Sunday, April 17, 2016

Spring Break 2016

Casey, Caelen and I, along with Casey's parents, took a western Caribbean cruise through Norwegian for spring break. The complete set of photos is here.

We drove to New Orleans on 3/12. The 17 hour drive was a bit painful, but we learned that Mississippi is beautiful and everyone there is so friendly. Casey booked a hotel near the pier for that evening.

We boarded Sunday, just in time for muster and spent the rest of the day eating, exploring the ship and watching the Mississippi river roll by as we departed.

Monday was a sea day, which meant pool time and play time. The adults in the group had spa passes which meant access to saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs and a private pool. I think this is the best kept secret on the ship. I also took a yoga class that day, but the teacher wasn't very good. Still, it was fun to try. Casey's parents had an amazing suite, with butler and concierge, and got us into the captain's reception.

Our first port was Cozumel, Mexico. We initially planned to golf, but decided to just go out on our own. The five of us rented a taxi to take us around the island. We stopped for photos and shopping along the way and had incredible fish tacos for lunch. Before boarding the ship, we stopped at Starbucks. (It's not a vacation without Starbucks.)

On Wednesday we were in Belize City, Belize. This was a tender port, so that was kind of fun. We booked an excursion through NCL. We had an hour bus ride to our boat on the New River. We saw local fishermen, a Mennonite farm, and lots of wildlife along the way. We stopped at the Lamanai ruins and had a tour guide there. We were able to climb one of the pyramids. After the boat ride back to the starting point we had a Belizean lunch, which was delicious, before boarding the bus back to the port. The line for the tender was super long, but made tolerable when Casey bought us all fresh young coconuts to drink.

Thursday was Roatan, Honduras. We split up that day. I signed Caelen and myself up for a zipling and beach day (not through the cruise line). Our Jungle Top Zipline guide met us at the port and walked us to the spot. After getting suited up and some quick safety instruction, we made our way up the mountain. I'd never done this before, and it was such a blast! For sure one of my favorite things we did on the trip. Caelen enjoyed it too...trying tricks and stuff. After 18 zip lines, a driver took us to West Bay Beach and a private beach club. I rented a stand up paddle board which, admittedly, was more Caelen's thing than mine. The water and beach were beautiful but crowded. We had lunch on the beach before heading back to the port. It was so nice to have Caelen to myself that day! Casey rented a scooter and scooted around the city and mountainside by himself. Marcia and Bruce shopped near the port.

Friday was my favorite day. I booked us at Maya Chan in Costa Maya. They arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the port and drove us to the resort's remote location. The place lives up to it's reputation of a "hippie style hangout". We had our own palupa with chairs, a hammock and sunbed, right near the water. We were greeted with fruity rum drinks and homemade chips and guac. The resort is all-inclusive so they kept us hydrated and fed all day. We got to pet a neighbor dog, and use floaties and kayaks. The water didn't have waves but was beautiful and shallow. A few of us got massages, but mostly we just relaxed and hung out. Lunch was tacos, probably the best I've ever had. I would've stayed here much longer, and would love to go back.

Saturday was another sea day, which meant more relaxing and getting ready to disembark.

Sunday's disembarkation was relatively painless. Because the drive down was so tiring, we decided to drive half way home, rather than spend the night in New Orleans. We spent Sunday night in Memphis and got to have amazing BBQ at Germantown Commissary.

We made it home early Monday evening, in time to see our sorely missed puppies.

I'm not sure I would cruise there again, but I would be happy to spend more time in each place, maybe renting a car and driving from spot to spot. I think everyone had a good time and it was good for Caelen to get out of the USA and see how other people live. I'm looking forward to more experiences like this.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Stuff I love: Duolingo

Duolingo is a free online (and app) language learning tool. I started using it in 2014 before going to Italy and switched to French in 2015 before our Paris trip. I continue to practice with it every day and am now 51% fluent (based on Duolingo's grading system).

Duolingo can be used online or via their app, which is how I normally practice. Exercises include writing, listening and speaking and have a lot of variation to keep it interesting. Lingots are earned for completing exercises which can unlock other features, like changing the mascot's (Duo, a cute owl) attire or unlocking special exercises like Christmas words. Users can also network with friends, but other than seeing who is practicing more, I haven't seen much value in that. There are multiple language offerings and users can practice as many as desired.

I usually practice 10 minutes a day, and complete 4 or 5 exercises, so it isn't a lot of work and it gives users the feeling of progressing quickly. The exercises are fun too, and drive to getting learners speaking in full sentences quickly. No conjugation or endless counting or listing months like in high school.

And for fun check out

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Yoga +

I'm still 100% in love with yoga and my at home yoga practice. In addition to that, I took a yoga class on our cruise on one of our at sea days. Although the instructor wasn't great, I was happy that I was able to keep up with others in the class that have been doing yoga for years.

I've been thinking about looking into a local class, but I haven't found anything yet that I think is for me. Maybe I'll try one at the gym.

In addition to yoga I started doing one weight workout and one sprint workout each week. Nothing too heavy or exciting, just something to focus on a different kind of conditioning. And use the gym membership I paid for.

I'm happy with how I'm feeling physically. Nice and easy seems to be working for me.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Happy Valentine's Day!

I've had a fantastic weekend. 

Friday after work, Casey and I met at the Art Center for the members' preview of the Arts & Letters exhibit. The exhibit showcased the relationship between art and literature. There was music, appetizers and a cash bar. We've really enjoyed our membership. 

Saturday we hosted an adult game night. Casey outdid himself with his French menu and cocktails. We had a great time!

Today we're taking it easy. I gave him some boozy chocolates and the gave me the item below. When I opened that card that accompanied the gift it was signed "your dark passenger". For anyone that's watched Dexter they'd understand why I thought I was opening a severed head or something. But instead of samples of blood from my murdered enemies like Dexter kept, these slides have phrases from some of our favorite memories. It starts with our first date at Palmer's ad ends with our trip to Paris. We can keep adding to it as well. 

I totally cried when I got this. It's so thoughtful and sweet and slightly disturbing. Best Valentine's gift ever!

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Super Bowl Sunday

Watching the Super Bowl (well, half of it) made me think of Caelen’s awesome football season last fall. Here he is with Grandma and Grandpa after one of his final games.

He worked so hard and played so well this season. (I wish he would apply that work ethic to school.) Maybe we’ll get to see him in the Super Bowl someday.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Paris (and London) 2015

I apologize in advance for the length of this. Casey and I spent a week in Paris, with a day trip to London, in early December. We flew Delta from Des Moines to Minneapolis, then to Paris. I scored a really great deal on 1st class tickets for the transatlantic portion of the flight. No pictures of that, but it was super nice with the fold down beds, amenities kits, great food and service and all that. I wouldn't do it all the time because I'm usually cheap and fine with coach. I mean, I rode in a middle seat from New Jersey to Ireland. No problem there. Anyway, neither of us managed to sleep because we were having too much fun enjoying first class.

I arranged for a private car to pick us up from the airport and take us to our hotel. On our trip to Italy last year I learned that town cars aren't much more expensive (especially for 2 people) than taxis but are way nicer. Our driver met us with one of those signs at the arrivals gate, which felt pretty cool.

The ride to our hotel, Gardette Park, took about 45 minutes. We stayed in the 11th arrondissement, near Bastille and Pere-Lachaise. It wasn't a touristy neighborhood, which we liked. The hotel was super small though. It was a challenge to stand at the sink and close the bathroom door at the same time. The elevator, which only held two people at a time, stopped between floors, so you had to walk up or down stairs to get to your room. I liked the neighborhood and that it wasn't too touristy, but I don't think I'd stay here again.

We didn't do much on the 2nd besides eat lunch at Mac Do (MacDonald's), nap, unpack, explore our immediate neighborhood and have dinner at the Wall Street Bar. I didn't feel bad about eating at MacDonald's, as it is now a very parisienne thing to do. The bar had a really cool concept. It's a wine bar, but prices fluctuate based on demand for the particular wine. It was fun to try and time our orders when the price was best. We need this in America.

On Thursday we followed Rick Steve's historic Paris walk, starting at Notre Dame then going to the deportation memorial, Shakespeare & Company bookstore, St. Severin, the Latin quarter, Place St. Michael, St. Chapelle, Conciergerie, Place Dauphine and Pont Neuf. In the afternoon we toured the Louvre. Notre Dame is always stunning, but I was blown away by the interior of St. Chapelle. The bookstore was really fun, and had a cafe next door so we stopped for coffee. The Louvre is really just too big to enjoy in an afternoon; we hit the highlights.

On Friday we started at Musee d'Orsay then walked through Tuileries gardens and the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. We had time to kill before dinner so we found a bar and drank beer. There was a friendly cat and a way too makeout-y couple there too. That evening we did the most memorable thing on our trip. Casey booked dinner through Vizeat. The site pairs travelers with cooks to provide a meal and unique experience. We met at Marine and Roman's place at 8pm. It was an adorable Parisian apartment near the Eiffel Tower.

They were great hosts, and we had great conversation all evening. Marine served foie gras with gingerbread, cream puffs with caviar, trout and pasta with a cream sauce, bread, a cheese course and adorable individual Christmas Tree croqueembouche desserts. Each course was paired with a different wine. When dinner was over they walked with us to find a taxi.

On Saturday we started at the Musee de l'Orangerie. This was amazing! It's where Monet's Water Lillies lives. I found a new favorite painting, Les Biches  by Marie Laurencin. Afterward, we took a tuk tuk to the Eiffel tower. What a cold but awesome time! We took some daylight pictures there, then walked around the Trocadero neighborhood and had a cocktail and snacks. That night we took a Seine river dinner cruise. The food was just fine, but the view was amazing and romantic. We then went up to the top of the tower. It twinkles every hour on the hour, and we were on it when it did this, enjoying a glass of wine.

Sunday morning we walked Rue Cler, buying amazing chocolates and having breakfast before touring Napoleon's tomb and the army museum. This was surprisingly awesome and I wish we'd had more time there. The medieval weapons and WWI and WWII exhibits were impressive. In the afternoon, we met up with our guide from Paris Greeters, Beatrice, at 2pm and walked all around the marais. This neighborhood includes the Bastille, the opera, Place des Vosages (where Victor Hugo wrote Les Mis). We also walked by Hemingway's flat, the Parthenon and the Sorbonne. The climate summit was going on in Paris while we were there and there were huge blocks of ice in front of the Parthenon in some sort of demonstration.

On Monday we were up super early for our day trip to London. We got a taxi to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar to St. Pancras. I slept most of the trip (both ways) so I didn't really experience the chunnel. I booked the Golden Tours hop on hop off bus for our time in London. Normally I'm not a fan of these, but it actually was a pretty fun and cheap way to get around. We got off at the Tower of London, got Starbucks (sticky toffee latte for me) and then took some photos of London Bridge. We took a Thames river cruise over to the London Eye, but didn't ride that. We walked over to Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster, then through St. James park to Buckingham palace. For lunch we took a bus over to Marble Arch/Hyde Park/Oxford Street and found a fantastic pub for lunch, then went shopping at Selfridge's. They had a room just for Christmas crackers! Finally, we walked over to Hyde Park, before getting the bus back to St. Pancras. We popped across the street to see Platform 9 and 3/4s at King's Cross.

Tuesday we took a taxi to Sacre Coeur, then walked down the hill through Monmarte to the Moulin Rouge.

We flew home Wednesday, no first class this time, but it was still a pretty comfortable flight, connecting through Detroit.

I'm so glad we didn't cancel our trip after the terrorist attacks. We never felt unsafe (partially due to added security everywhere). Our hotel was maybe five blocks from some of the sites that were attacked and we saw endless flowers, candles and French flags at the memorials. Everyone we met was friendly and seemed grateful for our tourism dollars.

The first time I was in France in 1999 I expected the French to be rude, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. I'm happy to say that hasn't changed. The sights, the food, the culture make France one of my favorite spots in the world. I look forward to visiting again.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Weekend wrap-up

I'm going to blame winter, but I really didn't do much this weekend. 

Friday afternoon I took Mimi to accupuncture. That night we ate dinner at home and watched Agent Carter.

Saturday I got up early and did some work then made Caelen come shopping with me. He had some $$ to spend at Barnes & Noble. He bought three new novels and already read them all. I took a nap that afternoon and then Casey took us to dinner. Casey and I watched Big Hero 6 while Caelen watched TV - he's seen the movie before. 

Sunday I was up early working again. Casey made a big breakfast and we watched news. I did laundry and got a massage and gave myself a facial. For Sunday Funday we watched episodes of Modern Family while I worked some more. 

You'll note that I was up early both days. Since I really do need to be up at 5am during the week, I'm trying to get up earlier on the weekend so it's not such a jolt on Mondays. We'll see how that goes.