Well hello again little blog

Well hello little blog. I have missed you.

Here I am sitting on a train from York to Edinburgh watching the beautiful late autumn colors roll by.

This time just over a month ago I would be nearly at the end of my work week, juggling too many balls. Instead I am on a three-week adventure to connect with my British heritage of early dark and late sun-rise, dazzling Christmas lights and the promise of snow.

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Those of you that have followed this blog will know that I made the decision to go back to work full-time about 9 months ago. Best work place, amazing vision, the genuinely nicest people. Yet circumstances have led me to reluctantly put that aside (at least for now) and go back to a slightly altered version of my life for the last couple of years.

Turns out just when you think you might be able to commit yourself fully to work, things don’t always go according to plan – now there’s a surprise.

The catalyst was one of our dogs developing diabetes. Diabetes for a dog is the same as Type One diabetes for a human. there is no managing it with diet, it’s straight onto twice daily insulin injections and a pretty intense schedule of working with your vet in the initial period to get the dose right.

It is not an exaggeration to say this changed our lives over night. The injections have to be given as close as possible to 12 hours apart, food must be measured, walks must be strict and the possibility of a diabetic crash lingers closely in those first few weeks.

My wonderful workplace said I could bring him into work with me as he couldn’t be left alone. He was a very popular visitor to the office as he is very cute and loves people. Deep down though I knew this wasn’t a long term plan as he was slightly stressed by the process and it was hard to juggle taking him to various meetings.

So with heavy heart I resigned my position but we developed a two day a week position that meant I could look after Bosco, and still contribute in the form of important but not so urgent projects that needed to be bought on line.

However this catalyst became a domino on the move and I found myself weighing up work with all the other things going on in our lives – a house renovation, travel, my husband’s very full-on job, the birth of yet another precious grandchild and the announcement that there was another due early year. All good things but all that meant that something had to give.

Unlike many  people I am in the weird position of not having to work unless I want to,  so for me the question is nuanced and in some ways more difficult. I have had  several other grandmothers say that if they didn’t have to work, they wouldn’t. Yet we work for other reasons than just the financial ones and that made my decision hard. I like working, making a difference, being part of something bigger than myself, workplace banter, even wearing ‘work’ clothes. But I kind of knew as I went through the praying and thinking process, that for this season it made sense to step down for a time –  maybe permanently – I don’t know.

That was just over four weeks ago and my life has been full of  getting used to having a pet with diabetes, hanging out with our children, their little ones, my friends,  and appreciating all this  in a way I didn’t before I worked full-time for the last eight months. Also time spent catching up on all those things that don’t get done when you are both working full-time!

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Which brings me up to now. The amazing  trip  I am currently on was planned while I was working but I have been able to extend it for another week now I don’t have to fit it into annual leave.

And it is ‘I’ and not ‘we’ as it is a trip to the cold dark  Northern hemisphere winter (spurred by the  promise of a visit to a friend and the desire to see what Christmas is like over this side of the world) that did not appeal to Wayne so he graciously suggested I do it by myself – but more of that in my next entry.

It is a very big solo adventure for me!

 

What’s the opposite of home-sick?

We have been home for about three weeks and I can’t settle back into my normal routine. My usual tendency is to enjoy and appreciate the ordinariness of everyday life but I haven’t quite got back into that rhythm yet.

I wasn’t expecting to feel this. I was expecting to have a definite sense of ‘there’s no place like home.’ I was talking yesterday to a well-travelled friend I bumped into at the mall about this feeling and she described it as a yearning. Yearning – ‘a strong feeling of wishing for something, especially something that you cannot have or get easily’ – that’s a pretty good summation.

I know that visiting is not the same as living there. But experiencing the almost physical weight of history and culture for an extended period of time seems to have had a profound effect on me, and  I was overcome by the beauty of so many of the places we visited. Maybe its because we never did the big OE when we were younger so the impact is so much greater now.

I miss so many of the places we visited, especially in the UK. I miss London especially with an ache that I can’t put into words.

I miss the museums, the theatres, the art galleries, the masses of people, so vibrant in their diversity. I miss the Thames winding its dirty way through the city. I miss the Underground (believe it or not!). I miss the pubs with their beautiful hanging baskets. I miss the red double-deckers. I miss the majestic parks. I miss the historic buildings. I miss the sense of tradition, the sense of place.

But I am now home and I have so much to be thankful for now we are home. I need to remind myself of some of these things.

Firstly that I am so fortunate to live in New Zealand. What used to be called the tyranny of distance now looks like an advantage as we watch the news, especially during this eventful US election cycle. Having to fly longer to get anywhere now seems a small price to pay.

Our food and wine culture is as good as anything we experienced overseas (well maybe with the exception of Heston’s restaurant). We have access to amazing fresh, organic produce. I can walk to a farmers’ market in the weekend. Fantastic!

I can hang out with  with my friends who I value dearly.

I get to see our grandchildren whenever I want now I am home. The cliches about them growing too fast are all true.  I wouldn’t want to be away all the time!

Our family  will  be together for Christmas. It will be lovely, loud and messy.

Summer is just around the corner. Christmas decorations are in the shops, BBQs are being cleaned and people, including us, are planning their  annual summer escape to the beach.

My vegetable garden is back under control after 9 weeks of neglect (check out that rhubarb below).

OK, that’s a good list to start with and has helped  actually with the yearning a lot. Home is actually a pretty good place to be!

 

 

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And so it ends…

And so to the final week of our journey. Still behind in my writings as we are now home. I think I have  a theory that if I don’t blog about it, we will still be there somehow. However that is an avoidance technique that is not very helpful so here is our last week of the trip.

A whole week in London! Taking as long to Uber to our apartment by the Tower as it did to drive from Cambridge to the hire car drop-off at Heathrow was a somewhat frustrating experience, but finally we checked into our very cute space late afternoon. What a fantastic spot. Right next to the bustling tourist spot of the Tower and its surrounds, super close to the tube. Perfect.

Quick Wagamama to fill those empty tummies. Then off to the Hammersmith Apollo to see Josh Widdicombe. Formerly the Hammersmith Odeon, this stunning Art Deco theatre has seen so many famous musical names perform, but we were here instead to watch a comedian Josh was filming his DVD which made the night feel a bit special. His gentle Millennial humour gave us a perfect feel-good night out.

Next day we did a mix of touristy stuff. Churchill’s War Rooms –  a long wait to get in but a fascinating look at a space that basically was left as it was the day the war ended. hearing Churchill’s speech while we were down in the bunker gave us a small sense of the hope  and vision of that he carried.

I then spent a very happy hour wandering round St James Park. I am going to miss these stately parks in the middle of such huge cities like London and New York. Despite all our green open spaces, ironically we don’t have a big park in the middle of Auckland.

Wayne went off on a wee adventure by himself for the weekend, a BBC history weekend in Winchester. This meant I could do a sneaky trip to Harrods (just as gloriously tacky and over the top as I remembered it!). Then dinner with the young ones and one of my most anticipated events – Les Miserables at the West End. I have seen this show several times but was not disappointed by seeing it at the theatre where it all started. And it was Les Mis’s 31st birthday and the Queen’s Theatre’s 109th birthday. A really special night to attend.

Hillsong London in the morning – what a great church! Then time to finally say good-bye to Christian (although only for a couple of months) and Sophie (sadly for about a year).It felt really weird and sad walking away, but  I’m so glad they have each other while they are in the UK. And London is much closer to Cambridge than Cornwall so they will have a slightly more normal/less long-distance relationship from here on in. Cute couple xx!

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The last few days went by in a blur – Victoria and Albert, re-visiting our favourite bits of the British Museum, checking out the Borough Markets and Shakespeare at the Globe – what a privilege to get to see this (even with our seat at the back of the upper gallery).

Then it was our final night and we had decided well before we started the trip that we wanted to do something very special on our last night so had booked at Dinner – Heston Blumenthal’s London restaurant. Perfect food, wine and service made this a night to remember.

And then before we knew it, we were checking in at the airport, and then settling down for the double leg 24 hour journey back. I love Air NZ, especially when I am flying home – there’s something about hearing the Kiwi accent from the pilots and stewards that makes me smile.

On the flight I had the most amazing opportunity to photograph some mountains that were poking through the clouds. I think we were flying over Greenland. I have never seen anything quite like them while flying before.

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It’s going to take a very long time to process all of our experiences. I have come back changed by what I have seen and learnt about the richness of our shared history and the beauty of our world. But working all that out will have to wait. For now it’s about catching up with the rest of the family (especially the grand-children), handing out lots of presents and boring them with photos and anecdotes.

My  blog will revert back to its more eclectic range of topics from here on!

 

Nearly on the home stretch

After reluctantly farewelling Ireland we took the car ferry to Cairnryan we spent a very pleasant evening in a delightful B and B just a few minute from the car ferry. My first (and probably last) time ever staying somewhere with a  TV set into the bathroom wall, water-proof remote even!

Then a fairly long drive to North Dockenbush to spend a very quick day in York. We weren’t planning on making York a highlight, but we probably should have with the stunning York Minster and fascinating Shambles.

York Minster, one of the largest churches of its kind in Northern Europe, towers over the city. We were there on Sunday so its bells and those of the  also beautiful St Wilfred’s were pealing with joyous enthusiasm.

I had vaguely heard that The Shambles was worth visiting without really knowing what it was, so we dutifully Googled Mapped our way there and spent a very enjoyable hour wandering this crowded street with houses dating back as early as the 14th century. While now packed with tourists, the jostle and noise probably has some similarity to when it was a bustling market street.

 

Then on to Cambridge where we had a chance to spend four days with Christian, see his ‘dungeon’ digs for the year and be thoroughly entertained by the inrush of freshers for freshers’ week. Watching teenagers who had obviously never ridden a bike before negotiating the narrow streets, often with shopping dangling precariously from their handle bars (with I suspect with a beverage or two already consumed) was both entertaining and downright dangerous for the pedestrian spectator!

I love Cambridge. I love the fact that everyone cycles or walks. I love that the city is intertwined with the university. I love the individuality and beauty of all the colleges.  I love seeing that much maligned species “the youth of today” passionate and excited to learn. Observing  and listening to these young adults gives me great optimism for their generation.

For us it has been a huge sacrifice making the decision to let Christian follow his dream and study here but Im pretty sure its worth it. Already after a year here he has a world view  and experience that he wouldn’t have got if he stayed in NZ and he’s also making the most of every opportunity that comes his way. (Still sounds like a Kiwi though!)

We did a couple of days trips while here; firstly to yet another cathedral, this time at Ely. What a gorgeous town! We climbed the tower (vertigo alert!) which may not have been a good idea for me as by the time we got to the top of the last tiny flight of stone stairs I was fairly traumatised, but I got back down safely so  that was a good thing!

Then a visit to the delightful Audley End House, a (mainly) 17th century estate. With a fully working organic garden and the house beautifully restored to looking how it did at its heyday it was an excellent afternoon’s expedition. We had the added bonus of seeing the ‘Normans’ ride in as part of their journey to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.

Our trip now racing to its end, we headed down to London, dropping off our trusty and now very dirty hire car and keen to spend a week in that great city. We were still not really ready to go home!

 

 

 

Beautiful beautiful Ireland

We only had a week in Ireland so were determined to pack a lot in.

We cruised over on the car ferry, which was a rather nice way to while away a couple of hours. After a night in a cute BnB in Rosslare we headed into Dublin. It rained a lot in the two days we were there!

Obligatory beef and  Guinness pie eating proved very successful, and there was sampling of said Guinness, as well an entertaining visit to the Guinness Storehouse where I got to pour my own pint (I think mine is the one in the middle). Most satisfying.

A more sobering visit to the Kilmainham jail gave us an in-depth look at Ireland’s struggle for freedom and the people who sacrificed their lives to obtain it. There is a heart-breaking letter on display from an 18 year old who was executed for being part of the Easter uprising. The letter was written the night before his death – all he wanted was to see his mum. So very very sad. It made Alcatraz look very tame to be honest.

We also managed to fit in a visit to Dublin Castle with its beautiful staterooms and Trinity College Dublin. The Book of Kells and the old library were well worth the long queue to get in. Incredible to see such an old and precious book, even if it was just a couple of pages open for viewing. (No photos of the book allowed sorry!)

 

Our next two days were spent driving cross country to the beautiful areas of Glasson and Ballina. On the way we saw a sign for a waterfall so headed down the tiny road and were rewarded with seeing a small but gorgeous torrent of water, and finding a place that did excellent tea!

Both  our hotels for these couple of days were by the water, firstly a beautiful lake  and then a river. Very quiet and a nice change of pace from the hectic pace of Dublin. Wayne played golf and I had a massage – bliss.

We then drove to Belfast for a trip highlight – a Game of Thrones tour! Entertained and informed by our crazy guide Brian, a seasoned extra on the show, we saw many of the places where iconic scenes were filmed and got lots of insider information on how things were filmed. Mandatory and  much fun was getting dressed up as Iron Islanders and having a go at fighting  with (very heavy and realistic )swords. Our kids were a bit worried that I was having too much fun fighting their dad!

Along the way we got  to cross the famed Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge (why do I agree to these things?) This was the biggest test for my vertigo ever. Several of our group decided not to risk it as it was a windy day but I knew I would be annoyed with myself if I didn’t attempt it. Suffice to say that it was one of the scariest things I have ever done! I had Wayne behind me, encouraging me to take bigger steps, or at least keep moving. I think I shook for an hour afterwards. I’m not sure that continually forcing myself to confront these situations is good for me but I am learning a lot about what I can to do if I have to, and it turns out it’s quite a lot. The Giant’s Causeway was much easier!

We finished our week with a walking tour of the ‘Troubles’ era in Belfast history. The other side of the fight for autonomy with devastating results that still scar the city emotionally of not physically today.Our guide had grown up through all the bombings and was a professional mediator with both sides of the conflict – could have listened to him all day. We wished we could stay longer in Ireland but the car ferry was booked, so we said our goodbyes and farewelled this wonderful country.

We loved Ireland, so dramatic, such sweeping vistas, delicious food  and friendly people. Another country to put on our ‘let’s go back’ list!

 

Goodbye Italy, hello UK

Bit of a shock coming from the balmy skies of Italy (although it was raining as we took off) to the grey and cooler welcome of Heathrow.

Loading our luggage into a hire car, we set off on our UK road trip, a month of covering a few few kilometres. We spent a couple of quiet days in Salisbury and its surrounds visiting a few distant relatives and getting used to no longer being part of a tour party. Back to being responsible for everything!

We finally got around to visiting the marvel that is Stonehenge. So much still unknown about this feat of engineering, but we do know it was not used for human sacrifice as people so often say! We made the decisions to become English Heritage members when we saw the cost of entry, which I highly recommend if you are going to be traveling in the UK for more than a week or so. It saved us a huge amount of money and also encouraged us to visit sites we may not have thought about ordinarily.

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A small detour to the well-preserved Dartmouth Castle was our first one of these sites. Small and fascinating with an excellent tea rooms to boot.

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Our first major stop was two nights in a  little fishing village in Cornwall called Mevagissey. A tiny town of stone rising up from minuscule cobblestone roads. No allowance for cars, or pedestrians. We watched  said pedestrians squeeze themselves into shop doorways to let cars go past on that theoretically two way road. (We got quite good at this one ourselves). Eventually we found our way up the hill to our accommodation looking out over the bay.

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The weather wasn’t great but the views and village were fantastic.

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We were in Cornwall to catch up with the boy, his girlfriend and her parents. They had managed to secure tickets to the Minack Theatre, so well-rugged up we set out almost all the way down to Lands End to one of the most unique theatres ever built. We were beginning to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn as we began to manoeuvre down  narrower and narrower lanes, no street lights or road markings and  with only one car following us. Suddenly we emerged into a packed carpark in the middle of nowhere – very surreal. We made our way down the steep stairs to see the theatre literally set into the cliffs of with the  Atlantic Ocean crashing beneath. It is a breathtaking sight.

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Built into the cliffs 1932 by Rowena Cade and her team of gardeners it remains a thriving venue for drama and music. We watching the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Society romp through The Mikado, with some brilliant changes to the songs where appropriate for 21st Centre England. Sitting huddled together drinking hot chocolates and hearing the surging surf in between the songs was a truly magical experience and well worth the long drive back.

Two days in Venice is not enough (part two)

We packed a lot into our second day in Venice. Starting with breakfast on the terrace of our hotel, looking out onto the Grand Canal, I thought I might cry at the beauty of this city. So different to anything I have ever experienced. I could have sat there all day but I’m glad I didn’t.

Venice is complicated. Obviously reliant on tourism but also being damaged by tourism. There were two enormous cruise ships looming while we were there. The problem with cruise ships is they dock, disgorge passengers for a day and then leave. They cause huge damage to the fragile buildings and eco-system but provide enormous income. Here’s a link to an interesting Guardian article published a few days after we left which sums it up very well. It’s hard  to work out the best answers as, like so many other people, we wanted to experience the magic that is Venice. How do you decide who can come and how many? At least we were staying a couple of days  and spending money outside of the set tourist attractions – I hope that’s better than staying on a floating hotel for a day, visiting St Mark’s Square and then leaving?

We spent the morning in the Doge’s Palace with the delightful Daniella as our guide. A passionate Venetian, she recreated the political and social history of Venice as we drank in the incredible art and scope  of this building. Was wonderful to cross the Bridge of Sighs after visiting the Cambridge one last year ( with its slightly less ominous tradition of crossing to sit exams).

Then off to Murano for a glassblowing demonstration and a chance to buy some of the beautiful glass on display ( some Christmas presents were sorted!).

The afternoon was spent at the beautiful island of Burano. Think of a laid-back mini Venice! Apparently Michelle Obama has been here – good choice by her. Brightly coloured houses with fabrics billowing over the front doors, tiny canals criss-crossing everywhere . Just beautiful. One of my favourite places in Italy.

Sadly the next morning was time to leave Venice and indeed Italy. I definitely want to come back and spend more time in the areas we fell in love with. We lingered over breakfast for as long as possible until we had to leave via speedboat. Wayne’s suitcase was precariously balanced on the top of a pile of others. I was convince it was going for to fly off into the sea! But we made it safely to the airport dock and far too soon were sitting on a plane to the UK. A whole new series of adventures to come.

Two days in Venice is not enough (part one)

We came across from Rapello through Verona. I liked Verona very much although passed on the option to eat horse or donkey ragu, instead enjoying an excellent seafood pasta.

After what seemed like forever we finally pulled up at the wharf and farewelled our faithful coach and awesome driver.

Like many people Venice is somewhere I have always fantastised about going. The concept of a seemingly floating city, the canals, the gondalas, the Grand Canal, the history. I was a bit worried that it would be a single idea destination – but the longer we stayed there (and it was sadly a brief visit) the more we fell under its spell.

We did the classic arrival in style via a James Bondesque speedboat to our hotel on the Grand Canal.

Old world and ornate but slightly shabby, it was a perfect place to set up base. We arrived in the late afternoon so only had time for a gondala ride on the first evening. You can see from one of the photos that we had a wee bit of a gondola traffic jam. Great fun and the perfect way to be introduced to Venice as the sun started to set. We peeled off from the group afterwards, had a pizza just off St Mark’s Square and checked out some of the amazing shops in the ever narrower side streets. It was just about closing time so we knew would would have to come back later.

Really regretting having to use my phone camera as Venice is a photographers’ paradise.  The combination of the buildings and that famous luminosity of the light takes your breath away.

 

 

 

Galileo said it perfectly

A low-key but lovely morning was spent getting our sleeves rolled up and cooking our own lunch. We did this in the midst of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscape – it was almost impossible to tear our eyes and cameras away from the scenery stretching out in front of us  to go inside.

A simple menu of bread salad, pasta with vegetable ragu and tiramisu kept us concentrating for the morning. We got to keep the recipes as well, so once I am home I’ll probably make some of the menu again and post the recipes if they still taste this yummy!

It’s easy to forget how easy it is to throw together perfect silky smooth pasta, even without the help of a pasta rolling machine. We were a mixed group cooking skills-wise, so the cooking school did well to keep everyone happy and also make sure we served ourselves edible food.

The meal was matched perfectly with accompanying wines as the cooking school was (surprise surprise) attached to a vineyard. We treated ourselves to a beautiful red and I also bought myself a tee-shirt with this beautiful quote from Galileo Galilei.

  Wine is sunlight, held together by water 

Perfect!

A vineyard with serious history

The beautiful villa where Machiavelli was under house arrest, spending his time writing , fuming and plotting – now a wonderful vineyard. The house still has much still intact from Machiavelli’s time including some magnificent furniture. For us it was a chance to absorb yet more history, check out some local wine, sample some local food, and relax in the perfect afternoon sun. Not quite sure how I am going to go back to my ordinary existence!

(A very random aside. Those of you who are Black Books fans will appreciate my photo of the cheap and dusty wine! )