Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Walking With Charles Dickens

Here's one of the best parts of living in England, as I've tried explaining to people who have always done so: It's a pretty small island, but it has a massive concentration of literature set in its "green and pleasant land" (name that hymn!). Or its busy, smoggy cities. English literature has always had a draw for me, but this year I've set myself the enjoyable task of only reading fiction that is set in this country. That's hardly limiting when one considers Jane Austen, George Eliot, Agatha Christie, James Herriot, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling, Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, Kate Morton, etc. etc. etc.

The few TV shows we watch tend to take place here as well. (Sherlock!)

Call me easily amused, but it does tend to thrill me when Diamond, from George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind, pulls his buggy up to the King's Cross taxi stand, and I remember standing in that very queue on a rainy afternoon. Or when Mr. Pickwick and friends visit the Pump Rooms in Bath, and I recognize our trip to the Fashion Museum in that same building. Or when Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman solve a mystery involving Underground stops where we've been swept along in a human tide.

Charles Dickens has grown in my affections this year, which is to say that he's come a long way since I slogged through Great Expectations in middle school. I re-read A Tale of Two Cities a few months ago and cried again. That lit the way toward David Copperfield, which Dickens justifiably claims as his favorite of all his books (and where Harry Potter fans may notice hints of inspiration). Loved it. After finishing The Pickwick Papers, I decided it was time to go on a Charles Dickens tour with London Walks. Care for a peek?

 At the Inns of Court, where several of Dickens' legal scenes are set

A scene from Martin Chuzzlewit takes place here, although much of the book is set in America. Dickens was not a fan of Americans at the time, since although he was very popular on his first book tour there,  he wasn't earning any royalties from American sales. Twenty five years later, he visited for the second time and felt that as a people, we had "matured." Yay us!

The Royal Courts of Justice. I can't remember any specific Dickens connection, but it's on the Strand, he would have passed this building all the time, and I just think it's a gorgeous building.

Dickens, who was quite the man about town, ate at this restaurant all the time, including with his much-younger paramour … and her chaperoning mother. That's not awkward, is it?! I do think the awning might have looked a bit different at the time. :-)

If you squint, you can see a round blue plaque, just above the street lamp. This building used to house a factory where Charles Dickens had to go to work while his father was in debtors' prison. He was eleven years old, and worked twelve hour days, six days a week. Can you imagine?? As a mother, I certainly can't.

By the way, the children stayed home for this one. I knew they wouldn't quite share my enthusiasm for spending two hours pounding the pavement in homage to an author they have yet to really connect with. But I'm glad I went anyway, for my own sake and theirs. As a mother, and especially a homeschooling mother, it's easy to find myself centered on their education and development. But sometimes I think one of the best gifts we can give our kids is inspiration. They need living proof that lifelong learning isn't a chore, or something that's limited to one's school days or years, but is a fire that can continue to burn when the requirements fall away.

I'd humbly submit that it's important to keep reading the classics. Keep taking classes -- there's so much available online, often for free, in addition to what you might find locally. Keep exploring around town, wherever curiosity leads. Our people need us, but we can't give very much from a dry well. Besides, it's just so much fun!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Shooting in Manual

Do you have DSLR camera? By any chance does it intimidate you?

I've had my Nikon D3100 for about three years now, and although I love it, it still mystifies me at times (Wow. Sounds like parenting.) Specifically: Manual Mode. Once in a while I'll go out on a limb, flip over to my manual settings, and start messing around. Nearly always, disaster ensues. Or at least mediocrity.

So I've started taking a little online course in Manual Mode from Shoot Fly Shoot. It's a series of short, user-friendly videos, and now I've bought the course, I can access the videos for ever and ever amen. I caught a great sale last week on the bundle of Photography 101 and 102, so if you're interested, keep an eye out for sales on their website.

I've been playing around after watching the first three videos on Exposure, ISO and Aperture, and here are a few of my favorites among the humble results.

From a conservation event with some friends at a local park:

From tea time at The Orchard, where we cycled (gorgeous 5.5-mile ride!) with our lovely  friend Jocelyn, who came up from London to visit us on Sunday: 

I've noticed over the years that when I take, process, and decide whether to save photos, I nearly always focus on people. If Tim has the camera, we get lots of scenery shots and … things. Birds. Airplanes. Engines. Nothing better or worse about either approach, but it just interests me. I think it's because in my mind, photos are all about telling a story, and the stories that spool out in my head always center on the characters who are making them happen.

What about you? What do you photograph most? Do you use a camera or rely on your smartphone (which I do for most daily-life shots)? Any tips or resources that have helped you get a better handle on photography?

P.S. To be quite fair to He Who Photographs Steam Engines, I leave you with these two shots.

 My lifelong friend and I doing what we do best, which in this case is finding it hilarious that we could even consider having well-groomed hair on a day that involves a bike helmet (which is for me is pretty much every day). Don't we all need people in our lives to help us enjoy the humor in the absurd? 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Three Months in the Hourglass

Tuesday represented the three-month mark for us. No April foolin'! As in, three months from Tuesday -- July 1 -- we leave England to head home. As in, blink and we'll miss it.  

We'll take our time, relatively speaking in this day of fast intercontinental travel. We'll fly to Iceland and spend a night and a day there (Icelandair offers extended layovers of up to seven days for no extra charge). The next evening, we'll fly to Boston and spend the night there in an airport hotel with all our luggage; hopefully my family will come hang out a bit with us. Finally, the evening of July 3, three months from today, we'll be landing in Austin and coming down that big escalator toward some of the beloved faces we've missed. We'll be home for the Fourth of July! 

Of course, before we can make it to the escalator and the fireworks and the other stuff, we have to leave here. Oh, what a difference six months can make! Three months in, back in late October, home seemed cruelly out of reach. I was fairly obsessed with all the people and things I missed, and so were the kids. We were ready to head home from our nice long sightseeing trip to England. In fact, Tim went home for a business trip around that time, and I was so glad I couldn't accompany him, because I didn't think I would have the emotional wherewithal to come back! Now, it's not that home has become any less dear, but just that this place has become more of a home too. 

People get into your heart, if you open it up even a little. And unlike last summer, when saying goodbye always meant "See you in a year," it hit me the other day that most of the leave-takings that await us here will be of the permanent sort. As in, "Goodbye, we've loved knowing you, and we have no idea if and when we'll ever see you again." This is a pretty unfamiliar experience for me, and for the kids especially. I anticipate tears -- and not just my own. 

(With some pals at Anglesey Abbey)

The challenge in a finite experience like this is not to project too much into the future chapter that is rushing toward you, but to stay present in the right here, right now. I know very well that in the blink of an eye, I'll be back pushing my cart through Costco (dazzled by the largeness of everything -- you mean I don't have to fit it all into my bike basket???) or sitting by the pool with friends, judging our children's crazy dive contests, or sharing a meal around the table with our extended family, and all this will feel very surreal. We'll slip back into the familiar, and probably wonder at certain moments whether this very different life we're living right now really happened. Did I really hop on my bike and cycle into Market Square to buy Swiss chard when I needed to get out of the house? 

(Fun with friends at our weekly homeschool meet-up)

So, time to make the most of what remains. I hope that when the wheels go up at Heathrow Airport on July 1 and the lovely English landscape recedes beneath us, we'll be taking and leaving cherished memories, but no regrets. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Guess the Field Trip!

Would you like to guess the destination of our field trip last Friday? I'll give you some clues, and you see what you can deduce. By the way, photography was not permitted inside this place, so we must content ourselves with exterior shots. Ready to play?

1. It was located in a city that is a one-hour train ride from our own town. And we walked through a park, past a palace, and through another park to get there.

2. In one form or another, this building is over 1000 years old. It's constructed in the shape of a cross, and its current Gothic-style incarnation was begun in 1245 A.D.

3. It's staffed by a cadre of paid and volunteer workers whose robes or uniforms tell who they are. Marshals wear red (see below).

4. After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror was crowned king here on Christmas Day in 1066. Since then, every English monarch's coronation  has taken place here as well. You can stand where their royal feet have probably trembled in their royal boots, if you like.

5. Speaking of standing, you can walk on the graves of Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, David Livingstone, and many other illustrious persons. (The only embedded grave you cannot walk on is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, from WWI.) You can glimpse the coffins of Edward the Confessor, Henry V, and Elizabeth I. Also, there are many other memorials, often indistinguishable from grave markers, to persons who are buried elsewhere but deserved recognition, such as William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and C.S. Lewis. Interesting note: You don't have to have been Christian to be buried or memorialized here. You do have to have had lots of money or influence, or have made significant enough contributions to society that folks petition for your inclusion. (I give you noted agnostic Charles Darwin.)

{Personal opinion which you can take or leave: Tourguides here emphasize the soaring architecture and distinctive shape as evidence that this place was built to glorify God. However, I think that many of us leave with more of an impression of it as a monument to human history and achievements. Which is probably what most who visit as tourists are looking for anyway.}

6. Most of us have seen inside this building in recent times when a certain bride walked through its front door -- which is NOT the door through which visitors enter -- to meet her Prince Charming. You may have wished to be among the honored guests, but honestly? There's this structure about halfway down the nave called the quire, and if you were sitting on the wrong side of it, as many guests were, all you'd glimpse was part of the processional and recessional. We got a better view on television!

So, what do you think? Where did we go?

(Check your answer here if you like!)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Thoughts on Traveling with Children

Traveling with kids. Why do it?  Especially with more than one's allotted two, it's more complicated than traveling alone or as a couple. Finding hotel rooms for five can be a doozy (Hello, AirBnB!). And of course, plane tickets, meals, and almost everything else costs more.

It's also a great deal of fun. Sharing new and sometimes bizarre experiences bonds you together and builds a rich treasury of family memories to laugh or smile or groan over. And there's something about a friendly and decently-behaved child that seems to draw out the kindness of strangers, especially in places where family culture is strong (like the Mediterranean!). I won't forget the older English tourists who stopped by our restaurant table to tell us how much we reminded them of fond memories shared with their own children, who are now grown and far-flung.

I thought I'd share a couple of tips I've picked up from hard-won experience. They're not particularly groundbreaking, but I think they apply to nearly any travel situation. I always hesitate, though, to offer points of instruction. I'm just a learner myself, and a slow one sometimes at that. I struggle with making decisions. I chafe against limitations. I forget how blessed I am. So I guess I'm right in there with you, making mistakes and gaining perspective.

So, yes, travel is expensive. Europe is no bargain basement when you're moving five people around and trying to see some sights. Like practically anyone else we know, we have a budget that can feel restrictive, which means we can't see or do every single thing we'd like to. This is okay. Because we also have a budget of time and energy. I've had to make peace with the fact that even if funds were infinite, the rest of my family simply wouldn't be up for my ideal itinerary when we go places. They need downtime -- and when I embrace this, I realize that so do I. So with those factors in mind, I'm learning:

1. Do as much research as your heart desires on TripAdvisor, travel blogs, conversations with other travelers, etc. Make your wish list. Then be willing to cut it in half. Hold the list loosely. Most kids can handle an average of one thing a day, be it a museum or a castle or a hike or a cavern, before they need to sit and dig in the sand, or run around a park, or relax with a book. Push it -- ignore the signals that they're approaching "done" -- and everyone suffers.

Bottom line: Relationships matter more than experiences. Building connection matters more than building some kind of life portfolio.

2. Keep them fed. Often. In fact, allot a significant portion of your sightseeing budget to dining out, if you're in a place where the food is particularly special. On this recent trip, we ate out an average of once per day. We took the rest of our meals in our condo, which meant a couple fun trips to the Spanish supermarket and to the fish market, where speaking only Spanish managed to get us a kilogram of fresh catch and instructions for cooking it. What a rush! :-)

 Yes, it adds up in a hurry for five people to eat out, but you can't go to Spain (or many other places) and not savor the local cuisine. And when you have a thirteen-year-old boy along, it couldn't be truer that the way for a country to gain his heart is through his stomach. So, we visited fewer museums and ate more tapas. And churros con chocolate. And roasted  almonds from street stands. Happy blood sugar, happy kids, happy parents.

Sharing a meal with those we love is a gift no matter where we are. If the food is memorable, and the setting conducive to taking it slow, so much the better.

P.S. Interested in more thoughts on family travel? I just listened to an episode of the Art of Simple podcast, in which Tsh has a truly fascinating conversation with a woman who just spent a year traveling through thirty countries with her husband and four young children. I dare you not to be inspired!

P.P.S. Also related to family travel, although certainly on a different scale: Perhaps you've heard that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are taking Prince George on a tour of Australia and New Zealand? (I hope they bump into our dear friends in Auckland!) You can follow along with their trip at What Kate Wore, starting in a week or two.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Visit to Spain

How are you, friends? Any signs of spring yet where you are? We returned Sunday afternoon from our trip to Spain to find an unexpected burst of sunny, mid-sixties-degree weather. It truly felt like spring here in Cambridge! Among other joys, this means that I rode with Eliza to her cello lesson on Monday without my nose constantly dripping. Sometimes it's the little things in life, you know.

And sometimes it's the big things! I admit, this trip to Spain was absolutely a big thing. We were able to do it because Tim's parents converted some of their Hyatt timeshare points for us to use for staying at a resort in Marbella (thank you Nonnie and Opa!!).

There are lots of things to share with you about Spain, but in the interest of keeping this post manageable for both you and me, I thought I'd go through the excruciating process of choosing ten photos for you and trying to restrict my captions to one sentence each! I reserve the right to make generous use of semi-colons and run-on sentences. <grin>

A couple things. First, by way of background, I visited Spain every summer for several years of my late childhood, because my maternal grandparents had a house in Extremadura, about halfway between Madrid and Portugal. It was in a village where few, if any, tourists ever visited, so we were truly immersed in the language and culture -- and, ohmygoodness, THE FOOD. I have so many fond, interesting memories of my visits there, both the "ordinary" rhythm of a life so different from what I used to  and the special experiences my grandparents provided for us. Anyway, on this trip, to a different region and in a different time, I found much to recognize and also much that was distinct, both of which made it really fun to experience with my own family. For one thing, there are far more tourists along the coast, which could be slightly disappointing at times (because I am selfish that way and want to be the ONLY tourist around :-). But when one stops to consider that Spain's economy is so poor and its unemployment numbers rather staggering, it feels like feeding whatever euros one can into the tourism business is a positive thing.

Second, I'd heard from a few folks here in England that "don't worry, everyone in that area of Spain speaks English." (This is the same thing I heard from Americans before we went to Mexico a few years back.) Okay, y'all? Not really. Can we agree not to assume that anyone and everyone we might encounter in a foreign country speaks English? Imagine if they assumed that they could waltz into a shop in England or in America and just start speaking Spanish! Yes, because of tourism, many there do speak English, but I was delighted to find that some did not, and even those who did gave a warm welcome to my grammatically-abysmal Spanish conversation skills. It's hard not to fall a bit in love with the people of Spain.

All right! Without further ado, a visual guide to a few delights of Spain. As always, I had you all in my head and heart the whole time, thinking, "Oh, So-and-So would love this or that," and wishing I could have had you So-and-So's along :-), so perhaps this is the next best thing?

1. This plaza in Málaga, where we spent our first day, is very characteristic of Spanish towns, and serves as a gathering place for people to come at all hours of the day and night, meet up with family and friends at an outdoor café, and enjoy the slow life. 

2. Oranges and citrons flourish in this area, and you can hardly throw a stone without hitting a café that serves freshly squeezed zumo de naranja (not that we tried, mind you -- we're juice-drinkers, not stone-slingers!)

3. The coast is dotted with "white villages" (named for the whitewashed buildings, not the people who live in them!) that are criss-crossed with narrow passageways inviting plenty of wandering; this particular shot is from Mijas.

4. Hand-painted (and factory-produced) ceramics are a signature Spanish product, and they add vibrant color to many of those narrow passageways mentioned above. 

5. One day we visited and hiked around Ronda, an extremely picturesque village in the mountains that was settled by the Moors (Arab Muslims) in the 700's and conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella's folks in the 1400's -- medieval Spanish history in a nutshell. 

6. and 7. If you do nothing else in Spain, you must eat! Doing our part to keep the olive oil trade flourishing (including when we did our own cooking), we also enjoyed trying signature dishes such as paella, Spanish tortilla, local fish, olives, and sangría. 

8. Our big excursion was to the Reservatauro outside Ronda, a ranch owned by a bullfighter where cows, bulls and horses are raised and where visitors can get a feel for the cultural history and importance of bullfighting in Spain without having to see any actual gore. :-) 

9. When we first heard about the caverns of Nerja, I thought that while the kids might enjoy it, I could kind of take it or leave it, having seen many a cavern in the States; this one, however, which was truly enormous inside and included a Guinness-world-recording-breaking stalagtite/stalagmite column, wowed us all. 

10. Although the temperatures were chillier than ideal, the children were happy to spend sunny hours digging and sculpting in the sand by the Mediterranean sea, while I, bundled up in my beach chair, read books, watched them with contentment and considered how amazing it was that the waters near our feet had touched the shores of Africa and Israel and all kinds of other places we've learned about in our ancient history studies. 

And there we go. One final thought: I was considering travel in the context of a post I read by Donald Miller about a life of pleasure versus a life of meaningWhen the God who so loves the whole world (John 3:16) lives inside of you, it's impossible to spend time in a different part of that world without your heart getting expanded for its people. To me, that's a huge reason to travel with your family, within whatever means you have. Touching His heart for all mankind moves out of the abstract and becomes tangible indeed. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014


We're heading out for some sunshine, friends. Off to the coast of Spain for a holiday!

To get there, we're going native and using one of the el cheapo airlines, RyanAir, that flies between most European cities. Here's the catch: Really, really tight luggage restrictions. This is going to put our Jedi packing skills to the utmost test. Can we get everything we need for a week into five carry-ons, each weighing 10 kg or less?

I think we'll be sticking to the mantra of one item of clothing per travel day, which means each of us will be allowed to pack seven pieces of clothing, plus swimsuits. And books. And toiletries. And the camera. Oh boy. This could get quite dodgy in a big ol' hurry.

Also? Exactly one of us five speaks Spanish, and that would be yo. And it's been years since I could be considered fluent. Time to download Duolingo onto my iPhone and start cramming!

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with this parting thought. As I've been collecting impressions of the British people and culture, I've also managed to dig up a few nuggets of what THEY think about US Americans. Of course, most of the folks I've talked with are too polite to share their most unvarnished thoughts, but here's what tends to emerge in conversation with a bit of gentle probing. Are you ready for this?

1. We are very friendly and open. 
2. We are rather appallingly wasteful. 
3. We seem to own -- and use -- a lot of guns. 

And there you have it. Fair?
Hasta luego, amigos!