Northampton, Amhurst and the Mohawk Trail

Here it is then, the third and final part of my road trip! Sorry for the delay, I am once again doing National novel writing month and writing at least 2,000 words per day. So far so good but the blog has taken a back seat!

After leaving Vermont we drove towards Northampton in Massachusetts to visit friends Jody and Greg whom we knew when they lived in Amsterdam. Jody is a very talented writer and was a highly valued member of a small writing group in Amsterdam. Jody and Greg have now repatriated. We stayed in a log cabin a few miles away from Northampton where they live. The log cabin was built by an artist who had sculpted all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures in the surrounding land.

Days 14, 15 and 16 – Amhurst and Northampton. Highlights; Art in the Orchard and the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Short Youtube film of Art in the Orchard

Days 17, 18 and 19 – The Mohawk Trail, Historic Deerfield Museum, Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Mount Greylock, Williamstown, MassMoca and the Clark Art Institute – a stunning museum in amazing rolling countryside. And on my final day I got some horse-riding done in the Berkshires. Many thanks to Bonnie Lea Horse Farm and four-legged friend, Isaac; what a handsome fellow!

Days 20 and 21 – Drive back through Albany and Syracuse and final night at Niagara Falls. A drive along the Queen Elizabeth Highway towards Toronto, then handing our lovely rental car in and heading back home :(

Short Youtube film of our drive through the Berkshires up to Mount Greylock


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Adirondacks NY, Lake Champlain and Vermont

Our actual leaf-peeping trip began in the Adirondacks, in NY state. The Adirondacks is a rugged, mountainous region famous for its lakes and winter skiing, so I hadn’t expected to see the stunning fall colours which arrive earlier than in New England. I was more unpleasantly surprised by the rural poverty in this region. In the build up to the presidential elections there were several televised debates and Hilary Clinton quoted statistics of 15% of American households living under the poverty line. This wasn’t hard to believe in upstate NY, clear evidence of it was shown in the ramshackle clap-board houses where it was hard to believe people actually lived. Impoverished living conditions contrasted starkly with the natural beauty of the surroundings.

What a change when we got off the ferry that crossed Lake Champlain and entered the picture-perfect state of Vermont, with its red barns, covered bridges and luscious farm land. Here the average income appeared to be much higher, reflected in a generally more affluent appearance both of people and buildings.

Days 6, 7 and 8 – Lake Saranac, Adirondacks. High points: visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s Cottage, climbing Mt Baker and seeing the High Gorge Falls
Day 9 – Lake Champlain, Burlington, Vermont. High points: Taking the ferry over Lake Champlain, meeting superhost Nancy and a couple from the UK with whom we shared mutual friends, and watching the sun set over the lake.
Days 10, 11, 12 and 13 – Shelburne, Vermont. High points: visiting Shelburne Museum, climbing Mt Mansfield and meeting superhosts Laurie and Mark.

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From Niagara Falls to the Thousand Islands #bucketlist

As some of you may know, Frank and I have recently been on the trip of a lifetime. Niagara Falls and New England in the Fall were on both our bucket-lists. Seeing the sun rise over Niagara Falls has got to be one of the most truly awe-inspiring sights we have ever seen in our lives!

The only snag is with having smartphones always at hand is that one takes too many photos and then back home, the difficult process of making a selection begins. So it has taken a good week to break the photos up into bite-size pieces to go on the blog.

Day 1 – Arrive in Toronto
Day 2 – Niagara Falls and Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens
Day 3 – Kingston (former capital of Canada)
Days 4 and 5 – A Thousand Islands and crossing the bridge to the USA. (Yes, the Thousand Islands Dressing was dreamed up by a hotel owner whilst sailing amongst the eponymous islands)

And we met some fellow Airbnb superhosts on the way! A huge thanks to BethDeborah and Kathleen (click for their listings) for making us so welcome in Canada, and for those scrumptious muffins! This was the just start of our itinerary. Over the next few days I will be posting more photos of our three-week trip!

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Create a Thunderclap! Spread the power of books and reading


Invest your social networks and empower children across the globe!
Writers Abroad (expat group of writers of which I am a member) would like you to invest your social networks and help us make a Thunderclap across social media about our forthcoming anthology, Kaleidoscope! It’s for a great cause. All profits we make through book sales go to Room to Read, who work with communities and local governments across Asia and Africa to develop literacy skills.

We have set up a ‘Thunderclap’ to be released on October 2nd. This method asks people to sign up for one post to be posted on their Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr (or all three) profiles. It’s a one off post and it means that these social media sites will post the marketing information at exactly the same time on the same day which is very useful.

 However, we need a minimum of 100 people to sign up and we’re busy contacting family and friends to sign up but we still have a way to go. I’ve posted the instructions below. I promise it doesn’t take a minute and once you’ve signed up that’s it. Please also ask family and friends, the milkman, the dustman anyone you like! To sign up. Many thanks in advance:)

To make your vote count, please go to:

 1. Click on the The Thunderclap link

2. There you will have the option to ‘support’ through FB, Twitter or Tumblr.

3. Click one of the options. It’ll bring up a draft of the post that will go on your page on the     2nd October.

4. Personalize the message if you want.

5. Say yes. It’ll say Thank you.

6. Then, you’ll be given the option to RE-POST to social media right now, saying you’ve just     supported it. This will encourage other people because they’ll see the post and sign up as    well.

Later, you can go back to the Thunderclap page and post again on your page, to encourage more people to do it. You can only post once each, on each form of social media.

Please note that if you simply share the pic/link, your support won’t register. You HAVE to get to the Thunderclap page and say yes, you agree to have it posted on that day.

Lovely reader, you rock! Both images are also linked to our Thunderclap page.


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Psychic Distance; from Wide-angle to Close-up

Here I am then; a York Festival of Writing alumna! And what a weekend it was. I knew it was going to be good when the Keynote Address featured best-selling authors Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. I attended workshops with irresistible titles; There Be Dragons, Slushpile Hell to Slushpile Heaven, Psychic Distance, the Arc and the Impetus, Writing Sex, Hold Back the Monster and the rather more down-to-earth Should I Self-publish. Besides all this I had a rare chance to don my glad rags and socialise with other writers, agents and book doctors during a Gala Dinner and also mingled more informally during breakfast, lunch and numerous coffee breaks. I was a newbie to the festival so had no idea what to expect or what the scale would be. Around four hundred writers attended the weekend!

A chance to have one-on-ones with agents or book doctors was part of the weekend package. These sessions had the atmosphere of X-Factor auditions; we were all asked to be ten minutes early for our one-on-ones, then wait in a chair until the bell went and only then were we allowed to hurry towards our chosen book doctor/agent and pitch our work or pick their brains for ten minutes. Something akin to speed dating I imagine and even more nerve-racking. On the up side it is encouraging to know that agents are looking for new writers. They don’t know what the next big thing in publishing will be and for all they know, as one agent said, ‘one of you could be It.’

Of the vast amount of useful information I absorbed, I would like to share the technique I learned from book doctors, Emma Darwin and Debi Alper  about Psychic Distance. It is also sometimes called Narrative Distance because it describes where the narrative (and also the reader) stands in relation to the main character.

Another way of looking at it is how deep the reader penetrates the character’s mind. The closest psychic distance would describe thoughts, feelings and physical sensations experienced by the MC and the furthest psychic distance would describe the era or the setting in which the MC lives. The trick is to focus in slowly on your protagonist. Going from the furthest psychic distance to the closest in one step alienates the reader and so these stages have to be covered incrementally. Imagine you are holding a camera and are closing in on your subject very gradually from wide-angle to close-up and finally getting inside the character’s head as shown in the film stills below.

The film version of ‘The Shining’ is a perfect example of the incremental approach of psychic distance. First, we are introduced to the setting and the family as they drive up to the remote hotel. Then we slowly, slowly get inside Jack Torrance’s head as he becomes more and more estranged from reality and his family. As the story reaches its climax we share Jack’s skewed vision but we’re never quite sure if the malignant spirits emanate from Overlook Hotel or exist primarily in Jack’s head as he battles social isolation, alcoholism and madness.

How do you use psychic distance in your writing? Perhaps you are a reader and have found yourself shivering while reading about a character battling through a snow storm which means the writer has done a great job!

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Writers Abroad Magazine – Free to download!

Here it is! Our third edition of Writers Abroad Magazine for your perusal. Click here or on the magazine cover to read.The link will allow you to read it on-line or alternatively download a PDF copy here which you can read on your PC (including the Kindle app if you have it), tablet,  iPad or android device. The best way to read the PDF version is through a PDF reader app which are free to download.

Writers Abroad Magazine

A word of welcome from leading WA member, Jo Lamb.

Editorial Issue 3

Welcome to our third issue of Writers Abroad Magazine. As usual it is packed with something for everyone: poetry, fiction, articles, interviews and lots more.

However, this has been a sad time for Writers Abroad. In early June, two of our members died within days of each other. Mary had been struggling with illness on and off for some time but was a feisty lady in her ninth decade! Jany had not been ill for long and it was a shock when we learnt of both their deaths. Mary and Jany were dedicated WA members and supplied us with lots of humour and advice. We remember them both here in the magazine and will be dedicating this year’s Anthology, Kaleidoscope, to them both.

WA members as well as writing content for this publication have been busy reading, editing and proofing submissions for Kaleidoscope. We have selected a wonderful mixture of flash fiction, poetry and short stories to keep you entertained and at the same time raise money for our chosen charity, Room to Read. Kaleidoscope will be published as a paperback on Monday 12 October 2015.

Sign up here for a reminder and details of where to buy.

We hope you enjoy reading our magazine and would be grateful if you leave us some feedback on your experience so we can continue to improve it. All those who complete our short survey will be entered into a prize draw for a free e-copy of our Anthology! Click on WA Mag Feedback at the end of the magazine.

Best Wishes



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Women behind the Wire – The Will to Survive

Dee as a young woman

Dee as a young woman

Today’s blog is dedicated to an amazing woman, Dee (pronounced Day) de Smalen, my mother-in-law. Today she turns 90! Happy Birthday Dee, Hartelijk Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag!!

Celebratory meal at the best toko in Amsterdam!

Pre-birthday meal at the best toko in Amsterdam, Betawi!

She grew up in the former Dutch East Indies, on Java. Her parents, pictured below, worked for the Dutch government and ran two orphanages for a mixture of Dutch and Indonesian children. These schools were set up as part of the Ethical Policy in the region which was introduced by the Dutch to improve living conditions for the indigenous population. In March 1942 their lives changed irrevocably when the Japanese invaded West Java.

Mr&Mrs Kiesling

Mr and Mrs Kiesling in Java before the war

Family photo taken on Java during the occupation. Dee Kiesling on the right in a bibbed gingham dress.

Family photo taken on Java during the occupation. Dee Kiesling on the right in a bibbed gingham dress.

Published in Herstoria, this article is an account of the bravery and resilience of Dee, her sister and mother during their internment in Japanese POW Camps. 

I was sixteen when we had to go into the camp. We spent the first night in a monastery. We were all in shock. My mother was reeling from the trauma of being separated from father. We stayed there a few days and then we were moved to Bandoeng, the capital of West Java province. Camp Karees was a collection of houses in the European section of Bandoeng, fenced off with gedek (plaited bamboo sheets) and topped with barbed wire. The Japanese guarded the circumference. The camp held 6000 internees. We moved into houses that had been recently vacated by the Dutch. My mother, sister Ems and I had to share a house with seven other families. Within that house each family was assigned a room.

There was a camp kitchen which served one warm meal a day at first and later on, after the poorly constructed ovens collapsed, we were given raw ingredients which we had to prepare ourselves. My sister and I cooked over a charcoal fire and became very adept at making meals from our rations. Our speciality was ‘Crème de Trasi.’ Trasi is shrimp paste which we used to fry and mix with rice.

To get extra protein we hunted frogs after sundown.

The three of us sneaked out together, using a pillowcase to put our catch in. We usually caught about seven or eight and back at camp mother chopped off their heads and skinned them. Their little torsos with their broad shoulders and thin hips looked just like a man’s body. When you salted them their nerves twitched and made their legs dance. We boiled them in water and they tasted like chicken. After a while the Japanese forbade it as the frogs kept the insect population down and mosquito numbers were turning into plague proportions.

My mother helped in the hospital, nursing the sick. Asides from the lean rations conditions were fairly good at this stage. We made friends with a woman from the Jordaan (Amsterdam old neighbourhood), equivalent to a London Cockney. A young newlywed she had a beauty salon and because she lived in Bandoeng before the neighbourhood was ghettoised she still had a lot of potions and creams. She was loads of fun, always ready with a smile and a joke. She helped keep our spirits up. We traded cooked meals with her in exchange for beauty treatments.

Camp Karees and the organisation of tasks

Camp Karees and the organisation of tasks

Ando-san, a Japanese guard was about eighteen years old. He confided in my mother that he hated the war and the way the women were being treated. They communicated in Malay. Every so often he would smuggle us treats, a tin of sardines or an egg passed through the bamboo fence. Mother won Ando’s trust enough to ask if he could find out where my father was interred. A few days later Ando came and told us that father was in Tjimahi, a men’s camp in Bandoeng. Mum wrote him a letter and because of her work in the hospital she was able to get him a pair of specs from a patient that had died. We were all over the moon when Ando brought a letter back from father. He wrote that he was well and thanked mum for the specs. He weighed 65 kilos by then, hungry all the time, but still in good health.

Once I remember, Ando asked us to meet him at the sentry box after dark. Ems and I were totally without guile and went to meet him without considering possible dangers involved. Our trust in him was rewarded. He had brought us a Chinese takeaway! It was the first decent food we had eaten since entering the camp. The last time we saw him he was in tears, devastated by the news that he had to go and join the fighting. We never knew what became of him.

some women exchanged ‘favours’ with the Japanese in the hope of getting better treatment.

My sister and I, although in our late teens, were naïve and had no idea that some women exchanged ‘favours’ with the Japanese in the hope of getting better treatment. The Japanese whores they would later be labelled. After the war we heard of the appalling treatment of the inaccurately named ‘comfort women.’ The Japanese handpicked single women aged 17 – 28 and took them from the camps to work as prostitutes for their officer elite. They were raped systematically every day. Many of these women were virgins. There were accounts of older, married women asking to be taken instead of the younger women who were innocent of sex. They thought they would be able to handle enforced prostitution better.

We spent eighteen months in Bandoeng and then had to make a 36 hour trip by train to Amberawa in central Java. The train’s windows were blocked off and we were all huddled together like cattle. There were no toilets. My sister had diarrhoea and she had to go out onto the carriage balcony to do her business and then wipe it off with a broom.

We had to walk from the train to Banjoe Biroe, our next camp, with our few possessions and a rolled-up mattress on our backs. We had no separate rooms anymore. This camp was a prison before the war. We slept in a barrack on a raised platform which ran the length of the building. My mother took us into the corner which she anticipated would offer some cover from the Japanese when they checked in on us. We had 45 centimetres per person. Here we had to forgo any ideas of privacy. We washed in full view of the guards. After a while we became immune to their gaze. Toilets were a long plank with holes where you defecated into an open sewer. Dysentery soon became rife.

Camp Karees was cushy in comparison with Banjoe Biroe. Young healthy women such as myself were put to work. In pairs, we had to carry big metal drums containing hot food from the kitchen to the barracks. It was a precarious task. One either side of the barrel, we lifted it off an un-mortared brick furnace with a bamboo stick placed through two handles at the top.

We had to work outside the camp as well. Chopping trees down for firewood. As we worked Indonesian kids would watch us from behind another outer fence. Every so often we had a chance to trade with them. We would give them a piece of textile we had managed to salvage from our former lives in exchange for an egg. We smuggled it back into camp inside the leg of our baggy knickers. Every time we entered the camp we had to bow three times in deference to the Japanese sentry. We were never discovered. Some women were caught and got punished for similar misdemeanours.

Women would be punished at roll call or Tenko. They had their hands tied behind their backs and their arms suspended from a purpose-built beam.

Women would be punished at roll call or Tenko. They had their hands tied behind their backs and their arms suspended from a purpose-built beam, lifted up high enough so that their toes just touched the ground. The Japanese guards would scream at them, administering the occasional whiplash. They were left like that for hours in the blistering sun.

Sometimes in the evening, to stave off hunger pangs, we would get together in our barrack and fantasise about food. Writing down our favourite recipes on little scraps of paper and exchanging them. Sleep was a good way of avoiding hunger but that was difficult because of the bedbugs. The Japanese gave us a thick tarry substance which was supposed to repel them. My mother saved that though and with a few bits of rice my sister and I managed to smuggle from the kitchen we cooked a few extra handfuls in a tin using the tar as cooking fuel.

In the last six months in the camp we worked in the kitchens. This was a privileged position and perhaps looking back on it meant the difference between life and death. We had thin tapioca for breakfast. Rice and watery sayor (green vegetable mix) for lunch and sometimes a piece of swede in the evening. People were dying every day from malnourishment and dysentery. Our periods stopped which had its upside as we no longer had to bother washing out the cotton towels that we used to absorb the flow.
We caught snails outside the camp and it was our job in the kitchen to prepare them. When they boiled they turned into a grey viscous substance and when we added some vegetable stock the mixture turned a foul shade of green. We gave this to the women in the sick bay in the hope it would build them up. On average there were three or four deaths per day. On a bad day that could go up to seven.

August 1945 the Japanese capitulated. When our Japanese sentries disappeared our first thoughts were of escape. But where could we go?

We had no news of the outside world and the way the war was progressing so it was a shock to us when we heard that in August 1945 the Japanese had capitulated. When our Japanese sentries disappeared our first thoughts were of escape. But where could we go? Our former home was miles away and leaving the camp was dangerous because of the hatred of the local people towards the Dutch.

The Indonesians started attacking the camps. The British allies and the Ghurkas had arrived by then and were appointed to guard us from the Indonesians. Before that time though, there was a chaotic period when many civilians were massacred by the native people.

Eventually lists of missing people were distributed around the camps by the Red Cross. We searched for father’s name.

He was not on any list but we received a postcard from the hospital in Batavia (modern Jakarta) informing us that daddy was very sick. A Sister had written that he desperately wanted to see us. Camp security warned us against leaving the camp. But my mother was a very determined woman.

We got a lift from the camp to the station on the back on an ox wagon. It was chaos on the station platform with hoards of people squashing onto the train. My sister and I and managed to squeeze through the crowd to get on the train but mum was crowded out and left on the platform. We had to haul her in by her arms though the window. God knows what would have happened if we had got separated then. It took three days to get to Batavia. The train stopped at night. The rails were broken and had to be repaired in places. By the time we reached the hospital in Batavia we were told that daddy had died a week before of starvation. The professional care that the allied doctors gave him, came too late. We had missed the last chance to see him alive.
We did not know what to do then. Going back to camp was not an option and we needed to be safe. Mum asked around in the hospital and she found some old friends that we could stay with in Batavia. We stayed there for a month and put our names on a list to get a ship back to Holland.

After a few weeks of waiting and hoping, a handsome young man walked up the garden path. Dressed in a white sailor’s uniform. Everything about him was fair, his skin, hair and clothes. I had my hairpins in and looked a total sight. He had sailed over as First Mate on a Dutch ship bringing allied forces to Indonesia. The people we were staying with were relations of his. He was looking for surviving family members.
Mum said ‘Rob de Smalen, you’re the spit of your dad!’ She was a friend of his father’s. I had forgotten by then, but Rob and I had known each other as kids and had played together. He had three days leave before his ship returned to the Fatherland. Fate took over from there. We heard that we could sail back to Holland on his ship! During the journey back to Holland we fell in love. In 1949 after a long engagement, we got married and a year later I gave birth to my first son.

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More places to be cool – Amsterdam School

My last blog I complained about the general over-crowdedness of Amsterdam’s tourist hotspots but it’s easy to find other places of interest outside the city centre. So if you’re having an Amsterdam staycation, or are visiting the town and looking for something different, why not follow an Amsterdam School architecture trail?

The Amsterdam School is an architectural style which flowered in the Netherlands from 1910-1930. It is similar to the German Brick Expressionism movement which used bricks, tiles or clinker bricks as the main visible building material.

In the Netherlands this architectural style was often used in social housing projects, its jewel in the crown being ‘het Schip’ in Amsterdam Westerpark neighbourhood. The apartment building on the Spaarndammer-plantsoen is by Michel de Klerk. The building consists of bright orange bricks, decked with minarets and other unusual features. Designed in 1919, the building contains 102 dwellings for the working class, a small meeting house and a post office.

Het Schip is open to the public from Tuesday through Sunday, from 11am-5pm. Entrance fee is 7,50 euros which includes a 45-minute tour (so you can look inside the building) starting on the hour.

Museum Het Schip
Spaarndammerplantsoen 140
1013 XT Amsterdam

Discover more Amsterdam School buildings via this detailed map which also shows architect’s details.

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Cool Places

Urban annoyances
The centre of the city is noisy, dirty and heaving with tourists so I try and stay away during the summer months. I think you’ll agree it makes sense to avoid encounters with mooning stag parties that block up Amsterdam’s cycle paths on their ubiquitous pub bikes! It’s tropical in Amsterdam this week. Temperatures are set to soar above 30 degrees. Cities are warmest of all so why not head towards the psychologically and physically cooling effects of trees, grass and water?


Urban Oasis
One peaceful, shady sanctuary where I recently went foraging for elderflower is within a stone’s throw of the city centre. In Amsterdam Zuid-Oost there’s a lovely nature reserve called de Ruige Hof. The volunteers run all sorts of nature activities for children and adults. List of activities here. On the last day of the summer holidays, Sunday 5 July, children can make art from natural materials. Modern kids spend too much time indoors surveys have shown whereby they miss that contact with the natural world. So if you live in Amsterdam and want to let your children play and be creative in a safe environment why not head down to de Ruige Hof? Even if the club house is shut it’s a lovely place to walk and picnic throughout the summer.

Natuurvereniging de Ruige Hof
Abcoudestraatweg 77
1105 AA Amsterdam Zuid-Oost

Metro 50 towards Gein, get out at Holendrecht
Parking at the golf course ‘De Hoge Dijk’

More nature reserves in North Holland.

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Queen of the Gymkhana -Then and Now

When I was a gal I was pony mad and during summer weekends went to horse shows to compete in gymkhana and show jumping competitions. My sister, Christine Hardinge was the first one to get the horsey bug and aged about four I followed in her slipstream. She has made a career from horsemanship alongside her husband, Colin. Her career boasts major successes at top three-day-events and she has competed and won prizes at Badminton Horse Trials which most riders can only ever dream of achieving. See her impressive eventing credentials here.

Recently, I’ve felt very nostalgic for those bygone, halcyon days of the gymkhana and have taken up show-jumping again. I have weekly lessons at the Hollandsche Manege and my sister, Chris recenly let me have a little jump around her school at home on the lovely, Crown Meteorite aka, ‘Rocket.’ See film above.

When I was in my teens I was very brave and the height of the jump never bothered me. In fact the higher the better. Nowadays, I’m quite a bit more cautious and riding-school horses are a whole different ball game anyway. The secret to show jumping over bigger fences is establishing a relationship of mutual trust with your horse and this is difficult with just weekly contact. The horse and you need to know each other so well that you become one unit. When that trust is established, the rider feels the sensation of flying over fences which makes show jumping such a satisfying and thrilling sport.

Below a photo of my old 14.2 h.h pony, The Baron XI. After competing in the juniors I went on to compete in seniors with the love of my life, Red River V, a 16 h.h bay thoroughbred, pictured right.

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