Episode 64 – Adventure Interrupted


For the first time since beginning this adventure, we’ve hit a glitch.

Our license plate may read “GEHEN” (going), but right now we have stopped for a while, along with the rest of the world. More than that, we almost had nowhere to go!

On December 31st, 2019, while we were celebrating New Year’s Eve aboard the Viking Sun off the coast of Mexico, a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China was first reported to the WHO (World Health Organization) Country Office in China.

On January 24th, 2020 Ted was engrossed in curating bird photos from the previous day’s visit to Madera Canyon, just outside Tucson Arizona, when the first confirmed case of the virus in the U.S. was reported.

On January 27th, while we were exploring Arizona’s Sweetwater Wetlands so that Ted could photograph waterfowl, back home in Ontario the first Canadian coronavirus case was confirmed.

On January 30th, while we were enjoying the spectacular scenery on our drive from Tucson to San Antonio Texas, the outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

On February 11th, while Ted and I were taking our first German language lessons with Professor Hansen at the Männerchor, the WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19.

The virus was in the news, sure, but in our little universe of two (social distancing is NOT a challenge for us) there was no reason to worry.

On March 11th, while Ted and I were sitting by ourselves in our cozy loft, after a solitary stroll admiring flowers along the RiverWalk and snowy egrets in the river itself, the WHO formally declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

Meanwhile, we had heard about only 2 confirmed cases in San Antonio, related to cruise passengers, and life seemed to be going on around us as normal. Ted and I were walking 5km every day, enjoying the great weather, exploring historic sites, and pretty much keeping to ourselves. Small community museums, historic missions and cathedrals, and nature preserves don’t tend to be crowded. Often, the site’s docent was almost the only other person we saw.

Downtown S.A. was still humming with tourists. Every river sightseeing boat filled to capacity. Every restaurant patio filled with margarita drinkers. Mariachi bands serenading patrons.

Suddenly, on March 12th, came the announcement that schools “back home” would be closed for 2 weeks beyond their normal March Break, in order to slow down transmission of the virus, which had now become deadly not only in China, but in many other countries. Things were clearly more serious than we realized in our little bubble.

Our family and friends started asking us when we were going to come “home”.

But here’s the thing: “home” is wherever we are at any given time. For almost 2 years now, we haven’t owned a home base. From what we were seeing firsthand, it seemed to make sense to simply stay put until the end of April, our original timeline. We strongly considered extending our stay until the end of May, to let the virus run its course and let the world calm down.

You all know how that went. NOTHING calmed down. People started worrying about being quarantined, and bought up all the toilet paper from every store.

On March 14th when our kids messaged to tell us that grocery store shelves in Collingwood and Wasaga Beach were empty not only of toilet paper but also of milk, eggs, pasta, canned goods etc. we thought it was ridiculous. We had just been to the grocery store in San Antonio the day before and stocks were totally normal. Nonetheless, after a lot of badgering from son #2 (aka “caring about his old parents”), I promised that – if we were not going to come back to Ontario right away – I would at least go shopping again and make sure that we had 2 weeks’s worth of staples.

By March 15th, virtually overnight, San Antonio grocery store shelves had also been decimated. We were all set for 2 weeks though, and figured things would normalize fairly quickly. We still had no intention of coming back to Ontario early.

On March 17th we were able to walk the downtown stretch of the riverwalk almost alone; boats empty, restaurants closed, patios silent.

So, today, March 21st, here we are, thanks in part to pressure via social media from friends in Canada AND those who were travelling but heading home ahead of schedule, and in part to fear. Reading that our Prime Minister was considering invoking the War Measures Act to shut our borders was stressful, as was the possibility that our insurance might not cover any COVID-19 related illness out-of-country (although they would still cover injuries, etc, hospitals might not have the capacity to treat us).

It was a very stressful couple of days. Making the drive from San Antonio to the border in two 12+ hour days is not our style. We’re exhausted.

To complicate things, we also had no “home” to “come home” to! Travellers returning to Canada need to self-isolate for 14 days. The earliest our May-October condo could be made available to us was April 1st, which left 10 days of…. sleeping in the car with our luggage? We couldn’t stay with our kids; that’s not isolation! Hotels are still open, but who knows for how long? Anyway…. AirBNB to the rescue. We’ve never used it before, but Ted found an apartment in downtown Collingwood that was willing to rent to us starting tomorrow. Tonight we’re in a Holiday Inn Express in Sarnia, getting a decent night’s sleep before driving north. Son #2 already has a short list of groceries to drop off once we get checked in, but we need to be sensible and follow the isolation rules. It will be like playing Nicky Nicky Nine Doors: knock, drop the bags, and run!

We REALLY hope that the world will have recovered by the fall, so that we can head out on the road, or on the ocean, or into the skies, again. In the meantime, I’ll have to find writing inspiration in other activities. Stay tuned!

Episode 63 – Germans in Texas

Good grief…. they’re everywhere! (or should I say “we”?)

Sam, a delightful Italian-American gentleman we met on our December cruise, told us (perhaps by way of “explaining” his lovely German-born wife) that people with German heritage are the largest ethnicity in the United States. I found that really surprising, so naturally we had to Google it. Sam was absolutely right! The U. S. Census Bureau says that more Americans identify as German or African American than any other groups, at 14.7 and 12.3 percent respectively. You can check out the rest of the data here if you’re interested: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/largest-ethnic-groups-and-nationalities-in-the-united-states.html

Specific to Texas, there was a large influx of Germans as early as the 1830’s due to the political and economic conditions that eventually led to the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. People who claim German ancestry are still the third largest ethnic group in the state.

This spring we are living in the Judson Candy Factory Lofts in the Historic King William District of San Antonio, a neighbourhood on a curve in the San Antonio River named after Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia in recognition of the predominantly German immigrants – merchants and farmers – who settled in the area. For many years it was colloquially known as “Sauerkraut Bend”.

We’ve eaten potato pancakes with applesauce at Schilo’s, San Antonio’s oldest restaurant, established by a German family in 1917. Their home-made root beer recipe (created during Prohibition) is justifiably famous, but their potato pancakes, while authentic, can’t rival what my dad used to fry up for us.

Just a couple of blocks from our loft we discovered the Beethoven Männerchor Halle and Garten (hall and “garden” … as in beer-garden), home of the Beethoven Männerchor (men’s choir), founded in February of 1867 as an offshoot of an earlier German choir founded around 1847 that broke up when many of its members left to fight in the American Civil War. So, while we’re here, why not take the opportunity to sign up for the conversational German classes offered at the hall? It’s the first time I’ve been able to convince Ted to try to pick up a bit of German language. I think Hildegard, my friend and German teacher extraordinaire, would be pleased with us. Ted is taking the beginner classes and I’m taking the intermediate…. and hopefully we’ll both be better prepared for my German cousins’ visit in June, as well as our trip to Germany in December.

The teacher is an 80+ year old professor emeritus from the University of Texas at San Antonio, who teaches by anecdote. We’re getting more language theory and less conversation than we might have hoped, but I’m never going to forget how to describe the appearance and position of a briefcase (his favourite prop)!

After my first class, while waiting for Ted to finish his, I headed into the Männerchor for a beer. (The choir is such a significant part of this community that they refer to the bar itself by the choir’s name.) Since Tuesdays are both choir practice and language class nights, the bar was packed. Not much German was being spoken, except by the men heading in to practice, but the room was full of conversation. All the people at the table I was invited to join were long-time San Antonians, but only one of them was of German heritage; the others had Mexican, English, and Irish roots – yet each of them was somehow involved with the German club. One was taking German classes with me, one helped with social events, one sings in the women’s choir, and another was the parent of a child in the youth choir. Their common interest is keeping the heritage of the King William District alive…. oh, and drinking German beer.

Speaking of German beer, it’s a really big thing here, with several kinds available in pretty much every restaurant and pub alongside the Texan brews. While most of the German beers are imported, within a short walk from our condo is Kunstler Brewing, where a German woman and her Texan husband are creating German-style craft beers and serving them with German/Texan fusion food – think freshly baked pretzels with sides of German Obatzda (a Bavarian specialty: 2/3 Camembert and 1/3 sweet butter) and Texan pimento cheeses, or BahnMi style bratwurst topped with jalapeños.

Probably the best example of German heritage being preserved in Texas is the community of New Braunfels, which was established not far north of San Antonio in 1845 by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, and still prides itself on its historic district, German restaurants and beer halls, and Oktoberfest celebrations. Many present day Germans have a fascination with cowboy culture, cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and bolo ties; clearly the “wild west” has been a draw for a long time. It goes almost without saying that I dragged Ted to New Braunfels to check it out. Okay, so it’s also the location of the nearest Belk department store, but I’m sticking to my story of going there to check out the German connection.

The best way to delve into a small town’s history is to visit their museum, and the Sophienburg Museum in New Braunfels is exceptional.

Top left: German porcelain coffee grinder. Top centre: a display of the instruments used by the town band in the late 1800’s. Top right and bottom: one of the quilts made for the town’s sesquicentenary in 1995. Note that all of the “writing” is actually embroidery, and the shield in the centre is satin-stitch.

As we walked around town, I felt drawn to Naegelin’s Bakery, the oldest continuously operating bakery in Texas, founded by Edouard Naegelin in 1868, after he returned from fighting in the Civil War. He was one of the immigrants who came to Texas in 1844 along with others from Alsace Lorraine. The bakery was family owned until the 1980’s when it was sold to the Granzins, another family with German ancestry. While the bakery now makes a number of American style items, and even bakes tortillas, it is still the community’s source for hearty German breads, kolaches, flaky fruit strudels, German cookies (pfeffernüsse, lebkuchen, and springerle), fresh yeast donuts, German pretzels, and beautiful cakes. We’re no longer big dessert eaters, but nonetheless a slice each of apple and peach strudel, and one each of their apricot and lemon kolaches came back to the condo with us to be enjoyed later (neither of which, after tasting, could hold a candle to my grandmother’s versions), along with a loaf of freshly baked rye bread (that was perfection).

Exterior and historic plaque for Naegelin’s Bakery. We arrived just after noon on a Saturday, so in addition to being crowded inside, the bakery display cases were well picked over, and many of the breads already sold out.

New Braunfels is also the home of the original Schlitterbahn (“sled/toboggan run”) waterpark, 40 years old and employing 2000 people. Back in 1979 it was considered the world’s first waterpark. It also claims the world’s first wave river, and the world’s first uphill water coaster. The Henry family built six more parks and two resorts in Texas, with the original park and another in Galveston sold just last year to Cedar Fair Entertainment for $261 million. We missed the March 7th park opening by a couple of days. Sure, that’s the ONLY thing that kept us from hurtling through the twisting tubes of the Master Blaster.

The waterpark”s iconic entry sign, and the Master Blaster.

We took a moment to stop at New Braunfels oldest church: First Protestant, founded in 1845. The current building dates to 1875. Like most German protestant churches, it has plain lines and a simple interior, but with beautiful stained glass windows. Unique to this church is the modern outdoor walkway, featuring bible verses surrounded by blocks engraved with the names of the congegants who sponsored their installation. I cannot remember seeing so many German surnames in one place anywhere else on our travels, outside of Germany.

Far left: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth good will and peace to all mankind, inscribed in German in Gothic script. Centre left: the church’s pipe organ. Centre right: the exterior of the church, featuring the beautiful bible verse walkway. Far right: a memorial window from the church’s side chapel. Notice not only the grieving woman, but also the face’s of the donor’s family depicted as angels in the heavens.

Krause’s Biergarten came highly recommended for authentic German food (spit-roasted schweinehaxe, tender schnitzels, and a wide selection of sausages) and a huge variety of German and German-style draught beers. They sell bottled beers as well, but with 66 (!) kinds on tap why drink bottled? We decided to visit it during one of their concert events: Chardon Polka Band from Ohio, made up of musicians in their early 30’s who play a combination of “classic” and twisted modern polkas (Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance on accordion anyone?) Unfortunately, two weeks before that event, COVID-19 reared its ugly head, and public concerts were cancelled, so we didn’t get to Krause’s.

We also knew in advance we wouldn’t be able to complete the full 12 weeks of our German classes, but didn’t expect them to be cut short after just 4.

Despite the unforeseen complications of being here during a pandemic, it has been fun, and an eye-opener. We came to this part of Texas expecting great Tex-Mex food, cowboy culture, and lots of history…. I just didn’t expect it to to be the history of German immigration to the area!

Episode 62 – Missions: Accomplished

Caption: brass rubbing of the 4 San Antonio Missions south of downtown. The 5th Mission (Misión San Antonio de Valero) is now referred to as The Alamo, and is a major tourist destination right in the centre of San Antonio, separate from the Missions National Historic Park.

It’s taken us a while, but we’ve finally walked around all of the San Antonio Missions, and have some pictures and a bit of new (to us) history to share.

The Missions are the reason San Antonio exists. Had they not laid the foundation for successful Spanish-founded communities along the San Antonio River, the city as it exists today might be very different, both in location and culture.

From what we learned through the film and exhibits at the Missions Visitor Center, prior to the 1700’s, this entire area was inhabited by small tribes of hunter-gatherers, speaking many different languages, celebrating their beliefs in many different ways, and interacting largely only through disputes over hunting lands. The land itself was much different than it is 300 years later; the rivers flowed year round, and what is now southern Texas was largely lush grassland. The original tribes’ (mostly) peaceful existence was disrupted first by smallpox, even before large numbers of the the Spaniards themselves arrived (from the south), and then by the warrior Apache, on horseback and armed with European weapons (from the north). Even though the Spaniards were after land to claim for their King, the Missions their Franciscan monks established must have seemed like the safer option. All that was needed to become part of a well-defended community was (1) a pledge of allegiance to the Spanish king, (2) conversion to Christianity, and (3) a willingness to work. Whether or not numbers 1 and 2 were done sincerely or not at the time, Catholicism and the Spanish language have both flourished here, as well as a unique mixture of the native and Spanish people referred to as “Tejanos” (similar to the Métis in western Canada).

As far as work, the native peoples traded hunting and gathering for stonemasonry, farming, irrigation channel (aquecia) building, European-style fine cloth weaving, and ranching. After about 80 years, when the Spanish left, the Missions were turned over to the native peoples to maintain, with a small group of Franciscans in each to continue holding masses.

Although they were originally intended simply as communities, each of the Missions was eventually fortified, both against the Apache and against Mexico who, once the Spanish were gone, fought to claim and keep the area that is now Texas.

The 4 Missions that today form the Missions National Park are, from north to south, Mission Concepción, Mission San José , Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.

Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña dates to 1731 and is the best preserved of the Missions, as well as being the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. The exterior of this church, like the other Mission churches, was once plastered and colourfully painted. The exterior decoration has not survived, but interior frescoes have. Sadly, we could not go inside because the church roof is being repaired, which will not be completed until after we leave Texas.

Top: remnants of the original decoration in the rooms of a side wing still open with interpretive signs. Bottom: the church exterior showing the scaffolding around the domed roof.

Misión San José y San Miguel de Aguayo is celebrating its tricentennial this year (1720-2020). It was the largest of the Missions and the oldest originally in this area.

Left: San Jose’s church, with the attached arched “convento”. You can see the Moorish design influences in the dome and the arches. Right: The ornately sculpted main entrance to the church, with Mary (wearing her crown, depicted as the queen of heaven) over the upper rose window. You’ll have to imagine the stonework as it originally looked: plastered in bright white and decorated in blue, pink, and yellow.
Caption: Top left: Detail from the stone carving to the right of the front door, showing Saint Anne (Mary’s mother) holding Mary. Bottom left: The robins egg blue and gold leaf sacristy with crucifix, and saints in niches. The door on the upper right is where the priest can enter to address or bless the congregation when not standing behind the altar at mass. Right: A single original section of the exterior plasterwork. The design would have been made using rule and compass, by natives trained by the monks, and etched into the wet plaster before being painted. You can see faint traces of the blue, pink, and yellow pigments that were used.
Top: One of several wells in the Mission. This one has stairs to allow someone to climb to the level of the winch that would have raised and lowered a pail into the water. Bottom left: Interior of the mission’s mill, which was driven by river water diverted from the river by a series of aquecias (ditches) and dams. Bottom right: Homes of the Mission’s inhabitants, built into the fortification walls erected to protect against raids. Before the walls were built, families had individual houses arranged in “streets” within the Mission.

Misión San Juan Capistrano, like Mission Concepcion, was founded here in 1731. The church is considerably smaller than either San Jose or Concepcion, and there is nothing left of the homes (with the exception of the monks’ quarters) but the stone ruins of foundations and partial walls. The exterior of the church does have its white plaster coating, making it unique among the Missions, although there is no evidence of its original coloration.

The smaller Mission churches, and The Alamo, all feature iconic “Mission bells” which have become a popular decorative feature all around San Antonio, both as actual bells on plazas and restaurants, and as images on tee shirts and bags. Mission San Juan’s bells still call worshippers to twice weekly mass.

Misión San Francisco de la Espada again dates to 1731 in this location. All 3 of the 1731 Missions were communities originally established elsewhere and moved here in that year.

Top left: the stone wall and gardens outside the rectory, which is still inhabited by the clergy who work in the church. Top right: the sanctuary with its simple altar. Saint Francis (San Francisco) has the central place of honour, with Christ on the left and the Virgin Mary on the right. Bottom: Mission San Francisco’s bells.

Misión San Antonio de Valero, “The Alamo”. The most famous of the Missions because of the historic battle fought there, but its church is no longer usable, having been fully converted to a military garrison in the 1850’s. The site remains a place of pilgrimage for the fiercely independent Texans, who one sometimes feels are still reluctant members of the United States. Inside what was the church are interpretive displays, and the flags of the countries from which those who lived there emigrated.

Top: Beside The Alamo in the Cavalry Courtyard are statues of the battle’s heroes, added to in 2019. L to R: Davey Crockett, Susanna and Angelina Dickinson (who were freed after the battle to “spread the story”), and James Bowie. Bottom: The Alamo’s facade.

In the main park is the 60 foot tall Alamo Cenotaph, erected in 1939, called “The Spirit of Sacrifice”. It is truly impressive, made of grey Georgia marble on a base of pink Texas granite. According to tradition, the Alamo Cenotaph marks the spot where the slain defenders of the fortified Mission were piled after the battle and burned in great funeral pyres. Their remains were later collected by local citizens and today are located in a marble casket at nearby San Fernando Cathedral.

Left: Engraved around all 3 sides of the plinth are the names of the Alamo defenders. The verse on the north side reads: “Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas. They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas”. Right: On the monument’s south side under the depiction of a rising spirit is a huge carved feather under the words: “From the fire that burned their bodies rose the eternal spirit of sublime heroic sacrifice which gave birth to an empire state”.

In total, the Spanish established 26 missions in Texas, 21 in California, 24 in Arizona and the Sonoran Desert, and 20 in New Mexico. Visiting all of them would be a whole winter’s themed road trip all its own. This winter we crossed 6 off the list. Who knows what future years might hold?

Episode 61 – ZOOming In

So … Ted has a wonderful new camera that he bought last summer, ready for this year’s adventures. Thanks in part to a talented birding friend of ours (you know who you are!) he has become something akin to obsessed with getting pictures of birds in their natural habitat, and especially birds in flight.

I love the fact that he’s my resident photographer, since it means that I can immerse myself in the scenery and take mental “blog notes” without being distracted by having to take the photos to go with them. All I need to remember is to ask him to take pictures of the things I want to write about. Since I’m far more interested in architecture and food than he is, that means requesting pictures of those things; otherwise when we get back from a day’s outing I might only have shots of cormorants, butterflies, and flowers, when what I want to write about is the tile floor in the cathedral!

Ted is not a big fan of zoos, largely because taking photos there does not present the same challenges as being out in nature. He describes it as “catching fish in a barrel”.

I, on the other hand, love a well-run zoo. I appreciate their conservation, preservation, and animal rescue efforts; I also recognize that being able to see in person how magnificent an endangered species is might influence people to protect them, in a way that seeing pictures or documentary footage might not.

Ted is nothing if not cooperative, so off to the San Antonio Zoo we went.

It’s not a huge zoo. You can walk the whole thing in about 3 hours. It is, however, one of the prettiest zoos we’ve been in (San Diego remains my favourite – so far), with lush trees, and man-made rock tunnels and caves forming both walkways and exhibits. It’s also the noisiest zoo we have ever visited, due to the preponderance of Mexican (great-tailed) grackles loudly vocalizing from the trees, making up to 16 different sounds, some of which seem to mimic other birds. Quieter, but also present in disconcertingly large numbers at the zoo, are black vultures. I’m not sure what attracts these big carrion eaters, unless they’re waiting to snatch food away from the carnivores during feeding times. The bears and big cats seem to just ignore them.

DSC03064Although they look black from a distance, the grackles’ feathers are gorgeous iridescent colours.

My favourite exhibit was the hippos. The SA Zoo has a grandmother and her grandson, who use a large pond with a glass viewing wall. I’d never before seen a hippo pond stocked with native African fish species; we could watch the fish cleaning the hides and mouths of the hippos exactly as they would in the wild. Fascinating!dsc02850

Ted got some great photos. Because his camera is such high resolution, once we got back to the condo he was able to zoom in on faces and feathers to create some really spectacular close-ups.  Here are my favourites from the day:


Episode 60 – Let’s Rodeo, San Antonio!

There’s an expression for being experienced (aka “old”): “It’s not my first rodeo”.

Except in our case it is.

There’s another common expression: “When in Rome, do as the Romans”, so, “when in Texas” …. take in a rodeo and a country music concert!

Texas has more rodeos than any other state, befitting its reputation as the center of cowboy culture. The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo claims to be the oldest continuously running in the United States (since 1896). The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo claims to be the largest in the world. Rodeo Austin bills itself as “Where Weird Meets Western”. February is officially the start of rodeo season, but in checking around we found out that, honestly, there is a rodeo happening in Texas somewhere pretty much year-round.

Yesterday we headed to the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo for the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) semi-finals, followed by a performance by country singer Dierks Bentley. The SA rodeo has been taking place since 1949; but its roots date back to 1854 when San Antonio hosted the first Texas Agricultural Fair. Today it takes 6000 volunteers to run the 18 day long event.

Each day’s rodeo offers various levels of competition followed by entertainment, but before going into the huge arena for those events, we “had to” walk around the outdoor fairgrounds and check out all the exhibits, animal barns, activities…. and food.

First, I have to say that a stock show and rodeo has nothing in common with an agricultural fair except for the midway. There are no crop farming displays or equipment, no tractor pulls, no demolition derby, no pies or preserves, no biggest squash or best ear of corn. It’s all about animals raised on ranches, and the skills needed to do that. There is livestock being groomed, weighed, displayed, and auctioned, and there are ranchers and cowboys everywhere.

We started our visit in the swine barn: rows and rows of huge clean hogs of more different breeds and coloration than I could have imagined. There were 250+ pound hogs being guided around the barn by the children of ranchers, some of the children quite young, using only a long flexible stick with a feathery end on it with which they alternately touched both sides of the hog to direct it. There were hogs being spritzed and curried (with a brush, not the spice!). Mostly, though, there were great big hogs asleep in their pens with their noses sticking into the aisles. It made no sense, since the pens were very roomy and there was plenty of space for them to sleep anywhere – yet almost every one had their nose protruding.

Besides the variety and size, the other unexpected thing was the lack of that characteristic stink I associate with driving past a pig farm. I assumed its lack was due to the masses of pristine wood shavings used as bedding and over most of the barn floor, and the fact that the pens were constantly being mucked out, but one of the ranchers told me it had more to do with the day’s cool weather than anything else. Apparently heat and pigs is not a pleasant olfactory combination.

Our next stop was the massive cattle barn. A sign leading into the barn listed 20 breeds on display, and there certainly were a lot of different colours – including Charolais steer that looked as pink as the hogs due to their skin colour peeking through freshly washed white cowhide. Here there was a definite cow smell, with sawdust being used between the pens instead of wood shavings, and ample evidence as to why boots are the preferred footwear on Texas ranches.

Being midweek, there were no horse shows going on, but we did visit the horse stall barn, where it appeared that everyone had just had their baths.

After that, it was time to explore the food court. Having experienced both Ontario fall fairs and the Canadian National Exhibition food choices, I have to confess to being disappointed in the selection. There were all the usual things: funnel cakes, ice cream, turkey legs, burgers, sausages, tacos, various fried foods, and beer of course, but nothing I’d consider truly special. Maybe it’s uncouth to serve tender beef or smoked pork alongside all those live animals? That said, it’s Texas, so the food items are BIG. Our sausages with fried onions and peppers on them were about a foot long, and the order of curly fries…. well, the picture really says it all. That’s a dinner sized paper plate.

Having eaten, it was time to head into the arena for the rodeo itself, with a detour into the kids’ pavilion for a short preliminary Mutton Bustin’ competition. (I’ll come back to that later.) The rodeo is held in the AT&T Center, which is the home of the San Antonio Spurs NBA basketball team, so it’s a really big venue. I knew that the seats we’d bought were in the “balcony”, but really hadn’t thought about how high up that was going to be. It reminded me of being in the top few rows of the 500 level seats at the Rogers Center for Toronto Blue Jays baseball games – only without any railings between steeply banked rows! Although we had a great view both of the floor of the arena and the huge video screens, my heart pounded for about half an hour before settling down. I really don’t like heights.

The rodeo began with the ceremony that we’ve come to expect from big events in the United States, which included the entire audience standing up as the honour guard of horses and Texas state flags galloped in, followed by a lone rider with a gigantic Stars and Stripes streaming behind her, a prayer, and the national anthem.

When we were all seated again, the competitions began.

There was bareback bronc riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, women’s barrel racing, and bull riding, with competitors (I kept track) from Oregon, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, Alberta, Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming, AUSTRALIA, Utah, South Dakota, Virginia, BC, Tennessee, and Idaho, in addition to Texans.

For me, the most exciting event was the bareback bronco riding. Watching the riders jump, stretch and bend to limber up, climb on their horse and secure one hand to the rope around the horse’s neck so tightly that you cannot imagine they could free it if they’re thrown, and then lean back almost prone on the horse before it is released from its corral, you find yourself holding your breath in anticipation. When the horse tears out of the gate, bucking wildly, the rider is flung back and forth like a rag doll, his spine bending and flipping so violently it’s hard to imagine it not breaking. Eight seconds seems like forever. (The saddle event is exciting too, but not like the bareback.) Both events are crazy high-speed action that a phone camera way up high just can’t capture.

The roping events, which are all about speed, are interesting but not breath-taking. Watching cowboys lasso a steer in tandem, one looping their lasso around the head and the other around the hind legs, or seeing how fast a cowboy can lasso a running steer and immobilize them on the ground, is a window into skills that only ranchers need. A large Texas ranch can be as big as 100,000 acres; capturing runaway cattle is not just a rodeo event.

Thank goodness for the huge video screens and instant replay!

For equine speed and agility, the women’s barrel racing event takes centre stage. The semi-finalist winner at yesterday’s rodeo was a rider from British Columbia. Go, Canada!!

To break up the serious events, there was a youth calf scramble (just what it sounds like – a bunch of kids aged 10-14 trying to lasso one of the many calves let loose in the arena and drag it back to a designated spot), and Mutton Bustin’ “, where children ages four to seven put on a hockey style helmet to accessorize their western gear and attempt to ride a sheep for eight seconds. It was incredibly hilarious to watch, and the kids who were able to hang on for a full ride got great cheers and loud applause. The 6 year old boy who won the first prize giant silver belt buckle gave the absolute funniest interview after his win describing his full ride from climbing onto the sheep, to positioning himself for the ride, to when he thought he was slipping off the sheep sideways but just “grabbed onto the wool and hung on”. I can absolutely picture my 2 youngest grandsons doing that event!

That’s a 6 year old girl hanging on for dear life as a full grown sheep races across the arena!

The other non-competitive display was some really great trick-riding by Canadian rider Madison McDonald Thomas, who works as a stunt woman for the Heartland TV series. We’ve noticed as we travelled in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas this year that, as soon as we identified ourselves as Canadians, folks asked if we’re from Alberta and all wanted to talk about the TV series “Heartland”. Too bad we don’t watch it… but here at the rodeo was yet another connection.

The most dangerous event of the rodeo is left for last: bull riding. Unlike needing to stay mounted on a wildly kicking horse, or roping a steer, I’m not sure why a rancher would ever need – or want – to ride a bull. But it’s a thing, and clearly not an easy one. Most of the competitors ride in helmets instead of cowboy hats. I assume that’s because they’ve all had too many concussions to be without them. Of the 10 semi-finalists competing, only two managed to stay on a bull for a full 8 seconds. The winner was Dustin Boquet, a cowboy from Louisiana, riding Space Unicorn. Yup. A big brahman bull named Space Unicorn.

After 2 hours of rodeo events, it only took 15 minutes for the arena crew to bring in the rotating concert stage and all the sound equipment so that Dierks Bentley could take the stage. He sang all his hits, and absolutely rocked the house for 90 minutes – especially the screaming, dancing, hooting and hollering, totally drunk Texas belles sitting next to us.


Episode 59 – The Book Cellar

I love to read. Always have. In elementary school, my nose was always buried in a book. I was never happier than when discovering a new favourite author: Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain were supplanted by Irving Stone, Thomas B Costain, Agatha Christie, and JRR Tolkien when the high school library revealed its treasures.

When I met Ted, he introduced me to science fiction; Asimov and Heinlein in particular. I soon started reading Philip K Dick on my own, as well as fantasy series like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern, and David Eddings’ wonderful Belgariad.

When the boys were young, I’d read books – always more than one – to them before bed, and then I’d read my own after they’d gone to bed. I read while supper was in the oven. I read while the laundry was in the dryer. I probably would have read during their baseball and soccer games if I hadn’t been the team mom and scorekeeper. (As an aside, I absolutely love that number 2 son has carried on the bedtime reading tradition, and that our eldest grandson is already a voracious reader at 8 years old.)

By the time both boys were in school, Ted was working for Random House, the huge publisher. One of the employee benefits was access to a semi-annual warehouse book sale. Soon our home was filled with books. In addition to those in our many bookcases, there was always a pile beside my “reading chair” ready to be devoured. It was a fantastic way to discover new authors, and reading was an inexpensive hobby while we were on a tight budget.

When the boys were old enough to have summer jobs, and I was still working at elementary schools and got laid off every summer, I would read a book a day during July and August. I was never too fussy about what I would read, although it was always fiction (or cookbooks), and I only rarely set a book aside without finishing it – it had to be REALLY bad.

Retirement has meant lots of time to read, but Ted is no longer able to be the supplier for my “fix”, so I’ve had to find other solutions. Around this same time last year I was writing about using e-books, and the phenomenon of used book exchanges in some of the condos in which we’ve stayed – there was even one on the Viking Sun cruise ship!

I’ve also shopped used book stores and flea markets, but this year in San Antonio we’ve discovered a somewhat unique used book store: The Book Cellar. Literally a “cellar”, it is in the basement of the central branch of the San Antonio Public Library. While many libraries have occasional sales of their de-listed books, what makes The Book Cellar unique is that it is open 7 days a week, is constantly being replenished, and is run by a group of volunteers who are true book and music aficionados.

There are many reasons why libraries de-list books. In the case of non-fiction, they may simply be outdated information. In the case of fiction, it’s more about keeping the collection current and relevant within the space constraints of the building. Space needs to be made for new authors, for new releases, for current prizewinners. Those things are what keep readers coming in to the library – and explains why my beloved Thomas B Costain, so readily available in the 1970’s, is nowhere to be found 50 years later.

Sometimes fairly new books get de-listed to make room for more popular reads. At this particular library, a fiction title has been taken out fewer than 4 times in its first year on the shelf gets removed to make space for something new. New titles are occasionally stocked in multiples, either due to their popularity or as book club sets; after a while, the “extras” are de-listed.

All of this means that The Book Cellar has a really great, well-curated selection of books, almost all offered at $1 or less.

We’re expecting rain all this week in San Antonio, so we won’t be walking the River Walk, exploring nearby towns, or heading out birding, but it’s the perfect weather for reading! Since our visit to the store Ted has been working on a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle bought there and I now have a stack of books, each chosen from the shelves at eye level (the selection was daunting, so I’m saving the other shelves for future visits) and bought based on cover blurbs that sounded intriguing. I finished the first book on Sunday while the Oscars were on TV (Death of a Hollow Man, an Inspector Barnaby mystery by Caroline Graham), devoured the absolutely excellent From the Kitchen of Half Truth, by Maria Goodin, on Monday and Tuesday, and have now moved on to The Arriviste by James Wallenstein. It’s still grey and rainy.

When I’m done with them, I can return the books for resale to benefit the library one more time, or leave them in the condo for the next tenant – the one certainty is that we’ll head back to The Book Cellar at least once more during our stay. Although we’re leaving San Antonio before the true rainy season hits in May, eight books aren’t going to last me 3 months!

Episode 58 – Fashion and fashion faux pas while travelling

I come from a very mixed fashion culture.

My mother graduated from the Chicago School of Dress Design via correspondence in the 1960’s. I vividly remember watercolour paintings of designs being rolled in tissue paper and gently inserted into cardboard mailing tubes, and the anticipation of waiting for the critiques to come back. The long table in our basement was almost always (except when being used to stretch strudel dough!) covered with a cutting board and the sheets of tissue paper Mom used to make her own patterns, and there were bolts of fabrics in our cold cellar on the shelf above the homemade pickles. My favourite was a roll of apple green satin-backed crepe that was eventually turned into a New Years Eve gown with marabou feather cap sleeves. During my formative years, mom was always coordinated and stylish, even at home, dressing more like the moms on TV than those in our neighbourhood.

My father, though, was a bit more stereotypically German in his fashion sense. While he always owned at least one stylish tailor-made suit to wear to church (along with his highly polished black leather dress shoes), his day-to-day style was the source of great humour to my brother and to me. Socks in his sandals was the least of it. Picture my Dad in the late 1970’s looking “sharp”: all 5’9” of muscular, stocky German in plaid polyester pants, a paisley shirt (in coordinating colours of course!), white leather belt and white patent leather shoes. Or maybe you’d prefer the baby blue linen leisure suit with the flowered wide-collared shirt and jade bolo tie? Eye-rolling and suppressed giggles were a pretty standard reaction to Dad’s fashion choices.

I guess I could have gone either way. The 1980’s were certainly not a good decade for me. Velvet blazers with huge padded shoulders and a selection of jumpsuits in velour and slinky jersey were mainstays of a wardrobe best forgotten.

Travelling to other countries has made me stop and think about what we wear in a different way. Clothing is part of what makes a first impression, and we don’t want our first impression to scream “TOURIST!”….. nor do we want to inadvertently offend our hosts. Bare midriffs at the grocery store, and form-fitting leggings (unless covered to knee level by a tunic) worn in public are distinctly North American styles for females, as are tee shirts, track shorts, and running shoes for men.

I’ve seen plenty of advice online around “trekking” through Europe in Patagonia jackets and cargo pants, with a sturdy pair of shoes and a large backpack, the idea being that if I swap that out for a linen shift (artistically wrinkled from being rolled in the backpack, I guess), pashmina and sandals – and Ted puts on a long-sleeved white linen shirt – we could get in anywhere. That’s not us, nor is it acceptable city wear in most places unless we want to be identified as aging rich hippies – or maybe environmental ecotourists. Neither are bad things, but they’re not who we are.

I’ve also seen plenty of advice online that outlines, for example, the key elements in the modern stylish Parisian woman’s travel wardrobe, but fashion-forward sunglasses, skinny ankle pants, ballet flats and an “all purpose” silk wrap is not me either – and I cannot picture Ted in the men’s equivalent, despite the fact he has adopted a jaunty “chapeau” as his signature headgear.

Instead, we’re trying to incorporate our own observations into creating a pared-down wardrobe.

In Germany and Austria, we learned that “trainers” (running shoes) are not acceptable city wear and that, even in a country where nude beaches are prevalent, covered up is better than bare in public places. We also learned that blue jeans are for leisure time, not work or travel…..and worn looking blue jeans on anyone over 40 are only for gardening.

In England, we learned that sensible footwear actually makes practical sense. Forget Duchess Kate’s pumps and think more of the Queen’s low heeled footwear for navigating cobblestone streets. We also learned that hooded raincoats are better than umbrellas, as well as being more manageable in crowds.

In France, we learned that accessories are key to stretching a small wardrobe. Huge North American style walk-in closets are not the norm, nor are huge wardrobes. Better to change up your scarf, jewellery or hat and spend your money on café au lait, croissants, marons glacés, and the theatre.

In Scotland, we learned that layers make sense. It rains a LOT in Scotland. A little rain can’t stop us. Nor, apparently, can a lot of rain. Ted and I are fully appreciating our “jacket in a pouch” TresPass shells as both windproof and waterproof. I’m also loving my longer length lined Columbia jacket, which has kept me dry and warm, and dries really quickly. Shoes are another story, and this is why we pack at least 2 pair each. Once they’re wet, they take 24 hours plus to fully dry. Rain boots were never an option (too big, bulky, and sweaty). Does anybody have comfortable (and at least a little bit stylish) waterproof shoes to recommend?

In South America, we learned that when it’s really hot, less is not necessarily better. Loose long-sleeved or full length clothing that lets the breeze through works better than sweating through your sunscreen. I also – finally – succumbed to the need for a hat to protect my head from the sun. Too bad I haven’t figured out how to pack my new Panama hat efficiently while we travel around Europe. Don’t even suggest that I wear it in Germany at the Christmas markets!!

On our first ever cruise we learned that when the restaurant dress code for men says “no jeans”, they mean it – even if they are not blue, and even if you try to fancy them up with a dress shirt or jacket.

In the southeast U.S. we learned that anything goes…. as long as you are staying in the southwest U.S. (and yet golf courses still require collared shirts on men – it’s a strange world).

In Arizona we learned that you don’t walk barefoot, or wear open sandals, in the desert. (And don’t grab a cactus for support – OUCH!)

In Texas we are learning that, when in Texas, cowboy boots go with everything – even a wedding gown!

I’m sure that Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus will have more lessons for us next year.

So in the end, here’s what’s working for us… so far:

Jeans, yes, but they are new dark unfaded ones without worn knees, and they are supplemented by a pair of dressier pants and a pair of lighter weight pants for each of us. Ted REALLY likes his mosquito-repelling pants from Marks) For me, also 2 packable dresses (one short and one long) and a scarf that can double as head covering if needed.

Running shoes, yes, but only for the fitness room or hiking – not to be worn downtown or into restaurants. I actually prefer my walking boots to runners, since they don’t have mesh that can let sand into the footbed, and I don’t use the gym anyway! We each need a pair of “sensible” walking shoes, since tiny heels and slippery soles are just asking for trouble on cobblestones. Flip flops get packed for public pools and the beach. One pair of pretty flats or sandals needs to be enough for me for dressier occasions. Sigh. Life is tough.

Tops that are modestly cut (forget spaghetti straps in public) so they’re acceptable even when sightseeing includes religious sites – and in quick-dry fabrics that can be rolled without wrinkling too badly. A few collared shirts for Ted, since crew neck shirts are not acceptable in all the places we might want to eat or take in a show.

It’s all about being both comfortable AND appropriate.

I purged a few more items post-cruise while we were in Arizona, so we now have a small suitcase labelled “cruise” that contains Ted’s lightweight suit, my white linen pants and silk tops, a couple of long dresses, and a pair of dress shoes for each of us. I don’t expect we’ll use those items except on cruise ships, but we’ll lug them back to Canada and hang on to them while son #2 has room to store the suitcase. We loved our first cruise, so more are definitely in our future…

…. and hopefully our fashion choices won’t be the source of too much amusement for those around us.