Mama Mia!

By Jeanne Reynolds

Abba fans, sit back down — this isn’t about their song or the movie (and now a sequel) by the same name. But it does sum up my recent trip to Italy.

You know what it’s like when you look forward to something so much for so long, it can’t possibly live up to your expectations?

This trip was nothing like that. It. Was. Amazing.Tuscan countryside

What did I like best: the scenery, the art and architecture, the mind-warping antiquity, the food, the wine?

Yes.

A quick overview of our itinerary: Direct flight from Charlotte to Rome, 3 nights there including a private day-long tour with a guide, drive to Tuscany for 4 nights in Siena, drive to Sorrento for 2 nights there, and finally back to Rome for our flight back the next day.

We didn’t come close to seeing it all, but we saw a lot: the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, catacombs. And that was just in Rome. In and around Siena we climbed winding staircases up towers (400 steps in one case), marveled at museums full of priceless treasures, visited towering cathedrals and walked ancient medieval streets. Near Sorrento, we traveled up and down an impossibly narrow cliffside road with hair-raising turns, and then in a chairlift to the top of the Isle of Capri (yes, while wearing capri pants!). On the way back to Rome we visited Pompeii near the foot of Mt. Vesuvius and were overcome with wonder and sadness at a lost civilization.

Ignoring well-meaning advice from family members, we didn’t even consider a prepackaged, city-a-day group bus tour. That kind of trip has some advantages, but it wasn’t the experience I craved for my Italian adventure. Instead we stayed in very small bed-and-breakfasts I found online (I highly recommend Booking.com) and found our own way around using maps, GPS, phone apps and helpful locals. A couple of our accommodations were wonderful, one was mostly convenient, but all were clean, affordable and safe.

When we wanted to eat — and did we ever! — we asked our B&B hosts for First pizzarecommendations or just walked until something looked good. The results ranged from good to extraordinary, usually accompanied by the local house wine (or vino della casa, as we like to say). We tried wood-fired pizza with a thin, crisp crust, fried artichokes, Tuscan-style steak with rosemary and olive oil, grilled squid, crusty bread and of course, pasta. It’s hard to describe what was so wonderful about it, but fresh, local ingredients using old family recipes and al fresco dining are hard to beat. And the gelato … one of us had it every day (sometimes twice). It’s that good. And no, sadly no, nothing in the grocery store freezer case can possibly replicate it.

And guess what? Neither of us gained an ounce. Because first, the meals impress with flavor rather than size, and second, we walked an average of 5 miles a day, up and down hills and stairs. (Remember that tower? 400 steps up means 400 down, too.)

Of course, wonderful doesn’t necessarily mean perfect. Trying to figure out when we could park where in Siena without a ticket or a tow was challenging, and let’s just say Americans have a different standard when it comes to public bathroom facilities. And despite the GPS, maps and road signs, we frequently got turned around trying to find our destinations.

So, now that I’m a wily veteran of la dolce vita (that’s a joke, of course — we could go to Italy every year for the next decade and not experience all its wonders), here’s some advice:

Go.

Yep, that’s it. I was going to include a 7-point list of tips about protecting your passport and cash from pickpockets, how to tell if the gelato is homemade and which shop in Anacapri is best for handmade Italian leather shoes (surprisingly affordable, by the way). But there are dozens of guidebooks that can tell you that and a whole lot more.

And really, this isn’t about Italy. It’s about finding a way to visit the places and do the things you dream of. Life is too short not to.

That’s the advice I hope I remember myself.

 

 

The storm before the calm: getting ready for vacay

By Jeanne Reynolds

“Why do I have to do everything myself?”

I’ve been silently screaming those words in my head for several days as we – or more to the point, I – get ready for our upcoming vacation.

Vacay image

I’ve been planning this dream trip for at least 8 months, and thinking about it long before that. Plane tickets, B&B reservations, car rental, passport renewal, international driving permit, shopping for necessities, obtaining local currency, coordinating with the cat sitter and what feels like a million other details are being checked off my to-do list.

My husband bought electric adapters.

Now, you should understand we’re both planners and list-makers. When he gets excited about a project, he’s a one-man army: researching options, talking to experts, calling and visiting vendors, scheduling work and following up like crazy. He recently fell in love with the idea of planting a palmetto tree to fill a hurricane-decimated spot in our yard. That sucker was in the ground before you could say Bob’s your uncle.

But for our upcoming adventure, he’s been content to let me make nearly all the arrangements. One the one hand, this has meant I’ve been able to plan the trip exactly the way I want. On the other hand, it’s meant I’ve done all the work.

I’m a little stressed about that. For one thing, if there’s a screw-up, it’s my fault. What if the accommodations that look so charming and conveniently located on the booking website are on the icky side? Can we really navigate the roads in a foreign country without bodily injury? What if I’ve forgotten something really important?

And for another, I’m worried he’s not really looking forward to this trip, although he readily agreed to go when I first broached the topic. If he’s as excited as I am, he’d be more involved, right?

Then it suddenly occurred to me I’ve been judging his feelings through my own filter, based on what it would mean if I acted that way. But that’s me, not him. I enjoy the anticipation of an event almost as much as the reality. Truth be told, all this planning has been fun, filled with what-ifs and ooh-how-about-thats. He’s given me free reign to create my dream trip. And if past experience is anything to go by, he’ll be an enthusiastic and unflappable traveling companion no matter what happens.

Oh, and that car rental agreement? It has only one named driver: him. I’m going to sit back, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

 

Free stuff!

By Jeanne Reynolds

Ever find out something you were secretly a bit ashamed of is actually pretty common — even popular? Like you were cool and didn’t even know it?

That’s me and curb shopping.

What’s that, you say? Curb shopping is sort of a larger-scale, nicer-sounding version of dumpster diving. Urban Dictionary defines it as going around neighborhoods, picking up things people have placed outside their homes on the curb, usually for the garbage trucks to collect them.

Or you — unless I get there first.

I recently read a story in Cola Daily’s newsletter (Do you subscribe? You should — it’s awesome. Do it right now.) about the best neighborhoods to curb shop in Columbia. As you’d expect, the more upscale the area, the better the discards. But you can find great “hand me downs” nearly anywhere, including chairs, bookcases, large plastic toys, bikes, lawnmowers, tools, terracotta pots, struggling-but-still-alive plants, decorative items and more. And spring cleaning/college move-out season is an ideal time to rescue reusable goods.

Now, just because this stuff is free doesn’t mean curb shopping should be a chaotic free-for-all. There are actually unspoken rules — and sometimes laws. Here are some to keep in mind:

  • rocking chairIf it’s on the street, it’s fair game.
  • Don’t trespass on private property. Make sure it’s really on the street.
  • If you want to be extra careful, check local laws. In some places there’s a thing called “retained interest” that means once an item is in a recycling bin, it belongs to the waste management company. Or just stay out of recycling bins and closed garbage cans.
  • Don’t leave a mess. If you drag something from the bottom of the pile, put the other stuff back.
  • Don’t block traffic while you stop to heave that perfectly good rocking chair into the back of your car.
  • Find out when the large-item trash pickup is in different neighborhoods, and plan your route for early that morning.
  • If another “shopper” is already stopped at a likely-looking pile, move along. Or stop and offer to help.
  • If it looks like a garage sale is being set up, come back late in the day to see if unsaleable items have been dragged to the curb.

The old saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is another way of saying there’s no accounting for taste. It’s not meant to be taken literally. But in the case of curb shopping, you can — and should.

Happy (I think) birthday!

By Jeanne Reynolds

I hope I’m not offending anyone here, but what’s up with these super-extravagant birthday parties for children? Even infants and toddlers who don’t know what day it is, much less that it’s their own birthday, are being feted like royalty.

A tattoo bar for a 3-year-old. Vegas-style showgirls at a bar mitzvah. Petting zoos of exotic animals. I’m not making this stuff up, although believe me, I wish I was. And that doesn’t even include the celebrity baby bashes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

birthday-cake

Whatever happened to regular, simple birthday parties for children: half a dozen youngsters, those cone-shaped party hats with the snap-prone elastic, a couple games of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and drop-the-clothes-pins-in-the-milk-bottle, some cupcakes and ice cream, and off you go. All done in about an hour, not counting the sugar-fueled hyperactivity and nap-deprived tantrums later in the day.

And please, invite other children — not the entire extended family, neighbors and anyone else who can be guilted into gifting the oblivious youngster. Yes, your offspring is incredibly adorable, but children’s birthday parties are for … well, children. (OK, grandparents get a pass.)

Now adult birthdays are another matter. April is major birthday season in our family, and I say you’re never too old to celebrate being above ground another year. Both my husband I have birthdays this month. However, the celebration usually consists of taking the day off work, a round of golf, dinner out at a nice restaurant and several cards (our cats are big on greeting cards for every occasion). Nary a unicorn in sight. And the only petting zoo will involve the aforementioned felines.

Milestone birthdays get a little extra treatment, especially those sneaking up on three digits. My mother-in-law turns 90 this month and we expect a couple hundred well-wishers at her drop-in (don’t worry, it’s not a surprise party like my father-in-law’s 90th last year). With that kind of crowd, we’re springing for a caterer, but there won’t be any caviar or edible gold whatevers. Unless you count pimento cheese.

Still, I wouldn’t mind if someone brought a unicorn.

Read to your Kids

By Jeanne Reynolds

I had to hear it a couple of times for it to sink in. When it did, I could hardly believe it.

“Here’s a great hack for your home virtual assistant device,” the radio announcer enthused. (For those like my husband who think a hack is a terrible golfer or someone who sneaks into your computer system, “hack” is current slang for a quick fix, trick or work-around.)

“You can get (name of device) to read your child a bedtime story!” she continued. “Just say, (name of device), read Billy a bedtime story. Then you both can sit back and listen until one of you falls asleep.”

This may be the single worst piece of advice I’ve ever heard. I mean, it ranks right up there with, “Here, eat this sausage dog right before you get on the roller coaster” and “Don’t worry, these bungee cords almost never break.”

Seriously? Take a beloved childhood ritual – one of the most important things you can do to help your child develop a love of reading that will reap untold lifelong benefits – and ask a machine to do it for you?

Now, I totally get how exhausted, frazzled and pulled in 7 directions parents of young children are at the end of the day, especially if they’re also holding down jobs outside the home. And reading a story may seem like another chore there’s just not enough time for. The digital voice is better than nothing, right?

No. It’s not.

Because that’s no more “reading” than is watching a movie version of a book. Both are entertaining, but very different. And just getting Billy to shut up and go to sleep is not what a bedtime story is all about. bedtime-story

Reading – seeing the words and pictures, turning the pages – is essential to a child’s future. Children who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. And two-thirds who are still struggling by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.

And it’s not just being able to read, but loving to read. A third of high school graduates never read a book after high school. Living in a house overflowing with books, and remembering trips to the public library as a highlight of the week as a child, this is harder for me to understand than black hole theory. And incredibly sad.

It’s one reason I’ve been volunteering for the past school year with Midlands Reading Consortium. Even though my pre-K student can’t read a lick (yet!), I’m trying to model the joy of reading and help him develop not just a skill but an avocation he’ll enjoy the rest of his life.

No batteries required.

Here’s an idea …

By Jeanne Reynolds

Tube lights? Really? (imagine vomit emoji here)

That was pretty much our reaction when the architect designing our new home suggested placing lights on the top of the exposed beams in our main living area. We pictured large, ugly tubes like the florescent lights in many garages. How could this respected (and frankly, pricey) architect make such a hideous recommendation?ceiling beams

Well, it turns out they weren’t tube lights like that at all. They’re long, thin strips of tiny light dots that shine upward, creating a subtle, radiant glow toward the high ceiling. You can’t see the lights themselves at all. And guess what? We. Love. Them.

It’s funny looking back at our quick and extremely negative reaction to an idea that’s ended up being one of our favorite things about this home. There are some good lessons embedded in that experience. In no particular order:

  1. When you hire experts because they’re, well, experts – listen to them. We contracted with an architect because our marsh-front lot, while lovely, is awkwardly shaped. Flip through the big book of Southern Living plans and plop one down on the spot? No such luck. It took a lot of skill to fit what we wanted in the space available. Yes, it’s our home, and the architect’s Frank Lloyd Wright modern vision sometimes rubbed against our old Southern farmhouse tastes, but the end result still thrills me after three years.
  2. Be open to new ideas. The beam lights are far from the only example of ideas the architect pushed for, we resisted – and now love. There are the half-tint ceilings (aren’t ceilings supposed to be white?), the kitchen cabinets that are actually drawers (what in the world would I want that for?) and the dark green garage doors (can’t even remember what I assumed there, but it wasn’t that). It doesn’t hurt to at least listen (see above) and consider another viewpoint, even if you ultimately decide …
  3. It’s OK to say no (thank you). Work with experts and listen to their ideas, but know your deal-breakers and your bottom line. We didn’t need or want high-end light fixtures, designer appliances or drawer pulls costing thousands of dollars (there are a lot of drawers and cabinets in this house) when good-quality, attractive alternatives are available at the hardware store or through discount retailers. We were up front about our budget limitations and weren’t intimidated into getting in over our heads.

 

I wish I could say I’ve learned these lessons once and for all, but I seem to have to keep wash-rinse-and-repeating. At work, at church, even on the golf course, I’m still a slow learner:

Golf pro: “Try that long chip with a hybrid.”

Me: “What? That’ll never work.”

Me again: “Oh, wait, you’re the golf pro and I’m paying you for this coaching. OK, I’ll try it.”

If only I could get those tube lights for my brain.

Move over to the sunny side of the street

By Jeanne Reynolds

 

I’m a fairly focused, goal-oriented person. And although I don’t take myself too seriously, I do take what I do seriously. So I’m not one of those people walking around with a big smile all the time (and I so hate it when someone, especially a stranger, says “Smile! It can’t be that bad.” I mean really, how the heck would you know whether it is or not?)

That doesn’t mean I’m not happy most of the time. Even joyous occasionally. Able to see the humor in most situations. And overall, pretty optimistic. Which is great, because it’s … (drum roll, please) … National Optimism Month.

hand-cutting-paper-with-scissors-with-impossible-written-on-it

Lucky for me, optimism isn’t about walking around with a goofy grin on your face or spouting Pollyanna-ish sayings all day. Optimism is about seeing the positive in situations — you know, that glass-half-full thing.

There are plenty of good reasons to look on the bright side:

  • Better health. Optimists tend to have healthier hearts, making them less prone to attacks and strokes. Being optimistic in a stressful situation can raise your immune response, increasing your ability to fight infection and disease. And we’ve all heard stories of patients who stayed positive bouncing back faster from illness and injury.
  • Higher achievement. Researcher Martin Seligman found athletes and teams that are more optimistic perform better than pessimistic ones. That’s one reason some employers seek out optimists as job candidates.
  • Longer life. If optimism and good health go hand-in-hand, no wonder research shows links between optimism and avoiding early death from heart disease, cancer infection and other diseases.

Even if you’re not naturally super-optimistic, there are ways to cultivate a more optimistic mindset. Try these:

  • Examine your habitual thought patterns. Do you pay more attention to complaints than compliments? Often describe things with words like “always” and “never,” and tend to jump to conclusions with all the information? These are all signs of negative thinking. Techniques such as cognitive restructuring can help you learn to challenge your negative thinking and replace it with more optimistic thought patterns.
  • Develop optimism-enhancing habits. Try keeping a gratitude journal (Oprah does), a coincidence journal or a vision board.
  • Get outside and get moving. Exercise is proven to alleviate symptoms of depression, and completing that walk, run or tough class will feed your sense of positive accomplishment. Plus, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder and awe when seeing a beautiful sunrise, a shooting star on a clear night or the first brave buds of spring about to open.
  • Laugh at yourself. The ability to see the humor in a situation can go a long way toward dissolving stress, disappointment or embarrassment. Add more laughter to your life with a funny page-a-day calendar or watching silly movies.

Now, ready to break out that happy dance? (And it’s OK if you can’t help smiling while you do it.)