Seeking colours in unlikely places… from urban landscapes to an ink-maker’s palette

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We often talk about putting colour in our lives, enjoying colourful characters, revelling in the vibrancy of autumn colours… so it’s little surprise that the absence of colour can leave us searching.

For the first time in more than twenty years I spent a full winter in Canada and in the process, it seemed almost like a re-learning of what it was to yearn for colour. Beyond the whites and blues that dominated my vistas – and yes the rosy hues of the alpenglow on the mountain peaks are always spectacular – I longed for splashes of primary colours. Oh give me greens, blues and yellows, pops of red, maybe even a dash of ‘bird of paradise’ orange!

After experiencing five months of continuous snow and sub-zero temperatures, I’ve concluded, I’m not a true winter-connoisseur. As the days fused into a continuum of meagre chromatic tones, I found my mind wandering endlessly back to India. At this time last year, our posting in Bangalore was coming to an end and I knew that I could never replace the vivid colours of my daily life there – the vibrant sarees, the exotic fruit piled high on vegetable carts, the canopy of lush greens that was the backdrop for our apartment. And so through those long winter months I felt bereft of colour, almost starved, as if it were nourishment for my soul.

Impatient for the promise of an early spring to deliver me, I began in earnest to seek out colour. On a bright sunny afternoon we visited Fort Steele, a heritage village nestled against the Rocky Mountains. The aged wooden buildings seemed to be making a grand entrance to the new season, the still snow-draped mountains  providing the perfect framing for their subtle colours. At this time of year, Fort Steele is still absent of its summer crowds, the silence seeming only to enhance the simple washes of colour, the nuances of gentle palettes.

 

A week later, a trip to Vancouver confirmed that, at least on the coast, spring had most definitely sprung… budding crocuses and darling daffodils announced the re-birth of colour. On Granville Island, I soaked in bursts of peony pink, carrot orange, and radish red. There were vivid blues and yellows. I found shadows on walls and textures on lights. Even the sky swirled its own evocative design with soft, billowy clouds. I gratefully extracted sustenance and delight from every play of warmth.

 

Then this past weekend, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that I found myself in Calgary attending a lecture/conversation where colour was very much the topic.

Jason Logan is a modern day urban forager, with a very specific cause. An individual with a unique perspective on the hidden bounties of the city. His purpose, quite simply, is to make ink. His book, MAKE INK, A Foragers Guide to Natural Ink Making, chronicles his surprising and delightful endeavours.

Jason’s bespoke palettes of ink practically burst off the pages and I can only imagine how vibrant they must be in real life. Their names more than hint at their origins… evocative concoctions like Hawaiian turmeric, sap green, carbon black, black walnut, wild grape purple and acorn cap silver.

“It all started with a black walnut tree,” Jason told the audience at Calgary’s stately Memorial Park Library. Years ago, he had quickly used up a purchased bottle of ‘black walnut ink’ while working as an illustrator in New York. He loved the texture, the depth of the colour and rapidly filled up an entire sketchbook with the mahogany-black hue. But when Jason tried to replenish his supply, he found the ink maker had stopped producing black walnut ink.

Seven years later and now back in Toronto with a young family, Jason’s daily cycle to work took him past a beautiful aged tree. Discovering it to be a black walnut tree, he waited not so patiently as the tree’s bounty of nuts slowly matured into green hulls. When they shed in late September, Jason soon had them boiling into a rich brown ink in his kitchen. After repeated tweaking of the recipe, he was hooked.

His passion has translated into the Toronto Ink Company, and he now takes plants, roots, berries, metal, gypsum, weeds, in fact whatever he may find in a specific city, to create inks evocative of a specific area.

The day after his lecture, I noticed on Instagram that Jason had foraged in Calgary as well. ‘Paint chips of Calgary: pried off of a cement block in the Paliser Parkade, the CN bridge downtown, a rusty pipe near the Bow and Elbow rivers, an old Toronto Sun newspaper box in the East Village and the underside of a bridge.’ The colours were luscious and will no doubt reveal themselves as they’re transformed into a bottle of ‘Calgary Ink’.

One of Jason’s clients and confidantes is Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. In MAKE INK, the two creatives discuss shellac, the necessary binder for ink.

Jason comments, “The shellac that I buy comes from these little beetles from a bush in the high mountains in India. Almost everything I make, I make from the streets of Toronto, except the shellac. I would at least like to meet those little beetles.”

“The first creature I remember very vividly is called the golden beetle in Sri Lanka. It was sacred,” Michael Ondaatje replies. The ink maker confirms that, “Beetles strangely play a really important role in pigment and ink.”

Their conversation meanders to beetles that live on prickly pear cactus feasting on the purple magenta syrup, to the ‘witchy relationship’ the English have with herbs and the dyeing of wool, to making ink from ancient lichen, rust, bone, wood, land and quinine all of which pay homage to the Franklin Expedition, the doomed British Arctic endeavour of 1845.

I find it original and fascinating; Jason’s mantra, ‘Colour is Everywhere’, rings true. During the presentation, there is an earthy, visceral, almost elemental, passion that comes through as he speaks. He tells us that his inks are fugitive; they’re alive, they change, even in their fading there is poignancy.

And he’s asked, Why ink?”

“They’re an intensification of colour that can be used in communication. It’s democratic, anyone can play. Maybe a fine line of a pen. And with a brush, it loses its mind!”

Post Script

As I publish this post, I find myself in Spain. We’ve begun some months of traveling and yesterday I was reminded of how wonderfully a town can ‘lose its mind’. On the Costa Blanca lies a delightful town, like a colourful box of pencil crayons… La Vila Joiosa

This once small fishing village is awash with colour, across the full spectrum of the rainbow. Its name means ‘jewelled town’ and the vibrant colours were traditionally intended to guide local fishermen home from the sea. Narrow, centuries-old houses lean against each other, each distinctly hued. Shades of powder and cobalt blues, reds, pale lavenders, ochres and mustard yellows and seaside greens. Imagine selecting a handful of your favourite pencil crayons and living amongst them… it’s fanciful and alive.

I was here a number of years ago, and it’s just as beguiling and nourishing as I remember it. My yearning for colour has absolutely been fulfilled!

 

 

The Writing Workshop… on an ‘island’ of creativity

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IMG_3182Fear and procrastination have a way of dissuading… of whispering that perhaps you can put off doing what you know in your heart to be intuitive and true.

I had been promising to host a writing workshop here in Kimberley, since last autumn. Yet, still I hesitated.

I’ve hosted workshops in India and Kazakhstan, and have been part of many writer’s retreats and workshops in various countries. Yet despite knowing how they enrich and inspire, something held me back.

Perhaps it was the promise of spring that prompted me to finally plan the inaugural workshop on home soil. For the first time in many years, I’ve spent the entire winter here and I longed for the first signs of spring. With the first hint of melting snow and birds flitting in the pines, I sensed my own awakening. It was time to share what I know with others. Time to inspire others in their writing journey… call it the renewal of spring!

‘The Joy of Writing’ was full, twenty writers had made the commitment of discovery. And, by the time we set down our pens, flowing emotions had translated to profound words on paper and emerging stories. Friends had committed to the workshop together, but wonderfully, strangers had also become friends, united by their common desire to explore and enrich and expand their writing canvas.

Less a guide or an instructor, I felt more like a midwife to their nascent stories, helping the latent to become revealed. It was deeply fulfilling, connecting me emotionally to those earlier days when my desire to write and my fear were mixed in equal measure.

Yet there’s more here than meets the eye, more here than simply pen to paper. Why do we brave the act of pushing ourselves beyond our boundaries, away from our comfort zone? We humans have a deep-rooted urge to be emotional and in that emotion, to be authentic and, as a consequence, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We long to share, to be heard, to be storytellers… to be connected. Writing does this.

I’ve written often of that first transformational writing retreat for me. Yes it happened to be in Tuscany, an idyllic setting to be sure, but it struck me that our town’s beloved art centre and gallery was no less inspiring. Kimberley’s population of 7,000 or so, fully embraces the cultural hub that Centre 64 represents. How did some of us word it that day?

 

“Instantly, I feel accepted. This room that holds me is large and loving and living. The tremendous wooden beams absorb my Song. Who is the man who first saw this place in his mind? Who is the man who then created it with his hands? I sing to celebrate his authentic Masterpiece.”   Brenda


In this town renowned and beloved for its culture of the ‘great outdoors’ and where so much of the community bond and identity is somewhat related to planks on snow and wheels on dirt, the Centre feels like a foreign island. 

Here, true culture comes to life and pushes the outdoor where it belongs, outside, in a gentle: ‘Fuck you! There is more to life than how many turns you made last winter!’

True expression of ideas, talents, quirkiness and creativity… and vulnerability of the soul. Celebration of the landscape comes in a pure form on canvas, on stage, through strings, copper and words… a world of its own, that would not get to savour unfortunately, if you don’t dare visit the ‘Island’.”  Emile   https://rocksnowandicecream.com


“A space that embraces works of art and quiet contemplation, yet often sings with rhythm and theatre. On this day, it is a cocoon for inspired and creative writers. We share our words and stories like treasured jewels… we laugh, and cry, like kindred souls. We acknowledge the healing power of writing, then give gratitude for the welcoming haven we find ourselves in.”   Terry Anne


“From what I can see, aside from material objects in this mature art gallery, is a bunch of aspiring artists, all searching for a way to express their creative genius. A certain creativity lies dormant in all of us and hopefully today, we can combine forces as a mastermind group and awaken that sleeping genius. After all, each one of us is very unique and has a story worthy of hearing. In other words, a beautiful garden worthy of being shown to the world.”   Niall


 

So who comes to a workshop? IMG_3209

Mature people with a lifetime of stories from Afghanistan to Ireland, within the hippie culture of California and along the quiet backroads of rural Canada.

Young mothers who relish the blessed opportunity to write while their toddler naps.

And then there are teachers, hair stylists, gallery and city administrators. Indeed, the whole gamut, from firefighters to yoga aficionados.

All are people with dreams and talent – writers with the desire to share their personal journey, perhaps for the world or maybe simply for the ‘kids’.

Like me, they may one day see their book on bookshelves, yet that satisfaction can be fleeting. I have come to realise that it is the sharing of experience with others that truly matters most.

The morning after the workshop, I received a message from one of the participants. Shannon had been up early on her lakefront perch and already writing. The first time I met this lady – beautiful from inside and out – she was relocating a ‘wayward’ snake. We were unloading our kayaks close to her home when she appeared pushing her bike. Slithering in a plastic bag, the snake dangled precariously from her handlebars. At a cautious distance, I struck up a conversation and since then we have enjoyed encountering one another, the way that you do in our small town.

Shannon is a gentle, spiritual soul whose eyes perpetually sparkle – whether doing good for the animal kingdom, talking about her latest yoga retreat, or while writing that day at the Centre.

She, and the others, remind me of the joy of connecting. As I read Shannon’s poignant musing that morning, there was no doubting the power of inspiring others, of hearing kindred voices and of why we should always heed our inner voice. In writing and in life, I have learned to follow my instincts – it has become a source of great happiness and contentment.

 

An early morning penning, by Shannon

“We are given this lifetime to nourish our souls and to learn life lessons so that we, as beings of light and love, can evolve.

We know this as babies and children but then ‘life’ happens and we forget.
When we have events occur in our life that cause us frustration, anger, sorrow, disappointment, and fear, we need to step back from the situation and look at it from another view.

If we can open our hearts and souls to try to learn and understand why this is happening… If we can be open to where the Universe or God is trying to lead us….
If we can be open to try to hear with our hearts what we are being told…
If we can find a crumb of gratitude for what we do have… here and now…
If we can rise above all the downers and show humility and forgiveness and love from a deep level..
. then we can feel whole, complete, joy, love, and at peace wherever we are. ”
Mahadevi

 

 

Old Quebec City… the romance, and the fortitude of the King’s Daughters – of all the founding women

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At this time of year, Quebec City celebrates its cold climate and rich heritage with Winter Carnival. It’s a celebration of winter and all that entails; especially those pastimes beginning with ice – palaces, canoeing, sculptures, skating and fishing. People from around the world descend on this historic walled city, the only in North America, revelling in the unique atmosphere. It’s my first visit in the winter and I admit; it is bone chillingly cold, often windswept and the icy sidewalks can be precarious.

Yet the cold seems to subside, if only just a little, when you stroll the vibrant streets. They’re still resplendent with Christmas greenery and décor, enhancing the already romantic streets.

 

And there is much to romance you here: the French language, the mix of French, British and Canadian architecture, the delicious cuisine and of course the statuesque Chateau Frontenac. It is a treasured beauty, dominating the upper town, evoking the chateaus of the Loire Valley of France and on this visit, I was fortunate to add my humble name to its storied guest list.

Completed in 1893, the Chateau was the first of the iconic tourist hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On my third day I join a tour of the hotel, guided by the charming ‘Ms. Emily Post’. The young lady is in costume and character, portraying Ms. Post, an author and daughter of the hotel’s architect Bruce Price.

The tour begins on the long cliff-top boardwalk where squeals of delight from tobogganeers on the swooping wooden-framed run peal in the chilled air. Above us, the sharp crack of ice, breaking like glass under ice-picks of intrepid déneigeièrs clearing the Chateau’s impossibly steep rooftop. Roped in and rappelling down the treacherous facade, they clear the roof of accumulated ice. It’s an arduous and hazardous task which I see repeated throughout the city. Managing this city in frigid temperatures brings myriad challenges not least of which is avoiding dagger-like shards of falling ice from the charming buildings.

 

As much as I appreciate the hotel’s storied history during the tour– including the somber hosting of the top-secret conference in which Roosevelt and Churchill planned the D-Day invasion – I am drawn to the much more distant past. During my five days in Quebec City, it is the Filles du Roi, the ‘King’s Daughters’, and the founding Jesuit and Augustinian Sisters who capture my attention.

The strength and fortitude that was required of these founding women intrigues me. And I reflect that the country might never have developed as it did without them. First, allow me to set the scene…

 

The First Explorers and Samuel de Champlain

The vastness of the Atlantic Ocean mingles with fresh waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence river and, in the hinterland beyond, lie the lake-strewn lands of eastern Canada. First Nations who had called this home for over ten thousand years witnessed, in the arrival of European traders and settlers, the advent of modern Canada. As early as the late 15th century, they had mostly welcomed trade with various nations who visited their shores. The dominant commodity was fur from the Castor Canadensis,the humble Canadian beaver. They were as gold; European demand for their luxuriant pelts helping transform small trading outposts into a vast nation.

European and First Nations trappers braved the harsh, unforgiving environment to supply ever increasing merchant fleets. Locals bartered for kettles, knives, cloth, blankets, buttons and beads, trading endless stacks of beaver pelts that would be fashioned into hats once in Europe. The Continental, Navy, Clerical, The Paris Beau and the tall dignified Wellington – these names may no longer be familiar but it was unthinkable for any man of standing in the 17th to 19th centuries not to wear a head covering fashioned from beaver.

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Archaeology suggests that Viking explorers had been unable to build lasting settlements; explorers Cartier and Roberval had failed too. But after a number of visits, Samuel de Champlain had a vision. He had fallen in love with the wilds of the New World and was determined to build a settlement for France. On July 3rd, 1608, Champlain’s three vessels docked at Kebec – ‘the place where the river narrows’.

It was a place of dense forests, lush with butternut trees; a strategic location on the St. Lawrence River where flora and fauna promised survival. Here, Champlain built the first ‘habitation’ with planted gardens, stocked cellars and a palisaded fortress. And unlike previous colonisers, he befriended the First Nations. Their knowledge and friendship was crucial to the new settlement’s success.

Yet hardships from the cold, scurvy, hunger and understandably hostilities from some tribes, would continue to threaten Quebec and it grew slowly. In 1620, Champlain brought his new Parisian bride to the settlement on the St Lawrence. Unsurprisingly, she found life in the isolated outpost difficult and remained only a few short years before returning to France. Champlain would live the rest of his life without her. He was fiercely dedicated to his dream and although the surrender of his New France colony to the British, more than a century later in 1760 signalled the end of his vision, many refer to Champlain as ‘The Father of Canada’.

History books devote volumes to this fascinating, volatile period, recording exploits of the mostly men who blazed the trail. Yet a nation cannot be built without women and for me, it is an equally intriguing chapter in the history of Canada.

 

The King’s Daughters – Les Filles du Roi – and The Sisters

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As the colony grew, New France, was largely a man’s world: soldiers, fur traders, voyageurs and, hoping to convert the First Nations to Christianity, Franciscans priests who arrived in 1615. The Jesuits followed in 1625 and ten years later, the year of Champlain’s death, they began offering classical education. Yet education would begin in earnest with the arrival of Sisters. At the Ursuline Convent and School, I encounter a remarkable woman of faith.

Marie of the Incarnation, as she would come to be known, was from Tours, France. From the age of seven, she knew that she would devote her life to God. Resistant to her wishes, her family demanded that she marry a silk merchant. She was widowed not long after bearing a son and, at the age of nineteen, a vision came to her that she could no longer ignore. It was a vision of saving souls in a foreign land. Giving her son over to a foster family, Marie entered an Ursuline Monastery. She remained steadfast – even as her son could be seen crying at the convent gates and as she was accused of parental neglect. An inheritance designated for her son was also revoked. Yet still, she dreamed of winning souls for Christ in that foreign land. Resolute, she began correspondence with the Jesuits in Quebec.

Funding for the journey and a new convent materialised in the form of a pious widow, Madeleine de la Peltrie. By arranging a sham marriage, Madeleine overcame her family’s strong opposition to her traveling to New France. With the official seal of a royal charter, she signed over the bulk of her estate to the Ursuline Order. Marie and Madeleine set sail in May of 1639. To their new life in Quebec, they would take a fellow Sister, a young commoner, three nurses and two Jesuit fathers. It’s believed they were the first Catholic Sisters in North America.

 

In the Ursuline Convent Museum, I gaze at the painting of Marie. She is a vision of steadfastness and devotion to her mission – to convert and educate, ministering initially to the First Nations and later to French settlers. After three years in the lower town of Quebec City, the nuns moved to a new monastery and in a painting of the settlement, I see Madeleine’s wooden home depicted. It is just below the monastery, surrounded by tents; the Catholic Church of that era marvelled at their progress – despite the scarcity of provisions and lack of basic necessities, and the oft hostilities with some First Nations.

Marie quickly learned the languages of the Huron and the Algonquin and even as she became a decorator, an architect and a teacher, the Sister also remained a devoted mother. Her son became a Benedictine monk and in their vast correspondence, until Marie’s death in 1672, the unwavering love between a mother and a son is poignantly evident.

And of being a mother… Marie of the Incarnation would fulfil yet another role in the making of New France. The filles du roi were sailing her way.

As the colony grew, a problem arose. In 1663, the King of France decided to take more control of his far-flung colony and one of his first actions was to address the severe imbalance between men and women. For every woman in the colony, there were at least seven men. Sponsored by the King himself, a program was proposed to increase the population – with shiploads of young women from France.

Initially, it was agreed to sponsor five-hundred women, but it would total some eight-hundred over ten years. In actual fact, many were still young girls, some as young as twelve. Believing that girls ought to marry young, King Louis’s filles du roi were sent to New France for the sole purpose of marrying and populating the land. Often they were orphans or poor, so a dowry was provided. As the the ships arrived at Quebec City, it’s said that some were selected even before they could disembark. Those not chosen would sail further to the next ports-of-call, the fledging city of Montreal being the last stop.

It seems Marie also took a supporting role in this new scheme. Some of the younger girls were first housed and prepared for their new role as wives and mothers. The nuns taught them cooking, embroidery and sewing. They were also chaperones in the selection process. Likened to old-fashioned speed dating, eligible men would enter the room and with the steadying presence of a nun, the young women would ask appropriate questions to the eligible bachelors: How old are you? Do you own property? Do you have any vices?

The letters Marie wrote during the 1660’s reveal much of the hardship that these new settlers faced. In 1668 she wrote, “When they have eaten the barrel of flour and bacon the King has given them, they will suffer greatly until they have cleared the land. It has been decided that only country girls should be sent here. They can work like men and experience shows that those not brought up on the land do not fit in as they don’t know how to cope with poverty and hardship.”

In another letter to her son, dated Oct. 1669, Marie confirms, “As soon as the ship arrives, the men go to meet them in search of a wife… sometimes there are thirty weddings at a time. Wiser people begin by getting a house and place first. The first question the girls ask is if they have a house and property, because those who haven’t suffer greatly.”

In the days I spend in the city, I think often of the these women. I’m empathetic to the hardships and transition most of them would have faced. No doubt some of them did find happiness in marriage and knowing that all were encouraged – through promise of a pension from the King – to have a minimum of ten children, I can only imagine the fortitude and resilience this required on top of the privations and isolation of a settler’s life.

It is commonly held that two-thirds of the province of Quebec are descendants of the filles du roi. Some would also eventually migrate south into what is now the United StatesPeople including Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion, Hilary Clinton and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trace their ancestry back to these courageous women.

For me, the beauty and romance of old Quebec City is very much alive. The perseverance and fortitude of the Sisters, the king’s daughter’s and all the women who braved the deprivations in those formative years, add to its rich past. Go, if you get the chance. Find their stories… in the monasteries, in the museums, in the lively character of today’s women.

 

 

Slovenia, oh Slovenia… a ‘fairytale’ road trip

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“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to drive up to that furthest church,” I say, pointing with childlike enthusiasm to a steeple piercing the Slovene sky. It’s a cool, but sunny October morning and we’re not far from the outskirts of Ljubljana. The steeple is one of many that announces every small town. They’re invariably nestled in valleys or standing tall on sugar loaf mountains amongst pastoral landscapes. “It’s beautiful, like a fairy-tale,” I enthuse with genuine delight.

Slovenia may not necessarily be on your travel itinerary, but perhaps it should be. Sharing borders with Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary, it is easy to travel to; for us, a pleasant three-hour train journey from Trieste in northern Italy. It’s a compact country, which at the crossroads of Europe has seen the ebb and flow of mighty empires and dynastic struggles. Its people are friendly, clearly in love with life, and how could I not admire them when they are so passionate about accordions (says this amateur player), pretty window flower boxes, and meticulous wood piles!

Barely half-an-hour out of Lubijana, where our son and his girlfriend live, it’s clear we’ll be treated to an intimate perspective of this small country. We’ve already fallen in love with ‘Lubi’ and now very unusual for us, we have no set itinerary. Yes, a rough plan of course, but not one hotel booked for our three-day excursion. It turns out to be the best thing we could have done – serendipity can find a way of rewarding you, if you let it.

We don’t make it to that church on that high promontory that I longed to see, indeed we’ll come across many more, and we soon find ourselves having morning coffee against the backdrop of the medieval stone walls of Skofja Loka. The name roughly translates to ‘the bishop’s marsh’ and in 973 the bishopric was granted by Emperor Otto II.

For the next one thousand years the town was tied to that distant ecclesiastical principality, a tower and castle constructed for defence purposes and by 1248, Skofja Loka was granted rights as a market town. Only locals were permitted to trade inside its fortressed walls and now… if only the walls could talk. Yet they do, with faded frescoes still relating its long history and interestingly, I discover that one of the town’s early commodities was frogs. We stroll the streets, locating the ‘frog trail’ winding down to the serene river where one presumes the toads were trapped. Crimson leaves are tangling their way across stone and mortar, weaving in splendid harmony in these deepening days of autumn.

It is a gorgeous setting, seemingly the backdrop of your most beloved fairy tale. Yet despite the tranquil setting, townspeople have known much grief through the centuries: attacks and burnings from marauding Dukes and from the Ottomans, plagues, fires, peasant revolts and earthquakes.

Climbing the hill to the church, we dangle our legs over the aged stone parapet and gaze over rooftops to the castle occupying the wooded hill on the north edge of town. The serrated peaks of the Julian Alps are hazy in distant violet pastels, framing the lush-green hilltops beyond Skofje Loka. The peaks mark the border with Austria and I’m reminded of even more heartache in the story of this enchanted place. I had read its war stories – citizens arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Serbia, mass graves of prisoners of war around the castle and in neighbouring sites. As is often the case when I’m in Europe, the echoes of two world wars seem never far from the surface. Their brutal and bloody secrets seem still to shadow the present. We should never forget the suffering of the past, but in this moment I allow the tranquility of this beautiful place to warm me.

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Back on the road, the scenery is coloured with snowy-white sheep, rosy crab apples and rusty-orange pumpkins – plump and offered for sale at the edge of farmers’ driveways. The narrow highway wends and climbs until we come upon Slovenia’s pride and joy. Lake Bled emerges like a mirage with the much photographed Bled Island and its late 17th century pilgrimage church. Certainly this is part of the storybook I’m creating in my mind, this enchanted setting must be where the heroine lives happily every after?!

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Lake Bled, photo credit Trixie Pacis

It is a vision of ethereal beauty and as we stroll the perimeter of the lake, we notice the pletnas, gondola-style flat bottomed boats. In 1740, twenty-two local families were granted exclusive rights to ferry religious pilgrims to the small church on the island. Still today the role of an oarsmen is exclusive. Most are descended from the original families and whether ferrying pilgrims, visitors for pleasure or wedding parties, the long-standing tradition is part of Lake Bled’s heritage.

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We find a lake-side restaurant for an early dinner and I happen to meet a charming modern-day rower. Jani Klemenčič is a retired Slovenian Olympic rower, now at the helm of the restaurant Špica, a local institution with a stunning backdrop of the lake, the castle and the beguiling island.

As I admire the racing scull boat fashioned into a long bar table, Jani takes the time to chat. He grew up here. “I did a lot of rowing on this lake, always rowing,” he explains. Jani mentions that Lake Bled hosted the World Rowing Championships in 1966, 79, 89 and then 2011. “I medalled in the World’s in 01 in Lucerne,” he says rather humbly. I can’t help but imagine how special it would have been had he won on these home waters.

A display nearby pays homage to many of Jani’s fellow Slovene Olympians. Surely representing your country in four consecutive summer Olympics, as he did, conveys a certain heroic status upon him. “1992 was the year I medalled,” he clarifies, but it less his victories than his fondness for Lake Bled that shines through. “It’s an amazing, safe place.”

We find a simple hotel for that evening and bid farewell to the serene setting the next morning. Driving north west, we aim our sights for the winter resort town of Kranjska Gora in the Julian Alps. I’m immediately smitten by its quaint townscape that harkens back to the 11th century. The town’s Gothic church dominates its ‘skyline’, competing with the mountains and the Alps.

We’re recommended to have lunch, ‘for the famous Kranjska Gora mushroom soup’ at Gostilna Pri Martinu. The traditional restaurant is near the end of what seems to be main street and it is quintessentially Slovene; profuse window boxes, a traditional fireplace with old skis propped nearby and artfully stacked wood piles. Yes, I do have a slight obsession about wood piles and the Sloevenes have mastered the art of stacking. Throughout the town, the wood piles are so perfect, so uniform, even creative, that I send a few pics to our son who happens to be at our home in Canada chopping wood for the coming winter months. “Can you try this one? Or this?” I’m sure he thought I was slightly mad!

But I digress. The soup? The mushroom soup lives up to its reputation and after lunch I happen to chat with the owner, Daria. As well as hotelier, she is also a busy ski-mom. “My daughter has been on the podium for Slovenia,” she tells me proudly. As with Jani, living in an area that hosts sporting events, fosters champions. In this area, its the Alpine Ski World Cup and events at Planica, the ski-jumping hill.

When I comment on the beauty of her country, Daria confesses that years ago, she and her husband had almost immigrated to Canada. “I couldn’t do it,” she admits. “We have it all here. Close to so many countries. We like a simple life and there’s beauty. We’re a country of only two million. We’re a little good at things.”

She and her family’s three businesses, along with notable sports acumen attest to just that. I mention that we’re ‘on the road,’ yet suddenly have a visceral notion to spend some time here. I’ve noticed in Slovenia that restaurants often have small inns above their establishment and Daria takes me upstairs to entice me to where we might stay for the evening. The chalet-style windows are flung open to old wooden farmhouses and I feel that I can almost reach out and touch the Julian Alps beyond. Although it’s only early afternoon, I decide we’re calling it a day!

“We’ve found our place for tonight,” I tell the others back downstairs who are slightly bemused with my decision to not drive any further today. Daria hands me the keys. “No worries, you can register and pay later.”

There are times when travelling that you know when you need to… stay, spend some time in a place that you didn’t expect to, get to the essence of it…

And so we did and while the others jaunted off for a hike in the direction of the Alps, here I was in Slovenia! Having seen much of Europe, I was still pinching myself that I was exploring a new country. First stop… the museum.

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Sylvester Mirtic greets me warmly in the old farm house. Kransjka Gora still has many of these large farm/barn settlements where animals, hay and equipment share the space below the living quarters. Upstairs is expansive. A wooden bench wraps around the main room’s handcrafted table, the all-important ceramic stove warms the room and I’m shown lovingly and creatively painted beds and dowry chests.

“Notice the carnations that have such special meaning to us,” Sylvester points out. I deduce that this is one of the reasons for the prolific flower boxes in Slovene windows.  He also ensures that I see the Black Kitchen where cooking, baking and meat smoking occurred. It’s a separate room not of wood, but of tiny cobble stones to prevent fire. Generation after generation lived together in these rambling buildings and Sylvester adds interestingly that the language can change from valley to valley, often a reflection of people’s roots.

“I have Bavarian, Austrian and Italian roots,” he mentions and when I tell Sylvester that I was able to use a little Italian over at Daria’s establishment, he’s not surprised. “We feel like a nation, but we’re diverse.”

In fact, what you must know in a nutshell about Slovenia is this. It was once part of the Roman, Byzantine and Carolingian Empire. Then came the Habsburg Monarchy, the Republic of Venice, the provinces under Napoleon, the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary. A lot of empires, before exercising self-determination by co-founding the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. In 1918, they merged with the Kingdom of Serbia, later named Yugoslavia in 1929.

Then came occupation in WW II, annex by Germany, Italy and Hungary and eventually independence in 1991 when Slovenia split from the disintegrating Yugoslavia. With such a turbulent past, it isn’t surprising that as with Jani, Dari and Sylvester, I sense an acute sense of pride that people have for their country’s eclectic story.

After thanking Sylvester for the tour, I wander the quiet, picturesque streets. Yet more blooming carnations, interesting wood piles and the heavenly scent of wood fires now drift in the chilled air. The chiseled alps take on an alpenglow. And then I happily meet Ivanka.

She is just about to close up her small shop. It’s stuffed with wooden ‘this and that’, curios, wicker and brooms. Her effervescent personality bubbles through despite the language barrier and when I mention ‘Canada’ she breaks out in smile. I hear ‘bambino’ often and know she’s speaking of her grandchildren. Ivanka cradles my chin in her hand and says something with affection. Then she is entirely delighted when I ask to take her photograph. When I show her the result, she is pleased.

“Bella, bella, beautiful, beautiful,” she affirms with a laugh and again grabs my chin and cradles it gently. Like Slovenia itself, I’m immediately drawn to this warm, lovely woman. My gut reaction to spend time in this small town has given me an intimate insight into the Slovene culture and its people. It’s been a day of perfection.

Yet there’s one more stop this road trip is pointing us to – the Slovenian wine region. The next morning we drive through the majestic mountain pass and we’re rewarded with more stunning scenery and pretty small towns. When we reach our destination, the sprawling vineyards strike me as perhaps just as lovely as those of Tuscany.

In Brda, the westernmost wine region, we taste at the grand Vipolze Villa. We stroll amongst roadside vines just before sunset. We make our way to Smartno and finish the day in its walled medieval village. More excellent Slovene wine, the chatter of locals and yes, surely this is how this most excellent, fairytale road trip should finish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Italy, with love… a few unsent postcards

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As with previous years, January finds me dreamily perusing last year’s photos and notebooks. There isn’t always time to write while I’m travelling, so in the chill of midwinter, I gladly relive a few of those interesting vignettes. All three of the settings were first-time visits. Oh the joy of unanticipated discoveries! So today, let’s wander back to Italy…

 

Bologna… of porticoes, tall towers and gastronomy

I can’t think why Bologna hadn’t been on my list of Italian cities to visit. It is now perhaps in the top five of my treasured collection.

Why Bologna? It’s quite simple… the towers, the porticoes, and the food.

Let’s begin with the setting – an architectural feast of light and shadows created by kilometre after kilometre of arched walkways. In fact the over thirty-eight kilometres of porticoes (harking back to the porticus of Roman times) which through their varied construction tell stories spanning the ages – from medieval wooden to frescoed renaissance to the austere functionality of post world war II.

They are simply beautiful. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found them entrancing, and useful as the rain dampened the streets late one afternoon. Through their evocative and protecting arch ways, we ‘mazed’ our way to another of the cities’ well-known landmarks, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. At over 97 meters tall, the Asinelli Tower tops that of Pisa – I know, it gets all the attention – but with its little sis, Garisenda nestled beside it, these two are excellent examples of tower homes.

Becoming prominent from the pre-Renaissance period, wealthy, feuding families in the 12th and 13th centuries attempted to outbuild each other, for the purpose of defensive and sheer rivalry. Often taking as long as ten years to construct, as many as 180 of these laboriously built ‘homes’ once dotted Bologna’s skyline. By the end of the 1200’s many had collapsed or been dismantled, making these two ‘sister’s that much more valuable. I admit that despite their enduring presence, they don’t quite have the same allure as the leaning tower in Pisa. Yet, their imposing silhouettes surely transport us to a vision of Bologna’s once-soaring skyline.

Bologna understands both old… and modern vibrancy. The city boasts the world’s oldest university, rendered new by the young and edgy vibe of student life. Students gather and commune in the squares, under and near the porticoes, and most definitely in the Quadrilatero. This compact area is teeming day and night with market stalls, lavish gourmet deli shops and packed cafes.

After all, Bologna is known as La Grassa, the fat one. To say that it is renowned for its food would be an understatement to the Bolognesi. This is where ragu or bolognese originated. Where delicate pouches of ravioli melt in your mouth. Where the Palazzo della Mercanzia keeps the recipes of Bologna’s world famous dishes under ‘lock and key’. Yes, they are that precious.

So Bologna? An amazing display of porticoes and lively streets – a blend of many centuries. And a veritable feast for both the gastronome and the architectural connoisseur!

 

A Lunch Date in Cinque Terre...

There we were, eight of us on a day trip from our writer’s retreat in Tuscany – let loose in the Cinque Terre (five lands). For many visitors these once isolated villages, strung along the Mediterranean Sea, are a destination for hiking from village to village. We do no such thing.

We jump on the 9:30 train from Aulla, to La Spezia. Then onto the ‘Cinque Terre train’ where we cram toe to toe with day-trippers in sun hats, safari hats, hiking boots and backpacks. Yes, many are doing ‘the hike’ a pilgrimage of sorts, but we were definitely the ‘merry writers on excursion’. As the crowded train whisks through the countryside, we catch brief glimpses of tall cypresses against country villas, castles clinging to hilltops, and then finally, of the dazzling Mediterranean. It was official – we had arrived at the Italian Riviera.

We alight at Monterosso and soon cozy-up at an outdoor cafe. Soaking in the shimmering sea, we order our first espressos of the day. We watch loungers and bathers claim their spots under paint-box-orange and Italian-green umbrellas. We, on the other hand, wander. A hat for all is in order and carefully chosen. Then we embark upon a slow, picturesque stroll along an ancient via. It meanders, and along with prickly pears and milky-green olive trees, it clings precariously to the hillside. The emerald-green-turquoise-saphire-blue water fans out below us like a rich, shimmering fabric. Being writers, we ponder… surely there must be a word for such a brilliant colour. None is conjured!

We hop onto a short ferry ride to Vernazza, which despite swarms of tourists and cruise ship passengers, still feels authentic and genuine. It’s an old sea-faring town with car-free, narrow lanes snaking upwards, fringed with mountainside vineyards just beyond the small settlement.

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We join the fray in the busy piazza. It is seemingly laundry day, townfolk’s washing hanging from tall, peeling and faded pastel homes. As in Venice, the port’s water once lapped against the houses themselves, but now this main square folds down to the water; a beach, an impromptu soccer field, a place for passiagetta, the evening ritual of strolling.

It’s time for a late lunch and Roberto, our favourite Italian guy and in our group, manages to secure us a table at a restaurant with a view, Ristorante Gambio Rosso. It is ideally located on the square… allowing us to gaze out to the small inlet, to the crowds and up to the floating laundry. Now Roberto, our ‘gentleman on tour’, becomes our unofficial translator as we navigate the menu. We then dine in sheer pleasure. It is the scrumptious food, refreshing local wine and glorious company over a luxurious long lunch. Allore, it was surely a mix of the right place and the excellent company of ‘merry writers’.

The Cinque Terre –  and especially Vernazza – claimed a little of our hearts that day.

 

Trieste… of the grand, of light on pastel 

Trieste? Yet another unexpected delight hints that there will be yet more to find. Head north, past Venice, 150km onwards, to the very eastern top of Italy’s ‘boot’. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, on the Gulf of Trieste, this once prosperous seaport was one of the oldest cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it feels a little like Vienna, or Salzburg with stately opulent buildings, many that harken back to the days of mighty shipping companies.

We explore endlessly, we eat often, and sometimes we hide in neighbourhood bars from that wind – the north-easterly bora – racing briskly up the Adriatic. In one, I taste the sweetest, thickest, most delicious hot chocolate I already know I’ll ever savour. It’s barely noon, but the bar is busy. A place where wine and beer already flows and where the daily paper is ritually digested.

When the sun comes out, Trieste is full of light dancing on pastel-hued buildings. Its grand square is simply resplendent. I’m taken aback at how ‘unItalian’ it feels. But then this storied city has always been at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.

We also explore the coast in a little Fiat, grand castles and hillside villages dotted along this narrow ribbon of land between mountain ridge and the azure sea.

Our stay is brief; in fact, we’re on our way to Slovenia to visit our son and his girlfriend. So Trieste… what can I say. Simply splendid that we happened to be passing through!

 

 

 

 

 

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!”