Bella Firenze and the Turn of the Tide

by kjensen22 on September 4, 2015

 

This week I’ve been reflecting a lot. Exactly one year ago, I got on a plane bound for Heathrow Airport in London. I would spend 2 ½ months traveling through Europe, seeking for answers to my heart-cries. I had burned out of NYC life and, nursing a broken heart, needed a change of scenery. I knew in my gut that I needed to make this journey of heart and soul, that answers would come. So I packed up my stuff, sublet my room, took a leap of faith, and boarded that plane.

I live in Utah now. A lot has changed. I am still and always will be a highly emotional creature. But I’m on the path, and I’m growing.

What prompted me to write was an experience I had a few days ago at church. I went to a Sunday School class on relationships. The teachers challenged us to date. To ask the men out. Date. Date!!! DAAAAAATE!!!!!!!

*CUE MASSIVE INTERNAL ANXIETY ATTACK*

I met a guy before the next meeting. Sat next to him. Flirted a bit. He seemed nice enough at first, and apparently he goes out with women twice a week and “isn’t afraid of commitment.” Naturally I froze up. Then he turned to me after the meeting and said, “Hey, find me on Facebook.” I laughed at him & looked away, but I really wanted to just clobber him over the head and holler, “Hey punk! You think I’m that kind of girl? Think I don’t know what you’re doing? There’s no way in Hell I’m gonna join your online posse to boost your ego, when you don’t even have the chutzpah to get my number and ask me out on a date, especially after what you just told me??? You’re seriously demoting me to online harem right now? Get a life!” But I didn’t say that. I got up and went on my way. Ew! Gross! ICK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, so my triggers definitely went off. Triggers of not being enough for someone, for not being pretty enough, calm enough (hahahahha!!!!) super model enough; amidst all the life and geographical changes of the past year, my figure has taken quite the Rubenesque turn, so there’s that little poke in the side.

Triggers, triggers, triggers.

Then I saw someone I had heard about months before, and when I finally met him last week, I got all weird. And then weirder. As in, I went home thinking, “Oh man, I was so weird!!!!!”  I saw him walk by, alone for a change – he’s always talking to someone – and felt a serious pull inside to still try and connect with him. And then, all this calamity going on inside me piled up and, as we say in acting, gave me a big fat PINCH.

Ouch!!!

I got in the car and burst into tears, hollering at God, “I HATE DATING!!! DATING SUCKS!! I DON’T WANT TO GET HURT LIKE THAT AGAIN!!! I’D RATHER NOT GO THROUGH THAT PAIN AGAIN!!! DON’T MAKE ME DO IT, I CAN’T DO THAT AGAIN!!!” And other such passionate lamentations. Then I started asking questions. Why DO I wish to talk to this guy I don’t know, who doesn’t know me, except I was that weird girl who  tried to talk to him in a terribly awkward manner around the campfire that one time? Yeah, he’s Italian, from Florence. I like Italians. They seem to like me, too. Theirs is the most delightful accent on earth. But clearly, First Impression didn’t go so well on this end.

And then it hit me – it’s been a year this week since I left for Europe. I ended that trip in Florence, Italy. There’s so much I have yet to write – about my time in Europe, what it meant to me, how it changed the course of my life and my heart’s growth.

I didn’t really like the way Florence felt, honestly. It’s a beautiful medieval city with so much history and art and culture, and  I LOVE ALL THAT. But I felt a heaviness, a darkness in the city. I don’t know yet what that is. I suspect it has to do with the dark history of bloodshed and intrigue of the Medici clan. I discovered a few months ago that I have ancestry from Rome and other Italian cities, but not Florence. Perhaps there is some kind of ancestral angst associated with Firenze? I can’t say.

But what really matters is what happened to me there.

That’s why Florence is such. a. big. deal. in the anthology of things KJ.

There’s something in me that wants to grab this poor guy by the lapels and pour out my guts to him of how much that time in Florence meant to me, how I faced my demons, how I overcame deep-seated fears & weathered the worst loneliness of my life. How I pushed past that into peace and listened to my heart and truer self. How God showed me the next steps along my path, and how I started to “come home” for the first time in years, years, years. How pivotal this experience was – It changed my life’s trajectory forever. HOW HUGE is the space that I hold in my heart for Florence. And because he’s a native son, he’s somehow, by virtue of association, wrapped up in all of that. Part of me is simply bursting at the seams to spill it out to him in a wicked-hot, blubbery mess!  I don’t think that would go over too well, so instead of subjecting the dude to my emotional Vesuvius, I’m going to tell YOU.

Florence was scheduled to be my almost-last-stop in Italy. I was going to spend a few days in Rome, and take the last day left on my Eurail Pass to head down to Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast before flying home. I’ve dreamt of seeing Pompeii ever since the 5th grade, when my teacher showed us a movie about Pompeii and the tragedy of those who died in Mt. Vesuvius’s epic eruption. I was, naturally, quite obsessed with the movie’s sex scenes as a young innocent girl. But also with the history. I wrote essays about Pompeii in Junior High and dreamed of becoming an archeologist so I could dig in those ruins and find out every little detail of their lives.

But that’s not what happened. I didn’t go to Pompeii. I went back to Florence.

And I’ve not been the same since.

Backtracking a bit – I figured Florence would be the best place to go for a little sit-down. I’d not spent more than 4 or 5 days in any one place for 2 months, and finally, finally, was on the mend from a nasty upper respiratory infection that had left me unable to sing for weeks. I’d spent a month in Tuscany in 2004 in the hills close to the Apuane Alps. It was a magical time, and I have never been able to get Tuscany out of my mind since. I like to think that God saved a bucket of dirt from the Garden of Eden and spread it all over Tuscany. It is that beautiful.

So, Firenze or bust it was! I booked a week at an apartment thru Airbnb and headed down from Munich. Figured I’d use Florence as a launching pad to see more places, like Cinque Terre & Siena, and spend time just taking in the city.

Outside my flat window in Firenze

My room with a view

Inside, though, I was secretly dreading the final leg of my trip. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because for the first time in 2 months of traveling through Europe, I’d be completely on my own. I’d been jetting off from friend to friend, with the occasional solo side trip thrown in (Edinburgh and Venice). Those trips went off quite well, and I made friends. But this time, the final stretch to Italy felt different.

I had wonderful flatmates in Florence at first – there was an American guy, Dave, with his Malaysian girlfriend, Christine, and a Mormon couple from California, Meghan and Josh. We hit it off that first night like gangbusters. We sang Happy Birthday to Dave, and I told them how I wanted to make a film of me singing “O mio babbino caro” while on the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge referred to in the famous aria. Dave and his girlfriend offered to film and record it for me the next day. So on Saturday afternoon I warmed up for the first time in almost a month and headed over to that beautiful, historic bridge. The crowds quieted and stood at rapt attention and seemed to appreciate the offering. It really was so wonderful – I wore my favorite blue Ralph Lauren dress and a gorgeous magenta scarf with embroidered peacocks that I’d picked up in Venice. Looked out over the Arno, back to the camera, and sang my song.

O mio babbino caro, overlooking the Arno.

And then I had GE-LA-TO!!! (Happy dance!)

But that’s not the point. Not the gelato. At least not yet. 🙂

I had visited the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia ten years prior, and would love to have spent more time in these beautiful places, but I felt that this time, the trip needed to be more about my inner journey than museum-hopping, as much as I adore Renaissance art.  I DID go busking in the Galleria degli Uffizzi a couple times, though, right where the street artists make and sell their wares. 🙂

So I wandered around Florence. I went to church on Sunday, with a prayer in my heart to find a family to lunch with afterwards. I looked up the address on Google Maps and took the bus into the northwestern suburbs of Florence. But the building I found at the intersection I was led to didn’t look like the building on the website. I looked up the phone number and placed a call to the church, only to find that I was steps away! The church was tucked in from the main road a bit, and if I had only wandered around with a little curiosity, I would have found it! But find it I did, and in I went.

It was a sweet meeting. One of the speakers recounted the story of Punchinello and the Wemmicks. The guy I sat next to turned out to be the brother of a Norwegian sister missionary I’d lived with in London while on my mission. Such a small world! Then after church as I was leaving, a blonde American woman approached me and asked if I’d like to have lunch with her family after church. Um, yes. Yes, I will be happy to join you, thank you! (Score!!!)

Heather and Dave and their 5 kids and I traipsed off to a close-by park and bonded over bologna cheese sandwiches and our life stories. They felt like family straightaway. Dave had served in the same mission as I in England, and he intuitively picked up on my internal struggles and life situation. I knew they were one of the reasons I needed to be in Florence. I needed to know them. We exchanged numbers and I went back to my flat & wandered around Florence.

At some point that day or the next, I got more gelato, this time from Gelateria Santa Trinita – a blessed holy trio of black sesame, coconut, and pistachio. I was in absolute gelato heaven!

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*cue CHOIRS OF ANGELS SINGING in a state of gastronomic delight! Aaaaahhhhh!!!*

 

The next day I couldn’t find Heather’s contact info on my phone. It had totally disappeared. I messaged her through Facebook and WhatsApp and heard nothing for days. Meeting a member of my soul-tribe and losing contact with her just like that, with no other familiar faces around, sent me into a tailspin of loneliness. I tried to drown my feelings in chocolate gelato. Didn’t help. (Plus it wasn’t as good as the other flavors.) Went up to Piazza San Michelangelo to see the sunset over Florence during l’oro d’oro, the blessed, precious Hour of Gold.

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But alone.

 

I felt more alone those few days in Florence than I’d ever felt in my life. And there’s been a lot of loneliness. But this time, I was ALL alone. Acutely alone. I ached and ached. The new girls in my flat were lovely, and I did run into nice people on my rambles through the medieval streets, but the majority of those days were spent in the company of dark thoughts and a lonely heart.

As I look back on that period now, I see purpose, and I am grateful for the deepening. I know THAT shade of loneliness. I wasn’t stranded there very long, however, and that in itself proved a valuable lesson. It was only a matter of days. What made it worse was not knowing if or how it would end.

I mean, loneliness has never been a stranger. I’ve always felt a bit on the outside looking in on others’ lives. I’ve been the small-town Mormon girl from Idaho transplanted to a strange Florida high school, second week of my freshman year. The artsy-singer/good-Mormon-girl in academic classes. The free-spirited-artsy-girl in a conservative church culture. The observant Mormon in crowds of free-spirited actors and singers. It’s nothing new, feeling the social oddball. The first time I ever felt a sense of belonging was in my freshman year of college at Florida State – about 40 of us kids in church clung together after leaving home, sprouting our wings. Several of us are still friends to this day. After a mission and finishing college, I moved cross-country to AZ for grad school, knowing only a few people. I relocated my life again seven years later to live in New York City, where I knew even fewer people. Oh, how lonely can one feel in a crowd of 8 million! Every time though, I have persisted and eventually made friends, settled in, and found my place.

For some reason, however, the loneliness in Florence felt particularly acute. Perhaps it was because I was in a foreign nation and culture with family and friends half the way around the world. Losing contact abruptly with new friends to whom I felt soul-bound. And a few other factors. It all added up to the perfect storm of Kristin is Lonelier than ANYTHING.

But enough about that.

I did finally reach Heather after a few days, and things quickly improved in that all-important inner terrain.

Heather helped me plan a trip to Cinque Terre – a beautiful, adventurous day of hiking and eating along the Ligurian coastline. A stroll along the pebbled beach at Monterosso.  A three-hour hike to Vernazza across mountains and vineyards and stunning vistas. Mussels over spaghetti that melted in my mouth like butter. A tiny little church with skeleton reliefs. A sunset over the sea. Delectably fresh calamari & gelato in Riomaggiore. The companionship of a lovely, handsome guy from Oregon, whom I probably would have kissed in the moonlight over the ocean if he hadn’t been sick and had a girlfriend back at home . . . because that. setting. was. so. wonderfully. romantic.

 

And

 

I

 

AM

 

A

 

NOT-SO-CLOSETED

 

ROMANTIC

 

 

Looking back towards Monterosso

Looking back towards Monterosso.

 

I spent another afternoon and evening in Siena, sang to a little crowd of older Italian ladies at the famous horse fountain in the Piazza del Campo, then to a larger crowd as the evening wore on, and finally got booted out by a police lady as I was launching into “Je dis” from Carmen. I enjoyed a scrumptious dinner with a handsome doctor from Brazil and strolled around Siena by dark of night.


 

I made closer friends with my flatmates in Florence, one of whom was a lesbian woman from China, on holiday with her girlfriend. Her paramour was married to a gay man, the only way they could keep up appearances and protect each other from persecution. What a beautiful, sensitive soul she was! We talked about God and the challenges of being a woman with deep faith in a communist nation. How she doesn’t have access to Facebook or any worldwide social media platform, and how she has to hide her true self from all but her “best friend,” who is in reality her lover. Only when she is abroad can she live true to herself in all respects.

Then there were two dear girls from Malaysia, Lilin and Chery. They helped me with a little health issue – making herbal tea concoctions and blessing that little retro kitchen with their lively company and conversation. We met up the following week in Rome for an absolutely wonderful evening together of singing, pasta, and, naturally, more gelato. 🙂

But back to Florence.

I spent my last couple days in Firenze at Heather’s. We bonded like we were sisters, I loved her kids. We ate, we talked, she showed me some places around the city. But mostly I just wanted to be with her and Dave.

On Saturday I headed down to Rome for a few days, which was in itself quite the grand adventure. One thing I will say here, Rome is not, CAN not ever, be boring. And you will just have to wonder what happened in Rome . . . 😉

As I mentioned earlier, I was planning to take Nov 4, my last full day in Italy, to enjoy the Amalfi coast and visit Pompeii. But on the morning of Nov 3, I woke up in Rome, troubled in heart. I felt that I needed to go back to Florence, counsel with Dave, and ask for a blessing. We ask for blessings in the LDS church, with the faith and expectation that God will inspire the person giving the blessing with wisdom and counsel. There were matters bubbling up in my heart regarding a very difficult, ongoing family situation. I had avoided honestly facing it, keeping busy chasing my dreams, living “MY LIFE IN NEW YORK.”  In the coming months, it would prove to be a situation and dynamic that would wrench my heart in grief and pave the way for tremendous growth. At the time, though, all I knew is that this was the next step along the heart-path I was learning to follow.

So I listened to that nudge, and used my last Eurail pass day to go back up to Florence. Dave gave me a beautiful blessing, which provided my heart with wise counsel and a great amount of peace. He fixed my buggy computer. And then he and Heather pulled a fast one. The last and final summit my heart would climb in Europe. It would change everything.

Heather has a friend whose father was a well-known and respected conductor of early music opera (Monteverdi thru Mozart). She got his number, called him up, and asked if she could bring me by to sing for him.

WHAT THE WHAT!??!!!?!?!?

Oh mylanta, ALL the excuses to NOT DO THIS THING rose up within me like wildfire. I hadn’t been in lessons for over 2 years! I was into acting now, not singing! Busking through Europe  was just for fun and adventure, not for auditions or pressure! I hate opera auditions!!! My voice was in no shape to be singing for such illustrious ears! I’m not singing at a professional level right now! A massive wave of fear welled up in me and I nearly caved. I’d certainly caved before.

But this time, in the middle of the storm, I realized – these were merely fears and excuses screaming their pathetic little whines in my ears. I didn’t have to listen. Maybe they were wrong. True, I had not studied singing for some time. I had been developing another instrument entirely.

I had burned out with opera, with voice lessons, and singing professionally. My heart was grieving. I had given up hope.

I hadn’t made many inroads in my singing career, at least not compared to my expectations. I was painfully crippled by self-judgement and anxiety in auditions. I was plagued with doubts and misgivings about my skills even after being cast in productions. I fought the fear, but it overcame me more times than I could overcome it.  My former teacher was highly volatile and at times abusive, and I thought I deserved it. I thought that’s the environment I needed, and she was one of the biggest names in the industry, after all. Despite seeing improvement, I started to shut down. Once I got into acting school, where my teachers there created a safe place for us to explore our artistic selves, and I got a taste of what it was to be SAFE and NURTURED in a creative setting, where my deeply-feeling, sensitive artistic nature was no longer shamed, but celebrated, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t go back to that teacher. I was done. So singing was temporarily done, too, while I adjusted to this new orientation. I needed a rest.

So there in Heather’s apartment, after years of avoidance, I pushed through to the other side of those fears and screams and wails and torments that hurled themselves at me like shrieking banshees. I wrestled with them hard, looked them straight in the face, and told them they were stupid. I was stronger, and I was doing it. They left.  As soon as I was on the other side of that battle, the decision made, my soul filled with indescribable peace. I had beat the monsters and listened to my heart. Despite not feeling ready, I knew I needed to sing for this man, no matter my history.

We found and re-booked my return flight for under $200 for the next Monday, Nov 10. I would have 6 more days in Italy, 4 more in Firenze. I called back the opera conductor and made an appointment for Friday at noon. Dave and Heather kindly offered their spare room and meals to help defray costs, and I headed back to Rome to get my stuff and spend a couple more days, which turned out to be quite delightful.

Florence x3

Thursday evening I arrived back in Florence after a 5-hour “local” train ride up, settled in, and went to bed.

I sang for Maestro the next day. Heather and I took a bus out to his gorgeous villa in the outskirts of Florence. Oh what a glorious setting! The trees were just starting to turn, the countryside ablaze in various shades of autumnal splendor. He received us with warmth into his home, we spoke for a moment, and he asked me to sing. I had hoped to sing “Sfere fermate” for him, but realized I hadn’t uploaded it to my iPad. He didn’t have the score himself, so I sang “Piangero la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare by Handel as back-up. I was a bit nervous, understandably, but he was so gracious. I wasn’t in top vocal form, and I knew it. But still, it was a pleasure, a delight and joy, to sing with him at the harpsichord. A true master at his craft. And one so very kind. Afterwards, he pointed out several areas for improvement and encouraged me to continue to pursue my singing. I filled him in a little on my round-about journey with opera, we took a ramble ’round his backyard, he gave me a CD sample of his work and a few more recommendations, and we were on our way.

 

Post-Audition relief!

Post-Audition relief!

Heather

Heather

View from Maestro's back yard - beginnings of Autumn

View from Maestro’s back yard – beginnings of Autumn

 

Maestro passed away a couple months ago. It wasn’t until his passing that I could see this experience for what it was really meant to be – not a stepping stone to a potential European singing career and a valuable contact for when I was ready – but a beautiful, precious gift. A gift to sing at the side of so great a master. A gift of facing my fears and overcoming them. A gift of encouragement and confirmation from a loving Heavenly Father (through Maestro), that it is not for me to give up, it is for me to move forward in faith, rise up like a phoenix, dust off the ashes, and SING AGAIN.

Now, nearly a year later, after spending several months close to family, weathering more personal and family storms, making significant  breakthroughs, and going back to NYC to confirm my life chapter there was indeed finished, I have relocated to the Salt Lake City area and I’m starting over. I’m working with a supportive, nurturing voice teacher, who generously shares her heart and expertise and is genuinely and completely on my side. She’s a safe place and my voice is opening up again. I’ve accepted that my career path will be different than that of many of my peers, but it is MY path, and I’m walking into it step by step.

My heart is opening up again. I’m growing. I’m changing. I’m not the same woman who left for Europe. Yes, I’m scared to date, to get hurt again, but I am tremblingly, shyly open.  I’m singing with the Utah Opera. I’m teaching again, and it brings me such joy. I’m setting up my room to be a supportive little womb for my creative self – a haven, a place where I can shut myself off from the world and create, with my precious keepsakes, books and scores, essential oils, candles, and pictures of places and people I treasure.  I take walks in my woodsy neighborhood and revel in the beautiful mountains close-by.  I appreciate the peace of this new life so very much.

I am grateful for that pinch this week. The pinch that made me ugly-cry my way home, hollering and complaining and praying and wrestling. I simply allowed myself to feel and experience ALL that came up. Tidal waves of emotional life no longer scare me – I’ve learned how to surf them, how to use them as a launching place for growth. They always bring greater awareness. As the storm settled, a heart-thought percolated up into my consciousness: “What if there doesn’t need to be shame or judgement anymore? What if I just need to tell my truth? And that it’s time to tell this story?”

Peace.

Peace always comes when my heart speaks its truth.

I’m following its guidance again today, and trusting in the One who guides my path.

~KJ

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Visiting My Girls in the UK

by kjensen22 on September 27, 2014

I happen to have several friends spread throughout the UK and I went to visit all of them!

We only got a day or two together in every instance, but we sure made them count.

Portia

Portia and I were mission companions in London years ago. I stopped by Portia’s place in Coppull for a couple nights on my way up to Edinburgh. Coppull is a charming little village just outside Chorley in Lancastershire, about hour or so away from Manchester. Portia lives in the local vicarage with her husband and seven children. Beautiful, intelligent, active little people. We spent a wild and crazy afternoon making balloon animals – it was the first time for all of us! Aren’t they wonderfully imaginative creations?

Balloon Creations!

Balloon Creations!

The last time I saw Portia was during quick overnight trip to Merthr Tydville in Wales ten years ago. This time, though, we finally were able to have a proper visit! We both have close family members with a very difficult condition. It is a rare and precious thing to find someone who can understand what those particular struggles are, and what it is to be so close to someone who deals with them. I found great comfort in being able to share that experience with Portia.

We visited the Preston Temple of our church in the evening – I had had the chance to tour this beautiful temple during its open house when I was a missionary – they bused missionaries in from all over England for the public tour of the new temple.  After spending a little time inside, a lovely lady from Glouster showed me around again! It was just as beautiful as I’d remembered. Portia and I grabbed some curry on our way back – oh yes, the curry. It was extraordinary. When you’re in England, you must needs try the curry.

Portia & I at the Temple, more balloon creations, and the vicarage

Portia & I at the Temple, more balloon creations, and the vicarage

Emily

Emily and I hadn’t seen each other in over 10 years  – we were roommates in college at Florida State University. It was just like old times, with the addition of her husband and four kids! Her husband works for the US Air Force and is based in England – they’ve been in the city Ely, close to Cambridge, for about two years now. We had a lovely dinner my first night, but I was so tired from the adventure in Edinburgh that I was in bed and passed out before 9PM. On a Friday night!

The next day I woke up to whispers in my room. I pretended to be asleep for a while just to see what would happen, and then I discovered this little person crouched at the foot of the bed whispering at me, “Wake up! Wake up!”

Behold, my little bedroom imp!

Bronwyn the Impish Girl!

Bronwyn the Impish Girl!

After I did a batch of laundry – these things are important, you know, even if terribly boring – Emily, Blythe, and I headed over to the market in Ely’s City Centre so I could go busking. I found a spot along one of the pedestrian streets, but traffic was kind of slow, so I tried my hand at balloon animals. Oh man, are those things popular with the kids. Afterwards we traipsed by the Cathedral and went back to Emily’s place.

Along the street where I went busking, the massive Ely Cathedral with the famous wooden octagon, and view from inside.

Along the street where I went busking, the massive Ely Cathedral with the famous wooden octagon, and view from inside.

It’s kind of cool, the bond Emily and I have – we were close as roommates, and we just kind of picked up right where we left off – with her kids and husband in the mix, of course. Her daughter Blythe commented that I felt like her Aunt. I would have to agree – there is a beautiful, easy familiarity there.

Emily, Bronwyn, me, and Blythe

Emily, Bronwyn, me, and Blythe

Sunday I spent mostly in Cambridge – the first city where I was stationed as a missionary. I recognized only a couple of people at church, but I was able to reconnect with them and find out where some of my old friends had gone.

At the LDS Cambridge Chapel, and Fiona, one of the few people I still recognized!

At the LDS Cambridge Chapel, and Fiona, one of the few people I still recognized!

Only one person I taught as a missionary in England joined our church, Joan Billingsly. Her health wasn’t good at the time, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that she passed away some time ago. Dear Joan. Here’s a picture of Joan on her baptism day, a few weeks after I’d been transferred down to London:

Zoe and Ruth with Joan, whom I taught on my mission.

Zoe and Ruth with Joan, whom Zoe & I taught on our mission.

After church, Emily dropped me off at Cambridge city centre so I could go busking. Yeah. I definitely procrastinated on that one. Every time I’ve gone to go busking, it takes me a while to build up the courage to start. And there have been a couple times I’ve folded! But I’m always glad when I jump in and do it anyway. I wanted to sing on the street along the colleges facing city centre, but the bells in a nearby church kept pealing. Turns out the new Archdeacon of Cambridge was to be collated in the same church at the top of the hour. Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? I had wanted to attend an Anglican service while in England, anyway. It was a lovely service. I worked at an Episcopal cathedral in Phoenix for a couple years and have always had a great love of the Anglican hymns and their uniquely English harmonic language. After the service they served cake – I had a gorgeous homemade piece of chocolate cake – which gave me the courage to go singing! I’m seeing a trend here with this “chocolate courage” . . .

I decided upon a spot in the shadow of the famous Kings College Chapel, and had a wonderful time. People said they could hear me from several hundred yards away – not bad! One of the ladies I’d sat next to in the service came by and dropped in some coins, with a huge smile on her face. Kids working at the shops across the street came to the door to listen. I just love seeing smiles on peoples’ faces, knowing they are enjoying what I am sharing. Knowing it’s doing them some good. A mature gentleman stayed through the entire session, and approached me afterwards. He accompanied me on a walk down “the Backs” – a pathway along the River Cam, past the older college campuses. Here are a few shots:

Buildings in Cambridge, centuries-old streets, Kings College, the Round Church, a fellow busker, and the gorgeous Cam

Buildings in Cambridge, centuries-old streets, Kings College, the Round Church, a fellow busker, and the gorgeous River Cam.

Later that evening, Emily and I sat down with my calendar and worked through the itinerary for the rest of my trip. It has felt a little daunting, the logistics of this whole journey, and I really appreciated her company and input.

The next day I said goodbye and hopped on a train to see Zoe, my second mission companion in Cambridge.

I'm in Wales!!!

I’m in Wales!!!

Zoe and her energetic posse met me at the train station in Swansea. We hit up a chicken joint for dinner and started to catch up. In this cheeky building:

The Salubrious Place!

The Salubrious Place!

I hadn’t seen Zoe in about a decade – she’s had two more kids, Robert and Lily – very sweet, fun, energetic youngsters. 10 years ago Zoe was running a convenience store in a tiny village in Wales, living above in a small apartment with her husband and little girl. Now she and her husband own a petrol (gas) station and shop, and live next door in a rather spacious home, complete with Jacuzzi tub (yes, I did get to enjoy it!) With a garden, and close to the beach. Nice work, Zoe and Robin!

Zoe and Robin's well-appointed petrol station

Zoe and Robin’s well-appointed petrol station

We had only one full day together – Zoe got help to cover her shifts at the station, and we took off for a whirlwind tour of famous sites in Pembrokeshire, South Wales.

First stop was St. David’s Cathedral, a very important site in British Christendom. A pilgrimage to St. David’s used to equal to one pilgrimage to Rome. St. David’s is surrounded by the smallest city in the UK. If a cathedral rests in the middle of a community, whatever the size, it is officially a city. Hence the tiny city of St. David’s. We took a quick tour of the 12th-Century cathedral – the ceiling was especially nicely painted, but we couldn’t take pictures of the inside. So, here are a few of the outside, along with ruins of the monastery St. David founded in the 6th Century, and surrounding area:

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Panorama inside the monastery ruins, pics of surrounding town and coastline, pics of St. David’s Cathedral.

Next stop was Pembroke Castle, the legendary birthplace of King Henry VII, where he spent a portion of his childhood. If you’ve seen The White Queen, a fantastic miniseries about the War of the Roses, you would be familiar with his story and this castle. It started out as a small wooden fort, gradually replaced by stone, presided over by a succession of Earls, and held out as an English stronghold in Wales for several centuries, only to fall to the ruthless Oliver Cromwell. Now it’s a public treasure and museum:

Inside the castle walls, the great Keep, conjoining tower, the chapel, inside the keep (center), Zoe on a map of Wales, the great Norman Hall, the massive underground grotto, and a pantomime of Henry VII's birth

Inside the castle walls, the great Keep, conjoining tower, the chapel, inside the keep (center), Zoe on a map of Wales, the great Norman Hall, the massive underground grotto, and a pantomime of Henry VII’s birth

We got back to Zoe’s and her kids wanted to hit the beach. And, well, so did I! I love beaches. Especially running on them. Whilst the lamb was in the oven, we headed over to Aberporth Beach, nestled in a delightful little cove. Lily insisted Zoe make her a “paddling pool” (aka “wading pool”), Robert ran off and joined a friend who was surfing with her grandfather. I took a run down the shoreline for a bit,

Loving the beach!

Loving the beach!

and then the four of us went hunting for shellfish among the rock pool. Cockles and Mussels! And tiny little fish. I couldn’t help singing the song inside my head the whole time.  It was perfect.

Lily and the cave, Zoe digging a "paddling" pool, cockles on the rocks, wacky seaweed, cockles & mussels, and Robert running along the beach.

Lily and the cave, Zoe digging a “paddling” pool, cockles on the rocks, wacky seaweed, cockles & mussels, and Robert running along the beach.

After the beach, we gathered for an incredible traditional English meal of roast lamb, mint gravy, mint jelly, root vegetables, Yorkshire puddings, and more. Robin and Zoe make a great team in business, as parents, as partners, as chefs. This meal was no exception. It was amazing, I tell you! I’m still thinking about it! Zoe’s older daughter, Emily, made a cake from scratch, a white-butter concoction that this chocolate lover would kill for, it was so good. Afterwards, the kids and I made balloon animals. Robin made me sing for my supper and play the ukulele, which I, of course, was happy to oblige him.

They sent me off the next day with a bag full of food and goodies from the store. I’m sad it was such a quick trip, but we sure did pack in a lot of good stuff, and some really happy memories.

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Girls just wanna have fun!

I made my last stop in the UK at Portsmouth/Southsea to visit my friend Naomi, whom I met at a business conference in 2010 just outside London. Naomi is a terrific marketer with a good head for business, and a huge heart. We spent the first evening catching up over dinner. The next day I took a run along the Portsmouth shoreline – a rather rocky beach – and spent the day working on the itinerary for the remainder of my trip. Naomi had to drag me out of the apartment at one point – I was literally going mad with logistics – so we could hit up a local Tesco’s for food my trip to Paris the next day. Unfortunately we didn’t get any pictures together, but Naomi’s footprint is most certainly in the welcome video now at the homepage of this website, which she filmed and edited. I can’t thank her enough for that generous gift, and for her generous, listening ear that night.

Portsmouth - the pier, the castle (more like a fort). seawall, and sunset.

Portsmouth – the pier, the castle (more like a fort). seawall, and sunset.

Zoe, Portia, and Emily are wonderful mothers, and they inspire me with their goodness, faith, love, and loyalty. Naomi is an example to me of great courage, faith and perseverance. I am blessed to know such women as these.

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My Love Affair with London

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