What I did on my summer vacation [week 1]

This summer, we are once again in the idyllic Cotswolds, reconnecting with the UK branch of the family. As always, Dr. T can only be with us for one week out of the four that we’ll be here, but the boys and I are well taken care of by his side of the clan.
As the most recent member of the family, Layla, arrived about four weeks ago, we were expecting a rather relaxed trip, what with the whole “just gave birth” thing. However, in the week that we’ve been here, we’ve already:
– attended a medieval festival in Tewkesbury, complete with battle reenactment
– made our annual pilgrimage to Bournton-on-the-Water’s model village
– eaten at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant in Oxford
– toured the Corinium museum in Cirencester
Tomorrow, we’re off to Raglan Castle in Wales, and on Friday, the boys and I will take the train to Glasgow to spend a few days with my grandmother. The rest of the month will be filled with trips to Milton Keynes, London and Paris.
But the highlight of this summer, as it has been for the last two, is the scenery right outside the front door of the house*.
Granted, being here has made me appreciate having kids who are no longer infants or toddlers, not to mention having my own bed, in my own bedroom, but the bottom line is that I lucked out in the in-law department. My sister-in-law is someone with whom I have a great connection – not surprising, really, given that her brother is Dr. T and her mother is TWGMIL ™, but wonderful, nonetheless.
I had a longer post planned, and partly written, but I goofed and inadvertently shut down the computer, after which there was supper, and dessert, and wine, and tea, and, and, and… so I’m posting mainly for the benefit of Dana 😉 But there will be more, certainly – in fact, Colin now has his own camera, so there are two of us recording it all for posterity.
*There are loads more photos from our first week on my flickr page.


I spent the last five weeks in the UK with my boys, visiting the in-laws in the idyllic Cotswolds and my grandmother in Glasgow. My brother-outlaw, who has a long-held fascination with warfare, took Colin and me to France for three days of exploring war sites.
Over those three days, we visited Vimy ridge twice, and went to Ypres in Belgium, and stopped at countless small sites en route. I took many pictures, which I’ve posted to my flickr page; although the pictures were taken and the impressions formed two weeks ago, I’ve been trying to find a way to package them to best express the emotion and atmosphere. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe there isn’t a perfect, or even necessarily good, way to do this. After all, if there were, we wouldn’t need to maintain these sites, because we could all just read someone else’s impressions. Now that I’ve been there, all I can really say is that if you haven’t been, go. Here’s why.
~ The Canadian Memorial at Vimy, which seems somehow unCanadian, stands starkly against the crystal blue French sky, piercing the horizon, visible from miles away.
~ The memorial is covered with names. Name after name after name. So many. We counted 37 Moores. We found a few Goldings. I touched M. McDonnell. The names stretch all along the wall, around the side, down the stairs, along the next wall, and up, and around…
~ The memorial is the least moving element of the site. More moving:
– The Canadian flag quietly fluttering in the breeze
– The Canadian accents of all the students who are spending their summer teaching us about the battle and the site
– The Canadian accents of many of the visitors – and all the visitors who aren’t Canadian, coming to pay their respects.
~ The most moving aspect of the site is the very earth itself. Trees have been planted to prevent further erosion of the site, and aside from the parking lot and the ground around the memorial itself, the ground has been left as it was after the war. The earth is surreal – nothing in nature should look like this. The ground has been ripped apart by shells and mines and shovels and barbed wire, and 90 years later the weirdly undulating fields are a better testament to the unnatural destruction than any white marble could ever be.
~ The site includes a preserved tunnel which you can tour with a guide and walk safely through – the tunnels are well-lit, dry, and structurally sound. But you can still, somehow, imagine what they must have been like for hundreds of young men, carrying 70 lb backpacks through unlit tunnels, kicking over the unseen toilet buckets, ignoring the rats that brushed past their legs, hoping that the canister they were drinking from held water, not gasoline, feeling the endless earthquake of shells hitting the ground above, and finally, scrambling up a steep, muddy incline into the open air, hoping they’d live to see the next morning.
We went to France on the Eurostar, which was fast and convenient (and after some web research of different booking sites, not too expensive). We based ourselves in Lille, which is about half an hour north of Vimy, and about an hour from Ypres. On our second day, we went to Belgium, with the Menen gate in Ypres as our primary destination. Along the way, we stopped at several other sites, including half a dozen tiny cemeteries in farmers’ fields, with the graves of soldiers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, England, all maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves commission. When you look at a map of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, you can see that there are almost two hundred Commonwealth cemeteries in the area. Some are tiny and others are massive. The tiny ones are devastating because they’re in tranquil fields miles from anywhere, and you can read each stone – so you can see how far from home the men were, and how young… and sometimes, all the stone says is “A Soldier of the Great War”.
The massive cemeteries, like Tyne Cot and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, are devastating because they are, well, massive. Stones as far as you can see. At Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery, there are over 12,000 graves – and another 33,000 names on the back wall, commemorating the soldiers whose bodies were never found. We also stopped in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, at the largest German cemetery in France. Here, the graves are marked with crosses – except for the Stars of David marking the graves of Jewish German soldiers – and the crosses seem to go on forever. You can’t see the back of the cemetery. Each cross has a name on the left arm and another on the right arm, and two more on the reverse. In all, there are over 44,000 men buried there.
I could go on and on – the Menen gate is terrifying in its enormity; more than 54,000 names covering every available surface. The Irish memorial, where I found four pages of McDonnells in the registry, has a truly Irish sense of poetry in the stones. At the other end of the spectrum are the weird museums and “preserved” battlefields, where during the day tourists walk the trenches and during the night sheep graze in No Man’s Land. Pictures of all of the above are on my flickr site (or will be ASAP), but as I said, these are sites that should really be experienced first-hand.
The trip was like nothing I’ve done before. We had a great time, really, which seems disrespectful to say, except that I think in some way, us having a great time is perhaps a fitting tribute. I was genuinely proud of Colin for enduring three days of history lessons, and for being daring and eating his first (and I think last) escargot.
And finally, in a discussion of modern French architecture as represented in Lille and Lens, I taught Adam the very useful word “fugly.”

The leftover London story

So, yes, we’ve been back for almost a month, and yes, we had a wonderful time… mostly.
The following is a love story ~ if I didn’t really love Dr. T., our marriage would definitely not have survived.
On our last Friday in England, we planned to go into London, for our one and only trip into the city during our summer in the UK. We had already left the idyllic Cotswolds, and were heading out from Milton Keynes, home of the World’s Greatest Mother-in-Law (TM), and coincidentally ideally situated for getting to London by rail.
Which is, obviously, why we drove.
Now, when we booked our train trip from TIC* to Glasgow for our visit with my gran and the great aunt**, we bought a rail card for all of £20, which saved us more than £100 on the Scottish trip. This card is valid for a year, and entitles us, as a family, to significant discounts on all rail travel in the UK, including, naturally, a one-day round-trip excursion from Milton Keynes to London.
Which is, obviously, why we drove.
[At this point it should be patently obvious that driving to London was not my idea.]
Part of the justification for driving was that Dr. T. had contacted an old friend from his high school days, who now lives in London, and who generously offered to have us park our car in her driveway, and invited us for supper after our day in the city. Since she lives just outside the congestion zone, we wouldn’t even have to pay to have our car in the city, and based on her experience, the drive from MK would only be about half an hour. So we could leave MK in the late morning, drop off the car, hop on the tube, spend a leisurely afternoon exploring London, and get fed before the short drive home.
We decided it was a good idea to check the route on-line, which is when we discovered that the estimated travel time was closer to an hour, which wasn’t a significant difference really, we reasoned, especially since the on-line map program estimates are based on driving at the speed limit. I was a little trepidatious about the fact that the lion’s share of the journey was on the M1, i.e., the motorway, i.e., the one form of travel that every Briton I’ve ever encountered refers to as the only way they will never travel.
But, really, on a Friday mid-morning, long after rush hour and long before weekend traffic, how bad could it be, right?
It turns out that since we were taking the motorway, the other drivers got together and decided to initiate us to the joys of motorway travel, which explains the “unprecedented” traffic jam that added two hours to our journey. At least I was right about us not driving at the speed limit.
TWO &$^%^& HOURS.
We had plenty of time to decide whether or not it made sense to leave the motorway at the next exit, since the next exit was several miles away. Fortunately, we had a road atlas in the car with us, thanks to the WGMiL; unfortunately, a crucial stage of the journey took us through St. Albans, which was rather inconveniently located between pages and therefore unreadable. Also, my theory is that St. Albans is the Bermuda Triangle of England.
Suffice it to say that the journey did not take half an hour. We finally arrived, weary and frustrated, at the friend’s house at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Which is when I met the “old” friend, who, as it turns out, is a stunningly beautiful, petite, funny woman with cascading chestnut hair and a PhD in sociology who’s now working from home on her book on life in the art world.
And I’ve just emerged from a hot car after three hours. My hair is unspeakable, and every piece of clothing I’m wearing looks like badly-fitting crepe paper.
Fortunately, despite Dr. T’s misgivings, his friend was very understanding when I explained that we would not be joining the family for supper, given that our late arrival had thrown our sightseeing schedule off, to say the least. She escorted us to the tube station (which was, it must be said, very convenient, and on the right line to get us to our initial stop), and we headed off to Southwark. We found a lovely Thames-side pub where we had lunch (lunch!! at 4 o’clock!!), then we strolled over to the Globe, where we spent several literary minutes in the gift shop (the first high point of the day was when Dr. T bought me a t-shirt with this illustration).
By this time, it was after 5 o’clock, so we hopped back on the tube and headed for Trafalgar Square; we finished our tour on Carnaby Street, a.k.a. mecca for shopaholics, where Dr. T. made more inroads in appeasing me by buying me a fancy purse (and in turn, I managed to find a really nice one*** that was ridiculously reduced. I have a talent).
Once we were shopped out (or, more to the point, when the shops closed), we headed back the gorgeous professor’s house, where we had tea and ice cream with her and her husband while Colin was entertained by their son. We very deliberately avoided the motorway on the way home, which was a wise decision, but which took us through St. Albans again, where we inevitably got thrown off. We stopped for pizza around 10 o’clock (which, given that lunch was at 4, was not as late as it sounds ~ but 10 o’clock at the Pizza Hut take-away counter in a British village is a great time to see how pub-hopping villagers refuel between stops), and finally crawled through the door, happy to note that it was before midnight!
In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to laugh… screw that ~ it’s still not funny!!
Small consolation: I have witnesses to the fact that Dr. T has (a) conceded that driving was not the best option and (b) promised that next time, we go by train.
*The idyllic Cotswolds
**Doesn’t My Gran and the Great Aunt sound like the title of an interesting book?
***Said purse is viewable on-line, when the web site in question is behaving itself. I’ll add a link if/when there is one.

So this is what rainy days are for

We’ve been in the UK for 16 days, and today is the first really rainy day. There’s been the odd sprinkle now and then in the past fortnight, but really, we’ve been extraordinarily lucky weatherwise, especially given all the precipitation that fell here in the month before we arrived. Today, though, Mother Nature is making up for her two weeks off, and really dumping water on us ~ the forecast is for four inches in these 24 hours, and I believe it. There are remarkably large puddles of water everywhere you look, and everything looks waterlogged. Although the temperature is supposed to be 18 C, it’s damp and chilly, despite our sweaters and warm socks. On the bright side, now it feels like England!
We’ve spent a few days in Milton Keynes, which is where the World’s Greatest Mother-in-Law (TM) resides; while there, we’ve enjoyed all sorts of holiday treats, like seeing the latest Harry Potter movie, and a day of Mummy-only shopping in Central MK, where I scored bargains like the 55&#163 skirt, on sale for 7&#163 (in Canadian dollars, that’s $118, reduced to $15).
Most of our time has been spent in the idyllic Cotswolds, with Nicole and Adam and the impending Small (name TBA, upon arrival). I took this on one of those sunny days:
Location, location, location
If you follow the link through to the flickr page, you can mouse over for notes that explain which building is which.
There are loads of other photos on the flickr site, chronicling our various adventures, including the boys first ride so far.
Atop Cobweb
We’ve also helped harvest onions and raspberries from Nicole and Adam’s small vegetable garden, and made friends with the resident hedgehog, who devours slugs, much to the delight of Adam, whose reaction to slugs makes me wonder if he had a bad experience with one as a child.
On Tuesday, the boys and I boarded one of Richard Branson’s trains and went to Glasgow to visit my gran. The last time I saw her was exactly thirteen years ago, when she came to my wedding! I was thrilled, too, that my aunt Bernadette was visiting at the same time. She now lives in India, where she has worked to build a home that brings together orphaned children and abandoned women. Although she is my mother’s sister, she’s actually closer in age to me than to Mum, and in the past I’ve always had a blast with her.
I was a little trepidatious about this trip, for a few reasons. Although my gran still lives on her own, in her own house, and by all accounts is very active, she is in her late 80s, and my children are, well, children. I was also a little worried that I had exaggerated my past closeness with Bernadette, and we’d end up spending three days in awkward silence, punctuated by the terrible sounds of breaking china figurines as the boys destroyed the house. Thankfully, my fears were not realized ~ I knew from the moment we met on the platform at Glasgow Central that Bernadette and I would very quickly reestablish our bond, and I was not disappointed. We had a great time, with lots of revalations and laughter, and the boys loved her too. As for Gran, well, 87 she may be, but she’s still, in her own words, inde-bloody-pendent! Although she needs a walking stick to get around, get around she does, and God help you if you try to stop her. And she comes with a disabled parking sticker, which means we got the best parking spots everywhere we went.
On Wednesday, we went to Loch Lomond, and had a wonderful (if unbelievably delayed) lunch at the Duck Bay Marina, then spent a couple of hours at Loch Lomond Shores, a shopping/amusement complex on the boardwalk at the southern end of the loch. In the shops, I discovered that I come by my shopaholism honestly ~ both Bernadette and Gran were hard to tear away from the bargains! The boys had a great time running around on the boardwalk, and while Bernadette and I continued our quest for the perfect sweater (alas, fruitless at that point), Gran supervised the kids ~ including Colin’s bungee jumping. So perhaps “supervised” is not the right term…
Loch Lomond
Yesterday, we headed into downtown Glasgow a little early, and found the perfect Scottish sweater at Pringles (yay!), then had lunch together at the station before Bernadette and Gran saw us off at the platform. We had a great time, and I have every intention of returning to Glasgow next year, assuming we can repeat our extended summer vacation over here.
Now, though, we’re back in the more-sodden-than-idyllic Cotswolds, helping get the house in order for the most anticipated arrival of Small, who is expected any minute now.
The official due date is, in fact, today ~ and there are still a few hours left, so watch this space!

Feeling a little flushed

So here I am in drizzly Halifax.
Y’know those automated toilets? The ones with the sensor that “sees” when you’ve moved away from the seat, and then does the flushing for you?
Well, the bathrooms at the Halifax airport have those toilets.
The bathrooms also feature toilet roll dispensers that are installed, for God only knows what reason, at knee height. The paper itself, naturally, comes out the bottom of the dispenser, somewhere near your ankles.
So you have to lean forward and down to get any paper…
…thus, in the eyes of the sensor, moving away from the seat…
…thus flushing. While you’re getting paper and awkwardly trying to maintain your balance in some position better suited to a yoga class.
Welcome to Nova Scotia, my ass (get it?).

Touring Halifax

Yesterday I visited the Fairview cemetery, which is the final resting place of 121 victims of the Titanic disaster. I’ve posted a few pictures and accompanying explanations over on my flickr site.

Eating in New Orleans

We ate really well in New Orleans – and we managed to avoid places like Popeye’s and Wendy’s. We relied on Samantha Cook’s Rough Guide to New Orleans to steer us in the right direction, although the book is out of date (September 2001) and in at least one instance, wrong. Generally, we were extremely impressed with Cook’s recommendations.
I’ve spent the morning reliving our culinary treats, just in case you find yourself in New Orleans with a growly tummy:

Continue reading “Eating in New Orleans”