November 24 Writer Birthdays

1394 – Charles d’Orléans (Duke of Orléans), French poet who wrote chansons, ballades, and rondeaux in French, Latin, and English.

1632 – Benedict [Baruch] de Spinoza, Dutch philosopher, author, and lens-grinder.

1713 – Laurence Sterne, Anglo-Irish novelist, travel writer, memoirist, and clergyman, best known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

1826 – Carlo Collodi, Italian journalist and author also known as Carlo Lorenzini; he is best known as the creator of Pinocchio

1849 – Frances Hodgson Burnett, English playwright and beloved author whose children’s stories like The Secret Garden are considered classics; she also wrote novels for adults and hosted literary salons in Washington, D.C. while living for a time in the U.S.

1858 – Marie Bashkirtseff, Russian/.Ukrainian writer, biographer, diarist, painter, and sculptor who is best known for the diary she began keeping at age 13, which has been called “a strikingly modern psychological self-portrait of a young, gifted mind.”

1885 – Anna Louise Strong, American author, journalist, activist, trade unionist, and peace activist who was best known for her reporting on communist movements in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

1888 – Dale Carnegie, American writer and lecturer whose most famous work is How to Win Friends and Influence People.

1912 – Garson Kanin, American playwright and producer who was a friend of actress Katharine Hepburn.

1921 – Yoshiko Uchida, award-winning Japanese-American memoirist, children’s author, short-story writer, editor, autobiographer, novelist, folklorist, and teacher; her writing is considered part of the Folk Art literary movement.

1925 – William F Buckley Jr., American conservative author who founded the magazine National Review.

1927 – Ahmadou Kourouma, Ivorian (Ivory Coast) novelist, satirist, activist who shone a light on colonialism in Africa.

1935 – Mordecai Gerstein, Caldecott Medal-winning American children’s book author and illustrator.

1948 – Spider Robinson, award-winning American-born Canadian author of science fiction and humor; he has also written short stories and book reviews.

1961 – Arundhati Roy, Indian author and political activist, best known for her novel The God of Small Things.

1970 – Marlon James, award-winning Jamaican author who almost gave up his writing career after receiving 70 rejections for his first novel.

1972 – Samira Bellil, French feminist writer, autobiographer, and activist or the rights of girls and women; she became famous in France with the publication of an autobiographical book that discusses the violence she and other young women endured in the immigrant outskirts of Paris, where she was repeatedly gang-raped as a teenager; her book depicts the predicament of young girls in the poor, outlying suburbs (banlieue) of French cities.

1974 – Stephen Merchant, British comedian and television writer whose credits include The Office.

1975 – Thomas Kohnstamm, American author and travel writer.

November 23 Writer Birthdays

1798 – Klementyna Hoffmanowa, Polish novelist, children’s author, translator, magazine editor, and teacher who was one of the first Polish writers for children and the first woman in Poland to support herself from writing and teaching; her best known work, the book The Diary of Countess Francoise Krasinska, is considered one of the first Polish psychological novels.

1803 – Fyodor Tyutchev, Russian poet, writer, politician, diplomat, translator, and philosopher; as a poet, he was little known during his lifetime but is now one of the most memorized and quoted Russian poets.

1825 – Henriette Goldschmidt, German writer, feminist, pedagogist, and social worker.

1857 – Katharine Ellis Coman, American historian, economist, sociologist, professor, and social activist who believed that the field of political economy could be harnessed to solve the pressing social problems of the day, and specialized in research and teaching about the development of the American West, and about British and American industrialism; in her work, she criticized capitalism and supported the labor movement.
She wrote the first history of American industry, as well as the first paper published in The American Economic Review, and was the first female statistics professor in the United States.

1861 – Clemence Annie Housman, novelist, author of erotic horror, illustrator, and leader in the women’s suffrage movement; she was the sister of classical scholar and poet A.E. Housman and playwright Laurence Housman.

1863 – Katharine Pyle, American writer, children’s author, and painter who was the sister of author and artist Howard Pyle; she wrote more than 30 books and illustrated others, and her art was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

1881 – Milica Jankovic, Serbian writer of prose and verse who was also known by her pseudonym, Leposava Mihajlovic; her best known work is Ispovesti (Confessions), a collection of modernist short stories characterized by a lively style and a warm understanding of humanity.

1890 – Moishe Broderzon, Russian-born Polish Yiddish poet, writer, painter, librettist, composer, and theater director who founded several groups for artists and writers; his extravagant appearance made an impression in Yiddish cultural circles, with his long black hair, Pushkin-style sideburns, black shirt of a Russian worker, amber and coral necklaces, and rings on his fingers. In 1939 he wrote lyrics, titled Yud, that took the form of 50 poems of 16 lines each, laden with tragic premonitions of the end of Polish Jewry in a coming world catastrophe. He escaped from Poland into the Soviet Union after the Nazi invasion, but in 1950 he was arrested and spent five years in a Siberian labor camp.

1897 – Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Indian-British Bengali novelist, autobiographer, and nonfiction writer.

1901 – Marieluise Fleißer, German author, playwright, and screenwriter most often associated with the New Objectivity movement.

1906 – Sait Faik Abasıyanık, Turkish screenwriter, writer, poet, and novelist who is considered one of the greatest Turkish writers of short stories and poetry; he created a new style of Turkish literature and brought new life to Turkish short-story writing, with harsh but humanistic portrayals of laborers, fishermen, children, the unemployed, and the poor, in stories that focused on the urban lifestyle and the darker places in Istanbul.

1906 – Betti Alver, Estonian novelist, poet, and translator who is considered one of Estonia’s most notable poets; she first became known as a member of the Arbujad (“Soothsayers”), a small group of influential Estonian poets.

1911 – Selma Vaz Dias, Dutch/British playwright, radio script writer, and actor.

1911 – Josefina Vicens (also referred to by her nickname, “el Peque”), Mexican novelist, screenwriter, journalist, and activist who is considered to be one of Mexico’s seminal writers; she is best known for her novels and for her pioneering contributions to twentieth-century Mexican politics and political thought through her activism and journalism.

1912 – Shaun Herron, Irish mystery and suspense novelist, journalist, intelligence officer, and two-time Edgar Award finalist.

1914 – Wilson Tucker, American mystery and science-fiction author and fanzine editor who coined the term “space opera” and was also a theater technician.

1915 – Marc Simont, Caldecott Medal-winning Paris-born American children’s book author, illustrator, and political cartoonist.

1916 – P. K. Page, British-born Canadian poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, travel writer, children’s author, journalist, autobiographer, teacher, and painter; in 2001, by a special resolution of the United Nations, her poem “Planet Earth” was read simultaneously in New York, the Antarctic, and the South Pacific to celebrate the International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.

1920 – Paul Celan (real name Paul Antschel), Romanian-born Jewish poet and translator who wrote in German; the deaths of his parents at the hands of the Nazis and his own experience of the Holocaust were defining forces in his poetry and his use of language.

1923 – Gloria Whelan, National Book Award-winning American children’s and YA author; historical fiction author, poet, and short-story writer.

1925 – Tui Flower (real name Lucy Tui Hampton Aitken, née Flower), pioneering New Zealand food writer who has been described as “New Zealand’s Julia Child.”

1925 – Elaine Horseman (née Hall), British author children’s books about children in an old Victorian house and a book of magic spells.

1925 – Eva Ramm, Norwegian psychologist, essayist, novelist, crime writer, nonfiction author, children’s author, and magazine editor.

1927 – Guy Davenport, American writer, translator, illustrator, painter, intellectual, and teacher whose works include Da Vinci’s Bicycle and The Jules Verne Steam Balloon.

1929 – Hal Lindsey, American evangelist and Christian author, known for his 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth; he made many prophecies in a series of popular apocalyptic books suggesting that the rapture was likely to occur in the 1980s. It did not.

1933 – Giuliana Berlinguer, Italian director, screenwriter, and novelist.

1934 – Renzo Pi Hugarte, Uruguayan anthropologist, historian, author, and professor who is considered one of the founding fathers of anthropology in Uruguay.

1934 – Robert Towne, American screenwriter, producer, director, and actor who is best-known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for the film Chinatown.

1936 – Robert Barnard, English crime writer and literary critic whose main series revolved around detective Charlie Pearce, though his other books including two alternate histories in which Wolfgang Mozart survived into old age and became a detective; Barnard sometimes used the pen name Bernard Bastable.

1940 – Hanna Rambe, Indonesian mystery novelist, short-story writer, biographer, journalist, editor, and translator whose writing is infused with a strong sense of irony and meticulous research; she is currently working on a three-volume history of 17th-century Eastern Indonesia.

1944 – József A. Eszterhás (also known as Joe Eszterhas), Hungarian-born American screenwriter and author who wrote the screenplays for such well-known films as Flashdance, Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, as well as several books, including an autobiography.

1947 – Nina Gorlanova, award-winning Russian novelist and short-story writer who creates in her fiction a fantastic world populated with curious characters and possessing its own mythology; she writes about themes of maternity and the everyday hardships of Russian woman.

1948 – Zoë Wicomb, award-winning South African novelist, short-story writer, literary critic, and academic who now lives in Scotland.

1949 – Betty Louise Bell, American Cherokee novelist, nonfiction writer, and professor whose areas of scholarly interest include Native American literature, Women’s Studies, 19th-century American literature, and creative writing.

1950 – Carlos Eire, National Book Award-winning Cuban-born American professor, nonfiction author, and memoirist best known for the book Waiting for Snow in Havana, a memoir of the Cuban Revolution.

1950 – Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri, Indian Bengali writer and Indologist who specializes in Indian epics and Puranas (ancient Indian legends and lore) and is director of a major encyclopedia of Indian literature.

1953 – Rick Bayless, American chef and food author who specializes in regional Mexican cuisine.

1954 – Siobhán Parkinson, award-winning Irish writer, editor, translator, children’s writer, and linguist who was named Laureate na nÓg, a position awarded in Ireland once every two years to a distinguished writer or illustrator of children’s books.

1955 – Steven Brust (full name Steven Karl Zoltán Brust), American science-fiction and fantasy author of the Vlad Taltos series and other books and short stories; he is also a drummer and singer-songwriter. His philosophy of writing: “The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”

1956 – Dominique Demers, bestselling and award-winning Canadian children’s author, novelist, and screenwriter, most renowned for her Mlle Charlotte series of books.

1956 – Anna Fienberg, Australian writer of novels and short fiction for children and young adults.

1961 – Maria Amélia Gomes Barros da Lomba do Amaral (known as Amélia da Lomba or Amélia Dalomba), Angolan writer and journalist.

1963 – Lauren Tarshis, bestselling American editor and author of children’s books, with several series of fiction, non-fiction, and historical fiction works including her “I Survived” series that focuses on historical disasters from the perspective of a boy or girl who lived to tell the tale.

1965 – Lidija Bajuk, Croatian poet, short-story writer, and singer-songwriter who has written books of poetry, short stories, and fairy tales.

1965 – Jennifer Michael Hecht, American author, poet, essayist, columnist, blogger, philosopher, literary critic, historian, and professor.

1965 – Billie Livingston, award-winning Canadian novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and poet; her work has been called, “courageously renegade (and hilarious)” and compared the writing of Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene.

1968 – Hamid Hassani, Iranian writer, linguist, and lexicographer whose areas of interest include Persian lexicography, dictionary-making, and Persian linguistics.

1969 – Ichirō Sakaki, Japanese novelist, screenwriter, and manga writer

1970 – Adrianne Janette Byrd, bestselling African-American author of more than 50 romance novels.

1973 – Anne-Dauphine Julliand, French writer, essayist, journalist, and filmmaker; some of her work recounts her family’s experiences with the serious illness of two of her children.

1980 – Ismael Beah, Sierra Leonean author who was forced to become a child soldier at the age of 13 and later wrote the memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier as well as several novels.

1949 – Gayl Jones, African-American gothic novelist, poet, and short-story writer; on reading one of her manuscripts, acclaimed author Toni Morrison said, “no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.”

Drinking with Robert Duvall

It was my senior year of college, and I turned 21 in December, the day before I left school to see my family for winter break. I was at the University of Virginia, and my parents lived in California, so I didn’t visit them there often. In fact, it was the first time I’d seen them since winter break of my junior year.

My sister, also a senior at a state university in Virginia, had turned 21 just ten months earlier, and we’d arranged to fly together to the West Coast. My father was all smiles when he picked us up at the airport, bragging to everyone he saw about having not one but TWO daughters who were 21 years old. That very night, he took the two of us drinking.

In case you’re wondering, yes, it did feel weird to have our father take us out drinking. On the other hand, our parents had moved to California only recently, and we really didn’t know anyone on the West Coast. So it wasn’t as if we had anyone else to go drinking with. And he was so excited about treating us. He took us to a piano bar he knew, and we all sat around the oversized grand piano. And my father, who is much more outgoing and charismatic than anyone has a right to be, charmed the other people there by going on extensively about how I’d just had a birthday, and how proud he was of his two 21-year-old daughters. We sang old songs along with everyone else around the piano. And we drank. He was impressed that I ordered bourbon like him rather than a “girlie” drink like white wine — but I was a U.Va. student, after all.

Everyone has always said that my dad looks like the actor Robert Duvall. But it hadn’t occurred to me that people were paying attention to him for any reason other than his natural charm. But after a few minutes, someone finally asked the question that apparently everyone in the room had been wanting to ask, “You’re Robert Duvall, aren’t you?”

My dad laughed and said of course he wasn’t. His name was Bart. People winked and nodded and smiled. And someone commented on how sweet it was that a big Hollywood star was pretending to be an average guy because he wanted it to be his daughters’ night, not his own. Over the course of the evening, he insisted repeatedly that he really wasn’t Robert Duvall. Nobody believed him, and every time he protested, they were just more impressed at how humble he was. In the end, he gave up and signed their cocktail napkins, “Bob Duvall.”

To this day, a dozen Californians are probably still telling the story of the night they sang and drank at a piano bar with Robert Duvall and his 21-year-old daughters.

November 22 Writer Birthdays

1819 – George Eliot (pseudonym for Mary Anne Evans) English novelist who was one of the leading writers of the Victorian era; she used her own name for her work as a journalist, editor, and critic. Her book Middlemarch has been called the greatest novel in the English language.

1869 – André Gide, Nobel Prize-winning French author of fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, criticism, plays, short stories, and poetry.

1883 – Martin Flavin, Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and playwright.

1896 – David J. Mays, Pulitzer Prize-winning American biographer, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, nonfiction author, and lawyer.

1904 – Fumio Niwa, Japanese novelist, essayist, and biographer.

1907 – Dora Maar (born Henriette Theodora Marković) Argentinian-raised poet, painter, and photographer of French and Croatian descent; she is most widely known as Pablo Picasso’s muse.

1917 – Jon Cleary, Australian writer of detective fiction and other novels; many of his works have been adapted for film and television.

1938 – John du Pont, millionaire athlete, natural history museum founder, writer of books on birds, and convicted murderer.

1940 – Terry Gilliam, American-born British screenwriter, film director, animator, actor, comedian, and member of the Monty Python comedy troupe.

1943 – William Kotzwinkle, American novelist, screenwriter, and children’s book author, best known for his children’s series about Walter the Farting Dog, as well as for writing the novelization of the movie E.T.

1943 – Roger L. Simon, American novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

1947 – Valerie Wilson Wesley, American author of mysteries, adult-theme novels, magazine articles, and children’s books; she was also executive editor of Essence magazine.

1962 – Victor Olegovich Pelevin, award-winning Russian novelist whose books are multi-layered postmodernist texts fusing elements of pop culture and esoteric philosophies while carrying conventions of the science-fiction genre.

1969 – Marjane Satrapi, Iranian-born French graphic novelist, illustrator, film director, and children’s book author.

There and Back Again: College Edition

In a dorm room on a hill, there lived a student. Not a nasty, dirty, wet dorm room, filled with empty beer cans and an oozy dirty-laundry smell, nor yet a lovely, well-decorated, sparkling clean dorm room with nothing in it to sit down on and no chocolate to eat; it was my son’s dorm room, and that means a certain level of manageable dirt and a moderate amount of comfort.

So continues the saga of my 18-year-old’s first year of college, a year characterized by isolation, constant disruption, intermittent backtracking, and a fair amount of missing out, putting-up, and making-do.

The school year started in August with students on campus. Classes began as a mix of online and in-person, but as Covid-19 rates soared and available quarantine rooms dwindled, more and more went to online only. And then campus all but shut down for much of September. So we drove the 2 1/4 hours to Harrisonburg to pick him up and bring him home. He spent most of September at home, attending classes remotely, while the university took steps to find more quarantine space, thin out the crowds in the dining halls, and otherwise make students safer, allowing campus to reopen in early October. Then we drove him back, and we were pleased to see that the new safety measures had worked; Covid-19 numbers on campus remained low.

Most classes are online now. In fact, some parents believe all classes are online, I guess because their own students have only online classes. I know it is not true; my own son has several classes that still meet in person. But not for long.

After about six weeks back at school, students are now heading home (or are already home) for the week of Thanksgiving break. In fact, for many of them it’s not just a week. To minimize the amount of travel around the state and country, the university announced a move to all online classes between Thanksgiving break and winter break, and is encouraging students who live in campus housing to stay home between the breaks and not come back until the third week of January.

Students were supposed to be out of their dorm rooms by 10 am today, Saturday, a deadline that was communicated to them (and never directly to parents) less than a week ago. That might have been fine if students were leaving for a week (of no classes) and not two months (of mostly full-time school). But for two months, they have to bring a lot of stuff with them: books, most of their clothes, musical instruments, computer equipment, and so forth. Packing all that up takes time.

So 10 am Saturday morning was a boneheaded deadline, when you consider that many kids had full course schedules yesterday, Friday, and that many parents had to work yesterday and could not travel to campus to get them until this morning. And some parents are coming from a whole lot farther away than we were. We’d booked a hotel room for tonight ages ago, before the 10 am time limit was announced. We’d figured on arriving late morning, packing up, spending the night at a hotel nearby, and then heading home in the morning. We asked the housing office for an extension so that we could pack him up this afternoon as originally planned, and we got it. So almost everyone was gone when we arrived. I have never seen the dorm so empty!

He’s moved out now, and we’re in the on-campus hotel for the night. Tomorrow morning we’ll hit the road again for the drive through Mirkwood Forest and the Misty Mountains, back home to the Shire.

Watch out for trolls.

November 21 Writer Birthdays

1631- Catharina Questiers, Dutch writer, poet, and playwright who was among the most successful Dutch poets of the second half of the 17th century; her brother David was also a poet.

1694 – Voltaire, Pen name of François-Marie Arouet, prolific French Enlightenment writer, historian, poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, history writer, science writer, pamphleteer, and philosopher; he is remembered most for works like the satiric novella Candide, his criticism of Christianity, and his advocacy for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. He was one of the first authors to become renowned and commercially successful internationally.

1740 – Charlotte Baden (full name Sophia Lovisa Charlotte Baden) , Danish writer, letter writer, and feminist.

1768 – Friedrich Schleiermacher, German theologian, writer, translator, philosopher, university teacher, and biblical scholar who is considered the “Father of Modern Liberal Theology.”

1844 – Ada Cambridge (later known as Ada Cross), English-born Australian writer, poet, autobiographer, and novelist.

1863 – Arthur Quiller-Couch, influential British writer, poet, novelist, university teacher, and literary critic who published under the pseudonymn Q; although a prolific novelist, he is remembered mainly for the monumental publication The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900 (later extended to 1918) and for his literary criticism.

1870 – Mary Johnston, American novelist, suffragist, and women’s rights advocate who was one of the nation’s bestselling authors; three silent films were adapted form her novels.

1902 – Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize-winning Polish-born Jewish-American author renowned “for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life.”

1903 – Einosuke Itō (伊藤 永之介), Japanese writer and journalist who was part of the Proletarian literature movement.

1907 – Jim Bishop, journalist, columnist, and author who wrote the bestseller, The Day Kennedy Was Shot.

1908 – Leo Politi, Caldecott Medal-winning Italian-American children’s author and illustrator whose works often celebrated diversity; many of them were published in both English and Spanish.

1908 – Elizabeth George Speare, two-time Newbery Medal-winning American author of children’s and young adult books; she is best known for the novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

1910 – Qian Zhongshu, Chinese essayist, novelist, satirist, translator, and scholar.

1924 – Lena Mukhina, Russian writer, diarist, and painter who as a teenager wrote in her diary about her life during the Siege of Leningrad; it was published many years later, after being discovered in a state archive.

1924 – Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R Tolkien, author, editor, and translator known as the editor of much of his father J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.

1929 – Marilyn French, controversial American feminist novelist and educator who wrote nonfiction books as well as novels, including The Women’s Room; she once said, “My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world.”

1932 – Beryl Bainbridge, award-winning English actress and author of novels and short stories, primarily known for her works of psychological fiction, often macabre tales set among the English working class.

1936 – Alvappillai Veluppillai, Sri Lankan Tamil historian, author, and professor who wrote books and articles on Sri Lankan Tamil literature, history, and politics.

1939 – Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, Malaysian writer, poet, playwright, short-story writer, and academic who is an expert in traditional Malay and South-East Asian theatre and is one of the leading writers of Malaysian English Literature.

1940 – Richard Marcinko, Retired Navy SEAL commander who is now known for his military fiction.

1941 – Margriet de Moor, award-winning Dutch novelist, essayist, translator, and pianist.

1947 – Jared Angira, Kenyan writer who has been called his country’s first “truly significant poet.”

1952 – Debjani Chatterjee, award-winning Indian-born British poet, writer, children’s author, editor, and translator who was also an Olympic torchbearer.

1953 – Tina Brown (Christina Hambley Brown), British/American editor, publisher, writer, columnist, and biographer best known as editor of Vanity Fair and author of a biography of Princess Diana. As a child she was expelled from three boarding schools for being “an extremely subversive influence.”

1953 – Lisa Goldstein, National Book Award-winning American fantasy and science-fiction writer of novels and short stories.

1955 – Dora María Téllez, Nicaraguan writer, historian, women’s rights advocate, and politician known for her involvement in the Nicaraguan Revolution.

1957 – Horacio Castellanos Moya, award-winning Salvadoran novelist, short-story writer, and journalist.

1966 – Kabir Bakul, award-winning prolific Bangladeshi writer, journalist, songwriter, and lyricist.

1967 – Freya North, popular British writer whose work is considered a precursor of “chick lit,” centering on strong female characters and their raunchy exploits.

1968 – Ayu Utami, Indonesian writer, novelist, short-story author, and journalist notable for her writing about subjects formerly forbidden to Indonesian women writers, incuding sex and politics.

Traveling Like a Local

A Tuscan cookbook author hosted us in her kitchen.

I was watching a Rick Steves travel show on television, and he said something that’s one of his travel mantras — that the most memorable experiences come from meeting local residents. Strangely, my initial reaction was that I’d never have the guts to approach someone like that. I say “strangely,” because it took me only a moment’s thought to realize that my reaction made no sense: I’ve actually been taking his advice for years, though without consciously deciding to.

When I think of the travel stories I tell most often from my own journeys, I realize they’re not usually about museums and architecture and spectacular scenery; they’re about interactions with the people who live and work there.


When I was in my 20s, I spent a long weekend in Jamaica with a boyfriend. The waterfalls at Ocho Rios were lovely, and I enjoyed learning about the history of the island. But two events stand out in my mind more than anything: giving a lift to a teenage girl who needed a ride back to Montego Bay, and hiring a local tour guide to show us around town.

The girl was about 14, close enough to my own age at the time so that we had an easy rapport. In the car, she braided my hair Jamaican-style, while we discussed her family, her desire to travel, our jobs at home, and islanders’ views of the U.S. I know she probably began walking along the road between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay in hopes of getting a ride with rich tourists so she could ask for money for braiding someone’s hair. But I didn’t feel taken advantage of. I felt like I got at least as much out of our interaction as she did. And I loved what she did with my hair.

The other person I remember spending time with was a man who offered to be our personal tour guide for the afternoon. He was not with any kind of tour company; he was definitely a freelancer. We were game, and he showed us some of the expected sights of town. And then he guided us to a back street, and took us to a bar where we were the only tourists. So we had drinks with a bunch of his tour guide friends, feeling like locals.


A few years later I was part of a group of seven American watercolorists on a painting retreat in the south of France. We rented a house in a village too small to have a hotel, and where only two people in town knew English. I’d always been told that the French were rude to Americans. Not in this town. One couple insisted (as translated by the one fluent French-speaker in our group) that three weeks wasn’t enough time for me to get to know the area, that I should really stay all summer. And they offered to let me stay in the wing of their house that was empty since their grown kids had moved away. If I hadn’t had a job to get back to, I might have taken them up on it.

The town was filled with delightfully eccentric characters. One stooped old man was infatuated with a statuesque blonde woman in our group. One evening, he abandoned his nightly game of boules in the town square and followed her home, his little dog trotting behind him. Both he and the dog followed her right into our kitchen! He was intrigued by the makeup of our group, two men and five women, and kept asking about the relationships among us. In his mind, the numbers should be equal so we could pair off, regardless of the fact that this was a painting retreat, not a singles club.

But what confused the old man the most was me, because I was much younger than the rest of the group. He actually asked our translator if I was the maid! She gasped as if he’d committed a terrible faux pas, and chastised him for such an insult. Then she told him I was a famous American scholar! He treated me with respect after that, and often came over to sit in our kitchen and talk about village history and gossip.


My husband and I traveled to Alaska together a few years later because I had to attend a conference. While I was in meetings, he looked up a local man who had been a friend of his mother’s decades earlier. They went salmon fishing together. When I finished my meetings, he invited us both into his house, told us stories about what it was like to have moved there from the Midwest a long time earlier, and took us to a restaurant where he introduced us to some really amazing seafood, including the best halibut I’ve ever had. Two weeks later, after we’d toured other parts of the state, we returned to Anchorage and stopped by to see him — and he’d cleaned Bob’s salmon, shrink-wrapped it, and packed it in dry ice in a cooler for us to take home, along with some halibut.

Nina at the Samovar Cafe

On another Alaskan adventure, I found myself alone in Homer and was intrigued by something I read in a magazine about remote villages of Russian Old Believers. I chose one and headed out in my rental car to find it.

The article had said the residents tended to be shy about speaking with tourists, except for Nina, the owner of the Samovar Cafe, who wanted people to know the history of the town. So I set out for the Samovar Cafe, where Nina welcomed me warmly, made me cream puffs, and spent all afternoon showing me Russian artifacts and dressing herself — and then me — in traditional costumes. I had a lovely time, and left feeling like I’d learned a lot.

Fabriccio knows everything about Italian Medieval and Renaissance art and was happy to share.


I visited Italy with a small tour group — there were seven of us, all friends, accompanied by a tour leader and her assistant. The group was fantastic. But so many people besides my travel companions helped create cherished memories. Fabriccio, our tour guide in Florence, was a tall, curly-haired professor of Medieval and Renaissance Art History who spent days with us, explaining the paintings and history behind works at the Uffizi and other museums.

Sometimes at night we gathered in the hotel bar, where Vinnie the bartender looked after us. At first Vinnie seemed a bit taken aback, even scandalized, by our raucous jokes and lack of inhibitions. He was a sweet guy, but straitlaced and reserved, even as he demonstrated the proper way to dip biscotti into vin santo. By the end of the week, we were teaching him to dance the time warp. These sorts of cultural exchanges are so enriching to both cultures.

After the group tour ended, I left Tuscany to spend some time by myself in Rome. A man on the street there gave me some personal experience with the much-vaunted technique by which Italian men try (unsuccessfully in this case) to seduce American women. Seriously, I never expected it. I’d figured I was way too old to be the target of such attentions. Besides, I had always assumed Italian men weren’t really this forward, that it was just a stereotype. But there he was, stopping me in the street to introduce himself as Umberto and tell me I was so beautiful, and would I like to accompany him to a hotel? I told him I was married, and he said that was not a problem, so was he. He said my husband did not appreciate me the way he would. We went on extensively about my beauty and sensuousness.

In the U.S, this would be totally creepy. But in Rome it was not. He never seemed threatening or sinister. I never felt there was the least bit of danger. He was just an Italian guy doing what Italian guys do. I never felt under pressure to go along with him, and I never for a moment considered taking him up on his offer. In truth, I found it funny. Being propositioned by an Italian man felt like a quintessential thing to experience in Italy. (Climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, check. Explore the Colosseum, check. Get seduced by an Italian, check.) I’m grateful to Umberto for letting me see how an Italian man propositions a woman. Eventually I found an excuse to get away from him and go into a museum — leaving him, I suppose, to look for another American to attempt to seduce.

In Assisi, I struck up a conversation with Francisco, who runs an olive oil shop. He spoke excellent English, and said it was because he practiced it with his daughters who live in the U.S. — both of them here in Northern Virginia, it turned out. When I told him my son plays violin, he tried to sign me up on the spot for lessons with the daughter who’s a violin teacher. He gave me tastes of all sorts of oils and vinegars, and I guess he figured we’d progressed beyond a purely retail relationship, and pulled out his private bottle of grappa to drink some together. It was only after I wrote my full name on an order slip for olive oil that he realized I was a Petrini and told me that my relatives used to own the hotel across the street — the hotel where I was staying, it turned out. I’d had no idea. I still get a Christmas email from him every year.

I love travel. I love art and architecture and history. I love gazing at spectacular scenery and sampling local food. I like seeing both the important cultural and historic sites and the offbeat parts of town where only the locals go. And one of my favorite things to do while traveling is to find a piazza or cafe where I can sit and sip the local libation while just watching the people go by and being part of the scene. For me, the best kind of travel is the kind that lets you immerse yourself in a place and glimpse a tiny fraction of what it might be like to be a part of that life. The best way to do that is to watch people, to meet people, and to talk to people — and, more importantly, to listen.

Photo Friday: Fire Pit

Fall weather has finally come. The evenings are cool, and a few times, we’ve sat on the patio at night, enjoying a fire in our fire pit. With marshmallows. The fire pit is an old one, a cast-off that a neighbor was putting out to the curb for the trash one day, just after we’d moved in. We stopped to speak with him, and he said we were welcome to it. It’s a bit shabby and doesn’t look so pretty during the day. But at night, in the dark, with flames leaping upward, a shiny moon overhead, and foxes’ eyes glittering amid the trees behind us, we think it’s spectacular.

November 20 Writer Birthdays

1889 – Edwin Powell Hubble, American astronomer whose writings helped establish the field of extragalactic astronomy; known for the “expanding universe” theory and for proof that objects previously classified as nebulae are actually galaxies outside the Milky Way.

1908 – Alistair Cooke, British journalist, broadcaster, and television personality who was also known as the host of PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre.”

1858 – Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish author who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

1866 – Ndre Mjeda, Albanian Gheg writer, poet, politician, Catholic priest, translator, author, philologist, university teacher, and member of the Albanian Resistance; he was influenced by the Jesuit writer Anton Xanoni and the Franciscan poet Leonardo De Martino.

1867 – Kavi Kant, Indian Gujarati poet, writer, playwright, and essayist who was an innovator of Khandkavya, a typical Gujarati poetic form and narration of one episode.

1886 – Bray Hammond, Pulitzer Prize-winning American financial historian and author of Banks and Politics in American from the Revolution to the Civil War.

1892 – Grete Reiner, Czech-German anti-fascist magazine editor, writer, and translator who was the first translator of The Good Soldier Schwejk, the antimilitarist satirical novel by Jaroslav Hašek, from the original Czech into German; Reiner was also known as Grete Reinerová, Markéta Reinerová, and Greta Reiner-Straschnow. In 1942, she was deported by the Nazis and died in Auschwitz.

1908 – Katja Špur, award-winning Slovenian writer, children’s author, poet, journalist, teacher, translator, linguist, and slavicist.

1915 – Dulcie Winifred Catherine Denison, (née Bailey), Malaysian-born British novelist, mystery writer, lepidopterist, singer, and actress who was known professionally as Dulcie Gray.

1918 – Naomi Frankel (also spelled Fraenkel and Frenkel), German-Israeli novelist and children’s author who was evacuated to Mandatory Palestine with other German-Jewish children in 1933; her most famous work was Shaul ve-Yohannah (Saul and Joanna), a three-generational tale of an assimilated German-Jewish family in prewar Germany.

1923 – Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize-winning South African writer and political activist.

1926 – John Gardner, English author of spy and thriller novels, best known for continuing the James Bond series.

1927 – Susanna Al-Hassan, Ghanaian writer, children’s author, and politician who was Ghana’s first female to be appointed minister and the first African woman to hold a cabinet post and became a member of parliament for the then Northern Region.

1928 – Beverley Jackson, American writer on Chinese culture and fashion, international travel, polo, doll collecting, and style; she has also been a columnist, lecturer, curator of Chinese textiles, and weaver of pine needle baskets.

1930 – Christine Arnothy, Budapest-born French writer, journalist, and novelist
whose best known book, J’ai quinze ans et je ne veux pas mourir (I Am Fifteen and I Do Not Want to Die), was based on her diary, in which she recorded her experiences as a teenager living through the 1945 siege of Budapest; when she fled Hungary with her parents to resettle in France, her diary was the only possession she still had. She also wrote detective stories under the pseudonym William Dickinson, among other books.

1932 – Sir Colville Young, novelist, short-story writer, composer, musician, politician, and Governor-General of Belize

1936 – Don Delillo, Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

1937 – Rhys Isaac, Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian historian and writer on American history.

1937 – Viktoriya Samoilovna Tokareva, Soviet and Russian screenwriter and short-story writer.

1940 – Wendy Doniger, American writer, historian, psychologist, translator, professor, and Indologist who has written on Sanskrit and Indian textual traditions.

1945 – Deborah Eisenberg, American short-story writer, playwright, professor, and actor.

1948- Reine-Aimée Côté, award-winning Canadian novelist, poet, short-story writer, and educator.

1950 – Carolyn Cooper, Jamaican-born West Indian author, professor, and literary scholar.

1957 – Dilruba Z. Ara, Swedish/Bangladeshi writer, novelist, artist, educator, and translator.

1957 – Julie M. Fenster, American author of biographies and historical articles and books focusing on the 19th century.

1959 – Orlando Figes, British author, historian, and professor who writes about Russian and European history.

1967 – Fadhila El Farouk, pen name of the Algerian writer, journalist, and novelist Fadhila Melkemi; some of her work focuses on the suffering of women under Arab rule, equality between the sexes, and the coexistence of religions.

1972 – Sheema Kalbasi, Iranian-born poet, filmmaker, and human-rights activist.

Two Throne Rooms

The Art Deco bathroom that adjoins my home office is small but cute. The bath/shower is off to the left. The print on the charcoal gray towels doesn’t show up well here, but it’s the Marauder’s Map. Yes, I’m a nerd.

November 19 is World Toilet Day! Seriously. The United Nations says so. In honor of National Toilet Day, I want to talk about my bathrooms.

My husband and I bought our house two years ago, in November 2018, spent some time getting things painted and fixed up, and then moved in between March and May 2019. (Our old house was only four blocks away and was not on the market yet, so we were able to do it in stages.)

Our new house is a Cape Cod dating to the 1950s. Its 2,000 square feet make it a bit small for U.S. real estate, but it has plenty of space for our needs and is considerably larger than the cramped bungalow we used to live in. Unusually for a house this size, we have FOUR full bathrooms. Four! There are only three of us (and my son is now at college at least some of the time, so only two of us are here full time) so that’s way more than we need.

Upstairs, the master bedroom and the other large room (my office) each has its own full bathroom. On the ground floor we have another full bathroom, across the hall from my son’s bedroom. And in the basement, my husband’s office has its own bathroom. All except the basement bathroom have bathtub/showers. But even the little one in the basement has a shower stall.

When we bought the house, three of the four bathrooms were scary. We didn’t have much of a budget for redoing them. We could paint and change out things like light fixtures and door hardware, but new tile and such is going to have to wait, probably quite a while. But we did what we could.

I’m going to focus on my office bathroom and the main floor bathroom in this post. I’ll cover the others in a later installment.

The bathroom in my office didn’t need much work. It’s small but has a nice Art Deco vibe, with the original 1950s black-and-white tile on the floor and and walls. At some point someone added a thin line of tiny red tiles across the walls, which looks great. We repainted the white walls to freshen up the look, replaced the light fixture over the sink, and swapped out the inexplicable cheap plastic towel bars for chrome ones. And we added a small, marble-topped cupboard in one corner, because the vanity is too small. Eventually I’d like to replace the tiny, dated vanity with a larger one, and add a glass shower door instead of the curtain that pretty much fills the whole room when it billows out. But it’s a good bathroom.

We’ve already replaced this dated, scratched brass and wood faucet in my main floor bathroom. We’ll have to live with the cracked floor tiles until we can do a real renovation.

The main floor bathroom, on the other hand, will be the first to get a major renovation. Like my office bathroom, this one, as far as I can tell, is original to the 1950s house, and rather small, though not as small as my Art Deco bathroom. The walls here are tiled in 4-inch square pink and lavender tiles. The floors are tiled in smaller pink and lavender tiles. In both cases, the tiles are cracked and stained beyond cleaning. The tub, toilet, and sink are not 50s pink; they are just white. I haven’t decided if this is a good thing. Pink could be cool if it was retro cool pink. But this bathroom does not feel retro. I wish it did! It just feels shabby and dated. The tile isn’t what I would pick, but I wouldn’t mind it so much if it were in great shape.

The ugly wallpaper in the ground floor bathroom was the first thing to go.

This was also one of two bathrooms that had hideous wallpaper when we bought the house. Above the tile, the walls were covered with a horrible textured paper, off-white with big smears of lavender and purple that looked vaguely like bushes. That had to go. Immediately. I chose a lavender color for the walls. The wood vanity is old and dated, so I had it painted white for now. Eventually I want a new one, but that will wait until I can redo the whole room. Same with the serviceable but ho-hum shiny brass light fixture over the mirror.

This is why we need to scrape and repaint the window in the tub. Daily showers are not good for painted surfaces.

The weirdest feature of this room is the window in the tub/shower. Yes, the shower has a window in it! But since an addition was built onto the house, I’d guess around 1980, the wall with the window is no longer an exterior wall. So the window provides a lovely view inside the wall. The former owners put lights inside the wall and a shutter over the window so light filters through and gives the illusion of natural sunlight outside the window. But they apparently never used that shower. We do, and the moisture has caused the paint to peel and crack. Our plan is to scrape it, repaint with marine-grade paint, and use stained-glass-look window film so we can still have light filtering through. Then we’ll seal the whole thing in with plexiglass.

Here is the window in my shower, with and without its shutter. Notice what’s outside the window is, well, inside. It looks into the inside of the wall. This picture was taken just after we bought the house. We have since gotten rid of the wallpaper, swapped out the fluorescent lights behind the window for a more natural-looking LED fixture, so the light that comes through the shutter looks more like real sunlight. But we plan to ditch the shutter, strip and re-paint the window with marine paint, stick stained-glass window film over the panes, and enclose it all in plexiglass.

So, those are two of my bathrooms, the one that needs the least work and the one that needs the most. Next time I’ll show photos of the poor little forgotten bathroom in the basement, and the master bathroom, which wins my personal award for the space in the house I think I’ve improved the most with the least amount of money and effort. Stay tuned.

And on this World Toilet Day, remember to give thanks for your own throne rooms, whatever their style and condition.