Books by my bedside 2018/04/18

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

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library shelf 2018 April

Non-Fiction

Culture & Geography

The Alps: a human history from Hannibal to Heidi and beyond by O’Shea, Stephen

Austria (juvenile non-fiction) by Sheehan, Sean

Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (juvenile non-fiction) by Needham, Ed

Europe by Eurail 2018 by Ferguson-Kosinski, LaVerne

Germany (juvenile non-fiction) by Coddington, Andrew

Let’s Visit Liechtenstein by Carrick, Noel

Switzerland (juvenile non-fiction) by Rogers Seavey, Lura

The White Stallions: the story of the dancing horses of Lipizza by Van der Linde, Laurel

History

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century (Kindle book) by Graham, Peter

The Orient Express: the history of the Orient Express service from 1883 to 1950 by Burton, Anthony

Language

Pimsleur

Pimsleur German

Pimsleur French I (audio CD)

Pimsleur German II (audio CD)

Memoir

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass (Vintage International Kindle edition) by Dinesen, Isak

Plays (Theatre)

The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Volumes I – IV by Simon, Neil

50 Best Plays of the American Theatre.selected by Barnes, Clive

The Glass Menagerie by Williams, Tennessee

book 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre - 1

Fiction

Heidi by Spyri, Johanna (also film directed by Alain Gsponer)

New Zealand Stories: Mansfield Selections (Kindle book) by Mansfield, Katherine

The Star of Kazan by Ibbotson, Eva

books library Alps Vienna Europe Kazan - 1

Reading Notes:

Rumination on women authors sojourning in strange lands

Though my trip to New Zealand is in the past, I’ve continued to dwell there just a little by reading more of its authors’ works. Specifically, I’ve become enamored with Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Detective Alleyn mysteries, and with the short fiction of Katharine Mansfield.

Both were born in New Zealand, but also spent significant portions of their lives in Britain. I find their work tantalizing as it relates to both the work of women in a different, less egalitarian era, and also for the way it reflects the effects of colonization, sometimes explicitly, but always in the shadows.

The other, the outsider, by sex or by accident of birth. Hmm…

Reading about an infamous murder in Christchurch, New Zealand committed in part by a teenage girl who would grow up to write bestselling mystery novels under a new name, Anne Perry, belongs to this thread, too. She was born in England, but clearly her sojourn in the colony was consequential.

See Peter Jackson’s film, “Heavenly Creatures,” to get the story without cracking a book. Make it a double feature with sweet family film “Her Majesty” and see if you find them as weirdly complementary as I do. Girlhood, good & grim; Christchurch, paradise or perdition?

My mind hitches these works by this insider/outsider woman/writer kind of thinking to the copy of Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass that I’ve been reading, s-l-o-w-l-y, for the past couple of months.

It was a “take in small doses and mull it over” read for me; a not-every-night to-lull-me-to-sleep read, but a can’t-sleep carry-me-away type of thing. I was also compelled to research Dinesen online for biographical information from a less biased than herself source when I was done with her memoir.

Though flawed like the rest of us and a product of her age and station as a European aristocrat, she sure strung together some beautiful words. I’ve enjoyed many of her short stories, too. Recommended for those who like some literary with their fiction.

The Alps, the Orient Express, Vienna, and European micro states

It may be a surprise to see a stack of children’s non-fiction books on my library shelf. I could just attribute them to my boys, or the younger son in particular, but they’re really for my edification.

It’s true that I always hope my kids will pick up one of my enthusiasms and/or delve into a similar self-directed unit study of something else, but I find these slim volumes a handy way to grab a quick overview of a place I’ve never been.

This time, the big boy and I were thinking about European micro states, and particularly the several who use German as an official language. It ties in with his studies, and my attention got grabbed. I requested half the books in the library, and in we dove.

Yes, I’ve heard of Wikipedia, but I have a thing about big maps and full color photos on heavyweight gloss. If I don’t have to spread a map out on a table in front of me, it doesn’t delight half as much. Most of my adventures begin with the unfolding of a paper map. Opening a book and flipping through pages of pictures offers me the same kind of thrill.

The Europe by Eurail book made a nice start for trip planning, but that work really is better done online these days, even if you have Luddite tendencies… but only if you also have that all important large map showing major railway lines to help you get your bearings. Maybe you won’t need this if your grasp of European geography is stronger than mine, but I suspect a map will always be vital for me regardless of how well I’ve studied.
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Find up to the minute train information and all the basic “how to’s” for rail riding neophytes on the incredibly helpful and shockingly complete site The Man in Seat 61. Borrow Europe by Eurail from your local library instead and save the $23 for a simpler, lighter weight folding map and a few more cups of espresso.
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Both Rick Steves Europe and Streetwise Europe were well under $10 on Amazon.Though nothing I’m even considering planning approaches the Orient Express for grandeur and romance, I found the history book of the same name wildly inspirational. There may be a night in a modern NightJet sleeper car compartment in my future just because I read this.
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Well, that, and because I love trains…

My favorite bits of this photograph- and fact- filled tome had to do with the preposterous pomposity of Kings Ferdinand and Boris of Bulgaria. Each exercised abused the royal authority by demanding the right to drive the train personally as it passed through his demesne. The latter crazy bastard actually killed someone through his recklessness and arrogance. How, though, does a railway company argue with a hereditary sovereign monarch?
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Another trivial tidbit I liked: that most famous train became embroiled in European politics over and over again as it rolled across so many national boundaries during tumultuous decades.
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The Germans seized the prize plums that were Orient Express carriages during WWI. Restaurant car #2419 served up helpings of crow when the French accepted German surrender therein at Compiègne in 1918, but Hitler made the French do the same in the same car in 1940. He ordered #2419 blown up when it became clear that he would lose his war lest he receive the same treatment.
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Warmongering and atrocities aside, it seems clear today that the Germans also lacked a feeling for foreign tourist marketing when they changed the famous name of the luxurious Orient Express sleepers from “Wagon-Lits” to “Mitteleuropäischeschlafwagengesellschaft.” I speak a little German, and I can’t get my lips to form that mouthful of a compound noun. Eventually, even they saw sense and shortened the name of their stolen cars to “Mitropa.” Phew!
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And, for the record, there is an “Orient Express” service one can take from London to Venice today for ≅£3500 per passenger. A crop of murderous fellows in adjacent compartments not guaranteed.
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Still thinking historically, the family friendly audiobook, The Star of Kazan, should inspire any reader/listener to wish to visit Vienna, Austria. Set around 1900, the young heroine and her friends do some international traveling by train, but certainly not enjoying a standard such as the Orient Express came to offer. I wasn’t tempted to visit the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to see the famous Lippitzaner stallions until I got into this story with my little guy.

And, when speaking now of Austria, how can one avoid pondering The Alps?.Though one could be forgiven for never having heard of the book by the same name. O’Shea’s cultural history/travel narrative is an easy to read, enjoyable road trip through a series of the storied mountain range’s high passes.

I haven’t finished sharing this journey with O’Shea yet, but here’s the best bit so far: Musée de l’horlogerie et du décolletage. I and my infinitesimal iota of French translated it just like he did, but, if you want to know what it means without reading his book, you’ll have to ask me in the comments!

If we’re in the Alps, how can we fail to recall the classic by Joanna Spyri, Heidi. While I didn’t re-read it this month and he’s a bit old for it, I made DS1 acquaint himself with the book. I can’t imagine a childhood without it. As a family, we watched a lovely modern (2015) film adaptation available to us in the USA in its native German. Don’t worry: there are English subtitles, and I think its offered dubbed as well.

It was awesome, though, for a chance to hear some spoken Swiss German. Even a beginning level student of the language like me could recognize obvious differences between Swiss and Standard or Hoch German.
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The live action film was a lot closer to the charming original narrative than the Hanna Barbera animated version, “Heidi’s Song,” that came out when I was a little girl.
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Preparing to host a theatrical reading at home

Now we’ll skip from the cinema to the theatre. I’ve spent a huge amount of time since I finished preparing and filing my taxes reading plays.
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Why, you ask?
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I’m planning to host a party or two.
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While it’s not even unusual for me to jump up and grab a book from the shelves to entertain a guest with something I find fascinating, this time, I’m inviting them over on notice: we’re going to read a play. Yes, all of us. Together!
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But which one? Approaching a script as an evening’s pastime for a group forces me to evaluate it differently. I’m sure it’s a wonderful mental exercise, but it has been time consuming.
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I’ve attended a few of these events hosted by friends, but never with my husband. He’s mildly horrified, but a good sport. He doubts everyone will share my enthusiasm. Pooh-pooh! I think if there is wine, and perhaps cake, people won’t mind participating.
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This started out as an idea for a home school assignment for DS1, and I’m working on that teen-oriented gathering, too. But, it quickly became apparent that I should also schedule a more mature work to read with my own favorite grown up friends. Why should the kids get to have all the fun?
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I had a few friends over for a short notice “Ladies’ Lit” night just yesterday, and one person opted to bring an excerpt from Lysistrata to share. I loved it. Perhaps I also over-acted a bit more than the others. It has been far too long since I’ve gotten enough attention on the stage! I did receive a hostess gift of these beautiful flowers, granting me a moment of rêverie for my youth in the spotlight.
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Even this mere taste was every bit as much fun as I thought it would be. Also, now, at least those lucky participants are forewarned as to what to expect next time I send an invitation.

Velvet Burger restaurant, Riccarton, Christchurch, NZ

Carnivores who find themselves hungry on Riccarton Road in Christchurch, New Zealand, should consider stopping in at Velvet Burger. I know that I will return if I’m ever back in the neighborhood.

This might be where I confess that my husband believes our elder son was built entirely from hamburgers based upon my eating habits during my first pregnancy.NZ Food Velvet Burger - 3

NZ restaurant Velvet Burger Riccarton Chch - 2Velvet Burger does offer a Vege option, and their fries—both potato and kumara sweet potato—looked pretty darn good, but I would think being around so many meat eaters might be less than appealing for the Vegan set.

Eat down the road at exclusively vegetarian Dux Dine instead if you are offended by sharing space with the omnivores.

Gluten free buns were available for an extra charge.

Here’s my Velvet Lady chicken burger, sliced in half because I wasn’t sure I could finish it. I ordered it without bacon.

NZ Food Velvet Burger - 2nz-restaurant-velvet-burger-riccarton-chch-3.jpg

If I eat here again, I’ll order from Velvet Burger’s list of Mini menu items. A 3/4 size sandwich would suffice for me.

The bun for the regular Velvet Lady was nearly the size of a luncheon plate and a bit flatter/thinner than I’m used to back home. It had the mild taste of other New Zealand white sandwich bread I tried. I suspect they use less salt in the baking, as a rule, but I don’t have the supertaster skill set to say this for sure. The bun had no seeds, which is what I prefer.

Velvet Burger offers vege, chicken, pork, and lamb burgers.

For the traditionalist, of course, they offer beef patties, too.

NZ restaurant menu Velvet Burger ChCh Beef Pork

Menu Velvet Burger beef pork

You’ll order at the counter, then take a seat with your little numbered flag to help the staff find you when your order is ready.

As with most New Zealand cafes, drinking water was self serve and both glasses and larger refillable bottles were available to take to your table. It’s an easy nation in which to stay hydrated without increasing your carbon footprint.

The restaurant wasn’t crowded when I stopped in during the early afternoon. Though the finishes weren’t overly plush, there was no din such as one finds in some industrially styled public spaces. Both booths and tables were available.

Restrooms are tucked away in the back hall. They were clean, and there were several. No complaints here.

I happened upon Velvet Burger when I went in search of the bus depot. I wanted to find my bus stop first to be certain of its location, then eat a late lunch before heading into the suburbs to meet DH after work. You’ll find this Riccarton restaurant very convenient for a quick stop before boarding public transit in Christchurch.

1 year of Really Wonderful Things with thanks to every reader

My first post for Really Wonderful Things went up on March 30, 2017.

Birthday cake 1 candle - 1Though I toyed with the idea of a blog for years, and even had one false start before Apple killed off iWeb in 2011, I let some combination of anxiety, inertia, and lack of direction still my hand.

My WordPress account required renewal almost a full month before the anniversary of any content going live.

Some of us are unlikely to ever reach the stage of throwing everything at the internet without pre-planning—even agonizing over—the details. It seems a wonder to me that I’ve published as many posts as I have.

Fortunately, I no longer require one or more family members to preview every post that I write. Unfortunately, I probably send out more typos and half baked ideas than I did when I monopolized more of DH’s and DS’s time.

The moment I hit upon this blog’s titleReally Wonderful ThingsI knew I could make it happen. Finally, I’d figured out the thread that tied my disparate interests together.

By God, I really do find all of this stuff pretty wonderful! More specifically, I realized that my heart’s desire was to communicate with others when I discovered something particularly useful or elucidating.

It is also no surprise that my first post was an attempt at sharing a system I’d worked out—for storing camping equipment of all things—with the world. I seem to get a greater than average measure of pleasure out of comparing and contrasting, sorting and applying information.

What better service can I offer than revealing the results of my tests and discoveries? I’m less skillful in the application of all this thought to objects in the real world.

My house is a mess, but my ideas runneth over.

I’m grateful for every one of you who has seen fit to humor me by reading some of them. I hope you’ve enjoyed these Really Wonderful Things as much as I have in sharing them with you.

Jigsaw puzzle as travel diversion: Wentworth offers tiny wooden treasures you can work on a tray table

I’ve written about the joys of wooden jigsaw puzzles before.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact Dowdle Liberty Ravensburger - 1They are exactly what you’d expect if you’ve ever done a modern cardboard puzzle. Visualize a similar product cut from thin sheets of wood instead of flimsier paper. For those who get annoyed with ill fitting or torn pieces in the Springbok or other puzzles sold at the local big box store, wooden puzzles offer a much more satisfying experience.

Ordering my first wooden puzzle was a leap of faith. They cost a lot more than mass market cardboard ones. No one I knew had any experience to share, and the least expensive choices seemed to have tiny numbers of pieces compared to my usual 1000 piece behemoths. I was afraid I would feel I’d wasted my money.

I didn’t. Now I own about a dozen, and I covet a great many more.

While its true that the most common wooden puzzles are smaller—and made of fewer pieces—than the typical paper version, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the new type. In fact, I found they offered a whole new realm of possibilities for portable puzzling.

Something about the cut of a wooden puzzle, and perhaps its more three dimensional nature, makes me focus more on shape and less on the image. I feel like my brain gets a different kind of workout from doing a wooden puzzle.

But aside from that difference, my wooden puzzles are so small, I can work them in more places. Instead of needing my much loved but bulky Jigthings Jigboard 1000 plus half of the dining room table, I can sit on the couch with a lap desk or a half sheet baking pan to complete most of my Liberty and Artifact puzzles.

I ordered my first Wentworth wooden puzzle for $16.99 from Amazon when I noticed how tiny its listed dimensions were. I wondered if they could possibly be accurate. They were!

Wentworth 40 piece puzzle retail price appears to be $19.99.

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Wentworth 40 piece wooden jigsaw puzzle on Air New Zealand Premium Economy tray table

The finished puzzle is about the size of a printed photograph: 4 x 6″. A 40 piece Wentworth puzzle is easily completed on an airplane tray table, and the pieces themselves take up just a bit more room than a deck of cards in their roughly 3.5″ square box.

The 54 piece Artifact puzzle, Kessel Shells, with which I’m comparing the Wentworth in most of these photographs is scarcely any larger. It just comes in a bigger, higher quality, tissue lined box with an elegant magnetic closure. I paid $18.

Small (< 90 piece) Artifact puzzles retail for $18-40.Jigsaw puzzle wood Artifact shells inside box - 1

Assembled, it fits easily inside its own box with an inch or more to spare in all three dimensions. Please note that this wouldn’t be true of all Artifact puzzles; they use one type of box for puzzles from this size on up to a medium.

Note also that the particular Artifact puzzle that I photographed for this post has a unique conceit: all of the pieces are very similar squares, and straight edges are used in the middle of the puzzle as well as for edges.

It turns out that I don’t enjoy this type of puzzle as much as a standard cut ideally with whimsies, like most other Artifact options, but it does make for pieces that are easy to re-package and transport in a small cardboard jewelry box or one’s Wentworth 40 piece box if one so desires.

Say, for example, to bring along on a plane!

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Re-packaged Artifact Kessel Shells puzzle’s 54 pieces into Wentworth puzzle box to show how compactly they could be stored for travel

For use after re-packing in this manner, I tried assembling the Kessel Shells puzzle using a photo stored on my iPad for reference, and that worked fine. If your puzzle fits in your carry on bag but its box won’t, just snap a quick picture.

Harder core jigsaw puzzlers than myself are known to work puzzles without using the finished image at all. It is harder that way. Personally, I don’t enjoy the process as much, but I have done it to test myself. I find it boring with a paper puzzle’s usual standard shapes, but better with a wooden one; the pieces are almost universally more interesting when cut from wood. More care and expense goes into a typical wooden puzzle’s hand- or laser- cut craftsmanship, after all.

The smallest Liberty wooden puzzles retail for $39; they aren’t sold on Amazon, but direct from the manufacturer. I think all of their XS options are round, and most contain more pieces than other brands’ size Small.

I’ve given a few Liberty XS puzzles to my mom for gifts, so I’ve laid hands on them, but don’t have any to photograph for comparisons. They had 107-115 pieces and I found them wonderful to assemble. The attractive gift box would be bulky for travel, however, like the Artifact boxes are.

The tiny Wentworth 40 piece puzzle comes in a much smaller box than any of its competitors. It also proved to be cut from noticeably thinner wood.

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Wentworth piece (top) compared to Artifact piece (bottom); both from wooden jigsaw puzzles

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Storage box sizes for wooden puzzles of similar finished size; Wentworth (top) & Artifact (bottom)

Though this might affect my overall ranking of “best wooden jigsaw puzzles” for gifting purposes or in terms of total quality, it doesn’t mean Wentworth is a low quality brand! The pieces click together well enough to make for satisfying puzzle building. They just aren’t quite as luxurious as Artifact or Liberty puzzle pieces, and the whimsies seem a bit less special.

I would absolutely consider ordering another Wentworth puzzle if I liked the image depicted. My ideal puzzle size is at least several hundred pieces, and I’d love to try a really large 1000+ piece wooden puzzle someday. I do lean toward a brand with thicker pieces for the high price a large wooden puzzle commands, however.

A thinner puzzle does make for one which is easier to transport. For example, to bring along on a plane.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth cardboard Ravensburger zoom

Compare jigsaw puzzle pieces of Ravensburger cardboard (top) to Wentworth wood (bottom)

A “thin” wooden piece from Wentworth is still thicker than that of a high quality cardboard puzzle. Here’s a picture of one to compare with a Ravensburger piece in cardboard. You can judge for yourself.

My recent trip to New Zealand was my first time bringing along an actual jigsaw puzzle for entertainment in midair. I’ve tried an iPad “jigsaw puzzle” app, but found it unappealing in practice.

Usually, I find the hours of a flight pretty easy to while away with a few books loaded on a Kindle to conserve weight and space plus some saved video content and a few casual games on my iPad or phone. I stocked up on digital and other distractions much more heavily for the marathon Transpacific flight where no wifi was available even if I got desperately bored.

When I get very tired on a long flight, my eyes stop wanting to read before my brain is willing to sleep. That’s about the only time I resort to screen time, or, more often, the crossword puzzle from the in flight magazine. This time, I followed up a lot of reading with some jigsaw puzzling. It helped me to pass the time in a fun and novel way.

If you take particular enjoyment from completing jigsaw puzzles, like I do, you might consider packing along a small one on your next long haul flight. It’s definitely better for your brain than more screen time, and it’s strangely satisfying to do something tangible with your hands instead of spending all those hours inside your jetlagged, slightly muddled mind.

I used to knit on a plane for similar reasons, but I gave it up when I couldn’t carry my mini scissors any longer. Also, I heard horror stories about knitting needles being confiscated as weaponry. There’s no way I could stay calm if the TSA made me dispose of a project well under way with the argument that my slightly pointy wooden sticks were sufficient to bring down a plane.

I would be livid, and, deprived of my project, I might also be bored.

I’m a pretty creative thinker, but I find it hard to imagine even the most overzealous security agent seeing wooden puzzle pieces as a credible threat. I’ll just avoid any puzzles with scenes of soldiers or battles, or overtly political themes, just in case.

Happy puzzling!

New Zealand Day 0: Hagley Park perambulation & restaurant revelations

It has been stated and re-stated on this blog that I am not an energetic traveler. For this reason, after a red eye or overnight flight, I consider my first day in a far off locale as a recovery day. I have no goal beyond arriving in one piece and finding my lodgings, perhaps unpacking for good measure.

If I can manage to stay awake until “local bedtime” or something like it, I consider it a journey well completed.

It goes without saying that the voyage to New Zealand is a long one from almost anywhere else. This trip, in particular, found me inclined to give myself a break on “day zero.” Even DH, who usually hits the ground running* gave himself the afternoon off for mental and physical recuperation.

Our most gracious hosts at the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch let us check in early. Read my more thorough review of this well located, comfortable lodging here.

It was mid-morning when we arrived from the airport, but I wasn’t competent enough in the moment to note the precise hour. DH’s colleague was kind enough to pick us up from baggage claim. It was a quick 15 minute or so drive into town.

After dropping our bags—and taking one of those glorious post-red eye flight showers that heals body and spirit—I stretched out to rest my grumpy joints while DH did the manly provider thing and went in search of sustenance.

Without a rental car at this stage of the journey, he set out on foot. Happily, a natural foods store was our nearest grocery, and it was only a block or two away. He picked up convenience foods we could enjoy if hunger hit at odd hours due to the inevitable jetlag. Almonds, cherry tomatoes, bananas, and fizzy water topped my list.

Oh yes, and some local New Zealand wine. It was research so I could share with you, of course! DH opted for a few more exotic fruits for himself. I know there were figs because I ended up spilling them all over the floor of our eventual rental car.

We also needed to stock up on non-perishable, portable snack foods for our upcoming journey across the Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine train. Reviews warn that the cafe car on board sometimes runs out of food, though more often on the return journey from Greymouth. I’ll add a link when I eventually review that trip.

After this much refreshment, we took advantage of visiting the Southern Hemisphere in February and went for a walk in the park.

NZ trip Hagley Park sign - 1Ah, summer in February! It was a breezy but beautiful 70º F day in Christchurch, and we were staying just a few blocks from Hagley Park. As any New Englander can tell you, February usually means bundling up and shoveling snow, not short sleeves and outdoor pursuits.

Like cricket!

We did indeed spy folks playing cricket in a designated section of the park. It looked like a casual game to me, which is to say no one was wearing a spiffy white outfit. As I’m wildly unclear about the details of the game of cricket, including the usual costume, take all of this with a grain of salt.

For all I know, they were doing something else entirely, but the signs did say it was a cricket… field? Court? Ground? One of those things they were holding might have been a wicket. I’m probably the wrong source to be reporting on this particular topic.

Terminology aside, it added local color to my experience of the park.

NZ Hagley Park me walking

Summer day in Hagley Park; notice my big hat for sun protection

On what I believe was Victoria Lake, there were people sailing beautiful little toy boats. Terminology again: I suspect I’m supposed to call them “model” boats instead of toys because the skippers were older men, not children, and they were lovely ships. Probably they’re also “ships” not mere “boats,” too. Anyone know?

Again, charming, and the sort of thing I delight in seeing. I have a very soft spot for miniature models of almost anything.

Naturally, I failed to get photographs of any of this.

Luckily, DH snapped a few sunny park shots, including the one above where you can appreciate my enormous, sun-protective CoolibarBeach Hat. Its internal cord was absolutely vital to keep it on my head with the stiff breeze that kept blowing, and sun protection is a necessity in this part of the world.

Here’s my complete New Zealand summer capsule wardrobe overview.

There were loads of young people partaking in the usual sunny afternoon pastimes. Joggers, frisbee golfers, and cyclists abounded. Ladies strolled arm in arm with heads together. Fitness buffs followed a marked cardio circuit. All of this was a scene very like I would have seen on a summer day at home, but probably not in February.

It was easy to see what a central role this park has held since it was set aside as green space by Christchurch’s early settlers in 1855, though. It showed great foresight about the value of nature and open space to city dwellers, even if the park mirroring the Canterbury region overall is dominated by imported plants that better reflect European species than those native to New Zealand.

Hagley Park offered yet another sort of refuge after a devastating earthquake struck the city in 2011. Immediately adjacent to the Central Business District—much of which was cordoned off for up to 859 days! for repairs—the open space of the park made an ideal escape in the immediate aftermath of destruction, and must still figure in survivors’ minds as a place of safety should flight God forbid! become necessary again. At least one memorial to that quake was held here, as are many more joyous public events.

NZ Hagley Park bird flying away

When I was in the park, I first noticed both the abundance and variety of the birds** in New Zealand. I’m not even a casual bird-watcher, nor do I have any special skill or knowledge in that pursuit, though I did enjoy that Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson comedy, The Big Year, which made bird watching seem pretty compelling. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a couple of hours.

Many of New Zealand’s birds seemed visibly different to me. There was a bit of a tendency in shape that caught my eye, and there seemed to be a difference in movement patterns in some of them, too. I mean, I recognized some that are either imports (swans) or probable commuters (ducks and geese) from the less distant world, but there were also quite obviousothers.

NZ me with moa silhouette annotatedI think it is so cool when you can see highlighted before you the difference between Here and There as you travel. That’s at least some of what I’m hoping for when I venture far out into the world.

Christchurch itself presents rather fewer immediately obvious differences from places I’ve experienced before and elsewhere, and that’s somewhat by design. It is known as “the Most English of Cities” in New Zealand. (I may be getting that motto slightly wrong, but that’s the gist of it.)

This is a place that English people and others chose to settle and begin new lives, not a site of penal transportation, like the American and Australian colonies. I was told by DH’s hosts from the University that skilled builders and craftspeople, in particular, were encouraged and invited to come to Christchurch by leaders of the new city, and that one still sees evidence of the same tradition of excellence when getting work done on a home today.

Though the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake is still plainly visible around this small, approachable city—cranes and construction fences pop up every few blocks—the desire to re-create a certain kind of “Home” is writ large here. Christchurch is a city that celebrates its British heritage.

In spite of that pride, there’s nothing forced or Disney-esque in the implementation. As is common around New Zealand, one of the strongest themes I experienced here was that of a sensible, measured approach to making life function smoothly.

Homes and buildings appear to be built and maintained to a high standard. Public services seem to be well managed and placed thoughtfully throughout communities. The needs of travelers are seen to, with roads well marked and attractions highlighted in a clear but unobtrusive way.

Facilities*ahem* toilets, even public ones in far flung locales, are generally present where wanted and kept to a high standard of hygiene when compared to similar American ones.

DH hates to travel, but he liked New Zealand. It’s an easy place to appreciate.once you’ve recovered from the long flight.

We spied several restaurants as we meandered back to the hotel, but, in our exhaustion, were more inclined to squabble than make sensible decisions about where we wanted to eat. The glory of the internet is that menus can be found for almost everywhere, and we settled on an early dinner at Trevino’s, in large part because it didn’t require crossing the busy street out front that had increasing traffic as rush hour loomed.

Also, they offered a plain and simple steak for DH, and he declared it good.

As usual, I confronted the difficulty of ordering something I knew I’d like, or something more daring that might prove too exotic for me to actually eat. I dared to order the Moroccan Spiced Meatballs from the Small Bites menu, and they were fantastic. I added a side salad and had the perfect size meal for my appetite.

This was also when I discovered that nearly every dish served in New Zealand comes with large pats of butter. This made sense with my sliced bread at dinner, but surprised me alongside an order of nothing but chocolate cake at a roadside cafe. Is that a bit odd to anyone else?

The restaurant service we received in New Zealand tended to be friendly, competent, but not overly quick. It also seemed usual to step up to the counter to pay even in sit down mid-range restaurants with table service, but whether that was due to our mismatched sense of urgency with staff or actual policy, I’ll probably never know.

We didn’t try fine dining even once on this trip, so I can’t offer a comparison.

Food served was almost universally good to very good, especially with regard to quality of ingredients. DH found it fairly easy to order the simple, fresh foods he prefers. I had no trouble finding something interesting—but approachable to my various sensitivities and picky preferences—wherever we went.

It was common to encounter “different” spice combinations from what would typically be seen on equivalent American menus, but also easy to order a relatable dish for a finicky eater. Along the same lines, one could eat “the usual” to an American beef or chicken almost everywhere, but lamb and unknown to me species of fish were also widely available.

Menus almost always indicated items suitable for a variety of special diets. It was common, though not universal, to see Vegan, Gluten Free, and Dairy Free choices marked. Servers always knew, or were willing to find out, about common allergens and frequently avoided ingredients.

Overall, food in New Zealand reminded me most of America’s Pacific Northwest, at least in the foodie oriented and health conscious venues I’m likely to frequent. Beets are very popular these days in both places.

Specifically, I’d liken it to the farm to table ethos prevalent on the San Juan Islands off the Washington Coast where lots of stuff is fresh and local, in part because it’s sometimes easier to grow your own on an island rather than trucking boating stuff in. As with New Zealand, they’re lucky enough to boast an awesome climate for growing temperate food crops. It turns out to be much easier to “eat locally” when you live in an area of agricultural abundance.

Excellent coffee was almost universal, and I had to fight my baser nature to avoid sleepless, hyper caffeinated nights. McDonald’s ads and gas stations touted their “barista made coffee,” though I didn’t test quality in either of these to share an opinion.

nz-petrol-gas-station-espresso-barista-coffee-1.jpg

Another frequent sight in the cafes I visited was a self serve counter or tray for tap water drinkers. Unlike most other places I’ve been, this usually included small bottles or pitchers to make table side refills super convenient. Aside from discouraging the sale of wasteful disposable bottled water, and encouraging a healthy level of calorie free hydration, this is ideal for groups with a lot of water drinkers or moms with kids’ cups to refill. Constantly. Because kids can be a real pain, especially when you travel alone with them.

NZ restaurant tap water glass free availableMy father routinely asks servers in the USA to please “leave a pitcher” of ice water on our table, but sometimes gets told the restaurant doesn’t have enough extra vessels to oblige. New Zealand offered the smartest solution to this situation that I’ve ever seen: not just glasses, but pitchers for sharing, too.

Is there nothing the Kiwis can’t do better than the rest of the world?

Right, yes: allowing pedestrians to cross safely is not their forte. But, come on, no country is perfect. New Zealand just comes really close.

*i.e., hits the hotel room’s most comfortable piece of furniture with laptop humming

**Some of the birds shown here were photographed elsewhere, or by DH, but all images were captured in New Zealand. My pictures aren’t really organized enough for me to recall the difference, but I’ll try to specify if anyone is curious about any particular one. Let me know in the comments!

A digression on public toilets in New Zealand:

I actually took a fair number of photos of public toilets on this trip. Not because I’m a crazy potty pervert, but because, in New Zealand, even off the beaten path, the facilities were almost always clean, well-maintained, and appropriately suppliedwith the necessary paper, soap, etc. As a tourist, that’s something I’d like to know about a place, but it doesn’t feel very delicate to inquire.

I feel comfortable posting photos of the worst public restrooms I used in New Zealand, because they weren’t very bad at all.

There was a paper toilet roll on the floor and it didn’t offer soap. The floor had a bit of tracked in dirt because the parking area wasn’t paved, but it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for hours, not weeks. That’s it.

The primitive toilet along a trail had some rubbish on the floor, but it was mostly clean, dry looking paper. The graphics on the instructional poster suggest they get a lot of visitors from non-Western nations who use squat toilets, so perhaps that was “seat covering” paper that ladies often use when something like footprints decorate the rim? Even here, with no running water, there was hand sanitizer on offer, and the dispenser was full. The building itself was sound; insects were successfully excluded unlike most similar facilities I’ve used in the USA.

Even the public washrooms in a Christchurch Metro bus station were something I would use without being in physical pain from need. I think most American women who’ve used big city facilities will understand why I choose to comment on the fact!

What I wore in New Zealand: summer capsule wardrobe for 10 days out of Christchurch

Nothing, not even living through the experience, will reconcile my mind to a summer capsule wardrobe for a February trip. That’s the reality of visiting the antipodes, however, and it was quite a treat to leave the wretched winter weather of New England for a respite in New Zealand, however brief.

Even 10 days is brief when you’ve flown 9,300 miles to get there!

NZ capsule wardrobe pictorial accessories - 1I planned a wardrobe for this trip,* and then, after some reflection, cut it back further to roughly what’s shown in the first image. As I traveled with it, I realized that it was, in fact, a tiny bit larger than it needed to be. I wore all but one miniscule garment that I carried, though, and we weren’t burdened with an unmanageable amount of stuff.

NZ Hagley Park me walkingMost important of all, I had what I needed to be comfortably dressed throughout the ten day trip. I’m a traveler with joint pain and an autoimmune condition who remains bound and determined to make it to more corners of the globe. Smart packing isn’t a hobby for me, it’s a necessity.

NZ capsule wardrobe - model tunic hatThe week before we arrived, our primary destination, Christchurch, baked in 90º+ F temperatures, but we had a cooler trend and the remnants of a cyclone to deal with. What I packed would have worked for either week’s weather, so it was a solid wardrobe plan.

Whether or not you choose to carry enough to cover last week’s weather as well as the forecast temperatures is a personal choice. I’m more comfortable being over- than underprepared, especially when setting a modest pace with no special events that demand tight connections or a particularly quick turnaround between destinations. Continue reading

Books that beg for dictionaries: when novels prompt a word quest

I love to read a book that challenges my vocabulary.

My younger son finds it fabulous; why would anyone want to stop a story to look up a strange word?

Definition FABULOUSI appreciate the novelty—the excitement—of meeting a new meaning. I’ll even take the time to browse my dictionary when an old acquaintance is being used in an unusual way.

I like older novels for this, and erudite ones.

Though the mysteries of Ngaio Marsh slip right into my favorite genre of relaxing bedside reading—drawing room murders from the heyday of British crime fiction—they also represent an era of rapid change in which slang blossomed. Some of the phrases are obscure enough that I can’t find their like on the internet.

book Ngaio Marsh curvet def - 1These aren’t “hard” words, necessarily, but phrases of a different time, and perhaps only ever used on a different continent. Dame Marsh set most of her novels in London, though she was born and died in New Zealand.

In the 1930’s, this college educated author and actress mined both the upper and lower castes of British society for material, including, it seems, popular turns of phrase. To read these novels, one must expect to hazard guesses at some vocabulary by context, and to find high class words worth looking up aplenty.

I don’t mind it at all. I’ve found a treasure hunt inside my diverting little story.

When the wind forces a character to “curvet like a charger,” I get a sense of its horsey motion, of course, but I turn to Merriam Webster to instruct me further on the verb’s specifics.

Definition of CURVET

Marsh could have written “pranced,” but how much fun would that be for me the next time I play Scrabble?

book dictionary - 1My son—and his home educated compatriot, The Scholar, whom I tutor in another subject—both recently expressed shock at an assertion on my part that there was value in looking words up in a physical dictionary. That’s my good old American Heritage (3rd edition) in the photos, though I tend to use Merriam-Webster for digital searches and paid for the iTunes edition thereof to use offline on my phone.

Even more outrageous than the claim that asking Siri wasn’t equal to practicing one’s alphabet by flipping through paper pages was the statement confirmed by the other mom in the room that we and many others grew up enjoying our relationship with a dictionary.

At least two of us grown up lovers of books felt affection, love, excitement at all that these hefty tomes had revealed to us. I’m guessing this applies to many more bibliophiles out there, some of them even less than middle aged.

Quick show of hands: who knew the verb “to curvet” before now? And who loves a dictionary? I’m guessing more of the latter than the former.

Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch, New Zealand: everything you need, with a smile

We didn’t choose the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel near Christchurch‘s Hagley Park and a reasonable walk from the Central Business District. Since DH was traveling for work, his extraordinarily helpful host from a local University made our reservations.

Sometimes, collegiate sponsorship means staying in student housing that is barely adequate though students these days are getting fancier digs than I remember! Other hosts seek to thrill my illustrious spouse with “charming” accommodations in historic properties. Those are my favorite, but his nightmare. DH prefers predictable, three- to four- star chain hotels with room service offering standard American fare. If there isn’t a basic hamburger* available on the menu, he’ll come home sighing about his stay.

Getting back to the Roma on Riccarton, the most important thing a foreigner should know is that the motel designation does not carry a downmarket connotation in New Zealand like it does in America. It would be hard to take a name combining “Luxury” and “Motel” seriously back home.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - street viewIn the USA, I tend to avoid motels when traveling alone or as a solo mom with children in tow. I prefer the greater security of indoor corridors and staff at a centralized front desk. It’s absolutely true that there’s a lot of convenience to unloading from the car straight through a motel room’s door. It’s also true that crime, both violent and petty, makes that same easy access doorway a risk in many places.

This time, I was staying with my husband, and the Roma on Riccarton parking lot was small, open to bustling Riccarton Road, and frequented by the cheerful owner and his wife.

I felt quite safe staying here, and we were confident enough in our surroundings to leave windows open for ventilation night and day.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - doorNZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - parking lotThe entire property presented a welcoming and cheerful aspect. The central car park wasn’t overly busy, and it didn’t create any noise nuisance for us, either. The light colored, stucco exterior had an almost Mediterranean appearance, but was modernized by the extensive use of glass in large doors and windows.

Perhaps it was due to New Zealand’s strict building codes for seismic resilience, etc., but noise from other guests or the busy road simply was not an issue. If I hadn’t seen cars and people coming and going, I could’ve assumed I was alone in this motel based strictly on volume.

Though centrally located, rooms here are very quiet.

Motel comfort and amenities

Bed

Most vital to any lodging’s rating, in my opinion, is a comfortable bed of reasonable size. We found that at the Roma on Riccarton. Our room—of the standard, Executive Studio, not spa bath type—had a large (queen?) bed made up with crisp white linens.

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Exposé: Call the Mom(b) Squad; she’s going to explode!

Some of us take board games a little too seriously.

Hanukkah 5 gift game Last Letter - 1

Last Letter card game by ThinkFun

We enjoyed “family game night” on a recent Saturday, during which my older son was inspired to exclaim:

Call the Mom(b) Squad; she’s going to explode!”

I’d like to take this opportunity to reassure everyone that this was not a case where I was worked up about losing. I was quite shocked to discover that I went from great to terrible at the game once we limited players over 12 to specific parts of speech. It is true, however, that I have been known to list imaginary players and ascribe higher point levels to them over my family members in those rare instances when I wasn’t going to win…Board game - 1

I was freaking out about reacting sensibly to the possibility of pieces being lost and/or put away outside of their assigned spots. This little blow up was motivated by OCD more than ego. You can’t be faulted for guessing the latter as it is always a fair possibility as far as my motivations go.

A fine time was had by all. My teen’s favorite part of the evening was, of course, his own clever comment. Now you get to enjoy it, too.

DS1 played only under duress because he’s a teenager now and it isn’t cool to spend time with your family. DS2 begs for a family game night every weekend; the little one also angles to play a really long, involved European type table game every time, or invents games of his own.

Hokitika Gorge and the town of the same name on New Zealand’s West Coast

The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.

There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.

On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”

Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.

Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.

Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.

I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.

Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.

“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.

The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.

The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.

New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.

The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.

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