Monthly Archives: December 2010

let’s build a snowman: five things today’s snowfall taught me.

“Emily: We can’t just throw him out in the snow.
Walter: Why not? He loves the snow. He’s told me 15 times.”
–from the film, Elf

1. Never say never. “Does it snow where you’re from?” many British colleagues and friends asked me before I left London for home. I assured them I’m from Virginia Beach and besides the freak occurrence of last winter’s Snowpocalypse, we never get snow. Maybe a few flurries that get the weathermen all in a tizzy, but nothing note-worthy. Even yesterday, my grandmother worried our breakfast plans for Monday would be put off because of forecasted snow. “Let the snow fall first,” I assured her, “And then we’ll deal with it.” Well, darn if she wasn’t right. We woke up today to yet another epic snowfall, a few inches at first and now measuring well over a foot.

2. My brother is the coolest. Earlier in the day, he went outside wearing shorts, knee-high blue soccer socks, and hiking boots. He rang the door and when I asked him what he was doing, he replied, “Just browsing.” I could tell he was thinking how weird it is, now that we’re older, to not be racing outside at the first sign of snow.  Then, sometime later this afternoon, he came downstairs looking like a terrorist (I know that’s not exactly PC), black mask pulled down over his face, only his eyes and nose uncovered. “Where are you going?” my dad asked, to which my brother answered, “Gonna build a snowman.” But of course, right?

3.  I’m still a kid at heart. I was pretty content to spend the day indoors, warm and toasty by the fireplace, but I knew I couldn’t let my brother have all the fun. I pulled on old clothes, tall boots, and a winter cap and trailed outside after him. We quickly devised a strategy, using buckets and boogie boards to transport snow from the backyard to the front–keeping the front yard relatively pristine except for a trench through a foot or so of snow to our “construction site.” An hour and a half later, our snowman was complete–mullet and all.

4. Skiwear is unbelievably warm. My winter wardrobe often errs on the side of impractical, my jackets never sufficient on their own, leading me to wear layer (after layer) of various sweaters and hoodies. I did the same today, but pulled on an extra proper winter jacket of my brother’s on top. “You’re wearing the one with naked women on it?” my mother asked, having never been a fan of the soccer brand, Kappa. Scandalous or not, the jacket proved warmer than I’m used to and just what I needed to keep me going outside.

5. Snow isn’t as exciting to today’s kids as it used to be. Although the prospect of a snow day doesn’t seem to be going out of style anytime soon, I was amazed at how quiet our suburban street was…all day. Only once did I see two kids playing outside, and that was for a mere fifteen minutes or so. Gone are the days, apparently, of spending all day romping around in the snow, insufficiently dressed, red-cheeked and wide-eyed with wonder. My brother and I spent the day reminiscing about the snow days of our childhood and for a few moments, it felt like no time had passed at all. Our beloved mother even had hot chocolate (with marshmellows, of course!) waiting for us on the stove inside.

Does it get any better than that?

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travels with my brother.

“And that’s the wonderful thing about family travel:  it provides you with experiences that will remain locked forever in the scar tissue of your mind.”

–Dave Barry

My brother's entry on the visitors' board at a craft shop.

My brother is a man of few words. I was reminded of this when he picked me up from the airport in Wichita, Kansas, last Friday night. Kansas seemed like an odd destination, especially after a semester in London, but I’d come to keep him company on his 23-hour drive home for Christmas break. He transferred out to a small town called McPherson this semester to play soccer for a small college, and I knew this was most likely my only chance to see this new alternate universe he inhabits.

After a greasy breakfast at Neighbor’s Cafe on Saturday morning (and a few moments of confusion whereby we were mistaken for a couple–“Mr and Mrs?” our waiter asked to Grant’s horror) we headed out to an even smaller town fifteen minutes away called Lindsborg–otherwise known as Little Sweden, USA. My parents had walked around it when they flew out for a visit in October and I expected it to be just the sort of place I love, the kind of towns I spent a month exploring around the North Island of New Zealand: tiny populations, quirky personalities, and outrageous claims-to-fame that only small town tourism boards can invent.

As a collection of at least twenty painted Swedish dalas placed outside shops had me running back and forth across the main street, Grant walked slowly along as I revelled in the whimsical touches of Scandinavia here in the heartland of Kansas and questioned patient proprietors of shops like the Wild Dala Winery about where exactly all this had come from.

“Alright, I think I’m ready,” I said finally, my camera’s memory card nearly groaning under the weight of a hundred photos and my capacity for dalas nearly reached. We made our way through a few back streets, around the campus of a local university, and then back, I thought, towards McPherson. But then Grant turned the car away from the highway.

“Where are we going?” I asked, but no sooner had the words been spoken then there appeared in the woods a one-lane bridge, the kind of bridge built from a structure of criss-crossing iron beams. They were painted green, had strings of Christmas lights wrapped around them, lit even in daylight, and the words God Jul–‘Merry Christmas’ in Swedish–painted across the top front beam. It was set back between leafless trees and a narrow creek ran swiftly beneath.

“How’d you know it was here?” I asked, surprised.

“I saw it,” he said simply, probably having little idea of how it touched me or how much it meant.

I hopped out of the car to get a few shots, struck by the beauty of the Christmas bridge, but thinking mostly of how we don’t always need words to know someone cares.

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the little things.

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve been known to get things wrong before, especially when it comes to travel bookings. Booking my flight home for Christmas, I purchased it so fast I didn’t realise my return journey to London included an unintentional 12-hour (and not to mention, overnight) layover in Chicago. I’ll be leaving Richmond on a Monday night, arriving in Chicago at 9pm, departing at 9am the next morning and not getting back to London until 10.45pm Tuesday night.

Epic fail. Epic travel fail.

But as it turns out, my flight to the States today also included another unexpected twist. My itinerary with American Airlines was to start off with a quick jaunt north to Manchester, from where I would catch a flight to Chicago and then on to my final stop, Wichita, Kansas. An AA representative had a quick look at my schedule, though, before saying, “Oh, no, that couldn’t be with us. We don’t fly to Manchester.” A brief dart of panic shot through me. I’d been anticipating this–a stopover in Manchester before an international flight just seemed too weird–and I had my Please-Have-Pity-On-Me sob story all ready for use at a moment’s notice: “But you don’t understand, I have to get on this flight. My sister just had surgery…brain surgery…and my brother’s meeting me in Kansas…Kansas!

The script wasn’t needed, after all. “You need to go to Terminal 5, Miss,” the woman explained. “You’re flying to Manchester with British Airways.”

I’m what? I wanted to ask, but I knew better than to question this little stroke of luck. I might as well have been picking up the Ford Taurus rental car I’d hypothetically scheduled and been told a Lexus was waiting for me outside. I’m not well-acquainted with upgrades when it comes to the world of travel, so as I walked down the jet bridge, where there stood freshly-pressed stacks of the Daily Mail, the Independent, and Financial Times–all complimentary, of course–I knew I was in new territory.

That’s also when I realised life is all about the little things. When it comes to flying, I’m more accustomed to the business plans of budget airlines, whereby they strip you down to nothing but a body. Don’t get me wrong, the insanely low base fares are well-worth the inherent demoralisation (recent bookings have involved a $14 flight to Sardinia, Italy, and a $20 flight to Porto, Portugal–thank you, RyanAir), but what these fares don’t include are the $10 administrative fee, the baggage fees, the online check-in fees, the extra transport to London’s less prominent airports, and they certainly don’t include free copies of the UK’s finest publications, nor other more important incidentals involving nourishment. There have even been rumors concerning RyanAir and a potential charge for using the toilet, which seems like they’re just asking for a lawsuit.

But on my unexpectedly lovely ride in luxury this morning, I was amazed at how nice it was to have all those small touches again–the newspapers, the leather seats, and the built-in headrests that seem to welcome you in like an old friend–and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the pilot came on once we were in the air and said, “We are pleased to be serving you a hot baguette with tea or coffee this morning.”

Could it get any better? On one of those 40-minute flights that seems to begin preparing for landing before it’s even taken off? And as I sat there, sipping on hot coffee, a little plastic cup of orange juice, and tucking into a baguette filled with warm tomatoes and bacon, I thought of how nice it was to feel like a human being again, not just a body filling a seat, and how the simplest gestures bring such a smile to your face.

The little things can go a long way, can’t they?

 

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the long way home.

“Paying attention, I learned again, is the foundation of great travel writing – and as a bonus, it deeply and resonantly enriches your everyday life as well.”
–Don George, Gadling

It had been a week to remember. A brisk drop in temperatures preceded Britain’s earliest snowfall in nearly two decades, since November of 1993. But a surprisingly mild weekend set about erasing all sign of the record-setting snow and Sunday’s cloudless blue sky filled my lungs with crisp chill air. It was the perfect sort of day to bridge autumn and winter, I thought as I set out for Tolworth, a little area just south of Surbiton. My editor for Kingston’s student magazine had wanted me to go report on a sports alumni event taking place that afternoon, a series of matches playfully pairing current and ex-students against each other.

Me being me, lacking the standard allotment of common sense and all, didn’t think to check with my editor first to see if the snow, the same snow that incapacitated nearly every other aspect of British life this week, might not have had a similar effect on the sports event. Indeed, as I rushed off the bus and down Tolworth Broadway towards the sports grounds, I was greeted by nothing but lonely, snow-streaked fields.

I kicked the fence bearing a cheery blue sign: ALL SPORT CANCELLED. My typical self would have been, to put it lightly, annoyed, perturbed, even angry, perhaps? But for some reason, as I headed back to the bus stop, I was fine. With my afternoon suddenly as clear as the sky above me, I felt something close to happiness and made a deal with myself: if I walked the hour back to Kingston, I could use the money I would have spent on bus fare on a coffee from the library cafe (yes, I am on that kind of budget right now…).

Once I started walking, I couldn’t have been more pleased with my decision, iPod popped in and set to a dance/house playlist to put a little pep in my step. Gratefully I’d brought my camera along, as I was just in time for the rich sunlight that comes with the Golden Hours (which sadly start in mid-afternoon this time of year). Ordinary rows of shop buildings were gloriously illuminated, shadows dancing blithely on their walls, and I started to shift into travel-writer-mode, i.e. giving attention to the details so easy to overlook: the items in an antique shop’s storefront window, the diversity of restaurants and food markets to choose from, and a road sign for Kingston Town. How cool, I thought, to live in an official “historic market town.”

But what I loved most is what I will always remember of England in the winter: church spires and barren branches. Sunlit and standing tall, the steeples were everywhere, appearing above houses and shops and framed often by spidery branches stripped of their leaves.

There’s something to be said for taking the long way home.

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