Washington D.C. in the Winter

A few years ago I was invited to my friend’s daughter’s wedding in DC on New Year’s Eve. Normally I am not one to enjoy big cities or seek them out for vacation, unless it is overseas and has mysterious or exotic sites to explore. I planned to make this trip to DC, and since my husband could not attend I called my good friend from law school, Jenny, who was also invited. We decided to go together, share a hotel room, and go out early to see the sites of Washington.DC1

In all of our travels I had never been to Washington D.C. before, but I had studied history in college and really liked American history, so I knew that I would enjoy all of the museums.

We booked our hotel and flight and off we went. We only had an extra couple of days before the wedding, so we really had to pick and chose between the great sites to visit. The one thing I learned is that we do have to go back. There is so much I did not see, especially one of the main places, The White House. I have wanted to see that for a long time, but it was closed to tours during the holidays. Jenny wanted to see the Holocaust museum, and we both wanted to see the Supreme Court since we are both lawyers.

DC4One thing I am proud of is that I am admitted to argue before the United States Supreme Court. I have the certificate on my wall to prove it, and it is an impressive certificate they give out for the Supreme Court. I have never been there to argue a case and the chances are nil that I ever will. There are a very few lawyers that argue before the Supreme Court. It is a very small specialized circle. However, for a small fee and by filling out an application and putting in a few affidavits that I am licensed to practice law and I am of good moral character, I was admitted and got that large certificate to display on my office wall. That certificate is exactly why I did it even though I knew I had no chance in hell of ever arguing before the Supreme Court of the United States. You only live once. Actually a few years later, I did argue before the Minnesota Supreme court, which was awesome and does not happen often to most attorneys here in Minnesota. I won too, so that is a source of pride for me.

We plannedIMG01005-20111228-1118 ahead and made the most of our time. We did not have a car so we walked a lot, used the buses, and we got to know the train schedule really well. Our first stop was Arlington Cemetery on the day we got to D.C. This was a somber reminder of all of the lives cut short to defend our country. The stones go on and on over the hills placed so perfectly to create the perfect rows like soldiers still standing at attention and in formation. However the most impressive are the guards protecting the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They are so precise and so exacting in their movements and the ceremony is somber and respectful. Many people stand around to watch, but everyone is quiet and it is frowned upon to do any talking while watching the ceremony. People move in and out of the area walking lightly and observing and silently contemplating the overwhelming respect for the location and what it signifies.

We spent an entire day on the National Mall area. Jenny wanted to visit the Holocaust museum. It was such a popular spot so we made sure we were in line before it opened to ensure we could view it and also see other sites. It was haunting and disturbing, but a great reminder how horrible people can be to each other sometimes. I wanted to visit to pay my respects, but it was hard to look at the faces of the people, especially the children that were lost to such atrocities.

DC2I was very excited to find out that many of the museums were free in Washington. In this day and age there is usually an entrance fee to everything, so I was elated to find out this was a very inexpensive trip.  We moved from museum to museum seeing our favorites, such as Lincoln’s hat, the first Lady’s gowns, the largest giant squid ever caught and preserved, and dinosaurs and so many other historical artifacts. We moved from place to place talking about the artifacts and about family, life, careers and our worries, hopes and dreams. Time spent with good friends is time well spent.

I have to say my favorite visit was to see the Constitution. However, Jenny and I were almost taken into custody when I entered the building while on my cell phone. While there is no admittance charge for such a location, they do have heavy security and I did not see the signs as I walked into the building, talking with my husband on the phone, that talking on a cell phone is prohibited. It was a quick call, but obviously not quick enough. As we DC3entered the guards started yelling for me to get off of my phone. It took a second for me to realize they were talking to me, but once I realized these armed guards were talking and yelling at me, I shut that thing down and almost dropped it like a hot potato. Luckily, I am of an age where I do not look like much of a threat, so they did not actually draw their weapons, but that phone flew into my pocket and I promptly apologized. I think Jenny was ready to kill me, but later we had a good laugh about it. The Constitution was amazing. I have seen pictures, but as I always say pictures do not do justice to most amazing things one sees in their travels.

My favorite place as an attorney was to visit the Supreme Court. The building is lovely with daunting steps to climb to the front door, like one is ascending mount Olympus and the large Greek columns are set to be majestic and intimidating. The doors are over sized and many times Photo (1)larger than needed. This building was built and is meant to show power and exude respect from those entering, yet it is a court of the people and so they have tried to ensure full access for all who wish to visit. This is the Supreme Court of the land and as a lawyer it meant something to stand in its halls and on its intimidating steps.

Jenny took a picture of me on the front steps of the Supreme Court building looking towards the Capital. It is a cherished picture I keep in my office as a reminder that I visited one of the coolest places in the United States for an attorney to visit and I did it with one of my best friends from law school. Jenny was one of the first people I met in Law school and we were in the same study group. We helped each other through school and have remained friends throughout our careers. That was almost thirty years ago, so to stay friends that long and to travel together to see the highest court in the land was an experience I will treasure forever.

Washington D.C in the winter was amazing, but being able to see it and especially visiting the Supreme Court with one of my best lawyer buddies in the world, made it an extra special event for my memory treasure chest.

Dizzy in the Redwoods

In grade school, I had read about the large redwood trees in California. The redwoods are some of the oldest and largest trees in the world. Reading about them and seeing the pictures was amazing, but I knew the pictures could not possibly do these giants justice. I remember being mesmerized by the photo of the large tree hallowed out to allow cars to drive through. I think that was in our geography book in school back in the 1960’s. Now that was a large tree. The photo I remember showed an old time car, possibly from the 1930’s going through the tree. I Redwood2remember my grandparents visiting and bringing back not only the great photos of the tree, but the stories of the massiveness and majesty of that forest. I knew at a young age I needed to see these trees.

I did not have a chance to get to California when growing up, but thank goodness the trees have been preserved and protected for us to see and hopefully for generations to come. The redwoods are protected by the 1968 creation of Redwood National Park and at least three state Parks created in the 1920’s. The parks also protect about 40 miles of pristine Northern California coastline. Joe and I planned one of our family vacations to see the redwoods when the kids were quite young.   We decide to fly to San Francisco, rent a big van and see the redwoods. We spent the night in San Francisco riding the cable cars and of course visiting Fisherman’s Warf. We looked at all of the sea lions and ate fresh seafood brought off the boats in the harbor, before they continued north.

Redwood1The next morning we took our van and headed north over the Golden Gate  bridge to the redwoods. The morning was misty and cool as we left the city and drove up the coast. There were many fun places to stop on the way, but we were set on getting to the redwoods, so we did not spend much time at the tourist stops. We entered the National Park and the misty weather added to the mystery and the mystique. It was true, the photos do not do the trees justice. You cannot capture the feeling, the size and the sights and smells present in this old growth forest through any cameras that we had. You know when you drive down the winding roads set carefully not to disturb the trees that you are driving through history. The fog hangs heavy around the trees, and as we had read in one of the interpretive centers, the trees thrive on this fog and moist air.

We stopped for every walking trail and got out of the car to experience the trees up close. The airRedwood3 smelled so clear, moist and fresh. It felt healthy and natural. The trees were larger even than we expected and when you walked around them and through them in some cases, you could feel the life force energy of these surviving giants. As you walked along the paths the pine needles were so thick it felt like the most plush carpet you can buy. As I walked with my family I looked ahead, but mostly I kept looking up. The height of these giants was unbelievable. As I followed the trunks up with my eyes, through the mist, it made me dizzy. You actually lost track of your equilibrium. I felt light as if I was floating at some point. Despite all of our hiking we did not feel tired. It almost felt like you were drugged by the fresh, moist air. It was like looking through a fish eye lense, in a way. The lightheadedness was intoxicating. It helped that as I walked the smell of fresh pine forest freshness was overwhelming. The mist was so heavy it almost made your skin feel wet. You did not need moisturizer. If a spa could recreate the air in the Redwoods, they would be Redwood4overwhelmed with the business.

The kids ran on the trails and I could just see them soaking up this healthy environment. They were truly happy and free as they skipped and ran and walked and hugged the trees and literally at one point danced around one of the large trees with their hands in the air. They had such a natural appreciation for this beautiful place. They still remember it even though they were fairly young when we were there.

We also got to see the tree that had been hallowed out years ago so that cars could drive Redwood5through it. Of course they would never damage a tree like that now, but it was done many years ago and may have actually provided that mystique nationally to help support creating the National Park. We of course drove our van through as well and stopped at the interpretive center to see historic pictures of people driving through the tree.

I am so grateful that enough people in the 1920’s had the intelligence to realize what a beautiful place this was and to fight and push to have this place preserved for all of us to enjoy. When you are able to visit beautiful places like the redwoods, take time to think and give thanks to the people who had the tenacity and foresight to preserve these places for us to enjoy. I am sure it made them feel healthy, alive and even dizzy, and as they experienced it for themselves they were driven to ensure that no one would be able to destroy these beautiful giants and their misty and mysterious existence. Celebrate their success and pledge to honor their memories by treating these areas with care and respect and finding new areas to preserve.

The Pure Joy of Kayaking

It is February in Minnesota which means the lakes are all frozen solid and I find myself yearningIMG_3865 for my Kayaks and some open water. I love my Kayak. I actually went to the boat house just to look at them last weekend. It is freedom and it represents stress-free peace and quiet. On weekends in every season, except winter, I take my sunglasses, my water (sometimes rum), and my iPod and launch to explore the lake.

I take time to think about my route and try new areas. Being at the water’s surface and moving slowly gives one a different perspective than when traveling in the speed boat or the Pontoon. I am one with the lake and nature. I am never in a hurry. I paddle and I look at everything including the vegetation, the birds, the fish and an occasional otter and of course lots of ducks, including the loons. Last summer I got a really good picture of my friend Kae, with her in a kayak in
IMG_1307the foreground and two loons behind her. The picture was selected for the Lake Association calendar.

I see Otters too when paddling. The otters are usually in one of two areas of the lake. I needed to learn this because they surface quickly without warning, right beside the kayak, and the first time they did this little playful and curious maneuver, I almost had to head home for new underwear. It did not help that the first time they did this IIMG_0145 did not know we had otters in our lake. It was our first summer on this lake. Now I look for them and I am grateful for all of the beautiful wildlife we have.

Last spring I was kayaking through a circular channel that has heavy vegetation and an island in a shallow area that comes off of the main part of the lake, and as I Kayaked around what I lovingly refer to as the bayou, I observed a turtle the size of a turkey platter, sunning itself on the edge of the water. It did not mind that I slowly paddled by and then even backed up to get a better picture of it. I have seen as many as forty small turtles in this same area all sunning themselves on branches over the water. This bayou area is teaming with birds, even egrets and herons, and has an uninhabited island in the middle that hangs IMG_3827heavy with weeping willows and birds of all kinds.

Of course I listen to music as I paddle. When I am in the bayou I listen to Born on the Bayou by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It is so fitting. Last Fall I even paddled to our little damn while listening to the new Adele album. I paddled extra long that day listening to the song Hello over and over. Great song.

I like the solitude of exploring on my own, but I like paddling with a friend or Joe too. It is a different kind of fun when exploring together. We stop and talk and bring the underwater camera. I can spend all day out on the water. I like kayaking so much that last year wheIMG_5450n we had a vacation with our BFC’s—(best friend couple), I planned a glass bottom kayak trip in Lake Michigan by Door County, Wisconsin. They provide tours that lead you kayaking over ship wrecks. Our friends, Laura and Doug, and Joe and I headed on down the road to an island adventure in Door County.

We were given our life vests and the tour company loaded and unloaded our glass bottom kayaks to the waters edge. We paddled along the shore and around the coast of the cliffs surrounding that part of the lake. We could see every plant and fish below us. It was so very awesome; I have been looking for IMG_5446a glass bottom kayak ever since. I have not been able to find one that will not break the bank. I have made it my mission to find one since our lake is very clean and clear, I think I could see those otters and all of the fish. I am really looking forward to that.

When we went over the ship wrecks in Lake Michigan I thought the water would be too dark and cloudy to see anything clearly, but I was wrong. You could see every detail of the wreck. It sat in only about 12 IMG_5428to 20 feet of water. I paddled over and over it so that I could take pictures of it and just look at the details. I think I spent more than a half hour over one of them in shallow water.

I now also have my paddle board which is fun, but more for the exercise. For me the kayak is still my favorite. It provides pure relaxation. You do not have to balance, you just have to be present and enjoy the moment. I have found that the best time is early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the lake is quiet and calm. Some people enjoy meditation to clear their mind, I choose kayaking. It does not take long at all to have all stress melt away and all sense of time to become irrelevant. There is no better thing, than the thing in life that can make time irrelevant. Find the thing in life, that for you, can bring you pure joy.


Finding Inspiration

It is funny how sometimes a simple gesture or event can lead to tremendous inspiration. Many times, in hindsight, it is not earth shattering but leads to a feeling that lasts for years or even changes our thinking.   In 2008 I was attending a Bar Association convention in Duluth. The guest speaker was Will Steger, the Minnesota born polar explorer and now activist for climate change. This is a guy I have read about and admired for years. We all followed him over the years when in 1986 he completed the first unsupported dog sled journey to the North Pole. He went on to alsoIMG_5360 explore Greenland from South to North by dogsled, and in 1989 he went 3,471 miles across Antarctica again by dog sled. I remember seeing pictures of him and his team and his dogs back in the 1980’s and we were all impressed at how he and his team could survive in such harsh conditions. To say he was inspirational in the 1980s would be an understatement. This is a guy who had a crazy dream, but did what it took to follow that dream. Instead of thinking about wild adventures this guy went on wild adventures.

I knew Steger must be a tough and courageous guy, but it surprised me when I heard him speak at the Bar convention, and I realized how humble and likable he was. He definitely has a passion for educating us all on climate change and he should. This is clearly a serious problem that he has seen first hand. However, instead of preaching hate or blame, he is all about the educational piece and about a call to action for the greater good. His presentation started with how he was raised by great parents who let him explore his surroundings. He was clearly grateful to them for a good start in life and gave them a lot of credit. They let him explore even at a young age and to follow his dream, even allowing him and a friend or brother to take a boat down the Mississippi by themselves.

His presentation involved great pictures of his team of people that went on each expedition and of course pictures of his dogs, but also the pictures of melting glaciers and the loss of ice caps. He has been asked to speak frequently in Congress and all over the world on climate change, because of his knowledge and first hand experience and because he is an impressive and charismatic guy who can inspire us all. This is a man who inspires us to do better and to be better about protecting our environment through his humble quiet presentation. This is a noble thing, but I found deeper inspiration as I sat and listened to his presentation in that Duluth convention hall.

In 2008 I had three teenagers, ages nineteen, sixteen and fourteen and was getting to that point in my life where my kids were becoming more self sufficient. They were expecting and getting more autonomy and I expected good decisions from them and to be more mature than most of IMG_5359their friends. My husband and I were busy in our careers and busy with family things. Listening to Will talk about his family and how his parents loved him and expected great things from him, but did not hover, inspired me to give my own kids more leeway, but yet hold them accountable. I had few hard and fast rules, but I expected good grades, to be home at a decent hour, and they had to treat others with respect. I warned them that if they showed me that they needed strict rules by their behavior, I would be happy to give them strict rules. I never set a curfew and I never had to. They knew they had to be home at a reasonable hour depending on the day of the week and whether they had school the next day and what was reasonable depended upon their age and they knew that. They knew that if they were coming home late there better be a real great reason.

We lived on three acres of woods surrounded by acres and acres of preserve with a large pond attached to our property. The kids were always able to explore the woods with us when they were younger and by themselves or with their friends when they were older. We always encouraged outdoor adventures and encouraged curiosity through outdoor exploration. When my son showed an interest in hunting, I was fortunate enough to be able to send him out to my sister and brother-in-law’s farm in Ortonville, Minnesota, to oversee his first hunting experience after he went through gun safety training. When my high school senior daughter wanted to visit one of our foreign exchange students in Germany by herself that summer, we helped her work out the details to try the best we could to make sure it was well planned and safe and we let her go with our blessing.

My kids had no idea how much Will Steger may have inspired some of that autonomous parenting that we had in place. I have to say I was parented like that so I certainly leaned towards more independence for my kids, but a lot of their friends had really strict rules. I chose a different style and it worked.

I not only had inspiration for how I raised my kids as I listened to Steger back in 2008, but after the presentation I stood in line to buy one of his posters and to get his autograph and have a few seconds to talk with him and tell him IMG_5369how inspiring he was and is. I had seen the picture before. It was mainly of a beautiful blue sky hanging over the white blowing landscape of Antarctica. The dogs are curled in the snow in the foreground, tails protecting their faces in their harnesses waiting to get started for the day. Steger is in the picture in full Antarctic garb making the last tie downs on the over-full sled the dogs will soon be pulling across the harsh ice covered landscape. It is a beautiful picture for sure, but it represents so much more. As I stood in line looking at the poster, it was hard not to see past the beauty, to the challenge of what he had accomplished. This was no joy ride with sled dogs. This was a daily life and death struggle over more than 3000 miles. Some people had tried before him and died.

As I approached him I tried to formulate a nice statement to him, to express my admiration for him and his life’s work to educate us on environmental concerns. I have to say that my respect for him was also more than what he accomplished, but that he had in fact had a life of exploration and education as opposed to a run of the mill, work a day life. When it was my turn, he asked my name and we talked a little about the environment and he seemed sincere in his appreciation for my kind statements to him.

I shook his hand and when I left I looked at what he had written on the poster. It said, “Joan, Follow your dreams! My Best, Will Steger 2008.” Now I am sure he has written that line many times on many posters, but I felt like he was talking directly to me. It felt like he was telling me that all is possible and that no matter who you are, dreams are still important and you can work IMG_5366to realize them. This came to me at a time when it meant more than anything else. We were busy with our lives and sometimes overwhelmed with family schedules and it provided that inspiration to really think about our dreams and aspirations as individuals and as a family. To remember that toiling away is not the important part of life, but adventure and dreams are why we live.

I had that poster framed and I have had it in my home since 2008. I have read that statement “Follow your dreams” many times over the years and looked upon that young explorer in the picture willing to risk it all to follow his dreams. My dreams are not nearly as lofty, but they are mine. I look to the poster for inspiration in life and to stay encouraged in living life to the fullest and to have courage in pursuing my dreams. Inspiration can be found in little things. Use what works for you to stay encouraged in life and living it to the fullest.

Iceland’s Healing Waters of the Blue Lagoon

Iceland is home to volcanoes and glaciers, geothermal waters and harsh, treeless landscapes. It is one of the most beautiful and untamed lands we have visited. We landed at their small airport with great expectations on one of our adventures. We flew Icelandic air which was a treat in and of itself. The flight attendants were dressed in a neatly pressed uniform with hose and skirts, and their hair neatly pinned under a retro flight attendant starched hat. They looked impeccable, friendly and very accommodating. It was one of the best flights ever. Once we were in the airport we stopped for some pastries and coffee. The coffee was strong, but delicious and the pastries were light and sweet. The airport was no bigger than a large factory and you could walk from
end to end in minutes.110901 0647__074

From the airport we hopped a bus to the famous Blue Lagoon. The landscape on the approximately half hour ride was lovely. The houses in the little towns rose out of the rocky land in bright colors. There were almost no trees, and the brush and bushes did not obstruct the view for miles. The hills in this area were rolling, and the roads lined with the volcanic rocks. We would love to spend a week or more there, but on this particular trip, we did not have that kind of time. We have seen reports of beautiful helicopter tours over the mountains, water falls and the volcanoes. They also have adventure hiking vacations around Iceland. We will have to go back. On this particular adventure we were all about the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa built in the early 1980’s. The Lagoon is man made, but fed by water output from the nearby geothermal power plant. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow, so it is utilizing the underground volcanic waters. Iceland is rich in IMG_8860 (1)volcanic activity. The water is filled with minerals such as silica and sulfur. The lagoon bottom is natural mineral filled soils that are easy on the feet and feel like walking on carpet. As we approached the area, the bus dropped us off and we walked a rock lined path to beautiful bath houses equipped for even the least prepared traveler. As we walked towards the spa we could smell the sulfur and minerals in the wet heavy air. It smelled divine and it felt like someone was softly misting your face as you got closer and closer. It brought back memories of a time we had visited a natural hot springs in the Olympic National forest in Washington state on the Olympic peninsula, many years earlier with our kids on a road trip. We really enjoyed the way that warm slippery mineral water made our skin feel.

As we entered the large new buildings, we paid a fee to enter and were assigned a locker and a towel and a warm comfy robe. The staff was friendly and welcoming and eager to explain where everything was and let us know to be sure to ask if we needed anything. Once in the expansive area you can buy anything you need including suits, towels or flip flops. There were very clean, 110901 0529__596well equipped locker rooms for men and women, and even though it serves a lot of people, it never felt crowded. Once you get out of the locker rooms you face two-story windows overlooking the Lagoon, shrouded by mist over blue grey, cloudy, mineral rich waters. The steam was rising that day as the air was cool. You could see the bathers spread out over the expansive area sipping cocktails or spring water as they conversed in the largest natural Jacuzzi ever. It almost looked surreal as we went outside to walk down the many stairs and enter the lagoon. Life guards stand by around the pools even though it was not more than five feet deep anywhere. The lifeguards wore what appeared to be rain gear, even though it was not raining and they changed positions often, probably to avoid boredom. The pools were surrounded by black volcanic rock and bubblers throughout to bring in fresh mineral water and keep the pools comfortably hot.

We hung out together feeling refreshed, and once in a while we dug our hand to the bottom of the lagoon to bring up a handful of grey mineral mud to rub on our skin. It made our skin feel 110901 0618__597like silk and the hot water felt really good after a long flight. Every long airline flight should be followed by a dip in a mineral hot spring. The jet lag floated away immediately. Of course it helped that they were serving Blue Lagoon cocktails. The cocktails were blue, of course, and fruity. The combination of fruit juice to energize our system and the alcohol to melt away stress was a perfect combination. It would be easy to fall asleep in the Lagoon which is why they probably have lifeguards around pools that are so shallow.

We soaked in the pool for an hour or so and then went into the buildings wearing our fluffy robs and sandals to have a bite to eat at the restaurants overlooking the Lagoon. After a rest and some photos, we went back into the Lagoon for more relaxation and conversation with other travelers. We relaxed and shared stories with people from all over the world for most of the IMG_8876afternoon.

It was a rare experience to be surrounded by the harsh landscape and the warm softness of the mineral waters. It was invigorating and yet relaxing. To witness the pilgrimage of people to these warm healing waters, looking for comfort and adventure all in the same trip, reminded me of the balance and harmony we all need in our lives. There has been much written about the necessity and mystery of opposing forces in the universe; fire and ice, dark and light, soft and hard and yin and yang. Iceland and particularly its healing mineral hot pools of the Blue Lagoon provided that balance and harmony of the senses and of the soul. There are not many places on earth that are so rare and so uniquely comfortable. It is a destination that should be sought out by those that need a little healing and comfort. We left relaxed, comfortable with the earth and with life, and changed in some respects in our outlook on what is important. Seek out those things that make you better, that heal your senses and soul, and ground you to what is and what is not important in life.

A Castle and a Barrel of Wine Guarded by a Black Cat

Zell Germany is a small village on the border of the French wine county, built on the green hillsides along the winding Mosel River. Wine is never as delicious as when you drink it at an outdoor café in a village that sits in the shadows of the winery that gave it life. When traveling inIMG_1750 Germany, Joe and I had a particularly strong interest in the Mosel river valley. Some of my relatives were from the Mosel River valley area of Germany and I have been told that many people in the town of Pierz, Minnesota, where I grew up, had relatives from that particular region. I am not surprised by this because as I understand it, many people when immigrating to the USA would settle in areas where they had relatives and people that they knew, or sometimes they came over together in groups.

The Mosel River valley was very beautiful with rolling hills surrounding the slow moving river that was lined on the hillsides with fields of grapes. We had decided to stay in the village of Zell overnight, because it was the home of the Selbach Zeller Schwarze Katz winery. We had always liked their wines.

110914 1144__418We only knew a little about wines, so I have to admit we liked the name more than anything. Schwarze Katz means black cat in German and the legend is that the winery had a cask of Zeller wine that was cellared alongside many other barrels of wine, but this particular cask was being fiercely protected by a black cat. The locals and the winery presumed the wine was special and the name and the legend stuck. The black cat was made and has remained a part of their logo, legends, and history.

We drove into the town along the winding river road. The river was lined with a few of the river cruise boats that have become such a popular way to see the countryside; it is a vacation I 110914 1159__421would like to try sometime. The travelers book a river cruise that slowly makes its way along the river valley, stopping in each little village. They have sleeping accommodations on the boats and a fine restaurant. The boats are not large and have room for a modest amount of travelers, and we saw that the front decks of the boat were lined with bikes for the cruisers to get off in each small town and move around the town on bikes. The bikes had baskets and the thought of exploring the villages on bikes and stopping for wine and food tasting in each region, appeared very romantic. We will have to try that sometime. As I say, I will add it to my list.

We were there in early fall and the weather was perfect. We had made reservations ahead of SchlossZelltime in a historic castle in Zell that had been transformed into a lovely hotel. The castle was called the Hotel Schloss Zell. The castle dated back to the 16th century and they had a restaurant in the cellar and an outdoor restaurant that specialized in romantic dinners for two, made with locally grown vegetables and meats from the hillside farms. We parked our car in the hotel courtyard surrounded by grape arbors and tables for the outdoor dining and relaxing. We went through the big double doors of the castle to check in and the lobby was filled with historic portraits from past royalty who had lived there, setting the mood nicely for the castle experience.

There were no elevators so we carried our suitcase up a winding staircase to the third floor room towards the top of the castle. The rooms were very large and the walls were made of stone. There were little alcoves and a large fluffy king size bed with European bedding set down low to 110914 1020__492the floor. Our room had a view out of the castle tower which added to the intrigue.

The hotel staff were friendly, fun and were more than willing to talk about the castle history and even share stories of how some believed it was haunted. The building itself had an air of having seen many years, and many people come through its large double doors. If only walls could talk. There were all kinds of winding stairs to nowhere and one in particular that descended into a cellar below the kitchen. It may have been our imagination, but there seemed to be mist or vapor in some of the small alcoves. Almost like smoke, but no one was smoking. The misty air helped one imagine the spirits that still lingered in the castle walls. It felt like a movie set, except it was real. There were tapestries that looked ancient and old pewter pitchers and swords and armor that looked like it was from the Knights of the Round Table. We explored every area that we were allowed into and some that we were probably not supposed to be in. When we saw everything inside, we went exploring in the village.

110914 1010__665We walked along the river and hiked up into the hillside covered in rows of grapes. There were small shops and restaurants and the village was so small that we made it up and down every street. I looked everywhere for that black cat who helped name and bring the Schwarze Katz winery its fame. Despite seeing many cats just sitting round the old stone buildings, not one of them was black. You would think they would make sure the town only had black cats or maybe that is the point. There was only one special Schwarze Katz and that is the one the legend is made after, or maybe it lends an air to the visitors looking intently for the black cat. Maybe the black cat was there, but illusive. As evening fell, we meandered back to the castle and we ate at the castle’s outdoor restaurant. The weather was so lovely, we watched the sunset while having dessert and sipping wine. The food was excellent.110914 1014__413

It was well after dark before we headed to our castle room. We could see few lights out of the castle windows, as the village is so small and the locals have worked hard to preserve the small country village charm by limiting street lights. As I fell asleep, I was hoping to have a ghost experience and yet hoping I would not. Luckily I guess for me, I fell into a deep sleep aided by a tummy full of good food and wine, after a busy day of travel and hiking. Well planned travel is worth every dime of your money and the best way to enjoy your precious short time on this earth. Don’t be afraid to sleep in history and enjoy the search for local legends.

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An Austrian Farm Retreat

I was planning our trip around Europe about four years ago when I ran across the website of a working farm in Austria that welcomed guests into their home: Norbert Jordan Hiaslerhof. Built above a dairy barn, the home has been made into a lovely bed and breakfast with private bedrooms and a private bath. It was large but simple, with a balcony on each room to view the mountains and the city below. Having grown up on a farm in central Minnesota I was immediately drawn to it. The farm was located in the mountains above Innsbruck, and provided panoramic views of the city in the daytime and more spectacularly at night.  I had to make it fit into our itinerary. The price was
very reasonable. In hindsight it was one of the least expensive places we stayed in our three week adventure and yet one of the very best in terms of the experience and the beauty.

This is one of those bookings you make knowing it comes with some risk that it may not be exactly what you expected. I have found in planning adventures that these risky spots are almost always better than expected and are rarely a disappointment. It adds to the excitement and anticipation of the adventure when you don’t book the same old hotels and experiences and when you are not sure  what to expect. Going in with the right attitude is always good, and so in the weeks before we went on our adventure, my husband and I kept joking that the room and house will probably smell like cattle and manure, but hey I am used to that having done my share of shoveling and hauling manure when I grew up. Having been many places we also agreed that there are many more smells and things one can endure that are way worse than a barn smell. We decided we would just enjoy the “fresh country air.”

There are a lot of people in this world who would be better off to have to shovel some manure and endure some struggle. It is hard to appreciate simple pleasures and beauty if one has always had things clean and perfect and easy. That artificial perfectness tends to make people picky and not able to roll with the punches and find the happiness in any situation.

Well we were about half way into our adventure when we found ourselves in Innsbruck. We enjoyed a train and cable ride up to the top of the mountains on the railway built for the Olympics in 1976. The city was lovely, and busy and bustling. It had fine shops to buy things and nice cafes serving delicious light wines with lunch sandwiches made with local sausages and fresh gelato made of the eggs and cream from local dairy farms. The gelato was rich, smooth and came in so many flavors it was difficult to choose.

After lunch we were ready to trek up into the mountains to find our farm retreat for the afternoon and night. We wound around on the narrowest mountain roads we have ever driven on. We drove switch-back after switch-back following our GPS to try to find the farm. In one tiny town, made up of maybe ten houses and a small store, we stopped to regroup and make sure we were still on course. The winding around seemed to go on forever and we wanted to trust our GPS, but we were starting to loose faith. We bought a few items at the store, used the restroom and did our best to read our maps and confirm we were on course. We usually trust our technology, but we also use our common sense and try not to follow it blindly.

The sites were beautiful so we decided that even if we were lost, this was one of the most scenic lost roads we had ever been on and we have had our share of being lost over the years. That sunny September day, we decided that there is no ugliness in the Alps. It was beautiful no matter where you looked.

As we made our way along, we also ran into some road construction on a narrow road in one of the towns and had to back up and take another route. There are not many choices IMG_0045on these towns perched on the edge of the mountains but we did our best. The challenge of the hunt for it added a lot of excitement and fun. It would have been easier and taken less time to stay in the city of Innsbruck, but not nearly as exciting. As we drove up into the mountains to the farm, I was already glad we had made the decision to stay someplace “out of the box” and that was before we even set eyes on it.

As we wound around the last corner and saw our farm retreat, I knew this would be an experience I would have in my fondest memories and would talk about and think about for the rest of my life. There are just some experiences you know you will always cherish. This was one of them. The farmhouse looked like a small Bavarian chalet with a wrap around porch, and with window boxes full of pink, orange and red flowers. The house with the barn underneath was carefully built into the hillside and had clearly been there for many years. This area of the Austrian Alps had very little to no flat land. There were neighbors around but not enough to call it a town; just other farm families carving out a mountain existence.

We checkeIMG_0030d-in by entering the front door of the farm house. The house had two floors. The big double doors of the barn opened on the left of the lower level and you could see the dairy cows in their pens sticking their heads out of the stations to munch on fresh aromatic green hay. They looked clean, cozy and content.   The barn was impeccably clean and had friendly barn cats roaming in-between the cows. The cats came out to rub on your legs for attention and in search of a pet while you visited. The front door of the house was to the right and connected to the barn as one building. The house was two stories high with the bedroom accessed through a wide, highly polished dark wood staircase.

We checked in with the owner who spoke English pretty well as his elderly mother looked on. She spoke no English, but smiled in a friendly manner and reminded him to tell us the time for the home cooked breakfast. As usual I tried to make conversation and a connection with thIMG_0041is family by telling them my farm story and thanking them for sharing their home with us. They were very friendly. We were given our key and off we went. As we got to the top of the stairs, the bedrooms, each with their private bathrooms, were spaced along the wood corridors. The room was amazing. It was large and had dark wood floors and white as white can be linens. The bed

was large and comfortable. One of softest and most luxurious beds we had stayed in while in Europe. Our room had a private balcony overlooking the valleys and Innsbruck. Everything was perfectly clean and there was not even a hint of animal or farm smell. We looked around, relaxed a little, and than went exploring.

It felt a little odd at first, like staying with a long lost relative you had never met, but as we looked around outside in the farm yard and went into the barn we were reassured by our welcoming hosts. He took us into the barn and we talked about his farming operation. It really is nice to have that farming connection. IMG_0035I had to pet the cows and hold the cats, all of which were used to having strangers looking for hometown comfort in a foreign land.   He showed us his operation, including the bulk tank to collect milk and the hay barn above, all of which were connected to the house. A neighbor stopped in to visit and he introduced us and brought out beers stored in the milk house for all of us to share. They like their beer in Austria. The bottle he gave us was way too large for one person, but when in Rome…We drank it down as he continued the tour and talk about his fields built into the mountain sides and how they operate the machinery with the steep conditions. The neighbor spoke little English, but every once in a while would add to the conversation and our host would translate. You could never find two guys as nice as these farmers.

After we finished our beers we let them finish their work and went for a stroll along narrow paths among the fields and along the gravel roads connecting the homes that shared the area. As evening fell, we retreated to our room and shared some wine while the sun was setting. We sat on the balcony for hours watching the sun set and the lights of Innsbruck slowly appear below. The calm beauty was overwhelming.


Mediterranean Beauty

I love reading those lists of the most beautiful places on earth or the top ten bucket list spots. I like reading them, because I want to feel good about having seen some of the places I have already been on the list and because I am always looking for those places to IMG_1208add to my list of great places to go. I hope I live long enough to see all of the places I have added to my list, and on the other hand, I hope I never say my list is complete. It is good to have wonderful things to look forward to and this earth provides unending beauty. I want to be 100 years old and still be adding things to my list, but as most of you know I am an eternal optimist. I know I will not run out of places to go because as much as I want to see new things, there are also many places that I would not mind returning to some day with more time.

It seems that one of the areas that seems to make every list and for good reason is the Cinque Terre in Italy. If you have not seen it in pictures or in your travels, you need to look it up. I saw it online for years before we actually went to experience it. It truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Cinque Terra means five lands and is compromised of five villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso located in the area of Italy known as the Liguria region. It is five beautiful villages on the Italian coast, full of colorful historic buildings set on the cliff sides along the blue, crisp IMG_1105Mediterranean Sea.

It is picture postcard beautiful. We take a lot of photos on our travels, and sometimes we accidentally capture the true beauty, and sometimes…not so much. We did get some great pictures at the Cinque Terre, but it is still nothing like the real beauty. It is one of those pictures that I have framed on our wall going up the stairway with a collection of other favorite travel photos. I walk by it many times per day and each time I pass it, it reminds me of that calm beauty and relaxation I felt when we were there. There are some places that just leave a strong impression and invoke strong feelings and great memories, and this is one of them.

People come from all over the world to see it. There is a train that delivers tourists and locals from city to city and runs regularly. You can hop on and off as you explore your way through each village, taste testing their food and drinks. There are also hiking and biking110911 1036__632 (1) trails between each village, and one can spend weeks relaxing and swimming and exploring each of the cities. We were on a larger trip and only had designated a few days to this area.   This would be an area that I would love to go and spend a few weeks soaking in the food, the sun, and the cool waters of the Mediterranean, while getting to know the locals. It would be fun to bike from village to village. It would be like living a beautiful old movie. Even with our short visit, we were totally in love with the Cinque Terre.

The villages are built on, and into the cliffs, and have a rich and long history rooted in the fishing industry of Italy and the Mediterranean. The buildings are very old and are crowded together, because the cliffs rise so close to the water that little land is left for beaches or buildings. The historic structures shine in the summer sun, painted in yellows, bright blues, greens, and oranges. The narrow streets are lined with shops bustling with the locals and tourists buying everything from purses and jewelry, to fresh fruits and IMG_1193vegetables. The cafés are welcoming and casual. They serve some of the finest sea foods caught fresh from the Mediterranean and the prices are modest.   It is Italy, so the wines are smooth and dark, but delicious and compliment any dish. The pastries and desserts line glass cases and people are three deep pointing at their sweet selection that is delivered sitting atop a plain piece of parchment, so one can carry and eat it as you walk and explore. There are boats a plenty that line the beaches and people fishing, swimming and basking in the summer sun on the rocks. There is no evidence of any stress, just people enjoying the day and enjoying life.

This is a naturally beautiful area because of the deep blue sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and the colorful city built on the beautiful cliffs of Italy, but what made these cities so special is that they have remained fairly unchanged for many years, other than some rebuilding they had to do a few years ago after some flooding. Despite the IMG_1204volume of tourists and their success in being named many times over as one of the most beautiful places to visit, they have remained humble. The food and wares are reasonably priced and the people are welcoming and have maintained their relaxed attitude. People live modestly and carry on their daily lives, appearing not to just tolerate the tourists that overrun their city on a daily basis, but welcome and embrace their guests to share their piece of heaven on earth. They appear to appreciate each day, and enjoy the simple pleasures of great wine and food. As visitors we can learn a lot from the people of the Cinqua Terre. They have an attitude towards others and towards life itself that should be emulated. Appreciate the simple pleasures of life and embrace the beauty of each beautiful day as it comes.

Glitter, Champagne, and Doing the New Year Right

I love New Year’s Celebrations. It represents a reason to get together with friends for one final celebration after all of the major holidays are over and we all go back to work in January. (Usually we are trying to catch up after all of the goofing off we did during the holiday season). It is an easy holiday because there are no presents or shopping needed; it is a pure 2000fenjoyment type holiday. Also, the thought of a new fresh start is always exciting to me. You get to begin again on whatever your aspirations and goals, or set new goals. I like to look forward and decide on something new to learn in the coming year or try something I have never tried before.

Some people make New Years resolutions and set such things as weight goals or getting healthy and those are fine, but it is also our opportunity to have gratitude for all of the things we have and all of the things we have accomplished in the past year, and to shut the door on any disappointments or troubles we had in the past. We can also take stock of 2000dwhere we are with our dreams, our family, our job and life itself. We can plan and look forward to making a great year for ourselves. I plan fun things for us and get them booked in the cold winter months. I try to have something fun to do at least once each month.

Before New Years Eve I find a quiet place at home, at work, or at a coffee shop, and I do my planning and dreaming. I think, “What would I like to be grateful for next New Year’s and what steps would I take to achieve that goal?” Some are lofty, out-there goals, and others are very attainable with some discipline. Once my planning is done and I feel good about my plan, I am ready to celebrate the coming of the New Year. Every year is a new year of possibilities. New hopes, new dreams and sometimes a continuation of goals and dreams, but always mixed with plenty of gratitude for what we do have.

When the night arrives, I dress for it, I plan for it and I always enjoy it. There is always2000c champagne or some other special drink involved and glitter, somewhere or everywhere. Most years it is glitter eye shadow for the occasion and when we were in college in the 1970’s, New Year’s always involved sprinkling glitter on each other at midnight, which usually turned into dumping glitter on one another. It was a complete mess and I would find glitter in my hair and in the shower for days! When I was dating it always involved going downtown for the action of the big city and when I was married and our kids were young, it was family activities that usually ended at 10:00 p.m. instead of midnight.

IMG_4872One of my favorite New Year’s celebrations of all time was when it turned the year 2000. What a celebration that was! I cannot believe it is over 15 years ago. How time flies. There was so much hype in the years before, about our entire computer system and possibly society collapsing because of this Y2K bug as it was called. People were stockpiling food and gold and guns trying to be prepared for anything. We did not have a lot of concern and believed we were fine, but decided to take the kids out and celebrate big just in case. We went to a German restaurant that had prepared special food and they had a polka band and a guy dressed like the Kaiser getting people to dance. We had so much fun that night and threw all of our cares to the wind. We had a little wine, ate good food and danced with the kids as a family. There is nothing better than family time.

We celebrated with gusto as we ended a century and turned the calendar to the year 2000. It was the last night of a thousand years and the first night of a thousand more years, which made it particularly spectacular, but the 2000efact that it came with threats of potential doom, lent an air of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” attitude. The threats of gloom and doom were not very believable, so it was more exciting than any kind of real fear of a disaster. It did however, reaffirm that none of us knows what tomorrow brings, so it is important to take every opportunity to celebrate with glitter, crazy hats, and good food and drink with your family. The most important thing in life is to enjoy the moment, because on our deathbed, 2000gwe will not remember things that we did at work, but we will remember those times that we celebrated life. We will remember those times when we got dressed up and wore glitter and when we danced with a child in our arms, laughing until our sides ached and kissed at the stroke of midnight. Celebrate New Year’s with gusto every year. It is the opportunity for new beginnings and the beginning of new opportunities.

The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers

I loved watching Winnie the Pooh when the kids were little. My favorite character was Tigger and my favorite line was “The wonderful thing about Tiggers, is Tiggers are wonderful things. Their tops are made out of rubber,  their bottoms are made out of springs.” Well frankly, I love the entire cliptiggerhappy3scene with Tigger bouncing around, happy and having fun; always positive and upbeat. Then there was the Eeyore. The little donkey would walk with his head hanging down and his tail dragging with a black cloud over his head, and talk with his gloomy, depressed, pessimistic attitude, looking at the bad side of everything. Well in life I have found that everyone is either an Eeyore or a Tigger. You know I am right, because right now in your head you are placing every person you know, in your family and at work, in one or the other category.

Of course people are complex and many life factors can affect all of us, but I have a theory that each of us has selected, probably early on in our lives, clipeeyorest2the main characteristics of one or the other of these personalities. We have chosen happiness or we have chosen to be that negative nay-sayer in the family and at work. I don’t think people are one at work and the other personality at home. People select for whatever genetic, educational, family-rearing or circumstances that they are a happy person and look at the bright side of life or they do not. I do think that people can change and that is why I think there are so many studies out there about choosing happiness.

We all know that we like being around the Tiggers, but sometimes Tiggers can be exhausting, energetic and may come off as bragging too much. Really the bragging is not so much bragging to get attention; they just talk about positive, good things and don’t dwell on the difficulties of life. I also think that because they have a bright outlook, things do turn out better for them. Because they have that happy attitude they do not dwell on little things that are not perfect. For example, they do not dwell on it if the food they ordered at the restaurant was not perfect, or that someone they thought was coming to a party did not show up. They enjoy the people that do show up and they talk about the restaurant décor that was lovely or the conversation that flowed nicely at dinner.

Dwelling on the positive is a way of life. It is a lot more fun to be that person in the meeting at work who is thinking up ways to get a new initiative done or make a change, than the person who sits in the meeting telling everyone why their ideas won’t work and why the change will betigger_and_eeyore_by_inkartwriter-d57k6yi unsuccessful. Likewise it is more fun to be the person in the family around the dinner table who tells a fun story or talks about plans for the family to travel or for a fun outing, than the person who comes home grumpy and makes everyone miserable. That is the family member who can only talk about the dishes not being done and the laundry piling up. The Tigger tells stories while everyone helps with the cleaning and laundry, making plans for fun adventures.

People can change, but it takes work and even if we are normally very positive we can work on being even more optimistic and helping others feel good about themselves. Try going one week without saying anything negative, including things you say in the privacy of your own car while driving. Remember that person who pulled out slow in front of you is probably someone’s 80 years old father taking his wife to church. Remember that cashier who is struggling to check you out may have learning disabilities or it is their first job. Practice patience and positivity. Try complimenting people and only giving positive feedback at work, at home and in your community, and you will see a difference in your own happiness. Making others happy and being positive works to make a better world for everyone. There are two kinds of people; the Tiggers and the Eeyores. Choose wisely.