Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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.

Merry Christmas

As a Christmas present to the blogosphere, I’m posting a poem from my second book, Time Capsules. It was originally composed on a bitter cold Christmas Eve in 1996, when I was visiting my parents. Lilith, the black lab/border collie mix, who is mentioned in the poem, died several years ago. She was a constant companion for over 14 years on late night or early morning walks.

This year, Iowa has relatively warm weather and our chances of snow are slim. I’m here with my family and our new dog, Zinneke. Though much has changed in the last 15 years, the dark nights of deep winter and the clear air or Northern Iowa, especially walking out into the countryside late at night, still brings a special kind of clarity.

Christmas: Osage Iowa, 10:00 p.m.

I take 10th Street out of town. The only life
on the road is a snowmobile, a couple of cars,
my dog Lilith, and me. It’s ten below
with a light snow. The wind is still tonight,
making the cold bearable. Snow underfoot
and the slightest breeze in the pines create
the only sounds. Then just beyond
the city limits all stops. Around me, empty
white fields and tiny flakes descending
gather up a little stray light to illuminate
the dim landscape. There, half a mile off
the lighted trees at a farmhouse add color
to the stark white of yard lights, muted
now by snow. A car’s red tail lights
glide along the highway headed north.

This stillness is what I’ve traveled two
thousand miles for: the clean, crisp
subzero air, the light invading the dark
to clear my soul. It only lasts a moment,
then the wind picks up and Lilith wants
to play, dashes at me, herds me back
toward home. We run back and forth along
10th Street, stop to savor the cold night,
check the scent of pheasant in the windbreak,
search for a trace of the near-full moon
through thin clouds. The snow obscures
everything even as it makes everything
brighten. The turning point of the seasons
remains elusive, and yet this moment is
enough to take me through another year.

Historical Markers

Columbus, MS, Marker

Here’s a writing exercise I haven’t given to any of my classes (yet), mostly because I’m not sure when they’ll be driving.

Stop at a historical marker. It may be one you pass on a regular basis without sopping or one that you see on a trip. Read the marker and look around you. Note at least four interesting words from the text of the marker and at least four interesting things in your field of vision. These words do not have to go together, and the more you find, the more you’ll have to draw on. Once you’ve made your lists (either while you’re still at the marker or later) begin a text (poem, story, essay, etc.) by combining words from the marker with the descriptions of things or motions or colors, etc., that you saw. Ideally you will be combining something of the past with something of the present.

The point of the exercise is not to write about the subject of the historical marker, though that might happen, but to allow both the present and the history of a place into your writing to provide greater depth. That’s why it’s best to actually be there. If you don’t have your notebook with you, take a picture of the marker. Nonetheless, having been there will give you memories and impressions of the place that a picture someone else has taken of a marker won’t provide. You know the sounds and the temperature of that place on the day you saw it. You know where you had just been and where you were going, who you were with or who you were going to see, and a million other things about the experience that give it an emotional depth for you, which you can mine in your writing.

This is an exercise that I have done, though a little less formally than I’ve described it here. A couple summers ago, my family and I were traveling around the midwest and saw markers indicating we were on a continental divide. This led to a poem or two, as I contemplated the idea of a watershed, that just a slight rise (not the mountain chain we usually think of) can mark the difference between water flowing north or south, east or west (or northeast/southwest, etc.). Subtle variations in our landscape have a dramatic effect, when all the results pool into Lake Michigan or Superior, for instance. Taoists call this principle of water seeking the downward path of least resistance wu wei and recognize its power.

Thinking of the world in those terms, human interactions on the surface of the planet seem insignificant, as my son’s science homework reminded me today. He was studying the earth’s mantle and core, and learned that the radius of the earth is approximately 4,000 miles (give or take a few for mountains or deep ocean trenches, wrinkles in the peel of the apple, as the homework assignment described it). What are we in this perspective? Spores of mold migrating around on the skin of a great, big, round potato?

(Barb Johnson’s discussion of pomme de terre, the French term for potato (as opposed to the Cajun patate reminded me that the potato is a more appropriate ‘earth apple’ — the Dutch have the same dichotomy aardappel in standard Dutch patat in dialect).