Saturday, December 16, 2017

Book Review: Victoria

When I was studying for my undergraduate and graduate degrees, my primary focus of interest was on Britain in the Victorian era. At one point, I even hoped to write a dissertation on the problem and treatment of orphans during that time. Dickens was my favorite writer and Victorian England my favorite period. But, it has been a while since I devoted any amount of time or energy to those topics. This book was a welcome introduction back into the things that captured my attention most in my twenties.

Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, is a tween biography by Catherine Reef. The pictures accompanying the text will surely bring the time period and the queen to life in the minds of youthful readers. I found myself imagining what it must have been like for Victoria to wake, a few months after her eighteenth birthday, and find that she was the queen of such a vast, grand empire. Although matters of politics and national identity might be a stretch for some young readers to grasp, the vibrant illustrations help to bring the story of Victoria's life into focus. I enjoyed perusing the family tree provided at the end of the book. I would highly recommend this book to homeschooling families and young readers fascinated by British royalty.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My Score of the Season

This Christmas feels as if it will break us. Bryce, who has had his present phone since high school, has asked for an upgraded I-phone. Sean, approaching 11, wants to get his first phone and wants an I-phone, like his brothers. I can no longer budget a couple hundred dollars per boy. We are well beyond that now.

But all is not despair. Today I scored the best Christmas deal I will ever find. My boys are aware that I'm a thrift store shopper and that sometimes their gifts will be second-hand. I've never heard one of them complain, because I do fairly well at finding brand name clothing or books and games in good shape. So far, I've purchased two books and a game for each of the younger boys from the thrift store.

Yesterday, while looking for a tree topper for my small hallway tree, I noticed a really decent pair of  men's Schwinn roller blades in a size 10/11. That is Bryce's size, but I didn't think he'd want them. After I left the thrift store, however, I thought about it more and realized that Trevor would love a pair of roller blades and since his shoe size is 9-1/2, by the time spring rolls around again and he can use them regularly, they will probably fit fine. Besides, they were marked $4.99 and for that price, even if he never used them, it wouldn't be a substantial loss.

So this morning I stood outside the doors waiting for the store to open and praying that nobody else had chanced upon the roller blades and snatched them up. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw them in the same location and quickly settled them into the basket of my cart. I decided to skim the store again to see if anything new popped out at me. On a top shelf in the electronics section, I noticed a large globe. Sean has been fixated on geography lately. When we ride in the car, he brings up a map on his phone and asks me to try to stump him. Usually, he finds every country I mention.

I pulled the globe down and realized it was supposed to be an electronic one (duh - it was in the electronics section). It had a cord with one prong that looked like a headphone jack. Although I was well aware it might not work at all, I decided to buy it anyway because it was only $3.99. When I got home I looked up the globe on the computer and discovered it is supposed to have a wand. Back I went, explaining to the sales clerk that I had bought the globe but it was missing a piece. Amazingly, I found the wand on a shelf nearby. Whoever checked the item in separated the wand from the globe and priced them separately. The clerk waived me away when I showed her the price tag on the wand, saying "You already paid for the globe and it goes with it." I still didn't know if the thing would work. The battery compartment on the globe had four corroded batteries in it and I had to clean the battery compartment out and put new batteries in. So, I still had my doubts.






But, when I got home, put a fresh battery in the wand and pushed the power button, the thing sprang to life, speaking an introduction to the globe. It is so cool. You press the wand to various locations and can learn all sorts of facts like capitals, population, area, etc. It even has a game asking you to find and touch various cities on the globe (this is sure to appease his love of challenge in finding locations). Plus, here's the kicker. When I googled "smart globe" to find out what piece might be missing,  the first smart globe pictures that came up listed that item as $165. Even though this is a different (and discontinued version), I'm sure I found a Christmas steal!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Book Review: Weird-o-pedia

Weird-o-pedia: The Ultimate Book of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things, by Alex Palmer, is a fun little book of tid-bits and curiosities. It reminds me of a grown-up version of the books my sons love so much - The Weird But True series by National Geographic Kids. Although it has a similar flavor, it is definitely for adults, with a chapter devoted to "Love and Sex."

Although I didn't take notes on some of the more interesting details, I do remember a few sections I enjoyed. After visiting the Colosseum in Rome, it was fascinating to note that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, thus the term "worth one's salt." It seems like I read this before I checked out the book, but another curious travel fact mentioned that "The first toilet in any row of public stalls is the least frequented and contains the least bacteria." Good to know. I loved the section in the animal chapter on the names of groupings of animals: "ballet" of swans, "business" of ferrets, "intrigue" of kittens, and "ostentation" of peacocks. Even though it is highly unlikely that I'll ever use such terms, I love to discover new words like that.

The back cover encourages me to nap more, indicating that "napping can save you from a heart attack," and to surf the Internet more because it supposedly makes you smarter ("but not as smart as reading this book will"). Since my focus was taken up with the catch-up process for the Nanowrimo challenge (beginning ten days behind, due to my trip), this was an easy-to-read, light-hearted book. I think I might like to seek out another by the same author, Literary Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literature.

Monday, December 4, 2017

European Excursion - Rome

Once again, my intense preparation paid off as I took my seat for the flight from Paris to Rome. I was seated next to another Groupon customer on the same London/Paris/Rome trip. When she explained that she and her husband intended to take a taxi from the airport to the hotel, I whipped out my alternative transportation card and showed her how easy it would be to simply take the train from the airport to the Roma Tuscolana station. It would be a forty five minute ride, as opposed to a lengthier and costlier trip in a taxi required to stop at traffic lights. I pulled up a map of Roma Tuscolana on my phone, before putting it on airplane mode, and was able to show her that the hotel was right around the corner from the station. Later, that afternoon, I ran into her in the hotel lobby and she thanked me for saving them time and money and said the directions were spot on and easy to follow. It felt good to be able to assist others with transportation details.

I was torn between jetting off on my own into the city center of Rome and waiting around to go in with Richard and Linda. I think if I hadn't been so fearful of the graffiti-clad neighborhood and of the prospect of Roman thievery, I would have ventured out on my own. Alas, I decided to wait. Linda, whose phone had not been working during the trip, had been desperately trying to make contact with her friend in Greece because they were supposed to spend a few extra days there after our time in Rome was over.

It felt like we had wasted valuable hours. By the time we departed the hotel it was already late in the afternoon. Although we easily found the Ponte Lungo subway station a few blocks away, we were growing hungry and the machine refused to take Linda's fifty euro note (perhaps it didn't have enough to make change for the large bill). In the end, we stopped off at a little pizzeria near the station and had pleasant conversation with the proprietor there. His prices were reasonable and we enjoyed our time in his little pizza shop so much that we vowed to return the following evening.



After breakfast the next morning, we set out to find the I Love Rome Hop-on-Hop-off bus company because Linda and Richard had purchased tickets for that particular bus from the front desk. There were numerous city buses at the central Termini station, but eventually we found the bus with the pink heart. Just like the Paris bus, we were handed ear buds and directed to the channel for English translation. Unfortunately, it was raining, so our view was obstructed for the first part of our ride. When the sun appeared, we made our way to the topside of the double-decker bus, but found almost all the seats were filled with rain water. Still, I was able to perch on the edge of a seat and capture a few images of the city as we slowly made our way through the streets:










I loved so many of the solid, intricately-carved giant doors. It was always a thrill to glimpse the tiny side streets crammed with miniature cars and various shops:


The first stop where we actually got off the bus was the stop for Vatican City. We crossed the bridge and approached St. Peter's Basilica:



Unfortunately, by this time it was already close to noon and I knew I had to be at the Arch of St. Constantine, near the Colosseum by 1:25 p.m. for my pre-paid Colosseum tour. I split off from Richard and Linda (who were able to take the tour of the Vatican and see the famous Michaelangelo ceiling painting in the Sistine Chapel). While I waited to re-board the bus, I took a photo of this vendor who was selling the most intriguing collapsible bowl. I thought about purchasing one, but worried it would take up too much room in my luggage. (I found out later that Linda purchased one when she saw it):



It took quite a while to go all the way around the route again to get to the Colosseum bus stop, but I arrived with enough time to find a small side-street restaurant and have a panini:



Finally, I found the tour guide and embarked upon the most interesting aspect of my time in Rome - the Colosseum Ancient Ruins Tour:




Our guide, Stefano, regaled us with tales of how the gladiators rose from 60 stone elevators (cranked up on a coiled mechanism from below) and entered the arena to face animals and other gladiators.





The emperor would give the signal to indicate if he wanted the gladiator to kill or simply maim his opponent. Gladiators received tremendous fame and fortune for their participation in these deadly games. Spectators sat around the amphitheatre on marble seats:



We left the Colosseum and climbed Palatine Hill to view more ruins. The tour guide provided fascinating commentary. How I wish I could remember all of what he taught us!



By the time the tour ended, it was already past 5 p.m. and growing dark. I thought about taking the bus back to the Trevi Fountain stop. I had really wanted to see the fountain and perhaps even toss a coin over my shoulder, but instead I made my way to the closest subway station and returned to the hotel (practically running from the Metro station to the hotel because the neighborhood seemed a bit dodgy to be out in alone at night).

That night, Linda and Richard and I made our way back to the little Voglia di Pizza shop. While we were eating some pasta and trying more of the pizza options, a smart-looking young man entered the shop and I could tell right away that he was English. He said he was from Oxford, so I mentioned that I had studied for a summer in Oxford during my college years. He seemed duly impressed. I went on to tell him more about my past trips to England and of our current London-Paris-Rome trip. He marvelled at the excellent price we paid for such an extensive trip. He explained that he had just landed in Rome with a theatre troupe presenting A Picture of Dorian Gray. At only 21, he was cast in the lead role of Dorian. I felt an instant kinship with the young man, a lover of literature and drama and education. I was really enjoying our conversation until it turned to American politics - groan, my least favorite subject to discuss.

Linda and I met for one last breakfast the following morning and then I was off on my own again to traverse the final leg of my trip - the nine hour flight from Rome to JFK, a three hour layover, and then my final flight from JFK to Chicago. By the time I landed in Chicago, I was beyond tired and quite thankful someone else would be driving me back to the hotel. The clerk upgraded me, at no cost, to a suite, but I could have slept in a broom closet, I was so tired.

My four hour drive home went smoothly and I was thrilled to be back on my own turf. I ran into the leader of my writing group at the library and had such fun sharing tidbits from my travels. Tackling this daunting trip on my own, filled me with a new-found self-confidence and a determination to push into hard things more often.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Another Nanowrimo Challenge Has Come and Gone

In some ways, this was the most frantic and chaotic one-month writing challenge I have experienced. In other ways, it was the most rewarding and easiest. Instead of having a full month to fulfill Nanowrimo's 50 thousand word goal, I left for my European excursion on the 1st day of the month and didn't muster focus or energy enough to begin until November 11th. With less than three weeks left to meet the word goal, I knew I'd have to write twice as many words as I usually accomplish in a given day (in past years, I've always reached for 2000 a day). Due to the intensity of the daily requirement, I gave up my usual morning brainstorming walks. Less exercise and cogitation, but more writing.

The whole impetus for my trip was research for a sequel to my Dream-catcher and the Frog-kisser young adult novel. That novel ends with two young college students preparing for a trip to London, Paris, and Rome. Somehow, despite chatting with the two young women I met on the trip (Isabelle and Katie who used the Groupon deal for a girlfriend trip, after Isabelle's husband was called away for military duty), I couldn't get the feel for the dynamics of the girlfriend angle. After all, the primary thrust of my experience was that I had tackled the travel challenge on my own. I thought about writing an inspirational women's novel about a woman who goes on a solo trip and finds the inner strength she thought she'd lost for good, but that idea fell flat as well. In the end, I kept coming back to something Linda had said about how many interesting experiences I had encountered in my life and that it would make a riveting travel memoir. And so, bending the Nanowrimo rules a bit - after all, it is supposed to be a fiction challenge - I set out to write my travel memoir.

I titled it, loosely, There and Back Again: How Travel Changed my Life. I'm not fond of that title now, but we'll see if I can improve upon it. By far, my favorite part of the writing experience (apart from actually taking the trip that led to the memoir), involved digging out my old journals from my high school and college years. In October of 1981, my high school creative writing teacher issued a journaling assignment that I latched onto with gusto. I took that first journal everywhere. I had my friends sign it. I gave it a name (indeed, the first six journals have names - Alden, Brandy, Chauncey, Durwyn, Edwin, and Farr - most of the names meaning "friend"). I poured out every experience, every emotion, every encounter. I kept them meticulously for a little over a decade, but I think my marital struggles derailed my journaling because it no longer felt safe to write down my deepest, darkest feelings in tangible form. In looking back over the endless pages of writing, I was stunned by the intensity of my feelings and the depth of my spiritual hunger.

I kept a faithful record of all those earliest travel experiences - my first plane ride, my first international flight, and my first missionary trip. Every day was filtered through the lens of my idealistic youthful eyes. As I read the journals, I set about capturing those moments a second time with more focus and purpose. Writing about things that have actually happened to you is far easier than coming up with actions for a fictional character to experience. The daily word goal of 4000 words didn't seem difficult at all (although I found it took more time than fiction writing, perhaps because I spent a fair amount reviewing past words in order to articulate the ideas in a fresh form).

In addition to the old journals, I had five memory albums to sift through. Two of the albums contained photos, old programs, and paraphernalia from high school and college. One highlighted my summer service corps term in the Philippines. The final two were from my England adventures - Wheaton-in-England, and then my six-month residency.





Thanks to a two-day writing retreat at the beloved Mahseh Center in Kewanna, Indiana, I was only 800 words away from the goal on November 22nd. I took two days off for Thanksgiving and came back with a little less intensity (only completing an average of 3000 words each day), but finished the month with 61,000 words and an almost-complete first draft. I'm working on the most important part now, the take-away chapter. If a memoir doesn't provide something for the reader to connect with and take away from its pages, it is just a catalog of events. I may slow down for this part, but in a few days I should be done and ready to put it away for two months to simmer (so I can come at it with fresh eyes for the lengthy, tedious rewriting process).

Monday, November 27, 2017

European Excursion - Paris

I was feeling rather bummed that I hadn't done more in London. Indeed, all I accomplished in my two days there seemed paltry: a quick trip to the Harry Potter store, a lengthy walk visiting five museums I didn't even care about, a ride on the London Eye (nothing too spectacular, despite providing a festive night view), and a crummy serving of fish and chips. I hadn't done my favorite walk (from Big Ben down the Embankment to a beloved tea shop), hadn't dined in the restaurant pods a friend had recommended along the Embankment overlooking the Thames near the Tower of London (called The Coppa Club - if you wish to dine there for New Year's Eve, you can rent a pod for dinner for six to eight people for one hundred and fifty pounds - it was better for my wallet that I didn't make it there - although I'm adding my friend's photos because it did, indeed, look like a cool experience), and hadn't visited The London Dungeon Museum again. However, I can look on it more positively. Everything I did in this visit would not have been available to me during my past four trips to England, back in the day.



(Photos of Coppa Club pods by Patti Phillips)

After another sumptuous breakfast at our London hotel, Richard and Linda and I made our way down to the St. Pancras train station. We arrived early, at 9:30 a.m. for our 11 a.m. ride through the Chunnel. We sat talking to while away the time, and a group of French young people were lounging nearby waiting, too. One of the young girls, offered me the rest of her change, saying she wouldn't be needing it again (I protested - after all, I might not need British coins again, either - but she insisted, so I added them to my pocket and told her I would give them to my youngest son, who loves coins of all kinds).

The boarding process was manic. As the hour and a half went by, the waiting lounge filled to overflowing and about fifteen minutes before the departure of two separate trains (one to Brussels and one to Paris), they announced that both trains would be departing from ramps 9 and 10. Everyone was crushed into a mob trying to board the trains before the strict 11:01 departure time. I didn't even check to make sure Richard and Linda made it on the train. I was simply determined that I wouldn't be left behind and miss my 3 p.m. literary walking tour.

I kind of expected the train to plunge into darkness for a majority of the trip. It was surprising that each time I looked out the window, I saw green fields and quaint houses. I was seated next to an older French woman who explained, in broken English, that her grandchildren live in London and after accompanying them back to their home, she was finally headed back to her own home. She was having some difficulty with her back (I noticed this both when I had to scoot past her to my window seat and again when I got up to use the restroom), so when the train alerted passengers to the imminent arrival in Paris, we both hopped up together and made our way to the exit doors.

I had booked the literary walking tour through a company called Localers.com. I was due to arrive in Paris at 2:17 and had only a forty-three minute window to find the starting point location. Thankfully, a kind woman from the organization had called me from Paris and explained the most reliable method for getting there on time. Using her precise directions, I turned right out of the train station, found the taxi queue and was probably only the third person in line. I had written out, in French, a phrase asking if the driver could get me to Cafe de Flore by 3 p.m. because I was in a hurry. He nodded yes and then asked me something, in French, that I couldn't understand (although a minute later I realized he had been saying the street name, Boulevard Saint-Germaine). I'm afraid I tipped him horribly. The fare was only 13 euro (two less than the Localers representative had predicted), but when he handed back a five euro note and two coins, I was only thinking about needing an additional tip for the tour guide and knew the walking tour had cost 59 euro, as opposed to the 13 euro taxi fare, so I handed back the one euro coin and felt horribly chintzy).

After waiting about five minutes (I was even early), a young guide arrived. I knew he wasn't my guide, because an email (with picture) had alerted me to look for a young woman named Daphne. I was thrilled to learn that there were only four female participants for the tour (there had been 16 on the London one, making it harder to hear the guide). One young woman was actually an American living and working at a design school in Paris. She took the tour to learn more about the neighborhood where she resides. The other two women were American travel agents. As we started the tour, it began to rain, but Daphne merely led us into an alcove at a nearby church and continued her talk, showing us pictures in a small album to accompany her description of the writing scene in Paris back in the days of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wilde. We traced the steps of these authors, as Daphne outlined the rise of the cafe movement and the lure of Paris as a cheap place to live, write, and encounter other great thinkers and artists. I had prepared myself for the tour by watching Woody Allen's movie, Midnight in Paris, and was glad to have saturated myself in a tale of these authors prior to the walk.

I learned a ton, and delighted in plunging myself in a literary world of the past again. By the time the tour ended, at the famous bookstore "Shakespeare and Company," it was already dark (something I had wished to avoid while traveling alone).



How interesting to learn that you can actually stay overnight in this bookstore, if you are a wandering, would-be-writer. George Whitman had been a bit of a wanderer himself, and when he founded the bookstore in 1951, he wanted to live out the motto: "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise." So, he decided to open his doors to these "Tumbleweeds" (what he called the guests). If you want to participate in the Tumbleweed program and stay in the store overnight, you can claim your spot on the cushioned benches if you fulfill three requirements: 1) Read a book a day, 2) help out in the bookstore, and 3) write a one-page autobiography. As the bookstore's website proclaims, "Today, the bookshop has housed an estimated 30,000 Tumbleweeds, our shelves are crammed with autobiographies and stories of romance played out beneath the beams, and - most importantly - we have no intention of closing our doors."

With visions of a future stay as a Tumbleweed, I pulled the tiny note card from my back pocket, revealing the best method for getting from that location to the hotel and Daphne kindly pointed out the way to get to the Cluny LaSorbonne Metro station (where I would take the number 10 line to Duroc and the number 13 line to Porte de Clichy). She even thanked me for my paltry two euro tip (I was afraid to spend the five euro note because I might need it to purchase the subway ticket to the hotel).

I could have given her the note because on the way to the station, I noticed an exchange shop. Sadly, this change shop didn't give me as good a rate as the London one had. I handed over my remaining 50 pounds - minus the five pound note I wanted to keep and pass along to Sean - and I was given 44 euro. The commission was exorbitant at six euro. But, what could I do? I'd probably fare the same at any exchange shop in the area.

Alas, panic arose within me when I entered the subway station because the machine seemed to indicate you needed to insert a particular kind of card. I went to the information window to ask about the card and was told they would not be available for purchase until Monday morning. After a brief freak-out, further communication revealed that I simply needed to purchase a ticket, not a card (like in London). Thinking I would need tickets for the transfers and for the following day, I purchased a book of ten (far more than I needed, however, it proved to be a good choice, since I was able to sell them to others and recoup some of my money). I had another small freak-out when I went to transfer to the number 13 train, because that train tees off in two directions and I needed to be on the correct one to make my stop at Porte de Clichy. Thankfully, all went well until I rose to the street level and saw the neighborhood and the hotel across the street. Yikes! Construction! Cranes! Shabby businesses.

Once I was safely inside the hotel, Linda contacted me and we met downstairs, where we both expressed some hesitation about the hotel. We also ran into two twenty-something girls who were feeling a bit overwhelmed with the transportation details. I became the unofficial transportation guide, since I knew how to get us back into the city, to Notre Dame, where they could all purchase the Hop-on-Hop-off bus ticket (that I had already purchased through the travel agency).

(Shakespeare and Company in daylight - I never did venture inside, but oh well)


(my new-found friend, Linda)

The bus was an excellent choice. We were presented with a small set of ear buds and could listen to a humorous tour guide explaining various sights and histories. I took this photo of the small green boxes along the Boulevards, where craftsmen and booksellers used to sell their wares:



(Arc de Triomphe in the distance)

The first stop where we hopped off the bus provided a grand view of the famous Eiffel Tower.



(The girls, Isabelle and Katie, air-dropped these photos of them to my son's phone for me.)

After that, we made our way to the Louvre. We were quite fortunate to be in Paris on the first Sunday of the month, a day when all national museums are free. Richard was desperate to go inside the Louvre and view the Mona Lisa. My memories of visiting the art museum made me less inclined to join them - I remembered mobs of people and a general sense of being unable to get close to the art. Plus, I figured with the free aspect, there would certainly be mobs of people and we'd probably wait in line for hours. Thus, I decided to break off with Linda and Richard and join the girls in seeking out a lunch spot.




We found a cute little cafe nearby, where we all ordered the same thing - a delicious chicken sandwich with fries. I requested water, thinking it would cut down on the expense, but alas, they brought me a bottled water that cost me 3,40 euro. (The water almost half what the sandwich and fries cost.) Still, it was an enjoyable meal and I was thrilled when the machine accepted my travel card for the first time. Yippee!

Isabelle, Katie, and I re-boarded the bus and stayed on until we arrived back at the departure point (Notre Dame). 



Sadly, instead of going in the cathedral, the girls merely wanted to shop for souvenirs. I was afraid to leave them, for fear they might get confused at the t-intersection of the train back, so I stuck with them, even though we returned to the hotel before it was even close to dark (around 4 p.m.) I spent the evening chatting with Linda and Richard in their room. I regretted that I hadn't stayed with them, because they got into the Louvre in record time (about twenty minutes), had ample opportunity to get up close to the art, and took several photos of themselves with the Mona Lisa. They also went inside and viewed the interior of Notre Dame. Still, I had already been inside on a previous trip to Paris, in my twenties, so it wasn't a total loss.

The following morning, we met bright and early (5 a.m.) for a continental breakfast of juice and pain au chocolat, since Linda and Richard were slated for the same transfer ride and the same plane to Rome. I was thrilled to be able to access the chocolate croissants in all three city locations. It was the one thing I wanted to experience again in Paris and it was as delicious as my memory foretold.