once was enough for haggis, but not for the cider Jean introduced us to!
Our farewell evening in Scotland was picture perfect. As we walked through the area in front of the National Gallery on our way to catch the bus we heard the sound of bagpipes. A street band was playing, and there was a crowd of people sitting and enjoying the music. We joined them, and not too long after we sat down a group of young people started doing a traditional dance. I couldn't have written a better ending to our time in Scotland. I am just sorry it wasn't a longer story.