Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 in review

Every New Year's Eve since I was maybe eight or nine years old, I've taken some time to pause and reflect on the passing year. Usually, I write in a journal. This year, I decided to put it on my blog. So bear with me. :-)

2008 will go down in my memory as a pivotal year in my life, mostly due to a job change that enabled two lifelong dreams to come true: I finally had the opportunity to live in another country (Austria) and I traveled extensively. I traveled so much that I actually lost count of how many countries I passed through. I think I went to 25 countries. But I'm not sure. I went to every continent except Africa and Antarctica this year. I saw Mount Everest and K2, the barren landscape of Mongolia, and lush coastline of Queensland from the air. I drank kvass in Moscow, frogs egg tea in Taipei, and apfelwein in Frankfurt. I ate bibimbap in Seoul, paella in Barcelona, and all kinds of meats at a churrascaria in Sao Paulo. One day a few weeks ago when I had nothing better to do, I calculated my airline mileage, and concluded that I flew almost 92,000 miles this year (and my first reaction was: "Dang! If only I'd gone to ___, I might have made 100,000 miles.")

All that travel may sound glamorous (OK, it was! Mostly.) but it also has its drawbacks. I was away from home for about seven and a half months this year. In addition to missing family and friends, I missed out on my nephew's high school graduation. And I was too jet-lagged to celebrate my tenth anniversary. Thankfully, my family stayed in good health while I was away - and for the most part, I did, too. Sure, there was the sinus infection from hell when I was in Portugal, and the two instances of barotrauma, and oh-yeah that nasty bug I brought back from India. But overall, it was a healthy year and I didn't break any bones or cut myself with kitchen implements this year.

Thankfully, all of my travels were safe. Despite the aborted landing in Mallorca when my plane had a "Lufthansa moment" due to windshear. Despite the attempted pickpocketing in Buenos Aires. Despite the people shouting "Hello, English! Give money!" and getting all up in my face in Shanghai. And all those late night walks home - alone - in Vienna. I truly believe that I had a band of angels following me around everywhere I went this year, and I'm grateful to them.

A highlight of the year was finding Jaana, my BFF from freshman year in college. Jaana is from Finland and we were as thick as thieves, but we lost touch in 1988 or thereabouts. I found her on Facebook (actually, I found her daughter on Facebook) and while I was living in Europe I went up to visit her and her family in Helsinki. It was as if no time at all had passed!

Sometimes when I think back on this year, I'm not sure it really happened. It seems like a dream. Only the blog I kept while I was away, and the photos I took, and of course, the memories - serve as proof. But I'm home now and it's good to be home. 

The other major thing about 2008 that I will always remember is this year's Presidential election. If you had asked me in January how it would turn out, I'm not sure I could have predicted the outcome. I had been feeling for quite a while now that the country was so divided on everything, and I certainly never realized that both my home state and my current state would ever possibly move from "red" to "blue." But it happened. And now we have 20 more days until our new President takes office. He sure has a big job ahead of him!

None of us know what next year will hold. As for me, I'm feeling optimistic. Welcome, 2009. Happy New Year to All!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter solstice

Today is Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere - the shortest day (and longest night) of the year. As a person who experiences mild seasonal affective disorder, I think this is something to celebrate! 

Winter Solstice is one of the oldest winter celebrations - globally. It may be simply the "first day of Winter" for many people today, but it's been celebrated as Inti Raymi by Incas, Beiwe by the Sami of northern Scandinavia, Saturnalia by the Romans, Goru by the Dogan, Midwinter by the Celts and Druids, and Yule by various Germanic cultures - among others! Most cultures viewed it symbolically as rebirth and/or renewal and celebrated it with festivals and feasts. 

When I was in Ireland a few years ago, we visited Newgrange, an amazing structure built over five thousand years ago.  At dawn on the shortest day of the year, a beam of sunlight pops through and lights everything up in an amazing way. I cannot imagine the planning, the sheer genius, that went into designing and building such a structure, especially without modern tools. But certainly, there was something special about this day for the people who built Newgrange. 

It's a special day for me, too. The sun is out today. It's cold out there. But I'm happy and I want to party! We'll need to hurry, though - because the sun will be going down soon. And when that happens, I'll be ready for bedtime. :-)

Happy Winter Solstice! And since I'm traveling tomorrow and will not have internet access for a while, let me also wish you whatever else may apply: Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas/Frohe Weihnachten/Hyvaa Joulua, Happy Boxing Day, and Happy Kwanzaa to all. May your travels be safe, your days be bright, and your nights be merry!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Vienna Fingers

I was in the grocery store the other day and saw these cookies, so I took a photo for my friends back in Vienna. I thought you might find it amusing that we have cookies over here called Vienna Fingers. They are quite tasty - two vanilla cookies filled with creme. But I have no idea why they are called Vienna Fingers, as opposed to - say - Rome Fingers, or Paris Fingers, or Indianapolis Fingers for that matter. If anyone knows, please tell me!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas ticky tacky

Not to be a Scrooge, but I have a question: Why do so many people go overboard with the holiday decorations? 

What would possess anyone to even buy this stuff in the first place?

I can understand a few lights. Maybe some discreet, tasteful fake candles in the windows. Or a classic evergreen wreath on the front door.

But this?

This is one of many such "displays" I've seen this year in Indianapolis. Actually, this one is mild in comparison to others I've seen. 

I don't get it! It doesn't make me "happy" or "joyful" at all. In fact, it makes me rather sad and depressed! Sheesh!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Free food in Mariandy's backyard!

We put out several bird feeders a few weeks ago and have been really amazed with some of the birds we've seen. This Downy Woodpecker is a frequent guest. He swaps places at the suet feeder with his partner (the female does not have the red patch) and so far they're managing to eat a cake of suet every four or five days.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker occasionally reveals himself - briefly - to compete for the suet. As you can see from his photo, he has a red head, not a red belly (there is another bird called the Red-headed Woodpecker that doesn't look like this one at all). Here he is:

We've also seen White-breasted Nuthatches, which are funny to watch because they climb face-first down the trees. A large family of Dark-eyed Juncos forages for seeds that have fallen on the ground. For the past week or so I've spotted a couple of birds with what appear to be red throats and breasts, and although I suspect they're House Finches, I can never get close enough to be sure. They're skittish. Maybe I need to invest in a pair of binoculars.

This past weekend I noticed that we have another species hanging out by the bird feeders - squirrels. There were three of them - one on each feeder. Hmm. Not sure what I think about this. But I guess if we're going to put food out, we can't be too picky about who comes over for dinner.

If you live in the Indy area and are looking for a good place to buy bird feeders, suet, or seeds, check out our friends at Backyard Birds. This is a locally-owned, independent store and the people there are experts on local birds. They're located at 2374 E. 54th Street, just west of Keystone. If you're lucky, you might get to meet Webster or Wrigley. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hair salons I have known

My friend T recently wrote about hair salons in her blog, and it got me to thinking about my salon experiences. I've had some scary ones. Let's face it - I've never been the girliest girl on the planet, and my fine wavy hair has a will of its own. Add that to the fact that for the most part, I hate hair products. Hair spray, for example. Who needs it? Not me.

Just spending time in a hair salon is difficult enough for me. I don't like the smells, and I don't like small talk. I just want to be treated with a little respect, to get a good cut, and to be left alone.

Still, I never really thought about hair or hair salons until I moved to Indianapolis. The first place I ever went for a haircut was so sad, I just can't even write about it except to say that it made me want to cry. It was as if the world had been shaken, and all the down and out hairdressers landed here. They had virtually no business, and when I walked in they all swarmed on me. Like I said, it was sad.

I tried a well-known salon/spa in Greenwood - which was fabulous, but so big that I never saw the same person twice. I tried another nice place on the South side, but just as I was getting to know the stylist, she moved to a salon up in Fishers.

Last Spring, after moving to a new neighborhood, I felt the urge to do something drastic with my hair. I made an appointment at my local "salon and spa." For about $35, I had what could possibly be the best short-short haircut on the planet . . . ever!!! The young woman did such a great job, I had no trauma whatsoever, no regrets, no remorse. I really thought I'd found a stylist I could go to forever. Happily, I made an appointment for six weeks later. On a busy Saturday morning, I arrived 15 minutes early, checked in at the desk, and waited. 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, then 40 minutes passed. People were coming and going, and chatting as if they had known each other since elementary school - but totally ignoring me. Somewhere in between, there was a shift change at the desk. Eventually, I went up to ask the new person how much longer it would be before my stylist would be ready. "Oh," was her disinterested reply. "We didn't know you were here. She's already working on the person who had an appointment after you and she's booked up the rest of the day."

I passed the stylist's booth on the way out the door, and mentioned that I'd been waiting there the whole time and wasn't sure why she didn't come to the front and call me back. She just shrugged, as if to say "Tough luck!" without an apology. I looked around the room and it occurred to me that these people really had all known each other since elementary school, they were probably all related, and I was just the new kid in town who nobody wanted to have lunch with. I knew that as soon as I walked out the door, they'd be talking trash about me.

I never have since, and never will again, give another dime of my money to this so-called salon and spa. In fact, I would write their name here, but nobody who lives in my neighborhood reads my blog anyway, so it wouldn't matter.

On my way home, I made a detour and drove east to a cute little salon on the county line, where (amazingly) the owner was able to cut my hair right then and there. She was very nice, and did an OK job on my hair, but on the way out the door she asked me to sign a petition on a highly-charged political issue. In order to remain polite, I told her that I don't sign petitions. But I never went back there again. I mean, she and I had just met, and she just assumed that I would agree with her on this particular issue?!!

Earlier this year, desperately seeking a good stylist, I found one - at a totally cool hair salon overlooking the downtown Circle. She hadn't known me five minutes before she started dropping the f-bomb on me like we'd . . . known each other since elementary school (LOL!) Unfortunately, I dropped $75 for that haircut - actually it was $65 for the haircut and I left a $10 tip. Honestly, I don't mind the f-bomb too much - I've been known to let it fly myself occasionally. I just can't afford to pay $65-75 for a haircut every 6-8 weeks. But this was maybe the second best haircut I've ever had. If I'd been smart, I would have just let it grow out after that. I've always heard that you know you got a great haircut when the hair starts growing out, and it looks good. This truly happened.

By that time, I was living in Vienna. I had my hair cut twice while I was there, both times by stylists who were under the age of twenty and spoke little English. Somehow, things turned out well enough. Those haircuts were 28 euros each (about $45 at the time) but you were also expected to tip a few euros to stylist and maybe one euro to the person who washed your hair - always two different people.

I've had one haircut since I got back from Europe. My last haircut cost $11. No kidding. I didn't go to one of those chain places, either. I drove all the way down to Franklin, Indiana, to a "beauty shop" where a co-worker has been going for twenty-some years. The woman who cut my hair was very nice and she did everything I asked. I really couldn't tell that much difference (OK, there was some difference, but it was minor) between the $11 haircut and the $75 haircut. But I probably won't be driving down to Franklin anymore just to get my hair cut. It's just too far.

I'm now trying to decide what to do with my hair next. I really like the convenience of short hair. It only takes about 2-3 minutes to dry! And there's not much to do except slap some paste on it. Sometimes I don't even bother doing that.

Should I go back to the f-bomb stylist and pay out the wazoo? Or find someone new? Or maybe just do like my Aunt Florrie and cut my own hair? Would anyone even notice? Sometimes I wonder!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

O Christmas tree

For the second year in a row, someone has put up a lighted tree on the far side of the pond behind our house. We're not sure who puts this up exactly, because we've never seen anyone out there that far. Hmm. Maybe we've got elves in suburbia?

This was the view yesterday at around 4:45PM as it was starting to get dark. Not the best photo (my Sony Cybershot has its limitations) but it accurately represents our view. Everytime I look out the window and see this tree, it makes me smile.

It makes me go back in time, and I recall some of my earliest memories. Up until I was four years old, we lived in Wilmington, North Carolina - home of the world's largest living Christmas tree (or so goes the claim).  Several nights a week, my Dad would drive us over to see the tree, and then we'd just ride around town and look at all the other lights and decorations. (Eventually, I'd fall asleep, which is probably the main reason we were out riding around. LOL!)

For the few years after we moved away, we'd still visit Wilmington every December, and we'd always make a point to go see the tree. Over time, our annual visits became every-other-year visits, until finally we stopped going. I can't remember for certain the last time I saw the tree, but I was probably a teenager. (While writing this entry, it occurred to me that I wasn't even sure if the tree is still there, so I Googled it. Sure enough, they just had their 79th Lighting Ceremony this past Thursday night. So maybe I'll get to see it again someday.)

Until then, I'll enjoy the cheerful little tree across the pond.

Friday, December 5, 2008

More dental adventures

Oh, the saga continues.

I had a temporary crown put on Monday, as it takes 10 days or so for the permanent one to be made. My dentist warned me to chew on the other side, which I'd been doing anyway since the root canal. Yesterday I was at an "event" where they served popcorn. I couldn't resist. But have you ever tried chewing popcorn on only one side of your mouth? I think this may be impossible according to the laws of physics. Still, everything was fine until I ate . . . a cookie. Suddenly, there was something in my mouth besides a cookie. I spit into my hand . . . and found half of my temporary crown.

I can only imagine what must have happened to the other half! 

Monday, December 1, 2008

I'd rather have a root canal

The following are true life stories. Warning: what you're about to read is not for the fainthearted or the innocent. Not that anyone in those categories would actually read my blog. But still, I felt a need to add that disclaimer.

I went to the dentist the first time when I was three or four years old. It was a very traumatic experience, made worse by the sounds of the drills coming from the back rooms. "Don't put that squeaky thing on me!" I cried, and had what my mother called a pure-tee fit. Although I don't remember the rest, most likely I had my tail torn up (to coin another of Mama's oft-used phrases) in front of the whole dental clinic staff and all the patients in the waiting room. No doubt this experience set the tone for all future visits to dentists.

Not long after this, I got really sick and went through several rounds of antibiotics. I'm a "tetracycline baby" - like a lot of kids who took tetracycline in the 1960s, I developed a strange discoloration on my teeth. This has caused me a great deal of personal stress over the years. Fortunately, I've been able to clear it up a little with a couple of very expensive whitening treatments. But the discoloration will never completely go away.

When I was around six or seven years old, routine dental x-rays revealed that I had supernumerary teeth. In other words, I had three sets of teeth. And you suspected all along that I was a freak of nature. Now you know! This weird phenomenon happens in less than 2% of the population.

My "permanent" permanent teeth - that is, the third set - was coming in crooked behind the so-called permanent teeth (my second set.) So when I was around eight years old, the fun really began. For the next two years I would go to the dentist quite often and have various second-set teeth removed, in order to make room for the third set. And of course, when they grew in, I had to get braces.

I forgot to mention that my childhood dentist had Parkinson's disease, so his hands shook often. Once while he was drilling, his hand started shaking and he accidentally gave me a frenectomy. That is, the drill flew up and sliced my frenulum (that stringlike piece of skin that connects your lip to your gum.) Blood went everywhere. It was like a horror movie.

But back to the braces. The town closest to where we lived was so small, it had no orthodontist, so every three weeks or so my Dad would pick me up early from school, and we'd drive thirty miles to Fayetteville for me to see Dr. X. (I don't know why I want to call him Dr. X, because he's dead now so it really doesn't matter. But I'll call him Dr. X anyway.) Dr. X was an alcoholic. He often reeked of liquor and was either very happy or very, very mean. I had several consultations with him before the braces went on. Since my appointment was usually late in the day, it became our habit for Dad and I to stop and get a snack on the way to the orthodontist's office. 

One day, we passed by Krispy Kreme Donuts and the HOT DONUTS NOW! sign was on, so we stopped in. I had a couple of hot glazed donuts, and probably a soft drink of some type. Then we went to the orthodontist. Wouldn't you know that would be the day for him to put my braces on? I asked him if I could brush my teeth first since I'd just eaten donuts, but he said no, that we had to get the braces on right then and he didn't have time for me to mess around.

When the braces came off three years later, I had a cavity behind one of my front teeth, and several dark spots on my back teeth that remain to this day. I'm convinced that if he would have let me brush my teeth first, these things would not have happened. What a jerk he was!!! You can't even really tell that I ever had braces now. Grr!!!

My next adventure came along when I was eighteen or nineteen and two of my wisdom teeth decided to grow in sideways. Again, I'm not kidding - the roots were aiming towards the roof of my mouth, and they were pressing on a nerve. At the time I was doing some really wacky things, and it turned out, my behavior was actually out of my control. The endodontist I went to told my parents that it was really amazing that I was still functioning. 

I share all these things because over the years, I've developed a serious case of odontophobia or dental phobia. I practically have to be drugged before I can go to a dentist. Through trial and error, I've learned some tactics to get by. But nothing, baby, nothing is like nitrous oxide. A couple weeks ago, I had my second root canal ever, and it was AWESOME!!! My endodontist's assistant hooked me up to this tank and . . . WOO-HOO! PARTY TIME!!! I could hear the roto rooter going on in my tooth, I could even feel the jabbing and stabbing and swooshing. I could even smell the funky odor of burning teeth - MY burning teeth. But I DIDN'T CARE!!!

Today, I went to my regular dentist so she could fit me for the crown which will eventually go on this same tooth. She started drilling down my tooth, and I thought I was going to go insane. But nothing happened. There was no pain at all. She kind of laughed at me and said: "Well, you shouldn't have any pain, since you had a root canal on that tooth." (My dentist laughs at me all the time so I'm used to it.)

So for the first time ever - well, maybe just a for a few minutes - I actually relaxed in my dentist's chair without the use of drugs. It's a miracle! But about that nitrous oxide - it sure would be nice to have a little of that just before I go into my year-end performance review meeting!!! 

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving at Mariandy's

Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the United States. This holiday is unique to the Western hemisphere, mostly the U.S. (Canada celebrated their Thanksgiving in October). According to our history books, the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a celebration shared by early settlers and local natives in Plymouth Colony (Massachusetts). The food at that celebration was native to the area. This is why we now typically include foods like cranberries, squash, and turkey in our traditional Thanksgiving meal - although I'm not sure that turkey was part of the original meal.

When I was growing up on a farm in North Carolina, we had a more localized Thanksgiving meal. Sure, there was turkey, but it wasn't unusual for us to have steamed oysters (fresh from the coast) or stewed venison if my Granddad or one of my cousins had recently been hunting. We always had sweet potatoes in the form of a casserole (with lots of brown sugar and marshmallows on top) or "pudding" or pie. We preferred pecan pie to pumpkin pie. I'm sorry to say that I don't remember my Mom making fresh cranberry sauce, and I think what we had (if we had any) was from a can. It was good, though.

Just before we ate, we'd all take turns naming things we were thankful for. My parents would name our family, our house, and our health. My gratefulness was more selfish and revolved around getting good grades in school, or new toys or clothes, and Carolina beating State in basketball. This became a sort of joke with my sister and I and I remember once she said she was thankful for Wonder Woman, hair spray, and leg warmers.

After the big meal (which was always in the middle of the day), we'd sit around for a while watching football, then go for walks in the woods or get the rifles out and do some target shooting. I learned how to shoot at the age of 9 and was quite the sharpshooter. In fact, I was often the one who "brought home the turkey" as I always won a turkey challenge at the annual Barker Ten Mile Turkey Shoot. (No, you don't shoot at turkeys - you shoot at a target.)

In the 1990s, when my parents moved to the beach, we ditched the turkey for a "Low Country" Thanksgiving meal. My Mom would get some oysters, shrimp, and clams from the local seafood market. You couldn't get any fresher, because most of the stuff was caught the same day as it was sold. She'd clean the shrimp and throw them in a big stew pot with the clams, corn on the cob, potatoes, some seasonings, water, and maybe a few other things - and bring it all to a boil. Meanwhile, my Dad would take care of the oysters, which would be served separately. Mom would make a broccoli salad and at least one sweet potato dish, and along with the usual pecan pie that would be our Thanksgiving meal. 

I decided to return to a traditional meal when I set up my house in Indiana. For several years now, I've taken the entire week of Thanksgiving off work in order to prepare the Thanksgiving Day meal. That's right, folks, we go all out in this house - and nearly everything is homemade "from scratch." I started cooking Monday night. First, I cooked the cranberry sauce. On Tuesday, I went to my favorite grocery stores up North (Whole Foods and Fresh Market) to get the last of our needed items. On Wednesday, I made the pumpkin pie and a loaf of pumpkin bread with creme cheese icing, and did as much prep work for Thursday as possible. Yesterday, I rubbed our Indiana free range turkey with some spices, then roasted it in the oven. While the turkey cooked, I made a green bean casserole, some cranberry pecan stuffing, a homemade French vinaigrette salad dressing, and an amazing hot cranberry drink. Just prior to the meal, I made my soon-to-be famous roasted garlic mashed Yukon gold potatoes, and prepared the salad. 

Up above is a photo showing some of the things I made. :-)

The meal was finally ready at around 5:30PM and was enjoyed by four people. The turkey was perfect - brown on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. The pumpkin pie was a big hit - I'll have to put my recipe for that on my Food for Thought blog. 

We have new Thanksgiving traditions now. We cook, we watch the National Dog Show, and we eat. We also play with our new tech toys. I will always remember Thanksgiving 2008 because I spent my cooking "downtime" playing guitar and drums on Rock Band. (The "from us/to us" Christmas present this year, a Nintendo Wii and Rock Band, arrived  early so we went ahead and set it up.) I'll have to do a separate entry on Rock Band sometime, because I think I may have found a new addiction.

But we also take time to think about all the things we're thankful for. This year, I don't have to look real far. I'm thankful for my family, my friends, my animal children, my job, my home, and for all the places I have seen and experiences I have had this year. 

I'm also thankful that someone else does the dishes. And that now, I can take the next few days and RELAX!

Monday, November 24, 2008

My latest obsession

I've become so obsessed with food lately that I thought I'd like to try a new blog that focuses solely on food. I feel like I need a separate place for this because the intent of Gypsy Roots is supposed to be more about daily life stuff. So if you're interested, check out my new Food for Thought blog. You can link to it from the Shameless Plugs section on the right. I don't know how long it will last, and I certainly don't have time to write every day. We'll just have to see how it goes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Local food

Not too long ago, I was wandering through the produce section at one of the big chain grocery stores when I happened across an attractive display of apples. But it wasn't the apples that caught my eye so much as it was the sign above them. It advertised the apples as being from New Zealand.

Now, I don't have anything against NZ . . . never been there, but the photos I've seen are beautiful . . . I have several friends from there . . . and I think Flight of the Conchords are hysterically funny. So please don't think I'm picking on NZ - 'cause I'm not. My point is that NZ is something like 10,000 miles from Indianapolis. Why does food have to travel that far? Seems to me that the apples would have to be picked prematurely . . . not to mention the carbon footprint it takes to transport them across the Pacific and then over the North American continent. Besides, there are tons of apples already here in Indiana. 

No one likes or enjoys "world food" more than me. When it comes to food, I'm definitely adventurous. In fact, if you asked my what my favorite foods are, I'd list among them Thai green curry, Vietnamese pho, Austrian Kasnudeln, and pretty much everything from the Mediterranean/North Africa/Middle East region with the exception of seafood.

I won't stop having my favorite world foods on an occasional basis, but when it comes to my everyday cooking, I'm going local. I recently signed up with Farm Fresh Delivery to have mostly local, mostly organic produce delivered to my house once a week. I can add to my standing produce order all sorts of local meats, dairy products, and other products. 

I've been a fan of Traderspoint Creamery for a long time - their low-fat vanilla yogurt is not only da bomb in my opinion, but has won all kinds of awards. Their dairy cattle are grass-fed and "hormone-free" and they make a lot more other delicious stuff, too (milk, cheese, ice cream). And they're just located over on the northwest side of Indy. 

Our Thanksgiving turkey came from Seven Spring Farms, located in Carthage. We also get eggs from there in our weekly Farm Fresh Delivery order. Know how to tell if an egg is fresh? Crack it open. The yolk should be a bright orange color - if it's more like yellow, it's been sitting around on the store shelves for a while. The eggs I got in my order last Friday were collected just two days earlier according to the date stamped on the carton. I can't get any fresher than that without having my own chickens.

There are all kinds of local options for food. Our beef and pork has recently come from Seven Sons and Moody Meats. My most recent local discovery is Local Folks Foods, which makes an amazing pasta sauce and fire-roasted salsa from Indiana tomatoes. They even make and sell their own organic whole wheat flour.

I can find locally-roasted coffee, locally made chocolate bars, local breads and granola, and of course, LOTS of local produce. I may not be able to get whatever I want year-round, but shouldn't we be eating what's in season anyway? 

Sometimes I have to decide between local and organic. I'd really rather have both, but this is not always possible. Still, I think that local is the better option, all things considered.

The prices are higher for some items, especially the meat. But I decided I'd rather eat less meat that's "local" and better quality, than cheaper, older meat from the supermarket that's been pumped with who knows what (read the labels sometime - it's scary) to make it look fresh. So while there are times when I may choose to eat something exotic, for the most part, I guess you can say that I'm going local.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Winter's approach

It's hard to believe that just a month ago these leaves were bursting with color. As I write this, it's 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 Celsius) outside. I just took out the trash and recycling bins, and had to put on a coat, hat, and gloves. (I almost wrote a statement of complaint, but then I remember how hot it was in Vienna this summer without air conditioning.)

For some reason I don't mind the cold - not really. I actually like my winter clothes a lot better than my summer clothes. I like wearing long sleeves. And flannel pajamas. And my black velveteen pants. I like being able to wear black every day if I want without someone advising me to wear pastels or "summer colors." I was never a summery, beachy sort of girl anyway. I hate wearing shorts. I hate being in the sun for very long. I certainly don't like the feel of sand on my skin. Ew. 

Give me winter over summer any day. Give me winter Sunday afternoons spent in the kitchen, making stews and soups and occasionally baking bread (which I make completely from scratch and without a bread machine), with the Colts playing (and winning) and everyone at home relaxing. 

I even like snow - as long as I don't have to drive. Being from the South, I'm the person you DON'T want on the road in front of you when any kind of winter precip starts falling. Sorry. But I *do* try to stay off the roads during these times. :-) 

I like walking in the snow. I like bundling up in layers and putting on my big coat and my Sherpa hat and boots (and sometimes, my snowshoes) and getting out there in it. There is nothing - I mean truly nothing - like walking in the snow at night, seeing the falling snow reflected in the streetlights, and feeling snowflakes falling on your cheeks. And then going inside and sitting by the fireplace with a big mug of hot chocolate or apple cider or mulled wine. 

There are things I don't like about this time of year. The short days are hard, especially when it's dark when you wake up and dark when you get home. But I just think of my friend Jaana in Finland, where they only have a few hours of light during the winter, and I stop complaining. 

Bring it on, I say. Oh yeah, baby.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Easy being green, part 2

Yesterday I went to the monthly meeting of the Environmental and Sustainability Club at my company. This is a fairly new club that started back in April as a result of some employee feedback late last year. I had been reading about their activities when I was in Vienna, and had been really looking forward to participating upon my return to Indianapolis. So when I found out they were meeting, I crashed.

I was really impressed with some of the club's projects. There's an organized recycling effort underway (cans and plastic water bottles) and discussions are taking place with the vendor who services our cafeterias to ditch styrofoam for more environmentally-friendly food containers. A carpooling project is being piloted. A cardboard recycling project is being studied. But perhaps most impressively, a project is underway to plant a large "sustainable" garden in an area of reclaimed land on our urban campus. Here, in addition to growing some beautiful plants, we have the possibility of composting cafeteria food waste and other organic materials as well as recycling water by using rain bins. All while contributing something nice to the community. Can you tell I'm especially excited about this project?

One person reported on an event that the club was recently involved in. Over 600 lunches were served - in corn-based biodegradable containers (which in itself is cool). Food waste was donated for composting, and cans and bottles were donated for recycling. But the really cool thing was that at the end of the event, only 3 bags of trash were taken to the garbage bins. 

Three bags of trash for 600 meals. I'm thinking that's not bad. I'm really inspired now, and today, I sent my $15 check for membership to the designated person. So now I'm an official club member, and I'll no longer have to crash their meetings!

Misha's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day

This is Misha, the grey tabby we adopted from the Southside Animal Shelter back in 2002. She's pushing eight years old now, although we don't know exactly how old she is (she was a young adult when we adopted her). 

She's a fat cat, with a purr as loud as a motor, and a super sweet personality.  She likes to give head butts and make "biscuits" on your tummy - that is, if she likes you. Sometimes she can be shy with strangers, and many times when people visit us, they don't even know we have a cat because she stays hidden. She loves being outdoors, loves hunting voles and mice - and for this reason (as well as reasons of safety) we prefer for her to stay indoors. Sometimes, though, she escapes. She likes to sit on the grass and watch all the action going on around her.

Misha gets along well with the dogs. She's known both Cody and Chelsea since they came to live with us, and to see them together you would never think they were of different species. They play, they snuggle, they kiss each other and sniff each other's butts. Sometimes they even talk to each other.

They say that cats have nine lives. If that's true, then Misha lost one of hers yesterday. She was attacked by our new neighbor's very large German shepherd. This dog was out for a walk with his teenage owner when he saw Misha (minding her own business, sitting in one of the flower beds in the front yard) and went totally berserk. The girl completely lost control of him and in an instant, Misha learned that all dogs aren't as sweet as her canine siblings.

I heard screaming, and when I opened the front door, I wasn't sure what I was seeing. Have you ever heard that expression "the fur flew"? Well, it did. As soon as it registered with me that Misha was the target of this very large dog's aggression, my mother instinct kicked in. I grabbed his leash and pulled him off of her, then helped our by then crying neighbor get her dog home and out of Misha's sight. Then I ran back to Misha, who was in shock, covered in mulch, and drooling something that had a little blood in it. She growled at me, so I just opened up the garage and let her come in. She hid underneath my car, out of my reach. I was unable to examine her without traumatizing her further, so I called our veterinarian's office to ask for advice. I learned where the closest veterinary emergency clinic is. But as I saw no additional blood and it appeared that Misha was becoming more calm, I decided to wait things out.

An hour later, I opened the garage door and she ran inside. When Cody and Chelsea saw her, they could sense that something was wrong. Usually they bark whenever they first see her,  but the barking only lasted a nanosecond. The three of them disappeared into the back bedroom, and under the bed. Curiously, I got down on hands and knees to peek under the bed to see what they were doing. It was as if they were trying to comfort her. Chelsea seemed to be licking her clean, and Cody was protectively spooning her. It was a sweet scene, so peaceful.

Misha spent the night under the bed. This morning she came out for a while to eat and get some water, and then she disappeared again. The good news is, she seems to have escaped the attack with only a few scrapes. But I can tell she has lost some of her innocence, a lot of her pride, and it will probably be a long time before she'll want to go back outside. Poor kitty.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Easy being green, part 1

Here in Indianapolis, we don't have mandatory recycling. Most people don't even recycle at all! Coming from a city where recyclables were collected curbside - for free - and then living in another city where recycling is required by law, made me a proponent of recycling. So why don't more people here recycle?

Probably because they just don't know how. I didn't know how either, when I moved here - I had to investigate. Through Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, I found out that you can take your newspapers and magazines to the little green and yellow bins that are in the parking lots of most schools and churches around town. From Google searches, I learned that there are a couple of places around Marion County where you can drop off your cans and glass and plastic bottles (#1 and #2 plastic only). I also found a place where I could drop off cardboard for recycling, and another place for taking your electronic and other items.

Eventually, I learned that for just $6.00 a month or so, Republic Services has a curbside recycling program.  I signed us up, and within just a few days, someone dropped off a little blue recycling box. There were lots of rules, though: magazines and newspapers had to be bundled; cardboard had to be broken down; and as usual, only #1 and #2 plastics would be accepted. Sometimes, even with weekly pickup, our box would be full to overflowing.

One morning after putting out the trash and recycle bin, I happened to notice that NONE of my neighbors had the blue bins. As I drove to work, I looked down the streets in my subdivision. Of the 100+ houses here, I only saw two other blue bins. I wondered: if people knew about the recycling service, would they pay the $6.00 a month? It makes me so sad to see how many bags of garbage people leave out for the garbage truck: it's not unusual to see four, five, six bags on the curbs. All that stuff just goes to the landfill. (I estimate that recycling has reduced our trash by one-third or more.)

Not long ago, we were notified that changes were coming to the recycling program "based on feedback from our customers." A few days later, a huge blue bin on wheels (larger than our trash bin! - see above) arrived, along with a set of instructions. We don't have to bundle anything anymore. We can just pitch all the recyclables into the big bin, close the lid, and not worry. They also take the cereal-type boxes now, which is reducing our contribution to landfills even more.

This is a great service and I wish everyone would use it. Although it was always FREE in the other places I lived, six dollars a month is really not that much. Those of you who live in the Indianapolis area and are interested, please visit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful's web site, click on the Recycle link, and you will find the info you need to get started. To my friends who are fortunate enough to live in places where recycling is mandatory, my hat's off to you. Keep up the good work. 

Monday, November 3, 2008

The day before

I'll admit it: I'm a Presidential election junkie. For the past two years, I've been following the news, watching the speeches, analyzing the debates and laughing at the mishaps and Saturday Night Live sketches. It's been kind of a rush.

Indiana is one of the states where you can vote early, so yesterday I headed down to one of the polling places to cast my vote.  I was quite surprised with the number of people waiting in line - there were probably a hundred people lined up out the door and around the building. Of course, there were also people passing out flyers and trying to get you to vote for their candidate (in addition to President, there are several state and local offices up for grabs). I wish they would not allow people to do this. For one thing, it's annoying. It's also environmentally unfriendly  - as evidenced by the huge pile of discarded flyers in a trash bin by the entrance. Anyway, by the time I get to the polls, I've already made my mind up and need no additional convincing. 

Fortunately, the line moved quickly, and soon I was inside the building. There I found that the line continued, with people coiled around like a snake, and the actual voting booths in the center of the room. There were several checkpoints, from ID checking to verification of registration, but it was a well-oiled machine and the poll workers kept the line moving. I marked my ballot, sealed it in the envelope, and was out the door. In all, the process took about 30 minutes.

I felt great afterward - and relieved. Now I won't have to stand in an even longer line tomorrow. I won't have to worry about taking time off from work, or getting a speeding ticket on the way to my local polling place before the very early closing time. I'm not sure why Indiana is one of the first states to close polls. But it is.

One thing's for sure, history will be made tomorrow. Being the Presidential election junkie that I am, I'll be glued to the news until the results are in. Let's just hope it won't take an act of the Supreme Court to decide this one because I'm not sure I can handle that again.

What will I do when this is over?!!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The long journey home

I said goodbye to Sydney on Friday. The trip home took about 20 hours (and that was just the flying time, not the waiting around at airports time). I had three flights, from Sydney to San Francisco, from San Francisco to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Indy. Ironically, although I left Sydney around 3PM Friday, I got home at 11PM Friday. Yet from the plane I saw day turn into night - twice. Such is the enigma of crossing the International Date Line.

Thankfully, my flights were all on time and pretty much uneventful. Well, there was the crazy lady on the flight to Indy . . . a first class passenger who was arguing with the flight attendant over his request to put her purse in the overhead compartment. She held up our flight at least 5 minutes, but we still arrived on time.

Despite the very long "day" I was unable to sleep. So I came home exhausted! I slept until almost noon today, and spent the better part of the day in my pajamas. Call it jet lag. It'll take me several days to get back on Eastern USA time.

I just went back and added some photos to the blogs I wrote while I was away. So you might want to go back and see them - starting with Asia's largest underground shopping mall.

It's good to be home. I'm not planning on going anywhere for a while. And that's just fine with me.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I meant the Rivercat

Just a clarification on Tuesday's entry. There is something here in Sydney called the Jetcat. But for the past four days after work, I've ridden on a Rivercat. My bad.

I rode on the Shane Gould three times and the Evonne Goolagong once. I wondered who they were so I Googled them. Evonne Goolagong sounded familiar and that's because she was a famous tennis player in the 1970s. Shane Gould was a multiple medal-winning swimmer in the 1972 Olympics. Both of these women are Sydney natives. So I guess they name the Rivercats after famous Sydneysiders (this is what you call a person from Sydney.)

Rivercat, Rivercat, Rivercat.

Tag, I'm it

My friend KT had these questions on her blog and I am shamelessly copying from her because I, too, thought it was cool. I hereby challenge my other blogger friends to do the same. 'Cuz this stuff is INTERESTING! :-)

Outside my window right now is: Sydney harbour. The harbour bridge with the Australia and New South Wales flags flying on top. The scary-looking face at Luna Park.

My daily rhythm is: Hit the snooze button, hit the snooze button, hit the snooze button. Until I can hit the snooze button no more. (What can I say, I'm just not a morning person.) Go, go, go until around 9PM. Then wind down slowly by taking a nice bath (if I'm home) or reading in bed for a couple of hours before falling asleep.

I am thankful for: A great family, a great job, and great friends. (Copying KT word for word!)

In the kitchen: No idea because I haven't been home for two weeks.

Breakfast: This week it's been Starbucks sugar-free vanilla lattes and low fat muffins, because I don't want to pay $40 for the hotel breakfast. But when I'm at home, I usually have yogurt and granola with blueberries or strawberries on top and coffee.

I haven't found: a reason to like Sarah Palin.

Lunch: Usually some kind of salad.

Supper: This hotel has some really good spaghetti. I'm about to order it for the third time.

I am wearing: black pants, a black shirt, black socks. In other words, my uniform. LOL!

I am creating: true life stories of my own.

Bringing beauty to my home: I'm not really good at this. That's Sandy's job. :-)

I am reading: The Host by Stephenie Meyer. It's not a Twilight book but is really good.

I am hoping: for a safe and on time trip back to Indy tomorrow.

I am making plans for: going home and staying there for a very long time!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Taking the Jetcat

For the past three days, I've taken a taxi to work every morning. It's about a 30-45 minute ride from the hotel and the office. I try to be productive during this time by checking emails on the Blackberry, reviewing my daily schedule, and even making some phone calls. Because other than crossing three bridges, noticing the cool cars at the Holden dealership, and passing a restaurant called The Austrian Schnitzelhaus, the ride is pretty boring.

The ride home, however, is quite exciting. I just get one of my coworkers to drop me off at the dock. There I hop on one of Sydney Ferry's "Jetcat" catamarans and sail from Meadowbank to Circular Quay. It takes about 30 minutes and is the smoothest ride I've ever had on water. (For those of you who are so keenly aware of my lack of sea legs - my experience is mercifully NOT the same on the Jetcat. LOL!) It only costs A$5.50 so it's a bargain, too.

The weather was really *hot* the first day I took the Jetcat, so I stood on deck and let the wind blow through me. Yesterday, it was a little cooler, so I sat inside with the masses. I'll probably be back inside today, since it's misty-raining. But I'd prefer this to a taxi no matter what type of weather!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sculptures by the sea

I'm in pain. My calf muscles are killing me and my shins are screaming. Why? Because today I walked the Pacific Trail from Coogee to Bondi Beach. I have no idea how far this is, but like Australia, it's a bloody long way.

Fortunately, I was in good company: My coworker Rachel, her husband and their kids, and some friends who were visiting them from New Zealand. So it was kind of a group thing, which is good, because otherwise I would not have done it. I had told Rachel I wanted to see the Sculptures by the Sea so it was really cool of her to take me out there. All along the coast are these tiny beaches surrounded by big rocks, and they have a wonderful pathway that connects them all. So we started out at Coogee, then walked up the hill and down again to Gordon's Bay. Then up stairs and more hills to Clovelly Beach, where there was a big outdoor bowling alley. Not the bowling we do back home, but lawn bowling. Basically it was a bunch of people drinking beer and rolling balls around, LOL.

From Clovelly we climbed again, through a winding trail that led us to Waverly Cemetery. It is said here that the residents have some of the best views of Sydney. Too bad they are not able to enjoy them. Some of the tombstones are so close to the cliffs that they look like a strong wind could blow them into the water below. A construction project is underway to build something to prevent this.

Next was Bronte Beach, known as a family beach (as opposed to Bondi, I guess, which is sort of a party beach). Bronte has some very interesting "sea baths" which are pools that are somehow separate from the ocean. That keeps the jellyfish, sharks, and surfers away from the kiddies. Beyond Bronte was Tamarama - which I kept calling Taramara. That's where the sculptures began. There were about 100 of them - some weird, some stupid, others really cool and creative. We walked up the big hill that would eventually lead us to Bondi, fighting huge crowds of people to see the sculptures. I think, I hope I got some good photos.

When I got back to the hotel, I ordered spaghetti and garlic bread for dinner via room service, because I feel like I did a half marathon today. A hilly half marathon at that. So I deserve some carbs. Too bad I didn't think of dessert. :-)

It was a great day and I'm so glad I had this experience. I can't wait to see how the photos turn out.

By the way, Bondi is pronounced "Bond-eye" and Coogee is a take on an Aboriginal word that means "stinky seaweed." You never know when this useful trivia may come in handy!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Paddington market

When I was in Sydney last year, my co-worker and I went to Paddington market. This Saturday-only market has several hundred vendors selling an impressive variety of handcrafted items such as jewelry, clothing, leather and woolen goods, and other "artisan" goods. I enjoyed it so much last year that I decided to go back again today. (And yes, this entry was written on Saturday, not Friday as it probably says above. Sydney is 15 hours ahead of Eastern USA time.)

I took a taxi out to Paddington. My very talkative driver was an Iraqi native who has lived in Australia for 15 years. Our conversation was mostly one-sided (with me acting as listener) and according to him, everything in the world, from US-Middle East relationships to the current situation with the economy, has been pre-determined by a small group of rich white men from North America and Europe, and there's nothing we can do to change anything: us ordinary folk are all merely serfs. The taxi fare was A$15 but I felt like he should have paid me - for therapy.

Fortunately, I was about to get some therapy of my own. Retail therapy, that is. Ahhhh, what a great day to shop in the great outdoors! The weather was absolutely perfect. I walked around, totally enjoying myself as I inspected items for sale, and chatted with the vendors and designers. A representative of Leather and Roses (one of my favorites last year) showed me their new items. I met one of the designers of the very cool Ruby Cat purses, and a jewelry designer who was doing some really unusual things with sterling silver. I had a discussion with a weaver about spinning and hand-dyeing wool - and I bought one of her beautiful scarves. And I discovered the work of Ping Lian Yeak, a young "autistic savant" who paints animals and landscapes.

I LOVE PADDINGTON MARKET. OK, I spent too much money. Or, looking at it another way - I did most of my Christmas holiday shopping today.

After leaving the Market, I began walking down Oxford Street towards the city. It was just so nice outside, and I was really enjoying the walk. I passed numerous restaurants and cafes, and made my way in and out of several independent bookstores and boutiques. Then there was a block or two of, um, shall we say "adult"-type stores (and no, I didn't check those out. LOL.) Before I knew it, I was at Hyde Park.

I didn't have a map. And we hadn't come this way in the taxi. I just "knew" where I was going, as if being led by an invisible tour guide. I popped into a Starbucks for some quiche and an iced vanilla latte, and called it lunch. Then I kept walking, past beautiful old sandstone buildings and designer shops and the first government building in Sydney. Before I knew it, I was back at Circular Quay. (By the way, the word "quay" is pronounced like "key.") I'm not exactly sure, but I probably walked two or three miles.

So now, I'm going to have room service for dinner, and spend the rest of the evening relaxing. I've got LOADS (Aussie word) of work to do, but I'm going to procrastinate on that until tomorrow.

Until next time . . .

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Land Down Under

G'day from Sydney, Australia! This is the last stop of my three-city business trip. Here in the southern hemisphere it's Spring, and the weather is perfect: sunny blue skies, 65 degrees Fahrenheit, with a fresh, gentle breeze coming off the harbor. Um, harbour. :-)

Sydney is a happy city and Australia is a happy country. At least to me. I just feel good when I'm here for some reason. Not sure if it's the clean air, or the purple-flowered jacaranda trees, or the smell of the jasmine flowers. Maybe it's the friendly people, or the totally cool Australian accent and interesting vocabulary words. Swagman. Billabong. Troppo. Shrimp on the barbie.

You see, I'm an Australiaphile. I've been one since I was five years old, ever since the day I found an old book on my parents' bookshelf called The World in 5,000 Pictures. There was a section on Australia with photos of Sydney (circa 1950) and kangaroos and sheep stations and I have been in love with - and maybe slightly obsessed with - the concept of Australia ever since.

One of the reasons I became a teacher was because I saw a documentary about the outback teachers from the Alice Springs School of the Air who taught students in remote locations via ham radio. Occasionally they would fly out to the bush in small planes to meet with the students in person. It looked so exciting. I wanted to do something like this.

I almost immigrated here in the mid 1980s. I actually filled out the paperwork - but I never sent it in, because I didn't have quite enough points (Australia has a points system for immigration). I would have had more than enough points after I completed my teaching certification, but by then, I wasn't at a point in my life where I could be that flexible.

I always knew that I would visit Australia one day. I just didn't know it would take so long to get here. But now here I am, for the second time in one year. That's right, it was this time last year - 26 October 2007 to be exact - that I was here. Interesting, huh?

Someday I'll come back and see more of the country. Sydney is great but there's a lot more to see here. I still want to see Melbourne, and the Blue Mountains, and Uluru (Ayers Rock), and the Great Barrier Reef, and the western city of Perth. I'd also like to see "the outback."

This morning my taxi driver told me that there is a great deal of expansion occuring in Western Australia ("W.A.") due to the booming mining industry. I asked him if the boom was so significant that they were needing teachers. He replied with a definitive yes. I did a quick Google search and had several hits such as this one. I love how it says "If you fancy a change . . . "

As for me, I do not currently fancy a change, but if I did, I might go for it.

I love this country.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Stinky tofu, frogs egg tea, and the raid at the night market

After work today, Cindy, one of my work colleagues, offered to take me out to the Night Market. She promised me that it would be extremely crowded and an authentic Taipei experience, so how could I refuse? I only wish that I could post some photos for you tonight (I have photos, but the software I use for that is on my Mac . . . back at home.)

We took a taxi across town and when we arrived, I could see that she was right about the number of people out. I don't think I've seen that many people in such a small space -- ever. There are three million people living in Taipei and 2.9 million of them were at the Night Market tonight.

Cindy recommended that we eat dinner first, noting that: "the best places to eat always have the most people around them." We walked through a building that had to be as large as a major department store back home, past one food vendor after another cooking up food on grills and griddles: oyster pancakes, pieces of "stinky" tofu (so named because of the smell of the fermentation process it goes through - and trust me, it is really bad), grilled skewered chicken butts, and the biggest sausages I've ever seen - to name a few. Cindy talked me into the pancakes and the tofu -- she said they were special Taipei dishes. I really liked the tofu. It didn't smell stinky after it was deep fried. But the oyster pancake was made with rice flour, making it just a bit too gooey for me.

Our next course was a drink, and the drink vendors were plentiful. Most drinks are made to order with various types of fruit juice or milk, or a combination thereof. Cindy suggested the "frogs egg tea" which had chunks of gelatin in it. I was leery, but . . . when in Taipei, right? Actually, it doesn't contain frogs eggs - but something akin to the bubbles in bubble tea. OK, now here's something different: the drink was topped off with black beans. How's that for a protein drink? The liquid part of it was quite tasty.

Fully satiated, we headed over to the shopping area of the Night Market, where according to Cindy, you can find anything you would possibly want to buy. I saw a lot of purses, jewelry, shoes, and clothing - not my type, but apparently very popular with the young crowd. Prices are negotiable, so bring your haggling skills.

As we fought to maintain our balance on the overcrowded pedestrian street, Cindy pointed out that the vendors with carts in the middle were illegal vendors, and that if the police came, they would quickly leave. I suddenly became aware of the walkie-talkies in the hands of these vendors, and it wasn't long after that something started buzzing. Suddenly, as if part of a performance, the illegal vendors began closing up their carts and wheeling them away. Man, were they organized! In just a few split seconds, one after another, they would disappear down the dark, narrow alleyways. Just as the last one disappeared, we saw the cop, walking up the street in his bright yellow shirt, checking the vendor licenses of the legitimate shops. I asked Cindy what would happen if an illegal vendor were caught and she said he/she would be fined . . . approximately US$10 which may not sound like a lot, but could be a lot to these vendors.

I didn't buy anything until we left the Night Market and went over to the Starbucks on the main street. (The Starbucks near my hotel was out of Taipei mugs, so I wanted to check this store to see if they had any. They did.) As I purchased my mug, the friendly cashier asked me if I was an American. I said yes, and he asked: "What state are you from?" I responded that I was originally from North Carolina, and the cashier, who couldn't have been more than 19 or 20, responded: "Michael Jordan is from North Carolina!" "Yes," I said. "And I went to school with him." Suddenly, I was almost as famous as Michael Jordan. "Really! You know Michael Jordan?" the kid asked. "Well, I had a Spanish class with him," I explained. I went on to answer about a dozen questions. It was the perfect nightcap to a very exciting evening.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sleepless in Taipei

I arrived in Taipei, Taiwan a few hours ago. It's just over 900 miles from Seoul but only took about 2 hours on EVA Air. EVA Air is a Taiwanese airline and the flight attendants really take care of you. I mean, I could not even move without the flight attendant wanting to help me shift in my seat. OK, I'm exaggerating slightly, but I must say that I am very impressed with the level of service provided by EVA Air (and also the other two Asian airlines I've flown, Cathay Pacific and China Air.)

In fact, the level of service here in Asia is outstanding in just about every arena. Hotel staff are amazing. I stayed at the Grand Intercontinental in Seoul and they made me feel like a queen. The Grand Intercontintal Seoul has probably the best breakfast buffet in the world, too. Their homemade granola is to die for - wish I had the recipe.

I'm in my new hotel tonight. It's a five star hotel (don't worry, I got a cheap corporate rate) but I haven't yet taken the time to check it out. The only thing I know is that there is a Starbucks next door, so tomorrow I'll grab a coffee on the way to work - and perhaps a Taipei mug if they have one to add to my growing collection of Starbucks city mugs.

Taipei is 12 hours ahead of Indy, so it's almost midnight as I write this (not the time below, which is Pacific time.) Anyway, I'm tired but my motor is still running. Can't blame it on jet lag this time, though as there is only one hour time difference between Taipei and Seoul. Oh, well!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Asia's largest underground shopping mall

I'm in Seoul, Korea for a few days on business. Just arrived late last night after traveling for nearly 24 hours including airport stops. Whenever I travel somewhere, I like to check out the local scene as much as possible - it actually helps me adjust to the time zone changes to get out there and walk around. Since today is a Sunday (Seoul is currently 13 hours ahead of Eastern US time, so ignore the date above as is actually October 19 as I write this), I decided to check out Asia's largest underground shopping mall. COEX Mall, which is just steps from my hotel.

This place is HUGE! It's part of Seoul's convention and exhibition (COEX) center. There's a train station. A casino. A movie theatre showing, like, 20 different movies - including four English language movies. An aquarium. Even a kimchi museum and a dental emergency center. (Let's hope I can avoid that last one.)

There are hundreds of stores here, selling pretty much anything one could possibly want to buy. Seems like they have hundreds of restaurants, too. There are all kinds of traditional Korean and Asian restaurants - everything from Korean BBQ to noodles, dim sum, sushi, pho, and everything in between. There's an Italian pasta shop and a TGI Friday's and a Pizza Hut. They've got two Starbucks cafes and several other coffee shops.

I just window shopped . . . that is, until I found Bandi and Luni's. B&L is a bookstore and it may well be the largest one I've ever been in. I'm drawn to bookstores like a magnet to steel, and this is one of the best I've ever seen in terms of selection. Of course, most of their books are in Korean, but they also have an impressive selection of Japanese and English language items. In fact, they have more English language books than most small bookstores have books. There were paperback versions of books here that we can only get in hardcover back home, such as Stephenie Meyer's The Host and Breaking Dawn. (I also saw these in paperback in Europe, so this is not necessarily unusual.) They had a whole wall of literature classics, the latest bestsellers, and one of the largest sci-fi/fantasy sections I've seen outside of the megabookstores back home.

Particularly impressive was the size of B&L's foreign language studies section, geared to Korean speakers. There were miles of aisles of books, CDs, and other tools for learning English and other languages. And this was one of the more popular sections of the store. I couldn't walk down the aisles without bumping into someone. It seems as if everyone in Korea is interested in learning a foreign language. I could not help but wonder - why don't we have this interest back home?

I bought a couple of gifts, but nothing for myself. I wanted to buy a novel set in Korea or by a Korean author, but unfortunately I didn't find anything on my own, and neither of the two store clerks I asked could help. If I have time, I'm going to do a little research online to see if I can find such a book, and then go back again and ask for it.

I'm not hungry now, but when I get hungry, I'm probably going to go to Jackie Chan's Noodles and Dim Sum restaurant. Yes, Jackie Chan the moviestar has a chain of restaurants and one of them is at COEX Mall. It's right across from the Megabox movie theatre, which as I previously mentioned is showing several movies in English. Maybe I'll take myself out later to dinner and a movie.

But first, a nap . . . jet lag is catching up with me!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Runner wannabe

I'm not a runner, but I love to read Runner's World magazine. Ironically, I started reading it back in the Fall of 2000 while recovering from an injury sustained while trying to . . . run. I became a subscriber not long after that, and have maintained my subscription for eight years. That makes it the magazine that I've subscribed to the longest.

I look forward to getting Runner's World every month. The cover layouts are always appealing, and the articles always seem to be so timely. In the most recent issue (November 2008) to arrive in my mailbox, there is a focus on environmentally-friendly running, with insightful articles on how running shoes are made, the ecological "footprint" of running, a list of the 10 "Greenest" races, "Green" clothing and gear, and tips for being a "Greener" runner.

Every month, there's an inspirational article that makes me want to get out there and start running. For example, earlier this year there was an article about a man who didn't start running until he was in his fifties. Now he's in his nineties and has run over 100 marathons. I've also seen articles about runners with disabilities who run 5Ks, half marathons, marathons, even ultra races of 50 miles or more. 

I read Runner's World from cover to cover. I've used the magazine's tips to start walking programs and to get me through several 5Ks and the Indianapolis 500 half marathon (as a walker) as well as to improve my time. I've followed tips for getting good shoe fits, good sports bras, and other clothing items. I've consulted the race calendar to look for walks/runs in my area (and am very sad that the calendar is now online only). I've entered - and once, won - one of RW's online contests. I've even purchased items advertised in RW - such as the Road ID. But so far, I'm still just a runner wannabe. 

For the past several years, my favorite columns have been the nutrition column by Liz Applegate and the "No Need for Speed" column by John "The Penguin" Bingham. (Bingham also wrote one of my favorite sports-related books, The Courage to Start - a semi-autobiographical piece describing how he went from 43 year-old overweight smoker to marathon runner.) Bingham, a self-described non-athlete, inspires millions of people with his books, articles, and presentations about the joy of participation in running: you don't have to win; it doesn't matter if you're last; what matters is that you're out there doing it.

Oh, I so want to be a runner! I so want to have a long, lean runner body. To be able to burn calories quickly. To be able to exercise practically anywhere. To wear those cute little running clothes. To be able to say things like: "Yeah, I did 18 miles yesterday" or even "I did fartleks today." (Don't know what a fartlek is? Read RW!)

Recently a new column for new runners - The Newbie Chronicles by Marc Parent - has started appearing in RW. I'm all over it like white on rice. Today I read (in the September 2008 issue) his article about his first run, and I'm more motivated than ever. 

Now if I can only just get my running shoes - the ones I purchased from a local running store where the people know how to fit you with the perfect shoe - and get out there and do it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hammocks and fallen leaves

Here is a shot of our backyard that I took on Wednesday. I just like this photo and how the fallen leaves are stuck on the hammock. There's something about this photo that says "home" to me. Maybe it's the hammock, or the birdhouse (made by my cousin Eric), or the trees or the pond. Or the combination.

The hammock is so relaxing - I could fall asleep in it. Sometimes I just lie there looking up at the sky and the tops of the trees. It's an amazing sight and feeling. I highly recommend Hatteras Hammocks - a North Carolina company! They make the best hammocks.

The leaves are getting close to peak color. I'll put some more photos up soon to show what I'm seeing outside. I love, love, love this time of year!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Everyday weirdness

I was driving south on US 31 this evening during rush hour, and noticed a foot hanging out of the trunk of a car ahead of me. This is an example of the everyday weirdness I seem to encounter. Sometimes I think I'm a magnet for weirdness. 

Weird things have happened to me all my life. How many of my faithful readers (both of you) know that I have been struck by lightning? It's true. When I was about 14 years old, I was talking on the phone during a thunderstorm. Back in 1978, the phones were directly wired (no cordless phones). My Mom used to warn me not to talk on the phone during thunderstorms, but like most other fourteen year-olds I had a pretty hard head. Lightning struck, and in a split second I was picked up (135 pounds or so) and thrown across the room. I hit the wall hard. Some people have told me I was really lucky that I didn't die. All I know is, I never talked on a corded phone during a thunderstorm anymore after that. And I started listening to my Mom more. :-)

When I was about sixteen or seventeen, I was mowing the lawn at my parents' house one Saturday, and I had this creepy sensation that someone was watching me. Instinctively, I looked up . . . and the Goodyear blimp was flying right over me!

Also in my late teens, sometime before the Stealth bomber was well-known, I was walking on our farm and had that same type of sensation that something was watching me, and I looked up and saw the strangest airplane. It was shaped like a triangle and flying really, really low and did not have a loud sound. It freaked me out so much that I ran home and never walked in that field alone again.

When I was in my early thirties, I was standing outside in the yard with my Dad, and for some reason we were looking up in the sky. Suddenly, we saw something that we both swear to this day was a UFO. It was very high but we could see its lights. It came from the west, first at a normal airplane speed, but then ZOOMed across the night sky out over the ocean. Now you might think maybe this was just some sort of military plane or satellite or something, but I'm not sure we've achieved that level of physics knowledge. You see, the plane did a fast-as-lightning zig zag right over us, with perfect precision.

So, the car with the foot hanging out may not be as interesting as some of the other weird things I've experienced, but it got me to thinking about all these things. 

Do you have any weird stories? What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

If you're going to San Francisco . . .

Did you miss me? I just returned from vacationing in California. For nearly six days, I was pretty much unplugged. No internet. No Blackberry. And only a little TV, e.g., last Thursday's Vice Presidential debate.

We flew in and out of San Jose, and spent our first two nights in Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula just south of San Francisco. We stayed at the Centrella Inn, which we both highly recommend for its private cottages, lovely gardens, friendly staff, and 5:30pm wine and snacks. We found a new wine we like (Salmon Creek chardonnay) which was kind of a big deal because we don't normally like chardonnay. 

Last Thursday morning, we went on a whalewatching cruise, and "S" saw lots of humpback whales - including some up close and personal. As for me, well, let's just say I waited a little too late to take my Dramamine. I have no sea legs, and that was my last ever cruise of any type.

On Friday we drove over to Carmel-by-the-Sea and then took Highway 1 to . . . we thought to Big Sur. But we actually drove all the way down to San Simeon (home of the Hearst Castle) because we totally didn't see the cutover that's supposed to be just south of Big Sur over to the 101. Not that it mattered. Highway 1 is the type of road you could drive down all day and be totally content. An engineering feat, it's a winding rollercoaster of a road nestled snugly between the rocky Pacific coastline and a quite large mountain range. The scenery is simply breathtaking.

We spent Friday and Saturday nights at a friend's house in San Mateo, and made that our base while we ventured on to Marin County, the Napa Valley, Berkeley, and San Francisco. San Mateo is a cute small city, with lots of great shopping within walking distance of our (lucky!) friend's house.  

In Napa, we toured Beringer and did a tasting at Grgich in Rutherford. I want to do a separate entry on wine, though, so I'll save that for another time.

On Sunday, we had quite possibly the most awesome meal ever at The Slanted Door, a very famous Vietnamese restaurant overlooking the San Francisco Bay and Bay Bridge from the Ferry Building. The grapefruit and jicama salad is to die for, as are the imperial rolls and pho. The lemongrass chicken is also exceptional and made from fresh, hormone-free chicken. The Slanted Door changes their menu often, adjusting to the seasonal availability of local organic produce. I really dig that and wonder why more restaurants can't do the same.

We had an early flight to Chicago yesterday, so we opted to spend Sunday night in a motel close to the airport. It turned out to be really close to the airport . . . as in it was hard to sleep for the airplane noises. Oh, well. That was the only part of this vacation I could possibly complain about.

If you haven't been to San Francisco, put it on your list! (Same for the Monterey Peninsula, Big Sur, Napa, etc.) Don't worry about the flowers in the hair. :-)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Change of seasons

This morning I went out on the back porch to drink my coffee, and I noticed a familiar crispness in the air. Breathing in, it hit me . . . the first day of Fall was a few days ago. Then I looked up and saw a branch of prematurely red maple leaves, and couldn't help but smile. Fall is my favorite season, and it's here! Woo-hoo!

I love Fall! I love the dramatic color changing of the leaves, the colorful pumpkins and mums and Indian corn, the cool nights and not-so-hot days. I love getting out my "cool weather" clothes and wearing long sleeves again. I love making caramel apples and drinking hot apple cider and watching Colts football games on Sunday afternoons. I love going for long walks in the woods. I even love it when people decorate their homes and yards for Halloween, even though I would NEVER do that. 

OK, well, I'll put a pumpkin out. Or two. We'll see. :-)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How 'bout them apples?

We moved to our neighborhood 18 months ago, six of which I was away working in Europe.  So we're still exploring. It seems like every time we go out, we find a new interesting place - especially on the roads leading outside the city. Examples of some of the neat things close by are: a Sikh temple (I mean, how many of those will you find in Indiana?), a very nice local winery (Buck Creek Winery), and a rather large and supposedly haunted community theatre (Buck Creek Playhouse). Maybe I will write about those places in future entries. But today I want to write about Anderson Orchard.

This afternoon on the way home from work, we decided to follow the red apple-shaped signs labeled Anderson Orchard. The route took us all the way to Carroll Road, where we passed an alpaca farm (no kidding!) and finally found the orchard. 

What a pleasant surprise! Anderson has several varieties of apples, including Jonagold, Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Mutsu. (They also had Buttercrisp but those have already been sold out for the season.) You can pick 'em yourself, or buy them by the half peck, peck, half bushel, or bushel. Of course, they sell apple cider. They also have an "apple slush" machine, and being the curious person that I am, I had to try it. (It was awesome!) 

Anderson also sells in-season produce. They had lots of sweet peppers today, some pumpkins, gourds, butternut squash, and green beans. And mums! They had lots of mums, in several different colors.

We bought a half peck of Gala apples for the low, low price of four dollars. If like me you're not exactly sure what a "half peck" is, well, I counted 16. We could have had a whole peck for $7, a 1/2 bushel for $13, or a whole bushel for $24. But what in the world would you do with a bushel of apples? (My Mom would make apple jelly with the peelings, and she'd put the apples in jars. I don't have those skills.)

I ate one after dinner tonight. It was the perfect blend of sweet and tart. I can't wait to eat another one. If eating an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then what happens if you eat two apples a day?


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Girl attacked by giant shrimp

It happened in the parking lot at Ella's Restaurant in Calabash, North Carolina last Tuesday night.  We'd just eaten lots of fried (Carolina style) shrimp, fish, clam strips, crabs, and oysters and everyone was quite content. As we exited the restaurant, we were surrounded by giant plastic sea creatures. One of them grabbed my 12 year-old niece. After a struggle, she escaped unharmed. It sure was a close call.

I know I'm supposed to be writing about my life in Indiana. But the fact is, I just returned to the USA 11 days ago after being gone for 6 months. I've had people to see and other places to go besides Indiana. Like the Carolinas, home of my peeps. 

But I'm back in the Hoosierland now. 

Welcome to my new blog. If you enjoyed The Wienerschnitzel Diary . . . well, OK, this one is probably not going to be that exciting. But I'll try. After all, I do have a unique angle planned: recent world traveler attempts to settle down in the middle of America. Can it be done? Stay tuned!