Above the 66th Parallel

Tags

, , , ,

For months now, Bruce has talked about the Norway leg of our sabbatical, and his desire to go above the arctic circle. He grew up in the Michigan upper peninsula, which receives many feet of snow each winter due to its location on Lake Superior, and thus the lake effect snow, so the lure of the winter climate is deep in his roots. When he was a young man, he used to cross country ski, and as a child, had a beautiful Samoyed dog named Snow.

On my second visit to his home in Houghton one November many years ago now, I remember a snow settling in like no snow I’d ever seen. We’d flown up there on a small prop plane out of Minneapolis, which seated maybe 25 people, and I remember wondering how we’d ever get home. Bruce’s father was alive then, and he stood looking out the window for a bit before proclaiming, “It’s the start of another Copper Country winter.” He and Bruce had a jolly time the next day getting out their industrial strength Gravely snow blower, and blowing away the foot of snow that had fallen. Bruce and I made a snow woman that day, and then roasted a goose for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a wonderful memory.

We were in Norway last year for a conference in Lillehammer, and we toured a good part of southern Norway, but we didn’t make it to the northern part of the country. So this time, it was on Bruce’s “must do” list. I spent a lot of time researching the northern cities, the options on getting there, and things to do. We finally settled on the Lofoten Islands, which are an archipelago extending out into the Atlantic on the northern part of Norway, at about the 68th parallel.

image

Now, when I heard “above the arctic circle”, I was picturing frozen tundra, sled dogs, and eskimos. I can be so naively wide eyed at times. Last year in Bergen, Norway, in the touristed historic section of the harbor, I bought a “Norwegian” raccoon hat, a chic and fashionable piece of apparel similar to what Julie Christie wore in Dr. Zhivago. Ah, the romance! Surely, I thought, I would need such a hat if we were going above the arctic circle. Fortunately, early in my packing extravaganza, I realized there would be no room for the raccoon hat, so it remains neatly wrapped in my closet, and someday will be part of the girls’ inheritance.

As it turns out, it was relatively mild this time of year on the 68th parallel, with daytime temperatures in the upper 50’s to 60’s. I’d put on a wool sweater the morning we were leaving Oslo, with the excitement of a kid heading out on an arctic expedition. Upon arrival at Harstad/Narvik airport, I frantically ripped off my wool sweater, right in the middle of the Hertz parking lot, and slipped on my denim shirt, which was the lightest weight item I’d brought, other than my cotton night shirt. What was I thinking? I’d watched the weather forecasts all week and knew that with menopause, one really only needs a tank top in such temperatures. But that other half of my brain, the romantic half who wanted to be Julie Christie with Omar Sharif, won out.

The Lofoten Islands are stunning. They are known as “the rock wall” due to the massive granite mountains jutting up at beautiful angles out of the earth. Many an eon ago, I told Bruce, I could picture the volcanos and the sputtering and firing and crashing as those mountains were formed. Many an eon ago, he explained, there were dinosaurs, and Norway wasn’t where Norway is now, and there wouldn’t be anyone to witness such events. That’s what I get for marrying a scientist.

image

We spent four lovely days touring these islands, driving north and then south and then north again as the roads wound about the mountains, across the fjords and through dozens of tunnels. We spent our first night in Henningsvaer, which retains its historic charm while continuing as a working cod fishing and production harbor. Throughout all the islands, we saw the giant wooden drying racks, which are used every winter for the hanging and drying of the atlantic cod that is to be exported around the world, often known as bacalao.

image

On our second night, we drove to Reine, Norway, near the southern end of the Lofoten’s. Reine is often referred to as the most beautiful place in all of Norway, and being there, it’s easy to understand why. Reine is another cod fishing village with a set of Rorbuers, which are little cabins historically rented by fishermen who would migrate out to the islands to work the cod fishing season. Today, many of these are restored for tourist rentals. Our cabin, “Artur”, at the Reine Rorbuer was a splendid and cozy space filled with tweed furnishings, well done seafaring art, and a wonderful view of the majestic mountains that completely surround the harbor.

After dinner at the only restaurant open beyond August 31st, we settled in by candlelight with our wine and our tweed blankets to await the sunset, which lasted very late into the evening. I kept believing something was going to happen as there remained a rich colored hue deep on the northern horizon, well past when the sun had set, even when accounting for the waning season of the midnight sun.

Just past midnight, with only the reflection of the candles, I told Bruce I thought I saw something so he stood behind me and suddenly said, “Oh My! The sky is completely lit up!” And just like that, the night was filled with shimmering, waving shafts of green neon light all across the northern sky! Our hearts raced up into our throats and I vividly remember I was shaking as I circled myself trying to find my coat, hat, scarf, camera, gloves, all necessary accoutrements for the bitter wind that had settled in that afternoon. I honestly don’t remember a time when I’ve been that excited by something as I was at that moment when I knew I was seeing the northern lights. Maybe a Christmas morning, long, long ago, as a little child. It was an exhilarating moment I will never forget.

image

We rushed out to the front of our cabin, which faced north, and was in darkness except for the soft lights of the harbor below us. The aurora shimmered and moved from left to right and back, at moments filling the entire sky, and then dipping back down to cast an oval circle above the horizon, only to expand up again with vertical shafts of green lights, like a million hands waving spotlights from below.

It’s funny the quick fire decisions you run through on such an occasion. Our neighbors in the cabin next to us had been drinking since early evening, and their party was peaking right about the time the auroras hit. I’d thought of banging on their door to alert them until we heard them singing country and western of some sort at the top of their lungs, along with what sounded like line dancing. There were at least four of them going at it like some bad karaoke dream, and I thought, No, I’m going to just let them be.

In our euphoria, we decided to run to a darker part of the grounds to mute out even the low lights of the harbor. We chased our tails like bandy roosters running all over the place squawking with excitement, and all the while me stopping every few seconds to try to take a photo with Bruce warning, “Don’t Trip! Don’t Fall!”, a mantra I’ve heard from him many times since the year of my torn ACL!

Finally, we realized that the very best place was right back on our front porch in the darkness above the harbor facing north, and so we rushed back, grabbed our tweed blankets and settled in to watch. The Big Dipper was turned such that the right side of the cup was pointing straight up to the North Star, Polaris, right above us. Every few seconds, the lights would change … “Look! Over there! That direction! Oh! Oh My Gosh! Look to the left!” As if that weren’t enough, suddenly we began to see shooting stars. A lot of them. There was a meteor shower in the middle of this otherworldly, magnificent, heavenly gift.

It was something to see…

image

I finally got my bearings with my camera, and using my elbows as tripods, I held my breath and began to take 4 to 6 second photos. Naturally, the table top tripod I’d hauled over here for just such occasions was back at our apartment in Oslo. But I caught some great pictures. Great for me anyway. I’m a novice with my camera and certainly with astral photography, but I’ll take my later photos, after I’d calmed down enough to think. The early photos, when the lights completely filled the sky were nothing more than green globs, unrecognizable as anything, but that’s ok. I remember what it looked like.

image

I could wax eloquent on our remaining time in the Lofoten Islands. I could try to describe the raw, rugged, and utter beauty of the place. The massive granite mountains covered in moss and fern, a Tolkien landscape of waterfalls and deep fjords, cast a cerulean blue by the low angle of the afternoon sun, with mountain sheep bleating at us around every bend. I could try to explain the moments we had along the way, coddling together picnics beside the water, and Bruce wading his feet at an ocean inlet in the freezing Norwegian Sea. It was all spectacular. But nothing could possibly compete with that magical night of the Aurora Borealis, above the 66th Parallel.

Lorie McMillin, Lofoten Islands, Norway, September, 2013

Resting in Oslo

Tags

, , , ,

I have been goofing off in our apartment in Oslo for three solid days now, while my poor husband boards a two hour train to and from a university in Gjovik, which is halfway between Oslo and Lillehammer. It’s very strange to have the tables turned, since for five years, I had a daily hour plus commute to and from my former job. I’ll confess, it’s awfully sweet to hear that alarm, and know it’s not for me!

image

Now, to be fair to myself, I caught a cold in Paris, which announced itself fully on the morning we were headed for our flight to Oslo. It was an extremely chaotic final packing at dawn, as I handed over my Eau de Parfums, and little escargot pans, which put us within 6 or 7 ounces of having overweight luggage. There was a lot of grumbling between the two of us, and frantic reshuffling to balance the weight, plus hauling out final trash, and staring blankly at the 7 empty wine bottles that still needed to find their way down to recycling. Then there was the tiny mid 19th century elevator, capable of one person and one bag, which meant countless trips to get our stuff downstairs before the taxi showed up.

Next, I had to help haul our 270 pounds of luggage into Charles de Gaulle, where I was yelled at by a zealous French Gendarmerie on the tarmac because I walked the wrong direction. “Hey, Hey, HEY!!”, she yelled. “Follow your path! Follow your path!” I frantically looked for a path amidst the equally confused crowd around me, fearing all the while she would toss me out of the airport, and desperately trying to remember the French word for Help! There was no yellow brick road, nor munchkins singing and handing me flowers. Finally, I look down, and right below my feet was the outline of little feet going in the direction I needed to go. So like Madeline, in two straight lines, we found our path, and made it to the plane.

We had a wonderful time in Paris, but there was very little time to stop and contemplate much, other than my lovely afternoon at the Luxembourg Gardens, where Heather and I sat at the Medici fountain, and watched the ducks and the people milling all about, while Bruce and Hannah went off to the catacombs. It turns out, they had to climb down a tight, wet, stone, spiral staircase 200 feet below ground to find the miles and miles of decoratively stacked human bones. Then they had to climb back out the same way. Honestly, I cannot imagine trading my fountain for that, but they thoroughly enjoyed it!

image

So I’m spending my first days here in Oslo, recuperating. Monday, I couldn’t even get off the couch. Yesterday, I ventured out for a while for provisions and lunch where I accidentally ordered antipasti instead of pasta at a very high priced market. Then I shopped for wine at the Vinmonopolet, which should translate well to anyone who can sound that out. Reminds me of my days in North Carolina, which is a dry state, where alcohol is controlled. But I found some lovely wines and some beautiful halibut, and managed to turn out an Asian inspired shitake mushroom and halibut dish along with a sauté of zucchini and summer squash.

Today, well, I lit some candles, made some tea, and read my book.  I didn’t even put my contacts in, which renders me blind as a bat.  I did manage to get some laundry going, but I am finding that some words in the Norwegian language just don’t translate well!

Shocking, to say the least!

Shocking, to say the least!

We have the most peaceful place here with a large open living space, soft couches, lots of candles. lovely Buddhas, and a very comfy bed. I found this little oasis, about 5 minutes from the Skoyen train station and a tram station, so Bruce can easily catch his morning train for his commute. There’s a street that runs uphill right in front of our apartment, and it’s busy all the time, but not with cars. It’s full of people walking, biking, scootering, and running, Uphill, with virtually no effort. Norway is one of the fittest countries in the world, where people spend a lot of time outdoors, year round, either biking or cross country skiing. With my own three weeks of walking nearly nonstop, I’m feeling a little more alive myself, if you discount the cold, of course!

We head out this coming weekend for a new adventure in the Lofoten Islands, so I’m rejuvenating in preparation! If you look at the country of Norway, above the arctic circle, you’ll see a finger of islands that jut out to the west, forming a wall of mountains. That’s where you’ll find me next, trying to catch a glimpse of the northern lights!

Lorie McMillin, Oslo, Norway, September, 2013

The Pimm’s cup

Tags

, , , , , ,

Work while on sabbatical has been productive; given the time difference, I can get an entire day in before most people in the states have started, leaving me an entire other day to do things here.  I’m not sure why this doesn’t work at home, but I’ll take advantage of it now.   The hardest part has been student meetings which are inherently face to face.

Work aside, we’ve been living more like locals.  Teatime in the afternoon, cheeses, biscuits, lavender cookies, and of course, loose leaf tea, and sometimes wine.  Intermix this with the occasional pub afternoon and you have a picture of a life of leisure in the big city.  Well, a life on sabbatical, anyway.

Pubs in central London, when you get away from the tourists, are business places of sort.  In the financial district, we mingled with the local financial wizards at the New Moon in Leadenhall market (where the Leaky Cauldron of Harry Potter fame is).  Great beer, “Old Speckled Hen”, with the best fish and chips I’d ever seen, along with picking at a “pig platter” of various sausages, deep fried pork belly, and  Scotch Egg ( this is a deep fried hard boiled egg – the Scottish do love their deep fryers).

20130813_155843

Beer is ordered simply, go to the bar, select from 20 different kinds and the transaction goes quite smoothly.  Until, that is, someone decides to order a Pimm’s cup – apparently the national summer drink here.  But a Pimm’s cup in a bar grinds everything to a halt and produces raised eyebrows from the bartender.

Let me explain the Pimms’ cup.  A glass of ice, layered carefully with strawberries, lemons and limes and cucumber artfully arranged with maybe a cherry and some mint leaves.  Pour in Pimm’s (it’s gin-based liquor) and then top with sparkling water.  Time to create?  5 minutes.  In a busy pub, an eternity.

Thursday night we went to the PROM (OK, this is actually a concert series put on by the BBC).  Among other pieces, we heard a fantastic rendition of La Mer, at the Royal Albert Hall.  We took the bus from our apartment, arriving in plenty of time to get seated, but there’s always that temptation to run and get a quick cocktail before the show.  A long line, but moving quickly, until the man in front of me orders, you guessed it, two Pimm’s cups.  Our #3 gin and tonics went quickly; the clock is ticking 2 minutes, 1 minute, dash through the door where Lorie is seated, and the conductor walks on stage.

Royal Albert Hall Panorama

Just around the corner from us is a small faux French Bistro, Foxtrot Oscar, a Gordon Ramsay outpost.  It’s more of a neighborhood joint and we were most certainly the only Americans there.  Foxtrot Oscar are the call signs for the letters FO.  FO?  Hmm, what does that mean?  Oh, putting it together, Gordon Ramsay, FO, == F*** Off.  Sigh.

Celebrity chefs.  Yes, I see that Gordon Ramsay is an identifiable name.  As his mentor, Marco Pierre White was once quoted “if the chef is on TV, who’s cooking your food?”  So I take it as more of a level of standard, than an actual cuisine.  Still, there are definitely Scottish influences in the menu, Loch Duart Salmon with fresh English pea mash.  The peas were really wonderful, I missed out on my English pea fix this year due to laziness in planting the garden; I’ve been indulging here.  Of course, in a relaxed setting I ordered, a Pimm’s cup.  Very pretty, quite sweet, now where’s my martini?

Salmon with English Peas
Salmon with English Peas

Friday night we went to Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant (which is walking distance for us).  It’s really Clare Smythe’s show, a star chef with an excellent staff.  For starters, “would you like some Grand Cru Krug? “ “Why certainly, yes we would.”  A whole flotilla of amuses came out included, scotch quail egg (there’s still some Ramsay left in the menu).  Truly the best foie gras terrine I’ve ever had with perfectly matched wine.   A wonderful roast pigeon dish.   I wonder if they ran them down in Trafalgar square?  Best not to think about it.

The Maitre ’d, a large personality, identified himself as from Dijon, where of course we spill the beans that we’re spending 6 weeks there.  “Ah, you must speak French then” and began to converse entirely in French for the rest of the evening. My mind wasn’t quite ready for this, after all, this is an English restaurant, but we began to muster our language abilities.  Lorie is quick with a response through months of French practice as Aliance Francaise.  For me, it’s like shuffling through a Rolodex to formulate sentences, “clunk clunk clunk”.  I thought about telling him that “monsieur, c’est un restaurant anglais” but that’s the sort of thing that can turn a great restaurant experience into an off restaurant experience.  Instead, “ce poisson cuisine perfect” in a good Midwestern accent came out.  If you put this last phrase into google translate, you’ll see how awful I sound.  But, By the end of the evening he invited us back into the kitchen, as always, the effort in language is appreciated.   It was very elegant for Lorie and me, walking home together from a Michelin star restaurant – really felt like the city.

Saturday night we went to the theater district to see a Noel Coward play set in the 20s.  A romping farce staring Anna Chancellor (she played the vice president in Hitchhikers guide and Duckface in Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Toby Stephens.   That last name didn’t strike home, but when I saw him on stage, I’m thinking “where have I seen him before?”  Turns out he played the villain in a Bond movie.  Who’d have thought?

Theaters in London have a really great practice, you can pre-order your intermission cocktails and they’re waiting for you.  At intermission, Lorie took off for the bar and I took off for the bar, just different bars on different floors.  In keeping with the comedy of the stage performance I ran around with two glasses and a split of champagne looking for her.  We met up after a bit, but it was a really goofy moment.  I did notice that the lines at the bar were quite long; a lot of people waiting for … Pimm’s cups.

Sunday it was Downton Abbey and Stonehenge, but that will wait for another chapter.

Bruce McMillin, Chelsea, London, August 2013

Cheerio!

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Sloan Square in Chelsea

Fountain of Venus, Sloan Square in Chelsea

What a grand first week we’ve had in London! For starters, it’s primarily been partly cloudy to mostly sunny, and we’ve only used our umbrellas twice for brief periods of light rain, which then moved on. The Londoners just duck under trees to wait it out. There’s a lot of green space in this city, so there are plenty of trees under which to keep dry. We heard a bit of a weather forecast in a cab the other night, with dire warnings of scorching heat that could reach 88 degrees fahrenheit this coming week! Recalling triple digit heat indexes all summer last year in Missouri, it’s rather comical! Currently, the weather channel predicts lovely, sunny, mid 70’s weather for the remainder of our stay. We awoke to 59 degrees this morning! Lovely!

Speaking of lovely, I’ve heard that common British phrase repeated several times here. I always think of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, when he says, “That would be lovely.” Hearing grown men comment that something is lovely just lifts the spirits!

Noel Coward's Private Lives

Noel Coward’s Private Lives

We had end row seats for our West End play Saturday night, which by the way, saved my extra tall husband, as his legs easily extended six inches beyond the seat in front of us, and his seat was offset, such that there was nothing in front of him! I found a site that ranks theatre leg room right down to seat numbers, so I get some serious extra points on that one! But I digress.

Before the play, we stood to allow an elderly British couple to move into interior seats, and the gentleman said to me, “Oh, Goodness, thank you so Very much, my dear, how very Kind of you!” I wanted to hug him! After they took their seats, I heard his wife say to him, “I can’t believe we’re here, to actually see a play, in London!” I thought the same thing.

We took a tour of Parliament on Thursday, and were allowed to walk through the House of Lords and the House of Commons. What a thrill! We walked through the queens robing room, and the grand hall, where she promenades once a year to take her place as figurehead for her annual speech to parliament. There were loads of red velvet chairs, and glittering gilded framed portraits of kings and queens of yore, delicate wood carvings and cupids cavorting on the ceilings, and statues of prime ministers, with a bronzed Margaret Thatcher pointing right at me, as though to say, “It’s important that one must DO Something! You cannot expect the government to support you!!” Our tour guide was very knowledgeable as one would expect, and also very enjoyable. “Right-oh, then, let’s move on!”, she repeated as we flowed from room to room.  A lady sat for a brief moment on one of the Lord’s benches, which was a no-no, and our guide quickly said, “Oh, Up my dear, or they’ll likely shoot right over our heads!”

Bruce at Royal Albert Hall, London

Bruce at Royal Albert Hall, London

After the BBC PROM’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday evening, we ambled around Kensington station a bit, and finally settled on a little Italian place. Tables are close together here in these small spaces, so as a couple slid in beside us, the woman, speaking in a grand Scottish accent, laughingly said, “So sorry, darling, my tush just isn’t as small as it used to be!” She reminded me ever so slightly of Adele, with laughing eyes and rosy cheeks. They had also come from the concert, and both were warm, funny and engaging. They were from Scotland, near Loch Ness, but he works here in London, so they keep a small flat here. They have five children, who have all had to leave their homeland and look for work elsewhere as there is no work in Scotland. “I’m a nationalist, you know”, he said, “but one has to look for work”.

We have found ourselves in more conversations with complete strangers here than we ever are at home. My husband is an introvert on the grand Myers Briggs scale, and I’m right at that cusp. But here, we are being pulled out of our shells, time and again, and into conversations with these friendly people, although we do struggle just a bit to understand them. Reminds me of Clark Griswald in European Vacation looking through his phrase book, while Rusty says, “Dad, they’re speaking English!”

Bruce spoke with a woman last night in the train station about Viking River cruises. My husband can move through a crowd with nary a word, but here, he’s striking up jovial conversations on the fly! We had a long discussion with a family at the Battersea Park Foodie Festival on Saturday, about what to do and where to eat. They were keenly interested in all we had done so far, and made a quick list for us of what not to miss. But they also wanted to hear about America, and where we’re from, and what are the prettiest places. Everyone here dreams of going to New York City, which Bruce explained, is not like anywhere else in America. Missouri to them is just something in the middle.

Bruce, Leadenhall Market, London

Bruce, Leadenhall Market, London

The best yet was a cabbie taking us to Leadenhall Market early last week. We asked if he could recommend a pub for lunch. “Well”, he said, in a true Cockney accent, “I’m from the east side, ya know, and we don’t eat so much in those pubs there, but there’s one that’s quite pop’lar called the New Moon Tavern, an’ I ‘ear it’s quite good.” While talking, we rounded a street corner where three women dressed to the nines in tight fitting skirts were walking right in the middle of the street. He trailed them for about 15 seconds until they moved onto the sidewalk. “Well”, he says, “If you’re gonna dress like that, I guess I could go slow and follow ‘er all day, ya know! Not sure what me wife might have to say to that about that, though!”

He was such a comic, he had us cracking up the whole time, and then kindly took the time to drive us right up to where we needed to be, and pointed out the exact pub, to make sure we found the place he wanted us to find. “Cheerio, an’ have a nice day!”, he wished us, as we exited his cab.

Cheerio, indeed!

Lorie McMillin, Chelsea, London, August 2013

A Walk Along the Thames

Tags

, , , ,

I love London. I realize that’s a bold statement to make five days into this adventure, but this is a remarkable, walkable, and lovable city. I say walkable because I can tell I’ve been walking, with a Capital W. This always happens when we venture out of our house and over the pond to Europe. Perhaps I should remove the word we, because Bruce walks every day. But me, well, that’s another story. I don’t know how the U.S. evolved the way it has, where we literally drive everywhere. I walked a lot as a kid, heading uptown, or to Kim’s, or just along the railroad tracks, arms out, balancing like a gymnast on a balance beam. So here I am, out of shape, again, and wanting to see it all. When you’re a quarter to a half mile from the nearest form of public transportation, mostly metros, mind you, with lots and lots of steps, and you are sans vehicle, you are Going to be Walking. It’s a shock to the legs, the feet, the shins, the calves, and even to the spirit. It’s a forced march of sorts, but it feels good.

I had images in my mind of London, naturally, which included the Queen and her entourage and her corgis, with all the palaces and grandeur, Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower Bridge, etc., etc. Mixed into that though was something from my childhood imagination and the 60’s. Something with the Beatles and mod and grunge, and perhaps a craziness that I would need to brace myself for. Certainly, these things exist in this huge city, and I may very well encounter some of it in the next several days, but to me, this city has been warm and inviting, and, well, very British. I was more shocked on my first visit to Edinburgh, Scotland, than I am here. Scotland’s mythical spirit is everywhere, in every castle, on every street, including the Royal Mile. Kids in goth with piercings and witches garb, and a bit of darkness that I’ve not seen elsewhere with the exception of New Orleans. Don’t get me wrong, I love Scotland, probably more than anywhere I’ve been, but there’s an energy there that grabs you and doesn’t let go.

We’ve landed in a garden apartment in Chelsea, a city borough which was at various times a haven to artists, musicians, poets, and writers. King Street saw the birth of mini skirts, go-go boots, and all things mod. Now, Chelsea is gentrified and monied. We’ve taken evening walks along the Thames, and Cheyne street, which, according to Wikipedia, that bastion of modern knowledge, was home to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and most glorious of all, to Ralph Vaughan Williams, where he composed The Lark Ascending. When I die, there’s no need for speeches, rosaries, epithets or fanfare. Simply play The Lark Ascending, in its entirety, and then toss some rose petals about the place and be done with it.

Chelsea Sycamore

This is a great little apartment, which has green space, including a giant sycamore tree that looms above our little conservatory and enclosed garden patio. The wind whips up from the river, and keeps the branches and leaves in constant motion. It’s a thing of beauty.

The owners of this apartment have artwork throughout, and have recently re-decorated in Chinese decor. When I booked, there was more of an English feel to the furnishings, but we are accepting of our red lacquer boxes, and Chinese warriors. There is one painting in particular that we have studied and studied. It’s evolved from a man painting a woman, to three women, one being a nun with giant black wings, involved in some sort of checkers game. That’s our latest iteration, but who knows because this painting changes every single day.

Elizabeth von Arnim wrote, “The mind slips sideways in a place like this.” I can see how that’s possible, as I write this, with a little rain on my window, and a little wind in my sycamore.

Lorie McMillin, Chelsea, London, August 2013

Packing for 3 Months

Tags

,

Having just returned from 12 days in Asia with just a roll-a-board, it seemed that packing for the sabbatical would be easy. Just add a few more things. But, wait, I probably need a few more shirts and a couple more pair of pants. But what if I eat too much – Alka Seltzer would be nice to reach for in the middle of the night. And bandaids – might cut myself, cold medicine, Tums… aw heck, how about a complete duplicate of our entire medicine chest? Yes, I know they have variants of all these, there, but …

Then there’s also the notion of packing for 3 seasons, summer, fall, and winter, sometimes all in the same week. Fine dining, picnicking, bistros, professional talks all require different clothes. Different shoes (well that’s Lorie), tripods, extra parts for electronics, flavored coffee creamer (it’s darn hard to find in Europe, they probably think we’re weird or something), a truffle shaver and an oyster knife (essentials!) all go in. And of course, the cat wants to help.

20130803_094340[1]

Let’s see then, the luggage scale Heather and Hannah got us is extremely useful; United allows 70# luggage for free, Air France, 70# with baggage fees, SAS, nothing over 50# (darn Scandinavians), And then there’s rolling two 70# bags, two 40# roll-a-boards, and two backpacks up and down train platforms. Needless to say, some things are staying behind. But not the truffle shaver!

More from the road on the luggage adventure, particularly after visiting Dehillerin in Paris for copper cookware.

Bruce McMillin, Rolla MO, Août 2013 – 7 days to go

Learning to Gargle

Tags

, ,

Bruce and I have been trying to learn French for over three years now.  We started with Rosetta Stone several months before our trip to Paris in December of 2010, having been worried that we’d not be able to communicate with the natives, and would be relegated to the dreaded status of “those awful Americans.”

Wanting to save face, we invested heavily in software, and spent many a Saturday morning learning the simplest of phrases such as “Le garçon mange le sandwich” or “Elle nage”.  I couldn’t imagine a scenario in the winter where I would need to say, “She swims”, but you have to start somewhere.

As it turns out, French people were extremely accommodating, as are all Europeans.  Parlez-vous Anglais?  Yes, a little.  Could you tell us how to find the restaurant?  Well, you just head down the street and make a right, and it’s around the corner.  That’s a little?  To me, a little means, “See Dick run”.  In Europe, a little means completely conversational, unless you want to talk differential equations or something of that nature.

One of my co-workers, who’d had years of French in college, but had never set foot on French soil, warned me.  NEVER ask for the toilettes.  They’ll think you want to take a bath.  Always ask for the water closet or WC.  I was pretty sure they would know I would not want to take a bath in a restaurant, but not wanting to risk looking like a fool, I asked a waiter, Où est double vé cé?  He looked at me quizzically, and said, you mean the toilettes?  They’re down the hall on your left.

The only problem I had the entire time was at an information booth in the metro, of all places.  It was New Year’s Eve afternoon, and Bruce had gone back to the apartment to rest before our big evening out, but I simply HAD to fit in a trip to Galleries Lafayette, the grande dame of department stores, to see it all decked out in holiday decor.  Had I followed Rick Steve’s advice, I probably would have been fine.  Always be polite, and greet someone in their native language, using madam or mademoiselle, with all the finesse one can muster.  But I was hurrying to try to find the metro exit for the Garnier opera house, so I ran to the window and acted like a dreaded American.

Hi, do you speak English?  NO, she shouted, and dismissed me as though I had cholera, or worse.  And just like that, from the depths of my mind, I was able to sputter, “Où est sortie Palais Garnier”?  Out came some French, albeit slightly incorrect, and missing an article or two, but why split hairs!  It was a little, and it was a start!  “À droite!”, she spat, and flung her hand in the air, pointing to the right.  I suppose I deserved it.

Image

When we got back home, and back to our normal lives, I dropped Rosetta Stone cold turkey.  Use or lose it, and I mostly lost it.  My husband, being the academic he is, soldiered on much further.  So as we began to plan for seven weeks in France for sabbatical, we picked up the software again, but I felt I needed something more immersive.  I needed serious help.  I began searching for evening French classes in St. Louis, and happened upon Alliance Français, in Clayton.  Who knew?  The French have set up offices around the world, as an outreach for French language and culture.  So I signed up for a beginner’s class every Tuesday night for 2 hours.

My first instructor was Isabelle, who is from the south of France.  She’s a petite woman with long, long coal black hair well beyond her waist.  She wore sophisticated clothes and scarves as one would expect of a French woman, and was one of the funniest instructors I’ve ever had.  A force of nature!  She loved to tell little stories, one of her favorite being how she always messes up on smidgen.  She thinks it should be smidget, to match midget.  That would make more sense, n’est-ce pas??  And her lessons on dining etiquette … Never put your hands under the table on your lap, or they’ll think you’re doing something you shouldn’t be!  Hands above the table at all times, but elbows off the table, and never touch a piece of food with your fingers, unless it’s bread.  It’s ok to use your bread as a utensil, and mop up every kind of French sauce imaginable, but you cannot, at any time, allow your fingers to touch your food!

French pronunciation is a killer to try to learn.  English is spoken in the front of the mouth, and French is either in the back of the throat or up through the nose.  You have to gargle your r’s, she would say!  Go home to your shower, or in your car, and open your mouth, as though you’re going to gargle, and let the r form in the BACK of your throat.  It’s like the “ch” in Loch Ness, only you’re somehow pushing air and maybe some spit through to form a hissing H sound, sort of like Harry Potter speaking parseltongue.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly gagged trying to roll this gargling sound out of the back of my throat, like I’m working out a hairball.  When all else fails, Isabelle said, just use your best Inspector Clouseau accent, and say the word in English!

When the six week class broke, we moved on to Emmanuelle, who is from the mountains near the Swiss border.  She would only speak French in class, which left me staring blankly into space, like watching Amelie without subtitles.  T’accord?  Not really.  She spent a full 5 minutes trying to get me to pronounce music correctly.  Moosic, I would say.  No, myewsic.  Mhoosic?  No, m-yew-seek.  Ah! Musique!  Tres Bien!!

With two weeks left until we leave, my classes have ended, and I’m working my way through the excellent Coffee Break French podcast, and rolling those rrrr’s out of the back of my throat like someone who chews and spits tobacco for a living.  And I’m really working on the subtle difference between the sound of poo versus puh, because “poo”, it turns out, is universal, so get it right!  Puis-je acheter des pommes?

My French has certainly improved, and I can probably get by, just a little, provided the listener has a lot of patience.  But I know they will simply switch to English, because it will be easier on them, and me!  Merci beaucoup!

Lorie McMillin, Rolla MO, Juillet 2013

Leaving

As I begin to pack up my lovely little office, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. I found myself this week taking panoramic photos. I was standing there with the door closed because I looked so silly, using my newly discovered iPhone camera feature to slowly pan the room, trying to capture it all. I have four lamps in my office, which creates a “boudoir” setting as my manager, Kim, likes to call it. I hate those buzzing overhead lights, so I created a soft vignette for my work life. It’s a bit surreal when juxtaposed to what my colleagues and I do every day, which is to keep the lights on, so to speak, in the world of IT.

At times, I’ve felt like Lucy van Pelt in that office – the Doctor is Real In. Only my generation would even get that reference! My work colleagues have been in those chairs many times pouring out their hearts while I sit on the other side of my desk and listen, or vice versa. The setting is more like a therapist office than an IT Director. How did I wind up in IT for 23 years? A progression I guess. A career is simply a journey. I didn’t even major in “Information Technology” or “Computer Science”. I majored in Finance, but I was always drawn to the technology side of everything I did, and so it evolved. The accidental programmer! But I’ve had a lot of fun and accomplishment in this crazy, mixed-up world called IT. I want to write a book about it, a Greek comedy of course, and tragically funny.

At home, things have been more chaotic as we prepare to leave, mostly of my own doing. My mania on leaving our cat, Nigel, for four months has had me fraught with anxiety. Every day, I look at him and I think, how do I convey to you that it’s only for a little while? We’re not abandoning you. I know you will think you’ve been abandoned, but we’ll be back. Have faith!

Image

Nigel is 14 and he’s only ever known this house, and us. He’s pampered and very much loved. Friends have coached me of course. Cats don’t understand time; it won’t seem that long to him; he doesn’t have the emotions you have; he’ll be fine. I know they’re right, but it’s still very hard to leave him. I’m so grateful that Sarah has agreed to stay with him, and I know that my darling friends, Cheryl and Cindy, will be there to help her along the way, as will our girls, who each have their own furry felines, but will stop by to visit their little brother.

My other great love, my Siamese cat named India, lived until she was 16 years old, moving with me all over the place. She was with me for my first big leaving, when I left my home in Missouri for my great adventure in North Carolina.  She traveled from Missouri to North Carolina and back, and lived in countless apartments along the way, with a multitude of roommates, and even other cats.

I moved there after college with my friend Sharon, whom I met as a waitress at Haden House. Within three weeks of arriving in Durham, she met a handsome marine, who was to become the love of her life, and her husband. That left me a bit stranded in a foreign place, so I had to reach out and make friends. Some of the greatest friends in my life are from that era. Rose Anne and I are twin daughters of different mothers, so in sync and so full of symmetry are we. Ginger is the salt of the earth, her name very fitting to her personality, a lovely, warm spice of a woman. Lisa Lou, with whom I bonded over a Series 7 exam, white water rafting, and countless conversations!

As I’m preparing to leave my work friends, I know how much I will miss them. I’m surrounded by Kim’s on both sides of my office, and I adore them, which is funny because the very best friend of my life, from my childhood, is a Kim. But I also know I will carry their friendship with me as I move forward on my next journey.

So, as I madly clean out closets and organize my house before leaving, I am profoundly grateful to ALL of the women, friends and sisters, in my life’s journey, who have been such a great source of friendship, comfort, and laughter that has split my sides. How lucky I’ve been!

Lorie McMillin, Rolla MO, July 2013

To write the perfect sentence

This will be my second sabbatical at S&T in 25 years. The first was in NY back in the 90s and I stayed at one place. Now, it’s time to travel and meet people, get different perspectives on research, particularly in security of cyber-physical systems, make contacts, initiate joint work, and coalesce this into the written word. The Hemingwayesque theme reflects this and I hope to be inspired by writing in cafes, in our house in Burgundy, working in Gjovik, and working in Auckland. My darling wife, Lorie and I will be traveling together for the next 4 months. I expect she will blog about churches, fiords, perfume, and many other things. I may blog about work, but, for those of you that know me, comments about wine and food are not unexpected.

But, for now, off to Japan and Taiwan for the IEEE 2014 COMPSAC conference. I seem to have landed the position of Steering Committee chair for this long-running major IEEE forum. I look forward to working with a talented group of people. I have some pretty big shoes to fill in this role, following in the footsteps of Stephen Yau and Carl Chang.

Signing off as Mark Twain did..

Bruce McMillin, Rolla MO, July 2013

Begin at the Beginning!

Bruce and I are going on Sabbatical!!  He’s taking one semester off from his normal teaching at Missouri S&T to work on his research with faculty around the world, and I’ve quit working (well, at least for now).  My last day of work will be August 2nd, and then I’m a Free Bird for the rest of the year!

For the first time since I was 17 years old, I will be free for a while, to just stop and breathe and smell the roses.  The last time I had this much time off, Kim, Jackie and I were cruising Martinsburg and listening to Free Bird, among other things!  I’m not sure if I’ll know what to do with myself, but I’m very excited and willing to find out.

We’re going to Europe for three months, and then we head to New Zealand for a month … and yes, our house WILL be occupied full-time!

Many friends have congratulated us heartily, and their chorus echoes a common theme, “I hope you know how lucky you are”.  We do.  We really do understand that this is the trip of a lifetime, and how very fortunate we are.  We’ve both worked hard for a really long time to get here, and we’re so grateful for this opportunity.

So our odyssey begins on August 10th when we board a flight for London!  Just in time to greet a new little prince or princess!

Lorie McMillin, Rolla MO, July 2013