12/31/08

7th Day of Christmas

On the 7th day of Christmas my husband gave to me a surprise New Years Party with 7 friends, all my favorite pizza toppings, and freshly cleaned kitchen. Mmm...clean house, what a great way to start the New Year. I love him so much. Off to kiss hubby good New Year, hope you all (if there are actually any of you reading) have a great 2009!

How to Charm Me

Resist the urge to freak out once you find out just how cold my feet really are. This fact is especially important at -50F outside.

12/30/08

How to Annoy Hubby

Lose your only set of keys to the house after already losing your husband's car keys earlier in the year. It's been a bad year for keys in our house.

6th Day of Chrismas

On the 6th Day of Christmas my husband gave to me: breakfast in bed, my favorite fizzy soda (raspberry Izzy), a warm car (when it is -45F outside), an evening snuggled watching episodes of House rather than Fallout and one of his favorite chocolate truffles from his Christmas stocking (just because he knew I needed chocolate).

12/29/08

5th Day of Christmas

On the 5th Day of Christmas my husband gave to me, my man in pants! (he had to go back to work sometime) And once he had risen from his stupor of Fall Out he said "Wow, what an awesome wife I have to let me zone out like I was back in college and not move for 4 days!" Or so I imagine him to think, because low and behold at lunch he showed up and took me out for Italian with a sheepish grin on his face, not wanting to admit he had done anything wrong, but silently making up for it "just in case."

12/28/08

4th Day of Christmas

On the 4th Day of Christmas my husband gave to me, 12 more hours of snuggle time with Fall Out 3, a Net Flix subscription (so I can download and watch a movie "with him" while he plays), another load of laundry (apparently pants require underwear to be worn), another big thank you for the jammies, another day of no cooking (we've moved on to creative toppings for potatoes), and 2 hours of working on the house (we are working on painting the kitchen).

12/27/08

3rd Day of Christmas

On the 3rd Day of Christmas my husband gave to me 6 hours with his best guy buds at the house, another day of no cooking (more Christmas ham sandwiches), another big thank you for Christmas jammies (which he still hasn't changed out of), and folding two loads of laundry (apparently there are pants in there somewhere).

12/26/08

2nd Day of Christmas

On the 2nd day of Christmas my husband gave to me 40 hours of undivided "snuggle time" on the couch as he played Fall Out 3, special Christmas mcmuffin with leftover Christmas ham, and a big thank you for the Christmas pajamas I gave him Wednesday night which he showed by still not changing out of them.

12/25/08

1st Day of Christmas

On the 1st day of Christmas my husband gave to me, beautiful pearl earrings, new books to read, and helped clean up the dishes after our first successful Christmas ham.

12/23/08

Making My Morning E-Breakfast Efficient

We share a car, saves gas, money on insurance and maintenance and gives us lots of quality time to talk in the car. Sometimes its a pain and we juggle, but manage. It's less of a big deal in the summer when we both have another set of wheels and can bike almost everywhere. For the next 5 months until it thaws though it means that I'll be stuck at work for an extra 30 minutes every day waiting. I'll probably end up working and either acquire a hefty Christmas bonus due to the extra 2.5 hours a week or I'll use the time to catch up on other things that can be handled online like paying bills, blogging (perhaps), or reading my RSS feeds. Reading RSS feeds first thing in the morning gets me caught up with the news, friends and inspired for the day, but I've found my blog roll growing to an unmanageable level. Scrolling through uninteresting posts is a waste of time. Today I was happy to discover this article on using Google Reader. It's got a few tips which have sped up my morning routine  so that I can get through all of my RSS feeds, personal e-mail and Internet chores in the half hour before everybody else shows up. Google has a FAQ with keyboard shortcuts which also make using reader more efficient.

12/17/08

Home made Christmas


Our week was simply crazy this week, getting ready for our family Christmas party and other holiday events. Kept up the good eating and went to pilates class, but missed the WW meeting. Maybe I will go to another meeting later in the week. Oh well. 

You can see our Christmas tree from last year above. When we got it out this year to set it up, it just looked so small. Its about 3-3.5' tall. We looked at about 5 different stores in town for a new  Christmas tree. Apparently there is a lack of normal looking trees that aren't sized for a hotel lobby. A 7.5' tree does not fit in a 8' house very well, or at least not with a star on top and a base to stand it on. The only ones we found shorter than 7.5' were all scraggly or flocked with fake snow and glitter or looked more like a topiary bush. Scraggly, not in a good Charlie Brown minimalist Christmas tree way, but in a cheap Made in China way. 

Some may argue that a real tree is the most authentic tree and far more environmentally friendly. I would tend to think that having one good tree like my parents, which sticks around for over 26 years isn't really that bad. But, you should buy a tree that you're willing to stick with if you're going fake. Don't buy a fad blue tree, an upside down tree, a half tree, corner tree, black tree, or fiber-optic tree unless you really really love it. You'll end up throwing it away.

Ultimately, the search for the 30 year tree ended up nowhere. We were so frustrated that we decided to try a real tree this year. We were always scared of real trees, thinking that they cost like $200 and that the cats would drink all the water and after like 3 days we'd be left with a pitiful skeleton of a tree and a pile of needles to vacuum up. I didn't want to put up the tree and then have nothing but ornaments on a sad little dead bush. But, we went to Home Depot and dicovered that their normally $200 trees are on sale for $30-$40 and that each different variety has different characteristics, like how long they retain their needles and how they smell. We'll find a friend with a truck this weekend to go pick one up.

The idea of having a real tree this year is putting me in a mood to make our whole house feel more home-made and traditional. I found patterns for cutting complex snowflakes out of paper and will be spending some fun time tomorrow night snuggled up on the couch with a pair of scissors and my favorite movie at Christmas time White Christmas. If I get tired of snowflakes maybe I'll whip up some popcorn and make some garland. Heh, we'll see how far the home-made Christmas goes.

12/11/08

Being Sick Makes you Healthy

Was sick with a head cold all week which left my head feeling like a solid brick. I still drug myself out to the WW meeting and was pleasantly surprised with a -1.8 loss. This week's weight loss lesson: "when confined to the sofa for the week and eating nothing but broth based soups and lots of liquid, you actually are doing something to make yourself healthy." Heavy foods that you don't want to eat when you are sick are bad for you anyway.

12/7/08

Wireless Internet Question

I have a wireless internet network in our house. It consists of a wireless router connected directly to my cable modem. What I need is to be able to connect a laptop in our office to the internet. For security reasons this laptop was purchased by an employer without wireless network card or capabilities. Does anybody know a way to take the wireless connection, receive it and then put out internet via ethernet to another computer? Or am I stuck with using this laptop only in the living room where the wireless router is located?

12/5/08

What Would I do for 8 Years By Myself?

 The Longevity Game by Northwestern Mutual is a tool to help estimate your needs in retirement and also for buying life insurance. For me it was a morbid exercise which convinced me that based on their actuarial tables I should eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise more and lose weight in order to live past 91, but that if I do I'll spend longer and longer alone. Hubby is predicted to last till 85 and I'll stick around till 91 according to the insurance folks. *sigh* My dear, I don't want to live 8 years without you! 2 years age difference + living 6 years longer. Not sure what I would do with almost a decade to myself. Maybe I'll just enjoy life as is and get him to work out more and we'll spend the rest of our lives together. Yeah, bad plan, statistics mean nothing about actuality. Just like the fact that I flipped a coin to tails last time doesn't mean I'll get heads this time. I've just eliminated a pretty good excuse for not going to the gym this week. Oh well.

12/4/08

Goings On

Weigh in went well. I was down -.4 lbs. Doesn't seem like a lot, but it represents several small victories. Thanksgiving is a big deal with my family and there always half a dozen options in addition to the basic turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, rolls and pie. I picked things that I don't usually have as every day items the rest of the year, filled my plate with 1/2 veggies and ate only one plate. I was a slow eater so I was eating steadily through the same amount of time as others went back for 2nd and 3rd plate fulls. I was so proud of myself. 

I am even more proud because this week also involved a bunch of stressful family and Army events. My husband was promoted into a new position in the reserves. No change of rank or pay, but a big change in responsibility. He now is responsible for 150 soldiers and 13 million in equipment, a very hard thing to manage well as a reservist with a full time life already. This is placing huge demands on his time. 

We worked on setting up his office again and are re-instituting date nights. This one night a week where he agrees not to do Army stuff and we do something together is important. We did this when I was in grad school and tended to just pick at doing my homework rather than focusing on it. We set up date nights which forced me to do my work more diligently and then set aside time for us. We also made a road trip with my in-laws and stayed with my parents for 3 days, all in one week! I would have been happy with all of the family events, holidays and social occasions this week just to maintain weight wise, I was ecstatic to lose.

So lesson learned, plan ahead for social occasions and that takes a lot of the emotional aspects of eating out of it. 

12/3/08

Trial By Fire - Timothy Ferriss

Timothy Ferriss, blogger/author of the 4 Day Work Week fame is one of those lifestyle design gurus who I'd actually like to meet in real life rather than some guy out there writing books to make money off of the people buying them. I think his approach is more like, here I am, this is what I do, let me explain so if you think you want to do it you can to. His latest project is a TV show which he is trying to get off the ground on the History Channel. He attempts to learn over the course of a few days something that takes years to master. In this case, Japanese horseback archery, for the pilot of “Trial by Fire” — which will air this Thursday, 12/4, at 11pm ET/PT on The History Channel. I'll be watching and the cool part is so will my husband because eh, its the History Channel and martial arts. The one issue I always have ready Timothy's books/blog/anything is I feel completely lazy, like, "Wow, if this guy could master a language to functional fluency in 30 days, why can't I?" Well, I probably could, but its not going to happen passively, I'd have to want it and focus on it, and I just don't. So shameless plug here, but I get nothing out of it. I like Timothy Ferriss in the same way that I have a weird crush on Anderson Cooper. They both do what they love with no holds barred and are cute in a real life (like I could actually know this person) kind of way. To see what I'm talking about, check out his show. Preview here.

11/28/08

Black Friday? Hell no.


Black Friday, been there, done that. Not worth it. Instead I"ll be celebrating the season this Friday by spending no money. Instead I'll be decking our halls (or as many areas of our home as are finished construction). I'll be putting up my wreath and hauling down my Christmas decorations from the garage. If the weather holds I might even put lights up outside the house. That is definitely not a task for -30F weather.

11/27/08

Happy Thanksgiving!

Enjoy your friends, family and food today.

11/26/08

Why Gaining is Good

Weighed in tonight and gained. I'm now up 1.4 lbs and that's a good thing. No, I'm not anorexic and trying to gain, I actually need to lose. But, gaining my first week is a great thing. If I had fudged 2 social occasions and got away with it by still losing then I'd be more prone to fudging again. I'm now hyper vigilant with calculating my points, writing everything down and preparing ahead for social occasions by looking at the menu before going to the restaurant (taking the temptation to splurge away) or by bringing something that I know I can eat to a social occasion at someones house. Also, for the first time since I graduated college I have an exercise routine. I've added 3 days of gym to my haphazard Pilates class attendance. Upside is I'm sleeping better and have more energy. Who would have thought that doing something tiring makes you have more energy? I think I knew that, but now I believe it.

Also, big plug here for WW e-tools. I can sit down for 5 minutes with hubby and pick out all of our dinners for the week, then I add in my breakfasts and lunches and pre-plan our week. I then hit the shopping list button and boom, shopping list is done, sorted by department of the grocery store. No shopping hungry and bringing home junk, hubby is on board with all dinner selections and I have a plan rather than staring into the fridge at night. If we switch things up and order Chinese or something, I just delete or reschedule the pre-planned meal for that day. Makes my life simple.

11/19/08

Me Weight Watchers, Bring it On/Take it Off

One of the gals at work talked me into going to Weight Watchers. I think committing to something like a weekly meeting will be good for me. My husband is my best friend so I talk to him about everything, but it is nice to receive support from someone else. Poor guy, probably tired of hearing my body image complaints. I successfully lost 40 lbs prior to our wedding and got within 10 lbs of my goal. Since that time I've crept back up until today I stepped on the scale and cringed when I saw that the number was within 5 lbs of where I was at my peak 4 years ago. Ouch, back where I started. This time I'm not cutting out all carbs, but am trying for a more sustainable approach. I was diagnosed with PCOS this time last year. My Dr. prescribed a drug for it, but it makes me feel like I have permanent morning sickness so I stopped taking it. The other remedy for PCOS is weight-loss so I promised myself to go with that approach. The same day as I went to my first Weight Watcher's meeting I got my reminder that its time to make my next appointment. I really don't want to sit across from an OBGYN and have him tell me, "So you did nothing and are still having symptoms, surprising." I'll go when I've made a little progress at least. Motivation for many reasons.

I think health is a better motivator than a special occasion. My wedding was a motivation, but not an incentive for a sustainable change. We have a family wedding coming up next June so it would be tempting to lose weight for that, but really I need to do it for me, for my health, and for my way of life. I just want my energy back.

Also, I'm only 25. I had the idea that Weight Watchers is for old fat Moms. Apparently, not true, there were young ladies, not so heavy people, Grandmas and even a guy. I was pleasantly surprised. With the combination of e-tools to make me accountable for everything and meetings for motivation I am hopeful.

11/5/08

See Our Brain Cells Aren't Frozen

Election night was miserable for Republicans: They lost the presidency, at least five seats in the Senate, and around 20 seats in the House. They are officially out of power. But for those of us who considered Obama a shoo-in and a democratic wave inevitable, the Republican showing seems almost impressive.


I'm just glad that Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska didn't retain his seat long enough to get expelled, because we poor Alaskans are having a hard time convincing our Southern friends/fellow bloggers/anybody that our brain cells aren't frozen up here after exporting Gravel (running for Dem presidential nomination), Palin, and having Stevens and his temperamentally challenged porkmate, Don Young in the news so much.

Don't get me wrong, I love Ted Stevens. Uncle Ted has been good for Alaska. But in the same way that I'm ok with Obama winning even though I didn't vote for him, I'm ok with Steven's not winning even though I voted for him. What? How could I vote for a guy convicted on 7 counts in federal court? Well, the election was only 3,000ish votes apart so I wasn't the only one. To explain to our Southern brethren who think our brains are frozen, I voted against his competitor and for a do-over. His conviction didn't matter. I can ignore it in fact. If I don't want his competitor I should vote for Ted because either A) He is innocent and it would be stupid not to vote for a guy who could appeal and win and retain the only semblance of significance Alaska has or B) He is guilty and he'll be expelled and I'll get a do-over on my vote with better options rather than being stuck with the other guy for 6 years. Alaska law was changed after our last retiring Senator Murkowski ran for Governor, won and appointed his daughter Lisa to his seat. Claims of nepotism abounded and Alaskans said, uh uh, not again and changed our laws so that in case of a vacancy a special election would be held to fill the post. So again, didn't like Begich, so I voted for Stevens assuming I'd either keep an innocent Uncle Ted or get a do-over. Yes, you probably have to be an Alaskan to understand how much the man means to us. Well, actually you could be a West Virginian and think about it in terms of Senator Bird. Ultimately we'll have less powerful representation, but hey, maybe we got a little national cred back when we lost Stevens.

9/29/08

What Does Your Home Say About You?

      Long time no post? Um, yeah. Got back from Europe and basically began working two jobs. I don't blog at work so since I haven't checked my e-mail or barely touched my laptop from home in 3 months the blog kind of died. 2nd job? What does an engineer need with a 2nd job? I speak figuratively. Back in April we had a flood and moved 1/2 of our household into the other 1/2. This happened in the middle of our kitchen renovation which was immediately put on hold. In September we got our contractor started on a 2 week tops (we were promised) job. Well, its the 1st week of November and we're still trying to get him back to finish stuff. All of my spare time has been spent working on the house, scraping popcorn ceiling, painting, picking colors, drooling over furniture, rewiring lighting, switches, etc. etc. etc. So home improvement took over my life. I'll have a series of DIY posts in the future.

      So what does my home say about me right now? We are in the middle of a tumultuous time in our life. People stopping by our house won't see the chaotic mess of someone who might have left the house in a hurry that morning. They get the impression of someone who was in the midst of an unsettling time, who'd yet to make peace with their new circumstances... As I read on another blog recently: "A healthy home is not a home full of the latest furnishings or decorated by the current hot designer. It's a home that says "Welcome. I am taken care of, can I take care of you?" There's a place to sit, a place to put your jacket or a bag, clean towels and extra toilet paper in the bathroom, and a clean glass to offer a visitor a glass of water. A chair has a table nearby to put down a glass, laundry and cleaning are done regularly, perhaps a light is left on for the inhabitant who comes home when it's already dark." Our home is a sick home getting healthy. We want it to say, "Stay and sit awhile." not "Get out of the construction zone!" We're getting there little by little. I better start finishing some projects or I'll never get my dream house. Hubby has already declared, "Never again!" Poor man, his healthy welcoming home that he agreed to give a small kitchen face lift has been under construction with boxes and supplies everywhere for going on 7 months.

      9/10/08

      Sarah Palin in Fairbanks

      Ok, this is just strange. All the news when I got home was a bunch of reporters waiting in parkas for Sarah Palin to arrive. Hello people, its September not December, the leaves haven't even finished turning. It was colder in London when I was there. The big parkas look ridiculous! It's also a tad surreal to see all this coverage from my home-town which is actually quite small. If you took away the University and the military there would be almost nobody here.

      On the way to the wedding this weekend we drove through Wasilla, just like we always do anytime we go through Anchorage. Blip, it went by in less than 10 minutes, but along the way we saw no less than 4 scrolling marquee signs with "Go Sarah!" signs on them. That is one excited town.

      I keep getting questions about how we as Alaskans feel. It's not like we all vote as a block and feel the same way about things so I can only speak for myself. I'll do that post soon, when I've had a chance to digest a little more. Oh, and please stop talking about the stupid bridge to nowhere, and if you do please mention that Biden and Obama voted for the funding for the bridge and when given the option to redirect the funding to Katrina relief by Sen. Tom Coburn, they didn't do so. Palin might have originally supported it, but at least she was the one who killed it. Ok, nuff said about stupid bridge.

      9/5/08

      Surreal about Palin

      We returned home Tuesday after what was essentially a media fast. We got the newspaper only twice during our trip to Europe, didn't bring the laptop with us, and didn't activate our cell phones for data. So it was much to my surprise when I walked into the Chicago airport and saw CNN news anchors blathering about Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol being pregnant. Uh, who cares about Alaska all the sudden? I soon found out and have been caught up in the perfect storm of media coverage ever since. It's like if a tiny country in Africa was suddenly in the running for the World Cup being in Alaska right now.

      I wasn't really surprised she was chosen as VP, the Russian bloggers have predicted it for at least 6 months. She ticks off a lot of boxes for McCain: conservative, pro-life, pro-NRA, female, known for being anti-corruption, known for being pro-business, and totally non-oldschool Washington. If you were evaluating the ticket as a total package, rather than a "What happens when he keels over?" approach, you would definitely have filled in the gaps with Palin.

      I'm still digesting all of the attacks, the weird media coverage (can't they intelligently ask someone who knows how to pronounce simple things like her name or hometown before making yourself look like an ass?), and the fact that my candidate who everybody wrote off last year is at the top of the ticket and my governor is in the #2 spot. It's very surreal, like watching somebody you went to High School with on the news. (Trust me, she's way older, but the analogy holds.)

      Weirder still is that watching the convention turned what was a blah election for me, with the presumed election of Barack Obama to look forward to at the end into something exciting to watch. I have a team to cheer for again. I may not agree with my team on several key issues, but its like a family, we talk bad about each other within the family, but we'd never say a bad word and become very defensive when it comes to outsiders attacking. I still think I'll give my honest opinions and disect the ticket later.

      And um yeah, vacation blogging didn't happen. We couldn't find free wi-fi except once so I journaled the vacay and will do some posting later. We were moving around so much that it didn't make sense to pay 10 euros every day for wi-fi for our entire stay at a hotel which we were only staying at one day. I have to drive 10 hours to a family wedding this weekend so I'll use that as a chance to catch up with my blogging and picture processing.

      8/25/08

      Free Things to Do in London

      We'll be braving the bank holiday traffic today as we head from Paris to London on the Eurostar. Perhaps we'll hit some sites while all the locals are off at the Nottingham Carnivale. In the meantime we leave you with a few of our favorite ideas of free things to do in London. The full list is on the National Geographic website.

      From David Bowie and Beckham to Charles Darwin and Dickens, London has captured the world with legendary figures since its founding in the first century A.D. But it's not only the city's celebrities rising to the top—the British pound is rising, too. Don't get knackered looking for cheap deals across the pond—London has heaps of free museums, attractions, and activities to delight all types of travelers, from posh, to business, to budget.

      It's impossible to see all 330,000 pieces at the National Portrait Gallery at one time, but the museum's free admission is a good excuse to go back again and again. See classic portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 207 portraits of Queen Victoria, 38 portraits of Paul McCartney, and 44 portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales.

      The Tate Britain houses British works from 1500 to the present. Admire works by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), William Blake (1757-1827), George Mason (1818-1872), and Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Best of all, visitors can see them all for free. Check out "Late at Tate" on the first Friday of every month, when the gallery is open until 10 p.m. (free), and admission to special exhibitions is half price. Plus, peruse the Tate Modern's free collection of world-class contemporary masterpieces—including works by Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, Miro, Pollock, and Warhol.

      Since first opening on January 15, 1759, with 71,000 objects collected by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), the British Museum has only closed its doors twice (during the two World Wars) in almost 250 years. Today the museum houses thousands of artifacts, from ancient Mesopotamian jewelry to Chinese jade from 5000 B.C. Admission to the museum's collections is free (fee for some special exhibits).

      Don't miss the Ceremony of the Keys, a 700-year-old tradition in the Tower of London. Every evening, the Chief Yeoman Warner locks the main gate to the tower and brings the keys to the Resident Governor. Plan ahead: Tickets are free but should be booked at least two months in advance. Apply for tickets by writing to the Tower of London (see website for specific instructions).

      The crowd-pleasing Changing the Guard has been a British tradition since Henry VII (1485-1509). The handover is accompanied by music as the red-tunic-and-bearskin-hat-clad guards change shifts around Buckingham Palace. Best of all, visitors and passersby can watch at no charge. See the Guard Mounting at 11:30 a.m. daily May-July, and on alternating days August-April. To avoid the crowds at Buckingham Palace, see the Changing the Guard at Horse Guards Arch on Horse Guards Parade (11 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. on Sundays) or at Windsor Castle (11 a.m. Monday-Saturday April-July, and on alternate days, except Sunday, the rest of the year).

      Learn about Britain's involvement in war at the Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road. Highlights include permanent exhibits on the Holocaust, World War I, and World War II. Check out the Secret War exhibition, which details the Special Operations Executive and secret government agencies MI5 and MI6 from pre-World War I to the present (think invisible ink used by German spies, codebooks, and secret radios). Admission to the permanent exhibitions is free.

      If you can plan ahead, check out the BBC and apply for free tickets to tapings of radio (Hear and Now, BBC Symphony Orchestra) and television (Coming of Age, Strictly Come Dancing) shows. Our favorite BBC show Top Gear was booked for tickets 3 years in advance so we won't be sitting in on the taping. Perhaps we should book now and hope to return near the Olympics?

      Overseas visitors can catch a debate and question time in both houses of the U.K. Parliament. Free tickets are given to U.K. residents to see the House of Commons, but overseas visitors can wait in line (up to two hours outside the St. Stephen's entrance) to be admitted for free if there is space available during the "summer opening." The Commons has a very lively Prime Minister's Question Time that is well worth the wait (especially to political enthusiasts and to those wanting to hear some of the best British profanities).

      Used as hunting grounds by Henry VIII in 1536, the free 350-acre (142-hectare) Hyde Park now has a playground, sports facilities, and the Lookout, an education center where kids can learn about nature. Be sure to stop at the Diana Memorial Fountain, erected in 2004. The design of the fountain reflects the Princess of Wales's life: The fountain's water flows in two directions before it meets a calm pool.

      On a sunny day, stop by the 18th-century Kenwood House by Hampstead Heath. The house served as Lord Mansfield's home during the 18th century, and its lavish gardens are worth a visit. While there is a fee to take the guided tour, exploring the house and grounds on your own is free. Pathways wind through butterfly gardens, and the site's woods are home to ancient trees, woodpeckers, and rare species of insects.The Romans built the London Wall around their port town of Londinium when they occupied Britannia from A.D. 50 to 410. Parts of the wall are still standing and can be seen (at no cost) near the Museum of London, Tower Hill, and Barbican Estate.

      8/21/08

      Free Things to do in Paris


      Today we arrive in Paris, city of lights. We'll most likely be train-lagged from our overnight train from Rome last night. But, before we even get to our hotel, we'll be hitting the ground running taking a Chocolate Tour to discover why Paris is famous for dark chocolate. Since we're far too busy stuffing ourselves silly to post, we'll leave you with our list of favorite free things to do in Paris. A full list can be found on the National Geographic website.


      Even though traipsing around pricey Paris might sound like serious damage to your wallet, not to mention your holiday joie de vivre, that's only if you don't know where to look (and when to go). Indulge in some of the City of Light's sweetest luxuries—gratuit—from hidden nooks of authenticity to world-class museums and sights.


      Admission is waived at the Louvre, Mona Lisa's home—and one of the most well-known buildings in the world—the first Sunday of each month as well as Bastille Day (July 14). Guests 25 and under get in free on Friday nights from 6 to 9:45 p.m. (except for exhibitions in the Hall Napoléon). Bear in mind: The Louvre is a popular attraction, and lines on free days are predictably extra long.

      Explore the greatest hits of Impressionism at the Musée d'Orsay, a tourist-favorite art museum housed in a former train station facing the Seine, for free on first Sundays (always free for kids under 18). On the top level, navigate the crowds to discover world-class paintings by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat, and Matisse.

      Centre Pompidou, a gaudy architectural exclamation point designed to look like a building turned inside out first opened in 1977 and reopened in 2000 after an extensive renovation. Free first Sundays for everyone and always for those under 18, the Pompidou Center's huge collection spans the 20th century and is a must-see for contemporary and modern art lovers. Plus, the adjacent square by the quirky Stravinsky Fountain is a dynamic spot to bask in Paris's sprawling cross-section of culture.

      France's centenarian department store at Galeries Lafayette holds free weekly fashion shows on the seventh floor. Paris is teeming with aspiring artists who are more than happy to display their works to you free of charge, both on the streets and in beautiful art galleries. Art lovers need look no further than the streets surrounding major museums, especially in Montmartre and near the Musée Picasso and Centre Pompidou in the Marais. A few highlights: Galerie Yvon Lambert (108 rue Vieille-du-Temple, tel. +33 [0]1 42 71 09 33 ) for minimalism and conceptual art; and Galerie Maeght (42 rue du Bac, tel. +33 [0]1 45 48 45 15 ) for more traditional art in St-Germain-des-Près. Revel in French fashion Fridays at 3 p.m., March through December, on the seventh floor of France's centenarian department store at Galeries Lafayette's weekly free fashion shows. A team of models flaunt the latest high-couture trends during a 30-minute presentation. Reservations required (e-mail welcome@galerieslafayette.com, tel. +33 [0]1 42 82 36 40 ).

      Just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris exhibits art movements from the 20th and 21st centuries—including Fauvism, cubism, Dadaism, surrealism, abstractionism, and more—in the free permanent collection that boasts works by Matisse, Picasso, and Chagall.

      Each first Sunday of the month, Auguste Rodin's famous bronze and marble sculptures, including The Thinker and The Kiss, are on display free of charge at the Musée Rodin in the quiet 18th-century Hôtel Biron and its manicured garden.

      The free Musée Cernuschi, in a recently expanded and renovated mansion, houses ancient Asian pottery, jade, bronzes, and more bequeathed to the city of Paris by philanthropist Cernuschi in the late 19th century.

      Scaling the Eiffel Tower, Paris's most famous icon, has a price, but the view from below is spectacular in its own right, and a perfect backdrop to a leisurely picnic in the surrounding grassy area. Be sure to visit the tower at night when it sparkles each hour with an awe-inspiring ten-minute display of 20,000 glittering white lights.

      Cinching Paris in the midsection is the Seine River, which divides the city into the Left and Right Banks. For true romance, slowly stroll the riverbank; for quirky souvenirs, browse the book stalls that line the Left Bank on street-level.

      Notre Dame Cathedral (6 Parvis Notre Dame, Place Jean-Paul II, tel. +33 [0]1 42 34 56 10 ) is the historic heart of Paris. All distances from Paris to elsewhere in France are measured from the square in front of the basilica. Snap a photo of your feet planted on the plaque at point zero before entering the cathedral, the masterpiece of French Gothic architecture and one of the most-visited sites in Paris (no admission charged). Be sure to walk the perimeter to glimpse the flying buttresses that support the structure as well as the famous gargoyles. On each first Sunday from October through March there's no fee charged to climb the 387 steps of the North Tower.

      Tucked behind the walls of the Palais de Justice on the Île de la Cité, the awe-inspiring Gothic Sainte-Chapelle's walls consist of 15 exquisite panels of stained glass and a large rose window. Admission waived on the first Sunday of the month from November through March and always for kids under 18.

      In the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur basilica and near where Picasso lived and worked, Montmartre's Place du Tertre square is a lively spectacle teeming with aspiring artists selling souvenir-ready artwork and drawing tourists' portraits.

      In the Marais, Paris's impressive Hôtel de Ville (City Hall, 29 rue de Rivoli, tel. +33 [0]1 42 76 43 43 ) features a fountain-laden square and free admission. Much of the grandiose building is off-limits for security reasons, but Parisian exhibits and free information are available in the lobby. See the city from the Promenade Plantée, an elevated railway viaduct leading east from near the Bastille, which is one of the few such linear parks in the world. Steps along the path lead to tiny parks and arcades with public art, people playing sports, and gardens.

      Located in the heart of the Latin Quarter, the domed Panthéon was commissioned by Louis XV in the 18th century as a church, but the landmark was converted into a secular mausoleum dedicated to the great men of the French liberation and is known best for its dark marble interior and Corinthian columns. Admission is free first Sundays October through March.

      Blow off steam in one of the city's public parks, where grassy knolls are sprinkled with playgrounds and carousels, like the Park André Citroën, Jardin des Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Parc Monceau, Square Willette (in front of Sacre-Coeur), and Jardin des Plantes. Le Petit Ney (10 avenue de la Porte Montmartre, tel. +33 [0]1 42 62 00 00 ), a literary café in Montmartre, organizes a board-game night the first Saturday of the month starting at 7 p.m. Most games are for teenagers and adults, but they always have something appropriate for little tykes as well. No cover charge.

      Plot your path through the Père-Lachaise Cemetery with the online virtual tour of the graveyard's celebrity residents, from Oscar Wilde's lipstick-smudged grave to Jim Morrison's modest plot.Established in 1798, the Montmartre Cemetery (20 av. Rachel, tel. +33 [0]1 53 42 36 30 ) hosts the graves of artist Edgar Degas, film director Francois Truffaut, and many more. Pick up a free map near the entrance.

      Walk through Montparnasse Cemetery (3 blvd. Edgar Quinet, tel. +33 [0]1 44 10 86 50 ), established in the 1700s, and wend your way past the final resting places of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writer Simone de Beauvoir, and car maker André Citroën. Free maps are available at the main entrance.

      The sprawling grounds of Jardin du Luxembourg, a landscaped garden in the Latin Quarter in the 6th arrondissement, features an 1861 Medicis fountain, several 19th-century statues, and locals relaxing on pleasant afternoons.

      Grab a free copy of the bicycling map, "Carte Vélo à Paris," at any tourism office and most bike rental agencies. The map provides help in navigating the city's maze of bike lanes and establishing the most scenic routes.Paris Rando Velo leads free Friday night bike tours of the city, meeting at 9:30 p.m. in front of the Hotel de Ville. Each ride lasts from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The group also hosts similar rides on the third Sunday of the month at 10:30 a.m.

      8/19/08

      Free Things to Do in Rome


      We're in Rome Today (assuming we caught our train). You'll have to wait for a more personal update with photos and other goodies, but until then we figured we'd share our favorite free things to do in Rome. A full list can be found on the National Geographic website.

      Rome may be a city of high fashion and expensive tastes, but its rich history and art offer plenty of culture that won't cost you a dime, including churches and most monuments. You don't have to look far for free activities in the Eternal City.

      The oldest standing domed structure in Rome, the Pantheon was built in 27 B.C. as a temple honoring all the Roman gods, then was converted in A.D. 609 to a Christian church. The famous architect Brunelleschi used it as inspiration when designing the cupola for the Duomo (cathedral) in Florence. Its most striking feature is the oculus, the open-air aperture at the top of the dome that lets in natural light. It is the burial place of several famous artists, including Raphael. Mass is held here Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m.

      Stroll through the ruins of what was once the center of a powerful empire at the Foro Romano, the former commercial, governmental, and religious center of ancient Rome. It contains the remains of several temples and judicial buildings, and was the site of some of Rome's most important events. The Arco di Constantino, located near the Colosseum, is Rome's largest arch. About 65 feet (20 meters) high, it was built in A.D. 315 to commemorate Emperor Constantine's triumph over Maxentius, after which he allowed the practice of Christianity in the Roman empire.

      See the "wedding cake," as locals refer to it: Il Vittoriano, the large white-stone monument on Piazza Venezia near the Capitoline Hill, was constructed at the turn of the 20th century to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. The building houses the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an eternal flame burns. The massive monument is topped by a statue of Victor Emmanuel on a horse, accompanied by winged depictions of Victory. A museum inside details the history of the Italian Reunification. The large white columns around the building are sometimes called the "false teeth."

      Test your luck at La Bocca della Verità ("The Mouth of Truth"). This grotesque sculpture of a wild-eyed face on the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin has a macabre reputation, made famous by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Legend has it that if you put your hand in its gaping mouth and tell a lie, you'll pull out nothing but a stump. 18 Piazza Bocca della Verità.

      Walk off that gelato: The Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna make up the longest and widest staircase in Europe. Originally proposed by the French, this grand staircase leads from the Piazza di Spagna to the church of Trinità dei Monti (they became the "Spanish" steps after the Spanish embassy moved to the square). Once a hangout for artists, the steps are now abuzz with students, tourists, shoppers, and portrait sketchers.

      The world center of the Catholic Church and the largest Roman Catholic building in the world, St. Peter's Basilica is also an astounding work of art. Entry to the main floor is free. The outside colonnade and the 90-foot-tall (30-meter) baldacchino, the staggering bronze canopy that shelters the Papal Altar, where only the pope may celebrate Mass, were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the greatest baroque sculptors. Don't miss the "Pietà," one of Michelangelo's most famous statues (now sheltered behind glass after an attack by a hammer-wielding maniac), and make sure to rub St. Peter's well-worn foot for good luck as you pass the bronze statue. There is a six-euro charge to climb up to the dome, designed by Michelangelo.

      The Vatican Museums are free of charge on the last Sunday of every month, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (the last admission is at 12:30 p.m.). +39 06 69 88 33 33 .

      Rome's national museums and other major galleries have deals that change constantly. Check with galleries individually before you go for any special admission prices. For a listing of museums in Rome, visit http://activitaly.it/musei/.

      Visit the gardens at Villa Borghese. One of the most expansive and beautiful set of gardens in Rome, this park is a great place to stop for a picnic; adults can relax and kids can explore. The adjoining Galleria Borghese is worth a visit, but admission is not free. Or you can try Villa Sciarra, which has a playground located next to an exotic-bird aviary. You can feed the birds if you bring your own bread. And at Villa Ada, several organizations (like the World Wildlife Fund) offer free activities for children. In addition, the city holds free exercise sessions for adults at the pond on Sundays.

      Piazza di Spagna, one of the most well-known piazzas in Rome, was once home to poet John Keats, who died in an apartment that looked onto the square (his quarters are now a museum). The square also sports the famous Fontana della Barcaccia ("fountain of the boat"), designed by Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The shopping around the Piazza di Spagna is some of the best in Rome.

      Designed by Niccolo Salvi, the Fontana di Trevi is perhaps the most famous in Rome. The immense fountain was completed in 1762 and is the largest and most intricate of the baroque fountains of Rome, combining sculpture, nature, and architecture. Legend has it that if you throw a coin in over your shoulder, you will return again to Rome. Piazza Navona was originally a center for sporting events, including horse races, and then became the location of a major market. The main market has since moved to Campo de' Fiori, but the piazza is still a central location for street fairs, parades, etc. It also contains some of Rome's most famous artwork: Borromini and Rainaldi's Sant'Agnese in Agone Church and Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi), where each figure represents one of the four main rivers known at the time—the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, and the Rio de la Plata. Two other fountains on the square, the Fontana di Nettuno and the Fontana del Moro, were designed by Giacomo della Porta.

      The Campo de' Fiori square is known for its morning flower and vegetable market, and its evening bar and restaurant scene. The name, given in the Middle Ages, means "field of flowers," referring to the fact that the square was once a meadow.For an authentic Roman walk, stroll through the trendy neighborhood of Trastevere. This area's narrow streets and numerous squares are reminiscent of classical Roman and medieval times. Once the home of artisans, fishermen, and merchants, Trastevere became known for its immense villas and beautiful gardens, which belonged to Julius Caesar. After hours, the area is known for its nightlife.

      Starting at 7 p.m. every night, Irish-operated Angel Tours offers a free 30-minute tour of the Pantheon in small groups. Show up at the Pantheon and look for the tour guides holding umbrellas with angels on them. If coming with a large group, call ahead. +39 06 77 20 30 48 .

      Sky Tours Rome offers free hour-long tours of Saint Peter's Basilica Mondays through Saturdays at 9 a.m. +39 34 72 84 08 28 .

      In summer, the island in the middle of the Tiber hosts the open-air Isola del Cinema film festival. Music, dancing, and food and wine-tasting accompany cinema showings and celebrity sightings. Throughout September's International Urban Theater Festival, keep your eyes open for spontaneous dance, music, and acting performances throughout the city.

      8/16/08

      Introducing Your Hosts


      Introducing your hosts...in our nice digital Avatar form courtesy of Pose Prints. Over the next two weeks we'll attempt to (without a laptop) blog our way through Venice, Rome, Paris and London. We'll be using our trusty digital camera (with iPod camera connector to download photos onto), N95 phone (with wifi, camera, and blogging software), Skype phone, a USB key and our limited knowledge of Italian and French to find internet cafes. This plan was all in an effort to ditch our laptop and free ourselves from lugging it around all day or worrying about it in the hotel. We'll see how our tech-lite blogging plan goes.

      As this post goes out we're currently boarding the first of 4 planes. We leave Alaska at 6am today and arrive Venice 10pm tomorrow. All in all it is 36 hours of flying and layover fun. Fairbanks to Seattle, Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to London Heathrow, London Gatwick to Venice. Hope they feed us!

      8/12/08

      London DIY Travel Planning Resources

      It's not nearly as hard to find helpful websites for London as it was for Venice, Rome, and Paris because in London they speak English (duh). Many museums in London are free too, so any budget savings are mostly to be had in the dining and accommodations areas. Hotels were so expensive in London that I couldn't find anything from the usual sources Trip Advisor, Expedia, and newspaper review sites. I ended up finding a boutique B+B in the Belgravia area (cha-ching). It's cute, modern, has 24-hour tea service, breakfast, and free loner bicycles.

      Here are a few links that we found useful. We also used Rick Steve's London guidebook a bit. Please post your useful links in the comments.

      Planning Your Time:
      The London Pass itself is unnecessary as most of the museums in London are free. It just wasn't cost effective for us. That said, the London pass website is a great place to start planning a trip to London with its interactive maps and other features.

      The London Guide has a great list which they call Combining Attractions. It groups together sites which are within walking distance of each other and accessible off of the same metro stop.

      London Walks offers a variety of tours priced at £7 ($14 USD). These are guided trips on foot that last roughly two hours. Most leave in the vicinity of an Underground stop. Look for a guide holding up the company's white sign. A good way to skip the lines at the Tower of London and a few other sites.

      Online Guidebooks:
      Fodors London

      Frommer's London

      How to Get Around:
      How To Save Money on London Transport

      How to Recognize Bus Stops

      London Tube Trip Planner

      Gatwick Airport: Getting from Gatwick Airport to London, Heathrow, or other UK cities by train (Gatwick Express), coach service or car service.

      Heathrow Airport

      Heathrow Terminal 3 Check-In Advice

      Heathrow Express train transfer to central London website, cheaper than a cab, more expensive than the tube, faster than both

      Eurostar Website: Info and booking engine on the train that nearly 22,000 people take between London and Paris every day.

      Other Links:

      Theater tickets are way cheaper in London than in New York, even with the exchange rate. This website has an event guide which will tell you what is playing while you're there.

      Attraction Official Websites: Go to the source for the most up-to-date information, dates of closure and special exhibit information.

      Buckingham Palace

      Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace-View the schedule here.

      Imperial War Museum's Cabinet War Rooms

      London Design Museum

      Madame Tussaud's London Wax Museum

      Museum of London

      National History Museum

      National Museum of Science and Industry

      National Portrait Gallery

      Royal Residences

      Sherlock Holmes Museum

      Tate Museums

      Victoria and Albert Museum

      8/11/08

      Paris DIY Travel Planning Resources

      Here are some of the sites we found most useful for planning our upcoming stay in Paris. Last time I was in Paris I didn't think I would have much time for site-seeing and I didn't want to ruin some things like going up the Eiffel Tower for the first time by going without hubby so I put off a lot of things. I did end up finding a small Parisian bookshop and asking them for a guidebook. It was a touristy area so they had a whole shelf worth. I asked the nice French shopkeeper which one he would recommend to a French friend who wasn't from Paris and he handed me a copy of the Green Micheline guide and a small map book. I'll be taking these back with us despite the fact that they are from 2006. I just went to the attraction websites to pencil in a few updates. I wish that the currency exchange quoted in the book from 2006 were still accurate. I can't complain too much, the dollar has strengthened to its 6 month high this week so the trip is cheaper than when we first started planning it.

      Please post your favorite links for the DIY trip planner in the comments.

      Where to Stay:
      Lonely Planet Paris Hotels

      20 Paris Hotels Under £100 - This hotel list includes some pretty special places, and while not all are extreme budget picks, they are something to consider.

      USA Today Hotel Picks - Our hotel is one of their recommended picks. We like the variety of funky to functional digs.

      How to Get Around:
      How to use Paris Mass Transportation - A complete guide to using the Paris metro, buses, RER, and tramway.

      Metro/RER/bus trip planner - Need to plan your route? This website will tell you how long it will take, what stops will be involved, where you will transfer and how much it will cost on public transportation.

      Paris airports website - How to get a shuttle, maps of the 3 terminals and other helpful info.

      Paris Velib - The new bike rental system. A very romantic way to get around Paris, with a much better view than the metro.

      Planning Your Time: Frommer's online guidebook for Paris - includes itineraries, attraction info, and good walking tour and other maps to paste into your Moleskine.


      Other Useful Websites:
      Paris Museum Pass - The best deal for museum hoppers is the Paris Museum Pass which can be bought in 2, 4, or 6 day increments. If you're in Paris for the shopping or food, well good for you and God bless your credit card, but if you're here for the art or history, this deal can't be beat. It will get you free admission to most of the sites at a cheaper rate than individual admissions most of the time. We made a list of all the places we want to go, and even with the discount I get for still being under 25, it was cheaper to go with the pass. Another advantage that might sway you, even if you won't save money with the pass, is that you get to skip the ticket lines and go right in at attractions with traditionally long lines, like the Louvre and Versailles.

      Paris Walks - A cheap way to upgrade many experiences while traveling is to hire a good guide. The folks at Paris Walks came highly recommended in multiple guidebooks. We'll be going on their Chocolate Walk and discovering why Paris is famous for dark chocolate. This tour is so popular it has to be booked in advance. Shame as the price of the euro to the dollar has become more favorable since we paid. Oh well, I have no regrets.

      Fat Tire Bike Tours Paris - Recommended by a pilot friend who always does one of these tours when he has a layover in Paris. We're thinking about booking their Versailles bike tour if it looks like the weather will be good.

      The Jules Verne Restaurant has one of the most romantic views in the world, being at the top of the Tour de Eiffel. A bit of a budget buster, you can save a few bucks if you go for a lunch time reservation instead. Reservations required and are better booked months in advance.

      Paris Attractions Official Websites: Go to the source for up to date information, dates they are closed, current prices, special exhibits and other useful info.

      Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower): Champ de Mars, 7th Tel: (01) 4411 2323. Website: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/ Opening hours: Daily 0930-2300 (Sep-mid Jun); daily 0900-2400 (mid Jun-Aug).

      Cathédrale de Notre-Dame (Cathedral of Our Lady): 6 Place du Parvis-Notre-Dame, 4th Tel: (01) 4234 5610 or 4432 1672 (information on tower). Website: http://www.cathedraledeparis.com/ Opening hours: Daily 0745-1845 (cathedral); daily 0930-1845 (towers); Mon-Sat 0930-1130 and 1300-1730 (treasury). Free admission (cathedral); charge for towers and treasury.

      La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur (The Sacred Heart Basilica): Parvis du Sacré-Coeur, 18th Tel: (01) 5341 8900.Website: http://www.sacre-coeur-montmartre.com/ Opening hours: Daily 0600-2300 (Basilica); daily 0930-1830 (crypt and dome). Free admission (Basilica); charge for dome and crypt.

      Musée National du Louvre (Louvre National Museum): Cour Napoléon, 1st Tel: (01) 4020 5050.Website: http://www.louvre.fr/ Opening hours: daily 0900-1800, Wed and Fri until 2130; closed Tues. Opening hours for temporary exhibitions vary. Admission charge; free first Sun of each month; advance tickets can be purchased from branches of FNAC and on the Internet; tickets allow same-day re-admission.

      Musée Rodin (Rodin Museum): 77 rue de Varenne, 7th Tel: (01) 4418 6110. Website: http://www.musee-rodin.fr/ Opening hours: Museum: Tues-Sun 0930-1745, garden: Tues-Sun 0930-1845 (Apr-Sep); museum: Tues-Sun 0930-1645, garden: Tues-Sun 0930-1700 (Oct-Mar). Admission charge; free first Sun of each month.

      Musée d'Orsay (Museum of Orsay): Entrances at 1 rue de la Légion d'Honneur and 1 rue de Bellechasse, 7th Tel: (01) 4049 4814. Website: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/ Opening hours: Tues-Sun 0930-1800, Thurs 0930-2145. Admission charge; free first Sun of each month.

      Musée du Quai Branly: 17 Quai Branly, 7th Tel: (01) 5661 7000. Website: http://www.quaibranly.fr/ Opening hours: Tue-Sat 1000-1830, Thu open to 2130.

      Musée National Picasso (National Picasso Museum): Hôtel Salé, 5 rue de Thorigny, 3rd Tel: (01) 4271 2521. Website: http://www.musee-picasso.fr/ Opening hours: Wed, Fri-Mon 0930-1800, Thurs 0930-2000 (summer); Wed, Fri-Mon 0930-1730, Thurs 0930-2000 (winter). Admission charge; free first Sun of each month.

      Centre Georges Pompidou (Georges Pompidou Centre): Place Georges Pompidou, 4th Tel: (01) 4478 1233. Website: http://www.centrepompidou.fr/ Opening hours: Wed-Mon 1100-2100; late-night openings until 2300 for some exhibits. Admission charge; free first Sun of each month.

      8/10/08

      Corey Cogdell Women's Trap Shooting Bronze

      An Alaskan took the Bronze medal in Women's Trap Shooting, and I actually know her. Congratulations Corey. She is a really awesome person. Nice, a strong Christian and a strong shooter. Alaskan girls kick ass!
      Shooting
      Born: Palmer, AK September 02, 1986

      Hometown: Eagle River, AK
      Residence: Colorado Springs, CO - Olympic Training Center
      Ht: 5'7"
      Event(s): Trap
      I'll have to catch the medal ceremony on youtube or load it on nbcolympics.com later because its 16 hours time difference between Alaska and Beijing. I'm sure her family and many of my friends in Anchorage won't be getting much sleep tonight, but I've got work tomorrow so I'm off.

      8/8/08

      Russia Invades Georgia

      When I got to work this morning I asked my colleagues what they thought of Russia invading Georgia. Much to my chagrin, they didn't know Georgia was a country and thought I was making a strange joke about Russians in Atlanta. No, its true, Russia did invade Georgia in attempt to back up their peace keeping forces which have been trying to keep Georgia from wiping out separatist South Ossetia. These peace keeping forces have recently come under Georgian attack and this invasion is Russia's response. As someone who has studied the area and history of this conflict for years it hardly surprises me. I do find it interesting that most of the articles discussing this matter are quoting ex-President current Prime Minister Putin rather than President Medvedev. Seems like Putin is retaining a good deal of power. Here is some non-CNN coverage in case you are interested. I have linked to English versions only which limited my choices.

      Pravda.ru - Russian newspaper, Pravda is the Russian word for truth, take that as you want.(English version)
      BBC - I like their timeline of events, which to those unfamiliar with the area helps set the stage on why things are happening.

      1991-92 S Ossetia fights war to break away from newly independent Georgia; Russia enforces truce

      2004 Mikhail Saakashvili elected Georgian president, promising to recover lost territories

      2006 S Ossetians vote for independence in unofficial referendum

      April 2008 Russia steps up ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia

      July 2008 Russia admits flying jets over S Ossetia; Russia and Georgia accuse each other of military build-up

      7 August 2008 After escalating Georgian-Ossetian clashes, sides agree to ceasefire (which Georgia violates)

      8 August 2008 Heavy fighting erupts overnight, Georgian forces close on town of Tskhinvali

      8/4/08

      Going on a Trip? Don't Forget Your Mail


      We tend to just let our mail pile up while we're gone or trust our cat sitter to pick it up every once in awhile. But after hearing a few recent horror stories of stolen replacement ATM cards, missing bank statements and other potential identity theft issues we decided to take an item off of the cat-sitters to-do list and put a hold on our mail. It was super easy and took less than 2 minutes to complete on the USPS website. So take the extra 2 minutes and put your mail on hold. Don't forget to unplug your waste power loads, clean your fridge and take out your trash while you're at it. You'll save money, protect your home and come home to a far less stinky house.

      8/2/08

      Rome DIY Travel Planning

      Photo Courtesy: MonasteryStays.com

      Here are some of the websites I found useful to plan the Rome portion of our trip.
      Guidebooks:

      Lonely Planet

      Frommer's

      Rick Steve's - As I said in my Venice post, this will be our main guidebook for our Italy travels. We will use the walks, museum guides and basic phone number and other essential travel information. For the most part I have copied the important info on opening times, prices, metro stops, address, and other info into my Moleskine, but will bring this for reference. There wasn't much information on his website to link to, but its worth picking up a copy of his guidebook. I wouldn't buy seperate ones for each Italian city (Venice, Rome, Florence, etc.), just buy the Italy guidebook, it contains much the same information and takes up less space than multiples.

      Maps:

      I love the Frommer's maps for Rome webpage. I printed out a bunch of them and pasted them in my Moleskine. It's my own little DIY guidebook, with all of our hotel reservation stuff in it, photos of the outside of our hotel rooms (so if its late at night we'll be sure to recognize it rather than walking past looking for the address) and a bunch of Frommer's maps. It's much easier to print their guidebook maps than to try photocopying out of our Rick Steve's guidebook.

      Getting Around:

      Rome Airport Guide (FCO): Airport layout, maps, trains and buses from Rome Airport FCO to Rome or other areas in Italy, where to meet at Rome Airport.

      Metro Roma

      Summer in Italy - Transport Strikes: list of current transportation strikes (rail, airports, etc.)

      Where to Stay:

      We chose our hotel after reading simultaneous good reviews on Frommers Rome, New York Times, Expedia, Trip Advisor, and Venere. I'll let you know how this plan works out and post a review of our hotel after we go.

      Attractions:

      I would start with a decent guidebook which will give you an idea of how much you can see during the amount of time you have and a fairly good order to put it all in. For online help I like the Frommers Attractions and Itineraries pages. They have good descriptions, pricing and hours all in one place. I would still double-check with specific attraction's websites where possible.

      Vatican Museums- You cannot buy reserved tickets for the Vatican museums (Sistine Chapel) to bypass the lines. The only way to avoid the lines, is to book a tour. I heard that booking directly with the Vatican is impossible and books up more than a year in advance. I e-mailed them just to check and was pleasantly surprised to have an e-mail waiting for me the next day confirming our tour with the official Vatican docents. No line for us, yay! For information on the Vatican, check out http://www.vatican.va/.

      Borghese Gallery in Rome You have to have reservations for the Borghese Gallery. You can buy these through their website.

      Other Sites:
      http://www.mmdtkw.org/: Lots of general Rome information, most recently updated in 2000. http://www.romaturismo.com/v2/en/main.asp (official site of the Rome Tourism Board) http://www.tickitaly.com/ (Italy's site for buying tickets in advance and avoiding lines)
      Enjoy Rome, Via Marghera 88, near the train station (tel. 06-4451843), was begun by an English-speaking couple, Fulvia and Pierluigi. They dispense information about almost everything in Rome and are far more pleasant and organized than the Board of Tourism. They'll also help you find a hotel room, with no service charge (in anything from a hostel to a three-star hotel). Summer hours are Monday to Friday 8:30am to 7pm, and Saturday 8:30am to 2pm; winter hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm, and Saturday 9am to 2pm.

      7/31/08

      Venice DIY Trip Planning

      Photo of Venice by: Ryan Darvish Venice, Italy

      Planning your time: Rick Steve's has a great itinerary that flows well from place to place and shows you how much you can realistically cram into one or two days. We started here, then deleted what we weren't interested in and added a few other things based on web research. It gives you a good idea of how long to spend at certain attractions. We'll be taking his 2008 Italy guidebook with us for reference. The museum tours and walks are the best feature of his guidebooks.

      Finding a hotel: What do other people think? Trip Adviser's website gets a bad rap. You of course have to be careful to choose a hotel that has a lot of really positive and recent reviews. You don't want one that has one 5 star review or one that has a ton of 5 star reviews, but recently went downhill, but still has a good average. Actually read the reviews, a lot of Americans complain about a hotel based on the size of the rooms when in reality it could be a lovely hotel that is typically European in size. I find the user photos to be particularly useful. Hotels are great about having photos on their websites which make the rooms feel larger or nicer. Seeing an actual room gives taken with somebody's 2 mega-pixel camera gives me a better idea. I take many reviews with a grain of salt, they could be competitors posting bad comments or the hotel itself self promoting with fake reviews. If a hotel interests me on Trip Advisor I look into it at least two other ways as well. For peer reviewed hotel suggestions I also look into what travel bloggers on Travel Pod have to say. It's hard to find somebody who has stayed at each place I'm interested in so this was less useful. If you're looking for lonely out of the way backpacker budget selections this is a great starting place.

      I like Venere for their maps, which make it easy to find hotels by which part of Venice you want to stay in. I still book through Expedia to get my Thank You points and they are usually cheaper.
      People who review hotels for a living can usually be trusted to give decent advice or word gets around and they don't sell guidebooks/newspapers/ads. I looked into NY Times, Rick Steve's Venice hotels (from his 2008 guidebook), National Geographic and Fodors.

      Getting around: Guide to getting around from Lonely Planet
      http://www.elmoro.com/: Practical information on how to get to Venice and move around the city.
      http://www.alilaguna.com/: Waterbus (vaporetto) info between airport and Venice. www.actv.it/eng/home.php: Waterbus (vaporetto) routes throughout Venice.
      Guidebook: We chose the 2008 Italy Rick Steve's for its walks and museum guides. It best meets our travel style. We like to have a general idea of what we want to do and walk most places.

      The Rough Guide to Italy: Didn't have much more to offer than Rick Steves. We liked the good maps for all regions of Italy.

      The Green Michelin Guide: This is useful for museums because they have very detailed descriptions of the art, but it didn't meet our needs in Italy.

      Lonely Planet Venice


      Other good info:

      http://www.invenicetoday.com/: Events in Venice today.


      savevenice.org: Venice restoration projects that are ongoing.


      Venice Carnival Everything that you need to know about the Carnival...

      Authentic Gondolas Learn about Gondolas and their history at the International Center for Wooden Boat Building

      Wikitravel Venice

      Main Attraction Websites: useful for finding up-to-date opening times, prices, and other info that might be out of date in whatever guidebook you're using. I'll add more as I find them.

      Academia
      Basilica dei Frari
      Basilica di San Marco (39 041 2708311)
      Collezione Peggy Guggenheim (39 041 2405411)
      Palazzo Pisani
      School of St Roch (Scuola di San Rocco)

      7/29/08

      Revised Europe Packing List

      Europe Packing List (2)

      After taking my Aeronaut with me on a quick business trip to Anchorage this weekend full of 27 pounds (laptop, chargers, 2 pairs of shoes, 5 star restaurant clothes, weekend clothes, work clothes, toiletries, etc.) I got to feel first hand what it felt like with that much stuff stuffed into it. Any doubts I had about leaving the laptop at home for our upcoming trip are gone, it adds a lot of weight and takes up a third of the main bag space. I also realized how necessary the Absolute strap is when carrying heavy loads. Thankfully the heavy load almost disappeared when carried as a backpack, so it was nice to know that I could handle the weight even when it is super heavy.

      After living with the clothes I planned on packing for a week, reading the suggestions of my wonderful readers, and going shopping in Anchorage last weekend I revised my packing list. Hubby is off on a 4 day work trip camping with his Aeronaut with his camp stove, clothes, cooking dishes and other camping gear in the bag. He'll be reporting back on how it went

      What came out of the bag:
      1 dress-Two skirts with tops provide more options than two dresses.
      1 pair flip flops-Not going to be taking showers in hostels and can't walk in them all day.
      camera (moved to Hubby's bag)
      1 hoody & 1 pair terry pants - I'm taking a smaller and easier to wash/dry sleep shirt.

      Also not bringing:
      1 messenger bag day bag-The flap on the bag made the items inside too inaccessible. The LED light inside also didn't work so it's going back to eBags.

      What went into the bag:
      1 Tide-to-go pen
      1 pair Birkenstock sandals
      1 cardigan
      1 sleep shirt/2nd dress
      1 bag lock

      Also bringing:
      1 hobo handbag - this replaces my messenger bag. It has a top zipper which keeps the stuff inside secure, fits under my arm, is roomy enough to carry all of our stuff for the day and has two rings on either side to attach a cross-body strap if I decide to. It also has a little pocket on the outside to slip the camera into and out of throughout the day. Ironically enough, I already owned this bag and didn't need to buy a new one for this trip, sometimes it pays to take a look around before going shopping.

      I'm taking tiny travel size shampoos and conditioners from the Body Shop after still being unable to find solid toiletries at a reasonable price and because I have strong allergies which make relying on hotel toiletries to be impractical. I did get my toiletries down to just the essentials so I

      I know I'll take some flack for it, but I'm still bringing the jeans and khakis. I hate travel pants and I get too cold to wear skirts the whole time. I've considered wearing leggings with the dresses and skirts, but in the end, I love my jeans, they make me feel beautiful like no other item of clothing and if I have to wash them halfway through so be it. We have two stays of 5 nights or more in one place and they will dry in that amount of time. Since we won't be moving around every day, its not as much of an issue.



      7/23/08

      His Europe Packing List

      I've received more than my normal hits on this blog since posting my packing list so I figured I would add hubbies to the mix. Unlike me, his 3-1-1 bag will probably have aftershave and toothpaste in it and he'll rely on a combination of bar soap and hotel freebies the whole trip. I have also shifted some of the books into his bag and he'll be holding onto a few of our common items such as the laundry supplies and camera.


      Hubby will also be toting along the 3 Skype phone. Not yet available in the US, I am going to be given one when we land in Europe to review. Hopefully my review will help future world travelers who are thinking about traveling abroad and renting or buying a Skype phone. I'm certainly looking forward to putting it through its paces. It will have tough competition, stacked up against my Nokia N95 with its 5 mega pixel camera, video camera, wifi internet, GPS and maps features, and Skype through Fring. And no, I'm not being paid to do this review, I'm just trying to make life easier on my fellow travelers and satisfy my geeky curiosity.


      The reviews I've read say that the "3 Skype phone will allow users to make free Skype-to-Skype calls and send free instant messages over 3G, in addition to making normal phone calls and browsing the Internet. 3's Skype phone also packs a 2-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, an expandable micro SD card slot (up to 1GB) and weighs a pocket-friendly 85g. The star feature however, has to be the ability to make cheap Skype calls. You can call friends or relatives anywhere in the world via Skype and not spend a penny, or have to be tied up to a laptop or PC -- we like."


      We'll see how it pans out. Going to Europe without my laptop has me more than a little freaked. I was browsing the Sony website looking at their 1.8 lb laptop models and even considered the Macbook Air, but I'll just try to settle for cell phones and Internet cafes. We'll see how the blogging goes with the minimal electronics plan.


      Back to hubbies packing list. It features REI Adventures pants which actually look like pants, not hiking pants and they don't go "swish" every time he walks which is awesome. They are also kind of soft and feature great little security pockets for wallet, passport, etc. so he'll be happy. My man judges the quality of any garment by the distribution and quantity of pockets.


      Also included are more than a fair share of Horny Toad shirts. After I wore my modal shirts from them for several days solid, including biking back and forth to work, with no sweat stains, stink, or discomfort he was sold that the brand was more than just cute and soft. When I found coupon codes for 30% off on top of their sale which is already 30% off he took the plunge. 60% off some awesome travel t's and button downs...awesome. Code is: 38630 for 30% off any order over $125 placed on www.hornytoad.com or simple for 20% off any purchase, both work as of last night.

      To explain the jacket situation, I am always cold and will probably wear my jacket in Paris and London 75% or more of the time (probably just the pashmina in Italy). He, on the other hand, won't bring his jacket at all unless it is currently raining. So on bad weather days he'll bring his real jacket and on other days he'll stuff his Marmot Ion jacket which weighs 3 oz in my purse or his pants pocket to pull out only if absolutely needed.

      The rest is pretty self explanatory. I am making him bring the long sleeve shirt for the one formal dinner I know we'll have at my conference and the sweater for layering purposes (he probably won't use it). He is bringing along 550 cord, which will serve who knows how many uses, the primary one being as our clothes line. He showed me an old Army trick for using it as a clothes line which convinced me not to buy one of those surgical rubber models. He stole one of my large Tom Bihn packing cubes and fit everything but his pants in it. Maybe I'll have to steal his Absolute Strap and we'll call it even. If it weren't for the shipping cost I'd order a few more cubes and the strap, those things are awesome. And yes, it all fit in his Aeronaut, including his shoes which he'll actually wear on the plane, with tons of room to spare. Yay, more room for souvenirs.

      Feedback appreciated...

      7/19/08

      What Kind of D&D Character are You

      This doesn't sound like any characters I've played, but it does sound like me.

      I Am A: True Neutral Halfling Bard/Sorcerer (2nd/2nd Level)


      Ability Scores:

      Strength-12

      Dexterity-8

      Constitution-13

      Intelligence-14

      Wisdom-12

      Charisma-17


      Alignment:
      True Neutral A true neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. He doesn't feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos. Most true neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality. Such a character thinks of good as better than evil after all, he would rather have good neighbors and rulers than evil ones. Still, he's not personally committed to upholding good in any abstract or universal way. Some true neutral characters, on the other hand, commit themselves philosophically to neutrality. They see good, evil, law, and chaos as prejudices and dangerous extremes. They advocate the middle way of neutrality as the best, most balanced road in the long run. True neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you act naturally, without prejudice or compulsion. However, true neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it represents apathy, indifference, and a lack of conviction.


      Race:
      Halflings are clever, capable and resourceful survivors. They are notoriously curious and show a daring that many larger people can't match. They can be lured by wealth but tend to spend rather than hoard. They prefer practical clothing and would rather wear a comfortable shirt than jewelry. Halflings stand about 3 feet tall and commonly live to see 150.


      Primary Class:
      Bards often serve as negotiators, messengers, scouts, and spies. They love to accompany heroes (and villains) to witness heroic (or villainous) deeds firsthand, since a bard who can tell a story from personal experience earns renown among his fellows. A bard casts arcane spells without any advance preparation, much like a sorcerer. Bards also share some specialized skills with rogues, and their knowledge of item lore is nearly unmatched. A high Charisma score allows a bard to cast high-level spells.


      Secondary Class:
      Sorcerers are arcane spellcasters who manipulate magic energy with imagination and talent rather than studious discipline. They have no books, no mentors, no theories just raw power that they direct at will. Sorcerers know fewer spells than wizards do and acquire them more slowly, but they can cast individual spells more often and have no need to prepare their incantations ahead of time. Also unlike wizards, sorcerers cannot specialize in a school of magic. Since sorcerers gain their powers without undergoing the years of rigorous study that wizards go through, they have more time to learn fighting skills and are proficient with simple weapons. Charisma is very important for sorcerers; the higher their value in this ability, the higher the spell level they can cast.


      Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

      7/18/08

      Summer Travel Dresses via Travelista

      Travelista has a new post on summer travel dresses. I particularly like the navy dress from J.Crew which she linked to. It would totally go with the pashmina I'm already bringing and if I threw a pair of leggings on I could wear it on the plane. I particularly like her video on how to wear a pashmina which is originally how I found my way onto her post. Here are some excerpts from her dress post:

      "Summertime travel in Europe demands clothing that is functional and fabulous. Nobody wants to be a hot mess when travelling. Don’t bust out your Karl Lagerfed fan just yet, a breezy travel dress can help conquer those hot days. Dresses are a natural for traveling. Instead of packing several separates to complete one outfit you are only packing a single item. Dresses easily take you from your daytime sightseeing to evening activities. A great travel dress will make you look totally chic and put together no matter what the occasion. When selecting a travel dress, fashion takes a back seat to comfort and fit. Shirtdress styles, wrap dresses, and longer tunic style dresses are flattering choices and easy to dress up with just a few accessories."


      7/12/08

      Packing for the Man

      Hubby doesn't see the need to pack this early in the game. He kind of laughed as he watched me take over the living room, laying things out, putting things back, arranging outfits on the floor and then weighing everything after checking it off my packing list. Then I asked him what he was planning on bringing and given that he won't be wearing shorts and t-shirts the whole time (his normal summer casual uniform), but pants and polos, he reevaluated the need for early planning. All of his work pants and khakis work in Alaska and are 100% cotton. This makes them unfriendly for hot weather and hard to wash as we go. He also has suit pants, which are not travel or weather appropriate. His last option is his hiking pants of which he has two pairs. The first of which have zip off shorts which act like rubber bands on his thighs. Even though the rest of the pant fits, they look awful. The second pair are so loose they look like MC Hammer pants. Men's travel pants are really hard to find.

      I first turned to google. A surprising amount of men wear the zip-off pants as travel pants, blech. Being an extensive traveler myself, I never see those pants on the locals, unless I'm actually out hiking. I looked on the OBOW (one bag one world) page, but they didn't seem to have any good finds on their "Solution to the pants problem" post. I went to stand by stores Eddie Bauer, REI, and Dockers which left me with a couple options.
      • The REI Adventures Pant, which were reviewed as having problems with pilling.
      • Dockers Championship Pant Pleated are nice because they are non-cotton, they are reinforced for men bending over while lining up their golf shots, and designed for hot weather. I didn't like the pleated part of them, which adds bulk around the middle to even the thinnest of guys.

      By this time I realized why we buy all of his clothes at Eddie Bauer. Their excellent return policy means that as he wears out his pants I can steadily replace them for free and their website is a one-stop place to get items for a 6'-2" guy who wears a size Medium-Tall. Most men's clothes brands don't sell Medium-Tall and in general shopping for men's clothes is boring. I wouldn't do it at all, except for the fact that he would literally wear his current wardrobe until it fell off of him threadbare if I didn't encourage him in the fashion department. I basically do the research, line up a couple options for him and then he picks what he wants. Eddie Bauer was a god-send, I get the catalog in the mail, and he just leafs through and sticky notes what he likes. I can almost always find a coupon code, and if anything ever doesn't work out, we just send it back.

      Next option was actually me getting bored while shopping on "men's websites" and wandering over to more familiar hunting grounds, stores hubby wouldn't be caught dead walking into because they rely on actually trying things on. This usually isn't even an option. In Fairbanks, Alaska there isn't too much of a chance for shopping. I wouldn't torture him by shopping on vacation so we're usually web shoppers. I found out that Old Navy, Banana Republic and GAP all allow combined shipping. Banana Republic has one pair of Relaxed Linen Pants which are lightweight, breathable, and have a flat front, but they somehow don't look like something I can talk him into. I'm considering ordering them anyway just to try them. I'm planning on justifying it by getting a couple shirts which are amazingly offered in Medium-Tall and breathable linen. I'll wait until I can dig up a coupon code.

      It's looking like his packing/shopping is going to take awhile. That or at the last second he'll stuff some items in a bag and say that he is going with the Tim Ferriss Buy It There style of travel. When all is said and done his bag will probably weigh less than mine even after I foist off the guidebooks and electronics into his bag. Oh well. I'll let you know how it turns out. Hubby is used to one bagging and one outfitting it with the Army. One bag of green and camo clothes and one carefully chosen outfit that will get him through almost any situation, dinner out, sightseeing, shopping, or chilling with the guys. I'm not too worried about his packing, just his laundry, if he ends up bringing 100% cotton khakis, either he'll wear one pair the whole time or we might be dealing with damp laundry on the train. Men are complicated, and their clothes are boring.