Saturday, December 18, 2010

Calgon Wasn't Enough

Winter is oftentimes a challenge. Winter in the Pacific Northwest is always a challenge. Faced with the upcoming Portland forecast of "rain", "showers", "light rain", and "heavy rain", I decided to get out of town in order to preserve my waning sanity. Because outside it was waining heaviwy.

I selected the Red Mountain Resort & Spa because not only was it in dry, sunny Southwestern Utah, but it also offered fitness classes, healthy food, and you know - spa stuff. I had adopted the Holiday Cookie Diet, which was doing no one any favors, and my pants were beginning to complain loudly underneath the muffin top.

(NBC Universal is not being very share-y, and will not allow me to post Jenna's "Muffin Top" video. It's #1 in Israel and Belgium. This image was the closest I could find, and "whole gain" is supposed to say "whole grain". Reference fail.)

Portland-L.A.-Las Vegas and then a 2 hour rental-car drive to Ivins (Utah). The Red Mountain Spa was enjoying one of their down-weeks, and I was one of only ten guests at a resort offering "82 beautifully designed rooms and 24 Villa Suites". Fantastic! (they are typically crazy-busy Thanksgiving week, Christmas through New Years, and happy-busy between March and October).

For four days I took fitness classes, I enjoyed healthy, delicious meals, I spent time in the steam room, and I even did a Shaman Life Path Reading (which, frankly, didn't really tell me anything new about my life path, but it was still an interesting experience) - all whilst being surrounded by cacti, sagebrush, lava fields, and the resort's namesake Red Mountains (probably not their official title).

I returned saner, happier and the muffin top is now more of a pancake, which will (I vow) then shrink to a tortilla, and then dissolve into nothing that can be rolled into a snack. I just needed the kick-start, and the brief respite from the weather.

WELCOME WINTER! I'm ready for you now.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Granville Island Serengeti

My friend Christine and I were up in Vancouver for a girls' weekend, and were wining it up on Granville Island on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We had been engrossed in conversation for three glasses of wine when Christine got up to use the restroom. An attractive couple sitting next to us immediately turned to me and asked me about our conversation. They were smart and funny and chatty and when Christine came back to the table, she was holding her middle finger up at me because she knew we had been discussing her. Then she sat down and promptly joined the discussion.

We talked mainly about relationships and break-ups, and personality types and how people basically fell into four distinct categories: aggressive-aggressive, aggressive-passive, passive-aggressive, and passive-passive. We'll call the couple Frank and Emily. Frank was probably in his mid-to-late 40s, and Emily told us she was 38. In the personality type classification, they were both admitted aggressive-aggressives.

Frank had asked me what I thought I was, and I said "Oh definitely aggressive-aggressive". He then said "What do you think your friend is?" and I answered "Um...probably aggressive-passive". He asked "What do you think she will say she is?" and I said "I don't know...but probably aggressive-passive".

Christine said "I think I'm probably aggressive-passive". So we then continued to discuss relationships, and the personality types of past boyfriends, etc. Frank and Emil
y had empty shot glasses sitting on their table, and we were like "Oh my God you guys are doing shots???" It was 4pm on a Sunday. They smiled and said "Yeah!" and then Frank offered to buy us tequila shots. Christine is Irish and was up for it, but after three glasses of wine, I knew a tequila shot would push me close to the barfing point, and I declined. Frank said to the waitress "Okay, we'll have THREE tequila shots, because BABY doesn't want one". I'm 40, and totally fine with someone calling me "Baby" even if it is an attempt to peer-pressure me into a tequila shot. I have a strong aversion to barfing, so I stayed firm with my initial anti-shot stance.

Christine went to the bathroom again, and Emily said "So you guys are going for sushi for dinner?" and I said "Yeah! You should come with!" because they were our n
ew friends and we were all having so much fun! Emily grinned and said "Oh, we have our OWN HOME..." and I laughed, because I didn't really know what she was talking about - I mean, maybe they had sushi in the fridge, who knows? And Emily continued and said "And our sushi is RAW" and she laughed wickedly, and I laughed along thinking "OH, ha ha, innuendo - they're naughty!"

When Christine came back to the table, she asked Frank what he thought of men who cheated, and Frank said "Well, do you mean cheating behind her back, or in front of her? Because behind her back is a different story." Blah blah - more conversation. Frank offered to buy me a glass of wine, and I just said "You can pay for this one" pointing to my empty third glass. My alcohol tank was on "Full".

At some point Frank said "Why don't you two come to our house for a drink?" which I didn't want to do, because I was hungry, and they were our nice new friends, and we were having so much fun! but I didn't need any more drinks. It was Sunday for crying out loud.

We all left the bar at the same time, and I think Frank and Emily had decided to come for sushi with us, but it wasn't clear. We were waiting for a cab, when the waitress ran out to us and said "You forgot to pay your bill!" to Christine, so Christine stumbled back inside the bar, and I waited outside with Frank and Emily. I said to them "You know, you guys don't really HAVE to come with us for sushi if you don't really want to." thinking that Christine might have just badgered them into coming. Frank answered "We know - we don't do anything we don't want to do - we're aggressive-aggressive!" and Emily added "Yeah, we're up for anything. Especially when sex is involved."

Insert exaggerated record scratch here. WHAT???

I had had three glasses of wine on a fairly empty stomach, and was not sober, so I thought I had maybe heard her incorrectly...

It was then that Christine came back outside and was all cheery and "Okay! Let's get a cab and go for sushi!" and she climbed into the front seat of the cab, leaving me alone in the back seat with our new "friends" Frank and Emily, who kept kissing each other as I craned my neck to look away from them and out the window.


Frank and Emily had directed the cab to their neighborhood, and pointed out their house, which was conveniently located exactly one block from their recommended sushi place. In the car they said "We're going to go home first, but we'll meet you at the sushi place in an hour". So Christine and I got out of the cab and walked into the sushi place. We sat down in a booth and I hissed across the table "THEY WANT TO HAVE SEX W
ITH US!!!" Christine said "What? No." and made a face like I didn't know what I was talking about. "You don't know what you're talking about!" she said.

I was exasperated, as I had been piecing together the afternoon conversations, and then the whole "especially when sex is involved" comment. Christine said "She didn't say THAT." and I was like "YES SHE DID OH MY GOD WHEN YOU WERE INSIDE PAYING THE BILL!!!!"

She still didn't believe me throughout dinner, which we ate very quickly, with me darting glances toward the window, and still didn't believe me in the cab back to our hotel. I had to replay EVERY clue and innuendo for her several times "Remember how Emily was like 'Oh, and you're both beautiful...and you both have really beautiful hands...'???" before she was like "Oh my God, they wanted to have SEX with us!!!"

It was a total predator/prey situation and we were the little unsuspecting Impalas, innocently grazing and drinking our wine out on the Serengeti, and Frank and Emily were the calculating Leopards, offering to buy the Impalas shots of tequila to lure them into their lair of raw sushi!

I'll bet they had gone home first to set up the hidden video camera! OH MY GOD!!!

So, I guess my lesson here is...I don't KNOW! People keep surprising me!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Now, If I Were An Accountant...

Given that I'm all "TravelGretta" and such, wouldn't you think it would behoove my parents to glean helpful travel tips from me? Me, their own offspring? Me, their delightful progeny? Me, the fruit of their...gross, forget that last one.

As a "Thank You" for taking care of my kitty-cat, and allowing me to usurp their closet space with my many, many, many pairs of shoes, while I lived overseas, and
for being all around awesome parents, I booked The Mom and The Dad First/Business Class tickets to Paris and London.


They haven't been on a big, Trans-Atlantic trip since their honeymoon, back in the 1600s, so this was kind of a big deal for them and they wanted to make sure to plan everything just so.

The Mom and The Dad are fully aware of this blog - TravelGretta - and they know me pretty well; me, their daughter,TravelGretta (although no, that is not my given name, you're right). They are familiar with the voluminous trips, jaunts, and excursions I have taken over the years, and yet, when it came time to plan the details of their own trip
, do you think they asked me for assistance? Do you?

Or do you think they checked out a bunch of guide books from the library, spent hours on Google, attended a Saturday morning, AAA "packing seminar" and purchased a book entitled "Pack It Up: The Essential Guide to Orga
nized Travel"?

It's okay. I'll get over it. Plus, I just bought another pair of shoes for them to store in their closet.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unpack it

I enjoy packing. Not everyone does. However, not everyone has the awesome Daily Outfit Planner, which practically does the packing for you. If I were more web-savvy, I would post a screen shot of said planner right here:

Am not web-savvy. Many apologies.

It's the unpacking that makes me insane. First, that stupid TSA flier falls out, and reminds you that random people have been sifting through your stuff, and not putting it back the way you originally packed it.

Secondly, everything is dirty, except that one cocktail dress you keep bringing with you, and yet never end up wearing. Why don't people play dress-up anymore?

So you're left staring at the messy, dirty contents of your fun vacation. Where does the stuff go?

Mostly in the hamper. That is the one good part of unpacking: you can just throw the stuff right into the hamper. But then you have to put all the other crap back.

You have to hang the cocktail dress back in the closet, wondering if you are ever going to get to wear it while it's still in style.

You have to find a place for the maps, ticket stubs, postcards and other random vacation accoutrement that should be thrown out, as you are not a scrapbooker, but you can't bear to part with the memorabilia so soon.

You have to unwrap the carefully plastic-wrapped toiletries, and schlep them back to the bathroom or the top of the dresser. During said schlep, you are reminded that your fun vacation is over. You are back to the hum-drum of using the toiletries in your own boring house, rather than at the beach-front villa, or chic Parisian apartment.

Frowny face for unpacking! But welcome home anyway;)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oh La La La

Je ne peux parle pas francais. But I tried! I had originally planned to just go to the South of France for two and a half weeks, just to toodle around and see what there was to see. Then I thought "Why not do a little language course while I'm there..." just to help me manage a bit better. It's always better to know a few words of the local language when you travel.

I did a wee bit of research on the school and decided on this one:

The housing options were myriad and, while I wanted to learn some French, I would still be en vacances and therefore chose to stay in a hotel (rather than a homestay or shared apartment). There was also a rooftop pool with this view:

I'm all about immersion.

Get it? See what I did there? Immersion - like language immersion, and immersion - like when you immerse yourself in the swimming pool? Oh la vache!

Everything is different in French, including their exclamations of surprise/admiration "Oh la vache", or horror "Zut alors!", or something that could either be "tsk tsk" or "ohhhhhhhhh my goodness", which is "Oh la la la".

I would attend French lessons every morning from 8:45-12:00, then grab a baguette (usually avec chevre et jambon), then go to the rooftop pool for an hour or so. One afternoon I was climbing down into the pool via the pool's ladder, when I noticed some random guy opposite me, on a deck chair, was holding out his iPhone at an angle that indicated I was being photographed.


I was like "I think that guy just took a picture of me!" and proceeded to be silently offended and outraged for the next few hours. Silently offended and outraged because I wasn't actually 100% certain he had taken a photo, otherwise I probably would have started yelling (in English). However, judging from the way he had held the iPhone out as I was climbing into the pool, and then pulled the iPhone back in under the umbrella to view the contents was just too suspicious. So silently offended and outraged I was.

Until I reminded myself that I had just turned 40 in July.

Yeahhhh, so maybe having some stranger take a picture of me, in a bikini at age 40, should be something a little closer to flattering than offending... As "Oh la la la" can be either negative or positive, I will stick with that as my official reaction.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Mystery of "R"

I wanted to drive from Nice up to the towns of Vence and St. Paul de Vence for a weekend, so I rented a Fiat Panda. Panda - such a cute, cuddly, harmless animal! The car was no different. Tiny, wee, compact, petit!

J'aime le Panda!

After filling out the paperwork at the Hertz counter (which, in French, I pronounced "Ertz"), I was given the key to my Panda, and directed to a nearby parking garage to pick up the car. There it was, in stall #134, my little Panda. He was black, he was sassy, and he was facing forward as if to say "I'm ready to go!", or "Allons-y!". The Panda, as nearly all other European rental cars, had a manual transmission so I stepped on the clutch, shifted easily into "1", pulled out of the parking spot, then up and out of the garage into the brilliant sunshine of a Cote d'Azur afternoon - carefree and joyous as could be.

Driving in the South of France is only carefree and joyous if you know where you are going. The signs are confusing, and the roundabouts ubiquitous. The Ertz counter had not had any GPS systems available, so I asked for a map. The woman happily handed me a black and white photocopied page of something that did resemble a map, however it was a map without road names or numbers. The routes all jumbled together like a plate of plain, cold spaghetti. I hate plain, cold spaghetti. The Ertz counter woman had also said "It is very easy! Just follow ze Bord du Mer to Cagnes sur Mer - zere will be signs to St.Paul/Vence!"

I followed ze Bord du Mer (the road that runs alongside the sea) to Cagnes sur Mer, and looked for ze signs to Vence. Before I knew it, I was in the next town, still not seeing any signs for Vence, so I turned around to go back to Cagnes sur Mer. C
oming from the opposite direction, perhaps there would be signs to Vence? I passed through Cagnes sur Mer again, and was now on my way back to Nice. URF! I turned around again, to go back through Cagnes sur Mer, trying to drive slowly enough to read the signs carefully, yet not so slow that the other drivers would get annoyed and honk their horns at me. None of ze signs said "St. Paul" or "Vence". Exasperated, I followed the next roundabout and exited toward a town that I knew was North-ish, Grasse. It wasn't Vence, but it was in the same general direction, and there would have to be signs along the way...

There were not. I was driving up a long, winding road through beautiful wooded pine forests, but all I could think of was how lost I was. I would distractedly glance at the scenery thinking "I should be enjoying this - where the hell is Vence???". I finally reached a town called Roquefort les Pins, and decided to stop at a roadside restaurant and ask for directions. I pulled into the small, gravel parking lot, then walked across the road to the restaurant. I entered the squat stone building, and approached the bar where a woman was sitting, and said "Je suis perdu" (I am lost). I was quite pleased that I was able to say that correctly, and the fact that the woman responded in French
was confirmation that she had understood me. Hooray! I was able to understand her response enough to know to go south on the road until I reached a roundabout, and to take the second exit toward Vence. Okay. Whew. I felt better.

I walked back to the Panda, climbed in and attempted to put the car in reverse. As the transmission whirred, I realized I was in "4", rather than "R", so I shifted out and tried again. Same whirring sound. I stared at the gearshift, which very clearly indicated where "R" was, and I was pushing the clutch into the floor, and shoving the gearshift with all my might. Nope. The Panda did not reverse. "Come ON Panda!" I did not want to have to go back into the restaurant to ask someone to help me put the Panda in reverse. I was already embarrassed enough about being
lost in such a tiny, seemingly easily-navigable region.

I found the manual in the glove compartment, but only halfheartedly flipped through it. The manual wasn't going to have a page on how to shift the gears. Oh the things that are assumed to be known by everyone. The makers of the Panda probably thought that putting a blurb in about how to put the Panda into "R" would be akin to explaining how to put on the seat-belt. Only idiots would not know how to get into "R". I knew there was SOME sort of button or switch or something that would enable "R", I just couldn't find it. Stupid tricky Panda! They should have called it The Ferret - those things are sneaky. The Fiat Ferret. Also sneaky were those people at Ertz! They probably have the rental cars parked facing out of the parking spots intentionally, so that poor unsuspecting non-Europeans don't realize that they can't put the car in "R" until they are well away from the Ertz office. Zut alors!

How was I supposed to get back on the road if I couldn't use "R" to get myself out of the parking lot? GAH! I was exhausted and the despair was beginning to creep over
me, when I remembered how small the Panda was - how wee! how compact! how petit! So, I left the gear in neutral and walked around to the front of the car and braced myself for some big pushing. Yes, I physically pushed the Panda backwards until there was enough room for me to turn the wheels and pull the car forward out of the parking lot.

I was even more proud of this than of busting out with "Je suis perdu". You can't beat me, Panda! Now, if I could just manage to get through the rest of the weekend without needing to put the Panda in "R"... could I do that? I probably could if I wer
e very, very careful...

The roundabout was marked, just as the woman in the restaurant had said it would be, with a sign that said "Vence". Bless her. And curse that woman in the Ertz office! "Easy" and "signs to Vence". Pfft. I drove the rest of the way to Vence, actually enjoying the beautiful woodsy hills, and the confidence that I knew where I was going.

My hotel in Vence was part of an old fortress, and the "road" leading to it was more of a very narrow driveway. There was a parking spot nearby, but it would have required parallel parking, which would have required "R". Hmph. Stupid "R". I kept
driving until I was able to pull in, head-first, into a temporary street spot, about four blocks away.

My savior was the proprietress of l'Auberge des Seigneurs, Sandrine. I explained to her that I was unable to get the Panda into "R", and asked if she could possibly help me. She was so sweet, and walked the four blocks with me to the car, where she climbed in the passenger side and showed me a disc located just beneath the gearshift. To get into "R" you had to push down on the disc, then shift. It was just that simple. I laughed and shook my head, then drove Sandrine back to the hotel. I thanked her profusely before
driving off to find a permanent parking spot for the evening.

That's right. I pulled into the spot head-first. There was no fear. I had discovered the mystery of "R".

Friday, September 3, 2010

Oh Gretta Where Art Thou?

Bonjour! I have spent the past two and a half weeks in the South of France. It looked like this.

There will be more stories. Please stay tuned.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Flyin' N Readin'

One of the items on my Packing List is "reading material". Lately, my reading material has consisted entirely of fashion magazines. No judging. I've found that I have had a shorter attention span during recent trips, and prefer to read magazines or just watch "30 Rock" episodes on my iPod in between naps. I do enjoy books. It's just sometimes a challenge to find one that is airplane-appropriate.

On one flight I had just started David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day". I had somehow ended up with a window seat (my self-diagnosed claustrophobia usually demands the aisle seat), and was tucked up next to the window reading about Mr. Sedaris' adventures in speech therapy. Airplanes are a lot like libraries, where you sort of feel like you should "Shhhh-ussshhie!" and I was trying so hard not to laugh out loud. But you know, when you're trying to suppress giggles, or less-cute guffaws, it just makes it worse. I was literally hugging the wall of the airplane, with my face turned away from my appropriately-quiet seatmates, violently shaking, with tears streaming down my face. Funny reading does make the flight go by more quickly, though. What else passes the time quickly? Smut! Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele, Judith Krantz - all good smut. Although it takes a brave individual to read those books out in the open, where anyone can judge you, or peer over your shoulder at an embarrassing sentence involving things that are "engorged" or "heaving".

I think that the airplane might just be the ideal place to try to get through such arduous works as "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or "Dr. Zhivago". If you've read either of these in their entirety, my hat is off to you (and I'm probably bowing). I have never had more difficulty sorting out character names. Lordy, the NAMES! I tried and tried and TRIED to keep characters straight, with the myriad José Arcadio Buendías, and the Pavel Pasha Kologrigovstanislovskivichs. It was exhausting. I even tried to dumb them down, for my own benefit, and said "I'm going to call him 'Joe', and her 'Sally'." To no avail. However, the whole "I'm trapped on an airplane" situation might be just what you need to power through those crazy names and finally conquer those books.

My opinions on airplane-reading:

  • All David Sedaris - but be prepared. There may be spit-takes, there may be uncontrollable shaking, there may even be a little pee if you're not careful (but I was).
  • "I Am America And So Can You" by Stephen Colbert - particularly for international flights, because that's just funny.
  • Horror/thrillers - because you can always clutch your seatmate for support. Much less scary than reading it alone in your room.

Ed. note: The most terrifying book I've ever read was "The Amityville Horror". I could only read it in broad daylight, at the office, where I was surrounded by chirpy coworkers.

  • Playboy - Seriously. I actually had to sit next to some guy who brought Playboy onto the flight. I moved as soon as we had reached cruising altitude (insert obvious joke about his impending cruising altitude, ha ha ha. Gross.)
  • "War & Peace" - come on.
  • Any variation of "Build your own bomb" - obvious reasons.
  • "Growing Up in Bhutan" - the world's largest book, with 100 pages at five by seven feet. It would require its own seat, and probably in Business Class.

Just plain pretentious:

  • See "War & Peace"
  • Anything by Proust - sorry Dad
  • "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" - Latin edition - yes, it has been translated into Latin.

If you forget to bring your own reading material, take the time to enjoy the in-flight magazine. It's not offensive, it's not pretentious, and you will almost always be able to pronounce the names and keep the characters straight. Plus, there's a crossword puzzle!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Packing and Posing

Some people hate packing for a trip. I kind of love it. It involves organization. There are steps. And lists.

I have a Word document, very cleverly entitled "Packing List", with all the stuff I usually have to pack for every trip, regardless of destination: toiletries, iPod, hairbrush, blah blah - it's that blah blah that gets really heavy. And then I have an Excel document that is very embarrassingly titled "Daily Outfit Planner". (No you don't!) Yes, I do.

I used to haphazardly go through my closet and think "Yeah, I like that. I'll wear that" and then pack a whole mess of things I just really liked. However, with the luggage allowance shrinkage, I have to be far more meticulous in my planning. I literally have to say "On Day 1 I'm going to wear such and such dress with such and such shoes, and carry such and such bag."

The 'such and such' brand is highly coveted in all the fashion capitals.

This kind of anal-retentive forethought might seem ridiculous to some (many), but it actually makes the trip itself much easier. Once in the hotel, with all the delirium of the vacation swirling around you, the last thing you want to have to do is put an outfit together. You're looking at the purple sweater and the cranberry velvet pants and the olive green suede boots, all of which you love individually, but an outfit they do not make.

The Daily Outfit Planner has basic clothing categories (tops, bottoms, outerwear) and also includes undergarments and hairstyles - it's that detailed (um...because I modified it to be that detailed, but that's neither here nor there).

When I was nine or ten years old, I received the Darci doll for Christmas. Darci was Barbie-sized (albeit with slightly more realistic proportions), and came with a posing stand, and multiple outfits. Mine was brunette. That same year, I also received a Kodak instant camera. If you guessed "photo shoot" for what came next, you'd be right. I carefully dressed Darci in each of her very sassy, very 70s, outfits, posed her on the posing stand and snapped away. (I also did this with my sister on one of our vacations to New York to visit relatives, but she didn't come with a posing stand.)

I was obsessed with Darci and her outfits. She had around four different ensembles, and I just remember thinking "she should have more!" I am now similarly obsessed with my own ensembles. The Daily Outfit Planner helps tame the obsession a bit, and forces me to focus. I try to stick with a base neutral color (black, brown, gray) and build around that.

Once I have completed the Daily Outfit Planner chart I can just grab those things out of the closet, roll them up and tuck them into the suitcase. Things pack better when you roll them - fewer wrinkles and you can fit more into the bag.

Helpful hints: pack small, smooshy items inside shoes and boots; wrap plastic baggies around anything that might leak; and if you happen to have purchased fancy shoes on your trip, and are determined to bring the box home with you (because the box is the fancy shoes' home!), pack other items inside the box - there's always room after you remove all that tissue paper.

The more I think about all of this, the more I kind of want a posing stand. It will need to be collapsible...

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friends in Awesome Places

The absolute best excuse for traveling is having to visit a friend in a far-flung locale.

When one of my absolute favorite people, Josh, was living on Koh Tao, Thailand, working at a dive shop, I decided I probably had to take an open-water dive course.

Josh got me the "Friends & Family" discount, and a thatched bungalow a stone's throw from the ocean.

Josh later moved to Sydney, Australia, and what do you know? That was the one continent I hadn't yet visited. I had to go! Josh gave me the key to his apartment in Potts Point for a week and we spent time lunching in Sydney Harbor, exploring the Sydney Zoo, and celebrating Valentine's Day with too many mojitos and cupcakes. He also set me loose to explore the Great Ocean Road, and the Great Barrier Reef.

En route to Australia, I had to fly through San Francisco. I was faced with a 10-hour window of free time, so I rented a car and enjoyed breakfast with Sarah in Sausalito, lunch with Noreen up in Berkeley, and dinner back in the city with Ashleigh.

My friend Sally has a friend, Steve, who moved to Amsterdam, and yes, she had to visit him and I had to go with her.

You really do have to visit your friends in the Awesome Places. If your best friend from college moved to Germany and you haven't been to visit her? Go! Your most hilarious co-worker was transferred to Hong Kong, and wants to show you around Stanley Market? Go! You will never want to be the one uttering the sentence "Oh, I should have visited Julie when she had that enormous penthouse apartment in Paris..."

And, if one of said friends happens to be getting married in, and subsequently moving to, an Awesome Place, you pull your suitcase out of the closet and say "When do I have to be there?"

Kim (the blushing bride) is truly my favorite thing about flying through London. If she has to live there, I have to visit.

Now, the rest of you, get to work on relocating to the Maldives or Seychelles...or Majorca, Menorca, Capri, Sardinia...and I don't want to hear you whining "Do we have to?"

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Never Say Never. I'm Not Kidding.

I don't know why I allow myself to be sucked into things that I know will make me fussy. Jezebel had a post about an anti-bucket list, that was linked to this list (which was actually funny) and the staff writers all listed things they solemnly pledged to "never" do. Then there were the comments, where Everyone Else listed things THEY will "never" do. The one sensible comment I found in that trail was written by someone with the username LoveNoelIG:

I've learned precious few truths in life, saying "I'll never...." is a guarantee that thing will present itself in a form you never envisioned. Life is weird, circumstances change, flexibility is required, hopefully we grow and evolve...

I hope I never pretend to know what life will throw at me.

PREACH! Here are a few things many of the commentors said they'd never do , which were also things I used to swear I'd "never" do:

  • Sky dive - This is not scary. Scary part is the rickety plane ride up to the appropriate altitude. I wanted out of that rickety plane. Do it.
  • Bungy jump - Okay, this one actually was pretty scary, but still. Do it.
  • Like country music - Again, another one I thought I would forever vehemently eschew. Love it.
  • Go to Las Vegas - Swore I wouldn't. Did. Loved it.

Some people listed items that are really nothing to be afraid of.

  • Snorkeling - Really? That is the easy one, that doesn't require any scary, iron equipment. Do it.
  • Skiing - This is fun. Do it. But if you try it and it's too hard, move to snowboarding. Or sledding. Or sitting next to the fireplace with hot chocolate.
  • Moving to a foreign country without knowing anyone - Come on. You'd still have Facebook.

Then, there were a few that just made me laugh really hard:

  • Live in a city that doesn't have Ethiopian restaurants
  • Have a pet octopus (they require "serious upkeep")

And, finally, there was one I absolutely agreed with:

  • Wear Crocs
Although I didn't rule that one out before trying them on. I couldn't get over how hideous they were, but figured they must be radically comfortable if so many people were buying them. SO I TRIED THEM!

(Ed. note: Crocs are no more comfortable than Reef flip flops, which are infinitely more attractive. There is no logical reason to wear Crocs. They are an affront to footwear.)

There is something to be said about LIVING life, rather than just finding things about it to avoid. Those things of which you are most terrified are precisely the things you should do in order to show yourself "See? You CAN do that." Or, alternately, "Well, okay, you can't do that, but isn't it better to know for sure?"

I will never make a list of Things I Will Never Do...but I will make a list of Things I Tried At Which I Was Unsuccessful:

  • Playing basketball
  • Speaking Korean
  • Making cake frosting - Mom: Ohhhhh yeah, I usually double the sugar amount...I should have told you that.
  • Maintaining a serious attitude while working at a tanning spa - I was subsequently fired for joking around about making personal phone calls on the spa's phone.
That is the kind of list that is always acceptable. "Tried it, but no cigar."

Stop letting your fears and insecurities, and that Anti-Bucket List post, keep you from at least trying new things.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Home Away From Home

I am a Cancer,

"Emotion runs strong for this sign, and when it comes to family and home, nothing is more important."


These souls need a retreat, some place where they can step out of the spotlight and recharge their batteries. They are finicky and tend to be claustrophobic..."

SEE! That astrology website has confirmed my self-diagnosed claustrophobia. I feel so much better!

Since I love to travel so much, "home" is often a hotel. I LOVE hotels, and the older I get, the fancier they have to be. Well, not fancier necessarily, but clean, chic, well-located, and with bathrobes and preferably a sexy concierge. I have friends who, while traveling, couldn't care less about the hotel, and would rather save the money or spend it on a meal or shopping or whatever. I, on the other hand, HAVE to have a nice, cushy home base.

Finding cushy home base involves a bit of work.

1. TripAdvisor - I start here. Usually the #1 hotel is an outrageously expensive property whose cost I cannot justify, even if I try really hard.* So I continue scrolling down until I get to one that I can realistically afford.

2. I go to travel booking sites: Booking, Expedia, Travelocity, Splendia, etc. and look up several of the TripAdvisor-rated properties, for a good compare/contrast.

3. I make a list of the selling-points for my top choices: bathrobes? breakfast included? swimming pool? rooftop swimming pool? sexy concierge? (they really should list this under "amenities")

4. I then narrow down my choices to the Top 3 or so, and visit the actual hotels' websites.

5. I commit to a hotel, and make the reservation.

6. I go back to TripAdvisor and read all the positive reviews for my chosen hotel - I skip the negative ones.

This process can take hours, but it's hours of non-stop fun for me. I have no idea why. I also really enjoy balancing my checkbook.

*For my birthday this year, I'm splurging (don't tell Suze Orman, she'll just yell at me), and staying one night at the Covent Garden Hotel in London.

My justification is "Turning 40".

Monday, July 5, 2010

Who Wants An Upgrade?

I hate coach. The seats are too tiny and too close together, you have to pay for snacks, and the flight attendants are cranky. During boarding, the airlines seat the First and Business Class passengers first, so that when les miserables in Economy class board, we are forced to slump past the comfortably lounging privileged few, who are already into their first or second complimentary cocktail, and eyeing us with a mixture of mild suspicion and pity.

When I accepted a job teaching English in Seoul, South Korea (ages and ages ago), the company booked my flight on Korean Air. I immediately signed up for the frequent flier program. I flew from Chicago to Seoul, then Seoul back to Chicago (for Christmas), then Chicago to Seoul again. And with those flights I had earned enough to upgrade to Business Class when I had completed my contract.


The priority boarding, and immediate friendly, smiling attentiveness of the flight attendants startled me into a state of temporary paralysis. Would I like a drink now? You mean, before the other people have boarded the plane?
And my choices are fresh-squeezed orange juice or champagne? So, you're saying I can just sit, sipping my champagne while the peasants struggle with the dilemma of their hand luggage and limited overhead bin space? That's okay? I don't mind if I do!

And the SEATS! Oh the spacious seats. I had enough room to sit cross-legged with my feet tucked under me, while the still-smiling flight attendant brought me a dinner menu - with options - MULTIPLE COURSE OPTIONS.

The meal was served with actual flatware, rather than plastic utensils.

This experience was a long, long time ago, and the lesser details are fuzzy, but I do recall almost bursting into tears of joy when, just before my movie selection, the STILL-smiling flight attendant brought around a basket of candy. M&Ms for my movie! On the airplane! I mean, yes, I could have very easily brought my own M&Ms and eaten them during the movie in coach, but this was just so much better.

Since that long-ago adventure in luxury, I have enrolled in the frequent flier programs of any and all airlines with which I book flights, just in case I happen to accumulate enough points to upgrade.

I have happened to accumulate enough points with American Airlines, and have happily upgraded on three transatlantic flights in the past two years, but I swear I never feel anything close to suspicion or pity for the people in coach. In fact, I feel slightly guilty, just sitting there, sipping my complimentary champagne as les miserables file past me toward the back of the plane. Luckily, the buzz that proceeds the champagne eliminates all that guilt and I can just truly enjoy the luxury of the upgrade.

Life is short. Be grateful for whatever upgrades you are given, in any shape or form, and may they always, always include a basket of candy with M&Ms.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

No Place Like Home

Love to travel, fine to live overseas (for a while, at least...), but always ALWAYS thrilled to go home.

Happy Birthday America.

Now check your July horoscope. We're Cancers!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

I See London, I See France...

(but I see London more)

When commuting back and forth between The Iraq and the U.S. we have myriad options for a gateway city. Most of my coworkers take the convenient route to Istanbul and then home to whichever U.S. city they happen to hail from. Or you could fly to Vienna, or Frankfurt, then home. I want to take advantage of my American Airlines frequent flier miles, so I have been flying through London. I am also madly in love with London, so the choice for me is a no-brainer.

I. Love. London.

London has so many different personalities, it's like the Sybil of major cities. You can visit it a squillion times and never have the same vacation twice. A squillion is a lot. I have, so far, only had four London vacations, but am aiming for a squillion.

My London vacations in nutshell-form:

#1 - I stayed in Soho at the ridiculously chic Soho Hotel. The lobby is fuschia, and has an enormous sculpture of a black kitty cat, so I felt right at home. I did a few of the touristy things on this vacation, like watching the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, and photographing Big Ben.

That's right. I photographed Big Ben from an angle. I'm edgy.

#2 - I stayed in the most darling neighborhood, ever: Marylebone. At the Mandeville Hotel. I found a screaming deal on Expedia, which left me with extra mone
y to spend at Browns on South Molton Street. Wouldn't you know, they were having a shoe sale?

I bought the beige ones. Beige is practical. Ask your mom. I had actually seen these before, and felt very indifferent to them, and almost didn't really like them...but when I tried them on I thought "Hey, I can walk in these! They're really comfortable!" So I walked around the Marylebone neighborhood in my new shoes, and took in the Cabbages & Frocks flea market, and a few other places on the High Street.

#3 - The Theatah! I wanted to experience the West End, and so stayed at the Waldorf Hilton in the Theatah District. Normally I go to great lengths to avoid anything associated with Paris Hilton, but I had booked it on Hotwire and they wouldn't show me the hotel name until I had already paid. Blah. I had thought I was being all location-savvy, i.e. booking a Theatah District hotel, as I planned to go to the Theatah! Instead, I bought a ticket for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" which was being performed at the Royal Haymarket Theatah, the one theatah that was not exactly a hop, skip and a jump from the hotel. More like a hop, skip, jump, several javelin throws and a 400 meter sprint. The Theatah? Stunning. The show? Weeeeeell...let's just say it closed after a brief 6-month run.

#4 - Christmastime = Harrod's. I wanted to be as close to the Christmasness as possible, and really missed the chic of the Soho Hotel, so stayed at its sister property, the Knightsbridge Hotel. They upgraded me to this room:

I could see the Harrod's sign from my window. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy. This vacation was actually post-Christmas, but Christmasey-enough that the decorations were still up, and the sales were still in effect. I put on my raincoat and new Hunter Wellie boots, and stomped through the puddles in the rain to Harrod's. I had some sushi at the sushi bar, then trotted on over to the bakery section for a cheese scone, and finally concluded my eating bonanza with some fudge from the candy counter. I then waddled over to the "up" escalator to see what I could get with my Christmas Gift Card.

It's blue, it has feathers, and it is decidedly impractical like any good Christmas gift should be. It was 799 pounds, marked down to 99 pounds. Happy Christmas to all!

Vacation #5 is coming up in a few weeks, and will revolve around the almost-painfully charming Covent Garden neighborhood. Covent Garden resembles the inside of a snow-globe, it's that cute. Case in point; a cupcake shop:

Five vacations is still a ways away from a squillion, but there's still so much to see and do. Notting Hill, the London Eye, The Tower of London, double-decker buses, Westminster Abbey, any Gordon Ramsay restaurant, V&A Museum, Kensington Gardens, Royal Ascot, Elton John's White Tie & Tiara Ball...

One of my many personalities is pretty sure we'll be invited to that last one.

Friday, July 2, 2010

C'est Si Bon

What to do with my vacation time? WHAT TO DO??? We get six weeks of summer break (no, I do not expect any pity here). However due to tax regulations I can only be stateside for three of them. I am thus forced to spend the remaining three weeks elsewhere. This summer "elsewhere" will be the French Riviera (am still not expecting pity, but will let you know if I require it at a later time).

After muddling through a week in Paris, last March, with my Flight of the Conchords French ("Oui oui! Baguette! Gerard Depardieu! Camembert!") I decided that I loved France enough to want to communicate with the natives in their mother tongue (insert sophomoric joke about "tongue" and "French kissing"), and in full sentences. I will be spending just over two weeks in Nice, Antibes and Cannes strolling the beaches, sipping wine, dipping everything in brie, and, most importantly, studying French. Or, wait, maybe the "most importantly" is the wine...

I have completely romanticized the Cote d'Azur into an absolute utopia (should that be capitalized?) by repeatedly, and obsessively, watching these two films:

LOOOOOOOVE THEM!!!! I have said, on numerous occasions, that if I could live anywhere in the world it would be the fictional town of Beaumont sur Mer, from "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels".

I am currently imagining that 1950s Cary Grant will pick me up at the Aeroport Nice Cote d'Azur, in the borrowed sparkly-blue Sunbeam/Talbot Alpine roadster, and whisk me off to the Rotonde casino to con hapless billionaires out of their fortunes. We will then drive up along the winding cliff-side road to find an appropriate spot for our picnic, which will include wine, brie and (for some reason) cold chicken. I will be draped in an elaborate Edith Head-designed ball gown and dripping in Cartier diamonds.

My vacation is going to be le merde!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Shark Diving in Tibet

Sometimes when I'm telling stories, you know at a bar, or a party, or just to myself before I go to sleep, I will hear myself sounding a little like Hansel from Zoolander. (He's so hot right now).

"Me and my friends have been too busy bathing off the Southern coast of St. Barts with spider monkeys for the past two weeks."


"So I'm rappelling down Mount Vesuvius when suddenly..."


"This one time, I was whitewater rafting down the Urubamba River in Peru..."

When I'm recounting said stories, I'm honestly not trying to work in that I've been to somewhere superspecialthatyouhaven't, and neener neener neener. It's just that when I was riding a funny bike with a bell and a big basket, trying to find the McDonald's, I happened to be in Beijing. Or that when I had my eyelashes dyed, I was in Bali. Or that when I met my friend Whitney, we were on a cruise to Antarctica.

The things I'm doing really aren't any different from the things anyone else is doing: riding bikes, beauty treatments, meeting new friends. I just occasionally go a little further to do them.

Sometimes the activities will be once-in-a-lifetime things that could be construed as somewhat outrageous, like bungee jumping in New Zealand, paragliding in Oman or sky-diving in...Washington state. See? I do things in normal places too!

I travel because I'm a visual learner, and I won't truly understand a place until I've been there myself. I also travel because I'm moderately claustrophobic (albeit self-diagnosed) and begin to feel trapped if in one place for too long. The trips I take, and the activities in which I participate, are solely designed to keep myself entertained, and not to impress anyone else.

If I'm really trying to impress you, I'll just challenge you to a walk-off.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Grettona The Brave

What constitutes bravery?

Ramona was brave in her face-off with a neighborhood dog, when she threw one of her shoes at the menacing, approaching animal. The dog ended up running off with the thrown shoe. Now, we all know how I feel about I would probably call throwing the shoe more foolish than brave, but nonetheless! (God, I hope they weren't Pierre Hardy. Those are expensive.)

I was, surprisingly, labeled "brave" during a whitewater rafting experience in Peru - during which I was bounced out of the raft and into the bracingly cold rapids o
f the Urubamba River. The experience for me was somewhat surreal, and my thought process had gone a little like this:

Brain: paddle, paddle, GODDAMMIT the pooled water in the raft is freezing my toes! paddle, paddle; heading into big rock, BOUNCE...I was in the boat...and now I seem to be...out of the boat...hmmmm, that's notsogood.

And at that point I was struggling against the water, attempting to stand up, but instea
d having my shins banged against underwater rocks while Class IV whitecaps crashed into my torso. I eventually heard our guide yell something like "LET GO!" and I remembered in our training that we were supposed to just aim our feet forward, cross our arms over our chests, and let the current carry us. So I did that. It felt MUCH better than all the shin-banging, and even though I was then at the mercy of the river I wasn't frantic or stressed.

I had an absurdly confident kind of "I'm pretty sure this isn't how I'm supposed to die" thought process going, so I wasn't at all surprised when, after maybe 30-45 seconds of shooting down the river, our guide had powered our raft up close enough to reach out and grab onto my life vest and yank me back into the raft.

My friends were bug-eyed, gushing "OHMYGOD are you okayyyyyy????", and I was. I mean, I was freezing and violently shivering from the icy river, but still very okay. When we pulled up out of the raft and began our slow, still very shivery walk back to the van, one of my friends just looked at me incredulously and said "You are so brave. I would have had a complete meltdown if that had happened to me."

I didn't feel brave. I just felt cold. I thought about my reaction and thought "Well, what was the alternative, really?"

Life, much like that sassy Urubamba, is unpredictable. Sometimes things happen that go spiraling way beyond your control, and you just have to be "brave" enough to LET GO.

Although I don't advocate letting go of your shoes. Especially if they're Pierre Hardy, because, again, those are expensive.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lather, Rinse, Repeat. It's Okay.

Until fairly recently I was a bit driven in my quest to see EVERYWHERE before I died. I have previously mentioned that my Bible is this book:

I haven't been to 1000 places, much less THESE 1000 places, but it's good to have goals. I have made it to all seven continents, including the really cold one that everyone forgets about, and yet the "Where I've Been" application on Facebook STILL thinks that I've only been to 14% of the world. That doesn't sound right, does it? I didn't think so either!

Being moderately competitive, I wanted to show that FB app who was boss, and said "I'm NOT repeating destinations until I've been EVERYWHERE!" I pride myself on being profoundly realistic.

After ticking Italy off the list in March, having spent a week in Venice, I proceeded with my plan for "Where I've Been" Map Domination and made a few arrangements to see Romania. I probably should have been aiming at one of the larger land-mass countries, but I've always had a Dracula/Transylvania fixation that I thought I could satiate with this trip.

Italy had other plans. It simply would not let go of me. I was in a death grip of spectacular cuisine, incre
dible architecture, uber-chic fashion and absurdly sexy people. I had to go back! More Italy!

My new frame of mind was "Why would you go anywhere OTHER than Italy?! WHY?! VIVA ITALIA! CIAO BELLA!!!"

And so Rome it was.

Was this the best Rome photo I could find? Noooooooo, but it does incorporate several of the aforementioned fabulous aspects of Italy:

1) Architecture (sculpture)
2) Sexy Italians (did you see those legs?)
3) Fashion (I defy you to find similar legwarmers anywhere else)

I am excitedly anticipating visiting all the other cities in Italy. Every single one of them. That Facebook app can suck it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sooooooooooooo, yeah.

I hit that magical 500 mark and just threw up mah hands and said "DONE!" The thrill of the blog was gone, and I had moved on over to BurkaGretta (which has also been languishing, and is currently hidden - it's not you, it's me) to blather on about what I have been doing in The Iraq. Hmph.

The funniest thing about my whole blogging hiatu
s here at TravelGretta was that whilst not blogging about travel, I was actually traveling. Member how before? When I called the blog "TravelGretta"? But I would mostly just crap on about shoes and Reality TV? IRONIC! (and I'm pretty sure I'm using that correctly, for once).

I have received a number of VERY SWEET AND COMPLETELY APPRECIATED pleas to crank it up again, and I want you all to know I miss you too.

This is where I should probably discuss how, over the past 15 months, in addition to Vienna, Paris, Croatia, and Greece, I've visited Stockholm, London, Jordan, Oman, Venice and Rome...but I'd rather show you what I bought myself for my upcoming birthday...

Okay, I can't find a photo of them. But they were on sale at Barneys.