Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Where Have I Been?

It’s been just over a month since my last post to this blog. Before that, I had been on a roll, posting frequently about creative writing pedagogy issues and my new textbook. So what happened?

Life — Okay, Spring Break

That’s right. Once every semester, even professors get to take a break. Often this is productive time spent grading and cleaning house. Occasionally, we actually take trips to keep up with our students! This year, I took a college trip with our 16-year-old junior in high school (hard to believe it!), Aidan. For Spring Break, we left the South and headed to snowy Ohio to visit Oberlin and Cleveland Institute of Music. We also took a morning to drive through the Cuyahoga River Valley National Park, see some beautiful, if chilly, waterfalls, and learn the correct pronunciation of the river, which sounded more like “Cayoga.” We had a great time, learned a lot about these schools and his ideas about college, and enjoyed the snow (the locals seemed to be getting pretty tired of it by now).

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Book — Editing the MS

Shortly after Spring Break (thank goodness), I got the manuscript of A Writer’s Craft back from the copy editor. This meant going back over it with a fine-toothed comb, double-checking every comma and word. We didn’t always agree, and I will admit that she found some of my stray commas, though I corrected some of hers. The copy editor is in India, so there were some differences between American and International British usage we had to iron out, and a few places where she simply didn’t understand what I was trying to say (I doubt the copy editor is a creative writing instructor). And there were a few places where she called me out on potentially confusing or just awkward phrasings (not too many), and where her suggestions weren’t much better but did cause me to find another way to put it. And there were a few places where I simply put my foot down and said that’s what I really meant, darn it (or something to that affect). Then there was the task of checking the bibliography formatting and other mind-numbing but essential tasks. All in all, I’m glad to have had another set of eyes on the manuscript. It will be better for it. The final page proofs come back soon, and then I can create the index, which I’ve already been working on.

Southern Literary Festival

Yes, though I had a bad cold or possibly bronchitis, I hopped in the car and drove to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, for this annual meeting. I’m co-executive director and we’re desperately looking for a host for 2019, or I might have skipped it this time. The W won in the literary magazine category, but I couldn’t convince any of our students to take the 7-hour drive with me. The festival was great—I heard some great readings, had a chance to catch up with colleagues, and met some students from other schools—but I was still working on my edits and trying to recover from my cold, so it would have been a good year to stay home. Yet duty called.

Grading

Did I mention this traditional Spring Break activity? It didn’t happen this year, thanks to our travel, so after SLF, I had a fair amount of catching up to do. I’m now caught up to the point that all the grading I have left was turned in less than a week ago, so I’m pretty happy. Just in time to get serious about taxes…

Those are just a few of the things that kept me away from blogging, but I hope to get back to more entertaining or informative posts very soon!

AAA: Epic fail

Note: I posted the following comments on the AAA Facebook page, but the way they have it set up, those comment posts don’t get broadcast beyond their page, so all the complaints and some accounts of good service don’t have much effect in social media. So I decided to post my account of last night’s fun with AAA here.

Our faith in AAA is shaken after last night’s epic fail. Dead battery in parking garage at Huntsville airport, so I tried calling AAA. First I was on hold for 7 minutes until my cell phone cut out, then my wife was on hold with them almost as long, until my mother-in-law called and got through. The operator promised service within the hour (!?!), but the operator said she’d put a rush on it.

Half an hour later, they called to say it would be another 45 minutes, so I stayed on the line to talk to a person. On hold for another 10 minutes. The guy explained that they had called two companies, since the first declined the job (after ten minutes). Later, the second service guy called to say he couldn’t get to the 3rd level of the garage in his truck, WHICH WE HAD TOLD THE OPERATOR initially! Why they sent a truck that couldn’t get to us is beyond me. He was going to try to get someone in a vehicle that could reach us.

I finally went back into the deserted airport (it was late at night), found someone who helped me call security, and they were able to jump the car and get us on our way, no thanks to AAA!

One bright note: we were able to cancel the service call without sitting on hold. Now, will it be as easy to cancel our membership? The snafu with the service contractors might be a fluke, but the long hold times on a Saturday night are extremely disappointing. What’s the point in having roadside assistance if you’re stuck on the side of the road listening to some of the most annoying hold music and a recorded voice continually thanking me for my patience, which ran out long, long ago.

Western Vacation

Driving WestIn July, Kim, Aidan, and I packed up the car and headed West. Well, actually, we drove North to my mother’s in Osage, Iowa, first, and spent a traditional 4th of July week there with fireworks, the parade, barbecue, ice cream, and lots of local flavor. Then we turned the nose of our Mazda west for an old-fashioned car-camping vacation. It was the kind of trip my family used to take nearly every summer. Long hours on the road with plenty of stops at national parks and other scenic places. So sitting behind the wheel and going back through this country was like a trip back in time, even though our pop-up tent was a lot easier to manage than my family’s Camp-O-Tel.

Back in the day, this was a tent that you put on top of your car. When you got to your campsite, you could unfold it and sleep up there. My parents slept in the car on a mattress, and us kids were in the car topper. There was a stove we could get down for cooking, and a ladder we could climb up when it was time for bed. It was the precursor to the ubiquitous pop-up trailer, which soon eclipsed the Camp-O-Tel. Even when we were using it, we rarely saw another one.

This summer, we had a little 5-person tent (those would be very skinny folks — the three of us had little room to spare, and we’re not big!) We had our sleeping bags, an air mattress (some of us are not as young as we used to be), a camp stove, cookware, food, and three suitcases, plus hiking boots, sunscreen, jackets, camp towels, flashlights, lanterns, and assorted other equipment all piled in the back of the Mazda. It was organized chaos, especially after a few days camping, but we managed 10 nights without much problem and only one night in a hotel when it rained all night. Fortunately, this was a break we had planned, and we guessed right about the weather. The next couple of nights we also had thunderstorms, but they didn’t last too long and the rain wasn’t so bad, so the only real issue was lightning.

We went first to the Badlands (where we had our only bad experience with an RV that ran its generator all night, grrr), then on to Rushmore and Custer State Park. From the Black Hills, we headed on to Yellowstone, stopping first just outside the park at Buffalo Bill State Park — a nice park but for the mosquito swarms that hit for about an hour at dusk and for the irrigation sprinklers that went off in the night (not at our camp spot, fortunately).  We stayed in Yellowstone 4 night, which was a huge relief after setting up camp and packing it all up the next day for several days running. That also allowed us to be in the park and get to the sites we wanted to see each day much more quickly. Because it is bear country, we had to pack all of our food in our car when we weren’t actually cooking. We took advantage of this fact to have dinner out a couple of times, extending the amount of time we had in the park. We saw most of the main geysers and hot springs, saw lots of wildlife including so many bison we were nearly tired of them by the time we left, and hiked several trails. We didn’t do much back country hiking, though we went far enough from the boardwalks that we did carry bear spray to be on the safe side. Four nights were enough that we felt we really saw the park, but we also realized we could spend a week there (or much more) and still just touch the surface, especially if you got off the beaten track more. Some of our highlights besides the main attractions were Lamar Valley at sunset (in a thunderstorm part of the time, but it was still beautiful), swimming in Burning River, and hiking to the suspension bridge across Hellroaring Creek.

From Yellowstone, we headed south to Grand Teton National Park. This was the first park where we didn’t (couldn’t) make a reservation for the campground, and we were glad when we got there. Road construction meant a 30-minute delay, so we stopped at Colter Bay campgrounds and explored that area first. Here we were able to rent a canoe and spend a couple of hours on Lake Jackson. Aidan and I even swam in the lake. We also took a hike and saw some trumpeter swans nesting on one of the nearby ponds. The next morning, our plan was to get up early and beat the construction crew — didn’t quite make it even though we left the campground before 7:00, but the wait at the one-lane road wasn’t bad, and we still made it to a picnic area in time to cook a dozen eggs for breakfast. Usually we wouldn’t eat this much, but after over a week of camping, we were starting to feel the effect of camp rations and lots of hiking — a couple of us glad for the reduced padding, but ready for a more filling meal. We explored the south end of Tetons, vowing to go back and spend some more time, then headed on to Salt Lake City. We didn’t stop there, but did get our only hotel in the camping part of our trip in Provo. This was where the thunderstorms were the worst, so we were glad we hadn’t found a good park (though there is a state park we could have tried if the weather had cooperated).

Next stop was Arches and Canyonlands for a very impressive, but very different kind of landscape. We went from 40 degrees at night in Yellowstone to dry and hot in Utah, but fortunately we hit it right and the highs were only in the 90’s. We took the parks’ advice and drank plenty of water. Hiked to Delicate Arch and several other short hikes around other arches. In the night we had storms and a mule deer who didn’t like us for camping under his or her mulberry trees. The next day we toured Canyonlands and headed to Mesa Verde, where we camped, hiked, and took a tour of one of the cliff dwellings in the morning. We would have loved to stay longer, but needed to hit the road for the drive through New Mexico to Albuquerque to see Rudy and the rest of the Lucero clan for a brief visit. It was great to eat Michael’s New Mexican cooking — he’s becoming quite the chef — and visit with Liz, Kyle, and Andy. Wish we could have stayed longer there, too, but home was calling.

Family marked the bookends of our trip. We just had a two-day trek back to Mississippi, and for that we hooked up with friends Andy, Elizabeth, and Ely, swapping passengers and riding across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas together, catching up along the way. It just so happened that both families were returning from our Western vacations on the same days, and our paths crossed in Albuquerque. We spent the night in a hotel in Oklahoma city (they weren’t camping, and hoteling it allowed us to get a little further each day) and separated in Memphis at the visitor’s center rest area.

After two weeks on the road, we returned refreshed, though ready to be out of the car. We had seen a ton of scenery along the way and had some great experiences. We’ll definitely be planning another old-fashioned road trip, including camping, another time soon!

High Gear with Bright Spots

Have you noticed it’s that time of the semester again? It’s been a month since my last blog post, and that’s because I’ve been busy! It happens every semester that school takes over, but this time it seems to have happened earlier than most. I’ll blame it on SACS. For those not in education (in the South), that’s the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and it’s time they evaluate Mississippi University for Women for accreditation. That means lots of people on campus have to scramble to tell them who we are and what we do (and to get our ducks in a row before we have to do that!), and I’m one of those scrambling, since I head one subcommittee and serve on another. A few more committees have cropped up, and then there are the usual classes — it’s midterm time and grading is in full swing.

But there are brighter moments, even if they’ve added to the stress. For one, the family all gathered in Albuquerque last month to celebrate my niece’s wedding with a lovely ceremony out in the desert with a view of the Sandia Mountains behind. Great food and even dancing were enjoyed by all. Aidan proved he has rhythm, and his parents even took a step or two on the dance floor. And we got to spend a few days with Rudy, Michael, Elizabeth and the whole Lucero clan, which is always great fun. Aidan, Rudy, and I took a hike one day up a trail into the mountains a ways. On that hike we even saw a tarantula cross our path. That weekend was a much appreciated break from the daily routine of school.

Another Bright Spot in the fall is always the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. It keeps me hopping, organizing authors (every plane ticket has been reserved and I have al their other travel plans), buying books (making my last orders for the book table this week), planning food and beverages for our lunches, dinners, and receptions (have met with food services once, more meetings to follow, I’m sure), writing publicity (our press release is out, the poster is printed, and the program is almost ready to go press). Things are looking pretty good, though there’s always the nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something (usually true, though usually I remember in time). It’ll be a great group and a wonderful weekend when it arrives in just over two weeks. I hope to make a few posts on this year’s authors before the time comes!

So my apologies to my blog readers that my attention has been elsewhere. It’s part of the cycle, maybe a bit more intense this time around, but I hope to be able to post more frequently again soon!

Brussels’ Hidden Gems 2

After food, beer, and chocolate (see Hidden Gems 1), what  more do you need? Well, Brussels has a lot more to offer, and a lot more than I can summarize here. These are just a few of the delightful spots in the city you might miss, if you just rush through the typical tourist spots.

Museums

Brussels is filled with all kinds of museums. Of course, we went to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts to see the Flemish Masters, though unfortunately, this year my favorite part, the Museum of Modern Art was closed for renovations, so only a limited collection was on view. We also visited the Antoine Wiertz and Constantin Meunier museums, and the newest of the Royal Museums dedicated to René Magritte. Also in Elsene (Ixelles), where we were staying, is the Victor Horta Museum dedicated to one of the founders of Art Nouveau. But of all the museums we went to, one of the biggest surprises was the Military History Museum in the Park du Cinquantenaire. Much of it held the old moldy uniforms and sabers one might imagine, but the medieval armor exhibit was quite extensive and informative. And for fans of aviation, there is a whole wing with airplanes from the First and Second World Wars on display. Well worth the price of admission (which is free), and a good place to go on a rainy day.

While you’re in the neighborhood, you might stop over at the auto museum or at the Royal Museum of Art and History. Though not as extensive as the Louvre, the collections here are quite impressive and well laid out. Don’t go looking for fine art (at least not from Belgium), but you will find everything from ancient Babylonian artifacts (some are castings of 19th Century finds that are housed elsewhere, but were made at the time for Belgian scholars to study and translate; others are original artifacts), Greek and Roman statues, pottery, etc. (including an impressive audio/visual model of the Roman forum area), Egyptian tombs, statues, and complete mummies, Native American and Pacific Island artifacts, archeological finds from prehistoric Belgium, 19th Century astrological instruments, and the list goes on and on. We spent all morning in the museum and could barely tear ourselves away for lunch at 2:00 p.m. There was still much more to be seen.

Another surprise was the Brussels Tram Museum, that Kim and Aidan went to see. We love riding trams in the city (and metro and busses), so we knew Aidan would love this museum, but the extent and pristine condition of the collection was amazing. And Kim and Aidan were able to take a ride on a historic tram through the beautiful park Woluwé. Aidan even got to steer (on a tram that wasn’t moving, of course). With one of the oldest tram systems in the world, Brussels is a fitting place to see some of the history of this delightful mode of transportation. Tourists can even take guided tram tours of the city, and trams can be rented for parties and special events. Needless to say, we didn’t have that experience, but it sounds unique.

Parks

Brussels is one of the greenest of capital cities with thousands of acres of parks. You don’t have to go too far to find a city square with trees, grass, flowers (the roses were gorgeous in June while we were there), and a few benches. We loved the Petite Sablon, Park Leopold, Cinquantenaire Park, among many others, but our favorite spot in all of Brussels may well have been the Forest of Soignies. It was a good hike or an easy tram ride from Place Flagey near our apartments, and it is a vast forest surrounded by the city. I only got to go there once, but Kim and Aidan went to several different parts of the forest, where there are walking paths, semi-wild animals (not at all afraid of humans), ponds, birds, trees (obviously), and best of all quiet. At least in the area near the old hippodrome, we were able to get far enough away from the streets and highways that you could completely forget you were in a city. Even if you can’t make it down to the forest, there are often little walled-in parks and gardens like the Jardin Jean-Félix Hap that we discovered not far from Place Jourdan. Consult your map for a patch of green or keep your eyes open for a gate in a wall that might just lead to a quiet public space.

Street Art

As I mentioned above, we visited the Victor Horta Museum and learned more about the Art Nouveau architects of Brussels. One of the joys of living in the city was walking around and discovering beautiful buildings. Near the museum is a walking tour that can get you started. Keep your eyes open for the gorgeous ironwork and fascinating painted or mosaic façades, and you will find more examples of this style as you walk around the city, especially in the European District and other neighborhoods a little beyond the city center.

While you’re walking, you’ll also notice some of the many comic book murals that are scattered throughout the city. A trip to the Belgian Comic Strip Center might be worth your while. To be honest, we didn’t make it this trip. Instead, we took a short train ride down to Louvain-la-Neuve to visit the Hergé Museum and learn more about the creator of Tintin.

And if you wander down the right street, you just might encounter this competitor to the Manneke Pis, the Zinneke statue. The mongrel dogs that roamed by the Senne river that once flowed through the center of Brussels (until it was covered over, though it still flows beneath the city) were given this name, and the dog has become a mascot for Brussels multiculturalism. Every other year (on even numbered years) there is a Zinneke Parade, celebrating Brussels’ multi-lingual and multicultural communities. If you happen to be in Brussels in mid-May, you might even run into it. If not, see if you can find this slightly disrespectful dog making his mark on the city.

Brussels’ Hidden Gems 1

ImageEveryone knows that in Brussels you visit the Grote Markt (Grand Place), look for the Manneke Pis, and maybe stop by the Atomium, but if you have more than a day, here are a few things you really should try. First and foremost, enjoy the food! Belgium is well-known for chocolates (believe me, the more expensive ones are usually worth it; we loved some of the artisanal chocolateries in the center of town, but we also liked to get pralines and truffles from our local bakery–and don’t miss the pastries, cakes, pies, and other delicacies).

Fresh bread, rolls called ‘pistolets,’ and chocoladebroodjes (pain au chocolat) can be found at any corner bakery, and there are usually several to choose from within walking distance. We bought ours at Allemeersch a little boulangerie off the Place Jourdan, since that was near our apartments. There was also an open air market on the weekends, where we could get good cheese, butter, strawberries, etc. And of course, the grocery store supplied us with strong coffee, jam, and Nutella. Breakfasts on our little veranda were a joy when the weather was nice, which we were lucky to have for the first week or so before it turned cold and rainy again for awhile. You never know in Belgium! But most of our time in June was warm and nice, and we were glad to have jackets and umbrellas for the other days.

Of course, the other food you must try in Brussels are the frites. Fries eaten from a paper cone on the street (or take them home) with spicy mayonnaise sauce are hard to beat, especially while they’re hot. And the food is cheap, even at restaurants, if you get away from the touristy areas. We loved the fries on Place Flagey, though Antoine’s on Place Jourdan was also excellent and may have a little more old-fashioned ambiance, especially if you take your fries and sit at one of the many cafes that allow you to bring them in and buy a drink.

Once you’ve had your breakfast or lunch, though, you may be hankering for some Belgian beer. In Brussels, the traditional brew is Lambiek, a beer that is traditionally brewed using a natural fermentation process. We took our group of students to the Cantillon Brewery, which is operated as a museum. There we could see the shallow vats, where the beer is exposed to the bacteria in the air (found only in this valley of Brabant) that causes the fermentation to start, giving this beer a sour taste like sourdough bread.

We also learned how they age the beer in oak barrels and then mix differently aged lambieks to make Geuze or mix lambiek with whole fruit to create Kriek (cherry), Frambois (raspberry), Pêche (peach), or other flavored beers that are quite tart, yet very refreshing. Lambieks are an acquired taste, and not all of our students liked them, but some who weren’t beer drinkers normally found they liked these flavors more than other beers they had sampled. If you don’t have time for a brewery tour, you can still get traditional lambiek beers at several cafés in the city center, including brown cafés like Toon, A la Becasse, and Au Bon Vieux Temps. You might walk right by these, since they are literally a hole in the wall that leads down a narrow alleyway to the bar behind a store front.

Brussels Study Trip

ImageThis summer we had the good fortune to return to Belgium for 33 days, as I organized a study abroad trip with the MUW Honors College. For Kim, Aidan, and I, it was a chance to relive some of our experiences from 2006, when we lived in Leuven for a semester. This time, our apartment was in Brussels, and the experience was a little different. As a Fulbright Scholar in 2006, I taught classes at the Catholic University in Leuven (and Lessius Institute in Antwerp). This time, I was also teaching classes, and leading the group of 16 students and one other professor on excursions. The complexities of traveling with a group made me admire tour guides much, much more! But we had a good time visiting Bruges, Amsterdam, The Hague, Ypres, and Ghent with the group.

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Belgium is a great place to travel. We were able to get very affordable group rates on the trains — it did help to be able to communicate in Dutch or French, since group reservations can’t be made in English. Since we had a big enough group, we got 70% off on most of our train rides, and sometimes a ticket to a museum could be included. Most cities have guide associations that offer guided walking tours in English (or any number of languages). In Ypres, we found a great mini-van tour of the WWI battlefields of the Ypres Salient. Flanders Battlefield Tours took us to sites associated with some of the war poets, and they showed us British, French, German, and American graveyards as well as a private museum at the Hoog Crater, where soldiers tunneled under the trenches and then exploded dynamite to drive a wedge in the lines.

Besides introducing students to the history and culture of Belgium, I taught a class on Modernist European Poetry and Art. We studied primarily Belgian poets (French- and Dutch-language) and went to several museums in Brussels and on our travels. We had a lot of fun, and students were introduced to movements in art that most hadn’t seen before (though a few had seen them in art appreciation or history classes). The students also tried their hands at translating, and though they made some translation errors (none had studied either French or Dutch), they learned a lot about the process of translation and came away with a better appreciation for the poems.

My colleague taught a Political Science class on the European Union. Since our apartments were in the heart of the European district, students had ready access to the EU library and institutions for research. They also learned a lot by living in a multi-cultural neighborhood, going to street markets, eating fries from stands on the street, and walking around the city full of great architecture, from Art Nouveau to the contemporary EU buildings. All in all, it was a great experience.