Completed My 2nd 24-Hour Readathon!

HOORAY! I made it to the end of another wonderful 24-Hour Readathon! My husband helped me celebrate by preparing this feast on our gorgeous balcony – complete with a bottle of Prosecco! Salute!

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When I did this Readathon last October for the first time, I realized that I was grossly unprepared. I didn’t really think through book selections or prepare snacks in advance. There is nothing like needing a good snack at 4am, only to realize that there is absolutely no food in the house. This Readathon, I was much more prepared. I had my reading station prepped in advance with lots of books to choose from and plenty of snacks to get me through.

I am grateful for everyone of the readathoners that sent me messages of encouragement. It is always nice to feel like you are not alone during the most difficult hours. The hourly postings were also well done.

While I was more prepared with snacks this year, I noticed some many people with book-related gear and accessories. Some of these items were fantastic! Loved it! I feel I need more items like this for next time.

My favorite moment of the Readathon was when I made a comment on Twitter about my husband stealing one of my snacks that I prepared in advance. A fellow readathoner replied, “what a crime! Tell him to keep his grimy hands off!” Both he and I enjoyed response immensely, and he didn’t steal anymore of my snacks for the remainder of the Readathon.

Here are my responses to the final survey:

  1. Which hour was most daunting for you? Hour 15 was where I started to fade. That was also 4am my time, so I am normally not awake at that point anyway.
  2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? If you want some enjoyable short books, you could read anything by Roald Dahl. I have enjoyed some more recent bestsellers like The Martian by Andy Weir, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (read during this readathon).
  3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next season? I felt that the mini-challenges this time were a bit more time consuming that last year. I don’t want to spend all my time doing the challenges when there is reading to be done.
  4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon? I felt that I had a lot of support this year – cheerleaders encouraging me during the hardest hours. I also loved all the posts prior to the readathon to help us prepare and get excited for this event.
  5. How many books did you read? I finished 3 books.
  6. What were the names of the books you read? Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, After the Fall by Arthur Miller and Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
  7. Which book did you enjoy most? I enjoyed Big Little Lies a lot more than expected. There was a twist at every corner that kept me very interested through the end. When I finished I had that moment of sadness that I would never experience reading that for the first time ever again.
  8. Which did you enjoy least? I enjoyed After the Fall the least, but I still enjoyed it. Arthur Miller plays can be hard to really get into. I normally don’t really start enjoying them until at least halfway through. 
  9. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? I will definitely participate again. Now that I have improved some of my own failings from the first time (last year), I would like to maybe be a cheerleader the next time. The support I got from fellow readathoners was fantastic!

See you next time!!!

 

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Christmas Holiday in Porto, Portugal – December 2015

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Unable to spend the holidays with our family, my husband and I decided to take a little relaxing getaway to Portugal. We decided to spend Christmas in the town of Porto. We just pre-booked our accommodations and that was it. Everything else we were just going to figure it out as we went. We spent five full days in Porto and loved every minute of it. Just going with the flow was not a problem. There were plenty of things to do and see. Porto was far from boring during Christmas. Here are the highlights:

Food

francesinhaTry the Portuguese dish called the francesinha (pictured on the right), which is a sandwich with layers upon layers of different meats, covered in melted cheese and topped with a cooked egg. I do not want to think about how much cholesterol there was in that meal.

Not surprisingly, many restaurants are closed Christmas Eve night and Christmas night. Plan accordingly. We found that kabob stands around the city and hotel restaurants are open.

Drink

The Cafe Majestic is the perfect place for a great cup of coffee (though slightly more expensive than other cafes in the area). It is a stunning cafe but is very popular and well-known so do not be surprised if there is a line out the door.

port tastingAn absolute must in Porto is to take a port wine tour. There are many vineyards and cellars to choose from across the Douro River from Porto’s city center. We chose to visit Taylor’s Port Wine Cellar. For 7 Euros a person, we were given a lesson in the origins and creation of port wine, a fantastic tour of the cellars, and three tastings that we were able to enjoy from a scenic veranda that overlooked the city of Porto. Such an amazing deal for this wonderful experience!

The Christmas Scene

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treeI loved the Christmas decorations found all over Porto, from the Christmas tree in front of City Hall (pictured above and on the right) to the ice skating rink in the park to the markets and finally the street lights (pictured below). On Christmas Day we sat inside Clerigos Church and listened to popular Christmas songs being played on the organ. We were surprised to find after the organ concert that the Clerigos museum and tower were open on Christmas, so we climbed the 240 steps for some breathtaking views of Porto’s city center and the Douro River.

street lights

Sights

bookstore

As a book lover, I really enjoyed visiting the Lello & Irmao Bookstore (pictured above). It is said that the ornately decorated inside of the bookstore inspired parts of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. It is simply stunning!

tilebuildings

Porto has unique architecture. Its buildings are coated with tiles (pictured above). You will find grand tile murals located inside the Sao Bento train station.

If the weather is nice, like it was for us, then take a nice relaxing boat cruise down the Douro River. It is a great opportunity to get a different visual perspective of Porto and take lots of pictures.

river cruise

Seaside Excursion from Porto

lighthouse

Since we were so blessed with sunny and warm weather, we decided to take the 500 bus from Porto’s city center (across from the Sao Bento train station) to Matosinhos, which is a nice beach town on the Atlantic Ocean. We got to Matosinhos in time to have a wonderful seafood lunch at Restaurante Lage do Senhor do Padrao. The seabass is fantastic (pictured on the right). foodMatosinhos has a wonderful walking path along the coast where you can people watch and enjoy the waves crashing on the shore (picture above). It is a great place to view an amazing sunset (picture at bottom).

We loved Porto! If it isn’t on your travel bucket list, it should be!

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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!

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

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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!

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2015 Thanksgiving Reflection

Thanksgiving

This was our 3rd Thanksgiving celebration in Lucca, Italy. When my husband and I moved to Italy, we thought it would be nice to host Thanksgiving. We never really had the opportunity to do so in the States. We thought that there had to be other people living in Lucca, who maybe missed having a real Thanksgiving.

I realize the original Thanksgiving may not be as romantic as the history books make it appear to be, but the holiday has progressed into a time of wining and dining with friends and family, and that alone is something to be thankful for. Preparing a Thanksgiving feast for our new friends in Italy, has been such a great honor, and we have enjoyed it more and more every year.

Who could not love the suspense in going to the butcher to pick up the turkey (il Turkey pickuptacchino)?! Every year, we worry that the turkey won’t arrive on time, or that we had accidentally ordered a cornish hen or something. (We don’t really have a lot of confidence in our Italian communication skills yet.) Additionally, the size of what we get has to be able to fit inside of our miniature Italian oven. However, we never have anything to fear. We love our local butcher so much! He always presents us with such an amazing turkey. It has been an interesting lesson to learn as well, as ordering turkey really is not a normal Italian thing to do, so everyone in our neighborhood knows we are Americans now. However, they were friendly and many people, whom we didn’t know, wished us a “Buona Festa” (Happy Holiday).

Besides our beautiful turkey, that my husband spent all day preparing to perfection, we had all the other traditional foods that are uncommon in Italy. This included: cranberryTurkey sauce (yes – I prefer the canned version), yams, brussels sprouts, green bean casserole (with the French’s onions of course), homemade stuffing (magically prepared by my husband), and many desserts with pumpkin and apple. You need multiple plates just to try a little sliver of everything, and it is wonderful. My husband is an amazing cook, and many of our guests bring wonderful dishes as well. Every year we have more and more people attend our little Thanksgiving and that wonderful company is what I remember the most – even more than the amazing food.

If it turns out that this was in fact our last year hosting Thanksgiving in Lucca, it was fantastic, as every year has been, and we are so blessed to be surrounded by so many amazing people.

To all our friends and family in the United States and all over the world, I hope you all had a very blessed Thanksgiving!!!

 

ISTANBUL, TURKEY (August 2014)

Hagia SophiaI got to meet up with family in Istanbul, Turkey. We only had a few days, but it was enough to get a taste of how unique Istanbul is. It is the one place on earth where I have been able to see religion, land, and culture converge and grow.

  1. Religion: Of all the places I have visited, I have never been in a place that values religion as much as Istanbul, where in one block you will find a temple, church and mosque. The first place we visited in Istanbul was the Topkapi Palace. This palace has an extensive history, lush courtyards, elegant rooms and large jewels. What I thought was most interesting was its collection of religious relics, such as Moses’ staff and a piece of the Prophet’s beard. The Blue Mosque, pictured on the right, is still an activeDSC_3606a place of worship. It is such a large space for prayers and reflection. To be honest though, while the ceilings were beautiful, I did not really feel as spiritually moved in the Blue Mosque as I did in Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia, pictured below, is no longer an active place of worship but a museum that represents a dramatic history where it was used as a place of worship for Christians, Catholics, and Muslims. I hope that it remains a museum.DSC_3537
  2. Land: Besides experiencing the convergence of religions and empires in Istanbul, DSC_3604this is also where two continents meet. From the Bosphorus River, that runs through Istanbul, you can see Europe and Asia. Istanbul is split between the two continents. While on an enjoyable cruise on the Bosphorus, I got to see the Asian side of Istanbul but unfortunately never stepped foot on that part of town. I will just have to do that next time. For a little additional taste of history, explore an underground cistern. The one that we got to see, pictured on the left, has been converted into a mini museum.
  3. Food: Food in Istanbul is more than a necessity, it is an experience. On our first night in town, we ordered a meat dish that was prepared in a pot. When the dish was ready, the waiter brought the pot to the table, broke of the top of the pot in a dramatic fashion and then served us our meal. Seafood is plentiful. I saw a filet served that had a layer of salt on it. The waiter set the filet on fire and then chiseled the salt layer off. My favorite part of dishes in Istanbul is the flavor. I am not one for souvenir shopping, but I will purchase Turkish spices. Even if spices and other items are more expensive at the open markets, you should check out the Grand Bazaar anyway. (Just a side note: After ingesting my share of expresso and cappuccini in Italy, I was excited about having some Turkish coffee. However, unlike coffee in Italy, you will want to leave a little of the Turkish coffee in the bottom of the cup. If you don’t, you will be swallowing a lot of bitter tasting grounds. Unfortunately, I was not forewarned about this.)

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PARIS, FRANCE (December 2013)

Eiffel Tower

My husband had some business to attend to in Paris, so I went along just to explore a bit. I had been to Paris before but had had limited time to do everything that I wanted to do.  I also had gone to Paris with little preparation the last time. This time I had ideas of what I wanted to do and planned accordingly. Paris is amazing in December before Christmas. It isn’t overcrowded with tourists and the Christmas decorations are stunning.

Sites

Louvre Museum: Last time I was in Paris, I made the gigantic mistake of not knowing that the Louvre was closed on Tuesdays. I figured museums would be closed on Sundays or Mondays. That is a very incorrect assumption. This time I arrived at the Louvre on a Monday morning when it opened at 9am. I got in quickly and made my way immediately to the Mona Lisa. It was a fantastic plan, because the area around the Mona Lisa was pretty much empty. As it is a very tiny picture, it is hard to view when there are crowds in front of it. I had a perfect view. However, by the time I made it to the Venus di Milo statue by 10:30am, it was significantly more crowded.

Shakespeare and Company: As a huge lover of books, I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to check out one of the most famous independent bookstores in the world. It was adorable. However, it is tiny, so if you have more than 20 people in there, it can be hard to move around. They have everything from used and new books to a library that can only be read inside the store.

Musee d’Orsay: I can’t believe that I never went to this museum before. I am a huge fan of Impressionistic art. I love artists like Monet, Degas, and Renoir. I preferred this museum over the Louvre actually. I had never seen so many Monet paintings in one place. It was breathtaking. This museum also included some famous paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, and Pissaro. I found works of art that were new to me that I enjoyed immensely including Henri Gervex’s “Madame Valtesse de la Bigne” and Millet’s “Le Printemps.” I also became a fan of works by Sisley, Cross, Luce, and Signac. I did tear up when I saw Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” and Monet’s “Coquelicots.” If you get there right at 9:30am when the museum opens, it is not too busy. I recommend heading straight to the 5th level. That area is crowded later in the morning as I found out. This museum is closed on Monday. I believe this has been my favorite art museum so far, and that is saying a lot after loving the Smithsonian, Rijksmuseum, and the Met.

Mona Lisa (Louvre)

Musee d'Orsay Collection

Food

  1. Starbucks: It is surprising, but I do miss Starbucks. There is no Starbucks in Lucca, Italy, so when I travel elsewhere, I do try to enjoy at least one beverage from Starbucks. Fortunately, there was a Starbucks conveniently located inside the Louvre Museum. I got to enjoy one of their Christmas blends.
  2. Rue du Petit Pont: After going to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, I went to a nearby restaurant where I could have a hamburger. This is another food item that reminds me of home in the States that I rarely can get in Lucca, Italy. I had a glass of French wine with the burger. The meal was unimpressive, but the waitstaff was fantastic. I was in and out of the restaurant in 30 minutes. Everything was so efficient. It allows me more time to enjoy the sites when I don’t have to sit and wait forever to be served or for my food to arrive.
  3. Chez Marc: This is a Lebanese restaurant in the south of Paris that my husband’s boss took us to. For 25 Euro a person, we had endless plates of food, about 3 bottles of wine, and a round of Anisette (French liquor). The food was absolutely amazing. I am normally a pretty picky eater, but I ate everything that was passed around. I would highly recommend this place!
  4. Crepes: If you have never had this French specialty, you need to. I had never had one before and tried the Caramel crepe. It was so delicious that I probably could have had ten more.
  5. Fajitas: Near our hotel, there was a Mexican restaurant that we had to try. I think finding good Mexican food is the most rare thing in Italy, so we really were hankering for good fajitas and margaritas.  We were not disappointed. The meat and vegetables were fantastic, but they also had refried beans which was a welcome surprise as we haven’t had refried beans in a long time. It was a perfect way to end our lovely in Paris!

Christmas Markets

My favorite part of Paris during December is the amazing holiday lights, decorations, and markets. There is a large Christmas tree in front of Notre Dame. Right next to Notre Dame on the other side of the Siene River is a little Christmas market. One can’t miss the Christmas lights and market on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées by the Arc de Triomphe. The market supplied us with amazing food and beer, Christmas music and gift items, displays of Christmas lights, and even an appearance by Santa in his sleigh.

I don’t think I would want to visit Paris at any other time of year. It was perfect!

Arc de Triomphe