Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In Australia at Last

After a 4-hour flight to LA, then a few hours layover in the cruddy LA airport, then a 15-hour flight to the Melbourne airport, then a 30-minute bus ride to the city center, and a 30-minute tram ride to my hostel, and I finally arrive to find it closed. Then it started raining.

I don't freak out, I'm just tired. There's a number to call, and there's a cafe next door. So I do that, and wait, and think about how anticlimactic my arrival to Australia has been. It's an expensive flight, and a long flight, and I even missed Christmas for it. And when I get there, the city is pretty much shut down because it's a national holiday, and I'm just sitting around waiting to get into my hostel. It's like no one cares that I'm here.

The cafe owner cares though, and offers to make me a glass of fresh-squeezed mango juice even though I tell him I can't pay him since I don't have cash. He says not to worry about it, that he trusts I will come back the next day and pay. So I drink that, and continue to wait, and think about the bendy straw.

Once I get into the hostel and take a shower, I feel a bit better. The hostel's okay, kinda grimy, but clean enough. The shower is hot, and the bed is clean, and the wifi is free, which is why I picked the place. The people are actually quite nice. Most of them are here long-term for several months or so. They have work visas and are working around Melbourne and living here. I feel like an outsider because the others are becoming fast friends after spending so many weeks living together — they had a Christmas celebration and they frequently cook dinner together — but everyone is very chatty and nice to me even though I'm not part of their group.

I explore the neighborhood a bit; a half mile or so away I find a cute area with a lot of cafes and boutiques. The next day I explore downtown Melbourne and visit a few of the major monuments of the city. I do a lot and I see a lot and I take a lot of pictures, but I feel lonely. Jake sends me a video of his family opening my Christmas present, and I am sad to have missed the celebration. His mom gave me a light-up globe.

I'm kinda glum most of the day. Maybe I'm just jetlagged. But I'm a little sad that there's no one to laugh at some silly shop names with me, like "Lord of the Fries" or "General Pants Co." Other things bum me out too, like that there aren't any classes this week at the cooking school I wanted to check out, and the Queen Victoria Market doesn't have produce today, just souvenir trinkets. I could also be looking for reasons to be bummed out because that is how I feel like feeling.

Maybe I just expected visiting a foreign country to be so much more exciting. I like things about Melbourne, but I'm not excited about it. I have no one to be excited about it with.

I've traveled alone before, and I know this'll pass. I have two more days here before I head to New Zealand to meet a friend, which will be totally different. I don't have anything to be glum about. For now, I will keep myself busy and occupied. Tomorrow I will work all day, which I'm actually looking forward to. I think it'll cheer me up. The next day I might do an all-day wine tour, which will super duper cheer me up.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Trashy Food Experiment

I recently read a book called The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks.** This was one of the first non-fiction books I've really enjoyed in sometime. In the book, the author does an experiment where she goes into the kitchens of nine self-professed horrible cooks, sees what some of their mistakes are both in what they stock in their fridges and how they prepare food, then leads them in weekly classes to improve their kitchen confidence and skills.

In reading this book, I realized that a lot of the common mistakes people make in their kitchen are the same ones I make in cooking, too. For example, people are so married to the notion that you have to follow a recipe. When really, if you just throw things together that complement each other and add your favorite spices and seasonings, you can make a pretty yummy meal. So I started making more soups from scratch, and it's been pretty rewarding and delicious! The only problem is that my food processor isn't so patient with liquids, and I keep getting soup on the kitchen walls. But I can deal.

I've also been working on my knife skills. My aunt gave me a gift card to take this class for Christmas last year, but I never got around to doing it. So I went and learned much about knives and how to use them, and I've since been cutting things the right way. I asked for a better cutting board for Christmas, too.

I'm updating my spices. Spices should be replaced every 6-12 months. I haven't yet thrown away my old and defunct spices, and it's hard for me to admit they're no good, because they look okay, though some of them are seriously years old. But I have started to acquire new, fresh spices.

The last thing I've been working on is using up what's in my fridge and repurposing leftovers. We all know we should eat produce, and a lot of Americans will go to the grocery store and stock up on loads of the stuff, but then not know how to prepare it. Or, they'll buy the giant bag of spinach because it's a better deal, but they won't be able to eat it all. It ends up rotting in their fridges, and they end up throwing it out. Thus, Americans throw out 18% of their groceries a year.

Anyone who's spent more than 5 minutes with me knows I am obsessed with saving money — that travel habit of mine ain't cheap! So I decided to do a little experiment to see if I, too, threw out 18% of my food. I labeled the price of all my groceries for the week with Post-It notes.

Here are some of the rules I followed:

- Grocery shop with specific meals in mind. Planning meals saves money.
- Don't buy the bigger portion just because it's cheaper. So, for example, I bought a small amount of loose spinach instead of a whole bag of it.
- Don't buy fruits for the whole week. Buy enough for the next 2-3 days. If you eat it all, you can go back and buy more. You'll notice I only bought three apples.

And once I brought the food home, I tried to follow these rules:

- Save the meals with non-perishables for last.
- If something's starting to get mushy, eat it already! It's not going to get any better.
- Try to be creative with meals by using whatever's left from previous meals.

Throughout the week, every time I threw away a Post-It note, I felt great accomplishment. To try to use leftover tomatoes and basil, I mixed them with pasta and Parmesan cheese. It wasn't the tastiest thing I've ever eaten, but it was okay. To use up the rest of the buttermilk, I made biscuits. Even though the raspberries and strawberries were looking a little sad within a few days, I threw some yogurt over them, gobbled them up, and hardly noticed their overripeness. They tasted like saving money. Yum!

At the end of the week, I did have to throw some of it out. I couldn't use all the basil, and the tomatoes were pretty awful, even when I first bought them. I didn't finish the cucumber, and I don't even know why I bought it, as I don't even really like cucumbers that much. There was a little bit of spinach I never finished, so that went in the trash, too. I'd say I threw away 10%, which isn't bad, but I can do better.

I don't think I'd do the Post-It note thing again as it is a waste of Post-It notes and paper, but I will try harder this week. It'll be challenging with Thanksgiving; I know I will be sent home with tons of leftovers, and I will do my best to eat them all.

** Does anyone else think book titles are getting especially long for better SEO?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Self Doubt... Kinda

I've always wanted to write. I didn't doubt it when I was unemployed or finding a way to use my (some would say) useless journalism degree. I knew I would end up with a job that involved writing, and if I didn't get one right away, I would keep working towards it.

The other night I met two high school friends for dinner, and after some catching up, I started to feel like I had nothing to show for myself. One friend works for the Environmental Protection Agency and the other is just about to graduate law school, and I know she is going to rock the bar exam and do great beyond that. They brought up words I've never heard and discussed things such as government corruption and investigating chemicals. I was genuinely interested, but as I plopped a piece of sushi in soy sauce, some splashing on the table, I thought about how my day-to-day work involves analyzing a single sentence and all its parts.

I've always been proud to talk about my work. And even better, I like it! Even when I didn't have a job, I was doing something writing related. So it wasn't that I wasn't proud of what I do or that my friends were trying to make me feel ashamed. I just felt so much smaller than them. While they will go to work and defend the rights of individuals and even entire communities, I will write 20 variations of the same sentence until I find the perfect combination of words. An admirable pursuit, of course. But not quite the same impact as visiting a site contaminated by chemicals and figuring out what when wrong.

I'm going to have to find some other way to change the world.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

#12 Meaningful Connections

I'm participating in the 30 Days of Indie Travel Challenge on BootsnAll. Prompt #12: MEANINGFUL CONNECTIONS. Travelers meet dozens, if not hundreds, of new people on every trip. They may become friends, enemies, lovers, and resources; they may stay in your life forever or be forgotten the next day. Tell about a time you felt a powerful connection – for however long – to another person while traveling.

My 10-day Croatia trip in 2008 was a big independent woman voyage for me. I was going solo, plus I was trying CouchSurfing for the first time, plus I was going to be making all my travel arrangements on the fly once I got there. It was the kind of trip mean to empower single ladies across the planet!

The whole thing went fine with generally no problems. I had lots of experiences that'll stay with me forever, but for the purpose of this post I'll talk about this girl I met.

Traveling alone is empowering and all, you can do what YOU want to do and not have to compromise with anyone. You can spend your money how you want to spend it, linger in one place for longer or leave another place sooner without consulting anyone. But, it can get lonely. I think I'm pretty independent, but even I got lonely.

I was staying at this hostel in Dubrovnik and was hoping to meet some people my age to explore with. I didn't have much luck, so I headed to the walled city to explore it in the company of thousands of other strangers. The walls that were built to protect the city in the 12th to 17th century still stand, and you can walk the interior circumference of the old portion of the city, which is littered with red rooftops.

It was pretty and I took heaps of pictures. I came back to the hostel at night and did end up meeting some people, but I secretly didn't care much for them. They were a few years younger than me, and to save money, they had been stealing all their food and booze throughout the trip. But, I had nothing else to do, so I ended up hanging out with them all night. I also met this other girl while I was eating alone at a restaurant one night — I noticed she was also eating alone and asked if she wanted to eat together — and although she was perfectly nice and we ended up drinking together that night in the company of strange old men, I was just something to do to pass the time. I still felt so lonely, even though I was meeting all these people.

Then I met this girl who was staying in the same hostel as I was. She was a few years older than me and had been WOOFing her way across Eastern Europe. She was a super interesting person, very laid back and interested in sustainability and organic farming (that's what WOOFing is all about). She was interested in going to visit the walled city, and asked if I had been yet and would like to join her. I lied and said no, I hadn't been, but wanted to. I paid once again to visit the old city, really because this was the first person I met in Croatia who I connected with, and I wanted to hold onto that. It wasn't even like we were super chatty and were discovering so much about each other. In fact, much of our time visiting this site was spent in silence as we took in what was around us. We stopped to rest and she took out cheese and bread from her bag and offered me some. I knew she was broke because she had told me, but I felt it rude to reject her gift, so I enjoyed lunch with her. My second visit to the walled city was a much more enjoyable experience than the first because I had someone to share it with.

We didn't spend more than that day together. One of us had to leave, so we just exchanged CouchSurfing usernames, not even emails. I remember I immediately sent her a friend request and left a comment on her page for everyone to see about how much I enjoyed her company. But she never accepted my friend request, I assumed because she was traveling so much with so little access to Internet.

What really gets me is now, I don't even remember her name. All I remember is how much meeting her meant to me, pulling me out of the throes of loneliness, even just for a few hours. I wish I could find a way to thank her one more time.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

$23,000 Poorer

I stopped in Amish Healthy Foods this week to use a Groupon that was expiring soon. It is a small grocery with organic meat and dairy and some vegetables and non-perishable items. As I was getting together my items at the register, I asked the woman how the Groupon was going. She turned out to be the owner. She didn't have many positive things to say about it.

She said she had lost $23,000.

Everything else she said, I had heard before. For each $30 coupon that Groupon cutomers purchased for $15, she only got $7.50. According to the deal on Groupon, 960 people bought it, but she could count on one hand the number of customers who came back. People were stingy. If their total was $32, they wanted to swap out an item to bring the total down to $30. This is familiar.

But that a business owner lost $23,000 because she partnered with Groupon? That leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. I have never felt so guilty to use a Groupon as I did this time. As I was saving $15, she was losing way more.

She told me not to worry about it, that it wasn't my fault. She didn't blame the customers. She understood how the deal worked. She was just glad it was ending soon. The Groupon was expiring in 2 weeks, and she could go back to life as normal.

My total was $40, and she asked me if I wanted to put something back so I wouldn't have to spend more than the total of the Groupon. I insisted that I wanted to buy all these things, which included fresh sausage, wine cheddar cheese, steaks, and bacon. I told her that I wanted to support her business and that I would come back, because I was trying to spend more money on good quality meat. I could tell she didn't believe me, that it didn't matter how good my intentions were. She did not expect to see me ever again.

I will be back. I really think I will. I don't buy meat at the grocery store for all those do-gooder reasons, and I rarely shop at Whole Foods because it's too far, and I end up putting too much in my shopping cart there, then end up having buyer's remorse. This place is smaller, with just the basics, and it's just a few minutes out of my way on the way home from work.

I will be one of the few who returns to give her my full-price business not just to prove her wrong, but because I want to shop there. So she's got one customer on which the Groupon worked its magic, because I would have never known this place existed if it weren't for the Groupon. But I'm just one customer who doesn't even have a family to feed. There's nothing I can personally do to make up the $23,000 she lost.

Some of Them Had Blogs

I listen to WBEZ, Chicago's NPR station, most mornings. The other day I heard a particularly disturbing story: Air Force Admits Losing Remains At Dover Mortuary. Body parts of servicemen have been lost at the Delaware Mortuary. Mortuary workers also sawed off a U.S. Marine's arm so he could be placed into his uniform and then placed in his casket. I know. It's disgusting in every sense of the meaning of that word.

And then, the Air Force didn't tell the families, even though they found out about it and took the allegations "seriously." These things happened in 2009 and 2010, and the families were notified just this last weekend. Last March, the Office of Special Council asked the Air Force to talk to the families, and then asked them again recently. Why hadn't they? "Their response was that these families, some of them had blogs; they couldn't be trusted - that they might go to the media."

That quote made me so mad. You are allowed to know the mortuary effed with your family member's body, but only if you don't have a big fat blogger mouth and can keep it a secret. Because those people who blog about their personal lives — how ANNOYING — will probably blog about how we sawed off their family member's arm. It's best to just keep this one in the top secret file. We can't let word get out on the blogs!

It's ignorant of the Air Force to assume the family members with blogs would even would want to blog about it. I have no idea how I would react if I found out this had happened to the body of someone close to me. Would I blog about it? I don't know. Why should it matter if I have a blog or am connected to the media? What matters is that the stupid Air Force protects their stupid image.

Happy Veterans Day. I'm glad our country has so much respect for the families of our dead servicemen and what they have provided for us.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

#5 Kindness

I'm participating in the 30 Days of Indie Travel Challenge on BootsnAll. Prompt #5: KINDNESS. One of the greatest joys of travel can be the random acts of kindness you’ll receive from total strangers. Have you ever found kindness from strangers in unexpected places?

I have met many, many kind people while traveling. I often wonder if I could ever reciprocate. Like CouchSurfing, for example. I surfed a couple of couches in Croatia a couple years ago, and I could not believe how generous and welcoming these people were. They fed me, gave me a place to sleep, and one guy even drove me a couple hours to the next town on his way to work. Or this other backpacker I met in Croatia, we visited the walled city of Dubrovnik together. And she shared her Gouda cheese with me for lunch. There are not many people I would share cheese with, and a stranger is not one of them. That sounds like a joke, but it's not really. I especially like cheese.

Anyway, I think about CouchSurfing. I can't host people now, since I live with two other roommates and two cats. But one day, I'll live alone. Would I open my home to strangers and pay forward the kindness other strangers have paid me? I'd like to think I would, but it's a lot to think about. And perhaps there are other ways to make strangers to Chicago feel more at home. I would be lying if I said I didn't know where to start looking; there is the Internet.

Writing this post is making me feel guilty about how little I've tried to seek out foreigners to my city who could really use some local advice and help. I think about all the kind things people have done for me in France, and all those times I promised myself I would be the same kind of person when I was back in America. It's so easy to get caught up in your day-to-day life and forget that all the things that come naturally to you are challenges for other people. Like paperwork, or opening a bank account, or finding an apartment, or explaining why the El goes in a circle downtown. Kindess doesn't necessarily mean giving someone a place to sleep. It can mean a lot of things.

Monday, November 07, 2011

#6 Fear

I'm participating in the 30 Days of Indie Travel Challenge on BootsnAll. Prompt #6: FEAR. Just as travel can be fun and exciting, it can also have its challenging, or even downright scary, moments. Being in a new place pushes us out of our comfort zone and makes us face our fears. Tell about a time you had to face your fear when traveling, and what was the result.

I'm not a very nervous traveler, not in general. What does make me nervous is the very start of a trip. I'm always nervous about having everything ready and getting to point A on time. So for this Europe trip, for example, our flight was at 5 p.m. on a Friday. I left work at noon to make sure I had everything ready. Of course I did. I had packed Wednesday. So all there was to do for me at home was to pace nervously around my apartment with the Swiffer until it was time to leave for the airport. Then I go to the airport and the security lines for domestic flights were the longest I have ever seen in my entire life, so many people spilling out from the lines that people just walking through had difficulty getting past. This is O'Hare, a giant airport, where there's plenty of space for waiting in line, so it was pretty extreme. There was no way anyone was getting through those in less than an hour. Although we were obviously flying out of the international terminal that has its own lines, still, this was a sign that the airport was packed.

Our flight was in 2 hours and Jake wasn't there yet. I started to become irrationally afraid. What if he didn't make it on time? What if we couldn't get through security on time? What if the plane left for France without us? I couldn't concentrate on anything except for the feeling of fear in my stomach until Jake arrived to the airport, 1.5 hours before our flight, plenty of time to check our bags, go through international security (which took all of 5 minutes), buy food, and sit and wait for an hour by our gate for our flight.

Once I make it safely and soundly to the first leg of a trip, I don't care anymore. We had three more flights on this trip — to and from Berlin and then back to Chicago — and I was never nervous about those. In fact, we could have been late for a couple of those. We took the wrong direction on the train en route to the Berlin airport (my fault), so lost a few minutes there. And at Charles de Gaulle, they were pretty understaffed, so we spent a lot of time waiting in lines. We made it to the gate with only a few minutes to spare.

Maybe I don't worry about this stuff once the trip gets started because I wouldn't mind so much getting stuck or delayed in Paris or Berlin. It could be a fun adventure, and I'd get to stay a tad bit longer. To get stuck in Chicago when I'm trying to leave it for a vacation... that would not be the slightest bit of fun.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

#4 Mistakes

I'm participating in the 30 Days of Indie Travel Challenge on BootsnAll. Prompt #4: MISTAKES. Everyone makes mistakes. We forget to ask for Coke without ice in Mexico and spend the rest of the trip in the bathroom. Or we arrive at the airport for a 7pm flight only to realize the flight left at 7am. Tell us the story of your worst travel mistake.

We were meeting people for dinner at 7, right by the Eiffel Tower. It was 5. It was a pretty nice day out, and the Eiffel Tower was close. "Let's walk to the Eiffel Tower," I sugested. "It's only about a 20-minute walk. We'll have time to go up and then we can go to dinner. They live just a few minutes away." Jake said okay. A 20-minute walk isn't bad, right? Along the way we could take some photos and see more of Paris.

The 20-minute walked turned into a 45-minute walk turned into a 1.5-hour walk. Somewhere along the way, Jake stopped trusting me that it was a 20-minute walk. First he didn't say anything. We just continued to walk in silence, and Paris started to feel miserable. It was SO close though, we were almost there. We could see it. Except, just because you can see the Eiffel Tower doesn't mean you're anywhere close to it.

Jake finally asked if I had looked at a map before I decided it was a 20-minute walk. No, because I knew how to get there. But I am not good with distances. I know Paris well, but I used to bike everywhere. It was probably a 20-minute bike ride from where we were. Which is not the same thing as a 20-minute walk. We finally get there, and Jake is miserable, which makes me miserable. He'd been feeling sick all day, and started complaining about his rotator cuff hurting too, and decided he was not going to go to dinner and would just go back to the hotel and sleep. Even worse, we had no time to go up in the Eiffel Tower. It was 6:45 by this point.

We were both grumpy, so we just sat on a bench with our backs to the stupid Eiffel Tower and didn't talk. It's supposed to be this romantic thing, this Eiffel Tower. But, no, not at this time. I made a mistake and I was mad at myself and Jake was mad at me too. Plus, he wasn't coming to dinner to meet some good friends of mine and probably wouldn't have the chance to meet them ever again. Blerg.

Jake finally agreed to drag himself to dinner, because it's not like he's in Paris that often. On our way there, we walked past a pharamacy, so I was able to pick him up some drugs. He said he instantly felt better after taking the mystery pills and dinner was really, really great. We went to a Japanese restaurant with two of the families I used to babysit for. They're awesome and their kids are awesome, too. It was just one of those dinners where everyone is having a good time and it's over before it even started. Jake also tried his first piece of sushi and liked it, SUCCESS (I've been trying to get him to try sushi for 4 years)! He even talked about going to Coast when we got back, a swanky sushi place by where we live in Chicago. We were sad to say goodbye after dinner, but everyone was in high spirits.

Afterwards we walked back to the Eiffel Tower. We were too tired to go up and it was too dark to get a couplely picture in front of it. But we enjoyed watching it glitter, all romantic-like, and I was happy I had brought someone with me to Paris who forgives me for my mistakes.

Friday, November 04, 2011

One of my Favorites

There are a few things that I'll always visit every time I go to Paris, and Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) is one. Of all the churches I've ever visted, this one is still my favorite, even though it's crawling with tourists, every single one of them taking the same pictures. There's always some guy playing pop songs on the guitar, and those weird dudes trying to tie strings around your wrists and scam you out of all your euro coins. But still, I find it beautiful despite all these annoyances.

If you've ever been to Europe — or just seen pictures of it — you'll know that every country has tons of amazing old churches and cathedrals. Unfortunately, they lose their impact because there are so many of them. After awhile, all the churches look the same. I like Sacre Coeur so much because it's so much different than the rest. The basilica is always bright white, even after 100 years of weathering and polution, because it's built from travertine stone, which exudes calcite (that's what Wikipedia said). Also, it's built on the highest point in Paris, so it has a great view of the city.

Sacre Coeur never loses its magnificence to me, and it doesn't hurt that it's in Montmartre, where a lot of Amelie was filmed. I would have loved if our hotel had been in this area. Although parts of it can be a little sketchy, I love the tiny windy streets with bistros and cafes. Also, a lot of souvenir shops, but you can try to ignore those. This is where Jake tried his first crepe and liked it! A small victory.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

#2 Embracing Change

I'm participating in the 30 Days of Indie Travel Challenge on BootsnAll. Prompt #2: EMBRACING CHANGE. Change can be exciting and bring new joys into our lives. But it can present challenges that frustrate or annoy us. How has travel changed you in the last year? Did you welcome these changes or resist them at the time, and how do you feel about them now?

I've been wanting to take up more freelance work ever since I knew freelancing was a thing. And I never really did not because I didn't think I was good enough, but because I didn't know where to start. But a few months ago, when I started planning some trips and realized I didn't really want to wipe my savings clean, I started pursuing more freelance stuff.

Freelancing's hard, with more dead ends than leads. A lot of people don't need you right now, but maybe later. A lot of projects are one-time only, or the money runs out and they end. Working with some companies just plain sucks because they're unorganized or don't really know what they're doing. And in the work I've done, I'm usually paid a flat fee for one piece, which may sound like a fair price at the start, but that doesn't include the amount of time you spend researching.

But, I'm not complaining. Those are just realities. And even if a company's difficult to work for and I may never write for them again because they sucked so hard, frankly, I'm happy to have the $300 check from it. Because that's one round-trip domestic flight (if I fly Southwest and book my ticket far enough in advance).

My travel aspirations haven't changed the way I write, but they have changed the way I pursue being a writer. I was terrified of being rejected before, but now, it's just part of the business. In fact, I expect to be rejected by most of the clients I pitch. But you'll never know unless you ask.

I'm not making bank as a freelancer or anything. My full-time job comes first, so that restricts the amount of time I can spend writing other stuff and researching clients and projects to seek out. But I've done about 100% more freelance stuff than I did last year, which means I'm writing more and learning more and earning more and even though it sounds laughable, improving my Google rankings (if you don't think that's important, then get off the Internet).

It helps having a goal. I have a purpose for waking up at 6 a.m. This money's going to flying to Seattle for my sister's graduation, or a dinner with my friend Megan whenever I make it to Dallas or a road trip with my friend Lucy whenever I make it to New Zealand. Having this idea of where the money is going definitely helps, and even if I am just getting a $50 check for something that took a few hours, it's $50 more than I didn't have. And $50 checks add up, right?

The only thing I don't look forward to is tax season in April...

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Goals

I'm participating in the 30 Days of Indie Travel Challenge on BootsnAll. Prompt #1: GOALS. What were your travel goals last year? Did you accomplish them? What travel goals do you hope to accomplish this year?

I've already written about this to exhaustation. I wanted to go back to Paris this year. Then I won a trip there. So yes, I've accomplished my travel goals this year. Goals next year? Well maybe I'll set the bar high and try to win another contest to somewhere else.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Mean French

One day in Paris, Jake and I explored the Marais. This is a great little area to walk around in, as it's very picturesque and chic with lots of boutiques selling stuff most people could never afford. I also wanted to take Jake for a delicious and inexpensive lunch at l'As du Falafel, which is right there in the city's Jewish neighborhood (NYT says it's delicious enough to turn you vegetarian for a day). I didn't have the address on hand, but the area is pretty small, so I figured we'd find it easily. I saw a woman eating a falafel that looked exactly the same as the one I was searching for. So I asked her if she could point us in the right direction.

As we started talking, I noticed falafel bits were smeared all over her face. She was eating it like a savage, which was a great sign. First, she told me that the place I was looking for was only the 2nd best in Paris, and her place was the best. She was so invested in us finding this particular restaurant, she wanted to escort us there. Her husband wasn't so keen on the idea. As they bickered about coming with us or not, more falafel bits seem to take over her face and her husband wiped them away. I insisted on just getting directions, and apologized for angering her husband. "Oh no no, he's not angry!" she told me "He just knows I want to go back to get another one, and he doesn't want to pay for it!" Finally we were on our way with just the directions, where we ending up waiting 20 minutes for the most delicious €5 falafel in the city. And we even saw the lady return while we were waiting in line! Don't tell her this, but I think this place and the place I was looking for serve exactly the same falafel, so they are equally good. Either way, it's evidence that you don't have to spend a ton of money to eat well while traveling.

Later that day, after walking and walking and walking some more, we stopped at a cafe for some drinks. We had a dinner date with a friend who lived in the 10th, a ways away from where we were. I was trying to find the address on the map the hotel gave us, but wasn't having much luck. So I asked our server if he was familiar with that area. Maybe he had heard of the street or lived close by and could tell us what metro stop we needed. "Ah, that map you have, that is only for tourists," he told me. "It is good for finding tourist things, but not for the little streets of the city." From his breast pocket, he removed a little red book like Paris Pratique. He located the street I was looking for in the index, then located the street on one of the maps. He cross referenced his map with mine, then made a mark on my nerdy tourist fold-out map where the street would be. Keep in mind Paris servers don't work for tips. Unless we decided to be particularly nice and leave a couple extra euros, this location service he provided was free of charge.

I tell these two stories to show that Parisians are not as mean as everyone says they are. Although, I had something that most Americans don't have, and that's the ability to speak French. But it's not like I just woke up one day and spoke the language. More like I woke up every day for 10 years, and sometime during that day, I worked on learning it. So maybe I feel like I am owed these extra helpful experiences because I earned them. If you go somewhere with a different native language, try to learn at least a few words. If you would like to talk to a random lady on the street about falafel or ask your server for directions and expect them to be genuinely helpful, I guess you're going to have to study the language for 10 years.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Think I'll Take Up Jugger

One afternoon in Berlin, Jake and I enjoyed a filling and delicious brunch with my friend and our host Cate, then went for a walk in the park by her apartment. An airport until 2008, the transformation to park is still underway, so it's mostly just a gigantic field. It's a popular place for kite enthusiasts of all kinds, since it's so windy and there's so much open space. Also, it's apparently the location of a twice-weekly Jugger practice.

This picture not taken by us. I got it from the Internet. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about here.

We came across this group of people who we thought were LARPing. But they didn't have Medieval costumes on, so we thought it might be LARPing practice. But as we watched, we realized this was probably some sort of game with a set of rules. The players had weapons and would attack each other systematically, and each match lasted only a few minutes before they went back to each of the end of the field and did it again. I especially appreciated the constant drum beat. It made whatever was happening seem so much more serious.

After we thought we had it mostly figured out, Cate went and ask the guy beating the drum what it was called. Jugger, an "official" sport for many years they said, inspired by 1989 Australian movie The Blood of Heroes. The goal is to capture the dog skull (not an actual dog skull, but is meant to look like one) and bring it to your stake to score. Weapons include the staff, the "famous" Q-tip, the sword, the shield, and my personal favorite, the chain. The chain has a ball attached to the end of it. The player with the chain gets to whip it around and knock people out. If one of your opponents strikes you within the legal strike zone (essentially anywhere but your head, lower legs, and forearms), you must stay down for five beats of the drum, or eight beats if the chain dude got a strike on you.

Get a little bit of a better idea, complete with a Creed soundtrack:

As I said, the people we saw playing weren't wearing costumes, just normal athletic gear. Also, hot girls were playing, which kind of boggled us. Aren't hot girls supposed to play tennis and volleyball? But no, this one hot girl would always challenge the chain guy, and 9 times out of 10, she would bite it hard, face-first. It's very hard to battle the chain, we learned. If she can do it, maybe I can too. I don't know if there are any Jugger teams in Chicago.

Anyway, my whole point in writing about this, was that we didn't exactly go to Berlin to discover Jugger. But that's what happened, and I think all of us preferred spending that time watching the Jugger match and then subsequent YouTube videos than we would have visiting a museum or church. Just one of those true clichés of travel, I guess: the things you accidentally stumble across can make for some of the best memories.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bike Crash

One of my greatest fears is getting in a bike accident. I always imagine it'll be me vs. car, but yesterday, my first major bike collision, it was me vs. pedestrian. It was awful.

I was working another race, this time leading a half-marathon on my bike. My job was to help clear the course and make sure the people racing had a path. They were mostly running on the Lake Shore path, which is a pretty crowded running and biking path as is. There were a lot of runners not participating in the race.

I tried to get out of the way of a runner coming towards me. He tried to get out of my way. We both moved to the same direction and collided. I don't know how I fell, but we all fell, me, him, and my bike.

When I hit the ground, I didn't feel anything, but just saw this guy just laying there. Not moving. I somehow managed to untangle myself from my bike and didn't even see if he was okay. My first instinct was to get him help, so I immediately called the race's medical team on my walkie talkie, and they were soon on their way. Meanwhile a few other bystanders had stopped to help and called 911 and were talking to the guy to keep him awake. I acted calm. But I wasn't feeling calm. The guy obviously hit his head. Blood had started to seep out from behind his head. He was talking, but he was too calm in my opinion. If it were me on the ground, I would have been talking more, asking more questions. He seemed confused and made no effort to move. And he was older. Obviously fit, because he had been running, but still. In his '60s.

It wasn't long before the medical team had arrived, and an ambulance and fire truck shortly after. He was obviously in good hands, and he was talking, though a bit lucid. His name was Ed, he was 65, and had no medical conditions, but he took one medication, though he didn't seem to remember what for. Everyone was super calm, and it all felt very a routine. I'm sure the medics see stuff like this all the time, and all they did was bandage his head and ask him a few questions before carting him off to the ambulance. In retrospect, that was a very good sign; no neck brace, no scary equipment. But as I stood by as they worked, all I could think about was that I was responsible for this guy on the ground with a head injury and blood all over.

Plus, there was a race going on. Hundreds of runners were passing by, clearly horrified by the scene. When the ambulance was ready to take him to the hospital, they had to reroute the race and send the runners onto the beach so they could back the ambulance out on the path. There was a puddle of blood left on the ground, but the medis decided to leave it because didn't want to wash blood onto the path of all the runners.

No one would take my name or let me file any reports or sign anything. I asked every single medic and firefighter present. No, they told me, it was fine. Everything would be fine, they said. Instead everyone was asking me if I was okay. I didn't understand why that would be an issue, and it took me a few minutes to realize that I could very well be injured too. But I wasn't, aside from a few bumps and scratches.

It wasn't fair that I, the younger person involved, the one with the vehicle, was walking away from this. Everyone kept telling me that it was no one's fault, even the people who had witnessed the collision said so. But I felt responsible. I should have been more careful. He was defenseless against a bike. I felt like I could have done a better job to avoid it.

The ambulance took him away and I just stood there. One of the medics made me feel a lot better. She told me these collisions happen all the time, which I know, they do. The Lake Shore path is always crowded. That didn't make me feel better about being a part of one. But, she said, he would probably just need a few stitches and go home fine. That a concussion is not the worst thing to happen to someone.

I considered following the ambulance to the hospital, but I was working and would have to notify my manager, who was out on the course somewhere. He didn't even know what had happened. Plus I had one of the race's walkie talkies, so I would have to drop that off somewhere. By the time I got to the hospital, it was unlikely they'd let me see Ed, because I didn't even know the guy. I didn't his last name either, so I wasn't sure how I would even find him. I decided the best thing to do was to let the hospital take care of him, that there wasn't really anything I could do by going there to see him.

Really, there was nothing to do but get back to work.

I still feel awful. I'm confident that Ed's okay based on the information the medics gave me, but I still have the image of him on the ground in my head. And I still feel like the whole thing was my fault. It's not a good feeling to have. I wish I had walked away with more than a few bruises and bumps. It's not fair that I got off so easy.

I hope Ed has insurance, and that they were able to contact his family so they could come be with him at the hospital. He didnt have a phone and it didn't look like any identification. Since he was talking and conscious, I'm sure he was able to tell the doctors who to call. And I also feel guilty for not being the first next to him talking to him seeing if he was okay when it first happened. I know I did the right thing; I had the walkie talkie and access to the medical team, so letting other people tend to him while I called for help was the right thing to do.

I wish I could tell him I'm sorry.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Paris Syndrome

According to Wikipedia, Paris Syndrome "is a transient psychological disorder encountered by some people, in most cases from Japan, visiting or vacationing in Paris, France." This Atlantic article descibed it better:
And though it may sound like a disease unique to freshman girls with Le Chat Noir posters everywhere, it is a serious disorder that causes tourists, especially Japanese tourists, many problems on their trip through the City of Light. And what is Paris Syndrome, exactly? Simply put, it's a collection of physical and psychological symptoms experienced by first-time visitors realizing that Paris isn't, in fact, what they thought it would be.
I am not a first-time visitor to Paris. My passport is filthy with France stamps. My first time was on a trip funded by my grandpa when I was 19, when I spoke not a word of French, and this is my fourth time back. I love Paris and my whole being ached when I decided that the best decision for me was to leave. Such a beautiful city with so much rich culture and such a beautiful language that I could never grow tired of hearing or speaking!

I live in Chicago now, but. I repeat. I still love Paris and France, obviously, or I wouldn't have entered this competition and worked so hard to win. Just so you understand that.

Now.

People need to stop making such a big deal about Paris.

I mean, there's this Paris Syndrome thing, which is laughable, but apparently a real condition. Because people think Paris is this whimsical place, just like a Coco Chanel commercial. When really, there's dog poo everywhere and pretty much every metro station smells like old urine (with the exception of Line 14, which smells like sulfur). It's grey and rainy a lot, and the black/grey sidewalks make it seem even more dreary. The sidewalks are narrow as are the metro cars, so you always feel like the crowds are closing in on you. Rent's high, so most people live in small apartments. When you spend a considerable amount of time in Paris, these things come together and can make for a blue day or two.

There are amazing things about Paris. While I don't think any city in the world has anything on the Chicago skyline, Paris, the City of Lights, is very beautiful at all hours of the day and especially at night. I have met great people there. The food's yummy, the wine's cheap, the cheese is plentiful. The pace of life is slower than here.

What am I trying to say?

Maybe I'm just frustrated that people see Paris as a postcard and not as a real place where people live and work. It's not like Parisians are frolicking under the Eiffel Tower on their bicyclettes every day. It has this feeling of romance, but just as many people are in love in other cities in the world. A city is a city is a city. If you remind yourself of that before you go to Paris, maybe you will not be shocked to realize there are not mimes and accordian players on every corner. If you have the opportunity to go, do it, go. It is a city unlike any other and even if you only owned a disposable camera, your pictures would still turn out great because the city is so photogenic.

But keep your expectations realistic and watch your step because there's plenty of dog poo waiting to be stepped in.

How was Paris?

How was Paris? It was great! Of course it was great! A lot of people think I won this trip by chance, but that's hardly the case. Part of my success was tact, but most of it was asking every single person I had ever met via phone, text, email, or Facebook to vote for me. And the other part of it was having friends and family rallying behind me and spreading the word, because they wanted me to win. Everyone knows I freaking love this city and this country. I would have made it this year anyway, I just would have been thousands of dollars poorer. Of course Paris was great because I could just wander down the streets and be happy. But my vision of Paris is very different than most.

I had mixed emotions there. Sometimes I remembered how lonely and sad I was when I first arrived. In recent months, I've forgotten about all the things I did alone while I was there. I would go to events, bars, and museums alone all the time, half hoping to make a new friend. Jake and I spent a lot of time in the area where the Centre Pompidou is, one of our favorite places, a modern art museum. But that area has bad memories, because I lived there with some pretty awful people who were passive aggressive and mean and ultimately kicked me out. It was the for the best.

It was for the best because it led me to my next apartment, where I met the most amazing roommate who welcomed me into her circle of friends. These are the happy memories I have of Paris, and the ones that made it so hard to leave. Not only these friends, but also the families I worked for babysitting and tutoring. When people ask "How was Paris?" these are the people that made it great. By the time Jake and I left Paris for Berlin, I was exhausted by the many dinners and appointments with all these people. But I was glad for them all.

These were great times and I am so happy that I could go back to Paris and spend time with these people. Although they are far away, they are all very important people in my life. It was nice to see everyone and catch up, and it was nice to remember why this city is so amazing. We have the stereotype that French people are rude and hate Americans, and some of them do, yes. But not these people. They helped make Paris feel like home for me, and I really think I needed those lonely months to appreciate that more.

Paris was wonderful, because I was able to see these friends and that will help me continue to maintain these friendships. I stay in touch with these people via email and Facebook, but dining and drinking with them is much better. When I go back — I will, because I cannot stay away, even if I don't live there — I hope to again visit my favorite Thai restaurant along the Canal St. Martin, to see what the kids I used to babysit are up to, and to drink delicious inexpensive wine in the company of friends. I'll see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and all that good stuff, too. You gotta! But Paris means more to me than that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Paris: Day 1

Our flight to Paris was pretty okay. Air France is a classy airline, with complimentary wine, yummy food, and a large selection of in-flight entertainment. So we watched some movies and did our best to sleep. That didn't go so well. Someone brought a robot baby programmed to cry the whole flight. I slept more than Jake, but he needed more. He had only slept a few hours the night before because he woke up early to get the iPhone4S. We got to Paris pretty exhausted, but I had deliberately planned a busy day to get us adapted to Paris time as quickly as possible.

My friend Pierre met us at the airport. When I was a teacher in a couple primary schools here, most of the teachers were cold and rude. I didn't have an amazing time teaching because a) I didn't know what I was doing and b) no one was very helpful and I felt unwelcome. But Pierre was the opposite, and I had a great time with his class doing all the fun activities I had planned. Other classes didn't get as much fun because their teachers thought my lesson plans were stupid. If a teacher was standing in the back of the classroom rolling her eyes because I wanted to — God forbid — sing a song in English, the class would sense the negative energy and feed off it. Pierre embraced my energy and dedication to make learning fun, even though I was young and inexperienced, and he worked with me instead of against me. So I stayed in touch with him and was happy to have a chance to spend time with him in Paris.

He helped us navigate the RER and Metro to our hotel, where we dropped our bags in our room, changed clothes, and immediately headed out to see some cool Paris stuff. We started with the Catacombs. Back in the 1800s, people in Paris were getting sick, and they blamed the cemeteries. So, they cleaned the cemeteries out and brought millions of bones to these underground quarries to contain the diseased dead. The Catacombs contain the bones of six million Parisians, which are neatly stacked for a mile or two. It's pretty creepy, but also cool. It's weird, you see the first portion of the visit, with femurs and fibulas stacked on either side of you with skulls placed on top, and it's very strange and morbid. But then you continue along the visit and see the same thing over and over, and you begin to become desensitized to it. You know these are real bones, but they kinda seem like they could be fake ones too. Pierre commented that these people probably never got that close to another human being when they were alive, but once they were dead the concept of personal space ceased to exist. Now their bones are all mixed up with other folks' bones.

After the Catacombs, we grabbed lunch at Exki, which was an inexpensive soup and sandwich place with all organic and natural foods. The atmosphere was cool; it was minimalistic and contemporary, with bamboo and plants. It was pretty yummy, and it was nice to eat some good, healthy food. The chicken and rice Air France served us was great for airplane food, but, it was airplane food.

Then, it was off to the Louvre. I was feeling pretty spent at this point, and almost wanted to skip it, but we had free tickets and Pierre had a whole folder with him with stuff about the paintings he wanted to show us. Also, it's the Louvre. Pierre is really knowledgeable about art, and had told me in advance that he would prepare a visit, but it would be best to only see one section. The Louvre is ginormous, and if you try to see it all, you won't remember anything. We saw some of the best hits (Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, some old thing of a lady smirking that some da Vinci guy painted), as well as the Italian painting wing. It was really great to have some context for what was going on in the paintings and what significance they served. Pierre doesn't speak English and Jake doesn't speak French, so I translated. I was worried it'd be difficult, but it really wasn't bad.

We would have loved to stay at the Louvre longer, but by this time it was 5 p.m., or midnight for us. I wanted to meet friends for dinner, so we had to say goodbye to Pierre and get some sleep. I slept about an hour, left Jake so he could sleep longer, and made it to Mme Shawn only 30 minutes late, which is just on time for Paris. Mme Shawn is this Thai restaurant I really like, and I had eaten there a couple times with the group of Parisians I was lucky enough to call friends. I met them through my roommate, Ina. They were really her group of friends and she shared them with me. They kinda took me under their wing and let me hang out with them and stumble through my French even though most of them speak great English. I have them to thank for a lot of slang I know. I also have them to thank for not being totally miserable and lonely my whole time in Paris.

I really like the neighborhood where the restaurant was located. Mme Shawn is on the Canal St. Martin. It's not close to the Eiffel Tower or any of the main sites, so it's more residential. The canal is a nice place to walk or have a picnic or play pétanque, the French version of Bocci ball. I also spent a lot of time running along the canal when I was training for a marathon. I was happy that my friends had picked this restaurant, because I wanted Jake to see the neighborhood.

After dinner, Jake met up with us and we went to a little bar that struck us as very French, just because it was small and rusticish with oldish decor. The bartender was kinda a d-bag, but that's okay. It didn't really bother us. Customer service is not at all a thing here in France, and it cracks me up. A lot of Americans get really angry if they have bad service, but hey, that's just how it is. For example, we ordered two pints and he kept suggesting that I order the half-sized glasses instead. Weird, right? Wouldn't he want to make more money? Also, I ordered a pint glass, so could you please give me what I ordered? He said he was out of big glasses, so I gave him the glass from my previous beer, he magically found another (even though he was out), and we got our 2 pints.

We stayed until close, and he gave us plastic cups to take the rest of our beer with us. I poured my beer into the plastic one and Jake pounded his. In America, you can't drink outside of restaurants or bars, so he didn't know that we could take our beers with us. We said goodbye to our friends, tried to find a taxi back to our hotel, failed, but then randomly ran into a couple we had met earlier in the night that was friends with one of my friends, and took a night bus with them instead. That was pretty lucky, because I'm not sure we would have found a cab, and I'm terrible at navigating bus maps and routes. Jake commented that this bus was the most attractive bus he had ever been on. I don't think Parisians are necessarily more attractive than us Americans, but they just put more time into their clothes, makeup, and accessories, so they look more attractive.

So that was our first day in Paris. I am exhausted thinking about it and now I don't have the energy to recap day 2.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Marathon Fever

I'll occasionally work behind the scenes at a race to make a little but of extra cash. I wouldn't do it for free, but I also enjoy the adrenaline that comes with these races. I ran all through high school, and although I don't run races as much as I used to, I still get excited when other people do them.

This past weekend I worked with the elite fluids for the Chicago Marathon. All the elite athletes mix their Gatorades and electrolyte drinks the day before and bring them to us to set out every few miles on the course. It was easy work, and also interesting to see a little bit of how much goes into organizing a race with 40,000 runners. Of course the elite fluids had to be on the course before the everyone started running, so our work day was done by the race start at 7:30 a.m. Then we had front-row seats to watch the marathon start.

There are so many runners in this race that it take about 30 minutes for all of them to cross the start. That's a whole lotta adrenaline and excitement, and I decided that I absolutely had no choice but to run the marathon next year.

I've done three marathons since I was 18, roughly one every two or three years. My last one was in 2009. Every time I run one, I tell myself I'm never going to do it again. And then I do. It doesn't make sense, but it does. I don't feel like explaining it.

I always tell people that running the marathon is the easy part. Once you get to the starting line, you've already (or should have) done the hard work in training for the race. The race isn't easy, but it's easier than the 4 months you've spent training for it. Anyway, I won't bore y'all with marathon talk. It's a weird weird cult. But just know. I'm doing it.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

On Steve Jobs


I haven't written about Steve Jobs yet mostly because I felt like I didn't have anything worthwhile to say that hadn't already been said. As soon as the news of his death reached the Internet, every article ever written about him was shared. When I saw one of the pictures of an Apple store window plastered with Post-it notes, I started getting a lump in my throat. When I visited the Michigan Avenue store myself, I felt that lump creeping up. Seeing all these multicolored notes thanking Steve Jobs in so many different languages really got to me. On my bike ride home, I started crying.

I've never lived in the same lifetime as an inventor who has so heavily influenced my daily life. I have an Apple product in my hands about 12 hours a day. I wake up early to my iPhone alarm clock, flip open my MacBook Pro to write a little, then head to work where I'll spend the whole day writing on another Mac, then stop at the grocery store on my way home and check a recipe on my iPhone, and switch back to my Mac personal computer when I'm home to do more work. Other products that factor heavily into my day-to-day life — bikes, forks, ballpoint pens — are ones that were around way before I was. I never saw these inventions evolve and so was never able to imagine a world in which those things didn't exist.

Many of us who love Apple products feel personal about our relationship with the brand, that we independently discovered our first Apple computer, and it significantly changed everything in our lives that happened after that point. My dad had this crazy smart ahead-of-his-time friend who influenced him into purchasing only Apple and nothing else, so I was lucky to receive my own personal desktop Mac at age nine or ten in the early '90s. This was around the age when I started to realize how much I liked writing. My favorite computer games were writing-based ones. I wrote a lot of really really dumb stories on a program called Imagination Express, and I was always playing Oregon Trail. You know how Oregon Trail kept a journal of your journey with entries detailing who died of cholera that day or exactly what was lost to the current when your wagon capsized in the river crossing? I actually went added my own made-up stories to those journals.

I could type faster than I could write by hand, so all of my silly little-kid stories were written on a Mac. I typed and I typed and I typed. I typed so much the keyboard had to be replaced. During Steve Jobs' Stanford speech, he talks about how his interest in the art of calligraphy influenced the clean type of the first Mac, and influenced the clean type of every computer that came after that, since Microsoft just copied everything he did. The type was so well-designed that it didn't feel designed, and for me, a kid stumbling through writing an extremely underwhelming story, it was perfect; everything was very simply and cleanly about the words I was writing and nothing else.

I am sure I would have pursued writing regardless, because I loved it so. But I had a platform that made it easy for me to get my words out, and I didn't want to stop. The Mac was so intuitive that I was able to fully become engrossed in this writing thing without thinking about anything else. And that's what I still love to do today, and, I still do it on a Mac.

This is my personal story with Apple and what Steve Jobs gave me, and it's not that interesting. But those Post-it notes? Man I can't keep it together even thinking about them. Because everyone who scribbled a few words and stuck a note to the window had some insignificant but personal story with how Apple changed their life. These Post-it notes are a celebration of a life well-lived. I wish I had a Post-it note to add. I don't know what I'd add. I could only squeeze a few sentences on there, which wouldn't be enough to say all that I wanted to say.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Damn You Dutch Oven

I was at Goodwill the other day, and I found the Dutch oven pictured above. Cool! I could use that. It's a great (FRENCH!) brand, and I could make French onion soup or something in it. I turned it over for a price, and experienced some sticker shock. $40. $40 is a lot to spend on something at Goodwill. I decided to take a pass.

At first I felt I made a horrible, horrible decision, because a new Le Creuset Dutch oven is about $250. Of course I went back the next day to try to buy it, but it was gone. And of course, Le Creuset Dutch ovens have been haunting me ever since. I went to a knife skills class yesterday, and had to walk past a whole shelf of Le Crueset Dutch ovens in the practice kitchen. I opened my issue of Bon Appetit and of course the Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs recipe I would like to try requires a Dutch oven. On page 42 of the magazine, Bon Appetit pictures one specific Dutch oven — a Le Creuset one — and tells me to buy it for homestyle entertaining. If only I had purchased the $40 Dutch oven, my life would be so much better!

Ultimately, not spending $40 on something I would use sometimes but not all the time and don't really need was actually good decision. Yeah, it was $200 cheaper than a new one. And that's the part I'm kicking myself over because I love deals so very much. But it was also $40 more than needed to be spent. $0 was the price I should be spending on things I don't really need. And $0 was what I spent.

Deals aren't great deals if you're buying something you don't need or won't ever use. That's why the Extreme Couponer people with hundreds of tubes of stockpiled toothpaste have a problem. It's great to get toothpaste for chep, but the average person only uses a few tubes of toothpaste a year. That being said, I still kinda wish I bought the Dutch oven, but I'm not terribly upset that I missed my chance. I can make Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs in a pot.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Favorite Things of September

Home Cooking: Since we finalized our Europe trip, I'd decide I'd try to scrimp and save a little more. So I resolved not to eat out until Paris. Aside from our weekend in Toledo and today's Chipotle festival, I've stuck to it. I don't eat out frequently anyway, but cooking 100% of my meals at home has led me to try some new recipes, such as creamy carrot soup and homemade macaroni and cheese (I apparently only cook orange foods). I like this trend. I think good food tastes even better when you've made it yourself. Next week's menu will include slow cooked buffalo wings. Yum!

Starting the day early: Since I've picked up some extra freelance work, I've been waking up a couple hours early to get it done. It's nice to brew a cup of French press coffee and be productive early in the morning. I feel much more accomplished. It also helps me work a couple morning workouts into my schedule too.

This: Travel Planning: Paris. Berlin. Australia. New Zealand. It's all happening before my next birthday. Yay! This means more work and even more frugality, but all in the name of voyage!

The cat's space heater: Nothing keeps the Lib happier than a Holmes HFH442-UM Heater Fan with Adjustable Thermostat and ALCI Plug. She discovered my roommate's last year and has taken such a liking to it that I bought one just for her. If the cat's happy, then I'm happy. I'm hoping she'll forget about me when I'm in France and just curl up next to this heater the whole time. Fall flavors: Pumpkin, pomegranite, apple, caramel. I welcome your scent in candles and flavor in food stuffs.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Disinfectant Thief

You know how grocery stores now have containers of disinfectant wipes so you can degerm your cart? As I was leaving the store yesterday, I saw this guy reach into the container and pull out the whole roll of wipes. He slowly stuffed it in his bag as I gave him a dirty and disgusted look. Who steals a roll of wipes like that? As soon as I was outside the store, I felt terrible. I wished I hadn't given him that look.

For some reason, stealing the stuff meant for cleaning carts seemed more shameful than swiping a container of Clorax wipes from the Dominick's shelf. Maybe because if you got caught with the container, you'd have to return it. If you got caught with a roll of sopping, disinfectant-smelling wipes, what are they gonna do? Make you stuff in back into the container? So this got me thinking about why he was stealing them. Maybe he's got a kid at home, and baby wipes are not in his budget. Wet Ones ARE expensive. Or maybe he's homeless, and he uses these wipes to keep clean. There was something going on, and I didn't know what it was. Sure, it's wrong to take a roll of disinfectant wipes from the grocery store. But I still felt judgey and awful. I automatically judged him for doing something I do never do, but he probably has some problems I will never have.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Romantic Roller Coaster Weekend

This weekend started with a very important backstory; I have been nagging Jake to go to Six Flags pretty much ever since we started dating. So, um, for 4 years? He always has a great excuse, such as it's too hot, or too far away. Last year around this time, I had planned a trip with a very dear friend of mine for the very last day of the season, but she backed out at the very last minute. To this day, I don't think she knows how crushed I was. I cried over it and moped around my apartment like a mopey mope pants the whole day. I was SO upset that my plan to ride roller coasters was foiled once again.

Finally, yes, this year, it is true, Jake caved and said we could go on a trip. But no, not Six Flags, he said. If we were going to go ride roller coasters, we were going to go to Ohio to Cedar Point, home of the biggest baddest roller coasters on the planet (or something).

He booked the hotel room, I rented the car, we headed out on our grand adventure Friday after work. Our trip was much upgraded by the satellite radio — there was an 80s station and a 90s station, which we both muchly enjoyed — a very comfortable hotel bed, and great weather for our day at the park. Although we spent a lot of time waiting in line with awkward 14 year olds, the rides were definitely worth it. They were much more exciting and scarier than our memories of Six Flags. Especially this crazy one:



We waited extra long to ride in the first car, and that one was our favorite. But even the wooden rides that didn't flip upside down were fun. We want to go back again next year and ride some of the coasters we missed. There was also a Christian metal band called Skillet playing that we could hear while we waited in line! (::sarcasm::)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Season

There's no doubt about it. Fall's here. This is how I know.


The Big Star patio, usually packed, was empty yesterday.

One of the coworkers who graciously drove me home yesterday evening joked about turning on the heat.

Another coworker noticed the yellow tint of the leaves on the trees outside our office.

Someone came to work wearing a hat.

I have a hankering for pumpkin scones and cider.

I sipped a fall-flavored pomegranate martini while preparing dinner.

Every time of year is my favorite time of year in Chicago for different reasons. The reason I like this one is because it's a season of transition. Fall is very short in this city. But it's nice to have these few weeks where I can bike to work without packing a change of clothes, a necessity both in the summer and the winter. And it's still warm enough where the windows are open. When I unlock my bike in the morning, I can here American Girl from one neighbor's apartment and If You Leave from another's.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Saying Thank You

30 gifts to 30 strangers in Sydney from Lucas Jatoba on Vimeo.

I found this wonderful little 30 gifts to 30 strangers video via Operation NICE. It brought a tear to my eye. When you are living in a foreign country, you appreciate SO much the niceness of strangers. You are far away from friends and family, and when someone goes out of their way to do something nice to you, it makes this strange faraway place feel a bit more like home. I come from the overly friendly Midwest, where everyone is generally nice and helpful. You take it for granted, until you realize the whole world isn't like that.

I love the idea of turning it around and saying thank you to strangers.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Favorite Things of August

My friend Erin over at Alcoholics Conspicuous posted about her favorite things of August, so I thought I’d do the same. Here we go.

Goodwill

This has actually been a favorite thing of mine since I started working at Threadless in March. It’s a 3-minute walk from work and has amazing things such as this beautiful dress for $9.95.

Pricey for a Goodwill purchase, but totally worth it, obviously. I wonder how this dress got made in the first place. Maybe it was a bridesmaid's dress? What lucky bridesmaids!

Losing 5 lbs. or maybe 7

Your beautiful Goodwill dress might fit a little baggy, but that’s okay. Also you will probably gain them back after you stop training for your triathlon. Speaking of which.

Doing a triathlon

My mom reminded me that I mentioned doing this in high school. I have entertained the idea of doing a this since I was 14, which means it’s taken 11 years for me to get around to it. If I were smart, I woulda done it in high school so I could have guilted my parents into buying me a multi-thousand dollar bike because I was on the honor roll and stuff. Just kidding, I wouldn’t have done that. Anyway, I finally trained for and did one, the biggish Olympic distance one, and even though I wasn’t too fast, but wasn’t too slow either. Also, I rode on my old vintage Schwinn, which prolly weighed 20 pounds more than any other bike on the course. It was a lot of fun. I have already signed up for subsequent swim practices, yay.

Winning a trip to Paris

Remember when that happened? SO AWESOME. We submitted our ticket requests today so hopefully we hear back soon if we get the dates we want. Jake and I hope to be in Paris in October.

Learn Vest

Muchas gracias to my manager who recommended this email newsletter and website. It’s a finance and budget website specifically for women. If you are a lady, check it out. Lots of tips and really interesting information from a female perspective. Since I am already super cheap and save heaps of money by doing things like riding my bike to work, shopping at Goodwill (SHHH don’t tell anyone I got my prom dress there), and cooking at home, not much of their information is helping me save that much more money, but I really like the articles and thought starters it provides otherwise.

Freelancin’

I’ve picked up some smaller gigs here and there this month. I haven’t received the checks yet, but when I do they are going straight to the Paris fund. The best meal I ever ate was here, but it’s not cheap. Thanks freelancing cash, you're really going to help me out! Can’t wait to pay taxes on you later.

Purging my closet

One of my roommates and I donated a ton of clothes to Howard Brown earlier this month. Going through my closet and getting rid of stuff was so much easier than I thought it would be. I just got invited last-minute to a clothing exchange, but it was easy to go through my closet again and pull out more stuff that I haven’t worn in forever. My style is changing as I grow older or hipper or whatever, and I just don’t wear the same things I used to.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reverbin': August Prompt

Describe an unexpected moment, activity, sighting or conversation that touched you during July.

I betcha you didn't guess this was going to come back to Paris! But I absolutely cannot think of any other way to respond to this prompt than by talking about how surprised I was by how many people helped me win this trip (if you somehow missed it, I won a trip for 2 to Paris and 5 nights in a hotel I would never be able to pay for otherwise). I'd like to think that 600 people voted for me in this thing because they know how much I love France and know I would do the same thing for them. But... I don't know 600 people that well. No way, jose. So, what really happened is a buncha people that I know hardly well — maybe once worked with or went to high school with or studied abroad with ages ago — as well as a buncha people I have never even met — friends of family and friends of friends — went and voted on this thing because someone asked them to and they thought it would be a nice thing to do.

Once again, I'll bring up that my victory was nearly derailed by a nasty cheater. Even as his number of votes continued to grow, mine kept creeping up, too. I was fairly confident he would be removed from the competition, but even so I was blown away by all the people that kept working to get me votes so that I could still win. I'm a writer, so I should have a better way to say it, but simply put, it was just nice. Really, really, nice.

A few weeks later, I'm still not finished thanking everyone I know who voted for me, and I don't even know how to thank those I don't! But all this excitement made July one of the most bestest months ever.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Wake Up Call: Biking is Dangerous

A biker got killed in Chicago on Friday night. She slipped under a garbage truck and wasn’t able to get out fast enough. The driver didn’t see her.

I love riding my bike everywhere and wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the exercise and the freedom to get from point A to point B without having to wait for a train or bus or pay oodles of money for a cab. And even though I am one of the safest bikers I know — I always wear my helmet, have bright front and back lights, and anticipate that drivers won’t see me anyway so bike proactively — it’s still dangerous. This biker’s horrible death reminded me of that.

The following night, I was biking to meet up with friends and feeling a bit skiddish for obvious reasons. I was being extra special careful, and just as I was about to pull up to the bar, a cabbie suddenly pulled over and cut me off. Stuff like this happens all the time. If you’re paying attention, as I was, it’s not a big deal. He didn’t come close to hitting me, but that’s because I knew if I didn’t get out of the way, he would.

I was perfectly fine, but annoyed and angry. I’ve had much closer brushes with injury, but his lack of concern pissed me off. He’s a cabbie, I know. I can’t expect otherwise. But because of the recent death of the biker, I felt especially irked. Normally I would forget about something like this, but this time I decided to say something to the dude. Before he had a chance to zoom away, I walked up to him and said calmly, but sternly “Hey. You just cut me off. You can’t say you didn’t see me, because I know you did. I’m trying to be careful out here. You need to do the same.”

He said he was sorry. I said “Okay. Well it’s my life. And ‘I’m sorry’ won’t save it.”

I didn’t really feel better after giving the cabbie my two cents. Maybe he’ll be more careful for a few hours, but it’s his job to get places fast. He’ll forget. Also, he’s only one cabbie in a city of thousands. I’m not going to stop riding my bike, but I’ll do my best to be even more careful, if that’s even possible.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

!! On #WINNING !!


As you probably already know if you follow my Facebook or Twitter or know me in real life, I WON the Air France USA contest. When the contest closed, I had more than 600 votes and the second place person was somewhere around 250. The cheater dude, skeezy Eric P. was disqualified a couple hours earlier for his magical ability to instantly acquire 750 votes. Shortly after voting closed, I received an “official” congratulatory email from Air France USA’s social media people. They said: “Internally you were easily one of our favorite candidates and we are thrilled to see the way that the votes fell in your favor, congratulations again and thank you for participating!”

So what do I win? I win two round-trip tickets on Air France to Paris. And I win five nights in Pullman Montparnasse (initially I thought it was Montmartre. I was wrong, but this hotel looks pretty swanky). Pets are allowed so I can bring Libby!!!! She does love Paris. I am hoping to go in the fall sometime and will be taking Jake, who ever so patiently maintained his cool this past week as I was literally freaking out 24/7 about winning this thing. If Jake can’t make it because the Cardinals are playing, I’ll take my sister. If my sister can’t make it, I’ll take my aunt. If my aunt can’t make it, I’ll take my mom. If none of them can make it, maybe I’ll take you. Let me know, and I’ll add your name to the waiting list.

I still can’t believe I won, and I really can’t believe how many people helped me do it. First off, for my entry I have to thank coworkers Nikki and Alex for helping me out. And then, once I made it to the top 10 I contacted every single I person I knew asking for votes, but I certainly do not know 600 people. I had so many people rallying for me. My whole triathlon club voted. The Threadless community voted. My neighbors voted. My whole work voted. I am pretty sure a lot of my old coworkers voted, too. My aunt asked people she knew on her train, my sister’s boyfriend asked his coworkers, my dad asked everyone at his favorite restaurant, Jake’s mom asked all her friends. Once the nasty cheater revealed himself and jumped ahead by 200 votes, I was so surprised by how many people were pulling for me and asking everyone they knew to help me out. The cheater kept going, but so did my fan club. I was somehow able to pull in 100 more votes yesterday, and that was long after I had asked everyone I knew. I’m fairly certain those last 100 people didn’t even know me. And I don’t know them, so I can’t even thank them.

If you voted for me, thank you. If you got your friends to vote for me, thank you more! You have no idea how excited I am. Paris is my favorite city and I am so excited to go back.

Everyone's asking me about the cheater, and I don't know much about his tactics. All I know is that he had about 50 votes Sunday morning, and suddenly had 400, gained 200 more overnight, and by the time he was removed from the competition Monday afternoon, was up to 800. I personally think he wrote a script or code or application or something that was automated. His votes wouldn't move for hours, then would suddenly shoot up in a short amount of time. He was a very unintelligent cheater, and I am happy for that. :-)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

SO Close to Paris!

There are few things that would make me jump up and down in my apartment, run back and forth, and screech like a crazy lady. 1. Winning the lottery (because then I could go to France) and 2. Finding out that I was really close to winning a trip to France.

Air France USA is running this contest. They asked their Facebook fans to create an image or photo around the theme "Picture Yourself in Paris," and that is exactly what I did. See below:



I mean I thought it was pretty good. I had help from some awesome coworkers named Nikki and Alex and I really thought it turned out smashingly well. And when weeks and weeks later I found out that I was one of the top 10 finalists out 1,800 to win this trip — two round-trip tickets on classy Air France plus 5 nights in a hotel in Montmartre (that's where a lot of Amelie was filmed. It's a beautiful area!) — I jumped up and down in my apartment, ran to and fro, and screeched like a crazy lady.

Wanna help me win? YEAH YOU DO.

Like Air France USA and then like my entry (the first one). If I win, I will send you a postcard or a baguette, whichever you prefer! Voting closes August 1, so do it now!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Death by Email

Reverb Prompt: What new thing will you try this month?

I notice when I make improvements in my life, other things start to slip.

So I joined this triathlon club, and for the most part, have been doing a great job at showing up to practices — some of which are at 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. — and kicking ass at some really hard workouts. And to do that, I’ve had to go to sleep at reasonable hours and been trying to put good things in my body (like Bloody Marys! Tomatoes are good for you!). So that’s great.

But now that I am running and swimming and biking at all hours of the day, I’m not staying on top of other things. Like emails. That sounds so minor, but when I realized I had 100+ unread emails in my inbox, I just stopped opening my inbox.

I feel compelled to respond to every single person who emails me, but I never have the time. So I mark emails as unread to remind myself to get back to them. And then, a few days later, I have more than 100 unread emails.

I went to a coffee shop last night with the mission of getting my stupid email inbox in order. I spent time unsubscribing from newsletters and listservs I don’t care for. I removed email notifications from many of my Facebook and Twitter notifications. I organized my labels so it’s easier to digest my inbox at a glance.

Also, I’m going to work on not responding to every email. I will delete some. People will not be sitting behind their computers wondering “WHERE IS MY RESPONSE FROM BETSY!??!?!” They will deal.

This month, I will try to declutter my email life and respond only to the important emails. Because who wants to spend their free time reading and responding to emails? Ugh. Life is too short to spend all of it emailing.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Try a Tri? Okay.

After my sunrise adventure last Friday, I was changing into my work clothes at the gym locker room when I heard a couple women talking about triathlons. I've always been interested in triathlons for lots of reasons: it seems pretty badass, triathletes have the best bods eva, and unlike marathons (of which I've run three), there's variety. I joined in the conversation and one woman told me she was in our gym's tri club. She said the club had a lot of new folks who'd never done a tri before, and she loved it. She recommended that I join.

So I did.

And the next morning, I was gathered with a bunch of strangers, ready to run five miles. That was a week ago, and I've since attended almost every workout. And I'm tired. Really tired. But I'm going to keep going to the practices and see what happens.

When I was unemployed, I told myself when I got a full-time job, I'd do a tri. These suckers are expensive including the race costs and all the gear. But of course I never followed through, even though I've been a working girl since last spring. Afraid of something? Maybe just sacrificing my social life. Also, even though I can afford to buy a wetsuit, do I wanna? Do I want to be that girl who has a wetsuit hanging next to her summer dresses in the closet?

About one week in, I'm thinking maybe yes. I haven't registered for an actual race yet, but there's one at the end of August. I know that if I'm going to do this, I'm going to go all out. I'm not doing a wussy sprint tri. I'm going to do the Olympic distance, mile swim, 25-mile bike and 6-mile run.

But I still haven't regiatered yet...

I've always wanted to do this. For years and years. I think before I even aspired to run a marathon I thought about triathlons. I was worried I wouldn't know what I was doing, but the tri club has three coaches who are there for exactly that reason. It is pretty hard, too. Even though I'm always swimming/biking/kinda running, these practices are faster and tougher. So maybe I'm worried about being tired for two months straight.

I dunno why I'm so apprehensive about registering. Someone convince me?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Early Morning


I had trouble sleeping last night. I was extremely nervous that I was going to oversleep my alarm, which was set to wake me up at 4 a.m.

Last week, a friend had the brilliant idea to catch the sunrise on the lake. He emailed the group and everyone was ecstatic about it, except no one wanted to wake up too early. Unfortunately, waking up too early is how you catch the sunrise. A few of us were ecstatic enough to do what needed to be done in order to achieve this magnificent goal. Hence the 4 a.m. alarm, which I ended up not even needing. I was awake a couple hours earlier.

As I was leaving home, some people were just trickling out of bars. But the streets were pretty deserted, as you would imagine. We met at Chess Pavilion at 5 a.m. and watched the sun come up.

It was every bit as peaceful and pretty and wonderful as you'd imagine. Then we biked over to Lincoln Park Zoo to try to see some animals, but they were all sleeping. Who woulda thought camels sleep?

We then biked to a diner, where we ate leisurely breakfast and accepted every coffee refill that was offered. And then we biked to work.

I was glad I snapped myself out my regular routine to do this. It made me love Chicago more, because I saw a different part of the city.