Echo – Pam Munoz Ryan

One of the benefits of my job is the opportunity to purchase new materials for students and faculty. Even after nearly two decades, the thrill of unpacking and handling a box of new books remains a highlight of my professional day. A recent shipment included Pam Munoz Ryan’s latest novel, Echo.

My first impression was “This is a really long book. How am I going to get kids to read this nearly 600 pages long historical fiction novel?” After reading Echo myself in less than 4 days, I know my bigger problem is going to be maintaining the waiting list of students who want to read this absolutely enchanting book.

Echo is a little hard to explain without giving too much away. Essentially, there are three narratives which ultimately combine into a heartwarming and satisfying ending. The thread which waves the story together is music and its power to inspire, comfort and convey emotion via a special harmonica which almost magically lands in the hands of each of the three essential characters.

The first is Friedrich, a 12-year-old in the Black Forest of Germany during the Nazi buildup in the years leading to World War II. His love of music, nurtured by his father and uncle, provides him with an escape from the harsh realities he contends with as an often bullied young boy living during an increasingly scary time.

The story then shifts to Mike, an 11-year-old orphan in Pennsylvania committed to remaining with his younger brother despite challenged beyond what any child should have to endure. His innate ability to play the piano, previously fostered by his now deceased grandmother, provides him with the means to communicate emotions and wishes he often does not have any other way to express.

And finally, we meet Ivy, an American girl of Mexican descent living in California with her family as they struggle to improve their circumstances during the early days of America’s involvement in World War II. The harsh realities of gender roles, racism and the consequences of war are daily insults in Ivy’s world, abated only by her ability to make and appreciate music.

Each of these three young people come to be in possession of a very special instrument, a harmonica which provides them with opportunity and hope during their time of need. The selflessness with which Friedrich, Mike and Ivy eventually, in turn, part with the instrument is one of the most striking and beautiful parts of this very special book. I can’t wait to reread this book over the summer with my boys. Wonderful!

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Sleeping around – France

In my 25+ years of traveling around Europe, I’ve slept in quite a variety of places. My very first trip back in 1988 provided me with both my most crude and my most refined accommodations; specifically the floor of a ferry crossing the North Sea and the lovely hotel in London where my friends and I were ultimately put up after our flight home was overbooked. The bathtub from that semi-posh place remains a luxurious memory of what was a very low-budget trip.

Since that time, I’ve stayed in an array of places – bed and breakfasts, a botel (a hotel on a boat), pensions, dormitories, a villa, apartments, small boutique hotels and larger chains. I’ve never had a single dreadful experience. After hearing a number of things about Airbandb, I decided to give their service a shot. I was not disappointed.

63d77637_originalMy Paris needs were kind of specific (3 beds, 2 bathrooms, near the Metro and with wifi), but not unreasonable. I wasn’t particular about which arrondissement we were in, but parking would be a bonus since I had family driving from Germany to join us. Here’s the apartment we ended up selecting for our stay. The area was reminiscent of the London Docklands or Battery Park City in Manhattan – not in the middle of everything, yet easily accessible. The flat was super modern, yet warm and the bathrooms were spacious and clean. It was a bit pricy (we paid a total of $616 for 3 nights), but when divided by two, it was a downright deal, particularly when you factor in the secure and free parking.

Selecting an apartment in Normandy was a challenge because I really didn’t know where to stay – coast? City? Country?9a9bea81_original I ultimately made the decision to stay in Bayeux because it had survived WW II relatively unscathed and there was a train station. The apartment I chose was a wonderful blend of old world charm and modern amenities in a central location. There were 2 bedrooms, a loft with a large bed and skylights, a washing machine, a contemporary kitchen and numerous small terraces. There was only one bathroom, but the WC and bathroom were separate facilities. Again, we had a parking space for my Uncle’s car and were able to easily walk to bistros, shops and historic sites. The total for our stay was $372, again divided by two.

We spent our last two nights in Paris at a hotel. I booked the rooms in advance using Hotwire and spent a total of $396, my share being $198. Our hotel, The Mercure, was in a super convenient spot near a train station and numerous Metro stops. The neighborhood was lively with no lack of venues for entertainment, eating or drinking. Our 4th floor room was generously sized and had a table and chairs as well as a small fridge. My son was very impressed with the speakers throughout the room (including in the WC) which prevented him from missing a moment of the BBC station he enjoyed in the morning. Personally, I loved the large window overlooking the busy street and our ability to walk to the Eiffel Tower. It was exactly what I was seeking at a more than reasonable price.

For 8 nights, $600 seems like a bargain amount to spend on accommodations.  Airbandb  delivered on their promise and I’ve already begun browsing their site for a potential place to stay next year when I go away with my middle son. His pick? Portugal and Spain. Tips, anyone?

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Unforgettable lessons

There are books that I read which are impossible to put down, a recent example being The Girl on the Train. I was so eager to find out what really happened that I refused to stop reading until I finished the book. I was neither disappointed, nor regretful of my decision to push on until I reached that final page and felt a welcome sense of resolution. It was a really good read.

The book I’m reading now though, is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a whole different story. Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime by NPR newsman, Scott Simon, is a work that I don’t want to finish. You see, if I finish it, the story will end and I so want the story (and Scott’s mother’s life) to continue.  Simon’s book, a memoir of his mother, and their life together, originated as a series of Tweets during his mother’s time in the intensive care unit at the end of her life. The time Simon and his mother shared together in the hospital was a quilt of memories, thoughts, laughter and songs that provided comfort and solace to them both as they faced their final days together.

Below are some my favorite nuggets of wisdom. Simon’s Tweets appear, as in the book, in bold text. Quotes are the words of his mother, Patricia.

  • I just realized: she once had to let me go into the big wide world. Now I have to let her go the same way.
  • “You tell your children something a hundred times…You’re lucky if they remember one or two. Dos, don’ts, count for almost nothing. All they remember is what you do. Whether you want them to or not.”
  • I love holding my mother’s hand. Haven’t held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.
  • “Show children the best people and places. Let them know they belong.”
  • She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night.

There’s so much wisdom in this book, so much love and laughter that I wish it went beyond the mere 244 print pages, that Patricia’s life went beyond only 84 years. As a mom to three sons, I can’t help but read this and hope that at the end of my life my “boys” will honor me with an iota of the respect and appreciation that Scott shows his mother. I don’t need one of them to write a book or anything, but I love the picture I’ve drawn in my head of my children sharing the memories and moments that have woven us together forever.

Mother’s Day is coming. Buy this book.

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Living (too) large

You know how they say “travel is broadening?” Well, when it comes to the size of my ass, I’d definitely have to agree. Seriously, I’ve taken to referring to my hips as “croissant” and “pain au chocolat.” Whatever. I don’t regret eating a single slab of pâté or hunk of Camembert. It was vacation.

Now that I’m home, though, I’m actually feeling the need to downsize a bit. And I’m not just talking about the size of my hips. You see, one of the things that struck me during my travels was the simplicity of how Europeans live. Both apartments where we stayed, one modern and one in a more aged building, were built on a much small-scale than their American counterparts. Honestly, it made our American tendency to accumulate seem downright vulgar.

Let me give you a couple of examples…

The bedroom closets are really compact to accommodate much smaller wardrobes than those of the typical American. I’m talking maybe 2 ½ feet of hanging rod space and a handful of drawers. Coming home to my walk-in step-in closet and double-sided rolling clothing rack embarrassed me. Why do I have so much frigging clothing?

Both flats had lovely, updated kitchens. If these kitchens are any indication, Ikea seems to dominate the market and I am definitely going to consider going that route myself when I address my tired kitchen cabinets. Both kitchens were well laid out and contained more than adequate storage for the limited number of necessary items. That being said, neither kitchen had extraneous space, merely enough cupboards for cookware, dishes, glassware and some pantry items. Why do American kitchens require so much space?

One of the apartments we rented had 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and a combined kitchen, dining and living room. The other had 2 bedrooms, a large loft sleeping area, kitchen and combined living/dining room. There was one bathroom. I don’t think either of these apartments exceeded 800 or 900 square feet. Why do new American homes need to be nearly three times that size? Who convinced us that we should aspire to maintain, heat and clean such large residences?

Time for me to minimize.

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My Paris reading list

As I considered what reading material to bring along prior to my recent trip, I reflected on books I had read in the past which related to Paris. The first title that came to mind was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which has been a favorite for more than twenty years. The romanticism of that era (the 1920s) never fails to grab me and I was really happy to have reread that particular book just last year.

On a related note, The Paris Wife tells the same tale that Hemingway shares albeit from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley. The feminine point of view, expressed in a historical fiction narrative, is heartbreakingly enlightening and well worth reading.

Going way back in years, the Jim Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, provided the perfect inspiration for a visit to the cemetery where Mr. Mojo is spending his eternity. The fulfillment of a teenage promise to myself was well realized on Easter morning as my son and I tramped around the beautiful Cimetière du Père Lachaise, map in hand, searching for the Lizard King.

For this trip, however, I wanted something I had not yet read. Doing a quick keyword search in the library catalog (using Paris and fiction) I came up with a number of options including Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls. Published in 2013, this historical fiction novel was the perfect choice for my trip and I really enjoyed the author’s blend of fact and fiction.

Edgar Degas – Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Set in the later part of the 19th century, this story tells the tale of three impoverished sisters living with their widowed mother, a neglectful absinthe addict. With limited prospects, the eldest daughter, an outspoken and fierce protector of her younger siblings, attempts to keep her family together through any means possible. She becomes involved with Emile, a young man recognized by all others but herself as a thug. The middle daughter, a hardworking and literate 14 year-old, pursues an opportunity to dance in the Paris Opera where she catches the eye of Edgar Degas who hires her to pose for him in his studio. The youngest daughter, who possesses a true calling to dance, eventually achieves success in the dance world, but her path has been paved by the efforts and exertions of both of her sisters providing her with the least difficult life of the three.

All of the characters are based upon real people and the author has cleverly woven together two different stories into one rich tapestry of life in Paris during the 1870s. Buchanan paints a rich picture of poverty, society, justice and family and I completely enjoyed this novel. C’est bon!

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Getting around – Paris

When I’m in a new city, I like to walk as much as possible. In my mind, it makes it easier for me get my bearings and it helps me to see as much as possible of a new place. That being said, our Paris accommodations weren’t as central as they might have been and we needed to rely upon public transportation to get where we wanted to be. Fortunately, Paris has some excellent options.

We arrived in the early afternoon after traveling for nearly 14 hours. I was a bit foggy from the Valium I had taken and I simply wanted to get to our Airbandb* in the Boulogne- Billancourt neighborhood. Prior to flying, I had downloaded the Uber app and gotten a 50 euro (about $54) estimate for the ride. It was a bit of an indulgence, but ultimately was a good value for the nearly one-hour, door to door ride. After collecting our luggage, I opened the app and let Uber know we were ready to be picked up.  Within minutes our car had arrived and we were on our way. It was my first Uber experience and it was positive.

For our remaining days in Paris we relied upon the excellent Metro. We (read Liam, my remarkable adept subway map reader) quickly figured out the system – locate your starting and your ultimate destination. Determine the direction you need to take the train by looking at the last stop in both directions on a particular line, i.e our line, the 9, has end points of Pont de Sevre and Mairie de Montreuil. To go into the city center we went to the platform labeled the latter. There are maps posted and readily available in the stations and, once on the train, all of the cars had maps of the line. The newer train cars have maps with lights to indicate which stop will be next. Easy – and cheap. Tickets are euro 1.80 individually or sold in packs of 10 for about 14 euro. Two of the days we intended to do a lot of exploring so we bought a 2-day pass for less than $10 a person per day.

When it came to time to leave Paris and return to the airport, we were departing from a different, more central location, the Montparnasse neighborhood. We were  much more experienced with getting around, so, instead of a cab ride we went with a combination of Metro and RER trains. While the Metro covers zones 1 and 2 of the city, the RER includes all five zones and it is the way to go if you’re heading to more suburban areas or to either of the airports. We had a couple of extra Metro tickets on hand, so we elected to take the 6 from Gare Montparnasse a couple of stops to Denfert Rochereau where we bought  tickets to Charles de Gaulle at a price of $10 euro each (approximately $11). It was super simple and maybe one day traveling to JFK will be as seamless.

A couple of additional points – the trains are clean and run frequently. I don’t think we ever waited more than 4 minutes on any platform. There are clocks indicating when the next train is expected to arrive and they are amazingly accurate. Also, some of the stations are absolutely beautiful with tile mosaics and other eye appealing design features. I was more than a little obsessed with the street level light and sign indicators. A couple of my favorites are below.

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*More about my Airbandb (excellent!) in a future post

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Bijoux

🎶 I love Paris, that’s the song (Ella Fitzgerald version) that has been playingimage incessantly in my head for nearly the last week. Such a cliché, right? Limiting my love to merely Paris, though, would be unfair to the rest of the country. There’s so much to love!

In previous visits, I’ve been smitten by Alsace where the blend of French and German cultures has created a region of friendly residents who enjoy terrific wines and a hearty cuisine, all in setting of rolling hills fragrant with lavender.

This trip to Normandy, my first, has been a wonderful experience. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so proud to be an American while traveling abroad as I’ve been these past few days. The appreciation for the accomplishments of previous generations of our armed forces remains tangible in this region. Our flag is flown alongside those of France and Normandy and honored. God bless, America, incarnate.

imageMy favorite moments have been small, tiny little jewels which will continue to sparkle when I take them out to remember. Savoring the local cuisine – the cheese, pate foie gras, apple tart, kir Normand and oysters. Laughing with my son when I couldn’t recall the phrase to request our check (l’addition, s’il vous plait) in the bistro after indulging in my first ever calvados. A late afternoon soaking in the sun on our little patio, accompanied by a book and a bottle of cider.  All gems of France to be treasured.

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