Back to Brussels

Family friendly top stops

Visiting this city was more about us, the adults, than the kids. You see, we made the mistake of going to Brussels at the end of a month on the road, and the kids were more excited to lay by the pool at the home we’d rented in Tervuren than wandering around to see yet more buildings or manicured parks. The rain killed that idea, and faced with being at the rental home, as nice as it was, got us out and about. We are glad we ventured to hit the top stops in the city; the others around we’d already been to and I’ve written up (see last paragraph).

One side of the Royal Palace: open July 21 through September
Warning to the out of towners (e.g. Americans)

The cell coverage is seriously intermittent in parts of the city, and after we’d seen our sites, found ourselves in a very unsafe area. Since the cell signal wasn’t picking up, my girls saw a few things that unfortunately, they can’t unsee. On one hand, it was seriously unsafe, and is a side effect of driving yourself. Yet, even as I write this, I must point out that this one really strange, scary detour is the thing we discuss most about Brussels because we saw the “real” city, as opposed to the beautifully manicured part visible to most tourists.


One of the unique characteristics of Brussels we loved were the flower trees built around light posts or trees. A street might be considered “shopping” caliber full of boutiques, or a bit more downtrodden, but the added touches around town meant an eye for detail we appreciated.
Better when done wet

From the moment we drove from Tervuren in to the city, we were so pleased with the relative emptiness of the streets and the speed at which everyone travels. It was positively invigorating to have Rog drive normal and not like the Swiss, who are restricted by the absurdly confining rules of 45 miles an hour practically everywhere. I fear I left permanent nail imprint marks on the passenger door as a way of releasing my frustration. But I digress.

No such issues plagued me in this “beautiful but boring” city as my nine-year-old dubbed it. Entering the city is majestic, the thoroughfair providing the perfect photo of the arch, power lines aside. (As an aside, regular readers know I don’t photoshop my work, firstly because I don’t have the software, the desire to purchase or learn how to use it, nor do I have the time. What you get is what a visitor will actually see, cloud cover and all).

Yeah, I know. Me and “my thing” for colorful doors. I can’t help myself

Being most recently from Seattle, we are used to clouds, but I’ll admit I was wholly unprepared for all  dark grey and rain in late July. After we’d returned to Tervuren, I asked the owner of the home, a flight attendant, about the weather.

“I’ve heard it’s a lot like Seattle, Washington,” he remarked. “This is standard July weather.” Huh. Maybe that’s why the five-bedroom, beautifully appointed home with the pool sitting right beside the Empress’s Palace was so inexpensive, for who, in their right mind would ever come to Brussels in July?

Unwitting American tourists, that’s who. Still, it was a fabulous bargain, we did use the pool one day out of eight (if you count two hours between storms as using it) and it forced us to explore the surrounding countries with more vigor that we might have if the weather had been good.

Shopping and wandering in to cafes (or chocolate shops) is the best
Check the calendar

The Royal Palace in downtown Brussels is great, well, from the outside. It was no wonder we found street parking because we came the day before it opens to the public. ARGGGG!!!. We’d failed to read the fine print on the website (or our phones) that identified in black and white that the Palace opens for tours starting the 21 of July through September. We literally missed it by a single day.

You can zip through the photos that identify exactly what I’d wanted to see…the grand ballroom, the small and large white rooms, the Empire Room, the antechamber…man, all those will remain, for me, things I have only seen in photos on line.

So. Depressing.

You are now saying: “Who cares? You can see it when you go back.” The truth table here is that we aren’t hitting Brussels in our upcoming trip and I can’t see us going back for a while. Compared to the exotic nature of other places to see and things to do, it’s unlikely. I console myself that the digital pics on the internet are far better than what I could take in any case.

For those of you with children, I wish I’d seen this site for kids on the monarchy prior to going. At least it would have been educational, informational and fun for them in the car.

The Cinquantenaire Park is awesome (for the adults) because the majesty of the structure got no more than a gnat-like look from our girls.

We meandered the park as long as it took to get our kids to pose for some photos then piled back in to the car at made it to the Aboretum. This Aboretum is another word for Park Tervuren, which I covered in another blog. Then it was the Antomium, which deserved its own write-up as well.

Feature picture: a view of the street from the Royal Palace

Top castles around Prague

Close and far, Karlstejn and Cesky are not to be missed

When we were visiting the Karlstejn Castle outside Prague, I had roughly ten minutes of wait-time while Roger waited in the ticket line with the girls. Me being me, I’m scoping the scene before me, immediately zoning in on a tall man with a slobbering bull mastiff by his side. I wander over, dropping down to my knees, asking if I can pet his beautiful male mastiff. His eyebrows raised, and then it occurred to me I was awfully arrogant thinking the man could speak English.

“Of course, you may,” he replied in perfect English albeit with a Czech accent.

We get to talking because I’m an author, I ask questions, and learn the dogs name is Saffron, as in the herb. The reason he was outside the castle instead of in, was because it has a no dogs allowed policy, which he didn’t know. I learn he’s a contractor who specializes in private homes, and was a wealth of information what to see and visit.

The wonderful man who told us about Czesky and let me pet his beautiful mastiff Saffron!

“Have you been to Cesky Krumlov?” he asked me. Before I could answer, he told me I definitely need to go. “It’s the best thing you’ll see in the Republic.”

That was quite a statement, especially since we’d been in and around Prague, but he was so fervent I told Rog about it, and after we finished with our day at Karlstejn Castle, we cleared the deck for the next day and went.

KarlstejnCastle

This is a castle on the smaller side compared to Czesky Krumlov and the Prague Castle, but it has features we enjoyed. The 30-minute walk up on the white stones, and the tour takes less than an hour. The services are quite limited in terms of food and gifts, but the views are lovely. Because of its convenience to Prague, and it’s Gothic structure, it’s considered one of the top tourists’ destinations. You might think it would be really busy, but it wasn’t. We walked right up, and twenty minutes later we were in.

The walk up to Karlstejn almost resembles this rocky terrain–kidding–not kidding. It’s the opposite of Cesky

A few of my favorite snapshot memories are the small gardens below the walkways connecting the two buildings that were used for the ladies of the castle. The tour was also fantastic. We were incredibly grateful the majority of our small group of 12 spoke English (we were with a group of Australians) or we would have had to hear the tour in German and their rules is majority rules.

The original walkways connecting the buildings and the outer gardens below

What struck us most about this building were the size of the rooms, which are all compact, but we understood why when we got to the staterooms. The original, wooden beds where the King slept was sooo small!! And the height of the doorways was also very small. Back then, the people overall, were quite a bit shorter than we are today. The paintings were amazing, and we were most struck by the room where all the portraits of the royals hung around the room. The chapel stands out, and above all, near the end of the tour, we saw the replicas of all the tiaras and jewels. The real ones had long since been replaced with fakes, but they were still pretty neat to see (boy, those real jewels are HUGE).


Cesky Krumlov and the town of Cesky

According the history, the town of Krumlov was created around the castle by the Lords of Krumlov. Over 300 medieval buildings surround the town, along with the Vltava River. The grounds are large, the river wandering around the base of the castle goes through the town and beyond. We parked probably ten minutes from the castle, and walked through the town to get to the castle. Unlike the short tour of Karlstejn, this castle and town requires a day trip.

An original lower entrance for Cesky, and the Vltava River where you can boat, canoe or swim alongside

Forty buildings reside in the castle complex, with galleries, towers, churches, most open to the public. We thought one of the greatest parts was walking up the long entry way used by the previous Lords of the castle. Imagine being in a horse-drawn carriage and entering a long, stone laid driveway that’s 100% covered, the ground treatment perfectly laid and matched in the color of muted yellow. As I mentioned to Rog, it was the medieval version of the Batcave entrance except above ground.

The drive for those in the carriage might have been a few minutes, but to walk, it was about twenty. You go up, and up, and up, and I regret not taking pictures, but I was working hard!

Sorry about the iPhone pics but this was the best I could do! Left: the restaurant we ended up eating at (where they were nice–keep reading), right: walking from town to the Castle.

Then the levels and options within the castle are many, as are the perches, each providing unobstructed views down to the town. The original Lords knew how to position the castle, but we didn’t see a single view which wasn’t magnificent.

Almost lost a daughter

One of the things we love about Europe is the general lack of rules, restrictions and sometimes, guardrails. If you see a dangerous animal and want to put your hand it, no second line of protection stops you. It’s more like the universal DNA test of nature; if you are dumb enough to stick your hand in, then you deserve to lose it.

Colorful and quaint is the town

So, it was with Cesky Krumlov. No long-fanged carnivores, but multiple ledges without protective rails. My precocious six-year-old jumped up on one ledge and nearly toppled over the edge, which would have been a 700-foot drop to their death. I’d been partially turned to Rog when she leapt up, turned just in time to grab her foot while my other daughter caught her waist. We were able to stop her forward momentum, my oldest daughter at nine and myself just held her tight, and then I pretty much lost it. Never before or since have I ever gotten that close to death, and all I can say is this: watch your kids because it’s Europe, and I’m pretty sure I was the one who’d have been arrested for not being mindful.

A pic of the town of Cesky through a peek-hole, and the embrace after our youngest almost fell off the ledge….still shaking.

The trip is going to take you roughly 4-5 hours, because we kept to the speed limit and it was 4.5. We arrived around eleven, just as it started to sprinkle, but it stopped as we were inside, and we thought the grey clouds totally romantic. The tour we took was in English and completely worth it.

We then went down in to town for dinner, taking our time to walk up and down the streets. From the small, original bridges covering the brooks and streams to the bistros, cafes and restaurants, we were enchanted.

We had only one unfortunate experience during our time in Cesky, and this actually was relatively common in our journeys: it’s what I call kid-discrimination. The fact is that not all destinations, restaurants or eateries welcome kids, even those who are quiet and well-mannered. We entered to two restaurants—not bars, mind you, but actual eateries, and at the first, the hostess said: “We don’t serve children.” As we saw teens probably 13 and above, we were perplexed, but left. We walked a few doors down and although the male host scowled when he saw our girls, he sat us anyway, but get this, not on the main floor, next to the water, where four tables sat open (picture the windows open, the stream going by—enchanting), but he put us upstairs, in the far corner where the windows were closed and no air conditioning. Again, we were perplexed but went with it, right up until others were being served and we weren’t-water or menus. Finally, after about ten minutes, we just got up and left.

On the way out, Roger had a word with the host, and he straight up told Roger that restaurants are for adults and we should have known better. Well, then!

Culture is culture, and we weren’t delusional enough to think that we could change opinions and attitudes, so we adjusted our approach. Very politely, we approached the next restaurant, also by the Vltava River and still in town, asking the host if they minded children. He smiled and said “Of course! Come in!” We proceeded to have the most glorious, authentic dinner of pork, potatoes, noodles, soups and my favorite, hot chocolate that was more like thick, hazelnut mousse.

This is how happy I am when the chocolate hazelnut mousse is as thick as pudding. Yum!

Cesky was, and still is, hands down, our favorite town outside a castle, and we have another full day booked for our upcoming trip this summer.

Couldn’t help myself–I’d taken another selfie with Saffron just to show how big he was and how much he slobbered. LOVE that dawg

Feature photo: taken from one of the decks at the Karlstejn Castle

Kids and wigs: required reading

One of the considerations we had before heading to the wig shop was Porsche’s own self-esteem and sense of self. We always thought ourselves fortunate that she wasn’t sixteen and dealing with teen drama; instead, she was still an overall healthy, happy kid. It wasn’t until she started noticing all the stares her way, around 8, that she felt different.

Even then, we always emphasized that being different (no hair) was akin to being cool/unique. It wasn’t until people started asking about “our son,” or ask what our son’s name was that the flip with Porsche was switched. She had no issue being bald, but heaven forbid she be mistaken for a boy, when she clearly, and loudly, is a girl.

In the photos below, my daughter is smiling because as she told her daddy, “I feel like a girl again.” (Yes, I cried on the phone as I was watching this from home).

Wig shopping

She went wig shopping the day after Christmas because she’d wished for hair. We couldn’t give her that, but went for the next best thing; a wig. It was Roger who went with her for two reasons. The first is I had a toddler at home and we were told this was going to take several hours. Second, the wig shop specializes in leukemia patients, specifically children. Given my own fragile state of mind and the possibility that Porsche had a deeper medical issue, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.

Wig selection: synthetic first. Too blond (upper left), too dark (upper left) then finding the right color but needs a cut. The back was trimmed to be more age appropriate and bangs

So off they went. As you can see from the smiles, the wig shop was a fun experience for Porsche. First, her head was measured. Second, the colorists started matching what they presumed/thought/ascertained to be her natural color. Because her hair was gone, Porsche pulled out pictures, and then they started pulling out colors. Up next was picking synthetic or natural.

Synthetic

Pros: It holds its shape no matter the circumstances, which is wonderful. Reasonably priced, between 300-$750 dollars.
Con: It can’t be washed, curled, or modified in any major way. The edges will start to fray so you need to trim occasionally. You must keep it on a Styrofoam head piece after washing and condition (with special products)

Natural

Pro: you can wash, style and even color it if you want
Con: you have to keep it on a Styrofoam head piece after washing and condition, but you can use normal hair products. High prices- $3,000-4,000.

After choosing the perfect color, the customer is shown how to put on the nylon cap required to keep the wig in place. Then on goes to the wig. Size is very important for children because their heads are still growing, thus the requirement for the cap, which holds the wig in place when it’s a little loose in the first year or two. The final year, which is about how long a wig, real or synthetic, will last, the cap is no longer required.

The wig is then cut in to the shape desired. In our case, Porsche chose to have a few bangs which could be pulled back or tucked under. She walked out with special shampoo for the wig, a Styrofoam head, and a special brush for the synthetic wig. We also ordered a real wig, which took about 3 months to receive. We learned wigs are produced typically in Europe, and the color requested is matched to order.

Also, another note on natural wigs. They are made from untouched, or “virgin” hair. For this reason, they can be colored if desired, (unlike synthetics which can’t be colored).

Once the hair is cut to her liking, the big (really big) step was to take her out in public. Rog decided to feed her and just hang out at a café for a while.
Pass it on when you are done

As I’d mentioned in the first piece on hair restoration and loss, we found a young girl, aged seven, suffering from her second round of leukemia. She was the recipient of both wigs. Learn more about the issues we encountered when approaching the local Children’s Hospital to understand why we were unable to go that route (they were rejected).

This is the natural wig. You can see how it’s not quite as fluffy and lays more naturally. The hairline is also very well done–so much so you can’t tell it’s a wig unless you are standing right above her and know what to look for.

Tip: If you are in need of a wig, my suggestion is to call the local wig company themselves. Usually, they are the first stop for children/adults in need, and we have found they are very kind and willing to help connect families who are in need and don’t have the funds to purchase a wig.

Hair loss and restoration Part 2

Breakthrough! The metal connection

In the previous blog on hair loss, I described and showed visuals of the mystery illness that had afflicted my daughter, and to a lesser degree myself. Over the course of several years, her hair fell out in chunks, then entirely, as and a team of doctor’s tried to figure out what in the heck was going on.

Recapping where we started, went through and the beginnings of hope

In the spring of the third year, Porsche was nine, and the door of knowledge opened up just a bit.

An acquaintance from church came over to the house and asked about Porsche. She then told me it occurred to her that we might want to have our water and food tested for metals.

How to identify “typical” alopecia and something far worse. Top left: Porsche is still thinking it’s all going to be ok. Top right: She didn’t know I started straightening her hair to cover what was happening underneath. Spots larger than a dime, then huge sections

“Our neighbor had a daughter about thirteen who lost a lot of her hair,” the forty-five-year-old woman told me who lives on a few acres just outside the city water district. “The doctor asked for a water sample of the well, and it turned out it had a lot of heavy metals.”

Huh. We were, in fact, on a community well, but it had been used for over twenty years, and plenty of kids were raised drinking the water. With the exception of the elderly, everyone the community had their hair. Per law, it was regularly tested and passed all the national requirements without exception and always passed.

“Nonetheless,” my friend continued, “you should have it tested again, as well as your daughter for heavy metals.”

Near fatal numbers

Over the next 90 days, we learned that the EPA only tests a fraction of the hundreds of metals in the water (about 350), and that each additional test would be about $1,800 per test. Over 3,000 different metals and permutations exist. We didn’t have that kind of money and wasn’t sure it was going to make a difference.

Seeing huge swaths falling out can be a sign of massive metals in the system

Then Porsche’s own metal numbers came back. She was 70 times the toxic level for heavy metals for an adult, not to mention a nine-year old. According to Dr. Nebalski, she should have had permanent brain damage from the levels of toxicity in her body.

It was a bittersweet moment. At first, we thought: “Yes! We are finally getting somewhere. With a cause we can find a cure.” We were also brought to our knees that she was spared having permanent brain damage.

At the same time, we were no closer to determining the “why” of Porsche’s hair loss started. In order to find a solution, we needed to find the cause. Surely, the well alone couldn’t the culprit, it if it was at all, because s we explained, our family of four had been drinking from the well exclusively for seven years. We were left wondering what we could eat, drink or do that wasn’t going to make her situation worse, or heaven forbid, trigger a reaction in the rest of us.

Doctors united

By this time, we were working with a loose team of physicians, western, holistic and natural, who were all intrigued and somewhat obsessive about figuring this out. They all started working together, from Washington, to Arizona, Italy and beyond. I was relieved to find zero competitiveness among the “types” of doctors, but a sense of comradery born of a desire for results.

As Porsche lost her hair, I lost 30 pounds. It’s not a good look. On the right: we had to adapt Porsche’s habits because while she didn’t mind being bald in public, (she got good at ignoring people), her scalp couldn’t take any sun. She wore it for 3 years when not in the house, or a hat.

They believed it was likely Roger and my younger daughter had been spared because Rog always favored protein drinks, milk or juice over water (still does). My youngest had come off nursing, and was eating mostly organic baby food, and not ingesting bottles of water. Both of them had lucked out for completely different reasons. By comparison, me and Porsche likely had very high levels of metal in our systems because we are both water hogs.

The difference between hair growth and hair loss is night and day. Even, overall growth is evident. That said, hair grows back in the order it was lost.

The doctor’s hypothesized that Porsche’s system was triggered by the incredible doses of concentrated radiation in the ocean water from that original visit to Hawaii. What was already resident in her system went on overload. I was affected as well, but as I was older, constantly eating detoxifying foods such as blueberries while maintaining my supplements, it helped my Ph balance. I suffered hair loss, but not in in big swaths, not chunks. Porsche on the other hand, was in the formative stage; her body simply couldn’t handle it.

Cleaning out the system

If you recall from the last blog, at this time, Porsche already had a regimen for keep her hair follicles open. This included applying topical steroids (liquid) every night. She was still receiving @500 shots in her head every six weeks.

Every day to the scalp to keep the hair follicles open

To this, our holistic physician, Dr. Albert Alyshmerni recommended we (all of us) start taking Zeolite.

“You need to uses Zeolite to remove the metals from the body,” said Dr. Albert (he prefers we use his first name after Dr. instead of his last, so I’m not being disrespectful here).

Zeolite is volcanic ash. When absorbed, through liquid or capsule, it attracts the metals, and then it’s pooped out. It was so strange, because once I learned this information, suddenly others in my circle, who were well aware of my situation, admitted that they’d been taking zeolite for years because they love fish, but wanted to get rid of the mercury and other metals in the food chain. This is a natural, volcanic ash that absorbs heavy metals from the body. It’s been used for decades and comes in liquid and tablet form.

6 months after taking Zeolite and the magnesium, Porsche went from completely bald to this–the top sections first–early July 2015

We have used two different brands with equal success. The only reason for going back in forth is that they aren’t always in stock. Omica was our original, and our current is Theodosia, and it’s only because it seems to be in stock a lot more. I will say it’s a tad more convenient, because the dose is higher so we only take one per day (30 min before a meal) vs 2 a day with the Omica. But again, we notice no difference between the two.

Once or twice a day, 30 min before meals, depending on which brand you get. They both work equally well, though Thoedosia seems to be in stock more often

I will go in to much more detail during the May 30th event on Hair Loss and Restoration at the Athleta Spokane store, but for those of you suffering from any stage of hair loss, I want to get this information out.

Overview of Zeolite

Our doctor likened our Porsche’s body to a tree, her hair being the leaves. The base and insides of the tree had become infected, and the leaves were falling off. However, the tree might be salvageable, but it would take time (months/years) to clean it out, starting with the roots.

“It’s critical you drink at least eight glasses of water,” Dr. Albert emphasized. If we didn’t, the body wouldn’t release the heavy metals, we’d be constipated and this would negate any positive effects.

February 2016, the hair keeps coming in–but instead of being thin and fine, it’s tough and corse. We love it.

Even though we have been using Dr. Albert for 17 years and never been sick (thanks to going the natural route), we were dubious. We read quite a bit about scams of powder and pills, and all sorts of claims, but even the western physicians said: “It certainly can’t hurt.”


April 2016. We are astounded with her hair growth– and also the comments. I started getting looks and questions “Is her father African American?” looking between her skin, her hair then back at me. I took the question as a compliment.

Dr. Albert told us what products to purchase on line (not through him) and to ignore the chatter. Without fail, we (me and Porsche) started taking single zeolite pill every day, 30 minutes before eating. In one month, we didn’t see much difference. Two months in, we both had fine hairs sprouting up around our hairline. At month three however, our new hair resembled newborns, with shoots everywhere. Gradually, Porsche’s bald spots started filling in. The regrowth began in the order of hair-loss—not all over, and not all at once. Literally, we watched the spots of first loss fill in. Now, seven year later, the very last areas to go bald are finally becoming full with hair.

July 2016
The stage of hair re-growth

Phase 1: Interestingly, like a newborn, Porsche experienced something similar to cradle cap. The surface of her scalp (the bald areas) first became white and lightly crusty, requiring a very gentle scraping. We used the soft brushes used on a baby’s head, then switched to a standard black men’s comb. Our physician recommended we be sensitive, and we had to be; if we were rough, the skin would break and bleed. It did, and over time we learned how much pressure to apply.

Phase 2: The next step of re-growth were the fine, spikey shoots. These would grow to several millimeters, then fall out, much like a newborn’s hair. After a few days, the hair would then come in again, but this time, without the cradle cap. Further, the hair itself was strong, thick and never, ever came out. The doctors tested the strength, to be sure this was the real deal, and would tug on the hair. Sure enough, her strands weren’t going anywhere.

Our doctors were extraordinarily pleased, and the shock of the western doctors were high. But when I started asking around to my friends who are nurses, or naturopaths or chiropractitioners, most had heard of, and were using some brand or version of Zeolite! Gah!! As one female nutritionist told me, “I’ve been using it for years because I want to eat fish, and all fish has high metals, no matter what the food companies say,” she contended. Other than metals getting out of her system, I asked if she realized any other benefits. “My hair became thick again,” she said.

Apply to scalp nightly and wash the hair in the morning

While we were thrilled with our results, Dr. Albert asked if we’d been taking Magnesium either liquid of internal. Neither, was our answer. I’d never thought of it. He counseled us to immediately get liquid Magnesium and apply it nightly to Porsche’s hair, which we did. The rate of Porsche’s hair growth markedly increased, and then I asked the Dr. Albert is she could take it internally as well. He said of course. That day, we all started taking a once a day Magnesium supplement.

The added results of the Magnesium were beyond our expectations. About 2 weeks after adding the topical and internal versions, the little fuzzy shoots appeared faster and thicker. As the doctor explained, it was accelerating the healthy hair growth that had been aided by the metal removing Zeolite.

Adult benefits

Rog and I were beneficiaries of this newfound supplement regimen, albeit on a smaller scale. Neither one of us have ever used the magnesium on our heads, but decided to take it internally, along with the zeolite.

Another lesson learned: hair loss returns….

We learned if either one of us failed to take our zeolite while continuing to eat meat, fish or other proteins that are down at the bottom of the food chain, then our hair started to fall out again, and does so rapidly. (It still does). Also, when the water consumption dipped below eight glasses, the hair also started to come out. Case in point, once Porsche got lazy and didn’t take her Zeolite and in two weeks, she showed bald spots. Those same spots take three to six months to fill back in. For myself, I lose hair all around, but it’s most obvious at the tip of my hair, at the crown of my head. Not a great spot to be losing hair.

A recent example was when we went to Cancun. In theory, Atlantic-caught fish is ‘safer’ than Pacific because it’s further from Fukashima. Wrong. It doesn’t matter. After all these years, it’s all pretty much the same, and we learned this first hand because Porsche had remembered her Zeolite, and I’d forgotten. Still, I made the conscious decision to have seafood every day, my typical indulgence tuna tacos or tuna sashimi. Seven days in, when my hair was wet, I’d run my fingers through and they’d be covered with hair. Ten days, doing the same thing while dry resulted it the same, awful experience. By day fourteen, I was convinced I was going bald because of all the hair on the bottom of the shower. My husband talked me down from the follicly-challenged edge, reiterating it would all be ok when I got home.

He was in fact, correct, but it took another week or two before the hair stopped falling out in droves. As I bided my time of waiting, I just repeated to myself that the roots were infected and I needed to clean them out. Today, about 2 months later, my hair not only rebounded, but I have hair growing thick at the top of my forehead.

I couldn’t be happier.

In the next installment, I’m going to go through the side effects and downsides of what I’ve covered so far (not the supplements, but the shots). They were serious and sort of awful, but each one temporary and ultimately rectified.

Here’s what you can start to do immediately, and as we witnessed first-hand; the doctors were right. There were/are nothing but positive effects from the following?

Topical medicine & treatments

  • Morning and night, Porsche has used (and still uses) an over the counter steroid, known as Hydrocortisone 1% (see pic above). This is a topical steroid. All the other commentary about what it helps (itching, psoriasis etc.) are other ailments it apparently helps, but these are not our issues. This has helped the hair follicles remain open as her system became cleaned out. We have her continue to use it because her hair is not fully-grown in.
  • Magnesium oil (see pic above). This is topic, and is applied at night so she can wash it out in the morning. Why night? It turns white and become sticky. It’s not smelly at all, but it’s not the type of thing you want people to see in your hair either. She applies it every night. If she misses for a day or two a month, it doesn’t have an impact. However, if she misses more than that, it’s noticeable.
    **a note on the magnesium. If she brushes her hair/scalp vigorously prior to applying, it stings because her scalp is still sensitive. Watch out on that though—you don’t want the burning, which is akin to getting your hair bleached and the toxic chemicals hitting the scalp- it hurts.

Internal supplements

  • Daily: prenatal vitamin, magnesium, collagen, flaxseed oil and a barley green pills.

Feature picture: myself and Porsche when she was three and I was pregnant with my second daughter.

Prague Zoo is a Must do

Bring the spray bottle and wear comfortable shoes

When it comes to zoobies (those whom I lovingly refer to zoo-snobs), most refer to San Diego if you are from the States, the Bejing Zoo if the far east, or Moscow. Very rarely does someone throw out “the Prague Zoo”, even though it’s in the top five zoo’s in the world if you are into counting the number of species (650) and acreage (100ish). My pictures from what we saw are few–I was so enthralled I lived in the moment instead of capturing it to look at later. Oh well.

Another lazy afternoon
East and West, endangered and not

On the last trip, we didn’t plan a full day, and were only able to see the ‘east’ side of the park. This time around, we are going to make sure it’s the ‘west’ side, and not just because our girls have continued to bring it up. They are expecting to see wonders akin to the big cat exhibit, the giant tortoises, the aviary and the giant salamander of the east.

When I’m talking giant, these creatures are massive, especially the Salamanders. I mean, what other zoo has a section devoted to the Komodo dragon like creatures? None that I can think of, but then, I’ve only been to a dozen, not sixty, so feel free to correct me on that one.

We arrived late afternoon and three hours was hardly enough to even see a majority of one side. We got in the massive aviary, two rides on the gondola (which we almost failed to take because we barely had enough coinage, which was required) and it was so hot we were practically passing out (late July is hot hot hot).

So big and tough it needs a gondola

Not kidding. My feet were so grateful I could have cried when we stumbled upon it. The gondola splits the huge zoo in half, which saves the long trek up the rocky terrain to reach half the exhibits. This place is going to make you sweat, so bring a water bottle that sprays, and be glad they were smart enough to place misting stations all around the park.

These chair lifts (what they call the gondola) are definitely not US approved, but do the job (keeping your feet from swelling)

Another unique attribute of the zoo is it has the highest count we’ve ever found of endangered species, at 175. That’s awesome but sad at the same time. It’s always hard for us to see beautiful creatures confined, but at the same time, pragmatism rules: we’d rather of one or two of one species than none at all.

Family playground

Let’s face it: sometimes kids aren’t all that fascinated with big cats, salamanders or flamingos. For this, the Czech’s have a solution and it’s called a wonderful Robinson Cruso island like play area. Wooden boardwalks, neandrethal-size alligators to crawl in, on and around. A swimming area also exists, but we were unprepared for this and didn’t want the kids to get soaked in their only set of clothes.

Aside the family area are other activities like a train which was great. (Who doesn’t like trains, really?)

Family playground area is lovely and diverse–and has a train!
What to bring

Your stroller for kids, but understand they aren’t allowed on the gondola, because it’s more like a ski chair lift, and if you are used to the ones in States, which are uber safe, this is more like–hey, here’s a seat buckle, get on and get in. I was seriously panicked with our girls, who were 6 and 9 at the time, but I just held on tight and prayed. Halfway up I chilled out and enjoyed the landscape below.

Change for tokens, because the gondola requires change or tokens (at least the last time we visited that was the case). This is also a Crone area–not Euros, so be ready to do the conversion. Ticket prices for 2019 is here.

Never fear (well, fear a little)…some shade does exist around the park–these huge tress are down by the aviary

The spray bottle. We picked these up in the US and brought them over–you can drink from the top and spray out a separate nozzle. That said, spray stations are located throughout the park, so you won’t completely die of heat stroke. Only partially…because our water ran out and the lines for free water were super long.

Swimming suits, just in case you want to cool off.

Feature picture: Prague Zoo large cat exhibit

The Beauty of Bruges

All the while we were in Belgium, my mother was sending me texts.

“Did you see Bruges yet? When are you going?”

“Soon!” I’d reply, having no clue when we were actually going to make it. When we finally went, Mom rapped philosophic about the beauty of the town. “The movie was to die for. Did you see the movie?”

New meets old walking down a main street

The movie she was referring to was In Bruges, a chase ‘em, shoot-em up flick that many of the locals blessed and cursed when we raised the subject. They loved it for the notoriety it created amongst people like my mother while simultaneously hating the crowds it created (at this point, they’d pause, stair at me and my family, and change the subject).

The stormy day was right out of In Bruges (without the hot actors).

If you haven’t seen the movie or ventured in to this part of the country, boy, go see it. We did it on a lark, as is our usual traveling selves and had wonderful food in the rain (it was pouring so hard when we went to eat the water was flowing off the umbrellas like a waterfall), and when the water stopped, took great pictures before heading to Lille, France.

What to know

If you are driving, don’t be afraid to get in close and park. We found plenty of free parking just as we entered the town. Hurray!

Parking Karma was amazing in Bruges (of course the rain might have helped)

The waterways are similar to Amsterdam, without the muck of the Red Light District and accompanying distractions. The food, shopping and atmosphere is quaint (e.g. safe) and welcoming. Every time I post a picture or two on Instagram of Bruges (see boat on water pic) some smarty-pants will say I have it wrong, it’s Amsterdam. Nope. Take a look at the actual sign, which says “Bruges by boat.” Apparently, Mr. Smarty Pants has the wrong country, let alone town.

Walking through the town, I got a shot off without being photo bombed

When you read up on the town, one of the most often quotes is that the entire town resembles a one, big, medieval castle. That’s spot on. It’s pretty much impossible to find a street that isn’t unique and picture-taking perfect. We traipsed around randomly, stopping about every fifty feet so I could take a picture of a red doorway, a red, brick arched doorway with vines hanging about or a boat floating on the water.

One just can’t get this in the States

Bruges by boat

No, we didn’t take a boat tour, because between our feet then the car when the rain came down too hard, we drove around and stopped on the mostly-empty streets whenever we wanted, completely illegally I might. The rain kept the tourists (and apparently police officers) at bay. Although in my (lame) defense, I’d yell “stop!” order the kids to jump out, smile and pile back in before the honking behind us began. Truth be told, no one honked. They probably rolled their eyes and waited, willing us American crazies to leave.

Smarty-pants take note: the sign on the left reads: Bruges, not Amsterdam. Gah

That said, we thought the prices were seriously reasonable, and had the weather been better, perhaps we would have gotten in the boat and toured the canals. As it was, two hours of driving and eating was enough for my little crew.

Bruges by Foot

I’ll admit with kids, when you’ve seen one colorful building and waterway between the streets, they start the blend. Ours were more interested in the food, but for adults, you see a lot of the top sites in a day or two.

The Procession of the Holy Blood 2019 is coming up on May 30, 2019, and commemorates the arrival of the Relic of the Holy Blood in Bruges. The biblical and historic evocation is well known as the religious procession which originated as a purely religious expression at the end of the thirteenth century. Lots of people will be dressed up in costume (kids and adults) with the procession taking place on land and water. It’s free if you want to stand along the route, but 12 pounds will get you a seated bench where you can enjoy the Procession in comfort.

Yet another walkway over a canal. Can you imagine living here?

If you are looking for a single day itinerary, without kids or even a partner/spouse whatever, Miss Adventure knocked it out with her insane schedule (see previous link). She does a much better job summarizing what you can see if you want. We didn’t even go to half of the places recommended, and we were just fine with that. (recall that with kids, one can only subject them to so many cathedrals and museums before this cry of parental abuse begins.

Like I said, I have a thing for colored doors

Where’d we go from Bruges? Jumped on the ramp and went to Lille, France for the singular purpose of purchasing clothes and Napoleans, but not in that order. My girls (and myself) care a LOT more about a great pastry than we do a pair of shoes.

Financial freedom: say it, do it, live it

Sometimes we can’t make the right decisions for ourselves, so it’s made for us

When I’ve seen people traipsing all over, in a trailer, boat or plane, I’ve sometimes thought: how do they afford that? Is it a one-time thing, a trip of a lifetime, or is it a normal occurrence, like going to the grocery store? Have they gone in to debt to take the trip, or are their parent’s paying for it? More often then not, Rog and I have shaken our heads in wonder, unable to make sense of the contradiction we’d see between how people live their lives and the vacations they take. Perhaps you are wondering how we approach travel, and savings as well? Do we put it on a credit card, take lots of pics with smiling faces then spend the next five years paying off the credit card?

Not to go all Dave Ramsey on you, but our philosophy on discretionary spending and savings in general is probably one of the reasons Rog and I are still together, 21 years later. I’m going to share our experiences and philosophy for one purpose: help keep you worry free as we approach what will surely be another bust in the economy, because I wouldn’t wish our experience on anyone.

The backstory

In my twenties, I had a solid corporate career before starting my own business. I bought clothes, watches, took trips and when I met Roger, faced the look of shock and horror when I revealed my savings account had basically nothing in it after a decades’ worth of effort.

“No home?” he asked in disbelief. Nope. “Cars paid for?” Nah. I lease, because it’s a tax write-off. “Stock?” Sure, I proudly replied. Lots of that.

His own background was the polar opposite. A poor upbringing. First person in his family to attend college, paying for it as he went along. Purchased his first home by working two jobs while doing his graduate work. No vacations, no new cars, because “why lose all that value the moment you drive off the lot?” he asked rhetorically.

When our two, type-A selves merged, we invested in a fixer-upper, which is where we put our money and time. We constantly traveled domestic and internationally for work, and the last thing we wanted to do was get on a plane at the end of the week. We wanted to be home, working in the yard or painting the walls.

After a couple of years, I had sufficiently worked on Rog to relax the stringent financial guidelines he’d always adhered to. We leased cars and took four-day vacations to Mexico every six weeks. When it came time to remodel, we contacted our accountant.

“Use the banks money, not your own,” he advised. That sounded like a great idea. We left our stock our where it was, treating it as both savings and retirement plan, taking out a substantial mortgage. And diversifying? Nope, not for us.

“Why would we invest in (low-risk) bonds when we will make a much higher return in the stock market?” Rog asked me. I agreed. This was logical and consistent with those around us. We all worked all the high technology sector, our profile for risk taking perfect for the volatility of the stock market.

Times were good. Always wanting the highest return on our money, we maintained only a couple thousand in our checking account, enough to pay household bills. Charge it! was our motto. We thought ourselves properly smart to pay off our credit card bills every month. That was enough, right?

Financial hardship is the great equalizer

We were on vacation in Mexico when I suggested to Rog we should consider diversifying by cashing out a chunk of stock and just put the money in the bank. I had a feeling that was causing me unease, and I just couldn’t shake it. It will give us peace of mind, I argued.

“What do we need that for?” he asked in response, shaking his head. We were a part of the 80’s generation who had benefited from the economic good times, and then the secondary uplift from the technology super nova of the 90s. My conviction wavered and I let it drop. That next weekend, the stock market burst.

At first, Rog didn’t believe the market crash was more than a hiccup, so he didn’t sell. With each passing hour, he concluded that we truly would be left with nothing, and executed some lightening fast trades. It was just enough to cover half of the remaining work on our home. What wasn’t covered was the massive hole in the ground meant to be a new kitchen, half the deck and the rest of the property, which resembled an abandoned construction site.

We sat, stunned in disbelief. Our collective efforts of the last decade was gone, and it had happened in 48 hours.

A change of attitude and of life

We had no savings. We had no stock, ergo, no retirement. We had not one, but two mortgages on our home. We had three cars, all leased. We were screwed. Fighting against our regret, we were thankful that we were both still employed, but even that didn’t last long. Two months later, Rog left the very company he started after disagreements with the board. He retained his stock options, but what good were they? Their value was less than toilet paper; at least that had a use and we could get our hands on it. And those credit cards we’d used to charge the latest set of travel? Sky high, because it was mid-month. We had yet to pay the recent bill.

So, there we were, starting over again. We lost some hair, quite a bit of our sex life and our relationship was in trouble as we faced self-hateration and recrimination towards each other as we faced complete financial devastation for the first time in our eight-year marriage.

Our debt strategy for crawling out of the pit of financial despair

After we stopped fighting and decided that yes, we still wanted to be together and yes, it would be worse to split up and face the mountain of debt individually than together, pragmatism and a little love united. We vowed that we would never, EVER, be in that financial situation again. On a scratch piece of paper at the kitchen counter, here’s what we decided.

Rule 1: pay cash

Hearkening back to his previous existence, we agreed that if we needed anything, we wouldn’t purchase it on credit, either in-house or card, but cash. The first test came when our (old) dryer failed. My pleading turned into tears but Rog was unbending. We had made a deal, so I sucked it up and went without a dryer for a few weeks until we had the money for a new one.

The second and harder test was six months later when the lease on my car expired. We had six grand in the bank by that time. The best car we could afford was a 10 year-old black, diesel long-bed pick up truck. Do you have any idea how hard it is to park a long bed pick up in the middle of town? Furthermore, in a progressive city outside Seattle, I would literally get yelled at for driving a “dirty diesel” when I should have spent the $80K on an electronic car. I bit my lip and ignored whoever was yelling at me.

Rule 2: No travel and no exceptions

For almost four years, we missed every holiday, birthday, wedding and party for every and all family members and friends. We declined any invitation that was outside a fifty-mile radius of our home. That meant visiting the coast of Seattle was out. So was skiing; our first passion.

As you can imagine, we didn’t win any friends during this time, and mostly lost the ones we had. We were too prideful to tell anyone what had happened, even our family members, some of who thought the worst (e.g. we were just jerks). Only much later did we realize that perhaps they were going through the same thing.

Rule 3: Set pride aside and take extra jobs

Since our first priority was our children and child care was expensive, I’d immediately gotten on the phone with former clients who wouldn’t mind me moonlighting for a discount. With a toddler and baby at my breast (e.g. still nursing) I ended up taking black-box projects I could complete in between my feeding schedule. All hours, all days, whatever it took, I did it. Little by little, our empty account started to fill up.

Rule 4: No clothes, no eating out, no discretionary items

I felt I’d been confined to the hell of wealthy poverty. It was the only phrase I could come up with to describe our situation. We had the image of wealth (cars, home, clothes) but were so laden with debt we were in complete and utter poverty, barely able to pay the bills.

Writer’s pause. I recognize that at this point, you’re saying: Awesome! She clearly needed that, and you know what? I totally agree. We had gone against every principle of provident living: have savings (6-12 months), a week or more of food storage “just in case of a job loss situation,” as Mom always counseled. Pay cash for home and other essentials (time immemorial). Every last good piece of wisdom cast aside. As Thomas S. Monson once said, “When the time to prepare comes, it is already too late.”

We got to learn that first hand.

When you least expect it, or no longer need it….

Like the rest of the country, the first four or five years after the crash were the hardest. Yet over time, Rog bounced back and my consulting work was steady. We obsessed about being debt free. By 2013, we had paid off everything including one of the two mortgages. Still, we maintained our policy: no new cars, new vacations and no discretionary items. In fact, we had become somewhat tiresome to everyone around us because their image of us was really boring. The singular time I suggested to Roger we “reward ourselves” for saving and being so prudent, he gave me a rather disappointed look.

“We don’t reward our stupidity,” he told me.

As we rolled into year seven, we were steady: paying the mortgage, being militant about saving; each week, a little more. Eventually, the long-bed truck was traded for a…wait for it…3 year old used diesel short bed truck. When people asked why we didn’t purchase a new car, I’d repeat a line born of my own experiences. “I spent my twenties getting in in debt, my thirties getting out of debt and my forties paying cash.”

The vacations eventually resumed, but they meant staying the western states and in a trailer we had purchased on a good deal. After being stuck in our debt-laden prison for years, “trailering” as I call it, felt like a luxury. We were also able to finish the addition that had been halted years before, adding on the deck that had been little more than protruding nails and a pit waiting for the dining room. Not that I was complaining. At least during this time we didn’t miss a funeral, so it could have been a lot worse.

Then all of sudden, the company Rog had formed years before sold. Out of the blue, all our financial worries were gone for good. So what did we do? Absolutely nothing. We’d been so traumatized from losing it all we wanted to ensure we never again fell into the trappings of our previous life. That meant no vacations or new cars. After a month, when we were sure the money wasn’t going away (and the money hit the bank account)) we paid off our remaining mortgage.

It’s not downsizing, it’s rightsizing

After that, we started another round of soul-searching. We’d proven we could live on less and be happy. Our family of four and a dog didn’t really need a good size house, as nice as it was. Furthermore, we realized our kids would fall into the same trap we had if we didn’t seriously overhaul our lifestyle, which meant location as much as it meant home. We began making plans to move from the city to somewhere more rural. We also decided to get rid of certain legacy assets we had held on to because the overhead of keeping them up no longer fit our personal financial strategy (think a boat). We told ourselves if we forced ourselves to have smaller closets and storage, we’d not be inclined to fill up the extra room with more “stuff.” (And just think, this was years before Marie Kondo).

So it was, and is, that we chose Idaho, because the home we found, the nearest town and all that surrounds it embodies what we now knew we had to teach our girls. You can’t talk about living small-scale unless you do it. It’s hard to justify being prudent with three Christmas trees in your garage, sitting beside thirteen pumpkins and boxes of lights. Without storage space, “the stuff,” goes to Goodwill, and for us, the noise, the clutter and the overhead went with it.

One other funny twist of fate was that just before the downturn, I’d written The Overlooked Expert: Turning Your Skills Into a Successful Business. While I’d thought my consulting days were behind me, I ended up turning back to the very skills that had helped me in the first place.

Finally….yes, finally, we felt comfortable traveling again, and in 2014, that’s what we started doing. We made a family decision that instead of things, we were going to invest in experiences, so we have taken votes on where to go and let our map be our guide. We had long since set out our financial plan, and we created a revised version to fit with our updated life. It’s literally a spreadsheet of the next twenty years comprised of the following:

a) necessities (food budget)
b) required items (heat),
c) gas for the cars,
d) required clothing budget,
e) taxes and the like.

We put in a “discretionary” line item which included travel, and if that got eaten up by an unexpected cost like a broken pipe or car issue, the travel was wiped out. We never increased the budget. No. Matter. What. Thus, the years we have traveled overseas, it was within our budget. Other years, we made different decisions for the family, but the budget amount never changed. This has allowed to sleep more and worry less.

You the know the ultimate irony is that during the time we were living in wealthy poverty, everyone around us thought we had it all, because you know, this is the society in which we live. It’s all about outward appearances. Then when we changed our lifestyle, rightsizing on purpose and with intention, everyone wondered (and sometimes even voiced) the notion we’d hit skid row, and were being forced to downsize. We weren’t going to justify ourselves, other than to say we wanted to live stress free. The response was usually some sort of sympathetic look and head nod. Rog and I would, and still do, keep our mouths shut and hold hands, mentally or physically, strong in the knowledge we still have our hair and are sleeping really great at night. People can think whatever they want, because when we travel, or buy something, its paid for.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, we still have the white diesel truck. As I told Rog, “why would we want to buy a new one and lose half the value the minute we drive off the lot?”

I guess I have learned something after all.

A daughter, a mystery illness and baldness

Hair loss affects everyone

When my daughter Porsche was six, she became accustomed to strangers walking up and rubbing her head, muttering in a language she couldn’t understand. Two years later, parents and children would see her and cross the street in order to avoid coming in contact with her. Back then, I would have given anything for information, solutions and ultimately hope—which is what I intend to give to you.

In this, the first of a three-part series relating to the last seven years, I’ll go through the causes, what we tried and what finally worked. The last posting will be about a few of the pitfalls we encountered along the way.

Part 1: the beginning

When we visited Hawaii in December, four months after the Fukashima nuclear reactor melt-down, we thought nothing of being in the water. For two weeks, Porsche lived in the bay, at least four to six hours a day, every day. I was in the water the second most, but was tending my two year-old quite a bit, so my time was limited.

The year before it all started, showing our hair.

Three months later, bald spots started appearing on Porsche’s head, first a dime, here and there, then a quarter size. By June her head looked like it was diseased. What started as a “simple case of hair loss, or alopecia,” as is commonly referred to in dermatology circles, gradually evolved in a medical mystery.  much more than that.

The hair started to go. Comb-overs, bangs and massive swaths.
The journey begins

Mom has always told me she can see the sadness in my eyes.

“Don’t deny it,” she’d say to me. “It can’t be disguised.”

When Porsche’s hair loss began, I started removing myself from pictures of my travels. That’s why you are seeing many of my posts over the last number years—up until this year, that I’m simply not in the pictures. (and here you thought I was being modest or shy all this time).

About nine months after the hair loss began, we began doubting the initial diagnosis by the (3) dermatologists. They’d promised rapid replenishment of hair, prescribed topic steroids and regular injections of steroids into the scalp. Our little six year-old had received her first set of injections in one bald spot, then another, the count growing from ten, then twenty, to a total of 59 shots in the first appointment. As the bald spots increased, do did the number of needles in her head. After two months, she was receiving over three hundred shots in her head, without numbing cream (it didn’t work) or numbing injections.

All the hair had gone underneath–the top layer was all that is covering the rest of her scalp.
Judgement and rejection

During this time, the suffering was as emotional and mental as it was physical. Mothers of Porsche’s friends requested we not attend playdates or activities where our children would interact. In truth, Porsche looked like a victim suffering from a transferable disease, and the kinder-hearted would assume leukemia. To the fearful and uniformed, even in a city like Seattle, she was treated as though she had Ebola. We would literally have parents see us, and walk across the other side of the road.

Six months later…..

For those who did have the courage to ask, we responded honestly. “We don’t know what’s wrong, nor do the doctors,” I’d admit. That led to more ostracization by the parents concerned enough ask our child be placed in a separate classroom.

In the end, we could not longer hide and cover up the hair loss.

Over time, the questions changed, but they still felt like punches on an open wound.

“Your daughter used to be the tallest in the class. Has she stopped growing?” What I wanted to say was that the steroids we were using to keep my daughter’s hair follicles open were killing her hormones, and she was likely going to become sterile as a consequence, but thanks for asking. Instead, I’d used the well-honed technique of redirecting the topic of conversation to how much the accomplishments of their own child.

Hair follicles and injections

The months passed and the injections increased, now reaching 500 every six weeks, about the time it took the bruising the small scabs to heal then come off. Side note: injections in children, done by needle, are done without numbing cream or numbing injections. It’s not legal in some states, and in others, we learned the hard way that to numb the head requires injections themselves, then waiting, then another round of needles. We learned the hard way that the numbing agent didn’t always work, because the amount allowed to young children is so small. In effect, this caused Porsche more pain, because the number of shots effectively doubled. It took only several sessions for Porsche to announce that she would take all the shots straight, no numbing at all. Tough girl.

Why the injections?

We were referred to Dr. Robert Nebalski, one of the premier hair-loss specialists in the northwest, who had been working with peers in Italy and around the world on the causes and solutions to hair loss. He told us that no, he had no idea why Porsche was losing her hair, but until we found the cause, and identified a cure, we had to do one thing: keep the follicles open. However, of two things, he was convinced. The first, was that this was not “normal hair loss, or alopecia.” Second, the injections were a must.

“You need to keep the injections to keep the hair follicles open so when we do find a solution, the hair can grow through.”

Jump forward two years. Porsche was eight, and the last of her hair was falling out. Over the months, I’d been cutting her thick hair to make it appear thicker, and has become creative with comb-overs, braids and using headbands to cover the spots. But on Christmas Day, as I brushed her hair, an enormous swath just stuck to the brush. I lost it, holding back my tears until she’d left to sob. The day after Christmas, it was my husband who took Porsche to visit a wig store specializing in children stricken by cancer. We purchased two wigs, one real and one handmade using real hair. The latter he purchased that day, and the second, we had made (more on that in a separate post).

As we prepared her for the coming New Year, and returning to school with a wig, we encountered the questions of “Why is this happening to me?” or “Why am I going through this?” Of course, these are questions we all ask when hard times befall us, and we don’t always have answers. The one grounding messaging I stood upon was this: we all go through things that make us stronger, turn us towards seek answers and then help others if we can. I told her that her experiences would make her capable of handling whatever life would throw at her, and someday, she’d be able to help others.

Still, we had to deal with reality, and confront prejudices immediately. We encouraged her to be forthright about her hair, acknowledging it’s a wig, she has no hair, and that we are working on figuring out what’s wrong with her body.

That was what she did, and you know what? It worked wonders. Porsche told her friends and teachers, wasn’t ashamed that she had no hair, and after her wig came off in a game of tag on the playground, she suggested to the teachers (and boys) that they be careful not to pull on her wig.

For the time being, we were still searching for answers, had ordered a hair made from real hair, and waited.

Wigs 101

Synthetic wigs are a fraction of the cost of real hair, as in, $500 vs $4,000. The primary difference includes the ability to wash, curl and style a wig made from natural hair, versus one from synthetic. That said, the synthetic wigs are so well made, one had to get really close to tell it wasn’t natural hair, and it kept its shape perfectly. The hairstylist at the wig shop demonstrated how to use the under cap (made of nylon) and place the wig on from properly. In order to keep the form of the wig, purchasing and using a styrophome head is necessary. Every so often, it’s required to trim a few of the hairs that would stick up or out from the synthetic wig, and it couldn’t get wet or dirty.

In contrast, a natural wig is treated like regular hair, because that’s what it is. We had the hair custom dyed to match Porsche’s previous color, so it matched her skin tones. When it arrived, we also had it cut in a shape ideal for her face, while long enough to style.

Can you tell which one is the real hair or the synthetic one?

A note-Porsche’s head continued to grow, and we knew that the wig had a lifecycle of about three years. When they no longer fit, it was my intention to donate the wigs to cancer victims. Imagine my disappointment when I contacted the local Children’s Hospital and was told they couldn’t accept the donations! Apparently, it would be a big, political mess to determine which children received the wigs, and they couldn’t possibly select two out of many. Not to be deterred, I found a seven year old girl who had experienced two different bouts of cancer and had had been profiled in the newspaper. The article mentioned her father, I googled him and tracked him down at a local car dealership. He took my cold call, (thinking I wanted a used car) and started crying when I told him I had two wigs for him. It was two weeks before Christmas, and he’d told me all his daughter had been praying for was a wig for her hair.

We both cried together.

Later that week, our families met. They’d lost everything as they mortgaged away their life to pay for their daughters’ treatment. In the living room of a friend’s home, we showed his daughter how to wear and take care of the wigs. Her smile was so bright and joy so full, we were without words. While we were no closer to discovering the source of our daughter’s situation, we gave thanks we had her in our lives, and that she was otherwise healthy and happy. It was a great start to what we were sure was going to be a better year. o

Perfectly Prague

For solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable fun, Prague is truly perfect

Do you like castles and paddling in your own boat on the river? What about cheap food and luxury clothes for 10% of regular cost? Are you a fan of the Triple XXX movie with Vin Diesel? What about seeing the remains of Lucy, the 4M yr old artifact, or an Andy Warhol painting in person? I answered yes to all of the above after I’d been there, but I’ll be the first to admit that when we book Prague as one of our home bases for a month-long trip, I picked it mostly out of convenience. Throw stones if you will, but my glass house is now bullet proof, because we keep going back, and in a mere six weeks, will be there once again.

This is the first of a multi-part series on the city and the surrounding areas, because it’s perfect for solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable good times.

Book your stay and get ready to walk

Prague is one of the most popular destinations in Europe; and for good reason. Old town is walking distance to some of the most famed sites in the country; The Prague Castle, the Astronomical Clock, the old town main square and museums. The town attracts the visitors by the thousands because compared to so many other countries because it’s so unique and blissfully inexpensive. In a single day, you can hit the major hot spots in town, take your selfie and go. Here’s what you can do:

Park in Old Town, (or take the metro), and walk to St. Charles Bridge. The best times or morning or early afternoon, because during the summer, when the sun goes down, it’s a wall-to-wall visitor’s and pretty tough to take a picture. That said, in June, the crowds are quite sparse, so if you have the chance, go between now and mid-July and it’s not so bad.

This is a backward view when you are on the famed St. Charles Bridge. Old Town is in the distance, the tightly stacked buildings narrowing the crowds walking to the bridge.

Walk up one side of the river (river name) cross anyone of the many bridges and walk down the other side. Doing so gives you lots of pictures of both sides of the waterfront.

Paddle boats afford great photo opps that are impossible unless you have a long lense

Stop and rent a paddle boat on the Vltava River. This sounds cheesy, but it’s great fun. You paddle and pause to take a photo of the waterfront or colorful buildings, then stop at any of the sidewalk eateries for a long sausage and drink. Do you need to reserve in advance? Absolutely NOT. The site I referenced shows a great picture of the main rental area on Zofin Island, right across from the National Theatre. You can’t miss it. During our time, we rented a boat three times, and two out of the three, we just walked up, chose the type of boat we wanted and hopped right in. The single instance we needed to wait, it was sunset on a very hot day, and stood for 30 minutes until a boat became available. The time is limited (you can choose 30 min, an hour or more), but it’s long enough to go all the way up and one side of the river and down the other. FYI- barriers prevent you from going too far in either way.

If you’re going to be eccentric, let your choice of paddle boats say it all for you.

Don’t be shy—jump in the gerbil balls, releasing your inner child. I wasn’t going to get into a rubber ball, floating on the river while it was tethered to the side until after I saw my own kids. I didn’t notice or care about the heat wave of 100+ temperatures because I was racing along the bottom, trying to bump into my kids!

Put the pride aside and zip yourself into a gerbil ball. It’s hilariously terrifying.

Walk up to the Prague Castle. It’s going to take about 20-25 minutes from the opposite side of the river, but it’s not difficult; flat, then the rise at the end as you walk up the incline. To our slight disgust, the first thing you see at the top is a portable Starbuck’s, which we thought was the tragic commercialization of a castle, but alas. What can you do? There’s a McDonald’s in plain view of the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, so we just ignored it and moved on.

A view from the Prague Castle

During two visits, filmmakers were making major motion pictures (no, Vin wasn’t in site) but the handsome polize were. They laughed at the blond American asking in terrible Czech if they’d mind posing, but were more than happy to do so.

Cajoling the security squad from the movie to take a snap

After you tour the outside and surrounding areas, you’ll probably be in it about 5-6 hours. Now’s the time to let the sun go down, pick a spot within the main square of Old Town and eat a casual meal The reason? Because the best pictures of the clock are taken during the evening. Of course, you’re not the only person who knows this, so be prepared for a lots of people. Tours are interesting, and we did one, but I don’t think it’s required. Just standing in the square, watching the performers and planning where you’re going to eat your next meal.

When you take a cab, these are the images you miss…looking over the edge of a bridge to the water as you walk up (or down) to Prague Castle.

Alternatively, if you’re not tired, and ready to do a bit more walking, then head in the opposite direction, away from the Castle. Across the bridge, through the shopping areas of Old Town, and up the long boulevard that leads to what is known as Wenceslas Square. Believe it or not, we found parking spots right on the main street-so it’s possible! Treat it just like Los Angeles parking and you’ll be completely fine!

Mini-Europe Park in Belgium

Absolute cool for the whole family>> kids-grandparents

In my piece on the Antomium, I referenced the Mini-Europe Park and promised to delve into magical, miniature wonderland. The creators must have concluded that most humans can’t possibly visit every major landmark in the European countries, so they decided to build it for all to see. The path isn’t restrictive, which means you can go up and around to the country of your choice, as opposed to being required to go in one direction. Even as an adult, I seriously enjoyed this, because let’s face it, even with as much as I travel, there are places that I haven’t been—or may not ever get to see in person.

350 buildings from 80 countries are represented, so keep your phone handy, because you my look at a replica and wonder “Huh, why is this here?” After you realize the importance of the replica, take a pic and see how many friends you can fool back home. I got away with a three on Instagram before some of my Euro friends busted me!

Not just replicas

The park also has live action models, like trains, working mills, cable cars and an erupting Mount Vesuvius. When I think of a family friendly place to visit, this is it. As an adult, I loved learning the history of the building, listening to my girls tell what they knew (or didn’t) and sparing with Roger over the details (as us type-A’s are apt to do).

Best time to visit, prices and more

I’d definitely recommend the morning or a cloudy day. There’s little/no shade as you are walking around. If you’re a lightweight (like me) you may seriously wait for the afternoon/evening, or bring a water-spray bottle as we had. Fortunately, on the day we visited, it became overcast by the time we’d finished up at the Antomium, and at the Mini-Euro Park it sprinkled, which was a nice break from the heat of July.

Prices: you have lots of ticket options. The Park only, the Park+Antomium or Park+Planetarium or all three combined.

Don’t scrimp on buying the catalog. We still have ours from the trip and its dog-tagged on the corners where me made notes. It’s been a constant reference.

Lots of exhibits are active–such as the windmills. They turn, water moves, lights go on.

Best parks for Trailering

Today the topic was to be Bruges, Belgium, but I can’t do it. I have camping on my mind, and specifically, trailering. In America, “trailering” has been converted into a verb, and now is the time to book before all the good spots are gone. This is a short compilation of our top stops we go to time and again, and you need to book now because they are worth it. PS- if the spots below are booked on your dates, make sure you check around midnight because cancellations take effect when the clock turns over. We have skated in several days before thx to cancellations. In no particular order, our favorites are:

Cape Disappointment State Park, (south of Oceanside, Longview, Seaside) Washington

The reason it’s so named is because of all the shipwrecks that occurred off the coast. This unique location offers Yurts that can be rented (rounded, tent like structures but are permanent), beachside slots for all sizes of RV’s and the inner “suburbs” for more trailers which are walking distance to the coast. Like most state parks, it offers showers among the amenities, and lots and lots of biking trails. We go annually for clamming—a task so easy even our then-four-year-old could do it. Beware, the top temperature is high sixties unless you go in August, and the clamming isn’t so great at that time, but the weather is better. Less rain, more sun.

This is the site to make reservations for ALL Washington State public parks.

This is rush hour at Cape Disappointment. Strangely, some of the warmest days are in June
RimRock Lake Resort, Naches, Washington

Located on the opposite side of Washington (locally known as the Eastern side of Washington), this lake is large, rather remote while at the same time easily accessible. We have been going nine years in a row now, booking our spot at the RimRock Lake Resort a full year in advance. At this particular resort, the property has a pinnacle setting, wherein it’s located on two jutties. One has a 280-degree view of the lake, wherein trailers can be positioned all around the point. The resort also features a peninsula that only allows for a handful of trailers. You walk out of your trailer, and can jump off the rocks into the clear, cold lake below. We have rented three spots, one at the very end, and either one beside us for friends (or just for the privacy). The Resort has a small shop and tackle, and a restaurant but the hours are limited. We just usually drive down to Yakama, which is about 45 min east of the lake. Trails with soft dirt circumference the resort, leading down to a swimming area that’s naturally protected from the rest of the lake. The dock is a short swim, and thankfully, the bottom of the lake in this area is both rock and hard sand, not soft and gooey, which is a plus. The facilities include an indoor showering area which is known for the incredible water pressure and length of hot water (most showers are on a timer and go cold after a few minutes to force one out. Lastly, the Resort also has its own boat launch, and requirement for lakeside!

My friends served as models for these shots:) I chose both of these because they show how close the trailer is parked to the edge of the peninsula at RimRock Lake Resort. Walk out a few feet and jump off into the cold water. It’s glorious.

If RimRock isn’t available, a number of small, lake side resorts exist, some with cabins and other with the option for trailers, but I can’t recommend one in particular, as we’ve always stayed at RimRock Resort.

Lincoln Rock State Park, Wenatchee, Washington

If lakes or the ocean isn’t your thing, try a river. Our local favorite is the Columbia River, staying at the State Park. It’s always hot (think 90-100 degrees July-September), the river very cold and the park itself is laid out really well. For the premier spots, try for “the bluff.” This is limited to trailers and the massive diesel pushers. If you score a sport on the ride of the plateau the spots offer unobstructed views of the dam, river and valley below. You can take your dog for walks down the short hill, to the other areas of the park, which are segregated into tent-only areas, RV trailer areas and the like. For non-trailering folks, the loudest areas area always the tent-only locations. The reason should be obvious—they aren’t inside being boisterous, it’s right out there! The park has a boat launch and shore line where you can ride your jet ski up and park beachside.  

When your pitbull thinks she’s a lapdog, but conveniently keeps you warm as the campfire gets going.

If this Park is sold out, Wenatchee Confluence State Park is our second favorite. The downside is that the layout, which makes it seem far more crowded, and it’s not as easily accessible. This also has a marina and a rocky beach area but easy enough for jetskiiers to ride up to the short.

While many lakes have banned stand-ups, most of the State Parks have not, nor have the rivers. Hurray!
Mt. Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch Resort in South Dakota

This is the mother-of-all trailering parks, and the reason is fascinating—it’s the second oldest KOA in the country, and it’s located on the spot of a former golf course that went bust. From the glorious entrance and center (which is well-managed by through-lanes when you arrive), to the portioned areas.

As my husband says, “This is a camping Disneyland.” From the miniature golf course, outdoor theatre, three pools (at last count) horses back riding, rental bikes and an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast every morning for $4.00. One can even rent a guest house, which were a part of the golf course and were included in the sale. Some of the bigger homes are 5-6 bedrooms overlooking the entire valley. Quite lovely!

It’s right around the corner from Mt. Rushmore, no more than 15 minutes. We went mid-June, when the reservations were open (and we booked about this time, early May), and were pleasantly surprised to find the lines at Mt. Rushmore were non-existent. We went on a Friday morning, found front-row underground parking and had a great two hours. More on Mt. Rushmore in another blog, but for a visitor wanting the premier location to stay, this is it.

Medicine Lake, California

This region is prominently featured in Chambers: The Spirit Warrior, which is book two in the series. As I mention in the back of the book, it’s because I grew up spending every summer here as a child with my family. The lake is a long-dormant volcano, and the places visited by the characters are real: Glass Mountain, the undergound catacomb tunnels, which can be explored for miles, as well as Captain Jack National Monument.

Dozens of other wonderful destinations exist within the State Parks, to say nothing of private resorts, but time is short and I had to pick my favorites.

Tip: for booking on-line, each state has its own state park website. This is the one for the State of Washington. The reservations for booking is here.

Book away, and we might see you there!

Feature image: this was taken at Cape Disappointment. The ecology is so amazing- from the coastal waters to this almost rainforest-like area. the Yurts are located within these spooky woods–beautiful and sheltered from the blowing wind.

Luxury for less: finding the best accomodations

Call me crazy, but I love a good deal, and for those who know me, a good deal doesn’t equate to going on the cheap. When I say I got a good deal, that’s code for “I got the luxury I want without paying triple.” In other words, I want the Four Seasons experience without the overhead, both financial and mental. (Can you hear the glee in my voice as I type this?)

This article is the first of what will be an on-going, detailed account of our accommodations. I do realize that by exposing our secrets, they will be secrets no more, but that’s my gift to you, the reader, traveler and explorer. If more people know travel can be both luxurious and economical, they’d do it more!

Our criteria: location, cost and convenience

When we travel for two weeks, we find a “home base” from which we can drive to lots of destinations. This allows us to get a major cost break for staying more than five days. We have found one pays a lot more when the stays are minimum, such as 2-3 days. Anything over five days can usually be negotiated down quite dramatically. 7-10 days is optimum.

For instance, during a four-week vacation, we picked Belgium, and specifically, Tervuren, for eight days. From this location, we visited many destinations in Brussels, the Netherlands and France. Using VRBO, we found a 5-bedroom, four bath, two story home with an in-ground pool. It was road off Park Tervuren, also known as the Empress’s Park. That meant it was also a ten-minute walk from the quaint downtown. It had garage parking for two spaces, and all the facilities one expects in a lovely home.

Luxury on Lake Cuomo: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, private elevator and rooftop terrace. Every door opening to a private terrace

The price? $1,200 US. That’s right. All that for $150/night. A comparable location in Brussels central (twenty minutes away) first off, wasn’t even available. Homes don’t have pools, and aren’t for rent unless you are paying diplomat fees, which are about $10K/month, or $2,500 a week. Hotel rooms are about $400/night, and a family needs two. (Our family does anyway. Don’t know about you, but we believe in intimacy while on vaca).

To provide another example, in Vienna, we found a 2-story, 3-bedroom downtown apartment near the Palace. It was $1,400 for a week. In Prague, it was a 2-story, 3-bedroom modern apartment about three blocks from old town for $800. Both places were penthouses, with decks, by the way. Where did we find such deals? VRBO. Don’t worry, I’ll be posting more in-depth reviews with more pics on each in that country section.

Two-story penthouse in Prague, modern, private decks and triple security (inner/outer doors)
VRBO and Airbnb

Generally speaking, hate mail doesn’t resonate with my soul, but on this topic, I’m going there, no matter what comes. In our experience (underline, bold and with emphasis), VRBO is the only way to go for travel, for the following reasons, each one vital to the safety and security of our family.

  1. Vetting. VRBO seems to have a process for background checks/screening, credit/reputation, management of the property and overall, quality listings. Compare this to Airbnb, where anyone looking to sublet out a room, couch or whatever can just throw it up and list it. It’s sort of like buyer-be-ware.
  2. Quality. Along the lines of the above, you can rent chalets, mansions, apartments, flats and just about everything in between. The next time I want to entertain 40 of my best friends, I’ll snap up that lakeside mansion on Lake Cuomo for $10K for 2 weeks, but until then, I’m super happy I got the two-story, 3-bedroom penthouse with it’s private elevator on the waterfront of Bellagio (which sits on a peninsula Lake Cuomo) for $1,100 for eight days. The accommodations, whatever they may be, must be true to representation, or risk getting a bad review, which results in the owner (and associated location) being banned from VRBO. This accountability really is fantastic for us travelers.
  3. Management and payment. On VRBO, most of the locations have an on-line calendar for direct booking. Depending on the location, direct communication is required with the owner and/or manager of the site. A small deposit is usually required, but we have learned over the years that negotiation is always possible—e.g. small deposit, part cash when we arrive if all is in order, and then the remainder of the cash when we check out. This makes it a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3, reducing the risk of the site being awful and us getting stiffed.

    On that note, we have read horror stories about travelers paying half and showing up to find that the place doesn’t exist, the reviews were fake and someone took their money and ran. These were 100% Airbnb, never VRBO. Still, one can never take chances. If the owner/manager doesn’t get back promptly, the dates show up then disappear on the calendar, or other anomalies, they are red flags. Nothing is worth the risk of standing on foreign land without a place to stay
View off the deck of the 5th story penthouse on Lake Zurich. Most buildings are modern with natural treatment for roofs. Down the cobblestone lane (beside this building) is the waterfront. The apartment, waterfront and surrounding yoga studio and eateries are all featured in the Danielle Grant trilogy.
More on Parking

It’s not always possible to get a place with its own parking spot, so in those cases, we use a local garage. In Vienna and Prague both, the $10 daily fee (for a week rate) was nominal. Day rates can be higher, but we never paid more than $20/day. If your location doesn’t offer parking, ask your contact about local parking availability so you come prepared.

Final notes on rentals

When locating a home base for our travels, we look for laundry facilities and air conditioning. For Americans, many are shocked to learn that the majority of non-hotel accommodations (and even quite a few hotels) around Europe lack air conditioning. One must look, double and triple check these things or else you will be in for a nasty surprise. It’s usually in the ‘details’ section of the listing, along with things not allowed—think dogs, and quite a few places don’t allow children. On that note, we’ve found that if we identify the ages of our children, and that they are girls, we’ve had pretty good luck. Sorry to say that discrimination against young boys does exist, and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it but look elsewhere.

Feature image: taken from the balcony of the penthouse villa in Lake Cuomo

Antomium: inside the world’s largest cell

A silver ball, shaped like an atom, so large that it takes several escalators to reach the center, in the middle of Brussels. Sounds like the mother-of-all tourists traps, doesn’t it? That’s what we thought, but our inner science-geeks fell for it anyway, and we are so glad we did. It was a one-of-a-kind hands-on experience for our girls who literally learned from the inside out.

Walking up to the Antomium
What’s the fuss about?

The Antomium is a single iron cell magnified 165 billion times. That alone will get your kids to pause a split second. Enjoy the silence, because then the questions are going to come so rapidly, you might as well leave the office Brussels info site up and running. Nine individual pods (or spheres) are connected through escalators and lifts. For the claustrophobe in you, each pod is the size of a large apartment. In fact, the Antomium has pods for sleepovers available to schools and private parties. That’s almost enough to make me want to move to Brussels. Can you imagine getting the invite for a kid’s 6th birthday party, up five stories looking over the entire valley?

What you will experience and see

In addition to the amazing views of the area from the pods, inside are fascinatingly detailed exhibitions on permanent display about the World Fair of 1958 wherein it was created, and then rotating exhibitions on other feats of man. Four of the pods are open to the public full-time, but only accessible via escalators, so those with limited mobility or in wheelchairs will be disappointed. Other than the pods reserved for students or sleepover areas, the rest of open and accessible.

View of Brussels from one of the pods, and the inside of a pod–which hovers above the ground–available for sleepovers! You just have to get there.
Best times to go

We lucked out, going in the dinner hour, between 4-6. It was still crowded, but the line wait was only about 20 minutes, and it was quite open inside, not jammed packed. Even on the website, which we looked at briefly before going, it identified the best times are between 12-2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.

Location

The Antomium is located in the Heysel district of Brussels. It’s the last stop on the metro, line 6 (and you wonder why I incorporate the metro in my contemporary romance series set in Europe. The metro is the way to get around within a city. The tram line 7 is the other way to reach the Antomium, or of course, you can drive or take a cab. It’s a short walk, and you simply can’t miss it.

Since you are there, you must stop at the Mini-Europe Theme Park, which allows you to see all the major sites from around Europe in miniature. I’ll like the blog when it’s up.

We’ll get to the Mini-Europe Theme Park next
Prices

Reasonable. Kids under 6 are free, and from there it’s 8-12 Euros with discounts for seniors. A note to Americans, the Antomium includes a price for the “teen” category, as is the norm with most Euro parks. Travelers from Europe who come to the States are always in for a shock, unaccustomed to either kid or adult.

Pictures and trinkets

We never, ever purchase souvenirs because it goes against our basic philosophy of living in the present. If and when we do buy an item, it tends to be “useful,” which I put in quotes because that definition, in our family, is constantly up for debate (what’s useful for one person is a ridiculous spend to another). Still, when we were at the Antomium, we couldn’t threw rules out the proverbial window and purchased three sets of pictures—teeny tiny ones- 1×1 inches, and then a larger one with a silly mascot. We are quite thankful we did, because it’s one of the only pictures we have the girls together at that age. Additionally, we bit the bullet and purchased, not one or two, but three Antomium replicas. Two, 2×2 inch size for the girls and then a larger one for us which sits on our glass stand at home. It’s side beside a handful of other items representing our best times together. That pretty much says it all: this was an incredibly fun experience and family day (again, we combined that day with the Euro Park). Eve if you are by yourself or with a friend, make the time to drop by. It’s so unique and off the radar of major sites, you’ll be glad you did.

Can you spot the Antomium? Just in front of other items that will explained in another blog

Avoiding weight gain while traveling

Traveling is a great thing, but it does have its consequences, weight gain being first and most obvious. I’m like that person who is stuck on an all-you-can-eat inclusive cruise line, except there’s nary a boat or ocean in sight. The world is my culinary oyster and I want the all-in, shooter version. No messing around with me and my food.

Straight up, I’ll confess my desire to maintain my weight while traveling is all rooted in vanity and money. First, I want to wear what I’ve brought on the trip, which is hard to do if my thighs increase like Christmas sausage being stuffed in casings. Second, I want to spend my hard earned (or saved) money on frivolous things, like purses that are meant to bulge, unlike my bathing suit. So, from my shameless-yet-helpful self to you, here’s how I keep my weight within 5 pounds of my starting point.

How I eat tiramisu…with two spoons…don’t come near me or I will spoon you!
Eat breakfast, every day, without fail

I’ll confess. After high school, I stopped eating breakfast. It wasn’t until the weight started to pile on did I look back in wonder at those glory-days and connected the dots. Mom would rise early, make oatmeal, eggs or some variation thereof. I’d be stuffed until lunch, and even then, not that hungry. In my late twenties, I worked out in the same Oakland Gym as a Mr. Olympian runner-up, who trained folks from all walks of life. I couldn’t afford him, so I did what any smart girl does, I chatted him up. He put it this way:

“I’d be out of business if everyone did one thing without fail: eat breakfast. Eggs and oatmeal.” The other thing he said is: “Eat every two hours to keep your metabolism cranking.”

2 eggs (anyway you like), whole, not just whites (“Only hard core body builders who don’t want a lick of skin skip the yolks,” continued Mr. Runner Up. “It’s just not healthy.”

1 cup steel cut oatmeal. I add a dollop of butter and either honey or natural (grainy) brown sugar and a little milk (or whipping cream. Real women use cream).

On the egg

The yellow is the fatty part, which actually keeps you full. My doctor repeatedly says: “God, or nature, whichever you prefer, created the perfect food in the egg. Why would anyone want to strip away one part?” I never knew bodybuilders and doctors had so much in common, but I digress.

As for the oatmeal, the steel cut oats are coarser and I’m a texture girl, so this works for me. Also, I completely fail at any food plan when I strip away the good stuff in life such as milk, butter etc. So I use the age-old “moderation-in-all-things” approach to life. I am full, satisfied and don’t have a bit of craving.

I was actually pleased to read that Patrick Vellner, the “second fittest person on Earth,” has eggs and oatmeal as well for breakfast. Read more about his diet here. It’s not just us lowly Authors and Olympians!

Steel cut oats in the U.S. but variations of this exist everywhere overeas
No fail lunch routine

Is lunch the biggest meal of the day, or a pitstop on the way to the finish-line called dinner? I’ve vacillated back and forth on this philosophical quandary until my brain hurts. The reality for my family and traveling is this: we are seriously starved between 12-2 p.m., and invariably end up eating a really late, robust lunch. Then we have the afternoon activities.

The golden rule: Salad with protein, eating off the plates of others

I love starting a fuss, so let’s get right into it, shall we? Mom raised me right: “Do not lower yourself to eating off the plates of others.” Yeah, I abided by that until I had kids. My two girls are eating demons, because they devour everything in site and look for more, usually going for what’s left on my plate (because every well-mannered female eats and chews, to slow down the actual consumption size, thereby eating less, and losing weight, right? I think that’s right out of a 1960’s Miss Manners. Oops. I’ve digressed again.

The consequence of spawning two voracious rats is that they always order off the adult menu. That means three adult meals, giving me the opportunity to have my salad of choice and take a couple of bits of three other dishes (hence eating off plates). The financial hawk in me loves the $20 I’ve just saved as well, and the others barely notice my fork dipping into their food as their culinary fever takes hold.

Dinner

This is sort of the forgotten meal when we travel because my body chemistry is unlike my husband or girls. Whereas they sleep better on a full stomach, I’m the inverse. I sleep terribly after a heavy dinner. Sugar throws me to the ceiling, bread just makes me bloaty (so attractive the next day) and water…well, let’s just say I like to sleep through the night.

What do I do? If we go out for dinner or make something, I stick to whole foods, but I’m not militant about raw or cooked. A raw food, for those who have no clue what that means, is simply defined as a food product in its essence, without being changed around by the cooking process. All fruits and vegetables, streamed, broiled, baked cooked or raw, all count. My husband will look at me and say “I feel so bad for you,” to which I retort “why? I have an entire world of food to choose from and be happy.”

The details…what to eat and avoid

My doctor has always said this: “Red is worst, white is better, fish is best and pure vegetarian is perfection.” Well, clearly, God knew that I wasn’t gonna reach perfection in any form, so I tend to bop between the three. Still, here are few things I’ve learned.

Meat and headaches

Now, far be it from me to gross you out, but I subscribe to the idea that knowledge is power, and when it comes to my body, and specifically, why I was getting headaches I had to get knowledgeable. I realized that I was getting migraines about 15 minutes after eating. Through the process of elimination, I realized the culprit was meat. Yet the type and severity was inconsistent. Through more trial and error (and lots of journaling) I sorted through meat types (red, white, fish etc) and organic vs farm raised vs fresh for all the above.

Eating boar…as in the pig…in Lichtenstein….no headache issues there!

Guess what? Any meat, regardless of color, with fins or legs, that was inorganic, was triggering migraines. It was then that I learned about the US processing requirements and usage of…get ready for it, chlorine washes for chicken, ammonia for meat processing, carbon monoxide to keep the color of the meat an even red (because really, would you want to eat a steak with uneven coloring?) were all contributing to the issue. Read more in this article from a reporter who covers the food processing industry, and this doesn’t even get into all the nitrates that are used in the US. More on nitrateshere.

U.S. versus Europe

When traveling (and living) in the U.S., I avoid eating meat at any restaurant because I hate to hurt. Contrast with Europe. Due to their wonderfully militant stance on anything mutated or chemically processed, I can pretty much eat any thing I want without so much as a twinkle of pain. It’s divine. But that doesn’t mean I won’t gain weight or spend a crazy amount of money on food. As such, I apply my lunch rules, with a slight modification. I will have protein on my salad, fish or any kind of meat that’s local.

Oh! and the chocolate. Don’t get me started. I can barely eat any chocolate made in the U.S., but I’m in heaven overseas because it lacks all the bad stuff that’s filling up our stores here. Translation: I can literally eat 2 huge chocolate bars of any kind–Swiss, Belgian, Czech- you name it- and a) I don’t get headaches and b) I don’t gain weight!!! I kid you not. It’s unreal.

What to avoid

Soups. Soups usually have a lot of salt. If you want your face and body thin the next day, avoid the soups unless the server can guarantee the chef isn’t using a salt-laden bullion base.

Breads. What’s the point of working out and crunching sit-ups if you look like a four-five month pregnant woman the next day (regardless of your gender)? The note here is the same with chocolate. I can eat breads galor in Europe without headaches or bloating, but not in the U.S.

Note: Breads turn into simple carbs, which means sugar. Often, a woman will get a UTI on a trip and wail “but I haven’t been eating lots of sugar.” When I ask about break, she’d admit that yes, lots of breads, pastries and the like. Think of that as poison to the system, and running to the bathroom in pain is not what anyone wants or needs on a trip.

Tip: If you do get a bladder infection and don’t have access to a natural remedy, prescription or doctor, do two things. Drop the sugar in all forms immediately (breads, alcohol and deserts). Get a couple of lemons and use half, or a whole, in 8 oz of water. Drink as much as you can…16 oz, 32 oz with as much lemon as you have or can stand. It will push the evil out of urinary tract and out of your system. This simple, home remedy has saved my little self on many occasions.

Overload of dairy. Puffy face and bloaty belly. Two things that should not be in the same sentence, or on your body. I read a piece on the actress Eva Longoria a year before she actually was pregnant, the magazine proclaiming her bulging belly was the result of becoming pregnant by her new husband. She laughed and said “No! I just ate a lot of cheese the night before.” You and I may not be globally famous, but that doesn’t mean we want to be bloated in all the wrong places.

Absolute Must do: Flush that body

Drink water. Lots and lots of water. This doesn’t mean you risk your sodium levels collapsing, but you seriously need to have a gallon a day. It will wash out and wash away a lot of culinary evils. Plus, if you are downing lots of sugar, either by sodas, alcohol or desert, it will lower the risk of you getting a bladder infection, which is most often triggered by too much sugar in the system.

The mother-of-all aids: Sleep

How many times do we need to read that 8 hours of sleep is critical for metabolism and weight loss or maintenance? The only thing I will add is that in my experience, it’s not only the length of sleep. When I got to bed is at least as critical is the length of sleep. For example, when I sleep from midnight to 8 a.m. I’m groggy and feel terrible. When I get to bed 10 p.m. or early, I wake up and feel energic, happy and full of life. For most of the week, 6 our of 7 days, that’s what I do. Yeah, I might have a late Saturday night here and there, but I value productivity and joy; without getting to bed at a good time, I’m not either of those, which makes for a less than happy homelife. It’s exacerbated when traveling.

Note on the cover photo: that was shot at a convenience store in Prague, Czech Republic. Entire rows of chocolate….bliss.

Tervuren, Belgium

Africa, an Empress and a Park

Brussels is known as a political hot center, home to 19 police forces, each using a different language, a great botanical garden and shopping downtown, but what’s not publicized across the Atlantic is the municipality of Tervuren, located in the Flemish Brabant province of Belgium. It’s a shame too, because history, aristocracy and nature–along with inexpensive accommodations–make this town a must-see in our travel itinerary.

Tervuren: What and where

But don’t let that little factoid scare you off. It’s perfect for travelers who want the proximity of the nearby cities in the summer, (a category in which we belong). The town butts against the Tervuren Park, also known as the Empress’s Park, a multi-kilometer destination so big it’s easy to get lost. Yet, it’s so safe, we feel like it’s Idaho. People walking the streets at night, taking strolls on the neighborhood and of course, crossing in to the Park that stretches for miles.

Another park? Really?

If it was “just a park,” I wouldn’t bother writing about it. But this is something to behold. Sun-lit gravel paths stretching for miles are separated by long, rectangular waterways, home to multiple varieties of waterfowl. On the other side of the water, the trails are paved, drawing bikers who race along the paths at a training clip. Shooting off these manicured lanes are dirt trails through the woods. It’s downright “shire-like,’ because only in the Hobbit movies have I seen trees to high and dense in a forest. It’s actually rather spooky, and one of my girls (6 at the time) asked if an Orc was going to come out. “No, Robin Hood lives here,” was my reply, thinking the analogy a little happier than a blood-thirty human-killing fictional character. The downtown of Tervuren lines one side of the park, allowing for waterside dining, strolls down the paths and a little (not much) local shopping.

The Empress’s Palace in Tervuren

As we were making our way in and around the park over a period of our ten day stay, we frequently walked by the Empress’s Palace. The story itself (Emperor builds massive structure for favorite daughter) and size of the park just makes any parent say: wow. Daddy really loved that girl.

Africa in Belgium

Indeed. The massive Royal Museum for Central Africa, simply known as the Africa Museum, is located right in the park. In the 1800’s, the museum was opened by a King Leopold II, who had conducted on a years long effort for colonization. What originally focused on the Congo gradually expanded over the decades (yes, this is a dramatic simplification. Read more here), the museum and research functions of the museum attracted scientists and researchers, contributing to the initial prosperity of the region. 

Note: It was closed for a 5 year renovation and reopened in 2018, so you are good to go. Where to stay? I address that in a separate blog on our accommodations. Think two-story, five bedroom house, pool, ten days, $1,000. Yep. Love Tervuren.

Vienna Amusement Park

Prater & the Ferris Wheel

Not, it’s not a palace or museum, but if you ask my kids, they will tell you that Prater was not just the best part of Vienna, it’s the only destination they want to revisit within the city. Not surprising. It’s was a short walk from the apartment we rented and was nearly empty at around three in the afternoon. If you want a change of pace from restaurants and shopping for furs (off season in July of course), go visit.

Adults and kids

I’m a thrill seeker, I admit it. For those of use who want to hang up side down like a bat going 100 mph for brief spurts, at least one ride offers this experience. I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten the name of the ride (did I black out?) but you get strapped in while upright, then it rotates you so you are literally parallel with the ground, about three feet up. From head to toe, you are horizontal, and then the fun really begins. My advice is this: build up and save all your fear, tensions, anger or angst and when the ride begins, be like Anna in Frozen and just let it go. Trust me, your screams will blend in with the others.

When you are boiling up from the heat, walk five minutes to the water rides and let your inner child go (e.g. raise your hands). The splash is worth second ride–and with the lack of lines, we just got off, walked around the end and got ride back on the ride.

A note of warning- most of the rides do have an age or height restriction, so check your kids before you pay the money. Yes, lots of rides exist for younger ones, but then you are split with the rides between older and younger children.

Best time to go

We learned after the fact that 3-5 p.m. are the best times to go, and this is what we’d done, but it was unintentional. We looked out our apartment, saw the massive Ferris wheel and said “let’s go!” Of course, it was during a heat wave and we were seriously hot, but the park was empty. Just as we were leaving, about two hours later, a breeze picked up, the sun was going down and the crowds started to clog the lines.

The giant Ferris wheel is 65 meters tall and you should take your camera, because you can take incredible pics of the Danube from the top. A Madame Tussad’s Wax Museum, a trainride and the Planetarium.

We all loved the Vienna planetarium, where we watched an Astro show. Since I didn’t take pictures within the planetarium, read more about it here. All my kids recall were the thousands of stars from the laser lights beaming all around.

Trains and bus lines stop right in front of the park, so transportation is easy. I’ll also point out that the side streets to and from the park are lined with unique restaurants, one with a banyan tree in the center. We happened upon it, had a great meal and now you will hate me because I can’t recall the name! But I will say the owner told me it had been there for 20 years, so I imagine it’s there now.

Waterloo isn’t just a song

It’s also an incredible place to visit

“At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender…oh yeah….And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way…”

ABBA was before my time, but the long-lost lyrics of Waterloo came rushing back as we drove up to “The Waterloo” in Belgium. Did you know the battle of Waterloo is actually in Belgium? Neither did we. In our ignorance, neither did we, but before I digress upon my lack of education (can I blame that on age?) let’s back up. How did we end up in Waterloo in the first place?

Blame it on the rain

Not to go Milli Vanilli on you, but it really was the rains fault. There we were, in a beautiful suburb of Brussels, looking out the home we’d rented, watching the rain hit the pool, we just couldn’t believe it. After an hour, we had consumed all the chocolate in the house (when one is in Belgium, one must consume copious amounts) and then we got on our phones. What else can we see? Ten minutes later, we had piled in to the car and were on the road.

Just off the freeway

Located 30km south of Belgium, Waterloo is off exit 25 from Ring East Road (the Butte du Lion” on the Ring O). What that means is you zip along at European speeds, see the side, take a right, flip around and bam, you have arrived. You are going to notice the craziest scene- a car on a roof, and thanks to my ever-present camera, I took the snap for proof the French have a quirky sense of humor, although Rog conjectured it was some crazy ex-pat American. There is literally no way to get lost on this journey. For new visitors who don’t have a car and trying to figure out transportation to Waterloo, use Rome2Rio for options specifically about getting to Waterloo.

The final battle

Napoleon was short. We knew that. But when you are standing next to a life-size replica of the little man, you get a full appreciation for the greatness of the miniature conqueror himself. Just behind the plexiglass covered timelines stands the grass-covered pyramid-esque monument in the background. Tip: go an hour before closing or it’s like the Coba pyramid in the Yucatan. The security guards don’t let you start because they know you’re inclination to take selfies at the top will result in the site being open another hour.

Why should you go?Why you should go?

If you aren’t a history buff (which I am) you may see Waterloo for bragging rights. How many people have you ever met who can say they’ve been to the place where the French forces, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, fought the coalition of British, Belgian, Dutch and German? A lot of people recognize the name “Duke of Wellington” but don’t always know why. It was he and Gebhard Leberecht von Blüche of the Prussian forces who led the battle and won. In all, 250K men from seven countries fought, 11K dead and approximately 33K wounded in what’s considered the largest and bloodiest pre-twentieth century battles.

Climb to the top & the Museum

The Butte de Lion, or The Lion’s Mound and panoramic painting of the Battle of Waterloo are the main sights to see on a day-trip to the battlefield (Champ de Bataille). Smaller monuments are scattered around what has been returned to predominantly grass fields. The museum has a 3D movie and lots of artifacts.

Food and parking

The parking is free and right on site, no long-distance walking. The cafeteria is modest but the food perfect as always. It never ceases to amaze (us Americans) that even the dingiest road-side stops in Europe offer fresh mozzarella, prosciutto in a panini sandwich which is better than most of the higher end restaurants in the US.

Local eateries and Monasteries

True to form, we finish up at Waterloo and decide to explore. For the next hour, we drive up and down the backstreets surrounding the battlefield and found restaurants and a monastery that weren’t even listed in our guide books (or Internet). I love that; French food and historical buildings, both hidden except to the locals.

The strange weather of Belgium

While it poured in Brussels, it only drizzled at Waterloo. As we left and decided to explore the surrounding area, the rain stopped entirely. It wasn’t until we started back to the city, the rain kicked in. When we returned, we asked a few locals of the weather. You know what we learned?”

“The weather is a lot like Seattle, Washington,” an older man said. Rog and I just stared in wonder and disbelief, because at the time, we were living just outside Seattle.

“Is it always like this in the summer?” I asked, keeping my face straight.

“Always. Raining and overcast with some sun breaks.” Huh. No wonder we’d gotten a five-bedroom house with a pool for so little! (another topic for another blog).

Rain or shine, Waterloo is a must see destination if you are anywhere near Brussels, and frankly, it’s so easy to get to from Cologne and Aachen, Germany, or a quick drive from Luxemburg and even Lille, France (great shopping! More to come on that).

Be brave & explore: rent that car

Don’t let your fear of signs, getting lost or wrecking stop your adventurous self

“What? You rented a car? You must be crazy.”

My parents just about had a heart attack when I said we’d driven from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara, over the hills and through the desert to see the zoo, fearing we were going to be kidnapped along with our daughters. I related that we’d arrived at the zoo and ate the churros we still claim are the best in the world. We also got lost in the suburbs on the way back, found a canyon that’s larger than the Grand Canyon right off housing community and met wonderful townsfolk in an artsy enclave. That’s been our experience around the world; adventure and the unknown, merging together to give our trips meaning. It’s also made me a car advocate for seeing the most in the least amount of time.

without a car, we would have missed all these sites….
Face the fear

For the first ten of our twenty years of marriage, we took cabs out of fear and the convenience factor. We truly thought those who rented cars were, in fact, crazy. What changed our mind was our increasing desire to go places cabs wouldn’t. We were pushed over the edge when kids arrived.

Getting lost, unfamiliar road signs and parking are the top of all the concerns voiced about car rentals. Road signs can be learned easily enough (thanks Google), and taking a wrong turn is a part of the fun. In fact, this has resulted in seeing some of the most amazing destinations we’d never have located on our own. And parking? Bah. In Milan, a city that we’d been told was impossible for American’s to navigate, we used Google Maps and had no problem finding the Duomo and getting a spot two blocks from the Duomo Cathedral (that part we found on our own).

What’s the worst that can happen?

Tickets and fraud. When you don’t read German, tickets will happen. We’ve received more than a couple at castles or destinations because we didn’t properly understand the signs for permits (and didn’t bother ask). Had we used Google translate (or heaven forbid, asked someone who speaks better English than we do), we could have saved the ten bucks. Regarding fraud, our singular bad experience came about when a front desk worker at the rental office in Frankfurt decided to steal our credit card. The silly boy started making purchases about the time we drove off the lot, but was apprehended a few days later.. In 20 years however, that was the lone instance of pain, and it was rectified with a few days.

A few learnings

In Mexico, the rental policies are nuts, because you are expected to pay all sorts of premiums at the counter (even with Hertz, Avis and the others). Further, they require the credit card to be charged authorized for insurance, and security, which can increase a standard $400 for a two weeks to $3,500. No kidding. If you don’t have this kind of room on your credit card, you will be in a bind. Otherwise, here’s how the money breaks down. Tip: most credit cards cover car accidents, so we never purchase insurance. Check with your credit card company.

Yucatan Peninsula/Cancun Area

Cab from any one of the Gold Coast hotels, Isla Blanco or Punta Sam to town: $30 one way (US), round trip, $60.00. If you are going further south, tothe famous Playa del Carmen, tack on another $40 ($20/each way). For a single night in to town, it’s easily $100. Compare that to renting a car, which you can drive to Tulum (2.5 hours south), Chitzen Itza (3 hours west) or anywhere else, and you have already come out ahead.

Cabo San Lucas

This is one place where we found a car is NOT necessary, but this is because our lifestyle during our visits is….lounge lizard. We aren’t going to golf courses, visiting the dunes, or eating anywhere we can’t walk to. So the car we rented (once) stayed in the hotel except for the trip to and from the airport. A total waste.

Puerto Vallarta, Suyulita, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo

We always get a car now, but in the early days, (pre-kids) didn’t bother when in PV, because the cab ride was 5-7 minutes to downtown. Once we started staying further from the center, we got a car. For the other three, yes, cars, always.

Europe

Of course, nothing compares to a train ride through the Alps (the journey isn’t even possible by car), and you still need to take a water taxi in Venice or a boat tour on the Danube to see the buildings from a different viewpoint, but these are not every day occurrences. Yet that leaves several dozen countries to explore with four tires. With open borders, the only thing you need to worry about is a full tank of gas, although a map is helpful.

A few tips for renting a car in Europe

The pick-up location makes all the difference in the world. The same car picking up in Calais France (for 5 weeks) is $3,400, whereas that car is $2,400 in Frankfurt, Germany, but $1,200 in Aachen, German. Guess where we are picking up our car? And it’s not a Volkswagon. It’s a four-door 5-series BMW touring model.

I’ll give you another example. One year, we picked up a Volkswagon Golf in Zurich, Switzerland for two weeks. Price tag? $1,100. The next year, we went for an Audio Quatto, but go it out of Frankfurt, Germany for 4 weeks. Total price with tax? $1,098. Are you seeing a trend here? Automobiles, for the most part, originate out of Germany. If you rent in another country, you are going to pay a LOT more. While we have used Hertz and others in the past, we find amazing deals with Sixt luxury car rental.

Last example. This year, we decided to see a bit of England, and are landing in Manchester, getting a car, driving over the channel. We are dropping the car off in France and taking the train up to Aachen. Even with the cost to rent a car for two days ($120), then the four-hour train ride ($600), we are still saving over nearly $1,500. Is a bit inconvenient? Only if you think the train ride through France  and the Black Forest of Germany is ugly.

The summary here is to not be fearful of renting a car. The benefits dramatically outweigh the risks or issues you may encounter, so on your next trip, be brave and start exploring. Your future self will thank you!

The truly happy smile of a girl with a car who is seeing a lot, including the handsome security staff at the Duomo Cathedral in Milan

*Products and services mentioned are not sponsored by the respective entities. This is an independent editorial review based upon real experiences paid for by the author.

Quick: close your eyes

Lessons from the road

“Quick! Don’t look!” Those were the words I mistakenly said to my girls, when driving alongside a river in Austria. What I meant to say was “quick, turn your heads,” but the better comment was to have kept quiet.

You see, while most Europeans are immune to nudity, not even registering a piece of uncovered flesh, us Americans are much more sensitive to those things, and thus, the necessity for writing this blog. It was this singular river-journey that I learned how to handle the unexpected with grace and a bit of education, perhaps saving another parent from making the mistake.

The hottest day

That’s where it started. On a day trip down the 56 south of Vienna, return it was over 100 degrees, the July heat practically killing the car’s air conditioning. On a lark, we went to Gloggnitz in lower Austria and started following a few motorcyclists and locals who seemed to know where they were going (we are adventurous that way). The straight road curved as the scenery changed from concrete to lush trees, the uphill climb cooling the air. We rolled down the tinted windows to get a better look and lo! There it was. A whole line if bar butts, four in a row, and male.

I uttered the now famous line, which made both girls (then 6 and 10) lean out the window. “Mom, is that a butt?” My six-year old asked. “What happened to their bathing suits?” My older daughter went silent, her shock registering in the fixed stare one has when going by a car accident.

Luckily, the rational me kicked in (as opposed to the mom-me).

“It’s Europe,” I replied. “They do this here.”

“But Mom,” my oldest started. “There are more people on the river.” I looked. “Yep, and some are even wearing bathing suits.”

It was then that Rog and I had the quiet moment parent’s share when the truth table has been pulled out. We were either going to live the European experience or eliminate half the things we could possibly see.

“We’ll do our best,” Rog said in an undertone.

“No naked men,” was my threshold. And with that, we continued up the river until we saw a place where the men were clothed, but not all of the women.

The invisible man

Kids are interesting. If you don’t make a big deal out of something, they forget it even exists. So it was that we parked the car, quickly changed roadside when it was clear, then made our way down to path. The Alpine water was freezing, the water crystal clear, and the other visitors rare. Yet a few women were topless, but they were mom’s who had clearly breastfed their young children and struck us as pragmatic instead of exhibitionistic. It was very hot: why wear more clothes than one had to?

The kids looked once, more out of interest, then moved on. It simply was a part of life, a part of nature, exactly how it should be.

The return trip

It was a good thing perspectives had changed, because two hours later we were driving back in to town.

“Mom,” my ten-year-old says from the back. “I just saw a man’s penis. Two, actually.” I can’t help myself. I look out the window. Sure enough, we were passing the spot on the river from whence we’d come, and two of the four men was now on their backs, sunning themselves.” The image was gone in the blink of an eye, my husband’s hand on my leg gripping with humor and angst combined.

“Yep,” I said. “Everyone needs to get a tan.”

“I guess,” my daughter said, already looking down at her book. “What’s for dinner?”

We did our best to shield the girl from egregious displays of nudity, but honestly, it wasn’t an issue. The rest of the trip, three weeks’ worth, were free of comments or looks about what saw, or rather, didn’t see. They came, played and were focused on having fun and the beauty around them, exactly as it should be.

Salzburg, Austria

Who didn’t grow up listening to the Sound of Music, dreaming about one day, floating along the green hillsides, twirling, arms out, singing “the hills are alive…” No? Doesn’t resonate? What about walking along the waterfront, looking at the muted, yellow mansion where the fictional Maria met her beloved Captain von Trapp? No? That’s what my husband also said

Channel my inner Maria

Thus, despite my life-long bucket list dream of seeing either hill or house, we opted for the Mozart residence and the Fortress Hohensalzburg as the two, primary destinations for our first trip to Salzburg. In our upcoming trip, we intend to take in more locations in and around the area, including Lake Mondsee, but we are going back to the two destinations because we simply can’t get enough.

Fortress Hohensalzburg

This imposing castle on the hill wasn’t one to pass up. Like Lake Mondsee, we found it by chance; the focus on Mozart and the Sound of Music tours changing the moment we caught our first glimpse of the enormous, white structure. Rog immediately started looking for street parking at the base of the Fortress, in town, and got lucky. Our walk was only five minutes to the base of the hillside entrance.

Train or tram

Rog and I were in a funny spot at this point in time, because I was realizing that with our limited time, I’d miss all the Sound of Music stuff. My fury grew as he expressed disbelief I would want to visit sites from a musical instead of a real fortress (do you see the marital tornado brewing?) Good thing that getting to this fortress offers both a tram and a thousand-plus long stairway, because we chose the stairs, sweating out our issues by the time we reached the top. Inside and out

Inside and out

Once at the Fortress, you can take several different routes to see the expansive structure. Cafes and mini-restaurants are located on multiple levels and areas. The fortress has many landings offering panoramic views of the valley’s below. Restrooms were plentiful (thankfully) but it was quite hot; the only shade was found in the restaurants. After this trip, we purchased combo water-spray bottles to keep us cool.

Even though the trams were full, the main fortress seemed almost empty because of the size of the area, reminding us of Czesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Yet, unlike Krumlov, Fortress Hohensalzburg has a mercantile, selling some of the best products we’ve seen. Unlike the silly shirts, hats or other items commonly sold, this mercantile had homemade soaps and honey, cream and wooden crafts. We spent nearly as much time in the store picking out items as we did the Fortress (well, almost).

Mozart

For thirteen dollars, we paid a visit to the residence of Wolfgang Mozart. While the inside is identical to the pictures on TripAdvisor or elsewhere, nothing replaces walking through the very home where Mozart created many of his masterpieces. The surrounding area is full of eateries and gardens, so one doesn’t feel obligated to rush in and out of the neighborhood. Parking was easy to find as well (right across the street).

street view of Mozart’s home

Salzburg Cathedral

Mozart was baptized in this cathedral the day after his birth, but it was historically relevant long before. The first Dom was recorded in 774, a fact completely lost on my girls because the center was hit by a single bomb during World War II, and has been largely reconstructed. Still, it’s a beautiful structure if you are in to comparing cathedrals (which we are—it’s sort of become a trivial pursuit-type family pastime…which one do you like best? Why? What do you think of the pipe organ? The tiles were better…. you get the picture).

Depending on the month and week/day, festivals about in Salzburg, but we seem to miss most of them, but fortunately, not all. Check the calendar for your trip because the local food and culture really come through during these festive times.

Parking

We had great luck with parking around the cathedral. Street parking a two blocks away made the short walk quick and easy. In fact, no matter where we went in Mondsee or Salzburg, parking was no problem. In Vienna, we didn’t bother look for street parking, we go straight for the closest garage and call it a day.

Salzburg summary

This small-ish town has much to see and experience, but these were our higlights, and the best for kids <10. And in the end, I was able to see the Mondsee Abbey where the famous wedding scene between Captain von Trapp and Maria took place, which was cool. The mansion, hills and singing at the top of my lungs will have to wait for my next trip.