Day 4: Lost in the Woods on the Amalfi Coast

“Half the fun of the travel is the aesthetic of lostness.” – Ray Bradbury

Part of my rationale for using Sorrento as my home was its easy access to the wonders of the Amalfi Coast. Tiny seaside towns – Amalfi, Ravello, Positano and others  – cling to the sides of mountains and get rave reviews for their picturesque beauty. I’d also read of the “Walk of the Gods” in the hills above the Coast and was definitely intrigued.

Of course, being a Sunday, everyone else was headed for the Coast, too, and the queue for the hourly bus was long. I was glad I’d brought a book as I waited 90 minutes before I could finally squeeze onto a bus. The views from the drive along the winding, steep coastal road – replete with frightening hairpin turns and excited honking as buses negotiate who gets to pass where two won’t fit – were inspiring, and I wish my camera did a better job through the glass. Every turn brought a better view than the previous one.

I got off in Positano and looked for the bus to Nocelle that would take me up the mountain to begin my walk. I heard Australian accents and found a lovely family headed exactly where I was. We waited together, and they told me Nocelle was cute and tiny, with one very good restaurant. They had been years before, but were headed back, this time with their young children (ages 4ish and 7ish). We ended up having lunch together at Santa Croce, with an incredible view of the coast. Lunch was delicious and leisurely. I had ravioli stuffed with eggplant and smoked provolone, and we shared some antipasti. By the time we parted ways – me for my walk down the mountain, them for some lower-key exploring – it was nearly 2:30.

Il Buca

My book gave a couple of options for hiking down to Positano. One involved about 1700 stairs and was rated as beautiful but relatively simple. The other, also rated “easy,” went through the small town of Monte Pertuso, past “il buca” in the side of the mountain, and said it was a bit more rustic but would only take about 1:45. I decided to do the latter and set off. I’d still have plenty of time to have a celebratory glass of wine in Positano and explore a bit.

Nocelle

The first part of the trip, from Nocelle to Monte Pertuso, was fantastically lovely and scenic, along a relatively well-marked path and road. Everything was so green, contrasting with the bright aqua waters far below. I passed vineyards bursting with deep purple grapes and plenty of small terraces with various crops. It was so very quiet, and the only sounds were crowing roosters and some strange bells. I eventually realized the bells were tied around the necks of mountain goats off in the distance.

Monte Pertuso

Monte Pertuso was indeed tiny, and once I looked at the church and the main square, I was eager to continue on towards Positano.

Then things got interesting.

My book said to go about 800 yards to a small stream. I have a terrible sense of distance when there are no man-made constructs (intersections, etc) to guide me. But I walked a long time, on a “path” that seemed less and less so. There were no signs, just gently worn ground that seemed to indicate use as a trail of sorts. Recent heavy rains had created some mud with a couple of footprints, which were reassuring.

Finally I reached the “stream.” It was really more of a small waterfall. I couldn’t figure out how to cross it without plummeting to something bad. I tried to grab onto rocks wedged in the side of the hill, but the recent rains had loosened them. Each time I tried to get my footing, the rocks would shift beneath my feet. I considered turning around, but that would have meant 45 minutes back to Monte Pertuso. I was this far – surely once I got through the waterfall, Positano wouldn’t be that far. Right?

I sat down for a few minutes, sipped some water, collected my thoughts, and assessed the situation. No, I wasn’t turning back. Instead, I stretched my leg farther than I thought I could until my foot was able to plant on a large, sturdy tree branch, then swung my other leg down, while using my day bag and water bottle sling as counterweights. (Did I mention I was in a dress?) Vindicated, with minimal splashing, I forded the stream/waterfall and continued on.

Kind of a path. Just don’t look down.

The book had warned that things got “quite rocky” after the stream, and indeed, there were some nearly vertical climbs of broken, uneven rocks. But I just kept going, even when the path was barely 12″ wide, with no rails or things to protect me from plummeting to my demise. It was so very isolated, with no real signs of civilization except the road far, far below. And the rains made things slippery and uneven in parts, especially around some very tight, mountain-hugging curves.

More path

(I kept thinking that this may be one of the stupidest things I have done. TS Elliot’s “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” kept echoing in my head – “And in short, I was afraid.” But every time I’d turn a corner, I’d be greeted by an even more incredible view of the coast increasingly far below.)

Triumph!

Finally, I hit the high point of my walk – literally – and marveled at the valley below me. I took a few pictures, with a death grip on the camera, including this one of me as I hoped I wouldn’t step back and fall off the little ledge. It was very exhilarating. Notice how teeny-tiny the cars are. The white dots in the water are boats. Off in the far distance, you can see the Isle of Capri. I stood for several minutes, in awe (and relief).

Soon afterwards, I finally hit the long-promised “steps,” and, for the first time in hours, a sign of human civilization. Of course, this sign was not comforting.

I scurried down the broken, uneven steps as fast as I could muster, aware that the Sunday evening buses out of Positano are few and far between, and will not stop if overcrowded. I reached the Bar Internazionale bus stop nearly 3.5 hours after I left Nocelle. I was just a few minutes from the next bus. As much as I wanted to continue down into Positano proper, I was more concerned about making it back to Sorrento. And indeed, the first dangerously-crowded bus flew past without stopping. I consulted the timetable and found another one 30 minutes later, then just one more after that. I talked to some Italian girls headed back to Naples, and they started negotiating with a cab driver. If the next bus wouldn’t take us, we would split a 70 Euro cab ride back to Sorrento. (My day pass for the bus had been 7 Euro.)

Positano

The next bus was still awfully crowded, but the Italian girls pleaded with the driver, and he let us squeeze on as standees, which was interesting after hours of hiking hills. The hills and curves of the road were not easy for standing passengers.

Back in Sorrento, I grabbed some life-affirming gelato before finding dinner. And wine. Wine was definitely called for and went very well with the delicious and varied seafood risotto. Despite my aching legs, I strolled a bit longer after dinner, enjoying the passeggiata crowds, sampling limoncello and people watching. Then I went back to my hotel and read on the balcony, stopping to think about the day. I’ll never forget it.

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Day 3: Wild Beauty on Capri

In my head, the Isle of Capri was drowning in tourists shopping for overpriced luxury goods and waiting in long lines of boats to get into the famous Blue Grotto.

Still, I’d heard it was fantastically beautiful and worth the trip. And since it was only a 20 minute jet boat ride from Sorrento, it was an easy (if expensive) excursion.

I’m so very glad I went. Capri may have been my favorite day of the entire trip. But I strayed far from the beaten path.

After taking an early jet boat chock-full of tourists in tour groups, I shuddered at the thought of herding into Blue Grotto lines with such crowds. Instead, I remembered a side-hike one of my books recommended: the Villa Jovis. Tiberius lived there in the first century AD, high above the sea, hiding from assassins in Rome. The hike sounded long but relatively simple, and it was. I took the funicular lift up from the marina to the town of Capri proper, then followed some narrow lanes until I got away from the city. The little roads don’t allow cars (or even Italy’s ubiquitous scooters), and I could nearly touch both walls if I stretched out my arms. I saw a couple of small, officially sanctioned electric trolleys picking up trash and making deliveries to the numerous villas dotting my path. Each had its own name, gate, and gardens, with everything from grapes and tomatoes to squash and lemons, growing nearly within arm’s reach.

So tempted to hop the fence and grab some tomatoes.

Halfway up the steep (but easy) hike, I stopped at a little cafe for a cappuccino, rested a bit, and watched the world go by. I saw a fair mix of locals headed up or down the mountain to do their shopping or errands, and other tourists likely  headed the same place I was.

The last half of the walk up was even more scenic as I climbed higher up the mountain and the sea spread out below me. The space between villas grew larger, and everything was more quiet. Suddenly, I arrived at a relatively nondescript little hut offering the best admission fee I saw all trip – a mere €2, or about $2.60.

Villa Jovis, with a view

You followed a series of arrows to guide you around the ruins. The signage was minimal, but it was still fascinating, with relatively few other tourists exploring. And the views were incredible. I kept thinking about how long it must have taken Tiberius’ fleet of slaves to drag each and every stone up the mountain to build the sprawling villa. And as I gazed at the sea far below, I shuddered at the thought of the emperor flinging his enemies from these very cliffs. Goats grazed on the next mountain over.

I could live here.

After I left the villa, I headed back down the mountain, stopping for a quick (well, as quick as eating in Italy gets) panini and water as I watched the view. According to my hiking book, Arco Naturale was well worth the relatively easy hike from the town of Capri, and I had seen signs for the turnoff as I had headed up to Villa Jovis.

Two paths diverged… and I took both.

The hike was indeed relatively simple, if far more rustic than the paved roads that took me to Jovis. Before I knew it, I had reached the Arco, a nifty natural rock formation with a view of the aqua water below. The path to view it was relatively narrow and carved into rock, so the few people there all struggled to lean back far enough to get a decent photo. But the image is burned into my memory, the contrast of the tan and the blue, framed by verdant life.

Arco Naturale

Next, I headed on down the mountain, up and down ancient, crumbling brick steps, around the perimeter of the island. I stopped several times to marvel at the natural, wild beauty of Capri.  I passed a small cave filled with ruins, where Roman soldiers had helped guard the emperor from intruders. But eventually, I meandered my way back into Capri proper and the hordes of tourists and shoppers. (It was a Saturday, meaning that there were lots of local tourists, too, over from Naples or Rome for the day.) I bought some granita and sat on a bench, flipping through my book and deciding what to do next.

And then I discovered Mt Solare. My book said to take a bus to the island’s only other town, Anacapri, and from there, take an alpine ski lift up to the top of Capri’s highest mountain. So I did.  On the ride up, I realized too late I should have had my camera handy, so I very, very carefully tried to use my cell phone camera to take a few pictures without dropping it into the fields below.

At the top, I found perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. The Sorrentine peninsula stretched out before me, as did the white rocks of Capri, all surrounded by startling blue water, as far as the eye could see. I took dozens of pictures, and the mood on the mountain was one of excited awe as strangers remarked to each other. I just stared off into the distance, pleased and happy and content with the world, grateful I made the trip.

But alas, the day was waning, and the chair lift was preparing to close for the evening, so I headed back down, this time prepared with my camera strapped around my wrist. No one else was coming up for the day, so it was remarkably quiet and scenic as I glided over orchards, vineyards and lemon groves, passing the ruins of a 12th century monastery and a few homes.

Gliding down from Mt Solare

When I arrived back in Anacapri, it was very quiet, as many tourists had already left for the day. But I wasn’t ready to go quite yet, so I consulted my book and found a hiking path that would take me on a more scenic route to the marina rather than just riding the bus. It felt like a forever walk to my aching legs – down hundreds of stairs is hard on the knees – but it was beautiful and so very quiet. And the timing worked out perfectly, as I reached the marina, bought a ticket on the second-to-last ferry out of Capri, and ate some gelato while I waited to board. Better still, as the ferry sailed east towards Sorrento, the sun set behind Capri, making it very worth braving the wind-whipped mist at the back of the boat, even if pictures didn’t really come out.

We docked at Sorrento just as the sun finally fell below the horizon, and there was a hush on the back of the ferry as tired day trippers held each other close. No one really wanted the day to end. I reluctantly disembarked and had dinner at a small pizzeria right by the marina – the very restaurant I ate at with my family during our Sorrento day five years ago. I mentioned it to the owner – who I remembered – and he brought me limoncello and dessert and told me to come back again. After dinner, I had to walk back up into town to head down to my hotel at the other marina, and I stopped and bought some lovely cameos – a ring and a pendant – from a small shop where the owner carved them from seashells, following the ancient tradition.

I didn’t see the Blue Grotto, but the day was full of such beauty and peace that I know I’ll carry it with me for much longer than a postcard.

Day 2: Ancient Herculaneum

On the second day of my adventure, I set off for Herculaneum, riding the Circumvesuviana train to Ercolano. The train was full of commuters and tourists bound for Ercolano or Pompeii. Both are on the same line, just other sides of Mt. Vesuvius. A small trio also boarded, playing “La Bamba” on the accordion and bongos. 

Five years ago, I had visited Pompeii and found it fascinating, if overwhelming and huge. I read that Herculaneum was a richer suburb, almost a resort town, back in the day. Much smaller than Pompeii, it was also much better preserved. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, Pompeii was instantly melted by pyroclastic (lava) flow, which rushed into the city at 100+ MPH and 900+ degrees Farenheit. Pompeii was destroyed in an instant, fossilizing its citizens in horrific positions. You could see terror in their body language. An entire city had been both melted and frozen in a moment.

Herculaneum, on the other hand, was buried in mud up to 75 feet deep, a much slower demise. This meant that the city was remarkably well preserved – including amazing frescoes, mosaics and more. Where the heat in Pompeii melted and burned everything, archaeologists in Herculaneum have found wooden furniture and containers, beams of buildings and more.

2000+ years old and beautifully preserved

It was incredible, and something I’ll never forget. Per my guidebook’s suggestion, I did the audio tour, listening to letters from Pliny the Younger about the devastation as I stared at a city stopped in time. When archeologists originally excavated the ruins, they found  virtually no bodies, which puzzled them. But then they began excavating the original marina (several hundred feet inland from the current shoreline, another effect of the Vesuvius mud). Huddled together along the boats, they found hundreds of skeletons of people who had tried to flee the city by boat and not escaped in time.

The ancient marina is on the right (the arches held boats). You can see just how deep the mud that buried the town was by comparing the right with left. In some places, the mud was up to 60-75 ft deep.

Similarly, I was surprised at how far down Herculaneum was, a testament to the mountain of mud that had buried the city. You could stand at the edge of the excavation and look down into the city. And yet, at the present day ground line, modern apartment buildings reach right to the edge of the site – likely sitting on top of still-buried ruins.

It rained on and off all morning, which fit the somber feel of the ancient city. I followed the map and my guide, marveling at how the town was laid out – from numerous snack shops and bars (the ancients didn’t cook at home) to bakeries and public baths. I also noticed how short the ancients were, as I stood up alongside bars and doorways.

Me, at a bar. The holes in the counter would have held pots of food.

My original plan had been to spend the afternoon on Mt Vesuvius, as I’d heard it offers incredible views of the entire area. But Vesuvius remained shrouded in rain clouds and fog all day, so I decided to grab lunch (pizza again) and head back to Sorrento.

I hopped a quiet Circumvesuviana train bound for Sorrento, well before the evening rush. I people-watched and wrote a bit. I heard announcements in Italian, but no one on board seemed to react, so I didn’t really pay heed. At one point, I glanced up and thought the scenery looked unfamiliar, but rationalized that my morning express train had been packed, standing-room-only, and skipping stops. After a few more stops, though, I decided to get up and look at the

The modern town of Ercolano is quite literally built on top of the Herculaneum ruins, which were buried under up to 75 feet of volcanic mud.

map. (The trains were woefully inconsistent with announcing stops, and many maps were missing, so you often sat far from one.) Suddenly I realized that at some point, my train had switched to another branch and was no longer bound for Sorrento but for another town. As I stood there and tried to count back how many stops I needed to go to transfer to the right line, a young local saw my perplexed look and confirmed what I needed to know. (My blonde hair tended to stand out a bit – people could instantly tell I wasn’t local.)  A Welsh couple had made the same error, so we waited together, chatting to pass the 30 minutes and then making the transfer together.

Of course, right as we arrived in Sorrento, the skies opened again, pouring down sheets of rain. I rushed into the nearest enoteca to grab a glass of wine and wait for the worst to pass before venturing out for dinner. As I sat down, I heard my name – and saw the same Welsh couple from the train, with the same idea. We shared a bottle of wine and chatted while the rain subsided.

After the rain let up, I wandered the town and enjoyed the passeggiata for awhile, window shopping and people watching before grabbing dinner and dessert and making my way home for the night. And as soon as my head hit the pillow, the rain started again.

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Mt. Vesuvius, lurking and looming behind Herculaneum, shrouded in clouds.

 

Day 1: Rainy, Medieval Sorrento

When I packed for my trip to Sorrento, I obsessively watched the forecast. Nary a drop of rain was predicted, and every day was supposed to be in the upper 70s and sunny. I stuck an umbrella in my suitcase, then removed it.

I arrived on Wednesday night, Sept 12th, reaching my hotel right as the sun set for a lovely, clear night. Exhausted, I checked into the hotel, freshened up a bit, and set off to find dinner. I ate fresh clams and pasta while sitting just 10 feet away from the shoreline of Marina Grande, chatting with a nice Welsh couple at the next table who urged me to “ring my mum” and let her know I’d arrived safely.

But the next morning dawned dark and ominous, and by the time I headed down to breakfast, it was raining. By the time I finished breakfast – served every morning in the cave-like grotto beneath the hotel, replete with fresh pastries and fantastic cappuccino – it was raining much harder.

Undeterred – this was vacation, damnit – I recalibrated my plans. I had planned to spend the first jetlaggy day in Sorrento anyway, but now I thought I’d take the bus into the center of town rather than make the 20 minute hike. That way I could stay a bit drier until I bought an umbrella.

Sorrento’s main street, nestled against the mountains

Of course, while waiting for the bus, it poured. Monsooned. A 30 minute, wring-out-your-underwear deluge while the late bus was stuck in traffic.

Never fear. I still made it into the center of the medieval town and went exploring, drying out while in the Museo Correale di TerraNova. After spending a pleasant hour looking at nifty old furniture and artifacts from pre-Roman times (Sorrento was Greek before it was Roman), I left the museum to wander.

The town used to be divided along this gorge. Pictures don’t do justice to the steepness of the drop.

It promptly began to pour. Again. So I ducked into a small pizzeria for lunch and had my first “real” pizza of the trip. Pizza was born in nearby Naples, made with the fresh mozzarella and tomatoes for which Sorrento is famous, fired in a wood-burning oven. With a glass of local wine, it was perfection, especially on a chilly, rainy day.

Arches everywhere – and so cool. I could touch both sides of this street/lane/alley if I stretched out my arms.

The rest of the day was much of the same. It would stop raining for an hour or two, and I would start to dry out and explore, and then another downpour would hit, driving me into a cafe for coffee or wine. My pictures from that day aren’t great – they’re gray, and some are rain-streaked, literally. But the medieval part of town was incredible, with some buildings dating to the 13th century. The lanes are so narrow that, in places, I could nearly touch both sides if I stretched out my arms. And once you get off the more touristy streets, the little side lanes were very charming.

Since the town – and entire peninsula – is built into the side of mountains, it’s very steep, and getting anywhere involves climbing up and down hills and stairs. I quickly realized that to get from my hotel at Marina Grande to the restaurants and ferries of Marina Piccola required climbing a couple of hundreds steps up a mountain to a main square, then taking a similar number of steps back down the other side. My map didn’t show such elevation changes, so the first couple of days were pretty strenuous until I started strategically planning my routes.

I ended up grabbing dinner in a little trattoria as rain came down again. The restaurants was cozy, especially sitting by the wood-burning stove, and I watched the waiters use a deli slicer to cut antipasti to order. As I watched people around me, I heard thick Texas drawls at the next table, trying to figure out how to get back to the marina. I offered my map and guidebook and chatted with the family, and older couple and their middle-aged daughter. We snapped pictures for each other and talked about travel and Italy in general. When I asked for my check, I learned that they had already paid the bill for me – a very nice surprise!

Pizza, wine and the pizza oven in the background. Perfect.

When the rain let up, I left for a bit of a stroll, walking down towards the marina myself. As I passed by a small cafe, I heard, “Chicago!” in a thick Texas accent – and there was the same family, waiting for their tender boat back to their cruise ship. I joined them for a glass of wine, thanked them profusely, then decided to call it a night.

By the time I got back to my hotel – relatively early, as I was in the worst throes of jetlag – my socks and shoes were still wet nearly 12 hours after the initial deluge. I took a hot shower and collapsed onto my rock-hard bed, listening to another rainstorm blow in.

Lovely, even in the rain.

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A Week In Italy

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

With that little snippet lurking at the back of my mind, I booked a week in Italy for mid-September. I had wanted to get away to celebrate graduation and to take  my first real vacation in a couple of years.

Capri

But where to go?

I’ve long had a fascination with Ireland, but the details wouldn’t come together in the timeframe I needed. So I daydreamed about some past trips and came up with Sorrento, in southern Italy. I had spent a single day there (less than that, actually) about five years ago when my family took a cruise that included a day in Naples. That morning, we had explored Pompeii – fascinating – before taking a bus on the scariest, most winding and steep drive I’d ever seen.

One of Sorrento’s marinas, from up high

Sorrento is small, with about 20,000 residents. Much of the town is built into the side of mountains that fall dramatically into the Gulf of Naples. Two small marinas are full of fishing boats and ferries bound for Capri and elsewhere. And the food? I’ve long said the lunch I had in Sorrento that day was one of the best meals I had ever eaten: fresh pizza (from the birthplace of pizza), seafood, and local wine.

I found the right airfare and a hotel that suited, near the marina but only a 20 minute walk from the medieval town center. I packed my bags, dropped the cat at my parents’ house, and set off for Italy.

I just kept buying – and eating – peaches

Traveling alone forces you to really pay attention to all around you – which opens your eyes to amazing things that are often relatively subtle. A natural introvert, it’s rare that I’ll strike up a conversation with strangers. But while traveling, there’s a certain camaraderie fostered among those who share a language in a strange land. I found myself talking to Brits (so many Brits), Aussies, Germans, Canadians, Malaysians… united by a common language (and in a place with very few Americans, since school has started again). Plus, I’d watch for people trying to take pictures of themselves and offer to snap one if they’d return the favor, which lead to several little chats about travels and destinations.

I unplugged from my daily life, where train rides are spent with Twitter and email, instead people-watching and scribbling notes and thoughts in a small notebook. I’d booked a room with a tiny balcony, so at night, I’d sit outside and sip wine, wrapped in a pashmina against the evening chill, watching people stroll to their homes and the restaurants along the marina.

From Mt. Solare on Capri

Ideas bubbled. And I exhaled, at long last.

A week is a long time to spend completely alone, but I’m so very glad I trusted myself enough to take the leap. I had no major catastrophes, though a few funny (in retrospect) stories and linguistic snafus.

I’ll share more in the next few days, roughly organized by day:

Day 1: Rainy, Medieval Sorrento
Day 2: Ancient Herculaneum
Day 3: Wild Beauty on Capri
Day 4: Lost in the Woods on the Amalfi Coast
Day 5: Mount Vesuvius

Inside the crater of Mt Vesuvius

Embracing the Seasons

It’s easy to wax eloquent on the marvels of summer or to proclaim that I wish [insert season here] never had to end.

But in reality, time marches on. After only a week away, I returned from Italy to a thoroughly autumnal Elgin (several blog posts are coming soon). The day I left, it was over 80 degrees, sunny, and definitely summer. Exactly one week later, nearly to the hour, it felt like fall as I stepped off the plane into 50 degree weather, with a certain bite in the air. The next day, while driving around, I saw leaves on the ground and others beginning to succumb to fall colors. The nights have grown colder, and I’ve re-embraced my jeans and cords and pulled my scarves from the back of the closet. It feels good to  curl up under a down throw on the couch and to pull the comforter up at night. The heat came on yesterday morning for the first time.

And then I saw exactly the right words to describe this, on my friend Emily’s Facebook timeline:

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit and resign yourself to the influences of each.” — Henry David Thoreau

Precisely. I’m starting to cook my fall favorites again and have noticed the light changing from full and strong to softer and more fleetingly precious. I spent a big part of Saturday outside, walking through Tekakwitha Woods and Jon Duerr Forest Preserve in St. Charles, noticing the leaves and the crisp air, the bright blue skies and the herons and egrets, gracefully soaking up the last rays before a trip south.

Rather than fighting the change, I’m embracing fall and all that comes with it, just as I’ll (likely more reluctantly) embrace winter when it arrives all too soon.

What’s your favorite part of fall? Any must-do Elgin-area autumn activities? I plan to soak up as much outdoor time as possible.

The Summer of Crysta

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer, but I’m not done yet.

In June, as I graduated, I proclaimed it the “Summer of Crysta.” I was going to spend as much time as possible outdoors and take full advantage of a summer with no schoolwork and plenty of free time.

Of course, the second I graduated I was sucked into plenty of new things. But I’ve still managed to have a very satisfying summer. I wish it didn’t have to end. While I echo Katie Leigh’s sentiment that some of the “best living” of this summer will remain unblogged, tucked into my memory and sure to conjure a smile even on the darkest winter day, here are a few highlights:

New bike: I bought a new bike in June and have been spending a lot of time on it. (Not enough, though.) It’s more comfortable than the 19-year-old ride it replaced, and it’s nice to have a fully functional piece of equipment.

 

Concerts, concerts, concerts: I’ve attended at least a dozen outdoor concerts this summer, from the Wing Park Concert series to a rain-shortened 7th Heaven concert at Brewfest, to Wilco at Kane County Cougars Stadium and Death Cab for Cutie in Grant Park. There’s no better way to spend a summer evening. Two weeks ago, as the Wing Park Concert series ended with the US Air Force Mid-America Jazz Band, the breeze hinted at autumn, and the sunset much earlier, leading me to ride home in the dark. Great way to end the summer

At (on?) the Wooded Isle in Jackson Park.

Exploring: I’ve explored more this summer than any other (and I’m not done yet). I finally did the Devil in the White City Tour, discovering the gorgeous Wooded Isle in the process. (Despite living in Hyde Park for three years, I never knew it was there!) I went on a foodie tour of Bucktown and Wicker Park, sampling six restaurants with a heavy side of history. I’ve visited several forest preserves that I’d driven by for years, seeing owls and a buck and a turkey vulture.

Hammock time: My favorite purchase from last summer was the hammock that spans a good portion of my backyard. I can’t even count how many hours I’ve spent in it this summer, reading (for fun!) in the sunshine, or just watching the stars come out at night and feeling very small.

Reading: Now that I don’t have professors assigning mountains (or pounds) of reading material, I’ve been able to pick and choose what I read. I’ve been overwhelmed by the options and have several competing piles of “next to read” scattered around the house. So far, these are the ones I’ve completed:

This Side of Paradise – F Scott Fitzgerald – “I know myself, but that is all.” So very good.
The Myth of the Garage: And Other Minor Surprises – Chip & Dan Heath (available for free download) – This collection of essays from the authors of “Made to Stick” was full of interesting little tidbits and intriguing columns about the inevitability of $300 socks and why to trust your gut instead of your brain.
The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd – Quick novel, well-written and engaging.
The Big Short – Michael Lewis – I’ve been meaning to read this for at least a year. It was tough going, but interesting and gave me a new understanding for how our economy works – and how easily manipulated it is/was.
The Shipping News – Annie Proulx – I’d never thought much about Newfoundland and its people, but this bleak, raw, harrowing story of loss and loneliness opened my eyes.
Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama – Fascinating look at women working in the textile industry in 1910s China. Girls were often sold into the factories to help their families make ends meet, and the story chronicles how they began to stand up for their independence.
Consider the Lobster (and other essays) – David Foster Wallace – My first foray into Wallace proved fascinating, with lots of food for thought about boiling lobsters, the defense of the English language, the adult film industry, and more.
The Girl with Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace – This collection of short stories contained the same fantastic writing as his non-fiction, but some of the stories were just…odd. I’m very glad I made the effort, though.

And I’m at various points in these:
Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? – Lou Gerstner – Very interesting from my IBMer perspective.
Summer – Edith Wharton – one of my very favorite novels… as I bike through prairies, it always pops to mind
OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word – Allan Metcalf – A history of a phrase? Why not?
The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain. Twain spends a couple of months on a cruise around Europe. Hilarity ensues.

As summer winds down, I still have a couple more adventures tucked up my sleeve, and plenty of fresh tomatoes left to eat. What has your favorite part of the summer been? What’s still on tap?

A Charter School?

Every time I write about education and schools in this town, I get a lot of responses. As the daughter of a teacher, I know that people are passionate about education. For better or worse, a city’s schools have a huge impact on the town as a whole.

A local group, the Elgin Charter School Initiative (ECSI), is beginning to investigate establishing Elgin’s first charter school, which would be math and science focused.

I honestly don’t know much about how charter schools operate or whether they’re good or bad. But I’m curious to learn. I don’t have children, but I do have a stake in my neighborhood and town.

Join ECSI Monday, September 10 for a discussion and informational meeting beginning at 7:00 PM at the Zion Lutheran Church at 330 Griswold St.

The ECSI will have information on charter schools, and a report on their progress in this initiative.  But they’re also looking for community input.

If you’re intrigued but can’t attend, contact ECSI at elgincsi@gmail.com.

Have you had experiences with charter schools? What was your impression?

 

Taking Chances

Over the past few months, several new businesses have opened downtown.

Before the Soulful Sparrow opened in June, the flurry of activity had passersby peering in the windows. And instead of the usual bland “Opening Soon” sign, the proprietors posted something else: a tear-off sign urging people to take a chance.

I tore one off, stuck it in my purse, and promptly forgot about it.

Except…

Over the next few weeks, I kept finding that little scrap of paper, again and again. And each time, I’d pause for a brief moment.

Because really, all these new businesses are the result of someone taking a chance. Each represents a leap of faith, someone crossing their fingers that their experience and vision will align into something the market wants and/or needs.

Sometimes, the market helps a bit. Since occupancy remains relatively low, some local landlords are offering businesses one of the most valuable incentives: time to grow before rent is due.

Just a couple of doors north of the Soulful Sparrow… who will take the leap?

Sure, you can – and should – do your homework and research the market and competition. You can become an expert in your field, take classes, be an apprentice.

But it still comes down to the very American urge to take a dream and translate it into something concrete, to work for one’s self, to be the creator of one’s own destiny and livelihood. Dreams aren’t always tangible or realistic. That’s why taking chances is so important – and rare.

Ribbon cutting for the Soulful Sparrow

A Neighborhood Farm: Trogg’s Hollow

You’d never know you were in a residential neighborhood.

Last year, I stumbled upon Trogg’s Hollow, a local farm nestled in my neighborhood. I joined their Community Supported Agriculture program, tempted by the prospect of weekly fresh veggies. I split a share with a neighbor and reveled in the challenge of using veggies I had never tried. Or, in some cases, heard of. (Beets? Check. Kohlrabi? Check. Kale, kale and more kale? Check, check, and a miserably failed attempt at kale chips.)

This year, they offered a half share, which is a much easier option than trying to split a full share into roughly a third. Some things just don’t split well. I think I’ll get more veggies than last year, but since I’m done with school, I actually have more time to cook. (In theory, anyway.)

When I first learned of Trogg’s Hollow and looked up the address, I routed a run past it – and didn’t even notice it. During subsequent runs, I spotted it but never realized  just how much farm land was tucked behind the houses on a rather ordinary residential block.To kick off the season, the fine folks at Trogg’s opened up their yard for a little meet-and-greet, a chance to break bread with fellow shareholders, tour the greenhouses and walk the rows of sprouting goodness.

Farmer Chris in the fields, with a carrot.

When I arrived for the meet-and-greet, I followed a child down the winding path – and marveled at the little farm barely a mile from home. Chris and Marcy beamed as they explained their philosophy and how they decide what to grow. The veggies may be uglier than the genetically modified grocery store variety, but I’d rather have ugly, local and delicious than pretty, imported and tasteless.

Since the season started, I’ve gotten so many types of greens, carrots, radishes, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, zucchini, beets… the list goes on. I’ve been happily

Picking up my first batch of veggies at the Downtown Elgin Harvest Market

devouring salads, sauteeing kale with garlic and onions, baking Swiss chard with shrimp, adding spinach to chicken scalloppine and stir fries, and snacking on purple carrots. I roasted beets and carrots for a salad, and hummed the Fraggle Rock song as I diced radishes and cabbage for Banh Mi Salad.

I can’t wait for the tomatoes to start.

What’s your favorite summer veggie?