Saturday, March 31, 2012

New Blog Design

Miss Priss and I messed around with my blog this afternoon. We like the new look! What do you think? Any suggestions?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Weekly Happenings: New Books to Read!

It's been a while since I wrote a weekly report; lots of things have been going on, and I've been busy. My Friday afternoons/Saturday mornings have either not been my own, or they've been too much my own, and I've neglected my reporting. I hope to get things up and going again!

We began some new AO titles this week: Oliver Twist; A Passion for the Impossible: the Life of Lilias Trotter; and Plutarch's Life of Brutus. We enjoy all three. Regarding the Trotter biography, Miss Priss said yesterday, "I think I'm going to really like this book."

Last week in This Country of Ours, we read about the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman. The girls were intrigued. Apparently, the Underground Railroad has popped up in other books they've read (their own free reads). I wanted them to dig a bit deeper, so I checked out from the library a basic biography of Harriet Tubman called, amazingly enough, Harriet Tubman, by George Sullivan. It's part of the In Their Own Words series. Tiny Girl finished it this week, and Miss Priss is more than halfway through.

The poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar has been a focus for the past three weeks or so. I was not familiar with his work, but I found I am familiar with a line from one of his poems: "I know why the caged birds sings," from the poem Sympathy. Some of his poems are lyrical and deeply meaningful; others are laugh-out-loud funny. I am glad we are now acquainted with Mr. Dunbar.

For two weeks, we've studied helping verbs and verb phrases. I found that the best method for this was asking the girls to memorize the list of 23 helping verbs, a worthwhile activity that has reaped benefits.

Today, Friday, we took a field trip to a nearby house museum, which dates from 1839. Miss Priss learned a few weeks ago that the museum offers a junior docent program, which piqued her interest. We set up a meeting for this morning with the woman who leads the program. After the meeting, she gave us a tour of the house, free of charge! Miss Priss is beyond excited about the program.

The girls' piano recital is in May, and they are seriously practicing their pieces. Miss Priss's drama troupe is also in rehearsal for their end-of-season variety show, scheduled for the first weekend in May. After much begging on her part, Tiny Girl was delighted to get the go-ahead from Himself and me to participate in the drama troupe next season. She and the new (leased) pony, Max, have been working hard, getting ready for some shows in April. We gave the March shows a skip; Max was lame for a few weeks and developed a minor thrush infection in one hoof. This set back their training schedule a bit. But they should be good to go for April!

That's our week. How was yours?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Chocolate and Books

By the time I reached the Copthorne Hotel in Newcastle on Sunday night, it was after 11, and I'd been awake for 36 hours. I'd enjoyed my time in Amsterdam and was still a bit keyed up, due to excitement and lots of coffee. So I didn't fall asleep til after midnight.

And then I slept hard.

I didn't wake up until 2:15 Monday afternoon. (When Himself heard this, he replied in disgust, "What a waste of a day!" I had to remind him of my 36-hour "day" that had immediately preceded my Sleeping Beauty snooze.) After a quick shower, I grabbed a map of Newcastle and hit the streets. My hotel was along the Quayside of the River Tyne, so I had to walk uphill to reach the city center. It was a gasping walk.

The first place I stopped was St. Nicholas Cathedral. I love old cathedrals: the stained glass, the memorials, the old burial spots, the carvings, the dust motes, the smell... everything. I picked up some materials on display; it looked like St. Nicholas is a lively parish, which I was glad to see. I especially enjoyed Christopher Dalliston's (the Dean) message for Lent in the Cathedral Notes; I've linked to it here so you can read it, too. Look here for some more photos of the cathedral.

I also snapped a few photos of the Castle Keep and Black Gate, the two remaining buildings of the "new" castle. The keep was built between 1172 and 1177 by Henry II, and the gate was built between 1247 and 1250 by Henry III. "New" is a relative term.

The Black Gate

This monument to Queen Victoria sits outside St. Nicholas Cathedral.

Queen Victoria, looking dour.

I stopped in Blakes for a coffee and bakewell tart. The server asked me where I was from. When I told her, she excitedly said, "Oh, I love it there! It's one of my favorite places!" Turns out she's visited more states than I have. She's hoping to attend school in Toronto and travel in North America some more. I gave her my email address when I left, in case she'd like some advice planning her trip(s).

After that, I popped into Ma Provence for a croissant to take away. Later, I drooled over the chocolate offerings at Hotel Chocolat, a must-stop-shop if you're ever in Newcastle. I bought some, too! Let me recommend the dark chocolate-dipped ginger strips.

Another must-see: Grainger Market. I visited the market on my first trip to Newcastle four years ago, and I made tracks for there this trip, too. Here are some marvelous photos of the market, which opened in 1835. It's a marvelous place to browse. At one stall, I bought lots of candy to take home for the girls. At a book stall, I perused old books and wished I had enough suitcase space to take some home. I smiled at a butcher as I passed by his stall, and he winked back. There was a lot more to see, but I also wanted to stop by Waterstones bookstore, so off I went.

My favorite thing to do in Waterstones is visit the children's section. Why? Because they offer titles and authors we don't see in America. Deciding to cram my suitcase after all, I bought several books for the girls. The clerk who rang up my purchases, a young girl with maroon hair and completely tattooed arms, held up a Michael Morpurgo book. "Oh, I have this one, and I'm afraid to read it!"

"Afraid?" said I. "Why?"

"I know it will be sad, and I don't know if I can take it!"

We both laughed. "Oops," I said, "I'm buying it for my daughters, and one in particular is tenderhearted. Maybe I'll read it through first."

She thought this was a good idea. As I left, she called out, "I hope your daughter loves the book!"

I looked at my watch. Time to head back to the hotel to meet Tanya and her colleague, Allan. We were going out for Indian food. (It was wonderful, and if I could recall the name of the restaurant, I'd tell you. But I can't.)

A little adventure began. I headed in a direction and ended up in an area I'd never seen before. But I felt okay: I was headed downhill, so I must be going in the right general direction. Then I caught sight of the Millennium Bridge in the distance. It's along the Quayside. I made my way toward that bridge. Following signs to the Quayside, I got back to the hotel with a few minutes to spare.

By 11 p.m., I was back in bed. It had been a packed eight-hour and forty-five minute-day!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Anne Frank House: "I Don't Want to Have Lived in Vain"

I walked briskly up Prinsengracht, away from Westerkerk and toward Huidenstraat, a woman on a mission. And what better mission: the chocolate boutique, Pompadour. So I barely noticed the three young men coming toward me on bicycles until they swung to a stop by my side.

"Anne Frank?" asked one, in heavily-accented English.

Pleased to look like someone in the know, I pointed back behind me. "Straight down this road and on the right. You'll see it." My ticket entrance was timed for two hours later that day, and I'd already scoped out the place.

He smiled and nodded his thanks, and off they zipped.

The Anne Frank House (or Anne Frankhuis) is a top attraction in Amsterdam, as you might imagine. Tanya, my friend with whom I'd be meeting up in Newcastle the next evening, had tried to visit on two other layovers, but the entrance lines had been too long. For this layover, she'd bought her ticket online, as I had, before leaving home. Neither one of us was going to miss it this time.

When I arrived at my appointed time, there was no line, and the museum was blissfully uncrowded. I was further pleased to find it well conceived and organized. I moved through the downstairs exhibits at my leisure. I then made my way up the narrow and steep stairs to the secret rooms where eight people had hidden themselves away.

I was surprised to find that crowds of people quickly caught up with me. They hovered over certain displays and moved on, flowing around me, missing many of each room's highlights. I had the distinct impression that many visitors were there to run their eyes over the rooms and check the "done that" box on their bucket lists. Thanks to my pre-trip research, I knew what things I wanted to see particularly, like the penciled height measurements of Anne and her sister, Margot, on one of the walls. So many visitors rushed past without even noticing. What an irony, I thought. How many others rushed past without noticing in 1940s Amsterdam?
While the children's height measurements (I measure my own children's heights on a door jamb in our cabin) and the photos and magazine pictures left hanging where Anne herself tacked them all squeezed my heart, I was prepared for those. It was the unexpected that made me catch my breath:
  • Photos of Jewish families lined up in the street for removal, the same street I'd just walked down
  • Anne's actual diary and her notebooks, which she began carefully editing with an eye to publication after the war ended; her handwriting; that these had been kept safe by friends and given to Otto Frank, Anne's father, when he made his way back to Amsterdam after the war
  • The three-minute interview with Otto Frank, Anne's father, the only immediate family member to survive; made in 1969; he was surprised at many elements in Anne's diary; she did not give voice to many of her thoughts; he concluded by saying that no parent ever knows his child completely.
  • Photos of the ones in hiding and the people who helped them; real people

I stood before the photos, the journal pages, the video screen as a crush of people pushed past me. I couldn't absorb as much as I would have liked. And my window of time was closing; I had a train to catch back to the airport. I felt vaguely let down.

I learned later that Tanya's experience had been much the same as mine. She'd been irritated by the hordes thickly surrounding displays, pushing through, carrying her along with them. She'd not been able to engage fully with what she was seeing.

Thankfully, there's much more to it. The Anne Frank House website is marvelous. Through it, I can revisit the house any time I like. I can take the time to process everything I saw in person; I can see it again online and more as well. This museum's materials and offerings need to settle into one's full self: mind, heart, and spirit. And that takes time. The website gives me an avenue to further explore, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to you.

Go. Read. Look. Study. Think.

Each day, the website posts a quote from Anne's writings. Today's is this:

“Even though I'm only fourteen, I know what I want, I know who's right and who's wrong, I have my own opinions, ideas and principles.”  -- March 17, 1944
And she did.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Day in Amsterdam

Almost the moment I stepped off the plane in my hometown, I fell ill. Okay, more like a couple of days, but still. And I've been ill for most of this week, so my writing about my trip abroad was delayed. However, I'm much better now and back at the computer desk!

One of the pluses to my recent trip to the UK was an eight-hour layover in Amsterdam, where I'd never before visited. After doing some online research about Schiphol airport and train transport to and fro Amsterdam's Centraal train station, I decided I'd have about four or five hours to visit the city. Who knew when (if?) I'd be back? Quelling any fears of missing my connection to Newcastle-upon-Tyne (a nausea-inducing thought), I made plans for a quick trip.

Herengracht canal. Can you see all the bikes parked on the bridge?

First I highlighted my top priorities: the Van Gogh museum and the Anne Frankhuis. After studying a map, I saw it would be impossible to do both. I opted for the Anne Frankhuis. To free up more time, I bought my ticket online before I left home.

Anne Frankhuis

Amsterdam is rightly famous for pancakes, so I planned to visit the Original Pancake Bakery. Fortunately it's located on Prinsengracht, just a few minutes' walk from the Anne Frank House. I also wanted to stop in Pompadour, a famous chocolatier, and just wander around a bit.

I also padded my timetable for a few malfunctions:

If you exit the restrooms at Schiphol and see a small machine off on its own that looks seductively like an ATM, do not fall for it! If you do, your card will get stuck on the slot, you will have to seek out several different types of assistance, your already-tight timetable will get tighter, and you'll feel like you're going to vomit. If you are "very lucky," the only facilities management people who have the authority to save your card will be on duty. They will be friendly and smile indulgently at your self-deprecating comments. They will ask to see your passport before handing over your ATM card and saving your life. They will then point you around the corner to the REAL cash machines.

Don't ask me how I know this to be true.

Getting into the city was fairly easy. I eschewed the self-service ticket machines and bought my ticket (round-trip for that day) from a human being so I could make sure I went to the right platform. Amsterdam's Centraal station is well situated, but it's not at the heart of the city. You have to walk a few blocks for that. A good map is a necessity; the city layout can be confusing and trusting your sense of direction is a big mistake. You don't want to wander into the Red Light District. (No, this did not happen to me. If it had, I'd confess.)

Along the Prinsengracht. I loved the houseboats here.

The Original Pancake Bakery is fabulous! I chose the apple and bacon pancake and a latte. The pancake was platter-sized, thin, and crispy around its edges. Fresh apple rings and three slices of bacon were cooked into it. There were three syrup offerings: two bottled (one regular and the other caramel) and a third in a crock with one of those honey-dipper thingies. That was my favorite.

Pompadour is teeny-tiny. I squeezed in with four other people to ogle the chocolates and pastries in the two display cases. (There's also a miniscule eating area with a few tables -- all occupied when I was there.) I asked about a few chocolates and chose these: one dark chocolate-covered caramel, two cocoa-coated truffles, and two "lemon," which I discovered to my delight were slices of dried, sugared lemon covered in dark chocolate. I know -- it sounds strange, but it's my new favorite.

My visit to the Anne Frankhuis deserves its own post. Check back soon.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Getting Ready to Head Home

I'm all checked in for my flights and all packed up to head home. I'm bringing the girls candy (their favorite) and books (their second favorite).

Tanya and I have had a wonderful time. I'm keeping a travel notebook so I can share the particulars with you when I get back home. I also have travel tips I plan to share on Rick Steves's graffiti wall, since some I found out the hard way! But blessings abound, and there were no true travel catastrophes. Yay!

The flight from Newcastle to Amsterdam is short; but the flight from Amsterdam to my home city is really long, much longer than the flight over. I hate that, but what can you do? The airlines decide their routes.

I'm off now for a much-needed cuppa. More later!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hello from England!

I'm on the hotel computer and only have four minutes left, so this will be short!

Amsterdam was wonderful. I have photos to post later. I managed to visit the Anne Frank house, eat a delicious pancake (apple and bacon), pop into Pompadour, a chocolate boutique, and walk around some. To my relief, everyone I met spoke excellent English. This is helpful since I don't speak Dutch.

Now I'm in Newcastle. I arrived last night about 11 PM, after being awake for 36 hours. I slept 14 hours last night! I've done a bit of shopping (more chocolate, this time at Hotel Chocolat, and books at Waterstone's). I also popped into Boots for a razor, which I forgot. It was either that or go home hairy. I also visited the Grainger market, which I find fascinating. I especially love the butchers; all that meat just lying out in the open. (Most Americans would hyperventilate. Where are the neat packages sealed and protected from germs??) And then I walked along the quay back to the hotel. My room overlooks the river Tyne; it's a lovely view.

I'm excited to be here. I was tempted to break into a happy dance of joy along the quay, but I restrained myself. One doesn't break into happy dances of joy at my age. (Confession: sometimes I do, but only when I'm with other people. Otherwise I'd be taken for a complete lunatic, wouldn't I?)

I love the bridges that span the Tyne here in Newcastle. The Millenium Bridge is the loveliest, with its changing colored lights.

Tomorrow Tanya and I take the train to Edinburgh. Excitement!

More later from the UK...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Leavin' on a Jet Plane!

What a week! Miss Priss began crunch for her drama troupe's upcoming production of Wonderland!; I've been hard at work on an article I'm writing for a magazine (more on this later); we've spent time at the barn with Max; Himself was out of town; lessons limped along; and I was getting ready for a trip out of the country!

Tonight, I fly out to the UK with an eight-hour layover in Amsterdam. I'll meet up with my friend, Tanya, in Newcastle (as in upon Tyne) Monday evening. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Tanya and I will visit Edinburgh. It's supposed to rain, of course.

I've already bought a ticket (don't you LOVE the internet?!) to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. This way, I can skip the typically hour-long wait entrance line. According to the directions, I'm to go to the side door to the left of the main entrance and ring the bell. It seems a tad smoke-and-mirrors, but at least there's no secret knock. I'm hoping I'll have time for a canal tour, as well, or at least some of their famous pancakes. I'd also hoped to visit the Van Gogh museum, but I don't think my window is wide enough for that. I've heard it's wonderful, but I chose Anne Frank as my first priority. I can see (and have seen) Van Gogh paintings elsewhere; but the Anne Frank House is only in Amsterdam.

My fabulous and wonderful mother is coming to stay with the family while I'm gone. She'll keep things running smoothly. Dad will join her here later, and it'll be a party then. The girls are excited; my folks are excited; Himself is excited not to be the only one in charge of everything; and I'm excited. So it's a win-win situation all around!

It's past noon, and I've yet to pack. I should get on that, huh? I'm going to try to write a post or two to publish while I'm gone. See? You're always on my mind.