Monday, July 15, 2019

Innocents Abroad

Youngest making good food choices in Prishtina
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: We've been enjoying pictures and stories from several Reds' trips abroad these past few weeks, and it's gotten me thinking about that FIRST trip to a foreign land. Youngest left for Kosovo (with stops in London, Istanbul, Serbia and Croatia) for a month-long college program, and has been sending back pictures, texts and emails describing her experience. She's traveled quite a bit around the US in her childhood and teens - usually accompanying me and Ross on book business - but the was the big one, her first time away from the US ( we won't count a baby appearance in Canada) and the first major trip without parental aid and supervision.

I spent years overseas as a child when we were in the military, which left me with a love of travel and fond memories of many European countries. But even though you're living with and learning about cultural and linguistic differences, living overseas with your parents managing every aspect of your time and travel is nothing like heading out under your own steam.

I left for Italy in the summer of my junior year. I was participating in a stone-age campsite excavation in the Tuscan region before the
start of my school year in London. Unlike my daughter, who managed all her flight reservations by herself, mine were done for me by my mom's travel agent. I remember clutching my precious paper tickets nervously, because of course back in the day, if you lost one you were in trouble.

That's not the only difference between my experience and Youngest's. I had several slim wallets of American Express Traveller's Cheques and a new Kodak camera. I took exactly thirteen pictures in an entire summer spent in Italy because I was so
afraid of running out of film and not being able to capture some vital scene! I had a tablet of onionskin letter paper and air mail envelopes, though I was extremely negligent in writing during the summer. My poor parents - I don't think they heard a word from me in the first four or five weeks. No phone, of course - in fact, from the time I left until I came back to the US for Christmas, the only time I actually called home (with a public phone and a stack of one pound coins) was on my little brother's birthday. I was FINE with this as a impecunious student, but as a mother, I'm very grateful for Face Time.

One thing I had that's still being used by travelers? A Eurailpass. The official Ithaca College/University of Pisa component ended something like ten days before fall classes started, so I hit the rails and began roaming. Scheduling the day meant showing up at the station and reading the times and destinations on a big board. Upon arrival in a new town, I'd check Frommer's Europe on Ten Dollars A Day for suggestions on a pensione, then walk to the place and see if a room was available. I saw Rome, Florence, Nice (where I spent an afternoon topless on a beach!) Monte Carlo and Paris before taking the ferry across the channel to England (no Chunnel yet.)

Except for the fact I flew across the Atlantic and didn't require a chaperone, my first solo trip abroad feels more like the experience an American traveler of the late 19th century than that of my daughter 37 years later. All the time I spent studying maps,haunting information kiosks, waiting in line to talk to a railroad agent, and visiting American Express offices has been  replaced by a smart phone and a debit card. It's easier now, in many ways, but I'm pretty sure one thing hasn't changed: Just as I did, I expect my daughter to come home more mature, more confident, and with a broader view of the horizon.

How about you, Red? What was your first time as an Innocent Abroad?

HALLIE EPHRON: One of my proudest accomplishments has been raising two daughters who are enthusiastic travelers. Jerry and I traveled a lot in the six years after we were married and before we had our first child. We started again with a trip to Puerto Rico when our oldest was 9 months old. When the girls were 8 and 13 we spent 2 weeks in Europe, traveling by train, and whatever you packed to take with you, you had to carry. It was a great trip, including venturing into Prague, before the Velvet Revolution.

My first international trip was to Europe for our honeymoon. We were crazy. Three months with the guy you just married? It's amazing the marriage survived. We rented a Citroen Dayan 6 (that's me with it in the picture -- I'm holding a Michelin Red Guide in the days before GPS), a car so basic it could not be imported into the US. We flew into London, took the train to Paris, rented a car and made our way up to Amsterdam where my husband's college roommate lived, down to Rome via Belgium and Luxembourg and Switzerland, and back through France to Paris. Yes, on $5 (maybe $6) a day per person.

RHYS BOWEN : I wonder if one is born with a travel gene? I had an overwhelming desire to travel from a very early age. I remember my first trips to Wales and Cornwall, what a huge impression they made on me, and begged to go abroad. Finally my parents arranged for me to go to friends in Austria when I was 14. They put me on a train in London. I had to find the right boat, and then the right train on the other side of the Channel. One and a half days in the train (3rd class, hard seats) and I was met at the other end. In those days one did not telephone so I sent my folks a postcard to say I had arrived. If that had been me, I'd have been frantic! Since then going across Europe on my own was a regular event.

Luckily I married a man in the airline business so travel was a big part of our lives. We've been to India several times, Indonesia, Vietnam, all over Australia, and to almost every corner of Europe. I'm writing this from a house in France where we have been entertaining our daughter Clare and her family. We had taken them to England but it's a first trip for the twins to mainland Europe and they are making the most of every minute, including eating snails and sipping red wine (they just turned 16). 

A grown-up Rhys enjoying Nice
Our own children grew up traveling frequently. We always went to England at least once a year, and to other fun places on vacation. They each followed this up with a junior year abroad and then both Clare and Jane went to work in other countries. It was a real growing-up experience for all of them.  And my own travel gene? I have decided I don't need to visit strange and exotic locations. I want to return to places I love. Lots of France and Italy, Switzerland and Austria, and maybe a little taste of Hawaii occasionally.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  When I was a teenager, my father was in the foreign service--a cultural affairs officer for USIA. When I was a junior in high school, I went visit him and his family for a few weeks in Hamburg, Germany--and ended up spending six months! That summer, and about half of my senior year in high school. So it was total immersion European living--and a life-changing experience.

I remember one chilling experience: we went into East Berlin, just my fellow 16-year-old foreign service kid pal Allison and I, because my diplomat dad was not allowed to accompany us. Talk about life-changing--it was if the war had just ended, bleak and bombed out, and patrolled by Vopos with snarling German Shepherds. Two cute Jewish girls from America were most definitely not welcomed. 
Checkpoint Charlie, c. 1965

Hank in the 60's
We also went to Amsterdam  and London and Stockholm and it was all amazing and seemed very natural and not touristy--since I lived there, I had to go to the grocery and buy flowers and go to clubs and ride the Ubahn and hang out in parks and not have to DO anything. I learned to speak German pretty well..much of that, sadly is gone, it seems. I attended the International School, so you can imagine the life-broadening experience for a girl from Indiana.  After that, travel never seemed unusual.

Now? It seems like it takes a lot more planning. I'm not sure there is one photo of me there. But here's what I looked like at the time.

LUCY BURDETTE: My first trip abroad was with my family when I was in high school. It was one of those "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" deals. All we kids remember my father freaking out because he was driving around Rome in heavy traffic at night and we couldn't find a room. I also remember feather beds and wiener schnitzel in Switzerland, and desperately wishing for ice in our Coke. I think I've improved as a traveler since those long-ago days! 

JENN McKINLAY: Italy with my mom! A real gal pal trip that included lots of gelato, wine, and art museums. We cherish that trip and the memories made, which includes my mom flagging down the police when she had a beef with the one of the transportation monitors on the city bus! Hiiiilarious! And, yes, I did come back with a fabulous new appreciation of the world, which is why I took the Hooligans to London a few years ago. There is nothing like travel to broaden the horizons.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My parents took me to Europe the September after I graduated from college (probably because they were so thrilled not to be paying tuition!) Like Lucy's, it was a "if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium" trip. We started in London, then rented a car in Oxford and did Oxford, Stratford, Bath, Stonehenge, and the Cotswolds. Then across the channel and the train to Paris, Provence, Rome, Florence, Venice. On to Switzerland and Germany, then Amsterdam and finally the ferry back to England for our return flights. 

Eurail pass, American Express Traveler's checks, and Frommer's how many ever dollars a day. I absolutely loved every bit of it, but especially England. Obviously. I lived at home the next nine months, worked and saved money to go back to England on my own, which I did the following June. I had a bus pass and traveled all over England and Scotland, staying in cheap B&Bs, pretty much until my money ran out. I know I have photos somewhere from the first trip, buy I have no idea where! Regardless, it was life altering, in so many ways.

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? What was your first trip abroad? Or your first great solo travel adventure in your own country?

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Art Up Close and Personal--Monet: The Late Years

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We all grew up with prints of great paintings, right? My parents had huge framed Gaugin and Cezanne prints. I had Renoirs--the Two Girls at the Piano went with me from high school to college. And the prints were pretty, nice to look at, something to hang on the walls.

Then, on my first trip to Paris, I saw the real Renoirs in the Jeu de Paume in Paris, and I sat on the bench in the gallery and CRIED. They were so staggeringly alive!!! So REAL! I saw many other great paintings, too, and I learned that there was no comparison between the print and the original work.

Fast forward to this week, museum outing #2, with my painter sister-in-law who is visiting.  An exhibition called MONET: THE LATE YEARS is on at the fabulous Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, and we made a day of it. 

 It was amazing. It was curated by the Kimbell, and only traveled to one other city, San Francisco. There are over fifty paintings from the last decade of Monet's life. He had suffered great personal loss in 1914, the deaths of his wife and his eldest son. He was also losing his eyesight to cataracts.

After a fallow period spent grieving, he painted feverishly until the end of his life in 1926, confining his subjects to his house and garden at Giverny. His style changed dramatically. Here is early Monet from the Impressionist period, all soft and dreamy, the palette muted.

Here are some of the later paintings from the exhibition.

Look at the energy and passion, the bold brushstrokes and heavy paint in some of these last paintings.

And here are my sister-in-law Dorothy and me with our friend Claude in his garden at Giverny.

Of course I bought the exhibition book--it was a once in a lifetime memento, and fascinating reading. I'm going to be thinking about these paintings for a long time.

Reds and readers, what was the first fine art you ever saw in person, and how did it affect you?

How to Beat the Heat

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I know we are a few weeks past the summer solstice, but SUMMER really arrived in north Texas this past week!!! We know it's coming, we should be prepared, but we were not!! It didn't help that we had an exceptionally long, cool spring this year, so less time to get acclimated. But, now, wow. Up until yesterday we were flirting with 100, with a heat index hovering between 111 and 113. Ack!! Yes, we have AC, but our old units are cranking like mad to keep this old house in the low 80s.

So what to do?

Don't cook, at least not on the stove top or the oven. Rice maker, slow cooker, instant pot (absolutely fabulous way to cook without heating up the kitchen!), grill. But I can't even face the grill until the west sun is off our west-facing deck. (None of this is helped by the neighbors having cut down the tree that shaded our back yard, our deck, and our west-facing sun porch.)

Do all the outside chores as early in the morning as possible. I'm watering the potted plants twice a day now...

Drink lots and lots and lots of water. And iced tea. (I don't even normally like iced tea.)


Afternoon naps.

When all else fails, I put a wet dish towel around my neck.

Cool baths before bed. Heaven.

And, ice cream. If you  need an excuse.

REDs, what are your tips?

HALLIE EPHRON: My office is tiny and it has an air conditioner... so when it gets really bad I live in there. Sleep in there mattress on the floor. So far it hasn't been that terrible so I've managed with fans and when I get desperate, go out and water the plants and myself at the same time. And yes, drink lots of water. Fortunately our garden is very shady -- our neighbors are tree-huggers, as are we.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: No a/c in my house. Fortunately, living in Maine I can take advantage of the 25-30 degree temperature swings between day and night. I close the windows and the sun-facing curtains in the morning and open them again at night. Fans in the windows bring the cooler air into the house, so it feels fresh and pleasant in the morning. I've read about, but haven't tried, Solar film/solar shield/sun shade, all of which stop a lot of the solar gain from ever getting inside your windows (and can be removed when the cold weather comes again.)  There are two rooms that aren't sheltered by the attic and thus heat up - I close the door firmly and forget they exist until nightfall. Pro tip: make sure the cat isn't hanging out in a patch of sunshine before doing this.

Like Hallie, I use fans wherever I work, including a large box fan that sits in the cellar doorway and sucks cold air up into the kitchen (and scares the cat.) I slow down, I drink lots of cold water and sugar-free Kool Aid. My secret weapon for really hot, humid days? I go to the movies!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: There's this great stuff, sugar free fizzy pink grapefruit drink. It comes in a slim plastic bottle. I twist off the cap, take two delicious sips, then put the entire bottle in the freezer. Then I set a timer (I know my limitations) for fifteen minutes at a time until it is nice and slushy. IT IS GREAT.   We have no ac in our 1894 house--but somehow it stays fairly cool.. Except for about two weeks a year  when it is UNBEARABLE. Then I just carry my fan from room to room.  We do have a window AC in the bedroom--which is so weird, because sometimes it it too cold!  And sitting in our back yard in the shade by the pool is ten degrees cooler than anywhere else. Oh! yes, how could I forget. We float! We get blow up floater rafts, and get pink grapefruit drinks and books, and then float on the pool and read. Come over and do it with us!

DEBS: Hank, that sounds so heavenly I may come all the way to Boston to stay with you!
And I've been buying boutique blackberry lemon ginger beer at the farmer's market. I keep it in the drinks fridge and just take one or two sips when I'm really hot. But maybe I should freeze it a little bit!

READERS,  please tell us your heat secrets!!!

Friday, July 12, 2019


DEBORAH CROMBIE: It's all about downsizing these days, right? All the experts tell us that if we haven't used something, we should toss it. But here's debut author Carl Vonderau to tell us why you shouldn't Marie Kondo everything!!! 

CARL VONDERAU: Never throw away what you write. Let me explain why. In 1995, I decided to write my first book and set it in Bogotá, Colombia. But how could I get the setting right? I’d traveled there but didn’t trust my memory. Much to my wife’s dismay, I decided the best thing to do was visit Bogotá and get the details down. Pablo Escobar was dead, I told her. Bogotá wasn’t as dangerous as the press made it out to be. There was no need to worry. Besides, I had a Colombian friend. I didn’t tell her much about what that friend did for a living. Victor was a Colombian public prosecutor who interviewed suspects and witnesses from behind one-way mirrors with his voice electronically disguised. His colloquial title in Spanish was a “fiscal sin rostro,” which translated to “faceless prosecutor.” Perfect, I thought. I’m going to get so much material. Maybe I was as foolhardy as the hero in my book.

That first night in Bogotá Victor said that maybe I shouldn’t visit him in his office building. No one would probably notice me, but why take chances? Hmmm. I was on my own during the day. Wandering the streets, I soon habituated and stopped worrying about someone putting a knife in me. I was short and my hair was black. I fit in. Right. The wide-eyed guy in bluejeans who toted a backpack displaying a Canadian maple leaf. 

I carried a notebook and a disposable camera. But the pictures couldn’t evince a full sense of Bogotá. I started writing down everything that I saw. I would get it on the page and edit later. Bogotá soon overwhelmed the words. The noise, the smells, the pollution, lines of buses five wide. Hawkers sold food, electrical appliances, umbrellas, and sunglasses. Men sucked in gasoline from Coke bottles and flicked cigarette lighters to spit out fire. A whole noisy street devoted itself to little shops for motorcycles. Another store specialized in rat poisons. I made lists of everything I saw. But I knew I was only capturing a small part.

A local friend arranged a group to see Cartucho. In those special blocks, addicts were free to lay on newspapers while they inhaled basuco, a primitive form of crack. Next to crumbling buildings, many had concocted shelters with garbage bags stuffed with newspaper. We soon arrived at a busy street where a young man lay dead. A photographer in fatigue pants snapped pictures while he smiled and joked with his police colleagues. Beside the squalor were low-end restaurants. On the terrace of one, a teenage waitress glared at us. I took it in and scribbled a few notes. No photographs. In the Cartucho community, pictures were forbidden.

I absorbed the city for seven days. Then went home to Montreal and took years to write the book. Maybe five percent of those great details made it into the manuscript. And when I finally queried agents about my thriller set in Colombia, no one was interested. “That ship has sailed,” one of them said.

But the manuscript survived. Parts of it made their way into Murderabilia, the book Midnight Ink is publishing in July. I converted a scene into a short story and submitted it to the anthology that Sister’s in Crime San Diego is publishing next year. The book will be called Crossing Borders.

You never know when your international adventures will sneak into the fiction you write. It could be tomorrow or twenty years from now. 

William McNary is a private banker who keeps his clients’ secrets — and some of his own. His father is Harvey Dean Kogan, the infamous serial killer known as “The Preying Hands,” responsible for killing thirteen women who abused children in the Chicago area. He brutally butchered them and then arranged their bodies for his disturbing black and white photos. These pictures started the “murderabilia” market, which William can’t seem to escape. Thirty years later, William has carefully constructed his life to exclude his father’s name and history. But a threatening phone call from a man claiming to be his brother shatters his idyllic life and makes him fear for his family’s safety.

Carl Vonderau grew up in Cleveland in a religious family that believed that God could heal all illness. He left that behind him when he went to college at Stanford and studied economics. Somehow, after dabbling in classical guitar, he ended up in banking. Carl lived and worked in Latin America, Canada, and North Africa, and conducted business in Spanish, French and Portuguese. He also secretly wrote crime novels. Now, a full-time author, he also helps nonprofit organizations. He and his wife reside in San Diego, where their two sons live close by. Check out more at

DEBS: I would add that as a writer, you never know when ANY of your adventures will come in handy. But, Carl, I am absolutely fascinated by the picture you've painted of Bogata--I hope a little of that atmosphere made it into MURDERABILIA.  You have a fascinating set up there. And, eternally curious writer that I am, I'd love to know what happened to you friend Victor. Your own story sounds like a book in itself.

And I have to add that I think Carl's cover is just stunning. Did you have any input, Carl?

READERS, stop by and chat with Carl today!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

A Moment of Grace


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: How many moments have you had in you life where your jaw drops, and you cannot believe what you're seeing?  
Take two minutes or so now, and listen to this wonderful tale from the past of our dear Susan Van Kirk--whose fifth mystery,  A Death At Tippett Pond, is brand new this summer!

Let Me Tell You a Story
Susan Van Kirk
I write mysteries that center around the influence of history in the Midwest where I grew up. Galesburg, Illinois, a town of 38,000 in the early 1950s, was where I discovered reading. Each week I walked to the Galesburg Public Library with my mother, an avid reader herself. It was built in 1901—a Carnegie library—and it had a massive, double-wide marble staircase you faced when you walked in the front door. Part of the floor in the second story was made of glass cubes that intrigued my seven-year-old imagination.
But the best part of “my library” was the children’s room, holding marvelous wonders, including a doll house filled with miniature furniture and people. It drew me like a magnet. The front was made of glass so I could only look. Simply peering in at the various tiny miniatures each week was magical. I was in heaven. My mother had to pry me away every visit.
In those days, my father was managing the Drive-In Theatre several miles west of town. Our family spent blissful evenings there in the summer, but one night I have never forgotten: May 9, 1958. We were near the end of the movie, and people began getting out of their cars and looking back toward the east. Eleven years old, I had no idea what was happening. But then, in the inky darkness, I saw fire lighting up the night sky.
Used with permission of the Galesburg Public Library
Immediately, we drove to town where we watched my beloved library, my cherished and second home, engulfed in flames. Hundreds of people were milling behind barricades watching the firemen struggling valiantly to save the building. The crowd was hushed, staring in disbelief. Hardly anyone spoke, tears streaming down their faces. The roof collapsed onto the second floor, and eventually the astonishing second floor—filled with books and glass squares—fell into the ground floor.
They later discovered an exhaust fan in the attic had caught fire. While 40,000 books were salvaged—many water-damaged—the city lost 200,000 books worth half a million dollars. But the most devastating losses of all were four letters signed by Abraham Lincoln and valuable items from the history of the city and the genealogy data of local families.
Used with permission of the Galesburg Register-Mail
Last week I stopped at the replacement library, a modern structure sitting on the same site as my old Carnegie building. On a whim, I stopped in the children’s room to see what it looked like these days. In the middle of the room sat a dollhouse. It seemed familiar. The librarian told me it was the original dollhouse, one of the few things they had saved from the fire that night sixty-one years ago. I think I may have gasped.
I checked it out, fascinated. I saw the tiny rooms just as I remembered them, with the children’s bedroom upstairs, their faithful rocking horse awaiting them. I gazed in wonder, thinking about how my eyes had peered into these same tiny rooms so long ago, decades before I grew up and had children and grandchildren of my own. I touched the glass, the same invisible wall I had touched when I was five or six, and suddenly I was back there in that library with my mom, and we were looking at the perfect reproduction of a well-loved farm home of the 1950s, and pointing out the marvelous miniatures we liked. I could almost hear my mother’s voice.
It brought back a tumbling jumble of happiness reliving those Saturday mornings when my parents were still alive, and my world was smaller and quieter.
A very special moment of grace, indeed.
And you? Have you experienced a moment of grace recently?

HANK: Such a lovely question--and such a pleasant thing to ponder! Reds and Readers?  (And Susan is giving a copy of her new book to one lucky commenter! Another moment of grace.)

Secrets long buried surround the murder of teenage Melanie Tippitt. The daughter of a wealthy family in a small town, her lifeless body was found floating in Tippitt Pond in the summer of 1971. Six people were there that day, and one was convicted of her murder. Case closed.

     Now, forty-five years later, Beth Russell, a freelance researcher and genealogist, is brought to the town by a lawyer who believes Russell is the daughter of Melanie Tippitt and long-lost heir to the Tippitt fortune. Soon Beth finds herself surrounded by people who want her gone as soon as possible, people with a great deal to lose. The more they push the more determined Beth is to discover the truth. The ghostly presence of Melanie Tippitt, a stranger watching from the woods, and the discovery of secrets in Tippitt House make for a suspense-filled investigation where what Beth discovers changes everything,

Susan Van Kirk lives at the center of the universe—the Midwest—and writes during the ridiculously cold, snowy, icy winters. Why leave the house and break something? Her Endurance mysteries are humorous cozies about a retired school teacher in the small town of Endurance who finds herself in the middle of murders. Her new series about Beth Russell combines history and mystery in her debut, A Death at Tippitt Pond. Van Kirk taught for 44 years in high school and college, raised three children, has low blood pressure (a miracle after all that), and is blissfully retired. You can find out about her books at
The color photo :Used with permission of the Galesburg Register-Mail
The black and white photo: Used with permission of the Galesburg Public Library