Surviving London/Loving London

Four years this week I was just back from teaching a six week summer program in London.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I had injured my knee forty-eight hours before my flight from Detroit, and the surgeon said I’d be okay with a knee brace and Aleve, but would need surgery as soon as I got home.  So I went because I didn’t want to disappoint the students, or myself.  teaching abroad had been a dream of mine for a very long time.

Now, I’d never taken Aleve before and it kept me from sleeping.  Ditto the pain when the Aleve wore off and I couldn’t take more.  I was also besieged by the unexpected 90-degree heat in London, which didn’t feel any better no matter how many times people told me the weather was unusual.

To my horror, the flat that had been rented for me was a duplex, which meant I had to limp up and down the stairs there countless times a day, even though the surgeon advised me to avoid stairs.  My phone or tablet always seemed to be on whichever floor I wasn’t on.

My flat was at the top of the building and got so hot by late afternoon that it shut down my iPhone.  The classroom I taught in at Regent’s College wasn’t air conditioned and the inscrutable powers-that-be would only give us a fan for one day.  I had to teach while I was in pain, sleepless, and stressed by the heat.  It was brutal.

To truly add insult to injury, one night I tripped over the wild fringe on one rug, smacked my hand on an oak table on the way down.  It swelled up grotesquely and I was soon in an emergency room where I passed out because the pain in my hand was so bad.  I ended up with a cast which my students signed, hoping that I would survive till the end of the program.

But my students–!  They were amazing.  In my many years of teaching, I’d never had a group so dedicated, funny, talented, and compassionate.  No matter how I felt on any given day, spending time with them was joyful.  I felt as if everything I’d ever learned about how to work with student writing and how to approach reading literature was focused with the intensity of a laser beam.  Watching their writing blossom was one of the grandest experiences I’ve ever had as a teacher.  And unlike the regular classes I taught back home with twenty-five students, I had only fifteen in each one, which made getting to know them and their work much easier.

As I finally got my insomnia and pain  under control, I was able to fully enjoy museums, plays, and relish the good food and drink at local restaurants and  pubs.  A friend from Germany came to spend the weekend nearby and we had great, intimate, sometimes uproarious meals together.  I loved staying in Pimlico on a quiet square, and though London has never been my favorite city in Western Europe, right now, I miss being there.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in many genres and teaches creative writing at www.writewithoutborders.com.

 

I Survived a London Heat Wave

Temps in London have been off the charts for weeks, and that’s reminded me of a six-week stay there when the unexpected heat felt like my nemesis.

I was teaching creative writing in a summer program where I had amazingly productive and fun students, as well as superb guest speakers like authors Miranda Seymour and Val McDermid.  I was subbing for someone and the flat he had arranged for was in Pimlico, which was away from the crazier parts of the city, quiet, scenic, and filled with terrific restaurants and pubs.

But the heat that summer was fiendish, sometimes passing 90 degrees.  My flat was on the top floor of a small building and hotter than that because it had no air conditioning and heat rises.  It got so hot there that I had to point a small fan at my iPhone which kept overheating. Opening windows for cross ventilation was not a good idea because for some bizarre reason the gusts were so strong they blew everything off the table I worked at, and the wind was so strong it even unrolled the paper towels in the kitchen from their rack.  The room looked like some poltergeist had paid me a visit.

I had arrived in London with a knee injury and had to stay off public transport, but I found car service drivers reluctant to turn on their AC or turn it up.  I explained over and over that I was prone to migraines and that usually did it, but stepping into a black car at midday was highly unpleasant anyway.  They’d comply and leave their driver side windows open or cracked, evidently afraid of getting a chill.

And then there was Regents University where I taught, which was un-airconditioned.  My afternoon classes got way too much sun and sometimes my students looked on the verge of passing out. When I appealed to the powers-that-be for a fan, we got one.  For just a day.  And I was made to feel that I had overstepped some invisible boundary by even asking for it.

People kept telling me everywhere I went that “It never gets this hot,” but that wasn’t very comforting. What kept me cool was grocery shopping at a deliciously cool Sainsbury’s, dining out, attending a concert in a Victorian church, and visiting fantastic museums like the Tate Modern where I saw epic Matisse and Malevich exhibitions.  People were remarkably friendly wherever I want, and honestly, I fell in love with Pimlico.

Eventually the AC-phobic drivers and everything else making me fry started to seem almost funny.  Why?  Because on my first-ever summer trip to London years before, I was so cold I had to buy a woolen sweater. So by the end of my six week stint in 2014, I was calling it my deluxe and safe Caribbean vacation.  No fear of sunburn, no sharks, no sand in my clothes.  And terrific Gin and Tonics.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”
—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

Going Back to Ghent: Notes From A Lover’s Diary

I’m heading back to Ghent this Fall but I feel as if I haven’t really been away.  Over a year and a half ago, I fell in love with the city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard. Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if I could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They may sound odd but they’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western Europe. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city that’s the third largest port in Belgium and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away which has twice as many tourists, it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.  No wonder it’s called Europe’s “hidden gem.”

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch. You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

What I Discovered When Flying With A Disability

The New York Times recently ran a story about being in a wheelchair and feeling invisible. When I injured my knee a few days before a trip from Lansing to D.C. via Detroit, I hesitated about arranging for wheelchair assistance in Detroit. It wasn’t invisibility I dreaded, it was exposure.

For those of you who don’t know the route or the Detroit airport, if you’re flying to or from Lansing, the connection there can take at least fifteen minutes even with the moving walkways and the monorail, because you have to switch terminals. As they say in the city of my birth, it’s a schlep.

My injury didn’t require surgery, just physical therapy when I got back. I had already cancelled a previous family visit to D.C. due to a severe migraine that kept me in bed for a whole weekend and I was determined to go this time. The trip was important, but then so was my health and comfort. I did not want to aggravate my injury.

I’d been in an airport wheelchair before when I had to take a flight to London and I didn’t like it. Yes, I got through security much faster, but at a price. People stared, then looked away. Both parts of that equation were very discomfiting. Were they wondering what was wrong with me since I seemed fit? Were they embarrassed for having been caught staring? I was embarrassed myself to have my disability—however unseen—on public display.

For this D.C. trip, a friend joked that I could wear a sign that said: INJURED KNEE. STOP STARING. That made me laugh, as she knew it would.

Being transported by wheelchair because of an injury, being helpless for what seemed like ages on that London trip made me feel reduced to that injury at a time when the pain, reduced mobility, and inconvenience had disrupted my normal routine enough already. In a chair, the disability felt like it was in charge and I was along for the ride.

I could easily imagine the flip side for my D.C. trip: limping the whole painful way. My light, well-packed roll-aboard would turn into a loathsome burden. Stopping to rest would be mandatory. Knowing that I might have to speed up at some point because the closer I got to the gate, the slower I’d be going as the pain and fatigue caught up with me. And people would stare anyway since airports aren’t made for limping but for rushing, and my face would likely reveal how miserable I felt.

Having dealt with shame in other areas of my life and written about it, I knew facing this was important, so I did order the wheelchair. And? Well, there was no happy ending. No sense of “closure.” No soaring ballad by Adele over the credits. But at least I was comfortable and on time– and most importantly, I won’t hesitate next time if need a wheelchair.

I’ve never been a sports nut, but I’ve belonged to a health club for years. I’ve done yoga, weight training, spinning classes, had swimming lessons with a coach, and I’d taken my physical being-in-the-world completely for granted until recently. I wonder now how many times over the years I’ve stared at people in airport wheelchairs. What was I thinking?

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the travelogue/family history My Germany.

Oh, Canada: Love Letter From a Neighbor

Canada was just a short plane ride away when I grew up in New York City, and its bilingualism fascinated me as soon as I started learning French in elementary school.  I eventually became my high school’s star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose French was excellent. I received a certificate of achievement from the Alliance Française in New York, so a trip to Montréal seemed ideal after I graduated high school and was feeling almost bilingual.

My brother, who didn’t speak French, put me in charge of hotels and I picked one on Place Jacques Cartier which was then somewhat ramshackle and noisy, but exciting for a student like me. Just being able to use French outside of a classroom–and be understood–was thrilling. I’d been studying it for eight years but now it was alive, transactional.


Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey, though. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies nonetheless. And I didn’t realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some smart-ass remark like “Ai-je assez?” (Do I have enough?)

My brother claims that we were taken aside for an hour and interrogated. I have no memory of that. What I do remember was the superb food everywhere we went in Vieux Montréal and elsewhere that week and the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language.

But my next trips to Canada involved a different language: Shakespeare’s English. Living in Michigan, I visited the Stratford Festival in Ontario twice as a graduate student, and later, my spouse and I became Festival members.

Though I’d seen some wonderful shows in New York, nothing beat watching Christopher Plummer as Lear in front row center seats or Martha Henry in Long Day’s Journey into Night, a play I’d seen and studied extensively in college. Her silence was more evocative and devastating than many actors’ monologues. The play left us so stunned we couldn’t vacate our seats for a good ten minutes afterwards–and we went back to see it again that summer, just as we saw other plays twice when they were terrific.

Stratford was a revelation: not just a charming, scenic town, but a place where you could run into the cast members anywhere and they were happy to chat.

And then there were several trips to Montréal and Toronto each, a week in Vancouver, a handful of celebrations we had at the Langdon Hall Country House and Spa, trips to Québec City by ourselves and with one son and his wife, and my own professional visits as an author to Windsor. I know I have a lot more to explore in Canada and luckily there’s plenty of time for more great food, wonderful people, and memorable sites.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from mystery to memoir including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Is Ghent a Better Travel Destination than Bruges?

Bruges and Ghent were never on my radar until my first trip to Paris when I came across a travel magazine with a big section on Bruges and the amazing canals had me spellbound. I didn’t get there as soon as I hoped (author book tours in Germany sidetracked me), but when I did, it outshone my fantasies. My timing made it possible to see the famous Holy Blood Procession that had been going on there since medieval times.

In Bruges, my wonderful B&B host and I discussed other cities in Flanders and she dismissed Ghent as not up to the standard of Bruges. She thought that it was worth—at the very most—a day trip. That was also apparently what her other guests told her after visiting Ghent.

Having  spent a week there myself, I don’t agree. Bruges is magnificent, thanks to its death in the 14th century as a port city and to being relatively untouched by war through the centuries. The core of the city is beautifully preserved, and the further you get from the crowds, the more tranquil you find it. But it’s definitely “preserved” and in many ways feels like a giant museum.

Ghent on the other hand is a very dynamic city. It has its fair share of canals and gorgeous buildings, as well as ancient churches and beautiful art. Bruges has the Michelangelo Madonna and Child, Ghent has the Van Eyck altarpiece. I think it’s a draw there, and the same goes for the food. I ate just as well in each city, savoring Flemish/Belgian specialties like waterzooi, carbonnade, vol-au-vent, moules-frites, stoemp, and of course made only a tiny dent in the amazing variety of amazing beers (there are apparently over 1,000).

Where Ghent outweighs Bruges for me is the fact that it’s a university town that’s friendly, entertaining, and alive. Ghentians call their home “The City of Trust and Love” and I found that attitude in people of all ages.

There’s a reason Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach wrote a book called Bruges-la-Morte (Dead Bruges). Bruges might be more picturesque, but Ghent is livelier and, perhaps best of all, attracts fewer tourists. Not surprisingly, it’s widely called one of Europe’s hidden gems.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, and is currently working on a novel set in Ghent.

Feeling at Home, Abroad

As a writer, I’ve always had a particular kind of wanderlust: I’m not into doing anything extreme or uncomfortable.  I like going someplace where the challenges are along the lines of learning a new language, or deepening the command of one I already know.  Someplace where I’ll be drawn into deep contemplation of a landscape, a street, even a marvelous meal.  I have hungry eyes.

I’ve never felt the need to rack up “points” by seeing a lot, though. I want to savor a place I visit.  When I was in London a few years ago, I went to my favorite museum The Wallace Collection twice, timing my second visit when there would be as few other visitors as possible so that I could spend as much time as possible contemplating paintings I wanted to see again and truly appreciate.  And a perfect day in Florence for me was visiting a church and enjoying its art, savoring a long lunch, then taking in another church followed by a long dinner–with both meals at the Piazza Santo Spirito, and the churches nearby.

If I’m abroad and I find a restaurant or café I enjoy after having tried a few others, I keep going back.  I don’t need to continue trying others, looking for some Holy Grail of Dining.  In the new city the familiar setting, staff, and menu appeal to me and I’d rather try as many different dishes on that menu as I can.

Spending a week in Ghent recently, it didn’t take long sampling eateries around the train station of Gent-Sint-Pieters to decide that Café Parti was where I could happily have lunch and dinner as often as possible.  The vibe was hip and neighborly. The staff was friendly and I used as much of my newly-acquired Dutch as possible, though my French is so much better.  I got good recommendations for specials, and I chatted just a bit about what I was doing there, where I was going (Antwerp for the Rubens Museum), and when I got back, the differences between Antwerp and Ghent.  It made me feel as If wasn’t just skimming across the surface of the culture.

In the same way, I took more cabs than trams in Ghent because I’ve often found that I learn a lot from cab drivers in foreign cities.  My father was a cab driver years ago in New York and that’s always a point of connection; I sit in the front passenger seat to make conversation easier.  When my Dutch failed me, I asked if I could switch to French, which was usually fine, but there was always English as a fallback.  I learned that in Ghent, tourists came predominantly from Germany, The Netherlands, France–and China.  And, unexpectedly, that the park near my hotel wasn’t especially safe at night.  I got a colorful and detailed warning despite not needing one, but hey, he was being friendly, and Ghent prides itself on being “The City of Trust and Love.”  Of course, for me as a writer, there’s a story in that conversation….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres.

Falling in Love With Ghent

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.