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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Spending the holidays in Florida

Spending the holidays in a warmer climate still feels strange to me, having lived in Canada for most of my life. But that's exactly what I did for a few days when Rich and I went to Florida to visit his family and seeing them is always special.

My father-in-law still loves to go walking though he uses a cane, and his favorite place is Downtown Disney. There, thousands of poinsettia plants have been nestled into terra cotta urns and thrive under the 80 degree sunshine.
And while it did feel somewhat liberating to be open-toed, wearing flip-flops instead of fuzzy slippers decorating the Christmas tree after, or hanging ornaments around the porch without the threat of a nor'easter tearing them to shreds, I realized something that surprised me--I actually missed the cold.

As much as I shiver and complain about the winter chill in New England and those blustery winds--my own porch in New Hampshire is filled with buckets of greenery and artificial poinsettias weighed down by bricks--to me, the holidays mean evergreens, woolen mittens and... snow. And I suppose it's because what's underneath all that, are the memories I've gathered from Christmases bundled-up in sweaters. Of building snowforts, singing carols in front of a fireplace, making snow angels in the backyard with my sister in her fogged-up glasses, and trudging to Christmas service early, extra early, to help my father scrape the ice off the windshield.

It's almost as if the stark temperature forces me, somehow, to get down to the meaning of the holidays. There's also something about frozen-toes after an afternoon of ice skating that makes me feel part of the landscape.

In Orlando, they simulate the feel of skating with an artificial outdoor rink, and snow is sprayed nightly onto the streets of Celebration. It sounds silly, I know, but it actually feels magical because of the children. They squeal with delight upon seeing the first flakes shoot out of the snow-making machines perched high atop the street lamps, and their eyes glisten with adventure when they put on those skates.
Most of them struggle on the plastic pond, wiping out more than ever gliding over it, but they never stop smiling and love the experience no matter how many bruises they get. And Spending that night with my nieces and nephews, watching them skate was my favorite part of the trip.
In Fort Wilderness,Disney's campground, regulars enjoy their own holiday traditions.
And that means decorating their campsites with as many Disney snowglobes or wagons full of other storybook characters as they can fit into the space in front of their Rv's.
And I know they certainly wouldn't trade any of it for a chilly, New England Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quechee Library

Rich and I recently visited Quechee,Vermont where relatives have a home and enjoyed speaking at the Quechee library. It's a super cozy and an inviting space. They have a vibrant program and the books see plenty of readers. We had fun and welcomed the enthusiasm and engaging questions from the kids, who ranged in age from two to thirteen.
Librarian Marieke Sperry did a great job creating crafts after, which included lots of cut out animal shapes for anyone who wanted to construct a Fair poster in honor of my book, LITTLE JOE.
The Vermont area itself is steeped in New England tradition and charm, as well as having a beautiful landscape. But much of the terrain was dealt a harsh blow late summer, after receiving the brunt of a hurricane. Gushing water running higher than the town tore through Quechee's covered bridge and ravaged the ground of many communities scattered along the way. While Quechee's historic bridge may take more than a year to repair and the site of it seemingly crumbling in mid-air makes your heart sink, the town itself has banded together through all of this. Incredibly, it's glowing with holiday splendor,less than four months later.

The studio of beloved local glassblower Simon Pearce sustained major structural damage being alongside the bridge, but the business is open. It is the cornerstone enterprise for Quechee. Not far away the town of Woodstock, which was without water and power for what seemed like months, is showing its resiliency. We spent the afternoon there, where stores are open and looking beautiful. Shopkeepers are grateful what for what have and very nearly lost entirely and great newcomers with kindness and warmth. They've worked countless hours cleaning and repairing what was damaged. And it gave both Rich and I a clearer sense of why New England traditions continue from generation to generation, and just how much they cherish their landscape.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pumpkinfest A Glowing Success

Each year,we New Englanders have a chance to become child-like again months before December, at Keene New Hampshire's annual Pumpkinfest. While it's true that I unleash my child-like self every day as a writer, Pumpkinfest is something special.
The annual event is devoid of any kind of festival pretense. What causes the town's Main street to close isn't an admission-paying event, but thousands of community-minded individuals schlepping their jack-o-lanterns like prized possessions.
They'll be hoisted onto scaffolding, some 50 feet high. And if you don't bring your own on Pumpkinfest day you can scoop out the flesh of the state's national fruit(yes, pumpkin is a fruit), and create faces that, once lit with a candle, make magic.

Between 16 and 30 thousand jack-o-lanterns (I'm not kidding),miraculously show up via shopping carts, radio flyers and by the armful.

I can't tell you how much of a rush is it to donate a dollar at the carving station and create one, because I'll admit, it makes me cry. Slicing through a sweet,gardeny-smelling pumpkin and watching a character take shape also gets my Halloween juices flowing.
Sharing the experience with family, sneaking glances at them as they carve out their expressions on gourds with Picasso-like concentration, is a moment I savor until next year.

Then there's the costume parade, where thousand of kids and their families march down Main Street
They wave at us revelers like it's their coronation.
And after, the 40 or so food vendors are kept busy--boys scouts frying up apple donuts, hand-cut fries at the Legion, and the best apple-cranberry turnovers at the women's singer's booth, rivaling the Waldorf school's pumpkin-curry soup.

As dusk approaches,residents get out their bic lighters and start making the pumpkins shine. It goes quiet. The moment's too awesome for words. Just gasps of delight.The two towers, higher than the town's trees, are impressive enough. But it's the mismatched gourds of all shapes and sizes gathered around lamp posts,lining fences and carved by kindergartners that catch my eye.
Walking home amongst the blaze of lights, my little niece doesn't say much. She's too busy smiling and skips to her house then climbs into her Angry Bird costume. Because Halloween comes a good week early every year in Keene. And that's cause for a celebration.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Final Day in London

It's our final day in London and we spend it with my in-laws, walking to the Tate Britain Gallery first thing in the morning, which turns out to be quite a nice stroll for my father and his walker.
The rest of the Wallace clan has gone to go to Paris for a few days and are due to come back to the London apartment this afternoon.

Rich and I are delighted to discover more of John Constable's paintings at the Tate, which are scattered throughout the Gallery,
and of course, plenty of works by Turner, who donated his paintings to the Tate. Of, course, all of this is free for anyone to enjoy, which still amazes me.

Except for having to give the staff your passport in order to purchase an audio guide (which we decided not to do), the Tate is a terrific, spacious gallery in which to roam and the walk there is so pleasant, too.

After the Tate, we find a really beautiful-looking pub nearby named the White Swan and order fish & chips.
We really wanted a Sunday roast dinner, but they don't serve that here, and we're all starving and not wanting to walk much further. On the way home there are plenty of people enjoying an afternoon pint, many with dogs on their laps.

When we get back to our apartment, the rest of the Wallace crew are there. Cheyenne models the Paris skirt she brought for the trip, complete an Eiffel Tower painted on its hem.

Ben can't wait to show us the pet worm he got from a street performer-- it's a red felt charmer you operate from a string in your pocket and he keeps making it crawl all over my shoulder.

Evie wore her beret all weekend, and bought a pillow with the word,"Paris" on it.

For our last meal, Rich really wants dim sum. The kids and Lynda already had their joyous fill at Harrods a few days before,
so Rich and I head to Chinatown again, to get some even more authentic and for a fraction of the price at New China. We have no idea what we're ordering and eye the tables all around us, then settle on spinach dumplings with prawns (the actual dough is made with spinach and these were really tasty), as well as a barbeque pork buns, Hunan chicken buns and sweet corn and chicken soup which is so flavorful.

I save room for a custard bun (my second favorite dessert next to scones), and this time, I know to peel the wax paper off the bottom instead of eating it.

When we arrive at the London home, I have my final tea in the courtyard of our town house and think how wonderful this trip has been.

Rich says we're going to come back within five years, sometime in August, when the Fringe Festival is on in Edinburgh. The next time, we hope we can bring Rich's grown sons and who knows, maybe their future spouses. It could turn out to be a Wallace trip for 14 people and that would be just fine.

We'll have gained a lot of nous by then. I'll remind Ben about the worm he bought in Paris and the first time we had pizzas with smoked salmon on them before downing salted caramel ice cream. And that we all cried for joy when that street painter finished his imaginary planets, creating them for all to see on the cobblestone streets.

I'll remind Rich of Saint Paul's Cathedral, and how, with the help of a guide named Chris, we learned of its beauty-- those heavenly frescos glistening in the sun during Evensong on an afternoon when it was utterly unexpected, and where Rich's kindred spirit, Sir Albert Sullivan is buried.

I feel a little guilty not expecting that a trip could be this wondrous when there's a whole building carrying a sign that says, Take Courage,
one that's been left unblemished and giving hope since World War 2. Or a towering window next to Westminster Abbey's Choir School For Boys with the last name of MILNE on the door. Staring at us through the window, are some of my favorite childhood friends,
Pooh and Piglet. How could a trip not be wonderful with the two of them around?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Royal Day in London

First thing in the morning we head out in the glorious sunshine to begin our Royal Day-- Rich in his new regal gold jacket and me in my red silk flapper dress. The first stop is the Royal Mews, where the Queen's stables are kept. We're a bit early so we shop at the Palace gift store, where I purchase royal mugs for my mum and sister(the official ones with the gold initials of Catherine & William painted on them that cost 4 times as much as the other mugs). I also grab a tea towel for me with the Buckingham Palace unicorn and lion logo, along with some quilted bags in the official Victoria & Albert floral pattern since they're now my favorite royals. (Did you know all royals have their own patterns? I didn't.)

At the Royal Mews, after getting our bags searched, which is protocol at all royal venues, we opt for the guided tour. We pass two lonely-looking horses-- the only horses of the Queen's we'll see for the rest of the excursion. An eager tourist puts out his hand to touch one of the steeds and gets royally scolded and practically admonished by a curt-lipped employee in a long navy skirt and blazer. We all bristle at the verbal lashing from the woman, who turns out to be our tour guide.

Now, if you like seeing gilded carriages in their garages without the glory of witnessing them in a parade led by Windsor Greys and filled with smiling Royalty, then you'll like the Royal Mews.
But even though I'm an avid horse lover, seeing a bunch of carriages cordoned off in their stalls without animals or people, made them appear like empty hulks, however shiny, and it was disappointing. What brightened our tour, though, was the rare chance that we'd picked the one day of the year when a carriage club rides through Hyde Park.

With the permission of the Queen, the club uses the square in the Mews to prepare, so we did see plenty of beautiful horses (and Windsor greys!) along with lots of wide-brimmed hats and morning suits as the club of wealthy Brits sipped on champagne before setting off on their journey.

We time our tour to finish just before the Changing of the Guard and head outside to the Palace Gates. The throngs of people are more than I'd imagined for the daily guard-changing. "Must be at least 5,000 out here," Rich says to me, holding my hand tighter. We work our way across the street in a mad dash before clambering behind the barricade in front of Victoria's Monument, which is the best vantage-point to catch the band. From what I've read,it's also the most enjoyable part of the ceremony anyhow. And I can't imagine hiking onto Rich's shoulders to peek through the Palace gates in order to catch a glimpse of the guard change. While we wait for the band a friendly Canadian-- a man from Ottawa here with his daughter, takes our picture.

I hear the sound of the musicians approaching and am happy when it crescendos as it gets nearer, drowning out the frantic chatter from the lady beside me, who is trying to block my shot with her camera.
Once the crowd clears, we walk to the Queen's Gallery. I thought I'd love the Mews and just feel sort of tepid about the Gallery, but it turns out to be quite the opposite.

"Make sure you visit the loos," the young lady checking my purse tells us. "They're the nicest in all of London." And I think she must be right. After dabbing some lovely lotion onto my hands in the marble and mahogany-paneled loo, Rich and I head up to the Gallery to view, "Treasures From The Royal Collection," a menagerie of art forms acquired by British kings and queens over the last 500 years.

The domed ceilings and massively-tall hunter green walls of the Royal salons are enough to intrigue me, and make a stunning backdrop for the Sevre porcelain, the Rembrandts and Flemish oil paintings. Some six-foot tall themselves, the pieces are all priceless and owned by the British Monarchy-- the dowry, I suppose of the newest Princess, Catherine.

It's the most manageable and enjoyable collection in a Gallery I've seen-- just 4 rooms joined by glass doors and the British Royal lineage.

I love the collections. In particular, the ones of the Prince Regent, who became George IV, and the most prolific collector of important works in British Royal history. He's filled his salons with paintings by Stubbs, Van Dyck and Rembrandt,and I'm so delighted to discover them through the audio tour, which is included in admission and you must take it if you go. They don't just read what appears on the plaque beneath each painting; Royal curators and art critics literally transport you into the world of King George-to-be: serenading us with music from the century of the paintings we gaze upon, whilst (I couldn't wait for a reason to use that word)listening to the explanation of what makes the pictures so grand, or important.

It's an hour of blissful time-travel-- and a kind of cultural-revolution for me--discovering some startling stories behind the paintings that give me plenty of story ideas. But we must be heading to Rubens, which is across the street from the Royal Mews, where we're booked to have the afternoon tea I've been waiting to enjoy for the past three months.

You have to reserve months ahead to get the window seat for tea at Rubens in the Palace Hotel Lounge, and we sink into the plush cushions of the settee, peering out at the Mews.

"You sure I won't be the only guy doing this?" Rich asks me. "Of course not," I assure him, even though there are two women beside us enjoying the champagne tea and no men in sight. Rich's interest perks up when he eyes the tiered cake stand on display in the window, laden with sweets and scones dripping of chocolate.
"Are those ours or display?" he asks. We wait to find out as our server welcomes us to tea and asks us which pots of tea we'll be having. Since you can have as many as you like, I go for the Earl Grey to start and the pot is about a 5-cupper,poured gingerly into my porcelain teacup through a sterling silver strainer by a smiling young man who says it's their custom blend. It's so fragrant and delicious, I get Rich to try it. He agrees it's the best traditional tea he's ever had, even better than his Rooibos red bush.

We order the Afternoon Tea, which starts off with finger sandwiches. (If you go, make sure to try the chicken salad in the shiny buns they call rolls. They are delicious). Rich kindly asks if he can have some more and eats about four. We raise our teacups to the many sightseers on double-decker buses that stop in front of the Mews and eyeing us with envy, as a pianist entertains the room with show tunes from a baby grand.

I go for the Oriental Sencha tea when the scones arrive, little mini-versions of the ubiquitous fist-sized ones served at all the bakeries--some raisin, others chocolate or plain. I love any dessert that's dense and doughy and these are really special. Almost as good as the Henderson's cherry scones in Edinburgh and much lighter-tasting. We have them with clotted cream, house-made strawberry jam,(which I wish they'd sell. They would make a fortune),and a kind of chocolate-hazelnut butter that Rich slathers his entire scone with.

I nibble on a smoked salmon finger sandwich, my second favorite of the sandwiches, as well as a tomato avocado.Finally, I go back to Earl Grey for the top tier of the cake stand.(We get our own, by the way. Turns out the one in the window is the display.)

The top of our cake stand is devoted entirely to sweets like peanut butter milk chocolate mousse, pineapple custard they call a financier, vanilla cheesecake and what becomes the crowning dessert of the trip-- a red velvet-colored macaroon stuffed with fresh raspberries and infused with rosewater and lychee. It's topped with a single petal from a red rose.

A leisurely two hours later and we're absolutely stuffed and tea-logged but surprisingly, we're the first to leave the lounge. So it is true when they say, "Expect to spend the afternoon when you're at tea in London."

On our way home, a London Bobby on horseback stops traffic. The carriage club is just returning to the Royal Mews from its afternoon in Hyde Park.

But I can't imagine them having a more enjoyable time than Rich and I had at Rubens.