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!