Throwback Thursdays: Healing in Hong Kong

A few weeks after Hershey crossed the rainbow bridge, I told Hubs that there was no way in hell I wanted to be anywhere near Vienna when the one year anniversary mark hit. We looked around for a new place to visit and decided on Hong Kong. It was far away and didn’t resemble anything “European”. We left on Christmas day and flew with Turkish Airlines. This was before Austrian Airlines announced their new nonstop route from Vienna. I really didn’t care for Turkish Airlines and probably won’t fly them again.

Once in Hong Kong, it was like the breath of fresh air we desperately needed. We mainly went there to eat, take in the sights and heal. Hong Kong is very hilly and has lots of stairs. Thank goodness for the mid-level escalators in the center of the city.

The Hong Kong tram system is the only one left in the world that operates double decker trams exclusively. It was so charming and cool. We rode them every chance we got! Hubs and I also stood in line for Victoria Peak not knowing we already had the right tickets to jump to the front of the line. So when a family of four cut in front of us-I used some, ummm, choice words, loudly. Needless to say, they thought I was the crazy one. It was well worth it once we got to the top. The iconic views of  the Hong Kong skyline were amazing. Although extremely touristy, it’s a must-do.  If you decide to go to Victoria Peak, here’s a tip – use the bus instead of the tram to go up AND down the mountain.  Plus, the wait is much shorter both ways with the bus – and cheaper!

We also took advantage of going to a modern and “real” movie theater.  The American cinema company AMC exists there and paying the extra costs to be in the VIP room was well worth it. Like in most Asian cities, they jack up the air conditioning so high that you’re a popsicle by the time you leave. There were reclining leather seats with call buttons for an attendant to fetch you anything you wanted during the movie.

I didn’t find out until a day or two before the trip that there was a coffee shop named Hazel & Hershey in Hong Kong.  It was fate… I couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate Hershey’s life than this for the one year mark. They had really good matcha lattes and coffee; we went back a few days later for a second helping.

During our trip we also celebrated Hubs’ birthday. I surprised him with a buffet brunch at the Ritz Carlton on the 102th floor near the harbor on the Kowloon side. We had a special window table and the views were unsurpassed. The food was delicious, too. It was our last day in Hong Kong.

In many ways, this trip was healing for us. It doesn’t erase Hershey or the days leading up to his death, but it took away a lot of the pain associated with the time of year it happens to fall near. I know that Christmas and New Years will forever be bittersweet in our hearts.

Throwback Thursdays: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

In October 2015, my friend Emily asked if I would be interested in tickets to the upcoming Harry Potter play in London. Of course I was! She proceeded to wait in a “virtual line” for six hours. She originally wanted to obtain tickets for Summer 2016, but by the time it was her turn she was offered tickets for late October 2016. A whole year away! Nevertheless, I was thrilled, it was no question, we took them!

Finally, a year passed, we collected our tickets and found our seats. At that moment, it finally hit me that we were in f*ing London to see the new Harry Potter play! I felt like we won the lottery.  It was totally a “pinch me” moment. The play was in two parts, over two nights – the first part was on the 20th and second on the 21st. I made sure not to read anything about the production or the book so I wouldn’t be disappointed if it turned out “just okay”. Everything from the cast, costumes, set and special effects were fantastic. Going into it without knowing the details of the story made the play even more magical. And, did I mention we had awesome seats? It was such an incredible experience that our Christmas card for 2016 had a picture of us in front of the theater. It wasn’t the best picture, but it was a moment in 2016 that captured pure joy.

Speaking of amazing plays, and fun stuff happening in the West End….the critically acclaimed Hamilton play is making its way to this side of the pond in Fall 2017. This time around it was my turn to wait in virtual line to get tickets as soon as they went on sale in late January 2017.   By the time it was my turn, I snagged tickets for January 2018. A full year away…again! So excited and can’t wait to share our experiences of it early next year!

We did other London things too.  Hubs and I took the time to have high tea at Claridges, which was really nice and relaxing. After trying many afternoon tea places over the years, my favorite is still at the Connaught Hotel. Other than the play and high tea, we didn’t really have anything else planned except to eat! We went back to some of our favorite eateries and found a few new places to try.

 

Darling Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik has been on our bucket list even before our move to Europe. Hubs and I have heard nothing but great things about Dubrovnik. After four and a half years, we finally made our way “next door”. Austrian Airlines flies non-stop from Vienna to Dubrovnik, seasonally. It’s definitely not the cheapest option, but most convenient – a ten hour drive vs. a 75 minute flight.  We’ll take the flight, thanks.

We landed and quickly started our journey to the city. As soon as we caught the first glimpse of Dubrovnik, it literally took our breath away. Our driver was kind enough to stop for us to capture that moment from the road along the cliffs overlooking the city.

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As soon as we got settled into our AirBnB, we set out to explore the city. We didn’t want to do too much as we had a Game of Thrones tour the next day.

Hubs and I became Game of Thrones fans during our first few months living in Vienna. We binged watched the first two seasons before the start of the third. A lot of the filming takes place in Northern Ireland, Spain, and Croatia. Dubrovnik is the primary backdrop for Kings Landing. The locations tour was fascinating and we had to use a lot of our imagination due to the CGI add-ons. The Red Keep is completely digitalized, but you can see the foundation they used. We got to see the famous sights for some of the iconic scenes from the show, such as, Cersei’s walk of shame, the Purple wedding, Myrcella leaving for Dorne, etc. It was great to get a feel of how much work goes into filming just one scene. At the end of the tour, we had the option to visit a very touristy shop that had a replica of the Iron throne. As cheesy as it might seem, I had to take my turn and try it out!

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The rest of our time in Dubrovnik was spent climbing A LOT of stairs. Steep and sometimes cumbersome- anyone with leg/knee problems would have a really tough time. I felt like my legs were going to give way a few times, especially in the heat.

We also did a day trip to the island of Lokrum. It’s the closest island to Dubrovnik, only a 15 minute boat ride from the old harbor. An old monastery on Lokrum is the set for Qarth. The island’s native inhabitants are peacocks and rabbits. People mainly go there to swim, sunbathe, kayak and hike. We only stayed for a couple hours, but could’ve easily spent the whole day there if we had more time.

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Overall, I’d say Dubrovnik is a great long weekend getaway- but if you want to take your time and see other places nearby (Bosnia, Montenegro and other islands), it could easily become a one or two week holiday. I’d also recommend going during shoulder season. We were there just as the cruising and high season started and seeing people being herded like sheep with their paddle-holding guide leading a large group of (loud, rude, shouting) tourists can be overwhelming, especially in such high concentrations.

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Throwback Thursdays: Hunting for Polish Pottery

I’m going to restart my Throwback Thursdays series to backtrack and blog about the adventures we took over the last year or so. Those who follow me on Instagram have seen glimpses of what we’ve been up to. It’s the only platform of social media that I use consistently these days.

Hubs and I like to make use of the office holidays he gets here, and this year the dates all happened to fall on a Friday or Monday – perfect for long weekend getaways. At the beginning of May 2017, we went on a road trip to Poland. Our first visit to Poland was in summer of 2015, and we went to Krakow and Auschwitz.

The itinerary this time was Boleslawiec and Wroclaw. If you recognize the name Boleslawiec, then you know it’s world renowned for its unique pottery – in this case, think of everyday dishes bowls, mugs, etc… Many military wives and expats who live within an eight hour drive have gone on weekend expeditions (yes, multiple!) to buy heaps of this stuff.  When I mean heaps, I mean American sized SUVs/mini-vans filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of the pottery. The parking lots were filled with Jeeps, Odysseys, etc. These were dead giveaways of the presence of American military wives since they usually ship their vehicles from the states during their time overseas.

I first heard about the Polish pottery when I happened upon other expat wives blogging about day and weekend trips there. It piqued my interest and I started to do the research. Boleslawiec Pottery is only made with locally sourced clay only found in that particular region of Poland. The intricacies of these hand painted and handmade pieces are just exquisite. There are many collectors and it’s super expensive to buy authentic pieces outside of Europe. Hence, the reason why people come here to buy Costco amounts of this stuff. It’s so affordable to buy it in Poland. I love the fact that it’s dishwasher, oven, microwave safe AND super sturdy. There are many categories of the pottery and usually people buy GAT (quality) 1 or 2 for the above mentioned purposes. The other categories (below 2) are usually just “for show” or decorative pieces. As you can see from the pictures, I had a bit too much fun.

 

I also should mention that it was our very first time trying homemade Pierogis. I also had this savory potato pancake-like dish with goulash stuffed inside. OH. MY. LORD, comfort food at its best! So delicious! My mouth is watering even as I type this.

Onto to Wroclaw! We spent two nights in this charming little city. It’s often mistaken for Warsaw. What was really nice is that it’s not crawling with “English speaking” tourists-yet. Most locals couldn’t speak or understand English-which was quite refreshing. Hand gestures and pointing were greatly appreciated. We loved going on a “scavenger hunt” for the famous dwarf statues of the city. Did you know that there are over 400 of them dotted throughout the town? We found 40 of them during our short stay.

Poland has really captivated us and I have a feeling we’ll be making more road-trips back to explore more of this lovely country!

A unique Parisian souvenir

Ever wish there was a way to take the best travel pictures without having to resort to using a selfie stick, or hoping another tourist will take a picture of you and your loved one(s) and be able to capture the picture just right? Whenever Hubs and I travel, I have no shame in asking people to take pictures of us. Yes, I’m one of those semi-obnoxious tourists. But in my defense, I’m very polite about it and doesn’t just shove my camera at someone.  Plus, I always offer to take a picture in return for the other person. I usually look for someone who has a DSLR camera around their neck, because they’d most likely take a better picture than someone with a point-and-shoot or a smartphone.   Unfortunately, that theory only holds true a little more than half the time. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying, and selfies usually only capture our two big heads and barely anything else. Growing up, my mom always said “if you’re not in the picture, then you were never really there” and it has stuck with me ever since. She makes a good point though. When Hubs and I look back in 50 years, we’d want to remember all the things we’ve seen and experienced. Pictures of that random flower in the park is not going to jog our, probably, foggy memories of exactly where we were.

So when we were in Paris, about a month ago, I arranged for a professional photographer to take pictures of us at the famous sights of the city. It was a belated wedding anniversary gift and I am going to use some of the pictures for our holiday cards this year.  I received them this week and she did such a fantastic job! I am so in love with our pictures. I can say that this tops any souvenir I’ve ever gotten from our travels.

And if you’re wondering, none of the pictures below are in the holiday cards 🙂

 

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Aloha, Seattle!

After having lived abroad for almost three years, getting a chance to go back to the U.S is always a treat. I have more appreciation for everything and anything around, no matter how good or bad. Hubs and I planned our trek back to the U.S. a little differently this time around. If you can recall from one of my Throwback Thursday posts, we have always said that we wanted to move or settle back on the west coast when our time in Europe is done.

The Pacific Northwest is our kryptonite. Specifically, Seattle. We were going to spend two weeks in Washington State, but I came up with a crazier idea. Hubs and I have never been to Hawaii and seeing that it was another six hour flight from Seattle, we decided to go for it.

We spent our first few days in Seattle to recoup from jet-lag. And if you’re an expat, let’s face it, we stock up on boatloads of stuff when we return to our home country for a visit. That’s exactly what Hubs and I did. We shopped ’til we dropped, all the while checking out neighborhoods. It was glorious to be back in the land of consumerism.  We didn’t go as crazy as the last time and only had to purchase one extra suitcase this time around.

Now, onto the main attraction of this trip. Ah, Hawaii. We decided to stay on the island of Oahu. Our AirBnB was only two blocks away from Waikiki beach and all the action. When we arrived, our senses went into overdrive. Our first meal was a Japanese place that served a dish called tonkatsu. It was so delicious that Hubs and I agreed it was the best outside of Asia. What a great start to the week in paradise!

Hubs has always wanted to learn how to surf, so I arranged for him to receive a private surf lesson. I was happy that he got his dream. He had so much fun that he returned and rented a surf board to “practice” some more.

Friends advised not to stay on just one beach during our stay. Hubs and I had rented a car so that we could explore the island and visit the different beaches.  Many people might not know this about me, but I can’t swim. That didn’t deter me from enjoying little dips into the turquoise waters of every beach we came across. It was so warm and refreshing. I also loved the feel of the fine sand between my toes. Was I in heaven?

The absolute highlight for me was to see a Hawaiian sea turtle. There are laws protecting these beautiful creatures, so we had to be at least ten feet away from the turtles at all times. The turtle that we came across has been tracked and her favorite spot to rest is cordoned off, and has volunteers help protect her from certain crazy tourists. I was in awe.

Besides all of the above, we also hired a small local company to take us on a food tour of the island. It was a great day learning about Hawaiian culture and tasting the food. We also got great restaurant recommendations for the rest of our stay in Honolulu. And what was the kitschy tourist attraction we were suckered into while on this trip you ask? Well, we couldn’t very well come halfway across the world and not go to a luau! After all, I really wanted to get “lei’d”. I know, so silly, but it made me giddy with joy.

It was tough getting on that Hawaiian Airlines flight back to Seattle, because it meant our time in the U.S. was coming to a close. We spent our last two nights back in Seattle to finish off last minute errands and do a few touristy things. We had ourselves a wonderful time and I’m missing the Aloha spirit as I type this.

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Til the cows come home

The state of Tirol in Austria has been on our list since we moved here and just got around to it this week! I’m still a bit “giddy” from our trip.  The main draw for us this year was to attend an event called Almabtrieb. It’s German for “cattle drive”. In the alpine regions of Europe, farmers lead cows up to alpine pastures to feed during the summer. When autumn comes around, the cows are led back down to the valleys. This is a celebrated tradition and has become popular to tourists and locals over the years. I purposely picked a weekend where Hubs and I were able to experience three different ‘Almabtriebs’ in three small villages.  As you’ll see, I went a little overboard with pictures and videos.

I was tickled with joy when the cows paraded into town with massive bells ringing, some of which were decorated. If there weren’t accidents on the mountains, the cows would be decorated elaborately with garlands. In all the Almabtriebs we saw, there were no accidents.  When the cows were finally herded to their temporary destination after the village celebration, they are then returned to their owners to graze on grasses in the valleys. Spectators then retreat into tents for food, beer, music and awards. It was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget.

Aside from the cows, we explored the beautiful landscapes of the Austrian Alps. We’ve never seen grass in such a beautiful shade of green.  The high alpine lakes are also brilliantly clear, clean, and a lovely shade of green when seen from above. It was breathtaking how you could see forever in the valleys and every turn was more gorgeous than the last.

After the Almabtriebs ended we headed to our next destination, Innsbruck.  It was our jumping off point for a few activities, and Hubs had never been to the city.  I visited it a few years ago on a whirlwind tour of Europe with my mother.  I didn’t remember it too well, so it was nice to refresh my memory.  We only had one sunny day there and made the most of it.  One of my best friends has raved about rodelbahns (think of a bobsled track with roller coaster rails) that she and her family go to every year. That gave me the idea to find one near Innsbruck, in Tirol. Hubs and I had the opportunity to ride one in a nearby ski village called Zillertal. It was so fun! But, I was a bit bummed that they hadn’t yet completed the installation of the camera thingy catching you enjoying the ride.  Maybe next time.  We also had a fantastic Tyrolean lunch perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the valleys.  Did you know that Swarovski Headquarters are in Innsbruck?  I sure did.  Hubs did not.  He was kind enough to put up with the tour and had coffee in their cafe while I “looked around”.

We took our time driving back and in each small village we passed through we would look for cows, slow down, roll down the windows and listen for the distinctive “clang, cling, clong” sounds of the cows in the field.  It was a memorable road trip and if we get the chance to go back to Tirol, we’ll be sure to be there with bells on.

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The detour that almost didn’t happen

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Even up until the day we were leaving, Hubs and I were going back in forth if we wanted to go see Auschwitz. We’ve been to Dachau and weren’t sure if we wanted to put ourselves in that emotional state again. We are so glad we decided to make a go for it. It was sort of on the way back to Vienna and we both said we would have regretted if we had not gone. It was very emotional going to both sites. Did you know Auschwitz was made of three main camps and 40 sub camps? I knew it was the largest, but didn’t realize just how big it was until we were there. Hubs and I managed to visit Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. Auschwitz I has the famous gate with “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free). It was really something to see first hand and really know that the psychological torture for the victims was utterly relentless. We only walked the grounds there briefly and decided not to take pictures of each other there, out of respect. We don’t believe it’s a place to come and get your “happy face” pictures. We toured a gas chamber and crematorium for only a few seconds. The emotions were too much.

Auschwitz II:  Birkenau is probably the most infamous of the Auschwitz cluster of concentration camps. The old rail line that leads in through the center gate is still there for the world to see. Hubs and I always knew Auschwitz II was big, but, really, it’s humongous. We learned about this place in history classes, but to see it in first person was overwhelming, humbling, atrocious, sad, etc…There are not enough words to describe the feelings and sensations standing on the same platform where Jewish people from several European countries, transported like cattle, disembarked packed rail cars in a unfamiliar, hostile, land. Separated into two lines – one to live, and one to die – only hours after arrival.  How could evil this horrid be permitted to exist in modern times?  One preserved railcar still remains on the tracks, displaying how people arrived and the deplorable travel conditions. On one side of the camp 15 prisoner barracks remain, restored, so the world cannot forget. Behind that row of 15 around 105 more existed, only the chimneys are left behind. Near the end of the war, when Germany was near defeat, the German soldiers tried to destroy and cover-up their atrocities. Like children who knew they were doing something wrong, but wanted to cover it up to avoid punishment.

Like I said before, I’m glad we did it. As we were leaving, we had to stand on the tracks leading into the camp one last time to ‘take it all in’. If you’re ever in that part of the world it really is worth the trip. Both sites are free to enter, and guided tours in several languages are available.

The pictures below are ordered by Auschwitz II, and then Auschwitz I:

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Captivating Kraków

Ever since our spontaneous weekend of renting a car and driving to Venice to meet a friend, it encouraged us to take more weekend trips that are drivable from Vienna. Krakow was always on my list of must-see places and it was only about a five hour drive. We took advantage of Hubs’ “summer hours” at work and got on the road around 4PM on Friday. We made good time, despite the traffic and road work we encountered in the Czech Republic. To put it in perspective, it was about the same driving time from Baltimore to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Krakow is undeniably beautiful. It’s so rich in history.  Again, I think it’s one of those cities that people tend to overlook when planning their European holiday. We chose to stay in the Jewish quarter, which is about a 15-20 minute walk to all the sights the city has to offer. Since we only had one full day and a morning in Krakow, we packed in as much as we could without feeling overwhelmed and grumpy. Rynek Główny (the main market square) was gorgeous and impressive. It’s the biggest medieval square in Europe. We got suckered into taking one of the carriage rides, which I read was a “must”. It was nice and gave us a nice overview of old town, but like Vienna, it was pricey. On the order of $40 for a 20 minute, non-narrated, carriage ride. If that’s your sorta thing, make sure you start early, before 10am. It’s cool in the summer mornings and there aren’t too many people, yet. Later in the day, the market square was jam packed.

I became enamored by the traditional Polish pottery/dishes I kept seeing around the market square. The items were hand-made, hand-painted, and were of excellent quality. Hubs thought the items very unique as well, but frowned at the seemingly high center-of-town-prices. I did my research a little later and found a small locally run place over in the Jewish quarter. The sales lady there was fantastic. She carried the same items from downtown, but the prices were at least 25% cheaper. Plus, she only carried items which she researched to be reliable pieces. She mentioned she would occasionally make trips to the factory to see items being made first hand, so she would be knowledgeable about what she was selling in her store.  I may have went a little overboard, based on looks from Hubs, but I don’t know if we’ll ever have the opportunity again. I am definitely looking forward to putting our new pieces to use and replacing some of our older items.

After the pottery adventure, we aimlessly explored the Jewish quarter.  We walked along the picturesque river and crossed on the fancy pedestrian bridges. The Jewish quarter is sort of like the “hipster” part of town.  Lots of unique little shops, cafes, and cute little restaurants. We found a neat little ice cream place. They had some very odd flavors, but were done well( beer, gorgonzola, and rose). Just after the ice cream we happened upon St. Joseph’s church, the one which looks like it could be a castle. The architecture was amazing.  We wanted to take a peek inside, because that’s what you do when you see old churches. As we got closer we heard singing and people talking inside the church, on a Saturday. We stepped inside and realized there was a wedding going on. Since we were uninvited guests we stood at the back and watched for a few minutes, trying to understand what was going on. It seemed like a traditional wedding ceremony. It was a cool experience being there, watching, and listening. After we left there we made our way back into town, feeling uplifted by the joyous occasion.

 

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A Moment of Spontaneity

When an old high school friend contacted me via Facebook on Thursday saying that she and her husband were in Europe, the conversation went on about their itinerary and so on. When I mentioned it to Hubs around 7PM the next day, he asked where they would be this weekend, “Venice”, I said. Since Hubs has never been to Venice and my friend was this close, we quickly contacted our dog’s sitter to see if she would take him in last minute. Then, we scrambled to book a car and hotel room.  All within an hour on a Friday night. I told my friend that we would be making the roadtrip to see her! It turned out that I booked us at the same hotel as they were staying! How crazy was that?

We jumped into the car in the early hours of Saturday morning, dropped off our dog, and were on our merry way to Venice. It took us seven hours, but it was worth it to reconnect with an old friend and meet her other half. We had a wonderful time with them. The following morning, we got an early start to take in all the typical sights of Venice for Hubs, some shopping for me, had lunch, gelato and headed back home from Venice around 2pm in the afternoon, for another 7 hour drive.

Yes, it was a whirlwind trip over the weekend, but it was so much fun! Hubs and I have never done anything this spontaneous before. We are big planners and this was something completely new and exciting for us. Maybe it should become a habit?

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