Hokitika Gorge and the town of the same name on New Zealand’s West Coast

The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.

There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.

On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”

Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.

Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.

Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.

I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.

Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.

“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.

The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.

The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.

New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.

The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.

Continue reading

Travel Pairings: Literature & lodging in Catalunya, Spain

What to read before making a trip to Catalunya, Spain—the region that includes Barcelona.

When I begin planning to visit a new destination, my thoughts turn first to literature. Oh, I always skim a guidebook or two, and I do the now obligatory stroll through TripAdvisor and Google’s offerings, but I go places to try to understand them. I want to get a sense of the gestalt of the community.

Who are these people? How has the local culture evolved? Why does a visit here offer up its particular sounds, tastes, and experiences?

For a bookworm like me, the answers—or at least, the first teasing tastes of truth—come most readily via literature. Whether the perspective of a book is that of an insider or a sojourner in a foreign land, the contours of the place begin to take shape as I delve into its stories.

What I read before visiting Barcelona

Black Bread by Emili Teixidor

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas R. Hicks

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (skimmed)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

Major Themes: Spanish Civil War and man’s relationship with food

I began my exploration of Catalan culture with one of the few novels I could find translated from that language: the award winning Black Bread. Here is a great work of literature, evocatively written, even in translation. It was a lovely read, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I do love a heavy novel bursting with symbolism, deeper meaning, and complex themes. I.e., this isn’t a beach read.

Spain Catalan book quote Black Bread - 1And here is some of what I noticed about the intersection of Spain and Travel: so very many people seem to think only of the hedonistic pleasures of warm sand and tapas when they contemplate a visit to the region. My visits have all been in late fall or winter, and my interests tend toward museums and history, so take my reckoning with that grain of salt. Continue reading

Hanukkah family fun, night 8: Find the fun & SNAP, the job’s a game

Click here if you missed Night 7.

Mary Poppins* fans may have caught the quote in the title for this post. In the “Spoonful of Sugar” song from the movie, she makes the point that one can lighten a chore by adding a little fun.

Our boys aren’t working graveyard shifts in a factory, but we do see practical applications for teaching them about electronics. Tonight’s gifts come from the series of educational toys from Elenco, Snap Circuits

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits 300Snap Circuits do great job of easing a task that some would categorize as work. They are packaged sets of pieces that allow kids“from 8 to 108” per the boxto do experiments with real, working circuits without any messy, skin-singeing soldering.

Go on: ask me why I’m concerned about singeing oneself with solder. No, don’t, because I’m clumsy and easily distracted, and burning flesh is gross. I loved my electrical engineering classes, but lived in fear of implementing what I learned. I would’ve enjoyed these Snap Circuit sets in college!

Instead of soldering wires, the connections are made with oversized snaps like you would find on common garments. They’re as easy to click together as Lego bricks. Unlike a simple Lego connection, however, one must develop an understanding of how electricity flows in order to create working circuits that make electronic projects work.

Never studied electronics? Don’t worry! There’s a very specific manual to walk kids through the different projects.

The boys have had a Snap Circuits starter set for years, and the SC-100 Junior Starter Set is a fine place to begin at any age. Once you have your kid has a grasp on the basic working of the components, you can add on additional kits that either continue with a general education in electronics, or follow a particular theme that might appeal to the user.

For the eighth night of Hanukkah, my older son and possible future game designer received the SCA-200 Snap Circuits Arcade kit. His brother opened up the UC-30 Upgrade Kit SC100 to SC300.

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits AAs a parent, one of my favorite things about this company and these kits is the commitment to keeping the sets modular and re-combinable to extend their value. I really appreciate having the choice to buy just the additions I need to move from a beginner’s set to one with more advanced experiments and projects.

Unlike some other company’s products, I’m not forced to either:

  • pay extra for parts I don’t need, or
  • carefully work through lists in tiny print on the back of the box for multiple, similar sets to determine whether or not I’ve missing anything that sounds fun and/or important.

And it isn’t all work with no play! The kids genuinely enjoy fooling around with Snap Circuits kits because they can make real, working models that do stuff. Lights will light up and buzzers will sound, and they will do so more reliably than most kids can manage with regular electronic components even in an educator supported environment.

Naturally, the stuff my boys want to do usually includes “make a loud, obnoxious buzzer in Mom’s ear” or “try to launch the spinner into my brother’s face,” but Elenco isn’t selling magic beans or the promise of more perfect kids. With Snap Circuits, they are selling appealing sets that let children experiment with—and learn about—real electronics without too much muss or fuss.

A supportive adult could be helpful for a total novice or a younger child, but no supervision is necessary to make these kits diverting for kids who like to take stuff apart and/or build things.

Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts are generally things that we can enjoy as a family. These fit the bill because they give the kids something to play with that leads naturally to learning experiences we like sharing with our boys.

How does that project work? Why did it fail before? What else can you do with those elements? What does that inspire you to try next time? What’s the correlation between this toy and the circuits you can see in household electronics?

I worried a little about ending eight days of holiday giving with the “educational” present, but I shouldn’t have. Snap Circuits are too good. The boys were genuinely pleased to expand their collection.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 8 hanukkiah extinguishing itself - 1


*If you’ve never read P.L. Travers’ novels about Mary Poppins, which served as inspiration for the popular 1964 Disney film, please consider doing so. The books were much darker and weirder than the film version, and I loved them as a little girl. This is a case where I think the film is a real classic, but almost a completely different creature from the original work.

Some people on GoodReads seem to find old-fashioned child rearing methods so inappropriate, they can’t even enjoy the books. All I can say is that none of it bothered me as a girl. I would gladly put up with an imperious guardian to enjoy magical adventures; why not let today’s children make that choice for themselves, too?

Books by my bedside 2017/07/22

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books 2017.07.22 - 1



The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts by Hammer, Joshua

Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s : three men, five great wines, and the evening that changed America by Cerami, Charles

White Trash : the 400-year untold history of class in America by Isenberg, Nancy


The Little Schemer by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Kamkwanba, William

True Crime

In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences by Capote, Truman



The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places by Begler, Peter


Reading Notes:

Do you have a logical mind? Do you enjoy mental puzzles and games? Maybe you do, but you’ve never tried any computer programming? Or you know something about programming, but haven’t read this book?

books 2017.07.22 - 2Consider picking up a copy of The Little Schemer.

Your library might have The Little LISPer instead. It’s the same thing, just an older edition. Consider them equally good reads unless you have a specific need to learn the Scheme dialect of the language, LISP.

Though the first edition of The Little LISPer is as old as I am, I didn’t read it in college, where I majored in Computer Science. I picked it up a year ago for fun.

The Little Schemer is one of the most mind-stretching things I’ve ever read.

You don’t need a special application or even a computer to learn from this book. A pencil and paper or text editor will do. For an intellect that revels in a certain kind of logical thought, it is well worth the effort to give it a whirl.

This isn’t about learning a piece of technological equipment. It’s strength training for your mind.


Books by my bedside 2017/07/06

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!



Pimsleur German I (audio CD)


Airman (audiobook, read by John Keating) by Colfer, Eoin.

Echoes in Death (In Death Series, Book 44) by Robb, J. D.

Lost in Arcadia: A Novel* by Gandert, Sean

The Murder of Mary Russell by King, Laurie R.

A Small Revolution* by Han, Jimin

The Things We Wish Were True* by Whalen, Marybeth Mayhew

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague Brooks, Geraldine

Reading Notes:

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you may notice a radical reduction in non-fiction titles this week. I’ll attribute that to a few factors:

  1. I avoid traveling with library books because I’m afraid I’ll lose them or return them late. I borrow most of my non-fiction books.
  2. One week of my three week trip was spent in a full immersion language learning environment which required lots of mental energy and all of my waking hours to be dedicated to a language other than English. I can’t read very interesting books in my target language; I’m not fluent enough!
  3. During week two, I caught a cold and my physical energy plummeted, too, leaving me mentally lazy and searching for pleasant distractions (i.e., novels!)
  4. I drove about 3450 miles/54 hours over the past three weeks, about 2/3 of it as the only adult in the car. I didn’t have as much time to read as I usually do, and we didn’t listen to as many audiobooks as I thought we would.

RoadTrip round trip map

Speaking of audiobooks…

Airman made a good family listen-aloud story. Eoin Colfer is better known for his Artemis Fowl series, but this book stands alone. It’s historical fiction (appeals to me), vaguely steampunk with several in its cast of characters dreaming of inventing airplanes (appeals to DS1), and has a plot that clips along fast enough to keep DS2 fully engaged.

There is one stretch about 25-30% into the story where the protagonist’s idyllic childhood is destroyed in an instant that I feared this novel would become too dark for my enjoyment. There are murders of beloved characters, sadistic prison guards, and evildoers wielding power in Airman. I’d suggest it for older elementary kids and up, not little or sensitive listeners.

In general, however, audiobooks, usually the primary form of entertainment on our family road trips, weren’t as popular on this one. In addition to Airman, which we finished, I’d loaded our hard drive with:

  • Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
  • Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy,
  • Der kleine Prinz (German) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Science Fair by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
audiobooks Skullduggery Airman - 1

I buy used audiobooks for road trips; usually former library copies like these

Blame it on the good company of the other kids we brought to camp, or the availability of electronic devices for more personalized diversions, but there didn’t seem to be enough time to hear more audiobooks.

We did also listen to two or three recorded language learning lessons daily for the first 26 hours of travel, which spent 1 – 1½ hours per day. Plus, warning four kids about upcoming rest stops, getting four kids in and out of the van at the dozen or so daily rest stops, and suggesting snacks other than chips and candy filled most of the rest of the day. Or, at least, it seemed to.

Having the time and energy to curl up and read every evening—in my big, comfy bed, no less!—has been one of the greatest pleasures of returning home from this particular trip.

The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King

Mysteries are my brain candy. I purchased Laurie R. King’s latest entry into the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series back in March, and have been saving it to savor during my summer travels. King is a fabulous novelist, and this series in particular hits exactly in my escapism sweet spot.

Historical fiction? Strong female lead? True love (non-smarmy) between a pair of great intellects? Check, check, and check!

Book cover Murder of Mary Russell King

I’ve never been disappointed by a piece of fiction written by Laurie R. King. The Murder of Mary Russell is meeting that standard thus far, though I am reading it slowly to make it last.

*A book given to me for free because of my Amazon Prime membership

Books by my bedside 2017/06/09

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!




Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur German II (audio CD)


Echoes in Death (In Death Series, Book 44) by Robb, J. D.

The Great Passage written by Miura, Shion, translated by Carpenter, Juliet Winters (note: this was a freebie from Amazon for being a Prime member)

Thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher

Reading Notes:

Great Passage coverI finished The Great Passage last night. It was a novel I read at a slower pace; not urgently, but in a concerted and thoughtful way. That fits neatly with the book’s narrative about the team of employees at a publishing house working—for years!—on the publication of a new dictionary of the Japanese language.

It wasn’t what I’d consider a quotable book until the very end. I highlighted these two passages that I liked very much, which might help you decide whether this is a novel you’d enjoy reading.

“A dictionary is a repository of human wisdom not because it contains an accumulation of words but because it embodies true hope, wrought over time by indomitable spirits.”

(page 193)


Human beings had created words to communicate with the dead, and with those yet unborn.

(page 200)

The book does a beautiful job of shining a light on a subject that could easily be overlooked: the creation of a dictionary.

What kind of person commits to such an endeavor? What is the work like? Why does it matter, to them and to you?

For me, it also presents a lovely view into a very different culture. I could see evidence of differences I’d read about. I also learned many new things about the Japanese language and office culture in Japan.

The Great Passage is a well-translated foreign book that made for peaceful, but contemplative, bedtime reading. I would gladly delve into works by this author—and this translator—again.