Christmas Traditions – Old and New

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As soon as the Thanksgiving day was over, we knew the Christmas prep was about to begin. It would always start with the process of setting up our artificial tree. My father took the faux wood trunk out of the box and followed the color-coded wires on the ends of each branch and placed them in the coordinating holes. Then he dutifully took string upon string of multi-colored lights and wrapped them round and round the greenery until there wasn’t a spot left without a bulb. Finally, it was our turn. We took the large cardboard container of decorations out of the basement and gently unwrapped each one; looking every ornament over and commenting on our favorites. There wasn’t a bough on our tree that did not have some shiny ball or figurine dangling from a silver fishhook.

As soon as all the ornaments were hung, we took handfuls of tinsel and literally let it rain. We climbed up on the short utility ladder my dad used to string the lights and threw handfuls of the glittery strings up in the air. We shrieked with delight as the strands covered the entire tree, each of us, and the blue pile carpet below. I thought the finished product was perfection. I would wait until it was dark outside, then click on the rotating tree stand/music box that cranked out tunes like, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman.” As it twirled slowly around, I would sip my mug of cocoa and marvel at the glittering masterpiece.

I looked forward to all the little traditions leading up to Christmas like decorating, assembling lasagnas for an army of relatives, and setting the table. Traveling was not on the agenda when I was growing up. We took vacations in the summer, so it never occurred to me that people didn’t spend the holidays at home.

When I started a family of my own, we pretty much followed many of the same traditions (although we bought a fresh tree and nixed the tinsel). That was the norm until my brother suggested that we take a trip to celebrate New Year’s Eve “2000” in the Caribbean.

A whole new concept about how to spend the holiday opened up for me that year. The week before we hosted a dinner to see everyone and exchange gifts. On December 24th, we flew away from the cold in New Jersey and landed in the Turks and Caicos where it was hot and sunny.

Our rental home was beachfront, and the white sand stretched as far as we could see. Our dinner on December 25th took place in a Caribbean restaurant called the Tiki Hut. We traveled with a large group of extended family and friends, and even though we weren’t home, we had a fantastic time. That week the weather was a perfect 80 degrees, and our two-year-old girls lived in their bathing suits and built sand castles every day.

A few years later, when our daughters were 11, we traveled with another family to share Christmas in Italy. The children made ornaments from kits my girlfriend had purchased at home and packed in her suitcase. We decorated a small tree that we set up in the living room and it created a festive atmosphere. We spent our days exploring the countryside, tasting the foods and sightseeing.

I have come to appreciate both ways of celebrating for the holidays. The case for staying home is strong. We make the special foods that we only prepare at this time of year, and relax in our own house with loved ones. But, there is something I really enjoy about experiencing Christmas in an unusual place. I know it’s not for everyone, and it may seem odd to travel, but I actually enjoy the adventure.

It has been ten years since that last trip, but we are traveling this year. We plan to visit Germany, specifically Munich, Rothenburg, and Berlin. My husband’s heritage is half Italian and half German, so we thought it would be interesting to explore the traditions of his other half. There will be Christmas markets, gluehwein (spiced hot wine) and wursts to sample. While we will miss spending the day with our extended family, we will celebrate when we return. My children are getting the opportunity to travel instead of receiving material things. They are also collecting a unique combination of experiences. They get to have memories of being home and memories of being abroad. We are blessed to be together either way, which is a priceless gift.

 

 

 

 

 

Hungry in Budapest? Sample the Street Food

One of the best parts of discovering a new country is trying the cuisine. As much as I like to plan out my days to see all the most significant tourist spots in each city, I also love to discover a place from the lens of their local street foods.

I recently returned from Budapest, Hungary and while I made sure to try traditional favorites such as Hungarian Goulash and Chicken Paprikash, I also ventured to the street to get a taste of some of the popular fare. The best part? These stalls don’t require reservations.

Karavan Food Truck Garden

While touring the Jewish Quarter, I came across a food truck garden named KARAVAN. Luckily, I happened to stroll by right around lunchtime, and I decided to check out a fried bread, cheese-topped, dish called Langos. Langos starts with a dough (flour, yeast, salt, and water). After the dough rises, the mixture is shaped into balls. When you place an order, the balls are flattened into a disk and then fried in sunflower oil. Once the bread is golden brown, it is slathered with garlic butter, topped with sour cream and a decent amount of a mild grated cheese. I was amazed at how good this simple grub tasted. It is really filling and is big enough to share with friends, especially if you want to save room for more street food. It is prevalent all over the city, and while it is consistent in preparation, every vendor puts their own twist on it. At this food truck, you could get a burger between two pieces of Langos. No matter how you choose to eat it, it is something you have to try.

Langos Food TruckThis food truck will also make a burger out of two enormous disks, but I decided to try the original and save room for a sandwich from an innovative street food place called Bors.

BorsBors Gastro Bar is all about the pressed panini served on hollowed out baguette. The choices change weekly and each version offers a unique twist on the usual sandwich. The line can stretch down the block at this tiny, quirky, establishment. There are no tables, but there is a flatbed truck where patrons sit just beyond the door on the sidewalk. If you can grab a seat, you can relax and dig into your selection. They specialize in International, European street food and innovative soups. At Bors, you can also find vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.  I shared a green curry chicken sandwich that was slightly spicy, warm and toasty. It was delicious. If you find yourself in the Jewish Quarter, head to Kazinczy street and get one of their signature creations.

If you are ready for something sweet, you have to try a Sekler Cake aka chimney cake. A traditional wedding pastry that hails from Romania, it is popular around Central Europe. There are stalls all around Budapest so you won’t have too much trouble finding a spot to get some of this warm, cone-like cake that is rolled over hot coals until it turns golden brown. Once the cake comes off the grill, it is sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. After it cools, you can choose how to fill it. Typical fillings include ice-creams, sauces, and toppings to put inside the cake. The dough is slightly sweet and remains chewy even though it is roasted over coals. It is similar to an ice-cream cone, but the cone is soft. Once you scoop out all the delicious filling, you tear pieces of the cake apart and eat that too. Absolute heaven.

Whenever I travel, I always check out the food scene to get the full picture of the culture and the traditions of each place. I find it so interesting to discover what the locals like to eat and I have had memorable food experiences every place I have visited. If you get to Budapest or if you have been there, drop a comment and let me know some of your favorite Hungarian dishes.

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Hiking Vacation – Bringing Family Together in Fort Collins, ​Colorado

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A vacation to any city in Colorado provides endless options for outdoor fun during a stay. We learned that first-hand last summer when we visited Fort Collins, Colorado. My brother and my sister-in-law relocated there a few years ago and had invited us to visit. We enjoyed our time together so much that we planned to return again this August to explore more of the beautiful state they now call home.

I love traveling with my husband, my daughters, and my extended family. When you travel with a group, you look forward to it because you can engage with each other and be present, without all the distractions of social media or streaming media of any kind. It’s a time when the only thing on the agenda is to reconnect, laugh, and explore (especially when you go for a hike and the internet is unreliable).

A vacation means a change in routine, a chance to get out of familiar surroundings and experience someplace new. It’s a bonding experience, especially when you face a challenge together. Don’t get me wrong, I love relaxing on a beach or by a pool but sometimes my family wants to plan an active get-a-way. One of my favorite sayings is, “Feel the fear and do it anyway!” I often encourage my kids to go outside of their comfort zones and try something they’ve never tried before, and that saying rings true for me too. This trip we decided to plan several day hikes right around the Denver area. The plan was put into motion on our first morning. We started by trekking up to Saint Mary’s Glacier in Arapaho National Forest. IMG_0711.JPG

The trip from Denver took about an hour and was a lovely way to escape the summer heat because the snowpack above Saint Mary’s Lake is present all year. The website recommended that hikers take care during the winter months because of the threat of avalanches, but in the summer, it’s rated as a moderate day hike. The trail is 1.5 miles round trip up to the glacier and you can either follow the trail just to the lake or head the rest of the way up to the glacier. The trail is easy to follow at first, but once you get to the lake, the path is not well-marked. If you’re determined to get up to and onto the glacier, you can figure it out, just wear shoes with a good tread and take a few friends along. We discovered that when you take on a trek as a group, you take care of each other and look out for each other to make sure you all accomplish the goal. In a way that makes the triumph of getting to your destination so sweet.

Thank goodness we were prepared. We dressed in layers, brought plenty of water, snacks, and walking sticks. The sticks came in handy as first part of the trail was extremely rocky.  It was also hot that day at the base, so we peeled the layers off immediately. We took frequent breaks for water, and while my daughters were adept at climbing the boulders and navigating the rocky terrain, the adults took frequent breaks to catch our collective breath. The elevation was about 12,000 feet to the glacier, and even though the trail was steep at the start, we were determined to reach the top.

When we arrived at Saint Mary’s Lake, we were blown away by the beauty of the surroundings. We could see the Rocky Mountains to the west and the beautiful reflection of the glacier on the water. That view was the payoff for all the hard work. Sure it was a bit daunting to scramble up the arduous incline at first, but how else would you get to see all this gorgeous scenery? We couldn’t wait to reach the glacier and take in the panorama of the area. We trekked up to the snowpack and tossed snowballs at each other, laughing hysterically when the icy crystals hit our bodies. We admired the vibrant deep yellow and purple mountain flowers that sprang up along the tiny, winding creek that led us up to the top. We sat nearby the water and listened to the trickling sound the melting snow made as it dripped off the glacier. We even put our hands in to determine how cold the stream felt.  FYI, it’s freezing. We took the time to appreciate the splendor and settle into the experience with no desire to rush back to the trailhead.

After nibbling on our snacks and snapping a few amazing photos, we began the slow decline back down the trail (which was a breeze compared to the incline at the start).  We all agreed that our afternoon was one for the memory books and I felt grateful that I was able to share it with my favorite people. The moderate hike also gave us the courage to plan the next day’s adventure, hitting a more challenging trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.

 

 

Road Warriors

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I wanted time and space to write, so when an opportunity arose to attend a writing retreat in Vermont, I seized the day and signed up. I also called my friend, Jocelyn Dorgan. Jocelyn was in the midst of plotting out her second chick-lit book, a sequel to her first self-published novel. When I described the weeklong workshop, she eagerly accepted the invitation.

Just like that, we became road warriors.

Little did we know that the first trip together was going to be so memorable. We traveled the six hours up to Vermont talking about our lives, laughing about our families and musing about our upcoming stay in the bucolic Green Mountains. Our get-away was successful in that we both got some words on the page and met like-minded souls who we could count as our writer’s tribe. We said our goodbyes after a week of living and breathing our stories and vowed to remain connected.

Since that first experience, Jocelyn and I made it a point to search out other places where we could be road warriors once more. We love to go on adventures to fuel our creativity and get ideas for our blogs and our books. We’ve explored locally in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Brooklyn, but recently, when one of our writing retreat friends asked us to visit her home in the “armpit” of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, we could not wait to hit the highway again.

We both relish long drives and the preparation that goes into them. First, you pack, then you purchase the snacks and drinks for the ride, check the route, fuel up the car and set off. We prepare a playlist, and even though we both adore music, we end up talking the entire time. We spit-ball creative ideas for plots or pieces. We share tips and solutions to overcome our blocks and just shoot the breeze about our lives. We are so wrapped up in conversation that we are surprised when we arrive at our destination. The time always flies.

This excursion was no exception. Our host Kimberly Ward invited us to dig for quahogs in the silky, sandy, mud of Brandt Island Cove, just beyond her back door. We shrieked with delight as we got the hang of collecting the giant clams that we planned to prepare for dinner. We toured the idyllic seaside village of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, and got a feel for the place our friend calls home. That night over garlicky linguine and clam sauce and glasses of crisp white wine, we reconnected, shared stories, and plotted our stops for the next day.

Our morning unfolded gently and without the stress of being somewhere at a particular time. We walked along the coast, got rained out of yoga at the Buzzards Bay Brewery and stayed to sample the flights instead. We explored the tiny towns of Westport, Fairhaven, and New Bedford with their tucked-away shops, cobblestone streets, and whaling history, which made for a day of delightful discovery. We had no sense of urgency and shared the love of adventure and exploration that bonded us back in Vermont.

The next afternoon, when the visit came to an end, we went down to the local roadside restaurant, Oxford Creamery, famous for lobster rolls and fried clams. We sampled off each other’s plates and feasted on the traditional foods of New England. We hugged each other hard before we said goodbye. Our creative juices were brimming, and our connections were strengthened. We waved as we drove out of the parking lot and spent the next few hours lost in storytelling, dreaming, and loving the road back to home.

Seville

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Guest post by Jocelyn Dorgan

The Beauty, History, and Culture of Seville

My son invited me to visit Spain to sell me on his dream of moving to
Seville. Who am I to turn down an adventure? He’d told me it was the most picturesque city he’d ever visited, but I was to discover that it is also steeped in a turbulent history and a rich, deeply rooted culture, all while relatively gentle on the budget.

Seville, the capital of the Andalusia region, is easy to get around by mass transit, taxi, bicycle, or on foot. There are numerous housing options. Hostels begin as low as $20/night, offering both dorm-style living and private rooms. Similarly, hotels range from bed and breakfasts under $40/night to the opulence of Hotel Alfonso XII with its Royal Suite at about $3000/night. Or, there is the Airbnb option, which was what we chose, at $50/night for an entire two-bedroom apartment located right in the historic center. I could have spent an entire week shopping, from El Corte Inglés, the biggest department store in Europe, to open-air markets to specialty shops. Desiguel, the trendy clothing store based in Barcelona, is prevalent throughout Seville, too. The central shopping area is in the Old City, between parallel pedestrian streets, Sierpes and Tetuan, with jewelry, clothing, hats, ceramics, tourist souvenirs, and nearly anything else you can imagine.

The Old City, which still has remnants of the wall that once surrounded it, was built under the rule of Julius Cesar. The roads here emerged organically, so it is easy to get lost along the snaking streets, many of them cobblestoned, some of them for pedestrians only. There are countless plazas that appear from nowhere. Narrow alleys are not merely cut-throughs to larger roads but host shops and taverns and hotels. Every pathway was a parade of colors, flowers, and architectural interest. Cathedrals materialized around a bend. Songs from accordions or guitars would follow you from one plaza as the melody of an acapella would lure you into the next. Everywhere was the laughter and conversation of the inhabitants of Seville over food and drink, as they ardently believe they have achieved the perfect work/life balance.

Sevillians generally grab a cup of coffee and something light, maybe a slice of toast, before work. Mid-morning, they have a full, leisurely breakfast, often with friends or family. They work until early afternoon, then break for three hours for lunch, their most substantial meal of the day. They return to work until about 8 PM, then linger over dinner until 11 PM or so. Every day is a mix of work and pleasure, and it’s usually centered around food.

Tapas are shared Spanish dishes, some served cold, such as Iberian ham or slices of Manchego cheese (from sheep’s milk) with pecos (breadsticks), and some are hot, such as ham croquettes and Spanish tortilla. In most restaurants, you pay 2-3 € per plate. As Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives, patrons are served marinated olives as readily as bar nuts in the United States. Olive oil is drizzled over most dishes. “Tapiad” is the experience of eating tapas, often done in the form of a bar/tavern crawl. In traditional tapas bars, the custom is to stand with your friends while resting your food and drink on any available ledge or table surface. Two or three plates of tapas are ordered, accompanied by small drinks, such as wine, beer, or sherry. Once your group is finished, you can order more plates or move on to the next tavern. Some of the oldest taverns in Seville still tally your order by writing with chalk on the bar or ledge near you, adding to it as you order more. When you’re ready to close your tab, the bartender adds it up.

Sherry, a fortified white wine, is produced only in the Andalusia region of Spain. The length of the aging process will determine the final color and alcohol content of the sherry. Also indigenous to this region is flamenco, a type of storytelling told through music – guitar, and singing – accompanied by handclapping and dance. Night owls can catch a free show in any number of spots throughout Seville, often beginning after 11 PM. There are numerous paid shows – either alone or over dinner or tapas. The Museo del Baile Flamenco will offer both a show and a museum displaying the history and culture of dance.

Seville is roughly 2200 years old and the various civilizations that have occupied it left their mark, creating the rich culture we have today. The Romans have left remnants of columns, the centralized market area, and the excavated remnants now exposed under the Metropol Parasol building (the most massive wooden structure in the world). The Moors and early Christians left must-see antiquities: the Seville Cathedral, containing the tomb of Christopher Columbus, is the largest Gothic structure in the world, with its famous Giraldo (the bell tower); the Alcázar which is still used today as the Seville residence of the Spanish royal family; and the General Archives of the Indies, an ornate building housing all documentation related to the Spanish Empire in the Americas and Philippines. The Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 saw the addition of numerous hotels and public parks. The expansive Maria Luisa Park stretches along the Guadalquivir River, offering a peaceful place to take a siesta. Nearby, the Plaza de España, now used for government offices, attracts countless tourists with its curve-shaped structure initially designed to house Spain’s industry and technology exhibits. Complete with horse and carriage rides, or a paddle on the surrounding moat, the intricate tile work on the bridges and the building itself celebrate the provinces throughout Spain. It has even been used as a movie scene location in several movies including Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

I wish I’d had more time to explore Seville. With its beautiful weather, history, and culture, not to mention my new addiction to tapas, I could have spent another month there, kicking back at a leisurely pace and enjoying life the way the Sevillians do. That’s okay. I think that if my son really moves to Seville, I will become a frequent visitor.

Fascination With Fireworks

I know the exact moment when my fascination with fireworks began, it was in June of 1972 and I was seven years old. A few months prior, we were celebrating Christmas and my father announced that we were going on a family trip to Disney World as a summer vacation. After hearing the news, I could not contain my excitement. Even though it was a few months away, I was dancing around the living room in jubilation imagining what it would be like to come face to face with my favorite Walt Disney characters. The entire trip was a series of firsts for me. It was my first time on a plane, my first time heading to Florida, and my first time ever to visit a theme park as big as the Magic Kingdom. As a little girl, getting to go on a trip like this was mind-blowing. We went on rides, stayed in the Polynesian Hotel and rode the futuristic monorail. I couldn’t wait to wake up every day and visit the park to see my idols and get their autographs. We would go on rides, watch parades and then leave to swim in the pool during the heat of the day. Even with all obvious amazing experiences, I was thrilled to ride that monorail back and forth to the park. I even got a special pin from the conductor and a ride in the first car.

Just when I thought that vacation could not get any better, we were allowed to stay up late the first night and EVERY night that entire week to watch the fireworks from our hotel balcony. We would get in our pajamas and watch the spectacular light show that lit up the sky over Cinderella’s castle. I marveled at the beauty of the colors as they burst over the top of the spires and didn’t mind the booming and crackling noises as they rose high in the air and burst open above the park. It was then and there that my adoration of pyrotechnics was sealed.

I love to watch fireworks at any time, but especially during the summer and definitely on or around the fourth of July. Since I lived right by the George Washington Bridge from New York, I regularly saw the fireworks over Lady Liberty (a highlight of my life). These days, I make sure to locate where the fireworks will go off every time I am away for the 4th of July and I have seen fireworks in several cities across the United States. The shows never disappoint. It is comforting to know that many Americans enjoy the ritual that plays out across the nation as we celebrate our independence. It is similar to lighting the candles on the biggest cake ever – from sea to shining sea. I celebrated by observing fireworks over the Delaware River and lighting sparklers in your honor.

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Photo by john paul Tyrone Fernandez on Pexels.com

Brunch Vibes

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I love going out for brunch on a Sunday. It doesn’t matter if I am at home in my own surroundings or if I am away on a vacation, I figure out where we can go to grab brunch and enjoy the ritual of dining on both breakfast and lunch at the same time.

It must be a throwback from my twenties when I had my first apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. My friends and I went out every Saturday evening, enjoying the nightlife until the wee hours. Slowly and painfully, we would wake up the next morning around lunchtime, hungry and hung over. In short order, we would plan to spend the late “morning” eating the greasiest, heaviest food we could find. If you wanted breakfast, you ordered breakfast, and if you wanted lunch, you ordered lunch. We loved the concept because it was a meal that combined the best of both menus. After a Bloody Mary or Mimosa, and a strong cup of coffee, we would feel human again. The food would fortify us to tackle the business of afternoon napping between loads of laundry and any other residual work or chores we had to accomplish to be ready for the long work week ahead.

In honor of those days, I try to brunch whenever I can, wherever I can.  First, I conduct some research on the latest and greatest place that serves up the all-day feast. If I am home, I reach out to friends to see who would be willing to get up on a Sunday and start their day eating for a few hours. It isn’t hard to find someone who adores the ritual as much as I do. Brunch is a meal that demands that you take your time. It is an event where you slow down, enjoy civilized conversation and a great cup of coffee while easing into the day. If I am traveling (and after my research) I nab a reservation at a popular spot. I am rarely disappointed because it seems that every culture loves to linger over a lazy Sunday meal. I find that brunch in a different city adds people watching to an already glorious experience.

These days, the hangover may be a thing of the past, but the reluctance to dive headlong into the end of the weekend still lingers. I want Sundays to wind down slowly, enjoying great company, great food, and great coffee.