22 Days of Christmas 2011: Christmas in Austria

Does your cable channel carry Anthony Bourdain? If not, you should picket your cable headquarters until you get it. Bourdain is the most irreverent-while-being-fascinating host on television today (I LOVE hyphenated adjectives!).

I blogged about Anthony Bourdain earlier this year when he visited El Bulli, but his Vienna show really hit home with me. It’s a long story– are you ready for it?

I had never been to Europe prior to our Spring Break trip in 2003. Our family friend Lara spent her junior semester abroad in Vienna and it seemed the perfect place to initiate the Europe virgin (that would be me) into European culture. I mean, really, how many books had I read about Marie Antoinette at that point? I was pretty sure I could handle Vienna. I don’t speak German, but my mom did. Isn’t that enough? I speak some passable Spanish and NRB speaks some passable French. Between our passable Romance book-languages and Lara, we figured we could probably get by.

Fast forward to nine years later. I’m looking for something fun to watch on the tube on the eve of my Veterans’ Day holiday off from school. Usually we don’t get Veterans’ Day; we trade it for an extra day before Thanksgiving or something. This year, we got both. It was a rare gift. I scrolled through my DVR’d programs, not finding Glee. What happened? I watched a bit of Hung on HBO. Really? I’m going to have to come back to that one. So I settle for Anthony Bourdain in Vienna which I know doesn’t require me to remember any backstory.

Yet I had my own personal backstory.

Tony visited Schloss Schoenbrunn, the childhood home of Marie Antoinette and so did I.

Tony toured Vienna, and so did I.

Tony didn’t go to Salzburg, but it wasn’t a trip to Austria for me without paying homage to Maria Von Trapp and Mozart. This is kind of a cheesy video, but does give some interesting information. If you keep clicking through the videos, you’ll get the whole Salzburg story.

We also took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. We bought our first digital camera right before this trip and were still learning how to use it. As I looked through these photos, I realized that in my rose-colored view of our vacation, I had forgotten how cold and often rainy it was in Austria in March.

The Austrians love Christmas, and there were Christmas stores everywhere. Of course we bought an ornament at this store and I’m getting ready to hang it on my tree this year along with all of my other vacation memory ornaments.

For your Austrian music companions to today’s post, I chose The Best of Christmas in Vienna and Christmas in Vienna. Both feature Placido Domingo with friends.

As I look at this 22 Days of Christmas post from last year, it’s hard to believe that we were anticipating snow. Today was a balmy and sometimes rainy day in the upper 40s. If it’s not global warming (as some of my students and their families believe), Mother Nature sure is playing tricks on us. See you tomorrow, and be sure to comment!

31 Days in Europe: Halloween in Ireland with Michele

For my very last post in the 31 Days Carnival, I leave you with my friend Michele. She and I are like twins separated at birth; we each got some of the traits, and we both have a lot of the traits. Somehow we know when to call each other, when we need to TALK — I’m sure you have friends like that too. I didn’t ever get around to showing you my stone circle photos from Stonehenge and Avebury, but I experienced a similar kind of spiritual call that Michele describes about her trip to Ireland. Maybe it’s a “mother country” thing; at least some of my heritage is English. 🙂 Anyway, enjoy Michele’s beautiful story and her photos. And comment! We all appreciate comment love.

This is a night that evokes spirits and ghosts, witches and fairies—it is All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween.  There were many disadvantages in attending a small Catholic school in the middle of Michigan but on this most special night we had it made.  November 1 was All Saints Day and for us it was a holy day which translated into a day off of school.  Imagine being able to roam the neighborhood running as fast as your costume would allow and coming back home over and over to empty the pillowcase of goodies and then begin again knowing that the next day was a holiday.  Yet, there was always the eerie reminder from Grandma, “Be so very careful tonight, for the veil is thin and strange things can happen.”

Not until I landed in Ireland and began exploring the ancient tombs and stone circles was I truly able to appreciate her primordial admonishments.

Image via Got My Reservations

Glebe House was the site of our honeymoon cottage.  Built of stone with walls almost three-foot wide in spots, this manor house was chosen by serendipity.  Wandering lost through tiny lanes and narrow dirt roads we ended up in the ruins of a famous monastery.  Jet-lagged, exhausted and overwhelmed by a sense of “being home,” we asked the ticket taker where she would go if she were on her honeymoon.  She excitedly pointed us in the direction of Glebe House where we were warmly welcomed by Elizabeth Addison and ushered up a staircase covered with purple carpet—I was enchanted.

Elizabeth shared that we were about three miles from one of the most important passage tombs in all of Ireland—Newgrange.  This megalithic passage tomb dates from about 3,000 BCE and the base of this circular structure is completely lined by quartz.

Image via Got My Reservations

Image via Got My Reservations

It has a roofbox and is a cairn where it is thought that rituals were performed possibly to commemorate the dead.  The classic passage tomb has a central gathering space and three side chambers of roughly equal size.  At Newgrange there is also a window where the light shines though on Solstice and aligns with the center of the main chamber.  The abilities of these ancient people in creating these stone wonders is amazing.

Image via Got My Reservations

But the best part of this first trip was that adjacent to Glebe House was a smaller, equally old, and unexcavated mound or burial tomb named Dowth.  Further exploration consisted of hopping the fence and being alone with this little known monument.  I was beginning to appreciate with a felt sense what it meant when Grandma said that the veil is thin.

Image via Got My Reservations

Fast forward to our 15th wedding anniversary that began, of course, with a trip back to Glebe House.  Interestingly one of the other guests during our stay was on sabbatical.  He was a researcher of stone circles and cairns and after fifteen years had been given permission to take exclusive pictures inside Newgrange.  He was almost unable to sit down and paced back and forth making me crazy as he expended nervous energy.  Wanting to engage him in conversation, I asked him about his favorite place with stones in Ireland.  He looked perplexed and walked away.  About two hours later he came out to the garden and said, “Carrowkeel.”  I had no idea what this meant and it must have shown on my face.  He said,  “Well, it has taken me all this time to decide  but that is my favorite spot in all of Ireland.  Very few people know of it.”  I was totally intrigued and asked for the directions.  He mentioned a small town near Sligo on the west coast.  “When you get to town you need to go to the village and go past the church, turn right on the dirt road and follow the signs even though it says the road ends.  Just keep driving past the donkey rescue and drive until the road stops. Then get out of your car, find the path and walk about 30 minutes until you get to the top of the mountain.”

The next day we began the adventurous trek to locate Carrowkeel which was about a four-hour drive west and north.  Our kind of vacation in Ireland is to drive until we find a wonderful house where we want to stay.  This time we ended up in a little town whose name I can’t remember and found another wonderful manor house with a charming hostess.

Image via Got My Reservations

She told us she would be right back with tea and ushered us into the drawing-room where we were joined by another American couple about our age.  After exchanging pleasantries, they revealed that the reason they were there was because they loved stone circles, dolmen and other stone cairns.  Then they looked at each other with a conspiratorial whisper and said (NO, I am not making this up), “Carrowkeel.”  I must have had that look of sheer astonishment again and they quickly said, “Well, almost no one knows about it.  It is on this very small lane just past the church on a dirt road.”  I couldn’t resist and I hopped in,  “Oh, the road that goes just past the donkey rescue and looks as if it will end but you just keep driving,” I said.  They became giddy with excitement.  “Then you must have been there.  Isn’t it magnificent?” they chimed together.  For once, I just smiled but the synchronicity didn’t escape us.

Image via Got My Reservations

The next day we made the trip to Carrowkeel, which is the only passage tomb besides Newgrange with a roof box but there was something totally different at this spot.  No one was there!   After driving to this little known location and climbing to the top of the mountain we could access the landscape in every direction.  About forty cairns dotted the space and the energy of this primeval space was palpable.  The tombs were accessible and we decided to climb inside.  It was there that I truly experienced what my Grandma had cautioned about many years before.  Indeed, if you look, you can almost recognize that this is a place where the veil is thin and strange things might happen.  Especially when it is the eve before the Saints convene.

Image via Got My Reservations

We really do love our rocks and for a total non sequitur this picture is for Jennie’s husband who mentioned that he thought he remembered we went to see the big rock (Uhluru or Ayer’s Rock) in Australia….yes, it is rather large and also a place where the veil is thin.

Image via Got My Reservations

As a final non sequitur, I have to say that this whole story reminds me of those fabulous Outlander books where Claire passed through at the stone circle. Who besides me has read all of them?

31 Days in Europe: Scarlett

For my final European post in this series, I’d like to take you back to books and an Irish Halloween story for the ages.

Image via allgwtw.com

If you are a Gone With the Wind lover, you probably read Alexandra Ripley’s authorized sequel, Scarlett. If you didn’t, I don’t recommend it for its authentic follow-up to our checkered heroine’s past. I do, however, recommend it if you are open-minded and willing to see Scarlett through another author’s eyes. It was also made into a movie, which is available in DVD — maybe your library has it. The book got terrible reviews, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.

Image via mercadotv.com.au

Joanna Whaley and Timothy Dalton are recognizable as Scarlett and Rhett, and the costumes and sets are as richly detailed as the first movie. We see Scarlett return to her Irish roots, purchase her family’s lands that had been lost, and establish herself as The O’Hara. This occurs within the loosely historical basis of the Fenian movement in Ireland. She pretends to be a rich widow, which of course the reader knows is a lie since Rhett has divorced her and married a sweeter and calmer (boring) new wife. Scarlett is devastated but still determined to figure out a way to get Rhett back.

Image via en.wikipedia.org

What the sequel doesn’t have is the rich plotlines of Mitchell’s original masterpiece. What it does have, however, is an eerie portrayal of Irish All Saint’s Eve customs. I have no idea if they are accurate or just stereotyping on the part of Alexandra Ripley, but Scarlett’s passage through her family heritage is great fun and rewarding in its own kind of way. You probably remember that the original Scarlett was a dichotomy of fear and arrogance and superstition and courage, and it’s good to see the real Scarlett reassert herself in Ireland.

I hope to visit Ireland one of these days, and I will definitely make the pilgrimage to the Hill of Tara to visit its mystical monuments. Maybe you’ll still be along for the Got My Reservations ride.

Ta-ta for now.

31 Days in Europe: In Honor of Elizabeth

Today is my niece’s third birthday and she is named after my mother, Elizabeth. I couldn’t resist posting the Globe Theater’s costume for Elizabeth I in their honor.

Image credit: Got My Reservations

Although Elizabeth I didn’t start out very happily and didn’t actually have much of a happy life either, I have always respected her. She held strong in the face of the challenges to her reign and didn’t cave in and marry someone she didn’t love in order to provide a Tudor heir. Granted, as a result a clear chain of Tudor rulers died with her and plunged England into a chaotic power struggle.

Image credit: Got My Reservations

I’m not sure where my grandmother got the name Elizabeth — I don’t think it was a family name — but her heirs have certainly used it. We named our daughter after her grandmother Elizabeth for her middle name and her first name came from her great-grandmother on my husband’s side. My brother’s daughter and her husband also named their daughter Elizabeth, and she is known by her nickname, Libbie, as my mother was by her family and close friends. Libbie is a very common topic at my niece’s blog, Vanderbilt Wife, so I’ll let you go there on your own to meet little Libbie. Sadly, you won’t get to meet my mom, as she passed away in June. I wrote about her here and here, if you would like to know more about my valiant heroine.

Happy birthday, sweet Libbie. And Mom, I still miss you every day.

31 Days in Europe: Brighton (another juicy story)

Image credit: Got My Reservations

It’s kind of overwhelming to visit Brighton. The combination of royal excess and beachy tourist excess live in what appears to be comfortable collusion. Which draws more people? Georgy and his morgianic wife’s homage to crass cultural allusion or the pier’s obvious allure to those less historically oriented? I don’t know the answer to that, but I loved them both.

Image credit: Got My Reservations

We couldn’t take photos inside the palace, but please, take the time to go to the Royal Pavilion’s website. George, son of George III, spent a fortune turning a simple summer-house into a palace of almost unbelievable excess. Gold leaf everywhere. Oriental and Moorish decorative arts commissioned by a man who had never visited the Far East. Truly a king’s ransom spent on a pleasure palace.

The story of George and George is an amazing piece of history that people in the United States don’t seem to really know about.  We only see George III as the villain in the Declaration of Independence. The short version (in my lens) is that George III was busy dealing with revolutions across his realm, including the American colonies in 1776. Unfortunately, historians now believe that he suffered from a liver disorder that affected his nervous system, resulting in, among other symptoms, mental disturbances. By 1810, his deteriorated and inconsistent mental condition was such that his son, the former playboy who had already married a commoner in an illegal ceremony, became Regent for his father. This is the “Regency” period in which Jane Austen wrote her books. My Austen fans will remember Brighton as an important setting for Jane and her characters.

Image via janeaustensworld.wordpress.com

Since that time, Brighton and its beach have emerged as the Atlantic City of England, complete with a boardwalk, merry-go-round, and seafood restaurants. It’s an old school beach resort that transcends the test of time; people still spend their vacations on the English Channel, basking in the summer sun.

Image credit: Got My Reservations

Image credit: Got My Reservations

Image credit: Got My Reservations

One of the things I love about England is that, unlike their American counterparts, people seem totally comfortable living with the human blemishes on their rulers’ legacies. You won’t find books about Marilyn Monroe in the White House (or even Monica Lewinsky, who, in my opinion, desecrated the White House Dish Room with her darn thong), and the royal palaces don’t seem to have any problem with having all of their dirty laundry for sale in the gift shops accompanying them.

The story of Georgy and Caroline was told in a BBC docudrama in 1996.

Despite his relationship and children with Maria Fitzherbert, in 1795 George was forced to marry a royal cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, in order to bring in new revenue with her dowry to pay his debts. The Prince of Wales claimed to only have consummated their marriage twice on the wedding night and once the night after. Apparently Caroline met her end of the bargain at that point, because she immediately became pregnant. Unfortunately, after the birth of their only child Charlotte in 1796, the pair separated and never again lived together as husband and wife. He continued his quasi-marital relationship with Maria Fitzherbert as well as other mistresses.

When Georgy finally became king in 1820, his reign was clouded with controversy. Both he and Caroline were having affairs. Caroline had not lived in England since 1814, but she chose to return for her husband’s coronation, and to publicly assert her rights as Queen Consort. However, George IV refused to recognise Caroline as Queen, and commanded British ambassadors to ensure that monarchs in foreign courts did the same. She was actually barred from entering the coronation at Westminster Abbey on July 19, 1821, even though she tried. The King sought a divorce, but his advisers suggested that any divorce proceedings might involve the publication of details relating to the King’s own adulterous relationships. Caroline fell ill on the coronation day and died on August 7; during her final illness she often stated that she thought she had been poisoned. Historians now say that she may have had cancer.

Despite the sordid history of their relationship, excerpts from Caroline’s diary where she openly discussed her relationship with George and her affairs with other men are still sold in the gift shop at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. I wish I would have bought a copy!

Looking back on our day in Brighton, I can only revel in its awkwardness. Everything about Brighton as tourists see it is over the top, and that’s okay. Its beauty and allure lie in its lack of conventionality; it’s a city of many facets. We loved it.

Image credit: Got My Reservations

31 Days in Europe: Stuff for Sale

Although I know that jumble sales and boot sales are common in England, I don’t think that Europeans ever got into the American romance with stuff. As I packed not one, but two full size refrigerators with food and drink today, I remembered the small fridges I have had in various apartments we have rented while in England, France, and Austria. Buying daily and buying fresh is a time-honored tradition in Europe; there are no trips to Costco that I know of.

Image via buyingandsellingantiques.org

I made three different drop-offs at Goodwill today as I went to the four supermarkets that provided the bounty for my refrigerators. I really wish that I could stick to the one in=one out rule, but I’m still a reluctant purger.

I would list the ridiculousness that is my current state of storage, but it would be too embarrassing. Let’s just say that there are six coolers in my garage. I could be perfectly happy with the folding one on wheels and the mammoth one on wheels that serves as both picnic basket and cooler when we go to Ravinia. Our group does have coordinated tablecloths and candleholders, by the way. We just never have gotten ourselves together to enter the contest.

Image via upchicago.com

Despite the pictures of stately homes and castles full of priceless stuff, many Europeans live well with very little excess. I’d like to emulate that.

31 Days in Europe: Bella Abruzzo!

Have you ever had one of those weeks in which you think that you might not be able to hold it together? I think we all have them. Those are the weeks when we need our go-to friends. One of my best friends now lives in another state and really, I miss her pretty much every day. It was great to see her last week, but it took me over an hour in traffic to get into the city after work. That’s how much I love her. And I love her even more for writing a guest post for me this week. Enjoy another visit to Italy!

Italy had not been on my A-list of European countries to visit.  I am a rabid Anglophile, and also took five years of French in school, so both of those countries are higher on my list of vacation destinations.  I have been to England three times, but never to France.

Then our friends Linda and Tim, who travel to Italy every year, proposed a group trip to a part of Italy that they had heard about but never visited.  The chance to travel with them and several other friends, was too good to pass up, so May saw twelve of us flying to Rome, crowding into three cars, and driving about two hours west to the region of Abruzzo.

Image via villacasale.net

Abruzzo is not on the radar for most Americans.  In a way this is a shame, since it is a beautiful but somewhat impoverished area, which could use the tourist dollars.  On the other hand, it is refreshingly unspoiled and free from the usual tourist crowds.

We spent four days in Sulmona, a town of about 25,000 people. This town, by the way, was the filming location of a recent George Cluny movie, The American.

Image via gditaly.com

After Sulmona we traveled north to the tiny town of Civitella del Tronto.  This is located between the Grand Sasso mountain range and the Adriatic Sea.

Image credit: KSF

As we approached you could see the town perched precariously on the side of a hill, under the looming walls of a huge ruined fort.

Image credit: KSF

Following the road through the medieval gate into the town, we arrived at the Hotel Zunica 1880, our base for the next three days.  The Hotel was wonderful.  It offered gourmet food, cooking classes, and tours of nearby vineyards and olive groves, as well as views of the Adriatic from our room, but the high point of the visit, to me, was the town itself.

Image credit: KSF

Image credit: KSF

All the buildings were made of old, old stone that looked piled together in no particular order.  Streets were narrow, with stairs that went up, and ramps that went down, and nooks and crannies everywhere.  Ruins were next door to rehabs, and they all had breathtaking views of the valley below.

Image credit: KSF

Image credit: KSF

Image credit: KSF

The town was a fairy tale place, and I fell in love.

Image credit KSF

31 Days in Europe (America): Dancing With the Stars

I have to abandon my regularly scheduled programming to talk DWTS. Who’s with me on this? Reality television had its start in Europe, so I claim executive privilege in talking about it here.

Who are you rooting for? I know that’s a dangling preposition, grammar police. We’re talking cultural context here, which is entitled by English major tradition to have some flexibility, so give me a break.

I’m still behind one week, and I’m still inexplicably crying over Chaz Bono’s paso  doble. Is it possible for a woman/man to be the matador? Are the XX chromosomes destined to play the “feminine” role while the XY are the male role models? Wikipedia says that the X chromosome contains about 2000 genes while the Y chromosome contains only 78 genes. Does that mean that in fact, the Y is the weaker sex?

If you watch Chaz Bono, doing what no trans-gender person has ever done, trying to compensate for his size seven female feet and his feminine frame carrying a male hormonal weight, it gives one a new perspective about gender identification. And doing it on an international platform? I applaud those who have the bravery to come out and face the music, be it international or one-to-one in the privacy of one’s own community.

After all, it’s all about music and the human response to it, isn’t it?

Image via accesshollywood.com

P.S. I wish Cher had kept her original face and aged gracefully. Her 65-year-old face was kind of scary. Same goes with Bruce Jenner. He was super cute back in the day.

Image via http://www.celebrityplasticsurgery.tv/bruce-jenner-plastic-surgery-gone-bad

31 Days in Europe: Notting Hill

When we go on vacation, I always want to visit the locations of books and movies that I love. This year’s trip to London was no exception; all roads led to the shrine of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, Notting Hill. We spent time walking around the cute neighborhood, but frankly, I was mostly on the lookout for the very recognizable blue facade of The Travel Bookshop.

Image via nottinghillproperties.com

Even though I was surreptitiously taking photos and being not-too-touristy, I don’t think it mattered. There are hundreds of photos online of the interior and exterior of this famous movie location.

Image credit: Got My Reservations

Every time I see this movie, I am blown away by Julia Roberts’s elegant portrayal of the actress who finds true love. It’s cheesy, but gets me every time.

Image via whatculture.com

If you’re a fan, it’s worth the extra time it will take you to find the Holy Grail of Notting Hill. It’s a wonderful bookstore all on its own, besides.

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