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Going to be showing off Richmond’s riverfront (even that phrase seems almost funny as I write it–Richmond hasn’t had a riverfront so much as a river in the backyard) with Off the Eatin’ Path: Richmond’s Riverfront starting this Sunday, May 6th at noon. We’ll start in Shockoe Slip and wander around the canals and Brown’s Island and wind up at Canal Bistro at Off the Hookah for lunch. 1.5-2 hours of art, architecture, adventure and me blabbing in between bites! The RVA Street Art Festival sure spiced up one section of our route with the fun (and possibly ephemeral if a buyer buys the Hydroelectric Plant and wants them removed) multiple murals that live there now. Get down there to see them one way or another, please!

see what's behind the scaffolding...

You know I’ll season the tour with lots of James River Park System info, ways to get out and enjoy the river and the creatures who frequent it–not all of them fitness-crazed people yelling “Hoo-rah!”–and several lesser known historical tidbits. It should be a relaxing yet exhilarating tour. The high school group who were my guinea pigs for this tour in March said I saved their lives by taking them on the tour. I don’t recall pulling any of them out of the rapids, but maybe I was so engrossed by RVA’s riches that I didn’t notice that part of the tour….

All Aboard!

On our typical food tours, I push the river as worthy of a visit all sorts of ways. I’m glad that on this route the James will get to speak for itself.

a flood of interest in the James these days...

I have been to the mountains and I didn’t want to leave. No cell phone coverage. No internet. Sky–lots of it. Also more maple syrup than I technically needed, but that’s Highland County’s thing, so can’t really argue with it. It won’t make me popular at Monterey’s doughnut-selling shack, but I just think maple-glazed doughnuts are a bad idea. Maple-glazed chicken I could get behind–and my mouth in front of, and maple syrup on buckwheat pancakes tasted as maple trees intended in their infinite wisdom. The folks who still make the syrup the old way are a different sort than most Americans. Spend time outside. Touch trees. Wonder if bears might wake up too soon and cause some trouble at the sugar shack. That sort of thing. The early summery weather made it tough on syrup production this year, FYI.


During my two night visit last month during the Maple Festival, I was able to come up with t-shirt slogans that will make someone other than me not the least bit rich, tour several sugar camps, stare at countless gorgeous views with sun and shadow and mountains and meadows playing so well together-almost as well as maple syrup and Jack Daniels purportedly get along over ice. Perhaps the highlight was having wine and cheese alongside a rushing creek with some friends. For the rest of the story, you’ll have to read whatever else it is that I wrote in a travel piece for the May issue of Richmond Magazine.

Monument Avenue is back in the news–for the always exciting Ukrop’s 10k (presented by Martins) this past Saturday that featured 80, 000+ feet going forward on 40,000+ competitors–and possibly 1 giant step backward if Art 180’s legally permitted exhibit What Do You Stand For? is bullied off the block by April 6th instead of being allowed to stay through May 4th as agreed to originally. Apparently complaints from a few well-placed Monument Avenue residents, one of whom called Art 180’s vibrant and colorful and moving exhibit disgraceful, have triggered a revocation of their permit. Wow. That guy can’t see the grace in this exhibit for the dis in his own eye.

Monument Avenue has gorgeous architecture along it–including the amazing Branch House, The Virginia Center for Architecture–a wide median with trees, and those durned statues. Those statues are symbols of  a Richmond set in its way, stuck in the past, standing still, looking backward, clinging to an unjust past. I much prefer an avenue with actual people and dogs out there walking and running, doing a yoga flash mob, painting plein air, being enlightened and inspired by the art and words of these young artists. This exhibit,exquisitely well-timed to include the Monument Ave 10k and Easter on Parade, gives the artists taught by Art 180 staff the chance to have their powerful, vibrant, and meaningful art showcased for thousands of people. This is where the new Richmond–artful, creative, vibrant, all-embracing–is on display.

Can you say juxtaposition?

From a Close Up on Monument Ave. on p. 159 in Insiders’ Guide to Richmond–written by yours truly:

“And then there are those six statues, of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E. B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and Arthur Ashe. What started as a way to memorialize the Confederate past while jump-starting development to the west of town  in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took on a life of its own, mythologizing the Lost Cause. For the record, the vast majority of people in and around Richmond do not venerate those dead Confederate guys. We mostly joke about them or ignore them and the no left turn signs at some of their intersections. It is no joke that they represent a painful past that Richmond and the rest of the country is still coming to grips with. They do add focal points and drama to the avenue, and sometimes even a protest or two. In 1968, Helen Marie Taylor took a stand against a paving machine that would have covered the original Belgian blocks on the road. She jump-started the movement to preserve and protect the Avenue’s unique character.”

Protests and advocacy got Arthur Ashe’s statue added in 1996. Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. there’s an art walk scheduled to start at the Lee Monument to celebrate Art 180’s exhibit.

Wow. More of this--not less!

It’s an exciting, art-filled time in Richmond with the G40 murals going up downtown now, the Street Festival mural project coming up April 12-14th and What Do You Stand For? in the middle of Monument Ave. I stand for it staying and for more creative and all-embracing uses of Monument Ave. to make it a place that celebrates all Richmonders. That’s a cause worth fighting for.

One of my favorite parts of running Real Richmond with my pal, Susan Winiecki, is coming up with fun places to start off the food tours. Sometimes, because of the time constraints (and our  learned by doing more than that once) 1.5 mile limit, we start at one of the restaurants we sample at, or on the Cathedral steps for a bit of value-added grandeur, but mostly we start in local bookstores or galleries. I REALLY want people to spend their time and money in these places. If you’ve gotten sucked into the chain thing, give ’em up for Lent and try going local. You will be amazed at how much fun you can have in these joints.


For the Fan of the Food tour, we start at Black Swan Books on W. Main St. For Carytown/Museum District, it’s Chop Suey Books, and for our Shockoe Slip: Capital of Cuisine tour, it’s none other than Fountain Bookstore. For Both SIdes of Broad we often start at Quirk Gallery, which is both a huge treat and temptation. We also love to sneak in a visit to a theater or special space if we can make it happen. We’ve treated people to mini-tours of The Empire/November Theatre, The Hippodrome, Anderson Gallery, Glave/Kocen Gallery and more. And lately, we’re able to incorporate a visit to the Virginia St. Gallery on the Slip tour and have vendors there with samples for our tour-goers. Lucky us!

I am not above stealing lines from my friends who are unlikely to read this blog. Back in high school we made a list of what we called mother sayings–“Don’t talk with your mouth full” would have made it. I don’t remember any more of them at the moment, but I suspect by now we’ve said every one of them to our own children and only partly ironically. These pals and I don’t get together very often since we live hours apart, but did manage to meet for an hour earlier this week. Two of us were on our on way to visit our mothers; the other had spent Saturday at hers.

In a sign that I might be joining our mothers in cognitive impairment land, I can’t remember which one of us made a joke after hearing that one friend’s mother had introduced a man at her retirement home as a Pulitzer prize-winning author. It very well could be true, but he didn’t seem to know it, and the person who did seem to doesn’t always recognize the refrigerator as such though she can be perfectly lucid other times. It gave us an idea. People try to reinvent themselves when they go to college or move to a different city. Who knew that moving into a retirement home could provide the same sort of tabula rasa? We need to think of the years after 80 as the time we can reinvent ourselves–over and over–every day, perhaps. Be all we couldn’t be. The U. S. Army’s Be all you can be might have appealed to delusional teens. Be all you didn’t have a prayer at being is perfect for my kind of people. I was a teenage super model or perhaps pope or Top Chef. Interesting which one I capitalized. The only flaw in my reinvention plan is that there will likely be somebody in every room able to Google the truth and put an end to our own delusions.

It is not a good thing to think about paperwork whilst one sleeps. No one wrote the lyric, “I’m Dreaming of a White Pile of Papers” for a reason.  Running a marathon can seem daunting–even after you’ve done one.  But the real hard stuff isn’t any of that-dealing with paperwork—Delta’s rules for using an unused ticket that cost a small fortune are no more fun than wandering among a few circles of hell. Just gave up on that one, which is of course the point of their rules.

And then there’s been the fun of the Costa Rican visa process for students. It’s a lot like the road to Quepos–long and winding and really bumpy and seemingly no end to that road.  I wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic for my daughter to take her Costa Rican journey had I known how inane and expensive the visa process would be. I’m only now writing this because at least  she’s there–on a tourist visa–which will, after hundreds of more dollars thrown at bureaucracy will ostensibly give her a student visa good for the length of her program.  We have different last names, so I’m hoping no one  from CR will read this and put 2 + 2 together to equal $400 more dollars in fees.

Notaries, secretaries of states and airline employees have all had a piece of this action. My daughter needed a recent original copy of her birth certificate from South Carolina and a copy of her non-existent police record from Virginia. Requests had to be notarized on our end and then the forms notarized on their end. Once they were mailed back to us, they needed to go back in the mail to the Secretary of State of the respective state–and no, there was no way the one state agency was going to forward it to the other state agency. There, in SC and VA, the secretaries of state  had to stamp stamp and say, yes, the notary on this other form really is who he/she says he/she is. Good to know. Then once we got that back, it all went into an envelope to the Costa Rican Consulate with a request for the documents to be authenticated.

So now after many checks out the door, we wound up with a stack of papers that say (in Spanish and English) that what we say we say really is what we say we said.  Charles Dickens had David Copperfield say it more simply: ” I am born.” Then after we’ve done all of the check-writing and notarizing and sending in of the silly forms, we got an email that said, “GOOD NEWS! Costa Rica has changed their process as of Dec. 14th” so you might not need this, and this will work instead though you still might have to pay extra for that. And the emails just kept coming with new and contradictory information that really didn’t warm the cockles of my heart. Things like, “We’ve been having trouble getting the visa process to work and many U.S. airlines won’t let you on the plane without a student visa (even though Costa Rica doesn’t issue those until you are in their country). True to form at the airport yesterday, the airline folks were hesitant about letting our daughter get on the plane–very friendly and helpful, but letting us know that other students had been turned back at other airports without proper documentation. After we produced two letters–one in English and one in Spanish that said let her on the plane for Chrissakes,” she was let on the plane. True to form, when she landed in Costa Rica, they could not have cared less and stamped her passport without looking at anything else. Tomorrow she gets to deal with the bureaucracy down there to turn her tourist visa into a student visa. The U.S. has not cornered the market on wasting paper, I can assure you.

I would like to discuss traffic. Mostly my happiness at not being stuck in it today. Also how thrilling it was not to be stuck in it on Wednesday even though we left Richmond the morning before Thanksgiving and headed into the belly of the beast that is I-95 North up to Philadelphia for Turkey Day. Not a slow-down worth mentioning. One of the most efficient car trips to Philly ever. Can I talk about it some more? Can I tell you about our last minute decision to take the Harbor Tunnel through Baltimore? It really was something to see. And we didn’t have to pay for one good trip with a bad return trip.

I don’t mean to gloat, but isn’t it better than somebody whining about traffic? I’m sure Twitter is full of that. No need.

This Thanksgiving I was reminded of another one or two or three Thanksgivings I had 30 years ago when I was JYA in Dublin at University College. Our program had a group Thanksgiving for us that we young morons cooked–first time I ever picked feathers out of a bird and did anything to a turnip. Then after a bad play and a better dinner a few of us rushed from St. Stephen’s Green to catch a ferry to Liverpool from whence we took a bus to Durham and met friends of mine from college for their dorm’s version of Thanksgiving. I see squash pie and a dark room that looks like it should be in England because it was and that’s all I got. A winding road to a grocer’s. Maybe a hobbit or ghost or something. Then the next night their program had a more formal Thanksgiving for all the Americans around and we were invited and had our 3rd in a row–the first one with sherry beforehand. I see long tables covered in white tablecloths and more squash pie. It looks more like Hogwarts than it possibly could have been. I’m fairly sure Maggie Smith was nowhere to be found. Something tells me there is no way in hell that I comported myself as someone at a formal dinner at an English university should. I was dressed more for a soccer match I daresay. But that was quite a Thanksgiving trip–hitchhiking from Durham to London where we crashed at some other college friend’s flat, but not before almost losing touch with half of our traveling party and loitering around a posh hotel lobby that was to be our meeting place until it became clear we couldn’t stay there a minute longer. Somehow it all worked out. No idea how. A  fake Brit who was really an ex-pat awful American in a Jaguar had something to do with our trip at some point. And broad smiles at a bus stop in Liverpool on our way to the ferry terminal. The smiles had nothing to do with the guy in the Jag, I swear, unless it was that we’d gotten rid of him. Or perhaps the smiles were merely giddiness at the almost completion of a most successful Thanksgiving trip extravaganza.



DaVinci Does Cadiz

Zoom with a View

This summer while I was visiting Cadiz, Spain I went to Torre Tavira, the tallest point in Cadiz. It’s a tourist attraction for the views from the top of the tower and for the camera obscura guided exhibit that costs 5 euros.The 20 minute visit with the camera obscura show was entertaining and a great way to get one’s bearings.  The youtube video gives a sense of what you’re looking at. They limit the tour to 18 people at a time and run it several times a day.

Basically, using mirrors and lenses and a concave viewing area in a darkened room, we were able to see what was going on at street level and rooftop level 360 degrees around. Our guide could swivel the camera and zoom in and out and we had an amazingly clear view of the entire city. He pointed out architecture, historic spots, natural features, and people walking on the street that moment. It really had a magical feel to it. Our guide conducted the tour in several languages, which was entertaining as well. We saw a lot for just standing still.
Here in RVA, City Hall has the viewing platform already but it is woefully inadequate as a tourist site as is. With the addition of the camera obscura, a guide could tell the whole story–the then and the now of Richmond. The rapids and rocks, Native American history, Christopher Newport, colonization, Patrick Henry, Gabriel, liberty and slavery, TJ’s Capitol, Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew, Jackson Ward, Maggie Walker, VCU, Monumental Church, CenterStage, on and on, all the way to RIR .  Zoom in on former tobacco warehouses now with pools on top, zoom in on Hollywood Cemetery. The juxtapositions could be dizzying.
Since DaVinci was one of the major forces behind the development of the camera obscura and given that VCU has a DaVinci program that brings together their engineering and art schools, I think there might be a way to get some funding from them. It could be a good way for VCU to show its creative and technical sides in a new way downtown.
It’s a remarkably simple concept–see what’s going on all around you in one place–but with the right guide and tour, there was quite a wow factor. Leading food tours walking around Richmond with Real Richmond , I see how hungry people are for cool things to do in town. People want to learn more, want it to be easy to see what the city has to offer, and don’t want to have to figure everything out on their own. This could be one-stop gawking. I don’t know what height building suits a camera obscura, the cost, or if there would be a better choice than City Hall, but I think it’s something Richmond ought to look into it, so to speak. We’ll see if the Mayor’s Tourism Commission, of which I’m a member, has any interest….

There is such a thing as seeing too much

I gave a 5 minute talk last night at Midlothian Middle School to middle schoolers, their parents, teachers, and other book-loving folks, sharing the stage with much better known and accomplished writers Sheila P. Moses, Sue Corbett, Brooks Smith, Connie Lapallo, and Gigi Amateau. It was a most pleasant way to spend an evening, full of stories and inspiration. Look these other folks up and buy their books at your local bookstere. You won’t be disappointed.

I focused on the part of writing where I’m not stuck with the seat of my pants in a chair. Made me think I need to take my own advice! Here’s more or less what I said. Those Midlo folks are chomping at the bit to come into Richmond and take advantage of what it has to offer. That’s exciting to me.

Not me ziplining across the river (which would be cool, but isn't possible yet!), but a WIld in the City guest ziplining across Belle Isle Quarry. I had the pleasure of that trip another time.

I’m doing a couple of things this week that might rattle some nerves—public speaking and rappelling down a 25 storey building downtown as part of Over the Edge, a Special Olympics extreme fundraiser.  I’m doing both of those heart-pounding things this week because I’m a writer. And I feel very lucky to be doing both.

Chester Filbert in Nothing Ever Happens on My Block—one of my all-time favorite picture books– has a perpetual sneer on his face. I’ve been known to have that look, but there’s a big difference between me and Chester Filbert—he doesn’t see what’s all around him—he can’t get outside of his head—of his preconceived notions of how dull his life and his neighborhood is.

Chester says longingly, “Some places have marching bands or haunted houses, courageous hunters hunting, ferocious lions and tigers, pirates and buried treasure…” on and on..  He’s so busy wishing for what he doesn’t have that he misses what is going on right in front of his face.  Disgusted with his lot in life,  he finishes  with “But nothing ever happens on my block., and snarls, “When I grow up, I’m going to move.”

It’s easy to think our lives are dull and boring and for some stretches they are, but here’s the thing. Something is happening on everyone’s block—you have to be out there and be open to seeing it.  To be an effective writer, I need to spend some time stuck inside my head for sure—contemplating, questioning, revising, but I NEED to get outside my head and my house even more—meet people, ride horses, ask questions, rappel, go rafting, try new things, look at art, eat at cool restaurants, explore what’s around. All that feeds my writing and my life.

When I wrote Insiders’ Guide to Richmond, I was well aware that many people say nothing ever happens in Richmond a la Chester Filbert. It’s not D.C. or New York or Chicago.  It’s stuck in the past, dull and boring. Who would ever want to visit? There’s nothing to do! I’ve heard it all. And I don’t believe it!

So I drew on my experiences living here 19 years, being an outdoorsy, involved, art and history-loving, quirky and curious type and wrote an upbeat book that makes it easier to find the good stuff in our city and region.

WIth apologies to Ellen Raskin:

Some places have a free and fantastic Folk Festival along the river, –did you go?! Class IV and V whitewater you can raft through downtown, one of the 50 most beautiful buildings in the country, awesome mountain biking and multi-use trails. Some places have torchlit walks on a Slave Trail, and herons roosting along the Pipeline, a Final 4 basketball team, artsy and involved universities, a Native American village to visit, bald eagles soaring above  the James, one of the best art museums in the country that’s open every day and free!!! And will be full of MUMMIES next month, a creepy crypt under a historic church, sites related to revolutionaries you’ve heard of:  Patrick Henry and GW and  Thomas Jefferson, and sites related to ones you might not have: Gabriel, Maggie Walker, John Mitchell, John Jasper. Some places have a one night internationally-curated light exhibit INLIGHT this Friday night at Tredegar!!!!  NASCAR, recreational tree-climbing, even Mid-lothian Mines Park where 9 year olds once worked down in the shafts doing the dirty work  And that place is Richmond. (And I could go on. For another 300 pages, but I won’t! I didn’t even mention that war you might have heard about….)

Chester Filbert said “When I grow up, I’m going to move.” Once again poor Chester has it all wrong!.  Don’t wait till you grow up to move. Move NOW!  Don’t worry–I don’t want you to move away from home or away from Richmond! I mean MOVE! Don’t stay in one place! Don’t say there’s nothing to do or sit staring at computer or television screens. Get out on your block in your neighborhood, in the city and the region and be active and involved, observe and experience. Think outside the block! Be a part of the world—not apart from it.  Be a part of Richmond–not apart from it.  And if you’re in Shockoe Slip Thursday around 3:45, look up at the SunTrust building and wave!  That’s where I’ll be hanging out.

Hope to see you around town!

After signing a bunch of books and talking to the people at the event, I know I will see them around town. Cool!

Just visited my father-in-law last week and got him talking about the time he spent helping out at a family farm in Rutland, Massachusetts back in the day. He talked quite happily about cutting the hay and loading it into a wagon and then filling the barn with it–so much work, and more technique to it than a slothful type like me would have figured. He said he had a knack for packing the hay just right in the wagon. It hit me that though my husband has never once loaded hay into a wagon or barn that somehow that skill was transferred to him–slightly mutated–so that he has a knack, or an obsession perhaps, for packing a suitcase and car just right. Or so he thinks.

Unfortunately for him, my family possesses no such hay-making or packing skills. I come from a long line of manure spreaders.

I’m back!