Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 24, 2017

Spectacular views over medieval Orvieto, Umbria

Orvieto, Umbria, ItalyWhenever I visit towns or cities, I seek out the highest point to enjoy birds’ eye views over it. Strangely, I’d never been to the Umbrian town of Orvieto’s highest point.

So when I found myself exploring this picturesque medieval town earlier this month with my two sons, I set out to remedy this.

My children are as obsessed as I am to visit skyscrapers, cathedral bell towers, medieval towers – what have you – when we travel.

Orvieto, Umbria, ItalySo they were thrilled to climb up the 47-meter, 13th century Torre del Moro (Moro Tower), originally known as the Torre del Papa, when it was constructed in the late thirteenth century.

Since my younger son is  a sprinter, he did what he always does and sprinted on ahead. My older son and I took it at a much more leisurely pace.

Orvieto, Umbria, ItalyIn 1866, the medieval watch tower was converted to a clock tower, and a mechanical clock was set up and bells hoisted to the top. You see all four clock faces as you are climbing up.

The observation deck offers spectacular views of the medieval city, and views to the pretty countryside surrounding it. We had a good time following the winding city streets from above, pointing out the routes we’d taken around the city and the monuments we had already seen, and those we had yet to see.

When you’re next in this picturesque medieval town, don’t miss out on views over Orvieto from its medieval watch tower.

Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 20, 2017

Can books teach their authors?

2017_january_eco“A good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of.”

-Umberto Eco

Yet more wisdom from the recently deceased Italian author Umberto Eco (1932-2016).

I’d never thought of this before, but once I read it I knew it to be true.

How many of us who write feel ourselves drawn away from the story we thought we were writing to tell a very different story, with ideas and themes that emerge as we are writing them?

The book – and the creative process undertaken to create the book – is what allows us to express those issues or ideas that seem to emerge of their own free will. All writers have stories about the characters who ‘talk to them’ and start nudging their novel in a different direction. Or the sub-plots and themes that jump up out of no where, but become an integral part of the story.

And then, of course, there is the reaction a novel has on its reader and the unique experiences, perspectives and interpretations that a reader may bring to the work. Those readers are also interpreting themes the author may not be aware of, and a good book allows this to happen.

What do you think, readers and writers? Can a good book be more intelligent than its author?

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 17, 2017

Bad propaganda and Trabis at Berlin’s DDR Museum

DDR Museum, BerlinI was in Berlin last month with my family. My son had prepared his Middle School exam on Berlin after World War II: the end of the war, the four Allied zones,the rise of the Soviet zone, the Berlin airdrops, the building of the Wall, the DDR, the fall of the Wall and reunification, and he was interested in seeing the city he’d studied so much.

Certainly a lot of (baffling) history for a current middle schooler to get his head around.

We’ve traveled to a lot of countries that used to be ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, and it’s tough to explain to today’s generation just how such a division was possible – particularly in one city where the population shared the same customs and traditions, the same language and (sadly) often had relatives on both sides of the divide.

DDR Museum, BerlinBerlin’s DDR Museum could have been better, but it provided an overview of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain: replete with customs, education, propaganda efforts, Pioneer camps, interrogation rooms, military service, etc.

When I graduated from college – where I was studying the Cold War in my history classes as the Wall was being town down – I moved to Prague, back when it was still Czechoslovakia, to work.

DDR Museum, Berlin

Looks familiar. This was like every apartment I rented in Prague!

When I learned Czech, the classes were still using the “old” textbooks for foreigners learning Czech, so I got an earful of propaganda and can only feel sympathy at the displays of how this affected daily life in the DDR.

The pre-1989 foreigners studying Czech were almost always from other East Bloc countries or Northern Africa and, judging by the textbook conversations, they had nothing better to do with their time than to sit around discussing their overwhelming appreciation and awe for the glorious Soviet Union.

Typical ‘natural – sounding’ Czech textbook conversation between two foreign exchange students out in search of a good time:

A: Good Day, Comrade Abdullah!

B: Comrade Mustapha! Good Day to you! What a fine day to be out here on the Old Town Square studying Czech.

A: Yes, it certainly is Comrade! Did you read the excellent news today that the Glorious Soviet Union has once again surpassed the evil capitalist United States in tractor production?

B: The lofty glories of socialism, Comrade! Yes, I was excited to learn our vaunted, industrious comrades in the Soviet Union produced x tractors, while the corrupt, evil, spineless United States produced only y tractors last year. Our Soviet friends serve as a beacon of hope to us all! The end of evil capitalist society is clearly upon us!

At this point in our classes, we students (largely hailing from evil, capitalist, tractor-production-challenged western societies) were practically on the floor rolling with laughter, and the poor teacher would have to call the class to order and mention for the umpteenth time that the texts were currently being revised.

DDR Museum, BerlinI don’t think even someone born and bred in the corn fields of Nebraska would think the economic health of a nation should be measured by its tractor production, but there was ever so much of this wisdom sprinked ad nauseum throughout the textbook. Sadly, if you are bombarded with this day after day and with no access to any other sources of information, some is likely to rub off.

And bombarded in the DDR they were. The displays at the DDR Museum show newspapers, radio and television feeding its citizens a constant diet of propaganda.

My son liked the explanation on voting, where he had the chance to write all over the ballot that the candidates were terrible and he didn’t want any of them, only to have his ballot ‘sanitized’ and the same candidates winning by 99.4% popular approval.

DDR Museum, BerlinOf course, both kids loved trying out the old Trabants (Trabis). These – alongside the old Skodas and Ladas  – I remember well from my time in Prague. I remember pushing them up hills. But it always seemed particularly cruel in Germany, where one half of the population enjoyed fine German engineering, and the other half got saddled with the Trabant.

So yes, teaching today’s kids about the old, divided Europe may be a bit of a challenge. But when you’re in Berlin, a visit to the DDR Museum can help.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 13, 2017

The “perfection” of first drafts

2017_january_firstdraft“Every first draft is perfect. Because all a first draft has to do is exist.

Jane Smiley

Love these wise words from talented author Jane Smiley.

It’s a new year, and you probably have been mulling over your writing goals (dare I call them resolutions?) for the year ahead.

What a nice way to keep things in perspective. After all, Smiley is right.

So, you’ve written your novel. Congratulations! You’ve succeeded in transforming your ideas onto the page, and, as we all know, that’s no small feat. I agree that the perfection of the first draft rests in the fact that you’ve done it at all. Yes, we all know that the tough work is yet to come. You’ll be editing and working out all the holes you’ll find in this first attempt. That’s what the editing process is about.

But what Smiley says is correct. All a first draft has to do is exist. You took your idea to completion and you got it all down.

There’s plenty of time for second doubts and worries about how to make things perfect. For now, take time to appreciate that you managed your first draft at all. When you type out those wonderful last words ‘The end’, take some time to be proud of your first draft and its inherent ‘perfection’.

Just because it exists.


Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 10, 2017

More than steel in Piombino, Tuscany

Piombino, TuscanyWhen my husband and I went to the Tuscan island of Elba a couple of years ago for a wedding (see my earlier post about Napoleon’s former Empire), we took the ferry over from the town of Piombino, a small town on the Tyrrhenian Sea of the Mediterranean.

This area has been inhabited ever since it served as an Etruscan port. This port remained important as a main shipping route for the Republic of Pisa in the Middle Ages, and the site of battles between the population of Pisa and rival Genoa.

Since we had a bit of time to explore before our ferry, we had a walk around the medieval town.

Acciaio, Silvia AvalloneIn reality, I was curious to see the town after having recently read a novel by an emerging Italian novelist, Silvia Avallone. Entitled Acciaio (Steel, but translated into English as Swimming to Elba) it depicts the Piombino of the 1980s as a dead-end steel town.  Steel mills  in this town date back to around 1860, since the nearby island of Elba was a rich source of iron and the nearest point on the mainland seemed an ideal point for industrialization.

The novel takes place in the 1980s and mainly follows the lives of two girls growing up in town and the lives of their families, all dependent on the steel mills for employment. I saw the English title of the book long after I had read the novel, but perhaps it expresses the theme of the novel best.

Piombino, Tuscany, ItalyThe island of Elba is clearly visible from the port city, and the girls watch the flood of tourists who travel to that more sophisticated destination via ferry. Yet there is no belief that they will ever make that short trip themselves, for their destiny is firmly rooted in Piombino, and they can’t see a future for themselves beyond that invisible border.

Needless to say, it was a rather depressing portrait of the Tuscan town, so it was nice to see there was an actual historic town of interest, including some remnants of medieval architecture. This includes the Rivellino, the 15th century main gate, the 14th century cathedral, and the ancient port with its views to Elba in the distance.

Unfortunately, located in beautiful Tuscany, it’s unlikely Piombino would serve as a base for your travels since there are far more impressive locales to enjoy. Still, if you’re passing through, it’s worth a wander to see what remains as its important past as a prominent port city.

I was very pleased to see there is much more than steel in Piombino.

Piombino, Tuscany, ItalyPiombino, Tuscany, Italy

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 6, 2017

A happy writing New Year!

2017_january_newyearHow on earth does it happen each year? 2017 already!

To all you writers out there, now that the champagne bubbles have gone flat and the fireworks and holiday parties are only a faint memory, now’s the time to buckle down and start a new writing year with enthusiasm.

I know that I’m one of those who must start buckling down.

Sadly, I did little writing in 2016, although I did accomplish much editing I needed to complete.

Still, I’m happiest when I’m writing new material, and I have a dual story novel set in modern-day Rome and at the end of the 19th century that will be completed this year. See? I said it publicly. Now I have to hold myself to it. 🙂

I also want to write more short stories and edit the rather large collection I already have completed.

And you, writers? What are your writing goals for 2017? Do you generally set writing resolutions for yourself in the new year?

Wishing us all a happy and productive writing year in 2017!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 3, 2017

Sprinting around the aqueducts of Rome’s Tor Fiscale Park

Parco Tor Fiscale, Rome, ItalyIt’s great raising your kids in another culture and enjoying the differences in their upbringing.

I reflect on this a lot as I take my younger son, a track and field and cross-country athlete, to his competitions.

For his weekly workouts, he trains, arguably (for others, clearly not for me), at the most beautiful stadium in the world – on the site of Caracalla, the Ancient Roman baths where young men (women couldn’t compete at the time) in Ancient Rome would also practice sports.

Parco Tor Fiscale, Rome, ItalyAnd on Sunday mornings in the fall, I drag my son to far-flung parks in Rome and beyond where he has his cross-country competitions.

There, at parks like Rome’s Tor Fiscale, where I was last month (my second time there for races), my son and his fellow athletes ran routes that duck around ancient towers and through the arches of Ancient Roman-era aqueducts.

Parco Tor Fiscale, Rome, Italy

How this area would have appeared at the time of Ancient Rome

If there’s any need to prove how Romans live amongst their ancient past,  this is it. In other countries, these ancient ruins are in museums. Here in Rome, they are simply part of the backdrop of normal life.

Il Parco Tor Fiscale (Tor Fiscale Park) is off the Via Tuscolana, in easy walking distance from Rome’s metro (A line – Porta Furba-Quadraro stop). It was a crossing point for five aqueducts of Ancient Rome and one built during the Renaissance period.

Parco Tor Fiscale, Rome, ItalyThe ruins of these now dot the suggestive backdrop of the campagna romana (just a shame there is so much abusive building around the edges).

There are also traces of the ancient Via Latina (the Ancient Roman road that began alongside the Via Appia and stretched down to Capua, in today’s Campagna region), and this was a rich area for exploration of burial sites and ancient Roman country villas.

Parco Tor Fiscale, Rome, ItalyAnyone taking the train from Termini station to points south along the Tyrrhenian coast will see these picturesque aqueducts from the windows.

The 30 meter-high Torre del Fiscale (Fiscale Tower) dominates the landscape – and the cross-country runners’ course generally loops around it.

Parco Tor Fiscale, Rome, ItalyAs I mentioned earlier, if one has to wake up on a Sunday morning, at least it’s a real treat to discover some of these off-the-beaten-path parks with their impressive reminders of Rome’s past as caput mundi.

Enjoy your wander – or cross-country competition – through these impressive ruins at Parco Tor Fiscale the next time you’re in Rome.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | December 30, 2016

My 2016 in reading

Just as we wrap up the year, I was pleased to get a little reminder of my year in reading in the form of my Goodreads Reading Challenge update.

Goodreads 2016

It’s nice to see all the covers of books I’ve read throughout the year, set out very nicely on this review page.

And my nerdy bookworm side is pleased to learn that I’ve read 19,121 pages of 47 novels this year! This is good news, since some days it seems all I read is work-related technical documents … so it’s good for me to know I’ve also carved out sacred time for the fun reading, too.

As I get ready to start my 2017 reading challenge, it’s nice to reflect on the reading highlights of 2016.

Hope you have all had an excellent 2016 in reading, and as this year comes to a close, wishing you all a wonderful start to 2017!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | December 27, 2016

Views from the top of Berlin’s Television Tower

Berlin television towerI love to travel, and whenever I go to a city it’s only a matter of time until I find its highest point. I generally try to make this visit early on so I can see the layout of a city clearly. It helps me when I’m exploring by foot later on.

So on a  recent trip to Berlin, it’s not odd that I quickly made my way to the Berliner Fersehturm, the Berlin television tower.

Berlin television towerAt 368 meters, this is the highest point in town – and one of the tallest constructions in all of Europe. I’ve been to Berlin before, but strangely, never made it up here.

My advice is to get here early. Only 400 people can visit at any one time, and the line quickly becomes  very long, while small elevators don’t exactly speed things along.

The tower was completed in 1969 – in time for anniversary celebrations for the German Democratic Republic – the former East Germany.

Berlin television towerThe design was to be reminiscent of the Soviet sputnik satellites, all trimmed in socialist red.

This showpiece designed to flaunt the marvels of the (thankfully) now-defunct DDR still works well in modern Berlin. The television tower is one of Berlin’s landmarks, and is visible all over the city, making it a great way to orient yourself from wherever you are.

Berlin television towerThe observation deck is located at 203 meters, and provides excellent views over the sprawling German capital.

It’s a great place to take a break and admire the city from far above, with helpful explanations about the monuments and about how the formerly divided city developed.

We didn’t eat there, but there is also a popular restaurant where you can eat, and which revolves so you can enjoy views over the entire city. Definitely worth a visit on your next trip to Berlin.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | December 23, 2016

Farewell to novelist Shirley Hazzard

People in Glass Houses, Shirley HazzardEarlier this month, Australian author (later turned American citizen) Shirley Hazzard (1931 – 2016) died at the age of 85.

Hazzard was probably best known for her novel, The Transit of Venus, which won the National Book Critics circle Award in 1980.

But for me, the book I most closely associate with Hazzard is the brilliant send-up on the United Nations in a series of connected short stories entitled People in Glass Houses.

Hazzard, who worked in the UN in its early years – in the 1950s – and later became a vociferous critic, creates a brilliant satire of what she calls ‘The Organization’, replete with official-sounding UN acronyms such as ” ‘DALTO – the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented’, working to induce backwards nations to come forwards.”

This biting satire is subtle, depicting enthusiastic, idealistic young people entering a system they believe can truly make a difference, only to be slowly grounded down by mind-boggling bureaucracy and incompetent management. Speaking about the career rise of one character, it’s noted with pride that “he worked at Interim Reports, before being upgrade to Annual Reports.”

One of the characters in the story is described as such: “Svoboda was not a brilliant man. He was a man of what used to be knows as average and is now known as above-average intelligence.”

Here’s a telling passage about bureaucratic management within ‘The Organization’:

“Although exalted in Organizational rank, they were not remarkable men. First-class minds, being interested in the truth, tend to select other first-class minds as companions. Second-class minds, on the other hand, being interested in themselves, will select third-class comrades in order to maintain the illusion of superiority.”

But it isn’t only political-appointee management Hazzard pokes fun at. One of her best pieces in the collection is about a bitter, insecure and increasingly unstable secretary, Sadie Graine,  who viciously wields her power over those around her. She takes twisted pride in controlling access to her boss and thwarting the careers of those who don’t provide her with the respect she believes she deserves. It’s a brilliant story with a satisfying end.  I was pleased to read an interview with Hazzard in which she recalls this little gem as probably her most perfect short story.

Farewell to author Shirley Hazzard. While I must read more of her work, I truly enjoyed People In Glass Houses and greatly appreciate her fine eye for satire.

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