Last chance, baby: The Baby Bucket List

Traveling in Le Baux in Provence -- and checking off an item from my Baby Bucket List.

Visiting Le Baux in Provence — and checking off an item from my Baby Bucket List.

I’m 26 weeks pregnant — which means I only have 14 weeks until my life is radically, permanently changed.

I’m excited to meet the wee chick who’s been turning somersaults behind my belly button. But I also feel like there’s a countdown clock on my old life, and time has almost run out.

Coincidentally, I’m also unemployed for the next 14 weeks. Long story short, I’m living in Switzerland and on a leave of absence from my job. For the first time in 11 years I’m not working or in grad school.

It feels like the perfect time to work on a Baby Bucket List.

For me, a Baby Bucket List isn’t really about the baby. I’m already covering my bases in prepping for the birth – prenatal yoga, birth classes, visiting the hospital, buying all the supplies, reading Dr. Spock.

No, for me a Baby Bucket List is the stuff I want to do now because once the baby arrives, I won’t be able to do it again for months or even years. These are the things I love to do or have always wanted to do – and, in my mind, this is my last chance to do them for a long while.

I have five big things on my Baby Bucket List right now – travel, write, read, exercise and bake. But because I’m Type A, I’m worried there are important things I’ve forgotten. What else will be rare to impossible to do once the baby arrives? What else should be on my Baby Bucket List?

To all the moms out there, I need your help. Help me make by Baby Bucket List complete. I want to know:

  • What else should I do over the next 14 weeks to take full advantage of this time?
  • What do you wish you’d done more of before your first baby was born?
  • What do you wish you’d done less of? What was a waste of time?

I’ll take the best ideas I receive, add them to Baby Bucket List and write about the experience here.

Here’s a big thank you in advance to all the mom’s out there who will help me make these last 14 weeks count.

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My dirty little food secret

I’ve always been a food snob when I travel. If I’ve spent the time and money to go far, far away, the last thing I want to eat is close-to-home American food. Why seek out burgers, pizza or chocolate chip cookies when you’re surrounded by local delicacies, most of which are far better than the poor copies of American food that touristy restaurants serve?

My rule? Eat local wherever I traveled and avoid American dishes. Most of the time it wasn’t hard. France, Spain, Italy, Thailand, Cambodia, Argentina – it wasn’t exactly a sacrifice to eat the delicious local food in these places. Even in Bali and Scotland – two places with my least favorite local foods – I gamely ate up the nasi goreng, haggis, blood pudding and greasy chips in the name of experiencing the culture. I turned my nose up at those Americans queuing at McDonalds for their Royales with Cheese.

So that makes me feel even guiltier about my dirty little food secret: Since we moved to Europe this year, I’ve been eating American food all over the continent.

It didn’t start out that way. When we arrived, I gamely tried the local Swiss foods like rosti potatoes, pork, sausages, raclette and fondue. But pretty quickly, I got sick of the same flavors over and over again. The Swiss are great at many things – timely trains, expensive watches, gourmet chocolate – but culinary variety isn’t one of them.

Soon we started traveling on the weekends, and I got away from Swiss food. I figured that would solve my palate boredom, and for awhile, it did. We ate delicious curries in London, steak and pastries in Paris, fish in Lisbon, It was a blessed relief from pork, potatoes and cheese.

But pretty soon, that wasn’t enough. Both my husband and I were craving flavors we couldn’t easily find. Burgers. Barbeque. Tacos. Green curry. American microbrews. Deli sandwiches. Soft baked cookies.

So when I read about Freddie’s Deli before our April trip to Paris, my mouth watered. Freddie’s – opened last year by Kristin Frederick, the same woman who brought burgers and food trucks to Paris – serves American-style* pastrami, pulled pork and cheese steak sandwiches along with Brooklyn Beer and brownies. I could hardly wait to hop on a train.

On our last day in Paris, we went to Freddie’s for lunch. We were not disappointed. As pastrami juice and pulled pork dripped from our fingers, we sighed with sated relief. It wasn’t French, but it was damn good.

Once we started eating American food in Europe, we couldn’t stop. We still ate mostly local cuisine when we traveled, but we also didn’t feel guilty about the occasional American treat. That led to Shake Shack in Istanbul, Thai food in Paris, froyo in Zurich and burgers and fries in Provence. Soon we took it even further. We ate Mexican and Belgian food in Vilnius and Indian food in Amsterdam.

And you know what? It was all delicious. And because we looked outside the traditional cuisine box, we discovered new culinary corners of the cities we visited. We learned that there was amazing Indian in Amsterdam; that food trucks were becoming a thing in Paris and that some creative chefs in Provence were serving kick ass burgers.

So I’m amending my rule to say, “Eat local wherever I go and eat American-style food if it’s made local.” I still want to avoid the McDonalds and KFCs when I travel (Shake Shack was a delicious exception to the rule), but anything made locally is fair game.

Here are a few of the favorite out-of-context eateries we’ve discovered this year:

BB Bistrot Steak House: Fantastic burgers in the heart of Provence. Not far from where Van Gogh painted Irises, these folks are serving up great burgers, fries and guac for eat in or take away. On TripAdvisor, where it’s the No. 5 restaurant in St.-Remy-de-Provence, it’s called Au Bon Burger, but the name on the sign in BB Bistrot Steak House.

The Bite: Solid burger joint in Zurich that does a new special burger daily. The fries are good, as are the salads and desserts. Best of all? In addition to a decent list of beers, they brew their own iced tea. In a continent that thinks bottled Peach Nestea is the last word in iced tea, this is a minor miracle.

Fork & Bottle: This restaurant on the edge of Zurich is run by American ex-pats. Their menu focuses on fresh and local ingredients, which means it changes weekly. What doesn’t change is that the food is delicious, and they serve it in a gorgeous beer garden. Oh, and they have brunch too!

Freddie’s Deli: American-style deli in Paris. Pastramis, pulled pork and cheese steaks along with Brooklyn Beer and brownies. Friendly service, but beware of bad weather. There’s no space to eat inside.

Jemoli: This Swiss department store in Zurich has a lovely food hall in the basement with lots of yummy things, but my favorite is their frozen yogurt. It’s made from actual tangy yogurt and you can top it with anything from fresh blueberries to crumbled Kagi Fret chocolates (the far superior Swiss version of the Kit Kat).

Koh-i-Noor: Great Indian food and fantastic service in Amsterdam. We had mostly classic dishes and particularly enjoyed all the vegetarian options.

Rene: Belgian food in Vilnius. Wonderful sausages, frite and roasted meats – plus a huge selection of Belgian beers. We had a great time even though we came in on the wrong night for the famous Belgian mussels. Phone ahead to find out when they’ll have them fresh and in stock.

Shake Shack Istanbul: This one is a clear violation of my rule, but it’s still the best milkshake I’ve had in Europe.

Tres Mexicanos: Not the best Mexican food I’ve ever had but definitely the best Mexican food I’ve found in Europe. This restaurant in Vilnius has delicious nachos and burritos with a selection of Mexican beers.

*Anyone who’s eaten a sandwich in Europe knows that “American-style” sandwiches are hard to come by. In Europe, a sandwich is a single piece of meat or cheese between two large pillows of bread. There may be mayo or a lettuce leaf. Maybe. By contrast, American sandwiches are filled with layers of delicious meat, cheese, veggies and condiments. The filling dwarfs the bread. The sandwich is one area where American can confidently claim culinary superiority.

 

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A Mary Poppins moment in Provence

When I left to spend two weeks in Provence, I thought I knew what to expect. The vacation would be mostly about beautiful food and beautiful scenery – gorgeous town markets stuffed with olives, dried sausages and cheese, bakeries overflowing with flaky pastry and fresh baguettes, Van Gogh’s Cyprus trees and irises, dark purple lavender fields, world-class vineyards. And St.-Remy-de-Provence, our home base for the holiday, delivered on all of the above.

I didn’t expect to be moved by great art. Even though many painters created their most famous works in Provence, few of the canvases are still in the region. And I can guarantee  that the last thing I expected was to be awed by a light show inside a limestone mine.

If it had been up to me, I never would have gone. My friend Sunny loves Gustav Klimt and had read that the nearby town of Le Baux had a Klimt exhibit. Once we got there, we found it was actually a Klimt light show. Just those two words – “light show” – made me roll my eyes. What kind of cheesy, new age crap was this?

We spent the morning in Le Baux wandering around the ruins of the chateau and popping into the shops. The views were stunning and the ruins fascinating. Even if the light show ended up being a bust, the trip was already worth it. As the afternoon heat hit, we headed down to the Carrières de Lumières, the old limestone mine that housed the Klimt show.

We walked from the blinding sunlight into the dark mine and for a moment I felt disoriented. I had expected a low, cramped mine with laser lights flashing, like a disco roller rink. Instead, we’d entered a space with soaring ceilings and massive smooth white columns and walls – and projected onto all of them were huge colorful paintings.

I stared open mouthed as classical music swelled around me. I tried to step forward and  tilted off balance as the images around me morphed into something new. I thought the paintings would be static projections, but instead they changed, merging and bleeding into each other. No two surfaces in the massive mine had the same image at the same time – to my left was a painting of a statuesque redhead with sad eyes while straight ahead, across the room, was a pale woman with dark hair, her eyes closed and a small smile on her face. Everywhere I looked, there was something new.

Then the lights went out and the music died. After a few seconds of silence, the music started again and red flowers began appearing on the walls. Then yellow ones. Then blue. As I watched, an entire painting of a field of flowers appeared, layer by layer, on the walls around me. It was like watching the painter at work, building one idea on top of another.

I stood there, dumbfounded and emotional. I couldn’t remember the last time art had hit me this hard, had grabbed me by the eyeballs and not let me go. I felt like a small child experiencing something for the first time. I felt like Mary Poppins jumping into a chalk drawing. I was  inside the paintings.

I stood there trying to figure out why this worked. Why wasn’t it cheesy and awful? I think it worked because the directors had created an exhibit that made me see the paintings as the artist envisioned them – intense, emotional and larger than life.

Ann Patchett, the novelist and essay writer, once wrote that writing a story is like trying to capture a beautiful butterfly. The live butterfly is colorful and moves with amazing grace just as the story idea, in your mind, is beautiful, graceful and alive. But to capture the butterfly (or commit the story to paper), you have to catch it, pin it and, yes, kill it in order to keep it in one place. The beautiful, graceful butterfly (or story) is now this dead lifeless shadow of its former self. The captured story is never as beautiful as the one in your mind.

I felt the same way about the Carrières de Lumières exhibit. Perhaps something about the size, the light, the music and the art direction brought the paintings to life in a way that a canvas alone could not. Maybe this was the emotion Klimt wanted me to feel when I stared at his canvases. Maybe this exhibit brought to life the butterflies he set out to paint.

My amateur photos don’t do justice to the experience. But they’re the best I have! Please visit the Carrières de Lumières web site for some truly stunning photos.

Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux

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The secret to throwing the best baby shower ever (hint: it’s not a game, present or party favor)

With my mom at the baby shower.

With my mom at the baby shower.

I’m having my first baby in a foreign country where my husband and I don’t know very many people. When I got pregnant, we realized that living far from family and friends meant we’d be on our own for the most part, with lots of supportive Skype calls and care packages from the United States. And, of course, it meant no baby shower.

So I was deeply touched when my mother’s friends – all of them moms themselves – insisted on throwing a shower for me. Southern women are big on tradition, and they didn’t see why I shouldn’t have a baby shower just because I was an ocean away. If I could come home for the shower, then great. If not, they’d throw the party at my mom’s house while I participated via Skype.

Then luckily a business trip brought me back to the States for two weeks and on a Saturday I was in my parents’ living room wearing a sash that read “Mommy To Be” and surrounded by the women I grew up with – my Sunday school teachers, my middle and high school teachers, the moms of the neighborhood kids.

I was pleased so many of them attended, but I was also a little nervous. My history with baby showers is iffy. Almost every one I’ve been to involved stupid and sometimes gross games (ex: Microwave a chocolate bar in a diaper. Pass it around and make the guests guess what kind of bar it was before it looked like a gnarly baby poo.). Or, worse than that, it was filled with moms either one-upping each other with their horrible birth tales – “I was in labor for 37 hours and then had a C-section!” – or telling the expectant mom and her childless friends to, “enjoy it now because once you have a kid, life as you know it is over.” It was a lot to bear without so much as a mimosa for moral support. After each of these showers, I would go home, thank the Lord for birth control pills and pour myself a glass of wine.

If my shower went south, wine sadly wasn’t an option. I smiled and prepared myself for the worst.

After everyone had a plate of food and a mimosa (a good sign!), we sat in a circle and I waited for the games to begin. Instead, everyone chatted about normal things – work, grown children, vacations – and asked normal baby questions. How was I feeling? Were we picking out names? Would the baby have dual citizenship because of her overseas birth?

Then the ladies in charge called for order. Instead of stupid games or horrifying stories, they asked all the moms to share their best parenting advice.

Over the next 45 minutes, I decided that all baby showers should be thrown by mothers with grown children. Their advice didn’t focus on breast milk vs. formula or whether or not to Ferberize. They didn’t talk about finding the right daycare, preschool, summer camp, piano instructor, baseball team. No one brought up picky eaters or the pros and cons of co-sleeping.

No, the years had stripped away all the nonsense, all the things that didn’t count, and left behind the essence of what they believed made for a great parent. These women didn’t remember the small things they probably worried about as young parents. Instead, they recalled the things that truly mattered. These were either the things that, with time and perspective, they knew had made a real difference in their children’s lives — or the things they felt they had gotten sadly, regretfully wrong.

As I listened, I started to cry. Normally I would blame hormones, but it was more than that. Being at the center of all that maternal wisdom, all that distilled love and experience, overwhelmed me. The things they shared with me rang true – either because my own mother had done them and I had felt their impact or because the regret they expressed was so genuine I could feel it like my own.

When it ended, I felt both elated to be joining this club and an incredible responsibility to do the job well. It was the best baby shower gift I could have received.

I’ve related this story a couple times since and all of my younger mom friends have asked, “What advice did they give?” It seems many of us have had our fill of parenting blogs and books with advice about the day-to-day. We are drowning in tactical details and decisions. We want big themes, advice with perspective.

So I’ll share my baby shower gift with you. Here’s a selection of the advice I got from that fabulous group of Southern mommas:

  • Let the child march to his own drum.
  • Read to them all the time, even when they’re old enough to read to themselves. It’s good for their development and soothes all kinds of woes. And it doesn’t have to be Amelia Bedelia. Read them whatever you’re reading. (This woman listened to her mom read The Grapes of Wrath aloud when she was in elementary school.)
  • Let the baby get used to your schedule. She will. Trust me.
  • Teach her to value money by giving her a lump sum at the beginning of the school year to cover all expenses. Don’t bail her out if she runs dry in February.
  • Don’t worry about keeping your house clean. Houses keep, children don’t.
  • Listen. Never be too busy to listen.
  • Don’t overschedule them. Kids do best when they have free time to explore. And they will learn to amuse themselves.
  • Touch, hugs and “I love you” matter, at every age. Don’t be stingy with any of them. Ever.
  • Don’t push them in a specific direction in terms of school or a career. Raise them to be independent and then step back and let them be.
  • “Because I said so,” is OK sometimes. Seriously. Parenthood isn’t a democracy.
  • Listen to the teacher but don’t always automatically take his side. Make sure you ask your child for her side before you make a ruling.
  • You don’t need to be your child’s friend. Be her parent. If you do a good job at that, you’ll raise someone you like as well as love, and the friendship will come later.
  • Don’t break her spirit.
  • Don’t compare her to others – friends, siblings, cousins, child actors, whoever. Appreciate her for who she is.
  • Encourage their gifts, even if you don’t always understand them.
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Love note to Paris

It’s cliché, but I’m in love with Paris.

It didn’t take much to enchant me, just two long weekends away, and now Nick and I are both ready to spend every remaining weekend of our year in Europe wandering the streets in Montmarte, boutique shopping in the Marais and lounging in the Tuileries while eating pastry.  I blame the spring weather, with the tulips and trees blooming and couples of all ages kissing next to the Seine.

Really, why would we go anywhere else?

I’m sure some folks will read this — folks who’ve lived in Paris and speak fluent French and know much more about French culture than I ever will – and they’ll think that I can’t possibly love Paris because I don’t know the real Paris. And they’d be right. I don’t know Real Paris, and I probably never will.

But I do love Weekend Paris, Spring Paris, Getaway Paris.  I adore her.  And because I am a visitor and never a resident, she will never grow old and tedious and dull.

Here’s to a lifelong love affair with Weekend Paris.

And here are a few of my favorites that made me fall in love.

Café des Musees (49, rue de Turenne): Tucked away in the Marais, this small traditional café makes all the French favorites – frites, steak, béarnaise sauce, duck and delicious desserts – without charging a fortune.

Breizh Café (109, rue Vieille du Temple): This restaurant only does galettes and crepes, and they do it extremely well with local, high-quality ingredients. I ate lunch there and then dragged Nick back for dinner and dessert.

Shopping in the Marais: Best boutique shopping in Paris, according to my friend Sunny who lived there (and who recommended the two restaurants listed above too). Just wander a few key streets – Rue des Franc-Bourgeois, Rue Vieille due Temple and Rue de Turenne – and you’ll easily fill an entire day ducking into one adorable shop after another.

Claire Naa (45 Rue de Turenne or 9 Rue Saint-Sulpice): French jewelry designer who makes delicate but modern pieces, including unique pendants and bracelets made of woven fabric and gold.

Bastille Farmers Market (Rue Richard Lenoir): Every Sunday, right off the roundabout where the July Column stands with the winged golden Spirit of Freedom on top. Vendors sell fruits, vegetables, roasted chickens, Italian specialties and North African street food.

The Tuileries: These gardens outside the Louvre are beautiful in the spring and a great place to lounge away the afternoon.

Angelina’s inside the Louvre: Angelina’s is touristy, but that doesn’t mean its hot chocolate and pastries aren’t amazing. Skip the lines at the Rue de Rivoli location and instead duck into the one inside the Louvre. It’s a serene place to rest and refuel after wandering through the Louvre’s endless galleries. Angelina’s is tucked next to the Napoleon Apartments.

Miss Manon (87 rue St-Antoine): Our favorite pastry shop. By far. And it seems like other folks agree. There’s always a line (but it moves fast!). The pain au chocolat is delicious, but be sure to try the chaussons aux pomme too.

Sacre Coeur (35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre): This church sits on Paris’ highest point. And while the church is lovely, we enjoyed the view most of all. We sat on the steps of the church, listened to the street musician play his violin and saw Paris rolled out beneath us. It was the perfect end to our Weekend Paris visit.

Springtime in the Tuileries.

Springtime in the Tuileries.

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What I learned in Colmar

Nick and I took a short drive up the road a few weekends ago to Colmar, France. It’s a quaint town in the Alsace region with colorful half-timber houses and cobblestone streets. And because Alsace has bounced back and forth between France and Germany like a ping pong ball, it’s a lovely mix of French and Teutonic — wine and beer, pretzels and pain au chocolate.

We had a wonderful time and learned a few things over the weekend.

Riesling doesn’t have to be sweet.

The Alsace region is known for its wine, so we went to the nearby town of Eguisheim, which is filled with tasting rooms. When we learned the region’s specialty was riesling, our hearts sank. Super sweet white wine? No thanks. Then we tasted it. And it was delicious, dry and refreshing. We came home with several bottles.

A street in Eguisheim, a wine village full of tasting rooms.

A street in Eguisheim, a wine village full of tasting rooms.

 

Venice isn’t just in Italy.

As if a taste of Germany and a taste of France weren’t enough, Colmar also boasts a taste of Italy with its Little Venice, complete with canals and gondola rides.

The canals of Little Venice.

The canals of Little Venice.

French and German food blend together wonderfully.

I always thought of the two countries as having very different menus. In my mind, Germany was all bratwurst, beer and pretzels, while France was mussels, wine and pastry.

So I was surprised at how well the two merged in Colmar. Bouillabaisse and coq a vin shared the menu with sausages and sauerkraut. Pastry shops sold apple fritters next to beignets, and bars served delicious local wine and beer.

It was heavenly.

Two of our favorite places were Wistub Brenner and Restaurant Bartholdi.

A local Alsatian beer brand.

A local Alsatian beer brand.

 

 

Cora’s is amazing.

This tip I owe to the brilliant Brianne, who blogs at Cooking Chapbook (and who writes much more eloquently about food than I do). She lived in Germany and made several trips to France, where she learned to stop at Cora‘s on the way home. It’s a massive French version of Costco without the membership fee.

It’s full of delicious things, but the best deal is the wine. There are aisles of Bordeaux at bargain basement prices.

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Don’t go to Paris for the half marathon

Good reason to go to Paris, especially because I saw these ladies ...

Good reason to go to Paris, especially because I saw these wonderful ladies …

It sounds like a really good idea — run my first half marathon in beautiful Paris. Be inspired by views of Notre Dame, the Bastille and the Eiffel Tower as you crank out 13.1 miles on foot. Finish the race with champagne and cheese at the finish line with your four girlfriends from business school who ran the race with you. Finish the day with a delicious meal at a charming French brasserie.

That’s exactly what I did last weekend. And most of it went just as I’d imagined. I ran by Notre Dame and the Bastille, sipped champagne at the finish line with my wonderful girlfriends and supportive husband and ate crab salad and scallops at a charming French brasserie afterward.

The part that didn’t go so well was the race itself. It was the worst organized race my more experienced running friends had ever seen.

So many things went wrong, most of them related to the fact there were 32,000 runners on a course that simply couldn’t handle that many bodies. Here are the lowlights:

  • 24 Porta Potties and 10 Porta urinals for those 32,000 runners
  • The slow group — 2 hours and 10 minutes! — sat in the starting gate for an hour.
  • The late start meant we ran during the heat of the day, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • They ran out of water on the course.

That last one was the kicker. After waiting in the starting gate and running in the heat, everyone was ready for the 5 km water stop. When they found it was dry, runners picked up abandoned half-full bottles off the ground and drank from them. I was one of them. That set the stage for the rest of the race. I went into survival mode, hoarding water and counting the minutes until it was over.

The bright spots were the sun shining on Notre Dame and the little French girl who handed me a yellow dandelion.

I did it. I ran 99 percent of the course. And I cried after I crossed the finish line.

In retrospect, I should have known better.  You go to Paris for beautiful art, great wine, delicious food and romantic views, not for clockwork precision and buttoned up scheduling. My next half marathon will be somewhere more Teutonic, somewhere with a penchant for clocks.

And the next time I go to Paris, I’ll do it for the right reasons — beautiful art, great wine, delicious food and romantic views.

Better reason to visit Paris!

Even better reason to visit Paris!

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London, baby! Favorite spots from a weekend in The Big Smoke

Welcome to London!

Welcome to London!

When we found out we were moving to Switzerland, I pictured lots of weekend getaways to fabulous European cities. This past weekend, we had our first to London.

I know that London in February sounds dreary, but Nick had a business trip there and we lucked with enough sunshine to enjoy the outdoors.

Nick had never been to London before, so we did many of the staples – Westminster, British Museum, Portobello Road, The Globe, a show in the West End – but we managed to find a few gems that weren’t in our guide books. I thought I’d share them in case you’re planning a trip to London soon. Almost all of them are food. Not sure what that says about us, but enjoy!

Angelus: 4 Bathurst Street, www.angelusrestaurant.co.uk

We stopped in this place for dessert and a nightcap after dinner at a too-trendy restaurant in East London that was a little too infatuated with pig offal. If we could do the night over, we’d eaten at Angelus instead. The dark and romantic lounge was the perfect spot for a late drink and the service was impeccable. We each had a great glass of red, and the dessert – pressed apples and pears topped with salted caramel – was better than anything we’d had at dinner.

Zayna: 25 New Quebec Street, zaynarestaurant.co.uk

There’s not a lot of Indian food in Switzerland, so we ate as much as we could in London. On Thursday night the tube strike prevented us from getting to Kew Gardens to meet a friend, so we went to this place around the corner from our hotel. It’s tiny – just eight tables – and on an alley. But the dining room is warm and fun, and the wait staff had a great sense of humor. The waiter was about to seat us next to another couple in tight quarters when he suddenly took a sharp turn.

“They are fighting at each other,” he said with a chuckle. “Let’s give them some space.”

And the food, my God, the food. We shared the Papdi Chanaa chaat, a mix of chickpeas, yogurt, wheat crisps and tamarind sauce that sounds like it doesn’t make sense. But it’s wonderful. And the mango salad and tandoori chicken didn’t disappoint.

Boroughs Market: 8 Southwark Street, http://boroughmarket.org.uk/

Nick’s sister recommended grabbing lunch here, and we figured she and half of London’s working professionals couldn’t be wrong. The hardest part was deciding what to eat. Nick settled on a venison burger and I got a pork belly sandwich. We washed it down with hot apple cider and some French pastries. And because we ate standing up, we burned calories too.

Jack the Clipper, 4 Toynbee Street, www.jacktheclipper.co.uk

Like everything else, haircuts are absurdly expensive in Switzerland. Nick can’t find a barber to give him a trim for less than $60 USD. So while we were wandering around the East London thrift stores, he found Jack the Clipper on Yelp.

It’s a tiny place with three immaculately groomed barbers who say it’s the oldest Turkish barber in London. For 20 pounds (about $33 USD, still pricy but less than Switzerland), Nick had the best haircut of his life. The price included two washes (before and after), an immaculate cut and lots of extra attention to his eyebrows, ears and nose. Nick left dreaming of ways to make monthly trips to London just to visit Jack’s.

The Windsor Castle: 114 Campden Hill Road, thewindsorcastlekensington.co.uk

Nick’s friends invited us to a Sunday roast here, a tradition we’d never heard of. Basically it’s like brunch but in the afternoon instead of the morning and with slow-roasted meats instead of eggs. But there are plenty of Bloody Marys!

This adorable pub had surprisingly tasty food, an excellent Bloody Mary and a wonderful wine list. The charming courtyard would be great in better weather, but inside the dark wood and plaster walls made us feel like we’d gone back in time.

Afternoon tea at the British Museum: Great Russell Street, www.britishmuseum.org

We fled to the British Museum when it started raining, and the other tourists followed us there. After fighting the crowds to see the Rosetta Stone and the Egyptian mummies, we were exhausted and fed up with people. That’s when Nick discovered afternoon tea at the Great Court restaurant.

On the top floor, the restaurant sits underneath the beautiful skylight that stretches over the roof of the whole museum. It makes you feel like you’re sitting under a glass cake dish, quiet and filled with light. We could sit here, away from the throngs of people, and have cream tea in peace.

The scones and tea were good, but the timing was best of all. It soothed my nerves and regained my composure. I now understood the genius of afternoon tea. Everyone should have afternoon tea. The world would be a happier place.

IMG_7541

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It’s OK to suck at stuff

On the bunny slope

Shredding the bunny slope

Nick and I stood in front of the chairlift, fully kitted out in our rented skis and brand new snow pants. All around us, Swiss skiers and snowboarders queued up to sail into the clouds without a care in the world.

Meanwhile I was frozen to my skis. All I could see was a massive mountain. Not one of those Appalachian mountains either that have been worn away by time. An Alp. An Alp so tall I couldn’t see the top. An Alp so tall that Mother Superior would have told Maria to go hide in the convent rather than climb it. No way was I getting on a chairlift to the top of that Alp.

“You go ahead,” I said to my patient husband as I snapped off my skis. “Tell me how it is. I’ll hang out down here.”

It had been 17 years since I’d last skied, not that I’d ever been great. I didn’t learn until I was 15 years old. Skiing is kind of expensive and my mother hates the cold, so my brother and I didn’t learn until we went on a church ski trip. My dad, who’s actually pretty good thanks to lots of college weekends on the slopes outside Pittsburgh, taught us the basics. I got good enough to enjoy it, which is a miracle for someone like me.

My last time out was at Wintergreen Resort in Virginia for a high school physics lab my junior year. Ms. Elton, our fantastic teacher, had assured us no one had ever been hurt before. I broke that record when I hit an icy patch, caught air and snapped my ACL on the landing. I attended prom in a knee brace. I hadn’t been on skis since.

Now I was staring up an Alp and wondering why I had such fond memories of skiing with my dad anyway. This looked like a good way to die.

While I waited for Nick to report back on the Alpine death trap, I looked at the little kids zipping down the mountain with insane confidence. A nasty spike of jealousy filled my stomach.

Kids in Switzerland seemed to be born with skis attached. School aged kids were on their own, swishing down the slope like miniature pros. The slightly younger set were lashed to their parents with long ropes. The kid skied down ahead of Mom, while she followed behind, pulling on the ropes like a puppeteer. And the kids who couldn’t walk yet were bundled onto sleds with their parents and sailed down the trails. With their pink, chubby cheeks and reflective sunglasses, the sledding babies looked like little Russian oligarchs being ferried down the mountain by their servants.

Dear Lord, even babies weren’t afraid to slide down this mountain. I felt ridiculous.

Then Nick stopped in front me, kicking up that perfect arc of snow. “You can totally do this,” he said. Nick had his own ACL repaired just three years ago. If he could do it, I had to do it.

I made it on the chairlift. I even made it down the mountain with the help of an aggressive snow plow stance. I only fell once, in very soft snow. And I came back the next weekend and did it again. Once my legs remembered what to do, it was actually fun.

I know I sound like a drama queen. Who is scared of a few beginner slopes? Well, imagine the things you’re most afraid of – asking “dumb” questions in a meeting full of important people, losing your job, moving to a country where you don’t speak the language, switching careers. Those things don’t scare me. But anything athletic, anything where my body must be strong, coordinated and controlled, that terrifies me. I can’t rely on my body. I have no natural ability to throw a football, hit a tennis ball or even dribble. The only “sports” I have even modest success with are solitary and require nothing more than the will to grind it out. Running. Swimming. Spinning. That’s about it.

I used to be incredibly embarrassed about this. It seems like all well-rounded people play a sport or have a natural physical ability. I don’t, and for a long time I felt deficient. In college I got a scholarship for which one of the requirements was “physical vigor.” I spent four years expecting them to take it away.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve cut myself some slack. I haven’t stopped trying new physically vigorous things – skiing, road biking, salsa dancing – but I’ve learned to be forgiving. I know that it will take me five times longer than a normal person to “get” something new. I know I’ll need lots and lots and lots of practice just to be OK at it. And that’s fine. Because some people can’t speak extemporaneously or write a news story on deadline or say the right thing when someone is crying in front of them, and I can. Everyone is good at different stuff and lousy at different stuff.

The important thing is to not let the lousiness stop you from trying. I’ve learned there’s nothing wrong with getting help with the lousy stuff. I’m just lucky to have a kind, patient husband who will scout the slopes before I put my butt on a chairlift.

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When I’m stooped and gray, I won’t remember my clothes dryer

Morning over Lake Zug.

Morning over Lake Zug

That. That photo right there. That’s exactly what I imagined when my husband came home in October and told me we were moving to Switzerland. As I squealed with joy, I pictured snow capped Alps framing a pristine lake with a café in the background serving strong coffee, fondue and macaroons. We were moving to a Swiss-chocolate-covered paradise, a gateway to amazing travel all over Europe.

I know that travel fantasies rarely live up to reality. The complications of settling in a foreign country can overwhelm the magic. Our move to Switzerland was no different.

There was the expected stuff that happens even on the best of trips – shockingly high prices for food, an unfamiliar city, lost luggage. Beyond that was the adjustment period. The simple daily tasks that I didn’t give a second thought in the States like buying groceries, driving, getting the mail suddenly required gargantuan effort. I couldn’t read the labels on the jars – does that say capers or green peppercorns? – or figure out how to operate my microwave. And no matter how many times I put my clothes in the dryer, they came out damp.

The effort I expended wrangling with appliances at home was nothing compared to the anxiety of trying to communicate out in the world. Going to the grocery store was suddenly like being in a play. I rehearsed my lines in my head as I walked into the store (“Wo ist die Backpulver, bitte? Wo ist die Backpulver, bitte?”) and prayed that I would understand what the person said back to me. And heaven help us if they went off script. I’d get the sweats and reach for, “Ich spreche nicht Deutch,” feeling embarrassed and relieved at the same time.

Periodically this kind of crap overwhelmed my day and drowned out the Alps, the quaint cottages and the historic clock towers. It made me kind of sad and homesick. Then about a week ago went down to Lake Zug for my 10-mile training run.

I had run less than a half mile when this view smacked me in the face. It literally stopped me in my tracks. I stared at the morning light playing off the mountains and the water. It looked like the first day of the whole world.

In the face of all that beauty, the damp clothes and uncooperative microwave and the scary grocery store clerks faded into the background. It was a gorgeous reminder that I only have a single year here, 365 days to soak up as much as I can.

When I’m stooped and gray and can’t find my teeth, I won’t look back on my year in Europe and remember my fussy clothes dryer. I will remember stunning views, amazing art, historic buildings and delicious wines. So I’ll be damned if I give the clothes dryer — or any of these minor annoyances — any more of my precious time.

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