Other People

I haven’t been writing much about our Texas Tuesdays this summer. Shame on me! I’ve got a whole pile of things to tell you about. One of our most favorite place we went was called Newman’s Castle. This is quite a drive from Austin–about an hour and a half (it’s just past Brenham), but it’s completely worth the trip. We went when all of the big kids were at camp or working so it was just the littles along with my niece, Avery. We also brought along some friends of ours. Because road trips are funner with friends!

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Newman’s Castle is probably the coolest and oddest place we’ve visited. Mr. Newman owns a bakery in the very small town of Bellville, Texas. Many years ago he decided it would be pretty cool to build a house outside of Bellville that looks like a castle, so that’s just what he did. Now this isn’t a flashy Donald-Trump style palace that is meant to show off his dazzling wealth. It’s more of a modern ode to medieval times. Like if you thought, “wouldn’t it be cool to have house with a moat?”, so you built one.

And being a smart businessman, he decided to charge people admission to come and see his castle.

Newmans castle ada avery

 

Mr. Newman offers tours a few days a week and you have to call ahead to schedule one. Here’s his website to get more detailed info. The cost of the tour includes lunch as well (with lots of goodies from his bakery) and is $15. It was yummy but be forewarned: the sandwiches come pre made with the vilest of monstrosities: mustard. But that was really the only drawback of our visit.

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The way it works is that you show up at the bakery, pay your admission, then are given a map to find the castle and you head over there in your car.

On the day of our tour it was us and a bus load of retirees. I don’t know if they enjoyed it as much as the kids did. Mr. Newman really knows how to engage children. He gave them all wooden swords (to borrow not to keep!) at the beginning of the tour and had them make a passageway over the drawbridge for us old folks to pass under.

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Then we were shown around the castle. Naturally there was a torture chamber, complete with faux bloody appendages.

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The kids were more than happy to be imprisoned We were tempted to leave them there but our husbands might have suspected something.

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The thing to remember is that Newman’s castle really is somebody’s house. Mr. Newman is amazingly cool about letting total strangers wander all over the place.

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You get to see the fancier rooms like the banquet hall

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And living rooms

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But you also get to wander into his bedroom and bathroom. Which seems oddly personal but is sort of awesome. He has armor and crowns and toy swords all over the place to keep the kids entertained ( you can see Ye Olde TV Sette here in the master bedroom). Unlike castles in Europe where the family lives in one wing and tourists are allowed in another wing, this castle is on the smaller side and you get to see all the nooks and crannies.

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Most of the wooden pieces were crafted by Mr. Newman himself, including the armoires and these dandy bathroom faucets: (this would be the master bath, as you can tell from the toiletries on display. As I said, it’s his house, not a museum.)

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The kitchen was pretty interesting too.

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But the favorite thing that the kids got to do was to lower and raise the drawbridge. It’s got an old-school hamster-wheel mechanism. The caretaker of the castle showed the kids how to work it then set them loose. It was pretty entertaining for us to watch but the boys found it a bit intimidating.

We loved our visit to Newman’s Castle and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves quirky and interesting sights. It make a great day trip from either Austin or Houston.

This year we got our Big Summer Trip out of the way early on. We had a family reunion with most of Mister’s family out in San Diego. Mister’s Mother turned 80 this year and we all got together to celebrate. We rented a bunch of condos right on Mission Beach and had such a lovely time. The weather was in the 70’s the whole time and we hardly knew what to do without sweat running down our backs constantly. The ocean was mighty cold and it took the kids a while to get into the water.

San Diego Hildie (1 of 1)

I have been begging Mister to please let us have a trip to the beach for years but he finds the beach boring and much prefers traveling to cities where there are piles of things to do and see. But how could anyone hate this? Although the mornings in San Diego were a bit chilly, I liked nothing more than to sit on the balcony outside our bedroom and read a good book before everyone else woke up. Mister gave me a Kindle for our anniversary which was on the first day of our trip. I’ve resisted Kindles for many years but as I’ve entirely run out of bookshelf space, I’m having to rethink my view on e-readers.

San Diego Mission Beach Panorama

 

San Diego Bella Ada Beach

 

The place where we stayed was especially nice because it had a large outdoor terrace right on the boardwalk that runs along Mission Beach. The boardwalk was constantly full of people walking, biking, skateboarding and generally being completely fascinating.  We also had a lovely fire pit on the terrace that we sat around every night. It’s so fun to watch the cousins hang out now that they’re all getting older and the age differences don’t matter as much as they did when the kids were young.

San Diego Cousins Fire

Here is perhaps the most magical wonderful thing about this vacation: there were no bugs. None. Zero. I had completely forgotten that it’s possible to actually be outside in the evening without mosquito repellant. I guess it’s the strong winds coming off the ocean or whatever. But I was blessedly itch-free for a whole week.

Naturally we couldn’t go to Southern California and not hit Disneyland. We haven’t been there in forever. And we haven’t ever gone with cousins. We had a few issues with rides being mysteriously “shut down” off and on all day. It turns out Kim and Kanye were there for North’s birthday. And because they are the most special people in the galaxy, they didn’t have to wait like us rabble. No sireee, they got the whole ride shut down so that they and their cheesy entourage could go without waiting.

San Diego Disney Teacup

 

I made T-shirts for some of the younger cousins. They all requested their favorite Disney character. (Stitch? Really?) I’m truly proud that there wasn’t a single Princess.

San Diego Disney Cousins

We had Grandma’s birthday dinner at Ariel’s Grotto one night and were disappointed that they only do characters at breakfast and lunch. If you go for dinner you won’t get to do a conga line with Minnie Mouse and Pluto but you will get tickets for VIP seating at the cool evening show, World of Color. We enjoyed the show immensely (although I think the girls were secretly disappointed not to see Belle). Normally I hate crowds and all that stuff, but if you have a nice spot already it makes everything so much better.

Hanging out with Grandpa is the best of all, though.

San Diego Grandpa

 

 

Because we were in San Diego with so many relatives, we decided it would be nice for India and York to be able to go through the temple for the first time with their grandparents and aunts and uncles.  What a great experience! And that San Diego temple is sure impressive. (But, honestly, our little San Antonio temple is much, much prettier on the inside.)

San Diego Temple Kids

 

San Diego Temple Grandp

 

We had a remarkably great time on our trip. Most of the cousins are teenagers and older and we had all the single people stay in one condo together. It was the best idea we’ve ever had. Not only did the parents like it but so did the kids. Arabella and her cousin Daisy never get tired of having lots of time to hang out. And the trip was blessedly free of drama. When was the last time you could say that about your family reunion?

San Diego Arabella Deisy

Do you want to know the most incredible thing of all? We had all suitcases unpacked within one day of getting home. It’s a miracle!

 

 

 

 

BBW

Remember being a young teenage girl and realizing that you might just maybe, possibly smell bad?  One day you’re spending your babysitting money on Wacky Packs and Hubba Bubba and the next day you’re riding your bike to the drug store to buy some Love’s Baby Soft, because what if you stink? What if that’s the real reason no boys like you???  Those early teenage years are brutal as your mind discovers dozens–nay, hundreds–of bodily flaws it hadn’t known about six months earlier. Body odor, whether real or imagined, is one of the easiest to solve. The shape of your nose, the ability to “pinch an inch” on your stomach, or the ever-growing colony of blackheads on your nose might be tough to get rid of, but smelling good is a no-brainer.

So you shouldn’t be surprised when your thirteen-year-old daughter wants to stop in at Bath and Body Works when you’re at the mall. You haven’t been to that store in probably a decade since you decided once and for all that you do not like to smell like fruit. You don’t really mind the idea of visiting Bath and Body Works until you realize your daughter will be smelling each individual item in the store.  Not just Cashmere Glow lotion, but Cashmere Glow hand sanitizer, Cashmere Glow Shimmer Mist, Cashmere Glow Shower Gel and the Cashmere Glow scented candle.  This will then be repeated with every single scent. At first you are game, washing your hands in the little sink and trying out a matching lotion. But pretty soon everything starts smelling too sweet and too cloying. Being the good mother that you are, you still gamely smell everything that your daughter holds out to you (“ooh, that’s nice!”, said in your most enthusiastic voice possible). But inside you want to run away. Quickly.

But Bath and Body Works has formulated their store to be hypnotic to the female consumer. Once you get over the initial fight or flight response, you begin to be lulled by all the flowery packaging and colorful shelves.  The smart and pragmatic woman inside of you is thinking, Sheer Cotton? What exactly is that supposed to smell like anyway? Your lizard brain, however, is saying Flowers. Cotton. Pretty. Yes.

Before you know it the “buy 2, get 5 free” sign seems like a really superb idea even though you hate shower gel and never use it. Why stop there, though? Who doesn’t want a butterfly-shaped plug-in that makes your house smell like a giant cupcake?  And why not buy the enormous three-wick candle? Because, really, don’t you need more Love & Sunshine in your life? Yes, you think tearily, I do need more Love & Sunshine. I really do. Or maybe you just need an Oahu Coconut Sunset. Even though that name makes zero sense it registers on some primal level. Hawaii, coconuts, beaches, happiness.

Then you spot Country Chic. Oh yes, that’s you all right. You’re humble and approachable in a Country sort of way. But also chic and stylish (wearing three-year-old capris qualifies as chic, right?). So that sounds perfect for you. Even though “country” in reality means Walmart and trailer homes not charming cottages and antique barns.

You’re eyes are darting madly by this point; yes, an Endless Weekend is pretty much your ideal. Wait, that would mean the kids are home every single day. Scratch that; no Endless Weekend.  Paris Amour. Now that sounds more like it. Paris, the City of Lights, the City of Love. That overpriced city where people are rude and the métro stinks of urine and everything costs way too much. And lets face it, you can find cuter things that say “Paris” at Target than in France. No, forget it, you’ll be passing on Paris Amour.

You reach for the next scent, Mad About You. Oh please. You’ve got to be pretty desperate to think that your lotion has feelings for you. Keep going. Amber Blush? Twilight Woods? The English language is starting to take a shape of its own. What do all these words even mean? A haze is washing over your mind as well as your nose. You aim towards the door, temporarily blinded by the shiny silver covers for the hand soaps (“Oooh, I must have those . . . .”).

Fortunately at that moment your daughter has finished her purchase and is jauntily holding her bag full of Velvet Sugar sweet nothings. You grab her arm and steer her out of the store, never so happy to smell the stale, piped-in air of the mall. And then you look down and notice something. A bag in your hand. What? How? You don’t even remember getting out your credit card. And so the endless cycle continues: each birthday and holiday, some woman will receive a gift purchased at Bath and Body Works. I didn’t mean to buy it, your eyes say as you watch your friend open her present, it’s just that Shimmer Mists were on sale, the Midnight Pomegrates were calling and I couldn’t say no.

We live in a cul-de-sac which in real-estate terms is the equivalent of living in a wonderful dreamland. I don’t know why. When you live in a cul-de-sac there is never enough parking. We, and our guests, are all left to wonder do I park against the curb like a civilized American is supposed to? Or do I park face-in, like the spokes of a wagon wheel? Usually nobody can decide so if you pull into a cul-de-sac on a busy night, you’ll see cars crammed every which way. Which is frustrating and dumb. Especially for the kids who were told that living in a cul-de-sac would be dreamy because they could play without anyone running over them.  Apart from the thousands of people who took a wrong turn in the neighborhood and need a place to turn around and, hey look, there’s a cul-de-sac!

We also have kind of a steep driveway so we decided we out to put a big cement slab in our backyard so the kids could play basketball and ride bikes without being run over by the teenage boy next door who drives 80 mph while checking his text messages.  Our backyard is quite big but very awkwardly-shaped (thank you again, cul de sac!), so pouring a big pile of cement on one side of our house will use up space that has otherwise been reserved for broken gardening equipment, dandelions and misplaced flip-flops.

A neighbor of ours just built a cement pad in his backyard and gave us the name of his cement guy. The cement guy came over and gave us a quote and we thought it sounded ok so we hired him. Within a few days we had a bunch of guys building supports and getting ready to pour our cement. Only we had to fix all the broken sprinklers first. And you know that they were all broken, right? Every single one.  Mister fixed most of them, but I was left doing the last one by myself and let me just tell you, the glue for PVC pipes dries in about a nanosecond. And if you haven’t gotten the pipe pieces just right, you’ll have to cut the whole thing out and try again. And then you might still not get it right. Which means cutting out another larger section of pipe and trying once more. Let’s just say that after a couple of hours I had crossed “sprinkler repair person” off of careers I might pursue once my kids leave home.

The lucky day for the cement pouring finally came. I had expected something like Rolly from Bob the Builder but we had a full-sized cement mixer pull up in front of the house and a bunch of guys showed up, tromping around in big rubber boots. There was a little machine that showed up as well, kind of like a cross between a small dump truck and a zamboni. This little machine was mean to haul the cement from the truck into the backyard. Wheelbarrows are so yesterday, apparently.

The first couple of loads went down OK but then the zamboni dump truck got stuck in the grass on the side of the house. Even though we live in a place that has been having a drought for a few dozen years in a row, the ground on that side of the house stays perpetually damp. And under all that grass was a big sloshy pile of mud. The dump truck zamboni spun its wheels and ripped up a bunch of grass. Then it slid around and knocked down the gate into the backyard.  And then it got stuck. It spun it’s wheels and sprayed mud everywhere and refused to budge. Mister stood on the porch and shouted helpful suggestions to the workers who spoke approximately three words of English.

The cement guys eventually got the zamboni dump truck out of the mud only to have  it smash into the rest of the fence and knock it over. And then it got stuck again. The whole thing looked some sort of fake-hilarious scene from a romantic comedy. Only with a languid guy leaning on a cement truck, yelling in Spanish.

At this point Mister had to take a chill pill (literally) and I started to worry about all the cement. What would they do with it? What would happen if they couldn’t get it into the backyard? We offered wooden boards to help the little zamboni get some traction (helpful for about five seconds and then those too were covered with slippery mud).

Mister finally suggested we throw some kitty litter on the mud to see if that helped. It did! A tiny bit. So I drove wildly to the grocery store to load up all the kitty litter I could find (just the cheap stuff of course. No need for $20 rose-scented products.)  We tossed kitty litter all over the ground and the zamboni dump truck was able finally dump it’s load of cement and retreat, defeated, to the front yard.

By this point my boots were caked with filth and the side of our yard was utterly destroyed. The entire fence was lying on the ground and a big fat sow would have been in heaven at the sight of all that mud.

The man with the cement truck left–to do what with all that cement I can’t even imagine. It’s not like he could just pull up at the corner and offer to pour cement in some stranger’s driveway.

The cement guy apologized profusely and put the fence back together fairly well. The ground dry out some more and he has promised to come back and finish the job. But so far he has remained elusive. We gave him his last payment when the cement truck showed up because that’s usually the straight-forward conclusion of the job.

Now we have a bit of a cement slab and several nagging children who want to play hopscotch in the privacy of their own backyard.  What will happen? Will we get ripped off or will the nice cement guy come back when we’ve had a few more days of hot sunny weather? I will keep you posted. In the mean time I leave you with this picture; I especially like the way the shed looks like it’s about to fall off a little cliff.

Concrete mess

Kimmel Austin

In case you missed this little detail, I live in Austin, Texas. Right now in Austin it’s SXSW. Which, for those who live under a rock or are just over the age of 60, is a super-mega-gigantic movie/music/gaming/computer festival that lasts for a week and a half. It also transforms our rather small downtown into a raging cesspool of traffic, drunks and weirdos.  Everybody calls it “South By” (emphasis on the first syllable). It sounds semi-pretentious but “South by Southwest” is a redundant mouthful.

Mister is into the movie scene and because of his job as a video producer has employed pretty much every actor in the Central Texas area. So it’s always fun to see what the tykes have been up to. Also, it’s pretty fun going to see the movies when the directors and several of the stars are right there in the audience. He always gets a platinum pass which allows him first dibs on every event. And there are about a jillion events going on all over downtown at every hour of the day and night.  He manages to get fed several meals a day for free just by attending the right parties and get-togethers.

I am rather non-impressed with the entertainment industry. I don’t like how important they find themselves. At this point in my life I find it incredibly annoying how hard they try: to look good, to be “unique” and “edgy”, to pretend to be so much more awesome than they really are.  At one point I would have cared a lot too. But now I am old. Make that Old with a capital -O. And I know this because I crave authenticity. I really want people to be themselves and get rid of all the crap and façades. Just be who you really are, man!

Mister occasionally drags me out of the house to a movie he thinks sounds like something I’d be interested in. I have to wait in the pitiful “general admission” line which might as well have a sign that says “losers stand here”. He gets in first and saves me a seat while I wait there knitting and eavesdropping on everyone’s conversations. Yesterday’s foray into SXSW was a taping of the Jimmy Kimmel show. We were required to stand in line in the sun and heat for two hours which made me peevish beyond belief. I was ready to throw in the towel but I held on and it actually ended up being really fun and interesting. (Listen, I may complain about all this stuff but when I go out, I do it with enthusiasm. Because nothing is more annoying than self-conscious people who won’t cut loose.)

Mostly I stood and watched all the hipsters around us. And I saw them with their silly clothes that are supposed to be ironic but mostly make them look like rejects from 1989. A few years ago I would have felt super self-conscious like I wasn’t cool enough to stand outside and wait in a dumb line with all the stylish people.  This year I came straight from taking York to the oral surgeon to get his wisdom teeth out. I didn’t really care if my shirt was awesome (although it was St. Patrick’s Day so I did make sure it was green), or that I had trendy shoes or edgy accessories.

This year I feel fine with who I am. Am I thin? Heck no! I’m fatter now than when I was pregnant. Am I stylish? Not if you consider the fact that most of my clothes come from Steinmart or Costco. Is my hair awesome? Well, I’m 44 but I don’t have any greys so that fact alone makes me drip with pride. (Take that, all you people who must get your hair colored!) My hair is not super styling but I think it generally looks pretty decent.  I do have nice makeup so I have that going for me. You can wear awesome sunglasses and overall shorts (yes, they’re back) with high-heeled booties, but if you haven’t got on an attractive shade of lipstick, you really aren’t all that.

So I guess I’m really a grown up now. Or maybe I’m an old fogey. I don’t know. But I have to echo the sentiments of Jasper who announced after looking at everyone meandering around downtown Austin, “who are all these awful people?”.

 

You may or may not know about how I’ve been the Relief Society President at church for the last two and a half years. If you’re Mormon no further explanation is needed. If you’re not Mormon, take my word for it when I say that it’s pretty much a part-time job. It means that I’ve been in charge of ministering to all the women (and, hence, their families) in the congregation. I help with their temporal needs if they need extra food or help making ends meet, or if they need meals brought in after surgery or having a baby, or help packing to move–you get the idea. I have to be friendly and welcoming to all (which I can do but as an introvert is extremely draining); I have to be a shoulder to cry on or a giver of advice; and I have to coordinate activities, get-togethers and parties for the women (and the entire ward Christmas Party because we all know that men can not pull off something like that). And then there is coordinating and supervising Visiting Teaching which is a beast unto itself.  All in all being President is a lot of work. It’s very fulfilling and I love the women like crazy, though. It’s been draining but rewarding all at the same time.

But my time has come to step aside. When the bishop told me right before Christmas, I cried. Happy tears as well as sad tears. My replacement is one of my counselors and also one of my best friends. We have had a jillion talks about what she needs to be doing and how and with whom and for whom. Fortunately she’s a ton more organized than I am and she already has lots of experience in Relief Society, so she’ll do a great job. I handed over the keys (literal, not figurative) last week and did a happy dance.

Now I have a lovely large hole in my life. All this free time! OK, so by the time I get the kids out the door and do all the little things around the house that need to be done there isn’t all that much free time. But mentally and emotionally I feel so free. Wheeee! Only my family’s problems to worry about!

In order to celebrate being released as Relief Society President I have spent as much time in bed as possible. I have taken a shower rarely. I have gone to see a couple of movies. But I have not done much else because I have seriously needed time to decompress.

Here’s the most excellent part of it all, though: I can blog again! No more worrying about being a respectable figurehead! I can be just as ridiculous as I please. And I will have time to do it! Yippee!

I have so many great plans for my poor little blog that has languished in forgottenland. Stay tuned!

Christmas morming

You might assume that even though it’s January 9th I haven’t taken down my Christmas decorations. And that assumption would be correct. I did actually undecorate my tree–a real one this year!–because it was garbage day last Tuesday and I didn’t want that fire hazard standing in my living room for one more second. So as I heard the garbage truck making it’s way down the street I ripped all the lights and ornaments off and got that sucker out to the curb in the nick of time. But since then I haven’t quite packed the stuff up. This is what I’ve been staring at every day, wishing that somehow the ornaments and lights would pack themselves and trundle up to the attic without bothering me. Kind of like at the end of The Sorcerers Apprentice when the mean wizard does his magic spell and all the brooms get with the program and clean themselves up. I just need that spell . . .

What’s really nice is that this is right in my living room so it’s the first thing you see when you walk in my house. Shame that this photo doesn’t quite capture the trillions of pine needles scattered about the floor.

Christmas wreckage

 

This year we decided to spend Christmas in Texas. As far as I’m concerned we are never having another holiday on the road. I’m staying at my house and if relatives want to see with us they can fill out an application and wait to be approved come down here.  India came home from college (yay!) and if everything goes according to plans, she and York will both be on missions next year.  So I wanted to be sure we had a festive holiday since it’s our last one together for a while. Which meant I actually decorated my house as much as possible. I’m not one of those people who puts junk on every surface, but I did do Christmas lights outside, which I only get around to every three years or so. You know what the secret is to doing really great Christmas lights? A hot glue gun. It’s completely brilliant at getting lights to stick to your house. I know you’ll completely forget I told you this by next year so I’ll remind you in November.

I actually hung wreaths on the door too. One wreath might be good enough for all you people, but I’m so festive that I need three! Also I really need to stain my front door (thanks to Margaret scratching the crap out of it. Dumb dog!) and three wreaths seemed the perfect way to distract from that. Kind of like wearing a low-cut bathing suit when you need to lose a few pounds–everyone is so busy looking at the cleavage that they don’t look at the hips. Pure genius.

front door three wreaths

Last year after Christmas I was at Hobby Lobby and all of their leftover wreaths were 80% off. Which meant the little window-sized wreaths were less than $3. So I counted up all my windows and bought a wreath for each one. Then, because I occasionally have flashes of brilliance, I bought the most gigantic roll of velvet ribbon too. When Christmas rolled around this year I was all set with a wreath for each window and some ribbon to hang it with.

As with everything I plan in my mind, this was much easier said than done. I wanted the ribbons to hang from the tops of the windows without there being a bow or whatever, as if my windows opened from the top, which they certainly do not. Nor did I want to drill holes into my brick or window casings. I finally figured out how to do this but it took me a lot of tries and several different methods.

window wreaths

Turns out hot glue does not work so well trying to stick things to smooth surfaces. Son of a nutcracker!

window wreath falling

But like I said, I figured it all out eventually. I’ll share my secrets in about eleven months.

You know how in the movie Elf when Buddy decorates the toy department with paper snowflakes and chains and all those sorts of things? I’ve always dreamed of doing something similar to that in my family room because it’s decorated in pastel colors and red and green don’t look very good. And I happen to think that pink Christmas decorations are vomit-y.

I set Arabella to work on the paper chains (it took her, like, a trillion hours. She’s a real slowpoke) and I got to work making snowflakes with my Silhouette Cameo. Remember how I said that sometimes I’m brilliant? I was in charge of the church Christmas party (my third time. Ugh.) and I thought ahead and decided that I’d kill two birds with one stone. I’d make a ton of snowflakes and use them for the Christmas party (theme: Winter Wonderland!) and then save them for my house decorations (in case you’re being nitpicky, I paid for the snowflakes myself). I ended up only using about half of the snowflakes in my house. Mostly because I was putting them up right until the first guests rang the doorbell. That’s always how I know when to stop decorating–when the guests arrive. (It would be really nice to not be a procrastinator.)

I feel like I can leave these decorations up for a few more weeks because they’re winterish, not just for Christmas. I also added a few touches of gold because I like gold. And plain white is just boring. It turned out not quite as festive as Buddy’s decorating job, but I still love it.

White paper Christmas Elf movie

Paper snowflakes are real brats about being photographed. They’re always turning to the side so you can’t see them all at the same time.

The secret to hanging them is fishing line and clear pushpins. Don’t bother with tape. It’s useless on ceilings. Pushpins are my best friends. I’m alarmed at how often they come in handy.

So there you have it; Christmas chez Hildie. We gorged ourselves on schnitzel and spaetzle and had a grand old time.

harp-hands-toned

As you may or may not know I play the harp. Back when I was but a child, I saw somebody playing a harp and I just fell in love. Unfortunately for me my mother had musical fantasies of her own and I got to live those out instead. It didn’t matter that I had less than zero desire to be the church organist, that’s what my mother always wanted to be so my siblings and I were chained to piano lessons starting when we were small. I was never any good–truly–and I hated it with a white-hot burning passion. “Oh, one day you’ll thank me for forcing you to play!” my mother assured me as I sat and cried yet again before another piano lesson.

When I got old enough I started taking organ lessons. Excuse me, organ lesson. Did you know that you play the organ with not just your hands, but also your feet? There is a whole other keyboard in front of the bench on the floor!  I took one lesson and I was like, no way is that ever happening in a million years. I can’t even play a hymn with my hands let alone my feet.

Let’s fast forward to the conclusion of my piano career: I was lucky enough to get in a car crash and break my arm really badly when I was sixteen. No more lessons! I didn’t touch a piano for years after that and still avoid them at all costs. I hated, hated, hated playing and have thankfully forgotten how to do it so I will never have to play again. So, yeah, thanks Mom! I told you when I was ten that I would never play the piano when I grew up but, nooo, you just didn’t believe me.  Moral of the story: Music education is very important. But if your kid wants to play a different instrument, let her! Second moral of the story: Don’t get in a battle of wills with me. You’ll lose.

When I was thirty or so I decided that my time had come. I have always been a collector of hobbies and harp-playing seemed perfect to add to my repertoire of semi-pointless but enjoyable skills. At that time I lived in Utah where there are about a jillion harpists. (I don’t know what it is about Mormons and harps but there is a total love connection.) I found a super awesome teacher and adored it from day one. The best thing about playing the harp is that it sounds really wonderful even when you aren’t very good. It’s quite a bit more complicated than it looks, though. It has a lot more in common with playing the piano than, say, a stringed instrument like a guitar.

Even though I love playing the harp, I just don’t have a musical self. Music does not come naturally to me. I like visual stuff way more. I should be way better at playing the harp than I am, although I totally quit after I had Jasper; harp lessons seemed like a laughable folly when I had six children under age ten and could barely even handle simple tasks like brushing my hair. I can also be a bit of a perfectionist. So playing and making mistake after mistake kind of stresses me out.

Which I am now realizing since I agreed to play the harp at church on the Sunday before Christmas. I haven’t learned a new piece in about a decade. I just keep playing all the ones I’m already good at. That seems incredibly lame now that I write it out. What’s the matter with me? I guess I like coasting along.

I found a piece that is not too challenging (“In the Bleak Midwinter” because I just dig those oddball carols) but–oh my goodness gracious–is it killing me!!! I have been practicing all week and I still haven’t gotten past the second line. I can’t even play the first two lines without making a dozen mistakes! This does not bode well. And because I suck and because I agreed to play in front of the entire universe I have a permanent stress-knot in between my shoulder blades (also my eyelid twitches but that’s not such a big deal). Apparently I won’t be able to relax until after December 21st or unless a true Christmas miracle occurs allowing me to learn the music better.

Bleak midwinter, indeed.

 

By now you know I love walking tours. So that’s the first thing I scheduled for our arrival in Paris. Our tour was through Paris by Martin. The guide we had was Martin’s partner whose name was Pepe. He was delightful. By the way, tons of men in Paris wear scarves. As far as women’s fashions go, I never saw a maxi skirt once. I brought one but the idea of wearing it made me feel so frumpy that I left it in my suitcase the entire time.

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Pepe walked us all over the Marais district, showing us the oldest and most interesting parts of the city (it was the Jewish section and nobody cared to make it all new and fancy in the 1800’s when they did the major overhaul of Paris.) The nice thing about Paris is that there aren’t horrid modern buildings plopped down all over the place.  Most everything is old and picturesque. Or at least old. (Tangent: Unlike our British tour guides, Pepe was like having a private photographer. It was nice to finally get some shots of all four of us!)

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Rumor has it that Johnny Depp just bought an apartment here in the Place Des Vosges.

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The buildings all have these wonderful vaulted arches so I can’t say that I blame him.

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In the Marais is the most superb bakery called L’Eclair de Génie that sells nothing but eclairs. Sometimes there are foods that are really hyped up and when they don’t taste nearly as great as you’d hoped you are just so let down. This was not one of those occasions. These were unearthly good. Unbelievable.

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The eclairs are not cheap. We each got two–for research, of course. At $8-10 apiece , they had better be fantastic. But look how they have the name of the shop stamped on a little chocolate disc! And the nuts are dusted with gold! There went our dinner budget but it’s Paris! What are you supposed to do? Eat mediocre, cheap food all the time?

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We wanted to save some for later but we had gobbled them up by the time we got to the end of the block.

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After the Marais we strolled down to the Quartier Latin. So many fabulous things to see. Here’s the oldest restaurant in Paris called La Procope. It opened in 1686 and among it’s clientele are Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre and Voltaire. We didn’t eat there (too many eclairs) but it’s in a charming area.

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There’s also a great fountain in the very touristy area near St. Michel.

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A lot of buildings in Paris have lovely courtyards on the inside. You can rarely see them unless you have a key. Or unless you have Pepe.

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We saw so many gorgeous and amazing places. It was the perfect way to kick off our stay in France.

Probably my best and favorite thing that happened during our time in Paris was the Fête du Pain (The Festival of Bread. Can you imagine anything more delightful?) It’s an annual event held in front of Nôtre Dame in a gigantic tent that is turned into a bakery. The idea is to draw people into the career of becoming a baker (Okay I’ll do it!).  Bakers from all over France come dressed in bright orange polo shirts (not really what I picture un boulanger traditionnel wearing, but oh well) and bake in front of people. Lots of local kids come and watch and see what it’s really like to be a boulanger. There are no separate kitchens or back rooms, everything happens out in the open.

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But the absolute most wonderful thing about the Fête du Pain is that everything is sold on the spot. Food is baked all day long so anytime you walk by, there are fresh baked goods being taken out of the oven. You don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get a fresh baguette. It’s heaven. Heaven!

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The Fête du Pain was in between our apartment and our métro stop so naturally we found ourselves there quite often. Let me just tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a pain au chocolat that’s still warm from the oven with the chocolate still soft and squishy. Speaking of pain au chocolate . . .

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First you place the little bars of chocolate in the dough, then you roll it and cut it. Then you wait for your adoring public to gobble it up, closing their eyes and moaning with each bite.

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I could have watched these guys bake all day.  Here are the baguette bakers. Instead of baking the bread on a tray or in a pan, each loaf is placed in a big piece of fabric called a couche, row by row, scrunching the fabric between each one.

The croissants were the most interesting to watch. And most delicious. Theoretically there is a point at which you get full of croissants and you don’t want to eat any more. I have never reached that point, which is a bit distressing. Fortunately I enjoyed all the rich, fatty food in Paris without a second though because I walked such an insane amount.

Each batch of croissant dough is rolled into a square. Then a giant slab of butter is placed inside each one. The dough is folded over the edges of the butter like a tasty envelope. It’s then chilled, rolled and folded again. And again. That’s what makes all the delightful layers of a croissant.

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I don’t think this photo catches the massive amount of butter used in a croissant. If you want to know why they taste so good, watch this little video. That thing he folds in half and pounds out at the beginning? That’s butter not dough. Try not to faint.

There were some other tasty things being made. No idea what these could be. Any guesses?

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The charming man in the video below was making an apple tart. You can actually hear me speaking pitiful French in the video. The lovely baker was asking me where I was from, and when I told him Texas he informed me that he’d been to Florida. Which is actually right across the gulf so I give him points for that. Usually when you tell people abroad that you’re from America they’ll inform you that they were in New York/California/Seattle last year. In other words, a thousand or two miles away. It’s like telling someone from Denmark that you’ve visited Czechoslovakia.

 

At the end of the Fête du Pain there was a contest amongst all the bakers. What amazing bread from all the different parts of France.

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I would seriously come back to France again during May to visit the Fête du Pain again. That’s how grand it was. Bread is my one true love.