Monday, December 14, 2009

Home Again!

Last Wednesday, after a long day of flying, we made it safely home to The States. At the present we're up in Bellingham getting ready for Nicola and Matt's wedding which is next Saturday! I'll have to continue working on the posts about our trip - Venice and Oslo were amazing! But in between the catching up, I'll try to post some of our current happenings.

The photo above is our fireplace and mantle decked out for the Christmas season with the heart garland I found in Oslo, a couple of poinsettias, and new candles. In the center of the mantle sits our new Julenisse, the Norwegian version of Santa Claus, and his wife. For more info on Julenisse, check out this article by L-Jay over at

We have been especially grateful for our fireplace today. When we woke up this morning, our room seemed especially cold and before long we realized that our furnace wasn't working at all. The temperature has been in the 20's to low 30's lately and our house has terrible insulation so we really prefer to have our furnace in working order! We have an old oil furnace (which we plan to replace during the remodel we are currently dreaming of...), so the first thing Woodley did was to check our oil level. The tank gauge reported 1/4 of a tank left so Woodley figured that probably wasn't the problem. He then called up the repair man to have him look at the furnace. He arrived late in the afternoon and sadly wasn't able to fix the problem - he suggested we order more oil and see if that made a difference.  So our new oil will arrive tomorrow and until then we are making excellent use of our fireplace. We are very very thankful for our wonderful neighbors who have given us extra firewood and space heaters!

To get out of the house a bit today, we drove out into the county and found a U-Cut tree farm (Alpine Meadows) where we cut down 2 lovely little trees (one for our house and one for my mom)! The farm is located in the foothills at the base of Mt. Baker.

Many of the trees were covered with snow!

Woodley cut down the trees we picked out in no time! (For which I was especially grateful since I had lost all feeling in my toes due to the cold.)

Back at home I began thinking about decorating the tree. Unfortunately I didn't ship our Christmas decorations up to Washington so we only have 2 ornaments that we picked up on our trip. I really didn't want to spend a lot of money on new ornaments since we already have a bunch which we have collected from our travels. Instead, I decided to make some simple decorations such as gingerbread ornaments, strings of cranberries, and paper snowflakes.

This afternoon I started baking the gingerbread ornaments and strung a big garland of cranberries while I sat by the fire.

I can't remember if I've made a cranberry garland before but it was a fun and surprisingly easy project. I just happened to have a bag of cranberries in my refrigerator and some embroidery thread and a needle in my closet. In about an hour and a half I strung the whole bag of berries and I have now draped them around the tree. They only reach about halfway down so I'm hoping to get 2 more bags to string tomorrow and I think that will cover the rest of the tree.

It is so nice to be home for a bit doing Christmasy things!


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Missing Home (written Tuesday, Nov. 24th in Tuscany)

One of my favorite decorations - picked up at the flea market.

During the past week or so I have really started to miss being at home. At first I thought this was a bit odd, because we have been enjoying a lovely trip to Europe and have been gone less than a week and a half. But the more I have thought about it, the more I realized that it really has been a very long time since we felt fully settled in one place.

My lovely nested bowls - a gift from my wonderful husband!

In fact, I just looked through our calendar for the past year and realized that, in the past 6 months (starting in late May), we have spent only 54 consecutive days at home in Bellingham (July - late August) and 32 consecutive days at home in Los Gatos (mid October to Mid November). Since we won't be fully finished with this current trip until early January, that means that we will have been traveling almost non-stop for roughly 4 months in the latter half of this year. No wonder I'm beginning to miss home - or feel like we really don't have a specific home!

Old glass jars - my favorite way to store flour and sugar.

Add to that the fact that I have no idea where we will end up living for the next few years... Bay Area, Oslo, Bellingham... and the feeling of being lost in the world becomes even more compounded. I'm sure someday I'll look back on this chaotic time with longing, but right now I just can't wait to settle down and get into a real year round routine in one place. I want to spend the winter putting up Christmas decorations, celebrating Advent, and planning next year's garden... In the Spring, I want to watch the crocus and daffodils I planted the previous fall come up, dye eggs and celebrate Easter at our local church, and start planting seedlings indoors.... In the Summer I want to visit local farms and pick berries and vegetables to can and pickle, harvest, water, weed, and admire my garden, and have lots of picnics and game nights with friends and family... And when Fall comes around again, I want to plant more bulbs, carve pumpkins, host a halloween party, dig up my dahlias and start thinking up the perfect Christmas presents for the coming holiday season. And throughout it all, I want to keep a clean and well organized house, plan healthy and refreshing meals made from scratch, learn to knit socks and sweaters, quilt beautiful blankets, sew new dresses, skirts, and aprons, bake bread, keep up with my Bible study, learn the art of tatting, host game nights, keep a cheery home for my husband, get my nails manicured from time to time, and add some kittens to our family. Maybe someday it will become a reality.

Doilies and green glassware!

Until then, I'll do my best to enjoy every moment of our travels so that I can look back on the many happy memories when I'm bent over the sink washing what I'm sure will feel like a never ending round of dirty dishes that I know will be waiting for me in that dream home. Tomorrow: a day in the Tuscan countryside. I hear there will be boar hunters out in the fields around the house! It promises to be an exciting day.

Baking the weekly batch of bread.


Tuscany: Day 3 (Thursday November 26, 2009 - Thanksgiving!)

Chimney 1

Amazingly, we didn't actually take any pictures on the day of Thanksgiving! But then, it really wasn't a traditional American Thanksgiving at all. So, instead of photos of our meal, I thought I'd post some pictures of the interesting chimneys of Campiano. Apparently, in this area of Tunscany there is a local custom wherein the architect (or perhaps it is the brick mason) gets to design the chimneys of a house that is being built or remodeled. They are encouraged to be creative, and the chimneys don't actually have to match each other. Campiano is a good example of this tradition. There are 5 chimneys (although I only captured photos of 4 of them - not even very good photos actually) and each chimney is different.

Chimneys 2 and 3

Chimneys 2 and 3 again

Chimney 4

Chimney 4 again

Since the oven at the house was out of working order, we decided to go out for Thanksgiving dinner. Thankfully, turkey is a meat that is not too difficult to find in Tuscany and, after a brief chat with someone at the restaurant earlier in the day, he agreed to be sure to have some turkey on hand for dinner.

The dinner itself was a very quiet and peaceful affair compared with most Thanksgivings I've experienced. There were just four of us around the dinner table and we didn't have to do even a tiny bit of cooking. They gave us the option of a lemon or a white wine sauce with the turkey and we went with the white wine. The turkey came in slices and was grilled instead of roasted. It tasted very good but not very much like real Thanksgiving turkey.

I did miss cooking the customary Thanksgiving desserts (always 1 chocolate cheesecake and at least 5 pies - in fact, I think this is the first time since 1993 that I haven't baked a chocolate cheesecake!) So I think I might need to make up for that with lots of Christmas baking. Really though, with all this traveling, 2009 is turning out to be the most unusual holiday season!

Next year I hope to be settled somewhere and plan to roast a large bird, make classic stuffing, stew cranberries, and bake batches of pies! I can't wait! (Maybe we'll have to have a make up Thanksgiving next Spring!)


Tuscany: Day 2 (Wednesday, November 25, 2009)

Our second day in Tuscany dawned crisp and clear. We again spent most of the day outside around the house battling brambles on the terraces. We weren't able to walk as far away from the house as we had the day before because of the hunters in the fields nearby. Apparently it was hunting season and the hunters are very active, in fact, we woke up to the sound of shots being fired!

I particularly enjoyed learning about the local plants and wildflowers - something Woodley's mother is quite passionate about. I thought these berries (below) looked very festive and she explained that they are used for making sloe gin. The bush is called blackthorn in English and the berries are called sloes. Apparently sloe gin is traditionally made in autumn in Ireland and Britain. I've never yet had an opportunity to taste it but as I gazed at the big blue berries, I thought that if I was ever in Tuscany again in the fall, I might just be tempted to try making some.

The fall colors were quite lovely even though Woodley's mother assured us that they were not nearly as bright and colorful as they had been just a few weeks before.

Here's a view of the house from the side yard. It was a very interesting and cozy place to stay. Interestingly, it has many little steps up and down and some larger stairways. I don't think I could have drawn a floor plan of it even after studying the problem quite a bit. At the end of our visit we took a tour through the house and counted all the different areas that are separated by steps and discovered that there were 12! I definitely wouldn't want to try navigating it in the dark!

Below, the road leading down to the olive orchard. Sometimes a tractor would rattle by as the farmer busily delivered manure to dump around the base of his olive trees.

A lovely view from the terrace!

Just like the Bay Area, the hills were covered with magnificent oak trees.

In the late afternoon, Woodley and I got tired of working on the yard and retreated to a spot on the steps that wind around the house. From our perches we had an excellent view down through the trees to the hills beyond. While we sat there I started us on the next book in the Chronicles of Narnia - The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

It was such a wonderfully relaxing way to finish up the last bit of daylight! As we sat and read we also had a perfect view of the Tuscan sunset!


Friday, December 4, 2009

Tuscany: Day 1 (November 24, 2009)

After a week in big cities Woodley and I were both so relieved to retreat to the Tuscan countryside with Woodley's parents. Although we had originally thought we would take day trips to various cities, we liked being in the country so much that we spent most of our time at home and only ventured out for dinner or a quick trip to town.

Campiano, the house where we stayed is located way out in the hills near Arezzo. In fact, to get to it we had to travel for 15 minutes on very bumpy dirt/rock roads. It reminded us of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. :) The area around Campiano is covered with terraced hills and olive orchards. The house itself is placed near the top of a large hills so that you have a lovely view of the surrounding hills from most rooms in the house.

On our first morning we went on a long walk with Woodley's mother and discovered lots of beautiful bushes and plants.

Here's a photo of an olive tree covered terrace. Just a few weeks before our visit was the olive harvest and the local farmers were all busy processing their olives during our visit.

One of our big projects for the week was helping Woodley's mother liberate the terraces around the house which had been taken over by blackberry bushes, roses, and vines. This large beautiful rock was also one of our projects - we did a pretty good job of clearing it off on our first afternoon.

Just before going in for the night, Woodley took this picture of me next to the pile of brambles I had cut off of the wall that afternoon. We joked that we were being agro-tourists. :)

Yay! I just love being out in the country!


Herculaneum (November 23, 2009)

On the morning of the 23rd we woke up to a slightly cloudy day in Herculaneum. Although less popular than Pompeii, Herculaneum is famous among archeologists for its fabulously preserved Roman town which, like Pompeii, was destroyed during the 79AD eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius. When the mountain erupted, Pompeii, which is located to the south east of the volcano, was covered with a thick layer of ash and volcanic debris. Herculaneum, which is located closer to the volcano and directly to the west was, instead, covered with very little ash but a very thick layer of protoclastic flow (lava). Because the lava slowly filled in the houses and buildings of the city, they were left in a much better state than those of Pompeii. In the case of Pompeii, ash and volcanic debris which fell on the city caused most roofs to collapse and was much more destructive.

In the photo below, you can see a statue of Herculaneum's main benefactor who would have passed away before the destruction of his city. Below the platform with his statue lie the boat houses which used to reside along the coast of the town. During most of the past century it was believed that most of Herculaneum's inhabitants were able to escape because very few remains were found in the city. However, when these boathouses began to be excavated in 1982 around 250 skeletal remains where found huddled together in the boathouses. It is thought that the inhabitants of the town fled to the shore for safety here or until they could escape by boat. Many of them carried precious belongings like jewelry and also their house keys - a sign that they had time to prepare to leave and that they expected to someday return to their homes. Archeologists believe that they would have been killed instantly by the heat as the 750 degree F wave of protoplasmic ash, gas, and lava flowed over the town at 100 mph.

After having heard about Herculaneum for many years, I was very excited to visit it in person. The main level of the city is now well above the height of the excavation because the lava flow buried the ancient city in 60 to 80 of volcanic debris. When you go to visit Herculaneum you therefore have to walk down a bit to enter the city at what used to be sea level. We went down by way of a tunnel through the lava. When we came out, we were standing on what used to be the edge of the sea. Looking to the right, we could see the boat houses that were along the shore and the building that housed the public baths. The wall to the right of the buildings is the wall of lava that was dug out during the excavations.

As we began our tour, we first passed by the ancient benefactor of Herculaneum (sadly I can't remember his name).

He seemed very noble.

The first building we went into was the Suburban Baths. Currently it is closed to the public because it has become unstable and is being repaired by conservation workers. Hopefully it will soon be safe again for all visitors. Thankfully, we were able to tour it because Woodley's parents had made some special arrangements ahead of time. Below is the view that would have greeted the Romans when they came to have their bath. The bust and bowl in the center was once a functional fountain.

On the floor, to the side of the fountain, our guides pointed out the lead nuts and bolts that held the pipes for the fountain in place. Although I had always heard about the Roman water system and their use of lead pipes, it was amazing to see the actual lead structures themselves. Somehow I hadn't envisioned them being quite that advanced.

Near the statue, but looking back towards the entrance to the baths.

There were several rooms in the Suburban Baths, a room with a cool pool for bathing, a hot pool for bathing, and a very large pool that would have been a comfortable temperature for swimming about. The pools were heated using a wood burning furnace with pipes to direct the heat to the various pools and rooms. It was very impressive! Sadly it was also very dark so I don't have any other good photos of those rooms.

At a nearby villa the red paint on the walls was still visible and it was easy to see that the Romans loved using bright colors to decorate their houses. The mosaic marble floor was also very impressive.

In front of doors leading into several rooms of a fancy villa there were marble "door mats" that were quite lovely:

One of the amazing things about Herculaneum is that many pieces of organic matter were preserved when the first protoplasmic flow came through. The intense heat carbonized the surface of organic materials and removed water from them. They were then covered with lava and thus sealed off from the air for centuries. Because of that, items that you would normally expect to be ruined over time - like wood, rope, grain, and even bread - were preserved (although in a blacked state).

Below is a view into a Roman wine shop. The black beams are actual pieces of wood that have been preserved from the Roman days - with some support from newer materials. On the floor and on the walls you can see the barrels that would have held the wine. On the door outside was a sign showing the prices of the 3 different types of wine sold in this shop.

Looking to the left side of the wine shop you can see more wooden doors and up above, in the corner, you can just make out the corner piece of what would have been the shop keeper's bed. Amazing!

In another villa was this amazing mosaic. If you look closely, you can see that it was surrounded by sea shells which were pressed into the mortar. The walls on the sides of the mosaic were painted bright red and orange hues and covered with designs of plant life. I think they were a bit more adventurous when it came to interior design than I would be. :)

On the side of one of the city streets, we were able to see the actual Roman pipes which would have brought fresh water to each of the houses. Amazing! I never would have imagined such normal looking pipes!

Speaking of water, it seems that one of the biggest problems with preserving Herculaneum is dealing with water that makes its way down into the site. Current conservation work is attempting to collect and pump out rainwater that falls onto the site. They have discovered that the best way to collect the water is to use the original Roman sewer system which contains pipes of up to 4 feet in diameter. They are now running modern pipes through these old pipes to direct the water down to the ancient shoreline where it will be collected and pumped away from the city.

Another interesting thing about Herculaneum is that, unfortunately, many of the statues, mosaics, and other artistic or valuable pieces of the city were removed by the Bourbons in the early 18th century. Because Herculaneum was covered in thick rock-like lava, robbers, and later the Bourbons, developed a system of tunneling through the lava to remove valuable pieces of art. The developed a system of tunneling around the perimeter of buildings which was where many of the mosaics and statues could be found. Sadly this means that many of the city's beautiful works of art were removed before archeologists began their excavations. However, due to the thick nature of the lava, the tunnels were only dug in certain areas and there is still much to be discovered.

More beautiful frescos:

Outside again and above the excavation, Mount Vesuvius looms over it all. Thankfully there is now a weather station half way up the mountain where geologists keep a careful watch out for any volcanic activity.

Below you can see the excavation in the foreground and the modern day city of Herculaneum in the distance. There are many more ancient buildings buried under the city but sadly they will not be excavated any time soon because it would require tearing down buildings that are in use.

Our last stop at Herculaneum was to the boat museum where you can see an ancient boat which was recovered on the shores of the ancient city. Along with the boat, there are also fish hooks, fishing nets, and rope on display.

By the time we left, I felt like I had really learned quite a bit about the ancient city. Although it is smaller than Pompeii, I would definitely recommend it if you are interested in archeology or Roman history!

We said goodbye and hopped into the car for the 4 hour drive up to Tuscany!