Monday, August 21, 2006

Farewell Headley

I leave for Scotland tomorrow, so this is my final post from Headley; and the end of a substantial chapter in my life. To all those who took the time to follow along (immediate family excluded), I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for sharing in this experience and all the ups and downs that went along with it; you’ll never know how much it means to me. I can’t help but laugh when I look back on my initial posts and at how idealistic I was. Knowing full well what a sensitive, emotional and relational human being I am, I still chose to believe I could sail through this experience without too many significant struggles. But then again, I’m not surprised; I’ve always bordered a little on delusional optimism, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. So much has happened in the last two months, as a tourist and as a resident of this house, that I find the richness of it all a little overwhelming; so many beautiful places seen, so many truths revealed, so much given and received, so many limits tested and so many lessons learnt and taught. I know when I leave here, the young woman who arrived that sunny Saturday afternoon in June will be waving good-bye from the front step of the house as we pull out of the driveway. That thought excites me, but it also terrifies me for two reasons: first, I have an obligation to myself and God to continue my life from the point of returning home, not from the point of my leaving; and second, that I must maintain this fire in me that’s caused me to seek out all that I’ve learnt from this experience. Neither will come easy; that’s a cold, hard fact.

I couldn’t possibly go out without giving a rundown of my last day here. We all went to LEGOLAND; a Lego themed amusement park near Windsor Castle. The park was charming and even though the rides were rather infantile, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Regardless of my own excitement level, the kids’ uncontainable excitement and delight made every activity a complete joy. It was a perfect day.

And finally, I’ve been relaying my victories and failures as they’ve occurred, but to not leave any ends untied, I must now admit to a few unsuccessful previously mentioned endeavors:
The boys’ reward race track: this has been unsuccessful despite my best efforts; there is only so much you can do without the full cooperation of the main authorities in the house. There is simply a lack of consistency; oh yes, and the fact that all incentive is removed if the reward is given despite the unsatisfactory progress of their cars.
The Pilgrim’s Progress: I barely made it through a quarter of this book; but not for the lack of wanting, just time and the issue of priority. I do have every intention in the world to obtain a copy when I get home so that I might complete it. I didn’t know the premise when I first began reading it and was blown away by the author’s insight. I find this book utterly fascinating. I realized that despite the absolutely ridiculous logic of this notion, I somehow had the impression that with time came a greater understanding. What I would give for a drop of the knowledge and understanding of Christianity that John Bunyan must have had to be able to lay it out in such a way. Though I’ve yet to finish it, I would recommend this book to anyone.
Finally, the issue of my daily Bible reading: I fear my progress with this is not even near where I intended it to be. My intention was to make it such a fixture in my life that I would come home with a genuine desire to spend time alone with God without it feeling like a chore. Maybe I’m not ready; maybe at this point in my life it’s like hammering a square peg into a round hole. I have a peace about it because not only has the time I did spend been fruitful, but I realize this was primarily my intention and not necessarily what God wanted to focus on. I feel that if it was something He felt was a priority, then things would have been different somehow. I will continue to read My Utmost For His Highest and have been considering a new approach; not forcing it as a daily requirement, but simply taking advantage of a quiet moment at any given time during the day to sit down with my Bible. No pressure, no rules, just the anticipated gradual rise in my inclination.

What will I miss most? The kids, of course: Williams infectious and uncontrollable laughter when I’d chase him around the house, stomping my feet saying, "I’m going to get you." Henry and Edward’s energy and those gentle, touching moments when one of them would come up unexpectedly, wrap their arms around my legs and lay their head against me. And Tom, the way he seems incapable of any feeling besides love towards anyone he comes into contact with. Besides that (and my dear friend, Paisley), I will truly miss the beauty of this country. What will I miss the least? Being lonely, the lack of freewill and how the Potters’ washing machine turned most of my pink knickers, grey.

So with a raised cup of tea, to England I send out the good ol’ proverbial "Cheers!", and to all you at home, I say simply, "See you soon."

Stay tuned for tales of Scotland and Ireland…

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Stonehenge & Bath

"En route to London to board my bus tour: Everyday now seems to hold a number of lasts for me here; I’ve been trying to soak in every detail from the sounds of the kids’ laughter to the smells of the house. To be truthful, there have been a few occasions where tears could have come easily had I allowed it but I'm sure there’ll be plenty of that to come; no need to start early."


"The coach departed about 20 minutes late, but I used that time to look over all the people lined up in the queue, thinking to myself "Now, who can I make friends with?" There was one particular older couple whose southern accent left their nationality undeniable. I caught eyes with the Mrs., we smiled at eachother and the exact words that went through my mind where: "She looks like she might like someone to mother." What a sad case I am.

Driving through London on the way out of the city, it became clear to me how much more of the city I could have seen. Having the tour guide point out everything gave interest to things that I didn’t take a second look at. Did you know there’s a nude sculpture of the Duke of Wellington that had to be turned around because it was causing too many accidents? It would take at least a week to take in everything London has to offer. I realize also that as much as the whole backpacking lifestyle does appeal to me, Coach Tours have a few undisputable perks: being taken care of, not being on your feet all day and the extremely informative commentary; I absolutely love hearing the stories and the history of everything. The downsides? Traffic jams, stopping at Windsor castle to pick up some additional passengers and waiting for 30 minutes while they were located and sorted, the drafts of body odor from the gentlemen in front of me and the incessant whining and negativity of the old lady behind me. The docile and indifferent responses from her husband led me to believe his thoughts may have contained something of the following: "Oh, shut up, woman."

Thanks a great deal to the invaluable history lesson our guide provided before arriving, the stones were every bit as exhilarating as I thought they would be. Just to give you an idea of what a feat it was, the largest stones in the middle weigh about 40 tons each and not only were they transported 24 miles before the wheel was ever invented, they were hoisted over top of the previously erected ring of 12 foot high trilithons. Besides that, all they would have had for tools were stones and animal bones, yet each stone is individually sculpted and there’s a very large 30 foot deep crevice dug out surrounding the whole structure. As icing on the cake, I had a conversation with the American lady on the way back to the bus (they’re from Oklahoma) and discovered that she had taught about Stonehenge for years as a now retired teacher and was seeing them for the first time. I was able to share in that experience as her excitement was infectious; it was really quite endearing. We ate lunch at the Stonehenge Inn just 5 minutes from the stones and as I was sitting among strangers and nobody spoke to anyone outside their own party, I was essentially dining alone, which is something I’ve always wanted to try; it wasn’t so bad. Side note: on our way there, our guide, Steve, relayed an unusual experience he had had just last week at the stones. He began by telling us that he wasn’t one to believe in the powers of the earth and all that hoopla, but this particular time, after entering the park, he noticed that his brand new Armani watch had stopped. When he brought it in to fixed, upon removing the back, they found all the inner workings of the watch had been melted down into a small solid mass of brass…odd.

It was about an hours drive to Bath through wide open countryside made up of never ending hills and valleys and littered with small villages. We even passed a very large and impressive estate that’s home to, actress, Jane Seymour. It was an incredibly beautiful drive. Partly way through, though, we entered a rather intimidating storm. It downpoured intensly and I was worried that Bath would be a let down, but the rain did stop before we arrived. The city of Bath is a sight to behold. Even the soggy state of it and the grey, but bright, sky could not take away from the beauty of the city; in fact, it just made the splendor of it seem a little more surreal. After passing by an apartment building that was once inhabited by Jane Austin, the bus was parked and we received strict instructions to be back in one hour. I was not about to waste the opportunity to experience this incredibly city, built almost completely out of the famous "Honey Colored Bath Stone" (which is actually more of a soft taupe), so I made haste through the Roman Baths and came out with 25 minutes to spare. Because of the weather, the streets were relatively unoccupied and the usual sounds of city life were somehow muted, granting me the sensation that I had found some kind of undiscovered, lost treasure. My favorite part was a small square that had the entrance to the Bath Abbey, the entrance to the baths, a few stores and a row of columns, completing the four sides of the enclosure (see picture in previous post). It was so silent and isolated that anything audible was hollow sounding and echoed off the buildings around me; especially the water droplets falling into the pre-formed puddles and the flapping of wings as the pigeons took flight in small groups from the steeples of the Abbey, their shapes black against the bright grey/white sky. Standing there, taking it all in, I could almost see the ghosts of the Roman soldiers chatting amongst themselves and entering the baths together. The continued rain and the prospect of the 40 minute train ride home (after the 2 hour bus ride from Bath) could not possibly put a damper on the joy I feel from having seen not only Stonehenge, but the incredible city of Bath.

I quite love the look of Central London in the nighttime and was graced with the sight of Harrods, lit up by 11,000 white lights, upon entering the city. A wonderful sight and a wonderful way to end my time here, as besides an underground trip to King’s Cross train station on Tuesday morning, this was the last I’ll see of London."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Bits & Bobs

Being determined to make the most of every detail of my days here has made me realize the depth of my tendency to constantly look ahead. Shamefully, I’ve realized how many minutes and hours have gone by unnoticed because of my preoccupation with the future. Knowing now where I’ve gone wrong hasn’t completely dissolved the issue, but awareness is the first natural step and there have been many occasions since, which I’ve soaked in after a conscious decision to focus my attention on the present instead of ignoring it. It’s incredible how much of a mind switch it is. Those moments that I did make that conscious change in my mentality had such an effect on me; physically and emotionally. In a single second, I felt lighter, more relaxed and most importantly, more alive.

Mine and Cheryl’s pending trip northward has been occupying my mind quite completely for the last week. I’m excited, but also a little worried about the effects the terrorist threats have been having on the airports and airlines. There have been major delays, flights have been cancelled, and hand baggage has been significantly limited. It could likely clear up significantly be the time we take our first of three flights, but it’s still cause for concern. I suppose this is just another test of my trust in God; so on that note, I’m pledging now to put it from my mind because Cheryl and I have done everything we can to guarantee smooth sailing so the rest is out of our hands and we’ll just deal with it as it comes. For those who are interested, here’s out itinerary:
Aug.22: Train to Edinburgh, Aug.23-24: Edinburgh, Aug.25: Bus to Inverness, Aug.26: Inverness, Aug.27: Flight to Dublin, Aug.28-30: Coach Tour all throughout southern Ireland, Aug.31-Sep.1: To be decided; evening flight to London, Sep.2: Home.

So far, I’ve simply been relaying truths that God has graciously shown to me, but now I will tell you of a lesson learnt that has more to do with me and less to do with the intricacies of our spiritual lives. I had been praying that I might begin to learn the art of humility (as I know I can be quite proud, but that’s another story altogether); just not in the humiliating, don’t want to show your face in public sort of way. This experience was an answer to that prayer:
On the Wednesday night in France, I sat down with Catherine to ask her about the possibility of getting some time off during the next few days as I was feeling a little frazzled. This conversation did not go how I expected it to, thanks also to Jonathan’s involvement. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a horrible experience, but it wasn’t the most pleasant conversation I’ve ever had either. We spoke like civilized adults and there was no animosity between parties, but Jonathan tends to approach things from more of a business-like approach due to his high-ranking position in a large financial institution. He spoke of the expenses of having me there and suggested that we could work it out as long as my 7 hours "on" were filled with significant activity as oppose to working continuously and enjoying the moments of relaxation that presented themselves throughout the day. First of all, I didn’t know what that meant exactly as my job is generally pertaining to the kids and they didn’t need too much looking after, and I really didn’t want that hanging over my head; always wondering if a moment being still would lead to scrutiny and resentment. Second, I could have explained that you can never truly relax in an environment where you’re "available" every waking moment of the day to be called upon at any given moment to aid or execute some task. In regards to the expenses, I could have argued that it was their choice to have someone along and, frankly, part of the arrangement; so though I am grateful for the experience, it was not fair to imply that I was indebted to them. I could have argued too that I was being deprived of two free weekends and, finally, that I was confident that I had displayed and proved my work ethic in the last month and a half and that he should know that I would not ask for this if I didn’t feel it was justified. I could have argued…but I didn’t. I choose instead to continue and complete my time here under amiable circumstances and did what was asked of me throughout the day for the duration of the trip. As my previous posts made clear, the trip was positive and amazing and wonderful and although this all sounds a little awkward and disagreeable, I could see where they were coming from and the conversation was generally good-natured and ended with pleasantries and wishes of a good night. There were moments during those days that I felt like I was in a room with no exit and the walls were closing in around me. There were moments where I would have given my left arm to sit down and have a conversation with someone who really knows me. It was a moment that evening, though, which was the most significant; when I was feeling dejected alone in my bedroom asking myself and God why he was putting me through this. The word humility then snuck into the forefronts of my brain and I realized then that this had nothing to do with the Potter’s and everything to do with me. Though I would be lying if I said I felt not a twinge of bitterness at any given time during those days; I am human as you know. I realize now that this whole trip, given the nature of the job, has been a lesson in humility; I’d just been so eager to please that it didn’t ever occur to me until I felt that I was maybe being taken advantage of. Though, to clarify, I don’t believe that has ever been their intention. Do I feel worn? Yes. Do I feel like my limits have been tested? Yes. Do I regret the lesson? Absolutely not. Not only have I been humbled by the experience, I have been utterly humbled by the unfailing efforts of my Heavenly Father where my personal growth is concerned. I know I don’t deserve it, there are many more worthy then me, yet he persists. Who am I to receive such attention? I suppose to ask such a question means only that my learning has simply just begun.

Friday, August 18, 2006

France Saga - Part V

Saturday, August 12:
I arrived at the Chateau de St. Paterne grouchy and stiff, but the moment I walked through the door and was greeted by the smell of scented candles and handmade soap, all that was pulling me down was peeled away and left lying on the doorstep. I opted to stay behind as the rest of the family went into Aléncon; it was a hard decision, but I have been in need of some downtime all week and I can’t imagine a more perfect place to unwind. The Chateau is actually a family home owned by Charles Henry and Segolene de Valbray; they live here with their two (almost three) children. This mansion was built in the 15th century and has been in his family for 400 years; the rooms we’ve taken once belonged to his grandfather and grandmother. Just off the landing on the second floor are two doors leading to the two sections of the second floor (See picture: All four large windows on the second floor belonged to us; mine were the two on the left). Our door opens up to a hallway that both of our rooms are entered from. Both are not only huge and have their own hearths, but each have a smaller room attached and have their own incredible bathrooms as well. The furniture and artwork are antique (one painting pre-dating the completion of the Louvre), the heavy drapery and bed cover fabrics are rich and dated, the walls are paneled (beige with blue accents) and there’s a decanter on the bureau containing something brown and potent that tastes like nothing I’ve ever tried before; a little like crown royal with a smidge of sweetness. Before settling down in my room with tea and music playing from the complimentary stereo, I explored the lounge rooms on the first floor and the grounds, tried to check my email on a computer and keyboard that were all in French and played a horribly out of tune key on a piano with brown keys and its finish stained and covered in bits of melted wax underneath the tarnished, swing out candle holders. This whole house looks more like a museum and staying here is more of a dream come true then anything I’ve experienced so far; I will take this memory home and carry it with me to remind myself of this charmed life that I live.


"I had dinner with the boys so Jonathan and Catherine could enjoy a romantic meal together with the adults; likely the last one they’ll have for at least the rest of the year. The evening went smoothly and the boys went to bed without resistance and were asleep within 20 minutes. Sleep was once again sporadic, though, and I was awake early because Tom was moving around a lot and I couldn’t sleep for longer then 5 minutes because I kept thinking he was getting out of bed; I have really weird and disturbing dreams when I sleep like that. We had an incredible buffet breakfast in the large, stately dining room, where they provided an amazing choice of croissants, breads and cakes along with the typical fruit and cereal selection. We checked out a bit later, after packing up, standing by one of the huge open windows and listening to the local church bells chime for 10 minutes signaling the beginning of the Sunday morning service, and paying the €500.00 bill; we’re now headed north towards Calais with cloudy skies overhead and rain pounding on the windshield. Every negative aspect of this experience was worth being a guest in that house. I will miss France and all the wishes it granted."


It took over 8 hours to get home once all was said and done, partly due to the huge delays at the Euro Tunnel due to a new automated check-in system with a touch screen. We ended up catching a train an hour and a half after our 4:45 reserved crossing. Everyone was complaining about how much money was wasted on a system that absolutely defeats the purpose of making the process more convenient; but if you ask me, it’s simply a test of the intelligence of the general public. Let me tell you, I witnessed the procedure, the British and the French didn’t bode well. We arrived home restless and tired to a kitchen that wreaked like garbage because of a bin that wasn’t emptied before we left, which was overflowing with maggots. Our dear Ginger Ranger also left a few welcome home gifts in random places throughout the main floor. Besides that, I was happy to be home and was greeted by a shiver of delight upon entering my room on the third floor, with all the peace, quiet and privacy it provides; God bless ‘em, but it’s good to get away.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

France Saga - Part III & IV

The internet has been down, which is screwing up my posting schedule, so I’ve been forced to combine posts for a rather large read; my apologies.

Tuesday, August 8:
It’s funny how much more climatized I am to the heat because of the typically dull English weather. Yesterday at the water park, when a cloud would cause a few moments relief, everyone would let out a sigh; whereas I would run my hand over the goose bumps that would coincidently turn up on my arms. And this afternoon, we all packed up and went to one of the local beaches and when everyone was complaining about how “bloody hot” it was, I was happy to just sit and soak it in. It was about 4:00, but the sun was still operating at maximum capacity. I had a goal in coming here and that was to immerse myself in the salty ocean water, as I had not done so since I was a child. So shortly after we arrived, when Richard and Nicola went down to the water with their son, Ethan, I was more then happy to accompany an anxiously anticipating Henry and we followed shortly behind. When we caught up, Richard and Nicola were standing at the shore and commented that it was much too cold to go in, causing me slight concern. I put my foot in and was pleasantly surprised at how reasonable it actually was; granted, it would have had to be glacier cold to keep me out at that point. I turned to them, shrugged my shoulders, asked Nicola to hold my sunglasses for me and turned back with the intention of leaping gracefully over any coming waves and diving in; think Baywatch minus the bright orange bathing suit. However, when I turned and started running I was met head on with that sequential bugger of a three foot wave as it crashed into me; you know the ones that often catch you off guard after following a string of less imposing ones. I was stopped dead in my tracks, soaked through and had the impulse to then take hold of my bathing suit bottoms as the decidedly strong grip of the undertow led me to feel it a necessary precaution. Once I had my wits contained, I turned back and joined Richard and Nicola in their laughter before returning to the task at hand and taking that long intended dive in. The water near the shore and that’s swung about in the waves is about half sand and half water so I was covered in the former; I could have built a small village with all the sand that came out of my bathing suit during the shower I had when we returned home. Richard did dive in shortly after; I guess he thought if I could do it… We didn’t stay too long, unfortunately, but I accomplished my goal so I went home happy.

After spending the last two days in the blazing sun (and doing a half-ass job of putting sunscreen on my back today), my skin is a jigsaw puzzle of rare, medium-rare and well-done.

Wednesday, August 9
David and Ann left early this morning and it upsets me that I didn’t bid them a proper farewell. They are charming people and I will miss them.

We went to a lovely park today that’s stationed at the edge of a pond and near the base Talmont Castle. Catherine, Nicola and I went for a walk around the pond with William, leaving Jonathan with the other four boys; the castle and two old church buildings took their turns becoming clear through the trees as we made our way around. This evening, all of us went to “Le Port Bourgenay” and walked along the promenade around the boats to a small lighthouse and back and then through a delightful market right on the edge of the water. At one point I was walking ahead of the group and became completely captivated by a lady strolling through the patio tables of a restaurant serenading the patrons with a rendition of “Hymne a L’Amour”; that is until the sound of Jonathan’s exasperated voice ripping into one of the boys pulled me back to reality. It was quite a contrast.

Thursday, August 10:
What an incredible day; but not just in the sense that everything was perfect, more of a supernatural, I can die happy, kind of day. The absence of Richard, Nicola and especially Ethan, made the morning and early afternoon so incredibly relaxed and wonderful. With the boys’ hyper-active cousin around, their behavior seems to go down a notch and the volume up two. At about 4:00 we left the house and headed to a small port town called La Rochelle about an hour and a half south of Talmont St. Hilaire; the drive down was lovely. Beautiful expansive fields of sunflowers were common, their faces all turned towards the sun, and filled the horizon between timeless, little old villages with farmhouses and stone fences; where without the modern convenience of paved roads, you might expect to see an old man with a hat leading a dusty, worn out mule down the street carrying satchels of French bread and wine. As I had no idea what I was in for, I had no expectations; but we parked in a parkade that was surrounded by a few large grey buildings, so it didn’t look like much. It was only a short walk, though, that brought us around a corner and in view of what’s left of a castle that was built right on the edge of the water. A little bit further, and over a small bridge the spans the channel into the port, I first set my eyes upon this incredible city. Of all the cities I’ve explored and towns I’ve walked through since I’ve been here, this city is leaps and bounds more beautiful then anything that I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the perfect combination of old world and new living or the strange contrast between luxury and rugged beauty; or maybe it’s simply the architecture. Either way, this city captivated me thoroughly and entirely. We walked around the port and through the street market where, if the funds and the means were available to me, I could have brought home a million and one different treasures. We ate at a restaurant called “La Popote De La Mar” where I ordered the Crudités Salad and Chocolate Mousse for dessert, then took a detour through one of the side streets and came back around the port, drooling over yachts and stopping to chat with an older couple from Wales; this being apparent originally by the word “Cardiff” written on the back of their boat. They actually weren’t on the deck, but Catherine started shouting “Anyone from Cardiff down there?” so they came up to see what all the hollering was about. On the way back to the car, I was bursting, so I stopped by the aquarium to use the facilities. When I met them back, they were waiting by one of those fountains that shoot up a grid of water spouts in an unpredictable manner. The boys had just stared running through and kicking at the water when I arrived but within minutes, Henry was running over top of them fully clothed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt getting absolutely soaked through. It was one of those times where a child (or children) is doing something that isn’t the most convenient at that present time, but you’d have to be a heartless scrooge to tell them to stop; absolute glee. The sun was just setting when we left, so it was easy to slip into a euphoric contentment during the drive home; even when Jonathan switched the radio to the BBC News to listen to the latest on the terrorist crisis back in London. Because the reception was poor, it sounded more like an old 1940’s wooden radio relaying news from the war to its anxious listeners. This world will never know peace until every last one of its occupants are called home or otherwise.

Friday, August 11:
Once again, the whole lot of us met up and went out in the early evening; this time to a large children’s play park filled with random playground paraphernalia and bizarre and wonderful feats of engineering from simple sea-saws to a 20 foot slide and an odd 10 person swing where 5 pairs of people sit facing eachother one behind the other; the thing actually went pretty high. It was one of those places that could be a legal nightmare without the not-so-small print stating simply that if you want to be stupid about it, it’s your own bloody fault. There was one such precarious attraction that was basically a wooden, man-sized hamster wheel. It was also one of those contraptions that the “big kids” seemed to get more enjoyment out of then the young ones do. The boys spent about 5 minutes tumbling over eachother and whining about which direction to go before Richard and I not so subtly gave them the heave-hoe. We started at a brisk walk that turned into a light jog but it couldn’t have been more then a minute before we both got too disoriented and lost our bearings. I bailed first and him just after, both falling over ourselves, limbs-flailing, before sliding to a stop unable to get up as we were laughing too hard. Catherine and Nicola, along with the boys, witnessed the whole display and were in stitches right along with us. I ended up with a couple scrapes, bruises on three out of four of the major hinges and a bruised and slightly swollen knuckle, but not an hour after we left, while dining at McDonalds, Richard started showing everyone his purple, swollen toe with the pretense of “Look what Stacy did to me?” As we leave tomorrow, I can’t imagine a better way to have ended the holiday.

Yesterday, I booked my first coach tour to Bath and Stonehenge, due to leave Saturday morning; my last English excursion and I quite like the idea of being chauffeured around after all of my previous sightseeing experiences. I was determined to get to Stonehenge and this was the most practical, efficient way to do it. The tour includes lunch in an old pub near the stones and a tour of the roman bathes; including a tour of the pump room and a glass of the “peculiar tasting” spring water containing 40 different minerals. Despite the fact that I’ll be alone, once again, I am looking forward to it. Consider this likely scenario: me, alone on a bus, with 10 to 15 other elderly couples; should be interesting.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

France Saga - Part II

Sunday, August 6:
The final drive from the hotel to Catherine’s brother’s house in France wasn’t any better, so my mood was less then cheerful upon arrival. It only took about 20 minutes for that to change, though, once I became reacquainted with Catherine’s Parents, brother and sister-in-law (David and Ann, Richard and Nicola). We all had a wonderful meal together and I was quickly reminded why I was so excited to spend this time with them all. Catherine and Jonathan went to our house earlier to unpack and get things in order, but it wasn’t until later that evening that I saw it for the first time. The house is one of many in a complex of holiday homes, all beige stucco with terra cotta roofs and brightly colored shutters, right in the middle of a charming old town called Talmont St. Hilaire, which has an old church whose bell rings out often throughout the day. The house is comfortable, roomy, with a décor that’s a cross between nautical and Mardi Gras, a canopied patio beside the pool and an ample backyard. My room is one of four on the upper floor; one blue, one green, mine, the purple room and one with a locked door. There are two bedrooms downstairs too, which is where everyone except Henry and I sleep. The room he’s in beside mine has an extra bed and the third bedroom has a double bed and a single bed that aren’t even being used. This morning was so pleasant and relaxed, giving me the opportunity to hop on the big round air mattress in my tank top and capris, sprawl out on my back with my feet in the water and float in the pool for a while before the boys had a chance to suit up and jump in; I was absolutely soaking it up as the weather started out beautiful and hot and remained that way throughout the day. The rest of the family joined us in the afternoon and we all sunbathed, swam and chatted amongst ourselves contentedly until they left in the early evening. Before dinner, we gathered the kids in the car so Jonathan and Catherine could take me for a preview of the ocean; what a wonderful day. This evening, as I sat reclined on a beach chair on the deck with a mug of hot chocolate, listening to the crickets and watching the moon become more and more vivid against the backdrop of the darkening sky, I thought of home for a moment to see if I could locate an ounce of longing; I found none.

Monday, August 7:
Last night, just before bed, while reading to Henry (he couldn’t sleep), the sound of fireworks interrupted the hijinks of Horrid Henry (the character) and prompted Catherine to come upstairs to see who was awake to view it. The next 20 minutes was spent sitting on the edge of the couch in my darkened bedroom staring out my wide open window watching an impressive fireworks display, hailing from the ruins of Talmont Castle, between the glowing silhouettes of Catherine and Henry. There was apparently some kind of an annual celebration going on and the sounds of laughter and cheering easily crossed the distance between us. It was quite a moment.

Today we went to Atlantic Toboggan; a water park about an hour and a half from where we’re staying. Unfortunately, though, because of some ridiculous traffic and a few missed turn offs, it took us twice as long to get there. Ah France, the land of traffic circles. My eyes were burning all day, but not from the sun, from the minion’s of Speedo wedgies I was forced to lay my eyes on; Richard included. Most of the men wear them, but if you ask me: fit or fat, smooth or hairy, it’s just not attractive. My message to all European men: just because women like to accentuate their bits doesn’t mean you have to.

Another lovely evening: dinner on the patio with Ann and David, tea and cake for dessert while the boys ran around the backyard playing, and reading My Utmost For His Highest with my hot chocolate underneath an outdoor light as the moon did not provide sufficient illumination. I’m truly ashamed of myself for feeling even a moment of self-pity at not being able to go to Osoyoos this year with my family. Just like I did in Africa, I’ve had to remind myself bi-hourly that I’m actually here. Don’t get me wrong, I love it in Osoyoos and I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve spent there for anything, but let me tell you, after 24 years of having "holidays" be characterized by a tent and public toilets, I could really get used to this.

Monday, August 14, 2006

France Saga - Part I

"We left for France about a ½ hour ago. I have to admit, for all the excitement I’ve felt in the past about coming here, I’m feeling a little down this morning. I think because I am such a headstrong, stubborn person (who doesn’t like being told what to do), the obligations of this arrangement are beginning to wear on me a bit. The fact that my time is not my own is a slight inconvenience. Usually, when you’re at work, you’re working and when you’re at home, that time is yours. Well, that’s not the case here; I do have roughly set hours, but there’s no distinction between work and home."

"We’ve just arrived in France after a 25 minute journey by train through the Euro Tunnel. It was strange not being able to see out at all, but feeling the pressure in my ears from being under water. I just saw a sign to Paris and was overwhelmed with a feeling of frustration at being in France without the opportunity to go to Paris. Here is my first impression of France:
Yellow sun-baked hills and fields spotted with patches of lush, green trees, houses and large white turbines turning with a weighted ease and overlooking the countryside with a personified regality and importance. The motorway is alternatively lined with corn fields and harvested hay fields; their round bales overlapping eachother hurriedly as we rush past. Cows and other livestock litter the surroundings, tails swaying as they graze contently. The blue behind the clouds is sparsely seen and the air cool, but the west coast should greet us clear and warm."

"En route to the Chateau, we drove through a city called Rouen and went over the River Seine, just catching a quick view of the incredible Cathedral Notre Dame as we traveled through. When we finally got off the motorway, I was so taken by the authenticity of the town streets, with their old, rough, flat-faced, beige stone store fronts and the remnants of barns and stables; all that’s left being wood skeletons with partial brick walls. A romanticized ideal of a place or otherwise is seldom realized, but in this case, I felt as though I was driving through a movie set; as if someone had taken it right out of a dream. My frustrations about not seeing Paris subsided significantly with the realization that I was seeing France in all its organic, historic, charming glory. When we first arrived at the Chateau, I was too wound up to really take pleasure in my surroundings. Call it cabin fever; being trapped in the car with those four boys for the majority of the day (imagine, on a couple occasions: Henry and Edward fighting in the back, William screaming and Tom having a fit over some desired object) was a little like being a zookeeper in a cage full of monkeys; I’m so glad I had my classical music to retreat to. My stress level didn’t improve initially with the reminder that I would be sharing a rather small bedroom with the three oldest boys. I’ll be honest, at that point, I just wanted it to be morning. However, after sitting for a bit with my legs in the pool taking pictures of the Potter’s (and hollering at Catherine when Tom waded into the deep end behind her and began flailing) and going for a lovely stroll through the forest before dinner, my mood took on a completely different shape and color. The chateau (an old, converted estate) and grounds are beautiful; complete with pool, restaurant, tennis courts and driving range. The main floor has a series of partially segregated sitting rooms with full, brown leather armchairs and couches, decorated with an old world, rich feel, and made to feel cozy and warm. The ground floor also has the restaurant, which is where we ate dinner. What an incredible meal; €25 was the least expensive selection and included a main course and dessert. When I brought Henry and Edward up after dinner to get them ready for bed, I started to look forward to our little slumber party and as I lay here writing now with my three boys in bed (one sleeping, two resting quietly), I don’t remember what I was worried about; I guess it could be the possibility of being woken up at 6:00am by a small child jumping on my head, but we’ll see. One thing I did thoroughly enjoy about this arrangement was reading them Beauty & The Beast, playing each part with gusto and emotion, using every opportunity to be over-dramatic: ""You can’t die," sobbed Belle, "I, I love you.""; then singing them Disney songs quietly on their bed for the last 10 minutes of pre-sleep activities. Oh, just lost another one; my dear Edward was just seen picking up and dropping Tom’s newly deadened arm. The air that’s coming in through my window smells like damp leaves; I can’t believe how fortunate I am."


"Sleep was sporadic as I’m a light sleeper and being responsible for the boys made me aware of their every move. Each woke up once in the order they fell asleep: Henry with a complaint that it was too dark, Tom just rolled around a bit before falling back to sleep in the opposite direction and Edward after falling out of bed. Although, he sat there with a confused look on his face, said not a word, and laid back down to sleep the second I lifted him back into bed, so I don’t think he was ever really awake. France is more beautiful then I could ever have expected; ever house, stable, building, is worthy of a portrait. I could have filled a photo album with pictures taken just within the five minute drive from the chateau to the motorway. This is the first true experience I’ve had with a language barrier. Since we’re away from the real touristy areas, very few signs have English translations; my gosh, it’s frustrating. My grade 8 French just isn’t doing it for me. Yesterday, when we were ordering dinner, Jonathan and Catherine placed their order and then looked to me. I had been staring at the menu for the last 5 minutes picking out familiar words and knew enough to know they’d ordered the beef; so not wanting to cause a delay, I just replied "I’ll have the same" and when choosing my dessert, simply pointed and said "That one please." I didn’t dare try and pronounce anything for fear of making an ass of myself. It felt rude, but what could I do? I also realized halfway through the meal that I was using the starter utensils; how very cultured I am."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Shiver and a Show

This past week or so, Cheryl and I have been trying to figure out the best way to get through Ireland; which has been a little bit of a struggle. It’s always easier when you’re actually there, so we had decided to just wing it once we arrived. That was until I came across a fabulous alternative solution, which I am ridiculously excited about it: Paddy Wagon Tours. It leaves the morning after we arrive in Dublin and brings us back the evening of the third day. The great thing about this is that it will take us to all the sights on our required list (and some) and brings us back with almost two days left before our flight back to London. So we can stay in Dublin, check out somewhere new or head back to a place we particularly enjoyed, with time to spare even. It’s no less then ideal.

Details from my last touristy day in London:
"I just got told off for taking pictures inside the auditorium; one of many, of course. So the theatre is much smaller then I expected which makes my 17th row, ground floor seats a bit less then fantastic, but it could be much, much worse. I can’t wait for the show to start but I’m glad just to be sitting down because the morning was so rushed. I went straight to St. Paul’s once I arrived in London and despite the unexpected £9.00 entrance fee, I’m so glad I came back to see it. The 500 some odd steps to the top were killer, but the view was fantastic. The weather stayed sunny so all of London was showcased brilliantly; although the gale force winds at the top made picture taking a bit of a sticky wicket (ask Piechnik). I went there with the view in mind, but I wasn’t prepared for the incredible interior of the cathedral. The show’s about to start…"

"Another really cool aspect of St. Paul’s was the crypt below the floor of the cathedral which housed numerous tombs and sarcophagi; my favorite being that of William Blake. Horatio Nelson also rests in that place; I learned of his importance during my tour of Windsor Castle. From St. Paul’s, I rushed over to the museum and since I didn’t know exactly what time it was, I hurried first to a painting by Di Vinci before asking an employee what time it was. "1:30" she replied, which is exactly the time I needed to be on my way to the theatre. "1:30?" I asked her; very surprised that time had rushed by so quickly. "Well, 1:25, my watch is fast." I thanked her, made a beeline for the Vermeer and rushed for the door. However, my disbelief propelled me to inquire the time, to be sure, just before exiting the building: "12:30" the guard answered. I turned on my heel straight away and returned to the gallery, asking just one more employee along the way for the sake of confirmation. I was able to see everything I wanted and more before catching a bus to the theatre: Vermeer, Di Vinci, Monet, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and an amazing painting by Peter Paul Rubens called "An Autumn Landscape With a View of Het Sheen"; crap, I just realized I missed the Michelangelo. Of all the paintings I looked at, I do have to say that I found the Vermeer the most exciting. For some reason, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is one of my favorite paintings, so seeing one of his paintings, seeing his very own brush strokes, gave me goose bumps. So I can see why they called it "Les Miserable". I’ll start with the negative: a lady a bit behind me felt the need to hum with the music, which became annoyingly audible at times; it’s beyond me why someone didn’t tell her to zip it. Second, why does everyone feel such a need to clap between musical numbers? It pulls you right out of the story. Well, that’s enough bitching. Just before the show, the two vacant seats on either side of me were filled by two rather large young Asian guys (one of which dozed off during the show) who didn’t speak a word to eachother the whole time. This wasn’t so much good as it was funny. The show was amazing: the acting, the singing, the music, the set; a shiver went up my spine as the opening music broke the silence once the lights had gone dim. At times I became aware of my ridiculously involved facial expressions during particularly emotional and dramatic moments. I found my mind drifting a bit during the mellower, unfamiliar songs, but that was probably just because I couldn’t understand what they were saying."

What a fiasco getting home. My train was cancelled and then all others delayed because of a stalled train on the track. I’m so glad I’ve got a grasp on the train system otherwise this could have been a really stressful situation. As it was, I did make it home; it just took over twice as long. It would have been earlier, as the first train that came after the track was cleared was one I could have taken, but it was so full and when people started pushing to fill in the last few spaces, the train employees started yelling to back away as the doors were closing and the train was about to leave: pandemonium. After sightseeing on my own yet again, I’m looking more and more forward to having Cheryl with me in a month; it’s too bloody lonely. I didn’t realized how uncomfortable I was getting with it until on the train home, a young man tapped me on the arm with his book to insist that I take a seat that had just become available. I didn’t realize it until I had been sitting down for a few minutes, but I felt like the bubble around me had been broken because someone had spoken to me and I was much more relaxed. I realized then that a big part of it was the fact that I didn’t feel invisible anymore. After pondering that for a while, I thought, hey, this is probably good for me; getting comfortable being isolated. But then I thought: why is that important? What’s so bad about being a relational person? I’ve decided that learning things about myself doesn’t always signal a necessary change.

I waited to post this because I leave for France tomorrow morning and although I’m bringing my laptop and will be writing regularly, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to post any of it; you’ll all have a nice long read ahead of you when I get back…ahahaha. Au revoir mes amis.