High Sierra Backpacking

My husband and I used to backpack before the kids were born. Since they came around, however, we’ve only gone car camping. During our London trip this summer we realized that our youngest can walk up to ten miles a day. We therefore decided that the time was finally ripe to attempt our first-ever all-family backpacking trip.

A couple of weekends ago we packed our sleeping bags, tents and bear canister. After about a decade of absence, we headed to Yosemite National Park. We originally intended to try a four-mile trail. Since permits for that ran out, however, we had to change our plans and commit to a six-mile hike.

Six miles don’t sound like a lot, but walking around London is quite different than walking up and down mountains. Especially walking with a heavy load on your back. So we gave the boy a symbolic pack (containing a Platypus full of water and a snack), and hoped for the best.

We all thought our youngest will be the weak link in the group. Shockingly, about a hundred steps into the trail, I was stunned to realize that it was I who could barely walk. My heart was threatening to explode, my legs were crumbling, and the backpack felt like a crushing load. My husband came to the rescue, relieving me of half the burden. This helped, somewhat. But I still found it difficult to move even on a relatively flat surface.

For the rest of the day I trailed behind my family. I kept my eyes fixed firmly to the ground, concentrating on the next step. At every break I collapsed to the dirt, enduring pitiful looks from my children. I dragged my feet for the duration of the hike, overridden with guilt and self loathing. Three years of twice-or-thrice-weekly gym visits were obviously useless. Tracking about London seems to have done me no good, either.

When we finally arrived at our destination I let the others put the tents up and cook. I myself crawled into a tent and lay motionless for quite some time, determined to never, EVER, do this again. Yet, when I got called for dinner I had to reluctantly admit that the view was quite stunning. MAYBE backpacking had its advantages after all. This is what sunset looked like from our campsite, courtesy of my husband:

Sunset on the High Sierra

After dinner the headache that accompanied me all day got worse, and only then did I suddenly remembered: I ALWAYS have trouble at high elevation! I haven’t been to Yosemite in over a decade, and forgot the nasty tricks that altitude can play on one’s body…

The next day everything seemed better. My headache was gone and I was able to look about and enjoy the glorious beauty around me. The magnificent, panoramic views:

Sunrise on the High Sierra

View on our High Sierra trip

View on the High Sierra

As well as the beauty of the little things, once you take notice and look up close.

The patterns that cracks etch on the earth:

High Sierra rock art

The varied, strong textures of rocks, bark and roots:

Rocks make for an interesting texture

Tree trunk up close

Beautiful roots in the Sierras

And the beautiful, colorful paintings of nature:

High Sierra wood texture

A burned tree trunk

High Sierra rock texture

Walking back, even on the long, uphill parts, wasn’t a problem. I was able to enjoy the fresh air, the wind on my face, the feeling of warm sun on my skin. As I feasted my eyes on nature I was deeply grateful for the amazing gift of National Parks, a true treasure currently celebrating one hundred years of existence. I relished the occasional conversation with passing-by, seasonal hikers, some many years my seniors. Most of all, I was relieved to realize that I wasn’t that out-of-shape after all.

Overall I enjoyed the experience, and was proud of my children, especially the youngest of the three, for bearing on without complaints. And yes, I will consider trying this again next year. I will need to remember to drive up a day early, though. My body will need to get used to the elevation.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

We arrived in London a couple of weeks before the official opening night of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new play by Jack Thorne. Previews of the show started opening to the public only a few weeks before. This original story, written in collaboration with J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany, is the eighth installment of the Harry Potter series. It takes place nineteen years after the events described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It is the only story in the series written particularly for a stage.

As Potter fans, my daughters heard a lot about this play long before we decided to go to London. They followed news articles that discussed it. They knew all about the main-character castings and controversy. Like all their friends, they were very curious about the story line. Of course, once they knew we will actually be in London they begged to go watch it. When we looked into it, however, we discovered that tickets, even for the pre-opening rehearsal stage, were sold out months in advance.

As it happened, the place we stayed at turned out to be only a couple of blocks away from the Palace Theater, where the Potter play was showing. And so, as we toured the city, we passed by it almost every day. Sometimes we walked by more than once. And every day our girls asked to go.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, London

We found out that there were two far-fetched ways to get tickets to this popular show. The first was through the Friday Forty. This was an online lottery that took place every Friday at 1:00 pm. It involved releasing forty tickets for the following week. The second was by going to the ticket office and waiting in line to see if any tickets become available for that evening’s show, through returns or cancellations.

Well, we didn’t win the lottery despite spending our first Friday afternoon glued to a screen. When my husband and daughters suggested going to the theater to stand in line the following week, I really thought they were crazy. I told them that there was no way they would get tickets. After all, who in their right mind would give up tickets to this show? I said it would be a waste of a precious day. We could, I argued, continue touring the riches of London instead. And I suggested that they should be content with visiting the Studios, and shouldn’t be greedy.

I absolutely refused to stand in line for hours, in vain, on the cold, dreary street. But they insisted, and were willing to wait all day long if needed. So my son and I left them standing in line. The two of us went back to our apartment, expecting to pass the entire afternoon pursuing quiet activities.

To my utter surprise they texted an hour later. Not only were they able to get tickets, but they were able to get them for the entire family. And not only did they get five tickets, but four of them were for the best seats in the house, at the center of one of the very front rows. The fifth was further out, but still on the first floor. WHAT?!?!?!?!


Thrilled after getting Harry Potter Play tickets!

The girls were in heaven! That afternoon our apartment was filled with wild cries of happiness and ecstatic dances. This was followed by earnest preparations, as we all attired our nicest travel clothes and got ready for theater. (Alas, we each had only one pair of well-worn sneakers).

Dancing with Harry Potter Play tickets!

We arrived at the theater more than an hour early. Still, we found a LONG line of people already snaking around the building, filling the entire block:

Lines to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, London

The palace Theater opened as an opera house in 1891, and hosted an array of famous musical since. A gilded, majestic building, it was an appropriate setting for the Potter play:

The Palace Theater, London

The play comes in two parts, on two consecutive nights. Since the script was not yet released when we watched it, we all got pins after the first part ended, asking us to “Keep the Secrets.”

Keep the Secret!

We have never been to a two-part play before, and we absolutely loved it! After the first night our seats already felt like home. We all thought we could easily get used to this and just keep coming, night after night.

Now the script is already published and is available for all to read. Therefore, I will not write about the story itself. Personally, the story didn’t impress me. I thought it didn’t have a lot of new content. But the play was absolutely AMAZING! The acting was superb even in that rehearsal performance, the character casting didn’t bother me at the least, and the special effects were really awesome! Favorite spells like Polyjuice transformations and even flying looked wonderfully convincing. The magic felt very real, even up close.

My daughters ranked this experience as the second highlight of our trip.I ranked it pretty high on my list, too. So, if you plan to head over to London any time soon, I would strongly recommend not reading the script and seeing the play instead. It’s worth it!

The Making of Harry Potter: Visiting Warner Bros. Studios in Watford

We could not complete our Harry Potter London trip without a visit to The Making of Harry Potter, the self-guided tour at the Warner Bros. Studios in Watford. We booked the tickets for this tour several months in advance, immediately after booking the flight. For my kids, this was hands down one of the two highlights of our summer trip.

We spent an entire day at the Studios. There, we oohed and aahed over sets, props, costumes and everything else associated with the making of the movies. Indeed, there was much to admire! The level of creativity, imagination, talent and professionalism involved was truly mind-blowing. J.K. Rowling created a magical world through words (and became vastly famous for it). Translating this world into genuine-looking places and objects, however, required immensely hard work by hundreds of equally-talented (yet mostly anonymous) people. Meticulous attention to detail was evident everywhere, from the building of large sets to the design of the smallest prop. Everything was exceptionally well done, and convincingly real-looking, even from up close.

The first part of the tour took us through some of the filming sets, both big and small. This, for example, is the tiny set of Harry’s room under the staircase. It looked as if Harry was about to return at any moment:

And here is the Great Hall of Hogwarts, which looked and FELT like a magical, medieval, solid-stone structure:

Only to be revealed as a thin plaster facade from the back:

The homes, dormitories and classrooms that appear in the movies looked amazingly realistic and lived-in. This, for example, is Snape’s Potions classroom:

One of my favorite sets was Diagon Alley, which was built for the first movie and then used for all eight. It was exactly the kind of authentic-feeling, old-world street I try (and often fail) to find in my travels, the kind of place I fantasize about. I would have loved to visit some of the stores on this alley (and linger for a long while at a magical fabrics store, had there only been one!):

Even props that were used only once were made to perfection. Here is an appetizing dessert table, looking convincingly chocolaty, but obviously made of something else:

And some of Prof. Umbridge’s outfits, sewn from deliciously-textured PINK fabrics:

The Black Family Tapestry was a true work of art, surpassing real medieval tapestries I’ve seen in museums. We were told that this was originally supposed to appear on one wall only, but that once the graphic designers were done with it the directors decided to dedicate an entire room to this masterpiece:

The Black Family tree

The tour went through a restaurant, where we tasted butterbeer, and through a courtyard that hosted the magical sleeper bus and Hagrid’s motorcycle, among other things. For the second part it took us behind the scenes, offering a glimpse into the thousands of hours put in by the army of super-talented people who made the movies what they are. There were painters who imagined what each character looked like:

Dobby the house elf

Sculptors and others artists made the masks for all the special characters. Here, for example, are goblin masks:

Goblin masks

Technicians and robotics experts who made costumes come to life:

There were architects who designed the sets:

And people who built the models:

Each and every professional and artist involved, no matter their field, earned my utter respect.

The tour ended in the gift shop, where artists of a different kind performed a different kind of magic:

We left the Studios with full hearts, full bags and empty wallets.

Everything Harry Potter

The reason we ended up in London this summer was my daughters’ passion for anything Harry Potter. Over the years the two of them read and re-read the books many times, and watched all the movies repeatedly. For several years on Halloween they dressed up as characters from the series. When young, they dressed up as “good” characters such as Hermione. Later, as they entered their teens, they preferred to dress up as more wicked, goth-looking Death Eaters.

A few years ago they forced us to visit Disney World, where we spent a couple of LONG days pacing up and down Diagon Alley. The girls coerced us into standing FIVE TIMES in the exceedingly long lines leading to Olivander’s Wand Shop. They hoped that a wand will choose them, as it did all young wizards. Little scientists as they were, they soon realized that the wands seemed to have a pattern: they always picked kids from a specific part of the store, one time a boy, the next a girl. And so, on the fifth attempt, my girls managed to squeeze right into that golden spot. Lo and behold, viola! — a wand picked one of them! A rather expensive one at that, as we later learned at the checkout counter…

This year, after much begging, the kids finally got their way. When summer came, we all made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of Pottermanina. Fresh off the plane, exhausted from a long flight and completely jet lagged, we had to hike all the way to King’s Cross Station to look for Platform 9 3/4. Those of us who were concerned it’ll be hard to spot soon realized there was nothing to worry about. There it was, right next to the Potter gift shop, at the end of a super-long line of giddy tourists. There were actually two or three 9 ¾ platforms, one next to the other. Each had it’s own line and half a shopping cart (the other half supposedly disappearing into the wall), flashed again and again by professional and amateur photographers alike.

Platform 9 3/4

The next day we went to Leadenhall Market, the filming location for Hogs Head:

Leadenhall Market

Then we crossed Millennium Bridge. This is the bridge the Death Eaters destroyed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

Millennium Bridge

When we went to the London Zoo a few days later, our very first stop was naturally the reptile exhibition:

London Zoo

The Potter obsession even touched our only day-trip outside the city. Between visiting Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral we squeezed in a quick visit to Lacock Village. This picturesque, beautifully-preserved medieval hamlet was established in 1232. People have continuously lived in it ever since. Even now, the existing houses date from the 18th century or earlier. The the National Trust now owns the entire place. Lacock Village is a true gem of authenticity of the kind I find really exciting. Walking around town truly feels like going back in time:

Lacock Village

Not surprisingly, this beautiful village appeared in several movies. To my kids, however, only the Potter movies mattered. And of all the nice houses, only one was worth a thorough look. The building they cared about appeared in the Philosopher’s Stone, where it was featured as the outside of the Potter birth home at Godric’s Hollow:

Sadly, we couldn’t visit Lacock Abbey, another Potter shooting location. The abbey was closed when we arrived.

Of course a Potter trip could not be complete without a day at the Warner Bros. Studios. But that, I think, is worth its own post.

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Inspiration: London!

This summer my family and I traveled to London, where we spent two incredible weeks touring the city. We visited most of the major tourist destinations, as well as to some minor ones. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see all the museums, but we did go to many of them. We tasted food from around the world and had the obligatory tea at Harrods. In addition to sight seeing and eating, we also saw two amazing shows, and learned some history. Every now and then we rode double-decker buses as well as the Tube. Mostly, however, we walked anywhere we could, between seven to ten miles on an average day!

London was vibrant, lively and exciting. The days were very long (it was already bright at 4:00 am, and there was still some light at 10:00 pm). The weather, as expected, was mostly chilly and gray, spiced by the occasional drizzle or rain. Yet, the streets were always packed, even late at night. Food, music and ART pulsed throughout the city.

As a historian, I loved the layers of the past peeking from every corner. As an artists, I enjoyed seeing the great variety of London art, integrally woven into this great metropolis: old and new architecture, Gothic and modern sculpture, official public art next to street art, and, of course, the vast riches of art collected from all over the world and from different eras, displayed at the many museums that dot the city, free of charge for all to see.

Here is an example of how old and new architecture merge flawlessly to make the urban landscape:

London Roofs

And these are modern sculptures, segments from a series, looking very much in place at the Tower of London:

Monkey sculptures in the Tower of LondonMonkey sculptures in the Tower of London

This three-dimensional drawing stood at the financial district:

London Art

And in a side alley somewhere I spotted a waitress painting on a window:

London Window Decorations

The art displayed in the museums was a humbling testament to the great things humanity can achieve. I found it was quite exciting to stand in front of world-class creations, both ancient and modern, which I knew well from art history lessons. Here are but a couple of examples from the British Museum:

British Museum treasuresBritish Museum treasures

This art-infused environment was very invigorating. Creativity, it turns out, is catching.


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No Time to Sew: Garden Fun

Abundant rain in winter following four years of drought resulted in a truly magical spring here in California. Seeds that waited dormant in the soil for years sprang to life. Fresh flowers covered everything in purples, pinks and the bright orange of California poppies. In April and May my garden erupted with flowers. The effect was truly breathtaking:

My garden in full spring bloom

The magic of life was so strong, that I didn’t have the heart to pull out plants that grew where I didn’t want them to grow. Soon, wildflowers covered our path, grew into trees and smothered other plants. Yet, I simply let nature celebrate in all its glory.

For a few precious weeks I woke up to this beauty every morning. I drank my morning coffee looking out the window, taking a little pause before turning my attention to the rushed madness that marked the last few weeks of school. I watched bees of all kinds feasting drunkenly on all that bounty, hummingbirds drinking nectar, and squirrels eating most of the fruits off my trees (OK, I admit I didn’t like that part that much. Usually, I don’t mind sharing with wildlife, but why do they have to take only one bite and toss the rest???).

Then summer came, and we spent the first couple of weeks indoors, cleaning up. By the time we finally finished and I was ready to enjoy my garden, things looked a bit different:

Spring flowers dead in summer

Hence began another week of intense work, this time in the garden. I did lots of pruning, pulling, weeding, cutting, digging, and yes–some planting. It got hot. My arms got covered in scratches. Burrs got stuck to my clothes. Dirt got under my fingernails. Can you tell I enjoyed every moment?

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Why Cleaning Up is Good for Kids (And Why you Should Do It, Too!)

What We Did This Week

As I mentioned last week, the first big project my kids and I embarked on this summer was The Big Cleanup, by now an annual tradition. Over the last couple of weeks we all worked together. We went room to room, starting with the kids’ rooms, moving to the master bedroom, and ending with the common areas. Depending on the amount of work needed, we dedicated a day or two to each room. We took everything out of every closet, drawer, shelf or cubby. Every surface we cleaned with a soapy wet cloth, vacuumed every cranny, and sorted through every item.

We put together pieces of games that got scattered over the previous year. The kids sorted mixed-up crayons, markers or pencils and put them into separate boxes. We recycled lots of paper, and discarded expired food items and medicines. We put outgrown toys, books and clothes into separate piles, and gave them away. Some we passed on to friends with younger kids, others to beloved old preschools, yet others we donated to Goodwill. We tossed broken things. Overall, this year we gave away a car-load and a half of toys, games and books; two large trash bags and a huge card box full of clothes; and a large box with miscellaneous things. We cleared up a couple of cubbies, lots of closet space and some shelf space.

Here, for example, is what one of the drawers in the kids’ bathroom originally looked like:

Messy drawer

We took everything out:

poouring it all out

Then vacuumed the drawer and wiped it clean:


And then we put everything back in again, the way it’s supposed to be:

Summer cleaning

It will hopefully look like this for at least a couple of months or so…

Why I Think It’s Important

Now, no one really likes cleaning up, myself included. One could argue that making children organize their room over the summer vacation (instead of, say, sending them to camp or letting them play in the sand) is a malicious form of kid-torture. But I find this experience to be beneficial on many different levels. Here are some (but by no means all) of the benefits I see:

  1. Cleaning up teaches kids basic life skills that will be useful later on. Younger kids learn to sort, match (game parts, socks), vacuum, clean. Older kids learn to fix things, fold clothes properly, hang things in the closet, check food for expiration dates.

  2. Cleaning makes kids take responsibility for their own space, which in turn makes them more independent and proud of their achievements.

  3. It teaches kids that they are a part of the family, and therefore have a responsibility towards the family. My children use the entire house and therefore need to tidy common areas as well as their own room.

  4. Cleaning together encourages cooperation and teamwork. It also requires negotiation and conflict resolution, all important skills.

  5. Cleaning teaches compassion and social responsibility. We all had trouble parting with some things, be it a favorite stuffed animal or a beloved-yet-outgrown book. Saying goodbye to these items was hard. But we knew that by passing them on someone else would enjoy them, be it a person we care about or a stranger. Putting a toy in a pile directed to “kids who have no toys” made my kids feel good about parting with toys they no longer needed.

  6. Getting rid of things teaches kids that material items are not important, and that stuff is replaceable.

My children actually like the Big Cleanup. This year they wanted to start organizing the house even before the school year ended, and I had to convince them to take a couple of days off to relax first. When I asked what they like about it, my seven-year-old told me he always looks forward to finding lost toys or lost pieces of games. My twelve-year-old said that she likes the way a tidy room (and house) feels. My fourteen-year-old, it turns out, enjoys going over my clothes and seeing what she could pilfer.

It took a bit over two weeks, but our Big Cleanup of the year is finally over. To celebrate our accomplishment we went to the movies. “Finding Dory” was fun, as was eating a huge bucket of popcorn.

Cleanup reward

Material things are disposable. Shared experiences are forever!


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No Time to Sew: The Big Cleanup

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the end of the school year marks the end of my sewing season. It doesn’t mark the end of work, though. In fact, I find summer to be a great time to catch up on many otherwise-neglected projects.

My creative work process seems to require a mess. Despite my many efforts to rearrange and clean up my studio, I just can’t seem to keep my work space tidy. It takes hours (days!) to put everything away. However, when I start new projects, items just naturally find their way out all over again… Different-colored thread spools start accumulating near my machine. Fabrics in different stages of cutting and sewing sort themselves into different piles on the bed or carpet, each waiting for the next stage. Metal hardware boxes lie open, waiting to be incorporated into bags. And on it goes. Here, for example, is a recent photo of my sewing table:

The truth is, that in order to feel at peace, I actually need my surroundings to be reasonably tidy. By “my surroundings” I mean my house, an almost impossible goal with three kids as roommates.

Hence, a few years ago we started a new summer-vacation tradition: “The Big Cleanup.” The Big Cleanup is just what it sounds like. It’s a thorough cleaning/organizing/rearranging of every single room in the house.

This is how it works: after the last day of school the kids and I give ourselves a couple of days to unwind and relax. We make no plans and set no rules. Everyone has time to do whatever they want to do, be it stay in pajamas all day, read on the sofa uninterrupted, or disappear behind a screen.

Then we start working. We work every day for about two weeks. Every couple of hours we take breaks for snacks, meals and the occasional rest. We set reasonable daily goals, and bribe ourselves with fun things to do in the afternoons (if we finish everything on time). The actual work is long and tedious. We get cranky, we have difficulty parting with some things. We fight, we grumble. But when the day’s work is done everyone feels great (or at least I do). The room we just worked on looks nice. The drawers and cabinets are all clean and tidy. We feel like we really earned that relaxed stroll downtown, or that tasty ice cream, or the coffee-house visit with its drinks and cakes:

And when the Big Cleanup is all over we celebrate by doing something fun together. This makes us forget the ordeal we endured over the last couple of weeks.

(For more on kids and cleaning read this post).

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