From an early age, my parents raised us to be travelers—more than tourists. We discovered gems nestled between our native Pennsylvania rolling ridges and river valleys: Caledonia, Greenwood Furnace, Rickett’s Glen, the Poconos, Laurel Highlands and Lake Erie, to name a few. I still remember the ache in my shin bones when I walked into Greenwood Furnace Lake.

On our first long distance road trip, my brother and I clambered into the backseat of a Chevy, separated only by two paper grocery bags filled with picnic food. My brother counted the rows of stitching in the cloth late model seat, divvied them up, and drew a battle line. I had my Rubic’s Cube, a few library books, and my own little fortress with the bag’s serrated edge as my parapet. Let’s just say my brother and I scrapped like healthy American kids.

We motored from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone National Park in three days, eating at rest stops and crawling into clean, hard beds late at night after Dad achieved the day’s pre-destined map point. A mathematician and surveyor by birth and trade, he plotted our entire two-week vacation on 3 x 5 index cards. Even at the naive age of ten, I sensed he was ambitious.

My mother is one of the most industrious people I know and vacations were no exception. She created her own fast-food restaurant for us, filling a cooler and grocery bags to the brim with peanut butter, Oreos, Fig Bars, Middleswarth BBQ chips, bologna and cheese, Campbell’s soup, and apples. We’d pull into the rest stop as soon as we crossed a state line, and maybe halfway in-between if the state was wide. My brother and I’d run around yelling and dodging dog piles. Meanwhile, Mom spread out our 1970’s “patchwork” tablecloth and prepared lunch on the Coleman Stove.

At every picnic table, at every rest stop, my Dad would unfold his map across Mom’s tablecloth, pushing it impatiently between the fig bars and chips. Then he’d draw a line with his thick muscular finger from point to point and exaggerate the miles we’d cover before our next stop. I’d squall and my brother would sulk—and for some reason, Dad would smile. As the bags wrinkled and collapsed, their contents dwindling, so did the gap to our final goal: Yellowstone.

“Get your head out of those books, kids! Look around! You might never see this again.” We barely raised our heads through Ohio, Indiana, and the wheat fields unfurling across the plains. We stared at the speeding, unfamiliar landscape every time he shouted at us against the road noise of his rolled down window, then we’d return to devouring books and shoving grocery bags back and forth until Mom’s hand swatted the air as a warning and the bags disintegrated into dust. We competed to be the first to recite the hundreds of signs on the way to Wall Drug in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, then we pocketed our wooden nickels and drove on. The Badlands and Mount Rushmore appeared and disappeared, curious foretellers of the ancient sights waiting for us. As the elevation lifted and the peaks rose out of the hard ground, I found one of my first great and lasting passions: the American West.

I never questioned how my school teacher father and stay-at-home mother (later, a nurse) fed, clothed, sheltered AND took us on a vacation every summer. Now, I know, and I carry on, packing a cooler on every trip longer than a half-day. I pull in at rest stops and stick my feet in the grass for awhile chatting with other travelers: they are friendlier at these plazas for some reason. I budget my food, exercise my legs, let the wind whip through my hair, and revisit my lost 10 year old self.

Like my mother, I fill my cooler with munchies: almonds, protein bars, apples, cheese, greek yogurt, and bottles of water. And 70% dark chocolate. If I’m really prepared, I grill chicken and hard boil eggs. Delicious. I plot out my route, tap points of interest into my GPS, and store important details in an app. I also find a comfort in smoothing out my own familiar tablecloth across a picnic table. Oh, if they could talk!

The apple has not fallen too far and I thank my parents for planting this seed. And it seems I’ve programmed it successfully into my own children’s DNA, as I’ve got a daughter and son-in-law living in China and a son planning a trip to the Philippines. I’m thrilled to watch them chase their lives all over this magnificent landscape because, as much as I miss them and worry a little, I know they’ll understand others—and themselves—a little better when they come back home.

 

Should I call my obsession with travel an addiction? I sometimes see raised eyebrows when I’m asked where I’m planning my next trip…as if they can’t. Can I say that, for me, it’s the pursuit of scenery, for natural perfection that startles and moves me? For time apart for silence and thinking? That I’ve found value in shedding my possessions and paring down to the necessaries for a time? Oh, I know I might be stretching here, but that I find another new—or old—piece of myself whenever I travel?

I was sad to see that my mother retired the old patchwork tablecloth this past Father’s Day. When I arrived at Little Buffalo State Park, I hugged my Dad, then turned to my Mom and asked what happened to the old tablecloth. “Oh, it wore out, I guess.” She smiled an apology, then we turned and stared at the brand new, mint green, noticeably thinner plastic cloth for a few minutes. She raised her eyebrows at me and marched over to the cooler to begin spreading our picnic across it.

I like to resolve concerns as soon as they appear in my life, but sometimes resolution is not swift. Or even an option. When that happens, I pack my bag and a cooler and push a little distance between myself and my life. Travel gives me time and space to reflect and dream again, which I sometimes mislay in my grownup life. It’s good to get away to be still.

The Vatican Floor.

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I don’t need new furniture or fancy things. I like them like anyone else, but I’d rather deny myself some daily luxuries for the promise of treading new ground. Touching ancient things, like the Vatican mosaic floors. Travel is like gravity to me. It frees my mind to float around untethered for a little while. Soothes my restless feet. Fills my hungry eyes. I don’t know what I will find when a new journey begins, but I know I will be changed, more resilient, more creased with wonder when I return. And if I have a companion with me, then the usual conversation and laughter will be richer for the experience. When curiosity is satisfied for a time, home feels right again. ~ Karen Chronister — at Vatican Museums – Musei Vaticani.

BA Bookstore TTP

BA Bookstore TTPAnna Urquhart and I are writers, so we have an extreme fondness for books and the buildings that hold them. When we travel together, we search them out ahead of time, if possible, and build itineraries around them. El Ateneo, an old theater converted into the largest independent bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere, is a stunning find. I’ve captured only a sliver of its magnificence, so I encourage  you to search out more images. The coffee shop is on the stage, complete with a grand piano and live Sinatra tunes. Given the location, it’s funny and sweet, and provides a few “commercial” breaks from writing. Every time I see this photo, I feel a romantic splash of nostalgia because it is the birthplace of my fiction career. I want to go back.

Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina.

From The Thin Places Facebook page.

Fyrish Monument. The Scottish Highlands.
Fyrish Monument
Fyrish Monument

 

1. Eat as much seafood as possible, especially mussels and scallops (had my best yet in Galway, Ireland, and Inverness, Scotland).

2. Skip the coffee and drink tea. My experience is that coffee is probably “rubbish” throughout all of Ireland unless it comes out of an espresso machine.

3. Porridge is the perfect sunrise comfort food and delicious in the British Isles! Choose to have it made with milk, not water. Bacon is really Canadian bacon (as we know it) + an extra piece.

4. Don’t skip the Guinness and whiskey distillery tours, like the Dalmore Distillery! I missed the Guinness tour and I’m still wishing I could have gone. Speaking of beer, it tastes different on the British Isles and I think it has everything to do with the pure water, especially in Scotland as they use fresh mountain “loch” water.

5.  In Ireland, it’s this simple: get out of the city unless it’s Galway (The King’s Head, High Street, Tig Cóilí, Taffes). Glendalough in County Wicklow is a stunning setting with monastic ruins and a hiking trail. I hear the West Coast is nothing short of breathtaking, most particularly the Aran Islands and The Cliffs of Moher in County Claire. I missed these, but they are highly recommended and on my to-do list next time I visit the island. If you are in Dublin, take a trip out to Howth Harbour, a charming seaside town nearby. The seafood is succulent and you may spot a few seals swimming amongst the fishing boats. Dublin…Do a walking tour to see the colorful doors and parks. Visit the Guinness Storehouse for a tour and lesson on pouring. Walk around Trinity College pay a few euros to see The Old Library and the ancient manuscript, The Book of Kells. Finally, hit up a few old pubs for fish and chips, and then get out of town into the rolling green hills dotted with sheep and bogs.

6. Stay with a native if at all possible or at a B & B and see everything they suggest. If you don’t have this opportunity, then frequent a popular pub or eatery and chat up the nearest table for suggestions. The Irish and Scottish are very friendly people and they love helping you see the special places in their country!

7. Go to the Highlands. Period. Inverness, as a city, and Dornoch, as a village, are wonderful. While in Dornoch, visit The Dornoch Cathedral for the stained glass windows, lunch at The Dornoch Castle Hotel by the massive fireplace, and dip your toes in The North Sea near The Royal Dornoch Golf Club. The beach is pristine and wild.

8. Stroll through the rambling ruins of The Urquhart Castle on the banks of the Loch Ness. You can put your toes in the loch and hope the Monster doesn’t take a little lick!

9. Use your fork in your left hand (flipped upside down) and push the food onto it with a knife. It’s very European, a fun new trick to learn and it looks very cultured when eating in an American restaurant. It also forces you to eat slowly rather than “shoveling” food into your mouth, as is our tendency, right?

10. When in Inverness (don’t miss this beautiful city), eat at Rocpool. You might run into Gordon Ramsey, because he loves this place. But that’s not why I’m suggesting this restaurant: it’s top of the world in atmosphere, service, and gorgeous food made with fresh local ingredients from the surrounding Scotland land and sea with “a Mediterranean twist.” Tell Steven, the owner, that Karen (Jonny and Anna’s friend) sent you. Try the scallop starter. I PROMISSSSSSE….

11. Love bookstores? Visit Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness. In the 1970s, it was converted from a church to a bookstore. When you walk in the door, the fragrance of old books, nutty and warm like cinnamon bread, envelopes you. Just stand still and inhale. Check out the prints in the bins in the middle of the store, they’re guaranteed to be over 100 years old. I snagged a few pastorals. Then climb the twisting stairs to the balcony cafe for a pot of tea and cakes. Delicious.

12. Last, but the top of my Best Vibes list is a climb up a Highland mountain to the Fyrish Monument. General Sir Hector Munro, just returned from war in 1783, paid 1 pound per rock (this is local legend) to townsfolk near Alness, Scotland, to erect a replica providing work in a time of famine. The monument is said to be a replica of the gates of the Indian fortress of Negapatam, captured by general.

Cheers!

~karen@thewordshopblog.com

For the Flag, The Thousand Yard Stare (Soldier Boy), and The Light of Hope.

 

 

Best Vibe for Art Lovers: Sometimes recommendations are difficult to write. When someone or something is almost too much for me to qualify, let alone quantify. Take Dane Carder‘s permanent exhibit at the new Music City Center, for instance.

For the Flag, The Thousand Yard Stare (Soldier Boy), and The Light of Hope.
For the Flag, The Thousand Yard Stare (Soldier Boy), and The Light of Hope.

I’ve been sitting on this “Best Vibe” for weeks. I’ve missed writing it for his birthday, missed the big Music City Center opening last weekend, missed an event at his studio, all because I couldn’t put his presence and his artwork into a few sentences…so maybe simple is better. Here are a few words to describe Dane: enigmatic, wide open, deep as the ocean floor, calmly observing the world around him, then painting peace on his canvas. I visit his Threesquared Studio every time I get to Nashville, excited to see his work transform, and now some of those pieces have found a home. His work,”Proof of Ghosts,” focuses its lens on unifying the North and the South. That’s right, 150+ years later, the divide, though mostly subtle, is still felt. When I ask Dane, a Nashville native, what compels him to do this work (two of my favorites are a young soldier and Abe), he talks about unity. That sounds very sweet to my Yankee ears given I’ve got a crush on Nashville and both my kids will be south of the Mason-Dixon in a few months. If you’re in Music City-Nashvegas-Nowville-stop by the Music City Center and soak up his permanent exhibit, which includes “For the Flag,” “The Thousand Yard Stare (Soldier Boy),” and “The Light of Hope.”

From Dane on “Proof of Ghosts” on exhibit at Belmont’s Leu Gallery  until June 14th, 2013, Monday-Friday 8-4.

“This body of work is not simply about the Civil War. It is about an emotion: the layered, all-encompassing emotion that accompanies a life lived. It is about being passionate enough to fight, compassionate enough to grieve, honest enough to be open. It is about ghosts and hopes. 

My father died when I was sixteen, and twenty-four years later, I am still haunted. And so it is, I believe, with the South since the Civil War. When the wind blows right, I make the trek to the baseball fields in west Nashville where my dad coached hundreds of games. Specifically, I take a moment beside the third base coach’s box, as if it were the site of an historic battlefield. About three times a year, I drive very slowly, sometimes stopping, by the house that was my family’s home for three decades; I glimpse visions here. In remembrance, I go to a particular restaurant on the edge of town to order the country ham breakfast that my father so passionately loved. In a desperate hope to hold onto what we have lost, we create fantastic and symbolic rituals. In loss, we seek a connection, and we sink our teeth and heart in deep to taste as much of that flavored past as possible. The reenactment of Civil War battles is one of the most passionate and visceral displays of this desire to connect and the fight to not forget.”

**Recommended: Click here to watch a short, brilliant video of Dane at work in Threesquared Studio.

Moonlight Ledge. Evergreen, CO.

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.
~Maya Angelou

Some of the most stunning epiphanies I’ve had materialized in 2000 during a trip to the Dominican Republic. We were building a church–loosely translated as I communed with the village women and children–in a particularly poor area along the coast near the border of Haiti.

I’d dreamed of taking this kind of trip since I was a teenager, though I always saw myself in a straw hat and sundress surrounded by dark African children. Perhaps that is yet to be fulfilled.

Pedro Julio with my Mango Tree

I couldn’t wait to arrive on the island and spread this immense amount of love I felt for people I’d never met. I was strong, healthy, American, and eager to share what I had. Within 24 hours, I’d been out given. Out hugged. Out laughed and out loved. Well, that’s Epiphany #1. Where I thought I’d be met with tears and poverty, I found hugs and mile-wide smiles–and music blaring out of eight foot speakers. It had been awhile since a hurricane had passed over this town of Paraíso, which means “paradise,” so bellies were full and the moments were being embraced with abandon. Ok, Ephipany #2. It was a magical week: I was mistaken for a light-skinned Dominican because of how I walked (and yes, we walk differently in a skirt and surrounded by beautiful Latino women. Yep, Epiphany #3), after a week I’d coaxed a smile and been offered an espresso by a shy coffee farmer, and I’d been given my first ever nickname, “Mariposa.” Mariposa means butterfly. “You are beautiful and you need to be free,” my friend said. And there’s Epiphany #4.

So, this big trip I’d planned for a year where I could pour myself out to people who needed me, taught me that I could easily underestimate another’s ability to give back to me with abundance and in greater measure. The language of love and friendship and giving is as universal as music.

Our similarities outweigh our differences, and I hope, so do our blessings outweigh our burdens.

A new Dominican friend, Pedro Julio, told me while we sat under the stars on the last night listening to music booming from the new chapel, “You will come back to our island. You are happy here.” He was right: I did and I was. Now, I have a mango tree planted in my honor (I won a bet with this new friend) and a few songs translated into Spanish that I think they sing from time to time.

Travel paved the road for this and erased a lot of my naive assumptions.

I have no plans to turn in my passport.

Memphis Jones
Memphis Jones
Memphis Jones

MEMPHIS JONES ~ TOUR GUIDE RECOMMENDATION!

Best Vibe for a Memphis Tour Guide: I met Memphis Jones last week on my first ever trip to Memphis (of all places!). We did it up-Central BBQ, Graceland, Sun Studio, Stax Studio (!), Rock & Soul Museum, Beale Street, the famous Arcade Restaurant, Elvis impersonator, EVERYTHING! But, the stand out was native Memphis Jones. I cannot recommend this guy ENOUGH as a tour guide. He’s knows SOUL and he knows Memphis. He embodies the flavor of the town. He’s got a killer voice and style. And he’s really, really nice. If you go to Memphis with a group–even if it’s just as a couple or with friends–please find him. He’s a flavor enhancer. Here’s a taste…Memphis Jones

To contact Memphis Jones, click here: www.memphisjones.net

Central BBQ Downtown

 

Central BBQ Downtown
Central BBQ Downtown, Memphis

Best Vibe for BBQ: Memphis’ Central BBQ Downtown ~ After a week in the South, my stomach is travel weary of Southern fare. Not because it’s not good…but because it is!Comforting. Succulent, even. Diverse, abundant and celebrated, yes. This is Southern food. Did I mention, abundant?

How do I, while enjoying a week as a travel and food journalist/blogger, push away a plate of Granny Dee’s black-eyed peas, fried catfish, and peach cobbler? And this, after the rousing choir rattled the rooftop at Greater First Baptist Church in Helena, AR?

Well, I didn’t.

Tomorrow I won’t eat as much. Just tiny bites, I reassure myself imagining the impending pain it will require to recalibrate my body to spinning class. Of course, I didn’t figure breakfast at the Arcade Restaurant in Memphis (a site of many Hollywood movies), a wine and hors d’oeuvre reception while awaiting the Duck March at The Peabody. The glorious and decadent Peabody Hotel. Umm. NICE digs.

I hazily recall more food thrown in my trough around lunch, but for the life and longevity of me, I remember nothing.

So, by the time I arrived at the dinner location in downtown Memphis, TN, I no longer possessed any available pouches to store food–except the obvious, but we won’t talk about that right now.

Or ever.

Stand out food in Memphis?

Central BBQ Downtown.

Banana Cream Pudding
Banana Cream Pudding

This joint opened it’s newest location recently and is da bomb on barbecue. Oh, I did nibble on all of it: smoked hot wings with a sweet and salty dry rub, pulled pork, BBQ nachos, chicken, a mini-slab of ribs (finger licking required), BBQ smoked beans and coleslaw, which is crisp, cool, and not sweet. And I admit to eating a few bites of the Banana Cream Pudding.

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The board.

JC Youngblood, one of the employee owners, met the original owners at a backyard barbecue a few years ago, who met about a decade ago at the famous Memphis in May. One thing led to another –as it usually happens with brilliant ideas–and three Central BBQ locations later, JC says, “We try to create a barbecue experience and we’re lucky enough to cook ribs for a living.”

Central BBQ is Green, voted Best BBQ by the Memphis Flyer Reader’s Poll and Memphis Magazine Reader’s Poll, and generous by nature: JC recommends a friend’s joint, Payne’s BBQ as home of the best sandwich in town: “Toasted Bun with Mustard Slaw and Hot Sauce.” He practically smacked his lips talking about it. I said, “That’s incredibly nice to support your competition because this food is incredible.”

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The specials.

“We let the buzz say we’re the best in town,” JC said, then ran to his office to print a sheet of lesser known, but highly prized food friends in Memphis. He calls it his list of “Not so Touristy Tourist Stops.”

Who does that? Central BBQ. I’ll post JC’s list in a few days. But first, I’d like Central BBQ to marinate in my little limelight.

So, when in Memphis, do as the Memphisians do and lick your plate at Central BBQ. Trust me. But clean out your pockets, take a jog or spin on the bike, and get ready to live up this Memphis BBQ moment.

 

*The downtown location can absolutely handle busses and large groups, catering events, buffets, and bag lunches. Of course, they can.

 

Amelie's Salted Caramel Brownie
Amelie’s Salted Caramel Brownie

Downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, looks a little too planned for this North-easterner. I’m absolutely not bragging about Philly, my nearest big market metro, but I’ll use it as an example of what I expect to experience downtown: winding, hilly, brownstone and rowhouse-crowded streets that test even the finest non-directionally challenged drivers, wisecracks and secrets thrown down at every turn, and cool little Mom and Pop food joints within an arm’s radius. In other words, unfiltered personality written all over the skyline’s wizened face.

So, when I drop into a city like Charlotte, NC, that feels, well, a little too neat for comfort, it reminds of a pancake face. Flat. Thick facade. Everything in perfect order, with a color-coordinated palate, precise lines, plump curves, and more than a few illusions. I lower my expectations at finding much below the surface, since it is the surface that is demanding attention. This is unfair concerning both people and cities–maybe–but upon first introductions, I look where you want me to look.

Perhaps that’s why it takes me four days to venture outside of my twice daily jaunt from hotel to convention center during a recent trip to The Queen City (ahem?). The first night we walk out into the moonlight, I gasp. The glowing buildings sit like strategically stacked, low-lit ice cubes: one neon blue suggests a giant martini glass, another as if it belongs to Gotham City, and though the mid-sized buildings project a more serious, demure demeanor, the varying heights are so proportionate to one another that I think, “This didn’t just happen. It all harmonizes a little too well.”

I sniff: too inorganic for me.

So, I ask around, and yep, most of Charlotte’s mid- and high-rises were built within the last five years.

Ah, ok, I get it. So, I dismiss the lovely Charlotte and make a rookie travel writing mistake: I fail to ask the locals where I can find that special cup of coffee–until the last day of the convention.

I’ve talked, walked and ingested information to the point of nausea, which is the norm for me at a national convention. I love it at first, then I hit a wall. So the last full day in Charlotte, I drag my fatigued self up the escalator in search of internet, minus the $15 a day Charlotte Convention Center fee. Frankly, I’m sick of Panera and Starbucks as a first choice, and yearn to find something new and fresh to resuscitate my senses. I crave something to startle me out of my conference slide and shuffle dance routine.

This is where Genie and John come into the picture. As I approach the exit (to the Outer Glass Queendom), their uniformed and cheery presence suggests I ask them for direction rather than wandering aimlessly. They, unlike me, are still perky.

“Hi, there! All finished for the day?” Genie asks.

Snort. “Ha, no. Tearing down the booth in a bit, but I’m dying for free internet and a really great cup of coffee. Suggestions?”

“Well, the closest place is Panera–oh, not interested? Hmmm, Starbu–. Well, if you don’t mind a walk there’s a fabulous little French bakery called Amélie’s (phonetically, it is ‘OM-ma-leez”).”

“So why do you recommend it?” This question usually digs up the most interesting tidbits per capita minute and determines whether I follow the scent.

Genie begins a full-on informative gush while John nods in agreement, “Oh, the bakery is scrumptious and they make their own caramel. It’s kind of a success story. When it first opened, it struggled. Then the owner decided to do something different and stay open 24/7 and it suddenly did very well. We think they were invited to the White House for a small business summit…”

I must brighten because once Genie finishes, John begins giving me point by point directions by street names.

Bless his heart (I say this with conviction), I’m female AND right-brained. I need landmarks and colors.

After a few silent, puzzling looks from me, he grins and adjusts, “Go across the street, through the green park with the fish sculpture (it’s a nice place to sit on a warm day), turn right on Martin Luther King Jr. (memorable, thank you), at the light cross the street going away from the convention center and look for a building with a red circle sign with an “i” in the middle. It’s in the building where you get information for Charlotte.”

Fish Park

“Yes,” Genie chimes in, “That’s where you’ll find Amélie’s!’”

“Wow. Must be good.” They stand together grinning like good subjects.

“Oh, and trust me, you want the Salted Caramel Brownie–and a palmier too!” Genie rolls her eyes in ecstasy and covers her mouth. “Yes, you do.”

I laugh. I love that look. Something about her grin convinces me those specialties are worth a short trek off the carb-restricted diet I usually adhere to, especially when traveling.

“OM-ma-leez. Om-ma-leez. OK, I’m on it! Thanks again!” Their perkiness revives me slightly.

You’ve got to love people who love their jobs. I know I do. Up to this point, I’m nodding a lot, tracing the walk in my head, rechecking my watch because I’ve little more than an hour–and if this place pans out as good as they’re promising–I need to hup two. With images of omelets floating my head, I get the names of my wonderful ambassadors–actually, Charlotte Crowne Guides–and stride toward the door.

Walk like a city dweller, Karen. No time to waste.

Courage and Kindness
Courage and Kindness

I talk to myself as I walk to Amélie’s: cross the green park, snap a picture of the fish and a nearby inscription “Kindness in another’s troubles. Courage in your own.” (Amen, Adam Lindsay Gordon), turn right, look for the red “i” and viola–wait. No Omeleez anywhere. An Amelia’s, but no Omeleez.

Groan. Yes, it is that obvious, but I embody convention fatigue in this moment. I press cupped hands against the window (and yes, I’ve lost all couth) to peer inside, a glittering chandelier and Little Boy Blue wink at me; that’s when I make the phonetic leap. Oh, I get it, Amélie’s, not Amelia’s. Very French, indeed.

MLK Jr & Tryon
MLK Jr & Tryon

My time ticks away at every delay, and the bottom line: as much as I love uncovering a cool cafe with an even cooler story, my original mission remains internet and caffeine. In either order. I snap pictures of the sign, the 24/7 anomaly, and the scintillating chandelier strung up close to the high painted ceiling. An amalgamation of yeast, sugar, and crushed beans greets me inside the door. Eclectic furnishings, a round table, a few velvet chairs, and a blue, blue wall of French paintings forms a backdrop to the coffee house Muzak (I think jazz) and murmur of life.

Amelie's Petite French Cafe
Amelie’s Petite French Cafe

What I don’t hear is the whirr of an espresso machine. Only a few people sit inside. No one lifts a head at my entrance, but continues in conversation or silence. Even the barista seems unexpectant as she reads behind a small, glass display case laden with patisseries. I’m not trying to make an entrance, but it is a very subdued atmosphere. I find it interesting how absolutely absorbed everyone is: deep in conversation, scrutinizing their computer screen, reading a real book with real pages.

 Hmmm…very Paris cafe.

Genie’s perky voice interrupts my senses, you WANT the Salted Caramel Brownie and palmier…trust me. So, I approach the counter with a big, double row of teeth and said, “Hi! So….your place is recommended for coffee and French pastries. Oh, and I write a little travel blog, do you mind if I take pictures?”

The usual response?  A shy delighted look.

The case.
The case.

This girl looks at me sideways for a minute and says, “Well, I’m not sure. Are you from the newspaper?”

Oh, this is where it gets embarrassing for me.

“No, just a little travel blog…um, and I hear the Salted Caramel Brownies are amazing.”

“Yes, but I think you should call someone at the main cafe (I’m standing in Amélie’s Petite) and they can answer any questions you have. I’m sure they’ll help you.”

“Oh…OK. Hmm…”

“I’m not Amélie.”

“No?” I smile, pondering my next move. Press on with the story or grab the internet, an espresso and maximize my writing minutes? I should just take pictures, scribble a few notes and cease and desist with the questions.

The Salted Caramel Brownie and Palmier
The Salted Caramel Brownie and Palmier

You see, I try to keep my steps from story to blog minimized. But if a writer only observes and doesn’t interact, the story only scratches the surface. And yes, I have a problem with surfaces. So, I order the brownie, then spot the palmier label, and since I studied French for five years, the girl understands. She carefully arranges the two delicacies in a box with tissue paper, then rings up my order–surprisingly inexpensive at $1.79 and .89 cents, respectively. Nice presentation. Nice price.

“Well, thank you,” I say. She nods and smiles slightly larger this time, still looking at me sideways. I move to a velvet chair. It sits low and deep as velvet chairs without arms do. I balance the box on my knees and pull out my MacBook Air to capture the details: high French chandelier (worth mentioning more than once), free wifi (it is intermittent but a second barista cheerily offers to reset it, which solves the problem), colorful palate, comfortable seating, striped blued painted walls, great muffled sound, frilly cafe chairs, dark woods, and a waspish nested cacophony of hanging pots (I believe this is decorative), bookshelves, and a mixed blend of mosaic art and pottery.

Amelie's Petite Room
Amelie’s Petite Room

Pretty darn French perfect.

The Barista's View
The Barista’s View

I munch virginally along the edges of my palmier (palm-ME-ay)–my first, sad to say, even after spending ten days in Paris last summer grazing through every bakery on the way to and from grad class. This luxurious treat is a crisp, looped puffed pastry that looks like baby elephant ears or the heart shape that all the girls make with their hands at a Taylor Swift concert.  It has, at once, a smooth, crunchy mouth feel, butter forward, and abundant crystallized sugar on top. The palmier presents as delicate and robust, quick to melt into every warm crevice of your mouth. Very French. Very yum and worth the carbs.

The palmier demands a drink and I realize then that I’ve forgotten to order one. Wow, mind mist. I remove everything from my lap and approach the counter again.

“So, you’re not Amélie. What is your name?”

She hesitates, then smiles, “Andrea.”

“Beautiful, Andrea! (Laugh) I forgot to order my drink. Just an iced coffee, I think.”

“What kind of thing do you write? Is it on the internet?”

“Yes, nothing big, really. Just a travel blog and I love to find little cafes when I’m visiting a new place. Amélie’s is highly recommended.”

She smiles again. Wider. Andrea is beautiful, blinking like a flower that opens with the morning sun. She begins to tell me how she’s come to Amelie’s, at first to work on the cleaning crew, then one day she decided she’d like to work behind the counter as a barista. She says she loves it because they work like a real team and that she’s changed from not smiling much, not trusting people easily, to enjoying meeting new people. Her cleaning boss “hated to lose her,” but Andrea wanted a change.

To try to change.

I say, “You need to run after those kinds of changes.” She nods.

I stand riveted for the next minutes listening to her story and we exchange a few more truths.

Amélie’s, I believe, is more than a hip French cafe and patisserie in the middle of downtown Charlotte; it is a place of hope and renewal. It is written all over Andrea’s face. Andrea is the voice of Amélie’s on this day. Better than the Salted Caramel Brownie and Palmier combined.

“So, I want to take a drink to my roommate. What do you suggest?”

Andrea demonstrates how to make a Caramel Latte.

“Oh, the Caramel Latte! The caramel is homemade!”

“That’s what I hear. Of course, then!” I say. “I’ll take a tall and, if you don’t mind,

First the milk.
First the milk.

can I take pictures of you making it?”

Andrea muffles a giggle with her hand, then says, “Sure! But give me a minute.”

She returns sporting an official Amélie’s shirt and apron and proceeds to teach me the entire process. A real pro–and another person happy with her job. This might have been more inspiring to me than anything since I arrived in Charlotte.

Then the homemade caramel.
Then the homemade caramel.

 

Voila!
Voila!

I think I must meet this Amélie at some point.

I check my watch again, scribble as fast as I can while chewing tiny bites of the Salted Caramel Brownie (I think my eyes rolled like Genie’s). I have just enough time to capture the flavor of Amelie’s and recommend her to you.

Amélie’s is shabby chic, oh oui, c’est vrai, with that Parisian je ne sais quoi of not looking like she tries too awfully hard to be beautiful. And yet, Amélie’s is, indeed, beautiful.

The voice of this little French patisserie and cafe? It isn’t Amélie this day. You know it is Andrea. And it sounds exactly like it’s spelled. Andrea.

Oh, and the Salted Caramel Brownie?  Worth. Every. Bite.

So, I haven’t exactly uncovered a hidden coffee house this time–unless you note my phonetic challenges when I first arrived at MLK Jr. & Tryon. I had to brush aside a layer of Charlotte-ease and ask the right people to find Amélie’s. Just beneath the surface of this perfectly manicured, shouting “white collar” from every street corner town sits a little coffee house gem. Amélie’s is, in fact, a favorite haunt of Hollywood actors and actresses, continuously wins many awards and accolades, and yes, has made an appearance at the White House (for more details). What I’ve done for you, instead, cuts through any city cynicism you might have (my blogging hands have been gently slapped) to land you right at Amélie’s Petite (or main) French Cafe the very minute your feet hit the wide pavement.

Parisian Blue Wall
Parisian Blue Wall

As I leave, Andrea looks up and smiles. I walk over one last time, “Thank you so much for the information and for sharing your story. Here’s my card. Give me a bit to write this, but I’d like to write about you, Andrea, when I write about this place.”

She glows and nods her head, suddenly shy again. “You should come back on Saturday. We have a group that comes through here–”

I shake my head, “I leave town in the morning.”

“Oh.” She is silent for a moment, then surprises me as she reaches out wrapping me in her arms. “I wish you didn’t have to go.” In this moment, Andrea’s face becomes the one I hope to find in every little town and every Charlotte.

I can’t even express everything I think, what I feel, about her words. I don’t have to. You either get it or you don’t.

So, if you visit Amélie’s Petite at the corner of MLK Jr. and Tryon, tell Andrea that Karen the travel blogger said, “Hi! And don’t you listen to anyone who tells you not to change.”

She’ll know what I’m talking about.

 —————————————————-
Notes: 
*From a marketer’s standpoint, the website is brilliant. Still curious about Amelie’s? Go to http://www.ameliesfrenchbakery.com.

*If Amelie’s Petite is a shadow of the main gig (it is NOT open 24/7 like the main cafe), that should worth a stop too.

View from the English Cabbies Window
View from the English Cabbies Window
View from the English Cabbie’s Window

I met a cab driver who “rescued” me from a stranded train in the English countryside two summers ago. He reminded me of Anthony Hopkins at his awkward, creepy, chattery best. He broke my suitcase handle after 3 weeks of trekking Europe, which led to very difficult travel a few days later in Heathrow and Manchester. He gave me his business card (I remember seeing his hand quivering), said he still corresponded with two elderly American ladies he delivered to an English destination many years earlier. He hoped I might write him too…I haven’t yet, but I’m thinking about it. I still have his card. (drum…drum…drum…)

franklin1

A Day in Philadelphia: City of Wonders

We step through the curtain and enter a large, shadowed room with screens surrounding us. The waters of the Dead Sea lap gently on all sides. A man, in the khaki hues of an archeologist, emerges from a dusky corner and intones the tale of how the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered—a shepherd searching for a lost goat. A stone thrown into a cave near the water. The sound of breaking pottery. And, as the adage goes, the rest is history.

Over 900 scrolls—unearthed from those seaside caves—offer some of the earliest writings of the Bible, preserved for over 2000 years in the only location in the world dry enough for them to survive. A wonder-filled discovery.

We move inland as it were, away from the sound of lapping water, and stroll through several rooms filled with ancient artifacts: clay ink-pots, iron arrowheads, massive water casks, brass coinage.

Then finally into a large room with a circular glass-topped display. A display around which everything else centers. The gravitas of King Arthur’s Round Table. Yet it holds something far more sacred—the God-breathed words of scriptures. Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Fragments that priests from 2000 years ago touched gingerly, transcribed painstakingly, read reverently. And we stand, in the year 2012, moving from piece to piece, murmuring, gazing alongside strangers in wonder.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, a moving international exhibit, is in its final weeks at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. While at the institute we also jockeyed playfully between the science exhibits: sending static electricity—our bodies the conduit–to ring a bell, traipsing through a larger-than-life-sized model of the human heart, and pumping a lever with all our might to inflate a balloon. I think Karen won. Really, Anna won, but Karen is editing J

Our heads full, we boarded the BNT coach for a short drive over to the Camden Aquarium where we walked through a shark-infested glass tank, chuckled at cavorting penguins, and stared at the massive heft of Button the hippo. Cute, well, maybe not, but Button is certainly a wonder in the midst of city lights and crazy flights of homemade airborne fancy – the Red Bull Flugtag - happening simultaneously outside the aquarium alongside the Potomac. The theatre seating in front of a stories high fish tank proved the most mesmerizing spot. We settled here for a while watching the multi-specied fish race and discussing whether this atmosphere could be tapped for our own writing nooks at home.  We haven’t figured that one out yet!

The entirety of the day can only be encapsulated in one word: wonder. Wonder at the ancient writings that, instead of having to travel halfway around the world, the Franklin Institute practically dropped in our backyard. Wonder at the myriad of fish and animals found in the world. Wonder at the same God who breathed into existence those words on the scrolls also breathed to life the laws of science and sea creatures. It was a day of wonder and a day that we will be sure to experience more than once—the next time, through our children’s eyes!

If Philadelphia is a city of wonders, then it is impossible to cross it off our bucket list and call it “done.”  Up next at The Franklin Institute: “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” 100th Anniversary!

Enjoy the journey!

~Anna & Karen

*”Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” runs November 10, 2012 to April 7, 2013 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

*Food Review: Franklin Institute—Grade B. The food was decent for a cafeteria-type venue. There are other more palatable options within 2 to 3 blocks. Yet if you don’t want to walk, and want an easy lunch, the food at the Franklin Institute isn’t bad. Cost is about $6 to $10 which in Philadelphia is on the inexpensive side. (You can also pack a lunch and eat it in the cafeteria if you prefer.)

Times Square

with Anna Urquhart ~ post from their “A Road Taken” blog.

Terracotta Warrior

Standing still is rarely admired in America, and yet it is often this stillness that we want. Now, consider standing silent in the middle of New York City, examining a man who has not moved one chiseled muscle in more than 2,000 years.

We did just that a few weeks ago, hopping onto a BNT bus headed for New York City. We had only one scheduled item on the agenda: the Terracotta Warriors, a petrified army of soldiers, chariots, and horses created by a Chinese emperor who feared nothing but death. Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, hoped that the terracotta troops would impress (and even intimidate) those greeting him in the “afterlife.” This silent, entombed army, discovered only a few years ago by two Chinese farmers, recently left the colossal underground sepulcher to advance across the globe city by city.

Times Square

This exhibit joins a long list of spectacular short-term events at The Discovery Museum in Times Square, including The Dead Sea Scrolls, Pompeii The Exhibit, Harry Potter, Titanic The Artifact Exhibition, and Leonardi Da Vinci’s Workshop to name a few1. Arriving at the museum, we slowed our pace, moving with awe and curiosity from artifact to artifact. We mingled with ancient history and recognized that, despite the vast expanse of years and miles, emperor or not, we all are human.
After nearly an hour of quiet contemplation, what next? Can you guess our knee-jerk American reaction to an unscripted expanse of a day in New York City? How much ground can we cover? Yes! But, wait. We decided to do the impossible: slow down in the middle of one of the most exciting cities in the world and savor exploring time and space with a friend.

Anna at a Little Italy market.

Can one ounce of unhurried leisure surface amidst honking taxis (though in some areas

honking now equals a fine), Grand Central Station throngs, long restroom lines, and astronomical prices? We weren’t sure, but since we began the day’s journey in stillness, we were determined to see it through.

We hopped a subway train in search of lunch in Little Italy. Arriving on the corner of Prince and Broadway intending to head south, we accidently wandered west, down a “wrong” street. Looking around, trying to get our bearings, we stumbled upon a Nespresso café and store (a decadent indulgence for us coffee lovers), a lively conversation with our Turkish barista “U,” and a luscious latte (artfully topped with a pouty dog face). And it happened only because we took a wrong turn and didn’t panic, didn’t try to make up for lost time, and didn’t feel obliged to “get our money’s worth” from our day in Manhattan. What an idea!

When traveling, a common American concept (and we would argue—misconcept) is: the fuller the itinerary, the more fulfilling the experience. While more is sometimes better,

when it comes to travel, more can be simply, well, more. It’s like choosing a great restaurant over a buffet—savoring an experience versus getting the most for our money.

It might be a crazy notion, but if we forego trying to conquer an interminable “To Do” list or tight itinerary, the day belongs to us rather than the other way around. On the one day we tried it, the benefits were undeniable: by getting lost, we found a delightful café, indulged in delectable sushi after asking a friendly, earnest policeman for a suggestion, navigated the subway system without stress, and never once thought the clock was cheating us. Time actually slowed down.

Kodama Sushi
Whether taking a day trip to the Big Apple, a tour of Ireland, or an Alaskan cruise, practicing the art of standing still yields crystal clear memories, meaningful conversations–and equally meaningful silences–and ample opportunity to take the perfect photo.

Curiously, then, it’s easier to stand still in the middle of our “real” lives.

Anna & Karen

*Visit http://www.discoverytsx.com/ for the information on the latest Discovery Museum exhibits. $

*To get from Times Square to Little Italy, go to the 42nd Street Subway Station (in Times Square), buy a “Single Ride” ticket ($2.50—easiest to use the machine on the wall), and take the Yellow Line (N,Q,R) train Downtown to the Prince Street stop. This takes you to Prince Street and Broadway.  To find the Nespresso Café, walk one block West on Prince Street. Tell “U” we said hello! $

*We highly recommend the Kodama Sushi, our own nugget of a discovery, at 301 West 45th Street (on the corner of 8th Ave), just off Times Square. The ingredients are fresh, the atmosphere casual and comfortable, the prices reasonable, and the chef humble and inspiring. Good things to savor. $

$      0.00-25.00

$$    26.00 – 50.00

$$$  50.00+

Underground-Coffee-House-Nashville1310x600

When I was 18, I had an argument with my father that it shouldn’t matter who you know, but rather what you know. I’m still an optimist and a wee bit naive, but I wouldn’t argue that today. I’d say both matter.

Underground Coffee House Nashville
Guitar and Coffee Loaded

The Best Coffee in Town.
I can’t tell you where it is. I can’t tell you the name of the joint or how to get the information. You’ve got to know someone. Or get invited. Perhaps, you ask the right question of the right person who knows that Someone. It’s not about money or power. It’s about coffee-ease. Code words and earnest seeking about the truths the bean holds. I’m not exactly sure what I said the other day in Nashville, but I said it to the right person in the right place and I found hidden treasure.

What, you are thinking, is this an elite coffee club or something? Yes, and on paper, it does seem odd, seductively exclusive even, especially in a town where I could lose the a fore-mentioned argument over and over.

However, after having visited, tasted, and been enlightened, I believe I found a man who, quite possibly, knows enough about coffee (judging by sheer verbal volume) to talk a bank robber out of robbing. I see his coffee house as a speakeasy or a salon like those early 20th Century Parisian apartments that harbored the genius of Hemingway, Stein and Pound. For these artists, it was the love and careful, diligent study of what makes a story real that gathered them together. For this coffee salon, it is love of the drink for sure, but more, it is the serious intellectual pursuit of all that goes into the making of a great espresso and coffee.

You might be thinking, so what have you got to write about, Karen? Well, this is my blog and pony show (no stealing this :) but why do I bother to write about the best cup of coffee if you, the reader, can’t trek to Nashville to find it? I have no compelling answer other than this is the most unique coffee shop and masterblender I’ve ever stumbled on.

And yes, the drink is superior.

So, I’m walking down a Nashville street on the bohemian side of Music Row and I wander into a little shop filled with *&@* (this is not a euphemism for a cuss word, I’m just sworn to secrecy, that’s all), which happens to be the right shop, if you know what I mean. It is unassuming, cluttered, and smelling of coffee and cardboard, but I find this cute little take-home gift that I can squeeze into my suitcase. I buy four.

“Do you have a business card? I write this little travel blog, you see, and I’d like to give your shop a shout-out.”

The man behind the counter, who up until this point has been mute, brightens and half-hops over to a tousled stack of cards and hands one to me. For the next ten minutes–this my favorite part of the travel writing gig–he unveils the store’s multi-generational history. His voice is youthful, and he is verbose. I stand listening, happy to be an ear, pulling out the thread that I will use to sew the blog, filing away the rest. It is quite possible that my role as a travel and food writer will be similar to a bartender or a hairdresser or a bank teller: I fill a trusted role and handle a person’s valuables, so I am invited to cross the invisible fence and permitted to move about the pasture, privy to details otherwise withheld from the average acquaintance. I think, “this will be a nice informative Nashville piece about grabbing a great cup of coffee and wandering up and down a pretty street.”

Then the man hands me another card and says, “You should call my brother. He is who you really want to talk to.” He follows with another ten minute synopsis of a coffee shop they own but don’t want to advertise. It doesn’t have a name and the location must be given to you by this man’s brother. I stare at the card. Weird, right? But they want this place to be found.

“Call him now,” he says, and nods to my phone. “It’s his cell number.”

I’m oddly uncomfortable with this idea, so I deflect with another question. Ten minutes later I walk out of the shop, thanking the man who now grins like a Cheshire cat. He’s tipped off the mole.

I walk for a few blocks fingering the card. Should I call the brother? Is this too strange? Or am I panning for gold in a winking stream?

A Dunkin’ Donut sign flags me from behind a few tree branches, and half-way through an iced latte, after I’ve tamped down the splintered wood of a picnic table, I dial.

“Hi, uh, my name is Karen, and I write a travel blog. I love coffee. Uh (laugh), I got your number from your brother–”

“Ah, yes. Well, we’re not really looking for advertisement (he has the same youthful voice), but why don’t you come over. I’ll make you a cup of coffee.”

Copper Espresso Machine
The Great Copper Eagle

Southern hospitality. I’m warmed to the idea.

The brother, I’ll call him “M,” gave me a seven point verbal map to follow: a few turns, a gravel road, an unmarked warehouse, glass doors. I find it and walk inside; the room is leather couches and church pews, a fully stocked musician’s stage, and artifacts from coffee growing countries. M moves out from behind a Italian espresso machine, its great copper head presiding over the room. M’s chin is two-day’s growth, but the bill of his baseball cap is a perfect 180 degree curve and his grin an ocean wide.

The mastermind of this unnamed, discreet coffee house is verbose too–to my great advantage. I stand at the counter listening, nodding as he yawns, exposing the coffee file to the light. Then he leads me to a massive wooden table. I sit as he pulls from a cupboard a tray strewn with coffee bean-filled bags. The professor asks more questions, quizzing me, coaxing me to the answers. Nodding in approval when I’m right, looking regretful when I’m not. I’m a B minus student, but teachable. It is unending, this knowledge of his and I lovehate it.

To this point, I’ve been satisfied with my globetrotting coffee sipping experiences: riding in the back of a songtow halfway up a mountain outside of Chiangmai, Thailand, to imbibe under a rickety canopy, seeds roasting over embers on a hand-hammered platter; standing in a dirt yard beside a grower in the Dominican Republic, leaping tall language barriers to sip quietly beside him, our drink strong and sugarcane-sweetened from his own harvest–this after a week of wooing him with a smile; accompanying an Austrian goulash in a 16th Century Viennese cafe; and in Buenos Aires, a daily double dose–or should I say douse?–of Italian roast espresso with inch high crema in the largest independent bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere.

But, now I find, I have lacked the intricate knowledge to know what goes into the best cups of coffee–the best in the world. One could argue, though, what is best? The experiences I’ve had or the knowledge I am gaining in one salon afternoon? I’m thinking, both.

I’m worried, though. It’s like hearing the best bass player, the best voice, the best melody or lyrical phrase–will I never enjoy another regular cup of coffee again? I don’t get to Nashville often enough to join this club. How long until I sniff out the next place on this underground coffee trail–if it even exists?

Here’s what I can tell you:
*The “fresh” coffee at your favorite shop is at least 18 months old.
*Crema is the “foam” on top of an espresso, and it can be faked.
*What we know as the coffee bean is actually the seed: this is a fruit drink we are enthralled with: it should not be bitter.
*If a pound of coffee costs less than $25, then it’s only packaging and advertising that distinguishes between brands. So don’t bother to pay more than you have to unless its the good stuff.
*Coffee is the second largest commodity in the world (according to M), and therefore, the second most corruptible behind oil (though he might concede to jewelry too).
*Apparently some guy named George from “Cup of Excellence” is the expert–he taught M everything he knows, which is a lot.
*A combination of 32 hands, implements, truck beds, bicycles, and/or donkey bums touches the coffee bean, and therefore, flavors it, from mountain to freighter.

M leads me back to the hammered copper machine, runs his finger over the holes of his espresso sieve. His eyes pop with each nugget he is dropping in front of me, tireless, but I am waning. Padawan must rest, must be renewed.

Grind. Bang. Whirrrr. Is it a high E sharp?

The Rounded Espresso Cup
The Rounded Espresso Cup

The half-moon cup nestles in my palm, the crema a stratus cloud. I don’t remember the rest. It involves a slap, then another slap, and my head snapping back. I think I’ve groaned. I come to and the clouds have spread paper thin clinging to the lower curve of the cup, but I don’t have the guts to drain it.

“Come back tomorrow and I’ll make you a cup of coffee from that.”

“What’s that?” I point to a contraption that looks like one glass carafe rigged on top of another, with a mesh cylinder inside.

“A siphon. You’ve never had a cup of coffee like that.”
“Oh,” I say, weak, and then thrilled, sensing the caffeine flooding my veins. “OK.”

It might be said that, outside of a place such as this, outside of the care of a masterblender like M, it is impossible to experience coffee as God intended it. At least one should be armed with the knowledge needed to recognize the best espresso and coffee in the world, and then, atmosphere is icing. I still say, one is integral to the other.

M shares a few secrets to get me by when I’m not in town–the ones I’ve shared with you. It may be possible to make “a cup of excellence” if we are informed seekers, but I wish he hadn’t told me about his $3000 grinder. It shatters the unsullied seed into three different shapes and this, he says, makes all the difference in the speed of the water pushing through the machine. This, in part, is what creates authentic crema. Darn, and I thought my Nespresso machine was a little over the top, but I’m only just beginning this journey.

“I love the romance of it,” M says, closing the file with a sigh. He is contented. A man who has found his place in life.

And I am spy. I have a mission. Where is the next coffee house like this? Ask the right questions in the right place and the map unfurls a little further.

I need a Panama hat.

Spannocchia Courtyard

The View from the Terrace at Spannocchia

The gloaming time at Spannocchia brings easy laughter and Limoncello, a homemade Italian lemon liqueur that delights all but the teetotalers on the multinational guest list. Spannocchia is a diamond of a place to stay, half-buried in the Tuscan landscape just outside of Siena, Italy, where they serve their own farm-raised organic pork products, including the best prosciutto I’ve ever tasted.

Spannocchia Courtyard

This 12th Century tenuta, a working farm with connections to America through The Spannocchia Foundation, includes a large, rambling main villa with a Medieval castle tower, chapel, collection of rustic guest rooms, several outlying farmhouses, an organic farm and teaching center, and the wine- making room. But, most memorable of all: the communal meals under a grape arbor-shaded stone patio, and of course, cooking lessons in the authentic Tuscan tradition.

Did I breathe “perfect” yet? Perfect. And they produce their own luscious, organic olive oil. Silky. But, back to Limoncello.

Living, even briefly, in a place like Spannocchia leaves behind a persisting ache. Like some kind of phantom limb that itches every now and then and your arm isn’t long enough to scratch it. The locale–its rustic elegance and
contented quiet–got under my skin and in the middle of a meeting or stressful day or a Herculean effort to find time to write, I miss it. So does my writing buddy, Anna, who joined me last summer along with a slew of other writers at the Spalding MFA in Writing Italian international residency.

For eight days, we strolled the dirt paths in search of pigs, gathered to sip wine on the velvet grass terrace, and marveled at the antiquity–the steadfastness–of the structures. We had nothing better to do than contemplate the landscape and wonder at the presence of “now.” We found a paradise replete with Limoncello, wine, pork, and homemade pasta. With this constant combination in our bellies, we shed our “other” more taciturn selves to discuss the advantages of a commune and the artistry of Fellini films.

Karen and Anna at dinner with writer, Kyle Kirkley

Months later on chilling Pennsylvania soil, I drummed around for a meaningful gift for Anna who was lamenting Spannocchia in summer. I had purchased their cookbook and perched it prominently on the wrought recipe stand in my kitchen. Oh, please ask me where I’m from, the cover whispered anytime someone new walked in the room.

I leafed through the unbleached pages. Hmm, maybe one of the Tuscan desserts we nibbled without regard for calories? Then I spied the Limoncello recipe (page 82). No, THAT was perfect. How better to say “I wish we could go back in time for a moment!”

The beauty of this sip of sweet nostalgia is that the recipe and process are very simple. Other than my suggestion of the very smooth alcohol base called Tito’s Handmade Vodka and the conversion to U.S. measurements, this recipe is intact and a true snapshot of the Spannocchia experience. I prefer dry wine, so this is a little sweet for me (I use the additional recipes below), but it is quintessential Italy and a spanky gift.

Limoncello

 

By the way, Anna squealed and hugged me long and hard when she realized what I’d created for her. Not a drink, but a time travel for the winter months. Now what will I think of next year?

Ciao and enjoy ~ Karen

 

LIMONCELLO RECIPES

Limoncello (Lemon Liqueur)

1 liter unflavored vodka (*Tito’s Handmade Vodka is the BEST!)

8 organic lemons

4 cups water

2 1/2 cups white sugar

Wash lemons. Zest only the yellow part of the lemons as the white rind is bitter. In a clean, dry glass container combine all of the lemon zest and Tito’s Handmade Vodka for EIGHT DAYS. Filter the vodka with a very fine colander to catch all of the zest; it will be a lovely clear yellow color.

Simple Syrup: Boil water and sugar until completely melted. Cool. Stir in lemon-infused alcohol. Dilute for a less strong alcohol flavor. Separate into decorative containers for gifts, if desired. KEEP REFRIGERATED and drink cold in small shot glasses.

MIX IT UP!

Champagne Limoncello

1 part Limoncello, chilled

2 parts Champagne or Prosecco, chilled

1 very slim slice of lemon, seeds removed

Place lemon slice in the bottom of a sugar-rimmed Champagne glass, combine Limoncello and Champagne or Prosecco.

Add selzer to dilute, if desired.

Limoncello Slushie

In a wine glass, combine:

1 part Limoncello, chilled

2 parts dry white wine, chilled

2 Tbsp lemon sorbet

Mix and slurp!

*Wine Enthusiast Magazine gives Tito’s Handmade Vodka a 90-95 rating and highlights Tito’s on several “Top” lists. I’m not the only one who likes to write about food and travel–check out Wine Enthusiast’s Food and Travel section!

Contest! Hurry! Click here to enter Wine Enthusiast’s “Tito’s Handmade Vodka Contest–Win a trip to Austin, TX, to meet Tito!” (Expired)

*Reprinted at Bucket List Publications. April 2012.

*Shout out and linked from Tito’s Handmade Vodka! April 2012.

 

DSC02532-225x300-1

Despite the unmistakable eclecticity (no, that’s not a misspelling) in the air, a calm pervaded the Chicago Hilton and The Palmer Hotel as 10,000 writers and poets gathered to reflect on the art of reflection.

I arrived Wednesday afternoon at the 2012 AWP Conference for a five day respite from the non-writing hunk of my life–wishing it more a slice, or better yet, a sliver–in what I hoped was a hip, understated pair of boots and avant garde scarf. Between workshops, I found ample opportunity to study the bumper-to-bumper shoes snuffling toward a privy vacancy. Writers are ageless risk takers when it comes to shoes. I could go on, but no more about shoes.

Are these my people–this assembly of academics, poets, bloggers, and literary peddlers? Yes. No, I don’t hesitate, though I’ve found no one like me. To my chagrin, my boots are more safe and sturdy than cool for the daily fourteen block round jaunt from hotel to hotel. But for the past four days my heart’s been undisturbed, given a stay from the usual demand to make intelligible my compulsion to position eyes and ears and skin on the silent, unwavering page.

We cheered at Literary Death Match–our own Saturday Night Live-esque game show–our fearless gurus demonstrating deft, on-the-spot critiques on content, performance, and “intangibles.” First, a writer (contestant) reads, the audience sighs, laughs, whoops, falls silent. In love for the moment with the loomer weaving a new pattern for us, wondering if our own fabric luminesces like that. Is it so textured, so profound? The Ring Master Todd Zuniga parses out arbitrary points, contestants are eliminated (don’t we all face rejection with our chins up), favorites chosen. Mine is Darin Strauss recanting his nerdish I-then junior high self. Wow.

In the end a winner is slung with a metal to take home and, well, attempt to explain to whomever loves her or him, that the checked flag has waved on this frivolous, surely-it-must-be-a-tinge-narcissistic (picture the writer on a first person point of view five day binge) vacation.

If you at home are listening, I will tell you, because I’m too tired to show you anymore, too saturated with wisdom and rumination and method and je ne sais quoi: it is a time of examining the moonlight bouncing off the pebbles we’ve been kicking along with our funky boots.

I still don’t know if writing choses us or vice versa, but I know most of us are happy to be chosen. So for a few days, we circle wagons and suspend the disbelief of those born without the impulse. A tailor of words, we are.  And, by choice or necessity, we’re willing to hop a plane to lend an admiring ear and a flashy heel.

After the 2010 Nashville Flood.

May 2010

“Don’t Stop When It Rains” Shirley Logan.

Just a few hundred yards from Shirley’s home in Franklin, Tennessee, lay an eclectic array of garbage rendered useless by the receded waters of the Harpeth River. Debris lined up along the curbs looking more like inspection time at the county jail (awkward and perfunctory) than remnants of a recent devastating flash flood. A week earlier, the river mutated from an inconsequential, tranquil creek to liquid brown brawn swallowing up homes, memories, and property lines just one street away from my “second” home.

Franklin, TN, 2010

To my more curious Pennsylvania friends, I describe Franklin as a “perfect little town,” so earlier in the month when I’d watched the devastation from my Yankee living room, I experienced the helplessness one must feel when an injured neighbor is in need, but just out of reach. If it weren’t for the toilets, sinks, and warped hunks of walls and splintered floor boards waiting like expectant patients, I would not have believed the reports. Oddly enough, the homeowners had arranged their broken possessions in neat piles for collection. Otherwise, it would be difficult to find evidence of what had taken place two weeks earlier.

Rivers shoveling silt after the flood.

I rambled through town in my rental car after returning from my first songwriting session. I was looking for markings of the violent flood waters–if you’ve been through a flood (mine was Agnes as a girl), you know where to look: under bridges, on houses, in the hedgerows. The flood waters had moved so violently that they swept away much of what stood in the path–even lives. I could see that little remained untouched near the river banks of this quaint, picturesque town, as well as along nearby highways, and downtown Nashville itself.

Shirley and I met at a songwriting conference in New Jersey, and she has opened her home to me many times over the years so I could chase a dream. And, yes, Nashville is host to a long line of dream chasers. Rather than feeling disconcerted, I’ve always felt encouraged and renewed after a songwriting trip. It could be the simple act of creating something that hadn’t existed when you’d gotten out of bed, or maybe the camaraderie inherent to co-writing. After the first few songwriting trips, my visits became more like a mini-relocations and Shirley and I forged a deep friendship. Before long, the Nashville skyline and Franklin merchantiles prompted a strong wave of nostalgia. Something I’ve only felt for a few places: my childhood home, my first house after college, and Colorado. Though these trips scratch a necessary itch in my musical life, the friendships soon overshadowed any creative pursuits. So, as I drove through the Franklin streets near the river, I inspected the damage like an adjuster with a personal, vested interest. What I really scavenged for was the human story behind the vacant stare of the houses. A week into my songwriting trip, I met a lively, witty woman and her daughter in Shirley’s kitchen. She was gathering Shirley’s young daughters for a sleepover; however, she wasn’t taking the girls to her home. During the flood, everything she owned was covered in eight feet of water. “I went to work in the morning and came home to a flooded house. I lost all but 3% of what I own.” Neighbors and friends helped save as many photographs as possible, and offered even more than that: a place to rest and live in a spare room until she and her daughter can sort through the legalities and insurances–or lack there of.

So many people are in the same situation; this is a small slice of the human cost. A surface wound. This is what I was looking for when I drove past the houses willing the walls to speak, but here in front of me was a real story.

Franklin, Nashville, and the surrounding areas hit the hardest have been swift to retaliate against the rain. Behind the piles, lawns perked up. Tree branches and ragged brush quarantined to dumpsters. Neighbors laugh together, standing in long lines for ice cream and songwriter rounds. I should not be surprised, but I am.

Nashville’s lifeblood is music and the only silence it allows is the moment following a great song.

Surprised, but also thankful, because it had been frightening to watch torrents of rain push through places I recognized. I decided to drive this trip, rather than fly (a ten-hour difference), filling the back of my Volvo wagon with the extras stashed in my basement: unneeded clothing, toys, and “stuff.” I asked my children to sort their clothes by “Keep,” “Trash,” and “Nashville.” I loaded my car with anything I thought might bring comfort. Then, I drove 770 miles, happy to do something. In the big scheme of things, considering the human toll and the physical pillage, it wasn’t much.

With Shirley Logan

That’s what my head said, but my heart had learned a valuable lesson years earlier while working with World Vision: doing one simple thing for someone else, whether you know their name or not, makes a difference. To everyone involved.

It’s the doing that matters.

One life brushes up against another and another and another, and if we all just do one thing–something–we can press on together, a little easier and maybe a little further. Sometimes, it is the simple thing that heals, like saying, “I hear you,” and “You’re strong,” and “We’ll figure it out together.”

For Nashville and Franklin, Tennessee, the flood of 2010 tattooed a watermark on bridges and fields, houses and hearts, as all floods do. Some will rebuild, forget, happy to put it behind them, and others will commemorate those days with flowers on concrete markers.

So when you hear about another benefit concert in Nashville, push past the temptation to think the industry is “milking” the flood or any other disaster for publicity. The flood ran deep, yes it did; but the ties between the people of Tennessee run deeper still.

Grubbing for pizza in Franklin with Shirley and husband, Harry Tiffany IV.
Rosario de Areco BBQ on the Pampas in Argentina.
On the Pampas at Rosario de Areco, San Antonio de Areco

Rosario de Areco, July 2010

“I have seen the heart of Argentina.  I am in the heart of Argentina.  I am talking and eating and dancing with the heart of Argentina.

This is this country’s “West.”  Gauchos are cowboys.  Cow skin hides stretch luxuriously across the cold, stone floors.  Horses walk, something between a stroll and a prance, claiming the slightly rolling ground.  Pines and unfamiliar trees run in hedgerows and hug the low, adobe houses.

Rosario de Areco

Pride of country exists here much like our own in America.  The contemporary Argentine’s ancestry is a blend of European (mostly Italy, Spain, and Germany) and the native South American Indians.

Their colors of deep terra-cotta and vibrant garnet red thread like ribbons securing city to pampas. Wrapped in my red woolen shawl, I imagine myself a gaucho. And more, I am like a gaucho’s woman.

Argentine women are small and Italian-looking.  Fine bones.  Small eyes.  Tawny skin. They walk like women, so they are all beautiful.

Don Segundo Sombra’s grandson (black hat)

The men of the countryside, the pampas, are hearty, robust. Horse and polo men.  Some tall, some short. Some dress in the country’s rural clothes, something like you’d find a hundred years ago: beret, loose-fitting pants stuffed into knee-length leather boots, buttoned shirts. Teal and tan and black. Handsome. Quiet. Stoic, but, when searched, a smile–shy and boyish–waits.

Francisco Guevara. Owner of Rosario de Areco. Our ranch, a two-day respite from a week in Buenos Aires. He is macho, handsome, and intelligent. Kind and father-proud. Engaged and admiring of America and its history and Argentina’s parallel story. He sings robustly. His gorgeous son (one of nine strikingly similar siblings) joins him as naturally as a river joins the sea.  Confluence of heart, of heritage, of purpose. The harmonies like an accordion in the old musician’s hands. Jousting with the nylon strings of the guitar.

Francisco is like my father, and I am proud to tell him about Dad.  He looks at the fishing brochure and finds my father even before I can point him out. “Ah!” he exclaims, “What a wonderful face, eh? What a fine face your father has?” I nod, my cheeks are hot and flushed. This is a moment I will try to recapture many times over and I know it as he speaks. I miss nothing: his eyes (aren’t they dark like my own?), his great head and hair, his thick, wide palms, his fruit standing nine deep, this great feast of beef and wine. He is at once a mirror and a gust of wind in my flagging life. “Great life and expression in his eyes,” he says, shaking his head. Smiling “He is happy, yes?” “Yes,” I say, mirroring his enthusiasm, eager to display my own before the moment is a mist. “Yes, he is happy.”

With Francisco Guevara, Owner of Rosario de Areco

Dancers whirl, stomping feet, lifting proud chins to frame smiling mouths. A hand reaches for me. Yes! I will dance! I will celebrate and shed the layers of waiting.  This is a moment in my life. An intersection of change where ancient ways converge with a childlike running. Hair flying, chin up, eyes half-slitted by a smile. I know I look like the North American Indian of my own lineage. I am a child again. Heart open. Wide open. Questions far and away. Endings are beginnings. Regrets are just regrets. Nothing more. Nothing less. Today. This place. This moment is perfect. It is the gift of this magnificent country.

~karen

p.s. Manual. Oh, Manuel. (I must explain: Manuel is one of his six sons–an identical twin, no less, and the object of every woman’s attention. Age means nothing when one regards a Guevara). How many ways to say the name Manuel? I have seen the most beautiful man in Argentina. Someday he will age like a fine, rich, priceless wine. Like his father. Like my father. Like this new country of mine. Argentina. I will cry, Argentina.