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Before the Fire: Notre Dame in Full Glory

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These were my first glimpses of Notre Dame.  A big blue bow and bleachers. At first I was a little ‘underwhelmed’ to tell the truth, but only because I have been to some of the world’s largest cathedrals: St. Peter’s in Vatican City, Italy; Cathedral of Sevilla in Spain; and St. Paul’s in London. As the afternoon progressed, I warmed up to Notre Dame as it is considered one of the best examples of Gothic architecture. A friend of mine called Notre Dame ‘dark and creepy.’  It is a bit darker than some, I agree, but I wasn’t feeling creeped out at all. It was beautiful.

My first, and only, visit was during the 850th anniversary and they had just installed a couple of new smaller bells, which was a big deal.  Good timing.  Plus, it was Lent with only a week to go before Easter.  And, the day I visited was the last Friday in Lent, which meant it was Good Friday.  All these things came into play as I understood more, and as the day went on.  Great timing.

Outside Notre Dame

Statue of Charlemagne (Charles the Great), created in 1886

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From a high vantage point, I stood for a few moments at the top of several tiers of bleachers filled with people sitting to view the cathedral’s façade.  I joined a long line forming on the right side of this photo but since entry was free, the line moved quickly.

“In 1450 a pack of man-eating wolves broke through the city walls and mauled 40 hapless civilians to death.  An angry mob eventually cornered the wolves by the doors and stoned them to death.” (This was from an article published by Lonely Planet and BBC Travel.)  It was referring to this island where the cathedral sits upon the River Seine and the settlement of Paris. Wolves. My goodness.  Luckily there are only gargoyles now-a-days.

I also learned via this same article how, during the French Revolution, they turned the cathedral into “a temple to the Cult of Reason.” All crosses and statues were removed and the cathedral was turned into a warehouse for a time.  (Which is funny to think about since later I saw a few alcoves inside with statues and/or paintings hanging above stacked furniture and the occasional chandelier resting on the floor making it look like they are still using the space as a warehouse!)

Lastly, historically speaking, who remembers the high-wire artist Phillippe Petit who at the age of 21, broke into the cathedral at dawn in 1971 and shuffled between the two towers on a wire.  Then in 1974, he crossed between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  Interesting little known facts which happened to pop up on my Facebook page this morning.

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The intricacy of  the façade was fantastic.

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While building on this site began in the 5th or 6th century, when you walk in these days it is the 12th century you are seeing as well as the ‘newer’ rose stained glass window from the 13th century.

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After entering, getting the lay of the land, and inhaling the beauty, I noticed people were sitting in pews toward the front of the altar, and, since I was tired from all the walking earlier, I figured I’d grab a seat to get a deeper sense of this 850 year old place of worship.  Finding a seat at the end of the pew closest to an outer aisle (for a potential quick escape), I was less than ten pews from the altar.

To my right, I noticed there were white caped priests scurrying around in excitement and seriousness. They were up to something, which I assumed was a mass.  But, it did seem weird they’d have a mass at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon.  It was Good Friday, and as a former Catholic I knew the Stations of the Cross were over, so I was curious what was going on. I asked the woman next to me and in halting English she told me yes, there will be a mass at 4:00 p.m. and she said something about Christ and his crown of thorns. So I waited. I had nothing else pressing on my schedule and for some reason I wanted to ride this one out to the end. That is one of the joys of solo travel. I can go, or not go, at my own pace.

I had bought a glossy paperback book when entering Notre Dame and skimmed the pages, intermittently, while taking photos.  I read that during Lent, they bring out the Crown of Thorns which is revered as a holy relic. Apparently I was in the right place at the right time.

The pews were filling up quickly and the din of low murmuring was increasing. I realized my seat was in a fabulous location.

Notre Dame’s special treasure is Christ’s Holy Crown of Thorns. Per the book, “Its’ documented history dates back to the 4th century.  Physically, the relic consists of a ring of plaited rushes to which the thorns are attached to form the mock crown. The relic was acquired by King Saint Louis who humbly carried it to Notre Dame on 18th of August 1239……”  It is brought out on the first Friday of every month, every Friday during Lent, and on Good Friday. I read it was an entire crown in one place and only a thorn in another publication. Some details get lost in translation.

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The ceremony began with hymn singing and the massive organ sounding  wonderful thanks to the acoustics in the cathedral.  Several of the priests, I had seen whispering to one another in small groups in dark corners earlier, began acting like security guards by taking their places in the main aisles next to the pews. They kept watchful eyes on everything and everyone very closely. I had a sudden jarring memory of my Catholic youth, spent in San Francisco, with nuns watching us to be sure we were not slouching in our pew during services. Fifty years later I found myself again correcting my posture.

An elderly woman holding a flat basket approached my aisle and thanks to the woman next to me translating, I paid the correct amount of Euro for a commemorative 0 carat gold coin celebrating Notre Dame’s 850th Anniversary.

Soon after the transaction, there was more commotion and I watched a procession form to the right of where I was sitting. A high priest (I am assuming the bishop) carried the crown of thorns in a magnificent gold cradle firmly against his chest. Following him, a small enclave of priests and nuns walked through the nave, round the back of the cordoned off area, and all somberly shuffled down the center aisle.  In silence. My schoolgirl religious background came back to me once again as I remembered the pomp and circumstance Catholics perform during ceremonies.  I always liked the enormous swinging incense holder for high masses even though I was prone to becoming nauseous, slipping out into the school yard, sitting on a bench, and putting my head between my knees so I didn’t faint. I occasionally did that as I grew older just to get outside during any drawn-out mass.

This is what I always enjoyed about the church, actually.  The incense, the repetitive praying, the robes, the drama, luxurious fabrics, etc. Drama! But it was not enough to keep me as a practicing Catholic.  But here I was witnessing one of the holiest ceremonies in the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

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Not knowing how this was playing out, I watched as each row of fervent parishioner stood, filed out of their pew, walked up to the altar, acknowledged the relic held by the bishop, and kissed the ancient Crown of Thorns.  The bishop wiped off the lip germs on the protective glass with a cloth. God help me. No pun intended.

I hadn’t practiced Catholicism in years but I figured since I was there….yes, I would do it too.  To be part of this ceremony was an unexpected honor and if any of my hopes, dreams, and prayers were answered by participating, then it was a gift for me to receive with an open heart. (All the while hoping I wouldn’t be committing a mortal sin.)

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Before long, the white caped priest motioned our aisle to stand. We slowly filed out and used a short, quiet gait to head toward the bishop. I kneeled, I kissed, and I left but instead of returning to my pew and waiting through the next hour(s) for the other participants to take their turn, I took a quick detour out of the special section, excused myself out of the milling crowd of onlookers, and wandered around the cathedral behind the altar examining item after item of rare, interesting art.

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An beautiful baptismal.

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This is a diorama of workers building the cathedral. There will little figures doing work on the cathedral and reminded me, in a way, of playing with a doll house.

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These photos are taken from behind the altar.

the altar from behind

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a crypt in Notre Dame

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Have to admit the Angel of Death and the fellow (Christ?) spilling out of the coffin was a bit on the ‘scale of feeling creeped out.’ It was also terribly sad and Death looked ghastly. I like angels much better.

nooks and crannies in Notre Dame (see hangers....changing room!)

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Look between the caped priests to see a photo of a parishioner, or outsider like myself, paying her respects to the crown.

I have to admit, I had a few scandalous thoughts pass through my mind when looking at the priests.  In light of all the awful crimes involving sexual abuse and general mistreatments of children in the Catholic Church, I did wonder if any of these priests or nuns were guilty. I even felt guilty wondering about it. My Catholic indoctrination included guilt-laden confessions for minor slips of the tongue as a child. “Father, I have sinned. I talked back to my mother.” Time to whip out the rosary for my penance.

another 'storage room' in Notre Dame

A few panels in the stained glass had latches on them to open for fresh air.

There were several alcoves used as storage rooms which I found to be interesting.  A cathedral has no dedicated storage room for treasures?

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Quietly I walked back outside to take in the flying buttresses (this was one of the first churches to use this design) and the gargoyles.

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Meandering along the Seine, I caught the view of Notre Dame from a distance and later realized a photo I took caught the moment a man presented his love with a love-lock (see the woman in white on the left).

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Those are a lot of love-locks.

Bridge in background

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If I ever return to Paris, I will take the Batobus.  This is public transportation on the Seine River and would be an interesting way to see the city – without a guide speaking through a megaphone.

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After tripping over a curb and given a hand by a handsome frenchman, I was thrilled to unexpectedly see Shakespeare & Company across from where I stood above the river. I carefully stepped off the curb and headed across the street. The bookstore oozed with the energy of hundreds of well known authors and readers who, just like me, practically had to walk sideways down the cramped aisles.

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This photo of an Isadora Duncan type, was above a doorway and every inch of space was filled with treasures and whimsy tucked in nooks and crannies.

One of the original Art Deco Age Metro Stations in Paris

Not long after leaving this delightful bookshop, I came across the Metro stop which is an often photographed subway station with its original Art Deco style.

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It was now rush hour on a Friday and people were hurrying to begin their Easter weekend.

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This doorway caught my eye and imagination. I would love to know what secret hotel, apartment, or home was safely tucked on the other side.

Back end of St. Sulpice

Getting my bearings I walked in the general direction of my hotel and found realized I was close as I followed along the side of St. Sulpice Church. There I also found an alley with restaurants where I could stop for dinner.

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In O’Neil’s I was introduced to flammekueche!  (The lights in here were red, hence the photos are red, too.)  This dish is a pizza of sorts only the crust is very thin and there was no tomato paste. 

After a full day of walking, I looked forward to my ‘nun’s room’ in the Hotel Bonaparte which was only a short distance away. It was almost time to pack up for my return to Seattle. Three days is too short of a time to see Paris.

NOTE: I am reissuing this post from March, 2013. On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame’s spire and roof fell due to a tragic fire. It was on a Monday, the beginning of Holy Week and there will be no special masses or Easter celebration now that much of the cathedral has been damaged. No one was hurt and I heard they managed to save the crown of thorns relic and other irreplaceable historical items. Remarkably the stained glass was spared from destruction but there were other relics stored inside the spire which are now lost.

It was a sad day for Paris, and much of the world, to watch this beautiful piece of architecture and of history fall into the flames. It could have been much worse and will likely be years before the public can wander or pray inside the famous cathedral.

VCM

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BrideStones Pre-Outlander

The first Outlander book by Diane Gabalon was published in the United States in 1990. I had no idea it existed when I visited England in 2013.

Before Outlander became a hit series on the Starz network (August, 2014), I knew my daughter-in-law had read the entire, I believe there were seven by then, published books by that time. I had heard about the storyline and thought it sounded  interesting, especially with my Scottish background,  but the books looked enormously wordy, and I didn’t have the patience or time to read them. That was that.

In 2013, I visited cousins in various locations England. I scurried around in trains, buses, cabs and cars at a fairly rapid pace to see as much as I could in the 9 scheduled days.

My second group of cousins lived in a sweet little English home located in the county of Cheshire in the northwestern parish (town) of Congleton. Other than missing my train stop and having to return and go back, it had been a beautiful and quiet train ride from Seaford to the North Country.  Lush green rolling hills with cathedrals popping up around every turn allowed my mind to wander. I was looking forward to seeing the town of Wigan where my grandfather was born as well as visiting  Liverpool for the Beatles tour and seeing the port where family members sailed in and out almost 80 years prior.

The first settlements in Congleton were Neolithic, Stone Age, and Bronze. Much later, Congleton became a market town after the Vikings destroyed Davenport. The Romans are thought to have been here, too, even if they haven’t found evidence of that…yet. William the Conquerer gave the district of Cheshire over to his nephew, the Earl of Chester. Much history follows with it’s first charter signed in 1272 by the 3rd Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, which is where they would hold fairs and behead criminals. On that note, the town charter was stamped with approval.

Cousin John and I left Denise at the house to prepare for our next adventure to their cottage in France. He wanted to drive me around Cloud Hill and go to the  “Ice Cream Farm.” Along the way, there was road sign indicating a small out-of-the-way monument with historic stones.

There were no tourists and John stayed with the car on the dirt road. It was quiet, rundown, and gave me tingles down my spine. I took photo after photo as I walked slowly, almost reverently, around the tall standing stones. What was this place?

If I had known about the Outlander books, I probably would have put my hands on the stones just for the possibility of being taken back in time. If I had been alone with all the time in the world, I would have sat down beside them gazing at the magnificent view of clouds for hours. Elizabeth Barrett Browning could have written her poem “House of Clouds” from this knoll. I could hum Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” or make a weak attempt to recite from school girl memory William Wadsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”

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These standing stones comprise what is called the Bridestones Neolithic Chambered Long Cairn. It’s the only known tomb in Cheshire to date to the Neolithic period 3500-2400 BC.  The tomb is on the west flank of Cloud Hill facing westerly over Cheshire County.  From what has been gathered historically by Antiquarians, these stones are mere remnants of a more extensive monument which was unfortunately chipped away over time. Perhaps Manchester University will fund additional research about this area one day.

It was too soon that we were back on the road and off to the ice cream farm which I can’t even begin to describe. A picture speaks a thousand words.

 

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From the top of Cloud Hill, there is a view of the area including the industrial plumes of Liverpool in the distance. The white structure in right side of the photo below is the humongous observatory, Jodrell Bank Observatory.

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I learned one more last fascinating fact about the area. We briefly stopped at pretty little Lake Rudyard.  Kipling’s parents met here, which was how their son, Rudyard, was given his name.

Standing outside the car and viewing this lake, in the middle of remote English countryside, I felt a strong presence of my mother and wished she was the lucky one standing here viewing our ancestoral country. She was the one who taught me about Kipling and who had all his stories in a collection of books. loved bears, and certainly loved ice cream.

This one’s for you, Mom, wherever you are.

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Onward to France…

Seattle Day Tripping

To quell my wanderlust between trips to faraway places, I keep an eye open for local activities which interest me.

Seattle is less than 15 miles away yet now that I am retired and no longer commute, it’s rare for me to leave the quiet hamlet of Edmonds to venture into the city beehive of people and traffic. Yet when I read an article about the opening of the Amazon Spheres to the public, I invited a couple of friends to join me on another adventure to the big city. (We visited Seattle’s International District/Chinatown during winter.)

For the Amazon headquarters’ tour of the spheres, reservations are a requirement, and they are open only two Saturdays a month. Once registered on the website (see below for link), print the free ticket or have it available on your phone. Government ID is required (i.e. drivers license). Take public transportation or if you drive, the garage is across the street. Take note of other buildings as you approach the mind-bending spheres since the architecture and colors of other Amazon office buildings are also impressive.

A greeter welcomes visitors into the large sphere while ushering us inside. I found the check-in process at the front desk efficient. Within minutes we’ve shown our IDs, tickets are scanned, and we are led through a turnstile to the ‘inner sanctum’ of the large sphere. Unlike the zoo, there is no map to guide or instruct us, no arrows pointing the way, so we figured it out as we went. Taking the stairs to the first floor we gaped at the massive structure, which, although on a much grander scale, reminded me of the geodesic domes Oregon friends built in the ‘70s. We stood there for a few minutes getting the ‘lay of the land’ and wondering where to go next. Guides are stationed on each floor if you have questions. Also, it wasn’t until we were departing much later that we saw an elevator is available.

Living Wall

Looking up at the scale of the sphere I was in awe and once I understood the layout, it’s only a matter of visiting the ‘exhibits’ as you would a museum. Surrounded by roughly 40,000 plants, many of which are labeled, I recognized several tropical flowers and plants from my trips to Costa Rica which fills my heart with warm memories. The three spheres include plenty of options for sitting (or even lounging) while peacefully inhaling a tropical humidity and imagining the plants are growing happily in such a beautiful environment. I could almost hear birds chattering, butterflies flitting, and hummingbirds clicking in my ear.

Amazon’s Day One Building seen from inside The Spheres

Large misters expel clouds of moisture for the trees, plants and flowers on a regular basis. There is a hint of coolness to the humidity reminding me of hiking in Costa Rican jungles and feeling my skin soaking in moisture. In the Amazon Spheres I am relieved there is no apprehension of venomous snakes lurking beneath a fern.

Large Misters

As you gaze around the space, stand quietly amid the plant displays and living walls while breathing in the pristine air of biodiversity. Let the forms and shapes envelope you while your imagination whisks you off to a rain forest somewhere in the world as you stand in downtown Seattle.

On the third floor is a woven straw-like structure called the ‘bird’s nest’ which is approached by a small suspension bridge bouncing with each step. Cindy, Donna, and I sat on the nest’s wrap-around bench for awhile resting and chatting. A group of five or six people arrived and asked if one of us could take their photo. I moved my purse and unnecessary jacket from my lap onto the bench and stood up while Donna scooted over a bit. A man handed me his phone and as I raised it to photograph them, I heard the familiar clatter of my phone hitting something as it fell. I thought it had slipped from the bench to the bottom of the nest, but it had fallen 50 feet or so to the floor below. There was a collective gasp as we all looked at one another.

Bird’s Nest

Peering over the railing I saw a woman sitting in a chair and a young man walking by. They were both staring at my phone on the floor and looking a bit confused. The woman looked up at me and said, “It’s ok, no one will take it.” Cindy dashed downstairs to retrieve it as I resumed photographing the energized group sitting in the bird’s nest.

Cindy yelled up to me, “Your phone is fine!”

We were all astonished my phone didn’t shatter from the fall. One person in the group I was photographing, told us the floors were rubberized and he knew since he was an Amazon employee. A somewhat spongy floor helps tremendously for cell phones flying out of bird nests and eases the impact on walkers’ feet. During the work week, lucky Amazon employees use this space for breaks and probably meetings.

Spending almost two hours looking at these magnificent, and rare, plant specimens was a treat.

Fig Tree Trunk

Feeling satisfied by our botanical experience, we ventured outside and fell into a conversation with one of the greeters stationed outside the door. I asked her if the partially constructed building across the street was the one involved in recent headlines and was told, “Oh, yes.”

Just two days before on our local news, it was announced that Amazon, with 45,000 employees, paused the construction of their newest building because the City of Seattle is tossing around the idea of a head tax payable by big business employers in Seattle. There was TV coverage of steel-workers chanting “No head tax! No head tax!” while an outspoken council person was voicing her support in favor of the head tax program to provide for the homeless. We were standing in the area where this recent demonstration took place. It looked like only the office building’s steel work was near completion.

After our lively conversation, the greeter pointed us in the direction of the Spheres’ Information Center below. Walking into this open display area I was immediately impressed by the huge slide show directly ahead on three walls showing flowers and plants from the spheres. I read a little about the process the architects went through to select spheres, settling on what is known as a ‘Catalan’ form.

“…creating a sphere is more difficult than it may appear. While the Spheres bear similarities to, say, a traditional geodesic dome, this structure is far more complicated.

Like geodesic domes, the Spheres are constructed using a repeating geometric module. NBBJ is calling the pentagonal frames used to construct the Spheres Catalans, since they drew on the work of Belgian mathematician Eugène Charles Catalan—who in turn drew from the work of Archimedes—to create them.” Sarah Anne Lloyd, seattle.curbed.com

Exiting out of the garage, it was a shock to see the cost to park. Knowing how expensive downtown Seattle parking can be, to pay less than $3 was a pleasant surprise!

We drove the back way into Ballard down 15th Ave., and the weather was warm enough to stop by Red Mill Totem House, across from the Locks, to sit outside and have fish and chips.

Remarking on what a wonderful experience The Spheres had been, we considered Seattle’s Volunteer Park Botanical Conservatory as our next “destination field trip.” It’s been years since I’ve been there.

Seattle Spheres link:

https://www.seattlespheres.com/the-spheres-weekend-public-visits

All photos copyright of V.C. Murray.

 Cheshire is a Cat & a District in England which Includes Bears, Ice Cream, and a Lake

After a very full 9 days, there was only one day left in England before we flew to France. We had things to do including packing, but first I had to lighten my souvenir/gift baggage. On our way into Congleton, my cousin-in-law, Denise, dropped me at a post office where I mailed home an expensive box filled with inexpensive souvenirs and gifts for family back home. Sometimes it is worth paying more especially if you have a multi-city trip and have two legs to go. so I wouldn’t I didn’t want to lug the items around Limoge and Paris or be charged for a 2nd bag on Ryan Air.

 Of course, in a busy British neighborhood post office on a Saturday, was one of the very few times on this trip when my debit card wouldn’t work because of the changing credit card ‘pin system’ which was occurring in Europe. On top of that, I hadn’t gone to the cash machine first but luckily Denise came to the rescue and the lone Postmaster was patient and understanding about the whole situation. The line was almost going out the door behind me and I felt embarrassed for holding things up but the postmaster assured me, in the atypical patient British manner, that it was quite all right, they would just have to wait. After all, he was open until 3 (it was 11) so there was plenty of time. I love that attitude and am glad I wasn’t one of those people waiting in line.

The Cheshire District in the North Country of England, among other things, was where Lewis Carroll lived for awhile and named the “Cheshire Cat” in his book Alice in Wonderland after this district.

The town of Congleton is known for bears, which my late mom loved and collected.  She would have loved to know her first cousin lived in a town known for bears. I bought a small stuffed one in her honor.

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The first settlements in Congleton were Neolithic, Stone Age, and Bronze. Much later, Congleton became a market town after the Vikings destroyed Davenport. The Romans are thought to have been here, too, even if they haven’t found evidence of that…yet. William the Conquerer gave the district of Cheshire over to his nephew, the Earl of Chester. Much history follows with it’s first charter signed in 1272 by the 3rd Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, which is where they would hold fairs and behead criminals. On that note, the town charter was stamped with approval.

In 1451 the River Dane flooded and the town was destroyed, they rerouted the river, and rebuilt Congleton on higher ground.

In the 1620s, cockfighting and bear-baiting became popular sports in Congleton. But officials wanted larger crowds and they decided that meant they needed a large and fierce bear. Rumor has it they sold the town bible to acquire funding for a new bear. However, the truth was, they used the money they were going to use to purchase a new bible to actually buy the bear.  As the crowds increased and proved more money in the coffers, they were able to replenish the fund to finally buy the new bible.

Another publicized story from Congleton, is about John Bradshaw, mayor and lawyer, and, a regicide. Mayor Bradshaw penned his name as the first signature on the decree to execute Charles I in 1649. On the wall of The White Lion public house, there is a blue plaque stating that Bradshaw’s attorney office was here and he served articles in this 16th century building. (Note that the White Lion, in March, still had a couple of old Christmas, um, holiday trees, hanging off the facade.

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Fast forward to the 21st century and Congleton carries on as a market town with a lovely pedestrian area where Denise and I happily stopped for cappuccinos and pastries. 

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Congleton was also an important player in the textile industry well known for leather gloves, silk and lace which was a diverse product line.

The little village park celebrates awards for being pretty and back in the early days of film, presented silent movies in the little clubhouse with musicians playing mood tunes. It was currently celebrating Queen Elizabeth II‘s Diamond Jubilee. During my travel week in England, I saw other celebratory remnants from last year’s big occasion. It was a big year for London with the Olympics and a royal baby was on the way who could well be a future monarch. All very exciting stuff for royalists (like me).

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Returnimg to my cousin’s home, we left Denise to finish packing while John took me to what would be my mini-version of Stonehenge.  This little out-of-the-way monument was a low key tourist attraction since we were the only tourists; my favorite kind of tourist attraction. Quiet. Rundown. No one else to step around while I took photos. And it was cool. 

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These standing stones comprise what is called the Bridestones Neolithic Chambered Long Cairn. It’s the only known tomb in Cheshire to date to the Neolithic period 3500-2400 BC.  The tomb is on the west flank of Cloud Hill facing westerly over Cheshire County.  From what has been gathered historically by Antiquarians, these stones are mere remnants of a more extensive monument. Perhaps Manchester University will fund additional students for further research about this area one day.

From here I learned there really is an Ice Cream Farm in Cheshire County

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I felt about 6 years old right then. This was a real ice cream farm with cows present who provide the milk and the owners sell their Hilly Billy ice cream on site. It’s all situated on a gorgeous piece of unblemished property.

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The ice cream was delish and everything was just so darn quaint and cute.

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And I can’t even begin to describe the farm and the beautiful land it sits on, so I won’t even try. A picture speaks a thousand words.

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From the top of Cloud Hill, there is a view of the area including the industrial plumes of Liverpool in the distance. The white structure in right side of the photo below is the humongous observatory, Jodrell Bank Observatory.

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I learned one more last fascinating fact about the area. We briefly stopped at pretty little Lake Rudyard.  Kipling’s parents met here, which was how their son, Rudyard, was given his name. 

Standing outside the car and viewing this lake, in the middle of remote English countryside, I felt a strong presence of my mother and wished she was the lucky one standing here viewing our ancestoral country. She was the one who taught me about Kipling and who had all his stories in a collection of books. loved bears, and certainly loved ice cream.

This one’s for you, Mom, wherever you are.

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Onward to France…

The Object of Your Story

                                                                               

Occasionally it’s mentioned in workshops or books on the craft of writing, how effective a physical object can be when subtly weaving it through your story.  Recently I finished reading the book The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman which uses a large 19th century portrait of a Parisian courtesan as an occasional object from beginning to end. Even without a picture to physically see, the author showed the reader the gilded frame, the woman’s posture, colors, and fabrics.  It easily came to mind whenever the painting was mentioned at various intervals of the story. It was a familiar object.  And, what I loved about this book was how the author wrote it as a fictionalized account of a newspaper article. It was a story of a family learning about their great-great grandmother’s apartment in Paris which was locked up for over 70 years. When the apartment was opened by family heirs in 2011, it was as if time stood still and they walked into 1940s Paris. I remember reading the newspaper article and posting it on Facebook.  I was fascinated by the story and thrilled someone wrote a book about it.

If you decide you want an object for your story, how do you discover what it will be?

As writers, we understand inspiration arises from unexpected places. You may be in a writers’ group when a new story pops into your head and the first draft is soon underway. Perhaps you are sitting at your desk or on a plane thousands of feet in the air when an idea for a new character is born. You can be anywhere.  That’s the beauty of being a writer.

It wasn’t long ago, as I was housecleaning, when an object in my home reminded me of someone I once loved.   I wiped dust off the Asian antique mirror and remembered a time, 43 years ago, when the man I loved looked at his reflection in this mirror, standing in my mother’s home.  I was across the room watching him when his reflection caught mine and we locked eyes. It was a moment which stood still in time for me. He’s been gone many years, but, oddly, his reflection and the memory of our connection remain embedded in  the wavy glass of this mirror.

My thoughts, as I continued dusting, trailed off to another time I could only conjure up in my imagination. It occurred to me my grandfather may have bought this mirror for my grandmother when they were first married in Shanghai in 1929. The mirror, with its new glass, survived WWII hidden in a Shanghai cellar. It was kept with other curios and precious objects out of sight and protected from the Japanese invasion and ensuing confiscations since these objects were in the cellar of a White Russian friend of my grandmother’s. If a Russian (or any nationality) was married to a citizen of an enemy country, they were sent to Japanese internment camps, which was the case of my grandmother and mother who spent 4 years in a camp because of the marriage between my  Russian grandmother and  a British man.

A couple of years after the war, in 1947, the mirror took a journey by ship to the United States and hung on the wall of my grandmother’s San Francisco flat well into the late 70s.  The mirror had additional journeys over the next 37 years when it lived in my mother’s home in Pleasant Hill, CA; Colorado Springs, CO; then to my home in Seattle, and eventually settling in Edmonds 11 years ago. I imagine one of my children and one of my grandchildren will take it from here.

And so it was a day of simple housecleaning which created my story-object. If I choose to do so,  I can carry this mirror through my book for almost 100 years of my family’s history.  I can write a historical fiction showing the reader many of the faces reflected over time, some known and some imagined; we have so much freedom as writers to create whatever we wish!

Stories and ideas pop up for writers from unexpected places and we are delighted when they pop up at all.

Vivian C. Murray

10/16

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Bookshop in Venice

On my first visit to Venice in 2003, I stayed in Cannaregio, one of six historic districts in this City of Canals. Exploring, I found the simple Santa Maria dei Miracoli, known as the ‘marble church’, which sits prettily next to the Campo dei Miracoli (a plaza) but it was closed at that hour.  I had just met my future son-in-law’s parents and learned they married in this church, and Cannaregio is where their children were born and raised.

The next day, I leaned out my hotel window and shot photographs of delivery guys in high galoshes slosh through ‘aqua alta’ (high water) while forcing flatbed carts piled high with UPS and FedEx packages.  Two hours and a couple of espressos later, the water levels finally subsided and I could walk back to see inside the church.

Midway to the altar, I sat immersed in peace, quiet, and streams of dust motes colored by reflections from stained glass. All of a sudden, I was disturbed by loud crinkling noises and talking; it was a gaggle of chattering tourists who walked in wearing black garbage bags over their shoes and tied at their kneecaps.

Outside the 15th century church, two shops flanked one side of the campo (plaza). After peering into the pristine stationery shop window, I headed to the bookshop next door. The tinkle of a bell was triggered as I opened a heavy glass-inset wooden door.  I immediately noted very little semblance of order. It was my dream come true and a librarian’s nightmare. Wooden tables and bookcases held stacks of books ascending several feet while postcard racks with a mixture of cards were pushed up against the little bit of wall space available in the shop.

A weathered, yet dapper-looking, elderly gentleman appeared from the back while chirpily announcing “Buongiorno!”  He wore a business suit, a sweater vest and tie which looked like it was all from a much earlier decade. We hand gestured, due to language barriers, miming my wish to browse and his delight to have a customer. Soon, a children’s book, legal-sized with a water-color cover, caught my eye.  The artwork included Basilica San Marco, Venice’s iconic image.

The title “Ondina e Pesce Gatto” was loosely translated to “Water-Nymph and Catfish from Paris to Venice” by Claude Morhange and Cassandra Wainhouse.   As I picked the book up, the gentleman became animated.  “Molto bene!”  he exclaimed.  Pointing to the English words, he said, “You speak!”  With a twinkle in his eye and a gentle smile, I found him too endearing to refuse.The story was printed in both English and Italian;  I read the English side aloud and ten minutes later while closing the magical book, I noticed a wistful look on the old man’s face as he said, “Grazie mille.” (“Thank you, very much.”)  If I had small children in my family, I would have bought it, but my children were grown and there were no grandchildren.  Back into the chilly November sunshine, postcards in hand, I felt as if I had been in a magical time warp sprinkled with stardust.

Two years later I returned to Venice and ventured back to Campo dei Miracoli.  It was going to be my first grandchild’s baptism and I was searching for the right gift. In a beautiful stationery shop, I purchased a hand-blown glass wax seal with Gabriel’s initials. Going back outside to the sunshine, I strolled over to the bookshop. The elderly man who I met before was not there but I met his son who helped me find “Ondina e Pesce Gatto” on a table outside. I bought it, while I also inquired about his father; he told me ‘papa’ was home that day but was doing well.

Both items I bought were treasures for my six month old grandson whose baptism would be the following day in a villa near Venice. Happily, there was now a small child in my family, even an Italian one, who would someday read “Odina e Pesce Gatto“, perhaps he will be able to read and understand the Italian version, too.Ondina

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shanghai Spirits

Recently I wondered when the first ghost sighting was recorded, so as anyone would do these days, I Googled it.  There was mention of a book, “Ghost Sightings” by Brian Innes, where it is said the oldest written report of a ghost comes from the Bible. Saul goes to a medium (“a woman that hath a familiar spirit”) and asks her to conjure up the deceased Samuel, which she, it says, does by Samuel appearing in the form of “an old man covered with a mantle.”

Whether you believe in the spirit world or not, unexplainable ghostly appearances have been shared for centuries. But we can also sense the ‘spirit of a place’ or the ‘spirit of a person’ if we listen quietly.

While researching information for a book I’m writing about my family, one thing was missing. Reading and watching documentaries from my easy chair was not going to give me the “sense of place” I needed to continue.

With a few small miracles falling into place, I was off to Shanghai and my cousin, John, and his wife flew in from England to join me. Via email, we hired a private Shanghainese guide, recommended by John’s sister who hired the same guide two years prior (my grandfather, Sam Sharrock, was their uncle).

While waiting a day for my cousin, I explored the Bund and Nanjing Road solo while discovering I loved the culture shock of experiencing an Asian country for the first time. So many people wore the ‘good luck color’ of red, it was also crowded, and Chinese vendors would follow trying to lure me into an alley to see their wares. It’s also hard not to mention how a father thought it was ok for his young son to urinate on the sidewalk. This was China.

Little boy peeing

Little boy peeing

Glitz

Glitz

Exploring the fantastic British colonial buildings, I thought of my mother and grandparents visiting embassies, art deco hotels, and even the same department store on Nanjing Road which still operated as the No. 1 Department Store. These buildings were part of their lives during the 1920s-40s, when living there was envied as Shanghai was called the “Paris of the East.” It was a wild ‘free’ port of call with immigrants arriving from all over the war-torn world.

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Astor House Hotel – side wing

Lao Feng Xiang Jewellers Store (with handsome Caucasian man in front)

Lao Feng Xiang Jewellers Store

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Peace Hotel atrium

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Astor House Hotel

Our guide, Henry, picked us up in a large van. Since my grandfather was a British police officer, we began the tour at Jinxing police station in an old Shanghainese neighborhood. It was fortuitous to find a couple of men chatting in front of the station. I photographed the exterior and the people in the neighborhood while listening to Henry speak in rapid fire Cantonese to the men. I’m not sure if there was a bribe involved, but 15 minutes later a key appeared and we were allowed through the iron gate into the compound.

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Jiaxing Road Police Station, 290 Harbin Road, built 1907, known for having arrested Chen Duxiu, one of Chinese Communist Party founders

Jiaxing Road Police Station, 290 Harbin Road, built 1907, known for having arrested Chen Duxiu, one of Chinese Communist Party founders

Taking in the scene, I noted sagging roof lines, rain gutters hanging by a sliver of bracket, and rusted iron bars on the ground floor windows.

In the back of the compound I found a collection of clean, brightly flowered enamel chamber pots next to a door which led me to think someone must be living in this squalor.

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Laundry and boy with balloon in doorway with old woman looking out window above - we are a curious lot
Laundry and boy with balloon in doorway with old woman looking out window above – we are a curious lot

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I could almost see spectral wafting figures of prisoners being held here before transferring to the goliath Ward Prison nearby. I only knew of Sam from stories shared by my grandmother and mother, the black and white photographs, as well as letters he wrote to them. I envisioned him in his crisp high collared black police uniform patrolling these same grounds. I was fascinated by what secrets this building held; was this where the bomb went off in his office?

Climbing back into the van, we were pensive while chatting about Sam and his tragic end. The driver took us a short distance to the apartment building where the family lived and after exploring the honeycomb of entrances, we found the red door of F01, our family’s apartment. Unfortunately we were not able to see inside as the tenant was in a rest home, of which the guard informed Henry. This building had a historical plaque and was in good condition, so it was unlikely it would be torn down anytime soon.

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Sharrock’s front door on Weihai Road

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Partial exterior shot of apartment building on Weihai Road

While taking photos of the rosebush in the central garden of the gated complex, I wondered if these roses served as inspiration for my mom’s love of roses. I remembered memories she shared with me with one scene in this  driveway. Young military men picked Nona up for dates in their American issued jeeps and she told me how nervous she felt. I have a photo of one of those times and now I could actually touch the brick on this side of the building.

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Inside the apartment courtyard

Another time of reminiscing, a  fond memory my mother shared was of hopping her bike and riding out the gate full steam ahead. The rickshaw drivers shouted obscenities in Chinese admonishing her for going too fast as she weaved around them. My mother said she loved the ‘freedom of flying’ with the wind blowing her hair back off her face while she pedaled in pubescent madness. This was a happy time shortly before she would spend 4 years in a POW camp.

Now, seventy five years later, I jay-walked the busy lanes in front of the imposing brick building and imagined the spirit of a young girl flying down Weihai Road on her bicycle; in my mind’s eye I could see her disappearing in the distance.

My six senses were brought alive by traveling to the city of my mother’s birth while giving me the “sense of place” I needed to write their story.

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My mother (on the right) and a friend with jeep of a GI (who is probably taking the photo) next to her apartment building.

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Standing in the portal leading to the family apartment door