Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Belles without Borders: Happy Travels, Y'all

This week, my mom embarks on a two-week Alaskan cruise. Of all the people who should not, would not embark on an Alaskan cruise, I would register my mother right at the top of the list. Say what you want about what a fabulous trip that sounds like for you, but this is a woman who doesn't like travel, being cold, the great outdoors, or large meals. This does not seem like the best fit. I sent her off with a "bon voyage" and a reminder to make the best of every situation and adventure. And heaven help her travel companions, too.

We all know the basics when it comes to travel: pack layers of clothing in case you need more or less once you reach your destination, keep your medication in your carry on in case of lost luggage, wear sunscreen, and for women, pack at least 12 outfits and 18 pairs of shoes per day of your trip. Women need options. But I'd like to think I have figured out a few other travel hacks over the years, purely through trial and error (mostly error, to be honest).

This brings me to my first rule of thumb when considering travel: remember, different strokes for different folks. Just because your friend tells you she absolutely loved that island getaway does not make it the right place for you. My mom will not be impressed by the sight of a bear, a whale, or a glacier. Some people enjoy being active and doing things like hiking and climbing; I'm relatively certain that I will only experience the thrill of the hike if I severely mess up my walk with the Lord and wind up in the throes of hell, surrounded by raw vegans wearing comfortable shoes and being forced to trek along the fiery depths of Mount Hades.

To maximize your contentment while traveling this great big world, it's imperative to plan ahead and bring the necessary comforts of home. I'm not talking about your favorite scented candles or satin sleep mask--I'm talking about a modern day first aid kit to cure whatever may ail you along the way. Sure, you can probably find these things available for purchase, but as a girl who has frantically scoured the Bahamas for extra strength Pepto Bismol and found herself in New Orleans without migraine meds, it's best to have what you need, when you need it. You will realize you're getting older when you pack your gallon freezer bag full of Band Aids, Benadryl, nasal spray, and every pain reliever ever created, but it beats the alternative.

I'm told that as we age, there's a strong chance one will need to upgrade from a gallon storage bag to a larger size. It's nice to know there's room to grow. 

Mom and I in Paris, 2008. Let's just call this trip "memorable" and leave it at that.

In the spring of 2008, Mom and I took a truly unforgettable trip to Paris that ranks right up there with the maiden voyage of the Titanic and Gilligan's 3-hour tour. After a couple of days of pea shoot purees and medium rare salmon, I started to wonder if the American embassy would let me in...and if they might have snacks. I may have also made the threat statement that I would kill a man with my bare hands for a Little Debbie snack cake. This is why there is no shame whatsoever in my next tip:  go ahead and find yourself a McDonald's. No, seriously. Travel experts will tell you it's a great way to compare the local culture of wherever you are visiting with what you know from the familiarity of home. Plus, they will have cheeseburgers. Duh.

This McDonald's on the Champs Elysee in Paris was a most welcome sight.
The Royale with cheese may have saved my life.

It's also important to note that timing is everything. We heard rave reviews about St. Thomas, but it turned out we were there during the "off" season, when many things were closed and the majority of other visitors were vacation bargain hunters sporting fashionable resort attire like multiple tattoos and gold nugget ankle bracelets. Try as I might to rest and relax, it was just not my kind of crowd. My inner cheapskate tried to appreciate the frugality of bringing your own Styrofoam cooler of Busch Light out by the pool, but I just could not get on board. There's nothing wrong with traveling somewhere that's not in its peak tourism time, as long as you're okay with fewer choices and a slightly, er, different crowd that it may attract.

Know what you're getting yourself into. As my granddaddy was fond of saying, "Don't just buy a pig in a poke." You need to know what you're booking and what you're buying to be sure you get what you want, and that you pay what you want as well. Our family took a Hawaiian vacation years ago and stayed at a particularly luxurious hotel in Maui. Clint and I wandered down to the lobby our first morning there and were delighted to find a breakfast buffet fit for a king. We dined on macadamia nut pancakes with warm white chocolate syrup, omelets made to order, and other dazzling dishes while sitting beside a swan-filled lagoon. Imagine our surprise when the check came and our breakfast cost $75 a person! Or the guilt we experienced when we found out the rest of the family had enjoyed an economical bagel breakfast from room service. Oops.

Aloha from Hawaii, 2006. Some of us were decadently well-fed!

Remember that tip about timing? It's also paramount that, when you consider the length of your trip, you know your limits. Clint and I thought the idea of a full week at an all-inclusive resort in Cabo San Lucas sounded heavenly...until we got there and realized the strength of the sun in Mexico in July. By day five, we were hiding from the scorching heat in our tiny room, eating plain ham sandwiches from room service (not a huge selection at our all-inclusive locale, as it turned out) and watching Beverly Hills, 90210 reruns dubbed in Spanish. We overstayed our welcome and paid the price, amigo.

If all these travel tales sound horrific, rest assured we have had plenty of successful vacations in our time. There was an amazing trip to Italy where every detail was more incredible than the next, from the gondola-filled canals lining the streets of Venice to the Coliseum in Rome. Well, except that one hotdog topped pizza we were conned into eating in Florence--we're gluttonous American tourists and we can't help ourselves, what can I say? There's a lesson in there about not falling for touristy gimmicks, except we always fall for touristy gimmicks, so I'm not one to lecture in that arena.

From Dollywood to Dallas, to the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands and beyond, I'd like to think we've gotten some travel experience and learned how to make our trips the most enjoyable (and least homicidal).

Enjoying rooftop cocktails in Florence, Italy, with the famous Duomo in the background.

Summer travel season is upon us, and I wish you happy travels filled with fun, food, and adventure of whatever sort you crave. Pack that freezer bag to the brim, don't stay longer than you can stand, and just be aware that there are breakfast buffets that cost more than your outfit...which seems foolish since I'm certain there's a McDonald's right down the street. Bon voyage, y'all!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Celebrating Southern Mamas

I found what I thought to be the perfect Mother's Day card in Hallmark last was pink and bedazzled and simply said, "Mama" on the front. Imagine my surprise when I opened it and saw it was a Spanish card! I had no idea that anyone other than Southerners called their mothers "mama." I'm still pretty certain no one quite lives up to the name like Southern mamas do. After all, these are the women who are the stage moms, who impart etiquette in their children like handwritten thank you notes and using "sir" and "ma'am," and who pass down the art of the casserole to future generations. Mamas are the glue that holds our society together, and thank the Lord for them.

My mama taught me that even the most natural beauty can still benefit from a sprinkle of pretty. The truth of the matter is that we could all use enhancements. Never underestimate the importance of a swipe of lipstick (note to Northerners: Chapstick does not count) or a pair of earrings, or that holy grail for my mama and me--hairspray. Because no one can take you seriously when your hair is just flopping in your eyes, your ears are naked, and your lips are pale.

Along those same lines, Southern mamas will not allow you to leave the house with wet hair. It is simply not done. I suppose an exception could be made in the event that your house caught fire and there was no time for an emergency blowout, but even then, some quick styling would be appropriate. Wash and wear is not something that Southern mamas can condone. (Note: this does not apply to men and boys--in the event of a cowlick, mamas will lick, spit, and slick down your hair by any means necessary and send you right out into the world, wet head and all.)

Beauty is more than skin deep, and that's why our Southern mamas have always stressed the importance of not "acting ugly." We learn at an early age to tease our hair, not each other. Down South, we much prefer to kill with kindness, and so we've been taught to treat each other as sweetly as we do our iced tea.

Mamas firmly believe that one does not chew gum or cry in public, nor do we wear strappy sandals before Easter or show too much cleavage, ever (Southern mamas much prefer the Dickie to a plunging neckline). Committing any of these acts would be tacky, and tacky is something Southern women try to avoid at all costs. Roll your shoulders back, suck it in, and don't embarrass the family.

Another mama-ism I was raised on is that "nothing good happens after midnight." Imagine my (sheltered) surprise when I arrived on my college campus and my new friends made plans to go out at 10:00. At night?!? I questioned this in disbelief. I thought only big city club kids and DJs kept those kind of hours. Even though I have admittedly had my share of late night fun, but I will admit: midnight is a pretty good boundary to keep a girl away from bad behavior. Let's call this the Cinderella rule and vow to keep an eye on the clock.

Mamas down South have the uncanny ability to shut down any kind of misbehavior with a simple look, but sometimes, mama feels like being vocal. I can't tell you the fear it would strike in my heart to hear her say, "You just wait until we get home." I would pray for divine intervention to keep us from ever reaching our house again, just to stop the horror that was ultimately waiting there. "Let me tell you something" was also a terrifying close second. You would be best to stop and listen, wide eyed, to the knowledge bomb your mama was about to drop on you and then nod your guilty little head while humbly saying, "yes, ma'am." Then do yourself a favor and don't say anything else. Back talking your mama is harmful to your health.

Southern mamas' prime real estate is the mall, the beauty salon, and the spa, and probably in that order. These are places which are a weekly ritual for many a mama. You have to look good to feel good...and if you doubt that, please refer back to the mama guidelines on lipstick, earrings, and hairspray. This is the South, where even the girls in the trailer parks paint their nails.

Anyone who is called "mama" makes sweet tea with a sugar content that rivals rock candy, owns a deviled egg plate, and believes without hesitation that macaroni and cheese is a vegetable. These women teach the importance of church on Sunday morning and of family always. It's from Southern mamas that we learn to never meet a stranger, give a smile to everyone you pass, and that the best answer to "How are you?" is, "Fine, and you?" They believe in an appreciation of good china, perfect meringue, and a proper monogram. It's true that we do things a little differently here in the South, and thanks to our mamas, we know how to do them the right way--just not after midnight or without a fresh coat of lipstick.

Happy Mother's Day to all the mamas out there--Southern or not. I don't know what we would do with you, but I'm afraid it would be tacky.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Art of Birthday Month

April was, in case you hadn't heard, my birthday month. For reasons that are both for the benefit of myself and my friends and family, I decided a while back not to contain my birthday to a single 24-hour period, but instead to enjoy celebrating the whole month long. Trying to celebrate a birthday in just one day is too restrictive; it puts pressure on everyone involved to get it just right. I've found, through trial and error, that the best thing for all involved is to take the entire month of your birth and celebrate at your leisure. That way, no one needs to feel stressed about belated gifts or well wishes, or feel guilt about not being present on the actual day of my birth for festivities. Relax, y'all: we have the whole month. You're welcome.

We kicked off what may be one of the best birthday months I've ever had with a fiesta dinner with friends at Paco's Tacos and Tequila, a favorite restaurant of mine. If there's a better way to get into the celebratory spirit than chips, salsa, margaritas, and tacos, I don't know about it. Unless it's also with a piece of Paco's most amazing tres leches cake. 

Birthday month kickoff at Paco's. 

The week of my actual birthday was a high note as well. Clint was out of town on business for several days, so in his absence he sent these beauties to keep me company:

As a bonus, these flowers made our whole house smell fabulous.

Plus, I am one lucky girl to have friends who celebrate birthday month right along with me...especially the ones who do so with gifts and cards. You sure know how to spoil a girl, and I'm just fine with that. Within a span of two days, my love of mail and my love of my birthday had collided in a whirlwind of goodies.

You know I'm not big on attention (ahem), but this was a nice touch.

I kept these on display all month!

My real, actual, day of birth is April 9, and lest you think it was more of the usual revelry, we boarded a plane and headed to New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival. I already blogged about what an awesome trip we had last time, but it bears repeating. We had four days of sightseeing, seafood, and cocktail sipping. And in case it's been too long, here's another picture of me with a cake and candle.

Celebrating at the Bourbon House restaurant in New Orleans. What a birthday!

Once we got back from the Big Easy, it was time to do a little laundry and repack our suitcases to head to my parents' house for Easter weekend. My mom didn't create as much birthday fanfare this year as she typically does--occasionally, people will tire of the month long observance, and that's okay--but we still managed to have yet another cake and a little more celebration, including a girls' trip for the day to Atlanta for shopping and lunch. We paid a visit to one of my very favorite places, the Swan Coach House, and savored every bite of shrimp and chicken salads, zucchini bread, cheese straws, and their signature drink the "Bubbly Atlantan." If you haven't been to this landmark and you enjoy places full of history and charm, it is a must.

Two Bubbly Atlantans, and cocktails by the same name. Wink.

Back in Charlotte, I was lucky enough to enjoy a few more lunches with friends to mark the occasion, as well as a cupcake or two and a sip or two of bubbly (birthday month demands it, who am I to refuse?). And just like that, the last weekend of the month arrived and it was time to send birthday month on its way...but I wanted to send it out in happy fashion. Cue Hops for Hospice, a charity beer event at my neighborhood wine shop. The patio was lined with tents from 17 different area breweries, and the wine shop chef prepared small bites for the crowd to enjoy as they sampled beverages. Good food, good drinks, and raising money for a worthy cause like hospice make this such a great event.

Enjoying Hops for Hospice with some of my favorite guys.

Once the Hops event was over, a couple of our friends went on with us to visit two other breweries, just sipping our way through Saturday. We talked and laughed and finally made our way to Queen Park Social, a new spot filled with fun and entertainment: this former warehouse has full size shuffleboard courts inside, eight lanes of bowling, darts and games. We grabbed one last cocktail and headed straight for the Skee-Ball machines. It was the perfect closeout to birthday month.

Is there a better way to fend off old age than Skee-Ball and hitting the McDonald's drive-thru
on your way home? 

All good things must come to an end, and so birthday month is now over and officially closed. I guess it's time to drink some water and eat a vegetable or something. The good news (I suppose) is that next year is a milestone birthday for me and so there has already been talk of how best to celebrate. I love a party that starts a year in advance. 

To all of you May babies out there, I'm passing the birthday month baton to you. Eat, drink, and be merry the entire month long--you deserve it!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Big Easy Birthday

As luck and timing would have it, we take our yearly vacation in early September, once school is back in and the resorts aren't so crowded. Even though Clint's birthday isn't actually until mid-September, we still wind up celebrating the occasion in some tropical location, whereas my April birthday has always meant dinner out and splitting a cupcake on the couch for dessert. The squeaky wheel does, in fact, get the oil, because after years of complaining, this year I got a birthday trip!

We woke up bright and early on my birthday and headed to the airport, destination: New Orleans. We wound up getting upgraded to first class both coming and going, which is always a good thing. A glass of champagne and an US Weekly later, we landed in the Big Easy! As soon as we arrived and dropped off our luggage at the beautiful Roosevelt hotel, we headed to the Napoleon House for lunch. Muffalettas and Pimm's Cups are not a bad way to start off a celebratory trip, I can tell you that.

We were in town during the French Quarter Festival, so after lunch we walked through the French Quarter to Jackson Square to take in all the sights and sounds the festival had to offer. I'm surprised to say that French Quarter Festival might have been my favorite thing about the trip because it was quintessential New Orleans--making our way down the street, there were stages set up everywhere with jazz bands playing. The streets were closed and were filled people dancing and enjoying the music.

Enjoying the French Quarter Festival in Jackson Square.

We took our "go cups" and meandered around downtown, people watching and looking at the beautiful buildings. Remnants of Mardi Gras (in the form of shiny beads) are everywhere you go in NOLA.

I love this balcony decked out in beads.

It's almost like beads grow on trees in New Orleans!

We freshened up for dinner and had just enough time to squeeze in a drink at the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone before our reservation at Commander's Palace.

Just like it sounds, the Carousel Bar is a (slowly) moving carousel that rotates while you sit and sip.

Here we are, enjoying the "ride."

A birthday dinner at the famous Commander's Palace.

Commander's Palace has been a New Orleans landmark since 1893 and is one of the best restaurants in the city. We were told they would make a big fuss for my birthday, and I wasn't disappointed.

Please note the balloons that were waiting for me at our table when we arrived.
This is how you birthday.

We started off our meal with turtle soup, which was spicy and delicious, and then moved on to Louisiana wild white shrimp and shrimp and tasso Henican. I wish I could tell you how amazing their Creole bread pudding was for dessert, but I had a migraine that had been brewing all day and *very sadly* we left without dessert. I can assure you we made up for it for the rest of the trip, though.

I'm not usually a morning person, but the idea of beignets at Cafe Du Monde got us up and raring to go the next day in a way that my typical bowl of oatmeal does not.

They are as good as you think they would be, if not better. The best part might be that they are shockingly inexpensive at $3.25 an order! After we finished all that fried, doughy deliciousness, we headed to St. Louis Cemetery #1 for our cemetery and voodoo tour.

Inside St. Louis cemetery #1, the oldest cemetery in New Orleans.

If a cemetery tour seems strange, it may be, but interesting. Because of the potential for flooding, the dead aren't buried underground in New Orleans, but are interred in these vaults. The cemetery is a maze of crypts that are ornate and unique. This particular cemetery is where famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried. Superstition has it that if you touch her grave and spin around three times, you'll get a wish granted (I'll have to let you know about that). There's also an empty burial vault for a certain celebrity inside St. Louis #1:

After the IRS seized Cage's property for tax evasion in 2009,
this was the only real estate in New Orleans he had left. 

After our tour, we made our way to Acme Oyster Company and had the biggest oysters I've ever seen in my life. They were cold, briny, and fantastic. We followed those up with po' boys filled with fried oysters and shrimp and Tabasco mayonnaise.

It's easy to see why people line up down the block for lunch at Acme Oyster House. 

Once we finished and waddled away from lunch, we visited Mardi Gras World to see where many of the actual floats are made for Mardi Gras. We toured the huge warehouse and got to see past decorations and floats, as well as pieces already being made for next year's parade.

The floats are decorated with gold and silver leaf to make them sparkle, and they are beautiful.

Sculpting a giant piece for a float out of Styrofoam.

The details are hand painted.

We found a creation we'd like to have!

Later that day, once it was dark, we took a ghost tour of one of the most haunted cities in America. We heard lots of spooky tales and saw some pictures that looked an awful lot like spirits at various places around the French Quarter. One highlight: Muriel's restaurant at the corner of Jackson Square sets a table with bread and wine each night for their ghost, in an effort to keep him happy. We were able to walk by and see the (seemingly empty?) table.

For the right price, you can reserve the ghost table. 

We started off our third day with a breakfast fit for a king at the Stanley Restaurant. My friend Rebekah had told me about their Bananas Foster French toast, and I can promise you, it did not disappoint. Only in a city as decadent at New Orleans could you order this for breakfast:

Yes, that's two scoops of ice cream on top. Have. Mercy.

After that sugar rush, we headed outside the city to the bayou for a swamp tour. We cruised through the water and saw quite a few turtles and alligators, and even had a chance to interact with some.

Feeling adventurous on our swamp tour.

Spanish moss hanging from the trees.

One of many alligators we saw during our boat ride.

We stopped to feed quite a few....

And even managed to interact with this baby gator!

Once we got back to the city, we meandered through the French Market, an open market with food and gifts. If you're looking to try fried alligator on a stick or get yourself a souvenir, the French Market is your spot. Conveniently, it's also right down the street from Central Grocery, the Italian grocery store where the original muffaletta sandwich was invented. We squeezed in at the counter of the tiny little store and savored every bite.

You can't beat the original.

We took the St. Charles streetcar up to the Garden District and enjoyed gawking at all the gorgeous antebellum houses. We saw block after block of early 19th-century mansions, resplendent with courtyards and fountains. The neighborhood was so gorgeous and idyllic, it felt worlds away from Bourbon Street and all the activity of the French Quarter! (It's also where I would buy my New Orleans real estate if I had an extra few million dollars).

Our last dinner in the Big Easy was at Bourbon House restaurant, where we enjoyed some of the largest and most delectable shrimp I have ever encountered. New Orleans is a haven of amazing food--everywhere you turn there is something else mouthwatering to discover. And at this dinner, I got my birthday cake and candle; it's not considered late when you celebrate birthday month (one of the many benefits of celebrating all month)!

We still hadn't been to the infamous Pat O'Brien's yet, and so we strolled down Bourbon Street and enjoyed an after dinner cocktail in the courtyard, by the fiery fountain.

Walking down Bourbon Street at night.
It was surprisingly tame during our visit...then again, we never braved it after 10:00 p.m.!

We hated the thought of leaving NOLA without stopping at Brennan's restaurant, so we squeezed in one last meal and enjoyed breakfast there before heading to the airport on Wednesday. It was a fitting way to cap off our whirlwind 72 hours in the Crescent City. Brennan's is the place that made bananas foster famous, and although we didn't indulge, we did have fun watching other tables "go up in flames," so to speak.

The Brennan's building was constructed in 1795 by the grandfather of artist Edgar Degas.
The restaurant itself is an iconic part of New Orleans.

In case you couldn't tell, we had a fabulous trip. I loved New Orleans--it's a city filled with history, beauty, food, and fun. I can't decide what was greater: the number of miles we walked or the crawfish we ate. I'll call it a tie for the sake of simplicity. And I can tell you that when it was all said and done, we let the good times roll!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

T-tops and Zima

A few weeks ago, I was flipping channels, really just looking for something to leave on as background noise for the little blind boss dog, when I came across a series called The 90s: The Last Great Decade? on National Geographic, of all channels. I've seen it before, but even so, I had to stop, mesmerized. Rob Lowe was narrating clips of Vanilla Ice, Kurt Cobain, Roseanne Barr, Tupac and Biggie, and chairs and fists flying on the Jerry Springer Show. The next episode promised to cover Princess Diana, the dot com bubble, the Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco affair, Anna Nicole Smith, and the X-Files.

Then, last week, Nancy Kerrigan and Mr. T made their debut on the new season of Dancing with the Stars. Nancy was graceful as ever in her ballroom routine as we all would expect, but y'all: Mr. T came out of the back of a black van and did the cha cha to the A-Team theme song (yes, this is technically from the 80s, but we all know Mr T. goes beyond the constraints of time and place because he is a classic). His dancing wasn't great, but the entertainment factor was fabulous. I'm going to be self indulgent and just say it: I pity the fool that didn't watch. This week, former Chicago Cubs player David Ross thrilled the crowd dancing to Young MC's "Bust a Move." Oh yes, the 90s are back and I love them more than ever. And why not?

That glorious decade gave us the Budweiser frogs, the Spice Girls, the Macarena, and Wendy, the Snapple lady. There was Crystal Pepsi, Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place, and Hammer pants that were too legit to quit. Beanie Babies and Furbees were all the rage, Marky Mark took a break from the Funky Bunch to model underwear for Calvin Klein, and Blockbuster wanted you to be a kinder, gentler video renter, urging us to "Be kind, rewind!" Seinfeld had us watching a show about nothing, the O.J. Simpson trial had us watching every second of courtroom drama we could find, and doomsday preppers were building underground bunkers to survive the inevitable fallout of Y2K. If you don't believe those were simpler times, take a look at Zack Morris's cell phone:

Saved by the (Alexander Graham) Bell

It was a time when I did my best to imitate "the Rachel" haircut, several of my friends had pagers, and my first car was a black 1990 Firebird with t-tops. My second car, later in the decade, was a black 1995 Firebird with t-tops. I know a good thing when I see it. Arsenio Hall was whooping it up late night (with Bill Clinton on the saxophone no less), and the Life Alert commercial had everyone joking, "I've fallen and I can't get up!"

Take out those t-tops and let's go for a ride.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Melissa told me several of her coworkers were participating in a 90s themed bar crawl. The problem? They were so young, they didn't know what people wore in the 90s. I might suggest a baby doll dress (perhaps with bike shorts underneath?), Doc Martens, anything crushed velvet, a plaid flannel shirt, a mini backpack, or a scrunchy? Butterfly clips, a stylish pair of overalls, or maybe a sweater vest would fit the bill quite fabulously, too. How about some spandex bootcut black pants, and a Steve Madden platform sandal?

You could never sneak up on anyone wearing these babies. Admit it, you wore them.

It's no wonder the TV show was so popular. The fashion was so on point.

Let's get personal: there's a lot of 1996 high fashion happening
in this picture of me and my college dorm friends. 

And again in this picture, taken before a sorority fall party.
It was outdoor and involved a hayride, so we were dressed for the occasion.

Ah, those were the days. And honestly, I still think of the 1990s like it was a few years ago, not nearly two decades ago. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one nostalgic, and I hope I catch the other episodes of the 90s documentary on National Geographic. Until then, maybe I'll drop a Jolly Rancher into my Zima, microwave some Bagel Bites, and watch a movie--Titanic, or Forrest Gump perchance? This time, I won't even have to worry about rewinding the cassette tape.