Our new happy place

For about a month straight, my husband would ask me, “Where would you like to go this weekend?” and I would tell him, “The Candy Store.” He would roll his eyes. Or he would say “I’m not driving downtown to buy candy. Or he would just not answer me as though it was not a serious response worth considering.

But THIS weekend, we head two full days downtown for other commitments AND a few hours to time to kill between events. There was no reason not to take our first trip to Dylan’s Candy Bar in Chicago!

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Now, before you roll your eyes and think to yourself, “That is a ridiculous place for adults to go,” I want you to think about the types of places that you visit when you’re on vacation. Maybe you hit a really cool bookstore. Maybe you stand in line for molten chocolate and churros. And maybe you go visit a really neat shop that stocks candy from all over the world, serves its own branded candy from a candy bar and has an attached café that serves amazing, over the top fizzy concoctions that you would only dream about as a kid. Wouldn’t that be exactly the type of place that you would go on vacation?!

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YES! SO MUCH YES!

When we arrived, a greeter handed us lemonade flavored lollipops, just for visiting. It gave my kids something to do as we considered the Care Bear candy collection. We were maintaining our cool until we hit the Bulk candy area, where you could pick whatever candy you like and pack it into a variety of excellent rainbow colored containers. If you looked up, you noticed the candy collection being monitored by giant rainbow gummi bears.

So much more than a candy store, Dylan’s Candy Bar promotes a colorful candy lifestyle. There’s candy jewelry, jewelry with candy charms, a whole Unicorn kiosk and Candy pillows, journals and more. It’s making me re-think my less colorful choices in life.

After the kids had hit their patience limit, we checked out and sat at the café for a more immediate gratification. The menu covers desserts, smoothies and drinks. I actually think there is food served too, but I didn’t see anybody eating food. All I saw was this. And this and this:

When the time came to head out, we were all smiles and satisfaction with the little ones chattering about their “Amazing cool drinks” and my husband thinking that maybe this is a place where we stop for adult beverages next time we’re in the city without the kids. It’s truly a place where everyone has a great time and unleashed the kid at heart!

 

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Chicago

Have you ever heard of a Staycation? It’s when you take your own city and visit it like you’re a tourist. We took the opportunity to tour some of Chicago’s best, kid-friendly attractions this summer and see the best of our home city!

First stop was the Field Museum. It has an EXCELLENT exhibition on Jurassic World, but our kids are young and thought that might be scary. So we opted for the Specimens tour instead. I honestly thought the draw was the giant butterfly and colorful animals on the pattern. The Field museum knows how to attract a kid’s attention!

It was a very cool and tactile experience showcasing the preserves of eggs, fossils and artifacts. In addition, there was a cool multimedia display that explained how the museum is able to track evolution in current times b showing the changing size and characteristics of commons swallows in Chicago due to it’s extensive collection of specimens. My three year old watched it several times until I picked her up to go into the next room.

The Field museum also hires teen volunteers to help explain fossils and displays to children. I think the highlight of Olivia’s life was when a volunteer tried to explain dinosaur’s reptile characteristics by asking her if she knew anything about snakes. She immediately opened her gold glitter purse to reveal her stuffed snake and spent the next few minutes reciting her favorite passages from Snake-a-pedia. Needless to say, the Field museum was a big hit.

Right across campus is the Shedd Aquarium which is also a huge hit with the kids. Obviously, the biggest draw for us was the anaconda and various water snakes. But there are also a variety of beautiful tropical fish, brightly colored frogs and playful swimming otters.  If you’re in the mood for lunch or a snack, there are also several very cool cafes and verandas where you can eat lunch outside and enjoy the lakefront views.

Finally, we stopped by the memorial at Soldier Field. Most people know that Soldier Field is the home of the Chicago Bears, but what they don’t know is that it’s also a dedicated memorial to the armed forces. We have several proud military veterans in our family and the girls were so excited to point out the medallions representing their uncles and Grandpa in the Marines, Air Force and Army.

It was a great day for us as a family and a good reminder that sometimes the best experiences are waiting for you in your own back yard!

St. Petersburg

We hear so much about Russia in our history and our news channels. What is it to be Russian? What makes them proud? What can they build? To answer my questions and to put a face onto the unknown other, we traveled to St. Petersburg.

Built along the Neva river on contested land, Peter the Great built his city as a modern, beautiful marvel to rival other contemporary capitals in Europe. Further down the Neva, Peter built his “summer palace” as a direct response to Versailles. Additionally, he then built Peterhof as the “dasha,” or summer home of the Tsar, as a country escape from his official capital. Its beautiful gardens and working fountains were a marvel of technology at the time.

 

Although, honestly, I’m not sure who would have wanted that escape. The city has been voted the most beautiful in the world several times for good reason.  St. Petersburg is, foremost, a town of palaces. Each building a unique testament to wealth and privilege painted in pastel colors and decorated with statues of ancient gods and symbols of plenty. It is clean, smoke free, litter free and proud of its heritage as Peter the Great’s chosen capital.

Unbelievably, the interior of these palaces are even more startling. The talent that went into the inlaid flooring, gilded ceilings and paneled walls is unparalleled. Peter and his descendants drafted architects, designers and artists from Scotland, France and Italy to make their vision a reality.

The churches with their golden cuppolas and glittering mosaics speak to their strong faith which seems to be the foundation of its residents, who thrive on the banks of the Neva River. The buildings and street stalls that surround them comprise the backbone of St. Petersburg main industry: tourism. The maroushkas, porcelains, t-shirts and children’s toys offer you a piece of St. Petersburg’s rich history. I bought two of whatever I could carry.

And so, St. Petersburg is demystified. It is a beautiful westernized European city. The citizens speak English and Russian. They are capitalists with a long memory of different days.  They enjoy the same music and really good caviar that we prize in the United States. They are people as we are people. And if you have an opportunity to travel there, I hope you accept the chance to visit this beautiful city.

France: Disneyland Paris

I love traveling and experiencing new foods, places and cultures, but these are fun activities from a grown up perspective. So when Isabella dramatically died of boredom on her tour de chateaux, we knew it was time to change up our itinerary. Luckily, we had planned for our threenager to be in full force and had booked a special detour just for her and Olivia.

DISNEYLAND PARIS!

We live in the United States, but this was our first trip to any Disney resort. We did internet research from Dedicated to DLP, Disney promotional videos and listened to input from friends who Disney often in the States. We knew that on-site guests have access to early entry to the park and that we would benefit from purchasing a dining plan. We purchased our tickets directly from Disneyland Paris but we used the French speaking site because it’s literally more expensive to get the same package when you book in English. We also reserved character dinners two months in advance, which is the limit for Disneyland Paris (DLP). We had better luck calling Customer Service directly (yes, we called France directly from the U.S.) than trying to reserve online. They did speak English and were very pleasant over the phone.

Lodging: We stayed on-site at the Sequoia Lodge. It was close enough to walk to the parks and far enough to remove ourselves from the parade crowds at the end of the day. It is themed in a rustic “American style, Western-pioneer” motif. If your kids like playing cowboy or out in the woods, this is a pretty cool place to stay. The hotel common areas were gorgeous. They also had an on-location Disney Store with exclusive DLP pins, clothing and suitcases.

Mom notes: The room met our needs with two double beds and en-suite bathroom. I would compare the room to a Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn. They provide a cute Mickey Mouse Shower gel and shampoo, but they do not provide conditioner. We opted for breakfast with our accommodation. It was a light buffet with assorted breads, cereals, cold cut meats and cheese. If you want to take advantage of the early “magic hour” then I suggest booking breakfast at 7:00 or 7:30AM. By 8:00AM, the line was extremely long with lots of hungry little princesses and Avengers waiting for an open seat.

The walk from the Sequoia to Disneyland Park was great. It took us past a beautiful pond with a hot air balloon and straight through Disney Village. There were very kitschy, cute restaurants and lots of various shops to visit. I loved that we could hit the shops outside of the park on our way back to the hotel and not carry everything through the park all day.

You actually have to travel under the Disneyland hotel, a beautiful pink chateau in its own right, to get to the park. This is, as they say, where the magic happens.

What to do with a 3 year old and 6 year old in Disneyland Park? Well, we visited during the 25th Anniversary which includes special costumes, parades and attractions in the park. We definitely bought new costumes and they wore them the whole time we were there.

We spent most of our time in Fantasy land because that’s where the girls’ favorite rides were: Tea cups, Flying Dumbo and the Alice in Wonderland labyrinth. We did each a few times and you  know what? It was ok. They had a blast and we had a good time being with them. And we did take them through the 20,000 leagues under the sea ride and driving the motorized cars in Discoveryland. There was something fun for everyone.

In the end, vacations are about getting away from the everyday grind and spending time with the people you love most.  Whether it’s grabbing the special blue donuts with star sprinkles or just watching a little blue fairy dancing joyously in her new costume, the magic of Disney is making those memories together.

Loire Valley: Cheverny and Chambord

It’s been a wild two months with travel, and I’ve just now replaced my luggage and done enough laundry to justify taking the time to do another blog entry. And so, my lovely travel friends, I present to you our Springtime adventure to the Loire Valley.

As always, we planned our flight around the girls. We try to book flights to coincide with bedtime when flying long-haul trips. That way, the girls boarded the plane, ate dinner and fell right asleep for the majority of the flight. At three, Isabella is already a pro at check-in, packing the right toys for the plane and enjoying the flight.  We flew Economy Plus via United Airlines direct ORD to CDG.

We arrived in the morning, ready to grab a croissant and explore the Loire Valley. Our first stop was the Chateau de Chantilly, known as the home of Henri d’Orleans and for it’s amazing whipped cream desserts. Something for everyone.

It was a beautiful introduction to France. The grand chateau, the ornate décor, everything that a toddler could care less about. Mike demonstrates the proper technique for getting a toddler into a historic site below.

Once inside, Olivia really loved the library and the beautifully appointed rooms. In her heart, she was now in a Disney princess movie. Isabella was still rather suspicious. This entire castle was filled with things she wasn’t supposed to touch and she took that as a personal challenge.

After letting the kids run in the chateau gardens and feeding them a proper lunch at the restaurant in the chateau, we wondered down the path to Chambord. Now, I was excited to visit Chambord. I knew we wouldn’t be drinking Chambord, but it looked like a beautiful chateau with gorgeous ambiance and I was just way too excited to see it.

And it was gorgeous. There is this amazing double helix staircase in the center that leads up through several floors and lets out on the castle ramparts. The girls explained that this was where the “Beast” fought Gaston on the turrets. They loved Chambord almost as much as I did.

After the kids ran all through the chateau, we headed to our home away rental home for a glass of wine, baguette and cheese. But that is a story for a different post.

Until then, Au Revoir!

Mica

Giving back: a global perspective

I remember the first time that I really ever saw poverty. It was 1989 and my family took a month to drive down to Mexico to visit our relatives. While we were by no means wealthy, we were comfortable in a very Midwestern fashion. We had a house. We had a garden. We had clothes, shoes and enough to eat. And as a child, this was the type of world that I assumed everyone lived in.

 

When we crossed into Juarez, Mexico, I was introduced to a different type of world. The distinctions were, to me, evident everywhere. The brightly colored houses made of plaster. There were children playing in the streets with their dogs in intense games of soccer. There were open corner markets full of candy and treats. And there were also people, in some cases maimed or physically handicapped, begging for money.

Poverty occurs everywhere, but this was the first time that I noticed it and I was still rather young. As an adult, I can detect people struggling in my own town. I see people asking for money on street corners in Chicago every day. But, one of the benefits of travel is that you look at the world around you with renewed interest because nothing is familiar. That feeling of wonder stuck with me, even after all these years.

For Lent, I told the girls that we are entering a period of service. I explained that this means that we try to do good deeds that help others. I told them that if they help with certain chores around the house or for the family, that I will give them money (they don’t currently receive an allowance) and that the money will go into their “Lenten Box.”

At the end of Lent, we would then donate all the money to help provide for those in need. They were very excited and asked to decorate their “Lenten Box” this morning.  They are brainstorming ideas on how to help people (and who to help) so that they can feed their frog.

I haven’t decided whether we will turn the money into our Parish or whether we will donate outright to a charity. If you have suggestions or volunteer with a worthy cause, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about causes close to your hearts and whether or not we could donate to them!

En Español:

Recuerdo la primera vez que vi la pobreza. Era 1989 y mi familia tomó un mes para conducir a México para visitar a nuestros abuelos. Mientras no estábamos ricos, estábamos cómodos en una manera muy Americana. Teníamos una casa. Teníamos un jardín. Teníamos ropa, zapatos y suficiente para comer. Y cuando era niño, este era el tipo de mundo en el que asumí que todos vivían.

Cuando cruzamos a Juárez, México, me introdujeron en un mundo diferente. Las distinciones eran para mí evidentes en todas partes. Las casas de colores brillantes de yeso. Había niños jugando en las calles, con perros, jugando al fútbol. Había mercados de esquina abiertos llenos de dulces y golosinas. Y había gente, en algunos casos mutilada o físicamente discapacitada, pidiendo dinero.

La pobreza se produce en todas partes, pero esta fue la primera vez que me di cuenta y yo todavía era bastante joven. Como un adulto, puedo detectar a las personas que luchan en mi propia ciudad. Veo gente pidiendo dinero en las esquinas de las calles de Chicago todos los días. Pero, uno de los beneficios del viaje es que usted mira el mundo alrededor de usted con el interés renovado porque nada es familiar. Ese sentimiento de asombro se mantuvo conmigo, incluso después de todos estos años.

Para la Cuaresma, les dije a las chicas que estamos entrando en un período de servicio. Le expliqué que esto significa que tratamos de hacer buenas acciones que ayuden a otros. Les dije que si ayudan con ciertas tareas en la casa o con la familia, les doy dinero (no reciben actualmente una asignación) y que el dinero irá a su “Banco de Cuaresma”.

Al final de Cuaresma, entonces donaremos todo el dinero para ayudar a proveer para aquellos que lo necesitan. Estaban muy emocionados y pidieron que decoraran su “Cuaderno” esta mañana. Son ideas de lluvia de ideas sobre cómo ayudar a las personas (y que para ayudar) para que puedan alimentar a su rana.

No he decidido si invertiremos el dinero en nuestra parroquia o si donaremos directamente a una organización benéfica. Si usted tiene sugerencias o voluntarios con una causa digna, por favor deje un comentario! Me encantaría escuchar acerca de las causas cercanas a sus corazones y si o no podíamos donar a ellos!

 

 

 

Mardi Gras: a celebration

As a Latina, I’ve always celebrated holidays with friends and family. My grandmother always made it a point to make every holiday a little special for us. And now, my extended family always makes an effort to celebrate their traditions with the girls, ensuring the cultural significance gets passed down to the next generation.

Mardi Gras in a Latin-Catholic family is about shiny necklaces, sparkly masks made of paper and then the last sad goodbye to whatever treat or activity that you will give up for the Lenten season. In my husband’s Italian family, they tend to focus on amazing food, which just elevates the celebration!

This year, Mike just returned from a trip abroad and so we’ve been fortunate to ramp up for Mardi Gras with new masks from Italy:

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The girls received buckets of beads while their cousin was attending Loyola in NOLA. Olivia is VERY excited to wear hers to school:

And finally, no celebration would be quite as sweet without the king cake!

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We wish everyone a safe and happy Mardi Gras!

Maui: a lesson in time management

The best travel advice I’ve ever given is that you have to be open to trying new experiences whenever they present themselves. It’s not always planned or well-timed, but the experience always outweighs the inconvenience in my opinion.

When Olivia was a baby, Mike told me that he was going to extend his time in Hawaii by a couple of weeks for a job he was doing in Maui. The problem was that time conflicted with Olivia’s first Father’s day. As usual, Mike came up with a perfect solution.

The inconvenient part is that I has actually just started a new job a few months previously. How was I going to let my boss know that I was taking a week’s vacation with one week’s notice? Brain-storm: I was going to work the whole week. REMOTELY.

Now for those of you who have never worked from home, or had flexible work schedules, this probably seems mind blowing. I had never worked remotely either. But when I worked through it, I would be able to do my job on local hours if I started my day at 4AM in the Hawaii-Aleutian time zone.  I could work until 5PM Central time and still have half a day left in Hawaii for a whole week.  I had to try.

We stayed at the Wailea Beach Resort in Maui for the week because it was closest to Mike’s job site.  Our days went like this: I woke up at 4AM and worked from my laptop with my team on-line. I took conference calls and managed until 7AM local time (noon in Chicago) when Olivia and I went down to breakfast and my husband went to work.

Then after breakfast, we came back to our room and Olivia played with her books, toys and iPad in the morning until it was time for me to sign off for the day. around noon local time. Then we packed up our stroller and went to the pool, took walks along the shore until she fell asleep at nap time and played on the beach in the afternoons. In the evening we would meet Mike for dinner or he would come back to the hotel and swim with us.

Vacationing in Paradise isn’t difficult. If you have a small child, you don’t have to leave your hotel. You don’t have to do anything more than hang out at the beach with your SPF50 and your little ones. We shopped at the local ABC store and just hung out.

It was 100% worth the extra effort on my part. I just didn’t acclimate to local time during the week. I fell asleep really early, but that worked for us and was factored into our plan.

So if someone asks if you could make a trip to Maui work, say yes! You absolutely won’t regret it.

Papeete, French Polynesia

“We could go to London?” said my husband.  “How about Mexico?” I countered.
“How about Tahiti?”

“Yes, I think I could go to Tahiti.”

And with that we packed up our infant, sunscreen and sarongs and flew to Tahiti.
It was a long flight: ORD to LAX, grab bags at LAX and walk outside to the international terminal and then catch a long flight via Air Tahiti Nui to Papeete. (Pronounced pa-peh-yet-eh)  

 Papeete is the capital of Tahiti and the last real “town” that you will encounter on the islands. They have a thriving Municipal Market to purchase your scented coconut oils in jasmine, gardenia or plumeria. They refer to coconut oil as Manoi and it’s produced on island and protected by an appellation d’origin, similar to Champagne.  They also sell insect repellant that is the only potion strong enough to deter the native mosquitos. Buy the large bottle.

We stayed at the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort near the airport and it was divine. It was  near enough to paradise without having to endure a long ride after being on a plane for half a day.  The hotel was clean, the pool was nice…but the VIEW. Well, have a look:img_1784

This is what you wake up to every morning in paradise.

We hit the market but also stopped to see the Museum of Tahiti and her Islands. It’s my inner nerd talking, but I think the best part of travel is discovering new places and learning about the people inhabiting that place. Tahiti met the same fate of colonization that affected the rest of the South Pacific, but they do have their own story and it was fascinating to learn about it.

And finally we hit the local waterfall and hiked some light trails before retiring back to our beautiful hotel to enjoy some local cuisine.

We recommend the fish and don’t forget to tip the in-house band. 😉

Until next time, bon voyages!

Multicultural appreciation

This is my daughter’s first year in real school, kindergarten. This means new rules for us as a family regarding when we can travel. It’s new for us and we’re adjusting, but we also have the opportunity to participate in interesting new events, such as International Appreciation Day at school.

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Because my heritage is Latina/Chicana, I assumed that the girls would wear pretty dresses from Coyoacan, we’d bring some tacos and we’d all have a good time.

Then, I received an excited email from my husband, who is 1/4 Scottish. “I’m going to make Haggis for International fair!”

Oh. My. Goodness.

If you haven’t tried haggis, it’s spiced sheep pluck and you can usually find it at a local Highlands festival. It’s REALLY good and I encourage you to try it. I’m unsure how I feel about having it cooked in my home, but we’ll see.

I didn’t think much more about it until I came home and Mike said that we had an email update that there was going to be a PARADE for the festival and the kids could participate.

What does that mean exactly? In my house, it means BAGPIPES.
My husband unearthed his bagpipes from the depths of our basement and cleaned them up for my 5 year old to play in the school parade.

If you have heard bag pipes in real life, you know that they are a unique sound and can only imagine the delight that making these noises has brought to my child. So, if the purpose of International Appreciation was to interest your children in their heritage and open them to new ideas, then mission accomplished.

In the mean time, Bella and I will just be sitting here appreciating Olivia’s new musical talents.

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