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St. Petersburg, Day 3

Due to the fact that we were attending a black-tie, New Year’s Eve event tonight, we didn’t have much planned.  After another excellent lecture, we climbed on to the bus and set off for Pavlovsk.  This was the first time we’d been out in the Russian countryside during what passes for daytime over here (sunrise, 11:00 A.M., sunset 5:40 P.M.).  Light snow from the night before dusted the stark winter trees and gentled the barren fields.

Nearly all of the Russian royalty and nobility had summer palaces (with gardens and beautiful things to do) and winter palaces (to while away the long cold days and nights).  Today’s palace was built by Catherine the Great’s son Paul.  Paul completely loathed his mother, who had sent him off to a bevy of nurses at his birth; she saw him for the first time when he was three months old and then not again until he was six months old.  He was deeply in love with his first wife but when she died in childbirth, and with her the child, he was forced to remarry for the sake of heirs.

In those days, the way one met prospective brides was through the medium of miniature portraits, which were sent to the prospective bridegroom.  The ladies who looked most interesting, and who also had the most appropriate lineage, were invited for a visit.  Most of the women who married into the Russian royal and noble families were German (there were, our guide Larissa told us, “a lot of German Princesses”).  In order to make those marriages, they were required to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith and be re-baptized with Russian names.

In spite of the fact that Catherine had a magnificent summer palace, Paul refused to live there, instead building his own not far away and as different from hers as possible.

During World War II, the Germans occupied these and other palaces, but as they advanced, loyal Russians evacuated as many of the treasures as possible, saving almost 70% of those from Paul’s summer palace (although only 30% from Catherine’s summer palace).  Most of these pieces were sent to Siberia for the duration, although some, mainly the sculptures, were hidden in the cellars of the palace and the entry bricked over.  Such was their haste that the rescuers took only one of each item if there were more of that item (for example a chandelier).  The most important thing they rescued were all the archives, detailing palace plans and lists of the items, with original letters and sketches.

As an aside, we crossed the line of the front between the Russians and Germans on our way to Pavlovsk, a front valiantly maintained by the Russians during the nearly 3-year siege of Leningrad. Hundreds of thousands of Russians died during that siege, with some figures estimated to be up into the 80-100 thousand mark, and whole families still do not know where their loved ones are buried.  Our guide’s mother lived through that siege, and she lost many family members.  She is still extraordinarily careful with food.

After the Germans were repulsed, they set fire to the palaces.  Paul’s palace burned for three days because there wasn’t enough water to put out the fire.

During the restoration of the palace, the sculptures were recovered from the cellars, and some of those bear the dark marks of fire.  Although they were not destroyed, they were badly damaged.

For some reason, the palace was a very popular destination that day, and in order to gain entrance, we waited an hour or so in line.  This gave us an opportunity to wander round and take photos (a much warmer activity than standing in line!).

Once inside, those of us who wished to do so purchased the inevitable photography permit and we all went into the inevitable cloakroom to hand off our jackets and then donned the inevitable shoe covers.  These, however, were not the charmingly antique felt-and-elastic ones from Menshikov Palace but modern ones made of the sort of material one finds in tarps and with elastic all around the tops.  They stayed on very well, but I missed the other ones.

One of the things I found fascinating about this palace was the fact that in many of the rooms were enlarged black-and-white photographs from before its restoration.

Some of us had wanted to go shopping between the time of returning to the hotel and when we needed to leave for the Tsar’s Ball, but the delay in entering the palace also narrowed the shopping window by about an hour.  I still wanted to shop, but it turned out that I was the only one, with everyone else voting to shop the following day (another day of lighter activity).  So I descended and was shown how to get back to the hotel (it wasn’t very far).

The name of the shop was “Red October” (umm … really?).  I went inside to find I was the only customer (rather disconcerting!).  Three young men were on duty, and they kindly let me wander for a bit before asking if they could help.  I said I wanted a traditional Russian fur hat for my daughter.  They showed me the women’s hats.  No, I really wanted the men’s hats, the ones with the flaps that can come down round one’s ears but be tied up on top of the hat. They showed me hats, their English accented and eager.  While I dithered about color and price, and whether to pay by credit card or in rubles, one of them asked me how much I had in rubles. Shocked into honesty (and very entertained by the naivety of that question), I retorted, “I’m not going to tell you THAT!”, at which point all of them burst out laughing.  I told them that when one goes to buy a car in America, very often a salesman will ask how much one is willing to pay.  “Ah,” said one, still laughing, “our friend here is from Latin America, where they stand on corners and wave things to be sold.”  Another outburst of merriment.  I paid for the hats and opened the door to leave, but one of the young men called out to me to wait.  He had gone in the back and put some Russian candies in a bag for me to give to my daughter.

Getting back to the hotel was very easy, about a 15-minute walk.  As I crossed the lobby, I was hailed by several members of the group with something amounting to relief; they felt I was very intrepid to have undertaken that shopping trip and walk on my own.  I was very flattered!

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St. Petersburg, Day 2

St Isaac Sunrise(photo: St. Isaac’s at sunrise from Menshikov Palace, 10:45 A.M.)

I somehow managed to be the first person down to breakfast and they tucked me away in a corner then proceeded to seat everyone else in the middle.  It was funny.

This morning’s lecture was quite good; an excellent precis of Russian history from Ivan the Terrible (who, apparently, was primarily known as “terrible” because he terrified the Mongolian horde into submission and only then known as “terrible” due to his sadistic and cruel tendencies, no examples of which I will enumerate here) all the way through Putin.  We learned how Peter the Great decided that his main naval port, off the Berents Sea, was impossible due to the fact that it’s frozen much of the year. So he decided to establish the new port city of St. Petersburg, which proved very difficult since it’s situated on a very marshy area.  At first, he had to pay to have the ships come in and deliver goods.  He was also amazing for a number of reasons; he was the first ruler of Russia to venture into Europe, where he and his childhood friend Alexander Menshikov disguised themselves as “regular people” and spent two years living in places such as France and England, among others.  In England he worked at a shipyard as a carpenter, with Menshikov right at his side.  When he finally returned to Russia he essentially dragged it “kicking and screaming” into the cultural mainstream.  And even though he ruled Russia, he still belonged to the fire brigade and worked right along his people putting out fires.  At 6′ 7″ he would have been extraordinarily easy to spot.

Our first stop this morning was Menshikov Palace, the first stone building in the city.  Situated on Vasilyvesky Island (St. Petersburg was originally composed of 105 islands but is now considered to encompass only 42), it was built around 1710.  Alexander Menshikov, although by birth a stable boy, proved to be Peter the Great’s true and lifelong companion.  I don’t intend to make this a huge history lesson, so will only add that amazingly enough the Palace survived revolutions and wars virtually unscathed.  It now is part of the Hermitage -er- stable (sorry) and contains much of the original furniture and furnishings.

As an aside, I think the Russians are on to something, since you are only allowed to take photographs in their museums if you have purchased a photo permit, with flash photography strictly forbidden.  Some of the larger places, such as the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, include that price in the admission. At the Menshikov Palace we had to pay 200 rubles each for the privilege (around $6).

Every single building in this country offers a cloakroom; it is not permitted to take jackets/coats and the like into major venues.  At many places this is a free service.  Outside the cloakroom of the Menshikov Palace was an enormous wooden chest filled with assorted slippers, consisting of a shoe-shaped piece of felt into which you inserted your shoe, while two 1/2 inch strips of elastic stretched from the tongue to the heel and held the whole thing on. There was much merriment over this, because one has to find two (preferably matching) ones and get them on your feet.  And yes, they are slippery!

There has been some restoration done on the Palace, but not all, due to funds.  The children’s wing, for example, is in terrible shape with no plans for salvage (we weren’t even allowed to go in there). Our museum guide, a soft-spoken middle aged woman, spoke to our regular guide, Larissa, who translated.  It’s an oddly charming place, with several rooms all but papered with blue Dutch tiles, even the stove.  Only the floor was spared. Another room boasted beautiful Chinese silk art, another a painted ceiling in the process of restoration.

From there we resumed our somewhat interrupted city tour.  Today was our traditional Russian food luncheon, most of which I liked (although the cream sauce on the chicken fricassee … yes, I know that’s French but due to the fact that the Russians have used French chefs for a few centuries now “fricassee” has become a Russian dish … did me in).  After the Demidoff Restaurant we were taken to the Museum of the Samoilov’s Actors, to be greeted with champagne and Russian chocolates. I detest champagne … more specifically the bubbles … and was too full for the chocolate, which was probably a good thing, based on how I’ve been eating since I got here.

The Museum tour decanted us into a high-ceilinged hall with many rows of chairs, portraits, a piano and next to that another chair.  This was our private piano and balalaika concert.  I have never seen anyone play a balalaika, much less with such flying, flawless dexterity.

We were very grateful to have a couple of hours’ downtime before the evening’s great event, attending Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly known as the Kirov).  I had a nap.  Bad idea.  It made me not want to get dressed to the eights (tomorrow night we get dressed to the nines) and attend, but I was pretty sure I’d never have such an opportunity again, no matter how I feel about opera.

The Mariinsky is absolutely stunning, its interior surrounded by the gracious curves of white and gold balconies, a giant orchestra pit and what looked like the original stage curtain.  Our seats were in the orchestra section.  At both concerts—last night and tonight—we had chairs, not the sort of movie theatre seats one is used to in the States.  And they are not comfortable, either.

The opera was performed in Italian, with a marquee board discreetly attached to the top of the stage with the words flowing across in Russian.  The set consisted of a large greyish-brown curtain upon which were projected images of the scenes they represented, so that the first scenes, which took place in a forest, showed leafy boughs and tree trunks.  It was most disconcerting, however, because the stage hands manipulated the curtain to provide nooks or hills upon which the performers climbed, so the screen did a lot of odd billowing.  That took some getting used to!  Once they got out of the forest a tall house took the place of the trees on the projection screen and the billowing disappeared, making it much easier to concentrate.

Due to the fact that “Don Carlo” is at least four hours long, we were offered the option of a ride home at the first intermission (if so desired).  Most of us took that offer. We’d decided to leave our coats in the bus (since it was parked very close to the theatre) rather than deal with the cloakroom so shivered our way across the darkness of ice and snow and biting wind.

Big doings tomorrow.  Hopefully I’ll stay awake long enough to share….


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St. Petersburg, Day 1

Church on the Spilled BloodAn incredibly busy day. We were supposed to have a lecture from 9-10 this morning but due to the fact that the lecturer didn’t arrive until after 11 the night before, we were “spared”.  So, around 10 A.M., we climbed on to a bus and headed for The Hermitage Museum.  The Hermitage (properly pronounced French-fashion: “AIR-me-TAzhe”) is actually composed of the Winter Palace, which Catherine the Great thought was too big, so she built The Hermitage adjacent to it, mostly to house her growing collection of paintings. The collection outgrew The Hermitage and so was built The New Hermitage.  Today the museum encompasses all three buildings.  It rivals The Louvre and London’s National Gallery for art and definitely—as regards size—The Louvre, although much easier to get around.

At 9:45 A.M. it was still dark, and the sun wasn’t expected to rise until around 11 A.M.; it was colder as well, though no snow drifted down from the dark skies.  We slipped and slid across the frozen expanse of the square, watching with fascination as courageous workers sweept snow from the terrifying heights of The Winter Palace roof.  With only 4 hours to see the museum, we pretty much galloped from exhibit to exhibit. One of the many interesting things about The Winter Palace is that it burnt to the ground in 1837 but all of the precious art was rescued and piled in the vast square, all recovered after the fire save for one of Catherine the Great’s gold snuffboxes, which was recovered once the snow melted. It was promptly rebuilt.

We were somewhat startled to encounter most of the children at the museum dressed in costume, from Neptune to Winnie the Pooh, with a fair sprinkling of Russian fairy tale characters.  When we asked, it was explained to us that as today is Russian New Year’s Eve, it is a tradition that the children dress in costume (reminding me a bit of our Hallowe’en).

Once our flying tour ended, we were given some free time, with the option to ride the bus back to the hotel or walk.  Due to looking for a book on the astonishing Scythian Hoard exhibit (which I never found), I missed the bus.

So I walked gingerly across the frozen, snow-covered plaza towards the St. Isaac dome, across from which is our hotel. Our guide warned us that Russian traffic would not stop for pedestrians, so to stick to crosswalks.  It was a clear, burningly crisp walk and I inhaled the keen air with satisfaction after the overheated confines of The Hermitage.

With a bit over 30 minutes between arriving back at the hotel and the tour of St. Isaac’s, I popped into the restaurant for a bit of lunch.  I knew we had a major dinner after the evening’s symphony concert so didn’t want to order a large meal.  As she seated me, the hostess asked me if it was cold outside. I replied that I wasn’t a very good judge since I came from California and where I lived didn’t have that kind of cold.  She asked the temperature in California when I left but neither of us knew how to convert C to F, so out came my iPhone.  13C.  Her eyes widened.  “But that is warm! Where I come from it becomes -30!” Glad I don’t live there.

After the cold walk, soup sounded good, so I ordered borscht.  Somehow I’d forgotten that borscht involves beets, which I rather detest, so when the meal arrived I winced internally and reached for the spoon.  It was amazing.  Halfway through the bowl the hostess stopped by and seemed horrified that I had not added sour cream from the side plate.  So I added the sour cream and it was still amazing.

St. Isaac’s was originally a church, became a museum during the Soviet era and is now more museum than church, although services are now held at one end: in Old Russian, our guide said, which no one really understands any longer.  Another interesting tidbit was that the Soviets took down the silver dove that graced across the interior of the dome and installed a pendulum, which responded to the movements of the earth and which they used as proof that God did not exist.

The bus met us at the St. Isaac exit (another interesting experience, since it costs money to get into the building but the devout locals have figured out that if they wait where the tourists depart they can sneak in that way … which made getting out more than a bit congested).  Those of us who wanted to take a quick historic downtown tour (“quick” being around an hour) joined those who had not wanted to go to St. Isaac’s.

We passed more show-covered squares and statues until suddenly a fantastic object appeared on the skyline; the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. Another iconic St. Petersburg sight (see photo).  I have to confess that the first time I saw that name I thought there must be a typo (Church of our Savior OF the Spilled Blood, perhaps?), but the reason it was given that name is it was built on the spot where Alexander III was assassinated.  With 10 minutes for a photo-op most of us leapt out and began snapping away.

The trouble started on the way back to the hotel.  Apparently that particular street caters to very high-end products, such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, Cartier and so forth.  The people who shop there think nothing of double-parking and popping in to take care of a handbag emergency, thus blocking the street to any other traffic (especially our bus).  The girl driving the first car got in a heated argument with our driver over his right to be angry about her parking (at least she had her hazard lights on).  Ten feet down the street was another car, parked and frozen and … yes … just as much a block, only with no driver.  We were stuck, and we had to be back at the hotel so as to leave by 6 P.M. for a symphony concert.  Drivers behind us got out of their cars and swore and yelled and eventually began kicking the car, perhaps hoping it would set off the alarm.  Two cars blocked in by that double-parked car and our bus finally resorted to driving down the sidewalk (fortunately it was fairly wide and the pedestrians didn’t seem to mind).  At last most of us decided to embark on the 15-minute walk back to the hotel.

We found out later that the girl who had parked her car there came out to find a crowd of incandescently furious people, jumped into the car and tore away with some of the outraged drivers in pursuit.

I’m sure the symphony was wonderful.  But the building was too warm and most of us slept through most of the performance.  What I heard during those awake moments was stupendous.

StPetersburgDessertAfter the concert we walked across to the Grand Hotel for a welcome dinner beginning with vodka tasting and caviar.  I’m not a vodka fan but might change my mind; we sampled three kinds of vodka (small glasses, no one need panic, please), a sort of hors d’oeuvres plate of caviar, and then for the main course a beautifully prepared filet. The dessert was a sort of chocolate mousse cake with raspberries and a tiny white chocolate snowflake perched on another raspberry (see photo). I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many photos of a dessert in my life.

This was the first time I’d been able to truly meet some of the participants.  The gentleman next to me once practiced law but hated it so usually travels with his elderly mother, while the couple across from me were just delightful and on second marriages; she a Chinese woman accepted to Julliard (which she turned down because her parents didn’t want her to be homeless so she became an engineer), her husband also a lawyer.  Maybe it was the vodka, but we had a grand time.

And on that note, it’s after 1 A.M. here and I have a lecture to attend at 9 (never mind that I need to accomplish breakfast first), so it’s good night from St Petersburg.

More tomorrow.  Oh, wait, it IS tomorrow.

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Reaching Russia

St. Petersburg SquareTravel is a funny thing.  You meet people and share stories and part ways, never to meet again.  Take my seat-mate from London to St. Petersburg.  He came along and put his covered cup pretty much on the pillow I’d set on the empty seat between us.  I reached out to rescue my pillow, he reached for the cup and of course it tipped.  I dragged out a wad of Kleenex and mopped it up. We sat in mutually annoyed silence as the rest of the passengers sorted themselves, the doors closed and we took to the air.  Eventually the flight attendants began to pass out the immigration forms for Russia.  He asked for a pen.  Full of the need to continue passing out papers, the attendant agreed to provide one and moved off.  My seatmate waited for awhile and asked again.  At last, I dug out one of my spare pens and handed it over (those of you who know me well also know I am a pen freak, so I always have a least 3 if not more stashed around).  That broke the ice.  He started talking.  I won’t go into the entire conversation here but one of the phrases he used to describe a wealthy person throwing a snit-fit because they hadn’t gotten their way I shall cherish forever: “throwing the toys out of the pram”.  All in all, from that first inauspicious beginning we spent the nearly 3-hour flight chatting like mad.  We shook hands after deplaning and laughed about the inauspicious beginning to our conversation and … I never saw him again.

In company with others, I walked down long green corridors punctuated by flight gates and several shops until we reached a large echoing barn of a room where everyone found a place in a line.  There were no neat little ropes politely corralling and directing us, just a bunch of people standing in ragged columns.  At the other end of the room were enclosed channels with numbers above each channel, as well as five or six signs announcing in Russian (and, thankfully, English) that this was Passport Control. Inevitably, I fell into conversation with the couple in front of me; he turned out to be a retired Naval Attache and he and his wife had lived all over the world, including Russia. In the line next to me were two couples, the husband of one grumbling and snorting at the inefficiency.  You guessed it … those two couples were also part of my tour group, although the couple in front of me were not.  At last it was my turn, and I have to admit to a bit of nervousness, since I had all sorts half-baked notions of stern Russian officials demanding to why I hadn’t filled out parts of my immigration card (because I didn’t know the answers). The woman was very polite and spoke very little (probably because of the language barrier) and when she handed back my passport I used the word I’d heard my Naval couple use, which turned out to be “thank you”. She smiled.

From there I entered a cramped hall crowded with luggage belts, luggage and people where a young man stood holding a vast luggage cart and a sign that said “Stanford Travel/Study”.  We were to collect our luggage, bring it to him, and he would get us all out of there, through Customs and into the hands of our guide.  My snorty friend from Passport Control was back, stalking around trying to find his luggage on the belt, complaining about it and generally getting in everyone’s way.  Turned out that our young man had collected it for him.

Dutifully we followed our luggage man out, where we met our guide (and I don’t remember her name but I know I’ll do so later).  She led us outside into a busy dark landscape with snow blowing horizontally, warning us to be careful, as it was about 34 and slippery.

It was absolutely exhilarating.  I’m in Russia, in winter, and tomorrow will be an amazing, full day.

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Kidnapping My Mother

Well, it didn’t begin as a kidnapping. I was visiting Mom (8-12 November) and she asked what I wanted to do. The only thing that I really wanted to do was drive up to the Cabin, which has been in the family since 1932 (well, to be honest, the property has been in the family since 1932 but a disastrous fire in 1966 destroyed the original Cabin, which was rebuilt in 1967).

Since Mom wanted to inspect the newly restored deck, she acquiesced.

In retrospect, that might have been a bad idea … depending upon who’s telling the story.

Since I’m telling the story, I don’t think so….

Here goes:

Friday (9 November), we had rain and (gasp!) hail in the Tulare/Visalia area. Saturday dawned clear and crisp … in Tulare. We took our time (such a lovely notion!) and finally departed for the mountains around 11:30 A.M.

As I may or may not have mentioned, I have a Subaru Outback. I trust it to meet and vanquish most if not all road conditions.

And most importantly, Mom is one of the least faint-hearted people I have ever known. I’m a coward, next to her. She is—and always be—completely amazing.

The first part of the trip was easy; we enjoyed the ruler-straight San Joaquin Valley roads and this time I didn’t miss the proper turn (as I did last time, don’t ask!). It’s a lovely drive at this time of year, with the harvest mostly in and the fields and orchards shifting subtly towards their winter rest.  We watched the mountains grow and enjoyed the beauty of the clouds draped across the Sierra Nevada crests.

The trouble—if that’s what you want to call it—began several miles after we passed the “Sno-Line Lodge” on Highway 180 East. This is where the lowland trees (mostly oak) give way to the conifers … pine, cedar and eventually redwood. As children we embraced it as the place where the gaspingly hot San Joaquin Valley summer heat was finally mitigated by (so we believed, thanks to our grandmother, Mom’s Mom) the pine trees, but as we eventually discovered, the altitude.

Snow began to show up at the edges of the road; first in the shady protection of the north side, then—as we climbed—on both sides. About five miles from the Park Entrance (I guess I also forgot to mention that the Cabin is in a private tract of land called Wilsonia, created prior to the Park … Kings Canyon National Park) we saw a sign that said “CHAINS REQUIRED”.

Now, I ask you, how ridiculous is it for one to put on chains and crash one’s way up a road with NO SNOW? Seriously! It’s absolutely dire on one’s tires, never mind that I didn’t have said chains.

So I kept going, ignoring both the sign and the people at the side of the road attempting to fit chains to their tires.

After a bit, Mom said, “I’m feeling worried.”

“About the ‘chains required’ sign?” I inquired.


“Do you want me to turn around?”

“I think it’s a good idea.”

“Okay, I’ll turn around at the next turnout.”

The next turnout, however (fortunately?), had a foot of unploughed snow.  So I kept going, since Mom didn’t like the idea of turning around there either.

Just before reaching the Park entrance station for Kings Canyon National Park, I pulled over to let the snowplow by and as he hooted thanks, Mom said, “if they stop us for not having chains, will you turn around?”

“Heck, yes!” And I would have done, no matter how determined I was to get up to the Cabin.

We drove up to the entry station, and I told the ranger on duty that we were on our way to check our property in Wilsonia. We had a great chat, she waved me through, and I kept on.

There are two ways to get to the Cabin, and I told Mom that I wouldn’t go the back way but the “main” one. She accepted this with gracious relief.

I turned into the “main way” and drove up to the first hill.

Mom said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep going.”

I said, “I’ll turn around as soon as I can.”

We got up the first hill and there was nowhere to turn around. And honestly, at that point we were almost to the Cabin, never mind that others had driven the road; I wasn’t forging through pristine snow but following other tire tracks.

“Mom,” I said, “I’m sorry, but we’re almost there, so can I keep going?”

Since she is an utterly amazing Mom, she agreed.

So we reached the Cabin, with its unblemished driveway and surrounding trees garnished in white. I pulled in, left the car running and jumped out to take photos (Mom, smarter than her daughter, chose to stay in where it was warm).

Afterwards, we drove out and back to the main road. We had lunch at Grant Grove Village, ran into a Wilsonia neighbor who’d seen us go by earlier and told us she kept an eye on the Cabin for us.

It was wonderful.

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Earthquake or Tornado?

For some reason, I’m fascinated by human reaction to events.  Take last night’s earthquake, for example.  Most of my local friends not only felt it (it woke most of us up) but almost immediately commented on Facebook (as did I). In casual conversation with people all over the United States, much of it turns to natural disasters.  So I ask: “What would you prefer, earthquakes or tornados?” Almost without exception the folk in tornado country prefer tornados, with little to no hesitation. Many of us in earthquake country prefer earthquakes.

If anyone reads this, please post your choice and (if you feel so inclined) your reason for that choice.

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The Fluidity of Life

“And nothing is, but what is not.” (Macbeth)

Not a profound post, this, in spite of the title.  More of a “just when you think….” sort of thing.  How many times have we said “I’ll never [fill in the blank]!”  Ho. “Never” is about as fluid an expression of life as anything.

I’m trying out WordPress before the next set of adventures, which begin 26 December 2012. Huge learning curve, much confusion (and please, no pithy observations about old dogs and new tricks!).