Monday, October 17, 2011

One of my favorite authors is a very entertaining man whose work ranges from chronicling his crazy adventures in Australia or hiking the Appalachian Trail, to telling funny stories about growing up in the 1950s, or to describing a Short History of Nearly Everything.  In his latest book, At Home, he conformed to his wife's wishes, literally, and finally wrote a book from home, about the home - a room-by-room history.

But this post is not about how great Bill Bryson is as an author, in my opinion.  It's about spending a night hearing him tell some of his stories, amuse the crowd with some of his favorite excerpts, and answer a few questions about his inspirations and his writing styles.  Then, at the end, it's getting the opportunity to meet him and get my book signed as a memento from the evening.

The key to all of this happening is the Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington D.C.  While this synagogue is still an active place of worship, over the past few years it has gained a new reputation as a cultural center.  Every month the synagogue hosts many speakers, authors, politicians, and musicians.  I've had the privilege of seeing another favorite author, A.J. Jacobs, as well as Demitri Martin and Ashley Judd as they stopped in D.C. on their book tours.

I love reading, but getting the opportunity to listen to the author as they speak of their motivations, inspirations, frustrations, etc. while he/she created the book adds a whole other dimension to simply buying a book off the shelf.  For me, I feel that this is more necessary now than before because I've become apt to remove the traditional, tactile experience of reading a physical book, turning each page,  favoring the convenience of the downloaded electronic copy instead.      

A hint if you ever decide to attend an event at Sixth & I, get there when the doors open.  Especially for sold out events.  The book signing process is lengthy, and people are called to line up based on their arrival times.  In the case of tonight, the event was sponsored by Politics and Prose bookstore, another D.C. resource for author events; and, if you picked up your book copy and tickets in advance, those tickets actually had the lowest numbers and were called first.  I've waited two hours in line before because I arrived right before the event started, so I had a horrible number!  Also, if the author is popular, get ready to buy your tickets when they go on sale.  The synagogue is not large, so events sell out.  In the case of Tina Fey this past spring, tickets sold out in minutes!  I was not lucky that day.

Posted on Monday, October 17, 2011 by Julie

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

I finally made it out to the Renaissance Festival, near Annapolis, that I hear about every year.  It was definitely an entertaining experience, and visually interesting.  I had no idea what to expect, but I was not disappointed.  Many of the attendees embraced the spirit of the event and dug out elaborate and appropriate (or, more often than not, inappropriate) period costumes from their closets.  I think I saw over a dozen Jack Sparrows, and the wench seemed to be the go-to costume of the Ren Fest novices.

Costumes everywhere!
Wenches flirting with druids??
Wenches hoping for a better catch
Then there was the food!  Imagine a carnival menu.  Now imagine a carnival menu supersized!! Every food imaginable that could be fried - ice cream balls, apples, pickles, mac&cheese, etc. - or clog your heart.  And so many variations of meats on sticks, in addition to the required turkey leg.
I didn't know calzones were medieval fare!

Medieval Soft Pretzels
And the last element: the entertainment.  I saw the illusionist comedian, the improv storytellers, mimes on stilts, merry bands of musicians, and the extra creepy adult as a baby in a chair.
This "baby" was on stilts and he "pooped" Hershey kisses and "peed" yellow silly string

Teen dancers
Sword dance or LARPing warm up?

The Renaissance Festival runs on weekends from September through October.  All details can be found on the official website.  Next year, I think I'm going to have to find a costume and go again!

Posted on Sunday, October 16, 2011 by Julie


 The origin of this blog idea, to visit all of the memorial sites dedicated to the victims of September 11, 2001, came in August when I was driving around Pennsylvania going from a bachelorette party at Penn State to a wedding at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmingham, PA.  I was taking a different road back to the PA Turnpike just for change of scenery.  As I was driving along, I saw a brown sign that indicated the Memorial for Flight 93 in Shanksville was at the next exit.  In the spirit of road trips I've done in the past, I pulled off and started to follow the signs.  

The Memorial, itself, was not built, as they are still raising funds, but preparations were being made for the President's planned visit on the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11.  With nothing much to view, it was amazing to me how many people I saw that drove out of their way, like myself, to visit the site and its small makeshift museum to the victims, the events of the day, and the subsequent investigation.  Shanksville was very important for investigators because it was the only resource for flight data recorders.   

During my trip to New York in October, I made it a point to reserve tickets to visit the newly opened World Trade Center Memorial.  For security purposes, you are required to get tickets in advance through the memorial's official website, but they are free.  The memorial was very tastefully done, with the two water features occupying the former foundations of the twin towers.  I loved how the water reflected the progress of the rebuilding efforts.  

 The new 1 WTC exterior is over half way complete,  getting closer to its 105 floors and symbolic 1776 feet goal.  
1 WTC, Formerly Freedom Tower
The site looks magnificent and demonstrates, through its design, the strength and resiliency of NYC and the US.  I loved the fact that the new 4 WTC being built included, in its design, a reference to the vertical aluminum alloy beams on the twin tower facades. 

North Tower Site with 1 and 2 WFC, new 1 WTC, and Memorial Museum
The museum, unfortunately, was not complete when I visited.  I suppose it is an excuse to return.

Though I live within walking distance of the Pentagon, I have not been over there to see the completed memorial...until today.

The benches were thoughtfully designed to indicate the location of the victim that morning.  While reading the name plaque, you should be able to look up and see either the Pentagon or the sky (for the passengers).  

Ten years ago, I had just moved to Washington DC a few weeks prior to September 11th.  At the time, I was overwhelmed by how surreal that day was, watching the smoke at the Pentagon from the roof of my hotel in DC.  But no matter how I tried, I just could not find an emotional connection to the event because I didn't feel like DC was my home, and I did not know anyone in NYC nor had I been to the WTC.  I also felt that I was not being genuine adopting someone elses' actual pain or experience as my own.  It's interesting, now that time has passed and so much has changed, I've finally developed an emotional response to that day, and I'm so proud of all we, as a country, have accomplished to overcome what happened, persevere, and make things better.  And I'm happy that I was finally able to pay my respects, this year, to the people who lost their lives that day.  And now, I must go rent a copy of "Team America" by the creators of South Park, just to hear the theme song.     

Posted on Sunday, October 16, 2011 by Julie

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The inspiration for this learning adventure came from a necklace I saw at Nordstrom by Kate Spade.  As any woman reading this blog may already know, Kate Spade is a premium designer brand and has ridiculous prices for some of her products.  When I saw this necklace, I instantly loved it! 

It was trendy, yet sophisticated.  And the chunky five-strand design was over the top without being super tacky.  So as I reached for the tag, I saw that for this novelty piece, I was going to have to fork over about $150.  Yes, I have expensive taste sometimes, and I don't always show restraint, but this necklace was not worth that amount.  Coincidentally, I happened to be at Michael's soon after seeing this necklace, and the timing could not have been better.  Their beads were all on sale with and additional coupon for my entire purchase, AND they had giant black beads similar to the Kate Spade necklace.  LIGHT BULB!!!

After purchasing all of the materials I thought I needed based on logical assumptions and a few Google iPhone searches, I went home and started to piece the thing together.  Right away, I realized that this may not be as easy as I thought, and it was clear that while I'm a smart chick, I was missing a key step or two...or three.  Again, fate stepped in because while shopping around for yarn stores for my knitting projects, I found that around the corner from Fibre Space in Alexandria was a bead store, Potomac Beading Company.  And what did they offer?  Classes!  And what kind of classes were on the schedule in the next week?  Multi-strand necklaces!  Now that's what I call a plan coming together with minimal effort!!  So, I signed up for the class, figured out the missing pieces to the construction puzzle, and....voila!

Pretty darn close, right?  And for a small fraction of the cost!  The actual piece I made during class time was this pretty lime green diamond bead pattern:

So the lesson learned here is that it, literally, pays to be creative!  And now I've added another skill to my craftiness toolbox that I can reach to in the future whenever I crave an outlet for my built up creativity.

Posted on Sunday, October 16, 2011 by Julie

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

When planning a trip to Europe, I always consider the inclusion of countries or cities I have yet to visit.  For my last big trip to attend the French Open, I selected Amsterdam as one of my itinerary stops.  I had traveled all over Europe while I was in college studying abroad, doing the typical backpacking with a Eurorail pass adventure.  But contrary to what you might expect of a college student, I had no interest in going to Amsterdam at the time because I wasn't into the "coffeeshop" culture and it wasn't as preferable a destination as other cities.  Now, years later, the Netherlands were one of the last remaining European destinations on my list, as I had already slowly checked off the rest of Europe through other journeys.

Arrival in Amsterdam is very convenient, as the train is a direct shot from the airport to Central Station, then light rail trains serve the main streets.  The layout of the old part of town is very interesting, like rings on a tree.  And from a getting around and maintaining your bearings standpoint, it was super helpful.

What was even more helpful was that, once again, I joined the free tour from Sandemans to learn about the history of Amsterdam and discover the locations of key points of interest - like the widest and the narrowest bridges, the old church, the Anne Frank house, and the Jordaan district.  Not surprisingly, I also joined the Red Light District tour (paid), that followed the free tour, in order to further enhance my understanding of the history and culture of the accepted practice of legalized prostitution.  Honestly, based on what I saw, you'd have to be pretty desperate to solicit the services of those ladies, but then again it could be because I only got to see the day shift.  Maybe the night shift is better?  One interesting fact I learned on the free tour was that there's a bad practice of drunks throwing bikes into the canals after a long night at the bars and clubs, so bad that they have to dredge the canals frequently.  Sometimes the drunks don't stop at bikes but target lightweight cars instead, like Smart cars and Mini what you want with the Smart cars drunks, but leave the poor Minis alone.  Beep beep!

Neighborhood Near Red Light District
Hooks for Storage

What I immediately enjoyed during my exploration of Amsterdam was the Dutch architecture of the merchant mansions on the canals.  These 17th century townhomes can be valued at upwards of $5 million!  Of course, the price depends on the canal location and the condition of the basement and foundation, a critical requirement for withstanding the damaging impact of the surrounding waterways over time.  Like other old towns, many of the original homes bear markings of their historical past, including unique roof line shields or identifying plaques, hooks used to raise and lower stored goods to/from the attics, and front facades that have a distinguishable forward lean to prevent the goods on the hooks from damaging the buildings.  Of course any evident sideways lean is not on purpose nor desired, as it is a symbol of a damaged foundation.

Leaning Buildings

During my visit, I made sure that I stopped at the major attractions.  Anne Frank's house was top on the list, and it is strategic to plan your visit towards the opening or closing times, as the lines can be quite long and a waste of your time.  I also made sure to visit the Van Gogh museum, the most concentrated and comprehensive collection of his work.  Because I was more efficient in my touring than I expected, I also had time to go to the entertaining Heineken Experience and learn about how to properly pour a pint of their beer.

Westerkirk Near Anne Frank House
Confining my visit to the central old part of town, I thought, was not going to give me the full Netherlands experience.  Using Trip Advisor for my research, I found Joy Ride Bike Tours that offered a 4 hour tour into the surrounding countryside.  There are other bike tours and bike rental companies, but I found Joy Ride to be very entertaining and educational, plus the owner is an American, so no language barriers!   The tour takes you through the large Vondelpark, out to the farms that are below sea level and a 364 year old windmill.

The windmills were used to pump out the water in the lowlands in order to create the current farmland that remains today.  The final destination, before returning to the city, is a 400 year old working farm where you learn from the owners how they make their unpasteurized cheese (one word...SAMPLES!!!) and use traditional European industrialization-age machines to make clogs. So all you need to remember is Joy Ride Bike Tour = cheese and clogs!

In summary, Amsterdam was a great experience, and I'm glad I delayed my visit.  I feel like I really understand the history and the culture a lot better, including the coffeeshops.  If you're planning on going, I leave you with one warning:  WATCH OUT FOR BICYCLISTS!  There are more bikes per capita in the Netherlands than in any other part of the world, about one bike per person.  You need to be more aware of bikes and bike lanes than you do of cars.  It's pretty scary, and I almost got hit by one.  That being said, you could definitely tell that Amsterdam was a clean city, benefiting from the common use of bikes for commuting and the accessible public transportation.

This is titled: "I am in Amsterdam" - because I am!

Posted on Saturday, October 15, 2011 by Julie


Friday, October 14, 2011

To feed my creative spirit, I decided to expand my crafty skill set by taking a Knitting 101 class through Stitch DC in September (another Groupon, of course).  In the class, the focus was to teach the two main knitting stitches: the knit and the purl.  With these two stitches in your pocket, you can pretty much cover a wide spectrum of knitted projects, but the specific results of our efforts in this class were a scarf and a beanie hat!

Check out my chunky (garter stitch) scarf - Wildcat colors of course!!!  Wish the weather was colder for next weekend's homecoming football game.

And my beanie hat, as modeled by a very annoyed dog.  This was a hard project because of the tiny stitches on a circular needle, and what you see here is my second attempt, after ripping it completely apart halfway through the first round because I messed up my colors.

Inspired after the class was done, I put my brain and number pattern recognition skills to the test to make a waffle weave scarf for my friend:

 So what's next?  I'm planning on taking more classes at a really neat little store in Old Town Alexandria - Fibre Space (such a cute name!):  Intro to Cabling, Intro to Lace, and Knitting Techniques to help me when I screw up by adding or skipping stitches, which I tend to do often!  While I may grow tired of the time it takes to complete and the cost of the yarn for just one, relatively simple project -- oh I had many thoughts about going to Target for a $5 beanie and bringing it to class as my own -- I think I have a few more scarves left in me before I move on to learning another new skill.  I just love the challenge of improving and exploring new talents and creating beautiful things where people ask "You MADE that?" and I get to say "Yep!" 

Posted on Friday, October 14, 2011 by Julie

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy

For my book club meeting later this month, I selected "The Soldier's Wife" by Margaret Leroy based on a suggestion I read on a blog.  It's about a small British island during WWII that is occupied by German troops.  A few officers move in to a home vacated by a family who fled to London before the Germans arrived, and one officer falls in love with the married Englishwoman next door with her two daughters and mother-in-law, whose husband is a soldier in the war.  I enjoyed the story, but I'm a little worried that my fellow book clubbers won't think it's hearty enough.  But then again, the last two books we read received an all-around "meh" rating.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

So, to add an additional discussion topic, I also told the group that we should read a book suggested at the last book club meeting, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson.  It's a cute story about a single, aging parent in a small British village who is adjusting to the idea of having a crush on the shopkeeper down the road, dealing with a son who is obsessed with status and dismisses all manners as he makes shallow attempts to climb social ladders (Roger infuriated me!), and responding to the recent death of his brother while trying to compromise between his role as executor of the will and maintaining a family legacy that he values greatly.

Posted on Thursday, October 13, 2011 by Julie

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One of my new years resolutions two years ago was to join an improv comedy class.  I'm very fortunate to live in a town that has a lot of improv activity and two structured programs to choose from.  And I've tried them both now!  I've taken four classes through Washington Improv Theater (or more commonly known as WIT) and am currently wrapping up a Short Form (or Whose Line Is It Anyway style games) class at DC Improv.

Improv has not only been a great outlet for my goofiness, but I've learned a lot of techniques that can easily be applied to my everyday life.  I was amazed by that!  The two that come to mind are: active listening and agreement (or don't be a selfish teammate).

Active Listening: I will be the first to admit that my multi-tasking habits have become worse as time passes -- in fact I'm multi-tasking right now as I write this blog and listen to a conference call.  It is a habit that has created a false sense of efficency and has become detrimental to my ability to be present at any point in time.  Add to that all of the media noise in my life (phone, internet, iPad, etc.) and my listening skills are poor at best.  In an improv scene, if you don't listen you are setting yourself, and your castmates, up for failure because the moment you contradict information presented earlier in the scene, you have put the show in jeopardy of losing the audience.  Improv scenes are dependent upon the suspension of reality, so once you jar the audience out of that mindset, you're done.  Safe to say that my adherence to this rule of improv is a work in progress!!

Agreement:  Have you ever noticed that people tend to react negatively when you respond with a sentence that starts with or includes early on the word "but"?  Another key teaching of improv is agreement.  It doesn't necessarily commit you to agreeing 100% to what you're given, but it does force you to pause and think.  And rather than negating what you're given, the foundational principal of improv is summed up into two words and a comma: "YES, AND?"  Think about that the next time you respond in a conversation.  It's hard, but just like agreement tends to be received more positively in casual conversation, agreement plus additional information makes an improv scene funnier.  Especially, when you're working opposite of a fantastic improviser who smacks you in the face with a huge loaded statement (e.g., Your mother and I have decided to solve our money problems by selling you as wife #132 for the Sultan of Kissmyfootstan), agreement adds so much more.  Which is better:  (2) a natural reaction of outrage by the daughter for being sold by her parents or (2) a non-spoken "yes, and" response of "I hope you got a good price because I've valued myself at around (whips calculator out of pocket) at least a quarter of a billion."  I kind of want to know where #2 is going. Bonus, you've also created your character with that statement!

So, if you've ever wanted to take a class where you get to have a lot of fun, be creative, be smart, and just take a break from your everyday life, I highly recommend getting in on a Foundations of Improv class.  Honestly, between the two options mentioned earlier, WIT has been a better experience for me.  Do you think you couldn't be a success at improv?  Well, can you listen?  Can you agree?  Can you make choices and stick with them?  Then you're a beginner improviser!  Just do it!  WIT offers free workshops if you are still not sure.  If a class or workshop are too much, then come out to a show at least!  And, of course, when you're in NYC (Upright Citizens Brigade), Chicago (Second City), or LA (The Groundlings), make taking in a show at one of their famous improv theaters a highlight of your itinerary!  You won't regret it.

Posted on Thursday, October 13, 2011 by Julie

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Times Square by Isabelle Dupuy

One of my favorite things about living in Washington, D.C. is that the bright lights and big city of New York are as little as three and a half hours away - with me behind the wheel, of course!  It opens the door to quench my desire for spontaneous adventure or, in this case, preplanned theater going.  In general, at this point in my life I tend to appreciate NYC life in small doses, and have come to discover that around 3 days is my limit, so a weekend roundtrip, like this instance, is ideal.   

To ensure that every NYC trip leaves its own lasting impression, I love to try out new hotels and new neighborhoods.  While midtown would have been convenient for the theaters, I opted to stay down in Tribecca.  This afforded me the chance to spend the afternoon after the long drive wandering the streets, and associated boutique shops, of SoHo.  While the shopping turned out to be unsuccessful, I did stumble upon something new when I did a quick trip to the Upper East Side.
As I was heading up Madison Ave. to my destination, I saw a huge line on the sidewalk.  Curious, and since I was only a block away from my original purpose for the trip, I asked the driver to let me off there.  I discovered that the line, similar to one you may find in Georgetown for the ridiculously awful and overpriced Georgetown Cupcakes (in my opinion, as an International Connoisseur of Cupcakes, of course), was for a shop that opened at the end of August.  Disappointed that it wasn't a super famous celebrity, I was still intrigued because I was told this shop was the first U.S. location for a famous Parisian bakery: Maison de Ladurée.

Never one to deny my curiosity, especially when I have some time to spare, I got in the line, that ended up taking about an hour, just to try the specialty of the "maison" - le macaron!  These are not macarooooons -- you know the gooey, chewy amazing balls of baked coconut, sugar, and condensed milk.  Macarons (pronounced mah-cah-roh, with a nice gutteral french "r" in there and a silent "ns") are basically almond meringue cookie sandwiches with buttercream or jam filling.

At $25 for a box of eight, I assumed that the macaron could only rival the cupcake in taste experience.  Oh boy I was wrong!  The packaging was fantastic, though, with the perfectly sized box and silk ribbon.
Back in my hotel room, I had my first - and last - macaron.  In my box, I had selected cinnamon raisin, chocolate, vanilla, black currant, raspberry, lemon, orange blossom, and rose flavored macarons.
The result:  In large part, I felt as if I was biting into chewy bars of soap from Bath & Body Works.  As you can see, I couldn't take more than one bite of all but the vanilla one.  Lesson learned!  Long lines are not always worth the wait!

This trip wasn't all about macarons and shopping, I also had tickets to a play and a musical.  It's unfortunate that its run ends in a few weeks because The Submission - starring Jonathan Groff (Glee), Rutina Wesley (True Blood), and Eddie Kaye Thomas (American Pie) - at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street was a fantastic play and a must see.  It explored the challenges and emotions presented when a gay playwright enters his latest play for consideration at a popular festival, but with his name changed to one that suggested he was a she and of African descent - in order to give the play, about a family in the projects, more credibility.  Once selected, rather than telling the truth, he hires an actress to play the role of playwright leading up to the show's debut at the festival.  The show had its funny lines, as well as the raw emotions of the two characters as they deal with constant judgment and prejudice due to their race or sexual orientation - heightened to their peak during the climactic debate over which, homosexuality or race, is perceived to be less accepted in modern society.  The show runs through October 22nd.
 To counter the serious nature of the previous night, I had the joy of experiencing the outrageous and line-toeing/crossing comedy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park fame, at a matinee performance of the 2011 Tony Award winning musical - The Book of Mormon!
My advice:  DO NOT WAIT!  GO SEE THIS NOW!  There is nothing compared to seeing the original cast perform in such an amazing show.  Just watch as Elder Price tries to convert a Ugandan warlord in the song "I Believe"(look it up on You Tube).

Oh and come with a sense of humor!  Until next time New York!!!

Posted on Sunday, October 09, 2011 by Julie

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