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

-´-´-´-´-´-´-´-´-

Licencia Creative Commons

How to write a best-selling novel

 

Image 20160401 6780 gm4957
Picture: nito

By Andy Martin, University of Cambridge

So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth … The Conversation

Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).

But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.

It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.

Cigarettes and coffee

He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.

Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.

Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.

Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”

Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.

Look Ma, I’m a writer

To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.

Ian Rankin, creator of Inspector Rebus.
Mosman Library, CC BY

 

And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5″ with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.

Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”

Elmore Leonard at the Peabody Awards.
Peabody Awards, CC BY

 

Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).

This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.

Art is theft

But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.

“So!” you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.


Andy Martin in conversation with Lee Child is part of the Cambridge Literary Festival on April 14.

Andy Martin, Lecturer, Department of French, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Light, Geometry, Color and Nature

By Nora Vasconcelos

El Petit Comte Kindergarten, 2010, Besalú, Girona, Spain In collaboration with J. Puigcorbé Photo by Hisao Suzuki
El Petit Comte Kindergarten, 2010, Besalú, Girona, Spain In collaboration with J. Puigcorbé
Photo by Hisao Suzuki

Last Wednesday, architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta received the 2017 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest honor in the field, and it is very interesting to see, through several photos of their work, how they’ve managed to develop designs that might seem simple but that in fact get a great deal of complexity as they manage to blend with their surroundings, adding to the landcapes colors, lines, spaces and volumes that invite people to interact with them.

El Petit Comte Kindergarten, 2010, Besalú, Girona, Spain In collaboration with J. Puigcorbé Photo by Hisao Suzuki
El Petit Comte Kindergarten, 2010, Besalú, Girona, Spain In collaboration with J. Puigcorbé
Photo by Hisao Suzuki

These three architects founded their firm RCR in Catalonia, Spain, in 1988. “Their works range from public and private spaces to cultural venues and educational institutions, and their ability to intensely relate the environment specific to each site is a testament to their process and deep integrity”, as Tom Pritzker said.

Mr. Pritzker is the Chairman of Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the award.

La Lira Theater Public Open Space, 2011, Ripoll, Girona, Spain In collaboration with J. Puigcorbé  Photo by Hisao Suzuki
La Lira Theater Public Open Space, 2011, Ripoll, Girona, Spain In collaboration with J. Puigcorbé
Photo by Hisao Suzuki

The locally-based architects, adds the press release by the Pritzker Foundation, evoke universal identity through their creative and extensive use of modern materials including recycled steel and plastic.

Les Cols Restaurant Marquee 2011 Olot, Girona, Spain Photo by Eugeni Pons
Les Cols Restaurant Marquee 2011 Olot, Girona, Spain
Photo by Eugeni Pons

“They’ve demonstrated that unity of a material can lend such incredible strength and simplicity to a building,” says Glenn Murcutt, Jury Chair. “The collaboration of these three architects produces uncompromising architecture of a poetic level, representing timeless work that reflects great respect for the past, while projecting clarity that is of the present and the future.”

The 2017 Pritzker Prize Jury Citation states, in part: “we live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that because of this international influence…we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs…Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world.”

Tossols-Basil Athletics Track 2000 Olot, Girona, Spain Photo by Hisao Suzuki
Tossols-Basil Athletics Track 2000 Olot, Girona, Spain
Photo by Hisao Suzuki

Licencia Creative Commons

A Christmas Story -Second Part

trains-christmas

By Nora Vasconcelos

(You can read the 1st part here)

People screamed on the wagon. Horror was all around. In a second, James was gone.

Gone, but not dead. The dim light that covered his face added confusion to his altered state of mind.

He didn’t feel any particular pain, even when he could see some blood stains colouring different parts of his damaged clothes, which looked more like rags than the original suit that they had composed just a few moments ago.

Am I really alive? He wondered.

Then he saw him. A man approached him.

He got scared. It was then when he knew he was really alive …and helpless.

The man kept observing him as he got closed.

“Who are you?” James managed to ask.

“I am the one who lives in the subway tunnels.” He explained as he kneeled down to treat James’ injuries. His ability was unbelievable.

“Who are you?” James asked again. Not waiting for his answer he say: “you have act as if you were a doctor. How did you end up here?”

The man stood up and started to walk away, leaving James somehow fixed but alone and confused. Then he turned back. “Come,” he said.

Slowly and painfully, James got on his feet. With a limp and some groans, he walked towards him. But his steps were fast, and soon the only thing James could see were blurry shadows, among them, only one resembled the silhouette of a man.

Some meters ahead, he finally caught up with the man, and he couldn’t believe his eyes. This man, who had rescued him from the track and had cured his wounds, now was offering him a place to stay for Christmas.

“it’s not much,” he said, “but this will keep you warm until daytime comes and I can show you your way out.”

“Thank you …for everything.” James said.

While he was lying down, looking at the concrete walls he wondered if he should asked his savior one more time who he was and how he had got there, but he resist the urgency to know. Instead, he try to sleep.

The trains had stopped running and darkness covered all the space around him. Then all what had happened to him that long unusual day came to his mind.  It had been only in the morning when he had gone to work, business as usual, thinking all things would be right, and just a few hours later, he was there, protected by a man who didn’t want to speak to him but who had saved his life.

Christmas day has already passed, was I even missed…? That thought made James shivered. Would I end the same as this man who has rescued him? Exhaustion prevented him from elaborating all sort of answers.

The first thing he heard the following morning was the typical sound of the trains running on the subway tracks. Pain all over his body reminded him of what had happened to him.

The mysterious man wasn’t there anymore. In his place, a thin envelop appeared. “To the man I saved,” it read.

Sitting down slowly, James took some time to come to full awareness. His fingers touch the letter and felt it. It wasn’t heavy, may be it was just a simple note. Would I get the answers to some of my questions? He wondered.

“Yesterday you asked me who I was and how I had ended up here. The truth is that I have asked myself the same two questions over and over. All I remember is that one day I was a well-known physician and the other I became this shadow of a man that you have seen. I have no recollection of what happened to me. But yesterday, when I saw you falling off that train and when I fix your wounds a sense of urgency took over me. I might never know how I ended up here, or who I am, but I do know now that I want to go out there and do more with my life. What will you do with yours?”

The note ended there. James was overwhelmed. There he was -or he had been-, contemplating the worst way to end all his predicaments when the sliding doors suddenly opened, and just a few meters away there was a man who had lost everything and he didn’t even know how or why, and even so, he wanted to live. What will I do with my life? It’s such a good question.

While entertaining this thoughts in his head, he discovered that on the other side of the note, the man had drawn a map showing him how to get out of the tunnels, and so, his life was about to start again.

Licencia Creative Commons

A Christmas Story – Part One

By Nora Vasconcelos

christmas

James leaned his head towards the sliding doors of the subway wagon he was traveling on.

It was only then when he noticed a man wearing a Santa Claus suit. This made him feel worst.

Being fired hadn’t been bad enough. The company had waited until the last minute, on Christmas day, to let him know that he was no longer an employee of Sweets & Snacks.

“Don’t take it personal, Jimmie. With all these people going on a diet, and the new laws and taxes discouraging people from buying products like ours, we have to downsize the company if we want to give enough money to our Research and Development department,  so they can come up with new sweets and snacks that fit into these new trends. Besides, you had mentioned that you wanted to take some time off to spend it with your family. Look at this as an opportunity to make it up to them.”

James knew they were right, but he just couldn’t understand how he was the only one chosen to go. He tought things were going okay, more than okay!

He had put on many extra hours all the year, getting the financial department in working order, after the previous manager had left the company with a self-paid ‘bonus’.

With nobody noticing it, 8,000 dollars had ‘disappeared’ from the petty cash box. It was only until James started working in the company, 12 months ago that, little by little, he put together all the pieces of the puzzle, noticing the frecuent visits the manager made to the cash area, with silly excuses such as a parking fine, when everybody new he walked from his apartment to the office, or those tickets for takeaway orders at late hours, when no pizza nor chinese packages were anywhere to be seen the following morning.

One day, in December last year, James arrived to the office thinking it’d be business as usual, until he saw the manager going out of the director’s office, ushered by two very tall and strong police officers. On his way out, he looked at James and yield at him ‘you’ll pay for this, Jimmie. I swear to it.’

Next thing he knew, he was the new manager. The big boss had offered him a nice pay raise and an office with a magnificent view of the new fashionable tall buildings in the city.

Then, his job became his whole life, and his office, his new home. James worked over Christmas and New Year’s. He also missed all the birthays and school events of his three kids, and his wife got tired of listening to him saying ‘I’ll make it up to you.’

Twelve months later, when the financial deparment was operating under a new set of standards and procedures, and the company had recovered not only the money stolen by the previous manager, but had got a very nice profit, despite the new trends in the market, James thought that he’d finally have time to spend with his family, and with his Christmas bonus he would take his wife on a wonderful trip around Europe, all the main shopping malls included.

It was then when all went wrong. All of a sudden he found himself without a job, leaving the building with his dreams broken and a silly check that hardly covered a month of his salary. ‘This are tough times, Jimmie,’ his ex-boss’ words resounded in his head.

‘Luckily’ he’d been allowed to take his things with him, all awkwardly positioned inside a cardboard box that the day before had contained some of the monthly supplies of paper for the copy machine.

An ordinary letter of recommendetion was part of the stuff he had filled the box with, along with several photos of his wife and kids, and some brochures that a travel agent had given to him a few days before, with all sort of European tours.

Of course, he had to return the company car; so, now, he was riding the subway. And here he was, with his head leaning on the sliding doors, watching the man disguised as Santa Claus.

How was he going to tell his wife and kids that he had been fired?, he wondered.

He took his sight apart from Santa, and looked intensely toward the railway. All inside the tunnel was dark. The only light that he could see came from the train.

Then a strange thought crossed his mind …what if?  He shivered.

He turned his face back and saw Santa playing with a little girl, they both were laughing. Memories of the happy times with his family took over his mind. Then, that somber idea crossed his mind again …what if?

He contemplated the idea for a little longer this time. After all, he’d become a stranger now, his family might as well be better without him. At least they would have the insurance money.

Then, the unexpected happened. The sliding doors opened when the train was traveling at a high speed between two stations.

James was expelled of the wagon with such violence that not even strong and magical Santa could hold onto his legs on his efforts to bring him back into the train.

While flying away towards the immense oscurity of the tunnel, people on the train could listen to James calling out for help, screaming with his voice full of terror: I don’t want to die!

* * *

To be continued next week  🙂 

 

(You can read the second part here)

Licencia Creative Commons

Made in México

el-puente-de-metlac-1881

By Nora Vasconcelos

In the second half of the 19th century, José María Velasco enchanted the world with his paintings in which he depicted with precise detail the landscapes of the Valley of México and the outskirts of the Mexican capital.

His studies at the San Carlos Academy, under the guidance of the Italian artist Eugenio Landesio, his deep interest in science, and his encounter with the French Impressionist, combined in a way that he was able to bring alive colourful scenes of the Mexican Landscape.

Velasco did that with such detail that many of his paintings have been the base for the study of the geography and botanic that existed in central México before buildings and houses cover this territory.

His profound love and observation of his country are something that it’s admired up to these days.

His art is just one of the many wonderful things Made in México.

As it is its history and culture, which have been recognized by Unesco. Nowadays, México has the largest number of World Heritage Sites in the Americas, and it’s placed seventh in the world. Part of this list includes the archaeological zones of  Chichen Itza, Palenque, El Tajin and Teotihuacan, as well as the city centres of Mexico city, Guanajuato and Morelia.

Modern architects such as Luis Barragán, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Ricardo Legorreta and Teodoro González de León contributed to design the new capital city, bringing strong firm colours to structures that are easily identifiable around the world as Mexican design. Along them, painters such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and writers like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlos Fuentes y Octavio Paz, have gotten high recognition around the world.

Unesco has also designated Mexican cuisine as ‘intangible cultural heritage’. And if course it impossible not to mention the production of Tequila and Mezcal, coveted all around the world. Guacamole and great coffee, are also Made in México.

So, as José María Velasco did in his time, nowadays we can admire México for all its greatness, having in mind that the same as bad things happen in this country, they happen in any other country, and México is a place full of beauty and hardworking people proud of their heritage.

 

Licencia Creative Commons