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