Thursday, December 17, 2009


We're on our way to Paris next month, but we can't get to the "City of Lights" without first making a trip to the "Windy City." Visas are required for long-term stays and application must be made in person at a French Consulate. Lucky for us - our regional consulate is in Chicago. And as the song says, you can "bet your bottom dollar, you lose the blues in Chicago."

You can also find the blues in Chicago along with jazz, theater, a world-class art museum, renowned architecture and great restaurants and cafes - all in a stunning Lake Michigan setting. In December a cold wind blows, but, in spite of it, Chicagoans are hospitable and warm. It's a great big city with a small-town friendliness.

We drove into town on a Carl Sandburg kind of day with the fog obscuring the tops of the city's famous skyscrapers. After checking into our hotel (a Best Western with free, convenient parking in the River North section of town), we walked down Michigan Avenue to the Art Institute of Chicago. It's a perfect prelude to a trip to Paris since the museum houses one of the largest and most significant collections of Impressionist and Postimpressionist art in the world.

After the museum, it was off to Andy's, a Chicago jazz landmark on Hubbard Street. Andy's has early evening shows so you can take in some music before dinner. That's particularly handy if you have, as we did, an early-morning appointment at the Consulate. Dinner was at Quartino's, a large, lively Italian restaurant on State Street. Along with crisp fried calamari and tasty roasted octopus, we had a thin-crust pizza with duck pancetta and arugula that we would be happy to find in Italy.

During the night, the fog moved on and we awoke to clear, blue skies, frigid temperatures and the famous Chicago wind. Bypassing all the cookie-cutter Starbucks and Caribou Coffee shops, we stopped for an espresso at the Chicago Cultural Center, a beautiful, Tiffany-domed architectural landmark that once housed the City Library.

The French Consulate is across the street on the 37th floor of a modern office building with a spectacular view of the city and the magnificent dark green and gold Carbide and Carbon Building. Business complete, we soon found ourselves back in the brilliant sunshine of a blustery Chicago morning. Walking south through Grant Park, we were buffeted by the wind, but the Park belonged to us alone.

Thirty minutes later, we were in a tropical paradise with thousands of brilliantly-colored fish swimming inches from our eyes. Chicago's Shedd Aquarium is the world's largest indoor aquarium, but its position on the edge of Lake Michigan brings the outdoors in. Using floor to ceiling windows, the Aquarium borrows the seascape of Lake Michigan so that dolphins and beluga whales seem to leap not from the deep underground pools, but from the Lake itself.

Lunch was at the Aquarium's Soundings Cafe, which has a jaw-dropping panoramic view of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. The cafe will surely be included in my book- should I ever write it - "World's Best Lunch Spots." (The title still needs work.) I can't remember if fish was on the menu, but the chicken sandwiches and salad with lime vinaigrette were fresh and delicious.

By late afternoon, after a whirlwind 28 hours in Chicago, we were back in our car on the Chicago Skyway, heading east toward Ann Arbor. Next stop - Paris.

To see more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


It's cold in Michigan and the days are short - perfect conditions for reading. Since I just bought our plane tickets for Paris, travel is more than ever on my mind. The dining room table is piled high with travel books: novels, journals, histories and reveries. I've decided to share a few with you so here is:

Travel Oyster's 1st List of Great Travel Books

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris
Drawings by Gioia Fiammenghi
Doubleday & Company, Inc.
New York, 1958

The captivating story of a London cleaning woman with an overwhelming desire to own a Dior gown. With a little bit of luck and a lot of scrimping and saving, Mrs. 'Arris goes to Paris to fulfill her improbable dream. So charming is the story that I'm able to forgive its dated 1950s attitude toward women. The City of Paris glitters in this innocent tale that is above all a story of the power of dreams to propel us into the unknown, the universality of longing and the ability of love and friendship to transcend language and custom.

Possession, A Romance
Vintage Books
New York, 1990.

Possession moves back and forth in time as it tells the story of a pair of young, modern-day academics researching the lives of two Victorian-era poets. London, Yorkshire and the mysterious fog-shrouded interiors of Brittany in France play starring roles in this literary tour de force. Byatt writes her characters' letters, sonnets and poems so wonderfully and so convincingly that you wish that her poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Cristabel LaMotte, were real characters whose books you could buy. This is a beautifully-written, intelligent book brimming with mystery, myth and romance. The masterful plot compels you on to the finish, but as with all great books, you're sorry to reach that last page. No matter. Possession is such a full and rich book that you can read it more than once.

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains
Dover Publications, 2003
Originally published 1879.

To download a free online version, click here.

The old maxim, "there's no place like home," had no appeal for Isabella Bird. Born in England in 1831, Bird was a sickly woman at home, but blossomed in faraway lands. As she travelled the world, she published books about her exploits. This one, written in 1873, is an account of her trip into the then untamed territory of Colorado. Traveling alone, Isabella confronts bandits and grizzly bears; fords cold, raging rivers; and kills poisonous snakes. She meets and is wooed by "Mountain Jim" Nugent, a notorious, hard-drinking, hard-living desperado with a penchant for poetry, who tells his story to Isabella "with a rush of wild eloquence that was truly thrilling." Together they climb the 14,259-foot high Longs Peak, herd cattle, chop wood and survive fierce mountain snow storms. The book is written as a series of letters to Isabella's sister in England and is a fascinating tale told by a very surprising Victorian woman.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
by Marcella Hazan
Alfred A. Knopf, New York

While a cookbook may seem like an odd choice for a Travel Book List, food is so central to the travel experience in Italy that I've decided to include one. This is my favorite - a book that will take you on a gastronomic journey through one of the world's great cuisines. Before 1861, Italy was not a nation, but rather a diverse group of regions with their own dialects and cooking styles. Those regional differences might make Italy difficult to govern, but they provide the rest of us with food that is varied, nuanced and surprisingly different from region to region. This book is well organized, chatty without being cute, packed with interesting information and, most importantly, full of great recipes. Hazan has a relaxed and friendly style that makes it easy to imagine yourself sitting in her kitchen drinking coffee while she gives you pointers on the Tuscan Bean Soup that is simmering on the stove.

Coast to Coast
A Journey Across 1950s America
Travelers' Tales, San Francisco
1956, 2002

The sparkling prose of this first book by the English writer Jan Morris shows why she was to become one of the world's great travel essayists. Beginning in New York "with its sharp edges and fiery colors," Morris spent a year traveling by car, train, boat and plane across an America that now seems a nostalgic dream. Forty-six years after the book first appeared in print, Morris wrote: "I had come from a Britain that was still war-scarred, poverty-stricken, and disillusioned, and found an America bursting with bright optimism, generous, unpretentious, proud of its recent victories, basking in its universal popularity but still respectful of older nations. I did not know it then, and nor did America, but chance had brought me across the Atlantic at the very apex of American happiness." Part travelogue and part cultural history, Coast to Coast is above all a journey of discovery that is as fresh today as it was when it was written more than 50 years ago.

Happy reading,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Loxahatchee - My Florida Escape

I visited my sister recently in Florida and noticed that almost every front yard in her "adult community" is adorned with lawn ornaments: dwarfs, dancing frogs, mushrooms, apple-cheeked children, lizards, birds, turtles and, of course, pink flamingos. There were signs too, like: An old rooster and a young chick live here.

What causes this phenomenon? Perhaps it's the languid, humid air that makes people feel carefree and just a little bit giddy. Or could it be that non-stop development has made the land inhospitable for most native creatures, including children, and Floridians have had to content themselves with mass-produced copies?

In the early 1900s this area from Ft. Pierce to Miami, where six million people (and their lawn ornaments) now live, was part of the Everglades, a shallow, slow-moving sheet of water that covered almost, 11,000 square miles of the Florida peninsula. Over the next 50 to 60 years, about half that area was drained and the waters channeled into canals. The population of Florida grew from about a half a million people in 1900 to more than 18 million in 2008. (For a great read on the history and the characters that shaped and developed Florida, I recommend The Swamp, a book by Michael Grunwald.)

My sister's neighborhood south of West Palm Beach is surrounded by highways, gated housing developments and big box stores. Yet only a few miles away from this highly-populated area is one of my favorite nature spots - the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. A respite from the rapidly expanding urban communities, large sugar cane plantations, sod farms and cattle ranches that surround it, Loxahatchee is all that remains of the once vast northern portion of the Everglades ridge and deep-water slough habitat.

Even though it's a managed habitat, Loxahatchee gives you an idea of what once was. Its more than 143,000 acres are home to river otters, bobcats, snakes, birds, butterflies, turtles and alligators - more than 25,000 of them. There are walking paths, an interesting nature center and guided tours.

For a more intimate, up-close look, paddle a canoe through the five and a half mile trail that winds through the refuge. In 1947, the journalist and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote a book, The Everglades: Rivers of Grass, that galvanized people to work for the protection of Florida's vanishing natural habitat. That same year, the Federal Government created the Everglades National Park, preserving 2,500 square miles of the South Florida Everglades.

The northern Everglades have all but disappeared, but this one idyllic refuge remains. As you glide silently through the waterways of Loxahatchee, you experience what Douglas felt when she wrote:

"The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slowly moving, the grass and water that is the meaning and central fact of the Everglades. It is a river of grass."
(To see more photos, click here.)


P.S. When I was in Arkansas recently, a friend gave me a blue ceramic pig. I love it. I don't think I'll be moving to Florida anytime soon, but if I do, I'm ready.

For directions to Loxahatchee, click here.

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Recently when my husband got an invitation from Italian colleagues to give a mathematical talk at their home university, he invited me to go along. Italy in the fall - what could be better?

It turns out, however, that not all Italians live in Italy. Some - but not many - live in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Like Professor Dr. von Igelfeld, the hero of Alexander McCall Smith's very funny book, "The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs," I had not envisioned spending time in Fayetteville. The good professor, renowned among his German colleagues for his academic tome, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, had anticipated an invitation to New York or California. In a bureaucratic mix up, he is sent instead to Fayetteville. There he finds to his delight, as I did, "a charming college town nestling in the Ozark Mountains, seat of the University of Arkansas..."

Scientifically speaking, the Ozarks are not mountains, but rather a high inland plateau, eroded by time, weather and the action of its many rivers. Fayetteville, a quintessential college town, is in one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. Nonetheless, it's just a 20-minute car ride from the busy, student-filled town to the solitude of the countryside. Professor Dr. von Igelfeld's experience describes it perfectly:

They drove out of town, following a road that wound up into the hills. It was a gentle landscape - limestone hills which had been softened by the action of the rain; meandering valleys dotted with farmhouses under shady oak trees. Von Igelfeld had not thought of America as being at all like this; there were no dry plains, no glittering Dallas in the distance, no leafy suburbia with neat white houses. This could have been Bavaria, or even Austria.

Our drive took us to nearby Devil's Den State Park. Filled with natural bridges, waterfalls, caves and more than 20 miles of hiking trails, Devil's Den is also one of the best preserved Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the country. In the 1930s, the CCC built the park's first hiking trails, a stone dam, offices, a restaurant, and campgrounds with cabins made of native stone and logs.

The next day while my professor was pushing back the frontiers of mathematical science up the hill at the University of Arkansas, I took a walking tour of Fayetteville. According to the town brochure, "Fayetteville is the center of everything that happens in Northwest Arkansas." It is a nice town with lots of trees, arts and crafts style houses, parks, walking paths, good book stores, a performing arts center and, of course, the University.

There are also, I've been told, restaurants that specialize in good southern-style cooking. Perhaps we'll try one of them on our next visit to Fayetteville. This time around, we ate at the best place in town - our friends' house.

Fayetteville may be in Arkansas and the countryside may look like Bavaria or even Austria, but sitting around our friends' dinner table eating their delicious home-cooked Italian food, Fayetteville sure felt a lot like Italy.

"From his seat on the aeroplane, von Igelfeld looked down at the Ozarks as they became smaller and smaller beneath him. It was a good place, America, and Arkansas was a good state."
(For more photos, click here.)


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

All quotations are from the book

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs
by Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor Books, 2005

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ann Arbor Traveling

The U-M football team was on the road last week so it was a quiet Saturday in Ann Arbor. The sun was shining and the yellow, orange and red of the autumn leaves were brilliant against a clear blue sky.

On the radio, Frank Sinatra sang out to me:

It's very nice to go trav'ling
To Paris, London and Rome
It's oh, so nice to go trav'ling
But it's so much nicer
Yes, it's so much nicer to come home.

Home - just where is that? As time passes, Paris and Pisa seem less and less like travel destinations and more and more like places to come home to. Our cabin draws us "up north" and our childhood homes stay in our memories. Still, it is Ann Arbor where we have our roots and where we are most at home.

Why then, do we take it for granted? On a day such as this in Paris or Pisa, we'd be out and about: walking the streets, poking into interesting stores, stopping at a cafe, visiting a museum. In Ann Arbor, we'd yet to step foot in the new, highly-acclaimed renovation and addition to the University of Michigan Art Museum. Has familiarity bred, if not contempt, at least complacency?

The time had come to be a tourist in our own hometown. With its stately university, traditional Midwestern wooden houses, tree-lined streets and thousands of young people, Ann Arbor looks like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. On our bikes headed toward the museum, we could have been the central characters on a Saturday Evening Post cover.

Two miles and 10 minutes later, we were standing in front of the Beaux Arts building of the original art museum. It's been seamlessly merged with a new light-filled 53,000 square foot addition, housing a collection that would be right at home in "Paris, London and Rome." (Click here to visit the museum.)

We wandered around happily for almost two hours when I was stopped in my tracks by a painting in the modern arts section of the museum - Max Beckmann's Begin the Beguine. One look and I was transported back home to New Jersey and my first job in Princeton. I worked for an erudite European who was a great admirer of the German Expressionists. Trying to instill a little culture into an unschooled girl from Trenton, he gave me a print of Begin the Beguine. It's an odd choice with which to begin an art education. I tried to appreciate it, but never really did. It was put in a drawer and then lost in a move.

Now here in Ann Arbor, right in front of me, was the original painting. It's got great color, good composition and a forceful subject matter that deals with Beckmann's ambivalence about American society - which ties in nicely with my musings on home. I still don't appreciate it, but I know enough now to know that that's okay. I moved on to one of my favorites - Picasso's Portrait of Françoise.

Afterwards, we walked around town a bit, then stopped in a cafe and made a list of all the tourist attractions in Ann Arbor. "Ol' Blue Eyes" was right: "it's oh, so nice to go trav'ling." (Click here to see more photos.)


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor