Author Archives: terryannewilson

About terryannewilson

I'm a writer who enjoys traveling, diverse cultures and tales that inspire.

Poster-perfect Banff… a century of allure in the Canadian Rockies

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Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller… and all in the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors. These advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place, and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was, and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought, often called for prominent artists, creating posters by the thousands in different languages, to be distributed globally. They portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?

It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway, there would have been no unified Canada and, without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.

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His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:

“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards,’… but mostly for the privileged few.

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Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery, legendary mountains, all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers, replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven-hundred year Douglas Firs, a landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.

Few Europeans had yet passed through the region: Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847 and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886, through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.

 

We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a  colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.

Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.

We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, steeped in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air, it is nothing short of breathtaking. In that idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire – it’s a winter getaway to perfection!

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The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself, occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that  without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was – with 250 rooms that opened seasonally from mid May 15 to early October. CPR’s advertising strategies soon paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in  association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships, bringing the international set from afar to the Canadian Rockies.

The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination (assisted by a fire) cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower was added, then more wings, and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece!

As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces, ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes, and million-dollar views. I easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’s, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay, with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit in hand to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.

 

 

I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead, our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed, and needed in the new cultural mosaic of Canada.

For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel, the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. It is about the stories that still echo around these grand peaks.

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If you go, allow me my suggestions:

Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.

Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!

Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.

 

 

 

A Very Happy New Year… filling, and cherishing the chest of memories

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Could there have been more of a contrast? Last New Year’s Eve found us in Delhi,  celebrating under an outdoor, chandelier-lit cabana. It was a warm, balmy evening and we had only just made it into the city for our reservation; eight-hour train delays from Agra will do that!

All seven of us (two girlfriends are part of our family) had donned our evening clothes, packed away the dusty traveller’s duds in which we had just toured Northern India, and appeared sparkling and ebullient for the New Year’s Eve dinner and dance. Throughout the evening, we reminisced over the wonders and the often troubling sights and encounters we had experienced together. It was a family adventure never to be forgotten, nor perhaps repeated.

This year was entirely different. Without Luke and Trixie, we were only five in this winter wonderland in Kimberley, British Columbia. We exchanged our ski gear, toques and warm gloves for smart-casual as we prepared our mountain home for the evening. To complete this festive gathering, we had welcomed family from Holland, along with my mom and dad. Neighbours dropped by for happy-hour and close friends stayed for the late dinner. There was Pictionary, crazy hats, impressive moonwalking and my husband, as ever, led us in Auld Lang Syne to formerly ring in the New Year. I was filled with the profound feeling that we were creating another cherished page for our family memory book.

As the years drift along, I’m reminded more and more that much of life is defined by how we gather and treasure memories. Something I read recently struck me as wisdom and truth. A woman in her nineties had poignantly professed:

“Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open, I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away, just for this time in my life. Old age is like a bank account, you withdraw from what you’ve put in.”

This has resonated deeply with me on the threshold of 2019. I saw firsthand how true this is; for even as we celebrated and revelled in the beautiful snowy surroundings, we seven (including our two in Slovenia) reminisced time and again over our Indian adventure. Perhaps it was partly because that was the last time all seven of us were together as one.

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“Thinking about all the memories of last year and looking forward to the next time we get to share together,” Ayla wrote just before she and our son Andrew arrived home on the 27th.

“Love you guys! Sending big hugs,” Trixie added from Slovenia. On New Years’s Day, Luke chimed in with, “Dad, hope you sang Auld Lang Syne at the top of your lungs to ring in the new year, though it would be hard to beat last year’s performance.”

Yes, last year’s rendition had been during that celebration in Dehli when Bruce had joined the band to sing his treasured version of Robbie Burns classic words – as perhaps only a true Scots-Canadian can.

So despite the superb ski days, impromptu snow angels, terrific tobagganning, woodsy trampings and fireside chats, memories of last year were never far from our minds.

Since that eventful Indian journey, this past year we have come together in various countries, yet never all at once. It was an often challenging and difficult year, yet eventful, exciting and also truly joyous in which we were privileged to live and share on three different continents. Now, as we transition, in the short-term at least, from our global life, we look forward to more simple times in our Canadian home base. We’re excited for the new year, but unsure where it will lead as we open doors to new opportunities and adventures – and yes, perhaps another country.

So this year’s family photo doesn’t picture all of us in front of an iconic landmark such as the Taj Mahal. No, we’re more incognito in our ski helmets, or informal and relaxed over apres-ski drinks. Come to think of it, despite our best intensions to take a ‘nice family photo’, we somehow didn’t manage it. Was it perhaps subconscious as two of us were missing? I have a feeling it was.

With further words of wisdom from that cherished ninety-two year old woman, she counselled:

“So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories.”

Let’s make 2019 a year to be mindful of memories, to be truly present and appreciative of each experience as it happens. This is the material from which our memories are carved, no matter how seemingly simple or extravagant they may be.

And so, as we celebrated on New Year’s Eve with those who were near, I messaged those far away; “I too have been thinking of last year. We’ll set a reunion for us all as soon as we can; this mother’s heart is yearning for that time.”

For now, I have a treasure chest of beautiful memories and the anticipation of creating many more. May we all be blessed to have the same.

A very Happy New Year Dear Readers!

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Luke and Trixie blog from Slovenia, and other points known at: https://www.howlblog.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An olive harvest in Italy… sharing in a family ritual

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“Let’s be silent,” I implore my fellow olive pickers. “Just five minutes. Let’s take in the sounds of the valley.”

We’ve talked endlessly, wonderfully, hour after hour as tree after olive-laden tree, steadily yield their bounty.

I want to savour the sounds of this Italian scene. The vista from Carolyn and Paolo’s slice of paradise is spectacular and speaks for itself. Vineyards run straight and tidy, rows of Soave-valley grapes, nestled in low hills. Colourful small towns, and hamlets, also inhabit the scene; their terracotta tiled roofs dotted between the greens of cypress, olive and vine. Church steeples pierce the sky and I am drawn to their melodic tunes, a familiar signature of the small-town Italy that I love.

It is late on a Sunday morning and as we suspend our conversation for a quiet interlude, church bells peal lyrically across the valley, drifting up to our perch on the hillside. Weaving with birdsong, they are the soundtrack to this weekend’s olive harvest.

Carolyn, a Washingtonian, long-happily settled in her husband’s homeland, had kept me updated on which weekend the olive harvest would take place.

“It’s now the 13th and 14th,” she had written while we were in Italy last month. “The olives will be ready then.” And indeed, that was the date set for all of the surrounding community… the olive harvesting weekend had been declared!

Carolyn, Paolo, their son Leo, and Fly the basset hound, had arrived the day before from their main residence in the South Tyrol, close to the Austrian border. This country home offers a gracious, pastoral counterpoint to their home in the Italian Alps.

“The first time we looked at the centuries-old farm house we knew it was special,” Paolo told me the evening before as we chatted over a drink at our hotel, just a picturesque meander along a small windy road from their casa.

“You’ll see tomorrow,” he had said, “our house is on the end of a row, so we have a view. But it needed work, everyone told us to walk away. And we did, for a year.”

The fondness Carolyn also feels for her country place was clear to see. “A year later, we revisited it and the owner was clever. He implored us to stay overnight and that was it. I fell in love with the bedroom!”

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This morning, before we start our day of harvesting, Carolyn tours me through their home and I understand it all perfectly. The old stone, wood and bright colours, blend to a cozy mix of rustic and modern. And yes, the bedroom is a haven. The shutters are flung open… to the sky and to the gorgeous vista, and to a pomegranate tree. All… just there, a live mural, as beautiful as my favourite Boticelli or Michelangelo. Oh yes, I could easily imagine waking up to this living canvas.

But allore, it is time to start picking and with bags tied with rope around our waists, we happily join the family harvest. We pluck and gently glide the olives off their branches. We reach high and low, between and around, sometimes kneeling and then on our tip-toes, low on the ground and high above. Eight year-old Leo is still light and nimble enough to perch himself on the more stable branches… perfect for those elusive olea europaeas.

Time after time as our waist-cinched bags become laden with the colourful drupes (pitted fruit), Leo ferries each trove to the crates. They are laid out along the aged stones at the back entry of the home and slowly fill up, hour by hour. Neighbours, Roberta and Diana, are also busy on their plot of land just above us. Their home is also a country retreat and has been in the family for generations. Like our hosts, their passion for harvesting is evident, as is their fondness for Carolyn and Paolo.

“We’re so happy this family is our neighbours,” they reveal gladly. I notice Roberta is wearing a t-shirt that reads… If you can’t get where you’re going – you may be there. The adage mirrors the inspiring signs that Carolyn has dotted around the property. They too play their part in the charming setting; as do the hammocks, Leo’s tree house, the roses and the profuse persimmon tree.

The scenes, the sounds, the scents suffuse into one; affirming my love of travelling, the wonder and joy of it, each experience a fond gem that I tuck away in my treasure chest of travel. So too, is this opportunity to spend quality time with a friend in a unique setting – sharing and discussing our future plans as we move from tree to tree. It is also the chance to be an actor in Italian life, to be part of an annual ritual rather than the habitual spectator as a traveller. When I notice Paolo and Bruce laying on their backs, cocooned under the silvery branches ensuring not one precious olive is left lonely on the trees, I know this too is bringing sheer satisfaction to my travel companion – and also the chance to work off some pasta-fed calories, a result of our indulgent pleasures over the weeks-long meandering trip.

But Paolo ensures that this day won’t be any different and has hung up his picker’s ‘basket’ to don his chef’s apron. His weekend culinary hobby is far removed from the demands of his doctor’s responsibilities, and we’re soon called into the house for a delicious late lunch. I contribute a bottle of excellent Slovenian wine that I had squirrelled away just for this occasion and with the door wide open to the occasional tolling of bells, we sit down to:

Feast a la Paolo~ Primo: Spagehetti alle vongole. Secondo: Polenta, funghi, e formaggio Asiago. And a side dish (Contorno) of a Melanzane alla pizzaiola… all of it simply delizioso!

Over this perfect Italian style lunch, I ask the family why the olive harvest is so special.

“It’s the expectation, the hope, that you helped something thrive. With no chemicals, its personal and kind of soothing,” Paolo explains.

“It’s so satisfying to put something on your table that you grew, something so healthy,” Carolyn adds. “It’s like honesty in a bottle.”

“I love that, very fitting. It’s so wonderful to be part of this day,” I say dreamily, savouring the food, the wine, the setting, the conversation… divine, all of it!

Yet, so busy is this olive harvesting time that we can’t luxuriate too long as the ‘sacred’ appointment for pressing the olives is near. ‘Don’t be late, but don’t be early,’ seemed to be the key and we realized it was almost the optimal time for departure. But with ten minutes still, before we leave for the pressing, Paolo and Bruce once again set upon an olive tree that had not quite been picked clean. They go about their task with renewed vigour, eager to boost the yield by a few precious kilos, knowing that what remained on the trees would wither on the branch.

My mind wanders just for a second… Yes, I can imagine our very own Italian getaway, with olives, maybe a small vineyard, even a dog, and…

“You’re going to love this next phase,” Carolyn is telling me. I’m pulled away from my daydream. It is time for the main event!

From the hilltop of Castelcerino, every road leads downward and with our precious loads of olives safely stowed, our small procession of cars wend along the narrow hillside roads, down through olive groves and vineyards to the little town of Cazzano di Tramigna.

The Frantoio per Olive, the olive pressing factory, was unimposing and familial, a pastel-shaded building set just off the main street alongside a stream and small lagoon. Bruce and I, novices to this process, allow ourselves to be guided by the others who despite having done this many times before, seem to have a sense of excitement and occasion.

The weighing arrangements for their respective loads is discussed with Roberta and Diana, then we all watch with anticipation as Paolo and Carolyn’s pallet container is forklifted onto the scale. Paolo looks pleased – it’s tanto, much! Twice the yield of past years and we’re secretly delighted that we had a hand in this record haul.

Roberta and Diana have even greater cause for celebration – arm-scratched, weary yet elated from four arduous days of harvesting, they’ve reaped over half a tonne of olives, testament to their pruning and nurturing over the past year.

The pressing equipment is neat and economical, clean and freshly painted in an appropriate shade of hunter’s green. We watch in fascination as the olives are tipped into the hopper, first the wash and separation of stray leaves and grit, green olives and black, all sizes and varieties mingling in the process before disappearing into the mulcher. Olives and pits are macerated, resulting in a brown mush that ultimately joins the growing mound outside of the building.

We follow the grapes from beginning to end, savouring the already olivine odours infusing the small, but bustling factory. There is anticipation in the air as we watch the Fattoio operatives expertly moving around the equipment, sure in the knowledge of whose olives were where in the process, small cards with the family name of the olives perch on one of the machines as reminders. No drama or fuss, they work with a well-practiced rhythm amongst the noise, and with the olive patrons literally waiting for the ‘fruit of their labour’… in liquid form, of course.

In fact, the factory rather resembles a waiting room, complete with that particular shade of green and a row of metal chairs. But the collection of family containers awaiting this year’s harvest sets it apart. Bulbous glass demijohns, tall stainless-steel jugs and common plastic vessels all await their turn – the family name clearly indicated.

We’re nearing the two-hour mark. We’ve had a delightful peek around the town. We’ve stopped to admire the old, traditional olive press. We’ve enjoyed a glass of celebratory vino overlooking the gentle lagoon, a hilltop castle peering down on us all.

Now, finally, it’s our turn. We take our front-row seats opposite the crusher in time for ‘our’ olive oil to pour forth into the containers; it’s luminous green, forming an artful gush from the stainless-steel spout, about 120 litres of cold pressed, organic extra-virgin olive oil from the hills of Castelcerino. Looks of satisfaction are worn by all; they’ve waited all year for this.

Bruce and I marvel that such a seemingly simple process of picking and packing and pressing can feel so rewarding and fulfilling; and we’ve only helped. We understand the sheer satisfaction of how it must feel to our friends, but then again, it isn’t that surprising – it’s all about communing with each other, with the land, with a treasured Italian ritual.

Yes, Carolyn had mentioned this too while we lunched. “Watching Leo grow into this, to give him this ritual is wonderful. He’s taking ownership. It’s his land too.”

As we load the hefty loads of olive oil into the cars, Leo has the final word.

“I just like the picking,” he says with a ring of innocence and delightful exuberance.

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Thirteen hours in Pisa… my passion for Italy

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Pisa Airport, named for Galileo Galilei, greets me like a fond friend. Just as it did six years ago, that very first time I arrived to attend a writer’s retreat, the long narrow concourse has a happy vibe to it. It makes perfect sense considering that it is one of the main gateways to Tuscany – to sunshine and stunning vistas, to that laid-back Tuscan way of living. I notice the abundance of sandals, summer dresses and sun-kissed smiles, both satisfied and expectant.

The Machiavelli leather shop is bustling and I remember how immediately enticing it was on my first visit; soft muted colours of the supplest leather beckoning the newly arrived. Leather is my particular weakness here – every imaginable shade and design, but this time I know to leave the browsing to the many leather shops in Pisa itself.

So, I do the Italian thing and head straight to the espresso cafe with its long, curved marble bar. For most it’s a fleeting visit – we ‘locals’ know it costs more to sit, so one stands, for maybe three minutes at most, tipping back steaming double-thimbles of espresso. Then a swift farewell and a few coins for the server – Ciao, arrividerci!

I linger a little, taking in the chatter amid the clatter of cups and saucers, breathing in the sharp wafts of rich espresso, taking in the comings and goings of locals and tourists. Exiting the airport to hail a taxi, the balmy Tuscan air and terracotta pots of soft pink oleanders greet me. I’m ebullient, I’m ‘home.’

Many people have that one cherished place they return to, that special place of relaxation, refuge and rejuvenation – for me, it’s Italy. This may be my eighth visit, but I’m no longer counting and even before I leave, I’m already plotting my return. What do I love about it? Actually, just about everything.

I love how the Tuscan sun plays on ochre stone walls and on the fortress-like Renaissance tower houses… look up, high up, and you’ll see frescoes telling their stories still, evoking a rich historical past. I’m awed by the weight of history along and under Rome’s ancient streets, the romantic waterways of Venice, the grandeur of Vienna-like Trieste in the north and its dazzling position on the Italian Riviera, the evocative Cinque Terre…

And I adore the trattorias, rustic neighbourhood restaurants with their checkered table cloths, delicious pasta and wines from local vineyards that never make it into a corked bottle; perhaps just a well-worn, wicker encased carafe. Perfect for long lunches with friends.

I’m captivated by the constant parade of shutters in every possible shade of green. I wait for the bells that peal throughout the day, giving even the smallest of towns their lyrical backdrop for everyday life. The tolling of bells has traditionally not only been for their rhythmic serenade, but also to call locals to church, to beckon town folk from slumber, to remind to return to work in the fields, even to warn of intruders or impending disasters.

In Italy, I love unhurried train journeys wending through glorious countryside, the sensuous lyrical language, terracotta pots arrayed on aged flagstone, and the gentle rhythm of Italy’s rural life.

On this visit, my month-long trip begins with the writer’s retreat where I’ll be ensconced for six days with old and new friends. But first, I have thirteen glorious hours in Pisa… a rendezvous, an opportunity to reconnect.

I stay just a long stone’s throw from that tower that leans. It is late afternoon and after a journey that was much longer than it should have been (including three static hours on the Montreal tarmac in a faulty plane), I now throw open the tall window sashes of my inn, once an old tower home, and, as if on cue, I’m greeted with ringing bells. I know they’re from the nearby campanile and as always they are music to my ears. Surely, they’re calling out a welcome for my return!

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After a quick shower to wash away the jet lag, I walk barely two blocks through the tall, ivy sprawled stone gate of Pisa’s imposing old city walls. The familiar scene I know and love unfolds before me. The Piazza dei Miracoli, Square of Miracles, is considered one of the finest architectural complexes in the world; the Pisa Cathedral and Baptistry, and of course that tower that has ever such a tilt. The Leaning Tower is the campanile, the bell tower and naturally, it was never meant to lean.

In fact, due to inadequate foundation, the tower began subsiding during its IMG_9066construction in the 1100’s. Building of the flawed design was halted for a century while the Republic of Pisa engaged in battles with Genoa, Florence and Lucca. The lean increased over its decades-long construction and despite many attempts to right it, the Romanesque-style tower with its seven hefty bells, still leans at an angle of almost 4 degrees.

I admire the tower along with a multitude of tourists, but it’s really the side streets of Pisa that draw me. Strolling from the Piazza along the ‘main street’ of Santa Maria, I instinctively look up. I’m less interested in the scenes on the street level where people are dining, enjoying a glass of wine or yes shopping in those fabulous stores brimming with leather. No, it’s the view above eye level that reveal their vivid tales. I wander street after street, veering away from the tourist haunts, delighting in navigating this labyrinth of history.

The tall tower houses, artistic and architectural jewels, were the homes of noble families, mostly built during the middle ages. The torre case were built inside the city walls for defensive purposes, those soaring higher marking the more affluent and influential families. It was not only Pisa where these towers inscribed the Tuscan skies, but also Florence, Sienna, Lucca, and my personal favourite, San Gimignano.

Along with the towers, grand palazzos and trattorias, I pass small long-standing businesses so essential to the Tuscan way of life. And do their names not roll off the tongue like a wonderful symphony – spaghetteria, yogurteria, pasticceria, paineria, gelateria, Liberia, and the essential vineria.

The evening sun is glinting beautifully on the Piazza Dei Cavalieri, or Knight’s Square, as I amble to this quiet landmark. I know that this was once the political center of medieval Pisa, and later the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen. In 1558, the square was rebuilt in Renaissance style by Vasari, the talented architect of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I de’ Medici. Medici’s statue looks over the square, framed by two magnificent Palazzos and the charming church of Saint Sebastian.

I’m distracted by strains of music that draw me to the steps of the church. I meet two university students, Oswaldo and Alexandra, as they serenade the evening strollers. This evening ritual of passeggiata is quintessentially Italian – a gentle, languid stroll through the piazzas, the vias, in the countryside, or along the sea-front. A pastime enjoyed by all ages – some fresh air, the chance to see and be seen, perhaps a stop at the gelateria or vineria.

I perch myself on the church steps beside the two musicians  savouring their Spanish love song, delighting in the fading sun dancing on fine Italian marble. I take in the strollers, the buildings and all that I love.

Allore, it was the perfect beginning to this month in Italy, and prelude to a planned visit to Slovenia. But that’s a story for a time soon…

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A Canadian book launch… a prairie, farm-house setting

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Picture a long ranch-style bungalow, tucked behind pine trees, once small saplings, now towering tall to meet the wide-open prairie sky. Imagine a place where the deer and the antelope really do play, and where the stillness of the night might be broken by the hoot of an owl under a splendid moon. This is my parent’s home.

A place imbued with support, with love, with familiarity around its welcoming kitchen table and oft blazing fireplace. A home that has hosted a passel of occasions from weddings to dog memorials, from reunions to rambunctious all-night family game nights. Now, it can add a book launch to its long tapestry of life’s occasions.

Monday Morning Emails had already been launched in India and The Netherlands, yet now that I’m home, it was time for me to debut my first published book.

 

I cherished the enthusiasm when I heard that my mom and some friends had planned the event. A cake was commissioned, table clothes and napkins were procured in that MME turquoise, blue-green. Old storied suitcases were dusted off from storage, bringing to life the vintage image on the book’s cover.

It all set the tone. This was a celebration of not only a book, but also of story telling by a once small-town girl. No, perhaps it isn’t every day that a book launch is held at a prairie- farm-house setting, yet it felt very normal, quite natural, that the Campbell Farm would be the venue of choice.

As people arrived, I knew it had been the right decision to gather here rather than in a hired venue. I greeted aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom I had not seen in years. It was wonderful seeing them again, confirming that the bond of family transcends prolonged absences brought on by distance and busy lives.

Long-time friends also arrived, those who knew me long before I had ventured off to travel and live overseas. They remember me as that freckle-faced teenager whom they camped and played softball with, whose wedding they attended, then welcomed me home with each new child in tow. That history runs deep, forming family-like bonds.

Carol, my long-time friend and an early muse for my nomadic life, was also able to join the celebration. “Terry,” she reassured me, “this book isn’t only for expats, it really does resonate with us all.”

And Aundy, my sister-in-law, was profuse in her praise of the expert advice in the book, “I seem to turn to the page with just the right quote I need to inspire me,” she confided.

My niece Jess, a young mother raising a daughter on her own, seemed intrigued to listen to a few nuggets of inspiration from her Auntie Terry. And her daughter, my adorable great-niece was delighted to have her very own copy of the book. She’s only four and it will be tucked away in a cedar chest until she’s old enough to appreciate the essence and emotion of the correspondence between two friends living a global life.

To my surprise, Aundy also requested a second copy of the book. One to hide away for posterity, perhaps for family members to rediscover in later years. A moment like this impacts you as an author. You cherish such a gesture and you hope also that your words might have a lasting impact.

 

As I began my presentation, I gazed appreciatively over the crowd. I felt their warm embrace of support as I described my journey as a writer. The joys, the challenges, the meandering road of discovery and evolving as a person; the ‘climbing of a mountain’, each step bringing you a little closer to realising your dream. I also spoke to the cathartic nature of writing, to the soul searching, to the healing it can bring. I know that sharing through writing can offer solace and comfort.

I spoke at length and from the heart, taking time for book signing, eager to spend a few minutes chatting. As I wrote a personal message to each, their kind words and encouragement cast a warm glow on the already special day.

“What will you write next. Maybe historical fiction?” someone asked. As if they already knew that the idea has been roaming around my mind; characters waiting to come to life, to play their part in faraway tales.

“Will you put some of your blogs into a book?” Myrna, a long-time family friend asked. Her enthusiasm and commitment to my writing are like a treasured book – you know it’s there to call on for inspiration, to remind you of why you do what you do. I explained to Myrna and a few others that there are times when I question the relevance of my blog. No, it isn’t often, but when the news of this world seems overwhelming, one can question if your own stories are relevant, are they not merely trivial?

 

“No,” they assured me, “this is especially when we need your writing. To remind us of life and what is important, even of simpler things.”

Surely I’m not the only writer who questions the relevance of one’s stories, who suffers from occasional writer’s block, who ponders the significance of their humble words? But it is conversations like these that ignite and reinforce within me that storytelling is intrinsic to human societies. It has been thus, since the beginning, and in this age of short form news and seemingly limited attention spans, is it not ever-important to keep telling stories?

During these exchanges, I was mindful. Mindful that these people who I care about, have their own challenges, maybe sorrows, their own life-changing events that far supersede my often-supposed hardships. This leads to other questions.

“Will you come and speak at a home for the elderly? Perhaps a writing workshop?”

I answered with a resounding ‘yes’. I had explained in my presentation the satisfaction of having already hosted a workshop and the joy of knowing you might have inspired a new writer. That is now part of my mission, to ‘pay it forward’. My inspiration and mentor, my co-author Jo Parfitt, is proof of the power of helping others, willingly sharing what you know to help inspire others.

Six years ago, my journey began in Tuscany, and when I confided to the gathering that in fact, in just a few days I would be there once again, ensconced in that same retreat with Jo at the helm, they seemed genuinely pleased for me.

“Yes, it will be full circle,” I told them. “I know how lucky I am and I’m thankful. Let’s see what I’m inspired to do next.”

And then another thought from my nephew Todd.

“Why not a podcast, Auntie Terry Anne? I’m a podcast guy.” The thought of other mediums has long crossed my mind and I’m reminded of the necessity of a fixed schedule, of goals and of making sure those next dreams do indeed come true.

And if anyone can inspire me to do just that, it’s one of my dear, dear readers, the lovely Donna Lee. Even in her later years, she exudes beauty both inside and out. She is charming and full of life. When I told Donna Lee that I speak of her in one of my presentations, her eyes fill with tears.

IMG_9241“What do you say?” she asked, not suppressing her bemusement.

“I relate the power of sharing stories, Donna Lee. Remember, after my blog about the Taj Mahal, that you wrote to me. You told me how the post seemed to take you there, through words and photos. You mentioned how you remembered learning about the Taj in school and how wonderful it was that you knew someone who had been there.” As Donna Lee often does when we talk, she took my hand in hers.

“That’s why I write,” I continued, “to hope to transport you and others to those new places, to hear different tales. Thank you so much for coming along with me,” I told her. “I know you’re always reading and it means the world.” And as always, we hugged.

“And I don’t know what I’d do without your mom and dad,” she added, confirming what I already knew, but maybe what I needed to be reminded of again – that special feeling of sharing your successes with those who care about you.

At the end of the evening, as the cake had been cut, as flowers had been presented to my mom for her unwavering support, as my husband/editor/travel companion/long-time cheerleader had been thanked for his role in my small journey, as the stack of Monday Morning Emails dwindled, as each farewell hug was heartier than the previous, I thanked ‘my lucky stars’ for the day, for the joy of my ‘tribe’ here at home.

And I gave Donna Lee a final fond farewell. “I hope to see you soon Donna Lee. But first there’s Tuscany… you’ll be travelling with me again in spirit. Tuscany, here we come!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the ‘notes’ archives… Bangkok, my early beginnings

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The shimmering palaces were showing off, bidding me a fond farewell, perhaps sensing that I might not soon return to this ‘city of angels.’ As the river boat cruised along Bangkok’s murky Chao Phrya River, magnificent wats dazzled in the humid evening air. It was the last day of my visit and surely this was an architectural parade – a parade of  ornate, timeless treasures. It transported me back to the beginning of it all.

A world away from the small Canadian town of my childhood, I marvelled silently that Bangkok is entwined with some of my life’s defining moments.

My first visit here as a wide-eyed twenty-one year old was my first to the Far East. Here, I fell in love with everything Asian; exotic palm trees, sensual orchids, pungent aromas of street side kitchens pervading the sultry air that corkscrewed my wayward hair. Yet, nothing hinted that a few short years later, I would embark on a lifelong adventure of travelling and living overseas.

I couldn’t have known that one day I’d live just a short flight away in India, but I’m sure the thought would have thrilled me. This rich and varied world had long staked a claim on my wanderlust soul.

As a teenager in our small home, the living room’s burnt-orange, shag carpet was a comfortable place to lounge — to leaf through National Geographic magazines and hefty encyclopaedias that fuelled my imagination. Often I would have waited, not-so-patiently, for the next volume to arrive. Long before the internet, we received these treasured books on a monthly instalment plan… a long wait for ‘T’ to read about Tibet or Thailand!

When I was seventeen, a high school trip to Italy introduced me to that world and conspired to change the course of my life. More precisely, it was Michelangelo’s statue of David that was the true culprit. When I stood in awe, in front of his imposing marbled presence in Florence, it ignited something deep inside. I wanted that beauty, that history and the rich cultures of the world to be part of my future. I was captivated.

After college, my first step was a move to the ‘big city’. With my ’77 Camaro stuffed to capacity, I drove out of town late one Sunday morning, through a landscape of honey-hued wheat and yellow canola fields, the Rockies framing the vista. Three hours north, shimmering in the August haze, the skyscrapers of downtown Calgary came into view. I had arrived to… well, the rest of my life.

IMG_4059With a job already secured, my mom had arranged for me to live with the daughter of a friend of hers. They had curled together for some 25 years and surely we would also get along? That first image of Carol’s apartment is etched in memory. Cushions from faraway Asian on the sofa, Lonely Planet travel guides on a pretty wicker shelf, backpack stowed away in a corner. Carol was my good fortune – not only was she a traveller, she was also a jewellery and clothes importer. And her buying trips were to none other than Bangkok. Naturally, it wasn’t long before I eagerly accompanied her on one of these excursions.

Now, thirty years on, Carol and I were here again. Still an importer, she visits yearly for buying trips and earlier this year before the launch of Monday Morning Emails, I decided to meet her in Bangkok. It was a quick jaunt from Bangalore and knowing she was there was too much to resist. We were excited to peek into our past and rekindle a little of our youthful wonder of old Siam.

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From the Archives

In the ’80’s, Thailand and Nepal were a must on the backpacking route… today it’s more often Vietnam and Cambodia. Carol and I both knew that much of Bangkok had been transformed, propelled forward and wrapped in modernity. An efficient metro now traverses the city, skimming past gleaming high-rise buildings and gorgeous shopping malls. We wandered through them in animated conversation but, by the third day, I pleaded that I needed to see ‘real’ Bangkok. The Bangkok of royal palaces and temples, of back-packers’ alleys and cheap elephant-print harem pants, of roadside phad thai stalls, of long-tail river taxis and three-wheeled tuk-tuks. And yes, even of our old ‘haunt’ the Royal Hotel.

So we made our way to a river taxi halt along a klong. The klang, klang of a metal spatula on a family-sized wok rang out from a humble diner on the water-side station. The waft of sizzling noodles mingled with the diesel fumes of the river boats. Yes, this was the Bangkok of old.

’Board, board,” a conductor rushed us onto the longboat as it skimmed the gangplank in a momentary whistle-stop. At once we were gliding through narrow canals. Humble homes perched on stilts. Rickety walkways joined close-knit communities. Sarongs hung to dry. Songbirds chirped from dainty bamboo cages. Potted orchids and frangipanis splashed colour against aged wooden framed homes. Modern-day Bangkok was gone in a flash, happily left behind in the wash of our boat’s propellor.

As the waves splashed over the edge of the long wooden boat, Carol and I smiled knowingly. Weaving through canals and along the river is how Thais traditionally travelled. From the King to the common person, these waterways are the true heart, the essence of the city.

We hopped off and ventured to a wat, into temple grounds, tiled and cooling, to architecture calming and spectacular; hues of green and red, and glittering gold. The temple was quiet, save for a saffron-robed Buddhist monk offering a homily against a murmuring backdrop of dreamlike incantations.  My senses are awakened and charmed, I embraced the temple’s ambiance as a cherished friend.

We played with a young toddler, on loan from his nanny. We laughed as we channeled our inner child. We reminisced.

And we were transported to simpler times – when there was little steel and glass beyond those walls, only the bustle and exuberance of 1980’s street scenes.

More poignant memories awaited at the iconic Royal Hotel. Carol and I walked the last few blocks along the wide boulevard that is Ratchadamnoen Avenue. Translating to ‘royal procession’, it was commissioned by King Chulalongkorn in 1897. It has the feel of a Champs-Elysees, grand and wide, designed for the pomp of royal parades.

When the Royal Hotel came into sight I was taken aback. Where it once looked so imposing and luxurious, its art-deco facade, although charming was surely diminished? I remembered it being so distinctive, so exotic. This hotel had been the first to welcome me to Asia, but now the scene that had played in my memory through the years was altered in an instant. I wondered if perhaps some things are best left to the treasured memory?

One of the last ‘old-style’ lodgings situated close to the Democracy monument, The Royal had been notorious as a shelter for political demonstrators and a first aid station during conflicts. But most of all, it was a haven for more discerning travellers and now as Carol and I perched across the avenue to take it all in, the change seems complete. It’s now on the mass tourist circuit.

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We watched busloads of tourists stream in and out. In those halcyon days it was for travellers with a little money, perhaps a respite before the next low-budget sojourn. A few nights break from the backpackers alleys, the grubby sheets and the too-thin walls.

Once inside, the lobby looked forlorn. Where were those rapturous bouquets of orchids in their delicate Thai pottery. Where was the buzz of travellers sharing stories and jotting down notes? The imposing carved wooden desk was still there, where it had always been.

“I can still picture the young lady who worked there. It was the travel desk,” Carol said wistfully. I too remembered that our overnight bus trip to Surat Thani was booked here – and our stay at a beach hut in Koh Samui. In the days before internet, one used the travel desk and after a day out, your tickets would be waiting for you when you returned.

“Miss Carol, Miss Terry Anneee. Tickets ready. S a w a d e e  k a,” I can almost hear her welcoming, lyrical voice.

The same wooden key drop is still at the front desk as is the post box from where we posted our letters home. In fact, it’s here that my love affair with stationary began. The hotel’s pretty purple letterhead enticed me to start collecting and I’ve done so ever since.

We peeked through the property noting the charming retro architectural features, a little Thai, a little European – all conspiring to its erstwhile grandness.

 

 

We ventured up the spiral staircase and outside to the swimming pool. This is where we would have luxuriated after a day of traipsing, sightseeing, and plying the city markets.

“Ah it was fun. It was amazing,” we both conceded with faraway gazes. Maybe it didn’t ‘sparkle’ quite as my memory had conjured, but the pool at the Royal is also where I spent the day, five years later, before I went to the airport to pick up my mother. I had not seen her for almost a year and I was thrilled to welcome her to Bangkok. At that point, a six month backpacking trip had elapsed and I was living in Japan. I was excited to confide to her that I was about to become engaged. Yes, for this is also where a certain young Scotsman had joined me to travel before that backpacking trip.

“Carol, this is where I was when he arrived,” I said, pointing to a lounger. “Just here I think.” Allowing a backward daydream of Bruce arriving, leather backpack thrown over his strong swimmer’s shoulders, I remembered that moment when he had indeed shown up to travel despite our relationship still rather ‘undefined’. A period of dating had ensued nine months previous. He had arrived in Calgary after having worked in Africa, his plan to travel through North America slightly derailed. Working and meeting that person that just might be the one of your dreams can do that – our young romance blossomed, yet my goal was still to travel.

I had been saving for years for this backpacking adventure. Then with the money finally in place,  I had given up my job, my apartment and bought a one-way ticket to Asia. With my hopes and dreams stuffed into a 55 litre backpack, Bruce persisted.

“Can I meet you in Bangkok, travel with you for a few months?” he had asked a few months prior to me leaving.

I had said yes. It was meant to be for just two months – we’re still travelling today.

Carol and I bid farewell to the Royal, convinced it would be the last time we saw it. We wandered through back streets where simple, daily life was in full swing. Dogs lazed and recycling was collected. Foot massages were offered along the canal-side, animated conversations spiced the outdoor cafes. In these streets, the Thai smile was still given with warmth and ease, genuine and welcoming.

 

 

 

 

We tuk-tuked it to nearby Khao San Road. The backpacker’s haven has been spruced but still alive with the vibrant coming and going of travellers; seeking an adventure, an experience, maybe an escape from the ordinary… just as I had eagerly done.

Carol and I ordered a tall Singha. “Cheers! To the past, to the future, to friendship.” We clinked our glasses. We talked. We people watched. Wonderfully, some things never change.

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The breathtaking Bugaboos… a welcome home to a ‘cathedral in the sky’

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I’m now in Canada, dear readers, and I apologise for my absence from these pages. Through my last blogs, you’ll know we left our Indian home of two years. We travelled through Greece, Scotland and England, then a two-month stay in The Netherlands, before finally, beautiful British Columbia greeted us. It was as if our dear mountain home sighed with relief, “Ah, you’ve finally returned.’ It had been nine months.

So, we’re home, perhaps to live (to be decided) but nonetheless, the transition of almost thirty years overseas and now having one address is ongoing. You can read more at Monday Morning Musings.

IMG_8897Call it a welcome home or an initiation back to Canada, recently I was enticed into an overnight hike. Really, it was into a wonderland of chiselled granite at 2230 meters, into a rapture of beauty. It was a profound privilege, yet, it had to be earned.

The world acclaimed Bugaboos are at our doorstep, a range within the great Purcell Mountains – the Rockies are just across the valley. We joined many others who journey from around the world to hike and take on some serious climbing. My hiking partners promised that I would manage the ascent, but as is often the case, I’m the weakest link… the little engine that ‘hopefully can’.

The hike’s end point was to a hut that has seemingly been dropped from the heavens onto a granite outcrop. Flanked by a glacier and granite spires piercing the clouds, the Conrad Kain hut will take us about four hours to reach. A little nervous, I comfort myself with my badge of honour; that eleven-day hike back in the day to the base camp of Annapurna in the Himalayas. There have been many hikes since, but gazing up to this ‘hut in the sky,’ it seems a little formidable.

It begins easily enough, a gentle meander through aged forest and feathery ferns, past dainty wildflowers and lush meadows. That pleasant amble gives no indication of what will soon be asked of us. To tread carefully along steep granite steps and narrow edges. To grip chains for safety and ladder up a boulder. To climb higher and higher, the small green dot of the Kain hut ever-looming in the distance to encourage our progress.

We break in much needed shade for lunch, a carpet of pine needles and knobbly tree roots our bench. We chat with other hikers and guides who encourage their charges up the mountain.

Our unofficial guide is friend and neighbour, John Parker. John exudes calm encouragement, yet there is a task at hand and there isn’t time for idle dallying. But then, this was John’s work and his passion, the commitment to his lifelong career shows as he leads a steady way. “You’re doing great,” “Take small steps on the steep ascents”, he encourages me. By the fourth hour of the hike, I need all the inspiration I can muster.

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My legs are seizing up. My back is aching. Thankfully, my breathing isn’t as bad as I feared, but I am now w i l l i n g each step, hoping for the end. And then, as if nature senses that it’s time, one of the most glorious views reveals itself. A meadow of wild flowers opens up, a crystal-clear melt-water torrent rushes from the glacier, and we cross a simple metal bridge to the final climb to the Conrad Kain hut. Without a doubt, it is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Anywhere.

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Perched on a granite prominence, the hut with its green arched roof contrasts with its backdrop of glaciers, vast fields of ice, rugged and cracked, harbouring crevasses of the deepest cobalt blue. The hut and the enveloping landscape beckons me as I trudge up the final metres. It seems to say, “You’ve made it, welcome!”

The four of us unburden ourselves of our packs, add our climbing poles to the collection already outside the hut, and hug each other. “Well done, Terry Anne. You’ve achieved this,” John congratulates me. Sonya and Bruce do as well, and I admit to feeling like a school girl who has gained some respect from her teacher. Later that evening, I’ll hear more about John’s students and his career, but first we take in the buzz of the hut.

We’ll join about thirty other people who will spend the night on mattresses lined edge to edge over two upper floors. Sleeping bags claim their spots. But it won’t be a quiet night, what with the snores of exhausted climbers or 2 am alarms set for pre-sunrise departures for distant climbs. Head lamps light the way, for many early trekkers, the hut a staging point for serious climbers. Ropes are wound, helmets wait at the ready, crampons packed, quick-draws checked and counted, ice picks hang nearby.

The communal dining room, with its million-dollar view, is a place for sharing climbing stories and discussing routes, for reading and games, and replenishing weary bodies with freeze dried food. Though wonderfully, Bruce and Sonya on cooking duty would out do themselves – our dinner and breakfast warmed in the hut’s vast kitchen was just what my weary body needed.

Happily, it’s happy-hour, Sonya and I retreat to the side of the hut, exhausted but gleeful. A tin of glacier-chilled wine is our reward… and of course, that view. Surely, Conrad Kain would approve of his eponymous mountain abode. They say that Kain brought glamour and imagination into the sport of mountaineering as few guides had before him.

For nearly thirty years, the Austrian born guide, saw peaks as the personification of  beauty, as living entities to climb – firstly in Europe, then New Zealand and Canada. With his short, stocky stature, the climber achieved more than sixty first ascents, including the Bugaboo Spire in 1916 which now presides over us and the lesser spires like a grand citadel.

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We exhilarate in this cathedral of nature, and while Bruce and John hike upwards to the Applebee camp for a closer view of the ‘citadel’, Sonya and I stay put, entranced by the view. I recall what I had read of Conrad Kain. He eventually settled nearby, largely earning his living as a trapper, a hunting guide and an outfitter. His passion for communing with nature was steadfast. Kain once wrote, “Life is so short, and I think one should make a good time of it if one can. The only thing I enjoy now is Nature, especially spring in the mountains, and letters from friends. Sometimes I think I have seen too much for a poor man.”

Apparently Kain’s principles kept him poorer than he might have been and despite his achievements he sought no fame. With a grateful look across a beautiful alpine scene, he was known to have remarked, “It occurred to me that after all I was a rich man, even if I had no money.”

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I feel that now. The sheer beauty of this view is truly priceless. And somehow, it’s all that much more special because of the effort invested in reaching it. As I watch climbers trek off to the campground, a rainbow of tents pitched on a natural rock plateau, and as others ready their gear, I understand this world a little more. I now appreciate why one of our sons and his girlfriend are passionate about hiking and climbing. I more easily see why, when my husband and another son came back from trekking in Nepal a number of months ago, Bruce remarked, “It’s the sheer uplift of the soul… being part of primal wilderness.”

A few hours later we linger over our well-earned dinner that we had packed up the mountain. I ask John more about his career, surely a celebration of the great outdoors, as he helped design the curriculum for Outdoor Education Ontario, in his particular school. It offered high school students the opportunity to grow, to learn self-reliance, to move out of their comfort zone through outdoor pursuits.

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John Parker

“It might have been rock climbing, hiking, wayfinding, canoeing, winter camping or Nordic skiing. They learned confidence and independence. But I had hoops they had to jump through to earn their place on these trips; they were real achievements.”

John relates the life-changing impact the program had on students, the passion he still feels as a retiree is clear. “Years later, I’ve had calls from former students wanting me to know that I inspired them to become teachers themselves. They’ve told me how the program turned their life around. You really bond when you’re in the wilderness, barriers drop and kids confide in you. And I made them journal their experiences for self-reflection.”

As we listen to John reflect, I can’t imagine there isn’t one of us that doesn’t wish our children had been part of an outdoor education program. Our sons were avid sportsmen and yes, we were often outdoors, but studies show there is something intrinsic and vital about the connection, the challenges, and the healing of nature.

It’s still light outside at 2200 meters and as much I’d love to stay awake to watch the moon rise over the whites of the glacier and the grand citadel, it’s difficult to keep my eyes open. It’s only 9 pm.

The door opens and in bursts a climber, “Ah you’re back,” someone at the table exclaims in a German accent.

“It was awesome, been out for 25 hours straight,” the climber says. He’s draped with ropes and his tired but satisfied smile speaks volumes.

I say goodnight to my own climbing buddies, but realize I have just one more question for John.

“Did your students call you Mr. Parker on these trips, in those outdoor classrooms?”

John answered me in his usual charming, warm tone. “No, I was usually J.P.”

“Ok, J.P, thanks for the day and leading the way… just amazing!”

I don’t yet know, that descending tomorrow will be even worse than the climb. That I’ll take a tumble and that once I’m down the mountain I’ll gaze back up at it in awe. Already missing its serene and hallowed place.

But for now, my aching legs climb the ladder to the loft and slip into the cocoon of my sleeping bag, joining the long rows of sated guests. But still no sight of the moon – only a glacier and a glorious granite spire to lull me to sleep. It takes about two minutes.

Like those students of J.P’s, I feel a sense of achievement and fulfilment. Even though I had stepped out of my comfort zone, through this hike I have re-discovered what it means to be… home.

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*Where The Clouds Can Go, by Conrad Kain, first published in 1935, is meant to be a very good read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letting it flow… snippets of writing the day away

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The wind and cloudy skies have dampened the mood of the city today, yet it’s been an inspiring Friday thus far. Sitting in a cozy cafe close to the elegant Denneweg, I muse on the creative day that has been.

My co-author of Monday Morning Emails Jo Parfitt is away, and so I stepped up to host her monthly Writer’s Circle. It is only next door after all, my solid hunter-green door just a few steps away from her lovely Den Haag home. I arrived first, greeting familiar faces and a few new arrivals– writers bond quickly, a shared love of words and stories connecting us as snugly as well-bound novel.

A writer’s circle or workshop often warms up with a ‘speed writing’ session, putting pen to paper for ten minutes… your free flowing thoughts, loves, despairs, perhaps challenges, and hopefully some joys, are prompted to flow forth. Today I decided to give the exercise a slight twist. In that curiously circular way, I was inspired by a friend’s blog that was in turn inspired by a virtual writer’s circle held by Jo. In her blog Up In the Air, Nikki Cornfield had reminded us of how enlightening it can be to write of the seemingly mundane,

“Easy, I thought, but being a writer where’s the fun in telling you “I fed the dog” or “I brewed some tea?” That’s when I paused and took a real hard look at what there was to love about the place I lived. It took some doing as it was a pretty dull weekend, but I like to paint a picture with words so here we go… look around you, smell the roses, as there is real beauty even in the humdrum. I will never look at hanging out the washing in quite the same way again…”

And so this morning we let it flow, breathing life into vignettes of everyday happenings – cleaning up after the dog and stopping to reflect the stages in life it had faithfully witnessed with the passing years or donning a tour guide ‘hat’ for visitors or maybe the abrupt, loving appreciation of a town when one’s relocation is imminent. And who would imagine that tidying one’s ample stash of  knitting wool could bring comfort and a reflection on how precious life is after the loss of loved ones. We also enjoyed an ode to yoga, how the wonder of a class can embrace vitality and soften smiles, even for the teacher. The snippets were beautiful in their simplicity, but infused with raw emotion.

So here goes. As the clouds roll lazily over the somber Dutch sky, it is the perfect afternoon to write a few of my own snippets from the simple pleasures of our week passed.

 

Kayaking the canals of Den Haag

 

Then we were kayaking. The sleek, slender boat gliding and rustling the fields of water lilies – delicate vivid white petals against murky, pea-soup canals. Boats lined the waterways, some rather grand, but most were old peeled-paint affairs, their worn timber evoking the toil of fishermen and weathering of stormy seas. We glided through tunnels, ducking my head in sudden alarm at pigeons, and poop, avoiding fluttering wings and the mild stench.

Then out again into the brilliant sun. Paddling past fine tall houses, spires of heaven-reaching church towers, shaded tree-lined boulevards, and bikes and bikes aplenty. We passed ‘invitations’ to snack; a bell to ring for an ice cream to be delivered to your boat or maybe you’re in the mood for patat, french-fries lowered to water level in a basket. The pulley system works well, I’m taken by the simple novelty of it. On a sunny day after all, the waterways are often a place for making merry. If the sun shines, it’s great to be on the water!

“This is nice,” I said understatedly, turning to my kayaking partner with a smile. We’ve paddled the pristine lakes of Canada, the chilly fjords of Norway, now the narrow canals of The Netherlands… joy indeed!

 

Strolling and soaking it up… and new herring with Mom

 

She has always loved herring, the Dutch way; chopped onions over raw, slinky fish. Despite my Dutch heritage, I can’t bear them. But to Mom, it’s a delectable delight that awaits her return to the country of her childhood, like a fond friend.

The setting was the harbour of Scheveningen on a festival day. A day of marching and trumpeting bands, bright flags fluttering from ship’s rigging, vendors offering pancakes and poffertjes, old trinkets, porcelain blue and white, and of course that herring that cause for a festival.

Mom and I were lingering over this and that, when some lovely ladies caught our eye. They wore their beguiling baby blue capes and delicate bejewelled headdresses with pride and aplomb, tradition on display. No, they are not worn much these days, more for weddings, funerals and days like today the friendly locals related proudly to us. A day where vestiges of the past are showcased for posterity, celebrating Scheveningen’s proud fishing heritage. In fact today’s Vlaggetjedag (Flag Day) heralds the first herring catch of the season, traditionally presented to the King or Queen.

From one distraction to another, a drai orgal, a colourful traveling organ, chimed its merry tunes. The sound evoked a child’s ferris wheel, its lyrical melodies exuberant and hopeful. I could see memories flooding across mom’s eyes playing out scenes from her childhood. I imagined her as a ten year-old, in the days before she immigrated to a new land, dark curls bobbing as she skipped alongside the wondrous contraption. “A dubbeletje for your music Meneer!”

 

Delft and its master, the esteemed Vermeer

 

 

We take the tram to Delft. So easy. Jump on the tram not five minutes from the apartment, and twenty minutes later we alight in one of the loveliest small cities in the country. Wend through a narrow lane, over a tiny bridge or two, and before you lies such a pretty picture. And so timeless, had we perhaps stepped back into the scene of a Dutch masterpiece?

Tall gabled homes squeeze cozily wall to wall, like fine aged town folk, framing the generous main square over which they preside – the ever-so-tall church spire at one end, the ornate city hall at the other.

Church bells peal and chime a lyrical melody. Silken, adorned horses wait patiently rigged at the head of a carriage for touring. Bright waxen, yellow wheels of cheese stack neatly in the shop windows of the square. And blue and white porcelain too – of every imaginable size and function, arrayed to entice and please passing tourists.

It is all typically, wonderfully Dutch, perhaps what a visitor might expect and I channel this scene to indulge in a little time-travel; back to a certain citizen who lived his creative life along these cobbled streets. The great painter, Vermeer, captured the light and the people of this charming town in exquisite reality, portraying them in their own seemingly mundane tasks. He was one of the great Dutch masters. Yes Rembrandt, Hals and Van Gogh are also revered, but for me, it is Vermeer who inspires me to write.

Sunlight strains through brooding clouds, a play of light on stone and cobbles. Baristas deliver coffee flitting from table to table, some patrons now partaking of a late afternoon glass of wine. And still I linger, the light inspiring me to write of my favourite Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. I reflect on his life and works, and a clear image of his widowed wife comes to me. And so, I write in her voice…

December 30th, in the year of Our Lord 1675

My Dearest Mother,

It has been just fifteen days since we buried our dear Johannes and I lament still that your fragility prevented you journeying here to Delft. We live day by day. Johannes has left us surrounded by paintings, most of which he tried in vain to sell. It is my firm conviction that our financial stresses led to his illness… and oh how we miss him.

Eleven children now mourn for their father as we persevere in our family home in Papenhoek, just off the town square. Rooms brimming over with pigments and palettes, with brushes and easels. How my dear Johannes adored this home and his beloved Delft with its bustling port and its skilled artisans  – the tapestry weavers, the earthenware potters and the beer brewers. There are many wealthy citizens but alas, not the Vermeers.

And I despair, for these distinguished burgers have not seen the genius of my husband. Yes Johannes Vermeer is recognised as a good painter, yet now his forlorn studio echoes with paintings bequeathed to me and some to you dear mother. But indeed, I wish they had been sold.

I see some beauty in them of course, yet I find the scenes almost frivolous. A milk maid pouring milk from a pretty jug. A lady penning a letter, receiving one or even reading one in earnest. I often asked what was the intention, so ordinary did these scenes appear. Our Johannes would explain, “Liefde, one must think of the symbolism. Notice the map in the foreground, the ship sailing, the letter in my subject’s hand. It is news of her loved one, this Golden Age has taken him to the East Indies to trade spices and even our fine Delft blue and white,” Johannes would explain patiently.

“And look at the objects I have staged so well,” he would elaborate, pointing with his painting stick. “The apples for temptation, the walnut cracked in two for wanton adultery. The feathery hat for frivolity, or the organ piano being caressed by a woman’s hand.” Goodness dear mother, all this talk would force me to blush. I who have given birth to more children than I can count!

But I do understand his use of light and of colours. Indeed was he not a master? Only the finest pigments were procured. The deepest of blues – indigos from India, Laapis Lazuli from Aghanistnan, or fine cobalt. He loved spanish green, earth green and that haunting umber – a green brown from Umbria in Italy itself. And of course there was always ochre- red to replicate the abundance of bricks in this fine city of Delft.

Yes, he played with these colours and created hues of lights that only he could conjure. Light that was bright, filtered, soft and shining. Or perhaps watery and smooth, gleaming, even falling. Yes the ways of light are cunning and Johannes knew them well.

Dear mother, you shall soon have your choice of a few of his works. Perhaps you would like a particular small pretty painting of young woman with pearl earrings. It bears a slight resemblance to our dear Rosa, she is mourning her father terribly. For myself, I am only interested in the Little Street painting. This is who our dear Vermeer truly was. A simple man who gazed out to that scene from his studio and often remarked, “life is captured in the seemingly mundane, the precious simple moments.”

And so I must sign off for now, the bells at noon have tolled and the children will soon be asking for their bread and cheese. I shall write often dear mother. Please know you are in our thoughts until we see you soon.

Your loving, Catharina Bolnes Vermeer

And with this, the inspiration of the morning has worked its magic. I have conjured and imagined, mused and written.

And I challenge. Poise a pen over a blank page and let it flow….

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Wherever I may hang my hat…

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I’ve ‘hung my hat’ for a short sojourn in The Netherlands. The suitcases are unpacked and the few collectibles I’ve trailed from India — through Greece, Scotland and England —  have found their rightful, if temporary spot. The furnished apartment feels more like our home as books (always too many), a lovely scented candle or two and an old, smuggled Indian globe, now stamp it as our space… for just a while.

Throughout our global life, I have taken care to connect the threads that make our lives feel settled and substantial, wherever we may be. In leaving India, I made sure to cut those threads with care and appreciation as they bound us with a sense of belonging. Now here in The Hague I find that I instinctively make the connections that will ensure we are grounded, only if it is to be for two months — as is the case as we wait for our next posting. I have always held that it is a privilege to experience another land’s traditions and society, and carve your own special space amongst it.

And how could I fail to make those connections here; the land where my mother and first son were born. It’s a place where the cadence of the Dutch language is welcoming and the streetscapes seem as familiar as a well-worn wooden clog (shoe).

I feel myself lingering as I explore, appreciating and embracing in an almost heightened sense — the colours are more vivid, the buildings more dramatic and the scenes of every day family life reach towards me with a tender poignancy. Yes I remember fondly that it was once me cycling with my toddler in the front of my bike through our quaint town of Oudewater. Now I wander down pretty cobbled streets recognising these as the rituals of reconnection, of embracing my new yet intrinsically familiar surroundings.

And of course as we’re in a country so abundant in blooms, a home isn’t a home without vases of tulips and peonies, so prolific at this time of the year. I’ve deviated from my predilection for white flowers, allowing rosy pink bloemen to flourish in the room — the fragrance of delicate peonies perfume the air amongst antique furniture, eclectic prints and tall sashed windows.

And one doesn’t have to venture far into the neighbourhood to also be beguiled by the scent of heavenly roses. They blossom prettily, adorning doors of blues and greens with lovely displays of pinks, reds, yellows and whites.

Our temporary abode is on a lively street, with embassies and lovely homes dotting the area. Wealthy merchants once called the ‘Archipel’ home, amassing great fortunes from ships plying the Dutch East Indies route loaded with rich commodities. These streets once echoed with the passage of the traders’ fine carriages — now it is with the tinkle of bicycle bells, the liveliness of children and chatter, birds and chiming church bells. Just along from us, past the forest, the cycle trail leads to nearby Scheveningen. It’s where sea meets endless sky and gentle dunes.

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Our second story apartment looks out to a cafe that spills onto the broad sidewalk, the pastime of soaking up the sun with a coffee, a glass of wine or a pilsje is the norm. As chatter drifts up and I gaze out to the narrow, bricked homes nestled side by side like a child’s play town, I notice the poem on an adjacent wall.

Poems grace the walls of a number of buildings in this area of The Hague, perhaps a project to inspire and provoke. I find them marvellous — they cause one to stop and ponder, maybe even to construct one’s own.

I find myself purposefully wandering the cobbled streets to savour these verses, or to marvel at overflowing flower shops, or perhaps to admire benches doubling as resting places for potted flowers, and to take in the array of two-wheeled family ‘vehicles’ awaiting outside quaint homes. Cycling is intrinsic to everyday life — to get to school, to work, to shop, to cycle for the joy of it, and the Dutch have mastered bicycle infrastructure and design. I find myself also hopping on my borrowed omafiets grandma bike) just because I can… to feel the breeze, to hear the cozy chatter of families as they pass on busy bike lanes.

Have I missed India? It was a cherished place to live for two years and we soaked up the colour, the unexpected and the history. The experience was like one of the treasured antique necklaces I bought from a local jeweller in Bangalore — intricate, imperfect, but ultimately beautiful as a whole. You cherish it, but it had to be removed and tucked away in a special place – in my memory and the mosaic of my life. No, I cannot imagine not having lived there.

To live here now, for a spell is simply a joy. If it happens to only be for two months, we’ll embrace it with open arms, many vases of tulips, long bicycle trips, visits from family and we’ll say our many bedankts for the time. And for the opportunity to live by my friend and co-author, Jo Parfitt… Monday Morning Emails can now be shared a doorway away.

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And just across the street, the poem on the wall of Hotel Mosaic inspires me to sum it up, it reads…

 

This Is Just To Say 

I have eaten 

the plums 

that were in 

the ice box 

and which 

you were probably 

saving 

for breakfast 

Forgive me 

they were delicious 

so sweet 

and so cold…

William Carlos Williams 

 

If I had the chance to place my own words on the wall, I believe I would pen…

 

This Is Just To Say

Your tulips and roses

and cycles 

so aplenty,

already fill

my vases,

and my soul.

Forgive me

I have chosen the last

bunch of peonies from

the bloomewinkel

they were so fragrant and full,

oh, so perfect…

Terry Anne Wilson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An ancient Greek meander… Ode to Hydra, part two

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Dearest Hydra,

You enticed me first with your short ferry cruise from Athens… and curiously, the mention of mules on your small island. No cars, only mules, and of course the promise of an island haven on which to repose, to relax.

What I couldn’t have known until I was ensconced in your soulful presence, is that your beauty is partly due to the quiet – the absence of engines, of horns, even of the tinkle of bicycle bells.

Except for sharp hoof strikes on polished cobbles, goods carried along narrow tidy lanes, the dissonant soundtrack of daily life is soon a distant memory. A feeling of tranquility and joy seems to pervade me, to pervade everything.

Straining against a heavy load, a porter breaks the silence, taut muscles in practiced manoeuvres, smiling new arrivals walking expectantly beside the laden cart. His gentle exertions fill the ancient lanes with purpose, echoes of your long continuous existence. I marvel that even the colours of these indespensible ‘vehicles’ blend prettily with your hues, Hydra.

Indeed your island is a perfect paint-by-number of myriad soft colours against a backdrop of dazzling whitewash. My favourite palette of blues and greens, gracing doors and shutters, even those wagons which often mirror the establishment they’re parked alongside. Brilliant splashes of bouganvilea complete the picture… as do ‘pops’ of plump lemons, milky greens of olive trees, and soft pinks of oleanders.

“Torrents of colour,” is how I believe Nikos Ghika, the Greek painter, referred to your charming, colourful canvas.

 

Ghika is one of many artists who spent inspired years in your embrace, as did some of his creative friends: Craxton, Leigh Fermor and Henry Miller. From the 1930’s, those years of visiting and living in your embrace were undeniably their muse, “…the courtyards, the gardens, one above the other… the long and narrow walls which followed and embraced rocky land beyond, the prickly pears, and the wild greens and the thorns. The fig trees like chandeliers. The almond trees like thin scarecrows,” Ghika wrote fondly.

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Most certainly, your tranquil beauty beckoned from far and wide, including Canadian songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen, who penned his beloved ‘Bird on a Wire’ from the window of his island villa. Like many artists in the ’60’s and 70’s, he claimed your bohemian paradise as home. Didn’t he once endearingly quip, “There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra… and that includes Hydra.”

Like Ghika’s home, Cohen’s abode became a retreat for creatives and still today people arrive to your island – to write, to paint, or like us, to seek a tranquil interlude.

A repose found often in the shade of the majestically old tree in our preferred spot at the Xeri Elia. The storied restaurant and taverna welcomed Cohen often and we’re told his melodies filled the restaurant’s charming square. Photographs inside recall those happy times.

Even Sophia Loren smiles from the taverna’s lively photo gallery. Her ’50’s portrayal of a brash, beautiful Hydriot sponge-diver, propelled your island onto the international stage. I know that sponge farming put bread on the tables for your islanders in those post war years, your sea-given harvest reaching the far corners of the earth. Your merchant fleet had answered the call and turned its expertise from trade to war – it was sponges that then kept your maritime economy afloat.

Yet now dear Hydra as we lunch in the languid afternoon stillness, despite the import of tourism, we sense the intimacy of the island. Children pass through the square, a  confluence of narrow lanes – a dutiful kiss for a grandfather lunching with a friend. Tethering his mule, a porter breaks for refreshment, delivering the day’s happenings from the harbour. Children clutch precious art work, mothers converge, chatting briefly before streaming off to their familiar lanes.

Pushing my open journal across the table, I revelled and relaxed in the dreamlike silence as my partner’s pen captured the scene.

” We lazed in the heat of the day, cat-contented in the dappled vine-shaded square, half-heard music washing over the flagstone courtyard, gently lapping against white-washed walls, doors and windows picked out in cobalt blues and hunting green. The noise itself seemed hushed and chastened by the midday sun radiating from your cloudless Hydra sky. We sit dream-like in this noon idyll, words half-heard, music and muffled chatter, weaving  the fabric of our day.”  

You captivated us both dearest Hydra. And oh, how I’d love my fedora to hang here for a tranquil season of writing, a celebration of your treasured stillness and your inspiration… until we meet again!

Fondly, Terry Anne

 

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