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!

The MBA Project: Graduation

So, let's get the apology out of the way first.  I'm sorry for not writing any new updates in 2013 until 3/4ths of the way through it.  For two years I got away with using school as my excuse for not having time to do x, y, or z.

Well, that excuse is no longer valid because I, Maria, have successfully satisfied all requirements to earn my Master's of Business Administration!  Yay!!! Pop the champagne!  Actually, don't--I've spent enough money celebrating for two solid weeks in Europe.  More on that in the next post.

New Experiences

When I wrote last on New Years' Eve 2012, I was about 2/3rds of the way through the program and ready to take on my second Intersession, Spring, and Summer sessions.  I would say that most of your first year in business school is spent getting your bearings on the whole thing, especially if you're juggling school with work, family, social life, etc.  For me, the second year was where I really took off and not only started to synthesize everything that I had been learning over the course of the first year, but also started meeting more people at school--not just in my cohort, which was beginning to disperse as people accelerated or de-celerated their studies.

Exploring the Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai
January was a particularly exciting time, as I was coming off of a great visit from my parents over the Christmas and New Year holiday, and going right into my very first trip to Asia as a student consultant in Shanghai, China.  There were about 24 graduate students on this trip, and we were divided into four teams that essentially became three.

I was on one of the two teams that were assigned to the same company; we started out as different projects and quickly merged into one Super Team of 13 people.  Anyone who has worked in groups before knows that having a project team of that size can be extremely difficult to manage, especially in an academic scenario where everyone is more or less on the same "level" and it can be easy for some members to get a bit, how shall I say...lost in the shuffle.  Somehow, we made it work.

We managed to pull off an excellent initial analysis of the small fashion trimmings and accessories company we worked for, which was very well received.  They were very hospitable, treating the entire group to several meals and giving us gifts in the traditional Chinese business custom.  I wish the company every success!
Walking from the metro station to the office

The team, advising professors, and client exec team after our final presentation.

When we weren't working--which was rare when the projects really kicked into high gear--we were eating, drinking, and exploring bits of the city.  For every moment of chaos, noise, and suffocating smog, there were even more adventures in culinary delights and a fascinating juxtaposition of East-West culture and commerce.  Look, China may be a communist country, but Shanghai is a very cosmopolitan, international city.  I must've hit a Starbucks at least 3 or 4 times (peach blossom latte, mmmmm), and my friends and I dined on everything from local dumplings to Japanese teppanyaki to fresh shucked oysters at an upscale bar run by one of my classmates' old high school friends.  Transportation was cheap, shopping plentiful, and in a city 10x the size of NYC, there is plenty to see.  I would definitely return someday, though perhaps not in the dead of winter...

This could be any given city, right?

The Beginning of the End

Because the school only holds one official commencement ceremony every year after the spring session, I decided to go ahead and walk in May.  (Going 3 months early is a lot more pragmatic to me than 9 months later.  Who knows where I'll even be by that point.)  
So, over Memorial Day Weekend, I suited up in the cap, gown, and regalia to go get my diploma-holder.  Most of my family was able to attend, for which I am very grateful!  

I was so swept up in the whole graduation  thing, in fact, that I hosted a neighborhood pub crawl the weekend before.  Which, if I may say so myself, was pretty epic.  Check out the "trailer" I made for the event!


After May, I had a solid 2 months' break from class, as both of the ones I had left to take where in the latter half of the summer session.  It was wonderful getting a preview of life would be like with a free and flexible schedule--including having the time to fly to Orlando to see one of my best friends get married without worrying about missing class or reading case studies on the plane--and it was also pretty awful to cram two three-credit courses into 5 weeks.  By the time I hit the classrooms again, I was raring to go.  Fortunately, I had had both of the professors before and enjoyed their teaching style and the subject matter.  There were some dark moments in that 6-days-a-week-on-campus period, and maaaaaybe I was finishing my final project over the course of a flight to Munich and still had to put the final touches on once I got to said destination...but in the end it all got done.

Last week I received the final confirmation from the MBA program's administrative director that I was all finished, and my diploma should arrive at my home in 6-8 weeks.

So there you have it.  Two solid years, 53 units, countless case studies and presentations, and invaluable experiences that I wouldn't trade for anything.

What's Next?

I've gotten that question a few times now from family, friends, and even work colleagues.  The short answer is: I don't know.  I have ideas and options that I would like to explore in different areas of my life--personally and professionally--but until things are concrete, I'll probably keep the latter pretty close to the vest.  Even going back to school isn't off the table; I may consider doing a PhD eventually, but for now I'm just enjoying my freedom.

Thank you to all who have supported me in this crazy MBA Project!  Now to start working on the next one.

Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review

In my fourth and final post of 2012, I shall do my annual Year in Review.

2011 Year in Review
2010 Year in Review

This is what has been going down this year:

The MBA Project

In 2012 I joined the pilot of USD's new Leadership Fellows program, a program in which second year MBA students facilitate conversations with (mostly) first year students to assess their team dynamics, individual behavior, and leadership role(s).  It's been a pretty enriching experience for me and we are receiving positive feedback from the other students that they are getting something out of it as well.  I've been glad to be a part of the shaping of USD's MBA program and will continue to participate as a Fellow next year.  Over the past year, I've steadily raised my GPA and found more of a focus for my future career plans, and perhaps most importantly, I've made lots of new friends, which is easier to do when you start to take classes with more folks outside of your cohort.

As of now, I am 2/3rds of the way finished with my degree, approved for graduation in August 2013, and a mere 4 days away from flying to Shanghai, China to work on a student consulting project for a fashion accessory company.  To say that I am excited about all of this is an understatement.  USD only does one big commencement ceremony in the spring semester, so I'm going to go ahead and walk in May and finish my last 5 credits in July & August.

Fun and Fitness

Well, even though I have been spending a lot less time on the pavement or in the gym since I started school, I am glad to report that I have still done a bit here and there.

Iron Girl 5k in November 2012 (a smidge better time than my 2011 time, too!)

Awesome 80s Run in October 2012

The Hot Chocolate 5k in March 2012

The Mermaid Run in February 2012

I can think of at least 3 or 4 more races that I need to sign up for in 2013.  I was on a Ragnar team with my company (click here to learn more), but I've given up my place on the team because I was offered a spot in the inaugural Kappa Kappa Gamma Leadership Academy 2.0 that same weekend!

As for the dancing, Desert Silk officially disbanded early in the year.  It takes a lot to run and support a dance troupe.  Between the six of us, we were dealing with school (me and my MBA, another gal and her PhD dissertation), family illnesses, jobs, and just the day to day.  I made peace with my decision not to dance again until I finish grad school.  In the meantime, we're all still friends who get together socially and for the occasional 5k race which is the #1 most important thing anyway. :)

Friends and Family

I wrote earlier this year about how we lost our Cousin PJ in February.  It's still bewildering.  The family is still healing.

I turned 30 in September, and my Auntie Carmen hosted an 80s Themed Birthday Party for me at her home up in LA, at which many family members and my friend Beth were in attendance!

Totally awesome cake courtesy of Ana and Ben, whom I commissioned for the task.

I was really glad to see so many get 80s crazy and dress up with me

Later that month, I finally, FINALLY reunited with my 2705 girls.  For those of you who don't know, in 2002 I participated in a Disney College Program internship in Orlando, FL.  I met many incredible people that I still keep in touch with to this day, but four of them are particularly special to me, because we managed to live in an apartment for 5 months and still come out the other side of it as friends. Haha.  I've seen Tina and Alyse several times over the past decade (!), but I haven't seen Michelle since 2006.  Well, Michelle got married in her home state of New York and I flew out a few days early to have adventures in upstate NY and Vermont.  And, as if that excitement wasn't enough, Alyse will get married next June.  Two reunions in as many years?  I can hardly believe it!

Now and Then: September 2012 vs December 2002.  Looking good, ladies!

In November, I kinda sorta surprised my BFF for her baby shower.  I say kinda sorta because she's just too damn smart for her own good and pretty much figured it out by the time I flew out there. ;-)  It was a real toss-up as to whether or not I could make a short trip to Pittsburgh work with my crazy schedule, but in the end I did it.  It was an insane three day whirlwind that included an all-day stay in that cursed Newark Airport, but it was soooo worth it!  It's not every day that your best friend has her first baby, let alone boy and girl twins.  They arrived just over a week ago in time for their first Christmas, and I can't wait to meet them the next time I go home!

Auntie Ria can't wait to meet the twins!

Speaking of new babies, my brother and his wife announced that Baby Taylor #3 is coming in April 2013.  Whose got two thumbs and is super stoked?  Tia Maria, right here.
You guys ready to share those with baby brother or sister next year?

The Wanderlust

I suppose that since I already devoted an entire post to Eurotrip 2012, I don't need to re-cap that again.  Suffice it to say, it was one of the brightest spots in my year and, as always, I am raring to go back, especially to the UK.

Eleanor Rigby and me in Liverpool, May 2012
Meanwhile, I did some traveling Stateside to new territory.

Over Labor Day Weekend I saw the Bay Area for the first time when I spent a few nights with my Kappa sister Cat and her fiancé (now husband) in Burlingame.

Cat was gracious enough to play host and tour guide for the weekend.

The Golden Gate bridge was hiding from us when we got to the lookout point.  Jerk.
It was a great trip that I would definitely make again.  In fact, I wouldn't rule it out of the short list of cities that I would leave SD for.

As I mentioned earlier, I visited upstate New York and Vermont for Michelle's wedding.  I've done NY, but Vermont was new to me and I. loved. it.  Absolutely gorgeous state and extremely friendly people.

"Ehmagerd, Vermernt!"
Happy Holidays

This Christmas, Dad and Pam finally returned to California for a visit.  I say finally because the last time they were here was in 2007!  They'll be in town through a few days after New Year's and I've been having a ball showing them around the city, eating at both great local restaurants and here at Chez Amelia, and we even made a trip to Disneyland for Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas from the Browns!

Their grandkitty is getting spoiled by all the attention she's received this week!
In 2013...

I look forward to my first trip to Asia at the end of the week and hope that I'll be able to squeeze in some more international travel again by the end of the year.

My eyes are on the prize with my second and final spring semester about to start in a little less than a month.  It'll be another crazy 4 months crammed full of coursework, but I remain optimistic that I'll continue to learn and enjoy time with my classmates.  After that, I am still very much interested in pursuing work abroad, and I will be particularly interested to see how I hold up doing an intensive consulting project in Shanghai.  How well I do there should be very telling of how well I would be able to cope with a management consulting position in a foreign country.

Other than that, I aim as always to be healthy and happy in the New Year.  Wishing the same to you and yours! Cheers!