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Have Tote Will Travel by Nicole Meier
by:  Nicole Meier
Blogging trip ideas, inspirational travel stories and destination books.
September 30, 2014

Lessons I've Learned From Writers

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a favorite author (yes, I have lots) and hear her speak to a small group of women. The speech was quite touching – we laughed, we cried and we bonded as a group that afternoon.

My twenty-something niece was also in the audience that day. Afterwards, I chastised my niece for what looked like texting throughout the entire talk. Typical of that age, I wasn’t surprised but I was disappointed she didn’t glean any insight from the author. To my delight, she showed me she hadn’t been texting but rather taking notes instead. “Good girl!” I praised her. I wish I had been that wise in my twenties. But now, as an adult and a writer, I take copious notes wherever I go - especially if I’m in the presence of an author.

The notes I’ve collected from meeting/interviewing/listening to other authors have become bits of wisdom not only for my writing life but also simply for my daily life.

I thought I’d share some of these bits of wisdom with you:

1.Lisa See (author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, China Dolls, and more): I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. See speak a couple of years ago at a writer’s conference. I am a huge fan and was so pleased to discover that she was kind and generous with her time and advice. These words stuck with me.

“Write one charming note a day.”

Sounds difficult and time consuming. And I admit, I don’t write one every day. However, when I do reach out with a quick email or tweet praising another’s work or expressing gratitude, it ALWAYS comes back to me in a positive way. This is a great practice and I can’t stress it enough, whatever your profession. Because of this, strangers have offered to help me, share my writing and support me in ways that I could have never before imagined.

2.Lian Dolan (author of Helen of Pasadena, Elizabeth the First Wife): This charming, witty woman is one of the Satellite Sisters, has toured with Oprah, written many a funny piece and is the kind of gal we all want to be friends with!

“You don’t have to be an expert in everything, just be an expert in what you know.”

So true. We try too much these days to be a mother, wife, sister, professional, and regular know-it-all. No one is asking us to be this kind of person. It’s better to do what we know well and the rest will follow.

3.Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild): After hearing her speak in Bend last year, I wrote a blog post here about all of the lessons I gleaned. Here's a standout.

“It’s about the journey, not the trip.”

We’ve all heard this cliché before but that’s because it holds so much truth. In Cheryl’s case, she needed to walk into the desert in order to recalibrate after the death of her mother. She talks about how the challenge of carrying her ultra heavy backpack was also about carrying her burden of grief and pain. As her journey went on, her load lightened. Once she got out of her own environment and gained a new perspective, her burden lifted.

4.Jess Walter (author of Beautiful Ruins): I met Jess last week and was pleased to discover that he was as equally charming as his book. He had great advice for writers, but it also applies to daily life.

“Be patient. Be bold. Be humble. Be confident. Don’t give in to the speed and surface banality of the culture. Don’t give in to jealousy, commerce, or fear. Do charity work, or coach kids, or be a Big Brother or Sister, or something. Whatever it takes to get out of your own head and avoid authorial narcissism. And whatever you do, don’t ever take advice from authors.”

5.Jacquelyn Mitchard (author of many novels including The Deep End of the Ocean): I heard this funny, engaging woman speak at a writer’s conference in New York last summer. I was instantly enamored.

“Understand human nature, why people do what they do, what frightens them…”

She was speaking of character development in regards to novel writing. However, this is useful in all aspects of life. We can better relate to others (in the workplace, at school, at home) if we try to understand them first. It really works.

6.Janice Macleod (author of Paris Letters): I had the pleasure of interviewing Janice after she published her memoir on how she literally sold everything and moved to France to seek out happiness. She shared her brave story with me here.

“If I had one piece of advice for anyone who wanted to redesign their life, I would tell them to start keeping a daily journal.”

Janice goes on to explain, “Journal writing was the most helpful task throughout the entire process. I wrote three pages a day about anything and everything. At first, I just offloaded a lot of grievances about my job. I got so frustrated with this that, about a month into my daily journal writing project, I wrote down a startling question that changed my life: How much money does it take to quit your job? And that’s when the journal writing really took off. I was fired up to find with ways I could save up the cash to quit that job. I used my journal as a daily brainstorming session to come up with ideas on how to bank cash. Eventually, I started writing down travel ideas.”

Who have you learned from lately? Will you write them a charming note and thank them? I would.

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September 8, 2014

Anne Girard Looks Into the Heart of Pablo Picasso

This fall, why not get swept away with a travel read that takes you to turn-of-the-century Paris and into the love life of Pablo Picasso? In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, writer Anne Girard transports readers into history and gives an account of the first love of one of the greatest artists of all time. In Madame Picasso, Girard tells the story of the young woman who entered into Picasso's life and ultimately became his muse. I recently caught up with the author to learn more:

While Pablo Picasso’s story is well known, not much has been written about Eva Gouel. What drew you to her?
I was drawn to Eva’s story as I began my research into the relationship between Picasso and his first love, Fernande Olivier, a woman who still figures very prominently in Madame Picasso, curiously enough. The fact that Pablo was pulled away so powerfully from Fernande by his feelings for Eva changed my focus for the novel entirely. I needed to write about an epic love affair, that is always what inspires me, and, while brief, Eva and Pablo most certainly had that. He gave up an established life for her, and he gave up many of his friends. He did go on to love again after her, as many people are aware, and through the years he cemented his own poor personal reputation with women. But in my novel, I attempt to show a slice of young Picasso, yet only on the cusp of the major stardom that lay ahead. For Eva, he was still open, and still vulnerable with his heart. I hope I succeeded in showing that.

What was it about Paris in the Belle Epoque that was so alluring to artists everywhere?

By the time Picasso arrived from Barcelona, Paris, and more specifically Montmartre, had already been for many years a mecca for artists, painters like Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. It was an established place of free thinking and free expression, a bit bawdy and very wild. Artists mingled freely with writers and performers there, and those encounters enriched the work of all of them as they considered new ways to express themselves. For any sort of creative person, I think that environment was, and is, very alluring.

Your story takes us inside the studio of one of the world’s most celebrated artists. Are you an artist at heart?

Not in the painting sense. I’m afraid I can’t draw much more than stick figures! But I believe a writer, like a musician, must possess the heart of an artist since we all have that absolute need to create as expression. I certainly can relate to the journey of any artist based on that feeling.

Do you have a favorite place to visit in Paris?

Yes! Champ de Mars is a long green, open space between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire in the 7th arrondissement near where I stay. Parisians, by the dozens, lounge there in the late afternoon as the sun sets behind the Eiffel Tower. Very picturesque! I usually pick up some bread, wine and cheese at a nearby brasserie called La Terrasse, then I absolutely love to go and just lounge among the locals, taking in my favorite city along with them.

Thank you, Anne!

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June 26, 2014

Beatriz Williams Takes Us on a Journey

For fans of Beatriz Williams' debut novel, A Hundred Summers, you're sure to be swept away into the life of Violet Grant and the passion and intrigue that are unlocked with the arrival of a mysterious suitcase.

I recently caught up with Beatriz to learn more about The Secret Life of Violet Grant:

Congratulations on your latest novel. Your books always transport me into another place and time. The Secret Life of Violet Grant tells the story of mid-sixties Manhattan and pre-war Berlin. Tell us what inspired these new settings.

The whole book began with a story from my husband’s family. His great-grandmother was traveling in Europe during the summer of 1914, and when war was declared and the tourists turned out of the trains, she lost a suitcase in all the confusion. Almost forty years later, her son received a check for 100 deutschmarks from the German government, as repayment for lost luggage. I thought, this is just too good a hook to pass up!

In this book, both main characters leave the confines of their privileged life to pursue education and their dreams. I’m gathering you’re drawn to strong women who go against the grain of society?

You know, I don’t really make a conscious decision to write about trailblazing women. But I love history, and as a novelist I’ve got to find areas of conflict—both internal and external—and a woman who goes against the grain just gathers conflict around her, especially in historical settings. At the same time, I try to avoid falling into the trap of historical fiction, in which we drop modern-thinking people into the past, and expect them to act as we would. Violet (my 1914 protagonist) is a woman who loves physics and pushes massive boundaries—as many women of the time did—to find a way to study and research. But she’s still very much a person of her time, as are the characters around her, and her ambition is constantly at war with the patterns of behavior—the female toolbox, if you will—that she’s been brought up to use.

Violet Grant lives in Germany as “the world edges into war.” What did Berlin look like when you researched this time in history?

Berlin was hot! Berlin was really the place to be back then, a kind of European Chicago where everything was growing and changing, where all the intellectuals and artists and entrepreneurs congregated. It’s really a tragedy, when you think about the promise of Berlin at the dawn of the 20th century, and where the city stood at the end of it, rebuilding after a century of struggle.

What’s been the most fun about writing such a sweeping novel?

I love immersing myself in fictional worlds, and both of the worlds I created in this book just sucked me in completely! I had a true writing hangover when I finished. I just didn’t want to leave, and I hope readers will experience the same feeling.

Thank you, Beatriz! For more, visit

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May 27, 2014

A Paris Apartment

For anyone who loves stories of art, history, antiques or Paris, this novel is definitely for you! By the end of Michelle Gable’s A Paris Apartment, I wanted to take up a new career in the high-end auction world!

Based on the findings of a real-life apartment in Paris, this book is a gorgeous painting of the ‘beautiful era’ in France. With Michelle’s rich descriptions, I could almost feel each armchair, bureau and canapé. And then there’s the art…

I caught up with Michelle to find out more about the story:

Congratulations on the release of A Paris Apartment. For those who aren’t familiar, can you shed light on the real-life apartment that inspired your novel?

Thank you! The real-life story is a captivating one. In 1940, as Paris fell to the Germans, a young woman locked her apartment, fled to the south of France, and never returned. When she passed away in 2010, the apartment and its news-making contents were discovered.

The amazing home was filled, floor to rafters, with the most exquisite pieces of art and furniture imaginable. One painting, rendered by famed portraitist Giovanni Boldini, sold for over €2 million at auction. The portrait was of the woman’s grandmother, Belle Époque courtesan Marthe de Florian.

In the book, it’s impossible not to feel April Vogt’s excitement as she uncovers the apartment’s treasures, specifically the Boldini painting. Are you also an art history enthusiast?

Not to the extent that April is given her multiple art history degrees! The conventional wisdom is “write what you know” but I believe it’s “write what you want to know.” I’m fascinated by art and the high-end auction world, but my experience is minimal. I took AP Art History my senior year of high school… that’s about it!

I absolutely loved the research required to bring April’s occupation to life. I can see why she “majored in furniture” as her husband’s colleagues joke. In a recent review of A Paris Apartment, someone who works in the auction industry said the book felt like a memoir. That was incredibly gratifying, not to mention a huge relief.

Can you tell us a bit about your research for this book?

Research is one of my favorite things about writing, to my own detriment sometimes! When researching, you can always dig up one more piece of information, unlock one more door, which of course leads to a dozen more doors. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stop the research and begin the actual writing.

For A Paris Apartment, I started with the Internet, then moved on to newspaper articles, books, and interviews. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Belle Époque gossip columns in particular. Not much has changed! I also managed to get my hands on several century old out-of-print books.

For the historical elements I tried to stay as close to actual events and people as possible. My mom didn’t believe that there was a famous performing flatulist, but he was quite popular in his day.

The setting is mainly in the ninth arrondissement of Paris. What about this part of France did you most want to include?

The apartment’s ninth arrondissement location intoxicated me from the start. It’s on the Right Bank, near the Opéra Garnier, Folies-Bergères, and Pigalle red light district. This is your colorful Paris, the Paris of artists and writers… and plenty of lawbreakers too. All this wrapped in the sparkle of the Gilded Age was impossible to resist. I adored the artistry and visual sensation of Moulin Rouge and that film certainly influenced portions of my novel.

What’s been the most fun about sharing this story with your readers?

The escapism! So many people have written to say they’ve been completely caught up in April and Marthe’s lives. One woman said it took her mind off a difficult divorce for a while. Another used it to get through an extended hospital stay. This kind of feedback has been so wonderful, not to mention unexpected. That has been the best part of the book’s release.

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January 30, 2014

Leap And The Net Will Appear

Janice Macleod makes me want to be more adventurous. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of her forthcoming book, Paris Letters, and I was so inspired! In her memoir, Janice takes us on her journey from being an unsatisfied L.A. copywriter to a women who sells everything, moves to Paris, finds love, and most importantly, finds herself.

Paris Letters will hit bookstores this February, until then, here’s our Q&A and a one-of-a-kind opportunity to win one of the artist’s paintings:

Congratulations on Paris Letters. Your story is so inspiring to those who are dissatisfied with their current life and want to branch out into something new. Looking back, are you surprised at how brave you were to leave Los Angeles for Paris?

Thanks for your kind words. If you had told me at the beginning that in a year, I would save up enough to quit my job and travel to Paris, I would have told you that I was not at all brave enough for such a thing. But in looking back now, bravery didn’t happen all at once. Buying the ticket to Paris took some bravery, but actually leaving to get on that plane didn't take much courage because I was preoccupied with packing and getting to the airport on time. Quitting my job required a little more bravery and it took me a long time to get up the nerve to do that, but having already written my resignation letter made it easy for me to hand it in on one rather unpleasant day at the office. It was the day after my car broke down on the freeway. While sitting on the freeway with cars whizzing past me, I thought of how tragic it would be if I died right then, but it would be exponentially more tragic if I died coming home from a miserable job.

To anyone dissatisfied with their current life and wanting to branch into something new, please know that bravery isn’t as daunting when it’s broken down into little steps. By the time my flight to Paris was taking off, I was already ready to go.

In your book, you share the quote, “Leap and the net will appear”. Can you share how this quote, and its author, inspired you to leave your unhappy existence as a copywriter and become an artist who lives in Europe?

In Julia Cameron’s book, she writes, “Leap and the net will appear.” When I read this, I felt excitement and dread in equal measure. I wasn't sure that a net would appear but I was excited to find out if it would. To minimize the risk of a net appearing or not, I endeavored to save up two years worth of modest living. I felt more comfortable knowing that within that two years, I could come up with a plan to support myself, even if was to do odd jobs here and there, to keep pushing that buffer ahead of me. In those two years, I came up with the idea for the Paris Letters. But even better than that, I found the lovely Christophe and a daily life that makes me happier than my copywriting job ever could. The net appeared. It still astounds me. Sometimes I still want to jump up and down screaming “The net appeared!”

Keeping a journal helped your realize your goals. Do you still journal three pages a day? How has it affected you as an artist?

If I had one piece of advice for anyone who wanted to redesign their life, I would tell them to start keeping a daily journal.

Journal writing was the most helpful task throughout the entire process. I wrote three pages a day about anything and everything. At first, I just offloaded a lot of grievances about my job. I got so frustrated with this that, about a month into my daily journal writing project, I wrote down a startling question that changed my life: How much money does it take to quit your job? And that’s when the journal writing really took off. I was fired up to find with ways I could save up the cash to quit that job. I used my journal as a daily brainstorming session to come up with ideas on how to bank cash. Eventually, I started writing down travel ideas.

Now, I still write three pages a day in my journal, but my list-making has morphed into sketching out ideas for the next Paris Letter. The journal writing has become a workbook for ideas, which has become integral to me as an artist. It’s a small world where I can turn my ideas into ink and eventually into art.

You started out merely painting letters for friends and loved ones. Can you tell us how it transformed into a business? How has it grown since you wrote the book?

I was sitting at a café in Paris. I pulled out my journal to write down ideas on how to afford my life in Paris if I were going to stay. (I really wanted to stay as I was now dating the lovely Christophe, whom I later married.) When I pulled out my journal, a painted letter I made for a friend fell out. I thought that I would rather create another letter than brainstorm ideas on how to boost the bank account. And that’s when the two ideas merged. I would write letters to boost my bank account.

I already had an online shop on Etsy (where you can sell handmade and vintage items). I had sold a few paintings there back when I lived in California but never closed the account. I listed the Paris Letters as a subscription service, shared the link with friends on Facebook and on my blog, and people started subscribing. But it was when an editor at Etsy asked if they could interview me for their popular Quit Your Day Job series that my business really took off. And of course, in the middle of all this, I realized I had a success story on my hands (The net had appeared as Julia Cameron had promised).

My letter business has grown as a collective effort of social media, word of mouth, Etsy promotions and my book deal. I can’t say the growth is all due to the book, though I would be delighted to people subscribing because of it. It showcases some of my most treasured Paris Letters.

Since this is a travel blog, can you recommend one or two places in Paris for a first-time traveler to visit?

At this time of the year when the temperatures drop, I love walking around the covered arcades, locally known as galleries or passages, in the 2nd arrondissement. Along these heated “indoor streets,” one can find antique toys, rare books, charming bistros and my favorite, old postage stamps.

Thank you, Janice! To enter to win a painting of your favorite travel photo, visit here.

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A R C H I V E / H I G H L I G H T S

Author Kirstin Chen Captures the Delights of Soy Sauce
originally posted: January 20, 2014

Today I am pleased to host author Kirstin Chen. Reading her new novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, is like reading someone’s journal set amid the exotic and fascinating backdrop of Singapore. In this story, Gretchen Lin leaves her floundering marriage in San Francisco to move back to her childhood home in Singapore. She immediately finds herself face-to-face with the twin headaches she’s avoided her entire adult life: her mother’s drinking problem and the machinations of her father’s artisanal soy sauce business.

The following is my Q & A with Kirstin:

Congratulations on the release of your novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners. The story is set in Singapore, where you were born and raised. What elements of Singapore did you most want to share with your readers?

Thank you! The book took me about four years to write so I’m thrilled that it’s finally out in the world. In Soy Sauce for Beginners, I aim to capture the many paradoxes of Singapore. My homeland is extremely cosmopolitan and urban, and yet it can feel as insular as a small town—you can barely walk down the street without running into someone you went to elementary school with. Similarly, Singapore’s been called the most westernized country in Asia, and yet Singaporeans continue to prioritize so-called traditional values. Here’s an example: I along with the majority of my childhood friends left Singapore to attend schools in the US and the UK and Australia, but while I’ve settled down in San Francisco, almost all of my childhood friends have returned home. Living near or even with one’s parents, raising one’s children surrounded by extended family—these traditional practices are extremely cherished in Singapore. Young Singaporeans are urged to travel across the globe to get educated just as strongly as they’re urged to return home and settle down. Soy Sauce for Beginners explores some of the complications that arise from these contradictory forces.

The story looks at Asian culture, particularly family traditions versus the modern way of life. Was this an idea you’ve always wanted to explore?

I’m not sure that exploring family traditions versus a modern way of life was first and foremost on my mind. I was more focused on the various ways in which we all create our own notions of home and how we so often build homes away from the lands of our birth. But, of course, the act of moving away from one’s family is in some ways a rejection of the choices one’s parents made, so perhaps the two ideas are inextricably linked. Further, in setting the story in Singapore, and, more specifically, in a family-owned soy sauce factory that is trying to hold on to its traditional brewing methods while continuing to expand, the tension between the past and the future naturally rose to prominence.

Let’s talk about the soy sauce. There’s lots of delicious detail. Do you consider yourself a foodie?

I would consider myself a foodie. My husband and I spend most of our free time trying new restaurants here in San Francisco, returning to old favorites, and debating our ever-changing, carefully curated list of those worth revisiting. We cook frequently. We’re in a wine-tasting club. But the one thing that prevents me from fully embracing the title of foodie is that I’m also somewhat of a health nut. There are certain things I just won’t order off a menu: pork belly, fettuccine alfredo, most anything battered and deep-fried. I fear these limitations preclude me from being a true foodie.

What suggestions do you have for someone traveling to Singapore for the first time? Any favorite spots?

I have many favorite spots in Singapore. Because the city continuously reinvents itself, and I only get home about once a year, my list changes completely after every single trip.

Here are three of my current favorite places:


For a densely populated, urban city-state, Singapore has done an extraordinary job of maintaining a large number of parks, gardens and nature reserves. My favorite walking trail is HortPark’s Forest Walk, an elevated trail that raises you to the level of the forest canopy. If you go on a weekday morning before the temperature climbs, it’s peaceful, serene, even balmy.

Chye Seng Huat Hardware

Don’t let the antiquated, slightly run-down exterior fool you. Hidden behind the old hardware storefront is a bright, airy, high-ceilinged coffee shop known for its meticulous roasting and brewing techniques. I’ve only been here once and found the espresso to be a little too acidic for my taste, but I’d definitely go back for the ambience and also to try the cold brew coffee (on tap!).

The Arts House
Housed in Singapore’s former Parliament House, The Arts House hosts readings, art exhibits, theater productions, film screenings and more, many of which are free or very reasonably priced. The former Parliamentary Debating Chamber, complete with Westminster-style seating, is one of the coolest performance spaces I’ve ever seen. I dream of doing a reading there someday (and of drawing a large enough crowd to fill those seats!)

Thank you, Kirstin! For more info, visit Details on book giveaways and more can be found at

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Author Anton DiSclafani Talks Horses, The Blue Ridge Mountains
originally posted: August 5, 2013

For this week’s edition of Travel Reads, I’m pleased to host Author Anton DiSclafani. WE ARE GIVING AWAY COPIES OF HER NEW BOOK TO TWO LUCKY READERS! See below for details.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is recommended as a summer read by Oprah Magazine, Yonahlosseebookcover

“Sparkling…DiSclafani’s transporting prose recalls that uneasy time at the brink of adulthood, and reminds us that even the most protective parents can’t keep the world at bay.”

- O, The Oprah Magazine

Congratulations on the release of your new novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. The story has so many enticing ingredients: The Depression era, The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and a boarding school for southern debutantes. Which idea came to you first and how?
Definitely the place: I grew up going to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for vacation, and fell in love with the mountains at an early age. I also fell in love with the idea of Yonahlossee as a teenager. My parents have a mountain cabin in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, which is a stone’s throw from the “real” Yonahlossee. It closed in 1985, but the Yonahlossee name is everywhere, up there, and the idea of an camp for girls nearly a hundred years ago, tucked away in the mountains, found a foothold in my brain.

Did you travel to North Carolina for your research?
I spent a lot of time in North Carolina, but not really for research. I decided very early on that I wanted my version of Yonahlossee to be completely fictional, and so to that end I didn’t want to know much about the real place. But I found just being in the mountains inspiring, so I guess you could call that research (an easy kind of research).

What drew you to the idea of an equestrian boarding school? Did you grow up visiting horse camps or attending boarding schools?
I grew up riding horses. It was my obsession, for most of my childhood and adolescence. Thea, my main character, doesn’t want to be sent away from home, but horses are the salve. I was never sent away from home, but horses still acted as a kind of salve throughout my childhood, and those tormented adolescent years. Riding horses, and being around them, was a very pure kind of escape from the bumpiness of being a teenager. And from a fictional perspective, what is more dramatic than an enclave of girls and their horses?

Your main character, Thea, is thrust into a world that’s foreign to her. Do you believe that it’s easier for one to travel or be removed from their element to gain perspective?
That’s an interesting question, and yes, absolutely it’s easier to gain perspective in a foreign world. Actually, it’s the only way, I think. We’re all trapped in our context, in the particular world we live in, and the only way to bump ourselves out of that particularity is to go somewhere new. I think that about traveling, especially outside the US—nowhere do I feel less certain of myself, and my way of doing things, than in a different country.

What are you working on next?
I am unsure, to be honest. I have two ideas floating around in my head: one involves the modern-day south, and a murder; the second idea involves Texas in the 1960s and 70s, and a murder. So either way, a murder.

Thank you, Anton! For more about Anton and her book, visit


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A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R

Nicole Meier is a writer and blogger sharing her passion for travel and literature at