Thursday, April 28, 2011

The best time to visit Arizona

I once saw an internet advertisement for Arizona tourism which claimed that Scottsdale—a posh suburb of Phoenix—has good weather year round.  I about choked.  Yes, we have good weather at the time of year when "real" climates have bad weather.  But when those four-seasons cities are enjoying their climate, we have summers with 100 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 122 days without rain (NOT a good thing, people). Or four days in a row of 117°.  Some people don't mind this much.  A few actually like it.  But for people like me, it's energy-sapping torture.  Given a choice between 110° and 2°, I'll take 2° any day.

So, when is the best time to visit Arizona?  NOT SUMMER.  And remember:  summer starts in April or May and goes until September or October, depending on the year and your tolerance for heat.

Winter in Arizona's desert is nice, except what little grass we have is dead.  It's also a good time to tease native Arizonans who don ridiculously heavy coats (sometimes paired with shorts) and claim they're freezing when the temperatures dip below 60.  

Fall's good, except when it's acting like summer.  Most of the traditional brightly-colored autumn leaves happen in random times like February, and there aren't many to begin with.  

Orange-blossom season is one of my favorites.  The fragrance literally stops me in my tracks.  I always put it on my top-ten list of good smells, right along with bacon frying, pine trees, rain, anything chocolate baking, and new books.  This year the citrus trees blossomed around the middle of March.

The last couple of weeks, however, have been so pretty they've made me wonder why I'm always knocking the climate.  We've had some hot days—reached 100 once—but the palo verde trees have turned bright yellow.  Reds and oranges decorate the normally drab desert plants.  The Jacaranda trees are wearing purple corsages.  The grass has greened up.  Even the cactus is flowering.  So if you're thinking of visiting Arizona, you might consider mid April.

Cactus Garden, Glendale Arizona Main Library, Late April
Cactus Blossom
Old Man Cactus, with Blossoming Palo Verde behind.  Late April 2011.
I'm not sure what this is.  Anyone know?  If you do, leave it in the comments below.  
Prickly Pear Blossom

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Czech-style Easter Eggs

Today, for Easter, I decided to decorate some Easter eggs Czech style--with hot wax.  Here are the less than professional--but fun--results.

Czech-style Easter eggs I decorated myself
I didn't have exactly the right ingredients (no handy beeswax to throw into each colored pot), and the wax I applied at the wrong temperature tends to fall off, but it still reminds me of the Czech Republic.

Here's how I did it:
1)  Propped up a cooling rack on four juice glasses
2)  Put one tea light candle below the rack on a saucer, and three tea light candles above
3)  Slowly melted the candles on top of the rack
4)  Fished out the wicks
5)  Added 1/2-3/4 of a crayon to each tea light.  I recommend Crayola or some other high quality crayon.
6)  Melted and stirred the crayon to give color
7)  Warmed up the eggs for a long time in my hand because I forgot to take them out of the refrigerator early enough
8)  Stuck one of those straight pins with the big plastic heads into the eraser of a pencil, to make my paintbrush
9)  Experimented until the temperatures of the egg and the wax were right, so that the wax didn't cool and harden the moment it touched the egg.
10)  Dipped into the wax, quickly drew a line or made a dot on the egg, dipped into the wax again, made my next line or dot, and repeated. 

For better results, use some real beeswax.  I also think the wax most likely to fall off is that which I applied too cool, which made each dot or stroke thicker, giving it too much height away from the eggshell.

Here are my better results last year in the Czech Republic:

My mixed-medium Easter eggs 2010
The professionals use better wax than tea lights and crayons.  It's thinner and doesn't stick up as much.  They also mostly apply it to hollowed-out shells, instead of hard-boiled eggs like I did, and their wax stays firmly and beautifully attached to the egg for years.  Here's what theirs look like:

Hand-painted Czech Easter eggs
One of my favorite things in the Czech Republic was watching those artists decorate their eggs:  so quick, so sure, so meticulous, churning out these hand-crafted masterpieces you can actually afford to buy and take home to hang on your Easter branch.  Ahh... I miss the Czech Republic.    


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pack Heavy

When I travel, I pack my things in an old-style frame backpack, which looks a lot bigger than many of the new-fangled ones.  Okay, so it probably IS a lot bigger.  I also usually carry a separate daypack.  Together, and with my water bottle filled and my emergency snacks in place, this can weigh as much as 40 pounds.  That may seem like nothing compared to what some people pack, especially when I'm basically moving to another country for a year, but the super light packers of the world like to mock. 

Packing light gives you bragging rights in the backpacker world.  At my very first hostel I met a woman travelling for three weeks with one little daypack, plus a plastic bag full of shampoo and such.  Ever since then I've been hyper-aware of how much baggage I'm carrying—literally.  But I can't seem to pack any lighter than I already do.  Because warring with the urge to Pack Light is the urge to Be Prepared.

I hate most kinds of shopping.  I'd much rather have what I need, right in my backpack, than have to go on a quest for it.  In the middle of the night.  Where I don't speak the language.    

So finally—after years of enduring the ribbing, trying to explain how my pack just looks bigger because of its old-fashioned design, how I packed dress clothes and teaching materials for my new job, how I would rather carry a full mosquito net than die of malaria, I finally gave up and embraced the truth:  I'm a heavy packer.  But since I'm the one carrying it, I don’t see why it's anyone else's business. 

Packing light is a good thing, in moderation, but I also think each traveler should weigh the advantages of having the things you packed versus the disadvantage of having to lug them across the continent.  Find the right balance for you, and don't mind the light-packer snobs.

For more on the dangers of packing light, see my article on Helium:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Koszeg, Hungary

Koszeg, Hungary, was one of those places I went because the guidebook said it was pretty and quiet, with relatively few tourists and nice natural surroundings.  There wasn't really a whole lot to do there.  I spent most of my stay wandering around the colorful center, taking short hikes, and watching the locals who congregated in the main square.

I didn't have a reservation, and there wasn't a real youth hostel, so I went to the tourist information office and they found me private accommodations.  The owner came and picked me up in his tiny car with various relatives in the back, then showed me proudly around what I would call a small hotel—several modern rooms around a white-washed and flowered courtyard.  I had my own bathroom, my own towels, my own TV (and if you're wondering why this surprised me, remember that I'm a budget traveler, and read my article on How to Stay in Youth Hostels).  I loved the place, down to the castle-like outer door, with its single-toothed key as big as my hand.  

The owner, who spoke no English, told me in German that he'd be back in the morning for the money, and bade me a cheery farewell.  At least I think that's what he told me.  I ended up having to hunt him down to pay, and he didn't seem worried at all that I would leave without honoring my debt.  That's how my whole experience with Koszeg went.  One beautiful moment after another. 

The more I travel, the more I'm aware of how my opinion of a place relies less on the sites and objective attractions than it does on the individual, small-scale experiences I have there:  the people I meet, the afternoons I spend in parks, the little local events I happen upon and don't understand a word of.  I say that some towns call to me and others don't.  Well, Koszeg absolutely sings. 
For more on Koszeg, read my article on

Beautiful illumination, Koszeg, Hungary

Heroes' Gate

Main Square, Koszeg, Hungary

The actual functioning key to my accommodations 

My peaceful hotel courtyard

I love Europe:  keyholes you can actually spy through,
hotels with creaking wooden doors, the feel of history everywhere.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"The Master Butchers Singing Club" by Louise Erdrich

I once came upon a friend of mine, quite distraught.  "There are so many books to read," he said when I asked what was wrong.  "And I'm only going to live sixty or seventy more years."  That's how I feel sometimes.

One afternoon I was standing outside the local adult center, talking to my friend and fellow writer, Marla Gassner, about books.  She's a creative, and tires easily of the mundane.  "I want magic," she always says.  Not wizards and time travel and dragons, per se, but magic.  She was telling me about a book by Louise Erdrich, when a man walked past, stopped, turned.

"Are you talking about The Master Butchers Singing Club?" he asked.  Then they were off, dropping superlatives right and left.  He was a scholar of literature, and this novel I'd never heard of was one of his favorites.  Fifteen minutes and several books later, he bid us good-bye, leaving Marla and I to wonder about coincidence and fate.  I decided I'd better read a novel that came so highly recommended.

It's a strange book.  Historical fiction with a faint flavor of mystic realism, the story takes place between the wars, part in Germany, but mostly in North Dakota.  It's not really a page turner, and I can't summarize the plot for you in a quick, edgy, 20-word hook.  But the writing is amazing, and on the strength of her lyrical prose alone, I kept reading, kept wondering why I liked it so much.  Magic, Marla would say.

The characters all have intriguing backgrounds.  Delphine and Cyprian are vaudeville performers.  He balances himself and various chairs and random props on her stomach.  She's in love with him, but he's a closet homosexual.  They still love each other in a platonic way, and pretend to be married when they go back to her hometown and discover that her perennially drunken father has three dead people locked accidentally in his cellar, people whose screams he was too drunk to hear. 

There's Fidelis, the German immigrant butcher who pays his passage in fine sausage, who takes pride in his work, and struggles with the memories of his time as an ace sniper in the German army.  Eva, his gentle, organized, multi-talented wife, takes Delphine under her wing, then slowly begins to die. 

Delphine's childhood best friend, who spends much of her energy avoiding the advances of the sheriff, is an undertaker, and treats the dead like canvases on which she applies her arts. 

Erdrich peoples her story with wanderers, hoarders, sanctimonious old maids, and a whole cast of other unusual characters, most of whom she manages to make wonderfully human—flawed but sympathetic. 

Though the narrative sometimes bogs down in detail, these details are written so beautifully that I didn't mind much.  One of the romances feels a little underplayed, and the end is unclear in parts, but the twists keep it interesting, and the characters are spectacularly crafted. 

Louise Erdrich's The Master Butchers Singing Club is one of those books that stays with you long after you read the last word.   

My rating:  4