Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015: It Was a Very Good Year

No doubt about it, 2015 has been one of the best years of my life. And as I usually do around this time of year, I like to look back and see what events or turning points made the previous twelve months so special. Not that it's always been easy to do so. Some years the best I could say was, "Well, I survived!" Other years have been so filled with goodness it was difficult to keep my list down to a manageable number. 

2015 definitely falls into this last category, with the top twelve being (and in no particular order):

1. My trip to Taiwan. I can't say enough about how much fun this trip was, or what it meant to me: Life-changing, to say the least. I wrote several blog posts about my trip, starting with my Taiwan Trip Diary, Days 1 and 2. For the holidays I recently was sent a link to this lovely little video about a group of young people traveling to many of the same Taiwanese sites I visited and I can't stop watching it. I hope you enjoy it too!

2. My trip to Portugal. I never really expected to travel to two countries in one year, but somehow I got there! Portugal couldn't have been more different from Taiwan, but in retrospect I find myself remembering the trip with an equal amount of fondness. In case you haven't seen them, my Portuguese blog posts start here.

3. Finding a new direction in my artwork. Until Taiwan, I pretty much was what you could call a major "dabbler." In other words, I rarely found an art supply I didn't want, or a technique I didn't want to explore and experiment with. I had enough materials and sketchbooks and papers and brushes to open a small store. My only goal seemed to be "do it all!" Now, eight months later, I have donated 90% of my "stuff" to the library and an art center for the disabled. I've been left with what really speaks to my heart: a small set of watercolors and my favorite pencils in graphite and pastel, as well as limited sets of colored and water-soluble pencils. Pencils and drawing seem to be "it" for me and where I want to stay. I also discovered that I resonate the strongest to an Asian-Expressionist style, something I never would have known had I not gone to Taiwan and "found my art-self."

4. Keeping a daily sketchbook habit. Another great benefit of traveling. I took sketchbooks with me to both travel destinations and now I can't go anywhere without one in my purse. A day without a sketch of something is a day lost to me, and I've come to love daily sketching as much as daily writing.

5. Blogging. I wasn't as frequent a blogger as I had hoped to be this year, with long gaps in between posts, and many of my posts being about travel rather than writing (which is really meant to be the focus of this blog . . .) but, hey, I hung in there! I did have fun writing my posts when I had the time to sit down and write them, and it has been a pleasure sharing my adventures with you all. Thank you everyone so very much for reading and being there for me. Next year I'll try to get back on track with more posts on writing and creativity (although I must say it's gone through my mind how much I'd enjoy being a dedicated travel blogger, too! Maybe sometime in the future??)

6. My wonderful groups: writers, artists, sketchers . . . I don't know what I would do without my inspiring and helpful groups. I have a schedule of five to six meetings a month with all of these talented people and I couldn't be more grateful. 

7. Reading Paul Scott's entire Jewel in the Crown series, including the sequel: Staying On. For some reason in January, I became obsessed with this series and had to read every single word--sometimes twice. It dominated every minute of my limited reading time to the exclusion of not reading very much else this year. The particular volume I bought had ALL of the books in one gigantic paperback that just about broke my wrists holding it upright, but I was glad I stuck with it. 

8. Beading at last, with lots of new beads from Taiwan and Portugal. Last Christmas I was gifted some professional-quality beading tools and this year I made good use of them, resulting in some new and original jewelry for myself and others. I've still got a lot to learn, but it sure helps to have the right tools and supplies.

9. Finishing my novel, The Abyssal Plain 101% to my satisfaction and submitting it. In many ways this was probably my most important achievement. I had hoped to have had the manuscript finished last year, but then kept seeing changes I wanted and/or needed to make every time I thought I was through with editing. Well, now I am finished and I've even sent it out to some agents. Let's see what happens!

10. Our first year in the new house we spent all of 2014 renovating. Can't believe I lived through this episode, but here we are with nothing left to paint, repair, or replace. The back yard is still a bit of a work-in-progress, but we're regarding that as a "hobby for fun and entertainment" rather than "We can't move in until (fill in the blank) is fixed/finished." It feels good to now only have routine housework on the to-d0 list, as opposed to things like "buy new doors."

11. Cleared out my bookshelves to an absolute minimum. In the same manner I de-cluttered my art supplies, I emptied my bookshelves down to the bone. They're now very bare, very lean, and hold only some pottery and the books I refer to again and again. Anything else I want to read comes from the library. 

12. Discovering that I want to concentrate on writing short stories. This has been a very new discovery, like only about a month ago. And it's also been a "homecoming." When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, many years ago, I wanted to write short stories. Then I learned two things: a) I tended to write very long pieces. In fact, they were so long they weren't short stories at all. They were novels.  And, b) print magazines were disappearing at a rapid rate with very little openings to publish short stories. 

A lot has changed since then. Not only has the Internet provided hundreds if not thousands of new opportunities for publishing short pieces, but I have reached a point in my life where I'm ready to be more succinct. It may have something to do with the fact that I have four more novels in first-draft mode ready for editing and rewriting and I'm in no mood to write a fifth.  Yet I don't want to stop writing altogether just because I have manuscripts to edit. Short stories feel like the perfect answer: a good way to keep my creativity flowing, and a good way to stay in touch with publishing while I continue to revise one novel at a time.

So that was my year in review. How about you? Any special highlights you'd like to share? Leave a comment! In the meantime, Merry Christmas and I'll see you next year. Stay warm!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Adventures in Portugal: It's a Wrap!

Ericeira. I love this shade of blue.

Happy December, Everyone! How did NaNoWriMo go (assuming you signed up)? For all those who gave it a miss this year, I hope you had a wonderful November all the same. For my part, I'm happy to report I made it the full way to 50K with a few words left over, finishing around 7.00 PM on the final night. My secret strategy was to get up half an hour earlier, go to bed half an hour later, write through most of my lunch hour, and then have a massive marathon session over Thanksgiving. Somehow this seemed to work. I won't be editing or revising the results for a very long time, but they'll be there in their shiny new binder for when I'm ready to do so. One day.

In the meantime: back to Portugal!

Our next stop from where I left off in my last post was Ericeira, a charming surf-town, full of long scenic walks and beautiful sea views. I especially loved the residents' use of the color blue which matched the sky and sea exactly:

The town square made for a great rest stop:

Before we came across this stately inn right on the beach where we decided to stay for the next two nights:

I especially loved my room with a view where I could easily curl up on the window ledge for reading and sketching:

Our first morning in town we awoke to fog and clouds, but we were still eager to wander the grounds after breakfast. . .

. . . and to then take off for a day-trip to Sintra, a place famous for its fairy tale palaces and villas and Byron's accolades describing the city as the most beautiful place in the world. I'm sure he didn't have the same amount of tourists and traffic to contend with that we did, but the despite the crowds the town center still managed to retain a romantically gothic ambience that I loved right away. We even found a sweet place to park (for free!):

As soon as the car was safely stowed, we started walking through the twisty-turny neighborhoods:

And then saw the sign to The Moorish Castle. Out of the blue, my husband decided he couldn't live without seeing The Moorish Castle. As he put it, this would be the only chance in our entire lifetime to see one. Ever.

I wasn't one-hundred-percent convinced that it was the best place to spend the day, but I agreed to give it a go, so off we went. As with many of the signposts in Portugal (e.g., the famous monoliths), there weren't exactly what you'd call directions on the signage, or any description of how long or treacherous this walk/hike might be. All we knew at this point was it would be uphill, and involved cobblestones--serious cobblestones that must have been there since the time of the Moors from the looks of their uneven surfaces. 

Undaunted, we began the ascent. After about fifteen minutes, we began to wonder where the castle was. Surely it was up here somewhere? More climbing. An hour later we met some people coming down the hill.

"Is the castle up here?"we asked. They gave us what can only be described as looks of deep pity.

"You're about a quarter of the way there," one of the men said.

Uh-oh. Decision time. Keep going, or give up? We kept going. The cobblestones turned into steep stone stairs designed, I'm sure, to keep marauders at bay. An hour, or two, or three, I have no idea anymore, we got there. Almost. We still had to buy tickets costing the equivalent of about twenty dollars to get in. I couldn't have said "no, too expensive" if I'd wanted to because by now I was ready to absolutely perish. I was desperate to eat and drink something--anything. We asked where the tea rooms were. "To your right." Off we go--nearly to our deaths as we followed the ticket seller's directions and carried on up and up the castle ramparts. Where there was nothing but sheer terror. No railings, no real or level steps; nothing at all until I refused to go an inch further. 

"There are NO tea rooms on castle walls!" I told my husband. "They didn't build them that way." By now he had to agree with me. The only trouble was, how to get down and out of here? I clung to the rail-less wall with my fingertips and dared one quick photo to prove I'd made the trek:

Legs shaking, hearts pounding, we got down to the castle courtyard. And guess what? The tea rooms were: TO THE LEFT. THE LEFT. Not the right. And they were out of tea. We were grateful for the coffee they did have, and the fact we could grab the last two muffins in stock before preparing for our descent back into town. This time we took a different route used by the tour buses, which was both shorter and far more dangerous as we had to avoid being run over every few minutes by the biggest buses I have ever seen

Finally back in town, we emerged onto this wonderful sight. The Quinta da Regaleira and what will forever remain The Place I Would Much Rather Have Gone To, but it was too late in the day and we still needed to get some real food. Castles behind us, we found a great little outdoor restaurant serving vegetable spaghetti that was so good I've made it at home twice already.

We drove back to Ericeira for a second night, and then we were off to Lisbon, the final stage of our journey:

Lisbon was one of the places where I had pre-booked a hotel and in a very clever place (if I say so myself): right across the street from the airport. We planned to be in Lisbon for two nights, and because our flight home was scheduled for 7.30 AM, it couldn't have been a better spot. Best of all, we didn't need our rental car, didn't have to worry about parking, and we were able to use the airport metro to get into town in a matter of minutes. A real win-win. We were also able to buy tickets in the hotel lobby for two days on a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus which truly was the very best way to see Lisbon with its steep and narrow cobbled lanes:

Great views from the top of the bus!

The bus traveled far and wide, taking us to so many places we could never have seen on our own.

Best of all, just before we hopped on for the first leg of the ride, I discovered a bead shop--the only one I saw in the whole of Portugal. It was incredible--exactly what I had hoped to find. I bought all kinds of little silver charms of ships and starfish, enameled bunnies (no idea what I'll do with bunnies, but they were super cute), as well as several hand-blown glass "focal beads" that will look great matched with something else some day! 

When we did get on the bus, we found it came equipped with ear buds and a recorded commentary (in English and a dozen other languages) interspersed with Fado music--the Portuguese national soundtrack. What a way to travel--I completely zoned out and absorbed the music, the sun, and the colorful city-scape. 

We explored the city this way for two days, hopping off when we wanted to eat lunch in an outdoor cafe or have afternoon tea in an upstairs Art Nouveau bakery. On our last evening, we thought we'd take a break from the bus in exchange for a river cruise. There were many, many choices of ferries, yachts, and mini-ships, but the Arca was the one for us! 

Unfortunately, by this time my camera batteries had died, so I've had to borrow a photo from Trip Advisor to show you why we loved this little craft: 

The Arca is a replica of an ancient Polish vessel of the type that sailed through the rivers of Europe with cargoes of wine, sardines, and other supplies several centuries ago. Feeling like Pirates of the Caribbean, we sat outside on purple velvet cushions close enough to the water to dip our hands, and were served with great conversation with the captain and our fellow passengers, along with our choice of complimentary wine or beer. And because this was the last cruise of the evening, the captain extended the trip so we could watch the sun set on one side of the boat while the moon rose over the other. He turned off the engines and let us drift while we all sat in total awe and silence. I will never forget how pink the sky was, or the sound of the water lapping the hull as a soft breeze blew overhead. It was a beautiful way to end our trip. I don't have photos, but I do have my sketchbook:

Lisbon sunset.
Lisbon moon-rise.

And then it was back to the hotel to pack. The next morning I was up at 5.00. We simply walked to the airport, had a breakfast of croissants, juice and coffee, and then learned:

We couldn't go home!!!! We still don't know what the problem was, but for some reason we couldn't get onto our flight. The best we could do, the airline said, was go to Madrid and figure it out from there.

Long story short: we flew to Madrid only to learn there were no flights to Albuquerque for two days. At first I went into total panic mode, but then when the airline said they would put us up in a 5-star hotel, provide food vouchers for our meals as well as our transport, we were like, heck, yeah! Who wants to go home anyway? We even had several, still unworn, changes of clothing suitable for the much-cooler Madrid weather.

Peeps, this was the absolute best surprise trip ever. The hotel was in a quiet neighborhood, our room had a balcony overlooking a park with a fountain, and the metro station was only a short walk away. The first thing we did after resting up was head into town and the Prado--a place I have dreamed of visiting ever since my university days when I majored in Spanish Literature (bet you didn't know THAT about me, LOL!).  After seeing as much art as possible, we next found the Madrid equivalent of the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus and crammed in as many sights as we could. Without my camera, and being far too busy to sketch, my only pictures of the city are some postcards. (One is of a goat in a stone barn. Not exactly "Madrid" but I liked it.) The rest will have to stay in my memory until it makes its way into a few paintings, sketches and stories for the future.

After two full days, we then flew home with no further incident. Guess the universe really wanted us to see Madrid!

So that was my trip to Portugal and very unexpectedly, Spain. Thank you so much for reading. Until next time, Happy Holidays!