Category Archives: Travels

England-related thoughts and musings [edited/updated]

One of my favourite things about England is all the footpaths. They’re everywhere: in the countryside, in the middle of cities (there are 120,000 miles of them, according to Bill Bryson). I love walking and the idea of stepping out of my door and within a few blocks being able to find footpaths that would take me through field and forest is wonderful. I realize I live in the countryside here, but walking is limited mostly to the gravel roads, unless I want to drive to a park in a city somewhere. Gravel roads aren’t nearly as nice as footpaths and trails. I envy the British their footpaths. There were a couple of occasions I desperately—well, that’s perhaps too strong a word—wanted to wander down a wooded path, but instead had to be driven somewhere else.

* * *

British television is far superior to North American television (speaking in general and subjective terms, of course). I’m thinking of the BBC programs that I have binge-watched on Netflix: Sherlock, Foyle’s War, Inspector George Gently, Wallander, Doc Martin, and The Bletchley Circle. All of them seem much more interested in character and plot and mood than flash and style. Granted, we haven’t had regular television in six or more years, but every time we visit my in-laws or stay in a hotel I realize how right Bruce Springsteen is: “57 chanels (and nothin’ on)”. Perhaps the same is true in England and it’s just that I’ve managed to have all the crap filtered out first. And I guess we have MythbustersMantracker, Jeopardy, Sienfeld (reruns) and—my current favourite, though it’s not actually on television as such—Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

In England we watched a couple of fun game-shows with my aunt and uncle: Pointless and Two Tribes, both of which were fun and informative, neither of which would likely make it in North America (not least, I suspect, because prizes won’t exceed a couple of thousand dollars). And since coming home, I’ve discovered QI (“Quite Interesting”), a panel show hosted by Stephen Fry. The idea of the program is to talk about interesting and obscure things, points awarded for interesting things said (even if completely off topic), points deducted for boring or obvious answers. It’s basically a show about everything and nothing at the same time, filled with English accents and idiom. I love it!

* * *

Tea!

So much of it! So inexpensive! So tasty!

I purchased 2 pounds of my favourite tea (Yorkshire Gold), a box of 240 P.G. Tips tea bags, and another box of 80 Yorkshire Tea bags (because it came in a fun caddy). All of it for a fraction of the cost of buying the same stuff in Canada! No matter that I already had 3 pounds of my favourite tea sitting in our cold room at home!

* * *

I was surprised by all the litter, particularly in London, but in other areas as well. I saw people throw garbage over their shoulders at the train station and down subway stairwells in London, and many more just leaving their trash wherever they were sitting. It’s not entirely the people’s fault, though: London seems to be almost completely devoid of garbage cans (or, rather, “rubbish bins”). I think this surprised me because in my mind’s eye all of western Europe is almost spotlessly clean, though I couldn’t tell you where this idea comes from.

* * *

About three-quarters of the way through our trip I thought I might have gotten over my Anglophilia, but that was short-lived. It’s back full-force: tea and accents and British television and streets and houses. All of it.

My favourite thing right now is the British tendency to turn statements of fact into questions by adding an “…isn’t it?” or a “…weren’t they?” or the like to a sentence. It somehow makes conversation much more interesting and inclusive. Delightful! I wish I was British! Alas, it isn’t nearly as delightful with a Canadian accent, is it?

I’ve been watching a lot of QI in the last couple of weeks. Maybe the panelists aren’t representative of British English as a whole, but it seems like it’s not just turning statements into questions. There seems to be a tendency to add extra words at the end of a sentence which North Americans tend not to do. For example, “What’s the correct answer, then?”, where—I think—would be more likely to ask the same question by emphasizing the word “correct”: “What’s the correct answer?” Another example: “I like it very much, indeed,” where a Canadian would likely say it without the “indeed.” I don’t know what it is about this that I like so much.

* * *

In Notes from a Small Island Bill Bryson complains that every British town centre looks identical, because they all have a Boots, a Marks & Spencer, and a WHSmith. It’s interesting how familiarity really does breed contempt. The stores Bryson mentions are the equivalent of Canada’s Shopper’s Drug Mart, Safeway, and…well, I don’t think we have the equivalent of WHSmith (a stationer/newsagent) anymore, thanks to Staples. And yet I liked seeing these stores. They were unfamiliar and therefore, in a way, unique, a novelty.

But, given that it’s the equivalent of our Superstore, I can’t imagine what some of our fellow passengers on the train to London thought if they overheard me telling Dixie, tapping on the window with no small amount of excitement, “Hey, look! A Tesco’s!” (I can’t imagine what I’d think if a visitor from overseas exclaimed, “Hey look! A Walmart!”)

The warmth of memory

Last year at this time Dixie and I would have been in the middle of our dinner at the St. Paul Hotel (?). We would have already seen Wallace Shawn walk in and out of the restaurant and I would have already spilled most of my glass of wine into the purse belonging to the lady at the table next to ours. We would have been in St. Paul for 24 hours or so already, having had breakfast at Mickey’s Diner and done some shopping at the Mall of America, and been in the audience for this episode of A Prairie Home Companion.

That weekend has quickly become one of my favourite memories–one of those special moments that will forever have a warmth to it as it comes to mind. I have a number of these moments, all of them occurring during my married years, so they are all Dixie and me and sometimes the kids.

There was the Thanksgiving weekend with Dixie’s family, including Granny and Grandpa, at the cabin on Christopher Lake. It was a beautiful cool-but-not-cold autumn, the aspens still holding on to most of their bright yellow leaves, but the musty smell of drying and decomposing leaves nevertheless filling the air. We’d go for sauntering walks on the ski trails nearby, grandpa too. We’d snooze on the deck overlooking the lake. We’d play games.

There was the weekend Dixie and I spent at the mineral spa in Manitou Beach. The mineral spa wasn’t all that impressive (floating around in extra buoyant water is only interesting for so long). However, the Saturday night of that weekend we went to Danceland, famous for one of the last original hardwood-on-horsehair dance floors.

We spent the evening dancing polkas and the charleston and a number of other styles. The lighting, the general atmosphere, the dancing in the crowd of mostly seniors and retirees. Something about that evening was magical and it remains with me as one of those moments.

There were particular locations in our 10th anniversary trip to England–our London hotel, early morning market in Oxford, cream tea in Lyme Regis.

There are others I’m sure that aren’t coming to mind at the moment. Memories that stick with me in a way that other memories do not. And as much as I may want to recreate that experience, as much as I wish I could do that again, these moment can never be truly recreated. Having been done before, they will already have lost that edge of newness, and expectation–something that wasn’t there before these moments were experienced the first time–tends to undermine the effort of recreation. That’s what makes these moments special I think–because we don’t see them coming. They just happen and until you’ve experienced it you won’t know that it’ll be one of those moments.

I’ve marked this date in Google calendar for every year in perpetuity. It’ll send me an email reminder every year at this time. And every year around September 24, I’ll listen to a recording of that show and I’ll think of our time together in St. Paul, Minnesota. The show, the diner, the Italian bistro around the corner from our hotel, Garrison Keillor’s bookstore in the basement of a building up the hill and beyond the Anglican cathedral. The memory will stir feelings deep inside me, and I will think of that time with joy and fondness and also a bit of sadness, because as beautiful as that memory is, that moment can never be relived outside of my memory.

But that’s probably a good thing, I guess. That moment is probably best as a memory. Memory has probably shaped in a way that may not even reflect the reality of the moment–or perhaps it’s not that it has been reshaped, but that memory has teased out the things that one doesn’t catch in the moment.

Quiet now… Garrison is singing.

Lots of news.

I suppose it’s time for me to say something about what’s next for us. I’m generally inclined to keep things like this to myself until such time as it feels right to talk about it, and that takes time to build as I process and begin to understand my own feelings and perceptions and let things settle in me. And I also kinda sorta wanted to wait for the official letter from the church, more as a formality than anything, or maybe as something to confirm that this is really real (’cause it’s a bit surreal). It’s easier to keep things from you, dear readers, but not so easily from friends who have traveled with us on this journey and who know the stages we are at and want to know what’s happening. And information is seeping its way out into the world, by word-of-mouth, Facebook, etc. (and Dixie writing a post about it today).

So I’ve been called to The Field. That’ll mean something to some of you and nothing to others. So: I’ve been called by a church in a field quite literally in the middle of nowhere (that is, it is not in or near a town). Plopped in a field in the middle of the the Wetaskiwin-Camrose-Ponoka triangle of Alberta. It’s called Malmo Mission Covenant Church.

It’s an associate pastor position, with responsibilities for youth, families, discipleship, intergenerational stuff, etc. A pretty broad position, in my view (hold the weight jokes, folks), with room for growth and learning and change and shaping. I’m quite excited (and nervous) about that. This is a process that started last fall sometime when I put my name into my denomination’s “system.” That was followed by phone calls, interviews, prayer, votes, and so on. Well, I suppose it goes back farther than that and even farther still.

The name of the church may sound familiar to some of you. That’s because it’s the one Randall is pastoring. That’s what makes this additionally surreal. Randall was there when the stirring began and had a big part to play in my developing sense of “calling.” To work with my friend, mentor, former pastor, and someone with experience and wisdom to share is quite a privilege as well.

So, the Vanderfamily will be moving to Alberta. When we got the announcement of the church’s vote while traveling in the car a couple of weeks ago, I said to the kids, “I got the job in Alberta. What do you guys think of that?” And Luke replied, “Okay I guess. But we’ll miss you.”

Adorable! Funny! So innocent! Or should I be concerned that he seemed unphased, that it didn’t seem like a big deal that Daddy was going away while they stayed here?

In some sense we have been for some time now carrying the burden of our childrens’ grief at moving away from their friends. Particularly Madeline’s. But the kids are excited at the prospect of this new adventure. I don’t think it has quite hit us yet that we are leaving friends as well. We’ve built some lasting ones here and it will be difficult to leave them. Of course, if we weren’t leaving them, they’d eventually be leaving us. That’s the nature of friendships made at educational institutions. But I do think that I am at least subconsciously beginning to grieve, if such a thing is possible. So I’m worried a bit that this post will sound too melancholic for what is actually good and exciting news. The excitement is building with each day, but that doesn’t mean grieving doesn’t get added to the mix.

A new chapter. A new adventure. A new home. A new community. New friends. New experiences. New joys. New mistakes. New successes. New lessons. Lots of news in the next couple of months.

We’ve found a place just when we’re leaving.

In some senses it’s a shame that we’re likely moving out of Manitoba just when we’re settling a bit. I guess at the moment I’m thinking mostly about the fact that we’ve found a place of our own to retreat to.

If we were staying in this fair province, we would probably make an annual pilgrimage to Falcon Lake and Falcon Trails Resort:

Kids on the dock
We all love it there.

Falcon Lake, 2012

Last week was the kids’ spring break. No school for a week. What do you do with three energetic young children in a small trailer in a transitional season (i.e. neither snow nor beach weather)? Dixie threw around a couple of options, all of which involved a lot of travelling and, ultimately, exhaustion. Then Dixie suggested a couple of nights at Falcon Lake. Agreed! And less than two hours away!

A year and a half ago we spent Thanksgiving weekend in a cabin on Falcon Lake (post and videos). It was an great weekend and has established itself in my mind as one of those few special memories that can’t be replicated. In fact, I worried a bit that this weekend, if it didn’t go well, would undo the memory of the first weekend there. That did not happen.

The weather forecasts leading up to this weekend were all over the map, starting with hot and sunny and moving to cool and rainy. We got the middle: cool and sunny. The weather was actually great for walks and much time spent on the dock.

Madeline’s favourite place:

Sitting on the Dock

Unfortunately, as early as our spring has been, the ice was not yet melted on Falcon Lake, so we did no canoeing this time. We were all disappointed. You can see the ice is almost right up to the dock. By the time we left, the ice was well beyond the crack in the ice above Madeline’s head. I imagine by Easter weekend it’ll be open water.

But we relaxed. And we hot-tubbed.

In the hot tub

And we played games.

Uno

And we threw lots of rocks at and onto the ice.

Rock throwing

And we went for walks along the lake.

Family Portrait

And we read. And we napped.

On Monday, we realized that we were so close to the Ontario border that it would be silly of us not to cross it. Madeline at first didn’t believe us that we were going to Ontario. She thought we were joking, that we were just going to a city called “Ontario”. Then we got to the “Welcome to Ontario” sign.

Quick trip to Ontario

We briefly considered driving to Kenora, which was just 45kms away, but we had no good reason to do so beyond being able to say that we went to Kenora. So we didn’t.

All in all it was a good, relaxing weekend.

(More pictures here.)

A Prairie Home Trip

PROLOGUE

Last weekend, Dixie and I left the kids at home with a friend and made the journey down to St. Paul, Minnesota to attend a taping of A Prairie Home Companion (APHC) with Garrison Keillor. Never heard of it? It doesn’t surprise me. Most people I know haven’t heard of it.

APHC is an old-time radio variety show. Garrison Keillor began the program in 1974. With some changes and a short hiatus, it has been going for 37 years. It combines music (often with famous musical guests), comedy-dramas, and humourous stories and monologues. Imagine CBC’s Vinyl Cafe, but more old-timey, twice as long, and much better (I like to think Stuart McLean is inspired by Keillor’s show). We showed a friend some video clips of the show, and she said, flatly, “That’s what you drove eight hours to see? Well, good for you guys.” Obviously, she didn’t see the value. Another said, after I told him about the trip, “That sounds like something parents would do.” I’m okay with that. There are times when I’m an old man at heart.

I first heard of Garrison Keillor in high school. Our art teacher would play his “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues while we painted and made pottery. Lake Wobegon is a fictional Minnesota created by Keillor (he has written books based on these stories). It is mostly populated with Norwegian Lutherans (although there is a Catholic Church–“Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility”). His stories follow the everyday adventures of the townspeople. I fell in love with these stories immediately. Dixie also grew up listening to “The News from Lake Wobegon”. I copied her parents cassettes of the stories and we spent hours listening to them on road trips. Later I bought all the CDs.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered APHC the radio show in which the Lake Wobegon stories are told. It has been playing on National Public Radio since 1974. I started listening to archived shows available on their website. Then the film, starring Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep, was released in 2006. It’s fictionalized account of the program, it’s quite an accurate in its representation, except that some of the characters on the real-life radio show were made into real people in the film version. Dixie and I both love the film.

Since we moved out here two years ago, we have been talking about going down to St. Paul to catch a taping before the show goes off the air. We would never be this close again, as far as we knew. So when the opportunity arose, we jumped on it. We also happened to discover that Garrison Keillor has announced his retirement in 2013. The show wouldn’t be the same without him; I imagine his retirement will mean the end of the show as well.

* * *

THE TRIP

After my Friday afternoon class, Dixie and I hopped into the van and headed south. We live only about 45 minutes from the American border. Border guards are not friendly folk, are they? I think they’re paid to be cranky. I thought maybe she was angry with me for interrupting her smoke break. She didn’t crack a smile.

We soon discovered that speed limits on U.S. secondary highways aren’t the same as on the Canadian equivalent. We had planned to take the 59, which runs south from Winnipeg, about 2 miles east of Otterburne. The 59 would take us to Detroit Lakes, MN, where we would head east on the U.S. 10. We didn’t like the idea of driving 90kph the whole way when we are used to driving 112kph (based on the functional Canadian speed limits). We filled up with gas just south of the border. The attendants told us we could drive 20mph (30kph) faster if we took the interstate, which was 30 kms west of us. And that’s exactly what we did. Better psychologically, but probably didn’t save us any time.

This is getting too detailed…

We arrived at our hotel at about 10:30pm and went straight to bed. The next morning walked a couple of blocks to Mickey’s Dining Car. It’s a 24 hour/365 day diner that’s been in operation since 1937. It’s really a greasy spoon–not very clean, but quaint. It’s on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Breakfast was delicious.

Outside Mickey's Diner

I’ve always wanted to eat at the counter in a diner.

Diner-Marc

There was a lady with a small child there when we arrived. The child was wandering around and the mother said, “Go back to the seat. You shouldn’t be ‘wacking’ around the aisles.” A true Minnesotan woman, I guess.

Diner-Dixie

In the background behind Dixie (to her left) is the booth where Meryl Streep sat with the other cast members in the film.

Afterwards we drove out to the Mall of America. It’s apparently bigger than the West Edmonton Mall, but once inside it really didn’t feel that way. It was quite tastefully arranged, actually. I rarely felt like I was in a massive temple to consumerism . No–actually, I did (what economic downturn?), but it was a tasteful temple. Not boxy, but lots of curves and soft colours. Dixie bought some boots. I bought a cast-iron teapot.

After the Mall of America we got ready for the show, which started at 4:45. It’s broadcast live. The in-studio audience gets 15 minutes of extra music and talk. They play a couple of numbers, Garrison Keillor does a bit of talking–letting us know what is coming up in the show, a practice run of a song or two which we are to sing along with during the chorus. And then the broadcast show begins.

Beginning of the show

Lives of the Cowboys

Some more pictures here. We discovered on our arrival that the camera had unfortunately been on for who knows how long and our battery was nearly dead. So we were unable to take many pictures.

We waited for Garrison afterwards. He did eventually come out, but it seems that he had to get to the opera, where his wife plays in the orchestra. I’m pretty sure he deliberately avoided eye-contact with his fans (with, I am sure, feelings of deep regret).

Click here to listen to the archive of the broadcast we attended. Listen on some quiet evening at home. Get a cup of coffee or tea, dim the lights, sit in a comfortable chair and put your feet up or lay on the couch, and take in the warm, down-home sounds of A Prairie Home Companion.

The show really was wonderful. I’m glad we went. I will say quite honestly, though, that being in the live audience is not much different than sitting at home and listening on the radio/internet. The show really is directed at the radio audience (contrary to what I told Andrew)–Garrison wanders around, technical people walk onto stage with papers for Garrison to read, Garrison gestures to offstage people during songs, etc. It was really an interesting experience, but not ultimately that different than the at-home experience. This is, I suppose, just as it should be. And you know what? I’d go back in a second.

Afterwards we walked to the St. Paul Grill, where we had an extravagant and delicious supper. It’s the kind of place where you have to order all your side dishes separately, otherwise you’ll end up with a steak on an otherwise empty plate. Dixie tells me the technical term for this is “a la carte”. The tip for that meal was the same amount as the entire cost of that morning’s breakfast (including tip) at Mickey’s.

As a bonus, I accidentally spilled half of my glass of wine on the floor and some of it splashed into the purse belonging to the lady at the table next to ours. Then they replaced that glass with a full one at no charge (a benefit of a hoity-toity restaurant?). And THEN Wallace Shawn walked by. That’s right–the “Inconceivable!” guy from The Princess Bride! He’s actually a respected stage actor, but I thought it would be funny to walk up to him and praise him for obscure and non-artsy work he’s done. “I loved your voice-over work in The Incredibles!” or “I always thought the strongest episodes of The Cosby Show were the ones with you in them.” Of course, I didn’t say anything to him. Because I’m intimidated by even M-list celebrities. And he was wearing intimidating artsy-fartsy clothing: black pants and shoes; a black turtleneck cotton shirt.

The next day we drove to the Cathedral Hill area, where Garrison Keillor lives. We didn’t find (or, in fact, look for) his house. However, he is the proprietor of an independent bookstore–Common Good Books–and we went there. Cathedral Hill is a beautiful area of St. Paul, filled with Victorian homes and coffee shops and Mr. Keillor’s excellent bookshop. It’s got the largest poetry section I’ve ever seen in a bookstore–it was easily 4 or 5 times the size of any other section there. And his own books? They’re tucked away, way back in a little out-of-the-way nook with the travel literature. We spent more than an hour there. Bought some books.

Afterwards, we checked out of our hotel and had lunch at an Italian bistro down the block. I order an Italian beer to wash down my slice of pizza. AND I WAS I.D.ed! First time. Unbelievable, with this beard. I’m a grizzly bear.

Then we went to Target. Basically Zellers with a different name. They won’t have much work to do when they convert Zellers in Canada.

And then we went home, this time by way of the 59/10. It was just as fast.

The shema, the mezuzah, and Mitch.

We wandered through the Summerland farmer’s market. There was a booth there of photographs, many of which were of scenes in Jerusalem. One of them stood out to me. It was a portion of a stone wall with the shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) written on it in Hebrew.

The artist and proprietor of the booth, a large, friendly guy with a decidedly artsy look about him, saw me looking at the photographs and said, “This guy looks like a graphic artist. Are you a graphic artist?”

“No, I’m not. But thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

I walked by to talk to Dixie, but I was intrigued by his photography, so I returned to his booth. I was carrying my CBC-Radio Canada bag. He asked me if I worked for CBC. I can’t remember exactly what he said–something about a “fuckin'” something. Funny how that word still stands out to me when uttered casually by strangers.

I said that, no, I don’t work for the CBC. I told him the bag was obtained at a gift shop. “In fact, I think my wife bought it at an airport.”

All the people at the farmer’s market are, of course, trying to sell something, and rightly so. Yet I can be a cynic at the best of times, and I’m immediately suspicious of sales people. This guy seemed a little too friendly. Probably working me.

“So what do you do then?”

“I’m a student.”

“What kind of student?”

“I’m in seminary.”

“Seminary! Ah, so that’s why you’re interested in all these Jerusalem scenes!”

“Yes, I just noticed the shema in this picture. Is it incomplete?”

“No, it’s there: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eluheynu, Adonai echad. You know the shema?”

“Sort of–not really well. Is that modern Hebrew? I would expect there to be a he here.”

We talked about this for a few seconds. Then he said, “Let’s say the shema together.”

“I don’t know it that well.”

“I’ll say it and you’re with me so it’s together.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, closed his eyes, and rattled off the shema from memory like he prays it every day. And not just the part about loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength, but all the way through the part about wearing it on your head and putting it on your door posts.

I was a bit awkward through this whole exchange. I’ve never known how to deal with such outgoing, energetic and uninhibited people. I also didn’t know exactly what was going on with him saying the shema. It all happened so fast. One minute he’s cussing, the next he’s saying the shema in Hebrew. Was he praying? The way he put his hand on my shoulder and closed his eyes, speaking Hebrew in the middle of the Summerland farmer’s market crowd, he certainly seemed sincere.

And suddenly I was ashamed of my prejudice. I was angry that immediately I viewed this guy as no more than a huckster, a scheister. I was frustrated with my inherent discomfort with strangers, my unwillingness to be open with them, to show a manner of hospitality for those few moments.

I really liked the photograph. The first portion of the shema written on stone at the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem with a mezuzah–a box containing a parchment with the shema in it–cemented into the stone below it. Unfortunately, his full-sized photographs were priced at more than one hundred dollars. This one was one of the least expensive, but still–a hundred dollars.

“Here,” he said, fumbling through his collection. “Here’s one all rolled up and ready to go. It’s the one hundred dollar size, but because it’s a bit beat up and you’re a student, it’s yours for twenty bucks.”

“What’s it like inside?” I asked. It was taped shut. “Oh, it’s taped. You don’t have to open it.”

“No, I can open it. But if you and I trust in the same Guy…” he continued, pointing upwards. He said something about trusting that the picture was in good shape. He wandered off to find a knife. He came back and unrolled the photograph. It was bit creased and damaged around the edges, but good enough.

“Do you take cash?” I asked.

“I take cash, but I won’t return it!” he replied, laughing.

I bought the picture. We carried on for a while. He told me he had studied Torah in Jerusalem for five years. I was wearing a Michigan State t-shirt–blue with a big yellow “M” on it.

“You know what the ‘M’ stands for, don’t you?” he said. “Moses.”

I thanked him, nearly walked away from his hand, outstretched to shake mine. As I walked away, my mild xenophobia and judgmentalism continued to bother me. I overheard him talking to someone else about his rabbi. This guy–Mitch is his name–seemed like the real deal.

I wandered back and forth around the farmer’s market, hoping for another opportunity to talk to him. About what, I have no idea. Maybe ask him about his Jewish faith? Maybe about his travels? His photography gear? Who knows. I would have awkwardly fumbled through something. I just wanted to talk to him again, to somehow redeem what I thought was very apparent discomfort around him. I wanted to let him know that I was interested in him, that I did seem him as a human being. I had some weird guilt to deal with. Or maybe he was just charismatic enough, just interesting enough that I felt a pull towards him.

A little later, he spotted me and walked up.

“You know what just happened? Someone said, ‘I’ll be back.’ I’ve heard lots of ‘I’ll be back’s, but this person actually came back. And look what’s in her hand–that same shema picture, the one hundred dollar one on cardboard! You know what that is? Min hashamayim! Do you know what that means, min hashamayim?”

The words sounded so familiar, but I needed a minute to collect my thoughts, shift them into Hebrew.

“It sounds familiar. I’m trying to remember.”

He was walking back to his booth, to talk to the person who had just bought the picture. I imagined that perhaps he thought I was the fraud, the scheister, because I had said I knew the shema and studied Hebrew, but could remember little if anything during our conversation.

Suddenly it came to me.

“‘From the…from the heavens’! It means ‘From the heavens!'”

But he didn’t hear me. He was too far away, and was already talking to the other customer. He called me over and introduced me to the customer. I can’t remember what he said–there was some connection between us.

I had heard this customer ask for his card, so I did the same.

“Do you have a website?”

“Two websites. Unfortunately, my parents just died and I buried them, so I have no money and the sites are down. They cost about a thousands dollars a month to run.”

He gave me his card, wrote his name and phone number on the back. He told me and the other customer about a film he had been involved with in L.A. He said he was the cinematographer. I thanked him again and headed back to mom’s place. There I went straight to the computer, thinking that perhaps his websites might still be available. They aren’t. I searched “Jaffa gate shema” on Google images but found nothing resembling his photograph (but he had said, it was taken at Jaffa gate in the 80s “if it’s still there”). On IMDb, I checked the movie he mentioned. Different cinematographer named.

Was this whole encounter a long sales pitch? Or was this guy the real deal? Or was it a bit of both? It doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s a great photograph and I will frame it and hang it up somewhere special. More importantly, this exchange made me keenly aware of my own cynicism, distrust, prejudice, and the whole load of issues I have when it comes to strangers. I can’t say for sure that this was one of those special moments–a watershed encounter–but I won’t forget it for a long time, and it will forever be associated with the photograph of the shema and the mezuzah.

Summer reading and such

I didn’t plan to give up blogging for Lent. It just sort of turned out that way. Aaaaaand my readership continues to slip away…

I handed in my last paper of the semester yesterday. Now I start thinking about the reading I need to do for the two classes I’m taking in May.

Tonight is the seminary grad banquet. Neither of us is graduating, but we’re going to the banquet. I am winning some kind of award (it’s an honour just to be nominated!). Tomorrow morning we leave for a 6-day stint at Elkhorn Lodge or some-such, a resort north of Neepewa and on the edge of Riding Mountain National Park. It’ll be the Vandersluys’s plus another friend, then a few days later that friend and his wife, and then a few days later another couple friend. It should be good times. I hope. Let’s be honest: the kids a kind of the wildcard here. But there’s a pool and possible horseback riding and hikes.

But after that, after the getaway and the classes in may, I will read what I want to read.

What I think I can reasonably finish in the summer:

Theology:

  • N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God
  • Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
  • Thomas Halik, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us
  • H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture
  • C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
  • Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

Biography:

  • Eric Mataxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Fiction:

  • Gavin’s sermon from a couple of weeks ago inspired me to pick up Three by Flannery O’Connor again and read at least The Violent Bear it Away
  • I’d like to have a second go at Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • Something else by Graham Greene.

Maybe this list isn’t reasonable for me to finish. All of these books will be beneficial reads, but I think now of the books I would benefit from practically by reading them this summer, such a s William Willimon’s Pastoral Theology (a text for a Winter 2012 course) and something on spiritual direction. Plus I need to re-learn Greek over the summer in preparation for the school year.

Let’s be honest: this reading list looks almost nothing like I will actually read this summer.

Oxford

>> The England posts: “The Adventure Begins” (the story of our unplanned night in Denver); “First Class” (the story of our flights to London, written in Hemel Hampstead, England); “Made It!” (brief post that chronologically jumps ahead in our trip to share my arrival at the Eagle & Child, written in Somerton, England); “Last Night in Lyme Regis” (a short post written in Lyme Regis, the day before we journeyed back to London and home); “London 1” (first reflection on the trip written in Canada); “London 2” (you get the idea…); and Warwick Castle“. <<

I’ve already written about our visit to Oxford in brief, but I’m going to talk about it some more. People occasionally ask what my favourite part of the trip was, or which part of England I liked most. My answer is always that it’s difficult to pin down any particular place as my favourite–each stop had something special about it: the crowds and landmarks of London; the everyday life of our English friends and family; the history of Warwick and Bath; the beach/holiday life (and cream tea) of Lyme Regis.  Each of the things we did and saw was very special in its own way.

Yet my answer isn’t entirely true.  Oxford stands above the rest for reasons I can’t clearly express (though I do know that it’s not simply because of The Eagle & Child). I think it had a little to do with timing and weather.

Toni dropped us off in Oxford by about 9:30 in the morning. It was a drizzly day and the streets were quiet. We walked down a couple of streets and looked in a couple of shops and eventually found ourselves in a covered market, and it was nearly deserted. A grocery stand, a fish monger, shoe shops, a tea shop, and whatnot.  Its sights, sounds, and smells we had all to ourselves. It was almost as if we lived in Oxford, and we had left our apartment early in the morning to get to the market before the crowds. I wonder if that didn’t set the tone for the rest of our time in Oxford. We were calmed and quiet, and had no agenda, nowhere to get to. So we sauntered. And it helped, too, that I didn’t spend the day with my face behind a camera.

Oxford & Dixie from St. Mary's steeple

But more than that, the history of Oxford seems so real to me. What do the lords of Warwick mean to me? What connection to I have to the famous people buried at Westminster? But Oxford: these are the streets walked by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, men who have influenced my thought, my faith and my imagination; it is one of the historical centers of learning and study, which has been part of much of my life.  And yet for all this history, the city seemed so sleepy and unassuming. It isn’t a tourist trap–or, at least, what tourist trappings they have are cleverly hidden.

Pigeon on St. Mary's steeple

This fact hadn’t occurred to me until last night, when I was describing Oxford to my friend Darren.  He asked me what kind of indications there were that J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Inklings used to frequent The Eagle and Child. The answer: very few. Once I thought about it, it was quite a startling and delightful realization. Where in other places you would expect there to be an entry fee, a trinkety gift-shop, and then a roped-off table marking the spot where the group met (Darren thought my suggestion of wax figures was too much), but there is none of that. All they have is three items on the wall: a couple of pictures, a small plaque mentioning who met there and what met there, and a framed letter signed by all the Inklings, thanking the proprietor of the establishment for his hospitality. There is nothing else.  They do sell Inklings-related merchandise, but you have to ask the barman. It isn’t advertised anywhere that I noticed. Considering its cultural significance, The Eagle and Child is a rather unassuming place. If you knew nothing of the Inklings’ history there, it would be just another old pub. It was the same with the university buildings: they were just university buildings and, even though classes weren’t in session, they were mostly off-limits. Initially I found it somewhat disappointing that we didn’t have more access, but in retrospect, that’s one of the things that made Oxford special. It just went about its business.

In the Rabbit Room after lunch

I won’t say much about our day. We spent it wandering around looking in shops and at buildings. We spent some time at the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s first museum to be open to the public, which had many interesting displays (and it was free!). After a late lunch, we decided to do a wide loop around the core of the old city, passing by Magdallen College and King’s College and some of the other landmarks, but we soon realized that was out of the question: it had been and continued raining steadily, and we were without an umbrella. We were soaked within minutes. We took a shortcut back to the downtown area.

Stairs down from the steeple

We stopped for a time in Blackwell Books. It is the most amazing bookshop I have ever been in (here’s a picture of just the basement, which actually extends much farther underground than the rest of the building.)  Sadly, we didn’t have much time and had to find our car rental.

Once we got our car, we briefly considered driving back into the downtown to see the areas we missed, but it’s filled with no-access roads, so we decided not to.  We were both a little disappointed with how the day in Oxford ended: rushed and soaking wet.

However! Dixie had bought a shirt that day without trying it on. Back at Chris and Toni’s place in Somerton, she discovered that the shirt was too small. So we decided that the next morning on our way to Bath we would stop by Oxford again.

Oxford

It was a lovely morning, and we saw many more lovely old buildings, and climbed the steeple of St. Mary’s church. We didn’t get to Magdallen College, but we walked around King’s College and through many side-streets. Oxford was busier that morning than it had been the day before–the streets were crowded with shoppers and there were buskers all along the main streets–a golden juggling jester that stood frozen until you put some money in his pot and a very talented opera singer (probably a student) stood out for me. We left Oxford satisfied.

Falcon Lake videos

Here’s a video of us canoeing on Falcon Lake.  I rushed the pan a little, but twisting around while video recording in a canoe with fidgety kids is a bit tricky.  You’ll get the idea, though:

And here is a video of the kids on Picnic Island and the island itself. They were yelling their names to listen to the echo, but the camera didn’t really pick it up well (and perhaps they may have been shouting in a slightly different direction than earlier). The island was straight across from our cabin–we looked across at it from our living room.