the count’s garden

61_Killruddy_House3

 

Built in the eighteenth century, Powerscourt Estate embodies the height of fashion in the eighteenth-century. With its grand manor, tiered gardens, and wooded estate, it comes as no surprise that the 2002 film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo would be filmed here. I discovered this fact after Kelly and I had visited the estate during our holiday in Ireland. We were back in Oklahoma, watching the movie with our housemates, when I exclaimed, “Wait, we’ve been there!” Kelly didn’t believe me. We watched until the credits listed the film locations and then looked up Powerscourt Estate. We had in fact been there, in the Count of Monte Cristo’s garden.

fruteria

78_fruteria

One of the things I miss about Europe is the small shops, the fruterias and the bakeries. The photo above is a fruteria somewhere in Italy, but when I lived in Spain, I would often step inside one to buy a couple of nectarines to eat as a snack while I walked around the city.  Going to the fruteria inserts you firmly into the community, disallowing you from taking refuge in the anonymity of the supermarket chains. The owners or shopkeepers are less likely to speak English, which forces you to practice your language skills. There aren’t any automated check-out lanes, and so you must interact with others in the store. Not only that, but the fruit and veg seem more colourful and fresh when bought from one of these shops than from one of the larger, chain supermarkets.

And the bakeries! How I miss popping into one to buy a baguette to eat with cheese and fruit for lunch, or soft wheaten roll to eat with my soup, or the miniature chocolate croissants to treat myself after work. You can be guaranteed that the bread and pastries are baked fresh, from scratch. You needn’t worry about what preservatives or other strange chemicals you might be putting in your body than you would if you got pre-made pastries at the supermarket.

The U.S. might have more amenities and convenience with its 24-hr supermarkets, with large selections and variety of prices, but I prefer the microcosm, the local community, that the European fruterias and bakeries offer. These small shops grant access to a community that values not convenience, but good food, good people, and a good life.

Photo: A fruteria in Italy.

here, now: turtles

TWU Turtles

A few months ago, I discovered the university’s garden. I was taking a break from grading and needed to stretch my legs, so I wandered over the part of campus I hadn’t been to before. I came across a small pond. As I walked up to it, I heard and saw a splash. “What was that?” I asked aloud. A small shape moved through the water and further out a head poked up above the surface. “A turtle!” I exclaimed with surprise.

You see, I had gotten used to not seeing turtles in ponds. There are no turtles native to Britain; any turtle seen in the wild is likely an escaped pet. Being so far north, the UK isn’t an ideal climate for reptiles. (Of course, I learned this after asking innocently where the turtles were, and was mocked mercilessly by the Powells. This post is for you, Ros.) Although being back in Texas, I had forgotten that I would likely see turtles in ponds.

And so, the university ponds might not have ducks or swans, but I still am delighted when I see the turtles sunning themselves on the rocks among the lily pads.

Photo: Turtles on a rock in a lily pad pond, Denton, TX.

a sanctuary of books

Leakey's Bookshop

I confess: I love books. Even if I don’t read as voraciously now as I once used to, I still love the smell, the feel, and the presence of books. A house is not a home if it does not have books in it! And so it comes as no surprise that one of my favourite places in Scotland is a used bookstore in Inverness.

Felicity and I had found Leakey’s Bookshop quite by accident. We had gotten somewhat lost in Inverness and while finding our way again, came across a couple of shop windows filled with books and large lettering spelling out the name. “Like Harry Potter!” we exclaimed. The shop was closed for the day, but we took note of where to find it and came back the next day.

Inside it is, literally, a sanctuary of books. The building is a repurposed church and the former sanctuary has been converted into the bookstore. There are few better ways to repurpose a disused church than to fill it to the brim with books. In the upper gallery is a café that serves delicious soups and sandwiches and the large room is heated with a wood stove. Part of me is slightly terrified at the thought of a wood burning stove in the presence of so many books — but that risk adds to the appeal.

I visited Inverness again over the years, and I took whomever I was traveling with to Leakey’s. There we would have lunch and spend the afternoon perusing the shelves, finding treasure after treasure. They might have wanted to go to Inverness to spy for Nessie in Loch Ness, but I would go to Inverness for Leakey’s.

Photo: Leakey’s Bookshop and Café in Inverness, Scotland.

salt of the earth

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Poland’s wealth in the Middle Ages lay buried deep beneath the ground. There, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, miners dug, chipped, and carved away salt out of rock. The deeper they went, the larger the caverns became. The miners lived and breathed beneath the world. As they carried away the salt of the earth, hoisting it to those who lived above the ground, they shaped the empty spaces into places of beauty. These salt miners carved out of stone not just the practical spaces to eat, sleep, and keep the livestock (yes, they kept horses underground to help turn the great wheels), but they also carved places of worship. The grandest of these is the Chapel of St Kinga, dedicated to the thirteenth-century queen of Poland whose wedding gift to Poland was the miraculous transfer of a salt mine from her native Hungary.

Here, in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, all is an eerie grey, save for where the rock salt is carved so thinly that the light shines through a pale orange. One has to remember that the grouting in the floor is carved; the floor is not tiled. The “bricks” along the walls have also been carved into stone. The entire chapel — from the stairs, the floor, the wall carvings depicting different scenes from the Gospels, to the altar itself — is all carved out of living stone. Here, deep beneath the earth, is an example of devotion.

Photo: Chapel of St Kinga in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland.

here, now: the one ring

The One Ring

Edda of Greenfield’s companions all fell mysteriously ill, leaving her unable to return Greenfield’s trade wagon to the village. In a gesture of goodwill, King Bard commissioned one of his newly-made kingsmen, Barra the Bardling, to accompany her from Dale and keep the goods safe. This Barra and her companions did, though there was some distrust between Edda and members of that company.

As they approached Greenfield, Edda knew something was amiss when she saw the crowd of villagers inside the town gates. A farmer claimed that he had been threatened by a giant while out “looking for lost goats.” The company of adventurers volunteered to investigate the farmer’s claim and Edda went with them as the village’s representative. They found the giant, clarified the terms of his demand for tribute, and returned with grave news for the villagers. The giant could not be swayed: they either had to pay tribute, or fight the giant. The villagers chose to take refuge in the town’s keep, leaving the adventurers, Edda, and one constable to defend the village from the angry giant. Some of the company had misgivings about preparing to fight the giant. He had been rather reasonable and he hadn’t actually harmed anyone — yet. But the decision had been made: they must fight the giant or, as cowards, leave their friends to fight him alone.

It was a long and arduous battle. Three of the company took up positions on the village wall with their bows and arrows; the others waited for the giant outside the walls. Eventually it was the constable’s arrow that finally brought down that fell giant. The company caught their breath and, seeing how Edda had not fled with the rest of the village but had fought bravely, was welcomed as a comrade.

While the villagers rejoiced in their rescue, Edda traded glances with her new comrade-at-arms Hild. The giant had said that his family was following behind him. What will they do when the giants find their kinsman slain?

Photo: The One Ring, a role-playing game set in Middle Earth.

bbc proms

Proms

Despite the heavy rain earlier in the day, the afternoon had turned hot. Ros and I carried sandwiches as we walked down Exhibition Road, past the museums. Around the corner and down the street our friends waited for us, already in the queue that stretched from the doors of the Royal Albert Hall to the street. We passed around the sandwiches and waited, chatting, slowly baking and wishing we were in the shade, until finally the doors opened a few hours later. We were waiting for the coveted £5 tickets to the BBC Proms.

Once the doors opened, the queue moved steadily, if slowly. We eventually handed over our £5 notes and made our way up to the gallery. As the auditorium filled with the audience, we settled into our places on the floor, where we still had a good view of the stage. We traded glances of disapproval about others who brought books or laptops into the hall. Would they put them away when the concert began? They might as well as stayed home and listened to the concert on BBC Radio 3! Some joke was being made at Tristan’s expense (or was it Charly’s?) that was quickly hushed as the musicians walked onto the stage. The hall erupted with applause.

And then there was music.

Photo: BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, London.

no ordinary swan

swans

An excerpt from THE HERO, OR, THE KNIGHT WITH THE SWAN. Prince Lukas, the Black Knight, has just slain a cockatrice after a terrible battle.

Lukas scrambled up from the snow and ran across the knoll. He slid to a stop in front of a high drift of snow that had a big impression at the top. Digging with his hands, Lukas pushed aside the snow and blocks of ice. He pulled out of the snow a black and bedraggled creature, still as stone. “Oh, Pooka,” whispered Lukas.

The eagle lay on his lap. Its feathers were all bent and ruffled. He stroked them, trying to smooth them back into place. The eagle stirred. It opened one eye. “You’re alive!” exclaimed Lukas.

The Pooka closed its eye again. “Not for lack of trying,” it said wanly.

Even so, Lukas smiled. He stood, holding the Pooka, and carried it back to where he had left the saddle and their gear. All around him statues came to life. Horses’ hooves thudded to the ground. Men finished their cries, cutting them short with astonishment. Voices asked with bewilderment what had happened, recognizing each other, each wondering what had happened to the monster they had been sent to kill.

The dead cockatrice lay on the knoll for all to see. A small crowd of knights had gathered around it. Lukas walked out to them, going right up to the cockatrice. “It is I who killed this monster,” he said.

“How were you not turned to stone?” asked one.

The Black Knight held up his shield and all could see the mirror inside. “Because I did not look directly into its eyes. Go, return to your court and Lord Cadigar. Tell him that the danger that threatened his court is no longer.”

“Will you not return with us to celebrate your victory?” asked another. He was young, like Lukas.

But the Black Knight shook his head. “No. I have miles yet to go. There are more fell monsters, and no time to waste.”

As the company of knights rode away, Lukas rejoined the Pooka. It had once more taken the form of a horse. Lukas saddled it, repacking his saddle bags. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

The Pooka may have wanted to run, but it could only walk away from the den of the dead cockatrice. Its walked with its head down, its nose nearly dropping to touch the snow. Lukas dismounted when the Pooka stumbled. He walked alongside it, one hand resting on the Pooka’s shoulder.

The forest had awoken from the cockatrice’s spell. Animals that had been frozen by the cockatrice’s stony glare staggered through the snow. A bear passed them, but it paid them no heed, intent to find its own den to return to a more comfortable sleep. Ahead of them something white fluttered in the snow. When they came closer to it, Lukas saw that it was a swan, large and majestic.

“That’s odd. Is there water near here, do you think?” asked Lukas.

The swan swung its graceful neck, rolling its eyes at the knight. Lukas had begun to lead the Pooka away, but stopped. There was something about the swan’s eyes. They were human eyes.

“Hello Swan,” said Lukas. He approached it slowly. “You are no ordinary swan.”

The swan shook its head. It flapped its wings, struggling to step away from Lukas. He saw an arrow shaft at the base of the swan’s left wing. Fresh blood stained its white plumage and dripped onto the snow. “Wait, let me help you,” said Lukas. The swan fell onto its side, panting.

“We have to help it,” Lukas said, looking up at the Pooka.

“We don’t have to,” it said, its voice weary.

“But I will,” said Lukas. Neither the Pooka nor the swan protested as Lukas withdrew the arrow and bound the swan’s wound. He lifted the swan onto the back of the Pooka. With one hand steadying the swan, Lukas and the Pooka continued through the forest, taking the enchanted swan with them.

Photo: Two swans in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

here, now: egg cups for expats

egg cups 2015

When I moved back to the U.S. about a year ago, one of the first instances of culture shock I experienced was the lack of egg cups. While in Europe, I had been introduced to eating soft-boiled eggs and adopted it into my usual breakfast. But in my parents’ house, there was nary an egg cup to be found! I used my ingenuity and used narrow-necked jars, but that was hardly ideal.

Fortunately, my friends rose to the challenge of providing me with egg cups! Pictured above are egg cups I have received from Kelly, Ros, and Lola — from Texas, England, and Poland. Not pictured here is a white egg cup my dad bought for me in New Zealand; it’s at my parents’ house to use when I visit them.

My sister also gave me a couple of perfect egg timers, so now I have a perfectly boiled egg every day for breakfast. Yes, I take my breakfast — however simple — seriously!

Now all I need are more egg spoons…

Photo: Five egg cups.

top of the ninth

Fenway Park 2010

Baseball: how the stadium catches its breath the half-second before the pitch, the crack of the bat, the hot summer air, the cheers from the crowd as the batter runs and the other players vie to catch the ball in time to get him out. It might seem like college football or basketball are now the great American pastimes, but for me, it’s still baseball. One of my favourite memories of visiting friends in Boston is getting to go to a Red Sox vs. Yankees game in Fenway Park.

For Lola, Fenway Park is familiar, though still loved; for me, it was the first time I got to see my favourite teams play live. (The Red Sox, of course. Why did you even need to ask?) I am not the type of fan to follow every transfer, deal, and score, but I do enjoy watching a good game. After living abroad for nearly six years, I often feel that I am American only by virtue of my passport. And yet my enjoyment of baseball is perhaps the most “American” about my wandering heart, and that is a pleasure I will own gladly.

Photo: The Boston Red Sox vs. The New York Yankees in Fenway Park, Boston, MA.