Monday, June 3, 2013

Valor Knows No Age

George & JoeOne of the fun things about traveling is meeting new people. On our cruise around the British Isles, we shared our dining experience each night with a pair of nonagenarians--George and Joe.

They've been best friends since high school. They were the best man at each other's weddings and must have tied the knots tightly. Joe and his wife celebrated 60 years of marriage. George and his sweetheart were together for 65. They are both widowers now, but it takes a special kind of lover to romance the same woman that long.

Now that their wives are gone, they still travel together, taking at least one cruise a year. Both are classical music buffs so we regularly ran into them at the frequent string quartet concerts.

They also both served their country with distinction during World War II. George was a pilot in the South Pacific. Joe fought in Europe and was a POW in Germany for a time.

After this terrible experience, it was a surprise to learn that he married a German girl. Joe and his wife met in the US after the war while she was an exchange student in college. Both their families said it would never last. Even now, he was hard-pressed to talk about her without his eyes glistening with unshed tears.

That kind of long-term commitment moves me. It speaks to the longing we all have for someone--just one--to accept all that we are and love us unreservedly. It's the epitome of romance. It also shows that former enemies can become the dearest of all through the transforming power of love.

Thank you, George & Joe for making our cruise experience richer.

And thank you to all our veterans and active service members and their families. I appreciate you and your sacrifice so very much.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Haggis, Neeps & Tatties

When it comes to food, I'm the adventurous sort. Granted, I won't eat a bug. Not on purpose, at any rate. Escargot may be proof positive that anything becomes palatable if you slather it with enough garlic and butter, but I still can't go quite far enough to try a bug. But barring insects, I am willing to taste almost anything.

At least once.

Haggis, neeps & tattiesThat's why when we were in Scotland, I couldn't let the opportunity pass without trying the region's signature dish--"haggis."

What's haggis? I hear you asking.

Locals would tell you haggis is a savory pudding.

Now, in American English "pudding" conjures up images of Jello, sweet and soft. However, in the UK, it means something else entirely. In the case of haggis, it means a mixture of sheep's heart, liver & lungs along with onion, oatmeal, spices, and suet stuffed into a sheep's stomach and boiled for three hours.

Ew, right?

Not everyone is of that opinion. In his Address to a Haggis, beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns praises the dish in this unique fashion:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the puddin'-race! Aboon them a' ye tak yer place, Painch, tripe, or thairm: Weel are ye wordy o' a grace As lang's my airm.

Clootie DumplingWho am I to argue with Mr. Burns?

So I pushed what haggis is and how it's made from my mind and put a bite of it in my mouth. And... it was delicious!

The flavor was nutty and mild and was perfect with the traditional side dishes--neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes).

The DH and I polished off the meal with a Clootie Dumpling, which turned out to be a rich, moist carrot-cake-like dessert. Very fragrant!

So glad I got a taste of Scotland.

If you'd like one, but you're watching your weight, you might want to try this Scottish novella Plaid to the Bone! No calories included.
Plaid to the BoneAdam Cameron, laird of Bonniebroch, didn’t expect his bride to turn up at his castle so soon after their arranged marriage was settled. But the daughter of his former enemy is comely beyond the common, so he’s counting his blessings.
Unfortunately, Adam doesn’t know the lovely Cait Grant has sworn to kill her new husband with a blood oath that will set a terrible curse in motion if she fails. But Cait never counted on falling in love with the man her father had taught her to hate.
Kindle | Nook

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Looking for Nessie

Today, we took an extended tour from Inverness that included a stop at the Culloden, a cruise on Loch Ness & a tour of the ruins of Urquhart Castle. I'm going to let my pics replace a thousand words...

This stone house stands a silent witness to the Battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746) the disastrous final defeat of the Scottish Jacobites who wanted to place Bonnie Prince Charlie (a Catholic) back on the throne by the Duke of Cumberland's forces (who owed allegiance to the Protestant English king). The structure may have served as a field hospital for wounded English soldiers. Fallen Scots were given no quarter.

The place left me with a sense of windswept sadness that religion and politics could end so many lives. And even sadder that those two forces are still used to motivate violence today.

Here's the DH on our Loch Ness cruise. Aren't I a lucky girl?

The loch itself is a long (read: 23 miles!) surprisingly narrow body of water snugged between rounded peaks on both sides. The water is deep--over 700 feet--and has so much run off from the peat in the surrounding hillsides that the loch is perpetually murky.

We didn't see Nessie, but even with little wind, the water seemed to be constantly churning as if some large creature writhed beneath the surface.

On the shore of Loch Ness lies the ruin of Urquhart Castle.

I loved wandering these ruins, imaging what it must have been like in its glory days. It took so many people to keep a castle running smoothly--all the artisans and craftsmen, carpenters and stone masons, cooks, butchers, candlemakers, armorers, priests for the chapel and courtiers for the great hall.

Since I have new Scottish story due to Kensington soon, I'll use this experience to imagine the castle in my book Once Upon a Plaid.

The view from one of the upper chambers...

We weren't the only ones to break out our umbrellas. It wouldn't be Scotland if the weather didn't turn "soft" from time to time.

The vibrant yellow in the distance is blooming rape seed--the plant used to make canola oil. A beautiful splash of color, isn't it?

Friday, May 31, 2013

Sacred Spaces

StennessFirst, let me apologize to those of you who like to read travel blogs chronologically. Since I'm organizing my pictures and observations after the fact, I sometimes like to group things by categories instead by date.

On this 12 day cruise around the UK, we visited several different sacred spaces. Two were on Orkney, one of the small islands 10 miles north of Scotland.

Our first stop was the Standing Stones of Stenness. There are only 4 megaliths still standing, but archeologists say there were probably 9 or 10 to begin with set in an eliptical pattern. The site dates back to at least 3100 BC. Rising from the plain to a height of 19 feet, the stones are easily visible from a distance and have clear sight lines to a couple of other ancient sites--Maeshowe (a large barrow) and the Watchstone (a solitary stone giant).

Unlike at Stonehenge, which is fenced off to visitors, we were allowed to walk among these stones and touch them. That's me in the black jacket. I confess I put my palms on the lichen covered rock, hoping to somehow hear its ponderous thoughts. Only the unforgiving Orkney wind swept past my ears.

StennessOne of the monoliths--called the Odin Stone--had an opening hollowed through it. According to legend, babies would be passed through the hole in order to bless them. A man and woman who joined hands through the hole were considered handfasted (married).

In 1814, a tenant farmer became tired of dealing with curiosity seekers around the site and began to destroy the stones. He demolished the "Odin Stone"--one with a hole in it--and one more before he could be stopped.

The Orcadians were furious with the farmer, who was a "ferrylooper" (read: "not from around here") and tried to burn his house down!
 I can't say I blame them.

Italian Chapel CeilingThe other sacred site on Orkney is much newer. It's the Italian Chapel, which was built during WWII by POWs kept on the island. After the Germans slipped a U-boat into Skapa Floe and sank a British warship with 833 hands on board, the Brits decided to build a causeway to link two islands and shut off that devastatingly easy access. (There are actually 70 Orkney islands, only 20 of which are inhabited.)

Italian POWs were brought in to provide labor. While the POWs were required to work, they were not treated poorly. In fact, when they wanted to build a chapel for worship, the Orcadians provided two quonset huts, upon which the Italians lavished care and amazing artistry after their daily work on the causeway was done.

There is no actual tile in the chapel. What you see is trompe l'oisle, a "fool-the-eye" style of painting. The ornate grillwork and lighting fixtures were made from scrap metal. Beyond the creation of a lovely space, the existence of the chapel is testimony to the humane treatment of the Italian POWs by our allies in WWII. Years later, Domenico Chiocchetti, the principle artist, revisited the site and left this message to the Orcadians:
“The chapel is yours - for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality. . . I thank the authorities of Kirkwall, the courteous preservation committee, and all those who directly or indirectly have collaborated for the success of this work and for having given me the joy of seeing again the little chapel of Lambholm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart”.

NotreDame RouenThe other two sacred sites we visited were in Rouen, France. The first was the Cathedral of Notre Dame. There has been a church on this site since the late 4th century, but none of that early building survives. Construction of the current cathedral began in the late 1100's.

St. RomaineSince then, Notre Dame has been plagued with lightning strikes (5 times), multiple fires, at least one hurricane, the predations of Calvinists, nationalization of the building during the French Revolution so they could sell off valuable furniture & art, and WWII bombings. And yet the cathedral is still there, ever expanding over the years.

During WWII, the medieval stained glass was removed and hidden away to preserve it. I apologize for the poor quality of this photo, but this series of stained glass depicts one of the miracles of St. Romain, a 7th century bishop.

Apparently in those dark times, a dragon was terrorizing the countryside and no one was willing to face it down. The bishop took a prisoner who'd been condemned to death and offered him the chance to accompany him on the quest to kill the beast. The man accepted since dying by dragon couldn't be worse than being executed for his crimes. When the convict and the saint found the beast, the bishop made the sign of the cross over it and it allowed him to leash it using his stole. After that, the dragon was either burned or tossed into the Seine, depending on which variation of the tale you choose. But the convict who helped St. Romain was freed!

 After that, until 1790, the bishop of Rouen was allowed to pardon one condemned felon a year by allowing him to carry a relic of St. Romain in a procession.
Joan of Arc Church

The last sacred space is a much newer place just a short stroll from Notre Dame. It's a church built in 1979 in the Market Square on the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Architecturally, it's a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new. The stained glass shown here is medieval, but the ceiling of the church resembles an upturned boat hull. There are porthole-shaped windows along another wall.

Joan of Arc

Before this trip, I didn't know much about Joan of Arc, other than the fact that she was martyred. I was never sure why. Now I know.

This 15th century teenager was instrumental in leading the French army to victory during the 100 Years War with England and in putting Charles VII on the French throne. Dressed in male attire, she led the French to dazzling victories. But during a truce, she was arrested by the English and put on trial. Political wranglings on both sides--French as well--almost insured a guilty verdict for heresy.

I think the fact that she dressed as a male and proved a better general than many men also played a part in their desire to destroy her. Inquisitors tried to trap her with scholarly questions. When she was asked if she knew she was in God's grace, she realized a yes or no would be equally damning. So Joan neatly sidestepped the issue. She said: "If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me."

They burned her anyway.

And once she was dead, they burned her ashes two more times to make sure no relics could be scavenged. Amazingly enough, an appeal was made and she was retried posthumously in 1456, where she was declared innocent.

Big whoop. She was still dead. Sometimes, history is supremely unsatisfying. Which is probably why I prefer fiction...

How about you? Have you visited any sacred places that touched you?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Kissing the Blarney Stone

Blarney StoneOr not.

We took a coach from Cork into the lush green Irish countryside where we were deposited within sight of Blarney Castle.

By the time I hiked through a lovely meadow and climbed the 100+ steps to the top of castle, I had second thoughts about giving the bluestone a big wet smack. Take a look a this picture. You can actually see a discoloration on the stone from all the kisses over the years.

View from Blarney CastleSince I've been on high dose steroids for 3 years for a lung condition, my immune system is a bit compromised to begin with. I didn't need to swap germs with an Irish icon, however revered it might be. (Of course, the fact that I'd have to lie down and hang backward over that precipice while the guy in red keeps me from slipping away in order to give the stone a kiss had nothing to do with my decision!)

But the view from the top of Blarney Castle was more than worth the climb. It's situated to be able to see advancing foes far in the distance. You see, the home of the McCarthy's wasn't built for comfort. It was crafted with an eye to defense--thick walls, soaring towers, and murder holes in the gate house!

Blarney Castle's Earl's WindowBlarney Castle is a ruin, so we had to use our imagination as we climbed through it. Floors were missing in the main section, but once we began ascending a narrow spiral staircase, the chambers leading off it were mostly intact.

The photo to the right shows the ornate window in the earl's bedroom with three openings on a "Juliette-type" faux balcony. Most other rooms must make do with arrow notches to let light in. The chute-like openings (a small one to the right of the earl's window and a much larger one almost dead center to the left) were from the castle's garderobes.

Blarney Castle's Back DoorA garderobe is a medieval latrine. Human waste exited the castle through those openings.

And speaking of castle would be complete without an emergency exit. When Cromwell's forces led by Lord Broghill took Blarney Castle, they were in for a big surprise. Once they entered the bailey, they discovered only two elderly household retainers were there. All the Irish defenders had disappeared along with everything of value in the stronghold!

Here I am at the Badger's Cave where the McCarthy warriors escaped from the English. I thought this was a fun discovery since in Sins of the Highlander (one of my books written under the penname Mia Marlowe), I gave Mad Rob's castle an elaborate cave that allowed him to enter and exit without using the main gate. My fiction has the ring of truth.

Who knew?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Channel Islands

St. PeterportOur first port of call is St. Peter Port on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. There are 8 inhabited islands and 6 empty islets in the archipelago. Guernsey (yes, as its name suggests, it is famous for its cows and dairy products!) is only 8 miles from France and, as you can imagine, it's changed hands many times over the years.

The Channel IslandsDuring WWII, it was occupied by German forces and there's a literary connection to the island--The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was set on this small chunk of land.

  They say geography is destiny. It's cold with a biting wind at Guernsey. We were treated to a taste of just how exposed these islands are to the elements as well as the conflicting political interests that surround them. The people who live there would have to be hearty, tough-minded and self-sufficient.

 At least, that's how I'd write them.

 Now I'm off to download The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. Now that I've seen the place, it's sort of a must.

How about you? Have you ever visited the place where a novel was set? Were you disappointed or did the setting live up to your expectations?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Off to Scotland!

You know me. I'd rather have an adventure than a new sofa, a fact to which my sorry loveseat will attest!

The DH and I are frantically finishing up our last minute packing for our trip to the UK. We leave tonight, taking a red eye hop across the Pond, and arriving in London tomorrow morning. Then we'll take a motor coach to Portsmouth where we'll board our ship, the Caribbean Princess.

Of course, despite the title of this post, we'll be seeing more than Scotland. We'll stop at one of the Channel Islands and have three Irish ports of call as well. Our last stop will be at Le Havre, France.

Even though we'll cruise all the way around England we won't spend much time there. That's ok. We've been to Great Britain a couple of times, keeping mainly to London and Wiltshire. This is our chance to explore the non-English parts. I can't wait to see Glasgow, one of the Orkneys, Invergordon and Edinburgh. Here's our itinerary:

We're celebrating some things on this trip. First, there's our anniversary, which was yesterday. I told a friend of mine this cruise was 12 days, the longest we've ever done. We wanted to see if we could get tired of a ship. My friend said to be careful lest my DH and I get tired of each other.

Not a chance. There's nothing I'd rather do than spend time with him. (He very wisely agrees that he'd rather be with me too!)

We're also celebrating 4 1/2 years of my being cancer free. This coming November, God willling, I'll have five clean years under my belt and be pronounced "cured."

 For the past 3 years, I've also been battling a lung condition called NSIP. It's an auto-immune syndrome that attacks my lungs. I've had a particularly rough spring. The virulent coughing left me breathless, exhausted and unable to sing--kind of important to me because I'm a classically trained soprano. I still don't know if my voice will ever come back. But--and this is huge--I seem to have turned a corner and I'm breathing so much better now.

Believe me, getting enough oxygen is all it's cracked up to be.

So we have plenty of things to celebrate on this trip. I'll be taking tons of pictures, which I'll share when we return. We made the conscious choice to unplug for this cruise. Neither the DH nor I are taking our computers. I'll take notes in my little moleskin notebook and share my thoughts and experiences with you when I get home.

 Talk to you soon!