Taxis And Texans

After going to brunch and listening to the gospel choir on Sunday, I spent Monday vegging. I don’t know if it’s because I’m on the final leg of this trip now or whether its because I’m feeling a little travel weary but my drive to trawl through Downtown Austin somehow wasn’t there.

AUSTIN10I think I was also dreading my plans for Tuesday: I was going to blitz shop. In my normal life I enjoy shopping. And, to be honest, I thought at the start of Plan B that as I travelled the world I would do clothes, shoe and handbag shopping as I went along. But even early on, in Italy, home of the lovely shoe shops, I found I really was not in the mood for much retail therapy. In fact, all the way up to this Tuesday I had bought a very limited number of items and several of these purchases were predicated by the weather i.e. I bought a coat because I was going to be wandering around in zero degrees Celsius! But I did want to do some shopping before returning home, including some of my Christmas presents.

AUSTIN12I headed for a giant outdoor mall on Tuesday. I have to say the Americans know how to do a mall. The fact that I came away with the sense of having had a positive day possibly had a lot to do with the fact that the sun was shining brightly and so, even though it was rather brisk temperature wise, I didn’t feel too cold while wandering from shop to shop. And shop I did. I got most of my seasonal gifts and a few items for me, spent time at my favourite coffee shop in the world and ate Chinese food as an early dinner in a restaurant. The highlight of my day out though wasn’t a good deal or the perfect shoes (sadly, although I did buy a pair of quite lovely ankle boots they do not qualify as “perfect shoe” material) or a fabulous LBD (although I did buy one of these too). The highlight was the taxi ride back.

AUSTIN1And here I have to raise a hand to just about every taxi driver I’ve met throughout this jaunt. I have had the funniest, most interesting, at times odd, down to earth conversations with them. From the guy who went into detail about how corrupt local government was in one of the towns I was in to another who explained to me, deadly serious, that the televising of football (American, that is) is one giant conspiracy because he’d worked out that the ball was in play only for something like eighteen minutes within the whole game, in every game, and the rest was just filler with “them” trying to brainwash the viewing public with ads and “messages”. Oh yes.

But the taxi driver who brought be back into Austin from the shopping was lovely. A musician, originally from California, who is part of a bluegrass band and with whom I had the loveliest conversation which turned into an attempted chat up by him. It was interesting to hear about the music scene in Austin from someone directly involved in it. Austin is famous for this and bands flock here to play at live venues – even the smallest bars and cafes have stages here – in the hope they’ll be discovered. My new friend Nate informed me that it’s become a highly cutthroat environment and that those who remember it from a few years ago say that it’s not a change for the better.¬†But the opportunities are obviously here for young talent who wants to try and break into the world of music. He told me about his music and I told him about Plan B. I got out of the cab feeling quite good at having been told by a late twenty something that I was the most interesting woman he’d ever met. I can live with that ūüėČ

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Yesterday I did some sightseeing in Downtown Austin, namely around the Capitol. The building itself is quite striking but it’s the grounds that really made me smile. The gardens are large and dotted with sculptures and cannon and the loveliest foliage. I spent over an hour just wandering around snapping away. The building houses the Texas State Capitol – that is the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor. It is crowned by a statue of the Goddess of Liberty, a statue that originally was in the grounds before being placed at the top of the dome.

AUSTIN4And then I returned to my hotel room and packed for the last time. Yes, Plan B is fast coming to its end. As I write this I’m in an airport hotel the night before I begin the long haul flight back to London and then onto Gibtaltar. I’m a little shell shocked that I’m here, at this point in time. But I’ll speak about that a little more in my next post.

AUSTIN3For now I’m going to just say that I’ve enjoyed Texas a great deal more than I thought I would. The people I’ve chatted with and met have been charming and gracious. The cities have been lovely and the ranch will always stand out as an amazing experience. Doors have been opened for me, manners have been beautifully displayed and “Yes ma’am” grows on you when you realise it’s done naturally and not as a practised routine. This is not to say that everything here makes sense to me. Just about every Texan I’ve spoken to has been so far to the right in the political spectrum that the centre is but a faded spectre across the range. It obviously works for them but it doesn’t sit brilliantly with my own ideologies. But I can’t say conversations have been boring!

And then Texas has cowboys – I mean, who doesn’t love a cowboy who utters the words, “Yes ma’am” in his Texan drawl and tips his Stetson to you with a cheeky grin? ūüėČ

E x

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I Sing Because I’m Happy

On Saturday I left San Antonio for Austin. ¬†I had looked into making the move by air but it was ridiculously convoluted and seriously expensive to boot when taking into account that it’s actually a really short journey between the two cities if you travel as the crow flies. ¬†I thus had to investigate other alternatives so I ended up going for the bus. ¬†The Greyhound, to be specific. ¬†While in Italy I used the bus to get around quite a bit but here in the States I really haven’t done so. ¬†Distance is one of the issues, of course. ¬†Australia had similar problems with this means of transport. ¬†While in Oz I looked up how long driving between Sydney and Ayer’s Rock would take and, discovered, that without making any stops you would have to drive for thirty-six hours! ¬†The US’s size also needs such considerations and, although you certainly can travel between any of the cities in the country you have to be willing to give up huge amounts of time to do so.

But San Antonio to Austin is only an hour and a half by bus with a princely twenty six dollar price tag. ¬†It was a no brainer. ¬†I went and bought my ticket beforehand as the website did not have Gibraltar as a possible billing city for my credit card and therefore could not process my purchase! ¬†I turned up on the day dragging my case behind me in minus one degree Celsius temperatures. ¬†Upon entering the bus terminal I was assaulted (I use the term deliberately) by the eau d’humanite which was present in said building. ¬†The place was obviously overheated and hermetically sealed and it really wasn’t pleasant. ¬†Aroma notwithstanding, people were polite and helpful and I found myself waiting in a little seating area for the bus to board. Everything went without a hitch and a couple of hours later I found myself in Austin, capital of this state, hailing a cab and huddling from the cold.

Austin is renowned for its Capitol building, its trendy and young attitude and a very vibrant music scene. ¬†It also has good shopping in its surroundings. ¬†I will be doing the touristy sightseeing over the next few days as well as all my shopping (I’ll be blitzing this and packing it all into one day) – trying to get all my Christmas gifts here rather than back at home upon arrival. ¬†But, one thing that I did want to do early on was recommended to me by a couple with whom I was speaking while at the ranch. ¬†They were from Austin and when talking about things to do here they asked if I enjoyed gospel choirs. ¬†I said I did and they suggested I visit, on the Sunday, a local well-known restaurant for their Sunday brunch and to listen to a gospel choir singing while I ate. I loved the idea and immediately booked myself in.

I arrived at the restaurant and was seated on the edge of a mezzanine level which overlooked the stage.  Brunch consisted of an enormous selection of breakfast goodies like scrambled eggs tossed with bacon, pancakes, waffles, grits and so forth as well as barbecqued meats and salads.  Different pies, muffins and fruit salads made up dessert.  I piled my plate Рhuge plates are given to guests Рand promised myself I would not have to be rolled back to my hotel. Then I sat down to eat.  And shortly thereafter a group of people gathered on the stage and soon they began to play and sing.

Ok, let me admit something here: I love to sing and, generally, can carry a tune. ¬†I say this so you know that I’m predisposed to love anyone singing. ¬†I’ve spent large parts of my life in choirs and I now am part of the music team at school which prepares our choir for performances of all kinds. ¬†I love the joy that singing brings to me. ¬†I have been known to go into the chapel at school, close the door and sing a hymn or two when no one’s around. ¬†It brings me peace and happiness when I sing. ¬†My mum used to say that she knew, when I was little, when I was unwell because I’d stop belting out tunes and that she could map my feeling better by the return of my singing and the volume applied to the task. ¬†I love to hear others sing. ¬†Children and adults, soloists and bands, classic and rock, gospel and traditional hymns, opera and blues and so on. ¬†I feel uplifted when I hear voices sing. ¬†And, on Sunday I was truly lucky to listen to this group sing. They filled the restaurant with their voices and their faith, but most especially with their joy. ¬†For it was joy that they radiated as they sang. ¬†It was a truly beautiful few hours.

I am not an envious person. ¬†I don’t walk around (thankfully) begrudging anyone their possessions or good fortune. ¬†But, I do envy the talent that some individuals have to create something beautiful. ¬†Be it someone who picks up a paintbrush and produces a stunning piece of art, or someone who lifts an instrument and turns the object into the means of bringing forth a haunting melody, or someone who sits and ponders about numbers and begins to work out something that my brain cannot begin to comprehend. ¬†No doubt, many of these people work hard to perfect their talents but, these talents begin as gifts which are then nurtured and polished.

When these guys sang to us I did indeed, feel that they had a gift.  And, as all gifts should, they brought joy and pleasure with theirs.

E x

The Alamo, Freedom and Fighting

So, we were about to do battle at the Alamo.

I didn’t know much about the Alamo before arriving in San Antonio. ¬†I had amassed some titbits about it but the run up to the battle and the details of the battle itself were not something I was clear about. ¬†So, learning about it all made it a highly interesting visit for me.

SANANT22The first lesson came with its location. ¬†In my head, the Alamo was in a field somewhere. Out there beyond the city centre, in the vastness that is Texas! ¬†But no. ¬†It is actually located bang in the middle of San Antonio. ¬†Next to other tourist sites and very close to the Riverwalk. ¬†It was a ten minute walk from my hotel, in fact. ¬†Upon arriving at its perimeter I was also struck by the fact that it’s not very large. ¬†It covered a larger space in the past. But what remains today is quite contained. ¬†The whole visit took me less than an hour and that included the museum type spaces with artefacts and information posters.

For those of you who do not know about the Alamo’s history, this was first a mission where missionaries and their converts lived (it began to be built around 1724). ¬†Then the Spanish changed the nature of the building from a religious to a secular one. ¬†The lands were given to remaining Indian residents of the area. ¬†Early in the nineteenth century the Spanish stationed a cavalry unit there and it was from them that the name “Alamo” was derived – they called it that after their hometown, Alamo de Parras, Coahuila. ¬†The former mission would be occupied by military forces of Spain, Mexico and Rebels until the Texan Revolution.

SANANT15In December of 1835 during the Texan Revolution the Texian (revolutionaries) forces defeated the Mexican troops stationed in the city of San Antonio and the rebels occupied the Alamo. In February 1836 fresh Mexican forces arrived and the rebels had to begin a defence of the Alamo.  The most notable names from within the ranks of the rebels in the Alamo were its commander, William B. Travis, David Crockett and Jim Bowie.  The Alamo was under siege for thirteen days.  Before dawn on 6th March, 1836, Mexican forces pushed forward and set their final assault on the post.  The defenders were seriously outnumbered and by dawn of the next day the battle was over.  All of the rebels were killed.

The Battle of the Alamo and how the rebels were seen to have been slaughtered by a force majeure (1500 Mexicans to 189 Rebels) is considered the driving force behind the final Texian victory against the Mexicans in April 1836 via which the Texan Revolution ended with the rebels emerging, finally, victorious.

SANANT19I entered the precinct not too sure of what I was going to find. ¬†It is a small compound with a pretty garden and lovely archways. ¬†The buildings that remain are stone and slightly crumbled with bells over their doorways. ¬†You can see the Catholic mission still as you look around. ¬†Upon entering the Shrine you find yourself having to stop and let your eyes readjust. ¬†It’s quite dark inside with the large overhead lamps casting a pale glow over the whole interior. ¬†There’s a definite mood to the place – reverent, sombre. ¬†I walked around, reading the information stands and looking at the primary sources held here. ¬†To someone who loves studying history this is as good as it gets: an original building with original materials to look at. ¬†It was quite poignant to walk into an area and see flags from the different states to whom the defenders of the Alamo belonged framing the perimeter with the number of dead from that state sewn on the flags. ¬†David Crockett’s rifle was also there. ¬†I have to say it was a moving exhibit.

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In the US the Alamo symbolises a heroic struggle against enormous odds. ¬†It is not just the building and the history specific to it that is remembered within the refrain: “Remember the Alamo”. ¬†It is the struggle for freedom, the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for it, on any stage. ¬†In a letter Travis wrote while besieged he penned the following: ¬†“If this call is neglected [his call for fellow Americans to come to their aid], I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country – Victory or Death.” ¬†It is understandable why here it¬†is the Shrine of Texas Liberty, as one leaflet describes it.

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As I walked out of the compound thinking about all I’d seen and read, I crossed the road and suddenly looked up. ¬†There was a giant Christmas tree with giant decorations just in front of me. And, if after visiting the Alamo I had any doubt about which state I was in and just how Texan Texas is, well that tree cleared my mind of it. ¬†I leave you with the image.

Well, it is the Lone Star State; it really couldn’t be decorated differently, could it? ¬†ūüôā

E x

Cowboys And Canals

SANANT11My most profuse apologies for the silence but my arrival in San Antonio, Texas, did not agree with me. ¬†I left the ranch on Monday and arrived mid-afternoon in the hotel here in San Antonio. ¬†After checking in I decided I’d spend the rest of the day doing laundry and ironing etc. ¬†I did all this and so spent a relatively boring but quietly productive afternoon. I felt fine at this point. ¬†By late evening I found I had a bad headache that was growing worse by the minute. ¬†At bedtime I was in the throes of a full blown migraine. ¬†Tablets and sleep followed but on waking on Tuesday – and if I’m honest, all the way into Wednesday – I was plagued with the migraine. ¬†I spent most of Tuesday in bed and then went out on Wednesday because I started to panic that I was running out of time to see stuff here but had to return to my hotel room and the dark because my head was killing me. ¬†All in all, I’ve been on migraine meds since Monday evening and even now I’m not totally clear of it ūüė¶

SANANT8As I said, I did force myself out of the door for some sightseeing on Wednesday. ¬†I made my way to what is called “The Riverwalk”. ¬†It does what it says on the can. ¬†The river runs through Downtown San Antonio and its banks are surrounded by hotels, bars and restaurants, all prettily clad in awnings and sun umbrellas. ¬†It is very much postcard like. And here, although it’s been cold the last couple of days, the weather is milder than in other parts of the US so the trees still hold some of their autumn leaves blazing in reds and golds. ¬†Quite stunning.

SANANT4The river meanders through the city centre and has pretty bridges crossing it. ¬†It is, to use a comparison, an American Venice of sorts. ¬†To its credit San Antonio has not tried to make this area into a Venice of the Americas by putting in twee gondolas or such. ¬†Instead, there are small river boats making their way through the waterways. ¬†No stripy red and white t-shirts in sight, thank goodness. ¬†It’s a more robust type of Venice, if you will. ¬†And it works, is charming, because of it. ¬†So I walked the whole of the Riverwalk, stopping for food in one restaurant and for a cup of tea in another. ¬†There are small areas to wander in like La Villita which is a small arts and crafts zone with interesting and unique examples of artisans’ work.

SANANT5When I originally looked into which Texan cities I wanted to visit I found out about the Riverwalk and San Antonio’s sites. ¬†And it’s funny how the brain works. ¬†I pictured this quaint and small city, almost a tiny hub completely walkable. ¬†It was only while at the ranch and speaking to some folks from Austin that I was explaining that I was heading to their city but passing through San Antonio first that I was informed that Austin is, in fact, smaller than San Antonio and that the latter is the seventh most populous city in the USA. ¬†This is not a small city at all. ¬†And after wandering around here you realise that fact quickly. ¬†Yes, the area around Riverwalk and Downtown isn’t huge but the city spreads far out. SANANT3Remarkably though, on going out onto the streets I found the whole city to be very quiet in both terms of noise and movement. ¬†On the first day out I actually thought it might be a public holiday that had passed me by. ¬†But it wasn’t. The streets have remained equally sedate on all the days after that first foray.

As I walked around and moved upwards from the river bank I soon arrived at the city’s most famous landmark: The Alamo. ¬†That story, that battle, is for tomorrow, though.

E x

Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy?

RANCH2I went on a hayride this morning. ¬†Very early. ¬†I woke up, threw some clothes on and headed out in the very cold damp air to the corral. ¬†Oh yes, it’s called the “corral”. ¬†The hayride consists of a truck pulling a long flatbed behind it, laden with hay stacks, and those of us who want to join in hop on and are taken to the middle of nowhere (here read somewhere on the over 300 acres that this ranch consists of) where breakfast has been set up al fresco by a few cowboys and where the guests who chose to go out riding on the earliest slot also gather at.

RANCH26So, there I was on this flat bed being driven through dusty, potholey trails, to the Cowboy Breakfast site, as it is called. ¬†I put myself down for it because, speaking to one of the younger cowboys yesterday night I was telling him, in the midst of having the most interesting conversation about good governance, that I’d seen three deer round the front of my cabin but did not have time to grab the camera before they disappeared. ¬†He then told me that I should go on the hayride because the deer would follow the truck. ¬†I thought he was exaggerating a little but, since I was going to go riding at ten o’clock anyway I put my name down for this too. ¬†And he was right. ¬†As we travelled down the sketchy paths the deer appeared from behind the bushes to the sides and began to chase us. ¬†It was stunning. ¬†I had to stop myself from pointing and squealing, “Bambi!” ¬†It made the bouncing and jostling of the flat bed worth it but my tush may never be the same again ūüėČ

RANCH30Upon arrival at the Cowboy Breakfast I was met with the sight of a full breakfast buffet, juices and hot drinks ready to be dished up as well as an old cowboy singing while strumming his guitar. ¬†The riders were already there, their horses loosely tied to nearby posts, and we proceeded to eat our bacon, eggs, grits and biscuits listening to old country songs I’d never heard before. ¬†Trust me when I tell you it was a little surreal.

RANCH32Later, at ten, I saddled up and went up into the hills of the property. ¬†Texas has been suffering from drought for the last couple of years and everything looked very stark and dry. The horses moved around rocky paths and the lead cowboy chatted to us as we went. ¬†The most remarkable thing of the ride was the quiet. ¬†There is absolutely nothing out there. ¬†You just hear the hooves and the creaking of the saddles under the different riders’ weights. There is a beauty to be found in places like these that is hard to explain. ¬†Its vastness and emptiness made me feel rather insignificant in the big scheme of things. ¬†As it should. The horse was great and the experience wonderful.

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I loved the saddles; these are works of art and I photographed a few. ¬†I found myself smiling at odd moments as I looked down on the horse imagining my best friend’s face at the sight – the look of abject horror that would be displayed on her face clear in my mind’s eye. ¬†Let me tell you, though, there’s something just a little bit appealing about a cowboy on a horse ūüėČ

RANCH37Dinner this evening was as lovely as every other night has been. ¬†Travelling alone as I am, it is quite lovely to either, be asked to join a group as has happened on most nights here, or just approach a table and ask if I could sit with them, knowing that the answer would be a very gracious and genuine, “Yes”. ¬†The majority of people staying here are Texans from all over this huge state. ¬†And Texans are hospitable and charming and chatty. ¬†It’s been great to meet different people from different parts of the state. ¬†Tonight I sat with a couple from Dallas and we chatted about anything and everything with their natural curiosity being focused on where I come from. ¬†I have become an ambassador of one, with a practiced and polished spiel about my hometown. ¬†I’m positive Google has never had so many hits on the place before!

As we ate we had a wizened, ex-cowboy singing in the dining room. He played some country classics and some of his own compositions. ¬†I was especially taken with one particular number which had a line in it that went something like, “I ain’t old….I’ve just been used rough,” ¬†and I found myself laughing at the whole song’s tenet. ¬†I really like that idea. There’s a quote that I love and which I think may be by Hunter Thompson (but there is some confusion about this online) which says:

‚ÄúLife should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!‚ÄĚ

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The singing cowboy had the right idea as far as I’m concerned. ¬†So my tush may be sore tomorrow and I froze for the first hour and a half of being out and about. ¬†I may have to wash clothes because they smell of horse and I now know that I can’t throw a cowboy hat and make it land on a post. ¬†I am now that much wiser about how Texans see Texas: Texas, I have been duly informed, is not “The South”. ¬†Texas is Texas. ¬†And I have argued and laughed with the cowboys here about life, politics, taxes and guns.

Oh yes….the time here definitely goes in the “What a ride!” column ūüėČ

E x

Something To Be Thankful For

Yesterday I told you that I had left Canada for Texas.  I arrived in San Antonio on Tuesday afternoon and was collected from the airport and driven to Bandera.  This is a small town just below the centre of Texas and it calls itself the Cowboy Capital of the World.  I was heading for a Texan Dude Ranch, one of the oldest in the area.  And why (I can hear you laughing, you know!) would I be heading this way, I hear you ask?

Well, for some reason that I can’t quite explain, I’ve always wanted to visit a dude ranch ¬†.If I’m honest, maybe it’s because of the cowboys ūüėČ ¬†The only time to be able to do this without cramming it into a short week’s stay for me during my normal work schedule would be the summer months and it is suffocatingly hot here in Texas in July or August. So, up till now I’ve never quite organised myself to come to one because I was pretty sure that however appealing the cowboys might be, desert like conditions in soaring summer heat might not be for me. ¬†But the Universe had other plans during this trip.

In all my planning for Plan B visiting a ranch had never really entered my head. ¬†The only reason it materialised as a possibility was because when chatting with some of the people on the photography course they asked me what I was organising for Thanksgiving. ¬†Now, I had thought of going to New York to see the Macy Parade but, to be honest, what I really wanted was to experience Thanksgiving in as real a setting as possible. ¬†Being in New York to view a parade meant me on my own seeing the parade and then going to a restaurant, table for one, after. ¬†It was hardly the stereotypical family round the table carving the turkey and passing the yams scenario. ¬†When I explained this to the group on the course one of the ladies suggested I go to a dude ranch and it was a light bulb moment. ¬†She explained that on ranches people ate together and spent their time after dinner in the communal areas of the lodges, chatting and having a drink. ¬†And it suddenly made sense. ¬†I could combine the visit to the dude ranch that I’d always wanted to do with having a “ready made family” to spend Thanksgiving with.

After much googling I found the ranch I’m staying at and after a flurry of emails, answered by the loveliest of people who were almost rolling out the welcome wagon as they typed, I booked myself in for a week. ¬†And so, here I am. ¬†Happily ensconced in my little cabin in the middle of Bandera, Texas. ¬†This is not a posh establishment but it has everything you might need. ¬†And what it lacks in sophistication it makes up for in charm, hospitality and a genuine warmth from the people who run it. ¬†It is owned and operated by a large family and they make you feel like part of their clan. ¬†There are guests staying here who have been coming here for years, are on first name terms with the owners and who move about the place as if they were at home.

And today, Thanksgiving, I sat down with a family who I met at breakfast and who spontaneously and graciously invited me to join them at their table for dinner.  The whole dining room was full of both guests and the family who own the place and we ate together. The food was delicious home fare, especially the sweet potatoes and the cranberry relish and the pumpkin pie.  But even better than the food was the atmosphere in that dining room.  It was relaxed and there was the buzz of conversation and squeals of delight from children who were playing around the tables.  A sudden cheer went up for the chef with the family chanting her name until she appeared, blushing at the applause and obviously happy at seeing us all enjoying her work.  It was such an inspired decision to be here for this holiday.

And it’s a holiday that the rest of the world doesn’t really understand, I suppose, because the rest of the western world doesn’t celebrate it. ¬†But there’s a lot to be said for it. ¬†It’s a celebration that is relatively stress free from what I can see. ¬†Don’t get me wrong. ¬†I love Christmas and I organise myself so that I’m not running round like a headless chicken as it nears so that I can enjoy the preparations. ¬†But it’s a lot of work and I’m not speaking about food here but about presents: thinking of what to buy, finding where to buy them and shopping for them. ¬†And the longer you’ve been buying gifts for the same people the harder it becomes. ¬†Thanksgiving has all the joys of family gatherings and lovely food without the mayhem of gift shopping!

And then the idea of stopping to give thanks in a conscious and deliberate manner appeals to me. ¬†In the busy world which we all inhabit and try to survive in, where we run from one thing to the next trying not to disappoint or fail to carry out our responsibilities, it is easy to move into automatic pilot and stop seeing what’s important. ¬†It is very easy to do. ¬†So, to make the world slow down, almost stop, and to actively and purposely gather with the people who matter and give thanks – and I don’t mean in a religious sense, necessarily – makes good sense to me. ¬†It fills me with a sense of well-being and warmth.

At school, Catholic as it is, we begin the day with prayers in chapel and we sing many hymns. ¬†As I sat to dinner tonight one particular one kept running through my mind. ¬†It has a line which says, “Give thanks with a grateful heart.” ¬†As I sat there tonight I felt thankful, because I am blessed: with family, friends, health, a good life and many possibilities and beautiful plans ahead of me.

I gave thanks with a very grateful heart.

E x

The Land Of The Maple Leaf

Hello my lovelies….I’m back! Yes, that’s right your peace is over! Once more you’ll have the link to this popping up on your Facebook newsfeed or on Twitter or, if you’re following you’ll start being emailed with the latest pourings from my brain. Scary thought. RUN!

Let me explain why I’ve been so quiet. When I originally set myself the idea of writing this blog I had to decide whether to write a short entry every day or a longer entry every few days. I put myself in the shoes of a reader receiving these and I knew that I, at least, would prefer a short entry daily rather than having to read through a very long missive twice or thrice a week. So I chose the former system. And it worked very well as my travels meant that, on the whole, I was doing different things daily or had something to discuss that wasn’t necessarily travel related but which I thought was interesting to comment on. If I remember correctly, in my very first blog entry I told you all that I was aware of the possibility of boring you with every new keystroke and that has been true throughout the course of this escapade. I, once again in the reader’s shoes, have a low boredom threshold so I fully understand the horror of being faced with something to read where there’s no grip on me.

CANADA14When I decided to visit Canada, and Toronto in particular, I knew that I would be spending most, if not all, of my time with family. I would be living in the suburbs for a change and not in the city centre as I had being doing in other cities visited. This would mean that my adventures we going to be more limited than they had been up to that point. In all fairness, I had also already visited Toronto before and had done the CN Tower, the ice hockey games, Downtown, the McMichaels Gallery, Niagara and Niagara on the Lake, so I had no major impetus to see these again. So I knew that it was mainly a family holiday and was more than happy with that idea. But this meant that from a reader’s perspective I wasn’t going to have the most interesting of moments and experiences to write about, I mean detailed reviews of sofa chats with my aunt, which were lovely for me, were not likely to have you all riveted to the edge of your seats!

So I took the decision to not write daily and, in fact, took it further and decided to not write at all. Instead, I thought, at the end of the Canada stretch I’d write a slightly longer entry and so bring you up to date with the exciting bits of my time there but avoiding boring you all out of your minds with my recounting the numerous cups of tea and lounging that I have experienced.

CANADA8There are four main highlights to the time there. Two of them involve road trips. The first road trip was to Huntsville, to a resort called Deerhurst, to which I was taken by one set of cousins. This is a two hour drive from Toronto and the drive there gave me a glimpse into the vastness of this area, let alone this country. My cousins were very concerned that we were going at a time when all I would see was twigs; a couple of weeks earlier I would have seen the fall foliage in all its glory and in a few weeks time it would all be a winter wonderland, with snow and ice covering said twigs. But I loved it anyway. My point was that it’s all new territory for me and the landscape is so beautiful whatever the trees state of deshabille might be. And twigs are good for photographs.

CANADA7The whole town was picturesque and had small corners with pretty lake views and stunning sunset moments. The resort was almost entirely ours and the quiet there was consuming. I loved it. And it was cold. To my hardened Canadian cousins this was mild winter weather. Not so for me. We wandered around there and drove into small pockets just around the town. I was quite taken by the bareness of the trees and by the scraggly silver birches which look ghostly in their rows. But I do take their point that seeing it in full winter dress must be unbelievable. I will return to see this at some point in the future.

CANADA2My other road trip happened with my other set of cousins who took me to Niagara Falls but at night. I had seen the Falls during the day on my previous visit and was blown away by the views and the power of the water. But, seeing them at night, illuminated and with no people around (this might have had to do with the fact that it was so cold that no sensible human would have been out there by choice) was magical. Now, imagine the scene: we arrive and I get out with my cousin with tripod and camera looking like Michelin girl because of all the layers I was wearing. The gloves had to come off because there was no way I could handle the equipment with them on. Setting up the tripod – a quick and easy thing to do in normal temperatures – became difficult because this is a very lightweight version, good for travelling, but it means it gets cold very, very quickly. And once it’s very cold the metal burns to the touch. I am not joking people. It burns your hands. CANADA1So after much fumbling I took some lovely photos and had some taken of me (- a rare occurrence) before the Falls. And then I almost ran back to the car where my hands warmed up but then felt like they were on fire and twice their normal size.

From the Falls we went to one of the casinos there – it is one of the few places where it’s legal to gamble and many Americans cross the border just for this. We had drinks and tried our luck and eventually made our way back to Toronto. It was a fabulous evening.

A third highlight involved one of my cousins and a godson. My cousin and I met up downtown and visited the Bata Shoe Museum (I am shoe crazy and of all the museums and galleries in Toronto this was the one I couldn’t not visit while here) and had the place to ourselves as we viewed some interesting examples of how shoes have developed geographically and stylistically throughout time. It was very interesting but we were both a tad disappointed by the fact that there were far too few stilettos in the collection. Thus, upon departure, we walked into a sumptuous shoe establishment and spent a long while gazing adoringly at all their offerings. My idea of heaven.

From there we met up with my godson who had picked a lovely bar set on the fifty second floor of a building in Downtown for us to sit and have a cocktail and admire the view. And it is an amazing view of the city skyline with the iconic CN Tower surrounded by other skyscrapers. To be able to photograph the view I had to ask for the terrace to be unlocked. Upon asking the lady there if I could go out onto the terrace, her reply was a mystified, “Sure. Why would you?” It was cold out there. The wind was blowing and it’s the wind chill factor that gets you there. Ambient temperature must have been just below zero but the wind chill puts it in the minus teens. Suffice it to say that you can’t stay out there too long.CANADA17

The remaining highlight has to do purely with family. Over the course of the twelve days there were several family get togethers for meals and this was wonderful. Because of distance I do not see this arm of my family often but when we come together it’s truly as if we haven’t had a gap in our time together. After the initial catchup at speed we revert to a situation where we sit in kitchens and drink tea and nibble on snacks and just chat as if we were all in Gib and seeing each other several times a week there. It is the most normal thing in the world.

And so, my time in Canada came to an end remarkably quickly and I found myself at Pearson Airport on Tuesday setting off back to the USA. And I did so with a twinge – I suffered one earlier in the morning kissing my aunt goodbye while feeling rather teary eyed and then again when hugging my cousin at the door to security. I boarded a flight bound for Texas.

To all my Canadian clan, thank you. I am very blessed to have you. You know who you are.

E x

Who’s Afraid Of The Great White North?

My travels yesterday were non-eventful and for those of us who have travelled extensively there is no better statement that can be afforded to a day of planes, trains and automobiles. ¬†Uneventful means no hiccups, no sweating in a cab stuck in a traffic jam, no missing reservation upon arrival at the check in counter, no AWOL suitcase on the carousel at destination. ¬†Uneventful, in terms of travel, is about the only time I like deploying the word. ¬†Well, maybe that and after a doctor’s checkup when the results are being perused.

It was a very early start as I needed to be at Louis Armstrong International Airport by seven and I flew to Dallas, had a two hour layover and then onto Toronto. ¬†The airline was punctual and efficient but the service on board was, frankly, crap. ¬†When asked if I would like a refreshment (purchasable on board, of course, no freebies and this wasn’t a low cost airline, by the way) I asked for a cup of tea to warm the system up after it had been assaulted by the freezer like conditions in the cabin. ¬†I was succinctly ¬†informed, “Well, I have no tea bags so there is no tea!” ¬†Mmmm. ¬† I asked for apple juice instead (I know, I’m five years old at heart) and a fruit and nut mix as a snack – no sandwiches or anything really of any substance which was rather strange for a flight that flew from about one in the afternoon onwards – and proceeded to block the world out with my music and wrote for a long stretch. ¬†The one positive on this flight was the fact that there was wifi on board. ¬†I still can’t get over that. ¬†I switched the iPad off from flight mode with trepidation almost expecting the aircraft to go into immediate nosedive as the little aeroplane icon vanished on my screen. ¬†But, no. ¬†We did not plummet.

The highlight of the flight was the descent into, and flight over, the centre of Toronto. Looking out of the window the city below could be seen in clear detail. ¬†By the time we were coming in for the approach to land it was dark and the city was twinkling away beneath us. I’ve seen many cities from aeroplanes during night flights but obviously the air was super clean above the skyline because the view was sharp, pristine, almost as if I could have reached out and touched it, I kid you not. It was almost as if someone had given it all a good scrubbing and every structure and light bulb was glistening. ¬†I could see the CN Tower and the skyscrapers that circle it as well as the shoreline of the lake and the roads and cars shimmering under me in HD. ¬†Stunning. ¬†I was, though, seriously miffed that at this point neither the iPhone or the iPad could be used to take a photograph because I would have truly loved to have captured that moment.

Arriving in Toronto was smooth and easy. ¬†What a joy to go through an immigration entry system that doesn’t treat you like sheep and by officers who actually engage with you and look you in the eye as they speak with you. ¬†I am infinitely more convinced that they would be likely to spot anyone meaning harm precisely because they take the time to engage with the person before them than the more aloof and officious atttitude found in other entry points in the world. ¬†And, happily, my case was there immediately so I had clothes, and, more importantly, my straighteners. ¬†Every woman with frizzy hair is nodding violently, in complete understanding of this sentiment.

Upon exiting I was met by one of my lovely cousins (I am lucky, I have many, we are a large extended family) who had come to collect me from Pearson. And being enveloped in the hug made the time since I’d seen him last slip away and we chatted as if we’d just left the conversation the day before. ¬†We made our way to the car and drove into the Toronto suburbs and, upon getting out of the car, snow flurries began to fall. ¬†Yes, it’s rather cold here. ¬†I know you’re waiting for me to complain so you can innundate me with ruler slaps across the virtual knuckles for complaining about it. ¬†But I’m not complaining….yet. ¬†It was rather lovely and I really liked the startling difference in temperature.

I’m staying not with my cousin and his family but with my aunt and uncle. ¬†And, in effect, what this means is that it’s like being at home with my mum and dad but with the difference that I need to wear six more layers of clothing the minute I step outdoors. ¬†It’s the strangest thing: their home feels and smells exactly like my parents’. ¬†My aunt dished out a plate of chicken fricasse for my dinner which is identical to my mum’s. ¬†Copious cups of tea and many of hours of conversation later I finally crashed into bed.

I slept little and am a tad tired but today’s not going to be a killer by any means. ¬†I’m heading out shortly to a nearby shopping mall to find some thick tights and a hat. ¬†I am going to need a hat. ¬†A friend of mine who lives in Toronto has kindly told me that my ears may drop off if I don’t wear one. ¬†I’m not taking any chances….I need my ears. ¬†And, I like hats. ¬†So, it’s a win-win if I find one I like. ¬†He also commented on my facebook post which advised of my imminent arrival here in Canada, “Welcome to the great, white north!”

And you know what I say, once I’m in possession of a hat, of course? ¬†Bring it on, oh great, white north. ¬†Do your worst. ¬†I’m ready for you! ¬†Question is, though, is the great, white north ready for me?

E x

Au Revoir NOLA, It’s Been Grand

And here I am again…deja vu central. ¬†I have a gapingly empty suitcase against one wall of Matchbox 3.0’s sitting room and am ready to begin repacking it to move on tomorrow. ¬†It is now devoid of all things summery – well, except for a bikini (you never know when you might need one and those are hard to buy in a panic) – as I visited the post office late last week with all my summer dresses, trousers and flip flops in a paper bag (almost vagabondish) and proceeded to buy a box, packing tape and postage and pile the summer stuff into it to send home to my mother. ¬†I have to say I was blessed with finding the loveliest and most efficient member of staff at this post office who whizzed me through the whole thing and was, to her credit, in no way stumped by seeing me arrive at her place of work with two bags filled with clothing to forward on.

So now it’s all warmer clothing with the exception of two t-shirts. ¬†And it’s all sitting here, on various surfaces, waiting to be put in the case. ¬†I’ll get to it as soon as I finish my visit with you.

I spent yesterday doing laundry and then went out for a walk to the centre, trying to take in my last few days’ worth of New Orleans, enjoying the spots I’ve most liked. ¬†You’ve heard about them before so I won’t go on about them but it was, just like in Florence at the end, wonderful to just walk and admire and almost breathe it in with a sense of familiarity. ¬†And, just like Florence at the end, I have had the same restlessness that comes with knowing that you’re moving on. ¬†Do you know what I mean? ¬†It happens to me when I’m in a place a while and I know I’m going to be moving on. ¬†Once the time to leave is perilously close it’s almost like, “Ok, let’s go already!” ¬†But there’s also a tad of melancholy attached to leaving, of course. ¬†I have really loved this city. ¬†Its startling differences between genteel and brash. The people have been warm and friendly and engaging. ¬†I have felt quite the local while here. ¬†But, like Florence, I know it’s time to go. ¬†New places beckon, new faces, new potential adventures. And new thoughts that come with all of these things.

Tomorrow I start out early – I leave Matchbox 3.0 at seven in the morning and won’t be at my destination till quite late in the evening. ¬†I have a layover in Dallas. ¬†I will leave the apartment wearing more clothing than I have worn since around May. ¬†I am heading North, to the cold, to snow and a biting wind chill factor. ¬†And I’m looking forward to it as I feel summer has lasted an inordinately long time this year. ¬†I want to feel the bite of the weather on my face for a change (please watch this space as I’m certain I will bitch about the fact that it is very cold once I’m there – you have permission to remind me of my aforementioned statement about looking forward to it and tell me to shut up).

I am, in fact, leaving the USA for a bit. ¬†I’m going to Canada. ¬†To Toronto, specifically. Hopefully I will be allowed back in after my visit to the land of the Maple Leaf so I can continue with my trek in the States. ¬†I have been to Toronto before. ¬†But this time I’m really going to get to grips with the city. ¬†Perhaps I should have issued a warning to them? ¬†That I’m on my way!

Once I’ve finished my packing I’m going out for my last wander. ¬†I’m going to sit in Cafe du Monde and eat my last serving of beignets with orange juice (no tea, remember?) and watch the world go by and then play the rest of the day by ear. ¬†And that’s been very much the whole attitude to my time here, engendered by the city’s own attitude. ¬†Having visited many of the main cities of the USA, I can say that New Orleans is very different. ¬†It is more relaxed, more sure of itself (here New York would also qualify)…like a woman who knows herself and isn’t thrown or swayed by what others may think of her and her choices. ¬†New Orleans does not care what we think of her. ¬†She just keeps letting things roll by. ¬†Her terms, her way. ¬†Those who visit can move to her rhythm or leave. ¬†It’s mightily easy to adapt to her rhythm, let me tell you.

I read some lines written by Jordan Flaherty who said, “Those who have not lived in New Orleans have missed an incredible, glorious, vital city….from jazz, blues, and and hip-hop to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals….New Orleans is a place of art and music and food and traditions and sexuality and liberation.‚ÄĚ ¬†It is easy to feel free here. The city almost demands it of you.

I’m going to miss this place but I’ll be back….I have to come to Mardi Gras, remember?

E x

Mardi Gras Mambo

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I had always wanted to visit New Orleans and that is why it was included in this escapade. It overlapped, of course, with the photography course so that just made it convenient. ¬†And I have loved it here. ¬†But I will be left with one sadness which is that I didn’t make it to New Orleans during Mardi Gras. My best friend and I have always wanted to come to New Orleans during those days in the run up to Shrove Tuesday to experience this town in fullest revelry mode. ¬†As teachers it is an impossibility – our schedule simply does not allow us to have free time during that period so it hasn’t happened so far.
NO270

Yesterday I visited a warehouse here which houses, and within which are built, many of the floats that are displayed during the parades at Mardi Gras. ¬†This company doesn’t just build for the New Orleans festivities but for major hotels, casinos, Disney and Universal Studios. ¬†It was incredible to view their hundreds of props and characters as well as seeing pieces in the making and floats in the process of being constructed and assembled. ¬†If thinking along practical lines, and after listening to facts and figures, you could conclude that this is just one big business. ¬†But, even accepting this, the whole visit allowed me to see incredible craft work being done on a mega scale and to let the imagination wander a little into flights of fancy.
NO271Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is, of course, Shrove Tuesday.  It is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  In Christian terms Lent is a period of fasting and reflection, a period when festivities and revelry are not acceptable.  Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 put Mardi Gras into the calendar the day before Ash Wednesday to mark the ending of all celebrations in preparation for Lent.  Celebrations would have begun, nominally, on the feast of the Epiphany, 6th January, and theoretically could continue from there indefinitely. But, as he wanted to ensure that Lent was respected with a sombre propriety, he gave the celebratory period a definite end with Shrove Tuesday.

The whole idea of Mardi Gras was brought to the Louisiana area by the French. Supposedly, they found the mouth of the Mississippi on Shrove Tuesday of 1699 and had a spontaneous party to celebrate the fact. ¬†This is referred to as America’s first Mardi Gras. ¬†Nowadays, Mardi Gras celebrations here in New Orleans begin a couple of weeks before the actual Fat Tuesday with there being parades held every day where giant floats and bands wander down the main streets of the city throwing beads, cups, dolls and small trinkets to the crowds. ¬†Spectators often dress up in their own costumes and the city just erupts in carnival mode. ¬†

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The floats do not, however, travel down the French Quarter as these streets are just too small for the enormous floats to get through.  They flaunt themselves on Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue instead, wide thoroughfares that can take the large mobile displays Рand some are huge with bed after bed of trucks linked to one another creating trains or steamboats which can carry hundreds of people on board.

NO277Walking through the warehouse being shown how the giant props are constructed was very interesting. ¬†I cannot paint, as I’ve mentioned to you before, but I love arts and crafts and I would have happily joined in with the artists in their “sculpting” the most enormous pieces of styrofoam into faces, figures and otherworldly creatures. ¬†Here you see papier-mache on a grand scale, paint equipment that makes you want to grab the spray gun and fire wildly and…and here’s the biggie…glitter….so much glitter that I would have happily thrown myself into the containers and emerged covered in the stuff. ¬†Let’s face it, glitter is a wonder drug – it can make anyone smile ūüôā

NO275I snapped madly while I was there. ¬†It’s all larger than life and the level of imagination evident in the pieces was wonderful to see. ¬†Here is a place where reality can be left at the door, if only for a little while. ¬†I texted my friend from the warehouse yesterday and repeated that we need to get here during Mardi Gras. ¬†She, of course, agreed and replied, “But HOW?” ¬†She pointed out we’ll have to wait till we retire. ¬†I’m not ok with that. ¬†There has to be a way. ¬†I don’t want to do Mardi Gras when I’m old.

I’m trying to think of a cunning plan… ūüėČ

E x