Saturday, July 20, 2013

Man and Beast

An icon of power and authority, of stealth, of watchfulness, and even of Satan, the list is long for what the lion has symbolized over time.  

In Medieval times it was believed that lions never slept and so they came to represent watchfulness.  Biblical references speak of the lion as a symbol of resurrection both because of St. Mark's relationship to Christ and because it was believed that lion cubs were born dead and came to life three days after birth.  

In Venice, he is no mere lion, he is the Venetian Lion.  The symbol for St. Mark and for the city, the lion flies on the Venetian flag.  The traditional Venetian Lion is winged and rests one paw on a book.  Inscribed in Latin, the inscription translates to "peace be upon you, O Mark, my Evangelist" which are said to be the words spoken by an angel to St. Mark after being shipwrecked in the lagoon and coming to rest in Venice.  Some lions have a sword held in the other paw, a mark of fierceness added in times of war.

Outside of Venice, we saw countless coats of arms incorporating the lion.  It seemed as if almost every nobleman wanted the mighty lion on his crest.  Some chose lions to adorn their crypts as reminders after death of their power and importance.

Lions embellish important buildings, await you at the entrances to cathedrals, stare down upon you from high pedestals in public squares, and are common as door knockers. Sadly, we saw one poor lion reduced to being used as a drainpipe!  

Marble or stone, works of art or crudely fashioned, worn away by time and the elements, the mighty lion endures.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Rubbish We Say...Rubbish!

Are you ever dumbfounded by how something that should be so simple is made to be so incredibly complicated?  That's what garbage (or as we say here "rubbish") collection in Scotland is like.  Don't get us wrong, we recycle and think that everyone should, but this is so ridiculous that it could be material for Robin Williams.  (Unfortunately for you, our telling of this probably won't be that funny :).

Here's the rundown:

There are grey bins, green bins, blue bins, brown bins and red bins.  We have one of each. The grey lidded bins are collected weekly.  We're fairly clear on what goes in the grey bins as they are listed as "food" bins.  The collection calendar states that they are picked up weekly.  That's it...just "weekly."

The green "household" bins and brown bins are collected every two weeks, except in winter when the brown bins are collected only monthly.  They are collected on alternate Thursdays from each other, not on the same Thursday. The green bins are for "general" rubbish - we're really not sure what that means in light of what goes in the blue and red bins.  However, we're pretty clear on the brown bin and the garden waste. 

The blue bins are for glass and metal and all food tins and drink cans must be flattened first. However, "crisps or sweets packets" are not allowed.  Paper also goes into the blue bin, but not if it is an envelope or a food wrapper.  You are allowed to put textiles in the blue bin, but only if the sheets are cleaned first...oookaaaay.  Of course the textiles have to be placed in the orange textiles bag before they can be put in the blue bin.

Is your head spinning round and round a la Linda Blair yet?  Wait...there's more to come...

Now, the red bin is for cardboard, cereal boxes, greeting cards (can we put the envelopes here?) and plastic bottles (without lids, even if they are plastic).  But, if we like, we can also use the clear plastic bags for the bottles as long as we secure them so the bottles won't fall out - no mention is made as to if the clear plastic bag then goes into the red bin.  The red and blue bins are collected on alternate Mondays from each other, not the same Mondays on alternate weeks.  

The homeowner's advice to us?  Just see what the neighbors are putting out and follow their lead.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What Happens When Something Happens

When people find out that we are house sitters, they usually have at least a few questions for us.  One of the questions we hear most frequently is "what happens if something happens while you are house sitting?"  That "something" being serious - an accident or injury for us or an emergency at home.  Well, we've just had "something" happen, so it seems like a good time to do a post on that subject!

The day after arriving in Edinburgh to begin a month long house sit, Colleen slipped off of the curb and broke a bone in her foot.  We had just stepped out of our hotel to check bus schedules for our trip out to meet the homeowner and we hadn't even put our phone in our pocket!  Yes, it's a rookie we probably shouldn't admit to, but it's the truth.

Enjoying some of that rare Scottish sunshine.

So there we were standing in the rain, no phone, Colleen couldn't walk, and we were too far from the hotel for her to hop back.  Every cab that passed by was occupied.  It just wasn't shaping up to be a good situation.  Fortunately, a very kind and thoughtful woman came to our assistance. She called a cab for us and explained that there was only one hospital emergency room and that it was on the other side of town.  We were so very grateful for her help.  

The emergency room staff at the hospital were equally helpful.  It was a busy Saturday for them, but they worked us in and Colleen was  x-rayed, put in a cast, and on crutches within a couple of hours of our arrival.  Incredibly, the service was provided free to us.  We didn't pay for anything.  The hospital staff explained that for the first visit the same health care coverage that is provided for citizens is extended to visitors.  Coming from the US where health care is extraordinarily expensive, this was amazing to us. 

So how did this "something" impact our ability to house sit?  It didn't.  For the simple reason that there are two of us - an advantage that a single person house sitting doesn't have. While Colleen is recovering, Rick is able to take care of the house and so we're able to meet our responsibilities and fulfill our commitment.  Had Colleen been doing this on her own, she would have been in the very unfortunate situation of having to cancel on the homeowner.  

Our house sitting as a couple has also been an advantage in the past.  At one point, Rick injured his knee and was unable to walk well for several weeks.  Another time, sadly, there was a death in our family.  We decided that only one of us would fly home for the funeral and one of us would continue house sitting and caring for the owner's pet.  Of course we hope that these types of situations don't occur.  But they do and our saving grace has been that there are two of us.   

Sad to say, but we won't be seeing much of Scotland on this trip and our posts will likely reflect that.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Story of the Vasa

The Vasa

One of the most popular sites to visit in Stockholm, Sweden, is the Vasa Museum.  The museum was built to focus on just one particular piece of history.  To tell the story of a 17th century Swedish warship named the Vasa.  The interior of the building covers about 135,000 square feet of floor space with 81,000 of that devoted to exhibits.  This is amazing when you consider that it is all devoted to one ship and that it can't actually house the entire ship!  The masts, towering 172' from the keel, raise out of the museum's roof. 

1:10 scale model of the Vasa
The story of the Vasa is a sad one.  Built over two years (1626-1628), it was created with the intention of intimidating Sweden's enemies.  Its size, number of cannons, unique design and splendor were meant to impress.  Almost 200' in length, 172' high, with a narrow width of under 40', it was the first ship Sweden built with double rows of cannons allowing for 64 of them.  She could carry a crew of over 100 plus 300 soldiers.

On August 10, 1628, the day of Vasa's inaugural sail, the ship was loaded with crew, guests and soldiers. Her gun ports were open and the cannons were ready to fire celebratory salutes as she grandly sailed through the harbor.  Stockholm's citizens lined the streets and hills around the city eager to see the new ship set sail. Vasa made it less than one mile before a strong gust of wind heeled the ship over.  Vasa was able to partially right itself, but then another gust tipped her to the point that the open cannon ports took on water and the ship began to sink.  Within minutes she was lying at the bottom of the harbor in 95' of water.  A number of people drowned, most made it to shore.

What is so unique to this story is the ending.  After remaining underwater for 333 years, Vasa was salvaged in 1961.  It took 5 months to raise the 1500 ton hull and more than 40,000 objects were brought to the surface.  For the next 17 years the ship was continually sprayed with Polyethylene Glycol to prevent the wood from shrinking and cracking as it dried. Conservationists worked for 10 years to save the sails. The cold northern water had preserved the Vasa to such an extent that the reconstructed vessel is 98% original. 

Notice the person in the lower right corner.  This gives you some idea of the ships size.
Unfortunately, we couldn't stand far enough away to put the whole ship in one photo. 

During the time the Vasa was constructed, ship builders in Sweden did not
use drawing plans.  They were given an overall dimension for the ship and
used proportion and the "rule of thumb" to build the ship.
Vasa was top heavy - too narrow for her height - making her unstable.

Over a 1000 Oak trees were used to construct Vasa's hull.

The gun ports are adorned with fierce looking lions and soldiers ready to do battle.

Vasa's stern now...

and then.

Details of Vasa's wood carvings.

All of the dark woodwork is original.  The lighter color wood is new.

Vasa's conservation is an ongoing process but in all likelihood she will not last forever.  For more information on Vasa, her salvage, reconstruction and conservation visit the museum's website at   

Saturday, July 6, 2013

St. Petersburg - Peterhof & Cathedral of Spilled Blood

The Grand Cascade at Peterhof

It may seem like an odd pairing for a post, but Peterhof and the Cathedral of Spilled Blood have something striking in common.  They are both reconstructions on a monumental scale of buildings badly damaged in WWII and serve as a testament to the dedication of the Russian people to preserve their history.  Peterhof, constructed as the summer palace of Peter the Great in the early 18th century, was almost completely destroyed as you can see from these photos.

Hard to imagine it as the same structure you see today.

The "Versailles" of Russia is, in fact, still undergoing reconstruction and will be for many years to come.  Photographs aren't allowed inside the palace so we can't show you how spectacular it is, but consider this:  the walls are covered in elaborately hand embroidered silk and it takes one person one year to reconstruct one square meter.  Now you can better understand why reconstruction is still ongoing!

There were originally 20 smaller palaces and seven parks at Peterhof.

The Cathedral of Spilled Blood was never actually used as a cathedral.  Built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, it was constructed as a memorial by his son Alexander III.  Also badly damaged during the war, the cathedral was used during the Siege of Leningrad as a morgue.  After the war it was used to store vegetables.  Its use as a vegetable storehouse led to its being nicknamed the Savior of our Potatoes.  After 27 years of reconstruction, the Cathedral reopened as a museum in 1997.  

Roughly 23,000 square feet of mosaics cover the interior walls.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

St. Petersburg - The Hermitage Museum

Exterior view of front of Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
The Winter Palace, once the residence of Russian Tsars,
 is one of five palaces that make up the Hermitage Museum.

Created as a private court museum by Catherine the Great in 1764, the Hermitage Museum has grown to contain over three million objects.  The entire museum encompasses just under two million square feet and contains the largest collection of paintings in the world.

There are works by da Vinci and Rembrandt, there are Dutch and Flemish collections, Titians and Rubens.  There is a French Impressionist collection with works by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and Matisse, and the largest collection of Spanish art outside of Madrid's Prado Museum.

There are rooms devoted to ancient Greek pottery and Egyptian mummies, a gold room and an armory collection, galleries of sculpture. There is so much to see that it is impossible to take it all in.

Then, there is the Winter Palace itself, one of the five palaces that comprise the Hermitage, it is its own work of art.

The Winter Palace stairway creates an impressive entrance for the museum....

grandly gilded in gold...

with exquisite chandeliers hanging overhead.

Ceiling are dramatically frescoed...

and the floors are intricately designed parquet.

Staircases are elaborate but...

simple compared to the door and hardware design.

The galleries are spacious as many objects are quite large...

such as the armory collection with its taxidermy horses.

All of these wonderful treasures....

are conveniently labeled in English as well as Russian...

and watched over not by armed guards but by serious ladies who keep an eye
on rooms such as this one, filled with the masterpieces of Rembrandt.