Have Book, Will Travel

While cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay on a schooner, this girl was immersed in a Harry Potter book. She could have been me at age eight.   ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can tell a lot about a person by their books: at home and on the road.

I have shelves of uncategorized fiction, including books I’ve read and those I haven’t. There’s a small, poetry-sized shelf for volumes of poems. There’s a delicious space for cookbooks in the kitchen. The sustainable living books are on my loftiest shelf.

And—of course!—I have devoted several rambling shelves to travel guides and travel memoirs and travel histories. All the destinations are mixed up: Egypt beside Ireland beside Singapore beside Belize. I’ve remapped the world.

Going Places

Whether or not a book is specifically about travel, it takes me on a journey—figuratively and literally. Many times, when I look at photos from past vacations, I’ve noticed that the book I’m reading made it into a picture or two.

Antigua’s Carlisle Bay beach was lovely, but my mind was in 17th-century Holland: I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

In fact, I often remember the books I read during specific trips, either because they helped pass long hours on the airplane or because I was so mesmerized by the book that it distracted me from the actual destination.

For instance, I read The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan in Fiji. I had plenty of time toward the end of the trip for reading because a hurricane was moving through that part of the Pacific. Although the hurricane remained 500 miles from the Fijian islands, the water got so murky that snorkeling was bad. By afternoon on the remote island of Kadavu, it started to rain buckets. We were staying in a solar-lit, thatched bure; when ours got damp and dark, we huddled in the dining building, which had a metal roof and hurricane lamps. I was happy to disappear into Tan’s magical mother-daughter saga. The next day, we flew back to the main island and stayed at a hotel near the airport. There, Ken and I sat on the bed and gazed out at horizontal rain and wind as they denuded the palm trees. Escaping again into the book, I could almost forget the howling outside.

“The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland” by Cary Meehan took me to amazing standing stones, like Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I read Jurassic Park during my honeymoon on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Ken read it on the flight east—and during our unexpected sleepover in Atlanta due to cancelled flights. Then I read it on the beach and during the flight home. (To help us travel light, we pack books that both of us are interested in. That way we swap books halfway through the trip.)

In Scotland, I read a second-hand Amelia Peabody mystery—one of a series of charming archaeological whodunits set in Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I was finished, I donated this one to a retreat-center library on the island of Cumbrae. (That’s another secret to traveling light: leave it behind for someone else to read.)

In England, I read Pride and Prejudice for two reasons: a) because I never had, and b) because it felt right to be reading Jane Austen while visiting the very manor houses, villages and gardens where the P&P movies were filmed.

Dove è la Toilette? (Where’s the bathroom?)

Where would we be without guidebooks and phrasebooks? Lost, I imagine. In the days before e-readers, I photocopied the pertinent pages before I traveled and then discarded the pages as I moved from place to place.

True confession: I still do this because a) I prefer not to lug expensive electronics around the globe, and b) batteries choose to die and wireless tends to disappear the instant I arrive in way-off-the-beaten-path places.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead estate in England, was the setting of a love scene in the 2005 movie “Pride and Prejudice.” I read the book while I was in the region. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rick Steves’ Italy was my lifeline 15 years ago when I traveled alone for a month in the Lake District and Tuscany. I carried photocopied pages (a Rick Steves–sanctioned method), and everywhere I went—restaurants, cafés, museums, hill towns, lakes—Americans pored over the same book. The Rick Steves guide was an excellent ice-breaker: after all, you know the reader speaks (or at least can read) English. Many times I’d lean over to the adjacent table at a trattoria and start a Rick-related conversation:

“I see you’re traveling with the Rick Steves guide. Are you staying in Varenna or Menaggio here on Lake Como?”

“We got into that cute little mom-and-pop hotel in Varenna. You?”

“Varenna. That hotel was booked, so I’m staying at a nice place on the outskirts. A little pricier, but there’s a lovely garden and a fresco in the breakfast room! How are Rick’s suggestions for restaurants here in town?”

“Outstanding! We’ve been to all of them. ‘Stick with Rick’ is our motto.”

Stick with Rick became my mantra for that trip—half of it anyway. I mostly agreed with his recommendations for pretty medieval villages to visit, and I appreciated his historical background. In May, when tourism was light, seeing others with Rick Steves’ Italy was a novelty. By June, as crowds increased, the thrill had worn off and I had to get off the Rick grid for a little solitude.

For better or worse, at home or abroad, books unite us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted July 2013

What books have transported you most? Does a certain type of book work for you when you travel? And how do you read: eBook or paper? Leave a reply below, if you like…

I used the titles of books to create a little “book haiku” about traveling. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Holy Week Processions in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala, is a stunningly beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, glorious cathedrals and colorful markets filled with exquisite Mayan textiles. In 2008, I was lucky enough to spend a number of days in Antigua during Lent.

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

On Sundays throughout Lent, there are 10-hour processions up and down the streets of Antigua. They usually start at 1:00 in the afternoon and last until 11:00 at night.

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Hundreds of participants dress in regal robes and carry gigantic floats (andas) as onlookers watch. The floats are filled with sculptures of Jesus dragging the cross, the Virgin Mary looking beatific, and scores of angels playing herald trumpets.

Antigua has one of the most elaborate Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations in the Americas, and the city’s hotels are filled to bursting throughout the week.

For Semana Santa, carpets of sawdust paintings fill the streets as the processions walk through; that doesn’t happen on Lenten Sundays, but would be quite a sight. (A small sample of a sawdust carpet was preserved in the cathedral, and it was amazingly intricate and colorful.)

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Some of the floats weight as much as 3 tons, so it takes quite a few people to bear them on their shoulders. The float-bearers take shifts to spell each other, but they all keep shuffling slowly through the streets to the dirges played by marching musicians.

I watched the procession four times along various streets. Because the parade moves so slowly, it was easy to watch it pass, then walk six or eight blocks around the route, and catch the whole pageant somewhere else.

The final time I saw the procession pass by was from the window of a restaurant at about 8 p.m. In the dark, the floats were lit and had a different aura than they did by day. Night or day, the procession is quite a spectacle.

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The parade begins with blocks of processing boys and men in robes, hoods and cassocks. That’s followed by altar boys swinging the incense burners. The streets of Antigua fill with the smoky aroma, turning the entire city into a cathedral-like setting.

Then comes the massive float with Jesus carrying the cross over his shoulder. This is followed by musicians.

Next, the Virgin Mary float arrives, borne by women in somber gray and black dresses with lace on their heads. Although the Virgin Mary float is smaller, it’s impressive to see women in heels and skirts carrying what is still a massive burden.

All the locals take these processions very seriously—even mournfully. Bystanders in their jeans and flip-flops (or Mayan clothes if they’re visiting from a small village) gaze meaningfully at the floats. The participants are all very proud and solemn about their jobs.

However, there’s also an air of festivity: hawkers sell cotton candy, toys and sodas. As you’re in the large crowds, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other bystanders on the sidewalks trying to glimpse the floats and take photos.

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pickpockets make a healthy living on procession days. Although I felt nothing, for some reason I looked down at my fannypack and noticed the zipper was open—not the way I left it. I checked, and the only thing missed was the granola bar that I had tucked in at the last moment on top.

A friend of mine was not so fortunate. Her wallet disappeared from her purse, but fortunately her passport was safely back in the hotel safe.

Watching the processions made me truly feel like I had sampled a bit of the local culture of Guatemala, a fervently Catholic—and Mayan—country.

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua's bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua’s bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

Originally published in April 2009

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Guitars in the Parking Lot: Nashville’s Bluebird Café

Guitarists and singers warm up while waiting in line at Nashville’s Bluebird Café . ©Laurel Kallenbach

“The best songwriters in the world pass through these doors.” So says a small wooden sign above the doors of The Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee.

I never made it through the doors of this modest café, located in a small strip mall a few miles outside of downtown Nashville—but that didn’t keep me from understanding what it’s all about.

I heard a lot of up-and-coming and wannabe songwriters and performers in the parking lot, all just hoping to get inside for five minutes during Monday’s Open Mic Night to perform. My goodness, there were a lot of talented folks, young and old, who queued up during the late afternoon—all just aching to share their passion for country, gospel, pop, and folk music with other people.

The Grand Ole Opry may be the tippy-top of country music stardom, but The Bluebird Café is definitely the heart and soul of the music industry. Known as one of the world’s preeminent listening rooms, the 90-seat Bluebird Café has gained worldwide recognition as a songwriter’s performance space where the “heroes behind the hits” perform their own songs.

Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks, and Taylor Swift were all discovered at The Bluebird—and you can see that dream of fame and stardom in the eyes of most of the people waiting in line. Bluebird fever hit especially hard in October 2012, when the Café made its primetime TV debut on the ABC drama Nashville. (The Bluebird figures often in the show’s plotline, which deals with Nashville’s music industry and politics.)

Monday Night Open Mic

When my husband and I arrived at The Bluebird at 5:00 on Monday afternoon, a line of people already stretched from the front doors, past the barber shop and the furniture store and the Chinese massage place, past the Porter Paints, and around the corner into the alley.

Musicians of all ages waited for hours on a hot afternoon, but their dreams were not dimmed by the heat or the parking lot setting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At least a third of the people waiting for the Bluebird to open were carrying a guitar. From grizzled biker types to kids in braces, everyone looked expectant. Some women wore sleek mini-dresses; most people were in shorts, but most of them sported cowboy boots.

We took our place at the end of the line of about 140 people in the alley. More and more people kept coming. Luckily, the skies were cloudy, so instead of sweltering on the pavement, we were merely hot and sweaty.

While we waited, we struck up a conversation with 19-year-old singer/songwriter Ari Castronovo and her dad (he’s her backup guitarist). When they mentioned they’re from Chicago, the couple behind us overheard. They were from Chicago too—and so are the folks behind them. Our group quickly became chatty. Except for me and Ken, our little enclave was all here to play for Open Mic night, and the excitement and tension were high.

A 40-something guy behind us clutched a laminated piece of paper bearing the Bluebird logo stamp. Two years ago he was in line for Open Mic Night but didn’t get to play. In compensation, the Café gave him the stamp, which moved him higher on the list of tonight’s performers—he was assigned to the number 9 performance slot—although he still has to stand with us in the alley. Singer Number 9 had laminated his stamped card for safe-keeping over the years. The songwriter’s version of a “golden ticket.”

Ari Castronovo sings outside The Bluebird. We hope she knocked ’em dead when her turn to perform came. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As more than an hour passed, the camaraderie in the line grew. Everyone encouraged each other; everyone commiserated. Ari received a number in the low 30s, and when the Bluebird “bouncer” estimated that at least 40 people could perform during the two-hour open mic, her eyes got wide. She’d have to wait for a couple more hours, but she’d get her three minutes on stage.

The bouncer also explained to us that the first 90 people in line would be seated at the tables for dinner or drinks. The rest of us—performers or listeners—would have to wait outside until tables or seats opened up. This meant that a lot of the hopeful performers would stand outside on the sidewalk or in the parking lot until their number was called. Then they’d wait until the previous performer was finished, walk off the pavement and onto the stage, sing their song—just one per person—and come right back out again.

As a result, the parking lot became a warm-up room. Musicians who had at least an hour’s wait ran down the street and returned with to-go food from MacDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, or Whole Foods. The singers who were up soon tuned up their guitars and warmed up their vocal cords. They sang for each other in the parking lot; they clapped for the competition.

We got private performances from Ari, from a 12-year-old from Ohio, and from a singer 15 people behind us the line whose soprano voice soared over the traffic noise from Hillsboro Pike.

It was a nice consolation prize, because we decided by 7:00 that we were tired and hungry. Ari offered to share some pizza with us: she wanted us to hear her sing, and so did we, but the truth was that even when we pressed our noses up to the café’s window, we could barely see or hear the performer.

We watched Singer Number 9 from Chicago walk in, strained to hear an occasional lyric over the speakers, and watched him come out, flushed with adrenaline and excitement and hug and kiss his wife. It made our hearts pound in empathy.

A young singer/songwriter stands poised to walk inside The Bluebird—and into the spotlight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Regretfully, we abandoned our place in line, feeling a little like traitors, and headed back to our car. While eating our salads over at Whole Foods, we wondered how all the singers were doing on their night to shine—and get seen—at the legendary Bluebird Café. We, alas, would never know.

Would it have been better to have gained admittance to The Bluebird? Yes and no—but ultimately we wouldn’t have traded our “back scenes” glimpse of the excitement for the actual performance. Sure, it would have been nice to sip a beer and enjoy a burger at the table, but getting to know the aspiring talents outside was something we’ll remember much longer. And after all, there’s always next time…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted November 2013

Ascending to Parnassus Books, the Literary Heart of Nashville

Parnassus Books in Nashville is a must-see for anyone who loves to read. Author Ann Patchett highlights her favorite titles on this shelf.

Making a literary pilgrimage while traveling is always a grand thing. If you love to read, I highly recommend touring an author’s house—like I did at Voltaire’s manor house in Ferney-Voltaire, France.

It’s also fun and meaningful to take a trip to a place you read about in a book. For instance, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun inspired me to visit Tuscany and to spend four days in her village of Cortona.

While I was in Nashville, I had to make a literary pilgrimage … to a very special independent bookstore. Parnassus Books is named for a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived—and it’s known as the mythological home of music and poetry, so you know it’s got to be good.

Parnassus isn’t just any bookstore, it’s one that’s owned by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who opened it in 2011 right when independent bookstores—and even bookstore chains—were dropping like flies.

Ann Patchett’s books at Parnassus. I wanted to buy one of her titles, but I own them all. In retrospect, I should have bought an autographed copy of “Bel Canto” and given away my old copy, but I was overcome by the riches in the store and couldn’t think straight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ann is probably best known for her incredibly gripping Bel Canto and her most recent bestseller, State of Wonder. (Yes, I think of her as “Ann,” a friend and kindred, bookloving spirit—even though I’ve never met her).

By becoming a bookseller, Ann wanted to prove that people still love to read—and love to buy books in a place where they can interact with other book lovers and authors. She was concerned by how many good books were going out of print and wanted to start a store featuring the books she cherishes. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly well-connected with boatloads of fantastic authors.

Between the Covers

Located in one of Nashville’s more classy strip malls along Hillsboro Pike, Parnassus isn’t large, but it’s thrilling! I was so excited walking up to its display windows filled with new titles that I could barely contain myself. (I suspect more than a few visitors display this giddiness as they walk through the door. Are you one of them?)

The Greek temple is a fun entry into the whimsical children’s section at Parnassus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside, the walls are lined almost to the high ceiling with wooden bookshelves. I felt wonderment, felt like a kid in a candy shop. I felt at home.

I browsed for a while, drawn especially to titles that Ann recommends on her blog. There’s also a special “Ann Recommends” shelf that displays her current favorites.

A cheerful bookseller asked me if I had questions, and before I could say “Kurt Vonnegut,” she was bubbling over about the books she loves most, and offered a few of her own suggestions and other titles popular with Parnassus regulars.

How would I describe Parnassus Books? A clean, well-lighted place (to coin a phrase from a Hemingway book). ©Laurel Kallenbach

With five books in my arms, I sat down in a leather chair and read a few pages of each, just to get a sense of them.

I wanted to buy them all—but alas, I would have exceeded the 50-pound checked-suitcase weight limit had I done so. So I pledged to go home to the Boulder Bookstore (another fabulous independent shop) and buy them there instead.

I did purchase one light volume: the hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I definitely wanted to do my bit to support Parnassus—and to take home a piece of its literary magic. Long live Parnassus Books!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. If you’re visiting Nashville, you should know that Parnassus Books is just up the street from Bluebird Café, another not-to-be-missed site for music lovers and songwriters. Read about my unique experience at the Bluebird: “Guitars in the Parking Lot.” 

Originally published in November 2013