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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.

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.

IMG_4687 IMG_4690london eye big benIMG_4689 IMG_4688 IMG_4684 london thames walkcarousel londonThinking about:

Walks along the Thames.

Books under a bridge.

Soft light over the London Eye.

Bubbles.

Newlyweds.

A sister’s first carousel ride.

Happily in one place for now, it’s still nice to reminisce about recent trips taken, sights seen, necks hugged. We spent two days in London. Two days squeezed into two months of travel, mostly in the UK, might strike a person as measly. But believe you me, I fought hard for those two days. Luke believes that no person in their right mind visits London willingly; if you go to London it’s because you have no choice. Passport updates, medical specialists, someone you really, really, really love lives there (who you haven’t seen in 10 years). Those are reasons to go to London. Kicking and screaming, mind you.

Though I agree with my husband that a city, wherever you go in the world, looks like a city — it’s the countryside for us, please — I wanted to make up my own mind about London. Which was proving difficult. In the thirteen years I’ve been visiting the UK (three times to London, briefly), I’d yet to have a good London experience. Not the city’s fault, mind you. Once I was too jet lagged to see straight, once was for a brief 24 hours when London was submerged in a heat wave, and once I went after attending a wedding where an ill bridesmaid infected half the guests, myself included, with a violent stomach bug. I spent the majority of that visit staring into the basin of a Piccadilly hostel toilet.

While none of those events were the city’s fault, I still felt owed a decent London experience. Thankfully, this go-round, we had a very good reason to go: Luke’s brother and sister-in-law.

My new sister gave us the grand tour, focusing on sites she perceptively knew we’d love (parks and green space, mainly). What a rockstar she and Luke’s brother were! So much so that I realized after one full day of walking, site-seeing, and laughing, capped off with a 4 hour dinner in a jazz bar under a bridge that rattled every time a train went past overhead, that a good London experience has nothing to do with the city. It’s all about the people.

Friends, I’d love to know: Where have you been this summer? Going any place exciting? Luke and I have traveled very little in the USA, so we get extra swoony hearing about trips taken around this country. So, please, bring on the wanderlust!

severn swingOn Friday my brother-in-law married his best friend in a beautiful travel-themed wedding. It was an exciting and busy week of making final preparations, running errands, entertaining guests, visiting old friends, wine-ing and dinning, dancing and toasting. It was perfect in every way. But sometimes, in the days leading up to such a big event, it’s necessary to break away from the bulletin folding and flower arranging, and get some fresh air. Which is why, when we found a rope swing tied to a tall tree while on our walk, we naturally had to have a go.

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What are you up to this weekend? On Thursday we arrived in England and have, since then, been enjoying a relaxing visit with Luke’s family. So far highlights have included long walks along the river, discussing all the exciting details of a brother’s upcoming wedding, and lots and lots of tea and cake. Though we’ve done nothing bookshop related (yet), I thought I’d share a few pictures. Would you like to see?

birmingham arrival(In the airport — tired but happy!)wax stamp invitation(Finally getting to receive our fancy invitation to the wedding.)severn river(Walk into town along the river Severn)tudor buildings shrewsburybroken fenceshrewsbury urc riverthe crowne pub severnshrewsbury dingleshrewsburybear steps shrewsburycakes(I did mention the cakes, right?)welsh bridge shrewsburyelephant mask(Goofing around, playing with wedding photo booth props)

I won’t inundate you, but there may perhaps be more pics to follow next Friday. And a bookshop or two before then? Who knows?

What are you doing this weekend? I hope it’s relaxing and filled with great reading.

rawbrownie6Did anyone else have a hard time getting back into the swing of things after Easter? Between a lovely visit with family, delicious food, and a welcomed bout of sunny weather, it was all I could do to set my alarm clock Monday night.  But we persevere. (This is, I believe, what they call a first world problem). Here are a few things that kept me going.

Raw brownies (pictured above): Gooey, fudgy and actually good for you! No, really.

Doing one of these in the morning wakes me up just as well (better?) as a cup of coffee.

Speaking of waking up, my sister’s new blog.

Ira’s in Atlanta this weekend!

Also…

(This simple cover design of an old favorite.)

(Brunch on a sunny, lime sherbet patio.)

(These tulips.)

(My delight at finding Charlotte’s Web soap in my mom’s bathroom.)

What will you do this weekend? And more importantly, what will you read?

(Top picture by Sarah B)

Yesterday a friend of mine, who is a hospice chaplain, posted an interesting question on Facebook. She was explaining how many of her nonverbal patients had indicated that they felt more at peace and less anxious whenever she read to them. She’d been reading the Bible to them mostly, but she was hoping to try a short novel. Her question was: What would you like to have read to you or your loved one at the end of life?

It’s an challenging and beautiful question, and one that stands front and center in Will Schwalbe’s book, The End of Your Life Book Club. When Schwalbe’s mother, Mary, is diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, mother and son respond by forming a book club. Together and over the next two years they read the classics, popular fiction, whimsical children’s literature, poetry, spiritual books, mysteries and fantasies, growing closer in the process just as Mary’s life is coming to a close.

Is your heart in your throat yet? What intrigues me is their book choices. From the sounds of it, they were indiscriminating, reading “meaningful” books right down to casual page-turners. I can kind of understand that. Even though I like to think I’d read great books full of wisdom and startlingly poetic sentences, in reality, I’d probably want to escape into a good Agatha Christie or reread Watership Downs.

The line that got me in the trailer was “reading isn’t the opposite of doing, it’s the opposite of dying.”

I’ll repose my friend’s question, because I’d love to hear your suggestions: What book would you like to have read to you or your family member at the end of life?

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