Tag Archives: travel

Some Things Just Suck!

Jack’s guest post is a farewell to a very close friend, co-written with two other very close friends.

Obituary – Michael (Mike/Mick) Ward


Michael Joseph Ward was born in 1950, in West Lothian, though like his five siblings, he spent much of his life in Dunfermline.  A highly intelligent, well-read, erudite, individual, the educational institutions graced by his presence included Blairs College (near Aberdeen), The Scots College in Rome, and Glasgow University.  After graduating from there, he entered the teaching profession, and for many years was a teacher of modern languages at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline.  As an avid reader, he never stopped learning, and, in adulthood, added the Gaelic language to his already impressive list of skills.

His teaching was of a piece with his approach to any task; professional, conscientious and thorough, which earned him the respect of the many pupils who came to understand with his help that learning can be much more than the mere acquisition of knowledge, important though that is.  His quirky sense of humour often caught them unawares, too, as did his occasional side-excursion into teaching them a French folk song, to remind them that language can be much more than utilitarian.  No-one knew better than him that innovations in education are not what makes the difference; that what counted was dedicated, effective teaching, and that was what his pupils got.

Mike was a long time member of the Fife based folk band Heritage, having joined them in 1978. In need of a solid keyboard player to master the group’s portable harmonium (pump organ), they found the ideal candidate in Mike. The group also discovered that he was not only an excellent keyboard player but also a wonderful penny-whistler and player of Northumbrian and Scottish smallpipes.  He had taken up the Northumbrian pipes in the late 70s, and attended the week-long courses, tutored by Joe Hutton, which were a feature of the Edinburgh Folk Festival at that time.  For a number of years he also attended annual residential weekend courses, also tutored by Joe Hutton, in Rothbury.  He met a number of kindred spirits at these courses, many of whom would become lifelong friends.

While Heritage members up to that point had learned and played mostly by ear, as a classically trained musician (he had been college organist during his time at Blairs), Mike could easily sight read. He had a respect for the folkies as well and used his skills to help the group develop and expand their music.


Mike on the extreme right behind the harmonium, playing the penny whistle

Over the following fifteen years or so he played with Heritage all over Scotland and around Europe, absorbing the music of other traditions and contributing to the repertoire and musical sophistication of the band. Another recruit around the same time was fiddler Pete Clark and he and Mike struck up a particularly creative partnership supporting and adding to the band’s trademark sound.

As a language teacher (before his retirement) and multi-linguist, Mike had a particular affinity for France and Italy, and this was of great help when the group traveled to these locations. Of course he had a much wider musical fraternity, extending to the English borders area of Northumbria as well as Brittany, the Occitan area of France and Friuli, in Italy. Only three years ago he spent almost a month in the Southern Appalachians with his old musical colleague Jack Beck where he made many new friends and expanded yet again his horizons.

He could be somewhat self-deprecating about his considerable musical skills.  If you gave Mike a piano, he could keep you entertained for hours with improvised arrangements of traditional music.  He was particularly masterful when it came to slow airs.  More than once it was suggested to him that he should really consider recording and/or publishing some of these gems, but, sadly, it never happened.


Later, in France – Mike on keyboard at the back

In 2015, along with his friends, Alistair and Brigitte Marshall, he visited the museum at Blairs, his first visit back there since he had left as a pupil.  The curator, upon learning that Mike was an alumnus,  escorted him into the college buildings which, though in a parlous state, awaiting redevelopment, looked in many respects as they must have done when the last pupil laid down his pen for the last time.  It was an experience which Mike admitted to finding somewhat spooky!  On that same visit, he was also reunited with the organ in the beautiful St Mary’s Chapel at Blairs.  He and Alistair had plans to return there, to rehearse some of the very atmospheric Breton music for bombarde and organ.

A great connoisseur of Indian cuisine, his curries were legendary and his advice on which restaurants to visit much sought after.

During the last few years he had faced a number of serious health issues with great dignity and acceptance, born of his deep Christian faith. A devout Roman Catholic, Mike was never narrow minded, was passionately interested in human beings, of whatever faith or hue, and accepted that everyone had their particular path to follow.

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Onwards and Upwards – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest post –

By the time I write my next guest blog post I will have reached the age of 75 –

That’s quite a sobering thought, as when I was a kid most people didn’t even live that long! I’m told that that 75 is the new 65 – or maybe even the new 55 – –


I was born in Dunfermline, Scotland on February 5th 1942 (which explains why I can properly pronounce ‘February’) and that was at a time when the outcome of WW2 was hanging in the balance. Since then I’ve lived through the cold war, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the demise of the British Empire, The Suez crisis, the Falklands war, the first Iraq war, the second Iraq war, the invasion of Afghanistan and a host of other inglorious adventures.

I’ve also traveled the world and here’s a funny thing – the people I’ve met along the way have been a lot like myself. I’ve met very few folk I’d describe as seeming bad or dangerous and on the odd occasion I have, it usually only required a conversation to find common ground.

What have I learned along the way?

Well – not to accept unquestioningly what I see in newspapers and on TV; and also not to accept unquestioningly what I read on social media either. Most people are basically decent and want the same things in life for themselves and others. Of course that doesn’t mean we can’t be manipulated and influenced.

If I have to state one over-riding belief it would be that within us all there’s a dark side, but there’s also an awareness of ‘The Light’. It can be found in all religions and belief systems and I really think that we all have a desire to strive towards the light.

Am I optimistic for the future?

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky throughout my life so I tend towards the ‘glass half full’ point of view; in addition I naturally see the world from a Western position, which makes me privileged. But allowing for all that I do still think that, ever so tentatively, we are moving in the right direction. We have hiccups, of course (and never more than right now), but the light still beckons us on.


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The Monday Book

Jack gets to write the Monday book review this week –

Molvanîa : A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry – Santo Cilauro et al.


This is a very funny spoof travel guide to a fictitious Eastern European country and is presented as part of a series called ‘Jetlag Travel Guides’.  Cilauro and his co-authors capture the character of the ‘Lonely Planet’ guides wonderfully and the humor mostly succeeds by sitting on top of that.

This is the kind of book that you can happily dip into wherever you want as there’s no narrative involved, however I have to admit that I eventually began to feel a bit uneasy as I did just that. Why uneasy? Well, I have visited quite a few Eastern European countries and like anywhere they all have their pros and cons. Some of the humor in this book began to come over as cruel and I wondered how I would have felt if I came from Romania or Slovakia (two places I have visited a number of times) instead of Scotland. In fact they could have easily done the ‘Jetlag Travel Guide’ of Scotland that could have been just as un-flattering.

But that’s just me and I should try to take a step back and give the book more of a chance.

The humor works best where you can see that the authors had great fun inventing the language, place names and culture as well as choosing photographs and compiling maps. There’s a very funny advert for ‘Go Touro Molv’ under 25 group travel too.

There’s obviously a lot of enjoyable work here by the folk who put it together and it’s in the detail that the funniest nuggets are to be found.

As an example let me present a paragraph from ‘Where to Eat’ –

“Lutenblag’s dining scene is vibrant and ever changing, with new establishments opening every month or so and older ones regularly being closed down by sanitation inspectors. Sadly, some restaurants, particularly the tourist oriented ones, often fall into the habit of ’embellishing’ tourists’ bills – – -”

I bought this book at ‘Downtown Books and News’ in Asheville NC – a really excellent bookstore!


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Jack’s Travels

chileI count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel widely during my life, and mostly at little cost for various reasons. When I was a part of the folk band ‘Heritage’ from the late ’70s through the early ’90s we toured in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Then just before and after my retirement from the college in Scotland where I worked for twenty years, I visited Romania and Vietnam on business. Of course I came over here to the US every year from the late ’80s until I moved here permanently, and visited Newfoundland when Wendy was studying there.
I really enjoyed all of that, made some good friends, and experienced wonderful cultures that I would never have known much about otherwise.
Every year, of course, I get to go back to Scotland at the end of June when I lead a small group tour of my homeland. So I get around. But next Wednesday I’ll be going to a part of the world I’ve never been to – South America!
Our good friends Cami and Bill are coming to the end of an extended stay in Chile, thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, we will be joining them for their last few days and then staying on for a few more on our own. I know very little about this part of the world, other than something of the troubled politics of the 20th Century.
If I can I’ll blog about my impressions while we’re there. Who knows, perhaps the Chilean tourism industry will employ me to lead tours there! (A guy can dream….)


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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Bucket Lists

four leafJack and I lead contented lives. We run a bookstore, rescue cats, live amiably with occasional passionate flairs, and own our house. We don’t have to cook if we don’t want to because we have a cafe in the bookstore; when we want something to read, we amble around looking for it. I have enough money to buy most of the yarn I want and all of the yarn I need, and Jack has a little red sports car.

Yeah, we’re shallow sometimes. :]

The bucket list thing has for the most part passed us by. Jack said once he wished he could pair his black socks correctly before he left this life, and I aspire to get through a whole tube of chapstick. Other than that, go by mad world.

But my friend Cami is a go-getter and a champion back-of-the-pack marathoner, and she is in Chile with her husband. They suggested we come for a visit. Neither Jack nor I have been to the continent of South America, and I admit we used the words “bucket list” to discuss the trip. As in, “It wasn’t on our bucket list, but it seems like a nice opportunity.”

That started one of those in-the-car conversations while driving to Maryland this week. (We went to visit our friend Melissa’s bookstore The Parkville Bookworm, along with her staff cats Stan Lee and Spencer. Eight hours is a long time to listen to NPR talk shows.)

On the drive Jack and I compared bucket list items, big and small. Some of these we probably can’t get, and some we can’t get without help, but hey, it pays to dream. So here it is……


Independence for Scotland (Jack and me both)

Find a four leaf clover (I’ve never found one in my whole entire life, except once inside a book, dried and pressed.)

Visit Fiji (Neither of us have been there, and we don’t know anything about it. We just like the name, I guess.)

Tell stories at the Iranian International Storytelling Festival (It’s held every February, this was their 18th year, and they don’t invite a lot of Westerners. But someday….)

Own a Morgan sports car again (I rolled my eyes at this, and Jack informed me that every guy is allowed a secret fantasy.)

Have the bookstore completely organized in a manner that makes sense (Jack says this has to be mine alone as he won’t put something on this list that can’t happen. I pointed out the Morgan thing and he just smiled. Should I be worried?)



Filed under animal rescue, between books, Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

Istanbul I

Wendy’s friends the GGGs (Grammar Guerrilla Girls) are handling the blog while we’re out of town, but on alternate days when scheduling permits, Jack and Wendy will post a few travelogues. Those looking for more Little Bookstore action should keep up with the GGGs on the blog’s regular days (M,W,F and Saturday) and those wanting to hear about the misadventures of bookslingers Jack and Wendy abroad, check in on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.

Jack and I arrived at Charlotte airport and found first thing that our flight to Chicago, thence to Frankfurt, thence to Istanbul, had been delayed. “We’re never going to make it to Frankfurt. This trip is a disaster,” said my dour Scots husband, five minutes into our trip–and then couldn’t understand why I burst out laughing.

“Harumph,” he added for good measure, and I doubled over, honking and snorting as a security guard gave me a stern look and all the other people at the gate A16 edged away from the lady having a fit.

We were in fact so early to the airport (another husband thing) that we asked to get on the flight before our delayed one–also delayed. The nice lady at the counter did just that, and we found ourselves in the privileged position of being EARLY to Chicago. Which of course meant we had time for a pizza: what else would one do?

Fat and sassy we waddled onto our overnight flight, and woke the next morning, cranky, in Frankfurt. If one doesn’t arrive cranky, Frankfurt airport will take care of this for you; the place is joyless, soulless, and just plain nasty (although the city is nice).

Arriving in Istanbul at 2 pm local time – about 7 in the morning back in Virginia–a long line at passport control provided ample people-watching opps. Our favorite was a group of small children, probably from Malaysia, all wearing caps proclaiming they were part of an international children’s program designed to get people from very different places together to meet each other, and maybe reduce the urges some people have to attention-seek by blowing things up.

As we watched, this little flock of hat-wearing goslings sailed in and out of the security tapes intended to hold people tightly in queues, weaving among exhausted passengers of every persuasion–who smiled benignly at the kids and each other as the wee’uns flew over their feet and around their luggage. Even the guard was grinning.

I’m proud to be part of a world where little hat-wearing children can unite such disparate, tired people into a group.

Finding we had accidentally booked ourselves into an exquisite and comfortable hotel, we took a travelers’ nap, then set out in search of amusement. That is how we found out that we dress funny; while the shopkeepers and restaurateurs up and down the winding Old City streets of the Gulhane district greeted passersby with amazing accuracy in the targets’ languages, every time Jack and I passed one, they would ask, “Excuse me, where you from?”

I’m not wearing white tennis shoes, and Jack’s Scottish sweater is over a Walmart flannel shirt. Heh. This could be fun.

Tune in Sunday for a description of the Topkapi Palace Harem and other strange but wondrous people-watching moments.

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On the 1st day after Christmas, my true love said to me….

Christmas Day tucked into a quiet, well-appointed hotel can be very contemplative. We found the local Quaker gathering and joined them for meeting, celebrating Jesus’ birth and all it has meant for the rest of us. From contemplation to human bliss, an Indian restaurant near the hotel opened for the evening meal. Jack turned to me in the middle of his shrimp bhuna and said with a beatific smile, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

It didn’t Dec. 26, anyway. The rain, sensing we would be returning to our car for what was marked as a scenic drive through the Ozarks, returned with vigor. Also, Monday is a day when many  bookshops are closed, and the day after Christmas a lot of small retailers pretty much think “forget it.” (We have never found this wise, knowing that Christmas money is burning a hole in many bibliophilic pockets.)

So here is the list of bookstores we did NOT get to visit: That Bookstore in Blytheville (yes, that’s the actual name, and I was looking forward to that one because it’s famous for being in the middle of nowhere yet attracting EVERYONE in the lit community); Xanadu Books in Memphis itself; and one each in Pocahontas, Mountain Home and Batesville, Arkansas.

The one we did get to surprised us. “Wolf Books” in Jonesboro, AR sounded like your basic second-hand store, but turned out to be a textbook buy-back. We’d been avoiding textbook traders and Christian bookstores on this trip because the former don’t usually deal in other forms, while the latter rarely focus on books; they’re more like Hallmark shops full of cards and trinkets. We wish both well, and bypass them with smiles.

Since we walked into Wolf (the local mascot) Books before we realized what it was, and since the guy behind the counter pounced on us as though we were the only humans he’d seen in days (which may have been true; no one came in during the half hour we spent with him) Jack just bit the bullet and explained that we ran a used bookstore, had misunderstood the name, we were very sorry and would be going now.

Not so fast. Bobby, the energetic and charismatic co-owner of the shop, hauled us over to his office, gave us  a card and a complimentary ink pen, grilled us about our shop, and explained that he bought used textbooks from across the States at pretty much the same prices as online dealers so he could resell them in his shop, and he’d love to sell ours for us.

“I make it against the online thing because I get customers all their stuff at once, conveniently bundled so they don’t have to think, and I do it fast. It’s all about service in this online world,” he said. We heartily agreed, having found that in the little shops sprinkled along the high- and byways, people survive the Amazon massacre because they are quirky, homely, sensitive HUMAN individuals who treat the people in their shops with respect AND make shopping convenient for them.

The funny thing was, though, for Bobby, service meant speed. For the rest of the used book world, it meant relaxation. We bliss our customers out whenever possible, giving them coffee, encouraging them to sit and read, meander the rooms, strike up conversations. And so do most of our cousins in the biz.

In fact, when we had to find an open Wal-Mart recently because we needed a piece of electronic equipment and didn’t know what small shop might sell it, we experienced culture shock. I forgot where we were and spoke to the cashier as though she and I were both humans with something in common. She stared at me, answered politely, and rang us up faster, as if in fear. We were out of there in two minutes, our purchase in a plastic bag bearing a corporate logo.

“Was that… weird?” I asked Jack as we walked through the crowded lot.

“Not for Wal-Mart; we’re just not used to it anymore. If you stay away awhile, what it really is shows up again.”

Not to stretch a point, but Jack’s observation has an echo in my love-hate affair with hotel TV. Jack and I don’t have a TV at our house, just Netflix. So when we land in a hotel room, I often do a channel surf for “good regular shows.” And there never are any. If you’re not hooked on a show from its inception, the paper thin nature of the characters, the amazing leaps of logic to resolve a crime in 42 minutes, the preachy attitudes of the heroes no matter how many sides a story could have in real life: they’re pretty easy to spot. Jack says, each time I pick up the remote, “Hope springs eternal, eh?” But I usually wind up spending 2o minutes watching one minute on each channel, then click off. It’s more or less a ritual by now. It’s not that I’m anti-TV; I just want a REAL story.

Points to ponder. Are we so inured to certain things in life that we don’t realize we’re not enjoying them until we forgo them awhile?

I did say that our Christmas turned out contemplative.

Enough pontificating: back to the road! Jonesboro seemed a likely place to find a mom-and-pop lunch counter slinging up all-day breakfast (Jack’s second favorite meal) but we drove in endless circles looking for anything unaffiliated with a chain before finding “The Country Lunch Buffet.”

Suckers, we were. A chain like the Steak and Sirloin places near 0ur home in VA, it was set up to look like an independent, the way coffeehouses often have individualistic names but are owned by a conglomerate.

Never mind; the food was good, plenty of green vegetables in evidence next to the beloved orange breaded foods of the South, AND we got a delightful surprise. My cell phone rang and Rachel Gholson, a friend from doctoral student days in Newfoundland, was calling from Springfield, MO. Were we headed that way?

Indeed we were, and we hastened our driving, since 1) Rachel was meeting us for supper; 2) the rain had become a deluge; and 3) Highway 60 is duller than red clay dirt. (Sorry, AR Tourism Board, but you should take those little scenic dotted lines off the map.)

We did stop in Hardy, AR, on advice from our friend Joyce Rowland. Most of it was shut, but we found two important things: cashews and a bathroom, both of which enhanced the pleasure of our onward drive. We also found that Sparrow’s Nest Books, which we had looked forward to, was closed {sigh}. In fact, the drive only became bearable because Jack kept his promise and hauled out the mini disc recorder to record the misadventures of his band Heritage (a Scottish folk supergroup in the 1980s). I’m going to work on writing them up this year. He had us laughing all the way.

Over supper with Rachel it was fairly easy to convince her to join us for a book invasion of Springfield tomorrow (possibly with our mutual friend Julie Henigan–three folklorist females and Jack in a car; friends please be prepared to stand bail).

For a very modest sum, we tucked up in a Days Inn close to the Cajun restaurant where we’d supped with Rachel, and OH BLISS it had an indoor pool. I’ve been trying to use hotel exercise rooms when available, but I really am a water baby, not a treadmill reader. (I keep dropping the book; I suppose the repeated negotiation of bending while walking is good for my tummy bulge. We got some very nice cheesecakes from our friend Elissa Powers back in Big Stone Gap, and we’ve kinda been nibbling those in the car….) Usually hotel pools are full of children emitting fluids (crying or…) but this one was gloriously empty. Jack sat with his book while I did cheesecake-negating laps.

Jack was right. It doesn’t get much better than this!

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