The Beauty of Decay

On a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of a research project for my Sophomore English class, I attempt to exchange the abstract of the classroom into a tangible experience. As a teacher I had visited the museum before, done extensive research on the Holocaust itself, and, at least initially, was merely a chaperone. That is, until I entered the shoe room and discovered that there is beauty to be found amidst decay.

The shoe room is just how it sounds, a huge room filled with shoes—confiscated shoes from prisoners of the Majdanek concentration camp. The moment I step into the room, what I had managed to keep at arm’s length, encompasses me. Suffocates me.  Everything in the museum, up until that moment, had been visual.  Photographs and artifacts. Images I could blink away and walk past.  The shoe room, however, smells—it smells musty. The air closes around me as I step across the threshold. It’s as though the shoes hoard all the air in the room, holding it close, containing it in their soles. Cautioning me of the transience of the here-and-now. Reminding me of my need for air and my helplessness without it. Giving me a brief moment to experience the suffocation of those who stood in these shoes.  I see small shoes, worn by a child.  (I can hardly bear to think of what became of those tiny feet.) Some shoes are woven. Some show crumbling leather and cracked heels. These shoes carried people onto railcars, through iron gates proclaiming “Arbeit Macht Frei,” and then into chambers that held death.

I could look away from the pictures, ignore the sounds and videos, walk away (in my own obedient shoes) from the exhibits that prompted a churning in the pit of my stomach.  But I cannot ignore the smell, nor the absence of air, of this room.

On one of the displays, an inscription placed over the Torah in a German synagogue says, “Know before whom you stand.” In the shoe room I stand at the feet of those sacrificed to hatred and ignorance. And I am compelled, as a teacher and as a human being, to respond. To speak. To remind my students of the importance of understanding history so as not to repeat it. To address the injustices—little though they may seem in comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust—that I encounter daily.  As those once inhabiting these shoes remind me, my silence will come all too quickly in the on-rush of time.  They also remind me that my job as a teacher is to equip my students to speak, to battle against prejudice and injustice.

Walking from the shoe room I leave behind me the assumption that this is just a field trip and that I am just a chaperone. Beauty has bloomed from amidst the decay, and I am changed by it.

My best to you, my fellow travelers,


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London Moments

In Paddington Station
For the inexperienced traveler, the transport system in London can seem a bit intimidating—of course, that may be true for the experienced traveler as well.  Upon my arrival in Paddington Station on the Heathrow Express, it seemed as though all the arrows I was meant to follow simply led me in circles, offering only the most circuitous route imaginable to my destination as opposed to the direct line that my American-ness expects.   But I was in “traveler” mode.  While traveling I have simply come to expect delay and hassle.  So, one foot in front of the other, I followed signs and pedestrian flow to a coffee shop.  I ordered an Americano coffee, fumbled with my British poundage, then flopped into a seat.  First order of business: find the women I was meeting.  My phone binged with a text. Their train was running late.  I had time to sit next to the bronze statue of Paddington Bear and sip my scalding—yep, burned my tongue—coffee.  (I thought all beverages were to be room-temperature in this country!)
The 3 women finally arrived after another hour—two Scottish women and an English one, all of whom had more energy and seemed to walk faster than marathon race-walkers—we left our luggage at the station and began our journey into downtown London.  However, before we made it out of Paddington, we discovered that one of the ladies left her wallet in a café at the last train station where they had stopped.  Quickly she located a Transport Policeman who asked a few friendly questions, then led the way to the nearby police station.  It was the first police station I had EVER entered, and I was not expecting for it to be my first stop in this journey.  Yet, sure enough, there we all sat in a small, crowded office with taupe walls while the sweet policeman—who was all smiles and politeness—phoned the train station where the wallet had been left.  He then phoned the lost baggage office at that station, then phoned the café itself.
I struggled to keep my mouth from gaping open. His helpfulness was astounding!  In America, if you ask for help with a lost wallet, you are likely to get “well, you’d better go back and look for it, huh?” or handed a “report lost or stolen property” form.  Though the dear man was unsuccessful, I felt the urge to hug that policeman—who looked to be no older than me with reddish hair and light eyes—when we stood to leave.  I reminded myself that I was in Britain where no overt demonstrations of emotion are displayed, so I kept my hugs to myself. He walked us out to the elevator and wished us luck.
So while it seems the British don’t always take the most direct or expeditious route to wherever they are looking to go, they seem to be an incredibly helpful lot, eager and willing (without a sigh and a roll of the eyes) to offer directions or insight into the fracas of London transport.  Incidentally, we later discovered the wallet had actually been left in the bathroom at Paddington Station, and some honest person had handed it in to the same place we had left our luggage for the day!  It was recovered with all cash and credit cards intact!  Helpful, indeed!  I even saw that same kind policeman two days later in Paddington Station and wanted to update him on the retrieval of the lost wallet—but I didn’t.  I didn’t want to keep him from assisting someone else who might be in need of his help.
Westminster Abbey
The pictures I took several years ago while driving through the Bavarian Alps were a sore disappointment.  The grandeur of the Alps could not be captured nor translated.  The subterfugal picture I took of the Sistine Chapel ceiling left that same dissatisfaction.  Westminster Abbey, however, offered quite the opposite feeling.  While watching Prince William marry Kate Middleton on TV, seeing her walk down the aisle surrounded by the throngs of royalty, nobility, and media, the Abbey looked to be of Goliath proportions.  Broad and wide and high.  Yet, while walking through the different chapels and alcoves, the Nave and the courtyard, the abbey seemed, well, small.  The ceilings were high, certainly.  And stunningly detailed.  But the walls felt closer, the Nave narrower.  I felt an unexpected intimacy.
Strolling next to the tomb of Elizabeth I, Bloody Mary, and Mary Queen of Scots.  Standing in Poets Corner over the graves of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Gerard Manly Hopkins and Lord Byron and all the WWI poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.  Touching the sculpture of Shakespeare.  Peering into the R.A.F. chapel that commemorates the heroism of those who fought in the WWII Battle of London and spying the hole in the wall produced by a German bomb.  Pausing over the grave of the Unknown Soldier. There is an intimacy to it all, and this intimacy is a relief.  A relief that this Abbey is not so colossal as it seemed on TV.
I smelled the sweet scent of the lilies laid reverently on the memorial of Handel—February is his birthday, after all—and heard his Messiah playing through my head.  I meandered through the chapel where monks and then knights once sat.  I stood before the Coronation Chair upon which centuries of English kings and queens have been crowned. And I studied the monument stone placed in a passageway to memorialize Frances Louisa Parnell—a 5 year old who died in 1812.  Little Frances’s stone was “placed here by her afflicted and disconsolate mother.”  Nothing else is known about this child, yet here stands her memorial for me to read and consider and remember.  And I walked the same path that Kate Middleton did so recently to become the wife of a prince.
While I have seen many amazing and moving sites—Michelangelo’s David and the Sistine Chapel, the Bavarian Alps and Gaudí’s Park Güell, the falls of Niagara and Oahu’s Hanauma Bay—this Abbey invites intimacy.  It offers the exchange from status of curious visitor to that of welcomed guest, and eventually—if you delve deep enough, placing your palms against the cool stone of the walls or the warm wood of the pews, listening to the swell of organ music, and breathing in the air of centuries past—to that of chosen friend.  Isn’t that how a church is supposed to feel?
Airport Isolation
Heathrow Airport.  Terminal 1.  Alone I walk down an empty hallway toward Gate 48.  Past saunters a uniformed airport employee, then again I am alone. No one knows exactly where I am.  I have left my friends behind, and my family awaits me at my destination.  But now, in this strange limbo, I am unknown.  Nothing familiar apart from my own luggage.  I am free from both expectation and association.  I both fear and relish my isolation.
Airports are a strange culture.  You lose the culture from which you originated and enter the No-Man’s-Land (or more appropriately Every-Man’s-Land) of “Traveler”.  Yes, you carry your country’s passport which identifies you, but upon stepping across that airport threshold, you enter the realm of those journeying.  People with whom you will be in close proximity for hours, yet to whom you may never speak a word.  Those anticipating a reunion or grieving a good-bye.  A world in which you cannot live, simply pass through.  A means to an end.  You belong here only temporarily.
This thought relays a certain and strange gravitas as I walk toward Gate 48—a gate that seems absurdly remote.  Surely, an airport as colossal as Heathrow would not have an entire hall that is empty, a hall in which I can walk alone and hear the clap of my boots on the floor and nothing else. Finding my gate abandoned and not yet opened for business—yes, it is certainly the right gate, another passing employee assures me—I sit on a nearby bench.  Hard, black plastic and far from comfortable.
I pull out my laptop and begin to write.  It is what I know to do at moments such as this.  I do not write for catharsis, but for connection.  I burrow into my memory—memory of moments not long ago spent with friends, moments of previous journeys that reside in the fond folds of memory—and I find connection there.  And this is why I relish my isolation.  I relish it because I can sit and muse and gaze into nothingness.  I relish it because I am neither wife nor mother nor teacher nor writer.  I relish it because too soon my isolation will be gone.  Too soon I will be recognized and known.  Too soon I will no longer be a traveler.
My best to you, my fellow travelers,
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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 along 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.)

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Limoncello: A Remedy for Italian Nostalgia

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 savored.

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.



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 (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!”

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The Terrace

I sit on the terrace of my apartment in Rome.  Alone and in silence.  The mercurial traffic below scarcely heard, blotted by the distance between myself and their earth-boundedness.  A squawky seagull lands on a chimney, then flaps away.  Everyone should have a terrace.  For reflective mornings companioned with coffee.  For candled evenings sated with wine and the warmth of friends.  It prompts a Whitman-esque urge to yawp over the roofs of Rome.  Instead I nudge a salamander away from me with my toe and sit down to write.  My table is wooden, weathered, well-used.  And it was here on this terrace, here at this table, that I first found My People.

We sit under a still, starry sky consuming delicious pasta, delectable tiramisu.  And, of course, there is wine.  To my left sits Karen—my stalwart writing buddy—with her honesty and charisma and moments of maniacal laughter.  Head of the table.  Molder of conversation and expression, she brings such light to all she touches. Next to her Joe toasts her vivid retelling of a story (complete with a fist thumping on her chest) about another unruly student she, with cold precision, put in his place.  Joe, coarse and direct and so entirely loveable, has laughed his way into my heart.  Not that I resisted.  Amidst his sarcasm and vulgar turn of phrase, I am often surprised (though I’ve since learned not to be) at his generosity and gentleness.  I find I need a little more Joe in my life.  Kyle, on my right, leans forward and refills my glass.  He laughs raucously and several droplets of red wine dribble onto the table.  No one notices.  We are all too busy trying to breathe through our own laughter.  This man who tends toward the awkwardly reclusive, with the wine and the aura of the night, has turned his traditional introspection to grand and repetitive proclamations of the brilliance of Fellini.  Yet Kyle’s sincerity and his kindness toward those with whom he comes in contact is so engaging, so endearing.  I smile again as more laughter erupts and more wine is poured.
This terrace table hosts more than simple acquaintances, more than mere students brought together by chance for a shared goal.  These are My People.  My inner artist has found her sanctuary.  And it’s intoxicating.
I sit on US Airways Flight 719 somewhere above the Atlantic.  Beside me is a large man of a few too many words who just ordered his second round of cranberry juice with a double shot of vodka.  I put in my earphones and pull out my laptop.  Now is an opportune time for reflection as opposed to forced conversation.  It is a strange state of things to hover above the world, spanning the distance from one life to another.  Leaving Rome behind and winging to Philadelphia, I am groggy and ludicrously tired.  But my extreme contentment makes my fatigue an afterthought.  And, while still over international waters and before the reality of life comes a’clattering, I want to lift a final glass.  Here’s to you, Karen, Joe, and Kyle.  My fellow MFA-ers, fellow writers, fellow terrace dwellers.  May your pens be fearless and your lives be flavorful.
My best to you, my fellow travelers,
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The Art of Standing Still in New York City

Terracotta Warrior

Standing still is rarely admired in America, and yet it is exactly this stillness that we often find ourselves longing for. 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 Bob Neff Tour headed for New York City—New York City at Your Leisure, which seems a bit of an oxymoron.  Yet 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.

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 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.

Can one ounce of unhurried leisure surface amidst honking taxis (though in some areas now honking equals a fine), Grand Central Station throngs, long restroom lines, and astronomical prices? We weren’t sure, but what we began in stillness, we were determined to complete!We hopped a subway2 and went in search of lunch in Little Italy.  Arriving on the corner of Prince and Broadway intending to head south, we accidently wandered east, 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 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 a novel idea! It’s like choosing a great restaurant over a buffet—slowing down and savoring an experience versus getting the most for our money.

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 is simply, well, more.

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: we found a delightful café by getting lost, indulged in delectable sushi3 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.

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, Travel Warriors

1Visit for the information on the latest Discovery Museum exhibits. $

2To 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 East on Prince Street. Tell “U” we said hello! $

Kodama Sushi

3We 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+

Other Blogs or websites by the authors:


The Silent Isle

Karen (Good words about food and travel.) (Coming Soon!)

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