Juneau in August.

bella cran glacierBy what crazy accident of birth am I so blessed?

This is the thought that came to my mind in June, when I was making this trip to the Pacific Northwest for the first time this summer.  As our plane approached Seattle, I could see all the way down into California to Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta, on up to Mt. Hood in Oregon, followed by Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier in Washington state.  Five perfectly formed volcanic mountains, n all their snow capped glory, for me to see.  Now, maybe for other people this is commonplace, something they are used to, but as for me, it made me catch my breath and whisper a prayer of thanksgiving.  And ask the question I posed above.

And here I am again, asking that same question.  The Pilot has been making this trip to Seattle and Juneau all summer, and while I was able to accompany him back in June while our children were at camp, this is the first time the kids have been able to come along.  For me, there’s just something about being able to share these experiences with my children.  From the perspective of homeschooling, of course, it is indeed a unique educational opportunity.  We saw salmon spawning in the rivers, bald eagles wheeling and calling out overhead, and saw the flukes of humpback whales as they prepared to dive, all from a boat on one of the channels that leads to Juneau.  We saw seals vying for our attention, swimming and playing near the pod of whales that held us enthralled.  We learned more about the natural world around us in one afternoon than we could in weeks of reading and studying.  But I think the true educational value goes beyond that.  I hope that their hearts were stirred by what we encountered yesterday in a way that will change them forever, make them more connected to why we’re here and what our place in this world is.  I realize that may not happen for them right now, but perhaps it will in the long run.  I know that I am changed by what I saw and experienced yesterday.

I can’t imagine how you could be that close to some of the earth’s most amazing creatures and not have your heart, some part at the very core of you, moved beyond words…

So I’ll back up a little to the basics of how we got to that place.  Here I am again, in Juneau, Alaska, in the summertime, tagging along on one of the Pilot’s trips.  It has a very different feel to it than last time I was here, due in part to the fact that last time there was a Native Heritage celebration going on and the town felt more connected to its native roots, with both the good and bad that come along with that.  This time, the town was quieter, more connected with the intense beauty of the natural world around it instead.  The salmon are running right now, and I saw more than one person carrying a freshly caught, freshly cleaned salmon, wrapped up and cradled like the treasure that it is.  Impossibly green, the mountains around us rose into the crystalline blue skies, which was another of yesterday’s astonishing gifts since most of the time it is cloudy and rainy here.  The cruise ships weren’t docked on a Monday morning, so I had the town to myself, without the usual press of cruise passengers hurrying to shop and dine, as I walked around looking for a place with green tea and Wifi.

We had flown in from Seattle the night before, and after spending a little time in the local saloons (yes, they call them that) and making a late night stop for tater tots (not kidding, and they were delicious), we turned in for the night and woke up early to begin a morning of hiking for everyone but me.  I chose cafe sitting and people watching instead; I love my family, but sometimes I just need my peace and quiet.  But then, early afternoon, we met back up and caught a shuttle to the docks outside the town of Juneau, where we boarded a boat called Big Mike and met our curmudgeonly boat captain.  He then took us, at a brisk clip, out into the channels around Junuea in hopes of seeing whales.  We were assured that we would see some, either humpback or orcas, possibly both.

We were not disappointed.  Whales were everywhere.  I truly had no idea what to expect, thinking that I wouldn’t really be able to experience these enormous yet gentle creatures; they are underwater and I’m, well, not.  But then I saw the telltale spouting above the water of our first whale for the day… my reaction, completely involuntary, brought me out of my seat and caused me to squeal with delight.  All of us onboard (save the captain, who was obviously very jaded to the delights of whale watching) ran outside the boat’s cabin to try to get a better look.  As it turned out, there were about five of the cetaceans, hanging out together because that’s what families and friends do.  They would surface together, and five moisture-filled puffs of air would suffuse the air above the water.  They would spend a little time milling about there, giving all of us time to ooh and ah and snap photographs, and then you would see the “hump” of their backs flex and bend, followed by their tails lifting out of the water as they prepared to dive.  This was followed by several anxious minutes (at least for me) as we waited for them to return, keeping our eyes glued to the spot where we’d last seen them but knowing that they could come up anywhere.  Thankfully, they came up repeatedly, and we were able to watch them for at least an hour.

At one point, they were so close to our boat that I could hear one of them groaning in some sort of communication with his friends.  Wouldn’t you love to know what they were talking about?  Because I know that they were talking.  I just know it.  I’m not one of those arrogant humans who thinks that we have the corner on the market on communication.  No, these guys were enjoying their day, just like we were.  Who knows- maybe they were watching us right back!

But as they moved around us in their quiet choreography, our group became progressively more hushed.  What had inspired leaping and shrieking in me initially gave way to a more meditative state of mind, and I didn’t want to talk or even really to take any more photos.  I just wanted to revel in the feeling of something larger than me, something that would get me out of the crazy swirl that my thoughts can sometimes be and certainly have been lately.  The ocean always does that for me, but this took it to a new level and I sensed my body and mind slowing down, as I felt the ocean and the whales inhaling and exhaling right along with me.

For the first time in a long, long, time, I. Just. Breathed.

The best part?  At one point I glanced at my children seated behind me, and I could see from their faces that they were feeling the same things that I was, even if they didn’t have the words to give those feelings voice.  And that is the most valuable type of education that I could ever give them.

Learning how to be.

Learning how to breathe.

 

 

 

Juneau, Alaska.

IMG_4325 Before this past month, I’d never been to Alaska before.  Now, I can say that I’ve been twice.  Twice in the span of 4 days, but twice nonetheless.  When you’re tagging along with aircrew, flying along on their routes, you get a lot of time in the air and enough time on the ground to feel rested before you’re back in the air again.  As for that time on the ground- you’d better make the best of it.

But the time in the air, coming in to Juneau, is something spectacular.  The route goes from Seattle, up over the mountains of British Columbia, and then in to the Juneau airport.  If you’re lucky enough to have a clear day, you have a view of the most pristine expanse of snow-covered peaks that I’ve ever seen.  Untouched by humans, or at least untouched for a very long time- it’s a true wilderness that you fly over, and it lifts my heart to know that there are still a few places that we humans haven’t messed up yet.  For the two hours it takes to go from Seattle to Juneau, you get a macro view of this extraordinary stretch of the Coast Mountain range of British Columbia. And then, as you begin the approach into Juneau, you can start to see the details of that expanse of wilderness- a glacier here, a waterfall there, the channels along this coastline where the ocean cuts into the landmass.  It is these channels that make Juneau so remarkable in many ways; the word that comes to mind is extreme.  The mountains are high, the channels are deep and narrow.  There are no roads in or out.  You do not go to Juneau accidentally- you have to want to go.  It gives the place a strange energy, this isolation.

So, what do you do with 30 hours in Juneau, Alaska, which is what we had (twice)?  You get out and enjoy nature, whether that is through hiking, whale watching, or glacier walking.  You do not try to stay in town, because you will run out of things to do long before your 30 hours is up, I promise. There isn’t much to this town, and most of what there is caters to the many cruise ships that stop here each and every day.  Imagine the daily ebb and flow of people arriving, and then leaving, via these huge ships that pull into port.  Many of the shops cater to these people coming in- resort wear and sandals in a place that rarely gets above the 60 degree mark?  And I don’t need ANYTHING made of fur… Yes, nature is the reason you come to Alaska, not the shopping or the coffee.

And so seeking opportunities to enjoy nature is what we did. Fortified by a lunch consisting of the freshest halibut and salmon I’ve ever tasted, paired with a view of the mountains and the seaplanes coming and going, we took the tram to the top of Mt. Roberts for some hiking.  Mt. Roberts is just one of the many mountains that cradle Juneau, and the word extreme does indeed describe them all, so taking the tram up to 1800 feet and then beginning your hike is the way to go.

I thought I was in shape before attempting this hike.  As it turns out, I am not.

But, I gasped and panted my way towards the peak, and the view as we progressed along the trail towards the summit was the reward for my hard work.  It was nothing short of spectacular.  From high up on Mt. Roberts, we could see up and down the channel to the snow capped mountains that are on all sides.  It was a clear, relatively warm day for hiking, a rarity in this temperate rain forest, and many others were out taking advantage of it as well, which somewhat allayed my fears of bears, moose, and other wildlife that call Alaska home (that old joke about only having to out run the other person, not the bear?  Yes, that came to mind).  The only wildlife we saw, which I am thankful for, were the bald eagles wheeling and calling overhead as they caught the updrafts coming off the mountains.  I love animals, but I don’t like the idea of riling a grizzly.

In any case, I only made it halfway up the 6 mile round trip trail.  When we got to the snowy parts, I decided that I’d hiked quite far enough, and parked myself on a ledge to enjoy the view while the Pilot hiked on to the top (he has a bit of an obsession with completing things.  You can’t stop halfway!!  I do not share this belief, thankfully, and stopping halfway suits me just fine).  From my vantage point, I could enjoy the beauty of the place, feel the sun and the breeze on my skin, and watch the canoes of the Alaska native population as they approached for a festival celebrating their heritage, which was happening while we were there.  The lupines were in full bloom, the sky blue, the air cool but the sunshine warm; what better place could there be just to sit and enjoy life?

That evening, we enjoyed Alaska in a very different way.  I’ve already mentioned the native heritage celebration that was going on, and I count myself very fortunate to have been able to watch the parade of all the different groups through town as they headed for the opening ceremonies.  Though I have no idea what was going on, really, I do know that it was all part of that very human need to celebrate where we’ve come from and who we are.  And I understand the beauty of it; the colors of each group on their button blankets, their furs, their unique adornments spoke to me.  The parade was followed by a meal of more halibut, which has now become my favorite fish.  The stuff is like candy!  So sweet and tender- just don’t get in the way of its natural flavor and you have my attention fully.  Fully.  And then some.

And then to the Alaska Hotel for its bar.  You have to have your priorities straight, you know.  I’m not much of a drinker, having a two glass limit at all times and all.  But for people watching and good conversation, and if you’re lucky, some live music by characters that look like they are straight off a movie set only they aren’t, this is your place.  Neither the hotel nor the bar have seen a remodel since, well, ever.  Built in 1913, it looks exactly the same as it did in 1913, and in my opinion, that is not such a bad thing.  If you find yourself in Juneau, go here, if for no other reason than to marvel at the beards that you will find.  I can’t say this emphatically enough.

Trust me, I will be taking my own advice when I am back there again in a few weeks.  But I will be purchasing a bear bell.*  That way, hopefully I don’t have to outrun anybody.

 

* Whether they work or not, it will make me feel a little better.  And make my mom feel better, too.  She’s even more concerned about bears than I am.

IMG_4308

IMG_4339

Seattle.

IMG_4194 And now, for a complete change of pace:  The west coast!  Because Europe can grow so tiresome (just kidding).  And because Atlanta this time of year is so bloody hot and humid (not kidding about that).

Either that, or the Pilot had a trip out there and the kids were at camp or at grandmother’s all week, and I got to tag along.

I adore my kids, but even the most dedicated mom among us must get a break every once in a while.  And that is what I got last week:  The chance to relax, or at least relax as much as I can when flying across the country to a vibrant and fascinating city like Seattle.  Truthfully, it wasn’t so relaxing at all, tagging along and flying on every trip that my husband flew.  As it turns out, aircrew work really hard;  who knew it was’t all just glamorous?  But it was a lot of fun!  I can’t just hang around in a hotel room sleeping when I’m in a place like Seattle!!

You see, Seattle has been a favorite of mine for a long time.  Years ago, my husband and I honeymooned out there, not in Seattle, but on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound.  A few times, we came into the city by ferry to have dinner or to shop for food at Pike’s Place market.  Also, later in our marriage, he was stationed at Whidbey Island for 6 months and the kids and I came out and visited for weeks at a time.  While he hurried up and waited through Navy training, we ate raspberries and Rainier cherries and played at the playground in the 70 degree sunshine, and spent hours searching for treasures on the beaches… there are so many treasures on beaches when you are 5 and 7…

This time, however, we were right in downtown Seattle, and I got to experience this city the way that it is best seen:  on foot.

I do love a walking city, and in my opinion, Seattle is one of the best you can find in the US.  Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to New York or Boston, and I remember that they are both indeed wonderful places, but there is something almost magical, at least to me, about this city by the water.  It’s almost always cool and misty, which is fine by me since I am a boots/tights/sweaters kind of girl, and you get not only the beauty of the ocean* but the beauty of the mountains as well.  Or, at least, sometimes you get the beauty of the mountains.  One mountain in particular, anyway:  Mt. Rainier.  I got the pleasure of seeing that rather astonishing volcanic mountain in all its glory on the crystal clear day of our arrival in Seattle.  How could you miss it?  It looms over the city, all 14,410 feet of it.

 

Ah, but you can miss it.  In fact, I’d even say that most of the time, you will miss it.  Crystal clear days in Seattle, as everyone knows, are few and far between.  So when the ranges of the Cascades are in view, along with the spectacular Rainier, take a good look, and take photographs.  I made the mistake of not doing so, of taking for granted that I would be able to take pictures the next day, and I was wrong:  the day of our arrival was the only sunny day we had the entire week that we were in and out of Seattle! Lucky for me, I got some gorgeous shots from the plane window as we were descending into the city.  And even luckier for me, I was also able to see Mt. Lassen, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and of course Rainier- all the way down into California.  Unbelievable.

But back to the wonders of Seattle.  We made a point of walking as much of it as we could, and though our mileage was not on par with my recent trip to London and Paris, we did cover some distance.  We visited Pike Place Market, which is de rigeur for a trip to Seattle.  I took pictures of food.  How could I help it, when Rainier cherries are in season?  And while I was taunted by delicious smelling bakeries that are now off-limits for me, some brilliant person had the idea of opening a stand that sells a variety of flavors of full-fat, delicious Greek yogurt.  I had lemon curd  (could someone please open such a stand in Atlanta?)  And of course we saw the guys who throw fish around;  I almost got sprayed by a shower of ice from a flying salmon.  But they do in fact sell it as well as throw it, which I must confess gave me a moment of longing for a kitchen.

Of course, there’s some pretty spectacular people watching here as well.  I know that grunge is technically over, but people still aren’t afraid to express, well, something.  I’m not sure what, exactly, but it is interesting and I like seeing it.   And then, inviting little boutiques are on every corner in the Belltown area, along with all the handmade offerings at the nearby Pike Place Market.  I came across a hand-sewn hat that I just might have to have one day- darling but also waterproof.  I wish I’d had that while I was  in England!  Look good AND keep dry- what a great idea!  And oh, the handpainted silk scarves and hand-crocheted sweaters and artist-made clocks, purses, you name it- this is the kind of shopping I like.  Plus, it’s good to support local artists, right?

And of course, we ate well here.  It’s a common theme with me, you may notice.  I don’t eat much seafood while home in Atlanta, Georgia coast shrimp being an occasional exception, but when I’m in the Pacific Northwest, I make a point of eating as much of it as possible.  There’s just nothing like fresh salmon, salmon that’s never been frozen or taken a ride on an airplane.

But I only thought the fish was the most fresh and amazing of any place in the country here in Seattle.  I thought that before I went to Juneau, Alaska, which is the entire reason that we were here in Seattle in the first place:  it’s a great place to start when you’re flying to Alaska.

 

 

 * Yes, I realize that the water near Seattle is technically a sound, the Puget, to be exact.  But to this landlocked Atlanta resident/Texas native, it feels an awful lot like the ocean.
IMG_4228
I love this place. The artists, the artisans, the Greek yogurt, the flying fish.
IMG_4234
Gorgeous AND delicious.
IMG_4237
A charming little calligrapher.

 

Parisian market.

Usually, travel to France for me revolves to some extent around mealtime:  the planning of the meal, the anticipation of the meal, purchasing food for the meal or choosing the restaurant, and of course, enjoying the meal.  A little obsessed, perhaps.  I’ll admit it.  But, traveling with a packed schedule and staying in hotels, as well as traveling with a group that consisted largely of teenagers whose gourmet tastes ran towards the latest iced beverage offering by Starbucks, meant that for the most part we really did not eat well.  Oh, how I hope that the adults in our group who have never been to France before do not judge French food by the odd assortment of brasseries that we dined in!  (Dear friends, please go back and try Cafe Constant, please?)  And to make matters even worse, my recent very necessary tightening of the gluten restrictions meant that patisseries and boulangeries were out of the question as well!

What???  France without a single good restaurant and no pain au chocolat?  France without a kitchen?  Quelle horreur.

But there was still wine and cheese.  Thank God for wine and cheese.  And olives, and red currants, and all of the other beautifully fresh offerings on hand at that most divine destination of food lovers in France:  the open air market.

Now, it’s not quite the same, going to a market when you’re staying in a hotel, not a house, meaning that you have no kitchen to bring things back to, and no refrigerator to store the ridiculous amount of cheese that you’ve just purchased.  But, looking is free, and (almost) as enjoyable.  And I did get that darling sun hat and hot pink blouse, which by fabulous luck was a perfect fit even without trying it on…

 

Check out these red currants.  They were delicious.  Hard to find these fresh in the part of the world I call home!
Check out these red currants. They were delicious. Hard to find these fresh in the part of the world I call home!
IMG_4183
Oh my goodness. Are you kidding me? Wild asparagus and this amazing selection of mushrooms? And I had no kitchen?
IMG_4182
I had to settle for a feast for the eyes. Not such a bad deal, really. And I must admit, a lot less work.
IMG_4185
Wild asparagus. I’ve never even seen this before. Gorgeous.
IMG_4178
Of COURSE you can get flowers, too.

 

 

Okay, that’s it. I will just have to come back to Paris and rent an apartment. As soon as possible.

 

Educational travel, Parisian style.

IMG_4134
Paris.  I think it’s pretty clear that I’m enamored with this place.  This hasn’t always been the case; we rarely stay here when we travel to France- we’re always on our way to someplace else in country, and I confess that I am a little crazy about the rural parts of France.  The fresh, cool air, the green fields filled with cream-colored cows, the vineyards and their grand crus… I’m describing my beloved Burgundy now.  But Paris is special, and this last trip reminded me of just how unique this city is in the world.

While in London, it was easy to focus on the educational part of our trip.  Travel in the name of education and all that.  Yes, a tour of the colleges of Cambridge, a tour of the British Museum- fabulous.  Christian Heritage!  Love it.  Please, teach me more history.  But it’s not so easy to maintain that serious educational outlook when I hit the border of a place I love so viscerally.  When my brain switches into French speaking mode, I feel like part of me has come home.  Which is strange, I know.  I’m not French.  I’m from Texas, for goodness sake.

So I’m going to have to try to reign myself in so I can describe our educational trip from a more objective point of view.  And we did learn a lot.  Oh yes, the tour of the city by bus was wonderful.  I highly recommend it.  I also recommend the tour by boat; I got some amazing photos of the Ile de la Cite, in particular Notre Dame.  It is so clear from the water that the Ile de la Cite is in fact an island.

But that same day, I got the chance to go off by myself on the pretext of needing to find a pharmacy for some headache medicine for my daughter, and that walk alone was one of those moments that make your breath catch in your throat.  Strolling those leafy streets, so residential and yet so close to the Eiffel Tower, was a treat of the best kind for me.  You walk along, and then suddenly a side street opens up a view of the most iconic image of Paris that there is: La Tour Eiffel, in all its glory. Sycamore trees, les platanes, shade these streets that are lined with cafes, bistros, brasseries, and yes, people’s homes.  And here I am, digressing into the sensual feel that the city has for me…

Okay, I can’t do it.  I can’t separate the feel of the city from what I am supposed to have learned about it.

So instead, here’s a list of images of Paris:

An omelette, a galette, and a bottle of sparkling water in an underground wine cellar turned restaurant near our hotel in Bercy Village… A carafe of wine as well, of course.

Accordion players in the Metro, so quintessentially French, playing Edith Piaf just in case they aren’t already Gallic enough to make me cry.

Montmartre- even though it’s crowded and dirty and touristy, I love it anyway.  I love Sacre Coeur, perched on its hill.  A glass of wine and a dish of pistachio ice cream in a café in Montmartre with my daughter while the rest of the group shopped.

Versailles, with its over the top, crazy gorgeous gilding and painting on every possible surface… Fountains, gardens, glass, mirrors, extravagance.  Extraordinary.

The Louvre.  What is there to even say about the Louvre?  Except that it’s overwhelming and astonishingly beautiful, with its strange, modern pyramid juxtaposed against 17th century palaces and filled to the brim with art of every kind (except modern.  And those crazy Impressionists).

Market day, on Saturday, where we shopped for ripe red currants and cherries and bargained for linens and scored inexpensive yet stylish lace tops and sun hats (10 euros each, thank you very much), drooled over cheese that cannot be taken home, and then took a lunch break where we had the most amazing glass of Beaume de Venise.  If I close my eyes I can still taste it.  Who really cares about the rest of the meal when there is Beaume de Venise?

The Latin Quarter, early on a Sunday morning after seeing the exterior of Notre Dame and its sculptures for what they truly mean…  Quiet, pensive, the feeling of the serious spiritual learning that is its history not so far away.

A waiter, kissing my hand as our group departed after a good meal and a delicious bottle of wine, near the Tuileries and the Champs Elysees.  I don’t know why he kissed my hand, but who needs a reason for such things when you’re in Paris?

Breakfast in our hotel, of all places.  I’m always happy to start my day out with a slice or two of Comte.  And a café au lait.

An early morning, insomniac walk through the Paris streets, just me and the folks cleaning the streets.  Most Parisians do not wake early.  But the city was sparkling and fresh, and I’m glad I got to experience it this way.

Paris, with friends, and Paris through the eyes of young people.  And all the joy that comes along with those things.

IMG_4117
Faces under a bridge along the Seine.
A glimpse of the Hall of Mirrors at Versaille.
A glimpse of the Hall of Mirrors at Versaille.
Notre Dame, on Ile de la Cite, from the boat.
Notre Dame, on Ile de la Cite, from the boat.
Me and my girl, at Versailles.  I love, love, love this place...
Me and my girl, at Versailles. I love, love, love this place…

Paris. A love letter.

IMG_4154Ah, Paris.  La Ville Lumiere…

I think that, at last, I’ve forgiven you. I feel that we’ve made up, or at least a one-sided making up has occurred.  I realize you are completely indifferent to me, but I don’t care.  It’s been far too long that I’ve been annoyed with you, and I’m so happy to have reconciled.  Because even though I claim to be indifferent to your charms, it’s not true:  I am just as in love with you now as I was when we first met.

Why have I been so angry for so long?  I felt that you had let yourself go a little.  Gotten a little out of control, a little untidy and unkempt.  And while these things may be true as well, there is so much more to you that I haven’t been able to see in my headlong rush to be clear of your city limits in recent years on trips to France.  This time, though, I didn’t just drive your perepherique on my way to rural France.  This time, I took a train straight into your center, and experienced your beauty the way it should be experienced:  On foot.  Silly me, what was I thinking, judging you by your airport and your (horrific) traffic?

I should know better than that.

The things I dislike about you are still true.  You are not well-organized or efficiently run.  Your metros caused a near meltdown in my teenaged daughter when her ticket refused to work.  She took it as a personal affront, which I understand.  I’ve taken many things about you as a personal insult as well.  Many parts are crowded, and your metros take the idea of filth to new heights.  Come on, now, would it hurt to do a little sweeping up?

But your beautifully planned out streets, thank you, Baron Haussmann, are like nothing else in the entire world.  I see that now.  Your boulevards, especially when the sun is shining like it was this last week, are like no place else on earth.  I see that now, too.  The history that has happened on your soil, the art, music, and poetry that has been inspired, it all makes me feel full to overflowing.

Maybe it was seeing you with new eyes.  Maybe it was being with a group of young people and feeling their energy, or perhaps it was having a guide to walk me through your extraordinary spaces and tell me about the things that can’t be seen at all.

Whatever the reason is, I think that a serious love affair has been rekindled.  And I can’t wait to get back to you again.

Travel in the name of education.

IMG_3985Travel in the name of education.  What a brilliant idea.

Recently I got the opportunity to do exactly that with my 13 year old daughter.  We took, together, a trip to London and Paris along with a group of high schoolers and a handful of parents from the school that she attends one day a week.  It’s not the way we usually travel; it was way more organized, much more planned out, and consisted of a busy, packed-full schedule that goes against our typical café-sitting, hanging out, people watching style.  But it was an incredible trip in spite of, or perhaps because of, all that.  It’s good to depart from your usual way of operating, I believe.

The trip started out with my daughter and I barely getting on a flight to London, each forced to travel sitting bolt upright in a middle seat between, ahem, larger people on a packed plane, but also each just happy to be on the flight because we know it’s a privilege and blessing to be able to travel the way that we do.  We arrived a few hours earlier than the rest of the group because we needed to take the flight that we were most likely to get on, but that allowed us time to get in the British groove by sitting with a couple of pots of hot tea while we waited.  The wait was a bit nerve-racking, having never met most of the people that we had to find, hoping that we’d recognize at least somebody!  Or our guide!  We’re seasoned travelers, and I had the name and address of our hotel so that if necessary we could find our way, but really I just wanted to be able to drift along with a group with somebody telling me the way to go.  And that- the drifting along with somebody telling me where to be and how to get there, was one of the best parts of this trip we took.  Often, an arrival in Europe means me herding two kids through to the rental car counter and a harrowing drive out of Paris.  This time, I got to follow somebody else to a train station, where they put a ticket into my hand and pointed me in the right direction.  Insert a sigh of relief here…

And then- not a moment to waste-  the learning through experience began in earnest!  The very first night in London, we found ourselves enjoying Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, followed by dinner in a French bistro near our hotel. Let me say that again:  Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  What an experience.  I’ve always loved to visit the churches of Europe, and considered it a treat to accidentally catch a Vespers service or get a glimpse of monastic life (Vezelay and Abbbaye de Senanque are a couple of my favorites).  But it seemed different to have planned to be here, and having front row seats did contribute to my enjoyment.

The next morning, we hit the ground running by attending a Sunday morning church service (did I mention that this tour was run by a group called the Christian Heritage Tours?).  Afterwards, we toured the Tower of London, and then my daughter and I indulged our café sitting, people watching obsession in a nearby square; for the record, London is good for some spectacular people watching.  We also managed to take the obligatory photos of her in front of London Bridge, and after a brief yet torturous visit to Speakers’ Corner, squeezed in a ride on the London Eye…  I’m not sure I got as much out of that as my husband would have, but I couldn’t let the opportunity for fabulous views of the city of London pass me by!

I could keep going on about the sights we saw, but really, that wasn’t what made this trip special.  What was unique about this trip was the people that we were with and the people that we were able to meet.  Well, that and getting the chance to see Phantom of the Opera with my girl, but even that was made more special by whom we were with.  I continue to be impressed by the quality of people I meet through my children’s school, and this group was no exception.  I think that we’ve made some lifelong friends, and that makes me happy.  I’ve been needing more friends in Atlanta; we’ve been here over 6 years now, and the list is not long.  Or at least, it wasn’t long.  That has now changed.  I’ve also got new friends on a global scale, which is something I love to be able to claim.  Our guide to the British museum, for example, is someone I hope to run into again, not just because he was so charming, but because I intend to find a way to get the Pilot on one of these tours.  He’d love it.  And our guide who met us at the airport and accompanied us throughout the week? I know I’ll meet her again!  And I can’t wait!  She is  the sort of person who takes joy from every little thing in life, and what fun it is to be around someone with such a rosy outlook.

A day trip to Cambridge was one of those times where one of the people that we met colored the entire trip.  Our guide for a walking tour of Cambridge was like a living, breathing encyclopedia of the history of the place, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing his perspective on that charming city.  I wish I hadn’t been so chilled that I couldn’t push thoughts of a warm, cozy place to sit out of my mind enough to fully concentrate, but lucky for me, that warm, cozy place to sit materialized in the form of Cambridge’s most popular English pub, where our little group packed into booths for a bite of lunch.  A hot lunch and a few hard ciders later, and our retired teacher turned tour guide became our private lecturer on the history of England.  Does it get any better than that, really?   Not in my book.

Of course,  I haven’t even gotten to our time in France.  I’ll save that for another day.  France is too dear to my heart to lump in with any other place, and writing about things is the way that I am able to savor them once again, to turn the events and moments that stand out over in my mind and examine them.

However, suffice it to say that this educational trip was even more of an education, in so many ways, than I could have anticipated.  I hope that my child got as much out of it as I did, though even as I write that I know that there is no way that she could have, not yet.  She will understand the importance of what she’s done and seen as she gets older- so many things are lost on the young!

For now, the one who is really benefitting, the one who is truly getting a world-class education from all this traveling, is me.

 

IMG_4005 IMG_4045