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It wasn’t long after we got back from our trip to England and Europe this summer that Luke turned to me and said something surprising. “I’d really like to go back for Christmas,” he said. “Would that be okay?”

I can assure you, he was not going to have to twist my arm. I love England and I love visiting his family, so of course I was game. Was I a little surprised that he wanted to spend money on a second set of plane tickets when we had just been there five months earlier? Definitely. Especially considering we were there for two months. But as he pointed out, it had been two years since we’d spent Christmas in England and, as I mentioned in my last post, Christmas is a special time for his clan. So, to England we went.

It turned out to be an extra special trip as my mom joined us for part of it. Here she is having just arrived after spending several hours delayed in both the Pittsburg airport and Euston station in London because of inclement weather on both ends of the Atlantic. Before this trip, she’d just found out she had a torn rotator cuff(!), but you would never have known any of that to look at her. What a trooper. Quite the contrast to Luke and me after a long journey that included our own 4 hour wait in Euston station. On that day, I took the first offer of a nap in someone else’s bed and peaced out. I really need to learn how to sleep on an airplane. 

It was very much a food and drink-centric holiday. Here we have exhibit 1.

Exhibit 2. Pepper the German spitz, ever hopeful. Also, fruit cake (or Stollen) and cheese may be the single greatest food combination ever.

Exhibit 3. Going out for coffee is not limited to the beverage in the Harwood house. Also, a walk has little appeal without the promise of coffee at the end.

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Exhibit 4. More trips out for “coffee.”

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Exhibit 5. In London, my sister-in-law and her friend prepared an absolutely delicious Togolese feast of fish poached in a chili and tomato broth and served alongside a dish that she compared to grits but made from cassava. So yummy!IMG_6689

Exhibit 6. Having tea with a veggie English breakfast on the way. Exhibit 7. So many sweet tooths in the bunch.

Exhibit 8. Nothing like warming up by the fire at an old pub after a cold day exploring castle ruins.

It wasn’t total gluttony, though. We did go on a fair few walks to temper the amount of food we consumed. Like this one to Attingham Park. Does anyone recognize the bridge? Here’s a clue (start watching from 11:16).

Did I mention my mom joined us for a week? It was so lovely having her there. Luke took us on a walking tour of Shrewsbury one day that was, erm, entertaining to say the least. It went a little like, “This building is old and important because… well, I’m not sure why, actually.”

Mom being there also gave us the excuse to be tourists, which we managed quite well in spite of the rain and cold.

Here’s another relic from the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol, which was filmed in Shrewsbury. Luke was good enough to include a visit to St. Chad’s graveyard on his walking history tour of Shrewsbury. Bless.

On the subject of being American tourists, my mom and I joined forces and persuaded the others to visit a nearby castle on one of the sunnier days of the trip. Stokesay Castle was suggested as neither of us had been there, even though it’s just right down the road from Luke’s hometown. It was such a quirky little place and really everything a medieval castle should be: moat, great hall with roasting spit (evidence of), archers’ alcoves, lush tapestried master bedrooms, and stunning views of the countryside.

As it is the English countryside that Luke and I miss the most (second to family, of course), we made sure to sneak a trip up the treacherous road that crests the Long Mynd in Church Stretton, a favorite spot of ours. Yes, that is a sheer drop to the valley below on my left. And yes, that road is one car’s width. Thankfully, we never had to find out what would happen if another car came up in the opposite direction. I hid behind my camera so I wouldn’t have to think about what I was seeing. 

It had been a gray rainy day, so we weren’t expecting much when we got to the top. However, we were rewarded for our efforts with a glimpse of the setting sun (at 4:00) over the clouds and hills. Stunning!

Take away point? Some trips are simply worth the journey.

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I’ve heard friends explain their method for deciding where to spend the holidays as a weighing up of traditions. Whose family has the stronger tradition? Which holiday is more meaningful to which partner? If both traditions are equally strong then there’s nothing to do but travel between the two households on the day (Christmas lunch at one, Christmas dinner at the other), or, if the distance is too great, alternate years. If one family’s Christmas tradition is more quintessentially unique and precious than the other, inevitably, that’s where the couple will go two out of every three Christmases. It’s a sensible enough method, but just would not work for Luke and me. Not for Christmas, anyway. I’d lose every time.

For Luke’s family, Christmas is a precious reenactment of childhood traditions. Although marriages and moves have inevitably imposed changes even on the stoutest of these traditions, basically Christmas is bursting with nostalgia every year. My family’s Christmas traditions on the other hand have, in recent years, come to represent the inconstancy of a changed family. In the past six or seven years, we’ve spent Christmas in a different location every year, with a different set of people, observing other people’s traditions more often than not (with a few remnants of ours preserved for good measure). And that’s okay. We’re okay. We’ve adapted. We always have a good time wherever we are.

Thanksgiving, too, has in recently years become a holiday in flux. Shared with in-laws in new towns, with neighbors in new cities, or sometimes with only one person in a country that doesn’t celebrate the holiday.

It wasn’t always that way. Thanksgiving and Christmas used to follow a prescribed pattern. Thanksgiving when I was younger was always at my Dad’s parent’s house, where as many aunts, uncles and cousins who could attend did. When I was a little older, Thanksgiving moved to our family’s cabin in the mountain’s. It could hold more people, and so more relatives and practically-relatives showed up. Sometimes we’d have over twenty people crowded around two or three tables. We’d play Christmas music, eat turkey and make my grandma’s famous mac n’ cheese. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, we’d have our family Christmas, since chances were we weren’t going to see all these relatives again one month later. So it was great really. Two of the eatingest holidays packed into one weekend.

Oh, how sweet it is when the stars align just so (and people’s schedules, too), that everyone can come back to a familiar spot and create a new tradition that reminds us all very much of a precious old one. Like Thanksgiving at the cabin, with over twenty people crowded around tables, and turkey, and snow, and a fire in the hearth. Even better when there are new faces mixed in with the old, and new traditions (like an oyster bar in the yard!) to remind us that our traditions are strongest when they are infused with the new.

I hope you had a happy one.

mommy&melibraryeslstudentlibraryI was six. I was in first grade, my sister was in third. We’d been tagging along with my Dad on some errands in Charlotte and, I guess, as a treat, were rewarded with a trip to the city’s glistening main public library. Here was the Emerald City of libraries. Outside was a fountain that stretched the length of the building, water toppling down the marble steps like a Slinky. Inside were four stories of open, light-flooded space, a cheerful children’s section complete with squishy bean bags and reading nooks. This was not our 1970s suburban library with the shag carpet and crumbling paint. I remember my trepidation penning my name on the back of my white and burgundy card, carving out the letters like initials in tree bark, afraid, perhaps, that someone would notice my first grader’s penmanship and bar me from this most adult of activities. No one ever did, thank God.

Do you know, though, I had to think for a minute before that story came back to me? I almost didn’t remember getting my first library card. I remember the ones that came later. In high school, feeling very unbalanced about the fact that I’d lost my card some years before and driving myself to the nearest library to renew it. In a new city, walking into town, filling out an application, getting a cup of coffee afterwards. There’re all really mundane memories. It’s actually a pretty mundane activity, when you think of it. At least for those of us who grew up with public libraries and parents who valued them.

mommy&melibrarianeslstudentslibraryrefugeestudentlibrarycardrefugeestudentslibrarycardsThese days I teach English to a group of refugee women at an intergenerational family literacy school. The women I teach live in a town where over 60 languages are spoken in the 1.2 mile radius that forms the city center. They live in crowded apartment complexes with neighbors from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They decorate their walls with posters of tropical paradises. This particular class — almost all of them Burmese from the Chin province, though there are others from South Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo — are all adventurous gardeners. They grow pumpkins, burmese eggplants, green beans, and chillies in the medians and along chain link fences in their apartment complexes. They eat chillies like potato chips and laugh at me when I explain that most Americans only cook with a few cloves of garlic at a time — they cook with them by the bulb. They walk to school two days a week, pushing their children in second-hand strollers or carrying them in slings on their backs. They sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes with their children at the end of the school day and mispronounce the words “kitchen” and “chicken” with regularity. They crack themselves up every time. They swirl thanaka on their children’s cheeks and smile mischievously when I ask them what it is, why they do it. When they are not at school, they spend their days perpetually in waiting rooms, at the doctor’s office, at the Georgia Department of Human Services, at the DMV, at the chicken plant. What are they waiting for? Interpreters, mostly. A lull. Someone with time. Back home they were weavers, teachers, and farmers. Many of them lived most of their lives in refugee camps in countries not their own. The ones who remember, talk about the forest, the river, the roses.
IMG_5651 IMG_5653 IMG_5652 mommy&mereadingThe other day we went to the library for the first time as a class. These are not provincials — they’ve been to a library before (we have a small one at our school that they use every week). And they’re not completely newly arrived to the United States, either — they’ve been here for fewer than five years. So they know about libraries. Do they use them? No, probably not. Possibly because, well, where do you begin? Having lived in the States we know librarians as a whole don’t bite, that they love to help you find things. Burmese refugees don’t know that.

I’m wondering: do librarians ever phase out of that stage where they seem to genuinely enjoy talking about awesome kid’s books? Does that excitement ever die? It’s actually adorable to watch.

I won’t say adorable, but do you know what else is spectacular to see? An adult getting her first library card. Also, seeing a group of ESL learners demolish an entire shelf of the coveted Picture Dictionaries. Picture Dictionaries that don’t cost $25 like teacher keeps telling them. This time they’re Free.

Mind. Blown.

Unlike books or food, I am less carefree about buying new clothes. There, I hesitate. In my book? They’re a luxury. I do try to shop at second hand stores most of the time and generally feel less bad about spending money on clothes then (though I still only do it rarely), but sometimes you just really want that pretty new thing. Of course, this time of year I find myself thinking like my school and college-aged self: a new outfit for a new school year — wouldn’t that look nice? Tax free weekend doesn’t help the situation. Neither do cute, Frenchy frocks. Add to the equation that this August I am starting a new job, and it would be so very nice to add some color to my wardrobe that is currently black and white attire as per the dress code of past jobs. You can hear the internal monologue I’ve been having here of late.

But a dress is not a book. Sure, it’s the cost of a few books and I’ll wear it for a few years. But I could also spend that money on other things. Books and breakfast, for example. And this time of year also has me thinking about new books, too. To put in my new backpack, naturally.

So it’s a conundrum, really. New books or a new frock? One is clearly a necessity and the other is, to me, a major luxury. Of course, every so often, if you’re frugal, I see no reason not to indulge. That’s what this series is all about, right?

Tell me. What is your feeling about splurging on a little luxury every so often? What are your splurges?

Speaking of books, would you like to win one? The giveaway for Gone Girl is going on until 5pm today. Make sure to enter and good luck!

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What do you spend money on without even thinking twice? Where do you draw the line between luxury and necessity? When I was growing up, my parents were very frugal in our style of living. Going clothes shopping was a once or twice a year treat for my sister and me and we rarely bought anything that wasn’t on the sale rack. Similarly, eating out usually only happened on road trips or vacation, or for that quick Wendy’s burger after ballet practice (because it cut into our dinner hour). Otherwise, we ate at home. As for toys or high ticket items my sister and I pined for, it was a given that we’d have to wait until birthdays or Christmas.

There was one exception to my family’s frugality: media. Books, music and movies were the few luxuries my Dad (the most frugal one in the family) allowed himself and us. Growing up if there was a book we wanted to read or an CD we wanted to listen to, my Dad was usually more than happy to order it for us (from a local indie bookstore or record store, of course!). For him, media was a necessity. Which is why, now that I’m grown up and making my own financial decisions, I don’t think twice about paying full price for a book I’ve been wanting to read. I’m not extravagant by any means. I rarely buy more than two books per bookstore visit (I can’t read them that quickly anyway!), but as far as I’m concerned, a couple books a month is money well spent.

I’ve wanted to talk about the monetary value of books with you all for a while now, and finally, I’m starting a new series that will let us do just that. If you’re keen, I’d love to explore luxuries vs. necessities with you, as they weigh up against the cost of a book. We’ve all heard how important it is to support local, independent businesses, and yet, so often I talk to book loving friends who cite the cost of books as an obstacle to them buying from indie bookstores. Knowing that we all prioritize our expenses differently, I’m curious: What are those expenses that to anyone else might seem luxurious or extravagant, but to you are no-brainers? First up this week is one of my husband’s and my favorite guilty pleasures: Breakfast.

I hope you enjoy! And please, let me know what you think.Breakfastnecessity-page001IMG_5125 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_2589 breakfastIs it a luxury or a necessity that we go out for breakfast almost weekly? Obviously, it’s a luxury. The fact that I’m even asking that question says so much about our privilege here in the wealthy west. For Luke and I, we justify it this way: breakfast is my favorite meal of the day and, therefor, is possibly more of a treat than going out for dinner; not to mention, it’s the perfect way to mark a day off (“Yes, it’s Saturday! Let’s sleep in and then go eat pancakes!”); and, of all the meals, it is the cheapest one to eat out so we’re really saving money.

On average we spend between $15 and $30 per meal, which is the equivalent of one hardback book or up to two paperbacks.

So, you ask: If it’s the choice between one of these outings and a new book, which would I choose? No question about it. I’ll eat granola at home in my PJs any day if there’s the option of a brand spanking new book.

And now its your turn. What are some of your luxury expenses? How do books figure into your budget and which would you choose: breakfast or a book? I’d love to hear!

IMG_5128… that made me happy this week. Gooey brownies and hot fudge sundaes (I used Deb’s recipe for the fudge sauce — perfect!). I don’t often get a sweets craving, so when I do I like to go all out. These were all out there. gonegirlA new page turner. Seriously, on my day off yesterday, it would have taken a series of natural disasters to get me look up from my book. That said, I’m now a few chapters into Part II and I’m feeling less great about this psychological thriller. We’ll have to have to chat about it next week.mesaNMHearing my mom’s stories about a camping/hiking trip she recently took to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Seriously proud of that lady and mesmerized by her pics. Luke and I have never been out west, but now we’re seriously looking into planning a trip out there in the next couple of summers.

A few more things…

Speaking of wanderlust: Jaipur.

How many accents can you put on? More than 21?

I don’t want to know what a Freudian would say about this being my new favorite blog. But I don’t really care — it’s so fascinating!

Speaking of gender, did you hear the Queen will no longer be the only woman on British money? And not just any woman will be joining her.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend! What will you be reading?

reading in francereading franceIn a minute I’ll go and sit by the pool (a first for me this summer) and do a bit of reading. But before I do, I wanted to talk about reading ruts. For the past month I’ve had the hardest time reading much of anything. I’ve started a couple new books but abandoned them after the first couple of chapters. The reason for this pattern, I realize, is because I’m two-thirds of the way through a book that I can neither find the strength to finish or stop thinking about. I would love to do either of those two things. The book is The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro and it is the most difficult book I have ever read. 

the unconsoledYou all know by now that two institutions I have the greatest respect for are Kazuo Ishiguro and Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. Put the two together and you would think you’d have the formula for reading nirvana. When I saw The Unconsoled on the staff picks shelf in Mr B’s, selected by one of the  people I trust the most for recommendations, I thought the stars had aligned just so. I had read some superlative reviews of the book in the past and felt sure I’d get as much out of it as I had Ishiguro’s other novels, possibly more. Today I re-read one of those reviews. Knowing what I know now, I see that the author had been trying to warn me. I, with my rose colored glasses, had read only the positive phrases: “I haven’t stopped thinking about it since;” “equal parts Kafka and Chaplain;” “magnificent;” “I’m still waiting for Ishiguro to write something as impressive as The Unconsoled.”

What I had overlooked in that review were the cautionary words: “The Unconsoled is as frustrating as it is memorable;” “a giant mess of a book;” “a magnificent failure.” The reviewer makes it clear that, in his opinion, The Unconsoled is Ishiguro’s most impressive book. But dependent on that superlative was his belief that all Ish’s other novels are “circumscribed, disappointingly minor works.” Whoa, now! That’s Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day he’s talking about. Two books I thought were brilliant. I should have known then to approach with caution.

So why did I think I’d appreciate The Unconsoled?

Because I like a challenge? And because my favorite staff person at Mr. B’s praised it to the moon. And because she wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every review I’ve read of the book intrigued me with contradictory statements: messy – brilliant, convoluted – genius, confused – complex. Who wouldn’t want to read such a bipolar book? It’s a challenge. Read it for yourself and see where you fall in the argument.

And where I fall is exactly where everyone else seems to fall. Between frustration and fascination. The story is about a world class pianist who is constantly being thwarted by life’s interruptions. These interruptions prevent him at every turn from being a good husband, father, guest and artist. It’s unclear whether he suffers from some memory impairment or some psychological baggage that prevents him from keeping his schedule straight, but what is clear is how he constantly self-sabotages and then has to backtrack, resolving each time to be better at managing his own life and affairs. Rather than ask for help or verbalize his confusion in a situation (which is our confusion, too, as Ryder is our narrator), he just bumbles along until things get frustrating enough and he is able to escape. Each escape has the exact feel of waking up from an anxiety dream. They’re sudden, surreal and oh so frustrating. I don’t use the word “surreal” lightly. It is dreamlike the way characters appear and disappear seemingly out of thin air, and the way Ryder (our protagonist) travels long distances across the city by car or tram only to walk through an inconspicuous side door and, illogically, be back at the hotel where he began his journey.

Then there’s the lack of backstory. Little explanation is given about Ryder’s past, why he is the way he is, how these people know him, and what his work in the city is. When backstory is given, it’s delivered by unreliable characters from Ryder’s past, or from strangers who have read about Ryder. As our narrator, Ryder is the most unreliable of them all.

And that, I think, is the key to why I allow this book to hang over my head. It’s the question of the unreliable narrator that I come back to again and again. Why my fascination with unreliable narrators? Maybe it’s the fact that, as the reader, you’re always guessing, never trusting, which adds an extra level to the reading experience. Maybe it reflects my generations distrust of authority, in this case, the author’s and the person narrating the story. Maybe it speaks to something in our human nature, our own unreliability, and attempts to explain the often bizarre ways we behave toward one another, or the unexplainable things that happen to us. Maybe I see myself in Ryder and it frustrates me, because hidden inside Ryder’s befuddled mind are clues to how my own works.

Whatever has me captured, my Mr B’s staff person had it right when she called it a “chewy book.” There is a lot to digest in The Unconsoled. The only problem is, I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

So I’d love to know: what’s been the most difficult book you’ve ever read? Do you have a hard time abandoning books you’ve not finished, or do you have to finish everything you start?

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