About Me

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Recent retiree--35 year's experience teaching reading, English, adult basic education and volunteer leadership skills. Started this blog to exchange ideas and commentary with friends and others having an interest in joining the discussions. Greatest life accomplishments include: 1.organized my 3rd grade class to check out library books for me to get around librarian's weekly limit--Amazon.com, the Mullins Elementary 3rd Grade Class of 1956 is still waiting for "thank you" notes; 2. volunteered in the Peace Corps, island of St. Kitts, West Indies; 3.taught adults to read, earn their GEDs., and speak English as a second language; 4. bought a border collie puppy for $6, got evicted rather than give him up, and began a life-long love affair with all things "Dog"; 5. joined a physical fitness boot camp in my mid-50s--don't mess with someone who's been doing regulation pushups in wet grass at 5:30 a.m.; 6. walked across Northern England with best friend Sally--over 80 miles from the Irish to North Seas; and 7. travelled to many foreign countries for pleasure and work.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dressing Up in Verona and Venice

(Throughout October I've been trying to capture memorable sights and impressions of my recent trip to Europe. And, whenever possible, wrangle these travelogues into a Fun Monday post. This week's hostess, Sayre, over at Sayre Smiles gave us an assignment that fit perfectly with Italy. Sayre asks us to share our favorite Halloween memory and show our costume for this year. Or, if we don't celebrate Halloween, then share another holiday dress up occasion. Now Willie the pit bull and I don't dress up for Halloween, but we do pass out candy to the neighborhood munchkins. I do, however, have some good photos of my tour of Verona and Venice where fantasy costumes and masks can be seen on the streets all year and dressing up for an evening fashion stroll about town, the passiagata, is the Italian way of life.)

Our first stop in Italy was Verona. We were looking for romance both medieval and modern. From the town square we walked down one street in particular which was lined with couture shops for everything from the ultimate black dress to these fantasy wedding gowns. Italian men and women window shopping in this area were walking advertisements for Italian fashion.

Not far off the square, however, our attention turned to the most romantic balcony of all, Juliet's. It was here in a narrow little street in Verona that two young lovers pledged their ill-fated love. Since the 1930s, lovers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to this site. On the door, and through the passage leading to Juliet's balcony,
lovers leave graffiti amore.

The messages on the passage walls tell of love lost and found. In the courtyard it is customary to rub the right breast of the Juliet statue for luck in love. Notice that it is worn from the constant touching. Every year before Valentine's Day all the graffiti is powerwashed away to make room for next year's collection of lovers' wishes.

Back in the square, which is the center of action for most Italian towns, we see our first costumes
and masks. In Italy, characters for the performing arts often dress in eighteenth century costumes and masks. These costumed characters were
advertising upcoming performances
in the first century Roman arena which fronted the square.

There was also opportunities for tourists to be skammed as well. Here you see women from our tour group being "engaged" for a photo op by a handsome Roman soldier in his red cloak--for a price, of course.
Late in the day we travelled east to the small port city of Treviso on the Adriatic Sea where we boarded a ferry for Venice Lido. The fashionable Lido Beach was our base for the Venice and Burano leg of the tour. Our hotel, Le Boulevard, was aptly named because it was in the center of the beach action. It was also one of the most interesting accommodations for me. When you travel single, the rooms are often not the greatest, even though you have to pay a hefty single supplement. But sometimes you get a pleasant surprise. My room at Le Boulevard fit that bill. It was on the top floor and when I first opened the door my spirits dipped because there were no windows--how claustrophobic. And then I spotted two large skylights. A little tinkering with the blinds and I was able to sleep under the Italian stars for two nights--nice! This photo was an early morning view along Le Boulevard.

(Come back in a couple of days for a look at the masks and costumes of the Venice Carnevale. It was too late in the evening when we arrived on the Lido to take a vaporetto across the canal to Venice to check them out. And, who knew what dangers may be hiding behind the masks of a Casanova or dandy lurking in the shadowy canal streets of Venice?)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thanks, Geek Squad!

I'm a lucky blogger because I have a personal Geek Squad in my friend, Janice. The new look of my blog is all thanks to several hours work on her part last night. Don't you just love the new header? Very understated and tasteful, don't you think? This is Janice's original design. Not only is she a computer geek--she talks the secret languages of HTMLs, pixels, and widgets--but she's also a great scrapbooker. I get all the benefits of her geekiness. She leaves me with a steno pad full of step by step directions for using all these little embellishments for a more lively blog--adding photos, sidebars, etc. Regretfully, I can't give her a full blown bravo until she figures out how to change that Shelfari bookshelf to walnut--that mahogany color is just not right with my blog background and fine new header. . .

I thanked her last night by cooking dinner for us. This Taco Soup recipe has an interesting
origin. I first had it from a lunch buffet set up on a flatbed truck in the middle of an Arkansas rice field during September harvest. At that time I was working in leadership training for a large farm organization. A couple of colleagues and I took about 15 young farmers on a tour of some major farming operations in southeastern U.S. We saw cat fish farming in Mississippi, cotton and beef operations in Tennessee, and rice production in Arkansas. Our Kentucky farmers were hosted by a group of rice farmers out in their fields at harvest time. Taco soup was on the menu. If you like all things taco, you'll like this soup. Here's the recipe:

Taco Soup

In a large saucepan, brown 1/2 lb. ground beef and 1 medium chopped onion. Add the following,undrained: 15 oz. can chili beans(or ranch style), 16 oz. can dark red kidney beans, 11 oz. can shoepeg corn, 10 oz. can tomatoes and green chiles, 1 oz. pkg. dry ranch style dressing mix, 1.25 oz. pkg. dry taco seasoning mix, 6 cups of water, and 1 cup cooked brown or white rice. Bring to boil and then turn down to a simmer. Simmer on low for about 45 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips. And, if you want to gild the lily, add a dollop of sour cream and chopped avocado. Yum!

So, I hope the Geek Squad felt that taco soup was a good trade for a blog makeover. I'm already plotting our next consultation. . .

Saturday, October 18, 2008

On to Amsterdam

(Part 2 of my European travelogue includes crossing the English Channel and then driving the coastline through Belgium and the Netherlands with an overnight stop in Amsterdam.)

On September 14 we boarded the sleek Insight tour bus at 5:45 a.m. at the Thistle Marble Arch Hotel, the first of many early morning departures, for the second leg of our European journey. Traffic on the streets of London was barely moving at that hour and the night sky was fading to a rosy amber dawn. We left London, heading southeast toward Canterbury and Dover where we would catch the ferry across the English Channel to Calais, France. At that time of the morning there was not a lot of conversation among the 30 travelers. Most were napping or talking with the "one who brung them." I was happy to have a seat in the peanut gallery, the very back of the bus. From past trips, it always seems to attract the people that I enjoy being around. This theory held true for this trip as well. More about the people on the bus later on.

The ferry port was right at the base of the white cliffs of Dover. I had an overly romanticized idea of what it would be like to make the ferry crossing. Actually, even on Sunday, there was quite a crush of cars, trucks, and buses lined up to make the hour long trip across the channel. A fire in the tunnel that connects Dover and Calais earlier in the week may have accounted for the excess traffic on the ferry. We left our tour bus and walked onto the ferry and went searching for the coffee bar as there was not much to see out in the channel. I began getting acquainted with my seatmate, a young Canadian woman whom I'd met briefly the day before on the London tour. In about an hour we disembarked at Calais. I spotted this ferry boat capped by this wonderful flag. I wish I knew what country it belonged to, but couldn't identify the flag. Any ideas?

From Calais we drove along Belgium's coastline in light Sunday traffic. That was fortunate because we were on major commercial highways for most of the morning. However, in the afternoon the scenery became more interesting as we got into the Netherlands. Such a contrast of old and new, especially on the Dutch farmland. First we saw these slender wind turbines in rows in the fields used to generate clean electricity. Then all of us were aiming cameras out the bus windows trying to capture the old windmills on the neat farms. Before the wind turbines, the windmills were used by farmers to convert wind to energy to drain the low lying land, pump water and grind corn.

Look at this photo of Dutch fields. Because much of the land is below sea level the farmers don't use fences to separate fields or keep livestock contained. Instead, they rely on a gridwork of canals across their land. Apparently cattle don't like getting their feet wet or--more seriously--the canals must be too deep for the livestock to cross from one field to another to graze.

Another hint of what we would see in Amsterdam were the bike paths that ran parallel to highways. We would soon find out that the Dutch are very fit people and bikers own the roads and streets of the Netherlands! Late in the afternoon when we arrived in Amsterdam we were amazed at the numbers of bicycles on the streets. There were even bike garages! All ages got about Amsterdam on bikes and, unlike in the U.S., pedestrians beware of trying to cross the street or walk in a biking lane. Even the Dutch dogs hitched a ride and looked quite at home in their portable baskets.
Amsterdam was a beautiful city. We arrived late in the afternoon and immediately got out on the city's many canals, cruising past mansions and busy street scenes and under low bridges that connect the city. I was interested to get a closer look at the ingenious hook lifts on many of the tall, slender buildings. On last season's Amazing Race competition I had watched my favorite home team, the Louisville goths, Kynt and Vyxen, figure out how to tie ropes around large furniture pieces and hoist them up three and four levels and in an apartment through a window. Apparently there are few elevators and very narrow staircases in these old buildings.

Very proud of Kynt especially since he managed to pull a piano up several levels by this rope hoist without sweating enough to make his mascara run! Here's another canal view: After a forgettable dinner at the floating Sea Palace Restaurant several of our group decided that we must check out the infamous Red Light District. The Dutch are said to be unusually proud of their window dressings. The Red Light District takes window dressing to an entirely different level. We saw young women in various stages of undress standing in red backlit windows waiting for customers. Amazingly some were reading, chatting with other girls, or doing their nails while they waited. Although they are regulated, taxed, and unionized since 1984, it was puzzling to understand how they got involved in such a sad, wasteful lifestyle. Interestingly, I read that there was a group of young, more edgy, clothing designers who were renting the "shops" for boutiques to make and sell their clothing designs as a way to change the culture.

Before leaving Amsterdam the next day for the Rhineland, we toured Gasson Diamonds, a diamond polishing factory that had been in existence since 1879. Although I'm not much for diamonds, it was interesting to hear how the rough stones were graded according to their clarity and capacity for brilliance. All we women had a great time trying on various pieces of jewelry while the men on the tour stood with their wallets and credit cards pressed firmly to the wall! We saw the famous Gasson 121 made extra brilliant and reflective by the additional 60 facets cut on top and bottom.

Coincidentally, during this trip I was reading Dalia Sofer's debut novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, based on her father's imprisonment as a spy after the shah was ousted in the Iranian revolution. Mr. Sofer was a rare gem dealer and a Jew. His wealth and ethnicity contributed to his being targeted by the Iranian Guards. He described doing business with diamond merchants in Amsterdam. I wondered if Gasson's had been a contact for him and whether any diamonds he had secured from them had help finance his family's escape from Iran.

No trip to the Netherlands would be complete without a look at its famous old Royal Delft china. After the diamond factory tour we had a chance to pick up some pieces at a factory shop. In addition to the traditional deep blue they also sold pieces painted in soft browns, green, and gold. I regret not buying a few more pieces for myself as a memento of Amsterdam. I had not expected to enjoy this city as much as I did but I loved the architecture, vibrancy and tolerance that was so evident.

(If you're not suffering tour fatigue, on Monday I'll post Part 3, the Rhineland and Tyrolean region of Austria.)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Not-Doodling Life

(Doodling 9s is the assignment for this week's Fun Monday. However, I decided to take a little liberty with our host Tracey's directions over at Nine Acres and share an example of my use of a related technique, mindmapping.)

Recently I've been into that very satisfying fall task of clearing out files and de-cluttering. In the process, I found this mindmap which must have been done back in 2005, based on the topics I'm exploring. According to Tracey's definition, a doodle is a "sketch or unfocused drawing made while a person's attention is otherwise occupied." A mindmap is quite the opposite. It is a focused, but free-flowing, method for organizing information or ideas on paper. Before retiring, I used mindmaps all the time in my work as a leadership trainer and planner. I'd do mindmaps for a workshop presentation, speech, conference program, or organizational planning. Whenever I found myself running away from a dreaded task, just settling down with a flipchart--usually--sized piece of paper and a handful of colored markers would be all that I needed to get the project on paper and jumpstarted.

I also use mindmaps in my personal life to bring order to a sometimes untidy and disheartened mind and spirit. "Things Undone" is an excellent example of a time when drawing a mindmap has helped me sort out and re-focus. This particular drawing was not dated, but when I re-read it, I knew it must have been in 2005. At that time I was trying to make major decisions about retiring and, in the process, was looking at many aspects of my life: How satisfied was I currently with my work situation? Was I taking care of my health? Was I making an effort to be a good friend and co-worker? Was I following through with my need for creativity and life long learning? Were my finances in order so I could retire comfortably? Was my home a source of pleasure and retreat? As you can see, this mindmap helped me identify what I needed to do before deciding that now was the time to retire. It probably helped me get to sleep as well , because I often would get out of bed and start drawing when I was too troubled or unhappy to sleep!

By the way, I checked out Tracey's doodle analysis which she's added to her Fun Monday post and am currently trying to get over phrases like "fragmented personality", "need for comfort", "need to be center of attention", and, of course, "obsessive" which could be used to analyze my drawing! The only thing that keeps me from going under is that on October 12, 2008, I can honestly mark a lot of these "things undone" off the list. . .that's progress.

Now head over to Tracey's webpage to connect with other Fun Monday participants and try to analyze their Doodling 9s--or just marvel at their artistry.

(And, in keeping with my identified "need to be center of attention"(insert sheepish grin. . .) scroll down to the previous post, if you have a minute, and check out the second installment in my European travelogue, "Around London". Thanks!)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

European Travelogue, Around London

After about six months of planning and doubting whether I should actually go, I finally did fly off to London for the start of a two week, eight country tour of Europe beginning on September 11. If you read my blog, you may recall that over the past few months I've been dealing with some care giving issues for my older sister that culminated with me having to bring her to live with me back in July after her apartment caught on fire. Prior to the fire, I had been making many 400 mile round trips between my home and hers to help her with some medical issues. Since July we've been in a whirlwind of apartment hunting, doctor selection, and transferring all her business affairs to Louisville, my hometown. Meanwhile, I kept thinking about the hefty check I'd written the travel agency for airfare and deposit on the dream European vacation back in March when I thought my sister's situation was stable enough for me to risk overseas travel.

Anyway, I completed all the contingency planning for her--found her a doctor and apartment in Louisville; got living will, power of attorney, and health care surrogate papers drawn up. Hell, I even planned both our funerals in case we either kicked the bucket between September 11-24! I didn't want my friends to have to pick up the slack while I was gallivanting over Europe. . .but wait until I tell you what happens. But that's not in this travelogue until we reach Austria five days into the trip.

I signed up for the European Spotlight tour with Insight Vacations because I like to travel alone, but be around a small group of people during the day for sightseeing. It's like the best of both worlds--you have a lot of the details and hassles taken care of and the safety and company of the group, but you can also go off on your own to explore your own interests. There were about 30 people on this tour from the U.S., Australia, Canada, and South Africa and we grew to like each other on the long bus rides from country to country. We saw parts of England, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France. In most places we were there for two days so you could get an idea of the places you'd like to return to for a more in-depth visit. Some friends commented that this whirlwind would just give them the bends, but for me it suits my attention span! Plus, when you travel alone you can focus on what you're experiencing without worrying about having to be a good roommate and travel partner!

I captured impressions of the different countries and experiences in a variety of ways. I read tour books and mapped our itinerary. Every day I described our travels and my impressions in a journal--the absolute yummiest yogurt I've ever had was peach-mandarin orange in Amsterdam, most charming men in Italy, most inspiring scenery in Switzerland, most stressful time in Austria. I also wrote postcards to myself from every country so when I got home there were my first hand accounts, complete with each country's unique stamps, waiting for me. I wrote these postcards in cafes, post offices, and sitting on park benches during a lull in the trip. And, I'll admit that everything was viewed as future blog fodder!

And, of course, I took a ridiculous number of photographs--many of them really bad. I'm just experimenting with digital photography and many shots had to be done out the tour bus window. I've "doctored" them a bit with photoshop, but will post them anyway because they tell the story of my trip better than any words I could write.

Finally, here's what I saw around London: I arrived at London Heathrow Airport early Friday morning, September 12. It was an overnight flight from Detroit and miserably hot and boring on the plane because neither the air conditioning nor media systems were working. Clearing immigration involved incredibly long lines, but I finally made it to the spot where I was to meet the shuttle transfer to my hotel. How clever of the English, look closely at this sign. It says "Find Me." No question about where travelers need to congregate to meet their parties or travel on into London.

My hotel in London was within walking distance of the beautiful Hyde Park and great window shopping on Oxford Street. I couldn't get in my room until later in the day, so I set out on my first on-foot exploration and getting ready for the trip, heading down Oxford Street to exchange my U.S. dollars for British pounds sterling. The rate of exchange discouraged me from doing any serious shopping, but there was plenty to see. In last week's post, "Closet Fashionista", on European fashion, I gave you some photos of the fantasy window displays that designers were prepping along Oxford Street for London Fashion Week. And of course I went in Waterstone's, the famous English book sellers. Struck up a conversation with a young woman who was looking at Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Told her that I envied her getting to read that book for the first time. I also realized that I should have re-read it for this trip because Gilbert's journey included places, like Venice, that I would be seeing.

By mid-afternoon jet lag was setting in badly so I headed back to the Thistle Marble Arch. Killed some more time with a delicious cup of English tea while waiting to get in my room. Once installed, I gave up ambitious plans to get tickets and figure out transportation to Trafalgar Square for a baroque concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields. I listen to performances from St Martin all the time on our public radio stations, but was too tired to manage this on my own--which turned out to be the regret for my time in London. Instead, I caught up on U. S. presidential politics and Gordon Brown's crisis of leadership and watched Hurricane Gustav make it's way across Louisiana and Texas. I also began the nightly ritual that travel mates never understand--dumping out my backpack on the bed and sorting and organizing its contents! You can see that I'm well-supplied for all contingencies and can swing this bag on my back and travel hands free! By 9:00 pm I was out for the night after being awake for almost 48 hours.

The next morning, September 13, I met up with the rest of the tour group for the first time for a guided tour of London, including the obvious sights--Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament. At my first English breakfast that morning I'd looked at others in the hotel dining room trying to figure out who would be on the tour--and more importantly--would I like them and enjoy their company for 12 days? Right away I got good vibes from a young Canadian woman who was traveling alone as well. Maybe we might be good travel mates?

Our tour began with a swing around Hyde Park. I was thrilled to see the Albert Memorial and exhibition hall. For it was the site for the Great Exhibition of 1851 which highlighted the major advances of the British industrial age. I knew about this place from my beloved BBC series, North and South starring
Richard Armitage as the northern cotton mill owner, John Thornton, who is rejected by Margaret Hale, a southern parson's daughter. Margaret stops to listen admiringly to Thornton talk with other industrialists about their challenges. He spots her and accuses her of thinking that he is an unfair master. Margaret, who by now regrets her decision to not accept his marriage proposal, is obviously hurt and angered by his words. I'm so glad I know the good ending of this story. . .

Here's the Royal Albert Hall, site of the Proms, London's annual music festival. Apparently it's the custom for music lovers to stand on the promenade(?) and just let the rich music pour over them. (Take this explanation with a grain of salt--not exactly sure of my facts, but love the idea of beautiful music available and affordable for the common folk as well as the upper crust!)

Now we're near St. James Park and the Houses of Parliament on a walking tour of the area. We walk past the Churchill Museum which includes the bunkers where Winston Churchill made some of the gravest decisions on behalf of the English people when they were being bombed during World War II.

Near the Foreign Office this simple, but profoundly moving Bali Memorial stands,commemorating the 202 people (28 Britons) from 21 countries who were killed in the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali. Doves representing each lost life circle the sphere.

We stop on the Parade Ground off Whitehall to watch the Horse Guards Parade. As you can see, this photographer certainly knows how to position herself to get the best shot
of a row of horse butts! Over to the right of the parade ground you can see the guards and guardhouse at the back of 10 Downing Street. From what I saw on the news the night before, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, probably needed them looking as threatening as they did!

Next we walked through the lovely St. James Park with its serene waters and variety of water fowl and recreational areas. From one of the bridges we were able to see this view of Buckingham Palace. Walking out of the park, the tour guide pointed out this English Rose, which honors Princess Diana. She also pointed out where people came to mourn her death, leaving acres of flowers. In Paris we went through the tunnel where Diana and Dody Fayed were killed. It was an eerie feeling, even after the time that has passed.

By this time I'd seen enough monuments, palaces, and churches. I had a date with my favorite Impressionists--Monet, Manet, Degas, Pissaro, Sisley--at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. So, I headed out on my own on the 15-20 minute walk to the square. I sat on the gallery steps to rest and listen to some of the performers for Week of Peace--a bit too heavy metal for my taste, but fun to experience with others on the square. Inside the gallery I was excited to see Monet's Bathers at La Grenouillere because I'd just watched the DVD of The Impressionists starring--who else--Richard Armitage as Monet which gave an account of his work on this painting. After a couple of hours enjoying my favs of the Impressionists, I walked over to St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. How beautiful and peaceful inside. People were wandering around, sitting quietly or praying, taking refuge from the hubbub in the square. Again, I regretted not making the concert the night before.

Late in the day, I called a halt. Hailed one of the nice London cabbies and headed back to the hotel. We talked of Hurricane Gustav and bicycle traffic in London and Louisville on the way back. I was out for the night early because the next morning we had to be on the bus at 5:45 a.m. for the next leg of this European journey.

(As always, you can click on any photo to embiggen--this post was just getting too long. . .)

(If you've enjoyed this tale, check back next week after Fun Monday for the second leg of the journey. We'll go from London to Amsterdam and, maybe, on through the Rhineland.)