Saturday, May 30, 2009

Savoring--Truly Seeing Our Surroundings

Slovenia, one of my painter friends commented a couple of posts ago, looks like a painter's paradise. So it is, but there are interesting scenes to paint close to home as well--near to my home, and, I am certain, near to yours. These photos may seem unremarkable to you, but to me they depict simple natural elements agreeably posing for landscape painting.
On Friday, I stopped in to spend some time with my good friend, Dee. Knowing that I am always on the lookout for North Florida landscape subjects to paint, she had told me to bring my camera when I came. 
She then treated me to a short ride to see two of her favorite everyday places. These are not tourist destinations like those I wrote about several weeks ago, just everyday delights. Near her suburban home, she has noticed that a number of water birds are nesting not far from a busy highway. Now, every time she passes, she looks over to see dozens of egrets, cormorants, and other birds happily congregating in the scrubby trees above a marshy stretch set a short distance back from the road. It is a magical scene in an unlikely location. I hope to return soon and to have photos to show you.
Next we stopped at a subdivision entrance bordered by a woodsy area with a number of sculptural dead trees, looking like standing driftwood among all the green. As landscaping "beautification" seems inevitable, Dee wanted me to enjoy the unique sight while it is here--surely the developers will send in their bulldozers to take these beauties down at some point. They will be replaced by more civilized, controlled vegetation, which we feel will be a loss.
My photos are not great because it was near noon, but they are still helpful reference photos for my painting. One of my "works in progress" was inspired by a scene at Hanna Park, on the northern edge of the Jacksonville area--a grey heron stood with his head turned to the side at the edge of a small inlet on a lake. Across the inlet is a riot of vegetation--lots of green in various shades, reflected in the shimmering water. It's a bit too much green for an interesting composition. There were dead trees very much like those we saw Friday near the water, but they were outside the frame of my reference photos.
Now, thanks to Dee, I have some good models for the skeletal tree or two I need as a contrast in my painting. This will yield a better result than "making it up." And, I have two new places to visit again, just to take in the beauty and to discover new painting subjects. 
Dee is one of those inherently creative people who truly sees what is around her, who loves birds in particular, and who is willing to pause and appreciate, even as she hurries to work or on errands. She credits this capacity for everyday appreciation with helping her get through some of the harder times in her life.
Question of the day: What sights, near home or on your usual routes here and there, have lifted your spirits in recent days?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Exploring--Slovenia's Julian Alps & World War I History

Slovenia is so rich in charms and interesting sights that I will have a difficult time keeping this post (my third about travel in Slovenia) to a reasonable length. Leaving Lake Bled (see May 20 post), we rode through a breath-taking pass in the Julian Alps, climbing to about 5.000 feet above sea level (Slovenia's highest peak is about 9,400 feet high). First we were in dense forest, then in more forbidding, rocky terrain. At times, we were within 1/4 mile of both the Italian and Austrian borders. The constantly changing vistas were stunning and inspirational. I snapped the majestic peaks above through the bus window. 
Our amazing tour bus driver expertly steered his mighty Mercedes around the 50 switchbacks through the pass, making tight hairpin turns when at times it seemed as though we had two wheels out over nothingness. We frequently crossed or glimpsed the Soca River, narrow and fast in the mountains, its remarkable pale aqua color due to the minerals in the limestone it cuts through. We stopped once on the way down to take in the beauty and to cross a swinging bridge high over the rushing river. The center photo above is a view looking down from the bridge. At our highest point, we stopped at a mountain lodge where we sipped a homemade mixed fruit brandy our guide, Saso Golub, had brought for us--yummy!--and warm all the way down as a few snowflakes drifted by on a chilly mid-September day.
Earlier we had made a more sobering stop at the small Russian Orthodox chapel pictured on the right. This mountain pass was the scene of terrible battles in World War I and was the setting for Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, based on his personal experiences as a Red Cross ambulance driver in the war. The very road we were traveling was built by Russian prisoners of war under appalling conditions. After several hundred had died of exposure, illness, and mistreatment, a huge March 1916 avalanche killed hundreds more. This chapel honors the work and the sacrifice of those Russian soldiers. In the town of Kobarid, an excellent museum (voted best in Europe in 1993) presents a comprehensive look at the tragic battles on the Soca Front--how the local people and soldiers on both sides suffered through that terrible time and how human dignity, honor, and inner strength still shone through.
We stayed in Kobarid at the Hotel Hvala, where I so enjoyed the generous, scrumptious dinner that I couldn't do justice to the amazing buffet breakfast spread the next morning. For those of you interested in menus, our dinner began with an excellent pasta course of fettuccine with prosciutto, then a baby greens and vegetable salad, followed by a choice of fresh roasted trout from the Soca River or roast lamb, served with greens and roasted potatoes. A warm berry compote with ice cream was the perfect finish to the meal. I won't even try to describe all the breakfast choices, but for me, the stand-outs were a warm apricot croissant and an immense bowl of cut-up fresh fruit, including kiwi, pineapple, and local fruits.
I hope these three posts have whetted your appetite for a journey to Slovenia--or to another destination you dream about. In the next few posts, I'll stay closer to home for creative everyday life. If you wonder what is "everyday" about Slovenia, well, I guess it is not. However, travel dreaming and reading, travel planning, remembering past journeys, and saving for future travel are a significant aspect of everyday life for me, even though we may only take a major journey only once in five or more years.
Question of the Day: What has been your favorite "road less traveled" destination?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Exploring, Creative Travel--Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia (pronounced loo blee AH nah) is a delightful city for travelers, both stylishly sophisticated and Mediterranean-style easy-going. If you are an adventurous, creative traveler, Slovenia is waiting to welcome you.
Just north of Croatia, and also bordering Italy, Austria, and Hungary, Slovenia is a cheerful blend of Adriatic/Italian warmth and Tyrolean/Slavic industriousness. More prosperous than the other former Yugoslav republics, Slovenia boasts full "net donor" membership in the European Union since 2004 and qualifies to use the Euro as currency. Most younger Slovenians speak flawless English, including current slang they learn from watching popular American TV shows, making for simple, comfortable travel in this friendly nation for tourists from the U. S.
Most of Ljubljana's major sites are near the lovely Ljubljanica River or on the picturesque, rocky castle hill which crowns the town. The best way to enjoy the city is on foot, with stops for refreshments at the cafes on the lower river promenade. 
Architecture buffs will love it here, with unspoiled Baroque and Art Deco buildings, as well as many works by the city's own quirky and brilliant architect, Joze Plecnik, who worked here during the first half of the 20th century. Classical music fans will enjoy fine performances which follow in a long tradition. One of Europe's oldest academies of music is still active here, with a proud record of visiting scholars including Mozart, Liszt, and most other European "big names", right down to contemporary greats like Itzhak Perlman and Andre Previn.
The 60,000 or so students at Ljubljana's university keep the city lively, friendly, fun, and distinctly unstuffy.       
One photo above shows a view of the riverfront and promenade with the big pink Franciscan Church of St. Mary in the background. I was frustrated to discover that I failed to take any photos while we were there which captured the riverfront and Old Town (took too many close-ups of lovely buildings), so I have used this photo from thanks to them. I did take the photo of the gorgeous Italian Baroque interior of the 18th century Cathedral of St. Nicholas.
I hope you will consider visiting Slovenia. We were with an excellent Rick Steves tour there, which provided a stimulating orientation to this surprisingly charming country. Since Slovenia is home to our fun-loving, well-informed, accommodating Rick Steves guide, Saso Golub, we felt as though we had the inside track. However, our time there seemed too short--we fell in love with the land and the people, and I can't wait to return. Both Saso and his girlfriend Tina Hiti also serve as expert private guides, and I can provide contact information for them if you ask for it. 
Question of the day: Is the thought of traveling to Slovenia new to you? What other non-traditional destination captures your creative imagination?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Exploring--Surprising Slovenia

For a unique, yet comfortable travel destination, Slovenia, the most prosperous nation of those formed from the former Yugoslavia, is a delight. If you are dreaming of a journey to Eastern Europe, consider visiting this lovely country while it is still relatively undiscovered. 
Presenting a remarkable variety in a relatively small area, Slovenia has mountains (the Julian Alps), World War I history (including the setting of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms), a romantic lake, excellent wineries, and sophisticated towns and cities. The capital city, Ljubljana (pronounced loo blee AH nah), is as charming as Prague, with similar Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture, but is quieter and dramatically less crowded than Prague. We'll see a bit of the city in a later post.
Today's photos are of lovely Lake Bled, framed by the Julian Alps, which we visited this past September. As dramatic clouds skidded across the sky, we hiked to the castle on the cliff above the lake for breath-taking views, then enjoyed being rowed on a colorful, hand-made pletna boat to the fairy-tale island. The island's Baroque Chapel of the Assumption replaced an 8th century pagan temple dedicated to the goddess of love and fertility. Wedding parties often cross to the island for pictures, and it is traditional for the groom to carry his bride up the 98 steps from one of the docks to prove his "fitness for marriage". Whew! Rick Steves' Croatia and Slovenia guidebook claims 4 out of 5 grooms make it. The laid-back town of Bled, on the lake shore, boasts peaceful resorts and a famous cream cake speciality to savor on balconies overlooking the lake.
I will continue posting about the history and natural beauty of Slovenia next time. If you enjoy reading about travel, also see my April 28 post about our thought-provoking visit to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Question of the day:  Where would your dream journey take you? Why not start planning for it today? 

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Savoring--Easy "Cool Kitchen" Chicken Recipe

Let's do one more home-related post, and then I will return to the theme of adventurous travel. So far, your feedback indicates that you have enjoyed posts on places to see in Jacksonville, Fl and the Eastern Europe travel piece.
I love to cook and bake--we enjoy ethnic foods from many places; we delight in the colors and fragrances of fruits and vegetables; and we truly savor the flavors and smells of herbs and spices. I continue to cook and even bake in the summertime--some evenings. At other times, I rely on some favorites that require little or no cooking. Salads of all kinds, obviously. A dinner based on the perfect green beans and strawberries from our friends' organic farm, with perhaps a grainy bread, good cheese and wine.
Another family favorite is Easy "Cool Kitchen" Chicken. This is a cooking method taken, I believe, from a suggestion in a Woman's Day magazine some years ago. It produces tender, succulent chicken for the first day and handy leftovers for a future meal--and it's easy on both the cook and the budget.
At least 3 1/2 hours before your meal, wash and clean out one or two whole chickens (a 5 or 6 pound roasting chicken works well). Place in a heavy pot with a tightly fitting lid, add enough water to cover, and your choice of flavorings. I usually toss in plenty of big chunks of onion and celery, some sage, thyme and rosemary, 2 or 3 chicken bouillon cubes, and a liberal shake of pepper. You could instead use Italian herbs or chili powder--whatever you like (the magazine suggested fresh or ground ginger for a Chinese flavor).
Over high heat on the stove, bring the pot to a boil, turn heat down and simmer for about 30 minutes (I sometimes let it simmer a bit longer, but 30 is enough). Then turn the heat off, but DO NOT REMOVE THE LID OF THE POT. Let the chicken steep in the liquid for 3 hours or more (as long as the pot is somewhat hot to the touch, it will not spoil), strain off the liquid and chunky vegetables and serve. In the meantime, go to the beach (that's me, "cooking", in the photo above) or pour your favorite cold beverage and grab a good book--dinner is on the way.
The chicken meat is delicious pulled off the bone and eaten warm. If you are thinking, "Stewed chicken, yuck!", give it a try--I suspect you will be surprised. The broth tends to be thin, so needs a flavor boost to work as a soup base, but can also be refrigerated for cooking potatoes, rice, or vegetables--healthy and delicious. Let me know how you like it.
Question of the day: What is your favorite cool kitchen summer meal?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Savoring Our Home--Super Low-Budget Decorating

Although a number of recent posts have taken us exploring--and I do love exploring, I also am very happy curling up at home. We care about our surroundings and enjoy beauty and serenity in our home. However, we have other budget priorities than costly decorating and do not care to spend money on home "accessories". After all, we have the usual stash of antique china, tea cups, candle holders, and such which have come down to us from our families--plus lovely gifts we have received over the years and special objects which remind us of journeys or family occasions. We don't need more stuff!
However, sometimes we like a change or feel that a particular wall or table top needs a different look. So, we "shop" around the house. One day, I decided that the lamp on my night stand had to go--wrong height for reading far into the night, wrong style for the spot, etc. Stalking through other rooms, I found the perfect lamp--by a chair in our little den. Of course, then the den needed a lamp, and the bedroom reject was wrong for that spot. But, guess what? The reject looked super in the guest room. And so on. By the time my husband came home, 5 or 6 lamps had migrated to new locations. He agreed (he can be good that way) that all of them looked better than before. 
100% free decorating! What could be better--or more "everyday creative"? Try it with some of your smaller pieces. Once you take a hard look around (don't forget closets and cabinets), you may find, as we did, that we had become so accustomed to our "move-in" placement of things that new possibilities hadn't even occurred to us. 
If you rearrange furniture frequently, you already know this and are way ahead of me. I am a complete creature of habit in some ways, and leaving rooms the same way for long periods of time is one of my crusty habits. But occasional creative change is stimulating and cheers me up.
The photo above shows a new look for the buffet in our dining room, which previously held two groupings of small, pretty objects--nice, but a bit cluttered. I wanted a more dramatic piece there, but "shopped" in every room and found nothing taller than 8" that looked right. My husband asked if I had considered the white porcelain vases that had been his mother's. Do you know that they had been on the fireplace mantel for so long that I had not really even seen them as possibilities? To get a bit more height, I splurged on 3 inexpensive artificial flower stalks and now am delighted with our new look. Obviously, this is not the decorating achievement of the decade, but it pleases us and gives the room a fresh, clean look. And that is creative everyday life. 
Question of the day: What might you discover by shopping in your own home? What creative low-cost (or no cost) decorating ideas have you had recently? We would enjoy hearing about them.
By the way, you are welcome to post comments on previous posts. I will see them and respond. Your comments and emails help me know what topics are of interest to readers. Thank you to all of you who have contacted me with feedback.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Learning and Savoring--International Space Station

Whenever it's possible, I stand outside at night and watch the International Space Station silently move across the Florida sky. I cannot remember who first told me about the orbit information on NASA's educational website, but I owe that person a debt of gratitude. Since I can personally remember the very first rockets and satellites to soar triumphantly beyond our atmosphere as well as the heart-stopping disasters and near-disasters in space exploration, I retain some of the original awe I felt watching news coverage of those firsts. I don't expect that I will ever consider space exploration routine or uninteresting. 
As a child, I loved watching the night sky, contemplating the ever-changing moon, and learning the names of constellations and stars. Now, walking our dog late each evening, I am still that child, looking up in amazement.
Last night, the space station glided magnificently above us here in Jacksonville (and above many others, of course). It was visible for over 4 minutes, reaching the highest point in the sky of any time I have watched (maximum, 80 degrees above the horizon--in other words, almost straight up), traveling from our southwest to northeast. The recently installed additional solar panels render it brighter and larger-looking than ever. I do not know the entire range of its changing orbit, but I do know that it is visible at times from many different states and countries on earth. The link to click for viewing opportunities where you live is at the end of this post.
The photo above comes from the NASA website and was taken looking down at the Colorado River snaking almost vertically down the center of the photo toward the Grand Canyon gorge at the lower right. Didn't find a good photo looking down on Florida, but this one will do to illustrate a thought that fascinates me as I look up--that someone in the space station might be looking down at the same time. It is difficult to articulate the sense of human connection in spite of distance which I feel at that thought. 
I hope that if you are intrigued, you will take a look at the website and perhaps be privileged to view these explorers for yourself one clear night.
For information, follow the prompts on the left side of  THIS PAGE
at NASA's site, beginning with "Go to country".
Question of the night: What do you think and feel as you look up into the night sky, just as people have looked up for thousands of years before us?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Learning and Growing--Landscape Painting

Being Mary from Michigan (and some other 4 season-places since school years), I am thankful that North Florida has discernible seasons and some cool to moderate weather. Once summer heat sets in, however, I dream about either getting away to a cooler place or spending the entire day in the ocean.
Several years ago, I had saved for a summer getaway but found that my husband did not want to take any vacation time. He said, "You go ahead and do something anyway." Cool, but what to do? I began to picture a idealized week on my own in the mountains of North Georgia or southern North Carolina (somewhere I could easily drive in a day) taking a course in something totally new--unlike anything I had done before. Inspired by various painting shows I had seen on Public TV (don't they make it look easy?), I searched for a way to study painting in a mountain setting. To my delight, I found the John C. Campbell Folk School, the exact sort of setting and learning environment I had been dreaming about. Take a look at for their varied course offerings and reasonable accommodations.
As my May 1 post mentions, I had not picked up a paintbrush since elementary school, and back then, the teachers kindly "admired" my art work, patted me on the head, and allowed as how it was a good thing I had other abilities. I approached the painting class at the Folk School as a way to shake up and refresh my sometimes overly logical, mathematical brain and assumed I would make some colorful messes to throw away as I packed for home. With an excellent and encouraging teacher, I was amazed to make paintings I actually liked. And I'm still painting! My generous mentor, remarkable landscape painter Linda Blondheim, is an invaluable resource. I wish she lived closer than the 75 miles from here to her Gainesville, FL studio--even then, there is no way I could have grown in my art as much as I have without her guidance. You will hear more about her along the way, but for now, see her website and follow links to her delightful blogs and other information.
If any of you are interested, I will tell more of the Folk School learning story another time. For now, I thought you might enjoy seeing a painting inspired by photos from the Timucuan Preserve taken on the kayaking outing I described in my last post (May 4). I tried to capture the feeling of super-calm marsh land under the shimmer of heavy clouds, incredibly still air sizzling with the electric undercurrent of an impending storm.  The second image pictures an earlier stage in the painting process as I tested and balanced the values, from lightest to darkest and the in-between values, as an under-painting and guide.
Question of the day: What do you secretly want to try, even though you feel certain you might do it poorly? Why not just do it?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Exploring--Paddling & Savoring Timucuan Preserve

I mentioned my new painting adventures in the last post and am working on getting decent photos of some other paintings to show you soon. It can be difficult to get them lighted well to avoid glare and to display close to true color in photos.
In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of a kayaking outing I took with my husband and adult son (the younger of two sons) one cloudy Memorial Day. Here in North Florida, cloudy can be a good thing, helping the temperature stay moderate. Thankfully, the threatened stormy weather held off until later in the day. 
At a well-run facility called Kayak Amelia, we were fitted for kayaks and gear and instructed in safety and technique before we set off with a knowledgeable guide whose colorful stories and descriptions of his beloved salt marshes informed us about this precious habitat. Yet, he wisely allowed plenty of quiet time for us to savor the beauty, the water birds, the fish jumping, and the calming rhythm of silent paddling. Although most of the areas we explored that day are not accessible except by water, we were not far from Kingsley Plantation and other public sites and parks in the remarkable, extensive cluster of wetlands, beaches, and forest in the Timucuan Preserve (which also includes Big and Little Talbot Islands). See my posts for April 23 and 26 for more Timucuan Preserve sites. I am humbled and awed by the varied natural beauty there and feel tremendous gratitude to all the groups and individuals responsible for its preservation.  
Some of my photos from that day inspired a quiet marsh painting I'll show you soon. 
Question of the day?: What outdoor exploring is on your "do sometime" mental list? When--set a date now!--will you stroll, pedal, hike, saddle-up, paddle, sail, skate, or hang-glide (!) in a precious natural setting near your home?
Thank you to all my kind readers who have emailed or phoned me to respond to the blog. I appreciate knowing that you are "out there" whether or not you post a comment. It's especially encouraging to hear the plans for exploring that a couple of you have made since reading earlier posts. Here's to our continuing creative conversation!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Learning--Blogging and Landscape Painting

Did you learn something new today? Whether simple facts or complex new abilities, new learnings enrich life, keep us mentally and emotionally young, and just plain add fun to our creative everyday lives. I am a compulsive learner on many levels and love to gain new insights and skills. Some of my most rewarding learnings have followed attempts to understand or do something I assumed I would not do well. Taking that risk is stimulating, sometimes humbling, and always enlivening (at least in the long run), no matter what the result is.
This blog is one example of a personal learning adventure. As a minimally computer-literate person, I faced a steep learning curve in order to begin posting. Those of you who are computer-adept would have found my approach hilarious, involving everything from perusing library books to asking friends to viewing on-line video how-tos. Numerous notes and lists later, I took the heart-pounding dive off the .  .  .  well, so far, what I have done is probably analogous to slicing into the pool from the edge; this is hardly the high dive of blogging. However, it represents an achievement for me, both in learning the basics of blogging and in publishing the thoughts and adventures of an introverted self for y'all readers. 
I wonder: If blogging had been simple for me, would it have been as rewarding as it is now? In time, I hope to advance to more variety in format and to including appropriate links for interested readers, and more! It's a shame you can't all watch over my shoulder to chuckle (in the nicest possible way, of course) at my ongoing efforts in techno-communication. Truthfully, the process is not always fun for me, but my small triumphs are satisfying--and, hopefully, are also beneficial flexing for my maturing brain. 
Oh, about the photo above, you ask? A few years ago, I took a wonderful painting course. Awkwardly wielding an artist's brush for the first time since elementary school, I discovered a whole new source of creative expression and satisfaction. With zero expectation that I would produce anything even worth keeping, I was astonished to like some of the paintings I made in the class. Now, that's a sign of a world-class teacher! I'll describe that learning adventure in future posts. In the meantime, you can view an effort from about a year ago--my response to exploring Big Talbot Island (see a recent post about that unique beach below).
Question of the day: What new learning adventure intrigues you? What fears keep you on the side of that pool? Why not  give it a try?