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Welcome to My Blog!

Welcome, friends and readers!  In this blog, I’ll discuss anything and everything that’s related (even, tangentially!) to my books.  That means sharing my favorite mysteries; telling you about my upcoming books, author appearances, and conferences; sharing the joys and tribulations of writing; giving you insider’s tips to Washington, D.C. (where my Jeanne Pelletier mystery series is set); and feeding your inner Italophile (like the protagonist of my upcoming garden-to-table culinary mystery series, Rita Calabrese) through Italian and Italian-American recipes and tips and trivia on la bella lingua italiana, travel in Italy, and Italian culture and cuisine!

 

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A Walk through Georgetown’s History–From Francis Scott Key Memorial Park to Patisserie Poupon

In honor of Jeanne Pelletier, the amateur sleuth/belly dancer protagonist of my eponymous mystery series set in and around Georgetown, I’ve designed a wonderfully scenic and historic walk that starts at the Francis Scott Key Memorial Park (where the Key Bridge meets M Street), meanders through Georgetown University’s campus, ticks off a ton of fascinating off-the-beaten-path historic sites, and ends at Patisserie Poupon, one of my all-time favorite places to write (and savor French pastries!). The walk is approximately 2.5 miles and takes about 90 minutes with brief stops. (Note: A single asterisk indicates that the location was featured in the first Pelletier mystery, “Hagar’s Last Dance”; a double asterisk indicates that it was featured in the second book, “Graveside Reunion,” which is slated to be released January 2, 2018.)

Start at the Francis Scott Key Memorial Park (1), which commemorates the prominent lawyer, anti-slavery activist, and public education promoter who lived 100 yards west of here with his wife and 11 (!) children. By a twist of fate, the not particularly musical FSK wrote the lyrics to our national anthem: when the British burned DC in August 1814 and took a local doctor hostage, he galloped off to Baltimore, boarded a British warship to negotiate a prisoner exchange, and then was detained on board while the ship pummeled Ft. McHenry…and failed to destroy the 30 x 42 foot, 80-pound flag flying over it, the largest U.S. flag ever flown in battle.

Cross 34th Street and, past the ugly modern annex, admire the rose-colored brick façade of the Embassy of Ukraine/Marbury House (2). This was the home of Supreme Court Justice William Marbury, of Marbury v. Madison fame (which established the right of judicial review for congressional actions), and the birthplace of the District of Columbia: at a dinner here on March 29, 1791, with luminaries including George Washington in attendance, area landowners agreed to sell half of their land to create the new Federal District.

Backtrack to 34th and head uphill, past the imposing stone wall of Halcyon House (3), built in the 1780s and home to the first Secretary of the Navy. Turn left on Prospect and amble past the Car Barn (4), constructed as a garage for horse-drawn and later electric trolleys but now part of Georgetown University. Just beyond are the vertigo-inducing Exorcist stairs (5*).

Cross Prospect and belly up to the bar at The Tombs (6*, **), a student hangout tucked in the bowels of a Georgetown townhouse and marked with a blue paddle. On the next block is Holy Trinity Catholic Church (7*), where JFK once graced the pews.

Turn left on O Street and then head through the front gates of Georgetown University (8). For a taste of Oxford-esque Gothic architecture, head into Healy Hall and up the opulent staircase. If possible, time your visit for an event at Gaston Hall, which will make you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a medieval guildhall.

Head back out the university gate and turn left on 37th and then right on P. At the corner of 35th and P, you’ll notice train tracks running down the middle of the cobblestone street, a relic from the era when trolleys click-clacked through the neighborhood. Turn left on 35th, staying on the east side of the street (the right-hand side). At the corner of 35th and Volta (1527 35th Street) is the Victorian-era former home of Alexander Graham Bell’s parents (9). Turn right on Volta. Directly behind his parents’ house is a pink stucco house—the Bells’ former carriage house, which Alexander used as a workshop (10). If the gate is open, pass into the alley between the Bells’ house and the carriage house and turn around to admire a trompe l’oeil fresco, which makes it appear as through the blank wall has a window.

Across the street is the side of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (11). AGB was first and foremost an educator and advocate for the deaf. In fact, it was his experiences working with the hearing-impaired—including his wife and mother—that inspired him to experiment with transmitting sound waves via wire, which led to the development of the telephone! This polymath also invented a rudimentary metal detector, which was tested on bullet-riddled Civil War veterans and which he attempted to use to ascertain the location of the bullet lodged within President James Garfield following an 1881 assassination attempt. His invention likely would have worked and enabled a life-saving operation to remove the bullet, were it not for the fact that Garfield’s incompetent physician—who scorned the use of soap and repeatedly poked and prodded Garfield’s open wounds with his grubby fingers—insisted the bullet was on the right side and refused to let AGB use his detector on the president’s left side; after the president’s death, an autopsy indicated that the bullet was indeed on the left, as AGB had speculated.
At the corner of 34th and Volta, take a peek inside Volta Park (12), whose bucolic environs give no hint of its past as one of the city’s oldest graveyards.

Turn right on 34th Street and then left on P. When you come to the big white house at 3333 P Street, look up to see a medallion depicting an old-time fire engine: this was the nineteenth century version of an insurance policy. In the days before publicly-funded fire departments, residents contracted with private companies to provide fire protection, and the medallion was their proof that they were paid up.

Turn left on 33rd and try your hand at spotting all of the antique fire insurance medallions that cluster on the right side of the street. When you reach Q Street, turn right, cross Wisconsin Avenue, and then turn left. Head uphill and follow your nose to the heavenly Patisserie Poupon (13*, **). Salivate over the gleaming glass case of exquisite little pastries, select one (or two or three!), order a latte, and give yourself a well-earned rest!

Part 2 of My Conversation with Former Student William Rojas (aka “Hot William”)

william_lifevest

Through the miracle of Facebook, I recently reconnected with William Rojas, a former student (the “Hot William” profiled in my nonfiction memoir In the Shadow of the Volcano: One Ex-Intelligence Agent’s Journey through Slums, Prisons, and Leper Colonies to the Heart of Latin America). This is the second of my 2-part interview.

M: I remember that you were in the carpentry track. Are you a carpenter now?

W: No, actually! When I got here, I discovered that carpentry work here is very mechanized. I was used to doing everything by hand, which takes a long time and is more expensive—and, here, people just want whatever is cheapest!

M: So what kind of work did you end up doing?

W: I got a job for Ashley furniture. Man, that was terrible! So, I quit that job. Then I worked for another company installing cubicles for offices. I liked that one because I was more in contact with people and I got to practice my English more often. But that company didn’t offer good benefits, and the boss liked to yell a lot. I was lucky that for some reason he liked me and promoted me to be the boss of a crew. I was working crazy hours, but I was making more than my wife—and she has a Master’s degree! But my wife was sad that I wasn’t home anymore.

M: Then what did you do?

W: I wanted to study to be an HVAC technician, but first I needed to improve my English and get my GED. My wife wanted me to just take the GED test in Spanish, but I was determined to take it in English! I got so lucky. I met this beautiful woman—she was probably in her seventies or even older—and she tutored me. It was like God put her in my way. I passed the GED—in English—and I will remember that lady forever! So now I work for U-Haul and am an air conditioning and electrician guy. The benefits are good, and I get to spend lots of time with my family. Life is really good.

M: And you have kids, right?

W: Three! I am so blessed. And their teachers tell me they’re gifted!

M: And what do you think of the education they are receiving? How does it compare to the one you got in Ecuador?

W: The education here is really good. Here, the teachers find a way to teach according to the way the kid learns. In Ecuador, it’s the other way around—the kid has to find a way to understand the teacher.

M: What surprised you most about life in the U.S. after you moved here?

W: The amount of different people from around the world who live here. You know, in Ecuador we don’t have a big mix of people like you do here. And your cities are very well organized.

M: You recently read my book, “In the Shadow of the Volcano.” What did you think? Did I get it right?

W: Maureen, your book is really good! I think that it really describes the way life is there. You did not hide anything. You really felt how life is there.

M: When is the last time you visited Ecuador?

W: Four months ago.

M: I haven’t been back at all, so I am curious: how has it changed in the past 15 years?

W: It has changed a lot! I used to walk the streets all the time, but this time I was totally lost. It was like a new country. Life is harder now. The food is more expensive than here in the U.S. Cars are everywhere, so the traffic is crazy and pollution is bad too. Banks are lending money to the people with 25% interest or more, even if people can’t really pay them back. The country is headed for an economic fall—like what happened here a few years ago. It’s sad. Another big difference is that child labor has been outlawed. That’s mostly a good thing, but it does make it harder for some families to survive.

M: You live in Arizona, which is on the front lines of the immigration debate. Do you feel welcome in the U.S.?

W: Yes, I do. I just follow the rules, and usually nobody bothers me. There was one day when I was going to Home Depot and this security guard told me I wasn’t allowed in. I laughed and told him I was going in whether he liked it or not.

M: How did he take that?

W: He said I was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. So, I just passed by him and went in the store. But then I heard him call the police on his radio. Sure enough, two police cars showed up. At that time, I was here on a fiancé visa so I figured I was going to lose no matter what. So, I decided to run away. I was wearing two shirts and a hat, so I quickly changed my shirt and took off my hat. That is how I fooled them. (laughs) I was sitting right in front of them and they couldn’t recognize me.

M: (laughs) Clearly, not the smartest security guard. Or the most ethical, or logical! (pause) Okay, switching gears now, one of the recurring themes in our conversations 15 years ago was gender roles. Now that you live here, do you think I described gender roles in the U.S. accurately?

W: Yes, you did! I really wish my sisters and mom lived here. I love it! Ladies here have more rights.

M: Tell our readers more about how women are treated in Ecuador, from your perspective.

W: My sisters’ husbands don’t do anything, so my sisters have to feed them! When I was growing up, though, my mom had the opposite problem. My dad was the man of the house, and my mom needed his permission to do everything—even take care of her own mother. So, I always promised myself that I would marry an independent woman who doesn’t need to depend on a man to survive.

M: Good for you! (laughs) Well, this has been quite a long interview! Are there any last thoughts you’d like to share with my readers?

W: Just this: if you are feeling sorry for yourself, look around you. You will see someone who is in a far worse situation than you.

M: So true. Thanks for talking to me, William!

W: Thank you! I’ve always wanted to be interviewed by a “famous” author in English!

Part 1 of My Interview with Former Student William Rojas (aka “Hot William”)

william_rojas

Through the miracle of Facebook, I recently reconnected with William Rojas, a former student (the “Hot William” profiled in my nonfiction memoir In the Shadow of the Volcano: One Ex-Intelligence Agent’s Journey through Slums, Prisons, and Leper Colonies to the Heart of Latin America).

The following is an excerpt from our fascinating conversation.

Maureen: William, I’m so excited to have you as my first interview!

William: I’m excited too!

M: When we met, I was a teacher at a vocational school in Ecuador and you were a 21-year-old student in “sexto grado” (the rough American equivalent of ninth grade). Let’s back up, though. How did you end up at the Center in the first place?

W: My dad got very sick. The doctors couldn’t tell what it was, so they just told my mom to take him home to die. At the time, I was too young to understand what was going on, so they didn’t share too much with me. But since my five older brothers and sisters were already married and had left our house, I was left in charge of my younger siblings. It was very sad to see my dad die slowly in front of me for a whole year.

M: What kind of a man was your dad?

W: Most of the time, he was a good man and a good provider. The only thing I hated about him is that when he drank he became a different person—very violent, almost like he was trying to throw the whole house through the window. One day he beat my mom, and I lost a lot of respect for him. But when I found out my dad was dying, I forgave him. He couldn’t talk or say anything. He was so, so skinny you could literally count his bones. One night, he squeezed my hand, touched my face, and then stopped breathing. I had to tell the rest of my family that our dad died.

M: That sounds like a really difficult time. Is that when you came to the Center?

W: Sort of. I needed a job to support my mom and two younger brothers. Initially, I found a job as a security guard, but they did not pay me well enough to afford the medicine we needed. I was a very proud guy. At first, I thought, I don’t need help from anybody. But I just wasn’t making enough to support our whole family, and my brothers needed to go to school. And, as you know, the Center provides food, medicine, and education.

M: Did that make life easier?

W: At first. But the third year my family was in the Center, my young brother got hooked on drugs. I felt like a failure. Everyone told me that there was nothing I could do to save him and that I should just let him live on the streets, but I was not going to lose my brother. I had lost my dad already, and I had promised my dad to take care of my brothers. I did not want to give up, so I went to the office to speak with Madre Josefina. I told her that I was taking my family out of the Center, but that I was very thankful to them for feeding me and my family for almost three years. I also told her that we would come back after I cured my brother and I asked her to please save a spot for us. I was sobbing. She felt sorry for me and offered to have my brother work with the Center’s doctor, Dr. Juliana.

M: How’s your brother doing now?

W: My brother is doing really well, thank you! He is clean and has three stepdaughters and two of his own. He married Blanca Pesante. Was she a student of yours?

M: No, but her brother was! What a small world…So. do you remember our first meeting?

W: (laughs) In the boys’ bathroom. One of the Center’s rules is that all members have to take a shower every day, and I was on my way to take a shower—cold, since they didn’t have a hot water heater!

M: And I was supervising the cleaning of the boys’ bathroom by some of my students who had misbehaved that week. It was my version of detention. (laughs) And it was probably just as much of a punishment for me as for them—it smelled terrible!

W: Yeah, at first, I was puzzled about what you were doing there, especially with those crazy kids. I think I told you that you had beautiful eyes.

M: (laughs) Yes, you did. It seems like all Ecuadorian men say that to women with blue eyes.

W: Well, the other thing I noticed about your eyes is that they communicated “I am not scared of anything and, if you try to mess with me, you will pay the price.”

M: Wow! My eyes said all that?

W: That’s what I saw, anyway. I didn’t know any other women like that. I saw that you liked to be free and independent. Then you told me that you wanted to have a house husband! That really shocked me. So I decided I needed to ask you more before judging you. I wanted to know why you thought that way.

M: My house husband fantasy didn’t actually come true, you know.

W: It didn’t?

M: Nope. I’m married and have a one-year-old daughter, and my husband is super-helpful, but he actually has a job. Which is probably for the best, actually. (laughs) Okay, fast forward 15 years. You’re now married to a former volunteer and live in Arizona. Tell me how you met your wife, how you came to this country, and what your life is like now.

W: My wife was a volunteer at the Center, but I only met her two months before she went back to the U.S. After that, she went to Tanzania to volunteer for a year. When she finished her year of volunteering, she returned to the U.S. and then applied to bring me here as her fiancé. After three months, we needed to get married before they kicked me out. So, we did! Her parents hadn’t even met me yet. Wow! Crazy, huh?

For more of my conversation with William, tune in next week!

The Maid Did It!

I’m just back from Killer Nashville, where I learned that a) just as I suspected, the maid was the killer and b) I need an Author website and blog (hence this website and this blog!).

The conference was terrific. I met so many talented authors and got the opportunity to participate in a (fake) crime scene investigation. A retired police chief staged a crime (complete with a blood-spattered mannequin in the bed) in room 224 of our hotel, and the conference attendees competed to determine the murderer and the motive (aided by videotaped interrogations of the first responders and persons of interest). I’m happy to say that I correctly guessed that the maid killed him in order to cover up her theft of the $57,000 he kept in cash in a bedside shoebox. (He had just broken up with his cheating wife and emptied their bank account.) For a while, the hooker he invited over was looking good for it, but luckily she went straight to a bachelor party and so had a great alibi. Yes, it was deliciously tawdry and convoluted!

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