Monday, July 21, 2014


I kissed the Blarney Stone.  It sounds bizarre, really, to climb 131 steps up a suffocating spiral staircase in the tower of a medieval castle, lean your head over the edge of a precipice, and kiss a legendary stone.  Bizarre or not, legitimate benefits of gab to be gained or not, I aim to add my name to the list of the millions who have.

As I walk over the moat leading to the entrance of Blarney castle in Ireland, I feel calm. No anxiety at all.  The climb won't be a physical challenge, and I figure someone is bound be there to hold my legs as I stretch over the edge.  The calm frees me to appreciate the stunning grounds of the castle, whose original stone structure dates back to the thirteenth century.  The maintenance of the castle respects its integrity.  The stone floor is uneven, even broken in parts.  The stairs leading to the tower are narrow and indented from centuries of traffic.  They are also slick from the rain that has sprayed in from the unprotected castle windows and the structure's natural dampness.   The thick rope anchored to the castle wall on the right side of the staircase provides some support.  As I climb, I expect to bump in to flowing skirts rustling around the corner of these dank corridors, or servants with platters of meat destined for a feast.
The Blarney Stone
on the castle ramparts,
from the outside

Nothing has been done to the rooms, either, I notice on the way up.  Signs designate the function of the rooms, the kitchen, the priest's room, or the young lady's room, for example.  In one spot, a grate covers a hole three stories up.  The panel above informs readers that the opening was the "murder hole," used to pelt invaders or unwelcome visitors with arrows, rocks, or boiling oil.  Whether these points of interest captivate me, or are diversions from the task to come, I'm not sure.

After interminable spirals, I am there, on the ramparts.  I indulge in a few mental snapshots of the undulating greenery of Ireland.  Next, I focus on the centre of the wall ahead of me.   In that spot, two gentlemen attend, one standing to the left and one sitting on the right, in front of what I suspect is the Blarney Stone.  Kissing that stone is supposed to increase your gift of the gab.  A scary thought in my case.

If I observe the goings-on, I figure my own turn might play out more smoothly.  The attendant on the right begins his mantra for the next patron:

Please sit down.
(A molded cushion is provided,)
Grab the bars with your hands.  
(Two parallel vertical iron bars are positioned about two feet apart, just above the stone.)
Lean back.
(The attendant secures the visitor by waist.)
Lean back further.
Sit up.

As the visitor leans back, the individual on the left, a photographer, clicks a button for a photo.  He clicks again as she sits up.  What a relief.  We won't have to worry about pictures.   It's a Splash Mountain moment.

Just two people ahead of me, now.  I am calm.  I can do this.  A sign advises me to set my bag aside and to remove my glasses when my turn comes.

The young woman ahead of me rises, claims her bag, and steps aside.  My turn.

I collapse my glasses, tuck them into the side pocket of my travel bag, and set it down beside the stone wall.  

The mantra begins.
Please sit down.
(I do.)
Grab the bars with your hands.  
(As I do, I see two more iron bars, horizontal ones fastened across the opening between the ramparts and the wall holding the stone. It's impossible to fall through. That's a comfort.)
Lean back.
(What I don't see, however, is a stone.  I can't find what I imagined would be a discernible stone, a shape different in color or maybe even texture from the stratified rock of the tower wall.)
Lean back further.
(I do.  I see something darker which I assume is the stone.  No time for a lot of thought.  People are waiting. I kiss something, thinking all the while of the emperor's new clothes.)
Sit up.
(I do, proud of myself.)

The photographer hands me a ticket to claim my photo, if I want it.  I already know I will purchase this photo, no matter what I look like.

Please sit down.  The attendant is caught in a Groundhog-day-like time warp.  He resumes the mantra for the gentlemen behind me.

I stow the ticket safely in my front zippered jacket pocket.  Security is important.  I smile all the way down the tower.  The queue at the souvenir shop moves with assembly line precision.  My photos appear on the screen.  There are two.  In the first, I am lying back, gripping the bars, ostensibly kissing the stone.  If the second, I am rising,  a huge smile on my face.  I don't even hesitate.  I purchase both photos.

I don't make bucket lists (see Lists, posted on May 6, 2013) , so I can't cross this off.  I can, however, be satisfied that I navigated the tower steps in the rain, and completed the requisite steps in the Blarney-Stone-kissing process.  Not everyone did.  Even people younger than I hesitated at the last moment.

Bizarre or not, I know what's involved in kissing the Blarney Stone.  All that's left now is to judge whether the legend will deliver on the purported upshot.  How much more effective will my blarney be?  Can't wait to find out.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


I've come across some provocative quotations recently, and I thought I would share them, without commentary.

They can only be what they are because you and I are what we are.
(Jamie to Ian in Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon

Orphans have no vanity.  One needs parents to be vain.
(Peter Lake in the film Winter's Tale)

The small details of life often hide a great significance.
(Margaret Atwood in Alias Grace)

Just because a gentleman is born in a stable doesn't mean he's a horse.
(Duke of Wellington, victorious commander against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, born in Ireland.)

A people without a language is a people without a heart.
(Saying in Ireland where learning the Irish language is compulsory.)

Let's finish with a riddle.
Round and round the radical road the radical rascal ran.  How many r's in that?

Friday, July 11, 2014


"Is this Takeaway?" the server behind the counter asks me.  I have to think a minute, and then I remember our travel director's orientation.  In Britain, you have the option to eat in or take out.  If you "takeaway," you don't pay service charges.

"Takeaway,"' I reply.   We want to sit in Leicester Square by the fountain for supper, before we resume our stroll back to the hotel.  In Canada, I would have said, "to go."  While in Britain, I go to the loo or the toilet, but not to the bathroom, and I take my place in the queue, not in line.  I take the lift, not the elevator.   If I have rubbish (never garbage), I place it in the rubbish bin, not the trash can, never mind the garbage can, if I can find one.  Everywhere I turn, there are different idioms. I track the expressions for a deliberate purpose.  It's not so much because I want to be culturally sensitive, although that is important to me.  Even more critical,  I want people to understand me.

If I needed a car, I would hire one, not rent one, and give way rather than yield.  I would fuel it with petrol, not gas, and I would take over, not pass, a vehicle. I would refer to the number plate, not the license plate.   I would park in a car park, and, on this trip, I ride in a coach, not a bus.  Should I need an over-the-counter drug of any sort  I would see a chemist, not a pharmacist.

A new fad is glamping, a glamorous and comfortable type of camping (glamorous + camping) for people who want an outdoor experience while retaining the comforts of home.  These individuals can rent large tents with separate bedrooms and running water in parks or private campgrounds.

If you prefer a particular industry to be established in a location outside your home (like a nuclear power plant or a waste dump, for example), then you demonstrate the traits of nimbyism (not-in-my-back-yard).

Besides learning so much, I am becoming comfortable changing my references to daily actions to conform to the country I am visiting.  Like asking for Takeaway.  But when I slip up at Tim Hortons when I get home, will they be able to figure out what I mean?

Monday, July 7, 2014


Dear Aunt Lorraine,

I didn't realize you hadn't been well.  No wonder the phone droned on unanswered the last few times I called.  Now, you have left us, and I didn't have a chance to say good-bye.

Even worse, I'm not going to be able to attend your funeral.  I'm in Britain, and will not be home in time. If it's any consolation, I've already missed one funeral as well as a flood in my town.  It's a trifecta of tumultuous emotions and sorrow.

Since I received the news by email, I have been reminiscing.  I remember meals shared and easy, fascinating conversation.  I remember that you took the time to keep in touch.  My parents appreciated your calls so much.  Even after my mother, your sister, died, you continued to connect with my father.  He needed those conversations.  When you are ninety-nine years old, there aren't many people who share the same memories.   You even replied to my annual Christmas letters, either with a note or a call.

I remember your graduation photo.  My mother made your graduation dress, do you remember? A unique gown with a black velvet bodice and a full turquoise taffeta skirt with black velvet appliqués.  She even made the matching gloves.  She was so proud of how beautiful her youngest sister looked in it, and of her own work.

Now, you live in your children and grandchildren.  And in me, a grateful niece.


Friday, July 4, 2014


My community continues to deal with the ravages of flood.  Close to 200 mm of rain in two days caused the reservoir to overflow, the hospice and the hospital to be evacuated, lots of flooded basements and closed highways in all directions. In that emergency, people have come together to help each other. They volunteer to sand bag, move residents and patients to other locations, and provide food and a helping hand wherever it's needed.

And, since Monday, just after the state of emergency was declared, I have been in the United Kingdom on a holiday.  My house is safe, but my emotions are compromised.  As others grappled with flooded basements, we struggled with a difficult decision.

When we went to sleep Saturday night after attending to the final details for our departure for Britain the next day, the basement was still good.  By Sunday morning, a small patch of carpet, about 10 square feet, was sopping. As I stepped on it, water sprayed out.  Luckily, the rest of the basement was in tact.  No time to do anything because music ministers at church were waiting for me at 8:30 to prepare the 10 am liturgy.  After mass, time to read the travel insurance policy down to the fine print.  In the meantime, my husband moved the cabinet near the spot to a more secure location.

After mass, we began to vacuum the water.  At the same time, we needed to strategize.  We scrapped the plans to head to the airport on Sunday.  With the flight at eleven am Monday morning, we could afford to wait and leave in the wee hours of the morning if the situation was stable.  We vacuumed the water every fifteen minutes all afternoon and evening.

Trip insurance looked iffy,  Our travel agent confirmed our worst fears.  For a full refund for cancellation based on flooding, we would have to have been evacuated from our home.  A soggy piece of carpet wouldn't cut it.  Significant dollars were at stake. So, we vacuumed and packed and vacuumed and vacuumed and tidied up the house.  It stopped raining for a few hours, and then just sprinkled.  Our brother-in-law agreed to vacuum a few times a day while we were away. We would assess the situation in the middle of the night, and make the final decision then.

By 2:30 am, the situation had improved markedly. We vacuumed one last time--no more squishiness at all.  We decided to risk departure.

As we drove, the rain intensified.  Water was flowing over the highway in four spots in a 100 km stretch, three of them manned by steely, soaked highway workers, rain dripping from the hoods and noses.  In one spot, the attendant directed us to the middle of the highway.  Be sure not to veer toward the right, he cautioned. The shoulder is soft, and it's a twenty foot drop over the side.  Yikes. The stream was now a raging, white-capped river.  We learned a few hours later that the highway, along with many others, was closed.  We made it to the airport only because we drove in the middle of the night.

Friends and townspeople at home are still trying to dry out and repair damage. Our home remains stable. Yet we are not there to lend a hand.  Had the flood hit 24 hours earlier, we could have cancelled no questions asked.  Instead, we are in Britain.  It is what it is.

The trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland spread a pall over yet another sudden reversal of fortune.

"Yvette, would you be part of the music for my funeral?" Daphne asks, about two months after her diagnosis with an advanced brain tumor.  I don't want to talk about funerals. I want to push aside the inevitability of the untimely  passing of this vibrant and dynamic woman.

A looming problem tugs at my heart strings, though.  We have several trips planned to faraway destinations.  Would I be away when Daphne left us?  "You know I will if I am here," I begin as I explain my situation. The Fates did not intervene, either for Daphne or for me.  Her funeral is scheduled for the day of our departure flight for our last trip, this one to Britain.  My heart sinks.  I can think of nothing else for days.  In the end, I would need to be reconciled with the memories of our visits during her illness and our children's youth.

Not only did the Fates not intervene, they seem to have conspired.  Our trip to Britain took us away from home for two watershed events.  We played the hand we were dealt, like so many others in our community, a different hand, but one that nonetheless presented its own particular challenges.

It is what it is.  Despite my dismay.