Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 3

IMG_7692Sydney Opera House at sunrise

Hello and happy Friday! I hope all my USA readers had a Happy Fourth of July. This is the third and final installment in my “Lessons I’ve Learned from Traveling” series – I’d love to hear if you’ve enjoyed my stories! If you missed the first two installments, read them here and here!

Make jet lag work in your favor – When we traveled to Australia, our body clocks were all messed up.  We took advantage of being wide awake at 5 am and scheduled an early morning backstage tour of Sydney Opera House. My daughter, who is a stage manager, loved getting a peek at the backstage workings and hearing the stories of things gone wrong during shows. It was a great chance to experience something I normally might miss. On a normal day, I never see the sunrise; but seeing sunrise at Sydney Harbour was spectacular! If you know you’ll be awake earlier than usual the first day or two of your trip, make full use of those mornings to enjoy sightseeing with fewer crowds or to schedule a special tour that you wouldn’t otherwise consider.

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Shoes must be comfortable – If you’ve ever gotten horrible blisters on the first day of a trip where you are walking 10-15K steps a day (or more), you’ll understand this one! When forced to choose, prioritize comfort over style – sometimes you can find the holy grail and get shoes that are comfy AND cute, but sometimes you have to settle for shoes that are cute ENOUGH in order to get comfort, which is key. I have learned through trial and error to always pack blister bandaids, moleskin (pack scissors or precut pieces sized for heels and toes) and a pair of flip flops. 

Try to learn a few basic phrases in the language – Anywhere I’ve traveled, people have appreciated my efforts to say “Hello” “Please”, “Thank You”, “Where is the toilet”, “May I have” and “Where is” in their language. Even when I butcher it, I laugh and smile and try my best and generally get smiles and help in return.

**When traveling by bike, I also learn “Please help, my bike is broken”!**

IMG_2340Our hotel room in Austria

Beds may not be what you expect – In some countries, you will get a bottom sheet and a duvet, with no top sheet on the bed. I’ve found this particularly in the Germanic speaking countries. You will also sometimes get two twin beds pushed together for a double, with a space between the two mattresses which can make it hard to cuddle if traveling with a significant other.

Yes, we have no bananas – Many hotels with a breakfast buffet in Europe have stopped serving bananas. I’ve been told this is because Americans take them for later in the day. In Europe, hoteliers generally expect that you will take what you need for that specific meal, not stash extra food for snacks.

IMG_7961Making memories!

Pictures of you and your travel companions will provide better memories than pretty pictures of landmarks and scenery – so make sure you get pics of yourself and your loved ones!

Currency – the best place to get currency is the ATM at a bank. I used to always get cash at the airport ATM’s, but lately the airport ATM’s seem to be connected to the currency exchange booths (which are horrible places to get money) so I’ve started bringing a small amount of the local currency from home. I generally bring enough to get me from the airport to my hotel, plus the price of one meal in case I want to check in and eat before finding a bank. Another tidbit – when given the choice between paying in dollars or the local currency at a store, choose local currency for a better exchange rate.

IMG_1636One of my favorite restaurants in New York City

If you find a place you like, make a note of the address/location so you can go back – This lesson was reinforced  for me on our last trip, when we spent several hours wandering around Venice looking for a restaurant that we thought was “right around the corner” from our hotel! Try to grab a business card or jot down the address when you find a place you like, to make it easier to find if you decide to go back.

Always carry your hotel name and address with you – So you can show it to a cab driver or use the street name to ask for directions if you get turned around in a new city.

IMG_8416First time in first class!

Don’t fly 17 hours straight in coach if you can help it – three years ago, we flew from Dallas to Sydney (17 hours nonstop) in coach, and I will NEVER do that again – it was absolutely miserable! We broke the flight up on the way back into 8 and 9 hour flights with an overnight break in between…so much better!

IMG_2161Windows that open are a wonderful thing!

A/C is not as prevalent in Europe as it is in the USA – If you are traveling in the summer, and air conditioning is important to you, make sure you confirm that the hotel you are booking has air conditioning. Also, in winter, many hotels and restaurants will have the heat blazing. In your hotel room, you will sometimes have a radiator which is adjustable – on our last bike trip, my friend spent an entire night hot and uncomfortable, only to find in the morning that her radiator had been on full blast all night long!

IMG_2412Who says you can’t spend an afternoon reading at an outdoor cafe?

You don’t HAVE to spend every waking minute sightseeing – it’s perfectly valid to sit at an outdoor cafe and read for an entire afternoon. I’m just saying – it’s YOUR vacation, so do what makes YOU happy!

Keeping a trip journal is so worth it – even if you just make short notes about best/worst thing each day, where you ate, etc. I used to try to write several pages each night, but found that impossible to maintain; so now, I jot down best, worst, good restaurants, best quotes, funniest mistake, etc. Super quick notes but they are so fun to look back on and even short notes jog my memory!

Be wary of over scheduling – Try not to jam pack your itinerary. Traveling between attractions will take longer than you  think, and you may not have as much energy as you anticipate. If you’ve been moving a mile a minute and just can’t stomach one more museum, change your plans and sit at a cafe for an hour instead. Allow time for bathroom breaks, coffee stops, and spontaneity. I like to travel slower than some…I break my schedule into morning, afternoon and evening segments, with only ONE planned activity per segment. I do, however, jot down lots of notes about nearby sightseeing options in case we have extra time.

 

Rental cars are usually manual – When renting a car, you must request an automatic if you want one and it will often cost extra. And not all manuals are created equal; I once got stuck in a rental car lot in Pisa because the manual I was driving had a funky trick for getting into reverse! Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the rental car attendant. When driving, it’s also nice to know the city names along your route, as road signs in Europe often point toward towns rather than route numbers.

IMG_2216 (1)This detour sign led to a great day – and gave my blog its name!

Above all, roll with the punches and be flexible – You WILL experience frustrations, hiccups, and giggles. My husband and I stayed in a hotel in Heidelberg where the light over our bed fell down on us, so we slept with our feet at the head of the bed and our heads at the foot of the bed. We’ve gotten parking tickets because we didn’t understand the payment system and the signs. We‘ve made five circles through a roundabout because we couldn’t figure out which exit we needed to take. I told a policeman at the Eiffel Tower “I have a little stink” when I was trying to say “I speak a tiny bit of French”. But if you think of it all as a grand adventure and bend to accommodate these unexpected hiccups, you’ll end up with great travel stories and meet amazing people along the way.

**As my dad always used to say when things went wrong…”we’re making memories!” Here’s wishing you incredible memories!**

 

Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 2

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Thanks to everyone who liked and commented on Part 1 of this post! It was great to hear your thoughts…I’d love to hear what you think of this next group of life lessons!

For those of you who may have missed part 1, I’m posting lessons I’ve learned from my travels, whether my first trip to Europe or my tenth. I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years…I’m sharing them here so you can avoid them!

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There are times when the best decision is to throw money at the problem and make it go away – you will invariably run into problems that can be easily solved with a reasonable amount of money.  In my last post I mentioned that my husband and I spent 24 hours in Germany not speaking to each other; we got into a HUGE fight over the 5 euro charge for the funicular at Heidelberg Castle. I was exhausted and did NOT want to hike up the 315 steps to reach the castle; my husband said there was NO way he was paying when we were perfectly capable of taking the stairs. Guess what happened? We hiked the stairs, and I was so exhausted and mad by the time we got to the top that I didn’t speak to him again until we were at the airport the next day! On the flight home, we realized I should have paid the 5 euros and met him at the top, but in that moment, we were SO tired that our brains were not working correctly. Our fight also illustrates that “reasonable” means different things to different people. When I went on my bike trip across Austria with friends two years ago, we discussed this issue ahead of time. And after two days of biking in second-day stinky biking clothes because we hadn’t found a laundromat after six days of searching, we decided it was worth the 75 euros our hotel charged us to do an overnight load of laundry. Was it a lot of money? Yes.  Would we rather have found a laundromat and done it ourselves? Yes, of course, but we split the cost three ways and felt SO MUCH BETTER with clean bike clothes! With no laundromat available, it was our best option at that moment. We made the decision and moved on with no regrets.

**for more topics to discuss before traveling with friends, read this post**

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Don’t be afraid to split up – My husband and I don’t spend 24/7 together at home, but when we first traveled, we stayed together ALL. THE. TIME. Over the years, we have gradually come to the realization that because we have different interests (plus I need alone time to rest and recharge), there are times when it just makes sense to split up for an afternoon.  Florence Nightingale was my childhood hero, so when we went to London, I was super excited to see the Florence Nightingale Museum. My husband had zero interest, but wanted to spend more time at the Imperial War Museum than I did, so I went to the Florence Nightingale museum alone and met up with him a few hours later for a quick look at the highlights of the Imperial War Museum. 

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When walking alone, listen to your gut – You know that gut feeling that something is not right? Maybe the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, or you get a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach? LISTEN TO THAT FEELING!!! On my way to the Florence Nightingale Museum, I walked through a slightly sketchy area of London. I was on an empty street when two men came up and started walking behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I got a VERY strong feeling of danger. Luckily, there was a convenience store on that block, so I dashed in and stayed there for several minutes. I told the clerk about the men and that they gave me the creeps; he helped me check to make sure they had gone before I continued on my way (looking back, I should have called a taxi to get the rest of the way to the museum, but luckily, I had no further issues). That’s probably the most scared I’ve ever been when traveling. Sometimes we (women, especially) discount that feeling, thinking we are just being silly, but I’m a firm believer in listening to your gut!

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It’s amazing how much you can communicate with smiles, nods and pointing – My aunt mentioned this one, and she was so right! My favorite travel stories are of people we’ve encountered along the way, like the man who came up to my husband in Salzburg and commented on the fact that my husband was wearing shorts and a winter coat in December. We understood nothing he said except “lederhosen” and “BRRR”, but when he wrapped his arms around himself and faked a shiver, it was obvious that he thought my husband was a little nuts for wearing shorts! In Berchtesgaden, we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast run by a husband and wife who spoke almost no English. Despite this, we were able to understand the directions he gave us to the Berchtesgaden Salt Mine, through gestures and pointing left and right. A smile and a nod, along with a quick game of charades, can get you a long way!

Most people are basically helpful (except for the ones who are trying to scam you) and how to tell them apart – Over and over again on our travels, my faith in the goodness of people has been reaffirmed. When our rental car broke down in the Lake District of England, our  Bed and Breakfast host drove us a half hour to the train station. When my friends’ luggage got lost as they were about to start a 100 mile hike along the West Highland Way, their Bed and Breakfast host took the hiking boots off his feet and gave them to Jeff to use until Jeff’s gear arrived. We have experienced countless examples of kindness, but have also been the victims of a few scams. How do you tell them apart? Scammers will usually approach you in a busy tourist spot (train station, ATM, crowded plaza, etc) asking you to sign a petition or hand your money to them as they ‘help” you. A favorite scam at a train/metro station is to offer to buy the tickets for you at the ticket machine. The scammer wants you to give them your money and they will buy you the one week pass, for example. When in reality, they buy you the one-ride ticket and have just made a profit.  **Someone who is truly trying to help, however, will usually just point to the right buttons on the ticket machine and let you do it yourself.**

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We learned the hard way to be particularly wary when the currency is unfamiliar to us, and to NEVER let a stranger give you change at the ATM. In the Czech Republic, where the currency is the koruna, a man came up to us at the ATM and offered to make change (the ATM’s there spit out 1000 koruna bills). He gave us two 500 unit bills, which turned out to be Hungarian currency and worth WAY less than the 1000 korunas we gave him. But the money was very decorated and unfamiliar to us, and we were busy trying to get to the airport to go home, so we didn’t realize the switch until later.  We also learned not to sign any “petitions” in touristy areas. We did ONCE and congrats, you’ve just given your email, name and address to scammers who will then send you “phishing” emails and steal your credit card number!

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A bottle of wine, cheese and dessert on your balcony can be dinner – Some nights, we’re exhausted after a long day of sightseeing. Other times, we’re traveling with a pretty strict budget and choose to spend it on activities rather than food. For whatever reason, we are perfectly happy picking up a bottle of wine, some cheese and bread, and a small dessert at the local market and having a picnic dinner on our hotel bed or balcony. You can find really fresh ready-to-go meals in the local supermarkets and save tons of money on food – we also love exploring the outdoor produce markets for fresh fruit.

I still have a long list (it’s amazing how many things I thought of once my mind got going), so part three will be coming soon! In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line in the comments section below and let me know which of these resonate with you! And as always, thanks so very much for reading….

Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 1

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My daughter and her boyfriend went to Barcelona this week, and were surprised to find that their AirBnB rental had no air-conditioning. Even though they live in Miami and are used to the heat, they still had a hard time sleeping at night without the comfort of A/C or even a fan. That got me started thinking about surprises I’ve encountered and lessons I’ve learned while traveling. On my first trip to Europe, for example, I was flabbergasted to find that our bed and breakfast in England’s Lake District did not supply washcloths! When we asked for one, we were told that in Europe a washcloth is considered a personal item. Who knew?? I certainly hadn’t seen that information in any of the dozen guidebooks I had combed through before our trip. For me, discovering the differences between cultures and countries is part of the fun of traveling. Some of the lessons I’ve learned, however, have been about myself and what I need to make a trip enjoyable. And while I’m certainly getting better at it, I still learn something new on every trip! So without further ado, here is a random list of lessons I’ve learned during my years of travel; which has become such a long list that I’m going to split it into multiple parts. Check back over the next couple of weeks for the rest of the list…

An adapter and a voltage converter are NOT the same thing – A plug adapter only makes it possible to plug your electronic device into the wall socket; a voltage converter adapts the current from 110 (which the USA uses) to 220 (which Europe uses). Luckily, most phones, tablets and laptops are dual voltage these days, so if you’re only bringing these types of electronic items, chances are you won’t need to bring a voltage converter. If you are traveling with a single voltage electronic item, you will need BOTH a voltage converter and an adapter.

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Don’t bother bringing a single voltage blow dryer or curling wand/straightener – I read this advice online, but didn’t heed it, and learned firsthand how accurate it was when I fried my curling iron in London, even with a voltage converter. **how many of you are out there raising your hands right now in “fry the hair appliances” sisterhood?**  I have since invested in a dual voltage curling wand, one of my best travel-related purchases. I never bring a blow dryer from home, however, as most hotels supply them these days.  When I stay at a place without a blow dryer, I let my hair air dry and then just use the curling wand to fix any funky spots. I know many women just let their hair do whatever it wants while traveling, but my hair has just enough wave to get all frizzy and funky without a little help, and I do like to look pretty in my travel photos!

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Logistics are stressful – This, I think, is one of the major reasons people sign up for guided tours. Navigating your way around a country when you don’t speak the language is harder than I anticipated. I once spent a day on my own in Germany where ALL of my plans went awry due to the difficulties of figuring out logistics in a foreign language.  That day deserves its very own blog post, which is coming soon, but remember to allot extra time and patience when trying to figure out train schedules, subways, airports, ticket machines,etc. I never schedule any fixed activities on a day when I’m transitioning from one location to another anymore, as I’ve missed a few due to transportation delays. When all else fails, it is worth every minute you stand in line to get help from a real person!

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Do whatever it takes to get enough sleep – I am constantly reading statements like “you can sleep when you get home – you’re in Europe so make the most of every moment”.  I learned the hard way that this rule does NOT apply to me! If I don’t get the sleep I need, neither I nor my companions will enjoy the trip; just ask my husband! We once spent our last 24 hours in Germany not speaking to each other because we were so exhausted we had hit the wall and got in a huge fight over 5 euros. I cannot rise at dawn and spend an entire day sightseeing; I need to get a solid eight hours of sleep to be pleasant company and enjoy myself. I may see fewer sights each day, but I thoroughly enjoy the ones I do see. If you know you can’t function well without sleep, do whatever it takes to get the sleep you need, whether that means taking a 20 minute power nap on a metal folding chair in Westminster Abbey or going to an air-conditioned movie midday so you can rest (and nap, if you’re like me)! A well-rested you will enjoy the trip way more than an exhausted, cranky you!

Don’t pre-book too many activities – On my first trip to Europe, I had our entire itinerary planned out ahead of time. I laugh now when I look back, because we actually only saw about half what I had planned. Again, logistics came into play; it took longer to get from place to place on the tube than I had anticipated, and we were tired from navigating the city and being on our feet all day, so often didn’t have the energy for the night time activities on my schedule. On our last night in London, I had booked tickets to see The Gypsy Kings in concert at Hampstead Heath. The tube in London was not air conditioned, and we were tired and hot when we arrived back at our hotel after a full day of sightseeing. With only a 30 minute window to freshen up and change before getting back on the (non-airconditioned) tube for the 90 minute journey out to Hampstead Heath, we ended up staying in and having a picnic dinner on our bed, losing the money we spent on the tickets. Now, I choose carefully when pre-booking activities.  Some attractions, like the Vatican Museum or the Anne Frank House, are absolutely worth booking online ahead of time, as they have super long lines all the time. But I try not to book a night activity unless we’ve got a light day of sightseeing and can plan some rest time during the day

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This is just the beginning…I’ve got enough material for at least two more posts! How about you? What lessons have you learned through travel?  Do you have great stories from a time when something went wrong?? Leave a note in the comments section and I’ll include your tips in my next post!

A day out in the Venetian Lagoon: Burano and Torcello

Burano

My youngest spent his first semester in college studying abroad in Rome; I, of course, leapt at the chance to visit him (I did miss him desperately, but ITALY).  We decided to split our time between Venice and Rome, so that we could experience the Acqua Alta, or “high water”, which causes floods in Venice twice a year.  I’m so glad we went in November; yes, it was on the colder side, but we didn’t have to worry about the heat and crowds that I’ve heard make Venice fairly miserable in the summer, and the floods were quite fun to experience. Venice has an ambience like no other city I’ve ever seen, and one of my absolute favorite things to do was wander the back streets away from the tourist areas. I saw a suggestion online to spend one day exploring the islands of the Venetian lagoon, so we added that into our itinerary, and had a lovely day out!

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Hotel Campiello, our lodging, was in the Castello sestiere (neighborhood) on Calle del Vin, a quiet back street opening onto a tiny square (or campiello) with an ancient well in the center.  Despite being only a five minute walk from Piazza San Marco, it was supremely quiet and included a yummy breakfast (if you arrive on the weekend, ask for the cappuccinos at breakfast – we were not offered one until Monday, so apparently the weekend server didn’t know/want to make them). I booked the Deluxe Double so we’d have room for our son, and as a bonus we got a private rooftop terrace and an amazing spa shower! Located just a hundred yards from the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop, we could have easily taken the vaporetto around the city to catch the ferry out into the lagoon, but decided to walk so that we could explore back streets and pop in to the Libreria Acqua Alta along the way.

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We set out after breakfast, and a few wrong turns later found ourselves at the bookstore, where we spent a happy hour rummaging through the treasure trove of old and new books, old maps, post cards, magazines, etc., piled not just in gondolas but also on chairs, the back patio, and the street in front of the store.

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We found the world’s tiniest math book (about 1 inch by 1 inch), which of course had to come home with us as a stocking stuffer for our oldest, who loves math.

** Does anyone else give weird and quirky things in Christmas stockings? Or is it just me?? I once gave my son a tiny little buddha statue because when he was a baby and always smiling, we called him “the Happy Buddha”**

Libreria acqua alta

With our purchases in hand, we continued on to the Fondamenta Nove vaporetto stop, where we jumped on Line 12 to Burano. From there, we transferred to Line 9, which runs back and forth between Burano and Torcello.

Torcello ferry

The island of Murano, with its glass factories, is closest to Venice, but I was intrigued by the island of Torcello, where the original Venetians first settled back in the 5th century as they fled from the Germanic invasion of Altino after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta was built in the 7th century and is the oldest church in Venice. An intricate Byzantine mosaic covers the entire back wall of the cathedral; as I studied the astounding artistry I felt a yearning to attend “mosaic school”and learn this ancient craft. We did not climb the campanile (bell tower) but for a small fee you can get beautiful views out over the lagoon

Basilica di Santa Assunta tower

Right next door is the small, round Chiesa di Santa Fosca, a lovely, simple, unadorned Byzantine-style church from the 11th century. If you go, take a few minutes and soak in the peaceful atmosphere of Santa Fosca, the tranquility is calming and the church is beautiful in its simplicity.

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There is only one path from the ferry landing to the Basilica di Santa Assunta, so it’s impossible to get lost. There are a limited number of restaurants on the island (I’ve read there are only 10 permanent residents); the restaurant that looked most promising had a sign out front with a cardboard stork and what we assumed was an announcement that the family was enjoying a new baby boy, so we ended up grabbing a coffee and a sandwich at an outdoor cafe before heading back to the ferry for Burano.

torcello cafe

Pictures of Burano are all over Instagram these days due to the colorful houses, brightly painted so that returning fishermen could distinguish the houses in the fog that often blankets the lagoon.

Burano square

Most famous for its lace, we also enjoyed hearing the history of Venetian masks made on the island. I had often wondered about the long nose of the doctor’s mask, and the mask artist we met explained the long nose was designed to keep the doctor’s face from getting too close to the plague victims he examined.

Venice Decoration Carnival Mask Venetian The Mask

**Doctor’s mask photo courtesy of maxpixel.com**

We did a little shopping but didn’t have a lot of time on Burano, so mostly enjoyed wandering this beautiful island before taking the last ferry back to Venice.

Burano sunset

I love spending relaxed days just exploring and getting lost in a new place…where are your favorite places to wander? As always, thanks for reading!

 

What I’ve been reading – May edition

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Have you heard of the blog Modern Mrs Darcy? Anne’s blog is one of my favorites – if you’re an avid reader like me, you’ll love her! I’ve participated in her annual reading challenge for the last few years, and have enjoyed expanding my reading repertoire.  Anne writes a “What I’ve Been Reading Lately” series and I always look forward to her list, so thought I’d write a similar post for all of you! Here’s a look at what I’ve been reading this spring.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – This novel is classified as science fiction/Post-Apocalyptic fiction, which made me hesitate, as I don’t normally read this genre. But Anne recommended it, so I gave it a shot, and loved it! A National Book Award Finalist in 2014, it tells the story of a traveling theatre troupe in the Great Lakes area after most of the world’s population has been wiped out. I became completely wrapped up in the characters, and had a moment of panic when my Kindle library loan expired as I was 76% of the way through the book. Luckily, I was able to re-borrow it 30 minutes later (I can hear the collective sigh of relief from all of you) and finished it that night! I totally could have binge-read this book…that’s how good it was.

The Century Trilogy by Petra Durst Benning – I read this series for the “Book in Translation” category of this year’s reading challenge. Each of the three books (While the World is Asleep, The Champagne Queen, and Queen of Beauty) tells the story of one of three childhood friends from Berlin. Set between the years of 1890-1920, each of the female characters is a strong, independent woman making her way through the trials and joys of life. I love historical fiction and this series did not fail me (it is available on Kindle Unlimited for those of you with a monthly subscription). The author also wrote The Glassblower Trilogy, another series I adored. 

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – I read this for the “A book longer than 500 pages” category of the reading challenge. It’s the first in the Kingkiller Chronicles, and is considered fantasy/heroic fiction. Again, not my usual choice of genre, but my son said he thought I’d like it, and he was quite correct. At 736 pages in the paperback, this one took a long time to read, and I found I really needed to read it in larger chunks of time rather than a few pages before bed each night. I had a hard time getting interested in this one at first, but am so glad I persisted; by about page 100, I was hooked. It’s a coming of age “story within a story”.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey – Currey has compiled short descriptions of how 161 artists structure their days. I’m about halfway through this one, and find myself skimming the descriptions until I find one that interests me. It’s kind of fun to read that Agatha Christie, even after publishing ten books, still didn’t consider herself a writer and put her occupation down as “married woman”; or that Carson McCullers snuck a thermos of sherry into the library with her while she wrote; but overall it has not held my interest so I probably won’t finish it.

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Manage Your Day to Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind by 99U, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei – This book has been SUPER helpful as I’ve been trying to figure out how to carve out time to write and make my blog a priority. With essays by many different authors, I’ve found great nuggets of wisdom to help me structure my days. If you’re struggling with time management like I am, I highly recommend this book! Also available on Kindle Unlimited.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – I found this while searching for an audiobook to listen to as I painted the trim in my son’s dining room (THREE coats of white paint, people!) and ended up using it to fulfill the “a book of poetry, a play, or an essay collection” category of the reading challenge. Hearing the African American author’s voice as she described her childhood growing up in 1960’s Ohio, South Carolina, and New York City brought the verse to life. A National Book Award and Coretta Scott King award winner.

**You may be wondering about my goal to discontinue my kindle unlimited membership…I’ve been trying to get caught up with all the books I had borrowed – and I’ve been enjoying them so much I’m considering keeping the membership! I’ll keep you posted on the final decision**

Have you read anything good lately? Send your recommendations my way…I’m always adding to my TBR (To Be Read) List! Up next for me – Ready Player One (Do I need to read the book before I see the movie?), Three Junes, The Nightingale and Being Polite to Hitler…check back in at the end of June for another update!

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Mother’s Day gift ideas for someone who has recently lost her mom

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Mother’s Day is not the same for me since my mom died seven and a half years ago. The first year after she died, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I no longer had a mother with whom to celebrate (obviously, I still celebrate the fact that I HAD a mother, but her death left a gaping hole which I particularly feel on Mother’s Day), and the weeks of commercials leading up to the day only intensified my feelings of loss. That first year, I spent the Friday and Saturday before Mother’s Day in bed, crying. The actual day itself, however, turned out surprisingly well, because my husband and my three kids were sensitive to my grief and were so very sweet to me.

It’s hard to know how to celebrate Mother’s Day with someone who has recently lost their mother. Should I talk about her mom? Will I make her sad if I do? Should we even celebrate Mother’s Day? All these questions circle in the brain – but the answer is YES, you should talk about her mom and acknowledge Mother’s Day! I asked a few friends what gifts and gestures they most appreciated the first year after their mom died. In honor of the upcoming day on Sunday (in the USA at least), here are some gift ideas for any woman who has recently lost her mom.

A Mother’s Day card with a twist – One of my most treasured Mother’s Day cards from my husband is the one he gave me that first year after my mom died, in which he listed all of my mom’s best qualities and how he saw them continuing on in me. I’m actually tearing up as I write this, because taking the time to think about the things he loved the best about my mom and then write them down for me was such a perceptive, sensitive and loving thing to do. If you know someone who has recently lost her mom, and you knew her mom, a card or even just a phone call to say “I really loved this about your mom, and I see the very same quality in you” will make her so very happy!

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Stories about her mom – So often we don’t speak of the loved one for fear of making the grief worse. Yet, all of my friends said that they loved hearing stories about their mom from people who knew her. One of my friends said, “Recognizing she’s no longer here is important to me.  Ignoring her absence hurts.” So a short note or a phone call sharing your favorite memory or a funny story about her mom would be a treasured gift!

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Gift of your time – Now that my kids are grown and scattered, time with my kids is precious to me. I don’t usually get to see them on Mother’s Day, but I love when they call or FaceTime with me on the actual day. That first Mother’s Day, my children (who were in middle and high school at the time) spent the entire day with me – they made me breakfast in bed, helped me plant in my yard and played some of my favorite games after dinner. I also love to hike – there is something about being out in nature that is healing, so taking her for a hike might be just the thing! Your time can be particularly important if she doesn’t have kids of her own with whom to spend the day. Sharing a few moments, either in person or long distance, with siblings who share the loss can also be very meaningful. One friend stated that “Talking to and texting my sister on Mother’s Day are also part of my post-Mom ritual.  We both lost our mother and we’re linked by shared history since our births.” This is something I wish I’d been better at those first few years…I’m going to make it a point to call or text my brother and sister on Mother’s Day from now on!

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A photo of her mom – Find a great photo of her mom, or the two of them, and frame it for her. Another friend, whose mom worked her entire life with preschool children, said she loved getting a picture of her mom reading to a circle of children.  I asked my dad for a copy of their wedding picture, and have it on my bedside table. I also have a fantastic picture of my mom and dad, on their last vacation before her cancer diagnosis, which I keep in my living room.  I love seeing her beautiful smile when I walk past her photos.

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Time to be alone – she may not be up for a big celebration this year, so let her make that call. Sometimes, the best gift you can give someone is time alone to rest, recharge and feel sad. My friend said it best…”Feeling sad is healthy – where there is great love, there is great grief.  I don’t want my family to try to jolly me out of this necessary, though brief, poignant sadness.” If she wants to be alone, you can send a text (with no answer required), drop a card with a treat or flowers on her porch, or send a short email to let her know you are thinking of her.

A gift of service – Is there a project with which she could use help? Maybe one she started before her mom died which has been laid to the side? Offer to help her work on it! I am always so grateful when my kids and husband help me with planting – I love my garden, but it’s time consuming to plant every spring, and the fact that they willingly pitch in, despite the fact that they don’t enjoy it, is so very appreciated!

A quilt made from her mom’s favorite clothes – One of my friends, who is a quilter, received a quilt made of fabrics from her mom’s closet. What a thoughtful, personal gesture! I have a piece of my mom’s wedding dress, which I will frame in a shadowbox with my mom and dad’s wedding photo. Another idea would be to stretch the front of a favorite souvenir t-shirt (especially if it’s from a trip she took with her mom) over canvas to be hung.

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Her favorite flowers – As long as she’s not allergic to flowers (my grandma had such bad allergies that we could never give her flowers) a bouquet of her favorite flowers is always a good idea. If her mom had a favorite flower, include some of those in the bouquet as well. Yellow roses were my mom’s favorite, and every time I see them, I think of her. I would love to receive some yellow roses on Mother’s Day in remembrance of my mom.

This year, I am spending the Saturday before Mother’s Day with my aunt, cousins, and sister. I’m so excited to get together with these incredible women, with whom I have a shared history and all of whom have lost our mothers. We are going to celebrate having (and being) bad ass moms, and we’ll probably tell lots of funny stories about my mom, aunt and grandma. Sunday I’ll get to see my youngest son and a young man who is like a son to me, and then on Monday, on my drive home, I’ll stop by Arlington Cemetery to say hi to my mom (as a 20-year Navy Wife, she’s in the columbarium there). I’ll tell her how my kids are doing and about my husband’s job search, catch her up on the extended family news, leave her a yellow rose, and somewhere up there, I hope she’ll know I’m thinking of her.

Living in Limboland (aka dealing with uncertainty)

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Fun fact: I have moved 20 times in my life. I have lived in my current house for 5 years and 9 months, which is precisely three months longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else. After 20 moves, I am in the first house I’ve ever really loved. My house and my yard bring me such joy; some of my happiest moments of the last five years and nine months have been spent on my front porch. I love Winston Salem – it’s the perfect size for me, there’s a great sense of community, and there are always fun things to do. And my friends here in Winston Salem bring me even more joy than my house!

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Not so fun fact: We will, most likely, be moving again in the not too distant future. My husband has been between jobs for a year, and may be getting a job offer (or two, or maybe even three, if we’re really lucky) in other cities during the next month or so. Now I know some of you might be out there thinking that he should just try to get a job here so we can stay in Winston Salem, since we like it so much.  And he has…but what he does is somewhat specialized, and one of the downfalls of living in a smaller city is that opportunities for him are not plentiful. I work very part time, so his job has a huge influence on where we live at this stage of our lives. I am, however, an integral part of the discussion and decision on which job and location is the best balance between his career goals and the needs of our family. And our long term plan is to come back here at some point for retirement, so it’s not like we’ll be leaving forever. 

**I hope I’m not jinxing the process by writing this post – if you’re paying attention, Fate, I didn’t write that he IS going to get a job offer, just that he MIGHT get a job offer**

Since last year, I’ve known the possibility of another move is in our future. And while I’ve tried not to worry about it, I have to say that the uncertainty has affected me. I’ve basically been living in Limboland for the last year, which equates to constant low level stress. For those of you who move frequently, the following situations may sound familiar to you. Or you may have experienced other worries. Here are some of the ways uncertainty has affected my life this past year, and how I’m dealing with it.

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Being afraid to make long term commitments – Last August, I was feeling drawn to a volunteer project that required a commitment for the entire school year. But it didn’t feel ethical taking on that obligation when I knew there was a chance we might move before the school year ended, so I didn’t volunteer. Now, of course, it’s almost the end of the school year, so I could have safely signed up – but I didn’t know that last August, now did I? Even something as simple as a dental cleaning caused stress – should I make the next six-month appointment? What if we move and I forget to cancel it before leaving? Should we buy the new couch we desperately need for our current house, or should we wait because our next living room may be completely different? Anything requiring a commitment more than a month out began a cycle of “what if” that drove me crazy.

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Anticipatory grief – Because I love where I currently live, I’ve been sad off and on this past year, knowing that I will most likely have to say goodbye to my house, my town, and my friends. Starting all over again in a new city entails so much emotional work – we’ll have to find a place to live (should we buy or rent? live close to work or farther away? can we even FIND a house we’ll both like?), new doctors (not just a Primary Care doctor, but a new dentist, GYN, a new dermatologist, etc.), a new hair salon (this is super hard for women), a new dog sitter, and a new place to workout (will there be a YMCA close to my new house? will it be a nice facility? will they have the classes I like? will there be any long bike trails to train for my ride in September?), along with a myriad other details I haven’t even thought of at this point. I’ve also been remembering how very lonely I was when we first moved here, and am dreading a repeat of that experience. And what if we end up moving somewhere I don’t like? You never really know for sure if you’re going to enjoy the next place until you’re actually there!

Excitement – I know you’re probably thinking “This woman just said she’s dreading saying goodbye – how can she be excited, for pete’s sake?!” It sounds contradictory, but along with my inability to make long term commitments and my dread of being lonely, there is a little fissure of excitement at the opportunity to explore a new part of the country. I inherited my love of travel from my dad (a career Navy man who traveled the world on submarines and aircraft carriers and loved every second), so there is a part of me that is drooling at the chance to share new adventures with my husband. I’m also excited about sharing my excursions with all of you here on the blog!

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Acceptance – One of my mentors from grad school told me “Life is never 100 percent; it’s always 60/40. As long as the 60 percent is the good stuff, you’re doing okay.” Every place has good and bad. I’ve found that focusing on the good and minimizing the bad to the best of my ability leads to an easier adjustment, so I’ve started making lists of the good things about our potential locations as a way to mentally prepare. Even my least favorite possibility has several good things about it, so no matter where I end up, I’ll be good, and my husband and I will be together, which is hugely important to me. We’ve shared many adventures through the years, and hopefully we have many more to come. Stay tuned for more news as things develop! 

An April goals update…

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Happy Saturday everyone!

Back in March, I wrote about my ideal day and my “feeling goals”, and said I would post an update in April.  I’m at a family wedding this weekend so am sharing this quick update today in lieu of a travel-related post.

If you remember, I described my ideal day as calm yet energetic, filled with fresh air and sunshine, something productive, something fun, something active, quality food to fuel my body, and a good night’s sleep. Using this scenario as a guideline, I chose the following Feeling goals: energetic, productive, happy, well-rested, and active.

How did I do?

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Doing one small task before my morning coffee – I accomplished this about half the time in the last few weeks, and definitely notice an improvement in how energetic I feel when I get one small (even tiny) task done upon first waking. Even something simple like drinking 16 ounces of water or making the bed makes a big difference! My goal for April is to create a list of simple tasks that I can tackle upon awakening (my brain can’t handle anything too complex before coffee lol) and then improve my percentages in May.

Blocking out time to work on my blog – I’m still struggling with time management and carving out time to work on the blog. I’ve recently been introduced to Google calendar by a friend, and I am currently playing around with the app to create reminders and goals. I’ve set a goal of working on my blog three times a week, for two hours at a stretch, in the afternoons. Google calendar looks through my events and finds a good time to squeeze it in, which is very helpful. Once it’s on my calendar, I can rearrange if needed, but I am much more likely to keep the time sacred once it’s blocked out.

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Trying three different coffee shops – I tried two coffee shops in March, and realized that I am not a fan of working at Starbucks, as the loud music doesn’t allow for the concentration I need when writing. I am currently researching independent coffee shops in Winston Salem for a blog post, so am making some good progress on this goal in April.

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Going to bed earlier and disconnecting from electronics by 8 PM – complete and utter fail! In the last five weeks, I have only been asleep before midnight 11 times, and asleep by 11:30 PM FIVE times! So I am really missing the boat on this one. I have done a bit better turning electronics off early, but it’s really more like 9 or 9:30 rather than 8 PM that they go off. I feel most energetic when I wake up between 8 and 8:30 am, so I’d like to be asleep by 11:30. I’d be very interested in hearing your tips on getting into good sleep patterns!

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Exercise – this is one goal where I’m doing great! My goal was 20 workouts in March, and I did 24. I checked off my “fresh air and sunshine” goal on 27 of the last 30 days as well, so I am rocking and rolling on the exercise front! My April and May goals are to do 20 workouts per month and one minute of planks five days each week. I find that when I do planks consistently, I feel stronger and it only takes a minute out of my day, so it’s a win-win.

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Breakfast – you are my downfall! After my morning latte, I’m not usually hungry, so I forget to eat until lunchtime, which is often when I end up having my fruit smoothie. I keep reading about the importance of fueling your body in the morning, so might try prepping “smoothie bags” on Sunday to make it easier for my morning brain – I could just dump the contents into the blender, add almond milk, and voila – breakfast! I’ll likely add a column to my chart for eating SOMETHING in the am, even if it’s just a banana or a hard-boiled egg. Look for my May update to see how I do!

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Something fun – While I only did one full day outing in March (my overnight to Macon, Georgia), I did go to the opera with my husband, meet friends for lunch, schedule coffee dates, and have lots of exercise dates with friends, so am definitely feeling happy with this category. I’ve also read several good books lately and traveled for family events (two weddings in April) which has been fun. I’ve got some fun trips planned in the next few weeks as well, so watch for some new posts in my Wednesday Wanderings series! And let me know if you’d like to hear what I’ve been reading.

**I’d really love to hear your tips for better sleep and time management! Leave a comment below if you have any advice!**

Steps I take every day to stay healthy

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What an ideal place to practice yoga! Photo by CATHY PHAM on Unsplash

A few years ago, after my mom died of cancer, I decided to make my efforts to stay healthy more intentional. I thought long and hard about the positive steps I need to take every day to be healthy, both mentally and physically, and have tweaked a few over the years.  I’m not sure anyone will be interested, but I thought I’d share them with you today, as I feel so much healthier and more energetic when I do these things consistently! I make a chart each week and tape it to my refrigerator so I can keep track and check each item off as I complete it. I tend to get distracted easily, so it really helps me to keep my chart where I can see it constantly.

**Of course, I’m not a doctor, so just because these steps seem to be working for me, please consult with your doctor before taking any supplements or making any other significant health changes!**

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Who says water has to be boring? Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash

Drinking lots of water has so many benefits – it helps prevent UTI’s, benefits your circulatory system, hydrates your skin and body, AND I’ve noticed that I have fewer hot flashes when I drink 10-12 cups of water a day.  10-12 cups is a LOT of water….I try to drink 16 oz. before my morning coffee, and to finish most of it by dinner time so I’m not up all night trekking back and forth to the bathroom. I also jazz it up sometimes with mint, slices of fruit, etc. Strawberry/mint is one of my favorite combos!

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I can never get enough blueberries! Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Five to seven servings of fruits and veggies per day – I love fresh fruit, but have never been a big fan of veggies, so I’ve really struggled with this one. I don’t worry too much about how many servings of each; rather I lump them together and just try to make sure I include one or the other (or both!) at most meals.

Vitamins – I take a multivitamin plus other types of supplements, mostly ones that are recommended by my doctors (Vitamin D3, evening primrose oil for my eyes, black cohosh for hot flashes). I also take allergy and asthma medications. I parcel my vitamins out between breakfast and dinner, and check off on my chart to make sure I take them each day.

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I’ve been known to sleep like this! Photo by Lauren Kay on Unsplash

Sleep – Oh my gosh this one makes SUCH a difference! When I get a great night’s sleep, I feel like I can take on the world; I have lots of energy and I am more active and productive during the day. And yet it seems to be the goal that is the most elusive of them all. As I’ve mentioned before, I need a good eight to nine hours of sleep to function optimally.  I am not always good at making sure I turn my electronics off several hours before I go to bed, even though I realize this makes it much easier for my brain to quiet so I can sleep well. I stay away from caffeine after 1 PM, and generally try to go upstairs an hour before I want to be asleep, and after washing my face, I relax in bed with a good book to wind down. I also find that taking a few milligrams of melatonin helps, but if I take it too late at night, I’m sluggish the next morning, so timing is everything!

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Czech republic, here we come! Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Exercise – To feel my optimal best, I need to do some kind of activity during the day. I’m currently training for my next bike trip (cycling the Czech Republic in September with two friends) so my current routine includes at least one spin class each week. I also try to get in two barre classes (I love barre – it’s strength training but without the bear crawls, burpees, and mountain climbers that I hated in boot camp!) and I fill in the other days with walks in the fresh air and sunshine, some run/walk intervals, or an occasional yoga class.  As our bike trip gets closer, we will start doing some longer rides to get our bums used to being in the saddle for hours on end.

Strength Training and Flexibility – This is a recent tweak – I stopped doing boot camp about a year and a half ago, and recently noticed that my body just doesn’t move as well anymore.  I am so excited that I found barre as it nicely fits into this category.  I also include yoga here, and some days I just do a few minutes of strength training or stretching at home.  I shoot for two barre classes a week plus two-three at home sessions.  I’ve decided to try some “yoga for beginners” videos on YouTube – I tried Yoga with Adriene last week and loved her beginner video!

Headspace – Another recent addition; I use the Headspace app for meditation, and while some days I’m able to get into the groove better than others, I am really appreciating the sense of calm that pervades my days when I make the effort to include 5-10 minutes of mediation. I also find that I’m more able to identify when I’m feeling stressed  (I’m looking at you, New York State Real Estate that doesn’t set a closing date on a home purchase until a week before closing – what is up with that nonsense???) and work to release the stress so it doesn’t set off a ripple effect through my day. 

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I love being outside on a sunny spring day! Photo by Crawford Ifland on Unsplash

Fresh Air and Sunshine – This category I added last fall, when the days were starting to shorten and we had a week of gray, yucky days. I was suffering from a case of the doldrums, then took a walk on the first nice day we experienced, and had an “AHA” moment! Fresh air and sunshine make a dramatic difference in my mood – even if I just sit on my front porch to read or meditate, my happiness level rises noticeably. One of the things I’ve become most appreciative of is the amount of sunshine we receive here in North Carolina…it’s truly a game changer for me!

What do you do every day to stay healthy?? I’d love to hear your tips!

 

My Travel Bucket List

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Pantheon in Rome – Photo by Evan Qu on Unsplash

Hello! I don’t know if everyone has a travel bucket list, but I definitely do. It seems the more I travel, the longer my list gets…does this happen to anyone else?  I meet other travelers, and they tell me about cool places they’ve visited, and wham, another place goes on my list! 

I thought I’d share mine today…I’d love to hear about yours as well!

Watch snow fall through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome – This one comes straight from the book Four Seasons in Rome, a travel memoir written by Anthony Doerr. As it only snows in Rome about once every four years, this one will be tricky to accomplish – I’d have to basically watch the weather forecast and then grab a last minute flight! Starting to save my pennies now…as it snowed in Rome last month, I should have a few years to save up. **Alas, I was woefully unprepared last month to take a last minute trip – you can bet I won’t miss that chance next time!**

Ride bikes along the Danube in Austria with my daughter – I did this trip two years ago, with two girlfriends, and I’m super excited to return and share the adventure with my daughter!  I took lots of notes about the towns I liked and didn’t like, so the second ride should be even better logistically, and I love spending one on one time with my girl.

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Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland

Drive Iceland’s Ring Road with my husband and two sons – My daughter and I went to Iceland a few years ago, and I kept thinking how much my husband and sons would like it! I would love to go back with my men and explore even more of Iceland by driving the Ring Road all the way around the country.

Rent an apartment in Paris by myself for two weeks – I love Paris, I’ve been to Paris a few times, and want to go by myself next year. I want to explore at my own pace, on my own schedule, and sit in a cafe and read for six hours without worrying that my companion is bored. 

Take a summer road trip entirely planned around library book sales – my family and I are total book lovers.  We can spend days in used book stores. Last summer we were visiting our oldest son in Upstate New York and found a library used book sale. We happily spent a couple of hours browsing and went home with two boxes full of books. At some point on the drive home, we said “Wouldn’t it be fun to plan an entire road trip and just go from one library sale to another?” So one of these years, the Debrecht Family Library Book Sale Road Trip will happen – though I’m afraid we would have to rent a moving truck to haul our purchases home!

Explore Slovenia – It’s been on my list for years, but I haven’t made it yet! I keep seeing photos which make me long to go explore – I don’t think 2018 will be the year, but who knows!

Visit a Southern Living Idea House – every year, Southern Living magazine features their idea house. These houses always look so beautiful, and I’d love to actually visit one at some point. Maybe this year, since I live in the South right now?

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See all those people? That’s what I want to avoid! Photo by Melissa on Unsplash

Hike an uncrowded section of the Great Wall of China – I’ve never been to Asia, but would love at some point to hike the wall where there are not ten million tourists all walking at the same time…surely, with thousands of miles of wall, I should be able to accomplish this, right?? There’s even one section lit up at night for a night hike!

Spend Christmas in Europe – I’d love to travel with my family to Europe for Christmas one year – wander the Christmas markets, enjoy ice skating and holiday decorations, and experience how other countries celebrate the holiday. I don’t have a particular destination in mind and would be happy to let my family choose! **Hubby, if you’re reading this, I think Christmas of 2019 would be perfect!**

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Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah – Photo by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash

Visit the six states I haven’t seen – Courtesy of my 20 moves and love of travel, I’ve visited 44 of the 50 United States. I’m only missing Alaska, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Vermont (I know, Vermont’s the outlier here – somehow, despite the fact we lived in Connecticut for five years, we never made it to Vermont). At some point, I’ll make it to these six and will be able to say I’ve seen all 50 of our beautiful states! I still remember the huge argument I had with a Texan when I was in college…he said that Texas had the most interesting history of any state, and I argued that each state had its own unique story and that they were all fascinating. Can’t wait to explore the last six and learn their stories!

What places and experiences are on your travel bucket list??? Maybe I’ll add a few more to mine….

As always, thanks so much for reading and have a great weekend!