MY EVERYDAY 13

I had an entirely different blog topic in mind for this time but last week I read posts by two of the bloggers I follow and decided to join in their topic. Blogger Mocadeaux started it all by writing of her Everyday 20 , and soon after my friend,  another blogger, ivyandironstone, wrote about her Everyday 10. In its original form, this is supposed to be something that we buy and use everyday. In the second iteration it was put forth as something that we appreciate everyday. I’ve kind of morphed the two and I am writing of things that I use and value on a daily basis, and that add fun, joy or flavor to my everyday life. And I realize that “Everyday 13” doesn’t quite have the same ring to is as “10” or “20” but it’s what I’ve come up with so far!    So in no particular order, here is my “everyday” list:

  1. MY ITALIAN LESSONS – as I noted in one of my early blog posts, a major goal of mine when I retired was to  study Italian seriously  (LEARNING ITALIAN). I am now three years in, and I love it. And I’m far from fluent, but making steady progress. When we went to Italy last year on our tri-annual visit to our family in southern Italy, I was gratified to  be able to comminicate reasonably well. But I can hear what you’re saying out there: “After three years, you SHOULD BE fluent, or close to it. ”  Would that it were so! Italian has more  rules and exceptions to rules that are   daunting than I ever anticipated. Anyone who has studied Italian as a second language knows what I mean.   But I continue to love the challenge.
  2. OLIVE OIL – I am a fan of the Mediterranean Diet and believe that  olive oil can have major health benefits, aside from just tasting so darn good. Good olive oil, that is. That dark green kind that you find in southern Italy and Greece and several other regions in that general area. In fact, the best olive oil I have ever tasted has been in southern Italy. But lately I’ve been using  very good olive oils that come from California and give the Italian variety a run for its money. When buying, I try to determine from where and when an olive oil product was generated.    And I try not to let any olive oil linger on the shelf for very long – no problem in my house!    Although they both come from fruits of the vine, unlike wine, olive oil does not grow better with age.    I  buy it and use it within a few weeks at most.
  3. MY MOISTURIZERS – I’ve been using moisturizers for many years on my face and body. I never go out into the elements or go to bed without it. Most of it includes SPF except for the nighttime version. My current favorites are from FRESH, BOBBI BROWN, and my perenniel body favorite from ORIGINS (White Tea). I also sometimes  use drugstore brands for facial moisturizers such as Aveeno, Lumine, Olay or L’Oreal which I find to be very good.   Coming off of Chicago winters makes moisturizers a daily necessity.
  4. MY APPLE PRODUCTS – I carry my life around in my Apple products.  My MacBook Air and my Apple Iphone are synced, carrying all the same information.  I realize it is duplicative but I sync and back up because  can’t do without them. The calendar on my phone is my official appointment keeper so if I lose my phone and my MAC at the same time, I’m in deep trouble! I do have a written back up to my Contacts section. I have thousands of pictures on my phone – almost all of them of our grandkids and our travels. I just keep increasing my Cloud space (whatever that is) so I can continue to store pictures. I do worry about system crashes and losing what I have so my goal is to remove the older pictures and put them on thumb drives.    One other feature  of my Apple products that I can’t do without  is the fabulous assistance I can get from those geniuses out in Petaluma  or wherever they are who have patiently helped me out of one cyber crisis after another.
  5. MY FITBIT – Two and a half years ago, I bought my own Fitbit HR which helped me get on the ball with daily  tracking of my steps, flights of stairs, my heart rate, calories burned and sends me my weekly report (which I get on  my Apple products).   Fun fact:  I just recently won my Great Barrier Reef badge signifying that I have walked 1600 miles (which is the length of the Great Barrier Reef!) since I’ve been using my Fitbit.   I also recently won my “Cloud” badge having climbed a total of 8,000 flights of steps in the time I’ve been using Fitbit ( the name of this badge  has  to do with being on Cloud 9 for  achieving this milestone)!   Kind of goofy, I know, but it is a way to chart progress toward my fitness and weight goals.   This past Christmas my son and daughter-in-law upgraded me to a Fitbit Ionic which does everything the HR version did but also plays music, alerts me to phone calls and texts (again because it’s linked to my iPhone), can coach me through a 10 or 15 minute workout  and  breathing or meditation sessions.
  6. MY POT FILLER – when we redid our kitchen eight years ago, I had a potfiller installed above my stove. Originally I thought it would look cool but secretly questioned how much I would use it. Turns out I use it every day: to fill the pasta pot, or to increase liquid to a recipe. A very handy little gadget.   UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3941
  7. MY WHITE CHINA – I’m a big believer in white china. I think no kitchen is complete without it. I have two sets, a little redundant, I know, but it’s come in handy many times. I love it for its simplicity and versatility and use it for everyday, for informal dinners and sometimes when  I want to show off the food or the other tableware.
  8. MANHANDLES – when I redid our powder room several years ago, I wanted something different to catch the eye, add a little entertainment,  while guests  partake of the facilities. I was shopping at a bathroom supply store and across the room, displayed on a far wall, were  bronze fixtures portraying men in different poses which made me smile. They are part of the Manhandles Collection made by the Soko Studio. I said to the friend with whom I was shopping, “I don’t care what they cost, I have to have them.” So I bought a Manhandle towel hanger  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3945 and a Manhandle  door pull. That was about 10 years go, and every day when I go in the powder room, they still make me smile. They will make me smile even more in a few weeks when the climbing bronze man door pull is showcased on a WHITE door instead of the stained door to which it is now attached  (see my last  post The Elephant Gives Birth!).     UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3944
  9. THE TODAY SHOW  – The Today Show is part of my morning routine. It’s an iconic show that has stood the test of time – 65 years and counting is not a bad run! It think it’s fun, topical, and for me a great way to start the day. It allows me to lollygag with my coffee and yogurt and have the Today Show crew entertain and inform me as I get ready for my day.
  10. POPCORN – have to have my daily blast of  Sea Salt and Pepper Skinny Pop
  11. MY LEXUS IS250 HARDTOP CONVERTIBLE – This was my retirement gift from my husband.   UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3946   I obviously use it every day. Hateful in snow or ice in our Chicago weather, but it’s a gem from April through October (in most years) and those lovely rare January or February days when we are given an infrequent gift of beautiful weather. So, yes, my car is now hitting its prime time. There will be no more icy roads (I hope) but soon when hot weather comes (I hope), the top goes down, Sixties on 6 starts blasting on Sirius and I joyfully tool around! Besides my grandkids love it which makes me I love it all the more!
  12. OUR SCREENED BACK PORCH: I’m either on our screened back porch – writing, daydreaming, playing with grandkids, meditating, entertaining – or I’m longing to be on our screened porch. It’s not a four-season room, but even in the winter when I’m not sitting out there, it’s just off my kitchen so I find myself thinking   about how many more months until we will be enjoying it! The best investment in our home we’ve ever made!
  13. MY OWL PLATE FROM SICILY.    Last summer during our trip to Italy, my husband and I took a side trip to Sicily  (see my post SICILY) and specifically to the town of Santo Stefano di Camastra, birthplace of my paternal grandmother.  Santo Stefano di Camastra is known for its pottery and ceramics and I bought this large plate from a local artisan and it  now hangs on a wall in our dining room.  I find the detail in this piece extraordinary.   And every day it evokes a flood of memories of my grandmother.   UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3181
    Would love to hear about your favorite things so we can keep this party going! See you soon…

The Elephant Gives Birth!

Eight years ago when we redid our kitchen, I mentioned to my husband that I thought white cabinetry was the way to go for our west-facing dark room. My husband completely disagreed, his position being that dark cabinetry had a feeling of warmth and hospitality, that he believes wouldn’t be achieved with white. His love affair – and mine – with dark wood goes back to our first home together in Pennsylvania, a 1920’s beauty that came with gorgeous natural chestnut woodwork, curved chestnut french doors and built-ins. It was a home in which our realtor advised, “Don’t ever have a fire in this home because you’ll never replace this wood.” Indeed a devastating disease of the American chestnut tree in the early 1900’s caused a widespread killing of the tree in the eastern United States. The airborne bark fungus spread at the rate of about 50 miles a year and and in a few decades killed up to three billion chestnut trees.
This was to be our “forever” home. But, alas, after six years in the house, my husband was offered an opportunity to move to Chicago by a friend who was buying up distressed manufacturing companies and offered him a positiion as a finance officer.

My husband has always had opinions about interior design and projects – good ones. He and I are usually in sync in terms of what projects we want to do and how we want to do it, how we want it to look. We have updated our home steadily over the years, with hardly a wrinkle.  My goal, begun about five years prior to my retirement, was to complete any major projects around the house before I left my career and my pay checks behind.

When it came to the kitchen renovation, my husband was not in favor of doing it. It was clearly going to be an expensive undertaking. He is tempermentally a finance person who saw our dated oak cabinetry which were installed when we built the house in 1989 as still in good condition and very functional. Ultimately he relented on doing the full scope of the project, gutting it back to the walls and making small revisions in our footprint. Since I was getting the full kitchen reno that I wanted, moving some appliances to where they rightfully belonged in the scheme of things, and an enlarged island, I agreed to maple cabinets stained in a cherry finish. For these eight years, I have vascillated on the white cabinetry versus the stained cabinetry I have.  Given that my husband has agreed to virtually every project that I’ve dreamed up – and there were many – I felt that the dark woodwork was a reasonable concession.

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Our kitchen as it is now

But still as the years have gone on, I repeatedly pointed out that the woodwork in this house is in no way in the same category of wood as the rare chestnut in our Pennsylvania house. I felt we were confusing the dark, builder grade pine with our beloved chestnut  of thirty five years ago. And I was tired of the look of a house that to me had become too brown.

Over the years we have upgraded the relatively inexpensive millwork with wider, more substantial wood on the doorways, window trim and baseboards. But every time I saw a home with painted white woodwork in person or in a magazine, I longed for its classic look, one that made the rooms look larger, brighter, fresher and cleaner.

Another remaining drawback was that eight years ago, since I wasn’t making any headway changing my husband’s mind on the white wood, we replaced all of the windows in our home with new vinyl windows which of course were dark brown to match the rest of the woodwork in our home. I thought this committed us to dark wood evermore.

But gradually over these years, I started to visualize the look of dark mullions working in concert with white or off white casings. Why couldn’t that work?  Some people told me that this mixture would look hodgepodge and indecisive. Not if done correctly and with some thought, I said. The idea was taking shape in my mind and then I began to see this combination in such places as Architectural Digest, HGTV, and Pinterest. Apparently it’s a thing called Wood and White. And thus my crusade for white trim has taken on new life. I finally had some documented evidence of how this might look. My husband remained undeterred and unconvinced. His latest tactic was that he wanted to see it, not in a magazine, not on TV, but in person. But, aha, just as we were going back and forth, two of my friends indeed had their dark window casings painted white while the remainder stayed dark brown. Looked great! So I had “in person” examples to show him!

Actually, some places in our own home had also set a precedent in this regard. A few years ago I had the risers and skirt of my stairs painted white, while the steps stayed dark.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_38ee

Last year I had the oak cabinets in my basement painted white along with the book case in our front parlor. My husband liked these changes. But still he was reluctant to have other wood in the house painted.

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Parlor bookcase – former brown blob

Finally he agreed that what we needed was a “test room.” We chose the room that our granddaughter sleeps in when staying at our home. It has one window, two doors and, of course, baseboard.    It would be a relatively simple paint job but would illustrate the wood and white look for him.  So we called our trusty painter who two weeks ago painted the doors and trim in this room to showcase how other rooms would look.  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_38f6

 

My husband finally agreed that the look was one he could live with, but still wanted to retain stained wood in certain key areas: two of my husband’s bookcases, and the maple wainscoting in our entrance foyer. Our painter, who works in houses new and old every day, also believed that the foyer wainscoting at least should stay stained since he viewed

this as a statement feature.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_38ef

And the foyer hallway leads into the kitchen.  Our kitchen cabinets will remain stained but the other kitchen trim – crown molding other than that directly  above the cabinets,  door jambs and baseboards will be painted white.

We have now commissioned our painter to come back to finish the painting of our woodwork in the next several weeks. In a future posting I’ll show you how it turns out. After all of this negotiation, the white-woodwork elephant is finally giving birth! A project that even my husband will love. I hope!

 

ON THE CUSP

For dreary February and so far in March, it seems like every second has been occupied in one way or another, thus my delay in blogging since early February! I’m in one of those periods of time when I’ve been a bit over-extended and that accounts for this delay! I’m enjoying everything I’m doing but realize that there’s been a bit of a traffic jam regarding my commitments that is gradually easing up.

If you read this blog or follow me on Instagram at all, you know that the time of year we are about to enter, Spring, has always been the time when I come out of dormancy (although I’ve not enjoyed much dormancy this year!!) and feel re-energized!

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Easter, sunshine, daylight saving time, that special color of the  leaves as they are about to bloom, a bit of travel and some new ideas are on the cusp. This is a time of inspiration resurrected.

On Reading and Writing
I routinely read a number of books at one time but right now seems a bit over the top. I joined a book group last year as a way to add a bit more diversity to my reading selections. Generally I run towards memoirs and biography, historical fictions, best sellers, mystery and fiction. I wanted to add books to my reading that I might not normally pick up if left to my own devices. The book group has introduced me to new authors, new styles and new genres.
Last year , for example, our group assigned Redeployment, a book that was the debut novel of the writer, Phil Klay, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. His book was made up of short stories of our military during their deployment to or return from Iraq and Afghanistan. I opened the book with some level of misgiving that this was not my usual genre and didn’t know if I would like it or not. What it did was open up a world that I know nothing about, artfully written in a way that was totally engrossing, engaging and sometimes, disturbing.

Most recently I read Lilac Girls, a story based on the real lives of real people, whose circumstances intersect around the Holocaust of the Second World War. The talent of Martha Hall Kelly, the author, at description and dialogue in this, her debut novel (as with Klay, a masterful debut novel!), is truly astonishing. She has the patience to fully describe a scene, dropping the readers into the midst of brilliantly described situations they can truly understand and feel. Both the characters in the book and the reader are drawn together into incidents or circumstances, seeming to experience it together. Her descriptions: “Clyde, who was no thicker than two sheets of paper…” Her homey, intimacy with the reader: “You should have seen the stars that night, thrown across the sky in great bunches. It was as if they were watching, looking down on all that, sad that they could do nothing.”  It’s beautiful writing and I felt a part of the scene. She uses the circumstances and  points of view of the three women to move the story forward. It is a narrative device that I am, much less skillfully at this point, using in my war brides story, also based on real women during the Second World War, a story that I set aside a little over a year ago to gain some perspective on  crafting this complex story.
I also found great inspiration and encouragement from Martha Kelly’s acknowledgements about her writing  – the evolution of the story,  the lengthy research required,   the help she received,  the worry over doing justice to the actual people who were the basis for all that happened, the prodding of her sister-in-law who said, “Just do it.”      It gratified me that I too feel that overwhelming responsibility when I sit down and write about the war brides. That accountability can lead to paralysis and self-censureship as it did with me.     Lately, I too have just been advising myself to  “Just write it already!”

I am currently reading So Much Pretty, also a debut novel by Cara Hoffman, a book club selection that I don’t think I would have read if it had not been assigned. I haven’t read this entire story so I can’t adequately express it’s impact on me except to say that half way through, I am again impressed at the skill with which the author tells this  quirky, complicated story.

Reading these debut novels and learning about their authors and their writings before tackling these big stories,  encouraged me, intimidated me, and ultimately have led me to address my nagging frustration with my own fictional or memoir writing and the time I have (or haven’t) been devoting to it. What am I doing (or not doing) with it? What are my goals with it? What do I hope to achieve?  For whom am I writing it?     But I’ve come to believe truly that there are stories in all of us and that it’s primarily in the act of writing, the doing, that you perfect the skill and the craft. I feel energized and motivated   again to write.  See my previous post called On Writing

So I’m grateful to  these authors, and others,  who provided this push for me.   I’m also grateful to you for taking the time to read my pieces.   Every writer needs a reader.

Traveling
My husband and I have a few  trips coming up – in April, a weekend with our grandkids at a Wisconsin indoor water park, a trip to Virginia Beach to celebrate with friends at their 50th anniversary party followed by two days in Washington D.C. Then at the end of May and beginning of June, two weeks in Germany and The Netherlands, visiting friends and family. Still need to work out some (ok – all) of the European itinerary.

We’ve been fortunate to visit the nation’s capital many times (OF MUSEUMS AND MEMORIES) but we continue to go back because it never gets old.      In Washington, this time around, we will probably concentrate on the parts of the Smithsonian that we have not yet seen, and I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing a cherry blossom or two (hopefully with all the variations in weather back there it isn’t too late).

My husband worked in Germany for almost a year about 11 years ago. During that time I visited often and got a chance to spend time in Berlin, Dortmund, Frankfort, Munster. This time, we will visit with friends and want to spend some time in Munich, a city in which we have not spent any time.  Have you been there?  Do you have any ideas about must sees in Munich?

The Netherlands is  tiny.  You can see a  lot of this country in a few days.    On a previous trips there we’ve been to The Hague, Amsterdam (broadly), Delft, the canals, Rotterdam and Alblasserdam. We were fortunate enough to be escorted by our Dutch relatives who were fabulous tour guides and gave us a view of the country that no paid guide could do. I remember that one of my first sites when arriving at our relatives’ home was at the end of their street where a small canal, a windmill and  cow were there to greet us!   Just as though it had been staged!

Our relatives provided their native impressions and perspectives, their political views, showing us nooks and crannies of Holland that regular tourists may not get to see. But we have not spent nearly enough time in Amsterdam, in the museums, specifically the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and then in the Anne Frank House. On this trip I want to delve deeper but  I  don’t want to overcrowd our stay, packing ten pounds of hamburger into a two pound bag, as my husband says.

Until we meet again (and I promise it won’t be so long between visits next time)…..

WINTER MISCELLANY

PROJECTS, PROJECTS, PROJECTS

Time for the annual re-do. As I mentioned in my blog post last January (AH, JANUARY), I’ve just reached that time of year when I develop a list of house projects I want to get done by Spring.
This year, the projects consist of painting and removing the carpeting from our finished basement. I have been on a campaign to get all wall to wall  carpeting out of the house. We’re pretty far along with completing this goal since we started to address it about 10 years ago. The only remaining carpeting is in our  basement and three of our bedrooms.

My husband and I decided to tackle the basement first. The wall-to-wall carpeting now in the basement is 14 years old. It has been professionally cleaned every year. But it is matted, there are stains that can no longer be cleaned out and I think it has served us well but it’s time to go. It is a large space, 900 square feet in all. We finished this basement with carpeting before our first grandchild was born because we knew this would be a perfect place to hang out, watch movies, play games or just to play at night or when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Over the years it has more than exceeded our epectations on all counts. My concern is that removing carpeting, although a much healthier , cleaner choice, will make the basement cold and/or noisy. I anticipate that it will also be slightly more demanding in that we will need to dust it a number of times a week – let’s face it, tweedy burber hides a lot of sins that requires vacuuming only after grandkids visits and bi-weekly otherwise.

So off we went, looking for materials that will address my concerns. Hardwoods, as we have in the upstairs rooms, is not an option for a basement for obvious reasons of potential damage from water, warping, etc. We have concentrated on wood grained vinyl. We’ve been told by more than one store that vinyl is the new way to go in basements, having surpassed laminates because of its waterproof qualities. Also high grade vinyl comes with an attached underlay of either cork or foam that addresses the vapor barrier issue. It also creates a softness that one would not expect from vinyl. We plan to put a large area rug on the main play area for the grandkids and a small area rug in front of the sofas in our TV area to help with any coldness and sound control. The remainder of the room with be left without area rugs. My husband is totally on board with this basement reno, required no convincing and in fact he lead the charge on this one.

Aside from my concerns already mentioned, I ran into another major snag: coordinating the new materials we choose with the red oak stairs that lead down into our basement. As you can see by the samples in the photos, there are two options, also the most costly, that coordinate pretty well with the stairs.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3857

One other option – which has grey/brown qualities to it – looks great with all the white we have in the room but doesn’t match the oak that is on the stairs. This is already a costly project due to the size of our basement, so redoing the stairs is not an option. On the other hand, the grey/brown flooring is definitely a more updated look as opposed to the oak.   UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3855

So our options:

*    Go with the option that matches the oak but is a more outdated look
*     Don’t allow the stairs and other oak accents in the large roon to dictate the color
*      See if there is a middle option that checks all our requirements for the basement

Ok, so that was the prologue. Now I will tell you that in the course of writing this post, we made the decision about which material to go with and the work has been done.  When we do a house project, my husband and I have been pretty successful  not beating it to death. We knew our options, we know our concerns, we discuss the pros and cons, and make a decision. Our decision was to choose the brown/grey vinyl which was installed this past week. I have to say the look is great and so far, the stair to floor difference doesn’t bother me.   I see it as I’m coming down the stairs but once I’m in the room, I don’t see it anymore.

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Now will it be more work? Stay tuned…..
The next project will center around painting the rooms on our first floor. Just starting to think about that, which will require a call to our longtime painter, Jeff.    More on that at a later posting.

EAGLES VS PATRIOTS
In the event that you haven’t heard, or don’t care, Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday. I’m not a football fan. My husband is a luke-warm football fan at best but each year we get together with friends to celebrate that year’s championship team. The Super Bowl is part huge athletic event, huge musical event and huge pop culture event. It seems that everyone celebrates this day with a recognition of some sort, fan or not.    It’s a holiday!  In fact today I heard in the grocery store one of the clerks saying to another, “We’re so busy, this is just like Christmas!”    This year we’re actually celebrating the end of the football season with about 10 friends.   We do love the comeraderie, the commercials and the food!

This year, I actually have a chosen team, however.    I was born and reared just north of Philadelphia so I’m happy to root for the Eagles – a team that has never won the Super Bowl. I don’t know if they are really good or just got lucky, and I know that they are going against the Patriots, the Meryl Streep of football, apparently. So I suppose the odds are not good. Even one of my Pennsylvania friends, a die-hard, year-in and year-out Eagles fan, texted me  after the Eagles won the division championship, texted me saying, “Oh my God, THIS wasn’t supposed to happen!”   We’ll cheer them on just the same.

But I am loving planning the menu: New England Clam Chowder, Hoagies, CheeseSteaks and maybe some Philly soft pretzels.

So Fly Eagles Fly and we’ll see who wins…

FOOD, FOOD, FOOD
With the SuperBowl comes a lot of food. Snacks, some variation on a main course, dessert. We have New England (characterized by Boston) and Philly in the Super Bowl, cities with amazing culinary scenes that I love. But let’s face it, you say Philly to anyone who knows about that city and the foods that immediately come to mind are cheese steaks and hoagies, not exactly health food. I am serving both at my party tomorrow and assume that if my guests are eating healthily the rest of the year (and I know they are) they can be given a hall pass for one day to indulge a bit. For Boston, you have Chowda, the white kind that is not my favorite by any stretch, but one that I am making for my party tomorrow. I must say that I’m not a fan of any cream soups, so far.   But I’ve been tasting it as I’ve been cooking, and it is pretty darn good, if I say so myself.   My favorite clam chowder is Manhattan – the red one – a much healthier and tastier choice, I think, but one that seems to have been overtaken by the New England variety in restaurants across the country.

Anyway, no matter how you’re marking Super Bowl Sunday, have fun.   Would love to hear what you’re doing to celebrate!

Until next time…..

 

BELFAST

I love to travel. I love seeing for myself in person those  places I have seen on TV, unfortunately some in the most horrific of human stories, some transformative, many  inspirational. And the experience is always enhanced by visiting those places with people who saw the history first hand, to hear from them about how the experience felt. I’ve been fortunate and blessed to see many historic places in this world: taking the historic walks in Boston and Philadelphia,  seeing the 911 Memorial in New York, the Coliseum and Forum in Rome,  standing in the room in Potsdam, Germany at the round table around which sat Winston Churchill, Stalin, and President Truman following the Second World War as they carved out the new Europe, an awe inspiring moment for me. Those world leaders stood where I now stood – incredible.

I once walked through Berlin with a friend who had grown up and lived in East Berlin under communist rule into middle adulthood until the night of the reunification. He walked with me through the streets and told me terrifying stories of armed guards standing at the Brandenburg Gate, making sure no one passed over into the west  OF MUSEUMS AND MEMORIES. The Brandenburg Gate was the line of demarcation but in actuality easterners were turned back about two blocks east of the Gate to be sure no one came close enough to try to run through to the west. He told me his family’s story of the night the Berlin Wall came down, telling me of their skepticism that the wall was actually going to be demolished. It was one of the most spellbinding and awe-inspiring stories I’ve ever heard in my life.
My husband and I had been to the Irish Republic about 17 years ago when we drove from Dublin, to Kilkenny, on to Kinsale, then to Killarney, to Galway and the Ashford Castle in Cong. I have an Irish friend who jokes, “There’s no point in being Irish if you’re not going to be maudlin and melancholy.” Instead, we love our Irish friends here in the U.S. and we fell in love with the people in Ireland whom we found to be simply so joyous, warm and fun! We were invariably greeted in the many pubs we visited with a roaring fire, a pint of Guinness (which is an acquired taste as far as I’m concerned), and a smiling welcome from people you feel you already know.   I always knew I wanted to go back.

Last month, I had the opportunity to go to Belfast in Northern Ireland for the first time because my husband’s college was participating in a basketball tournament there. But we spent the first few days in Dublin in the Irish Republic which is full of the Irish history and its ongoing struggle with Britain.   We spent an afternoon visiting the General Post Office which is still a working post office but is also the site of the Easter Rising of 1916, a critical part of the Irish story, the Catholic Irish wanting Ireland to be its own country and not part of Britian.    The Irish people of course  as always were friendly and welcoming to Americans,  many with relatives who have been  emigrating to America since the famine in the mid 1800’s and are a huge presence in the U.S.   So when I’ve been to Ireland, I feel as though I’m going to visit a people with whom I’m very familiar.   It seems that everyone you speak with has visited the U.S. or has a relative living here.  You can pick up a conversation as with someone you already know.    After three days in Dublin and visiting Glendalough, a glacial valley in County Wicklow and  St.Kevin’s monastery in the bitter cold – this is Ireland in December, folks! – we left for Northern Ireland.

The first thing to note is that the six counties that make up Northern Ireland are part of Great Britian and thus follow British law and use British pounds as currency, as opposed to the Irish Republic that uses euros.  Currently there’s no hard border as one crosses seamlessly into Northern Ireland from the Republic. But now due to Britian’s plan to secede from the European Union because of the Brexit vote, there is a lot of talk about what that may mean for a crossing into Northern Ireland in the future. We had the benefit of being joined on our trip by some British friends prompting much lively discussion about the similarities between in the Brexit vote and the subsequent vote to elect Donald Trump to the American presidency.

I had no preconceived idea about Northern Ireland but it interested me because I remembered the horrible tension there thirty or forty years ago. I remember watching the nightly riots in Belfast in the same way as I view the Middle East on the news now. Back then we saw rumbles in the streets and bombings in the ongoing conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics, an unresolved chasm from the Rising days and beyond. We hired a guide who took us on a political tour of the section of Belfast that lived through the years of The Troubles, as that period is called. The Troubles were generated out of the fact that after 1916 the island had been divided into the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland which remained part of Great Britain. Our guide had been a teenager during The Troubles thirty years ago and he told us his job was to make petrol bombs. The area involved in The Troubles is still cordoned off, separating the Catholic and Protestant sections by walls, fences and gates that can be closed at a moment’s notice should any sign of conflict arise.   UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3358

He took us to Falls Road first and then Shankill Road  I hadn’t heard those names for a very long time but immediately it took me back to the brutal newscasts.   The time  is commemorated by murals and  memorials throughout the area.     This area was  the epicenter of the fighting that took place from the late 1960’s through to 1998. You get the impression that while things have calmed down, in no small part because of the intervention of our President Clinton in 1998 who brokered the Good Friday agreement, distrust and tension still simmer below the surface.   In fact our guide told us that a question had been on the ballot in the last election asking whether the fences, gates and other barricades should be taken down.   The answer from 78% of those voting  was a resounding “No.”

Although I was grateful for the opportunity to hear first hand about what went on here, I felt a bit guilty about touring this place that was a home to so much misery and bloodshed for so long. It is hallowed ground.   I asked our guide how the locals who still live in the Falls Road area feel about strangers coming through since it represents so much heartache for many of them. He said that it’s a place of history  to which tourists flock, and that it should be seen.    But it’s obviously  also a place that brings in revenue, as with most tourist areas, so the locals recognize that.  He did say that anyone who guides tourists through this area has agreed not to tell their clients what side they were on during The Troubles and try to give as objective and balanced view of what happened here as possible.

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Signing  the Peace Wall near where President Obama signed it a few years ago

Belfast is  the city in which the Titanic was built. In the more modern part of town stands the most amazing Titanic Museum  that  upon approaching it replicates a vessel being overtaken by water.

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The outside facade of the  magnificent Titanic Museum 

Inside, there are four floors of memorabilia, holograms and reproductions dedicated to the Titanic from it’s inception to interviews with actual survivors following the sinking.    There are  verbal tapes of actual survivors telling their story of how they survived.  Very powerful.
What I also found in Belfast was a city with diverse and beautiful architecture and a rousing nightlife full of energetic Irish bands and the ubiquitous pints.

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The Belfast City Hall decked out for Christmas

We stayed at the Hotel Europa in Belfast which during The Troubles was the most bombed  hotel in all of Europe, having been bombed 52 times in about 30 years. Our guide actually had a picture that he showed us of the Europa in those days with the front entrance in ruins.

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Walking on the Giant’s Causeway

There was so much to see and do in Northern Ireland, with not nearly enough time to do it all in the five days we were there.  We did make our way up to the Causeway Coast in County Antrim, home of the Giants’ Causeway, 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. It’s Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction and Ireland’s only World Heritage site. A day well spent. And thinking I was going to come home with a new tale to tell my grandkids about the mythical Irish giant, Finn McCool and his Scottish nemesis, Benandonner, little did I know that they were totally aware of the story and filled in the blanks as I excitedly told them that I was actually walked on  the causeway!

We loved our visit to Ireland and look forward to going back again.    It’s not only a  country that seems to love Americans, it’s one that is a relatively easy, fast flight from the eastern part of the U.S.  When we went in December, we were already in eastern Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, so we flew from Newark airport – a quick five and a half hour trip into Dublin!
I’d love to hear about trips that you have taken and adventures you have had!    Until next time…….

BEGINNINGS

 

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s that annual transition time when we look at the world with new eyes, a new perspective, that time of year when everything seems once again fresh, clean and possible. Just as with that other annual event, the birthday, New Year’s Day represents new hope, an opportunity to take stock, perhaps to chart a new course.

Over the years, I have tended to be a resolution maker. “This year I will start doing this” “This year I will stop doing/being that.” I saw the year stretching out in front me and it all seemed like such a loooooong time! I have enough years under my belt now to realize that resolutions made for an entire year were often too daunting or forgotten as the first week wound down. I made futile attempts to chart the year in one big gulp based on the needs or whim of however I ended the previous year.

More recently, though,  I’ve come to realize that there are endless opportunities for change, for accomplishment, for shaking things up.  Not all “resolutions” need to take a year or a lifetime. Every day, or even every portion of a day, offers opportunities for new beginnings, continual course corrections. Had too many carbs for lunch? Make up for it that night at dinner.

So now I’ve made my 2018 list of “things” to do. It’s not a long list – pretty short actually – and imminently doable. I won’t tell you the items on my list but I can tell you that they are short term goals that should be able to be accomplished over the course of several weeks or months.  They are things I’ve been stuck on for a while. So we’ll see how I do. When (if) I complete those, I can surely come up with another list – or not!

Do you too  have some things you are looking to shake up this year?   If you do or don’t, I  wish you all good things!    Have an amazing year!

Until next time…..

 

CHRISTMAS TREE, OH, CHRISTMAS TREE

As I have stated many times on this blog, I love Christmas. I love the time leading up to Christmas, the songs, the spirit, the sense that people seem, even though somewhat harried,  to be kinder, more cheerful.   I believe  the editor of the New York Sun who wrote to Virginia O’Hanlon in  1897 in response to her query in  his editorial titled “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”  Virginia’s friends had told her there was no Santa Claus.    He said, “How dreary would the world be if there was no Santa Claus…..there would be no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence…..the eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”    That’s why I always tell people that I believe in Santa.    This is the sensibility that I love in this wonderful season.      Maybe seeing the world this way is just wishful thinking on my part, especially in a year when we grasp at anything that makes the world seem better. But I truly love all the magic around Christmas.

This year we were gifted with an early Thanksgiving which usually means a more relaxed prep time for Christmas, having gained that extra week to shop, to bake, to make merry.    But my husband’s college alma mater was playing in a basketball tournament in Belfast, Ireland  this year and we decided to go  with some friends on a wonderful trip to Northern Ireland to roam around, discover this part of Ireland to which we had never been,  and then cheer on the team during that final week of November thus cutting us off from that jump start to the holidays.       It was all worth it because we enjoyed every second of our time in Ireland (minus the last five minutes of game 1 when our team lost!).   And Ireland itself was already so dressed up for Christmas that it easily fed my spirit!

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The pace since our return has been non-stop. This past week, our first full week back, was filled with parties and get-togethers with friends and family, always a brilliant kick off to the season. Then this past few days were defined by  decorating, choosing our Christmas tree, gift shopping and wrapping.

We always buy our tree at the local animal farm which serves as a way to help support the work of the farm and provides us with a beautiful selection of trees and other greenery every year. While my husband and I steadfastly adhere to the tradition of a real tree, we have little patience for the actual exercise of picking it out. So our tradition is that my husband sets his stop watch as we enter the farm to see how long it takes us to pick out the centerpiece of our home decoration.    This year our search took a full 10 minutes!     Somehow through the years using this method,  we always end up with a beautiful tree that we are proud to display. Our tree this year is a balsam fir beauty which we noted is slightly larger and taller than our trees in other years.

We decorate every room of our first floor and finished basement. Every day we  finished another piece, with our tree being the last to get done.     I love the transformation of the house into a place where around every corner there is a vignette of Christmas flowers, old decorations that bring back Christmases past and loved ones now gone,  and my various Nativity scenes that remind us of the true meaning of Christmas.

I must say that  when we finished decorating the tree, I was feeling pretty good.    UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_33cbFeeling that with the tree done,  things were under control.     I gamely went out and finished my shopping,  making huge progress there too! Driving back home, so ebullient was I that I switched from MSNBC on Sirius and away from the dismal political banter and changed to the AM station that plays holdays songs 24/7! As I listened, I thought through my plan to sit leisurely that evening in our family room next to our beautiful tree and write Christmas cards.

Just then I saw that I had a message on my phone from our home security system indicating that something had set off the alarm. I called home. My husband answered. I asked him what was going on and he said, “What a mess! The tree fell over. The breaking glass set off the alarm.” Ugh! In forty years, we have never had that happen.    I’ve had friends to whom this has happened, with one of them so frustrated with the tree that he javelined it out the front door!   So on the rest of my drive home, I realized how thankful I was that there was no break-in but I  envisioned what awaited me. Broken ornaments all over the floor, the tree in tatters, water from the tree stand damaging my floor.

When I walked into my home, along with my husband there were two of our dear neighbors helping him upright the tree! UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_33cc  While it was certainly  a mess of sorts, it was far less than I had foreseen. Actually very few of my ornaments, collected over the years from friends and during our travels, were lost.  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_33ce

The problem seemed to be that the trunk of the tree was not straight, creating the instability.      My husband and our neighbors cut off the crooked part of the trunk, which was fortunately at the bottom, and solidly  repositioned a shorter, more edited but sturdier  tree in a new larger stand that my husband ran out and bought.   So forget the cards; that night  would be for redecorating the tree.

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All in all, we  were actually hindered only slightly.  The cards will wait for another day.     It could have been much  worse.   I do believe it  was partly Virginia, her letter and the editor’s wise response that got me to recognize this insignificant setback for what it was.  Relatively nothing in the scheme of things.   All’s well that ends well – now back to the magic of Christmas!