Happy Holidays: A Year in Review 2018

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As the holiday season is in full swing, and we are getting ready to go on vacation, we wanted to put together a note to let all our friends and family know what we have been up to in 2018.

We continue to build and grow our lives in Houston. It has been a bit of a struggle to grow accustomed to life back in the States after living in Italy for a few years, but we feel that we are finally adjusting.

Earlier this year, Sarah left her position at a local public library to become a Grants Administrator at MD Anderson Cancer Research Center. After nine months at this position, she is thriving and really enjoying her work. MD Anderson has been named the top cancer hospital in the United States and, as of this year, can also boast of having a Nobel laureate as one of the faculty members. The work that MD Anderson does is very important in caring for patients with cancer and researching a cure for all cancer. This summer, Sarah realized first hand how important this work is, as her aunt passed away from lymphoma cancer.

Aunt JoAnn meant a lot to us. We have been fortunate enough to have spent quality time with her in Arizona, Texas and when she visited us in Italy. We shared many wonderful moments and laughs with her. We admired her love of life, family and friends. We love her and miss her every day.

Greg had a lot of traveling this year to exciting locations like Paris France (see pictures below) over the summer (the absolute best time to get out of the Houston heat) and Sao Paolo Brazil, as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.  He also had a trip to Cincinnati, so not all of the travel is to somewhere exotic.  Fall 2018 was his first semester teaching undergraduates, and he had 130 students in an intro to physics course.  It went well overall, and every week was able to get a laugh during class (which means the students were awake).  The reviews aren’t back yet, but the students probably learned something!  He’s been doing research with two really good students on neuroscience and the physics of the cytoskeleton as well.

While Greg did travel a lot for work this year, we didn’t travel collectively for fun that much, mostly because of Sarah’s new job. We did visit Greg’s brother and sister-in-law in Ohio for a weekend, but that was our only real travel adventure this year. As we are big adventurers, we had to rectify this, so after spending time with Sarah’s family on Christmas, we will be heading on a Caribbean cruise. We are looking forward to island-exploring, basking in sun, and lots of rest and relaxation.

I hope you all have an enjoyable holiday season! Feel free to drop us a line below to let us know how you are doing. We love you all!

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

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St. Petersburg, Russia – August 2014

Overview

While visiting friends in Moscow, we all decided to take a weekend trip to St. Petersburg. I am so glad that we made this trip, because St. Petersburg turned out to be one of my favorite cities in the world to this day. One long weekend is not long enough to see all the wonderful things that St. Petersburg has to offer. You could spend one full day just at the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, and that is where I will begin my description of some of the sights I experienced in St. Petersburg.

The Winter Palace – The Hermitage Museum

Winter Palace

The Winter Palace is a massive, ornate building, located on Palace Square. While we were there, there was a unique display of Russian armament in the square in front of the Winter Palace. This included tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. Not something you see everyday in other parts of the world. I felt a bit uneasy about this display, but mostly I was uncomfortable seeing kids climbing on the tanks and missiles.

Beyond this display though is an amazing palace. You must walk through the many rooms within the palace. Formally, the home of such leaders as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the palace includes rooms of such grandeur. It is simply breathtaking. The grand staircases and elegant chandeliers continue in the Hermitage Museum.

I’ve been to a lot of museums and art galleries in my life, and each one is unique and special. However, I absolutely adore the Hermitage Museum, and as unpopular as I amDaVinci going to be for saying this, I loved it more than the Louvre in Paris. You could spend a full day wandering the halls of ancient relics, sculptures, and paintings. I was amazed at the large collection of paintings by the most famous painters in the world, including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Gaugin, and so many others. At one point, I turned the corner into a room that was void of people but filled with numerous Picasso paintings. I was simply in heaven. It was just me and Picasso’s art. I also really enjoyed viewing DaVinci’s Madonna Litta. To make myself even more unpopular, I will also say that I think this DaVinci painting is better and more stunning than the Mona Lisa.

Peterhof Palace

Peterhof

I realize that after a full day of wandering through the Winter Palace, you may not want to visit another palace, but Peterhof Palace is worth it. Peterhof Palace is located on the Gulf of Finland. To get there, you can take the Peterhof Express (hydrofoil) from the mainland. Try to pick a nice day to visit Peterhof, so you can enjoy a nice cruise to the palace. Plus, the palace is surrounded by a park and gardens that you will want to walk around. While taking a stroll, we stumbled upon an area that gave some information on the Peterhof Palace during WWII. The palace was severely damaged, and at one point during the war, it was used by the Nazis. We found a nice restaurant with outdoor seating for lunch before continuing on to get a better view of the palace.

Samson FountainPeterhof Palace was modeled after Versailles in France. Many years ago I visited one of King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria, Germany called Linderhof. Linderhof looks very similar to Peterhof, so I guess many leaders tried to create their own Versailles. Like the others, at Peterhof Palace you will find an ornate fountain with a gold statue. Here it is called the Samson Fountain and is my favorite feature of this palace’s decorations. Just like the Winter Palace, you could spend a full day wandering around the inside and outside of Peterhof Palace.

The World of Russian Literature

As a huge fan of literature, I adore Russian authors. It would be hard to be in St. Petersburg and not dive into the lives of such notable authors, including Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment), Pushkin (Eugene Onegin), Gogol (Dead SouPushkinls), and Nabokov (Lolita). Many people visit Dostoevsky’s house and museum. I did not get a chance to do this, but I am sure I would have loved it had I had time. Before this trip, I knew very little about Alexander Pushkin. On this visit, I quickly became a Pushkin fan. I purchased one of his stories at the Dom Knigi bookstore and in the evening had a drink at the Literary Cafe. This is the location where it is believe that Pushkin had his last moments before meeting his death in a duel.

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

Church-Day

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is another famous site in St. Petersburg. This ornate and colorful church is located on the Griboedov Canal. I highly recommend going inside and taking a look around. Not one surface appears to be free of religious artwork. It is very impressive and also has an interesting history.

The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Leningrad

During WWII, Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) was attacked by the Nazis. The people of Leningrad defended themselves heroically and eventually were victorious at the cost of many casualties. If this historical event interests you at all, do not miss a visit to the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, accessible by metro train. This monument also includes an exhibit that walks you through each stage of the devastating siege that lasted years before the people prevailed and defeated the Nazis. The exhibit is very informative and heart-wrenching.

Victory

It is hard to believe that we discovered all these beautiful gems in St Petersburg in one weekend. It is an amazing and beautiful city.

Moscow, Russia – August 2014

Sain Basil's Cathedral

Saint Basil’s Cathedral

We were very fortunate to have good friends living in Moscow and decided to visit them. The visa process was not fun, but the trip was 100% worth it. The flight was a bit rough, because the only flights from Italy were red eyes. We landed in Moscow around 3:30am. We are not very functional at 3:30 in the morning, and there was no one there to give us directions on how to go through customs, so we were definitely the last two people through customs, but we managed it. Well, when we got to our friends’ place, Gorky Parkwe chatted with them for a bit and then napped for most of the day. We did manage to pull ourselves together long enough to have a relaxing afternoon stroll through Gorky Park. Gorky is an extensive park along the Moskva River. It is a great location to go rollerblading or lounge on some bean bags.

The next day we were far more rested and ready to see some sights. We headed to Red Square. Along the way, I noticed many florists and booksellers, even on the side of the street. As a book lover, I absolutely loved seeing all the bookstands and people reading on the train and in coffeehouses. When we reached the Red Square, we saw an interesting military march, I believe in preparation for a political event that was to happen a few days later. From there we walked toward the State Museum to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum. When you go to the mausoleum, you will walk along the Kremlin wall, passing tombstones of former Soviet/Russian politicians. When you enter the mausoleum, you will be walking in the dark. The officers guarding this area forbid you to use any light. Then you circle around Lenin’s preserved body. That was one of the strangest things I had ever seen, so I was happy to move away from the Kremlin.

Unfortunately, there are no performances at the Bolshoi Theater during the summer, but you can still get a tour if you book in advance, which I didn’t think to do, so we spent the afternoon at the wonderful Tretyskov Gallery. This gallery displays a large collection of stunning Russian art. One of our favorite paintings from that gallery is Ivan Aivazovsky’s Lunar Night on Capri.

Boat Ride on Moskva River

Boat Ride on Moskva River

With our friends, we took a sunset boat ride on the Moskva River. I highly recommend this as it is a great way to view so much of Moscow. Seeing the Kremlin at night with all the cathedrals lit up is just a beautiful sight.

State Museum

State Museum

Our final full day in Moscow was spent at the Kremlin. We started at the Armoury Museum, where you can view the large collection of faberge eggs. Then we moved on to the area with all the cathedrals. We saw the Archangel’s Cathedral, Annunciation Cathedral, Assumption Cathedral, the Tsar Cannon, and the Tsar Bell. Plan to spend quite a few hours viewing all these sights at the Kremlin. We had some time left in our day, so we got some food at the Moscow Gostiny Dvor. This was formally an old indoor market and is now a fashionable mall. We then decided to investigate Moscow’s underground train system a bit more. Each station is so elaborately designed with sculptures and chandeliers. Definitely take the public train system as much as possible to view these grandiose stations.

The Cathedral of the Annunciation

The Cathedral of the Annunciation

Goals for 2016

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Now that the holidays are over, I actually have a moment to reflect on 2015, and how blessed I am. I am also taking this moment to think of all the things I want to accomplish in 2016 to make it the best year ever. I know that New Year’s Resolutions get a bad rap. Everyone wants to lose weight, exercise more, drink less alcohol, quit smoking, etc. etc. For many, they start the year with a good push toward these resolutions, and then by February the ambition/motivation fails. However, I am not that type of person. Sometimes I do set too many goals, but as long as I complete half of my goals, I feel that my life is on track. What is wrong with having goals in your life that help you live up to your potential?

2016 is going to be a year of uncertainty as there are many changes that may occur. My husband and I may decide to move based on job opportunities. We don’t at this time know if that will happen or if we decide to move, where we will be moving. With such an undetermined future, it is hard to make certain goals. For instance, I would like to run a marathon and volunteer more, but my time and location may not permit such achievements. I find it is important to set reasonable goals, so you don’t become disappointed in yourself.

Here is my list of reasonable goals for 2016:

  1. Read more non-fiction books. I tend to read a lot of classics, bestsellers, and mysteries. It would be nice to expand my reading list a bit. If you want to see my must-read book list, click here.
  2. Travel to Sicily. Since moving to Italy, so many people have told my husband and I that we have to explore Sicily.
  3. Renew my driver’s license. This is a ridiculous one, but when you are an expat, it is a bit more complicated than just going online and hitting a renew button.
  4. Continue studying Italian – even if I end up moving away from Italy.
  5. Go ice skating. This was a goal of mine a couple years ago that I failed to do. Can you believe that a girl who grew up in Wisconsin has still never been ice skating???
  6. Continue making a few extra dollars on Swagbucks. Every year I use the extra money to purchase birthday and Christmas gifts. More often than not I use the extra money to satisfy my book addiction. If you are interested in learning more about Swagbucks, click here.
  7. Vote. As we all have heard, no matter where you are in the world, the U.S. is having elections in 2016. Even though I am not currently living in the United States, I am still a U.S. citizen and want to exercise my right to vote. It is a privilege that many people in the United States take for granted, and one that I am very proud to have.
  8. Spend one day a month internet-free. I find myself constantly needing to go on the internet, whether I am at home on the computer or outside of my house on my phone. What did we all do before the internet? Anyway, I find that I am too reliant on it, and so I would like to take a break once a month from the addiction of Facebook, kitty & puppy videos, email, etc.
  9. Keep a Thankful Journal. In 2015, my spirit was sometimes pretty low. Every day this year I want to write down something that I am thankful for. That way, if my spirit gets low again, I can turn to my journal and read all the positive things in my life.

I think I can definitely accomplish these goals. It makes heading into the new year very exciting. Feel free to share with me some of your goals for 2016.

2016 is gonna rock!

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Lots of Love As We Head into 2016!

Lucca, Italy

Lucca, Italy

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year! Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!

We unfortunately did not get to spend the holidays with our family and friends in the United States this year. We knew it would be a little difficult to be away from everyone at such a special time of year, so we took a little holiday R&R break and escaped to Portugal, which was wonderful! We are definitely feeling refreshed and ready for the new year – whatever it might bring.

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

I can hardly believe that my husband and I have been living in Lucca, Italy for almost three years. Time really does fly by sometimes. One of the main reasons that we chose to make the big move to Italy was our love of travel. Living in Italy has given us such accessibility to other parts of the world. 2015 certainly provided us with many amazing adventures. We explored 12 different countries, which includes visiting Italian cities outside of Lucca as well. (Find more details on my Travel Page, which I am constantly updating.) Our three favorite travel adventures this year were taking our first big cruise (on the Mediterranean), participating in a photographic tour through Cuba (hooray! Americans can go to Cuba legally!) and experiencing our first World’s Fair Exposition in Milan, Italy. A personal favorite moment of 2015 for me was when my husband surprised me with tickets to see Puccini’s La Boheme at the La Scala Opera House in Milan. It was definitely a dream come true.

In the midst of all the travel, we welcomed my in-laws for a visit to Lucca. It is always nice to show family and friends our wonderful home and all the things that we love about Lucca and living in Italy. We were thrilled that they came. We also hosted Thanksgiving again for the third year and had a wonderful turnout of about 20 people. There were many new faces this year, and we enjoyed it very much.

While we saw every travel moment as an adventure, some of the trips were actually work-related. My husband participated in 5 conferences this year in Berlin (Germany), Arizona (USA), Zaragoza (Spain), Helsinki (Finland) and Budapest (Hungary). He has had a very busy year. All of the conferences he’s been to recently have been very productive, and he’s working on multiple different projects.  One really successful one has been patent inventor and assignee disambiguation (basically, knowing that “MIT” and “Mass. Inst. of Tech.” refer to the same thing), which is really important to do accurately if you want to understand how universities and companies combine different skills to create technology or how scientists move around the world.  He’s solved that problem for 4 million patents worldwide, and there’s a lot of interest in using his results!

I too have been working. I completed my work on the Introduction to Network Science book that I was helping to edit. Then I signed a contract to do some work for IMT – School for Advanced Studies Lucca, where I also edit publications. I am very fortunate to have these opportunities. I never for one second saw myself as an editor, but I rather enjoy it most of the time. I will say, however, that working from home has its difficulties. It is easy to lose one’s motivation and concentration at home. It can also be difficult to spend so much time within the house. I started consistently running miles outside every week just to get a bit of fresh air. It not only provided the break I needed, but it turns out that I actually started to enjoy running. Who knew that would happen?!

We have no idea what is in store for us in 2016. My husband’s contract at IMT-Lucca is ending at the end of May. He is currently applying for jobs in the United States, as well as other places in the world. However, he has also been offered an extension of his current position if we choose to remain in Italy. We are going to let the Lord and fate guide us these next months. Please keep us in your prayers as we may have some big decisions to make. Whatever happens, we know that we are blessed with wonderful friends and family who continue to support us. We love you all very much!

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Florence at Christmas time – December 2015

Duomo at Night

TreeFlorence, Italy is just a short trip from Lucca, so some friends and I decided to spend a full day there, enjoying the holiday festivities. The Duomo or main Cathedral in Florence is spectacular on a normal day, but it sparkles at night now with the large Christmas tree in front of it. I don’t know if I have ever seen anything so beautiful. There is also a large nativity scene in front of the cathedral as well (pictured at the bottom of this post).

The streets were all decorated with lights, and we were pleased to discover a few light shows throughout town as well. The one pictured below we just stumbled upon, but the big one is displayed on Ponte Vecchio. Don’t be fooled though. Just because it is the holiday season doesn’t mean that the light show will have a holiday theme. However, it is remarkable nonetheless and shows a deep appreciation for art. Pictures or videos just don’t do it justice. You have to experience it.

Lights

We managed to catch one of the last nights of the Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce. It was a great place to try different holiday foods like Hungarian Chimney Cake and German Apple Strudel. You can wash it down with some mulled wine. When you have eaten all you can, then it is time to shop. There were so many unique gifts to be found there.

There is nothing like Christmas trees, lights and markets to put one in the holiday spirit. Buon Natale!

nativity

My Must Read Book List for 2016

What books do you want to read in 2016? Here is the list of books I would like to read in 2016:

  1. Room by Emma Donoghue
  2. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  3. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  4. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
  5. The Fifties by David Halberstam
  6. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  7. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  8. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  9. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  11. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
  12. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  13. Shogun by James Clavell
  14. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
  15. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

However, these listed are not the only books I will read this year (and to be honest I have a hard time keeping to a list), so feel free to send me recommendations of books you have loved – both old and new.

2016 Reading Challenge

2016 Reading Challenge
Sarah has
read 13 books toward her goal of 50 books.
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Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania (August 2014)

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For people traveling to Tanzania and the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater is a must. However, I would recommend starting your African Safari with the Crater. We did the Crater at the end of our safari, and it was a bit of a let down after the tranquil vastness of the Serengeti.

All accommodations are outside the Crater, so we took a very early drive to get there and then to get down into the Crater. There was no visibility due to an immense fog, which made me happy that I was not driving. You can only enter the Crater through a tour company.

lion cubs

The Ngorongoro Crater is rich with vegetation and water, which is why many creatures have made this their permanent home. We mostly wanted to see lion cubs as we missed that in the Serengeti, and that was one of the first things we saw (pictured above). There were three adorable cubs playing with each other. The hippo pool is wonderful as well. You could spend hours there watching them play (pictured below). I think the only thing I really disliked about the adventure in the Ngorongoro Crater was the fact that it is pretty crowded with tourists. After a week in the Serengeti, where it felt like it was just you and the animals, the Crater was heavily populated with humans. We had to wait to get a spot to view the hippos. I still find the place very interesting and feel that it is a must see.

hippo

If you are looking for a nice place to stay while you visit the Ngorongoro Crater, I highly recommend Gibbs Farm. Gibbs Farm (pictured on the right) is located on a coffee gibbs farmplantation, which you can venture through. It is a simple yet luxurious retreat. Wi-fi is a bit unreliable, but with all the beautiful scenery, delicious foods, and fun activities, who needs Wi-fi? Each room is like your own secluded bungalow, where I enjoyed my first outdoor bathing experience. After a week in the wilderness, it was a welcome relaxing retreat.

I would say that a couple days of viewing the Ngorongoro Crater is all you need, but it is worth it!

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Serengeti – Tanzania (August 2014)

Serengeti_RhinoAs we flew in a tiny plane from Kilimanjaro, Tanzania to the Serengeti National Park, I had no idea what to expect from the upcoming adventure. I had never done an African safari before, though it was always at the top of my travel bucket list. Our adventures in the Serengeti far surpassed anything I could have ever imagined. As we flew over the vast lands, I could see the almost perfect lines of migrating wildebeests. In just a few short hours, we would be riding in a jeep among the wildebeests. (See here for more details regarding the Wildebeest Migration experience.)

lion

Ker & Downey organized our Tanzania adventure. We stayed at the Serengeti Safari Camp, and they arranged a personal guide for us. Our guide was named, Nathan, and he quickly became a wonderful addition to our family. He took such good care of us. He tolerated our wackiness, educated us on the animals and their behaviorjeep (I learned more about the circle of life than I ever wanted to know), prepared and arranged wonderful private breakfast locations, and even accommodated the photographers in our group by placing the vehicle in the right position to get the best photographs. When we first started traveling through the Serengeti in the jeep, we were so excited about everything we saw. We took tons of pictures of this multi-colored, tiny lizard. Nathan thought we were so strange, taking pictures of a little lizard. We clearly didn’t understand what we were about to experience. Within the first few hours, through Nathan’s amazing guidance, we got more than a taste. We saw hippos, giraffes, elephants, zebras, buffalo, ostriches, lions (one pictured above), and even a river crossing by the wildebeest migration.

elephants

The following days were filled with more river crossings, rhinos, cheetahs, monkeys, and so much more. I never pictured myself being the kind of person that could do the wholesunset camping thing (even glamping) with wild animals all around or taking showers where the water comes out of a bucket, but I loved it. The sounds that the wildebeests made always put me to sleep, and I would wake up refreshed, very early in the morning, ready for new adventures. I was never disappointed. The sunrises and sunsets were just glorious. For my first safari experience, this was absolutely the best. I can’t imagine any travel adventure topping this one.

cheetahs

 

The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Christmas – Budapest, Hungary (November 2015)

StephensTree

I know the holiday season can be overwhelming in the United States. These days, decorations are up and holiday music is being played everywhere before Halloween is over. By the time Christmas comes around, people are sick of the holiday. However, this is not how it is in Europe. Decorations don’t go up until end of November or early December. In Lucca, Italy there are some Christmas lights and decorations but not much else to get you in the holiday spirit. Many people have told me that if I want holiday markets and more, that I need to go to Germany or Austria. Imagine my surprise when I found holiday markets and so much more in Budapest, Hungary. If you need a good dose of holiday spirit, which I desperately did, you should go to Budapest.

The picture above is of a holiday market in front of St. Stephens Cathedral. This market has everything needed to put you in the holiday spirit. It has shops, food, mulled wine, a market_standgiant Christmas tree, lots of lights, a nativity scene (pictured at the bottom of this post), an Advent wreath, and an ice skating rink. This market is minimal compared to the one that starts at Erzsébet tér that goes on for blocks and blocks. This DSC3367agiant market was a great place to try warm beverages and popular Hungarian pastries called kürtőskalács. They are to die for! I am not exaggerating when I say that with all the markets serving street food and beverages, that the entire town smells like Christmas with strong scents of cinnamon and nutmeg.

I got to experience the lighting of the Christmas tree in front of the Parliament building. It was stunning. Many buildings are decorated with twinkling lights, and the streets are all decorated with classic lights as well. As you walk along, admiring the lights, it is notDSC3293a surprising to hear Christmas songs being sung by carolers. If all these things are not enough festive holiday moments, you can also view a performance of The Nutcracker Ballet at the National Opera House, which is beautifully done with realistic sets and excellent dances. Plus, who doesn’t like sitting and listening to Tchaikovsky music for a while?!

If you live in a location that does not do a lot for the holiday season and need a reminder of all the joys of the holidays, you should consider a visit to Budapest, Hungary. Boldog Karácsonyt! Merry Christmas!

Bethlehem