Saturday, December 21, 2013

CHRISTMAS

         
           This special time of year always brings back memories of days long past; of all the traditions that are fading while new ones are being born. Christmas brings us hope, peace and comfort, as Christians everywhere celebrate the birth of our savior with family and friends. For children, it is the absolute best time of year and those childhood memories help to make the season bright.       
          One cherished childhood memory of mine is of a homey Christmas Eve night I shared with my big brother. Christmas was magical at our house. The family income was modest and with five kids, four at the time, we did not receive many indulgences throughout the year. But at Christmas time my parents pulled out all the stops. They saved all year to make all our dreams come true for this one enchanting time each year.
Not my real family
            The cookies were baked, the holly was hung, and the tree was twinkling with lights and tinsel. The Christmas Eve activities were winding down and begrudgingly, we kids were sent off to bed. My sister immediately fell into a sound sleep as she always did, and I lay awake anticipating what treasures awaited us come morning.
            “Sis, Sis, are you awake?” It was my brother peeking in to see if I was as restless as he was. “I think I hear Mom and Dad putting our presents under the tree”
            We were pretty young, but I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus. I was always a realist and knew that it was Mom and Dad playing Santa. Our cozy house was kept warm by a gas heater located in the wall between the bedrooms and the living room. There were slats in the upper part of the heater that you could see through. We stealthily crept up to the heater and peered through the slats to see what goodies were being unveiled.
            We stood in the warmth of the heater, holding hands, silently watching until the last gifts were tenderly placed around the tree to insure maximum impact on Christmas morning. Suddenly it was time for us to rush back to our beds to avoid being caught in the act.
            Even though we had been up so late, my brother and I were the first ones up in the morning. There were still lots of surprises despite our secret preview. I am not sure why I remember that Christmas Eve so clearly after all these fifty some years. Maybe because it was a time of innocence, security and bonding that only a loving family can provide a small child. What would I give to feel so safe again, if only for a little while.
            Merry Christmas everyone and make some wonderful memories with your loved ones.

Monday, December 9, 2013

EUROPEAN ADVENTURE 2013 - PART 3


To my great relief, I awoke the next morning feeling fine with an enormous appetite. I soon discovered I was in the right place to be hungry. We made our way to the ships dining room to be overwhelmed by the breakfast choices. The food on this river cruise was surprisingly delicious and more than abundant.

My husband and I usually travel on our own, with me doing all the planning and navigating. It can be a tremendous amount of work, since I am very protective of our vacation time, and want every hour to be spectacular. I can wear myself out planning every detail of a trip. This river cruise was a huge deviation from our history of independent travel. And what a relief it was to have everything planned for us and an opportunity to relax…or so I thought.

After a sumptuous breakfast that first morning, we hit the deck running. Traveling down the Rhine River Valley, we visited many villages, wineries, and historic sites, first in France, and then into Germany. Not wanting to miss anything, the idea of relaxing was soon forgotten. The timing of our cruise had been a concern as this area can be cold and rainy in October, but again luck was with us, and the autumn weather was sparkling and bright. The Riesling vineyards were golden, the sky was blue, white and silver, and the hills were as green as green can be. The colors of the villages were highlighted with the reds and oranges of fall.

We did enjoy one afternoon on board the River Queen, sipping champagne, while the mighty castles of the Rhine River Valley loomed above us on either side. Our tour also included the Mosel River, and an afternoon on board viewing the unbelievably steep and picturesque vineyards of this region.

All in all, we very much enjoyed the river cruise experience. It helped that we met many interesting people and made some wonderful new friends. The scenery was all we expected and more. Being pampered on board was an added bonus I had not considered. Our journey ended in Amsterdam, just in time for hurricane force winds and rain. This put a damper on our visit there, but we took a day trip into the countryside of what I still call Holland and explored windmills, fishing villages and even tried on wooden shoes, which they still wear in this boggy country. I was enchanted by the wild and windswept landscape and left it with fond memories.

This marks the end of another amazing trip that I will never forget, but once again I am appreciating the comforts of home, all the while pondering where our next great adventure will be.

Monday, December 2, 2013

EUROPEAN ADVENTURE 2013 - PART 2



As we continued eating and drinking our way across France we encountered some magnificent scenery and were blessed with cool, crisp, and mostly gorgeous fall weather. Who knew France was so stunningly beautiful? As lovers of history and natures’ magnificence, we were in heaven as we explored the sites of Joan of Arc’s military victories, and the villages that escaped destruction during Frances’ war torn past.

Our route from the village of Noyers towards Switzerland took us into the Franche-Comte’ region of France, and into the sub-alpine mountains of Jura. Our next stop was at Chateau De Germigney, which was used as a hunting lodge by French aristocrats in centuries past. Today the chateau is an enchanting hotel run by a delightful transplanted English manager who directed us to some of Frances hidden treasures. While researching this hotel, reviewers were raving about the restaurant on the premises, and once there, we checked it out. The d├ęcor was quite formal and the prices were quite astonishing. “How good can it be?” we wondered. Upon returning to the hotel after our days of touring, we noticed the restaurant was packed every night and we decided to splurge and made a reservation for our last night.

We spent our days in Jura outside hiking and exploring this breathtakingly beautiful area and planned to end our time there with a gourmet dinner at our hotel. We put ourselves at the mercy of our servers as there is not much English spoken in the French countryside. Well, the courses just kept coming, each being more fabulous than the last. We had no idea what we were eating, but it was so rich and delicious we couldn’t resist anything, a true adventure into gastronomy…and the adventure did not end in the restaurant.


We settled into our lovely room for a good nights rest before heading out the next morning to meet our river cruise in Basel, Switzerland. The weather forecast predicted a rainstorm and we did not want to miss our boat. The rumbling in my stomach woke me a few hours into the night and I knew this wasn’t going to be good. I spent the night in the bathroom reliving all the dishes we enjoyed at dinner. I was so sick I thought it may have been food poisoning, but Mark was sleeping soundly, totally unaffected, and was of no help to me. Is it possible to overdose on French food? I did not overeat, but the rich, unfamiliar dishes must have overloaded my system.

Still in the bathroom when our alarm went off, I managed to get packed, and with the help of our kind and caring hostess, who supplied me with Coke to sip on our drive, Mark got me to our stateroom on the Uniworld River Queen where I collapsed on our bed and slept for a long, long time.

Part 3 coming soon.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

EUROPEAN ADVENTURE - PART I



Years ago my husband and I were traveling from London to Paris on the train early one morning after an all night flight across the Atlantic. I remember looking out the window through my jet lagged, sleep deprived eyes and being enchanted by the tranquility of the French countryside shrouded in the morning mist. The lush rolling hills, dotted with farm houses and small villages called out to me and I wished this was our destination. We went on to Paris and had a wonderful time, but I have kept the image of that peaceful landscape with me and hoped to return someday.

Someday was last month, Oct, 2013, as we returned to Paris, mainly to eat at the great restaurants for a few days, then pick up a car and venture into the 'real' France. We had no expectations or ideas about what we would experience, but I had done my research and chosen what I thought would be fascinating places to use as bases while we made our way to Basel, Switzerland where we joined a river cruise.
                                                                        
Our first base was at Chateau de La Barre still owned by French aristocracy, Comte et Comtesse de Vanssay (Count and Countess of Vanssay, pictured above). The chateau has been in the Vanssay family for over 600 years and they have opened it to quests as a Bed & Breakfast. Upon arrival Count Vanssay gave us a tour of the Chateau along with the history of his aristocratic family, while Countess Vanssay made detailed plans for us to follow as we explored the Loire Valley.

My favorite pastime is reading history and especially historical fiction. The events in some of these books took place in the magnificent chateaus and castles of the Loire Valley. I had images of these estates in my mind and was thrilled to be walking the same paths as the history-makers I had read so much about: Chenonceaux (above) with its arches spanning the river, Cheverny which still houses much of its original furnishings, and the immense castle at Chambord (below), each spectacular in its unique way.

For us, France is in large part about the food. The countess recommended wonderful restaurants where we ended our days of touring with locally produced meals and wine. What could be better? Maybe being served dinner at Chateau de La Barre with the count and countess, eating on the families antique china and drinking local wines from their 600 year old stemware? The dining room was filled with magnificent furnishings down to the linens embroidered with the family crest and of course the food was delectable. Our fairytale evening ended with after-dinner drinks served by the count and enjoyed by the fireplace, a perfect ending to our visit to the Loire Valley.  

From the Chateau our route towards Basel, Switzerland took us into Burgundy and the medieval village of Noyers. I wanted us to experience local life and staying in Noyers was very local indeed. The village was tiny and perfectly preserved as it was hundreds of years ago: narrow cobbled streets, old stone buildings, and families who have lived there for generations. Upon arrival at our B&B we rang the bell at the large wooden gate and were greeted by a friendly, English speaking Australian. Her story is for another blog, but we soon became fast friends and since we were the only guests, she went out touring with us, showed us her restored 800-year house,                                                                                          and introduced us around the village.

We drove around Burgundy and enjoyed the lovely vineyards and villages, tasting wines and of course eating the wonderful cheeses and fresh produce. The fruit was sweet and bursting with flavor, and during this time we learned why French food is so superior. I had always thought it was the French chefs with their rich sauces and complicated recipes, but driving through the farmland of Burgundy we noticed the dark, moist soil and commented that it looked like the potting soil we purchase at the nursery. France happens to be blessed with this luscious, nutrient rich soil naturally, along with regular and abundant rainfall, making for ideal farming and raising of livestock. Now I know why I love to eat and drink wine in France.

To be continued

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Girlfriend Reunion 2013



It just keeps getting better. Each year when these life long friends reunite it seems we have even more fun. Maybe it is because we are all together only once a year and shut out all of life’s stresses. Whatever the reason, it is one fun weekend. We returned to the beautiful Northern California wine country for the second year renting a spacious house in a spectacular setting among the vine-covered hills to celebrate our 60th year of life.
Everything was perfect: the weather, the setting, the food, the wine, and the companionship. Well, almost everything.







Our plan was to meet at the property at noon on Thursday when our rental period began. There were three vehicles coming from different locations. We had written directions from the owner, GPS in our vehicles and on our smart phones, supplemented by maps we had printed off the Internet. How then, you may wonder, did we all get lost? After much frustration and an hour or so wondering around the hills of Healdsburg with very limited cell service, we came to the realization that the street name and the address of the house did not match up. What? Why were we not given this information? Eventually we all found the house and the confusing drive to get there made our arrival all the sweeter once we entered our world of luxury, serenity, and friendship.

With all the supplies we needed for great eating and drinking, we settled in to play in the pool, soak in the hot tub, take walks in the vineyards, and enjoy each other. In celebration of our milestone birthdays we expanded our weekend to three nights this year and planned to get gussied up and go out one night.

For the days we stay in we divide ourselves into two competing teams (team A and team B) for preparing meals. That way there are not too many cooks in the kitchen at any one time and you have a day when you are free of chores. Last year my team (team B) unanimously won for best dinner. This year we had to give the honors to team A, who pulled out all the stops due to the fact we had guests for dinner, a relative and his wife who live in the area, joined us on our last night. The more the merrier and it was very merry.

Laughter is the best medicine, and we laugh a lot over the weekend, especially at night when the wine is flowing freely. As we packed up to head back to the real world, we carried with us memories of our time together and find ourselves smiling at our exploits for weeks to come. We have already chosen our house for next year knowing that it just keeps getting better.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

FAMILY REUNION 2013


We just returned home from a fun weekend in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to reconnect with family. Our family consists of lifelong friends as well as my siblings and our spouses. Our base was at a home outside of Grass Valley, CA, which we choose for its proximity to rivers and lakes. As usual we shared great food, summer fun, and easy companionship. Food is ever present, as we have a grill master as well as a chef to cook it up.


Day 1 was arrival, and my husband and I stopped to explore the quaint and picturesque town of Grass Valley before heading to our base outside of town. My husband discovered an amazing ice-cream shop (if there is good ice-cream in the vicinity, he will find it) that we would return to a few times during the weekend. 

Day 2 was the Nevada County Fair where my adopted sister entered a handmade quilt in the quilters competition. She herded us all to the exhibition hall and instructed us on the voting process (she won first place in her division!). It was amusing watching our men become acquainted with the art and tradition of quilting. Who know they would be so taken with quilts. That evening back at our base, we enjoyed a great barbecue and amazing star gazing that us city folk rarely get to enjoy.

Day 3 we were on the lake with a houseboat and a ski boat. I had visions of water skiing (which I have not done in 20 plus years) but after an unsuccessful attempt to ride a banana (long water toy shaped like a banana) behind the boat, I decided against it. I am a little disappointed with myself that I chickened out on the skiing, but at least I don’t have any broken bones or strained muscles. Instead we floated, swam, ate, cruised around the lake, fished, ate, visited, and then ate a little more. A perfect summer day of relaxation.

Day 4 brings our reunion to an end. What a special weekend for siblings who wouldn’t see each other very often otherwise. A time to catch up, strengthen bonds, and laugh together reminiscing about our shared past. As we say goodbye, planning for next year, there is an occasional tear as we hug and go our separate ways. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

ONCE A MOM, ALWAYS A MOM


No matter how grown the kids are, they will always be your precious babies.

I saw this on Facebook today and thought how true, at least for me. My sons, ages 26 and 30, think I am a royal pain. I can’t help myself; I will always be their mom. When I see them my first instinct is to offer advice, or helpful criticism: you should get a haircut, be careful driving in the rain, you should be saving more of your money, and on and on. No wonder they don’t call or stop by as often as I would like.

I know they don’t want to hear my ‘advice’, but sometimes they need to hear it. I would feel guilty if they skidded off the freeway into a ditch in the rain after leaving my house without a warning to drive safely( as if that would help). For so many years they depend on our care and guidance. At what age do we let go?

Parenting doesn’t come with a guide book, but if it did I am sure it would recommend discontinuing the unsolicited advice long before they reach my kids’ age. I am working on enjoying the time I have with my sons, but I still have to bite my tongue when the urge to criticize or offer guidance attempts to spoil our time together. I still have slip ups, but I mean well.

In defense of caring parents everywhere, I think that grown children should be respectful and consider (even if they have no intension of following the offered advice) what their older and wiser parents are saying and consider our offered advice gracefully. And I must try to accept that until they are parents themselves they will not understand that they will always be my precious babies.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Things I Love and a Quote of the Week



“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
                                                       ~ Charles Dickens

Friends are great, but a friend with chocolate (or a martini) can lift you out of whatever depressing situation you may find yourself suffering through. In fact, chocolate alone can save an otherwise pathetic day. No offense to my wonderful friends, but we are talking chocolate…one of the loves of my life.


Reading this quote made me smile and begin to reminisce about things that I love, and how as we mature our likes and dislikes evolve. Chocolate has been a constant for me, but other passions have come and gone. As I mentioned in a previous blog, as a child I was crazy for shoes. A new pair of patent leather Mary Janes could make me feel like a princess. As a teenager during the hippy-dippy 60’s, nondescript leather sandals replaced my shiny dress shoes, while music and friends became my new priorities.

 Moving to Alaska in the 70’s brought my focus back to my feet. Boots, I had all styles: dress boots, everyday boots, outdoor activity boots, and each type in a variety of colors. My husband called me the boot queen. I my defense, I did live in Alaska and boots were a necessity. All my northern friends were boot queens also. Since moving back to California I rarely wear boots. I kind of miss them.
 



I have always been a fan of the great outdoors enjoying skiing, camping, and hiking. Not so much now that I am getting older. During my adult life I have enjoyed domestic hobbies like sewing and baking. I love to bake on a rainy day. Puzzles and craft projects have also been favorites.

Traveling to exotic and historic destinations is my ultimate passion. I hope to continue my world travels for years to come. My all-time favorite pastime though is reading. I think I could read endlessly. I will never stop reading unless my eyesight fails. A good book and a box of chocolates…it doesn’t get any better.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

QUOTE OF THE WEEK



“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
~ William Morris ~
                                                    Famous 19th century designer


I couldn’t have said it better myself! I have tried to express this sentiment repeatedly to different members of my family who I consider to have ‘hoarding’ tendencies. I seem to be in the minority, at least in my family, when it comes to attachments to ‘stuff’. I don’t get it. What possible good can come from closets jammed with clothes, shoes, accessories, (some decades old) that are never worn, or cabinets so cluttered it becomes hazardous to open them. What need does holding on to useless items fill for some people? It is beyond my comprehension.

My husband, who will save and store anything, believes that I am the one with the problem. He claims I am ‘obsessed’ with cleaning and organizing closets and cupboards. It is true that I find pleasure in this process, and I have been known to get rid of items that turn out to be needed again soon after. However, when my life feels confusing and out of control, purging my clothes closet or pantry of unnecessary items soothes and comforts my anxiety. The comfort is renewed each time I open the doors of these newly organized spaces.

This has been an ongoing battle in my marriage for 37 years, what to keep and what to throw out. We (mostly me) compromise and he has his spaces to store (hoard) his stuff, stuff that will never be used or even looked at until our kids are burdened with the job of sorting through it after we pass on, like we had to do when our parents and grandparents passed away.

Along with Mr. Morris, I truly believe a person’s life is improved by lightening the burden of excessive stuff. Life is in fact a journey, and the journey is much easier with a lighter load. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Suitcases Packed and Nowhere to Go





For once we are totally prepared for a trip I have been planning for months; a month in Europe visiting several countries including a river cruise on the Danube through Austria. My husband and I are so proud of our efficient, compact packing job, with one small suitcase each for the entire month. It is the day before our early morning departure and I have just printed our boarding passes securing them in my new lightweight travel purse next to our passports. Just a few last minute details and we are ready!

Looking in my email inbox I see the confirmation for the city tour I have booked in Prague has arrived just in time. I quickly open the email relieved that I can add this last document to my now complete and organized voucher file. The email begins as expected:

‘Your tour for June 6th is confirmed, however, I must advice you that our tours for today and tomorrow have been canceled due to the severe flooding in Prague.’

I am perplexed, as I have been checking the weather almost daily. I have not heard anything about flooding. I quickly begin a Google search for news. The first story I see reports serious flooding, evacuations, power outages, and sewer closures in parts of Prague. The next article reads, ‘Worst Flooding in Five Centuries in Passau, Germany.’ The article is complete with a German man standing in front of his house in thigh high water. Passau is where our river cruise begins! Panic sets in. Our flight is 12 hours away. Will we be flying into a flood zone?

While Mark, my husband, is out doing last minute errands, I can’t think what to do. I assumed my travel agent had gone home for the day but I tried her number just in case. I breathed a sigh of relief when she picked up. “Sonja, what is going on with our trip?”

“What do you mean?” she calmly asked.

“The flooding in Prague and Passau, it sounds really bad!”

“Flooding, what flooding? I haven’t heard about any flooding.”

I proceeded to explain about the email and what I had read online, and now she begins to panic. “I will try to reach the cruise-company and call you right back.”

As I am pacing back and forth in front of our suitcases, Mark returns.

“What is going on?” He asked. “I thought you were all ready.”

“The whole trip may be falling apart! I am waiting for Sonja to call back.” I explained the situation as the phone rang.

 “Your entire trip is cancelled, the cruise, the ground portion in Prague as well as at the end of the cruise in Budapest. I am stunned and so sorry. I don’t even know what to tell you to do.”

We had booked our flights separately (non-refundable of course) and were already checked in. However, we no longer had reservations or a plan of any sort, once we arrived in flood ravaged Prague.

After much fretting and deliberation, we decided to cancel our flights and hoped that our travel insurance would cover our losses. What a let down.

The next morning we debated about changing our plans and going somewhere totaling different, or just postponing our vacation for another time. But to waste all the planning, preparation, and those meticulously packed suitcases! We spent a day and a half trying to put another trip together, but it is just not happening. Oh well, such is life.

Putting a positive note on our lost trip, we can begin planning and looking forward to the replacement trip. Instead of being sad because vacation is over, we still have it ahead of us. I might even keep that suitcase packed.