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Archive for February, 2011

As one who has worked hard to achieve, accomplish, check-off, accumulate, and stabilify (yes, made up) my life, I have a nice little picture to show for it.  A cute house with matching furniture.  A dog who goes to day care and eats natural food.  A husband who is supportive and loving, plays tennis and has a freakish obsession with aeronautics (and will kill me when he reads that).  We have nice luggage, two newish cars, and reusable shopping bags from Whole Foods where I like to buy freshly ground peanut butter and locally sourced milk.  We do our taxes on time, invest for retirement, save for a rainy day, and most recently have joined the hoards of Americans who are also trying to pay off debt (for my recently obtained MBA).  We both have good jobs with bright futures and benefits.  So, why do I stare blankly into space wondering where my life went and how I can get it back?

I can tell you know that I don’t have the answer to that question.

Theory #1: I was raised by peace-loving self-employed parents who really embody the words deliberate living.  My dad is the poster child.  He has given up, well, basically everything including alcohol, caffeine, meat, sugar, most Western medicine, and any frivolous spending that didn’t directly contribute to paying for his five kids to go to private school and college.  I didn’t give up anything, ever, and instead chose to be the poster child for ‘stylish, corporate 20-somethings who enjoy sushi and expensive handbags.’  I grew up in their house, rejected everything they stood for, turned 30, and realized that maybe they’re right.   

Theory #2:  I’m not unique at all.  This little question of living a fulfilled life is, in fact, normal for someone my age, but most people find their answer by having kids and moving to the suburbs and I’m not super excited about that proposition.  Instead, I scour the Internet reading about other options, like hosting retreats in a cottage on the beach, or becoming a yoga instructor. 

Theory #3:  It turns out that taking care of all the things I’ve accumulated – the house, cars and even sometimes the dog (like when he ate an entire chicken carcass and spent the day at the vet) – sucks.  I find no pleasure at all in doing yard work, decorating, or washing the car in the driveway, and I’m finally being honest about it.  I want to throw things away, give things away and read travel magazines on a blanket in the backyard.

Theory #4: I have a hard time with down time.  Since I graduated from college, my life has been on fast forward.  I have filled my time with big projects – moving, wedding planning, applying to graduate school, going to graduate school, buying a house, planning the Asia trip, and working through it all.  Right now there is nothing.  My evenings and weekends are free.  I should be feeling, well, free, and instead I feel strangled.

So, what am I doing about it?

So far, I’m doing what I do best.  Planning.  I have a goal to have most/all of my school debt paid off in two years. I want to downsize and outsource the parts of my life I don’t enjoy, which includes selling the house, and eliminating one car, my fancy cell phone, and cable.  I want to spend money deliberately and consciously, which means really thinking about what I value and spending money on those things and brutally chopping everything else.  Whole Foods peanut butter?  Keep.  Monthly trips to the Banana Republic Factory Store?  Chop.  I want to bike to work (once the snow melts).  Start a women’s group of some sort.  Meet interesting people who inspire me.  Follow their lead.  Figure out how to be location independent.  Be location independent.  Do good.  Be grateful. 

Basically, I want to live a fantastic and remarkable existence where I wake up every morning thrilled to pieces about everything.  Or whatever is the realistic equivalent of that. 

 

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Just an example of the Google Reader view - not my own...

I’m kind of a blog junkie.  I like reading blogs through my beloved Google Reader and given my tendencies to throw things away mercilessly, I am always editing the blogs I follow.  For example, a couple years back I went through a phase where I was looking for new books to read – and to help me out, I subscribed to all these book review blogs.  The problem was that after a couple months of reading about other peoples’ reading (and some of the bloggers read a book a day on average), I started to feel like my reading efforts were pathetic, so I unsubscribed from all of them.  I find that in the book arena, an hour of wandering through Borders gives me plenty of ideas for good reads, which I then get through the library (because I’m also a library junkie). 

Currently, I have my blogs of choice organized in Categories that mimic my current interests: General, Food, Health, Home, Photography, Inspire, Travel and Travel Hacking. And as of today, I’m following about 50 blogs.  Like many other blog junkies, I have some blogs I read for straight up information, some for the inspiring photos and some because I secretly hate the blogger but am simultaneously enamored or jealous of their life.  This last issue comes up a lot for me with photography blogs (their lives always seem so glamorous) and round-the-world travel blogs (especially those blogs that feature people who have figured out to live and work on the road indefinitely). 

I know that if you’re spending the time to read this, then you probably have a few minutes to check out sites where I happen to spend a lot of my free time.  These sites are really all over the map as far as content goes, but if you like one in particular, most bloggers list their favorite sites on a side toolbar, allowing you to check out other websites about a topic you like, and add them to your own Google Reader, thus continuing the blog cycle…it’s a dangerous thing. 

Joy the Baker – love the photos, love the final products, wish I had the time to bake like this and/or cared more about following recipes.  Following recipes is not my strong suit…

Dear Prudence (via Slate Magazine) – I read Miss Manners and Ann Landers as a kid, and my need to read about the crazy issues/dilemmas/mishaps of others just won’t die.  Hey, at least I’m not watching Hoarders anymore!

The Art of Non-Conformity – I have a love/hate relationship with Chris Guillebeau.  His writing inspires my desire to travel far and wide (and for free if possible) and to lead a remarkable and intentional life.  His ability to do it all while having a best-selling book pisses me off.

Carrots ‘n’ Cake – I generally am not a huge fan of healthy living blogs (written mostly by twenty-something former high school athletes that exercise like crazy and take photos of everything they eat) because I think they might perpetuate crazy and/or unhealthy attitudes.  Tina, who writes this blog and lives nearby, is the only one I can stomach.  I like how much she loves oatmeal and we were probably friends in a former life. 

Young House Love – A young couple buys a small house, fixes it up on a tight budget and creates a blog about their home improvements.  The blog becomes hugely popular, they are able to quit their ‘normal’ jobs, have a baby, sell said house in a terrible housing market, buy another fixer-upper and start again.  I, on the other hand, hate home improvement projects and I secretly torture myself by reading this every day and I also wish I could pay these two to fix up my house. 

The Happiness Project – Love this book, love this website, love Gretchen’s videos.  Love the whole back story of ‘lawyer hates job, becomes writer, focuses writing on happiness.’  Wish I had thought of all of it. 

The Road Forks – This couple left their jobs (kind of, because they’re two of the people I’m insanely jealous of who work while they travel), took off for a thirteen month journey around the world and are about to embark on another fifteen month trip to Europe – with their dogs.  This site is beautifully designed, their photos are spectacular and I want to go with them to Europe…please?

I realize as I write this last little bit that most/all of these bloggers now have books and/or book deals.  That built in readership is clearly key for struggling publishers everywhere.  Ok, it’s the weekend.  Back to my Reader.

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At work, I’m basically the go-to person whenever anyone has questions about any travel plans related to anything.  It’s kind of a fun role to play, but sometimes, like when I’m helping a co-worker plan his upcoming honeymoon, it pisses me off that I’m helping someone else plan a trip that I would happily take.  I realize that not everyone enjoys this stuff, nor do they know the greatest websites, most reliable ratings and secret deals that I happen to follow closely.  I thought I’d repost (in part) an email that I sent to said co-worker about choosing a hotel in Paris for his honeymoon.  This is the exact procedure I would follow if booking for myself!

1.  Absolute first step.  Check out Trip Advisor to get a lay of the land.  I don’t typically bother putting in dates.  Instead I’m looking for rankings and price ranges.  I also have a typical price in mind (like, for your trip, I’m looking for a great place under $200/night).  When I search for Paris Hotels, I can see that the top 10 or so hotels all cost like $500 or more, but there are hotels with prices in the $200 range once I hit #12 or so.  I make a quick note of the top ranked hotels that fall somewhere within my price range, and scan the reviews:

  • #12 – Le Fabe Hotel – funky rooms, seems like the hotel is very centrally located but is close to a Metro stop which is more important
  • #13 – Orient Hotel – the decor is a little stuffy for my taste (maybe a place for newly retired folks), but it has a decent location near the Metro
  • #14 – Grand Hotel Francais – ok, this one piqued my interest because it just one a Trip Advisor awared for hotels in Europe.  That’s always a good sign.  Plus, I like the room style – modern but not crazy funky.  They also have a deal in the ‘special offers’ section for 98 euros when booking far in advance!

2.  After this, I go to my favorite travel websites.  Budget Travel, Travel & Leisure, and NY Times Travel Section.

  • Budget Travel – Click on Destinations, then Europe, and you can see every article they’ve ever published about Paris.  They JUST did an article about ‘secret’ Paris hotels.  They also have a cool series featuring four easy day trips out of Paris if you have time to kill.  One hotel, called the Hotel de la Paix that they mentioned in the secret hotels article looks cool. 
  • Travel & Leisure – Click on Destinations, then search for Paris.  They have a bunch of different types of articles, and are always more high-end, but I like their articles in general.  Here’s an article on frugal but funky restaurants and one on affordable hotels.  In that article, they mention a hotel called Le General Hotel that has advertised rates for around $200 and gets the T&L stamp of approval.  Looks crazy funky. 
  • NY Times Travel Section – You can search by destination and pull up articles on a specific place (top toolbar that’s an orange color).  I just quickly looked up hotels, and found this one that is affordable (under 200 euro) and recommended and reviewed by the New York Times, called The Five Hotel

3.  Based on these hotels I’ve found, I narrow down my options based on photos online, ease of use of website, general vibe I get, etc.  Out of these hotels, the options I like best are the Grand Hotel Francais, Le General Hotel and The Five Hotel.  Now I go back to those websites, and enter in my potential dates, solidifying available rooms and prices.  Also, sometimes the hotel will list final prices including all taxes, which is a nice gauge.  You can look up most accurate exchange rate on www.xe.com (currently 1.375 euro per dollar).  Since the dates for your honeymoon are not finalized, I picked three night in early September (3rd – 6th) for my search.

  • Grand Hotel Francais – 130 euro per night ($179), taxes included
  • Le General Hotel – 200 euro per night ($275), taxes included
  • The Five Hotel – 214 euro per night ($294.25), taxes included

4.  I also go back to Trip Advisor and look up reviews for hotels I found on other sites (in this case, Le General and The Five).  Read the really bad reviews to see what people complain about.  Sometimes people complain about stupid stuff so I ignore their complaints.  Look up the hotels again on Google Maps to confirm proximity to anything you really care about and the nearest Metro station (not a problem in Paris, since the Metro is everywhere). 

5.  To make a final decision, I compare prices with photos, and I also see if there are any included amenities at a particular property that put it over the top (free WiFi, breakfast included, pick-up from airport?) as far as my choices.  In this case, The Five Hotel offers breakast for an additional 15 euro per person, and the Grand  Hotel Francais has breakfast included in the rate.  None of the hotels specifically mention airport pick-up. 

6.  After all that research, I usually know which hotel I really want, and if it makes sense financially and logistically, I just go for it.  I don’t always choose the cheapest option, or the most convenient.  It’s a combination and a big gut check that help me decide the best.  Out of these three, I would definitely choose the Grand Hotel Francias…it’s significantly cheaper, breakfast is included which can save significant bucks and I like the modern rooms and location.  Plus, that Trip Advisor award is nothing to scoff at – those babies mean a LOT!

And that’s it.  Since you’re also going to London, just repeat exactly!

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The three sentence version of the article below:

Understand that travelling to Europe with your entire family during Christmas week is not a time for bargains – flights are expensive and rarely go on sale.  Rent an apartment, because you’ll have a common area to gather, and your very own kitchen in which to cook.  For those with adult children, a strategically planned trip abroad is a good way to bribe convince your children to spend Christmas together!

The long version with fun family anecdotes and details:

I am very fortunate to have a family that enjoys traveling as much as I do.  Actually, compared to my sisters, my own travel history is puny.  Laura was in the Peace Corps in Mauritania (West Africa) for 27 months.  Michelle took a 10 month trip around the world post-college.  Lisa is currently in Ethiopia where she’s volunteering for a few months.  And even though she’s just 19, Alice has been hauled all over the world (a clear benefit to being the baby of the family) and went to Africa for the first time at age 16.  Not too shabby. 

Even though they try to deny that it’s a bribe to get my family together for the holidays, my parents have begun a new family tradition of traveling to exotic locales during Christmas.  In 2007, we all met in Paris for a week.  This Christmas, we’re already researching our next destination: Italy!  This non-bribe plan of meeting somewhere fun and interesting turns out to be a great way for our family to get together.  We all clearly enjoy traveling, and the logistics of getting home (to the Midwest) are almost as complicated as just going somewhere else.  So, somewhere else it is!

As the resident family travel planner in my family, my research for our Italy adventure started a few months ago.  My dad originally wanted to spend a week in Rome (history + museums = dad is happy), so Drew and I got our research hats on and looked for apartment rentals, and some generic flight price information (from the 4+ airports we will be flying from).  Flights from the U.S. to Italy around the Christmas holiday are expensive, and you’re unlikely to score a deal since travel dates are inflexible and the airlines understand that people are willing to pay big bucks to be in their desired destination in the several days surrounding December 25th.  We figured the savings would be had on the accommodation side of the equation.

I’m a huge (HUGE!!) fan of apartment rentals if I’m traveling somewhere for more than, oh, a weekend.  Typically you’ll get a much better deal than for a comparable hotel, the locations are amazing, and there’s something to be said for making dinner ‘at home’ or even having breakfast items around for easy, cheap and healthy alternatives to pastries in cafes.   Let’s just say that our Rome apartment hunting did not go well.  Turns out, for reasons we haven’t yet uncovered, apartments in Rome are super-duper expensive.  Even compared to Paris!  And London!  Drew and I theorized that it’s probably a simple economic problem (not a lot of rentals in Rome + not many apartments with 4+ bedrooms = paying out the wazoo for a boring, characterless, poorly located apartment). 

After having a talk with my parents about priorities and what’s really important to them, we reconfigured our search.  For example, my parents really want to go to Italy, so we sacked our alternative idea of Barbados and concentrated on other cities in Italy.  And, while we are all happy to share bedrooms and beds, it’s easier to get out the door in the morning if there are 2+ showers.  Also, our family needs ample space to lounge (read: large living room + plenty of seating) and we like to cook instead of go out all the time (read: vegetarians and picky eaters + a willing cook who made dinner every night in Paris for 10 people = thank you Drew!).

Our new plan: a week in Florence, Italy.  Florence (or, as the Italians say, Firenze!) has plenty of history and museums for dad, and is turning out to be a much better option for our family.  There is a glut of apartment rentals with 4+ bedrooms, so the prices are literally less than half the cost of similar accommodations in Rome.  Flights will be roughly the same price, given the whole flying over Christmas issue (you could get a stellar deal if you went the second week of December).  In Florence, there is no need for a subway system, because everything is within walking distance.  There is also a great, large train station (also within walking distance) so we can take a day trip to Rome, or Pisa or Lucca (where Drew and I stayed for a week) easily and cheaply. 

Bonjourno!

We are finalizing our apartment this week hopefully, but in the meantime, here is my favorite website to check out flights with flexible dates and locations, and my favorite apartment rental websites (note: many rental owners list their properties on multiple sites). 

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An Ode to Cable TV

Amen.

I grew up with very little television in my life.  We had exactly one television in our house of seven people, and that television had exactly one station.  Sometimes, a second station came in pretty fuzzy, but we were willing to work with the rabbit ears when we could see a few precious minutes of commercial TV.  At the time, I hated our family’s lack of TV.  When Friends struck it big I had to hear about the week’s episode through the gossip grapevine on Friday mornings.  When The Real World began to rule the TV lives of my friends, I lived vicariously through their juicy descriptions of the outrageous antics. 

In college, when I finally had the chance for a little cable TV love, I was thwarted once again.  We didn’t get cable in our dorm rooms and had to trudge to the single television on the dorm floor for any boob tube (I did begin to watch Real World with my hall-mates every week, which was amazing).  Finally, FINALLY, when I graduated and moved away, I was free to get my own cable TV thankyouverymuch.  My roommate and I got our subscription, and I finally had access to the Food Network, Bravo, MTV, TLC and all the other commercial-filled mind-numbing shows that I had wanted for so long.

I was in heaven.  When the TV show The O.C. became popular, my roommate and I had dates to watch the newest episodes live every Tuesday night.  I vegged out to hours of the Food Network on weekends.  I became unabashedly addicted to Project Runway and Top Chef.  Even if I wasn’t actually interested in what was blaring from the screen, I found comfort in the background noise.  Over the years, I moved several times and each time I upgraded – to digital cable, HBO, Showtime and one of the greatest inventions ever, TiVo! 

Ever so slowly, I began to notice the increasing presence television had in my life.  An hour or two of carefully chosen programming in the evenings (you know, back when you could only watch one channel at a time) morphed into the set on in the background most waking hours, and a plethora of recorded random shows that I could watch whenever I wanted.  A long walk with Basil, or a trip to Borders to read magazines could easily be sidelined by several episodes of Toddlers & Tiaras or Hoarders, both terrible shows that are impossible to ignore once you’ve started an episode.  The TV addiction started to wear on me – it bothered me that having TV on in the background is my default, that I will willingly give up other plans to stay home watching something mindless and commercial-filled, and that Drew and I can be home for a rare evening together and we’ll spend it watching whatever is on. 

During our recent trip to Asia, our TV access was limited.  Frequently, we didn’t have a television, and when we did, there were two or three stations in English.  We definitely enjoyed relaxing a few evenings watching the Australian Open or some random movie, but for the most part, we didn’t miss it.  Not at all.  Upon our return we decided to make a radical change and get rid of cable entirely.  Not only would this move save us $85 per month, but it’s not like we are digitally deprived.  In addition to the ability to access nearly every show via the Internet if we really want it, we can also watch Netflix On-Demand through our iPad which is hooked up to the TV. 

Here’s what our lack of cable has meant so far:

1. I left the house three out of five weeknights to do something fun. 

2. In the mornings, I’ve been sleeping in a little later, because once I’m ready to leave for work, there’s no distraction of the Today Show or some recorded program from the previous night to catch up on.

3. I’ve been listening to more music (on Pandora via the iPad).

4. When I do want to watch something, it’s a careful selection process on Netflix…this week I watched two documentaries about North Korea before bed (maybe not a great topic selection for everyone…).

Who knows if this cable-free existence will be permanent, or a nice experiment, but I am happy to report that , so far, my lack of commercial television has not caused me to melt, die from boredom or engage in any violent behavior.    

    

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By Drew & Julie

This is our last post about Asia!  It’s been a fun project to document our travels so closely, even though we definitely did not set out to write a post every single day for over a month.  When you’ve got nothing but time, however, the impossible suddenly becomes a good idea.  We arrived home a week ago, and have successfully transitioned back to work, back to Eastern Time, back to cold weather and back to our daily routines.  We’re already planning our next adventure (we’re thinking Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava in Spring 2012), so we’ll start our research promptly. 

Until then, thanks to all of you for joining us on this wild ride.  We hope that our leap to make a big dream like this come true will inspire others to do the same.  Going forward, the blog will revert back to Julie discussing her attempts to knock items off her Life List, a noble endeavor but not nearly as interesting as tales of adventure. 

Drew, contemplating the next big adventure

Julie, enjoying a peaceful moment

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Well, here we are.  I’ve been dreading this post because I’ve been afraid to do the final tally on the costs for our trip.  While I think we did a great job managing our costs on the road (for the most part!), seeing all the figures also makes me a little queasy, knowing we could have spent our hard-earned cash on so many other things.  Who am I kidding – would I trade this for new kitchen cabinets???  Hell to the No! 

Note #1: I am not including several home expenses that remained during our trip, namely our mortgage payment, heating oil and snow plowing.  We did cancel our cable and cell phone service for the month.  We also had friends come in and check on the house weekly to make sure the heat was still on, there were no drips or frozen pipes, etc.  Lisa and Lisa, you’re the bestest.  We couldn’t have done this without you! 

Note #2: There could have been many more clothing and gear related expenses pre-trip, but we both borrowed good travel luggage, I borrowed a pair of shoes from my sister, we borrowed extra packing cubes and other packing items from my parents, etc.  If we had bought all new stuff, it would have cost an extra $1,000 or so.

Note #3: We had many medical-related expenses pre-trip, including several vaccinations and prescriptions.  Fortuantely, our health insurance has a flexible spending component that covered all of these.  The total cost was probably about $500. 

Note #4: I’m going to go ahead and include the cost for Basil for the month.  Obviously, this was an extra cost (not just maintaining our heat), and having Basil at Kamp K-9 was a non-negotiable for us.  We adore Kamp K9, and its fabulous owners who treat Basil as if he were their own.  In fact, when we picked up Basil last weekend, I think he was a little less than thrilled to be going back to our boring house. 

Pre-Trip Expenses:

Flights – $2428.66

Clothes/Shoes – $241.68

Guidebooks – $88.16

Random Gear (from our fave store, Tripquipment) – $56.88

Visas – $125

Trip Insurance – $242

Expenses During Trip:

Expenses Post-Trip:

Basil – $906

So, friends, the final, FINAL cost for us to leave our lives for one month is….$8229.49.  The first good news is that nearly half of these expenses are one-time, so if we had stayed for an additional month, our expenses wouldn’t have risen too much.  The second good news is that a lot of these expenses were paid for months ago, so most of the actual payment out of pocket is over.  Phew 🙂

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