Sunday, January 26, 2014

An Austrian Christmas

I read a memoir last spring about an American family who decided spontaneously to move to Italy for a year. They gave up their affluent jobs in California living off of what they made selling their home in the States. They travelled extensively with their two children - making their way across the European continent. I was especially captivated by her entry on the train trip they made to Innsbruck, Austria at Christmastime; it sounded so magical and stayed with me.

Because I'd visited Seattle in the autumn, we knew that we would not be able to make the long trip again in December. I've never been away from my mom at Christmas which was strange, but a thought popped into my mind, why not go on our own little adventure and celebrate Christmas somewhere we had never been before, just the two of us? My mind flicked back to that book I'd read. I had received another book for my birthday published by Lonely Planet, The Cities Book, which counts down their top selections of the most interesting and beautiful locations to visit in the world. Low and behold, the city of Innsbruck made the list. We hatched a plan. Christmas in Innsbruck, followed by a day or two in Salzburg and finish off in Munich for the New Year!

We made our journey by car and stopped the first night at one of the most famous Christmas markets in Nuremberg, Germany. It's the the largest I've ever seen with hundreds of stalls woven around the main square beneath the picturesque cathedral. The city was ablaze by thousands of twinkling lights. We sipped gluhwein, perused the many shops and listened to Christmas carols being played on the traditional French horn (We didn't sleep well as it was the beginning of the trip and a very hard mattress!)

The next morning it was off to Innsbruck, a 3 hour drive from Germany. To our disappointment there was no snow on the ground, but a beautiful dusting covered the mountains which seemed to stretch out like white-capped arms around the valley of the city below. I didn't realize that Austria is Catholic country; there are church spires in every direction. When we settled into our cozy little apartment and began cooking dinner the bells of Innsbruck began to ring out - ushering in Christ's birth. We attended Christmas Mass on the 25th and the main celebrant was the Bishop. We went early and got a seat (unlike most who had to stand during the entire celebration). I knew that the Austrians were famous for music but nothing could prepare me for the heavenly sounds of a full choir and orchestra. Ryan turned to me and said, I feel like we're at a concert! A moment I shall not forget.

I have never been on skis in my life but really wanted to try cross country skiing. Far out of my comfort zone, we bought some light waterproof clothing and drove up the mountains to Seefeld. This small touristy town had just had a snowfall the night before which created ideal conditions. Although I fell a few times, I started to get the hang of it and really loved the experience and the views were spectacular! We will definitely be out on the slopes again this winter.

We ended our time in Austria in the city of Salzburg, home of Mozart and apple strudel. We ate traditional schnitzel and potato salad and sampled the most famous of dishes, strudel with vanilla sauce. I am not usually a fan of sweets, but had a few bites of what I believe to be one of the greatest of desserts. We walked around the city, visited the shops and toured Mozart's childhood home which houses his original violin and piano. He was a musical genius and promptly upon returning home I began listening again to his works.

It was Christmas 1818 when the most famous Christmas carol, Silent Night, was composed by Josef Mohr a top a hillside overlooking a snowy Austrian town. I am so thankful we chose such a lovely country to visit at this time of year. Oh the wonders of what is hidden inside a book!

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Christmas market
Downtown Innsbruck

Mountain vista

Christmas morning!
Cross country skiing!

The infamous home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Rather Blustery Day

It's autumn again and with it comes gale force winds today! It reminded me of Winnie the Pooh, of all things. In A.A. Milne's tales, Pooh decides to go out for a stroll in the woods on a very windy day where he finds his friend, Piglet, tangled in his scarf appearing "like a kite" and discovering that other neighbours, such as Eeyore, Rabbit and Owl, have lost their homes completely. I actually owned the Disney record where the song 'A Rather Blustery Day' appears. The lyrics go something like this:

Oh the wind is lashing lustily
And the trees are thrashing thrustily
And the leaves are rustling gustily
So it's rather safe to say
That is seems that may turn out to be
It feels that it will undoubtedly
It looks like a rather blustery day

Well, this picture completes the scene here; high winds, thunderstorms (lightening and thunder!) and heavy rain thrashing against the windowpanes. I am thankful for a warm and inviting roof over my head allowing me to curl up on the couch with a hot cup of tea and a good book. We've resigned ourselves to let Mother Nature do what it is she intends to do on this bleak evening. My thoughts are with my colleagues and those having a hard time getting home - with tree limbs blocking train and tram tracks causing major commuting delays!

Biking part two will have to reconvene later due to unforeseen weather conditions. I really love biking (especially with my new Dutch bike which I promise to post about later), but riding in these conditions is just not conducive for an amateur like me...So back to the tram I go, with much resignation. I have come to feel strongly about this easy way of transport and the ease of life that it provides. It's a fast and very effective way of getting to point B!

But, indeed, all is not lost. Pooh, Piglet and his dear friends never do let things dash their spirits. They all find shelter in Christopher Robin's home and celebrate their safety. And just like one of my greatest literary heroes, one most always hold onto an optimistic and cheery attitude when the winds whip and the world comes a bit undone. Although Pooh was on his way to a thoughtful spot alone, he was taken to a different place where he was asked to contribute and participate in the community in which he lived. We, too, must latch onto something greater. A very blustery day it has been!

Keep safe & appreciate all those you hold close!


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Postcards from Champagne

Although it was way back at the beginning of April (how can it already be September?), I wanted to share some postcards of our long weekend getaway to the Champagne region in France. We went with some good friends for a long weekend in the countryside infamous for, of course, it's amazing bubbly.

We wound our way by car through small French villages worn by time and dotted amongst miles and miles of vineyards to the cozy old farmhouse we had rented. Definitely out in the middle of nowhere but a quick drive to Epernay, where there are more champagneries it seemed than people. We found ourselves literally knocking on doors hoping that someone would answer and let us in for a tasting. Someone was smiling on us as we had pretty good luck, but learned that for even better success it's good to make a few reservations in advance!

The tour of Moet was impressive as we descended deep underground into their cellars to learn how the champagne is carefully crafted and stored. Evidently Napoleon himself visited on numerous occasions (he often bought cases to give as gifts). But the highlight of the trip was the smaller, more intimate places where families and generations have developed award winning and affordable champagnes.

My favourite was Roland Boulard, a family owned champagnerie we stumbled upon. I rang the bell not knowing if anyone would appear, but just as I started to walk away someone opened the rustic door and ushered us inside. He made a phone call and the owner appeared to give us a full tour. Although he spoke through broken English, we learned that his father-in-law, Roland, had acquired the place and painstakingly learned the art of champagne making. As we sat down for a sampling (all of his cuvees are named after his daughters), in walks a suspender and boot wearing Roland to greet us! What a great way to end our tour of this beautiful part of the world.

Check out their website here:

Ryan and William, although Cloudette and I did a fine job chopping vegetables and setting the table, crafted some first-rate French inspired cuisine - beef bourguignon and ratatouille - served with fresh baguettes and gratuitous amounts of red wine. Each evening we enjoyed sitting in front of the fireplace playing numerous rounds of card games, listening to music and laughing uncontrollably! Boy did we have fun. Thanks guys, you were such fab traveling buddies.

We've since opened two bottles we purchased for important guests - my mom during her visit in May and with my father-in-law when he came to Holland this past month.There is always something to celebrate in life. And what better way to toast than with a lovely glass of real champagne?

Here are those postcards I promised. Cheers!


Me and C happy to be in champagne country!

Reims Cathedral

Our cozy French farmhouse


Group shot

Tower view of Epernay

Worn by time

Friday, July 26, 2013

Cycling, Part I

I realize that it may seem like I've fallen off the face of the earth. But don't worry, this isn't the case; I am still alive and well. With a new position at work in April, my mom coming out for a visit, Ryan away on multiple trips and enjoying time with good friends, life has become quite fast-paced as of late. And I haven't made writing a priority, though not for lack of good topics swirling around my head. Time to get back on the bandwagon!

The sun has decided to make an appearance in Holland (at last!), and there is no longer an excuse to ignore my bicycle every morning which sits in the back garden. Believe me, I've had plenty of excuses; Oh, it looks too cold out, I'm tired, I'm running late for work. You name it, there was always something I could pull out of my hat to stamp out the very thought of pedaling the 8 mile round trip journey. But my friend Noemi, who lives a mere stone's throw away, stated what I had already been thinking for some time, 'Do you want to try cycling to work together?'

It's not as though I am new to riding. Ryan and I cycle every Sunday to Mass and around town to run errands, grocery shop and meet up with friends, but riding to work 5 days a week, that's a commitment I wasn't sure I wanted to make! However, I've been getting frustrated with tram connections, buses that drive like bats out of hell (I kid you not!) and even the occasional walk home which takes a long time, so I agreed to give this idea a chance.

The first morning we rode in, I wondered why I hadn't done this earlier. I loved feeling the morning breeze through the woods and quietly contemplating the day ahead. Funny how a few moments in the fresh air can change around one's mood. It is also nice having a biking buddy (which we now call each other). I think we've invoked in the other the spirit to keep this pattern going. We've even changed our route a few times to keep the scenery interesting.

When I first arrived in the land of bicycles, my little legs weren't very strong and I struggled to keep up; Many a Dutch rider would pass me by; I'm ashamed to say even the grey-haired. It was time to build up my strength! As they say, no pain, no gain. I am happy to report that I am much faster now and can keep up with the throngs of other cyclists along busy bike paths, through wooded trails and the cobble-stoned streets to my humble abode. It's been almost four weeks of taking this new mode of transportation to work and I'm very happy I tossed my excuses aside and got out there.

Note: As I first began writing this post a few days ago, the weather has changed with thunderstorm clouds looming overhead. Oh well! Next week looks better and you can be sure that I'll be back on my trusty bike passing as many people as I can along the way.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Habemus Papam

Pope Francis on the night of his election, March 13, 2013

We have a Pope! On Wednesday evening, the second day of the conclave, white smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. I had been following CNN all day at work (it's nice to be in the same time zone as the Vatican), but only thick, black smoke in the morning and no further developments came before I left the office around 5:30 pm. I sent Ryan a message over Skype asking him to follow the news and let me know what colour the smoke was for the second evening ballot the Cardinals would cast before heading out to dinner with a friend. I really didn't think a pontiff would be selected this early, as it seemed there was no clear consensus yet on who would be the front runner.

Less than two hours into my my meal, I received an excited phone call from Ryan. "Didn't you get my texts?" No, I hadn't! White smoke, white smoke, white smoke! I told him to call me back when, as tradition goes, a Cardinal walks out onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and announces the name of the man who has been chosen to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. I could barely sit still and was somewhat disappointed that I would not be able to watch this moment live on television.

About 30 minutes later, my cell phone rings. This is it, I thought! Ryan then takes me through a play by play - lights turning on behind the balcony, rustling curtains and as Ryan put it, a white man appearing. Oh, I thought, it's not an African which I hoped for. I then said well who is it? Is it the Canadian they highlighted? Surely not an American? Latin American!? Ryan then said he has chosen the name Francesco. Is he Italian? Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an ARGENTINEAN! At last, a Pope from South America!! Needless to say, after finishing dinner, I walked quickly to my tram and ran home from my stop to watch the coverage.

Many people have asked me what I think of our new Holy Father. My first impressions are that he is a man of deep faith, humility, with a love for the poor and who's actions speak louder than any words, just like the one he took his name from, St. Francis of Assisi. When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony in front of thousands of onlookers awaiting his first words, he said "Brothers and Sisters, good evening. You know that the task of the conclave was to give Rome a bishop. It seems my brother Cardinals went almost to the ends of the earth to find one." What was most unexpected and unprecedented was instead of first blessing the people, he asked for their prayers and that they bless him. Wow, I must admit, my heart was full and my eyes pricked with tears. He is indeed a Pope of the people.

At his Installation Mass this morning, Pope Francis called us to love and to protect each and every person, especially the poorest and those most vulnerable in our society, as well as our environment and creation. He defined the role of the Successor of Peter as one who is to use power as service and this service must protect all of God's people. He gave us these words to live out: "Today, too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of of hope! For believers, for us Christians, like Abraham, like Saint Joseph, the hope that we bring is set against the horizon of God, which has opened up before us in Christ." Such powerful words that impress upon me what his papacy will be about!

I am excited to be a Catholic at this important moment in history as the Church shifts her eyes to another part of the world, Latin America, and is challenged by our new Holy Father. May the Holy Spirit guide him and may Our Mother Mary always be near him. Pope Francis, the faithful around the world are praying for you and your ministry amongst us. God bless you!

Viva il Papa!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Postcards from Assisi

In October, we had an amazing opportunity to travel to Rome for the canonization of seven Saints, one of whom is very special to me, St. Kateri Tekakwitha. I will devote a separate blog to this and her significance to Seattle, as it is truly one of those miraculous stories that cannot go untold.

My former bosses, the Archbishop of Seattle, Peter Sartain, and the Archbishop Emeritus of Seattle, Alex Brunett, led a pilgrimage from Seattle to Rome for the canonization, and due to the personal importance of this event, Ryan and I made sure we could join them (it's only a short flight after all!). The morning after our arrival to Rome, we met up with the group for a day trip to Assisi, one of the most spiritual cities I have ever encountered. There is no question in my mind now why Pope John Paul II chose this city for a historic interfaith prayer gathering for world peace back in 2002.

A little background on St. Francis of Assisi. He was born into a noble family. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant and he lived a great life of privilege and pleasure. After having what you would call a life-changing moment, St. Francis prayed to God and had a vision. God asked him to repair my Church which is falling into ruins. He then revoked his father's wealth and gave away all of his worldly possessions, devoting himself to a life of poverty and serving the sick, the dying and those in great need.

When I took in the story of his life, represented in frescos covering the walls of the church and visited his humble grave in the crypt of the Basilica after which he is named, I was overcome by his deep and radical call to the poor. It is said that St. Francis died naked on the ground with no material items around his saying "remember you are dust and from dust you shall return."

I didn't take many pictures in Assisi, maybe because I was caught up in the moment of being a true pilgrim in this city, imagining what St. Francis himself experienced over 700 years ago. I have shared a few postcards. The picturesque landscape filled with timeless buildings, church towers, the olive orchards that sprawl into the valley below, and hope I can paint a picture of the Catholic history, devotion and peace that this place still offers those who enter its city gates.

With violence erupting all over the world - in Syria, Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Israel and many other places - it is more important than ever to become an ambassador of peace. I truly believe that we can transform the world by our own actions. St. Francis was a man who spent his lifetime on earth ushering in understanding and peace. The prayer from my lips is that I, too, Lord can be an instrument of your peace.

Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love,
For it is in giving that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Peace be with you!

The olive orchards of Assisi
Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
St. Clare Basilica


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Second Autumn

                                           "i thank You God for most this amazing
                                           day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
                                           and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
                                           which is natural which is infinite which is yes
                                           (i who have died am alive again today,
                                           and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
                                           day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
                                           great happening illimitably earth)
                                           how should tasting touching hearing seeing
                                           breathing any-lifted from the no
                                           of all nothing-human merely being
                                           doubt unimaginable You?
                                           (now the ears of my ears awake and
                                           now the eyes of my eyes are opened)"

                                                              ee cummings

It is my second autumn in Den Haag. I love autumn; it is my favourite time of the year. I also love ee cummings. My mom once shared a collection of his prose with me (not sure how old I was) and my love of poetry was born. His style is whimsical and rebellious with words running into one another, punctuation spattered here and there, and lines spilling vertically down the page. Oh, poetry. If you haven't been introduced to the pipe-smoking and free-versed Cummings, pick up a copy of his poetry. It is enough to cheer you up on even the most cloudy of days.

We recently moved to a new neighbourhood called Bezuidenhout. We love it here and upon waking up rather early this morning, I decided to venture out with the dog for a nice, long walk in the woods. The sun was out and the sky the perfect shade of deep blue. I caught a few images of autumn and the changing colours happening right outside my door.  And now the ears of my ears awake and the eyes of my eyes are opened.

Guardian of the wood
Sir Lord Taylor on his throne
Our priest writes small little tokens of wisdom each week in our parish bulletin. A month or so ago, I cut out the short blurb he published on autumn and what we can glean from the trees. I am always cutting out bits and bobs of things I read; this would also explain why I have so many scraps of paper tucked away in different books for safe keeping. I know they will come in handy some day.

I will leave you with Fr. Theodor's words. I believe we can all learn from Mother Nature,
and her Creator.

"The farther we move from the Equator, the more we can experience nature's seasons. On September 21, Autumn has officially started. It is in the air. It can be felt. There will still be sunny days or sunny moments, but the temperatures are slowly dropping. The best indicator of Autumn chills are the trees which are first changing their colours and then they lose their complete foliage. It is tempting to interpret Autumn as a loss: loss of Summer, loss of warmth, loss of holidays. However, if we think like this, Autumn becomes a negative season which is not allowed to have its own identity. The challenge of Autumn is that it can help us grow in wisdom and to discover new insights. It is good to go for long Autumn walks, and to inhale the ancient scents of transitions.

Just as a tree has to let go of its leaves, people also have to let go. This "letting go" can hurt. We may have to let go of close relatives or friends, we may have to let go of a country, place, house or job that we like. We may have to let go of our juvenility or health. A loss always touches our self-awareness and our self-image. Autumn storms can totally shake us. What we can learn from the trees is that the leaves are not their entire identity. Leaves are important and nice, but they have to come and go. Much in our lives is important and nice, but has to come and go. What remains of a tree are its branches, trunk and roots, which are filled with stamina. In Autumn every tree asks us: And you, human being, what gives you stamina?"

Enjoy what's left of the beautiful autumn leaves,