A Connecticut Yankee in Milan & Paris

Okay, here’s the thing. Women in Milan dress incredibly well. Better than we American chicks can ever pull off, I think, and that takes some pressure off. It was very inspiring! Even old ladies and little girls have flair. Also, it seems to be the law that they wear a scarf tied in a fabulous, interesting way that we Americans will never master. A lot of hats. Colored tights. Gray, black and white clothing. Everyone has a fabulous bag and a leather coat.

The food. Is. Incredible. The men are short and good-looking, and boy, do they know how to talk to a woman. There’s a little charge with the men in Milan, from the guards who checked my bag and called me bella to the concierge at the hotel who told me I must think of the hotel as my second home to the waiter who told me I couldn’t be finished, because then I would leave him. It was incredibly flattering. I often felt like purring.

Drivers seem to enjoy jamming their foot on the gas, then slamming their foot on the brake. There is only speeding and screeching to a halt. Also, the highways? Oy. I’ve never been in a car going that fast.

And onto Paris. (I’m skipping Hamburg, because I wasn’t there long enough to make a full impression. Next time, I hope!)

Paris is a lot like New York to me in that things move very fast. Everywhere you turn, there’s a monument and a statue and a building that’s more beautiful than the last one you just saw two seconds ago. The beauty of the architecture is quite staggering.

Parisian women have great hair. Tattoos seem far less common than in the U.S., but so many people here smoke! There are beggars with dogs everywhere, though they weren’t as aggressive as the beggars in Venice. The subway system was actually easier to use than New York’s. Seriously. Parisians have heaters blasting everywhere you go, even in the outdoor cafes. I think they feel the cold more. If you go into a restaurant and wait to be seated, you may just be ignored, because the custom is to sit yourself down. Service is much slower than in the States because French people actually like their food. There’s not a lot of obesity here, even though Europeans clean their plates and eat late in the evening and drink a lot more wine. I think we Yanks are doing something wrong.

They’re also incredibly helpful and polite. All those rumors about Parisians not liking Americans and scoffing at your attempts to speak French? Absolutely not true. A lot of people complimented me on my accent (thank you, Mrs. Williamson!) and every shopkeeper said “Bonjour!” when I came in. They were just lovely, whether I bought something or not.

Oh, I loved being abroad! And you know what? It’s thanks to you, my beloved readers. It’s because of you that I was given this magical trip; you’ve made my books popular, and I thank you for that with everything I’ve got.

To the readers in Milan, Hamburg, Lyon and Paris, a thousand thanks for coming out to see me in your free time (or skipping work!). Thanks for the many gifts—your generosity is quite remarkable! Thanks for the pictures and tweets and blogs and posts. Thank you for saying nice things about my hair and accent, and thanks for the food recommendations and directions. To those of you who were nervous to meet me…well, I was a little nervous to meet you, too, and it turned out to be for nothing, didn’t it? Feels like we’re old friends already.

I’ll be so happy to be back with McIrish and Dearest Son, to spend Thanksgiving with the Princess home. But I’ll miss you, and these incredible cities so rich with history and good smells and better food, and I’ll carry these memories with me for the rest of my life.

Grazie. Danke. Et merci beaucoup!

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DSCN6948[1]Random thoughts on my new favorite city…

There is no such thing as an Italian speaking in a monotone. Everything sounds terribly exciting when said by an Italian. She might be saying, “I need to buy shampoo,” but it sounds like the most passionate and beautiful thing in the world.

Venetians do not have their phones implanted into their hands, ignoring what goes on around them. They talk to each other. A lot. Nonstop, in fact. No one has their phone out during meals. No one. It’s very refreshing.

DSCN6929Ask four Italians for directions to the same place, and you’ll get four very different answers. “Take the 4.1 to San Marco and change to a southgoing boat.”

“Take the 4.2 north. It goes all the way.”

“The 4.2 doesn’t go to Murano. Take the 3 to Plaza e Roma and change.”

“Get off at San Samuele and walk.”

“This boat no longer goes to San Samuele. It did an hour ago, but it doesn’t now.”

DSCN6858In Venice, one cannot walk in a straight line from A to B. Instead, picture a bumblebee. A drunken bumblebee. That’s how the streets are laid out. And many streets and bridges look exactly the same.

Venetians enjoy tricking tourists by naming streets and bridges the same thing. “Campo Santa Maria Formosa,” “Campo Santa Maria del Giglio,” and “Campo Santa Maria Mater Domini” are all (supposedly) legitimate places. Google Maps was as confused as I was. You know that little voice feature that guides you? “In 60 feet, take a left onto Main Street.” Well, it kept saying, “Turn around and head 0 feet for Ponte della Something.” For the record, there was no bridge in front of me. I’d turn around. It’d tell me to turn around again. And again. I was getting dizzy.

The dogs are not as friendly in Venice as American cities. Neither do they go on leashes. They just run ahead of their people. And they never get lost. True Venetians.

No one wears jeans or sneakers except tourists (but not this tourist, I’m proud to report).

I only saw one cat the whole time I was there.

Men are very friendly here. They sing to you, tell you you’re beautiful, stop talking to each other to give you the eye and call you bella.

cappaVenice seems like a small town. Everyone says, “Ciao, Paolo, Ciao, Maria, Ciao, ciao, ciao.” Makes the city seem so welcoming.

The cappuccino is beyond compare. Eat your heart out, Starbucks.

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Don’t worry. Be happy.

Unknown-1Worry is the song of my people. We’re Hungarian. And Catholic. That means I’m twice blessed in the worry department. So this week, I took out accidental life insurance. What if my plane goes down? What if I fall into a canal and am run over by gondola and drown? What if I get hit by a bus in Paris?

I already have life insurance (please, of course I do!). But now I have accidental life insurance, too. I called my guy at Fidelity, and he immediately remembered me—the romance writer who has written her own eulogy four times and keeps an active list of songs to be played at the wake. (It’s all good stuff—U2 and Dave Matthews and The Boss, don’t worry. You will not hear On Eagle’s Wings.) Anyway, Ken happily sold me more life insurance, just in case.

And then the fun began.

My family is covered. Princess, Dearest and McIrish will be wealthy in their grief, you know…just in case.

Unknown-2No, this was the fun life insurance, when I can give out money posthumously. Fisher House Foundation. Yale-New Haven Hospital, where both my kids were born. My nieces and nephews and godchildren. My book club—a weekend away, on me, with really good martinis all around. My aunt and uncle who have cooked us dinner so many times—a fabulous vacation. A high school girl who wants to be a writer when she grows up—a scholarship. My plotting friends—another weekend away, on me. May they cry sloppily and laugh more. The girls down the street, who have long played dress-up with my fabulous shoes—my fabulous shoes. My mother-in-law, who is wonderful, and her best friend—a travel fund, so they can have lots of fun on me.

I can’t tell you what a good time I had, typing away, making my list, instructing McIrish to honor my wishes. I became quite bossy, specifying what the money could and could not be used for. How old a person had to be before spending it. What would happen if the heir (yes! Finally, I had heirs!) couldn’t use it.

UnknownI pictured the Reading of the Will, to be done in a fabulous library somewhere, read by…oh, I don’t know, I envisioned Morgan Freeman. “And to her godchild, Margaret…” “And in honor of her children, a sum of…” “And so her mother will finally cut down those rhododendrons and reseed that lawn, a gift of…”

Listen. Everyone has to have a hobby.

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Sometimes, you have a friend who’s always got your back, even if you don’t hear from them for a while, or see them too often. I have a few of that variety (you know who you are), and it’s so good, isn’t it? Knowing that at any time,  someone out there understands you, would sympathize or laugh with you, and genuinely likes you.

One of that stellar brand of friend was Brian, my closest friend from Holy Cross who died without warning last year. He became such an impressive person in his adult life; when he and I first met, we were 18, dopey college students and instant friends. And we stayed friends; we went to each other’s weddings, visited each other in our early 20s. Our daughters were born the same week, and our sons just months apart. I was so proud when he went into the Coast Guard and wrote to him often when he was deployed. He got such a kick out of my career. In fact, in the last email he sent me, he asked when my books would be made into a movie, because he thought they were really good.

Yesterday, I had dinner with his widow, who became my friend during the course of their marriage (I knew she was The One the second I met her), and their son, who reminded me so much of Brian that it did my heart good. We talked about him, and the loss of a dad at a young age, and The Walking Dead and all that good stuff. And we talked about little signs after someone has died; those little odd things that turn up unexpectedly, or finding something just when you need to.

And a funny thing happened when we left the restaurant. I wasn’t sure which car in crowded the parking lot was mine, because it was a rental. I clicked my unlock button, and the taillights blinked, and my friend said, “Oh, look! We parked right next to you!”

I like to think it was a little sign from Brian, a smile and wink from my old buddy, saying he was glad his son and wife and friend were able to see each other.

Miss you, big guy.

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A ghost story

Once upon a time, my parents bought a little house on the Cape. It was an investment; we had our family house already, but Dad figured he’d buy another, hold it for a few years, then sell it at a profit.

I loved the house. It was fully furnished, and I thought the layout was cooler than our other house. But it was strange, because there was still stuff in the closets—toys and clothes and all that. Dad told us that the family had to move suddenly.

UnknownThe first time I stayed at the house, it was winter, and bitter cold. I went to bed, and in the middle of the night, I woke up because I was freezing. My window was open, which was odd, because I didn’t remember opening it. I closed it and flipped the lock, figuring it had a funky spring.

In the morning, it was open again.

I guessed that I got hot and re-opened it. But I had no memory of doing that.

Fast forward to another visit when my friend and I were staying there together. There was a marble-topped bureau in my room, and in the morning, it was covered with pennies. “Why’d you leave all this change here?” I asked.

“I didn’t,” my friend said.

Okay. Well…she must have.

And then…then came the summer I was living up at the other house on the Cape. My parents asked me to clean the newer house between renters, and so I did, bringing my own laundry over, since my place didn’t have a washer or dryer. I finished cleaning, and because it was so hot, went down cellar to read as my laundry finished drying.

I sat in a folding chair and read.

And then…suddenly…I was freezing.

I could see my breath.

And I was terrified. The hair on my neck stood up, and dread washed over me in a sickening wave.

There was only one thought in my head, repeating over and over. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around.

But the stairs were behind me.

I also knew I couldn’t stay.

Before another second had passed, I bolted for the bulkhead stairs, threw open the doors and burst into the backyard and hot sunshine. I was almost surprised to be alone. The bulkhead doors yawned open and I rubbed my arms, still freezing cold.

After a few minutes, I settled down. But my laundry was still down there. All my clothes and towels for the week.

It took me half an hour to work up the courage to go back down…slowly, slowly.

It was no longer freezing cold…just cool and damp. Still, I grabbed my laundry and ran back up the stairs, locking the door behind me. I never did laundry there again.

A few years later, we sold the house. I was helping my dad pack up some stuff, and when we got in the U-Haul, I told him the story of that summer day.

“Well, yeah,” Dad said in his matter-of-fact way. “The house is haunted. That’s why your mother will never stay here.”

“What?” I screeched. “Why wasn’t I informed?”

“I thought you knew,” Dad said. “The wife…she killed herself.”

That explained a lot. Why there were still clothes in the closet. Dishes in the cupboards. Toys in the kids’ rooms.

“How?” I asked.

“Well,” Dad said more gently. “She hanged herself in the cellar.”

Over the next fourteen years, that house was sold again and again and again. Every time I went to the Cape, it seemed like there was a For Sale sign in the yard.

Finally, when I was checking the house out one day, a man came out and walked over to my car. “Can I help you?” he asked. I explained that my family had once owned this house. “How do you like it?” I asked.

“You mean, do we find any pennies?”

“Yes! Do you?” I asked.

“No, he said. “I guess that stopped with the last owners. Whatever was here seems gone now.”

May she rest in peace.

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Turn your head and cough

Nursing1I had a doctor’s appointment this week, which as you know is thrilling for me. I feel so special. I got weighed (no comment) and measured. Still five-foot-eight, no matter how much I want to be five-foot-nine. Blood pressure, one of my strengths, was nice and low. “I could be your poster child for blood pressure,” I offered. Heart rate was also slow and steady, because I was feeling chill.

And then came the fun. Dr. H., a smiling woman with lovely green eyes, and the actual exam. Since I am me, I had several diagnoses for her. “I think I need to be put into a medically-induced coma,” I said. “I’m a little tired.”

Unknown“Getting more sleep also works,” she said.

“Please?” I said. She held firm.

I was not deterred. “Also, I have a brain tumor. My left pupil sometimes dilates more than the right. It’s always after I struggle with my contacts.”

“It’s probably your contacts and not a brain tumor.”

“Can you check anyway?”

So she gamely did the eye-tracking test (aced it!) and checked my reflexes (I have them!). She once again patiently explained that I do not have Lou Gehrig’s disease. She asked after my broken ankle and laughed when I told her it passed the slutty shoe test.

“Do you want a flu shot?” she asked.

images“Yes!” I said, like she’d just offered me a jumbo-sized Snickers.

The nurse wanted to draw blood, but it was 10:30 a.m., and I’d guzzled some coffee and an English muffin. I’m not the “skip breakfast” type.

So guess what? I get to go back next week.


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On the road

photo[1]You might know that I was on book tour this week, out in the heartland. My publisher hired a car service to shuttle me to and from the airport, hotel and bookstores, and two of my drivers were aspiring novelists, so we had a great talk. One guy, named Loyal, had this gorgeous head of white hair and the nicest Missourian accent. Charles had a porkpie hat, and Glenn was waiting for his first grandchild to arrive.

Hotel_Arista_roomThere’s a surreal sense about this part of my career: being driven places, staying in lovely hotels. Most of my work days are spent in the company of my dog. McIrish and Dearest Son might pop in to say hi, but I’m alone all day. No makeup, slippers instead of heels. That’s the writing life. Book tour…that’s the author life. And it’s fun, I won’t lie! It’s like I’ve been let out of my halfway house or something. The bathroom at that first hotel was glorious. These are the important things when you travel, you know? Soft towels and good-smelling soap. I had a little balcony at the second hotel, but it was raining pretty hard, so I just opened the slider and let in the fresh, damp air.

One charming hotel concierge and I had a long conversation: I have a “Tell Me Everything” face, which is helpful if you’re a writer. He told me about his rather tough childhood, growing up poor, having the electricity turned off, having to eat at friends’ houses because his family didn’t have enough food. “I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “That all made me who I am today, and I’m a happy guy.” He sure seemed to be.

Unknown-1I loved the neighborhoods I got to see; lots of bungalows and pretty yards. Good for trick or treating. Charles, one of my drivers, told me the real estate prices; the Midwest is a lot more affordable than the East Coast. The leaves weren’t quite as brilliant as ours are at home, not yet, anyway. It rained inches in Kansas City, but it was gorgeous in Chicago.

Then, of course, are the readers who drive for hours in some cases, which is such an honor that I can’t really put it into words, how humbling and thrilling that is. One lady brought in her little doggy to meet me, and he was such a sweetheart. I also called her daughter, who’s in college up north, and chatted with her. People brought me presents from their towns, and my dear friend Kim brought me soft, silly socks and lots of chocolate. (I ate a candy SonaliKristanMeloniebar for breakfast Thursday morning, being the Nutrition Queen. Don’t tell Evil Boxing Trainer.) Sonali Dev, Melonie Johnson and Joyce Lamb, who are fellow writers and friends, came out to see me in Chicago. I received gifts for McIrish and Willow. When I had my usual wardrobe malfunction, one reader had a safety pin, so I didn’t end up flashing anyone (thanks, Jayshree!).

Best of all is getting to meet you, gang. Thank you for your warm welcome, your notes, your posts and tweets and gifts and hugs. I’m so lucky to have you!

And now, back to work, back to the doggy and the big goofy chair, back to my silly socks and shark slippers. Home, sweet home! Until I go to Easton, PA on Tuesday, and then Boonsborn, MD, on 11/1, and then, thrillingly, Europe. But for now, the laptop, the chair, and the Hershey Nuggets.

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DSCN6383It’s been all about family this week, gang. McIrish came back from a very emotional ceremony for fallen firefighters—he went to represent his platoon mate, Mike, who died a year ago. Firefighters call each other brothers (and sisters). “No problem, brother,” they say, or “See you around, brother.” While McIrish was out West, he had dinner with Robyn Carr and her family. I always wanted a big sis; I have one in Robyn.

DSCN6542Then we went to see Derek Jeter in his last game at Yankee Stadium. My nickname for many years has been Mrs. Jeter; it’s no secret I love the Captain. For thousands of games, I’ve watched him, the skinny kid who became the face of baseball, a guy who was never comfortable with praise and always had his dad at his games. I know how Derek walks, how he stands, how he adjusts his gloves at bat. When he won the game as only Derek Jeter could, I cheered with joy, then cried like a baby, because I’ll miss him something fierce. “They’re like family,” my mom often says of the Yankees, and this week, it felt so true.

photo 3Then my true family—Princess’s college doesn’t call it Parents Weekend. They call it Family Weekend, which is so nice. Not only have I missed my daughter these past six weeks; I’ve missed the four of us all together, or the two kids together, or the three of us when McIrish is at the firehouse, or just her and me, driving home from school or going to the library. It filled up my heart to see her again, to smooch her cheeks and hug her tight.

And finally, IN YOUR DREAMS comes out this week. It’s a book about family, too—finding your place, or redefining it; leaning on them when you need to; knowing that whatever else happens, they’ve got you…even if they drive you a little crazy.

Photo by Craig Orsini, used with permission

Photo by Craig Orsini, used with permission

It’s become my tradition to give a chunk of preordered and first week sales to Fisher House Foundation, which is also all about families. If you’re a service member or veteran who needs hospitalization—or if someone in your family does—your family can stay in a Fisher House, a gorgeous, state-of-the-art facility that feels like home. I can’t think of a better cause.

I hope you love IN YOUR DREAMS, gang. A lot of you have become like family to me, and your friendship and notes, your tweets and posts, mean the world to me.

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Everyday Heroes

Car_in_LakeIN YOUR DREAMS is about a reluctant hero…Jack Holland, Navy man, all-around great guy, who’s been on the lookout to be in the right place at the right time for most of his adult life, who finally gets his moment.

This, my friends, comes from personal experience.

I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with me, but I yearn to be in some horribly dramatic situation and do everything exactly right (and not wet myself or hide, as might be the real-life situation).

imagesToday, for example, I was walking around the mall with my sainted mother (except in this case, I was the saint). I saw a hugely pregnant woman. Immediately, I pictured her clutching her stomach and collapsing, right there in front of those weirdly aggressive people who want to straighten your hair. “Don’t worry, I’m a romance author!” I would say, and voila, I’d deliver her baby, whom they would name Kristan. Romance Author Delivers Baby; Mother and Child and Author All Healthy, the headlines would read.

Jack’s experience isn’t exactly what he imagined. That too comes from real life; you see those slightly shocked people who say, “I just did what anyone would do,” and you want to hand them a crown and a thousand bucks and a lifetime supply of Ben & Jerry’s. Because the truth is, we don’t know Unknownwhat we’d do. We hope we’d do the right thing, but we don’t really know. Remember that story in the news about the school receptionist who talked down a gunman? She was amazing. It’s not just firefighters and Navy SEALs who are heroes.

All I have to say is, if you’re planning on giving birth in a mall, I hope I’m shopping that day. I’ll have your back. Or your baby, as the case may be.

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Sisters & All Their Glory

Not my cousin

Not my cousin

Last weekend, my brother came down for a family dinner chez Mom. We were talking about the miraculous physics of childbirth…our cousin, a petite and slender thing, had given birth to a nine-pounder. Natural childbirth and everything! The discussion turned to my sister-in-law’s experience in childbirth, then Mom’s, then mine.

Okay, I’m lying. My brother wasn’t actually talking about this. Mom, my sis-in-law and I were talking about this; he was just in the room. When the discussion came to dilation, my dear brother said, “I think I’ll go see what the boys are doing,” and walked out.

“Get back here!” I said. “Don’t you want to hear about your sister’s cervix?” We females laughed merrily. My brother feigned deafness.

images-1One of my male friends has three sisters. When we were teenagers, the girls (and I) used to sit around the kitchen table, drilling him on different scenarios and how to respond. “What if she got her period and asked you to go out and buy tampons? Would you go? What if the store didn’t have her brand? Her cramps are so bad, she’s just thrown up in your car. What do you do?” The talk would spiral into ever more horrifying female situations as the sisters trained my friend to be the world’s most perfect boyfriend.

Such is the character of Jack Holland, the hero of IN YOUR DREAMS. Poor Jack is subjected to all kinds of girl talk—he’s blessed/cursed with three sisters. One is going through menopause. One is pregnant. The third is a newlywed. Jack knows a lot more about females than the average guy, whether he wants to or not. Small wonder he hangs out in the barn with his dad whenever possible, lost in the zen of winemaking.

IYDfc smallBut when it comes to being a perfect date—and recognizing a woman who’s heart has been broken—Jack knows what he’s doing. I’ve often thought that an escort service (not that kind) would be fantastic. Look at Emmaline, the heroine of the book. She just got invited to her ex-fiancé’s wedding, and she knows she has to go. And she is not going alone. Would you? What about that high school reunion you’ve got coming up? No date? No problem! Just call 1-800-RENT-JACK!

Seriously. Someone should look into this.


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