A Grand Birthday Tour

I have a hard time with my birthday. It is in January, probably the worst month of the year. I am never sure how I should respond to everyone’s well wishes. I am usually pretty grumpy.

This year, I resolved to take things in hand and order up a perfect day. I made a request for a special meal to be shared with just a small few. I decided that the best birthday treat would be to spend a day reading by the fire and watching dinner being made.

Our son Lewis is living with us right now. He has worked as a cook in a number of restaurants. He loves to work with food, and spending a day cooking is his idea of heaven. So I asked him to make me a special birthday meal, with Tim as sommelier and assistant. I didn’t ask about what we were going to have. I just waited for it to unfold.

I stretched out in my oversized rocking chair by a cheery fire, reading Wuthering Heights – something to transport me out of 2013. As I read, Lewis prepped and I watched out of the corner of my eye as ingredients transmogrified.

A dinner requires good food and good company to make it work. I decided on a small guest list: My mother Laurie Lewis, a writer, who has a vested interest in my birthday and was just about to leave for Mexico; our friend Jack Hurd, a musician, who had just returned from hiking the Camino and was heading off for a month in Tuscany; and our friend Jan Irwin, a writer and director, who spent last March with us in Devon and is in the midst of contemplating her next trip. And of course Tim, my favourite writer, gourmand and travelling companion, who has shared the past 38 birthdays with me.

Our kitchen is in the centre of the house, and the cook is at centre stage.

Lewis prepping centre stage
Lewis prepping centre stage

The guests assembled and, after preliminary drinks by the fire, Lewis called us to the table.

#1

A tower of rounds of brown Kumato tomato and mozzarella, with finely sliced basil. Drizzled with blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic vinegar.

“A taste of summer,” said Lewis. And it was. The blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic elevated it to one of those very special summer days. It told us that this was not going to be an ordinary birthday dinner.

#2

Sushi rice with grated carrot, topped with a slice of avocado, red pepper and spears of tempura aubergine. With dollops of Wasabi, Thai sweet chili garlic sauce, and Cucumber relish with lime, Uma plum vinegar and red jalapeno.

2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears
2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears

Presented on a bright blue and gold Japanese plate, the colours bounced energetically. There is a distinct lack of colour in our part of the world in January. The course gave us colour therapy and food therapy. The surprise hit was the cucumber relish, which was salty and tangy, with a zip of hot.

#3

Baby Portobello stuffed with chevrè, cream cheese and roasted garlic. On a bed of arugula with reduced balsamic.

Lewis explained that if you cook chevrè, you need to add cream cheese to it to keep it smooth. Otherwise it goes grainy. This was like a creamy pillow, the sweet roast garlic keeping you alert for more surprises.

#4

Homemade fettuccini with Oregon smoked salmon, with thin slices of Parma cheese and black truffle

4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese
4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese

There is really nothing like homemade pasta. I had seen Lewis pressing dough through the pasta machine earlier in the day. He hung it out on a horizontally inverted broomstick to dry. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with it. Turns out it was a kind of collaborative offering. Tim had been given a huge piece of smoked salmon from Oregon. Our son Xan had given us a few truffles for Christmas – I’ve never had thinly shaved truffle. Its musty nuttiness perfectly paired with the soft smoke of the salmon. Topped with thinly shaved Parma cheese, and served in pasta bowls from Positano, it was amazing.

#5

Seared filet of sirloin with Tamarillo on a bed of chicory with thinly sliced radish, drizzled with honey and horseradish vinaigrette.

I am a big fan of steak salad. This took it to a whole new level, playing the sweetness of the Tamarillo (like Passion fruit) with the bitter of the chicory and radish. The sweet honey danced with the horseradish, all supporting the succulence of the steak.

#6

Roast pork tenderloin with grapefruit glaze on a bed of sweet potato puree with curry and chipotle. Served with spears of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.

6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto
6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto

It’s amazing what a bit of smoky chipotle can do to a sweet potato mash. It lifts the tuber’s richness to a whole new place. The roast pork was incredibly tender and the combined tastes were buttery and dark. The asparagus counterbalanced with its bright colour, crisp snap, and salty zing of the prosciutto.

#7

Scone with honey glaze served with dollops of pear comfit, peach comfit and Devon cream.

“I don’t bake,” said Lewis, as he put a warm scone in front of each of us. What he meant was that he doesn’t bake cake. The soft, honey-sweet scone was “dessert” – plain and simple after a meal of complexity. The perfect dessert course. The tiny dollop of Devon cream a reminder of the rich green fields of the emerald Isle.

#8

Cheese plate. Featuring herbed Cheveè, St. Agur, Aged Gouda, Double Cream Rondoux, Shropshire Blue

Admittedly, this was probably overkill. But birthdays are about excess. I had asked for a cheese course which, when matched with port, is the best way to end a special meal.

The meal didn’t really end there, though. The food ended, but we sat for many more hours, talking, sharing secrets, hopes and dreams. With my mother and Jack just about to head off to other climes, we talked of travel past, and journeys to come.

Last year, our extraordinary year of travel, was one of the best of my life, and it’s been hard to come down. But with this birthday extravaganza, I realize that while I am not literally on the road any more, I can still go on a journey with travelling companions and cook Lewis as tour guide.

Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones
Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones

Keeping Christmas

I have often wondered if we moved to the country because of Christmas.

The first winter that we lived in Brooke Valley, we went out into the woods with our three small children and cut down a very scraggly, Charlie Brown-ish tree. The snow came down in lazy, fat flakes as we brought our treasure into the house. We hung soggy mittens by the fire and cupped our hands around steaming mugs of hot chocolate. We were living in the middle of a Christmas card.

Since then, we’ve had as many green Christmases as white, some treacherous with ice, some grey and sodden. Our Christmas trees have always been naturally wild and wispy (“Your tree has great negative space,” said our most optimistic friend). Over the years, Lewis grew to be our primary tree finder and cutter. He took to enhancing nature by drilling holes in the trunk and inserting extra branches to fill out the shape. But whatever the shortcomings of the tree, the house has been filled with Christmas spirit – the smell of good food, the warmth of a fire, and days of laughter.

Last year was our first non-Canadian Christmas. We discovered new foods and new traditions in La Spezia, Italy. Sitting on a sun-drenched patio, drinking Prosecco while munching on delicious Italian cheeses and breads made up for the lack of snow, tree and fireplace. Funny, we didn’t miss any of the usual trappings.

But back home in Canada for Christmas this year, Tim & I dug out ornaments and fell into familiar patterns. Everything seemed all the more special for having been tucked away for 2 years. I carefully unwrapped the special, gold-rimmed Christmas glasses, purchased by my parents in New York over 50 years ago. Tim unrolled the felt advent calendar to find a few additional mouse holes along the edge. (The story of our mouse-chewed advent calendar is one he wrote as “The Mouse in the Manger”, many years ago. Sentiment keeps me from repairing the felt.)

Mouse eaten Advent Calendar
Mouse eaten Advent Calendar

Lewis set off to find a tree. We have 76 acres, and there are a lot to chose from, but finding something that works, a tree that is full and thick, is always a challenge. Determined to bring in something impressive, he felled a 35-foot spruce using only a dull cross cut saw. He cut off the top 10 feet and hefted it home the day before our first big snowfall.

Lewis and this year's tree
Lewis and this year’s tree

When the plate-sized flakes began to fall, we were surprisingly excited.

Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley
Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley

The first snow of the year was heavy and wet – perfect packing snow. Perfect snow lady material.

Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady
Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady

Over the next few days, the temperature dropped. As it did, the snow quality changed. There were smaller, lighter flakes, not good for packing at all. But we were assured of a white Christmas.

A White Christmas
A White Christmas

The unpredictability of the weather at this time of year can easily destroy festive plans, but luck was with us. Timing was perfect as family and friends arrived in various stages. But the snow accumulation grew and grew until eventually it was impassable. The day after Boxing Day, we abandoned all thoughts of driving and hunkered down to await the eventual arrival of snowplows.

Snowed in
Snowed in

There is a blissful and deep quiet that comes with a large snowfall.

And so we have once again celebrated the season in a Christmas card world. We’ve walked the snowy roads under moonlight and sighted Jupiter, shining brightly. We’ve filled the house with lights and familiar ornaments, and flamed the plum pudding. We’ve watched deer and ravens enjoying bits of composted leftovers. We’ve reveled in memories of Christmases gone by, and toasted absent friends. And we’ve boosted and fortified ourselves to be able to face the long cold winter ahead. As Dickens instructs, we’ll “keep Christmas in our hearts throughout the year”.

A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol

Coming Home

Writing a final chapter to my Stepping Off the Treadmill blog has been hard. It is taking time to acclimatize to being back, and I suspect that we will be assimilating the experiences of the last 9 ½ months for a very long time.

What I can say is that it has been wonderful to come back to such an outpouring of love from family and friends. It has been especially important, because my father died 5 days after we landed back in Canada. I was lucky to have been able to see him and talk to him before he died, and to be with my mother at this difficult time. Our homecoming has been bittersweet, and all in all, very discombobulated. So we have been grateful to come back to our welcoming community of friends and family.

Our house, when we finally arrived home, seemed big and quiet. While away, we were always living with other people. We couldn’t help feeling that our house was a bit empty. Even our cat, when she came home, seemed quieter than usual.

Of course there has been a lot of business to attend to. We waded through 9 ½ months of mail. We did our taxes. We made appointments with dentists. We raged at our internet service providers. But we haven’t really unpacked. Every now and then we open up some of the boxes that we packed up 10 months ago, but we are surprisingly uninterested in whatever they contain. I guess we are still travelling light.

People ask if it is wonderful to be home. I can say that we seem to have chosen exactly the right moment – we left a London that had been rainy and cold for weeks and arrived to a sunny Ontario heat wave. We’re enjoying meals on our back deck and finding opportunities for lots of therapeutic gardening. We had a dinner party within days of being home, and loved re-discovering our own pots and pans. We’ve been to a vernissage at our local gallery in Perth, the Riverguild, where we saw a wonderful exhibit of new watercolours by our friend Franc van Oort. And we went to an opening of a play at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa where we schmoozed with the cream of the Ottawa theatre community. Tim is heavily into a second draft of a new book, and I am chomping at the bit to get back to my writing as well.

But I am at my happiest when I can talk about where we have been, who we have met, and what we have done since August 1, 2011. Every time we tell a story from the trip, it becomes more real. Tim and I look at each other and say, “this actually happened.”

I know that our future will contain more adventures. But for now, we have stories to tell, narratives to create, and meaning to discover. To those of you who have shared directly in the adventure – thank you for making it so extraordinary. You have, each of you, changed our lives and made them fundamentally better. To those who have been armchair travellers – thank you for coming along. You too, by being observers and commentators, are part of the experience.

“My personal conviction is that we are not changed by our experiences as common wisdom has it. What changes us are the stories we tell about our experiences. Until we have re-formed our lives into story-structured words we cannot find and contemplate the meaning of our lived experiences. Till then they remain in the realm of beastly knowledge. Only by turning the raw material of life into story – by putting it into a pattern of words we call narrative – can beastly knowledge be creatively transformed and given meaning. It is storying that changes us, not events.” –Aidan Chambers

Home in Brooke Valley

Saying Goodbye, part two

Saying goodbye to London means saying goodbye to our favourite dance company, Tempered Body Dance Theatre. We were able to go to one last “Cha-Cha-Cha”, an evening of scratch performances by three companies, including Tempered Body, at Chisenhale Dance Studio. We got to see more of Tempered Body’s new piece “Stand-By”, an exploration of physical and emotional dependency.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

“As active or non-active feminists of the 21st Century we are taught to be independent. Dependence on other people is accepted as weak and lacking courage. Same too with dependence on substances. Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” Maddy Wynne-Jones on “Stand-By”

The show premiers in June, after we’ve gone. It has been a privilege to watch these dancers at work, a thrill to watch Maddy creating this piece.

Saying goodbye to London means saying goodbye to the West End, so we decided to splurge on a couple of shows. Trying to decide which shows to go to has been hard. As Sondheim fanatics, Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton was an obvious choice – I had seen the original production on Broadway and this was every bit as wonderful. Michael Ball was a sympathetic and socially conscious Sweeney. Imelda Staunton was funny, sexy and brilliant.

Globe to Globe, part of the Shakespeare World Festival, was also something we wanted to see. 40 plays from 40 countries. We could only see one – the Palestinian production of Richard 2. Funny, angry, provocative. We met up with fellow Ottawan Jessica Ruano after the show, stopping for a drink to talk about art, politics and how to produce theatre that matters. It was hard to walk away from the other 39 shows…

The musical hit of the West End is Matilda, winner of 7 Olivier Awards. It is riotously outrageous, with the wickedly funny Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. I am in the business of working with children on stage, and I know what they are capable of. But I was floored by these young performers. A fabulous show, and an amazing adaptation of the book by Roald Dahl. Jaw dropping design. Rude, irreverent. What’s not to love about a show that has the biggest belch that ever existed?

We also went to listen to the brilliant playwright Michael Frayn who has two shows on in London: “Noises Off”, the toast of the town, which we saw (Celia Imrie as Dotty!) and could hardly breathe for laughing; and “Here”, which we didn’t get to see, much to our regret. He is also launching a new book, Skios, a blend of farce, satire and romance. Is there anyone who has such a variety of approaches in their work?

We made a dash out this week to see the amazing Bauhaus show at the Barbican. The Bauhaus school was a 14-year exploration of the arts that that changed the way we see things. When it was closed down by the Nazis, proponents of the movement fled to other countries and their design ideas spread throughout the world. I had been very affected by Bauhaus design and philosophy in my youth and it was incredibly inspiring to see the work assembled and thoughtfully chronicled.

Tim making notes at the Barbican

But the hardest thing right now is having to say good bye to family. It means tears and laughter, and last suppers. This week, Maddy made an amazing dinner for Peta, Bryan, Jo and Amanda. It was her “thank you” to them for putting us up (putting up with us). She created a meal of 4 courses, each dedicated to a country that we had stayed in for at least a week.

Starters (Spain) we had: Spanish Chorizo sausage sautéed with butter beans and shrimp on a bed of lettuce.

Mains (England): Individual Beef Wellingtons, garlic mash, roasted squash, green beans with almonds, mushrooms sauce and gravy sauce.

Dessert (France): Prune Clafoutis with custard.

Afters (Italy): Italian dessert wine (brought from our time in La Spezia) with cardamom biscotti.

It was an amazing feast, a fabulous and noisy night with family. It is impossible to think that we will be leaving, heartbreaking to try and say goodbye.

Maddy, Amanda, Jo, Bryan, Peta, Amanda & Tim at the farewell feast

Saying Goodbye, Part one

Right now, the harshest lesson for Tim and I to learn is that there is never enough time. There will always be more to discover. So much we haven’t seen. Around every corner, a new world waiting. Posters in the tube announcing new shows opening the day after we leave. Family events we’ll miss. We have to let it go. We have to learn how to say goodbye. Goodbye to London. Goodbye to family.

We are filling our last days in London with adventures and one of our most unique experiences was Tim’s raising of the Tower Bridge.

Tim was given one of the best gifts ever. He was given the opportunity to be the man behind the mechanism, the man to move 2,500 tons of steel to allow a boat to pass unimpeded down the Thames.

Tim looking at Tower Bridge

The Bridge, built in 1886, originally worked with a marvelous Victorian hydraulic system to lift the bascules (from the French word for “see-saw”, the moveable section of the bridge road) so that ships could pass through to the Port of London. Ships today still have a right of way along the river and, with 24 hours notice, the Bridge must be raised to allow passage through. On a rainy London morning in early May, Tim was the man who made that happen.

In the control centre for Tower Bridge

Tim met with the Chief Bridge Technician in the control tower of the Tower Bridge. The mechanization is electronic nowadays. But although the system has been modernized, the actual workings of the bridge remain the same. Huge amounts of steel are see-sawed up and down in a very short amount of time. A computer screen shows the inner workings. Buttons must be pushed in sequence. A level must be carefully pulled.

40,000 people cross Tower Bridge every day. This means that the first thing that must happen, when raising the bridge, is to stop the traffic. A push of a button, a communication with the outside patrol, and cars, pedestrians and cyclists came to a halt. Needless to say, this gave Tim an incredible sense of power.

The barriers in place, the traffic stopped, Tim pulls the lever to raise the bascules to 40°.

Tim pulls the lever

It is as though the city holds its breath. The bridge rises and the computer screen shows Tim the changing angle of the bascules. 40° achieved, the awaiting boat glides through.

The bridge raised

When the boat clears the bridge the bascules are lowered, everything is locked back in place and the cyclists race to get back on the road before the barriers are removed. Tim’s moment of glory is over, but he is presented with a certificate to mark the occasion and we are taken on a tour of the mechanisms far below the surface of the water. A secret world.

Tim gets his certificate of Bridge Raising

“The Thames is liquid history”, said John Burns in 1929. A few days later, we decided to go out and explore more of the history of the Thames and took a commuter boat down the river to Greenwich, another on our list of World Heritage Sites.

Greenwich is renowned for its maritime history. The newly restored Cutty Sark has just been “launched” in the dry dock beside the main pier. Built in 1869, the ship was one of the last tea clippers built and one of the fastest ships of her time.

The Cutty Sark, resting on its glass house. A picture not just for a blended Scotch.

It now sits atop a glass museum, held suspended so that you can walk beneath it. On a grey day, the ship seems full of the history of the sea.

The Maritime Museum is also in Greenwich, as is the oldest Royal Park in London. Greenwich Park was created in 1433 and is home to the Royal Observatory, which is where Greenwich Mean Time is centered.

The Royal Observatory

John Flamsteed was the first Royal Astronomer, by decree of King Charles 2, and his rooms and observation room are still in tact. The Octagon Room, where the regularity of the Earth’s rotation was tested, was designed by Inigo Jones.

The Octagon Room

The hill that the Observatory sits on affords a spectacular view of London, the O2 arena, and the new the Olympic Equestrian Events arena.

The view from Observatory Hill

The dark skies cleared (a bit — it has been the coldest and darkest May here since 1698!), as we ruminated on the foundation of time in place. By measuring longitude, we measure the earth’s rotation and use this to fix our concept of time. I stood on the meridian line, one foot officially in the west, one foot officially in the east. But our sense of time is elastic. Ten months ago, the time of our journey seemed endless. Now all we can say is, where has the time gone?

One foot in the west, one foot in the east

A journey along the Rhine

Just across the river from Mainz is the city of Wiesbaden, one of the oldest spa towns in Europe. The healing qualities of the hot springs here have been enjoyed for over 2,000 years. In the 19th century, Wiesbaden became the unofficial summer residence for Kaiser Wilhem II, and the town was much beloved by the Russian nobility and the wealthy. It continues to be a city of prosperity. We headed to Wiesbaden to see “Magisches Kaleidoskop”, an evening of contemporary dance pieces by Stephen Thoss and Jiří Kylián at the Hessisches Staatstheater. The theatre, like the theatre in Mainz, has dedicated dance, theatre, opera and symphonic companies and an extensive and impressive season.

The Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden was built in 1864 on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Amanda in the Hessisches Staatstheater.

It isn’t often you get to have pre-theatre drinks in a room like this. Magic Kaleidoscope was filled with fabulous thought-provoking and funny pieces. At least we thought they were funny. How can an audience not laugh at men dancing Mozart in large funny dresses?

Back in Mainz, the next morning was market day. We were thrilled. A market is a great bond between people, and whenever we have been in a town on a market day, we’ve felt a strong kinship with the locals. A shared love of food.

Eggs for sale at the Mainz market

The Mainz market was full of the huge lettuces we’d come to love in France and Italy, mounds of cheeses, sausages, breads and pastries. There were piles and piles of white asparagus, just in season. We had some delicious coffee and made a few purchases – a rhubarb pastry, a couple of buns, cheeses, a sausage, freshly marinated artichoke hearts – creating an impromptu picnic lunch.

We walked through the old town of Mainz, through squares surrounded by half timbered houses.

The old town in Mainz

One of the landmarks that we wanted to see in Mainz was St. Stephen’s church. Originally built in 990 atop the highest hill in the city, the current church was completed in 1340. In 1978, the artist Marc Chagall created 9 new stained glass windows for the church. The windows depict scenes from the Old Testament and were created as an attempt at German/Jewish reconciliation. The whole church is bathed in soft, mottled, luminous blue light.

Chagall’s stained glass windows in St. Stephen’s Church

It was a very holy space.

Although there was still lots to discover in Mainz, we decided to investigate a couple of nearby towns along the Rhine. A short train ride took us to the town of Bingen, a small working town on the edge of the River.

Bingen am Rhein

The name range a bell with us because of its connection to the 11thcentury mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard established several monasteries in the area and did some of her most important work here. There is a good museum in Bingen dedicated to her and her works. We took a quick walk around to town to see the castle, the Basilica of St. Martin, and the “Mouse Tower” (Mäuseturm) on an island in the river where, legend has it, the cruel Archbishop of Mainz, Hatto 2, was eaten by mice. Just like a Grimm’s fairy tale.

The “Mouse Tower”

From Bingen we took a short ferry ride across the Rhine to Rüdesheim, a wine-making town recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Rüdesheim is apparently one of the largest tourist draws in Germany and even on a dull and rainy day, the town was filled with tourists, mostly Korean and Chinese, stocking up on Rhine wine. A sign on a wine distributor’s shop told us (in English and Chinese) that they could ship their wines to your door in China from their Chinese factory.

Rüdesheim

Rüdesheim is a pretty town with cobbled streets and a funicular to take you up the hillside to the Niederwalddenkmal monument. The monument, commemorated in 1883, represents the unity of all Germans. At 38 meters high, it towers over the surrounding vineyards.

The Niederwalddenkmal monument, overlooking the vineyards

We didn’t journey up the hill. We could see from a distance that the monument was covered up for restoration. It would be worth the trip on a sunny day, when you could enjoy walking on the surrounding forest paths.

The Niederwalddenkmal monument, covered for restoration

From Rüdesheim we continued our trip down the Rhine, heading back to Mainz by boat. Seated out on the deck in the drizzle, we enjoyed wine made from the vines we were passing.

Tim, travelling along the Rhine

The world slowed down as the loud speakers on the boat played a bit of oompah and muzak. Towns along the Rhine glided past.

We arrived back in Mainz to be greeted by Trish and Alex, on their bikes. We tucked ourselves into a very local Weinstube (wine bar), the Weinstube Specht, where we ate huge and generous plates of schnitzel, potatoes, herring and fresh apple strudel. We sat talking late into the night, wishing we could stay longer. It had been a whirlwind tour of a small corner of Germany, one in which our eyes and taste buds were opened.

Trish and Alex, celebrating by candlelight

Arts and Letters in Mainz

Tim’s niece Patricia Roach is an opera singer with the Staatstheater Mainz, Germany.  This spring, she has been performing the role of Amando in “Le Grand Macabre”, an absurdist opera by Gyorgy Ligeti. It was a great reason to go and visit.

We arrived in Mainz, via Frankfort, a simple 20-minute train ride from the airport. Trish met us at the train station, on her bike, coming straight from a rehearsal of Cosi Fan Tutti. She directed us onto a city bus to go to her apartment, and she followed behind on her bike.

Trisha’s apartment is a quiet oasis sitting tucked into trees and parkland. We were greeted by her partner Alex, a wonderful German man who proceeded to make us a delicious pasta with smoked salmon. Try out: Alex’s Pasta Mit Lachs-Tomaten-Sahne. It’s a fast and delicious meal. We launched comfortably into a discussion about EU politics, German guilt and pride, contemporary opera and support for the arts as we tucked into steaming bowls of pasta.

After a suitable period of digestion, Trish headed off for her makeup call at the theatre, and Tim and I headed into town to have a glass of wine before the show. With the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s song “Anima Rising” stuck in my head (“Seventeen glasses, Rhine wine”) we began our adventure of tasting excellent dry Rieslings. Turns out the Germans know a thing or two about making great wine.

Staatstheater Mainz

“Le Grand Macabre” is opera as you have never seen it. The music is incredibly difficult, atonal, dissonant, jagged and surprising. The plot is non-existent, the characters broad and bizarre. The theatre has a web site with a great trailer and photos. http://www.staatstheater-mainz.com/index.php?id=1333

It was fabulous. We loved it. We also thought there were lots of funny parts, but the rest of the audience wasn’t laughing so we tried to hold in our hilarity. Was there something we were missing by not speaking the language? No, Trish assured us, Germans just don’t laugh in the theatre. Cultural differences.

We went out for a light bite after the show. It was great going out with Trish. Not only does she speak fluent German, but the waiters know her. As an opera singer, she is a recognized personality in the city. We ordered some local specialty cheeses: Spundekäse, which is a puffy cream cheese and quark mixture served with chopped onion, paprika and a soft salty fresh pretzel; and Handkäse mit Musik, a semi-soft cheese that you pour salad dressing over. The “Musik” part of the name is because it apparently makes you fart musically. Or at least so Trish told us, but she is an opera singer so perhaps everything is about music.

Mainz is a city of 200,000 that sits on the Rhine river. Two thousand years ago it was a Roman fort that formed part of the northern edge of the Roman Empire. Just outside of town they are excavating the largest Roman amphitheater north of the Alps. It was a theatre that could seat 10,000 people.  Clearly, the tradition of theatre runs strong here. Today, the state theatre hosts an orchestra, as well as full time opera, ballet, theatre and youth companies. This in a small city of 200,000.

Mainz has gone through numerous sieges and occupations throughout the last millennium, and has been alternately a part of Rome, France, Prussia, the Rhineland republic and of course the German Third Reich. The city has always tolerated a combined population of Christians and Jews and during the Second World War, the Bishop of Mainz created an organization to help Jews to escape.

I have written elsewhere in my blog about visiting cities that were devastated during World War 2. In our travels we’ve gone to Plymouth, Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool, and of course London – cities that had to do massive rebuilding. Sixty years on, we are fascinated by the architectural and cultural choices that were made. This was our first experience of the destruction in Germany. 80% of Mainz was destroyed in the war. Small bits of the old town have been cherished and fit into new buildings. There are wide pedestrian walkways.

Tim & Trish in front of the Mainz memorial

A vast open square in the centre of town preserves a part of the original 1,000-year old Cathedral, combining it with a memorial to Mainz Jews who died in the war and the burning of Mainz on February 27, 1945.

A 16th century tower nestles into modern buildings.

A 16th century tower amongst the 20th century buildings

The tower is all that remains of the workshop where Mainz’s most famous inhabitant, Johannes Gutenberg, and his partner Johann Fust printed the first bible and changed the world.

Gutenberg is the man who credited with the creation of moveable type and has been called the most influential man of the second millenium. We made our pilgrimage to the Gutenberg museum.

In the heart of the museum, on display in a locked vault, is one of the 49 remaining 42-line Gutenberg bibles. The books are large, (over 1200 pages and about 20 inches tall), the type is justified into two columns of 42-lines each, the columns tidy and clearly legible. The ornamentation is hand drawn and the effect sublime. This 2-volume set (Old and New Testament) required 6,000 goat skins to produce. Such a manuscript would have taken a scribe at least 3 years to execute. Gutenberg was able to make 150 a year. The revolution began.

The museum has a vast room dedicated to incunabula (the books printed in the first 50 years of printing presses) and you can easily see the profound effect. Scientists, mathematicians, geographers, physicians, philosophers could all have their ideas and theories disseminated at lightening speed with the result that there was an explosion in all fields of study and research.  I have studied all of this for years, but somehow seeing it so graphically represented in the museum was quite profound.

The museum also had exhibits on binding, papermaking, Asian printing and a fabulous contemporary exhibit called “Moving Types”, examining type animation in the age of computers.

Outside the museum are sculpted cubes representing various innovations and epochs in the development of letters.

Outside the Gutenberg Museum

A city in the middle of a wine growing region, that reveres typography and letterform, arts and culture – what took us so long to get here?

Tim in Mainz

Dipping into Scotland

Tim has a lot of family in the U.K., cousins who he didn’t know when he was growing up. One of the driving forces of our trip has been to connect with family, to visit with them whenever possible and see where their lives have taken them.

Cousin Victor and his wife Ayleen live in Edinburgh, one of the great capital cities of the world. During the Enlightenment, the city spawned some of the world’s most influential thinkers. It continues to be a mecca for artists and scientists and is sometimes described as “The Athens of the North”. Apparently, Robert Louis Stevenson said “Edinburgh is what Paris ought to be.”

Old Tolbooth Wynd, the Tollbooth road into the city

The protective Edinburgh castle, perched atop an extinct volcanic crag, guards the city.

Edinburgh Castle, atop an old volcano

The Royal Mile, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, stretches from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, nestled under the ancient volcano of Arthur’s Seat, “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design” (Robert Louis Stevenson).

Looking from Edinburgh castle through the city to Arthur's seat

Our first destination was Holyrood Palace, one of 9 royal residences in the U.K. “Treasures from the Queen’s Palaces”, is a special exhibit at the palace, celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. There are Jubilee events throughout the U.K. this year, and we were lucky to catch this one in Edinburgh.

The Treasures have been selected from vast collections that have been assembled by various monarchs over the centuries. There were exquisite paintings, manuscripts and sculptures, but I think one of the things that most impressed me was a Faberge Egg, made of a delicate wire grid filled with a mosaic of tiny jewels. In the egg was a miniature with portraits of the Russian Imperial family. I’ve only ever seen Faberge Eggs in photographs and this was a stunning piece of art, although to my way of thinking it was also a frivolity symbolizing excessive Royal wealth. The kind that starts revolutions.

Directly across from the Palace is the new Scottish Parliament building. Built in 2007, it aims to reflect a union of the natural landscape and the urban city. It sits just at the confluence of the two, nestled at the base of the Royal Mile, under the shadow of Arthur’s Seat.

Scottish Parliament Building

It’s a striking piece of architecture that I think looks much better in the photos than it does in real life. The Scotland Act of 1998 brought in a devolved Scottish Parliament (the English and Scottish parliaments had been merged in 1707), and this building represents a pride in Scottish representation.

Scottish Parliament council hall

We had happened to arrive in Edinburgh on cousin Alistair’s birthday. Alistair is Victor and Ayleen’s son, a bright young man who had recently run in a bi-election and had an insider’s view of many facets of the Scottish electoral system. (“Alistair Hodgson: A New Voice for Edinburgh”) Although he didn’t win his seat this time, I fully expect he will the next time around. We celebrated his 28th birthday in style at restaurant eating fabulous Scottish beef and “Cullen Skink”, a smoked Haddock chowder.

We had been to Edinburgh briefly before, but I had never been outside the city. We were thrilled when Victor and Ayleen took us out to explore the countryside and some of the historical towns. Our first stop was South Queensferry on the shore of the Firth of Forth.

Looking across the Firth of Forth, from South Queensferry, to the Kingdom of Fife

As the name implies, South Queensferry was the location of the ferry going across the estuary (the firth) of the River Forth.

The main street in South Queensferry

It is a picturesque little village that has a long history of drying herring, bottling whiskey, pirates and smuggling.

South Queensferry

There seem to be castles in every corner of Scotland. On our way toward the Highlands, we passed Doune Castle, a 14th century courtyard castle that looks down protectively on the surrounding countryside. The 100 foot high gatehouse inspired its use as the castle in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

Doune Castle

We made a brief pilgrimage around the walls, imagining the Trojan Rabbit.

The back of Duone Castle. Neep-neep.

We lunched in the town of Callander, “a place where Lowland meets Highland”. Just beyond the town are the Tossachs, a beautiful area of locks, mountains and rivers. Dorothy and William Wordsworth stayed in Callander in 1803, and in the centuries since it has been frequented by many writers, taking inspiration from the landscape. Sir Walter Scott set his poem “The Lady of the Lake” in the Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, ensuring the area’s population as a tourist destination.

The main street of Callander, looking toward the Highlands

There is, apparently, the remains of a Roman Fort just outside Callander. Armed with a town map and guidance from the tourist office (“It is hard to see. It’s mostly overgrown”) we set off on a little walk along the River Teith in search of Rome. We found something that might, or might not, be a piece of the wall. But we had to turn back quickly as the weather began to change.

Tim, Ayleen and Victor, atop a Roman wall?

Within moments we were deluged by a downfall of rain and hail and had to race to the car.

Drenched, but invigorated, we headed to “Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park” for  a quick peek at Loch Katrine, the setting of Scott’s poem. This was our first view of the Highlands, and it was exquisite. You can easily tell why it so profoundly affected Scott and others. A century old steamboat can take you around the loch while giving you bits of history and recitations from the poem. “Each purple peak, each flinty spire 
/Was bathed in floods of living fire” Definitely a place we hope to return to and explore in more depth. Perhaps do a bit of fishing…

Loch Katrine and the "Sir Walter Scott" steamship

It was getting late. We were about 50 miles from Edinburgh, yet it felt as though we were in an entirely different world. The sun came out as we headed back toward the Forth and the bustle of Edinburgh, thinking how lucky we were to have family to open up new worlds for us.

Tim & Amanda overlooking the Forth bridges

Feasting on the arts in London

It was a bit of a jolt to come back into the press of people in London after our calm days in Devon. But we had several major events to look forward to, and we dove in, hearts first.

David Hockney has taken London by storm, and tickets for the show at the Royal Academy were being scalped at outrageous prices. Thankfully, we had booked our tickets before we left for Devon, and it was one of the first places that we headed when we got back.

Winter Timber. The painting takes up a whole wall of the gallery.

A Bigger Picture is one of the most vibrant shows I have ever seen. Hockney attacks landscapes. He spends years working on the same view at different seasons, different weathers. His colours are like no one else’s. When this show opened in February, Londoners flocked to it as to a vacation in the sun. You are viserally hit with almost impossible colour juxtapositions. And these pictures are huge. Really, really huge. He does full wall landscapes using grid sections, so that he can paint each section almost life size.

In one room, he displays a series of 51 framed prints of work that he did on an iPad. I hadn’t expected to like these, but I found them totally compelling. The way he uses the iPad is revolutionary. It is a medium that allows him to “work rapidly with a stylus to capture the changing light and conditions of a scene. The effect is significantly different to that achieved with a brush in other mediums.”

Hockney iPad art.

The 51 iPad prints record the transition from winter through to late spring on one small road. The work culminates in “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011”, a 32 canvas painting that takes over a huge wall of the gallery. “The deliberate sense of theatricality in this gallery reflects Hockney’s many decades of experience designing sets for the opera: the view is placed centre-stage with the drama of the approaching spring played out on all sides.” (copy from the program) I guess it is no wonder that I loved it.

From landscapes we went to portraits. The Lucien Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery changed our focus from the changing colours of landscape to the changing minutiae of skin tone — small brush manipulations that reflect a complex life. “I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories.” Lucien Freud.

Freud self portrait 1985

These are stories that you dig deeply into. Like our layers of skin, and the layering of our experiences, the paintings pull your eyes through layers of paint to reveal the soul within. These are raw portraits, reminding me of how little we really know of people, of how hard it is to go beneath the layers.

From visuals to sound. I was desperate for complex sounds to wash through me. I wanted to hear music that was as full of contrasting colours as the Hockney show, as personal as the Lucien Freud. It didn’t take long to find a perfect concert. Chick Corea and Gary Burton on their “Hot House” tour. Two brilliant, percussive artists who have been playing together for over 40 years. They come together almost as one. Chick Corea on piano and Gary Burton on vibes, they played a range that included original pieces, Miles, Dizzy, Monk, Mozart, Bartok, Antonio Carlos Joabim and Lennon & McCartney. These are musicians at the top of their game, playing, having fun and sharing that fun with an audience. And because it was so percussive, the sound came into my body just as the light vibrations from the Hockney paintings had.

From sound to words and thought. Lucy Prebble is a young and successful British playwright. She wrote, amongst other things, Enron, about the financial scandal of 2001. “It’s always useful to remember that free market economics – capitalism if you prefer – brought us the slave trade, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, as well as more recent events such as the near meltdown of the entire global financial system.” (from the London Theatre review of Enron.) Enron was a big hit on the West End and a magnificent failure on Broadway. “I think Americans don’t like ambiguity,” said Lucy. She gave an entertaining and engaging talk at the Haymarket Theatre as a part of their Masterclass Series. She prefaced the talk by saying that anything that she said about her past was, like all memory, a “retrospective rationalization”. In other words, we all make up our lives as we chose to tell them. Her talk was personal, honest and revealing, much like the Freud portraits. It is good to know that all artists are just working from one project to the next, trying to grow, to find ways of challenging themselves, and sometimes just trying to survive.

From words to movement. One of the most exciting young London dance artists is Maddy Wynne-Jones. While I might have a personal bias, I have to say that it has been a huge thrill to watch Maddy’s work evolve, even in the short time we’ve been here. We went to a scratch performance (a work-in-progress performance that encourages dialogue and discussion) of the new Tempered Body Dance Theatre piece under development. “Stand-By” is a piece about dependency. On people, on substances. It asks the questions, “Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” The scratch performance featured about 15 minutes of the piece, and we were moved to tears by the work. Big gulping, shaking sobs. But also smiles of self-knowledge.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

I went to the studio this week to watch further rehearsals and was deeply impressed by the cohesiveness of the company, and by their open and generous exploration of these questions. They are dancers with amazing skill and integrity. Maddy’s choreography and direction guides them to movements that are honest and resonant. We’ll see another scratch performance next month. It is a privilege to watch this work in development.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal for Stand-By.

It is a constant river of inspiration here. Sometimes we need to stand outside, on the banks to catch our breath. But knowing that our time in London is limited, we are diving in as often as we can.

Saying Goodbye to Devon

Yes, all good things must end. Our last week in Salcombe was full of many bittersweet lasts.

We had one last dinner party, with Jan’s nephew and his wife, which included a reprisal of the Umeboshi salad. Jan had to leave the next day, which made all of us sad as we could feel it was the beginning of the end. Jan missed out on our last walk to North Sands beach, which we went on with Tim and Jennifer’s cousin Pip, her husband Steven and wonderful Alfie, the dog (North Sands is the place to walk with dogs, so we were glad to have one with us). When we got back we had a perfect late lunch in the Devon sunshine, the last one out on our picnic table. We had delicious Devon cheeses and made our Salade Nicoise with our last container of hand-picked Salcombe crab. It was exquisite.

Lunch in the Devon sunshine

Tim and I spent most of our last days writing intensively. We wanted to make sure that we were both in solid places with our books, knowing that we were going to have to leave our writing for a while. Jennifer looked after us, cooking us delicious meals while we slaved over hot computers. But we always made sure to head out for walks at the end of the day.

On our very last day we decided to take the afternoon and go to see the gardens at Overbeck’s. Jennifer wanted to treat us to a Devon Cream Tea, and we knew we could get a good one at Overbeck’s.

The entrance to Overbeck's. Otto asked for the sign in his will.

Overbeck’s is a large Edwardian house that sits on 7 acres of terraced gardens high above the Salcombe Estuary. During the First World War, the original owners, having lost their son in the war, offered their home to the Red Cross Society to be used for the treatment of convalescent troops. The “Sharpitor V.A. Hospital” looked after over 1,000 men during the war, 15 of whom ended up marrying local Devon girls. Just like something out of Downton Abbey season 2.

The former "Sharpitor V.A. Hospital", now Overbeck's museum and Youth Hostel

Otto Overbeck took over the property in 1928 and lived there until his death in 1937. Overbeck made his millions on a device called “The Rejuvenator”, a machine that sent small electric currents through your body to restore health. He believed that many ailments could be cured by restoring the body’s electric balance. His “the theory of electric health” was widely read and he marketed the Rejuvenator throughout Europe. He died a bachelor and left his property to the National Trust, on the condition that it have his name on it and that it not be used as a brothel. The gardens and house are open to the public during the day and turned into a Youth Hostel in the evening. Mal and Elspeth said that they used to stay there in the summers because you had the run of the house and gardens for the evening.

The paths through the woods are incredibly calming and meditative.

Tim and Jennifer walking on the paths at Overbeck's

There is a beautiful little sculpture garden, a small maze and acres of unusual trees, shrubs and flowers overlooking stunning views of the Salcombe Estuary.

Looking through the green canopy of Overbeck's to the mouth of the estuary beyond

The huge Magnolia tree, planted over 100 years ago, was in riotous bloom. The banana trees were not yet bearing fruit, but then it was just March.  We were fascinated by unusual cactus trees, birds of paradise and the juxtapositions of colours and textures.

Shaped palm tree in the garden
Jennifer finds an oasis of calm

It was odd to think that we had walked the coastal path just below these gardens two weeks previously. Sharptor is wild and rugged (see “Devon Coastal paths, part 2”, the rocks of Sharp Tor) and sits directly below the Overbeck gardens, which are lush and lovingly maintained.

Looking from behind the house out to the estuary

Half of Overbeck’s house is a museum filled with his collections. The rooms are steeped in the Edwardian fascination with the natural world. There are hundreds of birds eggs catalogued and on display, a practice that was common in his day but contributed to endangering many species in England. There are likewise hundreds of stuffed birds, small mammals, butterflies and shellfish.

Inside Otto Overbeck's house

Overbeck believed in the importance of Natural Science and wanted to make sure that his collections were used for furthering the education of young people. He also had an extensive collection of items about marine history, toys and a Polyphon — a huge Victorian music box.

The Polyphon. The size of a grandfather clock, it turns large, thin metal disks to pluck out a tune.

It is an eccentric and eclectic museum. His love of nature is manifested in his wonderful gardens, lovingly maintained to this day.

A tearoom is connected to the house. We sat outside in the spring sunshine, eating locally made scones with jam and huge dollops of Devon Double Cream, our last chance to enjoy this particular local delicacy. It was peaceful and so very, very English.

Jennifer and Tim and our very English Devon cream tea

After the trip to Overbeck’s there was just enough time for me to have one last late afternoon visit to Snape’s Point. I sat looking out over the harbour, and made sure to leave a small, hidden mark on a bench. Moll assured me that leaving a magic mark will ensure my return. I hope she is right. Being in Devon changed us, and I know we all want that experience again.

The view from my bench at Snape's Point