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From Strong Roots…..

Grow Mighty Girls

Author

jhallmt

Interlude

An intervening period of time.

How else to describe this time we find ourselves in? We talk a lot of “before” and “when this is over”. We reminisce about the past and anticipate the future. It seems to be our natural tendency to talk of times past and times to come. This is particularly true when the “now” is nearly unbearable.

We are staring down the gauntlet of a devastating pandemic. We are living in a nation deeply divided and deeply fearful. Unrest is around every corner. We are collectively holding our breath, unsure if or when we will breathe deeply again.

Uncertainty haunts us.

Many of you can relate. And while the big uncertainties are, indeed, very big, I have also been uncertain about what to write on these pages. This was meant as a sort of travel/adventuring blog and those opportunities are in short supply these days. They also seem, well, trivial. So I haven’t written.

But as time wears on, I find that I am more and more compelled to write. It may well be that I write about the pandemic. I may write about parenting and doctoring through a pandemic. But what speaks to me now is to write of travel. I’m still wrapping up some posts about our Italian holiday. And while European travel hasn’t really happened this year, we have had some small adventures that have been really meaningful. So I hope you will forgive me for indulging in those topics in forthcoming posts. I know there is a pandemic raging. I know there is unrest in our country. Those are really big issues and they deserve my thoughtful attention. But sometimes, I have to break from those issues and give my mind and soul a little respite. An interlude during the interlude, if you will.

I hope you’ll join me.

Clearwater Beach, Florida

Now it’s time for the nitty gritty details.  The last post was a bird’s eye view, now we are getting down and dirty.  Here’s my take on what we did, what worked and what didn’t, on our recent couples trip to Clearwater Beach, Florida.

We have to start with food because the food here is simply amazing.  There is an abundance of fresh, local seafood offered at reasonable prices, often with the opportunity to dine al fresco.  Here’s the rundown:

  1.   Frency’s Saltwater Cafe.  There are a handful of Frenchy’s around the area.  We dined at the location on Poinsettia Road which is just a block off the main street.  There were a lot of locals eating dinner which is always a good omen.  This location offers open air dining but not really outside seating.  Service was really friendly and attentive.  The stuffed grouper entree is not to be missed.  Delicious and affordable and set just the right vibe for our trip.
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2. Lulu’s Oyster Bar and Tap House.  This is a classic beachside oyster bar in Indian Rocks, about 7 miles down the road from Clearwater Beach.  We biked here (which is another story) but you could easily drive, too.  Located just a block off the beach, offers indoor seating.  The raw oysters are amazing and reasonably priced. Lightly breaded oysters were also delicious.  I loved the sides here, sweet potato fries and coleslaw.  Service was excellent, once again.

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Breaded oysters and sides.
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Lulu’s.
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Raw oysters.

3. Bait House.  Oh, this is a good one!  Al fresco dining on the very small deck of a small restaurant located at the back of a bait shop at the end of the pier.  The catch of the day platter was a definite winner.  Sides of kettle chips, broccoli and coleslaw.  The key lime tart was utterly amazing.  Don’t miss this one!

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View from the Bait House.
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Catch of the day!
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Key lime tart. The best!

4. Clear Sky Café.  Another favorite.  We ate here twice for dinner and it was great both times. Located just one block off the beach with both indoor and outdoor dining, this cafe is funky and fun. Live music at night. Extensive menu is reasonably priced. Lobster mac and cheese, blackened seafood grill and key lime pie were all amazing. Reservations would be worth it although we walked in both nights and didn’t wait for long.

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View from just outside the cafe.

5. Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber. I love this place. It has an old school, supper club vibe that is somehow just perfect. It is a welcome respite from the beach themed cafes scattered all over Clearwater Beach. This is a place where the bartender knows your name, and your drink, and provides exceptional service all night. We stopped in here for drinks and appetizers and had an amazing time sitting at the bar. Oysters and crab cakes were delicious!

Nothing wrong with this plate!

6. Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill. This is one of the only restaurants that is truly on the beach. There is a large verandah that provides ample outdoor seating. The food is good but not great but the views more than make up for it.

7. Bobby’s Bistro and Wine Bar. This is the more casual, younger sibling to Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber. The wine list is really extensive, particularly if you want to buy by the bottle. Menu is not large and the service was slow. It was fine, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to go back.

8. Another Broken Egg Café. I love brunch and this place delivered! New Orleans inspired cuisine in a friendly setting with indoor and sidewalk seating. Crab cake Benedict and beignets were amazing. Variety of mimosas and other drinks. Cold brew coffee was the best I had in Clearwater (why are there not better coffee options here???).

Mimosa for the win!
Crab eggs Benedict.

9. Sandbar Restaurant and Bar. Hands down, the best place to watch the sunset while sipping a drink and eating snacks. Don’t miss it!

The sunsets here are unparalleled.

10. Clearwater Oyster Company. I hate it when my last meal on vacation is a bust. It happened here. First the good. The raw oysters were delicious and there was a good variety to choose from. And that’s where it ends. Service was slow. The ambience was totally lacking. We had to watch a manager and two young employees gossip in front of our table for most of the meal. The food was mediocre. Disappointing.

Two mysteries remain to me after eating my way through Clearwater Beach. First, why do so many restaurants serve water in plastic cups???? We are on a beach! If that doesn’t inspire environmentally friendly practices, what will? Please, please choose something reusable or recyclable.

Second, WHERE IS THE GOOD COFFEE IN CLEARWATER BEACH??? I had literally one good cup of coffee here, despite searching high and low. Untenable.

Now that we’ve eaten our weight in oysters, it’s about time to contemplate a place to sit and rest while all that food digests. I really only have one recommendation here. If you can stay on the beach, do it. The views are stunning, the people watching is fabulous, and the ease with which you can pop out of your resort and hit the beach, or the shops or the restaurants makes the whole thing worthwhile. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach. The location is perfection. You can literally walk anywhere in Clearwater Beach from here. We booked a king suite which had a small kitchen. I love this convenience when I travel. It allowed me to eat a healthy breakfast every day and stock reasonable snacks and drinks, saving us money and time. I also love having a separate sleeping area and this suite did not disappoint. The pool is small but the surrounding terrace is lovely with amazing afternoon sun and views. Service was good. The spa was quite nice. There were multiple issues with the fire alarms during our stay. Presumably this is not an ongoing problem.

Now that we have eaten and rested, we are on to the final topic. What to do in this lovely seaside town? In this case, the obvious answer is the best one. Go to the beach! Sit on the beach, put your toes in the sand, walk from one end to the other (my personal favorite). I made it a point to walk along the beach as often as possible. It is simply restorative.

I also enjoyed hanging out by the pool with a good book and a glass of rosé.

Rosé and nachos. It must be vacation!

Shopping here is pretty minimal. There are the expected touristy shops and not much more. There is a well stocked grocery store right on the beach, about half a block from the Hyatt, for any necessities (snacks, wine, La Croix, sunscreen, etc) you might require.

Bike rental is a big deal here (like many beach towns). I had an idyllic vision of tooling around town all day on our rented beach cruiser bikes. However, we rented single speed, uncomfortable, prone to breaking down bikes which didn’t actually turn out so well. We did ride them a good 15 miles with a wicked head wind for half of that. The chains fell off six times. It wasn’t idyllic. Still, if I return, I would rent bikes again. I would just make sure it was something with multiple gears, or, even better, a hybrid bike.

The ill-fated beach cruiser.

Bottom line, this is a lovely little spot for a relaxing get away. The pace is slow, the food is amazing and the views are exquisite. Just plan your bike riding carefully.

Travel on!

Winter Escape

Winter in the mountains of Montana can be brutal.  It is, in unequal turns, cold, snowy, cloudy, grey and windy.  Occasionally, the sun peeks through the clouds and the blue sky sparkles. But these days are rare, and frankly, too few for me.  My husband and I learned long ago that the key to surviving winter in Montana is to leave.  Some day I’ll leave for months on end but as long as we have kids in school and bills to pay, I content myself with a week (or two if possible) in a sunny, warm locale.

In the past we have gravitated towards Mexico and Hawaii, ensuring sun, warmth and general feelings of contentedness.  With the kids getting older now, it has become increasingly difficult to sneak away with them like we used to so this year we set our sights on Clearwater Beach, Florida.  Kind of random, I’ll admit, but I had conference there I could attend and it is ranked the number beach in America.  I love a good beach so this last quality was hard for me to resist.

This was initially intended to be a family trip but forces of school, extracurricular activities, and economics conspired against us.  (Another not so pleasant reality about Montana in the winter is that plane tickets to get anywhere remotely warm cost upwards of $600.  Per person.  Times four people.  Sometimes it’s just too much.) So, much to their dismay, the girls ended up staying home with my mom while my husband and I fled from the dreary weather for five days in the Florida sun.

My husband went down a few days before me to work so I enjoyed the luxury of flying by myself.  Even though my girls are exceptional travelers, there is something quite decadent about traveling solo.  I literally have no one’s needs to meet except my own.  This is a rare occurrence in a mother’s life and I relish every fleeting opportunity to enjoy it.

Traveling to Clearwater Beach involves flying into Tampa then driving approximately 30 minutes across the causeways to the beach.  My husband collected me at the airport in the convertible he had rented (it is only possible to rent a convertible without children). After a quick stop for shopping and stocking up on food, we drove out to Clearwater Beach and settled into the hotel.  We haven’t traveled as a couple in quite a few years now and I’m telling you, it is pretty easy compared to traveling with children.  There is just so much less that has to be done, thought about and negotiated.

We spent our time there enjoying amazing seafood, epic sunsets, relaxing pool time and one ill fated bike ride (to be discussed in the next post).  I ran every day, got lots of quality education at my conference and enjoyed an afternoon at the spa.  We spent time together as a couple and we spent time apart pursuing our own interests.  Our marriage has struggled recently, as marriages are apt to do, and we haven’t spent time together as a couple for a really long time.  I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had some trepidation about this trip.  As it turns out though, we can exist outside our children.  We can spend time together and it can go okay.  We can even have some fun, and laugh together and enjoy each other’s company.  And if we have to fly across the country and find some sunshine in order to start finding ourselves again, I can make my peace with that.

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Sunset off Clearwater Beach.

Piedmont to Genoa or Getting Lost and then Found Again

Some travel days have themes.  Some of these are fun, others, not so much.  Almost all are amusing in retrospect.  Our third full day in Italy was apparently designed to test my navigational skills.  I basically failed but I had a lot of fun doing it.

I started the morning by waking early and decided to get in a run before we traveled to our next stop.  I set off on the winding country road, sure I couldn’t get too lost with a simple out and back route.  I intended to run 3 miles so after heading down the road 1.5 miles, I turned around.  After about a mile or so, I realized that the scenery didn’t look all that familiar.  I was in a foreign country, though, so maybe that was it.  After another half mile it was pretty clear that I wasn’t back at the agriturismo.  Luckily, I had brought my phone with me and pulled my map which indicated that somehow, on my simple out and back route, I had taken a wrong turn and ended up WAY off the beaten path.  Perhaps some day I will learn to embrace this type of situation but at the time all I could think was that my children were expecting me back at a certain time and I had no way to call them and that we had a train to catch in Genoa and a pretty tight time schedule.  Damn.

I thought through my options, hoped and prayed that my Google Maps were actually going to be accurate this time in a foreign country, and began hiking up a rustic trail through an orchard.  Eventually I came to the top of the hill and from there navigated my way back home.  Phew.  We ate breakfast, loaded the car, and set off for Genoa.  However, the navigation system in the car decided to be a bit finicky and had us going up and down a rural path multiple times.  We were hopelessly turned around, going in circles and getting later and later for our train.  I had about lost my mind when fortuitously, the correct road appeared.  It would seem that it was always there and I just didn’t see it, but who really knows?

After getting on the correct road we enjoyed a stunningly beautiful drive through mountain passes and along the coast to the seaside town of Genoa.  Total time in the car was about 2 hours.  I was anxious about finding the car drop off at the harbor in Genoa but it turned out to be really easy thanks to my eagle eyed backseat navigators who spotted it immediately after getting off the autostrada.  We dumped the car and hiked 20 minutes to the train station where we met my husband who had purchased train tickets for us.  We had a few minutes to wait and then boarded our train to Monterosso.

The train ride was less than an hour and deposited us at the train station in the new town section of Monterosso.  From there it was a 10 minute walk to the old town where we were met by our Air BnB host and showed up five flights of steep stairs to our apartment overlooking the neighborhood square.  The apartment was ideally located in the center of old town.  It was a bit noisy, though, and without AC we had the windows open all night and the noise of the town was definitely noticeable.  The long hike up and down the stairs was a bit of a pain, too.  We knew about it ahead of time and weren’t surprised but I think next time we will find somewhere a little more peaceful (which in Monterosso would mean moving only a few blocks up the street).

We had lunch at Belvedere (good pesto pasta) and then met our friends at the Monterosso beach.  One of the luckiest parts of our Italy trip was convincing our good friends to join us in Monterosso for nearly a week.  The girls had friends to play with and the adults had good companions for a variety of activities.  If you’ve read my earlier posts you know I love traveling with friends and having our friends with us on this trip was indescribably amazing.

Anyway, I digress.  The kids hit the ocean, we lounged on the chairs and drank prosecco and soaked up the Italian sun.  Life is good!

At the end of the day it turns out that we got lost a few times.  But we also got found.  And at the very end of it all we found ourselves with our dear friends on a beach in Italy, enjoying the good life.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

A few logistical details: the main beach in old town Monterosso is a pay to play operation.  You rent lounge chairs for the day.  You can also rent paddle boats which were a big hit with the girls.  There is a small walk up restaurant and you can order at the counter or from your chair.  There are sandwiches, salads, etc as well as snacks and drinks.  Beach loungers with umbrellas were 20 euros for the day, lower cost for a basic chair.  The food and drinks were very reasonably priced.

 

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Seaside in Monterosso

 

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End of the day

Piedmont Day Two

The day dawned sunny and peaceful which was more than I could say for the night prior which saw me awake for 3 hours wrestling with the jet lag demons.  We enjoyed breakfast at our agriturismo then hopped back in the car to journey to our second winery, Ceretto.  Ceretto is a family run vineyard located just outside of Alba and produces glorious Barolo wine in addition to Barbaresco and a lovely Arneis. They offer typical wine tastings as well as a wine trek which allows you to explore the entire property.  I was intrigued by the idea of wine trekking so booked the experience months in advance (absolutely necessary).  This turned out to be a very enlightening, educational experience both for myself and my children.  We toured the vineyards, hazelnut orchards, and greenhouses which provide produce for the family owned restaurants in Alba. We received a rich history of the land and family as well as the wines that are produced there.  An absolute experience of terroir.

Side note: bring comfortable, closed toe walking shoes.  The paths are dusty.  If the day is hot, also bring along a water bottle, sunscreen, hat, etc.

The trek lasted for approximately an hour and was followed by an hour long wine tasting in the air conditioned tasting room with magnificent views of the vineyards.  The staff very graciously accommodated my children who enjoyed the views and the snacks of grissini and hazelnuts.  We tasted a variety of exceptional wines during the tasting and before leaving I purchased a multitude of bottles.  A few to keep and consume during our trip but many, many to send home.  The Arneis was a crisp, refreshing white, perfect for summertime drinking.  Cases of Barolo were also sent home to age in the wine cellar.  I also purchased two special bottles of Barolo Prapo.  This was first produced by Ceretto in 1976, the year I was born.  These bottles will kept and one will be opened on each of our daughters’ 21st birthdays.  (They will be ruined for mediocre wine!)

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View from the Ceretto property.

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View of the gardens and greenhouses.

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Destined for the restaurant!

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So many choices!

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Vines of nebbiolo.

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From the vineyards looking up to the tasting room.

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Following the tasting we went back to the agriturismo for a lazy afternoon of lying by the pool, snacking and napping.  Dinner was enjoyed on the patio as we snacked on our assorted meats, cheese, fruits and vegetables, played games and enjoyed each other’s company.

Books 2020

A new year provides the opportunity to evaluate, set goals, imagine what could be done differently.  I have long wanted to keep a tally of the books I read in a year so have decided to accomplish that this year in this forum.  It may be interesting, or it may not be, no telling until it is done.

So to start the year I have read two books that are light and entertaining and seasonally appropriate.  These are exactly the right books for those times when you need something mindless and entertaining.

  1. Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand
  2. Winter Storms by Elin Hilderbrand (These are books 2 and 3 in a series.  The first is Winter Street).

Now onto the stack of books that has been sitting by my bedside for an undetermined amount of time.

3. Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy.  A compelling, impossible to put down, engrossing read.

4. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.  This is a heartwarming read that reinforces the goodness (and quirkiness) in humanity.

And just when I thought I was going to make progress on that stack of books, my library loans for my Kindle finally became available.  Back to the stack another day.

5. Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown.  An authentic read about marriage, the compromises made, and the real story behind the images portrayed.

6. The Long Run by Matt Long.  Admittedly, I started this in 2019 but just finished it in January of 2020 so I think it still counts!  This was an audiobook I listened to during many long runs of marathon training.  Very inspirational story about a hard core, NY firefighter and endurance athlete who suffers horrific injuries and makes his way back to endurance sports.  I had tears running down my face during the last two chapters. This guy is incredible!

7. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.  A relevant story about race, class, entitlement, marriage and parenting.

8. Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center.  An entertaining, engrossing read about a young woman’s coming of age and the power of love (of many different types).

Brief reprieve from library loans so I’ll return to the bedside stack.  This stack of books is monstrous but I’m determined to make head way this year!  Many of the books are in the stack because I kind of want to read them (or think I should read them) but they just haven’t pulled me in.  This is the year to either read them or give up on them.  I’ll try to make my peace with that.

9. The Wild Inside by Christine Carbo.  A mildly suspenseful mystery about a murder in Glacier National Park.  This author has written a number of similar stories and although I have enjoyed her previous works, I had a hard time getting overly excited about this one.  I felt like it was just too similar to her other works.

And…..back to the Kindle.

10. Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates.  I listened to this in audiobook format which was the perfect way to fully absorb all the great concepts Melinda writes about.  If you are a woman, are raising women, or know women, then this book is a must read.

11. I’ll Never Tell by Catherine McKenzie.  A family centric mystery that explores the sequelae of group dynamics and dysfunctional intrafamilial communication.

12. Older, but Better, but Older: From the Authors of How to Be Parisian by Caroline De Maigret and Sophie Mas.  Entertaining, witty, hilarious, relatable.  A must read if you are lucky enough to be getting older.

13. Whisper Network by Chandler Baker.  An in depth examination of women in the corporate world, the bonds they form, the sacrifices they make, and the unspoken ways in which they are frequently undervalued and unfairly treated.

14. The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda. A psychological thriller with layers of complexity.

15. Untangled by Lisa Damour, PhD.  This is a must read for anyone who has teenage or nearly teenage daughters.  Dr. Damour clearly understands adolescent girls. She deftly provides parents with insight into the teenage brain and shares her wisdom for how to approach adolescent girls.  The book is sprinkled with relatable stories and applicable suggestions about the gamut of issues parents and teens will face.  My husband and I both listened to this as an audiobook on Audible and it quite literally changed the way we interact with our daughters.  (As an aside, it also changed how I approach adolescents in my pediatrics practice and how I counsel their oft bewildered parents.)

16. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. A multigenerational story of a (still) happily married couple, their four adult daughters, grandchildren and assorted significant others.  As the story transpires, you come to realize that even in happy marriages and seemingly happy families, there are secrets, and lies, and insecurities.  None of us are immune to the human experience.

17. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I resisted reading this book for awhile because I thought it would be too heavy and dark. It is heavy and dark. But in all the right ways. A compelling, heart wrenching read. I couldn’t put it down. If I had a list of must read books, this would be right at the top.

18. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. An entertaining, illuminating examination of a man in the midst of an unraveling marriage. The author weaves marriage, divorce, online dating, professional life and full time parenting into one really fabulous story.

19. The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor. A psychological thriller that explores one man’s return to the scene of the crime that changed his life.

20. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics….by Michael Pollan. My sister suggested this book to me and I have to admit, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the whole thing if she hadn’t told me to read it. It was fascinating for me from a scientific and mental health standpoint. It also offered a really unique lens into the world of illicit substance use (something I am admittedly judgy about). It is not a light read, however, and definitely demands (and deserves) some thoughtful interaction.

21. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. A deep dive into the multifaceted sexuality of three American women. A thoughtful and worthwhile read.

22. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I wanted to love this book but in all honesty, I just didn’t. An exploration of friendship and romantic love and youthful naivete. I just didn’t find it all that relatable and while I finished the book, I didn’t love it.

23. All This Could be Yours by Jami Attenberg. An exploration of dysfunctional family dynamics brought to a head by a dying family patriarch. Enough said.

24. Everything is Under Control: A Memoir…by Phyllis Grant. A sweet memoir told through food. There is a collection of recipes at the end of the book, which, frankly, ended too soon for me.

25. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. This was a good one. I always love Elizabeth Gilbert and this was no exception. A genuine coming of age novel that explores all the complexities of what it means to be a woman.

26. The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. Another absolute favorite. Literally could not put this one down. A story of strong women, subtly shifting cultural perspective and finding one’s true self all woven through with adventure and purpose.

27. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. A story of a family, defined for too long, by the house they lived in. An intricately woven story of home, family, hurt and love.

28. Big Summer: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner. If you need a light escape from the reality of our current times, this is the novel for you. There are some worthy themes that are explored in this entertaining story. A perfect summer read.

29. Separation Anxiety: A Novel by Laura Zigman. Oh man, this one spoke to me! An exploration of a marriage well past it’s prime and the sequelae of staying in a relationship you need to leave but can’t get out of.

30. All Adults Here by Emma Straub. A well told, mulitgenerational family tale with exploration of parenting, childhood, relationships, sexuality, trust and betrayal. This one didn’t grab me the way some of the other books this year have but I think it is relatable and most will find something familiar in this story.

31. The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. A fascinating thriller that will surprise you with plot twists and intrigue.

32. The Vacationers by Emma Straub. An entertaining family drama in which the history of family relationships plays out during an extended family vacation in Mallorca.

33. Normal People by Sally Rooney. An exploration of class, relationships and loyalty.

34. Beach Read by Emily Henry. Entertaining, light hearted yet satisfying read about two very different authors who learn to see the other point of view.

35. Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arneth. This is a deep dive into the complexities of family relationships and what we will do in the name of responsibility. It’s dark, and twisted, and will leave you thinking long after the book is finished.

36. All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad. An exploration of a mother’s secret life, discovered by her daughter upon her death. A worthy exploration of human complexity.

41. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. A heart wrenching examination of the immigrant life in America, told from the point of view of a wife and mother.

42. Never Tell by Lisa Gardner. A mystery book in the D. D. Warren series. Easy to read with just enough of a plot twist to keep you interested.

43. Home Front by Kristin Hannah. This book chronicles the stories of two female helicopter pilots who are deployed to Iraq. The story grapples with issues of marriage, war, friendship, motherhood and PTSD. This one caused me to shed many, many tears.

44. My Sister the Serial Killer. A dark and twisted story about the sister of a woman who has multiple boyfriends who have turned up dead.

45. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell. A suspenseful thriller about a woman discovering the truth about her past.

46. Alone by Lisa Gardner. Another in the D. D. Warren series, this follows the story of a police sniper who may have killed the wrong person.

47. Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh. A fascinating read chronicling the musings and activities of an elderly woman alone in a house in the woods.

48. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Piedmont Day One

Following a not so auspicious start to our Italian trip, we woke on our first full day of vacation to clear, sunny skies and improved outlooks on life.  We ate a quick breakfast at our hotel and hopped in our rental car in search of a gas station.  We found one without too much difficulty and I thanked my lucky stars that I had at least briefly skimmed the information in my guide book about gas stations in Europe.  This one was full service (!!!) which was a major plus.  It felt decadent to just pull up and allow someone else to figure out what gas to put where.  After a huge sigh of relief, I entered our final destination into the GPS and we hit the road.

We headed towards the small Piedmont town of Alba.  We had a reservation at an agriturismo in an even smaller Piedmont village, La Morra, and wanted to explore Alba on our way there.  With the help of GPS and my backseat navigators we hit the Italian autostrada.  The roadways were really easy to navigate and traffic was fairly light making the entire experience as stress free as it could possibly be.  We drove through farmland and countryside with occasional glimpses of the Alps towering in the distance.  The drive took us approximately 2 hours and we arrived in Alba just before lunch time.  We parked in a small parking garage and walked to the town center.  From the center there is a pedestrian only shopping area that extends for a few blocks.  We snagged an espresso (and restroom) and then explored the shops.  Hazelnuts and truffles are produced in this region and can be found in many of the shops here.  The village feels very friendly and relaxed and the streets are just the right amount of busy.  We sat briefly at a restaurant intending to get lunch but the service was poor and before we could be waited on we discovered a small food shop a few doors down.  We quickly abandoned our menus and headed to the food shop to snag fruit, cheese, salami and bread.  The Italian woman who was running the store spoke no English and my Italian is quite limited but we managed to figure it out and walked out with a lovely picnic lunch.  We took this with us up the road about 20 minutes to our agriturismo, La Morra Brandini.

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Pedestrian street in Alba.

 

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So many truffles!

 

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Nocciole!

At La Morra Brandini we were greeted with warm hospitality, a refreshing swimming pool and stunning views of the valley below.  Our suite featured a main living area, lovely bathroom, and sleeping area in the loft with a large bed plus a couch bed.  There was a common area outside with tables and chairs for relaxing.  There was a garden on site as well as resident chickens, a goat and a mule.  My children quickly made friends with the goat (whom they named Albert) and he became our very own one goat welcoming committee.

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Poolside is a good place to be.

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Albert!

 

After enjoying our picnic lunch we commandeered chairs poolside.  I read and journaled and the girls swam.  I spent much of the time simply sitting in my lounge chair, taking in the views of rolling hills and green countryside.  There are rare moments in life when I feel fully and completely content and relaxed and at peace.  This was one of those.

Following our respite, we hit the road again to visit our first winery,  Fontana Fredda.  It was located approximately 20 minutes from our agriturismo.  On a side note, navigating through Piedmont requires a sense of humor and a well developed appreciation for adventure.  You must have GPS or an exceptionally good map.  The roads are narrow and sometimes steep.  The speed limits are posted for a reason.  You can easily get lost and sometimes feel like you are going back and forth across the same road fifteen times.  You might be.  But I’ll always advocate that getting there is half the fun.  And sometimes getting lost is all the fun.

At Fontana Fredda, we were treated to the cellar tour which was rich in historical information as well as wine facts.  The story of the estate is really cool and even my children enjoyed it.  The tour lasted approximately an hour and a half and cost 30 euros for myself while the children were free.  While the tour was great, the tasting afterwards was very limited.  We tasted just two wines.  Not sure why the tasting was so short.  No explanation was offered.  I decided to just roll with it.

IMG_7813After the winery we drove back through La Morra stopping for a few groceries and gelato.  Then back to the agriturismo where we enjoyed more swimming as well as a decadent dinner of gnocchi, pasta, wine and cheese plate.

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Gelato time.

 

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Appetizer with fresh vegetables from the garden.

Sometimes when you travel you are lucky enough to be with amazing people.  Sometimes you are lucky enough to be doing something you really love to do.  Sometimes you are lucky enough to be in that magical place that just feels right.  Every once in awhile, all the forces of the universe come together and you get all of it at once.  That is what Piedmont was for me.  It was the most amazing, perfect people, in the most amazing place, doing the most amazingly simple yet fulfilling things all at once.  It gave me that warm, full, relaxed, contented feeling that will continue to inspire my travels for years to come.   

Italy or Bust!

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Goodbye Montana.

We’re off again, this time to spend three weeks touring Italy.  My daughters and I will be joined by a rotating cast of characters during this trip to ensure that we don’t get utterly tired of each other!  Unlike our last European adventure where we spent the majority of our time based in Paris, this time we are traveling around the countryside.  The girls are older and a little more adaptable when it comes to packing up and moving on every four to five days which makes this approach more feasible.  It also allows us to cover more ground and ultimately, find things that appeal to everyone.  The greatest joy for me, however, is that it allows to sample Italian culture in all it’s variety and glory, from the top of the country to the bottom (almost).

First stop…..Milan and Piedmont.  I’ll admit, the first leg of this trip was more about me than anyone else.  I don’t feel even the tiniest bit guilty about claiming a small slice of the trip for my agenda.  First, moms deserve to have a bit of what they want, too.  Particularly as the children get older there can be a bit more accommodation for our wants and needs.  Additionally, in true serendipitous fashion, my girls found plenty to love on this leg of the trip.  Even though there were no beaches or grand tourist sites, we have fond memories of little villages, local farms, good food, relaxation and a goat named Albert.

I’ve long been a lover of European wines and have recently had a particular interest in wines from small vineyards in the Piedmont area.  The family and friend portion of our trip was slated to begin in the Cinque Terre which isn’t all that far from Piedmont (if you’re an optimist with a sense of adventure).  Truthfully, to get to the Cinque Terre in a cost effective fashion we were going to have to fly into Milan.  Once in Milan, you might as well take a few extra days and detour to Piedmont.  It turns out that even a few days is just not enough, however,  and next time I’ll go back for a week or longer.

Our journey into Milan was fraught with difficulty.  When you are traveling thousands of miles via three different flights and one rental car there will almost certainly be problems.  Or opportunities.  Depends on your frame of mind.  Generally I’m of the opportunity mindset but by the end of this particular venture I was of the “get me out of this recurring nightmare” mindset.  I’ll spare you most of the details but I can’t help sharing a few of the highlights.  We were just pushing back from the gate at 6:00 am on our first flight when the crew announced that they needed a physician to come to the front of the plane.  I pretended to be something other than a physician for a nanosecond until my daughters outed me.  I proceeded to the front of the plane where I found a lovely, gray haired, tenacious woman in her 70’s who felt dizzy and nauseated and couldn’t catch her breath.  Given that I’m a pediatrician, this was not really my wheelhouse.  No matter.  It didn’t take me long to realize that whatever this woman was experiencing was not going to be improved by climbing to 30,000 feet of altitude so back to the gate we went for medical services.  After some time, the woman was removed from the plane, evaluated by EMS, put back on the plane (!!!), and we took off for Salt Lake City.  There we enjoyed a little club room access (thanks Delta business credit card) and boarded our next plane to Atlanta.  That flight was blissfully uneventful.  Upon arrival we walked around, stretched our legs, stocked up on some drinks and snacks, and boarded our plane to Milan.

Those of you who have flown through Atlanta surely know that that airport is utterly cursed.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a flight go well from there. This time was no exception.  We were just about to push back from the gate for our 9 hour flight when the captain informed us that there was a “small crack” in one of the panels that needed to be fixed.  No worries.  Within 20 minutes they would have us on our way.  I stand in awe of the optimism that airline personnel must possess.  Because as all of you know, this was not a 20 minute kind of problem.  This was a 5 hour kind of problem.  Five hours!  On the tarmac!  We were given a small bottle of water and bag of Cheez-Its to tide us over.  Thank goodness.

You can imagine the scene on the airplane.  It was all hungry, tired, chaos ridden angst.  People were threatening to get off the airplane, sue the airline, etc, etc, etc.  Apparently water and Cheez-Its don’t quite soothe the masses.  Regardless, at the very bitter end, just before the pilots timed out and the flight got canceled, the crack was fixed and we were on our way!  I was so tired from keeping myself and two children from flying off the handle during this ordeal that I didn’t even have energy to waste wondering about the safety of the aircraft.  Seems like it was just fine, though, because we landed in Milan in the middle of a hot, sunny afternoon, only 5 hours later than planned.

We managed to navigate through customs and immigration, get our passports stamped and grab our luggage.  We muddled our way to the Hertz rental car desk.  I know, I know.  Car rental in a foreign land attracts me like a moth to a flame.  But really, to navigate Piedmont you have to have a car and I wanted to go to Piedmont.  So I got a car.

We waited in line forever.  Literally.  Time is just different in Italy.  When it was finally our turn, the representative gave me grief about being five hours late and said that our car had already been rented to someone else.  Like being five hours late was somehow a choice I had made and now I was suffering the consequences of that choice.  But wait, magic!  A new car was available.  Brand new.  Just perfect for us.  So we hauled our luggage out to the parking lot and waited in another line until someone could direct us to our car.  It did indeed appear to be clean and new.  We loaded our stuff and headed out gleefully for our hotel.  We had made it approximately ten feet out of the parking lot when it became apparent to me that this brand new, clean, good smelling car wasn’t capable of accelerating past 5 mph.  As I merged into airport traffic I checked everything.  In drive, check.  Parking brake off, check.  Evidence of weird European car settings that I just wasn’t aware?  Nope.  So I attempted to pull back into the rental car lot which unfortunately was up a small incline.  This car wasn’t going up a small incline.  In fact, it stopped halfway up said incline.  So, I got out of the car, children in tow and trudged up the hill to the man working the booth.  I explained to him my trouble.  He looked at me like I was an idiot.  I invited him to drive the car.  He tried.  It didn’t go well.

Eventually, there were six Italian men (in full suits, ties and dress shoes, in the 90 degree heat), attempting to push this car up the incline.  This didn’t go well either.  They eventually abandoned that idea.  As far as I know, that damn car is still sitting there.

After much ado and a lot of negotiating I found myself in another car.  This one was definitely not new.  It was definitely not clean.  It didn’t smell all that great.  Come to find out, the gas tank wasn’t even full.  But the car did run and it was beat up enough that I didn’t really worry about inflicting further damage upon the poor thing.  Basically, it was perfect.  We took off down the road to our hotel where we would spend one night before heading out to Piedmont.  It felt like we had surely used up all of our misfortune for one trip.  After a shower, a stroll around Milan, some gelato, wine and pizza (I don’t like to mess around), I was certain that sunnier days were ahead.

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Gelato!

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Hello Italy!

 

Travel with Friends

We are really, really fortunate to have great friends that we love to vacation with.  We most often travel with my former college roommate (and med school classmate), her husband, and two girls who happen to be almost the same age as our two girls.  Our first big trip together was to a medical conference in Cancun when our girls were just little (ages 3-6).  The trip was such a success that we have repeated it multiple times.  In fact, my girls really only consider it a true vacation if this family gets to go with us.  We have been to Mexico three times (Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and San Jose del Cabo) and Hawaii once (Maui).  We have been camping with them every summer for 7 or 8 years now and also do a girls’ weekend every holiday season.

When we all get together, one of our favorite topics is rehashing past trips and planning for future ones.  Half the fun of traveling is in the planning and that fun is even greater when you share it with someone else.  In the many months that often pass between seeing each other, we share multiple messages about this VRBO or that AirBnB.  We debate the various merits and downfalls of resorts and camping sites.  We share our research about zip lining and food tours.  We compile shopping lists and lists of activities that we must do.  We meal plan and share the packing list.  You know, I’ll bring the salt, you bring the Ziplocks.  I’ll buy the wine, you bring the beer.

We have tried pretty much every style of vacation with our friends.  We have camped in trailers, stayed in all inclusive resorts, stayed in separate VRBO condos in the same resort and on our last trip even shared one large penthouse suite (yes, it was a blast!).  Somehow, with these friends, it all works.  I don’t think that would be true of everyone but this family is the one family I can honestly say that we can vacation with under just about any circumstances.  This has a lot to do with the kind of people they are.  It also has something to do with the fact that we have vacationed together a lot and know how to anticipate and prevent problems by now.  But mostly, they are just great people and that makes it work.

So, what do you look for in a vacation partner family?  First, I think that having kids of similar ages is a must.  That way, the interests and abilities are likely to be similar.  When our kids were younger they loved to swim (with us in the pool), build sand castles, collect shells, do crafts and play simple games.  Now that they are older we go zip lining, take long beach walks, body surf in the ocean, ride bikes down treacherous trails and let them explore on their own with in a safe distance.  Another plus is that they can all tolerate a similar amount of waiting and walking and time between meals.  It’s tough to have a two-year-old who needs to eat every hour and take a daily nap combined with a 12-year-old who needs privacy and freedom and adventure.

The other plus with similar aged kids is that we can mix it up. Nothing kills a vacation faster than sibling squabbling.   The best antidote for sibling squabbling is friends.  I can take the two younger girls shopping and my friend can take the two older girls to the beach.  The older girls can have a little freedom and walk down the street one block for ice cream while the younger girls do a puzzle on the dining room table.  When they all reunite, bliss reigns supreme (or something like that).  Seriously, though, it helps to shake things up a bit.  Having friends with you increases the odds that everyone will get what they need, when they need it, and even have someone like to do it with them.

Another attribute that I think is key in happy friend vacations is at least a modicum of economic parity.  I know, I know, I hate to bring this up.  Money is a touchy subject but one that has to be negotiated and agreed upon in order to pull off a successful friend vacation.  I love that our vacation partners are reasonable about money.  I know they won’t agree to take a vacation with us unless they can afford it.  We have reasonably similar incomes and reasonably similar ideas about how to spend our vacation dollars.  As I mentioned above, we ended up sharing a penthouse suite on this last vacation.  It was a huge unit with plenty of privacy for everyone.  The shared cost factor made it possible for us to afford some luxuries we wouldn’t have been able to afford on our own. Most importantly, we all agreed at the outset that it was worth it.  My friend and I are both very happy to pay for an ocean front condo when we are on a beach vacation.  We are also pretty likely to eat breakfast and lunch in said condo in order to save some money.  We will splurge on nice dinners with drinks but if we want a drink at happy hour we will make it ourselves in the condo instead of ordering from the resort bar.  We talk ahead of time about adventures and excursions and agree on one or two that everyone will like and that we can afford.  When we get there, we won’t be spending wildly nor feel that we have to keep up with each other.  We know that no one will be stressing about money and that is essential to a relaxing vacation.

Finally, you want vacation partners who are flexible.  We all know that the unexpected happens when we travel.  The last thing you want is a tantrum throwing, inflexible, stressed out travel partner.  If you travel enough, some gnarly stuff is going to go down and when that happens you want someone with you who remembered to pack a good attitude.  I’m pretty sure I can’t even remember all the things we have been through with our vacation partners but there have been hotel rooms that didn’t get booked (anyone need a roommate?), reservations that got lost (how will we keep these kids happy while we wait???), menus entirely in Spanish (we took college Spanish, right?), beach walks interrupted by lightening storms, ocean sick kids on boats, dropped ice cream cones, transit on local Mexican buses, poop in hot tubs (that was your kid, right?), sand in shoes, vomit in beds, head injuries, lacerations, and one really epic screaming fit in the middle of a lake on a paddle board.  And you know what? These people that we travel with took it all in stride.  No big deal.  We shared a hotel room, we kept the kids entertained, we found food for everyone to eat, we danced on the beach, we held hair while kids vomited and cleaned up afterwards, we closed lacerations and evaluated for concussions, we scooped up the ice cream and put it back on the cone (ten second rule!), we emptied shoes of sand and we helped our oldest daughters mend their friendship after that really epic screaming fit in the middle of the lake on a paddle board.

After all of that, I can honestly say, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.  The right travel partners exponentially increase the fun, lighten the load, enrich the memories and enlighten the journey.

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