Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

I stand firmly by the belief that a cliche tour of Italy — Rome – Florence – Venice — is a very worthy endeavor indeed. My gut, however, forces me to look for something a little different even within a predictable schedule. After a nearly lifelong tradition of the exceptional tour I cannot help but revel in unusual delights.

This is not to say that we uncovered some unknown gem nor came upon an unvisited secret corner of these mightily visited cities. But here and there we found unpredicted delights, sometimes in the most predictable locations.

In Rome it began at the Vatican Museum. Accidently on line for the opening hour (since I had the times wrong) we entered with the first few hundred guests. But as they — and they consisted mostly of locust-swarming group tours — made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel, we headed to the picture gallery. And there we stood before three massive Raphael masterpieces, with our backs to tapestries he designed, entirely alone. Several hours later we were body-to-body (and body-to-lunch!) with the hoards standing beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling, but for that brief moment, we had the masters to ourselves.

Still in Rome, on a certainly well-known and yet oddly unpracticed trip out of town, we took the train to Ostia Antica. There lies an entire forgotten city of ancient Rome. Blue Guide in hand, we worked our way through tall grass into and out of rooms and courtyards, we charted our way by frescoes, old wine bars that took little imagination to reanimate and lively mosaics that patterned the floors of baths and gyms and living rooms. Our reliance on what I think of as alternative tour books — the Blue Guide and a Wallpaper* City Guide — endowed us with informative as well as fun insight. After all, we may not have gone searching down the Cardo Maximus for the “striking” mosaic at the doorway to a 4th century home.

Rome even managed to surprise us when we took only a few steps off the well-trodden tourist lanes. With take-away pizza from a well-known spot on the tourist-saturated Palazzo Navona, a little ways away we found a slighty dingy square with several benches, a dramatically arguing couple and this lovely fellow watching us all from his window perch. Now, with calendars at every souvenir shop touting “Cats of Rome,” this is nothing extraordinary, but enjoying a postcard moment without a postcard shop in sight proved pleasant enough.


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Degree of Happiness

Although the Internet’s selection of easily accessible research on the matter tells me otherwise, I do believe that a mere few degrees of temperature increase that bridge a crucial point between cool and perfectly comfortable can make a human being happier. It can certainly make this human being happier.

Spring has arrived and with it those scattered days of perfect warmth and sunshine that we will soon enough take for granted without the grim cold of late winter still on our minds. Although March will prove to be like a lion — or perhaps a crocodile that clamps down and violently swings its weather prey — before a lamb, these blossoms of delight will get me through.

As the seasons change, new creatures come out, including a plethora of migrating birds attracted to the gentle streams and reedy ponds that surround our home. On a recent walk we discovered a bright yellow twitch of energy flitting from branch to branch  above the bubbling current of the Molenbeek. My husband recited a mental list of identifiable attributes and upon arriving home we paged through our Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe in order to label our grey wagtail.

Jogging around the abbey ponds a few days later, my ear caught an unusual call. Looking up, the commotion came from an eye-catching bird that I initially mistook for a duck . (I had to pause to consider whether I had ever seen a duck in a tree.) I stared as it barked — at me or another irritant — and coasted from tree to tree. I stared hard at it, attempting to recreate that checklist my husband had rattled off. And I ran on.

But the Peterson Field Guide failed me this time. Or, as my husband began to inquire about the specifics of what I had seen, I realized I had a long way to go before becoming a birder.

"Know your field marks. Good birders know the key parts of a bird's anatomy."

What were its feet like?
Um, ones that could hold onto a branch.

What color was the beak?

What was the call?

About all I could recall was a swath of dark but iridescent blue across its wing span as it stretched to fly, a very rough estimate of its size and a general browness to the majority of its body. Evidently, this was not very helpful.

We have not yet seen the strange bird again. A few attempts have been made to guess at its identity — Little Bittern? And in the meantime, I’ll work on my field marks as the spring brings more feathered guests our way.

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A Country View

A small frame of country beauty just minutes from our home delivered here to your computer screen for vicarious enjoyment.

This was taken at the property of the Hof Ten Dormaal brewery. The family-run business includes farming the ingredients that go into the beer, as well as nurturing a few native farm species — including a few of the mighty and massive Belgian draft horses shown here, along with sheep, cows, chickens and five of the most alluring herding dogs I have ever met. Throw in the authentic Belgian-made iron coal stove in the cozy brick tasting room crowded with copper brewing tanks, and the Jannsens are lucky I find the courtesy to leave at the end of our pleasant Saturday afternoon visits.

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Clay Class

I am in a clay class where I am attempting to make a chicken-shaped soft-boiled egg serving bowl. No, it is not just you, that probably does not make sense to anyone else, either. But provided its head and tail do not fall off and its body remains uncracked during the kiln-firing process, perhaps I will invite you for breakfast one morning and you can see what I mean.

The class is run by a local artisan, Christiane Zeghers. Her own work is polished and beautiful and her latest creations take advantage of a technique she developed using a spectrum of rainbow colors. But far from pressured by such perfection, at each weekly session in her vintage atelier, the atmosphere is calm and easy. There are those making masterpieces and then there is me and my chicken. But everyone enjoys the experience, and my Flemish is even improving as I listen to the chatter during the (Belgian mandatory) coffee/tea break.

Belgian pottery comes with quite  pedigree, you might be surprised to discover. Sure the Dutch are known for the Delft blue tiles and the Italians for the talent that was imported to create them, but back in the middle ages, the English could not get enough of the mugs and pitchers from what today is Belgium.

Amongst its pottery of note, during the 15th century salt-glazed stoneware was renown in the potting town of Raeren, which had been producing pottery for at least two hundred years before. The famous blue-gray “Westerwald” jugs with their pitted surfaces — today much duplicated for eager tourists, such as myself — originated here.

Will my chicken live up to such historic proportions? Probably not. But I will still be able to say I was trained in the historic art of Belgian ceramics.

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I am awaiting with the most surprising sense of anticipation for the next ten minutes to fall.

Lambing Live
Episode 2: Pregnant sheep get ultrasounds, and Adam looks at the history of sheep farming.

It started last night and runs each evening for the rest of the week. Lambing season has begun, you see, and the BBC’s latest offering combining reality television with educational and historical content delivers life on a Welsh farm. As someone with a predilection for livestock wherever I might find them, I suppose my rapt attention is not surprising. But there is something very appealing about knowing that there is at least some segment of British television viewers who feel likewise. Or at least that is what the producers must be hoping.

In all honesty, I prefer the straight-forward documentary sections to the presenter-pushed “live” segments, but the whole thing is just fabulous in its detail, general honesty and humor. I wondered, for example, whether U.S. broadcasters could show the same cheeky montage of ram testicles.

I must be off now. It is an hour hoping for a live birth on television — at least that is what the producer is pushing.

But I leave you with a few sheep facts from the BBC Lambing Live press release:

There are 32 million sheep and lambs living on 74,300 sheep farms in the UK. Every year 16.1 million lambs are born to 14.9 million ewes.

In 2008 the UK produced 326,000 tonnes of sheep meat (mutton and lamb), 269,000 tonnes of which was lamb meat. The UK is the largest sheep meat producer in the EU, supplying 34 per cent of all sheep meat produced there.

In 2008 more sheep meat was consumed here than in any other country in the EU: 385,000 tonnes of mutton and lamb, of which 283,000 tonnes was lamb meat. This equates to every person in the UK eating 5.9 kg of sheep meat in a year.
In 2009, the UK lamb industry was worth £625m to the economy.

The UK is the fifth largest producer of sheep meat and sheep wool in the world. China is No. 1, followed by Australia, New Zealand and Iran.

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Dog Show

The Westminster Kennel club has announced the acceptance of three new breeds in its upcoming Manhattan show. The introduced pups hail from Ireland, France and Norway, and have distinctions ranging from a mythical presence on viking boats to heroic efforts during war.

The announcement came on the same day we were doing a little lady-sitting for Mademoiselle Louise. She herself originates from British stock, but as a Belgian citizen today I am sure she would take no offense to the introduction of some of her countrymen in this Belgian dog primer. In fact, if I am not mistaken, on a walk that day she was quite taken indeed by a rather aloof specimen of her countrymen.

Belgian Sheepdog

WKC recognizes seven Belgian breeds, which are known for a variety (and distinct range) of useful and noble qualities noted by the WKC such as:

“Work Ethic”
— Belgian Malinois

“WWI battlefield message carriers, ambulance dogs and [machine gun-pullers]”
— Belgian Sheep Dog

“sense of humor”
— Belgian Tervuren

Belgian Tervuren

“. . . ideal for their traditional jobs of herding, pulling milk carts, and police work.”

— Bouvier de Flanders

“Crossings curtailed his ratting ability, but created the Griffon’s crowning glory – his magnificent head piece with almost human expression.”
— Brussels Griffen

“excels in conformation”
— Papillon

Bouvier de Flanders

Pedigree from the 17th century and adaptability to just about anywhere: ” canal barges, herding livestock, hunting game, or simply guarding his domain.”

— Schipperke

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A Snowy Day in Bruges

We stepped off the train on our latest trip to Bruges into a surprise snow flurry — a great whirling whiteness that made the enchanting city even more magical.

“I know I’m awake but it feels like I’m in a dream . . . It’s a fairytale town,” as two blokes were known to say.

Take a look at the video from our day in Bruges.

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