Mary Clark, Traveler

Marilyn Stephenson’s Path to Paris, Texas

Marilyn in front of her apartment with the Army Flag

This is the second in an occasional series of stories about people traveling TO Paris, Texas to live.

Marilyn Stephenson is easy to spot in the winter.  She wears a Tyrolean hat from Bavaria tightly pulled over her military haircut.  Summer finds her in t-shirts and comfortable shoes.  Her gate is forward and deliberate, and she speaks with Army punctuated precision just as a retired sergeant should.  It’s clear from her accent she’s not from these parts.  But her path to Paris is a story of American mobility.

Originally from Crown Point, Indiana, of bank robber Dillinger escape fame, Marilyn comes from a family of three daughters.  After attending college for two years, she headed to California where she worked in a small IBM department.  As she points out, there were no women supervisors then and she was released after five years.  The military beckoned but her age was a problem.  At 32, she was too old to be in the Navy but not the Army which she joined on July 6, 1967.   Training was separate through the Women’s Army Corps in Ft. McPherson, Alabama.

During her 20 years of service, Marilyn was posted from California to the Pentagon and three times in Europe. Her first ten years were spent as a communications specialist where she “pushed messages”, learning to read the holes in  teletype messages that arrived from all over the world.  This was a typical placement for women at the time.  After emerging from  NCO training as Staff Sergeant, she had eight men under her who didn’t know what to expect from a woman leader.  She told them,  “See these stripes.  They’re brand new.  I worked for this promotion.  I didn’t brown nose anyone and I’m not losing these stripes for any of you.  If you’re concerned about a woman supervisor, let me know.  I don’t want you working for me”.  All the men stayed.  When the work at the Pentagon got tedious, she asked to change to a chaplain’s assistant.

Marilyn’s medals

In her new position, she was again among mostly men.  Marilyn got to go into the field and even participated in war games in Germany.  The primary duty of the troops there was to be prepared to “fold the gap when the Russians came.” At that time, it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when” the Russians tried to penetrate the Alps.  She served abroad three times in Germany and Belgium  between 1972 and 1981 and served at Grafenver with the 3rd Armor Tank Division (Patton’s old unit) on her last tour.

A chaplain’s assistant’s job is more varied than you would first imagine.  Marilyn tells stories of weddings that tried to derail, including one in which she had to sew the groom’s pants shut because of an unfortunate tear.  Because she was in charge of all chaplains’ assistants in Europe,  Marilyn made herself useful.  Before computers, she used cards to keep track of when each chaplain was leaving so she could be sure of an easy and smooth replacement.  Marilyn served as the highest ranking enlisted officer in the division.

After leaving the military in 1987, she lived in Ft. Monroe, Virginia until 1998 when she returned to California. She bought a truck and 5th wheeler and traveled all over the country.  Marilyn’s next door neighbors in California were Sam and Marc Williams.  Marc drove a long distance truck for Schneider trucking and had seen the United States from the highways.  He always said he wanted to retire to Paris, Texas because it was a nice little town that would be perfect for his later years. When he and his wife finally moved, Marilyn decided to come, too – sight unseen.

They all arrived in Paris in 2003 and Marilyn jumped in. Her activities have included Prime Time, art lessons, music lessons, Red Hat Society, lay reader for Holy Cross Episcopal church, domino player, and exercise classes and trips through Prime Time.  She believes there’s something to Texas hospitality although she had a hard time understanding our accent upon arrival. She notes people are very friendly here.   “Nobody says hello in California.”

When the Chamber of Commerce promotes Paris as a great place to retire, Marilyn could be the poster child.  She came without knowing anything about us, was greeted with open arms, and decided to stay and to participate. She’s proof that America’s mobility can benefit Lamar County.

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Red River County is old.  Prior to settlers moving west to Texas, Caddo Indians passed often over the gentle hills and even stayed a while in villages.  The Spaniards didn’t pay much attention but early settlers crossed the Red River on their way to all that free land in Texas.  Five signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence represented the Red River District at the Washington on the Brazos conference.  William Becknell (1788-1856), father of the Santa Fe Trail and first to take a wagon trail across the country’s interior, is buried west of town in the middle of a pasture. Over 200 cemeteries are listed on the Historic Texas Cemetery website.  It is no surprise then to find that much of what Clarksville and Red River County has to offer the traveler is history.  There are some nice restaurants interspersed.

1.  First Presbyterian Church, Clarksville, is the oldest, continuously operating Protestant church in Texas.  Considering how many protestant churches there are in Texas, that’s quite an honor.  The church is well maintained and has the side Corley Family Chapel with stain glass windows made by the Jacoby glass company.   Check with Jim Clark 903.427.2266 to gain entry. 106 S. Pecan Street

2.  The Red River County Courthouse.  What I can say?  This beautiful structure is as close to the Italian Renaissance as you’ll find in these parts.  Built in 1884 from yellow stone cut from a quarry 45 miles away, it was beautiful for its time and beautiful now.  Thanks to a renovation in 2003, the courthouse shines.  Inside, the hallways creak with original wood and that winding staircase leads you to one of the most authentic, historical district courtrooms in Texas.  And just down the street is the museum at the Old Jail  built in 1887 which provides a glimpse into penal conditions of the 1800s.  Courthouse – open 9:00 to 5 –  Monday to Thursday.  Contact Jim Clark to see Old Jail.

3.  Coleman’s BBQ is not on the main drag.  You’ll find it by the pick-ups parked outside at noon. Begun in 1972 by the Coleman Family, it’s been serving great Texas Bar-B-Q to locals of all colors and classes.  But the inside secret is they also make wonderful tamales which my family has enjoyed on Christmas Eve for years.  604 North Donoho Street. 903-427-3131

4. Built in 1833, three years before Texas Independence, the DeMorse House is the oldest building in this old town.  It is a two room log cabin and housed Colonel Charles DeMorse, the father of Texas journalism.  Writers of Texas history in the 1800s refer often to the Clarksville Standard, which DeMorse founded as the Northern Standard in 1842. It was one of Texas’ most influential newspapers.   A drive-by tour is all that is available at this time.  Located at 115 East Comanche Street.

5.  Even the country club is old here.  The Clarksville Country Club was built in 1920 and hosts a beautiful nine hole golf course.  There are no reviews of this golf course on the PGA web site but Northeast Texans consider it a hidden gem.  Green fees vary from $26 to $39 and the course is open to the public. Four miles north of Clarksville on Highway 37

6.  Wildcat Creek Quail Hunting Lodge.  Opened just two years ago, this lodge is attracting much attention.  Whether you want to hunt quail, pheasant, deer or turkey,  or simply enjoy a generous four course, fixed price evening meal, the staff is eager to serve you.  Chef David will visit at your table and even describe the thrill of getting a turkey with a seven inch beard.  You don’t have to be a hunter to enjoy the drive in the country, the high quality meal, or the chef.Wildcat Creek Quail Hunting Lodge

7.  Lennox House  The Lennox family were the  Rothschilds of Clarksville and Red River County, having extensive land and bank holdings.  The three siblings of Bagby, David, and Martha Lennox lived in the same house for most of their lives.  At their death, the home was given to the Red River Historical Society.  It is beautifully restored and used for special events.  Jim Clark can arrange a tour. 601 West Broadway.

8.  Located on the recently renovated downtown square, the Italian Bistro is a welcome food option in these parts.  The menu is authentic and the price reasonable.  You’ll also meet many locals if you dine here.  The owners, Alek and Aurora Lleshi, are friendly and available and will make any accommodations possible.  Drop in after shopping the great antique stores on the square. 106 North Walnut Street.

9.   If you enjoy nature, north of town is the Martha Lennox Memorial Nature Trail, located on a pristine old-growth forest and donated to The Nature Conservancy by the Lennox family. The Trail is a mile and a half loop that takes you under trees and over logs and from low, wetlands to highlands.   You don’t have to be able to recognize a Lady Slipper Orchid or a white oak to enjoy the woods.   Local Master Naturalists have provided markers naming various plants and trees.  For visual learners,  there’s even a picture of the identified plant. Call John Nichols for a tour – 903.427.5279. Lennox Woods

10. Trees. I mean it.  Red River County has seven state champion trees on the Big Tree Registry maintained by the Texas Forestry Service, all on the Sulphur River.  These include the Mimosa (silk) tree, the Nutmeg Hickory, and the Eastern Redbud.   While I can’t give you directions to these particular trees, the countryside of Red River County is a hidden gem. Try driving north of Detroit on FM 410 and 195 or wander around FM 909, 44 or 1487, in the south of the county. The ranches are massive and the trees large.  It’s well worth an outing.

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Jill Gila Rosenfield – Israeli Guide Extraordinaire

I had heard jokes about the number of guides in Israel as in “everyone in Jerusalem is a tour guide”.   There are reputed to be over 10,000 licensed guides in Israel. That same percentage for the United States would equal about 350,000 guides!  I didn’t appreciate the “licensed” part of the title until meeting our guide, Gila Rosenfield.

Gila was recommended  by a mutual friend  which is how most clients come to her – by referrals.  She is, actually, a typical guide who was raised in a Zionist family outside Israel (Zimbabwe), came there in her 20s to work on a kibbutz, and stayed.  After six months, she moved to Jerusalem to teach.  As she noted, “socialism sounds better as an idea than in practice.”    When a friend encouraged her to be a tour guide, Gila applied and was accepted into the Ministry of Tourism’s School of Tourism.

This is a two year program that is anything but easy. A psychological exam is given before admitting a student.  And then the courses are intense.  Here is a description of the required subjects: “These are quite intensive and difficult studies including: prehistory, ancient and middle ages, the modern State of Israel and the region, and all nations that lived there in the past. … Israel tour guides need to be versed in basic archeology, geology, climate, flora and fauna, ornithology, architecture, zoology, etc. In the school, Israel tour guides study the legal system of the past and present. Hundreds of study days in the field accompany the course work … as well as exams.” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim guides are all required to be licensed.

Gila took the courses while still teaching kindergarten.  After being certified, she used her school sabbatical to try her hand at guiding.  Not only could she make more money, but Gila thrived on sharing her immense knowledge with foreign visitors.  Fifteen years later, we benefitted from her studies and enthusiasm.

 Each morning, Gila arrived with her satchel full of study aids for that day’s sites.  She was sensitive to the fact that she was Jewish and we were Christians.  On the first day, we followed the Stations of the Cross.  Gila was careful about describing what could actually be proved and what required the Jerusalem phrases “it is believed” and “if you believe it, it is true.”  Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the Old Testament, Gila could also easily point out Old Testament sites and help us with the history of the First and Second Temples.  We passed through the Muslim, Christian, and Armenians quarters that day.

On the second day, we moved into the Jewish quarter and delved more deeply into archeology – a very political subject.  Gila stays up with the latest news through an online magazine and newsletter called Biblical Archeology Review (  She was well aware of the great archeological divide between the skepticism of the secular Tel Aviv Archeologist, Israel Finkelstein, and others who are convinced they have found proof of David’s palace in recent discoveries.  Intense excavation under the Jewish Quarter after the destruction from the 1967 War has revealed many details of life two thousand years ago.

Current day digs continue in the City of David area just outside the Old City walls.  We were reminded of the fairness of our guide as we exited the excavation area.  Two young women, one Jewish and the other Arab, were handing out pamphlets warning “What your tour guide is not telling you”.  Much of that site’s excavation was happening under Palestinian homes whose residents were fearful of cave-ins but who couldn’t afford to sell.   Fortunately, Gila had already educated us on that issue and she made sure the protestors knew that.

As with any good guide, we were able to ask Gila anything about modern day Israel and she answered honestly.  There were parts of life in Israel that frustrated her such as the stronghold that the conservative Haredim families have on the government and its dole and the lack of compensation for Palestinian families after the ‘67 war.   Yet, she would be nowhere else.  She talked proudly of “when we united Jerusalem” and of how life goes on in Israel despite the pressure surrounding it.

At the end of our last day with her, Gila took us to the literal center of Jerusalem, a second floor walkway that had been built over the old Roman Cardo street. She pointed out the Arab quarter with flat roofs and TV dishes, the slanted, tiled roofs of the Christian quarter that were modeled after European homes, the small hidden Armenian quarter, and the Jewish quarter dominated by its beautiful new synagogue.  As we rested, the call to prayer began in stereo sound around us from many minarets.  Gila then read about Jerusalem in Psalm 87 as translated by our mutual friend, Lynn Bauman.  “ You see, it is a homeland, a sacred birthing place, for all people across the world.  And there God’s presence dwells, and draws them in, and makes them all her own.  So each soul leaves that place a singer and a dancer, saying ‘All my fresh, creative springs flow out of you, my Mother.”  Thanks to Gila, we left Jerusalem better informed, sympathetic and a singer and a dancer.

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On Jordan’s Roads and Highways

Bedoin Tents

Jordan is a small country carved out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference after World War I.  The current King Abdullah, of the Hashemite family,  is a descendent of King Abdullah who first ruled the new country.  It is still proud of its Bedouin heritage – those tribes that roamed the deserts and fought fiercely.  While most of its people live in Amman and other cities, Jordan’s countryside reveals a bygone time as well as the country’s emerging economy.

We crossed from Israel at the Allenby/King Hussein bridge, a tedious procedure through seven checkpoints that cost two hours going and three hours back. When we finally got on the road to Petra, our driver, Moreed, maneuvered the back roads along the Jordan river. Tents of modern day Bedouins still dotted the landscape but were now also made of canvas, thatched grass, cardboard, plastic sheets and newspaper as well as the traditional woven goat’s hair.  Rock cairns marked a shepherd’s grazing field.    In May, the tribes load their pick-ups and move to the cooler high altitudes in the near-by mountains.  Camels are still raised for meat, not travel.  Our driver insisted their meat had medicinal value as Bedouins didn’t have cancer! When we stopped to photograph the sheep and goats, a shepherd in modern day pants and jacket asked if he could brew us some tea from the makings in his pack.  We reluctantly declined.

Also in the lower elevation were irrigated  fields of vegetables and fruits.  At the end of a row, the neighboring dry desert land lay fallow.  Further down the highway were orchards of medicinal herbs and aromatic plants that provide two per cent of  Jordan’s exports.  The Hawthorne tree is one example whose products are reported to reduce blood pressure and treat heart ailments.

Dead Sea on Jordan side

Soon, the Dead Sea approached with its deep blue-green colors and white salt crystal beaches.  Jordan has a major development of high-end hotels along these waters. Marriott, Crowne Plaza, and even the Holiday Inn are just some of the chains that have built large facilities with beaches, pools, spas, and restaurants.  The Dead Sea water is buoyant enough to sit up and even read a newspaper.  ts minerals make the water silky and the temperature is perfect for a refreshing float. Jordan is far ahead of Israel in promoting the Dead Sea as a resort destination. At the end of the Dead Sea,  factories mine potash and salt from the water – all for export.

One of many pictures of
King Abdulla

Turning east, we began the climb through a moonscape of dry mountains with our lone road providing the only color contrast.  At the top of the ridge, an outpost straight out of Star Wars sported a photo of King Abdullah, rug covered benches, and the head of a gazelle. A  turbaned Arab in his jallabiya robe, offered drinks as he lounged on his black leather couch under the thatched porch.  Only the TV dish and refrigerator betrayed the scene as current.

Crusade Castle at Kerak

We soon turned onto The King’s Highway, one of Jordan’s two north-south corridors.  The road dates back to Biblical times when Moses lead his people to first see the promised land at Mt. Nebo.  If accompanied on this highway by a Bible, Koran,  history book, and a good archeologist, one could check off Biblical sites, Roman fortresses, the massive Crusader castle at Kerak, fine Christian mosaics, a 1918  battle site for Arab Independence at Al Tafilah, early Islamic towns, a Shia holy shrine and the Nabataean capital of Petra.  Add in the geological wonder of the Wadi Mujib, Jordan’s Grand Canyon, and your Jordan bucket list just got smaller.

Water pipes being installed

Coming off the central mountain ridge, we joined the Desert Highway, the primary four-lane, commercial freeway from Amman to Aqaba at the Red Sea.  Immediately, we were surrounded by trucks moving freight to and from the port.  Signs for Iraq and Saudi Arabia reminded us of their proximity.    Despite the barren land, efforts were being made to beautify the road with patches of newly planted bushes, watered by small, elevated tanks.  Alongside the road was an incongruent scene of large pipes being buried to transfer sweet, subterranean water from the desert to Amman.

We passed several security checks for drivers’ licenses, an opportunity for the policemen to rib our driver about being with three women.   Bedecked Bedouin drivers passed us in their pickups talking on their cell phones, a notable change from camels of the past.    Yet we were still advised to watch for the “ships of the desert” on the road.  And signs of the past included a decaying Turkish fort and an army base made sparse by the abolition of the draft in 1978.

During our four short days on the road, Jordan’s past and present were on display. From the busy Red Sea port of Aqaba through the historical Wadi Rum desert of Lawrence of Arabia fame, to the pink carved sandstone of Petra, the small country is capitalizing on its beauty, history, and geography.  Its economy benefits from the trucks and the tour buses – an alliance that serves this petroleum absent country well and tourists most.

United Travel Agency (UTA)  is a good, long serving company for your travel needs.  United Travel Agency Jordan  Ask for Moreed as your driver.


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Israel – Tourists Welcome as Life Goes On

“Israel and Jordan” I would reply to inquiries of my next trip.  What followed were wide eyes, momentary silence, and the following “Aren’t you afraid?”.  The last question is a product of our instant, sensational news programming.  Statistically, I was in no more danger traveling to Israel than a quick trip to Dallas.  Other than references to Foreign Terrorists Organizations and sudden Israeli crack-downs in the West Bank, the U.S. State Department could only warn travelers to Israel about car break-ins and an occasional purse snatching. And, despite the Middle East turmoil, the State Department warnings haven’t changed since last year. Yet,  many visitors still hesitate to come.

One obvious difference between a trip to Dallas and one to Tel Aviv is the lack of an underlying, simmering tension among Israel, the Palestinians, and neighboring states.  Stories that appear in international papers are frightening.  Just two weeks before we were scheduled to depart, an Israeli family in a West Bank settlement was murdered at night in their home. For the first time in four years, a bomb went off at the bus station in Jerusalem and one person killed.  And rocket missiles were once again being fired from Gaza into southern Israel.

I wrote our contacts in Israel, asking if we should be concerned.  Our landlady’s response – “Not at all”, our friend’s answer – “Not enough to cancel”, and our guide’s thoughtful reply “Of course this attack brings back fears but we Israelis try not let  atrocities like this change our lives…  so life pretty much carries on as normal.  Due to the attack, people are being more vigilant and careful and there is heightened security around and one hopes and prays that it is an isolated incident. At this stage, I don’t think you need to change your plans. ”

We didn’t change our plans and arrived at the Ben Gurion airport on a beautiful day in April.    In the next two weeks, we saw much of Israel and in particular, Jerusalem, but few crowds of tourists.  Never did we feel in danger.   If we hadn’t occasionally read the the Jerusalem Post, we would not have been aware that a Gazan missile had killed a child in a school bus.  Nor would we have known that Israel had inaugurated the use of a portable anti-missile machine used to knock down the missiles from Gaza before they landed.  Life simply went on in Israel.  We even had some Israelis confess they didn’t listen to the news at all because it wouldn’t change how they lived their lives and only made them anxious.

Israel is careful.  The country was on high alert for the Easter and Passover holidays.  Threats had been made of planned  kidnaping.  Security was particularly high in Jerusalem.  This meant a pumped-up armed army presence at holy sites, entrances, and bus stations.  Yet the soldiers still posed for pictures with the tourists. I watched one army unit casually eat at a snack bar near a major archeological site.  And on a Saturday night of R&R, a group of uniformed women enlistees walked down the street singing and carrying their fashionable purses.

This determination to continue normal life was most evident one late afternoon.  We had visited the old city of Acre, filled with Crusader churches, views of the Mediterranean  and a living Arab presence.  Fifteen minutes away was the Lebanese  border where a tourist attraction beckoned.   A cable car carried visitors down to the sea to view the beautiful grottos formed at the base of the cliff.  Upon arrival, we spotted Israeli soldiers atop the cliff keeping watch over Israel and Lebanon.  The road literally ended at the cable car parking lot.  Below were farms, homes, and the grotto. We visited with an Israeli family who lived down the road and was just out for the evening. Yet, I had read recently that Hezbollah was accumulating rockets just inside Lebanon to use against Israel, literally a stones throw away.  This fact made little difference on that Saturday outing.  Life went on and so did we.

The turmoil in the Middle East does worry Israelis and hurts business.  Some see it as a good time to solve the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians who are also affected by the drop-off in tourism.  When we visited the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem, we had to take a taxi on the Jerusalem side to the security wall that now separates the two cities.  After clearing security,  a Palestinian taxi driver drove us to the Church of the Nativity.  On a Palm Sunday, when thousands of pilgrims should be gathered outside the church, we walked in the door without waiting.  The slowdown in tourism in the Palestinian areas is attributable to the concern about the Middle East and a hesitancy by visitors to cross the security wall.  Yet the Palestinian police are trained by us!  We were treated well, never felt in danger and wished we could have stayed longer.

Humans have a hard time ignoring sensational news.  One death from a missile in southern Israel is far more intimidating than many deaths from drug related fights in south Los Angeles. Our emotions want to ignore the numbers that prove Israel and the West Bank are as safe as the United States to visit.  Could the Middle East erupt in a war while you visit?  Of course, but what are the chances, really?  The wonderful travel writer, Paul Thereoux, recently wrote a piece in the New York Times called “Why We Travel” .  He has found that in almost every case, the “know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger’s” advice  not go to a distant place has been bad advice.  I returned from Israel with a greater understanding of my Christian heritage, the Jewish/Palestinian conflict,  the geography of the Holy Land, and a love of pomegranates.  And, I found one thing  Israelis and Palestinians can agree on- they want the tourists to visit.

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Quebec’s Economuseums – Enlightened Contributions to Cultural Tourism Will Entertain the Family

“We protect the know-how”, our guide explained.  This summed up the goal of Quebec’s  Economuseum system. Begun in 1992, this network safeguards knowledge of ancient trades such as blacksmith forging, bread baking, cheese making, and apple cider production. Today,  51 handicraft and agri-food trade businesses promote the crafts by opening up their work-in-progress to public view and selling the finished  products. Families can easily combine vacation and education by exploring these examples of life in the past.

Most are in Quebec province.  To be a member, the artisan must use traditional methods but be open to new and creative uses of the craft.   Those who qualify proudly display the “Economusee” designation on their signs – in French, of course.

The economuseums vary greatly in size and offerings. Many charge for an informative tour and demonstration.   On the lovely Ile d’Orleans, near Quebec City, La Forge a Pique-Assaut is a blacksmith shop open for touring and viewing.  Using the same techniques that originally produced tools, horseshoes, and machines, Guy Bell and his assistant now create an array of beautiful wrought iron work for the home – furnishings, stair railings, and decorative pieces.

On the opposite side of the island, a wonderful Creme de Cassis is produced by the Monna family using local black currants.  The liqueur is mixed with white wine or champagne for the traditional French Kir apertif.  Recipes are provided to allow experimentation, including a Cassis Margarita – a new and creative use of an old craft.

Down the road in Charlevoix,  artistic heart of Quebec Province, papermakers at Papeterie Saint-Gilles stay busy dipping, pressing, separating, and drying sheets of cotton paper for elegant stationery.  Across the St. Lawrence River, at Les Moulins de L’isle Aux-Coudres, wheat is ground by a watermill fed by an old-fashioned mill pond.  We learned the success of this operation depended on a perfectly set and scraped 2,000 pound grindstone as well as the right direction and amount of wind.  If all is lined up properly, 450 pounds of flour can be ground in one hour.  Children will enjoy exploring the grounds of the mill.    Flour and breads are available for purchase.

The largest Economusee we visited was the Laterie Charlevoix where dairy products have been produced since 1948 by the Labbe family.  Traditional and experimental cheeses are now the emphasis.  All stages of cheesemaking are on view with a tour as well as a sampling of the products. The cheddar curds are used in ‘potin’, a Quebecan concoction of  french fries topped with cheddar curds and gravy.  With great names such as  L’Hercule de Charlevoix, their cheeses are sold onsite and sell out everyday.

A “traditional”  museum on the grounds gives a fine history of milk production and its delivery system.  The collection of 600 different  milk bottles is small by American standards but still impressive. On a busy summer day, 2000 tourists will visit the Laterie, including many families.

We were only able to sample a few of the economuseums but it was enough to appreciate the effort being made to protect ancient arts and trades.  Blacksmith shops, cheese creameries and paper mills are now inter-active museums as well as studios for production of traditional trades.    The result has been good for creativity, protection of ancient crafts, education of students, and for family tourism.

Maybe Northeast Texas could explore this new idea of what a museum should look like.  We have dairies, blacksmiths, winemakers, coffee roasters, quiltmakers, and other ancient trades still being practiced here.  It would be a great regional project and families would appreciate the opportunity to have fun while learning a thing or two.

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Forget the Hotel – Rent An Apartment

Apartment in Paris

Europeans have long known the secret to economic lodging and a solution to small hotel rooms – rent an apartment.  That’s not a surprise since many workers on the Continent have the month of August to vacation and a hotel room would be quite small for all those many days. Americans are more familiar with buying timeshares for extended stays of a week.  But with timeshares, you are limited to using them in the building where purchased or at other facilities in the network.  An apartment rental is basically an “out of network” approach to lodging.  The question is when and how to use this method.

I first experienced apartment letting on the Island of Sicily in Siracusa. My husband and I were traveling with a close couple friend and planned to remain in one location for several days. The island is relatively small and many day trips  available – a perfect opportunity to rent a flat.

View from Balcony at Siracusa Apartment

It all began with a google search “weekly apartment rental in Siracusa, Italy”.  What appeared were both companies that manage apartments for many owners and individual owners who want to have direct contact with their renters.,, are some of the bigger companies. The two bedroom apartment we rented advertised on several web sites.  Today, that apartment rents for an average of $135 per night.  Divide that by two couples and each pair pays $62.50 per night for two bedrooms, bath,  kitchen, dining room, and large living area complete with balcony.  That, my friends,  is a deal.  We were able to cook breakfast each morning and occasionally bring in picnic material from the nearby market.  An added bonus was dinner with the owners who had only recently renovated our apartment.  Over a meal of camponata, four kinds of scacciato (an Italian meat pie), and homemade grappa, we visited, using six languages, Sicilian, Italian, French, English, German and Spanish.  No hotel can offer an experience like that.

Front of our apartment building in Paris

For a rather spontaneous week-long visit to Paris, France, my girlfriends and I wanted to try an apartment.  The same companies used in Sicily also had options but there were more sites such as and  The latter is a U.S. company that even provides you with keys before you leave.  They offer a range of lodging from studios for $99 per night to a floor in a mansion for $690/ night.  After a lot of searching, we found a two bedroom apartment in the Marais  area near the Pompidou museum and a metro stop.  Fortunately, it had a (very) small elevator as we were on the top floor.  The ceiling slanted on the edges so we hung out in the middle of the living area.  For two evenings, we did take-out from nearby restaurants and we were able to entertain an old family friend with wine and cheese.  This cost $1,000 for the week, divided by three people, divided by seven days or $47/night per person.  That, my friends, is a deal.

Inside Guanajuato Apartment

The most recent use of this type of lodging was a trip to Guanajuato, Mexico.  The first apartment we tried to rent had a great web name – and was an example of an owner advertising directly on the web.  Unfortunately, the best Mexican home was not available.  We used, Vacation Rentals by Owner, to snag an absolutely beautiful, recently renovated, three bedroom apartment.


roof top terrace in Guanajuato

Tiled floors, front balconies, roof top terrace, full kitchen, washer/dryer, and a collection of books were included.  All major attractions were within walking distance and strolling troubadours serenaded us at night.  The cost? Five hundred dollars divided by four people divided by seven nights – $18 per night per person.  In a recent web search, I noticed this gem had gone up to $700 for a week but my friends, that’s still a deal.

I haven’t tried renting an apartment in the United States but will definitely consider it the next time we visit my sister-in-law in New York City.  Nyloftvacationrental had a large one bedroom for $225 per night, offered a one bedroom for $190 per night and craigs list had a 3 bedroom for $170 per night or a one BR in Greenwich Village for only $50/ night. has offerings all around the country, even including cabins and lakefront property in East Texas.  Using the large companies does give protection from scams but the best prices are those with direct contact with the owner.

For an extended stay in a location, renting an apartment is easily the most comfortable and economical.  For shorter stays, the benefits are somewhat diminished as there is usually a cleaning fee.  But for a “real” experience of life in Paris, France,  New York, or Pittsburg, Texas, an apartment wins.

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Ojo Caliente Spa – Still Funky Despite Upgrade

Entry to Ojo Caliente

I’m not generally a spa person although I like the acronym, “Salus per Aquas” or health through water.  They’re usually too intimidating and rich for my taste.  But trust New Mexico to blend the funky with the fabulous at Ojo Caliente, a resort/spa 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

This is an old place.  Hundreds of years ago, the ancestors of the Tewa tribe lived near the hot waters in the thousands, building pueblos nearby. In the 1500’s,  Spaniards passed through and named the hot springs “Ojo Caliente” or“hot eye”.  They were impressed with the powerful chemicals contained in the waters and valued by the natives.  Today, those minerals of lithium, iron, soda, and arsenic are still believed to rejuvenate and refresh the bathers.

Porch on Historic Hotel

Ojo claims to be America’s oldest health spa.  In 1868,  Antonio Joseph, New Mexico’s first territorial representative to Congress, opened a spa here with overnight lodging.  Known for its curing of invalids, the sanatarium attracted the ill from around the country. The current hotel, built in 1916, is creeping up on its 100th birthday.  Traces of its earlier days remain with real room keys, creaky, wooden hallways, transom windows above the doors, quilt covered beds, and small baths without showers.  One is required to shower in the new facilities close to the hot waters.  With no TV or radio, reading is encouraged in the room’s  rocking chair.

One of the new additions

When Ojo Caliente was renovated and changed into a “luxury” spa, regular clients were worried about the upgrade.  Hippies from the hills loved this place.  I had visited once before the 2005-2010 changes and found it very laid back.  There was a turnstile in the dusty welcoming booth with a small gift store nearby containing primarily t-shirts and soaps.  Staying the night was more an afterthought than a treasured part of the experience.  Today, in addition to the historic hotel, new rooms have been added in front of the cliff with various amenities.  Most are appropriate for families but a few seemed X-rated with private hot tubs on the back porch!

The hot springs area has been significantly upgraded although two pools are holdovers – the Iron Pool to prevent fatigue, and the indoor Soda Pool, to aid digestion. The swimming pool is greatly improved with the coolest of the waters.  Temperatures for the pools range from 95 to 111 degrees.  Forty licensed massage therapists (LMTs) stay busy with the Earthkeeper’s Hot Stone Massage being the favorite.  Gratefully, the old-fashioned, deep tubs in the bath house are still available for soaking in the natural light above.

The owners are serious about preserving a tranquility appropriate for a relaxation spa.  A sign at the Iron Pool advises all that only whispers are allowed.  Upon entering the hallway in the historic hotel, a Quiet Zone sign greets you..  And cell phones are only permitted in the lodging units and large parking lots, a rule I particularly appreciated.  Yet, we found it easy to meet other guests in some of the pools and in the restaurant lobby.  A raw food enthusiast shared her raw grain cereal with us as we discussed New Mexico art and we chatted easily with two girlfriends from Colorado in the Arsenic pool.

Restaurant Lobby in Historic Hotel

The greatest surprise was the restaurant.  Three meals – three wonderful experiences.  Thank you Chef Neil Stuart.  I’m hooked on chile rellenos and will even take notes on what can be stuffed in them. The roasted vegetable, sweet pepper and goat cheese relleno for an appetizer in the evening rated an entry and I was tempted by the buffalo sausage and polenta breakfast relleno.  All courses had options with New Mexico twists such as blue corn meal pancakes and pumpkin tamales. Vegetarians will be very happy at the choices as will the carnivores.

The trick to making the visit here more economical is to arrive during the week as prices escalate for the week-end.  Historic hotel rooms are still a bargain and all stays include unlimited use of the hot pools from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m..  A several day stay has more to offer than one would expect with nearby hiking  trails and easy day trips to Taos and Santa Fe.

In perusing reviews of Ojo Caliente, I found one written before the renovations.   It was described as “the buildings are old and solid, the air is sharp and clear, and you have to hunt to find a phone.”  This description is still good for at least part of the spa.  And the pinon infused air, clear New Mexico blue sky and star studded evenings have not changed.  But with the additions and renovations, a larger clientele can be accommodated without sacrificing the magical setting that has drawn humans for thousands of years.

Hammocks by the swimming pool

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The Journey from Pakistan to Paris, Texas

“I do the thinking part” is how Ayesha Shafiq describes her duties at her husband’s medical clinic in Paris.  The truth is, Ayesha has always done the thinking part.  She grew up in Peshawar, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan – an area that is best known through the experiences of Greg Mortenson in “Three Cups of Tea”.   She comes from a prominent family that owns M. Hayat & Bros. Ltd., a furniture manufacturing company established in 1870, that lists the Queen of England as a customer.  Besides serving as Chief Secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, her father, Khalid Aziz, is well respected in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.  Americans have become quite familiar with FATA as some Taliban currently hide there.  Pakistan does not have control over FATA even though it is within the borders.  Personal relationships govern this area, not laws.   Because Mr. Aziz is trusted by the tribes in FATA, he is able to get information to and from the tribes as well as the governments of Pakistan and the United States.

Ayesha studied International Relations and wrote for the local paper, The Frontier Post.   In 1999,  her father was arrested and falsely accused by members of then President Musharraf’s government of misconduct in the accountability bureau that he supervised.  Their family home had been the center of many visits by foreign dignitaries.  Ayesha met Princess Diana, answered the phone when the Prime Minister of Ireland called to leave a message, and knew all members of the Bhutto family of Pakistan.  These experiences gave her courage to speak out about her father’s detention.  She wrote an open letter that was published in a Karachi newspaper about her father’s arrest and poor treatment in jail.  The editor of the paper called her one brave girl to speak up.  It would be another three years before her father was released in 2003 but his treatment did improve and he was allowed to attend her wedding. After a four year trial, Mr. Aziz was fully acquitted of all charges in 2006.

Ayesha met her cardiologist husband, Khalid Shafiq, through family members.  He traveled to Pakistan to marry her in 2000. After the wedding, they boarded a plane to begin the 36  hour journey to the United States.  Upon arriving at DFW, her husband drove the final 100 miles to Paris, Texas providing the first view of this country.

Ayesha had to learn to drive. In Pakistan, the driving is hectic with no road signs and all understand this saying – “Every man for himself and God for the rest of us”. PJC said she was too old to take lessons there so Johnny Crawford taught her.  For three years, she wouldn’t drive her new car because she was afraid of “bumping” it.

Khalid Shafiq’s dream of having his own clinic began to take shape in Paris and Ayesha was needed to help run it.  She enrolled at PJC to take some Billing and Coding classes.  She remembers hiding around the corner to learn how students got food and drink from vending machines.  When her grades arrived, she was not sure what she had scored.  But her husband explained that a 4.0 was the best grade, not a bad one.  Ayesha now supervises the 22 employees at the clinic.

In 2006, the former President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf,  visited Paris to consult with his local cardiologist, Dr. Arjmand Hashmi. Elaborate plans were made among the various levels of law enforcement to safely escort Musharraf here. Dr. Hashmi and Khalid Shafiq are colleagues and share a homeland.  Khalid and Ayesha offered to entertain President Musharraf at their home.  It would be one of the more amazing “small world” experiences.  Ayesha opened her home in Paris, Texas to the former leader of her country whose government was responsible for the imprisonment of her father.  No mention was made of the shared history but pictures in their home of her father’s plight were obvious.  All was cordial and Musharraf and his wife were quite gracious and appreciative of the hospitality.

Even when she was young, Ayesha believed in America.  She liked our way of thinking. According to her, we’re honest and open in how we feel.  After living here for 10 years, her only negative observation is that Americans take all that they have and can have for granted.  If something doesn’t work, we dispose of it.  To survive in Pakistan, one must make things work.  You can’t walk away from a job, a car, your family.  But this is her home now and she has adopted its rhythm.  Her husband and children, Sayek and Layla, are busy and involved in the Paris community.  Thanks to this supportive family, Ayesha awakes every morning with “the spark, energy and zeal” to conquer the world.  Ayesha’s journey to Paris was longer than most but she and her family are happy to be here.

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Images of a Comanche raid on Interstate 35

My husband is from Austin.  We both went to the University of Texas.  Austin holds family and friends and we visit there often.  The question is how to make that tedious five hour trip from Paris more interesting.  I discovered the answer in a recently released book on the Comanche Indians called Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne.

Interstate 35 from San Antonio through Austin, Waco, and into Dallas is a kind of fault line, separating East Texas with its rain and forests from the scrub and dry plains of north and west Texas.  This division also marked the frontier edge of Comanche territory. To the east, sedentary tribes farmed and hunted for game. Nacogdoches was a Caddo Indian village when the Europeans arrived.

On the west side of I-35, the Comanches lived off millions of buffalo who provided food, clothes, tools, and warmth in the winter.  At its height, 20,000 members of the various bands of the tribe rode over 240,000 square miles through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma to trade and to fight.   The Comanches muscled out the Apaches and other Plains tribes and traded with nearby tribes on their own terms.

Driving south on I-35, one encounters Waco, named after the Huaco tribe who had inhabited the area for hundreds of years.  At the Waco village, the tribe had 400 acres under cultivation and grew corn, beans, pumpkins, melons, and peach trees.  Modern day Waco was built on the Mexican land grant that surrounded the old Waco village site.  These tribes feared the Comanches as much as early settlers and also tried to avoid them.

The Spaniards never resolved how to conquer the fast moving Indians on their well-trained mustangs who loved to steel horses in Mexico and Texas.  Standing to shoot didn’t work as a Comanche could fling twenty arrows in the time it took one gun slinger to reload.  The war parties attacked at night and would vanish if they encountered resistance.  Their purpose was to keep settlers and Friars out of their hunting territory.  Spanish expeditions simply avoided the vast middle area of Texas and parts north.

But then Texas opened up to settlers with offers of free land.  East Texas filled up first.  When the Parker family from Illinois arrived in 1833, they constructed a fort 30 miles east of Waco, past the then edge of settlements.  On May 19, 1836, Comanches literally rode up to this personal fort and started killing and taking hostages, including the most famous of all, Cynthia Ann Parker.  Take the Highway 164 exit at Waco, and you can visit a replica of this fort in Groesbeck, Texas.   Cynthia Parker later married Pete Nacona, an Indian chief. Her son, Quanah Parker, was the one and only chief of all the Comanches bands. After her “rescue”  many years later, she reluctantly lived in the Tyler area with Parker relatives until her death.

Much of the fighting over the years happened on either side of our highway.  In 1749, priests were killed in a raid on the San Saba mission, near Menard,.  In 1840, a leader, Buffalo Hump, brought 400 warriors down the Balcones Escaprment, along the spring-fed waters of San Marcos in Hays County, on his way to a raid near Victoria, Texas.  Curiously, Hays County is named after John Coffey Hays, who was a savvy Indian hunter and one of the first Texas Rangers.

The last connection to this story on our trip is actually our own Lamar County, named after Mirabeau Lamar, president of the Republic of Texas from 1838-1841.  He followed Sam Houston whom he considered soft on the Indians.  Houston believed in negotiations and wouldn’t authorize frontier forts.  Mirabeau was pro-slavery and felt all Indians should be expunged or killed – “extinction or expulsion”- i.e. no right to any land.  He managed to get rid of the peaceful tribes of East Texas and moved them to Indian Territory or Oklahoma but the Comanches lived on for another 30 years.

The book is well worth reading and fills in the details of the Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker story as well as life with the Comanches.  For the next trip to Austin, I will wonder what it would be like to scan the horizon for a Comanche raid from the west. It’s certainly more romantic than watching out for a highway patrol.

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