Back From Abroad!

Back From Abroad!

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We’re home!! And it was wonderful, magical, challenging, expensive, enchanting, familiar, exotic, and as always, life-changing and perspective-changing. It was a terrific adventure.

But first things first, my apologies for being extremely quiet over the last two months. The updates dwindled because of extremely challenging, very precarious events taking place at work which came to a head, spilling fourth drama the likes of which I have never seen in my professional life before. It caused anxiety and stress that I also have never experienced in my professional life, and a lot of uncertainty regarding the future. HOWEVER. It seems the storm is passing and things are really looking up, so now that the flurry of crazy has died down, I’m looking forward to directing my mental energy back to the things that make me really happy, this blog being one of them!

OK. With that out of the way…

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It was marvelous, guys. I could write about the wicked financial hangover we’re nursing (…we knew it was coming, and feel it was worth it, but it still hurts!), or the inevitable let-down of returning to every day life (not as bad as last time!), or the very real challenges that the three of us encountered that make up the experience of travel…but I won’t bother, because all of those things pale in comparison to the graces upon grace that we were given daily, and the seeds that have been planted in our souls from these experiences, preparing to bloom and ripen over the coming months and years. I sincerely hope you don’t get terribly bored of seeing travel pictures and hearing travel stories, because that’s going to be a major theme of my blog for a long time to come!

We started our trip in London, staying in a beautiful apartment in an award-winning, eco-friendly building in Elephant and Castle, a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that won our hearts immediately. This was the view from our bedroom:

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We stayed in London for four days, and it was fantastic! We did a lot of sightseeing, catching up on sleep, walking, riding the busses and the underground…but the downside was that London was in the middle of the the worst heatwave they’ve ever had and we were hot as HELL. Poor London just doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with heat like that, and our apartment, the busses, the tube, basically everywhere, didn’t have adequate air conditioning. We were sweating buckets and remained sticky the entire time. Still, we did the best we could and saw some glorious sights:

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Possibly our favorite London experience was getting to eat at St. John, a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by renowned chef Fergus Henderson. Who I met. Who I got to thank. Who I kind of fangirl-fawned over as I gushed to him, and who graciously thanked me and told me he hoped we enjoyed our lunch. Guys…it was basically the highlight of the entire trip. I almost cried several times after returning to my table, but forced myself to hold back the tears remembering I was wearing mascara. Oh, the food was outstanding, by the way! I’m planning to do a second food retrospective post for this trip, so you’ll get to see what we ate!

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We visited Stonehenge and Bath:

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Both were lovely. This was the most touristy thing we did, and it was fun but I wouldn’t do them again (at least not by chartered tour bus). This was a challenging day because we were all very tired and Sister was worn thin, but we still got many fun memories out of it and I will definitely remember it fondly.

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Husband and I got to do a day exploring London on our own while Sister rested, and we had the best time! We visited ancient tea shops and ancient perfume shops (surprise, surprise, Husband bought his very first grown-up cologne and it’s MAGICAL). We visited the London Transport Museum, to Husband’s delight, and we visited my beloved Twining’s tea shop, to my delight.

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Then in the evening we ate at this lovely place, a beautiful pub. There is so much beauty in the U.K., it’s almost unbelievable. Everywhere you look there is something ancient, eternal and charming looking back at you. The details make all the difference, and we were constantly looking at each other and saying things like “This is REAL! It isn’t Disneyland…it’s REAL!” It sounds so silly, but the beauty, the details…they fed us. They fed us right up, filling starving parts of our souls that we didn’t even know needed nourishment.

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After London we took the train to Holyhead (home of the Holyhead Harpies, for you Harry Potter fans!) and stayed in a lovely B&B. I took an evening stroll by myself and was rewarded with these vistas.

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The next day we took a ferry to Dublin and, after a near-disaster regarding return-ferry scheduling that Husband heroically solved, we spent seven hours in this remarkably and stunningly beautiful city.

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We decided immediately that next time, Dublin is where we’ll be coming, sorry London! We’ve had enough of you! Dublin was just…comfortable. Next to the hustle and bustle of London, Dublin was like your grandpa’s easy chair…we felt we could sink into it with a hot drink (a real Irish coffee, perhaps) and just stay indefinitely. Alas, we had to return to Holyhead…but thankfully we got a stateroom on the return journey, and one with a fantastic view:

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Mostly we slept, though. Then, of course, we got to Conwy. OH, CONWY.

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If you read my (long) post about Wales you’ll know my love for Conwy. I can’t possibly reiterate it here, but suffice it to say, Conwy is my most favorite place on earth. If any place feeds the starving parts of my soul, it is north Wales, and Conwy might as well be the capital.

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Of course, there are other stunning towns in north Wales, like the almost absurdly picturesque Llanwrst:

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We spent a few days in the north just taking in the splendor, and then said goodbye to Conwy at it’s lovely little train station:

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Now we are home, jet lagged, still needing to do laundry, unpack, prepare for the work week (I return tomorrow!). But I’m going to ease back into the grind, and I have a handful of changes that I’m going to be making to improve my quality of life. Last August I wrote a post called “First Fruits,” discussing the “fruit” that travel bears in the weeks after returning home. I’m already seeing these first fruits, but I’m looking forward to the harvest, which will come in time. Of course, it feels so good to be home. Traveling is exhausting and it’s wonderful to be in my own bed again, with my own sweet kitty curled up next to me. We are so lucky and so grateful, and we’ll definitely bask in this glow for weeks to come.

 

 

Your Guide to Summer Reading

Your Guide to Summer Reading

Hi friends! Even though we’re well into summer, I wanted to do another book post! I’m changing up my seasonal book recommendations and instead sharing a guide to summer reading, rather than a list of titles. Summer reading is a totally different animal to rest-of-the-year reading. Instead, here’s my approach to what I reach for during the summer:

1. Mass-market paperbacks of New York Times Bestsellers (new…or decades old). Summer isn’t a dark, rainy, ponderous time of year for sitting sedentary in your armchair and contemplating philosophy (I mean, power to you if that’s your thing, but I save that for the winter months). Summer is the best season for tucking a paperback of something light and easily digestible into your purse while you head to the beach or the park; nothing that requires a ton of emotional energy, but good page-turners, nonetheless. Use summer to check out the bestsellers you’ve avoided while you were re-reading classic literature the whole year…(ahem…). My current NYT bestselling paperback is At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon, a delightfully easy, summer read.

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2. Memoirs. Summer is a great time of year to read about something entirely new and different, and what could be more different than the first-person perspective of another person’s life? One caveat for me is that they not be too depressing– I love feeling uplifted this time of year (I can read depressing things in fall or during Lent). Memoirs or other first-person experience stories like Mennonite in A Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen or Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes can be hilarious or evocative page-turners. I recently re-read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, which recounts his experience walking the Appalachian Trail, a perfect summer theme!

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3. Outside-Your-Comfort-Zone genres and subjects. This really gets at the heart of what I reserve summer reading time for– all the things I just don’t feel like reading the rest of the year. I spend SO much time doing re-reads of books and genres that bring me comfort and familiarity during fall, winter and spring that if I’m ever going to try something new it’s usually going to be during summer. Never tried fantasy? Maybe sci-fi isn’t your thing? For some reason there’s less guilt if you don’t end up finishing a book you start when your days are so full of other outdoorsy things, so testing a new genre feels like less of a commitment. This summer I’ve picked up books about other religions I don’t know much about, and I’m dabbling in contemporary fiction which is unusual for me.

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4. Non-fiction: history. I spend a TON of time reading historical fiction but again, it’s a good time of year to learn things (I guess that’s true of every season!). History is kind of like time-travel, and as summer is the season for travel and adventure, it’s appropriate to be swept away to other times and places. Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton has been flying off shelves for the last few years, and is a good candidate for a summer read. Some of my favorites are Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraiser, and One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson.

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5. Non-fiction: other stuff. In the spirit of adventure, I’ve picked up a bunch of educational books on all kinds of topics, and though they aren’t the kind of books you read cover-to-cover, they’re the kind you can learn a ton from just by flipping through. Books on raising toddlers, nutrition, home decorating, dieting…not precisely self-help, but books that definitely help when you want to learn more about a specific topic.

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So, there you have it! Happy summer reading, everyone!

The World Keeps Turning

The World Keeps Turning

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When I was twelve I developed an obsession with dragons—the monsters of European legend—full-winged, long-snouted, fire-breathing mythical beasts. When I say obsession, I am not speaking in hyperbole. I had books about dragons, and posters of them. I had dragon necklaces, earrings, candles, statues. I had an incense holder shaped liked a dragon, mouth open to let the steady stream of smoke issue forth. Grandma cheerfully and enthusiastically bolstered my dragon collection, surprising me with tiny figurines, beautiful decorative candles, and many other dragon-y things. One weekend in eighth grade I visited a bookstore in Sacramento with a friend and her dad. Browsing a table of shiny new paperbacks, my eye came to rest on a book that would change my life: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Intrigued by the title I bought the book, brought it home and started reading it in slow spurts, flipping through to find parts that attracted me, skipping much of it. It was a dense tome of historical fiction—no dragons to speak of—about the reign of medieval King John and his relationship with the princes of Wales.

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The writing was beautiful, and the book remained a treasured item, but at the time I wasn’t quite ready for it. Over the next few years I often thumbed through it, seeking out the passages I’d come to enjoy reading, revisiting parts that sparked my imagination. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally finished reading Here Be Dragons cover to cover. By then my obsession with dragons as literal creatures had faded, but Sharon Kay Penman had fueled a new passion—dragons as people: the Welsh people, who proudly fly a red dragon on their country’s flag. The sweeping, epic tale told with Penman’s signature meticulous historical accuracy was the single most entrancing piece of fiction I had read (except perhaps, for Harry Potter). A few months after moving to San Francisco and settling into my new room at Grandma’s house, I bought a language book (we had no internet) and taught myself Welsh. Actually, I taught myself Welsh pronunciation to the best of my ability. My intent was to decode the mystifying Welsh words and names scattered liberally through Penman’s book—“cariad,” “Adda” “Llewelyn,” “LLanfiar,” “Gwenwynwyn,” “Powys,” “Tangwystl,”—or to make sense of long proverbs the characters sometimes utter (“Y mae dafad ddu ym mhob paridd”). How on earth does an English speaker make sense of these bizarre strings of consonants?

So, I taught myself. I taped words for the days of the week, colors, and numbers on my wall like in a child’s bedroom. On the computers at City College (where I had enrolled in a Culinary Arts program) I began planning a solo trip to Wales, mapping out all the places of historical significance I wanted—no, needed!—to visit, the places “my friends” had touched and built.

Because you see, I had read this book so many times now that these people (who called out to me that day in the bookstore when I was twelve), were my friends. They made me care about them. They taught me things. They weren’t just names in a textbook. They were people with faults, hopes, dreams, loves…such is the magic of well-written historical fiction. Not only did I consider these historical figures my friends, I had begun to devour more books about their lives, and about medieval Welsh history. In a local bookstore I found the next two books in Penman’s Welsh Prince trilogy—Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, both equally engrossing. I celebrated Welsh victories, I cried over Welsh tragedies. I held the land of Y Ddraig Goch (the Red Dragon) close to my heart, valuing their unique culture and language, lamenting their centuries-past conquering by English king Edward the First.

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In early 2012, after I had moved out of Grandma’s house and into an apartment with my husband, Grandma had a series of significant health crises that would culminate in her never returning home. Otherwise alone in San Francisco, I was run ragged for weeks visiting her in the hospital, helping move her to rehab facilities, staying with her…only to see her slide back into acute illness (she developed life-threatening C. Diff in the hospital) and enter the ICU. This was the first time in my life that I had been confronted with Grandma’s mortality, and the experience traumatized me. I remember the three-month span as agonizing. Unfathomable. Exhausting. I almost never stopped crying. There was a period when we believed her death was imminent, so I kept my cell phone next to my head in bed as I waited for the call I was certain would come any moment, to give me the worst news I could imagine. Up until this point, I had understood Grandma’s mortality as an intellectual concept only. I knew she would one day die because all living things die. But I hadn’t understood it emotionally, and I couldn’t bear it.

Coupled with this trauma was the immediate necessity of cleaning out her home of fifty years and preparing it for the rental market. Gutting a place that had been my home, that contained some of my most cherished childhood memories, was agony. That’s the only way to describe it. I turned to my literary friends for comfort.

I re-read The Reckoning, which tells the life story of Llewellyn the Last, the final Welsh prince who was conquered (and murdered) by Edward the First’s forces in 1282. His death was of extreme significance. It signaled the end of Welsh independence for all time. He was profoundly mourned. His death wasn’t merely the fall of a beloved leader, it signified the fall of Wales. Penman deftly retells the aftermath, including a true anecdote of a bard named Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch who wrote and performed an elegy for Llewelyn in the days that followed. The elegy is long—this was an era that revered spoken poetry as entertainment—and conveys a grief so raw, so painful, and so haunting that it instantly resonated. I felt the bard calling out to me from the page, speaking to my unexpected grief at the devastation of life as I knew it, especially in one particular stanza:

“See you not the ocean scourging the shore?

See you not the truth is portending?

Have you no belief in God, foolish men?

See you not that world is ending?”

See you not that world is ending? Grandma was dying, something I couldn’t understand, and her house (my house!) was being packed up and disposed of…and my world was ending. I thought at the time that if I could have tattooed the entire elegy on my body somewhere I might have (an impossible feat). They were the only words that spoke to my pain, my confusion, my seemingly inconsolable grief and despair.

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But you know what’s funny? For a poem considered to be one the greatest examples of Welsh poetry and European literature of all time, the entire elegy is almost impossible to find. In those dark days, I scoured the internet, finding most of it in an ancient e-book someone had scanned and nowhere else. Even today when you Google it you might only find pieces of it, or articles dedicated to its historical significance…but not a translation, end-to-end. In the years following, I tried to revisit it several times, but it was difficult to track down. This piece of poetry had been my one comfort in my darkest days, but it was elusive, and I felt like the only living person on the planet who cared about it.

God works in mysterious ways. Grandma didn’t die in 2012. She stabilized, and then moved to assisted living in Roseville, improved and lived another five years. We occasionally talked about that terrible time, how upset I was, how horrible it had been…and how transformative it had been for me. After some time had passed, I realized I could now conceive of a world that didn’t contain Grandma. I had been abruptly forced to consider that reality, and never having considered it before, I had believed the world was ending. But I now knew what it was to feel the worst grief and pass through it, and I told her more than once while discussing her eventual passing that I knew I would be ok when the time came. I wasn’t saying it merely for her sake, but because I knew it to be true. I would be ok. I knew that day would come now, and I understood that life would move on.

So it has. Painfully. Sometimes with despair and lamenting and disbelief. But it has.

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In 2016, my husband and I traveled to Wales. My dream trip to the land of Y Ddraig Goch became a reality. I wanted to hear with my own ears the language I had stumbled through alone, never having heard it spoken by a real person. I was elated and humbled at the prospect of visiting the graves of “my friends,” the places they touched, the views they gazed at, the craggy mountains they loved. That spring Grandma was healthy, and we kept up a steady correspondence of written letters and phone calls, sometimes several of each per week. Leaving the U.S. on my first international trip was exciting and daunting in equal measure…what if something happened to her while I was so far away?

We started in South Wales, in Cardiff, the capital. While the signage of the country was in both Welsh and English (which delighted me), I heard almost no spoken Welsh. No matter. I’d heard that Welsh was more widely spoken in the North…and that made sense. The North, Gwynedd, was home to my friends—Llewelyn the Great and his wife Joanna, his grandson Llewelyn the Last, and countless ladies and men who lived and changed the course of empire. We took the train to Conwy in North Wales and after checking into our motel, walked to the center of the beautiful, ancient walled village.

Turning into the little square, he appeared just like that. Right in front of me, like he had been waiting for me the whole time—Llewellyn the Great, perched atop a column, painted in vibrant color, beardless but with a mustache in the medieval Welsh fashion. My friend. Crown atop his head, sword and shield at his side, he looked every inch a prince. My prince. I carried the words that spoke of his grandson’s death in my heart—a heart now bursting with happiness, longing, the joy of reuniting with someone you love. I had cherished the story of his life and was comforted by the elegy for his grandson’s death. I might have been one of few people that cared about the elegy, but his homeland loved him as I did—certainly more so!—and I was thrilled to be there.

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We visited many lovely places on our trip, and our last day in Conwy we took a final walk around town, window shopping and enjoying the sunshine. On a whim, we stepped into visitor’s center that we’d missed our first day. It only contained a few rooms but was beautifully maintained. Husband veered left immediately to gaze lovingly at some maps, and I wandered into the far rooms, gasping with delight at detailed timelines depicting the lives of so many of my “friends.” The last room was dimmed, and I stepped into its silence alone, sitting myself down on the bench in the center. My jaw hit the floor. My eyes filled with tears.

On a series on silk banners in white lettering atop a deep purple background, spangled with the nighttime sky, was the elegy. Huge, the banners took up an entire wall, and were lovingly lit like a precious treasure in a museum. In the dim silence, the room felt like a chapel. Indeed, it was a holy place for me. In both Welsh and English, the elegy was displayed in its entirety—the lament of a nation, a people, a way of life…a lament because their world was ending. I read each word as silent tears streamed down my cheeks.

“Have you no belief in God, foolish men?

See you not that the world is ending?”

But it didn’t end. Almost a thousand years later I was here, visiting these words. Hearing Welsh. Seeing Wales. A year later Grandma would pass, and I would remember this lament and reflect that it did indeed feel like the world was ending. But it wasn’t. And it didn’t. And it won’t.

There is a Welsh word with no English translation that I’ve treasured for a long time—“hiraeth.” The literal meaning is something like “nostalgia,” or “homesickness,” but the common understanding is deeper. It’s used to indicate missing a time of life, an era, or a person, while being grateful for their existence. It’s a bittersweet concept, the merging of gratitude and loss. It’s hiraeth I feel now, remembering Grandma. The days of inconsolable tears and frantic, panicked grief have dimmed, the hole she left remains. What fills it is the missing. The gratitude. The loss. The remembering. Hiraeth contains sadness, but it hints at containing joy, for what would we be wistful for if not for joyful places and times? Why else do we miss things? How else could I be homesick for her…homesick for a person?

In a few weeks I’ll be in Conwy again, looking up at my friend, the Welsh prince. I might visit the elegy, if it’s still there. My inner twelve-year-old will revel in the abundance of dragons, my inner thirty-year-old will remember the letters I wrote Grandma on the last trip, heart brimming with hiraeth, knowing I can’t write to her this time. And so passes the world, though it does not end, even if it feels like it might. I’m looking forward to this new adventure with people I love in a place full of friendly ghosts who remind me–

“Have you no belief in God, foolish girl?

See you not that world keeps turning?”

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To London, With Love

To London, With Love

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Sitting in the back of our MiniCab, we craned our necks to take in every detail of the landscape flying past. I hadn’t realized how far Heathrow was from London proper. Our driver, who had been so patient as we delayed and delayed, waiting in the endless customs line to enter the country, zipped down the freeway through construction detours, weaving carefully and quickly through traffic snares. I’m sure my eyes looked like saucers. It was like waking up and having the whole world as you know it reversed, the uncanny valley of familiarity meeting otherness.

We sped past farmland, neon yellow with flowering mustard, football stadiums, and eventually row housing that looked alarmingly decrepit. Entering London, we pulled to a stop just as a pedestrian smashed in the window of the car next to us, shouting. The light turned and we sped away before we could see what happened. I hadn’t known what to expect, but what I saw wasn’t it. Ancient buildings filthy with centuries of grime shot past, miles and miles of hyper-urban landscape swarming with people who didn’t look at all like myself, more hijabs than I had ever seen in one place, above-ground trains, unfamiliar signage and crossing signals, and the sheer immensity of London intimidated me…in fact, it terrified me.

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Before we exited the cab at the Citizen M hotel, I was convinced I hated London. I was fearful, so nervous. Just the cab ride had given me real culture shock. I had expected something thoroughly Anglicized, romantic, quaint, something Victorian, something posh and refined. Maybe I expected a village, but instead I had gotten something like New York City—overwhelming urban sprawl that I hadn’t fathomed. I’d known about London of course—it’s types of crime, it’s population density, it’s demographics. That’s what’s so silly about my unexpected reaction. I knew London wasn’t those things I had been expecting! And it’s embarrassing to admit that I was at all taken aback by such things, but I’m being brutally honest here– I was. It was like meeting a blind date who’ve you’ve only seen a tiny, pixelated picture of. Suddenly you see them in the flesh and regardless of what they’ve told you about themselves, they are nothing like what you anticipated. I wanted to hide in my hotel. I was afraid of so much otherness, so much that was unfamiliar.

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Husband was ecstatic. He wanted to walk, to dig into this place and get to know it. Knowing I hadn’t traveled all this way to sit in my hotel being afraid, we walked to a tea shop I wanted to visit, and ate savory pies at a fancy restaurant. Following a route Husband made up as we went along, we passed the Royal Courts of Justice, the London School of Economics, strolled by Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square. We walked and walked and walked. And as we walked I relaxed a bit, amazed by the sights, sounds, smells, all the differences large and small that made this place “other.” Endless monuments, endless beautiful architecture, endless accents of many types. I was impressed by so much of what I saw, but I was also unable to form a real opinion—I felt like a toddler, taking the whole of creation in for the first time, with no frame of reference through which to judge it or to orient myself.

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And then, when it looked like I was beginning to soften, I had a bit of a meltdown. After many hours of walking, and after Husband’s thoughtful warnings that we had a long walk still ahead of us, I became very physically and mentally weary and began to crack. It was in the theatre district that I started to panic. Swarms of people were out on the sidewalks, ales in hand, enjoying the warm late afternoon sunshine. I perceived that it was growing late and I was exhausted, quickly getting hungrier and hungrier. Husband showed me how far we had wandered from our hotel—we were at least an hour’s walk back. I had had just enough novelty and suddenly felt overwhelmed, stranded, frightened, and alone for no good reason at all. I actually started crying a little (I’m not proud of this memory). I moaned and groaned, and was a thorough pain in the ass for poor Husband who was having a ball and couldn’t see what the matter was! Patiently, he led the way back to our hotel as I seethed in high dudgeon and anxiety that continued to bubble up, despite the good time I’d had over the last few hours. I can’t remember what we ate for dinner, but it was near our hotel. Our jet lag kept us up very late despite our exhaustion, and when we came-to it was noon.

I woke up knowing that I hated London. I had wanted to befriend it on my terms, ones I had imagined for it, and it had failed me. Nevertheless, I was willing to try again. I regretted sleeping in so late. Still, we had enough time to walk over to the Tower of London by way of Borough Market and take a tour, before meandering leisurely back to catch a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the nearby Shakespeare Globe theatre. This second day, rested and well-fed, the vastness of London—cobblestones, wide streets, enormous bridges and seemingly endless sprawl—was less of a shock.

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We had a wonderful time! I got a picture with the first female Beefeater, we ate sausages and cake, drank ale and tea, saw the burial sites of people like Anne Boleyn. As I stood in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula I closed my eyes and imagined– my soul remembering a time and place never seen, manifesting love for people never met, missing memories never had. So many sights in London make you feel this way. London holds the present in its palm, but gestures at the vastness of yesterday, reminding you that you are merely passing through…that it alone will remain. This experience was so different compared to the day before. Well rested, I was better oriented. I felt safer, I had a mental grasp on the place I was in. The crowds of people I felt were pressing in on me the day before were, today, just people enjoying the sunshine.

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That evening, we climbed into the balcony of an historic theatre, roof open to the warm night air, and spent the next four hours transported into another world—one of hilarity, beauty, and utter magic, the evening stars twinkling overhead. We left the theatre and grabbed huge bowls of pasta across the street, unable to find words adequate for what we had just experienced. “That was, hands down, the best performance of any kind I have ever seen in my entire life,” Husband proclaimed. I smiled in total agreement as I devoured spicy fusilli. Something had clicked that day. First impressions aren’t always accurate. I had given London a second chance, and it had wooed me. I began to “get” London. It was working its magic on me, but I had to approach it on its terms, not mine.

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We boarded a train the following morning and spent the next few hours whizzing through impossibly beautiful English countryside dotted with sheep, low stone walls and hedgerows bisecting green meadows spilling over with blooms. I realized why England is known for its lush greenery—every nook and cranny, where in America there would dwell a weed, here bloomed a flower. At the base of stop signs, sprouting from cracks in sidewalks, every growing plant turned a colorful face to the sun. We disembarked in Cardiff, Wales and in unseasonably warm sunshine we sat in the verdant and charming Sophia Park sipping tea, falling in love all over again—with Wales, with the United Kingdom, with traveling, with each other.

Wales was one of the best adventures of my life. I won’t go into it because I could write a novella about my love affair with Wales, so I’ll save that for another time.  Trust me when I say, we fell HARD for the Welsh people, the Welsh countryside, the Welsh language, and everything Wales had to offer. It was a visit to Middle Earth for us, and it nourished something deep inside the quiet parts of our sleeping souls we didn’t know we needed.

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I boarded the train back to London on our last day in the UK and sped back to the city that made me feel a thousand different things. For the second time, we walked. We walked to the Houses of Parliament, walked to the London Eye, walked to King’s Cross Station to visit Platform 9 ¾. We stopped for the second time at Twinings on the Strand (established 1706!) and spent a small fortune on tea. This time around, I wasn’t anxious. London, after such a short and volatile romance, had us both at its mercy. I accepted it on its terms, not mine, and its generosity overflowed. I teared up again flying westward, leaving pieces of my heart behind. I had always ached to experience Britain. Now I had, and despite my anxieties of various kinds, I had fallen as deeply in love with it as I always thought I would.

Some people hate traveling. There are several I know in my immediate family alone who could gladly die happy never having left home again. And after lifetimes of hard work, why should they leave home to spend money elsewhere and be uncomfortable for a brief period of time? Travel isn’t easy. It’s hard on the bank account and hard on they body. If you’re like me, travel can spark anxiety and strangely agoraphobic episodes! The unknown and unfamiliar can be legitimately terrifying, even when there isn’t any real threat present. Being in unfamiliar places can be threat enough to a person prone to nerves at the best of times. But here’s the thing…

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Stepping far outside our comfort zones forces us to adapt and reveals parts of ourselves we might not know exist. I didn’t expect to react to London so negatively. After that first day, I didn’t expect to ever thaw towards it, either. But in a remarkably tiny space of time, I not only had all kinds of preconceived notions quashed, but was forced to reflect upon what those preconceived notions meant about me, about what makes me uncomfortable and why. I got to reframe my discomfort, and ultimately let it go when I realized that much of it was baseless and silly. And that was liberating and rewarding.

The upshot is that I have absolutely zero qualms or anxieties about our forthcoming trip. London is far too old, far too big, and far too complex for me to ever fully “get” it, but I like to think that we are friends insofar as a person can befriend a place. I’m looking forward to introducing Sister to it, and to seeing Husband (London’s fast friend) reunite with a place he appreciated from the beginning. I’m excited to see parts of it I haven’t seen, taste things I haven’t tasted, and step once again outside of the familiar—the place where true adventure begins. We’ll reunite on its terms, not mine, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

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Hello April!

Hello April!

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April, beautiful April! A month of true springtime. April showers might bring May flowers, but April really has its own fair share of flowers. The trees in my apartment complex are blossoming their hearts out, filling the air with their glorious fragrance.

Can you believe it has been four months since the beginning of the year? Yikes! Time FLEW! And I hope it keeps flying because we are officially four more months away from our delightful vacation! But I digress…

Lent ended on Holy Thursday, and now that it’s over I can reflect that it wasn’t my most spiritually challenging nor spiritually insightful Lenten season. For reasons expressed in my “One Year Later” post, I struggled a lot with feeling…anything…spiritually. But towards the end, a beautiful book of philosophy came into my life which moved me a lot…and it again reminded me that I am in the middle of the storm, not end. A comforting thought.

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What’s on for April:

April 1st—Easter Sunday!!

April 2nd—Husband’s birthday!

April 8th—Divine Mercy Sunday

April 9th—Feast of the Annunciation

April 13th—National Scrabble Day (I just adore Scrabble)

April 14th-15th—San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival

April 22nd—National Jelly Bean Day

You know, there isn’t a whole lot going on in April, and that is A-Ok with me. We have enough going on with Husband’s school schedule and my various commitments here and there.

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Some things I’d like to do in April:

–Bake a pie! Any kind of spring pie, but perhaps strawberry as they are in season?

–Finish at least two books, ideally three! Last month was a very slow reading month for me.

–Develop a Bay Area Bucket List of things to do before Husband and I move away at the end of the year

–Go see one movie in the movie theatre. I never do this. I love doing this. I must do this.

What do you have planned for April? Take care, all!

 

Summer Surprises!

Summer Surprises!

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The weekend is here, thank goodness, and February is underway. Husband and I have taken it upon ourselves to undertake an “Uber Frugal Month,” inspired by the great Frugalwoods family:

http://www.frugalwoods.com/category/uberfrugalmonth/

We wanted to start this neat challenge last month but, alas, there were just too many conflicting priorities that got scrambled up. Part of the reason we’re putting our noses to the grindstone this month financially is because…

Surprise, surprise!! We’re going to the U.K.!! *Trumpets and fanfare*

A few posts ago I sadly shared my 2016 U.K. vacation food retrospective because we had just determined that visiting the U.K. wasn’t feasible. The thing is, it wasn’t feasible for the month we had been planning it. After the initial disappointment, I put on my thinking cap and decided that I really didn’t want to write off international travel for the entire year of 2018 so early on. Husband, Sister and I put our heads together and finally came up with some dates over the summer that (although painfully far in the future from a February vantage point) work for the three of us, and even allow us to take a longer trip than initially planned. Tickets are purchased, and there is no turning back!

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We are still pinning down all the fun things we’d like to do and the places we’d like to see. At the moment, it’s looking like London, the English countryside, North Wales and Dublin, Ireland are all in the plans for what will be Sister’s first international trip and our second visit to magical Britain. It’s funny, but I have a hard time mustering any imagination for traveling elsewhere— I feel like I could spend my lifetime visiting Britain and never get enough. Who knows? Maybe Husband and I will buy a vacation home there someday, or retire there. One can dream!

Although the trip is half a year in the future, I am already planning my packing, the souvenirs I want to bring home, ideas for saving on meals and accommodation and other minutiae. I’m dreaming of full English breakfasts, and afternoon tea served with thick slices of coffee walnut cake. I’m remembering the elegance of Tudor market towns, and the childlike joy of riding the trains—so convenient! One thing is for sure—we will be taking the train a lot. Husband adores riding the trains in Britain and I don’t blame him. Their railways are fast, efficient, and they take you EVERYWEHRE. The scenery is beautiful and there are trolleys just like in Harry Potter (it was a revelation to me that much of what’s in the Harry Potter books is there because *Britain* is like that, not because it was invented for the story!). Alas, the minute I sit down in one of the comfortable seats and begin gently swaying while the green meadows and picturesque towns fly by I fall asleep. I can’t help it!

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Things we know we’ll be doing and things that have made the tentative list include: seeing Hamlet at the Shakespeare Globe, visiting Stonehenge and Bath, taking a ferry across the Irish Sea to Dublin for a day trip from Holyhead, staying in our BELOVED Conwy, and visiting Snowdonia National Park. I’m also hoping to eat dinner at St. John, a wonderful restaurant in London that we neglected to experience last time.

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I get really excited about mundane things, so I’m already looking forward to getting myself the perfect carry-on hard shell suitcase and planning my fully-carry-on-able wardrobe. While Husband and I have been to Britain only once, we’ve been to Puerto Rico several times, and flown around the country to various places a bunch, and our rule of thumb is to travel only with carry-on no matter where we’re headed or for how long. We made an exception to this in 2016 for one reason—souvenirs! We both packed all our belongings as carry-on and checked a big suitcase to fill while abroad, which was fun! As we’ve done it, though, I don’t feel we need the burden of doing it again. Not having the space to shove any and every kind of British thing into my luggage forces me to reflect upon what might be the most meaningful things to bring home. Also, it makes me wonder if I’m willing to shell out some pounds sterling to ship myself care packages! I have plenty of time to decide.

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Anyway, THAT’S our big news of the week, and until we have the details all pinned down, reservations for accommodation booked, train tickets purchased, and cab rides scheduled, I’ll feel very aflutter. We are well on our way, though, and I’m crossing my fingers that all goes smoothly. I am so deeply filled with gratitude that we were able to make this happen, and that we have the resources to do so. Traveling is a priority, and a gift that we cherish. Our travels have enriched our lives beyond expression; we literally think of our travels abroad daily, and feel they are well worth their cost. I’m going to bask in the excitement, try not to worry about what-ifs, and just be thankful for this blessing. Thanks for letting me boast a little, I’m too excited not to share! Peace and love to you all. ❤

A Mid-December Reflection

A Mid-December Reflection

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It is now one week until Christmas, and December has shaped up to be unexpectedly lovely. I’ve been so busy doing things, preparing for things, and running around like crazy that I haven’t had time to post, so today I thought I’d do a little Advent recap of what has happened so far.

This was the first year that I went into Advent determined to keep things simple and stress-free. At the same time, I also went into this season with the intention of being generous with energy, time, and love which can often cause stress, because giving of time and energy is, well, stressful sometimes! It’s interesting how these two seemingly opposing values have shaped the last few weeks.

Generally, I’ve had a very peaceful few weeks. Something funny that came to light was that even though I THOUGHT I had completed most of my Christmas shopping, I had so much more to do that I didn’t even realize until I tallied up all our presents! It is amazing how many little things you need—suddenly I need a little something extra for this person, a vital piece of a gift for another, stocking stuffers that I had forgotten about, the list goes on…but through it all, the finishing (finally) of the shopping was delightful, festive, and I learned how to change strategy for next year.

I also sent out Christmas cards for the very first time ever! I didn’t want to spend a fortune on them so we didn’t send many, but it felt so fun to write the greetings to our loved ones, address the envelopes, and drop them into the mailbox knowing that at the other end, friends and relatives would get a message of love from us. Definitely a new tradition that’s here to stay!

As I said, I wanted to really reach out and connect during this time, and say yes to friends and family. Husband and I attended his cousin’s annual Christmas party a few weeks ago and we had a blast! We really connected with other relatives who we don’t see often, and we left feeling very warmed in spirit. On Saturday I attended a Christmas tea at the home of a delightful Irish lady who cared for a very elderly relative/friend of mine, E, and in attendance was E, E’s best friend (they are 97 and 96, respectfully), and one other nice lady. We had a ball! I can’t remember when I’ve had a lovelier afternoon just chatting, members of four different generations and two nationalities just sharing their perspectives on all sorts of things.

Yesterday Husband and I finished some shopping and got lunch together in Japantown. I lit the pink candle on the Advent wreath, and we put up our decorations and decorated our tree! Our ficus tree, that is, because we just didn’t have room for a real tree this year. The ficus ended up looking beautiful, and we listened to the first Christmas music of the year, Husband introducing me to the joys of John Michael Talbot, and I him to “A Motown Christmas” album.

Tonight I am attending my parish’s annual Christmas concert with a dear friend (Husband might tag along), and tomorrow we are attending a Hannukah party at the home of dear friend H. What fun! Normally I never say yes to so many events. If I had done this last year, I’d be canceling left and right, too overwhelmed and stressed. But I think my conscious planning and decision to prioritize certain things over others has really worked out. Thursday morning we drive to Mom and Dad’s, and let the week-long Christmas vacation begin!

Dozens of cookies have been baked. The kitchen has looked like an explosion took place there for weeks. As it turns out, all the events and feast days have added up to me not quite fasting from treats as much as I would have hoped! Oops. Oh, well. It has been worth it all. This is the home stretch before Christmas is here, and I’m going to soak up every minute. Hope everyone is healthy and full of peace and contentment. Love to you all.