Tag Archives: Travels

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.

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.

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.)

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.