Going places

Bienvenidos a Puerto Rico!

071509 Puerto Rico (31) (Small) Okay, so it's been a few weeks since we got back from Puerto Rico, but I figure since we hadn't been there in three years, it's still well within the acceptable time limit to post about it. Why it took us so long to get back to one of the places we love most on earth, I don't know. Life. It gets in the way of taking time for what's truly important. And considering we hadn't actually taken a trip of any sort that wasn't business- or family-related in all that time, we were due. We were ready. Oh so ready.

One of the great pleasures of discovering a place you love is getting the opportunity to share it with other people you love.  Of course, for a massively codependent people-pleaser like myself, it can also be nerve-wracking. Will they see the beauty that you do? Will they appreciate the non-glossy aspects of Puerto Rico as being part of the true experience? Will they like the quirks? Hell, will they like the food.

On this trip, we met up with our amazing friend Denise. In fact, she's the one who kicked off the whole affair, announcing her plans to spend 10 or so days in Puerto Rico in between leaving her fellowship here in Ann Arbor and moving to San Antonio. On a whim, we decided to join her and uncovered the adventure of seeing a familiar place through new eyes.

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We met up in Old San Juan the first night of our arrival. At the risk of offending anyone, San Juan proper doesn't have a lot to offer visitors, unless you're looking for high rises and night clubs. I think it's safe to say we're not. Old San Juan, on the other hand, is the oldest settlement within the territorial United States, at least according to Wikipedia, so you know it has to be true. It's a lovely place, dating back to 1521, founded by the Spanish, teeming with 16th & 17th century colonial architecture, and surrounded by El Morro and the old city walls.

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Chris, master of crazy travel bargains, managed to swing us a stellar deal for staying at El Convento, a former Carmelite convent we'vewalked past many times and coveted from afar. Let me tell you, it was charming and delightful. The rooms were comfortable and well-appointed and -- although likely  not in keeping with its historical state -- air conditioned to an icy-cold state.

Aside from such nods to modernity, the place felt steeped in history, with its wooden beam ceilings and giant carved doors. It wasn't hard at all to imagine the nuns wandering the hallways in quiet contemplation. Although it was so frickin' hot, I can't imagine that was particularly comfortable for them in their habits. I'd venture to guess at least a few of them prayed for a break in the weather. (Legend has it that the nuns still walk the hallways in silent prayer, but I tried really hard not to think about it while I was there.)

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The convent was built around a central courtyard, with balconies on each level over-looking it.  The big tree in the middle of the courtyard (see photo below) is apparently hundreds of millions of years old. Okay, maybe it's actually just, like, hundreds of years old, but that's still pretty impressive.

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One of my favorite things about El Convento were the nooks and crannies you could explore at every turn and had I not been close to expiring from the heat, I might have done more. We did, however, make it to the roof, which offered us some lovely views of San Juan...

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...as well as a nice little saltwater dipping pool which, had the water not been the temperature of tepid bathwater, would have been very refreshing.

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While I'm busy complaining about the heat in San Juan, you're probably thinking, "Duh. It's summer in Puerto Rico. What were you expecting?" I know, I know. I've certainly been there during summer before -- after all, it's when flights and hotels are often cheapest -- but we usually make a beeline straight for the rainforest, where it's much, much cooler. Besides, the last time I was there, I was still somewhat acclimated to St. Louis summers which are pretty comparable to Puerto Rico, actually. In other words, the past few years in Michigan is making me a pansy.

Anyhoo, there was no point in staying in the A/C, no matter how tempting, considering we had only part of the next day to show Denise a good ol' time in OSJ before heading off on the next leg of our adventure. So we braved the heat of our second day wandering the streets of Old San Juan, looking buildings the color of tropical fruit and, priorities well intact, stopping for breakfast at La Bombonera, our favorite old-timey bakery which has been open for more than a century. (And marveling at the old men at the counter who looked as though they might have been present on opening day.) May I just say that there is a special place in heaven for whoever invented the quesito, Puerto Rico's answer to a cheese danish. Chris and Denise also had success ordering mallorcas, toasted sandwiches filled with ham & cheese or cheese & egg and then dusted with powdered sugar. All washed down with cups of strong Puerto Rican coffee. Fantastico!

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There's so much to see of Old San Juan and I took so many pictures I can't possible bore you with them all here. But I think one of the things I love most is that you can find something beautiful and interesting no matter where you look, including down. Many of the streets of Old San Juan are composed of cobblestone made from 16th century ship's ballast, which has the most beautiful blue-gray hue to it. You know, in case you were wondering. See, here:

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I'm telling you, if I ever get my hands on some 16th century Spanish ship's ballast, I'm so doing a walkway outside my house like this. Then I'll paint my house the color of mangoes and we'll just see what the city of Ann Arbor has to say about that. Although, knowing Ann Arbor, the answer is probably: nothing. But I digress.

Where were we? Ah, yes. Wandering through the crazy heat and the bright sun to take in some of Old San Juan's sites, including the aforementioned fort El Morro and the neighboring cemetery, which overlooks the Atlantic and is the final resting place of many of Puerto Rico's most notable citizens.

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Since you can't get down there easily on foot, I can't exactly tell you who these famous people are, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Either way, they have an incredible view.

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Next, we made our way down to the El Morro walkway which led to the Paseo de la Princesa. (Not, as Denise insisted on calling it, the Paseo de Principesa, but we let her have her fun.) Here are Denise and Chris at the Old San Juan Gate, which leads to the walkway.

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Somehow we'd never been down there before and it afforded us a nice new perspective on Old San Juan. Go Denise for blazing new trails! (And by new, I mean centuries old.)

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After lunch at Cafe Manolin, where we sat at a lunch counter rubbing elbows with locals and scarfing down authentic Puerto Rican fare, Chris had to dash off to do some work. (Work!) So Denise and I wore ourselves out doing a little souvenir shopping. Afterward, we seized the opportunity to pause in a plaza and shield ourselves from the sun while sipping amazingly delicious iced coffees. Quite cosmopolitan, we felt.

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By that time, we were just hot, sweaty and tired enough to go and meet up with Chris, say adios to Old San Juan and head east to the El Yunque rainforest for a few days. Stay tuned for details!

Birthday in Holland (Michigan, that is)

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What's the greatest birthday gift a girl could wish for? Or, more specifically, this girl could wish for? How about unlimited time in an ultra-cool, super-deep soaking tub with little else to do but relax, read and enjoy.

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And that's precisely what I got. Chris whisked me away on Saturday to a surprise destination. Turned out to be the high design Euro-style City Flats Hotel in the perhaps unlikely location of Holland, Michigan. Check out the coolness:

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The fancy neon lights in the lobby and the ultra mod-looking, funky and totally uncomfortable chairs.

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I loved, loved, loved these botanical style green and brown panels in the hallways. I'd adore some fabric like this for our house.

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Hotel lobby bar. Needless to say, on a November weekend, the hotel wasn't exactly packed, but there were a few revelers here on Saturday night.

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I fell in love with these light fixtures, crazy messes of curly wire. Too cool.

Holland's just a couple of hours west of Ann Arbor, not far from Saugatuck, where we spent a weekend last November. (We seem to pick the coldest, greyest weekends for our getaways.) It's known for its Dutch heritage, obviously, and its annual tulip time festival which, as you can probably guess, doesn't take place in mid-November. It's also heavily Dutch reformist which means that the town basically shuts down on Sundays. Thus our plan to spend part of Sunday exploring the charming but tiny two-block downtown was canceled.

We asked the eager and youthful help at the hotel's front desk what people in Holland do on Sundays and they said, "Go to Saugatuck." So we thought we'd do that. But we had a couple of stops before that. From the window of our hotel we spied a giant scrap heap in the distance and I figured it'd make for some good and interesting photos. We were surprised to find the gates to the scrap yard were wide open and we could drive right in. (Although we later discovered the hidden cost.)

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I think it's fascinating to view these giant piles of weird, odd shapes and think that they all served some purpose at some point and are now on their way to being something else.

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The road outside the metal yard was dotted with some odd scrap metal sculptures that, upon looking at these pictures, I realize aren't actually that interesting.

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Once my scrap metal jones was met we were slated to hit the road to travel the 20 miles or so to Saugatuck. But before we did I convinced Chris we needed to check out what I suspected was a corny little attraction called The Old Dutch shops. I was right. It was a cheese fest. A closed cheese fest. Of which I have no photos, because we were distracted by the realization we had a flat tire.

Yes, the price for the scrap metal photos was a thin, long shard of metal in the right rear tire. Which meant that instead of heading for Saugatuck, we had to kill two hours at an outlet mall and shopping strip.

By the time the wheel was patched (a mere $10 repair, thank you very much), there wasn't much daylight left. We decided that we wanted to take a gander at Lake Michigan and, on the auto mechanic's advice, drove the 18 miles to Grand Haven instead of Saugatuck, for a little more direct beach access.

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There was barely any sunlight left but the sky had been dark grey and moody all day anyway, letting out random flurries of snow here and there. We braved the cold wind for the briefest of walks on the beach, whipped by the wind, watching the waves raging across Lake Michigan. Then we retreated to the warmth of the car and watched the Lake until there wasn't enough light left.

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We headed back to the hotel. There were more baths. More relaxing. And, best of all, more of Chris' time, with him completely unplugged from work. That was the best of all the birthday treats he lavished me with. Well, that and the morning bath I took on Monday before heading home, from which I watched snow fall on the crazy little town of Holland, Michigan.

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(As always, there are more photos the hotel, scrap metal, etc. on my Flickr page.)

Edinburgh, Fringe Festival Style

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We spent the first couple of days of our trip just wandering around Glasgow, sleeping off jet lag and visiting with family. Although by all accounts the weather (a topic of great interest to Glaswegians) had been glorious the prior week, it was largely dull and grey for much of our trip. (Hence, not a ton of photos of Glasgow, since the light kind of blew.)

Then on Friday, we headed to Edinburgh for the day. It's a quick 45-minute train ride from Glasgow's Buchanan Street train station to Edinburgh Waverly, which spits you out in the center of downtown Edinburgh, practically at the feet of the castle and a couple of blocks from the Royal Mile.

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We happened to be there during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the internationally renowned event that brings performances of all kinds to Scotland -- theater, musicals, opera, comedy, dance, etc. -- and turns the city into madness. Madness! At first I'd worried it would make everything too chaotic for the girls to enjoy, but how wrong I was.

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While the trudge up the Royal Mile is usually a fun one, its cobblestone streets lined with ancient houses and overpriced gift shops, this was a whole 'nother thing. Street performers everywhere, plays being previewed on tiny stages, musicians and human statues vying for coins, young starving actors pleading and cajoling to get you to their shows. (The guys above were promoting a play called "Smells Like America." Hmmm...)

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We didn't have time to attend a performance that day, since the castle was our main attraction, but we had an absolute blast sampling the madness and it didn't cost us a dime. To wit, my nieces Rebecca and Olivia making a faceless friend:

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Rebecca getting pre-castle knighthood: (The best way to do it, really. Speeds up entry.)

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Olivia getting a pretend something from, uh, some silver lady:

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And Lucifer himself, never one to miss a good festival:

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The castle itself is always a blast, methinks. Some photographic evidence: (Oooo, castle-y)

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Nieces on a rock. Not the rock they got yelled at for climbing on. A different rock:

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Spooky dungeon-y view!

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Spectacular view of Edinburgh from the castle:

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And more madness after, on the Royal Mile, going back down:

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Another silver lady, this time with wings but sans hat. So different!

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An acrobatic Kiwi. Fancy!

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Exhausting day. Perhaps moreso for that guy than for us, but still.

Let me paint you a picture

If it seems like I'm always going to Glasgow -- city o' my birth -- it's  probably because I've now been three times within the past year. That's more than I've ever been since I left 27 years ago. In October, Chris and I took my niece Rebecca back with us so she could meet her great grandma for the first time. That trip was such a hit that we hatched a plan to take my sister Jane, her husband Bill, Rebecca and her sister Olivia over for my grandma's 90th birthday in May. However, the girl's school schedule made that tricky. So Chris and I went in May and attended the wedding of my oldest childhood friend and celebrated my grandma's birthday, albeit a tad early. And we surprised Grandma with the news that we'd return in August with the whole gang. My sister hasn't been back since we left decades ago, nor had she seen our grandma in 15 years and my grandma hadn't yet met her other great-granddaughter Olivia. How's that for a lot of familial plotting?

In fact, it truly was a family affair to get the whole gang overseas earlier this month. It involved the donation of frequent flier miles from my father and my brother and hours of Chris' problem-solving to try to coordinate flights, etc. A Herculean task, really. And it all came off without a hitch. Well, unless you count major delays and much headache for the Browns (my sister's family) on the way there. Otherwise, a grand and completely exhausting adventure.

Following are a few posts chronicling our trip, mostly through photos.

At Bear River

Sun over Lake Walloon

Among the many, many reasons you should feel sorry for me is the fact that I never went to camp as a child. In Britain, people just didn't send their kids off to camp. (They may today, but I'm not certain.) When we moved to the states when I was about 10, camp was a distinctly American tradition, largely saved for people who had the means and, I thought, didn't like their kids so much. So while a handful of my friends trotted off to camp for weeks on end during the summer, I remained behind, largely puzzled and only mildly envious. I wasn't sure I'd enjoy camp nor was I sure why kids would want to sleep in bug-filled cabins, swim in murky lakes and fashion macrame bracelets when they could stay indoors all summer watching sitcoms.

So you can imagine it was a little odd and, surprisingly, a little thrilling for me to shop for my trip up north to the Bear River Writer's Conference at Camp Michigania last weekend. As I tossed bug spray into my basket at Target and mulled over the right flashlight to take (who knew there were so many flashlights?), Chris assured me that if I got lonely and the other writers made fun of me, I could come home at anytime.

Chairs outside the camp dining hall

As it turns out, the conference was a terrific experience. For the past few years, I've made a point of attending a summer writing workshop, saving my pennies and signing up for five-day sessions at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. But at the urging of the generous and lovely Nick Delbanco, I opted for Bear River this year -- largely because the special guest was, as I've noted here, one of my favorite authors, Amy Hempel.

One of the unique things about Bear River, as compared with other writing conferences and workshops, is that it focuses squarely on producing new work. It's not the place to drag along the manuscript you've been working on merely to expose it to a new set of critical eyes -- or as often happens, let's face it, in the hopes of receiving unqualified praise and encouragement. Instead, it's about inspiration, greasing the wheel and writing on the spot. Which is just as well, because I'm so far behind where I'd like to be with my current writing project that being in an environment that forced me to exercise my writing muscles was precisely what I needed.

Woods at Camp Michigania

I took a workshop on Painting and Fiction with Elizabeth Kostova, she of the best-selling vampire epic, The Historian. It was, in retrospect, perhaps not precisely the right workshop for me. While I thought we would focus on how the process of writing compares with the process of painting, and how the latter could inform and influence the former, the workshop leaned more strongly towards the use of paintings in our writing -- as inspiration but, more directly, as subject. And I confess to being surprised by the number of people in our ten-person group who were specifically interested in including paintings in their fiction, for the most part in historical novels.

But the experience of attending Bear River was still good for me for two key reasons. First, I tend to forget that I know how to write. As silly as that may sound, and despite the fact I make my living as a freelancer, I do. I get so cowed by my fears and what feels like the weight of writing that I forget I'm even capable of it. Confidence among writers -- more specifically, among this writer -- is so fleeting, so difficult to maintain. Our free writing exercises and our homework, as rusty and slap shod as they were given time restraints, reminded me that I can do this, that I can string words together.

Kayaks on the shore of Lake Walloon

The second reason is that I remembered I like to be around people and that I am, for the most part, pretty good at it. As someone still relatively new to Ann Arbor and who works from home, I spend a tremendous amount of time by myself. Most of my time, in fact. Again, my memory proves tricky and, locked away in my office typing on my keyboard, I forget that I can meet new people, that I can make conversation with strangers and that I am, at least as a general proposition, likeable. I forget that I'm funny. I forget that I can find things in common with writers from all different backgrounds, from all walks of life, with all different interests. I was fortunate to be paired with cabin mates who were friendly and funny and I crossed paths with all sorts of interesting folk I'm grateful to have known, however briefly.

I think when I sit at home alone in my office, my fear can so easily eclipse my passion and, as a result, my productivity (which is weak under the best of circumstances) grinds to a halt. Over dinner the night of my return, Chris noted the extent to which I come home from these things energized and excited about writing and he suggested I look for at least one more to attend during the year. Such a smart man that husband of mine. (If you have any suggestions for great writing workshops, perhaps during the winter to balance my summer excursion, please let me know!)

Chair overlooking Lake Walloon

Of course, the real initial draw for me to Bear River was the chance to meet Amy Hempel. She is, as I've noted here, pretty much the reason I wanted to become a writer. And when I glimpsed her across the room the first night -- petite and pretty beneath a mass of long white hair -- I was practically catatonic. I became a bumbling dork, moving closer to where she sat and glancing furtively at her out of the corner of my eye.

By the second day I worked up the courage to assault her, just as she was on the way into the craft talk she was scheduled to give. Clutching my hard copy of her collected stories, I blabbered on, slathering her with praise and actually (I kid you not) getting misty as I spoke with her. She was, fortunately and not surprisingly, extremely gracious and was kind enough to sign my book rather than having me escorted from the building.

I have to say, even in my starry-eyed state, I found her craft talk a little hard to follow. She warned us at the start that it would not be linear as she doesn't think in a linear way and, in turn, doesn't write linear stories. And while that's part of what I admire most about her stories -- along with her use of humor and pathos and her ability to plum the depths of emotion without being sentimental -- it doesn't necessarily make for a riveting craft talk. I came away with a page full of notes that included the names of poets she likes, some quotes from writers and not much sense of how Amy Hempel writes or how to apply it all to my own writing life. While a tad disappointing, it was also somehow comforting. I'm not sure that I want my writers to be completely polished, to be dazzling orators, to be good at every mode of expression. It helps to know they are imperfect in life, even as I may make them perfect on the page.

Hempel also did a reading in the nearby town of Petoskey, along with the very funny and talented poet Jim Daniels, at the Crooked Tree Arts Center. It was a brief but enjoyable reading and the Center is stunning -- a Victorian church repurposed, and beautifully so, into a community Arts Center with a small stage and gallery space. I have a feeling the world might be a much better place if we repurposed all the churches in this manner. (We also had time to visit the current show, a collection of photographer Bill Eppridge's 1968 campaign photos of Robert F. Kennedy. Extremely moving and while it could be argued that I've been crying at everything of late, I'm certain this would have yielded the same results under any circumstances.)

Cabin 14, Lake Michigania

The Bear River experience was so different from that of the Iowa workshops I've attended and, at the risk of blasphemy (although, given the previous paragraph, that may seem a disingenuous concern), I enjoyed it far more. At Iowa, the workshops and homework seemed a bit more intensive, but once you're outside of the classroom, you're largely on your own. Everyone stays different places and no meals are provided and although the isolation can prove productive, it can also be, well, extremely isolating.

At Bear River, you share a cabin (that's mine above, #14) with other writers and take all your meals in the dining hall. (You can, of course, skip them if you like and wander off grounds or hole up in your cabin with a bag of nuts, so to speak.) The result is a much greater sense of community. With about 90 attendees, by the end of four days, you know just about everyone by sight if not by name. And while I'm blaspheming, I'll even go so far as to suggest that, in my limited experience, the overall talent at Bear River was superior to what I've encountered thus far at Iowa. Again, no offense. To anyone. Anywhere. Ever.

Foggy morning outside Education Center

In addition, the setting is so bucolic, with meandering camp grounds along the shore of the same Lake Walloon that inspired Hemingway. I found it a great deal more inspiring than the campus of the University of Iowa, with its sterile air-conditioned classrooms, and the surrounding streets of Iowa City. (No offense, Iowa City.) Even on the rainy days -- and two out of the four were overcast and drizzly -- there was a mysterious fog that settled over Camp Michigania of precisely the sort we writers enjoy. Each morning, whether the lake was illuminated by the beating sun or hidden by mist, I felt a deep sense of peace as I trudged through the wet grass, warm coffee in hand, across the wooden foot bridge to my workshop in north camp. I don't necessarily make a habit of communing with nature -- we've found we don't often have much to say to one another -- but it was beautiful and quiet and I loved it.

The bridge to north camp at Bear River

On the last day, as tends to happen at these things, participants signed up to read their work. (I never sign up for these things; I'm never sure I have anything I want to hear myself read.) While these things are always hit and miss, I was blown away by some of the writing, and especially moved by the funny, smart, emotionally surprising work of the Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam team members who were there. I'd seen these teenage boys bumbling around camp for three days, wondering who on earth were these yahoos playing football with a soda bottle on the front lawn -- only to be wowed into reticence and deep admiration by their rhythm, vocabularies, perspectives and humor. (If you're in Ann Arbor, you should find a way to check them out.)

Unfortunately, a pall was cast over our last afternoon when a woman suffered what turned out to be a cerebral hemorrhage while reading her poem. It was scary and threw everyone off and even though the evening's reading continued as scheduled, I think we were all a bit shaken and worried. We learned at breakfast our last day, before heading out, that she'd been airlifted to a hospital in Detroit and was in critical care. Should anything awful happen as a result, I hope there's some comfort to be taken in the fact that she was doing what she loved when tragedy struck.

And a few more photos

050208 Wedding (38) Our trip to Scotland was scheduled so that we could enjoy two celebrations: the wedding of my oldest friend Deborah and my Grandma's 90th birthday (a few days early.) Deborah and I met when we were four years old and we're absolutely the worst when it comes to staying in touch with each other. Still, we have that kind of friendship where even though we go months without emailing, we have enough history that we know the other is floating out there in the universe and will be there for the asking.

And so Chris and I were thrilled that we could be there on her big day, which took place at the lovely Shieldhill Castle, about an hour outside Glasgow. (That's Deborah & her husband, Patrick, below, in case you hadn't put two and two together.)

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This is Ruby, Deborah's niece and flower girl, reacting (probably quite rightly too) to something Chris was saying to her.

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And Libby, older sister of Ruby and also a flower girl. (Sans wand but with basket for flower petals.)

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Jennifer, mother of the bride, looking pleased-as-punch just minutes before the ceremony.

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Deb's brother, Ed, and father, Neil, striking dashing poses.

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Imparting a bit of motherly wisdom to the new bride, perhaps?

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Toadstools and daffodils.

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Each of the rooms at Shieldhill is named for a Scottish battle. Although this wasn't ours, the name seemed to fit me quite well...

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And, on the day following the wedding, me donning a top hat because, of course, that's what one does...

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And, of course, more photos of the big day in this Flickr set.

A million photos from Scotland

I've added a new plug-in for my blog, which uses PicLens Lite to create slideshows of photos posted here. If you wanna give it a whirl, click the link at the bottom of the post. It's a very cool thing. Below's a shot of Cleveden Crescent, the Glasgow West End street we stayed on our first night in town this trip. There are a number of these crescent-shaped streets around Glasgow, redolent with the Victorian architecture that is the city's hallmark.

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One of my favorite things about the Victorian architecture is the details... like this beautiful period doorbell below. Why don't we make things this simple and lovely anymore?

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Speaking of lovely details, behold this rainy rooftop, the view from our room at the White House Apartments.

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As regular blog readers will know, I have a particular (and peculiar) fondness for the image of a lovely cup of coffee and I take shots of my coffees on my travels the world over. This one's a white coffee, as they say, set against the pink formica table tops of the University Cafe on Byres Road. I love the fact that the Uni, as its called, has been around forever and my mom and dad came here on dates, probably sitting across from each other at this very same table.

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Some of the best details of Glasgow's architecture requires a glimpse upwards. Behold this birdie perched on a beautiful spire. The stained glass on the bay windows of the red sandstone tenements are another architectural hallmark of Glasgow's West End.

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There is a very specific quality to the light in Glasgow. I'm a sucker for how it hits the red sandstone tenements in the morning.

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Speaking of tenements, below is the view from the kitchen window of the flat we rented for the majority of our stay. At night you get a glimpse into other people's worlds, somehow both sweet and voyeuristic...

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Again with the Victorian details: gorgeous green glass tiles adorn the fireplace of our rental flat.

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On one of our days, we took a trip to the People's Palace and Winter Gardens, the museum to Glasgow's social history. While the museum proper wasn't the most riveting thing we'd done, there was a concert of multicultural music in the Winter Gardens, complete with wee kiddies banging along on percussion. Lovely and very moving.

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Did I mention the weather was glorious while we were there? Stumbled upon this oeuvre en produce at a green grocer's on Byres Road on our way to the Botanic Gardens. Never have I found eggplant quite so beautiful.

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This is Kibble Palace at the Botanic Gardens. Apparently the glasshouse underwent a massive renovation in 2006.

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Botanics, fittingly enough. Sunny days like these are not what one typically associates with Glasgow. It was a stunner.

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Don't let this pretty green plant fool you -- it's in the carniverous section!

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I often forget to take photos of actual people when I'm traveling, but here's actual proof that Chris was with me!

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Sigh. I know. For someone who professes not to be such a girlie girl, I'm a sucker for stunning pink blooms. I don't know what these flowers are but I remember them from when my grandma and grandpa would take us to the Botanic Gardens. Anyone know?

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I'm also a total sucker for meringues. I managed to get away without eating one of these fluffy wonders (from Kember & Jones on Byres Road) but not without snapping their likeness.

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And proof that I was there too -- along with my aunt Noriko and my uncle Douglas. Coffee and people watching at the Patisserie Francaise on Byres Road, our last afternoon.

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(For those who wish to see even more shots of our brief visit, visit my Flickr page here.)05.01.08 Glasgow 06 

This always happens

050408-hyndland-view.jpg I get to Glasgow and I have great intentions of posting regularly, keeping you, my dear readers (and, especially, family members) apprised of our every move across the great pond. Then I wake up and it's our last day and I haven't written a word. Yet. It's also an unbelievably beautiful day, so I won't be spending much of it posting here. Glasgow in the spring is something to behold indeed, almost gorgeous enough to justify the massive rise in the ticket price compared to our usual October-November visits. Almost.

This has been a particularly quick trip for us, really only five days on the ground and the first hardly counts as we always spend it wandering around in a daze, having lost a night's sleep on the way over here. It has been a whirlwind, this two-fold visit: attending the wedding of my oldest friend and celebrating my Grandma's 90th birthday. There are tons of photos and stories to post later.

But the sun is shining -- no guarantee here, even in spring -- thus, I'll wrap it up and get on with my day. We'll try to work in a visit to Glasgow's famed Botanic Gardens (which I haven't been to since I was a wee lassie), but the real priority of the day is getting in farewell visits with family and friends. I see many cups of tea in my future!

A few snaps of St. Louis

012108 Ice Penguin I'm finally getting around to writing a bit about our trip to St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. In short, we had a grand time during our brief visit to our old stomping grounds a couple of weeks ago. While I love, love our new life in Ann Arbor, I've 17 years worth of friendships built up in St. Louis and there's just no substitute for that. I miss having so many good friends, the kind who know you really well, the ones who have been around you for years and know your back story. So while it was a tad exhausting going from one date to another and playing catch up, it was also really wonderful.

Amanda and I did Free Candy on the Sunday night and it was a blast. I wish I had some photos to share, but my memory card was full and the few Chris got were not, let's say, particularly flattering. (I reserve the right to censor such things so that we hosts can always remain in the most beautious light at all times.) The audience was great -- I can't believe that for nearly four years folks have loyally been coming out to catch this crazy live show that began as a goof in a coffee shop.

The evening was linked to the release of the new issue of 52nd City. I know I keep saying this but it bears repeating: but this St. Louis-based magazine is a thing to behold. If you still don't know it, if you still haven't picked up a copy or, better yet, subscribed, please, please do so. It's a collection of some of St. Louis' best writers musing on art, culture, life, following a specific theme for each of its quarterly issues. This issue's topic is Foreign Exchange and, as if the print edition didn't offer up enough solid reading, there's additional content on the website.

It is a labor of love -- and, yes, sometimes frustration -- for its dedicated editors, Thomas Crone, Stefene Russell and Andrea Avery and I really want to believe, despite history's suggestion otherwise, that St. Louis readers can and will support this kind of effort. Phew. I've said my piece. For now...and I'm not even IN the current issue. Wait until I get on my soap box for an issue I'm in!

Anyhoo, because we were linking Free Candy to 52nd City, we went with a theme that honored St. Louis writers. Thus, instead of a guest band to play "I Want Candy," our theme song, we had Thomas do a dramatic reading of the lyrics. And I must say it was one of those moments when I wished dearly we were not non-broadcast, non-recorded, because it was a funny as hell performance I'd love to toss up on You Tube and watch again and again.

In keeping with our writer's theme, our guests were Debbie Baldwin of The Ladue News and legendary St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill MacClellan, who's been musing on behalf of the everyman for three decades now. Debbie was a guest on one of our very first installments of Free Candy and she was just a blast again. Having MacClellan on our show as a real "get." I don't think he knew quite what to make of us but he was a terrific sport and good fun. He's a real throwback to the day of the old write-hard, play-hard school of journos, a dying breed, and there's great comfort to know that a few of these metro columnists are surviving as newspapers "retool" for new readership.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog posting about St. Louis... In addition to visiting old haunts, I also checked out a few new spots. I had tea with Amanda at the London Tea Room on Washington Avenue. Lovely space with tons of tea options and, important for ex-pats like myself, a solid selection of British sweets and foods also for sale.

012108 Rooster

I also met the aforementioned TC for breakfast on Martin Luther King Day at Rooster, a new spot on Locust. It's a nice place, decorated with a mish-mosh of deco light fixtures and ancient mirrors on the walls. They're known for their crepes, but TC and I both opted for egg sandwiches, which were big as our heads (well, my head, maybe not Thomas') and absolutely delish. Mmmm. In fact, writing this, now I really want one.

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We stayed at the Ballpark Hilton again (thank you, Priceline!) and I'll tell you, downtown St. Louis was crazy-deserted. I felt like I was starring in I Am Julia Legend. Granted, it was a holiday weekend, but there's that odd combo of stunning architecture, empty streets and signs everywhere for new loft developments that all kind of baffles me.

012108 Blocks of Ice

So we headed to the Loop where, apparently, we had missed some sort of ice sculpture event. Thus, there were a few sad almost-melted statues in front of shops, but also a gigantic pile of ice next to Blueberry Hill, just waiting for some skate punk to jump on, break his or her neck and sue the pants off the city of University City. It didn't happen while we were watching, but the ruffians were circling and danger seemed imminent.

012108 Blueberry Hill Sign 2

Speaking of Blueberry Hill, it has a new flashy sign up over its door. Or, at least, it's new to us. It features a nice, white retro couple dancing above a marquee that now flashes upcoming acts on the LED screen. It all seems a little Hollywood for the venue, but what do I know? Maybe Joe Edwards got a buy-one-get-one offer on flashy LED screens when he put up the one at The Pageant.

All in all, a very good trip. Never long enough to see all the people I love, for as much time as I'd like. I leave you with one last shot, the Vintage Vinyl tribute to MLK. I'm many days late and more than a few dollars short, but honor his dream, people. Word.

012108 Vintage Vinyl pays tribute to the man

Saugatuck Stars

IMG_2260_edited-1 Partly because I had a certain song by The Weepies going through my head, I picked stars as my photo theme for Saugatuck so I could play with my camera settings like a gal with purpose. Given the season, it wasn't that much of a challenge.






Operation Mandatory Holiday Spirit: Underway

wreath For the past several years, I have been absent much holiday spirit. Since we spend Christmas at my sister's house in Indianapolis, I stopped putting up a tree years ago -- so much hassle and hardly worth it if we weren't going to be around to enjoy it. My mom died a couple of months before Christmas in 2003 and although we went through the motions, needless to say, spirit and buoyant hearts were in short order. For the past few years, with the Fellowship and moving to Michigan, etc., there just wasn't "time" to feel the joy.

But I decided that this year would be different. Tucked into bed a few weeks ago, I read the holiday issue of Midwest Living and felt a little stirring inside looking at all the old-fashioned decorations and holiday lights -- and I decided that this year, come hell or high water, I would try to get into the swing of the holidays. And in that very issue of Midwest Living was a spread about Saugatuck, Michigan -- a tiny town on the state's west coast -- all lit up for the holidays. The article noted the town's Sparkle ceremony, which lights up the town square and Chris and I decided we'd do a post-Thanksgiving getaway to Saugatuck, ripe with cheese, and try to force a little small town holiday spirit down our throats.


It should be noted that most people flock to Saugatuck in the summer, when its rep as a first-class Lake Michigan beach town means lodging rates are double and the square-grid streets of the small downtown are packed with weekend holiday-ers from Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. So when we told people that we were going to Saugatuck the weekend after Thanksgiving, the most common response was, "Why?"

Besides the aforementioned quest for a little good cheer, Chris' work schedule is relentless and it's rare to get him away from his desk -- and focus his brain on something else -- for a little while. It requires at least 48 hours away -- the first 24 to unplug, the second 24 to enjoy. Saugatuck, at a 2-1/2 hour drive from Ann Arbor, seemed a quick and smart way to do that.


We looked originally at staying at the Wickwood Inn, which is run by the Silver Palate Cookbook's co-author Julie Rosso, and is considered one of the best B&B's in the country. The Midwest Living spread showed its decadent holiday decorations. But even off-season, the prices were far too decadent for us. After having some trouble finding a cheesy B&B with Friday and Saturday night vacancy, we opted for the rather modern Bella Vita Spa & Suites. It turned out to be a pretty good choice, especially when you can pad across the hall in your robe and get a cranberry facial or a couples massage.

We took great pains to arrive in plenty of time for Friday night's Sparkle ceremony, even though both cats got quite sick and we spent Thanksgiving night at the pet ER with Allie, who spiked a 106 degree fever due to some still-undetermined infection. (Fortunately, our pet sitter is also our vet tech, so when Allie's fever was done by early afternoon Friday, we were okay to go.) Upon arrival, we bundled up to protect against the chill and walked the few blocks to Wick's Park where the ceremony is held. The town was playing its part perfectly -- all lit up beautifully, with luminarias lining the pavement, giant snowflake lights dangling from all the trees, their trunks wrapped in strings of white lights.


There were about two hundred people, mainly families, huddled together around a gazebo when we arrived, being entertained by an ambitious but largely inaudible town choir. Within moments, a spunky, gum-chawing young woman took over as master of ceremonies, but without benefit of a microphone. All we heard was something about God and the troops. (Those of you who are familiar with the Gilmore Girls will appreciate that we were feeling distinctly as thought we were in Stars Hollow.)

The organizers stalled for a while, as we were waiting for the fashionably-late Santa to flip the switch on the square. At least that's what I think we were waiting for. It was hard to hear. Then, sure enough, Santa arrives...via police escort. That's right, a squad car complete with flashing lights and sirens comes dashing down the street to drop off Santa. That should scar a few kids for life. Not to mention confuse them greatly, as they dash out in front of cop cars racing to the scene of a crime, yelling, "Santa!"

And then it happened. In one ill-timed fell-swoop, with the freezing crowd counting down (badly, I might add) from ten, Santa flipped the switch and...voila! Exactly four trees lit up. Yes, four. THAT was it. THAT was Saugatuck's Sparkle. More of a flicker, really. Sigh. So much for magic and beauty. So much for holiday sensations. We hoofed it out of there, bracing against the stiff breeze that came in off the harbor, squeezed into one of the packed downtown restaurants for dinner and were in bed, lights out and seconds from sleep by 9 pm.

We spend Saturday and part of Sunday wandering around the town, me snapping a jillion photos along the way. It was peaceful, silly and fun. Here's what I saw:

sculpture A cheeky sculpture by the town hall.

saugatuck2 Families shopping, bundled against the cold.

wagonwheel A beautiful wagon wheel on the side of a building.

bloodorange A hot cup of blood orange infusion tea, which smelled and tasted like heaven.

harbor The harbor, with an old steam ship on the far shore.

olivemill A wonderful little shop called the Olive Mill, where we tasted a zillion balsamic vinegars -- fig, black currant, apple -- and olive oils before walking away with a bottle of gorgeous organic olive oil and a decadent tangerine balsamic.

And lots and lots of holiday spirit:





Before we left Sunday, we took a quick drive over the bridge to neighboring town Douglas to get a look at Oval Beach on Lake Michigan, where Chris, a seagull and I tried to stave off the freezing wind:



And, where, just for good measure, a giant billboard in the middle of a residential street reminded us of the real meaning of the holiday season:


Greetings from our nation's capital!

We've been in Washington, DC since Friday, visiting family and friends, a trip built around yesterday's Marine Corps Marathon which I ran in record time. Wait. No, I didn't. Chris and his brother-in-law Mike ran it. That's right. Having accompanied my spouse on more than a handful of his 22 total marathons, I can say that this one -- from a crowd perspective -- was a doozy. I thought I'd been with Chris for the DC run before, but it turns out I was thinking of the time he and Mike ran Chicago together. This one was super-insane, people. There were 22,000 runners and the set up, which I'm told is different from previous years was, if you'll excuse my French, a total clusterfuck.

The job of a marathon supporter is not an easy one, my friends. It involves dashing around from one point to another, elbowing your way through spectators in the hopes of catching a glimpse of your runner as they dash past, perhaps tossing a gatorade or goo packet at them if they need it. Then it's off to do the same at the next spot along the course.

Yesterday, it was Chris's sister (and Mike's wife) Julie, my niece Kate and I dashing to spots at miles 13, 15, 22 (which we ultimately abandoned) and the finishing line. In some places, the crowds were really pushing in narrowly on the runners, in others, we were so far back, it was hard to see anything, let alone let your loved one know you were there. At the finish line, the set up was so wonky and weird that it took trekking hither and yon on mud-soaked ground to figure out how to spot your runners, then another long trek to meet them at the gathering spot.

And there were all these people. People in the Metro stop, where there was a delay and folk were shoving and pushing and packed into the train cars like sardines -- which little ol' claustrophic me just loved. Everywhere you went, you had somebody either crossing your path in the opposite direction or simply standing still in the middle of traffic. As someone with a well-documented hatred of crowds, it was a treat.

What's that? The runners? Oh, sure. I bet it was a bit tough on them too. On the plus side, they had a glorious day for it. Mike and Chris finished, ignoring any time goals for the mere thrill of crossing the line. I haven't seen Mike yet today as he was off to work before I arose, but Chris seems in remarkably good shape for a man who did something as silly as run 26.2 miles, on purpose, again. I promise some pics once I get back home and can upload them.

On a side note, we got to dine Saturday night with our good friends from the fellowship, Drew and Sally. It was great to have them meet Mike and Julie, as they live in neighboring areas and have friends in common, and wonderful to see their faces -- but not nearly enough time for catching up.

In other important news, I have experienced the bliss that is the combo of vanilla frozen custard topped with sour cherries from the Dairy Godmother here in Alexandria and I may have tasted heaven.

Also, my nephew Lee, who's 17, read The Catcher in the Rye yesterday afternoon and thinks it's boring. I have a theory that the "novelty" of Holden Caulfield's teen angst, which made the book remarkable at the time of its publishing, is so commonplace to a generation weened on teen-angst dramas like The O.C. and The Hills that the book probably does seem boring. Still, he's promised to read it again in a few years and see if his opinion has changed.

That's it for now -- we're off to take the metro into town to have lunch with my ol' pal Lisa Lindsey, who I haven't seen in an age and a half. Then we'll wander around a bit and, if I'm lucky, I'll get some good shots of DC. Lord knows there haven't been enough pics taken of this town. Not sure how much time we have to kill today, but if there's enough, I'll hit the National Gallery of Art, but I might wait until tomorrow when Chris will be perusing papers in the SEC reading room all day. Boy does that kid know how to have fun!

And we're back!

092707 (2) Welcome to Scotland Okay, so truthfully we've been back for a few days but since it takes me forever to recover from jet lag, this is the first day I actually feel like I'm back.

It's a bit of a surprise to me -- and maybe a relief to some readers -- that I didn't chronicle this trip with a detailed account of our travels. Life's a little different when traveling with an eight-year-old; there just isn't a lot of extra time to sit around documenting everything.

That said, I was also blown away by the experience of traveling with my niece Rebecca. As people of the non-parental-variety, Chris and I had some expectations about the week. Considering we'd be logging in long travel hours and sticking her in front of a bunch of grown-ups she didn't know (and probably couldn't understand), we were prepared for at least one or two meltdowns along the way. It seemed reasonable that Rebecca would feel homesick and bored and we'd have to mitigate the circumstances.

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The truth is, Rebecca was a dream travel companion. I'd gladly take her anywhere. She complained far less than I did about traveling for 17 hours on little or no sleep, gladly rolled with the punches, got along swimmingly with all the grown ups and marveled at every new thing she experienced -- whether it was the seemingly minor thrill of riding in the top of a double decker bus or the major experience of Edinburgh Castle.

But besides all that, she was a hell of a lot of fun to be around. It's an amazing experience when this little thing you've known since day one grows into a very cool human being with a terrific sense of humor, a sharp mind and a great perspective on things. I truly enjoyed her company and I don't think the trip could have gone better.

In fact, there was only one set of tears the entire time (okay, two, if you count my accidentally shutting her finger in the airplane bathroom door), and that was on the last night after she said goodbye to her great grandma and her great uncle. "I always knew I had them," she said, through sniffles. "I just didn't know how much I would love them until I met them." I KNOW! Almost too Hallmark, but true. I had to promise her that I would bring her back to see them again sometime.

So while I don't have lengthy descriptions of everything we did, here's a quick glance at our short stay in Scotland:

092807 (13) Meeting Elvis and other wildlife at the Kelvingrove Galleries.

092807 (18) When stuffed animals attack!

092807 (37) Grandma Pringle, Rebecca and Uncle Douglas.

092907 (2) Shopping on bustling Buchanan Street in Glasgow.

092907 (20) Lunch at the Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed Willow Tea Rooms.

093007 (16) A truly magnificent day in in Edinburgh, where Rebecca was romanced by a knight.

093007 (22) Chris and Rebecca at Edinburgh Castle.

092907 (46) Requisite Glasgow dining: chips wrapped in paper and doused with lots and lots of vinegar.

100107 (8) The Glasgow Science Center, with yet ANOTHER new boyfriend.

100107 (38) And a jaunt across the river to check out The Tall Ship.

100107 (59) And a last-night early birthday dinner with Granny P. and Douglas at our little flat.

It all went by way too fast. (Gluttons for punishment can find tons more photos on my Flickr set page.)

Montreal, Part The Rest

This always happens. I scribble notes here and there, but then I get back from a trip and get caught up in catching up and then it's forever since I was in whatever place I was in and it all seems too daunting (plus, minimally interesting) to go back and give a blow by blow account of said trip, which now seems so far in the past. Thus, I present to you some highlights of the remainder of our trip to Montreal, in photo form. (I also went back and added some photos to the previous Montreal entries, for posterity.)

Saturday was possibly my favorite day in Montreal, as we hit the famed Jean-Talon Marche, an outdoor farmer's market near Little Italy that runs week-long but hits its stride on the weekends. Especially on a crisp, sunny Saturday morning.

090107 Montreal (1)

The abundance of fruits (or, as the French say, fruits) was amazing, especially the giant baskets of "bleuets." Chris especially loved the signs for "bleuets sauvages" from Quebec. While it actually means "wild bleuberries," I'd guess he had a more violent mental image going.

090107 Montreal

Our favorite part was that many of the stands offered up generous samples of their various produce, so we lined our tummies with bites of juicy peaches, pears, apple, mango and chunks of (thoughtfully) lightly salted tomatoes. We also tried some fresh figs (below), which have a strange, watery sweetness something like the consistency of watermelon. Not quite what I was expecting.

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Other beautiful images included aubergine (eggplant) in every gorgeous shade of purple imaginable, from the palest lavender to the deepest, well, eggplant:

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Giant clusters of garlic still on the stalk:

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Baskets spilling over with ripe tomatoes:

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And Chris was in heaven when we found a vendor selling fresh cooked cobs of "maize sucre," complete with a pot of butter you could paint on with a brush and a sprinkling of salt. I don't know if it was the fact that we were outdoors on a gorgeous day and surrounded by all the most amazing colors of nature but it was, without question, the best corn I've ever eaten. (Chris said it came close to rivaling fresh corn picked from the Iowa fields of his homeland, which is a pretty high compliment.)

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We had what was probably our best meal in Montreal at the market. We picked up a baguette, some local goats cheese (flavored with garlic and olive oil), a little tub of stuffed olives and some organic cherry tomatoes and squeezed into a picnic bench in the crowded eating area for an impromptu picnic. It's something we've done on several trips -- picked up a few locally made goods for a simple lunch and it always winds up being one of our favorite memories.

It turned out that in addition to walking too far the day before, I'd also pulled or twisted something strange in my left foot -- badly enough that, the night before, it had been excruciatingly painful to hobble to the bathroom and I barely made it down the block to dinner without tears. On Saturday, my foot was feeling a little better but I made a real strategic error in wandering for too long around the market before heading out on what I had thought would be the main attraction of my entire trip to Montreal: the fabric shopping district on St. Hubert.

Here in Ann Arbor, there are a few fabric and craft stores and my new sewing jones has me familiar with a couple of great online retailers, but I'd read much about the dozens of fabric shops located just North of a busy pedestrian thoroughfare. I even made room in a suitcase for all the fabric I anticipated finding and bringing back.

However, it turned out that the combo of foot pain and sheer volume of options -- shop after shop with bolt after bolt of fabric to choose from -- had me quickly overwhelmed. I didn't have any particular projects in mind and I quickly got the same feeling I get at thrift stores -- a little bit of claustrophobia and instant exhaustion at the thought of having to pick my way through so many bolts, squeeze my way down tiny aisles, in the hopes I might find something I liked.

090107 Montreal (15)

I spent maybe 45 minutes going into four or five different shops, but at that point the fabric were all blurring together. I couldn't remember what I'd seen where or even think of what I would use the fabric for. There were too many possibilities and not enough specifics. Bargain sections held remnant bolts stacked floor to ceiling. I couldn't handle it.

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In the end, I bought...nothing. Well, I did pick up a little ribbon trim at one shop, mostly because it was pretty and it seemed like a small and easy, manageable purchase. But all that extra suitcase room was for naught. If I return, it'll definitely be with some projects in mind and at the beginning of the day.

Overwhelmed and ready for a refreshment, we ducked into a Nickels restaurant on St. Hubert. Nickels is a pretty cheesy local chain designed in a fifties-American-throwback sort of way. And it was here we decided to try one of the great Montreal culinary traditions: poutine. Although there are many fancy variations, the basic gist to this beloved snack/meal involves french fries covered in cheese curds and gravy. No, really.

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Granted, in its most basic form, it looks like a plate of vomit. It took a little getting used to -- it helped when the cheese curds melted -- but the truth is, the taste grows on you. Enough that we polished our poutine plate clean. Not so much that we went actively seeking more.

Sunday, my feet feeling a bit better, we spent some more time on Rue St. Denis, which offers up block after block of boutiques, cafes and restaurants. The weather couldn't have been more lovely and there are plenty of gorgeous buildings -- mostly commercial on the ground floor and flat up above -- to gaze at. To wit:

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Reminded me a bit of Amsterdam in some ways...

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You can spend hours ducking into one little shop or another but -- from an aesthetic standpoint -- Au Festin de Babette is perhaps my favorite. It's a tea house, chocolatier and ice cream shop that's just so charmingly set up in what was likely once a residential house.

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And inside...so pretty, no?

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Monday, we drove out into the Laurentian mountains, which takes about an hour from Montreal. It's not as rustic as we'd hoped. A lot of ski resorts and golfing developments breaking up walls of stick-straight pines reaching skyward. We stopped for lunch in the charming little town of Tremblant and wandered its few blocks of touristy shops, then headed for Lake Tremblant, which was completely developed and difficult to access if you weren't staying at one of the resorts on its shores.

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And Tuesday, we headed home. End of trip. (If you're a real glutton for punishment, there are a few more photos from our trip on my Flickr page.) I have to say that, while I enjoyed our trip to Montreal -- and probably would have moreso if my foot hadn't gone all wonky -- it wasn't one of those places that grabbed me (the way San Francisco or London or, even, Puerto Rico have) and made me long to return even after I'd left. I'm glad I went, though, and who knows -- maybe Montreal and I will meet again and maybe next time, she'll understand what I'm saying.

Montreal, Part Trois: I found the fat people!

083007 Montreal (1)Inside Cafeo, our favorite cafe-et-wifi stop on Rue St. Denis.

Phew. Milling among the trendies on Ste. Catherine and Rue St. Denis had me a bit worried, but they DO have fatties here. Repeat: there are chunky folk in Montreal. Of course, they may all be American tourists, but still. It brings one some degree of comfort.

The kids have some crazy fashions rolling here. I feel qualified to judge not because I have a natural flair for fashion but because I have absolutely no fashion sense whatsoever. You could put me in an $8,000 designer gown and within minutes I'd somehow look like I tumbled out of the drier. My hair would be bendy, my skirt wrinkled. My purse wouldn't match and it'd be less than five minutes before I spilled something down the front. Thus, I feel that I'm particularly well-qualified to recognize fellow fashion disasters when I see them. And there have been many. I have no pictures to show you because I don't want people to hit me. You'll just have to trust me.

Non sequiter: Chris thinks there should be a midnight half-price tart shop where all the pies at day's end go on sale. He's worried about all the pastries going to waste when they could be in his belly, preferably at rock-bottom prices. (He really, really likes saying "tarte tatin" over and over again in a French accent.)

083107 Montreal (4) Christ Church Cathedral Guess which one's old and which is new? Hint: the old one is Christ Church Cathedral on Ste. Catherine.

Okay...where am I? Where have I been? Ah, yes, Montreal. So...if you happen to like gorgeous old buildings, then Montreal's the place for you. I do indeed, and there are some stunners -- particularly from the Victorian era -- just about everywhere you look.

Today we played touristes and checked out Vieux Montreal, the Old Port area down by the, well, port. It's pretty touristy fare. We started out from our hotel on Rue Sherbrooke, headed back down Ste. Catherine to St. Laurent which took us, essentially, right into the heart of Old Montreal. Along the way, we passed from high street shopping to a slightly seedy few blocks of sex shops through the gates of Chinatown (or Quartier Chinois, as they say here.)

083107 Montreal (17) Quartier Chinois

The weather has been unbelievably gorgeous, perfect for strolling the lovely cobblestone streets of Vieux Montreal, dodging schlocky gift shops and overpriced restaurants aimed at tourists.

083107 Montreal (21) Vieux-Montreal

We grabbed a bite to eat then wandered to the main square, at the top of which the stunning old Hotel de Ville sits.

083107 Montreal (28) City Hall

Chris had to dash off for a business meeting, but I stuck around and wandered down by the waterfront, snapping a few shots along the way.

The Old Port waterfront area (more familiar to Blades of Glory fans when completely covered in ice):

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Place Jacques-Cartiers, the heart of Vieux-Montreal, complete with wacky street performers and tons of tourists buying overpriced schlock.

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This street performer, apparently out to lunch. Tragic for all those needing hugged. In two languages, no less!

083107 Montreal (29) Place Jacques-Cartier

The rather daunting silhouette of Notre Dame de Bonsecours, overlooking the waterfront:

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The famed Bonsecours Marche where, I suppose, one can buy stuff:

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Then I headed through the less-trafficked streets west of Old Montreal's main square and gazed in the windows of art galleries. Were it not for the cars, there are moments when you could feel completely lost in time. After a while, I wound my way back in the general direction of our hotel, past the mini-Parthenon exterior of the former stock exchange (now a theater), and emerging at the Plaza des Armes and the Notre Dame cathedral. You can't spit without hitting a fantastic cathedral here. And you probably shouldn't be spitting anyway, what with Americans' bad image over here.

My very favorite way to experience a new place is to wander around the streets, watching people and taking photographs. Montreal's the ideal place for it -- it's relatively safe and somewhat compact, plus there's something truly lovely to look at at every turn, whether it's an old church or a Victorian building now housing boutiques or studio flats. And unlike many American cities, there are people everywhere, going about their business, but also just sitting and enjoying their environs. Outside one of the churches, people spent their lunch hour sitting on the steps or curled up in a corner reading. Locals grab a coffee and hang out on street benches, chatting or reading the paper. Montreal is a city that feels cared for, belonged to.

I'd been debating trying to find my way around the other Montreal, the underground city. Below the streets of Montreal, a series of tunnels connect Metro stations and shopping centers -- in the harsh days of winter, you can access miles of commerce and much of downtown without ever stepping outside. I knew it was down there. I knew it was massive. I just didn't know how to get to it.

083107 Montreal (13) Place des Artes Place des Artes

So I stayed above ground and made my way back to the Place des Artes, where the Montreal Film Festival is taking place. Like a local, I took a place on the steps outside the Contemporary Art Museum and just hung out for a bit. Then, of all things, my phone rang. It was Chris, calling from a payphone to say that his meeting had been canceled and so he was hoping to catch me somewhere in town. Turned out he was right across the street. Too cute, eh?

Okay, so on with the show...even though my feet were killing me (I ALWAYS walk too far the first day), we decided to brave the underworld. Man, is that a trip. There were a ton of people snaking their way through the netherworld of Montreal, moving from mall to mall, Metro station to Metro station, eating at giant underground food courts. Now it makes sense how Montreal's sidewalks are pleasantly busy but not overcrowded. The unruly youth are underground eating frites!

Perhaps tomorrow we shall discover something equally new and fascinating. If my feet don't hurt too much to move, that is!

Montreal, Part Un: A rocky start

083107 Montreal (3) Chris found the place on Craig's List. We're savvy travelers, not lodging rubes. It sounded lovely: an apartment in a trendy neighborhood of Montreal, owned and decorated by an interior designer, filled with antiques, cozy, close to shops, and with a clawfoot tub. And, of course, wireless internet. Chris, as you may know, cannot work without reliable internet access. (He may not, in fact, be able to breathe without it, although it's a theory we've never tested.) There were photos; nice pictures. It all sounded so much better than an impersonal Price-Line'd hotel.

You know where this tale is going. You know that when we arrived, the neighborhood didn't seem particularly lively and was considerably further from shopping than we'd anticipated. The place didn't exactly ooze charm from the outside but, still, we'd been up since six, we were thrilled to have arrived in Montreal. And then we went inside.

You know how there are times when you should just trust your first instinct...but then you get worried that maybe you're being too fussy, too judgmental. An ingrate. An...American. We looked around. The antiques mentioned turned out to be a mish mosh of mid-century furniture in passable condition. The kitchen was...fine. The towels were a mismatched pile. The living room was dingy, with a couch that couldn't remember when it saw better days.

The area as being perfect for doing business was an old desk with a ripped leather desk chair. However, the wireless internet signal was weak, so the owner suggested we sit on the bed in the front bedroom with the laptop by the window in order to use our computers.

I can't explain it. We were trying to be optimistic. Trying to be grateful. Trying to make the best... The owner was odd and hovering, so we felt his expectations and didn't have a chance to discuss it. So we handed over the balance of the money we owed -- in cash -- and decided to stay.

For about five minutes.

Then we changed our minds. It was all just too odd, too weird. Neither of us could get a decent internet connection. I had hoped for somewhere simple but maybe bright and sunny where I could read and write while Chris was dashing around investigating...whatever he investigates. I couldn't even sit on the couch here without worrying about its previous occupants. There were orphaned hairs in the bathtub.

So we went upstairs and told the owner that we weren't going to stay. It wasn't what we expected, it wasn't what was advertised. He was welcome to keep the deposit -- that seemed fair -- but we wanted the bulk of our money back. No dice. He wasn't having it. We were putting him in a position, leaving him hanging. He seemed not to agree with my argument that this was the cost of doing business for him, the risk he takes on -- no different than my risk as a freelancer when a client decides not to use the work I've done.

It got ugly. Not fisticuffs ugly, but verrrrry uncomfortable ugly. He'd give us our money IF he could find someone to stay there instead of us.

Uh, no. We were the consumers. We were unhappy and we wanted our money back.

He couldn't give it to us. It wasn't fair. Besides, he'd have to talk to his wife first.

Fine, we'd wait while he called her.

He couldn't call her at work. She wasn't reachable by phone. We were being unreasonable and refusing to work with him -- he had a wireless range booster he could offer us.

The lack of reliable internet access was only one problem. He could have the deposit, but we had the right to our money back.

Why should we get our money back? That wasn't fair to him. He would lose money on our booking.

It's our right. As consumers. (Perhaps we were making it up at this point, but it SOUNDED reasonable to us.) Unless he had a cancellation policy that stated otherwise, he was welcome only to our deposit. But he had absolutely nothing in writing; a cash-only operation with no paperwork.

Could we show him paperwork that stated we DID have the right to our money back?

And then I said it. I thought about it first and decided if I was going to say it, I'd better mean it. I'd better be willing to follow through. I was. I said: "If you don't give us our money back immediately, my next call will be to the police and we'll let them settle the matter."

He disappeared for a moment behind the open door. I heard him mumbling quietly to someone. His dog? His wife? He was gone for a few long minutes. I worried that he was loading his gun and would return to shoot us and THEN would it have been worth it, Miss Smarty Pants? Then I remembered we were in Canada. There are no guns. He was probably just off getting some socialized medicine or thinking in French.

He returned. We got our money back. We went off in search of a wi-fi cafe and a Priceline hotel. Montreal, you are kicking my ass so far. I hope we get along better tomorrow.

Bald Head Island

07.29.07 (29) From my sickbed, where a million tiny daggers stab my lungs every time I cough, I bring you some pics of a gentler time, not so long ago from our vacation on Bald Head Island. We spent four days there with the Carey clan. It's a crazy little place, a sort of manufactured version of someone's utopia, a little island accessible only by ferry. No cars are allowed on the island so everyone motors around on golf carts.

The pic at top was taken from the balcony of the house in which we stayed, which was only a few hundred yards from the beach. A quick jaunt down the zig-zag boardwalk and there you have it.

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The island feels a bit like a giant subdivision in the sense that all the houses sort of look the same -- different shades of grey and tan, porches wrapping around this way and that.


The real attraction of this trip for the Carey clan was getting to fuss over the family's newest member, my niece Genevieve, who's 15 months old and took to the ocean like a...well, you know. Fish, water.

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The above is not an actual member of the Carey family, although he/she was so amazing we probably would have let him/her in. We spotted this bird from a distance at a nature reserve on the island. I have no idea what it is -- heron? crane? -- but it stood so still in this pose for so long we thought at first it was a statue. God bless the zoom lens. What a magnificent creature, eh?

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Speaking of magnificent creatures, here's the whole Carey crew, hanging on the beach. We harangued a nice fisherman to take a few snaps for posterity. A few more shots...

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The core Careys...Joel, Julie, Mama Jean, Amy and Chris (who was so sick that day, poor thing.)

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Mama Jean and her grandkids, Lee, 17, holding Baby G., and Kate, 14. (The older two belong to Chris's sister Julie and her husband Mike.)

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Genevieve agrees to sit still just long enough for a family photo with her parents, Kathleen and Joel.

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Amy's husband (and my fellow Scot), Hamish, holdin' down the beach.

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My brother-in-law Mike (Julie's husband, Lee & Kate's dad), relaxin' in a styling hat borrowed from Baby G.

And if you're a big fan of Bald Head Island or the Carey clan, or both, you can find even more snaps on my Flickr page. Enjoy!