A Day in Siena and San Gimignano

Last Saturday, we had our first class trip. We left Florence for the Tuscan countryside, stopping first in Siena. This town (city?) had been on my list for quite some time. In fact, just this summer I read two books that were centered here: a memoir, Too Much Tuscan Sun and a novel, The Italian Party. I was looking forward to seeing how the place matched the images in my mind.

In short, it went over and above what I had envisioned. The views were more magnificent, the Piazza del Campo much grander, the streets livelier.

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I wanted more time to wander (maybe I’ll pop back some day, since it’s only an hour or so by train). Still, we got a nice overview during our time, seeing the financial, political, religious, and social centers of town with a fantastic local guide. We happened upon a classic car show and tried a local treat, pasta with cinghiale (wild boar) sauce.

 

Another highlight was the Basilica of San Domenico, which houses some important 13th century Catholic relics, like St. Catherine’s thumb and head on full display (no photos allowed, but view them here if you must). Apparently, it was common to divvy up parts of important religious figures for political reasons and to boost tourism (the rest of St. Catherine is in Rome).

Here’s the outside of the church, which you might prefer to gaze on.

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There was also Siena’s Gothic cathedral, made even more impressive by the fact that its marble mosaic floors were uncovered, which only happens a few times a year (I have no great photos of these, but click the link above to see some).

 

 

After lunch and free time, we rode the bus another hour or so to San Gimignano, which I’ve heard called “Tuscany’s Manhattan” because of its defining feature: 14 tall stone towers (there were once over 70). We climbed the tallest one and got quite the view.

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San Gimignano is pretty tiny, so after spending some time in the tower, we wandered, bought a bottle of the local wine (vernaccia) had a coffee, and headed back to Florence.

The weather was fantastic, spirits were high, we learned a lot, and it was a great day to experience Tuscany!

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Back in Florence, this week’s highlight (for me) was going with the art history class to Santa Maria Novella for a lesson in frescos, which called up long-forgotten tidbits from my Catholic education. Getting to go on these art outings with an expert professor is another perk of the job!

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Study Abroad in Scandinavia – Week 2

[If you missed the Week 1 recap, find it here.]

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May 29

Week two began with a daytrip to the college town of Lund, in southern Sweden. This is a great place to escape the city, relax, check out the cathedral you see above, perhaps collect some data, and definitely eat some delicious cardamom buns.

One of my favorite things about Lund is a lovely botanical garden, where we had a class meeting and discussed the concept of flow. The garden’s colors weren’t as vivid as last year’s, probably due to a drought, but we still found some nice patches.

May 30

Today was our last full day in Copenhagen. We had a fairly long class, mostly on work-life integration and “busyness bragging”. Lunch was all about going to favorite places one last time: the organic hotdog cart, the bagel shop, that one ice cream/churro place, coffee coffee coffee. Dinner was a pre-ordered meal that was…hilarious.

img_0550Joe and I were staying in the Norrebro neighborhood, which was ground zero for the first night of Distortion, a massive music festival that is better described in photos. Just imagine this scene over a square-mile or two. And imagine us trying to wheel huge rental bikes through this. We were not popular.

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May 31

This was our day to travel to Stockholm, a five-hour train ride that left at 8:20 a.m. Despite a few snafus for Joe and me (a cab that didn’t show and my desperate plea to a stranger to please drive us to the station), it all went smoothly. This is always a great chance to catch up on sleep and reading.

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The students met with a DIS rep to take them to their housing, which is north of the city in a suburban area called Sollentuna (I remember this by picturing a mopey fish). Joe and I settled into our Gamla Stan (“Old Town”) Airbnb and immediately watched the previous night’s series finale of The Americans. Priorities.

June 1

Today started with a summertime must-do: a lunch cruise into the Stockholm archipelago, a chain of 30,000+ islands that stretches east from the city into the Baltic Sea. Many Swedes have summer houses and boats here (1 in 10 Swedes owns a boat) and it’s an important part of warm-weather recreation.

img_0649.jpgWeather is usually a primary concern for me on this study abroad, because so many of our activities are outdoors. But it’s barely mentioned here because we continue to be so ridiculously lucky!

 

After the cruise, we had a class meeting on the small island of Skeppsholmen. Topics were friluftsliv and the feeling of awe, both very appropriate for the day.

There was some Gamla Stan wandering, too. As a well-preserved medieval town, pretty much everything here is photo-worthy.

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We found the oldest statue in Stockholm, the “little boy who looks at the moon,” and rubbed his head for good luck.

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Without too much planned for after, we all ended up at our apartment for a very stimulating class discussion! img_0661(Okay, it was actually a show-and-tell of our wedding photos.)

June 2

Today was largely a free day for students to collect data and explore Stockholm. I had planned to run the marathon (read all about that here) and was so happy and surprised that a group of students chose to spend a few of their free hours watching and cheering.

 

In the evening, most of us went on the Stockholm Ghost Walk, a tour of Gamla Stan that gives us a dark lesson into the history of Stockholm: mass executions, brothels, doomed searches for buried treasure, and not one, not two, but three different types of the plague. And lots of restless spirits. Good fun.

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June 3

Yet another beautiful day to spend outside. We all took the streetcar to Skansen, the world’s oldest outdoor museum.

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img_0814It’s massive and has all kinds of exhibits about traditional Swedish life (imagine a Swedish Colonial Williamsburg), but the Nordic animals were the biggest hit.

 

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June 4

A big class day. The DIS facilities here are housed in the Royal College of Music. They practically require a retinal scan to access, but they’re quite nice when you do.img_0687.jpg

A bonus: the school’s metro stop, Stadion, features this:

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Stockholm’s metro is sometimes called the world’s longest art museum.

Anyway, we had a morning class meeting, a lunch break, and an afternoon guest lecture on Swedish politics from DIS professor Steve Turner, an American who’s been living in Sweden for 40 years. This was an intellectual high point of last year’s program, and was perhaps even more so this year, given the increasing frictions here and an important upcoming election.

img_0884It’s all too easy for us to leave here feeling like the Scandinavian countries are doing everything right while we are, umm, not. This lecture highlighted the complications of implementing the social welfare system and the moral conflicts woven into immigration policy. In short, it filled in some important gaps.

June 5

Our last day, already?

Today began with class. We first debriefed and discussed the previous day’s guest lecture, then everyone briefly presented their individual project findings. Our allotted two hours of classroom time flew by. We broke for lunch, packing time, and time to do all of those last things.

We met for a last group dinner at a Stockholm mainstay, Kvarnen. We finally got our fill of Swedish meatballs.

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After dinner, we searched in vain for a karaoke place. Finding none, we settled for some very non-Swedish street singing, an Irish pub, and a late-night subway ride with a fire extinguisher incident that I need to learn more about (everyone is fine).

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Last night, someone asked me to define the group in a single word. I couldn’t decide between three:

united – this group of 13 was often all together, and when they weren’t, I could never identify any cliques or anyone who wasn’t a part of things. Everyone seemed to genuinely like each other and look out for one another. I saw a ton of compromise, empathy, and good humor, even in stressful situations.

zany – I never worried about them being bored. They could create fun wherever they went, whether by killing a half hour by making their own beatbox band (complete with a few singles, an album cover, and a t-shirt design), cheering like mad at a marathon (generally not thought of as a great spectator sport), laughing their heads off at a catastrophically bad meal, and certainly many shenanigans I never heard about.  It was so much fun to be a part of this crazy crew. They reminded me to worry less and to laugh a lot more.

resourceful – they quickly demonstrated that they could figure things out on their own. They seldom needed me to point out directions or to suggest where to go. Multiple times, I realized that my suggestions were pretty lame compared to the things they’d find. They were also really good at getting things for free, like this:

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June 6

My last day here. The students seem to have taken the sunshine with them, literally and figuratively. It’s Swedish National Day (think a toned down version of the 4th of July in the U.S.). Many things are closed, my energy is sapped, and it’s suddenly 50 degrees and cloudy. In other words, it’s a good day to blog, pack, and eat one last cardamom bun.

Until next year, Scandinavia!

Stockholm Marathon 2018 Recap

img_0675 Yesterday was my 10th marathon and my first time ever repeating one. Stockholm seemed like a good choice for a PR attempt, since it’s flat, has low humidity, and is generally cool.

But we’ve been blessed/cursed with record-breaking warmth during this trip, weather that is ideal for pretty much anything…except this.

Although I carbed up like a champ (cardamom buns!!!), I otherwise couldn’t muster too much excitement for this race. After all, I’d run it once before, I was distracted (in the best way) by study abroad, and I knew the heat wasn’t going to lead to any personal records. To make matters worse, the race started at noon, only the hottest part of the day.

It’s hard to do a marathon when you’re not feeling it.

So, why was I doing it? Because I’d paid the entry fee? (Sunk-cost fallacy, but kind of.) Because I told people I was doing it? (Sheepish yes.) Because I didn’t want my training to be for nothing? (Naw. Extra snacks ain’t nothing!) Because I wanted the finisher shirt and medal? (Absolutely.)

For whatever reason, there I was at the start, with 18,000 or so other fools/hardy souls.

img_0725We started outside the 1912 Olympic Stadium in the open sun. I was stuck in a tight pack for awhile, which I hate. Each mile or so, there’d be an aggressive rush to the sprinklers and the water stations as we all attempted to cool down. Shade was a commodity everyone was fighting for. And this course was not the pancake I remember. Two new hills had been added, I swear.

I quickly saw my average pace fall way below goal time and my motivation fell along with it. Everything was annoying me: the people getting between me and the sponge-wetting stations, the restaurants that smelled like fried food, the spectators smoking, the booming speakers that were keeping me from hearing my own music…you name it.

Even when I could hear it, my faithful marathon playlist did nothing for me. The Schuyler sisters tried to remind me of how lucky I was to be alive right now. Michael Jackson called me a pretty young thing. The bearded lady from The Greatest Showman told me that I was glorious. Sara Bareilles really wanted to see me be brave. Nope.

But I did get through this slogfest, in a respectable-for-the-weather 3:48. How come? Because at the one-hour and two-hour marks I saw Joe (wearing the landmark: a SF Giants Dr. Seuss hat) and a big group of students cheering like their lives depended on it, in very non-Swedish fashion. Jantelagen be damned, they were loud. And they had signs. It was THE BEST.

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img_0825Then, when I thought they were done (because who wants to spend all afternoon watching a marathon?) they surprised me at the finish line, which ends with a half-lap around the stadium track.

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img_0722Did I mention that this was the best? Marathons often deliver the full range of intense emotions, but I don’t remember going from angry and alone to joyful and supported in such a short time. It makes the fact that this was not my personal best day seem very incidental.

And, whether I have them to blame or to thank, I know that this will be me. Just maybe not for a little while.

 

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That time I ran with the Crown Prince of Denmark

Well, myself and 35,000 others.

Tonight’s 10K race was part of a week-long celebration of the Crown Prince’s 50th birthday. From what I can gather, Frederik likes to run and celebrate fitness, so he decided to celebrate with runs in Denmark’s five largest cities. The events are organized so that everyone can participate regardless of age or fitness level, with the goal of getting people out and moving. Walk a mile, run a 10K. Do both. Bring the kids. The point is to get out there. As he declared a year ago, “When I turn 50 years old, I will celebrate the day with a race where all of Denmark can join…A run must be a race aimed at the experience runners, but equally to those who tie their running shoes for the first time and everyone is welcome regardless of age.”

Yet another reason to love Denmark.

By chance, a few days ago I saw the Copenhagen version of the event pop up on Facebook. True to form, I signed up without a lot of forethought. But I quickly came to see that it was kind of a big deal. Like, a 35,000-person, shut-down-the-roads kind of big deal (read more here). And it was at 7 p.m. Because the earlier part of the day was taken up with OTHER royal running events (kids’ run, mile run, awards, pageantry, etc.). But why would I expect less? It was the prince.

Look, here we are:

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I’ve done over 100 races and I can say with confidence that this was one of the most memorable. There was the sheer size of it: as of a few days ago, an estimated 35,000 runners were registered (but it was probably more, as you could sign up last-minute). There was also the hoopla: huge monitors were set up to show highlights of the event as we stood in the starting corrals. Helicopters flew overheard getting footage. It was broadcast on TV. I saw the Crown Prince (for maybe half a second) as he made he way to the start, surrounded by cameramen and bodyguards, and it might as well have been Beyonce. (Apparently the Queen was out there somewhere too, but I missed that. Someone told me this in the elevator to my Airbnb. Because it was apparently A Big Deal). Once the race started, the streets were lined with fans, maybe ten deep the entire way, waving Danish flags, wearing royal costumes, and cheering. Walking home afterwards, I stood at a stoplight with some runners and fans, and one person called this a “once in a lifetime event.”

 

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It was so unique; part of me wanted to take pictures during the race. But a much bigger part of me wanted to crush it.

And I kinda did crush it – my first race with a sub-7:00 minute average, and a big 10K PR of 43:08-ish. The course was flat with few turns, there was no humidity, and the Vaporfly 4% is truly a magical shoe. This either bodes well for the Stockholm Marathon in two weeks or I just blew it. Anyway.

It was a nice change to feel like a part of something here in Copenhagen. Sure, I don’t really know much — ok, anything — about the Danish royal family. I couldn’t understand a single thing that was being broadcast in Danish over the loudspeakers before or after the race. But, like everyone else out there, I get the pull of running through city streets on a beautiful spring evening. I felt genuine excitement and cheered along with everyone else when the prince walked by. Walking home with my medal, people said what I took to be “congratulations” in Danish and I gave them a “tak” in return. It’s nice to not feel like a tourist for a minute.

Did I mention that I love Denmark?

The fastest way to feel like a local in Copenhagen

[I’m vowing to blog more.]

We arrived for the fourth year of Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia yesterday at 7:30 a.m. Thanks to a stellar movie selection and a fussy seatmate, I got about two hours of terrible sleep on the flight. Unfortunately, we had a lot of morning and afternoon to kill before we could crash out.

After a massive Espresso House coffee, I did my favorite Copenhagen thing and got a bike from a bike share stand. These things have little motors, so you can ride them even when you’re completely drained of energy. It’s super-easy to set up an account, and there are drop-offs all over the city. To call Copenhagen a bike-friendly city is a massive understatement, and–if you’re comfortable on two wheels–riding around here feels safe and natural. I never feel more at home in Copenhagen than when I’m on a bike.

I started from Central Station and pedaled around with no real plan. If I felt lost or confused, I’d just follow someone for awhile. I ended up riding 11 miles before dropping the bike off and going to a meeting, more refreshed than I could have imagined a couple hours before.

Some of the sights were old favorites:

And some new treats too, like this adorable block-long street that I may never find again.

And this.

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“What has this trip taught you about yourself, as a person or as a traveler?”

I recently posed this question to my class of 13 JMU students as we neared the end of our 18 day, short-term study abroad class in Sweden and Denmark. Eighteen days may not look like much time on the calendar, but it’s jam-packed with novel and challenging experiences: sleeping four to a room, learning public transportation in a foreign city, coping with jet lag, living out of a suitcase, trying new foods, considering new ideas, and being very, very far from home. Plus, several of the students had never traveled internationally before, and most had never done so on their own.

So, if they were to stop and reflect, important insights were right there for the taking.

Here are some of my favorite responses to this question:

“I’ve learned that I love the challenge of getting to know a new place without the help of maps or cell service. It forces you to talk to locals to get help and to get lost in order to find new sights/attractions.”

“I’m much more adventurous than I thought I was. I realized I’m very open to new experiences.”

“I love to travel by local transportation rather than renting a car because it immerses you in the life of the local people of the country you’re visiting. It’s a way to see the people, but also see the sights without the worry of driving a car.”

“The more I try to hold onto a special moment, the less present I am. It’s okay to enjoy something and then let it go.”

“Exploring and wandering can be the most fun.”

“I need alone time to recharge. And I miss leisure reading–I need to make more time for it at home.”

“I actually really enjoy alone time to frolic and discover new places on my own.”

“I’m much more capable than I give myself credit for! I’m capable of taking care of myself, getting around, making friends with strangers, and dealing with all of the problems that can come up while traveling.”

“I like to spend my days in smaller groups, and I appreciate moving at a more slow, local pace, not rushing off to see all the tourist destinations.”

“After traveling to a different country for the first time, I realize that I like familiarity. There’s a lot to see in the world, but that also includes things at home, and I’m going to take advantage of it!”

“I have so much left to learn. I looked at this trip as a pinnacle and a finish line, but now I know it was just the beginning. There is a world outside to explore and it’ll take time to do it. Now I know that there’s a world to discover inside of me, too. This whole life of ours is a trip, a journey, and I cannot wait to see where mine goes.”

Travel can always teach us something — about the broader world around us, but also about ourselves. Thanks for the memories, you guys…and for the lessons you always manage to teach me.

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Did I mention that we lived for a week in a castle?

Why I’m Not Sad about Winter This Year

I typically get a little down every year, right around this time. The days are getting dramatically shorter, the windows are soon to be sealed shut, and my bright summer dresses have been relegated to the back of the closet. To pass the time between November and March, I’d binge-watch and binge-read and count the days until my self-imposed hibernation ends and the warm Virginia weather returns.

What changed? Well, a couple of years ago I learned about the Danish concept of hygge, and this winter, I vow to bring more of it into my life.

Hygge (pronounced – kind of – like HOO-ga) is one of those untranslatable foreign words that suggests a way of thinking that we Americans just don’t quite grasp (but a fun attempt to define it is here). It roughly translates to coziness, contentment, and lack of anything unpleasant. It can be found in quiet conversations with friends, in candles, fireplaces, snuggly robes, a glass of wine, warm blankets, or steaming coffee. A hyggeligt (the adjective form of hygge) environment is your safe haven.

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In Denmark, hygge is practically a survival strategy in the long, cold, and very dark winters. The sun goes down around 4 p.m. and doesn’t rise again until mid-morning. That means that anyone who is employed in the traditional working hours has little opportunity to experience daylight. And this deprivation drags on for months.

This sounds like a recipe for depression, yet Danes are constantly rated among the world’s happiest people. As many have suggested, hygge may play a key role.  And, unlike universal health care, generous parental leave, and subsidized college education, the beauty of hygge is that it’s something we can easily import to States.

Creating Hygge at Home

Want to have a more hyggeligt winter? Want to transform the dark, cold months into something to anticipate and savor rather than something to grimly endure? Here are some tips:

Start with a little self-experimentation. Look around your home and note what spaces and items make you feel content and at peace. What is it about these spaces? And what spaces make you feel tense or unhappy? Those might need some addressing. (Right now, there is a huge stack of books and papers under my coffee table. Every time I see them, I feel a little tense as I’m reminded of the work I’m not doing. Definitely not hygge!)

What does make me feel warm, safe, and snug are these slippers (seriously worth the splurge), these candles (not a splurge at all!), watching reruns of Gilmore Girls, looking through old photos, or reading a good novel with a lot of lights turned on. Even better if I can smell something yummy cooking. (Slow-cooker meals, therefore, are very hygge.) And that pile of books and papers? That has got to go.

Start by checking in with yourself and coming up with your personal definition of hygge. And get your family in on the discussion too! Here are some great tips for working hygge into family life.

Think carefully about the spaces you inhabit. Is your home welcoming? Warm? Cozy? Danes generally don’t go for big, sprawling spaces but instead pay thoughtful attention to details: lighting, books, meaningful possessions. Less clutter. There are no hard-and-fast rules here (but if you want some ideas, just type “hygge” into Pinterest, or check out this piece). Hyggifying your home is possible at any income level and, at most, may require purchasing a new lamp or two. You don’t need to get fancy. In fact…

Hygge is most definitely not fancy. It’s not pretentious or status-conscious. No judgment, no posturing. Cast aside your need for perfection. Don’t put off inviting people over because you still have to replace those broken kitchen tiles or perfect your recipe for coq au vin. Sharmi Albrechtsen, who frequently blogs about Danish happiness, once told me that trying to one-up or impress your friends and family with fancy food and drink is pretty much the opposite of hygge, as it doesn’t foster warm feelings at all. Instead, hygge is modest, comforting, and familiar. This recent trend, then, might just be perfect.

Don’t hibernate. Stay social. Winter can foster a real sense of isolation as we hunker down and close the world out. But Danes stay social in the winter, having small gatherings, going to snug cafes, and getting really, really psyched for Christmas. Christmas is huge in Denmark. It seems as if all of December is spent gearing up – preparing food, decorating, visiting friends. And the big event? With the lighting, music, family, friends, and traditional foods, you might say it’s hygge at its finest.

Want to read more about hygge and related concepts? Here’s a fascinating take on how people can thrive in harsh winters around the Arctic Circle (in Norway, but still). Author and reluctant Denmark transplant Helen Russell explores hygge and Danish happiness in The Year of Living Danishly. And I can’t wait to see what Danish happiness researcher Meik Wiking has to say in the forthcoming Little Book of Hygge.

 

Fresh Air, Lifetime, and a Shower Cap: What a Traveling Happiness Speaker Needs in a Hotel.

As an itinerant speaker for IBP, there are always a few weeks out of every year that I spend on the road teaching day-long seminars to a large audience of health-care professionals. Whether I’m in Maine, Arkansas, or California, the routine is the same: get up early, exercise, shower, and make myself presentable. Scarf down some breakfast, and get to my presentation site by 8:20 a.m. I talk from 9:00 to 3:30, usually to very nice people on some topic I love, but it’s still exhausting. I have yet to find a pair of shoes that looks professional while also keeping my feet from throbbing by 2 p.m. (these are my current faves, if I can get away with them. Otherwise, Dansko boots or Clarks won’t kill me).img_2453

After the talk ends, I hightail it. I drive at least an hour to my next location, zoning out to the sounds of a podcast while crossing my fingers for minimal traffic. I eat a really early, Yelp-recommended dinner, usually nice, always with wine, and then retreat to the quiet oasis of my hotel room, hoping to go to bed early so I’m fully charged for the next day. This is some of the hardest work I do, but also some of the most gratifying.

After 5 years of this gig, there are certain things I have come to value tremendously in my hotels, which are usually mid-range chains, like the Doubletree, Marriott, or Hampton Inn.

These things include:

  • a phone charger right by my bed (often built into the lamp) (yes, I look at my phone in the middle of the night.)
  • a king-sized bed. I am one person, averaged-sized, and this is totally unnecessary, but MAN, it is a treat!
  • Lifetime Movie Network. This is a rarity, but nothing makes me happier than unwinding to the histronics of a former Charlie’s Angel with amnesia, or the saga of a girl locked in a box.
  • a TV with a sleep timer, because I love to fall asleep to the frenzied sounds of the above (or, if not that, then some Criminal Minds or Law and Order). It’s some kind of antidote to the long days of talking about hope and happiness.
  • a shower cap. Because you sometimes want to skip a day of hair-washing.
  • a quiet HVAC system. No one wants to hear that thing turning on and off all night.
  • a window or sliding door that will let in some fresh air. So long as the temperature is above 50 and below 95, I firmly believe that natural, non-filtered air is a fundamental human right. I promise, I will not jump. I will not fall out and sue. I will close and lock the window when I leave. Just let me open my window and have my air.
  • a solid breakfast, which includes some high-protein options. Omelet bar is the best. No breakfast is the worst. A sad array of sweet breads is almost as bad.
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    No.

  • a real bar. JUST in case I’d like to take a glass of wine or bourbon up with me to my room. These are some long days, friends, and there are still emails to answer and clothes to iron before bed. Bonus if there’s a free happy hour (this happened twice this week!)
  • a Keurig coffee maker. I know, I know. They are terrible for the environment. But, when I wake up bleary-eyed and in need of immediate caffeine, they are just so easy.
  • a gym with a stability ball and a medicine ball. Because core.
  • a decent place to pop out in the morning for a run even when it’s still dark out. It needs to be well-lit, flat, and safe. I try my best to scout this out online, but there’s always a sense of the unknown when booking a room somewhere unknown.
  • legit blackout curtains. For early bedtimes much more so than late, lazy mornings.
  • I seldom expect this but am thrilled when it materializes: a robe!

    A nice, too quick stay at Temecula’s South Coast Winery.

Things that actually annoy me or that I care nothing about on these short stays: a pool, a concierge, valet parking, laundry, and free cookies (stop it, Doubletree!).

After a week on tour, I’m happy to say that many of these places hit the mark. The Embassy Suites in Valencia was a nice surprise. And I certainly cannot complain about Pasadena’s Langham Huntington, where I’m spending my last two nights. Treat yo’self!

Next week – lobster and coastline in Maine!
What do you want in your hotel?

One Small Thing That Makes Air Travel So Much Better

Like so many of us, I don’t particularly like flying. At best, it’s a necessary evil made bearable with a novel, a glass of wine, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. At worst, it’s utter misery, as evidenced by stories like these.

But, really, when you think about it, flying is actually pretty amazing. Remember Louis C. K.’s epic rant? “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky,” he exclaims. Indeed, we are many miles in the air, traveling to another state, another country, or halfway around the world in mere hours. And we get to see some amazing things from up there. I’m always surprised when people in the window seat draw the shade, never to open it again. Why miss out on the sunrises and sunsets? The landscape of the place you’re leaving or the place you’re going?

One of my favorite things is to fly in and out of my hometown of Charlottesville. One flight path takes you right over Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Once, I was able to find my house. Sometimes, I try to pick out certain mansions that I know only by their imposing gates and fancy-schmancy names. For the few minutes it takes to take off or land, I am both creeping on and savoring my town with every ounce of my being.

But many times, I don’t know much about the places I’m traveling in and out of. Or flying over. So, the experience is made so much more interesting and meaningful when I’m told what the heck I’m looking at.

Where was this? Wish I’d known!

I recently flew from Fresno to Phoenix on a cloudless day at a fairly low altitude. For much of the flight, what I saw out the window was otherworldly. Brown and barren yet incredibly dramatic, with very few roads. But every so often, I’d see a lone house, or something vaguely industrial, or something that might qualify as a town in the middle of all the nothingness. What was it? Where was I? I guessed Nevada or very eastern California, but I would have loved to have known for sure.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I flew from Charlotte to L.A., and before we even took off, the pilot told us, “Today we’ll be flying over the Great Smoky Mountains (where we might hit a couple of bumps), then into Kansas (just south of Wichita), then over the southern part of Colorado, where you’ll start to see the Rockies. Those on the left will see the Grand Canyon as we get closer to the end of the flight.”

I count three natural wonders in that announcement (four if you count Wichita). Three chances to glimpse what people center entire vacations around, in the space of five hours. Given this, should we be so quick to conclude that flying sucks?

The Grand Canyon

As a further courtesy, this pilot (who I’ve decided loves his job and is just all-around awesome) would pop onto the P.A. every now and then to tell us to look out the window. “Those on the right can see Lake Tahoe right now, and those on the left can see the Grand Canyon,” he said, pulling my eye from my novel to the landscape below. A bit later, he was back: “Right now, those on the left will see Palm Springs and the Salton Sea,” he said, as we started our descent into LAX. I have to go to Palm Springs in a few days, so it was especially interesting to glimpse it from above, and I was grateful to be oriented to where we were.

If I had my way, these announcements would be a requirement on every flight (those lucky souls who can sleep on planes may disagree with me).

Is your pilot not sharing? Then maybe you’re lucky enough to have a built-in seat screen with a map option, so you can click away from your 25th viewing of The Notebook for quick checks of where you are in time and space. I recently had one of these on a SAS flight to Copenhagen, and even though much of the flight was spent over the Atlantic, way too high up to see anything, it still added to my experience to be able to tell myself, “Wow, I’m flying over Newfoundland right now.”

Even better: there’s a new app called Flyover Country, which uses GPS technology (not wi-fi) to tell you exactly what you’re flying over. It also links to related Wikipedia articles if you want to learn more. You need to be at a relatively low altitude and cloud cover must be minimal, of course, for you to be able to see and for the app to function optimally, but still – very cool. I hope to try it out on my way home next weekend!

Rangeland: Off the Beaten Path in Paso Robles

Last month, Joe and I spent a few days in Central California’s Paso Robles wine region. Located halfway between L.A. and San Francisco, near the coast and close to cool places like San Luis Obispo and Cambria, it’s definitely gaining popularity, but still manages to hold onto to its laid-back feel.

We started at Tobin James, on the eastern edge of the region. I’d been there about ten years ago, and I remember it being unpretentious and fun, with free tastings and amazing  zinfandel to boot. It was early – after noon but just barely – and we had a cool and attentive pourer, Jill, all to ourselves. After a very generous tasting (and, as a result, a new wine club membership), we asked her: “Which other wineries would you go to?”

Boom. Out came a map and a pen. “You should definitely check out Rangeland,” Jill said, circling a spot in the remote northwestern part of the wine region. “You’ll need to make an appointment. The owner might be able to take you on a personal tour of his ranch, and then you taste wines in his living room.” Sold.

We contacted the owner, Laird Foshay, to try and arrange a tour, and he responded within a few hours. In his email, he suggested we print out or write down the directions, because cell reception might be spotty. He wasn’t kiddin’.

11 a.m. the next morning, we’re driving down a quiet, windy country road to another, more deserted country road, until we eventually get to a gated driveway. We punched in the code Laird provided, entered the ranch, and…kept on driving. (And, yes, cell reception was most definitely spotty.)

2016-08-13-10-52-50Another mile or so in, we approached a sprawling hilltop home, and there was Laird, cowboy hat and all. He welcomed us inside, and we soon learned that he was a former Silicon Valley tech guy who had moved his family down to the ranch in 2001. Since then, he’d taken up raising grass-fed cattle, sheep, and maintaining a vineyard. Like ya do.

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Laird took us all around the 1500 acre ranch — which we’d since learned was named Adelaida Springs — occasionally stopping to let his dog Arrow hop out to hunt for squirrels (he had just one confirmed kill on our tour; his all-time record on a ranch tour was seven).

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It was impossible to imagine Laird staring at a computer screen, writing code. While we were fascinated by how a former tech guy decides to become a serious rancher, he was far more interested in teaching us about the soil, trees, and Native American artifacts he occasionally unearths. (But you can get his story here and here.)

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Partway through the hour-long tour, it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what this was going to cost. This busy and important guy – the owner of the property – was personally driving the two of us around in a gas-guzzling pickup truck, and teaching us more than I’ve learned in some earth science courses. This could run us a hundred bucks or more! Oh well…we were committed. And whatever it would cost would be worth it.

We returned to his living room and onto the wine-tasting portion of our visit. Drinking at noon was becoming a theme of this trip.

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The wines were wonderful; we bought two bottles of the zinfandel to bring home with us. And the tour price? A cool ten bucks each.

This success called for some pizza. And, of course, some more wine.

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What’s the take-home from all of this? Three things:

  1. Paso Robles is wonderful. Less pretentious and pricey than Napa/Sonoma. Amazing wines and some real undiscovered gems.
  2. Ask a local, particularly one who knows the ins and outs of an industry, for advice on what to see and do. We never would have sought out Rangeland without Jill’s expert advice, and it was definitely a trip highlight.
  3. If you want to transform your life, Laird Foshay is proof-positive that you can make it happen!