Roll Like Thunder, Gone Like Smoke

Accidents happen. Specifically, motorcycles accidents. And I knew, as a rider, that sooner or later one would happen to me.

The day started out beautifully.  Bright sunshine, clear skies, temperatures cool enough to make wearing jeans, gloves, a helmet, and a padded jacket pleasurable. My husband Vince and I headed north from Pittsburgh, me on my sporty 883 SuperLow and Vince on his Indian Scout. 

Long shadows stretched over the asphalt as we rode up the interstate. Fog rose in white clouds among the treetops when we crossed the Ohio River. I revved into 5th gear and felt the wind rush over my hands, arms, and chest. And it felt good. 

Miles 1 through 46 of the journey passed without incident. After a hearty pancake breakfast at our destination, we decided to continue our ride along the shores of a nearby lake. As we made our way along the two-lane road that would take us there, I attempted to make a turn over some gravel. The motorcycle lost traction and went down, carrying me with it. In less than a second I found myself on the ground with my left leg pinned underneath 500-plus pounds of angry metal. 

I tried to pull free and couldn’t. The bike was too heavy, and my injured leg didn’t have the strength for me to drag it out. For a few scary moments I was pinned and helpless, cars passing me by on the road, until my husband lifted the bike so that I could get clear.

I knew I was hurt. I didn’t think anything was broken. Still, my knee was thobbing and once I was able to take a look I discovered a deep gash that had bled through my jeans. Tiny bits of yellow adipose tissue poked through the cut. My left arm and shoulder – the side I’d landed on – were sore. But thanks my helmet and leather gloves, my hands and face remained unscathed.

My first priority was treating the cut. We didn’t have a first aid kit with us, so Vince went into town to get supplies. Meanwhile, I made my way to a spot under some trees and rolled up the leg of my jeans. I wanted to allow the cut to bleed freely until I could properly clean it; doing so would help dislodge any dirt or debris that might have gotten into the puncture.

My impromptu wound triage was interrupted by the arrival of an employee of the small business whose parking lot I was loitering in, albeit under duress. He took a look at me and then my motorcycle, and quickly invited me in to use the sink and first aid kit. By the time Vince returned, all that remained was for him to ACE-wrap my knee. A couple Good Samaritans in the shop helped get my cracked windshield back into place. 

My options were now to either leave the damaged Harley behind and ride two-up behind my husband. Or I could climb back on for a 50-mile return trip to Pittsburgh.

Vince and I had never ridden with me as a passenger, and the highway didn’t seem an ideal place to learn. My motorcycle, despite its damage, appeared operable. So like the Chris Ledoux song, I decided to cowboy up. 

Thanks to the bandages, the bleeding on my leg was slowed. Still, it would likely need stitches. And since it was the leg I used to shift gears, the ride back wasn’t going to be exactly comfortable.

But I made it. There were challenges, and not just physical and mental ones. We had to make another stop to get my left mirror back into place after I found it was dangling dangerously askew (and preventing me from seeing any traffic on my left side.)  Seconds before I was about to merge back into the freeway I realized that my clutch was sticking.  A clutch lever that didn’t release meant that the engine wasn’t able to engage the transmission. No transmission engagement = no changing gears. Luckily, I was able to pop the lever outward and get myself into a gear that allowed me to travel at highway speed.

Troubleshooting mechanical issues while riding a motorcycle is never something I imagined myself doing. But I did.

Back in Pittsburgh and after my stitches from urgent care,  I immediately thought of what I could have done differently. Of what I would do better next time. Of how I could be safer. 

I took some comfort in the fact that I dressed for the occasion. Riding around in a t-shirt and without a helmet looks cool, but it’s not so awesome if your bare skin hits asphalt at 70 mph.  Motorcyclists have enough disadvantages when it come to safety to begin with – no airbags, no seat belts, no rearview mirror, no standard ABS – that any step to reduce risk is, in my mind, worth doing. If anything, I’m more convinced now than ever of the necessity of proper gear. (Kevlar-lined jeans, anyone?). 

Of course, protective apparel can only do so much. Skills and technique are also key. I’ve been reading up a lot on how to ride safely on gravel. Not surprisingly, there are an abundance of blog posts and even videos with tips on how to do this. 

As I look back and as the episode replays in my mind, I ricochet back and forth between thinking of it in two ways. The first comes from fear. What if. What if next time, I’m seriously hurt. What if my bike is totaled. What if it’s an accident that I can’t get up and walk away from.

The other is pride. Something scary happened. But I didn’t cry or panic or fall apart. I got back up, and I met the challenge. I’ll be better next time, and smarter, and hopefully safer. 

I still fight my fear. My first ride after the accident was me against my “what ifs.” I have to learn to trust myself again. And the only way to get better is to keep going.

Yesterday, for the first time, I went out on a road that has intimidated me for months. Stopping and starting on hills. Intersections. Merges. Curves. Highway. And I didn’t do it on my sporty. I did it on a burly 1700cc Harley-Davidson Softail Slim. I felt like I was punching a bit out of my weight class, but I came back smiling.   

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Watch out for life.” Life on the highway threw me a few challenges. But something tells me I’ll be back for more.

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Neither Here Nor There

Note: The following was originally written in the early spring of 2017, while participating in a travel writing workshop with the wonderful Eric Weiner at DC’s Politics and Prose. This month, March 2019, is the one-year anniversary of my return to Pennsylvania. It seemed a fitting time to share.

The segments of my life can be measured by a suitcase. First the big cheap black one that I took with me to Nicaragua – I was fifteen years old and it was the first time I left the country, laden with optimism, with an innocent desire to do good. So I carried with me plastic trinkets and school supplies to give away to the kids that I knew I’d find there, kids that when I met them sometimes had bellies rounded with malnutrition and whose hair grew stiff and orange from their heads like straw. Then college, the same black suitcase, this time with my newly-purchased sweaters and spiral-bound notebooks and a little caddy to carry my shampoo and toothpaste back and forth to the common shower on the all-girls floor. A few years later that suitcase rolled with me on a Greyhound bus the summer I left home and spent the months from June ‘til August sleeping on the sunporch of a friend’s apartment. Then again, the same black suitcase straining at the seams as I wheeled it through the departure terminal at the Pittsburgh International Airport, my eyes fixed straight ahead. A plane waited to carry me to England and graduate school, and the preceding twenty-three years of my life were pared down to what could fit into a space no greater than 35.5 x 29.5 x 16 inches. My past and future compressed together, squeezed tight to comply with the checked baggage allowance of British Airways.     

Photo by Josh Sorenson

I did not ask myself, then, what I was leaving, what I was getting away from. I’m not sure that I can answer even now. Sometimes I think of returning, even if I don’t yet know the answer to what I’d be seeking once I got there.

There is the farmlands and tumbledown towns of western Pennsylvania. The place where wooden houses painted in fresh white with a single curtain tied back in each window indicate that an Amish family lives inside. Where each small town has at least one hardware store and at least two bars and probably more churches, and it used to be that people at the local supermarkets would carry your groceries out to your car and not expect a tip. Where in summertime children play in cricks, not creeks.  When the fields got planted the air is filled with the different scents of manure: the traditional kind, earthy and brown and almost pleasant because it was so familiar, and the liquid kind made from the feces of pigs that stank and spread for miles if the wind blew in a certain direction. We all drank pop.

I left but I haven’t stayed away. Is it survivor’s guilt that troubles me when I return? The black suitcase has long ago disappeared, but I still have the luxury of moving in and out. Others don’t. I can step into my late model Honda – the Touring edition with heated leather seats – and drive, leaving behind the empty storefronts and the strip-mined hillsides and the acres upon acres of cornfields that, when shorn and empty in winter with the remnants of skeletal yellow leaves rattling in the wind, create a sense of barren bleakness that is hard to shake even indoors. I can drive away and return to my job with its salary that is considered almost decent by city standards and princely by most Pennsylvania measures, return to skim milk lattes and Pilates classes, return to a world where people patronize farmers’ markets but have never had the muck of manure touch their shoes.

Yet even in the insularity of suburbia, I lived in silent fear of collapse. There are the quirks. Such as why my closet is filled with clothes that have long outlived both style and utility: a pink lace party dress that hasn’t fit in years, green t-shirts with “Beechwood Garden Center” emblazoned across the back from a summer job I had over a decade ago, the faded cotton pants and jacket and bright belt from the black gei I wore for karate lessons in high school. Why I return half-consumed cans of soda to the refrigerator, their open tops covered carefully in plastic wrap so that I can drink them later and there is no waste.

I and the other exiles are in the in-between. We are half-breeds born and bred of small towns and farms, passing anonymously (if we’ve lost our accents) through urban America, one foot on a subway platform and the other on a gravel road.

And yet I did not come to the city ignorant, a blank mind waiting to be filled with the secrets that only the concrete and crowds can teach. I came knowing when the spring peepers sound in the ponds, the noise throbbing in the air so that it creates a living wall of sound. I know the time when the sap rises in the maple trees, and how long it takes to boil it down to syrup that is sweet and thick and wild. I know the time to hunt deer in the woods after the leaves of the oaks and maples have fallen, and when the baby calves are born with their wet coats and wobbling legs. Even before I touch the kernels I can tell the difference between field corn and sweet corn. I know where to find wild blackberries, and along the streams and wetlands I’ll listen to the blackbirds singing and find which tadpoles will turn to frogs and which ones will be toads. All of these things I learned without knowing how I came by them.

And there are the lessons of the city, too, the rhythms of its language. Getting rid of “crick” and “pop.” Hailing taxis. Learning how to understand people with different accents without constantly asking them to repeat themselves. The art of small talk with someone who you don’t know well but who might be rich or important. And how to never be too honest, which is a lesson that I find the people in the country know as well. 

The road I travel is a circle. There is no horizon to find. I live between two sets of waypoints, one where I mark time by commuting distance and billable hours, and the other that shifts from my hands as I reach to measure it. But still, there is the relief of sometimes catching, in the distance, the sounds of spring peepers, or forgotten smells like new-growing hay with the scent of earth and grass and sunshine coming together that makes my heart skip a beat and sends me back, whirling, into the past.

We all run. It’s only a question of how far we get. Of the distances we cover that cannot be mapped. Of the places we find ourselves in that have no coordinates.

 

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Bourbon-Free in New Orleans

Bougainvillea in New Orleans.

The first pictures I formed of New Orleans came from Anne Rice. Like thousands of other teenagers, I devoured Interview with the Vampire in both its novel and film variations. In my imaginings, the images of New Orleans came through vampire eyes – a place dark and romantic, full of strange and slightly threatening beauty.

And like Rice’s vampire protagonists, I came to New Orleans hungry. I feasted on cafe au lait, boudine hash, scrambled eggs, and biscuits topped with cane syrup. An inconvenient headcold prevented me from sampling any of New Orlean’s alcohol or legendary nightlife, but I did indulge on the pleasures of food. Gumbo file. Chunks of alligator meat seasoned with Cajun spices. Shrimp (of course). Red beans and rice (of course). Obligatory beignets from Cafe du Monde. I ate like a tourist. And I ate well.

But I came to New Orleans for more than food. In this I was not disappointed. I visited the bayous and watched as our guide lured alligators from the brown swampwater with a few tossed marshmallows. I toured stunning plantations, included the fabled Oak Alley (used in the film Interview with the Vampire, and set cinematically alight by Brad Pitt), and listened as guides spoke of both the Creole families who lived in those mansions and the slave families that built them.

I sloshed through Bourbon Street one night in the rain, the refuse of a thousand indiscretions detectable on the breeze, and in the water rising around my ankles.

I spent nearly a full day at the World War II museum, lost in time and feeling shaken from my vantage point of having been born well after its conclusion. Certainty, I learned, is a gift that comes only in hindsight.

Perhaps inevitably for a city that has built its recent reputation on hedonistic pleasures, much of New Orleans is predictably tacky. Hordes of intoxicated tourists roam the thoroughfares, some of them pushing strollers. Shops sell T-shirts with lewd slogans, and beads and bottles of hot sauce are everywhere.

Still, there is something mysterious under the surface. Despite modernity, the city is still defined by its geography. The river. The levees. The heat. Nature cannot be escaped, and must be tolerated.

Even in October, vines and blossoms flourished, and trees grew thick with Spanish moss. I caught glimpses of the pastel mansions in the Garden District as the streetcar rolled past. The sides were open, allowing in a rush of humid air. I stepped off and soon reached the gates of one of the Lafayette Cemeteries. A black crow fluttered in one of the treetops. It would have been ominous were it not so perfectly times. I walked among the grounds, weeds and grass poking through the crumbling pathways. The mausoleums are overrun with plants as if even stone and concrete can decay.

In the 300th year since its founding, New Orleans was a reminder that America was not always American. The land was a battlefield for European empires, and home to millions of native inhabitants. New Orleans, after all, had been French. And before that, Spanish. And before that, the Chitimacha tribe farmed, fished, and hunted along the waters leading to Lake Pontchartrain.

On my first night in the city, music and shouts from the street brought me to my hotel room window. Looking down, I saw what first appeared to be a parade. But on second glance, the figures were recognizable as a wedding party. The bride and groom led the way, followed by their guests and a second line that created a joyful procession through the street. And during my last meal, I heard music again – horns and drums that grew louder and louder until they literally passed by the window I was sitting beneath, and established themselves in the restaurant’s back room. It was a funeral, and in true New Orleans style, it sounded like a hell of a party.

Where I ate:

  • Trenasse, Hotel Intercontinental, 444 St. Charles Avenue
  • Mother’s Restaurant, 401 Poydras Street
  • Broussard’s, 819 Conti Street
  • Buffa’s Bar, 1001 Esplanade Avenue

Where I stayed:

Hotel St. Pierre, 911 Burgundy Street, New Orleans

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Whose America Is It?

Gardens behind the Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg.

In July, I visited Colonial Williamsburg over Independence Day weekend. Given the roiled state of American politics, I hoped that taking a step back and looking at America’s past might lend insights into how to navigate today’s turmoil.

But how we choose to remember the past is just as telling as the facts themselves. What gets commemorated? What is left out of the story, and why? Whose stories are being told, and whose are not?

Read more about my visit: Colonial Williamsburg, Where the Past Shines Light on the Present, at World Travelers Today.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Eloping

Last month, my husband and I celebrated our 5th anniversary. We are a nontraditional couple in many ways, and our married life fittingly enough began with a secret flight to Las Vegas and a wedding conducted at Graceland Wedding Chapel (Bon Jovi was also married here, and I figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me! And to their credit, the staff did a lovely job.)

Bride and groom leaving wedding ceremony
Photo by Gina Fasciani.

I naturally felt affinity for Kate Cochrane, heroine of my forthcoming novel, who also eloped. And despite the fact that elopements are much maligned, I believe there’s something powerful in couples who chose to dispense with ceremony. I believe there’s something powerful in couples who choose to begin their marriage with only each other.

In America, we are often guilty of falsely equating the size and scope of the wedding with the value the couple places on their marriage.

If a couple elopes or has a civil ceremony, there’s the nagging assumption that they were too indifferent or too impolite to give the event its due. Wrong. And if you’re thinking of marriage, via elopement or otherwise, I offer the following thoughts:

  1. A wedding is not a chance to prove anything. Not how rich you (or your parents) are. Not how much sophistication and good taste you show. Not how many friends you have.
  2. A wedding is not the culmination of your relationship. The road does not end at the altar. Your relationship is ever-evolving. A wedding marks the beginning of a new iteration of that relationship. Get ready for it – and open yourself to change and flexibility and growth.
  3. A wedding is no guarantee. Don’t think that a wedding will fix anything. Don’t think that a wedding will make you happy. Don’t think that a wedding will prove that you are loved. Please don’t misunderstand me – weddings are important. Committing to a marriage is the most powerful, dynamic, thrilling, challenging commitment that two humans can make to each other. But weddings only mean that if you are all in.

For me, the biggest danger is that wedding planning can suck the energy and attention into things completely unrelated to the quality of your marriage.  Do you really need to serve four kinds of artisinal salad dressing at your beachside buffet? Do your bridesmaids really need to wear lemon yellow strapless chiffon? Do you need a fairytale setting because you think perfect is the only path to happy?

Whenever you make a decision about your upcoming nuptials, ask yourself where your energy is going – to the wedding, or towards the marriage? If it is the latter, good on you. And if it’s the former, take a deep breath, make a choice, and remember the reason that you’re doing this.

P.S. After our Las Vegas elopement, my husband and I did have a traditional wedding ceremony attended by family and friends. I’m not anti-wedding, and I love a good party. The whole thing was as DIY as we could make it (My sister and I made the centerpieces ourselves, I did my own makeup, and one of my dad’s buddies was a champ and served as our bartender. My friends and in-laws set up the décor, and we had no wedding party to speak of but both of our sisters did readings.) We rented out a barn and a BBQ food truck, served beer and wine that we hand-selected from local offerings, and danced until the fireflies came out.

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Why I Love Playing Tourist

Picture of the Puget Sound
View of the Puget Sound from the top of the Seattle Space Needle.

Last month I had the privilege of visiting Seattle – and incredibly, of seeing the city under consistently sunny skies.

Since moving to the Washington, DC area twelve years ago, I’ve become accustomed to seeing tourists. Rarely do I have the novelty of being a tourist myself! Seattle reminded me of what it is like to see a place for the first time, for every experience in that place to be your first, and for the wonderful mix of curiosity and bewilderment and surprise that being a “tourist” can offer.

My favorite moment in Seattle was taking the ferry to Bainbridge Island, just over the Puget Sound. While there I rented a bike from Classic Cycle and had an exhilarating afternoon pedaling around the island.

You can read more about Seattle – and its amazing food – on my guest post “Seattle: Travel and the Beginner’s Mind” at World Travelers Today.

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Stepping into History: Pictures from London and Edinburgh

One year ago I packed my bag and my laptop and hopped a plane to London, and from there, traveled by train to Edinburgh, Scotland. My journey allowed me to retrace the footsteps of Katherine Cochrane, whose story is at the center of my forthcoming novel, The Admiral’s Wife.  I walked in Regents’ Park, the London neighborhood where she lived for a time, read her letters at the National Records of Scotland, and visited Culross Abbey House, the Scottish estate where her husband had lived as a boy and which she visited with him many years later. These pictures capture the places I visited and provided a thrilling opportunity to step into Kate and Thomas’ world.

Follow along on the trip through my post on World Travelers’ Today: Books, Bagpipes, and Muddy Boots.

P.S. The slideshow also includes images from Keats House, home of the poet John Keats, a contemporary of the Cochranes.

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Whose History Is It?

Carnton Plantation stands 20 miles south of Nashville. Its proportions are elegant, its gardens filled with rare varieties of heirloom flowers, and its wide porch is stately and inviting. Visitors can wander the rooms and gaze at family portraits, look in awe at the family silver enshrined in a glass case and stamped with elegant monograms, and climb the stairs that lead to rooms whose windows offer views of sweeping lawns and boxwood hedges.

Photo of Carnton Plantation, which served as a field hospital during the Battle of Franklin.
Carnton Plantation, Franklin, TN.

The slave cabins stood in the back, alongside the woods. And in the opposite direction, you will find the largest military cemetery in private hands in the Unites States. Nearly 1,500 graves hold the remains of men who fought and died at the Battle of Franklin. They are Confederates.

I visited Carnton earlier this spring. It was not the first time I had come to the site, but I was back again with more questions and an uneasy curiosity.

Carnton had been home to Carrie McGavock, a local legend whose story gained a wider audience with the release of the New York Times bestseller, The Widow of the South. During the Battle of Franklin and for months afterward, Carnton served as a field hospital where hundreds of wounded and dying men either succumbed or made slow recovery. Bloodstains mark the floors of makeshift operating rooms set up in the childrens’ bedrooms – tracing them will show where piles of amputated limbs were likely stacked, or where the cans of ether had been placed for primitive anesthesia.

The story goes that Carrie tore her petticoats into bandages after the household linens had been depleted. She personally nursed casualties and after the war, she and her husband arranged for bodies to be interred on family land –a book containing handwritten records of the names and information for each man can still be seen.

The place has the feel of a shrine, and walking through it on that bright spring morning, I bristled. Our tour guide noted that most of the household slaves had been sent to the Deep South once the war started to prevent their running away to Union lines. The McGavocks wanted to “protect their investment.” Lives and labor could be owned and bought and sold – and even now, in 2016, this was explained in terms that would have been perfectly at home in 1865. It was a matter of finance, and not morality – and the fact that the moral side of it was never addressed during that talk hangs with me even now.

For in the story we were given, Carrie’s compassion extended only to those who looked like her, and not to those whose endless servitude made her existence possible. The lost cause of the South still controls the Carnton narrative, making Carrie a heroine and leaving the uncomfortable questions unasked.

I left Carnton that day unsettled, and that feeling stays with me now. What do we make of Carrie McGavock? What do we make of the teenage soldiers who died on her porch that cold November night? Slavery is a hideous institution. The racism that was used to justify it equally ugly. I wonder if I can see the people in the Carnton story apart from their cause. Can I separate “good” behavior – compassion on the suffering – from a “bad” motivation – supporting a war justified by bigotry and exploitation? Can an act be judged apart from its context? Can I even truly know what drove Carrie and her family and the soldiers whose pieces lay scattered across the grounds?

Grass grows over the graves and the McGavocks are long gone, but it is still Carrie’s story that drives the place. It is one we should know, but it is not the only one. And at least for me, it is not all of the truth.

For more on my Nashville travels, please see my post Getting a Taste of Nashville at World Traveler’s Today.

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Nashville: Past and Present

 

Refrigerator magnet reading "Elvis Presley for President."
Elvis for President, 2016.

Isn’t it always interesting to revisit places we’ve known at different junctures in our lives? This spring I paid a return trip to Nashville, TN – after not seeing the city at all for more than a decade – and chronicled my experiences for World Travelers Today.

I would love to know which return trip has been the most surprising for you – please share your story in the comments! Then come along with me and discover a growing, gentrifying Southern city whose food reflects its changing identity in “A Taste of Nashville.”

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How AirBnB Helped Me Write

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to write, a woman needs a room of her own. I’m lucky enough to have two – a cozy office with bookshelves that reach to the ceiling, and a sunroom that looks onto a tangled green backyard surrounded by trees. These are the places I feel at peace, where I can shut out the world for a time and focus on bringing my inner world, my writing world, out into life.

Unfortunately, neither are portable. While I have written in hotel rooms, on Amtrak trains, at writers’ retreats, in campgrounds, and even in bars, a rooted place has always felt most natural to me, most like home. So when I put together a research trip to Scotland for my upcoming novel, I went searching for a base camp, too.

View from windows showing old buildings in Edinburgh, Scotland.
View of Edinburgh from my AirBnB flat.

Within seconds of launching into my first AirBnB search, it was love at first sight. A perfect, snug little hideaway of a flat just steps off of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. From here, I could easily walk to both the National Records of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland, two key sites for my research. There was a tiny galley kitchen, a comfortable bedroom, books and DVDs to keep myself entertained should I need them. Shops and restaurants stood within easy reach. The building itself had stood for over a century, and looked likely to stand for several more. I booked it straightaway.

The feeling I had when I stepped through the door went beyond “charm” and “character.” Yes, the flat had both, with its large windows of antique glass, thick stone walls, and utter lack of elevator (the flat stood on the 5th floor). But the appeal went beyond mere aesthetics.

Here, the space was mine, and mine alone – there was no schedule, no set times when coffee would be available or breakfast served. I could write and order my days as I pleased, breakfasting in my pajamas if I so desired on whatever lovely foods I brought up from the local market. (Scottish sausages, coffee, toast, and fresh eggs most mornings.)

I had a sense of space that was not sterile, but would be filled with the day’s rhythm of activities and the city around me. I had solitude and independence, but not isolation. If it wasn’t home, it was the next best thing. And I wrote and dreamt and pondered and wrote some more.

When I returned home, I finished the first draft of my novel within the month. I can’t say it was all due to AirBnB magic, but having a room of my own in what’s become one of my favorite cities certainly helped.

Disclaimer: This post is a statement of personal opinion, and is not an official endorsement of AirBnB services. No financial compensation, goods, or services have been received in exchange for this post.

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