Author Archives: Ashley R Sanders

2 Conferences, 2 Cities, 1 Week in Puerto Rico

After packing for almost every conceivable contingency and getting a few hours of restless sleep, my alarm startled me awake at 3:00am Sunday morning. It was time to shower, throw in the last few toiletries, and head to the airport for a packed week in Puerto Rico.  Adrenaline really does a lot for a person; panicking about arriving late for my flight fueled my last minute packing and kept me awake through my first flight to Chicago. A couple of cups of coffee in Chicago, and I found energy enough to write my last blog post and read a bit for pleasure.

Once in San Juan, I gathered my checked luggage and went in search of my carpooling companions.  Elizabeth had just picked up the car and met me almost as soon as I went through baggage claim. A couple hours and one lost bag later, three other colleagues arrived, and we crammed our gear into the trunk and headed out in search of a good Puerto Rican meal.  My first taste of mofongo convinced me that I was going to enjoy the cuisine on this trip.  However, a few days later, I must admit to missing vegetables – a lot.

My first conference, or rather “un-conference” – THAT Camp Caribe – a series of technology workshops and sessions in the digital humanities, met at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez at the other end of the island.   An uneventful two and half-hour drive brought us to Mayagüez, but we had difficulty finding my hotel. After driving to the wrong location, but the correct address according to the hotel’s website and Google maps, Alex, in a very Jason Bourne sort of way, suggested we turn left then left again and about half-way down the block, we would find five or six guys playing dominoes. He had somehow seen them in the dark from the other side of the block. They misunderstood what we were asking for though and gave us directions to the Colonial apartments rather than Hotel Coloniale.  Thank goodness for electronic maps! Schuyler found the university and then searched for the Howard Johnson since the Colonial Hotel wasn’t far from it. We eventually found it, and after traveling for nearly 20 hours, I arrived at my destination, exhausted, hot, sticky, and ready for bed. The accommodations were very simple but sufficient.

THAT Camp workshops began the next day and the un-conference took place Tuesday and Wednesday.  For more details on THAT Camp, check out my twitter feed (@throughthe_veil) and my upcoming blog post on the Cultural Heritage Informatics site. Before I left home, I had printed out a map of how to get to the university (which turned out to be quite unhelpful), and I picked up a map from the front desk at the hotel, but I forgot how close all of the European-style streets are and walked several blocks too far in the afternoon sun and had to backtrack.  I finally reached UPR and discovered it was deserted! It was a university holiday. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I had also printed out a campus map or if my phone was working, but it decided to be contrary at precisely that moment. Fortunately, one lone student was studying nearby and patiently responded to my query in rusty high school Spanish with a funny French accent. I made it just in time for the start of the workshops, and a good thing too!  I didn’t want to miss anything.

Monday night, everyone convened in the HoJo parking lot and caravanned to Rincón.  Well, we mostly followed. I was fortunate enough to find myself in the car with a graduate student who is originally from Mayagüez, so we took a number of back roads through the hills down to the coast.  Our driver, German and Marta were two of the un-conference organizers and kept us laughing with crazy tales of life and biking in Puerto Rico. I laughed so much my cheeks hurt by the time we reached the restaurant, and the night had only begun.  Some of the conversation was serious – discussion of our research topics, how we used the digital humanities in our work, and what our current projects were – but a good portion of it was tongue-in-cheek and silliness.

Quotes of a night:

  • “Disney’s going to lock you in a teacup!” (in reference to “borrowing” Disney icons for a presentation)
  • “It’s like dry bobbing for apples upside down.” (Describing the process of coconut harvesting.)

Tuesday was a full day, beginning with a sunrise run through Mayagüez followed by a brainstorming meeting and sessions until about 5:30, after which everyone met up at Siglo XX for more excellent Puerto Rican food, conversation, and laughter.

Wednesday we finished our sessions around 12:30 and met for lunch – our last social gathering before everyone left for San Juan for the ASA conference or flew home. That afternoon, I wandered around Mayagüez, taking pictures, perusing local shops, and then settled in with a coffee and WiFi at the café in the Howard Johnson. Three hours of programming and experimenting with Mapbox later, Madelyn, one of the other THAT Camp participants asked if I’d like to grab dinner together. We had a wonderful conversation that also served as a debriefing since we hadn’t had the opportunity at the end of the sessions today.  It was the perfect way to end the camp and think about what else we would like to discuss next time.  And it was delightful to get to know her better.  She is a professional flautist and singer who has performed all over the world and is now in library and information sciences but considering further graduate work in ethnomusicology. We talked for three hours! By then, our brains had been on overdrive for three days, and we were exhausted, so we each returned to our rooms and prepared to head out to San Juan for the ASA conference the next day.

A quick lunch at a popular local café, German, Alex, and I set out on our long drive back to San Juan. Along the way German enlightened me on Puerto Rican politics, the countryside, and economy.  The three of us also had a chance to debrief on sessions we weren’t able to attend at the THAT Camp and discuss my current project with MapBox.

As soon as we arrived in San Juan, I decided to head to the beach to enjoy the last bit of sunshine.  I had been in Puerto Rico for four days at that point and had nothing to show for it since I had been inside almost the entire time.  Shortly after I settled into my lounge chair and began to relax, taking in the beautiful scenery, Ryan and Marcel (the other two presenters on my panel) arrived and suggested a swim. The water was just cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough that I didn’t freeze after ten minutes (which is saying something). As the sun set, we dried off and made plans to meet for drinks in the lobby and dinner at a nearby restaurant with some of their friends.

I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but the location was amazing – a patio, right next to the Caribbean, the waves splashing against the rocks just below us. It was a beautiful night – still warm, but not stifling – just right for an evening stroll and dinner.  Marcel and Ryan’s friends were amiable and interesting, which made conversation easy and enjoyable. Over dinner, a couple regaled us with stories of a recent trip to Malawi and Kenya for non-profit work. It was an early night since three of us had to present at 8am the next morning.

The sun rises early in San Juan, and so did we Friday morning. Since the conference was held at a convention center rather than the hotel, we had to catch the first shuttle to make it in time to set up for our panel.  Despite the hour, we had a decent turnout, and the presentations and subsequent conversation went well. If you’re interested, my paper and PowerPoint are available on my academic blog:  Before we knew it, the two hours had passed, and it was time to clear the room for the next panel.

Following a busy day at the convention center and some time enjoying the Caribbean sun, Denise, a friend I had met in the archives in Aix, picked us up for a tour of old San Juan, dinner, and salsa (music and dancing, not the dip).  After sampling the delectable but heavy Puerto Rican cuisine at Raice’s, we definitely needed to at least walk off dinner.  Our trek to a local celebration, complete with carnival rides and live music was the perfect solution. The salsa dancers were incredible, and the party atmosphere electric. I joined one of Denise’s friends on 1001 Nachts (Nights), a carnival ride that swings its occupants up in a wide arc and finally full circle. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and while Denise’s friend, who shall remain anonymous, turned a little green, he survived the ride and returned triumphantly to solid ground.  After visiting several local hangouts, we finally called it a night.

Saturday brought more conferencing and beach time before heading out for another dinner and more live music with Denise. This time, we headed out to local lunch favorite in the Santurce or workers’ district. It was like stepping into someone’s cozy dining room from the 1950s with ancient TV’s, old photographs, paintings, and knickknacks.  Dinner was excellent once again and much of it was complementary from drinks to appetizers.  A bit of coffee revived us after dinner, and we set off for a park in the Condado district and more live music – this time Bomba. This percussive, Afro-Caribbean fusion is actually Christmas music on the island, and the Puerto Rican version of “caroling” would be completely unrecognizable as such to many Americans.  In Puerto Rico caroling is called an “assault” and happens at about midnight after gathering at least 20 people and instruments to play the lively, dance-worthy music in front of someone’s house, who is then expected to provide a feast for the crew who interrupted their sleep. Being a night owl, it sounds like a great deal of fun to me, but I’m sure many would disagree. 🙂

Finally, Sunday arrived and so did our planes to fly us home. The guys headed back to Yale on an early flight, while I met Denise for brunch and flew back in the afternoon.

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Posted by on November 24, 2012 in Graduate School, Travels


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Reflections on Chicago and Paris while traveling to Puerto Rico

Walking through the O’Hare airport this morning and watching the sun rise reflecting bright pink off the clouds over Chicago, I couldn’t help but smile fondly. I have to admit, a part of me misses this city.  I’m on my way to Puerto Rico for a THAT Camp “unconference” at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez and the American Studies Association conference in San Juan.

This trip has been in the works since last summer when a friend and I decided to put a panel together at a graduate institute hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago.  Since the ASA deadline was a little further away, giving us time to plan, and the theme was a perfect fit for our panel, we decided to give it a shot.  The location had nothing to do with it! Well, ok, maybe a little… San Juan in the middle of gray, (normally) cold, rainy November sounded wonderful to my Yale and UConn colleagues and I.  And I have been looking forward to this conference (and the late addition of the THAT Camp to my schedule) for months, but when it came time to actually leave family, friends, and home, I had second thoughts even though it’s only for a week.  Thankfully, I have friends either living in or meeting me in San Juan, and the THAT Camp is small (only about 60 attendees), so I’m sure I’ll meet a number of other scholars.  I know I will enjoy my time while I’m there, and I could definitely use a dose of warmth to go with our unusually sunny November.  However, I know I will also be happy to come home at the end.

It has been a crazy month since we returned.  I had hoped to write more on my personal blog to fill in a number of stories yet untold about our travels in Europe, but alas, I have spent most of my time in the car running to Michigan State or (happily) catching up with family, friends, meeting our nephew(!), celebrating birthdays, Halloween, and the birth of a dear friend’s precious daughter.  It’s been a whirlwind, but it has been wonderful to be home, surrounded by love and special friendships with those who know our virtues and faults and love us still.

To all those who wrote or Skyped, I just want to take a moment to thank you.  There were definitely points in the journey when I was quite lonely, and I would read your notes over and over again.  I carried you all in my heart while I was away, so if I forget to share pictures or stories, please understand that I felt like you were there with me, experiencing the colors and delectable scents of the markets, the coolness of the Mediterranean, and the awe-inspiring yet cozy city of Paris. I also don’t want to be one of those people who talk on and on about their travels and show their photos ad nauseum.  With that said, if you would like me to share more, please let me know.

I suppose it makes the most sense to start from the point at which I left off … After our trip to Italy, I traveled to Paris and Mike returned Braunton, England.  I was quickly reminded how much fun Paris can be when shared with a friend.  My first visit to Paris was two years ago, traveling alone for the first time, and it was my first time in Europe. I didn’t know a soul, so much of my time was spent journaling, doing a few sightseeing tours, and planning what I’d like to see when I could share the experience with someone else.  Little did I know that the next trip would be with my husband and best friends! We only had about two and half days in the city, but we saw about as much as one can cram into that amount of time.  I’m surprised we didn’t need new shoes after our trip to London and Paris together; we put so many miles on them! And in Paris, we decided to be extra ambitious and climbed all the stairs of the Eiffel Tower – good thing too or we would have spent the entire night waiting for the one working elevator instead enjoying the views. If one is in reasonably decent shape, it’s really not a bad hike, and it provides a fantastic justification for indulging in the scrumptious Parisian cuisine after. J

I digress. During my third trip to Paris, this time for research, I stayed with a friend from Michigan State.  As we plotted and planned for our two weeks together, she found a small apartment we could share, sent me pictures, the sublet price, and we agreed that it looked perfect for us.  When I arrived – after hauling my luggage through the metro and up four flights of stairs – she greeted me by apologizing for the miniscule size of the place.  What had looked cozy and quaint online was quite tight for two people.  Nevertheless, I loved it.  It was an artist’s apartment packed with books, her own artwork, and souvenirs from her own world travels. Living there was exactly what I had pictured life might be like as a young woman in her twenties trying to live within a tight budget.

My first night in town, we wandered down to the Bastille and found a place to grab dinner and catch up. The next day, Monday, we picked up our Navigo passes for the metro and made our way to the Bibliothèque Nationale.  What a blessing it was to have Ali to guide me through that process! She guided me to office where I had to submit my passport, letter from my professor, and explain my project in a short interview; then to the window to pay for my reader’s card; to the vestiary to drop off my bags and pick up the plastic suitcase that would house my precious research tools (laptop, camera, and money for espresso); to a computer stand to reserve a place in a reading room; and finally through the 12-foot high 8-inch thick card-access-only metal doors. If you’d like a more detailed description of the involved process of getting into the French national library, see the post on my academic blog site.

I spent a good portion of our time between the reading room and espresso bar at the national library while Ali met me there or back at the apartment after conducting research at another archives.  The evenings were often quite, as she read for comps, and I wrote cover letters and worked on my teaching philosophy statement. My favorite part of the day was the morning when it was cool and fewer people were out and about.  I often ran along the Seine, through the gardens, by Notre Dame and back or explored the area around Père Lachaise cemetery.

Summer is generally the time when most American graduate students conduct research, freed from teaching requirements and their own course-loads, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that a number of Michigan State history students descended on Paris at the same time. It was surreal though. The last time I had seen them was in East Lansing months before, and yet here we were in Paris! One night we met one of the other grad students and his wife for a walk along the channel, dinner, and drinks in the “secret” bar.  There are no signs for this bar, and it is hidden at the end of a long, hedged walkway.  I don’t remember how Ali found it before, but it was a fun find.  The inside is entirely furnished with second-hand and re-purposed materials, much like a dorm-room.  College wasn’t that long ago; it felt like home, albeit slightly exoticized.

With Cindy, another MSU grad student, and her boyfriend Eric, we discovered Café Industriel not far from our apartment – great food and very reasonable prices by any standard, which means inexpensive in Paris.

Just across from our apartment sat another a cute Parisian café – a bit pricier, but a fun atmosphere until about 2am when we were ready to sleep, but everyone else was still out partying.  It didn’t take long for Ali to hunt down some ear plugs, and I dug out my noise-cancelling earphones to ensure a decent night’s sleep.

On another excursion, Ali introduced me to City Pharmacie a block from St. Germain-de-Près church. What a trip! Apparently, buses pull up in front of this pharmacy for the tourists because it has such great deals on fantastic French beauty products.  After squeezing my way through the hoards, being smashed up against a glass display-case, face first, and finding myself completely mystified by the checkout lines and attendants that allowed people to cut in front of those of us who had already waited ten minutes, I decided it was time for a drink.  Fortuitously, Les Deux Magots was only a block away – a café made famous by the many artists and authors who frequented it in the days of Hemingway and later Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.  I had wanted to check it out anyway, but having survived the traumatic trip through the pharmacy, it was the perfect moment to find a comfy place to sit, enjoy a café and people-watch. Ali agreed. The prices are ridiculous, which is why I only bought a coffee, but it’s fun to say I’ve been there.

It may not have been the most glamorous trip to Paris, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and having a friend to share it with.


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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Travels


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Combatting Loneliness and Contemplating Unusual Activities in Paris

By Bryant Arnold

Even though I didn’t get to sight-see as I had intended yesterday, I made time in the evening to do a bit of personal writing – sharing a few memories about our travels in Italy.  As odd as it may sound, in the midst of my work-work-work mindset competing with my desire to escape from loneliness through fiction and movies, last night was a victory of sorts.  It was difficult to transition to my deserted Paris apartment after living with fellow graduate students and my husband for months.  Other than a few days in which the graduate apartment in Aix was empty, I have been surrounded by lively conversation in several languages and the excitement of making new friends, learning about their lives and research, and exploring new places together.

Too much time spent alone leaves me depressed, unproductive, and takes the wind out of my creative sails.  Usually in a form of self-defense against the creeping loneliness, I lose myself in stories, but last night, I chose a different route, one that I found much more fulfilling and productive. Instead of devouring a novel to pass the time and prolong the night before the next day arrived, I found satisfaction in reminiscing about happy times and memorable experiences with a loved one. I may be doing a lot of catching up on my personal blog in the next three weeks as a result of this experiment and hopefully creating enough memories in Paris that I will have more catching up to do when I return to Michigan in October.

To that end, I’ve found Muay Thai classes nearby (I know – not the normal thing to look for in Paris!) and anticipate starting my French course next week. Muay Thai is challenging enough in English; we’ll see if I can work up the courage to try it in French! I just need a doctor’s note to prove I healthy enough to participate. I’ve found a general practitioner close to my apartment, and if I can brave both the doctor’s office and my first class, I’m sure I’ll have some entertaining stories to share. There are also jazz clubs to check out in the evenings and strolls to be had through gardens, wandering through the catacombs, and a never-ending list of museums and monuments (the more normal, but no-less-interesting things to do in Paris). Hopefully, I can fit all of this in around classes and research during the day… And if not, there’s always next time!

Tonight I set out to find a health food store. Exiting the metro station, I had a good mental picture of where it was, but finding it ‘on the ground’ proved to be more difficult.  Usually I have a really good sense of direction and haven’t had any trouble finding things before, but as I walked past all the shops selling clothing and wares I could never afford, I didn’t see the street I needed to turn down. Before too long I found myself in the now-familiar St. Germain district. With a mental shrug, I revised my plan for the evening and braved another visit Cité Pharmacie (a story yet to be told about a previous visit to Paris) to pick up the juice I had intended to purchase at the health food store.

St. Germain des Près Church

Since I was close and saw people exiting St. Germain des Près Church, I figured it must be open and decided to stop in and take a few moments to pray and enjoy the sense of peace that pervades the oldest church in Paris. Parts of it date back to the sixth century! I also remembered reading that there was a fantastic bookstore tucked in near Les Deux Magots and decided to investigate.  La Hune has actually moved but was right across the street from the church and therefore easy to locate (and for those who are keen to visit, it is only open until 8pm, not midnight).  The bibliophile in me thoroughly enjoyed perusing the bookstacks, and my fingers literally itched to grab several new tomes as titles tickled my imagination. Reminding myself repeatedly that I had more than enough reading material to keep me busy for months, I managed to pass through the doors empty-handed.  Besides, three other bookstores are calling my name – two that specialize in books on Africa, and the third, a famous English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, which I browsed very quickly on a previous visit.

First Image: “Old Tree Watches Over Boy Reading at Night,” by Bryant Arnold. Published 4 February 2012. <> (25 September 2012)

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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Self-Reflection, Writing


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Barefoot Summer Days and Italian Souvenirs

My feet have declared repeatedly that they were not meant for shoes, and they are finally beginning to make their point. At least my thick head is finally starting to pay attention.  Even sandals worn dozens of times and soft flats have me running for the band-aids on an almost daily basis. Moments like this bring back fond memories of going barefoot all summer as a child and the next best thing – flip flops on warm summer days, which reminds me that I haven’t written of our adventures in Italy yet…

Desenzano Old Port

My husband and I just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary in July and since we weren’t sure at that time when we would be back in Europe together, we decided to visit Italy, a dream destination on both of our lists. Rather than stay in one of the hotspots – Rome, Venice, Florence, etc. – we chose a small town on Lake Garda (shown above). Apparently, it’s a common destination for Europeans, but it’s a little known location in the States.  The Europeans are on to something!  It is a huge inland lake in northern Italy – more than 17 miles from top to bottom and 10 across and surrounded by Alpine mountains.  We stayed in Desenzano (pictures to the right and below) on the southern coast of the lake, which provided easy access to Sirmione across the lake and was a beautiful town in its own right.

Castle in Desenzano from High Middle Ages

The castle to the left dates back to the middle ages when it was used as a refuge in case of attack and likely sits on the ruins of a Roman castrum (for military defense). Mike and I found it on our first evening when we hiked up to the grocery store nearly two miles from our hotel. Since it was closed at that time, we returned to tour it on our last day and discovered they were setting up for a concert in the interior open-air auditorium.  Restoration continues on this ancient building, and only the tower is open for tours, but one can easily imagine the local nobility comfortably situated to keep an eye on one another while tucked safely away from impending invasions in homes originally surrounded by fortifications.

After our busy spring and summer, we took a couple of days to relax by the pool, meander through the town, and enjoy swimming in the fresh water lake. Venice was just a bus-ride away, so we joined one of the guided

Welcoming committee in Venice

excursions to get a taste of the city and promptly decided we would return and spend several days, time and budget provided! Venice is a beautiful, magical city but hot and crowded in the summer. The thousands of tourists who descend on the city each day by the bus and boat-loads must annoy the residents terribly.  It was quite literally wall-to-wall people when we arrived. Nevertheless, our brief stay was enjoyable, albeit sticky. As we stepped off the boat, the first site that awaited us were the masked couple to the right, paying homage to the Venetian Carnevale, which is said to date back to the celebration of a military victory in 1162 and became institutionalized in the Renaissance.

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Canals in Venice provide the main means of transportation, and as a result, bridges are equally important for pedestrian traffic. This is the Rialto bridge, which crosses the Grand Canal and is large enough that shops were built along it to entice visitors with a number of local crafts and wares.  It also attracts pickpockets because of the large number of gawking tourists, so keep an eye on your belongings!  The next bridge, the Bridge of Sighs (shown below), connects the Ducal Palace (aka the Doge’s Palace) the prisons.  There are two windows in this bridge that provided prisoners with their last views of sunlight and freedom, thus the sighs as they crossed it.

Bridge of Sighs

Since we had little time to explore, we spent much of it in St. Mark’s Square, touring the magnificent cathedral, taking in the grand Ducal Palace as well as the live music in surrounding cafés. The first church on the site of the basilica was built in 828 AD, rebuilt in 832, destroyed in 976 during a rebellion, and rebuilt again in 978 and 1063 to form the foundation of the present building. It’s origins date to Venetian merchants’ theft of antiquities thought to have belonged to St. Mark, and ever since, scarcely a commercial venture returned from trading in the East without something to add to the cathedral. Stepping inside, one is nearly blinded by the gilded ceilings and walls despite the dim lighting.

St. Mark’s Basilica

It is also one of the few cathedrals that insists on proper dress – shoulders and knees must be covered, and if they are not, they provide cheap shawls and skirts to preserve the sense of respect and reverence of this sacred space. It certainly inspires awe at the time and care that hundreds of men and an unknown number of women dedicated to its creation and maintenance as an act of worship.  It is ostentatious, yes, but because it is so over-the-top stunning, it makes me think of it as a representation of its various creators’ visions of heaven. Of course, the artists and craftsmen probably had numerous motives, not least of which may have been devotion and the opportunity to employ their God-given talents.

Gondola Ride!

After our whirlwind tour of the small portion of St. Mark’s Cathedral that you are now allowed in (due to the hordes of tourists), we joined our tour group for a gondola ride.  During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were between 8,000 and 10,000 gondolas in operation! There are now just over 400 today for the tourists, and with the motorized boat taxis, the canals are very crowded.  While it was a fun and somewhat surreal voyage, it was also very toasty in the narrow canals between buildings.  Not a whisper of wind stirred the heavy lagoon air, and we had to peel ourselves off the seat after the short 30-minute ride. However, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for any number of air-conditioned cafés.

Scaliger Castle, Sirmione, Italy

Once we had recovered from our Venice outing, we decided to tour a bit of Lake Garda, visiting several of the towns around the southern coast the next two days. Our favorite was Sirmione, which has an impressive castle, complete with mote and the memorable name of Scaliger, which still makes me think of ‘scalawag’ and ‘scavenger.’  It has long been a resort town – at least since the first century BC.  In the 13th c. AD, the Scaliger took possession of this pennisular city and built the castle (shown on the left and below right) as part of its defense. Between 1405 and 1797, Sirmione was part of the Venetian Republic and was then acquired by the Hapsburg Empire. It didn’t become a part of the Italian kingdom until 1860.

The castle remained an important defense post and was garrisoned into the 19th century.  It was one of the best and most complete castles Mike had seen (compared to the English castles he had toured up to this point), and it was the first one I had ever seen, so it definitely topped our list of favorites (apart from Venice as a whole, which is in a category by itself).

In a close second was the other gem of Sirmione: the “Grotto of Catullus” (Grotte di Catullo), the ruins of an ancient and enormous Roman villa, the largest discovered in northern Italy.  However, it should be noted that the Roman poet Catullus (d. 54 BC) lived long before the villa was erected (about 150 AD), but his family did own a villa near this location during his lifetime. Hopefully, the pictures below provide some sense of the enormity of the original structure and the fun we had exploring it.

Grotte di Cattulo

We still have much of Italy to explore – all of the aforementioned cities, Milano, and several others as well – but this was an incredible introduction to this beautiful country.  (For those wondering why I haven’t mentioned the food – I can’t eat wheat or much dairy, so, in the words of a friend, Italy “is wasted on me” – at least its cuisine. However, I can attest to the delicious salads, soups, and seafood to be had, and my husband can tell you how wonderful the pizza and pasta are.)

Well, the memories of the warm Italian sun have driven away the chills of my Paris apartment for the night, and my feet are thanking me for setting them free from their tormentors. It’s time to get some sleep before another day spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale studying the origins of “civilization”.

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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Travels


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A Graduate Student in Paris … Again arrived in Paris for my last three weeks of this European trip on Thursday evening. After dropping my suitcase off in my fourth-floor apartment, thankful for the elevator, I headed back out to meet a friend for dinner.  Unfortunately, the following two days did not live up to this auspicious beginning.

Illness and an awful headache kept me in, and though the time was productive, academically speaking, it was rather depressing to be stuck inside when I had planned to explore Paris a little more and hit the ground running with my research.  Oh well.  C’est la vie.

This morning after dragging myself out of bed, I discovered I finally had a little more energy and put it work cleaning the kitchen and putting my belongings in some semblance of order.  After a quick shower, I prepared to step out of my apartment for more than groceries.  Though I didn’t get to the Latin Quarter as I had originally planned today, I had a great visit with my mom, which reminded me how fortunate I am to be here, and that I vowed to make the most of my time here, sick or not.  So, armed with my laptop and a general sense of location, I set out to explore my neighborhood and find a café in which to work.

My apartment, though beautiful, is chilly, and believe it or not, does not have a single blanket in it, apart from the enormous comforter on the bed. Since I hadn’t packed many winter clothes for this trip, I decided I had better find a café.  After all, if Simone de Beauvoir spent more time in her favorite café than her chilly abode, why couldn’t I do the same?  Besides, the life and activity of cafés drive the loneliness away and often provide great people watching.   Maybe it will inspire ideas for a story or two as well…

On my brief promenade, I discovered that most of my neighborhood is residential. There are a number of grocery stores and boulangeries (bakeries) within a five-minute walk, a beautiful brick elementary school, a park where the sounds of ping pong and giggles reach the street through the surrounding hedges, and a sports and activity center.  My apartment is also near the Eiffel Tower, which greeted me when I arrived my first night and welcomed me back home after dinner.

Since it was a Sunday, few restaurants were open, so I ended up essentially where I began my walk at Café Lutetia. The hum of the café crowd, familiar sounds of a cappuccino maker, and the comforting smells and warmth of my usual café allongé provided the perfect setting to return to my project on the conceptual development of civilization in French discourse.  What more fitting location could I find to inspire work on this paper than Paris in the fall with plans to return to the national library the next day and a visit to Musée du Quai Branly in the near future?

After finishing my work in the café, I set out for an evening run – my favorite way to enjoy the city.  I had intended to head towards the Eiffel Tower, but I think I took the longest way possible to get there from my apartment. However, my meandering route allowed me to explore areas of the city I hadn’t seen before. I knew the general direction I needed to head, so I continued making turns as the mood struck, letting my inner compass guide me.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when the trees gave way to the grass and gravel of Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower.  I had just passed several cafés that looked familiar and knew I was getting close, but popping out from the shadowed street into the park and watching as the Eiffel Tower was lit for the night still took my breath away.

Tomorrow I have a little time before the Bibliothèque Nationale opens (2pm) and plan to explore a little more before getting back to work. I hope to make some time soon to relate stories from my last trip to Paris as well. Stay tuned!

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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Travels


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Running Free

Last time I wrote of running unplugged and not experiencing any epiphanies but quietly building my confidence. Tonight, the epiphany arrived before, and then necessitated, the run. I’ve been struggling with fatigue, which has made getting up early enough for my morning run impossible the past couple of days. I needed to run tonight to maintain my fitness level so I didn’t fall back into the painful cycle of having to rebuild. More importantly, I needed the emotional release that running provides and quiet time to meditate.

My apartment has been empty since Saturday, and this week is the first time I’ve been alone, really alone after finishing work at the archives in months. For the past two months, I have been with friends and acquaintances nearly every waking hour, which stayed the loneliness. However, once everyone had gone, I had no more distractions from the melancholy that settled in. Despite having numerous reasons, all logical and some quite serious, I have continued to struggle with my eating habits. I tried to fill the loneliness with food, with books, with TV shows, even emailing and chatting with friends, but nothing filled the void because it came from within and not from outward circumstances. I would overeat at times because I didn’t think I was worth taking the extra effort to make wiser choices. And therein lay the key to understanding why I persisted in doing things I knew were not healthy: I didn’t think I was worth it.

Tonight’s epiphany, then, was this understanding and the truth that the One who created me made me for more than this. As I set out for my run, without my iPod I might add, I walked out of the door unafraid – unafraid of the pain I knew was waiting for me from stiff muscles and an overly full belly, unafraid of disappointing myself with my ‘performance,’ unafraid of the stares and strange looks I would get for running at this odd hour – or running at all, for that matter.

I knew that this would be the last time I allowed myself to overeat and so willingly accepted the painful reminder that I was intended for more than the physical pain, emptiness, and shame I felt after eating too much. Despite that heaviness though, the rest of me felt light and free. I was made to live into my full potential and not settle for anything less. I had been praying that God would sink that truth into my heart, and he answered that prayer in a profound way tonight as the puzzle pieces I had been mulling over dropped into place.

So I ran. I ran into town and down Cours Mirabeau, magnificently lit up and reminding me of the magical unreality of Disney World, with hundreds of well-dressed people milling around, enjoying late dinners, and every vendor still displaying jewelry, clothes, and handcrafts after dark. I ran into the softly lit, mysterious medieval streets of Centre Ville and up toward the Cathedral, its illuminated tower shining like a beacon, pointing me home – not home to my apartment in Aix, but home within myself, within my heart, at peace with who and what I am. As I passed it, I breathed a thank-you to the One who affirmed me. I ran on, feeling as if wings carried me up the hills of this ancient city and finally ended at the gated entrance to the apartment complex, surprised to have arrived back so quickly. I ran with and into freedom and a deep sense of peace tonight.

Although the road back to full health remains long and even a little daunting still, I am more confident now that I have what I need to persevere. For those who are curious, I found 2 Peter 1:3-11, 1 Corinthians 6:12, and 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 very encouraging, along with Lysa TerKeurst’s Made To Crave. For now, my watchwords are self-discipline and perseverance. I trust God for the strength to follow through and to face my fears with courage rooted in truth.

I realize that I still have other stories to tell of my travels, but I write what I feel compelled to write when compelled to write it and must therefore apologize for the delay once again. At the same time, I believe the inner journey is as important, if not more so, than the outward adventures.

A balance between living and writing about living remains to be reached, but I sense that I am getting closer. More stories to come – and pictures!  🙂


Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Self-Reflection


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Running Unplugged

With much to ponder this morning, I decided to leave the iPod behind as I set out on my run.  This may not seem like such a big deal, but it inspired trepidation as I double and triple checked to make sure I had what I needed before heading out the door. Inhaler- check; key- check; watch and running shoes- check and check. That’s it! Here we go … !

I rarely run without my iPod now because no matter how long I train, running is still painful, and I’ve found music to be some of the best medicine. I get lost in the pounding drums and great guitar riffs, timing my pace to match the driving rhythms of the rock music and forgetting how sore and tired I am.

This morning, however, I needed a different sort of therapy – that of solitude and the quietness of my thoughts. With nothing to distract me, I found myself listening to the birds waking up, the rhythm of my own heart beating, the timing of my breaths, and the pounding of my feet on the quickly warming pavement.  The peace afforded time to pray, reflect and to let my mind wander, process, and problem-solve at the subconscious level while I focused on one thing: perseverance.  I wasn’t sure how I would fare on the run without my melodic wonder drug, so I set what I thought were reasonable expectations – a simple three-mile run at a conservative pace to let my legs recover from running and swimming this past week. I wanted to prove to myself that I was mentally tough enough to make it through my run and even enjoy it, distraction-free, so I set a goal I was pretty sure I could accomplish.

Although I cannot claim to have had any epiphanies on this morning’s run, I discovered how empowering such a simple decision as running low-tech can be.  Not only did I run the first three miles comfortably, but I added hills and another mile on top of it, bringing the total distance to 4 miles, only about a quarter of a mile shy of my long-run distance from the previous two weeks! And without breakfast, I might add!  A new “normal” distance was established this morning, and I was more proud of that than any other run I’ve put in lately.

While I may not choose to run without my iPod every time, I will definitely do so more often and with more confidence.  One more benefit: I was able to practice mindfulness during my run, enjoying a rediscovered awareness of my body as it moved through my surroundings.  Despite the aches and stiff muscles through the first two miles, being fully present made me realize how grateful I was to be able to run at all for any distance.  Instead of frustration over my limitations, I experienced a sense of freedom and intense gratitude for what my mind and body were able to accomplish when allowed to sync, sans technology.

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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Self-Reflection


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