VIOLET

Here is a story that I wrote for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2019. I came in 3rd in my heat, so I’m moving on to the 2nd round.  The assignment for the first round was to write a drama that involved a pet sitter and a fiance. The word limit was 2500 words.

Violet

The two dogs were barking and jumping at the door when Fiona, the owner (and lone employee) of Fiona’s Critter Sitting Service let herself into the dark house. She switched on the hall light and made her way straight back to the kitchen, where the two pups anxiously awaited their liberation. She quickly unlocked the door to the backyard and the dogs bounded off the creaky porch.

Fiona filled the food and water bowls before sitting at the oak table to read the lengthy note from Mr. Hart. His notes, written in loopy cursive letters on a yellow legal pad, got longer and longer with each visit. Fiona didn’t mind, however–the notes were filled with not only details about his travels, but also with little glimpses into his love story with Violet. He was completely smitten by this woman. He explained to Fiona that their love story was a most improbable love–not forbidden- just improbable, since he was considerably older than Violet, and society didn’t always look favorably on such love. Their story was, nevertheless, inspiring to Fiona, who was beginning to wonder if she would ever meet her own soul mate.

Fiona had been to the house many times, as Mr. Hart was gone for varying durations throughout the year. She felt like she knew Mr. Hart quite well now between his pre-travel phone calls and his handwritten notes. He was an expressive, passionate man who loved to travel and was deeply in love with Violet. Last month, he had called Fiona to explain a new treatment she would need to give one of his pups. At one point in the conversation he asked Fiona to hold for a moment. She imagined that he muffled the phone with his hand, because she barely heard him say, “I’ll be there in just a minute, my darling.”  

When he returned to the phone, he spoke in a more hushed tone. “Fiona. You cannot know the joy that is in me as I prepare for our trip to St. Lucia. I have arranged so many surprises for my Violet. We will be dining privately on the sand one night–enjoying the most sumptuous seafood and island drinks together. Oh, and another day we will behold the beauty of the island by helicopter. We will see the island’s lush rainforests and coral reefs, and even the Soufriere Volcano! She will never forget this trip! How wonderful life is, Fiona!”

Fiona often wondered if Violet appreciated Mr. Hart. She wondered how old Violet was. He said she was younger than him, but by how much? Ten years? Twenty? She never met Violet in the times she’d met with Mr. Hart, but she imagined that she was beautiful and probably intelligent, too. After all, Mr. Hart was a very smart man. Fiona knew this not just from the detailed notes he scribed, but she had often noted the hundreds of books he kept on the antique shelves in his sitting room. She had read through numerous spines and seen some of the most impressive penames: Shakespeare, Keats, Updike, Austin, Dickens, and Hemingway, just to name a few.

During her last visit, she had spent time looking at the photos on the mantle– there was one of Mr. Hart in front of the Westminster Abbey, one of him covering his white hair with a straw hat on a dark-sand beach, and one of him holding up a lobster at an outdoor restaurant next to a dock. When he called her to set up this visit she asked him why Violet wasn’t in any of the photographs. He replied, “Why, she takes the photos, my dear!”

When Mr. Hart interviewed Fiona, over a year ago, she recalled him being slightly agitated and nervous about having someone coming in and out of his house. She had assured him that she was a professional, and that she was bonded and insured. They talked about her experience, her hobbies, her family, and her schooling. Mr. Hart seemed pleased with their hour-long interview and he hired her. She found herself completely taken with Mr. Hart and his caring soul. He was the most romantic man she’d ever met, and she began to eagerly anticipate the adventures that Mr. Hart described.

Fiona kicked off her sandals and began to read the yellow note on the table.

Fiona,

Thank you for caring for my beloved pups. Violet and I will return late Sunday evening. Please be sure that you come early Sunday evening in case we get in too late. Remember to give the girls their chondroitin each night; their joints seem to be less achy when they take it. I left pig ears for you to give them in the morning. They love those. As always, also make sure they have plenty of water.

As I told you, Violet and I are staying in Paris this week with my sister. She lives just a few blocks from the Tuileries Gardens, in that magical city where I met my beloved Violet. I plan to take Violet to all the places that we went to when we first met.

I think that I’ve told you that it was love at first sight with us. I saw her sitting in a little cafe up in Montmartre. She was sipping wine and eating bread, watching the local artists paint the Paris skyline. I sat down two tables over and just watched her- completely awed by her beauty. Twice she caught me looking at her and I looked away. The third time, it became a game to see who would look away first. Finally, I got up and walked to her.

“Are you waiting on someone?” I asked her.

“No, cherie,” she answered. “Would you care to join me?”

I sat down with her and we talked until the chairs were stacked all around us and the wine had long been dry in our glasses.

“May I have your number, Violet?” I asked her.

She wrote it down on the bottom of an old receipt. I remember caressing the paper as though it was her cheek. She had touched it and now I was touching it. There was a kinetic energy that ran through every cell in my body.

I called her the next day, and found that she was free. We spent the entire day together, and I knew there was no turning back for me. We ended that day on a wooden park bench, eating crêpes “avec le sucre et beurre”.

“Could you consider loving me, Violet?” I asked bravely. “You are young and beautiful and I am an old man.”

Instead of answering me, on that radiant day, she leaned over and kissed me. Her eyes were closed and when our lips touched, I began to shake uncontrollably. She pulled away and smiled. “Consider it? I demand it!” she said, with a smile that positively ruined me.

I hope that you enjoy your week. I will miss my pups, but they know how much I need this special time with Violet.

Fiona left that night feeling wistful. She yearned for the kind of connection that Mr. Hart and Violet seemed to have–the stuff of fairy tales and fireworks and passion. Their story had reignited Fiona’s belief that such a love did exist. It was rare, but it was still possible.

Two weeks later, on a Monday evening, Fiona pulled in to Mr. Hart’s driveway for her scheduled pet sit. Oddly, there was a car in the driveway that she had never seen before. She went to the front door and unlocked it with the key Mr. Hart had given her. The light in the hall was on, and she heard a voice yell from the kitchen, “Hello? Who is it?”

“It’s Fiona,” She responded, as she walked toward the voice, “from Fiona’s Critter Sitting Service. I’m here to take care of the pups!”

An elderly woman sat at the oak table, going through a box of old papers. Her hair was white, and she had a striking resemblance to Mr. Hart. “Well, you won’t need to come here anymore,” she said, looking up from her list. “My brother’s dead. Thank you for your services, my brother trusted you.”

Fiona felt her cheeks burn and chills spread down her arms all the way to her fingertips. “Oh, no!” she gasped. “And you’ve come all the way from Paris! How terrible! What happened?”

“Paris?” the woman asked incredulously. “What would give you that idea? I’ve lived here in this town for over seventy years! My brother died of a reaction to a new psychotic medication he was given last week. His heart just couldn’t take it. Nothing has worked for him all these years, and the doctors thought this might. Such a shame that no one could help him.”

“B..but… I don’t understand!” Fiona said, bewildered. “What about Violet? Does she know?”

“Violet?” asked the woman. “Who is Violet?”

Fiona looked at the woman as she fought the realization that was slowly permeating her brain. “Oh, no. This is so tragic,” Fiona said in a whisper. “Violet was the love of his life. He told me all about their love story. It was…truly… breathtaking.”

“There was no Violet, my dear,” the woman said more matter-of-factly. “My brother suffered from a diseased mind. He did have an active imagination at times.”

The woman realized that Fiona was deeply hurt by this news. She reached into the box and pulled a yellowed newspaper out and held it up for Fiona to see. “Here’s an editorial the local paper published when they first heard my brother was let out. The doctors found him responding well enough to the drugs to leave the ward. He was able to live on his own for several weeks at a time, as long as he took his medication. But oh, my brother hated the side effects of the medication. He spent his life making frequent plans to stop taking it. He knew, after years of treatment, that he would lose all sense of reality after a day or two,  so he would plan to leave his pups taken care of before he ventured out. We’d always find him down by the old bridge and bring him back to the ward to get himself readjusted and back on track.”

“But the pictures on the mantle?” Fiona asked softly.

“My brother lived alone with nothing but his books, and, in recent years, his computer. He became a master with photoshop. They do look impressively real,” she answered with a wishful smile.

“Oh, I see,” said Fiona, heartbroken. She held the article in her hands and read the headline. “No One Deserves a Psychopath Living Next Door”. She couldn’t bring herself to read the article. It was all too much for her to take in. She thanked the woman for letting her know and told her, once again, how sorry she was.

Fiona sat in her car, staring at Mr. Hart’s house for the last time. Tears rolled down her cheeks. His sister claimed he died of a reaction to a new drug. She couldn’t help but wonder, however, if it wasn’t a reaction to a moment of clarity- realizing that Violet would never be his fiancee.

“I hope you find her now,” Fiona whispered as she pulled out of the driveway.

-HC

p.s. In round 2, which is due tonight by midnight, I have to write a comedy involving a security guard and a test of strength. Not sure how this will go, but I’m busy at work now!

Put a little poem in your speech…

My blog has suffered from the upswing in my daily grind. A few months ago, I was honored with the title of Teacher of the Year for my district. I was so nervous I thought my legs would give out from under me as I walked to the podium to deliver my speech. Thankfully they told me to write one ahead, just in case, because there’s no telling what kind of babble might have come from my lips had I not had something ready!

Many people have asked me to post my speech, so here it is. The written word cannot detect the shaking legs nor the racing heartbeat that I had as I read these words… but what an unspeakable joy to share my poem with a room filled with teachers and administrators from one hundred and forty three schools…

November 8, 2018

I am just blown away right now. Thank you for this amazing honor. Thanks again to my mentor leaders, fellow teachers, my Principal- Mr. Smith, and my family for all their support and inspiration.

When I think about what is the most important thing that we do as educators, I truly believe that it is MAKING CONNECTIONS WITH ALL KIDS. OPTIMAL Learning takes place if students feel a connection to their teachers.

I am a language Arts teacher, so it’s probably no surprise that  I wrote a little poem about what connecting with kids looks like in MY classroom… I titled it “Connecting With the World In My Classroom”... and thought, if I had the opportunity, I would read it! So, here goes…

I connect with the girl from Saudi Arabia who only makes it to class sporadically-
She’d rather care for her father, dying of pancreatic cancer,
on days when her mom can find work.
I tell her to read while he sleeps and we’ll talk.

I connect with the autistic boy from Israel who responds, “I don’t see what’s so good about it” when I say “good morning” to him each day.
He knows he makes me smile.

I connect with the Ethiopian girl who lost both of her parents when she was four,
lived in an orphanage until she was nine,
and found an adopted home with 10 other kids in America.
She teaches me about optimism and appreciation.

I connect with a girl who saw her family members brutally assaulted
in a home invasion in Somalia before immigrating to the United States.
I’m happy she’s here, and I tell her so.

I connect with an African American girl who works fifty hours a week at a Taco Bell
to support her drug-addicted mother,
and the baby of her brother, who is in prison.
I check on her every day, and never turn her down when she asks for a quarter or a granola bar.

I connect with the brilliant, gay, teenage boy who is trying to find himself.
I tell him to be proud.
I tell him to never be embarrassed by his intelligence and his heart.

I connect with the Jamaican girl who suffers from bipolar disorder and can’t maintain friendships.
I pair her with a shy girl from the Dominican Republic. I saw them laughing yesterday.

I connect with the girl from the United Arab Emirates, who wears her hijab daily.
Her eyes light up when I tell her that she looks pretty.

I connect with the athlete from Lilburn who lost his father, an Air Force officer,
When he was sixteen. I encourage him when he talks to me
About applying to the Academy.
I write a letter to my congressman on his behalf.

I connect with the Puerto Rican girl who has heinous grammar but great passion-
I tell her she’ll be a writer one day,
as I register her for my creative writing course.

I traverse the globe each day.
I learn of foreign lands, lands that I may never see.
I’m inspired by their stories, and they tell me eagerly.
I listen. I have nothing to offer them but an ear and a smile,
And my words.

I am a collector of stories, from people all over the world.
I’m lucky enough to do all this
In a day’s work.

Thank you so much for this absolutely incredible honor. I will do my very best to represent this county with all that I have to give!

-Heidi Campbell

 

Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

The trains out of Paris were on strike for the second time in my travels over the last couple of years, so we were rerouted on a coach bus. There were several things that would come to light relatively quickly about this part of our adventure: the ride would be overnight into Milan, the seats could not recline if there was a normal-sized passenger behind you, and the bus would make frequent stops all night long. The stops ended up being roughly every two hours. Sleep was not really something any of us got much of that night.

When we arrived in Milan, we had breakfast at a restaurant in the train station. It was a pre-arranged deal, and I, a diabetic for nearly two decades, was taken aback by the amount of carbohydrates heaped onto my tray. There was a sugar donut, a ciabatta roll with olives nestled into the top, a giant croissant, and some other piece of bread. I nibbled on enough to get by, and we headed out to catch our train to Florence.

As we awaited the train, I looked to find one headed to Florence, but it was not on any boards. I quickly realized that the Italians do not spell Florence the way that we Americans do- it is Firenze in Italy. We boarded the train and that’s the last I remember. Sleep gripped me with the force of warriors.

I woke up and we were nearing the station in Firenze. Our luggage was picked up by a local company, and my pal Stephanie was dubbed the one who would go with the luggage carrier to make the drop off and meet us back. We put her location in our “WhatsApp” so we could track her and hit the ground- headed for our first stop which was at the Piazza Della Signoria. This square became a central meeting place for our time in Firenze. In the center of the square stands a giant statue of Cosimo de Medici- a statue of power that reminds everyone of the most powerful family in Florence history.

Whoever said that the best things in life are free must have visited this Piazza Della Signoria. This open-air, free museum in the heart of Florence is a bustling area of coffee shops, cafes, and art. There are all sorts of sculptures and statues around, including a replica of Michelangelo’s “David”. It was interesting to learn about Michaelangelo. He lived to be 89 years old, and he was a fascinating character. So fascinating, I think I will reread the Agony and the Ecstacy again soon. Apparently, the government felt that the nose on his famous statue was too big. When they were watching, but not carefully, he pretended to chop off parts of the nose, holding decoy scraps of marble in his hand, and dropping them on the ground to simulate the cutting back of the nose. When he was done, he asked the officials if it was better, and, low and behold, they said it was now perfect!

Running along one side of the Piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is an area where there are a host of statues including “Perseo”, who is holding Medusa’s head, which I found to be really gripping.

From the center of town, we moved through a narrow street to the Leonardo Leather Works, where we watched and learned how leather products are made. I found it so interesting to learn about the process, and I now know how to tell the difference between real and imitation leather.

Just as the leather presentation was wrapping up, I was summoned by our tour guide, Simon. “Heidi!” He motioned. “I need to see you out here immediately.”

His tone was absolutely not the jocular wit I’d come to appreciate, and I rushed to meet him outside the shop.

“Have you heard from Stephanie?” He asked.

“No,” I answered. “I just tried to call her but I didn’t get an answer.”

“This is not good,” he said, frowning and looking intently at his phone screen. “I’m tracking her location and it seems that the driver is taking her miles outside the city! We must get in touch with her!”

At this point, the thoughts going through my mind were absolutely frantic. I envisioned her being kidnapped by the luggage handler- drugged unconscious, and headed for some sort of scary din that I couldn’t fathom. I texted her again… “Are you okay??” “Where are you?” Nothing.

Just when I thought we would need to call the authorities, Simon heard back from her. She had simply gone on a bit of a sightseeing route back to us. When she finally showed up, I hugged her with more relief than I’d care to admit!

We took a fantastic walking tour of the city next. We made our way through the streets, where our guide pointed out all sorts of interesting things. I was versed on the impact of the Medici family, and realized quickly that their “stamp” was all over the city. They have a family “crest” of sorts, that is adorned with six balls, known as the Medici balls. Five of them are red and one is blue. Once I saw one, I saw them everywhere. While numerous folklore exists about what those balls represented, the most acceptable story seems to be that they represent the medical background of the Medici family- they were doctors and the balls represent pills.

We saw large, cast iron loops along many of the buildings. These were places for people to tie up their horses when they came into the city.

We wandered to the Ponte Vecchio, otherwise known as the Old Bridge. This is the bridge that crosses over Firenze’s Arno River, and is the only bridge to survive the natzi’s during WWII. As we walked to the bridge, strolling through the shops, we learned that this place of expensive jewelers was once a street filled with tanners, meat venders, and smelly fish shops. In the early 1500s, Ferdinand I thought it was too smelly and said that the only shops he wanted in the area were goldsmiths and jewelers. The view from the bridge was lovely, and I knew staring out at the river, that I would have to return to this place of art and romance. One day…

After the walking tour we had a wonderful cheese fondue lunch at a local cafe. They delivered a basket of bread and Brooke, another traveler on the trip, was excited to share the mouth watering delight. Simon couldn’t believe the size of the bread basket, and asked, “do you think you have enough bread?” I told him I hoped so. I think he had to have been impressed with our fortitude when the basket was emptied!

After lunch, we had free time to wander the city. I opted to hit the shopping market and the Duomo. The markets were literally brimming with leather goods. Leather is to Italy what lobsters are to Maine. The vendors were all willing to make deals, and it felt like stepping back in time to be there. One market we strolled through, the Mercato Nuovo, housed a very special sculpture- one that I was thrilled to discover because it was sure to bring me luck. It was a replica of the “Il Porcellino”, which means “the little pig”. The original bronze boar was sculpted in 1634 by an Italian named Pietro Tacca. The pig, according to legend, brings good luck to those who rub his snout. If you put a coin in the boar’s mouth, and the coin makes it to the drain below, it means you will return to Firenze. (Apparently the money collected is donated to a homeless shelter for children.) I am pleased to announce that my luck should be good and I’ll be returning to Firenze!

Stephanie and I decided to spend our last hours at the Piazza del Duomo, home to Il Duomo Firenze, which translates to the Cathedral of St. Mary the Flower.This towering cathedral, the Duomo for short, was built in 1206 and designed by Filipino Brunelleschi. It is the longest Christian church in the world, and the third largest. The grandeur of the dome can be seen all over the city, which makes it, according to Simon, “very difficult to get lost.”

The outside of the church is a mix of pink, white, and green marble. The pink, a light shade of red, stands for charity, the white stands for faith,and the green is hope; all of the marble colors are also the colors of the Italian flag. It is possible to climb the 476 steps into the Duomo for only 8 euros, but we didn’t have the time or the gumption with only a couple hours of sleep the night before. I would love, another time, to attempt these steps to get a closer look at the amazing frescos at the top by the artist Giorgio Vasari.

It is free to enter the Duomo, but the line an be up to two hours. We got lucky and made it in with only a thirty minute wait. Outside, there were plenty of scarf peddlers for those who forgot to cover their shoulders. The Italian churches demand the covering of skin for those entering their holy places.

Our evening ended with a dinner in a little back street at a place called Osteria dei Baroncelli. The food was good, but the tiramisu was devine! The Italians know how to please a palate. Back at the hotel, sleep took over until I awoke to our next day, which had us on the road to Rome…

One can never have too many gargoyles… Paris, France 2018

I’m a sucker for gargoyles. I know that my affinity for these little winged gutter spouts would not be the desired response of the cathedral builders, but I find them irresistible. I told myself, as I neared the city, that I didn’t need to buy any Paris goodies since it was less than two years since I last visited my favorite city. I knew, however, as soon as I saw the tiny, spitting gargoyle, that he would have to join my growing flock of gargoyles at home in Atlanta. In the early days of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, many believed that the gargoyles scared away evil spirits. If this is true, why WOULDN’T I want to line my house with them? can one ever have too many gargoyles?

We arrived in Paris on the Eurostar train from London. Once we got on board, the trek was swift and seamless. Getting on the train with all of our luggage, however, is a major hassle. Hoisting my suitcase up the stairs practically killed me, and I had to schlep it to another train car because the one I was assigned was completely full. Needless to say, if you travel by train- less is best.  It was interesting to

We left the train station by coach bus, and rode into the city. I felt a smile working it’s way out of my soul as we made our way into my all-time favorite city. There is a special vibe in Paris that just sits right with me. It is like no other city. I don’t know if my love of Paris stems from my French roots or whether it is my love of the food, music, and art- but there will never be a day when I’d turn down a trip to Paris.

We passed by all sorts of wonderful landmarks-des Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Dome Des Invalides & Tomb of Napoleon. For some reason, I can’t see the Champs Elysees without breaking out into song… “Oh… Champs-Elysees!”. (Later in the trip I irritated Simon by singing “Istanbul was Constantinople” each time he spoke of Turkey.)  We got out of the bus along the backside of the Place de Trocadero, and were able to get some beautiful (and comical) photos of the Eiffel Tower. It was a bit hazy, but we were happy that the predicted rain stayed away.

We walked back to the bus and I noted the trash cans that contain clear bags. These trash cans were the solution to keeping bombs out of trash cans. Some cities have simply pulled trash cans all together- seems like this is a better way of keeping the streets clean- and safe!

The second part of our day was a tour of the Palace of Versailles.  This place is amazing. Once a mere hunting lodge, Louis the XIII decided that he wanted it to be his residence, so he expanded it to the size it is now- a palace of 2,300 rooms! It remained a palace until The French Revolution. During the Revolution, much of the art was stashed in the Louvre. Once the war ended, the art was returned to Versailles, which, for a while, was a storage facility. Eventually, Versaille transitioned into it’s next and final phase: a museum.

Before we began our tour of the garden and the palace, we went to lunch at a little outdoor cafe next to the Palace. I ordered the French Onion Soup and it was perfect. After lunch we got ice cream, and headed to tour the gardens. It was 120 degrees (hyperbolic- yes), but I was eager to explore.

When we walked toward the gardens, I honestly had no preconceived notion about what we would see. I knew that there would be vast gardens, but certainly didn’t realize that they would span as far as the eye could see. The gardens were immediately surrounding the Palace, and the park stretched back from the fountain for what seemed miles.  Apparently, Louis XIV was so proud of the gardens that he even welcomed the public in to enjoy them.

The fountains, which were not turned on when we were wandering through, had all sorts of interesting statues in the centers. My favorite was the angry fish… probably because it is almost gargoylesque! The gardens contain 221 works of art, making it the largest open air sculpture museum in the world, according to the Chateau Versailles brochure.

Inside, the rooms are clad in beautiful art, with busts and full figure statues at every turn. The Hall of Mirrors was not only beautiful, but also was cutting edge. The idea of using mirrors along the walls of a room was originated at Versailles. It enabled them to use dim lights, and those lights reflected in the mirrors to light the room.

After Versailles, we headed back to the city to enjoy a river cruise down the Seine River. Travel mate Stephanie skipped the Versailles experience to meet up with her cousins. She texted me to ask which dock we were meeting at, and I asked Simon, who said it was directly under the Eiffel Tower, and added, “It is blindingly obvious. Even an amoeba from Saturn could find it.”

She found us, and said a teary farewell to relatives she doesn’t see often enough.

After a disappointing cruise down the Thames in 2017, I was not expecting much from our evening cruise down the Seine. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the views and experience! The cruise was amazing! It was a gorgeous night, and local Parisians were lining the river bank enjoying wine and cheese. These locals waved to us as we passed by, and the students on board waved and even got a “wave” going after going under each bridge.

This video shows the excitement the kids had on board the river cruise! What an excellent part of our adventure!

 

Our hotel was far from convenient to the city… it was located all the way out by Euro Disney. The check-in process was a complete nightmare and took well over an hour, but Simon, our guide, kept his composure and didn’t give up until we were all taken care of. The view out our hotel window was really nice, and the windows opened all the way, so we slept with the fresh air of France filling our airways… (Brooke and Donica, anti-bug people, finally gave in and enjoyed the fresh air after realizing there was no working A/C).  There were several restaurants within walking distance of this hotel, one that sold me a delicious crepe after 11:00pm! Crepe avec sucre et beurre… DELICIOUS!

The next morning we headed to the Louvre. Since this would be my third visit in three years, I was determined to find new art to appreciate. I wandered and found all sorts of works that I had not noticed before. The Death of Cleopatra was one that really stood out… what a shocking piece when you focus in and realize that it is a snake biting her nipple. Not sure there’s much realism in her expression- I don’t think a woman would be so calm in that instance… Was it that women had to hide their emotions? Never let on what sort of pain you might be hiding? Or was it that the artist thought there might even be some sort of pleasure here? The title, however, reminds us that Cleopatra WAS killed by a snake bite, so this is really a sad piece.

I also enjoyed taking a closer look at the The Department of the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The sculptures represent the thoughtful nature of the ancient civilizations. Not only do they seem to represent thinking and focusing, but they also represent a need to understand how things work. Truly fascinating.

Of course no trip to the Louvre is complete without beholding the Greek goddess Aprhodite, better known as the Venus de Milo  (the woman with no arms), and the Mona Lisa. The middle statue below is La Pallas de Velletri- a statue of Athena. This one is a famous replica of an original from Naples, Italy.

We had lunch in a wonderful cafe- Le Marmiton de Lutece. I had a three-cheese fondue that absolutely melted in my mouth! We sat outside and enjoyed the people watching and the atmosphere. I snapped a photo of the inside when I went to use the toilets (never called bathrooms or rest rooms).

The toilets seem to always be found in the cellars at the bottom of tiny, often winding stairways…

One of my last highlights in Paris was a visit to the historic “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore. There was a line to get in, and I enjoyed a well-practiced accordian performance while I waited. Inside, I found lots of interesting selections, and really wanted to bring home the book detailing the history of the store, but my brain went back to the weight of my suitcase and the struggle I had getting it onto the train. In the end, I came out of the store empty-handed…

We met back at Notre Dame to meet up and board the bus that would take us to Italy.

Our train to Milan was cancelled due to yet another Paris strike. (My train was cancelled due to a strike in 2016 when we were headed to Barcelona, but that year they rerouted us via airplane.) This year, we were assigned what would become the world’s longest bus ride. It was an overnight ride, so we needed to sleep… but when that bus pulled into the train stop in Milan, Italy, no one on board had more than a couple hours… Simon was quick to tell Stephanie to “stop faffing”, and the bus driver had to stop every two hours.

Au Revoir, Paris… until next time!

-HC

Next up: A Taste of Italy…

Finding Shakespeare: London 2018

There are times in life when we find things we don’t even realize we are seeking. This happened to me just a few days ago- in London. I found The Bard- the most famous of all writers. He was living in a tiny metal shop owned by a wheeling and dealing Asian man in Covent Garden. I saw Little Willy Shakespeare and knew at once that I would have to take him home…

I arrived in London after an overnight flight on Virgin Atlantic airways. As a first-time passenger on Branson’s renowned fleet, I was impressed from the time I stepped on board. The music piping through the speakers was reminiscent of my teen years in the 1980s. The Violent Femmes and the Clash were just a few of the “boarding tunes” we enjoyed as we found our way to our seats.

On the bus ride into the city center, I enjoyed the scenery as we hugged “the embankment ” which runs along the Thames River. We drove past Cheyne Walk, a place where many famous people, including Mick Jagger, have lived. The houses of the rich and famous in the area are marked with blue circle plaques baring their name.

We stopped in Westminster for lunch, and took our sandwiches to the Victoria Embankment Gardens, where we sat and enjoyed lunch with the locals. Thankful to be able to eat wheat and dairy again, I enjoyed my tomato and cheese sandwich, which I picked up at a local sandwich shop just around the corner.

The park was an interesting array of untouchable green space- with signs warning visitors to stay off the grass… and sloped, shaded areas where sitting was permitted. There were areas with deck-chairs, but they were all occupied. The literary nerd in me was also thrilled to notice a Robert Burns Memorial in the park. (Burns is the “To a Mouse” poet perhaps most famous for one line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley”).

After our relaxing lunch we found free bathrooms in a McDonald’s, and continued our sightseeing. We passed a bank called Coutts, which is London’s oldest bank. This bank is the very keeper of the royal money, so I’ve learned… often referred to locally as “the queen’s bank”. My mouth dropped when Simon, our tour guide, told us that one must have a $1.5 million minimum deposit to open an account at Coutts. WOW!  I’m sure the service must be simply impeccable…

We also stopped to gawk at the 1600 seat Odeon cinema, which is allegedly the largest in the country. The Odeon is where all the major premiers take place- box office smashes including the likes of Harry Potter and Avatar.

Trafalgar Square, named such in 1830, was next on the agenda. This famous square located outside of the National Gallery, named for Admiral Nelson’s Victory in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, boasts Nelson’s Column, a famous fountain, numerous statues, and four lions set to guard the column.  We wandered past the giant lions, which were brought to the square in 1868. They were designed by an artist named Edwin Landseer, who allegedly took great care to make them as true to life as possible. According to “The Londonist”, however, there was an error to his work. “In real life, lion’s backs are convex, and not concave, when lying down.” (londonist.com) This faux pas is certainly not an error that the average Joe would notice.

I enjoyed the local entertainment from the musicians to the chalk artists. The floating Yodas were still hanging around, reminding me of my last visit with my family who were fascinated by these guys.

With a bustle the likes of Time’s Square, Piccadilly Circus was our next stop. Stephanie, one of my travel buds, got a kick out of “Mr. UK” who was boogie dancing in the entrance to the largest souvenir shop in the area…

Our next stop was at the historical Covent Gardens, on London’s West End, where we had time to snack and shop. The shopping and eating mecca actually came to be back in 1654, and thrives today as a popular place for tourists and locals.

Walking past the flower carts, I imagined Eliza Doolittle holding a bouquet, trying to earn a tuppence… and the crabby and arrogant Professor Higgins muttering, “I have created this thing [Eliza] out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden…”  As a veteran British Lit teacher, I was delighted to be in this place.

As I wandered across the cobblestone piazza, I stopped to watch some street performers acting out a dramatic “chase scene” in front of St. Paul’s.  I stepped into the famed “Apple Market” and enjoyed checking out the wares of local vendors- jewelry, crafts, and art.  I wandered my way to the Far Eastern edge of the area to a market area called Jubilee Hall Market. It was here that I found my trip’s treasure, tucked high on the shelf of a tiny booth run by an ancient Asian man. The three inch Bard is made of solid brass. I was thrilled to talk the seller down from twenty to twelve pounds. Little Willy was the perfect size to fit in my pocket, and I walked away knowing that he would be happy in his new home in America…

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There was some great entertainment inside the covered area of Covent Gardens… and I stopped to enjoy for a little while… I talked to a local guy about the performance, and learned that the people who perform in the gardens actually have to audition- it is not just a free for all!

London is such an entertaining place in which to wander. The humor of the Brits plays out all over the place- a wit I never tire of…

One of our dinners in London was at a Turkish restaurant called Bistro 1, where I had a delicious Falafel and hummus dish…  Another dinner was at an Indian restaurant called Salt’n Pepper. According to our guide Simon, the Brits thrive on Indian cuisine- it is very much a part of the British culture. The food was set up buffet style and was mild and tasty- there was a curry chicken dish and a spinach vegetarian dish- both with rice. I couldn’t stop looking at the beautiful lights decorating the place. I would really love to have one of these beautiful lanterns…

Our second day in London kicked off with a visit to the Tower of London. I was excited to get a chance to return to this place after neglecting to purchase a medieval goblet whence I was here last. I thought about that goblet for two years. As luck had it, the goblet, a replica of King Theobald’s actual chalice, was still available in the Tower Shop, and will now be enjoyed by me for years…

The Tower of London is a fascinating place to explore. This time, I spent time reading about the torture chambers and checking out the prudent armor worn during the reign of King Henry the VIII… (I think the photo speaks for itself).

We ate lunch outside at a place called Argeant’s, next to the Tower Bridge along the Thames. Last time I was in London, I enjoyed their fish and chips and mushy peas, and the quality hadn’t changed a bit!

After lunch, we were scheduled to enjoy a walking tour. Blimey! Our guide for this was a local chap who seemed to have forgotten that we had head sets on so he could easily share all sorts of Interesting tidbits. Much of the walking tour was spent just walking- and listening to air!? Where were the interesting stories? Where was the trivia??

Once the underwhelming walking tour was completed, we continued walking with our far more knowledgeable Simon, who pointed out some interesting morsels including China town, the flag-laden route of the queen, the bird keepers cottage, and the home of Prince Charles and Camilla… which is behind the iron fence in the photo…

I was impressed with the traffic lights in London… in honor of Pride Week, the city had some of the lights portraying two little green men!

Abbey Road was our first stop on our last day in London. Fans flock to the crosswalk where the Beatles photographed their studio album- Abbey Road- and I, a Beatles fan myself, was thrilled to have the opportunity! The road is a busy street, and there is no way to get a photo other than to wait for a lull in the traffic. Once the opportunity strikes, the “crosser” must act fast and hope that whoever takes the photo was accurate. I enjoyed tracing the steps of George, Ringo, Paul, and John, as well as seeing their recording studio.

““And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”- Paul McCartney, The End (Abbey Road)

We walked to Buckingham Palace next, to watch the changing of the guards. On our way there, we had the incredible luck of seeing the Queen drive past us in her maroon Bentley! She was dressed in a hot pink suit with a matching hat.

Just before my time in London was up, I got the opportunity to wander through the National Gallery. I enjoyed the impressionist exhibits and especially enjoyed post- impressionist Van Gogh’s work. (If you ever want to read an amazing account of Van Gogh’s life, check out Lust For Life by Irving Stone!)

London was exciting and it was bittersweet boarding the Eurostar train. I was, however, excited to visit my favorite city in the world next: PARIS!

-HC

Fear and loathing on the “allergic to everything” trail…

I’ve finished off almost two weeks. In two weeks, I’ve tried to navigate a diet course that has thrown my life an abrupt curve ball. I believe I am moving into a new stage in this “meat, wheat, egg, and milk free” diet: acceptance.

The good news is that I’ve found there ARE plenty of good (albeit expensive and harder to find) alternatives for me to make at home. I’ve found dairy-free cheese that melts and some that doesn’t. I’ve found dairy free sour cream that is completely acceptable.  I’ve found gluten and egg-free pasta, crackers, and even (dry) bagels with dairy free cream cheese. As long as I plan ahead and cook at home, my food life is completely sustainable, and some of the alternatives, I am shocked to admit, are remarkably good!

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The bad news, the part that makes me tear up nearly daily no matter how strong I appear, is that I just can’t go to my favorite places and order my favorite things anymore. Einstein Bagels is out… they do not have gluten free bagels, and their “smear” is dripping with dairy. My favorite pizza place does not have any sort of option either for this dietary predicament.  I have to just forget about these places I’ve enjoyed for more than 20 years. When I think about not eating real cheese and wheat and eggs it feels like I’ve lost a best friend…

But today, I woke up with a sharper sense of acceptance. I woke up with conviction in my belly. Conviction screamed at my psyche insisting, “Enough! This is minor compared to what many people are dealing with…” I am truly a lover of breads and cheeses, but I need to find comfort in new foods. That’s all.

As I flipped through social media, I read a post from a beloved student I taught years ago. Her son is a tiny toddler who is fighting a brain tumor right now. The pain, worry, terror that she and her husband are experiencing right now are unimaginable. I saw another friend who has been crushed by the loss of a loved one. There are families who have lost everything to natural disasters.  And I have the audacity to tear up over the loss of a few food groups? I’m going to focus on perspective this week. Try to be positive and count my blessings. No. More. Tears.

I thought I’d share some of my new findings this week for anyone looking for ideas who share these dietary restrictions.

Eating out. I am an absolute lover of Mexican food. I ate out at Chili’s this week. (I know- that’s Tex-Mex). At Chili’s, where I spent years as a server and bartender, I nibbled on corn tortilla chips and salsa. I ordered fajitas without the cheese and sour cream. I was able to eat the guacamole, pico, peppers, onions, mushrooms, black beans and a little shrimp with the CORN tortilla option that they offer! This was tasty and made me feel almost normal! Yeah for Chili’s!

Breakfasts. This week I left behind the luxury of the Vans waffles for some cereal and almond milk- even quicker in the ridiculously early mornings of a High School English teacher. I bought the unsweetened almond milk from SPROUTS, where I found an excellent variety of options for peeps on this diet plan. (I got unsweetened because I want to get the milk that most tastes like milk- the less it tastes like coconut or almonds the better to me!) I selected Van’s Honey Crunch cereal, which is gluten, egg, and dairy free. This cereal, with some added blueberries and almond milk, was really quite good once I got over the pasty-like consistency it turns into if you let it soak in the milk for too long. Overall, though, it was pretty okay. It is low in sugar with no high fructose corn syrup, to boot!

On Friday, I treated thawed out one of my new finds: a gluten, egg, and dairy free bagel with dairy free cream cheese. The cream cheese gets a thumbs up from me. A bit of a pasty consistency, but the feeling that I’m eating cream cheese is at least imaginable. The bagel… well, what can I say. I give it a 4. A bit dry. Oh, Einstein Bagels, how you spoiled me all these years…

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Lunches: My school cafeteria does a pretty good job of having healthy options at lunch. Unfortunately, however, they can’t possibly find much to meet my needs, so I’m back to bringing my lunch box. (If only I had kept the one with Shaun Cassidy on the front). This week, I made what I call “happy salads”. I get bored with salads, which I eat once or twice daily and have for YEARS. The salads that make me happiest have the most colors. So- this week, I made dark green and purple lettuce salads with orange and red peppers, blueberries, raspberries, and cucumbers. I used vegan raspberry vinaigrette dressing.  My “sandwich” was half a gluten-free tortilla wrapped with about two tablespoons of tuna. (I also had celery and carrots depending on the day.)  These were pretty good, but be aware the gluten free tortillas have to be eaten with a fork. They don’t hold together well enough to pick up and eat like a proper roll-up.

lunches

Dinners: I found some tasty options this week. One day I made vegan, wheat-free pasta alfredo and veggie dogs (with a salad). The pasta was actually REALLY good- even passed the taste-test of my 13-year old! The consistency was good and it didn’t have the pastiness I’ve tended to find in these alternative foods.  The veggie dogs were mediocre… a little too mushy for my tastes. I will try them on the grill next time instead of boiling them. But when you cut them up and add enough ketchup, they end up okay…

I also tried my first wheat, dairy, and egg free pizza this week. This was interesting. I ate 2 slices of the 10 inch little pizza with salad. I kept looking in the oven to watch the cheese melt, but it never happened. I gave my first try a 3 because of the icky cheese.  When I heated up another piece later in the week, I sprinkled some vegan mozzarella cheese that I found over the top. It melted! This was a MASSIVE improvement! So, I will buy this again sometime.

mush pizza

Probably my favorite dinner was my Mexican dinner, which I enjoyed for a couple meals.  I used peppers, onions, mushrooms, corn, black beans, and salsa and sizzled them up in a pan. I put the mix on my gluten free tortilla, topped it with guacamole, added vegan cheddar and (later in the week) vegan sour cream, and had a really tasty dinner. I had to chop it up and mix it all together because, once again, these tortillas do NOT hold together well at all…

Ingredients:

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On the plate before and after:

One more family- meal I made this week was a wheat & dairy-free pasta marinara w/ vegan meatballs.  This was delicious and the entire family loved it! Coupled with a salad, it is a definite staple in the Campbell house.

 

I hope that some of my findings might be helpful to others dealing with these dietary restrictions. I continue to read articles about how a 46 year old person can suddenly accumulate such a laundry list of allergies, and why they have to be so destructive to my kidneys. As I find answers, I will share them. I’ve read a LOT of articles about the possibility of all of this stemming from TICKS… stay tuned.

-HC

46 years old and suddenly allergic wheat, eggs, AND milk? Whaaaat???

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last few days about food allergies, after getting word from recent blood tests that I’m now highly allergic to wheat, egg whites, and milk, and moderately allergic to peanuts and soy. As a diabetic pescatarian with a kidney disease known as Focal Segmental Glomerulonephritis, https://nephcure.org/livingwithkidneydisease/understanding-glomerular-disease/understanding-fsgs/ )  this news felt like a sucker punch in the gut. For the sake of my health issues I’ve already thrown meat, sugar, and white-flour, carby-foods to the curb. How can I possibly live with all these additional food restrictions? French blood courses through my veins; bread and cheese are my go-to foods! I love bagels with cream cheese. And sub sandwiches on whole wheat. And eggs. And butter. And yogurt. I mourn for my palate, who now needs to enroll in a new graduate program…

Of course, I began reading. I’ve read scores of helpful blogs that reveal positive experiences and recipes with these dietary restrictions. Often in my life I’ve thought about how glad I was to grow up in a time without today’s modern technology, but what I’ve found online has actually made me thankful to live in this digital age- where we can access such a wealth of information. I’m amazed by the resources I’ve found and how many others in the world live gluten, meat, dairy, egg, soy, and peanut-free.

With tears freshly dried, I went to the “healthy” section of the local grocery store to explore the possibilities of my new food life. There are options aplenty for gluten free foods, but those options significantly decrease when one needs to be sure they are also dairy, soy, and egg free.  I did find, however, several products that I can eat, and I checked out with hope that these new morsels would not taste too horrific.

I’ve tried some of the items that I purchased, and I’ve not been as underwhelmed as I feared. I made myself lunch using a dairy & wheat free tuna tortilla, which was pretty good. The “mission” brand, gluten-free tortillas do not hold together well, but cut into quarters and used as a top and bottom to the tuna, it was not bad at all. With an apple and some celery sticks, my lunch was portable, filling, and tasty.

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For a weekend breakfast option, I’m really impressed with Vans gluten-free and dairy-free waffles with dairy free (Earth Balance) butter spread and blueberries. I used syrup with no added sugar or corn-syrup, and it was quite tasty! It was odd to crunch down on some sesame seeds, but my palate said, “yes, ma’am.”

vans waffle with syrup and blueberries

I made a dinner using the ONE loaf of bread that I found that did NOT have egg whites, wheat, dairy, or soy. It is a brand called “Ener-G”, and the slices are the size of playing cards. I used the dairy free butter and I found some vegan “chao” cheese (this DOES contain tofu, so I’m not sure I can eat much of this one- but the tests showed the soy allergy to be moderate- I’ll learn more in the coming weeks about what that really means).  I made a tiny little grilled cheese sandwich to accompany my beans and blueberries. I was impressed that the butter melted and the texture of the bread was not crumbly- it held together quite nicely. While this new diet requires very specific shopping and planning, at least I can see ways to appease my cranky palate.

grilled cheese

Today, I used the Gluten and dairy-free tortillas to make a pizza. I doubled the flimsy tortillas together to make a more sturdy pizza crust. I spread tomato sauce over it and covered it with the vegan cheese. I baked it in the oven for 15 minutes, then took it out and ate it. While the cheese didn’t melt into that mozzarella melt that strings for miles, it was warm and mixed well with the sauce.

pizza possibilities

I’m on my way to figuring out how to replace my comfort foods. I eat plenty of greens which I’ve not bothered to talk about here; my broccoli crowns, asparagus spears, and salads are not going anywhere. They are just now betrothed to new partners.

I hope that by blogging about these dietary discoveries, others in similar situations might find some new ideas or suggestions. If you are reading this and have ideas or suggestions- please leave comments for others to see! If you are reading this and know anyone who might benefit from any of this- please share it!

For the next few weeks, I plan to keep myself busy so that I don’t sulk and think about all the foods I’m going to miss… I’m saying my silent farewell to my guilty pleasures: macaroni and cheese, Collossus pizza, REAL cheese, and whole wheat anything. I will miss all of you like a lost friend. But, as they say in show business… “the show must go on!”

-Heidi