Women Running the World and A £30 Find

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I may have never won the lottery but I have found £20-£40 lying on the ground four different times since moving to London.  You’d think money was falling out of the sky.  One of the times was on the street, two of the times was on the Tube, and the last time, this past Friday, was on a dirt path in Hampstead Heath.

I found the £30 in Hampstead Heath while on a run with my running group.  Unable to find it’s rightful owner in the Heath (people are so honest!), I planned to give the money to someone I saw on the street or bring it to church.  But … then a better, more spontaneous, idea surfaced on the way home.

After the 8 mile Heath Route, I peeled off from the group and detoured to see my hairdresser Jonathan who had just cut my hair earlier that week.  I wanted to schedule a follow up appointment for what we coarse, thick-hair people know as “more texturing.”  Nothing like a sweaty run to make my big hair case.  Sweet Jonathan offered to solve my problem on the spot. 

As I was sitting in his chair for the five-minute fix, it dawned on me that it had been his chair where I first heard about the running group.  Almost exactly a year ago.  A woman named Stephanie was in his chair before me and she had been chatting enthusiastically about her great running group.  Desperate for friends in a new city, I asked Stephanie for the details.  She immediately followed up to connect me to Women Running the World (or WRW for short.) A weekly email was soon in my inbox with detailed running routes that look like this. 

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This is the 9 mile route we did from St John's Wood to Canary Wharf (!) last Monday.  Not a run I would have done on my own.  :)

Now I’ve been part of a few other running groups in the past but none quite like WRW.  First, there are close to 150 women in WRW which means no one is left stranded if you accidentally forgot to set your alarm.  The run will go on without you but you will have no less than two dozen WhatsApp messages letting you know how great the run was and how much you were missed.

The size of the group is in part because all abilities are welcome including and especially encouraging women who have never run before.  The group runs from September through June and women are welcomed to join any time of the year which is why I was able to turn up in February and be immediately embraced.  

The large group is broken up into pace groups who run 3x/week where we stagger start times for the sake of London pedestrians and a true beginner group who run the alternating 2x/week.   I’m part of the “Naughty-Nines” pace group which is as entertaining as our name suggests. Regardless of pace, we all have our eye on a shared goal (a destination 1/2 marathon set for the spring) and love for the post-run coffee.  115 women are traveling to Utrecht, The Netherlands in about 6 weeks for this year's spring race. 

The genius of WRW is that the group always meets in the same spot (the Barclays Bank in St Johns Wood) at the same time (8:15am.)   The vast public transportation system in London means that we can always start at the same place and Tube or bus home.  I have seen so much of this city by running destination routes with WRW.  Route maps are consistently emailed the week prior but the only thing you really need to know is to show up at 8:15.   There are at least two leaders for each pace group who know the routes and emergency loo spots which means your job is to simply run and not get run over. 

One of the Friday Hampstead Heath routes was also my very first run with WRW last February. An endorphin hit plus a payoff view like this is enough to make anyone want to run.  

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That memory in Jonathan’s chair made me smile back at my red, sweaty face in the mirror.  I did win a different kind of lottery that day.  In a city of 8 million people, given where I live and where my children go to school, I may not have found WRW otherwise.  It was through Jonathan’s unknowing connection that prepared the way for me to meet a group of ladies who have become treasured friends.  So on this day at least the £30 from the sky was left in Jonathan's tip jar as a way of closing the loop to pay it forward.    

Click Bait Headlines

Closet Check: 5 Must-Haves.

Not immune to the circus of consumerism we all live in, I took the bait and clicked the link.  I wondered if maybe I had one passable version of the 5 must-haves already in my closet.  When I got to the “5 Things You Need NOW” webpage, there were actually 84 items on the page. 84.  I didn’t have any of them.  Not even close.  See below.  Yellow Floral Pant Suit.

Now 0 out of 5 makes you feel like your missing out.  0 out of 84 makes you feel like you’re living on a different planet.  Either way, it’s designed to make you feel like you aren’t prepared for the next season until you click the BUY NOW link.  Of course I know that and yet when my guard is down, I’m susceptible to catchy subject lines. And then once I go down the rabbit hole, it makes me feel like there’s a hole in my closet.  See below.  Pink Power Blazer.  

The more destructive thing about the rabbit hole is that is stirs up dissatisfaction with things you can’t click a BUY NOW link to fix.  Like 20 years younger and a flat tummy.  Will your spring be better if you have this white top?  See below.  Because this one isn’t in the realm of possibilities for me.  

 

This Morning Drink Will Do Wonders for your Weight, Energy and Skin.

You’d click too, right?  So I had The Morning Drink this morning and weight = same, energy = negative, skin = still dry and tummy = very, very unsure.  Tumeric in a drink?  I want to believe.  I will try again tomorrow and for the next two weeks before I make a judgment.

We are all consumers and guidance can be helpful as we sort through the many choices available to us.  If not,  I would have never found my two most recent jean purchases from Jack Wills.  The best, softest, no butt cleavage jeans of all time.

But ….mostly the “Must Have”, “Must Do”, edicts leave me feeling disillusioned.  It falsely promises that the “perfect” answer is still out there.   It’s going to take a long time before the world is convinced that there’s a better morning drink than coffee.

Closet Check: 50 Must Purges.

It wouldn’t have the same click through rate. Also who besides a closet organiser or simplifying guru would write that?  But that’s probably the thing that would bring us closer to wardrobe harmony, and metaphorically, happiness. 

Deciding what to let go of is so much harder than adding something new into the mix. Cutting something loose requires a hard look at what we’ve outgrown, what we’ve made a mess of, and what we should have never bought in the first place. Likewise the path to happiness often involves pruning back the garden of your life to it’s barest essentials.

A tidying up of relationships that have passed their season allows you to focus on the important ones in front of you.  A ditching of bad habits that leaves us in threadbare knots brings new things to the forefront.  Weeding out the trivial things that we mindlessly gave space to is one of the best ways to foster growth.

To thrive, a garden really only needs the basics of sun, water, and the care of a gardener.  When something is missing, our natural inclination is to go out searching for something new.  But what if what you really need is already there, just buried under a whole bunch of stuff?

If that's true, and I think it is, we won't be needing the Pink Power Blazer this spring. 

The Joy of After School Activities, minus the Carpool

This week I was reminded by Facebook of this post I wrote one year ago.  It was about my dread of having my then 13 year old son travel to and from basketball practice on his own after school through a tough part of London.  A year later, he is still making that commute to his basketball family, now three times a week plus weekends.  Those three days a week father and son share a 12 hour workday, occasionally finding each other on the last leg of their journey home.  Independence intertwined with care and common sense (and a little extra cash for food) is like a plow that loosens fear and allows our children to grow. 

While grateful for his blooming independence, I’m also thankful that my 11 year old still needs an after school escort.  He has regular after school activities twice a week where my services are required.

It used to be that after school activities were a series of curb side pickups and drop offs in a car you always apologised for given that it doubled as a dressing room and mini-mart.  In London however, after school activities without a car means multiple backpacks and never leaving home without an Oyster card and umbrella.  You  have to learn to do “more” in public restrooms and if trainers were forgotten, then loafers it will be.   On the plus side, crumbs are no longer your concern.

Shuttling a child to and from activities without the convenience of a car has indeed been more inconvenient, but if truth be told, I’ve found a lot of pluses that extend well beyond crumb avoidance.  After a year, we have found a rhythm to these two days that has made them more joy than chore.   

First, the snack upgrade.  With 20 minutes to kill after school before the boys need to ferry off in different directions, the three of us meet up for a quick snack somewhere near Oxford Circus.  The food options are endless with places like Joe & The Juice, Kaffeine, and Gitane (Persian food and today’s stop.)  Gone are the days of groaning about a granola bar and apple slices,  Also gone are £s.   

Second, undivided attention.  When it matters most.  You often get the unedited version of the day’s events right after school ends, before it’s either forgotten or buried.  I’ve found that I’m a much better listener in those precious 20 minutes when I’m not responsible for making the avocado toast or focusing on road and traffic conditions.  The bizarrely spotty mobile phone coverage near the kids school has also been a boost to attention.

Third, touch.  An 11 year old may be outgrowing hugs and kisses but nothing gets them to nuzzle into you like a crowded Tube or bus after a long day.  On one of the days Lawton and I head west on the Bakerloo line from frenetic Oxford Circus to Maida Vale.  We typically start our journey standing face to face until the train empties at Paddington Station when he then takes his position either on my lap or with his head on my shoulder.  When there are no watchful eyes of friends or siblings around or room to escape to, Mom is your home base.  Even in public.

His head finds a similar resting position on the other day of the week when we take a crowded bus 17 stops heading east to Islington. Together we people watch as almost the entire bus ridership turns over as the neighbourhoods change.  The transit part may be less about conversation but the physical hip to hip connection has a way of quietly restoring energy for both parent and child.  It’s something that doesn’t happen with a front seat/back seat seating arrangement. 

Fourth, alignment.  Not having a car in a big city naturally forces you to be more selective.  And when a little more skin in the game is required, it becomes clearer to both you and your child on what activities they really want to invest in. That clarity of choice helps you muscle through on days when one of you isn't feeling it or you aren’t up for all the humanity. And since my 11 year old isn't likely to become a top college basketball player or rising thespian, it is a relief to take the proverbial pedal off the gas - even when you didn’t really know you were speeding.  

Fifth, park time.  On both days I can either take the bus to meet the boys near school which takes 15-20 minutes or I can walk through Regent's Park which takes 30 minutes.  Nine out of ten times I walk.  I'm not even competing with anyone for steps.  I walk because green space has a way of elevating your mood even in the rain.  Somehow even though that time is in service of my children, the distinction between giving and receiving blurs when I'm under a canopy of trees rather than behind the wheel of a car.   

Sixth, bonus me time.  On the day I drop Lawton off in Maida Vale for basketball, the lack of good transit options going west to east without heading back into Central London means that my best options for getting home are either Ubering or walking.  Nine out of ten times I choose to bundle up for the walk and listen to a podcast.  The walk, much of it dark at this time of year, takes me 50 minutes but it’s through beautiful residential neighbourhoods where the quiet leafy streets shush the noise of the bustling city.  And because Brett tubes from work to pick up Lawton after practice and they Uber home for their own one on one time, I magically have an hour and a half in a quiet kitchen to make dinner.  

Seventh, eating out.  Sometimes it's simply not practical to get home after an activity drop off.  Instead it's more practical to spend the 90 minutes in a cozy neighborhood pub reading.  On the second night our regular schedule involves me doing that at a place in Islington called The Albion where there is always a seat near the roaring fire.   After pick up, we then meet up with Brett and Colin somewhere new for a late dinner.  Beyond the Kindle time during what is usually cooking time, there is something pretty cool about coming from different parts of the city and seeing your rosy cheeked 14 year old holding the table for your 8:15 dinner reservation. 

After school activities can be slog but there are some small rewards that open up when you ditch the car and grab an umbrella. 

A Dream

Last night I had a dream that woke me up from a dead sleep at 2am. It was so vivid and felt so real that I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’m in London in a neighborhood I don’t know. I have my camera and am doing some street photography. It’s dusk and cold. An older woman approaches me. She tells me that I should be careful as it is getting dark and the neighborhood is not safe at night, especially for someone like me. There are no other faces that look like mine in this neighborhood. She doesn’t look like me.

I tell her I’m not afraid, thank you, and that I feel safe. She insists I follow her to the nearest Tube station. She looks trustworthy. Since this is her neighborhood, I follow her even though I want to stay and take more pictures. As I follow her down a side street, a group of teens causes a distraction and one of them grabs my phone. The older woman, my escort, grabs my purse and camera and everyone scatters.

Suddenly, I’m alone and it’s quiet. Everything I had with me is gone. It’s a scam and I’ve been set up. I’m not frightened but I am furious. Furious that I’ve been set up. Furious that I was so trusting. Furious that I fell for it. Angry that maybe the warnings I had been given about people like this were right?

I shout and swear to the empty street: “Why?!” A voice of someone I can’t make out (not the woman) evenly, unemotionally answers: “Because you have everything and we have nothing and you think you see that, but you can’t really see.” My fury shrinks and turns to shame and I begin to weep. Uncontrollably and for a long time, because maybe actually, that voice is more right.

When I look up, the young man who took my phone is standing in front of me. He hands me my phone and when I ask why he is giving it back, he softly answers: “Because I saw HOW you cried.” I tell him that I could call the police. He is returning the phone to me at great personal risk. Softly again he answers: “I know.” I don’t call the police. He does not seem surprised.

Later at home, a knock on the door. My husband tells me there is a group of woman at the front door, for me. It’s the older woman. She has brought friends. She hands me my purse and camera and says sorry. The tenor of her voice tells me she means it. She tells me that she took some pictures on my camera she hoped I might like. I thank her and close the door.

Back inside, I check my purse. Everything is in it. I pull out the camera and scroll through the pictures. The photos aren’t carefully framed or the work of an artist but they take my breath away. They have captured the soul of their neighborhood -- the joys, sorrows, hardships, humor – all scenes I couldn’t see when I was trying to photograph their streets. I cry again this time a mix of tears and smiles. It’s not my stuff they wanted. It was compassion they were looking for.

I run back to the front door and open it again. The women are still standing there. They are ready with their “Yes” when I ask if they’d like to come in.

I can’t help but wonder how this dream relates to this quote I read less than 12 hours later in Beartown by Fredrik Backman:

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.”

Thanksgiving Top 20

Here's my list of 20 things that make Thanksgiving Day special.

1. 2 weeks of planning boils down to 20 minutes of eating and 200 pieces of silverware that need to be hand washed.

2. The unexpected +1 invited by your sister-in-law's second cousin turns out to be vegan and not a football fan.

3. Marshmallows meet up with casseroles, cranberries come out of cans, and jello keep it weird. Use the pass wisely.

4. The fake drama between this year's new and improved version of the brined, stuffed, organic turkey versus a Butterball out of the deep fryer. The fried bird always, always wins.

5. Name cards, napkin rings, electric knives, turkey salt and pepper shakers, Grandma's china and that embarrassing family story live to see another year.

6. Someone has overly ambitious plans for gratitude sharing around the table.

7. There's never enough mashed potatoes so you can practice being thankful for the small helping you got.

8. Somebody under the age of 10 is unhappy about being at the Kid Table and threatening to only eat a roll.

9. Everyone else is wondering how we can move that one distant relative "over the age of should know better" to the Kid Table.

10. It's totally appropriate, highly encouraged even, to double time on dessert and add liquor to your coffee.

11. You still have 12 hours before your forced to think about Christmas but are seated next to the Black Friday strategist who has already finished their Christmas cards.

12. It's a rough day for white tablecloths and single people who'd prefer not to talk about how their love life is going.

13. The smartest person in the room is the one who can get the young and old, the shy and loud, the football inclined and football resistant, to stop what they are doing and play a classic parlor game.

14. The dumbest person in the room is the one who wore skinny jeans.

15. Clean up takes a small army and is long enough that everyone's ready for leftovers by the time active duty has finished.

16. Having the wrong footwear won't get you out of the post dinner walk.

17. If you nap with your mouth open, someone will capture and share the moment.

18. In late night programming, The Return of the Gout airs. (a family drama, rated R for strong language.)

19. An emergency plumbing or ER visit is always a possibility.

20. You realize that there are family traits given and chosen and each of them have the potential to be a blessing.

 

Life is a Beautiful Ride

One of my joys this fall is that I’ve gotten back into spinning. I thought I would start spinning again right when I moved to London but it’s funny how inertia sets in when there’s been an extended gap from doing something you once did with proficiency. It took me nine months to work up the courage to give one of the boutique spinning studios a try. I felt like a fish out of water walking in alone the first time to Psycle in Central London but as soon as I clipped in, my body remembered what to do and I was hooked again. I just had my 15-Class Anniversary at Psycle which was my inspiration for writing this:

Life is a Beautiful Ride

By Kate Ballbach (Psycle Rider since 2017, Life Rider since 1970)

We ride alone in our own saddle, yes, but even in a darkened room or during a darkened time unless your eyes are glued closed, you know that we also ride together.

Sometimes we spin in circles, forgetting where we are heading, which is why it’s helpful to look up at an instructor you trust and mirror their body language until you find the beat again.

We can tune out and just ride when the coast is clear but when we need to add on or double time, we can go further and faster wherever people gather and where there is music.

The multifaceted wonder of music, that welcome distraction when we feel pain, that subtle builder of endurance, that megaphone to drive us deeper into synchronicity with ourselves.

In a world of nonstop talk, we forget that our ride does not depend on our ears or tongue. It's the position of our feet, clipped in and pedaling one push at a time, and our hands, open and not gripping too tightly, as we learn to build our core strength.

We can skate through, cheating our resistance dial, or we can choose to give it our all where we are guaranteed to get soaked in sweat but where we know it's the only way to find the zone.

The zone, where effort feels momentarily effortless and your Everest feels possible, isn't a place where we can live permanently but isn't it glorious to know we can pass through from time to time.

Life is a beautiful ride, yes, but it’s only when you get out and ride through headwinds, heartbreak hills, and heat that the promise finally makes sense.

Freaky Friday: When Your Children Become Fitter than You

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Peanut M&Ms and sports trivia used to be our currency of choice when trying to get our boys, one boy in particular, to soldier on for family hikes (see above.)   I was remembering those years of vociferous reluctance and bribery during our recent 7 day hiking trip to Slovenia

My position on family hikes has always been the caboose, in part because I like taking pictures and because in those early years one parent needed to fence in any attempted escape back to the car.  In Slovenia however, I pulled up the rear because try as I might, I couldn’t keep up.  After years of hiking exposure, that boy in particular is now the young man who bounds ahead and waits for the rest of us.   And this time it was me not them that needed cajoling to carry on. 

It’s a funny thing, those inversion moments with your children, where they are the ones whispering in your ear: “You can do it” when you’re sure you can’t.  Twice I found myself crouched on a mountain paralyzed by my overbearing fear of heights and twice my children came to my rescue, not with peanut M&Ms, but with an unwavering confidence in me.   I, not gracefully or without tears, did eventually do it.  They then hovered around me until they knew I was comfortable again before they raced ahead to the next climb.

My boys have now traveled to 29 countries.   A lot of those first trips, like our early hikes, were hard because they were young and not entirely flexible.  None of our trips were a waste but some were sacrificial.  When we set out on this commitment 5 years ago to spend our time and money on travel, we hoped that the exposure to new cultures and experiences would make them more adaptable and curious about the world.   I admit that personality, and maybe even parenting, plays a large role in how travel experiences are ingested but the mere experience of seeing a new part of the world is enough to crack open children's natural curiosities.

It seems unlikely that without that unwavering commitment they would have passed the hours hiking in Slovenia by quizzing each other -- without parental involvement -- not only on NBA stats but mostly on African capitals of the world.  Or that they would start to genuinely love it when we, no longer embarrassing parents, stopped to talk to a local and asked bare (North London slang for "very") questions.  Or that they would be willing to eat whatever was on the chef’s menu, even if that menu wasn’t in English or the ingredients weren’t recognizable.  And in Slovenia, they eat bear ... thank goodness we got the venison.

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I’ve noticed in these 5 years that as they have become more flexible travelers, I have become a more finicky one.  I’m not exactly sure why I’ve digressed while they’ve expanded -- maybe it has something to do with expectations?  More often than not when we travel, it is them urging me to be patient when service is slow, or when we get lost, or when we’re stuck in a standstill for 1.5 hours on a two lane road when it's late and we’re starving.   Whatever the reason for my backslide, it is pure pleasure to pull up your mental accounting of a trip and for there to be a legitimate zero under “kid complaints.”

Family travel is a muscle that requires exercise and like hiking, there is a point at which you as the parent will lag behind because they have become fitter than you.  Enjoy the view while you still have them in sight. 

I leave you with this beautiful quote from the book I'm reading now, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng:

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person; your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once.” 

Slovenia: A 7 Day Hiking and Eating Itinerary

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Everyone knows Switzerland is beautiful but Slovenia might be the most beautiful country you’ve never heard of.   Slovenia's tourism industry was re-birthed only 25 years ago when it gained independence from the former socialist Yugoslavia.   

If my pictures don’t do it justice, consider the chance of beauty in a country where 55% of it is covered by forests making it one of the greenest countries in the world.  Bordered by its well-known neighbors - Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia - Slovenia got a heaping serving of big mountains, enough Mediterranean coastline to be meaningful, and more than 260 waterfalls.  All contained in an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.   And with a population of just over 2 million people, there is plenty of room to spread out.  It’s enough to make you say ahhhhhhhhhhh and for no one to hear how loudly you say it.

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I’m guessing you’ve never been there since of the 4.3 million tourists to Slovenia in 2016 only 2% of them were from North America.  Tourism has been rising steadily since 2012 but most of that has come from visitors within Europe.  However that trend is now changing.  This summer Croatia was crushed with tourists who were avoiding other destinations in Europe due to terrorism fears in Greece, Italy and Turkey, and that increased volume spilled over to Slovenia.  We heard a number of people tell us that it was their busiest summer on record.  So my advice is to "Just Do It" before the secret is fully out.

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Slovenia also has a vibrant food and wine scene.   Travel and Leisure's story called "Why Slovenia Has Become One of Europe's Best Food Destinations" is an interesting read.   Part of that reputation is likely because the Slovenian people are very open to other cultures and they are proud to take inspiration and ingredients from their Italian and Austrian neighbors.    While nature and fresh air has been the cornerstone of Slovenia’s tourist draw, it’s homegrown red and white wines (90% of which are consumed in country) and inventive cooking have been creating a good deal of international buzz.

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So with outdoor activity and good eating as our dual mission, we spent a week in Slovenia in mid-October (for our school Half Term Break.)  We crafted an itinerary that had us touch down in four different locations with roughly two days in each spot.  Here’s where we went and did and what we might recommend if you were to do the same.   The country so exceeded our expectations that we have an itch to go back for a second trip to cover some areas we missed like the Southwest wine region and the Soca River valley. 

Day 1: Ljubljana

We started our trip in the capital city of Ljubljana.   We flew from London Stansted on easyJet to Ljubljana airport.    EasyJet is our least favorite airline but for £75 per person round trip, they are hard to pass up.   For this trip, easyJet was unusually hassle free and the arrival, rental car pickup and 30 minute drive into the city was easier than many commutes in LA.

You actually don’t need a car in Ljubljana which is completely manageable on foot but it was easier to pick it up and park it since we were only spending 24 hours in the city.  With a population of less than 300,000, Ljubljana is a charming town along a river with a castle on a hill and green space in every direction.  It’s picturesque and lovely and you’ll feel like you are in a storybook (in a good way) but you don’t need more than a day to see it all.  I know this to be true because I, being hopelessly directionally challenged, never get lost.  

Lodging

We stayed at the boutique hotel Hotel Cubo which I would highly recommend.   We got a double room with an interconnecting junior suite for the four of us with breakfast included.   There are cheaper options but the location and view from the third floor was great and nothing says “welcome to vacation” quite like a honeymoon circular bed.  

One of the first things we discovered in Slovenia is that like the Dutch, the Slovenians almost to a person speak very good English. English is the first foreign language they learn in primary school followed by German or Italian depending where in Slovenia they live.   It’s the default language spoken with even the European tourists.  As the guy at the Hotel Cubo desk told us, “In a country of 2 million people, to survive we need English.”    We found this to be true everywhere we traveled and it obviously made for easier communication.  

Eating

We decided to splurge on our first night in Slovenia so I booked a reservation ten days before our trip at one of the city’s current top five restaurants, Monstera Bistro.  Unimpressive from an ambiance standpoint, the contemporary but casual bistro is a destination place for a true foodie experience.   On weekends only they offer a 5 or 7 course tasting menu for dinner.  We did the 5 course tasting menu which started with a rye cracker with marinated anchovy and pork, a ceviche-like shrimp dish with dehydrated carrots, beef carpaccio, broccoli three ways, and venison with black currant reduction.  The boys liked everything as much as we did but as these gastro restaurants sometimes go, we did find our way towards ice cream afterwards to “top up.” 

The next day we had lunch at the Pivo (Beer)& Burger Fest that was going on in the center of town.  Unlike German festivals where every brat and curry wurst is basically the same because the point is more about the festival than the food,  this festival in Slovenia was totally about unique craft beers and very unusual burger creations.  Last minute intel helped us dodge the horse burger.  We just couldn’t.  I went for a (confirmed beef) unagi burger that looked better than it tasted but my Human Fish pale ale made up for the miss.   The boys had better burger luck. 

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Much to my husband’s delight, the Slovenians embrace their reputation as the environmental capital of Europe.  It was demonstrated to us not only by having well-marked rubbish and recycling bins at the festival but they also had staff at each station to insure the protocol was followed.  With the trash police's eyes on me,  I found the correct food waste bin for the unagi burger.

Day 2 and 3: The Savinjske Alps

Our next destination was in the small village town of Luce at the base of the Kamnisko Savinjske Alps.   This was the “off the beaten track” portion of our trip.   If truth be told I picked this area because I had read about a guest house called Hisa Radhua but we found this area to be as gorgeous, if not more, than the more popular destinations.

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Lodging and Eating

Hisa Raduha is a boutique family-run guest house and restaurant set in a small village on a river.  It has been in the family for five generations and started first receiving guests in 1875.  That tradition along with the modernization of an old barn, hayrack and tree houses as guest quarters – each with their own hot tub – makes it a romantic weekend destination spot for people coming from Ljubljana. 

The highlight at Hisa Raduha is their gastronomic four course dinners prepared by the current owner Martina with help from her husband and daughter.  Hisa Raduha was voted one of the top 5 regional restaurants in Slovenia in 2017.  The dining room which feels more like someone’s home than a restaurant only seats 20 people and it was booked full both nights we were there (even in shoulder season.)   Slovenian wines are paired with the locally sourced dinners and given the family run operation element, service is slow but warm.  Our first night we had black risotto with vegetables and trout, apple soup,  “paper” pork with leek sauce and chestnut pie.   It is simple food prepared so well that you have to keep from licking your plate.  It is no wonder this tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere is getting a lot of attention.   (Note: While our kids were old enough to enjoy it, it’s more a couples rather than family guest house.)

 Hike #1

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Our first hike was in the Logarska Dolina valley, one of the three valleys in the Savinjske Alps and one of Europe's most beautiful alpine glacial valleys.   A la the USA park system, we paid a small fee to enter the Logarska Valley National Park and drove to the end of the road.   We hiked up to Slovenia 's second highest waterfall (Slap Rinka) then up past the treeline and up as far as we could go before rock climbing was our only option.   The boys discovered they very much like straight up/straight down hikes whereas my knees and ankles were less sure.  This hike was also the first but not last time a local, noting our American accent, proudly mentioned First Lady Melania Trump (who is from Slovenia.)

Hike #2

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Our second hike was out of another valley, Robanov Kot, which is not a national park but is protected land with a few working mountain farms.  We parked at the last mountain farm and then climbed 3 miles and 3,000 feet, through steep alpine sections and along ridge lines, to finish on the ridge of Mt. Strelovec where we also got to sign the registry.  At the summit we were treated to an unbelievable 360 degree view of both the Robanov Kot and Logarska Dolina valleys.  We saw only one other person on the trail which speaks to how much of a hidden gem this valley is.  

Day 4 and 5: Lake Bohinj

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Our next destination was Lake Bohinj which was was less than a 2.5 hour drive.  Lake Bled, Slovenia's most iconic tourist attraction with a lake, castle and church, was in route to Lake Bohinj.  Lake Bled is beautiful but with it's proximity to the motorway and easy access from Ljubljana, the area was more built up than I expected.  Lake Bohinj on the other hand is surrounded by a national park, less a tourist attraction and more of an outdoor recreation area.   Home to what looked like a number of large camps, Lake Bohinj has all the outdoor activities: hiking, cycling, rowing, kayaking, canoeing, rope courses, rock climbing, etc.

Lodging and Eating  

Changing it up, we stayed at a self-catering apartment called Alpik Apartments in Ukanc, a small recreational community at the Southwest corner of Lake Bohinj. We were the only lodgers the nights we were there.  The apartments (of various sizes) are simple, clean, and cozy. It was a great base camp and groceries were only 10 minutes away in the main town of Lake Bohinj called Ribcev Laz.  

There were only two restaurants in Ukanc which made our two dinners easy to decide on.  Though a departure from our fancier eating earlier in the week, traditional Slovenian food is actually quite nice.  We had trout from the Lake and beef medallion cooked on the "Green Egg" (who knew the Green Egg had found distribution in Slovenia!) with local porcini mushrooms at Gostice Erlah.  Better yet was the jovial waiter Marco who sang Slovenia's praises and told us this had been the busiest summer in the restaurant's 24 years. 

Hike #3

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After two hikes with a lot of elevation gain, the boys were kind enough to oblige me with a flat hike from the apartment and around Lake Bohinj.   Bohinj is enormous, warm during the summer due to it not being very deep, home to ten types of fish, and not lined with any holiday homes.  What started as a meander around the lake on a well-groomed trail somehow turned into a duathlon day where we rented bikes and ended up walking/riding 20 miles on our “rest day.”  We rented cruiser bikes for 1.5 hours from AlpinSport in Ribcev Laz to do a loop around the valley that takes you through some traditional towns and meadows.  Highly recommend but probably only for older children as there are some sections along curvy two lane roads.    

Hike #4

Our fourth hike was climbing again but this time in the Triglav National Park where we did a 7 mile hut to hut alpine hike.  We drove to the highest trailhead in the park and did a couple of trails that took us through rocky trails and meadows.  The huts were closed for the season but it is also known as the “cheese route” as the huts serve local mountain cheeses.  We called it the “Marco Supper Club hike” as we saw two groups we had seen the night before at Marco's restaurant.

Day 6 and 7: Kranjska Gora

It’s an easy 1.5 hour drive from Lake Bohinj to Kransjka Gora, the cute village skiing resort at the foot of the other side of the Triglav National Park.  In addition to being a fantastic fall hiking spot, Kransjka Gora is best known as the destination in Slovenia for skiing and they are proud to have hosted the World Cup ski jumping championship for many years.

Lodging and Eating

The Skipass Hotel is another family run, boutique hotel but this one was built only 5 years ago. It's a 10 room/suites, modern, and very comfortable hotel run by a ski-loving family who started a travel business in Kransjka Gora 10 years before they opened the hotel. We aren’t skiers but Kranjska Gora is apparently the cheapest resort in Europe for skiing and roughly half the cost of a similar trip to Switzerland. 

Like Hisa Raduha the hotel also has an excellent restaurant that is run by one of Slovenia's best young chefs.  It's a fine dining kind of experience where as Hisa Raduha is more like being in some one's home.   Offering a set chef's menu, a set Slovenian menu, a set Italian menu, a set Austrian menu or ala carte mash up of the individual dishes, so good was the food that we ate both dinners at the restaurant.

Hike #5

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When we go flat, we go long.  For our fifth hike we did 10 miles following a river valley from the hotel to a mountain hut.  The hut (which was open) is the base camp to the start of a climb of two of the biggest peaks in the area.  Though mostly flat, you had a feeling of being up close to the peaks.

Hike #6

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For our last hike we drove from Kranjska Gora to Vrsic Pass along a well-known road with 24 marked hairpin turns on cobblestones.  The road which is only open  7 months out of the year is also known as the Russian Road because over 10,000 Russian prisoners of war built it during WW1.  Unlike all our other hikes where we felt like we had the mountains to ourselves, this was a festive hike where we saw streams of people of all ages on the trails enjoying one of the last beautiful weekends in October.  Cars in the parking lot had license plates from Slovenia, Croatia and Italy.  Most of the people were doing the same hike we choose that took you up a high climb, through a saddle and up to a grassy viewpoint that gave you beautiful vistas the entire way.   It was a glorious way to end a week of epic hikes.

Travel Tips:

  • You absolutely need a rental car to get around Slovenia but the roads are good and given that the country is only about the size of the state of Massachusetts, nothing is too far away and so you won’t be wasting precious hours in the car.

  • We flew into Ljubljana which was convenient from London but a local told us that the best value flights to Slovenia are via Venice or Munich.  Who knew?!  International flights to Venice are much cheaper and more frequent.  The Venice airport is outside the city towards Slovenia and only a 2 hour drive to Kranjska Gora.  The Munich airport is only 3 hours away.

  • Given the above point, an interesting way to visit Slovenia would be to make it part of an itinerary that included Venice, Munich, and Salzburg Austria OR going the other direction with an itinerary that included Zagreb, the Croatian coastline and Montenegro. 

  • There is not much information online about specific hiking trails but we would highly recommend purchasing regional hiking maps from KART GRAFIJA (or borrow ours!)  We bought ones for Bohinj and Kranjska Gora from the travel bookstore Stanfords in London which were excellent.   The maps combined with local advice helped us discern how to best select from the many hike options available so no day was wasted.

  • Slovenia is one of those places has something to offer almost any time of year.  High alpine hiking is as we learned fabulous in fall; late spring/early summer would be a great time for low country hiking, river rafting and the wine region; and winter for skiing and alpine sports.

Lessons from a Cookbook

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We all have that area in a bookstore where we encounter short term memory loss as to our collection at home.  Mine is the cookbook section.

A few months ago I was in Waterstones for something I can’t now remember.   Instinct took me past my favorite section.  Nudged by the prime table placement, captivated by the gorgeous photography and food styling, and peddled by an exuberant Jamie Oliver endorsement, I left (hopefully with the thing I came for though) AND a copy of Stirring Slowly by first time cookbook author Georgina Hayden. 

Since then two more cookbooks have been added.   The first was because Amazon suggested it to me as they know both my weakness and my vegan curiosity.  The second was due to arriving early to my first yoga class and channeling my 15 minutes of nervous energy in the studio’s gift store. 

When I get a new cookbook I quickly speed read through the recipes and sticky note ones I want to try.  I blow past the boring Introduction where every author tells some version of the same story about early childhood food memories with their grandmother.  I also skip the Stocking Your Pantry section because by now I have it.  I’m all about the recipes and my quest for an eggplant dish my family will finally love.  It usually takes me about 12 hours from cookbook acquisition to grocery list.

One of my first recipes from Stirring Slowly was the “Roasted Chickpea, Cauliflower and Sesame Lamb.”  It was a winner.  “Herby Puy Lentils, Greens and Smoked Mackerel” was next and also a winner until I made it often enough that one family member mentioned after 25 years together he thought I KNEW that he doesn’t really like smoked mackerel.  I reasoned if you are good with smoked salmon and tuna, smoked mackerel is game on.  And on.

I made “Sticky Carrots and Beets with Dates” for appreciative dinner company and my only complaint about the “Chorizo, Tomato and Chickpeas on Toast” is that the recipe should have demanded I double it.   The “Popeye Smoothie with Mint and Blueberries” elevated our smoothie game and the “Sausage and Wild Garlic Linguine” is now in our regular pasta rotation.

What I couldn’t put my finger on precisely was how to describe my new cookbook.  As you can probably tell from the recipes mentioned above, it was filled with a hodgepodge of recipes with lots of different ethnic persuasions that made it hard to categorize.  I just know I liked what was coming out of my kitchen … well except maybe for the “Khichdi: a traditional Indian dish with mung beans.”  The photo wasn’t even promising.  But mung beans weren’t yet in my bulging pantry and every cookbook has that recipe you feel sorry enough for to try.

The other miss wasn’t the cookbook’s fault.  If your family is convinced that the only pancake is a buttermilk pancake, you might want to skip the “Caramelized Apple, Ricotta and Hazelnut Pancakes” to protect yourself from hurt feelings that naturally come after you have pulled out the food processor, apple slicer, sieve, and electric beaters at 8am on a Saturday morning.  

Inevitably what happens after cooking through my sticky notes and removing the aspirational ones, I often hit a wall with a new cookbook.   That happened a few weeks ago with Stirring Slowly.    That’s when I crowdsource by doing a Google search to find out what other people have made and liked from my fading favorite only child cookbook.  It always turns up a few good new recipes to try.   That’s how I discovered the “An Insanely Good Blondie” recipe that somehow I had missed.  And it was insanely good according to a ravenous group of 11 year olds who forgot to leave me one. 

The Google search turned up no mentions of the mung bean recipe for good reason but it did tip me off to something else.  Somewhere, deep in a comment thread, someone made mention of the author’s, Georgina Hayden’s, tragic loss.  Curious, I searched further but couldn’t find any more details online.  So I flipped back to the Introduction of my now well-worn cookbook – the pages I had skipped over.   There after several paragraphs into a standard intro, Georgina detoured and shared how this cookbook, her first one, was born out of losing her son just before birth.   I had completely missed this detail.  One not directly important to my cooking per say but nevertheless very important to the author.     

I felt terrible for her loss in the way you do when you hear sad news about a stranger.  I don’t even know this woman.  And yet this woman had indirectly helped me put food on my family’s table for the past several months.  I was so focused on finding recipes, shopping for and then measuring out ingredients that I never considered the context for how these recipes might have come about.   I didn’t think about the person behind the cookbook.  I thought about how it was serving me and how I would serve it.  I noticed how that little piece of information shed so much more light.

I turned back to the front cover, taking in the title with more understanding, and noticing the subtitle that I had glossed over before: “Stirring Slowly:  Recipes to Restore + Revive.”  

That’s why there were so many soups and one pot meals.  Oh, I get it now.

I read the rest of the introduction where Georgina further explains: “Cooking went on to become an interesting and integral part of my healing journey.  Along the way there have been the meals that are nutritionally sound, which I know are sorting me out on the inside.  And there are recipes that take time and patience and there are the ones that are almost meditative.  Writing this book took time, and it has changed along the way – it isn’t just a collection of my favorite meals, it has been a work in progress and I’ve lived it.  The subtitle is recipes to restore and revive as I believe this applies to us all.”  

The wide range of recipes with varying levels of difficulty that defied a tidy label.  Oh, I get it now. 

I’m not writing this post to beat myself up about not reading a cookbook introduction.   I have way bigger failings than that but the story has burrowed in me for another reason.  It makes me realize that one small but important piece of information about someone can completely shift something into better focus.

When we think we know something, we skip ahead.  We don’t ask obvious questions or the question sitting just below the surface.  Instead we race ahead to find our perfect recipe rotation for purpose and passion and then collect the ingredients we need.  We focus on the data and the measurements.  We create output.  If other people factor (and they always do), we go straight to figuring out how they can be of service to us. We aren’t meaning to put people into boxes but we forget the fullness of every single person we encounter.  We forget about the person behind the book, the counter, the computer screen.  That what they are saying or doing comes from experiences they have had. 

Of course we can’t know everyone’s story and few people will ever hand us a written introduction of theirs, but aren’t we all some version of a story of love and loss?    And if we really, really believed every person has missing puzzle pieces we may never be privy to, doesn’t just knowing that cause something to shift in us that brings us past tolerance and closer to respect and genuine conversation. 

Now when I cook from this cookbook, which isn’t any more or less than I used to, I picture where in the healing process the author might have been when she wrote a particular recipe.  I imagine many of the recipes in the “A Sunny Start to the Day” helped her get out of bed on hard days or the surprising numbers of celebratory cakes were byproducts of a disciplined gratitude practice.   The insight into Georgina’s story has made me both appreciate her recipes more and cook with a little more intention.  It’s a small shift but I can’t help but think it makes me a better cook.   We will only know when I try the “Caramelized Apple, Ricotta and Hazelnut Pancakes” for a second audience.

But mostly it has challenged me to see people who I can't quite put my finger on as more than meets, at a bare minimum, my eye.  I don't have to tell you there are lots of places where you can practice this.  We all have our lists.

Also, that cookbook I recently picked up at the yoga studio … I read the entire Introduction.

A Window into a Child's Imagination

One of my memories about heading out the door for school was my Mom reminding us that she had spies watching us.  She was someone who knew the neighbors.  Mostly their job was to report if we took our hats and coats off before getting on the bus.  For a few years, until big hair and jean jackets made hats and parkas untenable, "Operation Stay Warm" worked.

Today was my boys first day back to school.  While I don't know enough neighbors to create a spy network, I may have found something even better ...

Last week our 10 year old son shared something about his life that he hadn't told anyone in detail before.  He told his 14 year old brother first, who in a fine display of teenage grace, thought it was really cool.  

That something was that our 10 years old has been in a movie for as long as he can remember.   We've heard him mention his movie a couple of times over the years but we didn't know how active the movie was playing out in his daily imagination.  He says the movie started when he was born but he only became aware of it when he was about 6 years old.  

The movie is about his life.  He is the main actor but he doesn't have to perform because the movie is about the real him and his real life.  There are about 15 people who watch his movie, seeing everything he sees through his eyes. The 15 people were born when he was born and will die when he dies and because they aren't in this world, they have time to just sit and watch his movie.  They don't talk into the screen at him but they do sit on a couch and eat popcorn.  (A few of them are also apparently overweight.)

He says he doesn't think about his movie every day, but when he does get down or bored he remembers that being in a movie is interesting.  He says the 15 people don't mind when things are a little boring but he sometimes spices it up with auditory "tutorials" like "how to properly shampoo your hair" when he's in the shower or "how to fall asleep" when he's going to bed.  Some tutorials, like "how to sit still in the hairdressers chair and make it easier for them to cut your hair" are thankfully conducted without audio.  (We now understand the regular chit chat coming from the shower.)

You might think that a kid that feels like his life is a movie would be either self-absorbed or with his head in the clouds, but Lawton is neither.  He is both empathetic and keenly observant of his surroundings.  Perhaps because the movie is about his real life not a superhero life, the movie allows him to keep his feet firmly planted in the here and now.  He seems to see the scenery, characters and lighting of life in way more color than many of us do.  Interestingly, he says he can't rewind or fast forward his movie.  (As as regular in his movie, I would have liked to cut a few scenes I didn't know were being filmed ...) 

But the most fascinating part is when he explained how being in a movie affects his life. He said that knowing people are watching makes him want to work harder and not cut corners.  (This is so much better than spies!)  And that even though the people watching his movie have seen him make mistakes and have meltdowns, they still keep watching because they are with him for life.  Also the audience will always be the same 15 people, even if his life gets way more interesting.  It's like having an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other shoulder and a small brigade as a cape.

Many of us believe in a visible and invisible world but few of us know how to articulate it.  In the unique way only a child can, Lawton has painted a picture of what that duality might look like.  A world where you are the Director and Actor of your own movie but there is a committed audience to your every move and their role is to help you bring out your best self.

Lights, camera, action ...