Sunday, January 27, 2013

Are You Ready?

                                         Mike in Pettorano, 2011

"'Are you ready?' Klaus asked finally.
'No,' Sunny answered.
'Me, neither,' Violet said, 'but 
if we wait until we're ready we'll be waiting 
for the rest of our lives. Let's go.'"
~ Lemony Snicket (from The Ersatz Elevator)

Over the past year, we've experienced the deaths of a number of friends, acquaintances, a few classmates, and one of my cousins.  Each time, we've had a bit of a conversation about how one never knows what the future holds and that Mike's early retirement is enabling us to travel and do things before we get to the point that we either can't or don't feel like doing them any longer.  (Did that make sense?  ;-)  )

I've mentioned to a few friends that, at times, I tend to get upset with myself for not pursuing my writing earlier . . . for not pursuing a university professorship when I was in my 30s . . . for not realizing the importance of my grandparents' immigration years ago . . . Oh, I know. I know. We all have things we don't do because of the obligations or limitations – familial, monetary or employment.  Still, I think we regret putting them off or forgetting about them.

I do realize, though, that I am lucky that what I put off once I now get to do.  I am fortunate to be able to fulfill a lot of dreams.  I appreciate the fact that Mike is game for these wild and crazy adventures of mine.  I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to share the time with him.  I tell him my heart is full, and he laughs and says it sounds corny, but . . .

Two months from this minute, from right now as I write this, we'll be on a plane bound for  La Avventura Grande* (or should I say La Grosse Aventure* since we start in France?). That seems so far away, yet it's so close.

Am I ready?  Are we ready?   I guess we'll see.

(* In Italian, The Big Adventure translates to La Avventura Grande. In French, it's La Grosse Aventure. I just have to comment on the fact that the Italian sounds so much better, a GRAND adventure.  If you translate it back to English, La Avventura Grande comes back as The GREAT Adventure.  The French La Grosse Aventure sounds, well, gross. . . no offense to any of my French friends.  La Grosse Aventure translates back to The Big Adventure, so that's okay.  I just can't get the gross picture out of my mind when I read or say it in French, though.  :-)  )

Thursday, January 24, 2013

We're All Stories

                                                                     In Pettorano

"Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and
that book, if written, results in a person explained."
~ Thomas M. Cirignano

When I started the MFA program at Murray State in 2008, a few people asked me if I kept a journal.  I don't.  I can't, if you really want the truth.  I cannot discipline myself to sit down and write every morning or afternoon.  A number of my writer friends do that, but I just can't.  It's not that I'm lazy, although that could be part of it, but I think it's more that my brain is always jumbled with thoughts and things to do and see and so on.

That said, I do constantly write in my head, and I'll jot words or sentences or thoughts down on the myriad of notebooks I have around the house and in my purse and in my car. I also make notes on my iPhone and iPad an am completely thrilled when I discover them since I've probably long-forgotten I wrote them.

Over the past few days, I've written a few chapters of my book, two of which came from thoughts I scribbled in a notebook months ago. While I'd thought about each of the two for a long time, the notes I'd made about them over the past several months finally came together, and I got the stories out. The first, about my maternal grandmother, asks questions that no one will ever be able to answer.  The second, about my paternal grandmother, answers questions I was never able to ask.

This book, which I want to finish as a tribute to Grams (my maternal grandmother), is going to really be two stories, hers and mine. I've come to realize that over the past several months.  Finding her story helps me find and understand mine.

So, I'll keep writing in my head, jotting notes around the house, asking and answering questions, and thinking too much.

And that's okay.

Next time:  Two Months

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Be Fearless

“Be fearless. Have the courage to take risks. 
Go where there are no guarantees. Get out of your 
comfort zone even if it means being uncomfortable. 
The road less traveled is sometimes fraught with 
barricades bumps and uncharted terrain. But it is 
on that road where your character is truly tested 
And have the courage to accept that you’re not 
perfect.  Nothing is and no one is — and that’s OK.” 
~Katie Couric

Story:  When I was a freshman in college, I lived in Mexico for a semester. Four of us lived with the same family in a rather nice three-bedroom house in the center of Saltillo, Mexico. The Davilas. a nice, middle-class family, had a few local women come in daily to clean and cook.  The house was spotless as the gals cleaned constantly (which might explain why their food was not of equal quality).

About a week or so after we arrived, my roommate and I heard screams from the other bedroom.  We flew through the door in time to see one of the inhabitants of the other room, Karyn, jumping on her bed, arms akimbo while Kathy, the her roommate, pounded the life out of a HUGE cucaracha (roach) that had been hibernating between the sheets of Karyn's bed.  Once the hubub quieted down, my roommate (Joyce) and I headed back to our room and a quiet night of sleep.  Even after the cousin of Karyn's visitor jumped out of the dresser in our room a few weeks later, I didn't give it too much thought.

That, as the saying goes, was then.  I was 18 and pretty naive.  

If that were to happen to me today, I would sleep in their car (which, by the way, was parked in the Davila's "sitting room..." That's another story.) before I'd go near a bed in that place.  I travel with my own pillowcase (or pillow when possible), and I've been known to travel with my own sheets (Don't laugh...too hard, anyway.).  I don't make the bed with them, but I have put them over the hotel's sheets so I can be comfortable.  I cringe at old bathroom fixtures and ask to change rooms if the shower grout is dirty. I never walk on hotel carpets unless I have shoes or slippers on.  I check tripadvisor reviews and always try to stay in newer hotels whenever possible.

I know you're probably thinking, "GERMAPHOBE!"  Yes. Yes. Yes. I admit it.   My good friend Sally tells me that I would probably never sleep in Belize, and another friend, Vivian, tells me I'd probably not get off of the plane in India.  They're both probably right.  My husband tells me I worry too much.  He's definitely right.

So, here's my secret:  I always worry when we travel.  I'm afraid I'll be uncomfortable with our lodging. Going so far away from home (and especially for so long) and staying in unknown places is a bit disconcerting, isn't it?  I try, though, to remember that I'm a little looney about the germ things and that everything will be okay. . . and it usually is.

Now, if I could only be that practical all the time. . . . .

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Next Big Thing

                                         My cousin Rosa and me in Pettorano

"You have to write the book that wants to be written."
~ Madeleine D'Engel

Christine Hale, author of Basil's Dream, invited me to participate in the blog share, The Next Big Thing. (The idea behind this blog share is to give writers the opportunity to share what they're working on by answering "interview" questions.)  Chris, who teaches creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, was one of my first mentors at Murray State and is a friend. In her blog about The Next Big Thing, Chris discusses her memoir – In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation.

When Chris invited me to participate, I hesitated a bit because I have not yet published a book.  Yes. Yes.  I do have publishing credits for individual stories and essays, but a book?  Besides, I thought, I'm still working on it and who knows if I'll ever finish it and find someone to publish it and, more importantly, someone to read it. Typical me.

My intention is to finish the book before June 1.  Part of the reason I want to go to Italy this spring is to write "in the environment."  I also have some questions that haunt me, and I want/need answers. Chris's invite is another kick in the arse to give me the resolve to set a date to finish.

So, grazie mille, Chris, for inviting me to participate.

What is the working title of your book (or story)?
Abandoned Houses

Where did the idea for the book come from?
When I was writing pieces for my MFA thesis, I wrote one about my two grandmothers and how different they were, how differently they treated me, and how much I knew – or didn't know – about each. The "good" grandmother, my Italian maternal grandmother, played a large role in my life, and as I wrote the essay, I started thinking about the sacrifices she made so that her children and grandchildren would have a better life.  I owe the life I live to Grams, and I feel the need to repay her by telling her story.

I became obsessed with finding out as much as I could about my grandmother's life both in the US and in her beloved Italy. I've traveled to Italy twice, found my grandmother's birthplace, met cousins I didn't know existed, and uncovered a number of family secrets. As I walked among the abandoned houses of my grandmother's village, I started to discover a lot about who I am.  I'm going back to Italy this spring to finish the book and complete the journey of finding myself.

What genre does the book fall under?
It's a memoir.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Yikes. Pretending for a minute that this book would ever come to the silver screen is fun, but I have a hard time casting certain parts.  But, since this is just for today, here are the main actors I'd choose:
Younger grandmother – Elisabetta Canalis
Older grandmother – Isabella Rosellini . . . She's a bit young, but make-up can do wonders.
My paternal grandmother – Maggie Smith . . . I enjoy her work and hate to cast her in this negative role, but I do think she could pull it off.
Grandfather – Joe Pesci . . . I didn't really know my grandfather, but from what I've heard, Pesci is enough of a firecracker to be Gramps.
Mike, my husband – George Clooney . . . Sense of humor, practical joker, and have you seen the photo of Clooney wearing the Xavier hat?  'Nuff said.
Younger me  – Amanda Seyfried. . . This is my husband's suggestion.  It works.
Me today – Sandra Bullock . . . She once said, "...I hope I am the best version of me that I can possibly be."  She was talking about being a mother, but I think that says it all about me. Besides, she's funny, nice, private . . .

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Abandoned Houses is about the journey to find myself among the abandoned houses of my grandmother's Italian birthplace.

Will your book be published or represented by an agency?
It's a little too early to tell, but I hope to find a publisher for the book.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I'm still working on it, but it's taken a good three years to get to this point. I do expect to finish it this spring.

What other books within your genre would you compare this story to?
I don't know that I dare compare my book to another writer's. I think that Patricia Hampl's A Romantic Education is similar in that Hampl travels to her father's birthplace in search of her homeland, history and herself.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My grandmother, pure and simple.  I also feel that the quote at the top of this page says it all:  "You have to write the book that wants to be written."
~ Madeleine D'Engel

What else about your book might pique your reader's interest?
Most Americans come from families that, at some point, left their native lands to settle in this country. Everyone can identify with that part of the story.  The ride is not going to be smooth, but I hope people will want to come along for the journey and be excited to find out what I uncovered and how I did it.

Again, thanks to Chris Hale for this opportunity.

Please check out Rachel Rinehart's "interview" on January 25 when she discusses her book, Right to Breathe, a collection of creative non-fiction narratives that explore the process of reclamation—reclaiming perception, voice, body and even a name. You can read her answers on her blog, A Heart That Blesses, here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Falling for Paris

"In an old house in Paris, covered in vines
Lived 12 little girls in two straight lines . . ."
~ From Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

I remember sitting in the last seat in the middle row of the classroom, and I remember waiting excitedly for the teacher to read us a few pages of Madeline. I imagine we were in first or second grade, although I remember Sr. Marguerite reading the book to us.  On that point, though, I know my memory is faulty because Marguerite taught fifth grade, and she was not the type to read such books (or any books, for that matter) to us.

As you may recall, the Madeline books are the stories of Madeline, a little French girl who lives in a boarding school in Paris with 11 other girls.  More than anything, I remember the book's cover (above) and a number of illustrations within, and while I remember the first two lines of the book, I recall very little of the stories.

At any rate, I think that the Madeline books were my introduction to France and Paris as I don't remember hearing about them before then.  Since I don't remember too much of the stories, I'm sure the illustrations fascinated me more than anything.  The Eiffel Tower. The tree-lined boulevard.  The Arc d'Triomphe.  I'm pretty sure I stared at the cover photo and dreamed about climbing the tower.

We went to the tower when we were in Paris 10 years ago, and I don't remember the setting around it being like the one on the Madeline cover.  We did climb to the second level of the tower, and the view was phenomenal.  I have to say that when I was a child I most likely thought that climbing the tower would be fun, but I can attest to the fact that hiking up 675 steps and then back down 675 steps is neither easy nor fun to a 40-something, asthmatic, out-of-shape adult. When we go there this year, I'll be climbing the metal behemoth via  an elevator.

I'm also going to look for that tree-lined boulevard.  Hopefully I'll see two straight lines of 12 little girls.

Next time:  The Next Big Thing

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Who? Moi?


"'Know thyself?’ If I knew myself, I’d run away.” 
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If you know me or have read about our trip to Prague (above) last year, you probably remember that I wasn't too thrilled with the place.  A lot of people have mentioned to me that they think I didn't like it because it was so old because I prefer modern hotels, inns, cafes, buildings.  Au contraire.  

Actually, part of it's true. As I wrote in my last post, I love all things modern, convenient, and techie. Also, I'm pretty much phobic about germs, dirt, and the like, so in my sometimes crazy mind, modern equals CLEAN. . . usually. . . (except for a few hotels near Disneyland or Mission Beach or . . . ).  

My less-than-stellar opinion of Prague, in all honesty, had more to do with both the crappy workshop experience I had as well as the very negative personal memories the sounds and smells brought back. Neither of those is a story for this blog, but suffice to say that they had a more detrimental affect on me than even the robbery did, and poor Praha (Prague) suffers in my mind because of them.

What I liked about Prague, was its ancient charm.  Towers, red-tile roofs, spires, cobblestone streets, plazas.  I loved leaning out of the window of our flat and watching the sun set over the river and the sound of the 600-year old astronomical clock as it rang hourly.  The most enjoyable days I had there were the ones Mike and I spent walking through the streets of different parts of town, particularly the Havelske Trziste (the old market), Old Town Square, the Jewish Ghetto and Vysherad.  I didn't like Wenceslas Square because it was home to McDonald's, KFC, and almost any specialty clothing store I could find in Fashion Show Mall here in Las Vegas.

What confuses me about myself (at times) is the very fact that the two worlds – the very old and the very modern – tug at me.  I was never particularly interested in history while in school.  To tell the truth, I hated it and saw no use to memorizing dates and events and dates and names and all. I did, however, enjoy reading historical fiction and non-fiction. I think I learned more about the history of places by reading the stories rather than the data.  Moreover, I loved transporting myself to Paris or Alaska, to an Indian pueblo or London, to New York City or Amsterdam simply by opening a book.  I remember daydreaming of being in those places, in those books, in the middle of the history.

The daydreams, I think, draw me to those wonderfully old places today. I can sit on a bench or in a cafe or by the window and imagine being in a different era. I like to see the people that walked the streets ages ago. I wonder how much of their DNA is still in the dust that swirls around us and how much of our own DNA we leave behind.  Sometimes I think that maybe I lived in Europe in another life. (Yep. I do believe in reincarnation.)  Perhaps I'm just looking for the part of me that I left behind.  

Next time: "In an old house in Paris, covered with vines. . . ."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Marais-me (Pronounced mah-ray)

"A walk about Paris will provide
lessons in history, beauty, and
in the point of life."
~ Thomas Jefferson

Finding the Paris flat where we're going to stay happened quite by accident.  The sheer number of arrondissements in Paris and what each offers was driving me crazy.  "All I want," I whined more than once, "is an affordable and comfortable place that is centrally located."  I was looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

I saw the photo first, and the garrets caught my attention.  I loved the way the bed sat under one of the windows, cozy under the angled ceiling.  "Studio under the roofs, in the heart of Paris..."  It was affordable! I was hooked, and it was booked. I had no idea where, except central, it was, though it was in the 4th arrondissement and central.

Covering parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, the Marais is one of the historic districts of Paris.  Once home to French aristocrats, the Marais is now a working-class district and protected by the government as a place of special cultural significance.  In the last 30-40 years, federal and local officials have pushed for restoration and rehabilitation of the area.  More medieval (pre-revolutionary) streets and buildings in the Marais remain than in other arrondissements.  

(A side note:  When Napoleon ruled France, he wanted to get rid of the small alleys, cobblestone streets, and old buildings. He razed much of Paris in an attempt to build wide avenues and huge plazas.  They were supposed to be wide enough to support military movement through the city as a means of protection. In additiom, the wide avenues and boulevards, monuments and large buildings served as a reminder that the people who lived on and in them were of a better class than those who remained in the older, smaller buildings and areas.)

The Marais retains much of its old charm – narrow cobblestone streets, small patisseries and cafes, locally owned shops.  There are a number o ethnic quarters, Jewish and Chinese being the largest.  Within its boundaries are a large, open-air market and an old, English-language bookstore as well as delis and antique shops. It's walkable,  within walking distance  of  so much history, and it's just the Paris I want to experience.

Of course, the happy accident of my finding a flat in the perfect place leads me to question why I – lover of all things modern, convenient and techie – would be so drawn to a quaint, medieval district.

Next time: Who? Me?