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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Some of us are not made for the beach. It’s not an issue of having or not having a so-called “beach body,” but more of an issue of being encased in the palest, pastiest skin imaginable. I don’t really tan, so much as I burn and then get even whiter. Plus, I’m not very good at relaxing.

You might be imagining a flaming red girl twitching on the shore of a vast sea. You would not be wrong.

But my husband wanted to hit a beach for our June vacation. More specifically, he wanted an island. Since he’s usually content to let me plan whatever I want for vacation, without too much grumbling I planned instead of a few days visiting St. Maarten/St. Martin in the Caribbean.

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As I type this, a week or two after our return from vacation, my shoulders are still peeling. About a week ago my scalp decided it was the perfect time to start peeling. You know, since I burned the crap out it. It looked like I have dandruff. Awesome.

Anyway, yes, St. Maarten. I rented a condo on the French side of the island (so, St. Martin), at the northern-most tip of French Cul-de-Sac, at Orient Beach, which is a clothing optional stretch of beach. It’s not uncommon to see women going topless on most of the beaches on the island, fully nude less so. Even on Orient Beach (in June, at least), there weren’t a ton of nudists. However, we did see the same folks every morning doing their beach walk sans clothes. They were primarily older folks. We saw nude yoga and nude jogging. When you’re not used to it (like us), it’s super difficult to know where to look . . . because obviously you don’t won’t be openly staring at some geriatric guy’s peen. It just seems rude, you know?

20160613_145741If you can embrace the baring of the dangly bits, Orient Beach is a good spot to be. There must be eight or so different beach clubs, all with their own charms. But for $20, two beach chairs and a giant beach umbrella are yours at just about any of them–plus a “beach boy” (seriously, that’s what they’re called–and they’re generally young, French, and cute) delivering drinks all day to your perch on the beach. Many of the clubs also offer water activities–parasailing, jetskis, snorkeling, etc. Our favorite club (Coco Beach) did not, but there were fewer people and the chairs were spread out a bit more. Plus, our beach boy offered me homemade rum at the end of the day when he closed out our account. There’s something to be said for that. The water is great on Orient Beach, with bigger waves when it gets windy (which is it was toward the end of our trip) and an interesting shallow trench about four feet off the shoreline in which several baby sharks got stuck. The water is also crystal clear and an unreal turquoise color.

There’s not a ton to do in French Cul-de-Sac other other than to hang out on Orient Beach. There are a few food markets, a wine shop, and a couple of restaurants that aren’t supposed to be anything special.

While we spent the bulk of our time on Orient Beach, we did a few other things:

  • 20160615194251Pinel Island. About four minutes from our apartment was the embarkment point to Pinel Island. A water taxi/ferry picks you up at the dock, and for $12 runs you over to the island. There are only two beach clubs on the island; we chose Karibuni, primarily because the food was supposed to be very good (it was–I had ceviche). Again, $20 to rent two chairs and an umbrella, and the beach boys run drinks to you all day–and food, too. We ate in the little restaurant, though, which is little more than a covered dock on the water. The snorkeling is quite nice because the bay is protected and calm. There’s less protected water (with more underwater variety) on the other side of the island, which we were too lazy to find.
  • Marigot. This little town is far more touristy than any other part of St. Martin. It looks a bit resorty and upscale, I guess is what I mean. The one thing in Marigot I can heartily recommend is Serafina’s, which is a wonderful French patisserie. The staff is lovely and kind, and the desserts are incredible. Seriously. So good I ended up buying more cake to go so I could eat it later. Good bread, too. I was amazed, though, to see meringue and French macarons. It must have been 100 percent humidity in St. Martin (no joke); how did they get their meringues and macarons to set up? Super impressive.
  • 20160613_180854Grand Case. It’s a tiny little town with a tiny little airport. I saw way more locals in Grand Case than in Marigot and Cul-de-Sac, and the food is way more interesting (barring Serafina’s). We ate at a lolo one night (a very basic joint that offers grilled food, generally manned by locals) and had a very good meal of grilled fresh-caught fish, although with an odd assortment of side dishes–mac and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, beans and rice, greens, and spaghetti. Another night we ate at Cafe Calmos, which is right on the beach. We had a table close enough to the water to have waves wash under our table. The food and service were quite good, and it was a great place to watch the sunset.
  • Philipsburg. The big cruise ships primarily come into Philipsburg, which is on the Dutch side of the island. There’s a beautiful beach and water, but it was not my kind of a place–super touristy, lots of shopping with pushy salespeople outside trying to get you inside to look, tons of traffic. I wanted to go because I was looking for a museum shop. Of course, we couldn’t find it because there are no street signs anywhere. Meh.

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Other than that, we drove the perimeter of the island once. It took about an hour.

So. Lots of good things about St. Martin/St. Maarten, but there is one major thing about the island that was upsetting. Specifically, the very obvious poverty. Depending on which statistics you pay attention to, either 75 percent or 25 percent of local residents live in poverty. The real number is probably somewhere in the middle, which is still a lot of people. The island is tax free, so it’s not like there’s tax money coming in to pay for safety net type of programs. The majority of the jobs on the island are tourism-related, and they probably don’t pay very much. It’s not like industry is expanding much, so there are only a finite number of jobs available. On one hand, just by visiting the island, I’m part of the problem. On the other hand, I’m contributing to the economy, so it’s not all bad. I haven’t quite worked out how to feel about the poverty issue.

There is a fair amount of crime on the island, though, as a result. We were advised by the woman we rented our apartment from not to be on the beach after dark and not to be out too late, just to be on the safe side, and I’ve certainly read about robberies occurring there. We mostly adhered to the warnings and had no problems at all.

The lack of tax money coming in also impacts the state of the roads on St. Martin. We rented a car from Sixt at the Grand Case airport (primarily because cars rented from the Dutch side of the island have an “R” on the license plate to denote that it’s a rental–which is like a beacon to car thieves) and drove all over the island. The roads are chock full of potholes. Unrelated to the lack of tax money (probably) were the many live obstacles we encountered on the roads: goats, dogs, cats, giant lizards, and even a couple of massive ox.

As I said, I’m not a beach person. I liked St. Martin in the off-season, even though it was very, very humid. I might return one day, but it probably wouldn’t be a super high priority for me.

 

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Behold, Sintra

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What little kid doesn’t imagine him- or herself living in a fairy tale castle at some point? Maybe it’s Hogwart’s, or maybe it’s just the fantasy where your family is filthy stinking rich, but it’s an attractive idea on some level. I used to fervently wish that I was holed up in a big old drafty castle with the world’s most massive library–and my only job was to read. If I’d ever heard of Sintra, Portugal back then, I may have considered it my ultimate mecca . . . not because of the libraries but because of the insanely amazing castles in and around the town.

As part of my trip to Lisbon last month, my husband and I spent a day in Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a population of just less than 400,000. There was strategy involved–Sintra allegedly gets packed. Like really packed. Not just foreign tourists, but Portuguese folks, too. It’s recommended to skip Sintra on a weekend for that reason. And the earlier, the better, as far as arrival goes, too, because by afternoon things are really supposed to jam up. So, me being me, I dragged my husband out of bed at the crack of dawn to the Rossio Train Station to catch the 45 minute train ride to Sintra.

Handy tip #1: the Rossio subway stop/station is NOT the Rossio Train Station. We learned this after walking back and forth through the subway station about three times, searching in vain for a sign of the Sintra trains. The Rossio Train Station is about a block and a half away, but it is not connected to the subway station . . . so go up to the street level and ask some kindly Lisbon resident to point you in the right direction.

Our first stop in Sintra was, of course, the first open food joint we saw. I’d been told that bottled water is hard to come by outside of downtown Sintra, plus there are never enough pasteis de nata–they make an excellent breakfast. Our second stop was the National Palace of Sintra. It’s one of the few sites in Sintra that’s right in the downtown area, maybe a ten minute walk from the train station. The palace opens at 9:30 in the morning (slightly earlier than everything else), and we were there in time for the opening. It was us, and a tour group of about 20 German tourists. That’s not bad for a national monument; we were able to roam around at our leisure without it feeling crowded at all.

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Interior, National Palace of Sintra

I didn’t expect to really love the National Palace of Sintra. From the outside it’s kind of boring looking. Inside, though, is another story. The Islamic influences are fairly obvious in some of the architecture, which is interesting all by itself. Add to that the gorgeous painted ceilings and tiled walls, the massive kitchen, etc, and it’s well worth the visit. Pictured to the left is the Coats of Arms room, or the Sala da Brasões. It’s a little hard to tell but the gilded and painted ceiling depicts stags with the coat of arms of 72 noble Portuguese families. The azulejos tiles around the lower part of the wall show hunting scenes. Not every room is this ornate, but a lot of them are just as pretty.

After visiting the National Palace of Sintra, we had a decision to make–namely, how to get to the rest of the places we wanted to see. If you can’t tell from the photo at the very top of the post, downtown Sintra is almost in a valley at the base of some very steep hills. If you value your sanity and feet, don’t try to walk to all the sites. There are two main options for transit: standard public transit or Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) buses.

HANDY TIP #2: The 434 bus picks up at the train station, and it goes on an endless loop through the town center, to Castelo de Mouros, to Pena Palace. It’s convenient and cheap (like a few euros) . . . which is great, if those are the only places you want to visit.

If you have a more ambitious itinerary, choose the HOHO. It’s around 20 euros for the day, so it’s more expensive; however, it goes on an hourly or half hourly (depending) continuous loop between the train station, the visitor’s center and Sintra National Palace, Quinta da Regaleira, Parque de Monserrate, out through Colares to Cabo da Roca, Convento dos Capuchos, Portao dos Lagos, Castelo de Mouros, Palacio Nacional da Pena, and Estacao de Caminhos.

Spoiler alert–we took the HOHO. Normally we hate the HOHO, but in this case the HOHO covers a ton of ground that would have been difficult if not impossible for us to get to on our own. Also, the 434 gets packed . . . packed like sardines. The HOHO buses was never packed for us, which was great. Considering all the hills you end up climbing, being guaranteed a seat on the bus is priceless.

20160408_104652As you might imagine, after having glanced at the HOHO loop, our next stop–and the place I was most excited about–was the Quinta da Regaleira. This place has had a million owners of the years, but the castle and most the buildings were built in 1892. It’s almost like a little treasure hunt to find the symbols in the architecture that relate to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. That’s not even the coolest part, though–that honor goes to a series of hidden tunnels, one of which leads to the Initiatic Well (pictured to the right).  Another branch leads to caves behind a grotto with a little pond.

The grounds are really amazing–so big that it would take hours to investigate the entire park and buildings. What was lovely about it is that Craig and I were nearly alone. Sure, there were other people exploring the Quinta, but we rarely ran into any. The grounds are above the town somewhat, so the views are really pretty, too.

We considered skipping some of the sites that are further outside of town. After all, we only had one day to see everything we had to see in Sintra. But between all the hill climbing we’d been doing in Lisbon, the walk to and through the National Palace of Sintra, and hiking around the Quinta, we needed a rest–the bus through Colares (a beach area) was about 45-ish minutes long and very beautiful. Interesting, too, mostly because the roads are so narrow. I can’t imagine driving them myself . . . around every corner, I expected a car to plow right into the front of the HOHO bus.

Capo da Roca–a very windy cape which forms the westernmost extent of mainland Portugal and continental Europe–was the next stop. We had the option of staying for an hour until the next HOHO bus showed up, or stopping for 15 minutes. Aside from admiring the view, though, there’s not a lot going on at Capo da Roca. We could have killed an hour at one of the severely overpriced restaurants nearby, but 15 minutes was more than enough time.

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Another 45 minutes on the bus (back toward Sintra) put us at the Castelo de Mouros, or the Castle of the Moors. Good thing we had some time to rest our aching feet–Castelo de Mouros is pretty much a climb straight up . . . and then more climbing. The castle was initially constructed in the 8th or 9th century, and since then it’s been damaged and rebuilt a time or two. The 1755 earthquake did some damage, and in 1838 there was an effort made to preserve what was left of the ruins. Stairs ring the battlements, but they’re not just any stairs–on one side of the steps is a toothed wall that goes up to just past my waist (I’m 5’2″), but the other side of the steps has only maybe a foot high lip. Did I mention the stairs just keep going up? There were more than a few times I thought it entirely possible that I might get bumped off the short side of the stairs and plummet to my death. Of course, the views were amaaaaazing.

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I’m not going to lie–I could have happily taken the HOHO back to the train station after hiking around the Castelo de Mouros. Between the fear that had curdled my stomach and the insane amount of hiking we’d done that day, I was beat. But there was one more stop, and it was one I had to do. It was the fairytale castle. The one of my dreams.

Yes, Pena Palace.

HANDY TIP #3: For the love of all that’s green, stop into the gift shop just inside the gates of Pena Park and buy a pass to ride the Pena bus. Instead of hiking up to the castle (after a full day of hiking), ride the bus to the castle–and all over Pena Park. You’ll be able to see much more throughout the park without crying or permanently damaging your feet or swearing, etc. You can’t buy the pass at the gift shop at Pena Castle, so right inside the gates is your only option.

As I said, by the time we got to Pena Palace, we were both cranky. Neither of us wanted to take another step. But this is Pena Palace, future home of my reading habit.

PicMonkey Collage

Interestingly, while Pena Palace is beautiful from the outside, inside is a bit boring. I guess that means more nooks and crannies for me read in, eh?

We arrived at Pena Palace around maybe three or four in the afternoon, and it was much more crowded than any other place we’d been to that day. Not packed solid, but moderately crowded. It was April, though, which isn’t exactly high season. And back at the train station afterward, it was almost deserted again.

HANDY TIP #4: Don’t even bother with gift shops at any of the sites (except at Pena to buy the internal bus pass). They all sell the exact same things, and none of it is very interesting.

All in all, Sintra was absolutely worth visiting, although in retrospect I wish we would have stayed overnight in Sintra and spent two days seeing the sights. I also credit taking the dreaded HOHO bus with introducing me to Colares. It would be a great place to spend a few days on our next trip to Lisbon. And hey, a bonus: Colares is perfectly flat.

 

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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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I’m a Vermicious Knid

Chocolate is one of my very favorite things. Not all chocolate, of course; I admit to being a Grade A Chocolate Snob. And that, my friend, is how some of my travels devolved into chocolate tourism. Twice last year I flew places, at least in part, to buy chocolate.

First, there was a day in Toronto in November. I know what you must be thinking–Toronto does not exactly have the reputation of a chocolate mecca. And, really, I didn’t go there for only chocolate. My friend Randi lives there, so I was mostly going to visit her. But she suggested visiting SOMA Chocolatemaker, and who am I to say no to chocolate? As it turns out, it was one of the highlights of the trip. I spent an inordinate amount of money on chocolate, including several bars of their Stratus chocolate, which won silver in the 2015 World final of the International Chocolate Awards; a half dozen truffles; and a container of Mexican drinking chocolate mix. Stellar, on all accounts.

Toronto is fairly close–it’s less than an hour of flight time for me. Not to negate the chocolate if it’s too easily procured, of course. I’m kind of looking forward to heading back, both to see Randi and to buy more chocolate from SOMA.

Second, there was a weekend jaunt to Brussels about a week before Christmas. I told people it was mostly about seeing the fabulous Christmas market in Brussels (because I’d never been to a European Christmas market before), but it was mostly about the chocolate. I’d been to Brussels last year overnight and brought back some amazing chocolate, but there wasn’t nearly enough time to fully explore all that Brussels has to offer.

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Wittamer, Neuhaus, Pierre Marcolini, Passion, Laurent Gerbaud, Jean-Philippe Darcis, Galler, and even Godiva. We visited them all (well, okay, not Godiva . . . after all, I can walk down the street here at home and lay hands on Godiva). But my very favorite was Elisabeth, a shop that collects the best artisanal sweets from around Belgium. There are four locations in Brussels, each with its own specialty.

20151212_140422Since my husband and I were visiting the Christmas market, we headed to the two shops located near Grand Place, on Rue au Beurre. One store featured gigantic meringues in the window, and they looked so amazing I wanted to buy them all. Meringues and planes don’t mix, though. That shop had packaged goods, lots of breads and cakes. The second shop was mostly chocolates and candy, including Cuperdons, which I love. They also had the most fantastic handmade melo cakes. Depending on where you live, you might know them better as Malomars. It was heavenly.

Let’s just say that I flew back to the States with a lot of really great chocolate, and the people with whom I exchange holiday gifts received some of it. Of course, now that I’m out of chocolate, I wish I would have both bought more and given away less. Sixteen hours in the air for 24 hours in Brussels? Totally worth it.

And not just for the chocolate, I might add. The Winter Wonders holiday market was beautiful, too [click each photo to embiggen].*

Grand Place Winder Wonder market Winter Wonder market Grand Place Winter Wonder market

*Weirdly, both trips were marked somewhat by terrorism. I was in Toronto the night of the Paris attacks, and my husband and I were in Brussels about two weeks or so after Brussels had raised its terror alert level and put the city in lockdown. Maybe unsurprisingly, the Brussels trip was the one where a response to the threat was more obvious. Interestingly, though, it was at the Philadelphia airport where security seemed much higher. There were security officers with sniffer dogs on the jetway to get onto the plane, but no clear uptick in security at the Brussels airport–it seemed business as usual, at least to the naked eye. There were a few heavily armed soldier types at the Christmas market itself (which was packed with people), but I’m unsure if that’s a real difference from other years. The fact is, though, that I didn’t feel unsafe or threatened at any time.

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In Tribute

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New Year, Old Adventures

Nicole and Craig go glacier hiking

Take adventure where you find it. For me, there were great opportunities to discover last year, and part of that was traveling to do research for writing. That’s especially true of my trip to Iceland last October.

There’s been a lot written about Iceland recently, particularly how it’s the new it destination. Grapevine has a great article about the rise of tourism in the country, crediting music for the boom, but there’s been something crazy like a 20 percent increase just over the last five years. I read somewhere that Iceland is the number one destination for travel bloggers. It’s justified, is the thing. I had an amazing time and would return in a heartbeat–and not just because the novel I’m currently outlining benefited from my trip.

So, what’s so great about Iceland? Scenery, people, art, and food. That pretty much sums it up. But before I head into opinion, here are the facts:

  • Visit date: October 26-29, 2015
  • Housing: Airbnb, 1 bedroom (about a block from The Sun Voyager sculpture, and right around the corner from KEX Hostel)
  • Airline: WOW Air (PHL-BOS-KEF-BOS-PHL)
  • Weather: The temperature ranged from 30 degrees F. to 50 degrees F. It was sunny with blue skies on our first day and overcast the rest of the time. It did pour down rain once or twice, but there was no day where it rained the whole time. We also got a taste of the famous Iceland winds one day, but it was location-specific.

Scenery
Most people think of Iceland and immediately assume I’m going to talk about the Aurora Borealis. And, well, I guess I am right now, but sadly we did not actually see the Aurora. The Kp-index dropped to zero the second we set foot on Iceland and pretty much stayed there. Alas: no lights for us. But it’s not like that soured the trip for us–the lights would have been a bonus. I mean, come one–look at Reykjavik. This is the view from the top of Hallgrimskirka, the big, Lego-esque Lutheran church in the middle of the downtown area . . .

View from Hallgrimskirka

My husband and I took the tiny little elevator up to the bell tower of the church and could not believe how beautiful the views were. But Reykjavik on a sunny day is nothing compared to some of the other scenery (click to embiggen):

Lava field outside Reykjavik Reykjavik bay lighthouse Vik beach Solheimajokull glacier waterfall Houses in Reykjavik

We were able to visit Vik beach (an amazingly gorgeous black sand beach that is very, very windy), several massive waterfalls, Solheimajokull glacier, and a lava field outside Reykjavik for a lava tube cave hike. The glacier hike was a definite highlight. After all, it’s not every day that you get to strap on crampons and wield an ice axe so you can cling, feet-first, to a glacial tongue. It was fairly terrifying since there are basically no safety lines (and a lot of crevices to fall into, etc), and it’s hard to learn to trust crampons, but it was also one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Plus, I was able to spend some time on the hike with one of the guides, who has inspired an upcoming character.

One thing of note: we did make a stop off at the Blue Lagoon on our way to the airport on the last day. My husband enjoyed it, but I was less impressed. I mean, it’s a hot bath with hundreds of your closest friends . . . and most of the Americans have managed to avoid taking the mandated shower prior to entering (you know, because we’re all such prudes about nudity). I know because as a writer, I’m a champion eavesdropper–and most of the Americans I overhead felt the need to brag about it. Gross. But the setting (out in the middle of a lava field) was very pretty.

People
Icelanders have a reputation for being tall and blonde. Some of them were. What’s strange is that the guys were blonde but didn’t seem extraordinarily tall, while a lot of the women were dark-haired and seemed fairly Amazonian. Regardless, they were all incredibly nice. There wasn’t a single Icelander we interacted with who didn’t give off an air of kindness. Maybe the huge tourist boom hasn’t reached peak saturation yet . . . or maybe Icelanders are just genuinely nice. After all, Iceland is regularly voted one of the happiest countries on Earth, and it always tops the list of the safest places.

The tour guide for our lava tube caving excursion told us that the Icelandic happiness quotient, though, is all about having low expectations. She gave us a fairy tale that all Icelandic children are told, something about parents killing their children by throwing them in the river (yes, really). Then she just shrugged and said, “If you wake up in the morning, and your parents haven’t drowned you in the river, you’re happy.”

Hey, whatever works.

Art
Reykjavik artReykjavik has a lot of public art. In early October last year, the big music festival, Airwaves, committed to creating ten big murals as part of the party. But there was art even before that. Some of it is murals, some are weird little storefront displays, and some are oddball exhibits on fences.

On our first night in Reykjavik, my husband wasn’t feeling very well. I ended up canceling our plans and walking around town by myself. It was during my hike around the streets that I discovered quite a few of the murals and exhibits for myself. And maybe it’s just how laid back everything feels, but I felt rather creative myself. All I wanted to do is sit down in a cafe with my laptop and write. Of course, I didn’t have my laptop, so I settled for brainstorming about a new novel and people watching while I sipped a mocha in bookshop on the main drag.

Iceland is a place that breeds creativity. Allegedly, one in ten Icelanders will publish at least one book during their lifetime, and there are an awful lot of them who play instruments and are in a band, too.

Food
Iceland is known for food, all right, but not exactly the kind you’re dying to eat. Fermented shark (hakarl), anyone? I was faced with the opportunity to try it at a tiny little Icelandic tapas joint one night and declined. I did try the marinated minke whale, though, which was tasty. But Fear Factor-esque food is not all there is to eat in Iceland.

Icelandic tapas

I’ve seen people say that food in Iceland is expensive. That’s not really true. Granted, if you live on fast food, real food–any real food–will seem expensive by comparison. That’s not to say we didn’t have an expensive-ish meal. We at DILL–seven courses are 11,900 krona per person, or about $96. All things considered, though, it was a bargain. It was really seven courses, plus six “snacks” (appetizers). It’s tons of food–and really amazing food at that. There was wild boar, lamb hearts, goose, reindeer, lots of fish, and two dessert courses, but my favorite was a tiny purse made of a thinly shaved beet slice, inside of which was liver mousse and roasted yeast. There are also lots of fish and chips joints scattered around the city, and those are great–mostly because of the freshly caught fish that is so widely available.

And then there’s the skyr. If you’re not familiar, it’s more or less yogurt–sort of a cross between regular and Greek yogurt. I don’t know what makes it different, really, but I love it. It was the thing I wanted for breakfast, and I still want it. The only thing I can find that’s close is Siggi’s yogurt, which is “Icelandic style.” It just doesn’t taste the same, though.

So, there you have it: my Iceland trip. My husband and I agree that we’d love to go back. In the spring next time, I think, so that we can rent a car and drive the ring road all around Iceland. True, there’s no chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis in the spring and summer, but that’s okay.

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How to Save a Marriage: A Star Wars Love Story

A house divided against itself cannot stand. That’s what I’m facing today. No, it is not that my husband and I are political or religious opposites. We do not argue about which cheesesteak join is better or about the superiority of plain or peanut M&Ms. My friends, my husband is a Star Wars supernerd, while I have never seen any of the movies.

It’s true. I’m a woman in her forties who has yet to have the life-changing experience of the Star Wars movies. Well, according to my husband, the life-changing bit is only movies three through six, the original trilogy. As he so eloquently puts it, the prequels suck ass.

And so it was not expected–come on, life-changing, people–this morning when Craig gleefully pranced into the house today, brandishing his online reservation for a ticket to see the new film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in mid-December. What was maybe more unexpected was, despite my affliction, we spent a few minutes in deep discussion about the implications of The Force Awakens.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We mostly made fun of the dumbasses who are having a conniption fit over the alleged lack of straight, white male characters in the movie:

Specifically, the #BoycottStarWarsVII “movement” (and I’m skeptical of calling it that, for reasons I’ll get into shortly) takes umbrage with the fact that The Force Awakens‘ cast features not one, but multiple people of color, a situation a small but vocal minority sees as evidence of a “white genocide” in the Star Wars universe, perpetuated by Abrams, a white-hating Hollywood Jew.

Oh, dear. Of course, the linked article goes on to note that the dumbasses in question are a vocal minority (the irony!). But wait, there’s more, and it’s hilarious!

Another Twitter account, calling itself “Captain Confederacy,” similarly griped that “SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] complain about White artists ‘misappropriating’ culture created by blacks but then celebrate a non-White Star Wars.” Yet another complaint read that the movie should be boycotted “because it’s nothing more than a social justice propaganda piece that alienates it’s core audience of young white males.”

laughingAs a professional Social Justice Warrior (it’s true: I get paid to help bring about social justice), I applaud this ninja-like stealth attack on young white males. You’ll have to excuse me while I go bathe in the tears of the patriarchy.

Anyway, in between bouts of hysterical laughter, Craig did explain to me (ignorant as I am about the racial vagaries of the Star Wars films) that these yahoos have failed to remember a few things:

  • The Stormtroopers in the original Star Wars films were clones, and Craig tells me the one guy took off his helmet and looked sort of Hawaiian. Which means all the Stormtroopers had to have been Pacific Native Islanders or something, I guess.
  • James Earl Jones was the voice of Darth Vader. Of course, the actual character of Darth Vader was a white guy (played by Hayden Christensen) . . . which kind of means that Darth Vader is mixed race in a way.
  • Billy Dee Williams played Lando Calrissian in movies five and six.
  • Samuel L. Jackson played Mace Windu in the prequels.

Well, there are more . . . trust me (okay, trust Craig), there are many more non-white actors in the Star Wars films, which makes the big old whiny baby JJ Abrams hates white people guys look pretty silly. Okay fine, they look pretty silly all the time (I mean, come on, who remembers the stink these same dorks made about Mad Max?). Plus, last time I checked there are still plenty of white guys in the new Star Wars trailer. So . . . ?

I will say one thing for them: they have made it possible for my divided house to stand. After all, nothing brings people together more than making fun of racist morons.

romance

 

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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.

akhmatova

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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This is the End, Beautiful Friend

GonnaDie

Happy last day on Earth! A Christian broadcaster who apparently lives a few towns over from me has predicted that today is the end of the world.

As reported by The Guardian, McCann believes there is a “strong likelihood” that the world will end on this date, but he added there’s an “unlikely possibility” that it will not.

At any rate, Armageddon seems to have had no effect on the eBible Fellowship’s broadcast plans – even on Thursday, the bible readings and discussions are planned to continue as normal, according to their online schedule.

Unlikely possibility, eh? The fact that the schedule continues past the doomsday date suggests a pretty high level of uncertainty. I’m not exactly impressed by that degree of commitment.

For all the doomsdays I’ve survived—easily three or four dozen by this time in my life—I can be sure of one of two things: people who believe there’s a mysterious overlord in the sky planning to zap us into oblivion have terrible prognosticating and/or analytical skills, or that we’re all absolutely unkillable. Granted, today’s not over, but I like my odds of surviving to pay my electric bill another day.

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that McCann is right. We’re all gonna die today. It’s a little bit depressing that I’ll be spending my last hours at work. If I knew—I mean, absolutely for sure knew—that today was it, my co-workers would have to do without me. I’d grab my husband and hop a plane to a place I’ve never been before, someplace exciting and beautiful, and wait for the end while drinking wine and laughing.

The end oseekingforafriendfortheendoftheworldf the world is popular-ish in films, so it’s interesting to see how things play out in the imagination of others. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) has lots of rioting, lots of sex and drugs, lots of nostalgia. Then there’s Last Night (1998), which is kind of the same, but with more suicide. It’s not quite as popular in novels. I mean, yeah, for a while there you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel, but the world as we know it ending and the actual world ending are too different things. It’s hard to kill all your characters—a lot of readers aren’t down with that.

So today is the end of the world. How are you spending your last days?

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