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Memories of C.S. Lewis

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Why is it that we remember the most tangential and hyper-specific scenes from our childhoods (personal examples: playing with the lace trim on my red and white polka dotted crib bedding; the yellow raincoat decal that I used to attach to my nursery school class’s ‘weather bear’ on rainy days)…yet we so often forget the name of an acquaintance that we discussed the election with last week? Or, even better, which drawer we placed our keys in 3 minutes ago?

Do you actually remember the design on your 4th birthday party cake, or have you just watched the home video 50 odd times?

What about your favourite childhood book? Do you recall what the cover looked like? Where the characters lived?

Last weekend, I was exploring the quaint, picturesque streets of Malvern, England—the town where C.S. Lewis (who happened to be favourite author as a child) went to school—when my knowledgeable guide asked me if I had enjoyed the recent film adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Having just listened to his engaging overview of the famous Lewisian haunts and Narnia landmarks scattered throughout this lovely countryside town, I wanted to discuss a range of parallel cinematic moments. But I quickly realised that, actually, I couldn’t. Yes, I had seen the film (in fact had rushed to the cinema like an excited child when it came out 3 years ago), but I could not even cite my favourite scene.

I realise now that my wires had gotten crossed. I could not answer because I could not differentiate between two visual memories—the first being the imagery that I had generated in my 8-year-old mind whilst reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and the second being the imagery that Disney had delivered to my local cinema, 14 years later.

To add to my moment of mental convolution, this was the second Brit lit expert, in the second quaint, historic English town that had made enthusiastic claims regarding Lewis’s sources of creative inspiration.

Hmm…

You see, I’d been told that Lewis devised his plots whilst wandering the streets of Oxford. But now, it seems to me that perhaps Malvern had an equal, if not greater, impact on his writings. For, apparently, the Narnia gas lamp is located in front of a Malvern College dormitory…

So, then, which is it? What town, which landmarks, and which people inspired C.S. Lewis to create the allegorical fantasyland that continues to engage children, adults, filmmakers and tourists today?

We can only speculate which memories and life experiences may have, consciously or subconsciously, inspired Lewis in his vivid creations. I will now trace some of the most famous landmarks that I have encountered, which have been linked to his writings….

Tracing the footsteps of C.S. Lewis…

1. The Malvern Hills.

This most picturesque area of Worcestershire, UK is the perfect daytrip destination from Birmingham, Oxford or London (1, 1.5 and 2.5 hours by train, respectively). It’s no wonder that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and co. embarked on frequent retreats to the Malvern Hills for years after Lewis completed his schooling at Malvern College 1916.

It has been said that the friends enjoyed leisurely walks through the hills to soak in the stunning panoramic scenery of the region, which has doubtlessly inspired artists for decades. (Apparently, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Wales!)

2. The Unicorn Inn, Malvern.

Lewis’s scenic treks typically ended at this charming, hillside pub, presumably with all of the activities that we would imagine—philosophical debates, pints of ale, visions of white, magical, single-horned creatures, etc.

Unicorn Pub Malvern

Sadly, when I visited, the plaque commemorating Lewis’s visits had been dismounted. Hopefully this was just a temporary move, and you will have better luck!

3. The Eagle and Child Pub, Oxford.

The informal, weekly meeting place of the ‘Inklings’ literary discussion group (comprised of Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams and several others), this popular watering hole is one of Oxford’s most famous landmarks.

Definitely worth stopping here for a pint to check out the framed ‘Inklings’ memorabilia…but often difficult to secure seats, especially for large parties. Though I suppose if you drop in on a for some Tuesday morning rounds, as the Inklings often did, you won’t have much of a problem.

4. Magdalen College, Oxford.

Last, but certainly not least…a place that I cannot stop writing about.

magdalen-cloisters_resized.jpg

The idyllic meadows, the lazy tributaries, the stunning architecture, the gorgeous spring foliage…all of the wonderful things that comprise this 550-year-old Oxford College make it feel like a fantasyland.

I can only imagine what Lewis, a former fellow of Magdalen, was dreaming up when he strolled around the college’s deer park…alongside the gondola-esque punts…through the weeping willows…perhaps pausing to gaze back at the colourful sunset framing the college’s majestic bell tower…

It’s no surprise that Lewis stayed at Magdalen for nearly 30 years!

The trail continues…

These are only a few, noteworthy places that I have personally experienced: the list of landmarks goes on, including sights in Belfast, Lewis’s place of birth, and Cambridge, where he served as a departmental chair until a few months before his death in 1963.

Your ideal Narnia adventure will, of course, depend on the way in which you imagine or remember Lewis’s stories. You’ll never see the world as he did, but you sure can try to match your memories of his work with an interesting travel experience.

In honour of my Malvern adventure, I (re)watched The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe last night. I now remember (or at least, I think I remember…) exactly what I was thinking when I watched it the first time: I must go to the place where these beautiful Narnia landscapes were filmed.

New Zealand, anyone?

A blog for another day…

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Oktoberfest 2008: Plan Ahead!

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One of the biggest mistakes that I made when I was living in Florence back in 2004 was not preparing myself—mentally and logistically—for the craziness that is Oktoberfest. I decided to travel to Munich, Germany for the beloved international beer-a-thon on a last minute whim…fun and exciting, I know. But also…stupid. Young people actually do end up sleeping in train stations, and hotel owners do actually check to make sure you haven’t crammed 14 people into your two double bed shanty…..

Don’t get me wrong—my weekend at Oktoberfest was one of the most amazingly fun weekends EVER. I highly recommend going if you have the energy and the funds!

If you are aching to prost the night away with a group college pals and local, lederhosen-clad brethren this year, then don’t put off organizing your excursion until the last minute. There are a few details that you must consider…now!

First of all, Oktoberfest doesn’t really happen in October: the festival runs for sixteen days up until, and including, the first Sunday in October (it starts on September 20th this year). Most of the “regulars” have their accommodation and traditional costumes sorted out months in advance (the costumes, I learned, are actually a big deal for German participants, serving as important markers of cultural status/pride), if not on the day that they left the festival the previous year.

The most resourceful students on my study abroad program had booked their flights/trains and hostels the previous July …i.e. NOW, if you are planning to travel to Munich this September/October. I made the mistake of waiting until September to plan my trip, and, by this time, there were virtually no flights left. The few available seats that remained were outrageously priced, so I ended up taking a long, expensive overnight train. Book your flights now!

By the time I looked into accommodation, there was not one single hostel bed free in the city. I definitely do not recommend the “figure it out when we get there” approach—over 6 million visitors will be sleeping in and around Munich when you visit. Fortunately, someone in our group was resourceful enough to find us a reasonably-priced hotel room (reasonably priced because we split it 9 ways! And – eek – almost got caught! I do not recommend this approach!) …just two weeks before our visit.

Once you are finally at the fest, another useful tip: instead of gulping down a breakfast beer, start the day with a shandy (a tasty mix of beer and lemon soda), rather than overflowing steins of potent booze. The locals have already caught onto this trick, and they will be the ones that start at 10am and are still table dancing at dusk. Mix it up! You have all morning, afternoon, night, followed by the next afternoon, morning, night… afternoon…

Lastly, after a few days of tabletop debauchery, I realized that there was so much to see in and around the beautiful city of Munich! I definitely recommend planning a few excursions and activities; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city on a bike tour, which was led by a lively guide and, of course, included pub stops!

Also, though it feels strange, and even ‘wrong’, to abandon the world’s largest drinking festival to visit serious and solemn historical landmarks, you must consider: what is the likelihood that you will ever be in Munich, or for that matter, Germany, again? I personally chose to spend a day exploring the history of the region and took a trip to nearby Dachau; my visit to the Memorial Camp was life-changing, and I definitely do not regret it.

Well, that’s all on Munich/Oktoberfest for now! Do post a message if you have any questions or insights, and I will get back to you as quickly as possible.

I do hope that you make the most of your German adventure by planning smartly and traveling safely…

Good luck, and have fun!

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Cool things for American Expats to do on 4th of July in London.

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“Yankee Doodle came to London, just to ride the ponies…”

You are that Yankee Doodle Boy! (or Girl!)

While I am not aware of any upcoming pony parades through Parliament, I can offer my fellow American expats some festive suggestions re: things to do on the upcoming day o’ independence…

What: The Great American Beer Festival
Where: White Horse Pub, 1 – 3 Parsons Green, London, SW6 4UL
When: July 4th-6th, 2008.

No, no, no—not just a bunch of bottles of Bud Light and Michelob Ultra (AKA ‘water’). Tons of specialty American microbreweries (with some British favourites mixed in) will be represented at the famous White Horse Pub on the weekend of the 4th. From Chicago’s ‘Goose Island’ Beer Company to Denver’s ‘Flying Dog’ Brewery, there will be tons of flavors to whet your palette as you soak in the youthful vibrancy (and, hopefully, sunshine!) of Parson’s Green. Get ready for, beers, BBQ, line dancing, live music, and more!

What: O2 Wireless Festival
Where: Hyde Park, London
When: July 3rd – 6th, 2008.

There’s something for every homesick Yankee at the 02 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park; this 4-day extravaganza features performances by Counting Crows, Jay-Z, Goo Goo Dolls and Beck…to name a few. With 5 stages and 100 + performances, this is the biggest London music festival of the year! Again, let’s hope for sunshine…

What: 4th of July Barbeque (Organized by the London Expat American Meetup Group)
Where: Mile End Park, Grove Road & Clinton Road, London, E3 4PE
When: July 5th, 2008 from 2: 30 pm.

If you are looking for something a bit more casual and relaxing, why not whip together Grandma’s best potato salad recipe, grab a case of beer, and join in on the patriotic, picknicking fun with some fellow Americans on Saturday afternoon?

But first, you must join the American Expat Meetup Group (just Google it)—a very useful forum, especially for London newbies!

(And yes, bring your kids, but leave your fireworks at home.)

Know of any other 4th of July events going on in London? Then post below!

HAPPY 4th!!!

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The Republic of Happiness.

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“We have the friendliest border police in the world,” the officer smiled as he handed me back my landing card, “you can start your story with that?”

I’m in love with Ireland. And I’m not just saying this because I still have traces of Guinness lurking in my synapses (folk ballads ringing in my ears, 40 shades of green flashing through my hazy subconscious…). I just met some of the warmest, most welcoming people on the planet. It was their personalities—their enthusiasm for life and for those around them—that defined my travel experience. My most vivid memories of the Emerald Isle will thus linger as a series of encounters with lively locals, namely the following…

1. Michael O’Leary

Not the famed, fiery chief executive of Ryanair—or his son, as insinuated by friends (unless Mike Sr. secretly spawned at age 10)—but nonetheless a most charismatic guru of Dublin nightlife.

Mr. O’Leary’s mantra—“those who have no fear are truly free” (repeated several times, over several pints)—will never be forgotten. Amen, brother. Amen…

“The way I see it, girls,” he grandly gestured toward the window of The Bailey, a trendy, laid back Dublin watering hole—a crossroads for pub-going lads and cocktail-sipping ladies (a good place for the former to take and (attempt to) impress the latter), “is that you have two choices—two potential paths, if you will.”

We sipped our glasses of chardonnay in anticipation.

“But you must first tell me,” he leaned forward: “What is it that you truly hope for?”

In life…or from the bartender? We just wanted to know which, uh, pub we should go to next?

“You see, you have choices.

choices?

“Yes, choices. You can either walk through that door, and turn left…”

He grabbed a pen from his pocket and quickly charted a hyper-detailed route to Café en Seine, a posh French café-turned-disco, on my damp napkin.

“Or, you can go…right.”

The difference being…?

“Well, if you choose left, you choose…suits.”

French cafes and suits? You’ve gotta be kidding. We want a banjo-picking, sham-rocking hoe down. This is Ireland for G’sake…

“But if you turn right…”

He carefully folded the napkin map into my friend’s palm.

“Well, that’s for you to discover.”

Two paths diverged in a green, drunken wood…

And we obviously chose right.

2. Mary O’Sullivan

Mary O’Sullivan was genuinely concerned with our well-being from the moment we stumbled into her Killarney Bicycle Shop—we appeared as two lost, giggling (hung over) tourists on an eager quest to “discover the Ring of Kerry” by bicycle…in four hours…right.

Mary saw how excited we were, though, and graciously offered us extra cycling time—she would come back to meet as after evening mass at 7.15pm on the dot (the shop closed at 6pm that night).

We had no idea where we were going, what to do with our bulky handbags or how to strap on our helmets. But Mary had us covered—she took care of everything. It took her 15 minutes to get us situated on our pink-trimmed town bikes, an amount of time in which, she informed us, “I can usually get 30 people out the door and on the road.” But she didn’t seem to mind mothering us—in fact, I think she really enjoyed it. She pointed out that she had good training for this type of thing, having raised 3 sons.

“Sorry, all married!” She responded…before I could even ask…while fastening my helmet (for the second time). Damn, she was good.

I should note that our cycling tour of Killarney National Park—a topic for another blog—was the unquestionable highlight of our trip to Ireland. Despite a *tiny* setback (we got lost and had to backtrack 15km to a vaguely familiar cow pasture, from which we miraculously navigated our ways back to the main road and into the city center), we had an amazing, scenic, and exhilarating journey through the enormous park and surrounds.

We even managed to make it back to Mary’s shop on time; actually, we were early. Mary informed us that our good fortune was a result of the prayer she said for us at mass.

Honestly, what would we have done without her? Mary O’Sullivan = our saviour.

3. Crazy Tom

Crazy Tom was the acoustic guitarist that stole our hearts with his country ballads and quirky cover selections at that little pub on College Street in downtown Killarney. I’ve spent the last 30 minutes doing crafty Google searches, trying to track down the name of the rustic little venue in which Tom’s musical magic transpired on the evening of May 25th, 2008. But I have failed miserably. Sorry kids—I just don’t remember where I was. But I remember the music…promise.

Fortunately, Killarney is the type of town where you could go door to door and say something like: “Do you know where I can find Tom, the crazy old, guitarist with the crazy hair? He’s incredibly talented and really nice to tourists? He sometimes plays Bob Marley…” And you would probably figure out a way to catch one of Tom’s gigs in less than an hour.

But if you can’t manage to track down Tom, fear not: the Killarney nightlife scene is live music. Just stroll through the city center on a weekend evening—you are bound to encounter tons of traditional/folk + country + rock cover bands in various little pubs and bars. I’ve never seen so many banjos in one weekend. Greatness.

We listened to Tom play for nearly three hours—he dedicated a song to us. We love Crazy Tom. And Irish music. And Killarney. And Ireland. And life…

Your turn

These are just a few of the many wonderful people that I met on a weekend trip to Ireland. I am still shrouded in a happy, boozy haze; I vow to return to the friendliest, leafiest little land in Europe as soon as I possibly can.

‘Tis the perfect season for an Irish jaunt. Get involved!

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My New Favourite Sunny Day Pub…

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I spent the last Bank Holiday Weekend exploring the sights and surrounds of a delightfully sunny London.My adventure began on Saturday morning, when, like 80% of the tourists in the city, I ventured to Notting Hill in hopes of perusing the famous Portobello Road Market (which only happens on Saturday mornings). Full of antiques, jewelry, scarves, knick knacks, gizmos and gadgets, the market is one of my favourite things to do in London—it’s the perfect place browse and shop …to admire colorful buildings and quaint cafes. But the crowds were just a bit too much for me last weekend; I was in the mood for something a bit more relaxing…

My friends and I thus decided to venture further west, away from the bustling markets and tourist sites…and south, towards the river! It was time for a Saturday afternoon pub jaunt.

Pimms, lemonade and lager…yes, please!

We arrived at what immediately became my new, favourite afternoon watering hole: the Old Ship, which is situated along the Thames, near Ravenscourt Park tube station.The delightful little pub seems to have more outdoor seating than any other pub in London, namely because its happy customers tend to sprawl out on the adjacent green:

Old Ship Pub-goers relaxing on green.

The Old Ship Pub in London

And along the riverside wall:

Old Ship Pub Wall

We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of chatting and people watching over refreshing beverages. Their menu looks great; they even have an upstairs dining room, available for private parties, that opens out onto a balcony.

Thank you, Old Ship—we will be back!

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Honouring England’s Patron Saint (a valiant American attempt)

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Yesterday, I decided to take on St. George’s Day in full force. My approach: to immerse myself in the day’s festivities and absorb as much English tradition as possible, all the while remaining in tourist “stealth mode”—i.e. no white sneakers, no camera flashes, and only soft-spoken enquiries, so as to draw minimal attention to the good old American accent.

What better place to go, I thought, than to London’s South Bank, home of lively street performances, history, art, culture and oodles of bustling pubs/cafes?

I started off at what I presumed would be a central hub of activity—a sacred edifice dedicated to the man of the day: St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark.

George, was I wrong! The cathedral was virtually empty when I arrived 15 minutes prior to the “special” guided tour. Where were all of the church-goers? The pride-filled locals? The curious tourists? continue reading

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Pond Hoppers Unite in Reykjavik, Iceland.

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Did you know that North America is moving away from Europe at a rate of 2cm per year? When’s the last time you saw your cousin in Boston? Your best friend in London?

Why not meet up halfway at the famed point of continental divergence?

Just three and a half hours from London and five hours from Boston, Reykjavik, Iceland is the perfect pit stop for young working professionals and university students seeking a spring or summer getaway. Literally bubbling over with steam and energy, this up-and-coming European hotspot sits directly above the Eurasian and American tectonic plates, which, in parting ways, propel massive amounts of geothermal energy upwards through earth’s crust. Hence the bursting geysers, bubbling hot springs and raucous nightlife that characterize this unique and vibrant city.

Go wild.

Reykjavik is one of Europe’s most happening party spots: its trendy cafes are many, its music scene is bustling, and its clubs can turn your weekend into a 72-hour party. Begin your wild escapade with some local cuisine at the world renowned Siggi Hall restaurant, where you can indulge in traditional Icelandic food with a contemporary twist. Try the tasty smoked salmon dish, which, craftily soaked in gin and tonic, will prime your palette for the festivities in store. After shaking hands with Chef Siggi himself, venture to the easily navigable downtown streets to Gaukur á Stöng—Reykjavik’s oldest pub. Enjoy some live music as you soak in the beauty and charm of the local crowd; after a few vodka spiked beers (yes, vodka spiked beers!), your inner Viking will guide you forth on an all night clubbing adventure…that you will never remember to forget.

Get natural.

Reykjavik’s surrounding natural features—to the historic and ongoing fascination of geologists, environmental engineers, writers and artists—are some of the most unique and awe inspiring on the planet. If you’re craving a bit of rejuvenation and serenity, you should embark on the Golden Circle Tour—the most popular and efficient way to witness the steaming geysers, volcanic craters and magnificent waterfalls that characterize the island’s landscape. Stop off at the greenhouse village of Hveragerði to witness innovative methods of natural energy use. Or, if you desire a bit of creative inspiration, you might take the excursion to Snæfellsjökull National Park, a “radiating” energy hub that attracts some of the world’s most ardent mystics, mediums and dreamers. Experience the luminous, glacier-capped volcano that captivated the imagination of Jules Verne in writing his famous Journey to the Center of the Earth. Harness a bit of earth’s energy yourself, and return rejuvenated.

Choose your own adventure.

Whether you’re pub-crawling Londoner or a club-hungry spring breaker…a nature-knowing scientist or a beauty-loving artist, you will find your niche in Reykjavik. So go ahead and explore: journey to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge for a bit of culture, nightlife, nature and renewal.

 

Other tour ideas:

Northern Lights Tour

Romantic Evening at the Blue Lagoon Express.

On the Trail of the Icelandic Sagas…

 

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Lucky Irish Getaways

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Feeling lucky this St. Patrick’s day?

Hungry for a bit of Irish culture?

Why not plan an adventurous getaway to the land of g’ luck and greenery?!

1. ‘Tis the season of abundance
Lucky you: we’re now approaching peak salmon fishing season! Embark on this 7 day, 6 night journey to the rivers of the gorgeous Shannon region to try your hand at salmon and trout fishing. You will stay at the charming, historic Millbank House, along the banks of the Mulcair River—one of the best places to reel ‘em in while immersing yourself in the lush, natural landscapes of the region. Your trip will include various salmon and trout fishing excursions, as well as a unique visit to the Castleconnell Salmon Fishery, where you can hone your current skills and experiment with new fishing techniques.

Minutes away from the shops, amenities, and outbound tours of Limerick, your lodgings in Shannon will be the perfect, peaceful travel base for a family with diverse interests. Be sure to double your luck at one of many nearby golf courses!

2. A lucky kiss!
For a bit of magic and mystery, you may want to embark on a trail to the famous Blarney stone near Cork. Bend over backwards and pucker up to the famed “Stone of Eloquence,” and you will, according to Blarney legend, never be at a loss for words. Explore the mystical, 600-year-old castle and lovely surrounding grounds—the perfect place to spend the afternoon with your family.

And if you make it on Sunday, March 22nd, you will get to partake in the Annual Easter Egg Hunt!

3. Sláinte (Cheers!)
Perhaps your heart lies in the most happy and humble place of all—the Irish pub. Why not experience Dublin’s most famous landmarks, on a three day sightseeing trip through beer and whiskey tasting paradise?

Explore the birthplace and brewing process of your favorite pint at the Guinness Storehouse; discover the step-by-step procedure of whiskey malting, milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling and maturing at the Old Jameson Distillery. Sip your way through the evening, and embark on a lively, downtown pub crawl!

Right now is the perfect (and lucky!) time to experience the nature, magic and welcoming vibrancy of the Emerald Isle.

G’Luck and Happy Planning!

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Ladies: now is your chance.

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One of my closest friends prays for a husband every night (let’s call her Lena…for her sake). You may laugh, but Lena is dead serious. Has been since the age of 18, when ‘the one’—her childhood confidant and first love—unexpectedly broke it off, hurling her into a long cycle of failed relationships with men from all walks of life and corners of the world. From Guadalajara to Melbourne, her spiritual quest for love has been an intercontinental roller coaster of false hopes and nightmare endings, yet she will not give up. Day in and day out, Lena dreams of the perfect engagement weekend: prince charming bursts through the doors of her fifth floor bedsit with an armful of roses and sweeps her off to Paris, diamond ring in back pocket and Seine cruise tickets in hand. And they live Happily Ever After, etc.

You may still be smirking at the notion of nightly candlelit séances and wistful chants for a Hollywood happy ending, but Lena’s prayers are not far from the concerns of many late twenty- and thirty-something working professionals with maternal ambitions and not-so-responsive male companions. Yes, this is 2008, and there are ‘no rules’, per se, in an era of Las Vegas whims and three-way ‘unions’, but, for women like Lena, tradition is king. He has to do the legwork; she has to sit pretty. Ladies, if that’s your mindset, then maybe the occasional offering to your deity of choice isn’t such a bad idea…

Okay, so maybe St. Valentine (or rather Cupid, Venus and, more importantly, Tiffany’s) let you down this year. And like Lena, your wilting roses are now staring you in the face—along with your barren ring finger. With no foreseeable milestone events on the calendar until your November birthday, you begin to panic. But let’s be honest, you can only casually escort your man past the ‘first kiss’ landmark so many times before he will begin to catch on.

My advice to Lena (and to all of you with similar, yet perhaps less overt, matrimonial aspirations): channel your energies towards patron St. Patrick. Not only is his holiday about good luck, but also, according to folkloric legend, it was this innovative bloke who first declared an official calendar date for female marriage proposals back in the fifth century. This once bizarre concept has since evolved into a leap year tradition, making this February 29th your big chance to make a move. continue reading

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