Yes, I’ve been up to something.


I have been neglectful of this blog lately – even more neglectful than normal, which is saying something. There’s a reason for it, though.

I’ve been pouring any spare time I have into Italy Explained, which I launched officially last year and am trying to build into the robust travel planning resource I know it can be. And more recently, I’ve been spending more time than I care to admit fiddling with the coding in the Kindle publishing system, getting my first ebook ready for primetime.

Which is now.

Italy Explained: Italian Trains

Italy Explained: Italian Trains” hit Amazon’s virtual shelves this week – FINALLY – and I couldn’t be happier.

The bad news is that I looked at the vast expanse of white space on my new Amazon author page and thought, “Oh, crap. Now I have to write more books.”

Jessica Spiegel Amazon author page

So if you don’t see me here, you’re likely to find me over at Italy Explained, or hunched over my laptop yelling at the Kindle Previewer when it hasn’t picked up the text-indent HTML I added mere seconds ago.


At any rate, I hope you’ll pass the book and Italy Explained site on to anyone you know who’s planning an Italy trip!

The book cover photo is a creative commons image by John Picken Photography.

Menorahs || creative commons photo by Photo Gallery Israeli Ministry of Tourism

The Weird Al of A Cappella Jewish Singing Groups


“They’re kind of like the Weird Al of a cappella Jewish singing groups. There can’t be more than one of them, right?”


Menorahs || creative commons photo by Photo Gallery Israeli Ministry of Tourism

Menorahs || creative commons photo by Photo Gallery Israeli Ministry of Tourism

Hanukkah starts tonight at sundown, so – naturally – that was part of my conversation over coffee this morning with the boyfriend. Pam had posted the new Six13 Hanukkah video, which reminded me of another Hanukkah video I’d seen many years ago, which I naively assumed was by the same group. (Oh, silly Jessica. Of course it’s not the same group.) I am now willing to believe that not only are there two, there are probably more.

Here’s this year’s Hanukkah song, “Chanukah (Shake It Off).”

And, for reference, here’s the 2010 video “Candlelight” by The Maccabeats.

It’s taking all the willpower I have to not go down the rabbit hole of both of their video collections right now, since I have a metric ton of work to do, but I invite you to venture into that internet abyss in my stead.

Happy Hanukkah, y’all. Whatever your Festival of Lights anthem happens to be.

Amuse-Bouches [Links I Love]: October 7 – November 10


Here’s the latest list of stuff I found interesting on the interwebz, October 7 through November 10:

  • Jessica is in the new “Dream of Venice” book
    I am extremely proud to be included in a new book of photographs, essays, & poems about a city I adore – Venice. Other contributors to the book include Woody Allen, Frances Mayes, Julie Christie, Erica Jong, & Marcella Hazan – it’s heady company.The book is to be released in early December, & you can read my excerpt on my Italy travel guide site, Italy Explained.

    Incidentally, I’m going to be giving away a copy of the book over on Italy Explained later this year, so if you’re not already receiving the Italy Explained newsletter you should sign up so you hear about that giveaway as soon as it’s ready. Just enter your name & email address in the boxes in the right-hand column of the site.

  • Missed In History: The Expulsion of Jews from Spain
    In 2012, after the TBEX conference in Girona, my friend Pam & I stayed for a couple blissful days in the pretty walled town. Most of that time was spent in restaurants, seated at four-hour lunches (that is not hyperbole), but we paid a visit to Girona's little Jewish museum. Pam wrote about the experience here (you should really go read that, too).

    Overall, we were both struck by (that is to say we were angry about) the willful disregard for the truth of what had happened to Spain's Jewish population. I had heard about a tour guide in Girona saying that no one knew why, but one day all the Jews just left. The displays in the museum echoed that preposterous theme – that the Jews "decided to leave." It's not only factually inaccurate, that kind of information whitewashes a terrible truth. We all know what happens when we don’t learn from history, right?

    In any case, fast-forward to 2014, & I’m glad to see this topic covered on a new episode of a favorite podcast. They don’t get into how people in modern Spain (at least in Girona) turn a blind eye to the truth of their history – this podcast is really about what led to the expulsion of the Jews, what they were allowed to take with them (not much), etc. It does mention that the edict barring Jews from living in Spain wasn’t officially overturned until the 1960s. That would be completely unbelievable, had I not been to Girona in 2012 & seen them still pretending the Jews “decided to leave” for reasons no one understands.

    If you still think 1492 in Spain is all about Columbus, please set aside a half-hour & listen.

  • Pok Pok Wing and Koi Fusion Take Flight at PDX
    I love Portland's airport – a good thing, since I spend more time there than in any other airport – but here's a reason to love it even more. They've now opened a food cart pod at the airport.
  • Cheryl Strayed Says Tattoos Are Intimate Portraits and Stories
    There is a new book out that tells the stories behind tattoos. I would want that book anyway, but then when you add that Cheryl Strayed wrote the introduction… Well, it's a no-brainer.

Amuse-Bouches [Links I Love]: September 25 – September 30


Here’s the latest list of stuff I found interesting on the interwebz, September 25 through September 30:

  • Portland, OR: A Tale of Two Cities
    I recently went on a "Portlandia" tour of Portland, which turned out to be much more about the not-so-rosy history of the city than I had expected. It was extremely educational.

    And then, not long after I went on that tour, I listened to this episode of "State of the RE:Union" about Portland, which focuses on some of the same issues my tour guide talked about.

    Present-day Portland is still very much informed by the historic mistreatment of one race by another, & this podcast does a great job of explaining that. I highly recommend a listen if you're in Portland, love Portland, or just interested in race relations.

  • Emma Watson Delivers Game-Changing Speech on Feminism for the U.N.
    I'm not sure the "He for She" campaign is the only one needed to push for gender equality, but as long as we assume that one method won't work for everyone – that many messages leading to the same conclusion are required – then I am quite happy to have "He for She" out there reminding people that feminism does not mean "man-hating."

    Emma Watson's speech is excellent (set aside 13 minutes & watch the whole thing), & her use of this Edmund Burke quote is a great reminder to all of us, on this topic & many others:

    "All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men and women to do nothing."

  • Lessons from my School of Rock
    Pam’s band is on something of a hiatus at the moment, which gave her a chance to look back at the past few years’ worth of lessons learned from being part of a band. They’re all good lessons, not strictly limited to music, but this is the one that I loved best:

    "It was heartbreaking how many people — mostly women, some with a better background in music than I have — told me they’d put away their drum kit, electric guitar, bass, whatever, because they were too old to play rock and roll. I couldn’t decide if there was some indictment in there about how grown humans are supposed to act or if these folks were just defeated. I joined the band shortly before my 47th birthday. Made other choices? Okay. Hands don’t work like they used to? No kidding. Woefully out of practice? Yeah, I know. But too old? Fuck that."

  • Super Slow Motion Close-Up of a Tattoo Being Applied
    Great explanation of how tattoo machines work, plus some super-slo-mo video of a tattoo being applied. I don't even watch my OWN tattoos being done, so it doesn't surprise me that I kind of winced during this video, too.
  • Vulvatron Is GWAR’s New Vocalist
    I am no fan of GWAR, but I can't help but get excited that they've added their first female front-person to the lineup.

    "Why is it so important that one of the biggest bands in metal has just added a female member to its ranks to replace one of metal’s biggest personalities? How could it not be?"

    Women in metal usually fit into a short list of stereotypes, & almost none of them have anything to do with musical ability. I had very few female role models when I started listening to metal. That didn't stop me from wanting to be a singer (as opposed to just a groupie), but I imagine it would have been fantastic to have more women to look up to where they weren’t required to fit into certain roles (not to mention skimpy clothing). So, no, I probably won't start listening to GWAR even now, but – all hail Vulvatron? You bet.

Concrete - by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Bathed in Concrete

Concrete - by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Concrete – by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Many moons ago – back in the dark ages, AKA “Before the Internet Was Everywhere,” otherwise known as 1998 – I was sick. I didn’t know I was sick. I thought I was just very, very tired. And since I had always been on the weak side, never extraordinarily energetic, I figured that was just my lot.

Because I didn’t blog then, when I wrote about what was going on I did so in (probably really bad) poetry. I say “probably” because I have no idea where those sheets of paper are now. I think they were even printed on a dot-matrix printer, of all things. We’re talking way-back-machine stuff, here, kids. At any rate, I don’t remember any of the poems, but the gist of one of the short ones was essentially that I awoke each day feeling as if I had been bathed in concrete. I wore that concrete suit all day long, chipping away at it slowly, and just as I was starting to see daylight it would be time to go to bed and I’d start all over again in the morning. It was, needless to say, a frustrating time. Only I didn’t really have the energy to even be frustrated by it.

I went to my doctor at the time, who – after a series of tests – told me it was all in my head. I am not making that up. That is what the doctor told me. And, because he was wearing a lab coat, I believed him. And that made me feel worse.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about what I did during the time that I felt so tired. Perhaps that’s because my life then was more about what I was not doing. One thing I know is that it was during this period that I quit my band. I had been able to pull it together every time we had a show, and yet in the end I was just so tired. Looking back, it was one of the worst decisions I could have made – that was one of the few high points in my days, band practice and shows – but I didn’t know that then. Instead, I quit the band and spiralled.

At some point in 1999, I eventually decided my doctor might not have all the answers and I started seeing a naturopath. I paid (dearly) for those appointments – not covered by insurance, naturally – but they did tests differently and told me I had a thyroid disorder. I was hypothyroid, he said. Severely so. He put me on the first dose of synthetic thyroid of my life, a medication I’ve been on in one form or another ever since.

He saved my life.

I had had moments in my teen years when I had suicidal thoughts, but it wasn’t until 1998 that I think I truly understood why someone would want to end their life. The lows were so low, there seemed to be absolutely no way out – or an “out” I could even see or work toward. When I started taking those pills, I only had to wait a few weeks before I felt like I could climb mountains. Later in 1999, I actually did climb mountains – literally – when I walked up Alps and Pyrenees to watch stages of the Tour de France. I could never have contemplated doing that the year before, and I cried when I looked out over the valley of the first mountain of the trip. I had come so far.

I have changed doctors over the years, but an endocrinologist has been on my medical roster since 1999. I see my endocrinologist more often than I see any other doctor in my life, getting my blood tested up to six times a year to make sure the medication is at the right amount. The dosage of my medication has changed periodically, but only incrementally. Overall, while I’m still not what you’d describe as an energetic person, I’ve led what feels to me like a normal life since 1999. A normal life that felt something like a miracle at the time.

About two months ago, however, I changed the medication I’d been taking, and the dosage was so wildly different from the other drug that (as it turns out) I was taking a much lower dose than I should have been for the first month. As a result, I have spent the last few weeks in a haze. It’s not as bad as it was in 1998 – not by a long shot – but it has the same color, the same flavor. I’ve been exhausted, spacey, unable to focus, and depressed. I know it’s temporary. I started taking a higher dosage of the medication last week, so it’s only a matter of time before that kicks in and I start to feel more normal, but in the meantime I’m dragging around concrete boots everywhere I go.

I apologize if I’ve sounded “off” in any conversation I’ve had with you recently, or if I’ve been slow to respond to email. I’m not myself. It’s an unsettling feeling. The good news is that, unlike in 1998, this time I know that I will feel like myself again – eventually.

Amuse-Bouches [Links I Love]: August 21 – September 19


Here’s the latest list of stuff I found interesting on the interwebz, August 21 through September 19:

  • Italy Explained
    This has been in the works for longer than I'd care to admit, & I'm pleased to finally (FINALLY) release my new Italy travel guide into the wild. Perhaps this will motivate me to work more diligently on it… In the meantime, please have a look around & let me know what you think!

    Also, I’ll be moving all my Italy-related newsy bits to Italy Explained, so from now on if you want your amuse-bouches to include a bit of Italian, you’ll need to subscribe to the Italy Explained blog feed, too.

  • The Best States for Beer Lovers
    Thrillist ranked all the states in the US based on their beer, and y'know what? Oregon came in at number one.

    "Much ballyhoo has been made of the sheer number of breweries in the Portland metro area, which tops out at more than 70 and counting… but this isn’t a case of quantity over quality. It’s a case of quantity meeting quality head on. "But that’s just one city in a state full of amazing brewers dotting the state, from the coastal Pelican to the high desert’s 10 Barrel, mid-state’s Ninkasi, Southern Oregon’s uncleverly named Southern Oregon Brewing, Mt. Hood’s Double Mountain… basically, if you enter a city or town in Oregon without a solid brewery, you’ve probably crossed into Washington or Idaho. Or maybe the capital of Salem… which sucks."


  • Andrea Pirlo and his beard are silently judging people
    Oh, man. This guy. THIS GUY.
  • 7 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘The Wizard Of Oz,’ Even If It’s Your Favorite Movie
    I knew some of the costumes were toxic… But I did NOT know that the Tin Man's "oil" was chocolate sauce. Some other interesting factoids in here, too.
  • Great Mistakes in English Medieval Architecture
    The mistakes made here are interesting, but it's the write-ups next to each one that had me giggling over my coffee.