Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tip 64: Electronic lists

What is the hardest part of doing any job? If you said starting, this tip might be for you...

Tip 64: Keeping electronic to-do lists on file is a great way to help you feel focused and less overwhelmed when faced with seemingly daunting tasks. Most importantly, it keeps you from reinventing the wheel.

Today's tip is inspired by the start of the school year, as any teacher might guess. Every year we have to do what seems like 10,000 small and large tasks before the students walk in the doors. The longer I do this job, the better I get at estimating what I need to do and when, but this year I'm in the best spot I've ever been thanks to some smart work I did early last year. A year ago as I was preparing my classroom and my curriculum, I made a Word document of every little task I did. The 10 minutes of extra time it took me to translate all my hand-written lists into one simple file was definitely worth it. When I walked into school yesterday I printed out my to-do list and got to work.

 Confession: Sometimes when I get super busy I forget to eat lunch, so yes, I actually sometimes have to remind myself.

What are some of the things I have to do every year? I won't overwhelm you, but here's a quick peak:
  • Set up technology cart (VCR, DVD, LCD projector, speaker, computer)
  • Hang posters
  • Gather and organize office supplies
  • Get parking pass
  • Renew my membership in scholastic journalism organizations
  • Revise syllabus for four different classes
  • Request IT team to grant my journalism students access to shared server space
  • Make photocopies of all papers for first week
  • Set up class websites
  • Set up electronic gradebook

And that's just the beginning. Take the list above, multiply it by 6, and that's the work I need to accomplish the week before students arrive, in between hours of meetings that take up a decent chunk of the week.

This list has kept me sane. It has kept me from staring at a wall, or hitting my head on a desk, or hiding behind a pile of boxes, afraid to start.

My friend and colleague Cara likes to say that one of the things she loves about teaching is that it's different every year. Different students, different class schedule, sometimes different subjects, and a changing group of colleagues every year. I agree. But, at the same time, this means that every first week back is almost like going through new employee orientation every year. It can be a lot. The one constant? My list!

This organizational strategy can be easily adapted: electronic holiday card lists; electronic back-to-school supply lists; electronic packing lists for college students heading back to campus; electronic shopping lists with weekly menus.

How do you prepare to tackle complex organizational tasks?

Teachers: Stay tuned this week as I share some more teacher-friendly organizational strategies (that can also be adapted for other purposes as well!).

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mpix gallery wrap review: A mostly-success

We returned home from our beach trip to the Mpix gallery wrap I'd ordered during their sale (kindly placed inside our garage by our good neighbor Joe!). As a general concept I think this product is awesome, and now that I've placed several orders with Mpix over the last year, I continued to be impressed with this company's speedy delivery of its products and the good quality of its prints. That said, my main complaint is that I am not 100 percent satisfied with the color quality of my gallery wrap.

I went with a photo I took at Rocky Mountain National Park during our 2008 cross country adventure. It fits the (what now appears to be) woodsy theme of the hallway bathroom, what with the foliage on the new shower curtain and the cheerful woodland frames enveloping our DIYed initials. Also, it was the only photo from the ones I was choosing among that had a high enough resolution to be blown up to rather large dimensions (16" by 20", to be exact).

For comparison purposes, here's the digital photo

And here's the gallery wrap in its place of honor, above the toilet
I realize that I've made the mistake of hanging this art too high, so I'll fix that tomorrow, but for now notice how this reprint of my original seems to take the idea of purple mountain majesties a little too literally.

To be fair:
1) It's difficult to take a good photo of a reprinted photo, but even in person the should-be-gray mountains in the gallery wrap really do look purple.
2) I probably should have done more work on the original file before sending it off to be reprinted. I guess I felt confident in what I saw on my computer screen and in the color correction the folks at Mpix claim to provide.

It may sound like I'm really annoyed with this product, and I think I would instead classify my reaction as mild annoyance. Perhaps in the future if I order another gallery wrap from here or another site I'll stick to black and white photos.

Have you ordered a gallery wrap from Mpix or another site? What was your experience?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tip 63: Vacation groceries

Sorry for the limited posting last week. We spent our final week of freedom before the school year begins hanging out at the Duck, NC beach house with the dogs, soaking up some remaining summer sun. We also tried a new trick this trip, and I'd say it was a success, so I share with you...

Tip 63: If you're going on a trip where you'll have access to a kitchen and you plan to cook many meals, purchase your groceries at home and pack them in your car. It will save time and most likely money.

We are fortunate that we get to stay in Matt's parents' beach house, which is fully stocked with every kitchen implement and pantry staple you could need. So, that cuts down on what we need to bring or buy. But, for some reason, on past trips we've done all our grocery shopping at the beach, which involves visiting grocery stores that are not nearly as well stocked as the ones we have at home, or the prices are more expensive, or both. I also generally dislike shopping in grocery stores when I'm not familiar with the aisle layout. I love to get in, get what I need, and get out.

This is a really simple strategy, but it's one I plan to implement in the future because it meant that we brought with us only what we needed, used what we needed, and eliminated some of the inevitable waste that comes with poor menu and grocery list planning. It's also a great way to use up anything left in your fridge or pantry without worrying about it going bad while you're away.

And, of course, by doing your grocery shopping before you leave for your trip, you get to maximize the time spent relaxing with your loved ones. We are happy to report that on this trip our dogs showed the least fear they've ever shown around water (despite their size, they are kind of wimpy). And Doc loves digging -- unsuccessfully -- for crabs on the beach.

Small girl, giant dog
Happy end of summer, everyone!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Measuring my summers in books

While the good people from Rent measure their seasons in daylights and sunsets and midnights and cups of coffee, I tend to miss sunsets, rarely make it to midnight these days and have tried to reduce the amount of coffee I consume, so I measure my summers in books.

Only this summer, there have not been that many books.

Maybe I've read less because I've spent much more of this summer reading blogs, or we recently switched to Netflix and now have live streaming (and therefore have watched almost every episode of Weeds). Most likely, those three weeks abroad didn't do much to help my reading schedule, although I did manage to read two books while we were gone.

On Monday I go back to work (teacher week -- students return on September 7) and on Tuesday the entire English department gets together. Our annual icebreaker is to share our favorite summer read. I inevitably choose the book I read most recently, and this summer that book is The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a novel that reads more like a series of interconnected short stories about the lives of a bunch of (mostly) Americans working in Rome for an international newspaper.
 Besides the fact that I love journalism and Rome, I also love this little passage:

"[Herman, copy editor] opens the paper to the culture pages, which have improved considerably under Arthur Gopal. Nevertheless, Herman spots an offender: the word 'literally.' He snarls, wakes up his computer, and types:
  • literally: This word should be deleted. All too often, actions described as 'literally' did not happen at all. As in, 'He literally jumped out of his skin.' No, he did not. Though if he literally had, I'd suggest raising the element and proposing the piece for page one. Inserting 'literally' willy-nilly reinforces the notion that breathless nitwits lurk within this newsroom..."

Reason #174 that I know my husband loves me: He read this book before I did and subsequently dog-eared this page for me.

A quick look at my Google doc spreadsheet containing the list of books I've read lately reveals my other summer reads:
Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know by Alexandra Horowitz -- Great examination of the dog experience. Best takeaway point: No, Cesar Milan, dogs are not wolves, and therefore the be-the-pack-leader mentality isn't always the best solution for understanding your animal.

Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein -- Both the practices of old and the practices of today are equally fascinating. Weird phenomenon I don't understand: Mall stores specializing in 3D sonograms. OK, but then couples invite their 25 closest friends and family to the live viewing. Appropriately enough, the book from my library queue I'm scheduled to pick up tomorrow? America and the Pill: A History of Peril, Promise and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May.

 The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore -- Two men named Wes Moore grow up within blocks of each other. One winds up in jail, the other becomes a Rhodes Scholar. This book looks at how they got to be the men they became.

 The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman -- (September's book club pick) This book introduced me to Hmong culture, something I know nothing about, while it examines what happens when a Hmong child who has severe epilepsy is caught in between her family's practice of traditional medicine and the Western medicine they encounter as recent immigrants to America. Takeaway message: It's human nature to think that what we're accustomed to is normal and right and that other peoples' practices are wrong. This, of course, is not always an admirable trait.

 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- I wish I could say I reread this book in light of its 50th anniversary, but shockingly I have made it through life up until this point without ever reading it. I consider myself pretty well-versed in American and British classics, so I had to get this one under my belt. Now I'm on the lookout for other books that I've somehow missed along the way.

What books have you read lately that you'd recommend?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What killed my evergreen?

The answer? Bagworms!

When we got home from our European vacation and were greeted by a brown evergreen shrub in our front yard, I immediately Googled "What killed my evergreen?" and got the answer quickly. 
A bagworm lives in its little silk pouch which it covers with foliage from whatever tree it has attacked, most likely of the evergreen variety. It sort of looks like it's part of the tree. Really clever camouflage that totally fooled me (I am a weak predator). In fact, when I first saw these little pouches appearing on the evergreen that died nearly a year later, I thought they were really ugly, so I started picking them off. Then I feared that they were parts of the tree essential to its growth -- some kind of weird, mutant seeds -- so I stopped picking them, and then they started multiplying like bunnies. They reach maturity in mid summer, right when they decided to destroy our evergreen once and for all.
A couple weeks before leaving for Europe, I said to Matt, "There's definitely something wrong with that tree, right?" He agreed as we watched it slowly turn brown. 

If only at that moment I'd Googled, "What is killing my evergreen?" 

If only I'd realized at the time how odd it was that these little pouches appeared to be moving and seemed to be able to fly through the air, showing up on our home's brick exterior or our slate retaining wall or one of our flowers. Now that I know these pouches were moving and migrating because they had worms inside them, it kind of makes my skin crawl.

So, the morning after returning home from Europe, when we could see in daylight the pathetic brown remnants of ourshrub, Matt's first home task was to dig up the evergreen and chuck it to the curb just in time for the day's trash pick up (he got it to the curb about 15 minutes before the truck carted it away!). Then we picked up some organic pesticide specially designed for dealing with critters such as bagworms and sprayed the area where the tree once stood and where it left in its wake thousands of bagworm eggs.

Now, over one month later, the area where that sad evergreen once stood is completely bare, but at least it also appears to be free of all bagworm remnants. We're waiting until the fall to plant something new in its place, most likely something of the evergreen variety. All in all, this was a good learning experience, namely, when something in the yard seems odd, it probably is, and I should Google it sooner rather than later. For what it's worth, I never liked this evergreen much to begin with, and it was the last piece of landscaping that survived from our home's previous owners.

But before I think about what to plant this fall, let's all take a minute to reflect on the sad life of a female bagworm: after she lays her eggs, she dies immediately.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday happy hour: Tinto de verano

In honor of the ridiculous number of summer birthdays among our college friends, we'll be celebrating a little Friday happy hour pretty soon, but in the meantime I thought I would share our biggest summer discovery: tinto de verano.

If you've been reading my travel blog posts carefully, you might have noticed that I referenced this delicious beverage in almost all the Spain posts. But what is tinto de verano? Spanish summer wine. More aptly, I like to think of it as the world's easiest version of sangria.
Unlike sangria, which can involve quite a few ingredients, a decent amount of prep work and the urge to make an entire pitcher full, tinto de verano just involves three ingredients: red wine, a citrus soft drink of your choice, and ice.

Most red wines will work, though we've been partial to inexpensive red wines for this drink, our favorite being Crane Lake Cabernet Sauvignon that we can score at Wegmans for $4.99 per bottle. We've also really enjoyed a cheap zinfandel, including the Barefoot brand (I know, I was shocked too). I just recommend avoiding merlot in this drink, not because I have anything against merlot (a la Sideways style), it just doesn't mix well here.

For your citrus soft drink, I recommend Fresca. In Spain tinto de verano is often made using Fanta Limon or orange Fanta.

To prepare: Fill a glass approximately 2/3 full of ice. Fill 1/2 to 2/3 of the glass with red wine, depending on how saucy you're feeling. Fill the rest of the glass with your citrus soft drink of choice.

Happy Friday, and happy birthday to all my August birthday buddies!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How to pack your carry on

Most of the time when I go on a trip, friends and family remark, "That's it?" when they look at my luggage. Yes, it shouldn't surprise you that I'm a light packer. And I tried out a few new tricks when packing for our European vacation that really helped me organize and take stock of my stuff.

First of all, before you can pack well, you must achieve one important quality that many of us female travelers lack: decisiveness. Being indecisive can often lead to over packing, the old "I'll decide what I feel like wearing when I'm on my trip." Bad idea. You need to lay out your outfits and stick with your instincts. If you're going somewhere for a week, for example, label each outfit for each day of the week, and add no more than maybe one extra top.

Additionally, ask yourself, even though this shirt or a dress or pair of shoes is totally cute, is it really travel-worthy? Is it versatile? Never take on a trip something that you don't normally wear at home. (This is a rule I broke with important item I packed that I'll share more about later in this post.)

Dresses/skirts/pants
I much prefer traveling in the summer to fall or winter (or sometimes even spring) travel because it's so easy to pack a bunch of lightweight cotton dresses, have a complete outfit, and call it a day. For our three weeks in Italy and Spain I packed:
  • nine dresses (one of which is a little bit fancier than the rest)
  • two skirts
  • one pair of jeans
  • one pair of white capri pants
  • one pair of yoga pants (solely for lounging in the hotel room)
The verdict? I wore the dresses, skirts, jeans and yoga pants many times over, but I only wore the capri pants once, so those could have been left out.

When I put my dresses in my suitcase, I rolled them up and wound up having plenty of space to spare.
Shirts/jackets
I only brought a few shirts to go with the pants and skirts I brought, but I knew I should bring a couple jacket and sweater items. I brought:
  • five shirts (pink tank top; white tee; blue tee; two casual T-shirts for hiking/lounging in the hotel)
  • jean jacket
  • brown short-sleeve jacket
  • white light-weight short-sleeve cardigan
The verdict? I wore all five shirts a couple times each. I could have kept the jean jacket and brown jacket at home because I wore each just a couple times whereas this versatile cardigan I wore for a few minutes almost every day. I never got cold because Europeans do not seem to blast their air conditioning the way that some Americans do. Having the light-weight cardigan, though, was the perfect item to throw in my backpack and put on before entering a house of worship.

Shoes
I know that shoes can be the packing downfall of even the most low-maintenance traveler. Thanks to summer, I could reasonably pack flip flops that take up approximately zero space. But I still made some mistakes here. I brought:
The verdict? I wore the brown flip flops every day, and they're the shoes I wear most often in the summer at home. I wore the black flip flops less often, but still enough to justify bringing them. I wore the Privos some, but most of the time my feet got too hot -- we were in 95-100 degree weather most of the trip. And I never wore the heels. So, even though I had the space for them, I should have left the heels at home and I probably shouldn't have even purchased the Privos, not because they're bad or uncomfortable, but just because I don't typically wear shoes like that (and by bringing them on my trip I violated my very own "Never take on a trip something that you don't normally wear at home" rule).

Those items take care of the bulk of the stuff in my suitcase, but here are a few more strategies I used for travel:

Jewelry
I have a little bag from my friend Lindsay that is the perfect size for travel jewelry. I managed to throw in here several pairs of inexpensive, fun earrings and three necklaces, and that was all I needed for the trip. (Sidenote: I decided to leave my engagement ring at home and just wear my wedding band on the trip so as not to draw undue attention to myself or make anyone think we have a lot of money...which we do not.)

Underwear
I took three weeks' worth of underwear because I knew by doing so I could probably avoid doing laundry, and that plan worked. I also brought a bathing suit I never used, but I don't regret bringing that because it takes up so little space and one of my other main travel rules is always bring a bathing suit no matter your destination. (You just never know when a hot tub may present itself!) I placed these items plus my night clothes into a plastic case that used to be the packaging for a set of sheets. I had never used this organizational system before, but now I will be sticking to it as it's a perfect way to corral all those small items that can shift around in your luggage.
Toiletries
I love my three-pocket toiletries case. It holds a lot and folds up nicely.
In the top portion I have duplicate items that I never take out: cotton balls/Q-tips, travel-sized toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, razor, barrettes. 

In the middle section I carry my make up products, the only items that I do not permanently store in my toiletries case. I also tend to wear less make up on vacation -- mascara and eyeliner are usually it. This time I made the mistake of bringing the Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer that I really like, but I forgot that I rarely wear it in the summer (and therefore could have left it at home). For this trip I threw in a tube of antibiotic cream just in case we had any bumps or scrapes on our journey, and thankfully we did not.

In the bottom section I have airplane-sized bottles of the items I'm kind of attached to (and therefore don't want to use the hotel samples). These also always stay in my toiletries case so they're ready for my next trip: moisturizer, conditioner, shampoo, body spray, sun tan lotion, and two hair products. So as to avoid exceeding the liquids and gels quota I pack make up remover pads rather than bringing my usual bottle of liquid eye make up remover.

Electronic gadgets
Because we were traveling to Europe and would be gone several weeks, we needed to carry along some items that we wouldn't normally need for a short domestic trip. So, I took an old Clinique cosmetics bag (that I've never used) and threw in:
  • the international adapter we borrowed from Matt's brother
  • iPod charger
  • two camera chargers (we took a point-and-shoot and a DSLR)
  • camera cord for loading photos (both of our cameras use the same cord)
  • flash drive for storing photos in case our memory cards got full
I wound up loving this travel organizational system as well and plan to use it in the future.

Mini-backpacks
In addition to packing our carry-on-size separate suitcases, Matt and I each packed a mini-backpack with those more expensive or important items you don't want to lose should you have to check your luggage (and we had to check our luggage when flying between Venice and Barcelona and Barcelona and Sevilla):
  • travel documents, which came in a zippered pouch courtesy of our awesome travel agent
  • passports
  • wallets
  • sunglasses
  • two cameras
  • telephoto camera len
  • iPod Touch, which was especially useful for having internet access abroad
  • headphones
  • books: Lonely Planet guides for Spain and Italy and several novels and nonfiction books we shared between us
  • travel journal and a couple pens

Even though there were a few items I packed and definitely did not need (two pairs of shoes, two jackets, one pair of pants), there was only one item I forgot: a cardboard poster tube. I bought a vintage map of Italy in Florence. It didn't come with a tube, and we couldn't find a place that sold them until several cities later. The stupidest part of all this is that I have several small poster tubes in our office closet that I've saved primarily for travel, so I felt silly having to buy another one aboard.

With this packing plan in place, I didn't mind living out of a suitcase for three weeks.

But, folks, I know I didn't cover it all. What are your packing secrets?

4 square

Four years ago today Matt and I stood in front of 170 of our closest friends and family and got married. Today, in honor of that occasion, we celebrated with good food.

(While I'm on a wedding tangent, might I recommend our amazing wedding photographer Chris Baltazar if you live in the D.C. area or you're planning a destination wedding.)

Today's meal marked meal two out of three for D.C. Restaurant Week (aka my 29th birthday week and our 4-year anniversary week). On Tuesday we celebrated my 29th birthday one day late at Johnny's Half Shell in D.C., where we had the following: Stephanie -- BBQ shrimp appetizer, crab cake entree, chocolate angle food cake dessert; Matt -- grilled calamari appetizer, scallops entree, pecan pie dessert. The best part? Matt's grilled calamari, though it was all quite good.

Today for our anniversary we visited another new-to-us restaurant, 2941 in Falls Church, where we had another memorable meal, this time a little more delicate and fancy than my birthday lunch: Stephanie -- prosciutto and melon appetizer, Amish corn ravioli entree, peaches and cream dessert; Matt: octopus appetizer, salmon entree, chocolate truffle dessert. (Of course, this is my over-simplified explanation of some pretty complex dishes.) The best part? Though call, though I'd say it's a tie between my ravioli and Matt's chocolate truffle. Good news for D.C.-area folks: 2941 will be offering their Restaurant Week lunch menu through August 27, so even if you can't make it this week you might still be able to visit next week.
I'm pretty excited for my corn ravioli.
The desserts, for once, tasted as beautiful as they looked.
And, the outside of 2941 is definitely picture worthy, with its koi pond and waterfalls.
If you're having a small wedding and you have the means, might I recommend getting married here. I am sure it would be pretty awesome.

Over lunch Matt and I were inspired to rank our favorite meals of our marriage. While our list somewhat surprisingly focused on the everyday, affordable restaurants we've claimed as our couple favorites, it's difficult to overlook the wonderful anniversary meals we've shared.

1st year anniversary at The Tabard Inn, D.C.
2nd year anniversary at Me Jana, Arlington
3rd year anniversary, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria (aka the best meal of our lives)
Four years has gone by quickly. On my birthday Matt told me he hopes to spend at least 40 more years with me. That would mean we would die when we're 69. Let's hope we can stick it out longer than that, because so far it's been pretty great.

Ritz photo special: 5 free prints today

This is the week of photo deals, apparently, because today Ritz is offering 5 free 8x10 photos. Here's the info. You only have until 10 p.m. EST to make your purchase. Which is what I will be doing right now.

This will be the start of my dining room wall redecoration, which you may recall I've been wanting to fix for some time now. I've rearranged the frames that were on the wall -- still cleverly placed over the giant bolts left behind by the previous owners -- and added a couple new frames to fill in the gaps left behind by poorly arranged giant bolts.

Goodbye bad dining room wall!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Europe: A love story (and summary)

Now that I've filled you in on all the details of our Italian and Spanish vacation (in just under a month after returning home...ek!) it's time for a quick summary. If you've missed any of the posts you can read all about them -- Rome, Florence, Venice, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba, Madrid -- but consider this a best of/worst of/what we learned.

Hotels

Food
  • Best meal in Italy -- giant antipasti platter at La Bottega del Caffe, Rome
  • Best meal in Spain -- tapas at Lonja de Tapas, Barcelona
  • Best meal value -- mini bocadillos and mugs of tinto de verano at Cerveceria 100 Montaditos, Madrid
Sightseeing
  • Best museum -- Museo Picasso, Barcelona
  • Most amazingly historic -- Colosseum, Rome
  • Most relaxing -- Park Guell, Barcelona
  • Best view -- atop the stairs at Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence
  • Best clash of cultures -- La Mezquita, Cordoba
  • Most unusual -- La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
  • Most claustrophobic -- walking up St. Peter's dome, Rome
  • Most crowded -- Uffizi Gallery, Florence
  • Only sightseeing you need to plan in advance -- La Alhambra, Granada
  • Best way to see all cities except for Venice -- follow a Lonely Planet self-guided walking tour
  • Best way to see Venice -- vaporetto Number 1 from Piazzale Roma to Ledo
  • Worst audio guide -- Palazzo Ducale, Venice
  • Best sightseeing discovery -- WalkiTalki iPod apps audio guides

Cities round up
  • Best city in Italy -- Florence
  • Best city in Spain -- Sevilla
  • Best big city -- Barcelona
  • Most overwhelming city -- Rome (I'm so glad we started our trip here when we had the most energy)
  • Most touristy city -- Venice
  • Spain vs. Italy? -- Spain beats Italy, in my heart
  • Favorite city of the entire trip....SEVILLA!

And now, just for fun, because this was only my second trip to Europe in my lifetime, I kept track of what I love about Europe and what I don't love about Europe/what I love about America. I'm really into comparing cultures and keeping lists, so this was a fun activity.

Things I'll miss about Europe
  • Cheap, good alcohol
  • Food in reasonable portions
  • Siestas
  • Extensive public transit
  • Plazas
  • Small cars
  • Creative street performers
  • How it stays light for so long in the summer (it would be 9:30 and still light!)
  • Fanta Limon (why don't we have this in America? Check out this Wikipedia page dedicated to the international availability of Fanta products)
 Things I won't miss about Europe
  • Paying for water
  • No ice
  • No free refills
  • Sub-par customer service
  • Unclear tipping practices -- to tip or not to tip was always the question; we tried to leave small tips everywhere even though tips seem less customary in most places we visited
  • Places that don't accept credit cards
  • Smoking
  • Unmarked streets
  • Scary traffic -- at cross walks, particularly in Italy, drivers look like they're about to run you over
  • Less emphasis on small social graces -- people don't hold doors, bump into you in the street without batting an eye
I'm not moving to Europe any time soon, but I thoroughly enjoyed my three weeks in these two fabulous countries. And maybe some time down the road I'll get to check off my next European destination -- Greece!

Next up...how did I pack only carry-on luggage? I'll share my packing plan and my packing retrospective -- what I did well, and what I'd change next time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

MPix Gallery Wraps Sale

The time has come for me to make a decision about the remaining decor for the recently redecorated hallway bathroom because Mpix is offering 25 percent off gallery wraps through tomorrow. (Enter the code gwsale10 at check out.)

If you're not familiar with the term, gallery wraps are a really cool photo product because they take your photo and transfer it to a piece of canvas, making it look almost like your photo was painted. I've been coveting these things for a while now (my friend Megan got a couple done using her wedding photos) and have been waiting for a sale to make the purchase.

Originally I was planning to use a piece of art from our European vacation, but I actually think a photo from our cross country trip two years ago would be a better fit for this space.

Picture something above the toilet...

Once I decide and the art arrives, I'll show you the finished space!

Monday, August 16, 2010

European stop 8: Madrid, Spain (the final frontier)

We took the expensive but oh-so-fun high speed train from Cordoba to Madrid before we prepared to close out the last two days of our European adventure. Quite honestly, if we had not been flying back to America from Madrid, we would have skipped Madrid all together. There's nothing wrong with Madrid, but there's nothing particular that truly distinguishes this city either. Still, we had fun and mostly walked around and ate a ton of food during our time in Spain's capital.

Total time in Madrid: 1.5 days, 2 nights
Percentage of the time we spent in Madrid eating and/or drinking: 50

Hotel:
Hotel Intur Palacio San Martin
Plaza San Martin 5
Nice multi-story lobby space

Price we paid per night: $111
Location: Two blocks behind the Plaza Mayor and two blocks from the Sol metro station, we couldn't have asked for a more convenient spot. This hotel is also in easy walking distance from the Prado and Parque del Buen Retiro.
Room: This was by far the biggest room we stayed in during our trip. We could have added an extra bed to the room with all the space we had to spare. The bathroom was also equally spacious. The decor is classic, so no matter what your taste it's pretty uncontroversial.
Park your car in this huge hotel room.
The bathroom has a sign above the toilet that reads, "Madrid needs more water. Don't use the toilet as a trash can." Who uses the toilet as a trash can?
The hotel's old-fashioned elevator is fun
Breakfast included?: Yes, and what a buffet. We made the most of all of it, including the champagne. It's also nice that the breakfast room is on the hotel's top floor overlooking the city.
Service: Good quality. No complaints!
Internet: Fast, free Wifi throughout the hotel.
TV: The biggest flat screen and the only HDTV we had out of all eight hotels.
Overall assessment: This was a great place to stay at the end of our trip. Because we were especially interested in relaxing and moving at a slower pace in this final city of our trip, it was nice to have a pretty and spacious hotel in the middle of the action so we could take a siesta without traveling too far to get back to the hotel.

Food:

Cerveceria 100 Montaditos
Various locations throughout the city
Genre: Exceptionally inexpensive chain of restaurants that are self-service tapas bars (menu items are between 1 Euro and 3 Euros each).
How we found it: Our friend Annette, who had traveled to Spain just a couple months before us, recommended it, and then we discovered it's something we'd highlighted in our Lonely Planet Spain book back in January.
What we ate: This restaurant uses the sushi way of ordering. Choose among the restaurant's 100 menu items, mark your top picks on a menu slip, deliver it to the cashier and wait for your food to emerge several minutes later. We visited this restaurant twice, and both visits were at different locations. We enjoyed the tinto de verano that the bar serves on tap (the only of its kind we saw in Spain), the French fries with four dipping sauces, and a good variety of mini bocadillos (small sandwiches with different fillings). Bocadillos included shrimp with aioli sauce, salmon with garlic, tortilla espanola with bacon, jamon with tomate, and ensalad rusa.
Total cost: 6 mini bocadillos, French fries and two mugs of tinto de verano = 13 Euros!
Happy camper
Overall assessment: We love this place. The prices are unbelievable, and the tinto de verano was extra carbonated and extra awesome. Just don't order the ensalada rusa. We thought it was going to be a salad, but it's actually potato salad that isn't very appealing.

Mercado de San Miguel
Plaza de San Miguel (right next to Plaza Mayor)
Genre: Upscale prepared foods by multiple vendors (think Whole Foods' prepared foods, Spanish style)
How we found it: If you're at the Plaza Mayor, the Mercado is difficult to miss.
What we ate: Croquettes of blue cheese, gazpacho, tart with goat cheese and salmon
Total cost: 10 Euros
Overall assessment: With plenty of a la carte variety, this is an excellent place to stop for a snack or a full meal.

Ene Restaurante
Calle del Nuncio 19
Genre: Classy restaurant/pintxos bar
How we found it: Lonely Planet Spain book
What we ate: For our last meal out in Europe we decided to go out in style. We split a bottle of cava, fish croquettes, and pintxos of calamari, octopus, goat cheese and jam, and salmon.
Matt presents the croquettes
Pintxos
Total cost: 49 Euros
Overall assessment: This place is more swanky than we are -- for example, there's a multi-page water menu. The octopus was overcooked, but everything else was outstanding. The weird thing about this restaurant? (Besides the water menu...) Before we got our croquettes appetizer we were handed a piece of sushi, compliments of the chef. When the check arrived we were charged 2.50 Euros each for it. Not cool. Had I known it would cost us, I would have rejected it.

Sightseeing:

Museo del Prado
Matt had been to this most-famous art museum twice before our trip, but I still insisted we visit for a couple hours so I could take in the works of all the Spanish artists my culturally aware teachers introduced me to in high school Spanish.
Go inside the Prado to see Velazquez's original, way better than this copy adorning a garage on the street...
Tip: The Prado is free on Sundays. We just happened to be there on a Sunday. Perfect! Due to high volume on Sundays, the museum operators let visitors into the museum in waves. We waited outside the Prado in a line that didn't move for approximately 30 minutes, wondering what was going on, only to discover that no, the museum wasn't temporarily shut down but instead they were waiting for visitors to exit before letting anyone else in.

Walking tour of historic Madrid
Price: Free
Throughout our trip we really enjoyed the self-guided walking tours outlined in our Lonely Planet books. Because we did not have a particular interest in seeing much in Madrid outside the Prado, this wound up being an excellent way to get an overview of the city. In addition to seeing a sampling of historic spaces, I was pleased to encounter all the greenery and pleasant public spaces Madrid has to offer.

Plaza de la Villa is small but beautifully maintained
Palacio Real (Royal Palace)
Plaza de Oriente is so perfectly manicured it almost looks fake!
Jardines de Sabatini, next to the Palacio Real
Plaza de Espana, with a statue of Don Quixote
Views of Gran Via
Parque del Buen Retiro -- we were going to rent a row boat, except it was 100 degrees outside...
American Mickey Mouse calls us back home from the Plaza Mayor
 Well, there you have it, folks -- the nitty, gritty details of our time in Spain and Italy. We had the trip of a lifetime, and I hope our observations will help you plan a trip or relive a trip you've taken in the past. Now that I'm done with these (incredibly long) posts, tomorrow I'll sum it all up for you, Cliffs Notes style.