Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Having been exposed to the investment industry my whole life, and after having a brief career as an equity analyst for a buy side (i.e., money manager not securities broker) investment firm, I feel like I have the knowledge and the comfort level that allows me to feel good about taking control of managing my investment portfolio on my own.  Not having the convenience of being exposed daily to the market news, insider information, analyst reports, etc. anymore, I admit that my level of comfort has diminished slightly.  How do I combat that feeling and still maintain my investment portfolio?  I follow the advice that I give my friends when they are thinking of taking the leap from paying for a financial manager (e.g., Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, etc.) and being their own manager, setting up accounts at Schwab, eTrade, etc.:

If you don't have the time to invest in doing your due diligence to research a company and do a complete financial valuation to discover its intrinsic value in comparison to the current market price, then spend what time you do have discovering smart people who make it their business to do the research for you and have a proven long-term track record of success.  In other words, find a few mutual funds you like that fit your risk preferences, investigate the manager's performance, and do some research into their top holdings and trading patterns.  But before you do that, I suggest reading up on the basics of personal finance and investing.

There are hundreds of books out there professing that they have the answer to get rich quick.  Well, the reality is that in today's world, winning in the market is extremely challenging because of the volume of trading being done on a daily basis, the speed at which information is being delivered, and the unpredictable momentum shifts due to news events -- rational and irrational.  It is very difficult to find a competitive advantage as an individual investor!  Especially when you're busy working your own job trying to make the money you plan to invest, right??  The best thing to do is to give yourself a little leg up by simply knowing what you're talking about, even on an entry-level basis.  I suggest that you consider reading some of the original books written by the Motley Fool - an Alexandria, VA based company started by two brothers, David and Tom Gardner.  Specifically, I suggest the following two books:



The Motley Fool also runs a good website with insightful commentary.  This is a great way to get close to the institutional-level equity analysis available to Wall Street money managers, often times without the bias.  My favorite aspect of these books and the website is that everything is written in layman's terms as much as possible, so you shouldn't feel intimidated by the topics.  There are other great books out there too - The Warren Buffet Way by Robert Hagstrom was one of my first and favorites!

So now you have the basics, or maybe not, but you're better off than you were before, right?  So here are some facts and definitions.

Definitions from Investopedia interlaced with my own comments:


Index Fund  - A type of mutual fund with a portfolio constructed to match or track the components of a market index, such as the Standard & Poor's 500 Index (S&P 500). An index mutual fund is said to provide broad market exposure, low operating expenses and low portfolio turnover. "Indexing" is a passive form of fund management that has been successful in outperforming most actively managed mutual funds in the long run. 

Actively Managed Mutual Fund - A portfolio of stocks that are maintained by a single manager, co-managers or a team of managers, to actively manage a fund's portfolio. Active managers rely on analytical research, forecasts, and their own judgment and experience in making investment decisions on what securities to buy, hold and sell.  In general, funds typically charge an annual fee for assets under management (a management fee) that may range from 0-2%.  In addition, some funds may charge an upfront fee, or commission (load fund) at the time of purchase, or a back-end fee (back-end load) upon sale of the investment.  Performance fees are usually only found on hedge funds, for example a "2 and 20" or 2% annual fee for assets under management plus 20% of profits over the last high watermark.  Too many terms to remember in that last piece of info, well don't worry because unless you're a high net worth client, you're opportunities to invest directly in a hedge fund are limited due to very high minimum investment requirements.  One final note for mutual funds are the "hidden costs" due to active management of a portfolio - or turnover.  Just as you would incur a fee every time you trade a stock on eTrade, mutual funds pay their brokerage fees, albeit at more discounted rates for volume.  Turnover is very important because if a portfolio is being bought and sold frequently - anything over 100% to me is a red flag - then all those brokerage fees are cutting directly into your fund performance.  These are not costs absorbed by the management!  So be careful!  Historically, only a small percentage of actively managed funds have beat the market in the long term, so it pays to do your research and find a manager that has a demonstrated track record for returns, buy, and hold.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) - A security that tracks an index, a commodity or a basket of assets like an index fund or portfolio of stocks from a particular industry, but trades like a stock on an exchange. ETFs experience price changes throughout the day as they are bought and sold. Because it trades like a stock, an ETF does not have its net asset value (NAV) calculated every day like a mutual fund does.  By owning an ETF, you get the diversification of an index fund as well as the ability to sell short, buy on margin and purchase as little as one share. Another advantage is that the expense ratios for most ETFs are lower than those of the average mutual fund. When buying and selling ETFs, you have to pay the same commission to your broker that you'd pay on any regular order.  ETFs are a great way to buy an index fund with the flexibility of a stock!  In particular, I like that there is a way to purchase a group of stocks, for example Property & Casualty Insurers, identified by a particular industry if you feel particularly bullish on that industry.   The recent news can't stop talking about the price of gold going up and up and up!  Of course this is due to people retreating from cash and securities, replacing it with the safety and security of a tangible commodity during recessionary times.  Well, if you had purchased a Gold ETF, such as the Gold SPDR (GLD), your 5-year return against the Dow and S&P indexes would have looked a little like this:



Hindsight is cruel!  But now you know that the option is out there to create a "concentrated diversification," if there is such a thing because I just made the term up, by buying this basket of industry or commodity-based stocks.  Just note that any form of concentration adds risk. 

Alright, so now you are armed with some key definitions.  Here are the 3 steps you may want to take to assess money managers when you've made the decision to add an actively managed fund to your portfolio.

(1) Know who you are buying: Two fantastic websites are Morningstar and Guru Focus.  Guru Focus compiles the activities and performance of some of the BEST money managers in the industry with a wide variety of investment styles -- Buffett, Nygren, Soros, Berkowitz, Russo, Klarman, etc.  I like to go on the site to see what these guys have been up to with their new buys, portfolio adds, and portfolio reductions.  The great thing about this site is that it provides you with a list of successful fund managers that you can use to begin researching on Morningstar because many of these funds are available to purchase and have low barriers to entry (or minimum investments), unless of course you're desire is to purchase a Berkshire Hathaway Class A share!! (Pssst...BRK Class B shares are the same thing, just approx. 1/1500th the value of a Class A)

(2) Do your homework:  Just because you're buying a portfolio of stocks managed by someone else doesn't absolve you from doing some work.  Go into Morningstar and run a search or find a specific fund by it's ticker symbol.    For example, let's look at Fairholme's (FAIRX) front page:

 
Things to consider: 
  • Yield:  What is the portfolio's dividend yield from it's assets under management?  If you are looking for investment income, this may be a deciding factor.  Dividends are taxable, in most cases.
  • Expense Ratio:  Here is how much you have to pay, annually, for the privilege of receiving the management services of Mr. Bruce Berkowitz.  In this case, the management fee is 1% of assets under management, or the value of your investment in the fund.
  • Turnover:  How often are stocks being bought and sold?  Higher turnover means higher expense to you!  Also, a high turnover hints that there may be some momentum investing taking place, capitalizing on short-term movements in the market, and that the manager may be skipping some steps in the due diligence department in order to grab on to this momentum.  Hedge fund managers like to play with their money this way, with turnover rates that could exceed 1000%.  That means they have bought and sold 10x the value of their portfolio!!  All on your dime!  Thank you Mr. Berkowitz for not playing with my money, with your sensible 27% turnover.
  • Minimum Investment: Self explanatory.
  • Category: Weighted average market cap of the fund and investment style.
  • Performance: LONG TERM returns!!!  Make sure to look at the long term, or 10-year return, for the fund.  Short term returns have so many other factors that may not accurately reflect the fund manager's abilities.  For instance, the fund may have had one of it's top holdings collapse due to an unpredictable event - think AIG, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Enron, etc.  The fundamentals may have been there, the extensive due diligence may have been performed, corporate management may have been interviewed personally, but there was that one trigger and a market momentum (mania) took over that completely killed the fund's performance one year.  
  • Risk Measures:  Is this in line with your risk preference?  Usually people who are some distance from retirement can tolerate a higher risk portfolio
  • Style Map: What is the makeup of the portfolio?  Is the fund particularly exposed to a market cap group or investment style that may indicate a risk spectrum preference (e.g., deep value, core value, core, core growth, high growth), where growth suggests higher risk compared to value.
  • Top Holdings:  What are you getting for your money?  How much of the portfolio is exposed to the performance of the top 5 holdings?  What are these companies?  Do you recognize them?  Maybe you should do some quick research into them because, after all, when you buy the mutual fund, you are essentially becoming part-owner of these companies.
  • Top Sectors: Is the portfolio concentrated in one particular sector that may put overall fund performance at risk if the sector was to underperform?
  • Asset Allocation: How is the money being invested?  Is it balanced with a good portion in cash or bonds?  Is the portfolio exposed to non-US securities?  
  • Management:  Who is the fund manager?  How long has he been associated with the fund?  Can you attribute the 10-year return to the manager?  In the case of FAIRX, Berkowitz has been managing the fund since 1999, so the answer is yes!

(3) Continue doing your homework:  It doesn't hurt to learn more!  Keep researching, find other funds you like, treat your investment portfolio like you do your teeth -- make it a habit to be involved in maintaining its health.  Unless, of course, you think Austin Powers is sexy...yeah, baby!

So there it is!  My thoughts on basic investing on your own, without a financial advisor.  Of course, everything here was written with the caveats that: (a) I am not a professional investment advisor; (b) I am not certified in giving advice on financial planning; (c) I do have a background in finance,  and I performed equity analysis and delivered buy/sell recommendations for stocks in the consumer discretionary and healthcare industries in my prior career; (d) while I may or may not own shares of FAIRX, for the purposes of this blog it was only used it as an example of how to read a fund statistics page off of Morningstar and not as an investment idea - do your own research, geez!; and (e) everything else I missed that could get me in trouble.  Fortunately, I don't think many people will read this, and those that do are my friends who have probably already asked me the question I'm trying to answer with this blog.

Finally - good luck!

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2011 by Julie

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Recently, I've been really into event-driven travel to inspire me.  So, when I made the decision to return to Paris, after not visiting for 10 years, to attend the first two days of the 2010 French Open, I also realized that, having already been to Paris several times, I didn't want to spend a lot of time there.  In the spirit of my New Years resolution to visit two new countries, Prague became Stop #2 on this European adventure!

First and best tip for Prague, because it applies to other European travel as well:

Sandeman's New Europe Tours

The is the greatest way to orient yourself to a new city AND IT'S FREE!!!  The English speaking guides, often ex-pats from the UK or US who are abroad teaching the language and supplementing their salaries with these tours, are very energetic and full of stories.  Sometimes, I question the facts (on a recent Madrid tour), but there's no better way to get a compete highlight tour in just 3 hours.  The guides all work on tips, so you pay them the amount you think the tour was worth.  I think I gave my guide €10.  I opted to join the morning tour that meets in Old Town Square because I knew that it was likely I would choose to stay and take the Castle Tour (€12 + optional tip) that immediately followed the Free Tour.

Highlights:
Old Town Square Architecture
Death Ringing the Bell of the Astronomical Clock 
Astronomical Clock Chiming on the Hour
Padlock Love Bridge
John Lennon Wall
View from the Prague Castle



Between those two walking tours and my required authentic pilsner at dinner (from Wikipedia: Pilsner is a type of pale lager. It takes its name from the city of Pilsen (Plzeň), Bohemia, in the Czech Republic, where it has been developed since 1842, when a bottom-fermented beer was first produced.), I was exhausted and headed back to my B&B near the Old Town Square for the night.  No Sandeman's Pub Crawl for me - a girl has her limits! 


For Day 2, I opted for the weird...and macabre.  First, at my cousin's suggestion, I paid a visit to Fred and Ginger, another Frank Gehry monstrosity called "The Dancing House."




Then I went to meet up for, yet again, another Sandeman's tours to Kutna Hora.  This destination was actually a suggestion given to me by a work colleague that, coincidentally, was an offered tour that I, of course, jumped on!  After taking the train and a local bus, the first official stop on the tour was not for the easily disgusted - the Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the Bone Church.  Aside from the foundational structure of the building, everything decorative on the inside was made from the bones of exhumed skeletons of plague victims!  This chandelier, in particular, includes at least one of every 206 bones in the human body. 



The remainder of the tour was spent wandering through the historical town of Kutna Hora, listening to stories of when the town was one of the wealthiest in the region due to its extensive silver mining operations.  

So, if you needed proof that you could easily see a vast majority of this Bohemian gem of the Czech Republic in less than 3 days, here it is!  Thanks to Sandeman's, of course!  Like their guides, I make nothing for referencing their company....but you can always "tip" me with a nice comment if you benefited from my experience, or just liked the photos!  Finally, I leave you with this Kafka statue....man on shoulders of man with no head...or however you want to interpret it.



Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2011 by Julie

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Monday, August 29, 2011

* Update 9/2015: Some details may be outdated as much has changed in Iceland since I went.  I have updated links and tour names.

When I decided to go to Iceland in 2009, a lot of people asked me why??  Of course, now it is a super popular destination as Iceland Air adds flights.  Back then, I had started to follow a travel expert on Twitter, Stephanie Michaels, also known as Adventure Girl.  I also read her book for independent travel ideas for women.  In one of her twitter posts, she referenced an article she wrote for the Huffington Post that highlighted the top 12 things she loves about Iceland.  I love to take advantage of three day weekends, and this sounded perfect for a little 4 day/3 nighter.  At the time, Iceland Air flew out of Boston on a red eye, so just a quick hop up there, and the adventure would begin!  The good news is that now Iceland Air has a direct flight out of Washington DC Dulles airport.  Perfect for a return trip!  


I emailed Stephanie on her website for advice on how to see everything in such a short amount of time.  She suggested I contact Villie, a private guide that picks you up from your hotel in Reykjavik and designs the perfect tour for you and the things you want to see.  He's a little expensive, but if you do your research, you'll find out that rental cars and gas tend to be expensive too.  And the tour buses that do the Golden Triangle highlights are ok, but you don't get the flexibility and the personalized experience.  Part of my personalization ended up being a session of singing Beatles tunes in the car!  


At the time of this trip, I was also doing some indoor rockclimbing, so the obvious thing to do in Iceland was to go for a glacier hike that included some ice climbing.  I arranged for a group tour through Arctic Adventures - the Blue Ice Tour to be exact.  


With the planning all done, all I needed to do to start my adventure was to get on my AirTran flight at BWI and get my butt up to Boston to catch my connector!  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different plan.  My flight was delayed for hours, and by the time I would board my flight in Baltimore, my Iceland Air flight would be taking off.  Hmmmm, that wasn't going to work.  I rebooked my flight for noon the next day, knowing that if it left on time I was going to be stuck at Logan airport for several hours, but at least I knew I would be on the plane.  


So now a 3 1/2 day trip has turned into a 2 1/2 day trip.  Time to call up my super travel powers! Missing that first day was "okay" in that it was planned for a relaxing walking tour of Reykjavik. Without that cushion, I arrived at Keflavik Airport at 6:30am.  I didn't have to meet up for the glacier trek until 9am.  I took the Flybus to my hotel - Hotel Fron.  They were so nice at my hotel - let me check in early AND did not charge me for the missed night.  Quick shower and I'm off!


The BEST part of traveling on organized tours is that you get to meet some great people.  On my glacier hike were three very friendly people from Malta and a Canadian, also amazing.  First stop was Sólheimajökull Glacier.





Once we got up on top of the glacier, it was time to adapt my rockclimbing skills and tackle the ice wall with my crampons and ice picks.  Let me tell you, it's a lot more exhausting to climb when you have to dig your shoes in to create your path up the wall, and even more exhausting when you have to hammer your ice picks every few feet (about 3 whacks), only to grip it and pull yourself up.  Surprisingly, I was doing really well and on my way to reaching the top.  It was taking a little extra effort to go around an ice shelf, but I was getting there.  Then I had an "uh oh" moment.  No! Not that kind of "uh oh!"  As I pushed on my right foot, my boot felt loose, but I kept at it. Then when I needed it the most to get over this lip, my shoe failed, flipped off, then rolled to the bottom of the wall!!!  There I am, near the top, dug in on the left foot, pink sock quickly getting soaked on the cold ice on the right foot.  Oh well, I almost had it!!

  
Also part of the tour were stops at some incredible waterfalls!
Skogafoss
Seljalandsfoss
Remembering I had lost a day of travel, it was time to kick up the energy and do all of Reykjavik in a few hours.  Of course, I'm such a talented travel planner that I could not have been in a better place for an evening tour --  July in Iceland means it's daylight until 11:30pm!!!!!  All of these photos were taken at 8:00 at night or later!  







The next morning, Villie picked me up outside my hotel, and we were off to check off all of the Golden Triangle highlights - waterfalls, geysers, intercontinental divides (where Europe meets North America), and horny Icelandic horses.  Ok, maybe the horny horses were not on the Golden Triangle.  See, I told you private guides give you flexibility!

Pingvellir National Park
Geyser eruption but not Geysir, instead Strokkur next to Geysir


Faxi




Gullfoss
To cap off the long day of driving and sightseeing, I asked Villie to drop me off at the Blue Lagoon.  The Blue Lagoon is a large geothermal pool that has been turned into a spa.  People will go there, adults and children alike, and just soak in the mineral-enriched, naturally heated pool.  If you are not embarrassed easily, you can slather your face up with the mud mask sludge provided to you in buckets on the pool's edge.  You know I did it!  The only drawback to a geothermal pool, of course, is the slight scent of rotten eggs.  But then again, that smell permeates the air all over Iceland.




Day 2 was, yet again, a long day!  So, for my last day, I only planned one thing - a boat trip out to the puffin islands, because those birds are oh so cute.  Did I say I did just one thing?  Of course I also included a little shopping.  I had to get a fleece and fun winter hat from 66°North because their logo is such a great conversation starter.  






That's it!!!  Iceland's  Reykjavik and outskirts highlights in 2 1/2 days!  I know, I'm a miracle worker!  The next time I head up to Iceland, I've decided that it must happen in the early fall, so I can see the Northern Lights, but not freeze my butt off and have barely any daylight.  I've been to Alaska before in the winter, and it's a strange experience.  

Posted on Monday, August 29, 2011 by Julie

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

This past July, I finally returned to explore the rest of Spain.  My only other time in this fantastic country was back in my college backpacking days when I spent a few days in Barcelona.  This time, I was going to hit all the major hot spots, but actually, the original inspiration for this destination was experiencing, first-hand, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.  Back in January, when I started my research, I stumbled upon a website that offered balcony rentals for the bull run and VIP packages.  One look at the view from the opening ceremonies balcony, and I was sold!  The best balconies, a top hotel in Old Town Pamplona, AND the profits from the week all went to fund philanthropic activities in Peru.  Too good to be true??  I thought so!  But everything was as advertised and more!  If you ever want to experience THIS:



you must check out Mark Regouby and Pamplona Balconies.

While Pamplona was the original inspiration, it actually was only one of many stops on our fantastic driving tour that included Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Rhonda, Costa del Sol, Granada, Toledo, Pamplona, and La Rioja wine region.  



Highlights of the trip:  

Cordoba - You really only need a quick day trip to explore the must-see site: Mesquita.  Fantastic moorish architecture!  Warning, watch out for gypsies!!  One of our memorable stories from the trip was trying to find parking in Cordoba, getting help from a good samaritan, only to realize said good samaritan was holding a diaperless baby and was probably going to empty out our car while we toured the city.

Mesquite

Seville - One of the few European cities in which I could imagine myself living.  Cute, quaint, quiet, lovely.  Highlight of the city: Seville Bike Tour -  cheap way to tour more of the city AND get a nice breeze on a hot day.  Must see: Alcazar, flamenco dance.


Alhambra in Granada - Amazing mudejar architecture!  Breathtaking, picture postcard gardens!





Pamplona - Imagine what you would get when you combine Mardi Gras and Preakness infield....that's the San Fermin festival in Pamplona.  We arrived the night before the Txupinazo - Opening Ceremonies and wandered around the city like little girls, pretending to be bulls running down Calle Estafeta into the bull ring.  Alas, we had no idea what we were going to witness over the next few days - the crudest of behaviors that come along with excessive alcohol consumption: women lifted up in a crowd to expose themselves and public urination everywhere (that smell is still seared in my brain).  We heeded the warning of our organizer to arrive early to our balcony on opening ceremonies morning.  Already a crowd had started to gather and the sangria, flour, mustard, whatever was being thrown.  By noon, when the mayor made the announcement, rockets were fired, and scarves were wrapped around necks, the crowd was packed like sardines in the square in front of town hall.  Looking from our balcony five floors above, it was like observing a live physics inertia experiment, as one person's shove became a wave of movement.  And the noise!! That day, I lost the battle and my new white dress became a victim of someone's jumbo glass of sangria.


The next day, we got up early to make our way to "Dead Man's Corner" by 6:30am, where our 2nd floor balcony was awaiting our arrival.  Once the streets had been cleaned and the drunks had been rounded up from the course, the bulls were let loose at 8am.  To say we saw the bulls for 30 seconds may be overstating the facts.  I think we saw people panicking for 30 seconds, running around the corner, but only saw the bulls for 10 seconds.
Drunk Round Up

10 Seconds of Bulls on Dead Man's Corner
For the rest of the day, we did whatever we could to avoid the unshowered drunks, many of whom slept in parks and on urine soaked streets over night, if they slept at all.  That evening, we made our way to the bull ring to experience our first bull fight.  My friend had shown me photos and videos, so I thought I was prepared for the blood.  The introduction of the toreros (matadors), bandarillas, and picadores, was rich with tradition.  The "pep bands" in the audience were a fun surprise!  When the first bull fight commenced, I was trying my best to embrace the cultural aspect of the event because without that approach, it would just appear to be cruel.  For the most part, I was impressed with the structure of the fight and the talent exhibited by one matador in particular.  Nothing could have prepared me, though, for the picador spearing the bull for the first time or for the final death of the bull.  Then, there was the ear that was cut off as a trophy to one matador.  Ew!!  In the end, I'm glad I went and "checked that box"!  That's what adventure is all about - sometimes it's a one time event, and other times it's a lifelong repeated experience.  Now I possess the knowledge to discuss all three stages of a spanish bull fight.  Crossing my fingers that question is somewhere in the Trivial Pursuit box!





La Rioja - To complete our trip, we reached for the opposite spectrum of sophistication, going from drunken chaos to classy wine tasting in the La Rioja wine region.  Stopping to explore the castle in Olite and the alleyways of Laguardia, we ended up in the very small town of Abalos.  See my review of the B&B here.  We had the opportunity to take a private tour of the environmentally friendly Baigorri bodega (winery) and Marques de Riscal's historical winery next to a Frank Ghery designed hotel.  




Posted on Sunday, August 28, 2011 by Julie

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One of the greatest things to come from 2011 is the expansion of the Groupon, LivingSocial, etc. websites.  If you are dying for something to do that is, perhaps, out of your comfort zone or circle of competence,  I highly suggest keeping an eye on these group discount sites.

Because of Groupon, I finally got behind the wheel of a racing vehicle.  Yes, it wasn't my first choice of vehicle types (NASCAR? Me?  I'm more of an open wheel racer!) or tracks (short oval...quick left, quick left, quick left, quick left), but oh my gosh was it fun!  I also had an amazing instructor in the car with me that gave me the push I needed to really get the car up to speed.  I did have to resort to deep breathing exercises on the turns and the words "the car will stick...it's made for downforce" on repeat in my brain the whole ride.  Watch the video of me as I take my 8 laps around Richmond International Speedway.   Needless to say, I don't think I'll be getting an offer to join the NASCAR circuit next year.  I don't care, it was a spectacular experience.  Only disappointment....I forgot to do my Ricky Bobby "I'm on fire, help me Tom Cruise!" routine!!  

If you're into racing, I've seen several of these driving experiences on the discount sites over the past year.  Or if racing isn't your thing, but you're still an adrenalin junkie, keep an eye out for other types of offers to try new things.

If risk-taking isn't your cup of tea, there are plenty of intro experiences you can try.  Some of the groupons I am planning on cashing in soon are: wine tasting, paddleboarding on the Potomac, Segs in the City segway tour (blog post will come in September!), go-karting, and Intro to Beer class!  Past fun groupons: kiln glass bowl making, Blush 'n' Brush painting class, reenactment of the Battle of First Manassas/Bull Run, miniature golf and margaritas at H St. Country Club, Newseum, Capital Bacon & Beer Bash (never drink bacon soda!!), and yoga classes.

Posted on Sunday, August 28, 2011 by Julie

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So here we go!  I've started a blog!  What motivated me to do this, after all blogging has been around for years now, right?  I recently stumbled across a few blogs that have inspired me in several ways.  First one was found on a Facebook post by an old high school friend:  http://www.eatliverun.com/.  While I've printed out some of her recipes, I'm not very disciplined when it comes to cooking for myself, especially now that I'm temporarily living in a one bedroom apartment with a teeny tiny kitchen while I'm in between houses.  What inspired me about this blog was not the food, as the title would suggest.  I actually loved the macro photography she takes OF her food!  I also love her fashion ideas.  Plus, from a recent post on the blog, I found out about http://www.forgivingmartha.com/, another inspiration for me (plus, yummo baking recipies...see I'm much more of a baker than a cook).  Again, loving the photography on this blog.  So there is part of the motivation for starting my own blog.

What's the other part?  I think I've grown tired with posting empty Facebook updates.  I don't know if people even get to see them because of Zuckerberg's tricky algorithms that post on news feeds only what they think you want to see.

And the real reason for this blog (warning: tooting my own horn time) -   I do a lot of fun stuff and I'm pretty darn talented!

(1) I've traveled to a lot of places!  Most of the time on my own too!  Just take a peek at the map below!  See all that white space...that is the rest of my life right there!!  


(2) I'm a creative little gal!  I've been known to design my own greeting cards, make amazing cupcakes, decorate houses, build a coffee table from scraps of wood (it was hideous but somehow still has a home at my friend's place), paint, etc.  I still play piano (although it's in storage right now).  I'm a professional singer - if you count the amount of time spent singing in the car and shower - so going up and singing karaoke is never a dare to me...it's expected.  Along the same lines, I can also rock an amazing guitar and mic combo on RockBand for any Beatles and several Green Day songs.

Pig Roast Cupcake for Luau Themed Party
Baby Shower Cupcakes

(3) I love photography, and I've taken some pretty great photos, but I don't get my camera out enough.  This blog is going to be my inspiration.
Bull vs. Torero (Pamplona)
Xhupinazo - San Fermin Opening Ceremonies (Pamplona) 
Two of the Three Sisters (Black Butte Ranch)
Penguins at the Featherdale Wildlife Park (NSW Australia)
(4) I live my days one experience at a time.  I get out there as much as I can to try new things because the only way to really learn is to do it yourself!  In fact, these past few years, I've centered my new years resolutions on doing and learning more - past completed resolutions include improv comedy courses, dive around the world (3 continents down), learn Spanish (also in progress, but I did survive 2 weeks in Spain and came home with an authentic Spanish lisp!), try new restaurants, learn to cook the right way, learn to rock climb, hike a glacier in Iceland, run half-marathons at fun destinations, visit at least 2 new countries per year, take mini-vacays to critically fun US cities (NYC, New Orleans, LA, etc.), watch my favorite sport LIVE at the French Open and Wimbledon, drive a NASCAR, and many more!
Grand Cayman Bike Ride
New Profession - Race Car Driver
French Open 2010
So, I present to you this chronicle of how I choose to live my life, not because I want to brag about my awesomeness, but because I want to inspire people to do things, even if it's only for a day, an hour.  Or perhaps writing about my travel adventures will make you less intimidated about a particular destination, or about traveling in general, because seeing the world is ESSENTIAL, in my humble opinion!  Lastly, I'm hoping that by maintaining this blog, I will, as a result, be inspired by myself to never stop learning, living, and exploring!!  

Posted on Sunday, August 28, 2011 by Julie

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