POPSUGAR 2016 Reading Challenge

I do not have much spare time, but with the time I do have, I like to read. I would consider myself a fairly voracious reader – I typically have a couple of books going at any different time. But like most people, I go through ebbs and flows, and before I realize it I will find myself out of the habit of reading and months may go by without a single page being turned (or Kindle page swiped rather). And then slowly but surely, I’ll get back in the swing of things and find myself tearing through books.

We spend most weekends traveling, so the days are rare when I get the chance to curl up on the couch and fully absorb myself in a good book. I hope this year to carve out more time. More time for myself. More time to enjoy the pleasures in life, how little or how small they may be. And so, when I stumbled across POPSUGAR’s 2106 Reading Challenge just before the new year, I decided to give it a go. And because things are more fun when you do them together, I roped my little sister, Caitlin, in to the challenge as well.

The purpose of the challenge is to not only encourage you to read more, but also to challenge you to break out of your preferred genres. A short book. A long book. A political memoir. A science fiction novel. It pushes you to get out of your comfort zone as it relates to your reading and seek out something new. And so Caitlin and I will be documenting our reads here. We informed the other of our selection for the first category, but otherwise we will only be revealing our picks to each other after we’ve completed them (for no real reason other than I’m curious to see if we’ll be drawn to the same books).

If you’re interested in doing the POPSUGAR 2106 Reading Challenge for yourself then check it out here. I hope you’ll follow along with us!  And if you are, let us know what you’re reading too!

 

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on choosing to be grateful

I’ll be the first to admit that it is easy to fall into a cycle of being ungrateful. In the digital age and this world of social media, we find ourselves constantly exposed to people who appear to have it all (often a carefully cultivated social life) and to advertisements telling us that we need more or better. We focus on what we do not have and stop being grateful for what we do have.

The NY Times recently published this op-ed piece as families all over gear up to celebrate Thanksgiving in the US – our one day a year where we gather together over a massive feast of turkey, stuffing, and pies and declare aloud what we are thankful for this year.

I would give it a read. Why limit that thankfulness to a single day? If choosing to be grateful every day leads to happiness then who wouldn’t want to give it a shot. Luckily I have plenty of Belgian chocolates at my fingertips to keep me satiated when the downside of choosing gratitude kicks in.

The Digital Bookshelf | Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania | Erik Larson

I’ve been on a history kick of late. The first book of Larson’s I read was The Devil in the White City, which was about the World’s Fair in Chicago and how a serial killer used the fair to lure his victims. If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend.  The second book of his I read was In the Garden of Beasts, which will be getting it’s own post so we will come back to that at another time.

Dead Wake is Larson’s most recent book:

“On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.”

I would guess most people are aware of the Lusitania (or recognize the name at least) and the significance of it’s sinking. Me, I thought I remembered that it was the reason the U.S. joined World War I – an immediate rise by the US to help defeat the Germans. Turns out that it took the US two additional years after the sinking to actually join the war.

The above description hooked me in, and yet I was still surprised at how engaging this book was. A lot of history books can be dry – the kind of book you would read before you head to bed to help make the eyes a bit sleepier. This book, however, was not one of those. Using excerpts from letters, diaries, logs, and other source documents, Larson skillfully weaves several different story lines to give life to all sides of that fateful voyage, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath.

You’ll read about the Lusitania, its captain and the passengers (the whole time wondering whether this passenger or that one would be one of the lucky ones or if their fate was doomed), the atmosphere on the ship crossing, and why they thought this ship was unsinkable (and were sorely mistaken).

You’ll get a glimpse into the pressures faced by Woodrow Wilson, President of a country determined to avoid going to war (the US was an isolationist country that issued one threat after another to Germany to cease all attacks on neutral ships and yet would not deliver on those threats – and with good reason as the country was ill-prepared to enter a war).

You’ll see what it was like on the other side deep down in the sea – what it was actually like to live on a U boat (spoiler – horrible), the dangers those men faced (death by all sorts of manners), and the incentives for sinking Lusitania.

And, you’ll get a peek into the British intelligence (intelligence that high level officials weren’t even aware existed) and their tracking of the German U boats. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not you think that the British let the Lusitania be attacked to ignite the US to join the war.

For those interested in history, and even those who aren’t, I highly recommend this book.

The Digital Bookshelf | In a Dark, Dark Wood

in a dark dark woodIn a Dark, Dark Wood | Ruth Ware

“What should be a cozy and fun-filled weekend deep in the English countryside takes a sinister turn in Ruth Ware’s suspenseful, compulsive, and darkly twisted psychological thriller.

Leonora, known to some as Lee and others as Nora, is a reclusive crime writer, unwilling to leave her “nest” of an apartment unless it is absolutely necessary. When a friend she hasn’t seen or spoken to in years unexpectedly invites Nora (Lee?) to a weekend away in an eerie glass house deep in the English countryside, she reluctantly agrees to make the trip. Forty-eight hours later, she wakes up in a hospital bed injured but alive, with the knowledge that someone is dead. Wondering not “what happened?” but “what have I done?”, Nora (Lee?) tries to piece together the events of the past weekend. Working to uncover secrets, reveal motives, and find answers, Nora (Lee?) must revisit parts of herself that she would much rather leave buried where they belong: in the past.”

I first saw this book on a book list somewhere and passed it over. Then I saw it on Reese Witherspoon’s instagram feed and decided to give it a shot. I know, I know – I’m not normally in the habit of reading books just because celebs are but I’m glad I gave this one a shot. My 30 minutes to an hour of reading at bedtime quickly became an hour and a half and then two as I got pulled deeper into the story. I do think that the past she’d rather be left behind was a bit underwhelming in my opinion but the suspense of the story definitely kept me entertained and engaged. It’s a quick read – you could probably knock this one out in a weekend no problem.

joyeux anniversaire | two years

Today is the two year anniversary of our arrival in Brussels.

It’s been silent on the blog front lately.  I’d like to say it is because I’ve been so incredibly busy that I’d fall in bed at the end of the day unable to keep my eyes open a minute longer – forget blogging, this girl needed sleep. And that wouldn’t be totally untrue. Life has been real busy.

It’s always a struggle to balance work and life and the last six months have been heavily weighted towards work. What time hasn’t been spent working has been spent doing what we love most – traveling. Work and travel, travel and work. Pretty much everything else has fallen by the wayside, including this blog. So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s return to our semi-regular blogging ways with a recap of what we’ve been up to this past year.

We (or me in some cases) visited 8 new countries this year. We:

  • tasted Guinness from the source in Ireland (tastes just the same to me),
  • ate pho for breakfast in Vietnam,
  • visited the night zoo in Singapore,
  • discovered the magic that is pasteis de nata in Portugal,
  • sipped black balsam in Latvia,
  • hiked in Switzerland (and battled some serious altitude sickness),
  • drank Mikkheller in Denmark and then drank some more, and
  • devoured the most delicious food in Czech Republic.

We celebrated our first Christmas in Brussels and first Christmas away from family. We decided to overcompensate by buying twice as many presents.

We rang in New Year’s with our friend Ben, a lot of Berliners, and David Hasselhoff (and we remember most of it). Those Germans love them some Hoff.

We spent a long weekend meandering along the Mosel Valley touring old castles and sipping wine.

We revisited some of our favorite spots (Paris is always a good idea).

We spent almost three weeks back in California this fall catching up with friends and family, eating two years’ worth of tacos, and watching some of our best friends tie the knot. It was amazing being back home and made us very excited about all the wonderful things that await us when we return.

Plus so much more.

We are now into Year Three. Our last and final year in Brussels. Cue panic.

One more year to travel (well, at least while living in Europe). So many places we still want to visit and not enough time to see them all. And so we’ve been working on narrowing our list down and prioritizing. Places we know we’ll come back and do in the future have been pushed farther down the list (i.e. Greece, Israel).  Places which we know we are unlikely to visit  once we leave have been pushed up the list (i.e. Romania, Slovakia). I’m trying to not stress.

One more Christmas season. Christmas is by far our favorite time of year and we love hitting up the Christmas markets. Drinking glühwein from tiny boot mugs. Eating sausages, pretzels, and all sorts of tasty treats. We’ll revisit some of our favorites and seek out some new ones (London, Dresden).

One more summer enjoying long days. I love that at the height of summer it stays light out until almost midnight – no matter how late we’ve had to work there is still “day” available to play.  It more than compensates for the short, dark days of winter.

One Oktoberfest. We’ve been trying to get some of our friends over to Europe for two years now, and (knock on wood) it looks like it’ll finally be happening. Oktoberfest will be our final hurrah before we head back to the states and an epic friends gathering.

The last two years have been nothing short of amazing. I have no doubt this last year will be the best yet.

Reims • France | Pop-Fizz-Clink aka The Champagne Tour

reims trenches-40Now, I have to admit that we are not really Valentine’s Day people. There are no cards exchanged, no chocolates or flowers gifted, and definitely no fancy overpriced dinner reservations. It’s usually like any other day around here. Last year though we changed our minds – we decided to head on down to Reims (pronounced “Rance” – don’t ask me why) to get our bubbly on. You see, Reims is the capital of the Champagne region and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a well-known champagne house. After a quick search, we settled on two houses: Martel, and Mumm.

If you haven’t done a champagne tour before, then here’s the deal. If you are planning to visit during the heavier tourist season (May through August), you will typically want to reserve a spot ahead of time, especially if you are planning to visit one of the well-known houses like Moet & Chandon. Although it depends on the house, you’ll pay somewhere between 9 and 20+ euro for a visit down to the caves and a champagne tasting. The number of tastings varies and some houses will give you the option to “upgrade” your tasting to include additional champagnes or step-up the swank level and go for the really good stuff.

The first stop of the day was G.H. Martel & Co.reims trenches-1G.H. Martel 17 Rue des Créneaux, Reims  email: boutique@champagnemartel.com

11am tour. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by this champagne house. This one was definitely the best bang for the buck: for only 9 euro we got the cave tour as well as three champagne tastings. The best kind of breakfast is a champagne breakfast!reims trenches-2 reims trenches-3 reims trenches-6 reims trenches-7 reims trenches-8

Before heading on to our next stop, we made a detour to the Reims Cathedral.

reims trenches-21The Cathedral of Reims holds an important spot in French history – this church held the coronation of at least 25 French kings and queens. You wouldn’t know it now, but Reims was almost completely destroyed during World War I, including this cathedral. It’s a beautiful church. The best part for me were the gorgeous Marc Chagall stained glass windows.reims trenches-10reims trenches-11 reims trenches-26

After the Cathedral, we headed on to our final champagne stop: Mumm!

reims trenches-30G.H. Mumm & Co. 34 rue du Champs de Mars, Reims email: guides@mumm.com

When I was in Paris with my mom and sister a few years back this was my favorite of the houses we visited on our champagne tour. This is one of the classic houses – a worldwide name – and a reservation is definitely recommended here. This one is pricier than Martel (I believe it came in around 20 euro) and you only get one tasting. If you’re looking for the classic champagne tour/tasting that isn’t super corporate (yet) – this is your spot. reims trenches-33 reims trenches-37

Honest thoughts? I think champagne tours are a bit overrated. The tours are pretty standard across all champagne houses, so if you’ve done one you’ve pretty much done them all. They can also be quite pricey. For the top-name champagne houses (Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot) – you’ll likely pay upwards of 20 euro for a single tasting of their standard champagne. Me? Having now done a few of these, I’d rather take that money I’d spend for a couple of tours and glasses of champagne and buy myself a WHOLE bottle of the good stuff.

After a day out exploring, we settled into our airbnb with a bottle of wine we picked up along the way. Or attempted to at least. Without any luck locating a wine opener, we decided to take matters into our own hands. Or shoe in this case:reims trenches-48 reims trenches-47 reims trenches-45 reims trenches-49We did successfully get it open, but we’ll need a bit more practice to get this trick perfected. And wouldn’t you know it – later that evening we finally located the wine opener.

 

Ireland | Cliffs of Moher

DSC06594 Very few things in life make me feel small. And not just small – inconsequential. It is hard to stand at the edge of these cliffs and not be completely in awe. From the unpredictable weather to the 214 meter (750 ft) drop to the ocean below – these cliffs are a mother nature power trip.

The morning started early in Dublin. After dropping the in-laws off at the airport, Jared and I headed to pick up something which was the biggest source of anxiety in the weeks leading up to our trip – the rental car. As you’re probably aware, the Irish sit on the wrong side of the car and drive on the wrong side of the road. Jared and I developed a couple of rules of the road: (1) every time Jared made a turn I would yell “left”, and (2) if Jared veered too far left I would yell “curb check”. I’m pleased to say it was a success: we arrived in one piece.

The weather was misty and a bit windy. With scarves wrapped tight and hoods pulled down, we made our way up and out to the cliff path. On this day, we had the paths mostly to ourselves. A few groups of people would occasionally pass by, but once we got far enough away from the entry point, it was silent with the exception of the wind. We spent a couple of hours walking up and down the paths, marveling at the height of the cliffs and the sneaky pull of the wind. Over time, the rain started to fall a little heavier and the wind blow even stronger. The camera lenses took on a perpetual cloud that became harder and harder to wipe away. Soaked to the bones, we trekked back up the path to the safety and warmth of our car.DSC06519 DSC06541 DSC06522 DSC06589 DSC06553 DSC06605

Amsterdam • Netherlands | Bakers & Roasters

Breakfast may quite possibly be my favorite meal of the day. Eggs Benedict. Dutch Baby. Chilaquiles. Hash. French Toast. One of each please! Makes me hungry just thinking about it. It’s the only meal where it is 100% acceptable (in public) to eat dessert as your meal. In the US, brunch is something we take very seriously. It is the perfect way to refuel (and recover) after a late Friday or Saturday night, and it is essential in kicking off a Sunday Funday.

In our previous lives in San Diego and Los Angeles, brunch was a fairly regular part of our weekend routine – mornings spent lingering in the sun, mimosa in hand, catching up with friends. Weekend mornings out here appear to follow a bit of a different beat with most folks grabbing a quick café and croissant; however, the number of places catering to the brunch crowd are continuing to grow.  It may be the promise of good weather to come, but I find myself yearning for those lazy Sunday brunches.

Last Saturday, we headed up to Amsterdam to get a much-needed break from work. Needing some fuel before we tackled the Rijksmuseum, I insisted that brunch be part of the day’s plan and Jared delivered.

Bakers & Roasters 1Bakers & Roasters                            Eerste Jacob van Campenstraat 54, 1072 BH Amsterdam

It’s a New Zealand style cafe just a stone’s throw from the Heineken brewery (for those looking to fill-up before the “Heineken Experience”) or a quick jaunt from both the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.  The menu isn’t exhaustive, but it is sure to please everyone. Unable to decide between sweet or savory, I went for the B&R Special which gives a taste of both. Jared opted for the Kiwi Brekkie. The food was delicious and the help friendly. We both left with very full bellies. I definitely recommend giving this place a visit if you find yourself in Amsterdam.

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Mont-Saint-Michel • France | The “Wonder of the West”

Mon-Saint-MichelWe lucked out with the weather. The forecasted gloom would have certainly added a bit of atmosphere on our visit to this medieval city, but it was nice to be able to leave the umbrellas behind and turn our faces up to the sun. In the bay where Normandy and Brittany merge, you can find the tiny island of Mont-Saint-Michel (population of 30). In the early 8th century, Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, claimed that he was visited by the Archangel Michael who told him to build a church on the rock island. Aubert dismissed the vision, until Michael, who appeared to him two more times, drove his finger into Aubert’s skull and ordered him to build. And build he did. The Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, which was built between the 11th and 16th century, is the crown jewel of this island. It has inspired millions of pilgrims throughout the ages, and when you get your first glance of the abbey looming in the distance it is easy to why.

Long ago, the pilgrims would have braved the quicksand and infamous tides to pray at the abbey. Present day pilgrims can traverse the causeway connecting the island to the mainland. They recently built a new visitor parking lot a mile and a half inland, and they have shuttles going between the parking lot and the Mont. If you’re up to it though, I’d recommend you do as we did and leg it out to the island to really get the full experience.

Mont-Saint-MichelOnce on Mont-Saint-Michel, wander through the cobble-stoned streets and alleyways. There is a decidedly tourist feel to this island, but given it’s history, it’s purpose has always been to cater to the pilgrims that traveled so far. Embrace it. Once you’ve had your fill of the town, head up to the abbey, grab one of the brochures and do a self-guided tour (or join one of the guided tours instead if you prefer). Walking through the grounds you can almost imagine how peaceful and serene a life out here could have been back in the day. After spending some time taking in the views of the bay from the abbey terraces, we left Mont-Saint-Michel behind and make it back to the car just in time – the rain had finally arrived.

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The Oscars – 2015 Edition

best-pic_3166072kimage via The Telegraph

I am almost embarrassed to admit how few of the Academy-nominated films we have seen this year. I used to work in the entertainment industry, and thus I have a certain amount of pride about keeping up with the industry even though I’m officially on the outside. When people ask me why I left, I have to admit that working in the industry caused me to become a bit disillusioned. Sure I got to see some of the biggest names in Hollywood up close (I’ll always have that “Hello” from Bruce Willis), but the industry is famously hard on the lower levels. Bad hours, thankless work, and horrendous pay. That was tolerable though, and really it is a right of passage for making it up the chain. It may sound cliche, but the most important thing for me was that movies just lost a bit of that magic. I pictured myself reading dozens and dozens of revisions of a scrip, watching dailies over and over, and edited and re-edited versions of the final film and I just didn’t get excited at the prospect. And so, I decided it was time to move on to something else. Do I miss it? Sure. Not often, but I do on the occasion, and never more so than Academy Awards time. When I see a great movie or performance I can’t help but think how wonderful it would have been to be involved in that production. To be a part of it. So who knows, maybe one day I’ll find my way back there. Or maybe not.

Back to the point of this post though, let’s discuss the 2015 Best Picture Nominations. It used to be that there were only 5 nominees for Best Picture. Then in 2009 they said the more the merrier and bumped that up to 10 nominees. Well, then the Academy realized that if you require 10 nominees you are going to end up with some films being nominated that are far out of their weight-class, and so now we have arrived at the current, which is 5-10 nominees whose nomination depends on a certain percentage of votes.

For the 87th Academy Awards there are 8 films that were deemed worthy enough to make the cut. Jared and I have seen 5 of the 8: Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything. The downside about being in a non-English speaking country means that while we may get the big blockbuster films, we will most likely not get the smaller, independent films. And so for those ones, we must patiently wait until iTunes finally has them available for rent [and doesn’t just tease us with it on iTunes as if it actually IS available for rent when it’s still many weeks away]. So here is my incomplete summary of the films and what I’m hoping will win big.

Birdman“Best known to the public as Birdman, the superhero he once played in a series of films, Riggan Thomson hopes to reestablish himself as a serious actor by mounting his own dramatic production on Broadway. With his self-doubt hindering the project, Thomson also finds himself threatened by the presence of a high-profile, egotistical movie star in his cast.” This movie is filmed to have the appearance of one continuous shot, which is what Jared liked so much about this film and what put me off of this film. I had a harder time getting into the movie as I felt no pity for the washed up former action star looking to make his comeback, but by the end of the movie I felt a bit more invested and could at least appreciate it. Michael Keaton does give a great performance as does Emma Stone and Edward Norton. I don’t expect this to be a contender for Best Picture winner, but it’ll be interesting to see if Best Actor goes Keaton’s way or Redmayne’s (below).

Boyhood“Over the course of 12 years, a young boy named Mason experiences the joys and difficulties of childhood. The child of divorced parents, both of whom are facing their own set of challenges, Mason, along with his sister Samantha, learns to navigate through a world in which the strengths and frailties of the adults around him have a profound impact on his own life.” This three-hour movie is something special. I expected it to be boring but was pleasantly surprised. It is a series of vignettes, mini stories if you will, shot over a series of 12 years. This film won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, so it’s heading into tonight with some steam. It’s an ambitious project, and I think this film might have Winner written all over it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – “As the owner of a once-luxurious Alpine hotel relates its history to a visiting writer, he describes his youth as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest, where he was the protégé of the hotel’s concierge, Monsieur Gustave. Gustave runs the five-star establishment with panache and an iron fist, while also offering his services as a lover to the older, wealthy women guests.” Wes Anderson’s films are not for everyone – we are fans in this house (just re-watched Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums the other night). This one though, this one is pretty damn awesome. It scored a win at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical and could be the one to triumph over Boyhood. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do.

The Imitation Game“As World War II engulfs Europe, a group of English mathematicians are assembled at Bletchley Park to work in secret on cracking the code of a captured German Enigma encryption machine. With England’s fate hanging in the balance, the group’s leader, the brilliant, eccentric Alan Turing, must hide his homosexuality or risk arrest and persecution by the country he is fighting to save.” Jared and I both love history and being in Europe we have found ourselves drawn to WWI and WWII history. The historical importance of what this film covers is massive, though in the name of Hollywood and bigger box office dollars the true historical accuracy of things here or there have been misrepresented. Above all, this film made the adult me want to ditch the fiction and fluff lit and dive back into some impressive biographies. The curious kid in me immediately went home and downloaded a kindle book on ciphers and codes. This won’t win Best Picture but it had some great performances.

The Theory of Everything“Stephen Hawking is a brilliant Cambridge graduate student when he learns that he has a progressive motor neuron disease and may die within two years. For Jane Wilde, Stephen’s fellow student and future wife, the prognosis represents not a certainty but a challenge that her faith and Stephen’s passionate determination can overcome.” Everyone knows who Stephen Hawking is, but what they may not be familiar with is the story of how he became who he is today. This is a truly wonderful film – just really beautifully done. Unfortunately it is up against some strong contenders for Best Picture, and I don’t think it’ll ultimate make the cut. It will undoubtedly do well on the acting side though. I sincerely hope that Eddie Redmayne takes the stage tonight for Best Actor – a win well deserved for a truly phenomenal performance.

Since the airtime for the awards show is well past my bedtime, I’ll be eagerly checking the news sites in the morning to find out who was victorious.