Catherine McGrew Jaime

Author, Historian, Lifelong Learner, Teacher, World Traveler

Upcoming Visit to Venice

Venice, Again!

A View of Venice

Have you had the privilege of visiting Venice before? There is no shortage of amazing places in Italy to visit, of course! But if I had to pick one of my favorite cities, Venice would appear high on my list (maybe even the highest!). This trip will include my third and fourth visits to Venice (since we’ll spend a couple of days before and after our upcoming cruise). Even so, it’s hard to believe I’ll be back in Venice soon!

Another View of a Venetian Canal

Note: With one exception, all the pictures in today’s blog are from my first trip to Venice. I have some from the second one – but where they have disappeared to, that is the question! The only picture that’s not from that trip is the public domain picture of the equestrian monument. My photos of the monument are among the missing photographs!

View of the Grand Canal

Like so many other places in the world, there is really too much to see and do, even with several days available at a time. So once again, we will follow my uncle’s advice and “Leave something for the next time.” I’m pretty sure if I visited Venice as many times as I’ve visited Washington, D.C., I would still not be lacking for things to do in either place!

The Grand Canal

My favorite part of the city has to be the water everywhere – small canals that seem to appear at every turn – and, of course, the Grand Canal. And like so many of the other cities I’ve visited, Venice makes it easy and relatively inexpensive to buy a one or two day pass for the public transportation (in this case, the water buses), so I like to make traveling along the Grand Canal a LARGE part of my visits there!

Traffic on the Grand Canal

A Palace along the Grand Canal

The first time I visited Venice I found a small book, Grand Canal: A History of Venice in one of the local bookstores. I had fun learning the history of the many, many palaces that line the Grand Canal, both before and after seeing them.

And then it was fun to incorporate some of their stories into my third da Vinci novel, Leonardo: To Mantua and Beyond – when Leonardo visits Venice to give the Venetians advice in his role as a military advisor.

Venice Must Sees

St Mark’s Basilica

Doge’s Palace

Of course, every tourist in Venice has to see St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. I did the tour of the palace the first time I was there and saw the inside of the church the second time.  While the first timers with me this time around see those I may cruise up and down the Grand Canal a few times!

Equestrian Monuments

Equestrian Monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni

As a huge da Vinci fan I was surprised that it took me until my second trip to Venice to go see the statue that his mentor, Andrea del Verrocchio, had designed – the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni. It’s kind of in an out of the way place in the city, and our tour guide had never heard of it before I asked him about it, but for me, at least, it was worth the detour. Verrocchio had started working on the designs for the monument while he and Leonardo were both in Florence. Watching (and possibly helping, before Verrocchio moved his work to Venice) undoubtedly influenced Leonardo’s later work on his own equestrian statue in Milan (for the Duke’s father, Francesco Sforza).

Wandering through Venice

The Rialto Bridge at Night

Street Sign in Venice for St. Mark’s Basilica

Even having visited Venice twice already, I still like to continue my research of what we want to see and do while we’re there. I found several blogs (here’s a great source of information) about visiting the city, with lots of good suggestions. I think my favorite suggestion was to just wander around and “get lost.” It’s tough to get truly lost, because on the corners of many, many buildings you will find signs pointing in the direction of St. Mark’s and/or the Rialto Bridge (the other “must see” for any Venetian tourist). So you can always find your way to one or both of those. And since the city itself is strictly off-limits to cars, wandering through the streets and alleys can be lots of fun!

Flexible Plans

Another View of Venice

We’re still compiling our list for priorities for this trip, and even when it’s finished, we’ll be sure to be flexible. I’m a firm believer in having “flexible plans” when I travel. I find it generally keeps the stress way down!

If we can work it in, I would love to go to where they make Murano glass, and to go to the Jewish ghetto (which sadly has the distinction of being the first Jewish ghetto in Europe). But if we don’t make it to either or both of those, I’ll have something to aim for on the NEXT trip to Venice!

Happy traveling!


I had to share just a few more of my favorite Venice pictures:

Enjoying the Journey – In spite of the D.C. Metro Management

I have traveled alone, with friends, with family, and with students. Traveling to D.C. is something I have enjoyed often with one or more of those groups, even though I live almost 700 miles away. And on almost every of my sixteen or more trips (spread over the last fourteen years) I have taken the D.C. metro in and around the city.

Until this last trip (April 2017), our metro experience had been pretty flawless. Park at the end of the Orange line (since our friends live closest to that), buy our tickets or our passes at the machines at the station, and take the subway into the city. (I’ll use the terms “metro,” “subway,” and “train” interchangeably here, since, at least in these contexts, they are fairly synonymous!)

The Library of Congress

But the metro took on a whole new meaning of difficulty on the second day of our recent trip. On Day 1 (a Friday), things were about like I expected them to be. The friends we were staying with are now about 15 minutes closer to the end of the Silver line than the Orange, so we parked at the parking garage at Wiehle-Reston East and took the Silver train straight to the Capitol South station. Easy, direct, relatively fast – pretty much what I expect when I take the subway in D.C. The ride in took us about an hour, but it was an easy hour.

The girls walking through the tunnel on the way between Library of Congress buildings.

Fortunately, when we were exiting the subway, we noticed the signs in the Capitol South Station that spoke of a closure on Saturday and Sunday. At first, we thought it was only that station that would be closed. And since we weren’t planning to be in that portion of the city on our next two days we originally thought the closure wouldn’t affect us. Boy, were we wrong.

Fortunately, Friday evening/Saturday morning we studied the “Disruptions” portion of the “DC Metro transit” app (an app that no one should be traveling the DC subway without!). So, with the forewarning of the signs on Friday and the app on Saturday morning, we were at least prepared for some of the craziness that Saturday’s metro mess brought us. (Though there was no way we could have been prepared for all that awaited us on that crazy day!)

On Saturday, we drove back to the end of the Silver line. As we boarded we realized that the announcements about the various closures for the day were catching lots of the other riders off guard and we were glad that we had at least known some things were going to be amiss.

When we boarded the Silver train we already knew that we could only go as far at the Ballston-MU stop. Why there, you might ask? Because the Metro powers-to-be had decided to close the Silver line past there for the weekend. (Reportedly for repairs, though for the life of me I don’t know how or why they could be repairing as many different places as were closed that weekend.) And, the next section we were on was the same one we would have been on had we been able to stay on a Silver train – so I’m still not quite sure what they were repairing that entailed that first change. (The trains themselves?)

So off we went at the Ballston MU stop to transfer to the Orange line. No problem, the Orange line could take us to where we wanted to go. Well, normally, yes. But that day the Blue and Orange lines were only going as far as Foggy Bottom. More repairs? Apparently.

Inside a Metro Station

Inside another Metro Station

But have no fear, the Metro folks had it well in hand – they were providing free shuttle buses from Foggy Bottom to Federal Triangle. (Too bad for those who just wanted to go to one of the several stops in between!). So, after standing in the sun for 15 minutes or so, we were crowded onto a shuttle bus to stand for the majority of the 45-minute drive to the Federal Triangle stop. (Later we determined there were less than two miles of roads between those two locations. But between traffic and road closures for that day’s protest march, those two miles took a full 45 minutes to drive.  (Had I been up to the walk, we could have hiked between the two spots quicker than that; but alas, not on this trip.)

The shuttle bus driver didn’t seem particularly keen on getting us the entire way to the Federal Triangle stop (more construction issues?) but seemed to just drop us off when we were in the vicinity. In our case, it was fine, because we had decided not to get back on the subway, but rather to just walk the few blocks to the Reagan building where we had decided to lunch in the Food Court. But for any who were planning to get back on the subway at Federal Triangle, they were left to figure out where they were and which direction the subway station was from where they had been dropped off. (So much for a station to station shuttle!)

Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci – the main reason I take students to the Art Museum!

After enjoying our overpriced meals in the Reagan building (we miss the food court in the Old Post Office building), we went off to enjoy the afternoon plans. (Well, there was a delay in going to see the White House that involved a run in with the weekend’s protest group, but that’s a story for another day.) Suffice it to say that we enjoyed the remainder of our afternoon – at the National Archives and the National Museum of Art. We had originally considered going back up the block to the Natural History Museum, but our travels into the city had eaten up so much of the day, that when we exited the art museum at closing time, we were ready to start our journey back out of the city – though not particularly anxious for what the experience would hold for us.

We walked up 7th Street to the Archives Station. From there it was a short hop down to the L’Enfant Plaza Station where we would normally have been able to hop on a Silver train for the ride back out of the city. But, of course, it wasn’t so easy on Saturday. We took an Orange train to the Federal Triangle stop, where we had to go back up to the mass of Shuttle Buses that were waiting to take us back to Foggy Bottom. The wait for a bus wasn’t particularly long this time, there were actually a large number of them lining up by the street. The problem was that they were once again crowded and we were looking at another long ride of standing up. When we realized that, we stepped off enough from the line to let others on who could handle the standing go ahead of us. Once that bus was full, a gentleman graciously let us back in line, thus ensuring our ability to sit this time around.

We were thankful for the seats for that portion of the trip, because when we got back to Foggy Bottom we were forced to stand again, this time while we waited for an Orange train that was in no hurry to get there. And of course, we could only take the Orange line back to Ballston-MU, where we got to stand yet again for another lengthy wait. (I am fairly certain that wait was almost 45 minutes.) When the Silver train came at last there was actually cheering in the station, something I’ve never heard during any of my countless trips on the subway.

I do like the ceilings in some of the underground metro stations.

By the time we finally reached the end of the Silver line, we had been traveling back for almost three hours (yes, that would be almost three times as long as the longer trips in and out had taken us the day before). And since most of the subway stations have a deplorable lack of benches, way too much of the time traveling to and from downtown D.C. had involved way too much standing. (A bigger problem for my injured knee than the walking we had known we would be doing.)

Late that night we started working out details for how Sunday was going to look. Thanks to my daughter Maria, we made a couple of key changes to our transportation plans. (Because, yes, the subway issues from Saturday were all still prepared to plague us on Sunday.)

The first change we made was the decision to make the drive to the end of the Orange line – Vienna/Fairfax instead of going to the closer Silver line. The extra drive added about 15 minutes to our drive time and another $5.00 to our toll fees, but it saved us from having to make what had been the longest of our transfers the day before (from the Silver to the Orange).

Union Station

Union Station

The next change we made was to our route, so that we could skip the bus transfer portion. (The least favorite part of the previous day for most of our group.) It made for significantly more subway changes, but overall it still seemed easier! We took the Orange Line to Rosslyn, where we picked up the Blue line. Two stops later we were changing to the Yellow Line at Pentagon. We took the Yellow line three stops to Gallery Place where we picked up the Red line for our last leg – two stops to Union Station. (Had we made the same trip on Friday, we could have taken the Silver line to the Red line, and done all that with one transfer!) But we still managed all that in an hour and a half instead of almost three hours!

Hard to get lost on the Mall – which way to the Washington Monument?

After lunch at the Union Station Food Court (much cheaper than the previous day’s) we made our way to the Mall and spent a few hours touring the monuments and memorials there. By 4:30 we were ready to face the Metro yet again. We were only about half a mile from the Smithsonian Station, so we made our way there. Had the subway system been fully operational we could have gotten on the Orange or Silver line there and traveled straight to the end of either – in 45 minutes or so.

But again, not this weekend, that was not the case. Instead we had to get on the Orange line heading away from our destination. Then we were reversing our earlier route: Yellow line from L’Enfant Plaza to Pentagon, Blue line to Rosslyn, and then the Orange line back to Vienna. And, at an hour and a half, while the the trip was probably twice as long as it should have been, it was still barely half of what a similar route had taken us the day before.

So, all in all, we can certainly say that we survived the madness of the Metro. But I’m not sure how many of the city’s first time visitors will be in any hurry to return. While I fully understand the powers-that-be not wanting to cause this much disruption on work days,  do they risk driving away significant numbers of tourists (and tourist dollars) in the process?

Falling in Love with Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance Man

Leonardo da Vinci Renaissance Man

I have enjoyed studying and teaching Leonardo da Vinci for almost twenty years now. But I had actually been buying books about him for a number of years before that. Even before I knew why, I was fascinated by Leonardo, the ultimate Renaissance man. And of course, the more I learned about him, the more fascinated I became.

Not only was Leonardo an amazing artist, he studied so many other topics, it almost boggles the mind to consider the things he was interested in, including, but not limited to: anatomy, astronomy, botany, cartography, geology, and zoology. The list seems endless, as do the pages in his notebooks on these and so many other subjects. It seems that very little was outside of Leonardo’s interests.

Drawings of various inventions by Leonardo da Vinci

Teaching Leonardo da Vinci

The first time I had the privilege of teaching a series of classes on Leonardo da Vinci, we delved into a different interest of his each week for eight of our ten weeks. After our introductory session we spent another class learning about Leonardo and his interest in the human body, another one on his interest in horses and his work on the equestrian monument in Milan, and yes, we even did a week on his amazing art. (You can see many of his paintings on this page – but please note, that page is still a work in progress!)

Not surprisingly Leonardo considered his art and his science to be mutually dependent, once saying:

“Study the science of art and the art of science.”

Sketch of a Deluge Witnessed by Leonardo da VinciAnd it is clear from looking at his work in both areas that he excelled in each of them! Had his notebook pages been published earlier, and his work in science shared with scientists that came soon after the Renaissance rather than centuries later, there is no telling what scientific advances might have been made sooner. But, alas, that was not the case, and his notebook pages were lost to many who might have benefited from his scientific work.

Leonardo’s Distractions

Botany Sketch by Leonardo da VinciIn the realm of art, Leonardo stood as one of the greatest artists of his day, in spite of actually completing only a fairly small number of paintings. It is likely that his perfectionist tendencies contributed to that low number, as well as his frequent “distractions” by work on math or science.

Non-Fiction Writing about Leonardo

As I learned more and more in my early studies of da Vinci, it was exciting to be sharing that enthusiasm with students of a wide variety of ages.  Even as I taught those first classes, I worked on my first non-fiction work about him. After six months of research and three months of teaching, I had written a short, but comprehensive, family-friendly biography of Leonardo da Vinci – Da Vinci: His Life and His Legacy. But that, as they say, was just the beginning. I was hooked!

The more I knew about Leonardo’s life and his work, the more I wanted to learn. Even after completing those first classes, I continued to read dozens of books about da Vinci, visited exhibits in various parts of the country about him and his work, and eventually made two trips to Italy to visit many of the places he had lived.

Two of Leonardo's Sketches of ChurchesAnd, as always seems to happen when I am engrossed in a topic, I wrote. The next book I wrote him was another non-fiction book – Doing Da Vinci for Kids. And then I kept learning and kept writing. (For more information on books I’ve written on Leonardo da Vinci, you can go to this page.)

Fiction Writing about Leonardo

But it would be many years and many classes later before I tried my hand at writing fiction. One summer I was at the Creative Learning Connection booth at a curriculum fair conversing with another author who had just completed his first novel. I mentioned, more in conversation than anything else, that I had considered writing a novel someday. He looked around my booth and stated matter-of-factly, “You should write about something you know. I think Leonardo da Vinci would fit that description.”

Several of Leonardo's Horse SketchesGoing home from the curriculum fair I casually mentioned the idea of writing historical fiction about Leonardo da Vinci “some day.” But my children wouldn’t hear of it. Several of them quickly insisted that I start right then, not later. And with some prodding, that’s exactly what I did.  Within a month I had written my first historical novel – Leonardo the Florentine. It would be several more months before I had found an editor for the novel and gotten it published. I’m not sure what was more exciting, holding that first paperback in my hand, or the recent release of Leonardo the Florentine as an Audible book. Both were pretty amazing!

As the years went by, my series grew, and I eventually wrote four more historical fiction books about him – Leonardo: Masterpieces in Milan; Leonardo: To Mantua and Beyond; Leonardo: A Return to Florence; and just recently, Leonardo: A Return to Painting.

500 Year Anniversary – May 2019

One of Leonardo's Designs for FlighIn May 2019 the world will celebrate the 500 year anniversary of the death of this great Renaissance man. My goal is to have my historical fiction series completed by then, meaning at least three more novels. In the meantime, I will continue to research him, continue to write about him, and continue to fall in love with Leonardo da Vinci.

And I hope I have managed to share just a little of that passion with you!

Choosing a Good Carry-On Bag

In the last post I talked about the importance of packing light and promised to talk more about my journey to find a good carry-on. So, here we go with my latest suitcase search!

Carry-On Luggage vs. Checked Bags

In the last decade or so of travel, the luggage I use has become more and more important to me. With the growing hassle of checking bags – the risk of having a bag lost, the wait time at the baggage claim area, and generally higher cost (though not on Frontier Airlines I recently discovered), I almost never check a bag anymore.

I occasionally make an exception on the way home from a trip, if I won’t be paying for it (i.e. international flights) and when a delay in getting the bag won’t be so detrimental. (Though even then a carry-on makes me the happiest.)

One of "Horsey's Friends" preparing for a trip.

This inexpensive (read CHEAP) bag held up for very few trips!

On a recent flight home from Denver, I had considered checking my bag so I wouldn’t have to mess with it on the plane. But when I got to the airport, there were literally 100 or more people in line at the counter, with two agents to check them all in. There was no way I was standing in that line! I was glad to have the option to just carry it on. (I had chosen to purchase Frontier’s “The Works” package when I had made my reservations – giving me a better seat option, and the ability to do a carry-on suitcase and/or a checked bag – all for a price I was happy with.)

So, I walked by the insane line and made my way straight to security. I had downloaded my boarding pass onto my phone the night before when I checked in, and had chosen to add the carry-on option, “just in case” I didn’t have the time to check my bag (or in this case, the desire to check it!)

Choosing a Good Carry-On

Speaking of suitcases, with all my travels, I’ve gone through several in the last few years. My first splurge on a carry-on was when I bought an American Tourister over ten years ago – and used it until it was falling apart. It was a great bag, the first carry-on I had spent any significant money on (probably $100 at the time). Had I been able to find another bag just like it, my search for another suitcase would have ended right there.

Unfortunately, the store I bought it in was no longer selling luggage, and I’ve never been able to find the same bag. (And my research into luggage has shown me that with companies like American Tourister, not all their bags are created equal, so I’ve not convinced myself to purchase another one of theirs.)

As my search for a replacement bag continued, I decided a couple of years ago to try a Rick Steves bag. I went with the Rolling Backpack – thinking the ability to wheel it or carry it might be worth trying. I took the bag on my second trip to Italy, and did use it as a backpack occasionally as we traveled from city to city. But after using it on several trips, I decided I didn’t really care for the bag – I had difficulty putting something on top it (a totebag or my CPAP bag – both continually tried to slip off). So when I had the chance to pass it off to one of my children, I willingly gave up that bag and moved on to another attempt.

View from the cruise ship in Alaska

One of my most recent trips with my SeatKase was a cruise to Alaska last summer.

My next attempt at a good, useful carry-on bag was the SeatKase. Like the Rick Steves’ bag, the SeatKase is small enough to be used on international flights (not all carry-on bags are). And I liked the idea that you can actually sit on the SeatKase without messing up the suitcase or having it roll away from you; an option that I have used on several trips. (It’s amazing how often there are not enough seats in international airports, or how long one has to wait in line at some cruise check-ins.) So, that feature, which was the primary reason I had bought that particular bag, is really nice. However, the main downside to the SeatKase is the lack of a handle on the top of the bag. While I understand the design issues a top handle might cause, the lack of a handle there is a constant headache. As soon as I get a good replacement, this bag will be the next one to be passed on to a child or someone else in need of a bag.

Meanwhile my husband has purchased an eBag carry-on, the Mother Lode 21” Wheeled Duffle. He has been very happy with it on numerous international trips in the last year and I almost got myself one of those. But I had really hoped to go back to a bag with four wheels, so I kept looking. (My American Tourister bag had four wheels, but the Rick Steves and the SeatKase bags each only had two.)

View of Alaska

Pack light so you can enjoy your travels more!

During my search I was very impressed with what I read about the Eagle Creek line. They have a great, life-time guarantee and their prices are more reasonable than the highest rated brands.

I liked the looks of their Eagle Creek Expanse Awd International Carry-on. Everything about it sounded great. When it came in, I was definitely impressed with its quality. I can see how they can afford to give a lifetime guarantee. But, when all was said and done I made the decision to send it back. I want to pack light. However, this bag is just a bit too small. I was able to pack 4 days worth of clothes into it, but that left NO extra room. I certainly could make use of it several times a year for my long weekend trips. But I don’t see being able to use it for my international trips.

Fortunately, while I was ordering the Eagle Creek my husband was ending up with a second eBag Mother Lode. The airlines managed to snap the wheel off his almost brand new bag and had to repair it. But, with a trip coming up too quickly, he had to order a second bag, rather than wait for the damaged one to be returned.

All that turned out to be providential, since the repaired bag showed up about the same time as the Eagle Creek bag. So, when all is said and done, I am now the proud owner of a gently used eBag Mother Lode. I look forward to taking it on many, many trips, starting with my trip to Washington, D.C. this past weekend. But on loading the car Thursday morning I was saddened to discover that there is no side handle on this bag. While that is not as big a pain as not having a handle on the top – it does make me wonder if my search for my new favorite carry-on is actually over, or just delayed for the time being.

Any thoughts on a reasonably priced, quality carry-on that I’ve missed are greatly appreciated.

In the meantime – happy traveling!


Tips for Packing Light and Traveling Smart

Travel Fun

There are plenty of blogs out there already offering travel tips (I know, I’ve read many of them), so I hesitated to add another one to the collection.  But since each travel blogger offers hints from their own experiences and perspectives, it occurs to me that I might have a few tips to offer as well.

As my last couple of blog posts mentioned (Travel, Travel and More Travel on here and “Traveling along the Lewis & Clark Trail” on my other website), I am a big fan of traveling. It’s been something I’ve been doing for pretty much my entire life.

Dan, Sonia, and I on our horse and carriage ride across Florence, Italy.

Okay, so we don’t get to travel THIS way very often.

I have ridden as a passenger (my favorite), I have driven (I can manage that too – as my 4200 miles in February and March of this year can attest), I have flown (something I endure for the sake of who or what I am flying to), I’ve occasionally traveled by train (I would be happy to do more of that), and I have traveled by boat (mostly on cruise ships – by far my favorite way to travel!).

I’ve traveled alone, I’ve traveled with one or more friends, and I’ve traveled the most with family. I actually enjoy any or all of those options. Here I will share my tips based on my experiences on those various types of travels. Maybe one or more of them will be helpful to you.

Enjoying Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

When I got to the security area, I happily made my way to the somewhat shorter line for TSA Pre. This was my second flight since receiving my “Known Traveler” number the previous month. At $100 for 5 years, my Global Entry application is one of the best travel purchases I’ve made in a long time! It guarantees me TSA Pre on all my domestic flights for the next five years, and should make coming back into the country from my international flights easier. (I won’t get to test that portion until June.) But I do have to say getting to leave my shoes on, not having to take any liquids out, and not having my CPAP machine taken apart (all of which happened when I flew in January without TSA Pre), is amazing! I had experience the TSA Pre options a few times when traveling with my husband, but to now have it guaranteed makes me very, very happy!

A church bell tower in Italy.

From my first trip to Italy. I hope to make good use of my Global Entry on more international trips.

From what I’ve heard, getting just the TSA PreCheck is less complicated. (My sister was able to do it while stuck in the Charlotte airport on one of her trips, and I’ve seen walk-in offices in several other airports I’ve traveled through.) Whereas the on-line application for Global Entry probably took an hour, then I waited several weeks to hear back from them about setting up my interview. Which is where the fun really began – trying to find an appointment time in a place I could easily get to – even though I live in Northern Alabama, I ended up with an appointment the following month in Houston, Texas. Fortunately I was traveling to Austin and could work in an appointment on my way home from there. Otherwise, I might have been looking at months before I could get an appointment for my 5-minute interview.

The Usefulness of Packing Cubes

My recent trip to Denver was for ten days and I easily packed in my small carry-on suitcase. Since my goal is to always fit in a carry-on, regardless of the length of the trip, that wasn’t particularly unexpected. The real surprise was coming home – my sister had given me a pair of jeans, five tops, and two pairs of shoes – all of which I managed to add to my carry-on along with everything I had brought! That was a real feeling of success. The three packing cubes I had originally packed in were much fuller, of course, but I managed to squeeze it all in.

My 3 Youngest World Travelers

My 3 Youngest World Travelers

Packing cubes have become a big part of my packing/traveling strategy. One of my sons and his wife introduced us to them almost seven years ago – and we have become quite fans, with eBags being our favorite brand. Most carry-on suitcases can easily hold a set of the packing cubes – a large, a medium, and a small cube, though I had actually used one large and two medium cubes on this last trip.

Packing Light

Beautiful sunset

Even on our 15 day cruise (where I saw this beautiful sunset) I only took my carry-on.

At this point I had planned to talk about the importance of choosing the right carry-ons, but I’m still in the process of making the decision on my next carry-on purchase, so that portion of the post will have to wait a week or two.

One of the reasons my carry-on is so important to me is that I take it with me everywhere! It doesn’t matter if I’m traveling for an extended weekend or a two-week vacation, I pack in a carry-on. In fact, I no longer own a large suitcase (the last one I owned went home with one of my children when they were moving several years ago – and I haven’t missed it since).

I read on at least one other blog the idea of never packing more than a week’s worth of clothes, regardless of how long the trip is.  That pretty much works for me – in fact I’ve been known to pack less than a week’s worth of clothes. No matter where I’ve traveled, I’ve had the ability to wash clothes – often in a bathroom sink or occasionally in a laundromat. (On our 15-day cruise I even sent laundry out to be washed a couple of times – it still cost me less than checking a bag one direction would have cost me.)

My Top Travel Tips

  1. If you want to make traveling easier, and not spend a ton of money, my first suggestion is to buy some packing cubes. There are lots of sizes, colors, and brands to choose from. If you haven’t tried them yet, I can just about guarantee that they will make your packing easier. They make it easier to be organized, and to fit more in.  And if your suitcase gets searched going through security, you will be very thankful! I was going through security last summer with a friend who hadn’t flown in awhile. Her bag got pulled because she had forgotten about the “three-ounce” limit for liquids. While the TSA agent pawed through the suitcase looking for the contraband shampoo, I cringed watching her clothes going everywhere. I hope before she flies again, she adds packing cubes to her packing list!
  2. If you’re planning to do much flying, seriously consider signing up for the “TSA Pre” program or the Global Entry.  There’s only a $15 difference between the two ($85 versus $100, each for 5 years). Traveling is much simpler with either of these!
  3. Invest in a good carry-on if you don’t have one. My youngest traveled to school in Boston last fall in a vehicle. She was effectively moving there, so she only took a large suitcase. But this spring she will be traveling home for a wedding. It was cheaper for us to buy her a cheap carry-on for the trip than to pay for her to check the large bag both ways. (Of course, since she should be traveling more in the future, it was also worth getting her a not-so-cheap one.) And again, more on that investment in a future post.
  4. And, last but not least, pack light! On dozens of trips across the country and across the world I have never regretted bringing too little – though I have regretted bring too much on a couple of occasions! I have seldom forgotten something that I either couldn’t live without, or could purchase somewhere away from home.

Happy traveling!


Travel, Travel, and More Travel

Sometimes I forget that everyone doesn’t have the opportunity (or desire) to travel as much as I do. It’s been such a part of my life for so long, that it seems normal. Sort of like having a big family – it’s what my life looks like, and I seldom think of it as unusual, until someone else points it out.

Now granted, travel, at home or abroad, is certainly not an absolute requirement  for fulfillment in one’s life.  But for me, it is hard to imagine life without traveling – a lot of traveling, in fact.

Oftentimes it’s fear of the unknown that keeps people from choosing to travel, to try something different. I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that made the choice to travel, and to travel often. And since it was a family that “thought outside the box” even before people were talking about such a thing, our travels were often unusual, and yet relatively inexpensive, at least as much as traveling with a family can be.

Early Travels

Since I feel like I was born with gypsy blood, I don’t remember my earliest travels: I was born in the Panama Canal Zone when my father was stationed there the first time. Apparently my mother and I stopped in Cuba on our way back to the states at the end of that tour (this being long before our Cuban Crisis and subsequent Cuban Embargo).

Over the next five years or so we traveled across the United States, living in California, North Carolina, and Michigan, before returning to the Canal Zone. But my earliest memories of travel come from our time in Panama that second time, including flying with my father out to the San Blas Islands.

But until that point, our travels were not necessarily unique for families with a parent in the military. (Well, maybe the flights to the San Blas were unusual.) But the real travel fun began when my father was reassigned to a base in Massachusetts. What did most people do in that situation? They packed up their families and flew back to the states. Not us. My father ordered a Land Rover from England and purchased a kit from somewhere to build a tent trailer. And remember, this was in the mid-60s,  before the internet made such things at least a bit simpler.

When the time came, the six of us (Dad, Mom, and four kids from a nine-month-old to me, the nine-year-old) drove and camped our way through Central America and Mexico, and then up the east coast of the United States to Massachusetts. I wrote my first (of many) travel journals (Stars Over Central America) during that trip.

Since I was nine-years-old and missing six weeks of school for the adventure, my assignment was to track our travels, including purchases we made, places we stayed, and even the seemingly-never-ending flat tires that plagued us for much of the trip.  And remember, this was in the mid-60s, before cell phones.

A few years later, when my Dad was about to be sent to Vietnam, we drove from Massachusetts to Michigan, via Alabama. There was family to be visited in Alabama, and so we stopped for a visit “on the way.” (As my good friend Dee and I like to say, we can make just about anything on the way on a road trip.)

Road Trips

As a parent, my lengthy road trips have continued. We made trips up and down the east coast, and from Texas to Montana and back, in a converted 15-passenger van. (We maxed out at 13 people in that van.) After more than 200,000 miles on that vehicle, we traded down to an 8-passenger minivan. We broke that one in on a 7,000 mile trip along the Lewis and Clark Trail. (There were a mere 7 of us on that trip.)

The Lewis and Clark trip was the only really big trip in the 8-passenger van, but we still managed to put more than 200,000 miles on that van as well.

I’ve traveled with friends as well as with family. My good friend Dee and I have made several trips to Jamestown and D.C. (each about 700 miles from our homes in northern Alabama), as well as many other places – sometimes for teachers’ workshops, sometimes just for fun!

And in between those longer trips, there were the numerous shorter trips for soccer, football or lacrosse games and tournaments, and the countless trips to Montgomery (at least twice a year for Youth in Government events).  And so that list goes.

Suffice it to say, I like road trips!


Flying is actually one of my least favorite ways to travel, though I’m hoping my recent acceptance into the Global Entry program (which includes TSA Pre on every domestic flight!), makes traveling by plane a little less painful. (I’ve enjoyed the TSA Pre benefit twice so far -and am loving it!)

But in spite of not absolutely loving to fly, it is often the best way to get where I’m wanting to go.  In addition to countless domestic trips from Alabama to one side of the country or the other, in the last decade I’ve managed to fly to Panama,  to and from Germany several times, to Italy and Albania twice each, once to Turkey, and last summer to Hungary for the start of our first European River Cruise. (I’m definitely holding out hope that we will get to do that again!)


Cruising has quickly become one of my favorite ways to travel/vacation.  My  sisters and I took our first cruise together to Alaska in 2010. Since then I’ve managed to cruise seven additional times (with two more scheduled for later this year). So far our cruises have been primarily with various family members, though the most recent one was a group of our college buddies. My shortest cruise to date was the 4-day cruise I took to the Bahamas and the longest was the 15-day cruise we took through the Panama Canal.  So, suffice it to say, I also like cruises!

The Pleasures of Travel

For me, travel brings lots of pleasure: The pleasure of being with family and/or friends; the pleasure of being somewhere new (or somewhere again!); the pleasure of seeing history up close and personal.

As a writer, traveling keeps me in the midst of new ideas and new material.  Since history is everywhere, I am constantly bombarded with new things I want to learn more about, in order to write about.

Volcano at Night

Volcano we saw in Hawaii

But it isn’t just the history that excites me. The whale we watched in Mexico, the volcano we viewed in Hawaii, and the sunsets we saw in Alaska, excite me just as much. In fact, high on my “still to do” list is a visit to the Galapagos Islands – a trip that is much more about the animals there than its history. (Though I did learn it had a fascinating history when I was doing some research a few years back.)

Travel and Retirement

The year before I retired I got a lot of questions about what I was planning to do with myself when I was no longer running my business (a homeschool resource center I had owned for almost fourteen years). I always had the same answer, “Travel more and write more.” For those that knew me at all (and knew even a portion of what I described above), that answer often stumped them. Since I was already doing quite a bit of both, how was I going to do more?

Well, I’m less than four months into my first year of retirement, and I would say I’m off to a good start – I’ve flown to North Carolina and Colorado (on two different trips). I’ve also driven to North Carolina two other times, and taken a road trip to Texas. My road trips in the first three months of the year totaled more than 4,000 miles behind the wheel.

If all goes well, I’ll be heading back to Washington D.C. for a few days at the end of this month (another road trip) and then I’ll be heading back overseas in about six weeks (for the next cruise on the schedule). That will just about wrap up the first half of my first retirement year (with an average of one trip per month).  And plans for the second half of the year are still a work in progress!

As of a couple of years ago, I have finally visited all 50 states (with Alaska and Hawaii being the last two), and I’ve lived in or visited at least 28 countries. When I filled out my  Global Entry application at the beginning of 2017 I had to indicate how many countries I had visited in the last five years, not counting the U.S., Canada, or Mexico. By my count I had been in 14 other countries during that time period (cruising definitely helps that number, though I had flown in or out of almost half of those!).

God willing, I still have many trips to do in the years ahead – trips to learn on, and to share with family and friends. There are so many amazing things to see and do in this big, wide world of ours – I hope I manage to marvel at even a small percentage of it.

In one of the next couple of blog posts I will share some of the travel tips I have gleaned from years and miles of traveling the country and the world, with and without children.

Happy traveling!



My Growing Love of History

When I was young, I think I approached history the way many people do – it was a subject I had to take in school, and not much more. I was a good test taker – so I could memorize the names and dates, at least long enough to get an A on the test. But history held no more significance to me than that.

It wasn’t until our family moved to Wuerzburg, Germany for more than five years, and I found myself surrounded by history that I could reach out and touch, that I figured out that history was more than just the names and dates in my history textbooks.

All of a sudden I was surrounded by what makes history real – the stories! And then I realized that it’s the stories behind those names and faces that make history important, that make history come alive.

Now, I find myself asking often: What happened in this place? Why did it happen? What was the context in which it happened? Maybe it’s the storyteller in me that wants to find the answers to these and many other questions. Or maybe the seeds of a historian had been planted when I was younger, traveling through Central America with my family, and I just didn’t realize it.

But whatever the reason, being there in Wuerzburg, I suddenly found the desire to learn more. In fact the more I learned about this amazing place that we had been transplanted to, the more I wanted to know. I found myself taking every tour I could find in English, tours that took me through the palace, in and around the castle, or through the historic old portions of town.

After awhile I became frustrated at the lack of English materials that existed to tell me more about this city and its fascinating history. When I complained to a friend of mine that I couldn’t find a book in English about the history of our town, she replied very matter-of-factly, “Because you haven’t written it yet.”

When I was done laughing at her (at that point I had never considered writing anything for readership beyond myself, my teacher, or my family), I looked at the pages of notes I had already compiled from the countless tours I had taken, looked at the stack of books I had been pouring over just for the fun of it, and finally admitted that it could be fun to write a short history book.

And that, as they say, was just the beginning. Over the next two plus decades I was generally busy homeschooling my twelve children, but along the way it seemed that I just kept stumbling across the wonderful stories we call history: The history of those who made up the Lewis and Clark Expedition; the history of George Vanderbilt and the amazing house he built and called Biltmore; and of course, the never ending stories I read about Leonardo da Vinci and his amazing life and work.

It seems that the stories are everywhere I go. Whether I am taking a vacation in Panama or visiting family in Turkey or Albania, the stories seem to reach out to me. They beg me to listen to them, to hear them, and then to retell them. It is actually one of the things I love the most about being an author – it gives me an excuse to do more digging, another reason (besides just for the fun of it) to travel across the country and around the world, and an audience with which to share it.

My hope is that is long as I am on this earth, I will be able to enjoy the stories of history that are all around me – and to share them with others, both young and not so young.

Happy reading!


Visiting Washington, D.C. (Again!)

D.C. – One of My Favorite Cities to Visit

Washington, D.C. has to be one of my favorite cities to visit.  Even though it is almost exactly 700 miles from my home, and I haven’t had any “work reasons” I needed to go there, I have managed to visit D.C. an average of once per year for the past twenty years.

My excuses to go started with the first teachers’ conference I attended in the area and extended to a political event, just to play tourist, or to take students. Besides traveling there at least four times with my students, I’ve traveled alone, with family, and friends. I’ve gone for only a day or two, and I’ve gone for as long as a week or more.

I love to go to D.C. for a number of reasons – there is never a shortage of things to see and do – and most of them are inexpensive or free. And it helps that the vast majority of them are worth going to again and again.

Sites Frequently Visited

The above are important points considering how often I’ve gone with other folks who have never been before – which means I’ve been to numerous places countless times, including, but not limited to:

Taking Students

As I plan my next student trip to D.C. for later this spring, I have to take into consideration how many of us are going, which of the students have been before, and what they have and haven’t seen already.

Two years ago I brought some of the same students and we did things that weren’t typical for us: Mount Vernon, The Arlington Cemetery, and the Holocaust Museum. So this year we may very well go back to some of my old standbys.

Promises to Myself

Since there is so much to do, and never enough time to even make a small dent in the list – I have made myself three promises that I work hard to keep:

  1. Always visit at least one new site.
  2. Enjoy however much time I have in the city on each visit – whether it’s hours or days.
  3. Remember I’m “keeping something for the next time”! That was a piece of advice my Uncle Dick gave me and my good friend Dee on one of our many trips to Williamsburg, and it has served me very well on my many trips to D.C.

The Lock Keeper's House

Of course, all of the above promises work well for any place that we have the privilege of visiting multiple times. Venice is becoming another such place for me. I’ve been there twice, and if all goes well, I’ll get there two more times this year.  But, more on that in a future post.

So, if you’re going to have the privilege of visiting D.C. for the first time, I can offer you several suggestions based on my experiences (and of course, like with any other suggestions, you should choose and use just the ones that sound good for you).

Things to Consider:

The D.C. Subway system from underground.1. Public Transportation is very easy to use in D.C. and fairly inexpensive. I like to park at the end of one of the color lines, since they generally have bigger parking lots, and take the subway in from there. (Vienna for the orange line generally works well for us.) It’s a good idea to compare prices for daily tickets versus passes. If you check out the website before you go, you can get a better idea of what works best for your particular visit. Once you’re in the city – walking is generally the best way to get around!

2. My next recommendation for planning a trip like this is to make a plan based on how long you’ll be in D. C. – but then be flexible. Plans are a great starting point – but things happen. (We’ve adjusted D.C. plans because of a late start one morning that resulted in NO parking spots left in the Vienna parking lot; when there was a suspected shooter in the D.C. area; and when we walked by the National Museum of Art on our way from one place to another, and students asked to go in for a little while. Of course, now, I almost always stop at the Art Museum to make sure my students see one of my favorite da Vinci paintings!

3. In order to make a plan, take into consideration how much time you have, what the highest priorities are for you, and where they are in comparison to each other. A city map like this one, is helpful if you’re focusing on the sites/museums on and near the National Mall. Map of the main tourist sites near the National Mall

4. Be sure to look at the days and hours of the places you want to visit before you even come close to finalizing your plans! Some of these places are only open 5 days a week, and some are 6 days a week (and a few are 7 days).

If I have a group that hasn’t been before and two days to tour, this is often how I schedule our trip:

Day One – Seeing the monuments along the mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and one or more of the museums along the Mall (the American History Museum, the National Archives, and the National Museum of Art being high on my list of priorities). Needless to say that can be a day with LOTS of walking. (If you’re really feeling energetic, add the side trip around the Basin!) On the mall day we used to eat at the food court at the Old Post Office, but since that’s no longer a possibility (see the photo below), we’ve eaten recently at the food court at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

Day Two – On the other side of the Capitol we can focus more on sites like the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court building, and Folger Shakespeare Library. On that day we often eat at the food court at Union Station.

If you haven’t been to D.C. before, I hope you are able to make a trip. And if you have been, I hope you are able to go again!

Did I leave anything important off my lists? Any place in particular I should add to my “someday soon” list?


Happy Traveling!


More KDP Publishing Information

After questions that came up at last night’s Writer’s Meeting, I debated whether to update my first blog on Publishing Options or whether to put it in a new post.  With the length of the first post, and the additional important KDP publishing information I needed to share, I decided it was better to write a new one.

Two points came up that need to be addressed, one that I had forgotten to include the first time, and one that was brand new information to me.

Publishing Paperbacks

In my first post I spoke of my recommendation to publish paperbacks through CreateSpace. That is not the only option out there, of course, but from my own experience and my research, I strongly believe it to currently be the best – the cheapest, the easiest, and yet, still high quality way to get books published in a “Print on Demand” manner.

But what I forgot to mention was another option that Amazon has just released – of publishing your paperbacks through KDP along with your Kindle books. Amazon is touting this as an “easier” way – because it only requires one account to keep up with rather than two. However, at least at the moment, my research indicates that the disadvantages of going that way outweigh the advantages, specifically the inability to purchase your own books through that system. (And having two accounts to deal with is no big deal!)

On CreateSpace you have the option of ordering physical proof copies of your books before having them go live for the whole world to see. And while I appreciate the ability to now proof my books digitally with CreateSpace, I ONLY use that option when I am making small tweaks to an existing book. My personal rule of thumb is to ALWAYS order a copy of my book before I actually publish it to the Amazon website. That is particularly important for books with pictures inside, but I find it useful for all of my books.

I also appreciate being able to purchase my own books at a low price, so that I can have a copy for myself, gift it to family and friends, give it to potential reviewers, or even sell it myself directly (something I did when I had a physical store to carry them in, but don’t plan to do now because of sales tax headaches).

But apparently there is no purchasing option through the KDP print system at the moment.  From what I can tell without participating in it, the system itself is probably very similar to CreateSpace’s (which would make sense, since Amazon is behind both of them). But as long as the option to purchase low priced copies of our own books isn’t there, I would just stay with CreateSpace!

If you want more information on the KDP print option, you can see look at Print Publishing Guidelines.

Kindle Delivery Fee

This second topic is actually one that I have to admit being ignorant of in spite of having published through Amazon for more than six and a half years now. Apparently, somewhere in the small print (and we had to DIG to find it last night) KDP explains that there is a delivery fee for our Kindle books (on top of the percentage they keep after giving us our royalties). And that delivery fee is based on the size of the book file. So for the vast majority of my Kindle books, which are text dense and tend to have only a few pictures, this has not been a big problem. But for a photo based book, or an illustrated children’s book like they are trying to publish, this can quickly become a very big problem.

In my six plus years of publishing with Amazon I have been very happy with their customer service and their business model. But this “hidden” fee certainly threatens to rain on my Amazon parade.

Again, to be clear, for those of us publishing books that are text-based not picture-based, this is a fairly small issue. But for people who are wanting to publish picture-based, or even heavily illustrated, books, this is something to pay attention to!

I checked my reports from the last few months and found that most of my books were being charged a $0.02 delivery fee. Obviously that’s not a big problem. But one of my books, that has pictures, but isn’t even what I would consider a heavy-hitter when it comes to size, had a $0.23 delivery fee.  Again, not the end of the world, but certainly significantly more than the other books I’m selling, and something I will pay more attention to in the future! (And the month I sold 100 copies of that book, it certainly added up to more than pocket change.)

Now that I’m looking for it, I see the delivery charge in my account when I’m publishing a Kindle book. This is a screenshot from one of my books that does have quite a few pictures. It has a $0.30 delivery fee.  Screenshot from my Kindle AccountNow, one thing to note – in this case, I’m still going to make more money going with the 70% royalty option (in this case $1.88 – $0.30 versus $1.05). But if my book was much bigger and the delivery fee rose above the differential of $0.83, it would make more sense for me to chose the 35% royalty, because at least right now, they are not charging a delivery fee on those books.

So, now that I know the delivery fee is there, and see where it is showing up on the KDP website, I can still recommend to authors that they put their picture-heavy books up as a Kindle book – BUT they need to pay close attention to the delivery fee, and make an informed decision of whether they need to choose the 35% royalty option or the 70% option.

For more information on the Delivery fees, see Amazon’s Agreement, and search for “Delivery Costs.”

Reader Questions

Are you using KDP’s service? Are you happy with it? Did I leave out anything important on the KDP front?

Happy Publishing!

Cathy, author of 65 Kindle books, but still able to learn!

To Use KDP Select or Not to Use KDP Select

Decisions in Self-Publishing

I am a BIG fan of publishing through the different options Amazon provides, now active in their programs for paperbacks (CreateSpace), e-books (Kindle), and audio books (Audible through ACX). And I do strongly encourage authors to use at least the first two programs as often as possible. But even once you’ve decided to publish a Kindle e-book, your decisions are not over. Next you have to decide whether you want to participate in KDP Select or not.

Like many decisions connected to self-publishing, this is not a simple “Do it” or “Don’t do it” choice.

How KDP Select Works

Let me start by explaining a little about how the KDP Select program works:

  1. If you have multiple titles that you are publishing through Kindle, you get to make a choice for each individual title (in that sense it’s not an all or nothing option, which I like, since I don’t want to have ALL of my books entered into it).
  2. When you choose to put a title in the program you are committing to give Amazon exclusive rights to the e-book version of that title for 90 days. You can mark your title to be removed from the program at the end of the 90 day period, or you can continue on for another 90 days.
  3. Of course, exclusive rights mean that as long as a title is in the KDP Select program, you can not offer it for sale as an e-book anywhere else (no uploading it to Smashwords, Apple, Barnes and Noble, or any of the other myriad sites that accept e-books). It can still be a paperback or audio book in places besides Amazon, this just effects your e-book options.
  4. For some people, the exclusive nature of the program keeps them out. They are not willing to give up their other publishing options. And that is a decision that you will need to make, too. I don’t have many of my titles in the KDP Select program, because I do make some sales on other sites. But, I do make most of my sales on Amazon (most months, more on Amazon than on all other sites combined). So, occasionally I am willing to put a book in the KDP Select program for 90 days.
  5. So, why even consider giving up the option to publish in other places? Amazon does give you a few benefits for being in the KDP Select program. For starters, only books that are in the program get to be in Amazon’s “Kindle Unlimited” and the “Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.” Those may or may not matter, depending on your book(s) – my experience is that more expensive titles will benefit most from those options. The other benefits for KDP Select books are being able to participate in the “Kindle Countdown Deals” and the “Free Book Promotion” option. Those are the two biggies that help sway me to consider KDP Select from time to time.

Making the “Right” Decision

For me, I doubt I will ever go strictly to KDP Select for all of my titles, but I will consider it for a limited time for new titles.

For more information on both sides of the issue, you may want to check out one or both of these blogs:

Smashwords offered a fairly extensive look at the KDP Select program from their perspective in their July 2014 blog post, Is Kindle Unlimited Bad for Authors? If you want more information on the program, that’s a good place to look.

Of course, Amazon has a different perspective, as they explain in their article, Why Enroll in KDP Select.

My Decisions

I hope by now you can see that it is a complicated issue, without a right or wrong answer. You get to decide which option works best for your book!  And again, you can always change your mind. (Though from personal experience I will say that it is easier to start in the KDP Select program and then bow out after 90 days, than try to get into it once you’ve published your book on other websites (where you then have to be sure to completely remove the book before trying KDP Select.)

I am starting my most recent novel, Leonardo: A Return to Painting, in the KDP Select program. I may or may not leave it there long term – that’s a decision I’ll make just before the first 90 days are finished, paying particular attention to what the Countdown Deal does for my sales.

Happy publishing!


Author of Leonardo: A Return to Painting


« Older posts