Ireland Part 2: Irish culture unveiled through dance, St. Patrick’s, the Book of Kells, & more

One cannot think of Dublin without thinking of music. The Irish music, once squelched by the Brits, is certainly alive and well. I thoroughly enjoyed a live show at the Ladsdowne Theater put on by “The Irish House Party”. This musical trio boasts a dancer who toured the world with Lord of the Dance. Their traditional folk songs, dance, and Irish music education was simply delightful! I learned, for instance, that there are three main instruments in Ireland: the harp; the uilleann pipes, which are played with the elbow while sitting; and the Bahran drum, which is made of goatskin and played sideways. Perhaps ne of the most fun was when they played “the Ratlin Bog”, which is a favorite at my school’s lacrosse home games!

Here is a link to watch a clip of the Irish dancer:

Here is a link to watch “the Ratlin Bog” performance:

Landsdowne Theater, Dublin, Ireland

I was really excited to visit and tour Dublin’s largest Anglican cathedral: St. Patrick’s. This gothic style cathedral, built in the 13th century, is undoubtedly one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. The inside is truly stunning, with light pouring in through clear and stained glass windows, particularly the west window, which shows the life of St. Patrick.

Some beauty from the inside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

One of the most interesting tidbits I learned about was the “Door of Reconciliation” , which is pictured below.

This door dates back to 1492 when a feud broke out between two families- the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds. Both families wanted their own kin to have the position of Lord Deputy, and the fighting got out of control. When the Butler’s could take no more, they retreated to St. Patrick’s cathedral where they were given sanctuary. The Fitzgerald’s argued with them through the door, trying every tactic to get them to come out, but the Butlers refused to come out. In order to prove that the Fitzgerald’s wanted a truce, the head of the Fitzgerald family had a hole cut in the door at the church. He then put his arm through the hole and yelled that the Butlers should either cut it off or shake it. The Butlers shook and peace ensued. This is where the saying “chance your arm” comes from.

Another beautiful display in the cathedral is the Boyle Monument, which is the largest in the entire cathedral.

The Boyle Monument, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland

The monument, erected in 1632, shows the history of the First Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, and includes four generations of his wife Katherine’s family. The monument was erected behind the high alter, until another Earl, Thomas Wentworth, ordered it to be moved. This order proved fatal, as the Boyle family was enraged and Wentworth ended up executed.

As a veteran British Literature teacher, it is easy to understand why my favorite part of the cathedral tour was learning about Jonathan Swift, who was the cathedral’s dean from 1713-1745. His pulpit was on display, and rumor has it he would preach for three to four hours. He had wheels put on his pulpit so he could move it to be close to people who were falling asleep. (Some even claim that he would throw things at the sleepers!) My morbid curiosity was truly peaked when I discovered the “death mask” of Swift, as well as a plaster cast of his skull. The death mask really grabbed me, as it is literally a 3-D vision of what he looked like when he died! I’ve read and taught his work, both Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal for close to 27 years, and seeing this gave new depth to my author background!

One of the final tourist stops in Dublin was a visit to the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity College. I must admit, I had no idea what the Book of Kells was prior to my visit. What I learned, is that it is a book, dating back to to 800 AD, that contains the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. What has truly made these particular pages famous, is the artwork depicting beautiful animals and symbols to glorify the life of Jesus. The text was beautifully decorated as well using a whole range of colors- reds, blues, and yellows. The exhibit has two volumes of the book displayed- one to show the art and one to show the text. The book pages are made of velum, which apparently comes from the skin of a stillborn calf. The book publishers took the skin, stretched it, and brushed it with a scraper before allowing it to dry for a few days. Once the skin was dried, they would cut it into whatever shape they wanted. What an effort, but what a payoff?! The “pages” are over 1,200 years old!

As a high school librarian, I was absolutely stunned by the Long Room at Trinity College. This “room” is called such because it is over 200 feet long! This part of the library has over 200,000 books as well as the Harp- Ireland’s national symbol. There is a law in Ireland that every publisher is required to send a copy of all their books. Considering this, it is no wonder the books go all the way to the ceiling. According to movie buffs, it is the Long Room that inspired Star Wars producers when they designed the Jedi Temple archives!

I really enjoyed the sites of Dublin. A few other spots we visited, which are worth mentioning, were Dublin Castle (see photo in final collage) and the Garden of Remembrance. This Garden, located in Parnell Square, is a memorial put up in 1966 to honor those who fought for Irish freedom. At the far end of the pool is the “Children of Lir” sculpture, which shows children turning into swans. Legend has it that an evil stepmother put a curse on the children and turned them into swans. They had to stay in their swan bodies for 900 years. In the myth, they finally become humans again but they are old and near their death. This represents the fighting Irish. In essence, the statue symbolizes rebirth and resurrection not only of the children, but of the Irish People as well.

The Irish people in Dublin were friendly and spunky. We had an amazing tour guide, Renee, who was the quintessential Irish woman. Her quick wit and zest for life was truly infectious. She told us about the influence of Guinness in Dublin. The company, which currently takes up seven blocks, was founded by Arthur Guinness in 1759. Perhaps he started the company “to support the 21 kids he had with his wife Olivia!” Renee added. Indeed, Renee was full of stories, including the fact that the Queen of the River Liffey, whose statue can be found in Memorial Park, is better known as the “Floosy in the Jacuzzi”.

Renee also told us, as we crossed the river, that the river cuts Dublin in half; the north side and the south side. “And the south,” she said with a grin, “is where all the snots live!”

Our time in Dublin was amazing. I was glad, however, that I wasn’t having to drive. According to tour guide Renee, “Parking here in Dublin is as rare as hen’s teeth!”

I cannot say enough about the great vibe I got from my time in Dublin. While my dinner options on the tour continued to offer an overabundance of potatoes, I, the anti-potato queen, did manage to survive! Heck, I even survived black pudding- an Irish breakfast staple- otherwise known as blood sausage. (Just kidding. I couldn’t bring myself to try this one!) I will most definitely return as long as, in the words of the late Johnny Cash, “the Good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise!”


Ireland Part 1: Uncovering deeper meaning in Dublin

I recently returned from a tour of Ireland, Scotland, England, and France. This was my first trip to Ireland, and, as travel does, I once again realized how much I have yet to learn about the world. My travels (and this helping of reflection) began in Dublin, where my education began. One of the biggest misconceptions I had about the Irish people is that they are not simply stereotypical pint-slugging party people adorned in shamrock hats. These are people with true convictions for what they believe, people who are willing to defend those convictions at all costs.

I learned that the harp, and not the shamrock, is the national emblem of the country. Apparently, harp music has been popular in Ireland since the 10th century, when minstrels traveled the country entertaining with melodies and stories read to music. In the 16th century, however, the English royalty got some sort of bee in their bonnets and declared that all harps were a threat to the monarchy. Harps. The most peaceful, serene sound irked the royals. They were so profoundly annoyed that they ordered all harps to be burned and all harpists to be put to death. Harp music, such an integral part of Irish history, disappeared for almost 200 years.

So, it should come as no surprise to realize that the Irish desire to separate from the Brits really began to seep into the souls of the Irish people. Their resentment grew over time, and has become part of their grit. From my understanding, it seems the Irish don’t like to take orders and they are masters of passive aggressiveness.

A really good example of this sense of protest is captured by the multi-colored doors found all over Dublin. When Queen Victoria died, the British government demanded that everyone in Dublin paint their doors black in mourning her death. The Irish people were said to have given a silent “middle finger” to that request, and, instead, painted doors of every color. Never make demands of the Irish!

As far as sights to see in Dublin- WOW! What a fun city to explore! We had a great lunch at the Kilkenny buffet, which was stocked with fresh, healthy salads and sandwiches. I had a delicious turkey panini with a green salad adorned with a parmesan vinaigrette dressing. While the desserts looked amazing, my diabetic blood opted out. Sadly.

After lunch, we embarked on a drizzly walking tour. We saw the Mayor’s House, more commonly known as “the Mansion House”, which is over 300 years old.

This house was built on the famous Dawson Street after Joshua Dawson, who was a developer in the early 1700s in Dublin. He built the house, but never ended up living in it. He ended up selling it to the city to be the home of Dublin mayors.

We wandered through a lovely park where we saw St. Stephen’s Green, which might be the most famous park in Dublin. Once a private park for the wealthy, it was made public by Dublin’s superhero- Mr. Guinness- who has done so much for Dubliners he’s perceived as a demigod! There are some great things to see in this green space, and literary folks would likely be most intrigued by the Yeats memorial garden and the bust of the author James Joyce. The Fusilier’s Arch, sometimes coined the “traitor’s gate”, is at the entrance to the park and was put up to commemorate those who died in the Second Boer War. Their names are inscribed under the arch, and there are still bullet holes from where the arch was pummeled back in 1916!

Perhaps the most interesting of all I experienced in this park was the story behind the green, which houses the famous Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa Monument. Each year, someone is awarded the “Freedom of the City” award, for their contributions to Dublin. Recipients of this award have ranged from writers like George Bernard Shaw to politicians like Mikhael Gorbachev. In 2000, Bono, from the band U2, won it. Bono took full advantage of the ancient privileges that originally came with this honor, including the fact that the winner was allowed to bring their own flock of sheep to graze in the park. Bono decided to go back in time and brought a flock of sheep to the space the year he won.

Speaking of U2, tour guides are certainly quick to point out all sorts of hotspots that relate to this iconic rock band. The area along the Liffey River was run down and in dire need of renovation. In the early 1990’s, Bono and guitarist The Edge bought the ramshackle Clarence Hotel (pictured with the green roof). They completely renovated it, which, in turn, inspired an upheaval of the whole area.

My favorite statue of the trip was in Dublin: the statue of Molly Malone.

She is known, by locals, as the “tart with the cart”. She is the subject of the Irish Folksong “cockles and Mussels”: “In Dublin’s fair city/ Where girls are so pretty/ I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone./ As she wheeled her wheel-barrow/ Through streets broad and narrow/ Crying “Cockles & Mussels”, alive, alive, oh!”

Molly Malone was apparently a fishmonger by day and prostitute by night, although there are many who refute her wanton ways. She supposedly died of a fever. Visitors to Dublin love to be photographed next to this voluptuous character. Some even believe that if you rub her bosom, it will bring good fortune. Perhaps that is why the statue has such bright bronze in that area??

On top of formal music shows, there is great street music all over Dublin. The Grafton Street area had performers that sang traditional Irish folk music, and I wish I had more time to enjoy them!

We wandered through the world-renowned Temple Bar district, and I definitely plan to return here to linger a bit longer! We had a relaxing dinner at the Black Lion pub. We feasted on beef stew and potatoes. (I gave my potatoes away, as I am the president of the “I hate potatoes” club!

After dinner, we loaded the bus and headed for our hotel, the Killashee, which was about 45 minutes from Dublin. The hotel was breathtaking! It was sprawled across a beautiful green space, and the inside made me feel as though I were there to attend the most elegant countryside affair. The restaurant inside was a classy establishment, where I was schooled about why Guinness in Ireland is so much better than anywhere else in the world. Apparently, research has been done and this is not just the local opinion. The kegs are much fresher in Dublin, and frequently “changed out”, which is part of why it is so delectable. The beer taps in Dublin are also cleaned out to provide the best flavor. (Not sure how often the pubs in the US clean out their tap lines, but I doubt it is done daily?)

As the sun set on the first day in Dublin, I can’t help but be most impressed by the culture and music, which all weave a beautiful tapestry of the Irish heritage. Shame on the British for trying to squelch the voices of these people. I have a much more cohesive understanding of the Bono that came on the Grammy stage years ago- when he told the world to “F*&$ the establishment!” It is that Irish spirit that doesn’t want to be kept in chains. They want to be free, and they want the freedom to maintain their own traditions!


Coming soon: Ireland Part 2: Irish Dance, St. Patrick’s & the Book of Kells

How boudin set the course for my curious palate…

My parents both love all things culinary, and, fortunately for my sister and I growing up, they were excellent cooks. I recall coming home from school most days and finding my dad, a teacher, planning dinner, as my mom worked later at her travel agency. I’d always say hi and ask, “what’s for dinner?” My father’s answer was always the same. “Shit on a shingle,” he would say with a smile. Every day I’d roll my eyes. He was always horsing around that way. (I remember learning to drive and asking if there was anyone coming before I pulled out onto the road. He’d say, “The coast is clear except for that giant mac truck!”)

My sister and I weren’t really very picky eaters. I think that’s because we were always expected to eat everything. My parents never tailor-made meals for us. Some of my friends’ parents made them special, kid- friendly meals, but not my parents. I don’t even think it would have occurred to them to make special meals for kids. My parents cooked meals that were often rich with flavor, strongly influenced by my father’s “Frenchie” roots. Bon Appetite magazines battled the Travel and Leisure issues for coffee table space in our house.

I had an aversion to potatoes, so I was allowed to “skip” those. (I hate them still to this day!) Aside from that, I would eat anything. My mother tested the limits of that “everything” with some of her concoctions. A favorite family lunch, for example, was a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich! (It is actually so much better than it sounds!) As a kid, she always had cottage cheese on the table and would put a dollop on our plates. My dad refused it, but my sister and I ate it as though it were a normal side dish. I tried cottage cheese a few years ago when I attempted an internet-crazy military diet, and cannot believe that I used to eat it. Maybe it’s a texture thing, but I could not stomach it as an adult.

In any case, we never actually HAD “shit on a shingle”- at least not until one night I’ll never forget.

Dad was cooking and there was smoke all over the kitchen. “What are you cooking, Dad?” I asked.

“A French dish,” he said, trying to manage the meat he was cooking in the pan.
I looked over. “That looks kind of gross,” I said.

“It is delicious! You are going to eat it and like it. My Tante made it when I was a kid. It is called ‘boudin noir’. [He pronounced it boo-deyn] Some people call it blood sausage,” he added, turning over the red and black sausages in the pan.

Blood sausage. He never should have added that moniker! I could not believe that my father wanted us to eat something called BLOOD SAUSAGE. I later learned that these long, curly sausages are filled with blood from any number of mammals and mixed with some sort of “filler”. It was pure torture to serve this for dinner. I knew that I didn’t want to get this boudin anywhere NEAR my palate. My little sister sauntered in, she was probably four or five at the time, and said, “Eeew! I am NOT eating that. It looks like poop!” She was never afraid of speaking her mind.

As we sat down to dinner that night, my sister and I dreaded the boudin. My father put an enormous plate of those blood sausages on the table. They were nearly all black- the blood red charred on the outside- so they truly did look like turds. Dad served everyone a blood sausage, even though my sister sat with her arms folded, shaking her head. “You try this!” he demanded of both of us.

I ate everything else on my plate, and decided to play the “I’m full” card.

“You are going to try that boudin.” My father said, matter-of-factly.

I looked at my mother. She shrugged, took another fork-full of her blood sausage, buried it with cottage cheese, and looked at me with an artificial smile before popping it in her mouth.

I tried to think of a way to get out of eating it. Dad had finally done what he had promised all these years, I thought. He had served the “shit on a shingle”. Begrudgingly, I cut a tiny piece of the blackened blood sausage and stabbed it with my fork. I examined it all the way to my lips, my eyes crossing as it got close. The smell wafted into my nostrils and I knew I was going to hate it. I put it in my mouth, chewed once, and swallowed it. It was just as disgusting as I imagined, and my taste buds were so aggravated that my eyes watered! I knew that I couldn’t eat any more. Dad said he was happy that I tried it, and that I didn’t have to eat any more.

I was ten when I tried that boudin noir. Nearly forty years later, I still haven’t forgotten that night and those vile blood sausages. I no longer feel any sort of antipathy for the boudin, however. I have actually laughed about that evening with my dad over the years. I believe that the experience of having to try that food set the course for a lifetime of trying new foods, even those that sound less than savory. I had, after all, tried something new and lived.

Over the course of my life, I’ve tried other things that I may never have tried if the blood sausages hadn’t emboldened me. I tried escargot and hated it. I tried cilantro and it tasted like soap. I tried Brie cheese and fell in love. I tried things that I can’t even name when I was in China! I tried brussels sprouts and still call them gross little skunk cabbages. But I’m proud to try these new things.

I guess I have boudin to thank.


A resolution of sorts.

Happy New Year!

The History Channel claims that people have been celebrating this idea of a New Year with resolutions all the way back to the ancient Babylonians, who celebrated their new crops each year with royal celebrations and promises made to the gods to do better. That is nearly 4,000 years of resolutions!

The crops that the ancient people planted gave them hope for a prosperous year. They were eager to improve their lives. It seems that not much has changed. People everywhere are making personal promises to themselves- planning to add all sorts of new practices to their lives- healthy food or a new exercise routine. This arbitrary new date at the beginning of January really creates a good starting place for goals, and many folks achieve crazy good results. Others, however, set themselves up for failure. They want to do too much, they don’t set realistic goals, and they give up too easily.

I, too, am guilty of making unattainable resolutions. In years past, I’ve declared all sorts of resolutions. One year I resolved to lose weight by doing a popular diet plan. I lost for a little while, but hit a plateau and lost nothing more than interest. Another year, I got a gym membership. I went once. Still another year, I vowed I would not use drive thru’s. That lasted a couple months. My intentions were always good, but never enough.

I have decided instead of ADDING new things to my life, as resolutions innocently do, I will opt for LEAVING BEHIND things I want OUT of my life. Perhaps we need to think of New Year’s as a time to “cleanse”- a time to get rid of things weighing us down!

Here are the TOP 3 things that I plan to “leave behind”:

  1. Stress. I began working on this in 2020 and it has had a noticeable impact on both my emotional and physical health. Stress is, quite possibly, mankind’s most vicious enemy. It creeps into a content life, disguised as something worthwhile. It is Grendel, Dracula, Darth Vader, and Krampus. It works it’s way into the heart, and pumps its bilious serum out to every appendage. Eventually, it steals sleep and begins to haunt the mind. This is one that I feel most passionate about leaving behind. I seek ways to do this around every bend. I will continue to battle this villain into 2021.
  2. Obligations that are not really obligations. I am famous for creating “obligations” in my life. Oftentimes, these things take away from other important things like relaxing, reading, writing, or playing my instruments- all things that relax me. If attending something that is not “required” is going to cause me more stress, than I need to remember item #1.
  3. Toxicity. This applies to so many things, but mostly people. I want to surround myself with people who want to lift up- not tear down. There may have been no other year, in my nearly 50, that has seemed more toxic than this one. I’m eager to leave the toxins behind. Letting toxicity into our lives creates stress, which means I need to refer back to #1.

So, cheers. I hope that you are thirsty for this fresh start that we all make for ourselves each year. Like those ancient Babylonians, I hope you are eager and motivated to have that bountiful crop!

I’d love to hear what things YOU would like to leave behind as we move into 2021!



I, Too, Fear

I, Too, Fear

By Heidi Campbell

I go in the direction I’m told.

I try, in mere minutes,

To harness a lifetime of unbothered wandering.

I go the wrong way once; 

the eyes above the mask 

tell me 

I’ve erred.

But did they tell me? 

Or is that the delusion of a plagued mind? 


I go in the direction I’m told.

Eyes meet.

Eyes avert.

Eyes, once so seemingly suggestive,

now fail me with their distance and fear.

“It was never the eyes,” I whisper to myself. 


I go in the direction I’m told.

Does the elderly man know that I’m smiling at him?

Does the young, frazzled mother see compassion in my eyes?

I grasp reality:

my eyes cannot speak.

They are helpless without their supportive sisters:

the lips.


I go in the direction I’m told.

I touch something without thinking.

I wonder, “Do I dare put this back?”

I, too, fear.


I go in the direction I’m told.

“How long can I linger?” I wonder, 

looking at the fine print.

Eyes hustle me from behind.

I feel them,

imploring me to proceed.

I look back.

What do those eyes say without lips sharing the tidings?

Are they happy eyes? Angry eyes?

Flushed skin betrays my unease.


I go in the direction I’m told.

Craving expression, I realize

the new exchanges inspire insecurities.

Eyes stare at eyes.

Emptiness replaces community.


I go in the direction I’m told.

“I want the lips back,” I murmur.

They are the trumpets announcing kings.

They are security,


and kinship.

They require no interpretation.


I go in the direction I’m told.

I retreat to my world,  remove my mask.

With tired eyes, I sleep,

Haunted by empty eyes.


The Nuthatch

By Heidi Campbell

It took her ages of songs

to weave together her collection of twigs and sticks

To form the vital foundation she so needed.

She tested the strength a little each day,

Careful not to put too much weight-

fearing she might break what seemed so stable.

Finally, she felt so at ease that she bravely

Put her entire self in the nest; she trusted wholly. 

The nest held. 

It weathered storms that shook leaves from branches,

uprooted history, and overturned man’s hard work.

She was safe here. She smiled, worry faded.

The arms of the nest folded around her,

Allowing a rare leisure, even pleasure,

In her predatory world.

Years passed.

Her love for the nest never waned, 

Yet something shifted.

Perhaps the nest grew weary of perching in the same tree-

The routine too mundane,

The responsibility too great.

The branches became brittle.

Some broke with a snap,

Others only splintered, 

Yet she could not fortify or rebuild.

She did not want anything to change.

Her nest was her happiness.

She dreaded the end of her safety, her comfort.

She could not accept that the protective arms would not hold, 

That the branches were too tired.


Half of the nest fell away. 

She couldn’t even see where it landed-

Bits scattered.

“Why have you abandoned me?” she wailed.

“What have I done? Where will I go? What will I do?”

She perched on the edge of the fragmented home,

Her head drooped.

She tried to shuffle the remaining twigs,

Pull from one side to rebuild what was lost, 

But the twigs were brittle,

They refused to bend. 

She clung to the fragmented fortress,

Fear stopped rash moves.

Sometimes she didn’t even want to breath-

Trepidation’s grip nearly strangled her.

Some days she didn’t leave her perch,

Fearing it would be gone when she returned.

She tried to leave but failed time and again,

Returned to the tenuous branches,

Where she no longer felt secure. 

She left, knowing

she should never return.

Never wonder.

Never ask.

She spent days gathering,




Some days she swooped close to the tree,

But never too close.

The new home was complete.

It was secure,

It was, in fact, a most acceptable place.

She wondered if happiness, security, and comfort 

Would follow her here.

Only she could hear the doubt in her song.

Magic and cannibalism on the Shanghai Trail (Part 3 of a 3 part series!)

The plane landed in Shanghai, and we met up with our new tourguide named Erita. She told us all sorts of interesting things about her family on our way to downtown Shanghai. Her Chinese name was actually Ying Ying, which was a mistake! “My real name that my father gave me means a camp in the army!” she explained. “My father wrote the letters wrong on my birthing card (it was supposed to be Yin Yin) and so I have been stuck with that terrible name my whole life. You need your government ID card for everything, so I can never change it.”

She also explained that her family had three children, which is not common in China. She explained that families are expected to have a son. If they don’t, then they should have another child to try for a son. A third kid was out of the question, but her father was dead set on having a son. Enrita’s parents had two girls. “The first girl was my sister,” explained Enrita, “who they called Nam Nam, which means ‘boys’. I was born next, and they called me (or meant to call me) Yin Yin, which means ‘will come’. So, our two girls’ names meant BOY WILL COME. So, my parents went to another country to have another baby. They had a boy. But when we came back to China, they had to sell everything they owned in order to get my little brother an ID card.”

Our first stop was at the Shanghai World Financial Center- the tallest building I’ve ever been in. At just over 1600 feet, it is ranked the 10th highest building in the world. (The Shanghai Tower, right across the street, is the 2nd highest building in the world at 2,073 feet but we weren’t invited up in that one!)  The World Financial Center Building is nicknamed “the bottle opener” because it’s top has a giant square cut out of it making it resemble a bottle opener! It was a hazy and smoggy day, but at least we could still see ourselves rising above all the “smaller” sky scrapers. It was honestly so far up in the air that I felt a bit woozy.


After the tall buildings extravaganza, we were dropped off in a popular shopping area along the famous Nanjing Road. I wandered looking at interesting things…Like giant wall advertisements like the one below featuring a woman holding a giant shrimp on her head. I stood there for a little bit playing a game I like to play- “Caption This!”  I came up with a few, but nothing really good. (Bury yourself in our shrimp?) (You never know what you’ll find in our sticky rice…)

I also stopped to stare at the at the scaffolding that was constructed along one street’s building. It was made of STICKS! Literally! I couldn’t believe that it was honestly going to hold human construction workers!

I continued to people watch and see the sites. I found it comical to see a giant Apple store immediately across the street from a giant Samsung store.  Over all, this shopping area was a very modern area with some heavy American influence.


Dinner was at a nice restaurant where we tried some new things including some sort of octopus, and some meatball soup. We were poured one glass of water, and after being turned down for a refill, I felt like Oliver Twist! “Please, sir, can I have some more?”

After dinner we headed to the exciting Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe Performance
at a theater on Wu Ning Road. I thought it would be a night of flips and dance, but I was wrong! This night was a show of balancing acts, magic, comedy, and even some mild body contortions!

The lady below had uncanny balance. I have to wonder how long it took her to perfect her act??


The next act was a magician! It was so much fun to watch magic live!


It felt like I was in the audience of the Chinese version of America’s Got Talent! 🙂


The next morning, we got up for breakfast at our hotel, and the options were interesting… duck and congee were the highlights. Congee wasn’t my favorite. I believe it might be called “gruel” in other countries, but it is some sort of rice porridge.

On the way out for the day, we passed lots of homes in Shanghai. Most of the people live in high rise apartments, and everyone hangs their laundry to dry outside their windows.

Our first stop of the day was at the Jade Buddha Temple.  This temple was breathtakingly beautiful, with its enormous Budha statues. In one of the rooms, there were four Budhas. According to our guide, each represented the four animated mountain peaks from a Buddhist legend. The peaks had emotions like humans. “Budha can bring good luck and fix the soul of dead relatives,” explained Enrita, ” and he is often depicted sitting on a lotus plant, because it is a beautiful plant that can grow in dirty water.”

The temple had many people praying and burning incense. There are over 100 monks who live in this temple. “They pray and also make sure that the oil lamps next to Budha don’t go out,” said Enrita, “because if the light goes out- Budha dies.”

The golden woman in the photo below is Kariteimo, considered the Goddess of Loving Children. She only got that title, however, after learning from the horrible things she did. According to our guide, she had 397 children, and only three of those were boys. She was a selfish woman, who would steal other people’s children and kill them and feed them to her own children. The gods, however, finally punished her by stealing one of her precious children. At that point, she finally realized what it felt like to lose a child, and she never ate another kid. Goddess of Loving Children. Hmmm…




Our next stop was at the Silk Factory. Here, we were given a detailed explanation of how the silk industry began followed by a demonstration of how the silk is made from the cocoons of the silk worms.  I have never been versed in how silk was made, so this was really interesting. Perhaps the most interesting is the fact that not one bit of the silkworm goes to waste. They use the cocoon shell for the silk, and they use the pupa for facial cream. (Some people even eat the pupa if it is deep fried.) They even use the “droppings” from the worms- as a filler for pillows!

The video below shows the machines that take the cocoon and manage to pull 1000 meters of string from it!

The process of removing the silk is fascinating. It is pulled and stretched, then wet down, then stretched some more!

The costs were fairly reasonable for comforters and pillows made from the authentic Chinese silk.

I left the silk factory more knowledgeable about a process that began thousands of years ago. I didn’t purchase a big silk blanket, but I did get a change purse and 3 silk kimonos for wine bottles. 🙂

Our tour director brought us next to a giant grocery and trinket store.  It was fun to look at the different products and the designs on the packaging.

The next few hours were spent in the “original” China Town!

We enjoyed walking through the marketplace, checking out loads of food options. I enjoyed a Chinese Pizza- which was fried with green onions and powdered cheese! It was chewy and really hit the spot!

There was a great selection of local art and I enjoyed watching one artist practice his craft: finger tip painting! The architecture of the buildings in this area were exactly what you would imagine China to look like. Really so beautiful.

Just adjacent to the market was an ancient Chinese garden. Our guide said that this garden contained 600 different plants and flowers. The ancient gardens were designed to have nature in perfect harmony with the man made buildings to achieve balance.

The giant dragon was unique to see in a private garden because dragons were only allowed to be displayed in the homes of emperors. Occasionally, as was the case of this garden, the emperor could grant permission to a person of clout.

In one part of the garden there were two trees planted next to each other. “These trees are referred to as Old Husband and Young Wife,” said our guide. The Ginko Biloba Tree was 400 years old and the Magnolia Tree only 100!

I enjoyed the serenity of the reading room surrounded by the brook and the trees. The steel lion in the photos was 700 years old.

We walked for quite a while to get back to the bus after visiting the Garden. I enjoyed stolling along and taking photos of some of the interesting and beautiful things I saw. One thing that struck me was the brooms that they used to clean the street- all made of twigs!

After eating our final dinner in Shanghai, we headed to the riverbank area, known as the Bund,  to hop on a river cruise down the Huangpu River. We paid extra to get seats on the top deck of the ship, and it was so worth it! The colors were truly awesome! Our tour guide said, “Shanghai is a beautiful woman who wears too much make-up at night.”

What an amazing end to this Chinese adventure. I enjoyed this trip tremendously, and found that China is not the oppressive place that many Americans seem to envision. I found the people to be happy and no one seemed to be lacking for anything (aside from unlimited drinking water!?).

I learned a few new words in a language I new nothing of, and I even understood how to determine the worth of 100 Yuans.

I can’t wait for my next adventure. The wanderlust in me is real.


The time I fell in a manhole in Xi’an, China… (China travels, part 2 of 3)

After three days of touring Beijing and surrounding areas, we hopped on a China Eastern Airlines flight to Xi’an. That flight made me wonder if I’d make it to Xi’an. The turbulence was so dramatic, I would have completely bounded out of my seat if I hadn’t been strapped in.  In the airport, I enjoyed just wandering through the various shops before take off. The selection of various “goodies” is really interesting- although half the time I had no idea what I was looking at!

When we got to Xi’an, we loaded the bus and set out for the ancient city wall that encircles the city. This wall was built during the Ming Dynasty around 1370 according to our guide. The wall encircles the entire “old part” of the city, and was built, much like the Great Wall, using bricks put together with sticky rice. I would say that rice to the ancient Chinese people is sort of like our duct tape- multi purpose and holds stuff together! Ha!

The wall is hardly recognizable as a wall once you climb the stairs to get up on it. It seems more like a really wide walkway and feels like you are on a bridge. We entered through the South Gate and rented bikes for an hour. This is a very popular thing to do- there were loads of people riding their bikes. The bikes were 10 Yuan for an hour. (In US dollars that would be roughly $1.42).  When I got on my bike, I realized that this was not necessarily going to be “smooth sailing” down the wall, because the wall’s floor was extremely uneven- like cobblestone with square rocks! It was a bumpy ride! (See below the photos of the wall- I posted the video I tried to take while riding my bike!)


After our biking adventure we went to a local restaurant for dinner. Once again, the food was served family style, with all sorts of interesting options. The photo on the top right of the collage below shows a fried duck that was part of the meal. When the server put that plate down, she took out a knife and cut the head off- I guess so no one would mistake it for an edible part?

After dinner we walked a few blocks to catch the bus to the hotel. On the way, I bought a funky little Chinese recorder from a street vendor and played music whilst I walked! One day I hope to be able to play a tune on this thing as well as the salesman did…

Before we left the restaurant,  I stopped to catch a little of the Chinese television broadcast. I saw either news, singing shows, or old-time Chinese soap operas whenever I passed by a television.


The hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, was modern, clean, and located in a convenient part of Xi’an. The air conditioner was working fairly well, and the beds were significantly better than the brick beds of yore!  I also never had a single regret in taking up suitcase space with my traveling box fan. It honestly was a great thing to have since some of the hotel AC units were not exactly “cold”.

The breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express was the best one of the trip. According to tour guide Molly, there are more varieties of noodles in Xi’an than anywhere! “People love their noodles here,” she says. “One really popular noodle is called BANG BANG noodles, because when they stretch the noodles on the machine, they make a bang bang sound! In this city, a woman is only considered a good wife if she can make good noodles!”

Not only were there great hot and cold options, but there was a soup bar manned by a cook. I was able to have fresh wantons, cooked in front of me, served in a delicious soup! Breakfast of CHAMPIONS! I have no idea what was in those wantons, but they were scrumptious!

The highlight of our next day was our visit to the Terra Cotta Museum. This was one of the places I was so excited to see, and it did not disappoint. The site is beautifully kept, with flowers and trees covering acres and acres.  Regardless of what the rest of the world has to say, the Chinese people, according to Molly, consider these soldiers and the site of the archaeology work to be “the 8th wonder of the world”.

The excavation sites were fascinating. There are a series of three giant “pits” from which the archaeologist teams are still working from to this day. They have unearthed 8,000 soldiers and they are estimated to be 2200 years old! It was fascinating to learn that the original statues were discovered by a local farmer who was digging a hole for a well. He found some bronze weapons and some old pottery. The first of three “pits” was excavated in the early 1970s, and two more followed. Our guide said, “The Terra Cotta soldiers were buried in the ground by the first dynasty to serve as a burial representation. They were into the ceremony of burial. As a side note, the emperors also insisted that their concubines be buried alive with the dead emperor! Yes, human sacrifices!”

The Bronze charriot and horses were the first Pit (3) that we visited. When this was unearthed, it was broken into 1,555 pieces. It took 8 years for the chariots to be put back together. The expert archaeologists could tell amazing things from studying the horses once they were completed. According to our guide, they had teeth that indicated the horses were six years old. They also had tassles dangling from their heads, which indicated the high social clout of the riders.

In PIT 2, we were able to see the actual site where the horses and cavalry men were buried. They are still working every night, for hours, after the museum closes, to put more of the soldiers and horses together. It takes up to 2 years to complete the restoration of ONE soldier! According to our guide, the soldiers were buried in a pit five meters deep. The pit was covered with a wooden roof. When the ancient people covered the pit and roof, the wood collapsed under the weight, which is why all the statues fell down into pieces and were damaged. I can’t even fathom having the patience to dig out all those pieces and put them all together. Seeing the massive scope of this project left me exasperated!

The soldiers are all human size, the tallest being six feet. Out of all 8000 uncovered, only the kneeling archer had no damage. He even maintained his original color. Many of the soldiers have facial hair. The guide said, “Soldiers had to have a mustache in order to be considered handsome.”

One of the most interesting thing about these soldiers is that no two faces are the same. Every single man had a different face. The guide said that this was because the emperor called on all of the men in the area to come and pose for the sculptors. The artists created these men from the clay found on the nearby Li Chen Mountain. This is, apparently, the ONLY place where scientists say the clay is the quality of these statues. When word got out about this clay, tourists and locals flocked to the mountain to dig up their own helpings of the clay- so much so that the Chinese government had to shut down the mountain for fear the clay would disappear.

PIT number 1 was the largest and last pit that we visited. They uncovered 3,000 soldiers from this pit alone. For Jackie Chan fans, his movie “The Myth” was filmed in Pit number 1.

After leaving the Terra Cotta Museum, we headed to a local art museum, called the Tang Bo Museum, where we had a guided tour through the art followed by a calligraphy lesson. The guide in the museum was so knowledgeable about the art and shared wonderful bursts of history with each section of the museum. She walked us through not only the history of the art, but also the particular mediums that each was done in. The painting with the woman and child on the horse was particularly interesting. She told us that the piece was called “Visiting the In Laws”, and it represented the promise that husbands make to the wife’s parents at the wedding to return their daughter twice each year to show that they still love the parents. The return on the solstice and the Chinese New Year in order to pray and ensure a good crop for the coming year.  The bottom left photo is of a Chinese shadow puppet. These were displayed on a wall and we were allowed to touch them. I was surprised to realize that they were cut from plastic! They would put these in front of a light screen and have puppet shows. The crazy part, however, is that the audience never saw any of the color- they could only see the shadow of the puppet!

After enjoying the art, we were led into a large classroom and given a paintbrush, rice paper and ink. The rice paper was smooth on one side and rough on the other. “You only paint on the rough side,” instructed Wang, our teacher.  She instructed us in the development of Chinese characters and we drew out 6 different characters. This was quite an experience! It is not as easy as it looks! (Some of my examples are in the photo in the middle on the right).


After we worked hard to copy the history of Chinese figure writing, we left the wonderful art museum and headed to the Muslim Quarter Street Market. Our local tour guide told us that the Muslims came to China in the 7th century, but were upset to be so far from home. They lamented, and eventually began to be referred to as the “Hui” nationality, which means “go home”, because they wanted to leave China.

This market was a mix of food and trinket shops. When I say food, I should warn that it is really NOT the place for vegans or vegetarians! There is meat displayed every three to four feet all through the marketplace! There is nothing to disguise the meat, either. Our tour guide Molly said, “I do not recommend you eat the meats in the marketplace. You don’t know how it will be for you. American stomachs are not like Chinese stomachs. Sometimes we don’t know how long that meat has been sitting around…” With that kind of intro, I don’t think meat would be on anyone’s bucket list for that visit!

It was sort of shocking to see full carcasses being picked apart right on the street. Refrigeration is not something that is necessary in China- not for drinks and not for meat!  Every time I bought a water bottle, it was always room temperature or warmer- even when it APPEARED to be in a cooler. (The refill stations at the airport came in two temperatures: warm and hot).

I enjoyed the shops and the people were eager to bargain. I went in to one shop in search of a larger bag to take home. I saw a giant duffle bag that would be perfect. It was a “North Face” bag, so I figured it would be way overpriced even though I knew it was fake. For the heck of it, I asked the store clerk if it was real North Face. He smiled wide and said, “Oh yes! North Face made in China!”  He started out asking 400 yuans for it, and I talked him down to $180. In US  Dollars that was roughly $25.75. Not too bad!

There were numerous stands that sold those bright yellow and brown cake-looking things. My roommate and I both assumed it was some sort of pineapple cake. She ended up getting one only to realize that the yellow part was yellow rice and the dark brown was a soy sauce glaze! I’m sure it was tasty, but not when you are expecting cake!

I had perhaps one of the worst experiences of the trip in the Muslim Marketplace. It was situational irony at its absolute best.  I was walking down the street, just looking around at everything- I’m always trying to fully soak in my surroundings. I noticed this dude in a manhole, literally brimming with wires. I thought it was such an odd sight that I actually took his picture! As I walked past him, I stepped on a “fake” manhole cover, it completely gave way, and I FELL IN THE MANHOLE!! I remember thinking, “Holy CRAP! (Okay, maybe I may have used other expletives.) I’m in a Chinese manhole!”

I looked down and really couldn’t see the bottom. I was hanging there, holding on with my elbows, petrified to move. My forearms were shaking, but I was frozen in shock at my situation. The falling had caused a “dent” in my right shin, but the worse wound was on my upper thigh, just below my hip. I was bleeding and had a massive bruise, about the size of a piece of bread. The entire scene was sort of surreal, and happened relatively quickly. I remember a strong arm grabbing my right arm and yanking me up from the manhole. It was a police officer, who, as soon as he set me back on the sidewalk, began yelling at the streetwalkers. I couldn’t understand his words, but there was no mistaking his angry tone!

I stumbled forward and felt the sharp pain in my upper leg. My arms felt weak from holding my body weight above ground. There is no telling what might have happened had I not been able to hold myself. I believe it was a LONG WAY DOWN. I shudder to think what might have been at the bottom! Rats? City Sludge? Thankfully I will never know.

Below I wanted to share a video of one of the “street butchers” just to really show how this animal meat carving thing went down on the streets. When I first saw this guy, I did a double take about what he was doing. Then, as humans are wont to do, I stayed with a sense of morbid curiosity. That knife just chiseled away at those ribs. It was quite a sight to see. I kept hearing Molly’s warning in my mind- “you don’t know how long this meat has been around, so don’t eat it.” It was such an interesting place- festive music playing in the background with this butcher standing on a stool happily carving the meat from the bones…


Our next stop was the Tang Dynasty Dinner show. While we enjoyed a delicious pre-show dinner, I interviewed a few of the folks who saw me fall into the manhole. Since no one took my photo in the manhole, I wanted their “take” on what it really looked like…


The dinner was probably my favorite of all thus far. We had a delicious 5- course meal including a dumpling salad, a black mushroom consomme, a tender plate of king prawn and fish with glazed cashews, a plate of fillet of beef with sweet and sour sauce and rice, an orange sago, and a platter of “Dim Sum”, which are Chinese cookies. They also served Jasmine tea.

The Tang Dynasty theater was breathtakingly beautiful. The costumes and stage were so full of color and radiance it almost hurt to look at it for too long! The music, performed by a live orchestra, was beautiful and powerful. The performance on stage was to relay the history of the Tang Dynasty, which, according to our guide, was the most prosperous in the history of the 13 dynasties in China.

We made it back to the hotel for one last night before departing for Shanghai the next morning. I would have enjoyed one more day to explore in Xi’an. It was surprisingly bigger than I anticipated, and I never realized it was once the imperial capital of China. I learned a great deal in this town- perhaps most importantly to look down occasionally whence I wander.

The China Eastern flight to Shanghai was MUCH smoother than my previous flight, but the food was horrible. Oh, well. You can’t win them all!

Stay tuned for part 3 of my travels through China, coming soon!  Next up: Shanghai!


Ni hao! from Beijing, China (part 1 of 3)

After three hours on a flight from Atlanta to Toronto, and fourteen hours aboard an Air Canada flight to China, landing in Beijing was such a pleasure! Before hitting immigration, all travelers were finger printed, video taped, and photographed. There were literally cameras everywhere. Even when we left the airport, I saw cameras on the streets every three to four feet.

The time was 4:30pm, and I had not truly realized just how discombobulated my body would be with a twelve hour time change! We loaded the bus and went to our first stop: dinner! when we got off the bus I realized that what appears to be a sidewalk is actually a bike and motorbike lane- and those with wheels do not stop for pedestrians !

“Ni Hao” is the first phrase that I learned in Chinese. Molly told us that it literally means “You Good”. The phrase is used to greet people and just say hello. It is used at all times of day or night.

The restaurant was also my first realization that the bathrooms in China were nothing like our standardized toilets in America. They were mostly “squatty-potty” style holes in the ground, where it took some practice to avoid back-splash on shoes. The Chinese also practice a BYOTP system- Bring Your Own Toilet Paper. The prepared traveler should also keep hand sanitizer within reach because soap is not stocked in these lavatories. They are, after all, called TOILETS, and decidedly NOT washrooms!  On a side note- tour guide Molly calls the toilet “the happy room, because after you release you are happy!”

squatty potty

Dinner was served family style on the largest “lazy Susan” I’ve ever seen. Plate after plate of different dishes were placed around the circular dial. Prior to the trip, I slowly introduced some meat back into my pescatarian diet, fearing that I would have nothing to eat if I didn’t eat meat. As a diabetic, rice isn’t a great option for my pesky blood sugars! At this first Chinese dinner-I tried everything: pork, chicken, duck, fish, eggplant, and tofu! The food was good, but could have used a bit more seasoning.

The availability of drinkable water is limited to bottles in China- the tap water is not fit for human consumption, according to tour guide Molly. Unfortunately, water bottles are not always accessible in restaurants, and when they are available, they are usually served warm or room temperature at best. There are rarely beverages served cool and never cold. I don’t think I had a single ice sighting in all of my time in China! Even in the airports, the “drinkable” water fountains to refill bottles with came with two options: warm and hot. I found myself, as the trip went on, hording my water bottles for fear of running out!

After dinner we headed for the hotel: Juandong Jian Hui. On the way there, tour guide Molly warned us about Chinese beds. “They are not soft like American beds! Our beds are hard! My mom always said, ‘hard beds are good for your back!'”

Our hotel was very nice, and the rooms were clean. The beds were indeed some of the hardest beds I’ve ever slept on, but I actually like a hard bed, so I was fine. One of the ladies on the trip was not happy with the showers- they were very slippery- but I thought the accommodations were really good!

I will say that traveling with insulin is always sort of a pain because, as I mentioned earlier, ice is a rare commodity in countries outside the USA. There are no ice machines in the hotels, and even the convenient stores don’t sell it! There are no mini fridges and ice buckets are nowhere to be found. I did, with the help of some charades and my translation app (google is blocked in China), manage to befriend a front desk employee who finally understood that I needed a bag of ice.

I fell asleep quickly on the brick bed, and slept soundly until about 4:00am. I awakened after being freaked out by a disturbing Orwellian dream. A rat, with a clear tag on its head, was biting my big toe. I tried to scream, to warn my roommate Nancy, but I had no voice. Not a sound came out. I kicked at the rat and it fell off my bed and ran up the side of Nancy’s bed right towards her head. I tried to warn her, but my silent screams could not! I woke up at that point and there was no getting back to sleep.

I read for a couple hours and headed to the breakfast buffet, which had an unbelievable variety of foods! I had a fried egg, a piece of whole wheat toast, some egg soup, some watermelon, A scoop of noodles, a helping of spinach, and a very watery yogurt. I told my roommate, “I always eat when I can- you never know when your next meal will be!” Tour guide Molly told me that in the Chinese zodiac, I am the Boar. This apparently means that I will never worry about food. Ha!

Our first stop of the day was to visit the Beijing Opera school. This is a boarding school where kids come from all over China to study the arts. If they choose to study opera it is free. If they study dance or music it is expensive. The Chinese government has offered opera as a free option to ensure that it doesn’t die out of the culture.

School in China is mandatory and free until kids are 15. At that point, they decide if they want to pay to go on to technical school, to further academic study, or go into the workforce, avoiding the costs of further education. The government used to push all kids to white collar jobs, but they realized that they NEEDED skilled workers, so they reconfigured the schooling tracks to meet societal needs.

We walked through the halls, where classical piano music was blaring from speakers. Looking in the classroom windows, I could see students involved with music and drama. The girls in one class dressed in blue t-shirts and black pants and the other class wore black t-shirts with black pants. The boys didn’t seem to have any required uniform. We visited three different classrooms where students were getting dance instruction. The students were eager to perform for us, and many of their routines included lots of acrobatic moves. Much of what they did was repetitive movement… and the teachers were providing “orders” from the side. No clue what they said of course!



The students interacted with our group and showed us some of their moves. Before leaving, our group gave the students souvenirs we brought from the US.

Our next stop was the Summer Palace. This Palace, about 9 minutes from downtown Beijing, was built in 1750 by the emperor Qianlong. At almost 3 million square meters, it is the largest royal park in China. It was at this park that I learned about THE DRAGON LADY- who essentially “ruled” from 1835 until her death in 1908. Her real name was Empress Dowager Cixi, but she called herself the Dragon Lady. She started out as a concubine. Yes, a concubine. She was delivered to the Forbidden City at the age of 16 to be a mistress of Emperor Xianfeng’s harem. (Rumors suggest he may have had up to 3,000 concubines in his harem!)  The emperor allegedly heard her sing, and began calling for her every night. Even in ancient China a woman could begin life as a man’s mistress and sleep her way into power.

Luck was on her side because the Dragon Lady had the coveted boy baby of the then emperor. When the emperor died, the Dragon Lady made sure that her son, only 9 years old at the time, was declared the new Emperor. Through the “care” of her 9 year old son, she indirectly ruled the empire. When her son died as a teenager, she arranged for her 4 year old nephew to become the next emperor, and so her power continued. There are entire books written about this resourceful woman, with rumors of crazy sexual exploits, embezzlement, and draconian rule! I plan to check out a bio in the coming months.

The grounds of the Summer Palace are rich with Chinese culture. There are lions on guard and art and carvings galore. I actually heard the local tour guide say that there are 3,000 man-made structures, pavillions, bridges, and statues on the property.

Walking the grounds revealed a beautiful, tranquil pond area that ran along what is known as “The Long Corridor”, which is actually the longest long corridor in the world, according to our guide. It runs from the base of Longevity Hill all the way along Kunming Lake. The Emperor Qianlong had the covered walkway built for his mother, so she could go outside for walks even if it was raining.  These covered corridors are extremely popular and are featured in many of the royal and historical places around China.

The boat in the photo below was parked on the lake. The boat is known as both The Marble Boat and the Boat of Purity and Ease.

After leaving the palace, we made our way to the famous Tian Anmen Square. This square, in the center of Beijing, is called Tiananmen, which means the gate of heavenly peace. The square is famous for it’s Tiananmen Tower, Monument to the People’s Heroes, Grade Hall of the People, and the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. The Monument, which is pictured below, is the largest in China’s history. Sadly, this square is not best known for it’s flag ceremonies and monuments- it is perhaps most notorious for the massacre of protesters that happened in 1989. In that year, protesters demonstrated for democracy and the Chinese government opened fire on them, killing thousands. Because of this massacre and the human rights that were violated, the United States imposed economic sanctions on China.

Today, the square is a public meeting area that serves as the entrance to the Forbidden City, which was constructed in the early 1400s by the Ming Dynasty and remains the largest ancient architectural complex in China, according to our tour guide.

The Forbidden City exhibits the lavish lifestyle of the Chinese Dynasties.  It was called “forbidden”, according to our local guide, because “only the imperial families and important officials to the family were allowed inside. The public was forbidden.”

The giant red gates were adorned with nine rows of golden nails. This is because, according to our tour guide, “Nine was a number that only emperors used. It was a number that represented the top power.”

Our guide also explained that the lions who stand guard all over China actually come in both male and female varieties. The males, coincidentally, can be identified because their paw is always leaning on a ball, while the female is not.

Colors plays a significant role in the Chinese culture. Red is the national color of China, and it represents happiness, good luck, and good fortune. Yellow is the color of royalty and stands for power and money.  These two colors are literally all over the royal places that we visited.

The rooftoop close up below sheds light on another interesting tidbit about the way that the architecture reflects the history. According to our guide, the more animals that are lined up on the roof, the more powerful the person is who is living there. In all my days in China, I never saw a roof with more animals than this roof inside the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was a really interesting place. I found myself intrigued by the names that they gave to the buildings. The Palace of Heavenly Purity, The Palace of Union and Peace, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility were a few that we visited.

Our next stop was dinner, where we would have our special Peking Duck meal. The restaurant had the chefs carving up the birds for all to see. The meat was put on a platter, and, once again, all the food was served family style on the humongous lazy Susan.

After dinner, we made our way back to the hotel with a pit stop at the local convenience store, where we explored the aisles. Some of the flavors were interesting and pretty unappetizing to me! I bought some Chinese cookies to bring home to my family, and headed back to the hotel.

The second day in Beijing was our highly anticipated visit to the GREAT WALL OF CHINA. The ride was under two hours from Beijing by bus, and the mountains provided a beautiful view along the way. Molly filled some of our ride with Chinese lessons. We learned that the Chinese people use only one hand to count up to nine, and she showed us how. She also taught us that “Ma ma Ho ho means just so-so, and Ding ding hao is the best.”

We stopped to visit the Badaling region section of the Great Wall, which is the most visited section of the wall. The actual length of the wall runs over 5,500 miles.  The history of the wall is both interesting and shocking. Building started with the Qin Dynasty back in 221 BC. During those days, they used STICKY RICE to serve as the mortar for the bricks. Who knew that rice was so versatile?

The Great Wall, according to our guide, has also been called the longest cemetery, because of all the human bones found around it- close to one million people died building the wall.

The climb was steeper than I imagined it would be, and some of the rocks in the wall were worn down and slick- had it been raining, the hike might have been even a bit treacherous for climbers with slippery soles.  The views of the mountains and the winding wall were nearly overwhelming. I was feeling breathless, but adrenaline propelled me up to nearly the third tier watchtower. Sadly, the steps did me in and I stopped just shy of that height. I stood there for a while and soaked in the land, the history, and the age of it all. I thought about all the people who had visited this wall in hopes of learning more about the people who lived so long ago, in the times of emperors and dynasties. The walk back down was easy, and I enjoyed some time to wander around the little town of Badaling.

When I came down from the wall, I had some time to wander the shops before getting back on the bus. The workers in the shops in China are very intense. They follow each shopper closely, continually suggestive selling all the exciting products- fans, tea cups, snowglobes, Great Wall replicas, and kimonos.

After the Great Wall experience, we headed back to Beijing for our TEA CEREMONY lesson. This was done at a local tea shop, and it was truly informative about the different types of tea in China. Our Guide showed us the different teas, and had us smell four different scents including a jasmine and rose tea, a green tea, a fruity tea, and a ginseng tea. She showed us how to use the little filters that come with most tea cups sold in the country.  After reading the novel The Teagirl of Hummingbird Lane, I was really excited about this tea ceremony. Many of the descriptions of the teas from that novel were found right in that little tea shop.

After the tea ceromony, we headed to the Hutong district. Again, I recalled this area from the Teagirl novel, and was excited to visit. When we got to the neighborhood, there were some less than desirable smells in the streets- still not sure what I was smelling. This area was made up of tiny streets only wide enough for very compact cars and motorbikes. The homes in this area did not have their own bathrooms; families had to share local public toilets- we passed two on our way to our dinner location. For our dinner, we were dining at a local home in the Hutong neighborhood. Below is a photo of the cook and his wife. They cooked us platters of four different dishes, along with a giant bowl of rice. They also had fried Chinese donuts for us. My use of chopsticks, by the way, was nearly at the expert level at this point!

After our local dinner, we went to the park around the corner, where we met with a Tai Chi instructor and had a lesson. Our instructor, dressed in red, made the moves of this meditative activity look much easier than it was!


Our final experience in the Hutong area was to hop in a rickshaw for a ride around the streets. As I hopped up in the carriage, I felt like I was on an episode of the Amazing Race! We went all through those tiny Hutong streets- in places our bus tours and even walking tours had not visited.


The last evening in Beijing was spent at the Red Theater, where we watched the Legend of KungFU. A local school was lined up next to the entrance with us, and the boys were all so excited to see this show. This show was touted “the most exciting Kungfu show in the world!” According to the Deputy Irish Ambassador to China, “This show is more energetic than River Dance.”

The show was high energy and exciting. The acrobats and Kungfu fighting was thrilling, and even a bit stressful- like when the star of the show was pressed between beds of nails!

We woke up and checked out of the hotel. We were headed to the airport to fly to Xi’an, but not before making a pit stop at the famous Temple of Heaven.  This place was a place where the emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasties came twice a year to worship and pray for good harvests. The first visit, according to our tour guide, was twelve days after the Chinese New Year and the second visit was at the winter solstice. They worshiped by prepping their sacrifice- sheep, Buffalo, and other animals. The emperor fasted one week before- which meant he could have no meat and no women! He moved to the temple three days before to get away from temptation. (Had he not moved to the temple, there is no telling if he could have stayed away from all those concubines!?)

Three colors are represented in the buildings of the Temple of Heaven. Blue is for heavens, yellow stands for the emperor, and green stands for the common people.

The architecture and history in Beijing was amazing. Overwhelmed might explain the way that I felt as I tried to keep up with the sights and sounds around me. Although there were cameras all over the place, by the second day I no longer noticed them. I was surprised at how unoppressive the city felt, quite honestly. There was not really much police force visible anywhere, and I saw no militia at all. According to tour guide Molly, “China is the safest county. Guns are not allowed here, so it is very safe.” I also was impressed at how clean the streets were. There was never any trash anywhere, and there was not a single bit of graffiti on any walls anywhere in the city.

Our next stop was Xi’an- home of the Terra-cotta warriors. I’m working to finish up my blog about that amazing place. Stay tuned!





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.


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.


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.


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!