Got this letter in the mail recently. With a stamp and everything…
I remember leaving Paris last November early in the morning, taking the cab to the secure parking lot on the edge of the city where we had housed our car, then realizing that in the very rushed exit from our apartment, we had not loaded the map onto the ipad. We had no paper map, and we knew that if we didn’t get out of the city now, it would be “rush hour”, and I was pretty sure we didn’t want to be trying to navigate the spaghetti-like roads in that! We managed, though, but again, it seemed a lot more stressful than it should have been…in retrospect, we should have chilled a bit more.
Anyway, the point was, leaving Paris in such a state – we briefly considered driving straight to Brugges rather than trying to find our way to Vimy Ridge, and then on to Belgium that same day. This very humbling poem that Darragh wrote yesterday for the local Legion’s Remembrance Day Poetry Contest makes me so glad we didn’t give in to our rather pathetic impulse to take the easier route.
Last November, I was at Vimy Ridge
As I walked up the gravel path
The huge memorial appeared through the mist
Tall and graceful yet strong and powerful it stood.
On it were precise carvings – people in cloth,
Looking up to the sky.
Names carved in marble, names of soldiers who have died for us.
As my dad lectures on about wartime, I imagine:
Soldiers crawl up the bombed trenches
Aiming and shooting
Mud squelches under their boots as they run
Sheltering their heads with their hands
A bomb drops and the earth erupts in a torn explosion
Some dead, some wounded, some dripping with tears
All expressionless, waiting for good news.
A soldier yells as one of his friends is taken by a bullet.
He ducks, but I can feel his tears. Feel his pain.
Rain parades onto the dead landscape
As more guns fire and bombs explode.
I look up at the huge memorial.
Strong and Proud.
A small ray of light breaks through the fog –
That ray of hope soldiers waited for and never got.
That ray of light I now look at freely.
“Thank you”, I whisper to the breeze.
But I am really whispering to the soldiers who
Saved my country and my life.
Because of them, I see this sunlight.
Because of them, I have this hope.
Remember how I mentioned Mairi writing about the Lake District and sending it to her Nana? Well, while I’m embarking on this new reminiscing/publishing-my-children’s-writing thing, here it is; we were all inspired by this place, and the inspiration is lasting, apparently!
I think it’s a case of all-of-the-above, actually.
We have been having a few “this time last year” conversations at home lately, so that brings about many reminiscences, and it’s interesting how each person’s perception of the memory differs from the others’, or how romanticized some memories have become already…
One year ago today, we were in Sauto. I wonder what we were doing? Darragh would have been playing with the dogs, no doubt, and we would probably be heading out for a hike somewhere in the afternoon, perhaps visiting our favourite mountain river if it was a sunny day, enjoying the deep jangling sound of the cow bells as the kids try to cross jumping from stone to stone. Or perhaps Dev was “challenging” us with a more strenuous afternoon at Carancas Gorge! Maybe we stopped at Casino or Super U on the way home to pick up some pasta, or even visited our favourite bakery in Font Romeu for a box of special surprises – tarte citron, pain chocolat…mmmm. Sounds so idyllic! And it was. Except for when it wasn’t.
And then there’s the “roadschooling” – frustrating at times, and quite stressful. Wondering if we were doing enough, and if the girls would be able to manage well back in the classroom.
Of course, now I see it in that idealized way we often see things when enough time has passed to erase the anxiety. Going back to Sauto, we would have eaten our supper and our tasty bakery treats, and then settled in for a couple of chapters of Danny Champion of the World – all five of us reading and talking together, worrying together about Danny and his Dad – would they get caught or not, wondering what was really the best way to catch a pheasant. What could be a better, more authentic way to teach and learn?
Funny, isn’t it, what the passage of time does? Back in the throes of our daily life, trying to finish the house, get everyone to their dance classes, band practices, and swim meets, going to work…it all seems so hectic. We never seem to have time, and then when we indulge in a little flashback to last year, it feels like we had so much of it then. And we did. But I do remember spending much of it doing, doing, doing, or if not, planning the next thing. I also remember feeling guilty for sitting doing nothing (on the rare occasions that actually happened). I remember thinking we really needed to cram every possible experience in to every available moment.
I don’t think we value “doing nothing” enough. As a society, even. Now I sometimes wish I had spent more of last year doing just that. Because how often do you get that opportunity!? I wonder what it would have been like to just pick a place and stay put for a few months. Live life quietly together.
Nah, we would probably have been bored!
So, back to the missing…and the blogging. I miss that, too. And I know I said I would go back and write about the places I didn’t the first time around. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. It’s not immediate enough. That’s the thing about blogging, I guess. It’s now. Present. It never felt the same going back to blog something we did a few weeks ago, so to go back to a year ago or even several months seems artificial. Unless…
Unless then becomes now somehow. Like Sauto did this week as we spent time re-reading Darragh’s memoir. Or when we got all our unused postcards out over the weekend to find something for a collage someone was making for school, or when Mairi wrote about the Lake District a couple of weeks ago because Nana is going there at the end of the month, and she was reminded how much she loved it. There are so many of these opportunities – I just need to pay more attention to them!
So, I can blog.
Roadschooling Claytons is not over.
Her: There’s this place where you can snorkel or dive in the Great Barrier Reef and all you need is to be able to swim and the ability to laugh at yourself.
Me: Hmmm. Really?
Her: It costs $1246 for a ticket.
Me: To dive there??
Her: No, to get to Australia from here. And if you go from the UK, it’s only a 22 hour flight!
Me: How do you know?
Her: I looked into it today. I don’t think I actually booked a flight. But you might want to check and make sure…
Her: Well, I’m pretty sure I didn’t book anything. I was careful not to fill in any information about myself…you could cancel it though if I did, right?
I had to laugh as I came back upstairs and told Dev that I needed the iPad for a minute to check and see if Darragh booked a ticket to Australia or not! What’s really interesting about all that is that when we returned from our trip, the girls were pretty adamant that they wouldn’t be leaving again for a very long time, if ever. As I’ve said in previous posts, we have felt frustrated at times by their apathy about travel – it felt almost like it had the opposite effect from the one we had hoped for.
And then something like this happens. She has been talking about Australia for a couple of weeks now. She borrowed a DVD from the library about it last weekend, and has apparently been doing some pretty specific research online! I love that she did that. I’m certain that wouldn’t have happened a year ago. Obviously, I’m happy she didn’t book a flight, but I feel proud that she got to that point in her little “trip planning” adventure. I think it shows initiative! But also, it shows me that she is feeling positive about travelling again. And not that long after our return. It’s one of those moments that makes me smile inside.
And tomorrow, we will be attending the Literary Awards Gala, where she will be presented with third prize for a memoir she wrote while we were in the Pyrenees. Another smile-inside moment. I love them.
Here is Darragh’s memoir of her time in The French Pyrenees – she is a superstar.
Chapter 1 Settling In
It is our first evening in the mountains; the golden sun is glittering on one side of the the peaks. This feels like a good place. It has been a hard couple of days for us since Rome. I am especially missing Cal, my stuffed dog I have had since I was born. I don’t know how I will ever manage without him. What would a robber want with him? Nothing.
I pull on my sneakers, and set out for a walk with my family to explore our surroundings. We have been walking just two minutes, when an old border collie, white with patches of grey, appears. She is beautiful, and I love her at first sight. Her big brown eyes stare at me. She follows us for our whole walk, dropping a stick at my heels. I throw the stick, she runs and gets it, and then drops it at my heels again.
I name her Callie, after Cal. She belongs up here in the meadows, her shaggy fur blowing in the wind. When our lovely walk finally comes to an end, Callie turns and goes.
I don’t see her for a while after that, and I almost forget about her as we settle in to our mountain life.
Our little village is called Sauto. There are many towns and villages in the Pyrenees mountains, France. This is where we are staying for one month. Sauto is my favourite village. It contains only a few houses, and a little church, and it seems far away from any of the other villages. There is never any traffic, and not many people.
I am playing outside in our back yard one day, when I hear a bark. I creep over to the gate and open it. I walk to the little church around the corner. It is Callie! I fast-walk over to her and give her a pat. But she is not alone. Standing behind her is a little black dog with two white front paws, white toes on her back paws, and a red collar. I assume she is a girl and immediately name her Emily. But there’s more; behind her is a stubby brown dog. I have a bag of Chuppa Chup suckers in my hand, so I name him Chuppa! I pat Callie again. She is my favourite.
Chapter 2 Fetch
It is a misty morning in the Pyrenees. Clouds surround the huge, proud mountains. I pull on my gym-pants and walk downstairs. My little sister is pouring maple syrup on a waffle. I sit down at the table and help myself to a one. As I am pouring the syrup, Liah says, “I hope we see Callie again soon”.
“Yeah, me too,” I reply.
And we do see her soon. When I go out to the yard that morning, I hear a bark. I kneel beside the wire fence at the back of the yard, and on the road below us, I see a few houses, and in front of the houses are two dogs – it is Emily and Callie! To get to the lower road, there are stone steps. I slowly creep down them until the dogs are right in front of me. I whistle and start walking back up the steps. I hear a sound, and turn around. They are following me! I stop at the top of the dozen or so steps up to La Fougere, our house. Callie comes forward and drops a pinecone at my feet. I throw it, and Callie and Emily take turns retrieving it. After about 45 minutes of this, it is time to go in. As I reluctantly shut the gate, I can see two bright-eyed, eager faces looking back at me. It is so powerful, I can’t resist! I run out, and their faces become happy and excited. We play the game again and again until I hear a voice calling me. I HAVE to close the gate. I squeeze my eyes shut and don’t look bac
Chapter 3 The Shepherdess
The next four days are the same as the last. I go half way down the cobble steps, and Callie and Emily trot over to me. We play for as long as we can, and then I have to leave. One evening is a bit different, though.
The evening I find out everything, a rainy mountain storm has just passed. My family step outside together to have a little walk now that the weather is calmer. Everything is wet, wet, wet and the mountain peaks are topped with snow like sundaes topped with cherries. We are half way down the road when a little old woman comes up to us. She is wearing a knitted brown jacket with orange patterns, and old, dirty pants. She tries to explain to us (in a mixture of French and Spanish) that she has animals at her house, including “petits lapins”. She leads us to the house where I always find Callie and Emily. Just past it, there is a small shed and a pen full of chickens. She takes us to a hutch-type shed at the back of the little yard, and in one of the cages are four tiny baby rabbits! She puts one in each of our hands; they are so soft! She shows us the mom, dad, and three other rabbits. As we try to understand her, we finally figure out that she is telling us she is the shepherdess, and she owns Callie, Emily and Chuppa! She explains that none of them are working dogs – she says they are “gentil” (nice), but useless! I pat Chuppa on the head and we pick some vegetables from the lady’s garden. She has a kind, friendly voice, and there and then I know I will be seeing her again.
It is very misty one evening as I step outside and I can’t see the majestic mountains in front of me. It is silent except for a few quiet chirps of birds. It is a little bit scary.
SPLASH! I jump back and look down. I have only stepped in a big puddle.
I walk over to the stone steps; they glisten with water. It must have rained, I think. I make my way down the steps, and peek around the corner. No sign of any dogs. I take another few steps and notice the shepherdess sitting on her front step. I run back up the steps. Why is she there? Where are her dogs? Is she sad? I am starting to walk back up to my house when a shape emerges from the mist. I stop and watch. First I see her face. Then her tail wagging as she comes toward me. It is Callie! She comes up to me with the familiar pinecone in her mouth. I squat down to give her a pat and she drops the pinecone in my lap. I throw it. She runs to get it and waits until I give her a pat to drop it in my lap again. After a while, it is getting dark, so I have to go in. I wonder where Callie had been before; she wasn’t working, so was she just wandering, or could she be up to something? Probably just wandering, I think. Although, I have always thought she can be a bit suspicious at times…I wonder…
Chapter 4 Laces
I am going down the stone steps again. The sun is creating a mid-fall heat, but I still have my sweater on. I start playing fetch with Callie as usual, when I hear a little padding on the pavement. Is it Emily? I turn around and look, and I see not Emily, but the cutest thing I have ever seen in my life moving towards me. His tiny legs are trembly, and his body is wriggling like a caterpillar. He is a funny little border collie puppy! He is black with a white tummy and paws, and he looks like he has dipped the tip of his tail into a bucket of white paint. He sniffs me and nips at my leg. Then he wriggles his way to Callie, who gives him a lick. She has got to be the mum! After all, she is a border collie too. I play with the puppy and Callie for a long time.
The next day, when we go to the supermarket, we buy dog treats and ask the shepherdess if we can give some to the dogs. She says, “Oui, merci”, and gives us a handful of toffees for ourselves! She is a lovely lady, and I LOVE her dogs. We name the puppy Laces because he is always chewing my laces!
For the next few days, this is my agenda:
Wake up and go down for breakfast. Get dressed, brush teeth. Run downstairs, get shoes on, shout “Bye!” to Mum. Grab a few dog biscuits and run out the door.
I play with Callie and Emily with Laces on my lap, chewing my shoe laces. I play until lunch. Sometimes my sisters come. My older sister knows some French, so she and the shepherdess chat.
In the afternoon, we go on a hike, and when we come home in the evening, I run to to the dogs. I love those dogs. I love Callie’s gracefulness, and Lace’s fuzzy playfulness. Even Emily’s slobber. I know I will cry when we leave.
I find out that Callie and Emily are not related to Laces, but that when Laces is a bit older, he will go up onto the mountain to watch his real mum and dad for two months and then he will become a herding dog, working with the sheep.
Chapter 5 The Gift
The weather is changing drastically here in the Pyrenees – it is almost November. It is getting very cold and frosty. Some of the leaves are already falling off the trees.It is a chilly Saturday morning, and I walk over to the window in my room and open the wooden shutters. I gasp! The ground has at least an inch of glittering white snow. The rooftops are covered too! The sun is up, and I know it will probably melt soon, so I get dressed, get my big coat, my sneakers, and run out the front door. My body slowly chills all over, as if 100 ice cubes are sinking down my back. The snow crunches under my feet as I step down the stone stairs. Callie is curled in a ball, and Chuppa barks as I approach. I kneel down and pat Chuppa’s head. Callie gets up and drops a pinecone in my lap and I throw it. It lands with a soft plop. After a few minutes, Emily trots out too. We play, then the dogs lay down for a rest while I scratch their bellies. I am really going to miss them when we leave, but for now, I just have to enjoy them.
The next day, my sister and I are sitting at the bottom of the old stone steps. Most of the snow is gone, but it is still on the mountains in front of us. Suddenly, Marie-Jo, the shepherdess, comes out of her house with something in her hands. She gives my sister a little dog figurine, and me a really beautiful bracelet. We say, “Merci Boucoup,” and leave. I know I will keep that bracelet forever. I have already been collecting bracelets, too. I put that bracelet on straight away.
The next morning, the mountains are powdered with snow again. Callie trots up to me with a pinecone in her mouth, Emily eagerly behind her. As I sit with Laces in my lap, I know I will come back here one day. I make a promise to the dogs that I will be back as soon as I can.
The day we leave, it is very sunny. We get our picture taken with Marie-Jo. We say our goodbyes and I slip on my bracelet. A tear trickles down my cheek. I will never forget Callie, Emily, Laces, or Chuppa. They helped me feel safe and comfortable again, even without Cal. I know I will come back to Sauto, and I hope my dogs will be there waiting with pinecones in their mouths.
Today, on my birthday, I am reflecting. Looking back at a blog post from this time last year, it’s hard to believe all that has happened. In that post, we had just sold our house, we had a month to vacate, and we had no idea where we were going to go. I remember that angst, and I’m happy I’m not there this year. We had nothing booked – anywhere. That was not our wisest hour.
To be faced with moving out of a house you have lived in for ten years, storing most of your stuff, but making sure you keep out the stuff you will need for the next ten months is an arduous enough task. But planning a ten month trip while you’re at it? That’s just insanity. No wonder I was having anxiety issues. And to think I had known about this trip for four years…there’s a psychological diagnosis in there somewhere, I’m sure.
Anyway, the point is, if you are planning to take your family travelling for an extended period of time, I would recommend booking everything in advance. Or at least most things. Or even some things. Or one thing. But definitely not no things.
Miraculously, though, on this particular occasion, it all worked out ok. It would, in retrospect, have been a much more enjoyable experience for me if things had been better planned beforehand, but there you go. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And with hindsight, I might have realized how much easier the trip would have been for the kids if it had been well-planned. However, it is what it is, and they experienced the whole process, angst included.
In asking us about our trip, people often say “the kids must have loved it”, but in all fairness, they did not always love it. I’m sure I have said before that there were many times when they just wanted to go home. And sometimes, as we settle back into the routines of school and soccer and birthday parties, we wonder what, if anything, they gained from our “year out”. Of course, we know they did, really, and we know their appreciation for the experience will increase as they get older, but it’s funny how quickly it has disappeared in some ways…
For example, a week after they started back at school, the little one had to do a writing assessment on which they were asked to write about something that happened in the past. When I asked her what she wrote about (thinking smugly about all the fabulous experiences we provided for her to choose from), she told me she wrote about that time we went to Halifax two years ago when she bought a teddy for her sister. I said, “Oh. I thought you might have written something about our trip”, to which she replied, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that”! You have to laugh, really, but comments like that don’t come without a tiny little sting. Shortly after that, she redeemed herself by compiling a pretty amusing A to Z of Travels which summed up her experience, though, so all was not lost.
In actual fact, we are starting to see the experience of our travels permeate lots of things the kids do and say quite often now, and every time we see that, those little stings are replaced with another feeling. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I know it’s a very warm and glowy feeling. Like pride and satisfaction – and maybe a little relief. When I read Mairi’s speech for school and it’s all about European foods – which are good, and which should be avoided. Or when they point out places in library books that they recognize and have been to. Or when their stories have settings they would never have had a year ago. Or even when I can see their appreciation for home. It’s a good feeling.
Here is a collection of tidbits that give me that feeling:
This one was accompanied by the caption: X is for exit. Where is the exit in this airport?! It is a very accurate rendition of us wondering where the heck that exit is, right down to the sour expressions on our faces!
You know, we never did get to London’s Globe Theatre, even though it had been on my original list. Nor did we go to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see his birthplace, or the pretty little cottage that was Anne Hathaway’s. And yet, I felt the presence of Shakespeare in so many other places, none more so than Italy. I sometimes forget how many of his plays are set in Italy, but driving around the country and seeing run-of-the-mill road signs for Mantua, Padua, and Verona makes Romeo and Juliet seem so much more real. I found myself wondering why he chose these particular cities, and how he had such intimate knowledge of them. And they actually still exist, and I was driving right by them! So weird. We even saw a sign for Aleppo, the place Macbeth‘s witches mention during one of their many nasty curses. As we drove, I imagined Romeo banished from his true love, only now I actually knew how far away he was banished! The literature geek in me even posted “Banished” as my facebook status as we drove through Padua, because I knew the location tagline would say -in Padua. Apparently I was the only one of my several hundred facebook friends who thought that was cute. Even my English teacher friends didn’t bite. Moving on.
Our travel book said you can even go see Juliet’s house in the fair city of Verona. I pointed out facetiously that this would be tricky since she was a fictional character. But I wasn’t quite so facetious when Dev reminded me where we actually live…and the fact that millions of tourists come every year to see Anne of Green Gable’s house. Right.
And then there’s Venice. Having walked through the Rialto Bridge, and seen the dozens of tiny shops still selling all manner of things, I can now imagine Shylock there counting his ducats, and Antonio trading goods in Merchant of Venice. Before that, it was difficult to visualize how a bridge could be a market place.
Another place that constantly evoked Shakespearean images and quotes in my head was Scotland. Driving from Edinburgh northward to Loch Ness, we saw signs for Cawdor, Scone, Fife, Forres, Inverness, and even saw Glamis Castle and Dunsinane Hill on the map. Having driven almost as far as Inverness, and knowing how long it took us in our Citroen Picasso, I realize what a mammoth journey it must have been for Macbeth and his cronies to get to Scone on horseback, or on foot, for the coronation – quite a hike! But then again, that’s fiction too…although we did see a huge mural at Edinburgh Castle that traced the line of the monarchy in Scotland, and Macbeth and Duncan are both there; we even saw the Stone of Destiny, on which they were supposedly crowned.
I guess the point is that even though we didn’t do any of the more direct Shakespeare touristy things, we still experienced, and talked about, Shakespeare. His influence is everywhere, not just in our language and our literature. And seeing some of these places, even fleetingly, makes his plays so much more real and relevant.
I hope that when our girls start studying them in school, they will take a little bit of that experience with them as well.
It has been some time since the last blog post, but I have been re-inspired since returning home by the number of people who have told me how much they enjoyed reading it. It’s funny to run into acquaintances, friends, and neighbours who have been reading along with our travels, because you never really know who’s out there while you’re actually writing. And when you see people for the first time, it really changes that initial conversation completely. You start in a totally different place.
People who have followed the blog ask about a specific place, or tell me how much they could relate to a certain post, or how much they laughed over me hiking in the Pyrenees in flip-flops, for example. Because they know where we were, they know which parts were good, and which were not so good. They understand the joy, or the frustration, of the experiences that moved me to write.
People who haven’t been following along ask me, “what was your favourite part?” And I am struggling to come up with an answer to that one. The girls have said the same thing – the experience seems so vast, that it is very difficult to come up with a favourite part. Or even a favourite place.
I don’t think there is anywhere I can honestly say I would never want to go again; almost every place we visited seemed to be cut too short, if anything. Even after spending several months in the UK, I feel like we only just scratched the surface. Some places were like appetizers; we spent such a short amount of time in them, and in a way, it would have been smarter to see less, but give ourselves more time in each place to really absorb the culture. On the other hand, even being exposed briefly to places like Cinque Terre and Santorini makes me want to come back for the main course some other time. Places as magical as those inspire you to plan future travel. And to be honest, some places are well worth a visit, but you wouldn’t want to stay longer than it takes to see the iconic sights. Venice, for example – a must see, but too busy and expensive to spend more than a day or two. And Athens – again, you are sort of obliged to go for its historical and cultural importance, but really, you wouldn’t want to stay! You really wouldn’t.
Anyway, I do have a lot more to say about this trip. There are still many unrecorded places and adventures. Sometimes, too much happened in the space of a few days to blog about it all. Sometimes, I didn’t have any Internet for a while, and when I finally did get it again, we had moved on. Sometimes, I didn’t have time. And sometimes I just couldn’t be bothered.
But it’s not over. And I look forward to writing about the missing bits. And the learning that no doubt will continue for a long time, despite the fact that we are home. Sort of. Actually, I wonder if it’s possible to seamlessly morph this roadschooling blog into a building-your-own-house blog.
I have a feeling there may be some interesting moments to come…