Paddington Bear

As I wrote in one of my first blog entries, my childhood was full of travel.  It was also full of books.  It’s only recently that I’ve realized that most of my childhood heroes were adventurers…

…Paddington Bear, Curious George, Mary from The Secret Garden, Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Madeline, The Little House, Make Way for Ducklings, Miss Rumphius, Babar, Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Jackie Piper and Puff, Ping…

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I had some heroes who didn’t travel, but even their stories were travel-related.  The Box Car Children lived on a train, even though it never moved.  And Mr. Popper may not have traveled, but his penguins did.  And, I don’t remember the story clearly enough, but I have a distinct sense that Jo from Little Women was a traveler, even if only in her heart.

My first big international trip was to England with my mom, sister and aunt.  I wasn’t necessarily reminded of any books I’d read until we were on the London Underground, and I set eyes on Paddington Station.  Suddenly all the Paddington Bear stories I had read as a kid came back to me, as if I was sprinkled with magical fairy dust, gifted with all the images from the books.

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From that moment on, I advocated for afternoon tea and marmalade each and every day of our trip, a tradition I continue to relish and associate with Paddington and that trip, to this day.

Boats, Trains and Automobiles

I love road trips.  And boat trips.  And train trips.  And, not coincidentally, some of my favorite books involve those very trips…

Around the World in 80 Days

This book has trains and boats (and an elephant and sledge to boot!).  I will never forget the first time I picked up this book, and realized for the very first time that people like to travel to new places just for the rush and adventure of travel, itself, and not necessarily only to get somewhere specific.

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The Black Stallion

In this book, the significance of the boat trip isn’t about the journey.  The boat is a catalyst.  It is onboard a boat that Alec meets Black, and befriends the feisty stallion with kindness.  When the boat sinks after an explosion, Black and Alec fight for their lives.

I remember being riveted as a kid, and grasping immediately that the reason Black is drawn to Alec is his kindheartedness.  And I remember staying up way past my bedtime, feverishly turning page after page to see how Alec and Black survive the open seas.

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The Odyssey

Of course, the oldest and most famous story of a boat trip is Homer’s epic.  This was assigned reading in high school, and at the time, I didn’t think of it as a travel story.  It was mythology, and history, and classic literature.

But, on my first voyage to Greece, during spring break of my senior year of university, it all came back to me.  Having devoured the story of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Ithaca, that trip (and later trips, to Greece and Turkey) totally resonated.  The funny thing about books is, when I read them, the story becomes personal; it becomes mine.  I hear my voice in my head telling the story to me.  So, it was my voice that I remember relaying Odysseus’ trials and tribulations, and it was intoxicating to feel personally connected with Greece (and Turkey), even though I had never physically set foot there before.  I had been there in my head.

This was especially true during the two trips in the region that involved boats – I imagined that I was sailing in the same waters as Odysseus, strolling the same shores, exploring the same cities.  And, I imagined I was doing it for the second time, because the first time I had accompanied him (at least in my head).

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The Old Man and The Sea

Hemingway’s classic about an old Cuban fisherman was a simple, yet deceiving story.  Similar to Black Beauty, the boat is important because of a journey, but it sets the required tension for the story.  In this case, it is a story about man’s powerlessness.

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Moby Dick

Wow, lots of books on my high school reading list took place on boats, now that I think about it!  I haven’t even touched on Tom Sawyer or The Tempest.  But, Moby Dick definitely makes my list.  What a remarkable story about passion to the point of madness and determination to the point of obsession, all set on a whaling ship.

Every time I’ve gone whale watching, whether its off Nantucket like Ahab, or Hawaii, or somewhere abroad from America’s coast, I think back to the adventures of the Pequod.

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Murder on the Orient Express

This is the first book, (and subsequently all the Hercule Poirot and Agatha Crisitie novels), that my mom and I read together as adults.  As such, more than being inspired by the romance of the train adventure, I realized books can be connections to family and friends as we each journey together (and separately) through the chapters of a story.

The idea of an epic train adventure stayed with me, and was the impetus for my (real-life!) journey with my sister on the Trans Siberian Railway.

When my friend Dawn and I were in Istanbul a couple years ago, we visited the hotel, The Pera, where Agatha Christie stayed while she penned this murder mystery.  And, we saw the railroad station where Hercule Poirot boarded the Orient Express in (then) Constantinople.  This is the book that just keeps on giving in my life!

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On the Road 

I had never read Kerouac’s classic novel of angst, freedom and the Beat Generation until a boyfriend and I took a couple road trips across the country.  There was something addictive about being on the open road, seeing the country mile by mile, and entering and leaving state after state, and city after city.  I was hooked.

When I told people about my love of the crossings, they universally recommended Kerouc’s book.  I dove in and immediately related to his intangible search for himself, and for finding a way to truly experience life.

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Motorcycle Diaries 

I was drawn to Che Guevara’s memoir of his motorcycle (steamship, raft, horse, bus and hitchhiking) journey from Argentina to Peru, solely to relish his magnificent descriptions of South American people and landscapes.

By the end of the book, Che and I were both changed forever.  I had fallen in love with South America, and Che had thrown off his upper-middle-class identity for a dedication to the plight of the poor, and to the cause of a united Latin America.

In the diary, I saw Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama (and Florida).  And since reading it, I have been lucky enough to visit Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, (and Florida).  But, like all “firsts”, my first time “visiting” those places, with Che, has colored all subsequent times.  I am glad my first time was with him.

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Internal Migrations

In February 2013, I attended the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Conference in NYC.  This was my second time participating, and I have also attended their last two annual summer conferences in Los Angeles.

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One of the striking things about these conferences is the caliber of the speakers.  They have giants in the industry, on both the business (publishers and agents) and artistic (writers and illustrators) sides.

The conference in February was no exception: Mallory Kass, Heather Alexander, Tara Weikum, Kate Sullivan, Tina Wexler, Edward Necarsulmer, Ginger Clark, Jenny Bent, Michelle Nagler, Lin Oliver, Stephen Mooser, Meg Rosoff, Mary Brown, Robert Brown, Jon Fine, Peter Glassman, Alexander Penfold, Nancy Siscoe, Shaun Tan, Tomie dePaoloa, Jane Yolen, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Julie Andrews, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Mo Williams.  And these are just the people I heard speak!

I was spoon-fed a wealth of useful information, and inspired to raise the level of my craft, and, all-in-all, reminded why I decided to write to children’s books to begin with.  All these speakers contributed to my bountiful takeaway.

But, Shaun Tan’s talk really stuck with me, which is a little surprising, considering he is more of an illustrator than an author (although he may disagree with that categorization, as he really is clearly both).  But, he is a more visual storyteller than I am, to be sure.

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However, his discussion of “Internal Migrations” and “The Journey Within” resonated incredibly strongly with me.   And it helped me understand how writing fits into my exploration of place.

It is obvious how reading and traveling do.  But, the third leg of my stool, the third thing I am passionate about, is writing (picture books, novels, blog entries) based on my travels and readings.  And, until I heard Shaun speak, I didn’t fully appreciate how closely linked that was to the other two.

Now I get it: writing is the exploration of place INSIDE my head.  It is traveling in my thoughts, without leaving my desk.  It is an internal migration, where take all the material I have gathered, through my travels and readings, and create characters and stories that I can share with others, and enable them to explore those same places.

Writing is a way I explore place, just like reading and traveling are.

So, thank you, Shaun (and SCBWI).  Now I understand what I have been up to!

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Live There, Or Travel There?

Guest post by Alexander Goodman (www.bigfishsquad.com)

Whether you travel somewhere or live there, I don’t think it makes the experience any more valuable, one way or the other.  It is just different.

For me, it is a “calling” of sorts to experience new parts of world, and acquire appreciation for diversity; it gives meaning to my life.  You could even say it’s my religion, as trite as that sounds, I realize.

While you walk away from travel with both positive and negative impressions of the place you visited, it is that greater understanding of the place that makes it so rewarding.  Every place is good and bad for different reasons, but you respect that, because these people are simply different from you.

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Travel also forces you to experience various levels of adversity, so that when you return home to your “comfort zone”, you are, in my opinion, better equipped to handle the stresses of everyday life.

I live in France, and living abroad here has involved much of the aforementioned definition of travel, but in a much deeper, more multi-layered, and, at times, confusing way.

For instance, when you’re visiting Paris, you’re curious about the cultural differences.  But when you live here, those cultural differences arise in every relationship you have, both personal and professional, and it’s easy to question whether you chalk something up to the person, or the fact that they’re French.

That said, I can’t sit here and decree something like, “If you haven’t spent xx amount of time in a place, you haven’t really experienced it.”  That’s bullshit.  And you’re talking to someone who has done a lot of both.

Really, you’ve just experienced it differently visiting there than if you had lived there.  The point is to experience it somehow.

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But one thing is certain: I believe everyone who has the means should make an effort to get out of their comfort zone, and see the world, whether it be by traveling or living abroad.  Millions of people cannot afford to do either one of these; it is an untouchable luxury.

So to all those who have the means and the flexibility to do it, I urge you trade in that Caribbean beach vacay, and go somewhere truly exotic, truly different from what you know.  And once you travel there, who knows, maybe you’ll live there one day.  But in either case, the reward is precious and, unequivocally, invaluable.

Temazcal

Guest post by Rebekah Marcano (|| http://www.facebook.com/lazytrainer ||)

My good friend Cindy (also known as Cynthia), invited me on a fantasy island, magical, dream, spa vacation in Riviera Maya, Mexico at a very luxurious hotel: Maroma. The moment we stepped onto the property, we were greeted with fresh mojitos, music playing in the dining room, the ocean just footsteps from our duplex suite named “Cuarenta”.

Our daily routine was simple. We lounged on beds on the beach as we ate guacamole, contemplated life, read books and soaked up the sun. We got facials, four hand massages, took yoga classes, pilates, and ran on the beach! Occasionally we would leave Maroma on excursions like swimming with dolphins, kayaking, swimming through caves, swinging from trees on ropes and landing in waterfalls!

We even drove one day to see the Mayan ruins in Ixtapa!

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Life was bliss. Looking through the spa menu, we thought we might try a “temazcal”, a health and spiritual ritual to cleanse the mind, body and spirit using a cement dome-like sweat lodge and volcanic rocks.

It was our only “to do” for the day. So when our wonderful waiters asked if we would like to sample tequila after breakfast, explaining some were aged this way and others that way, we thought, “Sure, why not?” Or maybe we asked them about the tequila, and why there were so many and how they were different.  Not sure of the order, but we started sampling tequila after breakfast.

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I could actually taste how they were different. Some were spicier. Smoother. Some burned your throat more. Others went down like water. We sipped soda water in between tastings. And when the room started spinning as I stood on a chair in the very quiet, peaceful, highend boutique-y, exclusive gated resort at 11:00 in the morning, I realized…tequila is NOT wine. And you do not have tequila tastings.

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After dropping my phone in the toilet and “falling asleep” on the floor, I woke up debating if I should still attend the Temazcal spa ritual. “Well it is heated, so it should get the toxins out like a sauna,” Cindy and I rationalized.

Stumbling over to the little hot box, we were greeted by many other guests. Somehow we were going to all fit in this tiny triangle hut.

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We squished inside as the leader added burning coals to the center, making the tent hotter and hotter. She chanted and sang. Added more coals. This tent was really, really HOT. And it was getting hotter. But it felt good. She passed around a bucket of water to dump over ourselves, drums to play, and fruit to rub over our bodies. We chanted. We sang.

At first I was timid, only whispering the words. Then I could feel them in my throat, then in my belly. Suddenly I wasn’t afraid of what others would think of my voice and the words sort of took over my body and I could shout them – scream them! Even though I didn’t know what the words meant, I felt what they meant. I could feel the words’ feelings and power. I LOVE WORDS! I LOVE THE OCEAN! I LOVE LIFE!

And suddenly I wasn’t drunk anymore! I cried tears of joy and felt a sense of oneness with the universe, and a love for all around me. I was just so happy. Blissful. Euphoric. I was a blank slate ready to paint my life as the portrait I wanted…

Or maybe I was still drunk. Either way, this was pretty cool.

Could tequila plus a Temazcal lead the path to some sort of spiritual enlightenment? I really believe it was a special combination!  Perhaps the waiters were in on the magical ritual, and the tequila was just what we needed to complete the mind-body-spirit! One things for sure: Maroma was a magical place!

Pulling Is The Object of Stretching

I’ve recently taken up Bikram yoga, and the 90-minute class is surprisingly meditative. There are certain phrases that all the instructors say, time and again.

One of these phrases that recently had a strong impact on me was, “pulling is the object of stretching”.

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Before I go any further, you have to understand a couple of things…

1)     I am certain that my interpretation of this is nothing along the lines of what the instructor meant to convey.

2)     Even worse, I am not supposed to be thinking at all during class.  I am supposed to be “in the moment”, focused on the posture at hand, using the instructors voice as a guide.

However, it is over 100 degrees in the room, and the class is 90 minutes long — and I am not a yogi.  And hey, at least I was focused on the instructions, and not thinking about what I wanted to eat for dinner, or when I get to see my niece and nephew next…

So, “pulling is the object of stretching” got my mind going.  I always thought the goal of stretching was tranquility, not effort.  And pulling definitely involves effort.  Lots and lots of effort as my muscles shake, and pain courses up and down my legs, in this case, inside and out, front and back.  Tremendous effort and discipline as sweat pours off my body, into my eyes, and up my nose.

I continued to ponder the expression as I tried not to let my sweat drown me.

Tranquility was no where in sight.  Requiring extreme effort is such a stark contrast to how I used to view stretching; the point of stretching was to relax!

But I realized: perhaps the people who are really flexible, who make it look like stretching is relaxing, have, in actuality, spent hours working at the pulling.  And they still are pulling.  They have just come to enjoy the act of pulling as much as they like the result of greater flexibility.

The same can be said of almost everything.  The actions that certain people take that may look easy, are, in fact, not.  Really, they are hobbies or interests that person has done enough times to reach the tipping point, whereby they actually enjoy the act as much as the result.

For me, that act is planning for travel.  Hotel websites are my guilty pleasure; my porn.  I love planning my next trip, working out the logistics, painting the boxes on the canvas that I will color in as the journey progresses.

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And, because I love it so much, I do it with relish, and I do it well.  So, my trips tend to be more enjoyable, because I can linger more inside the boxes, choosing exactly what color blue to use and how thick and straight a line.  I have the time and luxury to indulge in the moment, because I have taken care of all the worrisome details in advance.  I have “pulled” for hours, and now I can relax.

 

Vive La Différence! (Long Live Diversity!)

Guest post by Alexander Goodman (www.bigfishsquad.com)

Until 2009, I was an American.  More specifically, I was a self-avowed New Yorker.  I’d traveled all my life; my parents are zealous travelers, and instilled that in my sister and me from an early age.  So while I had seen much of the world by the time I hit my mid-twenties, I had never lived abroad.

Sure, I did my four-month study abroad stint in Florence — that was mainly a lot of pasta-eating and wine-drinking.  But I didn’t necessarily sink into the Italian culture enough to feel like I had truly lived there.

After being in New York City for 7 years, opportunity knocked.  A friend of mine invited me to go live at his uncle’s apartment in Paris while his uncle was away in Egypt managing business.

Without hesitation, I said yes.  Fast-forward eight months, and I was arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport with three massive suitcases, my pack, my daypack, my messenger bag…my life in bags.

I hoped to stay a year in France, but I realistically knew that it would probably only be a few months before my money ran out, what with French class, wine, cheese, bread, cigarettes; the (French) works.

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But, alas, as all great authors write about, love happened.  Yep, I met a girl.  From that first drink at a café in Madeleine in the center of Paris, I was hooked.  A gorgeous, worldly, chic, blonde, half-English, half-French girl, but born and raised in Paris?  Yes, please.  I’ll have seconds.

And I did.  Seconds, thirds, fourths…from that point on, life was about figuring out how we would make our relationship work.  We went from living in Paris, to planning to move to London (which didn’t work out due to visa issues), to staying in Paris, getting married, living, working, all planning to, one day, move to New York.

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That takes us right up to the present, with elapsed time to date being just over three years.  And as a byproduct of my only wanting to be in the same place as the girl I am in love with, I became — Frenchisized.  Frenchified?  Frenchied?  In any case, it has happened.

I am no longer just an American; I sort of now straddle a cultural line between America and France.  This manifests in a lot of different ways, from language, to humor, to basic social interactions, to problem solving.

I find myself quieter, more behaved and well mannered, less into TV, and more into talking to people, more out in the world, so to speak.  I consume less than I did in New York; I’m less wasteful.  I’m more into conserving, in every facet of my life.  This is all, believe it or not, quintessentially French; it’s not all decadence as we Americans are brought up to think about French culture.  Life here is just more simple, not all about consumption.

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That said, Americans have a unique warmth in our character that I try to preserve while living here.  Meeting Frenchies can be tough – there is, indeed, at times, a standard “cold” French exterior to break through.  And efficiency-wise?  Let’s just say Americans have the French beat when it comes to solving a problem…

Now, this didn’t all happen during one particular period of time; the process of truly assimilating to a foreign culture is perpetual.  It never stops.  You constantly, month by month, learn new things about your new country, your old one, yourself, your friends and family from home…and, ultimately, the world as a global community, one solid mass of human beings, co-existing in an ocean of diversity.

It is a fluid process.  You may feel one way in winter, and by summer you’ve learned something new, or had experiences, that make you realize that the initial impression you had wasn’t necessarily right.

This is particularly the case with the language.  Some months, I’m owning it – the conversations at the dinner table with French friends flows like a river, and I find myself surprised at how much French lives in my brain.  But other times, I struggle with it, constantly choking on my words, not being able to find them.  And sure enough, it all comes back eventually.  Learning a language takes time.  So it’s important to remember you will have some “down periods”.  Don’t get discouraged, and know that, probably next week, you’ll surprise yourself again.

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As the French saying goes, “vive la différence” – long live diversity!  Living abroad, in my opinion, only adds to the depth of your character, by diversifying it.  It’s important to embrace that, even if it means overcoming some adversity in the process.