Perfect Summer Days/Memories of #Italy

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | Category: Reflections, Travel Stories


Ed. note: We’ve been having a lot of them lately here in New England. Reminds me of a perfect day in Italy not so long ago . . .





We sit at the kitchen table in the morning

Drinking the juice of mangoes and blood oranges

Eating creamy yogurt out of chipped white porcelain  cups

Planning our day, as if we needed anything more than this


The early sun and strong black coffee are enough

The easy laughter and deep breathing are enough

Flowering magnolias and the scent of wild jasmine are enough

Anticipation and memory are enough


Today, we agree, we will go nowhere

Because for now, everything we need is right here

In the warm June breezes of plenty

Laundry dancing in the yard


(c) Linda Dini jenkins, 2009, Up at the Villa: Travels with my Husband


Buon viaggio!


Tags: Italy

House Hunters International Not: Our Adventure in #Sulmona

Thursday, June 26, 2014 | Category: Travel Stories, Travel Tips, Travel Writing


Sulmo Mihi Patria Est. — Ovid, some time after 43 BC

OMG — we bought a place in Italy! — The four of us, May 2014



Dove siamo . . . c. James Martin, Europe for Visitors

Dove siamo . . . c. James Martin, Europe for Visitors

First, Hannibal devastated the region around Sulmona, a tidy historical community of some 20,000+ residents tucked into the center of Italy’s Abruzzo region. That was back in 211 BC. Now — not to bury the lead too much — we’re about to. Well, not devastate it so much as take up residence there for a few weeks every year.

Those of you who know us know that Tim and I have been making empty threats about moving to Italy for years. As a full-time move is in no way practical at this point in our lives, we did the next best thing: threw in with some good friends and bought an apartment in a small city that we have all come to love.

Gentle reader, it has taken me more time to buy shoes than it took me to consent to this purchase. The four of us went thinking that this was just a shopping trip. No way would we buy. Our specs were firm: 2 – 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, center of the city . . . And then our friend Novelia happened. In fact, it is Novelia’s fault that we ever came back to Sulmona.

We traveled together to the city of Ovid and confetti four years ago. Our host made some

The famous confetti, candy coated almonds in dazzling arrangements

The famous confetti, candy coated almonds in dazzling arrangements

suggestions about what to see in the region for a day trip and said we should go to the nearby Abbey (Badia Di S Spirito Al Morronese). And so we piled into three cars (there were 12 of us) and drove to the Abbey. Once there, I went to the office and asked for an English-speaking guide. She could just as easily have been on a coffee break, but out came the force of nature named Novelia Giannantonio and the rest, as they say, is history.

Novelia gave us an unbelievable tour of the Abbey and then she and I kept in touch via e-mail and telephone over the years. Something just struck between us and we both knew we’d be fast friends. But it was when she started to talk about her lasagna and her spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar”), a specialty of Abruzzo, that I started to yearn to go back.

Novelia, with her magic chitarra

Novelia, with her magic chitarra

Novelia rents out an apartment on the top floor of her palazzo, which is just on the edge of town behind the Cattedrale di San Panfilo. La Casa del Cuore is a comfortable two bedroom, two bath apartment with a good kitchen and lots of space for relaxing or for extra guests. So we stayed with her this Spring and she made some introductions to properties that were not broker-represented. For one insane moment, we considered buying two of them in the same building. Then, coming to our senses, we decided the next day that one (the larger of the two) was probably just fine for our first toe-dipping experience into the joys and responsibilities of foreign home ownership. It is a testament to the apartment’s owner and renovator — Novelia’s architect brother-in-law, Evangelista Carlo Alberto — that we bought something that did not exactly meet our specifications. But it was too beautifully finished, too finely crafted with local wood and stone — not to mention those vaulted ceilings and that great front door — that we decided to opt for quality and craftsmanship over the American ideal of what a two bedroom apartment should be. So, just one bathroom, and a “living room” that is not big enough to swing a cat in, but Italians live in their piazze, anyway, so we will adjust.

The main piazza, Piazza Garibaldi, was actually restored by Carlo and was featured in

Piazza Garibaldi, among the mountains

Piazza Garibaldi, among the mountains

the George Clooney movie The American. In fact, the entire pivotal scene takes place there during Sulmona’s famous Easter event, La Madonna Che Scappa (the Madonna who runs, when she sees her risen son across the piazza). Lots of drama here, folks!

So I can hear you all now: why Sulmona? Why not Florence or Rome or Venice or Milan or Lake Como or . . . Well, because you did not contribute, my friends. No, seriously, prices in the north are much higher than in central or southern Italy, for one thing. But for another, we are on a mission to introduce Americans to Abruzzo and, therefore, to Sulmona. L’Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo, was once a beautiful city and will, God willing, be resurrected by the promised contributions of the Italian government which to date have not been forthcoming. So Sulmona is, I believe, the premier city in the region for now.

Casa Dolce Casa — we're on the second floor with the balconies!

Casa Dolce Casa — we’re on the second floor with the balconies!

The nearest beach is Pescara, on the Adriatic Coast and is reachable in 50 minutes. The nearest ski resort is Roccaraso, 25 minutes from the center of Sulmona. It is the largest ski resort in Italy outside of the Alps, with over 100 km of ski slopes. And how can you not love a city with a Roman aqueduct that dates back to 1256 running through it? Or that hosts a medieval Giostra (jousting competition) in the main square? There are music festivals year-round and in November, a film festival. They are famous for candy, for heaven’s sake. The Abruzzesse food is second to none. And the Wikitravel site says there are “plenty of shoe shops.” What’s not to love?

Better put Sulmona on your list. The Australians and New Zealanders have already discovered it and are moving in. The Dutch travel down the Adriatic Coast and both Le Marche and Abruzzo are regular destinations. We feel a bit like pioneers here, and are in incredibly good hands with Novelia and her family. We are lucky.

You’ll hear a lot more from me about Sulmona and its environs in these pages. We go back in a few months to close and get set up. I long to be there next Easter, too. In a few years maybe, we’ll make a plan to spend several months at a time there. For now, though, we’ll be offering it for rent when we’re not there. Stay tuned for details. And be prepared for something very special if you go.


Buon viaggio!






Foodie Poetry: With Apologies to Ogden Nash

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 | Category: Reflections


No man is lonely while eating spaghetti: It requires so much attention. — Christopher Marley

When I attended the Massachusetts Poetry Festival recently, I  took a class on writing poetry about food. I’m off to Italy soon. What else did you think would happen?

c. 2010 J.H-M and CultureChoc

c. 2010 J.H-M and CultureChoc

‘Talian Food

I would not eat the sauteed eel

Not the calamari, not the scungil’

I never knew why clams were food

And oysters never seemed that good

Mackerel, a dark and oily fish,

Like trippa, never graced my dish

What kind of ‘talian can I be

when slimy things repulses me?

I crave the pasta, fichi, rice

And melanzane’s always nice

Gorgonzola makes me happy

While nociola turns me sappy

Blood orange juice is great to start

A day at the porchetta cart

Rich prosciutto, macchiato

You eat slime — I’d rather not-o.

Buon viaggio!




La Bella Figura

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 | Category: Travel Tips


Never wear anything that panics the cat.  — P.J. O’Rourke


The dress was sleeveless, a melon peach color with yellow polka dots the size of dimes all over it. Drop waisted, with a slight flair at the bottom. I felt like a princess in it. I wore it to New York City when I went with my girlfriends when I was 15. I wore black patent leather mid-high heels and wrist-length white gloves. I can’t remember if I wore a hat, but we still did that back then when we went into the city, so I might have.

I do remember wearing Yardley foundation in a very light shade to offset the jet black mascara and white-ish lipstick applied just the way Mary Quant told us to do it. I also remember that when I came back home, all the soot from the city had stuck to the foundation, making me look like some kind of peppered freak.

It was this teenager’s version of la bella figura — the Italian concept that you must always look and act your best in every situation — but of course, I didn’t know that then.

Nothing to do with how to dress, but it's a hysterical book about Italy, anyway. And what a great title!

Nothing to do with how to dress, but it’s a hysterical book about Italy, anyway. And what a great title!

I think of this now as I am packing for my upcoming trip to Italy. I think of how times have changed. I wouldn’t dream of wearing high heels on a vacation now (unless a wedding or other formal event was involved, and somehow they never are) and dresses — if they come at all — are knit things that can be rolled up into a ball and basically forgotten in the suitcase.

This time, I’m bringing a black denim knee-length skirt, 2 pairs of black pants and a bunch of tops. A knit jacket and a rain jacket. A pair of flats and my favorite Crocs wedges, which is probably all I’ll really wear, anyway. But heck, the other shoes are light. A bathing suit in case I dare to go into the pool. Sleep shirt, toiletries, naughty bits. A pared-down make-up kit. That’s about it. Hairdryers are provided, as are converters. I’ll bring a few adapter plugs. Big deal.

Oh, a hat. I must have a hat. Not the pillbox-with-a-veil kind we wore on our day-long escapes to New York, but a crushable one to keep the sun from doing its damage.

So how do we maintain la bella figura in this casual society? I cringe when I see how some Americans show up abroad: all white sneakers, ill-fitting too-short shorts, sleeveless tops, fanny packs. You’ve seen them, and you know what I mean. And like me, you’ve probably been them at one point in your travels. But we are ambassadors when we travel, and so I take this stuff seriously, especially now that I take groups to Italy. God knows, our politicians have done enough to give us a bad name abroad – we don’t need to dress badly, too! And dressing a la la bella figura has nothing to do with money, so that’s not an excuse.

Someone once said this about packing: “Lay all your clothes and money out on the bed. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” Not too far off the mark.

If we were touring with travel pundit Rick Steves, he would only allow us one carry-on bag each, and a purse or backpack. I’m not that strict, but I do have three simple packing rules to be heeded when you travel with me. Here goes:

  • Shiny white sneakers will be marched to the pool and drowned.
  • Fanny packs will be sacrificed in the outdoor firepit.
  • Ripped or distressed jeans will be buried in the yard until it’s time to leave.

There are fashionable ways to be both comfortable and respectful and it only takes a little effort to be both. A few carefully chosen, neutral items that coordinate with each other is all you need. Some comfortable shoes (ladies, check out Naots, Walking Cradles, Dansko, Hotter, etc.) and a handbag (cross-body bags are especially good) or day pack. A colorful scarf goes a long way as an accessory — best of all, you can buy them very reasonably at the local markets and they make great souvenirs.

Next time you travel, try this concept out: fewer but more adaptable items. Look at (an adult) local you admire and see how he/she dresses. Then go and do likewise!


Buon viaggio!





California Design, 1930 – 1965: Living in a Modern Way

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 | Category: Travel Stories, Travel Writing


Dean’s California  wild, sweaty, important, the land of lonely and exiled and eccentric lovers come to forgather like birds, and the land where everybody somehow looked like broken-down, handsome, decadent movie actors. Jack Kerouac


I went to California last Wednesday, in something of a time warp. A delightful time warp spanning the years between the big wars all the way until we began to lose our innocence and our optimism in the mid-60s.

Get past the cool blue Avanti, and you're in!

Get past the cool blue Avanti, and you’re in!

California Design, 1930 – 1965: Living in a Modern Way is the newest installation put on by the remarkable Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in #SALEMMA. Really, sometimes I have to pinch myself to realize that I’m back here in this creative community.

The  PEM, founded in 1799, presents outstanding works of artistic and cultural creativity in ways that transform people’s lives. And while the 250+ mid-century modern works on display in this exhibit are certainly artistic, they speak to the shifting cultural creativity that was exploding on the California scene during this period.

Think textiles, automobiles, furniture, fashion — even where we live and how we lived,

The Eames chairs

The Eames chairs

as in glass houses with indoor-outdoor living. Think Ray and Charles Eames, Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler. Think Spandex and Barbie and kidney-shaped swimming pools and the ever-present fear of the mushroom cloud that even found its way into a children’s board game called Boom!

Those were the days, my friends, eh? Happy Days, with an undercurrent of annihilation.

The show, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is the first major study of California design, and PEM’s presentation is its only East Coast venue. Millions of new residents poured into California during the economic boom of the 1920s, creating a demand for modern housing and furnishings. The boom continued with the post World War II prosperity, giving a whole new consumer class the opportunity to furnish and decorate their homes a la the Good Life (no doubt influenced by an exploding Hollywood) with items made by the state’s designers and craftspeople.

The "Swoon Suit," made entirely of parachute material.

The “Swoon Suit,” made entirely of parachute material.

The buzzword for California today is technology, but it was the same back then, only “technology” meant something different. It meant pure innovation; it was the shaping, making, living and selling done by a group of designer craftspeople who took over for a time to bring new forms, materials and, ultimately, a new lifestyle to the burgeoning middle class. In the words of Charles Eames, they were trying to bring “The best for the most for the least.”

It didn’t always work out that way. For instance, only a handful of the Case Study homes proposed in 1945 were fully realized, and Eames’ famous molded plywood chair, created with Eero Saarinen — the one that won first prize in the 1941 MoMA competion — would have cost $75 at the time. Not a price for the middle class, to be sure.

But forget price. Come for the beauty of the modern forms, for the creative use of war-

I love this cutie!

I love this cutie!

time material (like the “Swoon Suit” made of parachute nylon, completely without metal of any kind), for the bold experimentation of shape, color, typeface and technology. This is the time of icons — the 1930s Airstream Clipper trailer, the 1959 Barbie doll, the 1964 Studebaker Avanti — many of which survive in some form or another even today. I guess we can’t all be California girls, but this exhibit can put a smile on all our faces and remind us of a time that was, in our lifetime, a remarkably creative place to be.

So get yourself to the PEM before July 6th to catch a glimpse of the exhilirating innovation and the need to build a better, brighter and more modern world that existed in this special time and in this special place.


Buon viaggio!









GUEST POST: Off the Beaten Path in Florence

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 | Category: GUEST POSTS


Ed. note: There’s so much to see in Florence that it can be overwhelming to travelers. Here’s what Prisilla Sciano, Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, recommends.


Anyone who’s ever been to Florence knows just how easy it is to be overwhelmed by its immense grandeur. In fact, the sensory experience of being surrounded by the city’s art and architecture is so overpowering for some people that they develop Stendhal syndrome, a condition that can cause dizziness, rapid heartbeat and even fainting. Also known as Florence syndrome, the disorder was named after a 19th century French writer who was left awestruck and light-headed after visiting Florence in 1817 — well before the age of globalization and the long queues of tourists coming in from Toronto, Tokyo and other distant places Fiorentinis could never have imagined.

Indeed, while most visitors nowadays survive Florence without passing out before its many wonders, braving through the flood of people in its well-known tourist spots can be a daunting task for many. Fortunately, there are still quite a few spaces in the city that are not yet as crowded as museums like the Galleria degli Uffizi or the Accademia. Here, you can experience the quieter side of Florence, but that doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on the good stuff that the city has to offer!

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio means “old bridge” in English, an understatement considering its history dates as far back to the Roman times. The current bridge is a beautiful Medieval-period stone structure that spans the Arno river and is known for the vibrant collection of shops built on it.

In the Middle Ages, the bridge was populated by butchers, fishmongers, tanners, and greengrocers, but a 1593 edict of the Medici Grand Dukes aimed at making the bridge more appealing swiftly replaced them with goldsmiths and jewellers. Today, these shops are still around, standing cheek by jowl with dealers of art, antiques, and souvenirs.

Until recently, there was also a tradition among visiting couples to place padlocks along the bridge railings and afterwards throwing the keys into the river as a symbol of their eternal love. Since this practice is now prohibited by the city council due to the damage it was causing the bridge, lovestruck visitors are advised to just use their padlocks symbolically and to enjoy the romantic sights and sounds of the district instead.

Ponte Vecchio is still beautiful despite gray skies in the background

Ponte Vecchio is still beautiful despite gray skies in the background




Another surviving structure from the Middle Ages is the Bargello Palace, Florence’s oldest public building, which originally served as a barracks and prison, and then as a residence for city magistrates. Built in 1255, the Bargello is now formally known as Museo Nazionale del Bargello, a museum which houses an impressive collection of Italian Renaissance sculptures.

Quite unknown to the hordes visiting the city’s more famous art galleries, the Bargello features sculptures from Michelangelo, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Benvenuto Cellini, Jacopo Sansovino, Giambologna, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Vincenzo Gemito.

Aside from sculptures, the museum also houses a wide collection of ceramics, tapestries, armors, coins, and art pieces made from ivory and silver.        

The tower of Bargello on the right is one of the most noticeable features of the Florence skyline

The tower of Bargello on the right is one of the most noticeable features of the Florence skyline


Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

It’s surprising how this museum escapes so many people’s radars when it is located just east of the famed Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Florence Cathedral.

Inaugurated in 1891, the museum houses some of the most beautiful original works of art from the cathedral, which include: the Florence Pietà, a marble sculpture made by Michelangelo originally as a decoration for his own tomb; the Penitent Magdalene, a wooden sculpture by Donatello; and the original Gates of Paradise, the ornate doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistery. The five-century-old doors were moved into the museum in 1990 for restoration, and the baptistery was fitted with replicas.

Il Museo Horne

The Horne Museum takes its name from a Victorian-age English scholar Herbert P. Horne, who settled in Florence in the late 19th century to study its Renaissance culture. Horne later donated his home and collections to the Italian government, which has since turned the small palazzo into a museum.

Horne’s palazzo boasts of an elegant yet simple facade and an interior bedecked with art, furniture, ornamental pieces, and everyday objects from the Renaissance period. As you can imagine, it’s a great place to check out if you want to see a well-appointed home as it would have looked during that period.

Of particular interest are the 14th and 15th century Florentine and Sienese paintings and sculptures, as well as original cutlery, ceramics, silver and ivory ornaments, andirons, mirrors, and leather pieces from the same era. Some of the artists represented in the collection include Giambologna, Desiderio da Settignano, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Hidden Florentine history

If you’re into hunting for hidden pieces of history that represent the more commonplace facets of past Florentine life, then take heed — they’re often found in nondescript locations.

Take for example the old religious tabernacles found on many street corners in Florence. Usually featuring images or sculptures of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ, these tabernacles continue to attract devotees even today. Or how about those peculiar little arched windows that look like small doors found on the walls of large palazzo? In the old days, these porte del vino or wine doors were used by wealthy families to display agricultural products like wine, which they sell to passers-by.

All around Florence, there are curiosities such as these — some of which were made for more particular purposes. For instance, at the Ospedale degli Innocenti or Hospital of the Innocents in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, there is a beautifully decorated window where people used to leave infants anonymously to be cared for by the nuns running the orphanage.  And at the nearby Palazzo Pucci, there is another window, which, unlike the others all around it, appears to have been completely walled up. Cosimo I, a member of the powerful Medici family of the 1500s, supposedly ordered it to be permanently bricked up after finding out that Pandolfo Pucci of the rival Pucci family had ordered assassins to kill him through this otherwise innocent-looking window.

Some “hidden” historical artifacts can also be found in more famous locations. Back at the Piazza del Duomo, you might find a large circular marble tile on the piazza’s stone floor. It wasn’t put there randomly because it marks the spot where the large copper ball from the dome of the Florence Cathedral landed when it fell after being hit by a strong lightning bolt in 1600.  

The tower of Bargello on the right is one of the most noticeable features of the Florence skyline

The tower of Bargello on the right is one of the most noticeable features of the Florence skyline


The Giardino delle Rose and the Giardino dell’Iris

How about ending a tiring day of exploring Florence relaxing in one of the city’s best hidden secrets, the Giardino delle Rose or the Rose Garden? Nestled in the San Miniato Hill, this 25-acre garden used to be open only during spring. However, since 2011, people have been able to enjoy the grounds all year long. It does not only provide refuge from the hustle and bustle of busy tourist routes, the garden also provides some of the best views of Florence and its city walls.

If you’re visiting between the 2nd and the 20th of May, you might want also drop by the nearby Giardino dell’Iris or Iris Garden, which is devoted almost entirely to the cultivation of irises and hosts a yearly worldwide iris breeders’ competition.  Iris, as you may already know, is an official emblem of the city of Florence, so what better way to appreciate the beauty of the city than beholding row upon row of these flowering plants in bloom?

About the Author

Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of TourItaly Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She’s a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients. For more on Priscila and her work, connect with her on Google+.

Buon viaggio!

Why Not Paris?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 | Category: Travel Stories, Travel Tips, Travel Writing


A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life. — Thomas Jefferson


It may surprise people who know me, and who know how much I adore Italy and how frankly miserable I am when I’m not in Italy, that my very favorite city is not on the boot. No, my very favorite city in the world (as much of the world as I’ve seen, at least) is Paris. Apologies to Florence, Milan and Venice.

Place Vendome. We strolled along here one dark evening, so I pushed the light on this one quite a bit. How many $100,000+ watches were bering sold in the shops here? I can't begin to say . . .

Place Vendome. We strolled along here one dark evening, so I pushed the light on this one quite a bit. How many $100,000+ watches were being sold in the shops here? I can’t begin to say . . .

Those Parisian skies seem to hold something special, seem to hold me in thrall when I’m there, even though I’m neither local, skinny, a French-speaker nor adept at remaining vertical while walking on five-inch-heels on cobblestones like the native women do. I love Paris even when it drizzles, as the song goes. Even when you have to climb up four ridiculously badly lit flights of stairs to get to your 300-square-foot mini apartment which, when you get there, seems as grand and important as Versailles because it is yours for the week and you almost feel like you belong there.

We were invited to attend a wedding in

The Roue de Paris, through the gates of the Tuileries Garden. A whopping 200 feet tall, and made for the 2000 Millenium celebration. What a thrilling view of the Place de la Concorde!

The Roue de Paris, through the gates of the Tuileries Garden. A whopping 200 feet tall, and made for the 2000 Millenium celebration. What a thrilling view of the Place de la Concorde!

Paris at the end of January and — even though we are scheduled to be in Umbria in June — decided that we dearly needed a break and said a totally irresponsible Yes to the trip. And then we remembered that it is never irresponsible to go to Paris on a whim because the city will always welcome you warmly and most everything else is bullshit, anyway.

Proust's resting place in Pere Lachaise, the largest cemetery in the city of Paris. Visitors leave their metro tickets there to indicate that they'll be returning. We will, too!

Proust’s resting place in Pere Lachaise, the largest cemetery in the city of Paris. Visitors leave their metro tickets there to indicate that they’ll be returning. We will, too!

We stayed in the 10th arrondissement along the Canal Saint-Martin and, except for the wedding activities on the Rive Gauche, stayed close to this part of town and got to explore it and the bordering Marais district like locals. We spent a rainy day in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery with a mad guide named Rafael. We devoured croissant and pains au chocolat and found pretty decent wine at the local Carrefour market and bought arguably the world’s most expensive cheese, which was incredibly good.

I will write more about the trip, the people and the main character — Paris herself — at a later time. But for now, here are a few photos to whet your appetite.

Buon viaggio!





The Things I Carry . . .

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 | Category: Travel Tips


 . . . with apologies to Tim O’Brien. His book, The Things They Carried, is one of my top five books of all time and has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m about to write.


It’s trip planning season again. At least that’s what all my travel blog colleagues are writing about in their columns lately. This is the time of year, they say, when people start to plan for their annual holiday, especially if that holiday involves crossing oceans. To help potential travelers in their search, all kinds of lists are appearing to promote the top 10 beach destinations, the best European bargain spots, “undiscovered” this or that, and what you should or shouldn’t pack on said trip.

To which I have two replies.

(1)  If you still need a place to go, I still have four spots available on my Umbria trip this year. We leave May 30 and stay just outside of Assisi for a week. Think about it — it’s a great deal and will be a fabulous time.

(2)  I might as well weigh in on what I bring when I travel — especially when crossing oceans. After more than a dozen years of serious traveling, I’ve learned a thing or two and offer my list up as to whoever’s interested. Use what you want and throw away the rest. And tell me what things you carry when you travel; I’d love to share more good ideas!


My Secret Weapon

My Secret Weapon

Things to carry/Things to do/Packing suggestions:

(1)  Make a copy of your passport and carry it with you. Keep your actual passport someplace secure (like in a hotel safe).

(2)  Make a copy of the front and back sides of every credit card or bank card you bring with you. Keep it someplace safe.

(3)  Make a copy of your airline tickets, hotel reservations, car rental documents, etc. and keep them in a safe place.

(4)  Call your smartphone provider and see what kind of package you’ll need while you’re abroad. Think carefully about how many minutes, how much data, and how much internet time you’ll really need when you’re away. Most providers will let you increase it when you’re on the road.

(5)  Be sure to call your bank before you leave and tell them the dates you’ll be traveling, where you’ll be traveling, and which debit or credit cards you’ll be using while you’re away.

(6)  If you’re an American citizen going anywhere the slightest bit dodgy, register with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program before you go. I even do this when I travel to Western Europe.

(7)  Bring a few reclosable plastic bags in all sizes. You’ll need them to get through security with your small liquids, but they’re also good for laundry, damp clothes, wine, olive oil, perfume, loose change . . . you’ll find new uses for them on every trip! Likewise, foldable shopping bags, especially if you’re “living like a local” on your holiday — some places have banned plastic grocery bags entirely or else charge for bags.

(8)  When you pack, think one or two colors only. I’ve become a nut for black and white, with a few scarves or other accessories for color. Bring clothes that can do double duty. Respect the local conventions, though: don’t show up in shorts or anything sleeveless and expect to be allowed into a major cathedral.

(9)  Comfortable shoes are a must! Most vacations require a good deal of walking, and this is no time to break in new shoes or try a new style. So . . . one or two pairs of good walking shoes and, if you think you’ll need them, one pair of dressier shoes. Lightweight is key. But please, keep your shiny white sneakers at home.

(10) If you want to look like an American, wear a fanny pack. But please don’t.

(11) Even when you think you’re being smart about shoes, your feet can rebel. Bring bandages, blister pads, anti-rubbing goo, orthotics or anything else that helps you walk comfortably. Bad feet = bad vacation.

(12) If I feel a scratchy throat coming on, I bring lozenges and plenty of vitamin C and zinc compounds like Airborne or Emergen-C. I have been known to plead with my doctor for a Z-Pack just in case I need an antibiotic while I’m abroad. I hate to take them and have never had to, but it makes me feel better knowing that I won’t have to face that language barrier when I feel like crap.

(13) Everybody has a secret weapon on a trip and here’s mine: Clove Oil. Yep. You buy it in tiny little bottles and it can make all the difference. Its antiseptic, antibiotic, antifungal, and antiviral properties make it a natural for treating a variety of ailments, including toothaches, indigestion, cough, asthma, headache, and stress. My husband put it on a nasty blister when we were in Paris recently and he was better overnight. And it’s helped both of us with wildly painful dental problems. So buy some and pack it. It’s a miracle in a bottle.

(14) About travel insurance: I don’t always buy it, but I do recommend it when traveling abroad. A $100 policy that you never have to use is not nearly as painful as a $20,000 expense if something goes wrong in a foreign country. If you’re traveling on a tour, chances are the tour operator will suggest (or require) that you buy travel insurance and will have some provider names handy. I generally use Travel Guard, but you can learn more about travel/trip insurance and compare policies here.

What’s your travel packing secret? What’s your pre-travel routine? Use the comment feature on this blog and share them with other readers. And don’t forget those four spots left in my trip to Umbria— we’re going to have a blast!


Bon viaggio!

Pennsylvania Station: Lost and Found

Friday, January 3, 2014 | Category: Travel Writing


Ed. note: Shortly after moving to Virginia, I discovered the Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop at Hollins University down near Roanoke. I applied for a spot in the Creative Non-Fiction genre and got in. Here’s a piece that I workshopped there and that has always had special meaning for me as a New Yorker. Hope you like it as my lead-off piece for 2014. Happy New Year, everybody! Stay found, okay?



James loves the sound of the trains. He loves the rocking back and forth of the trains. The big, shiny, toy car feel of the trains.

He came by train from the Carolinas years ago. He came here by train to work, to be near the trains, to hear the sounds, and to be rocked by them. James came alone, leaving his wife and daughter behind.

When I met him he was leaning over the railing, leaning into the afternoon, looking down to where the trains would come, looking down to where the people would rise up out of the hole in the ground, looking down.

He was in the station in winter, in a light spring jacket, and it was cold. But James was smiling and leaning, just happy to be near the trains. He sidled up to a young woman and, smiling, asked her to smile.

I have never liked this strategy of old men, who never knew what kind of day I was having and whether I had a reason to smile, but this is what he did that day. And the young woman did smile, very briefly, then moved away, a little afraid of this gray-haired, soft-voiced exuberant black man who no doubt had once smelled a whole lot better. And then he came over to me.

He didn’t ask me to smile. He just stood next to me for a while, both of us looking down into the hole, waiting for the people to come up. I knew if they came up, then I could go down. He just liked to watch them come up, fresh from their experiences with the train.

Finally, he spoke.

For a few minutes he told me stories about his life, about how an old southern man survives on the streets in a big northern city. About the kindness of strangers. About how the police let him stay in the station on cold nights because he never causes any trouble and never would. He told me how much he would love to go and see his daughter again, but how that might not be such a good idea after all these years.

James talked. I listened. And the people started coming up the stairs, up from that hole in the ground, up from their experiences with the train. Some of them probably hadn’t even noticed. For some, it was an everyday occurrence, just a way to get from here to there. James couldn’t understand that. Trains were his temple, Pennsylvania Station his sacred place.

The people who came up were making room on the train for me by their leaving. I was going back to Boston. Going back on the train, because I, too, loved the train. I knew what James meant. The swaying back and forth of it, the darks and lights of it, the leather seats of it, the amniotic hum of it, even the dirty windows of it. Life passes you by. You pass through life. Whatever. It’s magical on a train. You’re connected to something on a train.

I don’t know why exactly, but I reached into my purse and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and held it out for him. James had never asked me for a penny. I just offered it to him. He refused, and folded my hand around the bill, gently pushing it toward me. I insisted he take it. For a second or two, we just looked hard into each other’s eyes, him holding my bill-encrusted fist. I saw his years, the yellow in his eyes where the white once was. I saw his longing. I did not see unhappiness, however. He was stronger than I, and I knew it at that moment.  I wondered what he saw in my eyes.

Finally I forced the bill upon him and said I had to go to catch my train. Out of words then, we hugged each other like old friends, James and I. I had been seen off on my journey. I would go down into that hole and find a seat on that train and I would sit and think about this for hours as the train rumbled north. I would think about James and that dirty, pungent-smelling life-saving hug for a long time. I would hear the crackle of his nylon jacket as we held on to each other for a second, for an eternity. Two strangers looking for home, finding a home, lost and found in Pennsylvania Station.


Buon viaggio!



Tuesday, December 10, 2013 | Category: Travel Tips



Second Sunday Chowder & Lectures

at Salem’s Oldest House

Ed. note: I’m crossing over right now, folks, from my job as travel writer to my job as Executive Director of the Pickering Foundation in Salem, Massachusetts. I’m so pleased about the lunch and lecture series that we’ve put together for the Winter 2014 season, that I want to share it with all of you. If you think you’re going to be anywhere  near #Salem on the Second Sundays of January – April, please call and make a reservation to be here. You won’t be sorry!


The Pickering House, located at 18 Broad Street in Salem, is hosting a four-part lecture series beginning in January 2014. The new “Second Sunday Chowder & Lecture Series” promises to provide a fine way to shake off those winter blues and gain new insights into the history of one of Salem’s most accomplished families.

An informal chowder lunch will begin at 12:30 and our speakers will kick-off at 1:00. The fee is $20 per lecture for members of the Pickering Foundation and $25 for non-members. All are welcome and encouraged to come and see the newly refreshed home. Reservations are required; attendees should either call (978) 744-4777 or send an e-mail to .

Here’s the line-up of speakers, topics, and speaker bios:

January 12

Jim McAllister: Salem in the Mid 17th Century  

We’ll start our series with a profile of Salem life at the time the Pickerings were settling into their new home in the Broad Fields. Jim’s talk will look specifically at the layout and topography of the town, and land use. Also to be covered will be the political and religious landscape, and important current events

February 9

Charles Newhall: Becoming “Native” American:  John Pickering, Lexicography, and the New Republic

John Pickering VI (1777-1846) learned to read and spell using Noah Webster’s The American Spelling Book (also know as the Blue-Backed Speller) and quickly took to philology. After time spent at Harvard and then at the Court of St. James, he entered into the law and politics as the New Republic was testing political factions. In his spare time (!) pursued lexicographical work with precision and passion. That avocational career brought publication of numerous books on words and led him to the presidency of both the American Oriental Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His intellectual journey provides us with a window into the life of the mind of a post-Revolutionary American, a second generation United States citizen, and a sixth generation Pickering hard at work becoming “native.”


March 9

Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell: The Other Renaissance Minister in 18th Century Salem: The Rev. John Prince

While the Rev. William Bentley often receives a great deal of attention because of his famous diaries that chronicled life here in Salem during the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were other sophisticated “divines” roaming these parts.  John Prince was the Minister of the First Church in Salem, a Patriot during the Revolutionary War, and an amateur scientist and astronomer.  Some of his instruments are now owned by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.


April 13

Linda Dini Jenkins: Pickering Poets — A Celebration of National Poetry Month

Henry Pickering (1781 – 1838), son of Colonel Timothy, was a failed banker, an art connoisseur and a poet whose works appeared in the Evening Post and Good Housekeeping, among others. And his niece, Mary Orne Pickering (daughter of John VI) — in addition to being a devoted journalist and historian and the author of The Life of John Pickering — was also a poet. Let’s look at some of their work and then hear from you. Bring a poem to share — yours or someone else’s.

Speaker Biographies

Jim McAllister

Since founding Derby Square Tours in 1983, Jim McAllister has conducted countless tours of, and lectured extensively about, the history of Salem and Boston’s North Shore. Through the international Elderhostel program Jim has taught more than 250 courses on local history, architecture and art. He has also served as an historic consultant to many local organizations and institutions.

A now retired local history columnist for the Salem News from (1999-2013), Jim has written or co-written two books about Salem. The Morristown, New Jersey native has appeared on Chronicle, The History Channel, Home and Garden TV, National Public Radio, and many other media outlets. In 2008 he was the recipient of both the Essex National Heritage Commission’s first ever Heritage Hero Award and the regional Storyteller Award given by the North of Boston Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Charlie Newhall

Charles L. Newhall is a history teacher at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, MA, and a historian of the Early National Republic.  His current project focuses on the relationship between New Englanders and Liberia.

Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell

Jeff Barz-Snell is the current minister of the First Church in Salem and a local writer and activist. He has been studying Salem’s “Great Age of Sail” for several years and some of the personalities that made this period in Salem’s history so fascinating.  He has masters degrees from Boston University School of Theology and Tufts University School of Urban and Environmental Planning.

Linda Dini Jenkins

An avid poetry nut and travel writer, Linda is the author of Up at the Villa: Travels with my Husband (named by as one of the “Ten travel books I’d give my girlfriends”) and Journey of a Returning Christian: Writing into God. Her poetry has appeared in Tampa Review, South Florida Poetry Review, Peregrine, Bay Windows, Vermont Voices and Poeti italo-americani. Her travel writing has appeared in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dream of Italy, AAA’s Home & Away, and Healthcare Traveler. She blogs at and is Executive Director of the Pickering Foundation.


The Pickering Foundation cultivates an appreciation of one family’s role in the American experience, which is manifested in the preservation of the historic home for the enrichment and enjoyment of the community. The Pickering House is open to the public on Sundays from 10 am to 3 pm from June through November. For more information, visit


Buon viaggio!