These are a few samples of many columns I've written about travel. My Turkey blog, though, is the best collection of my travel writings--—
Ann Marie's Istanbul
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS

Ann Marie Mershon

Italy is full of big things, incredible things that overwhelm: the Sistine Chapel, Michaelangelo´s David, Botticelli´s Birth of Venus, the Duomo Cathedral in Florence. They´re all awesome.

It´s the little things, though, that are the charm of Italy: flower-framed windows shuttered against the sun, boys kicking a soccer ball through a cobbled street, a stooped old woman feeding the pigeons in a park. Many street corners  sport a public fountain/faucet where everyone stops for a sip and a hand wash. Its a little thing, but it´s lovely.

It´s the people I love the most, the day-to-day routine of another culture. We´re all so much the same, with a few differences. Like language. I still can´t believe that these toddlers can speak Italian. Too weird! They giggle the same as American children. though. Laughter: the universal language.

My favorite time in Italy was an evening in San Leone, a beachfront town in the south of Sicily. Annie DeBevec and I were on our own for a few days, and after sweating ourselves faint at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, we headed for the beach. After our daily Mediterranean swim, we cleaned up and decided to wander the streets. It was 5:00, and market stalls were just setting up again after their 4-hour afternoon hiatus (siesta?), so we moseyed through them, resisting the temptation to buy.

It was too early for dinner (Sicilians eat dinner around 10:00), so we stopped at a sidewalk cafe for a rest and a drink. A group of older men had gathered there for a late afternoon chat, and pairs of grey-haired women shuffled by on their way to mass, some arm in arm. A few kids pedaled in on their bikes for an ice cream, although they were mostly checking out the action--like cruising, I guess. They kept coming back. Pretty soon the teens arrived, many on their Vespas. Tight pants were the common denominator, male and female alike.

It was a joy to sit and watch the late afternoon events unfold. The little beachfront town was coming alive. We paid our tab and continued our walk as the boulevard filled with bikers: a white-haired man on an ancient Schwinn, a young mother on a pink bike with her daughter chatting chatting away as she pedaled beside her. There were fathers with toddlers in handlebar carriers, and whole families pedaling together along the promenade. The locals were out enjoying the cool air of evening.

Annie and I strolled along to the end of the avenue and out to the end of the pier, where a few determined young men casted for fish. Fishermen were unloading their boats, and seagulls swooped and careened above them just as they do in Grand Marais.

Back on shore, workers were setting up for an upcoming festival, and as we watched them the streets grew even busier. We walked by the church, where the pews were filled with older women. We spotted two men amongst them.

Just down the way there a children´s amusement park came to life. It had colorful, brightly-lit rides--idyllic. We paused a few moments to watch the sun go down, then scoped out a restaurant for dinner. At 8:30, the Trattorias were still deserted, so we stopped at yet another sidewalk cafe for a pre-dinner glass of wine. The owner brought us a plate of hors-dóeuvres, and we feasted on those as we watched the growing mass strolling and pedaling along the boulevard. Every age, every size--except fat. (There are very few fat Italians. Even with all that pasta, they´re thin, thin, thin!)

Finally, at about 10:00 we found the restaurant we´d scoped out, Trattoria del Pescator. It had an impressive display cooler filled with crushed ice, a mammoth tuna, oysters, clams, prawns, and a wide array of other seafood. The service was friendly and efficient, and the food was incredible. I´d go back any day!

After we finished a delicious dessert of ricotta cheese froyen with pistaccio gelato, we continued our stroll along the boulevard. We were surrounded by people from this charming country, chattering away in Italian with both both voice and hands. The town center had filled with motorcycles and young people—throngs of them. The once-quiet street was transformed to a midnight madness totally different from its layy 5:00 quiet.

Those young people smiled at us as we passed, respectful and friendly with two middle-aged women reveling in the charm of Italia.

It was just a little thing. But it was lovely.


Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County Star
July 18, 2003
EVEN THE APOSTLES AREN'T QUITE PERFECT

Ann Marie Mershon

I’ve heard about ‘em, I’ve been intrigued by ‘em, I’ve flown over ‘em, and finally I’ve kayaked ‘em.  Almost perfection, the Apostle Islands are a world apart—an amazing segment of our sensational Superior Playland.

A few weeks ago I launched on an eagerly-awaited trek through the Apostles with friends Mike and Annie DeBevec, Dick Swanson, and Jini Danfelt. We met Wednesday evening at Little Sand Point campground near Bayfield. Our first day dawned spectacular. Throughout the day the wind increased, but we met the challenge eagerly. After a few hours we landed on a rock ledge beach for lunch on Sand Island.

We jumped in for the first of countless refreshing swims, then pulled out our lunch bags. I was a bit embarrassed at the size of mine, but I had my first big laugh when I realized that everyone else’s were even bigger. We had enough lunch to feed a boy scout troop for two weeks! One of the best things about this trip was repeatedly laughing till tears streamed down our cheeks. If it wasn't the “Mike and Dick Show”, nearly any dopey thing would be escalated to hysterics by this lighthearted group. I came to judge the success of a day by the number of times laughter drove us to tears.

The record was six times.

Rather than write a blow-by-blow, let me share some highlights of our nearly-perfect trip.

We were windbound on Sand Island that first afternoon (thanks to Murphy’s Law), so we hiked to the lighthouse, a charming stone structure. After a quick tour, we snatched a nap on the warm rocks, lulled to sleep by the rhythm of crashing waves. The wind lasted until after dinner (Dick’s Isle Royale Special—sheer ambrosia).

Another highlight was the magic of the sea caves on Devil’s Island. After an exhausting 10-mile crossing (against the wind—Murphy again), we were rewarded by the enchantment of paddling into, around, and through a maze of hundreds of sea caves. They’ve been carved out of the sandstone shore by eons of waves battering at the rock.  Unique formations and the gulping rhythm of waves in the chasms made it all the more fascinating. We spent hours exploring the caves, fascinated with each new cavern.

I guess another highlight would have to be campsite number seven on Rocky Island. It took forever to find it, and once we did, we were so amazed at how crappy it was that we all collapsed into hysterical laughter. The site consisted of a narrow patch of beach and a nearly indiscernible pathway leading to a secluded hilltop site choked with trees and brush. The good thing was that it didn’t have a stinky outhouse, since it was never used.

Fortunately, we made the most of things, teasing and laughing our way through an evening that would have tried the patience of most campers (a slight blemish on a nearly-perfect day). Our consolation was that an otter swam by as we ate dinner, and a fawn strolled down at dusk to join us on the beach.

Other highlights? The Jules Vern-like Rocky Island Lighthouse with a huge fresnel lens that once magnified a kerosene lamp to flash 30 miles; a picturesque beach campsite on Manitou Island where we swam the day away; a lovely evening paddle, lollygagging along the Manitou shoreline alongside lazy mergansers and marveling at a stunning sunset; and finally, the Raspberry Lighthouse with its incredibly entertaining and enthusiastic tour guide.

Every day brought surprises, particularly the last one, when Murphy’s Law  stepped in yet again to switch the wind against us for our homeward trek. Yet another blemish on the nearly-perfect Apostles. Oh, well. It hardly dampened the experience.

I can’t say whether it’s the challenge, the adventure of paddling the Apostles, or my delightful companions, but this trip was easily one of the best vacations of my life. Almost perfect.

Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County News Herald
July 29, 2005
"THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME."

Ann Marie Mershon

I´ve heard that quote many times, and I may have even said it, but do I really get it? I´m not so sure. I welcome change. In fact, I often seek it out. I eagerly anticipate new adventures, I change the way I teach things every year, and I love meeting new people. There are some changes, though, that are just downright unsettling.

I faced one of those yesterday. One of my very favorite things about Cozumel, Mexico (where I happen to be as I write this) is the snorkeling. I love to mosey along the coral reefs marveling at the brilliant coral formations and myriads of tropical fish. My favorite place to snorkel is a funky little hotel called the FONTAN, the best kept secret on Cozumel. Yesterday I packed up my friends and we taxied down there to spend the afternoon sunning and snorkeling to our heart´s content. We arrived to a barricaded door. Each motel unit had a paper sticker across it saying "Cerrado" or some such thing with an official insignia. Araughhh! Apparently the FONTAN was closed down by the government last March. Go figure! Somebody was up to no good, so my favorite little getaway is gone, at least for the time being. Its lovely beachfront, sandy lagoon, and incredible coral shoreline is sadly out of
reach.

Not to be daunted by this state of affairs, we traipsed through the lobby of a nearby hotel, THE CORAL PRINCESS, and joined eight million sunworshippers to hop into the water there. The snorkeling was great, but not the beachfront. Of course, there was no way to be there without meeting at least eleven people--close quarters. Anyway, the snorkeling was lovely, and I look forward to a future change: a reopened, renovated FONTAN when I return in a few years.

Last night we faced yet another disappointing change. After scouring off the salt water and donning our dancing duds, we headed to town (San Miguel) to spend some quality time. We planned to spend our first hour hoofing to the beat at Viva Mexico, an open-air dance club. Then we planned to trek over to Club Salsa, a first- class venue we discovered on the last night of our 2004 trip. Well, the salsa club building was still there, but NO SALSA CLUB! Araughh again! Is there a message here for me? Luckily, Viva Mexico now plays a lot of salsa , and there are some incredible local dancers to learn from.

One positive change at the Melia hotel this year is that we were given an expansive suite rather than crowding four women into a tiny hotel room. The weather has been glorious, and we haven´t seen a hint of rain--unlike last year.

I´m preparing for yet another change as I lollygag on the beach. My reading matter is a guidebook on Turkey, which will be my new home for the next two years. I´ve taken a position teaching at an international school near Istanbul, and the more I learn that country, the more I´m pleased that I followed the advice of many experienced international teachers who said, "Don´t pass up this incredible opportunity." I have no doubt this will be an
interesting change...

I´ve experienced scores of changes in my life, some good and some bad, but I look forward to many more. Changes keep life interesting.

As they say, change is inevitable, so we might as well embrace the gems in each new twist in the road.

Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County News Herald
February 21, 2005