A Taste of Grand Rapids, Michigan

The word is that beautiful Grand Rapids is fast becoming a destination city for its museums, restaurants, music, as well as the yearly international ArtPrize competition. I was there again last week to do an interview on WGVU about my kids’ self-esteem program, Stick Up For Yourself!  It’s sold close to 300,000 copies, been translated into over a dozen languages, and is now available in a revised and expanded edition.  The book teaches kids 9-13 how to build self-esteem, deal with bullies and powerlessness–and there’s a teacher’s guide, too. You can listen to the interview at the WGVU website.

Shelley Irwin at WGVU is a great host, prepared and focused and fun, so it’s always a treat to be on her show.  Once the interview was over, I crossed the river to enjoy myself even more. My first stop was a visit to the Meyer May House. This Frank Lloyd Wright home was built in the early 1900s for a clothier and has been scrupulously, lovingly restored thanks to period photos, original plans in a Wright archive, and memories of members of the May family itself.

The house is classic Wright, a symphony of horizontal lines.  Wright designed every detail from windows to carpets to wall sconces. The house is a work of art inside and out, the details all blending harmoniously in a rebuke to the over-stuffed Victorian and Edwardian homes of his youth.  There’s a short documentary online about the amazing restoration project well worth seeing before you go, or you can watch it at the welcome center.

The small tour included couples from Sweden and The Netherlands and I chatted briefly with each one in their language, but quickly ran out of vocabulary because I wasn’t prepared to speak anything but English on this trip.

My early lunch nearby at Grove was artful, too.  A very short drive away, it’s a small, elegant restaurant that is proud to be farm-to-table and award-winning.  The room is a blend of cool grays and browns, and the music is low-key, which suits the milieu.

I started with a delicious Moscato and tried two different appetizers because I was still celebrating a major birthday.  The deviled eggs with Japanese nori chips were very good, and the smoked salmon hush puppies were terrific.  The entree outdid them both: seasoned fried jasmine rice with ginger, celery, carrots, yuzu koshu, broccoli, and smoked duck. It was the fluffiest, most flavorful rice I’d ever had.

I rounded it all out with a double espresso and drove home happy that Grand Rapids is so close, so full of life, and has so much to offer.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.  His latest academic mystery is State University of Murder.

 

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.