Friday, September 26, 2014


It’s everywhere & it hits every sense, sometimes all at once.

You can’t just walk by a patisserie with the aroma of fresh-baked petits pains au chocolat. You breathe in the fragrance, you see the displays of breads & pastries in the window, & if you’re like me, you buy a petit pain so you can hold it, warm & flaky, & bite into perfection that melts on the tongue. Pass it down with strong coffee (yes, my two loves: coffee & chocolate).

A moment of indecision: keep walking or sit at a small table?

I set down my little package & coffee gratefully, & add people-watching to the pleasures.

Living, breathing, walking art. French people know how to dress, how to make the most of what they’ve got. They invented the wonderful term: beaute laide, or ugly beauty. Someone who is not classically, symmetrically beautiful, but who has a je ne sais quoi that creates the illusion of beauty, or something more. I see it in the movie stars they love & in the people who pass me. My unofficial verdict? The art of dressing well & looking French is a mix of two things: the appearance of utter confidence & utter effortlessness. Note I said “appearance.” Your hair falls in softly tousled waves, your top shirt buttons are open because you can’t be bothered, your make-up subtle because who has time … but your skirt and jacket fit like gloves, & your shoes & accessories are gorgeous. Unforced elegance.

A city of museums, cathedrals, fashion, ethnic neighborhoods—a city that values the art of being human. Around every corner you stumble into art. And by art, I mean not only the magnificence of the sculptures & paintings at the museums that fill this city, but the heightening of daily life, the awareness that life itself is an art, & that every moment deserves focus & awareness.

The small church of St. Severin. After the massive, gloomy hunchback-haunted grandeur of Notre-Dame, St. Severin seems cozy—if you can say that about a dark church. What I like are the columns shaped like palm trees & the abstract vivid stained glass windows, the straw-woven chairs that evoke the Mediterranean.

The waitresses dressed in beautifully fitted black & white at the wonderful, touristy Relais de l’Entrecote. Smiling & precise, as if moving through the steps of a dance only they hear, they set the red, green, blue & yellow tables. Outside, on the sidewalk, the line forms to wait for 7:00, when they can enter to eat steak & fries.

On a weekday night the cafes are crowded with people drinking good wine & eating under bright moon, talking & laughing. Savoir vivre—the art of living life. An art I wish we’d remember more often in the States.

Enter the Hotel Sully near the Bastille, walk through to the garden, & you will emerge in the Place de Vosges, Paris’s oldest square, lined by a mysteriously shadowed corridor. Keep walking, & you find yourself in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter. Now a network of trendy stores, galleries & cafes, but there is the wonderful surprise of the rue des Rosiers with its Hebrew signs, store windows with sacred books, & tiny restaurants offering kosher falafel & shwarma, just like in Jerusalem. Stand in line at l’As de Falafel with a dozen others, buy a falafel in pita stuffed to the brim, take it to a small shady park around the corner, & sit on a bench for more people-watching. Paris—like every European city—is multicultural, & I hear French spoke in many different accents.

I wander through the Musee d’Orsay—one of the most breathtaking museums in the world—and wander back out, dazed by the lights in Van Gogh’s Starry Night & Carpeaux’ smiling marble dancers, to the banks of the Seine, where vendors sell old books, magazines, posters & postcards, & lovers kiss on the steps leading to the river. I have the urge to dance up & down the steps like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris.

Instead I sit on the top step, chin in hand, & stare at the sun setting over the Seine.  

But I can’t stop my feet from tapping out the melody.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

ANTWERP: Solid Magic

Rubens' Bed

This town is exactly the right size—not too large, not too small. The Butchers’ Hall (built in 1501) is one of the most impressive buildings, its small red & beige bricks echoing the colors of bacon. At one side of City Hall, other Guilds are lined up in narrow buildings. The Artists rent a floor in another Guild. Clearly, they are not as important as the Butchers. 

The legend that defines the city is that of Brabo, the mythical hero who decided to fight the giant who lived in the River Scheldt & who’d been terrorizing the inhabitants. After Brabo tore off the giant’s head, he ripped off the giant’s hand & tossed it into the river. The hand is the symbol of Antwerp. Ant = hand. Werp = to throw. You find the hand all through town. Its most delicious form is in small chocolate. Inside the chocolate hand is a mixture of marzipan & liquor of Anvers, which is supposed to have six healing  (& aphrodisiac) qualities. I can’t vouch for that, but I can say that the chocolate hand was exquisite, like much of the chocolate here, including the fantastical creations of the chocolate chef at the Imperial Café who oversees Napoleon’s former kitchen.

Waffles, powdered sugar, & chocolate are Pied Pipers that lead us down the web of cobbled streets. When the stomach is full & satisfied—frites dipped in mayonnaise; mussels; waffles smothered with fruits, chocolates & whipped cream; chocolates, of course; and hundreds of varieties of beer—then, the spirit can soar.

A few of my favorite places:

Plantinus Maretus-- a family dynasty of printers whose house is now a museum that includes the oldest printing presses in the world, dating from 1600. The motto of Golden Compasses, their printing shop, “Work and Persevere,” could be the motto of the entire town. 

The Antwerp Train Station (seen above, at a diagonal)—grand & luminous, reputed to be the most beautiful in the world. The Gothic arches of the cathedral in the heart of the old town. Both rise toward the sky, but both are grounded in solid earth. 

The Mas Museum—an eccentric, eclectic collection of themed art exhibits. From the roof you can see all of Antwerp, from the old town to the port.

St. Paul’s Church, formerly a Dominican monastery (from 1256-1796)—a refuge of complete serenity.

Rubens' house. Rubens himself is the patron saint of Antwerp, the brilliant, lusty human embodiment of Brabo. Here, we see the artist as wealthy investor & prominent citizen of his town. No freezing artist’s garret for our Rubens. His house is enormous—he merged two houses & connected them with a garden—wonderfully organized, yet bursting with fig & orange trees—that echoes the garden at Plantinus Maretus (the printer whose son was a friend of Rubens). The wood in Rubens’ house is dark, the furniture as solid & earthy as the artist. At 53, he married his second wife, the 16 year-old Helena, a widow herself who’d posed nude for him. After Rubens died ten years later, leaving her a wealthy widow with five children, Helena married again—a man ten years younger. I want to know more about her!   

Walking in Antwerp, past the old town & crowded Meir Street with its Esprit, H&M, Starbucks, & the other symbols of Western consumerism, I find a gold & red Chinese archway leading into Chinatown, & smaller markets & streets—women wearing hijabs push children in carriages, men smoke outside Turkish cafes, an African man in a lime-green suit sings in lilting English, “Jesus touched me! Something happened to me today!”

A sudden memory: Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant, tormented novel, Villette, which takes place in Brussels, where she spent a love-agonized year. Who can forget Lucy Snowe’s unrequited passion for her teacher, the mercurial, moody M. Heger, who sees through her plain, subdued exterior to the wild heart bursting to be set free? I remember my professor's dismissive comment: "All this emotion in placid Belgium?"

But all you have to do is wander the cobbled streets & surprising gardens, bite into a chocolate hand, tilt your head back & stare at the luminous roof of the train station or the spire of the cathedral or even the roof of the Butchers' Hall, or stand before Rubens’ sensual & vibrant paintings of the flesh to know there is nothing placid about Belgium. In Rubens' house, the three-headed marble statue of the goddess Hecate watches over the vast underground workshop where he created masterpieces & the tiny red velvet covered bed where he sat up all night & dreamed magic.

The Butchers' Hall

Monday, September 15, 2014

Being a Travel Writer

We are fortunate to have a guest post by my friend & colleague, the talented, multi-published author who has written about everything from ghost-hunting & serial killers to Anne Rice's vampires. Take it away, Katherine! 

By Katherine Ramsland

I never aspired to be a travel writer, but I love to travel and I write nonfiction, so it was inevitable that the two would merge. For the past year, I’ve published monthly “Crime-trotting” columns for Darlene Perrone’s Destinations Travel Magazine online. This opportunity developed from sheer serendipity.

I met Darlene at the Bedford Springs Resort Hotel in Pennsylvania. Not long afterward, a mutual friend told me that Darlene was looking for writers. Since I was on my way to New Mexico for a Georgia O’Keeffe pilgrimage at Ghost Ranch, I pitched it to Darlene.

I figured that not many people had been to Ghost Ranch, just north of Abiquiu, where O’Keeffe once had a home. This seemed like the perfect place to get photos and anecdotes. But while I was there, I discovered a little-known fact about the ranch. The pair of brothers who’d first settled it had murdered a number of cattlemen to steal their herds. Eventually, one brother killed the other and got hanged for his crimes.

Thus was born my column. Ghost Ranch might have inspired Georgia O’Keeffe in the gentle art of landscape painting, but it was founded by serial killers. Then, in Santa Fe, I located the “first house” in the country. It turns out that a murder had happened here as well. When I wrote about it, we learned that these dark elements appealed to readers.

So, each month I look for places where fascinating crimes occurred that also offer touristy things to do. For example, a large house in Villisca, Iowa, was the scene of a sensational mass murder a century ago, and you can take a tour. Then, there’s the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, MA, which has been turned into a “crime-scene” bed and breakfast. I also wrote about the Jesse James Farm, where the outlaw is buried and a museum stands, and surprised many people with the story of a massacre at Frank Lloyd Wright’s tourable Wisconsin estate, Taliesin.

One of my favorite stories occurred in Deadwood, South Dakota. This is where Wild Bill Hickock was assassinated under peculiar circumstances. The town retains much of the flavor from those days. It’s had a resurgence of interest since the HBO Show, Deadwood, was developed around some actual people and events.

The column is fun, but there’s a difficult part: deciding when a place is appropriate for “murder tourism” and when it’s not. I’m aware that there’s a Jeffrey Dahmer tour in Wisconsin, for example, but we thought that featuring it seemed tasteless. In fact, I know quite a few places with serial killer associations. However, we prefer incidents where there’s some psychological distance between the event and the idea of a visit. This certainly limits what I can write about, but it’s also a challenge.

So, from my experience, here are the top five things I can suggest for travel writing:

1)    Learn some basic photography concepts and skills. I knew very little about taking pictures when I first started, but since then, I now know a lot about perspective, DSL-R cameras, enhancement software, and best times of day for shooting.

2)    Be vigilant for opportunities. I happened to be presenting at a conference in Tucson, and the driver who picked me up at the airport mentioned a hotel downtown where the John Dillinger Gang had been arrested in surprise ambush. I found a way to get downtown to get the story. It became one of my columns, and the hotel was quite photogenic.

3)    Think about travel practicalities. I can find stories to write about, but if people can’t get there, or it’s set in an inaccessible place, that’s not appropriate for crime-trotting. For example, the house where the Clutter family was slaughtered in 1959 in Kansas is a private home. Yet, it was the subject of Truman Capote’s best-selling In Cold Blood, so it was the perfect tale for my column. Instead of focusing on the house, I had photos from several buildings in town that Capote described in the book.

4)    Focus on variety. I go from Southwestern deserts to the Midwest plains to New England to an international location (my self-designed Jack the Ripper tour). Right after I wrote about the upper crust Taliesin rampage, I traveled to Gibsonton, Florida, where carnival people once wintered, to describe the murder of a man known as Lobster Boy.

5)    Be mindful of the psychology of travel. There are hardcore murder tourists who want the gruesome details, but this magazine does not cater to them. It’s a column that provides the typical traveler with something curious and unique. We don’t want to upset or annoy people, we want to provide interesting glimpses into history and locale.

These are the lessons from my year as a travel writer. Next up is a column on the century-old crime museums of Europe. Crime-trotting can be found at:

Katherine Ramsland has published over 1,000 articles and 54 books. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, writes a blog for Psychology Today and a travel feature for Destinations Travel Magazine.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

BERLIN: Stumbling Stones & Street Art

                                                       The Holocaust Memorial

You stumble over the plaques in the concrete. Like small stones, they slow you down, force you to look twice. And that’s the point. You stop & crouch to read what is inscribed on the brass plaque:

DEPORTIERT 27.11.1941
ERMORDET 30.11.1941

There are five Stumbling Stones, or Stolpersteine, outside my friend, writer Kenny Fries’s apartment. As I stare down at them, Kenny & his husband Mike wait patiently for me to grasp the import.

“Today it’s a printing press,” Kenny informs me, “but they kept the sign & the original design.”

In St. Petersburg & in Gdansk, I saw wounded buildings, slashed with horrors of war, & bandaged with colorful new facades, but somehow the bloody past always leaks out (see my previous post on Gdansk). In Berlin, the Jewish Museum & the Holocaust Memorial provide interesting switches. The Jewish Museum, with the broken Star of David on its punctured  facade, works with the senses to recreate the terror of Jews in Germany during World War II. The ground shifts beneath your feet, white noise accompanies you, & walls close in, leaving you dizzy & claustrophobic. The Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of coffin-like gray pillars lining narrow corridors & abrupt Escheresque twists & turns, makes you doubt the faint light at the end of the tunnel … as if you’ll wander down these dark corridors like Kafka’s Joseph K for the rest of time. At every corner, you stumble over memories & ghosts, & “Jew” whispers in your ear.

“When Americans try to speak German, they always sound so harsh & guttural,” says Kim, a young British-educated German guide. “They exaggerate every sound. That’s not how we talk.”

For Berliners, the defining moment of history is not World War II, but the Berlin Wall being torn down 25 years ago.

Kenny, Mike & I stand in front of the Tacheles—which sounds like a Hebrew prayer, but is the last standing Squatters’ House. When the Wall came down, East Berliners immediately evacuated their homes & escaped to West Berlin. Struggling young West Berliners sneaked into East Berlin & occupied the abandoned houses. Some remained for years, but most were eventually kicked out. At night the Tacheles looks raw & gaping, black orifices plugged by posters, slogans, spray paint—the new language of art.

The following day, Ben, a street artist who calls himself El Kapitano del Karacho (Brazilian friends informed him it means: Captain of the Penis), takes us to Friedrichain, a shady neighborhood known for drugs & danger, & its graffiti. “Don’t buy your drugs from pushers here,” he advises. “And don’t get drunk in bars here.”

He leads us to an old train station—a dizzying whirl of spray paint, rollers, posters, & wall art covering decay, poverty & disintegration. After a few hours at the Black Market Collective, a large warehouse where I created my own version of street art—a stenciled portrait of John Lennon—digging my Exacto-knife, spraying pain, shaking it dry—I understand the excitement. It’s like being a kid let loose in an art studio, only the entire city is your canvas.

“We’re criminals,” says Ben gleefully. “The fine for graffiti is 463.60 Euros, & with a court case & lawsuits, it can go to 2,000 Euros. But there’s no thrill like painting a wall & running to hide a second before the cops drive by.” The street artists travel in packs: the artist, checkers on the next corner with walkie talkies—no phones because they may be tapped. Black hoodies & face masks, & they carry knives & baseball bats to look intimidating. Sometimes a film crew because they want to be documented. Ben points out the work of known artists like Sobre, El Bocho, & Jimmy C known for social criticism & conspiracy theories.

“Ah!” I jump in here. “so you want to be known, but not caught. Is that what it’s about?”

“Yes…. Street art began with writing your name on a wall, but look at a group like 1UP.”

In the train station an art exhibit is devoted to an internationally known street art group that moves from city to city, films their work in documentaries, puts together (expensive) volumes of their art, & signs themselves: 1UP. No personal signatures, just 1UP, which comes from Super Mario Brothers, & can stand for 1 United Power. Street artists know their work will be plastered over, repainted by the city & other artists. That doesn’t concern them. What’s important is the thrill, the moment. Street bombing, murdering a wall, the explosion of art—a happening. And then, moving on. The next wall, the next challenge, the next city.

After Ben leaves, I walk along the remaining parts of the Wall, known as the East Side Gallery, possibly the largest outdoor art gallery in the world. The Berlin Wall—painted, graffiti’d, layer upon layer, smeared 
& sprayed to the last inch. Street art at its ultimate power: the voice of the people speaking out, protesting, creating beauty (however you define it) in the face of repression.

                                                 the famous kiss on the Berlin Wall

I stumble as if the Stolpersteine are under my feet. Later, I learn that they are an art project for Europe by Gunter Demnig, commemorative brass plaques set in the pavement in front of the deported person’s last address of choice. Demnig was inspired by the Talmud: “A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.” Each stone begins: HERE LIVED …

“One ‘stone’,” he writes. “One name. One person.”

Standing at the Wall, I close my eyes & see artists madly painting over bloodstains, punctures, gaping wounds… & running in the night. And others carving a broken Star of David, tilting the ground beneath our feet, hammering in brass plaques, & forcing us to stumble. To remember.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Gdansk: Yesterday & Today

                          Angel casting away the sinners in Hans Memling's The Last Temptation

Okay, there’s a darkness here I wish I didn’t have to acknowledge. I call it the creep factor. It lurks behind the deep yellow, rust & green painted facades of the buildings in Old Town, threads through the black veins of amber, & burns in the eyes of the damned in Gdansk’s masterpiece, Hans Memling’s The Last Temptation. The creep factor reaches its zenith in the Artists’ Court, a vast hall decorated with enormous paintings (more tortured souls being dragged to Hell), large wooden boats suspended from high ceilings, old swords & weapons, & an armored warrior looming over us on a high landing. I imagine him glaring though it's hard to tell, his head being a deer’s, crowned with antlers.

Staring up at the deer-soldier, I tactfully ask our guide, Kristof, “Was the deer a noble animal?”

“No,” he says, “but hunting in the forest was the most noble act of all.”

A medieval hunting lodge, that's what this is, where apparently town leaders still welcome important people & heads of state to gather & drink.

Outside on the main street of Old Town, the sun shines, a guitarist strums a waltz, tourists bite into succulent pierogies at cafes or lick soft ice cream cones as they saunter past souvenir shops & twinkling displays of amber. The Old World charm factor does serious battle with the creep factor, & believe me, I’m more than ready to be charmed.  Why shouldn’t people sweep shadows & darkness under the cobbles? Shouldn’t they be allowed to forget?

After all, this curious little town was Danzig before it became Gdansk. Bombed in 1945. Scars remain. On our walking tour, Kristof takes us through one thousand years of Polish history—being tossed between Russia & Germany, & once even being erased from the map of the world—but he never once mentions the word, Jew. That loaded word, in itself potent enough to transform otherwise peaceful humans into antlered beast-faced monsters.

“There is a concentration camp 40 km from here,” says Kristof, without naming it, elaborating on who was killed there, or who did the killing.

I like Kristof, with his brush of dark hair, shy smile when we laugh at one of his jokes, & strange body tic—a swerve of his entire chest. He points out his wife’s favorite café, & the best place in town to eat pierogies: Udzika on Piwna Street, then steers us to one of the amber stores. Just doing his job.

Through the day I’ll eat pierogies (stuffed with chicken, raisins & nuts), drink Polish beer, linger at the amber stands, & gradually fall under the spell of desperately sweet confectioner’s sugar, sidewalk cafes, musicians serenading us with guitar & accordion, the piercing loveliness of the sunset over the bricks & cobbles, & the full moon peeking through the Ferris Wheel near the canal. It's an Old World elegance & charm I've read about & imagined, but never seen. 

Still, I find myself wandering through the Old Town gates, leaving color, lights & people behind, to a darker, seedier area. I slow down before a group of tattooed, pierced, spike-haired teens smoking & laughing in front of a coffee shop, very different from the cafes in Old Town. Its scrawled window advertises “Okie Dokie.” A new kind of coffee on my endless search for great java through the world? From inside, George Michael’s voice blasts: “Freedom!” 

And I keep going.


The morning sun is faint. 

I sit at a cafe, munch a blueberry-crammed pastry, & watch the amber merchants, the guitarist, & the beggars, the cafes, storefronts & cobbled streets already growing familiar. I leave the main street & wander down the amber street, where a tavern dedicated to Copernicus is now known for its gingerbread. Another guitarist in a blue beret plays, "My Way" & "Sunrise Sunset." The open door to the Biblioteka beckons-- a library!

The instant I enter, the young man behind the desk leaps to his feet as if he were waiting for me & brings out a volume & sets it on the desk. "Look at Danzig," he tells me as I page through large black & white photographs of razed buildings & rubble. "Can you believe this is where you are walking now?"

"Hard to believe," I admit.

"They had a choice after the war--to start over & completely rebuild the town or to repair & construct over the ruins. They chose the second option, & I believe it was the right one."

Every volume in the small library, with a winding wooden staircase leading to the second floor, is about Gdansk & its history. The smell of books & fresh green air through the open window & door are my nectar. 

The librarian asks eagerly where I'm from. "Pennsylvania?" he says, delighted. "The TV show, 'The Office,' takes place there."

Back on the amber street, the peaceful mood remains through the day, & every encounter I have with people of the town is pleasant. 

My friend & I take the train to Sopot, a beach town 18 km. from Gdansk. We arrive in early evening to find a pedestrian street lined with the ever-present Lody ice cream stands, cafes, restaurants, & even an H&M. A festival is taking place that seems to connect gardening & youth camping, a live band with two horns plays Jorge Ben's samba classic, "Mas Que Nada," & everywhere, families stroll. Baby carriages, pregnant women with bellies thrusting under skin-tight leotards, old couples & young holding hands. As in Gdansk, I see many women whose hair is dyed red--a defiantly artificial translucent orange. The men at their sides are in baggy pants or dapper with creamy suits.   

On our way to the beach, we pass the grand Grand Hotel, which sits rock-solid, protected by immaculate gardens, & faces the sea as if to say, "Don't dare try to get past me!" The hotel is enormous, a bastion of pre-war elegance that brings to mind Atlantic City's fabulous thousand-windowed hotels where Roosevelt & Truman stayed, & celebrities rode in rickshaws along the boardwalk. The Grand Hotel, Sopot, Old Town Gdansk are all trying to recreate pre-war elegance & charm, to open the story at "Once upon a time," before the children entered the dark forest. 

Let's stay with them for a while, at least until the sun goes down.   

 the Grand Hotel in Sopot, Poland