Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Never predictable


When I lived in Japan in the early 1990s, I was lucky to share a train line with some remarkable people, some with whom I’ve kept in touch for more than two decades. Our relationships grew via handwritten letters, fax machines (so much faster than a letter!), emails (so much faster than a fax!), and texts (instant is the new fast).

And as luck would have it, some of them became friends.

Rick Newton, above left wearing a sweater he claims to possess to this day, and I traversed the Japanese countryside over the course of 12 months, crammed into my tiny white Toyota, frequently accompanied by Mark Z. (second from left) and my dear father (who stayed for three months), visiting fish markets, the achingly devastated Hiroshima bomb site, subtitled Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, countless ramen restaurants, x-rated Shinto fertility shrines, and beautiful deep steamy and sulphuric onsen — hot springs.

Remarkably we never tired of any of it.

Nor of each other, apparently.

So when Rick decided to abandon his law practice in Birmingham AL in order to open a yakitori restaurant this fall, I had no qualms about inviting myself along on one of his Japanese buying trips. I mean, could he really say ‘no’ given that it was my car that took us on all of our trips?

He said yes.




What you may or may not know about Tokyo (leg one of this journey) is that weird and wacky is just kind of the order of the day.

And so why not start your day with a visit to the MoCHA Cat Cafe?

I couldn’t think of a good reason either so in we went.


The cat cafe’s raison d’etre is to let you commune, cuddle, caress and basically get mellow with a room full of felines.

After paying a modest entrance fee we were directed to a hand sanitizer dispenser, swapped our street shoes for sanitized slippers, locked our belongings in a little closet and put on the requisite kittycat ears. Oh yes we did.

Then past a sliding wooden door into a room with the felines.



Some guests opted to feed the cats, either with a small cup of food and a tiny spoon, or a little cat lollipop. The cats jumped on to the plastic mat when they observed snack time had arrived, and sat waiting, rather patiently, for their turn with the spoon.


At times a bit of assertiveness was required but overall, the cats appeared willing to wait.


When we entered the cat cafe we discussed our plans beforehand, kind of like the agreement one makes before going to a time-share presentation: We’re not going to buy, right? Nope, no way. You know they’re going to pressure us, but we’re going to say no, right? Right. Agreed? Absolutely.

And that’s how we entered the cat cafe.

Thirty minutes seem like enough to you?

Oh yeah. Sure. No way we’ll stay longer than 30 minutes.

Yep, we’ve got things to do.

Sure do.

Tinkling music, contented cats, a cup of tea, soft light coming through the windows, that purring….


Hey Rick?


Ready to go? 

Sure, if you want.

It’s been an hour.

Mmmm. That’s nice.


After liberal use of a lint roller, we continued on to our next Tokyo event — a St. Patrick’s Day parade, complete with bagpipes, Irish setters, marching bands and samba dancers.

Weird, wacky and wonderful.








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A walk in the park

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Today after breakfast we walk down to the floating dock to meet our guide Peter Kilabuk at his aluminum fishing boat. Peter has offered to take us deep into the Pangnirtung fjord to hike in Auyuittuq national park.

We’ve paid $12.50 for a permit to enter the park, we’ve watched a disturbing orientation film on polar bear encounters and have packed our granola bars, hazing gun and emergency whistles. Liliana confides, “If we see a polar bear, you shoot the gun and I’ll take pictures.”

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As we motor deeper in to the fjord evidence of the glaciers’ carving power is striking. Deep cuts and gouges in the rock, symmetrical and round. The shapes are much different in contrast to the freshly born peaks and ruggedness of the Rockies and Purcells.

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Peter has timed our trip to coincide with the tides – easiest for dropoff and pickup. About an hour’s ride in to the fjord he pulls to the shore. It’s the lowest point of low tide. We jump out on to the seaweed-covered rocks, clamber up the shore and watch Peter float away. If he should forget to come back we know there’s a CB radio in a cabin a few kilometres ahead. Of course, as the hamlet’s chief outfitter, he’d be the one to come back for us anyway.

And so we hike, over rocks, sandy stretches, masses of purple saxifrage. We leap over streams coming down from the mountains, fed by glaciers. This is amazing. I tell Liliana as we fill a cup with icy water, she is drinking some of the oldest water on earth. How cool is that? “Well it’s actually kind of gross when you think about it.” It’s all perspective, my friends. All perspective.

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After an hour we come upon a blaze orange cabin to be used in case of emergency, such as in pursuit by bear. Yes. We look inside. The CB radio, with a note that the batteries were checked July 9, 2015. There’s also a log book with entries from people beginning or ending their 100km hike to Davis Strait, just over there between us and Greenland. With only five hours to undertake we feel a bit like poseurs so don’t bother adding to the journal.

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It’s not the first time this week, but I begin to understand the allure of living in the north. Big, bad, beautiful. The temperature for the most part has hovered around five degrees Celsius. One slightly warmer day and we were besieged by mosquitoes.

I talk to Peter about the weather, about the winters. The coldest they experience is about minus 40. I think, that’s all? That’s Winnipeg in January, and say so to Peter. Ah, but it’s colder in Winnipeg. They have all that humidity that cuts to the bone. It’s a dry cold here.

For those not from the prairies, that big sound you just heard is a Winnipeg guffaw. Winnipeggers love to defend their frigid climes by declaring, “But it’s a dry kind of cold.” So there you go, folks. Winnipeg is colder than Pangnirtung. I’d say a few of us already knew that.

Kidding! Kidding!

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Five hours after drop off, the sun has gone behind the mountains, the clouds have moved in and the weather has chilled considerably. Liliana puts her socks and shoes back on, hats and mitts come out and we thank each other, for the thousandth time, for this awe-striking experience.

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Peter arrives at the pick-up point – a Nunavut flag stuck in a pile of rocks — precisely three minutes after we do and we sense the finality of our northern experience. Still a few things to do over the next day and a half – pick up some permits so we can bring home a sealskin (shot and skinned by Peter, cleaned and prepared by his wife using her “woman’s knife,” the ulu), return the (unused) hazing gun, and say good-bye Louis, Jason and some of the elders we’ve met – but there’s definitely the feeling that we’ve forgotten something, that feeling I get when I’m leaving Somewhere Wonderful.

Hannah has dinner ready when we return. Boiled potatoes, boiled peas and carrots, and large pieces of meat on a plate. Liliana has never seen a roast before. I haven’t seen one since my mother cooked one. She is so good, my girl. She takes a piece, covers it with potatoes and eats. She tells me later she thinks she’ll eat nothing but raw food and green smoothies for the rest of the summer. “I don’t even think I want toast.”

After dinner Hannah gives a startled Liliana a hug.

“I love you, honey. I want you stay with me. I make you mittens from seal skin, I make you kamik, I make you aumati (a hooded jacket).

“And I teach you cooking.”

We will miss this lovely woman.

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I didn’t really pay too much attention to learning Cyrillic the first few days in Russia, although we ought to have known better after the first day in St. Petersburg, when we came home with a bag of frozen meatballs thinking they were cheese perogies.

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But upon arriving at the Moscow subway, a certain degree of fluency was suddenly deemed important.

In fact, reading the language turned out to be fairly straightforward.

P = R, C = S, B = V, b = B … that sort of thing. A basic substitution cypher to make the cryptographers happy, and a lot of phonetic similarities for us uniglots.

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Down, down, down deep into the underground of the Moscow Metro. Reminded us of descending into a coal mine in Australia a couple of years ago.

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Crisp and clean!

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I’d heard earlier about the astonishing and dramatic works of art in the subway system and it was true.

When Stalin ordered the artists and architects to design a structure that embodied a brilliant and radiant future, it was his intent to remind the riders that he and his party had delivered something substantial to the people in return for their sacrifices.

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Stalin tried to create an environment that would encourage people to look *up,* admiring the station’s art (and perhaps thinking of him in god-like terms?).  At the time, the chandeliers were the most technically advanced elements of the metro.

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And the metro truly is beautiful. It’s clean, no litter or graffitti, despite transporting more than nine million passengers per day!

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Interestingly, voice announcements refer to the lines by name, with a male voice announcing the next station as one travels toward the centre of the city, and a female voice when going away from it.

Of course, you must remember which is which…

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Sushi, anyone?

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And after braving the rabbit warren below, it was time for a break in the daylight.

Okay, so here’s the query: What well known company is represented here?

(with a clue or two at the start of the post)

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Wandering around the Red Square just 13 days ago, we paid a third and final visit to that most iconic of Russian landmarks to bid a fond до свидания (do svidaniya — goodbye) to Saint Basil’s Cathedral or, as it’s more properly known in the world of Russian Orthodoxy, The Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat.

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The cathedral, which is actually eight small churches arranged around a ninth, was built on orders from Ivan the Terrible to commemorate a successful capture of the city of Kazan from the Mongols in 1552.

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The church was completed eight years later in 1560 and legend has it that Ivan ordered the the builders blinded with hot irons so that they could not recreate anything else as beautiful.

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For a time in the Soviet Union there was talk of demolishing the building largely because it was in the way of Stalin’s plans for massive parades in Red Square. One architect, Pyotr Baranovsky, when ordered to prepare the building for demolition wrote a letter where he bluntly refused to do so. While Baranovsky earned five years in jail for his opinion, the cathedral remained standing.

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The walls of the interior (too dark for photos) are covered in frescoes and in one tiny room three burly Muscovites serenaded us with traditional Russian hymns which resonated gorgeously in the acoustics of the vaulted stone walls. With stacks of CDs for sale at a side table it was nice to see the Russian entrepreneurial spirit alive and well.

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As part a result of state atheism the church was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox community and has operated as a part of the state historical museum since 1928.

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I have to say, this building was a real treat to the eyes. As one approaches Red Square the cathedral peeks out with its splendid onion domes. Other cathedrals are topped with golden domes, but these painted beauties are unique.

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It was a bit of a hike from our hotel to the Kremlin and the Arbatskaya, the area we wandered through to get there, offered much in terms of food, drink and trinkets.

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And on this particular day, something for everyone.

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На здоровье!

Na Zdoroviya!

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Without a long time to spend in St. Petersburg we had to ensure we’d pack in as much as possible into a handful of very brief days. Fortunately, just a few steps from our apartment we found this simple structure inviting our gaze and adoration.

And gaze we did! This Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood (one must imagine it doesn’t translate well) was the perfect antidote to grouchy airport personnel (oh, that cello! The girl should take up harmonica!) and a stifling apartment.

Inside are hundreds of gold-leafed icons of saints and other important men (!), a marble mosaic floor, and frescoes on the domed ceiling. Stunning.





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The next morning the city welcomed us with a noisy blast of horn and drum, right outside our window.

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Such rigidity and solemnity. So formal and professional.


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Or maybe not.

These blue-striped specimens of manliness, many toting cans of beer, formed a long mass of humanity that went on and on in the parade.


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Mothers, children, wives and girlfriends walked along with the men who sang and shouted out to the crowds lining the streets.

(See the little girl’s feet?)




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We gathered from the flags and then later from a newspaper that there was some kind of recognition of the country’s paratroopers.

So we couldn’t determine if these fellows had themselves served in the army or if they were commemorating others who did.


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Watching out for rabble rousers at the rear, I guess.




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And for a complete change of pace, we attended Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro later that night at the magnificent Mariinsky Theatre, built in 1860.

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Outside in the mezzanine and in the hallways were photos of Rudolf Nureyev and Anna Pavlova, whose careers were launched here.



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And a peaceful walk home, with a stop for ice cream, as we contemplate the many facets of our good fortune.

As for the name of this place, I have no idea. But to be fair, there’s a gold topped dome every couple of kilometres.

Some serious navigation is about to start.

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Our home and native land

Well, one of our native lands, anyway.

Just a few hours after leaving Milan at the end of our music program in beautiful sunny perfect rural Italia, we touched down for a few days in Poland.

First time anyone of my grandfather’s direct line of the family has gone to the land of his parents, since his own visit there in the early 1970s.

A rather powerful feeling to set foot in this land, and even more so when, at the airport, I recognized the smiling face of my cousin, not seen in person since his 1977 trip to Canada. (Ah, the wonders of Facebook!)

As we’d left our little B&B at 5 a.m. (preceded by a  delightful four-hour nap), arriving in Warsaw at 7 p.m. with a three-hour drive to our cousin’s home in Lublin, we were, frankly, famished!

Dear Jerzy (pronounced Yurek) took us to a tiny in size but magnificent in flavour traditional Polish restaurant.

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Oh my.

Kapusta — cabbage. Grzybami — mushrooms.

Miesem — with lentils.

Ruskie-style —  Sweetened cottage cheese, served with slightly sweetened whipped cream.

So amazing to eat this food, so long a part of our family’s culinary traditions, at a little eatery in the middle of our long-ago homeland.

The magic was not lost on my travelling companions.

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The next morning: The magic we’d all been waiting for.

This little piece of property, tho’ not the house nor anything on it, is the ancestral land of my grandfather’s parents, my mother’s grandparents.

According to Jerzy, in the late 1800s the land in this area and the people farming it, were the poorest of Poland’s poor. Leaving behind the little they had and arriving in Canada with nothing could not be any worse than the life they already were living.

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My grandfather was born after his parents arrived in Canada but four siblings were born in Poland, with one dying on the boat coming over.

The fellow in the picture talking to Jerzy didn’t seem as awed by the history as we were. Jerzy, however, was so so proud of having found this property and being able to take us there.

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There, but for the bravery of Andrew and Katerina Ilczyna, stand two little punks whose lives would have been extraordinarily different from all they know today.

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Just down the road and walking distance from the house was this old wooden church, sitting where it was built 277 years ago.

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What a moment to think that this would most likely have been where they married, baptised their children and gone to church every Sunday.

All so very amazing!

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These following pics are of no particular significance other than that they show some  family names via marriage.

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I love cemeteries and while the lettering is long since eroded on the family stones, such that even Jerzy couldn’t find them (although they’ve been found in the past) to think, again, that our history was right there beneath our feet, gave a sense of reverence for the actions of our ancestors.

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Interestingly, when Jerzy came to Canada in 1977 he told us if his father wanted to own a car he would have to save his salary for ten years. Now Jerzy and his wife each have one. They take none of this for granted, despite living a style so desperately different from that of their parents.

And as we drove off again in Jerzy’s car and  looked out at the countryside, we could see how easily coming to Canada would have felt like coming home.

Just as we felt at home by completing the circle for them.

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Here we go!

Our last week in Sunny Italia was an all-hands-on-deck series of concerts, lessons, classes and eating!

So much to sample, so little time!

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This little one had a couple of amazing opportunities with some top teaching talents. She and her brother had prepared, over the course of the past year, a challenging duet which they’d hoped to have ready for public performance.

Prior to the public performance, however, there was a ‘check in’ (aka an audition) for all the performers. Well, turned out the piece wasn’t up to the festival’s public playing standards and while the two were allowed to play other pieces, this one was out for various but very understandable reasons.

While the violinist was relieved, the cellist had some tears.

“But we worked so hard!”

There were some motherly and relatively unheard words of consolation and we all carried on. A couple of days later, my princess bravely approached a serious cello talent and asked if she might have a lesson.

Following the lesson, in which she’d made some mighty progress and conquered a couple of stumbling blocks, I asked her why she didn’t play like that all the time.

She smiled. “I didn’t know I could.”

She also said she was wondering if she could regularly travel to London for more lessons with this professor.

Very funny.

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A couple of nights before the end of our time in Casalmaggiore, our lovely B&B proprietress Barbara prepared a dinner for all her guests based entirely on the traditional dishes of her hometown, Modena.

She’d wanted to take us there for a little day trip to her parents’ place in the country and where her father makes his own legendary batches of balsamic vinegar (two wee bottles in my luggage; the stuff is 34 years old and tastes like everything good).

Here she’s showing packages of pasta produced and available only in Modena and which we — of course! — sampled later.

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Cooking pasta and, for reasons not clear to me, transferring pasta from one pot of hot water to a second.

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These other tasty babies (I was told the name but have forgotten) were rolled and rerolled to perfection on this electric pasta maker. Nice gadget.

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Cut and then left to rest beneath a tea towel while the rest of dinner was prepared.

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The perfectly cooked tri-colour Modena pasta with a bologne sauce (tomato and meat).

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For the non-meat eaters, quattro formaggio. His life will never be the same.

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And these tasty bits are the piece of dough seen above, dropped into hot oil until puffed up.

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And then opened, stuffed with a very creamy (although with a different texture than you’d call ‘creamy.’ The proper word escapes me and I will seek out this cheese — I promise! — on our return. After stuffing with cheese and arugula, one could also add some parchment-thin transparent slices of home-cure prosciutto ham or salami.

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Happy happy kidlets. They ate and ate and would have eaten more had the Princess not been part of a so-lovely ensemble, playing music in the town cathedral for a mass in remembrance of all the dead children known to the parishoners.

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This pic is before the Mass began and you may just be able to see a couple of heads above the railing to the left.

The list of children’s names went on for such a long time. So much heartache, even if now old pain.

But the music was exquisite, enhanced by the indescribable acoustics.

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The feeling on the walk home was like sunshine.

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Ooooooh, big day in the tiny town.

Or at least, big day for my little chickens.

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All squeaky clean and garbed in concert black, walking two long blocks from the B&B where we’re staying, then across the piazza, then two more long blocks up to Santa Chiara.

Nervous and joyful energy. They knew they were well prepared and that the performances would be strong and so were able to relax.

All the students here at the festival have an opportunity to perform at public events and we’ve attended concerts most afternoons and evenings, some here in Casalmaggiore, others in neighbouring towns and villages.

Some of these attendees, I’ve learned, are of such a level of excellence they already have managers back in their home country.

Others have mothers.

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An early arrival in the Aula Magna, the big hall, to tune instruments and get into ‘the zone.’

You’ll please indulge my iPhone photos. I dutifully videocam’d with one hand and attempted to snap with the other. A day for memories, not photographic excellence.

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The first movement of a piano trio by Haydn. Blurred in the background is the page turner, a critical job, one I nervously held two nights ago.

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Oh, a mother’s dream to see her two little chicks up on stage. No arguing, no bickering, just lovely tuneful music.

They played the third movement of the same trio. For some reason the organizers swapped out the cello parts, likely as the Princess is again playing in a large cello ensemble in a couple of nights, and they needed to share the fun!

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And here, a Beethoven trio, with a cellist from Shanghai. In the small world department, this girl is taught by the mother of the Princess’s teacher. Got that? Jeuwen, also 12, is very sweet and arrived with her father. She and Liliana have gotten on very well, despite the language barrier. It’s very sweet to see them giggling and gesticulating together.

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Well, whew! Wasn’t that fun!

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And now, off to the ‘watermelon party’ in the cortile, the courtyard downstairs.

These are precious moments indeed. The other day I remarked as we ambled along the Po River, “Sometimes I feel like I am the luckiest person in the world.”

Homeboy replied, “Oh, Mummy. You always say that.”

I guess I do.

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Pity the poor violinist.

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Up at the crack of mid-morning, having been out late the night before, concertizing and gelato-sampling with his amicis in the piazza. The latest in gelato fascination, I am told, is three flavours of gelato in the middle of a croissant-textured flaky circular bun. More gelato, more food, and nothing to waste at the end of it all.

I’ve not yet seen or tasted this concoction, but they seem to fuel well the Ever-Growing one.

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Upon arrival at Santa Chiara, the building where the lessons and some evening concerts are held, the students work by themselves for a while, reviewing music, preparing for lessons with the professors (as they’re referred to here), or preparing for some chamber pieces, ie group work with other players.

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Homeboy here is working on a Beethoven Trio — which includes a piano and a cellist — in this case, not his beloved sister but a girl from Shanghai. They’re all about the same age and fiercely intense in their desire to make this little number ‘work.’ It’s been a good growing experience.

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After their independent morning practice the students occasionally have private lessons with various professional musicians.

While here my boy has had the tremendous experience to work with some remarkable violinists, particularly Patricia Shih. In the small world department she hails from Canada (Vancouver, in fact) and is the lead violinist of a popular quartet.

Patricia played Carnegie Hall when she was 15. Even if you’re not into this stuff, that’s pretty impressive.

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Of course a brilliant musician does not necessarily a great teacher make. However, my boy positively lights up when she’s in the room. She stops him every couple of notes, “That’s good, Nicholas, but what about playing it like this, Nicholas?” And she takes his violin, dances with it a bit, evokes a beautiful sound and then hands it back.

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He takes it back, models precisely what she says and then — whoosh! He’s done it. If he were a puppy he’d be sitting quivering on the floor, tail wagging furiously, absolutely focussed, waiting for the next command.

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Cultural assimilation is one of the great hallmarks of the clever traveller.

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Take, for example, the evening we spent in the tiny but culturally mighty town of Cremona.

Cremona is the birthplace of the stringed instrument as perfected by Antonio Stradivari in the 17th century. The Latinized form of his name, Stradivarius, as well as the shortened Strad, refer to his violins, cellos, viol de gambas, and others.

Many luthiers, makers of stringed instruments, still call Cremona home and the town still produces fine violins.

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We were fortunate to attend a concert in Cremona this week as it’s just a half-hour’s drive from where we’re staying in Casalmaggiore. Arriving about thirty minutes before the concert gave us a bit of time to wander and to get a bite to eat.

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All these little towns have duomos or cathedrals and they’re really quite spectacular works of architecture. In Casalmaggiore there are at least four churches in addition to two duomos and they’re all within walking distance of one another.


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And with piazzas everywhere you turn, the mind can’t help but turn to the stomach for help.

Hello, Stomach. Brain here. I see a bit of cobblestone with tables and chairs. What do you say?

Stomach: Mangiamo!


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Some fresh bread, my delicate one?

This ristorante looked fairly inviting and as it was filled primarily with locals out for an evening stroll we thought we’d get a taste of the city.

A massive bowl of  calamari fritti, some gnocchi Siciliana (with tomatoes and cheese), pizza quattro formaggio, insalata mista, ample bread and olive oil and some bruschetta.

My tall one has been sampling pizza quattro formaggio every other time we eat in a restaurant, in a search for the perfect combination and layout of formaggio. Sometimes the cheeses are in four triangular quadrants, sometimes they’re laid out in a perfect spiral evocative of a spotted flower and other times, it’s sprinkled on à la Kraft-style Four Cheese Family Pack.

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Eet ees, ‘ow you say….


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Mamma mia, eet ees soo goood!


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Eet ees, ‘ow you say…



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Italia, ti amo molto!







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