It Goes Boom

New obsessions hit me regularly–bits of stories I hear, scenes that play out in front of me. Right now I can’t stop thinking about the Halifax Explosion. I blame the weekend trip I just took to Halifax, coupled with a visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and a sightseeing excursion led by a friend and her fiance.

It’s a pretty tragic story, but still fascinating. If you’re not familiar, the explosion happened in December 1917. Two ships collided in the narrows of Halifax Harbour; one of the ships was a munitions ship. It wasn’t necessarily the crash that did it, but a fire on the deck of the munitions ship after the impact. The fire spread, and the whole ship blew–at the time it was the largest man-made explosion to ever occur, releasing the equivalent energy of approximately 2.9 kiloton of dynamite (and allegedly Oppenheimer studied the blast when developing the atomic bomb). The resulting pressure wave took out an entire neighborhood, flattening everything within a 2,600 foot radius/400 acres (substantial since the ship was so close to shore). Beyond that, because the temperature of the blast was so hot–over 9,000 degrees F–burning iron shards drifted over a lot of Halifax, starting fires. Across the harbor, a tsunami created by the blast did damage of its own. Sixteen hundred were instantly killed, and 9,000 were injured (300 of the injured later died). To complicate matters, a few hours after the explosion, Halfax had a pretty bad snowstorm.

Disasters are always horrifying, but the stories that go with them are insanely interesting. Part of my sightseeing involved seeing exactly where the explosion happened, seeing the Hydrostone neighborhood that was build quite quickly (and out of fireproof materials) to replace all the destroyed homes, seeing where the ad hoc morgue was set up, and stopping by St. Paul’s Anglican Church to see the window with the head shaped stain–which, rumor has it, originated with a man’s head flying through the window or as the outline of a deacon’s profile caught at the moment of the blast.

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My tour guides also told me about Ashpan Annie, the family of which are close friends of theirs. All super fascinating. If you think it’s not giving me plot bunnies, think again.

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Seal of Approval

blurbnmwIt’s not often that I’m in the position to help out a fellow writer. However, today is one of those days–I was able to offer a blurb for a really great book of short stories that’s coming out in October 2016. Kait Heacock’s short story collection, Siblings and Other Disappointments, is fairly dark, really good, and being published by Ooligan Press. And did I mention that it’s available for pre-order? Yep, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, etc. Go to it.

Being able to do it reminds me so much of the days before my novel came out, when I was stressing out about who would agree to blurb it. I am still so incredibly grateful to Emily St. John Mandel, Jenny Wingfield, and Mike Mullin for taking the time to read Trajectory and offering blurbs. Seriously, if there are author sainthood medals, those three should get one.

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Lisbon: The Basics

20160407_153024A few days before I left for Lisbon, Portugal, I started wondering whether I should have chosen an alternate location for vacation. I didn’t know much about the culture of Portugal, and I had only learned a small bit of Portuguese. Weirdly, it’s something that happens a lot: right before a vacation, it’s second-guessing time.

As it turns out, it wasn’t language or culture that I had to worry about. Instead I should have been concerned about all the hills. There’s a reason that Lisbon is called the City of Seven Hills, and “hill” is perhaps understating the issue. Everything seems to be at the top of a steep incline, and even going downhill feels like it’s walking uphill.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The flight from Philadelphia to Lisbon is six or seven hours long, and my husband and I managed to snag coach seats on the very first flight of the season on my husband’s airline (the Lisbon flight is seasonal). It was a non-rev flyers dream: 50 unsold seats, so we had a whole row to ourselves. The flight had only minimal turbulence and passed quite quickly.

Lisbon is a wonderful city in terms of public transit from the airport. The red line of the metro picks up right at the airport and will get you into town in about thirty minutes or so. We rented an Airbnb apartment in the Barrio Alto neighborhood, so we transferred to the green line at the Alameda station and took the train to the Baixa-Chiado station.

So, here’s where I discovered the sheer horror of Lisbon hills. It’s always a bit difficult to orient yourself in a new city, right? Had I any sense of direction whatsoever, I would have known not to exit the station toward Baixa, or the lower town. But yeah, that’s what we did (instead of taking the three or four escalators up toward Chiado, or the upper town), and it necessitated Craig and I hiking up a million sets of stairs and hills, blindly following the tiny Google Maps arrow on my phone. We finally reached Camões Square in the upper town, and I had to sit down and take a freaking break. I was sweaty and gross and tired and kind of delirious.

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But that wasn’t the end! Oh no. Our apartment was up another two blocks on a very steep road. And then up five flights of stairs.

I considered never leaving the apartment. You can visit Europe and never leave your apartment, right? Right?

That all sounds pretty hideous, and maybe like I hated Lisbon. In truth, I love Lisbon. I loved our apartment, five floor walk-up notwithstanding. I loved the Barrio Alto area, too. I got all sorts of ideas for a new novel. In fact, there was nothing about Lisbon that I disliked, other than I had to leave after five days.

Lisbon is all terra cotta roofs and tiled building faces, cobbled streets and narrow tiled sidewalks, fresh seafood and wine, blue skies and pasteis de nata. There’ll be a few posts about Lisbon coming up, but here are a few tips/suggestions for visiting Lisbon:

  • Language–obviously, the language is Portuguese. I learned a little bit of Portuguese (numbers; polite words; how to ask for a beer, a table for two, a glass of wine, etc), and I’m glad that I did, but I also found it very difficult to learn. Duolingo offers only Brazilian Portuguese, and there’s a big difference between Brazilian and European Portuguese. I have a basic knowledge of Spanish, so I thought maybe it wouldn’t be totally dissimilar, but Portuguese pronunciation is a bit hard. All that said, everyone I spoke to under the age of 35 knew at least a little English, and most of them knew English quite well. Older people tended not to know any English or very, very little. Also, we took a cab twice, and neither driver knew English. The moral of the story: if you don’t learn any Portuguese, be sure to have the address of anywhere you want to go written down to show your cab driver.
  • Restaurants–there’s a lot of seafood in Lisbon. A lot. But there’s also tons of other types of food–Portugal was certainly in the empire business once upon a time, so there’s a thriving immigrant population in Lisbon. Almost every restaurant we went to, no matter the neighborhood, the menu was also translated into English and sometimes French. We went to a few higher end restaurants, but we found the food to be much better and far less expensive at smaller places (tascas). Our favorite was a place about three blocks from our apartment, called Bar Nelson. Two dinners of whole grilled and fresh caught fish with vegetables, fresh bread, fresh and aged cheeses, and a small jar of wine (about four glasses worth) for maybe 25 euros, tops.
  • 20160410_100432Pasteis de Nata–These pastries (sort of like creme brulee in a crust, but without the hard sugar topping) are everywhere. Everywhere! Most guidebooks will recommend heading to the Belem neighborhood to a place called Pasteis de Belem, which makes the oldest de nata recipe in Lisbon. That said, a local recommend Manteigaria, which is maybe a block from the Chiado side of the Baixa-Chiado metro station exit. The de natas from Manteigaria are stellar. They’re like a euro per de nata.
  • Public transit–as I mentioned, the metro is great and easy to use, but it doesn’t go all the places you might want to go. There are also trams, both modern-looking trams (more like what you might see in Houston) and absolutely ancient trams (like the original street cars in San Francisco). The 12 goes to Belem along the waterfront, and the 28 runs through a few different neighborhoods, including Barrio Alto; we took the 28 up to Castelo de Sao Jorge. There are also elevadors, which are short-distance trams that connect the lower town to the upper town. They generally only travel about three blocks, but they’re totally worth it to avoid hiking up steep staircases. And there’s also an actual elevator–the Santa Justa lift–that connects the lower town to the upper town, plus the escalators in Baixa-Chiado metro station. There are also buses, but we never used them. I highly recommend getting a handle on the public transit to save you hiking, climbing, etc., and your legs and feet will thank you for it later. Oh, and buy a 50 cent Viva Viagem card at any metro station–you can load it up and reload it with 10 or 20 euros worth of transit that works on the metro, trams, elevadors, and elevators. A good map that shows the locations of all that (except the buses) is the Streetwise map.

We were sad to return to the States after a fantastic five days, but the good news is that we loved it so much we’re sure to return. I’d love to spend some time in Porto and Colares, maybe even spend another day in Sintra.

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Your Heart, As It Was Then, Will Be On Fire

It seems like ages ago now that The Trajectory of Dreams was published, but this morning that’s all I can think of. An article on NPR talked about the “unexpected revival” of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, a poet whose work I used in my novel (along with Ilya Kutik). I think of Akhmatova, and I think of Zory Korchagin leaving Lela, the main character, a note at the tea shop she frequents.

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That “bit of poem” is from Akhmatova’s poem, “You Will Hear Thunder.”

I was thrilled to see the unexpected revival is the result of a new album by Iris Dement, an American country and folk singer, who has set some of Akhmatova’s work to music. The new album is The Trackless Woods. Do check out the article for some information about Akhmatova’s life, and here’s a sample of the album–

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Reading Iceland

My husband and I will be in Iceland in five short weeks. While I’m excited to (I hope) see the Northern Lights and go on a glacier hike, there’s something really fascinating about Iceland’s literary scene that I’m looking forward to seeing first-hand.

Apparently, one in ten Icelanders will publish a book during their lifetime (so says the BBC). Public benches have barcodes on them, so you listen to a story on your phone while you hang out. Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature. There are several literary festivals throughout the year as well, including Reykjavik Reads in October. This year the festival is dedicated to literature by women, something I’m pretty thrilled about. Even better, a new anthology of writings by Reykjavik women of Icelandic and foreign origin will be published for the festival. I’m hoping to pick up a copy while I’m in the country. Reading is important–the literacy rate in the country hovers around 99 percent.

In advance of that, though, I’m currently reading The Creator by Icelandic author Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir, which is an odd drama starring a guy who makes sex toys and a woman with an anorexic daughter. Typographical Era loved the novel, so how could I say no to that? After all, they also voted my novel, The Trajectory of Dreams, one of the best of 2013 and a novel they’d like to see made into a film, so I know what kind of novels are on their radar! The Creator is not what I would call a quick read, but it’s definitely enjoyable. Plus, it’s interesting to see how American culture wheedles its way into Icelandic culture.  The references Mínervudóttir uses in her work are sometimes surprising.

A few  years ago I read Fish in the Sky, a YA novel by Icelander Fridrik Erlings, which I quite liked. Now that I think of it, there’s an interesting through-line in terms of feel that runs through both The Creator and Fish in the Sky. Maybe while I’m in Reykjavik I can pick up a few more YA novels written by locals, and see if the feel holds. In the meantime, if you’ve got Icelandic favorites, do let me know. With five weeks to go, and five hours on the plane to Reykjavik, I’ll have plenty of time to read!

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Embracing Porteños: Buenos Aires

I emerged from Ezeiza International Airport this past Saturday into blissfully cool air. Philadelphia, when I left, was nearly tropical, but Buenos Aires weather reminded me of an early spring day. The woman from the booth where I arranged transport into the city pulled her jacket closed and shivered. She glanced at me–in my sleeveless shirt–and said, “Esta muy frió.”

I almost laughed.

The ride into the city revealed first crumbling high rise buildings with drying laundry strung between windows. My driver was fairly conservative, given the motorcycles and cars whizzing by. Traffic lanes are only a suggestion, apparently. The high rise buildings gave way to a more typical urban landscape of squat blocks of stores mounted by apartments overhead. There are still many high rises in the city, though. The architecture and general state of many of the buildings reminded me of old school public housing here in Philadelphia–the type of buildings that our housing authority is razing in favor of garden apartments. And it isn’t to say that there isn’t new construction type of housing apparent. Overwhelmingly, though, the impression I got was of aging buildings and architecture, of things that needed upkeep and maintenance.

keys_cropAs we moved into the Recoleta neighborhood, where my apartment was, the aging buildings seemed more charming. I’ve heard Buenos Aires called the Paris of the South or the Paris of the Americas, and in Recoleta I could see it–the architecture and the look of it and the corner bistros are similar. My Airbnb host, Inés, showed me around her apartment, a high-ceilinged place with parquet floors and a bidet in the bathroom. On leaving she did the double cheek kiss, something common for porteños. The keys to my apartment were skeleton keys, which was something I found hard to get used to. During my first trip out of the apartment, I nearly called Inés to let me back in because it was taking me so long to unlock the door!

So, what did I do for three days in Buenos Aires (BA)? After washing off too many hours of airport stink, I caught a cab over to the Colegiales barrio for a Graffitimundo street art tour led by the fabulous Ana Montenegro. I took the North City tour, which included urban art in the Chacarita, Villa Crespo and Palermo barrios as well, and now I’m wishing I would have taken the South City tour, as well (and not only to enjoy the amazing weather). Street art in Buenos Aires isn’t illegal as it is in other places, and Ana stressed that in BA its not gang-related; rather, it starts with middle class kids with access to disposable income and is more about communications and art in public spaces. Philadelphia is widely believed to have one of the largest public art collections in the U.S., including art murals, so I’m used to seeing this kind of art regularly–however, our art is sanctioned and regulated, etc. Quite different from the free expression in Buenos Aires. It reminds me a lot more of the street art in Amsterdam, which in large part is a more uninhibited reaction to political and cultural issues. Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the tour:

 

Saturday night was dinner at Casa SaltShaker, one of BA’s closed door restaurants. Recently, I’ve heard the term “sociable hermit” tossed around, which describes me fairly well–the idea of intentionally putting myself in a potentially painful social experiment where I’m forced to interact with strangers fills me with dread. I am not a great networker, for sure. But the reviews were favorable for Casa SaltShaker, and so I snagged a spot at Saturday night’s dinner. Guillaume from Montreal and I arrived at the same time, the first guests. Shortly thereafter a guy who had just graduated from Rice University in Houston showed up with his parents, who live in Charleston, SC, followed by Simonetta, a German citizen who has lived for many years in Boston and NYC. Just as we’d sat down to start eating, Dearbhla from Northern Ireland arrived, and that was our complete dinner party. I remain shocked at how much fun I had, and I don’t think it was just my relative lack of sleep or all the wine that made it so. Dan Perlman, the chef, and his husband Henry have an amazing apartment, and Dan’s food was fantastic. A full write-up of the dinner can be found here. My favorite dish was the squid salad, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to try to recreate it at home.

Sunday morning I spend hours wandering through Recoleta cemetery (during which I had a ton of ideas for future plots) and exploring the Feria de Artesanos de Plaza Francia, a weekly arts/crafts fair just outside the cemetery. My afternoon plan to check out the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA) and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes was thwarted, though–unbeknownst to me, there was a mayoral run-off election that day, and all the museums were closed as a result. More wandering ensued. I hung out a bit next to the Floralis Genérica sculpture in a park, enjoying the sun, and then I managed to step into a hole and trip ass over tea kettle. Klutzes unite! It’s always a real joy to fall over in front of a crowd, especially when one of them is an insanely hot jogger who, of course, beelined over to me with rapid fire Spanish inquiries into my health and well-being. No injuries to report, except to my wounded pride!

 

I did get to visit MALBA the next day. The most well-known piece in the museum is one of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, but there was also a wonderful Rogelio Polesello exhibit. MALBA is tiny, and there is an admission price (most other BA museums are free) of 75 pesos, or the equivalent of $8 USD. Despite being a small museum, $8 seems about right. After spending quality time at MALBA, I took a cab to the Palermo Viejo barrio and walked around. I also was able to visit El Ateneo, a bookstore that also makes those listicles of book shops you have to see before you die. I considered, just for a moment, moving in and living quietly for the rest of my life in this gorgeous place.

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I was going to putz around Recoleta a little more, but a look at the flight loads convinced me it was a good time try to leave. Non-rev flying (flying stand-by) can be a tricky business, one that requires a certain degree of flexibility. Like a moron, I flew to BA smack dab in the middle of winter school holidays, which meant that there were hardly any empty/unsold seats on planes to come by. I had a plan, of course–if I couldn’t get out of BA, I was going to take a ferry across the Río de la Plata to Montevideo, Uruguay and fly out from there. But the flight load looked good in BA for Monday night, so I quickly packed up and cabbed it to the airport. The non-rev overlords were good to me, and I was able to get home with no problem at all. Almost 24 hours in the air for three days in Buenos Aires. It was worth it, and I’ll definitely return to Argentina (if for no other reason than to get a better return on investment on the $160 reciprocity fee necessary to enter the country, which is good for 10 years).

This trip was my first in South America, and–as I tend to do–I did a lot of research beforehand. One thing that kept popping up was how dangerous Buenos Aires is. Pickpocketing, muggings, robberies, scams, even kidnappings. Even the U.S. State Department cautions Americans about the crime. As a single traveler, I was slightly concerned. Maybe all the criminals take vacation during the winter months, because I had no problems at all. I walked alone at midnight through the deserted streets of Recoleta to get home from my dinner at Casa SaltShaker, half expecting to be abducted or jumped, but there was nothing but cool breezes and the sound of traffic. It was lovely.

I’d also been told that Porteños are arrogant and rude, another thing I absolutely did not witness. Everyone I met was incredibly nice. My Spanish skills are pretty meager, but even people with limited English skills went out of their way to help me understand and, you know, talk to me. One of my cab drivers asked me out to coffee, and not in a lecherous way (I don’t think, anyway). Meeting people was easy. Being in BA was easy. Easier than I thought.

For those who fly non-rev, as I do, I have a few tips. The first is above–the thing about ferrying to Montevideo and flying out from that airport, which is supposed to be amazing. Secondly, I’m told the Ezeiza airport in BA can be a real bear to get through security–like it can take upwards of three hours. Admittedly, it did take maybe 2.5 hours to get through passport control and customs on the way in, but I breezed through security on the way out (maybe 20 minutes, tops) . . . all due to the fact that I gave myself extra time to get through, and likely beat the crowds that descend for overnight flights to the States. Third, when you get to the airport’s international terminal there is likely not a special check-in desk for your airline; rather, there is a bank of check-in kiosks that cater to multiple airlines. And fourth: do not travel to Buenos Aires in mid-July; as I also mentioned above, this is when Argentinian kids have their winter break. Fly in June or fly in August because your chances will be better. I say I flew out with “no problem,” but trust me–it was a little hairy.

 

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Sleepytime

Sleep and I have a funny relationship. Like everyone else, I love to sleep, but it also makes me a little nervous. Part of it is the concept of dreaming (don’t tell me Freddy Kreuger doesn’t pop into your head sometimes), part of it is the idea of being unconscious for eight hours without being brain damaged, and part of it is how many bad things can happen to you or around you when you’re sleeping. Maybe that’s a little paranoid, but I know I’m not the only person to find sleep kind of scary.

Why else do little kids try to avoid falling asleep?

And why else do so many writers make sleep an integral facet of their novels? Van Winkles recently published a list of their favorite novels and stories that revolve around sleep–work by Haruki Murakami, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King, and me. Yep, The Trajectory of Dreams and its treatment of sleep got a nod (no pun intended). I can almost hear my main character, Lela White, laughing maniacally. Okay, she would totally never do that. More like she’d hunt down the author of the list, break into his house, and stare at him while he slept.

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That white male writers are most often reviewed and wind up winning awards and find themselves on “best of” and “summer reading” lists at places like the New York Times (NYT) is no surprise. It is and has been a white man’s world in many respects for a very long time, primarily because white guys have held the power, the money, and the pens. And look, I’ve got nothing against white guys–I’m married to one, myself–but in today’s world, where we have access to the Internet and a boat-load of alternative perspectives, as well as initiatives like We Need Diverse Books, the NYT putting out a summer reading list of excessive whiteness (100%!) seems . . . tone-deaf and kind of strange.

Unless maybe that’s the goal: to drum up controversy. And hey, we’re all writers here, and we know even bad publicity is good publicity if it gets people talking. I’m not saying that Janet Maslin has a problem with racism. For all I know, her summer reading list is paid promotion of a sort. It happens. Or maybe Maslin’s reading list really is populated by white writers (both men and women, I should note) because white writers are most accessible to readers–and I don’t mean that in a psychological way; I mean it in a real world access way. I know lots of writers who are non-white who have been published, but they don’t usually get much in the way of publicity power behind them. The same is true, of course, of many white writers . . . it just seems more noticeable for writers who are people of color. Or non-Western, for that matter. Huffington Post calls Maslin lazy. In some respects, I think this ignores the greater problem, although certainly Maslin might have looked at her list with a more critical lens. I don’t believe a list that includes POC writers for the sake of including them does anyone any good, but I fail to believe the Fug girls have produced a book better than, say, Soman Chainani or Angela Flournoy.

There’s a lot tied up here in white privilege, and I won’t go into all that. And if you look at my reading list for this summer, I don’t fare so well, either. Right now I’m reading All the Light We Cannot See (white guy), and the next two books on my list were written by a white guy and a white woman, respectively (although all three have somewhat diverse casts of characters–and of course, it’s more than author color we’re talking about here; there’s diversity of religion, culture, etc). And it’s not that I set out for the next few months to play out that way. Discovery is an issue. Many readers, myself included, use lists like the NYT suargentinammer reading list to add books to their To Be Read list. And yeah, that is lazy. I admit it. How, then, do we discover other writers, other perspectives? It was easier when bookstores were the main place of discovery. Online, though, this becomes harder and harder.

For me, I’m making it a point to seek out writers when I travel. I’m hoping to visit Buenos Aires, Argentina in June or July, and Barcelona in Spain this fall (and maybe Rome; we’ll see). Young adult novels, in particular, hold an attractive for me. Obviously, I write mostly young adult fiction, but I think it’s interesting seeing a culture through the eyes of someone with so much immediacy. So for I’ll be looking for those voices this year in the countries where I land. If you have suggestions, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’ll be scouring lists, hoping to come across some gems.

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Twitter_logo_blueThe Internets are all a-buzz with news of Twitter’s terrible earnings, predicting the end of Twitter. Maybe no and maybe so. Surely, we’ve all been hearing the same about Facebook since its IPO in 2012 (and even long before that). Social media popularity ebbs and flows, and it’s not really a big concern of mine–I’ll happily use whatever apps suit my purposes.

I think what simultaneously interests me and repulses me about the Twitter news stories is the talk of monetizing users. Yes, I absolutely know that for any app or software or tool that one uses on the Internet, there’s someone behind it hoping it’ll make them rich. And many of us who use those apps/software/tools also hope to use it in such a way as to make money. Writers are a prime example–so many of us see something like Twitter as not a way to communicate but a way to sell.

Don’t think for a moment that I haven’t considered it myself. The Trajectory of Dreams was published in 2013, and I’ve certainly mentioned the fact on Twitter, Facebook, here on my site, etc. But I’m also someone who gets very turned off when writers use social media first and foremost as a marketing tool. I follow other writers on Twitter–people I’m interested in, or that I’m a fan of. Most of them are cool people. Sometimes, though, I’ll follow someone, and the first interaction I have with him or her is the dreaded direct message, directing me toward a book on Amazon or a Facebook page. My next action is almost always to unfollow because I do not want to marketed to that way.

And look, I’m not dumb. You see in the above paragraph that I link to my novel on Amazon, that my Twitter and Facebook page links are included. I’m not trying to hide or avoid marketing all together, but I am more interested in marketing in tasteful, more subtle ways.

This whole thing makes me think of a story my mother recently told me about visiting the time share condo that she and my stepfather bought into. Apparently they have to attend a condo sales speech anytime they stay at the place, which seems dumb to me–they own their shares already, right? But no, these condo people can always sell them more, so they force owners to be a captive audience and oftentimes keep them there for hours trying to upsell them using really strong arm tactics. My time, particularly my vacation time, is valuable, and I’m not about to waste it on condo sales speeches, and so I know I will definitely not ever use their condo. Maybe some people don’t mind the constant sales pitches. But me, I’m more likely to buy if my vacation is relaxing and interesting, and my needs are met . . . without someone so obviously trying to pitch me all the damn time.

All this to say that Twitter seems to be making an attempt to change their business model a bit. From Slate (article linked above):

Its recent actions signal that it is trying to redefine its business, not as a service that monetizes its users, but as a crowdsourced media platform and advertising agency—a dangerous bet that is unlikely to pay off.

Probably a good idea, since I’m sure I’m not an outlier in finding the idea of being monetized so brutally off-putting. Still, to use Twitter as an advertising agency, those doing the advertising have to be mindful of the same. I’m not the first writer to have opinions about the right way to use social media, and I certainly won’t be the last. Knowing how people react to your marketing style is important, though. Forbes did an article about figuring out your target audience a few years ago, and number 5 on the list resonates with me, which is “What Sets Off Their BS Detector?” Best line in the section: It can take years to build trust and seconds to lose it forever. So this should be your guiding star in content creation. I think of that when I receive one of those stupid auto-DMs from someone I just followed on Twitter. And me, well . . . I consider Twitter a place of communications rather than selling, and maybe I always will. But I’m also mindful about not using it in a way that loses trust.

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A Field Full of Poppies

Cobblestones are dangerous, dangerous things. Slippery, even for sure-footed people on a bright, sunshine-y day. I get that they’re charming, and I get that they’re historically accurate . . . but they’re a recipe for disaster, especially when it’s pouring down rain and a certain someone (you know, me) is confined to an immobilization boot.

This past weekend, I decided to visit London and Brussels, both full to bursting with cobblestone streets.1 The main reason for the trip was to visit the Tower of London to see the WWI commemorative poppy exhibit. I saw pictures online, of course, but there’s nothing like seeing something in person, you know? A sea of nearly a million red ceramic poppies seeming to flow like blood over the dry moat that surrounds the Tower? Yes, I wanted to see it. And considering the exhibit is being dismantled, beginning November 11, there’s not a ton of time to work it into my schedule.

The plan: a solo trip. Take a red-eye flight to London on a Friday night, arriving around 10am on Saturday morning; take the tube to the Tower of London; spend three-ish hours there to see the exhibit and hang out; take a train to Brussels in the late afternoon; spend the night in Brussels; fly home the next morning. Why add in Brussels to this trip? Because flying out of Heathrow airport would add at least an additional $150 to my trip2; taking the train to Brussels and staying overnight there saved me quite a bit of cash. Plus, hey, I’ve never been to Brussels, so why not?

But back to the cobblestones. As you might have figured out, it rained–hard–all day on Saturday. I arrived in London on schedule and a little bleary-eyed (my selfie at the Tower of London is proof of that), but excited to start moving.

Memory is a funny thing. My husband and I visited London a few weeks after the September 11 attacks. I don’t remember it taking an hour to get to London via the tube, but it must have–we stayed a hotel only a block from the South Ken station. And I wasn’t prepared at all for how packed the Tower of London would be. Back in 2001, hardly anyone was traveling for pleasure. Most people holed up in their homes in case of more terrorist attacks, and so Craig and I had Tower of London almost to ourselves. I remember that, aside from the guards and Tower employees, there might have been five other people on the grounds on the day that we visited. In retrospect, it was an amazing opportunity to see the Tower of London in a way that not many people do–able to wander at our leisure and spend as much time as we wanted with the Crown Jewels or in St John’s Chapel. Without the crowds, it was quiet, almost spooky. It was easy to imagine the ghosts that might inhabit the place. With the crowds, it was less mysterious and more . . . hectic.

I’m making it sound as though I didn’t enjoy my visit to the Tower of London on Saturday, but that’s not true. Perhaps I enjoyed it less, but I was still thrilled to see the poppy exhibit. It surpassed my expectations, and it was very cool–volunteers were placing poppies before the deluge halted their work. The effect of the poppies was nothing short of gorgeous, and I had fun trying to figure out how the Tower and the poppies looked different depending on the vantage point.

Up to that point, my trip was a rehash of things I’d done once before. I’d been to and through Heathrow, and I’d navigated the tube before . . . so taking the Eurostar to Brussels was super exciting. The almost three hour train ride (four if you count the loss of an hour; Brussels is in a different time zone than London) winds its way past dozens of small English towns–Gravesend, Aylesford, Hollingbourne, and Ashford–then zips through the Chunnel (the tunnel that passes beneath the English Channel at the Strait of Dover) only to shoot out into France (near Calais), meander through several tiny French towns, cross over the border into Belgium not too far from Tournai, and end up in Brussels. Some of the trip was very picturesque (think sheep grazing on green hills), and some places looked sort of industrial. All told, though, it was a relaxing trip, akin to taking a long-ish ride on Amtrak.

Brussels was, you guessed it, full of cobblestones. They also have roundabouts, which my cab driver clearly knew how to navigate while I watched from the backseat, thinking about how I’d never want to drive there. My hotel was right on the Place du Grand Sablon, a small architectural square surrounded by restaurants, chocolatiers, and winding alleys with houses from the 16th to the 19th century. I had a nice view of the Notre Dame du Sablon church and the tops of the antiques market tents from my hotel room window. The city, what little I saw of it, has a very quaint look, sort of like Paris but much smaller and less urban.

Place du Grand Sablon was relatively empty. There were people eating and drinking at various restaurants, but none of them seemed packed, and hardly anyone was walking around on the streets. With the rain and the empty streets and the quiet, it felt very . . . I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe like I was a spy in some 1940s drama, tramping through the rain-soaked streets in the middle of the night to deliver sensitive information to a shadowy contact who would step out from a dark doorway into the dim light. All I needed was a trench coat.

I would have liked to have arrived in Brussels a little earlier, see more of the city, but it wasn’t possible. By 7p, most of the chocolatiers are closed, and the antiques market is over for the day. There was a single chocolate shop open until 8p–Pierre Marcolini. Of course, I totally bunged it up (call it my stupid American moment). I’d forgotten that the UK still uses pound notes, so when I hit the ATM at Heathrow it gave me pounds, not euros. I admit I didn’t look very hard at the bills; I just assumed it was euros. I tried to paying the very patient guy at the counter in Marcolini in pound notes instead of euros…I’m surprised he didn’t roll his eyes at me. By the time I was able to find a bank to get euros, the store was closed, and I was out of luck. Happily, the Wittamer shop opens at 7am. I was able to snag a box of chocolates and a box of macarons to take back on the plane (I’ve been able to sample both at this point; they are amazing. I was also able to grab about half a dozen Neuhaus kirsch-soaked chocolate cherries at a duty-free chocolate shop at the Brussels airport–stellar).

IMG_20141004_141721I also had dinner at a great little place called Lola. I wasn’t super hungry, but I knew if I didn’t eat something I’d be ravenous in the morning; Lola was just perfect. To begin with, not every restaurant would embrace a single person looking for a meal–let’s face it: I’d be taking up space, a whole table. But Lola has a great bar, where you can sit and have dinner. The hostess and the staff were great to me, and the food was fantastic. The mackerel tartare with cauliflower foam was just the right portion, and it was exactly what I needed.

Flying out of Brussels on Sunday morning didn’t go exactly as I’d planned–a mechanical problem with the plane kept us at the gate for two hours longer than scheduled. That’s minor stuff, though. When you’re flying standby, just getting a seat on the plane is a victory! I arrived home around 3p on Sunday.

So yeah, I did a Europe trip in a single weekend. That’s a little over 14 hours on a plane, 4-ish hours on trains and subways, and about 7 hours available to be a tourist. Totally worth it. I’ll definitely do it again . . . only I’d limit myself to a single city in order to maximize the amount of time I have to actually explore a place.

NOTES:

1. Since my husband works for an airline, I–by extension–get to share his fantastic travel benefits: as long as there’s a seat not taken by a paying customer, I can snag it for free or, depending, the cost of airport taxes.*

2. The UK has a departure tax on flights called the Air Passenger Duty (APD). How much you pay depends on what class you fly, as well as the distance from London to the capital city of the country you are flying to. If you’re flying out of Heathrow to the States, you might pay as little as £69 or as much as £276. From what I understand, taxes at Heathrow will increase quite a bit over the next several years, which makes ground transportation to less expensive hubs (outside England and Scotland) way more attractive.*

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