Saturday, January 11, 2014

What store are YOU going to?!

One of my students went to Nashville for the Christmas break! I told him I was so jealous he got to go to my hometown for Christmas. He sweetly broke the news to me as he was also informing me that he would be skipping the week of school before the break because "it takes a long time to fly to Nashville."

True story.

Anyway, he's back from his trip now, so today I was standing with him and a few other students as we were discussing our various vacations. He was telling me all about what he saw in Nashville and how much he loved it and how funny his family found it that there is a Lebanon, Tennessee (he is Lebanese). We were laughing at the funny way we pronounce Lebanon (it's said "Leb'nin" in Tennessee as opposed to "Leb-uh-non" in the Middle East) when another student said, "Nashville is in Tennessee, right?"

"Yep! That's right, " I answered.

"Tennessee... I always see that in the grocery store."

"You do?!"

"Yeah. It's on bottles with black labels."

He was talking about Jack Daniels!! I laughed and said, "Not at any grocery stores here, I hope!!"

He chuckled and said, "No. In Switzerland."

Switzerland. His family vacations there for the holidays...he's in sixth grade. This is my life, folks. Sometimes it overwhelms me how much I love it!

Vicariously yours,

Friday, January 10, 2014

Our trip to Paris: the most useful apps

This isn't a travel blog officially, but in the spirit of allowing you all to live vicariously through us and learn from our experiences, I want to let you know which of the many travel apps I downloaded turned out to be most useful for us on our Christmas trip to Paris.

Let's start with the most useful:

1. CityMaps2Go Pro  This was on AppsGoneFree a few weeks ago and I'm so glad I snagged it! They also have a free version. The pro version allows for unlimited map downloads, so it is necessary if you're planning to travel more than 3 or 4 times in the near future.

The best part of this app is that it is offline! You download the maps you'll need on your trip and it is all saved on your phone's memory.

You can zoom in almost to the street level and conduct searches for points of interest. When you find what you want, you can drop a pin on the map and take notes on it. I found our Paris apartment and marked it on the map before we arrived. It made things SO much easier. It also was handy when we were wandering around and saw something that made us go "Oh! We should remember to come here for dinner!"

You can use the location arrow in the bottom left to find your exact location in the city. Also clutch for when we came out of a Metro station and asked, "Where are we?" The guidebook, the icon second from the right, uses the Ulmon guidebooks to give you more information about what you're looking at. Very useful for those moments when you turn a corner and say, "Whoa! Wonder what that building is!"

2. Metro Paris Subway by Presselite   There are lots of Paris Metro apps out there, and this one isn't the most fancy looking, but it was the most useful. It uses your location services to tell you which stop you're currently at--though that's really best used when you're above ground, it became useful after we wandered for a while and said "Is there a metro stop nearby?".

It also tells you timetables (though those weren't always reliable. I think that's more the city of Paris's fault and not the app), and you can map out your route using the route feature on the far right.

Apps that were helpful, but not as great as I think the developers mean them to be, were the following:

1. TripAdvisor City Guides   I had troubles with this app before we left Kuwait, though I'm 100% sure  the problem was due to the slow internet/data speeds in this country. It took a few days for the Paris guide to download, and partly because the app pauses the download when your phone falls asleep. Not sure if that's something the developer can change or if it's just a side effect of living in a country with internet issues.

I love that this app is offline and the "Point Me There" feature was really great when we wanted to get to a recommended site. I found the map to not be as detailed as I needed it to be and the pop up "write a review" request every. time. you. open. the. app got really annoying really fast. I understand that the website runs on user reviews and you should give back to the website that is giving you this free app. I just wish that the reminder to leave a review only popped up every 5 times or something like that.

2. French-English translator by Sky Code   I even paid $.99 for this puppy thinking maybe it'll be more accurate than the free ones out there.


It sounded really cool because it has the option to take a photo of the text (for example, a menu) and get it translated, but the photo recognition was not great. It never could recognize the word "sur" and kept recognizing as "km" (for those playing the home game, "km" is not a word in French. I looked it up). This was not helpful for translating sentences from English to French. To test it out I wrote "We found the library" into the app and then we asked a French speaking friend to translate the same sentence. They came up with two completely different sentences.

The app was useful for one word at a time. When I was grocery shopping and couldn't remember the word for mushrooms or just straight up didn't know the word for other ingredients, my high school French got me through the first part of the sentence and the translator helped me fill in some of the blanks.

In the totally useless category goes this app:

HopStop  This app has rave reviews on the app store, including from people who traveled outside the US, but what the reviews don't tell you is that this app runs on data. And since I could not find anywhere that had SIM cards for an iPhone 5C (I know, #firstworldproblem), I didn't have data on this trip.

I'll pull this one back down from the cloud when I'm traveling in a major US city, but for Paris, the metro app already mentioned has a "from here to there" feature that made HopStop unnecessary.

Hopefully if any of you are heading to Paris any time soon, you'll download one or two of these apps and find them as helpful as I did!

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The things I do for these kids

I've got a reward system for my classroom that, in a round-about way, allows the kids to select from 4 different rewards: brownies, chew gum in class, eat snacks in class, or have a party during lunch. Being sixth-graders, the kids go for brownies as often as possible. I think it's mainly because they don't really understand what the other rewards entail, but whatever.

Anyway, I had a class that got the brownies reward right before the break, so the first day of the semester we started our morning with a healthy breakfast:

The kids are 1). blown away that I make my own food and 2). convinced that I make these brownies from scratch. One even said, "You have to give my nanny your recipe for brownies!" ...I got the recipe from my good friend Betty!
Since I cheat and use a brownie mix, you'd think this reward would be pretty straight forward and easy.


This is Kuwait. Nothing is ever straightforward and easy, it seems! Let me take you through my baking adventure.

It start with lighting the oven, which is an adventure in and of itself.

It's always a gamble whether the gas is going to light. Sometimes it takes two or three matches and then you just hope you don't blow up the whole kitchen!

So while the oven is preheating, I throw together the mixes. It takes 4 bags of mix to make enough for 1 class to have 1 brownie each student. The bags are about 1.5KD per bag, which translates to about $21 each time a class earns this reward. Being that this is Kuwait, I could get brownies delivered in less time it takes for me to make them at home, but that costs about 16KD (~$57).

Kitty supervises the whole operation. 
Once the batter is poured, everything is ready to go into the oven. What we've discovered over here is that the oven doesn't heat evenly, so everything always burns super fast on the bottom, but stays almost raw on the top. Golden brown doesn't translate with this oven. Thankfully, a bake-aholic colleague figured out a fix.

Ew. I'm just seeing the disgusting layer of dust in the broiler. I don't even know how to go about cleaning that.

See the can on the bottom of the oven? It's filled up with water that boils as the oven gets hotter. The steam somewhat evens out the temperature in the oven so things cook a little more thoroughly. It's not fail proof, the bottom still cooks faster than the top. But the steam helps things along.

So you'd think I could just throw things in the oven, set a timer and be done, right?!


Because of the drain in the floor of our kitchen, the stove is a little slanted, which means the batter slowly moves to one side of the pan.

It's Kitty's favorite toy in the kitchen. It makes mopping the kitchen floor so much easier....for our cleaning lady.
I probably could shove some shims up under there and call it a day. But that would be logical and would require shims. So I throw things in the oven, and set a timer for 10 minutes. I make sure to put things in the oven before it is fully preheated because it gives things the chance to bake a little more slowly. Keeps the bottom from burning as quickly. I rotate the pans every 10 minutes for two 10-minute cycles or until I see the bottom and the edges have cooked through but the middle is still pretty soupy.

Then I turn the oven down to about 200 degrees and let it bake for another 10 minutes. After that the bottom is juuust about burned but the middle is still not done. So I turn the oven off completely and leave the brownies in for another 10 minutes. THEN they are ready to come out of the oven.

They're still pretty chewy, but it does the trick! The kids love the brownies and work really hard to earn the class reward. Teacher friends will attest, having a class reward the kids deem worthy of their good behavior is worth all the KD and baking time in the world!

Vicariously yours,

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

THATlou: the way for a non-Art History major to see the Louvre

At some point in our hunt for fun things to do in Paris, our friend Lindsey and I stumbled upon a company begun by a New York native called THATlou: treasure hunt at the Louvre. If you're the type of tourist that would feel like a fool going home from Paris having not seen the Louvre but you're just SO overwhelmed with the idea of trying to pick the best of the 35,000 pieces of art in that palatial museum, THATlou is perfect for you!

Basically you go on a scavenger hunt through the Louvre museum! Yes, you earn points, yes you compete against other teams, and YES there are prizes! This company was MADE for me!

We had an awesome time! Daisy, the owner of the company, has designed several hunts centered around various themes. You get about 2 hours to scour the Louvre to find and photograph the works of art. Don't worry, the big ones like the Mona Lisa are usually included or at least are along the search path. My only complaint is that 2 hours isn't long enough for competitive hunters like me who would want to stop and pretend to know something about art and observe some of the other pieces that you pass on the hunt.

Here are a few of the photographic highlights:

Our first conquest. It was also the one we heard the other teams saying they searched for the longest. Some of them couldn't find it! 

Strategizing. Tyler was our navigator and took the competition VERY seriously. 

One of the Big Pieces (ones that are highlighted by the Louvre as must sees): Psyche and Cupid.  I have no idea the artistic significance of this piece and I'm willing to bet 90% of the people surrounding the statue don't either. 

What I like about THATlou is it directs you to one of the Big Ones, and then you can choose to find a lesser-known piece of art in the same room as a Big One. See what Daisy's doing there? She's TRICKING you into looking at art! mwahaha!

Just like you can't go to Paris and not visit the Louvre, you can't visit the Louvre and not visit the Mona Lisa. ...She's there...behind the glass on the left. I was only able to get about 30 feet close to her. Sigh.

Another fun part of THATlou is the challenges that Daisy works in to the clues for bonus points. In this one we had to pose like the two dogs at the bottom of this massive painting. It was in the same room as the Mona Lisa, the most visited room in the Louvre. This photo is a little shaky because the Mister was horrified to be associated with these two crazies on the floor. 

We had to take a bathroom break and I think I accidentally caught one of the pieces of art on the hunt in the background! oops! haha!

The hunt led us to a little-visited room that overlooks the courtyard of the Louvre and gave us a view of the ridiculously long line to get in to one of the entrances! Another benefit of THATlou: you arrive early enough in the day and Daisy tells you about a lesser-known entrance that got us into the museum in less than 20 minutes.

This was the hardest-to-find piece of art that we chose to find. It took us almost 20 minutes, but we found it, darnit!

This guy wasn't on our scavenger hunt, but I just had to snap a picture of that dapper face and sessy thighs.
If a visit to Paris is on your radar, you have to book a scavenger hunt with Daisy at THATlou. It was extremely well organized, a ton of fun, and helped me mark a big item off my must-do-in-Paris list without feeling stressed out.

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

You would NEVER see this in Disney!

This year, the Mister and I celebrated Christmas Day in the happiest place on Earth.  ...Ok, maybe it was like the second...or third happiest place on Earth: Disneyland Paris.

Those who know us already know that we LOVE the mouse. We spent our 5th wedding anniversary in DisneyWorld in Orlando and I fully intend to make that a regular tradition. So when our friend Lindsey suggested we spend Christmas break in Paris and go to Europe's version of Disney on Christmas Day, there was no way we could refuse (well, that offer combined with the super cheap airfare to Paris certainly helped to persuade us!).

Lindsey's friend Andrea, who lives in Switzerland, met up with us and we were able to introduce her to the Mouse for the first time! Thankfully she is an exceedingly patient person because the WHOLE day was filled with Lindsey, the Mister, and me saying, "You would NEVER see this in Disney!" (I'm not sure why we decided Disneyland Paris wasn't really Disney. But "Disney" became our shorthand for "DisneyWorld Park and Resort in Orlando")

The fact that she, as a fully grown woman, bought light up Mickey ears proved that her conversation to the love of all things Mouse was complete.

Don't get me wrong: We still had a REALLY great time! There is definitely still a heaping helping of Disney magic in Paris's park. But it's the little things that Disney does in Orlando that adds up to the total "Most magical place on Earth" package. Paris just didn't have those little things.

First of all there was lots of trash all around the park. Lots of the litter was probably due to the sanitation workers who were on strike...

... but the whole grounds just felt kinda worn out and dirty. There was mold growing on the canvas covering-made-to-look-like-a-ship's-sail that covered the line to Pirates of the Caribbean. And not intentional, painted-on mold like they would have at Disney! The paint was worn off of the handles on rides or parts of the statues. You would never see that at Disney. That's part of the magic! You miss the trashcan in Disney and before you can pick it up, a Cast Member is there already sweeping it up! Everything looks like it was newly constructed! There are no worn-off paint patches! They magically don't appear in the first place!

At one point we were standing in a walk-through version of Skull Island from Peter Pan (also not something you would see in Disney, but in a good way), and there was a candy apple that has been thrown at the wall and had stuck and had been left there! You would NEVER see that in Disney!

You can't really see the candy apple, but it's there!

Secondly, all the Cast Members were really grumpy and out of character! One of the magical parts of Disney is how everyone who works there is almost creepily happy! Or if they're grumpy and hate their jobs (Disney isn't exactly known to always be the happiest place on Earth to work), they don't show it. And they all seem to magically appear from somewhere. You don't see cast members clocking in for their shifts, or putting their purses under the hostess stand at the restaurant, but we saw both of those things in Disneyland Paris.

Even the characters during the (very short) Christmas parade seemed a little lackluster. Don't get me wrong, the Face Characters (the ones like Tinkerbell in the photo above) were in character the whole time and were great. But Mr. Incredible just kind of deadpanned his whole Segway ride down Main Street. He looked fake. The magic of Disney is that even though you know Mr. Incredible is just some college-age dude sweating his brains out under all that padding, he still looks like he just popped out of the movie screen and is RIDICULOUSLY happy to see you!

Oh. Hey. You again.
And thirdly, some of the rides seemed less than magically done! For example, in A Small World, the ceiling is just a straight up, warehouse-looking, drop ceiling!

You would NEVER see that in Disney! Maybe the old Small World looked that sloppy, but the new small world has a draped ceiling or it is so dark up there that you can't tell that you're just riding a water trail through a giant sound stage. THAT'S THE MAGIC OF DISNEY! In Paris's version of Pirates of the Caribbean (which hasn't been updated but was still really cool and a lot longer of a ride than the one in Orlando), they miss a huge opportunity for magic by not putting LED lights in the ceiling to make it look like a night sky. It is quite obviously a drop ceiling that is painted black. Where's the magic in that?!

Luckily there was just enough cool stuff that Disney doesn't have that made our two visits to Europe's land of the Mouse totally worth it and awesome.

I haven't been to Orlando at Christmas time, so I can only imagine the decorations are even cooler than the really cool ones they had in Paris. 

Their Main Street is a lot shorter, which made it less stimulating and stressful.

The characters on Star Tours speak in French!

Their version of Space Mountain was AWESOME and a LOT better than the one in Orlando.
They have a really cool Alice in Wonderland labyrinth to walk through. Our Alice loving friend Lindsey was in heaven! 

I hate to admit it, but I liked Sleeping  Beauty's castle a lot more than Cinderella's in Orlando. It seemed bigger and had more attention to detail (there was a window where you could see the flicker of a fire burning in the fireplace!). 

I know this post makes it sound like the opposite, but we really did have a great time spending Christmas with the Mouse. If you're in Paris and have a day (and a fair amount of is Disney after all) to kill, I recommend you take the train ride out to Disneyland Paris and give it a whirl.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, January 6, 2014

Caen: Bombed to hell and back

During World War II, 80% of the Norman city of Caen was bombed to oblivion. The city likes to be known as the home of William the Conqueror, and its most historical buildings date back to the Middle Ages. After the British and Canadian battalions that were supposed to liberate the city after D-Day were held up by the Germans, the city suffered incredible damage. It took almost 15 years to rebuild the city, and as a result a lot of the beautiful old architecture was replaced with a 1950s and 60s aesthetic. 

There were still some amazing things to see in this city, though. We came upon a church in the center of the city that stopped us in our tracks.

It is called the Church of Saint Jean and no, the photo is not crooked. The church is! If you do a google search on churches in Caen (this city was once called the City of A Hundred Churches, according to our Airbnb hostess), you won't find this church as one of the top results. But I'm glad we stopped in.

The inside of the church feels like something out of Alice in Wonderland. These photos don't do the twist of the nave justice. The entire building is leaning, so much so that they have had to build a huge support structure in the entrance.

This is what the church looked like after the dust settled in 1944.

There was barely anything around it! Understandably, the foundations of the church were rocked by the bombing of the Battle for Caen (not the be confused by the Battle OF Caen, which happened in the 1300s), and the tower still stands at a severe lean.

They are still working to restore the church, and based on the number of other, more historically significant, churches in the city still needing restoration, I'm sure the parish has a long way to go before the project is fully completed. In the meantime, they depend on the donations of passer-by tourists like the Mister and me.

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Our visit to Omaha Beach

We began our trip to France with a stop in Normandy. The Mister has always wanted to visit the D-Day beaches. With the passing of his grandfather, a WWII vet who flew missions over France and Germany during the war, a visit to the American Cemetery in Normandy was fitting.

It's no secret that the Mister and I are patriotic Americans, so as we got ready to head to the train station that morning I gave fair warning: "There will be tears today." I am always moved by stories of veterans and the selflessness of the Greatest Generation always makes me so proud of my country and the men and women who have served it.

I did not expect to have such a peaceful, calm experience. The cemetery and memorials are all set up extremely well and takes the sacrifice of thousands and contrasts it with the beauty of Omaha Beach.

The reflecting pool at the end of the welcome center that overlooks Omaha Beach. 
We learned that of the thousands of American soldiers who were originally buried in France, 60% of them were returned to the States to be buried in a final resting place for their families' choosing. There are 9,387 American citizens buried in Normandy, and 1,557 MIA soldiers commemorated.

Among the buried is included 45 sets of brothers, including two of the Niland brothers, on which the movie Saving Private Ryan is based. There are 3 Congressional Medal of Honor winners, including Teddy Roosevelt's son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

There is a lovely chapel in the middle of the burial plots where families and visitors can reflect on what happened on this and the other Normandy beaches in July 1944.

There are several paths that lead from the cemetery to the beach and it is oddly sirene.

Our guide (there are free tours in English every day at 2pm) explained that on D-Day, all the brush would have been cleared from the steep hill to eliminate any possible hiding places.  

The beach is now a protected natural site.

It was hard to imagine this beach covered in obstructions and the bodies of Allied soldiers. Someone said that at low tide you can still see evidence of the obstacles placed there by the Germans.

I'm so grateful we got the opportunity to see such an historically valuable place and a chance to contemplate the sacrifices thousands of young Americans--including my grandfather-in-law and his twin brother-- made.

Vicariously yours,