The New York Times: Footsteps

A curated collection of the New York Times’ travel column, “Footsteps,” exploring iconic authors’ relationships to landmarks and cities around the world

Before Nick Carraway was drawn into Daisy and Gatsby s sparkling, champagne-fueled world in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald vacationed in the French Riviera, where a small green lighthouse winked at ships on the horizon. Before the nameless lovers began their illicit affair in The Lover, Marguerite Duras embarked upon her own scandalous relationship amidst the urban streets of Saigon. And before readers were terrified by a tentacled dragon-man called Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft was enthralled by the Industrial Trust tower– the 26-story skyscraper that makes up the skyline of Providence, Rhode Island.

Based on the popular New York Times travel column, Footsteps is an anthology of literary pilgrimages, exploring the geographic muses behind some of history’s greatest writers. From the “dangerous, dirty and seductive” streets of Naples, the setting for Elena Ferrante’s famous Neapolitan novels, to the “stone arches, creaky oaken doors, and riverside paths” of Oxford, the backdrop for Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, Footsteps takes a fresh approach to literary tourism, appealing to readers and travel enthusiasts alike.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever reviewed a travel book on ILR before. It’s not my style of book at all. However, I was immediately drawn in by the description of faraway places visited by some of the best known authors. Walking in their footsteps is on my bucket list. I’ve recently discovered just how much I long to travel, and since my next big trip isn’t for another year…at least I can read about it, right?

Most of the essays were every bit as romantic as one would hope. Clearly these were written by bibliophiles like myself–readers and dreamers who love to sit in a cafe with a glass of wine in one hand a book in the other, thinking about the author who wrote that novel and the life they led. The mystery has been taken out of it some what nowadays, since we can “meet” our authors on social media. (Not that I am complaining, I will totally watch every single one of your Instastories, don’t you worry about that.) But wouldn’t it be cool to drink tea with Jane Austen?

I didn’t read every single one of the essays, and there were a few I skimmed–mostly because while I recognized and liked most of the authors chosen, there were some I either didn’t recognize or care about. But I might read the one about James Baldwin anytime I read Giovanni’s Room, and the one about Byron and Shelley, while cringey, certainly shed a lot of light on that whole…um…situation.

I’m not sure I’d pick up a book like this if it were on any other subject matter. Just people randomly strolling thru Paris for no particular reason besides travel? Not a collection I’m interested. But add in the author quest and I’m totally down. I know a few friends I will be recommending this to. Should you be one of them?

Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided this book for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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First Time Cruiser’s Review of Oasis of the Seas

When R first broached the subject of going on a cruise, I freaked out more than a little. I tried to talk him out of it, and suggested we do an all inclusive resort instead. It’s the same thing, right, only not surrounded by endless water and people! I already felt claustrophobic and I wasn’t even onboard yet.

However, we had too good of a deal to pass up–so it was now or never. We settled on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the seas Western Caribbean tour–Labadee Haiti, Falmouth Jamaica, and Czumel Mexico. Thus began two months of obsessive research. (I have to give a huge shout out to Matt at RoyalCaribbeanBlog.com because without his site, I never would have felt prepared or comfortable with cruising.)

Oasis of the Seas is a MASSIVE ship. It’s one of the biggest in the world, and more than a few veteran cruisers told us we had spoiled ourselves by not sailing on a smaller class first. It definitely took us a few days to orientate ourselves–thank goodness I had watched so many Youtube tours and already kind of knew what things looked like! She is separated into “neighborhoods”–each with it’s own personality. We could be found in the Royal Promenade and Central Park most often–though I suspect in our next cruise I’ll take more time in the Solarium, too.

Why those two locations? They hold our favorite watering holes–and unlike many cruisers, for us that didn’t mean pools. Have you met us? We have more freckles than the sky has stars. We had two great loves on Oasis:  Schooners and Vintages. If we weren’t in one, we were in the other–and on the rare occasion we separated, we usually met back up at those places.

Schooners holds Trivia every few hours. The topics are random, but we made most of them–and even placed second in the 3 day Progressive trivia! Go Team “Move Over Rose!” (Yes, that IS a Titanic reference on a cruise ship, thank you very much.) The bar has a nautical theme and is draped with ropes, ship decor and mermaid figureheads. Most any drink can be made there, but their official menu leans on old-fashioneds and Tom Collins. My recommendation:  the New-Fashioned, which is a raspberry version!

In the hours before dinner, you could usually find us at Vintages. This bar, placed in Central Park near Chops and Giovannis, feels more upscale than others. And yes, in it you’ll find classy wood cases of outrageously expensive wine (and even the world’s largest bottle of wine). But Royal Caribbean stocks great wine for every budget, and there was at least one of every style for us to drink that met our package requirements. The guys behind the bar were spectacular servers–Xavier, Benjamin, and especially Dali showed us every courtesy while we were there. Dali leads wine tastings on sea days–French, Californian, and Italian–we didn’t do the French and regret it! He’s a proficient teacher–it’s more than just a quick swill, move on sort of tasting. We learned about regions, how to pair with cheeses, how to work with a sommelier–for beginners like us, it was an invaluable experience.

While we are in Central Park, let me tell you about the meal that made me cry. No, I’m not kidding, it actually brought tears to my eyes. I haven’t had a meal do that to me in a long time. Royal Caribbean has become famous for its specialty restaurant of late–they’ve really been building them up more and more. Everyone knows Chops and Sabor–those two came highly recommended. But the fanciest one on Oasis is 150 Central Park. We purchased a First Night Done Right package, which gave us the opportunity to try one restaurant for only $15/per person–but RC had to choose our reservation. And we got 150!

Our meal started with bread and butter…with a twist. The butter was unsalted, and a white flower bowl was delivered. Inside was different salts from around the world–smoky, salty, and one even tasted like hard boiled eggs! You blended the salt with the butter before spreading it on your bread. It was a pretty cool gimmick. Just make sure you clear your knife of the egg one completely, because it will haunt you! BLECH.

The dinner comes with three courses–appetizer, entree, and dessert. I chose tuna tartare, scallops, and a bourbon chocolate tarte. R had squash soup, short ribs…and I think he had the tart too. I was pretty wrapped up in my own meal so I don’t remember his very well. My tartare was good. Not the best I’ve ever had, but good. There was a bit too much sauce, I think, and so it outshone the fish.

The scallops, though. That’s what made me cry. They were done in this smooth, creamy broth that I just wanted to swim in. I could eat that dish forever and still cry over it.

And then…AND THEN. The bourbon chocolate tart. I ate the tiniest bites to make it last as long as possible. I didn’t want it to be over. Every ingredient sang.

The service was wonderful too, and I’m kicking myself right now because I can’t remember the young man’s name. He was delightful and friendly, and started our cruise in such a magical way.

I’ve saved the best service for last. Nothing else on the ship compared to the main dining room in experience. Our waiters, Roman and Noelise introduced themselves as soon as we entered and from then on we were in love. They went out of their way to make us feel like both friends and royalty–a combination that is not easy to accomplish.

Eating in the main dining room was my favorite part of the cruise–and it’s a part of the week I won’t soon forget. The food was amazing of course–but it’s the people that made it truly unforgettable. We were seated at a huge table, and the first night we were there, it was just us and one other couple. They were our age, and we hit it off immediately. The next night, an older couple joined us and we all just fell madly in love with each other. Between the six of us and our two incredible waiters–I’d wager we had the best table of the week, hands down. We all scheduled our events around dinner, and even went to shows together afterwards! On the last night, we all stood in a circle and danced, maybe shed a few tears for the ending week, and gave lots of goodbye hugs.

On cruises, you probably won’t learn everyone’s name that you meet. In fact, you are way more likely to hear “where are you from” than what’s your name?” But it is the stories that you will treasure most as souvenirs. There are 6,000 people on the ship, and you will find some kind of bond with at least two people every day. It’s so easy to be nice–everyone is on vacation–so sit down and have a friendly glass of wine with your shipmate. No one is a stranger on a cruise. Who knows who you’ll meet. You may never see that person again…or you may make a lifelong friend.

And always be kind to your servers. You get to leave after a week. They do this every day without a break for months. It’s hard, exhausting work.

This was long, I know. And I have SO MUCH MORE I want to talk about. Don’t be surprised if you see more about my cruise in the coming weeks. I have so many people asking about it, so I wanted to get some thoughts down right away. Royal Caribbean did not sponsor this–we just really loved our time on Oasis of the Seas. So much that we’ve already booked Harmony of the Seas for next year! It’s going to be a long wait!

If you have questions about my cruise experience or have something you want me to discuss in upcoming posts, leave a comment!

Happy cruising!

Frances Mayes: Under the Tuscan Sun

Frances Mayes—widely published poet, gourmet cook, and travel writer—opens the door to a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. In evocative language, she brings the reader along as she discovers the beauty and simplicity of life in Italy. Mayes also creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes from her traditional kitchen and simple garden, all of which she includes in the book. Doing for Tuscany what M.F.K. Fisher and Peter Mayle did for Provence, Mayes writes about the tastes and pleasures of a foreign country with gusto and passion.

This was the first book I read when I decided to go on hiatus. Blogging for Books had sent me the 20th Anniversary Edition, and since I’d already read it and was in the middle of a couple of challenges, I set it aside. But when I got stuck and needed to recalibrate my brain, there was no better book than Under the Tuscan SunFood, wine, and a big old house? It was just what I needed. Plus, there’s nothing like a reread to get out of a slump.

I’ll hazard a guess that many of you have seen the movie with Diane Lane. It’s one of my favorite feel good chick flicks. I sure wish I could look that good in a white dress, I’ll tell you that much.

Frances Mayes’ real story is nothing like the movie. There’s a big old broken down house called Bramasole. And you’ll recognize tiny bits, like the old man with the flowers and the creepy old pine trees, the Polish wallworkers and the grapes that even smell purple. But this is much more of a travel memoir than rom-com.

It’s every bit as beautiful though. You will want to dive straight into the pages and eat your fill of gnocchi. The produce is so fresh and the wine is overflowing. I NEED to go to Italy right this second.

Alas, I cannot. So I will just have to replace it with reading Frances Mayes’ incredible description of Cortona over and over again. And maybe try and find a white dress.

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Blogging for Books and Broadway Books provided a copy of this book for an unbiased review. This post does contain affiliate links.

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Review: Heads in Beds

Jacob Tomsky never intended to go into the hotel business. As a new college graduate, armed only with a philosophy degree and a singular lack of career direction, he became a valet parker for a large luxury hotel in New Orleans. Yet, rising fast through the ranks, he ended up working in “hospitality” for more than a decade, doing everything from supervising the housekeeping department to manning the front desk at an upscale Manhattan hotel. He’s checked you in, checked you out, separated your white panties from the white bed sheets, parked your car, tasted your room-service meals, cleaned your toilet, denied you a late checkout, given you a wake-up call, eaten M&M’s out of your minibar, laughed at your jokes, and taken your money. In Heads in Beds he pulls back the curtain to expose the crazy and compelling reality of a multi-billion-dollar industry we think we know.

Heads in Beds is a funny, authentic, and irreverent chronicle of the highs and lows of hotel life, told by a keenly observant insider who’s seen it all. Prepare to be amused, shocked, and amazed as he spills the unwritten code of the bellhops, the antics that go on in the valet parking garage, the housekeeping department’s dirty little secrets—not to mention the shameless activities of the guests, who are rarely on their best behavior. Prepare to be moved, too, by his candor about what it’s like to toil in a highly demanding service industry at the luxury level, where people expect to get what they pay for (and often a whole lot more). Employees are poorly paid and frequently abused by coworkers and guests alike, and maintaining a semblance of sanity is a daily challenge.

Along his journey Tomsky also reveals the secrets of the industry, offering easy ways to get what you need from your hotel without any hassle. This book (and a timely proffered twenty-dollar bill) will help you score late checkouts and upgrades, get free stuff galore, and make that pay-per-view charge magically disappear. Thanks to him you’ll know how to get the very best service from any business that makes its money from putting heads in beds. Or, at the very least, you will keep the bellmen from taking your luggage into the camera-free back office and bashing it against the wall repeatedly.

I’ve grown up staying in hotels of varying levels of luxury…mostly less expensive ones, but as I grow older, they have tended to get nicer. The Hubs and I like to treat ourselves to a fancy weekend once a year (we are due for one soon), especially if we have points on our rewards card. It’s always fun to live how The Betters do, if only for a few days.

Heads in Beds is a snarky tell-all of the back of house of those luxury hotels, in New Orleans and New York. Oh, what lovely things the Bellmen and Front Desk clerks and housekeeping staff all think of us guests.

The good news–I now know a ton of secrets on how to get fun upgrades, like how to get a room with a view or wine sent up on a special occasion. The bad? I also feel like an awkward cheapskate, since tipping doesn’t come natural to me, and I never have a huge bankroll of cash laying around–even on our fancy weekends. I’ll have to up my game a little bit though…conservatively.

How do you feel about tipping on your vacations? Do you make it rain, or does it stress you out? Heads in Beds gives some pointers on the best places to tip and how…although I do wish there would have been some scale for those of us who don’t have such serious bank. Still, it was an interesting book, and if you travel often, one you should definitely pick up.

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This post contains affiliate links.

The Golden Chersonese

This is the last “old” book on my Coursera list. I do have one or two more recent ones left, but those are much more fun to read and review. I almost gave this one up–it is written from a very colonial perspective, and at first it came across with a very icky feel to it. There’s historical perspective…and then there is writing about other humans as if they are animals in a zoo.

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I was left with a very bitter sense of distaste and decided to just put it away and take it off my Goodreads list. But, when I went to do so, the first review on the page is from a Malaysian gentleman who recommends strongly that this book be read by all Malaysian adults–so I decided to keep going. If the people of the Malay Peninsula can get past the extreme colonial attitude…so should I.

It did get better. There was still quite a bit of Imperialistic racism, but, once Bird learned more about the culture and people, she did get better about it. There was, however, a bit disconnect for her between Christianity and “The Mohammedians.” I found her commentary intriguing from a historical perspective, and it was interesting to see that the conflict there hasn’t changed much in 200 years, but at times it was hard to take. Maybe it was because it was like looking at the West with a mirror. That is never a good feeling.

On the more positive side, Bird’s descriptions of her surroundings were delightful. She was obviously enthralled with the beauty of the jungle, the bustling cities–Singapore apparently has a LOT of fruit (SO MUCH FRUIT)–and just all of the color that exists in Southeast Asia. For all her faults (the woman thought elephants were ugly!), she is a fantastic travel writer, and while I disagree with her on many things (ELEPHANTS! I mean COME ON WOMAN!), I am glad I continued with this piece. There’s much to be learned about this region by reading The Golden Chersonese–it’s a valuable work of imperial world travel.

 

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Food Philosophy

Anyone who follows me on Instagram or Twitter knows I love to eat.

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Good food, in my book, beats everything. So many memories come out of a good meal. There’s always good conversation–whether you are eating with family, or sitting alone at a pub, talking to a bartender, or fellow beer nerds.

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Everyone’s got to eat, and everyone has a strong opinion about their food. And when the conversation veers away from what is on the plate, topics range anywhere from life to books to politics and back again.

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I will almost never pass on the opportunity for a great meal. And that means I am never going to be a skinny woman. But hey, if good food and better conversation means I am not what society thinks is “beautiful,” than screw them.

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Pass the beer and cheese please.

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Thanks for being patient with me this week! I’m back from vacation, and I have a BUNCH of stuff to post in the next week or so. It was hard being away from the blog, I kept journaling posts to write! 🙂

Stay tuned!

I Grew My Boobs in China

Travelling has always been a great dream of mine, especially international travel. America is wonderful and vast and varying, but aside from a jump across Niagara, I’ve never been out of it.

There’s so much world to see, and the more travel memoirs I read, the more I long to go.

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When I read I Grew My Boobs in China, I was hit with two impressions:

1. Holy crap, I want to smack this super annoying teenager right in the face. Seriously, her whining drove me crazy the entire time. One moment she’d come up with some really deep, well thought out things about how much this trip was changing her…and then boom, she’d start back in on how terrible everything was and how she missed the internet. But…I’m an adult reading a book written by a girl going through puberty in a foreign country with a giant pack strapped to her back. I’d probably whine too if it were me.

2. If Elizabeth Gilbert had a daughter…Savannah Grace would be her. The way she talked about her mom’s journey through divorce–giving up her life, taking off on this epic journey across Asia, that’s what it reminded me of.

I finished this in one day, and thankfully it was a lazy, “do nothing but laundry and read” kind of day, because I couldn’t put this down. I Grew My Boobs in China is only the first part of a 3 part series (at least so far):  Sihpromatum. The first two are on Kindle Unlimited, and you should definitely check them out. I am looking forward to the second book, to see what happened to the family in Russia!