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But The Weather’s Good in Southern California (1)

What is there to love about Los Angeles? Plenty – like those moments when I’m driving south on the 2 freeway, gazing at the silhouettes of palm trees in the hills above Dodger Stadium and the setting sun reflecting off the downtown skyscrapers, and my Ipod shuffles up a melancholy song. Suddenly I feel like a character in a movie. The camera scans the landscape, then zooms in on my profile while the soundtrack of my life plays in the background. Does anyone else ever have those moments, or am I completely self-centered and crazy?

One of those moments struck as I drove back into LA for the first time after our long absence. After we visited my mom and picked up my car in Morro Bay, I followed Niels and the dogs down to LA. We hit the usual traffic jam in Santa Barbara (with no warnings like the large flashing signs in France that warn “Bouchon! Bouchon!”). We steered clear of a few crazy-eyed drivers here and there. We passed a brush fire in Ventura. We descended into the smoggy, helicopter-filled skies and 100 degree heat of the San Fernando Valley. Major culture shock! Niels called me and yelled, “Welcome to LA!”

As we entered the last stretch of our trip and passed Griffith Park, Tammy Wynette and George Jones took up residence in my back seat. Tammy sang about crying a “million tears” in Southern California from a “tiny room right over that flashing neon sign that says . . . bar,” while George sang about missing her in Tennessee. Luckily, although we don’t live the life of “silver screens and limousines,” we also don’t live in a tiny room over a bar. Stepping through our front gate, I was happy to be home. The dogs were thrilled to be back in their huge yard. The hummingbirds were everywhere. And after unloading the car we settled down to sip cocktails (Pimm’s Cup, anyone?) “in the blue, red, and grey” (2) (more like pink, red and orange).

View from our House During 2007 Malibu Fires

View from our House During 2007 Malibu Fires

London Calling , Yeah I Was There Too (3)

I am adjusting to life in Los Angeles, trying to maintain the sense of wonder that filled our days in London. And so, every morning, I sit on the Western porch of our house and read a poem from Poem for the Day: One. Although mostly poems penned by dead white British men, I find a couple jewels every week – after all, some of those men were amazing poets. Today I was inspired by the following sonnet, penned by William Wordsworth on September 3, 1802:

Composed upon Westminster Bridge

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighyt heart is lying still!

Westminster Bridge at Twilight

Westminster Bridge at Twilight

I miss London!!  Reading this poem, I regret that I never made it to Westminster Bridge at dawn. But then I remember that the Tube doesn’t run that early in the morning, and I made it to Westminster Bridge many times for sunset. The vibe at sunset is completely different – frantic multitudes rushing in every direction, bumper-to-bumper taxis and double decker buses, street performers singing and playing, crowded tourist boats lining the Thames. Nonetheless, London from Westminster Bridge was just as beautiful at sunset.

Walking in LA, Nobody Walks In LA (4)

Since we’ve been back, I have frequently been asked what I miss most about London. I miss the moments when, wandering down an old alleyway, sitting in a wood-paneled pub, or finding myself in a hidden garden square, I fell through time and found myself engulfed by the smells, sounds and ghosts of another London – the London of Queen Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Samuel Pepys, Dickens, Caesar, or Churchill. I miss strolling along the Thames, imagining hundreds of masted boats moored before London bridge, while people crowd the wharfs as they transact business or prepare to embark on a journey. I miss sitting on the top floor of a double-decker bus, listening to Coldplay on my Ipod, while London streams by. I miss cramming into the Tube with a million other people, wondering whether Duffy really left a lover at Warwick Avenue Tube Station every time I passed it on my way home. I miss hanging out with Niels in Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath, watching Rocky and Stella laugh and play.

Elie and Alex on Top of the World in a Double-Decker Bus

Elie and Alex on Top of the World in a Double-Decker Bus

Having a Pint at the Holly Bush in Hampstead

Having a Pint at the Holly Bush in Hampstead

Most of all, I miss walking everywhere, miles a day, and being in the midst of so many different people living their lives and exuding a constant, frantic energy. In LA – as in most places in the U.S. – our most common mode of transportation isolates us from the life going on around us. Guess I should start taking the bus to work – and in the process reduce my environmental footprint just a small bit!

We’ll Find the Land of the Midnight Sun (5)

In early June, a few weeks before we left London, we visited Finland to attend the wedding of Niels’ second cousin, Juha, and his bride Katri. They were married on the outskirts of Helsinki in a stately old manor house that was set amidst an explosion of green trees, green grass, and green shrubs. In fact, it was green green green everywhere in Finland, as if the flora were partying after their confinement during a long, hard winter.

We partied as well – for nine hours. After the bride and groom were married, we toasted them with champagne. Then we had an amazing dinner with white and red wines. We took a break for the night’s entertainment – a Finnish drag queen who impersonated, among others, the Finnish President, Dolly Parton, and Cher. Then we had desert with madeira and port. There were more toasts to the bride and groom, including a reading by Pertti, Juha’s father, from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic. Then the dancing began, accompanied by an endless supply of beer (Lapin Kulta) and whiskey. We finally caught the chartered bus back to Helsinki at 1 a.m. But we were slightly tardy getting back – the best man was so busy regaling the bus with stories, he forgot his girlfriend. After driving for a few minutes, his cell phone rang, the bus stopped, and we turned around to pick her up.

The Siltanen Clan

The Siltanen Clan - Back Row from Left: Mirja, Sarita, Me, Niels, Tuija, and Kirsti; Front Row From Left: Juha, Katri, Pertti, and Pirkko

Needless to say, I had a great time meeting Niels’ many Finnish relatives for the first time. Luckily, they spoke English very well – and I look forward to spending more time with them during future visits.

We also went to Finland to spread Niels’ mother’s ashes. Niels and Kirsti surreptitiously spread a portion around their grandfather’s grave in the military section of Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki. The lovely cemetery was full of simple but elegant headstones and memorials.

We had several days to walk around and explore the unusually warm Helsinki. How can I possibly describe how lovely Helsinki is? It is made up of craggy peninsulas jutting into an ocean filled with little islands dotted with colorful Finnish cottages. We visited one island, Suomenlinna, which served as a Swedish fortress for many years. We visited several architectural landmarks, including Temppeliaukio (Rock) Church, the Lutheran Cathedral, and the Helsinki train station (designed by Eliel Saarinen). We ate grilled herring and salmon in the outdoor market of Helsinki Harbor, guarding our food from the claws of aggressive sea gulls. We also did a little shopping – I had to buy some Kalevala Koru jewelry, and Niels finally picked out a Kalevala Koru wedding ring. We stupid Americans almost got hit by bicycles several times – until we figured out that the Finns take their bike lanes seriously. Peds are required to stop and wait for the light to change before entering any bike lane. Here are some pictures:

View of Helsinki, Lutheran Cathedral, and Outdoor Market from Helsinki Harbor

View of Helsinki, Lutheran Cathedral, and Outdoor Market from Helsinki Harbor

Finns Enjoying the Warm Weather in the Esplanade

Finns Enjoying the Warm Weather in the Esplanade

The Helsinki Cemetery

Hietaniemi Cemetery

The Rock Church

The Rock Church

Hiking on Suomenlinna, an Island in Helsinki Harbor

Hiking on Suomenlinna

The Lutheran Cathedral and Outdoor Market

The Lutheran Cathedral and Outdoor Market

A Ferry Coming In from Talinn, Estonia

A Ferry Coming in from Talinn, Estonia

We also spent a couple of nights in Lapland. For our first night, we drove up to Hammerfest, Norway, where we were appalled to discover whale on the dinner menu and curtains that did not keep out the midnight sun. I mean, common, you’d think the Norwegians would at least have decent curtains! On the second day we returned to Inari, where we spread the rest of Niels’ mother’s ashes in Lake Mutus (Mutusjarvi). Lapland is covered with woodland and pristine lake after lake after lake, and is suffused with a soft glowy kind of light. I couldn’t get over the quality of the light, falling amongst the pine trees and reflecting off the lakes. We drove down a dirt road and found a spot where we could hike to the lake’s edge, across from the cottage where Niels and his family had spent previous summers.

We spent the night on the banks of a river in Hotel Inarin Kultahovi. If you ever go to Lapland, you must stay and eat here. We had an amazing dinner of fresh trout and perch, local mushrooms, potatoes and a green salad; I didn’t try the reindeer, however. Then we retired to our room and took a sauna. I think our next DIY project will be installing a sauna in our basement.

View of Gas Tanker from Hammerfest

View of Gas Tanker from Hammerfest

Hammerfest

Hammerfest

Mutusjarvi

Mutusjarvi

Niels on Mutusjarvi

Niels on Mutusjarvi

The Sauna in Our Room

The Sauna in Our Room

One of the Many Roaming Reindeer

One of the Many Roaming Reindeer

Lake Inari, with Russia on the Right

Lake Inari, with Russia on the Right

I cannot wait to go back to Finland. Maybe next time we will go in the winter!

I Took Myself A Blue Canoe (6)

Here’s something I wrote in London when I was feeling a little homesick:

Beside me, above me, all around me, dirty blue sky dotted with jet planes from LAX; below me, salt water, sea lions, and fish. Silence, occasionally punctured by the snapping canvas of a passing sailboat. Sandwiched between sky and ocean, alone in my blue canoe, I paddle and breath to an internal beat: one, two, three, . . . twelve, then switch the paddle to the other side of the canoe and start over. An eight foot swell lifts my canoe and gives it a push. I dig my paddle into the swell, faster, faster, and ride the crest for five seconds. Then, the swell moves on, and I resume the slower rhythm: one, two, three, . . . twelve, blending into the water and sky, feeling the water slide under me, my abdomen, chest, arms, and back alert for the next swell. Silence, now punctured by a passing speedboat cutting through the blue, its passengers yelling, raising their beers to my health, laughing. I maintain my balance, one, two, three, . . . twelve, swaying in the washing machine of the speedboat’s wake. Silence again, another swell. I concentrate, dig my paddle into the wave, transfer the strength from my legs, stomach, shoulders, and back down into the water, bam, bam, bam. Flying through sky and ocean, lifted by the swell, I can’t help but giggle. The swell moves on. I stop, take a deep breath and gaze at the ant-like people cluttering the beach, behind them a hazy city stretching eastward. I lie back onto the canoe, and lose myself in sky while the canoe rocks and slides. Shutting my eyes, the sun warms my eyelids, chest, and thighs, sinks into my bones. Alone, a tiny speck in the vast sky and ocean, just me and the Spirit whoever or whatever She may be, all around me space. A pause.

On My Blue Canoe in Mendocino

On My Blue Canoe in Mendocino

Living in LA – it’s not so bad.

One Last Swim

As an ending thought, check out the gold medal, synchronized swimming performance of Elie and Stella:

Footnotes:

(1) Lyrics from Southern California by George Jones and Tammy Wynnette.
(2) Lyrics from Blue, Red and Gray by The Who.
(3) This one is obvious. Lyrics from London Calling by The Clash.
(4) Another obvious one. Lyrics from Walking in LA by Missing Persons.
(5) Lyrics from So Fine by ELO.
(6) Lyrics from Where to Now St. Peter? by Elton John.

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“There’s No Escaping It . . .

. . . It chases you in every direction.” A description of the endless rain from our Scottish waitress at a short-ceilinged pub in the tiny hamlet of Kilmartin. Make sure when you read the sentence to roll the Rs to properly hear the musical Scottish accent. (Leslie – do you have the accent down yet?)

Of course, she could have been talking about the passing of time — I can’t believe that we only have 3 weeks left in London! In some ways, I will be sad to leave, but in many more I will be so happy to get back to the States to see family and friends, stretch out in our big house, yard, and the Southern California sunshine, go to a Dodger game (way to go Lakers!), go shopping for fruit and veg at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, eat an In-N-Out burger (Europeans cannot seem to figure out how to cook a good burger), and take a paddle in Santa Monica Bay. It sounds like heaven! But Scotland, Paris, Finland, and the English countryside are also heavenly.

Scotland or Orange County?

In Scotland, the rain did chase us in every direction, even when we thought we were safe. I still feel damp after a couple weeks of dry 80-degree weather in London! On one sparkling sunny day we set off for a walk down to the ocean from Glengorm Castle on the Isle of Mull. On the way back, Mother Nature decided to teach us a lesson (how arrogant, no wellies, rain coats, or umbrellas) by pelting us with hail. The poor dogs cowered and ran. Niels and I were completely soaked and had to spend the rest of the day and night with wet underwear. But, we both agreed that the adventure was well worth the wet underwear.

Western Scotland and the Lower Hebrides are stunning, with crumbling old castles dotting every lonely precipice and lambs dotting every green space. Although not always easy to understand, the people were welcoming and happy to respond every time we had to ask them to repeat themselves. And the local seafood was incredible — mussels, lobster, sole, halibut, sea bass, monk fish, lagoustines . . . . One waitress, upon learning we were from California, enthusiastically responded “Orange County?” There’s no escaping it, American reality TV chases you in every direction. She was rather disappointed when we told her, no, we are from LA and are loving the Scottish weather. 

We stayed at a cozy cottage on the old Kilninver Estate, just 8 miles south of the town of Oban. This is where the dead kings of Scotland, in the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, were laid out for their journey by boat to the holy Isle of Iona for burial. We had amazing views of Loch Feochan which rose and ebbed with the sea tides.

Ugh - Waiting for a New Tire

Arrgh - Waiting for a New Tire

Our trip didn’t start out too well – before we left London we got a flat tire! Luckily, our trusty sat nav (satellite navigation system) directed us to the nearest auto repair shop, which was right next door to a tire store. We didn’t arrive until 9 hours later, after 10 p.m. We all fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows, despite the midges swarming all over the cottage (horrible small flies, but they don’t bite).

The next day we went shopping for groceries in Oban, and took the dogs for a long walk up into the Highlands behind the cottage. A cuckoo wouldn’t stop cuckooing. Amazing views of lochs, hills, and ocean. Of course, we had to watch our step (sheep everywhere!). The rest of the week was amazing despite the mostly dour weather. All I can say is thank God for wellies. Here are some pictures:

View from Sheep Paddock Above Our Cottage

View from Sheep Paddock Above Our Cottage

View of Oban from the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry

View of Oban from the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry

Star Flowers Line the Trails (I have no idea if that is what they are actually called)

Star Flowers Line the Trails (I have no idea if that is what they are actually called)

Stella Figured Out How to Cross the Cattle Grate, Rocky was a Scaredy Dog

Stella Figured Out How to Cross the Cattle Grate, Rocky was a Scaredy Dog

Ba-a-a-ahhh!

Ba-a-a-ahhh!

Bluebells Before Standing Stones - Dating from 3000 BC - in Kilmartin

Bluebells and Standing Stones - Dating from 3000 BC - in Kilmartin

The Isle of Kerrera, from Oban

The Isle of Kerrera, from Oban

Rocky Eyeing the Sheep In Front of Cottage

Rocky Eyeing the Sheep In Front of Cottage

Mull It Over

We took the ferry over to Mull twice – the first day we drove to the Eastern side (Glengorm Castle and Tobermory) and the second day to the Western side, to take another ferry to Iona. Gorgeous island, scary driving!  Most of the road in both directions is single track – which means huge tour buses coming at you fast while you pray for a turn-out between you and the bus. So, although the scenery was spectacular (everywhere you looked, waterfalls off the mountainsides), Niels wasn’t able to do much rubbernecking.

Luckily, there were not too many tourists on Iona, so we experienced its tranquility. A monastic community was founded here in the 6th Century by Saint Columba. The famous Book of Kells, still intact because it was spirited away before the Viking invasions, was penned here, and Iona’s inhabitants carved hundreds of large ornate Celtic crosses, only three of which remain. 

The Frenzen-Smith Clan Before the Storm

The Frenzen-Smith Clan Before the Storm

Tobermory (After the Storm)

Tobermory (After the Storm)

Celtic Cross Before Iona's Hermitage

Celtic Cross Before Iona's Hermitage

Wildflowers Below Glengorm Castle

Wildflowers Below Glengorm Castle

Iona

Iona

Taking the Ferry Back to Oban

Taking the Ferry Back to Oban

View of Mull from the Ferry

View of Mull from the Ferry

Caravans in Cumbria

Rather than make a nine hour drive back to London, we decided to stop halfway for a couple nights in Cumbria, one of the most conservative parts of England (Cumbria just elected a fascist to the European Union Parliament). We didn’t notice the politics, but we did notice warnings on the freeway about horse drawn caravans blocking the roads. This was the weekend before the Appleby Horse Fair, an annual gypsy gathering that has been going on since the 16th Century. Everywhere we went, we saw horses and colorful wooden caravans, in parking lots, in fields, in parks, and trotting along the roads. (Did you know that trailer homes in England are called “static caravans”?)

During this whole trip, Stella’s and Rocky’s favorite activity was chasing and/or barking at sheep. Our neighbor in Scotland warned us that it was legal for sheep owners to shoot dogs that chased their sheep, so we were careful not to let that happen. We couldn’t stop them from barking, however, and often the barking caused a spreading cacophony of baahs and a mass exodus of sheep to the farthest corner of the paddock. Here is a video from Cumbria:

Our cottage was a converted barn, one wall of which served as a fence to the neighboring sheep paddock. Stella made us jump whenever she broke out into hysterical barking at the sight of a curious lamb looking into our windows. After the constant rain of Scotland, we were thrilled with the sunny 80-degree weather, and spent most of our time hanging out and taking walks in the rolling countryside. I love Cumbria’s Nordic geographical terms, such as the word “force” which means waterfall. What a perfect word to describe a waterfall.

Our Cumbrian Cottage

Our Cumbrian Cottage

Cemetery Near Cottage at Sunset

Cemetery Near Cottage at Sunset

The Cumbrian Countryside

The Pennines

Me and the Dogs

Me and the Dogs

Other News

Of course, we are spellbound by British politics (OK, Niels is more spellbound than I am) – watching the Labour Party crumble before our eyes has been quite interesting! Niels voted in the EU’s Parliamentary elections. And, of course, Waiting for Godot was amazing. I couldn’t believe I was in the same room as Sirs McKellen and Stewart. Our next outing will be As You Like It at the Shakespeare’s Globe this week.

Pictures from Paris and Finland coming soon.

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We Are All Worms

So sorry I haven’t blogged for so long! I have been busy hanging out and drinking pints (and Pimm’s cup) with several visitors over the last month, exploring Paris (twice – a subject for my next blog post), and funneling my creative juices into writing class assignments. Here’s an update.

A Trip Back in Time to WWII London

“We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glow-worm.” This is one of my favorite Churchill quotes. A couple days ago, I visited the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum with two friends, Michele and Rigo. From these underground rooms the British coordinated their forces during World War II. In 1945, the rooms were left just as they were on the last day of the war, so now one can view the Map Room (with the original maps and pins used to track movements on the various fronts), the phone rooms, the typing rooms, the Cabinet Room, Churchill’s bedroom, and the Transatlantic Telephone Room from which Churchill phoned President Roosevelt (disguised as a water closet). Nowadays, it is hard to imagine they could manage without computers.

I am fascinated by both WWI and WWII. Almost every day there is some article in the newspaper about one or the other because both are still so fresh in the British psyche. For example, see this interesting article about how General De Gaulle’s intelligence unit in London treated some French men who escaped occupied France and offered their services.

Here are a few other favorite Churchill quotes:

“From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

“Trying to maintain good relations with a Communist is like wooing a crocodile. You do not know whether to tickle it under the chin or beat it over the head.” (In reference to Stalin, of course.)

Stella’s New Trick

On our daily walk to Old Paddington Cemetery, Stella now ritually stops at a water spout and waits for me to turn it on. Here is what inevitably follows: 

We also hang out  for awhile in the empty part of the cemetery, playing with other dogs including our new friend Blue, chewing on sticks, sniffing all the flowers and trees, and watching a family of feral parrots who nested in one of the trees. A few weeks ago, we saw 8 of them frolicking, but I think the babies have grown up and flown the roost. I’ve only seen one parrot in the last two weeks.

A Trip to Burrough Market

I go on Thursdays because the market, open 3-days a week, is insanity on Fridays and Saturdays. Today, as soon as I arrived, I ate a juicy, melt-in-your mouth chicken burger with rocket, salsa, german mustard, and mayo. I know the toppings sounds strange, but the sandwich is quite tasty. Then I tracked down salmon ceviche ingredients: sushi-grade salmon from Applebee’s; a ripe avocado (adequate avocados are difficult to find, the supermarkets refrigerate them so they never ripen – do Brits actually eat hard avocados?); corriander (aka cilantro); a lime; sea salt (there is actually a sea salt vender, so one may choose from different varieties); and a fresh baguette. I also found some other treats: Portuguese salami with fennel; Grand Jura cheese from Payes d’Auge Fromage; pistou olives (marinated in olive oil with fresh basil and garlic); and German pickles from the German deli. Plus a couple of savory pies – one with mushrooms and asparagus for the vegetarian, and the other with chicken, thyme and bacon for moi. I also bought some Welsh Hafod (cheddar cheese) from Neal’s Yard, a cheese shop that specializes in cheese from the British Isles – yes, the Brits produce cheese far tastier than that stinky Stilton cheese. Luckily, they had plenty to choose from, unlike Monty Python’s cheese shop (“Red Leicester? No. Norwegian Jarlberger? No. Gruyere, Emmental? Sorry.”) Click here to see the video on YouTube.

Sometimes I also get a warm mug of mulled wine, but today I opted for a glass of white wine at Bedales, a little wine shop at the Market, surrounded by French speakers. Great spot to people watch!

London Wetland Centre

A Lone Duck

A Lone Duck

A 42 hectare bird refuge, this is the place to get away from noisy London, soak in some sun, and hang out with herons, black-necked swans, nene geese, and all kinds of ducks (goldeneye, smew, plumed whistling, freckled, maned goode, hardhead (so named by hunters because they were difficult to kill), Argentine red shoveler, and South Georgia pintail, just to name a few. “Hides” – sedum-covered huts with thin, rectangular windows that open up to the fresh air – are scattered throughout. It is hard to believe that the Centre – tons of little ponds and two or three large lakes set amid grasses, reeds, trees, shrubs, and flowers – was all cement reservoir just 14 years ago. I wandered and watched for hours, among the nerdy binoculared birdwatchers, the fishing herons, and the rafts of baby ducklings. Until now, I never quite understood the allure of birdwatching. Now I am a fan.

View from a Hide

View from a Hide

A Paddling, Skiff, Team, Dopping, Brace, Bunch, or Badelynge of Ducks (who knew there were so many terms for a group of ducks?)

A Paddling, Skiff, Team, Dopping, Brace, Bunch, or Badelynge of Ducks (who knew there were so many terms for a group of ducks?)

A Heron

A Heron

Poets, Novelists, Propagandists and Jane Austen’s Dead Aunt

I recently took a literary walking tour of Bloomsbury, the old haunt of Virginia Woolf’s circle and many writers and poets. The highlights included the houses of Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, the church in which Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married, and the former offices of Faber & Faber, where T.S. Eliot worked. We marveled at the drain pipe Eliot shimmied down whenever his first wife dropped by. She often marched back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the building, wearing a sandwich board stating on one side, “My husband is T.S. Eliot,” and on the other side, “My husband has abandoned me.” Virginia Woolf described her as being like a bag of ferrets. I wish I had her gift for description!

Another highlight – the imposing edifice of the University of London’s Senate House, where the likes of George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and Graham Greene drafted propaganda for the government during WWII. This building (click here for a photo) could easily have served as Orwell’s model for Big Brother headquarters in 1984. The University of London was founded in 1828 as an alternative to Cambridge and Oxford, where one had to be white, male, and a member of the Church of England to enroll. It was the first university in England to grant a degree to a woman and to employ a woman as a professor.

The Grave of Eliza Austen and Philadelphia Hancock

The Grave of Eliza Austen and Philadelphia Hancock (Credit: Juli S.)

Of course, London is a mecca for literary sightseers like me. On Juli’s first night here, I dragged her up to Hampstead to find the graves of Jane Austen’s aunt and cousin (I had just read Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a must-read for any Jane Austen fan). I think Juli enjoyed herself, especially when we grabbed a pint at an old Hampstead pub, the Holly Bush.

Here are some other London pictures:

Me and Juli (Niels, Photographer)

Me and Juli (Credit: Niels)

Everton Fans Preparing (by Drinking and Singing) for the Big Manchester v. Everton Football Game at the Local Pub

Everton Fans Preparing (by Drinking and Singing) for the Big Manchester v. Everton Football Game at our Local Pub (Niels)

Courtyard of the British Museum (Credit: Juli S.)

Courtyard of the British Museum (Juli S.)

Woman Cycling in Front of Tate Museum (Credit: Niels)

Woman Cycling in Front of Tate Museum (Niels)

Wedding Party on Thames (Credit: Niels)

Wedding Party on Thames (Niels)

Scary Dog at Covent Garden

Scary Dog at Covent Garden

Christy and Me Walking in Hyde Park

Christy and Me Walking in Hyde Park (Niels)

Group of London Marathoners Before Buckhingham Palace Singing "Consider Yourself A Friend" from Oliver

Group of London Marathoners Before Buckhingham Palace Singing "Consider Yourself A Friend" from Oliver (Niels)

To Scotland!

Now it’s time to explore my Scottish roots. Tomorrow, we are driving up to the West Coast of Scotland, where we have rented a cottage (click here to see the cottage) on Kilninver Estate, 8 miles south of Oban. I will not be able to check e-mail while there – so don’t worry if you e-mail and I don’t respond. We’ll also stop for a couple nights in the Lake District, immortalized by William Wordsworth:

From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will. . . .
The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!
(From The Prelude, Book First)

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Stonehenge – “Where the Banshees Live, and They Do Live Well”

Slumber Party!

Hotel des Americains

10 a.m. at the Three-Star Hotel des Americaines

Stella and Rocky were thrilled to have three new napping pals when Kirsti (Niels’s sister), Alex (nephew) and Elie (niece) came for a visit a couple of weeks ago. Although we were on top of each other at the flat, we had a great time riding the Tube, riding double-decker buses, riding the London Eye, riding the Thames Clipper, and riding the pirate ship at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground.

Dogs Provided, No Extra Charge

Dogs Provided, No Extra Charge

A Thrilling Tube Ride

Jet Lagged - A Thrilling Tube Ride

On the Double-Decker

On the Double-Decker

The London Eye, the Thames, and Parliament

The London Eye, the Thames, and Parliament

Ahoy Mates!

Ahoy Mates!

I dragged Alex and Elie to the Playground because adults are not allowed unless accompanied by kids. I think I’m the only one who enjoyed myself. Alex insisted that I specify on this post that he did NOT voluntarily visit the Playground or have any fun there.

“And how they danced, the little children of Stonehenge . . .”

We also went to Stonehenge, which was smaller than I expected. (I know, what a cliche – isn’t that what everyone says after they visit Stonehenge?) Once I distanced myself from the crowds of people who hovered at the entrance, I realized how amazing it was to be on a spot sacred to humans for hundreds of years, starting over 4,000 years ago. The scenery is beautiful – rolling vibrant green stretching in every direction, sheep grazing, dozens of round burial mounds scattered about, spots of forest here and there, and in the middle of it all these strange stones rising up.

I Guess It is Quite Large

I Guess It is Quite Large

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of Spinal Tap as I circled the stones. That movie must enhance the Stonehenge experience (or dampen it, depending on how you look at it) for everyone who visits. If you haven’t seen Spinal Tap, click here for the Stonehenge scene (note – it is a comedy, not a real documentary or rock video). My favorite line: “I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”

We even saw a real, bearded senior druid, named King Arthur Pendragon, who was protesting lack of free public access to the site on behalf of the Council of British Druid Orders. He wore a beaded headband, long black robes, and a cross (huh? didn’t the Druids pre-date Jesus?). I didn’t get a picture, but you can see one by clicking on this link.

Expert Londoners

Engrossed in the Day's News

Engrossed in the Day's News

By the end of the trip, everyone was reading the free dailies on the Tube just like the locals. Other highlights: Elie and Alex forced us to taste disgusting potato crisps (that is the British term for chips). Walker crisps are having a contest among the following for a new flavor: cajun squirrel (ick), builder’s breakfast, chile & chocolate, crispy duck hoisin, fish and chips, onion bhaji. Kirsti saw an unattended parked car rolling backwards, yelled at the person who got out that the car was rolling, then realized that the driver (who was on the right side!) was intentionally putting the car in reverse. And Niels making us all laugh with his terrible imitation of a Cockney accent (his accent sounds like a cross between German and Elmer Fudd).

Escape From London

After the crew departed, Niels and I had the car for two more days – so we escaped the dirty crowded streets of London and headed for Hastings. Because Hastings was also dirty and crowded, we drove right through it without stopping and headed for the Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve. Doggie heaven! Miles of trails along the southern English cliffs covered in blooming yellow gorse (which is actually an invasive plant), streams flowing through glens, forests carpeted with bluebells, and long-haired highland cattle grazing on the heath. We had to traverse one field full of horned cattle, so both Niels and I (city slickers that we are) were a little worried about getting gored. Stella didn’t help by spinning and barking after the cows started walking towards us. I think they were just curious – we lived to tell the tale.

Spectacular Scenery (I Mean the Coast, Not Me and Stella)

Spectacular Scenery (I Mean the Coast, Not Me and Stella)

Gorse

Gorse

Bluebells

Bluebells

A Scary Cow

A Scary Cow

Taking a Break in Battersea Park

Taking a Break in Battersea Park

We ended the weekend with a long walk around Battersea Park, and of course a trip to stock up on supplies at a big supermarket. We await our next visitor, my friend Christy (former junior high pal, high school locker mate, and college roomie)!

Cheers.

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Ja Chci Pivo (I Want Beer)

Can’t believe we have been here three months. In some ways the time has zipped by, in other ways it is dragging. I’m sitting in the living room of the flat, listening to some Led Zeppelin and waiting for Niels to get home (I am a true housewife – dinner is even ready for cooking!). The dogs are also waiting, semi-sleeping with one ear cocked for Niels’s key in the door.

It has been a dismal rainy day. The Welsh say that it is “raining old women and sticks.” I love long walks on rainy days. The rain on the new leafy trees and mad grass in Old Paddington Cemetery (it grows so fast here!) grounds me in the present moment, and how fortunate I am in so many ways. Our street, and the parked cars lining it, are coated in white again – not from snow this time, but from petals of the trees flowering overhead.

Visits with Beaucoup Long Lost Cousins

We are having so many interesting adventures, I just can’t keep up!  About three weeks ago, two cousins, who I have not seen for ten to fifteen years, visited London. This is the first time I met Susan’s kids (Jack, Katie, Carly, and Carolyn) and Lisa’s husband Jeff and their kids Grant and Brooke. So sad that it takes a trip to London for us to reconnect – but I am so happy we did!

We had dinner with Susan, her husband Larry, and the kids in Picadilly and had a great time catching up. Hopefully, we will connect again this summer in California and take the outrigger canoes for a spin in Laguna Beach.

After Susan left, Lisa and company came to town and invited me to hang out with them. We hung out all over London, Oxford, and even Prague. Lisa arranged for her friend Valerie, and Valerie’s co-tour guide Sally, to show us around London and Oxford. I highly recommend them (Londinium Tours) if you are ever in London. Valerie and Sally are full of delightful stories, know all the hidden wonders of England, and – food is always the highlight for me – provide hot tea, coffee, and home-made Victorian lemon cake at just the time you realize you are famished.

The first day, we pulled into a hidden corner of “the City” (the financial center of London) to view a portion of the old Roman wall.  It was a quiet garden oasis, surrounded by high rises. While we walked around the wall and garden, Sally and Valerie prepared individual trays for each of us, with coffee or tea (and milk and as many cubes of sugar as we wanted), and a slice of lemon cake (all with proper china, no less). We sat there in the van (it was a little chilly) and slurped away. Grant and Brooke are now tea afficionados. 

Other highlights – the shop where Harry Potter bought his cauldron (at Leadenhall Market); the Lloyd’s of London building, by the architect of Pompidou Centre (the loos are all boxes on the outside of the building with portholes for windows); the roof and chimneys at Christchurch College where Lewis Carroll used to play hide-and-go-seek with the real Alice; Parliament, and the reason the Queen never enters the House of Commons (Charles the First was the last person to enter that chamber, and we all know what happened to him); the derivation of the noun “float” (the first “floats” were Thames barges decorated for royal processions); and the chapel where Anne Boleyn prayed and is now buried at the Tower of London. I know, I am fascinated by some odd things.

Christchurch Hall (Where Harry Potter Eats)

Christchurch Hall (Where Harry Potter Eats); Brooke Contemplating the Walls

Lewis Carroll Lived in the Right Hand Corner and Alice Played on the Roof

Lewis Carroll Lived in the Right Hand Corner and Alice Played on the Roof

Brooke and Grant in the Stocks at Warwick Castle

Brooke and Grant in the Stocks at Warwick Castle

We Like Tea - More Caffeine!

Brooke and Grant At Tea Time

Sally and Valerie, Our Lovely Guides

Sally and Valerie, Our Lovely Guides

A Tsunami in Praha

Exploring Praha

Exploring Praha

Now, the story behind “ja chci pivo,” which means “I want beer” in Czech (I think). Before our visit to Prague, my cousin Lisa and I – descended from Czech grandparents – knew only two Czech phrases between us, both beer-related. Really, the Cernys are not a huge family of alcoholics, we just like a good time. Lisa’s father (my uncle Harry) taught her “ja chci pivo.” And, my grandfather taught me “na zdravi.” Whenever we visited my grandparents in Hawaii, at dinner my grandfather would hold up his beer, wait for the rest of us to hold up our glasses of whatever we happened to be drinking, then shout “na zdravi!” (Translation: “To your health!”)

Now, thanks to Lucie, Petr, Belinda, and Oliver, our hosts in Prague, I have a much larger (although limited) vocabulary. Lucie is the granddaughter of my grandfather’s nephew, Leos. I believe that makes her my second cousin once removed? Lucie and Petr were kind enough to let Niels and I crash at their first-class pad for a couple nights. They wined (beered) and dined us, showed us all over Prague, and then hosted a huge birthday celebration for Oliver and Belinda, which was also a family reunion (or a tsunami, as Lucie calls it). And the family is enormous: Leos and his wife, Hana, their two daughters Andrea (husband Miro) and Helena (husband Lubomir), their granddaughters Veronika (husband Jiri, children Eliska, Stepan and Amalie), Lucie (husband Petr, children Belinda and Oliver), Zuzana (husband Radek, children Viktorie and Marek), Ondrej, Marketa, and Kristyna (who couldn’t make it because she is in Wales). Petr’s sister, Eva, from San Francisco, also joined the party.

Lisa and I both teared up when we met Leos – he looks so much like our grandfather! I wasn’t expecting such an emotional reunion. Unfortunately, we forgot to take a family picture, but we have tons of pictures of everyone:  

Me, Leos, and Lisa

Me, Leos, and Lisa

Lucie, Andrea, and Niels

Lucie, Andrea, and Niels

Lucie, Petr, Jeff, Lisa, Niels, Me, Belinda, Brooke, Oliver and Grant

Lucie, Petr, Jeff, Lisa, Niels, Me, Belinda, Brooke, Oliver and Grant

Singing Happy B-Day to Oliver and Belinda

Singing Happy B-Day to Oliver and Belinda

Oliver Eating Cake

Oliver Eating Cake

Czech Coffin Cookies

Czech Coffin Cookies

We had a great time – endless amounts of Pilsner Urquell and food, including cakes, cookies, little open-faced sandwiches with salami, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and pickles. Of course, while in Prague I also had to have a meal of roast pork, sauerkraut and kledneky (bread dumplings). Petr, Lucie and Andrea showed us around Prague. We started by cheering for Lisa, who ran the Prague half-marathon. Then, Petr and Lucie took us to the apartment building once owned by our family – we took a picture of the family from the same position as a picture taken 70 years ago, in 1938, of my grandparents, Leos and his mother, and my mother and her brother. Although my grandfather intended on staying in Prague for several years, they decided to cut their stay short when the Nazis came to town. On our final day, Andrea took us on a walk of the park above Hradcany.

Lisa After Her Run, with Belinda, Brooke, Grant and Oliver

Lisa After Her Run, with Belinda, Brooke, Grant and Oliver

In Front of the Former Cerny Apartment Building

In Front of the Former Cerny Apartment Building

A Statue on The Charles Bridge
The Old Town Square and Easter Market

The Old Town Square and Easter Market

Some Scary Looking Puppets

Some Scary Looking Puppets

The Vltava River

The Vltava River

The Castle Square Where President Obama Spoke a Few Days Later

The Castle Square Where President Obama Spoke a Few Days Later

Some Graffiti

Some Graffiti

At Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square)

At Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square)

Dekuyji to all our relatives in Praha, we had a great time!

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Caught in the Kettle

One of my Favorite Posters of the Day     

One of my Favorite Posters of the Day

Wednesday’s G20 protest started at four different locations, led by four papier mache horse puppets, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Of course, this is not  the world of Harry Potter, so the puppets were not magically leading the protests by themselves, people were trotting them along. Each of the four groups converged on the Bank of England, an appropriate choice in this financially unstable time, as the Bank was the first imperial centralized bank in the world. Each individual march was against something – war, financial crime, climate chaos, and borders.

Predictably, I joined the march against financial crime. It was not the most uplifting protest I’ve attended. Although there was plenty of yelling, banners, and several bands playing music here and there, the mostly British protesters didn’t seem to have a common rallying cry like we have in the U.S. (such as “si se puede“) or, more importantly, a common purpose. I didn’t feel the unity I normally feel at protest marches, I mostly felt curiosity. Perhaps it was just me – I am probably still too enamored of, and hopeful about, President Obama, and am not presently feeling the kind of anger about injustice one needs for an adequate protest march experience. I was more excited to hear the President’s helicopter pass overhead when he arrived on Tuesday night.

When I reached the Bank, I hung out for awhile and took a few pictures. 

March Across London Bridge, with the "Gherkin" Building in the Background

March Across London Bridge; Guess Which Building is Commonly Referred to as the "Gherkin"?

London Sightseeing

London Sightseeing

"DERIVATIVES - THE BANKSTERS ARE STEALING YOUR LIFE SAVINGS, PENSIONS, AND YOUR CHILDRENS FUTURES"

"DERIVATIVES - THE BANKSTERS ARE STEALING YOUR LIFE SAVINGS, PENSIONS, AND YOUR CHILDRENS FUTURES"

"EAT THE BANKERS"

"EAT THE BANKERS" - A Little Odd, Don't Think They'd Be Too Tasty

Bank of England in the Background; One of the Four Horsemen Behind the Union Poster

Bank of England in the Background; One of the Four Horsemen Behind the Union Poster

A Homeless Advocate Has Taken Over the Duke of Wellington Statue

A Homeless Advocate Has Taken Over the Duke of Wellington Statue

I Like the Small Print on this Poster - "Put People Before Profit"

I Like the Small Print on this Poster - "Put People Before Profit"

Tons of People

Tons of People

Then, I got hungry and decided to leave. Just as I was walking away from the Bank of England, I was “kettled.” The police decided to block all access into the area, which is certainly understandable. What was not understandable is that they refused to let any protesters out. This manouvre is call the “kettle.” Ridiculous!! It seemed to me that the vast majority of the peaceful protesters would have wandered off on their own, without incident, had the police let them. Instead, tensions mounted as more and more people were prevented from leaving. Not a good situation.

I found a somewhat peaceful spot against a building and stood there for a couple of hours, chatting with another curious American and a British couple with their 19-year-old daughter. Together, we watched other protesters rush towards one of the blocked streets in an attempt to break out of the police barricade. Although a few people were hurt and arrested, the police and protesters eventually settled back into an uneasy truce.

View from my "Peaceful" Spot

View from my "Peaceful" Spot

After a couple hours, Niels called to tell me that, according to the BBC, the police were allowing people to exit from a street towards the west. I walked in that direction, turned left down a little side street and kept walking. Although I expected to find police blocking the end of the street, it was entirely unmanned (and un-womanned). I had escaped! I don’t know whether that exit was eventually closed. The news media reported that it was another 5 hours before people were allowed to leave, and then only after providing their names, contact information, and having their photos taken.

So, I am safe and happy to be at home, watching the remaining protests from the sofa. And next time I will think twice about joining a protest in the UK.

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A Tour of Some Dark, and Light, Moments

It has been awhile since I’ve posted, and we have been busy! Last weekend, we decided to take a break from London’s crowded streets, endless traffic, mysterious smells, noise and chaos. We rented a car and aimed for the horizons of Kent.

I am happy to report that I did not have to lean to the right as often as I did during our first rental car fiasco; Niels has mastered driving on the left side of the road. However, we Angelinos got lost several times because we could not figure out Britain’s screwy highway system. Ridiculously, you cannot get from one major highway to another by a connecting ramp. Instead, when you see a sign with the number of the highway you want in parentheses, after the number of some other highway, this means you are supposed to exit and manoevre your way through a small village and several traffic circles with confusing signs, to get to the other major highway (which passes right over or under the highway you are coming from). It makes no sense.

Murder in the Cathedral

Canterbury Cathredral

Canterbury Cathedral

Despite this strange system, we eventually found our way to our main destination, Canterbury, a medieval walled town of cobbled winding streets enclosing Canterbury Cathedral. Although the Cathedral does not quite possess the same level of dramatic beauty as French gothic cathedrals (such as Notre Dame), it has a stunning beauty of its own, stemming in part from its tragic history.

The Cathredral is the seat of the top cleric in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Prior to England’s split with Rome, every once in awhile a vocal archbishop would stir things up by claiming that the Pope’s authority trumped that of the King of England. This had tragic consequences when, in 1170, then Archbishop Thomas à Becket was stabbed by four of Henry II’s knights while praying in the Cathedral. For the following 3 to 4 centuries, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visited Becket’s shrine to pray. The shrine was eventually destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII.

The experience of standing at the site of Becket’s murder, while listening to the University of Kent orchestra rehearse Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major (“Eroica”), was indescribable. How amazing to be on the exact spot where thousands of medieval pilgrims poured out in prayer whatever was heavy on their hearts. I could almost feel their whispered requests swirling around me. I sat and soaked it in, adding my own prayers to the mix. I didn’t want to leave.

Where Thomas à Beckett was Murdered

Where Thomas à Becket was Murdered

View of the Cathedral Through Choir Seating

View of the Cathedral Through Choir Seating

This is One Long Cathedral

This is One Long Cathedral

Former Location of Beckett's Shrine

Former Location of Becket's Shrine

A Visit to the Channel

Rocky, Stella and Me on Broadstairs Beach

Rocky, Stella and Me on Broadstairs Beach

After Canterbury, we drove to a little resort town on the English Channel, Broadstairs, the vacation spot of Charles Dickens. We took the dogs for a long beach walk, almost without incident, except that I almost pulled an “Elie.”

A couple of years ago, Niels’s 7-year-old niece, Elie, had the honor of holding Stella’s leash while walking in Griffith Park. Alex, his nephew, started running down the hill. Stella decided to trot after him. So Elie started trotting. Stella sped up. So Elie sped up. Elie got to the point where she couldn’t quite keep up with Stella and Alex. Rather than letting go of the leash, Elie held on and went flying forward, and Stella dragged her along the dirt path, scraping Elie’s knees. It was a long, painful walk home that day for poor Elie (and her mum, who had to carry her much of the way).

Because Stella loves to swim – if we are anywhere near a body of water, Stella will immerse herself before we even know it is there – and we didn’t want to get an already dirty rental car any dirtier, I kept Stella on the leash while we walked the beach. Stupidly, I threw a rock for her to chase, and I threw it farther than the length of the leash. She ran, and ran, and like Elie I didn’t let go of the leash. Although she almost pulled my shoulder out of the socket, I managed to pull her back and keep myself upright. A woman whose dog was running in and out of the water witnessed the incident, and asked why I didn’t let Stella off the lead. I tried to explain that we didn’t want to get her wet, rental car, small flat in London, etc. She looked at me like I was a complete moron. So I was. I let Stella off the leash after that.

Murder on the Streets of London

Sorry, the next morbid tale does not involve Jack the Ripper, it involves Charles I. I visited the Royal Banqueting House, built in the early 17th century by James I. All that is left of Whitehall Palace, the residence of many illustrious monarchs including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the House is a huge ornate room that was used by English monarchs to stage elaborate ceremonies of state and performances called “masks.” The ceilings are covered with enormous Rubens paintings of flying cherubim crowning James I (presumably on behalf of You-Know-Who) and unifying Scotland and England under one monarch.

In 1649, the Banqueting House was the scene of another English tragedy. After Charles I, the son of James I, was captured in a civil war between Parliament (led by Oliver Cromwell) and royalist supporters, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Charles I was led through the Banqueting House to scaffolding fronting it, where he was beheaded before hundreds of spectators. His last words were, “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.”

Cooking Medieval Fish

Given that I live with a pescatarian (a vegetarian fish eater), I decided to take a fish cooking class at Eat Drink Talk. The food was delicious – we started with a Moroccan-style version of a mojito, then proceeded to cook roast seabass with fennel-herb stuffing, halibut with spiced dressing and parsley-chorizo mash (the British term for mashed potatoes), salmon ceviche on crostini, and roast lemon sole with chermoula. Since then, I’ve been to the fishmonger at Borrough Market and have cooked the seabass (head, eyes, fins and all!), the halibut, and the salmon.

My Own Little Sea Bass

My Own Little Stuffed Sea Bass

However, I just cannot find the courage to cook the lemon sole – a scary medieval-looking flat fish that is also cooked whole. Perhaps when Juli visits I’ll find the courage to give it a try.

Scary!  Photo by Asbjorn Hansen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/xoto/97219653/

Yikes! A Lemon Sole (photo by Asbjorn Hansen, http://www.flickr.com/photos/xoto/97219653/)

Another Dark Moment

The final dark moment in this posting – seeing Dr. Atomic, the John Adams opera regarding the moments before the first atom bomb test in the New Mexico desert. The opera was powerful, fantastic, and would have been better if the rock hard balcony seats were not angled downward, so that we had to brace ourselves to keep from pitching into the section below.

Other than that, we loved the opera. I had many favorite parts. At the end of the first Act, the anguished Robert Oppenheimer character, alone after meeting with an enthusiastic and impatient General Groves, sings the words of the following John Donne sonnet:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you

As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend; . . .

I also loved the Tewa Indian’s lullaby to Oppenheimer’s baby, and the ending. After enormous vibrations rumble through your seat and out the top of your head while the cast watches the Trinity explosion, the rumbling dies down into silence, a screen falls, and a girl’s voice asks repeatedly for water in Japanese while images of Nagasaki and Hiroshima appear.

A Walk in the Park

Niels and I just walked the dogs in Queen’s Park, much transformed from the day of snow. On this sunny 65-degree day, we joined the plein air painter, his subject a pink flowering tree; fields of giant daffodils at the park’s edges; yellow, pink, and white blooming and budding trees overhead; and the mummy-pram brigade.

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