memories of Florence

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Touring Western Europe in three weeks taught me how to travel. When Sarah and I planned our trip, neither of us had been on the Continent before. Operating under the premise that neither of us would be returning to Europe any time soon (little did we know…), we chose our destinations based on the museums and sites that we had learned about in our Western Civ and Fine Arts classes at university.

It was a whirlwind tour, and there are some places that I don’t remember much of–except for the museums. Florence is one of those places. Our purpose was to see Michelangelo’s David and Il Duomo di Firenze, both of which we saw and marvelled at the privilege of seeing them in person rather than in photographs in textbooks. I also remember the hostel we stayed in, a repurposed villa outside of the city, along with two German women, a mother and daughter duo the same age as my mother and grandmother at the time, who were backpacking across Italy; and the group of French schoolchildren that followed us from Venice to Florence to Rome, with their tell-tale orange scarves and penchant for pulling the fire alarm.

I don’t pack as much into my trips when I travel now. One of the things I have learned is how to take pleasure in simply being somewhere. As much as I enjoy visiting museums, I don’t want to spend so much of my time indoors that I don’t remember the actual place I was visiting. Though, it might be that because I have already seen the main touristy sites that I feel I can more deliberately experience the place as itself, rather than keeping to some list of best sites to see.

Even so, the next time I go to Florence, if I am so fortunate as to visit it again, I would very much like to take packed lunch down to those benches by the river, and sit and chat with my companions within view of the Ponte Vecchio bridge.

Photo: The Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence, Italy.

here, now: st matthew’s passion

DBS Matthew Passion 2015

The first thing I do when I move somewhere is to join a choir: I sang in the women’s chorus in university, the Balliol College Choir in Oxford, the St Andrews Renaissance Singers in St Andrews, and now the Denton Bach Society Choir. I have been part of choirs since I was thirteen; my routine feels incomplete without the steady rhythm of rehearsals. When I am singing in rehearsal, there is no room for me to think about work or chores or things that need doing outside of that moment. What matters is the pitch, the words, the breath, listening and blending with the other parts, the beating heart of the piece as the director keeps time, shaping the notes, the breath, and the time into music. There have been several times over the past months when I felt that the best thing about living here is the Denton Bach Society Choir.

Today we will be performing St Matthew’s Passion by Johannes Sebastian Bach. I am excited, because it is a challenging piece and it’s come together very well during our full rehearsals this weekend. And also because it is the second of Bach’s Passions that I will perform: the Balliol College Choir performed St John’s Passion the term that I studied in Oxford. But I’m disappointed, too. After today I won’t have my regular dose of choral singing. The choir won’t reconvene until next autumn–and I don’t know yet if I will still be in North Texas. This could be my last concert with them.

And so I’m glad it’s going to be a good one. The concert is going to be streamed live on the UNT music website, which you can watch here. Tune in at 3.00PM U.S. Central Time and enjoy!

Photo: The Denton Bach Society rehearsing in the Murchison Performing Arts Center, UNT Campus.

stillness of twilight

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It had been a long day. Sarah and I were tired after being on trains for most of the day, travelling from Brussels to Rothenburg. We arrived in the afternoon, dropped off our bags at the hostel, and went exploring, mainly looking for food. Once we had our quarry, we then went in search of somewhere quiet to eat. We found a bench outside of the city walls overlooking the hills. Here we sat, ate our sandwiches. I remember that we were so thirsty–we had both finished our water bottles on the train and hadn’t had a drop since. I opened my bottle of Mineralwasser and took a swig, and immediately began coughing. It was, of course, an American’s first encounter with European mineral water: sparkling water, water “with gas”, depending on where you are. If you had told me then that I would happily be drinking sparkling water by the bottle just a few years later, I would have laughed. At the time I was shocked by the unexpected. Now we knew to look for Stilles when choosing bottled water in Germany.

Our hunger and thirst quenched, we sat back and enjoyed the view. I remember having my travel journal with me, describing the peach and apricot sunset, the coolness of the air, the stillness of twilight. After a day of negotiating different languages, public transport, and fizzy water, now were welcome moments of peace. I still remember the calm of that evening.

Photo: Sunset in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.

light in water

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Several years ago, I lived in Barcelona, Spain, and although I didn’t live there for very long, I can still remember being intensely lonely. There were several contributing factors: my host family was a single woman in her sixties, most of my classmates were high school students when I was in college, and so on. The only contact I had with “home,” my friends and family in the U.S., was during the one hour of Internet that I paid for almost every day at an Internet café a couple of blocks away from my piso. I would go in the evening so that I could catch my friends during their lunch breaks. When I left, it would be that perfect time in the evening when the sunlight turns what it touches into gold. Although I would be a little sad that my time to talk to friends was over, I still found beauty in the place where I was. One of my favourite things to see was the sunlight catch in the fountain at the end of the street. I looked forward to seeing it nearly every day.

Photo: A fountain in Nou Barris district, Barcelona, Spain.

smallness in the universe

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One thing I love about cathedrals is their columns and arches. These sculpted columns of stone hold the domed or vaulted roof far above our heads, creating inside a space that is marked off, set apart from the outside world. The space inside these walls is, for the most part, quiet and still. Visitors stepping inside will hush their voices, look up, around. The grandest of these cathedrals remind one of one’s smallness in the universe; not that we are insignificant, but that we are one among many important and wondrous things.

Is this what you experience when you enter a cathedral? Which cathedral has made you feel this way? For me, the one that humbled me most is Duomo di Milano, the cathedral in Milan, Italy. I was awestruck when I saw those towering columns, like a forest of stone built by giants. How could human hands have made such a thing? I was too enraptured to even try taking a photograph, but I remain in awe of the memory of it.

Photo: Arches in Winchester Cathedral, England.

here, now: a good book

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I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I used to. In high school and university, sometimes even as a Ph.D. student, I would read (at least) one book per week. I’ve been known to read an entire book in one day, in one great feast. A few years ago I started keeping track of the books I read each year, and you can see those lists on the Bibliophile page.

Now that I am a college writing instructor, however, most of my reading takes the form of student assignments and essays. Often when I come home I am too mentally tired to read a book. These days I get most of my story-telling from television series on Netflix (I’m currently on a British police drama kick). When I read, it comes in bite-sized chunks at the end of the day. If the book is good, I stay up too late and am tired the next day; if the book isn’t gripping enough, I’ll go days without touching it. Short story collections are a good choice in this situation. During Spring Break, however, with no schedule to keep or classes to teach, I indulged myself.

Last December I received a Barnes & Noble gift-card as remuneration for giving a talk at the public library about Greek myths and fairies. I decided to order a few books that I had been coveting for years, and that no one had bought off of my Amazon wish-list. One of these books was Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier, the sequel to Wildwood Dancing.

Wildwood Dancing caught my eye on book table at a fantasy writers’ conference a few years ago. The cover art is by Kinuko Y. Craft, who also creates the cover art for Patricia A. McKillip, another of my favourite authors. I will admit that I first thought it was a McKillip book and lighted on it immediately. Finding that it was a “new” (to me) author, I hesitated only slightly before buying it. As soon as I began reading it, I couldn’t put it down: it is a wonderful retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and the Frog Prince set in 16th-century Transylvania. It is also one of those rare books that made me turn back a few chapters and reread the ending, a couple of times, because it came together at the end that well. I was excited to hear that a sequel was on it’s way.

So I waited, and waited, and being a poor graduate student and now a poor adjunct, I didn’t buy Cybele’s Secret, even when it came out in paperback. It was my first choice when I received the B&N giftcard. Because the semester had just started when it arrived, I set it aside to save as an especially good treat. And I was not disappointed.

Cybele’s Secret follows one of the other sisters as she goes to Istanbul with her father, a merchant. I don’t know if Marillier was retelling another folktale–if she was, I didn’t recognize it. Even so, her descriptions make me want to go to Istanbul again, to spend more time there, and to also explore other regions of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. I read the second half of the novel in one sitting today, and once again I found myself rereading the last chapter or two. I didn’t want it to end–I could have kept going with Paula for a long time yet.

But, all books must end, even the really good ones. When I finally set the book down, I knew that Spring Break was over. It will be at least another day before I pick up another book as my mind continues to swirl in the exciting adventures set in Istanbul and the Other Kingdom. If you enjoy young adult fantasy, then I encourage you to read Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret!

moments of serendipity

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We had wandered off of the map. Chris and I were in Lisbon, both escaping to warmer climes during our Spring Break–I from Scotland, she from Sweden. We balanced our interests: medieval castles for me, modern art for her. Today was her day and we had already been to one art museum. Now we were trying to find the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. Our map, it seemed, did not include all of Lisbon. Despite my (mostly) impeccable guiding skills, we were lost.

Somehow, we ended up in a park, where we gladly took the opportunity to rest our feet. The park was on a slight hill and we could look back the way we came. Gesturing vaguely in the general direction we wanted to go, we planned our next attempt. Behind us, a pair of lovers whispered to each other, oblivious to us or anyone. The path around them was thick with daisies and orange poppies. We chose our direction, leaving by the flowered path.

And promptly got lost again.

I suggested at this point that we ask for directions, even though neither of us spoke Portuguese and between us only I spoke Spanish. Just when decided upon this course of action, the streets seemed to empty. There was no one we could ask. So we kept walking.

We turned down another street and, at the end of it, was a person! He sat on the steps in front of a door, his long white tunic bright in the afternoon sun. A blocky spiral towered over the building, topped with blue and white tile, just barely in our line of sight from where we stood on the street. We paused, deciding which one of us should ask and what to say. Then Chris crossed the street and asked, in Arabic, “Excuse me, but where is the Gulbenkian museum?”

He stared at her in surprise. Here were two tourists, American women, both with blond hair and wearing strappy sundresses in the Portuguese heat–and one of them walks up to him and asks a question in Arabic?

He went inside and came back with the imam, a large and friendly man, who also was bemused to find himself giving directions in Arabic to an American tourist. He walked with us down the street and another man asked him, jokingly, in Portuguese, “A couple of converts?”

It turned out that we were only a few blocks away from the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. We had also found the only mosque in Lisbon.

Travel is full of these moments of serendipity: of course we would get lost, of course Chris spoke Arabic, of course we would find the only mosque in the entire city, and of course we would be near our destination. It is these moments of serendipity that makes each journey unique, an experience shared only by those in that moment, to be told as stories later.

Photo: A statue in Lisbon, Portugal, possibly in Jardim Amnistia Internacional.

the mountains of the South

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‘Before them stood the mountains of the South: white-tipped and streaked with black. The grass-lands rolled against the hills that clustered at their feet, and flowed up into many valleys still dim and dark, untouched by the light of dawn, winding their way into the heart of the great mountains. Immediately before the travellers the widest of these glens opened like a long gulf among the hills. Far inward they glimpsed a tumbled mountain-mass with one tall peak, at the mouth of the vale there stood like a sentinel a lonely height. About its feet there flowed, as a thread of silver, the stream that issued from the dale’ upon its brow they caught, still far away, a glint in the rising sun, a glimmer of gold.’

(Chapter VI ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ from The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien.)

The description would fit even better if I had been standing across the valley and facing where I stood when I took this photo. This valley is where the kingdom of Rohan was filmed in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I climbed to the top of Mount Sunday, the peak where Edoras stood, but there was no trace of the Golden Hall: the New Zealand government allowed Peter Jackson, et. al., to film here (and other places) on the condition that they would leave the area as they found it. Here, it meant GPS tagging every single bush in the immediate area, removing them to a specially made nursery with gardeners to tend them, and returning those bushes to their original places. Their incredible attention to detail was not only spent on constructing sets and costumes!

Photo: Rangitata River Valley seen from Mount Sunday, in the Southern Alps, New Zealand.

here, now: little red wagon

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When was the last time I had been to a plant nursery? Too long ago to remember; long enough to be amazed at the rows upon rows of plants in the open air nursery: on tables, hanging from rafters, organized by type or purpose. Our goal was to find the succulents and add to my small but growing collection of houseplants. I took the handle of a red wagon and pulled it along with us. Other customers with their own wagons passed by, their wagons filled to the brim with flowers of varying hues, or with herbs and vegetables, or others with plants I did not immediately recognize. Once my mum and I found the succulents, described as being “made by God with Texas in mind,” we chose a couple of ghost rosettes and hen and chicks. Nearby was a stand of miniature rosebushes. I already had one at home, but I had bought it from the supermarket and it was a bit unhappy. Here were miniature roses that were lush and full, with dark green leaves and vivid red, yellow, or pink blooms. I have an aversion to solid-colored roses of all three of these colors; I prefer multi-colored blooms. Among the other roses were three of the pinstripe red and white variety. I chose one and added it to our wagon. Perhaps it would inspire my other rosebush to grow.

Now I want to find a Mexican flower pot while I am in San Antonio to take back with me to North Texas.

Photo: Rainbow Gardens in San Antonio, TX.

like liquid silver

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At the turn of the year (a few years ago) I stood on a boat on a loch in the north of Scotland. The fog hung low over the water; it had frozen crystal on the branches and the leaves. It was barely mid-afternoon and yet it was already turning to dusk, turning the trees that came down to the water’s edge into dark shadows. A castle looked out over the loch. It was the kind of afternoon to make its ghosts wander the deserted grounds. The water, thick and dark with peat, reflected the silver sky as though it was itself made of mercury. One could believe the stories of creatures living deep beneath the surface, staring up at the world from the other side of a mirror. I had never seen anything like it. I would visit this loch again three more times over the years, but never again did I see the waters of Loch Ness move like liquid silver in the twilight.

(And to think, my camera had run out of battery earlier in the day. My mother let me use hers, which had, inexplicably, refused to focus. All of the photos I took are as blurry as I see the world without my glasses. The only photo from that afternoon that came out clear is this one, and it best captured the experience we had on the loch.)

Photo: Loch Ness in Scotland.