11.18.2013

a long distance advent calendar.


A few years ago, I made an intense advent calendar for Gabe. It involved 24 separate gifts, a mini-Christmas tree and lots of wrapping. Oh, and arranging it all in a box which could be shipped to Iraq for less than $50.

Ahem, overachiever.

But....now that we've been married for nearly two years, there's less pomp and circumstance in our relationship. Isn't that the way it goes? :) He'll be back in the US four days before Christmas, but will spend most of the holiday season in Afghanistan...so, I wanted to send a little cheer and make him feel remembered.
 
While perusing the local craft store, I stumbled on a burlap bag garland...24 bags on a lengthy string. The perfect little advent calendar. So, I popped down a few aisles to grab some faux greenery for $1.50 and a pack of scrapbooking numbers for $2.39.
 
Can you believe that $5 of sequined trim found it's way into my basket? So unexpected, I know. :)

 
The bags were dressed up quickly with a hot glue gun, the few items I'd picked up at the store and some ribbons from my craft hoard. Then, rather than spending money on tons of different candy or gifts...and since holiday activities aren't an option given distance...I decided to fill each little pocket with love and memories. I trimmed cream cardstock to fit the 2"x 3" bags, and then wrote out twelve things I love about my husband + twelve of my favorite memories together.
 
I kept most of my "memories" holiday related, and my "loves" were simply his most endearing qualities.

 
Into each bag, I slid one note and a tiny candy cane or mini Ghirardelli chocolate bar. (Ghirardelli has a special place in our hearts since we spent our first New Years Eve at the Fairmont Ghirardelli in San Francisco. And also, it's delicious.)
 
 
It's mushy. But it's such a quick craft and a great way to make someone feel remembered...especially if they're far away this holiday season. So long as you can list a handful of favorite memories and their endearing qualities, you could gift this to a far-away friend, your at-a-distance mom or even your kid who's off to college until right before Christmas.
 
A few suggestions:
 
If you can't find a burlap bag garland at your local craft store (I've spotted them at Beverly's and Michaels), but still want a rustic look...check Amazon for small muslin or burlap bags like these. The top of the back side of the bag can quickly be hot glued or sewn onto a piece of twine!
 
If you're a girl on a budget and fabric bags are too pricey, try a pack of small glassine envelopes or pretty kraft paper bags...both of which can likely be found at Paper Source, Michaels, etc. Decorate + number the outside, then just attach to twine with glittered clothes pins.
 
 
Also, this baby was a breeze to ship since nothing was perishable or breakable, and all the materials were very light. I just coiled the garland around a piece of cardboard and taped down both ends of the twine.
 
Ta-da.
 
Now to shop for a real gift for my husband. (Is it just me, or are men hard to shop for?)
 
P.S. Hi again. Thanks to the kind people who gently (or not so gently) nudged me to start blogging again. And to the person who called my mom to make sure I was still alive. ;) I attempted to write a post to explain my 5 month absence, but it was just so long. So very, very long. Eventually, I just said "Screw it, let's start by 'doing' rather than talking about 'doing'."
 
So...that's that. How are you?

6.04.2013

i'm home. and happy.


Over the years, I've written about my struggles with depression, an eating disorder and all the traps that came with living an ocean away from  home. When I was in that place, Kuwait specifically, there were some incredibly murky days. Days I never wrote about because the thoughts were too scary and private to put into words...but days where I almost gave up. I was so lost and exhausted with fighting to want to be alive. Although the words never crossed my lips, my husband seemed to know instinctively. And he carried me.

Then three weeks ago, I came home...back to the United States. And I am so happy. So happy that sometimes I just cry because I'm inspired or fulfilled...experiencing those emotions again always surprises me, since there were days I thought they were gone for good.

But all this happiness has left me thinking about the time I almost gave up. I remember being so ashamed that I wasn't living up to every inspirational quote that told me I was just a smile away from a good day. Or a well-intended but less-than-helpful reminder that someone else has it worse. Or a new article or book preaching that we all choose happiness. (Really? I tried to choose it. A lot. It lasted about two hours.)

I'm just going to say it: screw that. Because at some point, many of us walk through dark waters that are deep and murky enough that we might drown. We're just barely keeping our head above water and BEING! HAPPY! is such a far away thought--maybe not even a hope anymore. When the waves are battering you from every side, they can't be calmed by your choosing for them to stop. The only thing keeping us from slipping under are friends or family members holding our hands and telling us that ceasing to paddle is just NOT an option.

To anyone who is in that murky place: please don't feel ashamed...just keep paddling. Cry out for help and cross your heart you'll keep fighting. And when you can't paddle anymore, let someone else carry you. I know it's hard to believe, but there's a gorgeous shoreline in your future. Don't cheat yourself out of it...you want to get to shore, I promise.

Because when you do, it's pretty freaking amazing.
 

5.09.2013

no longer expatriated (as of tomorrow).

Before we knew about our upcoming move back to the US, Jay over at From There to Here dropped a line asking if I'd participate in her Expatriated series. Jay is a super fun expat in Norway...I love clicking over to check out her life. Her Expatriated series is fascinating for the wanderlusty girl like me. She features bloggers who have found themselves in a country other than their own...and they seem to have amazing expat stories...they've spent time in Belgium or Malta, India or England...and they loved it.

Sidenote: Jay and I have never met, but discovered that we stayed in the exact same hotel room in Prague. Small world, eh? :)

Anyway, I was flattered, but my first thought was, "Uh-oh. I'm going to have to say no, because I don't want to be a downer. Or, I'll have to write something super chipper and inspiring, but not at all true." But thankfully Jay, being the cool expat that she is, was actually interested in sharing my somewhat-mixed experience in the Middle East...and in drawing on the less-than-glamorous side of life that expats sometimes stumble upon in their quest for adventure.

Cue a sigh of relief. So, here it is!

Tomorrow is my last day as an expat, so it's fitting to sneak in this last little bit: In the past year, I've become increasingly grateful for the ability to express my honest feelings about my experience abroad. From the first post in which I dared to say, "I don't love it" to my last post in which I pretty much said, "I'm so over it"...I always expected to get a nasty comment or email. I'd understand if it happened...it's hard to stay engaged with a blogger who is trudging through an unhappy time, and tricky to understand the complexity of expathood if you've never dealt with it. But nastiness never happened. I always flooded with so much support. From expats. From friends. From family. From people I don't know at all.

Incase I haven't expressed this yet, I just want to say...thank you for sticking around. Most of my readers began following right before I got married. Life was full of pretty projects and wedding details and romance. And then...suddenly it was full of dust storms and homesickness and mind-bendingly awful depression.

But you all told me it was okay to feel and express. And that everything would be alright in time.

You were so right. Thanks for reading and cheering me on, even when the forecast showed no chance of glitter anytime soon. It meant more than I can truly express. It was a lifeline.

And...I'm no weatherlady, but I feel like sunshine and glitter will return again soon. Very soon.

Maybe even next week. ;)

PS: Check out From There to Here on Twitter (@theretohereblog) and Instagram (@cjstjohn). She's heading to Santorini soon, so hop over in time to take a little virtual vacation with her. :)



5.08.2013

one word wednesday: pink.

pinksquare


Finally coming up for air from a world of boxes and piles to join in One Word Wednesday! Everything has been shipped, including our computer...so blogging on a mobile device is proving to be a bit frustrating. Do forgive any funky formatting, and a short post. My brain is on overload and my patience level is quite low. ;)

This week's word was pink...nothing fancy here. Just a cute pink sucker my sis sent overseas for Valentine's Day. I found them stashed in a cupboard during my big clean up, then hemmed and hawed, wondering if these were still safe. 

They were not only safe, but totally delicious. And cute. Win, win, win. ;)

Next week's word is "project". Feel free to share a photo next Wednesday that reflects this word! You can share via your blog, or on Instagram using #onewordwednesday.



5.06.2013

who/what/where/when and why.

one of my kuwait camel sightings

I've been sitting pretzel style on my bed for 45 minutes, dazing off into space. It is safe to say I've hit a "moving" wall.

We found out about this move on Thursday, it's now Monday morning. Three fourths of the house is packed or just awaiting more boxes. We've already locked down a home in California, and our plane tickets are booked. Somehow we've packed up our life almost entirely in four days.

That's wild.

Whenever you make a big life change, you wind up explaining what/where/why about a thousand times. It was that way when I moved to Kuwait...there's this awesome human reaction to excitedly ask for details when a loved one is going through positive changes. I love it. But given that we've got four more days to get our proverbial crap together...I know I won't call/text/email everyone I'm supposed to tell about major life changes.

So, apologies in advance family and friends. I'm just going to be the Millennial that I am, and lay it out there on the internet for family + friends + inquiring minds.

Here you go, pals. :)

Why are you leaving Kuwait? Don't you looooove sandstorms, heat and not drinking wine?
Hey, we enjoyed this year of adventure. But our real goal in living in Kuwait was to pay down our debt + travel a bit. That was pretty near impossible given the high cost of living + US mortgage we paid until our house sold in January. On Thursday, Gabe was offered an amazing short term job in the Middle East, living + working on base. We crunched the numbers and realized that simply by leaving Kuwait, we'd save thousands of dollars every month. Thousands. If Gabe took this new job while I returned to the US, it meant spending a few months apart...but it would eliminate the 2 more years of living in Kuwait that we'd need to reach our financial goals.

We chose distance + sanity over staying here for two more years. I can't say I'd recommend the same for a couple who has never been apart. But, we've done distance. A lot. And while it's a little difficult, it has never negatively impacted our relationship. The time flies by (after the first week), and soon you're planning what you'll wear to pick your guy up at the airport.

After this short term job...we will both be planted in the US for good. Like normal people. :)

Where are you moving?
Santa Cruz, CA! We love Santa Cruz. It's a little hippy...a little weird...but totally loveable. It's right on the coast with beautiful beaches and pretty hiking spots. I'm fond of the blend of small businesses + community vibe, but close access to bigger cities with just a short drive. Our best friends live in Santa Cruz with their 1 year old boy, so we're excited to have built in family awaiting us!

We already have a little place lined up...a few blocks from the beach...with a guest room! So give me a month to get settled, and Casa Contreras is totally open. :)

When are you leaving Kuwait...and is kitty coming, too?
We leave this Friday, and wind up in Santa Cruz on Monday! And yes, absolutely Lucky is coming too! We're so nervous about that. The travel time from Kuwait to California is crazy long...something like 36 hours with all layovers included. Leaving a cat in a tiny carrier for over 20 hours was unfathomable to us. So, we're taking a one night break between flights once we arrive on US soil...holing up in a hotel so Lucky can stretch, play and eat for 24 hours before climbing back in her carrier for the second half of the trip.

Incase the above paragraph didn't make it clear...we are those weird cat people now. Here's the clincher: we used miles to purchase an international seat for our cat. Her ticket reads "Lucky Cat Contreras".

Yeah. That happened. ;)
 

5.05.2013

missing tea + moving boxes.



This morning, just like every other morning, I opened the kitchen cabinet and reached for a small, red box of tea.

It wasn't there.

It wasn't there because we're moving back to the US with 8 days notice. (Yay, bring on our new home in California! Seriously, I welcome the crazed timeline.) And although I may be a procrastinator in almost every aspect of life, I am a fantastic mover who has already emptied the cabinets and placed everything in sorted, labeled boxes.

But something struck me in that tea-less moment. Our life has felt anything but normal, and yet this year of homesickness and occasional adventure has still managed to breed routine. Certain things go in certain places, the days flow in such a way, and the tea is always right above the stove.

Leaving is everything I've wanted for months, but it feels strange to leave behind our new normal. Gabe and I didn't live together before we were married; our entire relationship was long distance. This was our first home together--the only "normal" we've ever known. And so, our move feels a little more bittersweet than expected!

I will not miss:

...the way our kitchen floor floods every time I wash dishes.
...the tiny washing machine that always makes my clothes smell funny.
...the dryer that shrinks everything it touches.
...$18 broccoli.
...Skyping in for birthday parties.
...drawing snowflakes on my windows and pretending it feels like Christmas.
...paying a cab every time I want to go somewhere.
...130 degree days.
...a life without wine.
...constantly fearing I'm showing the tiniest bit of boob. Or shoulder. Or knee. Or the bottoms of my feet.

I will miss...

...sunrises over the Gulf right out my window. Our beach view is insane.
...my neighbor friend who has been a source of sanity, even if we don't see each other for a few weeks.
...our checkerboard floors, which I used to loathe but now love.
...the passing feeling that we're on an adventure.
...random camel sightings and calls to prayer.
...funny stories or weird experience from simply stepping outside our door.
...interacting with people who are so different than me.
...my side trips to Europe in an effort to stay sane.

Mostly, I'll miss the way this experience has brought lots of introspection. I've learned so much about myself, my husband and my marriage. We've never fought more than we did the first 3 months in Kuwait. It was ugly, but given the circumstances + our newlywed status...it was probably quite normal. But, that has passed. We've never been more in sync than we have in the last 5 months. It's as if life plodded forward enough for us to be retrospective...to appreciate how much we both gave one another this year: I loved him enough to leave behind a comfy life at home for his job in Kuwait...and he loved me through my lowest, most depressed days when I felt particularly unlovable. And we both fell in love with a little helpless kitten who has turned our world upside down more than a few times.

Not to be a cheeseball, but in hindsight...it has been quite deep and beautiful for two people who didn't expect to find deepness or beauty in the desert.

My only true sadness in leaving is breaking this awesome marital period. While I haven't been creatively or intellectually fulfilled in Kuwait, I've felt so safe and loved. It's like one glass was empty, the other full...and it forced me to learn a few lessons. I've discovered that my husband loves me even without my usual Pollyanna personality, and with a larger pants size. And, I've learned that life still goes on even if your apartment doesn't look like a Pinterest board. If there were any lessons I desperately needed to learn in life...discovering I am loved + worthy of love and learning to let go of perfection were at the top.

So for that...for this year of learning...I am so grateful.

For the ability to move forward, into a new normal...my heart is overwhelmed.

I cannot wait. Home, home, home. Here we come.

5.01.2013

one word wednesday: morning.

If there's one thing I could use more of, it's inspiration...so I jumped in when my blogging girlfriends emailed about starting a new photo challenge: One Word Wednesday. It's not about elaborately staged, perfect photos. (Whew.) But rather a simple challenge to keep one word in mind throughout the week, then pick up the camera when inspiration strikes.

I hope you jump in, too. Join us every Wednesday by sharing a snapshot that celebrates a real scene from your life. You can share via your blog or Instagram...or both! Each word will be announced one week in advance, so you'll have plenty of time. Just leave a link or add hashtag #onewordwednesday to your photos. Next week's word: PINK! 
 



Morning. When we first moved to Kuwait--to our tiny ghetto apartment--I hated mornings. Gabe was off to work by 5am, and while I'm not one to easily feel lonely, he wouldn't be home until nearly 7pm. So it was just me, the tiny apartment and a long, long 14 hours. I'll fully admit that once I cried and begged Gabe to stay home with me. Alright...more than once.

In time, we moved. We got a kitten, a better view and a more stable internet connection to help fill those hours.

Now, mornings usually commence like the photo above. Kitty snuggles up on the desk, where she demands I place her favorite pink blanket near the window. I make a latte, read the news and we both watch the sunrise over the Persian Gulf. Those early days of loneliness feel so far gone. No more tears, and I now relish the few hours of quiet before the world beneath my window is overtaken by an overwhelming amount of street noise.


bloghop from left to right...these girls are great: 1. Bethany 2. Leslie 3. Jessica 4. Jenna 5. Amanda  6. Briana
 
If you'd like to participate, next week's word is: pink. So, run wild with that...and post your photo on your blog or Instagram (#onewordwednesday) next week! 

4.19.2013

choices, changes and coffee cake.

 
Hey. There's a whole lot of scary stuff going on in the world today, specifically in Boston. I've been glued to the TV for hours. This morning, before news broke in Boston, I promised a few readers I'd to share a recipe in time for the weekend. So, to be respectful, I've chosen not to promote this post via Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you're here, it's because of an update in your reader or because you came looking for this recipe. I hope this is respectful of everyone dealing with bigger things in life. Please do just say a little prayer, if you will, for those trapped in the big, scary things. Thanks.
 
I fear judgment for revealing this but...we're trying to eat mostly vegan.
 
Wait! Please don't run away. Or give me those eyes. I'm not going to hand you a book on veganism, ask you to save the animals or end my emails with Namaste. Cross my heart, I'm not judging while you eat a juicy steak. Do what you do...I respect your dietary choices and will even visit Texas Roadhouse with you.
 
Why am I explaining all this now? This morning I posted a photo of a nearly-vegan blueberry coffee cake on my Instagram, and per some requests...I promised to share the recipe! The recipe is below...and further below, for those that are curious, is why I've chosen to go as vegan as possible. If you're not curious or think it's weird, that's cool! High-five, and we can still be friends...please eat some cheese in my honor.
 
We have no vegan sugar options here in Kuwait, which is why I can't quite call my coffee cake vegan. But, you can prepare it with your fave vegan granulated + powdered sugar.  If you couldn't give a hoot about veganism, you can make this coffee cake with regular milk + eggs. It's a bit of an indulgent breakfast, yes...but this coffee cake is ultra easy and super moist over a day later!
 
Serve it with a side of raspberries for a yummy sweet + sour pairing that can't be beat. :)
 
egg + dairy free blueberry coffee cake*
recipe adapted from betty crocker
 
crumb topping
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup softened soy butter (or regular butter)

coffee cake
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup soy butter (or shortening/regular butter)
3/4 cup soy milk (or almond/rice/regular milk)
1/4 cup applesauce (or 1 egg)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1-2 cups fresh blueberries (i'm sure you could use frozen)
 
almond glaze
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond essence
2 teaspoons warm water     
one: in a small bowl, mix together sugar, flour, cinnamon and cut in butter to make crumb topping.

two: in a large bowl, mix together coffee cake ingredients...reserving blueberries until all other ingredients are fully incorporated. then fold in blueberries. if batter is very thick, add a little extra milk.

three: grease and lightly flour a springform pan. (i used an 8" pan.) spread coffee cake batter evenly in pan, then top with crumb topping.

four: bake at 375 degrees F (190C) for 50 minutes, or until it passes the toothpick test.

five: mix together almond glaze ingredients, adding more water or powdered sugar as needed. remove cake from pan and drizzle glaze on top of coffee cake...enjoy!


why the heck would you say goodbye to cheese?!
 
I know. It's crazy, because cheese is just THAT good. Meat wasn't hard for me to give up...I did that years ago. At age 4 or 5, I rejected meat. I didn't know why...meat just made me feel sad. Since then, I've eaten mostly vegetarian aside from the occasional social situation where I had no option, or to scratch a hot dog or bacon itch. Basically, on the rare occasion that I do eat meat...I prefer it to be highly processed and refuse think about what I'm eating. Ha.
 
Last April, Gabe crazily suggested we go vegan for health purposes. We stuck to it for a month, loved it and felt great. But when we moved to Kuwait, staying vegan was the least of our concerns. 
 
A few weeks ago, I took a really long, honest look at animal treatment in the food industry. Needless to say, I researched and cried a lot...then recommitted to eating vegan. It sounds crazy, but until I live in a community where I can access eggs, milk and cheese from a source that promises fair treatment of animals...I have a hard time purchasing dairy and eggs with a clean conscience.
 
But, we're a bit compromised in Kuwait. Vegan-friendly options aside from tofu and soy milk are nearly non-existent. There's no egg-replacer, no soy sour cream, no faux-cheese, no coconut ice cream to fill that dairy-shaped hole in my heart. We've fallen off the wagon a few times in the past month, often due to lack of choices. And I went on a cheese bender for a few days. Whoops. Sometimes our store-bought bread has eggs or milk, and we use regular sugar because we can't find vegan sugar here. When we want to go out to eat or indulge in a sweet treat, it's meat-free but probably not vegan. (Ahem. Buttery Sprinkles cupcakes.)
 
I'd say 4 out of 5 meals are vegan. But in a way, compromised is good. It allows versatility...one foot planted in regular-people land, and one food planted in vegan craziness. ;)
 
Does anyone else eat vegetarian or vegan? Do you have a hard time explaining your choice, or receive negative reactions? How do you deal?
 
Sidenote: I did go to Prague. And I owe you all photos. There are 957 of them. Don't worry,  you will not have to see them all. I've been editing, pairing them down and working on a post! :)

4.01.2013

traveling solo with cobbled street fever.


(taken in Paris, 2011.)

My "places to visit" list has always been a bit one-dimensional. Any dream location for me consists of cobbled streets, architecture built prior to 1910 and a smattering of sweet cafes where I can spend endless hours drinking wine and watching the locals go about life.

Therefore in the past two years my international excursions have been: Ireland, Paris, Rome. And, uh, Rome again.

Since making the move to Kuwait, I try to leave for a week every few months in an effort to stay sane. This time I would have popped over to Dubai with Gabe, but since Gabe can't get out of work at the moment he encouraged me to escape to a place I'd really enjoy and find inspiration. (High-five supportive husband.) We agreed on a reasonable budget for my 5 day trip and I set about scouring the web in search of a wallet-friendly destination.

And so, a game of "spin-the-globe then check ticket prices" has lead me to Prague. Here are the four things I know about Prague:

My best friend's dad is Czechoslovakian. And he's cool.
Every travel forum assured me that Prague is safe + welcoming to English-speaking folk like myself.
A friend once told me the entire city looks like a fairytale.
And...Prague looks pretty in every single photo.

Win, win, win. HUGE SUPERFICIAL WIN.

I'm hopping a flight late tonight...and I'm elated. If there's anything this strange curveball year in Kuwait has thrown me--the homesickness, the lack of purpose--it's the ability to leave life behind and discover somewhere completely new. Even if I'm by myself.

My blogger friend, Sam, put it most eloquently, "Being unanchored let's us see new harbors."

Absolutely. Here's to new harbors.

PS: I'm often asked, "How can you travel by yourself? Don't you get lonely?" I could never quite express why I don't feel bored or lonely on a solo trip. Yesterday I stumbled across an article titled "Confessions of an Introverted Traveler". It lead me down a windy path to the author's book titled The Introvert's Way. I gobbled it up, and I realized I am a complete and utter introvert, who's been mislabeled an extrovert for her entire life. (Apparently some introverts can take on extroversion in social situations where it is required. That's me!) This is likely why I can handle disappearing to a foreign country all by myself without feeling a bit stressed or lonely...but the thought of going to a party can often leave me clammy and anxious.

Anyone else travel solo...or would you travel solo if you could? Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Here's a short quiz if you're not sure if you're an I or E!
 

3.29.2013

lemony fresh.

 

Last year, my friend Shannon hosted a crafty get-together at her house in Philly. This of course meant that I flew out a week in advance and crashed in her guest house (where I feel right at home because, strangely enough, there is a framed photo of my husband and I on the nightstand). We spent countless hours obsessing over decorative details like muddy rainboots + color-coordinated stacks of books....and a significant portion of time drinking Arnold Palmers and wine.

Mmm. Wine, I miss you. Ahem....anyway. You can see her hard work and my distracted photo-snapping over on the party-planning blog, Pizzazzarie! YAY!

Also, I wanted to say a major thank you for the unexpectedly supportive comments, emails and tweets following my last post. After 6 weeks of silence, and one cry-fest on my husband's shoulder about my lost creative identity, I honestly assumed no one was reading in this space anymore. I wrote solely to document this time...to tie together my own thoughts on the matter. I skipped my usual link-ups on Facebook + Twitter...because I wasn't looking for anything other than self-expression.

So, thank you. Thanks for proving me wrong. For reading these sporadic posts, for assuring me that this is all very normal and for giving me the sense of belonging I didn't even realize I was missing.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. :)

3.24.2013

ready to begin again.

 
Oh, hello there.

I'm still here. It's just...on several occasions I've sat down to write, and found myself staring at an empty screen for quite some time.

Do you ever do that...realize you have absolutely nothing to say?

Or maybe realize that the things you have to say are in no way uplifting or exciting...they're a little sad or dull. So you tuck them away; you sort them out quietly with friends or loved ones, hoping the feelings pass and are replaced with something sunnier. But when those thoughts don't pass...it begins to feel like you're indefinitely holding your breath underwater.

And frankly, after ten months, I've reached that point here in Kuwait. There's something about this country that makes me feel I'm almost out of air...like I have nothing left in me. It's not the all-out sadness that plagued me shortly after moving here, but rather a sense of not being where I should be, of missing out on opportunities that could lead to something bigger. A sadness over being distanced from those I love. There are days I worry that life is passing me by, because I'm geographically in the wrong place to do the things that make me feel alive, and have spent months as creatively dry as the desert outside my window.

I don't run around sharing these jumbled thoughts with the general population of this country, but every time I meet someone new, they're bound to ask if I like it here. It's hard to delicately express my thoughts, both online and off, because without fail another expat in Kuwait will quickly ask, "Why don't you like it? You can do XYZ here! And we have all the American stores like Gap, Pottery Barn, etc...." or starts ticking off ways I can learn to like it here, starting with: "You can always go to Dubai!"

It's kind of them to care...but tricky to respond. Why doesn't a person like brussel sprouts? Or the color orange? Why do some people love one city, while others loathe it? It just doesn't suit their taste. It doesn't inspire them. No need to convince them to love it or assure them that they'll learn to like it in another year.

It's okay if we don't all love the same things. It's perfectly normal for us to have different inspirations! Really!

I'm not looking for answers. I've been here long enough and know myself well enough to uncover the "constant" behind all my jumbled feelings: I'm simply not inspired here. Every time I step foot outside this country--Destination: Anywhere But Here--I feel reinvigorated. Alive again. And not just a "vacation invigoration", but rather something makes me want to live again. A million thoughts go through my head...I want to start a business, to write regularly, to do something big + creative with my life. Crazily enough, in that moment I believe I can do those things, too. But within a day or two of returning to Kuwait...that energy and those dreams all disappear.

So, I've entered a period of holding my breath. I'm just waiting. Waiting for something else to come along for us...waiting for the next phase of life. Everything in me is so ready to move on, and to start a new life in a place I can breathe...somewhere I can rediscover that girl who used to wake up and really love life....even on the tough days.

And while my relationship with organized religion is difficult and therefore a topic rarely addressed in this space...my relationship with God is less difficult. And so I'm just waiting for him to show us what's next...

...and wondering if he can put a "rush" order on that request.

2.11.2013

bedroom mini-makeover.

(bedroom after: i just can't shake my love of feminine decor.)

Like many other expats, we rent a furnished apartment. This comes with a whole batch of pros and cons...like the pro of not having to purchase sofas, chairs and beds only to leave them behind a year later.

Unfortunately, it also comes with the con of making it work with less than desirable furnishings...and suppressing the urge to paint absolutely every ugly piece of furniture in your apartment. Remember this?


Of course I photographed the ugliness of our bedroom before we started making changes...but my laptop crashed recently and I can't access the photos. So just reference this post about our guest room, because our room was similar. Same curtains, same paint color, close to the same type of furniture in our bedroom. Also the acid-striped comforter WAS the furnished comforter from our bedroom. Delightful.

Anyone who's known me for more than 35 seconds can see how this style of furnishing would kill my soul. So, I threw together a "make it work" box which contained five yards of cheap IKEA fabric, four sewing pins, two unwanted shirts with fun fabric, one needle and a single spool of cream thread. Oh, and a gigantic bag full of Heat 'n Bond.

It wasn't much...but regardless, I attacked our fugly bedroom.


First things first, Gabe and I decided to keep it minimal. Would I love to dash out and purchase all new things? YES. But we have no clue how long we'll be in Kuwait, or where we're headed next.  So, we agreed to invest in light things we could take with us...linens, pillows, curtains, small pieces of decor that could be shipped at a reasonable rate.

Our first investment was quality bedding from Pottery Barn. Our bed here is approximately the same size as our bed in the US, so it really is an investment piece that will stay with us when we leave. We kept everything white in hopes that it will work no matter where we wind up.

Then I took one afternoon and made a headboard slipcover using IKEA fabric. It was quite easy to figure out, and can be sewn sans machine. Here's a set of instructions if you want more thorough info from the fancy folks at HGTV.

I also made a few pillows using Heat n Bond + discarded sparkly shirts + stuffing from old pillows...and bought discount euro shams we both really love. They're perfect for sitting up and reading...or let's be real...eating a late night snack in bed.
 
 

Then I tackled the dark nightstand. Some people love dark furnishings and can really make them shine in their home. I'm just not one of those girls. I'm a white or colored furniture girl. So, a $4 scarf-turned-runner covers the top and sides of it.

I removed the dark hinged door from the nightstand, which made for an open shelf to fill with stacks of magazines and a sequined pillow made from an offcast shirt. Finally, I swapped out the nickel drawer pull for a cream, vintage style pull which was less than $3.

Nope, it's not perfect. But I definitely hate it less. ;)

Word to the wise: If you change out the hardware on a piece that's not yours, do yourself a favor and put all the screws, knobs and brackets into a labeled Ziploc. Keep the bag right inside the table or cabinet drawer, so it can be easily reassembled on moving day. The last thing you want to do is lose some of your security deposit because you lost a few screws or knobs!



Yes, it's minimal + girly...and my masculine husband has to sleep here. With limited access to homegoods stores, I just did what I know best: girly + romantic. But Gabe says he doesn't mind since it's not our forever-bedroom and didn't cost much at all. I also think he's somewhat ammenible because there is a 32" TV across from him in this somewhat feminine bed. ;)

Overall, not my dream bedroom, but considering cost and lack of access to my usual budget-friendly haunts like Target, TJMaxx and thrift stores...I'm pretty satisfied with myself.

Okay. Really satisfied with myself. And kitty clearly loves it, too. ;)

2.07.2013

dollars and sense: month one.


 
One of the goals Gabe and I made for 2013 was taking control of our finances.

This was an easy goal to agree on, because 2012 opened my eyes. Having grown up in the US, I was ill-prepared for the cost of living abroad. Whoa. Items in Kuwait are regularly priced 30-50% more than what I paid for them in the US. We're talking clothes, cosmetics, restaurants....even groceries. For example, for the first few months in Kuwait our groceries totaled $180 a week. FOR TWO PEOPLE.

Fun fact: I once cried in the cheese aisle when I realized the mozzarella ball I was holding cost $12. And the bottle of Simply Lemonade I'd passed up was $18. $30 for mozzarella and our fave lemonade? Gabe couldn't hug me, because you know...no-no on PDA in Kuwait. So I just stood there sobbing about cheese.

White girl crying...aisle 3. Send a mop!

Anyway, by the end of 2012 I was sick to death of falling prey to the price gouging. Every month, we were further and further away from our financial goals. So, we finally sat down to make a budget. Or rather, I made a crazy Excel spreadsheet and Gabe pretended to be impressed. We budgeted for every flexible expense I could imagine: coffee trips, personal care items, gift-giving, groceries, entertainment, transportation, pet items. You name it, there was a column....and I tracked that ish every single day.

One month down, and we've made some pretty big changes.

Here are eight things we learned in the past few weeks:

Nix impulse purchases: We started using this adorable free grocery list printable from EllinĂ©e, which allows you to check off anything you need. Together we create a grocery list prior to heading to the store, and buy ONLY items on the list. Absolutely no impulse buying. And guess what? We've cut our grocery spending in half. Half!

Fun dollars are cheesy but cool: We budgeted separate "fun money" for each of us, aside from entertainment or eating out. This way we don't feel suffocated by our new budget, and can still buy fun things. For example, mine goes toward clothing, accessories and pretty things for our home.  Any unused money gets carried over and therefore accumulates over time. If one of us wants to splurge, it means saving and sacrificing other fun items for a month or two. It really forces us to weigh our wants.

Stay on the same page: Purchases over $75 are always discussed, and there's an open conversation almost daily about where our finances stand.

Plan online purchases: Amazon and online shops get much more business from us. I used to run out of things and simply have to pay Kuwait's prices, because I needed it now. Example, my Maybelline foundation is $22 in Kuwait! Online...$8 with free shipping. Yep, this means taking stock of what we need a few weeks before we actually need it...and that's a little annoying. But it also means saving hundreds of dollars over the course of time.

Say goodbye to Starbucks: A medium Starbucks latte runs $7 here...and thanks to the Starbucks five steps from our apartment we used to indulge every other day. That's $200/month for coffee! Crazy. This month, we nearly cut out all Starbucks spending and opted for instant lattes we love. They're $0.50 a cup. I haven't darkened a Starbucks door in three weeks.

Bid farewell to credit cards: Our credit card wasn't used once in January. Credit cards are the devil. They really are, because you lack the feeling of having spent REAL money. Even if I'm getting a mile for every dollar, I'm just not willing to use them anymore, and don't carry mine regularly.

Build-in rewards for underspending: Any budgeted grocery, transportation, coffee and entertainment money that went unused gets carried over to be used on an agreed-upon purchase. Maybe we'll take a trip with our leftovers at the end of the year? Or buy something nice for our home? Who knows...but it is a great game that causes me to opt for less now.

When in doubt, think about your debt: This sounds yucky, but it's true. Sit down and tally up your debt...all of it. Credit cards, car loans, student loans, mortgage. It might be brutal, but it's your reality. Now sit with that number for a minute and really let it sink in. You owe that money. Scary, huh? Whenever I was faced with the urge to purchase something I didn't need and would put me over budget, I thought about that number. If not buying this trival thing, meant lowering that suddenly very real number? Even a teeny bit? Well, then I choose to live without this silly thing I don't need.

 
...........................

All-in-all...Month One was pretty rewarding. Dare I say...it made our marriage stronger? (Barf. I'm cringing, but it's true.) Seeing money saved at the end of January was worth the planning and small amount of belt-tightening it took to get there.  And it wasn't painful. My biggest fear was that budgeting might influence relationships with others, since we were opting to be less free with our dollars. But, then I stumbled on this quote:
 
"People first, then money, then things." --Suze Orman
 
This truly guided our first month of budgeting. I never want to be the friend who refuses to split the check, because my entree was $2 less than my girlfriend. Yiiiikes, that's awkward. I'll still happily split the check or make it my treat. I'll buy reasonable birthday gifts and party decorations with a happy heart, because letting people know they're loved is so much more important than meeting rigid financial goals.

But, I've found that your true friends and loved ones understand if their gift is a little smaller, or if you're not quite as free with your cash as you once were. They get it, and won't let it effect your relationship. And sacrificing a few of your silly "wants" is worth it for your long-term needs.

To anyone thinking about starting a budget...do it. It's surprisingly empowering. And hey, maybe you can buy yourself some pretties with all the cash you save. :)

Did anyone else make financial resolutions this year? How are you fairing?

1.21.2013

bowl of love.



Back in December, a little wrench was thrown in our day-to-day when Gabe switched to working nights on base....6pm to 6am. Although he works the same number of hours as before, the time he's home feels about 5 hours shorter...and the time I'm alone seems 10 hours longer.

Thankfully this schedule-change is only to cover understaffing through February. But if you or your significant other has worked the night shift, you know what I'm sayin'. It will mess with you.

I'll fully admit that in December I didn't greet this change with a smile. But this month (and year) I'm trying a little harder to control my emotions, and actively make the best out of situations. So, I'll say this...there are a few perks to the nightshift life: You can wear pajamas anytime. You can also eat Eggo waffles anytime. Because every time is bedtime or breakfast for someone in your household...and people are preeeetty understanding of this.

Not exactly win-win...but I'll take it.

Anyway, what I can control in this weird new schedule is food...putting some extra time and love into the one meal Gabe and I get to share every day. Maybe this type of love is lost in translation, since Gabe keeps telling me to stop spending hours in the kitchen and worrying about the dishes. But if nothing else, this schedule change will be great culinary challenge.

Today I made homemade soup for the first time. It wasn't fantastic since I was flying sans an official recipe and a few needed ingredients. But it was edible. To cover up the less-than-perfect taste, I made crouton hearts. Because when in doubt, just make it cute, right?

This was off the cuff, so I'm sure there are more sophisticated recipes out there. But if you want to whip up something cute on a short timeline with minimal ingredients...here you go!

Go spread the carb-love. ;)


Sidenote: Since I'm not an advanced cook and tend to make things without recipes, I always get nervous when I post recipes. You know, the "What if it worked for me, but not everyone else?" or "What if I typed/wrote down something incorrectly?" type of worries. So, after I made these I searched the web for a more exact heart crouton recipe to ensure that my recipe made sense or wasn't a fluke. Yay! Turns out crouton hearts look cute on salads, too! 

1.16.2013

word of the year

photo from rome, taken with an holga lens kit on my canon.

It seems that every year, many bloggers choose a word to reflect their hopes in the coming year. And while I haven't previously participated, this year I joined in.

My word this year is control. I realize that word is loaded. So stick with me.

On January 3rd, I found myself moping on my couch in a pair of sweatpants I wore when I was heavier. Sweatpants I'd saved as a "we're never going back here" reminder.

Turns out, I'd gone halfway back there.

I had been forced into my fat pants due to lost luggage on our return flight from Rome. The flight carrying our suitcases wouldn't arrive for 36 hours and unluckily for me, I'd packed every single thing I own...leaving me with no choice but to don the dusty fat pants and their emotional baggage....for 36 hours straight.

While sitting in my fat-pantsed misery, one foot up on the coffee table due to a stress fracture obtained in Rome, my husband emerged from our study, sarcastically proclaiming, "Well! It looks like the house sale might fall through. AGAIN."

He rather quickly unraveled the details involving a suspiciously low bank appraisal, contrary to the two prior on-track appraisals, which would result in a sale of our house for $35,000 lower than what we'd planned. Thirty five thousand dollars.

So, there I sat on January 3rd. No clothes. Half-broken foot. Getting screwed out of money could get us out of Kuwait as fast as possible. The day before I was a girl in Italy on her second honeymoon, and now I was just a girl in fat pants...being miserably out of control of her life in the desert.

Then in that moment, the word "control" hit me like a ton of bricks and knocked me down the rabbit's hole of exactly WHY the past 225 days...this crazy move to the Middle East...has been so difficult.

Back in my sweet old life, I had total control of what my life looked like and how I filled my days. I could work, go to school, go on little trips, wear what I wanted to, walk around in parks and museums for hours, go on long bike rides, buy flowers at the farmer's market and have parties with friends. You get the picture. But when I left all that behind and boarded a plane bound for Kuwait...almost every piece of what "control" looks like to me felt stripped away. No car of my own. No job. No school. No outdoor places to exercise. None of my favorite clothing stores. Not my style of house. Not my style of furnishings. No family. No friends.

In hindsight, I now realize I felt completely out of control. I spent months wishing I'd wake up in my old life, and discover that this time in a strange country was just one of those weird dreams you have after eating too much fancy cheese. And even now, I realize that in so many ways I've been trying to rebuild a life I loved back in the US, but I can never, ever replicate here.

It's just out of my control.

So, I found myself at the bottom of the rabbit's hole, wondering, "Okay. What CAN I control here?" And then slowly, slowly, slowly I built a rickety control ladder out of that hole.

I can control what I make for dinner.
Or how much money we spend on groceries.
I can control what color I paint my nails or dye my hair.
And whether I worked out today.
I can control who I spend time with.
And what comes out of my mouth.
I can control how clean my house is.
And what I fill my head with.
I can control how I view myself.
And I can choose how to view the world.

And yes. These are all very pathetic, house-wifey things to say...things I'd likely have laughed at four years ago. But it is honestly what I've got here. I can no longer just sit around and wish myself into my cute, cushy life from one year ago....or feel like I'm a victim of the life I'm currently in. I've spent months doing exactly that, and I have nothing to show for it but a larger pants size thanks to emotional eating. My old apartment is gone. My old job is gone. My car is gone. My cute things are gone.

That life is gone. (Not gonna lie, I teared up while typing that.)

But there are perfectly great days to be lived right here, right now with a guy who loves me...in a place that is definitely an adventure. And maybe it involves less thrift sales, craft stores, peonies, parks and museums than it once did...but those things will come again someday. I know they will.

And so, I choose to stop comparing my old life and my new life.

Instead I've given myself this mantra for 2013:


What can you control in this moment? 
If the answer is "nothing", change how you think about it. 
If you can't change how you think, stop thinking so much and go do something selfless.


So, that's that.

Do you have a word for this year?

1.07.2013

rome again: the rental experience.



I'm home from Rome, and I returned a happy girl. Once again it was beautiful, delicious and fantastic. But, since I was repeatedly asked the question "Where are you staying?!" when I shared photos during our trip...I'll leave the strolling through Rome photos for the next post, and share our accommodation info ASAP!

For the first time, Gabe and I made the somewhat scary decision to rent an apartment in Europe. Usually, we're very much hotel people. We like nice sheets. We like that we can ask the concierge where things are, or call someone to deliver coffee in the AM, especially in Europe where there isn't a quickie Starbucks stop on every corner. But, if you travel frequently, you know that all those nice little services really add up.

You've got to tip everyone. And in Europe the rooms are teeny.

Because we were staying over the holidays and booking late in the game, my favorite hotel in Rome was already full. Our remaining hotel options seemed wildly priced, poorly reviewed, less-than-ideally located or generally "meh". Although Gabe was skeptical, I excitedly took this as a kick in the butt to try something new...and dove into the search for a well-located, cute apartment in Rome.

note: I tore around our apartment about 10 minutes before leaving, trying to remake the bed and tidy things up for a few photos. Unfortunately, in my rush to take some photos...I didn't realize my ISO was turned way up from the previous night. Whoops. Let's just pretend the grainy look is vintage and charming. Er...something like that. ;)

After hours of searching and inquiring about rentals, we stumbled across this property on Via Margutta, through RomeLoft. The location couldn't have been better...it's the tiny, quiet street where Gregory Peck's character lived in the classic Roman Holiday. It's also where famous painters like Picasso once worked + lived...and now largely houses antique stores and art galleries.

Be still my heart. 

The reviews seemed legitimate ("It was great!", "It was pretty good, minus XYZ!", etc), and I was able to find a few others confirming a pleasant stay via Google. The photos made the place look dreamy. So, I inquired and within an hour had all the information I could have needed, plus some additional answers to questions I asked.

We slept on it, but booked the next day.



I was a teensy bit nervous. Good photo cropping can hide a myriad of sins, so I truly had to bank on reviews + my gut with this one. And I'm glad I did. Because, girls, I don't know if I can return to hotels. It was amazing. 

The experience of having a little apartment in a foreign city is absolutely unreal. Obviously there are pros and cons, but I'd say the pros won out on this trip. It was romantic, it was relaxing. We had a fridge that held at least ten bottles of wine + champagne + groceries. You know I drank them all and ate buffalo mozzarella like it was going out of style. Having a rental was a bit like getting to live elsewhere for a week. And I'm so, so glad we did it! Even Gabe was won over, and agreed that it's the best option...especially if you're visiting a city for the second time.

In the end, it was a small amount more work and research than booking a hotel...but worth every second. Here are some pros, cons and tips for those who are looking to make the leap from hotel to vacation rental!



:::::pros:::::


So much space. At least 10 times the average European hotel room! On rainy days, we spent more time at home, just relaxing.

A full kitchen...it saved  hundreds of euros by making breakfast + some lunches at home. And making real meals together in a foreign country is a bit romantic. :)

You're virtually undisturbed. No maid will be knocking on your door while you're prancing about in a towel, and there aren't loud neighbors to keep you awake.

Your neighbors are the real deal...not just other guests on holiday. They're great resources (if you speak their language, or they speak English), and in Rome they're happy to help.

No awkward tipping moments. (Do I tip the valet who just touched my bag? The maid? The room service guy? Do I tip the concierge who told me where the nearest train stop is?) You tip no one except the driver that picks you up, if you book one. Therefore, at least 100 euros saved.

It can be equal to or cheaper than a hotel. Ours was! Honestly. It worked out to about $350 USD/night. That's high for some folks, I know, and it's higher than usual because we stayed during the holidays. But given the rates I was seeing for nice hotels ($350-$700/night!), it was totally reasonable. Especially due to the size and location.

courtyard outside our door

:::::cons:::::

There's no friendly concierge to ask for directions, or to hail you a taxi.

There will always be quirks: A sink leaks. A drain is slow. You can't figure out the dishwasher. And there isn't staff downstairs to pop up to your room to fix it.

Having a kitchen is great, but finding a market or grocery in some European cities isn't as easy as a Google maps search. You might find yourself walking a mile with bags of groceries.

If you lock yourself out of your apartment, there's no front desk! It's going to be a bit of a wait.

Often you'll have to pay for a portion of your stay upon booking. (For us, it was about 30%.)

And most apartments do require a security deposit upon arrival. (This can vary anywhere from 200 euros to 500 euros. It's returned upon your departure, but it does tie up some cash for the duration of your stay.)

Because you have space, you may find yourself lingering at home...doing less sight-seeing, and staying in to relax. Just be forewarned! :)


::::tips:::::

Know the area. Because I'd visited Rome a few months prior, I knew exactly where this place was...in a sweet spot and very walk-friendly. But, I saw so many rental properties online that I'd never, ever book because of their location. If you're unsure of the area, throw out a question on a forum like Frommers or TripAdvisor to see if others can advise!

Book early, and set aside a few hours to research your options. The good ones go fast! Give yourself plenty of time, and don't get too attached to any one property. There are TONS of options if you start early. You'll find one! :)

Don't feel the need to overspend on a rental, and then nickel and dime the rest of your experience. You can find apartments for almost any budget (unless we're talking hostel budget). I spotted some as low as  $90/night, all the way up into the $1,000/night range.

Ask questions or request more photos before booking! It's YOUR cash. It's YOUR vacation.

Look for reviews! If you're booking through a site like VRBO or searching on TripAdvisor (my holy travel grail), you'll often be able to read reviews right there. If you're booking direct through a company's website, do a few Google searches to see what others have to say, and ensure that the reviews on their site aren't phony.

Go with your gut. If an owner is very slow to respond to your request, or something just feels off...don't invest your vacation cash with them! Unlike a hotel, you have virtually no rapport with this person and they very well could take your booking deposit and run.

Make sure you read all the fine print. Will you have to pay a security deposit? Is there a cleaning fee? Is there wireless available? Is the kitchen stocked with pots, pans, etc?

Use PayPal to transfer your booking deposit if at all possible. This way you're covered if you get scammed (from my research).

Do some research on grocery and tabacchi (if you smoke or want postcard stamps!) locations in advance. If you know where to look once you arrive, you'll save yourself lots of time searching for these sometimes hard-to-spot places! Also be aware that these places don't keep 24/7 US hours. If you're out looking for groceries at 10:30pm or on a holiday...you might be out of luck. Plan in advance! :)


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