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April 2016

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Straight off.

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Arriving into St. Pancreas station in London, we immediately commented on how clean things seemed, not the seedy steamy Gare du Nord we’d left over the channel. This was bright, there were snazzy shops; and to top it all, we spied a WHSmith, the bookstore chain, ga ga’d over the selection, queued to pay, and gorged on English magazines that didn’t cost a fortune in euros. Clipped English voices, we gorged on those too. French has a certain exactness, but English is musical, and when it’s your mother tongue, it’s as musical as can be.

Sometimes, you’re starved for a small taste of your own culture, and we’d chosen to come over to the U.K. to immerse ourselves in the green landscape, no doubt, but we were also looking forward to shooting the breeze jawing the local jive talk. On the train from London west to Hereford, two blokes sat behind us, talking for 2 choice hours about families, funerals, stuff like that. They said things like, “She’s got some sense, but he’s a bit common.” “My brother is a knob, he doesn’t agree with anything and he won’t talk to Father Michael.” Meanwhile a large lady across from them in a bright red sweater with very blond hair carefully unwrapped her breakfast buns and placed them on a decorative plate. In Slough, a man with very wavy hair, round wire-rimmed glasses, beak nose, narrow chin, wearing a mustard tweed jacket, with a red kerchief he put to his running nose boarded the train and walked to the middle of the coach. He got off at Oxford, clearly, a 60 year old Harry P.

Hay on Wye, Wales, is a small village of 1,500 people and 26 bookstores. Yep! Books galore and people to talk about them with. It sits on the River Wye surrounded by green hills dotted with sheep. A guy named Richard Booth, who was born there, educated at Oxford, returned home, got an inheritance from an Uncle that allowed him to open a bookstore and to start this book ‘movement’ to support his rural economy. We explored the nooks and crannies of many of the bookstores, but Booths Books is special –  a good vibe there with the deep cushioned chairs, high windows that look out to hills in the distance, polished wood. And a cafe that offers a mean chai latte.

Wordsworth, the Romantic poet, wrote some of his best work around here, walking the Wye River Valley. Lines that I could quote in my 20’s, that spoke of nature as having no ‘slight or trivial influence on the best portion of a good man’s life’ essentially attributing to nature – the power to deeply restore and balance, to inspire and hold truth. Beautiful stuff well thought out. We were granted long chats with various local folks sharing stories of Wales, its land, the sheep, its economy. We ran into the same people again. We walked into a deep green glade of daffodils behind the Dingle church. A local told us about the footpath behind that we could follow up Cusop hill. The sheep hardly raised their heads from the meadow grass as we passed.

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Walks in Wales.

 

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The Grainery is full of people and because I’m tired having been up since 6am in Paris to catch the early Eurostar to London, then another train west, to Wales, I am not sure where we even are, but I pack us into the eatery scanning for available seats. We brush past a crowd standing in the doorway; they smile and apologize. But, we were the ones who …  hmmm. Everyone is so nice. Maybe it’s the bright blue sky, the warm sun, which is unexpected. Days before our departure, I’d gone out and bought wellies for us all, this area the wettest in the U.K. We flop down in seats and I look around. Bright white walls, black and white stenciled bicycle graphics, coolness-factor alert. Patrons still smiling, all pink-cheeked, glowy, like they’ve been out walking in morning meadows, afterwards tucking into scones and cream. I’m just happy we didn’t miss our trains and we seem to have managed to get here with all our bags.

For the Spring holiday, we’ve decided to go walking in Wales. And from what we’ve seen so far, we’ve apparently arrived into a land well-nourished. Our lunch arrives, big plates of quiche, salad, soup following up with chocolate bars. Our village sits in the Wye River Valley, surrounded by meadow-land where sheep graze as far as the eye can see. Really, we can’t get over how many sheep there are. Everywhere you look, bits of white fluff. (which of course, reminds us of the great white thing back in Paris. (Skye, our dog, a.k.a. Sheep!)) The meadows rise up toward hedge-rowed hills, so that from afar, the land looks like a soft undulating green quilted blanket. So cozy, it makes me yawn writing this. Oh yeah, and signs are in Welsh, which is an old language that has a lot of undulating vowels…

A variety of walks leave from the village square so we’ve got our choice. The first morning, the girls are up at an unusual hour, and to my surprise, wake me, asking for breakfast. I figure out the oven and toast the homemade sourdough we got before the store closed last night. Also, local butter, local jam. Since the path to the river is just outside our door, it’s our first choice to get familiar with the town and the lay of the ole land. It’s chilly out and the path is muddy in places. We run into people in wellies, sure enough, and wool sweaters over baggy pants, sodden dogs. We’re in our sneakers, but don’t want to go back and change, as it’s sunny after all. We follow signposts thru field after field, thru gates at the hedge-rows, until finally they complain that we turn around. We trail back to the river, down to a pebbled beach, where we’re all happy enough to skip some stones for a while. It’s a great mindless (or maybe mind-full?) kind of activity. Communing with nature by throwing stones in water. The girls are determined to get the hang of it. They do.

Check in next week for more sheep starring in Walks in Wales.

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Plato, anyone?

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Back when, in Greece, before Starbucks or phones or internet, people might stroll to the town center in the morning and run into neighbors and friends and strike up conversation. A popular thing to do as Athens had pretty good weather, nice architecture and the food wasn’t so bad either. They’d gather together under some olive trees, maybe with a hunk of goat’s cheese, bread, figs, and in the glow of good food and sun, they’d chat – about family, other neighbors, society, you know – the gamut. As time went on, regular meetups gave rise to some animated talks. That’s what happens when folks get together – carry-over conversations beget jesting, guffawing, and also – great exploration of their own and other’s ideas.

Kinda like when your 3 bff’s come for a sleepover Friday nite and over pizza and soda you get to talking about your 9th grade class, who said what to whom, who aced the math test Monday, who failed the math test, who recently got into trouble with the headmaster and is going to be stuck Friday staying after school. On to diatribes about the cruelty of homework, the injustices of gym, and the current status of your friends’ boyfriend. From there to heated debates on classic vs. contemporary fiction, Jane Austen vs. J.K. Rowling, politics in America, and current best places for lunch in Passy. Next thing you know, it’s Saturday afternoon and most important topics have been covered.

This is indeed, what happened in Greece. Word went round about the scintillating talk, the spirited exchange of ideas and before you knew it, the meetup had a following. It took an organized fellow named Plato to take the reins and over time to establish what is now called – the first school in Western civilization – The Academy. Plato’s Academy started with a bunch of friends under some olive trees chatting up a storm. He had studied with Socrates, the famed logician. Plato saw the potential in the situation – realizing quickly that a dedicated group might be just the thing to start something new. Shared inquiry. He foresaw conversations about the vagaries of human nature and all its permutations turn into meaningful explorations about: what it means to know oneself, how do we truly know another, what is the nature of friendship, etc onto larger social issues – how best to govern a society, how best to maintain order, and so forth. Solid stuff.

But you might be wondering what the hang-up is with Plato, et all…? From chatting to dialogic discourse, we arrived at the foundations and principles of our Western civilizations. Yes, that’s great and all! But the answer is our blog’s topic today is the direct result of having a teenager in the house. Think back to the foggy days of yore – how, at that certain age, the Quest for Meaning hit smack dab in the center of your soul – one day you were only concerned with the next chapter in your cat novel series or getting the last pudding in the fridge before your sister got it, the next thing you know, you are wondering if there is a God in heaven above and grappling with the ethics and morals of it all. Trying times.

Said teenager’s aim at the moment is to join the school Philosophy Club. Whose motto is something along the lines of, “A civil discussion of challenging ideas is a powerful method of personal growth and social engagement.” Sounds on the up and up. The Club, however, is only open to the grade above and higher. To contend with this perceived slight, our teenager hunkers in a corner of the school basement with some pretzel bread for lunch and a book of Rene Descartes, the French philosopher. He’s the cheeky one who said, “I think, therefore I am.” and “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out.” or “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.” Useful ditty, that.

Our parenting strategy has always leaned toward the “laissez faire” model – French for – Let (people) do (as they choose). A bit casual, you might say. Yes, but proven to work out in the end – encouraging individuality and a highly-developed sense of independence. It’s true you might end up with a teenager who says things like, “I’m a radical leftist who dislikes organized religion and who opposes tax cuts and the right to bear arms.” Well, to this we can only (sigh in admiration) say – at least they are thinking for themselves! Our parenting motto has run along the lines of – There isn’t much that a little talking can’t help frame. See, there is a running theme here, after all. Plato’s dialogues began with open-ended questions that were meant to open up in inquiry and to develop ideas. In Paris, the most vibrant city in the world, it is this conversational feast we bow down and try to honor by joining, finding that around every corner just waiting to happen, is something to say.

 

 

 

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