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Weekly Column

11/11/18: Our Post-Halloween Treat- or Trick  

There is magic in the night when pumpkins glow so orange and bright... 
  

Halloween season stood out this year for Bryn, Joe and me.  She’d sniff her way up and down our street until her startled ‘pause-n-freeze’ pose would alert us to another neighbor’s newly installed lawn additions- such as skeletons sprawled on porch chairs or oozing out of graves, and witches that clung to overhanging tree branches, their capes twitching in the light breeze. Distorted, bone-thin men in rags- what Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury might call ‘bump-in-the-night bogies,’ were animated by their owners from after dusk until well into late evenings so people driving past could enjoy the scenes. 
Humongous spiders waited on giant webs or swarmed over houses, climbing nearly to their roofs... 
One home advertised itself as a “Dead and Breakfast” establishment, causing lots of their front yard skeletons to climb out of their graves to snare a room with a decent bed. “Bein’ dead must be boring,” mused one child to his dad on Halloween. “That’s why they come up to the party out here...” 

My unsettled doggie preferred to trot on the street side of the wide sidewalks. (Too many bones without an ounce of meat on them?) 

One early evening a week before the big evening we strolled by a smallish yard that happened to light up just as we passed.  Alarmed, she leaped straight up into the air, landing stiff-legged, ears quivering and nostrils flared. What was this?? 
Four big wagons, one hitched to a skeleton-horse, had been set out. Skeletons manned the driver’s seats while their skinless friends lounged in the cargo beds. Ghosts, leering pumpkins, long deceased doggies, tombs and all manner of creepy stuff filled the lawn. The amazing scene attracted crowds of people holding their phones high to take pictures. It stopped cars dead: drivers and passengers were blown away by the awesome spectacle.  

Just before ‘The Event,’ even more homeowner marvels popped up. One really sweet one, an inflatable, full-size Cinderella-like carriage, pulled by two pretty gray horses, appeared on a front lawn three homes away from ours. Its generator purred almost inaudibly, keeping the airflow even.  
Wow! It was possible to peek into the carriage’s lit up interior. “Maybe Cinderella’s in there,” shouted one tiny child dressed as a ballerina. A six-year-old boy jumped up and down to sneak a peek. “No,” he pronounced. “No - ‘cause it’s not at her house yet- ‘member- she lives in the country!”   
The perfect answer! 
Everyone admired its charm.   

(Today, reading what I was about to submit, Joe chuckled. “Dee, that carriage was a hearse, not a princess’s carriage.” I was taken aback, then thoughtful. Ah...that was why those horses were dark gray, not white.  Silly me. But hey, the little dancer had thought the same thing...)  

Down the street a single skeleton horse was hitched to a wagon, accompanied by a Boston terrier-sized ‘bone’ dog; Bryn skidded to a stop to stare, baffled. 
It was an inspired, very effective tableau! 

Sixth Street had been truly transformed!   
Later, we decided 2018 had offered the best displays yet. So many well-lit exhibits had certainly thrilled loads of visitors.  
Joe and I arrived back in town only 40 minutes before ‘Trick-or-Treat’ was scheduled to begin. We tore inside, dressed up in the witch and warlock costumes I’d laid out days ago, dumped tons of candy into huge bowls and sat out on the front porch in hastily set up folding chairs to join in the fun. Near the end, Joe carried on distributing treats at a furious pace while I walked three blocks in my costume to see for myself what was happening. 

What a huge turnout- but fewer children had shown up compared to last year (when nearly 1,350 kids had trudged up our stairs).  Just over 1200 children trick-or-treated this time, and received our tribute. Almost every child thanked us. 

The morning after, I fretted about taking Bryn for her walk; she always sniffs diligently around trees, along sidewalks and into bushes for interesting news, and I’ve caught her many times trying to sample someone’s discarded summer hamburger bits or discarded pizza. But she has a serious medical problem, reacting violently to anything other than her special diet. Even a tiny bit of the wrong food could send her straight to the hospital. Halloween candy bits are routinely dropped or discarded, making the next day unnerving for us.  I’d tried a muzzle one year, but my normally silent dog actually cried until I removed it. So now, extra vigilance was necessary.  

Even though we walked well away from the most visited areas, and most lawns had been raked, making discarded candies easier to discern, she’d still managed to scarf down a 4-inch square, thin hunk of veggie pizza without our noticing until too late. Brightly wrapped candy always stands out, but this partial snack had blended too well into the leaf-mottled, curbside landscape. 
Horrified, all Joe and I could do was wait. 

We were incredibly lucky.  
Just an hour later up it came, having been inspected by her stomach and then summarily rejected.  She deposited it on the carpet still in perfect condition, still with the various veggies arranged nicely across the thin dough. It was WEIRD. 
To say we were amazed is to severely understate our reactions. 

Bryn, chagrined, left the room embarrassed and upset, though I’ve never scolded her for vomiting. That misery means ‘sick.’ ‘Sick’ means not her fault. Nevertheless, she wanted only to distance herself from this baffling barf. She couldn’t look us in the eye. 

We simply picked it up, scrubbed away the coffee can-sized stain and breathed a deep sigh of relief. 
No emergency room.  
No life-and-death situation.  
The invader was happily trashed.   

It was, if you will, as though lingering Halloween ghouls had seduced Bryn into gobbling down a potentially lethal Treat, but had then relented and taken it back again- call it their unlikely, gross, reverse Trick- for reasons we’ll never fathom. 
But who cares? Bryn had coughed up The Scary Thing. That’s what mattered. 
Life is good!

10/04/18: Montreal; Canada’s Island Jewel- Part Three  

We woke early On Tuesday to another bright morning with few clouds, 55 degrees or so, with a light breeze. The plan: to explore Montreal’s Old Town neighborhoods and then venture downtown. The city has quite an impressive profile, with slim, modern office buildings piercing the sky. It’s the second largest primarily French-speaking city (after Paris) on the planet. We identified Hindi, German, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese. 

Later we came upon a restaurant called Eggcellent, tucked into a cobbled street, which specialized in breakfasts. With a name like that we had to check it out!
I ordered crisp bacon and avocado slices to set atop my (backpacked) gluten-free bread, which they were happy to toast. Joe had homemade sausage and eggs. The coffee was robust, tasty and black. We’d come back soon! 

Most shops weren’t open this early, so we biked on Old Town’s sidewalks. (People in cars tended to work their phones as they slowly navigated the ancient streets, making us nervous.) We looked into lots of little shop windows and constantly wove around construction. Big machinery, stacked cardboard boxes, portable barriers, piles of earth, sand, and displaced cobblestones made for tricky biking. 

The best place to travel turned out to be in the heart of the very busy downtown! 

Here’s a great promotional statement from GoBiking.ca of why Montreal is considered a world-class bike-friendly city: 

Major cycling publications and organizations have consistently rated Montreal as one of the top bicycle-friendly cities in the world during the past decade -for good reason. The creation of hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes, paths, and trails, and the establishment of the self-serve rental system with 5000 Bixi bikes, puts Montreal at the leading edge of what large cities can do to facilitate and promote cycling. 


Downtown bike lane on De Maisonneuve Boulevard.  

The amazing thing about all of this is that a little over 20 years ago Montreal had the opposite reputation: it lagged far behind Ottawa and Toronto for being bicycle-friendly. Not long ago Mount Royal Park was the best Montréal could offer cyclists looking for an interesting place to ride. If you want to do some hill climbing, or get a fantastic view of Montreal’s downtown core, Mount Royal is still a great place to cycle. However, now the city has so much more to offer. 

One example is the recently completed bicycle lane, which transverses the entire length of Montreal’s downtown area. It’s not about painting a white line and a few bicycle symbols on a narrow strip of pavement. This bike path takes up a whole car lane on De Maisonneuve Boulevard: it’s separated from the rest of the street by a substantial cement curb. Well thought out traffic signs help cyclists to safely navigate through busy downtown intersections. Moreover, Montreal is serious about keeping this bicycle facility open all year round. At one point motorists were actually complaining that the city was removing snow from the bicycle lane faster than the roads! 

Eventually, well past two o’clock, we were too pooped to pedal. A French meal, imaginatively served, would restore us. The Vieux Port Steak House’s prices made us pale- until we remembered we could whack off 25%. Much better!  

Revived, we biked to the Basilique Notre Dame, a Catholic Cathedral not far from our hotel. Built in the 19th century the magnificent, colorful neo-Gothic interior boasts a stunning pipe organ with 7000 pipes. Celine Dion was married here.  
Arranging one’s wedding, though, requires patience. Its wedding calendar is booked seven years in advance! 

There was a long line to get in as part of group tours of twenty, and a fee (around $10/person) to boot. As time was short we decided to forgo it. Do view the evocative videos offered on the net, though. 

We pedaled past a huge Observation Ferris Wheel located on a nearby island, which offers all-encompassing views of the city (for $25/person), its multiple bridges (lit at night) over the huge St. Lawrence River, and the smaller islands. Open from 10-11 p.m. the cabins are air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter.  
Next time... 

 

Not once did we see any sign of law enforcement. Large groups of cheerful young adults, most likely students from McGill University, Loyola College, Concordia University and The University de Montreal, just to name a few) never seemed over-boisterous or unruly.  Many smoked. 
Every evening soft pastel lighting enhances the huge Boulevard’s restaurants, shops, Cathedral, and other architecturally interesting buildings. It’s a great draw. Jazz and pop music inside and out enhances the scene.  

College students who like soccer, American football and hockey (the world-class Montreal Canadiens are based here) visit bars with wall-hung screens featuring these games. Brassiere Sportive was good for a glass of wine- and it offered free popcorn. We ‘wrinklies’ stuck out a bit, but nobody minded. 

In the twilight, almost all the people gathered on the great pedestrian Jacques Cartier Boulevard itself were over 50. Most, in fact, were over retirement age. 

 
There was one ‘monumental’ curiosity. 
Right at the top of the Boulevard, which slopes gradually to the mighty St Lawrence, stands a 50-foot high statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, erected here in 1809. To me, it looked almost exactly like the one in London’s Trafalgar Square. Great Britain’s premier sea warrior died fighting the Battle of Trafalgar.  
It’s the oldest monument in Canada. 
Curiously, Nelson is positioned looking inland, not out to sea.  
(But I think I read somewhere that the British Admiralty headquarters used to be up that way...) I didn’t know he’d lost an eye and a good part of his right arm in various battles. The statue depicts this. 
Anyway, just after the turn of the 20th century, the original 8-foot-high Nelson showed signs of deterioration, and so was moved to a local museum. This one’s a replica. 
Wikipedia adds its own comment: [* signifies my own comments] 

As a monument which may be seen as celebrating a British victory in a city that is predominantly French-speaking, it’s garnered its share of controversy. In 1890 a Quebec sovereigntist faction plotted to blow up the column. In 1930 [*as a clever, non-confrontational compromise] francophone Montrealers responded to Nelson’s presence by erecting a statue in a nearby city square (now known as Vauquelin Square) commemorating Jean Vauquelin, a French naval officer who valiantly fought during the Seven Years’ War. [*The two statues glare stonily at each other from a safe distance; so far, neither man has blinked.] 
Still, many French Canadians continued to object to Nelson’s presence. In 1997 the city proposed moving the monument to a distant Anglophone district, but public opposition has kept Montreal’s oldest monument in its original place.

On Wednesday morning we awoke to heavy rain, predicted to last all day and throughout the night. But at 6:30 a.m. it stopped; local radar showed we had a few hours to zip around town, so we wheeled our bikes to the huge gate, unlocked it, and were off. Up and down the avenues, along the river, through the streets, around the old clock tower, and finally, back to Eggcellent for coffee and a hot breakfast. YUM!  


We’d barely returned to our hotel before the heavens opened again. Rain drenched everything. Alas, I’d brought no raincoat. The rain intensified.  
Before lunch, the room cleaner knocked. When I answered, that kind man offered me a brand new foldaway raincoat in its own pouch, left behind by another guest. It was posh! He’d been saving it for a small guest without adequate rain gear. It was perfect for dashing outside and directly across the street to explore Marches Bonsecours, a huge, beautiful Palladian style two-story domed building finished in 1847.  For many years it housed Montreal’s City Hall, a 3700-foot meeting room and the Farmer’s Market, as well as accommodating banquets, exhibitions and other festivals- until 1878. 

{Wikipedia comments that] The building continued to house the farmer's central market, an increasingly multicultural mix of small vendors with business mainly conducted in the French language until the building was slated for demolition in 1963. [*However, calmer heads prevailed; it] was later transformed into a multi-purpose facility, with a mall that houses outdoor cafés, restaurants and boutiques on the main and second floors, as well as a rental hall and banquet rooms on the lower and upper floors, and municipal office space. 

Bonsecours Market was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984.
We strolled through the main floor’s many separate shops that house attractive, often pricey merchandise, like clothes, jewelry, and fine memorabilia. But the second floor was dark and empty.  

This splendid building is safe from the wrecking ball, though. 

We left our snug digs very early Thursday morning, drove through nearly constant rain to the Canadian border, zipped through Customs and found ourselves back in Saginaw that evening. It had been an uneventful 13-hour drive. 

As our younger daughter may move there, we’ll enjoy returning to this appealing city in future, knowing the territory much better now.

10/28/18: Montreal: French Canada’s Island Jewel: Part Two  

The drive to Montreal seemed too long; anticipation made time drag. I finally rolled up into a ball on the front seat and went to sleep, something I rarely do. It helped enormously to hurry time along. Joe drove well, sipping hot chocolate and munching a cookie while listening through his earpiece to a good story. When I woke we’d began to nibble at the edges of the big city. Its population numbers nearly two million souls.  

The traffic was reasonable, as it was Sunday. Our GPS lady was mostly unruffled. After just one mistake she took us off the Big Road and into the old city. The island of Montreal (named after Mt. Royal, a small mountain in the island’s middle section) from which the city is named, is huge. 
Here are some thumbnail statistics: 


192.74 miles in area 

31 miles long  

9 miles wide 

Official language: French.  

Ancient Rue St. Paul, just a couple of expansive blocks away from the St Lawrence River, is elevated almost 100 feet above it. This part of Old Montreal boasts original cobblestone and brick streets, which wind appealingly through the neighborhoods’ side streets. Our tiny hotel, Auberge BonSecours, was set well back from that old thoroughfare. We turned off St. Paul Street to immediately face a very tall, arched, long brick and stone tunnel into which were built two 12-foot-high ornate iron gates dating from the 17th century, which are still swung closed and locked every night at 8. Every resident has a key, should they want to stay out later for the nightlife.  

From relative darkness, the tunnel opened into a longish, ancient open courtyard. Long, very high stone/brick walls framed a charming little seven-room hotel at its far end, which is, in fact, a converted stable. It is reached by climbing up three steps to a generous cobblestone patio set outside its front door which offers a couple of little iron tables with chairs to enjoy morning coffee and croissants. So French. So charming! Three ‘stalls’ on the courtyard’s right side had sheltered carriages centuries ago... and now, cars. 

The warm brick and stone façade outside was decorated with black iron hayracks planted with thriving, vividly red geraniums, to stunning effect. I rate picturesque scenes like this in terms of ‘sigh value.’ (My scale moves from 1 to 10, with ten being tops.) This one earned a firm 7.  Keeping designs simple, with lots of ‘POW!’ value, makes a most satisfying first impression.  

The concierge, who spoke quite reasonable English (far better than my abysmal French), escorted us to our pleasant, simply furnished room on the second floor. A glass-paned door at the sun-filled end of our boudoir opened onto a huge roof patio with a fine view of the cobblestone courtyard one story below. This roof patio was much bigger than our quarters.  

Inside, pale yellow walls set off two double beds and a smallish hand-painted, very French red armoire. A small chair sat snugly against a tiny tri-corner table holding a little telly set against the wall. The small bath was equipped with a square porcelain toilet and sink and a glass-door ‘phone booth’ shower with excellent water pressure. The towels were thick and white.  

We relaxed happily into our nest. 

  

Having spent nearly all our time indoors investigating the Royal Toronto Museum’s treasures, we decided to explore Old Montreal’s outdoors for most of our three full days here, as the weather, though rather cool, was sunny and a bit breezy, perfect for biking the area. Also, the huge, main pedestrian boulevard, only two blocks away, offered cheery pubs and restaurants featuring wonderful food. We never ate a mediocre meal. French food, imaginatively presented and freshly flavorful, rarely disappoints.  

The first day, Monday, after our free continental breakfast (fresh coffee, fresh o.j., fresh baked bread, an assortment of cheeses, olives, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, thin ham slices, fresh berries and other fruit), we unlocked the huge iron doors just after 7 a.m. and wheeled out to bike the length of the St. Lawrence River as far as we could, using the wide paths lining its edge, which was brightened in spots by lots of small trees planted in long lines. Later in the morning people walked up and down its green swath eating baked goods and sipping coffee, enjoying the sun. There was plenty of room for bikers. We stopped frequently to explore the various jetties and structures that line the river.  



 

One in particular, the Science Building, rose above the St. Lawrence. We love science exhibits! Closer examination, though, revealed zero activity inside. What? We locked our bikes and tested the big glass doors. They were open. Inside reflected the outside; all gray steel, stone and cement. There were no carpets. There was, in fact, nothing at all. Well, almost nothing. Two people, looking busy, manned a nearly barren desk against the right wall of the huge lobby, but no other souls, save we two, were about.  This building was empty- of color, of people, of any softness (like comfy lobby seats, or maybe some large potted plants, which would thrive in all this natural light). 

Then we heard faint, canned music. A large, round, candy-stuffed carousel, manned by two young men, was recessed well away from the traffic that should be flowing through this big entryway. A huge gray cement pillar had made it effectively disappear. There were lots of soft drinks, too- and even croissants and some sandwiches under glass. The candies’ bright wrappers provided visual relief from the gray that gloomed the interior. 
This kiosk made no sense. 

The two ‘greeters?’ in the lobby seemed didn’t mind our wanting to climb to the second floor. Surely there’d be something to look at up there! But, no. Floor-to-ceiling windows did display the fast-flowing river. Otherwise, only two colorful 50s-style movie posters and closed, unlabeled doors broke up the long walls.  

Silent emptiness reigned. Baffled, we descended. 

The building felt vacuumed of everything that would give it purpose. Most tourists had gone, but still...I found its nakedness exceedingly odd. What ‘science?’ Where? We looked at each other, shrugged, turned, and left. The desk jockeys, still at their posts, didn’t meet our eyes. The whole thing was unsettling. If there was nothing to see, why have it open? We didn’t feel like asking them for clarification.  

The wind had picked up; biking now was a challenge, as the temperature had dropped to the high 40s. We pedaled on, though, wanting to view the Old Port’s docks, and maybe even see some interesting boats.  

There was just one- a huge, gorgeous yacht. I’ve never seen anything like it. Her beauty and clean, elegant lines enchanted us.  

Blue Moon would stand out anywhere.  Pure white, she is privately owned, cost over $75,000,000, is just over 175 feet long, has a captain, a crew of 15, and can accommodate 12 lucky guests. Her graceful lines are arresting. We stood in the late morning sun for a long time, talking about, for example, how very tricky it would be when the captain eventually must back her slim length out into that fast-moving river before turning one way or the other.  What a feat that would be to witness! 

Nobody seemed to be inside. Blue Moon sat there quietly, awaiting her next adventure. 

Go to Google and ask for ‘Montreal’s huge yacht at Old Port.’ The short video shows her in late summer, when lots of much smaller boats were moored nearby, costing a mere million bucks or so. Moon’s arrival had apparently created a local sensation. The nattily dressed TV announcer reporting on her stood amid a crowd of summer-casual folks who had gathered at the docks to admire her and speculate about the beautiful boat’s background. 

Old Port officials declined to say who owns her. 

After biking up and down the swiftly flowing St. Lawrence we’d worked up quite an appetite, and were now shivery cold. The wind, quite gusty at times, was increasing every hour. So, round about two o’clock, six hours after we began, we pedaled wearily home, shed our wheels and walked to a restaurant our concierge recommended. Jardin Nelson is located right at the corner of Rue St. Paul and Place Jacques Cartier, the huge pedestrian boulevard. Flowers gushed from very large planters attached to its open patio, completely enveloping the five-foot-tall wall. Inside, a slim female vocalist sang popular French music, accompanied by a fine small band just behind her. Appreciative people ate and clapped. The singer, well known locally, can really deliver a song. Even in mid-afternoon the big indoor lunchroom was packed. Our salmon salads were delicious! 

After exploring some of the little souvenir shops that line the boulevard we returned home at twilight and settled in for the evening. It had been a long, interesting day.  

Auberge BonSecours is set so far back from the street that, for me, time seemed to slow, and then- reverse.  

Nearly asleep, I fancied I could hear carriages and horsemen clip-clop in and dismount, spurs and gear clinking. They’d stable their steeds before resting somewhere close by for the night... 

We fell asleep quickly, enveloped in Old Town’s deep quiet.  

Tomorrow would prove to be very informative, and a bit strange. 

Tune in next Sunday for the final report on our adventure. 

10/21/18: A Toronto Museum Exploration: Part Two  

Joe and I packed our two bikes, left Bryn with family and drove to Toronto to stay for three nights to explore the Royal Ontario Museum’s many treasures. Our B and B, only a few blocks away from posh Bloor Street and the ROM, was nestled into a thickly treed residential neighborhood crammed with middle to upper-class homes. (Almost every home we saw since entering Canada is made of warm red brick. A wood-framed home is rarely in evidence.)  

The drive went smoothly. Customs took 5 minutes. But as we finally began to weave into Toronto’s sprawl six hours later we found ourselves in the middle of massive, forever long highway construction. 12 lanes were reduced to one or two. We dared not blink for fear we’d miss exits- or take them erroneously. (Our GPS British lady, completely muddled by all the confusion, gave up almost immediately.)  
Finally, an hour or so later, satellite-settled, the GPS lady regained her composure and found Admiral Street, and we settled into our comfy rooms.   

Some impressions: Admiral Street winds in serpentine fashion toward Bloor Street, and Queen’s Park, and is lined with every fabulous world-class store imaginable: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Holt Renfrew, Chanel, Tiffany, Hermes and Armani, to name just a few. Restaurants are elegantly expensive.  What’s displayed in those windows is as out-of-reach financially as the moon. 

A block or so before all this bedazzlement we biked through curvy blocks of commanding, ivy-clad brick residential homes lining Admiral street, some sporting huge balconies high up, stained glass windows and even some towers, dating from very early to the middle of the last century. They’re tightly fitted into narrow lots absolutely stuffed with mature plants: shrubs, trees, struggling geraniums and impatiens- all fighting for light. As a result, there are big weeds growing lustily in between and underneath. It seems that after planting, the greenery was often- well, abandoned. The overcrowded ‘landscaping’ partially obscures the homes. It would be tricky to find one’s own driveway, I mused. Why had nobody decided to grow just beautifully kept grass, which would have framed many of these imposing homes? 

The cars parked there were elegant. We saw ladies pushing carriages, but no teens tossing basketballs in driveway hoops- because there wasn’t enough room. 
The whole plant-cluttered neighborhoods were vaguely unsettling- bordering on claustrophobic at times- for this gardener.   

Anyway, we biked to the museum by a different route the second morning and stopped suddenly in confusion. My God! The ROM’s lengthy 19thcentury brick façade had been massively breeched -chopped- speared? by thrusting, MEGA-HUGE pointy, triangular shards of steel-lined glass that jutted out over the pavement at nearly impossible angles, reminding me of Superman’s eerie Ice Home.  
It was Stunning! Awful! Horrifying! Marvelous! Scary! Weird! 
My mouth took a very long time to shut.  



Here’s how it’s described online: 

Inspired by the ROM’s gem and mineral collection, architect Daniel Libeskind sketched the initial concept on paper napkins while attending a family wedding at the ROM. The design was quickly dubbed the 'crystal' because of its crystalline shape. 

His comment: "Why should one expect the new addition to the ROM to be 'business as usual'? Architecture in our time is no longer an introvert's business. On the contrary, the creation of communicative, stunning and unexpected architecture signals a bold re-awakening of the civic life of the museum and the city." 

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the same man helped to design the new World Trade Center in New York City.

Never, ever have I seen anything like this freaky marriage of the stately, dignified elderly brick façade and entrance arch to a giant, triangular, thrusting, powerful, angular, screaming-its presence-mountains of glass. People walked under it without a thought, but that whole gigantic, fantastic façade hanging over me was unnerving. The architect has made it impossible for anyone to ignore the ROM’s presence.   

After I’d settled down a bit I decided I might learn to really like it. 

The older building, resigned now to centuries of baffled acceptance of what it cannot change, is, I fancy, beginning to adapt to the twenty-first century with grace.    

This ‘connection’ might be the most innovative join-up I’ve ever witnessed.   

  

We locked our bikes and popped into a narrow, dark-walled corridor lined with wiry metal tables and thin chairs. People sat, sipping coffees and munching bakery purchased from its smallish vender-style snack room. Huh, thought I. It’s rather- understated. I’m used to cafeteria-style lunch/tea rooms in big-city (New York/ London) museums. But this seemed to work. People brought their own food; others downed sandwiches and water in the huge atrium off the entrance.  

There were lots of folks wandering through the exhibits. Our exploration of ‘China’ the day before had attracted Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian people, as well as crowds of Europeans and Americans. Today, though, we began to wander through less populated rooms filled with Greek and Roman works of art. Gorgeous vases portrayed beautifully coiffed women in flowing robes sitting with friends. There were rearing horses... The drinking cups, though, some with delicately painted men and women sumptuously dressed, made us gasp. One incredible cup had a goat’s head and neck attached. I could imagine some lucky owner sipping wine from that beauty. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. 

In fact, we spent a lot of time gazing at drinking cups: some presented as shallow oval stemmed dishes with handles at both ends. The ones with beautifully portrayed animals as an integral part of the cups themselves were strongly reminiscent of the museum’s fantastic exterior architecture. Ordinarily, one wouldn’t ever think of such intriguing ‘blendings/joinings, say, in the 20th century, or even in this one. But darn it, they can work! (Hmmm. Maybe Libeskind took inspiration from these gorgeous cups.) 
One little snag- it would be tricky to set down an animal cup to reach for food. Wine would tip out, wouldn’t it? Joe took a photo of this cup to illustrate the situation. 
But I could happily live with that tiny inconvenience if I owed such a spectacular sipper.   

All this wandering and mooring for a bit on benches designed to be only temporary ‘rest havens, chatting about what was before us, and then moving on made the time pass far too fast. Again, we found we’d been on our feet for over 5 hours. Enough. We were suddenly aware that lunch would be welcome. Why not visit the same pub as yesterday? It was three o'clock. 
Over a shared ale and delicious chicken/salmon salads, we decided to return in the spring to pick up where we’d left off. There is so much more to absorb! 

A few more impressions:  

- Our residential neighborhood was really quiet, especially after 7 p.m., though it lay very close to populous, posh downtown Toronto. 

- We noticed only two uniformed guards inside the museum. I’m sure more were there- just not obvious. 

- Bordering the local park, bikes were locked onto specially fashioned stands displaying rent-a-bike machines. Toronto is VERY bike-friendly (although one wonders how practical this accommodation actually is during their long, fierce winters). There were 6-foot-wide bike lanes down both sides of Bloor Street, though very few bikers. Anyway, just insert a special card above the bike you choose, which scans it to identify you.’ Unlock your bike and off you go.  
Cool. 

- The University of Toronto was right next to the museum. Lots of students wearing heavy backpacks walked purposefully here and there. Smokers abounded. 

- The ROM’s elevators are- irritating. This is a first. I’ve always felt neutral-to-grateful for them.  

We’d enter to face a curious panel of buttons and little squares of gray metal too low down (I, whopping 5 feet tall, never complain about such a thing) which blend too well into the gray metal panel behind, making it difficult to quickly discern what’s going on. The interior lights were a bit dim. Instead of showing floor numbers clearly, folks had to peer to find them. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ chevrons were set oddly and helped only to confuse; there was no info on what different floors offered.  
Besides its ‘plan’ being hard to sort, passengers were uncomfortably aware that seconds were ticking by. Way, way too soon the elevator, impatient with its load of puzzled, trying-to-discern-the code, finger-poised people, would begin to move up or down on its own. Visitors would shake their heads and mutter their annoyance in different languages as they found themselves on unwanted floors. 

Instead of facing that ‘jumble symbol jungle’ again they’d shrug and walk off to find some stairs. We did, too.   

- I found the ‘directive’ signs to galleries off the giant atrium nearly as confusing. The names of the donors for particular areas were huge, long and elegant. For example, The Elizabeth Antonia Hamblatonious Smythe Gallery (I’ve made up the name for demonstration purposes) would be set in capital letters etched deeply into creamy marble high above the entrance. 
After that, trigger words at eye level about what was in there were almost grudgingly added- a bit like an afterthought.  
I’d have designed it the other way around. Big, easy-to-read declarations for what is on exhibit, with the donor(s) names much less massive. It’s lovely-- stunning, actually, that these people cared enough to give the grateful museum the eye-popping money necessary to erect such beautiful, airy rooms. Having said that, and meant it, a nice plaque on the wall as one enters makes more sense.  It’s about the museum’s collection, not the donor. 

Well, here I am, fifteen hundred words into part two, and threatening to ramble on and on. I must leave out many more marvels we admired. 

We’d depart Toronto very early the next day, a Sunday. Most folks would be asleep pre-dawn: traffic would be reduced to a trickle. Thank God. 

Montreal was in our sights.  

Tune in next Sunday for Part three: Montreal: French Canada’s Island Jewel. 

PS: Today, I’ve decided I really like the ROM’s exterior. The whole thing is rather special. Freaky special. I want to go back if only to study it more. If you visit, note that it ‘ate’ a window on the side not shown. There is only a bit of one still showing. The rest has been- ingested... Wow. 

This thing is stupendous.

10/14/18: Our Canadian Adventure - Part One  

Joe and I had a fine adventure the last two weeks of September, exploring Toronto and Montreal. Here’s how it all happened. 

Our fiftieth wedding anniversary, celebrated in June, represented a Giant milestone. And to honor it our families went all out. Joe’s sister, Mary, and her husband Vince, lifelong dog people, offered to move into Sunnybank House to mind Bryn, who really likes them. (We’ve always included Bryn in our car adventures: she’s a marvelous traveler. But tackling Customs? Finding a Canadian hotel that took doggies? Trying to explore by bike, with Bryn sometimes left at the hotel? It got complicated. So this wonderful gift swept those worries away.)  

Our two daughters decided to introduce us to Ontario’s major city, Toronto, and French Canada’s Montreal, especially the historical area of town, which dates from the 16th century.  

Two days before leaving I told Bryn that Joe and I’d be away, but that Vince and Mary would come to stay with her. Bryn understands an amazing amount of spoken information. I know this because I constantly witness her comprehension. 

Bryn’s sense of time is different from mine. ‘Soon’ to her means within hours. ‘In a bit’ or ‘later’ signifies a day or so, maybe more.  
Unruffled, she greeted Vince and Mary a day later and I formally handed her over. (They knew all about her unusual food requirements.) 
“Stay with Vince and Mary. We’ll be back later.”  
She accepted our departure with no fuss.    

First, we drove to Toronto. Jenny and Lisa had purchased a year’s membership to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the second largest museum in North America, and only three blocks from our comfortable, spacious turn-of-the-century bed-and-breakfast accommodation.  Located on the second floor, our bedroom and generous bath were spacious. A nice kitchenette, equipped with a round table, 4 chairs, a fridge, toaster and coffeemaker, looked out onto a huge, roofed, open porch with its own comfy couch and more round, white iron tables with pretty place settings for continental breakfasts. It was lovely to relax out there for our three evenings with a glass of wine.   

We were the only guests right then.  

The museum, just 6 minutes away by bike, was chock full of fascinating exhibits. Our membership card made entering fast and easy.   

Spiders: Fear And Fascination - immediately caught our attention.  The creatures were, via holograms, dashing about the exhibit floor. Intrigued children tried to pounce on them, or follow them as they zipped around. (The spectacle was a reminder, too, that spiders are nearly everywhere...) 
We noticed some fist-sized ones behind glass, moving through their specially constructed homes and environments- in deserts, or in more familiar areas. Intricate webs were spun to snare insects that we humans find irritating.) Wolf spiders, trapdoor spiders, amazing peacock spiders (who have vivid, multi-colored abdomens as bright as their namesake’s) and a myriad of other odd ones, are exhibited, along with short videos that explain their habits and habitats. With a single button press, visitors learn how they’ve evolved (a few, perfectly preserved in amber, date from hundreds of millions of years ago), their reproduction and growth, which ones are venomous, and how to tell, and how they sense their world. Spider Man’s fantasy talents further demonstrate some of the creature’s major assets. It is a splendid, well-thought-out presentation.  

 


Understanding these creatures helps to curb irrational fears. I noticed that children who’d initially avoided the larger arachnoids were soon caught up in the adventure. Curiosity is a powerful draw.   

We moved on to China, whose history spans six millennia. The earthen Ming Tomb, large and domed, contains the remains of a revered sixteenth century general, Zu Dashou, and three of his wives. The gate and carvings that announce it are splendidly regal.    

Moving on, Daoist and Buddhist paintings, jewelry and china from as far back as 1300 BC are delicately rendered, and gorgeously detailed.  
The helmets of Chinese soldiers, though, really caught my attention. These small, beautifully fashioned metal caps and/or facemasks were tailored to fit each owner’s head precisely. The details added to their ancient war garb are exquisite!   
Today these helmets would fit only preteen children.  

(A memory popped to the front of my mind. It’s astonishing how small interior cathedral doors are. Hobbit-sized. People were pint-sized in Europe, too, when compared with the much taller, better nourished humans alive today.) 

We finally moved on to the ROM’s dinosaur collection. 
Ah- all the usual adjectives fail to express what’s there. 

One GIGANTIC grazer, Barosaurous, a recent (re)find with an amusing, true story I’ll tell in a bit, dominates the area’s vast, high ceilinged floor. The thing is INCREDIBLY long. The neck goes on and on and on, until Nature finally added a teeny, teeny tiny head. You’d have to look hard for a brain. How would it have the wit to put one foot in front of another?? Or chew?? Or poo? Or reproduce? How could anybody cogent ‘be home’ up there?   

Its massive body also supports a mile-long tail that fades into the distance before finally ending in the tiniest of tips. I fancy it was used to decapitate threats- if its thinker could remember how to do such a thing. 
One needs to walk along under it to grasp the length.  
Even then... 
I’ve never seen the like, though I’ve visited many stunning dinosaur displays in The U.S. and Europe.  
This. One. Takes. The. Prize.  

Here’s an amazing, true story of how it was (re)discovered.  

David Evans, the man in charge of the dinosaur section, looked far and wide for a sauropod to display. It would be a triumph to feature such a rare creature.  

After a long, frustrating search around the world he found himself browsing through other museum publications one day. A few words jumped out at him. Someone, decades ago, had mentioned ‘ lots of sauropod bones lying around in the Royal Ontario Museum’s basement.’ 

WHAT? They'd had one all along??? He rushed back to paw through its underground vaults and sure enough, there were piles of giant and tiny sauropod bones sitting in closets, in drawers and on shelves. It turned out all the bones were from the same beast!  

(The big museums have vast underbellies. I’ve often wondered what other rare treasures might be stored down their bowels, forgotten for decades. OMG.) 

Finally assembled, this AWESOME Barosaurus skeleton includes four massive neck vertebrae, a complete set of vertebrae from back to pelvis, fourteen tail vertebrae, both upper arm bones, both thigh bones (each of which is nearly five feet in length), a lower leg, and various other vital pieces. (Experts, who had enough bones in their museums to know how to do the job correctly, created the missing bones from plaster.)  
The entire thing, approximately 90 feet long, stops viewers cold. Total mass: probably more than 15 tons. The skeleton nearly defies gravity! (Surely it had used deep water to support that much bulk. Surely!)  
It must have eaten 24 hours a day to stay viable.  I decided it could have made no sounds- No room in that teeny throat for such a luxury... 
The trip down to its stomach had to be an extremely long, continuous one. 
But here was proof that Barosaurus had lived.  
And thrived.    

One simply must see it to believe.  

By 2:30, we realized a break was necessary. Our stomachs growled. Our feet hurt. Our brains ached. My eye ached. Our mid-morning apple snacks had worn off and we longed for lunch. The Prince of Wales Pub, set into our residential area just off the huge Bloor Street shopping corridor, was quiet and popular. We’d found and noted it the evening before when biking around the area to get our bearings. 

Meals, served in a pretty atrium, were delicious.  Afterward, we pedaled home to nap, think and plan. 

Tomorrow we’d explore more: The Bronze Age, a Bat Cave, Greece and Egypt. Not to mention the building’s waaay out there architecture. 
Clearly, it’s going to take more than one trip to Toronto to do this museum justice.  
Tune in next week for more fascinating stuff!

10/07/18: Two Contented Souls  

Some years ago, when visiting my family in England, I took a long, solitary afternoon walk down the rustic, unpaved Callow Lane, which led to the little village of Much Dewchurch, and its Black Swan pub. The sun, partnered with a freshening breeze, intensified the scent of meadows and wet earth, as it had just rained.  Baa-ing, grazing sheep and lots of birdsong completed the idyllic picture.   

After a bit, I came upon a lively little stream about two feet wide, bisected by a clump of trees that grew amid a tangle of briars next to the lane. Close by, partly camouflaged by lush greenery, was a sturdy pup tent that framed a medium-sized, gray-muzzled, curly-coated mutt. He barked once to announce my arrival before settling next to an elderly, slim man in worn corduroys, who was adding twigs to a small fire. Preparing for lunch and tea, I thought.  

His smile was gentle. I smiled back, and commented on the rainbow forming in the field above him. He nodded. “Nature’s optimistic, by nature.”  I laughed. The guy sounded educated. I immediately wondered about his background. He read my mind.  
“I tutor physics students in London. Every summer Bert and I like to trade our fancier digs for long, joint-oiling walkabouts, including tent living. Friends have gotten used to my prolonged summer absences to nonspecific locations. I never know where I’ll be. We both love living rough for a few weeks each year. I move when I please, and try to keep a diary.  
Bert loves that every village, shrub and tree is full of news for his nose.  
Living this simply, with no phone, no deadlines and no worries, is marvelous. We please only ourselves. I wasn’t sleeping much before starting these annual rambles; now that’s not a problem.”  

I learned that his wife of forty-one years had died, and rather than succumbing to grief and loneliness he’d decided to explore “our green and pleasant land” on foot. 

“After Helen died, each minute that passed was an hour.  Out here, though, each hour seems a minute. I’ve abandoned my wristwatch, and love the freedom, the unpredictability, and the release of scaling way down. I’ve rediscovered my usual optimism—and simple pleasures—little things, like a bar of chocolate, or a local ale.”  He sighed. “Summer always ends too soon.”  
Bert’s slim, curly tail thumped agreement.  

A shredding sticker on his half-filled knapsack read, ‘I Stop For No Particular Reason.’ Inside the tent’s flap was a trio of well-thumbed paperback books by Thoreau, Twain, and Wodehouse. He noticed. “Old friends. Should I die in my sleep, it’ll be with a smile.”  

I shook hands with a contented man. Rounding a bend I looked back to wave, and heard laughter as he called out, “I just remembered another perk—most nights I sleep with the most gorgeous stars!”

9/30/18: A Radical Redo From a Big Bang 

Just days before Christmas about six years ago an SUV ran off Sixth Street in the steady rain, smashed through our front garden’s antique iron fence, ripped over the grass and through the front flower bed to charge up the wide front porch stairs and roar straight into the house. The sixteen-year-old girl, a recently licensed driver, had struck the neighbor’s van parked in the street next door, then pressed the accelerator to the floor (thinking it was the brake). She was unhurt, but our home was grievously wounded.

The sixty m.p.h. hit caused the entire structure to vibrate violently from the shockwave. Almost all the original 125-year-old plaster on the second floor shook, cracked, split and then crumbled. Dust bloomed, coating every single thing. Even toothbrushes. The plastered, papered walls were held together only because of the wallpaper. This huge mess necessitated massive replastering and extensive rebuilding (which took nearly 8 months).

The exterior of our home was shattered, as well. The front screen door was caved in, the interior hall banister and bottom stair treads were rammed out of alignment; the wide porch stairs had been crushed; much of the front porch’s floor and railings were in splinters. Two ancient white iron urns of impressive weight that had flanked the stairs were flung well away from their moorings.

In July, after a long, tiresome renovation, it was finally fit to live in again. (Thank goodness the girl’s parents had insurance!)

Another big change stemmed from this event. Our house has lost weight.

It’s interesting what possibilities suggest themselves when one’s entire second floor- including bed frames and mattresses- are stacked in corridors, or piled temporarily into other rooms. Some familiar objects began to take on a new identity- as potential clutter. Furniture, willed to us by Joe’s parents, rocking chairs, tables and other stuff we’d always kept, seemed to ask, ‘Are all of us still necessary? No.

So. A purge began. The ultimate clean, I think. I reviewed the accumulation of forty-five years of marriage, pointed at things and said, quietly, “You, you and you- OUT.” Seven pieces of furniture (cupboards, chairs, a desk, end tables, an armoire) were sold. Result? Every room felt much more open.

Other changes happened as well. A month before the plasterer had finished, I’d looked hard at our empty master bedroom. With everything banished to accommodate the plasterer’s ladders, buckets and tools, the thirty-five-year-old carpet was naked, so to speak. There were ancient stains over there, and there, and parts of it, where our bed had been, were much faded from exposure to years of morning sunlight. Now plaster dust coated it, dulling the blue. It would never be the same. We could now install a new carpet without fuss. Wait a minute! Wouldn’t it be fun to see what lay beneath? Maybe I’d want to do something different!

So I ripped it out, removed the ancient, shredding pad, then vacuumed away 35 years of dust, bits of plaster and dirt. A yellow pine floor blinked in the sunlight. The wide planks gently sagged just a bit toward the room’s middle, and were peppered with shiny nail heads. Someone, years before we took possession, had tried to cure its creaks before re-carpeting. One plank in the middle of the room had been partially cut away and replaced with fiberboard, probably to accommodate electrical wiring. I looked down: the little desk we’d had there had certainly left indentations, even with that old carpet and pad down. This was really soft wood.

The empty room echoed. I sang a few phrases of ‘The Last Rose of Summer,’ and grinned. Not bad, old girl. In here, you sound decent.

Suddenly tired, I slid down against the wall, and sat on the floor. How long would it be before this floor saw daylight again? Probably another quarter of a century.

I thought of the three previous families over 120 years who’d loved this room, who’d chatted in here, who had undone and brushed out their long hair, slept, written letters, snarled at mosquitoes that had sneaked past the open, screenless windows’ curtains… I smiled, and let my mind wander. A rusty gleam caught my eye. Embedded in a board was an extremely old, very thin, long hairpin, which had helped to hold someone’s luxuriant hair firmly in place at the turn of the previous century. I pried the thing out: its imprint remained in the wood. In my palm lay homey history- in a hairpin.

It didn’t take long to decide to re-carpet. The soft pine floor would permanently register every bit of furniture we set on it. Plus, in Northern Michigan, the winters can be long and cold, and I couldn’t imagine walking on wooden floors, even with thickish rugs down. (By the way, at the turn of the century linoleum was all the rage. Everyone who could afford such a luxury chose it; we have remnants of the pattern, with a horsehair backing, selected by the original owners, the Morgan family. Lino, the height of fashion, proved sturdy and easy to mop.)

I didn’t repaper any of the four bedrooms whose ceilings and walls had been completely replastered, but chose instead to paint them, using light, airy colors. Then every bedroom was reassembled. Their windows could be approached without leaning over end tables, and the new honey brown carpet in our master bedroom gave the pale yellow walls a warm glow. The long hallway received pale apricot paint, decorated only by a simple, flowery, foot-wide border, which enhanced the high ceiling. I sold many framed pictures, rehanging only the most cherished. Wow! What a difference!

Those changes led us to remove the carpet (ruined by ground-in plaster globs as it was applied to the downstairs hall walls and ceiling, not to mention workers’ dirty boots as they trampled in and out for months) and tile the front hall downstairs instead. (The next year we redid the living room walls to compliment the repaired part.) Along with less furniture, I nearly emptied the clothes-stuffed closets. It’s amazing how many aging outfits and tired pairs of shoes were recycled.

Some weekends I still touch up the paint here and there in the baths and in our kitchen to keep things looking fresh.

After such an awful Bang, a slimmer Sunnybank House has settled nicely into its new look. 

9/23/18: Exploring Ancient Chester  

On April 9th, 2009, my husband rumbled into Hereford on the noon train. Hereford, a city of about 60,000 in the West Midlands of England, is seven miles from my late mother’s cottage.  (The plane ticket was super-cheap: he’d gotten the ‘wrinklie rate,’ a five-day $400 round-trip ticket from Detroit to London on the ‘red-eye’ express. A Marine, he can sleep anywhere, even in a second class airline seat.) His medical office was closed for Easter, and, in four days it would be his birthday. We could celebrate it together. 

After he’d cheered the progress I’d made with my flooded-out cottage renovation (I’d been living there for months to do this awful job) we decided to motor to Chester, not quite three hours away. It lies just two miles from the Welsh border, along the tidal River Dee.  

This beautiful, ancient city of about 80,000 souls is a World Heritage site. Over two thousand years ago busy Romans built its (partially excavated) amphitheater designed to seat 8,000, pillared gardens (still there), and huge arches. Multiple restored medieval black-and-white timbered buildings shone in the afternoon sun, having maintained their dignity despite their cant. Chester’s ancient cathedral, with an intriguing mixture of styles, is the third most visited in Britain.  But the two-mile-long stone/brick Roman wall nearly surrounding Chester was my favorite marvel. That’s where we’d spend the next day.  

Our arrival was marred by a misery. Online I’d found an attractive-looking B and B with a nice write-up, located close to the center of town. The reality was shocking. The picture had lied! Cement covered everything. A spindly, 15-story-high derrick dangled directly overhead; I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep under that!  The building’s walled parking area was girdle-tight. Bulging trash bags lined the garden wall’s edges. Bad sign! We found the hidden key in the old outhouse and climbed nervously up to our assigned room. Horrors! 

This bilious boudoir had two badly made beds crammed into an extremely narrow space. Joe quick-peeked at the gray bedsheets, checking for bedbugs. Black specks betray the creatures.  (We’d gotten a big dose years ago when I’d found us a nearly pitch dark, horrid room in Rome. Alas, I’ve mastered the art of booking bummers.)  
This room’s bathroom was the size of a canceled postage stamp. A split, sagging window looked out on more cement that merged into a busy road.  
We shuddered. A look was exchanged. After stampeding out the door I stepped out onto that road and stopped traffic. Joe hastily backed out, I leaped in, and we escaped the Pit of Despair, fists punching the air, shouting with relief. 
That wretched structure was decades past its sell-by date and needed a decent burial right soon.  

We found a parking place in the center of town and began to wander the winding, cobbled streets in search of lodging. Six blocks later we happened upon The Pied Bull Pub/Inn, Chester’s oldest coaching house, dating from 1144, and one block from everything. Perfect! There was even one parking space left behind it! In a flash we secured its last enormous, slightly canted second-floor bedroom, which offered a big, high, ancient four-poster bed, a well used sofa with matching chairs, a coffee table, armoire and generous bath, and to top it off, windows that offered great views of the medieval streets- oh, and breakfast, also cheap as dirt now, in the off-season.  
The only problem? We wanted to stay forever! 

Two medieval ghosts haunt it. We questioned the very elderly front-desk lady about them.  
“Yes, indeed, I’ve seen the ruffled gentleman three times over these many years, but, so far, not the parlor maid. Muriel has, though…”  
Looking thoughtful, she stared into space for a bit, and then added, “He never speaks, just looks out yon window...” She pointed to an ancient one on the stair’s landing. “He’s no trouble…”  

The fish and chips supper was yummy, but breakfast died on the vine from a crime: instant coffee was served! Bleh!  This would never do! 
The next morning we found a tiny shop a block away with lace tablecloths and lovely china cups, and savored their freshly brewed beans.  Ahhh! A full English breakfast, with unbuttered toast-in-a-rack-so-it-can-get-cold-quicker, was cheerfully gobbled down.     

In Britain, if you order coffee, you’ll get one cup. Might be instant. Might not. (Ask, if you care. I certainly do.) Frequently, at bigger hotel chains, a steaming carafe full of the real thing is set before you, but ordinary eateries offer ONE pour - often instant. So I order ‘Americano,’ a tasty, real bean-brew presented in a baseball-sized cup, and make it last.  
I love England, but this sort of parsimonious thinking is a moan for me. 

Fortified, we explored Chester’s High street with its many shops, and then circumnavigated the town from the broad, crenelated top of its imposing Roman wall, peering down at the splendid, grandstanded racehorse-course set in a very large, open meadow, and watched narrow, gaily painted houseboats navigate through the River Dee’s hand-cranked locks. Chester’s town crier, dressed in medieval garb, shouted interesting news to delighted explorers and eager shoppers. We gazed at everything, commenting about oddities and architecture for hours.   

Later, still strolling high up on the battlements, the light-flooded, panoramic Turner landscape began to dress for twilight. Time seemed to slow. Save for the last birdsongs, a cloak of quiet began to settle gently over the city, muting sound. We were enchanted. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to come back here for much longer? 

And yet, the cost, and Time’s relentless passage reminded us, well into our seventies, that returning to this deeply historical, tale-ridden, semi-enchanted place isn’t likely in this lifetime.   

 On the other hand- maybe there is a ghost of a chance......... 

9/15/18: Bathing Beauties and Other Delights  

Well, on September 9, in the Fairy Garden, I finally tucked in the huge, collapsed Dicentra spectabalis.  What a perennial star! 

She emerges emerald green in mid-spring, from partly shaded, moist, fertile earth, and grows feverishly to 3 feet high. Then, quaint, plump, dangling pink or white flowers emerge.  Children, especially, love them.   

The blossoms look very much like hearts, but I love to introduce her as ‘Bathing Beauty in her Bathtub.’ Remove a pink flower, turn it over and spread each end apart gently to reveal a blushing lassie rising from her bath, caught out. It’s impossible not to giggle when I wiggle the dim-witted damsel and view her discomfiture.  

White works too, but for me the impact is lessened by Madame’s sheet-white, bashful countenance. The pink flower is funnier. 

Dicentra blooms and blooms, impervious to slugs, bugs and disease. The flowers finally finish in late June, but her leaves remain lovely, very gradually evolving to buttery gold by mid-to-late August if she’s not stressed. ‘Di’ appreciates being groomed- once. With both hands I snap off the skeletal, exhausted twig-ends that housed the blossoms. (Be careful; the other lovely leafy branches can easily break.) 
Finally, one early autumn day, ‘Di’ finally droops and snaps, done in by wind or heavy rain.  

Cleanup is easy. With deft flicks of my wrist I simply tug at the base of each fat stalk, which snaps cleanly, leaving barely a bump in the soil.  I cover the raw area with an inch of rich, black earth, and she happily snuggles down for the winter.  (The vacated space can be huge, so I might pop a potted chrysanthemum or other arrangement that doesn’t mind a bit of shade, over her spot.  Judiciously placed stones underneath the pot keep the mum from pressing down too hard on my lady’s nearly invisible bump.)    

Sharing space with this delightful resident is Corydalis lutea, a cobweb-delicate, incredibly prolific plant. Her butter-yellow flowers are always evident, most especially in spring and summer. Despite her incredible fragility, she handles the crushing weight of heavy snow with nary a tremor.  I was thunderstruck to discover her in perfect condition in early spring, as I began to master the art of gardening. 
How can ‘Cory’ be so tough?   

Unlike Dicentra, who is content to stay where I put her, Corydalis makes merry constantly, but she is incredibly easy to dislodge. When her offspring threaten to become a nuisance I simply tug gently, and that bit of rooted plant pops out of the soil without a fight.   

Tidying ‘Cory’ should be done regularly. She’ll grow too cheerfully amid the emerald green Irish moss (Sagina), or among the thick clumps of Labrador violets. The area becomes noticeably neater when I cull, but I’ll still have lots to enjoy.   
Nothing nibbles her, or makes her sick.  Given part shade, moisture, and well-drained, fertile soil, she’ll look lovely 12 months a year.   

‘Violet,’ another low-growing plant, needs a firm hand, though; otherwise she’s everywhere. Stunning June blossoms glow an intense blue, just above plump, lush purple and green leaves. If she’s cut back (a tedious job), I’ll often get a second flower show. 

Ostrich ferns, and one enormous Goat’s Beard (Aruncus), enhance the Fairy fountain. I’ll chainsaw the easy-care, 6-foot tall, plumed Aruncus to the dirt in November. Both plants will spring back in Spring. 

In the Ram’s Head Garden the Sargentii crab apple tree has burst into bloom. Zillions of bright, orangey-red berries dangle from her branches, providing food for the birds through much of early winter. Some avians eat too many and stagger about, slightly tipsy. It’s quite a sight! 

Every spring, billowing blue and white clouds of perfumed Sweet Alyssum reseed in brick-walk cracks throughout the Fairy Garden. I love its delicate scent. 

Hovering over everything is my 18-year-old Cornus kousa Dogwood tree. Profuse, pure-white butterfly-blossoms blanket the tree in stunning fashion every June and remain for weeks, before finally evolving n August to masses of quarter-sized, bright red seed balls perched atop stiff stems, which hang down like Christmas ornaments. When they drop I poke them into the soil, creating enchanting, miniature red ‘forests,’ perfect for fairies. It’s fun too, to slip the long stemmed berries into the curl of giant hostas’ leaves, creating a pretty picture in autumn. Imagine huge blue hostas ‘finished’ with these lovely red balls... 
Birds, and Sir Chipmunk, love this fruit, too.   
There are so many! 

Today marks the season’s last day to view Sunnybank’s secret garden. Do pop in to see the final show!

9/9/18: Different Folks... 

One lovely early morning in mid-summer some years ago four middle-aged ladies showed up, smartly clad in attractive Bermuda shorts, crisp short-sleeved shirts and spotless deck tennis shoes. They wore expensive, very attractive haircuts and large wedding rings, which glittered as their leader fumbled angrily with the padlocked chain securing the first large, Victorian iron gate. She loudly demanded admittance, though my sign inviting visitors to enter wasn’t out that early. 
  
Before I could respond, another one stated they had come too far to be ‘put off’ by a menial gardener. (Clad in baggy coveralls, my twiggy, rumpled thatch of hair and cheeky black smudges serving as common-as-dirt gardener’s rouge, I WAS a distinctly unimpressive sight.) I should be ashamed of myself, they chorused- voices high with indignation- for keeping it locked, knowing visitors were standing there. (It hadn’t occurred to them to introduce themselves, or to ask who I was.). Right then it was a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. I had hoses lying about, and hadn’t finished my morning weeding. Dirt, shriveled leaves and petals lay on the path, waiting to be swept up. Much of this disarray was evident to these indignant women, but still, they felt they had every right to come in when they pleased. 
  
Sunnybank is a private garden, I reminded them gently, and they would be most welcome when I could clear the paths of hoses, tools, weeds, and me, and that would happen about 9 o’clock, as always. Incredulous, they stomped off, buzzing with frustration, muttering that they should ring the front doorbell to complain to the owner about ‘that idiot.’ Their backs were rigid and their voices cut into the clear morning air, like flies at a picnic. I stood there bemused for a little space, then carried on with my work. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if they returned! 
  
In fact, they did, in mid-morning, and remained a good while, gesticulating with manicured fingers that stabbed the air. Their tanned heads nodded vigorously as they chatted about form and texture. I wore clean, nicely fitted clothes and a sunhat and chose to inconspicuously read my book on a bench, and went inside when they came too near, not wishing to cause embarrassment. Not for the first time, though, I wished I could hear them more clearly.  Were they gardeners? Could they identify the various plants? 
I’d never know. 
  
Not just ladies can be challenging. One middle-aged, tidy gentleman with a large, wonderfully expressive mustache insisted I had “misrepresented” a plant, and bluntly told me I didn’t have a clue what it was. HE knew, though, and in a year or two, when it had established itself, I would finally realize his identification was the correct one.  Nothing I could say would convince him I knew what I had planted. With this sort of person I decided that it would cost me nothing to stop arguing and agree that he might be right. It made him happy. He harrumphed triumphantly, and went on his way, back erect, eyes flashing. 
  
The vast majority of visitors are content to relish the scents, the bird life, and the interesting Victorian flowerbed edging tiles I’d gradually carried back to America after every visit to my mother’s cottage in rural England, They enjoy discovering the many semi-hidden statuary pieces while wandering through this peaceful place. We often laugh, exchange gardening tales, and chat about their visits to other, often enormous gardens in different countries.  (Sunnybank is smaller and more intimate.) We might natter on about fountain installation, pruning techniques, and my dopey mistakes. Opinions about everything are bounced back and forth like basketballs. 
  
These sorts of occurrences are the salt and pepper of my gardening year. They remind me that every day is an adventure. I never know what might happen. Gardening is rarely boring… 

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