Things I Love about Henry (3 Years Old)

Henry. My boy.


Would you just look at that sweet little guy. He’s so great in so many ways that I find myself at a loss for words about him sometimes. But I’ll try to come up with at least a few.

He’s very imaginative. He and his sisters are almost always pretending to be someone else. And they are always telling us who we are in their little make-believe-land. Once I was driving the kids and my sister back into town and we were stuck in traffic. Georgia and I were chatting and Henry said from the backseat, “Mom! You’re being Bullseye. I’m Woody and Olivia is Jessie.” I said, “Okay.” And he said, “No! Bullseye doesn’t talk! So you can’t talk!” Throughout the entire drive home, whenever I would talk to my sister he would pipe up and tell me that Bullseye doesn’t talk. And when he is pretending with his sisters they give each other stage directions and feed each other lines. So there’s a lot of repeating.

He also told me the other day, “Mom, my name’s Tuesday because Tuesday is the dad and I’m being the dad.” Me: “Okay. Hi Tuesday.” Henry: “No you can’t talk because you’re dead. Because you’re being the grandma and the grandma is dead.” // And the other day he said to Olivia, “Let’s play Home.” and she said no, so he said, “No, pretend you said yes.” And she did. So then they started playing Home. If only it were so easy for them to pretend to do the things I ask them to do…

He also like to pretend he is having a baby. He sticks a stuffed animal up his shirt and when I ask when his baby is going to be born he says, “Not yet!”, because, poor kid, he might think that is the only actual response to that question. He has been asking when our baby will come out for so, so long.

He can’t wait to be a big brother. We have been telling him that first it was going to be Olivia’s birthday, then his birthday, and then the baby could come out. So when I said, “Henry! It’s your birthday, today!” He asked, very excitedly, “And now the baby can come out?” To which he again got his, “Not yet” reply. Though it doesn’t keep him from coming up with plans for the baby like how he is going to feed him and bring him toys and blankets and throw balls with him. When his socks or shirts are getting too small he tells me, “This is too small for me. Let’s give it to the baby.” He also has lots of ideas about what the baby will say. So I’m wondering how disappointed he will be that the baby will be born a helpless infant and not a talking, walking playmate.

He has named the baby “Dark Vader”. And when we finally broke it to him that the baby’s name probably won’t be that, he said, “Well, can we name something Dark Vader?”

Feb-4748He’s got the fake smile down. Which is somewhat heartbreaking because his real smile is one of the best things in my life. But it is hard to capture on camera these days. Feb-4751 Feb-4780

He’s very observant of the world. He has always been fascinated with language and talking. It seemed to take him forever to speak, but when he finally did, it was apparent that he didn’t want to talk until he kind of knew what was going on. He’s not one who likes to learn by trial and error, but more by watching and watching and then attempting. This has continued as his language has grown and expanded over this past year. He had very few things that he said incorrectly, but when he did, I was careful to not correct him too quickly or it would vanish. Because I love the cute ways he would speak incorrectly. Things like “Look Mama! I a bird! I flying!” And once when Steve was changing him, Henry was wiggling all over the place and Steve said, “Oh you are such a child sometimes!” He replied, “I not a child. I just me!” When he is presented with new words or ideas, he has to think them out. Another time Steve was helping him out of his sandy swim shorts and said, “Henry, you’re all sandy.” Henry looked down as the sand spilled out and said, “I not sandy. The house is sandy!”

And his observations of the world continue:
“I feeled the marshmallows. They were warm. And fuzzy.”
“When you have some rocks, you water them. Wsssshhhhhh! Feel better, rocks?”
“Daddy licks his hands, so I want to do that. When I stick my tongue out, that’s how I lick.” He has lots of these explanations of the world. When he says something he thinks is funny he’ll give us an instant replay of it.


And sometimes he gets in funny moods where when you ask him to do something he says that he hates doing that. Mostly naptime and sitting at the table and regular kid stuff. But sometimes it’ll be things like, “I HATE laughing!” Or if you ask him to smile for a picture, “I HATE smiling!”

He loves to help in the kitchen. He got an apron for Christmas and likes to help with the stirring and the taste-testing, of course.

He’s a snuggle bug and he won’t go to sleep without someone singing to him. Whether it’s mom or dad or Auntie Mal. And he loves our weekly coffee dates with Aunt Georgia.

He loves his train tracks and cars and dump truck and Dinotrux. But not D-strux, because he is mean. He also loves rain boots, his Captain America shirt and hats. Also his “carmonica” (harmonica) and “Queen Car” (Lightning McQueen) and his favorite stuffies are Woggie and Sir Ostrich (and I’m not sure if the ostrich has been knighted or is being confused with siracha sauce).


He looks up to his dad. While Steve is building the fence, Henry is also busy hitting the posts with his plastic shovel and refusing to play with his sisters because he is building. He also likes it when he and daddy wear bow ties together. And I like it, too.

He’s a sweet kid. So sweet, in fact, that I worry his little brother has a pretty big ideal to live up to. But at least the little baby will have a great example of how to be super nice and cute.

(On a side note, can I just say that I don’t like the whole potty-training thing? And not because of the actual process. It has gone pretty well for us, the usual hiccups and extra laundry have been anticipated and it’s fine. What I don’t like is that it seems to me to mark the loss of innocence. When they potty train, they are suddenly responsible and in control and in charge of something all on their own and I’ve always observed a very marked change in my children when this comes along. They are no longer a baby, and they know it. With Henry, it was hard to let go of that babyhood. He’s been a pretty cooperative little person, and all of a sudden he realized he could say no and refuse to do something. Not that he’s never said no before, but there’s this look in his eyes that says, “I’m not a baby anymore. You can’t make me.” It starts with him pointing at a framed picture in his room and saying, “These letters says no moms allowed in here.” And before I know it, he’ll be telling me he doesn’t need tucked into bed or stories read.

Motherhood is partially about loss – first of your expectations, then of the things your child does that you have come to love. With every new and wonderful thing your child learns and experiences, they lose their dependence on you. I don’t mean that it is just continually sad, because believe me, freedom from diapers is like so. awesome. No regrets there. But I’ve been observing a lot of the changes in my children and how they are growing and it catches me by surprise. And sometimes I haven’t mentally adjusted to their new needs – their needs for some independence and space of their own. They are becoming more and more their own people. It is beautiful and wonderful and I love it. But there is a part of me that is struggling to let go. To let them go confidently into the future I am trying every day to prepare them for. )

Back to Henry Bear… we love him a whole lot and we’re so glad he’s a part of our family. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Traveling With Kids: Victoria, B.C.

A few months ago, Steve and I were thinking about doing a babymoon, or in some way, one last hurrah before our next little one arrives and all that gets more… challenging. At first we thought we’d go just the two of us, but we realized that our three oldest are really at this golden age for adventuring. They’re good at listening and following instructions (i.e. not wandering off into the street or just disappearing somewhere), and they love to adventure and try new things. We wanted to soak up one last family vacation just the 5 of us, before a new little one comes along that, at very least, requires more equipment to travel with.

Having loved our trip to Victoria last spring, we decided to take the kids there. It was a place we know we enjoy, but have already explored, so if we didn’t actually get out much, we wouldn’t be heartbroken. Plus, you have to take a ferry to get there, and ferries are pretty magical. Of course, we got the more magical ferry experience on accident. We planned to drive to Port Angeles and take the Coho Ferry across, about a 45 minute voyage. But after booking our AirBnB apartment (non-refundable), we discovered the Coho was out of commission for the week of our trip. WHAT!!!??!?! I guess I wasn’t aware you could just not have a ferry running. So in a panic we had to discover other options and were fortunatley able to find a ferry that sailed from Seattle and was over a 2 hour journey. More expensive (=less fun for adults) but more time on the water (=more fun for kids).

The Victoria Clipper, sailing from Seattle, presented another issue. It only sails once a day, at 8 am from Seattle, and at 5 pm from Victoria. Which meant that we would have some time on the bookends of our trip in which we would be without a place to keep our things. So we decided that instead of the adults carrying a larger suitcase, each person was going to have to carry their own backpack. We packed only the bare essentials and headed off.Feb-4305^ Daddy and Ellie on the Victoria ClipperFeb-4338^ Our first stop: the fountains outside of Parliament

Feb-4361^ So much of Victoria was under construction, but the cherry blossom trees were in bloom!
Feb-4371^ Naptime was an important part of the day. Being 7 months pregnant, I had no complaints about this.
Feb-4429^ I think this will always be one of my favorite pictures. Love these boys so much. 

Feb-4579^ When we decided we’d be taking the kids, we knew we’d end up spending more time in the condo then if it were just the two of us, so we decided that the view and feel of our AirBnB was important. I’m so glad we chose this one. Gorgeous views, easy access to everything we wanted to see and do. And the hostess had a record player that got very, very loved as the weekend drew on. So loved, in fact, that now we have a record player of our own.
Feb-4477^ Side note: These windows had such amazing light… I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make Steve snap some pictures. AHHHH. I want to live in this apartment forever. Not even joking. And with the way this election is going…Feb-4892
Feb-4826^ Before our trip, I gave Olivia the option of choosing to have a birthday party or to go to Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel while we were in Victoria. She chose Afternoon Tea, so we did just that. It was pretty magical, and they even gave her an edible “Happy Birthday” sign. Such fun when you’re almost five years old.Feb-4927^ Here they are with their backpacks on our last day. We had a five hour chunk of time to kill, so we wandered around the city, ate some waffles and some fish tacones (that’s a cone-shaped taco in case you were wondering), watched the boats and sea planes and picked up our stash of hot chocolate and coffee from Murchie’s (because they make our favorite). The kids did pretty well carrying all their own things, so I think we’re ready for a family backpacking-through-Europe trip. Feb-4936a

Feb-4937^ We gave each of the kids an allowance for the trip. They could spend it on whatever they wanted, but once it was gone, it was gone. Olivia saw a sparkly mermaid doll on the Victoria Clipper so she saved her money the whole time in order to get that on our return trip. Ellie picked a journal and pen from a stationery store that she loves. Like a lot. When we took a breather outside of Parliament on our way to board our ferry, she got right to work on her journal, writing important things like, “I love my sister Olivia because she plays Anna and Elsa with me.”

In the end, I’m so glad we took the kids with us for our babymoon. There were some moments when I had to take my expectations into check and remember to be flexible. Fortunately, Victoria is full of the nicest Canadians, so we always felt welcome. The kids are already begging to go back, and they can’t stop talking about that ferry.

And now we’re off to make scones and drink tea, in anticipation of becoming ex-pats. Cheers!

P.S. For some of our favorite places to eat and explore in Victoria, see this post. 

Things I Love About Olivia (5 Years Old)

Olivia. Liv. Livvy Bug. Girl-Girl. We love her a whole lot.Feb-4610

Feb-4637There are so many things to love about this girl as she grows and changes and becomes her own person. She certainly has a dramatic flair, and yet she has a tender heart of compassion and kindness for everyone around her.Feb-48571. She is always practicing using big words. I frequently hear things like, “Oh. Peeling this orange is so exhausting.” or “I was just like panicking and panicking. The sun was too bright when we went out for recess!”
And I love hearing the way her mind latches on to things and tries to make sense of them out of context, like those big words. Or when she told me a couple of months ago, “My birthday is close to June’s birthday.” “Who is June?” I asked. “You know. He made the whole world a better place?”  “Oh! You mean Martin Luther King, June-ior.” “Yeah.”

2. She likes to tell everyone, everywhere all her plans. On our trip to Victoria we stayed in an AirBnB condo on the 7th floor. Every elevator trip she was sure to tell everyone in the elevator everything about her plans. How she was going to go to High Tea at the Empress Hotel. And how we were on our way here or there. At the end of the trip, we ended up on the elevator again with someone who we had already shared with. He asked her, “So, how was your High Tea?” And she seemed genuinely shocked. “How did you know about that?” Because you tell everyone everything. That’s how.
While Ellie is the real strategist of the trio so far, Olivia certainly makes plans, too. For her birthday I gave her the option of having a birthday party or going to the aforementioned High Tea. She immediately chose High Tea. And I think she was quite pleased with her decision, which made me very happy. I love experiential birthday celebrations. I think she’ll probably remember the experience and how special it was much more. Our day together was full of so many special moments. The girls were dressed in their fanciest dresses and we were served three tiers of treats with our tea. Olivia loved that there was a “Happy Birthday” sign made out of white chocolate for her to eat. And they could see our ferry, the Victoria Clipper, from the hotel, which was also very special. Getting to choose her special day made her feel so grown up and important.
She also likes to plan things for school. She’s had her show-and-tell planned for weeks. And the other day she told us, “It’s Happy Hats day at school so I need to wear a happy hat.” We had never heard of this event, so were pretty sceptical, but she seemed so sure, so we let her take a hat, but said Daddy would bring it back if it wasn’t really Happy Hats day. When she arrived at school, proudly sporting a blue felt cloche with a flower, she was suddenly downcast. “I really thought everyone would be wearing happy hats!” Turns out, she just had the day wrong, so she still got her Happy Hat day the next week. 


Feb-47073. She’s the best sister. (Henry wouldn’t really cooperate for these photos, but she loves him, too.) I love to hear them play together. Ellie is getting to the age where sometimes she leaves to play with another friend and it is so hard on the little ones to be left behind. Everyone’s just happiest when they can all be together. And it works out nicely because there are usually 3 central characters in most of the storylines that they like to make believe they are a part of. Current obsessions include movies like Home, Tangled and Frozen (still). I guess Henry doesn’t have enough sway yet to get them to play DinoTrux with him. Speaking of which, they love to quote all the lines from these shows. They only get to watch movies or TV on the weekends, but they certainly seem to have a knack for soaking up the lines.
The other day we were talking about how it’s time for her to learn to pedal a bike since she’s been doing such a great job on the balance bike. After some back and forth on the subject she declared, “It has a low probability of success!” (-line by Oh from Home)

4. She loves to sing. And she usually sings very well. Although sometimes she gets the lyrics wrong, which only makes it more adorable. They’ve been obsessed with Home lately so she is always singing the songs from that. My favorite botched line so far is, “I keep falling. I keep falling for you. Like the rainfall. Like a candy bar.” (Instead of canon ball. But hey, I’ve fallen for a candy bar before, I understand the sentiment.) And she can sing a heart-breaking rendition of “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story. Gosh, we’re going to be raising some dramatic kids.

More fun lyrics include: “It’s the circle of life. And the moon destroys it.” and “I’m like a shooting star. I can’t go far.”

5. No matter how big she gets, she’s never lost her love of cuddling and being touched. She loves to get massages from Aunt Mallory. And when I asked her what she wanted to do on her special day of no school she replied, “Never un-snuggle with mama.” That made my heart happy. There’s a lot of love of adventuring and doing in this house, but I love that this one always reminds me of the importance of just being. Of just holding each other. I feel so rushed sometimes with our crazy schedule that it’s hard to carve out the time to give her the space to just never un-snuggle, but I sure do love that she is so vocal about her need for it. She is the one who reminds us to slow down and enjoy being present with each other.

Before her first day of preschool I asked her if she wanted to get a new outfit for her first day of school. “No,” she replied, “I just want to stay home and pick flowers and make ‘Liv and Mama’s Famous Pasta Sauce.'” So of course, we did just that. I love that, given the choice, she will always choose the more thoughtful, more intimate option. She doesn’t need many things to be happy, she just likes to enjoy people and being loved on. I hope that when I grow up, I’m just like her.

6. She is so compassionate. She always notices other people and their circumstances. When her siblings get in trouble and maybe lose a toy or go to a time-out, she is the one who gives them her own special stuffed animal, or goes to check on them in time-out to see how they are doing. She has great concern for anyone who isn’t feeling well or needs some extra love. When Henry visited her classroom and took part in Pre-Kindergarten for the day, she gently showed him around her classroom, showing him how to sit criss-cross-applesauce with his hands in his lap at story time. She let him sit by her to paint and read him a story. She’s not bossy, but rather invites him in to everything she’s doing and makes him a part of the class. Which is the same thing she does at home. She’s the perfect bridge between Ellie and Henry, creating the atmosphere where all three can get along contentedly. Feb-46887. She is so funny. She is always cracking us up with her jokes and funny comments. And this funny wide-eyed look she likes to give when she’s goofing off. She is usually pretty enthusiastic about life and whatever it is she is doing. I love that duality in her, a love of adventures and silliness, combined with a perfect contentment to just be at home, doing nothing but spending time together.

And she has some pretty funny things to say: “Henry! It’s a special day! You get to sit by me!” //  “My childhood was a long time ago.” // On our way to the car one day she sneezed and then said, “Mom, I’m allergic to my brother!”

Feb-4789And finally, An Interview With Olivia:

Favorite Color: Pink and purple.

Favorite Animal: A giraffe. Because they like to gallop.

Favorite Toy: Jessie. And also the phone. And my Rapunzel toy.

Favorite Stuffed Animal: Talentod, Sea Sparkle and my kitties. And my foxy pillow. Because my foxy pillow is snuggly.

Favorite Food: Sushi!

Favorite Song: Hello and all the other songs by Adele.

Favorite Activity: Snuggle.

Favorite Memory of the Past Year: Going to High Tea and eating the birthday sign and the chocolate cup and all the special treats. Going to Murchie’s and sharing the special treats around in the circle. We went on the ferry and I loved that part. I like when we went to the lake house and swam with my flower floaty.

Who is your best friend?: Amelia. I like playing with her.

What do you want to be when you grow up?: A doctor. A baby doctor! And then I’ll check your baby!

What are you looking forward to about being 5?: Playing with my kitties. I don’t want to go to kindergarten. I’m not ready for it.

Anything else?: I like to eat ice cream and pizza! And I like in Canada when I saw lots and lots of water fountains.

She’s the best. And I’m looking forward to another year learning from her and laughing with her and snuggling her. So glad she’s ours.

On What I’ve Learned From Simplifying Part 2: Practical Ideas

I’ve read a few books, blogs and articles that have helped me practically apply the ideas of simplifying. I’ve really enjoyed the feelings of gratitude and of being satisfied that have accompanied this journey. (Click here for my first thoughts on this process and how much I have benefitted from simplifying our home.)

The article that started it all was Matilda Kahl’s article about wearing the same thing to work every day. I was really fascinated by this idea that was so counter-cultural. After reading more, including articles like this one, it dawned on me how much of my time, and therefore, my life, was being wasted by the constant pressure to consume. I didn’t really like that realization and knew I wanted to do something about it. Eventually, I found the idea of a capsule wardrobe to be much more practical for my lifestyle. (Basically, capsule wardrobes are the greatest things of all time. Everyone in my family has one and it makes our lives great. More on this in a bit.) After discarding* so many unused or unloved clothes, and sensing the mental freedom that came with it, I have to admit I got a little addicted to the idea of minimizing everything we own.

Now obviously, if you’ve ever been to my house, you know that I’m not a true minimalist. I like pretty things. I like creating things and trying new ideas. However, I also love the idea of only keeping things are that are currently being used and bringing joy to our family. I don’t intend to own things that have no purpose in our home – I would rather they be out in the world, available to people who do want or need them.

(*By discarding, I don’t mean that I just throw things in the garbage, because that also seems pretty wasteful. Whenever possible I donate or consign things we aren’t using. I have found a local consignment shop I love. We also have connections with a local homeless shelter for families where we have sent many extra items like hotel toiletries, etcetera.)


So… a round up of some practical ideas if you’re ready to get started simplifying. Collected from a few places like Un-Fancy, Zero Waste Home and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and this article that nicely sums up that book.

  1. Go through every room (or every category) of your home. Touch every single item and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” This is the main idea behind Marie Kondo’s book (The Life-Changing Magic one). And it really is the easiest standard of measurement I can think of. The intention of going through every category one by one is that you put everything in that category next to each other, and so you can see if you have two of something you really only need one of. Also, putting all the toys together in one spot just might be scary enough to make you want to get rid of everything. I’ve found that I could even clean out my kitchen by asking this question. Because there are a lot of kitchen gadgets that aren’t really that useful, or perhaps take up more space than they are worth. If I looked at something and thought, “This is in my way more often than it is useful, and I could definitely do without it,” it got donated. Keeping a really good knife allowed me to get rid of a bunch of other knick-knacks in the kitchen. And I don’t need a food processor and a blender… just one will be fine, thank you.
    The key to this is to take everything out of your room, closet or kitchen at one time, go through it, and then only put back the things that are truly used and loved. And in the kitchen you just might be surprised at how long you’ve had that jar of BBQ sauce hidden in the back of the cupboard, considering the expiration date was five years ago (yikes).
  2. Don’t keep things out of guilt. Gift guilt was a huge mental block for me – I’ve had lots of things tucked away that were lovely gifts but I just didn’t need or use. Now, I can appreciate that they served their purpose in the moment by creating a happy little gift exchange. And they can fulfill a further purpose if available to someone who really needs them.
    The same goes with sentimental items. I had kept several things in storage that were hard to part with simply because they once belonged to someone who is now deceased. A freeing realization was that those people, our memories together, and even my love for them, is not contained in an object. If that object brings joy, than I will certainly keep it and use it. If it does not, it’s okay to let it go. It doesn’t mean that I am letting my love for them go.
    If you are afraid someone will ask where X is that they gave you, be willing to speak up. “We weren’t using it anymore, so I gave it away. Thank you so much for your consideration in giving it to us.” I have very rarely been asked about anything (not many people can remember what they gave you and seek it out in your house), but on the occasions that I am, I am perfectly willing to defend my position. I would rather that it be available to someone who needs it than have it collecting dust in my basement because I feel too guilty giving it away. The brief moment of admitting that you parted with their gift is much less life-stealing than the mind clutter it has been taking up all this time. And if you need help, just sing on the top of your lungs, “Let it go! LET IT GOOOOOOOOO!!!” It really helps.
  3. I started off slowly. If you are wondering, “Can I really part with this?”, try an experiment. As with some kitchen gadgets, clothes that I was unsure about, or sentimental items that I couldn’t quite discern my attachment to, I put them in a box marked “Donate” and put it in the basement. I also set a reminder on my phone for one month from that date. If in one month I didn’t think about or miss any of those items by name, the whole box got donated, without even opening it. (It’s important not to open the box! You haven’t missed it, so nothing in there is worth being in your home.) And I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what most of the things in there were.
  4. Don’t organize until you’ve discarded everything you don’t really need or enjoy. There’s really no point in organizing things you aren’t actually going to use. For me, the bathroom was the hardest place to do this. I had so many “just in case” items in there… but when I checked the expiration dates on them I realized how that “just in case” moment has never come along. I’d been hoarding old makeup or expired ibuprofen for  years. And if I haven’t used it since 2010, what makes me think I’m going to need it tomorrow? Also, in the drastic scenario in which I do need that item immediately… let’s be honest… there’s a grocery store 5 minutes from my house. I won’t die if I let them go. And going through all of it has made me more conscientious about my purchases. I say no to all the freebies and samples people are giving away, knowing full well they’re going to end up in the trash before too long, anyway.
    And when it is time to organize, everything has it’s own place. If everything has it’s own spot, it’s easier to put away. I’ll admit, the perfectionist side of me can get a little carried away with this. It gets downright addictive to make a little spot for everything. It’s kind of fun, like real-life Tetris! And putting things right back where they came from is like completing the puzzle. Oh the little joys!
  5. Help kids manage their clutter by also giving them a limited space to keep personal belongings. My oldest daughter, Ellie, loves paper things so much. I can’t blame her. I like paper, too. But if I kept every piece of paper she brought home from school, we would have already drowned in a sea of garbage. So, each of our children has a memory box that they are in charge of. If they bring home something from school or a note from a friend that they want to keep, it goes in the memory box. And if the box is too full, they have to take something out. Every once in a while we’ve even gone through the box together to look for things they are ready to part with. After a while, they’ve forgotten why a piece of paper with a red smudge on it was important, and they’re ready to part with it to make room for something that is currently meaningful. And the same principle applies to getting new toys. All the toys need to fit in a designated area, so if they’re hoping for a new Lego set for their birthday, they’re going to have to part with something else to make room for it. I am also sure to model the benefits of this for them. I keep a memory box, too, and when I get a special note from them or a card from a friend, I put it in there. The same rules apply to me, so they can see that what I’m asking of them is not ridiculous.
  6. Maintain a capsule wardrobe. They are amazing. Have you ever tried them? Basically, the idea of a capsule wardrobe is that you only wear your favorite clothes all the time. How great does that sound? Oh, and you just don’t keep anything that isn’t your favorite. There is lots of information about capsule wardrobes for adults, but I’m also preparing a little post on kids’ capsule wardrobes because I think you will like them every bit as much as I do. Seriously. Amazing. The feeling of freedom that came from a capsule wardrobe is so addictive that it was what spurred the rest of my decluttering. It feels that awesome.
  7. With all these principles in mind, storage is almost non-existent. Our storage is now limited to clothes that will be used by another sibling soon, off-season clothes like coats or swimsuits, the dishes I need to host parties, canning jars waiting to be refilled in the summer, and a limited amount of off-season decor items (like Christmas tree ornaments and stockings). If I do want to store some sentimental items for my children (like their christening gowns or a special baby blanket), it has to fit in a limited space, like one small tote. Storage space is not a catch-all for things I don’t want to deal with. It is only very purposeful and useful storage. And in the event we are hit by that massive earthquake after all, I can actually access my emergency kit and food storage instead of wondering where it went behind all the boxes of nonesense blocking it’s way.
  8. Realize that more needs more. More stuff means you need a bigger house, with a bigger mortgage to pay for it. A bigger house means you need more cleaning products and gadgets and organizing systems to maintain it. Clutter and consumption are distractions. They distract us and keep us permanently unsatisfied, permanently seeking that next best thing. Or, we can say: enough is enough. I have enough. I am enough. I will no longer waste my life feeling lacking. It’s a very clarifying moment, realizing you have everything you need. For me, it was like a big exhale of relief, when I didn’t even know I had been holding my breath. And with that relief came the realization that I could “make do and mend” much more often than I had given myself credit for. Prime shipping from Amazon is no longer my main solution to problems. I can take the time to repair or figure out a way to make what I already have work.
  9. Unsubscribe. Personally, I feel like this is one of the most important pieces of the decluttering-home-and-life project. It was on my to-do list for ages, and I finally took the time to unsubscribe. First from email offers. I don’t need to follow sales, I already have everything I need. If I am on the hunt for a specific thing, and I can wait for a deal to become available, I’ll temporarily subscribe to emails about it. And since it’s usually only one thing at a time, I can actually take advantage of the sale when it happens! I also have unsubscribed from all the catalogs and junk mail that comes to my house. I haven’t completely conquered it, but I have been able to keep a lot of it from being mailed to me. Which means I don’t get tempted with every new catalog or flyer or coupon. I also unsubscribed from following accounts on social media that were toxic… that made me feel like I needed to buy more things in order to be as cool as them. Just, no. (P.S. If you ever do find yourself in need of a coupon, a quick Google search of “X coupon” will usually find you the code you need, so subscribing to emails for the sake of coupons in completely unnecessary. Trust me.)
  10. Take back the Internet. Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, what have you. They are tricky little things. They can be the source of that permanent feeling of “lacking” or “unsatisfied.” But you don’t have to disavow them forever. Use them to your advantage. If you’ve ever pinned to a “home inspiration” or a “fashion” board on Pinterest, go look at those pins again, but this time gloss over them. You’ll likely see a pattern of things that have always appealed to you. Use this pattern to help you formulate your capsule wardrobe or choose the color you want to paint your wall. Use a recipe board to eliminate your need to keep cookbooks you don’t use. If you have something you want to buy, pin it for later. If after a couple of months, that is still attractive to you, buy it or send it as wish-list item to someone who would like to buy you a gift. Eliminate the need for impulse shopping and know that in the meantime, you’ll be just as happy as you are right now, without that thing. If you have something that needs repaired, search for a DIY tutorial or ideas for upcycling. Let the resources out there be your friend, instead of your enemy.
  11. And finally, envision the life you want. And then make a plan to get there. In your ideal life, what would you be doing right now? Where would you be? What does your space look like? Who would you be spending time with? Embellish that fantasy. How would you spend your day?What would you feel as you were doing each task? Decluttering your home and mind is the first step towards getting to that ideal life. Get rid of all the things that aren’t a part of that dream, and you’ll have the space in your home and heart to make it happen. It sounds cliche , but trust me when I say, it works. You have to let go of the past, of the things that are weighing you down, in order to embrace your present. You’ll even discover you were holding onto things you didn’t even know where holding you back. But with practice with tangible items, you’ll have the ability to let go of those intangible forces as well.

This past year or so of taking the time to really cultivate my life has made me feel so much freedom. It has helped me clarify the people, circumstances and things that I do want in my life, and take better care of them. It has helped me see how buying those little, unnecessary items one by one was really stealing from myself – it was keeping me from saving towards things I wanted a lot more – like a meaningful trip to see friends. I found it hard to save money because I felt compelled to satisfy temporary urges to accumulate just because I could. It has shown me how distracted I had become, how preoccupied with appearances and frivolity. That didn’t feel like the me I really wanted to be. The person I do want to be is considerate, thoughtful, caring, ambitious, grateful and grounded. The person I want to be is more than just a pretty face or house, but something substantial, meaningful and uncluttered behind all that.

Sea Salt and Nutella Chocolate Truffle Cookies

Valentine’s Day is such a great holiday. It’s less stress than Christmas, but you still get to make really delicious treats. Like these cookies. They’re a salted chocolate truffle cookie filled with Nutella. Because Nutella should be in everything. 
Feb-4196On a side note… has anyone ever known what “bae” is without googling it? I feel like I spend a large portion of my time googling things just so I can understand what other people are saying. It’s hard to keep up.

Anyway. These cookies are the same as last year’s Frosted Brownie Cookies, but filled with Nutella instead of frosted. I may not be able to keep up with Internet lingo, but I do try to keep abreast of cookie trends, and filling things with Nutella is certainly one of those trends. These are super easy, but they have a fancy name, so if you make them for Valentine’s Day, people will think you’re very cool. Feb-4199 copy

Nutella-Stuffed Salted Chocolate Truffle Cookies

Makes about 20 cookies // Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 1 hour refrigeration of dough

  • 1 1/2 cups high quality semisweet chocolate chips
  • 3 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 Tablespoons Dutch cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Sea salt for sprinkling
  • 1/2 cup Nutella
Begin by refrigerating your Nutella. If it is more solid, it will be easier to work with.
In a double boiler (heat proof bowl in a pot of water, 1 inch deep), melt the butter and 1 cup of chocolate chips over medium heat, being sure not to let the water boil or spill into the heat proof bowl (if water gets into the melting chocolate it will cause the chocolate to “freeze” and be unusable). Stir every so often until melted and smooth.
Meanwhile, use a fork to sift together the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl. Set aside.
In another bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the sugar, eggs and vanilla until well combined and smooth. Add the chocolate mixture to this and beat together on medium speed until well incorporated. Add the flour mixture in 3 increments, beating on low between each increment. Finally, stir in the remaining 1/2 cup of chocolate chips. Your cookie dough will be like a thick brownie batter. It will be hard to work with in this state, so refrigerate it for an hour to let it solidify.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Take about 1 1/2 Tablespoons of dough and form a ball. Break off 1/3 of the ball and make a crater in the larger portion. Scoop a teaspoon or so of Nutella into the crater and then cover with the “lid” of the remaining 1/3 of the ball. Roll a bit to seal the edges and place on your baking sheet. Repeat to make 8 cookies per batch, placing dough balls at least 2 inches apart. (Be sure to put your remaining dough and Nutella back in the fridge between batches.)
Bake for 10-12 minutes, until top of cookies appear cracked. Do not over-bake or your cookies will be too dry. Immediately upon removal, sprinkle your cookies with a bit of sea salt.
Let cool and then package in your prettiest packaging. Send to all your favorite people for Valentine’s Day.

On What I’ve Learned from Simplifying

Simply put: I’ve learned a lot of gratitude. For things, certainly. For people and the circumstances in my life, absolutely. Taking the time to consciously comb through the possessions in my house has also enabled me to do the same with my life and I have come to realize what a great life it is. Is it perfect? No. Are there bumps and disappointments and anxieties? Of course. But there is so much to be truly grateful for. And a feeling of contentment, with myself, my home, my relationships, everything, has spread everywhere.

I have discovered a beauty in simplicity. In making what I have work. I feel more creative, more free and more accomplished. I feel less lust for things and more lust for life. I spend less time cleaning up and more time checking items off my to-do list. I feel more confident and put together. Less like I’m faking it. And more like I’ve found what I truly care about.

simplicity is the way back to love

These past six months or so I’ve been seeking to really and truly simplify our home and our lives. I’ve cleaned out everything. Closets, storage, the kitchen, the toys, everything. It’s kind of a trendy thing right now, simplifying and downsizing, but it’s probably the best trend I could get on board with.

Because when you go through every inch of your house with the perspective of, “Do I really need this? Is this helping us?” it completely changes the way you look at new things about to come into your house. I mean, I love Target just as much as the next person. But now when I go in there, (which I surprisingly feel the need to do much less often) I see things as what they really are: just things.

I think there can be a tendency in our culture to really be defined by our stuff. And don’t get me wrong. I appreciate pretty clothes and good taste just as much as the next person. But pretty clothes don’t define a person. They don’t define me. The things in my closet or home don’t make me who I am. My mind, my heart, my compassion, my skills, the gifts I have to give… those are the things that define me. In fact, I would hate to be so caught up in appearances and accumulation that only that defines me. What kind of a life is that? What kind of a contribution is that?

After this experiment I started wearing less makeup and I cut down my wardrobe to a capsule wardrobe. I’m okay with the fact that skinny jeans aren’t made for me and I’m going to have to bide my time until boot cut jeans are available again. I’ve learned that I don’t need to impress anyone by the things that I own. I would rather inspire them by the way that I live.

Disclaimer: My life is not completely simplified. But it has come a long way. Here are some of the benefits I have experienced:

  1. I’ve stopped holding onto things out of guilt. Guilt is such a tricky little thing. It’s that nagging little voice that can keep us rooted firmly in the past, instead of embracing everything that the present is offering. For instance, I had clothes that I didn’t really like but this nagging thought of “I paid for this… so I have to keep it” kept these unworn things in my closet, as if keeping them would somehow make up for my financial mistake of purchasing them. It was easier to let go when I thought, as I told my kids, “this could be bringing someone else joy. So why am I hoarding it?”

    There’s also the guilt of sentiment… “someone I love gave me this so now I have to keep it forever.” The purpose of their gift was to show love and it has fulfilled that purpose, so I can give it away. Or, even harder to tackle, “this belonged to someone I love who is now deceased, so if I let go of this thing I’ll be letting go of them.” I don’t feel that need anymore. I’ve let go of that guilt, and even that assumption that they are defined by my possession of an object. I don’t have to keep the actual item interminably – I know their love. I carry it with me in my heart, in my memories of them. And I appreciate their love and friendship more than a tangible object can represent.

  2. It’s so much easier to say “no.” After intentionally paring down, giving away extras or things that we just don’t really need, it’s so much easier to say, “I’m okay without that.” It’s easier to admire all the pretty seasonal decorations, and then walk away, knowing full well that if I spent money on them, I would probably be ready to discard them before too long. In fact, going into stores in general has become a bit overwhelming, when I see everything through the eyes of a box of future Goodwill donations.
  3. And because it’s easier to say no, it becomes easier to say yes to the things that will actually improve my life! I had been wanting to get a food processor for years, but always put it off thinking that they were too expensive. Well, when I stopped spending that money on smaller, useless things, I could buy the food processor and it is amazing. I use it constantly and I feel so much better about that purchase than about one that would be wasted before too long. Simplifying shouldn’t just be about decluttering in this moment… but in saying no to letting junk invade your life and home in general.
  4. And with that comes an appreciation for what I do already have. In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo talks to her things out loud, thanking them for a job well done. While I haven’t gone as far as talking to my things, I do take the conscious effort to look at something and be thankful for it. I’m thankful for my handbag that helps me carry everything I need for the day. I’m thankful for my water bottle that keeps me hydrated. Paying attention to these little things makes them feel like luxuries (and in fact… they really are luxuries if you think about it!). And that gratitude makes it easier for me to stop being on the lookout for a better this or a better that. Mine is working just fine. I don’t need anything else.
  5. It has made me re-think almost everything I do to ask myself, is this the best use of my time? My family’s time? Our resources? We have practiced saying no to cluttering up our house, and we can say no to cluttering up our lives. Which, in turn, means we can say yes to the things we do want to do. Basically, it has taught me to be very conscientious about how we make decisions. (And not letting guilt factor in was a pretty huge lesson here, too.) After decluttering our schedule, we’ve been able to find that lost time for things that were important to us, but were being put off. Like having friends over for dinner or starting a book club. That nagging to-do list of projects is actually getting accomplished because I don’t feel so drained by the mere task of keeping up with the daily chores. (Although I’ll just throw it out there that if we didn’t have to make dinner every. single. night, that would be nice. Ha!)
  6. Practicing letting go of tangible objects has made it easier to let go of intangible things – maybe ideas about how things are supposed to be, or guilt over past misdeeds, even the idea that the things I have are what defines me. I have noticed less anxiety in my relationships. I quit following people on social media who made me feel lacking or like I needed to buy more things to be special and cool and authentic. I unsubscribed from all those deals emails that were cluttering up my mind with thinking I needed more, more, more. It has freed me to be more content with myself, while also truly enjoying the people and things that I do choose to make a priority. I feel more confident in my decision-making abilities, because I’ve practiced making little decisions that had a big payout.
  7. I don’t keep things for a special occasion or “just in case.” Thomas Morton once said, “Don’t keep things for a special occasion. Everyday of your life is a special occasion.” I’ve cleaned out so much storage with that very thing in mind. What good is my grandmother’s crystal if it’s sitting in a box in the basement? Either I’m going to use it and enjoy it and yes, risk it getting broken, or I’m going to let it bring joy to someone else. Because it’s doing nobody any good in storage. If you love it, use it. Enjoy it! If you don’t love it, lose it. Let it fulfill it’s purpose elsewhere.
  8. Tidying is easier and cleaning is less of a chore. Let’s be honest. If you walked in my door right now, you would see pillows and blankets strewn about. A counter and sink full of dirty dishes, so many school papers that Ellie just brought home on the dining room table, toys and socks littering the hallway. But if you gave me a 15 minute warning, I would feel pretty confident in my ability to tidy almost everything up. It gets way less chaotic than it used to around here. And since everything has it’s place, putting it back in it’s place is easier, even if it doesn’t happen immediately. (Because who honestly does that? I alway read these tips about tidying your house and how you should wash every dish the moment you are done using it and that just doesn’t seem practical with kids, especially ones too small to wash their own dishes… Those must be tips for homes with only adults in them…?)
    So it’s not perfectly tidy all the time. We live here, and it’s messy a lot. But it is easier to maintain with less meaningless stuff invading every corner. I find that keeping things clean is much simpler and less time-consuming than it used to be.
  9. Basically, it all comes down to this: choosing what we own is choosing how we want to live our lives. Ellie and I were talking today about how all of our actions have reactions, everything we do has a consequence, whether good or bad. Because I feel powerful in my ability to say no to unnecessary accumulation, I feel like I am actually making a choice about how I live my life. I am less a victim of marketing and sales and peer pressure and more in control of my time, my mental space, and my desire to bring something good to the world around me.

Simplifying has changed so many things for me. It has sharpened my senses and increased my gratitude and contentedness in a world thirsting for more. It has sharpened my decision-making skills, helped me clarify what I think is important and develop a system for actually accomplishing those things. I guess there’s a reason that Marie Kondo calls it, “The Life-Changing Magic.”

P.S. Attempting a capsule wardrobe is really what got me started on this journey. And I love it so much that I will sing it’s praises to anyone. It’s so practical and easy to maintain that I’ve made sure my kids and husband have one, too. There’s lots of info out there about capsule wardrobes for adults (try here and here if you’re interested), but not much on how to do one for kids. But I’ll be back with some thoughts on the subject.

P.P.S. If you want to start simplifying but feel overwhelmed by the prospect, I’d recommend “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. It’s a best-seller for a reason. Although there are parts that might seem (really) weird, the basic premise and guidelines are super helpful. Especially helpful, I think, are the specific categories to tackle and the order in which to tackle them. I think it was no coincidence that this started for me by a thorough decluttering of my wardrobe. // More practical ideas to come in another post.

A Little Winter Break Recap

On Christmas morning Steve and I made our usual festive breakfast (chocolate croissants, bacon, parfaits and scrambled eggs). Steve was very proud of his scrambled eggs and told the kids, “You’re going to love these. They are cooked to perfection in bacon grease.”

A few minutes later Ellie piped up and said, “Dad, you were so wrong.” Dad: “About what?” Ellie: “About these eggs being delicious. They. Taste. Horrible.”

They didn’t really, but her comment about them made us all laugh. She still had to eat the horrible eggs before getting her chocolate croissant, because even on Christmas morning, life requires that you eat the horrible eggs first.

waters trio 2015 a

I guess she’s been a bit dramatic lately. On New Year’s Eve we had some friends over to roast marshmallows for s’mores in our fireplace (best new tradition I can think of!) and play card and board games. Ellie got Uno for Christmas, but she was sad she hadn’t won a hand yet. She was next to our friend Annie in this particular round and Annie kept sending her skips and draw twos of out necessity. So Ellie turned to her and said, “You are the worst person to play this game with.” So I guess Annie doesn’t get to play Uno with us anymore.


waters trio 2015 b

Oh, and I should mention that it took two different shoots and so many pictures to get this one where everyone was cooperating for the Christmas card. There was a moment in the second shoot where they all kept saying, “Mom! Next year there will be four kids in the photo!” And I just kept thinking… “This is the last year we are ever doing Christmas card photos…” if three is this hard, let’s just plain forget four. So, there you go. No Christmas card pictures for a few years. But we love you all.

Popcorn CrownsWhen Olivia sat down next to Henry at the breakfast table the other day she announced, “Henry! You know what? Today is a special day. I get to sit by you!”

She also likes to sing A Whole New World. But she gets the lyrics a little wrong. “I’m like a shooting star! I can’t go far!” It seems that maybe we should tell her how shooting stars work.

And when she finally got some real snow to play in while we visited my family in Idaho, she broke right into “Let It Go”. As anyone would.



The snow was nice and powdery, perfect for throwing.

And because he’s way too cute not to get a shoutout, here’s Henry being a super hero. Also, when asked repeatedly, he said that his favorite part of Christmas was putting up the snowflake wall. Which was when I hung snowflake ornaments by fishing line along one of our walls. Occasionally he picked up a snowflake and handed it to me. Great Christmas memories in the making.


Oh, and of course, our biggest news of Christmas break is that we found out Christmas morning that we are getting a baby…
December-3825BOY! Yay!

I think Henry will really enjoy having a brother to keep him company. And boys are just the best. As are girls. I guess now we can look forward to being an even split. Can’t wait!

We’re Having Another Baby!

I usually don’t share stuff like this on my blog for some reason, but this time I had to because I have to write down all the hilarious things my kids have to say about it.


We waited to tell our kids about baby number four until we were ready for everyone to know. That turned out to be a good idea, since it is now all they can talk about. We showed them a sonogram picture after dinner one day and when they realized it was a picture of a new baby, they were elated. Ellie had a squeal of delight and excitement caught in her throat and she wrapped her arms around my neck and whispered in my ear, “My wish came true!” It was one of the best moments of my life.

And then Olivia said, “Congratulations!” and it was so grown up and funny that it made us laugh. They are very, very excited to be big sisters again. Henry is coming to understand that it’s a baby human and not a baby fish, and when asked, 3 out of 4 times he says he wants a sister. The girls also want a sister because then the baby can share a room with them, or at least that’s what they think.

Over the next few days, they said some great things about the baby.

Ellie: I didn’t know you were pregnant! I just thought you were eating a lot!

Ellie: So, when are we going to open a memory box and blue or pink things come out so we know if the baby is a boy or a girl?

Olivia: Can I feel the baby? Can I listen to the baby? I heard the baby crying. It wants more food!

Henry: Is it a baby fish?

Aunt Brynn: Henry, do you want a brother or a sister?
Henry: A sister.
Aunt Brynn: And what should the baby’s name be?
Henry: TARZAN!

Other baby name suggestions include: Ariel, Megan, Flynn and Rapunzel.

I asked Olivia for a bite of her pizza and she declined, but then I said the baby was hungry and she handed it right over. And Henry gave me lots of bites of his pizza, too. So yeah, I’m going to be using that one a lot.

Also, before you go, this note that Ellie has been writing for everyone. She was giving them out at Friendsgiving and then later she said, “I said “I love you” to Spencer. And I don’t even know him very well!” I think after that experience she might differentiate her notes a little bit. But still… this is the best.

did you know?

In case you can’t read Kindergartenese, this note says, “I love you. Did you know that my mom is pregnant with her fourth baby. Xoxo Ellie W. Xoxo Olivia S. Xoxo Henry C. Love Ellie W. Love Olivia S. Love Henry”

Places: Prague, Czech Republic

City of a Thousand Spires

I hope I will always be able to remember the feeling of walking through the main square of Prague for the first time. The city is so charming and magical that it seems fake. It’s like how downtown Disneyland feels, only it’s real life and it keeps going and going. My toes were incredibly bruised by the end of four days there because I was always tripping all the time – I was never looking down at where my feet were…

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I’m not even exaggerating. Little apartment buildings are painted the prettiest colors and have beautiful scroll details on all the windows and doors. It’s surreal. You can go inside churches that took over 1,000 years to build. And have since survived countless wars and regime changes.

Apparently, after the defeat of communism, the entire city was black from the burning of coal for heat. Many of the great churches and museums and the Charles Bridge are still black. But all the buildings in between have been scrubbed clean and repainted and they are just dazzling. I can’t even describe it, so you just need to go sometime, okay? But not on the weekends. Apparently it is becoming the Las Vegas of Europe because dining is so inexpensive there. So stick to a Monday-Friday schedule and you’ll be good.

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We were super lucky to be with a group led by Sam and Robin, who had lived in Prague for a couple years. They live in Portland now, but they knew of some of the best places to eat and things to see and I’m glad they passed their recommendations on to us.

It’s hard to even list things to do in Prague because the list basically goes like this:

  1. Leave wherever you are staying and walk around. Everything around you is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. Enjoy it.

Although I guess I could add a few more places to suggest if you’re interested.

Grosseto Marina – Our first night we ate at this Italian “floating restaurant”. The food was incredible. The view was incredible. It’s going down in history as one of my top favorite meals of all time. Plus, it was Steve’s birthday, which made it extra special. And you can order like 2 euro worth of focaccia and they will bring you a whole bunch. And I love focaccia.

Terasa U Prince – We went to this rooftop bar for drinks after dinner our first night. It’s magical. All the city landmarks are lit up in 360 degrees around you.

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Bakeshop Praha – There are a couple of these around and they are so good. I miss them already. Bring me more chocolate croissants!!!!

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Cafe Savoy – This is another place we mapped out ahead of time because I saw it on that Buzzfeed article about great pastry shops. They serve “Savoy Hot Chocolate” which is not the same as hot cocoa. It’s actually a drinking chocolate and it’s very rich. If you’ve never tried it, you really should. Also, I would recommend getting dessert from their counter instead of off the menu. The menu is limited, the counter has so many amazing options! Oh! And they have a pureed carrot soup that is one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted. It might sound weird but it is fabulous. You will like it. Even Steve liked it (a lot) and he is weird about cooked vegetables sometimes…

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Gold Pralines – a Prague local told us these are the best chocolates in the city. I didn’t get to try all the chocolates in the city, but these ones are pretty good.

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Lennon Wall – a little difficult to find on Kampa Island. But it’s pretty cool. And makes a great photo backdrop. See?

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Hergetova Cihelna – A delicious restaurant. While we were there all kinds of security, including a bomb-sniffing dog, came to scope the place out. After we left, I think the Prime Minister of Israel and his entourage dined there. So basically, it’s a big deal. But you can still get a top quality steak for $30.

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You know that Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas”? Well, apparently he wasn’t a king at all, but he was like the best person the people of Prague ever knew. Isn’t that nice? He has a whole square dedicated to him. And his story is so great that some Englishman adopted it and made it into that Christmas song we sing. In Wenceslas Square is the National Museum Building. It is one of the buildings still covered in black soot. When the Communists came and took over, they shot the building up and then demanded that the locals fix it. They did repair the holes in the facade, but with mismatched plaster, so you can still clearly see what the Communists did. Their own personal way of sticking it to the man. The city is filled with all kinds of little historical treasures like this.

Trdelnik – They make this at little carts all over the city and it is yummy. Basically, if you love pretty buildings and castles and spires and carbs, Prague is the city for you.



Additional Tips: Get yourself a map. There are very few thoroughfares. Almost no streets are straight or even go for very long by the same name. It’s easy to get turned around. So get a map and you’ll be better off.

That being said, Old Town Square and New Town Square and the Charles Bridge (and all the other bridges) are fairly easy to find, especially if you keep your map handy. You can walk to all of these destinations in just a few minutes, so don’t be afraid to explore and take different routes and you just may end up overlooking the city from a castle. And leave free time in your schedule! If we had had the time I would have loved to see a concert in some of the old concert halls. They play Mozart and many other famous pieces on a regular basis – and it’s not even that expensive! Basically, Prague is the coolest ever.

Wear shoes with thick soles. Two words for you: Cobblestone. Everything.

If you are exploring on your own without a local I would totally recommend this book: Prague and the Czech Republic by Rick Steves. I’d never heard of these books before, but apparently they are a big deal. When Robin and I explored the Jewish Quarter we followed along in the book – it’s the perfect way to learn a bit of the history and culture without being on an annoying tour or being completely inundated with tons of information. It is really well done!

Pickpockets are apparently a big problem, so be aware. Shoulder bags that zip and you can keep your hand on are better than  backpacks, especially when using public transportation. Keep all irreplaceable documents (like passports) close to your body or in a safe place. When packing for your trip, jackets with inside pockets that zip are your best friends!

For me, it was important not to look too much like a tourist on our trip and to be dressed appropriately. I spent some time researching and the main thing to remember in both Berlin and Prague, is that locals are smartly dressed. In the winter they are bundled up, but there is nothing flashy or crazy going on. Think more conservative and natural. And no sweatpants ever.

Again, tap water is free and drinkable and they’ll give it to you only if you ask!

Places: Berlin, Germany

A couple of weeks ago, Steve and I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin, Germany and Prague, Czech Republic for the week. It was my first trip to Europe! Although I wouldn’t have picked either of those places out of all of Europe to explore first, I ended up being surprised by how wonderful each of these cities is.

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We traveled as part of a group of MBA students from the University of Portland. Steve is getting his MBA and had to go, and I wasn’t about to let him go without me. As always when you travel in a group, you meet some characters that are very entertaining. Fortunately, most of the characters were pretty cool with us stealing away by ourselves most of the time. So that was nice.

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Berlin really took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to enjoy exploring it as much as I did. Before our trip, we spent a bit of time thinking about what we wanted to do. We had limited time – essentially only two free days to explore, so we wanted to have an idea of things we really wanted to do or see so we could get them done.

I’ll just throw it out there that if you’re into museums, Berlin is the place for you. They have a whole place called “Museum Island.” And then they’ve got like a whole bunch of museums not on that island. Personally, I’m not the museum type. Especially not on short trips. I like to just walk around and look at things and eat things. Mostly, the ideal vacation is walking from good food to good food and seeing things along the way. So our plan was basically to look up food places, find them on a map, and then find a cool way to get there.

My favorite day was Tuesday. We set out for the Cafe und Kondetorei Buchwald because I read some random article on Buzzfeed recommending this place as one of the top 25 bakeries in the world. I don’t know that I would put it on that pedestal, but it was a fun adventure. On our way there, we walked through the Tiergarten. It was beautiful in the fall, and not too huge. In the middle of the Tiergarten we happened upon the Victory Column and decided to climb to the top. For about 3 euro a piece, this is one of the least expensive, touristy things you can do and I totally recommend it. The views from up there are amazing.

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One of the most interesting things about Berlin, I think, stems from its separation into East and West via the Berlin Wall. From the top of the Victory Column you can still see the division of the city – old in the east and new in the west, with the line getting blurrier day by day.

A few other things you might consider doing on your adventure:

Balzac Coffee – just plain delicious. And, the name is funny. // Locations

Cafe und Konditorei Buchwald – they’re famous for something called baumkuchen. It’s like an apricot cakey thing. And sometimes it’s covered in chocolate. It’s no cronut, but you should try some for the German experience and all that.

Berlin Wall – we stumbled upon the “Topography of Terror,” which is just as inviting as it sounds. It’s a city block where they have preserved a piece of the Berlin Wall next to the footprint of where the Prince Albert Hotel once stood before it was bombed towards the end of World War II. The hotel became the headquarters of the SS and all of Hitler’s operations. It’s an incredibly eery place to be. There is graffiti all over the wall and one of the markings said, “To Astrid: maybe someday we will be together.” Yep, made me cry right there in the middle of the city. It was even more impactful after having finished Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy this summer. The final book features a family separated by the Wall, so standing by something that caused so much pain and suffering for so long was a very sobering experience.

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Brandenburg Gate – it’s huge, it’s beautiful, one time Napolean walked through it. And probably some other famous people, too. Go at night. It’s lit beautifully and there are fewer people around smooshing you. Also, it’s right next to the Reichtstag, which is not as well lit, and therefore probably more interesting to explore in the daylight. But it is the place Hitler had the SS set on fire so he could take control of the government. It is currently where the German parliament meets.

Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt – Our hotel recommended this as one of the best, authentic German food restaurants in the area. You can ask for an English menu. It was delicious. I had a potato and sausage soup that was so good and soothing on a slightly jet-lagged stomach. Steve had the veal schnitzel. I stole some and it was good.

Gendarmenmarkt – it’s so beautiful at night. And there is a concert hall. If we had more time, we would have gone to a concert because it looked amazing. Also, there is a little Christmas shop there that sells the famous hand-carved Christmas pyramids. They are incredible. Bring $100,000 with you so you can buy some.

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Additional tips: Bring a warm coat. It’s cold in the fall and winter. Everyone there is wearing puffy, down coats so you won’t look out of place. // Also, know what you are going to order before going up to the counter. In Berlin, they prefer the clipped, most direct form of speaking. No “danka schoen” necessary. Just “danka” will do. // In restaurants, you will likely end up asking for the check.If you’re in a hurry, do it sooner rather than later.

Oh! And the most important thing. Well, in my opinion. The tap water is totally drinkable, but most locals don’t drink it because they are crazy prefer sparkling water or beer or wine. As someone used to drinking about a gallon of water a day, I thought I was going to whither away. If you ask for water in a restaurant, they will ask you “Still or Sparkling” and whichever one you pick, it is going to cost more than wine and they’re going to give you about a shot’s worth. Seriously. They treat it like Cleopatra just dropped her pearl earring into your water. But you can ask for tap water. And they will bring it to you and it is free and there is a lot of it. So, get yourself some tap water. Thank me later.