Platform 9 3/4 . . . or, Ways My Family Travels Diagon-Alley

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At Kings Cross Station, London, Platform 9 3/4, driving a baggage cart through the brick wall like true Harry Potter fans. 2007 maybe?

We try to be normal.  We really do.  But every straight line we draw canters just a little to the side–and so, in travel (as in everything else), our lives run a little diagonally.

This truth was on full display a few years ago in Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg:

The thing for Americans to do here, besides wander and take in the beauty, is to stage photos that resemble scenes from The Sound of Music.  (The song, Do Re Mi was partly filmed here.)  Ideally, these photos look a little like this:

do re mi

This is the top gate at Mirabell.    (Notice the fortress, Hohensalzburg, on the hill in the background–it’s really a fantastic shot of the gardens and the city behind.)  We spent some time here.  We took some photos here.  But none looked like this.

What did they look like?  Well, look to your right.  DSC_0125   This is my son, sleeping (while being serenaded by an accordion player) on those same steps at the Mirabell Gardens.  Why is he sleeping, you ask?  He’s tired from sightseeing, but especially from running through the gardens.  Singing Do-Re-Mi?  Oh no.  No.  This child was reinacting some “American Ninja in Salzburg” screenplay known only to him.  My favorite scene from that movie, below.  (Clearly the people around him are a little surprised and amused by the sight.)

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I’ve been thinking about our quirky travels this past weekend while in Chicago with my daughter.  In another year, she’ll be heading off to college.  And my son, the masked ninja, begins high school in August.  They’ve grown up fast, and our travel adventures with them are changing.  I already miss the visits to “knight schools” and castles, the nativity plays we attended with dishtowels  on their heads, and their absolute inability to stand still for photos.

 

Still, I imagine our “diagonal” travels will continue into the future.  After all, they started before our children were born.  In Turkey, we were just two people with little dog garnering stares as we drove by in an old Volvo wagon.  On it’s own, that doesn’t sound so strange, but we stuck out like a sore thumb.  In Turkey, it wasn’t unusual to count 7 people on a motorcycle and sidecar.  So when we made our way through the streets– streets that might find two lanes stuffed with five “lanes,” including cars, giant trucks, mopeds, buses, and donkeys– our long wagon, carrying only two people and a tiny dog, was the thing outside of the norm.  Why waste such a long vehicle on so few travelers?  Why bother with a dog too small to herd sheep?  And why crawl slowly through the melee of a Turkish traffic jam instead of throwing yourself into the mix full throttle while laying on the horn?  Clearly, we were the nuts who didn’t understand the rules of the game.

When you travel, people always tell you to try to fit in– obey the customs, don’t be too awkward or too obvious.  It’s safer and more respectful to conform to the norm as best you can.

They tell us to try to fit in, but who does that, honestly?

Sometimes you just have to embrace the diagonal.  What else can you do?

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In Germany, 2008.

 

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Bronte Parsonage, Haworth

Haworth, West Yorkshire

Bronte Parsonage and cemetery

Tonight, I’ll be tuning in for To Walk Invisible — the  BBC drama about the Bronte sisters that is featuring on PBS Masterpiece.  If your passing knowledge of the Bronte sisters is simply that they were successful writers, then you’ve missed a huge swath of their story– the entire furtive, formative swath.  The part that was hard, ugly, and, literally, doomed . . . but literarily resilient.  But then, could you have expected anything else from a family that lived on the atmospheric Yorkshire Moors and created such stories as Wuthering Heights and  Jane Eyre?

I think you could not.

It might be smart for me to watch tonight’s show and then write this post about the Brontes– both to refresh my memory about their story and to comment on the show itself.  But I’m at the computer now, and so I write.  Also– before the show has the opportunity to retouch my memory of a trip to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth– I’d like to tell you what I remember about my trip there, because it had quite an impact on me.

Confession:  I was never a big Bronte fan.  My sister was the impetus behind our trip to the Bronte’s home.  I didn’t dislike the Brontes, I just hadn’t spent much time with them.  I probably thought their brand of gothic fiction was more outdated than classic.  I was wrong.

But I didn’t see that until I visited their home and learned more about their lives. The conventions of gothic had nothing on the actual lives of the Bronte sisters.  Dark, atmospheric tales weren’t just a hook for catching a reader, they were faithful incarnations of the harsh realities of life in Haworth (and at the Bronte home).

Their mother and two sisters died young.  Their brother died in young adulthood– of illness and addiction.   Emily died four months after her brother; Anne died the next year; Charlotte died six years later (but still only 38 years old).  Their father outlived them all, by many decades.

He was quite the exception for the village of Haworth.  In the 1800’s, the village was a gloomy place and the average life expectancy was less than 30 years old.  There was no real sewage system in Haworth.  Sewage often ran in the streets and tainted the water supply.  What water there was to start with– which wasn’t much and was of bad quality.  Finally– just to add some grim to the grime– the overcrowded city cemetery, which grew more overcrowded each year and had very bad drainage, sat (still sits) at the top of the city hill, further poisoning the town.  That is a recipe for death by death.

One more thing–possibly important if you are a Bronte– the village cemetery sits in front of the parsonage.  Death on your doorstep: a fine thing to wake up to each morning.

So, if you were a Bronte sister, you grew up in a village where infant mortality was sky high and people of every age had a tough go of it.  You lived at the edge of the wild and harsh Moors, quite a distance from any large, urban centers.  Your prospects in Haworth were not so very good, your childhood playground was a cemetery, the wind howled, your preacher father married and buried a revolving door of friends and neighbors, and nothing in life was easy, not even a kettle of water for your tea.

No wonder your brother became an addict; no wonder your relatives passed young.  No wonder your imagination turned to a rich inner world to pass your days . . . but a world of disquieting stories.

I’m sure tonight’s program will teach me a good many things about the Bronte family that I did not know.   I am eager to learn.  My first visit to Haworth was around 2006– so my memory is a little fuzzy on details, but not on the overall impression.  I’d already been living in Yorkshire for a year, and loved the environs, so it’s not surprising that what struck me most about the Bronte home was the town, the general environs in which this family lived.  It was the perfect setting for a gothic tale.

It was a grey, atmospheric day the first time I visited Haworth.  The town was picturesque and compact.  I remember winding up the cobbled street, passing a sweet shop, a tea room, a pub.  Passing tourists. Seeing the tidy parsonage, and its dreary graveyard, at the top of the hill.  All perfectly picturesque– especially as you stand at the crest of the hill and look down at the winding street of town, the stone shops and home fronts, and the rolling hills around it.

If you want to see a bit of what my eyes saw, here’s a short YouTube video that will give you a quick glance at Haworth and a view from the top of the town.  ( Be warned–the narrator does drone on at the end of the video, “blah blah, polar bears, blah blah”– just ignore that bit. He also says “Withering” Heights, repeatedly– hard to ignore, but try.)

BUT– for all of the beauty, as the grey clouds swarmed the day of my first visit and the air ran chill, I gathered up all I had learned about life in Haworth in the 1800’s, and what I remembered of some of the haunting elements of the Bronte sisters’ tales, and I saw the town differently.  I saw the graveyard at the pinnacle of the town, I saw the run off and sewage coursing through the streets below, I saw Branwell (the addled addict of a brother) watching death wash over the streets from the dark pub window.  The town itself seemed a little Jekyll and Hyde to me.

Haworth seems like a tale well told, but hard-lived.  An amazing place to visit, for certain.

I’ll leave you with two things, below.  The first, a portrait that I saw in the parsonage– rather famous– which Branwell painted of the three sisters who survived him.  I love (and loathe) it for the fact that Branwell had originally painted himself into the portrait, but (for what reason?) decided to erase himself out of it.  It is no subtle erasure.  What he leaves is worse than a gapping hole in the middle of the painting: it’s a spectral ghost of himself that (for me, at least) becomes almost more of a focal point than the remaining likenesses of his sisters!  I suspect that this will in some ways ring true with the Bronte family story I watch tonight.  The ghost of Branwell, the presence of death and despair in Haworth, is largely the energy that created the Bronte stories.

The second nugget I leave for you is a YouTube video that acts as a teaser for the production To Walk Invisible.  Enjoy!

 

Twilight at the Tower Bridge

London

Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016
Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016

About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.

Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End.  The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary.  (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me.  And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little.  Seriously.  I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think?  Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me.  I’m lots cooler than that.  Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)

Moving on. . .

Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London.  Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic.  Good plan.  But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill.  One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views.  The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.

It fit the bill well.  The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky.  The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).

We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.

The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning.    I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London.  So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.

First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse.  But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.

The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present.  (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge.  So many.)  There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes  Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows.  And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens.  The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others.  Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall.  This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper.  (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)

If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark.  Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty  Charles Dickens.  Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.

But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into.  Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart.  We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.

If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.

C’est la vie.  Or, as my London friends might say:  th9sb27hg3

 

 

The Return of Light: Candlemas

Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, N. Yorkshire

Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter
Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter

The winter-blooming snowdrops may be pushing up from the cold ground in England about now, and we are at the halfway point between the shortest day of the year and the March equinox.  Light is returning to the world, and slowly but surely we turn toward spring.

And the religious calendar turns also.  There are few places in the world where Candlemas is still celebrated on February 2nd– Americans are far likelier to think of today as Groundhog Day (same principle, though)– but the Ripon Cathedral is one of those glorious places where the holiday is remembered.  The cathedral is lit with thousands of candles, and candles only,  and a  processional service takes place in the evening.

Our first visit to a Candlemas service took place in 2005 or 2006.  Our children were very young, and we took them in their pajamas (it was a cold mid-winter’s night, they were young, we saw no need to stand on ceremony).  Our friend, a canon at the cathedral, had called us at the last minute and said, “You really ought to see this, it’s beautiful and will be a new experience for you.”  We’d imagined that we’d just pop our heads in, satisfy a curiosity, and leave quickly to get the children into bed.

But, like Homer’s lotus eaters, we stepped into the space and it was such a fantastic and pleasurable experience that we forgot to leave!  We stayed for the procession, we moved dreamily through the ancient, light-filled space and, although I’d like to tell you just how it felt and how it lifted our spirits, my words fall short.  To be in that ancient space, with the thousands of candles at once warming, lighting, and dancing along the walls  (seeming, in their dancing flames, to sing and process along with the parishioners), to move through that space with a sea of people (young and old, high and low, well-dressed and pajama-ed)– this was so moving and uplifting.

This morning, I’m starting my day off in sunny Florida.  It is no bleak mid-winter day outside.  The light never really left us this winter–certainly not by northern or European measures.  But the need for a turning and a renewal is as strong as ever.

Tonight, I will put on my cozy pajamas, I will light some candles at home, and I will drift off to Ripon Cathedral, lotus-eater like.  I will process through the nave and side aisle, pause by niches, hold my young children tight, marvel at the warmth and the glow and the sea of my fellow revelers.  I’ll be there.  Not even the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean could keep me away.

 

 

Send ‘Em to Whitby! (Happy Halloween)

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Whitby, England. Beautiful . . . and a little spooky. (old postcard)

If you’re yearning for an atmospheric English town with cobbled and winding streets, hugging the seaside in crannies and cliffs, and teaming with a sense of menace as the sun goes down, then you’re due a trip to Whitby.

Can you find Scarborough? (red dot)
Can you find Scarborough?

Whitby lies in the northern corner of North Yorkshire, a close neighbor to Scarborough, and is a popular seaside retreat.  But it’s not all sea spray and fish and chips here.  It’s not all Victorian boardwalks, either.  No,  Whitby’s greatest claim to fame may be as part of the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (And you thought you were safe this Halloween if you just steered clear of Transylvania.  Wrong!)

In the gothic tale, Dracula is aboard the ship The Demeter and is shipwrecked on the Yorkshire shore.   He then storms Whitby in the form of a dark dog, runs up the hill to St. Mary’s Church and the Abbey and graveyard above the city,  and soon terrorizes his victims as the vampire that he is.

Looking out to the mouth of the harbor, thinking of Dracula's shipwreck.
Looking out to the mouth of the harbor, thinking of Dracula’s shipwreck.

In fact, Bram Stoker did visit Whitby, and it seems to be where much of his story took root in local history and scenery.  The Demeter  shipwreck was based on a true incident — the shipwreck of The Demetrius, a ship full of coffins being transported for burial . . . a grim cargo that proceeded to wash ashore on the town’s beaches for days after the accident.

The city of Whitby is lovely and would certainly survive as a traveler’s destination without the legend of Dracula, but she has been forever tied to the story now.  And the city is all too happy to play up its link to the blood-thirsty Count.  There are plenty of Dracula tours, books, and plaques to remind visitors of the city’s link to the gruesome story.  It’s all in fun.

Unless, of course, you are excessively squeamish . . . or  roughly four years old.

My children were taking this all in, and William, very young at the time, was growing a little skittish about Whitby.  He constantly looked over his shoulder, he stayed close by our sides (unusual for the  turbo-charged kid who usually ran yards ahead of us), and by the end of the day he was loudly and frequently proclaiming his dislike of Whitby.

My son never mentioned Dracula in his complaints; still, he was very clear about his feelings: he would never go back to Whitby.  Never.  Ever.  It wasn’t his kind of town at all.

So we never did go back to Whitby.   But we came close.

A few months after our visit to the sinister town, we had an unwanted visitor in our house.  A small, furry, unwanted visitor.  A mouse was stalking my son’s bedroom and, it seemed, spending time under his bed while William was asleep.  While this didn’t make me any too happy, it really upset Will.  We wanted to catch this rodent and catch him fast.  However, I have a soft spot for animals and was hoping that a catch and release plan would be possible.

My son and I walked to the local hardware store one morning to discuss humane mousetraps and my desire to re-house this mouse.  The owner looked at me like I was a truly daft American.  He produced a humane trap from his backroom, but shook his head at my plan.  “It won’t work,” he said.  “You won’t get rid of that mouse,” he continued, “unless you take it many  miles away, it will just come back to its home.”  (Its home, of course, being my  home.)

I imagine this man was overstating just how far a little mouse’s legs could carry him, but before I could question the store owner  my tiny son shouted out, “Let’s take him to Whitby!  We’ll take him to Whitby!”  (I should note that Whitby was an hour and a half from our home.)

The store owner looked at my son, then returned his gaze to me– registering that we Americans were even more daft than he had originally suspected.  I was in no mood to fight his assessment:  I took the trap, told my son that was a great idea, and quickly left the shop.*

For years after, whenever someone at our house was badly behaved, they were told that they’d better straighten up  or we’d take them to Whitby.   A terrible fate indeed– a place only fit for the  worst and most wicked.

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Photo of erosion, from the Daily Mail

Although not really–it’s a very nice town.  Except that. . . well, it almost does seem that something is a little off about Whitby.  The cliffs over Whitby began crumbing just three years ago:  a potential disaster for the church.  If they can’t stop the erosion, St. Mary’s could soon tumble into the sea.  Locals are watching the situation with concern, and more than a little dread and disgust:  the homeowners below the eroding cliff report that skulls and bones  are falling from the sky into their backyards.  The crumbling cliff is the church’s graveyard!  This is like the wreck of The Demetrius all over again.  It doesn’t bode well, my friends. . . it doesn’t bode well.

So a word to the wise:  if you are naughty enough to get sent to Whitby any time soon, make sure to pack your garlic necklace.    Happy Halloween!

*   *   *  *

A few more photos from Whitby:

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Near the top of the 199 steps up to Whitby Abbey.

 

Above the harbor at Whitby, high up on the cliffs, sits Whitby Abbey– or the ruins of it, anyway.  It was to the abbey and graveyard that Dracula ran, up 199 stairs that are still there today.

If you make it up the stairs (not such a bad climb), you have a great view of the city and the harbor below.

 

 

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If I were designing this postcard, it would have a little grey mouse at its center!

 

 

*Our little mouse never did make it to Whitby.  He met a different, but sad, end that  I’d rather not discuss.