My Disney Hangover

In light of upcoming Spring Breaks and summer travel, I decided to repost my Disney blog from last year. Hopefully your trip to the most magical place on earth will be more magical than ours!

Aimee Tafreshi

We returned from a trip to “The Most Magical Place On Earth” yesterday. No, we were not at one of the Seven Wonders of the World, or Tahiti. We traveled to Disney World – the Magic Kingdom, specifically – for a quick and easy weekend trip. Except that there wasn’t anything quick and easy about it.

We should have known better. As the saying goes, Fool Me Once, Shame on Mickey, Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me. We weren’t Disney virgins; we were seasoned Disney sophomores. This time our trip was going to be smoother, less expensive, more mainstreamed. Oh yeah, we had this excursion in the glittery bag.

Let me back up a bit. As a child, I never visited Disney World. My parents weren’t theme park people, save an occasional trip to the amazing Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas. Our trips primarily consisted of driving to Port Aransas…

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Prison: The New “Me” Time

I have to admit, I am a sucker for magazines containing the latest celebrity gossip. My favorite one is People, because it features “regular” folk articles too, and usually a suspenseful true crime story. I also subscribe to Us Weekly and feel joy when these gossip rags show up in my mailbox.

My latest Us Weekly issue recently arrived, and I noticed a photo of Real Housewives of New Jersey star Teresa Guidice on the cover, teasing her exclusive photos and prison diary. Now, I don’t watch this particular Housewives franchise, but I am familiar with the show and featured ladies. I will admit to watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for several seasons – I love watching the impeccably dressed and sharp-tounged Lisa Vanderpump.

Nevertheless, I was interested to see what life was really like inside the prison walls of the Federal Correction Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. As a fellow mother, I do feel for Teresa Guidice and her forced separation from her four daughters. I cannot imagine the pain involved in not seeing your children on a regular basis. But then I read Teresa’s prison diary excerpts, and I realized that she is basically on an extended vacation from the responsibilities of everyday life.

Case in point: Us Weekly reports that Teresa works out three times a day. What mom of four children has time to work out three times a day? Her workouts include yoga, Pilates, step class and various workout DVDs. Teresa’s going to leave prison looking like Linda Hamilton from Terminator. This ain’t prison, folks – this is a stripped down fitness retreat.

Teresa details one evening where she attended Pilates and then retired to her room to “relax with a cold cloth on [her] head.” After resting, she planned on watching Empire. After I exercise, I quickly return to reality and face “hangry” children who demand to know why I showered post-workout and want to eat, right now! There is no calm transition to post-workout bliss with a cold compress on my head or tired muscles.

In addition to Empire, Teresa also watches Atlanta and Beverly Hills Housewives, The Voice and movies. I would love to watch Empire (and Girls, Downton Abbey, HGTV and the hundreds of shows I don’t get to enjoy), but I barely have time for the evening news. Can I have her life, please? This incarceration is beginning to sound more like a staycation.

On one pleasant day in February, our New Jersey housewife dined on French toast for breakfast and oatmeal, followed by checking email, drinking coffee and watching the news. When was the last time you got to watch the news in the morning over a leisurely cup of joe? And can someone please make me some French toast?

Following this idyllic morning, Teresa and her fellow inmates watched a Black History special on TV, with the opportunity to win a Hershey candy bar for answering trivia questions correctly. You had me at coffee and chocolate.

Teresa and her roomies also have their own on-call nurse practitioner. In one instance, the New Jerseyan got a dry patch on her chin, and the private nurse treated her promptly with some ointment. Talk about the red carpet treatment! I remember the time I sliced my finger with an onion peeler and applied pressure with the injured hand while continuing to bake with the other. As parents, we’re too busy kissing imaginary boo boos to tend to our own medical needs most of the time.

In her journal, Teresa doesn’t seem to care much for the cafeteria food, but wow, she has her own personal chefs in the big house. She also complains about the abundance of potato products at meals, but let me tell you, a lot of women would kill to eat that many carbs (okay, so some did).

One undated February entry is my favorite: “There is a lady in here, she hit her roommate. The officers are up here now to evaluate the situation. She is a crazy lady who fights with everyone.” Teresa, you just described all three of my children. These so-called fights break out several times a day in my crib. We threaten boarding school on occasion, but I don’t have the luxury of in-house security to contain these mini-threats. I am the security detail, and I am outmanned.

I’m also jealous because Teresa has time each night to write her thoughts down in a journal, something both cathartic and lucrative, as a book deal for her memoir presumably awaits her release from prison. Her time in the poky is really just great raw material for a bestseller that will be purchased on Amazon by bored housewives everywhere. As a writer who struggles to find the time to write or outlets for publication, I am envious of your opportunity, Teresa. Good for you for turning a negative time in your life into a chance to tell your story and make a little cash, too.

And the best part of this prison gig…? Teresa’s husband is at home with all four kids, cooking, cleaning and driving them to all of their activities. What mom wouldn’t want a break from the madness of raising children in our demanding and overscheduled times? Some may call prison hard time, but I call it “me time.”

Teresa, my advice to you is to enjoy the cooked-by-someone else food, load up on potatoes (you are working out three times per day, after all), and binge watch as much TV as you can. Because after prison, it’s back to the harsh reality of real life.

How a Native Texan Copes in a Foreign Land

I am a Texan living in Florida. When I say that I am Texan, I mean that my family has been living in Texas since before Texas was admitted as a state to the United States. One of my relatives was the first non-Native American born into his Texas county. Texas is in my blood and my soul.

I was born and raised in Austin with a brief but happy stint in San Antonio during my elementary school years. Growing up, we vacationed most summers in Port Aransas or South Padre Island, swimming, fishing and collecting sand dollars. We spent our childhood summers at an idyllic sleep away camp on Lake LBJ.

As a fully indoctrinated Longhorn by the age of three, I attended The University of Texas for both my undergraduate and law school education. The primary factor motivating my decision to attend UT for college was the ability to attend all of the home (and some bowl) football games. Football may not be the best reason to choose a college, but luckily for me UT also offered a quality education and a breadth of majors from which to choose.

Over the years, people had asked me with a tinge of sarcasm if I had ever left Texas before. I chuckled and replied that yes, I had branched out and left the safety net of my home state. I studied abroad twice during college and law school, and during my post-graduate years, I took a leap of faith and spent a summer clerking at a law firm in South Carolina. I fell in love with Charleston and years later returned to the Palmetto State, where I worked at a low country law firm for one year before feeling the pull of Texas to return to its weathered arms.

In 2009, when I married my husband, I also married into his career, one that requires frequent moves. We were able to ease into this nomadic lifestyle with our first stop in familiar Houston, a city I used to view as a second-class citizen to my beloved green Austin. I came to embrace Houston for its culture, diversity and proximity to the water. We enjoyed two quality years in Houston where we forged friendships and took advantage of nearby museums and family-oriented activities.

Not long after the birth of our third child, we enjoyed one last Christmas in the Gulf Coast before heading out for the great unknown — Connecticut. Having decided that my husband should continue to pursue his current career path, it was time to hold up our end of the bargain. So for the first time since living in Charleston, we started the long drive east as the temperature dropped each time we crossed a new state line.

We shifted from unseasonably warm and humid December weather in Houston to snowy and bitterly cold weather in the Constitution State. We spent six blissful months in a charming community overlooking Long Island Sound, and by the end of our time we were sad to leave our favorite diners, new friends and local attractions (like the beluga whales at the Mystic aquarium).

Our sadness was tempered, however, by our excitement at returning to the South to live near the Florida/Georgia border. We would be in the land of sandy beaches, eternal sunshine, sweet tea and Southern hospitality.

Two years have quickly flown by since we’ve settled into our idyllic spot in Northeast Florida, and I’ve fallen in love with this coastal gem. We enjoy the perks of living in a small town – a quaint feel, knowing your neighbors, civic events and a low crime rate. Unlike many small towns, we also enjoy a rich cultural scene with an active community theater presence, various festivals, the arts and philanthropic events throughout the year.

However…

We do miss Texas. A lot. Texas isn’t necessarily better than Florida, and there are some things in my new town that I like better than Austin. But Texas is always lurking in the back of your subconscious, waiting to remind you of the things you can’t get in Florida. These are the things I miss the most:

1) Killer breakfast tacos. Or any breakfast tacos, for that matter. There are two choices for great Mexican food near us. One is on our island. One is off our island. Can you imagine if I told a Texan that they had two choices for Mexican food? I would get laughed out of the state. The other problem is: none of these Mexican food restaurants open before 11 a.m. Thus, you guessed it, no breakfast tacos. I know, it’s entirely shocking, right?! What the heck is one supposed to eat for breakfast on the weekends other than a breakfast taco bursting to the gills with some form of protein, loads of yellow cheese and the salsa of your choice? There is nary a breakfast taco food truck in sight either (or any food trucks, for that matter).

What’s a Texan to do? We make our own breakfast tacos. They are simple: eggs, bacon (if we’re lucky), salsa and cheese. It’s not Torchy’s, but it will do. The upshot is that we each weigh about 10 pounds less than our Texas weight. However, I would pack on those pounds for tacos any day of the week. Let’s get our priorities straight, people.

2) Texas football. Yeah, yeah, we notice your peppy game day pictures on Facebook. We see you decked out in burnt orange, tailgating in the parking lot or drinking a cold one at the alumni center. Remember when I could name all the first string players, as well as all the coaches? Now I’m lucky to know the starting quarterback’s name and a few key players. Don’t ask me the names of those new assistant coaches – I don’t know them from the Aggies. The days of pouring over the sports section and reading Kirk Bohls’s witty commentary are over. Sure, I get the Austin American-Statesman’s digital edition emailed to my inbox courtesy of my parents’ subscription, but I don’t even have time to open up the attachment.

We watch the Longhorn games that Florida deems worthy of broadcasting, and sadly the SEC Network trumps the Longhorn Network on our cable line-up. These days we usually record the games that we do get, as our three children are too loud and disruptive to make it through an entire game without continuous interruption.

My daughter recently told me she wanted nothing more than to see a Texas game in person, at the stadium, sometime in the near future. My heart just about melted, and I felt the hope rise in me that at least one of these kids would carry on the Texas tradition in our family. “We gotta keep brainwashing them,” I instruct my husband, “That’s what happened to me.” I don’t know if I can handle a Florida Gator or Georgia Bulldog or Florida State Seminole in our family (this is our world in Northeast Florida).

3) Family and friends. This is the obvious thing that we miss the most. I guess I should have put these people above breakfast tacos. Of course we miss holidays, seeing our family, watching our young nephews grow up. We feel out of the loop at times. Luckily we live in a tourist destination, so we have enjoyed our fair share of visits from family members. When you don’t see your family often, you treasure the time you have with them and pack every minute with fun. I also miss having built-in babysitters or dog-sitters (thanks Mom and Dad).

I miss seeing the high school, college and former work friends I used to meet for lunch or go out with on occasion. I am grateful for social media sites like Facebook where I can at least keep up with my friends’ children and goings-on in their lives. And we are mindful that are parents won’t be around forever. I don’t take any moment or conversation with our family members for granted, so that may be a silver lining to living in a different state from our loved ones.

4) I miss the quirky things that make Texas, well, Texas. Gruene Hall, KGSR radio (the best radio station in the world – why can’t they replicate this station anywhere else? Where else can you hear a Lyle Lovett ditty followed by a Band of Horses song?), Schlitterbahn, Southwestern cuisine, Texas barbeque, Mexican martinis, greasy cheese enchiladas, the attitude that we are all in this fight together – some things can’t be bottled up and exported outside of the state.

So what’s a gal out of Texas to do? I have developed several coping strategies to deal with being detached from my home state. I suspect other non-resident Texans have adopted similar strategies in their new locales:

1) Wear your Texan identity loudly and proudly. I once hit up the local park with two kids in tow. Unknowingly, we all wore Longhorn shirts. Another parent started up a conversation with me: “So I guess you’re from Texas.” Another mom at tennis camp: “Are you the family from Texas?” Besides incorporating Longhorn gear into your wardrobe (t-shirts, lunchboxes, visors, etc.), every out-of-state Texan knows that you need to fully deck your car out with Texas paraphernalia to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind where you hail from. I personally love the simplicity of the Texas flag magnetic stick-on – if other cars don’t know what this flag means, they aren’t worth your time anyway.

You also want to proudly display your Texas college roots, if applicable, to alert others to your Texasness, and more importantly to find other Texans on the road. This would have never happened back home, but now we get super excited when we see a bumper sticker for Baylor, Texas A&M (shudder) or even TCU or SMU. These decals are great conversation starters with other Texans, and I have forged many parking lot friendships by chatting up someone from a former Southwest Conference school over our shared bond of Texas.

My favorite moment happened on the main bridge connecting our bucolic island to the mainland. I noticed another Longhorn-stickered car crossing the bridge, and the car eventually pulled in front of me. The elderly driver sped up, laid on the horn for like 10 seconds, and threw his “Hook’em Horns” hand sign with gusto out of the window. I signed back to him, while others around us wondered what kind of gang signs we were throwing.

When you are driving in another state, you are constantly scanning the roads, looking for that elusive Texas license plate or state insignia. I once got excited when I parked next to the same Texas Exes Life Member two days in a row at Publix and then Bealls. We Texans have the same shopping patterns!, I thought.

On occasion, other Texans may doubt your authenticity. You see, we Texans have high standards for who can claim to be from our state, and not everyone makes the cut. Last week at a sports camp, my daughter came home upset that a boy had disputed her claim that she was born in Texas. “You don’t even know the Texas songs,” he told her. Shoot, I thought, I’ve got to teach her “Texas, Our Texas.” “That’s because you started kindergarten in Florida,” I reassured her, making a mental note to order a Texas songs CD the next day.

2) Seek out the most authentic Mexican restaurants you can find. Determine where the Spanish-speakers and the working crowd eat. Avoid the tourist traps and anywhere selling mainly burritos. Often you can find the best Mexican food dives in sketchy looking strip malls. Seek these places out. The perfect margarita is also elusive outside of Texas. I am fortunate that the two acceptable Mexican restaurants near us serve a quality house margarita.

All you really need in life is a perfectly mixed ‘rita paired with flaky chips, flavorful salsa and queso with the right consistency. You will never have the same Mexican food options outside of Texas – if you can find one or two quality joints, count your blessings.

3) Stay in the loop regarding Texas events, cultural happenings and politics. This way you can sound informed when chatting with your Texas friends and family. I look forward to receiving Texas Monthly in the mail every month to read about the latest trendy restaurants, true crime stories and political hijinks. You can get your fix of all things Texas without even leaving your house and daydream about the towns and restaurants to add to your bucket list.

Sometimes I feel like an immigrant from another country who is assimilating to life in a new world. I wasn’t merely a resident of Texas; I consider myself a citizen of the Lone Star State, and thus I miss my native food, customs and quirks. Until we meet again Texas, I will relish the pristine beaches, down-home accents and vibrant sunsets of the Sunshine State.

As Willie Nelson sings, someday we will be on the road again, perhaps back to the land of oil, cattle, Silicon Hills, high-end shopping and the world’s greatest Mexican food.

Our Secret Garden — the Power of Plants

I grew up in a family where women knew how to garden. I remember childhood trips to the plant nursery where I gazed upon rows of vibrant petunias, pansies and my favorite, roses. Sometimes my mom would let me pick out a batch of flowers, and I would always reach for the colorful annuals, not built for longevity. My mom spent time in the yard — not obsessively — but enough time to grow tomato plants and peppers, create an eco-friendly compost pile and a naturally well-maintained yard. She always told me that every house we lived in she ultimately chose for the backyard. Looking back I appreciated the size of each backyard, and how most backed up to a park or woods, as opposed to a road or another house. I dreamed of having my own rose or English style garden someday.

Like many 20-somethings do, I lived in apartments or duplexes during my salad days and did not have to worry about yard maintenance. Thank goodness, as I did not know how to use a lawn mower, as my parents were afraid I would injure myself in the process (they have me pegged as a bit of a “space cadet.”) Thus I was grateful for included lawn service, not much green space and a patio to place an occasional potted plant, which I hoped to remember to water. My now husband, on the other hand, started his own successful lawn business as a preteen and could competently handle a lawn mower and weed eater.

We purchased our first house together (the first one for either of us) during the summer of 2013. The house was new construction, so the builders had included some standard bushes, small trees and grass. We were content with the arrangement, although I daydreamed from time to time of a pergola or eventual garden, perhaps during retirement when I had time to tend to yet another life form. The sole addition to our new house was a potted plant that my mother (of course) bought with my daughter during one of her visits. This plant is truly a survivor, as we don’t cover it up on cold nights, and it relies on the rain run-off from the roof to hydrate. The bright annuals they purchased together have since perished.

We were content with our simple lawn until we brought our rescued German Shepherd home. I now credit our dog Faith with the improvements to our yard. See, Faith knew that our yard could be so much better. And she also knew we needed more responsibilities on our plates beyond our three small children and now two rescue dogs. So she proceeded with her home improvement plan of completely demolishing the backyard. Areas of lush green grass soon turned into muddy trenches and black sludge under her genius scheme. Now simply reentering the house from the backyard required an extensive wiping down of paws or limbs with towels, or clothes were shed on the porch for mud-caked bodies to be sprayed down by a cold hose. (Luckily my two-year-old enjoys this.)

My husband and I became fed up with looking at mud pits and seeing dirt everywhere. So we did what any hard-working Americans would do — did we embark on a journey to work together side-by-side to plant flowers, embed stepping stones, mulch and fertilize under the glaze of the hot sun, beaming with pride at our hard work? Of course not. We immediately began googling landscapers to find one that could do the most with the least money.

Fast forward a few months, and our backyard oasis is nearly complete. We had to take the pergola off the table pretty quickly, as that addition was a budget buster for us. Instead, our enterprising landscaper created a kids’ play area anchored by pea gravel and surrounded by all sorts of bushes, small trees, and flowers — a secret garden if you will. I now have my always dreamed of magnolia tree, which cements my status as a southerner. The piece de resistance will be a wooden trellis arching over our back gate, filled with climbing vines and fragrant blooms. We now have two butterfly gardens, and I have already seen butterflies, bees and birds flitting about and enjoying our plant paradise.

Our toddler son eagerly helps me water the plants, as now we have to water twice a day until they get established. It’s refreshing to see a young child excited about something other than his Daddy’s iPad or the newest Minions app. I am hoping we can eventually create our own compost pile or grow some vegetable plants to teach the kids about a natural way of recycling and self-reliance.

Last night I was outside attempting to revive some plants that had wilted under the heat of the day, trying to beat the sun from setting on me, when I looked up at the horizon and saw the most vibrant orange-pink sunset. Admiring the sky and the muted noises of dusk, I understood the contentment of the gardener and the oneness felt with nature as one tends her garden.

Now my peripatetic children tell me they never want to move from this house. I guess once you put down some real roots, it is hard to uproot yourself and start over with a blank green space. When we do move someday, I hope to come back years later to see how that magnolia tree has grown up and outward and how the secret garden has enclosed the kids’ play area into a magical hideout. Until that day comes, we will continue to enjoy and cultivate our own little piece of paradise.

French Restaurant Le Clos is “Le Close” to Excellence

Though we have lived on Amelia Island for nearly two years now, my husband and I finally dined at the well-known Le Clos restaurant this past Friday evening. I had seen Le Clos garner high reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp, my go-to places to scout out restaurants before I take the plunge and eat there. When it comes to restaurants, I am risk-averse and prone to visiting favorite joints, over and over again. Thus we patronize David’s for more formal occasions, Espana or La Mancha when we crave tapas, paella and sangria, Tasty’s for burgers, and my favorites, Pablo’s and San Jose Mexican Grill (in Yulee) when my Texas-sized craving for food like home (re: Austin) emerges.

I had no doubt that Le Clos would hit the mark, but I have hesitated in making a reservation there because I wasn’t sure if I would appreciate the French food, perhaps too sophisticated for my taste. While deciding on a date night locale, I scouted out the menu and website and found some promising leads such as salmon (my stand-by entree; I don’t do steak) and a few appealing appetizers. To be honest, I usually have my entire meal picked out from salad to dessert before I have even arrived at a restaurant. We put in a reservation request on Le Clos’s website, as we had heard the restaurant fills up quickly, and we received a personal response via email.

The day of our dinner, Le Clos called and offered us an earlier, more desirable time slot on their patio. I was impressed that they called and must have remembered our earlier request for a peak dinner slot. The day was clear and beautiful, so we accepted their offer of an earlier time and outdoor seating. When we arrived at the quaint and charming cottage that dates back to the early 1900s, the hostess immediately asked us our last name to access the reservation. The couple behind us then seemed nervous, as they had not made a reservation, and usually on Amelia Island, you can stroll into a joint and be seated within minutes. Not at Le Clos – it’s best to call in advance (and not the day of) to make your reservation.

We were promptly seated on a charming outdoor patio area that overlooked 2nd Street and the colorful Hampton Inn. We felt like tourists in a different city from our new vantage point. A charming white picket like railing bordered the patio with vibrant blooms of magenta flowers. The setting called to mind dining outdoors at a cafe in France. I glimpsed the inside of the restaurant during our meal, and the indoors is just as charming and cozy.

Our waitress was very personable and experienced. After receiving our customary tap water, a younger lady stopped by and poured us some sparkling water out of a bottle, leaving a few limes to enhance the flavor. We were both surprised and pleased with this touch of sparkling water, which also reminded me of Europe. We decided to share the Salade Le Clos, a very colorful and flavorful house salad including spinach, field greens, a little goat cheese and the perfect amount of balsamic vinaigrette. We also ordered an appetizer version of a scrumptious sounding fish cake that the chef had whipped up that evening to be served as a starter or a larger portioned entree.

For our drinks, we settled on a bottle from the Cotes du Rhone region of France, which I always find to be a good value on the menu while not lacking in quality. Le Clos serves only beer and wine, so that is something to consider if you have a whiskey or scotch drinker in your company.

While mulling over our choices, the younger waitress stopped by our table and abruptly snatched the glasses of sparkling water. Our assigned waitress showed up at the same time, and one of them explained that another table had ordered the sparkling water. The more senior waitress indicated that the younger woman was “in training” as an explanation for the mix-up. I really hope that the younger server didn’t transport our partially drunk water glasses to the table across the way.

I have no idea why they didn’t simply leave the water glasses on our table and not say anything about the mistake. Is carbonated water really so valuable that our drinks must be confiscated? I can think of much lower-budget chain restaurants where the server would likely say, oops, our mistake, but we’ll let you drink it. We’re not talking about forty-year-old scotch here. The sad part was my husband was really excited about the sparkling water, and I had commended the restaurant for the nice touch.

Despite the waitress’s faux pas, I was determined not to let something so trivial ruin our experience. It was time to order our entrees, and Alex decided on the salmon, whereas I chose the special, the grouper. In the meantime, our salad arrived, which they nicely split into two portions. (We frequently share a salad because we don’t want to fill up too much before the main course.) Sadly, the kitchen forgot to send out the fish cake special, and we chose not to say anything, as we realized the omission when our entrees arrived, and I didn’t want to eat fish and a fish cake at the same time.

The Salade Le Clos was a tasty and colorful salad. I slightly prefer the similar Ensalada Ciudad Real salad at La Mancha, with its more generous allotment of goat cheese medallions and fried beet chips, but the Salade Le Clos is probably healthier and less caloric while exhibiting great flavor.

The slightly encrusted grouper was accompanied with a beurre blanc (sauce) and julienne vegetables and whipped potatoes. My husband’s salmon was similarly presented but had been cooked in parchment paper. Our fish was delectable, and between the two of us, we ate every bite. I would order the grouper again in a heartbeat.

For dessert, we shared the chocolate cake (a/k/a the “gateau au chocolate with creme anglaise”). Nary a crumb was left on our dessert plate when we finished inhaling the sweet treat. Next time I may order my own slice so that I can devour the entire piece.

We received our bill, which was not for the faint of heart (a second bottle of Cotes du Rhone somehow snuck onto our table), and we noticed the missing fish cake appeared on our tab. We brought the error to our waitress’s attention, and she promptly apologized, said she would talk with the kitchen, and removed the charge. We enjoyed chatting with her about her personal history living on the island and how we might run into each other at Publix. She was definitely an asset to the restaurant. There appeared to be a mix of more seasoned waitstaff and younger servers, but this is simply based on my observations and experience with the sparkling water debacle.

Overall, of the restaurants we have frequented on the island, we still rank The Ritz’s Salt first and David’s a close second. The times we have dined at David’s have been simply flawless, and its prices are quite comparable to Le Clos’s. I would dine again at Le Clos because of the quality of the food — the owner/chef has an impressive history and trained at the Ritz-Paris — and the charming and unique cottage which houses it. However, I feel they need to ensure that the entire staff rises to the level of excellence set by their chef and more experienced waitstaff.

I do recommend Le Clos, but make a reservation in advance, and budget for an expensive bill if you will be ordering various courses (even if some are shared) and a bottle (or two) of a reasonably priced wine.

Next up on the menu: Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro or Horizons

What is your favorite restaurant on Amelia Island?

Wanderlust

Ever since childhood, I can remember having a strong desire to learn about other countries and cultures. I relished my “It’s a Small World” record and seeing the pictures of different children dressed in their native garb. As an older child, I would spin around my globe, blindly landing my finger at a random place, to see where I would have to travel. I grabbed my parents’ World Almanac off the shelf and would absorb key facts about different countries: their GDP, major economic activities, life span, and so on. I think the desire to travel is innate for many people.

As a child, my father, who “emigrated” from Washington State to Texas (it is indeed “A Whole Other Country”), traveled extensively for his job. He spent multiple years living in different parts of Africa, as well as living in Mexico. When your dad travels a lot for work, it doesn’t seem weird or different; it is just your reality. I think I inherited his love of adventure and travel.

Recently my husband and I have discussed the possibility of moving abroad for a few years as part of a potential opportunity in his career field. As part of the process, we have to put down our preferences in order, with choices spanning from South America to Europe and beyond. My first choice, of course, is Switzerland. Who doesn’t want to live in Switzerland, eat Swiss chocolate and cheese and enjoy après-ski activities at the base of the Swiss Alps?

However, if Switzerland doesn’t come to fruition, how do I possibly narrow down multiple countries to a few? Simplicity of learning the language, schooling options and amenability to two big dogs are some factors we are using to evaluate potential choices. Thailand would be amazing, but can I really talk Thai? French or Spanish seem more our speed.

All of this brainstorming and daydreaming about future years spent in lavender-infused Provence or sangria-drenched Spain have me naturally recalling some of my past travel adventures. I am not the most well-traveled person out there, but I have had my share of experiences, especially when I studied abroad in London and Paris. I feel fortunate that I had these opportunities during my college and younger adult years, because as we all know it gets a heck of a lot harder to skip out on your responsibilities for a few months (let alone a few weeks) to backpack through Europe or the Andes as a thirty something.

My past travel experiences have been filled with highs and lows, feelings of elation and feelings of hesitation. I will never forget my first trip to Europe, as a college student participating in an overseas program focusing on international business and marketing. The small group of us was to spend five weeks studying at a university in Paris. As an added bonus, I had studied French in college, and while I was by no means fluent, I felt I could hold my own in France.

I remember flying into Paris’s Charles Le Gaulle airport, excited and nervous about the prospect of living in a foreign country. After landing and deboarding the large jet, I collected my overstuffed suitcase and realized I had no idea what to do next. Was I supposed to figure out how to take a train or the Metro to the dorm, or would someone be meeting me at the airport? As a slightly irresponsible and head in the clouds 21-year-old, it hit me that I had failed to bring the directions with me for what to do after landing at the huge Paris airport. I then felt a slight shock of panic. After an internal debate, I decided to stay put, and fortunately the program director found me near the baggage claim, along with a few other newly arrived and dazed students.

The feeling of being utterly lost would reemerge a few days later in the City of Lights when I decided it would be a smart idea to take a jog in the morning before taking two separate metro trains to the university. My body didn’t know what time it was, so I easily woke in the pre-dawn hours and ventured out to take in beautiful Paris. I jogged all the way to a nearby park and admired its spontaneous placement, lush foliage and postcard good looks. I then realized I was completely off-course. Nothing strikes fear into one’s heart like realizing they are lost in one of the world’s largest cities in a residential area with nary an English speaker.

I approached a friendly-looking woman and tried in my best French to ask how to get back to my new neighborhood. She could not understand my French, at all, which was pretty disheartening after several years of college level French. I realized that my American accent was completely screwing up my attempts at the local language. I felt totally helpless. I managed to backtrack and by the grace of God found my way back to the dorm. At that moment, my Texas classmates were streaming out of the building to head to the Metro for our first day of class. I ran inside, threw on some different clothes, and took my sweaty and unfed self to the Metro for the hour commute to class. There would be no more morning jogs for me in Paris, at least not until I knew the lay of the (very large) land.

Other things that stand out in my memory about Paris are going to McDonald’s with my best friend Chrissy to get a Royale with Cheese, which we couldn’t help but smirk about as we imagined John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discussing this particular menu item in Pulp Fiction (a high school movie staple of ours). Paris was so expensive that even their version of a quarter pounder with cheese meal cost nearly ten dollars. We knew we could walk away feeling full from a McDonald’s meal, which wasn’t always the case at other restaurants.

I remember seeing a Smart Car (in 1999) parallel parked snugly on a tree-lined street and taking photos of it, marveling at its small size. I recall how an iceless, small soda cost more than a glass of wine (better order the wine then!). I remember going to the top of the Eiffel Tower and getting pelted with cold rain and wind to snap that iconic shot before descending back to earth again.

And finally, I remember our misguided attempt to visit the Louvre Museum in two hours, a museum that would better be enjoyed over the course of two weeks. (The Mona Lisa? Check. The Venus de Milo? Check.) If and when I return to Paris, I will put the Louvre on my list of must-see attractions.

While in Paris, we took advantage of our proximity to other cities and countries and traveled most weekends and for two weeks straight following the school term. We rode the train to Normandy one weekend day and took in the beaches and the sandy terrain still marked from battle. It was an indescribable feeling to stand in a place where so many brave men had given their lives.

I will never forget Amsterdam, browsing the local “coffee shops” and walking through the Red Light District and seeing the silhouettes of ladies in the windows whose services were for sale. We headed to a restaurant, and shortly into our meal, an altercation broke out in the front of the restaurant with several people arguing. Little did I know that while we were all focused on the apparent argument, two other people were walking around the restaurant, snatching purses. Yes, my purse was stolen, and I had to go to an old-fashioned phone booth outside after dinner to call back home to get assistance with canceling all of my credit cards.

At that point I vowed never to step foot in The Netherlands again, but I have since forgiven Amsterdam for its petty crime. During future travels I wore a travel wallet suspended from my neck tucked into the waistband of my pants. If someone tried to steal my money, I would know! The restaurant heist was a valuable lesson, as pickpockets tend to frequent the areas that tourists like.

Dining al fresco on a beautiful afternoon at the Hard Rock Café was a high point of Amsterdam. These days I would dismiss a Hard Rock as an overpriced tourist trap, but I cannot tell you how heavenly the ice-filled large Diet Coke (with free refills!) tasted. Just when you are used to tepid sodas devoid of ice in the smallest possible glass, the Hard Rock was like an oasis in a caffeine desert. Thank you for catering to my unhealthy American taste for 32-ounce diet soda.

Other memories of my two trips to Europe include:

  • Getting into an argument with a German subway conductor when I was traveling with the wrong ticket. All of the subway kiosks were in German, so I couldn’t read them. We argued in French. I thought I would end up in a German jail. The Germans follow rules. I think he finally decided I was crazy and gave up.
  • Drinking an ice cold Guinness beer at the top of the Guinness Brewery with panoramic views of Dublin. After this and a Delirium Tremens consumed in Belgium, I could no longer drink light domestic beer upon returning home.
  • Arriving in Italy after spending five weeks in Paris and finally feeling full after eating a hearty Italian dinner. I never felt completely satiated in Paris, even though they are known for their world-class cuisine. I was a poor college student and could not afford the Michelin-starred restaurants, and French portions are smaller than our idea of a normal portion size.
  • Driving around Rome in a non-air conditioned taxi in the dead heat of the summer, glimpsing historic sites from the Roman Empire while Lenny Kravitz’s “American Woman” blasted on the radio. I always think of Rome when I hear this song. Incidentally, I much preferred Florence to Rome.
  • I remember our somber visit to Dachau in Germany, the site of a well-known concentration camp and museum about the Holocaust. In a surreal encounter I ran into a sorority sister on these grounds. We fought to hold back tears (or not) as we toured the area and museum. It’s one thing to read about mass genocide in a history book; it’s quite another to walk on the soil where these atrocities took place.
  • In contrast to our somber visit, the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, which dates back to the 16th century, was the liveliest beer hall I have ever frequented, a place that once you enter you never want to leave. We even saw some Aggies there.
  • We took the train out to the Champagne region of France and toured two champagne producers, including Moet & Chandon. As a recent 21-year-old, I felt so grown up buying a bottle of champagne.
  • Wrongly approaching a T-bar ski lift in Kaprun, Austria and getting dragged by the leg for about 15 to 20 feet before the ski employees shut it down. I’m pretty sure they were making fun of me in German as I dragged along. My leg was covered in bruises for days, I could hardly walk, and skiing was out of the question. I’m just thankful it did not pull my leg off.
  • Sitting in an Austrian restaurant in December when a group of men dressed up as scary devil-like creatures entered the restaurant to look for misbehaving patrons and children to pretend spank with brooms and sticks. Apparently this is an annual tradition called Krampusnacht (“Krampus Night”) where Krampus is basically the opposite of St. Nicholas. Instead of giving gifts to good children, Krampus punishes the bad ones. (Luckily I was spared.)
  • Getting kicked out of a restaurant in Bruges, Belgium because my friend wanted to order only soup instead of an entire entrée. Actually the irate waiter used the soup as a pretext to give us the boot, but the real reason was because we were Americans, and much of Europe was opposed to us declaring war on Iraq, marked by many protests during my time in London. The U.S. declared war the spring after I left London. I was offended at the time that someone would assume everyone in the U.S. shared the same political ideology.
  • Getting short-changed in change while buying a drink at a bar in Scotland. The bar owner insisted on counting the “till” at the end of the evening (i.e., likely 2:00 a.m.) to see if there was a discrepancy in the amount of money in the register and the amount of alcohol sold. I lectured him on customer service for an hour. I’m sure he found me quite obnoxious. At the end of the night he had to concede I was right and gave me my fifteen dollars in change.
  • Visiting Interlaken, Switzerland, a beautiful town descended into an eerie quiet after a group of young adult tourists had died the previous week engaged in a popular outdoor activity called canyoneering. We hiked and took in the beautiful scenery. The mood was subdued and respectful.
  • Having to borrow money to feed the shower at the youth hostel in Interlaken; when the money was used up, the water turned as cold as the Swiss Alps!

It’s always a little scary to travel to a foreign country, especially to live there for an extended period of time. I’ve never heard of anyone having regrets about getting out of their comfort zone and taking that leap of faith. If the opportunity presents itself to live abroad again, I’m ready for the challenges, new experiences and memories to come. And a tasty croque-monsieur with a glass of Cotes du Rhone wine would be nice too.

Do you have any memorable travel stories? Did you study or live abroad? Which country would you choose to live in and learn its language if you had the opportunity?

Positively Perfect and Phantastic “P” Names

Parker Posey, Peppermint Patty and Pablo Picasso Our history and pop culture have produced some notable “P” names. A perfect “P” name makes you stop and take notice.

I do not have anyone in my family whose name starts with a “P,” but the other day I had “P” names on my mind. There are a few classic girls’ “P” names – Paula and Patricia come to mind – but for the most part, “P” names are a more elusive bunch than names beginning with an “A” or “B.” I decided to set out to round up the best of the “P” names, including those looking for a comeback and others that have never broken the top name ranks. This blog will focus on the most promising “P” names for girls.

I began my analysis with a review of the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”, for short) most recent list of popular baby names. I had to scroll down the list to #56, where I found Penelope, the most popular “P” name for girls in 2013. Penelope’s ascent up the baby name ladder didn’t surprise me, as both celebrity parents and regular folks have embraced this name.

Cute as a button Paisley trailed behind the “P” leader at number 80, though this trendy name is more popular than she appears at first glance. Alternative spelling Paislee came in at a respectable #628, and other variations (Paisleigh, Paizley, Paizlee and Payzlee) were bestowed upon multiple babies that year. So if one combined all of the Paisley variations, this name might actually be used more than Penelope. I would recommend using the original Paisley spelling to maintain the integrity of this intricate pattern.

Other popular “P” names include celebrity favorite Piper, Payton (with variation Paityn) and Paige. Place name Paris, unisex Parker and famous surname Presley also made the top 1000 cut. Princess came in at #982, but I would caution a parent against using this name as anything other than a casual nickname. Of these popular names, I would recommend Parker, as this gender-neutral name sounds fresh used on a girl, Presley for its musical roots and Paige for its refreshing simplicity.

Some promising top 1000 names that don’t seem at risk of overexposure are feminine Priscilla (#485) and exotic sounding Perla (#668). Paola (#671) and Paloma (#755) both share understated pizzazz. Vintage Pearl ranked #677 and could be on track to match the success of old-fashioned gems like Ruby and Cora.

If you are looking for a “P” name that hasn’t broken the top 1000 yet, there are some ripe possibilities. Promising choices include Pia, a simple name with international flavor, and Palmer, similar to Parker but less used. Glam Petra, socialite Pippa and sophisticated Portia showcase the best of the flying-below-the-radar “P” names. Spunky Pepper (given to only 152 girls in 2013) could provide a winning alternative to the trendy Piper. Pacey (with only 15 newborn girls bearing this name in 2013) adds some P-attitude and could be used in lieu of out of favor Tracy or Stacey.

There are a plethora of “P” names that espouse desirable virtues in a little girl. Patience is the most popular, ranking #891, followed in popularity by Promise, Precious and Prudence. None of these names are my cup of tea, but of the four, I agree with the masses that Patience is the most usable. Please do not name your daughter Precious – her 40-year-old self will not appreciate it.

Like a colorful bouquet of pansies, the “P” names present a colorful arrangement of floral-inspired names. My favorite option is Poppy, a choice of several celebrities for their offspring as well as our neighbors on the other side of the pond. In 2013, Poppy was bestowed upon only 179 girls in the United States, so this name is a fresh and modern choice. Other floral options include spunky Petunia, cool Petal, hip girl name Posey (or Posy) and the unexpected Primrose (given to 34 girls in 2013).

If you really like the look of a “P” name, but aren’t so keen on the “pee” sound, then a “Ph” name might be for you. Phoebe (#301) leads the soft sounding “Ph” names in popularity, followed by Phoenix (#486). “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Phaedra Parks provides another unique option. Her first name was given to a mere 33 baby girls in 2013. And finally, regal Philippa, the formal name of Pippa Middleton, has a rich heritage and is underused in our country.

If you haven’t seen a “P” name yet that captures your imagination, the next group of names have been taken down from the attic and dusted off, in hopes that you might use one of them. These are the names that you are more likely to hear on a modern day grandmother or great-grandmother than a little girl.

Pamela is a feminine sounding name with an accessible nickname, Pam. Pamela enjoyed massive popularity from the early 1940s, hitting the top 10 in 1953, and remaining in the top 100 until 1984. Pamela finally fell out of the top 1000 in 2011. This attractive name may be primed for a comeback.

Polly enjoyed a steady presence on the SSA Top 1000 for most of the 20th century, falling out of favor in 1978. Polly has a sweet, girl-next door vibe. Jennifer Aniston brought the name to life as a quirky character in the 2004 comedy Along Came Polly.

Related to Polly but a little more sugarcoated, Pollyanna was given to only nine baby girls in 2013. Pollyanna calls to mind the best-selling children’s classic novel of the same name, as well as the film adaptation with Hayley Mills as Pollyanna. The name entered into the English language as both a positive and a negative connotation of someone who is excessively optimistic.

Paulette remained in the top 1000 from the mid-1930s through 1980, peaking in 1946. Paulette is a name one doesn’t hear too often these days. It has a little more flair than the more serious sounding Pauline. I expect Paulette to remain a relic of the past. A more modern version of the feminine Paul- names, Paulina came into favor in the late 1980s and still claims a spot on the SSA Top 1000 as of 2013 (at #825). Former supermodel Paulina Porizkova probably lent this name more style and cachet than its more pedestrian cousins. The girl-next-door sounding Paula peaked in the 1950s and is still clinging onto the top 1000.

The more formal Patricia ranked a respectable #680 on the most recent SSA list of popular baby names. Patricia enjoyed massive popularity from the Great Depression through the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, many modern day grandmothers and great-grandmothers bear this enduring name. Patricia conveys a classic and refined image and lends itself to the cute but older sounding P- nicknames, Patty or Patsy. Whether the new generation of mothers will glom on to Patricia and propel it to its past glory days remains to be seen.

Most popular in the 1960s, Penny reemerged in the Top 1000 at #993 after a more than two-decade hiatus. Penny has a friendly retro vibe. Penny also makes for a sweet nickname for the popular Penelope.

Whether your taste skews toward trendy, upwardly mobile, artsy or archaic, there is a perfect “P” name waiting for every little girl. Do you have a favorite “P” name? Did I leave any promising “P” names off the list? Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on polished “P” names for boys.

The Power of Mom Friends

To tweak a famous quote, no mom is an island. As moms, we get so caught up in our daily lives and obligations that cultivating friendships can often fall to the very bottom of the “to do” list. But as I was reminded the other evening, female friends are essential for reassuring yourself that you are not alone on this sometime crazy journey called motherhood.

When I had my first child, I was a full-time professional and single mom. I did not have “mom friends.” My girlfriends and work friends were in their 30s, like me, but I was among the first to have a child. Someone offered that a hairstylist she knew was a single mom with a child; perhaps we could be friends? I dismissed the idea and continued socializing with my work and college friends. Upon the suggestion of another new mom and work colleague, I began taking my daughter to a children’s music class on Saturdays. Although I didn’t really socialize with any of these parents outside of the classroom, the time spent singing and banging on instruments was a window into the social world of other parents of small children.

After my daughter turned one, I married a wonderful man, and a year and half later, we moved to a new city, along with our newborn son. I had stopped working at my law firm around the time of my daughter’s second birthday, and I was excited about the prospect of being a full-time mother, able to enjoy my children throughout all hours of the day, and truly experience all facets of motherhood.

My experience in our new city of Houston was vastly different than my mommy experience in my hometown. I didn’t have the security blanket of my parents, school friends or work colleagues to rely on; instead I dove in head first to the task of meeting other mom friends. It wasn’t really so hard – I joined the local MOMS Club, and I discovered that just showing up to a playdate or planned outing was the biggest hurdle. The moms were friendly, and it was a diverse group, ranging from moms with master’s degrees to engineers to the more rare Martha Stewart types. Overall I found most of them to be highly educated and professional women who had chosen to stay home in order to spend quality time with their children and not miss out on those early years.

Six months into my time in the club, I found myself as the prospective president of our chapter. I somewhat kicked myself, as the position took up a lot of time and planning, and other aspirations, like writing, took a backburner to planning social events, handling email correspondence and attending meetings. I didn’t realize the value at the time of these interactions and friendships that I was forging. When I had my third child, and other moms brought meals to us for four weeks straight, I was overwhelmed by their generosity and the power of moms. I finally understood that a group of moms is a powerful thing that could support each other in times of need. We eventually moved, and a few years later I still think fondly of the different ladies with whom I had the privilege of sharing parts of our lives.

After spending two years in Houston, we moved up to Connecticut for a short six-month stint for my husband’s job. I considered joining the nearby MOMS Club, but unlike my previous chapter, this one required a much longer drive to attend functions. With the winter weather and occasional snow, I tended to stay in my bubble and venture out primarily to the YMCA. I met some great moms at my daughter’s preschool, which is another promising venue to meet potential friends, as well as a like-minded young mom in our neighborhood of mostly retirees. After only six months, I was sad to say goodbye to the small group of friends I had made. We were now headed down South, where we would settle in and have the opportunity and time to forge deep friendships.

Since moving to Florida, my experience in making mom friends has been different but positive. There are various ways to meet people, and these days I prefer a more organic approach. I have met other moms at the dance studio, the local YMCA or playing at a park. There are some nice moms in our neighborhood, and I have met some friends through a simple introduction by established friends. I saw one mom that looked familiar to me at a popular, kid-friendly restaurant the other week and realized that her son was in my son’s music class. We struck up a conversation before her friend came to join her, who I realized I had met at the local pool the previous summer.

It had been awhile since I had attended anything formal or organized like a girls’ night out, as some friends had recently moved away or given birth. Last week a mom friend of mine through my daughter’s school and dance studio (though I initially met her as my daughter’s Vacation Bible School leader) kindly agreed to watch my daughter while I attended some local writers’ workshops. She asked me if I wanted to perhaps have a glass of wine when I came to pick up my daughter that evening. My Friday evenings are usually spent getting the kids to bed super early and gearing up to watch Dateline with my husband, but I thought a glass of wine sounded nice and didn’t require too much effort.

That evening, I made the drive over to her part of the island and noticed the way the orange tinted sky looked immense from the winding road. Living on an island, people joke about not wanting to go “OTB,” (over the bridge), and I must admit, I don’t go OTB too often, or even venture to the south side of the island. As I pulled up to her home, I admired their vibrant fruit trees, blooming rose bushes and its elegant cottage feel. I entered their inviting home, and the girls were ensconced in a cozy set-up with cheese pizza and a Disney movie. Admiring her distressed white kitchen cabinets, we agreed on a red California blend and settled into her white couch to sip and talk. (After an unfortunate red wine and white couch incident at a close friend’s urban pad years earlier, I hoped that I did not repeat my past gaffe.)

An hour passed by quickly as we chatted about the differences between boys versus girls, our rescue dogs, career aspirations and feeling overscheduled with activities and obligations. I met her daughter’s pet lizard and was impressed that she allowed a pet that required live crickets as its diet. Not every mom would go for that! I thoroughly enjoyed myself and realized out loud that I hadn’t known how much I missed hanging out with another mom until in that moment. The clock struck 8, and not wanting to overstay our welcome or keep my daughter up too late, we headed back to our part of the island.

The next few days following our social visit, I began to have grand plans of double dates with other couples, game nights at our home with a few other parents and making time every few months for a fun moms’ night out. Sometimes as moms our focus is so laser-like on our children and pets (and husband, if he’s lucky) that the thought of nurturing our need for human connection doesn’t register. A simple shared conversation over a glass of wine was the eye-opening realization that cultivating friendships does matter, even to a woman in her 30s. Friends now are probably more important than ever. I’m looking forward to that next glass of wine.

My Disney Hangover

We returned from a trip to “The Most Magical Place On Earth” yesterday. No, we were not at one of the Seven Wonders of the World, or Tahiti. We traveled to Disney World – the Magic Kingdom, specifically – for a quick and easy weekend trip. Except that there wasn’t anything quick and easy about it.

We should have known better. As the saying goes, Fool Me Once, Shame on Mickey, Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me. We weren’t Disney virgins; we were seasoned Disney sophomores. This time our trip was going to be smoother, less expensive, more mainstreamed. Oh yeah, we had this excursion in the glittery bag.

Let me back up a bit. As a child, I never visited Disney World. My parents weren’t theme park people, save an occasional trip to the amazing Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas. Our trips primarily consisted of driving to Port Aransas or South Padre Island, Texas, swimming in the beach and pool, fishing and relaxing. My Dad always joked about how we would never have an itinerary on a vacation. I chuckled and thought that one day I would have trips with itineraries. I should have known that the beach bum doesn’t fall far from the coconut tree.

Last spring, the stars aligned and a trip to Disney World seemed within reach. We lived within a short drive of Orlando, my husband was coming home from a long deployment, and our three children were at an age where at least one of them would remember the trip years later. After an internal struggle inside my head, I finally decided to give Disney a shot – after all, I might really love the place and fall under its magical spell.

We stayed at Disney’s Art of Animation resort on our first go round. I felt like I was staying at the Walmart of Disney properties, though the price could have gotten us a suite at a nice Marriott. We didn’t use the inviting pool facilities because we were too busy knocking out four theme parks. We used a Disney specific travel agency and enjoyed wonderful dining experiences and met enough characters to choke a Hungry Hungry Hippo. The trip was not without its challenges, though.

For one, we were exhausted. As the week pushed on, every morning I would think, I have to get on a bus and do this again? The crowd levels were low, which was wonderful, but the rain was unrelenting and put a damper on the week. Overall, the kids had a blast, so we chalked the trip up to a success. Next time, we thought, we will make a few tweaks, and the adults would enjoy Disney too.

For our second trip, I did not consult the predicted crowd charts (yes, some guy online actually graphs out the estimated crowd levels for every day of the year at Disney), but in my heart I knew that the park would be crowded on Valentine’s/President’s Day weekend. “How bad could it be?”, I thought. We set up our FastPass selections for character meet and greets. I diligently researched hotels and found a well-reviewed boutique hotel off property with spacious and budget-friendly accommodations. We would visit only the Magic Kingdom on a Saturday, so we wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by multiple parks. In essence, this trip would be manageable, fun, and dare I say, magical?

Our first misfire was leaving our home on a Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, as opposed to the morning. I didn’t want the kids to miss their Valentine’s parties at school, so we didn’t take off until the end of the school day. This was a costly mistake, as we encountered massive traffic delays in Jacksonville, due to the holiday traffic and several car wrecks. We lost about an hour. Strike one.

After the initial miscue, we arrived in Orlando and began Yelping nearby restaurants. And what to my hungry eyes did appear – Chuy’s, that classic Tex-Mex restaurant based in my hometown of Austin. Now, when I lived in Austin, I tended to classify Chuy’s as overrated and sloppy seconds, best left for the tourists or non-foodies. But when you live in a Mexican food desert, and Chuy’s appears on the horizon, it’s like a gallon of ice-cold water after walking for miles parched. This trip was going to be the best ever!

Chuy’s delivered the goods – I chugged the first margarita in about ten seconds flat – the queso and creamy jalapeno sauce were so divine I initially just stared and took in their pure deliciousness. And to top off the good food and drink, there was a jolly man making balloon animals for the children. Our first and last meals in Orlando would ultimately prove to be the highlights of this trip. Chuy’s was the Last Supper.

After dinner, we made the short drive over to the Point Orlando Hotel and marveled at the spacious suite and nice set-up. We tucked in early and dreamt of magical fairies and fireworks. The next morning, we sprang out of bed bright and early, ate a solid breakfast at the hotel and started our trek to the Magic Kingdom. We arrived to the parking lot by a little after 8:00, which felt like an accomplishment. We easily parked and marveled at all of the Disney employees deployed to assist each of us. Disney runs a tight ship, I thought.

We then took a tram into an area where we could either opt to take a ferry or monorail into the park. My husband grumbled a little about all the transportation required to simply enter Disney, and we hoped we would not miss out on meeting Cinderella and Rapunzel. We packed into a car like commuters in Beijing, and I told the kids to pretend they were riding the subway in a big city. We finally arrived, and the fun could officially begin.

Looking back, the morning was the best part of our day at Disney. We met various characters with our three FastPasses, and as a bonus we even got to meet the coveted Anna and Elsa. For lunch, despite not having reservations, we waited a moderate amount of time and dined at the Crystal Palace, featuring a quality buffet and the affable Winnie the Pooh crew. After lunch, the day began its downward spiral, which would end with us hitting rock bottom.

The crowds became insane. You know when the Dumbo ride has an hour wait time, that fat elephant has the last laugh. We queued an hour to ride the Jungle Cruise, which consisted of a millennial tour guide making corny jokes the whole way. He was probably the highlight of the ride, next to the fake elephants and dark cave. The only other ride we were able to get on was Aladdin’s Magic Carpet ride. We waited 45 minutes to go in circles in the air for about five minutes.

We finally called it quits on waiting in line for the rides and caught a few shows in Tomorrowland. My husband nearly lost it when a Disney employee moved our stroller to an unknown location, which took about 20 minutes to find in the dark. My middle son said he couldn’t wait to go back to school so he could tell the other kids how Disney took our stroller. “We visited Disney and all I got was this lousy stolen stroller story” is what his t-shirt should read.

We originally had dinner reservations at a Disney hotel restaurant but decided to cancel them because we didn’t want to deal with riding a bus and monorail all over again. The clock ticked on into the evening, and we had to start thinking about dinner. The sunny afternoon weather turned back into a chill, and we did not want to eat at an outdoor counter service restaurant. We decided that the kids would not make it to the 10 p.m. fireworks show, so we say goodbye to the Magic Kingdom and headed out of the gates.

The monorail was down, so all of us were forced to ride the ferryboat back to the area where we would then get on a tram to take us to our cars. I was fine with riding a ferryboat, as I thought the kids would enjoy the novelty, but the waiting dock was super crowded due to the lack of monorail service. I almost made a crass comment referencing third world country conditions but another guest took that liberty first.

Brooks sat down as we waited, and I urged him to stand up so he wouldn’t get trampled when guests started loading the boat. The ferry docked and we all loaded the boat like a bunch of hungry and tired refugees, desperate to not get left behind. The ferry, filled to the brim with people, pushed off from the dock. Our oldest child began to fall asleep as she was standing up. I had to hold her arm up so that she wouldn’t collapse. She was incoherent and for a time we thought she might require a hospital visit. How does a child fall asleep standing up? Was it an undisclosed side effect of Tinker Bell’s pixie dust? We finally hoisted her into our toddler’s stroller where she went comatose.

We arrived on land and made the short walk to the tram lines. We missed the first one, and Good Samaritans allowed us to wedge into their car, as our bulky stroller lay horizontal on all of our laps. We finally arrived at our parking lot, and with much relief, we settled in for the short eight-mile return trip to our hotel.

Our eight-mile jaunt ended up taking two hours. The highway was jam-packed – apparently there was a wreck, though we never saw it – and the light at our exit appeared to be out. We sat in the right exit lane for about one and a half hours, as some fed up cars veered onto the shoulder and took matters into their own hands. Other drivers sped up to the front of the line and cut in, thus we never moved forward. Discussing their lawlessness and whether we should follow suit, I maturely said, situations like this bring out the best or the worst in people. The worst in me would materialize soon enough. Everyone has a breaking point.

Initially we were going to eat at a nearby restaurant for dinner, then we decided, okay, we will just hit up the McDonald’s drive thru. (I remarked that I had never eaten at McDonald’s for a Valentine’s dinner, and that this would be a memorable time.) That quarter pounder with cheese meal was sounding divine. Unfortunately, once we exited the highway two hours later, the McDonald’s was on the wrong side of the road and inaccessible to us. That’s fine, we thought, our glasses still half full, the hotel restaurant is open until 11:00, so we will order food from them.

We finally pull into the hotel parking lot, and the kids are in various states of incoherent moaning and crying. We pick up various kids and sprint like scared animals toward the warmth of the hotel. We run into the light and inquire as to the restaurant’s location. A young man informs us that the kitchen just closed, one hour early, as the staff was overwhelmed and needed to catch up. At that point I lose my cool with a few choice phrases. I loudly proclaim that Orlando is the absolute worst city I have ever been to, and that I have been to some pretty crappy places, so this is a legitimate designation. At this point, I am beyond tired, hungry and dehydrated. Disney had finally broken me.

Dejected and resigned to failure, we return to our room, where we feed our kids a random assortment of snacks and leftovers from the previous night’s meal. Here is one cheese quesadilla; you may each have a third of it. Our two-year-old was so exhausted he started shouting “tired, tired!” and collapsed in his porta-crib, forgoing his nightly cup of milk. My husband and I ordered a pizza and finally ate a few slices at 11:30 p.m. I then collapsed into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Our youngest son, who probably fell asleep at 10:30, woke up at 6:30, yelling “I want Eltha [Elsa]; I want Eltha!” We reluctantly awoke, showered and packed our belongings, ready to get the hell out of Orlando. (We originally considered visiting another attraction that day, but there was a tacit understanding that our only destination was home.) In my state of starvation the previous evening, I had remembered seeing a sign for Denny’s near our hotel. We made the decision to eat at the diner, and I silently prayed that it would not take two hours to go two miles to the eatery.

Like Chuy’s, Denny’s was the other highlight of our trip. The food was hot and delicious, and the perfectly mixed Diet Coke recharged and invigorated me. We stuffed our bellies into a comfortable state of fullness and then hit the road. The roads were relatively clear of traffic – church, we figured – but we didn’t want to jinx ourselves and comment on the smooth roads. We arrived back home later in the afternoon, at which point I collapsed into a deep sleep for three hours straight while my “husband of the year” took care of the kids.

On the drive back, we immediately decided to cancel our Spring Break trip to the Florida Keys. Too far, we thought. Too stressful. You know it’s bad when a beach vacation seems too hard. Thanks Disney. Instead, we would send the kids to preschool and camp and utilize a nearby luxury hotel’s pool and spa facilities during various days of the week. We would only return to Disney if the Disney guru’s website showed low crowds on his bar graph, we could afford a hotel like the Polynesian for ease of transportation to the Magic Kingdom, and if Arrendelle froze over (again). In other words, we may not return to Disney for many years, if ever.

Take away the transportation hiccups, long wait times in lines, and overall logistics, my main issue with Disney is much more philosophical and less tangible. Disney World is a fake world. It is not a national park, a cosmopolitan city, a museum of acclaimed paintings or ancient works. It is a creation built on consumerism and elaborate sets and 20-somethings dressed up as Disney princesses. My favorites are the rides or experiences that end with a mandatory walk through of a gift shop.

At my core, I am at odds with Disney’s being. I will no longer pay money to wait in line for an hour to enjoy a fake jungle ride among plastic animals. The most authentic part of Disney is probably Hollywood Studios, because that park celebrates the heritage of Disney and the art and evolution of animation, which are of artistic, educational and cultural value. This is probably Disney’s least popular park.

Cinderella’s Castle is a sight to behold, but so are centuries-old castles in Europe. From now on, I will seek authenticity and/or relaxation on my vacations. Tired, stressed, hungry, dehydrated and borderline losing my mind are not markers of a quality vacation. In the future, I will enjoy a view of the azure ocean from my beach chair with a cold drink in hand and line free bathroom nearby. I will enjoy a leisurely stroll through a bustling, cosmopolitan city with real people, culture and historic buildings. I will breathe in nature hiking through a majestic state or national park. Sorry, Disney, you have broken me, and we are breaking up for now. Thanks for the magical memories.

When Mom is Sick

It has been a few weeks since my last post on my blog. First, my husband and two kids contracted the flu. After bragging about my robust immune system to anyone who would listen, I then got sick with what appeared to be the flu. I say the flu because of its complete decimation of my person. (I thought about going to my doctor to get tested, but I simply didn’t have the energy to cross the bridge over to her office.) My middle son has survived this flu invasion unscathed (he is half robot). The CDC says the flu vaccine is about 23% effective. This makes sense, as only 20% of our family did not get sick, despite five flu vaccines.

After celebrating the fifth anniversary of our vow renewal ceremony (this has become our de facto wedding anniversary, because January seems to work better for us than the legal date in June), I started feeling bad. Come Monday I was running a fever, which did not decide to break until Friday. I suspected the flu because of the complete exhaustion element. All I could do on Monday and Tuesday was sleep with spurts of consciousness spent watching HGTV. When you have to set an alarm clock to wake up at 1:00 p.m., things are not normal, unless you are working night shifts.

On Wednesday, after napping away the morning, I decided this whole sickness thing might be mental, and perhaps some fresh air would perk me up. So I gather up the two dogs whose combined weight outweighs me to take on a casual stroll around the neighborhood on the way to pick up my daughter from the bus stop. The dogs pull this way and that, and I am incredibly grateful that our German Shepherd did not see the errant Chow running near us. Our Great Dane mix did, and she pulled on the leash with all of her 80 pounds trying to get to the Chow. The Chow looked our way, assessed the dogs and wisely decided to change course and jaunt off in a different direction. Crisis averted.

Once we got home, I was completely exhausted, as if I had just run a marathon, and decided to start putting a dent in the growing pile of laundry. By the end of the day, my fever had spiked up again. I guess fresh air wasn’t going to shake this thing, and being sick wasn’t just in my head.

On Thursday, my oldest child had an event at her school she desperately wanted to attend. We dutifully completed her homework in the afternoon, and I sold my husband on the idea of taking her back up to school for the evening festivities. Don’t worry about me, I reassured him. I can easily get our two sons down to bed on my own. Yep, I’m starting to feel better.

After being in nearly full-time childcare for the beginning of the week, due to my inability to care for them and relentless need for sleep, my two sons were beyond tired and cranky. I had to put my two-year-old, Blaine, in a near chokehold to brush his teeth. I then wrangled him up the stairs as he convulsed his body and screamed. Like one of the Super Bowl players, he was in “beast mode.” We then tussled on the bathroom floor for about five minutes as I attempted to contain his body while simultaneously trying to unzip his jacket. He was determined to keep that jacket on. I began to break out in a cold sweat from the exertion. I finally got him undressed and in the bathtub, victorious. He tried to throw a few toys out in protest, as well as the tub mat, and I was prepared to climb in there if necessary, as he is prone to throw his head and body back when angry.

The bath seemed to calm my toddler down, and we peacefully made our way to his bedroom to get dressed and ready for bed. Shoot, I realized, his bed needs to be made with new sheets, and I have to wedge an inflatable barrier under the fitted sheet so our son won’t roll out in the middle of the night. I struggled mightily to fit the inflatable bedrail underneath the too short and too tight fitted sheet. Unbeknownst to me, my husband and daughter just happened to check out the video monitor to Blaine’s room at that moment and chuckled watching me struggle with the bedding as they enjoyed pizza and bingo.

After the usual reading routine, exhausted and frazzled, I got Blaine to bed, and then turned my attention to his four-year-old brother, Brooks. Of course he refused to take a bath as well, so after much cajoling and idle threats, he was nearly ready for bed. At that time, my husband and daughter arrived home, my fever spiked up to a new high, and my other half could wisely say “I told you so,” about the decision to attend the school function.

Lucky for me, my fever broke the next day. I assured my husband I could handily get the children off to school. At 6:30 a.m., Brooks proceeded to have an accident and pee a huge geyser on our couch. I could picture the urine seeping into the cushions, where it would forever live and add to the smells of our home. Twenty minutes later, Blaine approached me crying about something on his hand. Turns out it was covered in his own fecal matter. After clean-up efforts, Blaine wanted to play outside, so I started with the dreaded task of shoveling up the unending piles of dog poop. Wouldn’t you know it, I managed to step in a huge one. Friday was quickly turning to shit.

Mercifully, the weekend arrived, and we spent the next few days catching up on massive piles of laundry, taking copious amounts of medicine and arguing about who needed sleep the most (my husband still has lingering effects from the flu). Bright spots included watching the Super Bowl and dissecting the commercials and half-time entertainment. Unlike Super Bowls of my younger years, this year involved taking a shot of Nyquil and praying I didn’t knock out until after the fourth quarter. I also wanted some game day snacks, but I was coughing so much I didn’t know if I could logistically chew food and cough at the same time. (My love for food won out, and I scarfed down some homemade nachos – yummy!)

Perhaps in a feeling of guilt due to the utterly wasted first part of the week, I spent a good chunk of Sunday de-cluttering my daughter’s bedroom, which could have appeared on an episode of “Hoarders.” Seashells, dried up Silly Putty, thousands of unmatched Barbie shoes, mangled Christmas bows, cardboard boxes turned puppet theater – it was amazing what she had managed to stockpile over her six years of life. Every dress-up purse I opened up was chock full of random stuff like marbles and sea glass. Toward the end of this huge undertaking, she told me that someone could pay me “like $55,000” for this type of work. I took that as a compliment, from one hoarder to another.

I remember when I was a child, having a sick day and missing school could be fun. Now I’m not talking the flu or strep throat variety of sick. Perhaps the culprit would be a garden-variety virus of the low-grade fever producing kind, allowing me to lie in bed and watch cartoons instead of schlepping to school. As a parent, however, I dread getting sick. The homework, chores and kids’ activities continue as the shell of your former self tries to keep up. I was fortunate this time that my husband was not deployed and that we had the availability of drop-in day care.

At some point, however, the novelty of lying in bed and watching TV begins to wear off – I want to rejoin society as a productive and contributing member. As a new week begins, I am fever-free but with a very annoying cough. I don’t have that pep in my step back. I am looking forward to returning to the gym, teaching Zumba, siphoning caffeine and feeling like myself again.

Here’s to hoping this flu season doesn’t hang around much longer.

How do you cope when you are sick? If you have children, what are your strategies for parenting when you aren’t feeling 100%? Also, what is your favorite TV guilty pleasure when you are under the weather?