Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Eve 2017

I saw a Twitter prompt a few days ago that said this, "quote this tweet with your top 3 personal accomplishments of 2017 (you decide what counts)" - Adam J. Kurtz (@adamjk)

So that is where we will start today.

#1: Work
2017 marked the 12th year of my patchwork quilt of a professional career.  I participated in two of the four "codefests" that were held at my company, which is trying--and I daresay succeeding--to shift its culture to embrace technology and innovation.  It is still very much a financial services institution and change is slow going, but next month marks four years since I started working there and I can affirm that it is happening.  In the first event, my ragtag team of developers and analysts managed to get a spot among the Top 10 finalists and pitch our app to the judges' panel and thousands of our peers who were both in the auditorium and watching a livestream. One of my colleagues and I chose to make the actual pitch itself, and as I stood there mic'd up in front of the stage lights and trying desperately not to let my knees or voice quake, I thought, "Wow, I can actually do this."

And by this, I mean work on solving consumer problems with technology solutions, when I myself am neither a developer nor programmer.  We did not end up placing among the top prize winners, but it was a moral victory and it was enough to make our team want to participate again a few months later and work on a different problem and solution. While that endeavor did not place us in the finalist round, it did provide the kick in the pants that I needed to just start go for it already.  So, I applied to several positions--some internal to my company and some not--until I eventually received and accepted an internal position as a business systems analyst on a team that works on customer-facing software. In truth, even after 3 months I feel like I don't know what I'm doing about 80% of the time, but that's down from 100%, so it's progress.

#2: Play
When I returned from Eurotrip 2015 and wrote about it in my 2015 Year End Recap, I declared that I would go on a trip to Scandinavia for my 35th birthday. I almost postponed it in favor of a trip to Japan instead, but when Wow Air announced in late 2016 that they would start service from Pittsburgh in the summer of 2017, I knew that I had to stay the course.  So, I booked a plane ticket to Copenhagen by way of Reykjavik in November, and spent the next 10 months carefully planning a two week tour of Iceland, Denmark, and Norway...with a bonus stop in Sweden.

My trusty backpack follows me wherever I go!

Iceland is achingly and hauntingly beautiful.  While there actually are trees, they aren't numerous, and the landscape belies the fact that the island is pretty much one big volcanic plain. I was only there for two days, but I managed to pack in plenty of sightseeing through Reykjavik, as well as get out into the countryside on a Golden Circle Tour to see geysers, waterfalls, and the border of tectonic plates.

At the site of the famous Geysir, where the word "geyser" originates
From my brief stopover, I've resolved to return to Iceland as a destination for a proper tour around the ring road that circumnavigates the island.  And to see puffins.  (They were mostly migrated away by early September.)

From there I pressed onward to Denmark, where I made Copenhagen my playground for several days. I stumbled on a walking tour and met some fellow world travelers, two of whom I ended up exploring a few more sights with after the tour. One was a guy from Canada and the other was a lady from Australia, and unfortunately, none of us thought to exchange contact information or even take a photo while we were together, so our afternoon chatting and exploring must only live in memory!

Doing the tourist thing in Copenhagen
I also spent the better part of a day in Aarhus, where I visited a fabulous modern art museum and got delayed on the return train for 4 hours. The Danes on the train didn't seem to get upset about it, so neither did I.  It was an interesting way to start my 35th birthday, which ended in a 7 course chef's tasting meal that I stretched to a respectable four hours in what was practically a private dining room.

Thanks, ya Bastards! (It's the actual name of the restaurant.)
My next stop was Norway, which is a country that I have been itching to get to ever since I saw my first white-stockinged Norwegian college student when I was a young intern on the Walt Disney World College Program. Look, they're tall and gorgeous people--who could blame me for being sucked in by their spell? In reality, I chiefly spent my time in Oslo, Bergen, and points in between by ogling the landscape.  Like Iceland, Norway has stunning natural beauty. 

Cruising the Sonefjord
I did not quite have the time or wherewithal to add Stockholm, Sweden to my itinerary for this trip, as it is quite a distance from Copenhagen and Oslo. So I did the next best thing: I went to Ikea in Malmö. Just a quick hop on the train that crosses the Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden, a 20 minute bus ride, and voila! You're in cheap Swedish furniture mecca.

Ikea on a Saturday!? That's a crazy idea in any country.

All in all, my "Scandinavitour" was a wild, wonderful, empowering, exhausting trip and I am infinitely glad that I had both the motive and the means to make it happen.

A couple months later, I even snuck in a trip to Orlando to visit Alyse!

Live your best life.

#3: A Tradition of Leadership
When I was still in college, the tagline of my sorority was "A tradition of leadership", and it has since changed to "Aspire to be." I like them both, but the leadership and education elements have always been a big selling point for me where Kappa Kappa Gamma is concerned. So, I went and collected another Kappa Hat in January and took another volunteer role as a Programming Specialist for our Ohio & Kentucky chapters and associations. It's daunting work, keeping tabs on two officers each from 9 active chapters, but it has been rewarding and has led to some more great connections (and hilarious conversations) with sisters all over the country. Between that, as well as my second term of presidency for the Greater Pittsburgh Alumnae Association, Every Member Educational Training, and finance advising, I have a lot of Kappa and opportunities to lead in my life and I love it.  It's a big part of the reason why I am very content to remain an individual contributor at work for the time being!

LoyalTea 2017
The Elephant in the Room

I can't not go there.


I have a personal theory that the degree to which you can completely ignore and/or avoid the political arena and social upheaval in 2017 is roughly equal to the amount of your privilege. As a brown person woman living in America, the battles come to my door whether I like it or not. Trust me when I say that I am aware that I have a great deal of privilege of my own.  I'm college educated, live comfortably, and have gainful employment.  My city is a the bright blue oasis amidst a sea of red. So even I have had to come to terms with the fact that we have to deal with the ugly things that we don't enjoy thinking, talking, or writing about. Racism, sexism, classism, assault,'s always been there.  #MeToo is too real. We have to actually, truly deal with all of this if we are to really get past it. Silence is complacency, remember that. As crazy as this year has been, and as low as we have gone, I harbor a piece of optimism about the future. Women will save us all, mark my words. (Especially Black women. Remember that, Mr. Jones.)

Onward 2018

The best part about New Year's Eve is looking towards the next one and telling yourself how much better it will be.  I swear I am not being cynical; we have to do this or else how would we recover from the collective hangover after December ends? I have plenty to look forward to!

For one, I'm returning to Paris in April. Both of my parents traveled extensively through their time in the US Air Force. I've noticed that their favorite stories are usually the ones where they wandered off by themselves for awhile, so I come by that honestly. And what started out as another planned solo venture has become a Mother-Daughter duo. Mom is coming with me! If memory serves me, she hasn't been back to Europe since leaving Germany in 2001, and she's raring to go. We will meet up in the airport in Reykjavik and fly on to Paris together, walking and eating our way through it all with gusto, I'm sure. I will practice the following phrase, "C'est ma mère, pas ma sœur."

There's always work to do, friends and family to see, relationships to cultivate, trips to take, and what is sure to be one hell of a midterm election season. We press onward through all of it.

Wishing you and yours a prosperous New Year!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Eve 2016

I won't lie to you, readers.  I've felt a bit apprehensive about sitting down to write this all week.  I haven't missed a Year-End blog post since I started writing them in 2009, however, and I'm not about to stop now.

Objectively speaking, 2016 was a wonderful year for me.

I started out with a brief escape from Pennsylvania winter to spend a long weekend with my brother and his family in Florida.  I hadn't seen them since The Great Flight From San Diego of 2014.  Going two years without seeing a sibling is, unfortunately, just the reality of my life since we all left the family home and dispersed throughout the globe.  Going two years without seeing my nephews and niece, however, is positively mind-boggling because of the amount of growing that kids do in that span of time.  They fascinate and delight me.  I'm so blessed to the their Tía Maria, and I can finally understand why it is that my own Tías fussed over me so much!  They still do! 😆

January 2016: Freezing at the Beach!

In October 2015, I accepted a position as a trainer for my sorority.  It's a volunteer role that I share with around 70 other sisters, whereby we travel to chapters and alumnae associations throughout the US and Canada and give workshops on educational topics, such as team building, delegation, leadership, communication styles, etc.  As I mentioned, it's totally voluntary, and it's up to us how often we do it, because it's all based on our availability and interest.

We're just asked to do at least two per year. Easy, right? Well--I did eight.

Six of those were within 3 months. And four of those six?  They were at the chapters that happen to fall within the western PA area.  On the fifth of the six spring visits, I was at a chapter leading a workshop on the benefits of being a member of an organization.  We were really cooking in there, having a rich discussion on the perceptions that people have about Greek Letter Organizations, why we all chose to join one, why we stayed, and how it's benefitted us, etc.  I left the campus feeling simultaneously great about the workshop, and ridiculous for having preached about alumnae associations when I myself hadn't had much to do with one in the 11 years since I graduated college and took alumna status.  I resolved rectify that, so I went looking for Pittsburgh's local organization to see how I could get involved with it.

I found out how pretty quickly.  It turned out that they had an immediate opening for Alumnae Association President.

I mean, if it's open and nobody else wants it...😬

I won't lie to you, readers--I'm really enjoying it.  It's been a lot of work and a steep learning curve, but it's a labor of love and has been so rewarding.  In eight months I've met so many incredible women and spent a lot of time collaborating, networking, strategizing, and wondering what the best time of day to post to Instagram is.  (Turns out it's about 8pm on Mondays.)  I look forward to seeing our organization continue to grow next year.

Honoring past Association Presidents at Founders Day 2016

Because I have been focusing so much on the alumnae association this year, I did have to let a few other things take a bit of a backseat.  I stopped taking regular bellydance classes during the week in the latter half of the year, and I chose to go for more weekend intensive workshops with guest teachers instead. This has actually worked out quite beautifully because it's allowed me to get more exposure to different styles.  Unexpectedly, it was at the annual Pittsburgh Bellydance Festival that I had a brush with a different genre of dance altogether, and it's inspired me in the best kind of way.  A guest flamenco dancer at the festival did a performance that lit something inside of me in a way that hasn't happened since, well, the first time I saw a live bellydancer!  It took me almost 4 years after that first sighting to actually take lessons, but this time I'm not waiting that long.  I followed the  dancer's trail to a local performance group, attended their final show of 2016, and decided to keep following my guts into flamenco lessons starting next weekend.  I still plan to continue taking bellydance workshops, and when the time is right, I will eventually go back to either troupe or solo performing.  I'm so thankful for such a supportive Pittsburgh dance community that makes those opportunities possible!

As for my other great love, travel, I took my standard 2 week jaunt across the pond in August.  I re-visited Paris, got in my 10th trip to Germany, and finally FINALLY went to Switzerland. Finally. 🙏  Six years of German and 3 months of French pay dividends when you visit a country where people greet you with "Guten Tag" and thank you with "Merci".  Or was it greetings with "Bonjour" and closing transactions with "Danke"?  All I know is, I would love to go back and see more, because 2 days in Bern are just a tease.  I'm pleased to say that next year's big adventure will be all new, for I've booked a trip to Scandinavia by way of Iceland for my birthday in September, as was my declaration when I returned from Eurotrip 2015.

Perched atop the Eiffel Tower

Dear reader, I am grateful for everything that I have, of which there is much.  I'm gainfully employed in a career that I like, that challenges me, and that I can see going far.  The bachelorette pad is shaping up nicely and I love my neighborhood.  I saw all four Best Friends for the second year in a row.  My cats are still awesome (if not a little high maintenance).  I'm healthy.  I've been made Tía for a fifth time over with the arrival of my newest nephew and second Godson this December.  It bears repeating:  2016 was a wonderful year for me. Objectively speaking.

And yet...

And yet...

I am deeply, deeply troubled by the events surrounding and including the 2016 US Presidential Election.  I haven't felt this kind of general anxiety and unease since the day after my 19th birthday, which happened to be September 11th, 2001.

All year long waking up to news about unarmed black men being shot by law enforcement officers, and the tension and controversy that's ensued since, was only a prelude to Election Night.  I haven't felt fully myself since that day, and I'm starting to get used to the idea that I will never feel quite the same again.  Millions have been changed by the results.  That change, however, doesn't necessarily have to be for the worse.  In fact, a part of me can actually see the long term good in popping the bubbles we surround ourselves in and getting punched in the face by reality.

Where I'm at is here: there always have been, and always will be things in our life that are within our sphere of control or influence, and there have always been, and always will be things in our life that are completely out of either.  We have to figure out which is which, and deal accordingly.

Things in my sphere of control:
  1. What I say
  2. What I do
  3. Where I spend my time, and who with
  4. How I spend my money
That's about it.  

Things not in my sphere of control?  Cabinet appointments, wars, and what other people think about me or how they vote.

Also not within my control?  My feelings.  Words and actions are controllable, but feelings are what they are.  Over the years, I've learned not to look to others to validate them, and been better off for it.

By and large, I'm looking to just keep doing my thing in 2017, with some minor course corrections to get my mental and physical health to where I'd like them to be.  Politically, economically, and socially, things might get a lot worse before they get a lot better, but all I can do is my best to be resilient and hopeful.

Wishing you and yours a happy and prosperous New Year.  Cheers.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Eve 2015

Welcome back, dear readers!

It's been an entire year since I've bothered to update my blog, so let's get right to it. 

If I had to pick one word to describe 2015 for me, I would say "substantial". 

Early in the year, I made good on last year's New Year's Eve declaration that I would move back into my own place.   Although I moved back to Pittsburgh with the intent to buy within a short time of my return, the very idea quickly became overwhelming and even a bit impractical.  I only really knew the northern suburbs where I grew up, and hadn't really explored different city neighborhoods well enough to know where I wanted to live permanently, so I changed my tactic and decided to take time to get to know the area better and go back to renting.   I went looking for an apartment the way I've always done it for the last 8 years: Craigslist.  Yes, people still use that site!  I have a strong aversion to apartment complexes, but fortunately for me, Pittsburgh has a plethora of single and multi-family homes on offer, and on the very first day of my search, I found a duplex in a fantastic neighborhood that is very walkable and within an easy commuting distance of my office downtown.  For almost the same price as what I was paying in San Diego, it has well over twice the space and I even have my own washer and dryer like a real grown-up!  Starting back over from scratch in terms of furnishing and decorating an apartment has been challenging but fun, and I really like the way it's shaping up.   

Following a painul breakup in the Spring, I started to focus on a couple of different things as a way to cope.  But before I get into those, I'd like to thank everyone who saw me through the aftermath of the early days.   My natural cat-like tendencies are to crawl into a hole alone to die when I'm faced with a tough emotional situation, but I knew I couldn't get through this one alone, and I was right. 

So, this is what I've been up to in 2015. 

#1. Dancing the Blues Away 

After I left my old dance studio and then started grad school a year later, I went on "sabbatical" from belly dancing.  I use that term in quotes because it's not like I was a professional or anything.  At the time that I stopped dancing, I realized that not only did I not have time for it, but I just didn't have the passion for it either.  I knew that I would always go back when I was ready, though, so I hung onto a few costumes and all of my props.  Well, in April that spark came back!  I picked up a search for local dance teachers and found a studio not too far from my work area that had regular classes in a style that I was familiar with, and also did troupe performances.  I showed up for a class the following week, and I felt welcomed immediately.  To say that returning to dancing did me good was an understatement.   Within a few months, my glorious foot callouses returned--a badge of honor among bellydancers--and I was even performing with the troupe.  I've taken lessons with several different area teachers now, and have delighted in learning new techniques and being challenged in styles and movements that weren't in my repertoire.  I've also gained a greater appreciation for the foundational training that I did have, because a lot of things came back in muscle memory, even if my stamina wasn't where it once was.  It's felt amazing physically, but as any dancer can tell you, the emotional benefits are also immense.  Sometimes in those early weeks, the couple hours I spent in the studio were the only break that I got from constantly thinking about my ex.  One of the women I took a workshop with said something once that really stuck with me, "No matter what else is going on in your life, dance is always there for you."  I'm so grateful for everyone that I have been dancing with, and I look forward to continue dancing with you into the new year! 

Gypsy skirts are magic

#2 Literally, Back to the Drawing Board

I used to draw all the time when I was a kid, and carried it well into my adolescence.  I've still got stacks of old sketch books, copies of school concert programs that I designed, heck, even a pen and ink sketch that won me a  ribbon in a drawing contest and hung in the halls of one of my old elementary schools until I went back and retrieved it as an adult.  (To be honest, I just wanted to SEE it, and the front office staff insisted that I take it with me. Haha, were they just tired of looking at the thing?)  I even started out in college as a fashion design major.   I rather quickly realized that I didn't want to make a career of it, and my desire to draw dwindled to the point where I only did it for class assignments.  Ever since then, I was relegated to the occasional doodle and that was about it.  Around the same time that I went looking for the dance lessons, I also bought myself a little sketch book and a set of colored pencils and set about doing a 30 Day Drawing Challenge that I found on Instagram.  It was a bit rough going at first, and there were definitely days when I didn't feel like drawing, but by the time I finished, I was so happy to have reclaimed my artistic side.  I've even given a few drawings as gifts to friends and family this year.  This year for Christmas, I asked for my Secret Santa to give me coloring books, and she delivered not only on that, but a sweet set of all kinds of drawing tools--chalk, markers, oil pastels!  I've never even worked with that last one before, so I'm looking forward to starting to experiment with it soon. 
30 Day Drawing Challenge 1-16

30 Day Drawing Challenge 17-30

#3 Kept on Travelin' 

My perennial travel buddy, Tina, and I had been planning a return to Europe together for awhile now.  I don't rightly recall how we landed on London and Paris, but I'm glad we did because even though I had been to both cities before, it was for such a brief visit that I wanted to return and get deeper into them.  This trip deserves its own post, as my Eurotrips usually get, but, eh, I was busy when I got back.  Or lazy.  Both.  It was less frenetic than our 6-states-in-10-days tour of New England in 2014, but still pretty packed for two major cities in a little less than two weeks.  In this trip, I learned that I am as madly in love with London as ever, and that those French lessons that I took for 3 months after my first trip to Paris actually paid off pretty nicely.  I was able to order most meals entirely in French, which is generally my  measure of success when traveling abroad, haha!  I also decided that if I'm going to visit more than one big city in the same trip again, I'll either take more time in them, or try to actually stick to one country and only one major city, but also see more of the lesser-known areas.  As fun as it was, I was exhausted when I got back home!  Of course, I say that, and then I've already started planning a multi-city tour of Scandinavia for my 35th birthday... 
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

#4 Wormed Through Books 

I was a total bookworm when I was younger.  When I changed my undergrad major from fashion design to English Literature, guess what other  joy got sucked out of me?  That's right: reading for pleasure all but went out the window after that.  It didn't go quite so far away as drawing did. I can say that I did become quite the library junkie for several years that I lived in San Diego, but by and large, I stopped reading with much consistency for much of my adult life.  After the breakup, I started with an embarrassingly large stack of relationship books, including Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.  Don't judge.  I was in a low place.  When I was done going through all of those, that gave way to books on financial planning.  I opened up a Roth IRA.  I re-balanced my budget.  I paid off some old debts.  As of this morning, I re-financed my graduate student loans.  And then when I was satisfied with all that reading for hard knowledge and self-improvement, I simply glided back into for-pleasure endeavors. 

ere are my Top 3 favorite books from the year, not necessarily in ranked order.

  1. Born With Teeth, a memoir by Kate Mulgrew.   I swallowed it whole.  This woman was born for drama.
  1. It's Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single by Sara Eckel.  She was like the older sister I never had who sat me down for some no-B.S. talk and made me see that  finding meaningful love in life is mostly just timing and luck and nothing is wrong with a person just because they are of  "a certain age"  and single.
  1. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I was as crazy about Eat.Pray.Love. as the rest of the basics of the world (p.s. I'm not really basic), but I really began to fall in mad love with Liz Gilbert when I read this book because it's all about working with your creative side, which, as I already wrote, was a big thing for me this year.
This is a LOT of cat for one lap

Other goings-on this year included my acceptance of a volunteer trainer position with my sorority, and I co-organized and attended a 10 year reunion for my chapter's senior class.  I had a visit from my favorite German friend and his sister and got to play tour guide to my lovely city. There have been many great get-togethers with my friends, some of which are rapidly becoming annual traditions.  I saw all four of my Best Friends this year, which is a big deal because two of them live in other states.  

I recently took a different position at my company and effectively changed careers, one that its interesting and challenges me, and that I can see leading to great things.  I adopted a couple of cats that came from different homes, and, mercifully, are getting along pretty darn well. 

In Sum... 

Life has been good.  In the coming year, I mostly just want to keep going on an upward trajectory with the things that I've been doing and maybe get another passport stamp.

And now, off to claim my glass of champagne.  Happy New Year! 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review

Cheers to 2014!
All year I've been wondering when I would get around to posting an entry in 2014.  Well, here I am, procrastinating and cutting it close as usual.

After all, it's been a huge year for me. I moved cross-country back to Pittsburgh after The Great Adventure that was my life from mid 2006 until this January. Just a few days after my last entry from 2013, my good friend Ralph flew over from Germany to visit me in my last 10 days on the West Coast.  This is us to the right celebrating my last Ring in the New Year Party with my former employer.

Then, one of my very best friends and undoubtedly my road dawg, Tina, flew out to San Diego and helped me not only pack up my apartment, but also get rid of 3/4ths of it on the free section of Craigslist to a massive swarm of people, and drove with me as far as Kansas City in 2 days.  One of the nights we spent driving through the night, alternating every 2 hours so the other could rest.  If that is not a true friend, I do not know what is.

Packing at some point late at night

Once returned, I faced down one of the worst winters I can remember.  I basically white-knuckled my way through it and reminded myself that Spring and Summer in the Northeast are fantastically green and lush, which is something I actually missed while living in the temperate San Diego climate.

During those two seasons, I got to take a few get-aways with some of my best friends--Liz, Tina and I to Nashville, TN and Lindsey and me for a concert in Cleveland.  I went to a Pirates game with a bunch of old friends from high school.  I spent many a summer evening sipping cool drinks on either my parents' back deck or in Liz's living room. I became part of Yelps Elite squad and attended as many events as I could in order to further my goal of re-acquainting myself with the city.
At a Bruno Mars Concert
Enjoying the Nashville sunshine

By the fall, my schedule was in full swing crazy.  I attended three weddings in six weeks, two of which were out of town.  One of those was back in San Diego, and let me tell you, going back after 9 months was really rather weird.  I do have my moments of missing California living and I don't regret the time I spent there one bit, but in the 4 days I spent back in Los Angeles and San Diego, I realized that it no longer felt quite like home.  I am really glad that I went back, though, and I want to take people back to San Diego for vacation as often as I can, especially those who weren't able to visit me while I lived there.  *coughLindseycough*
Wedding #1: Pittsburgh, PA

Wedding #2: San Diego, CA

Wedding #3: Rochester, NY
Later on in the year I got to take a great adventurous road trip in New England with Tina (3x of us seeing each other in one year is definitely some sort of awesome record, btw), and I fell in love with the state of Maine and the city of Boston.  I would go back to either in a heartbeat.
An all-too-brief stop in Portsmouth, NH
As the year wound down, I got to meet the newest member of my family, my second eldest brother's first child.  It meant a trip back to Tacoma, WA, which is actually where I myself was born and spent the first 8 years of my life.  I hadn't been back in all this time since, so it was really incredibly surreal to see old familiar sights and spend time with my family where it all began, or so to speak.

Proud papa right there!

I also lost a dear member of the family, the four-legged kind.  Miss Amelia passed away quietly on October 2nd, just shy of 7 years since I adopted her.  She was about 17 years old.  In the end, she completely stopped eating--only barely chewing enough wet food to take her hyper-thyroid medication--and was generally listless.  The last morning I saw her alive, I gave her a kiss on the head and told her I loved her.  My parents found her body that evening.  No one was surprised, but we were sad all the same.  I miss her all the time, and I like to think of her in a sun patch somewhere. Someday, I will get another cat and I even have designs on getting a dog, but that's further down the road.

Now that I'm staring down the barrel of the last 6 hours of the year, I find myself in awe of where my life is now compared to where it was a year ago.  It's so different living back in the Northeast, and in most ways it's good.  I like to think that I've brought a lot of the lessons that I learned in CA with me, but I'm also really appreciating Pittsburgh for what it is.  Even if I don't stay here forever, it's where I need to be right now, and it feels good to know that.

So what's in store for 2015?  First of all, I'm itching to get some stamps back in my passport since all of my travel this year was domestic.  Tina and I have been tossing around a visit to the UK, and I am really dying to get back to Germany, especially Berlin, and particularly because it will be 20 years since my first trip to Europe.

Secondly, I signed up for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon again.  Kill me.

Thirdly, I will be looking to get back into my own place by next Spring.  The arrangement of living at home with my folks has been working out beautifully, but I am ready to re-establish my own homestead and be closer to the city.

Wishing you and yours all the health and prosperity in the New Year!


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Finding Home

Home can be a complicated concept to people who spent most of their early life on the move.  I'm quite proud of the fact that I grew up as an Air Force Brat, for even with all its drawbacks (no "legitimate" hometown, a one to two year expiration date on best friends because one or both of your parents got orders to another base in a different city, state, or even country, etc.), I have become quite an adaptable person.  I can pick up and go and make a home pretty much anywhere.

It's with that attitude that I packed up my 1994 Honda Civic and pulled out of my parents townhouse in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA in June 2006 and drove clear across the country to San Diego, CA.  I was young, just a year out of college, and working a temporary job, and wilting on the vine in the decidedly uninteresting life of a suburban dweller with no significant other and precious few local friends with whom I had managed to stay in contact with.  When my friend Patrick, who himself had recently moved to San Diego, suggested that I come out there, I didn't hesitate to say yes and sign on for the Next Big Adventure.

Over the next seven plus years, I learned how to make friends who weren't already built into my social circle by way of school or work, reconnected with my maternal extended family in Los Angeles, discovered the inner world explorer who had no qualms riding public transportation in foreign cities where I didn't necessarily speak the local language, developed a taste for quality inexpensive wine and the concept of "whole" foods, put myself through graduate school, and launched a career.  There were some lessons that were harder to learn, like concept of "cost of living" and what it means in one of the most expensive regions of the country, as well as the emotional consequences of living 2,400 miles away from family and friends if you are the type that cares to see them with any sort of frequency.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I've been making overtures to leaving San Diego for quite some time--if not for some foreign country (and likely European at that), than perhaps further north up the West Coast to San Francisco where all the hot jobs are, or even up to Seattle where I have more family to tie myself to, and for a brief period I was even eyeballing the Chicagoland area, where I have a reasonably strong alumni network from my undergrad days.  By and large, however, it had been a lot of talk and very little action.  Life in San Diego has been good to me and it would take something rather monumental for me to give it up.

Just a few months ago I was enjoying an impromptu lunch with a business school buddy, and we got to talking about our futures.  I mentioned that I was looking into jobs up in the Bay Area and Seattle.  "I don't know...", I said between bites of an impossibly hipster Whole Foods salad, "I just don't see myself moving back East now."  The thought of coming back to the northeast/mid-Atlantic of the US, while not completely out of the realm of possibility, has for years come with a sense of unease.  Like I was giving up on something--myself, perhaps.  My dreams of being the captain of my own destiny who decided where she wanted to be and when, no matter how impossible a move it may seem.  Going back East felt like it would be...settling.  And I found that decidedly unsettling.

A few weeks later I saw a post on Facebook from a high school friend.  There was a high school lip dub contest between Pittsburgh area schools for the best original music video to one of a short list of songs that they could choose from.  My Alma Mater chose the upbeat Imagine Dragons song, "On Top of the World", and was brilliantly done as a one shot walk-through of the Senior High School with students decked out in everything from spirit t-shirts to band uniforms to hockey jerseys to choir robes singing along.  I must have watched it 2 or 3 times in one sitting just to take it all in.  I puffed up with pride and shared the post with other friends, reveling in my school's continued ass-kicking excellence in pulling off any type of musical production.  (Seneca Valley has been well known regionally for its strong music/performing arts programs for decades.)

I walked around with an ear-worm for the next day or two, and on the third night I had a dream about it.  I was with everyone, singing along and bouncing through the halls of SVHS without a care in the world.

Until I woke up.  The very first words that formed in my head when I opened my eyes were, "I want to come home."  With a clarity I hadn't felt in years, the words kept bouncing around in my head like the juniors and seniors through the brick halls of the high school.  I want to come home.  I am coming home.

And just like a cell that can lie dormant for years, that innocuous video awoke something in me that I feel viscerally, almost physically.  Suddenly, the idea of willfully living so far from my loved ones back East--and even going so far as to settle down and start a family that far way--seems repugnant.

The events of next several weeks after that revelation went by pretty quickly, and without going into all of the minutiae of it all, let's just say that I am extremely fortunate to have an excellent professional contact in an old friend from high school, which gave me the foot in the door that I needed to put my best MBA sales skills to work and I was offered a very good position with a fantastic Pittsburgh-based company after just a couple rounds of phone interviews.  I start my new job in late January.

Since I have been telling people, I'm often asked why I'm giving up paradise to move back to Pennsylvania--in the heart of winter, no less--and I have to laugh a bit at the special sort of harmless narcissism that Southern Californians in possess when it comes to their climate.  When I announced it in my staff meeting, I must have heard the word "weather" and "cold" a dozen times in 30 seconds.  Yes, San Diego is paradise. The weather, the beaches, the people: all beautiful.  It is, after all, America's Finest City.  There's no denying that I will miss not just the amenities of such a city itself, but I will of course truly miss the genuinely good and wonderful people that I have the pleasure of calling friends and co-workers.  I'm sure I will especially question my sanity by the second or third time I find myself scraping a layer of snow from my windshield, and likely the very first time I so much as fishtail on an icy road.  I may have learned to drive in all kinds of weather conditions in my teens and early 20s--including precarious snow and ice--but it doesn't mean I have to like it.

On the balance, though, what I will gain from this return to my adopted hometown does far outweigh what I will lose by leaving San Diego.  It's simply time for me to come back after having learned countless valuable lessons that make me appreciate being in PA far more than I would have if I never left.  "One must make an educated decision before deciding to settle down in Pittsburgh," my friend Liz and I declared to anyone who cared to listen to us while we watched the Steelers game at the bar last Sunday.  She is another high school friend who lived several years in Europe with her Dutch boyfriend-turned-husband before deciding to return to Pennsylvania last year.

I look forward to seeing my parents more often than just once a year--many many many more times with one set of them since I'm, heh, moving back in with them to save some money for awhile--and to being a real live person to my best friend's twin babies instead of just a Skyped face on a laptop, to enjoying the lush greenness of the Pennsylvania landscape after winter passes, to re-discovering Pittsburgh city proper up close and personally with fresh eyes, to buying my first home, to meeting some fine young man who has no qualms enabling my travel addiction...and to many more things that I'll discover over the coming months and years, I'm sure.

Yes, I'm coming home soon, and it feels good.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Tieks by Gavrielli

For this year's Eurotrip, I was determined to have an extremely comfortable, versatile, well-made pair of shoes.  This was particularly important for my relatively minimalistic approach to packing--only one small rollerboard suitcase and one Vera Bradley Weekender.  In years past I've brought over a big 26"-er and at least 3 pairs of shoes and I decided that was just too much.
This was all I'm taking for 2 weeks in Europe!

Hmm..She's thinking about throwing up on them later.
Early in my search I found out about Tieks by Gavrielli, which are handmade Italian leather flats that Oprah is just in luuuuurve with.

Now...don't let the sticker shock put you off too much.  They start at $175 a pair. We're talking hand crafted!  Leather!  And a vegan option if you prefer not to wear animal products.  

The price was daunting, but I've reached a point in my life where I'm willing and able to invest more in quality footwear.

Eventually, I took the plunge and ordered a leopard print pair.  I was so excited to have my "moment" opening that adorable teal box with the flower headband wrapped around it that I saw every other blogger write about. I took out the shoes and put them on and immediately thought, "Ahhh...they really do feel like clouds."

Then, about 15 minutes later, reality came crashing down on the big toe of my right foot.  I have what I suspect to be a growing bunion problem.  It's quite common in women--even women ilke me who don't wear pointy shoes and avoid ones with a narrow toe box in general.  My mom just had surgery to remove one a few weeks ago, in fact.  I had noticed this issue in ballet flats and my feet before, and with leather shoes I just powered through it until the shoe gave.  This time I wasn't so sure--I had to have some shoes ready to walk Europe with me by the end of the next week.

I took to Twitter and contacted @tieks, and "Tieks Girl" responded almost immediately.  I explained the issue and declared that I'd order the next size up to try them on.  Tieks Girl suggested that walking around wearing the shoes with a thick pair of socks does wonders for bunions.
Hmm.  Maybe she's on to something.

LOVE the teal box and purple flower.  My power colors!

The next size up pair arrived in a matter of days, and I tried them on.  I could tell right away that they were just too big.  Having shoes that slip and rub against the back and sides of your foot because they're too big isn't good either, so I did as Tieks suggested.  Every day for the few days left leading up to my trip, I wore those suckers with the thickest pair of hiking socks I own.  The bunion still hurt, but I was determined to break in the shoes.

Long story short, I went off to Europe an found that wearing the Tieks was excruciatingly painful on the outer edges of my feet. I ended up MacGuyver-ing  Band-Aids and ear plugs to cushion the tender spots.  That worked brilliantly; I'm really glad I brought so many of them with me!  The Tieks and I turned a crucial corner the day I went to Disneyland Paris and it poured rain all day.  I knew my feet weren't going to stay dry, but I tried my best by putting on a pair of my running socks, and then wearing little plastic bags around my toes.  I just didn't want my bandage-earplug-cushion contraption to soak off.

What's a little rain?
When we finally made it back into our hotel room, I of course took them off and stuffed them with paper to try and dry them overnight.  The next morning when I went to put them on, they were still a little damp, but they fit amazingly well!  I know leather and water aren't two things you normally want to put together, but I think some combination of that, the socks, and walking around like that all day really did the trick of getting those suckers to mold themselves to my foot.

For the last few days of my vacation, I just needed to wear Band-aids around the spots of my feet that were still tender and a bit raw.  Otherwise, the Tieks finally fit me as comfortably as they should.  Since I've been back home in the US, I wear them to work almost every day.  In fact, I put myself on the waiting list for a black pair that go with everything.  (I happen to think leopard print goes with everything too, but perhaps not every day...)

Pictured below are my feet as of yesterday.  (Foot fetishizers, enjoy.)  The dark spots at the base of my big toes and pinkie toes are where I was running into problems.  I've had this happen to me in almost every pair of ballet flats that I've ever owned, so I'm not blaming this on the design and/or construction of the Tieks at all.  I'm not blaming this on anyone; that's just what my feet are like and I have to deal with it accordingly.  

Would I recommend Tieks for anyone else with bunions?  Maybe.  If you're willing to wear some sort of cushioning device until you can break them in to the point where you don't need cushions, by all means, go for it.  I've read other gals on the Internet say that they do just buy the next size up in order to compensate for their bunions.  It's all up to you, naturally.  I like these shoes; they are versatile, comfortable (all of the above notwithstanding), and of quality construction.  I was able to save so much room by only bringing them and a pair of running shoes. 

Update October 2013: I did get the black pair, and had almost no issues at all from day one, and within a few wears they were totally broken in.  I think the leopard pair was much tighter/had less give at first because it's a painted leather.  I'll keep that in mind for future pairs.

Update December 2013: ...and then I got one of the vegan pairs, the Sunset Stripe.  Hey, I got 20% off during their holiday promo--I had to!  These are still in the break-in stage.  Although, this time it's my toes that are doing the work.  Bunion is a non-issue in this pair as well.

*I wasn't paid by Vera Bradley or Tieks to write this post at all...but I would totally accept any merchandise to test out. ;-)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Eurotrip 2013

Jetlag sucks. It's 6:33 PDT on a Sunday morning, and I've been wide awake for 4 hours.  I might as well do some more blogging about my most recent European vacation, eh?

As with last year, and the year before that, I took a solid 2 weeks.  Anything less is unacceptable!

Grüß Gott, Bayern!

Let's get this party started!
My friend Ralph moved to the southern state of Bavaria for work, but with the logistics of the situation and the fact that he didn't have his own apartment yet, it didn't make sense for me to go there when I went to Germany in 2012.  This year, however, it worked out perfectly!  Up until this point, I had spent nearly all my time in the Rhineland area (where my family lived while my mom and later my brother were stationed there in the USAF), Dortmund in the north (where Ralph used to live), and Offenburg (Ralph's hometown).  Over the years I've come to understand that Bavaria is, ehm, unique.  It's actually the most highly visible culture that people from my part of the world (the US) have come to think of as quintessential German.  Think lederhosen, brass bands, beer, and pretzels.  Oktoberfest, beer maids spilling out of their dirndls.  You get the picture.  The truth is, Bavaria is to Germany as Texas is to the US.  It's a very distinct region that is not representative of the rest of the country!  Most Germans have never worn a pair of lederhosen or dirndl in their lives and to do so would be pretty out of place outside of Bavaria, just as you wouldn't normally wear ten gallon hats and cowboy boots in New York or Seattle.  And that's just an oversimplification of the culture--there's much more to it than clothes and food.

All that said, I was eager to visit this region and experience it firsthand.  Because I wanted to take advantage of the Labor Day holiday and celebrate my birthday in Europe, I missed Oktoberfest by a week.  That's ok, though, because in the city where my friend lives, they have a bi-annual festival that is essentially the exact same thing on a smaller, less-touristy scale.  It's called the Plärrer, and it's fantastic.  Yours truly went to an outlet shop and bought a complete dirndl outfit, pictured above.  And, true to form, there was plenty of beer, pretzels, singing, and dancing.  Lucky for me, the band played mostly pop and rock songs in English as well, so I could really get into it.

Augsburg, where he lives, is a lovely and very old city--third oldest in Europe after Neuss and Trier, in fact.  It's not too big, not too small, and an easy distance from Munich.

Wunderschönen München

Speaking of Munich, we totally went there, natürlich!  I don't know what more can be said of this city that hasn't been already.  It's gorgeous.  We listened to a Rick Steves audio tour and saw all kinds of interesting things, like a memorial that locals took over to dedicate to Michael Jackson after he died, a posh grocery store that has an entire basement full of Milka products, and a lovely biergarten/marketplace area where I tried to get one of the famous local weißwursts to go with my beer, but was given a bratwurst instead.  (I think maybe the lady at the stall didn't think I actually knew what I was asking for?  Oh well; the bratwurst was fine.)

Let's begin our tour in Marienplatz

This was across from a hotel where MJ usually stayed.

Bonus Side Trip!

If I'm going to travel 7,000+ miles across the globe, I'm going to squeeze in at least a day trip another big city.  With US holidays being so abysmally short compared to the rest of the Western world, one must simply work with the time one has!  Two years ago my bonus city was Amsterdam.  Last year it was London.  This year it was Salzburg in Austria, just a 3 hour train ride from Munich.  Actually, we spent a day here before we made it into Munich another day--my post is slightly out of order--and we listened to a Rick Steves tour guide here too.  At Mr. Steves' recommendation, we walked, ate, and drank our way through the old town and had a couple shots of schnapps at a distillery that was featured on his tv show.

Mozart spent his youth in Salzburg before ditching it for Vienna.


This local restaurant was clearly proud of their feature in the Rick Steves guide book!

The tour took us through the old town, but there was obviously a lot more to see if you had time to hike up until the hills...which are alive...with the sound of music...

I couldn't resist, sorry.

Anyway, Salzburg was beautiful, worth another visit, and really whets my appetite for Vienna, which is another city that has been on my To See list for years.

Bonjour, France

I've been to France a few times before, but not to anywhere particularly well-known to your average person.  When my trip to Europe this year was officially "on", Ralph suggested we go to Paris.

For me, Paris was like Rome in that I figured I would get around to it eventually, but it was actually behind a bunch of other cities that I wanted to see first.  However, since Ralph was actually able to take off the entire 2 weeks of my visit, it was a relatively easy trip via train, and he himself had never been there either, we decided to go.

Bienvenue à Disney-LONDE

Let me backtrack a bit first, though, because we actually spent the first two days out in the suburbs at the Disneyland Paris resort.  This is also where I get obnoxious and point out that I pulled off some sort of hat-trick.  See, when my parents visited me for Christmas last year, we went to Disneyland on Christmas Day.  About six months later, I went to Orlando for a wedding and squeezed in some time at Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.  This trip to Disneyland Paris marks my 3rd Disney Resort in 12 months.  That's pretty sweet; I don't ever foresee myself pulling that off again.

Disneyland, 12/15/12
Magic Kingdom, 06/10/13

Disneyland Paris, 09/09/13

So, we took the high speed train from Strasbourg to Paris, then the metro from Paris to Disneyland.  Ralph got a package deal for tickets and 2 nights in a local hotel, and off we went.  Unfortunately, it rained almost all day while we were at the parks, so we were petty cold, wet, and physically miserable even with umbrellas.  Every seasoned Disney park enthusiast knows, however, that rainy weather + off-peak season = little to no wait times.  We picked up one Fast Pass and didn't even end up using it.  We pretty much walked on to every ride, and the longest wait was about 20 minutes on the second time we rode Space Mountain before calling it a day.

Now, between all the family trips, my two Disney internships, and my stint as an annual pass-holder, I've gotten to know the Orlando and Anaheim parks quite well.  How does Disneyland Paris measure up?  Well, the Hollywood Studios Park is laughably small.  I think it's the second smallest of all existing parks, and the only two or three things worth drawing a crowd for are the Tower of Terror, the Moteurs...Action! show, and the Rockin' Rollercoaster.  Unless shows are totally your thing, and in that case, go nuts there.  I'm glad we had a park hopper because ToT and the stunt show are two of my favorite attractions, but if you only had to choose one, skip it.

Now, Parc Disney?  Stunning.  Even with the dreary day, I could really appreciate the observations I've heard over the years about DLP just being "prettier" than the parks in the US.  I don't know how to exactly describe it, but is.  I suppose there's even more attention paid to detail and landscaping and definitely more trees.  It's a lot bigger than Disneyland and not quite as big as the Magic Kingdom, and feels much more spacious and park-like.  I would love to come back again, especially with hardcore Disney vets like myself who can really geek out over every little thing and compare it to the originals.

The Magic of Paris

Like Rome, Paris took me by surprise.  In fact, even moreso.  Whereas Rome is a city that I would like to visit over and over again, I could actually see myself living in Paris.  At least for a while; I'm sure it takes more than 2 days to really figure that out, right?  Yes, my time in the city itself was quite brief--much like my day in London last year--but I got enough of an impression to know that I was comfortable there right away.

For the one night we spent in the city, I used Airbnb and booked us an amazing flat near the city's two main transportation hubs, Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est.  We then popped in our earbuds for a third time to take Rick Steves' historic Paris audio guided tour.

Cathédrale Notre Dame, as seen from the queue to get in.

The first day of sight seeing also happened to be my birthday!

A happy gal enjoying a visual nightcap for her 31st birthday

Popsing, are you as amazed as I am!?

Both days were pretty cold and overcast, though thankfully not rainy like the day at Disneyland.  If I had it to do over again, I would have packed more warm clothes and a light jacket.  Unfortunately, the combination of my only bringing two small-ish bags and assuming that the nice weather forecast for my first week in Germany would extend into the second week in France made for an under-prepared visit, clothes-wise.  Thank God for scarves and the umbrella that I did have sense enough to bring.  The next time I go, I already have my eye on neighborhoods I'd like to explore more, and I promise myself that I will spend at least 5 hours of every day just dining.  There was so much to see and so little time that the only real sit-down meal we ate was dinner on my birthday at an incredible fondue place in the Marais district , which was simply called Pain Vin Fromages (Bread Wine Cheese).

Alles Gute

The great part about having a friend in another country is that when you go visit them, you get the true local experience.  Both of his sisters' had their birthday the first week of my trip and the older of the two had a nice birthday dinner at a whiskey distillery where I got to try delicious and simple local food and an educational whiskey tasting.  I also got to see his parents and hometown pals again too.  (In fact, two of them surprised me by turning up in Bavaria to welcome me to Germany!  How sweet is that!?)  So, not only did I get to indulge in some touristy sight-seeing, but I spent an equal amount of time--perhaps even more--just hanging out with friends.  That's my way to spend a vacation.

Cold meats, cheese, and bread.  I could eat this every day.

Watch out for the hard stuff, Popsing.

I've got such a chronic case of the Wanderlust that I already started thinking of next year's vacation before I even got home to San Diego two days ago.  This may come as a shock to some, but I think that 2014 I will take a break from Europe.  Yep, you read that right.  This crazy Europhile has decided that it's time to broaden the horizons a bit more, and there's a very good chance that next year I will re-visit Asia and also make my way Down Under to Australia.  Fear not, my beloved Europe, I've already planted the seed with my Dad that we should go to the UK in 2015, and I will probably try to finagle a trip to Berlin in there as well.

Until then, back to reality and rebuilding my empty vacation hours!