Friday, March 28, 2014


I grew up in a small town and went to a small high school. Although we had a smattering of Mexicon students, there really wasn't much diversity. In my three years of high school, there was only one African-American student, and he was from a local boys' ranch.

However, then I married and moved to California and got a job teaching at an inner-city community college. I've mentioned before how we buy Christmas tree ornaments as we travel as mementos of different places and different cultures. Well, the year I started teaching, I bought an African-American angel ornament. It's a little embarrassing to admit that, but to me it represented a shift in attitude and a new appreciation for a culture I had previously had little exposure to.  About one-third to one-half of my students were African-American, and I read their stories for thirteen years until I moved to a college closer to home that draws from a much more upscale population.

I've always wondered if that was the right move. It saves me a lot of time and gas, but I loved teaching at that inner-city college. I loved those stories of hardship and defeat and struggle and grit. Most of my students were not just the first person in their family to go to college, but they were the first to graduate from high school. I developed a respect for what it means to beat the odds.

Traveling in the South and visiting Civil Rights sites is a similar, if not even more intense, educational experience. On our recent trip to Atlanta, we spent several hours at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, a complex that includes a museum, a Walk of Fame, some significant statues, the MLK birthplace, the tombs of Martin and his wife Coretta, and an important Southern Baptist church.

Knowing that this is a popular destination for school groups, we got an early start. Our first visit was to the founder of King's nonviolence movement: Mahatma Gandhi.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


My husband had plans to attend a seminar in Orlando a few months ago, so we tacked on a pre-seminar trip to Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. We figured it was a good time to travel in the South--warm but not too warm.


The day we arrived in Atlanta had a high of 25°, and we froze. However, we were very lucky because just a few weeks later, Mother Nature gifted Atlanta and other parts of the South with highly unusual snowstorms. But I digress.

The only places we had ever been in Atlanta were the airport and Olympic Park. We went to the latter when we had a four-hour layover on a trip to London in 1999. We had just enough time to catch the lightrail into town, take a quick look at the park, and return to the airport. We knew we needed to go back some day.

This time we started our visit at the Immaculate Conception Church. Originally a simple wood frame structure built in 1848, it was the first Catholic Church in Atlanta. Because of the pleadings of Father Thomas O'Reilly, the church, four other churches, and the City Hall-Court House were saved from destruction when Atlanta was burned during the Civil War. (Ironically, the church was almost burned down in a fire in 1982.) The Northern Army did, however, occupy the building and use it as a military hospital. After the war was over, the parish built this bigger and better church on the same site, and in 1954 it was declared a shrine.

Because of its location in tight city streets, it was hard to get a good photo:

. . . but when we turned around, there it was, perfectly reflected in the windows across the street:

Thursday, March 20, 2014


I've always been a big reader. My mother, a first grade teacher and a reading specialist, encouraged my siblings and me to use our library cards frequently. The library was on the corner of State Street and Main in the small town where I grew up, about ten minutes from home by bicycle. The adult section was on the main and second floors, and the children's library was downstairs. As if the library were not a big enough draw, next door was Roe's Bakery, home of the world's best freshly-baked goodies. We could grab a load of books and a giant sugar cookie in a single trip downtown.
Payson Library
The library still stands, although the books have been moved to a more modern facility, and the bakery is long gone.
My sister and I would come home with six or seven books at a time, and we'd devour them in a week before going back to the library for a new fix. By the time I was in sixth grade, the librarian in the "Junior" section was letting me read new books before they went on the shelves. (I distinctly remember reading The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton before anyone else had even heard of it.) I became a substitute librarian in the downstairs room during high school, a job I loved. It was a no-brainer for me to become an English major in college.

I still love to read, and I have found that reading can substantially enhance what I get out of a trip. When we used to travel with our children, I learned that reading out loud and books-on-tape made the long drives much shorter. Later, when we started to travel sans children, I would bring along a good novel and relish the extra time I had to read on the plane or in the car. A few years ago I started to try to tie in my reading to our travel destinations. It was so much fun that I wondered what had taken me so long to figure out how much that could add to my experience.

I've added a section to this blog entitled "Books I've Read."  It's a tab at the top of the blog, just under the photo and title.  Click on it and see the books I've included in some of my posts. A brief blurb about the book is usually found at the very end of the post. I am gradually adding more place-related books to past posts.

In the April 2014 edition of National Geographic Traveler, Editor-in-Chief Keith Bellows writes, "When I travel, I look for a novel that evokes the destination I'm visiting, with a strong sense of place and insights beyond those offered by a guidebook." Travel guides are great for background and history, but there is nothing like a good book to get to the soul of a place. I've included non-fiction, usually history and biographies, along with novels.

The point of this post is that I would like some more suggestions of good place-related reading. If you know of a good book that ties into one of my blog posts, please mention it and give a brief description in the comments section for that post.  You can click on the tab "Places I've Been" to see my posts sorted by country. Then all you have to do is click on the appropriate post and add your suggestions.

I'm looking forward to some new ideas!

Sunday, March 16, 2014


I posted several suggestions for nonfiction and nearly nonfiction books to read if you happen to be traveling to Sarajevo, but if you prefer fiction, then The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht is a wonderful choice.

Set in an unknown country in the Balkans, the author draws from regional legends to create a story that is grounded both in present reality and in an enigmatic, mythological past.

On the surface, the story is about a young woman doctor on a mission of mercy in an orphanage in one of the war-torn Balkan countries.  While working to vaccinate all the children, the doctor senses that there are things below the surface of reality that her hosts aren't telling her. There are secrets everywhere, including some surrounding the recent death of her beloved grandfather, who was also a physician. As she tries to make sense of the sometimes strange world around her and to cope with the loss of the person who has meant more to her than anyone else, she remembers her frequent trips to the zoo with her grandfather and the stories he read to her from his well-worn copy of Kipling's Jungle Book. She also remembers his tales about his many encounters over the years with a "deathless man." One more bizarre story about a tiger that stalked her grandfather's village during a World War II winter when he was a young boy is the most mysterious story of all.

And that's all I'm going to tell you.

A review in The New York Times describes the power of Obreht's writing:

Think back to the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, with their profusion of names that are difficult to pronounce and acts that are painful to recall: the massacres at Brcko and Srebrenica, the bombing of bread lines in Sarajevo, the destruction of Mostar's 400-year-old bridge.

None of these appear in Tea Obreht's first novel, "The Tiger's Wife," yet in its pages she brings their historical and human context to luminous life. With fables and allegories, as well as events borrowed from the headlines, she illustrates the complexities of Balkan history, unearthing patterns of suspicion, superstition, and everyday violence that pervade the region even in times of peace. Reaching back to World War II, and then to wars that came before, she reveals the continuity beneath the clangor.

Obreht was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in the former Yugoslavia in 1985. She was just 26 years old when this, her debut novel, was published. The Tiger's Wife has won numerous awards, including Great Britain's prestigious Orange Prize, which is awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length English-language novel published in the United Kingdom the previous year.

The Tiger's Wife may not help you understand the details of the history of the Balkan countries, but it might give you a glimpse of the region's soul.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


On our last day in West Virginia, we had just enough time to stop at the state capitol building in Charleston before catching our flight home. I hadn't really expected anything too fabulous from the capitol. After all, West Virginia is the 38th most populous state in the country with the 39th largest economy. By way of contrast, California's economy is almost THIRTY TIMES larger than West Virginia's.

I should have known better since all of my other assumptions about West Virginia had been shot down over the past few days. I quickly saw that the California state capitol building can't hold a candle to West Virginia's.

The capitol was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the capitol buildings for Minnesota and Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court Building, and the Woolworth Building in New York City, among others. It is a stately, royal structure crowned with a dome of polished gold:

Yes, I fell in love at first sight:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Besides the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Presidential Library, another main attraction in Staunton, Virginia, is the Blackfriars Playhouse.  Several weeks before our trip we had purchased tickets for a play, and after we finished at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace, we had an hour or so to kill before the play began. We wandered for a bit up and down Staunton's picturesque downtown, which can't look a whole lot different than it did when Woodrow Wilson was born (minus the cars, asphalt, and streetlights, of course).
Photo from here
We serendipitously wandered into a small cheese store of the highest order. We had only eaten about eight times so far that day, so of course we were hungry. The fact that they sold gourmet cheeses and wild boar sausage actually made us believe that little lie.

We stashed what we didn't eat in our car, then made our way to the Blackfriars Playhouse, home of the American Shakespeare Center.
This is the only re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theater in the world. It replicates the unadorned stage. There is no stage lighting or spotlights--audience and stage have the same lighting. There is no soundtrack or even amplification. Audience members sit close to the stage on the main level--and sometimes are even on the stage--and lean over the railings of the two upper levels.
Photo from here
Like so many other places, no photography is allowed inside. Sigh.

We had the pleasure of seeing a non-Shakespeare play entitled Return to the Forbidden Planet. It's not that we chose it that way--given the choice, I would opt for the True Bard--but that's what was playing on the night we were in town. The play is what is known as a "jukebox musical," or a play that uses existing popular songs as the musical score. (Think of the movie/play Mama Mia!) In a nutshell, the play is a quirky, zany mash-up of Shakespeare's play The Tempest and the 1950s science fiction film The Forbidden Planet.  It is full of references to and familiar lines from many Shakespearean plays.

This is a destination perfect for die-hard Shakespeare fans and academics.  Before the play there was a trivia game for the audience that drew from the minutiae of various Shakespeare plays. In spite of my graduate degree in English, most of the questions were way out of my league. However, the theatre still offered plenty for the average Shakespeare lover (like me) and even for the Shakespeare novice (like my husband). The play was loads of fun, the actors were terrific, and the familiar rock-n-roll music and dancing from the 50s and 60s was a blast. Not only does the intimate setting of this theater draw the audience in, but the actors also occasionally literally draw in an audience member or two.