Saturday, May 9, 2015

Traveling with Sweeney -- an Interview with the judge of the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest

Travel writer Catherine Sweeney
Cathy, it's so gracious of you to take time out of your crazy travel schedule to talk. Where are you off to next?

Thanks, Chris. I’m headed to Italy next week with my mysterious husband/co-blogger Mr. TWS (as he’s affectionately known on our blog). I fell in love with Italy on my first visits in 2013 to Emilia-Romagna and Puglia and have been craving a return trip. This time, we’ll be in Tuscany and Rome for the first time. I’m very excited about it and have been busy trying to learn a little more Italian than I did 2 years ago.

You're the judge for the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. What kind of travel blogs, articles and books do you read yourself?

Yes, and thank you so much for the opportunity to judge the contest. I’m looking forward to reading the submissions. I enjoy a variety of blogs and online articles. I like to be surprised, either learning about new places or indulging in vicarious travel that would not necessarily be in my comfort zone. I’m just as interested in reading about trips that I might plan for myself as those I’m fairly confident I’ll never have time or inclination to pursue personally. For instance, I love to read about backpackers and their incredible adventures in Southeast Asia. It all sounds very exotic and adventurous to me, but I’m not signing up for that myself anytime soon, while still reserving the right to change my mind. Of course, blogs are also great resources for practical travel information when planning trips.

Beyond travel-specific articles and books, fiction also holds a lot of travel inspiration for me. An interesting setting can evoke an inspiration to travel there or remind me of my own past visits. I’m very impressionable: as examples, books by Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt inspired me to visit Cambridge, England; when I travel through Wyoming or visit the Maritimes, I think of Annie Proulx’s works.

I often refer to Independent People, a novel by Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. It’s not at all a travel book or happy story, but with the interweaving of character situations, Icelandic folklore, and vivid descriptions of the vast landscapes, I became fascinated with Iceland. However, sadly, I’ve not yet been to Iceland!

Hemingway’s works have also greatly inspired my desire to travel. It’s the particular way he creates wonderful characters and stories while also showcasing the settings that makes the settings themselves so intriguing.

Is there are particular type of travel story that you just can't put down? And what advice would you give to other travel writers about the craft?

I’m captivated by the ones that speak to me as if I was in the story and in the place. To me, that means sharing personal impressions and expressing what sights, sounds, tastes, or emotions made the experience special to the writer. I’m most complimented by people who tell me that while reading about one of my excursions, they felt like they were right there with me.

Probably the most important advice I would offer is also very simple in concept, but not always simple to do -- be true to yourself.  I read and admire a lot of blogs and articles that have styles completely different from mine. It’s not uncommon to think that the way to success is to emulate the style of another successful writer, but I don’t think it works that way. My other advice reminds me of something I’ve seen going around the internet (inaccurately sometimes attributed to Hemingway, I think): “Write Drunk, Edit Sober”. Just kidding . . . sort of. There’s truth in this -- sit down, take a breath, and just start writing as if nobody else will ever read it. You can come back later and fine tune or even start over. So the concept is to be relaxed and just dig in. I think this lets you get closer to being yourself and also to be more efficient. Frankly, I need to do take this advice more often myself.

In September you're off to Paris with the tour Je Suis. Paris. Tell us about your role in this tour and the tour in general.

This trip is going to be so much fun! I’ve been working with Je Suis. Paris to customize the itinerary to appeal to those like me, a woman of the baby boomer generation with a passion for Paris. Je Suis. Paris has been creating wonderful small group tours for women to Paris and this is their first that is especially made for women d’un certain âge. I’ll be helping to facilitate some of the activities, but for the most part, I’ll be enjoying and sharing my excitement on the tour (which also includes things I’ve never done in Paris) with the other guests. There will be sights and activities that appeal to people of all ages, but it will be special to experience them in the company of other women with the same frame of reference. For those on return visits like me, there’s always a new perspective to appreciate about Paris. For some, it might be the first visit after years of dreaming about it and I completely relate to the feeling that I’m sure they’ll have viewing the Eiffel Tower at night for the first time. I can’t wait to see their reactions!

Pont Alexander III bridge in Paris
This sounds like an amazing way to experience a city I've been lost in more times than I can count. Paris is unique. What makes the city so captivating?

Sweeney: I’ve gotten lost wandering Paris, too --- and it’s a wonderful experience, isn’t it? For me, the captivation began at a young age which I think is true for many of us.  Through movies and books, I grew up with romantic and magical visions of Paris and dreamt of going there someday – to sit in cafes admiring fashionable Parisians, stroll through Montmartre or along the Seine, visit the Louvre, and see in person all of the other famous sights of Paris. And the “City of Light” doesn’t disappoint. Also, as a person who took French in high school, but retained very little, I love being where I’m hearing that beautiful language everywhere (whether I’m understanding it all or not).

Why should people choose a tour with an itinerary as opposed to going it alone?

I don’t think that all tours are equal. A custom tour for a small group is much different than a generic one for a large group. Collaborating with Je Suis. Paris on the itinerary, I looked at it with an eye of a baby boomer woman who never tires of the familiar sights in Paris, but looks forward to exploring new areas. The tour is going to give us an insider’s look as it includes activities that not many visitors on their own would be able to arrange or even know about. I’m really looking forward to some of the immersive experiences such as cooking with a chef and strolling around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area with a renowned author to see the haunts of literary greats such as Hemingway, Joyce, the Fitzgeralds, and Gertrude Stein.

The Eiffel Tower from the Seine at night
It’s a great opportunity for first time visitors to be in the hands of experts like Je Suis. Paris and the English-speaking guides they provide at the same time being in a small enough group where there isn’t a feeling of being part of a crowd.

On the “A Boomer in Paris” tour there will also be some time for guests to do some exploring on their own, if they like. So I think it offers a wonderful balance of guidance and independence.

Are there places available?

Yes, there are. Your readers can contact Je Suis. Paris directly for details and booking. There’s information about the tour on their website, but they are also happy to take phone calls to discuss the trip.

Cathy, once again, thank you for the chat. I can't wait to hear about your next gourmet adventure at Traveling with Sweeney. They are always so informative--really compelling travel writing.

It’s been my pleasure, Chris. Thanks for the kind words and following along with me in my travels on the blog. I promise there will be some delicious stories and pictures coming up from Italy soon. Ciao!

Ciao bella!
I must be off,


On the Traveling with Sweeney website, Catherine Sweeney and her husband/frequent travel companion (affectionately known on their blog as Mr. TWS) aim to inform, entertain, and inspire seasoned travelers as well as those considering their first travel steps. Through their compelling photos and stories, they highlight the best of destinations, food, wine, history, culture, and the arts with a particular focus on North America and Europe. Catherine is also founder and editor of Boomer Women Travelers, a collaborative site for women of the baby boomer generation to share their travel experiences.

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indiana Review, Night Train, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK] blog, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Bootsnall Travel, Chicken Soup for the Soul and lots of other good places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.   

Friday, May 1, 2015

Newgrange on a Soggy Irish Day

Sightseeing in Ireland
The windows of the shuttle bus are steamed up with the morning breath of tourists. There's a mildewy cloud around the guy sitting across from us. He probably left his rain jacket wadded up in his backpack. It's more than drizzling outside, not the best day for sightseeing. Despite the weather, there's excited chatter everywhere in English, Italian, Russian and German. Waiting for the last couple of passengers, we're about to visit one of the most important archeological sites in Ireland: the 5000-year-old Newgrange.

As is often the case, despite documentaries and airplane magazine articles, I know almost nothing about this place. Of course I could pick it out of a line-up. I know its name but have no idea what it means, and before driving to it this morning I couldn't have placed it on a map of Ireland--although I knew from the airplane magazine that it was somewhere in the Boyne Valley.  As it turns out, Newgrange is a mere 58 km north of Dublin (or seven pop songs and quite a lot of hilarious radio-presenter banter). If you don't want to drive there, you can book a day tour of the Boyne Valley for quite a reasonable rate. This tour looks like the right thing to do.

Steven the Goat Milker's Assistant and I don't do this tour of course. We drive. And as we're driving down country roads, past farmhouses with pretty little gardens--or that's what I'm imagining through these fogged up windows--I'm convinced that Newgrange was a sort of dwelling. Crazily, I'm imagining Vikings and hide-clad Neolithic folk with long matted dirty hair that always smells like what they've been cooking--the type permanently frozen in poses of hunting and gathering or building their rudimentary huts in museums. I know all this is wrong, but it's still what I'm imagining.

But of course I remember that I know a bit more than I thought. These mounds make an appearance in the Leprechaun stories as the places where the aos sí, ghostlike creatures of the ancient Tuatha Dé people, took to when they were conquered by the Milesians. And of course the hundreds of these mounds that still dapple the countryside of Ireland today are in fact burial mounds. But hold on: this is not actually true when it comes to Newgrange--but I'll get to this later.

Newgrange from my dry seat on the shuttle bus

For now, I'm not done griping about the soggy Irish weather yet. Rain is so inconveniently moist. There's the wetness of it--no denying the wetness--but there's also the inevitable undryness. And then some guy leaves his undry rain jacket in his backpack for three days, and we have an icky-sweet mildew smell to deal with. This is Ireland; you might as well get over it. It's always just a little damp here.

Are you claustrophobic? I'm not. I kind of like caves, closets and co. I think I could have lived in Newgrange as a mythical Leprechaun. I'm kind of short, like green, rainbows, pots of gold and very tight spaces. If you're not a Leprechaun yourself, you'll need to watch your head as you enter and exit Newgrange. There's a guide standing at the entrance nagging everyone to watch their heads (and not take pictures). I guess a few Scandinavians must have left with mild concussions.

Once inside, you'll hunch along the 19-meter passageway that leads to the cross-shaped chamber. You'll need to turn sideways a couple of times to inch through. Some of you might not even get through, to be honest. It was a squeeze for me and I have a 30-inch waist (although the problem might have been more my belly than my waist).

In the chamber itself, the floor you're standing on will be two meters higher than the entrance. The floor is actually level with the hole above the entrance where the sun shines through (weather permitting) on the winter solstice. And if you're lucky enough to be one of the 50 (plus one guest) who win the yearly lottery, you'll be able to view this spectacle with only four other mildewy lucky people. Otherwise, you'll have to make due with the demonstration using artificial light. You'll also have to be satisfied with a 10-minute stay inside the site. The rest of the tour is outside. In the rain.

A rear view of Newgrange

The controversial facade reconstructed in the 70s from original Newgrange stones

It's no wonder we assume these ancient people worshipped the sun. It's like all religions: we worship what we can't explain and what seldom answers our prayers the way we want. Fact is, we don't know exactly how this place was used or why it was abandoned thousands of years ago. My completely unscientific theory of what Newgrange was used for: a Neolithic time machine that would transport the cremated remains of some Neolithic Pope sort of celebrity into the next world. It's worth mentioning that no signs of smoke have been found on the corbeled ceiling of the monument. The cremated remains that rested in the three basins in Newgrange were burnt somewhere else, brought into the monument--possibly during the winter solstice--and then removed.

The visitor center is certainly worth a visit as well. The small museum is informative and does indeed have a model of hairy hide-clad Neolithic people--so my imagination is not completely wacky after all. Be sure to check out the cafeteria, which has an impressive menu and also a few prepackaged gluten-free items. I wasn't hungry enough to grab one, but it was good to know they were there.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indiana Review, Night Train, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK] blog, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Bootsnall Travel, Chicken Soup for the Soul and lots of other good places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.