Smooth Sailing

When I was younger, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be such a fan of cruising as a form of vacation.  I’d seen the commercials with Kathy Lee, and wondered why anyone would want to spend several days on a big ship out in the water.  The thought of visiting a hot, tropical island was never very appealing to this girl, who sweats in anything above 80 degrees, and I don’t think I was aware then that cruises stopped at locales other than the Caribbean.

Plus–as much as I like the water–I honestly thought I’d go stir-crazy if I were stuck on a boat for 7 days.  Of course . . . that was before I realized just how much stuff the cruise lines like to pack into each and every day.

So, while I never thought I’d do too much cruising in my life, I’ve been on three cruises in about five years.  Heck . . . if we include the one I’m on right now, that’s four in five years!

I’m not sure why it never would’ve occurred to me that I’d enjoy this.  There’s plenty of stuff to do on the boat; plenty of activities or excursions to partake in at each port of call.  Plus, the ship is large enough that you’re sure to find a nice, quiet area, if you’re looking for solitude.

That’s something I DEFINITELY took advantage of on my last cruise.  I took a 7-day Mexican cruise for my birthday last year . . . by myself.  Craig was also looking for some alone time, and didn’t feel he could take the time away from work, so I went off on my own.  There had been so much stress in my life for the previous two years, and I just didn’t want to be around people too much.  So–with a couple of exceptions–my days looked like this:

Wake up
Go to buffet area to eat breakfast
Go back to room
Read until I fall asleep
Wake up
Go to buffet area to eat lunch
Go back to room
Watch movie or read until I fall asleep
Wake up
Go to restaurant for dinner
Go back to room
Sleep

I’m not kidding you . . . that was my life for that week.  There was an 80s Music Trivia Challenge that I participated in (lost by one point), and I did step off the boat in our two ports of call; Cabo San Lucas (AWESOME snorkeling), and Puerto Vallarta (found a cool cemetery to photograph).  Otherwise, I kept to myself 80% of the time.  And let me tell you, I NEEDED it.  Toward the end of the cruise, my system must have been rested, because I was doing more reading than sleeping when I was in my room, but I still enjoyed the peace and quiet.  And I’ve found myself longing for another “do almost nothing” cruise lately, though this time I’d be okay with Craig joining me . . . cuz he desperately needs it right now.

But the cruise we’re on now is a bit more exotic.  We’re somewhere in the middle of a 14-day European cruise.  Craig and I wanted to take Athena to Europe, and she seems to like cruises, so we let her pick out the route.  We leave out of Southampton, UK, and stop in Gibraltar, Nice, 3 places in Italy, Spain, and Portugal.  Craig and I definitely have our cameras at the ready, and I hope to come back with a TON of cool photos to boost my photography career.  But, more importantly, about half of the days will be At Sea.  While we’ll definitely spend some time together as a family (this is Athena’s last summer as a high school student, and she’ll soon be off to college), we’ve also got our own agendas for the At Sea days.  Athena will likely spend it with the teen group on the boat, or in the pool as much as possible.  Craig will also spend some time at the pool, or stippling in a corner somewhere, and he’s discovered that there’s a miniature golf course on the boat.

As for me?  Well, I’ll probably join Craig on a few activities here and there on the boat, but I’m also packing 3 or 4 books for me to hole up with in our room . . . before I fall asleep.

Letter to Lake Michigan

Aaahhhhh, Lake Michigan!  It’s been so long since I got to swim in your warm waters.  Oh, how I’ve missed you!

You were my first foray into a body of water that’s so big I couldn’t even see the opposite shore.  And I remember your waves were over five feet tall back then.  Of course, I was a kid at the time, so my memory might be a little off on the actual height, but they were taller than me. So much so that I felt certain that someone could surf there.

I barely remember the 90-minute car ride from our house to your shores near Holland, but I very strongly remember climbing out of the back of the station wagon, sand already getting on my feet from what others had dragged back to the parking lot, and I remember my excitement that my family and I were gonna spend several hours soaking up the sun’s rays while swimming in your blue water. It felt like it took forever to get from our car to the shore, and when my parents finally found a spot to lay our towels, I couldn’t kick my flip flops off fast enough, so eager was I to jump in.

We only came to visit you a couple times in my childhood, but those few times stayed with me even after I left Michigan to explore the rest of the world. I’ve gone snorkeling a few places in the Atlantic Ocean–mostly off the coast of the Florida Keys–and I truly enjoyed swimming with sea turtles, and seeing the brightly-colored corals, but no matter how lovely things were under their waves, I still longed for the salt-free taste of your liquid. I even asked whether or not it was possible to snorkel in the Great Lakes, but was sad to learn that those things don’t appear in bodies of fresh water.

Living in Chicago for ten years, I got to swim in you again. Only a couple times, but it was more than I’d done in the ten years since I’d moved away from Michigan. In my memory, your Eastern shores were much sweeter than those found in the Windy City, but I was still thrilled to wet myself in your waves once again.

Whenever discussions with other people turned to swimming and which shores people liked best, I always touted you, my wonderful Lake Michigan. I extolled the virtues of water that was clear and warm, yet had no briney after taste. I also talked about how swimming in you didn’t leave one with a sticky feeling on their skin. And again, all this could be found in a body of water that was large enough to seem like an ocean. Most people didn’t agree with me–or try to tell me that I’m not supposed to drink the water–but that’s okay, I still love you (besides, you can’t help but taste the nasty salt water on your lips).

When Craig, Athena and I visited you during this recent vacation, I must say that you were chillier than I remembered, but I know it was a longer and much colder winter than in recent years, so I forgive you for submerging us in icy water when we stepped off the sand into your oh, so welcoming waves. I personally felt that I’d come “home” once again, and your enveloping embrace was all that I needed to know you’d missed me, too.

Athena also remarked on how nice it was to not have to spit out gritty salt after reemerging from beneath the surface, and she’s since commented on how she wants to come back to visit you again.

Thank you, Lake Michigan, for giving me some wonderful childhood memories (and now some adult ones, too), and thank you for staying just as pristine as I remembered. I hope it’s not another 30 years before I get to touch your wonderful waters again.

I Love to Coast

I loved theme parks as a child (what kid doesn’t?), but I especially loved the ones with roller coasters in them.  I’ve been somewhat of a thrill seeker most of my life, and roller coasters are a (reasonably) safe way to get said thrill.

Dad would sometimes take my brother and me to Boblo Island, which sat between Ontario, Canada, and Detroit (it closed down in 1993), or to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.

Boblo Island was kind of like a small fair/carnival on steroids.  There were lots of rides like what you’d find at a carnival, but there weren’t any real thrill-seeking rides.  That’s why Cedar Point is probably my favorite amusement park simply because of the amount of roller coasters it has; 17, including two kiddie coasters.  I used to think that was the most in any theme park, but doing some research I found out that it’s actually tied for 2nd place with another park.  Apparently Six Flags in Valencia, California has 19 . . . guess I need to take a trip there soon, huh?

Still, Cedar Point will always hold a special place in my heart, because that’s also where I won my first stuffed animal from one of the midway games.  I was 10 years old, and it was the Dime Toss game.  My dime landed squarely on the plate on my second try, and I was so excited.  I chose a giant orange lion that I kept well into my 30s.  Also, one of their coasters is called Gemini, which has dual cars “racing” against each other on dual tracks.  Not only is that a very cool, wooden roller coaster, but it also happens to be my zodiac symbol (what can I say, small things like that excite me).

In my teenage years, Mom and I traveled with some friends down to southern Ohio to visit Kings Island.  This theme park has 14 roller coasters, including The Beast, which currently holds the record as the longest wooden roller coaster in the world.  It’s spread out over 35 acres and is AWESOME!  If you want a POV video, check this out.

There are also lots of shows and stuff at Cedar Point and Kings Island, but I’ve never been someone who enjoys those as much as I do the rides.  For me, there’s no other reason to pay as much as you do for a theme park.  Maybe I feel that way because you can always see a show–whether it be a play or the symphony, or what have you–but you can only ride roller coasters if you go to a carnival or amusement park.  Plus, there are always such long lines for the rides that you wouldn’t be able to get on all of them if you spent an hour or so of your day sitting down, watching a stage show.

The longest line I ever stood in was two hours when the Magnum XL-200 came on the scene.  Normally I don’t like to wait for more than an hour to ride a coaster, but it was the year the ride had opened, so EVERYONE wanted to be on it.  And it didn’t disappoint.  It was the first ride to go 200 feet in the air and reached a top speed of 72 mph.  Plus it goes out over the water.  VERY cool!

It’s been several years since I’ve been to either theme park, so it’ll be cool to visit them again.  It’s been even longer since Craig visited them, too, so we’re both looking very forward to this trip.  Plus, we get the added pleasure of introducing Athena to our favorites.  She’s also a thrill seeker (at least as far as coasters are concerned), so we’re ready to stand in lines and spend all day screaming our lungs out.  By the time this gets posted, we’ll have already spent a day at Kings Island, so those screams of joy will have already happened.

Old Stomping Grounds

We’re going on VACATION!!!

Next Monday, Craig, Athena and I are heading back east for a two-week trek around the Midwest.  We’ll arrive in Ohio and visit a theme park, then drive up through Indiana to Michigan to visit with friends and family (and some swimming in Lake Michigan), then we’ll head back into Ohio for another theme park and fly home.

This trip came about because Athena has wanted to meet my side of the family ever since Craig and I got married.  She met a couple of them at the wedding, but most of our families didn’t make it to Chicago, so this is a chance to rectify that.  Plus we’ll get to introduce her to the two BEST theme parks in the country (in my opinion): Kings Island and Cedar Point.

Going to the Midwest in August isn’t necessarily the smartest move on our part, due to the mugginess and heat, but theme parks in that part of the country are only open in the summer months, and June and July were packed with other activities.  Besides, maybe we’ll get to experience a nice, warm summer thunder storm.  *sigh* I miss those.

Craig and I will also get to show Athena around our old stomping grounds.  We’ll get to drive by the high school where we first met, the houses where we used to live, and other places along Memory Lane.  Plus, it’ll be GREAT to be back in the land of People Who Call It “Pop.”  😉

Another thing that Craig, in particular, is excited about is visiting a real Putt-Putt course.  He and one of his friends used to compete in Putt-Putt tournaments throughout the Midwest (and even one down in Florida), but for some reason there aren’t many Putt-Putt opportunities out here in California.  There are several miniature golf courses, but as Craig’s told me several times, Putt-Putt and Miniature Golf are NOT the same thing.  So, we’ve made sure to include a quick stop to one of them on our way from Ohio to Michigan.  Craig has even found out from one of his friends that there’s a tournament in Ohio while we’re around, so maybe he’ll get a chance to compete again.

You know that old saying about how you can’t take the [BLANK] out of the girl/guy?  Well, I think it’s true to a certain extent, which is why it will be nice to go back and see where we came from.  I couldn’t wait to leave Michigan when I was younger, so I could go off and explore the world, but I still enjoy visiting it every now and then.  There’s some real beautiful places to be seen there, as well as other assets.

For one, the Midwest stability.  I don’t mean to imply that other places in the U.S. are “unstable,” but there’s a certain heartiness to the people from that part of the country.  There’s an earthiness that I didn’t find while living in New York, Florida or even out here in California.  I get that same Midwest feeling here in Alameda, which is probably one of the reasons I find it so charming, but I don’t notice it in other parts of the state.

Another thing that will be nice (providing it happens while we’re there) will be to experience the rainy season.  Until the recent three year-long drought, California normally gets rain during the winter months, which means it’s cold!  It’s the kind of cold that seeps through your clothes and into your bones.  But out in Michigan and the surrounding states, it rains during the summer.  And it’s a such a warm rain that you don’t mind being caught without an umbrella (unless you’re dressed up for a fancy night out).  It’s so warm, it almost feels like you’re just standing under a REALLY big shower head.

So, hopefully we’ll get to enjoy all the things we’ve gone out there to see: friends, family, fun and even a little precipitation (I couldn’t find an alliterative synonym).  I’ll write a couple blogs while we’re on the road, and might even have some photos to share.

Get Out More

As you probably know by now, I’m very fond of travel.  So it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m here to encourage everyone to get out more!

There are over three hundred million people in this country, and yet only a third of Americans have a passport.  Canada and the U.K. each have twice as many.  When I saw that number, I was astounded, and wondered why ours is so low.

I found several factors.  One is that people seem to like the safety and comfort of their own environment.  My brother, for example, is perfectly fine staying only in the state where he lives, and generally not going anywhere more than 50 miles outside of his city.  He thinks I’m crazy for wanting to travel the world, just as I think he’s nuts for NOT wanting to.  However, apparently people like him are the majority.

DSC02636

Photo courtesy of Alyx Morgan

I think another big deterrent for Americans traveling is fear of the cost; many probably feel they wouldn’t be able to afford a vacation abroad.  Even I used to think it would take thousands of dollars to venture across the pond, as the Brits say.  But my friend, Nikki, showed me how to search for great deals, and my first trip out of the country from Chicago to London twelve years ago only cost me $380 round trip.  That’s cheaper than flying across our own country, even back then.

If you’re savvy in your search, you can find very cheap fares on sites like Orbitz, or Priceline.  While others, such as SmarterTravel, Travelocity, and Travelzoo all have weekly emails that showcase various vacation specials.  And don’t forget to sign up for the airline newsletters.  When Craig and I went to Sydney and New Zealand in 2010, we got a sweet deal from the weekly emails from Qantas, and our round trip tickets were less than $900 apiece.

The media also has something to do with people’s reluctance to travel, in my opinion.  Foreign countries don’t make it into our media for doing good things, usually.  Here in America, we tend to only hear about the bombings, religious wars, or natural disasters.  So when people think about traveling to South America, for instance, they visualize the drug lords in Colombia, or the political and civil unrest in Nicaragua; both of which haven’t been a problem for years.

You also have to factor in the work-mentality that exists here in the States.  Whereas most other countries have an emphasis on leisure time (such as taking a one-year break between major life phases, which is common in New Zealand and the UK), here companies frown upon employees taking a lot of time off.  As a result, many Americans wind up not using all of their vacation time, or else working while on it.  The thought of working while on my vacation just makes me shudder.

I did some research and found over 40 countries whose workers receive many more vacation days than what’s considered “normal” here in America.  And some countries offer a month or more of paid vacation, ON TOP OF paid holidays; much of Italy shuts down for the month of August alone.  Here in the States, we don’t even have a legally required minimum for time off, and many temp agencies won’t even pay their workers for the nationally-recognized holidays!  There’s also the disparity of time off for child birth.  Several other countries offer 6-12 months paid leave, and I believe it’s Germany that allows up to two years off, and the mother has a guarantee that her job will still be hers when she returns.  No wonder more Europeans travel than Americans.

I’m sure another reason American’s don’t travel to foreign lands is that we have scads of places to travel here, without needing a passport.  The whole of Europe could fit in just half of our country.  Traveling from one state to the next takes about as long as going from one European nation to another, and each state has its own culture and sights to see.  Though, that still doesn’t explain why more Canadians have a passport than Americans, when they have roughly the same amount of land as we do.

Photo courtesy of Alyx Morgan

Photo courtesy of Alyx Morgan

And while the Southern states have a different culture and attitude than New York, it’s still largely American culture.  There are vast differences between our way of life than, say Paris, London, or Asia.  Disney’s EPCOT Center offers a small taste of foreign lands, but they pale in comparison with the real thing, not to mention that they’ve been Americanized.

Besides, seeing the world is such a broadening experience.  Even just a short trip overseas can teach us that we’re all very similar, with just enough differences to make a trip worthwhile.  That’s something you can’t get from watching a movie or reading a book.

So Get Out More!

Destroying the French Myth

I know there’s an overlying belief that the French are arrogant–especially if they “refuse” to speak English to an American abroad–but I don’t see it as arrogance. They’re just REALLY proud to be French.

Arc de Triomphe BW

Photo by Alyx Morgan

In fact, the only people I’ve ever heard say they encountered “rude” Frenchmen/women while abroad are the ones who didn’t even TRY to speak the native language during their trip.  My best friend, Nikki, has been all over France (she’s a HUGE cycling junkie & has been to around 10 Tour de France races since I’ve known her), and has never told me that she encountered any rude people over there.  Her accent is horrible (she’ll even admit that), but she says what she can in their native language anyway, and doesn’t have any problems.

Even my mom was treated very nicely the one time she went to Paris with me.  We were sitting in a laundromat and a woman came by and Mom said “pardonez moi” and then “merci beaucoup” to her for reasons that I can’t remember, but that fit the situation perfectly.  Again, my mom doesn’t sound fluent, but she at least made the attempt, and the French lady was very accommodating and friendly in return.

There’s this pervasive opinion here in America that EVERYONE should speak English to travelers, just because other countries are taught it in schools.  But I personally think it’s the height of rudeness to vacation in another country with that attitude.  How much do we hate it when someone comes over here and doesn’t speak English?

I know I’ve often complained when I go through a Drive-Thru and have to repeat my order multiple times, because the person at the other end of the squawk box has a limited amount of English in their repertoire.  Yes, I’ll admit that I’m high maintenance and sometimes order off the menu, but English speaking people would understand that when I say “no dairy,” it means the same as “no cheese,” or “no sour cream.”  And yes, I understand that it’s ridiculous to expect someone working at a Taco Bell to be able to think outside the box (with all ironic references to their ad campaign fully intended), but it’s definitely worse when they have a very small grasp of our language.

I’ve even been on the receiving end of this, where someone was offended that I didn’t know enough of his native language while he was visiting here in America.  I was working at Walt Disney World and this Hispanic-looking man came up to my register and I spoke the few chit-chatty phrases I know in Spanish:  Buenos dias, Como estas?  He answered them in kind and then proceeded to give me his order, still in Spanish.  When I apologized and said (with a smile) that I didn’t know any more than I’d already said, he actually responded with, “Why not?  I’m visiting your country, so you should know my language.”

Now, I don’t know if he said that to purposely show me how it feels when Americans go overseas with that same attitude, but the message certainly came across.  That was the moment I decided that I would always learn at least the bare necessities of any language where I want to travel.  It’s a sign of respect, in my opinion.  Plus, since I love languages anyway, it’s a chance to put a few more phrases under my belt.

But back to the French.  I find it interesting that Americans–who constantly say how proud they are to be an American–would label another country full of likewise proud people “arrogant.”  It might be enlightening for them to know that Americans are considered, collectively, to be the rudest and most arrogant people around the world.  This is true in most countries I’ve been to, and I think the reason for that is largely due to the fact that we expect everyone else to speak English to us, simply because it’s a requirement in the primary schools in most countries.  (Well, that and the fact that we think our way of governing people is the only right way, but that’s for another blog with a political bent.)

La Tour Eiffel

Photo by Alyx Morgan

So, on behalf of this Francophile and world traveler, PLEASE try to learn the basics in whatever country you’re traveling to.  Even their equivalent of “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Do you speak English?” will go a long way to help soothe any feathers that some Arrogant American has ruffled.  So will trying to remember that we’re not the only country whose people are proud to be their nationality.  Pride is not a solely American thing.

Nor is rudeness a solely French thing.

Assertive Driving

night_high_speed_car_driving-HDI’m an assertive driver, like my dad was.  Assertive mind you, not aggressive.  Per the unwritten allowance, I tend to drive four miles over the speed limit (usually ten on a deserted highway).  I rarely leave the recommended two car-lengths between me and the driver in front of me (though I don’t tailgate).  I also don’t wait a full car length before passing in front of another car, but I make sure that I’m driving fast enough that said car doesn’t have to slow down for me.  And I do all of this while maintaining a stronghold on the defensive driving techniques and safety lessons I learned both in school and from my dad.

There are some people who would classify some of the above activities as aggressive.  In fact, I recently got into a debate about this with one of my neighbors who is an “overly cautious” driver; her words.  She admitted to driving a few miles under the recommended speed limit and stated how terrified she was of people who tailgate.  While I agree that tailgating is extremely dangerous–you never know when the car in front of you might need to stop abruptly–the further into this debate we got, the clearer it was to me that she probably considered anything less than a full car-length “tailgating,” and that she seemed terrified of driving, period.

This woman then went on to give the reasons why she felt that everyone should follow her “safe” driving practices.  At that point I clammed up, because 1) I knew she wouldn’t truly listen to anything that wasn’t in agreement with her thoughts, and 2) the less I said, the sooner she’d stop her lecture and I could get on with my day.

It’s been a few weeks since the conversation, so I don’t remember all the points she made, but here are two that I do remember and my thoughts on them:

1)  It’s safer to drive under the speed limit.  I do not see any merit in driving slower than the posted speed limits, regardless of what the “experts” say.  In fact, I feel it’s less safe for someone to drive, say, 20 mph in a 25 mile zone, than to drive 27 or 28 mph.  It seems to me that people who drive below the posted limit are generally more tense and therefore going to make knee-jerk decisions that could cause accidents.  Besides, 25 is the lowest speed limit you can get on the road (only parking lots post signs reading 10 or 5), so if someone is too scared to drive that slowly, then I don’t think they should be behind the wheel in the first place.

2) Tailgating is unsafe.  Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with this one.  However, when someone is driving the speed limit (or a few miles over), and a slower driver decides to pull out in front of them without giving enough room to safely slow down, tailgating is what you get, for a few feet anyway, until the other driver can safely give enough distance between the two cars.  And for a slower driver to pull out in front of someone is dangerous also because of how angry we get at being cut off like that.  If you know you’re a more conservative driver, PLEASE don’t pull out in front of someone, unless you can see several car lengths between your intersection and any oncoming cars.  I personally wouldn’t ram someone’s car for it (though I will lean on my horn and cuss them out quite a bit), but I can’t say that I’d convict someone who would.  It’s frustrating, dangerous, and just plain rude.

My neighbor’s entire lecture revolved around one theme; that all drivers should be just as cautious as she is when behind the wheel.  This is a point I vehemently disagree with.  No, not everyone can handle being an assertive driver and still be alert to any possible situation.  Thankfully, my dad was an excellent driver and taught me well (even teaching me how to put my car into a deliberate spin, so I would learn how to get out of one), but I realize not everyone gets that same education.  However, I don’t think there will be less accidents if the assertive drivers started to be more cautious/timid, like my neighbor.  There would still be people driving at 20 in a 25, and the overly-cautious ones would probably slow down again to 15 or 10 in a 25, and then be offended at the others and expect them to slow their driving again to match.  And so on and so forth until we might as well just be walking everywhere.

Besides, why should others who are able to handle it better have to go down to the same level as the more cautious drivers?  This kind of ties in with what I was talking about last week; a group of people thinking that everyone else should be at the same level that’s comfortable to them.  If that’s what was meant by “The meek shall inherit the Earth,” I want no part of that.  To me, meek equals scared or timid, and great strides in life are never made by being scared or timid.  They’re made by being a bit riskier (though not reckless) in your dealings.

At least that’s how this assertive driver feels.

Getting My Snow Fix

I’ve commented before here how much I’ve missed snow during the holiday season.  Standing outside in a light jacket and sandals with the sun shining brightly overhead and a balmy breeze just doesn’t ring of Christmas to me.  It’s probably because I grew up in Michigan, but for whatever reason, Christmas doesn’t feel right to me without snow.  Well, this year, Craig and I decided to get our snow fix.  I found a great deal on a hotel in Lake Tahoe on Groupon, booked it, and got all excited about our time up north.

We took the trip this past weekend and had a BLAST!  Craig’s daughter, Athena, hadn’t seen snow since she was two, and I have this “rule” that an experience doesn’t count if you can’t remember doing it (which she wholeheartedly agreed with), so we basically called this her “first” snow experience.

As we got up into the mountains and closer to the lake, Athena kept remarking on how beautiful it looked outside with all the trees covered in a heavy blanket of flakes.  Even she said how it “felt” like Christmas to her now, with no prompting from me.  At one point she told us that something had felt like it was missing this season, and now she knew what it was.

We got into Tahoe sometime after midnight, and there was a nice, soft snowfall happening then, so we got out of the car and played a little bit.  We threw snowballs at each other and caught big flakes on our tongues.  Athena even picked up a bunch of snow to eat and decided that this is what Sno-cones should be made out of (don’t worry, we told her to avoid the dirty or yellow stuff).  But we were quite exhausted from the six hour drive, so we soon climbed back in the car, checked into our hotel and zonked out for the night.

I awoke early the next morning and went for a stroll out in a nearby forest preserve.  I took lots of pictures, and just communed with nature for a while, enjoying the quiet and solitude that an early morning in the winter can often provide.  There were even a few gorgeous moments that made me cry (like the one below).

Sunbeams through snow

Sunbeams through snow

When I got back to the hotel, Craig and Athena were up, so we went out, got some breakfast and played in the snow some more.  Athena kept saying how happy she was to see the snow, and Craig and I were both enjoying her enthusiasm.  We were just as thrilled to see a white winter again, but her joy was contagious and made our own glee that much more pronounced.

Craig taught her how to make a proper snowball, and we had several “fights” that ended up with each of us being covered in the white stuff.  We even went outside to make some snow angels and a snowman.  We didn’t get too far with the snowman, however, because the snow wasn’t wet enough.  It was beautiful and soft, but we couldn’t keep it packed tightly enough to create the winter figure.

After we spent some time outside we went back to our hotel and enjoyed some hot chocolate–a winter must–and played games or watched movies while our wet clothes dried a little.  Then we went back outside and did it all again.

We all had such a great time, and Athena suggested that we make this trip an annual tradition, to which Craig and I readily agreed.  I think next year we’re going to stay for longer than a weekend and enjoy some skiing or snowmobiling as well.  But regardless, it felt wonderful to finally get my snow fix and to know that Athena enjoyed the experience as much as we did.  That right there was the icing on the trip.

Whether or not you have snow where you live, I hope you enjoy your holiday season.

Birthday Wishes

There are many people who don’t like their birthdays, or at least don’t celebrate them.  I don’t know if they don’t like the thought of getting older, or if they just never received the proper enthusiasm when they were growing up.  I’m guessing it’s the latter, because my birthdays were always treated with joy and a sense of ceremony when I was younger.  It’s a celebratory notion that I still carry inside today.

When my brother and I were younger, we were always told that our birthday was special.  We were allowed our choice of either breakfast in bed, or dinner wherever we wanted.  We both opted for dinner more often than not, because it was a chance to go to Red Lobster, or even McDonald’s (Hey, to a 10 year-old, McDonald’s is a four-star establishment!)  But our biggest treat was that we were allowed to take the day off from school.  My mom believed that, since it was our special day, it should be treated as such.  That’s a tradition I carry to this day; I don’t work on my birthday.  It’s my day, and I get to choose what I want to do with it.

A few years ago, I decided that what I wanted to do with my special day was travel.  I promised myself that I would go someplace I’ve never been before on my birthday.  It’s a new ceremony of sorts, if you will, to mark the crossing into a new year with new experiences.  So, depending on when the day falls, I might take a long weekend, or it might just be a one day trek.

My birthday trip to Pittsburgh was one of those one-day trips.  I think it fell on a Wednesday that year, so I simply left Chicago early in the morning, spent a few hours walking around Pittsburgh, and returned home late in the evening.  I saw some wonderful sites, and took some great photos of a nearby cemetery.  Plus, I’d never taken a one-day trip just for the fun of it.  Something else to cross of my bucket list!

Another year, I went up to the Mall of America.  That one wasn’t as neat or quick a journey as the one to Pittsburgh.  It involved hopping on the wrong bus, then taking another one back to Chicago and then purchasing a one-way airplane ticket up to Minnesota so I wouldn’t miss out on too much, then returning a couple days later, as originally planned.  It’s hilarious to think of that journey now, but believe me, there were many tears of frustration on the bus ride back to Chicago.  My travel happened on the day before my birthday, so the special day was spent in the MoA, seeing the numerous shops and riding on the inside roller coaster.

For my 40th birthday a couple years back, I had decided that I wanted to take a month-long trip to Australia.  There was so much I wanted to see and do there, that I knew a week wouldn’t be enough.  Well, reality set in, and I was only able to go for two weeks, but there were some wonderful things to offset that particular disappointment.  For one, Craig was able to go with me.  For another, we decided to include New Zealand in the vacation.  So we spent a week in Sydney, and the next week driving all over the north island of New Zealand.  Also, since my birthday falls in the middle of Australia’s winter, we decided to push it off by a few months.  This was okay with me, because the trip happened around Craig’s birthday in September, AND it was his first trip out of the country, EVER.  Craig got two cool stamps in his passport for his birthday.  WooHoo!

But since my 40th birthday wouldn’t happen like I’d originally planned, Craig took me to Yosemite that year to celebrate it.  We saw the mountains and gorgeous scenery there, and there was even some snow left over that June.  We had a great time, and still honored my promise to myself.

Tomorrow’s birthday will also be spent closer to home.  We’re still paying for our July wedding, so we’ve decided to head up to Point Reyes.  It’s just a couple hours’ drive from home, and I’ve been told it’s a gorgeous stretch of nature.  Whatever we see, I know there will be some cool experiences to mark the passing of another year on this planet.  We’ll even have Athena for my birthday weekend, which will make it that much nicer.

I can’t wait!

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