Monday, July 12, 2010

Working hard, or hardly working?

For the last several years, I've been focusing on other things in my life besides work. I have a good job, that I enjoy very much, but I have been content to coast along, enjoying the security of my permanent contract with the federal government, learning lots and making some good contacts, but not really giving much thought to any sort of career path or advancement. Now other things have fallen into place (relationship, marriage, social circle, etc.) and at the same time some interesting and exciting opportunities have opened up at work, and my thoughts have turned to a longer term focus for my career. I don't necessarily want or think it's wise to stay in my current position for the rest of my working life, although I do very much enjoy what I'm doing at the moment. I have a fear of stagnating, though -- I think it has started to happen a little bit already, and I'd like to keep that from getting worse.

A couple of months ago a call was sent out for someone to start working with our rare books librarian, who will be retiring next year and, is so often the case with someone with such specialized training, has a lot of knowledge and skills she would like to pass on before she leaves. I lept at the chance (seriously, I had my email sent to the division chief within five minutes of the announcement), and anyone who knows me well will understand why. I have a great passion for history, and a great passion for books, and so what better than to combine the two? That training hasn't started yet, but I'm expecting to begin any day and am really looking forward to it. This wouldn't replace my current duties, but is more something that I would do part time ... maybe one or two afternoons a week. It would mean a change for me, a different skill set (and one that is extremely valuable and portable should I decide one day to move on from my cushy government job), and I could make some connections with people in other parts of the institution. As much as I hate the concept of networking, it really is true that in many ways it's not what you know, it's who you know, particularly when it comes to employment, particularly in the government, particularly in Ottawa. So I see this as a huge step forward for me.

And then a few weeks ago I was approached by my team leader and asked if I would be willing to give a presentation to the division on the new international cataloguing rules that will be coming into effect next year. I sort of got myself into this mess by not keeping my mouth shut at a division meeting recently where I ended up spokesperson for our group (we had to break into groups, brainstorm, and then report back), and apparently I impressed some management-type people with my public speaking ability. I agreed to do the presentation for a couple of reasons. Number one, of course, is that when your team leader comes to you and says "how would you like ...?" the answer pretty generally is "I'd love to," whether you would or not. But beyond that, I see this as a really great opportunity for me. For one thing, the new international cataloguing rules are coming, whether we like it or not, and I have to learn them. This gives me a kick in the ass to get started on that (up until now I'd been kind of ignoring them and hoping they'd go away), and an opportunity to talk to people who have been involved with the development of the rules and standards from the start. I think it will help to have some understanding of the philosophy and structure behind the rules, rather than just being told "put a period here, where we used to put a comma." Also, if I can establish myself as an expert on and on the leading edge of the new rules in the division, I'll probably be first in line for training, and then on tap to train others. Which I think I would enjoy and be good at.

And, again, this is a good networking opportunity. If I do well on this presentation I expect to be asked to repeat it (our division chief is talking about a series of these sessions as we get closer to implementation next year). It's an opportunity to get my name out there, not only in our division but perhaps higher up the chain and in other divisions, and establish myself as an asset to the institution on a broader scale. It's also another extremely valuable skill set that looks great on my resume.

So, in summary, some interesting and potentially important doors are opening for me at work. I'd be a fool not to go through, eh? Stay tuned for further developments.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Feeling pampered

The following comes off as a paid advertisment, but nothing could be further from the truth (although if someone ever decides they want to pay me to blog ...). Just a great experience that we had and I wanted to tell the world about it.

Back in January I had the opportunity to bid in a silent auction on two nights at a B&B in Vermont. Since we have sort of developed a tradition of going on a mini-getaway for Serdic's birthday, I thought this would be a nice way to do it. So I bid (there's a convoluted story about how I got someone else to bid so Serdic wouldn't see my name on the bid sheet) and won. We booked it for the Victoria Day long weekend, and were very much looking forward to it, as the friend and fellow choir member who had stayed there and received the donation for the silent auction could not stop raving about it.

So we went. And I have to tell you, dear readers, I have never enjoyed a mini-getaway weekend more. The Belding House is an absolute gem. A 200 year old farmhouse, set in the rolling mountains of Vermont, with two of the finest and friendliest innkeepers you will ever meet. And the food. Oh my heavens, the food. You kind of expect breakfast to be included (it's, you know, in the name) but they also do afternoon snacks (brie, crackers, grapes, sausage, bread, etc. -- all of Serdic's favourite things) and when you come back from dinner they put dessert out -- the first night it was a divine carrot cake, the second yummy yummy creme brulee. And the breakfasts were stunning -- from the slight hint of cinnamon in the coffee to the freshly squeezed juice to the cream cheese stuffed bourbon infused blackberry french toast. Mmmmmm. I'm drooling again just thinking about it.

Our room was lovely, comfortable and quiet. My favourite little touch was when we came back from dinner the second night the bed had been turned down and our books, which we had left on the dresser (after spending the afternoon lounging about on the porch reading and drinking freshly brewed iced tea!), had been placed on our pillows. Hee!

But really, what made the Belding House so special was the inkeepers, Clif and Larry (I don't think they'd mind me putting their real names here, as I'm about to say very nice things about them!). They were so welcoming and warm from the first minute, so attentive to the finer details of hosting, extremely talented in the kitchen, and just so much fun to spend a weekend with. I can not say enough good things about these two gentlemen, and what wonderful things they have done with their establishment. Particularly because they donated this weekend to the auction, so they weren't making a cent on us being there. Yet they treated us like honoured guests the entire time. They didn't owe the choir anything -- it's not even like we're part of their local community. But they're just really nice guys who support and love the arts, and they wanted to support our choir. And I'm returning the favour by getting the word out to as many people as I can that a weekend at the Belding House is an experience not to be missed. The only problem is that it'll ruin you for any other B&B.

Go. You won't be disappointed. Just don't go in October, because that's when we're going back. ;-)

Pictures are here.

Friday, May 21, 2010


This is my last England related post, I think. All photos from this trip can be seen here.

I first visited Arundel in 1995, as part of the Singer Family European Extravaganza, an amazing five weeks during which the SingerParents, PetDoc and I rented a motorhome and did a grand tour of Europe. That trip was an amazing experience, a great family bonding exercise, and something we still talk about on a regular basis, and remember with great fondness.

However, that trip was a long time ago, and my memories of seeing Arundel were hazy. I remembered a really cool castle, but the details weren't there anymore. As well, the first time I visited Arundel I didn't know the context and history, and as I have learned more about British history, particularly the medieval and Tudor time periods, Arundel and its occupants have come up time and time again. So now with the castle more firmly placed in historical context for me, I wanted to see it again.

The most important connection Arundel has to British history is that it is the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk, who have traditionally held great power and influence (interestingly, they are one of the few aristocratic families in England to have remained Catholic after the Reformation and retained their position in the aristocracy). Perhaps the best known is the 3rd Duke, who was the uncle of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (2nd and 5th wives of Henry VIII) and a major force in the political manoeuvering and manipulation of the Tudor court. Even today the Duke of Norfolk is one of the most important peers in the country, and holds several (mostly ceremonial now) posts.

A more minor connection, but one that is very interesting to me, is the one with the Empress Matilda (or Maude, as she was also known). In the last few years I have done a lot of reading about medieval England and the pre-Tudor period, and Matilda is one of the most fascinating stories I have come across. In a nutshell: she was the daughter of Henry I, granddaughter of William the Conqueror. As her father's only legitimate child, she was named as his heir and intended to take the throne when he died. However, the Middle Ages being what they were, many of the barons felt a mere woman would not be able to rule the country properly (Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II would beg to differ, but I digress) and when Henry I died a cousin of Matilda's, Stephen, seized the throne. Matilda fought for her crown, and the country endured fifteen years of bloody civil war. Matilda briefly gained power but only for a few months and she was never crowned. Eventually a compromise was reached after Stephen's son and heir died, and he agreed to name Matilda's son, Henry, as his heir. Henry became Henry II, most famous for his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenet dynasty (including Richard the Lionheart and Prince John of Robin Hood fame), and the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.

What does all this have to do with Arundel, I hear you asking? Well, when Matilda first landed in England in 1139 to begin the long fight to regain her throne (she had been living in France when her father died) she stayed at Arundel castle. And the room in which she stayed is still there, and you can go and stand in it. Nine hundred years later. If you know me, even a little, you know how much and why that gives me chills.

The castle is about 90 minutes from London on the train, and a quick ten minute hike from the train station at Arundel village. Unless you're like me, and you hike up the wrong side of the castle first and have to go back down and hike up the other side to actually get to the entrance gate. Oops. Once I reached the (right) entry gate, a lovely gentleman volunteer approached and asked if I had visited Arundel before. "When I was a girl," I replied. "So you've come back to see if we've moved anything around, have you?"

The funny thing is, it kind of felt like they had. Even though I had been to Arundel before, nothing felt familiar. But that was ok, it just meant I got to explore it as if for the first time! Although I of course enjoyed seeing the state rooms and fancy furnishings, the part I enjoyed most was climbing up to the keep, which is the original part of the castle built in the 1100s, and just breathing in the history surrounding me. I am always taken aback when I encounter something this old on my trips to Europe ... the mere fact that I can be standing where people stood a thousand years ago and seeing the exact same thing they saw is mindboggling to me. (I know there were people standing where I am here in Canada 1000 years ago, too, but the landscape has changed so much since then that it doesn't evoke the same connection for me.) It always kind of feels like I've stumbled onto a movie set or something, and I have to remind myself that no, this is the real thing.

Speaking of movie sets, I lingered in the great hall to listen to one of the (very helpful and friendly) guides tell a group about how a scene from the movie The Young Victoria was filmed there last year, with Arundel standing in for Windsor Castle. Having just visited Windsor, and having seen the film, and being a royalty buff in general, this of course caught my interest. The guide was also an extra in the scene, although he said you can't see him in the final cut. But he told some stories about filming and pointed out that at one point over the king's shoulder you can see a glorious painting of a distinguished churchman ... unfortunately the painting was painted several decades after the scene in question was supposed to take place (and of course doesn't belong at Windsor Castle at all, since it obviously belongs at Arundel Castle). The film was one of my options on the flight home the next day, and having just visited so many of the places that feature prominently in it (Windsor, Kensington, etc.) it was fun to rewatch it with new eyes.

So that was my trip to England. I'd like to think of it as my annual Easter trip to London, having gone last Easter as well, but with PetDoc and Noise heading home in a few days (yay!) I think the chances of me spending next Easter in London are slim. But never say never, I guess! Who knows what next year will bring?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wonderful Windsor

A couple more England-related posts, although a bit later than I intended.

Apparently while I was away, Serdic was asked what his wife was doing in England, and his response was "seeing as many castles as she can possibly get to, I think." And it's true that this trip was particularly heavy on the "big piles of stone that used to house famous people" portion of the itinerary. Besides the previously mentioned excursions to Hever and Kensington Palace, I did two day trips by myself (while PetDoc and Noise had to work) -- first to Windsor Castle, then to Arundel Castle. I had been to both castles before, on previous trips to England, but for a variety of reasons I decided I wanted to revisit both.

I had actually been to Windsor twice before, once on my very first trip to England when I was in grade 10 (it was a school March Break trip), and again five years ago when SingerDad and I did a trip to England and Ireland. On that first trip, we only went into the chapel, but didn't tour the castle itself. And I was too young to appreciate the history of the chapel, or its place in British royal history (I certainly didn't realize that Henry VIII and Charles I were buried there, among other illustrious rulers and consorts!). On the second trip, SingerDad and I toured the castle, but unfortunately we chose a Sunday as our Windsor day, and the chapel (by this time I was more acquainted with its history) was closed to visitors. So I decided to give it one more shot, and see if I could have the complete Windsor experience.

Windsor is an easy trip from London on the train, and the castle is only a few minutes by foot from the train station. I had made one miscalculation -- this was Monday, Easter Monday to be exact, and a bank holiday in the UK. Imagine my surprise and chagrin when I rounded the corner of the castle to discover the line to enter stretched for blocks. I briefly debated how badly I wanted to do this, but decided that I was already there and going back to London and making a Plan B would take longer than waiting in line. So I took a deep breath and plunged in. I waited approximately 45 minutes and the line seemed at times to be barely moving, although I did eventually figure out that part of the problem was that they were changing the guard inside the castle and limiting entrance until that was over. Once the guard had paraded away, the pace of the line picked up a little. (I nearly cried a little, though, when I finally, finally got up to the "tickets" hut and discovered that inside there was one of those Disneyland-esque winding layouts that added a good fifteen minutes to the wait when you thought you were almost there!)

Once I had my ticket and was through security (I still find it a little strange to go through a metal detector anywhere other than an airport, but I understand why they are becoming more common, even if it does make me sad), things picked up considerably. Despite the long line the crowds inside were not too bad, and I was able to wander and explore as I chose. I decided to do the state apartments first, followed by the chapel. Both were open and so I finally felt like I got my full Windsor experience.

I love Windsor, frankly. It has the perfect mixture of historical and contemporary -- I think mostly because the royal family still lives there, so it still feels like a living, working castle, even though it is also one of the oldest in the country. It brings together all those things I love about England -- the pomp and circumstance, the history and tradition, the royals, and the very essential "britishness" of the place. And in a very silly sort of way, I also feel an affinity for Windsor because I grew up on Windsor Street, so the very word evokes all those good associations of home and family and happiness and all that jazz. So it was a really cool day, and I'm glad I didn't turn around and go back to London when I saw the line to get in!

Next post will be Arundel, and I promise it won't take me another month to get to it!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Love Never Dies

First, a clarification: it has come to my attention that Noise feels he comes off poorly in my previous post, what with the making a scene with the manager in the pub and whatnot. So, to clarify, his behaviour was completely appropriate and the manager was a total wanker, and there are times when making a scene is totally necessary. I respect and admire people who can stand up for themselves and say "this is unacceptable" -- I don't do it nearly as often as I should, although I'm getting better at it.

Anyway. On to the subject of today's post:

I have loved musical theatre all my life, and have been going to shows for as long as I can remember. And if you asked me to name the shows that define my "really obsessive theatre freak" days, Phantom of the Opera certainly ranks among the top two or three. I wouldn't list it as my favourite show, but it certainly sparked a love of spectacle in theatre (who can forget that chandelier rising from the stage as the overture soared?) and introduced me to some performers who remain favourites to this day, and the show remains a sentimental favourite even if I have seen many others since that I can objectively say were "better" shows. Love him or loathe him (and there are many people on both ends of that spectrum), the impact that Andrew Lloyd Webber has had on the musical theatre of the late 20th century cannot be denied, and while he and his shows are not without their faults, I have great affection for both, and gratitude for the hours of enjoyment his music has given me. One of my favourite evenings, ever, was the night PetDoc, Noise, Serdic and I went to Andrew Lloyd Webber's 60th birthday celebration concert in Hyde Park. Standing in a crowd of 30,000 people singing Any Dream Will Do (from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) and then Happy Birthday to the man himself ... it was a really special night.

So when PetDoc emailed and asked if I wanted to get tickets to the new sequel to Phantom that ALW has just opened in London, what could I say but "of course!" We figured it was an opportunity we couldn't pass up -- a little bit of theatre history and we wanted to be part of it.

The show was, honestly, almost exactly what I was expecting. Definitely bombastic and over the top in places (just like Phantom!) but also with moments of great beauty and thrilling music. I was a bit disappointed in the actor playing the Phantom during the first act, as he seemed to be straining for the high notes and having trouble with the props, but when I finally broke down and bought a program at intermission (don't even get me started on having to pay 3 pounds to see a cast list!) we discovered that we were actually seeing an understudy, which explained a lot. As the show has only been open a month, this was probably his first (or among his first at any rate) performance in what is a challenging role both physically and vocally, so instead I say bravo to him. We also saw an understudy for Madame Giry, and she was having prop issues as well (maybe the props are the issue?), but all in all the performances were very good.

I did have a couple of issues with characterization, especially compared to the original Phantom. My inner feminist hated the dramatic climax, where the Phantom and Raoul decide between themselves who will "get" Christine, and don't even bother to tell her. I felt like standing up and shouting at the stage "How about you let her choose, m'kay?" Christine is not exactly a paragon of 21st century feminist thinking in Phantom, either, but she does take action in the final scene and make her choice, and I was really irritated by the removal of even that little bit of autonomy for her.

A bigger issue for me was the characterization of the Phantom himself. In the original, he is a monster, haunted, tortured, and dangerous, redeemed only by his love for Christine and his music. He kills on a whim, he kidnaps and threatens, he extorts money from the opera house. Yes, you are supposed to feel sorry for him, and reflect on the society that has made him what he is, but you are also supposed to fear him, and believe him capable of great cruelty and evil. Every actor I have seen play the Phantom has brought that out in voice and, more importantly, in movement and body language. His is a twisted soul, and his body reflects that. There was none of that in this Phantom. Even allowing for the fact that we were seeing an understudy in the role, I think the problem is in the conception and production, more than in the performance. This Phantom walks and talks like an ordinary gentleman, albeit one who wears a mask. He goes out and about in Coney Island, he receives visitors freely in his lair, and you don't believe he would be capable of killing anything more than a fly. Even when the mask comes off and his deformity is revealed, most of the characters show nothing more than mild discomfort, if they notice at all. I don't know if this was an attempt to make the show lighter in tone than the original (there are several "vaudeville" type numbers and things like that) but it didn't work for me. I'm also not sure why they had to turn Raoul into a raging asshole, but that's a minor point.

All in all, though, what the show really did was make me wish I was seeing Phantom again instead. And I thought I was done seeing Phantom, as I saw it many, many times during my aforementioned theatre freak days. But that residual affection is still there, and there are a couple of times during Love Never Dies where musical themes from Phantom surface, and that music is so familiar to me. It moved something deep inside me that of course the music from Love Never Dies, being unfamiliar to me and not loaded with so much emotional baggage from a different time in my life, would not.

So, to sum up, worth seeing, and an enjoyable evening at the theatre. Nothing like the original, though.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Street where the riches of ages are stowed

A technical note first: blogger is being a pain in the arse about photos, so those will have to wait until I'm home and on my own computer.

So, this is my 7th trip to London. And every time I've come (with the exception of the last time we were here, which was just a one night stopover on our way home from our honeymoon) I have had Portobello Road on my list of things to see, and I've never made it there. I wanted to go there for only one reason -- because of the song in Disney's "Bedknobs and Broomsticks." On Saturdays Portobello Road is a huge antiques market, but during the week the shops are still open and you can still get a sense of the atmosphere. We didn't make it there on Saturday (we were navigating the mudpits, er, I mean, footpaths of Hever that day) but PetDoc and I finally made it there yesterday. We wandered the length of the street and had lunch (and our first glass of Strongbow of the day!) in a pub. Unfortunately, while my meal was fine (nothing special, but fine) PetDoc's was nearly inedible due to the amount of pepper that had been added ... and little did we know that it was merely setting the stage for our pub experiences for the day.

After lunch PetDoc and I headed over to Kensington Palace. I had been there before, several years ago, but thought I would enjoy a return visit and PetDoc had never been, and then we decided we would treat ourselves to afternoon tea in the Orangery. I had seen on the palace's website the night before that the state rooms are currently hosting a modern art exhibit that sounded like it could either be really interesting or really wierd -- with the idea being that you search through the different rooms to find clues about seven different princesses who have lived in the palace. When we arrived at the palace we didn't think it was a good sign that we were greeted by a volunteer who explained the installation and warned us that we would see no historical information whatsoever about the state rooms (you couldn't even buy a guidebook with information about the rooms). He seemed extremely apologetic and spent several minutes making sure we knew what we would be seeing. After we went through the palace I hovered in the entry/exit hall waiting for PetDoc to visit the loo and overheard this poor man have several groups turn away because they wanted to "really see a palace" (he was sending them to Hampton Court) and when he asked people coming out what they had thought, to a person they expressed disappointment in not "really getting to see a palace." So I would say this experimental installation is not a smashing success.

What did we think? Well, the installation was interesting, but we would rather have gotten to see the palace. And we thought the 13 pound entry fee was a little steep for half a dozen rooms where you couldn't even see the rooms.

Tea in the Orangery, on the other hand, was worth every penny, and absolutely delightful. We enjoyed it immensely. Finger sandwiches, eclairs, and, of course, a scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam. I had an Indian Breakfast tea, which was delicious -- light and flavourful.

Continuing on the tea theme, we needed to make the usual pilgrimage to the Twinings tea shop on the Strand, so we took a bus down Kensington High Street, past Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, and down the Strand to the tea shop. Having made our purchases we had about an hour to kill before meeting Noise for dinner, so we decided to find a pub and have a pint and then order dinner when he got there. Well, the best laid plans and all that. We did have our pint, and a bit of entertainment as we watched an episode of Law and Order: UK being filmed outside the pub (the leading actress apparently used to be on Dr. Who, and she drew quite a crowd of admirers as filming went on). And then Noise arrived. And while I don't like to blame him, that's when things started to go downhill. ;-)

We ordered our meals at the bar, as you do, and I guess we threw the waitress off when we placed two different orders for the same table (something we have done before in many other pubs with no problem). We were chatting and watching the filming and didn't realize how long it was taking to get our food until half an hour had passed. We were just getting ready to ask someone about our food (we had theatre tickets and were starting to worry about the time) when the manager must have noticed our unhappy expressions and he came over. He promised to take care of it and bustled off, and came back several minutes later to assure us that our food was "in the lift" and would be "right up." Five minutes later (so much for "right up") two of our three meals were delivered to our table (PetDoc and Noise's) ... cold and congealed. We waited a few more minutes for mine (in case the lift could only handle two meals at a time) but when nothing appeared Noise went looking for the manager. And caused a scene. The manager insisted it was our fault, as we hadn't told him there were two different orders at the table (from which we deduce that our order had never made it to the kitchen and he had resubmitted it, but he missed the second part of the order). He had no good reason for why what was delivered was cold. Noise insisted on a refund (we had prepaid for our meals, which is standard in British pubs) and was told no, as we had received food and were going to eat it. Noise returned to our table and we decided we didn't have time to go elsewhere (we were now about 20 minutes from curtain, although the theatre was just down the street) so we started to share out the two meals between the three of us. A minute later the manager appeared at our table with a third plate and put it down in front of me with a flourish ... too bad it was the wrong dish (fish and chips -- I had ordered bangers and mash). But on the plus side, it was hot, so I told him to leave it. He ended up refunding my meal and PetDoc's (continuing to claim there was nothing wrong with Noise's), and we gulped down the edible parts of the food in front of us and dashed down the street to the theatre.

We had tickets for Love Never Dies, the Andrew Lloyd Webber penned sequel to Phantom of the Opera, but my review of that is a blog entry all its own, and this one is already long enough. To be continued ...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Famous last words: "It doesn't look so wet."

PetDoc, Noise, and I went to Hever today, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and an important site in Tudor history. One of the things that appealed to us about Hever was that the castle is about a mile from the train station, and it's a lovely walk through the village and along the public footpaths across the fields. For a fair chunk of the way you can choose the footpaths or the roads. Obviously the major difference is that the roads are paved and the footpaths are,well, not. Upon leaving the station we were soon confronted with the first choice between paved and not, and PetDoc uttered the fateful words above. So we set off across the fields, baa-ing cheerfully at the sheep who came racing over the hill to greet us.

But pretty soon the scene looked like this:

Although today was a beautiful day with bright sunshine, the spring rains had taken their toll. At times we were ankle deep in mud -- I though I had lost a shoe at one point. However, we pushed on (after a certain point it made more sense to keep going than try to go back) and eventually came out on a blessed, blessed road. After a quick stop at the local pub (not surprisingly called the Henry the VIII) to wash our shoes in the bathroom and enjoy a much-deserved pint of Strongbow, we arrived at the castle.

Castle is a bit of a misnomer, as Hever is really a country house (albeit a large and luxurious one!). We very much enjoyed our visit, trooping through the Tudor era rooms and imaging the events that much have transpired in those very rooms. This, to me, is the fascinating thing about England ... that you can go to these places where important events happened and interesting people lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and the places are still there! And in many cases, they haven't changed at all. For a history buff like me, there's nothing like it.

We followed up our castle visit with a walk around a section of the beautiful gardens. Then we headed back to the train station ... via the roads this time!

A few more pictures of a lovely day, spent with my favourite sister and her favourite husband: