There and back again

Long time no blog. Sorry for the lack of posting in the last few weeks, but I do have a good excuse. I’m sure you won’t fault me for it.

In order to celebrate my completion of graduate school and achievement of my PhD, DH volunteered to take me on a very nice trip. We spent a lot of time figuring out where we wanted to go and when we would be able to go there. There has been a lot going on with finishing up my work and interviewing for jobs and this and that; however, we decided that if we waited for “just the right time” to go somewhere, we’d never end up going, because there just is never the perfect time. So we decided to go ahead and just book a trip and let the rest of everything going on happen around it.

There are many attractive and interesting destinations around the world, and we considered many different possibilities. However, in the end I decided that if I got to go anywhere, I wanted to go to Paris. I took so many years of French in high school and college and even excelled at it, and, though I’m quite rusty now, I’ve always had a desire to go to France and experience the culture about which I had learned for so long. Plus, traveling to an international destination was one of the biggest items on our 101-in-1001 lists, and we got to check that off!

Since we were planning to get the most out of this opportunity to cross the pond, we decided to take two entire weeks to travel over there. While I could happily spend two weeks in Paris, we decided to actually see some other sights while we were over there. We ultimately decided on a multi-city itinerary, connecting the cities by train.

We started off with six nights in Paris, where we rented an apartment just south of Gare du Nord and Montmartre. We purchased a Paris Museum Pass for six days. I very highly recommend this pass, which gives you entry into most of Paris’ main attractions (Eiffel Tower being the main exception) for two, four, or six consecutive days. You skip the ticket line just about everywhere and go directly in, saving significant time (though you will often have to stand in a security line regardless; can’t bypass that!). It also gave us entrance to a few sights we wouldn’t have thought to do before, plus, to be perfectly honest, we used it a couple of times for entrance to museums so we could use the facilities. However, these were at least educational and edifying potty breaks. šŸ˜‰ I also highly recommend a good travel guide; I used the one by Rick Steves for both Paris and Rome and found it to be invaluable for suggestions on beating crowds, saving Euros, and walking about town.

With six days, we did pretty much everything we wanted to do in the city with a little time to be relaxed about it. However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t walk probably ten or fifteen miles every single day! My feet and back were complaining a bit, but we saw a lot of the town on foot. We did make strategic use of the Metro and suburban train system, too. Paris is really great about that. We covered all the big sites: the Louvre, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame (including climbing the towers), Arc de Triomphe, a walking tour of Montmartre, the Orsay Museum, and more. We also discovered a number of smaller gems thanks to the Museum Pass and the travel guide.

Paris was probably my favorite destination, though I certainly enjoyed our other stops, too. I certainly hope to go back again one day! I’d also love to explore more of France outside the city.

My favorite view of Notre Dame….I like big buttresses and I cannot lie.

Eiffel Tower by night…and I did go all the way to the top!

One of the many ornate bridges across the Seine.

After our stint in Paris, we caught a train to Zurich. We overnighted there before a train through the Alps over Gotthard Pass into northern Italy, but we enjoyed our time walking around the old town and feeding swans and ducks by the lake. We also purchased lots of chocolate, though we were a bit disappointed to not find any actual chocolatiers in town. We had really wanted to do fondue while we were there, but despite lots of research and investigation, we just couldn’t come up with a plan to work for our one evening there. Plus, it’s not really fondue season just yet.

Old town Zurich on the Limmat River.

Duck….duck…..swan!

Our scenic train trip through the Alps was an intentional destination in our itinerary, and it was really awesome to see, even if just through a train window. That unfortunately didn’t make for very nice pictures to show you.

After a train switch in Milan, we headed to Venice for two days. Venice is such an interesting city; while there are some interesting sights there, like the Doge’s Palace and San Marco’s Basilica, Venice itself is the most interesting sight. Our experience there was particularly “interesting” because of our lodging. The landlady at the bed and breakfast didn’t speak any English (her husband did, but he was evidently out of town), and for some reason this destination was fraught with a handful of small hiccups. However, after much gesturing and nodding, everything turned out just fine; we had a nice place to stay, and made it to our final destination without further incident.

A typical canal in Venice.

After that, we topped off our trip with four days in Rome. We rented a nice apartment literally steps from the Vatican Wall and museum entrance. In the Eternal City, we invested in a Roma Pass, which gave us two free entrances to sights, but we found it to be worth it particularly for the metro and bus pass. By this point we were exhausted from walking across three countries (four if you count the Vatican), and we used every opportunity to ride the metro there. I can’t count how many times we transferred at Termini station. But otherwise, Rome was very walkable, maybe even moreso than Paris.

The Colosseum

Rome is such an old and interesting city. We saw ancient sights and “modern” Baroque buildings literally side-by-side. We also were very excited to have the unique opportunity to see the Vatican Museum on Friday evening. They open late on Fridays a few months out of the year, so we reserved our spot ahead of time and completely beat the enormous lines that we saw every single day there. We also went to St. Peter’s Basilica and climbed to the top of the dome, which was a bit claustrophobic and nerve-wracking but worth the effort. And the church itself is just enormous beyond description.

View from the very top of the cupola of St. Peter’s.

Admiring the dome of the Pantheon

We flew home from Rome after 14 days of traveling. All in all, it seemed like a pretty good division of time between cities, though we’d like to actually see more of Switzerland another time. We also enjoyed the experience of train travel, though arranging four separate tickets did get a bit tricky on the front end. But the time I invested in carefully planning our itinerary, travel, and lodging seemed to pay off with few, minor hiccups along the way.

We got back on Tuesday night, and we were absolutely exhausted! We pretty much walked everywhere, with modest support from metro and buses. DH came home a little sick, and I’m still a little tired and having a hard time not waking up too early. But it was still a lot of fun. My parents came to house sit and watch the dog for us, which was great. They enjoyed a mini-vacation away from home, and we didn’t have to worry about our pup getting lonely or in trouble. I think it worked out well for everyone.

So now we’d just trying to get back to normal, though “normal” is not a word that is really describing our life at the moment. If our two-week trip to Europe was big, then what happened when we got back was totally epic. I’ll have to tell you all about that next time.

P.S. A special thanks to my followers who are travel bloggers and francophiles whose adventures inspired me on my trip! Bon voyage!

Around the block

Sunday, DH and I checked off one of the most significant items on our 101-in-1001 list.

About 4 years ago, DH purchased a 1956 Chevy pickup truck to restore. When we bought it, it was supposed to run, albeit not that elegantly. After the seller rolled it off the trailer in front of our house, DH and I got into it to make a quick trip around the block, but we made it about three feet before the drive shaft broke from the rear differential and hit the ground. It took some clever maneuvering and some black magic with a coat hanger to get the truck into the garage where she sat for the last four years awaiting some TLC.

DH has diligently worked to repair all the things he wasn’t expecting to repair. However, due to the cramped quarters of our suburban garage, these unexpected tasks, and the busyness of life in general, progress was a little slow. But with a large amount of progress done and just a little more left, a truck-related 101-in-1001 item seemed obvious. Therefore, given that current state of repair, we decided our goal would be to drive the truck around the block.

Not only did the list spur us on, but faced with the possibility, yet not certainty, of moving if I got a job elsewhere, we decided that having the truck, as charming as the old rust-bucket is, filling up half the garage might not be a selling point for most buyers. Ideally, we could park it at his parents’ house for a little while until we better knew what our situation would be. Since we were planning a trip to visit our families around the Labor Day weekend anyways, we decided it was time to buckle down and get her running so she’d be a little more mobile to get on and off a trailer.

DH did a wonderful job finishing up the last bits of work on the drivetrain in the last couple of weeks. The transmission was acting up a bit, so we weren’t willing to risk backing her down the driveway and into somebody’s house in our neighborhood. But with the transmission in neutral and a wench on the trailer, we got her all settled in for her trip. Our trip “around the block” would have to wait a bit longer.

We got an early start, and though she was a heavy load, our trusty new pickup did very well hauling her over 1000 miles without adding a lot of time to the trip. We got lots of thumbs up along the way, too. Just about everybody appreciates a good looking piece of machinery, even if she’s a little rough around the edges.

Finally, when we reached our destination it was time to put her to the test. DH and his dad rolled her off the trailer into the field. DH got her in gear (this was not trivial), and we all piled in (including the dog in the back) and took a short ride around the farm. I think the word DH used to describe the ride was “Cadillac,” however there might have been a bit of sarcasm there. But as rusty and bumpy as it was, it was satisfying to experience the fruits of our labor.

Restoration progress may be on a temporary hiatus, but with a large hurdle crossed, we look forward to the next phase of work. While there’s still a lot of engine and drivetrain work, hopefully it will include some more fun and visible progress. DH has spent a lot of time getting greasy underneath the truck, so maybe we can start working some things shiny up top.

Warning…objects in mirror are rustier than they appear!

So cross another big item off our list. Believe it or not, this still isn’t even the biggest item to be accomplished in the near future! Better stay tuned for this exciting event!

Successful by surprise

I didn’t wake up Wednesday morning, jet lagged and tired from a quick trip to the east coast, expecting to cross another significant item off the 101-in-1001 list, but as a matter of fact I did.

One of the more interesting items on the list was to make a meal completely from items either grown or hunted by us. This could be a little tricky depending on one’s interpretation of “completely”–does that include all the herbs and spices? What about flour or salt? Cooking oil? I decided to take a somewhat generous interpretation yet still successfully accomplished the task very close to literally.

It’s that time of year when many of the plants in our vegetable garden come to fruition at the same time. Therefore, I had a bit of okra, yellow squash, hot peppers, and tomatoes sitting on my counter and needing to be eaten in some way. I decided to cook them up for DH’s lunch along with some tenderloins from his deer which were in the freezer (which coincidentally also put another feather in my “pantry/freezer stash challenge” cap). I sliced the squash into thin medallions, seasoned them with some Italian herbs and olive oil, and baked them in the oven. I cut up the okra, coated them with just enough cornmeal to stick to them, and pan fried them in a touch of canola oil. Finally, I marinated the deer steaks in the last bit of some marinade in the pantry (see? another feather!). DH had the great idea of adding a few of our peppers in the pan as I cooked them up. Therefore, when the meal was plated and presented, it was, exclusive of a few seasonings, entirely ours. I think that’s a really neat thing to accomplish.

Furthermore, I was even more productive today when I checked off another item: find artwork for the big, bare wall over our stairwell. It’s been begging for something special for the last five years since we’ve lived here, but nothing has been quite right. We finally decided that we wanted to have three canvases printed with our own photographs of Colorado to give it a truly unique and personalized touch; however, it took us a few trips around the state to snap those pictures that were special enough to us to fill in what we had in mind. It also took us some time to find a place to print them, because printing large canvases are not cheap. However, a couple of weeks ago I snagged a very good Amazon Local deal for three canvases at 75% off regular price. I snapped up those vouchers and finally got around to ordering them today. When we get them in and hung on the wall, I will hopefully be able to share these special pictures with you, too. I’m pretty sure I’ve featured some of them in previous posts about our trips around the state, so maybe you can look back for a sneak peek and try to guess any of them made the cut. šŸ˜‰

There have been even more close brushes with list items and will be some definite huge items crossed off in the near future, so stay tuned for some exciting developments!

Four weddings and two funerals….and a baby shower

Well hello there. I guess it’s been a few days since my last post. Evidently being unemployed keeps me incredibly busy. :p

It’s been just over two weeks since I started my time off. Since then I have, among other things, done some projects around the house, taken the dog on some walks, planned a tentative vacation itinerary, gone out of town for a job interview, prepared a talk for said interview, made travel arrangements for another out-of-town interview, done some running/exercising, made a trip into the city to donate some stuff to a school for a friend, and made two apple pies. Among other things. I have had absolutely no trouble filling my days with activities. But some of the biggest events that I have been involved with these last few weeks were weddings, funerals, and a baby shower.

Earlier in my twenties, I entered a time of life that I called the “Wedding Bell Curve.” At first I knew a few people getting married early in college; this quickly escalated into a number of years of peak wedding activity, including my own, but has tapered off as I’ve entered my thirties. Now I have entered a new time of life that is the “Baby Bell Curve.” This is what one might call an occupational hazard of the first activity. Needless to say, this logically follows the previous statistical curve, and I am currently in the baby peak and in the far tail of weddings.

However, this summer there has been a statistically significant perturbation of the wedding curve. There have been four weddings this summer in our church, and I’ve been to three of them, plus three wedding showers. Two of these weddings have been since I have finished my job, and I’ve been a little bit involved in both of them. I was asked to play violin during one service, and DH did the AV for the second one this last weekend, which lead to me helping with some sound and video setup before the service. While this was minimal involvement, getting ready for a wedding and partying afterward was still tiring work!

However, this was quite a juxtaposition to the other two events that I have helped with recently. Early last week, we had a funeral at church for my friend’s mom, who was still quite young but passed away due to some health problems. Her memorial service was at our church, and I was able to actually come help with food for the reception afterwards, something I was never able to do previously. Then another gentleman, one of the founding members of our church, passed away Sunday. He would have been 92 next month, and he certainly left an amazing legacy of service to society and to the Lord. I just came home from his service a few minutes ago. After these experiences, I really appreciate the hard work of the men and women who normally do this; it’s quite a task to serve that many people after a funeral, but it’s incredibly appreciated by the friends and families. While I’m glad I got to help alleviate some of that burden this month, I’m quite tired now! It’s also emotionally taxing, even if you aren’t that close to the person, maybe a couple of degrees removed. I remember that you can’t take life for granted and I appreciate the time I do have with people now. I also empathize with the families going through this time of grief.

However, I can’t sit on my laurels and blog the rest of the day. While weddings have abounded this summer and life on this earth has run its natural course for a couple of individuals recently, new life still begins every day. So tonight we’re getting together again to celebrate a new baby due in a couple of months for a girl in our church. Finally, another baby shower! I am helping with the set-up, so I’ll need to leave again before too long. But it’s been such an interesting summer–particularly an interesting two weeks–celebrating life and death and new life together that I knew I wanted to formally formulate a few thoughts about them and share them here.

I’m certain God has let me experience all these things at this particular time in my life for some reason or reasons, and hopefully I’ll be able to appreciate what He’s taught me now or later or both. I am, after all, at a critical point in my life story as well. Maybe He’s giving me some precious perspective about life in general and how the choices I make now will influence the course of my days from now on. It’s not just about what job I’m doing or where I am living but how I live in my life situation, what legacy I might leave behind when my days are done. My time in school has prepared me to begin a “real” career now; likewise, I may one day soon enter my own “baby bell curve” and start a family. Plus, the time I have invested in my relationship with God and learning about serving Him in this previous era of my life will equip me to go forward to advance His kingdom in ways only He could conceive. Whatever the next step, it will be a big change, but hopefully one I am prepared to take…one step at a time.

Book Review: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

As I mentioned in the prologue to my first book review, I haven’t been in the habit of reading as much as I used to when I was a kid. One of my problems is being unwilling to sit down with a book and engage both mind and body in one physically inert activity. While I’m beginning to reverse my thinking and re-accept this posture of repose (given I move around enough at other times, of course), I have also found another alternative to enjoying a book without having to sit down with one.

Audiobooks are a wonderful when you need your body to be engaged with a task but your mind is wide open. Since DH and I make a couple of long car trips to visit family every year, audiobooks have been absolutely awesome to keep us interested and awake across long, boring stretches of road while allowing us to catch up on some titles we wanted to read or to explore some new authors. Since DH was gone for a week recently, I knew my mind would be unengaged at home while lacking another human to interact with; I also knew there were some mindless tasks (i.e. cleaning) that I needed to get done. So instead of sitting around on the couch watching Netflix or playing on the computer, I decided that an audiobook would be a great way to keep me moving while engaging my brain. So took the opportunity to “read” a book that’s been vaguely on my radar for a while–The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.Ā I was actually able to listen to the entire trilogy–The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay–back to back.

Obviously, there’s been a huge hype about these books since the movie came out this spring. I had only vaguely heard of them before then, but since their meteoric rise in popularity this year I did gather that it was a young adult series based in a future where kids are made to fight to the death by an oppressive regime. Otherwise, I hadn’t seen the movie and didn’t know much else about the premise going in. I’m going to assume most of you know at least the basic storyline and won’t try to summarize the whole series here.

My overall impression is that the series is indeed well-written, engaging, and entertaining. I did have to remember that it is young adult fiction, not adult fiction, though one could argue that the lines between the two are getting a bit fuzzy these days (Twilight, anyone?). However, while the writing level wasn’t watered down and the subject matter was pretty intense, the whole tenor of the book was maybe one notch down from, say, a full-blown, complex adult novel. While this is not a fantasy book, it did remind me of some of the fantasy books I occasionally read, at least in scope. And while I might complain about how dark of a book it is to market to teens, I do have to remember that I was reading stuff like Les Miserables (unabridged, mind you) and Lord of the Rings when I was in junior high. And I turned out fine, right?

So yes, it was overall engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking. However, there were a few things that I didn’t personally favor. First of all, I’m not really a fan of love triangles. That’s just personal preference, not a comment on the book or anything. However, I wasn’t really impressed with how Katniss handled the situation over the course of the books. Now, I do realize that, despite her adult hardships, she’s still a teenage girl and understandably confused about life and love. I also realize that probably no woman handles a love triangle very well, either. Just saying. But it just didn’t really appeal to me.

Aside from her handling of the love triangle, there were parts of Katniss that just annoyed me in general. Again, she’s a teenage girl in an extremely difficult and compromising situation, so she has a lot to deal with as she matures, and it did seem like the whole series was an account of how she realized her shortcomings and eventually grew into a better person having dealt with them. But really I often got irritated by her self-centereness and immaturity.

However, it did occur to me one reason I might have been unknowlingly prejudiced against her. At one point I realized that the narrator of the book had a somewhat high voice. Now, she did a fantastic job performing the book, but the more soprano pitch of her voice didn’t quite seem to fit with the hardscrabble Katniss I imagined. Therefore, at times, like when she was pretending to be a love-sick maiden, her voice tended to exaggerate the ruse and made Katniss seem a little bubble-headed. This is an artifact of the audiobook that wouldn’t have occurred while reading it off the page, but I wonder if that really did influence my view of the heroine.

Also, the ending seemed just a little bit anticlimactic. There was a huge build-up to storming the President’s mansion, and then all of a sudden it was months later and the rebellion had been resolved without Katniss. Now, what happened was significant, I won’t downplay that, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Likewise, her breakdown while being locked up seemed a bit over the top. Maybe I was hoping for a happier ending, but I guess it was really about as happy as it could have been, given the circumstances of what she and all the Districts went through.

I also found it interesting that the entire series was written in the first person present tense. Usually a character is reflecting back on what happened, but Katniss speaks about events as they are happening. Not to get too literary, but I wondered if that was a deliberate way of showing how, with death always imminent, Katniss must live in the present, or possibly to not take for granted that she actually lived past The Hunger Games to tell about it from the other side.

My rating: 3.5/5. Plenty entertaining and thought-provoking, though lacking a bit of that je ne sais quoi element from books actually written for an adults. If you are letting your kids read it, maybe it’s a great opportunity to discuss some difficult subjects with them. Now I will probably see the movies, but maybe later after I’ve thoroughly forgotten the books. šŸ˜‰

August Challenge–Use up your pantry stash, revisited

It’s the beginning of a new month as well as a new era in my life. There will be many challenges going forward, but to start things off I’ll begin with a new Monthly Challenge.

Now that I’ve got some time on my hands, I’ve decided it’s time to address the burgeoning state of my pantry and freezer. My first pantry stash monthly challenge about a year ago was a great success, but I have been a bit busy since then and entropy has a way of taking over, especially when you’re not looking. This is a great time for this challenge for a few reasons. First, as I said, I have plenty of time now to focus my attentions on the problem and to be creative in my meal planning (I have to spend more time on Pinterest? Well, if you insist…). Second, I am, after all, not working at the moment, and while we are financially prepared for a short-term reduced income, saving money is always a great thing to do. Plus, if I do happen to take a job out of town and have to move, I’ve at least reduced the amount of food sitting around so we won’t have to toss it or awkwardly try to pack it.

I spent an hour or so yesterday afternoon going through the pantry and freezer and writing down what I had and making note of things I would like to use up. I’ve already got some ideas, and I’m going to get started by making a stash-busting dinner tonight and probably tomorrow, too. At least I’m off to a great start!

Goodbye…….?

Yesterday was my last day at work, and thus my entire graduate career has come full circle and ended.

When I drove into work yesterday, I had all sorts of emotions simmering softly inside me. I didn’t quite know what to expect the day to be like, if it would feel monumental every moment, if every thing I did for the last time would seem significant. I suppose that, in the end, I knew everything was the last time, but it wasn’t so overwhelming, sort of like I had already accepted the situation mentally and spiritually and was ready to say goodbye and move on to the next step.

It was a little more difficult to say goodbye to people. Most of the folks I work with were valued colleagues but not super close friends. I’ll miss them, but I’ll likely see some of them again in passing if we stay in the same field. However, since we didn’t “hang out” as friends outside of work, those relationships are a little bit easier to surrender. It’s the people with whom I have become close friends with that are hard to leave behind, especially when I might be moving away and can’t even hang out with them outside of work, either. This isn’t anything new in life, though; these days, our culture almost guarantees that life move us or the other people around. Few people stay in one place with the same people all their lives anymore. I’ve said goodbye to friends in high school, college, and throughout grad school. It’s a fact I have somewhat come to accept now, though it is still hard.

My boss always gives departing members a consolation prize–I mean–a parting gift. This gift is almost always the same, and it comes from the same store–the one under the stairs in the lobby of the building. So at least I was sent off in style with a little science swag. You can’t tell in the picture, but that mug is ridiculously huge, by the way.

Having moved fairly often as a kid (always the same town, just to new houses since my parents were contractors on the side), I’m quite familiar with the feeling of vacating a space. I like to walk around a house or apartment or building that I won’t enter into again to soak it up one last time before I leave. NIST is a big, sprawling building, not including the new building that was just completed a few months ago. I didn’t go everywhere all the time, but after seven years I had tasks that took me to nearly every part of the building at least once. In my rounds to say goodbye to everyone, I traversed these hallways one last time. I also said goodbye to my office–dirty, industrial cinder block walls, windows that don’t close, watermarks down the wall from leaks, scuffed floors, dusty blinds, dangling cables and frayed cords. My officemates will soon be moving to new digs in the new building, too, so I don’t even know who will reside in that old office anymore. Hopefully they won’t have to suffer there too long. šŸ˜‰

I said my goodbyes, got my affairs in order, and left. That morning I came to work expecting to maybe never come back again. What I was not expecting on my last day was to have an email forwarded to my inbox by my boss–a job announcement for a post doc opening in the very same division doing something very interesting. To not have to move, to continue working at a place I love…that’s quite big. When I came to work yesterday I did not expect to be doing what amounted to be an interview with an acquaintance about a possible job. Obviously, this is still very new, and I also have my current prospects to attend to first, but when I came to work yesterday I entered with a sense of finality and left with somewhat of a quandary. I was prepared to make a clean break, but now I still have a lingering possibility of going back. That makes it a little more complicated emotionally. Like I said, this is all very fresh, and it’s possible it won’t even come to fruition, but now there is some cord still binding me there which doesn’t allow me to sever ties completely yet. But, for all intents and purposes regarding my job, it is finished.

So, NIST, this is goodbye. For now. Farewell, and thanks for seven great years.