Category Archives: Travels

Giving thanks for Thanksgiving weekend

Dixie and I were not sure what to do for Thanksgiving this year.  It’s kind of a big deal for Dixie, but driving 10 hours one way for a couple of nights and a delicious turkey dinner at her parents’ house would have been too exhausting.  Everything everywhere was booked, or so it seemed, even in the Grand Forks, North Dakota.

There was, however, a last minute cabin cancellation at Falcon Trails Resort in Whiteshell Provincial Park in eastern Manitoba. The only problem was that they required us to stay three nights and they aren’t cheap.  We didn’t think we could justify the cost. Some emails were sent back and forth between Dixie and the admin there, seeing if they would let us book just two nights. I think Dixie may have even played the “poor seminary students” card, though I’m not sure that worked. However, as the weekend approached, the owners got more desperate to book the cabin for the weekend, so they offered us the third night at a fraction of the regular cost, so we jumped on it.  Now that we’ve been there, I may well be willing to pay the full cost for three nights.

Sunset on the first night:

Sunset on Falcon Lake

The cabin overlooked Falcon Lake. It had a bedroom with a queen-sized bed on the main floor and two sections in the loft, one with a queen-sized bed and one with a single. Cabins also come with TV and vcr/dvd player, wood stove, and a hot tub. We also had free access to canoes.

All of us in the canoe (I, of course, am taking the picture):

Morning in the Canoe

Our weekend consisted of the following: sleeping, eating, watching movies, reading, canoeing, throwing sticks into the water from our dock, and sitting in the hot tub (Luke puts the accent on “tub”), and one short hike. Not much else happened. The weather was beautiful the whole time we were there: sunny, light breeze. Pretty much a perfect weekend.

I wouldn’t dare post another sunset picture, except that this one, from the second night, is just different enough to be allowed:

Falcon Lake sunset

Of course, as much as I hope and dream otherwise, families remain families, even on weekends in a cabin on a lake, so there was still fighting and screaming and yelling and discipline, but somehow the whole experience overpowered the darker moments.

The kids on Picnic Island:

The kids

And playing in the hot tub:

Kids playing in the hot tub

There are more pictures of the weekend at our Flickr “Falcon Lake 2010” set, including some pictures of the cabin’s interior. I also have a couple of videos I’d like to post, but with our finicky/slow internet connection, it doesn’t seem to want to work.

Stretching out for Thanksgiving

A couple of great quotes from the quality bunch posted on internetmonk.com today:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad, but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom … The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and to make it finite. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything is a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It it the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits. — G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

If you surrender to the fear of uncertainty, life can become a set of insurance policies. Your short time on this earth becomes small and self-protective, a kind of circling of the wagons around what you can be sure of and what you think you can control–even God. It provides you with the illusion that you are in the driver’s seat, navigating on safe, small roads, and usually in a single, predetermined direction that can take you only where you have already been. For far too many people, no life journey is necessary because we think we already have all our answers at the beginning. — Richard Rohr, The Naked Now.

Tomorrow we’re off on a little journey into a world in which to stretch ourselves out: the woods of eastern Manitoba. There we will spend three glorious nights in a cabin on a lake, sucking the marrow out of life and all that. We’re bringing some games, some movies, some books, some wine. We will walk and talk and be present to our children.

My European family never celebrated Thanksgiving, so Thanksgiving was for me often a lonely weekend. All my Canadian friends were busy with family and turkey and football games. I just kicked stones. The first or second year we were married, Dixie’s parents, grandparents and brother’s family stayed in a cabin on Christopher Lake for the weekend. It was perfect in every way and to this day it remains one of my favourite memories of my married life and of Thanksgiving.  Hopefully this weekend will create similar memories for our young family.

I have a sudden urge to say, “He is risen!”  But it’s the wrong weekend for that, true as it may be.

I hope you, dear readers, have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend.

Warwick Castle

The England posts: “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…).

OK, so…Wednesday-Thursday-Friday was Saskatoon-Denver-London, where we were picked up by my aunt and uncle.  Saturday and Sunday, London. On Monday morning, after a full English Breakfast, my aunt and uncle drove us to a point somewhere between Hemel Hampstead and Warwick Castle (or was it Bicester), where we met  Toni and Chris. I say “point somewhere between” because it seemed to me that our meeting place was the parking lot of a pub (Shepton Mallet?) that appeared to be literally the only inhabited location on that stretch of the highway. It may just be that we were distracted with excitement at seeing Chris and Toni again. We exchanged hugs and made introductions and moved our luggage from one vehicle to the other and we were off to Warwick castle.

Warwick Castle is interesting in that it is both a ruin and not a ruin. This is the oldest section of the castle, and it is essentially a ruin:

The oldest part of Warwick castle

On the other hand, other parts of the castle are still in good shape (or have been reconstructed):

Warwick Castle

We spent a part of the morning there and the rest of the afternoon. Warwick Castle is the most castle-y of the palces/castles we visted. Also, Warwick Castle’s presentation differed again from that of Hampton Court and the Tower of London. Hampton Court was more or less a static display of how the room were and the Tower of London is mostly a collection of artifacts. Warwick Castle, however, is more of an interactive experience. We don’t simply walk by the rooms (as we more or less did at Hampton Court), but we walked through them. They had live actors in costume who would interact with tourists (this always makes me a bit uncomfortable), audio commentary, as well as very life-like models (presumably wax). The butler in the back right of this picture, for instance, is not alive:

Room in Warwick Castle

The guy below kept pulling audience members in for his demonstration of various medieval weaponry. At one point he pulled me in. All I did was stand there while he held an arrow up to my chest. Perhaps he was new–his attempt at interactivity seemed impersonal and a little calculated. The best, in this respect, was still to come.

Guy using me as an example at Warwick castle

At one point I walked into a room with a model sitting at a table playing cards with what looked to be another mechanically animated model. It was, in fact, a human being, who startled me by speaking directly to me when I entered the room. The only critique a person might have of the castle presentation is that it isn’t quite sure to what age it belongs. Of course, it has been in use for centuries, but in terms of display and interactivity, in one room you might find elements from a variety of different ages. But I wasn’t really distracted by this–it was fascinating on so many levels.

Sometime late in the morning we headed down to the river, where they had a dramatized jousting show (a couple of barbarians showed up to make things interesting). It was a beautiful day and the hillside overlooking the jousting show was a wonderful setting. The place was very busy, with lots of children about. The jousting show was, I think, directed at the children. It was filled with much bravado, which has never done much to impress me, but the kids loved it. It did interest me historically, however, as I’ve never been quite sure how jousting worked. In fact, I was never sure if it was a game or if it had something to do with combat. I’m actually still not sure, but I do know now that it was at least done for sport.

Later in the afternoon we sat down for a rest near a (the name escapes me) a bird of prey display with a falconer. The climax of the show was this gorgeous (and huge!) sea eagle:

Falconer and Sea Eagle

I should have kept my camera ready, because at one point this giant bird flew directly at me and then just a couple of feet above my head. Alas…

By late in the afternoon we had seen most of the castle and were killing time before they launched a fireball from the trebuchet. We wandered around the castle in the direction of the mill on the river. Along the way we came across an archer taking shots at a target. No one else was around. So we approached and watched for a while and he started to tell us about the history of the bow and arrow and how it changed both battle and society. It was fascinating historically, but he also had an amazing dry wit that captivated us. A small crowd gathered, children among them. He started telling us to cheer (or make dying sounds as if we’d been struck by an arrow) when he hit the target. He’d point at a girl in the audience and say, “When I hit the target, make dying sounds or I shoot this girl.” It sounds cruel when I write it out, but by this time the guy had built up such a rapport with the audience that everyone laughed. It was top-notch and, for me, the highlight of the day.

Archer at Warwick CastleArcher at Warwick Castle
Archer at Warwick Castle

Afterwards, we walked down to the castle mill on the river. It is still used to generate electricity for parts of the castle.

River behind Warwick castle

Then we went to the trebuchet show. Inexplicably, I did not have my camera ready to capture the shot, but the truth is that, while an interesting display of historical battle tactics, it seemed to be a lot of buildup for little payoff. In my view, they could improve the show by launching a couple more fireballs.

Happily, there is a video of the fireball launching on YouTube (sans the buildup):

After that, we went home to a delicious dinner cooked by Toni and an evening of relaxation and visiting with our old/new friends. It was a great day.

Toni, Chris and I at the entrance to Warwick Castle:

Marc, Chris & Toni entering Warwick Castle

(More pictures in our England 2010 set at Flickr.)

London 2

I awoke Sunday morning in our king-sized bed at the Rembrandt Hotel in London, where we had been upgraded to an executive suite (sweet!).

The previous night I had spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to operate the television. At first it wouldn’t turn on when I pushed the power button. When I finally turned it on, I could not change the channels. Then after I had given up and turned it off, it kept turning itself on again.  I never did figure it out.  I had similar problems in Lyme Regis.  I don’t know if this is an English television thing or if it’s simply me no longer being able to keep up with technological advances.

Anyway, I woke up on Sunday morning and groped around in the dark for my watch.  The glowing tips of the hands showed 10 minutes to 10.  We had over-slept, which meant that church was likely out of the question.  We had planned to go to a Church of England service somewhere in the neighbourhood–in fact, Dixie had booked our hotel precisely because of this. (When we told Aunt Shirley of our plans, she quipped, “So you want a dead experience, do you?” and laughed and laughed.)  I didn’t feel too bad; I counted last night’s evensong as that week’s worship service.  I left Dixie asleep in bed and shuffled to the bathroom.  Moments later Dixie entered in a panic.

“It’s 10:50!  We’ve missed our breakfast!”

I had misread my watch–the hands glow, but the numbers don’t. Breakfast was included in the price of the room, but the buffet closed at 10:30.

“Call the front desk and see if it’s too late!” shrieked Dixie.  “Tell them we’re suffering from jet-lag!”

Dixie didn’t really shriek, but the word works well in that sentence, don’t you think?  She did, however, tell me to call the front desk.

“Hi, yes.  We overslept. We’re still dealing with jet-lag.  Have we missed breakfast?”

“Well, the buffet closes at 10:30, but you can try calling the restaurant.”

She put me through to the restaurant.

“Hi, yes.  We overslept. We’re still dealing with jet-lag.  Is there any chance of getting breakfast?”

“If you come down right away you might still be able to get some.”

We hurriedly dressed and then hurriedly went downstairs and entered the restaurant in a hurry and looked at the guy we talked to on the phone, who waved us through, and hurried past the sign that said, “Restaurant Closed.”

The buffet was still out, with all the makings of a full English breakfast: eggs (soft-cooked, sunny side up), baked beans, sausage, back bacon, fried tomatoes, and toast.  AND little packages of Nutella, which–happily–appears to be a breakfast staple in England.

Dixie sat down and tucked in at the wrong table.  The staff started clearing out the buffet as soon as we had sorted out just where we were supposed to sit. We scarfed down breakfast.  I coolly slipped £5 into the hand of the young man who let us in (in retrospect, this was probably unnecessary, but I felt pretty classy doing it).

A quick shower and we burst onto Brompton Road, heading to (instead of church) a place of another sort of worship: Harrod’s.  The reason for Harrod’s–other than it simply being Harrod’s–was that when Dixie asked her brother, who had booked everything for us, what we could bring back for him, he had asked for a tin of tea with the name “Harrod’s” on it.  Secondly, one of my missions in England was to locate a set of plain proper teaspoons (not dessert spoons and not souvenir teaspoons), which I hadn’t seen anywhere in Canada.  I thought Harrod’s would be just the place.

What I didn’t realize was that Harrod’s is a luxury department store, and teaspoons would cost me £5 each.  I didn’t buy teaspoons, but I did buy a couple of other handy tea brewing tools.  They may well have been overpriced, but I didn’t see them anywhere else during our stay in England. Plus, I can say, “I got this at Harrod’s” to the blank stares of my friends and colleagues.

Harrod’s was impressive, and now we can say we’ve been there, but it wasn’t really for us.  So on we walked down Brompton Road.  For some reason I had it in mind that London would be essentially closed down on Sundays, but this wasn’t the case.  Everything was open.  We took the underground from Knightsbridge to Green Park and then walked by the Ritz, through Picadilly Circus and on to Trafalgar Square, where we took in the National Gallery.

Trafalgar Square

Up to this point, everything in London had cost and arm and a leg (if not for us, then for Uncle Mike and Aunt Shirley, for which we are grateful), but the National Gallery–which is an institution of some  significance and a building of granduer–was free of charge. (Map of the gallery:  £1, but there’s a box to recycle the maps nearby, so Dixie took one from there.  We did leave a donation in the end.)  The gallery was fascinating, though we went only to specific areas: Rembrandt, Van Gogh and other Dutch painters, as well as Michelangelo and Leonardo, to name a few.  On the way, I came across this 16th Century portrait of Bob Ross:

There! Happy little leaves!

After the National Gallery, we wandered up Charing Cross Road, which had been unable to find the night before (London roads are not well labelled).  We stuck our noses in several used bookshops, but purchased nothing, as we’d bought quite a few new books at a good sale price at Waterstone’s the day before.  Interestingly, books are cheaper in England than in Canada, but CDs are more expensive. I was a little disappointed in the number of actual used bookshops there (I’m not sure what I had expected), but perhaps we didn’t look around enough. The Wikipedia entry for Charing Cross Road mentions some large “venerable” bookstore on some corner, but we somehow missed it.

We had lunch on Charing Cross Road as well.  We sat down in a pub and had a look at the menu at the table.

“You order at the bar,” said the girl at the bar.

I ordered a couple of drinks for Dixie and I and sat back down, looking once again at the menu.

“You can’t order food in the pub.  You have to go upstairs to the restaurant for that,” said the girl.

I found this somewhat curious.  Why put menu’s on all the pub’s tables if you couldn’t order food there?  We went upstairs to a small, empty restaurant.  The waiter seemed annoyed that we ordered only a sandwich to share between the two of us. However, when I pulled out my SLR to take some pictures, he became quite talkative about cameras.  I gave him some sage advice.

Waiting for the train at Euston Station back to Hemel Hampstead.Waiting for the train at Euston Station back to Hemel Hampstead.

After Charing Cross, we took the underground to Euston Station and then caught the train back to Hemel Hampstead.  That night we had a delicious traditional English roast dinner, with Yorkshire pudding (not pudding at all) and all the trimmings.  Afterwards, I was re-introduced to the delights of trifle, which instantly became my favourite dessert ever.  Cake? Jello? (Cake in jello?) Custard? Whipped cream?  Yes please!

Traditional English Sunday dinner

Spent the evening drinking tea, playing games, visiting and laughing.

The next day we were to meet up with Toni and Chris.

London 1

Our second attempt at flying to London was a success. We alighted at Heathrow Terminal 3, went through customs, gathered our luggage and wandered out into the waiting crowd.  I spotted Uncle Mike and Aunt Shirley immediately and gave them a smile and wave.  They appeared to stare at me blankly. I don’t blame them, as I’m larger and hairier than the last time they saw me.  On the other hand, I thought they looked no different than they did 25 years ago. We got closer and I assume they recognized me before I embraced Aunt Shirley (or perhaps they took my embrace as confirmation). And then we were–the four of us–off to Hampton Court Palace.

Mike and Shirley are not actually my aunt and uncle–at least not in a biological sense.  My mom and Aunt Shirley did their midwifery training together in London and have been friends ever since. They’ve always been “Tante Shirley en Oom Mike” to me.  I’m sure she knitted me several sweaters during my younger years. I think that’s more than enough to earn her the “aunt” title.

Anyway, we were off to Hampton Court Palace, which was built either for or by Henry VIII (I don’t know–you read the Wikipedia article).

Hampton Court Palace

I was immediately struck by the fact that the palace was built of brick, rather than stone as I had expected.  It’s quite a large complex–a mass of red brick walls and chimneys.  According to Bill Bryson’s newest book (not yet published in North America!), At Home: A Brief History of the Private Life, Hampton Court was built at a time when brick was wildly popular.  Not the most elegant look for a palace, but they certainly could have done worse.

There were a number of things that impressed me about the palace.  Perhaps most obviously was the sheer size of the place. It’s technically the house of just one family (the king, his wife and his children), but I’m sure it housed hundreds.  It was all, of course, about showing off their wealth and power.  This resulted in the palace having rooms for both everything and nothing.  At one point we walked from the kings “great” bedroom (I can’t remember the technical term) to his “small” bedroom next door (it wasn’t any smaller), but then one of the guards/guides told us that the king’s actual bedroom was downstairs.  So these two ornate rooms were just for show.  I noted that the queen’s rooms were at the opposite end of the palace from those of Henry’s, which is probably just where the queen wanted to be.  (In fact, I was surprised to learn that the majority of Henry’s wives were not killed by him.)

We had a picnic lunch on a bench in one of the palace gardens.  I thought this was great. On the way to England I had been reading Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain. He makes frequent mention of English people bringing along sandwiches and Thermoses of tea whenever they traveled anywhere. This certainly seemed to be true. On this day, Aunt Shirley had packed fried chicken, buns (rolls), tomatoes, egg salad, sausages and two 1 litre cartons of juice. The following day, when we went back to London with Uncle Mike, they had also packed a picnic lunch, as did Chris and Toni for our day at Warwick Castle. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that North Americans are more likely to buy lunch when they go out for the day.  I noticed that many people in London, including people who were almost certainly not tourists, had backpacks on, probably containing their lunches. Now that I think about it, not one of the sites we visited had a restaurant or lunch counter, which one would expect to see in North American tourist sites.

After an afternoon at Hampton Court, we drove north of London to Mike and Shirley’s house in Hemel Hampstead. For supper she made homemade fish and chips (Hake, I believe it was). It was delicious–much better than what I had in a restaurant in London a day or two later.  We spent the evening drinking tea and visiting.

The next day Mike and Dixie and I took a train down to London.  Mike had purchased tickets for a bus tour of London, which allowed us to get on and off whenever and wherever we wanted to and catch the next bus that came along.  The first place we stopped was St. Paul’s Cathedral.

IMGP1546

We shuffled inside with the crowd and were shocked to find that it would cost us £15 (about $25 Canadian) apiece to get in.  Mike suggested that Westminster Abbey might be nicer and free of charge.  So I snapped a picture of Dixie on the steps of St. Paul’s (“feed the birds”) and we hopped back on the bus.

After St. Paul’s we stopped at the Tower of London.  An invisible man was sitting by our bus stop.

Invisible man

Why can’t North American cities have such interesting street performers?  Or do they?

The Tower of London was interesting, but allow me a moment of critique.  Here’s what Hampton Court Palace had that the Tower of London did not: rooms set up more or less like they might have been at the height of their use.  You go to a bedroom and there will a large four-poster in there along with other bedroom furniture.  The Tower of London is just a series of rooms filled with artifacts–armor and weapons, mostly–which I assume were often unrelated to the rooms they were in. I found these artifacts fascinating as a child (I had been to the Tower with Mike and Shirley some 20 years ago), but not nearly as much so now.  The crown jewels, which are housed and guarded at the Tower, would have been more interesting, but the line-up to see them was enormous and we weren’t about to spend the afternoon in line.

Still, the Tower’s age (900 years) and history alone was enough to impress.  Dixie especially was fascinated. I was most intrigued about the life of the Beefeaters, guards of the crown jewels, who with their families actually live within the walled boundary of the Tower of London.  There were residential areas in the tower cordoned off and marked “private”, where, presumably, they lived.  What is it like to live in a place where every day, year-round, throngs of people walk through what is technically your front yard and peer at your house?

Big Ben and the London Eye in the distance

Next stop: the parliament buildings and Westminster Abbey.  Much to our dismay, Westminster Abbey had a £12 charge for visitors (later that day we would get in free to attend Evensong).  Westminster is undoubtedly a stunning piece of architecture, but I confess I wasn’t sure what to make of it otherwise.  The abbey is lined with tombs and tombstones embedded in the walls and floors.  It has always been said that cathedrals were built to the glory of God, that their size and loftiness was meant to draw the eyes up toward heaven, but I was overwhelmed by the ornate statuary and carvings that are there in such sheer numbers.  Had it been built in the 20th century I imagine they would have had flashing neon signs announcing the various dignitaries buried there.

Entrance to Westminster Abbey

What somewhat bothered me about the chapels and cathedrals and abbeys we visited was that they all had signs at the entrance that said something along the lines of, “This is a place of worship. Let us respect that atmosphere. No photography. Gentlemen, please remove your hats.”  And yet they were herding the tourists through at many British pounds a pop.

Anyway…

That night, after driving past Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Hyde Park, Dixie and I left Mike on the bus and we wandered back to Westminster to attend evensong.  It was already underway when we got there.  This certainly restored some of the atmosphere of worship, but we were positioned in one of the wings off the nave, so we could only hear what was going on, and I was too tired by that point to participate fully.

Later, Dixie questioned me about the service. “When we said the Apostles’ Creed at evensong, were you speaking with an English accent?”

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t.”

But I doubted myself. Quite frankly, it took some effort for me not to slide into a faux English accent while there.  I wondered if I could pull off a convincing accent and considered using one when making a purchase in a London shop, but I didn’t have the guts to go through with it.

After evensong we wandered through some of the Westminster shops (because the real London is only about a mile square and many of the tourist sites are in other cities, such as Westminster) in the general direction of our hotel for the night.  We had planned to walk to our hotel, but we eventually realized that it would take an hour or two, so we took the underground the rest of the way.

We checked in, dropped our bags in our room, and went to the hotel restaurant for a snack.  I ordered tea.  Dixie asked for water.

“Still or sparkling?” asked the waiter.

“Uh…still?” said Dixie.

This is where we discovered that they charge for water.  When thinking about this trip to England, I had assumed that beer (and alcohol in general) was cheaper in Europe.  In fact, in England at any rate, beer is more or less the same price as in Canada, but all the other drinks–coffee, pop, juice and even water–are so much more expensive that relatively speaking one may as well buy a pint of beer as a glass of Coke.

And then we went to bed.

(More pictures and some extra details at our Flickr set. Unfortunately, I can’t cover everything. This is probably already too long and nobody is reading this line.)

Last night in Lyme Regis

For those of you who had hoped to follow our progress in England here (are there any of you?), I apologize. I had originally planned on posting regularly, but typing posts on my iPod, as the previous two posts were, is not the most efficient or pleasant way to go about it. In fact, after the last one, my hands were semi-numb and tingly. I wrote the previous two posts in the middle of the night (locally) while dealing with some jet-lag related sleeplessness. Once I got back into the swing of sleeping, I could rarely find time (or will) enough to write full-length posts. (I did, however, manage to come up with a couple of informative/witty Twitter/Facebook quips in the intervening days.)

Anyway, all that is unnecessary preamble to an unimportant announcement: tonight is our last night in Lyme Regis. Tomorrow is the beginning of the end: we set out towards London and our lodgings near Heathrow airport. On the way, we will try to visit Stonehenge (I get the impression from the locals that it’s not that special, but it just seems to be a place one simply needs to stop if nearby when on holiday in England) and, with some luck, we will also visit the birthplace of Dixie’s grandpa. The next day (Monday) we fly. This time, however, we know how to take full advantage of our first class status. We will pace ourselves.

It has been a wonderful holiday (I’d like to thank Dixie for planning every bit of it)–good timing for the various locations, which were themselves well chosen. Visits with friends and family, a little history, a little archeology, a little of this and a little of that, and we’re both very satisfied with the trip. The next time I post here will likely be on North American, if not specifically Canadian, soil.

Made it!

I’m jumping well ahead on our journey by telling this, but it’s a significant moment for this blog. Today we went to Oxford and had lunch at The Eagle and Child. This has been a long time coming. A couple of pictures:

Outside The Eagle and Child

In the Rabbit Room before lunch

Plaque in the Rabbit Room

In the Rabbit Room after lunch

Oxford is a beautiful city–at least the old part of it where we spent the day. There are so many beautiful old buildings there I didn’t know where to start taking pictures, so I took almost none.  We got there at about 9:30a.m. Toni dropped us off in front of The Eagle and Child (we picked up our rental car today–a Mercedes! We were supposed to get a Ford Focus) and we walked into the city centre, which is full of shops.  Then we had lunch at The Eagle and Child. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either, but that didn’t matter–we were at The Eagle and Child and I had a pint in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ honour.

The table we sat at had all the plaques and pictures of Tolkien and Lewis and the rest of the Inklings (in the Rabbit Room), but I’m not sure if that’s the room they actually sat in or not. The pub goes much farther back and judging by the stone wall outside may have done so lo these many years (unless they expanded into another shop).

After lunch we intended to head north and then walk a loop east and then down along the river and then back west, passing by Magdalen (‘Modlin’) College, Merton College and Christ Church, which I believe all have some connection to Tolkien or Lewis. Christ Church, at any rate, appears to be one of the more beautiful buildings of the university, as it is depicted on postcards and whatnot.  But the rain was coming down steadily and shortly after we had set out we realized that if we did this walk without an umbrella we would be soaked to the bone by the end of it. So we found a shorter route back to the city centre to find an umbrella.

We stopped at Blackwood’s Books on the way. Stepping inside it looks like an ordinary bookstore, but downstairs it impressively expands into a vast storehouse of books that covers much more area than the building stands on. I’ve never been in a bookstore this impressive in terms of size as well as holdings. It was worth a look, but by the time we found an umbrella, we figured we’d better find our car rental place first–and glad we did, because it was much farther to walk than expected. At the car rental place, I inquired about the restricted-access roads on the map of Oxford. Buses and pedestrians only. To reach these places by car, we’d have to drive all sorts of convoluted routes and back alleys and walking was too far this time of the day, so we decided to skip it. It’s a shame in a way that we were in Oxford for a whole day and didn’t see those famous buildings, but then there are university buildings peppered across the whole old city, so we did see many beautiful college buildings.

Tomorrow we drive to Bath.

First Class

Well, my blog disappeared for a while there. I bet you thought I’d taken myself off the grid–erased all record of me–and gone into hiding in London…assuming I’d arrived there, of course. Maybe this whole England business was a diversion, when in reality I’ve gone to Mexico and am spending my time fixing up a boat on the beach somewhere, waiting for my friend Red to get parole and then break it so that he can come down here and stay with me, assuming he finds the letter and cash I stashed for him under the black moon rock by that tree in that field.

That’s what you thought, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?

Well, in fact, my domain name had expired and the alert had been sent to an email address I rarely check. That’s what really happened, folks.

Anyway, I started writing this two nights ago, so the language is a bit dated, as you’ll see.

* * *

It’s 3:27a.m. here in England and I’m having trouble getting back to sleep. I’ve been asleep since around 10:00p.m., waking every hour or two with a full bladder. I’ve been fighting a cold since before we left and it doesn’t seem to be going away. My aunt and uncle gave me a couple of concoctions to deal with the constant runny nose (I’m making a good effort to rid their house of every last sheet of Kleenex). The second concoction put me out almost immediately, but now it seems to be wearing off–at least the drowsy bit of it. My body has decided that it shouldn’t be in deep sleep at 8:00 in the evening, as it thinks it is.

After missing our original scheduled flight to Heathrow airport in London and sleeping at a Holiday Inn in Denver on United Airlines’ dime, we went through security with some 4 or 5 hours to spare before our flight. After walking around looking at the shops (for some reason I’ve always wanted to buy a book at an airport, and there were several there I was interested in, but I bought none) we made our way to the Red Carpet lounge, to which international first class flyers had access.

We spent a couple of hours there reading and playing cribbage and helping ourselves to the complimentary snacks and drinks (alcohol excluded). I attempted to nurse myself back to health with a combination of fresh fruit and a steady stream of tea, water and orange juice, but to no avail. All the traveling and lack of sleep has just been too much.

There was no class system in our international flight from Saskatoon to Denver, but we flew to Chicago first class. It really is a different world up there. Upon boarding, we went to the seats on the left, everyone else to the seats on the right. They even had the little curtain between us and the proletariat in the back of the plane.

Almost immediately upon sitting down I was offered a drink of juice or water. I don’t think I’d even arranged my pillow nor removed my complementary blanket from its plastic wrap before they approached me. “Orange juice, please.”

Under the pretense of killing some of the bacteria in my throat, and because it’s “good for the stomach”, I enjoyed a glass and a half of complimentary Cabernet Sauvignon with my meal (a soggy but delicious toasted turkey sandwich, salad, and a bag of sun chips). My brother-in-law warned me that a glass of wine on an airplane in flight feels like three. I seem to recall reading that this was a myth, but then he’d experienced it and I hadn’t. I was ok after the glass and a half. Of course, my body mass index is probably three times my brother-in-law’s, so that could make a difference.

Arrived in Chicago O’Hare with an hour to spare before boarding, so we headed over to the Red Carpet lounge again. This was exclusive to international first-class travelers –club members and business class travelers had their own lounge–so it was much less busy and quieter (no business men their designer jeans and sport coats making a show of wandering around talking on Bluetooth ear-pieces to their associates).

The hostess told us to help ourselves to snacks and drinks, and this time it included alcohol. I’ll tell you now that I didn’t put a dent in that $8,500 worth of alcohol Dixie jokingly suggested I should drink, but here I was presented with an unusual opportunity.

I have a bit of a problem restraining myself in help-yourself/all-you-can-eat situations. I can’t remember the last time I left a smorgasbord or buffet feeling as if I had eaten the perfect amount of food to satisfy; I always leave feeling as if I’d had significantly over-eaten. I guess I would have myself believe I’ll never have another opportunity to try any of these things again, so I’ve got to try it all.

In the Red Carpet Lounge at O’Hare I was presented with a table of shrimp and (I think) sushi, sandwich meats, an assortment of cheeses and fruits, and a variety of desserts. What made my eyes go wide, however, was the fridge filled with all manner of international ales and a shelf with any hard liquor or liqueur I could think of. ALL COMPLIMENTARY AND SELF-SERVE!

I looked up the recipe for some mixed drinks I would like to try but would never pay for at a pub. Brandy Alexander, perhaps? In the end I decided not to try and mix my own drinks. Instead I had an Amstel Light, which is a Dutch beer I’ve always wanted to try but is not available in western Canada as far as I know (it wasn’t that good–couldn’t hold a candle to Heineken), and a bit of 12-year-old Scotch (“I love Scotch. Scotchy Scotchy Scotch. I’m gonna drink it down–down into my belly”). Also: a plate of shrimp and fruit and a couple of buns.

This was a mistake. Before the plane had even finished boarding, we were presented with menus for that flight’s evening meal, which could, if I so chose, include several courses. And I had just stuffed my face with shrimp and dinner rolls. But there was filet mignon on the menu, and I couldn’t pass that up. I ordered the filet, but opted out of the other courses and dessert. I drank water and tea on the flight. I know now to pace myself on the return flight.

I should describe our accommodations on this international first class flight. We each had an individual pod–only six of them in first class–which had a chair that could recline, put my feet up or lay down flat to sleep; there were two pillows and a thick blanket waiting, as well as a toiletries bag with a sleep mask, earplugs, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitized and socks inside; each had our own approximately 14 or 17″ TV with a remote/game controller and a pretty good selection of TV shows, documentaries, films, and video games available on demand. (I got through about half of Iron Man 2; I’ll finish it on the return flight.)

Also, they gave us hot wet cloths before and after every meal. I’m still not sure what to do with them. The first time I used it to wash my face (felt really good), but Dixie gave me a funny look. So from then in I just used it to wash my hands. Waste of a warm cloth if you ask me.

It was a pretty good situation, I’d say. But then, as all those poor families in economy filed in past us, I felt quite stupid with my feet up playing a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Next time I might try boarding last. I don’t know.

The flight was uneventful. I didn’t sleep well–maybe 3 or 4 hours of the 7.5 hour flight. Maybe less. We arrived at about 11a.m. (6:00p.m. the previous day, Manitoba time) and were off to Hampton Court Palace with my aunt and uncle.

The Adventure Begins

Well, we are on our 2nd honeymoon. We ought to be in a village north of London right now. Instead, I’m laying awake in a Denver hotel room after a poor night’s sleep.

Our flight left Saskatoon on time. We would have plenty of time in Denver–3 hours–to go through customs, claim our luggage, recheck our luggage, maybe have a bite to eat, go through security and board our flight to London.

It was not to be. As we approached Denver, our pilot advised us that the airport was closed due to thunder storms and no one was landing at that time. We circled Denver for quite some time–half an hour, maybe–and then diverted to Colorado Springs to refuel. We sat on the tarmac there for an hour or so, refueling and getting new papers to allow them to land in Denver.

We assumed that since no one was landing in Denver during the storm, all other flights would be delayed as well. However, by the time we disembarked in Denver, it was 7:45, and I was beginning to doubt that we’d make our 8:07 flight. When we got through customs and the baggage claim and rechecked our bags, we knew our flight was boarding and we had only minutes to spare. Unfortunately, our gate was a run across the length of a terminal and then a train ride to another terminal away. A couple of gentlemen who seemed to know what they were doing helped us with directions, but they seemed doubtful that we’d make it (as was the man at the slow security check). On the train to our gates he told us that they don’t hold flights and that by then they’d probably been calling our names over the P.A. for 10 minutes.

From what we could tell, the doors at our gate closed only moments before we rounded the corner. The airplane was sitting there, its door closed and the little passage/walkway to the door retracted. We banged on the doors for a while and waved frantically at the pilots, but evidently they are prohibited from reopening the doors.

So we wonder what could have made the difference: if we hadn’t missed our suitcase when it came out at the baggage claim, if we had spent more time running rather than speed walking, if security had been just a little faster, if we hadn’t let that other couple with an earlier flight go ahead of us to recheck luggage, if the rechecking attendant hadn’t been (as she appeared to be) dawdling and hemming and hawing about whether we could make it, if we had been a little more clear on our directions across the airport to our gate–if any of these things had happened, would we have made it onto our flight?

I spent some time in the customer service line, several hundred people strong, and growing, while Dixie made further attempts to get us entry to the flight.

She was not successful. She did, however, find out that as first class flyers we had access to a lounge area where there was a concierge who could rebook a flight for us. I have been feeling some mild guilt over the privilege of flying first class on this trip, but it’s never worse than when we get to jump the queue at security or to rebook a flight.

Of course, my feelings of guilt weren’t strong enough to insist to Dixie that we not use our privileges.

So here we are in a hotel in Denver, a 20 mile shuttle ride from the airport. I should be asleep, but I slept terribly on this Sleep Number bed. My cough is getting worse (I haven’t been sick beyond a headache or runny nose for more than a year! Why now?!). Dixie, on the other hand, was sawing logs (well, cutting a twig with a Swiss Army knife saw) for most of the night. Hopefully, I won’t get any worse and jet lag will be manageable, because we’ve already missed a day in England (we are scheduled to arrive a day later).

But…we’re trying to make the most of it. We are, after all, in a hotel in a foreign(ish) country without our children.

Make that 7,000 kilometres

Just drove to southern Manitoba and back over the course of 2 days.  Another 1,800 clicks on the old odometre.

On the way, Luke and I spent the night at the Russell Inn.  This is significant only because a few years prior, on a bleak, snowy return from Winnipeg, we passed the Inn, which looked horribly cozy in the twilight: white Christmas lights strung along its roof, big snow flakes falling.  It was “horribly” cozy only because, even though we wished to stay the night there, we were too cheap (or possibly in too much of a hurry) to stop.  Some of the Inn’s cozy-factor is lost when there is no snow and Christmas lights are not ablaze.

* * *

I actually over-estimated how far Russell was from home.  It’s actually quite close to the Saskatchewan border and only slightly over halfway to Otterburne, which meant another long drive on Saturday morning.  Shortly after departure the fuzes on the car-adaptors for both the portable DVD player and the fm-transmitter for my iPod blew.  Spent the rest of the 4.5 hour trip scanning through crappy fm radio stations.  Luked stared out the window.

* * *

Handed over cheque for trailer purchase at approximately 1:15pm on Saturday.  We now have two homes.  We will survive there–it’ll be cozy and we’ll have to get rid of more stuff, but we will survive.  We may even flourish.

* * *

Faint wet dog smell after windows have been closed for a while.  To be expected, as the previous owners had two dogs and a cat.

* * *

Children in Steinbach speak German.  To each other.  By choice.

* * *

Decided, instead of staying in the trailer overnight and driving 10 hours today, that I would drive as far as I could last night.  Made it to Russell by 1:00a.m.  Settled by 1:30a.m.  Slept in van.  Up and at them at 7:30am. to claim $5.oo breakfast coupon from previous stay at the Russell Inn.

* * *

Picked up my first ever hitchhiker in Yorkton.  He stood at the highway 16 junction–he looked a bit like someone I grew up with, both in appearance and mannerisms.  I always feel a bit of guilt as I drive by hitchhikers when I have empty seats in the van.  Some people don’t look trustworthy, and I wouldn’t pick up two people hitchhiking together, and there are the shady legalities of hitchhiking, but I often do feel a little guilt and regret as I drive by.  This time I really felt like I should pick this guy up.  The clincher was his cardboard sign, which read “I SMELL GOOD”.

I kept driving for several kilometres but couldn’t shake the feeling that I should go back.  I pulled over and cleaned out the front passenger seat and then sat there for a while, thinking.  Turned around and went back for him, looped around the intersection and rolled down my window as I approached.

“Where are you headed?”

“Edmonton.”

“I can only take you as far as Kandahar, which is where I turn north.”

That last phrase sounded odd, naturally, as neither of us was in Afghanistan.

Took him the hour or so to Kandahar.  Nice fellow.  He enjoyed Bob Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs playing quietly on the stereo.

“Good traveling music,” he said.

“It is.”

“I should listen to more Bob Dylan,” he said.

“Yes, you should.”

Dropped him off at the 16west/6north junction.

* * *

Drove on to Watson, where Luke decided to become obstinate.  I wonder what all the screaming in the bathroom sounded like to those wandering by?

* * *

Home by 1p.m.  Straight to bed.  Slept the afternoon away.

Tonight: possibly Napoleon Dynamite.  Tomorrow: we must get to work.