The Kindling of a Flame

As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.

I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.

By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.

What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.

When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.

Once paved roads were put in, the school districts were amalgamated and the old schoolhouse torn down – someone bought the property and built a home on it

Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.

Scenery for walking to school doesn’t get much better than this, still looking much the same as it did when I was a child[ my brother and I used to toboggan down that hlll

There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.

The little old hall still exists, with a fresh coat of paint

Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.

Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.

It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!

Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.

My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.

Houses of Parliament, London England

I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.

Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.

To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!

The Road Through Time

It’s early August and the past few months have been a bit of a blur, days of staying in punctuated by trips for groceries and home supplies, and a few rounds of golf. I feel that we’re a lot less stressed here in Canada, but the news from outside our borders is routinely troubling.

Michelle Obama has gone on record about feeling low-grade depression through all of this, a revealing comment from someone who was resilient enough to be a truly historic First Lady. While I’m not feeling the stress in exactly the same way – removed as I am from a lot of the turmoil that she’s surrounded by – even in Canada there’s a constant and pervasive low hum of tension just below our senses that we try to ignore so we can carry on as best as possible.

We feel it in small ways though. I find myself more irritable about silly small things, never completely relaxed, looking for ways to keep myself occupied. Perhaps you’re feeling the same, or something different.

The lengthy heat wave we’re experiencing in Ontario hasn’t helped for me personally, although it’s a great summer for pool owners. I can do dry heat any time, but the combo of 90oF-plus temperatures and humidity just as high makes me even more testy when I do have to go out, and I’m drained of energy by the time I get back home. I really feel for so many of the seniors I see in grocery stores who seem to be struggling with navigating the ever-changing rules as our society tries to safely get closer to normal, but I get frustrated with people who appear to have forgotten how to drive or can’t seem to understand the social-distancing thing.

So this is a good week to offer a little distraction via the next part of our journey to Peru, through the blazingly hot desert to see the Nazca Lines and Chauchilla Cemetery.

Peru is most famous for the Incas, but there were many cultures before them. From Huacachina Oasis the road took us backward in time to the mysterious Nazca people, and then forward to the very early Incas, through burnt landscapes filled with eerie dust devils and so empty that we wondered why anyone would have ever made a home there.

The Pan-American highway crosses the Nazca Plateau and there’s even a spot where a tower has been built to view a few of the strange and gigantic etchings in the dirt without flying over them. The area is protected, so you can’t walk out to the etchings, but you can get a decent view of a couple of them from the tower if you’re not inclined to do the flight. The view from the tower, though, doesn’t capture the weirdness – for that you need to see all the Nazca Lines from above, stretching for miles across the desert plateau, layers and layers of them.

The sprawling branches of the huge biomorphic “Tree” glyph
Straight geometric shapes stretching for miles mixed with undulating wavy shapes

As we left the tower, the sun was setting over the eerie landscape that houses the etchings – more than 50 miles of flat reddish land dotted with little scrubby bushes that seem to survive on virtually no moisture.

We stayed in a charming 3-star hacienda-style hotel surrounded by farmland — how they managed to grow food in this climate was a sign of Peruvian ingenuity.

The next morning, those of us who planned to brave the Nazca flights headed off to the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport.

Maria Reiche was one of the first noted researchers of the Nazca figures. The enormous geoglyphs had been mentioned by a Spanish conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León, as ‘trail markers’ in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until humans invented flight that people were able to see them in their entirety and realize their significance. An American historian, Paul Kosok, was the first to study them in depth, including from the air, and he was later joined by an America archaeologist, Richard P. Schaedel, and Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and archaeologist who had come to Peru originally as a governess and tutor, then stayed on when WWII started. She’d been doing scientific work in Lima when she became fascinated by the Nazca figures. She joined Kosok in his research and spent the remainder of her long life studying, mapping and protecting the geoglyphs. After the Pan-American highway was cut directly through one of the figures, she lobbied the government to protect their national treasure and also sponsored the tower that we’d just been at the afternoon before. For her efforts, she became known as the Lady of the Lines, and is honored at the local airport.

Safety Note: For several years before we arrived, the small-craft flights over the Lines had a poor safety record, with several crashes and deaths. At one point, as group leader for our cluster of eight travellers, I was going to recommend that we skip the flights entirely. The Peruvian government had worked diligently to improve matters, and by the time of our trip our tour company was able to recommend several approved flight companies. The one we used, as you can see in this photo of yours truly waiting to board the plane, was Air Majoro.

Any time you’re planning an adventurous activity, it’s important to do your research in advance – there’s always an element of risk in these types of activities, but you’ll want to know what you’re getting into and make an educated decision about how far you’re willing to go.

The airline put my hubby and I on different planes – they spent a lot of time figuring out weight configurations among all of us on the small craft – so we each had very different experiences.

One thing you should be aware of before deciding to fly is that the planes tilt at severe angles to give you the best view of the figures etched into the red dirt. They also make a lot of pretty tight turns to allow you to see as many of the figures as possible.

Rising into the deep blue sky, it’s truly stunning to see how many figures the ancient Nazca people carved – there are over 1,000 of them, spreading for miles, often crossing other figures, and in a wild assortment of shapes and styles. Seventy of the figures, known as biomorphs, include the famous animal figures (monkey, spider, lizard, heron, etc.). But these are only a small proportion: there are 300 odd geometric designs, and 800 straight lines running for up to 30 miles in length!

There are only a few somewhat humanoid figures: a large pair of what looks likes disembodied hands, and a 100-foot tall figure etched into the side of a hill. It’s often referred to as the Astronaut, with an odd helmet-shaped head and its arm raised as if in greeting to something in the sky.

The geometric shapes are astoundingly sharp and straight for having been created over 2,500 years ago by removing the reddish upper layer of dirt up to about a foot deep to reveal the pale yellowish base beneath. Reiche found the mathematical precision to be highly sophisticated. Her research with Kosok found that many of the figures pointed towards the summer and winter solstices, so they theorized that the plateau was a gigantic astronomical calendar.

Since then, a lot of people have speculated about the purpose of the figures, from landing sites for aliens to religious ritual designs to markers for underground sources of water in a landscape that receives only about one inch of rain in a year.

This figure, my personal favourite, was originally called The Hummingbird, but is now believed to represent a forest bird called a Hermit

Many of the theories seem to fit some of the Lines, but none of them fit all of the Lines, and it’s not until you fly over them that you see how strange they truly are. Whichever theory appeals to you, there are a lot of questions still. Some that popped up in my head that day: what could prompt those ancient peoples to make so many of them (think of the effort in measuring, excavating, running straight edges for miles and miles and miles even up in the hills), why would they make so many different shapes, why would they lay them on top of each other like a crazy jigsaw puzzle? I’m not sure we’ve come to any real understanding of what the etchings are for, or are even close to it.

Our pilot gave us a heads-up as we approached each different figure or cluster of figures, tilting the plane steeply so that the wing tip was pointing towards where we needed to look. Then he would execute another tightly-banked turn to move on to the next figure.

It turned out that my plane had a hot-dogging pilot who seemed to be showing off a bit for a guest he’d brought on board. I was doing okay stomach-wise until he started zipping through tighter and tighter turns, while I got greener and greener in the face. I had to stop taking photos and was fervently praying to land soon when someone must have alerted the pilot that I was looking pretty bad, because suddenly we were doing just that. On the ground, our excursion leader sat me down and hustled to get me some coca leaf candies.

Peruvians have been using coca leaf tea for centuries for altitude sickness, and it turns out that coca leaves are also great for nausea. Both tea and candies are available everywhere, and I recovered enough to be able to explore a couple of shops – I bought a silver-coloured wrist cuff with the most famous Nazca animals on it – while I waited for my hubby’s plane to return.

What I didn’t find out until they landed was that his pilot had trouble with the landing gear and was delayed for several minutes as he frantically pumped the lever to get the wheels down. My hubby regaled me quietly with this story after we got back to the hacienda.

Was the flight entirely safe? Well, everyone in our group eventually made it safely to ground, although not without a bit of a close call. Do we regret taking the flight? No, there’s no other way to get any real sense of the scope and enigma of the Nazca Lines. Should you go to Peru, check recent safety records and decide for yourself.

The mystery of the Lines becomes even deeper when you visit the ancient cemetery of Chauchilla, just 19 miles south. The Nazca culture believed that the afterlife was a mirror of their earthly existence, so they buried their people in little houses constructed underground, hair braided and clothed in well-made robes, surrounded by the artifacts they had used in life – pottery for cooking, tools if you were a builder, and so on.

You can visit Chauchilla and its subterranean necropolis today because robbers had been digging up remains for some time – walking across the blistering sand, you can see bones and bits of smashed pottery scattered about – so the government turned it into a protected open-air museum.

You approach Chauchilla across miles of bleak desert, where eerie dust devils spin up out of the sand with a noise like gusts scouring the air.

Wear closed footgear – Chauchilla sits in part of the Atacama Desert (according to the National Geographic Society), commonly considered the driest place on earth. It was certainly the hottest place we’ve ever been, a strange wind-blown inferno which for some reason the Nazca peoples decided to make their home. Any of our travellers wearing sandals took no more than a few steps before they sprinted back to our overland truck to get shoes. Even the truck itself was parked under a huge shaded ‘truckport’ to keep it at a reasonable temperature while we explored the site.

Long stone-lined paths lead to covered areas where you can view the tombs.

The occupants are well-preserved and you can see details of their lives, including stone grinding bowls and simple pottery. It was an appropriate place to visit on Halloween, as it happened.

So this brought to mind my next question: how did these apparently simple peoples create the mathematically-sophisticated Nazca geoglyphs? And why would they have gone to the trouble?

Questions to ponder as we moved forward about 1,000 years in time to a place on the coast where the ancient Incas sent fresh fish by footpath over 300 miles to Cuzco, the religious centre of their culture. The road to Puerto Inka is cut through soft sand down to the beach – we blessed our skilled driver for navigating the precipitous twists and turns.

As evening began to fall we arrived at a unique place to stay, the Hotel Puerto Inka just outside the ruins of the ancient village overlooking the pounding waves of the Pacific.

After checking into one of the comfortable, salt-scented rooms stacked in layers up the hillside, many of us checked out the ruins of the Inca buildings, which even in their rustic village state still displayed remarkably precise engineering.

A few people took a walk along one of the many paths in the surrounding hills (presumably those of the fish-runners), or along the gorgeous beach.

At dinner, since it was Halloween, we celebrated with a round of Pisco Sours and organic candy suckers that I’d brought with me, while the waves crashed on the shore and storm clouds darkened the sky – a fitting wrap-up to a day of strangeness and wonder.

The Nazca Lines are one of those ancient mysteries that will haunt and intrigue us for a long time, I think, and should not be missed if you go to Peru.

Next up: beginning our high-altitude acclimation 8,000 feet up in Arequipa, the ‘White City’ for its white-stone buildings set among three looming volcanoes, and widely considered the most beautiful city in Peru. Its residents consider themselves so set-apart from the rest of the country that they even have their own, unofficial, passport (which you can buy).

In the meantime, stay calm and kind for yourself and the people around you, stay safe for the better tomorrow that will be coming.

Grounding with traditions

Growing up with a thirst for travel, to be honest I was never overly into celebrating Canada – all the exciting stuff seemed to happen somewhere else.

But over the many years of our travels, we learned as much about our own country as we did about others. While we’ve enjoyed and admired the pace of life in other places, we can come home to a lot of things we love: changes of season (there’s nothing like a crisp autumn day surrounded by gorgeous leaf colours); a cosmopolitan food scene that allows us to recreate some of our favourite dishes from our travels; the opportunity to own a home with a yard where we can enjoy summer barbecues.

Our history hasn’t been spotless and we’re still working out the fallout/reparation, but during this time in particular we are grateful to have great medical care available to everyone. The son of a friend of mine contracted a very serious case of Covid and our local hospital saved his life without anyone having to worry about the cost.

So for several years now my hubby and I have been celebrating Canada Day in various ways, and this year I noticed that a lot of people in our neighbourhood have done the same. Our government has done a good job of steering us through the pandemic and I think most of us feel as safe as we can be under the circumstances.

While I’m more of a free-form person than someone who likes routine, this year our national holiday made me think of how traditions can help provide a sense of stability and continuity. in times of uncertainty especially, celebrating things we care about helps ground us to normality, whether it’s a daily ritual of afternoon tea, a weekly trip to a bistro for good coffee and pastries as my brother does, or reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every December as another friend does each year for her family – whatever brings a smile your face.

So this July 1st, we braved the heat and humidity to fire up our barbecue for some good steaks, corn bread with cheese, and a layered salad, followed by a highly-tweaked banana split that took advantage of the wonderful fruit we have available: fresh in-season strawberries macerated in sugar and Drambuie over vanilla-bean ice cream, peaches sautéed in a butter/brown sugar/cardamom sauce over salted caramel ice cream, and chocolate sauce over coffee ice cream.  

I hope that, wherever you are, there are traditions that can help keep you grounded while we wait for whatever normality comes out of this eventually.

Armchair travel: Celebrating England

Here in Canada we’re coming up on the Victoria Day weekend, which is a big deal for several reasons: another long weekend (always a good thing), the lead-up to summer (although you wouldn’t know it from the unexpected snow we just had the other day, making my waiting pots of tulips look rather frosty), and the weekend when most people in Southern Ontario at least start planting their gardens. The weather this weekend looks like it will actually live up to my area’s nickname of the Banana Belt, so the tulips can be planted after all.

Victoria Day also makes me think of England, so inextricably linked with Canadian history, but also one of our favourite places to visit. While some people may be firing up their backyard grills on the annual Monday holiday, I’ll be roasting a juicy prime rib as well as plump Yorkshire Puddings to puddle with gravy, and finishing with a very British Pineapple and Cherry Upside Down Sandwich Cake.

The imposing Houses of Parliament on the Thames

My hubby and I first visited London together after our planned getaway to Mexico with some friends got literally washed into the Gulf of Mexico by a fall hurricane. We all got refunds (thank you, travel insurance!), and our friends decided to postpone their travel until their honeymoon a few months away, but my hubby suggested that we go to London for a week. It would be in early November, and at first I thought he was joking, but he was indeed serious. He’d passed through London very briefly at the tail end of a high school trip and had always wanted to go back to see more. At that point I’d never been abroad and quickly realized that this opportunity was not to be wasted.

We had a blast! We did the full-on British detective thing, layering up with tweedy pants and warm sweaters under trench coats. I still remember how excited I was just to fly into Heathrow, and then to see Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, and pubs, and the little crowns on top of sign posts in the parks. We saw Cats and Chess at the theatre, went to a medieval banquet at Hatfield House, posed next to the wax figures at Mme. Tussaud’s, and explored all the layers and layers of history in one of the truly great cities of the world.

We also bravely rented a car and did a couple of day trips to Stonehenge and Bath, and to Oxford, where we toured parts of the university, discovered my favourite bookshop in the world, Blackwell’s. We bought little Oxford rugby shirts as Christmas gifts for all of our nieces and nephews, and wandered down dark alleys in order to eat outside by a coal brazier with gloves on in the yard of 600-year old Turf Tavern.

We had our first proper English tea in the town of Windsor, and I instantly fell in love. It had been a damp, chilly day — we chatted with some of the ladies-in-waiting at Windsor Castle and even they remarked on the weather, after which they steered us toward a small place on one of the streets out front of the castle. Having never had anything better than Red Rose back home at the time, we thought we’d try the Afternoon Tea — seemed perfect on such a day.

The waiter brought out this wonderfully rich amber liquid, along with scones and clotted cream and fruit preserves. It was all a revelation, and I was so fascinated by the experience that I bought a book about tea in one of the shops.

I’ve spent all the years since learning about tea — its history and culture, how to make it properly, and all the intriguing variations as we’ve travelled around the world. In the meantime tea has made a home in North American culture and I’m often asked to do tea talks and tastings for our local organizations.

Should you be in the mood to settle in for a round of one of the many great British mystery series on television, and a little armchair travel while you’re at it, you can easily put together a quick afternoon tea for yourself.

Here’s what I made — all of it gluten-free by the way, for those of you who might need to eat the same way:

  • Cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches — a classic. I used soft spreadable cream cheese mixed with fresh chives and topped with thinly-sliced English cucumber
  • Egg salad with curly endive — well-minced hardboiled eggs, finely sliced celery, minced shallot, freshly ground black pepper and Sir Kensington mayonnaise, and topped with a sprig of curly endive (also called chicory)
  • Salmon spread — I saw this on an Agatha Christie mystery, I think. The murder had been committed by adding poison to a pot of salmon spread bought in a village shop and served for tea. You can omit the poison and just take a can of skinless, boneless wild-caught salmon, mince it into fine flakes with a fork, mix in finely minced shallot and fresh dill, and just enough mayonnaise to hold it together (the idea is to let the flavour of the salmon shine through)
  • Ham and cheddar with chutney — a couple of thin slices of roast ham, with a sturdy cheddar and a dollop of mango chutney
  • Freshly-made scones topped with creme fraiche and a jam of your choice — I used a gluten-free scone mix by Namaste, which was fairly easy to make. The scones spread out a fair bit in my oven and ended up looking like large fat cookies, but the taste and texture were perfect, so I cut them into wedges, sliced off the top and served them open-faced
  • A nice cake — here’s the recipe I used for a delicious Southern Pecan Pound Cake. I made it with gluten-free flour, and it turned out very well, if not quite as high as it would with regular flour.

I’ve also put together a great itinerary for 4 days in London, with some insider tips gleaned from many visits. Here’s the introduction and the schedule for the first day.

More will become available in the online Adventure Travel 101 course that I’m putting together and hope to make available in the next couple of months. For I believe that travel will always be a part of our lives. The world has seen many plagues and disasters for as far back as history records, and even before that in legends passed down through generations, and we continue to explore it in each new iteration.

How is a visit to London part of adventure travel? Well, my first trip was certainly a grand adventure for me, and we often recommend it to friends and family who are just getting started with international journeys as an easy and charming first step.

In the meantime, enjoy some armchair travel there while we’re waiting out our home stays!

Twilight Zone Day – Are we living it?

Who ever thought we’d be living out a multi-episode Twilight Zone-like drama?

I’ve been a fan of the early 1960s series in reruns since I was old enough to watch it and understand what was going on. This coming Monday, May 11 is Twilight Zone Day, and given the bizarre times we’re living out in reality right now, it seems a perfect time to celebrate the ground-breaking series.

The show’s creator, Rod Serling, was a fan of pulp fiction, imaginative stories found in inexpensive printed magazines in the early days of mass-published science fiction. While these stories were often lurid and sensational, with equally lurid covers featuring scantily-clad women to catch readers’ attentions, some really well-known heroes emerged, including The Shadow and Flash Gordon.

The first pulp magazine was published in 1896, printed on cheap wood pulp paper produced from wood chips  and bits of other plant fibres. Over the years very famous writers had stories published in the pulps – H. Rider Haggard (this movie version of his most famous story, She, is still one of my favourite old adventure movies!) and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who brought Tarzan to life.

During the Great Depression the ‘pulps’ were a popular form of cheap entertainment for people with little money. Characters like The Shadow went on to become famous in various forms of media, including the old radio shows and later in movie depictions. My hubby and I often listen to the old radio dramas on long road trips – they have great atmosphere, especially at night when the darkness frees up your mind’s eye, and you can stream them here.

All of the pulp writers let their imagination run freely, and it was this spirit that Serling homed in on when he started to work on a weekly anthology series with a science-fiction theme for television. The weekly stories were thought-provoking in their speculation about how ordinary people might handle unexpected situations.

A cult classic, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, features a very young William Shatner on an airplane who spots a hairy gremlin-like creature outside of the aircraft destroying one of the wings, and his attempts to get someone to believe him.

One of my other personal favourites is Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? The story follows two state troopers face who, after investigating a tip about an unidentified flying object, find footprints at a mysterious crash site that lead to a nearby café. When they enter, all the people inside look human, but one of them may be something else.

My own early attempts at writing stories were heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone. I think I still have my copy of a story I wrote when I would have been 9 or 10 years old, handwritten on lined, 3-holed binder paper, about a girl playing with a toy sailboat on a small pond in her back yard. She’s upset with her parents and wishes that she could just shrink and live on her nice little boat – which, of course, is exactly what happens. The story ends with her mother coming out the back door to call the girl in for dinner.

Science fiction writers get to indulge in imagining the what-ifs. Often over the decades their creative results have turned from fiction into fact – many of the future technologies imagined in the original Star Trek television series ended up being developed in subsequent decades – the flip-open communicators became flip-open cell phones, insertable computer disks on the show presaged floppy disks and all the portable storage plugins we have today.

But it’s the fun of the writers’ vision that entertains us, especially if there’s a great story that we can relate to in some way, that resonates even while it’s beyond our realm of experience. Serling himself said that “If you can’t believe the unbelievability, then there’s something wrong in the writing.” Too far-fetched and the writer loses the audience, but extrapolated from real life in some way and the writer has us hooked, wondering how we might react in the same situation.

Serling was a master of the genre, encouraging us to place ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. I often smile when my hubby and I fly somewhere, imagining that hairy gremlin out on the plane’s wing tearing up the wiring. On the last leg of our honeymoon flight, from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, on our tiny island-hopper plane the door to the cockpit was shaped like a coffin, and when I looked out the window I could see loose bolts on the wing housing rattling in the wind. Gremlin on the wingtip? Hah! Try surviving a flight on old Prinair!

Old Twilight Zone episodes still air on television. Find some for May 11 and lose yourself in the eerie imaginings of Rod Serling and his writers. You may get some inspiration for dealing with the topsy-turvy reality we’re in right now, or at least be able to wryly laugh at it a little bit.

And if you’re so minded, please let me know which episodes have become your favourite.

A bit of the green

Not a drop of Irish in me, but I’ve always looked forward to St. Patrick’s Day as a harbinger of spring and some much needed green in our northern climate.

I always thought it would be great fun to spend the holiday in Ireland, where it’s part of a five-day festival that showcases Irish culture and food. This year, though, the annual parade in Dublin has been cancelled as part of a world-wide effort to curtail large-scale gatherings that could potentially spread the coronavirus. I swear the news is giving me an ulcer!

It’s so important during these uncertain times to find ways to maintain your sanity. Take a break from the media as often as you can, and celebrate life as much as you can. Since we’re all being encouraged to stay close to home, take a little virtual trip to Ireland with my hubby and I, who were just there last fall.

Ireland 2019 – a bit more adventure than we expected!

We flew Aer Lingus, who was having a great flight sale, and arrived in Dublin at 5:30am. The cab ride to our hotel, the Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge, was quick and scenic. The hotel is in a fantastic old building on a quiet piece of property a little away from the city centre but within easy reach via public transport..

Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge

Our room was, of course, not ready at that early hour, but the Front Desk stored our baggage and we walked down the sweeping lobby staircase to have some breakfast.

The hotel has a nice breakfast buffet, and our first surprise in Ireland was that all menus label each food offering as to what allergens the dish contains. For anyone, like myself, who has multiple food allergies/sensitivities, that’s a real boon. The down-side, though, is that more than half the food in the buffet contained items I can’t eat, which made meals in Dublin quite a problem for me, and I’d already stepped off the airplane with a migraine from the food on the flight.

I did manage a nice breakfast anyway, and our next, more pleasant, surprise was that the Irish like their tea ‘sturdy’! When I checked our teapot to see how much was left, I was astonished to see three tea bags in it – a far cry from the generally insipid tea served in North American restaurants.

We spent a couple of great days in Dublin, enjoying the architecture, pubs and beautiful green spaces. Dublinia, the Viking museum, was fascinating, as was the interior of Christ Church cathedral, especially the rock-walled undercroft with its store of treasures.

Christchurch Cathedral undercroft

Neither hubby or I are fond of crowds, so we enjoyed a brief excursion to the famous Temple Bar district, where I found an excellent meal of chicken breasts with a tomato, pepper and olive sauce followed by a delicious lemon meringue parfait.

Strolling the streets of the Temple Bar district

Dublin counts many famous writers among its residents, and has decided to celebrate its more goth heritage with a new attraction called Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula. It’s basically an illusionist show that’s very well done and very entertaining, and the building also features a lot of memorabilia from the author’s life as well as his legendary novel and the movies it inspired.

The easiest way to get around Dublin is to buy a pass for the hop-on, hop-off buses. If the weather is mild enough, sit on the open top deck and enjoy your driver’s entertaining commentary, get a bird’s-eye view of more wonderful architecture, and wave at the popular Viking-themed buses that go buy frequently.

Leaving Dublin, we returned to the airport and picked up our rental vehicle. We’d chosen to drive ourselves around, just as we’ve done in a number of other countries around the world, so that we could visit some sights not on the standard group-tour itineraries. A word to the wise about this: Irish roads are much narrower than ours, and hemmed on both sides by things like stone walls and hedgerows, with essentially no shoulder to speak of. Some of the roads we travelled on are purportedly 2-lane but really just a lane-and-a-half, with a few pull-over spots periodically so that oncoming traffic can pass safely. Self-driving in Ireland is NOT for the anxious driver.

Our first stop on the road was the Neolithic tomb at Newgrange. The site is accessed by shuttle bus from the visitor centre several miles away. The skies had opened up, so we sheltered as much as possible while we waited for the next shuttle, warming up with a bit to eat and some hot tea. The site is fascinating, surrounded by its own small stone henge. The entrance and passageway to the interior chamber are low and narrow, but the chamber is the prize at the end of the discomfort. Photography isn’t allowed, but the chamber consists of a central area under an incredible cantilevered stone roof – a masterpiece of engineering 5,000 years ago –  with three side chambers, one of which contains a bowl-shaped rock, and some mysterious swirled designs cut into the walls. Archeologists speculate that Newgrange was a burial site, but they still don’t know for sure.

I managed a few exterior photos while trying to keep my camera sheltered under my rain poncho, which the driving rain and wind quickly destroyed.

From there, rather wet, we went on to the Hill of Tara, where my hubby refused to get out of the car. I was determined, though, to see the ancient seat of Irish kings, so I braved the ongoing rain and wind. There didn’t seem to be anyone at the visitor centre, but the gate was unlocked, so I trudged up a little dirt path to a dismal-looking little grey church with a tiny cemetery. There was another gate at the edge of the trees at the churchyard perimeter, also unlocked, so I ventured onward. As soon as I stepped onto the grassy field beyond the trees, a cloud of white-beaked rooks rose from the tree branches and swirled raucously above my head. I felt like I was crossing the threshold to the underworld.

Rooks apparently guarding the threshold to the mystical Hill of Tara

I continued onward, up and down slippery grass slopes, until I couldn’t go any further for fear of injuring myself in the mud (did I mention that I broke one of my toes less than two weeks before we started the trip!). Also, I was worried that my hubby might be getting somewhat anxious because he’d lost sight of me as soon as I got to the church – and he was – so I headed back, passing another intrepid couple who’d also decided to battle the elements. The rooks went bananas again as I returned to the churchyard; I may have flipped them off in response.

Now truly sodden, we made our way to our overnight stop, the small town of Carnbeg, where we stripped off our wet clothes and had hot showers. My soggy socks had been completely destroyed and went in the trash. The hotel was cozy enough and had a decent gastropub on site, so we stayed in and warmed up over dinner.

The next morning we’d missed breakfast, but the helpful woman behind the Front Desk gave us a suggestion on where to eat, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things on the entire trip!

The garden shop at Standfield, on the fringes of Carnbeg, may be hard to find (we found the signage in Ireland to be as mystical as the country’s ancient history), but it’s worth the effort for the wonderful breakfasts they also serve in an extension filled with a whimsical assortment of old chairs and tables and crockery. The lush oatmeal, studded with fruit and berries, and served with tea and craggy country toast, was perfect for a cool fall morning.

Then it was on to Belfast, the legendary and troubled city which has only been safe to visit for the past couple of decades. Belfast is famous for two things: the Troubles, which dominated world news for three decades in the latter part of the 20th century, and as the city where the tragic RMS Titanic was built and launched.

As you may have already read in this blog, I am a big ‘fan’ of the Titanic story, so the opportunity to visit the slipyard and museum was a big bucket-list item for me. We decided to splurge a bit and stay right across the street from both at the wonderful Titanic hotel.

The Titanic Hotel is designed to capture the nautical ambience of the legendary ship
Our elegantly nautical room at the Titanic Hotel

That evening we booked a Black Cab tour of the sites of The Troubles. Visitors can explore the sites on their own, but we wanted an authentic and personal tour to help us understand what went on and how things became so tragically extreme, and the Black Cab tours are the best way to do that..

There are poignant reminders of the many lives lost, both young and old.

Belfast feels calm and peaceful, but you can sense the deep currents running underneath the surface and how fragile the current peace is even while it’s so desperately desired. The people have expressed their feelings in their wall art, and some of the art encourages young people today to avoid getting ensnared by old animosities, to instead create better futures than their predecessors.

The next day was devoted entirely to the Titanic story, from the excellent museum build in the shape of the a ship’s bow…

…to the only remaining ship’s tender for the Titanic, used in the port of Cherbourg that was too shallow to allow the massive liner to actually dock and necessitating transfer of the passengers and luggage out to the ship by small boat.

Belfast is a warm, pretty city to visit, with incredible history — I hope that the peace holds and that many more people will be able to explore its charms. Can I just take a moment to mention the weird and extremely tasteless proliferation of “Car Bomb” cakes I’ve been seeing on Pinterest under “Irish Food”? Having been to Belfast and feeling its deep wounds, I can’t imagine anyone from Northern Ireland who would endorse such an appallingly-named dessert.

From Belfast we headed north to the Giant’s Causeway as Hurricane Lorenzo began to make landfall. We managed to walk around a fair bit of the site before the rain hit.

With the arrival of the rain, we decided to warm up with a tour and tasting at Bushmills Distillery.

We overnighted in Portrush at a delightful B&B, venturing out in the rain for dinner at a local restaurant with one of the most delectable dessert cases we’ve ever seen!

The next morning it was time for a quick look at Royal Portrush golf course, venue for last summer’s British Open Golf Tournament, the first time it was held in Northern Ireland in something like 50 years. Then we cut across the country toward the west coast, unavoidably missing some of the reputedly spectacular north coast scenery but enjoying the road scenery nonetheless, with a stop at a roadside food truck in the middle of nowhere for a fabulous cinnamon bun and coffee!

We saw a lot of things, far too many to illustrate here, and enjoyed the incredible warmth and generosity of the Irish people throughout. A few highlights:

Our favourite small town, Donegal
Driving along all the small, winding roads of Connemara
Kylemore Abbey is stunning…
…but even more magical is the Abbey’s setting on the lake…
…and the walled Victorian Garden
Enigmatic Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient portal tomb over 5,000 years old
The magnificent Cliffs of Moher, rising out of the mist and pounding waves
Lovely Killarney National Park
Ross Castle, stronghold of the O’Donoghue Clan
The ruined Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick converted the King of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century
A labyrinth at Glendalough
The magnificent gardens at Powerscourt Estate
Traditional Irish Stew in a pub

I hope that this little taste of Ireland has given you some ambience for your own celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and all the wonderful things our world still has to offer, even though a lot is on hold for now as we stay safe and wait things out. All things pass, and we’ll weather this just as we always have, with grace, humour and perseverance. Next posting: some great ways to snuggle up in your home and make the best of things! Much love and best wishes to everyone around the world.
Erica