Her Story- Cruising Alaska

Her Story- Cruising Alaska

There seem to be more bars on the ship than I can count. I sit here at the one by the pools. The poolside with the hot- baths. One large, one small. I face the touchy-feely couple in the small one: skin wrinkled with the heat of the water, faces an excited red with the icy winds blowing, and bodies extended and relaxed. It’s easy to see they don’t care for much else except how the skin feels soaked in the bubbling warm water. Their own. Each others.

I order a whiskey. The barman looks surprised. “Its not the weather for a whiskey, also not the time. Cruises are about fun drinks and striped towels at the pools.” Smiling, I look up at him, the large collection of liquor of every kind and at fellow-cruisers, comfortably ensconced in chairs that demand relaxation.

So many levels, so many levels of entertainment on each of them. The 9th Deck is the highest and also the coldest, but it’s the one with a celebratory mood. The music plays songs from the 80’s and 90’s and there’s a spontaneous breaking into song and dance.

Smokers have claimed their corner of the deck already, outside of the gusts that will blow the flickering cigarettes out. Do smokers have a hidden code that unites? Does smoking a cigarette amount to smoking a peace pipe? Those cigarettes definitely have special powers; they instantly create homogeneous groups out of total strangers.

Cruisers with pizzas, ice creams and hotdogs walk in and out across a pile of blankets that sit on a counter looking sure, as if to say- Not today perhaps, but you’ll be reaching out for us soon. I’m cold already.

I stretch my legs out, sitting on the silver barstool with whale-tail seats. My thigh-high brown boots are almost new, bought especially for these seven days.

The zipper on the left one has caught a bit of denim in it, right above the infinity tattoo on my thigh. I try pry it loose, but its still there, pretty much the story of my life.

The barman smiles as he throws up a flaming bottle in the air, catching it in time to pour out a golden spirit. He jokes constantly, but as I will discover later, he pays absolute attention to remembering what each guest likes. The service crew is almost all either Indonesian, Balinese or Filipino. Gentle, dedicated and hard working.

Everyone on the way down smiles at each other. A carefully tuxedo’d couple in their fifties hold hands and smile at each other and me, facing the mirrored wall. I think to myself: Mountains of food, drink and deserts of every imaginable variety seem to have softened humanity.

I hurry to three levels below mine and walk rapidly to the aft side of the ship. I’m lost! This is a maze of too big, too beautiful, too much.

Someone gives me directions. I find myself walking across a bar and a piano room, filled with people playing Trivia. Surprise! It would be fun to stop and play.

I bump into the tuxedo’d couple again. The woman is clinging to him, body language almost screaming Stay away, you women of the world. This man is mine!

I think I’m lost again.

This time I read the signs carefully- Aft, Forward, Center. I pass the ballroom where we’ll go for the Captain’s Dinner. I’m going only because I want to wear the saree I’ve carried with me.

And then, suddenly, I see the right numbers- Evens on one side, Odds on the other. There it is, the suite I’ve been searching for.

I knock on the door. It has a guilty tuktuk sound. A click and it is open, one step in, it clicks shut.

We just stand there voiceless- kissing, touching, hugging, clinging, barely making it to the bed. My heart is a desperate wail. This is all we’ve got. Seven days, that’s it. One day almost over. All that we have is six days of anonymity and each other.

This is all we’ve got. Two weeks from today I will be home, wearing the bridal lehnga my fiance’s sister chose for me, marrying a stranger my parents chose for me, living a life my culture chose for me.

Months of planning, and however much we both try to pretend otherwise, we both know this is all we have.

I step over the white sheets, across the toweled creature the housekeeping has created.

The Do Not Disturb sign blinks a bright neon green.

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Cruising Alaska- Of Hunger-pangs, Icy Blue Seas and Pools That Steam You Up.

Cruising Alaska- Of Hunger-pangs, Icy Blue Seas and Pools That Steam You Up.

How do you pack for Alaska when the weatherman predicts 50% chance of rain everyday that you will be there!

This is what I do: Keep the heavies- Rain/ wind/ snow shield. Keep the really heavy insulated boots- Rain/ snow. Keep the thermals- To eliminate at least two layers of clothes. Keep those three dresses and a pair of foot-murdering stilettos that go with all of them- For the Captains Dinner and fine-dining restaurants. Keep two bags. Both small-For the phone and key. That’s it! All cruises have deck-bags on request.

I follow the advice someone shares on YouTube: However tempting, do not carry along the rest of the hundred things you want to, because this is the least formally attired cruise you will sail on, among the big few.

Food? Munchies at least? Everyone laughs at me- “It’s a cruise. A luxe cruise. Cruises are about food.” I agree.

Immigration to go into the cruise ship starts at 12 noon the next day. We’re told it should take an hour or so, but as the day goes by, we see that’s incredibly off the mark.

We’re there at 11.30 am, to discover masses of humanity lined up in front of us. It’s surprising how many people have taken the trouble to do matching outfits.

Getting through the pre-boarding formalities a slow process. Interminable slow.

Exasperation is the expression that best describes the mood of the moment. Men, women, kids, babies. I look around and realize that every nationality under the sun shares the same expression when unexpectedly stonewalled. Some are more dignified than others, but equally share a certain common look when eyes meet. It says, “I feel you.” Or something equally “We’ll get through this, but this is not what we signed up for.”

Exasperation gives way to hunger, but there’s nothing to eat. Absolutely nothing. Folks with kids (and better sense) open packets of goodies they have carried along. I am reminded of someone who would constantly make jokes about the assortment of nuts, seeds, cheese, crackers that I never leave home without. As a believer of ‘the army cannot march on an empty stomach’, I would laugh it off. Replenishing the tuck box has been a daily ritual. Except today.

I try not to stare back at the sesame seed and avocado dip staring at me from the the chair across me. It belongs to a kid in a red panda suit, and this panda is holding it tight. I should be ashamed of myself!

A few hours pass before US immigration officers finally decide to let the party begin, and we are all aboard the beautiful Niew Amsterdam.

The party is already on.

Deck 9 is swarming with revelers. The bars are easily the 2nd most popular location right now, the first being the railings on decks at all levels, overlooking the calm sea and the beautiful Vancouver shoreline around the water.

We move just as I am starting on deserts. I would have missed it entirely (as usual) if it wasn’t for the loud cheer from all the balconies and decks, drowning what the captain says in welcome.

We all stand around and raise a (mostly Vodka lime and orange) toast to sunny weather and calm seas- The weather man has predicted rainy gray skies in our sailing week.

Honestly, I really don’t care right now. All I can see is the indoor heated pools, jacuzzis and hot tubs at every level, a gentle steam rising into the sky, more than enough to ward off the chill of bitterly cold Alaskan winds in the coming days.

If There Are Fields, Can Food Be Far Behind

If There Are Fields, Can Food Be Far Behind

The wait to the barbecue truck is endless. People with kids and prams and dogs and chairs and sheets and big appetites have been arriving at the drinking hole much before afternoon. By the time we get there, the line is a long friendly serpent. It barely inches forward. It’s a first for me, this mid-west barbecue fare. We taste each others selection of the locally brewed beer and ale- on- the- tap while waiting out our turn. I’m no expert at all, but I find them all flat, tasteless and watered-down.

There’s an easy comradeship among the waiting hungry masses. It’s evening and the cornfields are blazing for miles all across where we stand. Someone points out prairie grass to me. Ames High Prairie is one of the only areas in the state that tallgrass prairie remnants are found in the middle of a city.

By the time our turn comes, a lot of names from the menu have been struck off. Sold out. The steaks are too rare for my taste, but there’s more than ample choice. I don’t know it yet but D’s meat-loaf will make up for it.

We drive back home through corn and soy fields. Their endless expanse reminds me of the khet in Punjab and Haryana, before they began to turn into ugly concrete.

We leave for Field Day early morning. It’s raining and I wonder how the owners of the farm will take todays guests for the farm tour. In the meantime, we keep missing our turn at the tiny pretty town called Jewel and go around in circles the next twenty minutes. There’s no one to ask for directions because there’s no one to be seen in the town. Finally we hit the track that leads us there. It’s a beautiful drive, longer than it was supposed to be.

The Field Tour is led by a young couple who share their experiments and new farming techniques with the thirty of us visitors. Everyone except me is a farmer, or is deeply involved in farming, one way or the other.

It takes me some time to realize that the couple specialize in artisan Cheese Farming and that they do it from scratch- a complete science of its own- the quality of their cows, pastures, grass, soil, trees, etc. Both of them hold a Masters and a Doctorate in AgroScience. When I ask them why they chose this difficult path, giving up working for an organization, they tell me they are following their passion.

It comes up somewhere that this eighty acre farmland belongs to an uncle and they pay him a monthly rent. It doesn’t seem an easy life to me.

As our motley group troops after them listening to them sharing their experiments and answering questions from other farmers, we come to why the farm got its name: In the late 1800’s, settlers were allotted land to clear and own randomly, without them seeing it. One such family travelled hundreds of miles to find out that the land allotted to them is actually a lake. Since that was final and that’s all the had, they spent the next few years pumping all that the water out. Shells and remains of water creatures still come up around Lost Lake Fa massive pot-luck that follows a visit to the artisan Cheese Factory, I’m asked questions about Indian grains and Indian flat-breads. Everyone seems to have eaten one kind or another.

The radio show that follows a few days later where I’m invited to be a guest, Lonna, the host, asks me how my kitchen is different from D’s. I talk about many things, but forget to mention the biggest one- The scale of everything D cooks is XXXL. Tomato purees, peach purees and sauces, massive sandwiches, grilled peppers, beef meat loaf. . . Everything is in massive quantities.

The radio show is fun. People call in later to say they found it really interesting, my stories around Indian flat breads, masala chai, curd and other milk products engrossing and funny. A visitor in D’s kitchen that evening can recount exactly why I fold parathas in triangles instead of round pies. It seems I’ve been designated the Indian cuisine cultural ambassador in these parts of Iowa!

Indian friends who know that the kitchen isn’t my favorite room in the house call up post the show and tell me they cant get over that designation, and that they died laughing when they heard it, that the radio show hosts forgot the prefix to that- ‘Most Unlikely To Be’ I tell them I can’t get over it too, but I can live with it- some people have fame thrust upon them.

Of Historic Homes, Red Pianos and Pyramids in Iowa

Of Historic Homes, Red Pianos and Pyramids in Iowa

Gracious, warm, super-smart and very generous. My hostess is all that and more. Her home mirrors the same.

I’ve seen pictures of D’s 1800’s home, but they don’t do it justice. From the outside it looks like many of the other houses in the ‘Historic District’ of this small town in the Midwest, but only until there. D’s home is disarmingly charming, yet elegant. Everything is steeped in history. Everything is Country Chic. Everything is in muted/ sepia/ faded colors. Everything is casually thrown together, or seems like it is, like it’s not really been thought out, like that is just a natural sense of aesthetics, including the two Australian sheep dogs with one grey and one brown eye each .

Everything is in sharp contrast to the chaos of the last forty-eight hours of my life. Or more. Mumbai- London- Chicago- Iowa. Actually it had started a lot before- Never listen to airlines and travel agents who insist that a two hours gap between changing international flights is enough at O Hare. That is plain optimism and good luck, and as we did some very distressing bump and grind above the airport, our chances of making it to the connecting flight to Iowa required extra prayers: It’s a huge airport. Immigration procedures in a student month can be really long. The bags, even if through-checked, need to be claimed, carried, redeposited. You have to change the terminal.

I had fretted about this in the days leading to the date of departure. O Hare airport had been studied like I needed to pass an exam on its layout and procedures- so we would speed- up our chances to making that connection.

Of course we didn’t.

It was a day of lighting and thunderstorms over Chicago. Our connection was one among the scores that were cancelled that day.

What happened in Chicago is another story, but no, there were no free hotels or conciliatory freebies. Airlines will not do any of that if the cancelation is because of the weather. So there we were, stranded in the worst managed airport on a day of crisis . . . post traveling across two continents. Iowa would be another twenty-four hours away.

Who knew that driving under an expansive cotton-candy sky is all it would take to induce a forgetfulness of recent misadventures. Who would have thought that a red piano in a room flooded with sunlight is sometimes enough to feel a sense of joy that overtakes all else.

The last time I had lived in a home with a red piano was in a tiny village on the outskirts of Paris. As I settled down with my chai and English- French translation book, the very French Dr Pierre casually moved to the piano and broke into what turned out to be Kuch Na Kaho– a Bollywood song high on popularity charts in India- piano keys doing a delicate dance under his fingers. He knew no English, leave aside Hindi, and yet! It was an unforgettable welcome.

D’s welcome was perhaps less dramatic, but scored high on exactly what I needed. The pumpkin soup she had cooked from scratch was the kind you pay gourmet prices for- organic, smooth, creamy, wholesome and delicate in flavor. I didn’t know then that D had cooked for years for some of Hollywood’s royalty, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Sally Fields, Warren Beatty and his wife.

I also didn’t know then that I would be introduced to a life I barely knew- absolutely organic sans anything even remotely otherwise, not even a microwave – cooking from scratch in artisan cookware and antique contraptions, eating only with silver cutlery, buying produce from farmer markets and cooperatives and filling jars of homemade jams, sauces, cheese, purees and pickles.

And then I was led to the attic. It would be my abode under Iowa skies, my space where everything was built on a slant, where I would sleep in a cut in the wall, in a pyramid of sorts. It would be my cave where the sunlight split into patterns each morning, making books asleep since decades wake up and come alive.

As I crawled into it that night I wondered if this is what the Egyptians felt like if they were to wake up in the middle of being embalmed, just before being mummified.

I dreamt of the young King Tutankhanem and Egyptian treasure troves that night.

Dilli

Dilli

15241858_10155655020069368_5043262667157351825_n-1

Everything changes.
Including plans.
We were to do the ‘travel coordinator- planned’ tour of Old Delhi which looked like this:

*Old Delhi Rickshaw Tour – Customized
Glide through Old Delhi’s historically and culturally intriguing albeit labyrinthine lanes on our rickshaw tours. Hop on board our custom made rickshaws and ride into hustling, bustling bazaars chock- a- block with food stores. We will ensure that your experience is both memorable and unforgettable.
Location Covered: Main Street of Chandni Chowk, Dariba Kalan [The Silver Market], Kinari Bazaar [Wedding Market], Paranthe Wali Gali [Lane of stuffed breads] & Ballimaran, Khari Baoli [Spice Market], Jama Masjid.
Duration: 3 Hours
Inclusions: Storytelling, Refreshments, Rickshaw Ride.
Exclusions: Camera Charges at Jama Masjid (INR 300 per camera)*IMG_20161201_141722.jpg

My thoughts:
This is going to be wonderful.
These are lanes I’ve always wanted to visit.
They’re covering a lot in three hours.
The custom-made rickshaws sound perfect to take it all in.
(You get the drift…)

And then G, the planner of Dilli, brings this to my notice:
*Price of the tour: INR 3000 + taxes per person*

IMG_20161201_130818.jpgOur collective thoughts post those figures:
For just three hours!
We can hire a rickshaw ourselves to wherever we want. How custom-made can they be!
With one of us a Dilliwali, paying 3k hurts like an ATM line post Nov 8.
We can read up about the exact same places and make our own itinerary.
We want to eat ‘refreshments’ that we’re dying for, not from a set menu.IMG_20161201_132142.jpg
We would read up on the history before the tour, we wouldn’t miss the story-telling.
We could shop for that much.
(You get the drift…)IMG_20161201_130755.jpg

Electric rickshaws scored lower than the man-pulled smaller ones. These lanes are built for walking in two’s, anything more is a bonus. It’s so crowded that two rickshaws cannot pass at one time.
Not customized like the tour- planners advertised, but the smaller man-pulled rickshaws are an obvious choice.IMG_20161201_132425.jpg

15202749_10155655020509368_1342415100540145122_n.jpgMy 2016 reading list had three books that were set in and around what we refer to as Purani Dilli. That was the start of a love affair with a setting that I knew was there even today, more than three hundred years later.
Old Delhi.
The Delhi of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, who had a penchant for building palaces, forts, 547099_10151099697709368_149967591_ngardens and cities.
It took him just eleven years (1638- 1639) to have the walled city built.
The massive Red Fort, residence of Mughal Emperor’s for two hundred years, was a part of it.
As was Chandini Chowk. 15253634_10155655019799368_49695768520601153_n.jpg

Chandni Chowk, the Moonlight Square, was designed and established in 1650 by Princess Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter.
Among many discriptions, this: “Originally containing 1,560 shops, the bazaar was 40 yards wide by 1,520 yards long. The bazaar was shaped as a square was given elegance by the presence of a pool in the centre of the complex. The pool shimmered in the moonlight, a feature which was perhaps responsible for its name. Shops were originally built in a half-moon shaped pattern, now lost. The bazaar was famous for its silver merchants, which also have contributed to the name as silver is referred to as Chandi in Hindi, a slight variation of which forms Chandni.”15319095_10155655019519368_4515498139131159175_n-1

IMG_20161201_150630.jpgThe canal, elegance, the pool and wide roads are a thing of the past. Nothing of the above description exists. It is as if towns upon towns have moved into this confined space, so dense and diverse is the population of people, shops and wares. 15267654_10155655020474368_68223976546452715_n.jpg
We look at tiny shops upon shops selling pearls, gems and silver, bargain with sweet-tongued shopkeepers who tell us they only sell in bulk, linger at perfumed shops selling attar, gawk at the sheer variety of kinari and gota and lace and zari and all kinds of tinsel, barely pay attention to the huge shoe market, breathe in the heady mix of spices emanating from shop upon shop selling masalas of every conceivable kind, goIMG_20161201_142141.jpg past sacks laden with dry fruit, stop to sample golgappas with a secret recipe that went back eight generations, investigate Daulat Ki Chaat that isn’t really a chaat at all and drool over parathas, rabdi, kulfi and jalebis we end up eating. IMG_20161201_132102.jpg
Everything has a history that goes back a couple of hundred years.
15202554_10155655020349368_6427876910959210137_nEverything is about soaking in the abundance of sights and smells.

15337431_10155655019759368_7963643625880608556_nThere’s a fine dust that engulfs Chandini Chowk and around. It gives everything a sepia filter, making it look gentler and finer than it is.
And that makes it a bit magical.

It’s easy to get lost in the crisscross of lanes intersecting the larger ones, into what seems like a maze of tiny 15202702_10155655019564368_682554764520368290_n.jpg15327279_10155655019679368_8329624412755566816_nlanes leading into each other, by-lanes that lead to dead ends and haveli’s with doorways that transport us to history going back a few centuries. Cobalt- blue doors leading to winding steps that have stop-doors, Ochre walls that give in to dark corridors, Tamarind framed verandah’s that look into locked doors, white- framed doors leading to courtyard temples…
and locals who need no invitation to recount stories of the lives of the people who lived here.
All these stories have sad endings- the descendants of the original owners no longer live here.
img_20161201_142638Thanks to the narrow road, crazy traffic and a rickety rickshaw, reaching Ghalib ki Haveli in Ballimaran is an adventure in itself. 15319256_10155655020009368_1307198331497594959_n.jpg
It is worth the many times we almost fall off and bump our knees against various forms of transportation brushing past us.
It is a pilgrimage.img_20161201_143629

“Ghalib’s Mansion” was the residence of the 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib and is now a heritage site located in Gali Qasim Jan.

“Greenery is growing out of the doors and walls, ‘Ghalib’!
I am in wilderness and spring has arrived at my house.”

This and other handwritten couplets describe an era when the Mughal rule was in decline.

“Ghalib lived in this Haveli for a long period of his life after he came from Agra. While staying at this Haveli, he wrote his Urdu and Persian ‘diwans’.
Many years after Ghalib’s death the place housed shops inside it until the year of 1999 after which the govt. acquired a portion of it and renovated it bringing back its old world Mughal magnificence & splendour. It was given a special touch with the use of Mughal Lakhori bricks, sandstone & a wooden entrance gate to obtain that feeling of the 19th century period.

IMG_20161201_144905.jpgThat “feeling of the 19th century period” stays with us for a long time.
Perhaps it is because the Haveli gives us a peep into Mirza Ghalib’s life and times.The architecture is a reflection of the Mughal era- the central compound has columns and bricks from the original. His books, handwritten couplets and poems adorn the walls. Portraits of his contemporaries Momin, Zauk and Abu Zafar share space with a life size replica of Ghalib with a hookah in his hand.
It’s hard to leave, but the old watchman tells us he can’t stay on any longer.
525626_10151231459299368_964135443_n
img_20161201_165521The sunset across Masjid-i Jahān-Numā- World-reflecting Mosque, (more commonly known as Jama Masjid) is almost like the fading fortunes of the img_20161202_104725Mughal era in decline.
It was built by Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656 at a cost of one million rupees, and was inaugurated by an imam from Bukhara, present-day Uzbekistan. The mosque was completed in 1656 AD with three great gates, four towers and two 40 m high minarets constructed with red sandstone and white marble. The IMG_20161201_165308.jpgcourtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 people.
We sit in a corner overlooking the steps behind and look back at the day with a smile. From posing in front of doorways from another 15253590_10155655019514368_4823217764124480414_n (1).jpgcentury, hearing stories throughout the day, to eating more parathas than we thought we could, we had done it all. We laugh gleefully at the money we saved, joke about who saved whom from tumbling out of non- customized rickshaws, and share the silence that emanates from ties of the heart
It costs twenty rupees to climb the steep curving steps of of one of the minarets. Old Delhi lies sprawled before us- chaotic, spilling with humanity, noisy, grimy in places and displaying nothing of the descriptions from the books in my reading list.IMG_20161201_164533.jpg
For a heartbeat I feel a sense of loss. 282272_10151223398079368_1247248050_n
And then I chastise myself: The mighty sultanates ruled from Delhi between 1206 and 1526 and were replaced by the Mughal dynasty. The five mighty dynasties of Mamluk, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid, Lodi and the Suri dynasty had to give way to one after the other, and were replaced by the Mughals.
How foolish to even dare to believe that Old Delhi would have stayed mostly unchanged!
Everything has to give way.This reminder is a fitting close to the year.297578_10151102845809368_1683402439_n

City of Angels, With Snoggers Thrown In

IMG_20160624_114233_HDR_1466790974367Twelve minutes into the train from an absolutely empty station and we were there. Lichfield was there before we could say Brexit.
Ten days of incessant arguments and discussions of which I was a mere interested by-stander have just come to an end. Cameron made a dignified exit speech this morning that left many of us Indians wondering if our own politicians back home would ever evolve to a species that knew what that word *dignified* meant.IMG_20160624_121710_1466791194505_1466888831161

The Lichfield plan came up suddenly- An English friend who knows my love for local markets tells us at breakfast that Lichfield has a Friday Market. He also suggests we reach there and find out a gory but interesting fact about it’s past.
IMG_20160624_125430_1466791411673 I promise to treasure hunt and not google it down.

 This here is an unbeatable combine- Friday Market and Gory. Together, unmissable, even though no travel book or discussion had brought up Lichfield.
Until now.

IMG_20160624_125411_1466791391797No one gets off at Lichfield station except us. In fact, for the first five minutes off the train,  there seems to be no one there in that space at all.
We can see Cathedral Spires in the distance. It makes sense to follow the road leading to them. IMG_20160624_123931

There’s an olde-world feel to this pretty town. It’s quaintness and charm isn’t worked hard at, like that of Statord upon Avon. Perhaps being off the crazy tourist jamboree helps.

IMG_20160624_140643_1466784359592Expectedly, almost all buildings are built in red
brick Georgian style. Shops have interesting display windows and names. Antique shops in tiny corners rub shoulders with home made ice- cream parlors, barber shop with antique jewelry sellers.IMG_20160624_124021_1466791355252

IMG_20160624_140749_1466784325687The locals are welcoming and friendly, and have an accent that we know as English. Almost every fifth person has a pet dog walking them.
I could live here.

We wander about slowly through streets paved in a ladder-shaped design, not only because we’re a bit bemused by the city’s sweet charm, but also because that’s how everyone is- unhurried. It just becomes a natural rhythm.IMG_20160624_125656_1466791437389_1466888775239

IMG_20160624_121638_1466791139533Passing by the Garrick Theater, it’s not long before we come to what may be the Friday Market with it’s gory history I am hunting for.IMG_20160624_143852_1466784221342_1466791947733The Market Square is not as ‘vibrant’ as promised, but the setting is interesting- Samuel Johnson’s birthplace and museum is right on there and it is neighbors with shops with interesting fare and pubs that go back a long way in time.IMG_20160624_140845_1466784298733
IMG_20160624_143724_1466784252573I ask around but no one seems to know what my friend had referred to about the Market Square, except that this historic Market Square in Lichfield has been the home to the town’s markets since King Stephen granted the first Markets Charter in 1153.
“That’s it?”
“Yes. Would you like to try our cheese?”
I’m sure there is more. This does not sound gruesome enough.

IMG_20160624_131623_1466791575564I love cathedrals.
With over 1300 years of history, Lichfield Cathedral is the only medieval three-spired Cathedral in the UK.
Walking towards it through the small  street across the canal, it’s full  facade comes up suddenly- standing there in elegance, dignified and awe-inspiring.IMG_20160624_132027_1466791701443_1466888653310
It’s history and interiors involves Swords and Saxons and Saints. (Mostly Saint Chad, the patron saint who came here in about 634 AD)
IMG_20160624_133322And Angels.
All kinds: Mighty, Musical, Singing, Flying, Carved, Watching, Tiny . . . and an Archangel. In stone, wood, glass.

The history of it’s displays and the building itself  is IMG_20160624_135635_1466784422162absolutely immersing, more so because the two gentlemen volunteers in the IMG_20160624_133849Chapter House take  immeasurable pride in sharing it and ensure we see the Cathedral Treasures.*

Time passes quickly.

As we sit at the canal bank eating pies from a local bakery that goes back to 1893, we’re joined by a couple, visitors, like us. The man is reading out aloud  from what looks like hand- written notes.IMG_20160624_154926_1466784178496_1466791895022
I’m all ears. There’s bound to be something in there about the Market Square.
IMG_20160624_133232He reads out the town’s history to her in a gravelly voice, almost as if he is on stage.  Riveting. Both,the voice and the history.
It goes back beyond the middle ages:
“The early history of Lichfield is obscure. The first authentic record of Lichfield occurs in Bede’s history, where it is called Licidfelth and mentioned as the place where St Chad fixed the episcopal see of the Mercians in 669. The first Christian king of Mercia, Wulfhere, donated land at Lichfield for St Chad to build a monastery…”
And then he holds the book down and they kiss. Across a rucksack, waterbottle and a huge toy angel that lies between them.
Sweet.

We look straight ahead at the water.IMG_20160624_143928_1466784192105_1466791912040

IMG_20160624_133024_1466791733089He restarts the gravelly voice reading:
“The eighteenth century saw Lichfield become a center of great intellectual activity, being to home to many famous people including Samuel Johnson, David Garrik, Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward; this prompted Johnson’s remark that Lichfield was “a city of philosophers…”
And again! He stops reading. They kiss.
Sweet. Somewhat less, but sweet nevertheless.
I still haven’t lost hope. I’m sure the post- snog reading will include what the Market Square is infamous for.IMG_20160624_133102_1466791757484IMG_20160624_133831_1466791800606

This time he reads out details about the Cathedral’s history:
  Christmas Day 700 saw the consecration of the first cathedral in Lichfield, and, as there was a church (St Mary’s) here perhaps built in 659, and possibly others in between, Lichfield is among the earliest centers of Christian worship in the UK.  After the invasion of 1066 the Normans built a new cathedral (of which only few traces remain), and a century or so later that was rebuilt in the Gothic style, and completed by c. 1340.  Besieged three times in the Civil War it suffered drastic damage, more than any other of our Cathedrals…”
And then he stops.

Damn!
They Kiss. 

Not sweet anymore. Not even somewhat.
People should make up their mind- Snogging or History Aloud. The man uses snogging like a book-mark in a historical book.

IMG_20160624_131910_1466791624586I’m done with the waiting for Mr Gravelly Voice to reach the part about the gory history of the pretty Market Square. 
We pick up our picnic basket and start walking towards the Friary, in the footsteps of the city’s Franciscan Friars, an order of monks founded by St Francis of Assisi in 1209, who created a Friary in Lichfield in 1237, the remains of which can still be seen in a beautiful garden setting.

The rain comes down sudden and fast. We run back to IMG_20160624_164621_1466784107135the Market Square for tea before we make that short journey back home. I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to get to it’s infamous past.

The tea-room is like a picture from a hundred years ago, but doesn’t have enough tables for the crowd that the rain has brought in. We’re lucky to find one for ourselves.
Two sips into the tea, I hear a gravelly voice behind me, “Can we share your table please?”
Waiting that polite three minutes until they place a request for tea is one of the longest three minutes ever.
Will his notes have what I want?
IMG_20160624_140929_1466784265649 I decide not to give him any chance for wet snoggies until he reads out some gory details. “Would you perchance know why this pretty little Market Square has an infamous past?”
There! No chance of any interruptions.

After much throat-clearing, this is what he IMG_20160624_140929_1466784265649_1466889032941reads out aloud:
“Three people were burned at the stake for heresy under Mary I.
The last public burning at the stake in England took place in Lichfield, when Edward Wightman from Burton upon Trent was executed by burning in the Market Place on 11 April 1612 for his activities promoting himself as the divine Paraclete and Saviour of the world.”

As we say goodbye he throws out an invitation: Come here with me on the darkest April night. You can still hear Edward Wightman shrieking as the flames claim him.

That night I read what my Fortune Cookie says: Beware The Man With Golden Voice.

 

*The Treasures:
The Lichfield Angel is a remarkable survival of early medieval sculpture. The carved limestone panel, which is dated to around 800 A.D., comprises three separate fragments which are thought to have formed the corner of a shrine chest, possibly that of St Chad (d.672).

The St Chad Gospels (formally known as the Lichfield Gospels, and sometimes still known as the St Teilo Gospels), is an eighth century Gospel Book housed in the Cathedral’s Chapter House.
The famous Herkenrode Glass is considered to be one of Europe’s greatest artistic treasures, and was installed in Lichfield in 1803 when it was rescued from destruction during the Napoleonic Wars.
A part of The Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.