It's been so cold and crappy, I needed a reminder that it's still nice somewhere. In this case, Jamaica. This was taken about eight years and one week ago. I think I'm overdue for a repeat.
Last weekend I took Friday off from work and flew to Washington, DC to meet up with my friend, A Librarian, who moved to Virginia a few months ago. It should have been a quick flight and indeed we were ahead of schedule until we got into the DC area, then an isolated thunderstorm closed down Reagan National and Baltimore airports at the exact time my plane got there.
They had us circle around for a bit, then land at Dulles and sit on the tarmac for a good while. Some people decided to get off there, but because I'd checked my suitcase, it wasn't a viable option for me. Instead, I just texted A Librarian and read the book on my Kindle app (I was making my way through The Casual Vacancy at the time).
Once I finally got to the airport and retrieved my bag, the fun began. We took the Metro into the National Mall area and walked around looking at monuments I hadn't seen since my last touristy trip to DC in high school.
It was still rather grey and rainy and I wasn't wearing the world's best walking shoes, so we didn't get too gung-ho about trying to see lots of things. We did walk up next to the Washington Memorial and down to the end of the reflecting pool to get a good look at the Lincoln Memorial from a distance.
Then we met up with some other local librarians for dinner at a lovely Argentinean restaurant. After dinner we walked back to the Metro station by way of a drug store, where I was able to purchase a package of underwear to make up for the fact that I'd forgotten to pack any. I'm a cheapskate about that kind of thing anyway, so what I ended up with was no different than most of what I have at home.
I should mention that A Librarian did a very bold thing when she moved: she sold almost everything she owned. Her parents have a load of furniture items and kitchen stuff that they'll be bringing to her eventually, but right now her house is largely empty except for a few odds and ends she's purchased since she closed on her new place. It's quite echo-y when her cats meow.
Thus, there was not a lot of incentive to stick around the house while we were awake, so we planned a full day of activities out and about for Saturday, starting with a lovely brunch on a patio in Richmond, Virginia.
We followed that up with a bit of shopping at a cute boutique next door that was having a sale, and A Librarian scored a very cool framed mirror.
Then she showed me around one of the very impressive libraries in the system where she works before driving us to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, where we planned to spend the afternoon.
And WOW, what beautiful gardens! I took way more photos than I can possibly show here, but these are a few highlights.
We spent quite a long time exploring all the gardens and took a refreshment break about halfway through for wine on a deck overlooking the gardens. We finished up at the butterfly garden, which was absolutely lovely despite the 100°F temperature in the exhibit. I took lots of photos of the butterflies as well.
After I got a little light-headed after bending down to photograph a butterfly, I decided I'd sweated in there long enough and retreated to rehydrate.
We finished the evening with dinner at a fantastic Chinese restaurant and then went out and saw the most recent X-Men movie.
The next day my flight didn't leave until mid-afternoon, which gave us ample time to plan some more sightseeing in DC. We fueled up for the 90 minute drive with coffee and scones, then parked at Reagan National Airport and took the Metro back to the National Mall. This time our goal was to visit various Smithsonian museums.
I'm a big fan of the Natural History Museum, so we started there. I must say that I prefer to see the fascinating variety of the animal kingdom alive, but they do have a comprehensive and educationally-presented collection.
Also an insect zoo, so at least some of the exhibits were alive. Actually, they had a butterfly exhibit as well, but because it cost extra and we were butterflied up from the previous day, we passed it by.
Once we were finished there, we moved on to the National Museum of the American Indian. I'm not going to lie—that choice was guided heavily by the food options in their cafeteria, but we explored the museum after lunch and I was very impressed by the exhibits. I particularly liked the blending of contemporary Native American art with historic and prehistoric examples.
Then it was time to go back to the airport, get my luggage and head back home. We stopped for a quick drink at the airport bar after I checked my bag—perhaps not quick enough considering that they were paging me by name by the time I got to the gate area. It all worked out, though, and I had a quick flight back and got home in plenty of time to go out to dinner and watch the Game of Thrones season finale.
One of the things I was excited about as I read up in preparation for my trip to Sweden last fall was the coffee. More than one American blogger had referred to it as "black crack" and I quickly learned that was pretty darned accurate.
Coffee figures heavily into the pace of the Swedish day. I noticed that most of the coffee shops weren't open particularly early, which leads me to presume that Swedes make their own coffee before work.
I bypassed the instant Nescafe at our apartment in favor of brewing the Gevalia coffee in a French press. It was black as night no matter how much extra hot water I added, but it tasted wonderful. Despite the fact that it is labled as "medium roast" (mellanrost), it rivaled any espresso roast I have ever seen for darkness. When it comes to coffee in Sweden, "medium" is relative.
The coffee break or fika is enshrined in Swedish culture and we were only too happy to take part as often as possible. When you're traveling with an elderly person, coffee breaks are a great excuse to sit down for a while and get recharged. Fika generally involves a pastry or other snack, and I'll never turn that down.
I found myself creating quite the coffee photo gallery during the trip. Mouse over any photo to see its description.
Once I got used to the strong coffee, which didn't take long, I was happy to drink it as often as I could throughout the trip.
The downside was that all American coffee tasted thin and weak to me when I got back. It took a couple of weeks for that impression to subside so I could once again enjoy the available coffee options back in the United States.
It took a bit longer and a few extra pounds for me to disassociate coffee and pastries. I do care a great deal for those cinnamon cardamom rolls.
I did a lot of research about Swedish culture before my trip there last fall and one of the things that every article and blog mentioned is that Swedes keep to themselves to an extent that Americans cannot even imagine.
As my father and I waited for our flight out of Kansas City, one of our compatriots helpfully provided what would prove to be stark contrast with our Swedish experience. Apropos of almost nothing, the young woman across the aisle from us in the waiting area told us all about the stuffed bear she carries with her on trips and then filled us in on her upcoming travel plans, her current health and probably a lot of other stuff that I missed when I stopped paying attention. It was clear that she would continue talking whether we provided encouragement or not, so the torrent of oversharing went on until we got in line for boarding.
Swedes are not like that AT ALL. If I've ever wondered where my introversion genes came from, the trip to Sweden provided my answer beyond all doubt.
During the trip, we mainly stayed in a newer residential area of Stockholm popular with young professionals. There was a train stop right outside our apartment building, so we had an easy time getting around the city for the most part.
As soon as we ventured out, it was obvious that Swedes do not:
It was glorious.
In fact, only once did a stranger speak to us on a train unprompted. We had taken a day trip to Uppsala, which is a university town, and were heading back to Stockholm. A young American student overheard us talking and realized we were Americans as well, so she eagerly started a conversation that lasted until we reached her stop. Those talkative Americans.
That's not to say that the Swedish people weren't friendly. Any time I needed to ask someone a question, I got an unfailingly polite and helpful reply. It may have been mixed with a tinge of pity that I had to ask it in English, but that never showed.
One thing I hadn't read about but noticed on my own: a slight variation in greeting depending on how familiar you were (or might be expected to be) with someone else. For example, when I entered a shop the person behind the counter would say, "Hej!" (Pronounced "hey"—it means "hello.") However, when someone else from the apartment building where we were staying passed us in the hallway, they would say, "Hej, hej!" I noticed our relatives greeting their neighbors that way as well.
Around friends and family members, of course, everything was much more sociable. Admittedly, everyone spoke Swedish most of the time even though they knew we didn't understand them, but it didn't bother me. Everyone in Sweden under the age of, say, seventy had learned to speak very decent English in school. The wife of one our cousins reported that her elderly mother kept rattling off conversational snippets directed at me and would then say (in Swedish), "But of course you can't understand anything I'm saying!"
For the most part, I just felt like I'd found my people. Any time I don't want to make small talk, now I know I'm not antisocial, I'm just Swedish.
...and she's been back for more than a week with nary a blog post to show for it.
So yeah, I've been a little busy since I got home. I've had friends and relatives to visit, souvenirs to distribute, household maintenance to resume, and then there's my actual job. While I was gone we picked up a new client and I was assigned to a project for them the day I got back to the office. Not to mention my new quest to find a local source for coffee so strong that it's opaque. It's a bit of a whirlwind.
Now that I have a few minutes to stop and think, I'm trying to decide what to do with the massive amount of SWEDENNESS that was added to my brain during the trip. That and the 500+ photos I took. Do I write a travelogue? Should I pick out themes and write individual posts about them?
I'm leaning toward the latter. I have some stories that make more sense told in the context of the timeline of the trip, but I have a lot of general observations that can stand alone as feature posts.
Starting tomorrow (I know! What a fakeout, right?) I'll begin publishing posts about my two-week trip and I'll keep them going until I run out of stuff to talk about. Stay tuned!
My dad paid for business class seats, which I highly recommend. The leg room is beyond the wildest dreams of airplane travelers and the seats actually recline enough that you can take a nap. The ticket includes a free soft drink from the cafe car (which is pretty comparable to a concession stand at a high school sporting event) and there are convenient power outlets next to each pair of seats.
Yes, it takes longer to travel by train than to fly, but there is so much less hassle that your patience is amply rewarded. There's no need for early arrival, no baggage screening, no waiting in line. You show up at the station, sit in the waiting room until the train arrives, go outside and get on board.
The train stops briefly from time to time, but bypasses any stations on the route where there's no one interested in getting on or off.
On my trip out, it was dark most of the time so there wasn't really anything to see out the window. I read an entire book and goofed around online with my phone when we were close enough to a populated area that I could get phone service.
On the way back, it was full daylight so I spent some time looking at my surroundings. It turns out that it's very difficult to tell where you are from the train, even if you're in a familiar area. There are almost no signs for train passengers except when you're near a station, so you have to look for distinctive landmarks. I read another whole book on the Kindle app of my iPhone and started a second one.
Only if you're hoping to impress someone with the glory of the United States would I not recommend taking a train trip. Much of the scenery was pretty grim: junkyards, disused industrial areas and collapsing farm outbuildings were the norm. The Amtrak galley employee said he passed the time by looking for eagles, which I could appreciate because I like to keep a hawk and eagle count when I'm a passenger on cross-country road trips.
I'm not sure when my next train trip might be, but I'm considering it for BlogHer this year in Chicago. It would be an ideal way to keep the stress down on the way there and decompress from the conference overstimulation on the way back.
One of the more frustrating things about my scrupulously safe use of social media during my vacation is that it prevented me from blabbing to the Internet every time we managed to spot a celebrity during our trip.
That's probably for the best because Nashville is the kind of place where musicians of all levels of fame reside generally unmolested. My husband said when he first moved there in 1979, he could hardly believe it when he saw Dolly Parton grocery shopping at Kroger. However, it didn't take him long to get used to such things because, after all, everybody has to eat.
And speaking of eating, we were having lunch at Calypso Cafe with my husband's friend Dennis Holt when who should walk in but Keith Urban. No, Nicole Kidman was not with him. He looked pretty much exactly the way he does in every music video in which he appears. He was a little taller than I would have expected, but that's probably because he wasn't standing next to his Amazonian wife.
No one bothered him during the meal and I chose to forego trying to photograph him from across the room because not only would it have been gauche, but I'm not even a country music fan. It's possible that I wouldn't have even recognized him if Dennis hadn't said something.
Later in the trip, my husband and I finally got around to having burgers at Rotier's, as suggested by the fabulously helpful Busy Mom, who provided all kinds of activity and food suggestions when I asked the Nashvillians on Twitter for advice.
About halfway through our meal, a group of fellow patrons got up to pay their bill and my first thought was that they looked like ad agency creative directors. You know the type: older guys, cool clothes, hip hairstyles. Well, one of them was wearing a very distinctive cap and we both realized at about the same time that it was Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick. After that, we spotted Robin Zander and Tom Petersson, so there was no doubt as to who the guys were.
The waitstaff obviously didn't recognize them at all, which made it slightly more satisfying somehow. Again, I chose not to take any photos. After they left, my husband gave me a hard time because I hadn't spotted them in the back room earlier when I stopped by the restroom, but obviously I had other priorities at the time.
The only other random well-known person we ran across was Billy Ward, who I presume is famous mainly among drummers. We were at Fork's Drum Closet at the time so, really, any pro drummer sighting there is shooting fish in a barrel.
The one famous person we saw on purpose was when my husband's friend Ed Simpson hosted a dinner and jam at his house that included Johnny Neel, former Allman Brothers keyboardist. He was quite a character.
So that was the celebrity portion of our Nashville vacation. Next post: the many books I read on my trip.
If you happened to wonder in passing why I didn't post or spend much time on social media last week, it's because my husband and I spent the past seven days on vacation in Nashville, Tennessee.
I fully intend to get a week's worth of posts out of our adventures, but today I'm starting with what I believe is a very logical focus on breakfast. Specifically pancakes.
We stopped for pancakes before leaving town on Monday morning.
That was a warmup for the pancake prize that would await us when we reached our destination. We visited Pancake Pantry twice on our visit, both times during the week and in the late morning or early afternoon to avoid the notorious crowds.
On our first visit I went for the pecan pancakes. Always a good choice.
On our second visit, I went with the traditional buttermilk pancakes. I might be drooling a little right now.
In both instances, it was almost embarrassing how quickly I inhaled my breakfast.
I think I've figured out one of Pancake Pantry's secrets: vanilla in the syrup. Now if only I knew how to make pancakes as soft and fluffy as theirs.
So eating played a big role in this vacation. However, we did a lot of other fun stuff as well and I'll tell you about it throughout the week and try to confine most of the food talk to Yelp, except where it leads to a discussion of celebrity sightings (foreshadowing!).
Meanwhile, I'm off to figure out what to have for breakfast today.
My original plan was to leave to fly back to Kansas City on Sunday morning so I'd have most of the afternoon and evening open to rest up. I got word on Friday night that my morning flight was canceled due to the tropical storm, so I went online and booked a Sunday afternoon flight instead.
I actually thought that one might happen, but I got the cancellation call on Sunday right after breakfast. When I checked the website there were no Sunday flights available at all. I tried to rebook online but the site must have been overwhelmed because it wasn't going through. I ended up calling and sitting on hold for at least 30 minutes before I finally rebooked my flight for 1:05 p.m. on Monday.
So that left me wandering around the hotel aimlessly for a bit. I met up with a group of bloggers and had a second breakfast (I got the hotel restaurant to make me my Shakeology shake). In the process, I learned that staying another night at the conference hotel would cost me $225 because they weren't extending the conference rate of $119 unless you'd booked in advance.
I love it when other people do my research for me, and I happened to run into someone who had planned all along to move to another hotel for the next couple of days. I took her recommendation of a $99 a night Best Western in Arlington, Virginia, and made a reservation there. It cost me a $30 cab ride to get there, but it was still a substantial savings over staying where I was.
After I said my goodbyes, I made my way to the new hotel and started reaching out to my nearby blogger buddies to see if anyone wanted to get together. Sarah and Laurie were kind enough to make plans with me to meet at an Irish-themed pub about half a mile from my hotel. I walked up to meet them in the late afternoon.
We chatted about sports, hair-metal bands, work and other important stuff over beers and deliciously evil pub food.
After we left the pub, I stopped by a nearby sandwich shop to grab some dinner for later, then walked back to my hotel.
I was tempted to go swimming in the lovely pool, but tiredness got the best of me and I ended up staying in my room reading all evening. (I love the Kindle app on my iPad!)
After ten full hours of sleep, I awoke refreshed and ready for my travel day, even if it did involve re-wearing certain garments from earlier in the trip.
I think the lesson here is that it's never a bad idea to build an extra vacation day into a conference trip. Thanks to the sleep I got on Sunday and Monday nights, I'm not spending this week in an exhausted haze the way I did after BlogHer. So the storm actually did me a favor, albeit a rather expensive favor.
I just got back from four days in gorgeous Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I went with a group of friends and my sister—there were 17 of us in total. We spent the trip in a very leisurely fashion, gathering in smaller groups to visit various attractions and larger groups for meals.
One of the first things we noticed is that it's butterfly season there. Wherever we went there were beautiful butterflies flitting around the flowers. My sister led us in a yoga practice on Friday and Saturday mornings and we enjoyed seeing the butterflies on the plants as we exercised.
We stayed at the 1905 Basin Park Hotel in downtown Eureka Springs. Supposedly it's haunted and they offer nightly ghost tours. I didn't think it seemed haunted to me, but what do I know? The only semi-weird experience I had was one afternoon while I was taking a nap. I heard the sound of a door creaking several times and assumed that one of my roommates was coming in. However, I never heard the floor creak to indicate someone walking across it. Once I got up, I checked all the doors in the room and none of them were as noisy as what I'd heard. So if that's my ghost story, it's a pretty tame one.
Every morning I went walking for an hour or so. The hotel was on Spring Street, and as with most towns with the word "springs" in their names, Eureka Springs has a history that included a tourist boom attracted to the healing waters. All along the street you can still see many of the historic springs, although several are dry and the rest are mere trickles of water.
My sister and I had decided in advance that we wanted to visit Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, so we gathered a group of six and went on Friday afternoon. Turpentine Creek is a non-profit that rescues big cats, most of which had been bred as "pets" but were obviously not tameable. It's a much more widespread problem than you would think.
As you can imagine, it's incredibly expensive to build safe habitats and feed these animals properly for the rest of their lives. I wish I had the wherewithal to donate lots of money to their organization.
In case you've ever wondered if a liger is a real thing, here's one. This guy is still young and they expect him to double in size. Ligers are bigger than either lions or tigers once they mature.
On Saturday, my sister and I fulfilled our other sightseeing goal: to visit one of the local caves. We chose Onyx Cave, which apparently doesn't have a website.
What they DO have is self-guided walking tours complete with state-of-the-art 1970s technology including bulky radio headphones that pick up sections of a recorded message that you trigger at various points by pushing a button.
The cave is not as pristine as some I've visited. In the past it was the site of illicit activities by moonshiners and bandits, but it was most ill-used during a time when many of the stalactites were broken off for the onyx. Still, it has a lot of cool formations and it was well worth the $7 admission price.
To give you an idea of the age of the audio presentation, it ended with, "Take only photos and leave behind only flashbulbs."
I was very impressed by the number, variety and quality of shops and restaurants within walking distance of our hotel. If you were willing to drive a short distance, the options increased even more.
This morning I extended my walk all the way to the Crescent, partly to have a destination and partly because I knew I could buy a bottle of water there and pet the lobby cat. Yes, I missed my cats.
Of course, this story leaves out all the fun I had with my friends, gathering for meals and drinks at various parts of the day. I went out with the group on Friday night to see Mountain Sprout play at The Squid & Whale Pub, which is the kind of place that serves your pint of beer in a Ball canning jar and you don't blink an eye.
So what I'm saying is that I had fun, I relaxed, I stayed off the internet for days and, most important, I let 85 work emails go unread until Monday. It was exactly the kind of vacation I needed.