Diversions, Distractions, and Delightful Detours

By Nora Vasconcelos

Diversions, Distractions, and Delightful Detours …when I came across with this lovely topic I only could think of Mexico City, because this amazing place offers a bit of everything for anyone who visits or lives in this singular metropolis.

You can enjoy a spectacular view from the top…

… a little of magic in the middle of an urban forest,

… an oaisis in the middle of the city,

… sunny days and blue skyes,

and cloudy, scary ones as well.

Sometimes you come across with small surprises…

sweet surprises…

and big surprises!

Occasionally, a fantastic replica of the Sistine Chapel pops up in the middle of the city…

Or a huge foot ball joins the scenery along with an ancient sculpture and the skyline.

Some other times, you can fine solace in one of the many city parks.

And of course …a lovely bookstore is always nearby!

So, either you have a specific itinerary, or you just feel like wondering around, Mexico City will always be full of exciting experiences waiting for you!

**All photos: copyright Nora Vasconcelos

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Ooh, Shiny!

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Textures

By Nora Vasconcelos

For anyone travelling around Seattle, there’s an exhibition that cannot be missed. The extraordinary artist Chihuly has developed an amazing glass garden located next to the Space Needle at the Seattle Center.

Over there, all sort of shapes and colours come to live to give the visitors a unique experience.

The refined soft textures of the glass mix with some of the other elements that surround this singular sculptures shaped by Chihuly to create a fantasy world in which one can get lost for a short or a long time, depending on how slow everyone wants their experience to be.

So, if you happen to be in Seattle this summer, don’t miss the chance to get yourself lost into this wonderful magic glass world!

* All photos courtesy of Jorge Vasconcelos

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Textures

Satisfaction

Not so long ago, there was an international exhibition in the main square of Mexico City. it was a celebration of friendship among dozens of countries which sent representatives to this fair to share their culture with all the visitors.

The whole experience was really satisfactory, so I’ve chosen these images to share that nice feeling. They show little kids having lots of fun while flying around on small planes, parachutes and hot balloons. These handcrafts were made in Uruguay.

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Satisfaction

Should you feel sad about the demise of the handwritten letter?

By Siobhan Phillips

A lot of people love personal letters now that very few people write them. We have publishing initiatives such as Letters in the Mail and The Letters Page, books such as For the Love of Letters (2007) or Signed, Sealed, Delivered (2014), and films such as Her (2013). Meanwhile, the United States Postal Service delivers more junk mail than first-class; rural post offices shutter; Saturday delivery remains under threat; and we send more than 200 billion emails and 15 billion texts a day worldwide.

‘[This] is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email,’ writes Simon Garfield at the start of To the Letter (2013). His answer is ‘individuality and authenticity’. I teach a class on letters as a literary and para-literary phenomenon, from the 18th-century aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, to Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of the site The Toast. The class invites epistolary nostalgia – then resists it, or studies it. The present fondness for letters tells us what we miss in our current habits of communication. But the history of letters is not exactly reassuring about the ways in which correspondence might redress the lack.

It can be hard to pin down what makes a personal letter, along with what makes for its individuality and authenticity. Connection is the most basic ‘reassurance that I am not floating out there alone in the universe’, as Nina Sankovitch writes in Signed, Sealed, Delivered. A letter links two particular persons, even when its words are handed round and read to others. And while we’re more connected than ever now, our connections can be less specific – we post a lot of ‘personal’ updates to a varied or unknown audience who has no responsibility to respond.

Still, emails and texts do keep us tethered; we won’t lose Sankovitch’s reassurance when the post office shutters. Nor will we lose the importance of writing – the next-most-obvious quality of the personal letter. Some indictments of our digital lives seize on the virtues of in-person, face-to-face interaction – put down the phone and talk – but even Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation (2015), recommends the letter in her earlier book Alone Together (2011). Personal letters have long made the case that writing allows people to grow closer in ways conversation might not. That benefit continues: for example, an article on mental health hotlines in The New Yorker in 2015 notes fuller communication via text exchanges than voice calls.

Other benefits do not, though. Fans of the personal letter are not satisfied with emails or texts because they want more than writing at a distance; they want handwriting at a distance. ‘Basically: it’s all about handwriting,’ John O’Connell writes in For the Love of Letters (2012). Wonderful email correspondences – such as I’m Very Into You (2015) between the novelist Kathy Acker and the writer McKenzie Wark, or between the poet Max Ritvo and the playwright Sarah Ruhl – contradict this claim, but its hyperbole is important. Physicality feeds the letter’s distinct appeal. Words on paper bring something that one person has touched to the touch of another; they metonymically figure the human body by transporting its combination of persistence and perishability. 

Words on a screen have no such power. Tributes to the personal letter, therefore, can swell with mortal pathos: Turkle holds her mother’s correspondence ‘as though I hold her heart in my hands’; Sankovitch reads her sister’s letters and touches ‘the very substance of who she was’. Or they can play with sensuality. Garfield likes how letter-writing requires ‘the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers’ – and in the epistolary-tinged sexism of Her, a letter-writer purchases a female helpmeet with just enough body.

It’s worth understanding the origins of what seems like an arbitrary emphasis on material. With the 18th-century rise of the public sphere, as Michael Warner shows in The Letters of the Republic (1992), the published stuff proper to that realm had to be printed – which meant, it had to sever its connection with the human hand. Hand-writing, then, could signal the reverse, a private sphere that worked against – or protected one from – the abstractions of the public. If the latter was (purportedly, anyway) impersonal and disinterested, the former was specific and emotional. Just the place for reflective communication between particular people. Handwriting signalled its distinction.

So did delay. Temporal vagary is the final essential characteristic of the personal letter; with physicality, it sets the personal letter against digital messages. Correspondence presumes reply but not immediately. Punctual chasms allow emotions to clarify, deepen, resonate – Turkle celebrates time for reflection; Sankovitch finds ‘something wonderful about that interval’. The call of personal correspondence is not the Pavlovian, or Fordist, ping of an email or text, demanding immediate attention. Letter-writers are allowed a sensation of power over the narrative of their lives. Letter-writers can insist on their own – wasteful, unpredictable – clock. Just as a letter’s physical presence, then, resists the rationalisations of the public sphere, its temporal idiosyncrasies resist the efficiencies of capitalist production.

Indeed, the history of the personal letter is part of the history of these resistances, ready for contemporary emulation. It’s a feminist history. Letters have often been gendered feminine, just as the private sphere, full of irrational and non-productive sentiment, has for three centuries been seen as female. The editors Frank and Anita Kermode, for example, note in The Oxford Book of Letters (2003) that ‘a great many of the most accomplished letter-writers have been women’. (Though two-thirds of the contents they chose are written by men.) Letter-writing was part of the cultured woman’s accomplishments, one of her tools of seduction and defences against it. Letter-writing was the space for her to develop authority apart from a realm of published authorship. Along the way, letter-writing was a way for her to develop values that were not public ones – not a matter of capitalist worth or liberal politics.

Except that the private, epistolary sphere – from the start, and especially in the United States – worked more to complement than undermine its public, un-epistolary counterpart. The private sphere always had an economic and political role. Letters did, too. Consider the rhetoric of the antebellum United States, in which the ‘intimacy and authenticity’ of personal letters were used both to further and to criticise abolition. Letters contribute to the ‘intimate public sphere’ of hybrid, feminised, semi-political spaces. (The TinyLetter email newsletter marks the latest instance of this phenomenon.) 

Much of what seems troublesome in digital culture today – the necessity of ‘personal brands’; the ubiquity of a politics of feeling; the transformation of sociality into unpaid labour; the unmarked blending of business contacts and ‘friends’ – much of this exaggerates letterish trends that for generations have worked to mix the private and the public while seeming to maintain the border between them. Scholars from several disciplines have shown how neoliberal markets and politics makes the ‘feminine’ a general (if still execrated) state: contingent, affective, unremunerated practice is becoming the basic condition of work and citizenship. Correspondence is part of this. Letters have faded because epistolarity persists.

If that’s the case, it’s hard to trust in going ‘back’ to the personal letter – that is, hard to trust in writing by hand at a variable delay to a specific other person before waiting for their reply. We need, absolutely, to understand and value a heritage of correspondence; and we should preserve and guarantee a robust public infrastructure for private exchange. But we also need to understand how the ‘personal’ has always been a category ripe for co-option by the very forces it is meant to mitigate and assuage. Perhaps the most useful lesson of the personal letter is in the way it shifts and changes, proving that what we call intimacy, individuality or authenticity does not transcend time – or remain locked in history. The ‘personal’ is what its genres do. Those genres, letters included, continue.Aeon counter – do not remove

Siobhan Phillips

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Bridge

A breathtaking sight in the amazing city of Rome – photo credit Nora Vasconcelos

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Bridge

Transient

And then … it’ll fly away. (Copyright Nora Vasconcelos)

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Transient

Beautiful Bruges

By Jane Isaac
Crime Fiction Writer

The historic city of Bruges is located on the western side of Belgium in the Flemish Region and, in my mind, can only be described as achingly beautiful. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, ancient buildings are surrounded by cobbled streets, alongside the tall slim houses which line the canals that snake through the city centre.

With a climate very similar to England, we were treated to beautiful sunshine during our stay last weekend which undoubtedly added to our enjoyment, however I think there is little not to enjoy about Bruges. It’s not only pretty, but also one of the friendliest cities I have visited. The small Hotel Alegria where we stayed was perfectly located in the centre and the owner, Veronique, couldn’t do enough to cater for our every need, without being intrusive.

There’s a number of different options to travel to Bruges from the UK; I guess it rather depends on where you are travelling from. This time we opted for the Eurotunnel which we picked up at Folkstone and found to be not only inexpensive, but also enormously efficient. It seems that if you arrive early, you can board an earlier train within a two hour slot of your booking for no extra charge, and the boarding and disembarking are effortless, as are the drive through France and into Belgium. From our home in Northamptonshire, the whole journey took us a little over five hours door to door.

There are a plethora of different trips to take and places to visit when you arrive in the city. Cars are rarer than in other cities, making it softer and more tranquil, as most people appear to travel around by bike. A canal trip is beautiful and relatively inexpensive, especially when it includes an overview of the city’s rich history. Climbing the 366 steps to the top of the medieval Belfry that dominates Bruges skyline can be tough on the knees and a little scary in places (especially if you have a husband with a heart condition!), but the view at the top is breathtaking and well worth the hike. A trip around the back streets by horse and carriage is another wonderful way to move around, and particularly romantic on a balmy evening. There is also the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is worth visiting for the stained glass windows alone, and if you are religious, amongst its relics, it claims to have a phial of the blood of Christ that you can view.

As one would expect, Bruges is packed with restaurants, cafes and outdoor eateries; lovely boutiques, and delicious chocolatiers. Of course we tried the chocolate (I can recommend Julie’s if anyone is looking for somewhere particularly nice), sampled the fresh waffles, and bought frites from the stall in the square. But those of you that know me well, will know that I’m a bit of a foodie (my daughter’s influence) and I really wanted to try some of their high end restaurants too. We enjoyed an amazing meal at Brasserie Raymond where we tried delicacies such as snails, marrowbone and bouillabaisse. We also ate lobster and moules (mussels) at the wonderful Breydel-De Coninc, somewhere I’m told the locals frequent. Main courses at these two restaurants average 20-30 Euros each, but are definitely worth it if you want to try something different, however the choice of eateries, and cheap ones at that, is vast and there is practically something available for every taste and pocket. My only regret was that due to being on medication I wasn’t able to sample the many beers that Belguim has to offer, although my husband made sure he didn’t let the side down on that count!

Surprisingly small (my husband joked that everything was within fifteen minutes walking distance from the city centre), Bruges is easily accessible on foot and a wander up the back streets, passing street markets, soaking up the ambience and sitting outside cafes is what it’s all about. On one particular evening, we sat near a market stall and, after chatting with the stallholder, she asked me to mind her stall while she popped to the ladies. At the same café, a bunch of musicians stopped by for a beer and pulled out their guitars. When they discovered my husband was also a keen guitarist, they leant him an instrument and they all played some tunes together. That evening summed up Bruges for me: good food and good company amongst beautiful surroundings. I should add that many of the locals speak up to five languages fluently, so communication is rarely a problem!

I’ll definitely go back to Bruges. Next time I’d like to take a boat trip to visit the nearby village of Damme and perhaps visit the Flanders Battlefields of Ypres too. There is just so much to do in and around this wonderful city.

*All images courtesy of Jane Isaac

** This article was originally published on Jane Isaac’s Blog

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