Tour Tales - Fall 2005

December 2, 2005

When we left you last in late October, we were about to venture north to explore the Miller family roots in Ayrshire, Scotland. We were joined by my brother Doug and his wife Margot in Newmilnes, just southwest of Glasgow. We spent two wonderful days tramping around the soggy back roads of what was once Loudoun Parish.  We went to almost every cemetery, visited the "gowf" course (that's how they spell it!), ate haggis, and introduced Doug to the joys of single malt scotch. A very worthwhile visit.

John and Margot in the soggy Ayrshire hills!

From the "auld hame", we drove up to Inverness through the Highlands for a visit to a dentist John knew in Yellowknife. We had a spectacular day on back roads through some of the most beautiful scenery we've seen: golden brown bracken setting off the green, long views and charming villages. We stopped into the "smallest distillery in Scotland": Edradour in Pitlochry. When in Rome....  We had a tour guide to ourselves to find out about the intricacies of scotch distillation.  Edradour is one of the few distilleries that survived the Prohibition, thanks to the House of Lords, whose private label it produced. In one year it produces a similar amount of scotch to what the "majors" do in a week!  It was fascinating to learn about how easy it is to make scotch: the real art is in the ageing, and what kind of barrels contain the scotch.

We left Scotland behind to our next adventure: meeting Sally Ward, a quilt historian in Halifax, Yorkshire. We met Sally through the Internet, and she told me about the "Quilt of Names" story, which I wrote into a song for the last CD. We had a lovely day with her, walking around Halifax: a wool-producing town of yore. We stayed in a hotel that was once a huge carpet making factory. Now, rather than pulling down the perfectly good buildings, they have transformed them into artist studios, restaurants, offices and workshop space.

The next day we visited the Quilters Guild of the British Isles offices in Halifax, and got to see some of their quilts. The tradition in England is longer than ours, of course, but doesn't seem to have the same cultural significance that we have in North America. I believe the only unbroken tradition of quilting there is in Northumberland (the north), where they are still known for their whole-cloth quilting. Of course, what we call "English paper piecing" is very prevalent there too.

Back to London after that, where we turned in our rental car. London is much preferable without a car. We did one drive through the city to our gig at the London Mennonite Centre and that was hair-raising enough! So we stayed again with my brother in Kensington and had easy access to the Tube and buses.

We were lucky to be able to meet up with our friend Pam Holland from Australia while we were there. We met for dinner in the Covent Garden area. It was a very funky opera restaurant called Sarastro's. It felt like we were in an opera set, with velvet hanging down around us, and theatrical flats from various different productions all around. The meal was very good, but it was the entertainment that kept us. It started with a very good, and very animated string quartet, followed by an operatic due accompanied by piano. By the time the Mexican/Romanian accordion quintet started passing around the hat, we decided it was time to go.  Lots of laughter, lots of fun!

The next day we took the Tube downtown and walked to the Tate Modern, across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul's (closed, alas, due to the Memorial Service for the victims of the Tube bombings), and then out to the Red Cross.  We had an appointment there with Jen Young, who showed us the British Changi Quilt.  This is a story I wrote about on the first quilting CD, about three quilts made by civilian internees in Changi Gaol in Singapore during WWII. We had seen the other two quilts in Australia (Canberra), and wanted to see the sister quilt. We had a private viewing, which was marvellous.  The Red Cross lost their exhibition space a while ago, and so all their treasures are packed away. It was very powerful, to see this last of the three up close.

British Changi Quilt portion

I spent most of the next day at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  What an incredible repository of treasures! I had hoped to see some of their wonderful collection of quilts, but, alas, none were out. (Although there was a Kaffe Fassett book of their quilt collection in the shop.) There were, however, lots of early embroidery samples and needlework of all kinds from throughout Europe. The museum has awesome surprises around every corner, and it's easily worth a day or two of any tourist's trip to London.

Then it was on to Europe!

We took the Eurostar to Paris on November 3rd. This is a very fast train - and very smooth - that travels underneath the Channel. It's only about 20 minutes of darkness in all through the Chunnel before emerging in France. I wish Canada had the population to support this kind of transportation; it was very comfortable and thrilling to travel at 250 kph or more. (But I suppose one could do this by car on some of the highways in Europe too!) In Gare du Nord we were met with great numbers of posters of Peter Falk as Columbo, advertising something or other. Clearly he still has many fans over there; it was just a bit disorienting.  We walked the couple of blocks between Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est, from where our overnight train to Vienna was leaving. I don't think I've ever seen more ethnic groups in a 5-block walk in my life.  Paris certainly is a world-inclusive city.


We spent our time in Vienna with the Sarsam family.  Elizabeth is an old friend of mine from my classical singing days in Ottawa, and she has been living in Vienna for 19 years. She was an excellent tour guide, introducing us to our obligatory cafe experience. Viennese take their coffee and cakes very seriously! We walked around the centre of town quite a bit.  Vienna is shaped by centuries of the Hapsburg dynasty, which has left the city blessed by monumental buildings and extraordinary palaces and museums. There are monuments everywhere: to the Plague in the 1300s, to victims of the Holocaust, to the victors of various battles. And gold covered everything! Every church interior, museum entrance, palace gates -- all glittering with gold leaf! There were lots of tourists about, and many people on the streets who were trying to sell us concert tickets, because they take their musical heritage very seriously there. Haydn, Strauss, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, Bach -- all have claim to Vienna. There is even a walk of stars honouring them on the main plaza. On Sunday morning we attended a Haydn mass at the Jesuitenkirche, which was as beautiful to hear as it was to see.


Jesuitenkirche, Vienna, Austria



As we did in England, we ate appropriately to our location, and not only did we have "wurst" - sausages - but we also went to a Heuriger, a wine bar, with the Sarsams for dinner the last night we were there.  Each of these wine bar/restaurants indicates whether it has new vintage wines by hanging a sprig of evergreen over the entrance.



Our next stop was in Heidelberg, where we did the last show of our European tour. Our friend Franziska Fanta was our host, and she was an excellent tour guide - and translator. With the help of our friends in Florida, we had already translated 5 of my songs into German. I had been practicing faithfully to sing "It Ain't Finished Yet" in German, but at the last minute we decided that I was 'waaaay too stressed about it, and wasn't going to be able to do it smoothly, so we opted for the last verse and chorus only in German.  It was the right decision. Franziska was there to translate the introductions to the songs for those who didn't have much English. But over half the audience did understand English, and we all had a wonderful evening. At the end of it, they presented me with a huge bouquet of flowers - interspersed with over 70 little bits of fabric!!


Heidelberg is on the Neckar River and has a castle (partly in ruins). There are castles everywhere along the rivers, and Franziska told us that when someone travelled by boat, there were fees to be paid to the castle residents.  Sometimes they would be legitimate taxes from the landowners, and sometimes they would be thieves! They are great storytellers, the Germans, too. We heard about the iron ring on the entrance to Heidelberg castle: whoever can bite through it will be the owner of the castle.  Clearly, someone had tried.....


Our last night in Heidelberg coincided with Sanktemartinsnacht (I think that's how it's spelled). Saint Martin's Night. St. Martin was known as a benefactor to the poor, and even when he had given away everything to them. One cold night he was riding his horse and met a poor man on the road. He had nothing to give him, but he tore his cloak in half and shared it with the man. Since then, Germans have celebrated him with walking parades through villages on his night, each person carrying a lantern, and led by a man on a horse with a great cape. Young children in particular participate in this festival. At the end of the very cold walk, including a re-enactment of the original story by elementary school children, there were Glüwein (mulled wine) and sweet pretzels. Yum! It was a magical evening.


Franziska with Florian and Philipp at St. Martin's Night

When we left Heidelberg we were on our own for a while.  We spent 5 days in Amsterdam and four in Paris.

Amsterdam is amazing. It is bicycles, canals, strange coloured hair, bicycles, flowers, Red Light District, bicycles, steep stairs, shops selling only one thing, bicycles, construction, cheese, diamonds and ..... did I mention bicycles? It is virtually impossible to take a photograph at street level without 20-50 bicycles in it. They have the right of way, too, so you'd better know where the bike lanes are and keep clear. We walked and walked. To the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijkmuseum (undergoing renovation), Anne Frank's House, the Dutch Resistance Museum, "Our Lord in the Attic" (a secret Catholic church), and along many miles of canals.  It was great. The last day, we took a tour out to Vollendam and Marken, just north of Amsterdam, to see where the Dutch transformed the ocean into fresh water. I am impressed by any country that could have the foresight to build a dam to limit the ocean, and then wait 30 years for natural forces to replace that saltwater. We also had a tour of a cheese factory. It was very good to get out of town and see a bit of the country.

John in Amsterdam


Over the two weeks we had been in Europe, it seemed we were living on cheese and cold cuts, with lovely crusty bread.  That's the Continental breakfast -- and lunch, it seemed.  Once we got to Paris, we lost the cheese and cold cuts, and stayed with the baguettes. We ate a lot of baguettes!

Thanks to John's cousin, Faith, we found a hotel about 5 blocks from the Eiffel Tower. It was a perfect location from which to base our explorations. The day we arrived, we hopped on a double-decker bus tour which showed us the highlights. As the afternoon turned into evening the temperature dropped and we just about froze while we waited for the "perfect" shot of the Tour Eiffel after dark! We hopped off at the foot of it, and as we walked home, appreciated how beautiful it looked all lit up. Then, at 6pm on the dot, the Tower began to glitter, and there was an audible gasp from all of us who watched. Thousands of strobe lights on the tower, all flashing, made it look like a diamond. Very impressive.  We, of course, thought that they had turned this on just for us upon our arrival. And we ignored the subsequent information that it happens on the hour for 10 minutes every night, thinking ourselves special.

We did all the sights: Notre Dame Cathedral, Napoleon's Tomb, Musée d'Orsay, walked along the Seine, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysées, and the Louvre.  Well, actually, we didn't go into the Louvre (that would have taken the rest of the month, to see everything), but we did walk around outside and take a look down the pyramid to see where Dan Brown's Holy Grail resides. We had a lunch and a dinner with Faith and her family, which was fantastic.  John hadn't seen her in 30 years!



John in front of one of two clocks at the Musée d'Orsay

We were very impressed with the Musée d'Orsay. It has the best exhibit of Impressionists in the world, and it really was fantastic, to see so many Monets, Manets, Pisarros and Cézannes.  They have a hefty collection of Rodin sculptures too. The building itself is a work of art, too, having started its life as a train station. We spent most of a day there.


Then it was back to London on the Eurostar on the 21st.  We had three days before our flight back to Toronto, which we filled very easily. The first day, we met Ginny Kanka, daughter of Freddy Bloom. It was from Freddy's perspective that I wrote the song about the Changi quilts. We had been in contact by email before, but had never met.  We all hopped on the boat to Greenwich, and spent a lovely afternoon getting to know one another. The last boat back to Westminster was at 4:30 and we realized that we had spent all our time at the restaurant talking, so rushed up for the obligatory photos of us standing in the eastern and Western Hemispheres, and then charged back to catch the boat.

At the Prime Meridian in Greenwich
I'm in the Eastern Hemisphere, Ginny is in the West!

The next day we had a date for lunch with John's Uncle John. In his 80's, he has only recently given up travelling by bicycle, as a result of a nasty tumble which broke his shoulder.  We had a pub lunch with him, and it was really good to catch up with his end of the family.

And that was it! We flew back to Toronto on November 24th, spent a couple of days with our friends Al and Carolyn there while we recovered from jet lag, then headed up to Peterborough for our last gig of the tour. We flew home on the 29th.

Now, we're happily working through all the mail and backlog of magazines and work that have accumulated in our absence.  But there's no huge rush now, because we're mostly home for the next 8 months!!! We'll be doing a few "run-outs" to performances during this time, but nothing longer than a week.  After our travel schedule during the last 5 1/2 years, this is significant. I wonder how long it will take for our feet to become itchy again?

I hope you've enjoyed the travelogues from this tour as much as we have accumulating experiences to share with you.  Till next time!

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