Monday, May 31, 2010

Rome: the ancient forums, the Colosseum, and Palatine Hill

On March 25, we visited the ancient forums, the Colosseum, and Palatine Hill, as well as the Capitoline Museum. We bought our tickets at the forums, so we didn't have to stand in line at the Colosseum. The Colosseum was built by emperor Vespasian, in the grounds of Nero's palace (remember, he was the crazy guy who played the fiddle as Rome burned?), and it was inaugurated in AD 80. I love how with those years that don't quite look real, you have to say "AD" just so people don't think you've made a mistake. Apparently the Colosseum didn't hold as many people as the Circo Massimo, where chariot races were held, but it's way more impressive looking. The funny thing, to me, was that from a distance, it looks really big, but then when you walk up to it, it doesn't really seem that big, but then, when you get inside, under its arches, it looks big again, and when you go outside, into the arena, it sort of looks small again. It held about 50,000 people, so it's about the size of some college football stadiums. Somehow the movie, Gladiator, made it look much bigger. And, the term, Colosseum, is not actually a reference to its size, but to the giant statue of Nero, the Colossus of Nero, that was nearby.

The Lonely Planet that I took out from the library says the 80 entry arches were called vomitoria, however, in Latin class, we were taught that the vomitoria were gutters that lined the isles...the wealthy ancient Romans liked to gorge themselves on delicacies while watching events, and would vomit into the gutters so they'd have room to continue their gluttony. According to Wikipedia, a vomitorium is an area where spectators can "spew out" at the end of the performance, a definition more similar to the Lonely Planet's than to my Latin class.

I really love this sign, which I translate to mean, panic and run down the steep Colosseum stairs!

The Palatine Hill was a lot of ruins, but it was hard to figure out what was going on. This is partially because over the centuries churches and other building were built on top of the ruins. Also, it was hard for me to imagine what was going on because a lot of the ruins were left where they fell, so parts of buildings were just in the middle of the avenues. Additionally, all of the palaces seemed so close together...if I were a wealthy person, I'd want a lot of space around me, but then again, I'm not a wealthy ancient Roman, so what do I know about it?

We tried to use an audio tour for the forums and the Palatine Hill, but at some point, we just became confused. While we were able to figure out some of the stuff the audio guy was talking about, it wasn't so useful when he said things like, behind the pile of stones is where such and such building stood, but it was dismantled in AD 182 to make way for some other building that was destroyed by a fire. Right, so essentially we were supposed to be looking at a pile of rubble behind a pile of stones and envision a palace or temple or whatever. Sure.

The forums are a bit of a mess. Not only have ruins fallen willy-nilly and been left there (I am actually torn: would I prefer if the stones were cleaned up, so as not to be where they don't belong, or would that ruin the historic nature of the site? I can't decide), but successive emperors have added to it and enlarged it over time. Again, we were using the audo guide, but it was still a bit confusing to figure out what was going on. Buildings that had been repurposed over time, such as the temple of Antonius and Faustina, were in relatively good condition.

The Arch of Septimus Severus was pretty cool, and Captain America cracked up when the audio guide told him that at the festival of Saturnalia, people played games with beans to symbolize wealth.

We went to the Capitoline museum,which is the world's oldest national museum. In this museum are the pieces of the giant statue of Constantine that was found at the site of the Basilica de Constantino. I took a picture of it with my Fodor's book.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Rome: the Vatican

On March 26, we went to the Vatican. Our friends in Rome said that of all of the people who have come to visit them, hands down, we spent the most time in the Vatican City. I am nothing if not thorough.

We started our morning by attending the Papal Ceremony. I applied in advance, and we got two blue tickets. But they didn't check our names or anything, so I'm not sure if we really needed to apply in advance. The audience is open seating. You can also just walk in and sit down (which I didn't know), but you're a little further away from the podium than where we were with our blue tickets. The atmosphere is rather chaotic with people waving flags and cheering.
These guys are in charge of keeping everything under control.

Here's what happens at the Papal mass. First, there was a band playing "We are the World," among other songs. The Pope then drives around in his bullet-proof golf cart waving at people for a while. Then he goes up to the podium and various bishops (or cardinals, or I don't really any rate other various members of the clergy), come out and read a sort of announcement. We counted six of these people, reading in Italian, French, Spanish, German, English, and I'm not sure what the sixth language was...maybe Latin? Then the Pope reads a sermon. At least that's what I thought it was. Then these same six guys come back out and read another sort of announcement. This time it lists big groups from various countries who have come to be blessed, and informs us that we, our families, and any religious mementos and artifacts we've brought will all be considered as blessed. Then the pope reads the blessing. The Bible verse quoted in our blessing was one I'd never heard before, and it was actually a little scary.

Captain America and I left the mass after the blessing (other people in our row were getting up, and we had to get up to let them out), so I'm not really sure how the mass ends. It was just as well we left early because we beat everyone to the entrance to the Vatican museums and were able to just walk in and buy our tickets. Eventually the others in the audience caught up to us, but at least we were already inside looking at things.

Apparently there are four suggested itineraries for the Vatican Museums, but I didn't notice that. In fact, I don't think we got a map of the museum at all. The only thing we skipped was the Etruscan museum. I really enjoyed the maps, the tapestries (although I thought the unicorn ones in the cloisters in New York were better), and of course, the Raphael rooms.

The School of Athens was more colorful than I expected, but no one's clothes had patterns. Is that strange, or just me?

You are not allowed to take pictures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but it was actually better than I imagined. Of course, I came prepared with binoculars. Not opera glasses, nope, but gigantic whale-watching style binoculars. I'm sure I looked ridiculous, but anyone paying attention to me in the Sistine Chapel was missing the point!

After the Vatican museums, we went it St. Peter's Basilica. I had read that it was impressive, but unattractive. It was definitely impressive, but I would not have said it was unattractive. It was a little frustrating the number of things we couldn't do in St. Peter's. There were a few statues I wasn't allowed to go near because I wasn't attending mass. Yes, I was puzzled, too. We couldn't go into the crypts, although that didn't surprise me, and we couldn't go see the tomb of Charlemagne.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A short trip to Florence

On March 22, Captain America and I took the train from Zurich to Florence. We figured this would be a good spot to spend the night on our way to Rome. Because the state museums and monuments are closed on Monday, we didn't take the first train out of Zurich.

We stayed in the delightful Hotel Scoti. It is run by quite possibly the friendliest woman I have ever met, Doreen. Our room had a quaint view of the back streets of Florence, was ideally located near the train station (although Florence is small, so possibly all hotels are located near the train station). Doreen gave us excellent suggestions on where to eat dinner, and get gelato! She was also in no hurry to check us out the next day, telling us to go out in morning and enjoy the day, and we could "settle up" when we returned.

As everything was closed that first evening, we settled for wandering around Florence. We went to the Ponte Vecchio and laughed as we saw the watches and scarves for sale (we didn't buy watches in Switzerland; we didn't buy scarves in Egypt). We had dinner at Doreen's suggestion, Trattoria Marione, also listed in our Lonely Planet.

The next morning, we got up bright and early, had breakfast at Caffe Pasticceria Donnini in the Piazza della Repubblica, and headed over to the Galleria dell'Accademia to see the David. It was a pretty amazing piece, although I have to say, after I heard our friends rave about it, I really expected something bigger. (This would be a good spot to insert the classic joke, that's what she said, as David is not proportional. Apparently it was considered in poor artistic form at the time to create proportional male anatomy, so thus David, perhaps the most famous statue of all time, is forced to continuously endure gawkers commenting on his smallish penis.)

After David, we went to the Piazza Duomo. Entering the church is free, but we also decided to climb to the top of the dome. It's actually two concentric domes, and you climb between them. (We opted not to do this at St. Peter's because after this experience, Captain America had his fill of being crammed into tiny places with unwashed Europeans, and really, I can't blame him. I'm sure the view from St. Peter's is spectacular, but I agreed: being stuck between two rock walls with throngs of people once on our trip was enough.)

(This is looking up the dome.)

Next on our list: the Uffizi. Unfortunately, the lines were really long (to be expected), and we had a train to catch in a few hours; we unfortunately had to skip this one. We didn't want to stand in line for an hour only to have to rush through the museum. I'm not sure I know how to rush through a museum.

Captain America took over as tour guide, and took me to a number of lovely squares, as well as to the Basilica di Santa Croce, which houses the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo, among others.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A weekend in Geneva

For the weekend that Captain America turned 30, we decided to take a road trip to Geneva. Getting out of Zurich was a minor adventure, as Captain America and I had no idea which way we were headed, what the signs were telling us to do, or what we might have been looking for. Fortunately, our friends were driving and navigating. Unfortunately, the navigator was in the back seat with the toddler and me.

Prior to arriving in Europe, I read up on all of the things we could do in Geneva once we got there. I don't think we hit on any of them, really. CERN offers tours on Saturdays, but they're 3 1/2 hours long...that's about 3 hours too much of physics for me, and I was the dork on the trip, so it would have been about 3 hours and 25 minutes too much of physics for everyone else.

The United Nations is not open on Saturdays in March.

Additionally, it was overcast and a little rainy while we were in Geneva, unlike the beautiful weather we had the day before. So my overall impression of the city was that it more of a business center than a tourist attraction. So, the next time I'm in Europe, I'm not sure I feel the need to return to Geneva; unlike St. Gallen, where I fell in love with a library, but I've already told you about that.

So what did we do in Geneva? We went to the Cathedral de Saint Pierre, where the tower was closed by the time we arrived. Apparently, the tower closes at 4:30, and the Cathedral at 5. None of the hours of operation, in the tour books, or in the Cathedral itself, say anything about that. So that was a bit of a disappointment, but since it was an overcast day, we probably wouldn't have seen much anyway. I've just double checked! The guidebook says that the tower is open until 5. I suppose it might be technically, but you still can't purchase tickets after 4:30.

We went to a Tex-Mex place called Manana for dinner, where we had pseudo-Mexican food served by an Asian waitress. Yes, this was where we celebrated Captain America's 30th birthday (clearly we did a bad job of planning for restaurants). There was a dessert place called Gilles Desplanches that I had marked in my tour book, that also served sandwiches and things, but it wasn't really what the boys on our trip were looking for. (Although I did purchase the biggest macaroon ever there, and it was wonderful!)

Captain America and I found an EgyptAir office in Geneva, which really probably isn't that surprising given the international-ness of Geneva, but it certainly amused us.

And we went to the botanical gardens, where there was a random little zoo. By random, I mean, not only was it odd to me, but there were reindeer, peacocks, and flamingos. Reindeer, I get, peacocks, maybe, but flamingos in Switzerland!

We also saw the Jet D'Eau, which is this giant fountain. Except when I read this, I was thinking along the lines of the Bellagio. Nope, it's a giant stream of water straight up in the air. In all fairness, the guidebook did say that it's a "sky-high plume," so apparently my imagination ran away with me.

One really, really odd thing we saw was the Parc Des Bastions & Place Neuve, where there were four-and-a-half-meter tall statues of Beze, Calvin, Farel, and Knox, as the guidebook says "in their nightgowns ready for bed." This image inspired in me an idea of something whimsical, like Peter Pan, but alas, it was four creepy-looking old men in either nightgowns or robes. It was weird on its own, but someone had paintballed all of the eyeballs black, so it was sort of looking like four figures of death. On top of that, the park was filled with all of the riff-raff that is apparently simply not allowed elsewhere in Switzerland, so, needless to say, we didn't stay long. The toddler seemed unfazed by all of this, which was probably for the best.

At the Palais des Nations, we saw the giant chair that was a project of Handicap International, and represents opposition to landmines.

We stayed at the Hotel Kipling. If you're scratching your head, we were too. The Lonely Planet, sympathetically, but not usefully, comments "what the jungle book or it's Bombay-born author has to do with Geneva is a question the staff at Hotel Kipling can't answer. But what the heck!" Yup, that pretty much sums it up. Oh, and the Bible came in four languages. I thought that was pretty cool.

All in all, Switzerland was wonderful, but Geneva was not my favorite part. I felt a little bad for Captain America, as I wanted his birthday to be special, and I felt that the rest of the week had been better, but then again, we had awesome weather for most of our trip, so we were bound to have some less than stellar weather. After all, it was still winter in Switzerland.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I'm a diva?

Okay, for starters, if any men happen to read my blog, you're probably gonna wanna skip this post. Whenever women say that men "don't want to know," they're likely talking about one of two things: plotting to take over the world (which is working out sooo well), or our periods.

In my ongoing attempts to be "green," I purchased a diva cup. It's this thing that you insert, more or less like a tampon, and it catches your menstrual flow. It's reusable, you can leave it in for up to 12 hours, and the company claims it doesn't leak.

It's also expensive. Mine cost around $42 at Whole Foods. But I figured, it's reusable, so it'll be cheaper in the long run. Before I used it, I read the whole usage guide. Halfway down the fourth column, it says "due to government regulations and the personal, hygienic nature of the product, a menstrual cup should be replaced once every twelve (12) months from the date of the first use." What? $42 a year on this thing? So of course, I did the math on the products I am currently using, and calculated that it cost me $44.40 a year for my tampons, pads, and pantyliners. Whoop-di-do. A savings of $2.40.

But, I thought, if it worked, I'd be lessening my environmental footprint.

Because pads, tampons, and pantyliners have a pretty big footprint. There's the manufacturing and the shipping, of course, but also the packaging and the fact that they're all single-use items. I have yet to figure out why pads come wrapped in Easter-colored plastic sacks. They're not air-tight, so it's not preventing contaminates from getting in. And women are just going to bleed into them anyway, so it's not exactly as if they need to be sterile. And what are we trying to hide? Healthy women menstruate.

What I was really excited about with the diva cup was the 12 hours bit. I've worked for companies with a free tampon machine in the bathroom, which is great, because not only do you not have to remember to bring tampons to work, but you also don't have to deal with bringing your purse or whatever into the bathroom. Because as much as I don't care that the world knows I get my period, I'm still not totally comfortable with walking around with a tampon in my hand at work. I don't think my coworkers need to know when, exactly, I'm menstruating. It's somehow embarrassing even though it shouldn't be.

My current company does not have a free tampon machine in the bathroom, so I keep some in a desk drawer. It's the same drawer where I store my laptop backpack, my eyedrops, and the container of wipes for my dry erase board. Every now and then a coworker needs a wipe or some eyedrops or something, and when they open the drawer they *gasp* also see that I have a couple of tampons. There's only one man in my department, and he has a wife, so I'm pretty sure if he's ever thought anything about the tampons I keep at work, it's along the lines of, I bet my wife does that, too.

So, on to my review of the diva cup. It's a little more complicated to get in than a tampon, and you have to twist it to make a seal. I'm not convinced that it doesn't leak at all, but I will say that it doesn't leak more than tampons sometimes do. Of course, since I felt like I still needed to wear a pantyliner, it won't end up being cheaper over the course of a year than what I had been doing. Additionally, like tampons, you're not supposed to feel it. Am I the only person out there who does sometimes feel my tampon? I can't imagine that I am, and sometimes I felt the diva cup, too.

Overall, I'd say that it's okay, but I didn't love the diva cup. The cost savings that I thought I'd find weren't there, and as much as I want to help the environment, I'm not sure this is the right product for me. It's a little disappointing, as I had read online how other women love it, but I just can't say that I do. I'll give it another try though. Maybe the more I get used to it, the more I'll like it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Things I don't like and what I can do about them: facing adulthood

Boy have I got things about which to blog!

I started reading this blog, RealDelia, which has the tagline "finding yourself in adulthood." Again, it's anther blog that I read that I'm not truly sure I like. Y'know how when you read a book, sometimes it takes the first few chapters to figure out the characters and the writing style and such, and then you realize you're either actually reading the book, or you're just sort of putting up with it to the end? I tend to read everything as if it's a book, and so with blogs, it frequently takes me several posts to figure out if I actually like it or not. Either way, in the "about Delia Lloyd" section of the blog, she talks about how, when she was younger, she thought she'd arrive in adulthood, but that in reality, it's way more of a process.

A while back Captain America and I were having dinner with some friends with two young girls. While their father was grilling, we were playing a sort of improvised game of soccer. At some point, Captain America and I both turned to the dad and were engaged in a conversation about I can't even remember what. The older daughter put her hands on her hips and said something to the effect of "the grownups are not paying attention to their goal!" I looked around to try to figure out who these people of terrible sportsmanship were, when I realized that the "grownups" she was referring to were Captain America and me. When had we become grownups?, I wondered.

I think a lot about adulthood because there are a number of things about it I don't like. I remember having a conversation with my aunt when I was in middle school, and she said something to me along the lines of "when you're an adult you can have Oreos for breakfast if you want." I must have been complaining about having to eat something healthy. But now that I'm an adult, I really can't eat Oreos for breakfast. I'd never burn off those calories. But in middle school, I was on a synchronized swimming team, which means, if I was awake, I was eating. I don't like that now that I get to make the decisions about what I eat, I really can't eat all of the junk I would have liked to eat as a kid.

I've been feeling sort of melancholy lately, with this sort of generalized, overarching feeling that despite knowing I've got a pretty good life, I'm just not that pleased with it. I feel like I've got a good life, but it's not the life I would pick out for myself if I could shop for one at Macy's.

I've already blogged about how much I don't like my stupid parking garage situation, or blow drying my hair. The other day, on my evening walk, I came up with the idea to make a list of all of the things in my life that I don't like, and what, if anything, I can do about them. I thought this might be a good exercise for a few reasons. First, sometimes just identifying the problem is enough to feel better about it. Once it has a label you can sort of mentally file it away somewhere.

Also, I thought I'd see if there was an aspect of my life that could just use a little tweaking and I'd feel a lot better about it. For example, when I had a long, awful commute in Oregon, I found that listening to an audio book on the drive made it significantly more bearable. Sometimes a little change really can make a big difference. Also, for me, the important thing is noting what I can do about something. Not what I should do or what I'm going to do. Just what my options are.

Maybe this seems like a silly exercise, but I thought it was worth trying. Here are a couple of my dislikes and what I can do about them:

I don't like my that my hair is fading into this sort of reddish color. I can dye it a different color. (I could also cut it all off, or wear hats so I don't see the color.)

I don't like exercising in the morning. I decided that this wasn't entirely true. I don't mind exercising in the morning; what I don't like is feeling rushed in the morning to get out the door. So, what I can do is organize more things at night, go to bed earlier so it's easier to get up in the morning, or just not exercise in the morning so I have fewer things to do before I leave for work.

When I realized I started to generalize my list, I don't like not being able to focus at work, I tried to make it specific. It's not that I can't focus at work, it's that I'm being pulled in different directions. I do a number of different things at work that my boss isn't directly involved in. Of course, all of these other team leaders think their thing is the most important item for me to work on. But my boss is on my side, so I can always check with her as to what she thinks I should be doing. I can discuss with her what I'm being asked to do and why I think one thing should be a priority over another. It's also her job as my manager to tell other people to back off when they're pushing too hard (getting SOX compliant info to the auditors now really is more important than writing requirements for a project that isn't going to launch for another eight months. Really.) And I can take frequent short breaks at work. I've read a number of articles stating that taking short breaks enables the brain to re-energize itself, but I actually rarely take a break at work, and when I do, I feel guilty about it. No more. If spending a few minutes every hour or so not thinking, or going outside, or whatever make me a better worker, then that's what I'm going to do. Or at least try.

I also discovered that some of the things I don't like are really quite silly. I don't like the security doors on my house. We don't lock them. We don't even always close them. They're just annoying. Captain America has plans to take them down, but that requires bolt cutters or something, and his uncle promised to help, but we apparently haven't been able to sort out a good weekend to do this yet.

Or, I don't like that we have to eat every day. It is such a waste of time to make lunch every day just to eat it, and then have to do it over again the next day. But, it would get expensive to eat out every day. See? This is both ridiculous and tough. I could make a giant smoothie every morning and just sip it all day. I could eat only really easy things, like Clif Bars. I could have Captain America be in charge of our food situation. Or, we could become a bit more prepared with our meal planning so we don't have to do all of the washing, chopping, and cooking every day.

Whenever I say to my friends, in a joking sort of manner, that sometimes being a adult just sort of sucks, they always laugh and agree. It's definitely one of those things where there are benefits (like no longer living with my parents), and challenges (someone's got to figure out dinner, despite working a long day). When I was little, I thought that once I was an adult, things would be better: I'd get to make my own rules, set my own standards, do what I wanted, and basically live the life I wanted (I also thought I'd be tall and thin and have long light-brown hair and live in a brownstone in the Village. And be the sort of person who can always find the perfect pair of jeans).

To an extent I do live the life I want. But there are also limitations. My company expects me to work Monday-Friday. But I think I'd rather work Tuesday-Saturday. Captain America and I do a number of things that we never did as kids, like travel to Egypt and Europe. But at the same time, I can't quit my job and spend my days reading and writing because we have a mortgage to pay. I know I'm not the only one trying to find the balance between doing the things that need to be done so I can live the life I want, and actually living that life. So let me know if you've come up with any good solutions to this problem, okay?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Some notes on our trip to Europe

I was looking through my journal, and I found some notes I made while we were in Europe. I usually make my notes in my tour books, but for this trip I borrowed some books from the library and didn't figure they'd appreciate my notes, even if they might have been useful for someone else.

So, in no real order, here's what I've got:
  • While we were in Italy, we had the misfortune of going through daylight savings time again.
  • At a major intersection near our friend's place in Italy, there was (conveniently) a gigantic statue. Other friends who were visiting referred to it as Sherlock Holmes, but Captain America kept calling it Benjamin Franklin. He even pointed out that it didn't look a thing like Ben Franklin. I said, that's because it's Sherlock Holmes.
  • We drove a fiat panda from Rome to Positano. Yup, we're that cool.

  • In Florence, we stayed at the adorable Hotel Scoti. We had a bit of an adventure trying to locate it, and an even bigger adventure trying to get into the elevator with our luggage, but it was totally worth it.
  • At breakfast one morning, we accidentally took someone else's lattes. I was surprised that the bar man knew what I wanted without me asking, but I just figured I was ordering what every other American ordered. Maybe I was giving him too much credit, or maybe I was just under-caffeinated.
  • When we were in Florence, of course we went to the Ponte Vecchio, where they sell, among other things, watches and scarves. We didn't buy watches in Switzerland, and we only bought three scarves in Egypt. What were we doing here?

  • When we were standing in line waiting to get into the Galleria dell Accademia to see the David, we saw some graffiti on the wall that said Alohomora.
  • The Galleria dell'Accademia had a small music museum. Yes, it was a little random. They had this cool hands-on exhibit where they showed how a piano is struck by a hammer but a harpsichord is plucked. I guess it was cooler in real life than in my explanation here.
  • One night, while we were in Positano, we decided to go to this restaurant, Three Sisters, for dinner. Because the town is built on a cliff, we had to walk down a ton of stairs to get there. Apparently, we were delirious with hunger, because at the time it made sense to follow this cat, who really did seem to be leading the way, but perhaps not surprisingly, it lead us to a dead end. Captain America declared, that's the last time I listen to a cat!
  • On our way back to Rome, we drove to a small town called Ravello, which, the guide books declared, had ravishing gardens. We, needless to say, did not feel ravished by the gardens.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Busy Day in Switzerland

On Friday, March 19, we did the math and figured out that if we had our act together, we could hit two different activities in two different cities, without wearing out the toddler to the point of fits of exhaustion. The toddler was actually an excellent travel companion, and Kim said that she is usually good for a few days of crazy traveling, as long as it can be followed up with a few days of chilling at home, but I thought we might have been pushing the limits of that theory a little too far, as we were going to Geneva the next day.

First stop, the Rheinfalls! According to my Lonely Planet guide book, they "might not give Niagara much competition in terms of height, width, or even flow of water, but it's a stunning sight nonetheless." The Rheinfalls are Europe's largest waterfalls, and they were picturesque, but they were about as impressive as any we could have found while living in Oregon. I jokingly commented as we passed them on the train "those are the Rheinfalls," thinking that what we were seeing out the window was just some smaller falls up- or down-stream of the real falls. But I was mistaken.

On the other hand, it was a gorgeous day, and I did get to try out a Swiss soda, Rivella, pictured here with some aptly-named OK beer. Back to the soda, you gotta love the Swiss and their cheese, as this is soda that is made from...wait for it!...cheese. Yes, I'm serious. This one is the "cola" flavor and tasted like ginger ale that somehow went bad. There are apparently other flavors, but that was enough cheese soda for me.
Next, we took the train to St. Gallen, which was an adorable little town. This was the one "MUST DO" on my Switzerland list, as the town has an abbey with one of the world's oldest libraries. It's actually a Unesco World Heritage Site. The boys were good sports, but not enamored by my idea of looking at really old books written in languages we couldn't understand, and spent the time drinking beer and wine in one of the squares in the town.

Captain America, Kim, the toddler, and I went to the library. The library was breathtaking. We weren't allowed to take any pictures inside, so I bought some postcards that didn't really do it justice, but I found a few on their website.

In addition to the books, the library had a gigantic old globe that was very cool, but of course, I don't have a picture of it, so you'll just have to trust me, and a mummy. Apparently most kids find the mummy enthralling, but our toddler was rather underwhelmed by it, as were Captain America and I, but of course, we've been to Egypt. Kim, who was amazingly good natured about everything we did, just went with the flow.

And then we went home and made fondue for dinner.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lovely Lucerne

One of our Swiss day trips involved taking the train to Lucerne to go up to the top of Mount Pilatus. Actually, we took a train, and a bus, and two gondolas. In fact, on the entire European trip, about the only forms of transportation we didn't take were cog railway (we were there in the wrong season), and dog-sled. Okay, I'm exaggerating a little, but only a little.

The views from the top of Mt. Pilatus were stunning. There's a hotel up there, and it was being renovated, so we also got to watch helicopters bring up giant loads of supplies. And we saw Swiss sunbathers.

Do you love the tanning goggles?

Lucerne also had a wonderful Medieval bridge, a Medieval wall (we couldn't walk along the top...again, we were there in the wrong season...this seems to be a recurring theme for us in Switzerland). Lucerne also has this giant lion carved into a rock wall. Strangely, I couldn't find a single mention of it in my Lonely Planet. Next to the little park where the lion is, is a glacial garden that was "discovered" in the late 19th century. We think something was missed in the translation, given that Lucerne was founded hundreds of years earlier. Needless to say, we skipped the glacial garden.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Disproportional grumpiness

Does anyone else have something ridiculously small that makes them more irritated than it should on a regular basis? Even as I'm writing this, I know how petty it sounds, but the parking-garage-construction-situation at my office irritates me every morning. Every morning! Even though 1) I knew about it before it started, 2) I know it's going to be going on for the next year, 3) there's nothing I can do about it, and 4) I know how silly it is for me to be annoyed by it.

I mean, is this even rational?

I work in a small office park. By small, I mean there are two buildings that share this garage. There's a third building, but they don't use our garage. The other building is a currently empty, new building, that recently signed it's lease. So right now, it's having construction done, too...y'know, where they actually put in the partitions for offices, etc. Which is why the garage is having construction done...they're expanding it. Why they didn't just build a big enough garage in the first place is anyone's guess!

Right now, half of each floor of the garage is closed off for the construction, along with all of the first floor, and the other non-garage ground-level spaces. The current rumor is, that because this other building is going to have medical offices, the whole first floor of the garage, post-construction, is going to be reserved for patients.

Normally, in normal parking garage situations, say, at a mall, I have no issue with parking on the second, or third, or whatever floor of the garage. Here's the thing at work, though. I thought I was getting to work at 8:30. But I started to notice at around 9 or 9:15, that I had been at work a while and hadn't actually done a thing. What I discovered is that I enter the parking garage at 8:30, but it takes me another 20 minutes to actually park, get out of the garage, get into my building, and get up to my cube. So by 9, I'm still just logging into things, opening programs, and filling my water bottle. A half hour of my day just gone!

I have tried getting to work early so I can get a "good" spot. There are two problems with that. The first is that now that half the garage is closed, there are half as many "good" spots. The second is that while I would love to work 7-3:30-ish, I do not work for an "early" company. Meaning: even if I get to work early, I won't get to leave early. I'm not stupid. I'm not working more for more aggravation!

Do you see what I mean? Are you reading this rant thinking, alright, Virginia, grow up and get over it! It's just a stupid parking garage!

I am! And yet it still drives me crazy!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Catalog Choice

Does anyone else get totally annoyed by the amount of junk mail they get? Especially catalogs! Especially catalogs for companies from which I have only purchased things on-line. I mean, really, you already have my email address. It would save you a ton of money just to email me whatever it is you have to say. Because let's face it, I was going to delete/recycle it anyway, so why bother spending the money on postage in the first place? I'm sure there's some study out there somewhere that I don't feel like finding that says people are more likely to buy from a company if they get a physical catalog than if they get an email with the new stuff.

I have to say, though, I suspect that trend will change. (Do you like how I'm making predictions about a study I didn't even bother to find? Yup. I'm that smart.) Right now the babyboomers have the deepest pockets, and they aren't all used to shopping on-line (although even my mother recently embraced the wonders of, and purchased some lovely towels for Captain America and me.) Nonetheless, I imagine as the financial heavyweights shift down in age...ok, maybe not age, as much as generation, the people with the greatest spending power are going to be those who are used to being plugged in 24/7. And those people aren't likely to care what your little circular is saying. They're going to cross-reference the item against amazon, google reviews of the product, and tweet their friends about whether or not they should get one. Of whatever it is.

So in the meantime, if you're interested in not getting a bunch of junk mail that you then have to recycle (you are recycling it, right?), you should check out this site, catalog choice. Catalog Choice is a non-profit, FREE service that will stop the junk catalogs for you. They do request a donation, which is tax deductible, but it is totally not mandatory. And you can even check off a little box saying why you don't want the catalog any more (see? if you check off "help the environment," then the company knows you don't hate them; you just don't need a piece of mail to remind you to go shopping. 'Cause we all care about the feelings of companies.)

I love when I can not pay other people to remove random crap from my life, don't you?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Our trip to Europe, Part I

I know, I know! I've done a totally terrible job with blogging about the trip Captain America and I took to Europe way back in March! And, I've spent the last two weeks trying to get the formatting of this post to look normal, but I'm being thwarted by blogger. So I'm posting it anyway. Please excuse the mess.
Our friend Kim, hostess extraordinaire in Switzerland, summarized our week there pretty well, so if you want the short version, just read what she has to say, as I apparently can't edit out details. But if you've been reading this blog, you already knew this.
We left San Diego very early in the morning on March 16, to arrive in Zurich very early in the morning on March 17. Thankfully, Kim and her daughter had a play date or something and we were able to sleep for about three hours before our tour of Zurich.

I don't know why this picture is so small, but here we are, all ready to walk down the hill to Zurich.

We stopped in a park overlooking the city, where we saw the obligatory old men playing chess.

We went to the Beyer Museum of watches. The museum was small and nice, but it would have been better if the signs were in English. (Or, I suppose, if I could read Swissgerman.)

We turned down an alley and found a beautiful frozen fountain.

We also went to some lovely churches, the Fraumunster and the Grossmunster. The Grossmunster was founded in the 9th century by Charlemagne, and had a lovely crypt. Yes, I'm weird and creepy like that.
And Kim took us to a Schnapperie! Mmmm....schnapps!

And then it was time to go home. We were tired kids!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Yogurt Making

I started making my own yogurt. It's really easy, and way cheaper than buying the stuff in the store. You have to make "plain" yogurt. But homemade plain yogurt isn't nearly as gross as the store bought kind.

My first batch tasted kinda pickle-y. Mostly that's because I used a pickle jar to make the yogurt. I washed it first, but somehow it still made the yogurt pickle-y. The second batch turned out much better.

I still haven't totally figured out what to put in my yogurt. My friend, who gave me the recipe, suggested vanilla and honey. I think somehow vanilla gets stronger the longer it sits in the yogurt, because I put about a teaspoon in my bowl last night, stirred it around, and tasted it. It still tasted pretty plain to me. But when I tried it at work today, boy was it vanilla-y! I also make my own fruit sauce by blending frozen fruit with jelly in my magic bullet. Mmm! There's nothing like extra-sweet fruit to balance out the otherwise nutritious yogurt. I wouldn't want to get too carried away with the healthy food!

If you think store bought yogurt is too expensive, or if you're annoyed that you can't actually recycle those stupid #5 yogurt tubs, or both, I think you should try making your own!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On Sympathy

I have a friend who recently suffered a devastating loss. I learned about it from a mutual friend. After this mutual friend told me what happened, I asked "What do I say to her the next time I see her?" The friend suggested: Nothing.

We discussed the pros and cons of saying nothing. On the one hand, I wanted to acknowledge my friend's loss, offer sympathy, and let her know that if she needed something I was there for her. On the other hand, I didn't want to reopen wounds that may have been healing, I didn't want to appear callous by bringing up a topic that, by all rights, she owned, and I didn't want to hurt her.

Some people manage to offer sympathy with such graciousness and concern that the hurting party can't help but feel better. I am, unfortunately, not one of those people. I've heard people say "you look tired" in a way that asks "what can I do to help?" When I say "you look tired," it sounds like, "you look awful." Maybe my eyes don't look concerned, or maybe my forehead doesn't wrinkle in an understanding sort of way, or maybe my tone of voice is too flat. I have no idea (if you do, please tell me!). No matter how hard I try, I fail to sound sympathetic. I even have a hard time writing sympathy cards.

So what did I do for my friend? I tried praying. No, really. (Captain America asked, "why aren't you sleeping?" and I said, "I'm trying to pray for my friend, but it's not going well.") Captain America has been known to pray on occasion. Or maybe frequently. It always surprises me, but he stopped talking, so maybe he did something useful like pray that my praying would go better.

I've read of numerous studies that suggest that people with serious diseases, like cancer, heal faster when people are praying for them, even if they don't know the people are praying for them. This is going to seem like a random tangent, but I'm currently reading The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (I know, I know, don't groan! Sometimes I just want to read something that is ridiculous entertainment, no matter how far-fetched!). The book discusses a type of science called Noetic Science. (And wikipedia verifies it's existence, so how's that for being legit?)

I've always wondered how exactly praying helped someone here. On Earth. Noetic Science suggests that all human thoughts actually have weight and can affect physical things. So if I think hard enough about your cancer dying, it will. Yeah, I'm not sure I buy that.

My prayer theory, while probably not particularly unique, is more pragmatic. I figure, if you've got people you don't know praying for you, then you've probably also got people you do know praying for you. And if these people are actually concerned, they should be doing more than just praying. They should be making sure your kids have a ride home from the soccer game, or they should be arranging play dates so your wife doesn't have to drag them to your chemo sessions, or they should be mowing your lawn so your husband doesn't have to remember to do it, or they should be picking up some milk at the store for your family, since they'd be going to the store anyway. And, in my theory, because you have all of these people remembering to take care of your life and your family, you have more brain space to think about what you need to do to get better. Because you don't have to worry about the details of every day life, you can use that energy to focus on physical therapy, or whatever it is you're supposed to be doing to heal.

In a nutshell, I figure people who have people praying for them probably have a pretty good support group of family and friends, making it easier to weather life's major storms.

On a plane ride, I read an article written by a man who lost his daughter abruptly to some strange heart condition. He and his wife immediately moved to their son-in-law's to help raise their grandkids. The man said a few weeks after they arrived, the nanny, who had emigrated from a third world country, said "You are not the first people to have this happen, and you are better able to handle it than most." The man said this was a very comforting thought. (Apparently the nanny had that sympathetic manner; I'm pretty sure if I said that to someone, it would sound harsh. It sounded harsh when I first read it.)

I know my friend is not the first to suffer the particular tragedy from which she is currently recovering. I also know that she is better off than many who have endured it: she has a loving husband, concerned friends, and access to good medical care and therapy should she need it.

I'm going to follow the advice of saying nothing, unless my friend brings up the topic first. I'm going to continue to flounder through praying for her. I'm not sure how exactly it's going to help her, but I'm pretty sure it won't make matters worse. For the mean time, that's the best I think I can do to help her.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Validating my checklist neurosis!

I am in a Linkedin group called Coffee with Soma. We meet once a month, and are led by my MBA marketing professor, Dr. Soma. Soma is his first name, his last name, and his nickname. It's sort of complicated, and he explained it in class one day. He's Indian, and his name is quite long, but it starts with "Soma" which I guess means "sun" in Hindu, or something like that, and he liked the idea of his name meaning "sun", so he goes by Soma. Right. Good thing I clarified all of that.

I really enjoy the group. It's sort of like my bookclub, but without the book. We usually read an article or something, so we have a basis of our discussion. The group allows me to get together with a bunch of other intelligent people and talk about something other than our jobs, without having to formally network. I don't feel the pressure of presenting myself in these meetings. Anyone who's survived the standard display of MBA networking events knows how exhausting it is to constantly speak positively about the MBA experience, and how it's shaping your life, and what you hope to do with it, and how you're now empowered to be an agent of positive business change, and what you bring to the table, and how you really enjoy meeting other business professionals, and blah blah blah. And at some point, you're trying to be bright and cheery and wonderful and impressive, and you realize no one has said anything interesting to you all night, no matter who you engage in conversation, and you'd much rather be home in your jammies reading some chick lit. THANKFULLY, Coffee with Soma has none of that nonsense in it.

In our April meeting, we used Atul Gawande's article, The Checklist, as the basis of our discussion. Basically, the article discusses how Dr. Peter Pronovost studied the affects of checklists in ICUs and discovered that using basic checklists brought down the rates of infections significantly.

I've already written a post about how I'm trying to use electronic checklists at work to save paper. A friend, in response to that post, suggested I check out remember the milk. I've found it sort of useful at work, although for work it doesn't really do anything more than what my task manager in outlook does. Or at least, as I use the tool. So I'm undecided as to whether or not it's actually useful, or if it's just one more thing for me to do. At any rate, clearly I'm a fan of checklists.

Our discussion ran the gamut from how useful we found checklists to be, to whether or not they stifled creativity (I say no!). Then we moved into the more philosophical questions of, how much do we need to be doing?, and why are we so obsessed with always being busy?

This is one I struggle with myself.

On one hand, there's a lot of stuff I want to do and get done. I don't think Captain America and I would have done nearly as much as we did on either our trip to Egypt, or to Switzerland and Italy if I hadn't bothered to make lists of what we wanted to do, when museums were open, and what were priorities. I can say this with a fair amount of confidence, as I did very little planning before my trip to Rio de Janeiro, and consequently, I felt like I didn't fully experience Brazil.

On the other hand, I (and probably most of us) spend a good deal of time doing things that have very little value for me. Blow drying my hair, for example. Seriously. If I actually want to walk out of my house after a shower with dry hair, it's at least a 15 minute project. I have short, but moderately thick hair. Personally, I have no problem with showing up at work with wet hair. I don't interact with the public, so it's not like looking good is going to help me sell more stuff. Whether or not my hair is wet has no bearing on how well I do my job. But it looks unprofessional. I don't want to appear unprofessional. I want to be promotable. To what, I'm not even sure yet, but I'd hate for someone to make a negative assumption about my professionalism due to my wet hair. I know how petty that sounds, but the reality is, looks do matter. So I blow dry my hair.

I use to-do lists for a variety of reasons. They help me remember stuff. They help me sift through the important and unimportant stuff. They allow me to think better: since I don't have to remember everything, I can actually focus on what I need to be thinking about. But lately, I've also started thinking about why I'm doing something. I'm hoping that by learning which items have good answers to that question and which ones don't, I can eliminate the to-dos that have somehow become a part of my life but don't actually add value to it.

That should make me happier, more relaxed, and give me more time for...blow drying my hair?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Part II of journaling about what I eat

You may recall that I published a post about how I was getting fat and started a daily journal about what I eat. As it turns out, what I eat isn't that interesting, even to me. I dutifully kept the journal for the entire month of April and I learned basically nothing I didn't already know. I can put my weight gain/loss issues into three categories: drinks with calories, desserts, and eating in restaurants.

I did manage to lose about three pounds in April, so that's the good news. I think it was more due to trying to eat less than due to any benefit of writing down what I was eating. So, in confronting May, and what I still wanted to do about my weight, because it really is bikini season here now, I've decided on a couple of things.

First, I'm not going to give up drinks with calories. Every morning I have a little glass of orange juice and a cup of tea with breakfast. I refuse to participate in a diet that says no to orange juice. And I really, really like tea. Every time I try to give it up, it makes me sad. I also drink hot chocolate. I've decided that this doesn't count as a drink because milk is actually digested as if it were food. Which leaves alcohol. As Captain America points out, I don't even drink alcohol that much.

Second, I've decided I'm going to abide by that chef's dessert rule (I wish I could remember his name, but, alas, names don't really stick with me). Anyway, there's a chef who says you can have as much dessert as you want as long as you make it yourself. I think he says from scratch. Which is what I nearly always do anyway, with the exception of Captain America's favorite, the tunnel of fudge cake, which calls for a boxed cake mix and then you dump in a bunch of stuff to make it even better. I could probably figure out how to make it from scratch. I guess the idea is that, first of all, who has time to make desserts from scratch all that often? Secondly, I know if I'm going to go through the trouble of making a dessert, I'm not going to inhale it like I might a pint of Haagen Dazs. And finally, I share my desserts, so I'm not going to eat the whole thing anyway.

So now we're on to eating in restaurants. I'm not a fan of the idea of having to eat "healthy" food in a restaurant. If I wanted a salad with grilled chicken, I'd stay home. That's the kind of meal we're likely to make for dinner. We don't make gigantic greasy cheeseburgers in our house. That's the sort of treat I like to have in a restaurant. I'm not giving up enjoying a meal in a restaurant. The most I can say is that I'm going to make a conscious decision not to eat everything on my plate.

So what am I going to do? What I'd like to do is get back to running 15-20 miles a week. Right now, I'm at just under 10, so I should be there by the fall. Unfortunately, that's not bikini season. I'm already putting in five to six exercise sessions a week, and I fail to see how I can add another one or two without giving up something else I enjoy, like reading or sleeping. So I've decided to add a daily walk. You always read about how walking is a great way to lose weight (although I think if I gave up running and took up walking it would actually be a step backwards). Also, walking is supposed to boost happiness, and create mental peacefulness (or something fluffy like that). Finally, and this is the big thing for me, walking won't be like exercise. Mostly because I don't need to wrangle myself into a sports bra and spandex shorts to do it. Having to change my clothes several times a day is decidedly the most annoying thing about exercising for me. (I'm still not brave enough to wear yoga pants to work, despite not actually having a dress code).

I know you'll all be waiting with bated breath to find out how this walking thing works out for me, so I'll be sure to keep you posted (pun intended!).