Posted by: kimberlysullivan | May 18, 2018

Why women’s stories are so engaging

“I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live. In this world women do that.”

—James Salter

How can I not love this quote by American novelist and short story writer James Salter (1925-2015)?

I’ve always been a great reader, and grew up reading all the (mostly male-authored) classics. But now that I am free to read as I choose (outside of work, at least), I find myself increasingly drawn to women’s stories. Or, if you will, so-called women’s fiction.

Reading the comments of others, I see women’s fiction can often be seen as a loaded term, but I don’t agree. I don’t see women’s fiction as “less-than” fiction. Women are the majority of writers and the overwhelming majority of readers and I, for one, enjoy literature following their journeys.

I read widely, but I find that good women’s fiction, following a journey in the life of a female protagonist, often makes for insightful and inspiring reading.

So yes, I find myself enthusiastically nodding along with James Salter. How can I not be drawn to the stories of women who often have the harder task, yet still face it unflinchingly and simply live? Here’s to celebrating women’s stories!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | May 17, 2018

A birds’ eye view of Gent, Belgium

Gent, BelgiumI’ve already written about the visit with my youngest son to visit the charming, medieval town of Ghent, in Belgium.

It was my first time in that picture-perfect town, which was rendered even more beautiful by the warm spring sunshine.

My son and I did what we always do when we visit a new town – we seek out the city’s highest point.

In a modern city, that will probably be a skyscraper. In a medieval European city like Gent, it is almost always a bell tower. And so, not surprisingly, we made our way to the Belfort, the 91 meter tall bell tower topped with a golden dragon visible from all over the town.

Gent, BelgiumConstructed in 1313, the bell tower has undergone renovations in the 19th and 20th centuries, but those narrow little stairs curving to the top don’t seem to have changed much from the 14th century in which they were constructed.

We had quite a hike up those curving stairs (for the less intrepid visitors, there is also a lift. But what’s the fun in that?)

My son sprinted up, and I followed steadily – and more slowly – behind him. The views from up top were well worth the effort.

I always love seeing the towns I visit from these spectacular vantage points, and admiring the impressive architecture and winding streets from these birds’ eye perspective.

Gent, BelgiumAnother plus of visiting the Belfort is the intricate carillon bell system marking out the hours and quarter hours.

Its complicated series of 54 bells chime every fifteen minutes, and it is fun to watch the mechanical maneuverings that get this done.

This carrion system of bells is common in Belgium and northern France.

When next in Gent, be sure to climb up this medieval bell tower for jaw-dropping views over this medieval town.

Race you up…

Gent, Belgium

Gent, Belgium

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | May 11, 2018

Avoid regrets in life – write!

“If I don’t write I feel, well, a kind of remorse, no?”

—Jorge Luis Borges

I love these wise words by Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986).

And if there are any fighting words to pull a writer back from the abyss of endless procrastination and back on the path of productive writing, these seem to fit the bill pretty well.

After all, writers write because they have stories inside them itching to get out. Those stories, characters and settings will continue to swirl around in a writer’s mind until he or she commits them to the page.

So why not take the talented Borges at his word and avoid feelings of remorse later in life? Happy writing to all!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | May 8, 2018

Basking in the spring sunshine in Gent/Gand, Belgium

Gent, BelgiumOn a recent trip to Brussels with my younger son, we took advantage of the spectacular spring weather to make a day trip to a Flemish city I’d never visited – Gent in Flemish, Gand in French.

It’s only a short train trip from Brussels’ Central Station. Of course, the advantage of tiny Belgium is that everywhere is only a short train trip away…

I’ve always been curious about this small city, and have seen many photos of its picturesque architecture and canals, so it was a real treat to see it in person.

On the April day when we visited, Gent was packed with tourists lounging in the bright sunshine. According to the locals, it had been a long, grey winter, so the first spring sunshine was appreciated by all.

Gent, BelgiumGent is less well-known than the heavily visited Bruges (see my earlier post on biking in Bruges), but it is equally picturesque.

Like Bruges, Gent owes its spectacular architecture to its period of great wealth in textile trade during the medieval period and stretching into Holland’s Golden Period of trade in the 16th century.

The Leie River was an important riverway for trade and Gent served as an important trade port, especially between the 13th and 14th centuries – and you can still see much of the impressively preserved architecture from that time.

Gent was founded in the 9th century by the first count of Flanders, who erected a castle that served as protection for the town against Viking invasions.

Gent prospered spectacularly until the 17th century, when the Dutch closed an estuary of the Scheldt  River flowing to Antwerp, a decision that would lead to the decline of both Antwerp and Gent.

Gent, BelgiumIn the 18th and 19th century, Gent would become an important industrial center, leading to pollution of its river and a decline of its architecture and its aesthetic appeal, but an impressive renovation project starting in the 1980s returned this medieval city to its earlier splendor.

There’s much to admire in beautiful Gent and art lovers (like me) should not miss the spectacular Jan van Eyck triptych, completed in 1432. You can admire it in the impressive Gothic Saint Baafskathedraal.

For us, Gent was a stop on a day trip that included Bruges, but this charming city deserves a longer visit next time.

Don’t miss out on a visit to Gent next time you’re in Belgium – and wishing you the sunny views we enjoyed on our brief stay in this charming medieval town.

Gent, Belgium

Gent, Belgium

Gent, Belgium

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | May 4, 2018

Book review: The Dinner

The Dinner - Herman KochI had never heard of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner before picking it up in a bookstore.

I admit I was attracted by the cover and the interesting back cover description, and I’m so happy I took a chance on this novel, since I was very quickly engrossed in this disturbing tale.

Originally published in Dutch, this novel takes place in Holland and the entire novel unfolds during a dinner at a chic Amsterdam restaurant.

Two couples meet for dinner, to discuss a horrific incident that  involved their sons. Only the four adults are aware that the grainy CCTV images of  a brutal crime depict their own children, and they must determine what should be done about this knowledge.

I love how this story is crafted, with the events taking place in a single evening, but unfolding leisurely through flashbacks and background that slowly begin to make sense to the reader.

The unhurried unfolding of the story as course after course arrives at the table works perfectly. As readers, we feel a growing sense of unease as each new piece of information is presented to us and we reevaluate our impressions. An excellent and highly disturbing novel.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | May 1, 2018

Scaling Europe’s largest sand dune – in France

Dunes du Pyla, FranceLast summer on holiday in France’s Aquitaine region, I couldn’t miss the chance to visit the Dune du Pyla.

I’d long been curious to visit Europe’s highest sand dunes.

I’d seen their spectacular images in photos often enough, but on various trips to France I’d never been close enough to merit a stop-by.

This time it was impossible to pass up on the chance to see this for myself.

Dunes du Pyla, FranceThe trip from where I was staying in the Pays basque was a few hours by car (longer factoring in the heavy traffic one encounters in France over the summer holidays), but well worth the visit.

Located in the Gironde, and not far from Bordeaux, the Dune du Pyla is an impressive natural landmark.

As Europe’s largest sand dune, it is about 3 km long, 500 meters wide, and tops up at an impressive 105 meters (305 ft) tall.

Dune du Pyla, FranceI suffered a sprained ankle the month before my visit, and I can assure you climbing up its 105 meters of sand on a still-tender ankle felt to me a bit like scaling Everest.

My younger son, an avid sprinter, knocked himself out sprinting up and down its slopes, declaring it the toughest workout he’d ever had. I wonder if the French national team boasts many sprinters hailing from this region…

Dune du Pyla, FranceThe views from the top are spectacular. On the interior are the lush green trees of the Foret de la Test, while the other side boasts stunning views over the sparkling blue Atlantic.

After all that exhausting climbing, we descended to the Atlantic coastline for a refreshing swim, before mounting our Everest-like sand slope once again.

This spectacular creation illustrates the force of nature. Back in the 1850s, as the region began to develop as a winter resort for well-heeled patients suffereing various respiratory illnesses (the resin from the pine trees was said to have healing properties), this sand dune was only 35 meters (114 feet) high.

Dune du Pyla, FranceBut each year westerly winds blow sand from the banks and deposit that sand on this dune, which is said to grow by about 1-4 meters annually. Quite impressive…

The Dune du Pyla is a spectacular site to see, and the trek up to then top was well worth some temporary discomfort to my tender ankle. Next time I’ll come back with a clean bill of health, so I can sprint up with my son…

Don’t miss out on the stunning Dune du Pyla when you’re next in this region of France.

Dune du Pyla, France

Dune du Pyla, France

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | April 27, 2018

It’s here! Beach reading season 2018

Beach readingI always love this time of year.

The spring sunshine blesses us, and it’s time to start heading out to the beach once again with a  good novel tucked in the beach bag.

Earlier this week my younger son had a track meet in Ostia, the small city west of Rome and on the sea. After doing a great job on both his 60 meter and 800 meter races, we decided to celebrate with a short visit to the nearby beach on what was a perfect spring day.

We were rewarded with fresh sea air and lovely breezes, although he wasn’t quite brave enough to dive under the waves just yet. But with Rome heating up as quickly as it is, it’s only a matter of time…

Although we didn’t stay long, I couldn’t help but crack out my first beach read of the year, appropriately entitled We Were The Salt of The Sea, by Canadian novelist Roxanne Bouchard. I’m enjoying this criminal investigation set in a sleepy Quebec fishing village filled with quirky characters and an ocean that claims victims from almost every family in the village.

I’ll write a review when I’ve completed the novel, but for now I’m enjoying the story as it unfolds. And enjoying it even more as I smell the sea air and hear the waves crashing (well, it’s the Mediterranean, so ‘rolling’ is a more accurate description) to shore.

A very happy beach reading season 2018 to all!

Galeries Saint-Hubert, BrusselsThis elegant Brussels shopping arcade was inaugurated in 1847 by Belgium’s first king, Leopold I. It would be established as one of Europe’s first commercial shopping galleries – and certainly one of the most beautiful.

If you haven’t noticed from my posts, I have a bit of a weakness for stunning European shopping galleries. See my earlier posts on the Ferstel Passage in Vienna, the spectacular art deco galleries in Turin, and Milan’s beautiful gallery all decked out for the holidays .

Brussels’ jaw-dropping Galeries Saint-Hubert rates up there with the best – and perhaps even better because it is filled with something this chocolate lover always enjoys.

Galeries Saint-Hubert, BrusselsBelgium is known for its wonderful chocolate, and here in the elegant shops of the Saint-Hubert Gallery, all the major brands vie for attention with their sinful displays. You’ll find them all here: Godiva, Neuhaus, Marconi, Mary … and the (scrumptious)  list goes on and on.

However, quality chocolate comes with a big price tag – those gorgeous jewel-boxes of chocolate pralines seemed to set me back amounts similar to what I might have spent on actual jewels…

Well worth it, however…

Galeries Saint-Hubert, BrusselsIf you can tear yourself awau from the tempting chocolates, enjoy the neo-Renaissance style created by architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer. The ceilings are lined in glass, allowing more light to filter into the galleries. Some of the literary greats spent time here – including Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

My son and I meant to get back to the cinema housed in the gallery, but we didn’t manage during our stay. We did, however, find time for many walks in this beautiful space, a few leisurely coffees at the cafes scattered around the galleries and, of course, plenty of wallet-busting chocolate shopping.

Don’t miss out on the spectacular Saint Hubert Gallery (and its chocolate!) on your next visit to Brussels.

Galeries Saint-Hubert, Brussels


Posted by: kimberlysullivan | April 20, 2018

García Márquez on authors and pilots

“I’m happy when I’m traveling to know that the pilots are better pilots than I am a writer.”

—Gabriel García-Márquez

I love this quote from brilliant Colombian novelist Gabriel García-Márquez (1927 -2014).

While García-Márquez, a truly gifted and original writer, is being modest, he also raises an important point. A pilot must demonstrate technical skill and mastery to practice his or her profession form the outset, while an author grows into the profession and undertakes much experimentation – much of which works, much of which does not.

When we climb on a plane, we expect that our pilot is technically competent at his or her job.

Yet an author is constantly evolving. An author can radically changes styles or genres throughout his or her career. He can be profoundly influenced by external factors or life-changing events. His  writing skills can alter radically throughout a long career. In the end, an author is always learning and honing his or her skill.

While the same is true for a pilot – the more experience and flight hours a pilot has under his or her belt, the better the pilot becomes – the basic skills and expertise must be present from the moment of passing the pilot’s license.

A writer – even one who has been successful – can never rest on his laurels. Each blank first page of a new novel begins the trial of writing once again, struggling with the self-doubt that comes with each new project.

We all hope that our pilots go into each new flight with far more confidence than your average writer when tackling a new novel, but I hardly think the talented García-Márquez had much to worry about…

Happy writing (and flying!) to all!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | April 17, 2018

Bruges by bike

Biking Bruges, BelgiumMy younger son and I enjoyed a long weekend in Brussels earlier this month, and while there we had a great time visiting the medieval city of Bruges.

A Belgian colleague had told me about a bike trail leading from Gent/Gand to Bruges – a 45-kilometer bike towpath trail along a canal.

With the benefit of hindsight, I made the mistake of telling my son about this and he did nothing but talk about this bike trip we would be taking.

Biking Bruges, BelgiumSadly, when we arrived in Gent, no one seemed to have heard of this illusive trail. In the tourist office, they looked at me strangely. Ditto for the bike rental shop.

I know it does exist, since I found references to it online, but with no clear idea where it started, we decided to give up on our impossible quest.

One day we’ll go back and I will find this trail…

Biking Bruges, BelgiumSo when we arrived not by pedal-power but by train, how could we miss out on the chance to discover Bruges by bike?

We rented bikes for the day and took the scenic canal route around the city – a pleasant, scenic route taking in all the city’s pictureque windmills.

Once the tourist crowds thinned in late afternoon/early evening, we could also start criss-crossing the historic center, with its lovely squares and canals.

Biking in Bruges, BelgiumI hadn’t been back to Bruges in years – ahem – decades, but it was just as gorgeous as I remember it. And what a great way to explore the beautiful medieval city – by bike.

We’ll definitely be back – and next time we’ll get there by the well-hidden towpath from Gent.

Nevertheless, a great day exploring beautiful Bruges by bike! Don’t miss out the next time you’re in this picturesque corner of Belgium.

Biking in Bruges, Belgium

Biking in Bruges, Belgium

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