Family Vacation with the Crawfords and Doanes

Wednesday, 31 July 2013
We have started a fun new family tradition. We take one vacation a year with my mother's brother and his family. My cousins are: Lauren (lives in Seattle) and Amanda (lives in Kansas, married with one young child). Her husband's name is Vic and my aunt Judy is so much fun. She has a great sense of humor (as does everyone else) so we have a great time.

This year we went to the Florida Keys and stayed at a home in Islamorada (Upper Keys). My mom does a great job of scoping out properties and this year we had our own private beach and plenty of room for all 11 people.

The property (Kara-Pan I) is in such a nice location and mom and I walked on the beach several times in the morning looking for shells and watching for birds. 

The water in the keys is warm and clear so after a walk in the morning and a cup of coffee, I would usually take a quick swim before settling in to study for comps. 

We did some really fun things while in Florida: swimming in the ocean, pool days, kayaking to an island, snorkeling on the Big Reef, a fabulous boat ride, shopping, cooking together, watching Tarpon and sharks being fed at nearby marinas and great dinners out listening to live music. 

There are more pictures to come of our activities. My favorite part was cooking for everyone on our second night there. James helped me and we looked out onto the peaceful waters of the Atlantic while preparing the meal. 

Tallin, Estonia

Tuesday, 30 July 2013
Tallin has the most amazing 14th century architecture and it has been beautifully restored. There are basically two Old Towns in the area. The upper town (Toopea) started out as a fort created by Danes in 1219. With the arrival of German merchants in 1230, a lower town was created for the lower class... You can sort of see the division if looking down on the area from one of the church towers. (Notice the buildings on the hill surrounded by an old wall.)

There are several interesting things in Tallin to see. One is a pharmacy that was established in 1422 that is still in operation!

We took a quick tour of it and on display in a little museum inside the pharmacy are old vials, scales and even ingredients used to make medicine in the 15th century. 

The picture below is of a jar containing "earth worms in soil" and another containing "sun bleached dog feces." Thankfully many of the ingredients used back in the day were just herbs and different plants.  

Another interesting tidbit that we picked up at the pharmacy was the use of marzipan as medicine! The legend goes that "Mart" worked at the pharmacy and made the confection out of powdered almonds and powdered sugar. He gave it to someone who said it settled his stomach. Soon after, the medicine became popular and people said it gave them energy and made them happy (makes sense because of all of the sugar). Because the people of Estonia believe marzipan originated here, there is an amazing marzipan shop where the treat is still made and hand-decorated. James and I tried a piece - very rich and of course delicious!

Riga, Latvia

Monday, 29 July 2013

We thought Riga was lovely. The Old Town was again very pretty and we enjoyed the views from Saint Peter's Church. 

The BEST part about being in Riga during the first part of July was the Song and Dance Festival. Almost everyone in Latvia sings and they celebrate their heritage by dressing in their part of the country's authentic dress and singing folk songs and walking in a parade once a year. 

The Song and Dance Festival has been going on since the late 1800s and more than 40,000 march in the parade alone. Every evening when we went to dinner or stopped to have a Latvian beer on the patio, we were able to hear live music and sometimes watch folk dancing. We loved it and felt very lucky to be a part of such a special cultural event. 

My favorite part of Riga was a behind-the-scenes tour of the Latvian National Opera House! 

We learned about the music director, the renovation of the main theater and even sat in the President's box to see what his view of the stage would be (the seats in the center of the theater are actually better). 

The most special part of the tour was going into the Red Room (where those with the best seats in the house hang out during intermission) and being greeted with a glass of champagne. Such a fun day! 

Vilnius, Lithuania

Sunday, 28 July 2013
James took me to Europe for part of my birthday pressie and we went to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Why the Baltic States you might ask? (Several people did ask that.) James' great, great grandfather came from Lithuania to the States so he wanted to see the mother land. Also, the weather there is glorious this time of year. It was sunny and low 70s the entire time. We received excellent service throughout the trip and never had to wait in line for an attraction. It seems that everyone visits the "ultra tourist" spots this time of year: Rome, Paris, London... Plus, the history and architecture are amazing. 14th century structures still stand in this part of the world.

We hired a guide for our first day in Lithuania. We walked only two blocks from our hotel in the Old Town to Vilnius University. It is Lithuania's largest university with more than 13 courtyards. Once our guide heard that I was pursuing my PhD, she took us to where other PhD students were studying for exams and working on dissertation defense. (See below - not a bad office!)

On our stop was also a visit to the Amber Museum. Amber is found in small amounts in Lithuania and we learned about how it forms and why certain types of amber are different colors. I even booked an amber massage where the massage is performed using unpolished amber stones. (Amber is really not a stone but a fossil, created by sap that oozes from trees). It was amazing and I felt energetic afterwards rather than sleepy. 

We took a 1/2 day trip and went to the Trakai Island Castle. It is about 20 minutes from Vilnius and I loved it. There's quite a bit of water in this area (several lakes) and we ate lunch on the terrace of one of the little bistros and watched the boats going in and out. The castle was first built in the 13th century, then destroyed in the 17th century, then restored in the 1980s. 

We especially enjoyed the lake side walk after the castle tour. You can get some excellent photos of the castle from that vantage point. 

Our most awe-inspired moment in Lithuania was at the Hill of Crosses in Western Lithuania. This is where hundreds and hundreds of crosses have been left by people from all over the world. 

People started leaving crosses here as a protest against Russian rule. Because the regime was atheist, rulers burned down the crosses. Stone crosses began to reappear, they were buried. People returned with more crosses, the regime flooded the area but again, the crosses appeared again. The Russians gave up and in 1993 even Pope John Paul II added a cross. 

It is difficult to really show the scope of the hill. We spent about an hour here walking through the paths, looking at the different crosses and taking pictures. 

Dinner at Blackberry Farm

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Melissa and I went to Blackberry Farm near Knoxville Tennessee for dinner. The place is an old farm adapted to a five star "hotel" and restaurant. The views are impressive!

Our meal started out with a small turnip, fresh butter and sea salt. The butter was house made and the turnip came straight from the garden. Blackberry Farm grows all of its own produce. I of course think that is amazing and certainly the fresh taste is reflected in the delicious Southern-inspired dishes.

I would never have thought to serve turnips this way but we both thought it was tasty! For the first course I enjoyed a tomato salad, barrel aged soy and grilled okra from the garden paired with Ca'Marcanda 2011. 

My second course was guinea and dumplings (potato gnocchi, guinea confit and Hen of the Woods mushroom), paired with Melville Pinot Noir 2010. This was by far my favorite dish of the evening. The dumplings melted in my mouth and the guinea loosely flaked off of the bone. I savored every bite! 

My fourth course was lamb (Grilled Border Springs Lamb Loin) with a lovely mint pesto, fava beans, and polenta! It was served with Pride Merlot, 2009. I wish I would have taken more notes about the dishes but we were enjoying the food so much that I forgot to jot down our impressions. 

The chef sent out something to cleanse the palate while we pondered our desert choices: peach sorbet with graham cracker and vanilla. Wow!  

Since we couldn't decide on dessert, we were able to try a little bit of everything. This was Melissa's idea and I was so thankful for her suggestion. The chocolate cake (top left corner) was our favorite. 

Overall the experience was wonderful. However, we were disappointed that we weren't able to dine in the "barn" on the property. That's where meals are served. We were in the main house for dinner. Blackberry Farms also has a gnat problem in the dining area of the main house. We were seated next to a window (sadly completely fogged up from the air conditioning) but had to move because the gnats were so bad. The staff nicely moved us to a table by the fireplace but it seemed to take a long time to get service started for our table. We also weren't offered a wine pairing (because we weren't in the barn) but our young server did her best to pair for us when we asked for the service. We had hoped to speak with the Sommelier. She also made no mention of my birthday. We expected to feel very special at Blackberry Farms but perhaps this was just a bad night. The food was amazing! 

Pontification on 34

Wednesday, 17 July 2013
I haven't had much time to reflect on another birthday so here goes:

I'm 34 now and it doesn't feel any different from 33 (I'm sure you know exactly what I mean). However, I like being in my 30s much more than being in my 20s. There are several reasons why.

Some people believe that as we age, we tend to "let ourselves go" a bit. I find that to be true for me but not in a negative way. Yes, I have gained a few pounds. Body changes can be due to hormonal and metabolism changes but I'm adjusting and confronting that (next month begins a detox/yoga/meditation program that includes no alcohol and no meat for three months). By the way, is it such a tragedy to go up a size? Society says yes but I'm not so sure...

The positive aspect of "letting ourselves go" has to do with being less concerned about appearance. I used to be a very high maintenance lady (at least an hour to get ready). Now I spend less time looking in the mirror and more time doing the things that I love: reading, writing, researching, gardening, and cooking.

There is truly a freedom in caring less about what others think and caring more about what makes you happy. Do you agree?

As I age, I'm also less critical of others and I expect less from others. This could also be considered a negative by some but I think this change reflects increasing patience and a more laid-back approach to life. I find that when I'm less bothered by the small things, I'm more healthy and I give off a positive vibe to those around me. I'm still working on this but being more relaxed has been such a positive change in my 30s. It is exhausting to sweat the small stuff.

Our goals also change as we age. In my 20s my only goal was to climb the career ladder and do everything in my power to be considered a successful journalist. Did that make me happy? Not necessarily but I felt it was important to build a certain image and impress others. Now, my goal is to examine what it means for me to be happy and pursue it. There are things that I want in life that I'm just now realizing and that's exciting to me.

I dream of having a house on the water (a creek is just fine) that is private for writing, reading and birdwatching. The house doesn't have to be spectacular or brand new it just needs to have enough sunshine to grow things. I want space for a garden and animals and maybe even children. People there will be free to walk through the lawn barefoot if they want to and criticism will come only from the cats - they always want more treats. This is where I'll continue writing and researching and I hope to have an organized space that encourages me to do so. So far, 34 feels good. Does it get even better in our 40s?

Another Year Older

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

This summer I built a tiny outdoor "living room" and have enjoyed studying there with Lily. (She really acts like a dog sometimes and just lounges next to me while we're outside.) I used only recycled products (downed tree branches, vines and old pieces of wood that were in the back lot of my house when I bought it). I even built a small bench and table but usually I just sit in a camp chair. 

I hosted a birthday party for myself again this year but downscaled it just a bit. We had a nice time sitting around the fire and the menu included watermelon, chicken corn dogs, jumbo dill pickles and a gorgeous birthday cake from my friends Trish, Melissa and Wade. 

When I drove to Columbus to celebrate with my parents, bro and James, my mom set up a little beer tasting station on the back deck and we tried some local brews such as Fathead Honey Blueberry Ale and an Lagunitas IPA that Dannen really likes. 

Lily even joined the party (she came to Columbus with me as well as my other cat Violet).

We purchased some pretty flowers to celebrate and had fun arranging them. It was a lovely birthday and James took me to the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) for a week as well! I'll post more on that later. xo