Crazy Class 8 Camp (Netherlands) Part 1

Hello all, Harper here. I have just arrived back from my Class 8 camp to the Netherlands!!!!!!! I’ll tell you all about it in a minute, but in summary, we went to Amsterdam for 2 days and then to Friesland for 5 days to sail!!!!!!!! 

We all met at the Bristol Airport on Thursday June 4th all set with huge bags bursting to the seam with all our equipment, said bye to our parents, took a few pictures, checked in and got on the plane. We arrived in Amsterdam at 7pm, all set to load our huge bags into Peter’s (my teacher) mum’s (Mia) car, only to find out that their had been a huge crash on the route from Belgium to the Netherlands. So, groaning, we lugged our bags for about an hour to the hostel. On the way we stopped at a bridge/park and ate some Hagelslag (really yummy chocolate sprinkles (best served on toast)) and took a couple of nice photos (see the gallery). The streets were full of bicycles, vespas, and micro cars. We had to be careful not to get run over ;p . When we arrived at the hostel we weren’t allowed in because there had just been a break in!!!! Finally after a whole 5 minutes of waiting (:) ), we were allowed in. I was in a room with  five of my friends: Cara, Mary, Tabi, Becky, and May. One word can describe it: Hot!!!! 

Our first day out turned out to be 31°C and very sticky. We started at the Rijks museum. There we went to the 2nd floor which contained the Dutch Masters with painting by Vermee, Steen, and Rembrandt. We then left the museum and went to Vondelpark to eat some lunch. We had barely sat down when some women come up to us with free Pepsi for all of us. After a lovely lunch and some wandering around the park, we headed to Saint Nicolas market.

Day two we headed out bright and early to the Anne Frank House. It was beautiful and full of letters and videos and was very emotional. It was amazing being in the actual house where she and her family had stayed hidden for so long. Of course we were also exited at being in the house where they had filmed parts of the Fault in Our Stars!!! Then we walked all the back to the Van Gogh museum, which was predictably amazing!!!! My favorite three paintings were; The almond blossom, the sunflowers, and the lovers painting. I advise you check them out.

On our third and final day in Amsterdam, we packed our bags and walked for an hour through Amsterdam to the Eye museum about film. I wouldn’t be able to tell you about how film works, partly because it is such an amazing and complex technology, and partly because I spent most of the time watching Harry Potter 😉 We then left and walked another hour to the sailing place in Friesland: Pean.

Saturday, June 20th

Having a melancholy day.

DSCN5138It was Harper’s birthday yesterday and we had her whole class here for a picnic dinner at a nearby outdoor production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  Tammy had done her usual wonderful job of coordinating things and almost everyone was able to come, including several parents.  And we had got Emded, our local Bengali culinary wizard, to put together some curry finger foods which he did with predictable quality and astonishing quantity!  The kids clearly love each other, and loved the silly show which involved a lot of men dressed as women pretending to be men, and we felt so grateful for the group Harper’s landed among this year and the growth we’ve seen in our girl.  I hope she can maintain some kind of contact with them through the difficult gap that time and new experiences will create.  Regardless, they have been a gift to her, and we see that Harper has touched them also.

Today, we woke to the full shock of the death of Abigail Sutherland from KCVI, who was in Tammy’s kindergarten class years ago and whose family were neighbours for a time and whose sister was a playmate of Harper’s.  Someone we knew, but haven’t known for some time, and yet…  We see the kids of friends quoted in the newspaper, we know the waves of ache and loss will be hitting so many in our community from which we are distant.  (We didn’t know the other boy, Kevin Grant, but know that this will be crashingly affecting others we do know).  We are feeling far away (on this, the Skeleton Park Festival weekend, an annual pinnacle of community spirit), and Tammy is so very sad to think of this life she held while little is now impossibly gone.

As the year here winds down I had a vague premonition last week of losing the thread of the lives of my students–who have inevitably touched my  heart with their joys, foibles, potentials and dramas–and that I will not get to see them grow up as we get to when we make a permanent life somewhere.  At home, I run into them in shops where they are now working, or see them in the streets, sometimes now with their own kids.  But through the English links we hope to maintain distantly, I hope to hear of my Yatton kids from time to time.  A risk of teaching is that there are these many dear lives whose gravity never quite releases us even as they leave our own immediate orbit.   Even if (maybe especially if) they remain in our hearts as seven-year-olds, or eleven or sixteen-year-olds.

Such events make us all feel so vulnerable and stunned at the preciousness of our loved ones.  We feel far from our own Abby and from wider family and friends, and I am left with a strong sense that it is getting time to be home, that our home is Kingston where our children have been known since birth and where we are connected through the lives of those around us, the good and the hard.   But I know that our “community” now includes our friends here in England, and Germany and France.  Lucky, lucky we.

Here’s The Weakerthans: Reconstruction Site I listened to today while driving about thinking all of the above.  Have to recommend it.

Later the same day:   Just spoke to my brother and my mum.  My dad was found in kind of rough shape by firefighters after his landlord noticed he hadn’t collected mail for a few days.  He is in a hospital in Mississauga, doing alright but big changes are going to follow.  Dad described himself as “a work in progress” when my brother got to him in hospital.  Doug laughed and responded, “No shit.”   (My brother makes me laugh at times like this).  I’m glad Doug is there to handle things, but it does feel like the universe is calling me back to the land of rock and lakes.

Wet and Woolly in The Highlands

People kept saying, “Have you been to Scotland?”  And we really wanted to go, but were running out of time, and money, and energy.  But really, how could we not?  There’s enough Scots heritage in my family, to say nothing of a feux-Scottish boarding school in my past, that it seemed like we had to.  We were late booking and somewhat to our surprise Scotland was already full!  So, having made the decision to focus on the Highlands, to give us some experiences and landscapes that we had not yet had, our itinerary was largely determined by where we could get a bed.  Not on Skye.  Not in Ullapool.  Finally, we settled on the Isle of Mull, but didn’t know that much about it.  (Except that we were urged by Bob to go to adjacent Iona:  “It made even me feel religious!”).  Lots of pictures follow, in case you want to skip my ramblings.  

Sunday night, we attended the wedding reception of a colleague, a very fun country wedding dance-fest, and then, after a too-late night we drove straight to Bristol airport.  Flying into Inverness, I’d booked the smallest, cheapest car I could get.  The lad there greeted us with (go ahead, read this with a Highland accent), “I’m goin’ ta give ya a wee upgrade.  And when I say a wee upgrade, I mean a massive upgrade.”  Hello Volvo!

It’s funny when you get to a place like, say, Scotland, and discover that they really do say “wee” all the time, like in the movies.  Like how they say “y’all” in Georgia.  I’m planning to speak with a Scottish accent a lot more from now on, just to please my children.

On the way into our late-booked, generic, overlooking-a-parking-lot hotel room on the outskirts of Inverness, we stopped at the site of the Battle of Culloden, about which I knew very little but which  Tammy was familiar with from reading the Outlander books.  This began an inadvertent tour of the Jacobite Rebellion, which we followed over the next five days.  (Hooray for becoming members of the National Trust–every place we went was free!)   The centre and site were very well set up, with a powerful indoor exhibit and an audio tour of the battle site brought it to life.   I don’t know why the Scots agreed to meet in a big field instead of just picking off the British from the woods, but I guess they’d had a lot of success previously with the scaring the pants off them with our screaming and bagpipes approach.  Our trip echoed with the theme of the Jacobites and the subsequent Clearances that sent so many Scots abroad.  Their abandoned, ghostly stone homes were spotted daily.

After a quick check-in, we headed into lovely, understated Inverness, for a poke about a tartan shop to fire up my deep Scottish genes, and then a great curry overlooking the River Ness.  An interesting paradox about our late-May visit to Scotland: despite the fact that the sun was often hidden by rain clouds, it was rarely going to set!  Checking the latitude later, we realized we were just south of Whitehorse.   We never did see darkness in Scotland, even though we rarely saw the sun! I had poked about for hiking opportunities in the glens near Inverness, but some of the peak walks I had scoped out were out of the question due to frequent rain and due to the amount of snow still lingering on “the Munros”.   (Linguistic note:  “Munros”  are not a range of mountains as I had thought, like “The Rockies” or the “The Alps”.  They instead are a distinctively Scottish term given to any Highland peak over 3000 feet, named for Sir Hugh Munro, who made a list of them.  Am I the only one who cares about this stuff?  Be honest.)  But we headed off with our maps and sandwiches and hot chocolate and rain gear and a willingness to turn down roads that looked interesting.  Triffling around Scotland!  (Second linguistic note:  in the mid-1980s, several Markham lads coined the term “triffling”, which denoted aimless car travel guided by spontaneously going down obscure backroads marked on topographical maps, in pursuit of long-lost places of interest to a limited few).

First stop:  Glen Cannich.  After a long, winding drive, peering up the glen through the drizzle, trying to spot the peaks we were not going to climb, I said, “Holy crap!  Is that a dam?!!”  Sure enough, while other families were touring castles or art galleries, likely dining in swish cafés, I had brought mine to a fairly ugly hydroelectric dam, in the rain.  It was worth it though (I think) for our interaction with some highly cantankerous, road-owning cows, and stumbling upon a gorgeous hidden waterfall for a mossy picnic.

From there, we headed to the more reliably beautiful Glen Affric nature reserve for some tramping about the woods and the peat.  Tourism Scotland has done a great job with dramatic lighting effects, as the vistas are quite enhanced by the sun’s constant struggle to poke through the clouds.  We were continually impressed by the feeling of vast openness in Scotland.  Nothing looked quite like anywhere we’d been, but there was certainly a Canadian-feeling scale to it all.  Because of the lack of trees, I kept thinking of the Alberta footnhils, or the Northwest Territories.  Quite remarkable in such a wee country.  It slowly dawned on us that these velvety, peaty peaks dotted with sheep and deer were once all covered in forest.  This kept resounding for us—more so when we actually drove through clear-cuts:  that this beautiful landscape had been utterly shaped and changed by people, and little of the wildlife remains.  (A postcard for sale showed a beautiful pack of wolves, but on the back weirdly admitted that these were animals long-extinct in Scotland).  A lot of re-forestation is underway, but the open spaces remain largely treeless habitat for sheep farming.  And yet, as I noted in an earlier post, beautifulMore than we deserve, probably.

On Wednesday, we drove five hours southwest through increasingly bucketing rain, wending along the backroads near Loch Ness and through repeatedly breath-taking glens.  We stopped in Glenfinnan, where Bonnie Prince Charlie famously arrived to rouse the Scots to his cause, and where Harry Potter famously buzzed the Hogwarts train in a flying car as it passed over the viaduct.  We were wishing, repeatedly, that Abby was with us (though she might have preferred the weather in Kingston).

Finally, after a short ferry-ride to Isle of Mull, we arrived at “the last B and B in the Highlands.” Thursday, we’d booked ourselves onto a “nature” boat tour, but the rain and heavy seas postponed the outing, so we headed for some cross-island triffling to get to Iona, a tiny island settled in 600 AD by St. Columba, an Irish missionary.  Mull is incredible!  We had no idea that its topography would match that we’d seen in the northerly Highlands.  A wild, two-hour winding coastal drive beneath craggy green and black cliffs took us to the Iona passenger ferry. Iona is lovely and quiet and mostly car-less.  We poked our way through the stony village, picnicked in the ruins of the old nunnery, wandered past the current Abbey, and found ourselves at a stunning and completely empty beach.   And it wasn’t raining (at the moment)!  Enough to make Bob feel religious?  We were certainly feeling blessed!

Harper is such a trooper!  The only kid on a family trip might be a bit of a drag, but once she is out there she is happy and playful and great, scrambling up rocks and convening with cows and being silly.  It is so fun to have her along!

The next day was high seas adventure out to the Treshnish Isles—rather higher seas than we’d bargained for!  The weather had improved, certainly, but the seas were rough and the boat was packed.  The choice was therefore to be down below where it was warm and dry and get sea sick (many did), or stay way up top in the wind and crashing waves and trust our rain gear.  We chose the latter on the outward and most of the inward journey.  Harper was incredibly hardy and happy, though, in spite of wet and cold conditions and stayed outside throughout when nobody else did.  By the end of the day, I could feel the water sloshing about in my boots.

My own dear mum, who has been to these places, didn’t have much very nice to say about puffins, but you’ll have to get the reasons from her.  We liked puffins a lot, and there were 30,000 to choose from, but I must say that the energy and discomfort we endured to see them was perhaps out of balance with the pleasure they gave.  Perhaps this was Mum’s experience as well.  See the pictures below for a taste of our puffin experience (if you like them, we have lots more!) and the crazy volcanic geology of Staffa Island.   Thankfully, the day ended with one of the best fish dinners we’ve ever had, at the Fish Café, in Tobermory.  And a hot shower.  And whiskey.

We had been feeling a little nervous about Saturday, as we had to make it all the way to Glasgow for a flight south, but hadn’t booked in time to get on the Oban ferry, so we had to take the smaller ferry heading north and go around.  We did it though, caught the 7:20 ferry, and had a glorious morning drive through Glen Coe, site of the famous massacre.  We were skeptical of any place claiming to be “the most beautiful glen in Scotland” but this might just warrant the claim.  Again, we were boggled by the space.  Wish we’d had more time to do a bigger hiking and camping trip here.  Next life!

Anyway, made our flight.  Our luggage was overweight–not, alas, due to bottles of whiskey, but rather the several additional kilos of rain and seawater in our soggy laundry!  I was asleep before they’d even turned the seatbelt sign off and woke as they announced our descent into Bristol.  Arrived home not rested, exactly, but with lots to remember from our Highland adventure.

Click on pictures to open as a gallery.

Night at the Musicals

Over the past 6 weeks I have been involved with the Portishead Players and their Spring show, Night at the Musicals.  I decided to audition for the production with about 6 hours notice and was delighted to join the cast – a lovely and talented group of folks.  There have been many times over the past several years when I considered doing some musical theater but I could never find the time – or make the commitment. This year seemed like the perfect opportunity to give singing and dancing a try.  Well, let me say that the last time I was in a musical was in Grade 13 – GREASE at MCI!! It took me some time to get my dancing legs coordinated with my singing voice, but it all turned out just fine and we just had four successful performances.  Now what am I going to do…………?

Wandering Wales

It is long overdue, and this short post will not do it justice, but here is a collection of photos from our Easter Break trip to Wales with our dear friends Heidi and Anna.  We had planned their visit for ages, and after a few days of showing them around our Somerset lives, we headed across the Severn Estuary toward Cymru.  In a really cool rental van.

First stop was Pembrokeshire, near the tiny village of Nevern, close to Newport.  We stayed in a lovely converted barn (which rather understates the comfort of our accommodation) owned by Jenny Corlett’s cousin.  We hiked the Preseli Hills up to a 3000 year old dolmen; we walked the shape-shifting, description-defying coast.  We attempted hitchhiking on a lonely road increasingly enshrouded in fog and were not attacked by a werewolf (obscure reference).

Next, we made our way up to Snowdonia: our breaths were sucked away at every second turn, each steep-sided valley of slate.  The weather continued clear and bright.  Another, rather more rustic converted barn awaited, near Bethesda.  Our hosts, Pat and Peter, pointed us away from mighty Mount Snowden toward Mount Trefyn, and this made our whole adventure so much better.  See the pictures below to get a glimpse of all that we did, including an incredible day of hiking up a very special mountain peak in a very magical valley of stone and grass.  Sunburns!  In Wales!

We are so thankful that Heidi and Anna made the rather-longer-than-expected journey to our little corner of the U.K.  And Wales!  Omigosh, hooray for Wales!

Cornish Weekend

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It is so great that Abby is here and we are Four!  We had been determined to get back down to Cornwall before Spring when it will reportedly fill with tourists and Brits and surfers, and had come across this rustic little cottage advertised through Harper’s school.  A sweet deal was given to families from the school.  When we booked it, Abby was not going to be here yet, but here she was!  A cozy, rustic little retreat for us to really hang out together.

DSCN3161DSCN3145Saturday, we crossed sheep fields to the stunning coast, and then hiked a couple of hours north to Tintagel.  Along the way, we passed several old slate quarries where the coast had been carved by many years of slate extraction.  Everything around here was made of slate:  the walls and fences and roofs of buildings, the stairs along the coastal path.

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Tintagel has long been a semi-hidden destination because of its stunning coastline.  Apparently, King Arthur’s parents were impressed with the views, as the ancient castle built there (under the ruins of a medieval castle) is reputedly the birthplace of the mythical king.  Whether provable or not, walking the blustery ramparts of this dramatically-appointed island one is compelled by this being a fitting birthplace for a legendary king.  DSCN3198The village also has an amazing old slate building that served for a long time as post office.DSCN3255 DSCN3258 DSCN3280DSCN3243 DSCN3245

Commonwealth Day

DSCN3110We hadn’t heard a word from the British “coordinator” of the teacher exchange since arriving in August.  No reply to emails, nothing.  It’s been weird but luckily we haven’t needn’t anything.  Then, about three weeks ago, I got an email inviting us to an “orientation to the school system in England” followed by Commonwealth Day ceremonies at Westminster Abbey.  The Queen would be there.  How could we resist?  And, as it turned out, our Abby was going to be arriving just before, so she’d be with us as well.  It’s expensive getting to London (and being in London), but we thought we’d better go up the day before and catch some sights.
Sunday afternoon, we walked from Paddington Station to Abbey Road, and then crossed back and forth a few times with the other traffic-irritating tourists.  Then we checked into a great, cheap hotel and headed to the National Gallery (also free).  Then, on a whim, we scarfed down falafels and bought less-than-half-price last-minute tickets to The Commitments, front row first balcony.  It was really fun. IMG_20150309_185335
Craaazy day on Monday.  We couldn’t quite believe where we’d found ourselves.  Still can’t, really, it’s so hilarious that we would have ended up in the middle of this event.   As seen in the videos below, the Royals were strongly in attendance–The Queen and Phillip, Charles and Camilla, Kate and William–along with a collection of astonishingly accomplished speakers from places like Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.  Among these were the first female member of parliament in Bangladesh and Kailash Satyarthi, the incredible Nobel Peace Prize laureate from India.

And for more (if you want it) this from The Telegraph.


With Grace Butler, another Canadian exchange teacher.

I brought a bag of Canada pins and the girls wandered about beforehand handing them to cute British schoolchildren and Brownies.  Abby surreptitiously filmed the Royal Family as they passed us close by for the second time, on the way out of the church.   (Luckily, she didn’t get us kicked out).   The Queen is pretty old (and tiny), but chugging along; Phillip seemed very spry and cheery;  Charles and Camilla also;  William and Kate were just about what you’d expect, only way closer and three dimensional!  We got to chat with Canada’s flag bearer and several other folk, and then freely poked about the Abbey looking at the tombs of pretty much every famous British person.  Crazy, crazy, crazy.  

One of the cool things about where we live is that each day there is a train or two that runs direct between London Paddington and Weston Super-Mare and makes a stop in Yatton.  So Monday evening we caught the train back, walked four minutes and were home.  It’s brilliant.
On Tuesday, I went on a field trip with my class to a grocery store, which was also pretty cool.  Kerri, the lady in the fish section, taught us great stuff about haddock and kippers, and then we went in the big walk-in freezer and I got to tell my kids that this was the temperature in Canada. 

Life is good.