Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Holy Island and Hadrians Wall

Sunday we went to Holy Island and saw Castle on a Rock A.K.A. Lindis Farne Castle, a castle as you probably guessed is a castle: on a rock heres a picture of it (its really big).

What I tell you?We didn't go inside because it was really expensive,so guess what we did?we got some pictures and left! The coolest thing about Holy Island is that you can only drive to it when when its low tide so that means you can't leave either!theres a road that goes to it at low tide and it can get covered up by water WHILE YOUR STILL ON IT!people have to get rescued from the water by like,helicopters and stuff it would suck to get stuck in the water.
Hadrian's Wall was pretty cool it is about...2000 years old! so wee did a little walk by it and got wet and muddy, over all it was cool,heres a picture.

After Hadrian's Wall we went home and went to bed.

More Lake District: Brantwood

While Beatrix Potter's Hilltop Farm was charming, I must admit that, for me, it was merely a preface to what was a veritable pilgrimage: visiting Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin. It's hard for me to describe the role that Ruskin has come to play in my imagination, indeed in my very self-understanding of my calling. Perhaps second only to Augustine, Ruskin looms as a giant and an examplar for me. A writer who refused to observe the narrow (and rather arbitrary) boundaries that we know as "the disciplines," and even refusing to confine his writing to the academy, Ruskin is the consummate example of a public intellectual who was interested in making his scholarship serve those who would never darken the door of a university lecture hall--including a particular concern for the working classes. His prose is sparkling and dense, and he persistently denounced the destruction of life and fragmentation of communities and families that was the result of the so-called "modern" accomplishments of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. (Thus my blog Fors Clavigera is just a small homage to his legacy.)

Suffice it to say that I was thrilled to make this visit, and appreciated that Deanna and the kids were willing to share my enthusiasm (indeed, the kids were great, and even quite entertained, I think. Thanks, guys!). What I wasn't prepared for was just how moved I would be by the experience: being able to stand behind his desk, with a wall of windows overlooking Lake Coniston, constituting the environment of his later writing; standing in his bedroom where he wrestled with the demons of depression in such darkness at one point that, in fact, he never slept there again, but instead moved into a smaller room next door; and especially standing in a windowed turret he had added to the house, in which he would long meditate and contemplate the snow-capped mountains that must have constantly taken him back to Switzerland and Italy--places that were his home away from home. I was overcome with a sense of how much he spent himself, almost kenotically, in pursuit of a vision of justice. A saint worth imitating.

Here are some snapshots with commentary:
This is a dining room that Ruskin added to the house; you can't quite make it out, but the windows here echo the Venetian Gothic of which he was such a fan. And just above and behind it, the little roof is the top of the turret I mentioned.
We weren't supposed to take pictures in the house, but Dee said we just had to sneak this one: it is a portrait of Ruskin when he was 38 years old, with me in my 38th year (37.5!). Ruskin had the benefit of those big, bushy Victorian sideburns to cover his double-chin, I guess.
Lake Coniston from Brantwood; I think I could be pretty prolific if this was the view from my study!
Ruskin's grave in the Coniston Church cemetery (he turned down an offer to be buried in Westminster Abbey).
After Brantwood we drove north through the Lake District to Keswick, had tea, and then visited this stone circle just outside town. Like Stone Henge, but much more worn by the elements. Most of the stone circles in England are in the Lake District. Sheep and lambs were huddling around it, trying to stay out of the wind!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Lake District

For an island that's not that big, England manages to wow you with scenery that is as diverse as a cross country drive of America. From the hills and dales, mountains and lakes, there is a beauty that is both spectacular and pastoral. We rented a car this past weekend, and headed to the Lake District, on the west side of England. It is one of the most visited and photographed areas and after visiting, it is easy to understand why. It was a pleasant 3 hour trip through the dales, the sun behind us and sheep on every side. We were delighted that is was lambing season. The hills were littered with adorable, fluffy little lambs, kicking up their feet and chasing after their mothers for a quick drink of milk. When the windows were down, we could hear them bleating, almost sounding human. "Mommm.....mommm..." and in response, a very deep, resonant reply. I imagined that it had a touch of irritation about it, not unlike harassed mothers everywhere (especially ones who have been travelling extensively and living in close proximity to their children for 5 months!).

As we exited the motorway, crested the pass and descended into the valley, we left the sun behind and beheld the allure of Beatrix Potter country, with rain at no extra charge. We headed to the boat launch at the bottom of Lake Windemere and ate our lunch in the car while crossing on the ferry. Our picnic blanket in the trunk remained there all day!

Our first stop was Hill Top Farm, home to the woman who wrote the delightful children's books, Jemima Puddle Duck, Peter Rabbit and many, many others. We had just recently watched the movie, Miss Potter, starring Renee Zellwegger and we were charmed. The author was not only celebrated for her books, but also for her work as a conservationist. She was against the commercialization of her beloved Lake District, so she used the money she earned from her stories to buy up the neighbouring farms. Upon her death in 1943, she left the land and properties to the National Trust and it remains today, as it did in her lifetime. We toured the house, but did not linger long in the garden. We were worried about Mr. MacGregor!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Knitting Knews

I thought I would show off a few of my knitting projects that I've finished since arriving in England. I've been honing my craft for about a year and a half and have just fallen in love with creating colourful things to share with my family and friends. I love the excitement and enthusiasm that Jamie and the kids show for the things that I make and it encourages me to keep trying.

This is the baby blanket I made in anticipation of the birth of my niece Isabella. It was so much fun to make and I learned so much-lots of new stitches and how to piece the squares together. I packed it off to Canada and Jen sent me a photo of Isabella and the finished product. I can't wait to snuggle her in it!Next up was my first pair of socks using the magic loop method I learned in a class back in GR. Also very rewarding. It seems I need to hide them-thye keep turning up on other people's feet! I have several requests from the kids and am busy making a pair for Maddie.

Jack was up early one morning in Switzerland and apparently he was cold. He pulled on my socks and that was all the warmth he needed!
I just finished this pillow top last night. I knit and felted the background, and then did some embroidery on top. I'll wait until I get home to stuff it. Now I just have to decide what to start next!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


It's a little late i know. But my adoring fans have been begging for a post, so whatever. In Switzerland.... it was not fun. It rained constantly and it was very expensive. A 2-Liter of Coke cost about 4.80 Francs, with the exchange is about $4.90. So it was a little pricey. The first day there everything was closed because it was Sunday, for some reason the whole world stops turning on Sundays in Europe. So after driving up the narrow mountain path we got to our 'chalet' we had no food and nowhere to go to get food. So me and James drove down the treacherous mountain pass to the little village thingy. We found pizzas at this place for only $17.oo, of course they were about 10 inches in diameter. As we waited at the bar of the restaurant the waiter brought two little glasses of a dark brown liquid with ice. I assumed it was Coke, Dad had not yet noticed and after further investigation i discovered it was alcohol. I had a stressful day, so i downed it. Dad goes "Was that alcohol?" and i replied "I hope so." Turns out the drinking age in Switzerland is 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for like vodka and stuff. The rest of the trip was us scraping by and enduring the rain.
I think only 48 days left!!

Football Night, English Style

Coleson and I are enjoying a rather British night tonight: first we had fish & chips from the shop round the corner: Haddock and chips, drenched in vinegar and salt, wrapped in newspaper, in very generous portions (none of that French cuisine silliness about small helpings of 'quality' food!). And now we're hunkered down on the couch watching the Champions Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Chelsea. Go Liverpool! (Cole's a Chelsea fan, and has the scarf to prove it.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Venice: The Lion City

Venice is one of those places that looms across an almost universal imagination--like Neverland or Shangri La or the New Jerusalem. It is one of those cities that carries a mystique about it as if enchanted. On the other hand, it is a place so photographed, filmed, painted, and reproduced that it also has a ubuquitous familiarity about it such that one expects no surprises. Its canals and gondolas and piazzas have been the backdrop for so many movies that one almost expects it to be ho-hum.

But it's not.

Going to Venice was the most anticipated part of our Italian adventure for me. As an admirer of John Ruskin, whose Stones of Venice was one of the most important books in 19th-century Britain, I couldn't wait to explore the architecture and ambience of this floating city, precariously perched on the lagoon. (For those who might be interested in a little more 'academic' take on this, you might check out What I'm Reading.) At the same time, I was a bit wary: Venice had become so encrusted with mystery and magic in my mind that I was worried about a disappointing let-down upon seeing the real thing--that Venice in the flesh wouldn't measure up to Venice in my imagination.

This, I've now concluded is an impossibility: no amount of reproduction, replication, or representation of the city could ever hope to capture its magic, its enchantment, its charm.

The day began a little rocky, I must admit. Working from Rick Steves' rather sketchy instructions on how to drive there, we pretty much ended up in Slovenia. (This was a lot more dramatic than I'm making it sound, but I'll leave it to Deanna to perhaps share the gory details. Let's just say I've since learned that, because of the trauma, the kids now begin each trip by praying we won't get lost.) After turning around (several times) before entering Eastern Europe, we finally made it across the causeway to the Tronchetto, a massive car park just on the edge of the island. From there we caught a vaporetto--Venice's version of a bus, except that it is a massive boat that ferries the crowds of people up-and-down the Grand Canal and around the lagoon. We scored great seats on the very front, giving us a delightful view of the city as the vaporetto wound its way through the canal. Our destination was San Marco Plaza. Here are some shots [with commentary] along the way:
[This was our view perched on the prow of the vaporetto.][What distinguishes Venice, and what drew Ruskin to it time and again, was its distinct architecture. This facade--similar ones are found all down the Grand Canal--is a classic example of Venetian Gothic. It was a treat to see the buildings that filled Ruskin's sketchbooks.][One of the many gondolas shuttling through the narrow canals. Unfortunately, they're horribly expensive so we didn't get to enjoy a ride in one of these.][As we approached San Marco Plaza, at the end of the Grand Canal, San Giorgio looms across the lagoon. This is a class "Palladian" facade (notice how it sort of encapsulates two facades in one?). Palladio--who inspired Thomas Jefferson's Monticello--was from Vicenza and we saw a number of his works when we visited that city earlier in the week.]

We disembarked from the vaporetto at San Marco and first stopped for a picnic in a park nearby (the only park in Venice where people are allowed to picnic--thank you, Rick Steves, for the tip). Then we made our way to the plaza, which is the vast open space to which both tourists and pigeons flock in incredible numbers. Towering over it are three landmarks: the pillars on which are perched St. Mark and his Lion, San Marco Basilica, and the Doges' Palace. All three of these are connected: Venice is known as the "Lion City" because, after 828, it was home to the body of St. Mark, the Gospel writer whose symbol has long been a lion. His body--a "relic" (very important to medieval Catholic culture)--was actually stolen from Alexandria by some eager Venetian sailors. However, when they brought the body back to Venice, they did not bring it to the bishop; instead, it was brought to the doge, the Venetian equivalent to the emperor. (Keep in mind that Venice was not just a city: it was the seat of a powerful sea-faring empire, which gradually reached across northern Italy, all the way to Bergamo, outside Milan.) Bringing the relic to the doge was a bit of a slap in the face to the bishop, and by implication, to the Pope in Rome--thus Venice has always been seen as a hotbed of religious independence of a sort, though it was fervently Catholic, just not necessarily "Roman." The doge was charged with protecting the body of St. Mark, and it was understood that St. Mark would protect the city. Thus the doge built what is basically a private chapel for the body of St. Mark--which would eventually become the ornate space of St. Mark's basilica.
[The gang on the piazza, at the foot of the pillars with the Doge's Palace behind.]
[Looking from the lagoon, along the palace, toward San Marco. You might note that the architectural grammar is very different from the northern Gothic one sees in English cathedrals. It carries hints of more eastern influences (Byzantine, which might feel almost Islamic to us westerners); this is because Venice was perched between East and West as it were, as a trading empire with important connections to Constantinople.]
[From near San Marco, looking back out toward the lagoon. On the left pillar you can see the winged lion, and on the right St. Mark. The lion figure appears everywhere, not only in Venice, but across the cities we visited in northern Italy which were under the sway of the Venetian empire. Thus one can see a replication of the piazza, with its pillars and clock tower, in Vicenza, too.]
[The famous Bridge of Sighs, connected to the Doge's Palace.]

After exploring San Marco and the piazza, and looking to get away from the crowds which seemed to all of a sudden overwhelm the square, we began walking north through the (very pricey!) shopping areas of Venice toward the open market in Rialto. This was a fun, leisurely stroll, with charming little canals spilling off to the sides. We then enjoyed a walk along the Grand Canal itself. The sun broke through the clouds and we just sat and relaxed on the side of the canal, watching the gondolas lazily pass by. Absolutely delightful; crazy, but I think the most fun I had in Venice was just sitting here in the sun, absorbing the sights and sounds of the city. (The kids were a little less enthused about such a sedentary approach.)
[A postcard-like shot Deanna took from the Rialto bridge.]
[One of those charming little side canals dotted with laundry hanging from the balconies. Would it be possible to ever take this for granted?]
[Lazing beside the canal for a little while, til the kids' impatience won out. We made up for it with--you guessed it!--more gelatto.]

Later we started to get off the beaten touristy track a bit more, roaming through narrow walkways with a couple of loose targets in mind: a church that housed a Titian that I wanted to see, and the San Rafael church, which featured in a novel that Deanna just finished--Miss Garnet's Angel, by Sally Vickers. This was also great fun, exploring little out-of-the-way corners of the city at a leisurely pace. It should be noted that in fact the city is quite dilapidated. The water seems to eat into stucco and brick, and there is a general feel of crumbling and decay, coupled with graffiti everywhere. And yet, the enchantment of the city seems to win out: the decay gives way to romance.

[This is on the outside of San Rafael, the church featured in Miss Garnet's Angel. It is the angel Raphael, I think, with a boy and his dog.]
[Deanna took this cool shot of one of the many little grottos and shrines that dot Venice's narrow alleys. I think it captures Venice: a crumbling relic, built on faith, still enchanted by mystery and devotion.]

By the end of the day, with not enough money to actually dine in the city, we made the long walk back to the car park and headed home (the feast of San Guiseppe was awaiting us). Dee and the kids begged for a detour to Slovenia for coffee--so they could add another country to their Facebook "Been There" record. I'm afraid I vetoed the idea (being the one with his foot on the gas pedal). Instead, we made our way across the causeway, already planning when we'll return to Venice.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Food Tour of Italy

Gastronomically speaking, it may be said that the Smiths are Italian. In one week, we ate pizza for dinner four times and pasta 3 times and it was a good thing. Jackson is sure that's what heaven is like. With gelato for dessert of course.

Our culinary experience began with our arrival in Vicenza on Easter Sunday. Italians take their holidays (or just plain old Sundays for that matter) very seriously, and all local food shops were closed. We knew this was probable, but the budget airline we flew on had very restrictive luggage policies, preventing us from bringing anything along. Our hosts anticipated this, and upon our arrival, had a list of a few pizza places that would be open. Grateful, Jamie, Coleson and Jackson headed out to forage, and returned with 3 pizzas. Quickly consumed,with some yummy, local red wine, I was still feeling a little hungry (the crackers we'd eaten from the gas station had already digested) and I suspected the others were feeling the same. For some strange reason they were uncharacteristically silent about it though. Perhaps they were wanting to start the holiday off on a good note. I thought this admirable, and kept my silence as well.

The next day, Easter Monday, and also a holiday, meant that everything was still closed. After a muddy, morning hike, taking in the absolute beauty of the countryside, we managed to put together a lunch from a tiny alimenteri. The locals spoke no English, but Coleson had been faithfully studying his 15 minute Italian book for weeks. ( He'd impressed me one evening with a beautifully flowing sentence. I asked him to translate: "I have 2 brothers and 1 ugly sister and my parents are fat." I told him he could perhaps learn something a little more useful like, "I promise to be a good boy.") With no other options for supper, Jamie headed out to pick up pizza. I told him to maybe get 4 this time and the others agreed. A little more satisfying, and washed down with some yummy, local red wine, but really, I could have eaten more. We were all looking forward to the next day when the local markets were opened, as well as the supermercato.

Grocery shopping was an adventure in itself and I had a headache by the time we were done. So many people adding things to the cart that were either cookies or chocolate. The cheese and meat kept behind a counter that we had to actually ask for. Ahh, mi scusi, vorrei formaggio, per favore? We needed to be more specific than that. After all, there were what seemed to be hundreds of kinds of cheese. Jamie got some provolone (that was almost cheating, I think. We buy that kind at home every week). Supper was simple. Spaghetti bolgnese( which our hosts informed us, was not even Italian but rather a British invention) and some yummy, local red wine. We'd also done some sightseeing in Vicenza and had our first taste of gelato. 2 gustos each. So good.

The next day, we headed to Padua to do some more exploring. Charming city: beautiful piazzas, fountains, churches, more gelato, churches, pigeons, churches (...did I mention the churches?). However, the bathroom situation there is quite precarious. I will spare you the details. Jack may be scarred for life. We thought we would just eat dinner in Padua. Rick Steves had recommended relaxing at an outdoor table on the piazza, sipping an orange liqueur and herb-infused spritz, and dining like the locals. It all sounded so simple.

But we were way too early. Dinner in Italy does not start until 7:30 or 8. Some of the Smiths are in bed by that time. Hungry, we jumped in the car to head back home. The thought of then having to prepare something to eat was too overwhelming, and we voted to stop and pick up pizza. They only take about 4 minutes to cook in the pizza oven. When Jamie asked how many to get, everyone shouted "6"! He emerged sheepishly from the shop, his face barely visible above the skyscraper of pizzas he carried. We could not get home fast enough. It was like feeding time at the zoo.

By Thursday, the weather was gorgeous and we spent a lazy day on the farm. The kids jumped on the trampoline and played with the dogs. In the afternoon, Jamie, Jack and Coleson headed out for a hike. That night we feasted on pasta with a sauce we had made from roasted tomatoes, onions, eggplant and lots of garlic. And yummy, local red wine.

We spent Friday in Venice and returned home in time to attend the local festival of St Giuseppi with our hosts, Sylvie and Phil. The charm and allure of this evening spent with the locals was magical. We ate gnocchi pomodorro, lasagna with quail, plates of salami, polenta, and washed it down with vino frizzante. We avoided the horse steak. The kids and Jamie rode the bumper cars, and we were delighted by the music of the band and watching the dancing under the big tent. We talked about maybe moving there and found a "fixer-upper" for sale near by.
[What do you think of this fixer-upper? ;-)]

On Saturday, it was decided we would make home made pizza and cook together with Phil and Sylvie. After all, part of the allure of this vacation rental was the outdoor pizza oven. We picked up a kilo of mozzarella cheese from the local factory and stopped by the wine factory where they pump it like gasoline: 1 euro a litre (actually cheaper than gas!).

Maddie and I set to work in the afternoon to make enough dough to feed 11 people. Sylvie said to count on 1 pizza each plus more for the guys. You are expected to eat a pizza yourself, perhaps 2. The base prepared, it was set out to rise for several hours. Sylvie complemented us on our results. The pizza oven was lit and attended for the 3 hours necessary to get it to the right temperature. At 8 (8!), we began rolling out the dough, as thin as possible, everyone making their own.

It was fantastic. Perhaps it was the satisfaction of a job well done. Or the joy of sharing a meal with friends. I expect that it was both of those things, improved upon by the enchantment that is Italy.