Start French by Michel Thomas

If you find languages interesting, have I got a treat for you!  There is an excellent language learning series by Michel Thomas that is great listening!

I began with Start French. I always wanted to learn a little French, but it was offered during music class at my high school, so I could only choose one. I chose music and took an afternoon Spanish class for my foreign language. I’ve always found French to be a challenging accent to get, and reading the words on a page just didn’t work for me.

Enter Michel Thomas and his method.

When I popped his CD into my car, suddenly my commutes and errands turned into listening in on fun little conversations. He introduces basic words and phrases in a way that builds successively on one another, feels natural, and is a little easier to remember than trying to memorize nouns and conjugate verbs. He also relates the French word to the root of the English word, helping form connections in your brain to both words and their shared meaning.

After some time, I began talking with the recorded Thomas and enjoying being able to speak un peu de francais. I couldn’t help but share my discovery with family members and friends. My Dad wanted to try Start German. He has been listening to it before bed each night and greets the day with a guten Morgen!

This series is also currently available to check out in Irish, Italian, and Spanish. Also coming soon…Norwegian!

Travel Talk – Armchair Traveler

This month in Travel Talk we’re going to explore travel books. I’m not talking about those giant coffee table books that are filled with artsy, professional photography (although those can be fun too). I’m talking about the books that you can settle down with and read, follow someone into a different culture or country and vicariously experience their adventures. These are the kind of books that will give you travel fever, all from the comfort of your armchair. Here are a few of my favorites.

Miles from Nowhere by Barbara Savage. This is the book that really hit me with the travel bug, not only to see new places, but that you didn’t have to be rich and fancy to go places. Barbara and her husband go on an around-the-world bicycle trip that is full of highs, lows and some scary moments. The writing style is fun and engaging and you’ll find it nearly impossible to put down. A great eye-opener into many different cultures and attitudes. Highly recommended. (Just don’t read the back of the book until after you finish)

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Is there anyone that hasn’t read this book yet? Come on – it’s easily one of the funniest books I’ve ever read! Although the chapter on bears might scare you into never camping (or walking in the woods)! Bryson and his friend Katz undertake hiking the Appalachian Trail, underestimating it’s difficulty and the commitment required. Katz is extremely casual in his approach; Bryson is his usual keenly observant, riotously irreverent self and comes away from his experience with a new appreciation of the land and nature. Highly recommended.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. After making several poor life decisions, Strayed gets the crazy idea to walk the Pacific Crest Trail which runs from Mexico to Canada. It’s a long, rigorous hike and Cheryl is not prepared, but she sticks with it and along the way she finds herself. The long days of isolation and forced self-reliance help her find a reserve of strength within herself that she had never known, cleared her mind, settled her emotions and helped set her priorities. An inspiring story of growth and renewal.

These are all memoirs, but a great armchair travel books doesn’t have to be non-fiction. Any novel that sets you in a different place can give you wanderlust; for me that’s just about anything set in Paris or London or on the prairies and mountains of America.

What about you – what have you read that makes you want to dust off your suitcase? Let us know in the comments!

Travel Talk – Worst Travel Experience

If you’ve done any amount of traveling, it’s happened to you – a missed flight, lost luggage, a cancelled tour (anyone book a Thomas Cook tour recently?!) The key, of course, is to not let it ruin your trip; consider it a challenge to develop your coping skills! Sometimes the alternative turns out better than you planned!

Fortunately (so far) my travel experiences have been fairly straightforward – lost luggage (found and returned to me the next day), food poisoning (spent a day sick in bed – in Paris! – willing my insides to stop revolting against me), getting lost (I do this All. The. Time. You’d think I’d learn.) Maybe the worst was when my plane caught on fire which sounds terribly dramatic, but the plane was still at the gate and I think it was a fire in the galley, not the airplane itself. It did mean we had to disembark and wait four hours for another plane which meant I missed my connection in Detroit where I had to stay overnight (the airline paid) and got home a day late. Fortunately, everything was fine in the end and it didn’t ruin the trip and look, it makes a great story!

Here’s Michelle’s epic travel nightmare!

Travel delays are par for the course, but in May of 2011, my husband and I had an epic tale of a return flight.  The trip that should have been hours, but turned into days – all because of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano named Grimsvotn.

Our plane departed a little late from Copenhagen, Denmark, which delayed us when we reached Manchester, England.  We made it in time for the flight but since we arrived less than an hour from takeoff to Chicago, we were told we could not board (even though the plane was about 50 feet away from us).  We had to go through customs, get our luggage and hope we could find a flight quickly.  This would not be ideal, since many airports were starting to cancel flights because of the volcano’s ash that was approached the UK, we knew we had to get out or risk being stuck in Manchester, which could likely be days, not hours.

After a couple of hours, we were booked on a flight to Chicago via London.  We quickly realized that making this flight would land us in Chicago at nearly 8:30 in the evening and we did not have a flight or hotel booked for that night.  Once we made it to Chicago, my sister-in-law picked us up and we went back to her house in the Chicago suburbs.  It would be a short visit before we headed back to O’Hare in the morning. In the morning, we rode the Metra train to O’Hare only to find out that our flight to Moline was canceled.  We made a spit decision to rent a car one-way (not the cheapest option) and finally made it home that night!  As Ann mentioned in her post, it does make for a great story!

Now it’s your turn – what has been your worst Travel Experience? Let us know in the comments! And please, only stories that end well!

Travel Talk – Preserving the Memory

So, you’ve gone on a fabulous trip, or have one coming up. Now the question is, how do you hang onto those happy memories?

Photo book. There are dozens of companies that help you put together a photo album of your trip at a variety of price points and features. These can be lots of fun to make and you don’t need a lot of technological skills. Just upload your photos to the company’s program, choose your templates and go! I love photography and always make a photo album when I get home from a trip – it’s a great way to relive and remember a special time.

Scrapbook. Take all those brochures and ticket stubs and business cards and put together a scrapbook. I also like to include things like candy bar wrappers and small paper shop bags, anything that is unique and different from home. You can add handwritten notes about the different objects or decorate the pages however you want. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to make a scrapbook – it is for your enjoyment. (The same is true of photo books)

Postcards. You’ll find post cards everywhere of course, even if snail mail is on the decline. They’re a great alternative if you’re not interested in photography, or want a perfect shot of a famous landmark or one you wouldn’t be able to get (like a bird’s-eye view of the Grand Canyon) I pass on the kitschy, jokey postcards, but if that’s your jam, go for it. I love museums and like to grab a few postcards of favorite paintings – they are much better quality than anything I can photograph (and sans tourists!) and look lovely in a frame in my house.

Souvenirs. Every major (and many not-so-major) tourist destination will have souvenirs for sale. A lot of times these are, shall we say, not terribly sophisticated or subtle. Again, if that’s your jam, go for it – not judging. But if you’re looking for something more authentic, I suggest that you shop for souvenirs at the local grocery store. Candy bars (both fancy and regular), coffee, tea and mustard made in the country you’re visiting are excellent choices and easy to fit into a carry on (if you don’t go overboard which I tend to do!). If you have checked baggage, you can take home local wines and olive oils; I’ve even heard of people bringing French butter home in their suitcase!

The ultimate goal, of course, is to have something that reminds you of a trip – the different atmosphere, the culture, the inspirational things you saw, the happy memories.

Now it’s your turn – what do you bring home from your travels?

 

 

Travel Talk – Iowa, Part 3

Hello again! Here we are with our third installment of exploring Iowa for Travel Talk. This month Michelle and I are talking about some great museums. I love museums – art, history, science I love it all. In my experience, museums are beautiful places filled with endlessly interesting and inspiring displays. Guess what – the museums in Iowa are no different. Bonus – these are all within in an easy day trip of Davenport!

Here are Michelle’s picks:

The University of Iowa Natural History Museum in downtown Iowa City is a free and fascinating look at Iowa’s history.  The museum offers an up-close look at hundreds animals from around Iowa and the world.  The Hall of Birds and the Hall of Mammals are especially worth a visit. When visiting the Hall of Birds, visitors can view over 1,000 birds, many who make their permanent or seasonal residence in Iowa.  These specimens were collected throughout the years by University of Iowa professors. Make sure you find the Laysan Island Cyclorama which replicates a 1914 bird sanctuary in Laysan, an outpost of the Hawaiian atoll.  In 1914, the sanctuary was the home to over 8 million birds of 22 different species.  Across the museum is the Hall of Mammals which displays animals from around the world.  Among the highlights is the skeleton of a 47 foot Atlantic Right Whale.  A final stop should be Iowa Hall, which allows visitors to travel through Iowa’s 500 million year geological, cultural and ecological history.

The Des Moines Art Center is a gem both inside and outside, with noteworthy art on its walls along with the architects who designed the structure in three parts.  The building is designed by world famous architects Eliel Saarinen (portion built in 1948), I.M. Pei (structure completed in 1968), and Richard Meier finishing the museum in 1985.  Inside, the Art Center has a stellar permanent collection which includes works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and Alexander Calder along with rotating special exhibitions.  A second part of the Art Center is the Pappajohn Sculpture Park located in downtown Des Moines.  Admission is free for both!

And here are my recommendations.

National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids. Completely rebuilt after the devastating 1993 flood, the Czech Museum is a gorgeous tribute to the craftsmanship and beauty (don’t miss the crystal chandelier in the lobby) of Czech art. There are also extensive displays of the history of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These include full size reproductions of a Communist watch tower and steerage rooms that immigrants would have stayed in on their voyage to America. There are also stunning examples of crystal, porcelain and needlework on display.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch. His Presidency might not have been a success, but Herbert Hoover was a great statesman. He was instrumental in providing food relief to Europe and Russia during and after World War I and later after World War II, saving millions of lives. He and his wife Lou traveled extensively and many of the things they collected on these travels are on display. There is also a lot of information about Lou who was brilliant in her own right (to this day, she is the only First Lady to speak an Asian language – in this case Mandarin Chinese)

This is just the tip of the iceberg – there are loads of great museums throughout the state – and in Davenport itself! (the Figge, the German American Heritage Center and the Putnam, to get you started) Here’s a tip for you – keep an eye on the website of any museum you might be interested in – most of them have exhibits that run for a short period of time as well as their permanent displays. These can be a great opportunity to see art and artifacts from far-flung museums, right in your own backyard!

Now what about you – what museums in Iowa would you recommend?

Travel Talk – Iowa, Part 2

Hello Travel Fans!

It’s time for our next installment of travel in Iowa! This month Michelle is describing some of the beautiful, natural places to explore in Iowa – it’s not all corn fields here! Over to you Michelle.

Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University in Ames – Part of Iowa State University in Ames, Reiman Gardens is a serene space that offers 17 acres of outdoor gardens, an indoor butterfly garden, tropical plant conservatory and endless learning opportunities.  Did I forget to mention it is also the home of Elwood, the world’s largest concrete gnome?  The gardens also feature periodic exhibitions and this summer’s exhibition is “Toys & Games,” in which toys inspired by nature are sprinkled throughout the gardens.  The gardens are open daily and offer something for everyone!

Effigy Mounds near Harpers Ferry – Effigy Mounds National Monument is a perfect day trip in the far northeastern part of the state.  The free trails allows visitors to hike near the animal shaped mounds constructed during the Late Woodland Period (between 800 and 1600 years ago).  According to the National Park Service, these mounds were a regional cultural phenomenon.  Mounds of earth in the shapes of birds, deer, bison lynx and turtle abound.  Some archeologists believe the mounds were built to mark celestial events or seasonal occurrences.  Others speculate the as boundaries between or markers between groups, but it is unclear exactly what was the purpose of the Mounds.  Hiking up to the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River gives a beautiful view of the surrounding area.  Also, near Harpers Ferry are the picturesque towns of Marquette, McGregor and Pikes Pike State Park, which is also a great place to see views of the river.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge – The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is just south of Des Moines near the Colfax and Mingo exit in Prairie City.  Visit the extensive learning center and walk the number of trails that offer a variety of easy hikes.  To see the bison and elk you will drive through their habitat and be prepared to see them up close – or not, depending on the day.  Even if you do not see as many bison or elk as you would like from your car, the learning center has binoculars in order to spot the herds up close.

 

 

Makes you want to jump in your car and explore these beautiful places, doesn’t it? I especially love the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. You can almost imagine what the Great Plains must have been like before cars and wagon trains.

What about you – what’s your favorite outdoor area to visit in Iowa?

Travel Talk – Iowa, Part 1

Hello and welcome back to Travel Talk! This month Michelle and I are starting a multi-part series about one of our favorite travel destinations – Iowa! Yeah, I know, Iowa is often maligned as boring (I just heard Jimmy Fallon call Iowa boring on the Tonight Show – grrrrr) and flat (yeah, join me on a bike ride and I’ll show you “flat”!) – no big cities (sorry Des Moines!), no dramatic mountains or beaches, no famous historical sites. If you believe that Iowa isn’t worth exploring, Michelle and I are here to change your mind. Iowa is full of beautiful and interesting places with the added bonus of close-to-home and smaller crowds.

Michelle starts us off with some hidden gems!

For the last 5 years or so, my husband and I have trekked around our great state of Iowa in order to discover out-of-the-way places and things.  Whether we start heading north, south or west we have discovered all sorts of interesting and notable places that are definitely worth a look if you want to discover all our state has to offer.  The following is the first of a blog post series with some remarkable points of interest.  We are starting with one of my personal favorites – architecture in Iowa.

Frank Lloyd Wright in Iowa – If you are an architecture fan, Mason City should be high on your list. Mason City boasts one of the largest concentrations of Prairie Style architecture.  Among the highlights is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Park Inn Hotel that has been restored to its full glory. The hotel restaurant, 1910 Grill, is fantastic and worth a stop for either breakfast or dinner.  Within walking distance is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Stockman House, which is open for guided tours and is accompanied by a noteworthy interpretive center.  Along the way check out the Music Man foot bridge and the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum, which holds a large collection of Bil Baird puppets.  The museum also includes the marionettes from The Sound of Music.  The museum also has an impressive permanent collection, including works by Jasper Johns, Keith Haring and Arthur Dove.

A gem of Iowa architecture can also be found in Cedar Rock in Quasqueton, near Cedar Rapids.  Frank Lloyd Wright designed a home for Lowell and Agnes Walter, which was completed in 1950 during the time Wright was designing Usonian houses.  After their passing, the home was given to the State of Iowa and now the Department of Natural Resources offers tours with a small suggested donation of $5.  Built near the Wapsipinicon River, the home has all the furniture and design elements original to the home.  Walk the grounds to the river and you can explore the boat house, also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Merchants National Bank (now the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce and Grinnell Visitors Center) Architect Louis Sullivan, who was Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor and first employer, designed this bank in 1914 and it makes up part of Grinnell’s downtown.  It is one of the eight “jewel box banks” that Sullivan designed in the Midwest.  Sullivan came up with the term and designed each bank to take on appearance of a jewelry box.  Stop by the bank and take in the ornamentation and details on both the interior and the exterior, which includes radiant stained glass windows and lion-like figures guarding the front doors.

What architectural gems have you found in Iowa? Share in the comments!

Stay tuned for the next installment! Still to come – wild places, museums and uniquely Iowa!

Travel Talk – Going Solo

I’ve just returned from a holiday in London, England. The weather was lovely, the cherry trees were in bloom and the museums and landmarks were magnificent. I ate some excellent food (scones with clotted cream! fish and chips!), wandered through gorgeous neighborhoods such as Notting Hill and Belgravia and visited some of the finest museums in the world including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate Britain. I indulged in my love of gardens by visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (although, this is England, there are gardens everywhere!) and my love of photography by taking pictures of, well, everything! It was, in short, a wonderful trip.

And I did it all solo. No travel companion, no tour group. Just me.

Traveling solo can be hard and I certainly experienced a few bumps and mishaps. Apparently I have no sense of direction and inevitably, when I exited an Underground station (the public transportation system in London), I would go in the exact opposite direction that I needed. Every. Time. And I had to make every decision – where to go, when to go, where to eat, how to get somewhere. There is no one to point out and share any of the many new things you come across, or laugh with over any of the absurdities.

But it can also be incredibly rewarding. I may have always started going the wrong direction, but I also eventually figured it out – on my own – and got to my various destinations. I’m very proud of how I mastered the Underground with barely a blip, from Heathrow airport to central London and then all around London. If I wanted to sleep late or turn in early, I could and if I ate scones with clotted cream every day (which I did), there was no one to question my life choices. There was also no one wondering why the heck I was holding up progress by spending 10 minutes taking pictures of the same tree (I was experimenting with light settings and angles!) There is a huge amount of freedom when you travel solo, and a lot of valuable learning about yourself and what you’re capable of.

A fully solo international trip like this one isn’t for everyone of course, or for every trip. But I encourage you to try it someday if you haven’t already. Even going off on your own for a day or an afternoon can be very rewarding, especially if your interests are different from the people you’re traveling with; for instance, they want to go golfing but you’d really like to visit a museum. A lot of tour groups have built-in free time which would be perfect to venture somewhere on your own. If you need help (or get lost like I tend to), ask someone. I have found that most people are friendly and happy to help, especially when you are polite and respectful of local customs.

Need a little more encouragement? Here are a few books to check out.

The Solo Travel Handbook: Practical Tips and Inspiration for a Safe, Fun and Fearless Trip by Sarah Reid for lots of practical advice.

Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities and the Pleasures of Solitude by Stephanie Rosenbloom for inspiration.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed for an epic solo adventure.

What about you? Have you ever traveled solo? Where did you go? And how did you like traveling on your own? Tell us in the comments!

Travel Talk – April

When I was little, my family would go on a road trip every August. We would pack the car with snacks and coolers and suitcases filled with swimsuits and flip flops and head out to explore these United States. My Father loved history and natural beauty, so our summer vacations centered on the National Parks and historic sites. (To this day I’ve never been to a Walt Disney park, but have been to many, many Civil War and Revolutionary War sites and National and state parks!) Even now, when summer rolls around and it gets hot and sticky, it reminds me of  driving along endless highways watching America roll past from the backseat of my Dad’s Pontiac, following our route on road maps (this was looooong before GPS!) and the excitement of seeing new landscapes. It gave me the travel bug early on (and a love of history apparently) My parents may not have realized it, but these summer vacations became a legacy that continues to shape and influence me.

And yes, of course the Library has books to help you with your road trip plans! From the basics on where to stay and what to see, to books that spark your imagination. Not sure where to go? Try tailoring your trip to your interests. How fun would it be to spend the summer visiting Major League (or Minor League) baseball parks? Or looking for the best homemade pie or barbecue or craft beer in Iowa (or other defined area)? Maybe you’re not into history like my Dad, but you love trains or gems and rocks or flea markets. Believe me, there’s a road trip for just about any interest waiting for you.

If you prefer your road trips from the comfort of your living room, we have plenty of armchair road trip travel books too. Here’s a selection to get you started:

America for Beginners by Leah Franqui – a widow from India travels across America in search of her son.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac – the classic “road trip in search of oneself” book that my parents certainly wouldn’t have approved of!

The Wangs vs the World by Jade Change – having lost all their wealth, a Chinese immigrant family drives from California to New York and along the way reevaluate the American dream.

Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson – coming to grips with loss and grief on a road trip with a friend.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson. Bryson sets about rediscovering his native country after living in England for many years.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. Now that’s a road trip – Lewis and Clark’s epic exploration of the west.

What about you? Do you love road trips? Do you have any planned for the near future? Any favorite anecdotes from a road trip?

 

Travel Talk – March

Hello Travel Fans!

This month we’re going to talk about movies, specifically the movies that feed your wanderlust. That’s a pretty broad category I think – it could be a movie set in a beautiful place that made you want to visit, or one about a journey that inspired you on your own trip. A movie can be great long after a favorite trip as well, reminding you of sights and walks from your own visit.

To help you get in the mood for travel, we’re going to be showing one of my favorite movies, “Enchanted April” at Fairmount (3000 Fairmount Street) on Tuesday, March 19 at 2pm. Four English ladies escape dreary late-winter England and rent a house in sunny Italy for the month of April. The women, who didn’t know each other before, come from all walks of life and travel to Italy for different reasons – to escape, to hide, to find themselves. There is a bit of intrigue, a little mystery, friendships that grow and blossom but most of all, there’s the gorgeous Italian countryside. A perfect antidote when you’re tired of winter whether you’re coming from England or Iowa!

Other favorites to consider would include Midnight in Paris which is well worth watching both before and after a trip to the City of Light. My Mother and I loved the PBS television series All Creatures Great and Small and included several magical days in the Yorkshire Dales (where the series is set) when we traveled to England. Any Downton Abbey fans out there? A trip to Highclere Castle is probably high on your travel list. Dazzled by the over-the-top wealth shown in Crazy Rich Asians? You might be dreaming of a trip to Singapore. In other words, inspiration is all around us.

Michelle has found inspiration in movies too:

Years ago, I fell in love with Paris partly due to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless from 1960.  Starring Marshalltown, Iowa native Jean Seberg, this French New Wave crime drama mostly takes place in Paris.  One of the most iconic scenes takes place when Seberg sells New York Herald Tribune newspapers while strolling down the Champs Elysees. 

My other favorite travel film is surprisingly, Doctor Zhivago from 1965.  I fell in love with the movie years ago with its wintry scenes, emotional music, inspiring onion-domed buildings and the all over ambiance of Russia.  This movie, has in part, has inspired me to add Russia to my list of destinations to visit someday.

Now it’s your turn – what movie has sparked your travels?