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Loving Art Museums

27 Nov

In my newest novel featuring protagonists Nara Blake and Alex Collier, they work at the Tate Britain, one of the foremost art museums in London. This is a natural and fun setting for me, since I love visiting art museums. I overdid it a bit on my last trip to the Netherlands, and visited four art museums in six days — the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and two in the Hague, Mauritshaus and Gemeentemuseum. Whew!

I have visited a number of prominent art museums and galleries in Europe and the U.S., but have also found hidden gems in small towns and other out of the way places. I love the Museum of Costa Rican Art in San Jose with its exhibits of works by Latin American artists, and the Collection Museum in Lincoln, UK, formerly the Usher Gallery. I especially liked the depictions there of the “Lincoln imp,” the symbol of that city since the Middle Ages. Even my hometown of Newton, Illinois has a small museum attached to the public library.

In my newest novel, tentatively titled Sacrifice, Nara and Alex work as art historians at the Tate. They travel to Tardienta, Spain when the museum is contacted about a notebook belonging to artist and activist Felicia Browne, a British woman who was killed there during the Spanish Civil War.

During the next few months, I plan to blog about museums I visit, as well as bookstores and libraries, my other favorite places.

Below, viewing Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

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With all the visits I have made to art museums, I have come up with a few tips for a more enjoyable visit.

  1. Take your time. You can’t see and appreciate everything, especially in a very large museum. Maybe set a time limit.
  2. When you walk into a room, stop and look around. What piece draws you? Why?
  3. If there is a piece that you particularly want to see, look at the map and determine which room it is in. If it is a very famous piece, like Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” in Amsterdam or Picasso’s “Guernica” in Madrid, the room will be crowded. Relax and take your time. You are in a room full of art lovers.
  4. Take a few photos if it is allowed. Often they are allowed as long as you don’t use flash. Photos will serve as good reminders of what you saw. But don’t let taking photos replace appreciating the art with your own eyes.
  5. If you are feeling overwhelmed, or just want more information, consider a guided tour. You sometimes have to pay a little bit; sometimes not. The guides are normally very knowledgeable and will point out details most of us would not have thought to look for.
  6. Lastly, have a snack, or lunch. Most larger art museums have wonderful restaurants, and it’s fun eating in the atmosphere of art. My best meals (that I can think of off the top of my head) were in the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Prado in Madrid. And in my own hometown, the Nasher Museum at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina has a wonderful Sunday brunch.

 

 

 

It’s About the Senses

26 Aug

Barcelona is all about the senses. On my first trips to Europe over twenty years ago, the streets smelled of exhaust fumes. One whiff told me I was in Europe. No more. The air is cleaner. I walk down the Passaig de Gracia in Barcelona and inhale the freshness of bread baking, meat grilling, and the overwhelming aroma of perfume from the air conditioned confines of department stores. My senses come alive. My eyes rejoice at the sight of La Pedrada, one of Gaudí’s masterpieces, but I pause only to take a photo of a French woman who wants a memento of her visit to this remarkable building. I am on my way to a very special coffee shop, Café Onna, owned by a friend from Costa Rica. I cross the Diagonal and turn right, then left down a tiny street called Carrer de Santa Teresa, and on my right I see a man standing at a high table sipping coffee. I have found Café Onna.

I introduce myself, and as I wait for my friend who owns the shop to arrive, I savor the warmth of my café con leche along with a tuna sandwich that is nothing like your mom’s tuna salad, and begin one of the best days of the trip, maybe of my life.

My friend Anahí is a vibrant, passionate young woman . Her dark eyes sparkle with enthusiasm for her work, her coffee, and her family. She is focused, but has time for friends. She invites me to go with her to a restaurant near the port area of Barcelona to deliver bags of her freshly roasted coffee. I help her carry the fragrant cargo up the street to the corner where we hail a taxi. The driver helps us to stow the coffee in the trunk and we are off across the city. Anahí never stops talking about her plans, her excitement about what she does, her two teenage sons. She tells me how she does not supply her Costa Rican coffee to just any restaurant. Oh no! It has to be one that appreciates the attention and love she gives to the beans she imports from the farms in the Central American mountains. She nurtures the process beginning with visits to the farmers who grow the beans, all the way to her custom roasting and brewing. We arrive at Box Social, a trendy new restaurant in a boutique hotel near Barcelona’s port. After greetings with kisses on both cheeks, the Spanish way, we settle down to order lunch. It begins with a tomato salad, made with succulent tomatoes called “cor de bou,” Catalan for “heart of ox.” The tomatoes grow large but not entirely red, and exude a juicy tomato essence I have rarely tasted. For the main course, Anahí chooses fish with a green pea sauce, and I order chicken with grilled vegetables. Time passes quickly as we linger over our lunch. Why hurry? Our conversation is mostly about what we are eating, the flavors and how they are blended and contrasted to tempt the palate. Anahí is intrigued by the tiny green leaves that garnish her fish. Some kind of herb, but what is it? I have grown herbs in pots on my deck for years, and am familiar with most of the common ones used in the kitchen, but I don’t know this one, nor does anyone in the restaurant seem to know. The chef, apparently, is not available. I take a photo and post it on Facebook. Soon a friend with a Costa Rican connection identifies it. It is rue, or “ruda” in Spanish. I have never seen it used in cooking, and it has a taste reminiscent of coconut. Delicious!

cor de bou tomato

cor de bou tomato

tomato salad

tomato salad

After dessert, fresh melon for me, and a “cortado,” (similar to a caffé macchiato, where a small amount of warm milk is added to an espresso) we go up to the roof to explore the garden, which is lovingly tended by another young woman from Costa Rica. Vegetables, herbs, and flowers grow happily in pots, shaded from the hot Spanish sun. We are surrounded by apartment buildings, where clothes hang drying on lines in the sun. (Why is this considered unacceptable in many U.S. neighborhoods?) The hotel was designed to fit in with the working class neighborhood it occupies, and it seems to be comfortable in its place.

On our walk to the Metro stop (no coffee to carry now, so no taxi splurge), Anahí points out sights along the way. We pass El Molino, the Barcelona counterpart to Paris’s Moulin Rouge. And we talk about our senses, about awareness. She tells me that she has always been sensitive to smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. That is what makes her an exceptional coffee roaster and brewer. But more than that, it is her passion.

A few days later, after my husband arrives, we make plans to meet her at her coffee roaster to watch the process. We arrive shortly before 10 a.m., early in the morning by Spanish standards. Raw beans, shipped from Costa Rica, are loaded into the hopper of the machine. Soon the fragrant beans spill out into a circular bin where a long metal arm stirs them to cool. She talks about how different beans behave differently in the roaster, and how the weather can affect the roasting. It has been a particularly hot summer in Barcelona, and this is a factor. She will not sell or serve an inferior coffee. Anahí and her assistant check the color and sniff the beans, and from the smiles on their faces, I can see that it is a joyful process. A few beans that emerge the wrong color are discarded. The process is constantly evaluated. The beans must not roast too quickly or too slowly.

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Finally we leave, with plans to meet for dinner, and bags of coffee beans to take home. I feel energized by my coffee friend. I sense her ability to be “in the moment” with her coffee.

We return to Café Onna again the day before we are due to fly home. It is another sweltering day, and after our walk from the Metro stop, we are ready for a cold coffee beverage. “I’ll make you something special,” she says with a smile. We watch the process. Tonic water and a slice of lemon over ice in a small glass. Then we are each handed two small bottles of cold brew coffee concentrate. “You can use one, but I recommend both,” she adds. We pour in both and watch the coffee sink into the tonic water. Unbelievably refreshing! My husband has another, but concerned about the caffeine and an early flight the next morning, I make do with one. As we say goodbye, she presses a small package into our hands, rosemary polenta cake, her mother’s recipe, for our breakfast before we leave for the airport.

Somehow this experience of the senses has made me more aware, not just of my own five senses, but of something inside myself. It is through the senses that I reach the person I am. I am more than a writer sitting at a keyboard. My words come not just from my brain, from the years of reading, writing, listening to advice, revising. Through my senses, my best writing comes from my heart.

I did not spend my entire Spain trip in the city of Barcelona. The real purpose of the trip was to attend a writing retreat at L’Avenç, a retreat center up in the Pyrenees about two hours from Barcelona. Although I have tied the two experiences together with the five senses, I cannot combine them into one post.

Please watch for my next blog post, “Writing at L’Avenç.”

The Value of Color

2 Mar

“I Think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Alice Walker

image imageMarket in Granada, Spain

Our eyes are drawn to color. Visual color attracts us and demands our attention. Like a magnet, it pulls us in. Advertisers and film makers know the value of color, or lack of color, to create the effect or reaction they desire. Steven Spielberg created an unforgettable image in Schindler’s List with the little girl in the red coat. Separated from her family, she instinctively runs to escape the Nazi soldiers. The next time we see her, the red coat tells us without question that she has failed.

Creating color in a piece of writing demands that the writer evoke the same intense images through black and white words on a page. Often what a writer refers to as color involves more than visual sense. If I were to attempt to describe the photos above from the market in Granada, I would draw on my memories of the shop, the smells of spices, fruits, teas as I walked from bin to bin, the sounds of Spanish and Arabic, and the company of my brother as we explored together.

On this gray March day, I challenge you, readers and fellows writers, to look for the color in your day. And don’t limit yourself to visual color. Color is really about intensity. So look for intensity the wakes up your senses. Be aware of the smells, sounds (think colorful music), tastes, touches, and sights that add color to your life.

i would love to hear what you discover.

Starting the Whole Dang Process over Again

3 Jan

Llieda dungeon3

A dungeon in Lleida, Catalonia, Spain. Might work it into a new novel.

Beginning a new novel is both exhilarating and scary. I enjoy the new ideas for plot details, setting, and characters that pop willy-nilly into my brain. Old characters poke their heads in to say, “Can I be in this one? You said it was a series.” Another says, “I’ll do one more. So you can kill me off in this one.” Then a new character comes in with “Hi there! I’m a little crazy, but I would fit right in with your story. Some of your characters are way too serious!” And I can’t forget the ones who speak to me in a foreign language, begging me to set the story in their home country. “ịHola! Soy de españa y mi pais es muy bueno. Venga aquí!”

Out of these bits of inspiration, if I can call it that, I begin to see the barest outline of a plot. And I say yes to that little voice from Spain. I will set the story at least partially in Spain, Aragon, to be precise. And just in case you are wondering, Nara Blake, Alex Collier, and Lily Carrington, all of whom appeared in The Gate House and Lydia’s Story, will be back. But I have a lot of writing to do before my readers will be able to see what these three are up to in Spain. And is Nara ever going to marry Alex?

The last few days I have been brainstorming and writing down ideas for plot as they pop into my head. My next step was to do some preliminary research. The Gate House and Lydia’s Story both had to do with art theft. My new novel also makes use of that theme. I am looking for a connection between Britain and Spain through art, and I think I have found a link.

I have made a preliminary outline, even though I am not generally a maker of outlines, but I thought this time I would give it a try and see if it would make the process any easier.

As I create the story, I will spend as much time staring into space as putting words down at the computer. But as a dear friend of mine knows, “staring time” is essential for writers, teachers and anyone who is trying to get through the day with their sanity intact.

Try taking a “staring break” today. You will feel better for it.

Food, Drink, and Travel

19 Dec

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Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice!

On a recent trip to Israel, my husband and I had an opportunity to stroll through the Turkish market in Akka, or Akkó. After running into a falafal restaurant to escape a rainstorm, we found fellow travelers from Peru, and enjoyed our lunch with a Spanish conversation. We parted ways and headed into the market to explore. The sights, sounds and smells drew us deeper into the ancient narrow streets.

Stalls were piled high with fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, spices and more.

exploring is thirsty work, and we soon stopped for fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. What a thrill to see he vendor slice off the top of the fruit, place it in a press and produce cups of the dark purple juice. Healthy — yes. Tasty — definitely. But you can’t beat the sense of adventure and fun.

On returning home, I delved into Emile Zola’s novel, The Belly of Paris. Zola tells the story of a man newly returned to Paris from a penal colony to the gastronomical riches of the Parisian market Les Halles.

Both our meandering a through the market in Akka and The Belly of Paris demonstrate the richness of beautiful food, and an appreciation of the bounty.

What is the most beautiful food you have eaten lately? Think of all the senses of beauty — visual taste, and the wholesome of its production. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to eat and drink food that is real, and not from a can, package or bottle?

The “Nature” of Setting

17 Jan

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I have always wondered how a person’s surrounding affect they way they live. How is it different to grow up on the flat land of Illinois in the midst of corn fields and soy beans, compared to a city overlooked by an ancient castle (Edinburgh, Scotland), or the lushness of tropical trees and flowers. Different people react in different ways to their childhood environment, and I am not sure it has anything to do with whether or not a childhood was happy. I had a very happy childhood in Illinois in the midst of the corn fields, but I have no desire to go back there, and neither do my brothers. We were always taught to think big, dream big and explore the world, and we have done just that. Illinois is where I am from, not where I am.

In my latest Nara book, tentatively titled Hotel St. Clare, which is actually the beginning of her story, we go back to the island country of St. Clare, where she grew up, and will see how her island upbringing helped to shape her personality and character. At that time, and at the beginning of The Gate House, Nara had very strong ties to St. Clare and life on the islands. But circumstances and people change, and perhaps if she returned, it would not be the same. By the end of Lydia’s Story, how would she feel?

What do you think? I would love to hear how other people have been shaped, or not, by the place where they grew up.