Friday, December 16, 2011

Adventures in Christmas

If my life was a movie, the overarching theme would be that you should never assume things will go the way you planned. It's almost too perfect a set-up: the adorably OCD ginger single gal who plans every aspect of her life gets involved in wacky adventures and hijinks when everything goes to hell due to life's strange quirks. Of course, if my life was an actual movie, I would be played by Amy Adams and some charming hunky guy would enter state right in Act II to sweep me off my feet.

Instead, something simple like say, decorating the Christmas tree, turns into an ordeal.

 Look at it. Sitting there looking all innocent.

Things starting off simply enough. A friend and I got together last week to trim the tree and I had everything figured out. There was a tree trimming playlist, a yummy dinner, and first the lights, then the ornaments, and voila! Decorated Christmas tree! 

The first sign of trouble occurred when I was putting on the lights. About halfway through one of the strands winked out. Ok, fine. No problem--probably just a blown fuse. We replaced the fuse in the strand and everything worked fine. But then when I had gotten all the lights on tree....they all went out. Alright, so we figured there was a blown fuse in the first strand. We replaced that, but 2 minutes later all the lights went out AGAIN. We changed the other blown fuse in the first strand, but it was quickly becoming clear that something more serious was wrong.

We took all the lights off the tree and plugged them into individual outlets to try to figure out if one of them had a short circuit (we figured this would be quicker than going through each strand bit by bit looking for a frayed wire). A little while later though...the fire alarm in my building went off. This led to walking down 16 flights of stairs and standing for 20 minutes in the pouring rain. The good news was when we came back upstairs (on the elevator thank god), one of the strands of lights was half out. We figured that was the one with the short circuit and plugged all the other strands into each other for half an hour just to be sure.

All the lights stayed on with no trouble for more than half an hour, so I got back to putting them all back on the tree. All the lights went on with no problem and then it was on to the ornaments! We hung the ornaments in record time since by now it was getting late, and I hung the last ornament, the pickle. I turned to my friend and said, "that was the last one!"

And BAM. All the lights went out again.

I'm not kidding. I literally said that I had hung the last ornament and less than a second later all the tree lights went out. Another blown fuse in the first strand. But this time, the plug had become so overheated that the access panel to the fuses had melted. There was only one logical conclusion: the extension cord that I was using was faulty and was allowing too much current to travel through the lights causing all the blown fuses.

That extension cord got dumped, and we were able to get some of the lights going again with multiple extension cords hidden throughout the tree.

 HAHA! Suck on that TREE. I still made you look awesome despite your attempts to destroy Christmas!

So file this one under stories of perseverance. It's not like I overcame a hideous disease or accident, but sometimes Christmas feels just as stressful, am I right?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Joy, then terror, then optimistic excitement!

For years (31 of them to be exact), I was the youngest in my family. But as of November 25, 2011 that's no longer the case. Because onto them a child is please welcome the newest member of the Riley clan, my nephew, the one and only, JAMES PATRICK RILEY!

Of course, since this is us we're talking about nothing is ever easy. James' birth was about three weeks early and while it was not technically a premature birth, according to the doctors he experiences some "characteristics of a premature baby." My response to that is clearly awesomeness must be such a characteristic, but they seem more concerned about how he was having trouble regulating his blood sugar and his digestion problems. Silly doctors.

And of course I am totally kidding-the doctors are the really awesome ones. When I heard from my Mom Friday morning that James had been born overnight, I was ecstatic. I'm not a huge baby fan--I think it comes from being the youngest in the family and not having any baby experience--but once I heard that James was actually here I got super excited, happy, and maybe a touch of the old baby fever. The rest of the day passed with a big smile on my face.

But then my brother texted me on Friday night that James had to go into the neonatal ICU because of some complications. Annnnnd then came the panic and terror. I knew on an objective level that everything he was telling me was totally normal for a preemie and James was in one of the best hospitals in the country and they would get him fixed up soon...but on a purely emotional level I was scared. The rest of the weekend passed in a anxiety-filled blur and seemed to last a lifetime. James has only improved as each day goes by and now it's just a matter of giving him time to get stronger before he can head home...but the past few days have been rough.

Let's forget all that though and focus on the good stuff! Like how absolutely adorable James Patrick (or JP as I think I will call him*) is.

I love how proud and happy my brother looks (if a bit tired). I can't imagine how he and Amanda have been feeling the past few days, but I am so happy for them and can't wait to meet my new nephew when I head out to LA in February!

I probably won't post a ton more updates here because I think it's more Bill and Amanda's business to let people know the specifics of James' progress, but you should know that no news is good news and of course there will be plenty of pics here and on Facebook as I get them.

I'll just end with a general Mazel tov and a welcome to the world, James. Get ready, because your Aunt Maggie is coming and we are going to have so. much. fun.
*I think his other nickname will be Captain James P. Riley.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Ah, Thanksgiving. Much like Christmas, people bitch and moan about the true message of Thanksgiving becoming lost in the commercial shuffle. "It's not about gorging ourselves on food," they say. "It's about giving thanks for all our blessings."

I don't know about you, but I was very thankful that I could sit down to a feast with my family and friends. I mean, the point is that we are thankful we have food, right? What better way to say it then with pie?

But I digress. This year's Thanksgiving was a quiet one. Since Bill and Amanda were staying in California due to the imminent birth of my nephew (more on that coming up on the blog), and my stepsister and her husband (Marin and Scott) were having their own Thanksgiving, there were only four of us at the main dinner event this year at my Aunt Kim's house. But there is certainly something to be said for a small celebration--in years past we've had around 12 people and while it's nice to catch up with everyone, I tend to like a more intimate holiday. I was certainly thankful that we were all healthy and happy and that we could spend the day with each other.

In preparation for Thanksgiving, I had been watching a lot of stuff on the Food Network--including their Thanksgiving Live show hosted by my favorite celebrity chef, Alton Brown. As part of the show, he demonstrated the proper way to carve a turkey. I'd always thought of carving the turkey as some kind of master skill that took years to develop, like surfing or juggling. Turns out, not so much. Cut along this bone here and wrap around that bone there...and wa la! Perfectly carved turkey!

I thought to myself, this is the year. Carving the turkey was always the realm of the Grandma or the Dad, but not this year! This was MY year! To show that I could actually handle the responsibility without ruining Thanksgiving. So after the turkey had been resting for about 30 minutes (always rest the turkey you guys--or all the juices spill out) I seized the opportunity. Before anyone else made a move toward the bird, I loudly asked, "can I carve the turkey?"

I had expected a bit more of a response. Maybe a raised eyebrow or a questioning look. But no. Everyone just pretty much shrugged and said "sure." Ok, so it wasn't the dramatic moment I had expected. But I was still a little nervous. Still, no time like the present. I slapped that bird on the cutting board, grabbed the carving knife and went at it. And you know what? Alton was right, it worked perfectly! I got the whole breast off in one piece and carved it right onto the platter. It was juicy and tender, just the way my Aunt likes it.

So basically I saved Thanksgiving.

Not really, but I figured this story needed an exciting ending.

 The turkey master!

 After eating with my family and watching the first two hours of The Sound of Music, I headed over to Chris and Kent's place  to catch up with Mom who had celebrated Thanksgiving with them. I was just in time for pie (or should I say MORE pie) and to watch Miracle on 34th Street, one of the best Thanksgiving and Christmas movies ever. By the end of the night, we were all stuffed, lethargic, tired, happy, and thankful for one another. And isn't THAT what Thanksgiving is all about?

 Well, that and pie. Here are my Aunt's pumpkin pie and pumpkin crisp. SO GOOD!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cross that one off the bucket list

I love it when a plan comes together.

A little more than a year ago, I started the Couch to 5K program. In the beginning, I could barely jog for 60 seconds without wanting to die. And that gradually I worked up to 3 minutes, then 5, etc. etc. When I ran my first mile, I felt like I had climbed a mountain, and when I posted about it here on the blog people were so supportive and I thought that maybe I could actually get to that 5K.

Well guess what? This morning, I participated in my first 5K race. And it felt AMAZING.

There have been set backs of course. Remember when I sprained my ankle back in September on vacation? I lost four weeks of training time and I thought for sure I wouldn't be able to hit the 3 miles in time for a race in early November. After a particularly bad run around the middle of October (some days your legs just feel like lead) I posted on Facebook that I didn't think it was going to happen.

But then my ankle healed, people encouraged me, I kept on going, and this morning BAM. 5K race, scratched off the list. It was a race for a local high school charity (actually my high school's rival), and I didn't have any idea what to expect. It was a chilly but clear day, and Mom drove me over to the high school. The last thing I wanted to worry about while running was where I was going to put my keys (confession: usually I just stick my car key in my sports bra).

When we arrived (about 30 minutes before race time) there were people of all ages milling around. People were dressed in turkey costumes, some had their dogs, and there were a lot of kids and moms with strollers. There was also a sound system pumping out some Top 40 songs and the whole mood of the place was people having a fun time.

Number 128, baby!

When I picked up my race packet the day before (which really only contained a bunch of ads), I also got my race number. There's a strip attached to the back of the number that tracks your time and I would assume has some kind of GPS thingy. I pinned on my number and joined in on the fun group warm-up 15 minutes before racetime. We then all lined up under the scaffold starting line and with a "ready, set, GO!" we were off. To the races.

So you probably want to hear about the actual run itself. I had done a practice run on the course the week before and while it went well, the number of hills made me nervous. There weren't a lot of flat stretches on this course, and hills have not been my strong suit. But you know what they say about race day adrenaline? BELIEVE THE HYPE. I made it up a hill longer and steeper than any I had done before, and the downhill parts definitely helped me catch my break. By the 2 mile mark, I couldn't believe how good I felt--when usually I would be reaching the gasping for air stage of the run and forcing myself forward. I think there was a lot of the "I can't believe I'm actually doing this" feeling that really spurred me on.

The volunteers and cops standing at the intersections where the roads were closed also did an awesome job cheering us all on, and I found myself chatting and getting encouragement from other people during the actual race. When I approached the last turn that led to the finish line I sprinted forward, got a bunch of high fives from the bystanders (and Mom) and leaped across the finish line! I was tired sure, but I also felt awesome.

Coming into the finish line!

The plan from here is to do a 5K at least every 6 months so I'll keep up with the training. My time today was almost exactly 42 minutes which is good for me (the best I've ever done was on the treadmill and 40 minutes), but I would love to eventually get myself to 30 minutes. But in 6 months I'm going to shoot for 35 minutes. Instead of sitting on my laurels, I'm just going to keep going! And thanks to everyone for all your amazing support, I couldn't have done it without you!


For some reason, I always want to pronounce this "gooble."

Mom and I are such turkeys.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

First Rule: Cardio

Last night, Carly and I headed to the Fairfax County Government Center for an evening with Max Brooks. You might know him as the author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, but I know him as my secret boyfriend.

I might have made up that last part.

First a few words about Max Brooks in general. He was funnier and more engaging than I expected; apparently he's done some acting and wrote for SNL for a few years (one of the Emmy winning years in fact). He did a lot of funny accents, gave some funny examples, and let out his inner nerd with frequent videogame, World of Warcraft, and Lord of the Ring references.

The program began with a 30 minute talk from Mr. Brooks about how to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse, focusing on the things the movies don't show you. He then took questions from the audience and did a book signing. Like a good blogger I took notes so that you, my dear readers, wouldn't miss out anything. Hopefully you'll now at least stand a chance of not being horribly killed when your grandma develops a taste for human flesh.

Mr. Brooks began by answering the number one question he is always asked: why zombies? The answer was a little more in-depth than I expected. Basically, they are monsters that don't obey the rules. Most of the time the hero ventures out to find the monster; he or she has to go to the abandoned castle, or walk a lonely road at midnight, or wander into the creepy swamp. But zombies are one of the only monsters that will come find you. You're sitting down for dinner with your family and whoops here come the zombies. As Mr. Brooks put it, "they will come to your home and they will come for you."

The first thing Mr. Brooks did when he decided to take on the zombie genre was to disabuse himself of the cliches of conventional zombie entertainment. His goal, according to him, isn't merely to entertain but also to save your life. Fiction is based on characters making bad choices--and in our society we blur the line between entertainment and eduction. But Mr. Brooks' goal is apparently to arm you with the knowledge necessary for survival.

So how are you supposed to protect yourself? As with most things, the devil is in the details, and Mr. Brooks pointed out that you don't see the details in the movies or the tv shows. It's not very riveting to see someone in the middle of the latest zombie-blockbuster die of dehydration or dysentery. But that's what you REALLY need to worry about. If you want to survive the coming of World War Z you're going to need:

--Water. And not just water, but a way to purify water when you're on the move.

--Weapons, but not guns. "Guns don't kill people and people don't kill people. Bullets kill people." With a potential for billions of zombies in the world you're going to run out of ammo pretty quickly. After all, "there's 300 million Americans here. I don't know how many Mexicans...and a hell of a lot more Canadians than they want me to believe." Your best bet isn't a gun, it's something less likely to break or run of of ammo and can operate in close range. And don't get fancy, the best weapons started out as tools. Don't think that samurai sword hanging on your wall (or the Sword of Gryffindor you bought online) is going to save your ass. Get yourself to the hardware store and stock up on axes, sledge hammers, etc.

--Transportation. DON'T USE A CAR. Cars need gas. You will run out of gas. Then you'll be zombie chow. Mr. Brooks recommends a bicycle. It's light, it's portable, and you can load stuff up on the back. And until they invent a mode of transport that runs on fear...oh wait, they have. A bike. Just wait and see how fast you'll pedal when the zombies come a-calling.

--Figure out where to run. Avoid heavily populated areas since the more people in a place, the more zombies. Find a place that isolated and go native. I know as Americans it's practically against our religion, but if you're going to survive in these places, you'll need to listen and learn to the indigenous people (you might want to leave your smallpox blankets at home).

--Work together. Another problem for Americans, but really key. Find people with specialized useful skills and make them part of your group. Mr. Books recommends that we start vetting people now to determine if we want them to be part of our group when the apocalypse strikes. His advice is to "lure them in with smiles and Scientology."

After we got through the basics on surviving the zombies, it was time for the Q+A. I didn't write down most of the questions but on the whole most of them were pretty good. I was interested in hearing about the movie, but when I asked my question, "are the details that you said are never in the movies going to be in your movie?" his response was "you mean Brad Pitt's movie? Next question." Someone asked him to go in a bit more detail and he stated that he hadn't read the script, had nothing to do with the movie, and to be honest, he seemed a bit...maybe bitter is too strong a word but very dismissive about it. He did say that Brad Pitt was a really nice guy and when he visited the set he couldn't have been nicer.

Mr. Brooks was also very kind during the signing, taking the time for pictures with anyone who asked and putting personalized messages in almost every book. Oh, and his last piece of advice?

Don't think the movies and television shows you've seen are going to save you.

The big question I'm left with and the one I wish I had asked is whether Max Brooks really believes that a zombie outbreak could happen. He's made quite a living on zombies and he seems to take this stuff really seriously, but I wonder. Does he REALLY think it could happen?

Do you?

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Ah, sunny Florida. Or the Florida that is SUPPOSED to be sunny. Because when we arrived for a few days at the beginning of the month it poured rain. And kept pouring. And kept pouring for a day and a half. Which may not sound like a lot, but when you are only there for four days it does tend to put a damper on things. Literally. Turns out there was a tropical depression directly over us. Figures.

But we refused to let it spoil our fun! We had a group of 8 people (Me, Chris, Kent, Kristin, Kevin, Carly, Wendy, and Luke) and after meeting up at the airport we braved the rain and the Orlando weekend traffic for a mini-break of sea creatures, roller coasters, and magic. Chris and Kent had managed to find us a townhouse in a resort about 30 minutes from all the theme parks, and it worked out to have plenty of room for all of us. But no internet.

Let me repeat, no internet.

What kind of resort these days does not supply internet? One in Davenport, Florida apparently. But that's a total first world problem and we managed to survive. And other than the no internet the place was great. Did I mention the hot tubs and water slide? I mean, who needs internet when you have a water slide?

Ok, so back to the fun stuff. Our first full day in town we decided to hit up SeaWorld. It was still raining, but we figured we would be getting wet anyway at SeaWorld so why not go for it. The bad weather also kept the crowds down. Going into SeaWorld I didn't have expectations; I had never really considered going there or figuring out what there was to see/do in the park, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. There are two really fun roller coasters for the thrill-seekers (including the Manta which was one of the scariest and fun rides I've ever been on) and lots of shows centering around the marine life at the park. Dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, each one had their own show that was structured differently and a lot of fun. But the best part of the day was when we got to play with the penguins.

If you know Chris, you know he is obsessed with penguins. So the entire reason for the jaunt to SeaWorld was so that we could take a behind-the-scenes tour of the penguin and puffin area and interact with the animals. We started out by learning about how the penguins are cared for and raised, and then moved into an "office" where we could see a puffin. The puffins are more skittish than the penguins and their feathers absorb oils from our skin really easily so unfortunately we weren't allowed to touch the one we met, but he was very cute and actually seemed very cat-like. He had lots of little toys that he enjoyed playing with and chasing and was a sucker for a piece of string. Adorable.

Hello, Mr. Puffin.

Then it was onto the penguins! We got to interact with two of them, a larger King penguin and a smaller breed whose name escapes me. Although the smaller penguin's actual name was Jasper. Adorable! They were both friendly and tolerated us posing with them, petting them, and being overall enchanted with them very well. The little staging area where we met the penguins was right next to the penguin compound so we got an up close and personal view of the hundreds of other penguins that also live at SeaWorld.

Hello, penguins.


As a bonus, the weather cleared up that afternoon and we had sunny skies for the rest of our stay. It was a penguin miracle!

The most surprising thing that we learned about the penguins and puffins is that they are projectile poopers. No lie, they can spray that shit about 3 feet. Since they spend so much time sitting in their nests keeping their eggs warm (since it's freaking cold where they live) they evolved the ability to projectile poop to keep the nest clean. This means you need to be careful not to get behind the penguin or you can get hit. When we met the puffin, we were told to stay behind a drain that had been placed on the floor and that would keep us out of the splash zone. Sure enough, as soon as the puffin was in with us he turned around and let it fly. It was gross but also kind of neat since it was so different. And the puffin was just so cute that anything it did seemed charming. Even pooping.

The rest of our stay we visited the Universal Parks including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and it was so fun to see it for the first time through everyone else's eyes. Especially since most of us are big old honking Harry Potter dorks. One look at the Hogwarts Express and the castle itself is all it takes to turn us into giggling little kids. But that's the fun of theme parks, right?

Group photo at the Hogwarts Express


Here I am giving my best Azkaban impression. I don't think I really have the crazy down yet...

Kristin and I trying on tiaras at the Bibbity Boppity Boutique in the Downtown Disney shopping area. I think the price tags really add a certain something. As Kevin put it, we were the "frugal princesses."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Look at this stuff, isn't it neat

All good things must come to an end, and so did our European vacation. This will be the last post covering our adventures which I suppose could be a good or bad thing depending on how much you like reading about other people's travels.

Our final stop on our cruise was Copenhagen, Denmark. I wish I could say that it lived up to some of the other places we visited but the truth is Copenhagen had some stuff working against it. First, it poured rain all day. It's just not as much fun to take a walking tour when you are getting pounded by rain. Second, my ankle was beginning to bother me. I had made it through Tallinn pretty well, but by Copenhagen, I was experiencing some problems walking. The cruise line was unwilling to give us a refund on our booked tour, so I went ahead and toughed it out.

Copenhagen is the capital and largest city of Denmark, and is situated on two islands, Zealand and Amager. Copenhagen became the capital of Denmark in the beginning of the 15th century. During the 17th century, under the reign of Christian IV, it became a significant regional centre.
The city is currently a major regional centre of culture, business, media, and science, and has repeatedly been recognized as one of the cities with the best quality of life. However, living in the city also comes with a high price, literally. If I remember our tour guide correctly, taxes in Denmark hover around the 70% level which means the Danes pay through the nose for their fun. Suck on THAT Tea Partiers.

Our tour started along the sea with stops at some historical statues. The first, celebrating Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid is one of Copenhagen's most iconic images. I'm ashamed to say that the other statues, while lovely, were not able to penetrate the detritus of my brain and allow me to remember their names. However, I can tell you that they were all made as gifts to Denmark after some royal lady was married off. Our tour guide joked that Denmark's number one export was royal daughters, and it's number one import was statutes from them after they got married off.

The Little Mermaid

Random statute and church...sorry guys, that's all I got on this one.

We continued to walk along the coast of the city and saw several motorcades pass including the car that was transporting the Crown Prince. Apparently there was a memorial dedication for Denmark's fallen in the Iraq/Afghanistan war going on that day so the big wigs had turned out. Our tour guide also liked to joke that Denmark had not won a successful military campaign in around 500 years and the last one, against maybe Sweden? came as such a complete shock that people didn't know what to do with themselves. This kind of self-deprecating humor is common to the Danes; in fact, they seemed to kind of have a sad-sack quality. I guess they are the Eeyore of Scandinavia.

After almost getting run over by the Crown Prince, we turned away from the water and headed to the oldest section of Copenhagen's inner city (called the "Middelalderbyen" (The Medieval City). We also walked through the most distinctive district of Copenhagen, the Frederiksstaden developed during the reign of Frederick V. It has Amalienborg Palace at its centre and is dominated by the dome of the Marble Church and several elegant 18th century mansions. The old inner city of Copenhagen includes the small island of Slotsholmen with Christiansborg Palace and Christianshavn. Around the historical city centre lies a band of congenial residential bouroughs (Vesterbro, Inner Nørrebro, Inner Østerbro) dating mainly from late 19th century. They were built outside the old ramparts of the city when the city was finally allowed to expand beyond this barrier.

Our tour wandered through the city, but to be perfectly honest, at this point Copenhagen was blending into a lot of the other cities we had visited. Our tour included the walking portion and then a boat portion, but by the time we arrived at the canal for the boat tour, we had had enough of the rain and decided to just wander through the old party of the city shopping and looking around.

Well, that about does it! The rest of our trip passed (mostly) without incident. Going back into Amsterdam we had REALLY rough seas, the worst I have ever experienced, but we arrived safe and sound. We spent another night in Amsterdam and just sort of wandered around without aim to enjoy the sights one last time. We watched a lot of the National Geographic Channel (one of the only American tv channels) and I read a lot of the latest Wheel of Time book. Our flights back the next day went off without a hitch, although the walking through the airports and inability to elevate my ankle made for an uncomfortable experience. And when we arrived back in DC, there was my Mom waiting with a sign and her camera to welcome us home. And that was really one of the best parts--coming back home to a happy and smiling Mom.

Welcome home! As you can see, Chris and I look happy however Kent couldn't really give a shit since he just wants a cigarette. Good times!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Ye Olde Medieval Town

In the weeks leading up to my cruise, many people inquired as to where I was going. I would tell them our itinerary, and a common (surprising) response was "ooooh, Tallinn! You are going to love it, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe!" This was surprising to me because 1) Tallinn wasn't ever really on my radar before and 2) Estonia? Really?

Well, they were right. Tallinn was an unexpected highlight of our trip, and even the fact that I had sprained my ankle the day before couldn't slow us down. With the help of Chris' ankle brace I managed to tramp my way across the ancient part of Tallinn and across some castle ruins. Yay castles!

Tallinn was another port where we didn't book an excursion through the cruise company. The historical part of Tallinn is pretty small so wandering around by ourselves was pretty easy, and the free map identified all the main touristy locations. The cruise ship also offered a shuttle from the port to downtown area, so we were all set.

Some quick background: the first traces of human settlement found in Tallinn are about 5000 years old. In 1050 the first fortress was built on Tallinn Toompea, the hill and upper part of the town. The city was also an important port for trade between Russia and Scandinavia during the period of Northern Crusades in the beginning of the 13th century when Christianity was forcibly imposed on the local population. Danish rule of Tallinn and Northern Estonia started in 1219. The Danes sold Tallinn along with their other land possessions in northern Estonia in 1346. Medieval Tallinn enjoyed a strategic position at the crossroads of trade between Western and Northern Europe and Russia. The city, with a population of 8,000, was very well fortified with city walls and 66 defence towers.

Tallinn passed to the Swedes in the sixteenth century, and then to imperial Russia in 1710. The 19th century brought industrialization of the city and the port kept its importance. On 24 February 1918, the Independence Manifesto was proclaimed in Tallinn, followed by Imperial German occupation and a war of independence with Russia. On 2 February 1920, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed with Soviet Russia, wherein Russia acknowledged the independence of the Estonian Republic. Tallinn became the capital of an independent Estonia. After World War II started, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1940, and later occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 44. After the Nazi retreat in 1944, it was again occupied by the USSR. After annexation into the Soviet Union, Tallinn became the capital of the Estonian SSR.

So basically, Tallinn got jerked around for centuries but has cut the strings and become a real boy. Yay!

After getting off the bus in downtown Tallinn, we wandered down a large street lined with market stalls. At the end of the street were the gates of Tallinn, the medieval entrance to the city. Once we passed through the gates, we were in the Toompea, an area that was once a separate town that occupied an easily defensible site overlooking the surrounding districts.

Medieval gates of Tallinn.


Medieval square in Tallinn.

Tallinn street.

I was immediately struck by how beautiful Tallinn is. Cobble streets are flanked by colorful row houses, and you can easily imagine a bustling medieval market in the city center. People wander from cafes to shops, and there are actually a large number of modern dance clubs situated throughout the medieval area. The ruins of a stone church stand on top of the hill overlooking the lower town, contrasting with the more modern Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its characteristic onion domes. You know how theme parks will sometimes have a "medieval town" or something like that in the entrance shopping area? Well, Tallinn is what the theme parks are trying to recreate. It's the real thing, you guys.

Outside wall of Tallinn castle.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Castle and cathedral. Two for one!

We spent the afternoon walking to the major sites (the castle, the cathedral, the scenic overlook) and ducking into shops. There was lots of amber, wool clothing, nesting dolls, and jewelry. We even ran into our South African friends at the overlook area. But after walking through the town most of the afternoon, my ankle (and feet) needed a break so back to the ship! While we were only in Tallinn a few hours, it made quite an impression. And now we have ANOTHER place to add to the "must return to" list. Maybe we should just do the same cruise again sometime.

View of Tallinn from the scenic overlook.

Sitting on the well, just don't lean back...

I think this was a statute of a chimney sweep. Don't ask me why.

Fun at the castle. Well what else are you going to do when presented with a giant sword and shield.

In sum: Tallinn is beautiful, quaint, charming, and perfect for any medieval-history nuts.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Ballad of Margaret and Julian

This post is all about how Chris, Kent, and I ended up having dinner at the Captain's Table one night of our cruise.

Spoiler alert: it's not because we're classy. Actually it's because we are the complete opposite of classy.

Our first day on the ship, we went to the show where the officers and the entertainment staff (including the cruise director) introduce themselves. When it came turn for the Hotel Director to speak, I was instantly smitten. Never mind the fact that he was in his late 40s, didn't have a lot of hair, and was married. He was from England! So that's all you need.

So from that point on, I was determined to get to know Julian.

But our tale really begins with an explanation about where our cabin was located on the cruise ship. That stuff above was just setting the scene. Chris loves to be at the front of ship (or the bow if you want to get fancy). I'm not really sure why, maybe it's posher? Anyways, this time our cabin was right next to the door to the bridge and the officer's quarters. No lie, right next door.

While walking down the hall one day, Kent passed Julian on his way to or from his quarters. As there had been a shocking lack of towel animals in our room, Kent stopped the Hotel Director and asked if we could get towel animals. Most people would probably just take this up with their cabin steward, but Kent decided to go right to the top. Julian was very gracious and promised to see to it that we would get towel animals.

And we did!

In response, on our comment card, I wrote the following message: We <3 Julian! I then dropped the card off at Guest Relations. Was this an adult way to thank someone? No. Were we really excited about getting those towel animals? Hell yes. So it seemed appropriate.

And then! The next day, after returning from lunch or something, we came in to find a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries had been delivered to our room. With compliments, from Julian. So now we were feeling really special. I composed a lovely thank you note and sent it on its way.

But we were only getting started. We decided that it would be nice to invite Julian, Mr. Hotel Director, to join us for dinner one night. After all, we had this big table for 8 all to ourselves (the other people assigned to our table never showed up). So we decided next time we saw him, we would invite him.

That night, while playing craps in the casino, the cruise director, Sue, wandered past us. Sue was a lovely older woman (also from England). Chris and I exchanged a look, grabbed our chips and took off after her. And when I saw "took off" I mean that we literally ran down the hall yelling her name. We finally caught up to her and breathlessly asked if she and Julian would like to join us at our table sometime. She gave us the typical "we're very busy in the evening" line but took down our cabin number and promised to call us and let us know if they were available.

The next day we had a phone message from Sue. While she and Julian were not free for dinner, they invited us to drinks at the martini bar the next night. Success! We ended up having a great time; we chatted with them both for more than an hour, which was more time than we thought they would give us. And apparently Sue and Julian had a good time too. And let's be honest: we probably the only people on that ship under the age of 50, so it must have been nice for them to talk to some spry people. They also both expressed surprise at our dinner invitation, apparently this was the first time someone had extended it to them. Usually they were the ones who asked people to dinner! We also learned that Julian's cabin was next door to ours. Awesome.

We parted ways good friends, and looked forward to seeing them around the ship. Imagine our surprise a few days later when we received a printed invitation to join Julian at the Captain's Table in the main dining room for dinner.

At last, we were in.

It was the last formal night of the cruise, so we were dressed in our best. We met up with the other people dining at the table that night in the wine bar and enjoyed some hors d'oeuvres, wine, and champagne. Julian and his pregnant wife (who had joined the ship in Copenhagen) joined us and then we walked to the table in the dining room. Actually it was more like parading, as they led us through the center of the room and everyone got a good long look at the cool kids who got to sit at the main table. Chris saw that some of the people older people looked as us askance, I say let them. They were just jealous.

Dinner was excellent; we had the main maitre des as our servers, and all the wine and champagne we could drink. It also seemed like the quality of the cuts of meats and such was slightly better than you find at the normal tables. That was very gratifying. They even took our picture and gave the ladies roses. You guys, we were so fancy. We had a wonderful time just eating and chatting with Julian and his wife and I think I can honestly say that the table would have been much more boring without us. But isn't that true of everything?

All in all, it was a perfect way to begin the wrap-up of our vacation. And it just goes to prove that persistence can get you almost anything. If you stalk someone long enough, chances are you'll get what you want! Not sure that's really the lesson here, but whatever. It's Friday. I don't have time to come with a moral for every blog post I write.

Still to come in the vacay recap: posts about Tallin, Estonia and Copenhagen, Denmark. Are you psyched??

Sunday, September 25, 2011

St. Petersburg, Part Deux

Ah, another day, another day long tour. We basically went whole hog for St. Petersburg, after all, how many times are you in Russia?

We spent very little time in St. Petersburg proper on the second day of our tour. Instead we took to the country to enjoy some Russian royal hospitality. Our first stop was Catherine's Palace, the summer residence of the Romanov tsars. Located about 30 minutes drive from downtown St. Petersburg, it was first built in 1717 by Catherine I (NOT Catherine the Great, but the wife of Peter the Great who took over Russia after he died without designating an heir). It was later expanded by Empress Anna and it's current appearance was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the same architect who designed the Winter Palace and Peterhof Palace and was a favorite of Empress Elizabeth (the expansion was completed in 1756).

Exterior of a small part of Catherine's palace (seriously the thing must be half a mile long from tip to tip) as seen from the back park.

Cupulas of Catherine's Palace

Chris and I do our impressions of the statues in front of the Palace.

It was known for its lavish interiors and trust me, this place does not disappoint. Unfortunately, almost everything inside the palace is a reproduction as it was occupied by the Nazis during WWII (1941-1944) and used as a soldier barracks. They ripped everything out and left the place a hollow shell. Damn, Nazis. God, they sucked. Fortunately, many of the most valuable contents were evacuated and archivists were able to document most of the interior. A large portion of the palace was reconstructed for St. Petersburg's tercentenary in 2003, but there were still many rooms in the huge palace that haven't been tackled yet. Hopefully one day the entire place will be restored to its former glory.

Main Staircase of Catherine's Palace

The Great Hall (or Light Gallery) was designed in the Russian baroque style and was used for balls, formal dinners, and masquerades. If you've seen the movie Anastasia , this is where the opening ball takes place. All the gilding would have originally been solid gold, but as it's a reproduction, it's wood covered with gold leaf. Still, not too shabby.

Detail of one of the walls in one of the courtiers-in-attendance dining room. The large blue porcelain columns are actually fireplaces, they have small openings at the front where the wood inside would be lit.

The rooms in the palace are layed out in a long line so you can look through one doorway all the way to the end of the palace (or you could if you could see that far down). But it's gold gilding as far as the eye can see...

The Green Dining Room, first of the rooms in the northernmost end of the Palace.

After spending the morning at Catherine's Palace, we went to a local restaurant called The Red Restaurant (after the red facade) for another traditional Russian lunch. This time it was beef stroganoff which was delicious, and served with fingerling potatoes rather than noodles. And of course, vodka. All in all, yum.

Stroganoff. It may not look super-appetizing, but trust me, it was AMAZING.

We got back on the road and headed to another Romanov residence, Peterhof Palace. It was built in 1714 by Peter the Great who wanted a palace to rival those of the French and a place to glorify Russia's recent naval victories over Sweden. It was the summer residence of Peter and the grounds contain over 150 fountains. The palace was called the Versailles of the Russia, and after walking through the grounds it is easy to see why.

The Grand Cascade at Peterhof Part I...

Part II...

And Part III.

Looking over the Grand Cascade, down the canal, to the sea beyond.

The "palace" is actually comprised of many different buildings and a chain of parks facing the sea. The water for the fountains is pumped through a unique hydraulics system that uses no machinery or pumps. Don't ask me how they do it, I'm just a tourist. Enjoy the pics!

The Lion Fountain (the temple portion is flanked by two lions, you can see one in the background on the left).

In this fountain, ducks circle as they are chased by a small dog. The fountain actually makes quacking and barking noises. Popular with the kiddies.

The Adam fountain. Eve is located across the main walkway of the park.

The Sun fountain.

The Dragon (or Chess Board) fountain.