Sunday, June 30, 2013

Texas heat...

Guess we have this to look forward to next week.

My mother-in-law is the greatest.  She called me from the liquor store to ask what kinds of booze she should stock up with.  I passed the phone to Bill and he gave her some pointers.  She called back later and said she was all set!

It's nice to have an awesome mother-in-law!

Thursday, June 27, 2013


I finally managed to get this film made.  It was done on our last night on the Hebridean Princess.  That was a sad night for us, since it was our last night on the ship and the day we learned we would be losing MacGregor...

Still, the ceremony is kind of fun!  ;-)

I would do another Hebridean cruise in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ireland? or France?

So I think Bill and I are definitely thinking we'd like to go back to Europe for our next trip, whenever it may be.  We are definitely interested in barging or perhaps doing a river cruise, even though I read with some dismay about troubles river cruisers have been having because of flooding in the Danube.  I'm not linking to any particular thread on Cruise Critic.  Just go there and have a look if you're interested.  There are a few folks who have had their river cruises suddenly turn into bus tours.

I do worry that if we did a river cruise, we might be a bit on the young side.  But then, we were among the youngest on our Hebridean cruise in November and it wasn't really a problem.  In fact, I would love to do another Hebridean cruise, even if it's a river cruise.  I hope they offer them next year.

Barging would be different because only a few couples go at a time and the barges go so slowly that you might be able to walk faster.  You run the risk of being on a barge with people you don't like, of course... or perhaps they won't like you.  But you also get a lot of personal attention and the chance to really get into the local scene.

European Waterways has put out some very enchanting looking videos.  We were looking at Ireland for next year because I haven't really been there and Bill hasn't been in almost 30 years.  And Ireland is where his "people" are from.

However, France is barging country and Bill loves France.  He loves the wine, the cheese, and the cuisine...  I like France too.  So we'll see what happens...

I would hope I'd be less likely to get seasick on a barge, too...

Monday, June 24, 2013

Next trip is a week from today...

It still seems so surreal that we're moving again and will be in Texas next week to find a new place to live.  When we get back from Texas, we'll start packing and cleaning.  Once that's all done, the road trip begins.

But the journey really begins next week, when we start the ball rolling.  Two years ago, we drove to North Carolina from Georgia to find a new house.  It didn't take much time at all and we came home a day early.  Our time in Texas is likely to be more like an actual vacation, since Bill's mom is there and it'll be time for his birthday.

I hate househunting, though.  Hopefully, we'll find something good as soon as possible. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Birthday dinner... Cake and Steak!

Yesterday was my birthday.  My husband took me out to dinner to celebrate.  We went to the Southern Prime Steak House in Southern Pines, North Carolina.  We had been there a couple of times before and Bill had mentioned wanting to go there a couple of times last week.  This place specializes in dry aged steaks and that's what we both enjoyed last night in the restaurant's impressive wine library.

They had decorated our table with funfetti before we arrived...  I was enjoying a lovely glass of sparkling wine from the Napa Valley...

We started off with lobster rangoons, which were served with a spicy dipping sauce.  They were really delicious and perfect to start the meal with because I was hungry.  They also served some fantastic hot bread with a very light whipped honey butter.

Then we had salads.  I had a spinach salad with hard boiled quail eggs and a spicy red pepper, sherry, and bacon dressing.  Bill had a classic Caesar salad.  We probably should have switched salads because Bill liked mine better than the Caesar and I'm always game for Caesar salads.

Bill ordered a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, to go with our steaks.  Mine was a perfect 12 ounce ribeye, served with green beans and cheesy grits.  Bill's was an 8 ounce filet.  Those steaks were insanely good; they'd been dry aged for 28 days.  This restaurant has a grill that cooks them at 1400 degrees... or so they say.  If I hadn't wanted grits, I could have had mashed potatoes or a baked potato.  I chose the grits because I can have potatoes any day.  I can have grits any day too, but I correctly surmised these grits would be outstanding... and they definitely were!

I look forward to lunch today...

I think I ate maybe half of this because I was saving room for dessert.  It was excellent... makes me sorry we didn't visit this restaurant more often since we now have to move.

After dinner, they brought out the obligatory lava cake...

Lava cake time.  I actually don't like lava cakes that much, but this one was really nice.  It was rich chocolate, moist, and not too sweet.  Bill and I shared it, then ordered some Key Lime Pie for later this weekend.  I don't like lava cakes, not because I don't like half baked chocolate stuff, but more because lava cakes are ubiquitous and kind of half-assed.  That doesn't mean I won't enjoy them when they are presented to me.

And then at the end of the meal, they took our picture.  I hate having my picture taken too, but they did a good one this time.  Bill looks like he's staring at my boobs, but that's because he always blinks when someone takes a photo with flash.

We've come a long way since 2002...  The photo below was taken of us the night Bill proposed, March 13, 2002.

I was having a good hair day that night.  

It's good to be 41, I guess.  And just to tie this to travel, look what SeaDream sent me...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Delta... milking it for all it's worth...

We have a flight scheduled to San Antonio for July 1.  Delta Airlines already sent me an email inviting me to pay more for better seats.  I took them up on that offer.  Now they're trying to get me to pay for Internet on the flight.  It's $14 for 24 hours.  I suppose I could go for it... but none of the flights are really that long.

And then they sent me an offer for a 30 day membership in their Sky Club for $90.  If we had a long layover, maybe it would be worth it.

I wish we could fly our cars and our dogs to San Antonio.  I'm kind of dreading the three or four day road trip that looms ahead.  I continue to look for houses every day.  For now, we're going to rent.  Maybe if we decide to stay in San Antonio, we'll consider purchasing a house.

Bill has scheduled our tentative packing out date for July 26th, which means we'll probably be leaving North Carolina the 27th or thereabouts.  I'd like to get this over with.  Moving is such a hassle.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A review of the Nikon P330

I originally posted this review on, but decided I'd rather share it here.

My husband Bill and I just got back from a two week vacation in Italy and Greece.  In preparation for this trip, I decided I wanted to buy a new digital camera.  I did have a fairly new Canon PowerShot that I purchased last fall before we went to Scotland, but for some reason I was having trouble making videos with that camera.  I also wanted a slightly higher quality camera that was capable of taking better action shots.

I don't claim to be a good photographer or even to really know much about cameras.  I had owned a basic Nikon CoolPix camera that was easy to use and had eventually conked out on me.  When I saw the Nikon P330 Digital Camera being offered for about $375, I decided I wanted to give it a try.  This particular camera has only been on the market since March and I bought mine in early April.  I've used it to take action shots of my beagles and on our European trip.

First impressions

My Nikon P330 is black and slightly larger than the base level digital cameras I have been using for the past few years.  This camera has a GPS function and, if you purchase an optional WU-ia adapter, it has WiFi capability, allowing you to upload photos directly to the Web.  It has RAW (NRW) capability and records in 1080p HD video with stereo sound.

I like the fact that the Nikon P330 doesn't use a touch screen like my last Nikon camera did.  There's a handy wheel on top of the camera that makes it easy to choose settings.  A button on the left side of the camera makes it easy to raise the flash.  By contrast, the power button on top of the camera is slightly annoying because it's small and not always responsive to pressure.

There's a control wheel on the back of the camera with an "OK" button in the middle.  It's easy to use the wheel to navigate through the memory and make selections.

I also like the way this camera feels in my hands.  It has a metal build that feels solid in my hands, yet it's not heavy.

First shots

I really enjoyed taking my first shots with this camera.  I have a dog who loves to jump when it's dinner time.  If you are Facebook friends with me, you have no doubt seen the recent "flying nun" shots I have taken of Arran with this camera.  I've played around with the settings and gotten some truly awesome action shots with this camera.  It's taken practice and luck, of course, but I never could have gotten the same pictures with the cheaper cameras I used prior to owning the P330.  Again, I'm not a pro when it comes to taking photos, but this camera does make it easier to get good shots.  Depending on the setting used, the shutter is pretty quick.

I did not print any photos, but I did look at them on my monitor and iPad.  The still photos looked good on the monitor.  The LCD screen was mostly easy to see, except when I was in very bright sunlight.  In bright sun, the screen gets a glare that makes it hard to see what you're aiming at.

The battery

The camera comes with a rechargable lithium ion battery.  One thing I noticed about this camera as opposed to the Canon PowerShot I bought last fall is that you have to plug the camera into the charger with the included USB cable.  With the Canon, I could take out the battery and replace it if I wanted to while the spent battery charged. I can't do that with the Nikon.  The charger doesn't have a place to put the battery, so I have to charge it while it's in the camera.  I got about 250 shots before the battery was exhausted.

While we were on our trip, I forgot to bring the charger; I had only remembered the USB cable.  It took a few hours for the Nikon to charge while it was connected to my husband's laptop.  It was a good thing he'd brought it with him.  Otherwise, I would have been out of luck.  I brought my Canon with me as a backup, and it did a good job for what I used it for while the Nikon recharged.  I would recommend buying a spare battery if you plan to use this camera on trips.  As it was, we couldn't find any for sale in Italy, probably because this camera is so new.


This camera comes with software which makes it easy to edit and share photos.  To be honest, though, I hardly ever use the Nikon software.  I'm used to editing my photos using iPhoto, so that's what I do.


I really wanted to have a camera that could take decent videos.  I'm not talking professional quality; I just wanted a reasonably easy to use video function.  I did take a few videos in Italy, though for some reason they were green when I put them on my iPad.  I'm not sure why that happened.  Again, I am pretty much a beginner when it comes to these things.  I have used this camera to get footage of my dogs and managed to make movies with iMovie.  This camera has a small button on the back that operates the video function.  I don't really like the location of that button because it's kind of awkward to get to it and turn it on properly.  But once I get the video going, it does a good job.


I did not purchase the optional adapter that allows this camera to get WiFi.  I already had a device designed for use with iPads that allows photos to be uploaded.  For the purpose of uploading photos, that worked fine.  I plan to purchase the adapter, though, because I want to try to get the most out of this camera.  On the other hand, it would have been nice if the adapter came with the camera, given than WiFi capability is one of its main selling points.

I also like the idea of using the GPS system this camera has.  Granted, GPS is only as good as signal capabilities allow.

Camera size

This camera is a little bigger and bulkier than the entry level cameras I had been using.  It's slightly larger and thicker than a deck of cards.   It's still very stowable, though, and I had no trouble fitting it in my purse or pockets.


I'm definitely no camera expert, so I can't comment on things like aperture, shutter speed, or lenses.  All I can comment in is my experience using this camera for the past couple of months and taking it with me on a two week trip.  Overall, I think this camera is easy to use and, more than any other camera I've used, I've found it fun to play with the settings to see what they do.  I've gotten some really good action shots, as long as the camera is on the shutter or aperture setting.

The flash is kind of a pain to use, since it's not automatic and embedded within the body of the camera.  You have to raise it manually and sometimes, if you're not careful, the button gets pushed automatically and it pops up on its own.  I hardly ever need to use the flash anyway.

I find the P330 easy to stow and carry, which is important to someone who doesn't typically pack light.  Overall, I like the Nikon P330.  It's probably the best camera I've ever owned.  But given that I'm not a camera or photography buff, take that statement with a grain of salt.

I think I'll like the P330 even more once I buy a spare battery and the WiFi attachment.  

More specs

Specifications Camera Type - Compact Digital Camera Image Sensor - 12.2 MP (effective) 1/1.7 in.

CMOS Sensor Lens - 5x optical Zoom, NIKKOR glass lens Lens Focal Length - 5.1-25.5mm (angle of view equivalent to that of 24-120 mm lens in 35mm format)

Vibration Reduction - Lens-shift VR Motion Blur Reduction -

Motion Detection (still pictures LCD Monitor - 3.0-inch TFT LCD (921K dots, approx. 100% coverage)

Flash - Yes

GPS - Yes (built-in)

Wi-Fi - Optional WU-1a Adapter

Media - SD/SDHC/SDXC Memory Card File System - DCF, EXIF 2.3, DPOF compliant

File Formats - Image - JPEG, NEF (RAW); Sound - WAV;

Movies - MOV (Video - MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, Audio - AAC stereo);

3D Images - MPO Still Image Size - Up to 4000 x 3000 Video Mode - Up to Full HD 1920 x 1080 / 30fps ISO sensitivity - ISO 80 - 3200, Hi 6400 & 12800 Exposure Modes - P, S, A, M & Scene Auto Selector

Interfaces - Digital I/O (USB),

Audio/Video output (HDMI out)

For more information: 

Monday, June 17, 2013

A few of my favorite travel gadgets...

Last year, I decided I needed new luggage.  I did my research and finally bought a bunch of bags from  My favorite of the bags I've purchased so far is the Sky Train.  It's a carry on bag that can be carried three different ways.  I like the fact that I can wear it on my back, over my shoulder, or carry it like a briefcase.  I also like the it comes in twelve colors.  I bought mine in bordeaux red.  Bill liked my bag so much that I bought him one for Christmas.

I also bought a Beanos Safari bag, a garment bag, an aviator bag, and and a Gator bag.  These bags don't have wheels, which makes them lighter than spinners.  My old suitcase was huge and cumbersome and didn't fit in the trunk of my MINI Cooper.  These bags are a lot easier to fit in the car and I find I don't even come near the weight limit.

I had been wanting a pair of Bose headphones for a long time.  I sure was grateful to have them when Bill and I took our latest trip to Italy and Greece.  They were great for shutting out ambient sound and listening to music.  These headphones are very comfortable, too.  I wore them most of the way across the Atlantic and back.

The next item is not something I've taken on a trip yet.  Bill bought it for me on his latest business trip, which happened to end while the power was out last weekend.  It's a backup battery for my iPhone, iPod, or iPad.  It really was a great thing to have as we waited for the power to come back on.  My phone was pretty much dead by the time Bill got home.

It's small enough to be stowed anywhere and handy enough to be used when you're stuck somewhere without an electrical outlet.

I actually carry an iPhone, iPad, and iPod when I travel.  I guess if I had to consolidate, I'd go with the phone, since it's capable of doing so many things and takes up the least amount of space.  But I'm not one to travel light and all of my accessories are pretty full.  I have no room on my phone for music or videos.  I do like the iPad for a lot of things.  I wish it were easier to type on it, since I like to write.  But the iPad is great for games, movies, and books, as well as keeping in touch online.

 The last item I like to travel with is a shawl I bought at the Miami airport.  It's made of cashmere, so it's warm, but lightweight.  It's good to wrap up in on overnight flights, when the air might be a little chilly.  I probably paid too much for it, but it's pretty and will probably last a long time.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Greek art!

When Bill and I were in Athens last month, we purchased a couple of new paintings from an art store.  The man who ran the store was Australian but had Greek heritage.  His store was loaded with canvases, a lot of which were kind of stereotypical Greek settings.  There were lots of paintings of Mykonos, Santorini. and scenes from places in Athens.  My eyes were drawn to one painting in particular, which caught my eye the minute we walked into the store.  It was hanging on the wall and depicted a bunch of Greek men sitting around smoking, holding court, with the Acropolis in the background.  Yeah, it was kind of stereotypical, but I did actually see a lot of Greek men doing this sort of thing...

And then my eyes landed on a much bigger painting that was a whole lot more interesting...  I knew Bill would love it.  It was unsigned and apparently done by an anonymous Greek art student.  I decided we had to have it.  The shop owner was desperate for a sale.  He originally priced the first painting at 250 euros and the second at 85 euros.  But he eventually came down to offering both for 230 euros.  We did not haggle with him.  He haggled with himself.  It was very odd.

Anyway, we had them both framed and they look great...

We'll hang them in our new home.  No sense putting more nail holes in this one.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The heat is here...

After an unseasonably cool spring, it looks like we finally got our summer heat here in North Carolina. And that's probably a good thing, since in just weeks, I'll be in Texas... just in time for the dog days of summer.  I guess I better get used to really hot weather.

I heard the weather might cool down before the end of the week... but I'm not holding my breath.  And to think a month ago, I was on SeaDream wrapped up in multiple towels after using the hot tub.  How quickly things change!

I tell you what else we have here in North Carolina... disgusting ticks.  And the sneaky little bastards find the most obscure nooks and crannies to hide in.  I found one between my dog Arran's toes.  It had  become engorged, despite my diligent use of flea and tick preventative.  Under the engorged tick, there was another tick that hadn't latched on yet.  Yeccch!

My Texas based Facebook friends remind me that once we move to San Antonio, I'll be dealing with scorpions and snakes, too.  I think I'll be glad to just get this move behind me.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The champagne bucket...

The champagne bucket...

The champagne bucket pictured above was a wedding present from one of my husband's relatives.  In the past, we've used it for chilling wine.  Last year, it became useful for another purpose.  We now use it to help us decide where we'll travel next.

Bill and I have many places on our bucket list.  It can be difficult to make a firm decision about where to go next.  Last year, when we decided to go to Italy and Greece, we did so with the help of the champagne bucket.  Since we had a pre-booking for SeaDream that we needed to use, I wrote down the names and dates of four cruises that were in our price range and occurred at a time during which Bill could more likely get off work.  I cut the names into small pieces and folded up the papers, then put them in the champagne bucket.  I shuffled them around and got Bill to choose.  The May 11th Rome to Athens cruise won!

We've taken to doing this whenever we're too overwhelmed with choices and can't decide what to do next.  It's sort of exciting to pick vacations this way, since it's kind of reminiscent of Germanwings' blind booking deal.  We've done "blind bookings" with Germanwings three times.  Basically, what it means is you pick a group of cities you wouldn't mind traveling to.  You pay extra to eliminate any cities you don't want to see.  Pay your fare.  Then you find out where your next vacation is!  It's a lot of fun to travel this way, especially since most European cities are a treat to visit.  We saw Barcelona, London, and Munich by doing blind bookings.

The champagne bucket is somewhat different in that it's not really binding when we make our choices.  But it's still exciting to find out where we're going next instead of trying to pick one place over another.

I broke out the champagne bucket the other day because we were talking about where our next trip might be.  Bill chose "river cruise", which means that if Hebridean Island Cruises offers river cruises on Royal Crown in 2014, we may be aboard.  On the other hand, a lot depends on what happens next year as Bill makes his transition out of the Army and into the civilian sector.  We may decide to just stay home next year or go somewhere stateside.

Of course, we're also very attracted to the concept of barging in Europe.  We were leaning toward Ireland, but after watching some intriguing videos of barging in France, we may opt to go there.  Bill loves France, even if he is very Irish.  

I think it would be a dream come true if Bill got another job in Europe...  I can dream, can't I?    

Monday, June 10, 2013

Toilets of the World...

I love books, especially when they are about quirky subjects.  A few years ago, when we were living in Germany, I stumbled upon a book called Toilets of the World.  Written by Morna E. Gregory and Sian James, this was basically a picture book of plumbing facilities around the world.  From the crudest holes in the ground to the most sophisticated washlets made by the Japanese, these two ladies have covered their taboo topic terrifically.  I bought my copy of their book in 2008 and keep it by my loo to look at while I'm tending to business.

One of the toilets we encountered in Scotland...

I reviewed this book on, but it is currently "greyed out", which means that it's hard to find it unless you know exactly where to go.  I've decided to post it here for those who happen to be interested.  It really is a neat book, especially since Bill and I had occasion to visit at least one of the toilets profiled in Toilets of the World when we visited Scotland last fall.

Lovely pedestal sinks in the men's room at Rothesay Pier on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.

Signs explaining how the restoration of these Victorian era toilets was undertaken. 

A magnificent pissoir...

They didn't give the ladies room the same treatment.

I like the "Deluge"...

The outside is not all that impressive.

But it is very convenient and reasonably priced at 20 pence a piss.

I took a photo of this toilet at Arran Aromatics on the Isle of Arran because it had an ingenious child's seat for wee ones...

This was one of the toilets in Ardgowan House near Greenock.

And this was one of the public toilets in Mount Stuart House.  Unfortunately, a lot of the ladies were trying to "hover", which resulted in a puddle of pee on the floor...

Below is the review I wrote of the book, Toilets of the World.  I have read and reviewed many books about toilets and the act of going to the bathroom.  This is one that I think will really appeal to curious and intrepid travelers.  The authors have a Web site that is worth checking out.  Also, I came across a fascinating Web site called Toilet Guru, which is a site dedicated to the same thing...  

Let's face it. Every living creature in the world must, on occasion, eliminate waste. It's a fact of life that no one can escape and the one thing that everyone has in common. Before I spent two years serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia, I assumed that everyone eliminated their waste in the same mundane manner. Like most Americans, I was used to "going to the bathroom", which generally consists of visiting a room that includes a bathtub or shower, a sink, and a toilet. At the very least, I expected a water closet, where the sink and the tub were in one room, while the toilet was in another. The house my family lived in when my father was stationed in England had a water closet. I wasn't exposed to the so-called squat based "Turkish toilet" until I landed in Yerevan, Armenia, where public toilets are often of the Turkish variety and many people are grateful for the fact.

As you might be able to tell from my opening paragraph, I've given the subject of toilets more thought than most people probably have. That's because, I've just finished reading Toilets of the World (2006), a fascinating picture filled book by authors Morna E. Gregory and Sian James. This bright yellow book, which came to me wrapped in cellophane, bears the international male and female signal for toilet facilities and is decorated with euphemisms for toilets.

One wouldn't think this book would be very appealing to anyone with "delicate" sensibilities. It does discuss a subject that affects everyone but is still taboo. A polite person doesn't discuss their toilet habits at the dinner table, after all. But it turns out that Toilets of the World really is a very interesting book. The authors have separated this book into geographical sections. Using lots of photographs, witty captions, and occasionally more substantial text, the authors explain the different types of toilet facilities one might encounter on a trip around the world. From the lowliest hole in the ground to the most elaborate, jewel encrusted work of art, just about every conceivable crapper from every corner of the world is covered.

Some of the toilet designs in this book are truly astonishing. For instance, at Sketch in London, the public restrooms consist of a series of giant oblong "eggs" that look like they came off the set for Mork & Mindy. The eggs, which are colored pink for women and blue for men, each contain a perfectly normal toilet on which one might tend to business in comfort. At Bar 89 in Soho, New York City, the public toilets have transparent doors that look like they offer no privacy to prospective patrons. However, when the latch is turned, the doors turn opaque. How ingenious! The clear doors allow visitors an almost foolproof way to know for sure if a toilet is occupied or not. That way, no one has to look under stalls for feet or shyly tug on the door to see if anyone's in there.

I was amazed by some of the incredible pictures in this book. Gregory and James must have had a lot of fun doing their research, collecting photographs and local toilet lore from the places that are discussed in Toilets of the World. They discuss everything from racially segregated toilets in South Africa to squat toilets in Japan that require users to don special "toilet slippers". The plastic toilet slippers even are marked as such, with the word "toilet" printed on the toes or simply the universal man/woman toilet symbol. The authors even take on "female urinals" which allow women the opportunity to pee standing up, just like guys do. They even include instructions on how to use such a facility, although aside from trying to avoid having to sit on a toilet seat, I can't imagine why women would want to stand while they pee.

The authors also explain certain toilet related services. For example, since I've lived in Germany, when I visit public toilets, I've often encountered the so-called Klofrau. In France, she's known as Madame Pipi. That's the lady (or man) who sits outside public toilets with a plate full of coins. It's her job to see that the toilets are kept clean and to dispense toilet paper if there isn't any already in the stall. As I was reading about this, I started to wonder what prompts someone to pursue a career as a Klofrau. Anyway, as long as they keep the toilets clean, I'm grateful for their services... as long as I have change handy, that is.

Obviously, I find this book very intriguing, but I'm guessing that it won't appeal to everybody, especially those who are grossed out or offended by elimination. There are a few pictures of people actually using toilet facilities, though there are none that show anyone's private parts. Most of the pictures are simply of the actual toilet facilities, the vast majority of which are clean and presentable. Though there's not too much off color humor, the authors do include some frank discussion of the more vulgar terms for waste elimination. They also include some historical information and commentary on where some of the terms come from. I found that aspect of the book especially interesting, but I realize that some people might be turned off by it.

Because it consists mostly of photographs, Toilets of the World is a very quick read. That makes it a great book to keep in your own loo-- just something to read for a few minutes while you take care of business. Of course, as I learned from this book, some people are actually lucky enough to have toilets with television screens installed nearby, eliminating the need for reading material.

In any case, I learned surprisingly new things reading Toilets of the World. I definitely recommend it to anyone who's curious about the many different toilet traditions around the world.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Poland... artist heaven!

Back in 2008, when we were still living in Germany, Bill and I decided to take a trip to honor our sixth wedding anniversary.  We had been wanting to go to Dresden, thanks to a Powerpoint presentation one of my husband's friends sent him.  We also wanted to go to Prague.  I had found an interesting looking hotel called The Blue Beetroot while researching places to visit.

The Blue Beetroot was run by a British couple of Polish descent.  They had purchased a dilapidated barn for about $4,000 and fixed it up.  It's now a thriving boutique hotel.  In 2008, it was still getting started and it sounded like a really neat hotel, albeit in a place called Bolaslaweic.  I didn't know that Bolaslaweic was the pottery district in Poland, even though I owned a couple of Polish pottery pieces.

The price was right to stay at The Blue Beetroot, so I booked a couple of nights in Dresden, five nights in Poland, and a couple of nights in Prague.  What I didn't know was that besides great pottery, Bolaslaweic was home to some great artists, notably Dariusz Milinski, a fascinating painter, and the Borowski glass factory, which is notable for its glass sculptures.  I've linked to the Borowski studio in Germany, but Bolaslaweic is where the factory is located and you can get your hands on some beautiful pieces at a fraction of the cost.  Below is a chameleon that I bought at the factory for about $650.  In America, it sells for over $1500.  I have two other sculptures as well-- a hippo and a "gonzo" (bird).  

Bill and I came home from Poland loaded down with art, including three glass sculptures and two sketches by Milinksi.  I wish we could have bought one of Milinski's paintings, but we visited the glass factory first and spent a lot of money there.  Please click this link and look at the paintings if you're interested in art.  His work is amazing.

We had an interesting experience in Milinski's gallery.  His parking lot was empty and he had a big dog tied out front who seemed kind of mean.  We went inside and there was art everywhere... paintings, drawings, sketches, and sculptures.  Nothing had a pricetag.  Milinski himself wore pants made of the American flag and a ripped up t-shirt.  He looked a little like Charles Manson and spoke no English.  My husband's rudimentary German sufficed for communication purposes.

He made us coffee, turned on some music, and watched us as we looked at his work.  I saw several paintings I wanted.  Unfortunately, he only wanted cash and we were low on cash because we had just spent a lot of money at the glass studio.  It would have required going to an ATM and there wasn't one close to the gallery.  I saw one painting that he wanted about $600 for.  It would have been a steal, really.  We ended up leaving with a couple of drawings.  We were disappointed and I think he was, too.  If we ever get back to Bolaslaweic, we will go back and buy a couple of his paintings... if we can still afford them!  

Milinski's puppet theater

Sketches by Milinski.  All of the people depicted in his work were inspired by people he knows from his village.  Must be quite a place!

Back in November, we went to Scotland and while we were visiting Edinburgh, we stopped in an art store.  I was quickly attracted to one specific artist's work.  It was by Matylda Konecka, yet another Polish artist.  I regret not buying a large print or two.  Instead, we purchased a small framed print that fit in our luggage.  If we ever get back to Edinburgh, I'm going back to that art store for more.  Click here for Matylda Konecka's Web site.

When we were in Florence, we ran across a street musician playing guitar so beautifully it made me weep.  It turned out he was from Poland...  Piotr Tomaszewski is an award winning Polish guitarist who makes his living selling CDs on the streets of European cities (though according to YouTube, he seems to favor Florence).  We bought two of his CDs for 20 euros and that music was easily my favorite souvenir from Italy.     

Two videos I made of our trip to Italy in 2013.  I used Piotr Tomaszewski's music as background.

And a few years ago, Polish-American dancers Anna and Patryk were featured on America's Got Talent and actually brought tears to my eyes.

After pondering all of this, I'm thinking we'll have to get back to Poland and the Czech Republic at some point.  Eastern Europe is fascinating... with so much undiscovered art and music to be had at such affordable prices.  I didn't find Poland to be the most beautiful country I had ever seen, but there is still much beauty there.  I want to explore more of it.  Poland is full of hidden beauty...  You might not necessarily see it in the scenery, though I did manage to find a couple of beautiful scenes; but you can find it in the art, music, and dances of the people.  It's well worth a first visit and a repeat visit!

Polish landscape near Karpacz, a ski resort area...

Friday, June 7, 2013

Washington, DC's lack of competent restaurant help and my favorite SeaDream waiters...

I happened to read an article about how restauranteurs in Washington, DC are dealing with a severe lack of experienced restaurant help.  Having once waited tables myself and knowing how difficult it can be to do that job competently, I suddenly realized how awesome SeaDream's wait staff is.  And then it occurred to me that if any of those guys wanted to wait tables in Washington, DC, they could work at one of the city's very best restaurants without any trouble.

Last night, we were sitting at the dinner table and I started talking about Jose, who is one of my favorite SeaDream waiters.  He's one of those rare people who has the service bug.  He's always laid back, friendly, and seems genuinely interested in seeing that his guests have a wonderful time.  That is quite a gift, and SeaDream and its cruisers are the benefactor's of Jose's tremendous gift of hospitality.  I love to see him smile.  He has a very genuine, warm smile that just makes me feel good.  One time, when he was waiting on us in the Caribbean, I blurted out "Jose, you are just adorable!"  I was rewarded with yet another amazing smile.

Jose waited on us the night of our 9th anniversary...  Pablo is holding the cake up.

And he waited on us the last night of our most recent cruise.  I see Bill is wearing the same shirt as he was the last time.  Time to take him shopping!

But Jose is not the only gifted server on SeaDream's team.  In fact, just about all the guys we ran into were excellent.  And it makes me wonder what SeaDream does to attract such talent when a city like Washington, DC is having so much trouble attracting good restaurant help... if I am to believe that article, anyway.  I think it probably has to do with the fact that DC is full of Americans, many of whom don't really get the concept of providing excellent service.  When your pay is determined pretty much entirely by tips, you'd think it would be worthwhile to learn to be really good at your job.  But I don't think American culture, by and large, respects people in the service industry.  In our country, service jobs for many people are just jobs...  not careers.

I joked yesterday that if Bill can't find a new job after he retires, we can go back to Washington, DC and maybe someone will let me wait tables again.  I don't have near the gift of hospitality that any of the SeaDream wait staff has, but I do have some experience working in a nice, fast-paced restaurant.  On the other hand, I kind of got my fill of the restaurant experience fifteen years ago.  I think the ship has sailed, so to speak.  ;-)

It amazes me how fast a month can pass.  It seems like we were waiting forever to go to Europe and now it's been a few weeks since we got back.  And in a couple more weeks, we'll be on another trip.  It may be the last trip for awhile, though I'm still thinking about what we're going to do next.  Maybe it'll be another SeaDream cruise... but I think it's more likely, it'll be something else.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Expensive temptations...

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk minding my own business, when I got an email from SeaDream Yacht Club.  It was from a SeaDream executive who thanked us for sailing SeaDream recently and noted the positive comments we'd left on our "end of the cruise" comment cards.  The executive specifically mentioned a couple of comments I'd made, especially about the raw food menu, which I tried and liked on the last night of the cruise.

The executive then wrote that she noticed we didn't pre-book on our cruise and offered to give us an extension on the onboard booking discount, which would entitle us to a 15% discount on a future cruise.  If we were able to book a specific cruise, we would just have to make a deposit based on the actual fare-- though I'm not sure if the savings would still be 15%.  If we did an "open booking", we'd have to put down $2500, but then we'd get a 15% price break.

I was very surprised to get this email, since in the past it seemed like that deal was strictly for the folks who book while on the ship.  A former SeaDream exec once told me that it's a lot easier to "convert" people to being loyal to SeaDream when they're onboard and actually enjoying the cruise.  Seems like that generous discount would also help seal the deal.

I thought I'd managed to break the SeaDream addictive cycle when I got off the ship without putting down a lot of cash, but those sneaky business people might have caught me.  I have to admit I'm tempted... especially since SeaDream is going to Costa Rica this fall and I'm very interested in those sailings.  They are also reasonably priced... for SeaDream, anyway.

Unfortunately, we are still moving and we still have a lot of expenses that come from having to move.  And I still feel pretty much the same way I did a couple of days ago when I posted about why I didn't pre-book onboard.  But I do have until the 15th to decide if I'm going to go for it...  I'm still leaning toward not doing it, but I might change my mind.  I do have a birthday coming up, after all.  Bill and I might have to break out the champagne bucket to see if it helps us decide.

In the process of pondering the SeaDream offer, I went to to get an idea of what it would cost to get to Costa Rica in the fall.  If the cruise fare is cheap but the plane tickets are insane, that wouldn't be a bargain.  Much to my delight, I noticed my upcoming Delta flight was already in the system and showing up.

Unfortunately, had us in the ass of the plane on all four flights.  Remembering what we went through on our last flight, I decided to take Delta up on their offer to upgrade to Economy Comfort.  I ended up spending another $216 to move out of the ass of the plane.  It probably won't make that much of a difference... but I figured a slightly more comfortable flight could be worthwhile for Bill, who might be spared my airline induced crankiness somewhat.

I never did find out how much the tickets to Costa Rica would be because I got sidetracked by upgrading our seats.  Guess that's a task for this morning.

Champagne has a way of getting me to do frivolous things...

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Dirty art"...

Warning... this post includes photos of naked people depicted in murals and sculptures, all of which were photographed in public places in Europe.  If you are offended by artistic nudity, please move on to your next stop on the World Wide Web. 

Just a few minutes ago, I was staring at this blog, trying to decide if I wanted to post anything today.  I've pretty much milked our recent trip for all its worth, after all.  And then I visited one of my favorite online hangouts and quickly got inspired.

Someone had posted an article from about residents in Coalville, Utah whose city was beautified by a statue called "Leaf Dancer".  Artist Milt Neely had made an abstract sculpture of a woman wearing leaves.  Apparently, some of the local residents felt the statue was "immodest", so they began collecting old clothes, which they then used to dress the statue.

The artist apparently doesn't mind that his artwork is being altered.  He says he wants people to talk about his art; otherwise why do it?  I have to admit he has a point... although to me it does seem very disrespectful to take it upon yourself to cover up someone's else's artwork.

It then occurred to me that if any of the folks who felt that statue was "immodest" ever went to Florence, Italy, they would be in for a real eyeful.  Bill and I toured a museum in Florence that featured works by Michaelangelo... nude statues that displayed the human body in all its naked glory...  I have to admit, I've been married for ten years and I was a little awestruck by the sight of some of that art.

Two murals we saw in a Florence cathedral...  The residents of Coalville would be scandalized!

On the other hand, I guess there is something to be said for having fun with art.  Case in point, Mannekin Pis in Brussels, Belgium regularly gets dressed in outfits that come from around the world.  Mannekin Pis wasn't dressed when Bill and I visited him in 2008.

Mannekin Pis

Jeanneke Pis

God bless the Belgians!!

A storefront in Venice.  The mannequin is wearing a pair of sparkly undies that says "I love my president..."

I guess if the artist isn't concerned about it and the community likes it, it's okay to cover up the "dirty art" in Coalville, Utah.  At least they're doing it with a sense of fun and not shaming the poor artist for being too "immodest" with his vision of his artwork.  But it also drives home to me that I would probably hate living in Utah or any other place where people are so squeamish about "modesty".  I think it's a stretch calling "Leaf Dancer" immodest... and feeling the need to cover up an abstract statue is weird and ridiculous.  The female form isn't nasty and sculptures aren't actual humans.  It's the same kind of nonsense as the mom I blogged about who complained that her daughter's Barbie dolls were akin to porn.    

A naked statue in Norway.

This sculpture was in Liechtenstein...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My overall thoughts about our latest SeaDream cruise...

A friend of mine sent me an email yesterday and said he'd been reading about my latest SeaDream cruise.  He wrote, "you know what, I can't actually tell what you REALLY thought about SeaDream."  I told him I would write a post giving my honest opinion about our latest cruise.

Just to give you a little background, I met this friend on our second SeaDream cruise in November 2011.  That cruise was a lot of fun, but there were some issues that came up that we both had complaints about.  The air conditioning wasn't working properly on that voyage and we also had some problems with a lack of hot water.  We also had issues with the Internet not working very well a couple of days.  Some people were complaining on that cruise because a couple of large groups had booked and were kind of "taking over" a bit.  

I'm happy to report that on our latest voyage, we had no problems with the air conditioning, hot water, or Internet.  Also, I can report that there weren't any obviously obnoxious large groups of people, at least that I noticed, on our latest cruise.  Most everyone was basically pleasant and well-behaved.  I didn't notice anyone sneaking behind the bars to help themselves to liquor and there weren't any fights in the piano bar...  and no one ashed their cigarette on my luggage (that happened just before embarking on our first SeaDream cruise).

Overall, I would say it was a very enjoyable cruise.  It was great to see some of my favorite crew members again.  The food was excellent, as was the bar service.  The stateroom was comfortable, even though it was on deck 2 (actually, I think I might even prefer the "cheap" deck).  We had a great stewardess who kept everything clean and stocked for us.  I had no serious problems with seasickness.  And... to top it all off, we had a fabulous itinerary.

So why wasn't I moved to pre-book another voyage?  The last two times I was onboard, I felt almost compelled to book again and lock in a 15% discount.  This time, I wasn't feeling that way at all.

Well, there were several reasons I didn't pre-book.  The main reason is that we don't know what the future holds.  My husband is leaving the Army next year, which means that he will be looking for a new job.  We don't know how long that will take.  I suspect we will have time to squeeze in a final big trip before he retires, but we've already determined that SeaDream doesn't go where we want to travel next (either Ireland or a river cruise).  Once he's out of the military, vacation time may be sharply curtailed.  Also, we would not have been ready to choose a specific voyage, which would have meant putting down $2500 for an "open booking".  That's a lot of money for us, especially right before a big move.        

The next reason has to do with some of the passengers.  As I explained in an earlier post, Bill and I are not well-to-do.  Many of the folks who cruise on SeaDream are very nice people who are at least somewhat friendly and polite.  But some of the others are a trifle entitled, which can be off-putting.  They are entitled not just in their attitudes and behaviors toward staff members, but also toward other passengers.  Since SeaDream is a very small ship, it can be difficult to avoid people with whom you don't click.  Of course, I understand that plenty of people don't click with me, either.  The point is, it can be uncomfortable to be on a small vessel among people with whom you don't mesh.  Even if you don't have an actual unpleasant run-in with them that makes things awkward, you'll still bump into them often and unavoidably.      

To continue on that point, remember that SeaDream is small enough that if a large group books, you may find yourself an afterthought.  Or it may feel like you're crashing someone else's party.  I think that would be less of a problem on voyages where there is a lot to do in port.  If you're on a cruise where the ports aren't very interesting, you may not enjoy a cruise with large groups booked... especially if they've also brought children.

The next reason has to do with the fares.  SeaDream is not an inexpensive cruise.  Even if you score a great fare, you also have to pay additional fees for taxes, port fees, handling, etc.  One thing I loved about Hebridean Princess is that the price advertised was the total price of the voyage.  Each leg of that back to back cruise was $1960 a person.  We got a 5% discount on the second voyage, so the second cruise was more like $1830 a person.  Those fares included everything.  Once we paid for the trip, we were done.  We could have bought expensive wine or cigars (if we were smokers).  Maybe we could have bought something in the tiny gift shop.  But everything else was included and we didn't have a bill at the end of the trip.  On SeaDream, we spent about $750 onboard the ship.  We didn't mind spending the money on extras like laundry, better wine, internet and a visit to the spa.  I do wish, however, they'd just roll the cost of the taxes and such into the fare.  

One major reason against pre-booking for me personally is that I have a tendency to get seasick.  I didn't have any serious seasickness issues this last time and SeaDream does have a doctor on board who can administer a shot for motion sickness.  However, no one wants to spend thousands of dollars on a vacation that involves repeatedly puking.  

The last reason is that after the third time, being on SeaDream is somewhat less of a thrill.  Having been on Hebridean Princess last November, I realize that there are other great ships out there and they are going places SeaDream doesn't go to (yet).  I also find that being on different ships reminds me what I do and don't like about SeaDream, which I think is good for the soul.  The truth is, as lovely as SeaDream is, it's also a bit hyped.  In my opinion, it's not the only game in town.  However, if SeaDream really is as special as the hype suggests, trips on other lines will only confirm that.  We're ready to investigate other ships to determine how accurate the hype is.

The bottom line is that I was awestruck after our first trip on SeaDream in April 2010.  The second time was still magical, despite a couple of maintenance issues and annoying large groups.  The third time was very pleasant and enjoyable... it was probably the best voyage on SeaDream we've ever had.  But I'm ready to try something different. I will probably go back to SeaDream at some point, but it probably won't be for awhile yet.  On the bright side, those who didn't "click" with me on my SeaDream voyages don't have to worry about bumping into me again anytime soon!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Next trip is booked...

Bill and I are spending the first week of July in San Antonio, Texas.  We're going there to find a place to live and see his mother.  I doubt we'll need all the days to find quarters; we're usually pretty quick when it comes to that.  I find ads for the types of places we prefer and then we check it out in person to see if we still like it.

It's hard to believe in less than two months, we'll be leaving North Carolina.  We've only lived here since April 2011.  I've mostly liked it here... if we were staying, I'd be looking to find another house in a different community, I think.  The town we're in now is pleasant enough, but there's not that much going on here.  It has going for it the fact that it's almost exactly between Raleigh and Fayetteville.  People here are nice, though, and most everything we need is in the vicinity.

San Antonio looks like it will be a lot more exciting, but I fear we'll also have trouble finding the right place to live.  So this trip is important.  It's also expensive!

I ended up booking the trip on because we needed plane tickets, a hotel, and a rental car and they could give us a package deal.  Maybe I would have done better some other way, but I've used Expedia a lot over the years and am comfortable with it.  So that's what I did...

We're flying out on Delta, which makes me happy.  I have more frequent flyer points on Delta than the other airlines and I somewhat prefer it to American and US Air... and definitely to United.  We have seven nights at The Menger Hotel on the Riverwalk.  Last time we were in San Antonio, we stayed at Hotel Contessa, which we liked.  But staying there would have cost significantly more.  Last time I stayed at Hotel Contessa, I got an excellent deal.  We're renting a car from Alamo...  It'll probably be a boring sedan.

The grand total for all of this?  About $2100.  I'd rather spend that on a transatlantic flight to Europe.  But finding a place to live is important.  I'll feel better once we do that and can get this move out of the way.  Hopefully we won't have another one anytime soon.  I'd like to put down roots somewhere.

I also hope I don't excite the TSA this time...