In Search of Barolo

We came to Turin, Italy, in good part to find Barolo, a small village about an hour’s drive away.  

Barolo is a picturesque place, full of history, impressive medieval structures, and an exclusive product known the world over – .  Barolo, the deep red wine that bears the village’s name.

We’d been to Barolo five years before, and we remembered it fondly.  The village is quaint and normally filled with tourists. Many tour in groups, or like these cyclists from Canada and the U.S., ride from town to town, enjoying the scenery and the challenge of navigating the hills and cobblestone streets that connect them.   In September, when we visited this time, the busy season had pretty much ended.  The streets were quiet, but the shops were still open.

The village of Barolo has many wine shops that offer tastings of the region’s wines, but Jo & I set our sights on Damilano’s, the winery we had visited on our first trip to Italy.  We had such a good time then and had learned so much about wine making that we deemed a repeat visit necessary.

We hoped that Marcella, the gracious and knowledgeable host we had before would still be there.  Lucky us.  She was.

Marcella studied wine chemistry in London. Her understanding of wine dynamics was obvious. Prompted by our many questions, she educated us and our palettes, once again. She poured generous servings of several Damilano wines, then briefed us on the individual personalities of each one.

Under Marcella’s watch, we learned a few things about wine chemistry and Barolo wine production:

  • Only wine produced from grapes grown on the hills around the village can bear the name Barolo.  Purchase a bottle of Barolo anywhere in the world and you can be assured the wine was produced here.
  • The soil around Barolo is heavy in clay.  Grapes grown here have unique qualities that contribute to Barolo’s one-of-a-kind taste.
  • Every hill around the village offers something different – different chemicals in the soil, different exposure to the sun.  Wine produced from grapes on adjoining hills, or sometimes even on different sides of the same hill, will differ in taste and quality from each other.
  • Barolo wine sits in oak casks for 3 years before being bottled.  Pull a Barolo off a shelf in a wine shop, and you know it is at least that old and probably even older.
  • Properly stored and aged, Barolo matures over time.  Give it another 5, 10, 20 or more years, and the tannins diminish, bringing the true taste and quality forward.
Grape crusher at work along the streets of Barolo

We spent an hour and a half at Damilano’s.  We worked our way from Lange, the least expensive but still wonderful variety produced by Damilano, to Liste, its most expensive and full-bodied Barolo.  We left happy, a bottle tucked under my arm that will be ready to open in 5 years, just in time to celebrate a certain someone’s landmark birthday.

Our next stop wasn’t far away – next door, at a charming restaurant serving the most delicious pasta, made fresh the Italian way.

Treasure Hunt in the Museum

We came to the British Museum with a purpose in mind.  In hindsight, it was probably a good thing that our focus was narrow because the British Museum is a rambling place, filled with thousands of antiquities.  Our Frommer’s Easyguide to London gave this saucy description: “If you don’t know what to look for, the Museum will be a stupefying series of rooms notable mostly for the zombified tourists staggering through them.”

In that respect, the guide was right.  Dazed tourists, numbed and overwhelmed, were everywhere.  But Jo and I came with a list of items to track down.  All we had to do was find them.

I’ve had a life-long interest in treasure.  Writing Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery and Mysteries of Time gave me the opportunity to delve into the subject.  Several items from the books were on display at the Museum.  This was my chance to see them,

The Rosetta Stone

Truly a marvel.  It was discovered in 1799 by Napoleon’s soldiers as they set about demolishing a walled fortress near Rosetta, Egypt.  Until then, no one knew how to interpret hieroglyphics, but the stone was coded in three languages – one of them hieroglyphics – all delivering the same message.  By comparing the hieroglyphic message with the two other known languages, Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion cracked the code and unleash thousands of years of previously lost Egyptian history.

Mildenhall Treasure

Discovered by Gordon Butcher in 1938 as he plowed a field in Mildenhall, England, the Mildenhall Treasure yielded a vast array of objects – dishes, bowls, goblets, spoons, ladles and coins.  The treasure dates to 400 A.D. and was likely buried by a wealthy Roman family to hide it from invading armies.  It is the single most valuable find of Roman silver ever located in Britain.

Sutton Hoo

In 1939, archeologists probed earthen mounds on the property of Edith Pretty, near the estate of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England.  Deep beneath the soil, they discovered an immense burial site likely of Viking origin. Among the goodies: the remains of a boat over 8 metres long, gold jewellery, gem encrusted swords and scepters, silver bowls, dishes and spoons, a gold purse containing twenty-seven gold coins, and helmets like the one shown above.

The Hoxne Hoard

The Hoxne Hoard was found in 1992 by Eric Lawes who was using a metal detector to find a hammer in a field near Hoxne, England,  In all, the Roman treasure yielded 14,780 coins as well as assorted jewellery, pepper pots, ladles, silver toothpicks and silver spoons.  Historians believe that the treasure was hidden in the ground around 400 AD by a wealthy Roman family during a time of war.

Traveling on the Heels of Terrorism

Jo & I at Buckingham Palace, the day of the Parsons Green attack. We didn’t know then the severity of the problem.

My wife, Jo, and I were in London when the latest terrorist attack occurred.  We heard the news on BBC television around 8:45 am, just a few minutes before we were planning to head out of our hotel to catch the subway to Buckingham Palace. The announcer couched the news in gentle terms: “There’s been a security breach at the Parsons Green Station.”

It sounded mild, just a precautionary note, not much more.  Besides we were catching a different line at the High Street Kensington Station – not the one running a few stops away at Parsons Green.  What’s to worry about?  So we ventured out anyways.

Throughout the day, we heard little more about the incident other than a few brief announcements at various subways stops directing commuters to find alternate routes and avoid Parsons Green. Only later that evening when we were watching TV, did we hear the full report.  This was a terrorist act.  A bomb with a timing device had gone off a bit too early to do its intended damage.  Nevertheless, it injured 30 people, one a 6-year-old school boy.

Security was tight at 10 Downing Street

Even though this was the 4th terrorist attack in the London region this year, It seemed to us that most Londoners took the news in stride.  They went about their business like usual.  We heard no discussion on the street, but at every venue, security was obvious.

Although we have our share of violent activity in Canada, fortunately we’ve had nothing of this scale or frequency.  Mass attacks are rare.  As tourists, we tried to adopt a life-goes-on attitude, but we became fundamentally different travelers in the days that followed.

We no longer took our safety for granted.  We became more aware of our surroundings, of the people brushing up against us, of the sirens blaring down the street.  We plotted escape routes when we visited places.  We noted exit signs, the doors leading elsewhere, the flow of human traffic.  I noticed for the first time, a security guard in the hotel lobby.  Perhaps he’d been there all along, I couldn’t say for certain, but I breathed easier knowing he was there now.

We became more suspicious, too –  of people dressed in different garb, of those with wild-eyes or unkempt looks, of those speaking different tongues or hauling strange packages.  On the subway, I found myself moving away from these people, or at the very least keeping a careful watch on their every move.

Tower Bridge, site of an earlier terrorist attack this year..

When we flew out of London a few days later, security at the airport was tight.  Perhaps it had been this way before, but this time I was acutely aware of the precautions being taken. When I was asked to stand by as an inspector rummaged through my carry-on and plucked out a bottle of some liquid that I’d forgotten to declare, I felt – not annoyance as I might have before – but gratitude instead.  And when we stood in line for customs in Rome later that day, and I found myself beside a suitcase that someone had left unattended on the floor, I felt a surge of anxiety that refused to go away.

Terrorism maims and kills those directly affected, but in my case its tendrils reach much farther.  Overnight,I become less trusting, more suspicious, more fearful, and more intolerant of differences.  I accepted losses to my personal freedom without question. I believe there are many others who, like me, are building walls of protection around themselves, and casting suspicion, doubt and blame upon others in the name of safety.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate damage enacted by terrorists.  Perhaps that is their ultimate goal, too.

Location…Location: How Setting Influenced My Story

Among many uncatalogued photos on my computer, I have a number taken while I was writing my middle grade novel, Missing in Paradise.  The photos remind me of a research trip and how just being in a place can influence one’s writing.

In 2005, the book was just a vague idea without firm characters or a substantial plot.  The story centered around a teenager who discovers a treasure hidden in a wilderness location but I knew little else at that point.  Then I happened to read a newspaper article about a prisoner-of-war camp that once stood in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. I was intrigued. Could this be the far-off setting for my story?

To investigate, I drove 180 kilometers from Winnipeg to Riding Mountain National Park, then hopped on my bike to ride the final stretch – a bone-rattling 11 kilometres down Central Trail to the site of what was once Whitewater Prisoner-of-War Camp.

Built in 1942 to house German prisoners captured in World War II, the camp had been dismantled in 1945.  Of the original buildings – six bunkhouses, a large cookhouse and dining room, quarters for staff, a hospital, barn, and even a powerhouse for generating electricity – not one remained.

I was disappointed to have come so far for nothing.  Then, as I turned to leave, I noticed two blocks of concrete behind a cluster of aspens.  Rusting rebar poked through the mottled surface.  Clearly, these were the remains of a foundation that once stood on the site.

The two concrete blocks, the only remnants of the old powerhouse

I sat on one block and scanned the scene. I was in a clearing, choked with tall grass and peppered with trees.  In the distance, I caught a glimpse of water – Whitewater Lake, the camp’s namesake.

German prisoners at Whitewater POW Camp

In 1945, this had been a bustling place, filled with buildings and occupied by prisoners captured during the war.  Men had once stood in this same place.  They’d looked across the very same clearing. It took only a bit of imaging to picture the scene.

I knew then that this would the final destination for my treasure-hunting characters. It took a while to work out the plot, but when it came to writing the scenes at Whitewater Prisoner-of-War Camp, they came easily.  Visiting the site solidified the details, making them real to me, and by extension, hopefully real to my readers, too.

Here’s a small sample from the book when Nate, the main character, visits the old site with his treasure-hunting pals, Simon and Marnie.

I took out the aerial photograph of the camp. Simon and Marnie crowded around, trying to catch a glimpse under the flashlight’s narrow beam.  The buildings of Whitewater Camp radiated around a circle with the mess hall at the centre. On the far left stood Whitewater Lake. Between the lake and the buildings, tall pines rimmed the clearing. “Look. There is only one building at the camp with a clear view of the lake.”  With my finger, I traced a straight line from the lake through an opening in the trees to the camp. “There.”

“The powerhouse,” Marnie said.

“The powerhouse,” Simon echoed.

In 2014, I returned to the Whitewater site. This time a marker clearly identified the locations of buildings that once made up the camp.

Journeys by Journal

Jo’s Journal – ITALY 2011

My wife, Jo, journals every day while we travel. She’s been doing this for almost 15 years, faithfully reflecting on the previous day’s activities over morning coffee. Each major trip deserves a new journal, and by now Jo has amassed quite a collection.

According to research studies, journaling offers many mental and physical benefits to those who habitually record their thoughts and feelings. Journaling…

  • Strengthens immune cells called T-lymphocytes
  • Decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ups the I.Q. by increasing vocabulary
  • Boosts memory
  • Improves comprehension
  • Untangles emotional knots, allowing the writer to solve problems and move forward rather than dwell on the past
  • Lowers stress and anxiety
  • Improves communication skills
  • Furthers creativity: Writing, especially writing quickly, occupies the analytical, rational left side of the brain, thus freeing the creative, intuitive right side.

And the list of benefits goes on. But for Jo and many others who journal daily, the motivation to write goes beyond this harvest of benefits.  When I asked Jo why she journals, she cited other reasons…to chronicle life… to process the everyday … to reference later.  I’ll add another – to leave a legacy.

Recently, on our way back from Arizona where we had wintered for 3 months, we repurposed one of Jo’s journals. The drive home took days and the route we followed cut across miles of nothingness.  There wasn’t much new to see along the way – just an endless ribbon of grey highway.  This was nodding off material of the first degree.

On one particularly long stretch, Jo pulled out a journal from our time in Italy a few years ago. While I manned the wheel, she read to me. What a difference that made!  As Jo recounted each day of our 5 weeks in the land of amore, the miles flashed by. Together we relived moments that we’d mostly forgotten.  We laughed about the times we got lost on roundabouts, sighed over descriptions of luscious meals we’d enjoyed, and marvelled at the enduring construction methods of the ancient Romans.  In short, we journeyed together anew.

Jo ends each of her journals with a summary.  She polls me with questions like “What did you like?”…”What would you not want to do again?…”What was your favourite day?” …   She writes several pages reflecting on the entire experience from both of our perspectives.

After she finished reading to me, Jo closed the book. “Would you go again?”she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

But then, somehow I felt as if I just had.

Bookmans, A Very Different Independent Bookstore

Wherever I travel, I like to check out independent bookstores in the area.  Chains like Barnes & Noble or Chapters-Indigo offer much the same fare across the nation.  Each Independent bookstore, though, is unique, and I’d count Bookmans Entertainment Exchange in Arizona as one of the most original.

Started 38 years ago, Bookmans now operates six stores in Tucson, Mesa, Phoenix and Flagstaff.  Based on the concept of “buy, sell, trade”, Bookmans relies on customers for their eclectic inventory and an assortment of in-store-events that range from art exhibits to yoga classes.

When I visited one Saturday morning recently, the place was a busy hive.  Young and old roamed the aisles, looking for just the right articles to purchase.  Others came in carrying boxes of items they wished to sell – books, CDs, albums, comics, musical instruments, electronics, video games, knickknacks and whatnots.  Maps at the door showed the locations of various items. If that wasn’t help enough, friendly, knowledgeable staff guided treasure seekers to the proper destination. 

I asked one employee how the Bookmans’ system worked.  “Each item is appraised,” he said, unpacking a box of DVDs. “We check Amazon, Craig’s List, Barnes & Noble and other outlets to determine a fair price, and we check our inventory to see if we need more of the item.  Once we fix a price, the seller has two options.  Take the cash.  Or take a store credit.  Store credits are often higher than the cash option so many people opt for that one.”

Bookmans is far more than just an independent bookstore. It is philosophy passionately churned into action.  An advertisement in a local community resource guide put it this way: “Stepping into a Bookmans alters your view of what buying used is and should be, and our philosophy of DIY creativity, integrity and community involvement has helped make us one of Arizona’s most beloved local businesses.”

I left Bookmans empty-handed.  It wasn’t because I couldn’t find things I would love to own.  I’m on a mission to declutter, not accumulate more.  Given the store’s mandate to ‘sell what you don’t use, buy what you need’, I think Bookmans is fine with that.

How to Experience the Prairie and Desert Without Going There

Geographically, I am a divided person. Although I’ve lived my whole life in Manitoba, I winter a month or more in Arizona. I can truthfully say that I love both places. With very little prompting, I will whip out photographs of my favourite spots in each location to prove my point.

But here’s the problem. Photographs are one dimensional. They portray visual elements of each place, but they leave out the rest. They don’t capture the smells, tastes, textures and sensory details that round out the experience. You don’t hear the crackle of lightning before the desert storm. You can’t feel the bitter cold of a prairie wind in January or smell the Mexican poppies that blossom in March.

To gain a full appreciation of these places, you should live there. Or…

Or you could read these two picture books. In the hands of master storytellers David Bouchard and Byrd Baylor, the prairie and desert come alive.

First, the prairie
If you’re not from the prairie,
You don’t know the wind,
You can’t know the wind.
Our cold winds of winter cut right to the core,
Hot summer wind devils can blow down the door.
As children, we know that when we play any game
The wind will be there, yet we play just the same.
If you’re not from the prairie
You don’t know the wind.

Using repetitive structure, David Bouchard take readers on a sensory journey across the prairies. We travel through deep winter drifts and into windswept fields of wheat. We experience the scorching sun of summer and the bitter cold of winter. We live through spring thaws, and we marvel at the vast blue skies and colorful sunsets that characterize the prairie. Full page acrylic illustrations by Henry Ripplinger enhance our sensory journey.

And now, the desert

Once I saw a triple rainbow that ended in a canyon where I’d been the day before. I was halfway up a hill standing in a drizzle of rain. It was almost dark but I wouldn’t go in ( because of the rainbows of course), and at the top of the hill a jackrabbit was standing up on his hind legs, perfectly still, looking straight at the rainbow. I may be the only person in the world who’s seen a rabbit standing in the mist quietly watching three rainbows. That’s worth a celebration any time.

When asked if she is lonely living in the desert, the Native American narrator in Byrd Baylor’s book says: How could I be lonely when I am the one in charge of celebrations?” To her, celebrations come in the form of small, noteworthy moments like The Time of the Falling Stars when she saw a streak of light shot through the darkness or Rainbow Celebration Day when she and a jackrabbit stood together watching a triple rainbow over a canyon. Other celebrations include Coyote Day, Green Cloud Day, Dust Devil Day.

Through Byrd Baylor’s evocative text and David Parnell’s striking illustrations, we experience the beauty of the desert, its subtle seasonal changes, and the close relationship between humans and nature in this special place.

 

The Science of Walking and The Art of Creating

My wife, Jo, and I are ardent hikers. She more than me, actually. Jo outpaces me on every trail, faithfully charts her steps with her Garmin, and competes with other’s online. I’m a bit slower, usually a quarter, perhaps a half kilometre behind. I track my steps, too, as well as heart rate and total distance, but I’m more interested in how far I’ve gone.

Recent studies tout the benefits of walking. Moderate walking reduces the odds of heart disease, stroke, insulin dependence & diabetes. It improves mood and sleep, reduces stress and anxiety, boosts energy and increases focus. Walking also changes the brain in remarkable ways.

A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that regular brisk walking increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region that monitors verbal memory and learning. Stanford researchers, meanwhile, discovered that creativity jumps 60% when subjects walked. Other studies showed that walking for 40 minutes three times a week Increased performance on cognitive tests and reduced declines in brain function as we age. It didn’t matter what kind of walking – whether on a mountain trail or on a treadmill – the benefits were the same.

Many writers incorporate walking into their regimen. Aside from the physical benefits, walking is a way to kick start creativity, channel ideas, and bypass dreaded writer’s block. William Blake, William Woodsworth, and Henry Thoreau were among the many writers who embraced walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” Thoreau wrote, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

When I walk, my mind drifts which might explain why I sometimes lose sight of Jo and have taken a wrong turn more than once. While that’s not a good thing, the drifting part can be – at least to a writer like me. With walking, the mind roams, free of its usual constraints. While plodding along a respectful distance behind Jo, I’ve solved writing problems and come up with some of my best ideas.

All the while I am solving problems.  Turns out, I am growing my brain, too.  Who knew?

Polish Culture Alive and Well in Phoenix

 

Last weekend, Jo and I attended the 14th Annual Polish Festival in Phoenix along with Jo’s sister, Mary, and her husband Ron. Jo and Mary were in familiar cultural territory. Their father was born in Poland, their mother was born in the Russian Ukraine, and the two sisters and their siblings grew up immersed in the traditions of their parents’ homelands. Even though their parents are no longer living, Slavic traditions continue at family gatherings served alongside platters of kolbasa, perogies, cabbage rolls and other Polish-Ukrainian offerings.

This year’s Polish Festival was held on the grounds of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Glendale. Here are a few highlights of our very enjoyable afternoon:

Crowds collected under the main stage tent and around the many display booths on site.

Check the platter of Polish soul food –  sausage, potato pancakes, perogies, cabbage rolls.  No wonder Jo is all smiles.  Polish beer helped, too.  By the way, just so you know, Jo didn’t consume this alone.  We shared.

Throughout the afternoon, Polish ensembles from Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas danced and sang on the main stage.

Even the kids got involved

A Ukrainian dance group joined the fun

Traditional crafts were on display in the church hall.

Jo & I entered the “Can you polka” contest.  We did okay.  In the end, everyone won a prize.

We had a great time. Polish culture is definitely alive and well in Phoenix, Arizona.

Favourite Hikes – Dragonfly Trail to Jewel of the Creek, Cave Creek, AZ

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Fascinating enough to keep a 4-year-old entranced, yet not too difficult or overly long, Dragonfly Trail to Jewel of the Creek Trail offers striking views, shaded nooks, a rippling creek, and numerous points-of-interest.  

We hiked the trail with our granddaughter, Rae, and her parents when they visited us in February.  Rae was our designated ‘leader’ much of the way which meant that we veered off the trail to explore craggy rocks and stopped often to study each budding cactus. 

Dragonfly starts high above Cave Creek and winds down to the water’s edge.  The trail follows the stream bed for a short distance to a boardwalk that leads across the creek.  On the other side, a second trail links up to Dragonfly. 

Aptly called Jewel of the Creek, the second trail passes by towering saguaro, over jutted rocks, and through a shaded forest of bushes and trees.  Eventually, Jewel crosses the creek again.  It links to Dragonfly once more,  then loops back to the parking lot at the start of the trail.

We discovered a small cave midpoint along the Jewel portion.  Tempting though it was to investigate, we bypassed it when we heard bees buzzing around the area.  Several benches dot the trail, ideal rest spots or observation points.  Our favourite stop was atop a huge boulder that jutted into the creek.  It was perfect picnic spot for our group.

Combined, the two trails run a distance of roughly 3.5 kilometers.  That was a manageable distance for Rae, and just long enough for the adults to enjoy a short workout. 

 

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