University Residence: not so romantic at 62

I never lived in residence in university. Before I got married in third year and moved to my in-laws’ basement apartment, I stayed at home with my parents. Residence always seemed sort of romantic – the first giant step toward independence

Thirty-four years later, I was accepted into a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction at Halifax’s Kings College University and seized the opportunity to recapture my youth, to take a room in residence for two weeks. Following the course, we were flying to France where my partner, Bonnie was enrolled in a life painting course. So, she was along for the ride.

With the time change between BC and Nova Scotia, our plane didn’t land in Halifax until well after midnight. We were ready for bed, even though it was only 9 our time. That was the first difference thirty-four years made. Unfortunately, our luggage didn’t arrive with us and standing in line with several other customers waiting to fill out forms, we hoped our clothes would make it the following day.

By the time our taxi pulled up to the front door of the residence, it was 1:45 a.m. I had been assured late check-in was a non-issue, since the desk was staffed 24 hours a day. And it would have been fine had our names been on the check-in list. The security guard finally put us in an empty space and said the day staff would sort out our room the next morning.

It was Halifax hot – that is to say, humid and windless. The twin beds were serviceable but, of course, the washroom was down the hall. Being women in our sixties, we get up at least once, usually more every night. I was so tired, I dismissed the problem – for about two hours. Then I crept out of the room and along the hall, silent until the screeching washroom door broadcast my presence. I prayed those staying near were heavy sleepers and, without thinking, hoped our new room wasn’t near enough to hear every coming and going on the floor.

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King’s College University Residence

Magically, in the morning (cue, the Sun will come out tomorrow…) our luggage arrived, our new room was ready and our internet worked. I got my wish. We were not near the scraping door; in fact, the washroom was down the hall, through two sets of double doors, as far away as one could get. The closer bathroom- the one with the silent door- was labeled “MEN.” I’m so Canadian, although often tempted, I never once disobeyed that sign.

The first thing I wanted to do, once unpacked was to shower. I’m not a modest woman, having spent my summers at a girls’ camp, but, ironically, after years on pool decks, lifeguarding and coaching, visions of athletes foot and toe fungus crowded common sense from my brain. The daily spectre of shared shower floors was even worse than twice-nightly hall walks and attempts to quell the shrieking door. Gold Bond foot powder took pride of place on the shopping list.

Each dorm room comes equipped with a bar fridge. There is a kitchen on the main floor but it was so hot, we didn’t relish cooking and we didn’t want to leave food three floors from our room.

Without a car, groceries were a challenge, one that Bonnie took on with heroic persistence. We ate out until Monday when Bonnie found the grocery store, about a twenty-minute walk from the dorm, and lugged home three over-filled bags. When I arrived back for lunch there were cold meats, cheese, fresh veggies, fruit and yogurt on plastic plates with plastic cutlery. I thought I had died and gone to the Ritz.

Our room faced Coburg Street, a main bus route past the university and the quickest way for police and ambulances to get to and from the hospital. To keep the window open at night, I had to wear earplugs. It was so hot and humid, closing the window wasn’t an option, even with the fan Bonnie had hauled back from Canadian Tire on one of her many trips. Although I lived in Toronto for 55 years, since 2001, we had been summering in New Zealand and hadn’t experienced heat or humidity for twelve years. More showers, and more anti-fungal powder were required.

The joy of residence, of course was its location – 3 blocks from DSCN8610one of the best coffee shops in town and 5 blocks from great Thai food. Five a.m. in residence is also a joy. I wasn’t sleeping well, so I’d get up, shower, and sit in the little common room on the third floor. It was silent with sleep that early, and I’d work for a couple of hours before the floor awoke.

At eight, I’d take the elevator down to the main floor where the smell of brewing coffee made my mouth water. No matter what coffee tastes like, its fragrance is seductive. Every morning, I’d arrive back at our room with two cups of hot, dark-ish liquid and two sugar and modified corn oil treats.

 

Seventy-five steps from our dorm was the spectacular Kings College library. I mention the library, even though I’ve never darkened its doors. Bonnie, however took full advantage of it.

King's College Residence

Being on campus without a car while I was in class, there were only so many runs to the grocery store and walks downtown Bonnie could stand in the heat. So she went to the library and told them she was me. Our class had had difficulties getting student cards so with my name and student number on a piece of paper, the librarians were happy to check out a book for her. I would never have thought to try, but Bonnie has a history with libraries running back to her childhood when she checked out books using other children’s cards, having exceeded the number of books she could have, or owing fines under her own name. While she had no scruples perpetrating this ruse, I was almost catatonic knowing I would be kicked out of the university before finishing the first week.

She assured me there wasn’t a problem. When she returned the book, however, the librarian asked to scan her student card so the book could be entered back into the system. By that time I had picked up my student ID – I was so proud of that card – and, with great trepidation, handed it over to her. We look nothing alike, but she predicted they wouldn’t examine the photo and they didn’t. I kept my spot in the course, although Bonnie’s personality is so memorable, I may never be able to use the library again.

Having experienced student residence, I’m not that eager to repeat the adventure. This summer we’re renting an apartment and a car. I can walk to the university for exercise and Bonnie can drive to the store, and transport her paints, canvases and brushes to capture the east coast views she never got to see last year. I have already romanticized aspects of our stay in residence and they can rest, slightly blurred in my memory while I’m walking only steps to the toilet at night and sharing the shower with only one other.

 

photos by Bonnie Sheppard


Research Paris-style: My first Visit to the BNF

 

One of the joys of retirement is being able to travel slowly, to get to know a place intimately. On my first trip to Paris, I became fascinated with the Nissim de Camondo Museum and knew I wanted to include it in my book. But nine weeks weren’t nearly long enough to learn the whole de Camondo story. In the year and a half interim before I returned, I improved my French (not my spoken French as much as my reading), did a little more investigation on-line and gained the confidence – or so I thought – to apply for a library card at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France or BNF (aka Bibliothèque François-Mitterand).

The nearest metro, aptly called Bibliothèque François-Mitterand is a huge station. Walking up from the platform, I arrived into what appeared to be a giant amphitheatre. Was it designed for performances? If not, the only advantage I could see was that people weren’t restricted to one set of stairs to get to the exits.

Located in the 13th arrondissement the library is part of a large complex, which includes a movie theatre. At first I thought  the theatre was the library, but no such luck. That would have been too easy.

imagesTo get to the library entrance, I walked across a huge open concourse. The wind was blowing, it was raining and the grey concrete didn’t cheer me up at all. There are large concrete shafts, probably for air conditioning, perfect places behind which people could hide and jump out at me. With the elevator to the main entrance broken, I was forced to walk down a flight of open, metal stairs. I was glad it wasn’t snowy, but even the rain made them feel slick underfoot.

I opened my bag for the security guard and walked through the metal detector. I was in.

If it weren’t for Adam Gopnik’s description of the library in Paris to the Moon, I would have been too intimidated to get a card. Although forewarned, I was still terrified. I walked the length of the main hall, went into the washroom, looked in the bookstore and stared at the coat check where people were getting little see-through plastic briefcases and transferring everything from their backpacks into them. I had no idea why.

The previous evening I had searched the library’s catalogue for a book on the de Camondo family. Of course, the only one I could find was in French, but I was determined and judiciously recorded the reference number in my notebook.

I approached the help desk. My saviour, Vincent, spoke English. He explained I had to prove I needed to use the research library. Luckily, to do this, I simply showed him the book I required along with my Canadian, Kings College University student card. He said I would have to undergo an “Admission Interview” with a librarian. In this interview, I would have to describe the nature of my research and, if it were deemed – what – scholarly enough? interesting enough? I would be allowed to have a card. One has the option of submitting a “pre-admission form” on line, but it takes up to five days for the librarians to review it.

Vincent assured me most of the staff spoke English. Once I had purchased my card, I would be allowed to go through the turnstiles at the end of the hall and then through the giant steel doors to the reading rooms. He directed me to the admissions desk.

All went well, and, although the librarian did not speak English proficiently, we muddled through. Unfortunately, when it came time to take my photo, his camera wouldn’t work. He had to ask the woman sitting next to him to assist. She was not happy. They spoke quietly and quickly so I couldn’t understand the conversation, but the body language was unmistakable. After fiddling unsuccessfully with his camera, she motioned me to her desk. She did not speak English and was quite annoyed that I didn’t understand her rapid-fire French. By the time my photo was taken, I’m sure my face was stuck in a permanent rictus.

I walked out of the library that day without having touched a book, but 45 Euros lighter, with a 15 day Readers Card and nerves so jangled, I went immediately to Bon Marché and spent 8 dollars on peanut butter.

I waited four more days before returning to the BNF. It turns out I didn’t need a plastic briefcase because my purse, even though it was large enough for my computer met the maximum size requirement. I swiped my new, red library card and went through the giant metal doors into what can only be described as a spaceship’s airlock. I was pretty sure there would be nothing on the other side but black infinity. But no. On the other side was a long escalator slicing down through a gunmetal gray hallway and then another, just the same. At the bottom was an information desk, the penultimate stop before the last set of turnstiles and metal doors leading into the library.

At that information desk, I asked for assistance, explaining it was my first time. “Welcome,” the woman said with great enthusiasm. Maybe no one ever spoke to her. She put me at ease with a clear explanation of what I must do, once through the doors. I would have to go to the L section, ask for a seat and order my book. L is history.

So I went to L, but it seems I was in L-M and I should have been in K-L. The librarian in L-M was very helpful, ordered my book and said, “It’ll take about 20-25 minutes.” The book I ordered was not a rare book. It was just a normal book. But I couldn’t get it from a shelf. He explained that the books on the main floor were available to the general reader and if the book was labeled, “Access Libre” it was on the shelf in the L section. Mine wasn’t. He also explained I would have to go to the K-L desk and request a seat.

I went to K-L and asked for a seat. The seat assigner asked if I wanted Internet. I said no. She said I’d have Internet anyway because there weren’t any seats without. Fine. When I got to the desk, I noticed my computer didn’t have the Ethernet connection required, and if I wanted to use the internet in the library I would have to purchase an adapter.

I waited about 15 minutes before I returned to the K-L desk and asked if my book had arrived. It hadn’t. “When the book is available,” the librarian said, “a little blue light will shine on your desk.” In the next breath he said, “But they don’t always work.” I waited another 20 minutes, asked again and there it was, Pierre Assouline’s Le Dernier des Camondo, a small paperback I could have purchased (according to the price sticker affixed to the back cover) for 7 Euros 90 in the local bookstore. The blue light never came on.

There is one person who receives the books from the stacks and scans them out. I wanted to find out if the library had documents I might have missed in my search, but I wasn’t allowed to ask the person who checked out my book.

I was directed to a different librarian. After she had searched the library’s catalogue, she started a Google search. At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to find anything more at the library that day.

I read my book and took some notes, but the man beside me was a snorter and a huffer and when the sun came through the windows and just about baked me, it was time to leave. I wasn’t allowed to take out the book, so I carefully replaced it on the cart under the sign that said to do so and left.

I found the washrooms, the lunch room and the computer terminals where I could order my books in advance so they would be waiting for me. That was enough. The walls and ceilings, metal and concrete were weighing me down.

When I scanned my library card to take the escalator back to the main floor, it wouldn’t work. The woman at the help desk asked, “Did you take your book back?” I looked at her, at the same time seeing in my head the sign above the cart asking me to leave my book. “Was I supposed to?” “But of course,” she said as only the French can. I ran all the way back down to the cart, picked up the book, saying a small prayer of thanks to the library goddesses and gave it to the woman at the desk who scanned the book and my card.

The next day, I went Gibert Joseph books and bought the Assouline paperback. With the library card and the metro tickets, I figure the information in that book cost me about 55 Euros, rather than 7 Euros 90, and I still had to read it – in French.

 

* photo of library concourse from http://parismyfavourite.blogspot.ca/2010_05_01_archive.html

 


The Journey Ahead

DSCN6457I was 54 when I retired. My friends asked, “But what are you going to do? You’re so young.” I always answered with confidence. “Bonnie’s going to paint and I’m going to write.”

Because I had co-authored sixteen English textbooks, taught creative writing and even studied with esteemed Canadian novelist, Timothy Findley – twice – the reaction was most often a nodding of the head and, “Of course.”

My partner, Bonnie always said that in retirement she would pursue her art to excellence, see how good she could become. When we moved to British Columbia from Ontario, she joined two painting groups and created a studio in our spare bedroom.

How had I missed the fact that art is a solitary pursuit? For 16 years, I had been the one cloistered in my study, writing student materials and teachers’ guides, attending editorial meetings and preparing presentations. Now, both retired, Bonnie had artwork to create, but I had no more texts to write.

Without journalism training I had never pitched a project outside the protected environment of educational publishing. Any name I had made for myself was left in Ontario. Unlike Bonnie, who didn’t care if she sold her paintings, I believed publishing was the only way to validate my chosen post-retirement “career.”

Based on my previously published work, I joined three professional writers’ associations. If they accepted me, I convinced myself, I must be a real author.

I answered a call for guest writers in the local paper, submitted a piece on the popularity of coffee shops and it was accepted. The editor praised the writing and the research. Someone thought I was good. I still have that article framed on the wall in my study.

I sent pitches to two other local magazines. They too were accepted. I must be a writer. My name and stories were in print.

When my queries to larger publications were rejected (and rightly so), I assumed everything else had been a fluke. I wasn’t good enough.

Through a friend, I met an editor hiring advertorial writers for a food and wine magazine. What an opportunity. I was assigned restaurants or wineries where I interviewed winemakers, cheese makers and chefs. Summer articles were the best, especially when the research was accompanied by tastings of the new whites. This was the least risky writing I could do. No queries, no rejection. I looked busy and I could talk a good story.

And then, Bonnie had been accepted to an exclusive nine-week art course in Paris.  I  told everyone (and if I repeated it enough times I would also convince myself), that this 61 year old was following in the footsteps of the great literary travel writers: Ernest Hemingway, Adam Gopnik, Alice Steinback. I was going to strike out on my own for the first time, explore the city, and write. That was what I said. But, I knew I would be discovered, found out. “You can’t do it,” whispered that seditious inner voice. The enormity of that admission was compounded by the fear of traveling alone in a city where my knowledge of French was limited to “Do you speak English?” and “Where is the toilet?” My terrible sense of direction and fear of getting lost, both physically and metaphorically, almost paralyzed me.

But Paris seduced me. She made me forget editors and magazines. She introduced me to the person I was when I taught: a person with intellectual curiosity, a hunger for backstory, and a need to bring everything – even something as large as the Louvre – back to the personal.

Through my daily, sometimes purposeful and other times purely accidental meanderings, I saw the grand and the small, the enduring and the ephemeral. And now, I’m capturing the stories I unearthed in my most intimate encounters with the city. They’re stories I wanted to delve into, know more about. They’re stories I want to share.

I knew if I wanted to pursue a writing career, I needed to learn more about the craft. I applied to the MFA program in Creative Non-fiction at Kings College University, not certain I would be accepted. But I was. I was going back to school at 62 years of age.

More than half of all Canadians who have held long-term jobs return to the workforce within ten years of retirement. While money is one reason, it’s not the only one. According to Stats Canada, even those with pension plans and savings are going back to work. When the last guest leaves the retirement party, it seems, many have trouble letting go of something that has defined them all their adult lives. That was me. I wanted to write again.

I’m one year into the course and I’ve never worked as hard. I’m taking a little time from my travel blogs to write about a new journey, the journey toward completing my first travel memoir, Winter in the City of Light: My Late Affair with Paris.


In My Own Backyard: Christmas at Big White Ski Resort

I’m standing atop Sun Run at Big White Ski resort. It’s my first run of the season. It’s snowing and blowing and it’s dark except where the lights line the run. I haven’t been night skiing in 15 years.

The first night skiing in 15 years

The first night skiing in 15 years

My partner and I indulged ourselves with three nights over Christmas on the mountain. We live only 50 minutes from the resort but there’s nothing like rolling out of bed, checking conditions from your window, throwing on your equipment and skiing into the lift line from your door.

We chose the White Crystal Inn, located in the Village, beside the gondola. It’s old, the elevator is too slow and jutters when it reaches the third floor, but other than that, it’s perfect.

Our room – top floor, closest to the much tonier and far more expensive Stonebridge Inn – was almost 500 square feet (46.5 metres square). We could have held a dance in the bathroom. The kitchenette had two gas burners, a fridge and microwave and the dining table cleverly folded up underneath the pull-down Murphy bed.

Amenities aside, the location of this unit was ideal. From our windows we could see boarders and skiers as they came into the main lodge for hot chocolate or lunch. At the end of their lessons, ski school classes snaked down the hill in perfect formation. Moms and dads pulled toddlers too young for skis in red plastic sleighs.

Both Bonnie and I are former ski instructors. We quit skiing for 20 years before we took it up again with a vengeance. We now split our year between the northern and southern hemispheres, chasing the ski season in each one. In fourteen years, we’ve had 28 winters.

Big White often suffers from “mid-mountain cloud” in December. Ultimately it’s a good thing. It’s how we get our famous champagne powder. It also teaches us to stay loose and be flexible.

When we arrived December 23rd, we couldn’t see the top of the lift. We weren’t in any hurry to take our first run in a whiteout, so we did what any good skier does in the village. We shopped.

When the sun went down and they turned on the flood lights for night skiing, it was too pretty to resist. Both of us remembered teaching evenings in Ontario, where it’s generally cold and damp. Our memories of night skiing included frozen fingers and lifts that always seemed to go too slowly. But night skiing in the west is completely different. It’s a dry cold. And now, we have hand and boot warmers.

looking up the outrun BW

People who haven’t skied at night think it must be difficult. Just the opposite is true. The lights cast shadows. Even though it was snowing, we could see dips and hollows and places the snow had blown in. More importantly, we could see rocks that had not yet been covered.

Few people were on the hill (there is only one lit hill) and there was no one in the lift line. The snow stung our faces. Underfoot, the piste was silky, and soft dry snow flew out of the way with each turn. We kept stopping to take in the beauty of the shadow-trees lining the run and the deep dark sky above us.

Bonnie - Big White night skiing.

Bonnie – Big White night skiing.

 

 

Back in our unit, I heated squash soup I’d prepared for the trip. It’s spicy ginger and cinnamon filled the room with comfort and warmth.

December 24th was another less than stellar day. Bonnie begged off and I headed to Black Forest for the morning. With the narrowness of the runs and the trees lining the pistes, Black Forest is the place to be in poor visibility. The mists were coming and going and I took five runs before even Black Forest was getting foggy. My last run into the village was a game of stay-loose-and-deal-with whatever-comes-your-way. I was happy to lock up my skis for the night.

Christmas Eve is a joyous time at Big White. There are carols and parades in the village. The public is invited to take part in the on-hill torchlight parade (with green glowsticks) and the Ski and Snowboard School lead Santa down the hill with red torches.

Fireworks top off the evening and this year’s were spectacular. We watched the torchlight parade and the fireworks from our window. No blustery cold and dark for us.

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Christmas morning we were out on the hill by 9:30 and skied until noon. We had the best of the day. The clouds closed in after lunch and it started to snow. We watched the flakes swirling around outside our windows. Fireplace roaring, we played Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit before wandering down to the Gunbarrel Restaurant for its infamous Gunbarrel Coffee.

We were the only ones in the restaurant. Everyone else was getting ready for Christmas dinner or drinking below us in Snowshoe Sams.

David, our bartender rolled over a portable bar with snifters and three bottles of alcohol: brandy, crème de cacao and Grand Marnier. In the corner of the table stood a shotgun. We were prepared for that, otherwise we might have wondered.

First, he dipped our glasses in sugar then carmelized the sugar over a brazier. That sweet smell was enough for me. I would have been happy to lick off the sugar and go home. Instead, David poured brandy into both glasses swirled it around and lit the alcohol on fire.The flames glowed a subtle blue.

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To the brandy he added crème de cacao, coffee and whipped cream. He took a small ladle from under the table, put it into the brazier and pulled the shotgun from its holder. He heated the muzzle. When it was hot, he rested the handle of the shotgun on his shoulder, filled the ladle with Grand Marnier, lit it on fire and poured it down the length of  the barrel. Liquid flames streamed into our glasses.

lit gunbarrel

I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to stand up after three shots of alcohol, but we made it back to our room for dinner.

Encouraged by all the new snow, we opened new hand warmers, turned on our electronic boot heaters, added a layer of merino wool under our jackets, and went out for another night of skiing. Whereas the first evening had been cloudy, reflecting the lights from the hill into the trees, Christmas night was cloudless. The lift was much darker and a little eerie. Even fewer people were out and the conditions were orgasmic (to quote our friend Caroline). Feeling like Audrey Hepburn after the ball in My Fair Lady, I could have skied all night.

And then it was over, all too soon. We skied with our friend Bob for a couple of hours on Boxing Day before we hit the sales in town on our way home.

We had such a great time, we’re going to do it again in February.


The Irish National Stud and Japanese Garden

As a child, I was horse-mad. With my allowance, I bought those little china Palomino horses from the local hardware store. They pranced and grazed on my bookshelf as I read every horse story available from my local and school libraries. I even convinced my mother to let me take riding lessons at a local stable (now a shopping mall.) My friend Maureen and I decided we would buy a horse to share – we were 11 at the time. I found an old bridle my father had saved from our extremely nasty pony, Billy (we lived on a farm when I was very young and Billy was unbroken. He loved to bite!) Maureen and I worked hours on that bridle, cleaning and re-conditioning it with saddle soap. As we saw it, that was the first step toward equine ownership.

I grew out of my horse phase. But when planning our trip to Ireland, I read about the Irish National Stud Farm and a little bit of that eleven-year-old yearned to see it. Of course, I claimed we should visit because of its famous Japanese Garden.

Gardens before horses. So that’s where this story will begin

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As per our usual custom, we arrived as the manager unlocked the gates so we had the garden to ourselves. Purportedly, this is the finest Japanese garden in Europe. It was created between 1906 and 1910 by Tassa Eida, a Japanese master horticulturist, and his son Minoru for Colonel William Hall Walker, the man with the vision and the cash. The garden was designed to represent the human journey from birth to death.

Entering the garden, we walked through the “birth canal”. The printed guide explained how the garden was laid out to correspond to the stages of a man’s life. Ok, it’s a bit traditional, but that didn’t diminish its beauty. The path led us through childhood, adolescence, dating, marriage, work, children, and death. Where decisions had to be made, the path split; at difficult points in life, the path climbed. At points we had to cross a stream on stepping stones being careful not to fall.

 

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By the time we sat in the little shelter overlooking the stream – the end of life – I was quite moved, not so much by the story, but by how lovingly this garden has been maintained for over a hundred years.

Mid-May is the perfect time to visit. Fruit blossoms hang thick on the trees. The ferns are uncurling and the Solomon’s Seals are draped with tiny white blooms. We were surrounded by everything that’s delicate and hopeful about a spring garden.

 

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Although the garden was the ostensible drawing card, let’s face it, there’s nothing cuter than newborn foals. They were magnetic. Some were so new they still splayed their front legs to reach the grass. Others were just old enough to be a bit adventurous, occasionally leaving the mare’s protection to approach the fence for a quick pat but then running back to suckle. One of the more adventurous types looked like someone had taken a paintbrush and drawn two circles around his eyes. Even looking back at the pictures, I’m not sure they were natural!

 

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We watched former grand champions graze placidly in their retirement. One of the staff came along and fed them carrots – you could see she adored these beautiful horses. We passed paddocks where studs with names like “Big Bad Bob” lived in solitary confinement. We were warned not to approach any of the stallions – not that we could. Each paddock had double fencing.

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We were pretty sure we had seen everything we came for, and it looked like rain; but then we stumbled on St Fiachra’s Garden. St Fiachra is the patron saint of gardeners and this recent installation (1999) is dedicated to him.

With a nod to 6th and 7th century monastic life in Ireland, this garden is all about rocks, trees and water. The underpass was constructed from rock taken (it looked to me) from the Burren, where we had stayed just four days before. It’s unusual rock shaped a little like jigsaw puzzle pieces, which makes it distinctive.

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The stone bridge looked like it had been there for centuries.

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Being spring, the swans were nesting, undisturbed by visitors.

 

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One structure – a monastic cell – has been constructed from hewn stones. It looked a little like a Turkish beehive house.

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When the rain came, we made a run for the horse museum. Of greatest interest to us, as Canadians was Northern Dancer’s head collar. It’s pretty hard to miss the complete skeleton of Arkle, a famous Steeple Chase champion who was neither bred nor born at the farm, but ended up there in this exhibit. Not great racing fans, we weren’t as interested in the museum as in other parts of the farm; however, racing aficionados will glory in the many historical treasures found here .

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Finally, as we were leaving, I was drawn to a wonderful ruin. While it is on the Irish National Stud property, the Black Abbey is not open to the public. We searched all around trying to find a way in, but to no avail. Since, I have read on the internet about people sneaking in through the graveyard, but it was locked up tight the day we were there. The Black Abbey was founded sometime in the 1300’s by The Knights Hospitallers, or Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. It became their headquarters until the Reformation.

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We spent the best part of a day at the Irish National Stud. I realize now that my interest really was in the gardens, but both my “more mature” and my eleven year old selves came away deeply satisfied.

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The Irish National Stud is located in Tully, County Kildare

For more information on the National Irish Stud: https://irishnationalstud.ie

 

 

 


The Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel, France

From my writing room, I can see the Wanaka cenotaph commemorating those lost in the first and second world wars.

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Today, Wanaka is a town of about 5000 but back then, the town was so small, it wasn’t listed in the 1911 census.

According to that census, these were the populations of  towns close to Wanaka:

Cromwell                      587

Alexandra                     772

Queenstown                 696

Arrowtown                   406

The Wanaka cenotaph lists 15 men who died during the First World War. What percentage of such a small rural community did this represent?

WW1 names

It is the 99th anniversary of World War I, and my travels in the last few years, either by accident or by design have helped me understand more about a war that devastated small towns in many parts of the world.

In 2007, we were making our way south through France toward Italy. It was April. The trees were greening up. It smelled like spring.

We were avoiding the payages and in doing so found ourselves on a narrow country road in the Somme. Small signs – about the size of city “No Parking” signs  – started appearing along this mostly deserted rural route. Each one proclaimed, “The Front” with a date. The signs were so close to each other, yet the dates were months apart. Imagine the thousands of young men who volunteered for this war – some I’m sure for the adventure it promised, others escaping, many for national pride, so many under aged – living and dying in trenches up to their knees in putrid, waste-filled water, blown up or gassed in the effort to move one kilometre in 4 months! By the fourth sign, we pulled off the road and cried.

To our left, a farmer was plowing his fields, the same fields that had seen so many deaths. That soil is still drenched deep in blood. After almost a hundred years, bones – allied and enemy – are still churned up by tractor tillers. On that one stretch of road, I understood what no history teacher was ever able to teach me.

Four years later, while my partner was on a painting course in Argenton Les Vallées I decided to drive to Vimy to see the Canadian monument I had read about in Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers. While touring the trenches, the guide suggested I might also like to see Beaumont-Hamel. I had never heard of it. And that’s to my shame!

It’s hard for Canadians to think of Newfoundland NOT being part of Canada. But at the time of the First World War, it was still a British colony. As such, it put together a regiment of its own to send to war. The visitor’s centre at Beaumont-Hamel tells the extraordinary stories of these volunteers through photographs and letters and the re-creation of a typical Newfoundland home.  One of the letters is permanently etched in my memory. A young man writes to his sisters after he has enlisted explaining the stipend from his service will help out the family. This same young man survived the battle but was terribly disfigured.

Of the approximately 800 Newfoundland soldiers who fought in the battle at Beaumont-Hamel, 710 were wounded, killed or missing.

The memorial at Beaumont-Hamel is not on the grand scale of Vimy. A lone caribou stands atop a rocky promontory overlooking the battleground. Each plant and piece of granite is native to Newfoundland. Compare this to Vimy’s spectacular limestone monument with 20 carved figures rising 110 meters above the Douai Plain.  The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland memorial is meagre; however, the effect is profound in its intimacy and made doubly poignant by the fact it was paid for by the women of Newfoundland.

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As with Vimy, the plaques on the Newfoundland Memorial are dedicated to men who died during the war but who have no known grave. There are 814 names.  But of course it’s also a memorial to the many who were wounded or died during the battle that took place at this site.  Reading the headstones in the Newfoundland cemetery, I was astounded at the age of the soldiers. Unlike those in other war cemeteries I have visited, these men were not young. Many were in their 30’s and 40’s.

There are three additional cemeteries on the grounds: Hawthorne Ridge Cemetery #2 (created by the British V Corps); Hunter’s Cemetery, a large shell hole in which men from the  51st (Highland) Division and the 63rd Royal Naval Division were buried; Y Ravine Cemetery #1, created in 1917 when the British V Corps could retrieve the bodies of soldiers killed in the July 1916 battle.

Several of the graves in these and in the Newfoundland cemetery contain unidentified bodies.

The grounds at Beaumont-Hamel are beautiful, verdant and quiet. Sheep graze on the grass, manicuring the undulating earth. But the fences and signs forbidding entrance reminded me this is not just another pretty park. After almost 100 years, there were still unexploded ordinances and (no doubt) the remains of those who died, but were never recovered.

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The day we visited the memorial, we met up with a group of high school students from Newfoundland at the base of the monument. Typical of teenagers, there was shoving and joking and the teacher had to use his best disciplinarian’s voice to allow his history lesson to be heard. Before the students were released to explore the monument, we made a hasty retreat to walk the grounds in quiet contemplation. Forty-five minutes later we came upon these same students taking rubbings of headstones belonging to ancestors, old family friends, perhaps men they had chosen to research – all who had fought and lost their lives right here.

This was a very different group from the one we met earlier. Sober, subdued, soft spoken. Suddenly the war meant something altogether different to them.

I would not have missed the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge for anything and would recommend visiting the monument and taking a tour of the trenches with the delightful Canadian student guides. But I have to say, the trip to the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel humbled me, made the sacrifices so much clearer, made me a little angrier about the waste of lives.

ANZAC day is April 25th.  Like the New Zealanders, the Newfoundlanders fought in Gallipoli. Those who survived were sent to the Somme. On ANZAC day, I will think about the 15 men from Wanaka and I will think about the Newfoundlanders. Although I hate the senseless loss of lives, I will thank them for volunteering and for doing what they believed was right.

 

* note photos of Beaumont-Hamel are not my own. I will substitute my own photos for these at a later date.

 


No car, no drama; local walks to Wanaka’s “best side”

I was walking down the track from the top of Mount Iron and stopped at the bench. The white-capped mountains edged by their green skirts and the stark contrast of Lake Wanaka’s deep blue water sent my heart into my throat. As Edna St Vincent Millay wrote, “Oh world I can not hold thee close enough.”

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I walk every day here in Wanaka and I never have to travel far before I am swept away by this town’s beauty. No doubt, it’s incredible to be able to see it from a boat or a plane, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so, but sometimes it’s the simplest, most basic activity that brings us closest to the earth and our humble relationship with it.

I can walk from downtown to heart-stopping views without turning the key in my ignition. And so can every visitor who stays a few days in Wanaka.

The most popular walk with both locals and visitors is Mount Iron. The walk up the front side – the side closest to town – is the most open. The paths weaves up the mountain side, increasing its accessibility; but it’s fairly steep so anyone a little out of shape should take it slowly, stopping several times to admire the changing views on the way up.

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Two stiles divide the climb. The first is about a third of the way up. After the second there’s just a tiny distance to go.

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From the top, stretching out to the west is Lake Wanaka, to the north-west Dublin Bay and to the North, Lake Hawea. To the south are the Cardrona Valley, the Criffel and the Pisa Ranges. Turn to the east and the landscape flattens into broad plains toward Hawea Flat and Luggate.

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Set into the stone plinth is a guide to the mountains in the Southern Alps.

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There’s also a path on the “back side” of the mountain. It’s slightly steeper, but descends through native bush providing more shade on hot sunny days. Once at the bottom, there’s a bit of a walk to get back to town.

Be sure to take water (there’s no drinking fountain up top), a snack or a meal. Even if it’s a cloudy day, the landscape and the ever-changing light on the mountains and lakes will make it worth the climb.

There are washrooms and a drinking fountain at the bottom of the western track.

 


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