Synchonicity

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I’ve had my hand kissed three times.  I mean the hand kiss that you see in movies (check out Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in “The Age of Innocence”) but rarely in real life. In fact it’s so infrequent, at least in my life, that I recall each instance!

The first time I was at a fancy soiree and was introduced to a baron.  Yes, a real baron, who upon seeing my outstretched hand to shake instead lifted it to his mouth, lowered his head and held my fingers near his mouth but did not touch them.  Needless to say, it was a heady moment!

The second time a good friend greeted me this way–someone I had not seen for several months.  It was a very charming moment and this friend knew the correct protocol:  no wet smooch, only dry lips which barely graze the lady’s hand.  Again there is something very breathtaking about this graceful gesture.  It does make a great impression.  Here is a gentleman who is cultured and confident in his masculinity. And the third time occurred here and in a most unlikely venue but that I believe is the essence of Paris: surprise and wonder.

We had finished an exhausting and messy four hour adventure at Porte de Vanves sifting through the wares of over 200 vendors and needed to sit, eat and use the toilette.  So we went into a small, tattered bar/bistro not far from the metro stop.  Locals were there–no tourists–and we took a seat.  The waiter took our order which included pomme frites.  The food arrived and Ken asked for ketchup.  The owner said, “No ketchup, mayonnaise.”  Ken was dismayed; “I want ketchup,” he said.  “One moment,” the owner said.  We saw him run out the door, run down the block and shortly reappear carrying a small plastic tub full of ketchup which a neighbor restauranteur must have provided.  “Voila!” he said, as he placed the little tub on our table.  We all had a big laugh and Ken was delighted.

Later as Ken was paying the tab, I went over to the owner, extended my hand and said “Enchante, monsieur.”   At that moment, he looked at me, smiled, and took my hand in his, brought it to his lips, bent his head and lightly touched his forehead to my hand.   All the bar habituees were enjoying this bit of play as was I.  As we left, he called out, “Bonne journee, Madame et le Roi du Ketchup!”  Everyone roared.  Ken didn’t understand, but I translated for him later.  So what does this tell you about Paris?  Surprise and wonder; the unexpected will delight, anger or amuse, but it will always be there waiting for you if you are open to it.

Paris Roller Coaster

Up and down.  A little sun, heavy rain.  Clear blue sky above with puffy, white clouds.  Dark and threatening skies, rain imminent.  Warm and breezy, blustery and chilly.  So it has gone now for 11 days.  Tomorrow it will drop to 40F an unheard of low for September.  The weather is a bit like my feelings: some days I am so frustrated by Paris, I vow I’ll never return.  Other days, I wish I could stay here forever and walk endlessly in these ever unwinding streets full of their odd little shops and bistros; the endless boulangeries, patisseries, boucheries, fromageries, shops, marche des fruits, and just about anything else you can conceive.   Not to mention the museums and the churches.  They’re all here waiting to be discovered.  It’s exhausting, it’s fascinating.  It’s impossible but we try–about 5 miles a day on foot–we try.

Did you know there is a canal in Paris?  I didn’t.  There is.  Canal St. Martin.

Canal St. Martin

The canal is about 3 miles long with lovely iron foot bridges to cross from side to side It has nine locks which allow boat traffic to pass up and down. The end point is the Arsenal Marina which accommodates over 200 boats. On a sunny day the canal is a serene area along which to walk shaded by many mature trees.  Recently trendy shops and galleries have sprung up around the portion of the canal north of the Marais.  Our walk to see them was cut short when a downpour hit us about midway along the canal.  We were fortunate to get a taxi as the nearest Metro, Stalingrad, many blocks away.

We decided to go to the Louvre until the storm subsided. Like most big cities, when it pours the traffic gets even worse than it is already. In Paris it’s really a mess because the streets are so narrow and winding it is impossible to just speed away. We finally did make it to the Louvre and were bowled over again by its splendor–the buildings, the gardens, the courtyards, and yes, the pyramid. Our Museum Pass allowed us to go to the head of the line and in we zipped. Hardly wet at all.

We headed to the ancient ruins excavated several years ago which reveal the earliest foundations of today’s monstrous structure. The archeology is fascinating.

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It’s hard to believe that these stone walls (and others, of course) hold up the enormous edifice that rises above. After wandering around the ruins, we moved upstairs to see the Egyptians. Forgive me, New York City which I love and the Met which I always visit like a pilgrimage site, but this collection so far surpasses any other museum’s there is simply no contest. Rooms, vast and spectacular with painted ceilings embellished with gold, gold, and more gold. Marble absolutely everywhere–floors, walls, and columes–not pale unpatterned marble but marble in colors and configurations rarely seen. This was the home of kings and queens beginning with Philippe August in 1180.

The Egyptian wing consists of rooms filled with every small and large item of Egyptian life and death and in splendid condition and color illustrative of life 5,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years.

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egyptian girl and duck

The rain had stopped. We were exhausted and decided to get outside and into the fresh air. We left the museum still awe struck by what we had seen and all that we had not. We had seen only the tiniest bit of the enormous holdings inside the museum’s walls.

Louvre thru the Pyramid

It was time for a treat. We were on the Rue de Rivoli and headed to Angelina’s for the best hot chocolate ever bar none. Definitely better than a martini!

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What do L’As Du Fallafel and Le Taillevent Have in Common?

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Yesterday we spent most of the day in the Marais district of Paris–the 4th arrondissement just across the Seine from where we are staying in the 5th.  If you don’t already know, the last two numbers in a Parisian address’ zip code will indicate in which arrondissement it is located.  That’s useful information as you make your way around the city.

etrog

The 5th is a very interesting part of the city; it’s very old–has had its ups and downs–but is flourishing today. It’s full of trendy shops, and many Jewish institutions.  That may seem an unlikely match but everyone is managing pretty well it seems.  As we entered the Marais we encountered men wearing kippot selling lulav and etrog for Succot. Others in black hats and beards were hustling in and out of the synagogue preparing for the kol nidre and yom kippur services later this week. There were lots of women buying challot and other foods to break their fast at the conclusion of Yom Kippur this Saturday at sunset.

K and Rabbi

Speaking of fasting, we were starving and headed to the best falafel in town.  We’ve had falafel in Israel and some poor imitations at home in Seattle, but the food at L’As du Fallafel is the “Ace of Fallafel” for sure!  I’ve never had a more delicious lunch–well, almost never.  The line was long, but we moved quickly to the head and were seated in a small dining room stuffed with people.  The staff spoke French, Hebrew and English and were efficient and courteous.  In ten minutes our falafel was on our plate.  Huge!  Warm fresh pita, its pocket open and yawning, full of cabbage, grilled eggplant and a great tahini sauce.  The little round falafel balls made from ground chick peas and wonderful seasonings were toasty and delicious. They were pushed into the pocket until it was bursting.  We ate it with a fork–hard to get a mouth around this baby!  A meal in a pocket!  For 8E.  A real bargain.

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Then we wandered across the street to the Jewish bakery and managed to consume a Vienese struedel and a piece of cheesecake.  I make a pretty good cheesecake; mine is dense with a tang of citrus.  This one was smooth as cream and tended more toward vanilla.  Just so we wouldn’t go hungry, we bought two enormous triangle shaped spinach and paprika boreks to take home for dinner.

Today I had the second “best” lunch of my life! Ken received a thoughtful gift from a colleague for lunch at Le Taillevent restaurant located in the 8th arrondissement on a quiet street not far from the Champs Elysees. We were warmly greeted by the Directeur Jean-Marie Ancher who we later learned has been with the restaurant for 38 years! We were seated and a ballet of charming waiters transporting amuse bouche, water, wine, and heavenly food began. It all concluded several hours later. I noticed the staff placed small stools beside ladies’ chairs on which to place their handbags. I observed the sommelier use a lit candle to determine if a red wine was clouded prior to decanting it into a clear container. I found the entire process from beginning to end not only delicious, but fascinating. And this was lunch!

We had a three course lunch which included a starter, an entrée, a cheese plate, and dessert. All this was followed by small candies and cookies, a surprise glass of the house cognac and espresso. I am not a “food writer” and won’t attempt to describe the preparations and ingredients of each course. I can only say that my starter a flan of artichoke with minute chanterelles posed on top was divine. The entrée of monk fish was sweet and tender. My dessert of a rhubarb and strawberry fantasy was delicious. Each course was light, the seasoning was impeccable and the presentation so beautiful it seemed a shame to put fork and knife to it–but of course I did. The wines were chosen for us for each course and were better than any wine I have every had. I was served a white wine from Languedoc with my entree. I loved it.

Our waiter, Phillipe, was wonderful; his English was excellent. He was fun and easy to talk with; he and his colleagues were unpretentious but highly professional. We were worried that the ambiance would be overbearing but it wasn’t at all. Our heartiest cheers to the lovely woman who gave this wonderful gift to us. It was superb!

Paris: the good, not so good, and the wet

Our fast train from Bordeaux arrived on time at Gare Montparnasse. We passed the four hours chatting with an interesting American couple.  Bill is an exec at a tech company.  He and his partner had just spent several days tasting Burgundy wine and hobnobbing with some pretty exotic people including the sports maven on the Antique Road Show.  Their first stop in Paris: Le Musee de Vin!

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Our first stop was our apartment in the 5th arrondissement.  We stayed here 7 years ago and loved the place.  It’s near the Sorbonne, the Pantheon and the Luxembourg Gardens and next door to Croco Jazz.  In the other direction it’s a short walk down hill to the Seine and two metro stops one of them at the Cluny Museum.  We’re not far from Notre Dame, Ile St. Louis and the Marais.  The Metro is a wonderful thing riding it saves energy for the hard work of visiting monuments and museums.  It is costly, however, just as the London tube is.  A carnet (10 rides, one way) is E20 and that’s a bargain.  ($1.30 = E1)

metro Cluny stop

Ken got up early the next day to do some antiquing at Porte Vanvres a bit of a schlep involving 3 transfers on the Metro. He’s directionally-challenged and had a tough time getting there but once among all the dealers and stuff he was a happy camper. The size of this brocante has grown a lot since we were last here. Ken found some interesting things and plans to return (with Sacagawea–that’s me) next week.

I went out on my own and said hello to our lady who has grown huge stadium sized bleachers absolutely packed with tourists waiting to get inside. I slipped around the lines and headed to the Ile St. Louis. Many wonderful small shops and an antique store I remembered from a previous visit–lovely and eccentric items.

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That evening we wandered around the Jardin de Luxembourg before dinner. Very impressive and very beautiful. We watched the boys sailing their boats in the fountain and I thought of Stuart Little. I didn’t see him but someone said he and Margo had gone to Provence for a getaway.

Stuart Little's boat

Medicis Grotte at Jardin L
This is the Medici’s Grotte built during the time Marie de Medici was married to King Henry IV in 1575.

beautiful beds at JardinJardin de Luxembourgh statue with bird How did that bird know I was taking a picture of the statue and decided to pose for me.

Now for the ugly. We got up this morning to visit the Marche aux Puces–the huge flea in Clignancourt only two Metro lines away. We knew rain was on the way but due late afternoon (we thought). The skies opened and dumped hours of rain on our heads, the vendors’ stalls and all their goods, and flooded the streets. We were soaked; all the brocantes were either closed or closing and we made our way home like drowned rats.

wet Pucepouring

travaux signs Today’s watch word indeed!

Some things you should know about travel in France

max and Iken with dessertpastries

France is without doubt a beautiful country with a fascinating history and a dynamic cultural patrimony of substantial value to the world. The cuisine, while not to everyone’s liking, is frequently good and often excellent. We have the French to thank for foie gras, champagne, steak frites, soufflé, bon bons, maccarons, quiche and on and on.

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To the traveler who must eat somewhere outside their hotel room at least once if not 3 times a day, regional cuisine can grow very tiring. We’re staying in a small town in the southwestern region of France–the Dordogne/Perigord. In this area no duck or goose is safe. Those two small creatures are primary sources of food in these parts or so it seems. Canard, magret and l’oie give up not only their lives but their livers, gizzards, breast and bodies to keep the tourist shops and restaurants full of product. To be honest I can’t look another foie gras in the face after having been here for 12 days. I yearn for a plate of spaghetti, or a spring roll, grilled salmon, or yes, a good ol’ hamburger!

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I took my first trip to France when I was about 30–a long time ago! Since then I’ve been to Europe a few other times but several years have elapsed since the last visit. Much about me has changed–I have less energy, am not as interested in castles or churches. I am not willing to stand in line, nor am I interested in following top ten lists developed by Rick Steves or anyone else and I’m certainly not interested in driving in a foreign country.

Well, guess what, we rented a car at the Toulouse airport and got on the French equivalent of the autobahn for an alleged 2.5 hours journey in a driving rain. The car had a stick shift (they’re cheaper to rent) which we both know how to drive–but it’s been a long, long time. The big highway has toll booths whenever there is an exit–but those exits are few and far between–something we did not realize. We are accustomed to our freeway system which has frequent off ramps and, of course, in most cases does not have tolls. Thankfully, we had the presence of mind to get some euros in the airport and, thank goodness, the machine at the toll booth (always unmanned) made change.

So along we go driving more slowly than everyone else, fearing for our lives, afraid of getting off at the wrong place which we of course did and then driving miles out of the way on tiny little country roads for two hours in the rain. The 2.5 hr trip from Toulouse to Sarlat took us four! We arrived at our destination–that is within the centre ville–about 4 hours after having departed the airport.

Sarlat is a tiny town. There’s one way in and one way out, more or less. There are round-abouts at every intersection with directional signs (toutes direccions or autres direcciones) pointing you toward obscure–Gourdon– or large –Paris–cities. From this information you are to derive directional information. Highway numbers which do exist on all the maps, are almost never signed–the only exception being the A20 (pay freeway) which runs north and south from Paris to Toulouse. We have a large Michilin map of France which is excellent, but so full of miniscule words, places, numbers and lines, ones eyes cross! Try to tell the driver whether he should head toward Brive or Bergerac, Gourdon or Limoge, Perigeux or Beulier-sur-Dordogne. Go ahead try while the impatient French driver behind you is honking and attempting to pass on a curve with a cyclist on your right and a cliff on the left. Go ahead! You drive!

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Now let’s talk about language–French. I do speak a little French. I understand much more than I can articulate. However, mere words are useless without the correct pronunciation. “Le son Francaise.”

While Ken was checking the rental car (voiture, not auto) out at Hertz, my job was to get directions. In our family, I’m the linguist, but I may have met my match here in France.

Here’s an example. I approached the staff at the Bureau d’Tourisme at the Toulouse Airport. In French I asked: “Pardonez moi, s’il vous plait…..Please show me (I had a map) how to get to Sarlat.” (sar lat)
“Where?” the young woman said.
“Sarlat,” I said.
“Please spell that for me,” she said. Her three colleagues gathered around to help her find the strange city I wanted to find.
I showed her on the map.
“Oh,” she said, “Sar la.” (Rhymes with Marla, I noted).

Hmmm, I thought. Who knew? You drop the “t” and put the emphasis on the first syllable and only then can the French speaker understand what you are saying. Wow! This is gonna’ be a challenge because, guess what, the French don’t speak English and they are proud of it. And we’ve heard that from Belgians, Germans, British, and Scottish travelers. The only nation in the common market that speaks just one language! I’m exaggerating, but not a lot.

That doesn’t stop us from communicating and even sharing a joke. We love our host and hostess, and in fact Patric speaks excellent English, but he spent a lot of his life in Germany where almost everyone speaks English. So I am becoming quite “fluent.” Ken, you ask? Well, Ken, has many talents and gifts; and he is good natured and charming side kick, but don’t ask him to speak French!

Despite these issues it is impossible to deny the beauty of this countryside. The villages and the historic places are clean, safe, and lovely. The people are kind and polite. It all works and that’s saying a lot!

 

What I’ve learned from the cave man

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We’re staying in a beautiful town which has been here since the middle ages.  Sarlat was much used and abused during the 100 Years War.  The shifting lines of the French and English troops lead by Francois I, The Salamander, and Richard I, The Lionheart, tore up these small villages around here for a long, long time.  The castles and towers remain to tell their stories of those times.

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However, there are other stories hidden under ground and high above that show us much about the people who made their homes in this area 25,000 years ago.  Sarlat is at the center of numerous grottes (the French word for caves) that were inhabited by Cro Magnon to shelter, and to express their feelings, desires, and visions.  Those who lived in the cliffs were safe, relatively warm, and able to work and eat safely.  Those who went into the caves may have gone for other purposes.

The National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies has informative and beautiful displays as well as videos which show flint makers at work, how the tools were made and used in the preparation of animal skins, and numerous collections of tools in various sizes and applicability.  The museum also has a full size elk skeleton.  It is far larger our modern elk.  The enormity of the animal makes you really appreciate the bravery of the hunter armed with a spear on a wooden shaft and flint tipped arrows and clubs who went after the elk and other enormous animals. They used their kill for food, skins, horns, and hooves.  The people of those times, based on the skeletons discovered at Les Eyzies (14) were much shorter than we are making it much harder to have a successful hunt.  Here, also is the first example of underground burial–25,000 years ago give or take one or two!

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Another day we drove to Pech-Merle in the Lot River valley where a grotte was discovered in the 1920’s.  This cave had been in use 25,000 years ago and then something happened which sealed it– a landslide, or earthquake– for 10,000 years until in was rediscovered.  When I entered the cave with about 20 people and a guide, my first thought was cathedral.  The stalagmites and other limestone and water-formed accretions have constructed a magical series of “rooms” with winding corridors, and high “ceilings.” The wall color varies from pearlescent cream to soft rose and deeper colors or orange and brown. Imagine these men and women holding torches as they entered the cave. The torch light would flicker and move along this strange landscape so very different from the one outside that they knew so well.  No wonder these walls became the canvas for their paintings and engravings.

dotted horses

black drawing of animaux

This work made by human hands in times so distant I find it hard to grasp are remarkable and beautiful.  (No cameras are allowed inside. These images are postcards.) I looked at the drawings and paintings and felt I was seeing into the minds of individuals who have left us something to read.  Something about their world, their mysteries, their hopes and dreams.  The placement of hands around certain animal images is particularly moving: the tangible proof of presence.  The numinous quality of this experience is impossible to escape–for them and for us.

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Back again at Les Eyzies we marveled at the strength and dexterity it took to scale the steep overhanging cliff to reach the safety of the caves.  We saw the current village snuggled against those same cliff walls.  You realize how old this all is; how long people have lived here.  And then you see the enormous statue of the early man gazing out at his domain;  all that he sees was once his.  His strength and his imagination started the long walk to our modern world.  He seems sad, wistful but proud and determined.  I admired him greatly.

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Hadrian’s Wall

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“Why Hadrian’s Wall?” you ask. I’ve been interested in Roman history and the great leaders that amazing culture produced for many years. A few years back I was in Rome and saw Villa Adriana, Hadrian’s villa outside of Rome, which thoroughly enchanted me. When we began planning this trip we decided to see England first and make our way north to Scotland. I wanted to stop along the way and visit Hadrian’s Wall.

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Many people commented that “it’s only a pile of rocks” in barren fields in the middle of nowhere. I was told that every farmer and builder in Northumbria used stones from the wall to edge their fields and construct their homes and churches. Despite all this negative input, I continued to plan to not only see the wall, but to lodge by it, and to visit Roman sites in the vicinity. I’m so glad I ignored all the nay-sayers because seeing the wall, standing upon the wall, and visiting the fascinating sites nearby, has been the highlight of my trip.

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What most interests and amazes me is the enormity of the task the Romans undertook: to build a wall that traverses, the breadth of the country from Carlisle Castle on the west to Tynemouth Priory and castle on the east–73 miles stretching over hilly, craggy, rough, and wooded terrain sparsely populated by local inhabitants who had few resources other than what the land provided. There weren’t any cities or bountiful fields or livestock available to the Roman soldiers stationed in the area. Their first fort, Vindolanda, was built of wood in about 80CE well before Hadrian’s legions arrived in the 120’s. Extensive archaeological work has gone on at Vindolanda for the past forty years.

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Hadrian was interested in consolidating the Roman Empire not growing it. To hold the northern most part of the Empire he directed 20,000 troops to Britannia to build a military complex and a wall dotted by forts situated at one mile intervals along the length of the wall. These soldiers created an extensive complex, raised livestock, cultivated crops and built relations with the surrounding people. The original wall was 15-20 feet tall with a ditch on either side. The flat-bottomed ditch on the south side of the wall was called the vallum. On the north side of the wall, the sentries gazed out at the land of the Picts.

 

In some cases, Roman women lived within the fort complex. There is a fascinating tablet recovered at Vindolanda from Claudia Severa inviting Sulpicia Lepidina to a birthday celebration. This is the oldest extant written communication by a woman to a woman found in Britain. An amazing discovery–a treasure. It is remarkable to imagine women carrying on activities that traverse culture, time and boundaries.

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We stayed at the Vallum Lodge which is about 200 meters from Twice Brewed pub and the Visitor’s Center in Once Brewed. Our hosts were warm and helpful. They have lived in the vallum for generations. The lodge included: chickens, ducks, two dogs, a rooster, a pony and three youngsters. Many of the folks we met there were walking the wall–sometimes 10-12 miles/day. Not much late night revelry among this group!

 

Chipping Campden

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Chipping Campden is located north and west of London in Gloucestershire.  We caught a slow train from London which stopped at many small towns (one being Oxford) finally arriving at Moreton in Marsh.  From there we took a local bus which stopped for us right across the street from Bramley House B and B.  Jane Povey and her husband, Dave were our wonderful hosts.  By the end of our stay we referred to Jane as “the angel of The Cotswold.” Here’s an example.

One morning we had planned to take a hike on the public footpaths. Jane recommended we go to Dover’s Hill which has a wonderful overlook of all The Cotswold. Since Ken’s been having some angina she asked Dave if he’d drop us at the top of the hill where we could pick up the footpath, see the view and hike back into Chipping Campden. So off we went with Dave.

At the top of the hill we looked all around saw the sheep and the pastures and a footpath and instead of turning left we turned right. After tromping around and heading down hill for an hour or so we landed up in Aston Suredge a community on the opposite side of the escarpment from Chipping Campden!

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So off we set to walk up the hill Dave had driven us up earlier in the day, and head down the correct side. It so happened that Dave went by us on the road and called Jane to tell her he’d seen us tramping up the steep hill. In minutes, there was Jane who sweetly drove us back to the B and B and didn’t laugh too hard–at least not to our faces! I’m sure everyone–us included–got quite a laugh out of this exploit.

What a change from London: Chipping Campden, a meeting place in the valley, has been a thriving village for centuries. It is quiet, beautiful, rural, universally clean and uniform in the use of the golden stone quarried for centuries from nearby deposits. You can see newer homes built outside the old villages but most attempt to build in the vernacular style of the area. There are no Starbucks, no Gaps, no outposts of other big box stores–British or American. What a delight! My soul was so nourished by the 4 days we spent there.

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The area is a fine place to raise sheep and most villages’ wealth arose from the sale of wool. Many of the finest buildings, including the lovely church in Chipping Campden–St James–were built by wool wealth. It’s easy to encounter sheep just about wherever you walk. They are rarely disturbed from their grazing and gaze benignly at you as you meander along the footpaths.

cotswold black face sheep

We spent two days in the company of Barry Sabin, a lad of the Cotswold, a fine driver and knowledgeable raconteur. Barry took us to see numerous little villages only a native son could possible find and navigate. Later in our trip Barry drove us to Blenheim Palace. His wife, Sally, a local girl too, went along. Sally was due for a rest. She designs hanging baskets and manages a landscape business. As you can imagine she’s been busy for the past several months! We spotted her baskets hanging in many of the villages we drove through. Barry also drove us by another “palace”–Dormy House a 10 million pound hotel and golf course built at 1,000′ elevation with a commanding view over The Cotswold valley.

Barry introduced us to staddles, thatching, dry masonry, “soldiers,” and myriad other details of Cotswold life which were fascinating and illuminating.

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I felt I’d had a very good course in the life and times of The Cotswold. We also saw the encampment where Polish refugees during World War II were housed in quonset-like huts. Barry remembers going to school with some of these children. There is a small monument to those Polish people–about 1,000, who were settled there. The area has been reborn as a small industrial park with welders, iron workers, powder coaters, and so on making a living in this ramshackle collection of huts and sheds.

 

We had many adventures and thoroughly enjoyed poking around the village. I’ll detail some of that in a subsequent post.

cream tea in Cotswold

Palaces

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Whilst we were in London we visited Kensington and Kew Palaces.  Kensington is the palace where young Prince George will live with his parents the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It was also the palace where Victoria grew up, made a life with her beloved husband, Albert, and raised their numerous children. The gardens at Kensington have been beautifully restored and entry to them is free. However the interior of the wing that the National Trust maintains is not–about 15 pounds per person–approximately $45 for two.

The day we visited, the featured exhibition was one on Victoria’s life “In Her Own Words.” It was quite interesting as she, and others writing to her and about her, chronicled her life, that of her family and friends, and world events through letter, diaries and so on. When Albert died, Victoria, who depended upon him for everything, went into a severe depression which caused great concern among the court and parliament. Eventually, she pulled herself together, but was never the same. She remained in mourning for the rest of her life.

The famous Crystal Palace build in 185l for the Great Exhibit was a pet project of Prince Albert. The Crystal Palace eventually collapsed. However, there is a smaller version of it at Kew Gardens.

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The large state rooms which are open to visitors were disappointing.  The rooms were sparsely outfitted in what seems to be leftovers from granny’s attic. (Even if granny is the Queen, the furniture was scant and unimpressive.) The paintings were uninspiring and the work of lessor artists. I overheard a “warder” tell a visitor that the frames were more valuable than the paintings!

Cupid in the King's bedroom at Kensington
Cupid in the King’s bedroom at Kensington

The rooms are kept oppressively hot which keeps you moving from glass case to glass case. Perhaps that is the idea. Loads of people come pouring through these palaces and body heat alone keeps them warm. No windows are opened and there seems to be no AC.

The big attraction was two large rooms displaying the gowns of the royals worn over the past 60 years including several outfits worn by Princess Diana. Anything having to do with her is guaranteed to draw huge crowds.

After Kensington we decided to take a boat ride up the Thames toward Hampton Court and stop at Kew Gardens along the way. After sitting in a small boat in the hot sun for two hours we disembarked at Kew. Kew Palace is more intimate than most “palaces” more manor house size, (probably about 15,000 sq. ft.) and more interesting. It was the home of George III, his wife Charlotte and their 14 children.  You may recall that George III was in charge of the colonies when we rebelled and won our liberty. In addition to being a “despot,” he was a loving husband and father and not a bad king.

Kew Palace

The furniture in the rooms at Kew Palace are original to it.  The palace looked lived-in and charming.  I tried to imagine 12 or so daughters in their elaborate coifs and gigantic skirts, lace and ruffles managing to get dressed in a building that had one or two “necessaries” and bath water that was hauled up from the river to the second floor of the palace. Cooking and laundry were done in separate houses nearby. Kew Palace is set among the vast Kew Gardens some of which are a little tired and others quite wonderful.

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Blenheim is another story indeed! It is located in Oxfordshire outside the London city limits. It has never been the home of a monarch. It is the ancestral home of the Spencer-Churchills.  John Churchill won a decisive battle at Blenheim in Belgium in 1704 against French forces. This battle halted King Louis’s expansionist dreams and his probable path across the Channel to annex the British Isles for France.

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After his great success at Blenheim, Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the time, awarded Sir John the funds, the land upon which a monumental palace was to be built, and a title: Duke of Marlborough.  She made two demands: that should a male heir be unavailable at any time in the future, the title and the estate would go to the eldest daughter. This decree was an enormous change in tradition and practice. Further, she demanded that each year a member of the family must appear at court and present a banner to the monarch symbolizing the great victory at Blenheim and the continued loyalty of the family to the monarch. They have never failed to show up to do so for 308 years!

Statue of Queen Anne at Blenheim
Statue of Queen Anne at Blenheim

Blenheim can claim at least one other hero: Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim in 1874. Like his forbear, Sir John Churchill, Winston Churchill was a great military strategist. He went on to lead the Commonwealth to victory over the Germans during World War II. He convinced the U.S. to join the fight and together the Allies beat the Nazis. Winston’s mother, Jenny Jerome Churchill, married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874. He was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough.

Blenheim is the most wonderful palace I have ever seen.  The rooms are vast, well proportioned, tastefully furnished and elegant.  The gardens, park lands and lake, originally designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, are magnificent.  The docent tours are excellent and come with the price of admission–about $60 for two.

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The lovely portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt born in New York City in 1877 who married the 9th Duke of Marlborough hangs in one of the staterooms on the first floor of the Palace. Consuelo brought to her marriage a trousseau of $2.5 million in railroad stock. The marriage was annulled in 1926 but not before she gave birth to the 10th Duke!

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This is the home of the 11th Duke of Marlborough and his family and is clearly much loved. You have a sense that you are welcome in their home–I know they need the admission fees to keep it all going!

Blenheim Palace ceiling

Gossip has it that the current heir to the title is a disaster–with the usual list of bad behaviors and bad habits. The Brits I overheard discussing this state of affairs feel it’s a result of having so much wealth and status and never having to do a lick of work! They’re probably correct. Maybe he could be assigned to weed the vast flower beds.

Trying to Make Sense of It All

We’ve just come from a neighborhood Italian restaurant, Zanni, whose food was simply delicious.  Traditional Italian food, vegetables, pasta, and a tiramisu to die for which is what I ordered.  So delicious.  I remember the first time I had tiramisu.  It was in Venice.  I didn’t know something could be so delicious and be made by human hands.  When I returned home to Seattle, I tried to replicate it and I did a fair job but there’s nothing quite so wonderful as tiramisu made by an Italian.  In this case tonight, it was made by one of our waiters–a man–and it was so good!

But what am I trying to make sense of?  The four plays we saw this past two weeks.  Somehow they all seem to have a theme that I am trying to uncover.  First:  The Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams the quintessential American southern play write.  The play is about two individuals with aspirations; one to return to fame and recognition and the other, Chance, to atone for a grave mistake and receive absolution. Sadly, Chance comes to a cruel and violent end which he accepts and seems to welcome.

The second The Tempest by W. Shakespeare is about a man who was supposed to drown at sea and who did not.  A man who became a magician and raised his daughter to become a charming young woman on a deserted island.  A man who forgave those who had wronged him and whose daughter married for love.  And another character–half spirit, half man–who was set free from bondage.  Ariel, the most intriguing subject of the play,aspired to be human.  In the end, he was freed, but we don’t know how he fared, or if he found a companion.  He was set free. But to do what? Was he to remain on a deserted island? Can you be free if you are alone?

And then A Chorus Line.  A play I first saw at the height of the AIDS plague.  I was employed in the Infectious Disease unit at the University of Washington.  I worked with researchers and physicians who spent their professional capital and time combatting the ravages of a then little understand plague.  I knew lovely men who died of AIDS in those early days.  A Chorus Line today did not mention or even elude to AIDS.  It was about needing a job and what it took to get one.

The newest play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was about an autistic 15 year old who wanted to live in circumstances that would allow him to succeed. He needed defined boundaries to succeed at math, and the physical and astrological matters that interested him and at which he was very, very good.  The actor, Luke Treadaway, did a superb job of showing us how difficult those simple aspirations are for an autistic individual with great intellectual abilities, loving parents and a good school.  Imagine how awful life for those with autism or other disabilities must be when they lack any or all of those conditions.

And then there was the British Library which houses documents that underlie all of our aspirations:  the great contract “The Magna Carta” which underwrites the Declaration of Independence and our Bill or Rights which tells us that no one can take away our basic rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These precepts are what underlie each of these plays.  Each tries to express our yearnings for the realization of our aspirations and delineates how we may fail and fall short.  What a wonder to be able to view all these things and to be moved by them and to understand that there is much we can do and much we should do, and much we cannot do.