Jul 29 2012

A Writing Conference in Maine

I spent the first two weeks of July in Bar Harbor, Maine, attending the Johns Hopkins 2012 Conference on Craft.

A view from the Bar Harbor sandbar.

My time in Maine was a mix of school (since I’m a student in the M.A. in Writing Program, I received credit for an entire semester), vacation, and personal writing time.

We had class for a few hours each morning and craft workshops each afternoon. I registered for a reading class focused on the works of New England writers, including Edith Wharton, Sebastian Junger, Monica Wood, and Henry Beston. It was interesting to discuss how the landscape of a region can influence the sense of place in a work. One of the the best lessons I took away is the ability to see multiple meanings in everyday things–a dead tree in the yard, a leaf glowing with crimson and gold in a forest of green, the fruitless quest for a starfish on a rocky beach.

The conference featured guest instructors for the writing workshops: Robert Wilson for nonfiction, Amy Hempel for fiction, and Rachel Hadas for poetry. It was inspiring to hear them all read from their work at the faculty reading night. My favorite bit of advice on “the writing life” came from Rachel Hadas, who said it’s valuable to have a day job in addition to being a writer. (Her other job happens to be teaching.) Since I find time to write outside of my full-time job, this was good to hear.

Bob Wilson reads from his new book.

Most conference attendees stayed in the Seafox residence at the College of the Atlantic and, except for an inconvenient toilet paper shortage, I thought it was fun to experience dorm life again. The communal living space, the group activities, and the forest setting made the conference feel like a summer camp for writers.

As for the vacation aspect of the trip, Bar Harbor was charming, relaxing, and fun, and I would go back again in the future. The 4th of July fireworks went off despite the fog that day. They were pretty spectacular, even though, as one of my friends pointed out, it felt a bit like we were in the movie The Truman Show, with a white dome effect in the sky. But other than one day of fog and two or three rain showers, we lucked out on the weather – apparently it was unseasonably warm and dry for Maine.

Fog on the 4th of July

One of the highlights for me was a whale watching trip. I’d been whale watching off the coast of San Diego, and the experience in Bar Harbor was far superior. Two humpbacks, named Lace and Partition, spent about an hour near the boat, entertaining us as they repeatedly dove and flashed their flukes in the air. We also saw a seal curiously swimming alone and a pod of dolphins jumping in and out of the boat’s wake on our trip back to shore.

I also recommend the comedy show at ImprovAcadia, a sunset cruise on the Margaret Todd, and hiking in Acadia National Park.

Sunset cruise on the Margaret Todd.

On the last night of the trip, the sky was so dark and clear I could see the lights of millions of stars and the sweeping flourish of the Milky Way galaxy. I thought of something one of the other writers had said earlier that day: “This will never happen again.”

I’m grateful to have been a part of the experience. I learned why it’s so important to be a part of a community of writers. I learned to see deeper meanings in the small things I observe as I go about my day. And I learned what it’s like to experience the kind of wonder that only nature can instill…the kind of wonder that can carry you through the dull ache of everyday life and inspire you to create something beautiful.

***

“With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars?” – Henry Beston, The Outermost House


May 5 2012

Weekend in Paris

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fly to Paris for the weekend – yes, the weekend! I felt very fancy. But even though I spent only two days in the City of Light, I managed to see the classic sites and get a feel for Paris life. Here are some tips on making the most of a short trip.

la Tour Eiffel

Take a night flight. I slept on the plane and arrived on Saturday morning, rested and ready for an adventure. I had a short list of places in Paris I wanted to visit – the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Notre Dame – but I also kept the schedule flexible to allow for time to relax.

Stay in a convenient location. When you’re short on time, location is key. The Hotel Castille (right down the street from Chanel!) was within walking distance to The Louvre and Tuileries Gardens. My husband booked our room just a few days before our trip and got a great deal on Jetsetter.

We had lunch Saturday at Madeleine 7, a cozy bistro that had beautiful salads and delicious house wine, and then headed to the Eiffel Tower, taking a detour to walk by the Opéra de Paris and The Réunion des Musées Nationaux.

Lunch at Madeleine 7

Walk whenever you can. One of my favorite ways to explore a new city is on foot – I feel like I get a greater sense of the place that way. Paris was no exception. Hearing snippets of conversation from other pedestrians, seeing towers of chocolates stacked in a confection shop window, and feeling the crunch of gravel under my feet in a park all made for a more immersive experience.

I spied this spectacular store front down a side street near Notre Dame.

On Sunday, after spending a few hours exploring The Louvre and taking in a special Leonardo da Vinci exhibition (and, of course, the Mona Lisa), we strolled along the Seine River toward Notre Dame, passing street vendors selling watercolor prints, musty old books, and quaint souvenirs. I think French architecture is stunning, and the muted cream of the stone walls and slate blue of the roofs mingles with the expansive sky. After reading this article in Harper’s, I almost wished it had rained on our trip. Almost.

The Louvre Museum

A highlight of the weekend was a stop a The Hemingway Bar in the Ritz Paris hotel. While drinking what was perhaps the most delightful (and, at 30 euros, most expensive) cocktail I’ve ever tasted – the Serendipity, made with Calvados, apple juice, fresh mint, and champagne – sitting in a cozy leather arm chair in the wood-paneled space and surrounded by photos of Ernest Hemingway, the manager announced that the next day the bar would close for 2 1/2 years. How lucky that we happened to stop in…serendipity, indeed.

Notre Dame Cathedral


Mar 29 2012

The Joys of Flying

Sarcasm? Not at all.

You could probably say I travel more than the average person (although, honestly, not as much as I’d like to). One summer not too long ago, I was home only two weekends from the beginning of May to the end of August. I’ve had my luggage lost. I’ve sat by my share of crying kids. I’ve missed connections and encountered customer service agents with no concept of service. I’ve certainly experienced the hassles and inconveniences that plague modern air travel, but I’ve realized that, despite them all, I actually look forward to flying.

In the quest to balance work, grad school, freelance assignments, and the rest of my life, time has become the one thing I continually crave. Sure, it’s not always easy to get comfortable in a 17-by-32-inch space, but when else do I have the freedom to delve into a book for more than an hour at a time? When else do I have permission to people watch without guilt or the license to become completely lost in thought? When else am I actually required to turn off my iPhone and take a break from the neverending flood of emails and the constant current of social media?

I have a love of long-form journalism, and while waiting for a recent flight to Indianapolis, I sat in the airport and finished an article I had been digesting in small bites over the past week as I ate my morning cereal or bounced along on the Metro into D.C. It was wonderful to reach the end in one sitting. Then, on the plane, I became engrossed in A Year in Provence, a book I’d been trying to dive into for an entire month but hadn’t been able to concentrate on for more than two pages at a time. I ordered a glass of wine and lost myself in descriptions of life in rural France. When we landed, I felt refreshed.

Unencumbered by the real world on the ground, the time in transit can be a mini escape. And that’s where I find joy in flying.

 

 


Feb 26 2012

Roadside America

I’ve been researching a story for the travel writing workshop I’m taking this semester at Hopkins, and I just have to share a brief post about it – this is one of the most curious things I’ve ever seen.

Located just off Hwy. 78 in Pennsylvania, about halfway between Harrisburg and Allentown, Roadside America is touted as “The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village.” And, after reading these reviews on Yelp, I had to check it out.

Last week, I drove two hours to the middle of Pennsylvania to see what all the fuss is about. I must say, it’s fascinating. The exhibit is 8,000 square feet of miniature models, all made by one man – Laurence Gieringer. He began the hobby as a boy and continued until his death in 1963. His granddaughter, Delores Heinsohn, now runs the attraction. “It’s very difficult to explain to people who have never seen it,” she says.

True, but I can try.  There are more than 300 buildings, 10,000 trees, and 4,000 miniature people. Everything is made by hand. Several model trains and trolleys run through ’50s suburban neighborhoods, rolling farmland, and a pioneer town. There’s even a cemetery beside a church with names written on the tiny tombstones. Visitors can push buttons along the self-guided tour to animate different parts of the village.

It’s kitschy Americana, but on a scale so grand it’s kind of awe-inspiring. And you have to admire the craftsmanship and dedication it took to build it.

Roadside America doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s totally worth the $6.75 ticket price. If you’re taking a road trip through Pennsylvania, it’s a great place to stop and stretch your legs.

 


Feb 15 2012

What Lies Beneath

I stepped through a narrow passageway and into a small room with thick stone walls. The warm, humid air weighed on my lungs with the mustiness of centuries past. The tour guide, a thin young man from California with Harry Potter glasses, who was living in Rome to study Latin, led the group past rows of pagan crypts, and as I peered through the openings that had been cut away in the stone, I saw some had hollowed-out spaces in the walls for crematory urns, while others housed elaborately carved sarcophagi. The guide shared the detailed history of the site, from 64 A.D. when Saint Peter was killed on the Vatican Hill, to 329 A.D. when the original St. Peter’s cathedral was built on land that once contained the Circus of Nero, to the 1500s when the current Basilica was designed by Renaissance artists including Raphael, Leonardo DaVinci, and Michaelangelo. I was astounded to see mosaics and frescoes from thousands of years ago, remarkably preserved and with still-vibrant colors, lining the walls and floor of one of the tombs, and intricate stone carvings in another, which we were told was the tomb of the Valerii family. The guide pointed to holes in the walls of one particular room and said that in ancient times it was customary for families to sit atop the crypts and share a meal to honor their deceased relatives. They would pour wine through holes in the roof “to nourish the souls of the dead.” I thought it sounded like a lovely tradition.

An outside view of St. Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photos on the necropolis tour.

My husband and I were on a tour of the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica. While researching tours before our trip to Rome, I came across a blog that mentioned this little-known opportunity, which is different than the usual “crypts and catacombs” tours available in the city (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it again to provide a link, but you can read other reviews on TripAdvisor). The Ufficio Scavi (Excavations Office) of the Vatican occasionally offers tours for a limited number of people – about 250 each day – to visit the the archaeological site underneath the Basilica. The necropolis was discovered in the 1940s during an excavation performed to build grottoes underneath the church. If you’d like to take the tour, you must email the office with the dates you’ll be in Rome, the number in your party (participants must be at least 15 years old), and your preferred language, and they let you know which date and time you will be able to take a tour. The cost is 12 euros per person.

I had been looking for this kind of uncommon experience, and not knowing if I’d even get a reply (I’ll be honest – I was skeptical), I emailed the excavations office with a request. After a few days, I received a reply with our tour date, information to confirm our reservation with payment, and a list of rules (as is the case for visiting St. Peter’s, men and women must follow the dress code and have their shoulders and knees covered).

The High Altar inside St. Peter's Basilica.The necropolis tour ends directly below this spot in the church.

The tour takes visitors three levels below the current altar of St. Peter, where you can see part of the original shrine (the Trophy of Gaius, which was built around 200 A.D.), as well as what are believed to be his actual remains.

This tour is a pilgrimage for some, and even though I’m not Catholic, I found it to be a fascinating lesson in culture and history. We emerged from the tour into the Vatican Grottoes, where many of the past popes are entombed. We joined the sea of tourists flowing upwards to the opulent cathedral above. The contrast between the vast basilica, with its gilded statues, intricate marble floors, and soaring arched ceilings, and the cramped, stone-walled, necropolis three levels below, was startling. I looked around and realized that most of the tens of thousands of tourists that visit St. Peter’s each day will never experience the rich history that lies beneath.


Jan 18 2012

Roman Holiday

My husband and I decided to buck tradition this holiday season, and instead of racing around the country trying to visit every branch of our family tree we flew to Italy and spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Rome. Our trip wasn’t as spur-of-the-moment as it sounds…my husband proposed at the Pantheon, and ever since our wedding in 2002 we’ve been saying we would go back to celebrate our 10th anniversary. With grad school, work, and travel plans already filling up the coming year, we decided it was now or never. It was a great choice–not only did we take advantage of off-season pricing, but we discovered that winter is a great time to visit the Eternal City. Now that I’ve had a couple of weeks to catch up at home and the office, I’ll spend the next few blog posts sharing the highlights.

The Pantheon

The Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese

I first need to give props to our hotel, the Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese. We landed at Leonardo da Vinci airport at 7:11 am after a very long flight and, even though we arrived at the hotel way before check-in time, our room was ready. They even upgraded us to a corner room with three windows overlooking the gardens across the street. (“Our Christmas present to you,” said the attendant at the front desk.) The decor was elegant yet comfortable, and the lobby had a hint of old-Hollywood glamour with sparkling chandeliers, rich wooden bookcases, and dramatic black and white photos on the walls. A breakfast buffet was available each day, but at 30 euros per person it was pricy. Most mornings we opted to order a la carte or grab the complimentary breakfast-on-the-go (croissants, apples, and bottled water with a news summary available in English, Italian, or French). The new rooftop restaurant, La Tarrasse, had fabulous views of the city skyline and St. Peter’s Cathedral, and it was the perfect place to relax with a glass of wine after a day of sightseeing.

The streets were filled with light.

When I think of Rome, the first thing that comes to mind is the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. I love seeing legions of Smart Cars zipping past the Colosseum. Wandering the narrow streets, it’s amazing to see so many Italian women navigating the cobblestones in sky-high heels. And tourists use smart phones to snap pictures of historic monuments like the famous Fontana de Trevi (Trevi Fountain) and the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps). In December, the city was decorated for the season, with lights strung between buildings, store windows filled with gift displays, and a huge decorated tree next to the Colosseum.

The Spanish Steps

The first day, we focused on the ruins. We started at the Colosseum and then spent hours wandering around Palatine Hill, where the city of Rome originated in 753 B.C., and The Roman Forum, where the monuments have curious, magical names like the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Temple of Vesta. The weather was perfect — sunny with a clear blue sky and temperatures in the 50s — and the crowds were much smaller than the last time we had visited, in the peak tourist month of June. It was the perfect beginning to the week.

The Arch of Septimius Severus

 

 


Aug 6 2011

Buster’s Last Stand

My mom and I took a trip to Worcester, MA last weekend to go wedding dress shopping with my sister, and we had dinner with her future in-laws at The Sole Proprietor. As we pulled into the parking lot, we were greeted by “Buster” the giant crab, affixed to the roof of the restaurant like something out of a 1950s horror flick.

Apparently this curiosity can be seen only during crab season (The Sole features a special “Buster’s Favorites” menu of crab dishes–kind of creepy if you think about it) and we were lucky to see him, as it was his last day before retiring for the year.

The restaurant was packed, even though it was a Sunday evening  (always a good sign) and the food was delicious. We started with vegetarian roll and Tiger Eye sushi appetizers. Several people in our group raved about the crab risotto (a “Buster’s Favorite”), and the seafood with scallops, shrimp, and mussels. I’m a vegetarian and haven’t eaten seafood in several years, but I loved the Asian pear and walnut salad, which could have been a meal in itself, with a side of rich and creamy mac and cheese. It’s probably just as well–I don’t know if I could have looked Buster in the eye when we left if I’d ordered the crab anyway.


Jul 15 2011

Far, Fargo Away

Last weekend, I made my once-every-three-years trek to Fargo, North Dakota, for a family reunion. Yes, that’s right. Fargo. If you’ve never been there, let me just say that it isn’t the easiest of places to reach. As it turned out, it was more economical to fly to Minneapolis, rent a car, and drive four hours than it would have been to fly directly to Fargo. Fortunately, this roundabout journey had added benefits, as I was able to see some dear friends and family in the Minneapolis area the days we flew in and out of the Twin Cities.

The reunion was a fun-filled day of boating, swimming, and visiting with family at my great-aunt and -uncle’s home near Lake Park, Minnesota. I always forget how beautiful it can be at the lake…until the sun goes down and the mosquitoes swarm. I think the mosquitoes in Minnesota are the size of birds.

The most curious thing about our trip was the Space Aliens Grill & Bar right next to our hotel. I ventured over for pizza (because how could I NOT?) and then brought the rest of the crew back for drinks in the bar. It was so tacky, it was actually charming.

If you have a chance to venture that far north, some other local attractions include Bonanzaville, The Plains Art Museum, and the Hjemkomst Center across the river in Moorhead, which features a full-size viking ship.


Jun 19 2011

I Heart NOLA

I recently had the opportunity to visit New Orleans to attend a trade show for work, and I extended my stay to visit some friends who moved there last year. I didn’t know we could pack so much into one extra day—we spent some time in the French Quarter, rode the streetcar, took in a rooftop view of the city, and visited a local farmers’ market.

On Saturday morning, we biked through downtown and along the riverfront to Cafe Du Monde for breakfast. I hadn’t ridden in years, and the bike provided had seen better days (as my friend put it, the brakes were “more of a suggestion”), but nonetheless the trip went smoothly. And it was the perfect way to start the morning. We wove our way through the runners and tourists along the riverfront and reached the cafe just in time to get a table perfect for people-watching, with a view of artists setting up their wares across Decatur Street. Let me just say that the beignets are golden perfection topped off with mountains of powdered sugar, and it’s probably a good thing I don’t live anywhere near this place. I would go every day. Oh, and the coffee is good, too.

Artists across the stree from Cafe du Monde

One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District. I love cemeteries, and this one was unlike any I had seen. The tombs rise from the ground to create a city of the dead, and as I walked through the weathered crypts, even in broad daylight, I could see why NOLA has been the inspiration for classic vampire novels.

Tombs in Lafayette Cemetery

One drawback for me was that NOLA is definitely not a vegetarian-friendly city. One restaurant we chose for lunch offered a special made with sausage, but had a “vegetarian option available – with smoked duck.” Oh, yeah. But my hosts had exceptional taste, and we had a fantastic dinner at The Green Goddess where I was introduced to huitlacoche in the form of the restaurant’s “Spooky” Blue Corn Crepes.

My brief stay in NOLA was fun, and the city pulses with energy. I saw interesting architecture, listened to great music, and ate some delicious food. I can’t wait to go back.

A rooftop view of New Orleans