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It wasn’t long after we got back from our trip to England and Europe this summer that Luke turned to me and said something surprising. “I’d really like to go back for Christmas,” he said. “Would that be okay?”

I can assure you, he was not going to have to twist my arm. I love England and I love visiting his family, so of course I was game. Was I a little surprised that he wanted to spend money on a second set of plane tickets when we had just been there five months earlier? Definitely. Especially considering we were there for two months. But as he pointed out, it had been two years since we’d spent Christmas in England and, as I mentioned in my last post, Christmas is a special time for his clan. So, to England we went.

It turned out to be an extra special trip as my mom joined us for part of it. Here she is having just arrived after spending several hours delayed in both the Pittsburg airport and Euston station in London because of inclement weather on both ends of the Atlantic. Before this trip, she’d just found out she had a torn rotator cuff(!), but you would never have known any of that to look at her. What a trooper. Quite the contrast to Luke and me after a long journey that included our own 4 hour wait in Euston station. On that day, I took the first offer of a nap in someone else’s bed and peaced out. I really need to learn how to sleep on an airplane. 

It was very much a food and drink-centric holiday. Here we have exhibit 1.

Exhibit 2. Pepper the German spitz, ever hopeful. Also, fruit cake (or Stollen) and cheese may be the single greatest food combination ever.

Exhibit 3. Going out for coffee is not limited to the beverage in the Harwood house. Also, a walk has little appeal without the promise of coffee at the end.

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Exhibit 4. More trips out for “coffee.”

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Exhibit 5. In London, my sister-in-law and her friend prepared an absolutely delicious Togolese feast of fish poached in a chili and tomato broth and served alongside a dish that she compared to grits but made from cassava. So yummy!IMG_6689

Exhibit 6. Having tea with a veggie English breakfast on the way. Exhibit 7. So many sweet tooths in the bunch.

Exhibit 8. Nothing like warming up by the fire at an old pub after a cold day exploring castle ruins.

It wasn’t total gluttony, though. We did go on a fair few walks to temper the amount of food we consumed. Like this one to Attingham Park. Does anyone recognize the bridge? Here’s a clue (start watching from 11:16).

Did I mention my mom joined us for a week? It was so lovely having her there. Luke took us on a walking tour of Shrewsbury one day that was, erm, entertaining to say the least. It went a little like, “This building is old and important because… well, I’m not sure why, actually.”

Mom being there also gave us the excuse to be tourists, which we managed quite well in spite of the rain and cold.

Here’s another relic from the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol, which was filmed in Shrewsbury. Luke was good enough to include a visit to St. Chad’s graveyard on his walking history tour of Shrewsbury. Bless.

On the subject of being American tourists, my mom and I joined forces and persuaded the others to visit a nearby castle on one of the sunnier days of the trip. Stokesay Castle was suggested as neither of us had been there, even though it’s just right down the road from Luke’s hometown. It was such a quirky little place and really everything a medieval castle should be: moat, great hall with roasting spit (evidence of), archers’ alcoves, lush tapestried master bedrooms, and stunning views of the countryside.

As it is the English countryside that Luke and I miss the most (second to family, of course), we made sure to sneak a trip up the treacherous road that crests the Long Mynd in Church Stretton, a favorite spot of ours. Yes, that is a sheer drop to the valley below on my left. And yes, that road is one car’s width. Thankfully, we never had to find out what would happen if another car came up in the opposite direction. I hid behind my camera so I wouldn’t have to think about what I was seeing. 

It had been a gray rainy day, so we weren’t expecting much when we got to the top. However, we were rewarded for our efforts with a glimpse of the setting sun (at 4:00) over the clouds and hills. Stunning!

Take away point? Some trips are simply worth the journey.

cumberlandislandWe’re officially into my favorite season now and, make no mistake, the pumpkin-scented blog posts will soon start inundating your inboxes. But before I get carried away with homemade chai recipes and cold weather book recommendations, I thought we could all enjoy the last rays of fading summer sunlight together. It was a good one, no?

st marys georgiaIMG_5395 IMG_5393cumberlandislandbeachIMG_5420 IMG_5446 IMG_5457 IMG_5504 IMG_5524We bid farewell to the season with a high humidity camping trip to Cumberland Island. Similar to Assateague Island, which we visited a couple summers ago, Cumberland boasts wild horses and a complex coastal ecosystem. Unlike Assateague, Cumberland is pedestrian only. During the day, the place looks like any other popular (if somewhat out of the way) southern natural attraction. It’s after 4:00 when the last ferry chugs away with the last group of day visitors, that you realize you’re the only one walking on the beach and have been for the last mile, and, why yes, those are wild scuppernongs hanging on that low hanging branch along the trail you’re hiking. No other hikers saw them, because no other hikers have been on the trail that day. IMG_5555 IMG_5479

labordaycalendarLooking ahead to a long labor day weekend camping trip. The plan is to catch the ferry over to Cumberland Islandoff the Georgia coast, and enjoy three days of sand, sun, water, and cloud-gazing. Cars are not allowed on the island and it’s only accessible by ferry. Doesn’t that just sound perfect? Also, apparently, Cumberland Island has some of “America’s most beautiful coastal walks.” I don’t know why I’m always surprised when Georgia pops up on the odd “Top 10 such and such” in travel magazines. It’s not a bad place to live, politics aside. 

However, I will be sad to miss this.

A few more things:

I have been that person at a party before. Heck, I’ve been that person when I meet another women’s college graduate. Social alienation ensues.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Iceland is breathtaking. Maybe for labor day weekend next year? I can dream. Make sure to watch the video in HD.

Mmmm, tempura squash blossoms. Whose garden will I be raiding?

After yesterday’s post, I was feeling guilty about going out for breakfast so much, so we made enough of these to last us through the weekend. Used Deb’s recipe (naturally). I must say, it gave all our favorite pancake pervaders a run for their money.

With the money we would have spent on breakfast this a.m., I bought a book last night. 

Heading to Sweetwater this afternoon. Not the brewery. I used to think our friends were serious boozers for going there what seemed like every weekend. Even so, it sounded like a magical place. Hiking, creek swimming and beer? Then we realized the brewery must have been named after something and turns out it was. That’s not to say we won’t be making a detour on our way home… jk?

 

Otherwise, just daydreaming about this jagged, beautiful mountain. A few pics I don’t think I’ve shared yet from France. mont sainte victoireIMG_4164 IMG_4163 montsaintevictoiremont sainte victoiremont sainte victoireHope you have a refreshing weekend!

globe/map decor IMG_5141It’s not something I’ve considered much. The fact that I like to surround myself with the world. Doesn’t everyone hang maps in their homes? It’s true though: I gravitate toward map (and book) decor a bit more than the standard household. Always have. Two large maps flanked my bed growing up, given to me on request for my tenth birthday; a globe appeared on the kitchen table on my twelfth. I was fascinated with National Geographic from an early age (but then, what kid wasn’t?) and collected the maps that came with them every few issues. Blue tacked them onto my closet door. Just last year my sister gave me an up-cycled map lamp for Christmas. She knew it wasn’t just a childish proclivity. I still love maps.

Strange as it is to admit, it wasn’t until these handmade Map Drawer Pulls popped up in my email feed that I realized I had an obsession a thing for all things cartography. So in the spirit of claiming our quirks, here are a few pieces that I’m ready to sweep up this very minute.

worldmapdecalThis world map wall decal. It’s beautiful enough to stand on its own.

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A check off map of the national parks. It would serve as a subtle reminder to book our next camping trip. northcarolinaprint

A print to remember where I grew up. And another for where my heart currently resides?

myrootsliehereAnd this one for Luke (impressively close to Luke’s actual hometown).

Do tell: do you have any decor collections? obsessions? tips? I’d love to hear them!

IMG_5128… that made me happy this week. Gooey brownies and hot fudge sundaes (I used Deb’s recipe for the fudge sauce — perfect!). I don’t often get a sweets craving, so when I do I like to go all out. These were all out there. gonegirlA new page turner. Seriously, on my day off yesterday, it would have taken a series of natural disasters to get me look up from my book. That said, I’m now a few chapters into Part II and I’m feeling less great about this psychological thriller. We’ll have to have to chat about it next week.mesaNMHearing my mom’s stories about a camping/hiking trip she recently took to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Seriously proud of that lady and mesmerized by her pics. Luke and I have never been out west, but now we’re seriously looking into planning a trip out there in the next couple of summers.

A few more things…

Speaking of wanderlust: Jaipur.

How many accents can you put on? More than 21?

I don’t want to know what a Freudian would say about this being my new favorite blog. But I don’t really care — it’s so fascinating!

Speaking of gender, did you hear the Queen will no longer be the only woman on British money? And not just any woman will be joining her.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend! What will you be reading?

IMG_4687 IMG_4690london eye big benIMG_4689 IMG_4688 IMG_4684 london thames walkcarousel londonThinking about:

Walks along the Thames.

Books under a bridge.

Soft light over the London Eye.

Bubbles.

Newlyweds.

A sister’s first carousel ride.

Happily in one place for now, it’s still nice to reminisce about recent trips taken, sights seen, necks hugged. We spent two days in London. Two days squeezed into two months of travel, mostly in the UK, might strike a person as measly. But believe you me, I fought hard for those two days. Luke believes that no person in their right mind visits London willingly; if you go to London it’s because you have no choice. Passport updates, medical specialists, someone you really, really, really love lives there (who you haven’t seen in 10 years). Those are reasons to go to London. Kicking and screaming, mind you.

Though I agree with my husband that a city, wherever you go in the world, looks like a city — it’s the countryside for us, please — I wanted to make up my own mind about London. Which was proving difficult. In the thirteen years I’ve been visiting the UK (three times to London, briefly), I’d yet to have a good London experience. Not the city’s fault, mind you. Once I was too jet lagged to see straight, once was for a brief 24 hours when London was submerged in a heat wave, and once I went after attending a wedding where an ill bridesmaid infected half the guests, myself included, with a violent stomach bug. I spent the majority of that visit staring into the basin of a Piccadilly hostel toilet.

While none of those events were the city’s fault, I still felt owed a decent London experience. Thankfully, this go-round, we had a very good reason to go: Luke’s brother and sister-in-law.

My new sister gave us the grand tour, focusing on sites she perceptively knew we’d love (parks and green space, mainly). What a rockstar she and Luke’s brother were! So much so that I realized after one full day of walking, site-seeing, and laughing, capped off with a 4 hour dinner in a jazz bar under a bridge that rattled every time a train went past overhead, that a good London experience has nothing to do with the city. It’s all about the people.

Friends, I’d love to know: Where have you been this summer? Going any place exciting? Luke and I have traveled very little in the USA, so we get extra swoony hearing about trips taken around this country. So, please, bring on the wanderlust!

IMG_4408aix-en-provence placemarket aix-en-provenceDo you remember back before the Recession, back before eBooks really went big and before Borders went out of business? Let’s say we’re in the year 2005. Remember when you could go to just about any popular shopping mall in America and find a Borders attached to the mall and just across the street, a Barnes & Noble? Not a great business model for the book industry as it turned out. Now imagine a quaint French Provincial city, full of students, full of light, with peach painted buildings and pastel window shutters. Imagine this city’s cafe-line main street, let’s call it Le Cours Mirabeau, and now imagine two large bookstores neighboring one another on this main street. Imagine that just down a side road to the north of Le Cours Mirabou, not a three minutes walk from the center of down, is another bookstore, and three minutes walk in the other direction, there are two more. And just to open up the thought experiment a little more, imagine that all of these bookstore are independently run. Is your mind blown yet? IMG_4410 IMG_4414 IMG_4412 IMG_4409IMG_4411Like most shops built in these old buildings, Librairie Goulard has the appearance of being a much smaller shop from the outside, until you go in. Then it’s like so many shotgun style buildings that seem to keep going and going, room after room, ad infinitum. Shelves of Francophone literature face off against translated literature in the front room, in that characteristically French style of organizing books by collection. That wall of white you see above is made of all Le Poche books, while the one further up the page with red banding is Gallimard. (Seriously, is that just a French thing?) Things get a little more wild and less linear in the next room, where Design and Fine Art collections are displayed. I guess they’re allowed to step outside the box. 

Most likely it reflects my own preference, but I decided back as a student that Goulard is Aix’s introvert hangout. Quiet browsers and serious readers appreciate Goulard’s minimalistic store layout and emphasis on Francophone and experimental literature. Plus, Goulard is one of the few quiet, air-conditioned places you can go in Aix on a busy day in the height of tourist season. Travelers quickly abandon the place when they can’t find the foreign language section (it’s downstairs), and wander over to the more lively Librairie de Provence with it’s larger collection of colorful postcards and books on the region. Which is fine. But for me (and this is a unique exception to my preference generally for booksellers who go out of their way to hand sell books), in a busy place like Aix, give me quiet, give me the peace that comes from minimalism, give me French booksellers who greet me without looking up from the book they’re reading, and give me space to browse, in French, and pretend I can understand what I’m reading.

IMG_4428IMG_4430aix-en-provence fountainAix-en-Provence is known as the “city of a thousand fountains,” which is nice and all (and there are a lot of fountains), but I’m campaigning for them to become the city of a thousand bookstores. If any city can do it, it’s Aix. Whose with me?

It’s raining all day (all week?) in Atlanta, so really, it’s the perfect time to talk about books. I’m curious: what are you reading right now? I’m in the middle of a book I picked up in France by a Marseillais author, René Frégni. Sous La Ville Rouge (Under the Red City) is the story of Charlie Hasard, a boy born in the projects of Marseille, who at a pivotal moment in his late teens, amidst a swirl of petty thefts and petty dalliances, becomes obsessed with the written word. He has two passions in life: writing and boxing. After dedicating his twenties to the craft, to the exclusion of all other life’s pleasures, he finally gets a nibble from a publisher in Paris. Is this the moment he’s dreamed of? The pay-off to all his sacrifices and hard work? Frégni is a literary crime writer and Sous La Ville Rouge follows in that tradition when you are least expecting it. Tightly wound and full of suspense, Sous La Ville Rouge is an hommage to, as Frégni puts it in the book’s dedication, “all those who write with passion solely for the trash can.”

mybookstoreSeeing as my French is a bit rusty, Frégni is not exactly leisurely reading. I’m having to look up every other word in my handy Larousse dictionary, which is why I was glad to have this book on hand when we got back from our trip. My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read and Shop is basically as good as it sounds, with writers of various genres from all different states sharing short essays about the bookstore(s) that inspired them and often encouraged them to do what they do. I also love that they are short essays, so easy to pick up, read one or two, and then go back to work. Pure indulgence.

So now it’s your turn. What are you reading these days? Any recommendations? I’d love to hear!

(The top gif is from it’s no biggie tumblr)

I’m cautious not to be the francophile that rambles on about how France has it all figured out. They don’t and I’m under no illusions. Trust me. It was with genuine affection that I told Luke that Aix-en-Provence still smelled the same that it did when I was a student there: dog shit and cigarettes. But that was just the top note; the heart notes were still there, too: rosemary, sun-warmed fruit, a feint whiff of the briny Mediterranean carried in on the Mistral. In France, in seems, the pleasant things that make francophiles go all gooey when they talk about it go hand-in-hand with the unpleasant. Yes, the French have figured out the formula for the perfect crusty baguette. But getting people to pick up their dog’s droppings is another matter.

I’m sure you could even catch a whiff of caca in France’s Ministry of Culture office if you sniffed hard enough. The sole mission of this government position is to protect and promote all aspects of French civilization and culture (art, music, museums, monuments), as well as to maintain the French identity (whatever that means). Recently under the leadership of France’s newest Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti, independent bookshops were added to the list of cultural landmarks deserving of protection. And try as I might, I can smell nothing foul-smelling in that. Barbara Casassus recently reported in The Bookseller the latest news coming from the Ministry of Culture in France. It’s exciting news for booksellers, I would guess, worldwide, and a complete game-changer in France.

“French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti has unveiled part of the government’s plan to shore up independent booksellers, despite earlier fears that she would be unable to commit any money because of France’s huge budget deficit.”

“She announced that a fund of €5m would be created for loans to booksellers with cashflow problems and that the budget of ADELC, the association that subsidises booksellers, would rise from €4m to €7m to help outlets when they change hands.”

Fillippetti was moved to act”To ensure that France ‘never suffers the same fate as the United States’ with ‘the collapse of several [bookshop] chains’ and the ensuing difficulties for publishers and creation, Filippetti said.”

As with anything, there may well be some downsizes to the proposed government shore up (some excrement and cigarettes, shall we say). Casassus notes that not all publishers are pleased with an additional proposal to appoint a book industry mediator to settle legal disputes. “We can solve problems among ourselves,” said French publisher Hervé de La Martinière from the La Martinière group.

Be that as it may, it’s a big deal that the French Minister is even making bookstores such a priority and taking such ambitious initiative. And for that I am sending Fillippetti so many virtual high-fives. Bravo!

Back in Aix-en-Provence, there are two major independent bookstore sitting a mere five doors down from one another on the central avenue, and a handful more scattered around the city. Likely due to the fact that Aix is a thriving university town and tourist destination, both bookstores are eternally busy. Each offers a noticeably different ambiance and caters to a slightly different clientele. Libraires de Provence is the first and the more colorful of the two. It welcomes tourists and students,  casual readers and families, with two rooms and the entryway paddock dedicated to books on the region and an three building-long first floor featuring coffee table literature, French and foreign best sellers, children’s books and the ubiquitous bandes designes (graphic novels) that the French, old and young, are so crazy about. Things get a bit more serious when you go upstairs and find yourself surrounded wall-to-wall by Petit Poche literature, contemporary and classic, complete works collectors’ editions and an entire wall devoted to crime fiction. The French love their “policiers.” 

One thing that intrigues me is the popularity of uniform book cover designs in France. All Gallimard Collection Blanches look the same, a sleek motif of cream and crimson. All Folios and Poches follow a similar format. So when you walk into a bookstore in France, the bookshelves are all the same color. Does anyone know what that’s all about?

I’d love to share some pics of a the other main indie bookstore in Aix next week, as well as a really rad foreign language bookstore there, too. Would that be of interest? Also, I’d love to hear your impressions of French bookstores and the French attitude toward books. And for any French readers out there, please shed some light!

IMG_4386 IMG_4356 IMG_4306 IMG_4240 IMG_4283 les toiture en toiles IMG_4218 IMG_4210 IMG_4199 IMG_4371 IMG_4219 IMG_4354Two of Provence’s most striking (and photogenic) features didn’t once fail to elicit a gasp and a click of our camera shutter on this last trip. Scarlet poppies growing in wheat fields, along hedges and out of rock walls were the first, les toiture en toiles, or, clay tiled roofs, were the second. It helps that the villages are mostly all built along cliffs or into hillsides, so you get a lovely layered view of the roofs when you stand at the top. As for the poppies, let’s just say Luke finally understands why I used to go wax poetic every time the subject of Provence came up. The typical response used to be, “The air smells of lavender and rosemary, and the countryside is a series of vineyards, fruit trees and wheat fields, and vivid red poppies fill in all the gaps.”

I still stand by that description, except now I’d add that Provence tastes of Pastis.

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