And we’re off!

Happy Friday the 13th readers! Do you believe in any superstitions? As a kid I always avoided sidewalk cracks and spilling salt. I also refused to look into a mirror in the dark because an older cousin (not naming names, *cough* Megan) told me Bloody Mary was going to come get me.

I digress.

What an exciting day yesterday was! Lies in the Darkness is now out into the great big world. I’m sure you can imagine, but book releases are a LOT of work! Writing the book might just be the easy part (kidding–sort of). The marketing really begins months before the release day, but it doesn’t stop once you hit the big red publish button. As a small author, it’s critical that you keep up with your social media, keep generating reviews and engaging with your readers, AS WELL AS get moving on the next book!

We had an incredible, super fun, release party yesterday full of goofy games, good discussions, special guests and a few cocktails! And thanks to my wonderful readers, Lies is quickly climbing the Amazon ranks! How cool would it be if we got into the top 100 and became an Amazon best seller!?

The print version is on its way as well–they just take a little longer to come together. I’m hoping we’ll see print copies live on Amazon by the end of next week.

So what’s next? Well, now it’s back to the computer to work on the next project. I very much owe my loyal fans the sequel to Rebel Song. I promise it’s in the works. Thank you for your patience!

Have a great weekend. Get out and enjoy the sunshine. Happy reading everyone!

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Exciting Announcement–Lies in the Darkness Release!

Now that I’m back in the states, it’s time to get back to business! I’m taking a break from travel to release my new book, Lies in the Darkness, a Contemporary New Adult. The expected release date for Kindle is Monday May 9, if all goes according to plan. Print copies will be available for purchase the following week.

Just like with Rebel Song, it’s been an amazing–and challenging–journey. I’m so excited to finally share my work with my readers!

Stay tuned for more information about the Facebook release party, giveaways and more!

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The Land of 1,000 Pubs

Or 751 to be exact. At just 44 square miles, Dublin proudly boasts 17 pubs per square mile. That’s down from 4,000 about 100 years ago. So, feck yeah, the Irish can drink.

Dublin was a perfect place to end my journey. The Irish and Americans have a special kind of bond. Given that the Irish emigrated to the U.S. en masse following the potato famine of 1845 and then in waves throughout the early 20th century in search of a life better than their warn-torn country, they are delighted to have you in their homeland. They are a big fans of the U.S., especially San Francisco. Telling any young bartender I was from SF elicited a starry-eyed longing and a confession of their plans to move there in the near future.

My time in Dublin was an absolute blast. The Irish are warm and welcoming, hilarious and generous. Every local wants to take you under their wing and show you the “real” Dublin–not some kitschy Temple Bar joint. (Temple Bar, although steeped in history, now mimics Bourbon Street). Dubliners are brilliant story tellers known to break out into song or limerick at any moment. Mosey up to any barstool and you’ll have 10 new best friends within the hour. You’ll laugh, tell stories and throw playful jabs like you were old friends. I’ll tell ya though, it takes a tough skin to take an Irish slagging, their word for relentless sh*t talking. They aren’t PC and don’t hold their tongue around the women folk–the rule is that if you’re in a pub, it’s fair game. According to the locals, I did alright. 🙂

A few bold lines that stood out:

“American Football? Oh, ya mean rugby for women?”

“Now, when ya get the chance to dunk a midget in the Prague River, you don’t say no then, do ya?”

(Ok, a little offensive, but I’m just the reporter here)

Dublin isn’t the culture shock as some other places I’ve been. It’s a modern business hub with loads of young professionals, efficient mass transit, upscale dining and every accommodation you’ll need. With 50% of the population under age 30, youthful vibrancy splashes against a proud cultural legacy. But beneath the modernized exterior, there is still a country battling ancient social demons. Fist settled by the Vikings in the 9th Century, Dublin has seen a thousand years of war. Today, the cloud of English oppression still lingers on the horizon, Catholic-Protestant tensions endure, and relations with the North  remain strained. I was fortunate to visit on the 100th anniversary of the infamous Easter Rising of 1916–a bloody rebel uprising that ignited both the Irish War of Independence and the immediately following, horrific, Irish Civil War.  The treaty that gained the Republic of Ireland their independence also annexed the six northern counties to England, the rule under which they remain today. So despite it’s ancient roots and solid tradition, Ireland has only been a sovereign nation for about 100 years.

Dublin is a fascinating juxtaposition of modern life and archaic religious rules. Facebook and Salesforce bring in progressive tech minds but old ways persist. Although much of the younger generation foregoes Sunday Mass, the country is nearly entirely culturally Catholic. 90 percent of public schools are run by the Catholic Church. Public schools. Openly Protestant? You may have to find one of the 10% non-denominational schools, which creates a lot of resentment among Protestant youth.  Protestant-Catholic marriages are frowned upon and divorce takes four years. Abortion remains illegal and Condoms were illegal until 1992.

Dublin is a writer’s dream. Steeped in intense history, it’s birthed countless literary masters–James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats included. I forewent the pilgrimage to the Guinness Factory and Jameson Distillery and sought out museum after museum, the Dublin castles, Ancient Churches, famous pubs and live Irish music. I attended a Literary Pub Crawl, where two Irish literature enthusiasts take you on a tour of watering holes where the likes of Wilde spent their time, preforming scenes from classic works while a bunch of us English geeks giddily sipped Guinness. Oh, happy days!

Speaking of literary dreams, I also set eyes on the 9th century Book of Kells, perhaps the most valuable book in the world, at Trinity College. Trinity, Ireland’s oldest university, was established in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I as a Protestant university. Catholics were finally admitted in 1793, however from 1956-1970, the Catholic Church forbade its members from attending. Women were finally admitted in 1904.

I thought a week in Dublin would leave me bored but it felt like not nearly enough time. Every pub and street corner has a story to explore. But I did take time to venture out into the countryside and down to the medieval city of Kilkenny. Dipping in and out of rolling emerald hills dottted with unconcerned sheep, I passed by the landscape of countless movies scenes, including Braveheart and P.S. I love You.  In Kilkenny, I had a pint at the Kyteler’s Inn, where in 1324 the female proprietor, Alice de Kyteler, was sentenced to be burned at the stake for witchcraft (or, you know, being a smart, successful female business owner). Alice managed to escape so they tortured, whipped and burned her maid in her stead. The jolly Irish are not immune to horrific crimes.

Anywhoo, Dublin marked the end of an incredible adventure through Europe filled with excitement, new friends, comic mishaps and a healthy shot of frustration–but mostly absolute fun. The travel bug has solidly taken root somewhere in my core and I’m not sure he’s coming out. But that said, I’m looking forward to my own bed, some peace and quiet, a day of Netflixing and some fresh clothes. So, tomorrow I’ll head home, find my bearings with normal life and plot my next adventure.

Anyone thinking about an adventure of their own, stay tuned for some lessons learned.

Sláinte! (That’s cheers in Gaelic)

 

 

 

 

Shh…Don’t Tell Prague

From the moment of arrival, the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, nestled in the mountainous cradle between Italy and Germany, was an absolute delight. I arrived past 11 p.m. due to my Budapest bus debacle but, even in the dead of night, the city was welcoming. The streets were calm; a few pub-hopping pedestrians roamed with mild demeanor but there were no grafitied walls or shifty street-dwellers to darken the scene.

My hostel was a dream. Set a few blocks from the main square, the three story historic home was more like a B & B. I had let them know I would be arriving late and they had laid out my keys, directions, and even made my bed (if you’ve stayed in hostels you know that you’re always responsible for this yourself). Just a nice little touch! Each floor–housing 2-3 suites–had it’s own kitchen, complete with spices and extras you might need to whip up a meal. After weeks of pub food and street vendors, sometimes a homemade salad is all you crave. I lucked out with a four-person room to myself. It was a wonderful little break from the 6-person dorms of that last few countries. You start to get used to it but once you have your own space again it’s DIVINE. For the first time so far, I slept without earplugs and slept like the DEAD. See all those caps? It must be serious.

In the light of a brilliant day, Ljubljana was a storybook dream. A languid river divides rustic medieval alleyways and neo-baroque elegance. The famous Triple Bridge–designed by renowned architect Jože Plečnik of Prague and Vienna fame–brings strolling pedestrians from the architectural dream land of the Prešeren square to the bustling riverside market. From there, the fingers of cozy cobblestone spread to create a web of boutiques, coffee shops, artisan stalls and international eats. A steep, twisting path climbs to the hill-top castle, which although is a little lackluster up close, offers breathtaking panoramic views of the snow-capped Alps.

Like most major European capitals, a McDonald’s and H&M make an obligatory appearance, but it’s far less prominent in tiny Ljubljana. She’s maintained much of her old world sophistication, yet manages to be modern. The streets are impeccably clean, you can’t smoke most places and all the public buildings are eco-friendly. She’s a city where not much seems to happening–not much really did happen to me here–yet the droves of happy locals laughing and chatting at riverside cafes let you know that something more lies beneath her sweet demeanor. Lazy mornings find locals sipping Kava over a threadbare book, women discerningly picking produce from the daily open air market and youths balancing plates of fried sardines, wine and cigarettes in front of food trucks. (The fried sardines are to die for, I must confess). 

Modeled after the City of 100 Golden Spires, she has much of Prague at her soul. But where Prague is the gregarious older sibling strutting for your attention, Ljubljana is the demure younger, quietly going about her day, flattered that you took the time to notice her. It’s a place you could stay awhile–sit by the river with some honey wine and a good book–and all time might slip away. My time here was brief, but I leave with not the feeling of goodbye–but rather, I’ll see you again soon. Don’t tell Prague, but she may have competition for my love.
I left Ljubljana a little melancholy but also filled with eager anticipation for my next stop–VENICE!

 

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Vienna, the city of Opera, Mozart and…smoky jazz bars?

In a deep-set basement, smoke curls around tumblers of inexpensive Viennese wine. An eager young woman deftly strokes each ivory key, making the piano sing a sultry jazz melody. Discerning old men in dated fedoras nod approvingly while rowdy college boys cheer her on. A pink-faced bartender in suspenders, bow tie and a nose ring happily doles out generous portions of tasty 2 euro wines to the rustic crowd. It’s something reminiscent of a swank gin joint but with a hipster flair. This is Vienna, music capital of the world. But this isn’t Mozart. This is not quite the Vienna I pictured. I came to this little underground joint by means of my in-the-know German roommates. Perfectly safe, but it’s in a local neighborhood no guide book will ever take you to–not even my trusty Rick Steves. But it’s a perfect showcase on how Vienna bleeds music. Whether fine-tuned classicists, operatic baritones or a young pianist with a passion for making the house dance, music is at the heart of this city.

Austria’s capital was one of those cities I wasn’t DYING to see. My thoughts were that it was stuffy and snooty and you’d only get the most of it if you had the money for box seats at the Opera House. And yes, it’s pricier as a whole than say Prague, but it’s a very livable city with plenty of sights to see and things to do that won’t crack your budget. Viennese wine is tasty and cheap, street food is plentiful and classy pubs catering to local youth and young professionals are in abundance. Maybe you’re meal won’t be $2, but you can easily have a sizable meal with wine for under $8.

On my quick two day visit, I started by walking the city’s old town. Like all of Europe, of course it suffered at the hands of Nazi occupation. But did you know that Hitler was Austrian born? He was actually a failed artist in his youth–perhaps his shortcomings in such a glorious mecca of achievements gave him a complex. During the war, instead of occupying and annihilating Austria, Hitler just absorbed it as part of Germany. Like Berlin, the country was divided up into U.S. and Soviet territories following the war. They earned their sovereignty in 1955. Today, Viennese are very sensitive about it if you refer to them as Germans as they have been a powerful European force for 1,000–long before Germany was even on the map.

Although most Viennese would probably like to forget Hitler once called it home, the city boasts a legion of other great minds: Mozart, Beethoven and Freud to name a few.

I visited the palaces of the remarkable Hapsburg dynasty–a family that ruled for roughly 400 years, shaping much of Europe. The ill-fated Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter of ruling Hapsburgs, for example. I peeked at some thought provoking art and toured the world-famous opera house. Sadly, because of the Easter holiday, there were no shows. Although, aside from first-come standing room tickets (for an incredible $4) tickets are pretty much sold out a year in advance. My tour guide told me there are some Viennese who attend the opera nearly every night. Yikes–that’s a city that loves music!

A side note on Easter in Europe: Whatever your divine beliefs, there is something quite powerful about being in a strongly Catholic place like Vienna on Good Friday. The extravagant cathedrals are brimming with teary-eyed pilgrims overwhelmed with humility and joy by this significant time of year. It’s something to see.

Today, Vienna is a thriving, bustling city with high-end shopping, pristine streets, sumptuous architecture and a sophisticated youth culture. Young people attend classical concerts and frequent museums not because of a school assignment, but because…well, doesn’t everyone?

Locals are polite, excited about life and curious about the world. They want to know where you’re from, why you’re there, what you do. Street peddlers are aggressive here and avoiding them is an art form. Men dressed in half-assed 18th century coats aggressively recruit you to their “classical” concerts (over priced tourist shows where inexperienced musicians in Mozart costumes put on a show).  Shop keeps selling touristy trinkets will all but chase you if you say you’re not interested.

If you’re ever here, don’t miss the Naschmarkt. Dating back to the 16th century, this one-mile bazaar features 120 stalls of produce, spices, food vendors, wine bars, shopping, fish markets and more. It’s packed with gawking tourists and serious local chefs out to pick up their supplies. Eager vendors thrust samples in your face as you walk by and compete with the guy across the aisle for your business. It’s a great place to buy delicious local snacks, or just sit and sip a wine and people watch.

Although I saw the sights I came to see, I slightly wish I’d given Vienna another day or so just to take in the pleasant, relaxed lifestyle. It’s refreshing to sit down and be able to write a happy post after the gravity of my previous experience.

Tomorrow I’m headed to Slovakia!

The Imperial Palace.

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Inside the Opera House.

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Couldn’t resist. This is the FANCIEST McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. This actually doesn’t even do it justice.

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Paradigm Shattered

Grey clouds wept over the Polish countryside as I left on a bus from Krakow to visit one of the most infamous sites of mass murder: Auschwitz- Birkenau Concentration Camp. Between 1941-1945, 1.1 million innocent people were systematically murdered here: Jews, Roma, Poles, and prisoners of war. Trying to explain the impact of Auschwitz in way that will truly penetrate with the impact it deserves is futile–there is nothing that can prepare you for it. But I’ll try.

To say that Auschwitz was sobering is an injustice to the horror. The camp emerges from the rolling hills a tangle of barbed wire and cold brick. Muddy paths where millions of prisoners marched to their torment and eventual death lead to the ominous front gates. Arbeit Macht Frei, reads the twisted lettering. “Work sets you free.” A mocking overture to those with no way out but the gas chamber. Death still dances across the vast expanse of this former Polish military compound. Foreshadowing crows cah at passerbyers from skeleton trees above. The ghosts are very present here and the Polish people want it that way. They want the graphic knowledge of the atrocities committed here burned into your memory so that the world never repeats what happened on this soil.

Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp in the Nazi system and remains the most important and moving sight of the Holocaust. There are actually two main camps: Auschwitz I and Birkenau. The first camp, first meant to house Polish opposition during the early years of Nazi occupation, quickly filled to capacity once Hitler began collecting prisoners from around Europe. Birkenau–just down the road–was built to hold 200,000 prisoners at one time.

You will see bone-chilling sights here that will scrape the core of your existence. Photographs of emaciated children will haunt you. Images of 50-pound naked women undergoing mad science experiments will curdle your blood. Tiny baby shoes say everything without words. A room surrounded by floor-to ceiling glass cases showcasing 8 tons human hair shorn from female victims before they stepped into the gas chamber will turn your stomach to bile.

Women and children were typically killed instantly upon arrival at Auschwitz. Some were kept alive for medical experiments. Nazi doctors were particularly interested in practicing sterilization and fertility techniques on the women and genetic experiments on the children. Occasionally a young child, if blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, might be sent to live with a childless German family. Men physically fit to work were sent to the labor side of the camp, where they faced 12-14 days of hard manual labor on a few hundred calories per day. They slept 3-6 to a single twin-size bed and had no running water. The average life expectancy was two months. Prisoners who defied orders or refused to work were subjected to any number of punishments and death sentences– forced to stand in the snow naked and doused with water, sealed in a brick compartment with no air, put in a cell and left to starve. If you were lucky, you were shot, hanged or gassed. Right, lucky.

What I’m telling you is pretty horrific, I know. But it doesn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage you to learn more. Hell, visit this place if you ever have the chance. It will change your paradigm forever. It was raining, cold, and muddy and I became famished half way through the visit. But I stood in my down jacket and heavy boots, tickled by a spring rain, a few hours departed from a hearty breakfast and felt guilty for my mild discomfort. At the sight of the crematorium, capable of incinerating 4,500 bodies a day, I knelt and wept a little.

When the end of the war was inevitable, the Nazis destroyed much of the evidence to the horrors committed here. They bombed the crematorium and gas chamber (one still remains), and tried to dispose of many of the torture devices, but much of the evidence was recovered. Auschwitz was liberated in 1945, but by then more than a million people had been murdered here.

I left Auschwitz with a heavy heart but an enlightened mind. I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same. I came back to Krakow and spent some time enjoying the simple pleasures of the evening market–a warm cup of wine and hot soup, a faint violin, the moon’s reflection over St. Mary’s, buying some warm wool socks.
Polish children are required to visit Auschwitz on field trip. I can only imagine what kind of emotional toll that takes on a young person. But as George Santayana said, those who cannot understand the past are condemned to repeat it.

 

East Meets West, and Onward to Prague

(Note: This is from yesterday, 3.14, but I didn’t get a chance to post)

Today I saw a different face of Berlin–a slightly more rested, put together face. I ventured to the West side, which although still sporting some scars of WWII bombings, saw a different fate during the Cold War years. Quick history lesson: Following the end of WWII, Germany was divided into four sides: The United States, England and France took control of the west while The Soviet Union absorbed the east. Berlin, despite being in the east, was similarly divided as the seat of power. In 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected to keep those in East from escaping into the rapidly modernizing, capitalist west. In fact, hundreds died trying to escape over the wall. The West began to heal from the Nazi wounds–embracing western ideals, cinema, and budding alternative lifestyles. The East fell into Communist oppression. The wall finally came down in 1989, uniting Germany once again. Ok, enough history. But the traces of this divide are still very present. Today, West Berlin is a metropolis of modern, globalized commerce. Forever 21 and Mercedes dealerships stand beside couture boutiques. Colorful “gypsies” prey on wealthy tourists. And as if to highlight the stark contrast even more, the sun decided to come out to play today–making the 40 degree weather feel like summer.

Side note about the gypsies (the Roma to be PC)–they have truly perfected the art of begging. It’s fairly entertaining to watch them work. In colorful headscarves, flowing skirts and fluorescent high heels (not kidding), they aggressively thrust their cups into passerbyers’ faces and plead with hapless eyes. They don’t take no for an answer either. One particularly aggressive, and actually a little creepy, woman dressed all in white with her entire face painted white approached me as I sat on a bench and made kissy noises in my face repeatedly. It took a solid five “NO!”s before she moved on. I suppose they figure if they badger you enough with bizarre behavior you’ll throw them a Euro to move on. I don’t play along. Another common scam in touristy zones is for a woman in headscarf pushing a baby stroller to approach you and ask if you speak English. When you say yes, she shows you a sign in English explaining that she is a destitute refugee of Bosnia. The baby is a nice touch, and you MIGHT be tempted to help her out–if five of her identical friends weren’t circling the square doing the exact same thing. But, the fact that the signs are in English and not German means they know their victims! (I mean audience).

Following my brush with the modern Berlin, I took on the German history museum. Cue the depression once again. The conflict in this country stretches back to recent history. Like most of Europe, wars of territory and succession have plagued the German people. But these poor folks just can’t seem to get much reprieve. What’s fascinating is to see how WWII came to pass. The reality is the stage was set half a decade earlier–one failed leadership decision after another led to a country in socio-economic crisis. Unemployed, frightened and disenfranchised they turned to a charismatic leader promising change. Oops.

After a few hours with the history of Germany I needed some sunshine in my life. I wanted something warm and fuzzy, boots of beer, lederhosen and silly hats–Disney does Germany. I found it. I also found all the Americans. I moseyed into a “traditional” German bierhaus with servers dressed in costume serving liters of beer to eager 20-somethings. Faux snow-capped trees and and a German band completed the ambiance. Yes, it was silly and kitschy, but it was some much-needed fun and great people watching.

After that I tracked down some traditional German fare and scored when I found a cozy place that had vegetarian schnitzel!

I’m attempting to practice a few German words out and about but my accent must be atrocious because waiters and shop keeps can’t even understand a simple “Danke” coming from my mouth. Sigh…

Tonight I headed back to the hostel’s cozy living room to find it bustling with travelers escaping the frozen evening. Beneath cheesy strobe lights and to the beat of American pop, we threw back a few, played cards, grilled each other on our homeland and swapped travel stories. I now have news friends from Singapore, the UK and Argentina! I’m typically the oldest of the crowd and they youngin’s find it fascinating that I’m traveling alone, especially at “my age.” Bless their hearts. I’m giving them inspiration that life doesn’t end after 30. 🙂 Although I do wished I had taken the time to dance across the globe right out of school, there is something to be said about jet-setting with a little more savvy in your pocket. I know things now. I’m prepared with a few more street smarts. I appreciate things that might have been lost on me as a younger monkey. I understand the value of sleep. 
Well Berlin, you weren’t my favorite place, but we made some memories. Tomorrow it’s off to Prague!

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The glitizer West.

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German Art.

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Creepy “ghost” beggar.

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Berlin Wall, Topography of Terror and Auf Wiedersehen the things you know

Berlin is a city still mourning its somber past. Dismay gray skies spread over an expanse of graffitied walls and WWII rubble. Solemn monuments to countless victims stand beside modern high-rise buildings. It’s to-the-bone cold and the sun keeps its distance. But for a city with as many ghosts and Berlin, perhaps that’s only fitting.

To be honest, I’m having a hard time connecting with Berlin. It’s a different Europe than what I’ve come to know and love. It’s a city that’s both ancient and new, having been torn apart and reformed over and over again. It still has the feeling of a city trying to reinvent itself. There are no ostentatious cathedrals and medieval castles. No trees or gardens. Everything is gray. It’s big and confusing and crowded. Around every turn there is a reminder to the atrocities committed on her soil. I guess you could say it’s a little depressing. Much of Berlin was completely destroyed during the war so many of it’s historic sites are merely crumbled concrete honored with small monuments. Not to say that there isn’t a ton to take in. I did stand beside what’s left of the Berlin Wall, crossed over Cold War top sight, Checkpoint Charlie, and stood on Hitler’s suicide spot (morbid, I know, but it’s marked with a plaque). I do live for history so there is plenty to occupy my mind, if not much to see.  I will add though, seeing the aftermath of a country torn apart by decades of conflict has given me lots of thought while writing Rebel Song book 2!

Of course we all know about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the war that wiped out three percent of the world’s population (60 million deaths, in case you didn’t know), but being here brings it right to the gut. The Germans have decided to own their mistakes and now boldly honor those murdered at the hands of the Nazi regime. The Topography of Terror stands on the former Gestapo bunker showcasing hundreds of graphic photographs from the Nazi years–cold, hard proof of the horrors humans are capable of. The images of mass executions–of women, children and the elderly–would take down even the most hardened heart. One thing I learned more about is the millions of non-Jews also targeted by the Fuhrer. The Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) were enemy number 2. Then he went after the gays, followed by the mentally ill and physically disabled. Really anyone who was incapable of work for whatever reason was “exterminated.” It’s terrifying to see and read about how someone like Hitler could rise to power. I guess it puts Trump into perspective (does it though??) I won’t ramble on and depress all of you, but I suppose it’s weighing heavily on me at the moment. The juxtaposition of rowdy spring-breakers gleefully skipping past all that horror on their way to the techno club is unsettling.

My time here hasn’t been all so depressing though. I made a few Australian hostel friends (my own age, gasp!) and we hit up a few bawdy, stein raising pubs. Us responsible adults called it a night as they 20-somethings were just leaving for the clubs. And they returned to the hostel as I was having my morning coffee. Nothing like bunking with a bunch of college kids to remind that you that you are very much an adult. 🙂

Today I did my own version of a hop-on, hop-off tour on the Underground. For 6 Euros you get an unlimited day pass that whips you anywhere you want to go in the city. Once you spend a little time to figure out the routes it’s a fantastic (and cheap!) way to see all the sights. I grabbed some curry noodles from a street vendor and sat at the busy Alexanderplatz square and watched Berlin go about its day. The food in Berlin is pretty delicious, although sadly not much traditional German fare is vegetarian friendly. Luckily the ethnic street food is belly rumbling yummy!

I find I’m really enjoying solo travel hostel life. My current place is in an old historic building, with a cozy library for a lounge, complete with a little bar. Hostelers kill time sipping pilsners, reading, playing games with each other and chatting up strangers. By the end of happy hour you can have new friends from Buenos Ares to Sydney. Your room is a revolving door of travelers and you never know who you’ll find when you walk in each day. Tonight I’m bunking with a chipper British nurse and her little brother and a solo South Korean girl who doesn’t really speak English. She also has a suitcase with her the size of my Berkeley apartment, which is somewhat bizarre for a hostel filled with backpackers. The beds are cushy and comfy, the atmosphere is warm and the energy sizzles. Some are here for a quick boys’ weekend away, some have been here for months (the red-eyes and overgrown beards give it away). The nice thing about hostels is that no matter where they’re from or even what age, they are (mostly) your ilk for the sheer fact that they care about travel the way you do.

On a final note, a funny things happens when you travel like this: You stop caring about perfection. My hair has been in a bun for days, a mani-pedi would definitely be in order and I’m living in leggings and combat boots. But who cares what you look like when you’re staring down a Holocaust memorial?! It’s not just about appearance though. You stop caring about things in general being so perfect. So you got off on the wrong metro stop. Whatever. You get back on. You overslept? Ok, adjust your itinerary and move on. Blog post has a typo? I was too busy moving on to the next site to proofread (please do forgive the typos though. I’m a bit bleary eyed at the end of my days). It’s a freeing way to move about. When you don’t sweat the small stuff, you find you just learn to just embrace each moment for what it is. And you might have an unexpected adventure!

It’s below freezing on the bleak Berlin streets tonight so I’m cozied up in bed calling it an early night. This backpacking thing is exhausting!

Gute Nacht!

  

   
   The remainder of the Berlin Wall.

  New Aussie friends!

  Checkpoint Charlie

  

  


  Memorial to the six million murdered Jews.

  

 

 

 

 

 

Why are teenagers the WORST?

Although I’ve been lucky enough to score a dorm room all to myself, said room is wedged in the center of large dorms packed with a field trip of hipster teens gleefully shrieking in Germanic hyperbole. My jaded self can’t possibly imagine what cause they have to be so excited about anything.

I’m only teasing. Admittedly they are kind of annoying me, especially as their shrieks rattle in my ear as I’m trying to sleep (I am apparently the only person in Amsterdam who values an early-to-bed, early-to-rise agenda, sigh), but I’m actually a bit envious of their unbridled excitement about anything and everything. They run about the hostel–free of authoritative chains–and stumble in at all hours of the night. They sport tee-shirts with American slogans and sing Taylor Swift songs in unison. They are excited about Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Actually, I admire their optimistic paradigms so much, It breaks my heart to have to tell them to shut the &*^% up after midnight. 🙂

Today was filled with things authentically DUTCH. After catching up on much needed sleep (an unprecedented 10 hours!), I trekked across the entire city to the famous Amsterdam Central train station, checking out some cathedrals along the way. Although the Dutch architecture is something out of a storybook, the churches and city buildings don’t boast the same grandiose as those of Barcelona or Paris. The Dutch are more understated in all things. Widely protestant and anti-royal, Dutch culture radiates casual, progressive and inclusive. There is a even a monument dedicated to persecuted gays, and many establishments–not just gay-specific ones–proudly wave the rainbow flag to show their acceptance.

 

Anyway. Walking a total of 15 miles today, I veered off the tourist track to the quaint bohemian Jordan district. (Thanks Rick Steves for the free audioguide! Seriously, guys, he’s the BEST). Although there are cars in this city, the narrow, canal-lined streets aren’t conducive to motorized traffic. Amsterdam’s 800,000 residents own more than 800,000 bikes. It’s the main method of transportation in this Venice-like city and the residents here have perfected it to an art. It’s actually terrifying as commuting bicyclists whoosh by from every angle without consideration of pedestrian traffic. The bikes always have the right away here. I’ve seen businessmen talking on cell phones on bikes, people with groceries in little baskets, a mother with one child in a baby seat behind and one riding the handle bars. It’s impressive. And the Dutch are remarkably fit! Not an overweight person in site. They are also environmentally conscious and do everything to minimize their carbon footprint. I’m really loving this city!

I tried my first pickled herring sammy, complete with pickles and a heaping pile of onions. It was actually quite yummy–can’t say what it did to my breath though, yikes. Then I spent a couple of hours relaxing in Vondelpark–an expansive city park with an impressive lake, miles of greenery bursting with spring colors, and a of course a couple of little bars to waste away a sunny afternoon with a Hoegaarden. The Dutch don’t take life so seriously all the time–it’s really refreshing.

My final adventure to my packed day was a journey to the infamous Red Light District–Amsterdam’s seedy underbelly where anything goes. Full prepared to what I was to see (and coming from San Francisco) I can’t say I was SHOCKED by any means, but it’s certainly a bizarre experience. Scantily clad ladies of the night stand in street-level windows displaying their wares to passing buyers. Sex shops and leather daddy fetish bars cozy up to “coffeeshops” (weed bars) and “smart shops” (stores selling psychedelic drugs), and it’s all perfectly legal and regulated. It’s actually fascinating to see how the Dutch have approached what they consider harmless crimes. When you take out the illegality to prostitution and minor “harmless” drugs, you eliminate pimps, the spread of venereal disease, drug lords and trafficking. For being a sleazy hood, the Red Light District is actually a clean, well-lit and camera monitored corridor filled with funky character.

Tomorrow is my final day and I’m kicking it off at the Anne Frank House before boarding a six-hour train to Berlin. Prost!

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Interview with Author Ben Starling

Happy Groundhog Day everyone! Those of you on the East Coast are probably hoping for a cloudy day! Out here in California, we’re all dancing for the rain to keep on coming.

Today I have the honor of chatting with Ben Starling, author of the romantic Something series.

Welcome, Ben! Tell us something new about yourself. What’s important to you?

I’ve spent a lot of my life by the ocean, or by lakes and rivers. I’ve always been fascinated by the complexity of aquatic habitats. The beauty of many of the animals that make it home is just breath-taking. Watching the sun set over water is one of the most restorative experiences I know of (margarita in hand). And a dip in a freshwater lake, one of the most invigorating!

What kind of sports do you like, Ben?

I boxed on an off for many years and competed until quite recently. I also taught the sport at various clubs and gyms. I always wanted to be good at tennis, but the only shots I perfected were the double fault and the unforced error. Now I enjoy hiking, jumping rope, occasionally I lift weights and shadow box.

Why did you write Something in the Water?

I have a deep love of story-telling. I’ve always found music is easier to absorb than reading. But a good book stays with you for life. Something in the Water was a hugely rewarding challenge because I set myself several goals: I wanted the love story to drive the plot, but I wanted the book to do other things too. By intertwining three plots (ambitious, I know!), it allowed me to explore several important themes, including environmental conservation and spirituality. My hope is that readers will not just be moved by it, but might view life a little differently after as well.

I understand you wrote your novel from a woman’s perspective. How did you go about this and why did you try?

It was a journey of discovery—Teal arrived in my head nearly fully formed and I just had to sit down and write her story. She was determined, ambitious, caring and sincere. I imagined myself asking her questions and then tried to listen carefully to her answers. This activity (in several journals!) gave me the opportunity to develop a complex, vulnerable and evolving character. When I later reflected on this process, I found myself questioning so many assumptions about women, how men treat them, their role in society…and once you’ve been through this process, you certainly change your attitude.

If Something in the Water was made into a film, which actress would play Teal?

I hope either Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Lawrence one day could bring Teal to life. They are such skilled actors—it would be fascinating to see what they would do with the role.

What advice would you give someone embarking on a writing career?

Do it for the love. Because few things feel better than making a reader cry…with joy, or with sorrow.

Tell me something unexpected about Ben Starling.

When I was twelve, I won an inter-schools javelin competition with the first throw of a javelin, in my life. Like a hole in one, in golf, I suppose!

What’s next for Ben Starling?

Sleep.

I can relate to that! And after that?

Something in the Water is supported by a series of short stories that reveal the backstories of the major characters in this world. A few words of warning: Expect the unexpected!

The first in the series, Something in the Air, is available now free at my website, as well as free on Kobo (also available at Amazon) and the second short story in the series, Something on the Fly, will be released in the Spring!

Something in the Water available on Amazon http://bit.ly/SITWbtour2am

Something in the Air

Something on the Fly – coming soon!

 

Here is an excerpt from Something in the Water. 

Something in the Water – Chapter 1 begins…

New York, September

He didn’t look like the hotel guests, the business people, or the tourists. He didn’t move like them either.

He brushed past me as I climbed off my Vespa, stilettos in hand, outside the entrance of the Waldorf Astoria. Had he smiled at the radiance of my scarlet ball gown? Or was he amused by my battered Converse sneakers?

As a valet approached to take my scooter and helmet, I spotted my boss, Malcolm, waving hello from the lobby. He was approaching the glass doors that separated us when I noticed a small wooden box on the ground. Two steps later, I had picked it up. Who could have dropped it?

No one was close by, so I turned. The only man who’d passed me was already a half block away, gliding beside the cars that waited for the lights to change at the end of the block. Was it his?

What I knew for sure was that now wasn’t the time to be tracking down the little box’s owner. I should hand it in to reception and concentrate on the evening ahead. For a few seconds, I relaxed as I studied the hotel’s confident, soaring opulence—a world unknown to me before my arrival from Nantucket four years ago. The smooth texture of the box, however, drew my thoughts back to it. Was there something valuable inside? What if it did belong to that man, and he never returned to collect it? I turned the box over—and caught my breath.

“How on earth…?”

Malcolm emerged in front of me. “Hello, darling, you look absolutely—are you okay?”
I thrust my sparkly evening shoes into his hands, and hitched up my shawl. I was about to give chase when a convertible Ferrari lurched to a stop beside me.

“Going my way, babe?” its driver shouted, over the thrum of the engine.

But my dress was redder, and I got the better start.

You can find the rest of Something in the Water, Chapter 1 at http://ben-starling.com/chapter-one/

About Ben

Ben Starling is passionate about marine conservation and boxing, both central themes in his upcoming novel. His interest in marine life has taken him across three continents over the past three decades. He is Oxford’s only ever Quintuple Blue (varsity champion five years running), was Captain of the university boxing team, and coached and boxed competitively until about five years ago. He is 6’3”and 192 lbs. Ben graduated from Oxford University with a Master of Arts and a Master of Philosophy. He was born in the USA but has lived in the UK since childhood.

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