An unexpected step in a faith journey

So I went to a church conference for women last weekend.

For those of you who know me well, this is a fairly big deal for me. I have been out of a church environment for a long time, and am only just at the point of dipping a trepidatious little toe back in. I am at a point of having almost completely deconstructed my faith, only just starting to figure it out again in a way that makes sense to me. I have been, as Brene Brown says, in the wilderness, where I have been busy working out how I belonged to myself first, before I could take my place in a community of others.

So, yeah – when my beautiful Minister Ellie (also a dear and trusted friend) encouraged me to attend the Uniting Church Women’s Conference along with her, my initial reaction was – um, I don’t think so! But then I thought on it, and the idea kept nibbling at the edges of my mind, and I ended up saying I would go.

I had set the bar low. As long as no one cast any demons out of me or told me I had to submit to my husband, I’d be OK. (You may laugh – only I have had both these experiences at women’s conferences!) Ellie assured me neither of these things would happen (and I’m happy to report she was quite right).

And I can honestly say I really enjoyed it. I’m still processing my experience, but I thought I’d share some reflections.

I found like-minded people

I hung out with a group of women who discussed things like whether there was too much gendered language in the songs and prayers. I joined a group discussion on how faith can inform a non-fundamentalist view of sexuality. And another one on how complementarian theology intersects with domestic violence. I listened as First Nations women passionately talked about how reconciliation can never be divorced from justice. No topics or views were off limits. No one was rebuked for their opinion. No one felt like they had to control the discussion or the outcome. I felt like I could actually say what I thought. I felt like I could breathe.

I didn’t enjoy every single talk

Some of them I hung on every word, other speakers I didn’t connect with. And what was great about that experience was that it was completely OK to say that not every moment resonated, to vote with your feet, to leave a discussion or talk if it wasn’t for you, or you felt you weren’t contributing or learning.

Everyone’s voices were valued

In the official program, there was a thoughtful emphasis on hearing from a diversity of women, from all cultures, backgrounds and abilities, which I deeply appreciated. But then even in the small group discussions, there was a consciousness of ensuring we were thinking about issues from all perspectives. In one group, it was specifically called out that all of us currently participating in the discussion about a particular issue were white, heterosexual women, and how could we make space for the other voices that are often drowned out by our own.

What I appreciate about the Uniting Church is its commitment to unity in the midst of incredible diversity – from congregations which align themselves a more traditional, conservative theology, to the other end of the spectrum where the LGBTQI community are fully affirmed and embraced. It’s not an easy path, but I admire that these women are trying to walk it, and find strength and connection with each other in the midst of it all.

I’m glad I went, and I’m also looking forward to the next stage of this journey.

Love,

Em

 

A Tale of Two Cities… Edinburgh and Paris

A Tale of Two Cities… Edinburgh and Paris

Our final stop in the UK was the wonderful city of Edinburgh. We arrived right on the cusp of the Fringe Festival beginning, and the city was buzzing with bagpipes, markets and street performers. We just loved the vibe here, and wandering about the streets with the castle looming overhead was very atmospheric.

Edinburgh Castle

I love how compact this beautiful castle is. We really enjoyed discovering it and learning more about Scottish history, which is fascinating. I love how myth and history are so entwined in celtic history. Unfortunately the massive crowds meant we didn’t get a peek at the crown jewels or the stone of destiny – next time!

Edinburgh Castle, perched overlooking the city.
Edinburgh Castle, perched overlooking the city.

The World of Illusions and the Camera Obscura

This was one of those places we probably wouldn’t have bothered with if we didn’t have children, and we would have totally missed out. The camera obscura was developed in the 1800s, and would have been a marvel at the time (apparently when people saw it for the first time they ran from the room screaming in fear!). Similar to a periscope, the world of Edinburgh is captured and displayed on a wooden dish in a darkened room using mirrors and sunlight. It was fun and fascinating, and the rest of exhibits at the World of illusions are awesome too.

Bookworm after being decapitated in the World of Illusions.
Bookworm after being decapitated in the World of Illusions.
More illusion fun!
More illusion fun!

Royal Mile

The stretch of street is home to shops, cafes and street performers, and we spent a good half a day wandering through and enjoying all it had to offer. I also enjoyed seeing all the Clan memorabilia – and am proud to be taking home a Clan Mackay tartan scarf!

Little Miss enjoying one of the street performances on the Royal Mile.
Little Miss enjoying one of the street performances on the Royal Mile.

Princes Street Gardens

These were beautiful gardens, and a great place to chill out after walking around the city all day. There are also contain some interesting things to visit, including the huge monument to author Sir Walter Scott. The boys climbed to the top, but Little Miss and I stayed firmly on the ground and admired it from below.

Apparently this is the biggest monument to an author in the world!
Apparently this is the biggest monument to an author in the world!

 

 

And then… Paris!

Edinburgh was a wonderful way to farewell our time in the UK. And then it was onto Paris! After a rather stressful trip carting all our luggage on the train and then a mix-up with our accommodation which saw us sitting in the street for two hours with our bags, we finally settled ourselves in St Germain, which was a great place to stay, right in the heart of Paris. Two things quickly became apparent – you need about a month to see Paris properly, and we had only a few days. So we decided to go broad instead of deep, and enjoy just a taste of this amazing place. Secondly – if I thought London was expensive, Paris is heart-stoppingly so. You can find little croissanteries and the occasional supermarket, but a burger at a restaurant will set you back about $23 so be prepared to dig deep or forget about your health for a few days while everyone just eats loads of croissants. Another thing I found really interesting was how much French I could remember and speak after studying the language at school, which was  20 years ago! The kids thought I was amazing.

Hop on Hop off Bus

This really is the ONLY way to see Paris, and the absolute best way to get around, particularly as the sites are quite spread out. We got the two day ticket and absolutely got our money’s worth. Just gazing at this beautiful city from the bus is a highlight in itself.

The best way to see Paris!
The best way to see Paris!
Everything is just stunning.
Everything is just stunning.

With our tickets we also purchased the night tour. This starts at 10pm, so it was a late one for the kids, but totally worth it.

The Eiffel Tower at night!
The Eiffel Tower at night!

Eiffel Tower

We also saw this engineering and artistic marvel during the day, but we didn’t go up to the top because the queues were ridiculous. We enjoyed our visit though, and made it to the second level.

The obligatory shot by Picasso!
The obligatory shot by Picasso!

Jardin du Luxembourg

After the beautifully green and well-kept gardens of England, we were a little fussy when we got to France! The gardens were lovely, but not in the way English gardens are. We had fun though as you can hire little boats and sail them at the fountain.

Sailing the boats at Luxembourg.
Sailing the boats at Luxembourg.

Montmarte

Riding through the red light district past Moulin Rouge certainly prompted some interesting comments from the kids! Montmarte was crazily crowded but fun, and THE spot to buy souvenirs. We also checked out the Sacre Couer which was beautiful and provided an amazing view over Paris.

The Moulin Rouge! Note - if your kids can read, they'll find this street quite surprising!
The Moulin Rouge! Note – if your kids can read, they’ll find this street quite surprising!

Disneyland

Soul Sister had given me this advice about Disneyland Paris: take a deep breath, ignore the prices and the commercialism and rampant sexism and just go with it. That was my mantra for our day at Disney 😉 We only had the one day and just did Disneyland Park, which Bookworm was a little disappointed with as the Walt Disney Studio park has some big thrill rides. I was totally over it by 2pm but the kids had a ball.

IMG_5939

The Grand Parade! I actually loved this and will admit I teared up at how magical it all was.
The Grand Parade! I actually loved this and will admit I teared up at how magical it all was.
They loved it!
They loved it!

And that was the end of our trip to Paris! This was one place I’ll definitely ve visiting again – and perhaps without kids next time so I can really indulge in the museums 🙂

The road to Inverness and finding Nessie…

After Skye, we travelled to Inverness and on the way stopped by to marvel at the beautiful Eilean Donan castle:

I think this is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland - with good reason!
I think this is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland – with good reason!

Then it was off to Inverness! Unfortunately, we only spent two nights here and used up a whole day doing really mundane things like buying the kids underwear and socks. So I feel as though I didn’t really see the best Inverness has to offer, although we did walk around the town a little:

IMG_4902

 

And of course we tried to find Nessie!

Loch Ness.
Loch Ness.
Found her!

 

And of course there was more gorgeous scenery to explore!

IMG_4810

 

 

As well as towns with awesome names:

IMG_4920

Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Killiecrankie?

I was disappointed I didn’t get to Culloden, but you have to leave something for next time, right? 🙂

Beautiful Bath!

As Catherine Morland proclaims in Northanger Abbey, “Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath?”

Indeed Jane Austen was right in this, as she was in so many things.  We just loved Bath. It’s not quaint like Chichester and Arundel are, but it is elegant and graceful and brimful of fascinating history. The wonderful thing about Bath is that it is such a compact town. Everything is within walking distance, and it’s very easy to get around. A word from the wise; if you take a car, as we did, it’s not worth the extra money to stay right in town. We ended up having to pay a fortune in parking, and the only overnight car park was a 20-minute walk from where we stayed (at the YMCA in the centre of town, which was overpriced in my humble opinion). It would have been more cost effective to stay outside town, and drive in and park for the day. Anyway here were our highlights:

The Jane Austen Centre

Words cannot express how happy I was to visit the Jane Austen centre! To be surrounded by fellow lovers of Jane! It was wonderful to have such an entertaining glimpse into her life, the years she spent in Bath, and how her view of the town evolved through her works, most notably her first novel, Northanger Abbey, and her last, Persuasion. I also peeked into the Pump Rooms, where it was very easy to imagine Catherine taking a “turn about the room”.

The model of Jane Austen, my hero!
The model of Jane Austen, my hero!

The Roman Baths

I’ll be honest, sadly the kids weren’t overly enamoured with the Jane Austen Centre! However ALL of us LOVED the Roman Baths! I had been concerned the kids would get bored, but of course they cater so well for children, with special audio guides and activity packs, and my kids are always very happy when there’s a gifts shop insight! The Roman history of the baths was absolutely fascinating, and its brought to life so well in the museum attached to the Baths. We all thoroughly enjoyed leaning about Roman life, seeing the Great Baths and even sipping the water, which was a little disgusting to be honest 🙂

The Great Baths.
The Great Baths.
The Goddess of the Baths, Sulis Minerva.
The Goddess of the Baths, Sulis Minerva.

 

 

 

 

The Parade Gardens

These beautiful gardens overlook the River Avon and Pulteney Bridge, and are very pretty. They were a great spot to unwind for a few hours, and let the kids have a play. There are deck chairs available as well, and like everywhere else in England, lovely tea rooms serving cream tea. It does cost to enter, but it’s well worth a stop.

The beautiful floral displays at the Parade Gardens.
The beautiful floral displays at the Parade Gardens.

Bath is also very well-known for its glassworks, and Souljourneyboy took Picasso and Bookworm to a glass blowing demonstration, which they really enjoyed.

I can’t wait to go back to Bath one day, and spend a little more time exploring this beautiful town.

The amazing architecture.
The amazing architecture.
And great food! Picasso enjoying a traditional meat pie.
And great food! Picasso enjoying a traditional meat pie.

Chichester and Arundel

Okay, it’s official. I am in love with Chichester. It’s exactly what I pictured England to be – picturesque green hills, beautiful gardens, quaint cottages and towns and a castle within driving distance. We have been very blessed by family friends and are staying in a beautiful home while the occupants are on holidays, and the kids have loved it. Here are some pix:

Every home needs a side gate like this!
Every home needs a side gate like this!
I desperately want to live in a home where vines grow around my kitchen window!
One of the many beautiful views in the rolling green hills of Chichester.
The view from the backyard.

Arundel Castle

Arundel is a gorgeous town in Chichester with an amazing Norman Castle which is nearly 1000 years old. We spent the day here and loved it. The castle is the seat of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, and they actually live in part of the castle, while the rest of it is open to the public. It is spectacular, and has been maintained beautifully. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos inside, but let me tell you the library is to die for 🙂 Here are some pictures of the outside of the castle, and the gardens.

This is the view as you approach Arundel Castle. It is just amazing!
This is the view as you approach Arundel Castle. It is just amazing!
The part of the castle currently lived in by the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk.
The part of the castle currently lived in by the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk.
The view from the top of the medieval keep.
The view from the top of the medieval keep.
The gorgeous gardens!
The gorgeous gardens!
More gorgeous gardens...
More gorgeous gardens…
And more gorgeous gardens!
And more gorgeous gardens!

Arundel Castle is a must see, and I would have liked to have had more time to explore Arundel town as well. I hope you make it here one day and enjoy it as much as we did!

Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros Studio

So Potter fever has been pretty rife in our house for the past six months. I’d been recommending the books to Picasso for some time, but he took a look at the first few pages and wasn’t really interested. The dense language and slower pace of the first few chapters makes Harry a bit harder for kids who aren’t voracious readers to become immersed in. So in January I read the first chapter to both Picasso and Little Miss, and they were hooked – particularly Picasso. We barely saw him as he proceeded to read all seven books and watch all eight movies in quick succession! And Little Miss is not far behind, as she is now reading book four. With all children firmly Harry Potter fans (and their parents too), a trip to the Warner Bros studios about an hour outside of London was not to be missed.

I had originally planned just to go ourselves (you can get there by public transport and but tickets at the gate) but unfortunately left it too late, and all the tour companies had bought up the tickets on the day we wanted to go. The benefit of going yourself is that you’re not pressed for time – with the tour bus we had about three and a half hours to wander about the studio – and I’d read reviews that said you need longer. Probably an extra half an hour or so would have been nice, but I felt as though we saw and did everything we wanted to. Anyway, we LOVED this tour. This was one of the absolute highlights of our time in London, and I think our trips anywhere. It was amazing and magical and so much fun. Here’s what we loved:

The Great Hall and the studio rooms

When the first films were made, J.K Rowling had not finished writing the series. So that meant the producers (and probably Rowling herself) did now know which props and sets would need to be used again in the later films. Consequently, everything was kept – thousands of props and costumes and sets which on any other film set would have been destroyed – and it’s all set up in a giant room at the studio. It just feels so amazing to walk through it all and see the incredible detail, and the countless hours of work that goes into a film like this. Here are some pictures:

The wonderfully impressive Great Hall.
The wonderfully impressive Great Hall.
One of the stone animals in the Great Hall.
One of the stone animals in the Great Hall.

 

IMG_2393
Me standing in Dumbledore’s study. The detail was incredible.
No corners were cut making the sets - every painting you see was created by an oil painter, taking months of work.
No corners were cut making the sets – every painting you see was created by an oil painter, taking months of work.
IMG_2398
Snape’s potions class.

The Studio Backlot, Cafe and Outdoor Sets

This is where you can make your way through Platform 9 and three quarters, jump aboard Hogwarts, buy Butterbeer and see Privet Drive – just amazing!

Abbie-Rose at the Platform with Hedwig and Cruikshanks.
Abbie-Rose at the Platform with Hedwig and Cruikshanks.
IMG_2443
You can climb aboard the Hogwarts Express and see the cabins made up as sets.
Hagrid's motorcycle!
Hagrid’s motorcycle!
All aboard the Knight Bus!
All aboard the Knight Bus!
Butterbeer anyone? It was delicious - an ridiculously expensive!
Butterbeer anyone? It was delicious – an ridiculously expensive!

Behind the Scenes Peek

One of the most interesting parts of the tour was seeing how all the special and visual effects for the magic and the magical creatures worked, as well as getting a glimpse into how sets are put together – from concept drawings, to models, to the final product.

The first cardboard model of Hogwarts which was used to plan film shots.
The first cardboard model of Hogwarts which was used to plan film shots.

 

Various masks for the characters.
Various masks for the characters.
The finished product of one of the creatures!
The finished product of one of the creatures!

Diagon Alley

The Diagon Alley set was truly magical. Walking down the cobbled street you could really imagine being a witch or wizard!

IMG_2483
Truly amazing!

 

Olivander's wands!
Olivander’s wands!

The 24:1 Hogwart’s model

While many location shots were filmed at Alnwick Castle, a 24:1 model was built for wide sweeping shots of Hogwarts. This model was my favourite part of the tour. It was just beautiful.

Picasso standing in front of the model gives an idea of the scale.
Picasso standing in front of the model gives an idea of the scale.
The other side of the model.
The other side of the model.

The Gift Shop

And of course, last not not least, there is the Gift Shop! We spent an hour in here and went a bit crazy 🙂

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you simply can’t miss this tour! And if you’re not – become one! It really was one of the best days we’ve had.

London with kids

So our UK and France holiday has begun – and what better place to begin than London?

I thought I’d share my thoughts on seeing London with a troupe of kids in tow. The way our itinerary worked out, we only had two and a half days for London sightseeing, and while thankfully the long days (it doesn’t get dark here in summer until 10pm) meant we could really squeeze a lot in, if I was planning the trip again I would have allowed longer. The “underground” here is amazing and you can get around fast, but hopping onto the tube and zipping around from sight to sight is draining for kids. Anyway here’s what we did and loved!

The London Pass

These passes weren’t cheap, but we were really glad we bought them. With entry to heaps of sights included, plus the Hop On Hop Off Bus and River Thames Cruise, it was worth it. And the kids were super excited it meant 10 per cent off in the gift shops and cafes 🙂

The Hop on Hop Off Bus

Definitely a winner. A great way to see London, and while it’s a little slow due to London traffic it means you get rest weary legs, and get great pictures.

IMG_2180

Tower of London (including the Crown Jewels)

I think this was our favourite stop, and honestly you could spend an entire day here. We saw the medieval palace and the Crown Jewels, which the kids loved. I would have loved to have seen the Bloody Tower but you just have to miss some things!

IMG_2062

Thames River Cruise

This was included in the London Pass and was a real treat. The young English tour guide gave funny and lively descriptions as we passes various sights and under bridges, and it was lovely seeing Westminster for the first time from the Thames.

Westminster, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey

Little Miss was so excited to see Big Ben and it did not disappoint! It’s much larger than you realise from pictures. And the Abbey was incredible, although by that time (it was one of the last stops) she was pretty tired. We had afternoon tea at the Abbey and it was delicious.

IMG_2167

The Science Museum

The kids loved it, even though I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d been on my own. It was interesting, but I would have preferred the Victoria and Albert Museum. When you are travelling with kids that’s just the way it is!

Buckingham Palace

We missed the Changing of the Guard but the kids really enjoyed seeing the palace. It doesn’t really take very long either.

Harrods

One simply must go to Harrods in London! What an incredible place. Of course I could only afford some tea, cards and a half-price carry bag but it’s absolutely amazing. You have to see the cafe, dining hall and patisserie, even if you don’t buy anything.

Hyde Park

We were so lucky to have had perfect weather, and Hyde Park really is the jewel in London’s crown. The gardens are stunning, and the squirrels are delightful. A great place to stop and rest and eat an ice cream.

 

IMG_1913

Poundland

Kids being kids, they were just as excited to find Poundland (where everything is, as you guessed, one pound) as they were about seeing Buckingham Palace. I had pooh-poohed Poundland, and then had to eat humble pie. You can get snacks, bottled water, sundries and other items  – all for one pound! It was exciting.

All up, we absolutely loved London. A note of caution – apart from Poundland, it is expensive to eat, so budget accordingly. Also the coffee is not very good and you have to pay for public toilets! And I’d allow a few more days if possible (we lost a day to the Harry Potter Tour, which I’ll write about separately). But make sure you go! It is such a wonderful city, and even the normal houses and buildings are so interesting and beautiful to see.