Sunday, 30 August 2009

Alice: trying to get back to her roots

The Rose: Just what species or, shall we say, genus are you, my dear?

Alice: Well, I guess you would call me... genus, humanus... Alice.

Queen of Hearts: Now, where do you come from?

Alice: Well, I'm trying to find my way home . . .

Alice: Oh, no, no. I was just hoping
that you could help me find my way.

Cheshire Cat: Well that depends on where you want to get to.

Daisy: What kind of a garden do you come from?

Alice: Oh, I don't come from any garden.
Daisy: Do you suppose she's a wildflower?

Alice: If I had a world of my own,
everything would be nonsense.
Nothing would be what it is
because everything would be what it isn't.
And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn't be,
and what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?

Mad Hatter: Would you like a little more tea?

Alice: Well, I haven't had any yet, so I can't very well take more.
March Hare: Ah, you mean you can't very well take less.
Mad Hatter: Yes. You can always take more than nothing.

Alice's Shop

Cheshire Cat: If I were looking for a white rabbit,
I'd ask the Mad Hatter.

Alice: The Mad Hatter? Oh, no no no...

White Rabbit: I'm late / I'm late /
For a very important date.
/ No time to say "Hello." / Goodbye.
/ I'm late, I'm late, I'm late.

After transatlantic travel, and considerable delay,
Alice finally makes it from California to Oxford.
Thanks to ArtSpark Theatre
for the inspiration
and loan of Alice.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Snapshots of Lake Windermere

The green hills that rise above
Lake Windermere
(the largest lake in England)
are still the dominion of Beatrix Potter --
the woman who helped immortalize
a particular kind of English cosiness:
of vegetable patches and garden gates
rocking chairs by the fire
and cambric tea.

Here is the garden path
that Tom Kitten tripped down.
He, and all of the other pastel products
of Beatrix Potter's imagination,
are part of Hill Top.

The popularity of those tiny tales
gave Beatrix Potter the income
to buy a house of her own.
At the age of 41,
she was finally able to break free
of the Victorian vise
of her parents' care.
Photography isn't allowed in the dim,
interior still-life of Hilltop.
This group of Japanese tourists
wielded umbrellas, not cameras.

Hilltop is like a grown-up doll's house,
furnished for one person's taste and comfort.
It has a treasure room
and dolls who were born two centuries ago.
Completely unchanged,
it feels like a place preserved
by a sleeping beauty spell. . .
if only someone would just light the fire
and put the kettle on.

The books mirror the house:
Here is the spinning wheel,
the wooden dresser full of china,
the open fire,
the flagstone floor,
the gleaming grandfather clock
and the thick oriental carpet.
Eventually, Beatrix Potter
owned 4000 acres of land
in the Lake District.
Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck
were supplanted
by her interest in real animals,
particularly Herdwick sheep.
She left the land and the herds of sheep
Perhaps this solitary ewe,
grazing near the house,
is an heir
of one of her prize-winners.
After her father died,
Beatrix Potter bought her mother a house
in nearby Bowness.
(Today, Bowness is the home
and a dozen sweet shops.)

Mother and daughter were separated
by Lake Windermere and the hills
that rose above it;
close, but not too close.
You can drive around the lake,
but it's faster to take the ferry
or perhaps one of these little red boats
across the water.
The fog followed us
as we walked around the lake.
Not a good day for sailing . . .
the boats looked like toys
abandoned in a bathtub.

If the day is too damp
for walking,
you can just admire the view
The tea is served in silver pots,
with a salver of shortbread.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Snapshots of Grasmere

Even in August, the Lake District is smothered in clouds.
It rained; we got wet; we stopped for a nice cuppa.
I know that those beautiful green hills
draw legions of walkers
But for me, this was the quintessence
of our visit to Grasmere.
Apparently, Dorothy Wordsworth managed to spend
24 pounds on tea in one year.
The rent on Dove Cottage was only 8 pounds,
just to put it into perspective.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
is on every menu.
Do try it if you get the chance.
For such a tiny village, there is a
dense concentration of cafes and tea-shops.
There is plenty of daffodil kitsch, too.
around Grasmere,
but I doubt you will manage it.
Dove Cottage
was once a public house.
Perhaps the conviviality lived on
in the walls and slate floor and buttery?
I wonder what Dorothy and William drank
with their many illustrious guests:
Coleridge (who lived with them, off and on)
and Charles and Mary Lamb (another famous sister)
and Thomas De Quincey, the infamous opium-eater
who later took over the lease.
So much poetry in those walls,
but no desk.
William Wordsworth wrote in a cutlass chair,
so-called because you could sit in it
without removing your sword.
I'm fairly sure
despite his Revolutionary and Romantic reputation
he subscribed to the
"pen is mightier than the sword" philosophy.
Anyway, his sister tended to act
as his amanuensis.
The house was incredibly dark
with a coal-burning stove
and not much ventilation.
No wonder the Wordsworths
spent most of their time
in Nature.
Dove Cottage was "acquired for the nation" in 1890.
(Wordsworth's Lakeland.)
Such a plain gravestone for Dorothy.
Ernest de Selincourt described her literary contributions:
"probably the most remarkable and the most distinguished
of English prose writers
who never wrote a line for the general public."
Her Grasmere Journals,
just four small notebooks,
were written for William's pleasure.
Her observances inspired some of his
most memorable poems.
while we were in Grasmere,
but I kept getting distracted by other things,
found in a bookshop in Bowness.
Gray and green
are the colours of Grasmere.
If we had stayed longer,
I might have grown a layer of moss, too.
This pond is just outside of Grasmere
in some woods familiar to William and Dorothy.
William liked to declaim as he walked,
and Dorothy collected his words like
so many drops of rain.
I tried to get Sigmund to compose some poetry
on the spot
but he declined.
He still feels bitter about studying
The Prelude when he was a schoolboy.
This is the most charming
of the many, many sheep pictures
that I felt compelled to snap.
Sheep are a common sight in the Lake District.
Although the Wordsworth industry dominates Grasmere
it isn't terribly touristy.
This circus tent was an incongruous sight.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Blog Camp

I've been to Stonehenge several times, but there is always something a bit startling about seeing it -- just there, up on the rise of the hill, as one putters single-file down the A303. It looks exactly how you imagine it will look; (and why shouldn't it, really, because we've all seen images of those iconic slabs of standing stone.) And yet, there is something about its very familiarity that always feels surprising to me. Somehow, it manages to feel both grand and cozy, familiar and unfamiliar, all at the same time.

I know that I'm too fond of stretching metaphors, but it's not unlike meeting blog friends in the flesh (and voice and mannerism). So strangely familiar, and somehow known . . . and yet suddenly there is unfamiliar texture and context, too.

This weekend, I hosted a Blog Camp at my house -- sort of an English franchise of the Danish original. It was not unlike the summer camps that I attended as a child, at least in the sense that we talked nonstop, laughed a lot and didn't sleep much.

Of course, the activities were a bit different: We didn't go swimming, build a fire circle, or sing Kumbaya, and the only "hike" we took was more of a stroll -- with the ultimate destination being a pub at the end of the road. And of course we had lots of wine and cappuccino, and fancy Nikon cameras, and twitterings, and field trips to World Heritage Sites . . . and I definitely didn't enjoy any of those at Prairie Valley Church Camp.

However, it had exactly the same intensity as a summer camp experience. In a very short time, strangers -- (albeit, strangers whose online "diaries" I had been reading for months) -- felt more like best friends. Even better, there was the knowledge that promises "to write" and "stay in touch" would be kept.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Caramel Corn

Eric Ravilious

Inside or Outside?
It is the dilemma of all summer entertaining in England.

It's not enough to listen to the weather report, or even to scan the early morning sky, for the weather is nothing if not changeable.

Barbeques and picnics can be glorious, but only if weather conditions are just right. In my mind -- and frankly, that's the only place this idyllic scene has taken place -- children play croquet under a crisp, cloudless sky while parents sip champagne and eat strawberries under a bower of roses. In reality, I've planned many a picnic which ended up with too many people huddled around my kitchen table. We've also toughed out many an evening barbeque -- with all of the guests begging for jackets and jumpers.

Last Friday, my youngest daughter had six friends over for a sleepover party. Unlike me, who cares only for the food when it comes to party planning, she fretted over the food and the entertainment. After considerable cogitation, she drew up two plans: one for inside, and one for outside. If the weather was warm and dry, we would have a barbeque. If the weather was cold and wet, we would make homemade pizza.

Only one detail remained consistent: no matter what the weather, we would have homemade caramel corn.

When I got married, my mother made me a cookbook of family recipes. Under the Miscellaneous section, there are kid-pleasing recipes for pancakes, hot fudge sauce, coffee can ice cream, Chex party mix and pull later taffy. There is also a recipe for microwave caramel corn: a bit of late 1970s history, from the days when microwaves were a great novelty. I only remember to make it every few years, but when I do, I'm always delighted because it is DELICIOUS and easy and fun to make with children.

As summer winds down, and everyone gears up for the rush rush rush of the school year routine, it is a worthy afternoon project . . . and will, at least, lend some novelty to another afternoon spent watching DVDs. If you do let children have a go, make sure that you reserve a bag of this good stuff for yourself. It makes a lot, but a small gathering of children can snarf it down before the hapless adult has managed to clean up the kitchen.

Caramel Corn

Special Equipment: You will need a large paper bag and a microwave for this recipe.

Two batches of popcorn

8 ounces packed light brown sugar
4 ounces butter
2 ounces honey or white Karo syrup or Lyle’s Golden Syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt


First, a few words about popcorn: don’t even think of using microwave popcorn. It is nasty and full of chemicals. You need to make popcorn the old-fashioned way, which is really very easy. You will need a large pot with a lid and handles on the side (so you can hold it to shake it). I use my spaghetti/soup pot, but when I was a child we had a special seasoned pot just for popcorn. On medium to medium-high heat, heat 2-3 tablespoons of a light vegetable oil (like sunflower, canola, etc). Then add your popcorn – I think that 2/3s of a cup is about right. Make sure to shake your pan back and forth, so you don’t burn the popcorn, and take it off the heat when it has almost stopped popping. Don’t forget to have a large bowl at the ready!

After you have made two batches of popcorn, using this method and quantity, pour all of your popcorn in a paper bag.

Next, you will make the caramel.
Place the brown sugar, butter and syrup in a large glass measuring cup or bowl. (Check picture for size. A 16 oz measuring cup is not big enough.) Microwave this mixture for approximately 1 ½ minutes – or until butter has completely melted. Then, stir until smooth, with all of the ingredients fully incorporated.

Here is the fun science experiment part: Add the vanilla, baking soda and salt and microwave on high for 2 more minutes. The baking soda will activate and the mixture will foam up.

Pour the syrup over the popcorn, and stir well with a long wooden spoon. Then, fold the bag down tightly. The last step is to heat the popcorn in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes. (The recipe says 3, but I thought that 2 was plenty! You don’t want to burn it.)

Remove to a large bowl. The popcorn will be hot and sticky at first, but when it cools it will become crisp. If the weather is humid, store the popcorn in Ziploc bags as soon as it cools.

This is delicious, addictive stuff! Make sure to have some when it is warm – although don’t be too hasty and burn your tongue.

As for the party, we decided to play it conservatively and go with the "Inside" plan: pizza, dancing and movies. (As luck would have it, the day ended up being warm and dry.) The girls ended up playing in the creek, which hadn't been part of any plan . . . but that's just how parties go.

It's just as well that I had a lot of "tester" bites when I was making the caramel corn, because there weren't any leftovers . . . not even for the vacuum cleaner.

So now, it's almost Friday again and I'm planning for six more friends who are coming to visit. And I'm wondering: Will we be eating inside or outside? (And should I make more caramel corn? Because it's a really good snack for people who spend a lot of their time at computers.)

Saturday, 8 August 2009


August isn't the most colorful month in the gardening calendar.

Almost everything looks a bit frayed, overgrown, or yellowed at the edges. (You can just glimpse the dried brown heads of the once brilliantly purple allium. Their former glory exists only in my blog sidebar now.)

For some reason, though, there are great clouds of butterflies everywhere.

On Thursday, I had to take my youngest daughter to the Jane Austen House with me. For several patient hours, she sat on a wooden bench and knitted in the garden. There was one magical moment in which a swirl of white butterflies looked like a moveable crown upon her head. Sadly, it was captured only in my memory.

Why are butterflies such an irresistible subject for the photographer? Is it because they are the very essence of what is ephemeral?

My youngest daughter, still impervious to the charms of cell phones and the like, spent hours fashioning a sari from her big sister's old duvet cover. She still likes to play dress-up -- not for any alluring reasons, but just for fun. I wonder if this will be her last childish summer?

A few weeks ago, a dear blog-friend sent me a card with the following quotation from Edith Wharton: If only we could stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.

Happiness is so hard to pin down, but I do try to recognize it when I see it.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

A bit of Spanish surrealism

I'm feeling Dali-esque

We got back from Spain exactly two weeks ago, but I haven't had time to finish processing it -- not to mention editing the pictures or writing about it! It seems like we hit the English ground running . . . so busy trying to catch up with all of the friends and family that we have no time to see during the school year. Our summer calendar, which I always imagine as white and wide-open, is all blacked out.

One of my dear blog friends described herself as a "sociable loner," and it seems like such an apt description to me (or should that be of me?). I need to unpack my suitcases and get back in touch with my loner side -- not to mention my blog friends. The sociable side feels as stretched as this reflection of Salvador Dali.

If you are ever in Figueres, or even close to it, I strongly urge you to visit Salvador Dali's Theatre-Museum. It is a completely over-the-top visual extravaganza created by the artist himself -- and truly unique, as this glimpse of the exterior wall reveals.

I'm not sure what the little golden man is meant to represent - was SD giving himself an Oscar? -- but those lumpish triangles are actually loaves of bread, and yes, those are eggs. Apparently, they were the fuel for Dali's creativity in more ways than one.

Bread has been one of the oldest subjects of fetishism and obsessions in my work, the number one, the one to which have I have been most faithful.
(Salvador Dali)

Although Dali talked all sorts of rubbish, I agree with him about bread!

As for eggs, I can't see an egg these days without thinking of the sad demise of Ralph and Lauren. When we arrived home from our Spanish vacation, they were reported missing by the neighbors. At this point, we have to assume that they are truly gone. Since the gate was closed, and no feathers have been found, we have to suspect hen-napping. It's all a bit surreal.
And for the first time in three years, I'm out of eggs!

Dali's table: in the Hotel Duran

I always like to know about the food aspect of things, so I was fascinated by Dali's special table at the Hotel Duran. Since we may never be in Figueres again, we opted for the Dali Smörgåsbord: Theater-Museum, jewelery display, and tour of Dali's Figueres -- which included his childhood home, his teddy bear, and his special "cellar" at this Figueres landmark. Anyone can reserve Dali's table, and observe the various pictures and other memorabilia on display. If you run out of vinegar (not to mention white wine), just help yourself from one of the casks!

As I was snapping this picture, the waiter suddenly emerged, like an apparition, from the darkness. The camera ending up catching what I hadn't seen -- a very Dali-esque effect, I thought. So much of his art deals with optical illusions, and he liked experimenting with lenses.

Jamón serrano

This large pig haunch was displayed, rather luridly, in the middle of the restaurant. The waiter carved directly from it.

I suppose that Dali ate ham with his bread, but no one ever mentioned it.

Dali, Gaudi and pigs: the big three in Catalonia.

(you can just glimpse the tower)
the Pyrenées loom in the background

According to the Dali myth, Gala was wife/mother/goddess/muse/queen to the great artist. Her face and form, often linked with mythological subjects, appear over and over in Dali's work.

I'm not sure if Muse is all that it is cracked up to be, though. Apparently, he wasn't the easiest man to live with. I got the impression that he didn't have much of a sense of humour -- for all of his love of trickery -- and that he was an egoist of the highest order. When persistently questioned, our tour guide revealed that he was often bad-tempered and known to berate Gala for her spending habits.

Nevertheless, Dali did buy his wife a castle -- complete with throne. Whether it was an act of homage, or penance, I'm sure it suited his own sense of self-aggrandizement and myth-making. The best bit is that he had to ask permission to visit. Well, supposedly.

Bon Bon and I thought that the castle was lovely, although given the chance we would probably re-decorate. Sigmund was underwhelmed by its dainty size, though, and kept referring to it as Gala's "semi." (Unlike Salvador, Sigmund does have a sense of humour -- particularly when it comes to taking the piss.)

It was a castle on a nice human scale. Quite unlike Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece -- La Sagrada Familia.

(still under construction)

My children are not the most willing of cultural tourists. (I think that we blew their fuses in Florence two summers ago.) Any kind of church or cathedral immediately provokes a powerful response -- but not of the sacred kind. It did sort of amuse me when my world-heritage-site-weary daughter said, "But why do we have to visit this church? It's not even finished."

I have quite the opposite response. Everything about this grand cathedrals fills me with awe. There is something about a project that won't be finished in a human lifetime -- or even several decent life-spans -- which I find unutterably inspiring, and yes, surreal. These ambitious projects transcend all of our petty human traits: greed, impatience, short attention-spans, the notion of private ownership. With a bit of luck (and lots of money), La Sagrada Familia might be finished . . . more than 100 years after Gaudi died.

Gaudi's work can be seen all over Barcelona, and although it is always described as "modern," it doesn't really suit my mental image (metallic, glassy and sleek) of that word. Supposedly, he drew his inspiration from nature's forms -- but they are terribly strange in his renderings. More often than not, they remind me of the witch's candy house in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. Alluring, ornate and a bit nightmarish.

You can look and look . . . but it's as if your eye can't entirely absorb what it is seeing.

From far away, I zoomed in on this tiny piece of the Nativity in the Temple of La Sagrada Familia. Apparently, every little detail has meaning. I think that it looks a bit like an overfrosted cake from a distance, but all of that texture is fascinating if you can home in on it.

from the Facade of Birth
one of the many details
from the Temple of La Sagrada Familia

Mae West
said that Too much of a good thing can be wonderful. But more often, I think that too much of good thing is probably just too much.