Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Merry Christmas from the Fishes

Open your presents at Christmastime but be thankful year round for the gifts you receive.
~Lorinda Ruth Lowen

The danger in talking about 2009 is that this could become one of Those Christmas Letters. Those bragging ones. If it strikes you this way, I apologize in advance. It was an unusual year for us, largely because, for much of it, Dave was on sabbatical. It was a full year – with wonderful gifts in each month.

Travel was a major theme, starting in January when my sister Heather and I joined our parents for a few days in Florida. It’s been many years since I’ve been somewhere warm in the winter and I enjoyed the greenness of everything, finding the most comfortable shoes ever, and, of course, all-you-can-eat buffets. Dave’s sabbatical began at the end of January – after 19.5 years of teaching. He quickly settled into a sabbatical routine: never watched Oprah, never got underfoot, and didn’t attempt any big renovations, but was able to watch the Leafs lose on the west coast, nap occasionally, make lunches for kids, think about his courses and philosophy of education, and work with the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Our first family trip was to Quebec City for Carnival, with a little Winterlude in Ottawa. Unlike Florida, Quebec is un peu froid. The boys enjoyed ziplining over the Plains of Abraham (did Wolfe and Montcalm imagine this?), Dave and Megan drove a dogsled, and I enjoyed a drink called Caribou in an ice glass.

At the beginning of March, Megan turned eight – with a dog-themed party – and two days later, Dave and I were on a plane to Florence, Italy, with my Mom and Dad holding down the fort. (Thank you!) The eight weeks of Italian conversation classes we took stood us in good stead, especially at the convent we stayed at – where the nuns spoke NO English. We had never seen anything as beautiful as the Italian landscape and enjoyed a wonderful ten days – including a road trip to Parma for cheese! We learned to make ravioli and did not succumb to Stendhal Syndrome (an overdose of art).

In May, we took the kids on the First Plane Ride of their Lives. It was fun to watch John strolling through the airport in shades, pulling his carry-on like he had done it a million times, while Matt took photos of every single thing – in the first 24 hours, he took 600 photos! We visited Dave’s cousin Diane and the aquarium in Vancouver. On Vancouver Island, we searched in vain for Nanaimo bars in Nanaimo, fell in love with the ancient cedars in Cathedral Grove, loved the winding turns of the corduroy-road-turned-highway and landed in Tofino in time for my 40th birthday. We hiked the island – despite cougar and tsunami warning signs – and enjoyed great food. Back on the mainland, we spent a night with my cousin Jane-Anne’s family, before heading into the mountains. We arrived in Jasper for the May long weekend – and were greeted by 8 inches of snow! In Edmonton, we spent an entire day in the waterpark in the Mall. The Badlands struck us at first as weird and eventually as stunning. Our trip concluded after three weeks with a visit to Dave’s aunt Margaret’s family, and a last hurrah to see Banff and Lake Louise.

Matt gave me a Soccer Mom keychain for my birthday – and this year was the first time I enthusiastically embraced the title. It helped that the kids all played on successful teams with really nice kids. Matthew’s hardware collection grew with each tournament, while Megan got called up to play at an older girls’ tournament – and they played (and won) their finals at the same time as John’s team won their finals on the adjacent field. We were literally running back and forth.

In July, the kids and I had some sort of flu – we thought maybe swine – while Dave enjoyed a return visit to CERN in Switzerland. (Still no black holes.) We said goodbye to our old van and hello to a new one. Our favourite of the kids’ various camps was John’s week at chef camp. (Mmm...) Dave’s dad Don turned 80 and we enjoyed a good party at Dave’s brother Steve’s house.

In August, we helped look after my sister Karen’s three children at her cottage in Quebec, with Megan as the best babysitter ever. We really enjoyed our camping trip to Forillon National Park four years ago, so we decided to go back, but this time we rented a trailer in the park - a wonderfully civilized way to camp. We enjoyed hiking to the top of a mountain and to the tip of the GaspĂ©, where we saw whales.

In September, it was back to real life: Dave returned to school, while Matthew and John were in new and different schools – Matthew in junior high and John in a gifted class. I have been busy with a number of writing projects. I hosted a dinner for the Stephen Lewis Foundation in October – which was the #3 fundraiser in Canada for this project – the same week that Dave was a physics busker at the Quantum to Cosmos Festival. I also took on the coordination of Sunday School for our church.

Some people assume that we will try to continue the jet-setting life of this past year. (They have not apparently been privy to our bills!) But, while we are grateful for the adventures and beauty of the last year and the connections we’ve made, we are also very happy to enjoy normal daily life. There’s no place like home.

And before we lose all our Italian, Per un Natale pieno di pace, amore, e tanta felicitĂ . May your Christmas be full of peace, love and much happiness.

The light of the Christmas star to you
The warmth of home and hearth to you
The cheer and good will of friends to you
The hope of a childlike heart to you
The joy of a thousand angels to you
The love of the Son and God's peace to you.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

And the results are in! Here are our winners:
Hotel: Brooks Super 8
Bed: Brooks Super 8
Pillow: Brooks Super8
Restaurant: Sobo
Meal: Big T's BBQ
Pool: West Edmonton Mall
City: Vancouver
City most likely to live in:Vancouver
Attraction:Vancouver Aquarium
Wild Animal: Bald Eagle
Tame Animal: Prince (Dog)
Museum: Royal Tyrell Museum
Drive:Naniamo to Tofino
Environment: Mountains and Sea Tied
Thanks for following our Blog the last three weeks> I hope you had just as much fun as we did.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Awards of Excellence

As our cross-western Canada trip comes to an end, we will be voting on our favourites in the following categories:

Tourist attraction
Animal (wild)
Enviroment (e.g. Rain forest)
Best Museum

Place Most Likely To Move To

Stay tuned for results!!!!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Poetry by JF


In Vancouver the mighty city
We all missed our little kitty.

We flew in for the first time ever
No one got lost - no never never never.
It was great. We stepped outside.
We stood on the bridge and had a ride.
It swayed and swayed but no one got sick.
(Lucky for us, it wasn't slick!)

At the aquarium with fish galore
MORE! we shouted. We want more!
All the fish had scales that looked fun
and they all glinted in the sun.

we went to a beach so grand.
It beat all the others in the sand.
The water lapped at my feet.
I try some - it's salty, not sweet.
I leave footprints in the wet sand.
I also leave some with my hand.

The eagle soaring so high.
It goes up high in the sky.
Its great brown feathers cut through the air.
It spots its prey - the swift hare.
It swoops down to make the kill.
He carries it to eat at the mill.

Ah Victoria - the garden city.
Yet there were no gardens - that was the poty.
At the museum with treasures so great,
All you have to do is go through the gate
To experience it, trust me it's wonderful.
The food is great - eat till you're full.

The Scratch Patch has so many colours.
You could see the brighters and the dullers.
All different shapes and sizes.
All the bins have surprises.
Panning for gold is so fun.
All the gold glints in the sun.

All the Rockies have peaks so high
You think they go up in the sky.
Snow-capped peaks look so cold
but the snow is warm enough to mould.

On the side of the road
the elk get rid of their load.
Look - a deer!
Don't forget to steer!

Let's go dig for dino bones
Look carefully in the stones.
Be careful what you pick at.
Otherwise I'll turn you into a mat.


We are in southern Alberta now. We apologize for the lack of blogging the last few days, but first, we got waterlogged at the West Edmonton Mall and then thoroughly dried out in the Badlands. So,we blame moisture levels.

But, dinosaurs and fossils...

The Badlands of Alberta were created through a series of events over a loooooong period of time.
- Alberta was covered with an inland sea a long time ago.
- Then, an ice age came and the land was covered with a large glacier.
- When the glacier started to retreat, it left behind a large chunk of ice which acted as a dam for the meltwater.
- When that chunk melted, all the melted water rushed back toward the glacier and hit it with a thud. (This part took only about 48 hours)
- The swirling glacier water stirred up all the surface rock and swept it toward Hudson Bay, leaving behind softer sedimentary rock that had built up over many many years during the time that dinosaurs lived here and that the inland sea was in Alberta.
- Over the last 12,000 years, the softer rock (sandstone, ironstone, mudstone) has gradually eroded away to create the Badlands.

You drive along the flat (flattish) prairie, covered with grass and cows and some pronghorn elk and prairie dogs and suddenly on the horizon, you notice that the earth suddenly drops away. As you get closer, you start driving downhill quite steeply into valleys - or the Badlands.

The Badlands were so named by early French settlers who called them "les mauvaises terres". Some settlers could not even get across the Badlands. The Badlands are a semi-arid microclimate valley that follows a river.

Dinosaur Provincial Park comprises 80 square km of the Badlands. It was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979 because of three unique factors:
- alarge number of cottonwood trees
- the Badlands
- the quantity and quality of fossils.

The boys of our family went on a bonebed hike to see a mass grave of centrosaurs. They concluded that the most likely cause of death was a flash flood, but other possibilities were that they were chased into a river or attacked.

The girls in our family went on a bus tour of the Natural Preserve and saw hoodoos, dinosaur bones, a complete skeleton of a dinosaur, and learned about the Badlands.

This was possibly the best interpretive centre we went to on our whole trip!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Animals We Have Seen En Route

We are now in snowy Jasper. Yes, that's right - we are blanketed in a good 6 inches of snow. Two days ago we were walking around n shorts and bathing suits outside in the mountains and now we are kind of storm-stayed. That's fine with us though - we needed a bit of a quiet break.

Elk - Furry antlers. You must keep your distance from elk or they will ram into you. They are seen on the sides of the road right in Jasper.
Mountain goats - They cluster together
Bighorn sheep - They run away from cars
Bald eagles - white heads and tails; rest of body is brown. There are 30,000 along the BC coast. We saw them frequently. They would try to attack raven nests but the ravens would chase them away.
Anemones - If you put your hand on one, it will stick. They look like plants but they are animals and they eat fish. Colours - red, blue, green, clear, pink.
Sea stars - Ochre stars are most common. If you cut a sea star in half, it will grow into two sea stars. They can live out of water for 6-8 hours. They are the top predator because nothing eats them.
Orcas - They swim in pods. There are three kinds near Vancouver. They are dangerous. BIG teeth.
Banana slugs - Slimy. Six inches long. They decompose decaying plants and trees.
Hawk - They are bold.
River otter - They eat sea urchins on their backs. They hang out in groups.
Columbian ground squirrels - They squeak or cheep. They have short tails and live in burrows in the ground.

We have also seen dogs, cats, cows, horses, crabs, herit crabs, sculpin fish, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, goats on a roof.

We have not seen bears, moose, cougars, mountain caribou - but we think we saw cougar footprints and scat.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Our Mountain Alphabet

Sometimes we have to play little games in the car to keep us all cheerful. Today we decided to come up with an alphabet of adjectives to describe what we were seeing. Here's our list:

A is for Awesome
B is for Big
C is for Colossal
D is for Dangerous
E is for Extreme
F is for Freaky
G is for Gorgeous and Gigantic
H is for Humungous
I is for Icy
J is for Jagged
K is for Kingly
L is for Lofty
M is for Mountainous
N is for Nasty (but that referred to a smell in the van, sorry to report)
O is for Oppressive (and Optimistic!)
P is for Precipitous
Q is for Queer (ie dizzying)
R is for Regal
S is for Snow-Capped
T is for
U is for Undulating
V is for Vertiginous
W is for Windy
X is for Xtreme
Y is for Yeti (Ok it's not an adjective, but we were being distracted by beauty)
Z is for zigzaggy/

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I love the mountains

I didn't think I would. I'm kind of an ocean girl. I thought I would find them oppressive, but now I am singing their praises. We drove through Rogers' Pass today, which is very very high above sea level. I think the level we drove at was 1300 metres above sea level. And then the mountains still towered over us. We have been reading about the people who discovered the pass - it was the 10th pass the railwaymen tried and the discoverer - Mr. Rogers of course - who was a mightily-sideburned man who swore and chewed tobacco and lived off hardtack for weeks, said there were many times in the process of determining whether the pass would work that he wished he were dead. And the railway company reported that the men who worked on building the line lived in dread of avalanches, which were a real threat. We have also learned about the Chinese immigrants who built tunnels along and through the steep banks of the Thompson River, being treated and paid as less than human, and who often paid the price with their lives. I don't know that the men working on these passes were mistreated, but their life certainly could not have been rough.

In the Rogers Pass Centre, Dave overheard an older couple asking about the glaciers and how much they had receded. They themselves had walked out to the glaciers many years ago and the walk was significantly further away now. The park staff said that in the 100 years since the park had been open, the main glacier (of many!) had retreated 1.2 km. Many of the trails in the park were closed too because they were giving wide berth to the endangered mountain caribou's winter habitat. (Yes, although the temperature was warm enough for shorts today, the mountains were still very much snow-capped and we stood by massive drifts at the side of the road and heard about snow in the last few days. We read that snowfall on the Rogers Pass mountains is, on average, 49 feet per year! In addition, they get a couple of feet of rain in the summer months. There are only three snow-free months in the higher latitudes here.)

John reports that if you poured a glass of water over the top of Mount Snow Dome in the Columbia Icefields, it would fall (technically) into three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic because it is the top of the Continental Divide. Cool, eh? And we are going near there tomorrow. If we pour water, look for it near you!

Today was also one of our favourite days on the trip because it was an amazing water day: we swam outdoors under snow-capped mountains in a hot mineral spring for a couple of hours this afternoon. We highly recommend this. Then, our hotel in Golden has had the best hotel pool we have ever found - with salt water and an amazing dizzying water slide. So we are water-logged, dizzy from heights and delighted. We are also glad to move our clocks forward an hour so we can drift off to sleep a little earlier after a great day

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Random facts we have learned

We haven't been good at keeping up our blog the last few days. Too much beach-playing, rainforest-hiking and driving. So here are some things we have learned on Vancouver Island.

- Sea stars can grow to be hundreds of years old
- If you split a sea star in half, it will regenerate into two new sea stars
- We saw a two-footed sea star called the "west coast boomerang"
- There are many bald eagles here - like hawks in Waterloo
- If you get caught in a rip tide, you end up in Japan. (We have NOT done research on this. We stayed away from the 10 foot tides)
- Trees grow to over 60 metres tall and can be 1000 years old and have a circumference bigger than we could reach around
- Don't walk through old growth forests on windy days because the trees can fall without notice.
- There are three ways clams can get away from predators: digging into the sand, swimming away or sticking out a "foot" muscle to run away.
- The top predator at the seashore is the sea star because nothing tries to eat it because it is too hard.
- Sea stars eat clams and oysters and smaller sea stars - anything slow enough for them to catch.
- Nanaimo bars are hard to find in Nanaimo and they actually aren't as good in Nanaimo. Sad but true.
- Sea stars can survive out of the water for 6-8 hours so that throwing the sea stars back in the water ("for this one it makes a difference") apparently is not based on truth.
- Slugs are humungous - about 15 cm long - and gross but they have an important job: decomposing.
- You can hear tree frogs but they're hard to spot.
- We found cougar footprints and scat on a trail where a cougar had been seen.
- Humpback and grey whales migrate to and past this area for the summer. They eat krill, herring and sea lice.
- Orcas are also here. There are three kinds: offshore, ones that migrate and ones that live here year round.
- Sea anemones squish when you sit on them. Do not ask how we know this.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Vancouver Island!

Vancouver Island

we have a beautiful view from our deck!
awesome starfish and sea anemone!
Very long car drive to Tofino but fun!
Could not find nanaimo bars in Nanaimo.
we have seen 3 eagles!two of them were bald and one of them was an osprey.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Vancouver Aquarium

This Video is just one of the many amazing tanks with animals. The jumps in the video are miniscule to some of the other ones they did. Some jumps were 15 feet high! My moms favourite exhibit: J-J-Jelly fish!
My Dad's favourite exhibit: Bald Eagle

My favourite exhibit: Birds, Birds and........ you guessed it-MORE birds

My brother's favourite exhibit: Seahorses

My sister's favourite exhibit: CAIMAN!

Pro's and Con's of the trip so far

  • Good food
  • nice people
  • Bunk bed
  • Lots of birds
  • Tall trees
  • colorful fish
  • Beautiful sunsets
  • tiny Crabs
  • Salty water
  • Bright sun
  • Tide pools
  • Fun plane trip
  • No friends
  • No cat
  • 3 hour time change
  • Homework
  • Sand in shoes
  • Someone has to sleep on the floor
  • Construction by our residence
  • Weird noise outside window (right now)
  • No bowls
  • Cold wind
  • Weird writing on our car window
By: JFish

what boys do on holidays


The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Yesterday, my dad, Megan, John and I went on the Capilano suspension bridge. It is 230 feet above a rushing stream of slightly green water. The bridge itself was 450 feet across. The view from the bridge was breathtaking. We could see the tops of mountains just peeking through the clouds, many trees over 50 metres high, and about 30 different shades of green. Once we got over the bridge, we were in a beautiful forest surrounded by giant trees. The biggest tree, Big Doug, was over 60 metres tall! Many of the trees were covered with moss. I probably saw 7 different kinds of moss. Another fun thing was the Treetop Adventure. We were on a series of suspension bridges over 100 feet tall! They were connecting about 8 large trees. It was one of the most amazing places I have been in my life and I would love to go again.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Flying to Vancouver

I have never thought of myself as a nervous flyer and I'm not, but as I prepared to take the kids on their first flight, I realized that I do find flying to be a surreal experience and I tend to kind of zone out rather than thinking about being 35,000 feet above the ground. I like to mentally cocoon myself and I didn't think I could do that with kids: I would need to be more present.

The night before we left, as i tucked Megan into bed, she looked up at me with sparkling eyes and said, "This feels like Christmas! I can't wait until tomorrow!"

When we arrived at the airport, John was dazzled by the size and technical complexities of the place. He looked like someone who had found his home as he walked along, wearing sunglasses and pulling his suitcase behind him with the worldweariness of an experienced traveler. And he saved our bacon when he realized that we were waiting at the wrong gate - we had confused 1500 hours and 1700 hours although we had the right destination either way. We had tried to get window seats but couldn't - until a man offered to switch with us just before we left the gate. As we pulled away from the gate, John excitedly said, "We're taking off!" and Matt began to take the first of 500 inflight pictures.

They loved it all and I did too. It was fun to help them figure out how to adjust lap trays and to direct fresh air onto themselves, how to not panic when you try to push the bathroom door out and it doesn't work, how to find jazz on the inflight radio and how to track our flight path.

I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button en route. Dave asked me after we landed what it was like and my answer was "epic" - not only because it was a long movie stretching over decades, but because it took me the whole entire flight to watch, between dropping a headphone into my tea, sorting out squabbles about how long someone could sit by the window, ordering a small barbecued chicken pizza (surprisingly good! and not worth less than its price), taking various small people to the bathroom, determining what kind of pop was ok for kids to drink, crossing the aisle to see ice-covered lakes, prairie fields and the Rockies, discussion of how awesome turbulence and depressurization were and finally a short conversation about whether you would always jerk forward in the event of a crash, just as we were about to land.

I hope that our children provided a pleasant diversion for those around them, rather than any annoyance. I think that was the case. They did for me anyhow, even if I missed my cocoon.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Shaking the Trees

I'm interested to see who else is lurking here besides me, and so I have a Lovely Easter Offer for You. Last night I took on a creative project in a new medium. If you send me an email at, I will send you a short PowerPoint presentation that pulls together some of the things I've been thinking about. I hope it will give you food for thought and that it will give me some response to this blog.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Kindness and Mercy

When we were in Italy, we experienced kindness and mercy from people and from God - sometimes in the same moment. I see this in the photos of the earthquake in L'Aquila and the stories too: hoteliers have spontaneously donated thousands of beds for the suddenly homeless people, firefighters are embracing devastated people, aid workers are handing out bread. It is Holy Week and the kingdom of God is among us. May we have the eyes to see it, in the midst of whatever degree of chaos we find ourselves in.

better late than never: Meg on Quebec

The top 10 things I loved about Quebec!
1.scrumptious Beaver Tails!
2.Yummy Caribou!
3.Dog sledding very cold!
4.totally awesome Carnaval de Quebec!!!!
5.BIG FOOS BALL GAME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
6.Funny lumber jacks!!
7.Very slippery ice slides!!!
8.playing with my friend!
9.playing Wii sports
10.VERY VERY YUMMY POUTINE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Notice the Fresh Travellin' Groove Look Here?

I am also thinking about getting my hair dyed red. Because I'm taking a totally different journey in the next five weeks: into my 40s. And because I've always always wanted red hair. I suspect the novelty will wear off very quickly, but it's either now or when I look like one of those scary clown old ladies.

Monday, April 6, 2009

ok, one more funny thing

my mother keeps calling me, pretending to be one of the nuns from our convent. This started April 1. The giveaway was when her accent turned Irish.

ps I am the person on the right in this photo. The woman at left is not my mother.

and one funny thing

I think I mentioned before that there are guys like these ones, at left, whose job is to dress up like Roman guards so that tourists can pay to have their photos taken standing beside them.

Disclaimer 1: I did not pay for this photograph.
Disclaimer 2: Dave panicked when he saw me snapping this photo, thinking we would have to pay.
Disclaimer 3: The reason I took this photo is not quite clear in the photo itself - I missed the angle just slightly. These Roman guards were checking for messages on their Blackberries. This cracked me right up. I probably would have paid for the shot.

Shaken and Stirred

A month ago we landed in Italy. Today Italy is scrambling to find survivors after two earthquakes. We wouldn't have been in either one, but there's something about having been somewhere that brings the news closer to home. Praying.

PS The photo above was taken on the train to Rome, probably just west of L'Aquila.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Place Where I'm From

One of the finest meals we had on our trip to Italy took place in a ordinary-looking house at a t-intersection in Reggia-Emillia, parmesan cheese country. We had asked our host for a suggestion for a restaurant. He warned us the proprietor spoke no English – that he was nervous of us even because we were English. The place was ablaze with florescent light in the dark early spring night. The proprietor shyly he led us to a table. The waitress appeared and a torrent of what we assumed to be daily specials poured forth from her mouth. We nodded – understanding one word in three – and took the menus to decipher them. She came back, apologizing, trying again in the simplest broken English. Between her English and our Italian, we ordered the most delicious home-made ravioli, steak on beds of radicchio and arugula, and an alcohol-soaked pudding. Mama was the cook – and she had found her vocation. We watched the proprietor and waitress listen intently to each guest, sit down to talk while a man with intellectual disabilities searched his wallet to pay, maintain grace and dignity while delivering plate after plate of delicious food. At the end of our meal, we managed to get the shy owner to talk to us. It turned out he had been to Canada, briefly to Niagara Falls and then to the St. Lawrence to see whales.

I’ve thought a lot about this man since. It is likely he is setting tables today while his wife cooks meals. They probably cooked yesterday and they likely will again tomorrow. Mama’s recipes could be from the ‘Net, but I bet they were handed down from her nonna, her grandmother. For us, this was a holiday, but especially in this little trattoria, this was also someone’s daily life.

My favourite part of the play Our Town is the scene when Emily comes back to earth for one day after she has died. No one can see her but she sees all the normal things of life going on around her and she cries out, “ I can’t look at everything hard enough. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another ” As she leaves, she says: “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you ” Then she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

It is easy to find holidays exotic and charming. It’s not hard to see regular life as mundane and ordinary. I wonder about the man in the restaurant. If he longed too much for Niagara Falls, if he decided to change his restaurant to serve Thai food, if he decided that regular life was too dull - what would be lost?

At the end of the wonderful movie Stranger than Fiction, the narrator says,

“As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true.”

You don’t need to know the movie to understand what she is saying. Like her, I believe God uses the simple, ordinary things of life to teach and rescue us. I believe God comes to be with us in our everyday life, as well as in significant moments of pain and joy. I believe the best thing I can do is to “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. “ (Romans 12:1, The Message)

I need to learn to have eyes like Emily does in the play – before I’m dead, if possible. Sure, traveling to new places and discovering new restaurants and new vistas is lovely, but my task is the same as the man in the restaurant: to set the table that is before me, to serve those who come into my corner of the world, to travel occasionally but to live, rooted, in the place where I’m from.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Apparently there are readers out there - armchair travelers - who are reading this blog. I know it's nearly impossible to comment - my apologies for that. It's nice to know that these thoughts aren't just going off into the ether though, so thank you for stopping by.

We are knee-deep in plans for our next trip - to BC and Alberta next month with the kids. I have to say that I'm slightly reluctant to get planning another trip so soon. We normally don't travel often and so I have the opportunity to both anticipate and to savour a trip. I like that a lot. It reminds me of the contrast between a beautifully presented meal on an enormous white plate, where the exquisiteness of the food can be savoured slowly, and going to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Now, don't get me wrong - buffets can be wonderful - but Italy was definitely something you savour for a long time.

A friend asked me this week what "best practices" I had brought home from Italy with me - rituals or new habits that had stuck with us. I was kind of stumped at first. I bought Cabbage Rosewater from the perfumeria in Florence and I use it nearly every day on my face. I also bought a bar of violet soap and stuck it in my underwear drawer. The other day, I was working and I could smell this wonderful candy-like smell - and I suddenly realized it was me. (Have you ever noticed how much real violets smell just as sweet as candy? Or apparently how much I do?) I've been making Italian food a lot - I've given up on all prepared salad dressings and now I simply drizzle lettuce with red wine vinegar and olive oil, separately, and then sprinkle it liberally with salt. Delicious! I've also been baking what we are calling Nun's Cake. Everyone loves it. I found the recipe on the Internet (under Tuscan cakes) but it tastes exactly like the cake the nuns at our convent served us. Here's the recipe:

Nun's Cake
1/2 cup butter
almost 1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup buttermilk (I use 1/2 cup regular milk with a splash of lemon juice)
1-1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder

Mix it all together. The eggs make it look sunny and yellow. Pour it into a pan - I use an 8" round pan. Bake at 375 degrees F for about 40 minutes or until it's just golden. Take it out. Thump it out of the pan and onto a plate. Let it cool a bit or completely and serve.

It tastes like a cross between pound cake and angel food cake. Simple and delicious.

What else? Dave and I are enjoying hanging out together more than usual. We kind of got used to it, I guess, when we were away together.

And, I wish. I'd like to go back to Italy some day and I have no idea whether I will. That's not what I wish though. My wish is for something like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day: I'd like to be stuck for a good long while in the midst of the trip we had. I don't want to try to recreate or relive it - I'd like to still be living it. This is not to say I'm unhappy with my life. I'm very happy. It's just that it was kind of magical. A gift.

Sweeter than violets even.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Allora is Italian for all-righty-then. You have no idea how often the word is used. You are a native Italian speaker about to give directions or to attempt to translate a difficult concept to a non-Italian speaker. You take a deep breath. Allora, you say, and then you explain yourself. You are a judge on the Italian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire (which is a team sport!) and you are about to ask the 10,000 euro question. Allora, let’s get started. You are a waiter in a trattoria. Your pencil is poised above your notepad and you look expectantly at your customers. Allora again.

In Canada we say “So” a lot, but there is something much more satisfying with the Italian equivalent. Allora is like smoothing out the tablecloth before you sit down to do your taxes. It’s a soothing word, a word that suggests whatever is to come can be managed, a word that encourages the speaker and listener to roll up their sleeves and try to sort it out. There may be 1000 blue pieces in this jigsaw puzzle, but, allora, let’s begin.

Try to say the word. Drift for a moment longer than you think you need to on the “o” and don’t hurry the “r” either. The o is the o in the word low.

Italians, they tell me, have lower rates of stress because they mingle business and pleasure. Add the word allora to your own inner conversation, to what you say to yourself when you are about to face a challenge. Use it to replace the four-letter words that come to mind, and watch your tension ease. Allora. Anything is possible.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ah, Florence...

I have Italy withdrawal in the mornings and not every morning. The worst was the second morning home, when I went to get groceries at a jetlaggedly early hour and found myself tearing up next to the display of balsamic vinegar. “I was there,” I thought to myself. “And now I’m not.” I held the tears back as I stopped to buy a pair of cappuccinos on the way home but I burst into tears and laughter as I handed one to my husband. “A nun made it,” I sobbed. “She insisted I bring it to you.” There haven’t been tears since that day, but odd images pop into my mind in the mornings – the red rectangular button you press on a Florentine bus to let the driver know you want to get off at the next stop. “If I know how to do that,” I reason with myself. “I should be there, shouldn’t I?” While we were in Italy, we discussed the question of whether we would become one of those pretentious, but utterly correct, people who sigh and say, “ah, Firenze...” or whether we would accept that we really are Anglophones who would sigh and say, “ah, Florence...” We decide to be the latter, but the sighing persists anyhow.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Things We Learned

Traditional balsamic vinegar is not the stuff we think of as balsamic vinegar. It is thick and is sometimes almost as old as we are. It is made through a long process of transferring vinegar to smaller and smaller wooden barrels. New barrel sets are started with the birth of each daughter. Balsamic vinegar farmers always have a day job because the process is slow and not labour intensive. Many people in Modena and Reggio-Emilia have barrels in their attics.

It isn’t worth driving along the coast of the Mediterranean unless your prime interest is seeing restaurant after restaurant in long narrow lots that obscure ALL VIEWS OF THE SEA!

Italian drivers are surprisingly predictable, if aggressive. Truck drivers are accommodating and stay in the right hand lane. Vespas are scary and I’m just glad we didn’t kill anyone weaving in and out of traffic on the roundabouts.

You can drive through a mountain for two kilometres.

Our kids rose to the occasion of our absence. Our parents were wonderful to the kids. God answered our prayers. We felt home was in good hands.

There are smart, sensible, useful ways to build strollers and bicycles so that they are useful for life in all weather and needs.

The city of Parma is not fond of prostitutes so they stand on pastoral country roads, day and night, waiting for truck drivers. They build little fires to stay warm at night. They keep me awake thinking of them at night.

I am glad it is not my job to dress like a gladiator and wait for people to take my photograph. Seriously. That is someone’s job.

People are kind. Especially Marco, who met us on a scary roundabout, took us on a guided tour of Modena, charted and paid for a fabulous Modena meal, and presented us with bottles of balsamic vinegar.

It’s nicer not to be crammed into the middle seat for a transatlantic flight.

Wine is cheaper than water.

Traveling is not cheap, even when you take buses and walk everywhere. It is false economy to skimp on good food though.

Exploring a country is a lot of fun.

We really like each other. After almost 18 years of marriage.

And we are a great team.

Things We Never Learned

Is tap water safe to drink in Italy? We were always, always offered bottled water.

How to say simple connective words like after and before in Italian

How to use our phone card

How Italian game shows worked. And if they were meant to be funny.

The nuns’ real names

Misspent Youth

It is embarrassing how little I know about ancient history. Really, really embarrassing.

TIP: If you go to Rome, bone up a little on ancient history or you will end up like me saying “Wow! That looks really, really old. Wonder what it is...”

Pathetically embarrassing.

Perfect Day of Pasta

Wherever I go, I love to see how people live, and cooking and eating are among the best ways to be part of someone's ordinary life. Dave and I were excited to go to Italy for the food every bit as much as the art. We decided early on that we were interested in taking a cooking class while we were in Italy - to be able to bring skills and taste home with us. We looked at all sorts of classes in Florence - we could spend our whole time abroad studying how to be chefs (and spending our children's inheritance as we went!) Finally we discovered The Accidental Tourist and it sounded like a great fit: for a very reasonable price, they would pick us up in Florence, drive us to an old farmhouse, teach us how to make pasta and feed us the pasta as part of a Tuscan lunch, before driving us back to the city.

Perfetto, as they say in Italy.

That it would be a great fit was confirmed when I sent an email to book our spaces in a class, and the enthusiastic response was: Canada! We love Canada! If you bring us maple syrup, we will trade it for our olive oil.

Our kind of people indeed!

Majla, the brains behind the operation, picked us up in her car and drove us to an ancient farmhouse ("Most of the house is over a thousand years old, but the kitchen is only 850 years old," she explained, while we swallowed our New World tongues in shock.) En route, we talked about our families, our soccer-loving sons and why she encourages her son not to play soccer ("It's like a religion here - they end up as underwear models!") and what looked to us to be suicidal Vespa drivers. ("Fewer of them die than you would think. And each one dies only once.") She pointed out the lack of suburbs around Florence, how the line between city and country was abrupt. She talked about the care that has been taken by small villages to prevent urban sprawl that could destroy the land they depend upon for their olives. Passionate about preserving a culture and its food, Majla herself returned to Italy after a decade in the United States when she inherited a house with a tower. Now, after eleven years of juggling her business and her family, her enthusiasm has not diminished. She talked about the lower rates of depression in Italy, about how Italians mix work and pleasure - and how her business was an example of that. (She also talked about why she moved to the USA and what she missed about it: opportunities for her children, all-day breakfasts, efficiency, the ability to move around, cruise control.) She told us about real Italian olive oil - how the best of it is hand picked from steep slopes, pressed within 48 hours of picking, never heated (even though that increases the yield dramatically) so that the taste and healthful properties remain intact. She says that the olive oil we will take home with us is never sold overseas, that there is never enough even for the local families. All this we learn while negotiating winding woodland roads where fields and groves fall away from us into beautiful sunlit valleys.

Majla is the first person we have met in Italy who speaks fluent English and we ask her about the weather forecast, so we can plan our next few days. She laughs and says that weather in Italy is always "variable", influenced by the water that surrounds the country and the mountains that climb up its length.

We arrive at the ancient farmhouse and are greeted by its owners and their cat, who pounces each time the wind rustles the grass. Our fellow pasta-chefs-in-training have opted for the full day with the Accidental Tourist and are not yet back from the morning wine tasting. Majla sets us up at a stone table outside where we can watch the clouds stream past the hilltops and trace the road we have come from. She brings us a bottle of fresh red wine, two tumblers and a plate of bread drenched in olive oil and salt. She apologizes for starting late but we have not a single regret as we eat and drink the most delicious simple meal.

Finally the others arrive and we meet Alex, our young teacher. A musician by night, Alex shares tour duty with his father, which enables them both to stay in the region that is home to them. We begin to realize how important place is to Italians, all day breakfast notwithstanding.

We slip into the cool basement of the farmhouse and don aprons. There are ten of us: four Canadians, two British, and four Americans. Alex walks us through each step (I am sworn to secrecy about the process. And really you must go and try it yourself.) with good humour and good teaching. We laugh and make friends. Our first accomplishment is to make spinach-ricotta-parmesan ravioli and then we use the rest of our dough to make fettucine. Alex says we are quick learners.

Majla takes our pasta upstairs on trays to Christiana, the lady of the house and a cook among cooks. (A recipe she sends me later of one of the dishes she made for us says of basil, "For God's sake, do not use dried basil.")We talk and sip more wine from brilliant mismatched turquoise glass tumblers. We find seats around a large oval table that takes up much of this "new" kitchen. Christiana and Alex start us off with a zucchini frittata and a cauliflower dish as antipasti. There is much debate about which one is better - and no clear winner. ("Do people in Canada talk so much about food?" Majla wants to know later. We consider this and tell her some people do, but that our fallback topic is the weather.) This is followed by squares of pizza, and then comes our pasta: the fettucine has been tossed with the lightest tomato sauce, with a hint of olive oil and hot pepper, while the ravioli have been cooked and then rolled in butter melted with sage leaves. We are magnificent chefs - with Christiana's additions. There may be another course before Alex finally clears our plates away and washes them in the sink, but I cannot remember it. He takes orders for coffee and brings us tiny cups of espresso while Majla passes us bowls of frozen tiramisu.

We all bow down to Christiana who smiles. She loves to cook and loves having her cooking appreciated. Majla shows us gifts that have been sent to Christiana by her fans around the world. Christiana may appreciate the rasp the most, but I liked the little statue of Barack Obama.

On the way back to the city, I tell Majla we won't possibly be able to eat supper. She says that everyone always says that, but she suspects we will. She wants to know later, wants me to tell her when I email her some maple recipes (in exchange for Christiana's recipes she promises me). We pick up a couple of slices of pizza on our way back to where we are staying, but that night I am still too happily full to take more than a few bites.

Thinking about Art

A painting around the corner from the David, and surprisingly undistracted by The Rape of the Sabine Woman going on just in front of it, showed a variety of Christian thinkers standing in front of Mary and Jesus ascending to Heaven. The note in front of the painting said it was the artist's visual exploration of various schools of thought on the status of the Virgin Mary.

It got the little wheels in my mind turning. Not a huge fan of didactic work, I was nonetheless intrigued by the possibilities of this painting. Was there a correct answer implicit in the work or was it possible that the artist was simply allowing the different voices to have a place to have dialogue? Too often today works of art - especially art that treats theological themes - are deemed correct or "too edgy." This painting showed me that art could be both beautiful and thoughtful, without having to have all the answers pinned down. That art could create a space for conversation, conversation that just might lead upwards toward heaven.

I'd like to be that kind of artist.

Going to the Chapel

Exactly one week ago, as I write, Dave and I were climbing the seemingly one thousand steps to the church at San Miniato in Florence. It was our last day and we had hours to wait until dinner and San Miniato was right around the corner and up the hill from where we were staying. We went to listen to the Vespers service being sung in Gregorian chant.

The service was held in the dank, dark crypt of the church, below the presbytery. We were probably a third of the audience, who came and went during the service. The music, sung by only seven monks, standing in semi-circle behind bars was mysterious and holy. I felt privileged to witness it. But also conflicted: what did it mean for me as a person of faith to enter into the churches and sacred life of the citizens of Florence?

We had decided we would walk into the Duomo because it was there and we were there and it was magnificently grand. It was hard to picture worshiping there, ever though, and both Dave and I felt the grandeur of the church as impressive but not something that led us to God.

I had woken up early on Sunday morning in Florence to hear the nuns singing an early mass, and I recognized one of the tunes their organ was playing. But I did not join them for any of their services, even though the sign posted in our room said we were welcome to do so.

I wondered about the monks of San Miniato and the nuns of our convent. They were few and mostly older (except for one monk who looked remarkably like our friend Wes and who wore Birkenstocks under his robe.) I wondered about the vocational call to monastic life and whether it was often heard anymore. I wondered whether these monks and nuns tolerated our presence or whether they resented being observed as objects.

Part of me wanted to stay to bear witness to their faithfulness, to sit in the chill of the church and have the faithfulness to stay until the end of their song. I recognized the irony in the fact that they did this faithfully day in and out, and we could not stay to hear them out even once. But then I remembered that they were not doing this for an audience aside from God. I did not have to stay. I was neither confirming nor denying faithfulness by staying or going. I thought too of the Old Order Mennonites of our own area, who are often viewed as tourist attractions, simply because they have continued to live their call faithfully. I wondered what posture faithfulness would take on my part.

We decided we would go to an English church the Sunday we were in Florence. It looked like a street front, but inside was a small cavern of gold and marble, with puffs of incense clouding the air. The mass was sung and it was beautiful. The music director sang Our Father in a way that opened my ears and later sang a song about peace in the Middle East that dovetailed with the sermon (given by the Bishop of Europe, no less) that moved me to tears as I went forward to take communion. But Dave was daunted, put off by the smells and bells of the service, and for the first time since I've known him, he stayed in his seat for communion. He explained to me later that it was too different for him.

What does it mean to be part of this big church? What does it look like?

What We Do Buy

Boxer shorts showing the nether regions of the David, for our son who loves them
Pashminas I choose to believe are made in Italy
Spices to toss into pasta

Traditional balsamic vinegar.
Rose water and violet soap
Tomato paste in a toothpaste tube. Way cool.
Brightly coloured cottonballs for our daughter
A cheap magenta cashmere sweater because it was the colour of Italy
A bouquet of yellow mimosa because everyone else was doing it. (Turned out it was for International Women's Day or La Festa della Donna)
Round dice
Spremuta: blood orange juice
Old lire coins for our oldest son, the money collector
Honey, because we always do
A little, overpriced bottle of red wine

What We Don't Buy

Little sculptures of David
Piselli in the market
A wheel of Parmesan(I asked. $500. Alas.)
Prints from street vendors.
Tickets to the opera (We got lost and ended up outside a jail where we tiptoed away. Quickly.)


The 19th century French writer Stendhal was utterly overwhelmed by the art of Florence to the point of dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations. His experience was not unique.: psychiatrists coined a term for the hundreds of people who have come to Florence and been overwhelmed by large quantities of beautiful art: Stendhal syndrome.

We read about this syndrome in our helpful guidebook and, just as nausea follows someone else being sick or itchiness proceeds from talk of head lice, we instantly begin to imagine ourselves dizzy from art.

But, Stendhal syndrome or no Stendhal syndrome, we will be going to one of the premier art museums in the world, the Uffizi, although perhaps not until after the jetlag subsides.

Many of my most favourite paintings and sculptures in the world hang in the Uffizi. What I am not prepared for is how visually intense the museum is. Even if it were stripped of every painting and statue, it would take weeks to see it properly.

The floor is a marvellous inlaid mosaic, showing off all the shades and colours of marble Italy has to offer. The ceilings are large frescoes, each perhaps twelve feet square, each uniquely painted. The hallways are lined with thousands of portraits of Florence’s leading citizens for the last five hundred years, and dotted with busts of unknown figures and artists. Fortunately there are benches.

There are more than forty rooms of art in the Uffizi, ranging in size from an intimate salon to an enormous triple ballroom. One room is circular, with brilliant red walls and a cupola for a ceiling, covered in mother-of-pearl shells from top to bottom. Another room has world maps frescoed on the walls. Still another appears to have family trees arranged among the tiny portraits that dot its walls.

It is the Botticelli painting of The Rites of Spring that stops me. Here you are, I say. The painting I first knew as a child, the one I studied as a teenager and here it is. How you respond to the Real Thing in art is tricky. It reminds me of the first time I saw mountains and thought they looked almost fake. Because these paintings are so very well known. And what is the difference between seeing a good coloured print and the real thing? The guilty watcher wonders this. The brush strokes are hard to see because many of the paintings have been varnished. And what I like about Renaissance painting is its verisimilitude: they look like real life. It is easy to be seduced into believing they are nearly photographic. I wonder whether photography has deadened our collective appreciation for art. Or whether it’s simply Stendhal syndrome setting in.

I’m intrigued that paintings I don’t like from a distance are very appealing close up, and vice versa. I like being able to sit and look. We are astounded by the size of some of the canvasses. We assume scaffolding was needed to paint many of them. We wonder whether they were commissioned by size to fit a wall somewhere or how the artist decided how big to paint it. We are honestly surprised there is only one Michelangelo painting in the Uffizi and we have to jostle for space with the tour group following the woman carrying a feather on a stick who leads only to the Good Art. But we have to make choices ourselves: we can’t see everything in a day or madness would surely set in. There is an oily smell, something petroleum-like in the room with the Michelangelo, and it begins to give me a headache. But fortunately not dizziness.

There is a sculpture of Venus that is just lovely, and as usual I am afflicted with my own syndrome: Touch the Statue Syndrome. I adore sculpture. I also realize on this visit that I love portraits. The portraits that strike me most are one of a reclusive monk, depicted in deep shadows, and one of Mary and Jesus locked in an embrace that reminds me of my own babies. Neither of them is painted by a painter the Feather Woman will likely stop in front of.

By the time we round the corner into the second wing, we are already flagging, both our feet and our eyes. I am reminded of the Far Side cartoon where the student asks to be excused because his brain is full; in my case, it is my eyes.

The other art galleries we visit in Florence set their works into space – the David stands tall in a space created just for him, where we can circle him, see the veins of marble chasing down his powerful legs, the curve of his hand, testing the heft of stone, the determination in his eyes. These museums allow the visitor to ruminate and ponder. The Uffizi is the Tokyo of the art world. We do not succumb to Stendhal syndrome but it takes a steely determination to see it all and to continue to have eyes to do so. I take my hat off to the older people in the crowd who keep walking and looking. It is the one place that makes me want to move to Florence – simply so I could slow down and drink it in over a year of Saturday afternoon visits.

Our guidebook tells us to stop on the terrace bar for a cup of cappuccino, that it is one of Europe’s great treats. It is a great treat to sit outdoors on a fresh spring day, to glance at the sky which seems peaceful after the embarrassment of riches indoors, but the coffee is lukewarm.

Refreshed, we head back inside and find what is, perhaps, the most beautiful room of all – a glittering sunlit gold and blue ballroom filled with enormous, poignant statues of Niobe and her children, found in a garden. Later we will read that some of these sculptures were damaged in a Mafia car bomb attack nearly twenty years ago, but for now we are enchanted, our eyes refreshed even as they are filled.

Really, cold coffee aside, the only downside to the Uffizi comes on the way out when we are led through a maze of no less than six gift shops. Both Dave and I separately feel the clash between the contemplation of art and the compulsion to spend. And yet, we too part with some cash to buy a guidebook we will look through at our leisure, seeing everything our eyes could not take in at once.