Thursday, June 30, 2011

What a Trip: Rome if You Want To - Part 1

With Florence behind us, the train rolled into Roma mid-day Friday, ready for 4 days of fun and relaxation before we made our way back stateside and back to the daily grind.

Suspicion arose as we walked into the lobby of our hotel. The rate was comparable to the bed and breakfast tiny boutiques that we were finding on tripadvisor and stayed in in Florence. This was a full fledged hotel - with a card key to the room instead of a real key and everything. Did we misread our confirmation? Was the price we thought was for the 4 night stay actually for just one of those nights? Confirming at the desk after a bit of panic helped ease our minds that the Grand Hotel Palatino just gave us a really good deal - 20% savings for that 4th night!

Checking in and getting settled over, it was time to explore! Our location was centralized to pretty much everything we needed access to: Colloseum was a short walk away, the train station was a straight shot up Via Cavour, the train we could take the next morning to the Vatican was behind the hotel by a few steps. We found a section of outdoor restaurants near the hotel as well that overlooked a fountain constantly overrun with people hanging out, drinking beer from the tiny shop nestled between the restaurants and generally enjoying life. Some pretty good people watching ensued.

Our first restaurant in Roma started a trend for Bob - I think he ate pizza for every meal! I treated myself to a four cheese wonder, while Bob got a proscuitto filled pie.
The next morning we were up bright and early to take the train a few stops over to Vatican City. I had purchased tickets online ahead of time at the suggestion of others and was glad I did. We booked our tickets for 10am and aimed to get to the Museum by 9:30. The line for groups and those who needed tickets was immensely long (the preceding link contains a photo of a line to show an example). I couldn't help but wonder, how have all these people not already seen the Vatican? But of course, I was there too for that reason. On a sidenote, I always think the same thing if I happen to be walking around and not at work in the middle of a weekday, "Who are all you people? Why aren't you at work? Are you all bartenders and students?" They are probably asking the same thing of me.

Instead of a guided tour, we paid 7 euro each for an audio guide. This guy was amazing. Our headphones worked so we didn't have to spend the whole time holding them up to our ears which was also a plus. I was amazed at how many pieces throughout the museum had numbers associated with an explanation. The Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms had at least 15 minutes each of stories to share.
The Vatican Musuem ended up being one of my favorite parts of Italy. Not for the slow moving, there is a lot of ground to cover. We were there for about 3 hours total and I know we missed whole sections and did not use the most efficient route - even if our little audio guide map had a suggested route spelled out! We ended up taking a shortcut to the Sistine Chapel so we walked through it earlier in the day. Then when we went back to the rooms we had missed we ended up having to go through the entire shortcut again. We probably looked like the most art-hating disinterested people as we sped through Michaelangelo's masterpiece our second time around!
Our 10am arrival was smart indeed, while we were able to navigate pretty easily during our first hour, here was the scene by 11:30. The early bird does get the worm.
While I can't share any photos of the Sistine Chapel - I don't want to think about what would have happened to me had I broken the no photos rule - here's a couple to share. The Map Room was a den of paradise for a travel geek like me. I heart maps.
And with Egypt top of mind we got a kick out of Anubis dressed in Roman clothing.
I almost blinked and missed the famous staircase! Designed by Momo in 1932, the staircases going up and going down form a double helix by twisting together.
After a brief lunch break, we headed away from the museum and into St. Peters Square and the Basilica. The Egyptian influences are rampant, with obelisks seemingly everywhere! Is it horrible that I kept looking for Angels & Demons clues?
Heading inside, the scale of the Basilica hits you like a ton of bricks.
And then there it is right in front of you: The Baldacchino.Bernini's masterpiece towers over the altar and the ancient tomb of St. Peter. Decadent.
A quick glimpse of the Papal Swiss Guard. Reading the wikipedia entry on the Swiss Guard (so you know its accurate), these uniforms weigh at least 8 pounds and are very complicated to make because of their renaissance style. Definitely not camoflauge.
With the Vatican behind us, we spent the next few hours rock climbing, saving whales and sky diving. Oh wait, I mean we went back to the hotel to take a nap. The difference between our Egypt leg and the Rome leg was that we left ourselves time to relax as opposed to filling the entire day and evening with tours. It was a vacation after all.

Dinner that evening once again proved we were not ready to leave Egypt behind us!
Rather than make this post 100 pictures long, I'll chunk it up a bit. Next up will be the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Spanish Steps and more ruins than you can shake a stick at.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Made Some Bread

A few weeks ago I was all set to make a set of mini-loaves of one my new fave recipes - Joy of Cooking's Pumpkin Bread - to give as gifts. I had borrowed my sister's set of loaf crocks she had magically found for $1 each at Michaels a couple years ago. I had the ingredients. I had the the time on a Sunday morning. And then I got my new issue of Martha Stewart Living in the mail.

The last page detailed a recipe for Blueberry Lemon Tea Bread. How apropos for the summer season, I can't say I would equate my pumpkin bread with mid-June and 80 degree heat. I switched gears quickly and picked up a handful of lemons and a pint of blueberries. Everything else was easily on hand, don't you love those kind of recipes?
Now here's the tricky part. We do not have a microwave at our temporary home, so how to melt the butter enough to be able to mix it in with the sugar and egg? Why not set it on the stovetop as the oven heats up to 350? I also needed to make sure it was malleable enough to mix by hand - the KitchenAid Stand Mixer and even my electric hand mixer are staying packed up.
Time to fold in those blueberries.
Divided up into 6 individual crocks, I fit them all on a cookie sheet for stability and threw them in the oven. Half an hour later they came out with golden edges.
A new staple? Clear plastic gift bags from Michaels (or any craft store I'm sure). Wrapping the breads tightly in saran wrap helps them stay fresh, but the bag adds a little extra flair to the gift-giving process. Tie some ribbon around it with a homemade tag - future idea: add a link to the recipe right to the tag!
This photo spread was actually the second batch I have made this month - had to take advantage of a supermarket sale on blueberries: 2 pints for $6! I brought these guys up to a family vacation in Wisconsin Dells to enjoy in the hotel suite for early breakfasts and they did not dissapoint.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Clip Show

After a seven month lull, I finally updated the links on the pages of this blog! Sadly, it did not go too slowly considering I have not been much of a posting fiend the last few months, but alas. Hows about a trip down memory lane with a few projects?

In the Kitchen
So many good recipes, where to start? How about with these lemon bars - a Smitten Kitchen find (if you are not regularly perusing that blog for scrumptious photography and food consider this your starting point.)

Another recipe I have made more than a few times over the last year and a half is a crockpot meatball/spaghetti sauce. The best part of this recipe is that with a small crockpot I can only fit half of the meatballs so I freeze the rest. I have also found that the grocery store will only sell ginormous cans of tomato puree and crushed tomatoes so I use half of each and freeze the rest. This way, the next time I want to make the recipe all I need is a quick thaw in the fridge, 1 can tomato paste (not in the recipe, but I always add one to tomato based sauces to help thicken them up) and 1 jar spaghetti sauce.

In the Air
In honor of it being this same weekend, here's to StrawberryFest - a Long Grove tradition! Mmmm. . .donuts!

It was also a little more than a year ago that I hit the road with 10 girlfriends bound for Nashville (road being figurative, we all flew there). A yee-haw, country-music kickin' three days followed.

In the Home
An early foray into DIY for me, check out these distressed picture frames which later hung in my Mom's made over kitchen.

When it comes to decorating our next home, the presence of a library - even if it not held within its own four walls, but part of a larger room, is a neccesity. This was the first area of our last apartment that came together and for the two years we lived there was one of my favorite parts! 

In the Spirit
The project that started the blog! My sister's baby shower proved that I take being crafty maybe a little too seriously, as demonstrated by the homemade invites I took on, but it was oh so much fun. And now with baby #2 on the way, the fun in the family continues!
Putting the crafting to good use, I have started packaging up sets of cards to give as gifts. Check out how they turn out here.  

In the Mind
2 years after first moving in together, Bob and I haven't killed each other yet. I think part of the reason is our organization when it comes to our joint finances. Read about how we break things down (and make some money doing it).

Finally, adding links related to my goals from last year got me thinking to my next set of goals that are a few months overdue - stay tuned for a post soon to see what I have in store for this next year!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tags

When in need of a craft project, why not take on making a few gift tags for those future wonderful gifts you will be giving all of your friends and family? I picked up a pack of 20 from Michaels, though these are much larger than the tags I have used in the past.

A variety of Happy Birthday, Wedding Wishes, New Baby and more followed as my packed up box of craft supplies found itself exploded into our living room. I managed to get everything packed back up, though not quite well enough to be able to close the box. I have a feeling that by the time we move out of this temporary house most of our boxes will find themselves in the same situation.

A few months ago I had picked up a 99 cent 3D sticker that I finally found a use for. I cut it to shape the Happy Birthday tag below. The wedding couple and bubble stamp were recent purchases - I can't seem to get out of that craft store without at least one stamp. Dangerous.
My issues with stampin' it up always lie with the danger of smudging. If anyone has any suggestions for how I can get around this I would be very grateful. I tried to not touch these for a full day and let them sit to fully dry, but even then I ruined a pretty cool tag by messing up the ink when I picked it up and put my thumb over the top. This Happy Birthday tag below is the one I ruined by getting the green all over it. My sister got me the travel stamp on the middle tag for Christmas, now that I'm looking at it again I wish I would have moved it down so the bottom ran off the tag. Finally, if I must get nit-picky about it, my "For Your Wedding Day" phrase stamp never fails to leave a little bit of ink in a line across the top. Tricky stuff.
Big stamps are fun, but they are also easy to screw up. One little area not pushed down right and your whole project takes a hit. This is the first time I have perfected the toile bird stamp, and it took 3 tries! The baby-themed tag was a happy accident: I used a square punch on the tag only to not have it push all the way through on the first try. It caused a raised square that was still attached to the tag and looked kind of neat when the footprints stamp was applied.
Finally, this photo features my favorite tag, and also the first one I made that day! The "with love" stamp was only $1 in the clearance bin at Michaels (are you seeing a theme with my Michaels trips?) and the flowers and vines are part of a toile set I have owned for quite awhile. Add to the mix another simplified Baby Shower/New Baby tag and one covered in some Asian-inspired paper.
This project took no more than a couple hours and helped keep the creative juices flowing while we live like nomads for the next few months. Now to just keep birthdays, babies and bar mitzvahs in mind to get some of these tags out into the world!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What a Trip: Firenze-y

It may have already been two full months since we got back from our trip, but the memories of Italy aren't fading that fast. Here's the breakdown of "I came, I saw, I ate" Italian Style.

Boarding the plane that would take us out of Egypt and into Rome we knew we were in for a change of pace for this second half of the trip. Our plans were to arrive in Rome and immediately set off on a train to Florence for a two day stop. My sickness reared its ugly head on the plane ride - I started coughing upon descent and didn't stop until we got off the aircraft. I am sure my seatmates loved me. Okay, Rome airport - now where do we go? After a few wrong turns, we ended up at the trains. I wrongly assumed we would be able to take a train straight to Florence from the airport with no issues at all. Somehow we found ourselves in front of a very touristy looking desk that was likely established for those confused folks like us who don't know the next step in the process. A man behind the counter told us he could shuttle us to the main Rome terminal for about $13 each and from there we could catch the express train to Florence.

Was express the most cost effective decision? Probably not, but it was nice to get to Florence by late afternoon instead of later into the evening. On the return trip we did end up saving some dough by taking the train with all of the stops - a four hour ride instead of two.

And what should happen on the train ride? I bit into a peanut M&M and promptly broke a filling! All of a sudden I thought to myself, "wow, either that piece of chocolate coating is wedged in an odd spot or I have half a tooth!" Dreams of gelato, hopes of endless pasta and visions of vino dashed? Thankfully, my tooth did not hurt at all, so I felt confident about being able to enjoy the foods of Italy.

We pulled into Florence and put our map skills to the test, walking from the train station to our Bed and Breakfast. The Hotel Giglio is a quaint little find, great breakfast spread and a collection of DVDs and books to choose from for a night in. And you gotta love the complimentary internet and computer access - I was finally able to send some hello's back to the states via facebook and gmail!

Our first night, we found ourselves at La Giostra, a restaurant recommendation from not one, but two people. With a story that includes being run by Princes, La Giostra's food was incredible - sadly too dark for good photos - the ambiance sweet with twinkly lights stretched across the ceiling. Our American sensibilities told us we were hungry at 7:00 p.m. which was a shame because the entire place was filled with fellow English speakers. We could have easily been in Florida as opposed to Florence. . .should have waited until 9 or later to potentially see some locals!

After appetizers that included proscuitto and bufala mozzerella, I dove into a porcini mushroom pasta while Bob feasted on steak cutlets. Of course, these both had much sexier sounding names than "steak cutlets."

After 5 days of go-go-go in Egypt, we were up for a relaxing night. Back to the room by 9:30pm and asleep in front of a DVD by 10pm.

The next morning we let ourselves sleep in a bit, but then were off to explore the city! First stop, the Boboli Gardens.
This area must be a favorite for the local artist wannabe's.
I call this one "Albert Einstein Doesn't Feel Well."
As if we had not had enough hills to climb, we found ourselves making our way up to the top of the Piazzale Michaelangelo that evening in time for sunset. Amazing views of the city made you recognize the size and scale of the Duomo - more on that in a bit. The tulips around the area reminded me of springtime on Michigan Avenue - always a sight to put a smile on your face. Fun fact: The Piazzale is home to one of the reproductions of David, all three of which we would see that week.
Did someone say Gelato?


The next morning we took to the streets with a recommended Walking Tour. Florence really is quite small when you wrap your head around it, so why not take a few hours for a guided tour? Although I'm not one for large bus-sized tour groups, walking around with a pack of five or six others learning a little more about the church we would have otherwise just walked past and nodded appreciatively at was a nice perk.

How else would we have learned that the back of the head of one Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa in the plaza was actually an obvious portrait of the artist. Do you see it?
The tour started at 10am, so we made ourselves into even earlier birds by first stopping at the Musee Academie which houses the original David. The massive line we caught up with the day before around noon proved that 8am was the time to arrive. With a few more sculptures under our belt and a realization of just how, er, large dear David really is, we headed towards our tour group meeting spot.
Last stop, the Duomo, or the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.  The gothic interiors seemed to go up and up and up to the sky because of the octogonal dome.
After a spaghetti dinner and a day of walking behind us, I popped a couple more tylenol pm, shot up some nasal spray and did my best to fight the cold that just wouldn't die with another good night's sleep.
The next day we found ourselves packing once again and headed to the train that would bring us back to our last stop on the whirlwind vacation: Roma.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Place to Be?

As mentioned, we've taken a big step in making an offer on a condo! While waiting for the bank to (fingers-crossed) approve the short sale, I am definitely having fun thinking about all we can do with this in our hands. Starting the search months ago, I came into this project thinking I would have very specific likes and dislikes. New construction and granite countertops good. . .vintage bad. Large balcony good. . .no outdoor space at all bad. Laundry in unit good. . .laundry not in unit is not even an option.

I surprised myself along the way by realizing the cookie cutter 2 bed/2 bath new construction condos left something to be desired. We wanted something with a little more character (one of those words that is often used to describe older buildings). So when we first spied an amazing 3 bedroom that fit our price range a few months ago we thought we hit a home run. Great location, upgraded kitchen, seperate library and did I mention 3 bedrooms? We actually put in an introductory offer, but reality set in when we ran the numbers and the extremely high assessments couldn't be justified. The mortgage price and taxes were decent, but when the assessments add another 1/3 to that amount each month we could see that getting old very fast.
Last month we thought we nailed it once again: a foreclosure right in the heart of Lakeview, large 2 bedroom on the top floor. High ceilings with sun-drenching skylights. A living space that was at least 25'x20' which meant we could break it out into at least 5 separate areas (entryway leads into the media space and sofa, library/sitting area in a bump out near the windows, bookshelves seperate an office area and on the other side of that would be the dining room table before you found yourself back at the kitchen). However, getting that full story when it comes to foreclosures is always key. Insanely expensive taxes coupled with some dicey financials for the building quickly put this on the burn pile. Sigh.
And then there was number three. I got a call from Bob when I was in Vegas the other week for work and he said, "you gotta see this place." The 3 bedroom from Scenario 1 was also found by him during an open house when I was on a work trip so I'm beginning to think there's a pattern here. . .

Close to Wrigley Field,  but not so close we'd be living like those fresh out of college kids. Loft style building that started as a soap factory and transitioned to being a car dealership until it was made into condos about 13 years ago. Exposed brick, 20 foot ceilings and a lot of potential. We think we found the balance between move in ready and total fixer upper. Grant me the next few paragraphs and allow me to dream. . .

Comparable to the great room we saw in that last foreclosure, there is plenty of space to break out the living space into a library/sitting area around the fireplace, media center and sofa on the opposite wall and a dining table closer to the kitchen.
Disclosure: This photo is not from the unit we are looking at, but as it is the same layout I thought I would share a different angle that really hammers home the scale of the room.
With a kitchen and 2 bathrooms along these lines, we can easily save some scratch and tackle one room each year or so. The Kitchen already has a massive island for food prep and ample cabinet space. An upgrade to appliances, the countertops, thrown in a backsplash and a stain on those cupboards might be all we need.
There is plenty of usable space in both bathrooms. The idea we had was to create a linen closet or shelf system in the 2nd bathroom and expand out the tub and shower options in the master suite. New tile and vanities could really spruce them up. The door to the master bath wastes alot of space when it swings opens the whole way so I would love to look into replacing it with a pocket door. Could be a fun project!
I loved when we would look at places and the in unit laundry wasn't just shoved in a closet, but included actual space to use around the washer and dryer. I like the idea of getting stackable units and putting shelving all the way up along the other side. This would also leave room on the other side of the floor for the cat litter - always a tricky thing to find a place for in a condo!
Of course, one of the easiest things we can do is choose some paint colors! With 20 foot high ceilings, the logistics of painting could be interesting but challenge accepted. One of the benefits of saving some money by living in a one bedroom month to month now is that we could always juggle a month or two of mortgage and rent so that if we wanted to take the time before move in to paint and stain the floors we could do so without shifting around all of our stuff as soon as it found a home!
You might be thinking to yourself, "But Lydia, didn't you say in a previous post that you were now committed to finding a 3 bedroom?" I struggled with that myself, but we resigned ourselves to the idea that our second bedroom does not have to be a bedroom first and foremost. We don't have guests all the time, so why not actually use the room ourselves? Plans are to set up the second bedroom - you can see the loft influence in that the walls at the top are exposed - as a workspace with our computer desk and a craft table I plan on making out of a couple bookshelves and the headboard from my disposed of IKEA bed. Guests of Lydia and Bob will live in the lap of luxury when we invest in one of those ultra-posh Aerobeds that blow up to just about the same size as a real bed.
The master bedroom has a large walk in closet that was already decked out with an elfa set to give us ideas on how to best utilize the space. The room is brick on 3 sides - apparantly it was the car lift space from when the building was a dealership! I like to think the thick brick will help insulate noise as I don't always love when bedrooms are right off of the main rooms and not down a hallway.
Have you noticed which area I haven't covered? One deterrent is that there is no balcony. Pros and cons were weighed. How much did I really use the balcony other than to grill? Was I really going to take gardening so seriously that I would have filled the deck with veggies and flowers? Could we still grow a few things inside the house but against the windows to get them some sun? Could we store the grill in the garage and pull it out into the alley on rare occasions? All valid questions. In the end, it was not make or break for us. I might just have to invest in a really nice grill pan for the stovetop as I don't intend on ever eating hamburgers that don't have grill marks on them.

So could this be the place for us? We'll hopefully know in the next month or two. In the meantime, we'll keep looking and stay on alert so we don't miss out on something else should this one fall through. . . .the wait continues.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Little Touches

While 1/4 of our main living area is taken up with a stack of boxes and empty shelves, I have been trying to find small ways to make our temporary house a little more like a home amid our packed up lives.

Not wanting to take the extra effort to nail things onto the walls, we are still enjoying some of our art by leaning pieces against the wall. (pardon the photo flashes: this apartment does not have much in the way of overhead lighting or natural light for that matter. Our few lamps have been on high alert since we moved in!)

The bedroom only had space for one of our night stands (our twin beds pushed together, aka "super bed" is taking up its fair share of room), so I threw the other one in the hallway as a make-shift entryway table. Our tiny kitchen also has no room for the much needed junk drawer (only having one drawer and all), so the nightstand is also pulling double duty as the holder of lint brushes, extra batteries and tape.
One thing I will give this place is its ample closet space! We filled two of them to the brim with stackable boxes and some lighter options on the top shelves. Same goes for the bedroom closets. The idea is to get some of our boxes out of the way so our dining room area doesn’t look quite so insane.
Luckily, we found room against the bedroom wall next to the dresser for our beloved full length Mongstad Mirror from IKEA. What we didn’t do was reinforce the leaning monstrosity by screwing it into the wall as we had done at the last place. How to make sure the mirror doesn’t even think about sliding forward disastrously? Prop a storage ottoman stacked with heavy coffee table books against one of the corners! Classy.
These little touches are helping me to ignore this elephant in the room!
Good news getting better – we put an offer in on a place and have been approved by the seller. Since it is a short sale we just have to be patient as we wait for the bank decision! Fingers crossed that in a couple short months my posts will start to lean towards the “painting” and “refinishing floors” variety.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Few Months of Temporary Living

May, I hardly knew you. In between a crazy month of work travel and conferences, Bob and I continued to search for a permanent home all the while packing for our temporary one. To save a few dollars this summer, we decided not to renew our lease on our 2 bedroom on June 1 and instead downsize to a one bedroom in a different neighborhood on a month to month lease until we close on a place of our own.

To continue down the path of saving money, we decided not to get movers for this leg (though you better believe they will be booked come fall or whenever we end up moving again!). Since we had some flexibility in getting into our "new" apartment about a week ahead of June 1, we could take the long Memorial Weekend and knock it all out.
Let's start out with the basics:

When we moved to Uptown, we knew renting was not going to be long term, 2 or 3 years at most. Therefore, we partially filled our storage unit with broken down moving boxes. No sense wasting some good product like these heavy duty Dell boxes from Bob's work!
One of my conferences that happened to be in Chicago provided me with a few more good size boxes for books (not too big where you can't even lift them). Every night I just brought a few more home with me on the bus.

Bob did a run to Binny's, a local liquor warehouse, and came out with a jackpot. The built in bottle dividers also meant we could easily pack glassware without worrying about jamming too many into one box on top of one another.
This also reminded me of my freshman year of college: my family owned a bar so most of my moving boxes were of the Captain Morgan variety. My roommate saw my boxes before she met me for the first time and she later told me she thought I was going to be some raging party girl!
Since we don't plan to be in this current place for longer than a few months, and we actually own enough stuff for a 3 bedroom, we are planning on keeping most stuff packed up. Therefore, packing became a bit more strategic. Sure, it is easy to keep a box of DVDs or books closed up in the closet, but what about when we need that one spatula or I can't remember what box I put the mouse to the laptop in (actually the exact situation I am facing right now). The kitchen was divided up into "keep packed" and "use." Most of the keep packed items include our entertaining stuff - our new place would be more than tight if we tried to have a party. Come to think of it - we don't even have a table to host a dinner part at!

We rented a storage unit for things like the outdoor table and chairs, our grill, bins of holiday decor, our dining table and chairs, my desk and an assortment of other boxes and baubles we won't need on an every day basis.
Much like packing up the car, filling up the storage unit was a bit like playing the game of Tetris.
Considerations like keeping out 1 set of mixing bowls instead of all three sets also helped us save room in our significantly downsized kitchen. It also begs the question why we have three sets of mixing bowls to begin with! Of course, as I prepare to make some baked goods this afternoon I am hoping that I did not overestimate how little I would use the kitchen this summer as we might end up having dug through every box by the time we move out of here regardless of the efforts!

More to come on this big move that will lead to an even bigger move! For now, I will just have to say goodbye to the Uptown condo that had been very good to us the last two years!