I had a chance to travel over Christmas--all the way to Springfield, IL! We went to my nieces' Christmas program as it started to rain. By the time we left, the streets were ice! For two days my mother refused to leave the house. My dad and I managed to slide down the sidewalk--very graceful! Finally it warmed up enough for a walk in Washington Park. Winter has its own beauty, of course, but I have to admit that I prefer 40 and gloomy to 20 and icy!
Cooling off in Switzerland
Right now it seems hot all over the place—in Springfield, Illinois, where I’m hanging out at the moment, back in Tucson, Arizona, where my friends claim it’s REALLY hot, and even in Switzerland.
So, what to do near Zürich on a perfectly hot summer’s day? A good option is always to jump in the lake or float down the river behind the Bahnhof. But the best option of all might be to head to the mountains.
When I visited with Maricela, my friend Belja said it was going to be toooooo hot and that we needed to get out of town. Away we went! First Belja took us to the tiny village of St. Martin, which is up in the mountains. Just looking at the mountain streams brought the temperature down! St. Martin is a perfect hideaway if you want to get way, way out of town and enjoy a few days in the cool mountain air. I don’t think I’d like to visit in the winter! After a relaxing lunch of fresh fish, we sat on the rocks by the stream and enjoyed the cold water.
On our way back downhill, we stopped at Bad Ragaz. The charming town has streams running through it and a beautiful park. The flowers were in full bloom. Luckily, the ice cream parlors were all open and waiting for us! We might have sampled several, but no, further pleasures awaited us.
Before we hit Zürich again, we stopped at Wahlensee for a swim. Against a beautiful mountain backdrop, we were serenaded by a band playing. We did lazy laps in the refreshing water, enjoying a perfectly lovely, lazy summer day.
Gardens of Decadence
On the Arizona in Italy Summer Study Abroad Program, we take a lot of field trips. My favorite is always to Tivoli. We spend the morning at Hadrian’s Villa, which is a sumptuous second-century residence. Then we spend the afternoon at the Villa d’Este, which is a tribute to decadence. No wonder people love it!
Built by a cardinal (what else was he going to do with all that money?), the villa has beautifully painted rooms…. But the real draw are the lovely, luscious gardens.
There are waterfalls, water pools, lions sprouting water, rocks sprouting water, a horse statue with water, an eagle statue with water, and a stairway with water. As you walk along trying to take everything in, you forget about any problems and just concentrate on the sheer beauty.
The vegetation includes grass, huge trees, and flowers. While those might seem mundane to anyone living in Italy, they represent special beauty to anyone who lives in the desert!
Every time I go to the gardens, I discover a new statue or a quiet corner I’d overlooked before. On a hot day, the gardens are a triumph of the serenity achieved through the simple sounds of gushing water. For the true romantics, a piece of Only You (Robert Downey Jr. and Marissa Tomei) was shot by the corridor of fountains.
The whole sight is a tribute to imagination and luxury. I’ve got the imagination all right… but I’m not sure I can afford the luxury!
What are your own favorite gardens, decadent or otherwise?
Back in Orvieto!
Lucky me—I made it back to Orvieto this summer to do some summer teaching and get some Italian practice. Today in class we talked about E.M. Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread” and also Phil Doran’s “The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian.” Both are fun texts. Then in the meantime I’ve been taking walks around town (no handy swimming pool—it’s the one drawback). The walls around the edge of the city make for scenic views! And since I’ve been spending time in Arizona, it’s actually just really cool to see big trees.
Orvieto might be a quiet place, but there’s a lot going on under the surface. In fact, last night I was sitting at my desk and I thought, am I crazy? My whole kitchen shook for several seconds. I thought: either an earthquake or my upstairs neighbors are elephants who are playing games by moving around the couches. No, it was a small earthquake near here, about 4.2. I felt another one this evening, but it wasn’t as strong. However, the teachers are thrilled—to be on the safe side, many of the elementary schools closed early today and will be closed tomorrow—and Thursday is a national holiday! (No, in Orvieto they never have snow days…..)
SERENE BEAUTY AT THE VATICAN
Now that it’s almost time for summer vacation, it’s time to think about travel. Surely this year’s delights will include a trip to Rome, and almost any trip to Rome calls for a trip to the Vatican. Good timing is crucial, however. Last summer my visit coincided with national scout weekend. The square was so crowded that I had to wait over an hour to get into the Basilica!
For the first time, however, I stayed at a hotel nearby. Even though I’d seen the Vatican several times during the day, I’d never seen it at night. The impression was striking. The square was dotted with devout tourists who were excited to see the iconic structure. Others were taking pictures of the spraying fountains, the lit Basilica, and the rows of perfectly aligned columns.
The second night of my stay, I went to the Vatican around six p.m., while it was still light, and simply waited for the sky to change from blue to deep blue to marine blue to black. Several photographers had brought tripods to get the desired effect—whoops! Now I know what I need to bring with me the next time around!
Happy at the Huntington
It's hard to beat an afternoon at the Huntington Library and Gardens. In fact, it's hard to squeeze everything in. The European Art collection features "Blue Boy," but the whole portrait gallery is a celebration of the best British portraitists: Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. The gallery also features Venice in paintings by Canaletto, Guardi, and J.M. W. Turner.
I might have spent the whole afternoon viewing the European Collection, but the Shakespeare Garden called out to me pretty strongly. The blooming flowers were wonderful, especially after a stint in the Midwest over Christmas. It's incredible to think that part of the country is under snow and ice while California.... Well, that's why it's crowded out here!
Then, given the time of day (sun/shade), I had to rush to the Japanese Garden. Whether you want to enjoy the views of the bridge, the bonzai trees, or the Zen-like rock garden, the Huntington has everything you need to imagine the finest in Japanese gardening.
On a sunny winter's day, you can't do better anywhere.
Christmas in Tucson's Winterhaven
Every December, the nice folks in the area of Ft. Lowell/Prince/Country Club/ and Tucson Blvd invite the whole world to come visit their beautiful corner of the world. From Dec 12-26 (this year), people are invited to walk through between 6 and 10 p.m. to see the lights and enjoy holiday cheer at wonderful prices--free! (Donations to the Community Food Bank fondly accepted.) Going to Winterhaven is one of my favorite holiday things. I love looking at the lights and walking through the cheerful neighborhood. Sometimes I even drag my friends with me!
I can't think of a better way to enjoy the holidays. (Back in Illinois, it's a lot harder to enjoy holiday lights except from the warm comfort of a car!)
(Not a good place to get ideas for a murder mystery though.....or is it!?)
Island Paradise in Croatia
When Sandra and I did a quick trip through Croatia, we were mainly doing reconnaissance work. We didn’t know much about the country, so we didn’t know which spots we might like the best. We opted to spend a short period of time in several towns to get a better idea. Of all those gems, my favorite choice by far was the unique island of Korčula.
As everywhere in Croatia, by July the water was perfect for swimming. (It’s also perfect for sea urchins, so you usually lower yourself into the water from walls or rocks.) We enjoyed the clear water and the peace of a small island that seems forgotten in time.
The island’s claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Marco Polo. The town has built a pricey kids’ museum in his honor. But what I enjoyed weren’t so much the small narrow streets that went straight up and down or the enticing shops with local wares. I liked the way people used the evening to stroll around the perimeter of the main town. Our room overlooked this perimeter, and until late at night we enjoyed the happy sounds of diners and drinkers. The whole island exuded a sense of calm. As everywhere in Croatia, we found the people to be friendly. After the ravages of war, they are finally able to concentrate on building a better future. Thanks to international tourism, the younger residents study English, so it’s not too hard to get around.
what attracted me to the island was the mind frame it granted me. What would it have been like to have been on this island in 1254, the year Marco Polo was born? And what strange sentiment could have persuaded him to leave his lovely birthplace and travel as far and wide as was possible?!
While locals assured me that the island is cold and stormy in the winter, the beautiful summer months would be adequate compensation. As for myself, I certainly didn’t want to leave.
I haven't set any books on Korčula yet.. wait, that’s a great excuse to go back! My last Andy book was set on an island paradise too. Although I gave it the fictional name of Amiros, the setting was based on Kálymnos, which is another great island getaway (though not for Andy). The book title is Island Casualty, so you can guess that Andy found troubled waters....
Well-known Arizona author Susan Cummins Miller (Chasm 2015) shook her finger at me at the last Tucson Sisters-in-Crime meeting. “Your Facebook posts make me jealous! You’ve been traveling all summer!”
Guilty as charged. But I wasn’t ready to give in.
“Susan, you have six published novels with critical acclaim! You’ve got me beat by a mile!”
Susan said, no, not by that far, because with all my travels, I’m “filling the well” with adventures that can be used for future books.
She’s right. Last summer the strangest thing happened…. It was a perfectly beautiful day. I’d chosen to visit the Île de la Grande Jatte because it was the site of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” and it was accessible by metro. I circled the whole island. Helpful placards showed where some of the Impressionists (Seurat, Monet, Van Gogh, Sisley, Gleizes) had done specific paintings. But when I got to the far western end, which is where Monet had set “The Banks of the Seine,” something happened. I was walking along the skillfully planned garden beds. I was admiring the flowers and silently thanking the shade of the tall trees.
Then the light bulb flicked itself on. I thought to myself, “This is a perfect place------- for a murder!!!” It was isolated. It was quiet. It was close to town yet far enough away to be dangerous. And instead of enjoying the simple beauty, something far more sinister came to my mind: Who should I kill off at this very spot?
I wasn’t looking for a setting. The mystery I was editing at the time takes place in Mexico. My next mystery is set in Tucson. Nonetheless, despite the Monet-like beauty, I was single-minded. I thought, I’ve got to use this setting. It’s just right. Not many people know about it. People live on houseboats along the sides of the island, and residents live at its center. Joggers continuously run its circumference. The space is public enough that anyone might visit it. The space is secluded enough that . . . anything might happen.
Several more times last summer, I had the sensation that a perfectly delightful spot I’d just discovered would be the optimal site for a murder. In the next weeks’ blogs, I’ll review some of them. I won’t talk about how I might use them, which series they might be for or which book they might turn up in. For that, you’ll have to do your own reading.
Or maybe buy a plane ticket.
Where would you most like to set your (next) murder story? What would be some advantages and disadvantages?
UA StartS in the RAIN
For the first time that I can remember, my fall semester of classes started on a rainy day. The skies looked so bad that I went to campus early--something I never do!--because it's not so much fun to ride my bike in a downpour. I went to sit on the second-story floor of the new version of Old Main to wait for class.
The campus seemed eerily quiet, and I wondered if I would wind up with a lot of absences in class.
This made me think about Durango, Durango, Mexico, where I taught classes at a language center. On rainy days, lots of students didn't show up! Since I come from Illinois, where bad weather is a frequent reality, I was astounded by this fact. No matter what I said, no matter what we were doing in class that day, my adult students were still prone to skip class on rainy days.
In contrast, when I was in Kyoto, I happened to hit a very rainy day. It fact, there was a light rain for twelve hours straight. I didn't have the luxury of sitting around in my room; I had temples to see! So I got out my umbrella and braved the rain. I was astonished to see lots of people, including businessmen in suits, riding their bicycles in the rain. Most carried umbrellas in one hand, a cigarette or cell phone in the other. They were amazing.
After that trip, I got over thinking that carrying umbrellas was somehow "sissy."
In fact, for my first day of fall classes at the University of Arizona, all but one of my students made it. But the eerie beauty of the campus under the threat of rain stays with me. There's beauty in everything, and it's important to stop and notice just that.
It's also not a bad idea to carry an umbrella.
What as your own weirdest first day of class, of work, etc? Those are the ones you remember--not all the thousands of days that come after that.
Travel is my biggest inspiration. In fact, my motto is that when it comes to travel, no excuse is too small. But now that I'm writing more fiction, I have a special need for the perfect setting. You never know when something exciting or suspicious might take place in a colorful foreign setting!