July Update

Uh, hi. Hello. Were you wondering where Mary went? I guess I could say I lost my keyboard or busted my iPad or fell off the face of the earth. But none of those things actually happened. I was just taking a break while in New York. Sometimes I lack that little bit of inspiration and motivation to update my blog, and I noticed feeling that way especially when I was back in my hometown. Everything there feels so familiar, which is not to say that it isn’t enjoyable, it just isn’t a new experience that I want to run home and hop on my tablet for. And voila, days turn into weeks and then a whole month passes me by.

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I spent exactly one month in New York staying with my sister and also with some of my friends. It was really special to spend time with everyone back home – my dad, my sister and her family, my aunts & uncle, my best girlfriends and their kiddos. Since I arrived there mid-June, I was able to attend the end-of-the-year school activities. I was able to celebrate at a baby shower for a good friend, a 10th birthday pool party for my niece, cheered at softball games, soccer games, enjoyed fresh air on motorcycle rides with my dad, and watched many World Cup games on the television. There was also a lot of sunning myself out by the pool at my sister’s, which has given me quite the enviable suntan. There were several day trips to nearby places like Cooperstown, Old Forge, and too many visits to local ice cream establishments. There is just something about summer in upstate NY that makes me crave soft vanilla or twist ice cream cones, covered in sugary chocolate sprinkles. Why don’t they have soft ice cream like that on the west coast?!

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Andrew has been in Seattle since May 22, which means we are coming up on two months apart. After 10 months of the two of us being together almost every day, being separated isn’t ideal, nor is it the easiest, but he had some job prospects that he wanted to pursue. I have missed having him around, that goes without saying, but I am glad he is out there with his bff, playing soccer and keeping busy with projects, job interviews, the World Cup and Sounders action. He even checked on our old house the other day, curious to see what the latest status was. Perhaps you’re interested to know that it is currently fenced off and being used for SWAT team training. Glad it’s being put to good use before it gets torn down. I think? And have I mentioned how much I love iMessage, FaceTime and Skype? Thank goodness for those things which keep Andrew and I in regular contact with each other.

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^^ chatting with Andrew via FaceTime while kitty is all up in my face

From all the jobs I have applied to so far, I have only been rewarded with one very brief phone interview which was then followed by a standard rejection email. Blah. I wrote a little bit about the ups and downs of life after the travel ends, with my abundance of mixed emotions about the uncertainty of how long we would be apart and without jobs and a home. Just as I was starting to get over that hump, wouldn’t you know Andrew gets an email from a company who wants to fly him to the east coast for a 2nd interview. A reminder, I suppose, to trust things will come together, and to take it one day at a time.

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^^ sunset over Otsego Lake in Cooperstown

As I was planning a return to my mom’s home in North Carolina after time in New York, my cousin invited me to come to Virginia to stay & help her with her 11-month old for a while following a minor surgery. She wouldn’t be able to lift the baby for 2 weeks, and since I am a registered baby hog, I naturally leapt at the chance.

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^^ I wasn’t about to say no to that face

I can’t stop expressing my admiration and sincere gratefulness to have so many family members willing to provide me with a bed, meals, alcohol, conversation, activities, love. I am so lucky.

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^^ trying to take an acceptable selfie with my aunt was a comical highlight

I will be in Virginia for a couple of weeks, and then presumably I will head back to my mom’s where I will continue the job hunt. Things are so uncertain and could change on a dime, so I really am just planning one day at a time. I really adore Virginia, so I am not the least bit sad to be here right now! I hope one of these companies will see Andrew’s incredible worth & potential, and offer him a position so I can follow suit and so we can get settled. Although there is no real news to pass along, we are on the verge of big things – I just know it. Stick around!

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Back in New York State

The beauty of feeling like I need a change of scenery in my life right now is that I can make it happen without too much difficulty. Sure I disliked departing the warm North Carolina sunshine, but I knew it was time to change venues and come spend time with my family and friends in New York.

Last week went by in a flash. My cousin Melissa and her happy-as-a-clam 10-month old came to visit my mom and I for a few days. We had so much fun hogging the baby, watching old home movies, and showing them around Old Salem and Mount Airy. After they departed, it was time to pack my bags not for the west coast, but for a road trip up the other coast.

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^^ I mean, I dare you to try and resist this little lady

Trust me when I tell you my parents know a lot of people. Even though I am from a very small town in upstate NY, it never stops blowing my mind just how many people we know who are spread out across the East Coast and therefore driving up and down the coast from time to time. A couple of weeks ago my mom and I were brainstorming a plan to get me up to New York. My mom’s eyes opened wide when a lightbulb went off in her brain that family friends would be in nearby Virginia visiting their grandkids, and therefore driving back to NY afterwards. We phoned them up, asked a favor, and on Saturday I was in the back seat with their sweet dog Gracie, traveling through VA, WV, MD, PA and finally NY. Bam. That was easy.

Things came together so quickly that I didn’t really reach out to let people know I would be arriving back in NY, apart from my dad and sister. Despite that, I have already had a fantastic bbq lunch with two aunts, an uncle and three cousins who were in town for the weekend. I got to see my niece play soccer ((and score a hat trick!)), and celebrate Father’s Day with my dad. And by celebrate I mean break his chops as much as possible. I also ran into three girls from high school, whom I haven’t seen since I graduated oh so long ago, and told me they loved following my blog which of course made my day.

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^^ cousin time is the best. one of them even joined in via facetime!

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I get to see my best girlfriends this coming weekend, which is sure to be filled with enough laughs and shenanigans to make my stomach sore for days. Other plans with family and friends will certainly be added to the agenda while here. I can’t wait to play soccer in the side yard and swim in the pool with my nieces and nephew. Of course I will continue to apply for jobs and hold out hope that someone will contact me to set up an interview. I shall stay until the wind changes, or maybe until I arrange a ride back to North Carolina.

I am still terribly missing my husband, but I will relish in some me time, knowing we will soon be reunited. The adventure continues…stay tuned!

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^^ father’s day with sister & my dear old dad

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Stopovers in Iceland with Icelandair

Did you know many airlines offer what’s called a stopover at no additional cost when you fly with them? Say you have a connection in a foreign city, which is a major hub for that airline, before reaching your final destination. Well, you can delay your connecting flight for several days to explore the layover city/country.

I first discovered this sweet stopover thing back in 2010 when I was planning a trip to the UK with Andrew to visit his family. Direct flights to London with British Airways were fantastic, but the price started to creep up to be over $1,000 round trip. We then started seeing bus adverts in Seattle for Icelandair. Not only did they offer service from Seattle to London, but you can stopover in Iceland for up to a week at no additional cost. We were immediately sold not only on their reasonably priced flights, but also on the chance to spend a couple days exploring Reykjavik, someplace where Andrew had always wanted to visit.

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^^ just imagine seeing the northern lights! photo from Icelandair website

This stopover was a genius idea to get visitors to Iceland to help pump money into their flailing economy after the massive economic crisis in 2008. What better way to show the world the Icelandic way of life and the utter beauty of this interesting country?

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^^ you, too, could be right here soaking in that hot water at the Blue Lagoon

From the moment we landed at Keflavik International Airport in December of 2010, we were hooked on Iceland. The people are so incredibly friendly, and the scenery is even more breathtaking that I imagined. Virtually everyone I know who has been to Iceland shares that sentiment of immediately falling for this tiny little nordic island.

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^^ photo from Icelandair website

Andrew and I have done the stopover twice now, and have since decided a short couple of days is not nearly enough time spent in Iceland. We stuck mostly around Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon, and the airport in Keflavik both visits, fighting jet lag and the time zone change. We are desperate to get back and stay for longer so we have time to rent a car and drive around the island, to see the waterfalls, glaciers and horses that I’ve admired in countless photographs since my obsession with Iceland began.

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^^ photo from Icelandair website

During the past year, I flew to and from London via Icelandair and it felt 50 shades of wrong to not have a stopover planned either direction. I felt sad sitting at Keflavik airport for a few hours between flights, unable to leave the airport and go exploring a country that I have fallen in love with.

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^^ photo from Icelandair website

If you are planning a visit to Paris, London, Manchester, Oslo, Bergen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Milan or any one of the other dozen destinations they fly to from the US and Canada, you must consider a stopover in Iceland. Currently, these flights are available from Seattle, Anchorage, Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, DC, Orlando, NYC and Boston, as well as a few hubs in Canada. I have no doubt Icelanair will add additional North American locations in the future.

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^^ photo from Icelandair website

Andrew and I are already plotting a Scandinavian adventure for hopefully the not-so-distant future when we are able to travel again, which will most definitely include a stopover in Iceland – long enough to drive around the entire island. This country is so special to us in many ways and we can’t wait to get back there.

Stopover aside, Icelandair has quickly become my favorite airline. A great fleet, laid back yet kind employees, ample choices of in-flight music, movies, information about the flight and Iceland right at your seat all make for a seamless transatlantic flight. If you are planning a trip to Europe, add a stopover in Iceland and see for yourself what all the hype is about. I promise you won’t be able to stop thinking about how soon you can plan your return.

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^^ aerial downtown Reykjavik photo from Icelandair website

Have you done a stopover in Iceland?

((although many of these photos are borrowed, the opinions are my own))

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this part sucks

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I started writing this post one evening recently when I was feeling particularly miserable and sad for myself. Since then, I’ve felt a little bit silly of it because things could be so much worse. Everyone has their struggles and this current situation of mine isn’t really something many people are going to sympathize with. I’m coming off a period of ten months of not only unemployed by choice, but also spending precious time with family and adventuring around the US and parts of Western Europe with my darling husband. Then I talked myself into publishing it because 1) I’m still a human being with a few real feelings, and 2) this blog is my public journal chronicling the adventures, including the not-so-hot moments.

I am not going to sugar coat it. This part is difficult. The part where I am back in the US but still without a job or a place to call my own. I’m apart from Andrew, while he’s on the west coast pursuing what will hopefully become opportunities for employment; not sure when we will reunite. I’m feeling let down from the halting of almost a full year of adventures, and in some capacity I’m not ready for it to end. I’ve spent more money than I feel comfortable with, and therefore I am not really participating in much other than working on my suntan, reading books ((serious shout out to public libraries everywhere)), applying for jobs and desperately hoping I will be contacted for interviews, trying to avoid writing super depressing blog posts ((and failing)), and feeling overwhelmed by pangs of FOMO ((that’s what the kids are saying these days; stands for fear of missing out)) more than I’d care to quantify. There is nothing on the calendar to think about or plan and look forward to. Apart from the impending World Cup, that is, which I am very VERY excited about.

Even though I still want to hop on the next plane and visit yet another destination on my never-ending wish list, in some ways I am ready to settle down. I need to replenish my savings, so I am coming to terms that it is indeed time to get on with life as I used to know it.

I have been fortunate to stay with so many generous family members throughout the year, and I hope my complaining won’t take away from the appreciation, but I am ready to sleep in my own bed, prepare meals in my own kitchen, have space that is mostly mine with all own my crap cluttering the surfaces.

Before Andrew and I departed Seattle, I was so ready to bid farewell to the Emerald City. I called it the seven-year itch. I was missing both families and moreover just ready to experience new cities to see where I may want to live when our travels were coming to an end. Plus I thought I had seen all I needed to see of Seattle in my seven years spent there.

Well guess what? I have been missing the West Coast a lot over the past few months. I couldn’t quite pinpoint if it was because it was the most recent familiar place that was home for me, or if I genuinely missed physically being there. Maybe it is a little bit of both. Thinking about the brutal New England winters and sweating through hot & humid summers in the southern tier do not have the greatest appeal to me. Especially the hot part due to my general disgust for people wearing shorts, myself included, which is why I own exactly one pair and try not to be seen in public wearing them.

In my humble yet expert opinion, the food, scenery, progressiveness are all better on the west, and a long weekend could mean a jaunt to Crater Lake, Arizona, San Francisco, Vegas, British Columbia, Pacific Beach, or any place that can satisfy my In-N-Out cravings. I can’t help but think the West Coast still suits us the best. Maybe I really am a PNW girl after all?

I have also come to the realization that like so many others, I will always be torn between where I live and where I wish I was. If I continue to live on the West Coast, I will miss being around for East Coast birthdays, other life events and everyday activities. If I live on the East Coast, there is a good chance I’ll be longing for the West Coast. Not to mention missing out on most happenings with family in the UK no matter where we are in the US. Until, of course, someone offers me free use of their private jet. Anyone??!!

Right now, our focus is currently on targeting some places in the Northwest, but since we are both at the mercy of employment and receiving a paycheck again, job offer(s) will determine ultimately where we settle. So all this could change if nothing happens within the coming weeks, and I am not naïve to that because, well, what ends up happening is usually the opposite of what I say is happening. But for right now, I am hoping I will be called to once again pack my bags; this time for a flight to the left coast. And in the not so distant future, I will appreciate these rough times, for they make the joyful peaks that much more gratifying.

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Memorial Weekend & Family

I spent the recent Memorial Weekend here in the US doing exactly what I wanted. Laying on a beach, listening to the waves crashing and seagulls shrilling, being beckoned into the ocean water by my nephews. Sometimes I forget how much of a pisces I am, and just need a weekend near the water. Not only did I spend some much needed time with my feet in the sand, I ended up doing some other spontaneous activities that made the weekend nothing short of spectacular, reminding me that family is everything.

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After dropping off Andrew at the airport in Raleigh to fly west, I continued east to coastal North Carolina. My sister and her family would be awaiting my arrival for the weekend, although my nephews didn’t know I would be there when they got off the bus to surprise them.

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After spending part of Friday sunning myself at Wrightsville Beach, my sister mentioned to me there was a Wilmington Hammerheads home soccer game that evening and I decided we had to go. The boys would love it. I would no doubt enjoy it. The five of us piled into the car, grabbed burgers for dinner on the way, and headed to Legion Stadium.

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The Hammerheads are a USL Pro team, who’s season runs April through September. It was my first game not only in Wilmington, but also my first USL game. Tickets were $8 for everyone that evening – what a decently reasonable family night out! My mom and her significant other would be meeting us at the stadium on their way back from a vacation spent at the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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Let me shout from the rooftops how fantastic the Hammerheads experience was. The crowd was excited; there was lots of kids/families in attendance; Sledge the Hammerhead mascot was making his way around the field and grandstand during pre-game activities. The guy seated next to me mentioned the boys could go on the field to make a tunnel when the players are announced, and after a little hesitation, both decided they would participate. We waved to them and took photos as they passed by on their way to the center pitch, to prepare their tunnel for the players’ introduction.

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If that wasn’t enough excitement, there were Hammerheads tshirts thrown into the crowd with each goal – there happened to be 5 that night in a 5-1 rout of the Pittsburgh opponent. A local Special Olympics team of cheerleaders performed at halftime which was completely heartwarming and fun to watch. After the game, the kids could all meet the players and get their team sheet, shirts, shoes, arms autographed. It was such a special night to be a part of. It always makes me smile to see a community supporting their local soccer club, and it is very evident Wilmington loves their Hammerheads.

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^^ my iPhone doesn”t take the best nighttime pics, but we couldn’t resist a photo op with a former Seattle Sounders player who now plays for Wilmington AND was man of the match that evening!

Sunday we spent as a group on Long Beach at Oak Island. Monday, we loaded our beach towels, sandwiches and sunblock into the car and headed to one of my favorite places on the East Coast – Bald Head Island. I wrote about it here during my road trip across the US. My mom had never been to the island and endured years of my sister and I telling her how beautiful it is. We spent the day biking and golf carting around the island, lunching on a beach, venturing out to a sandbar, sunbathing at another beach, body surfing on the waves. I can never get enough of this island. It reminds me of the simple life. I get such a high from riding my rented cruiser bike on the pathways through the trees. There are no cars, no commercial areas. Just peaceful existence. If you get a chance to spend a day or longer there, trust me it is worth it.

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I only wished my dad, my other sister and her brood were able to join us in North Carolina for the holiday. The weekend got me to thinking about how grateful I am for a family that loves and supports me. Maybe it is because I am the baby of the family, but every single one of them would do anything for me. They’ve always had that mentality. I’ve stayed with each of them during the past ten months; they’ve fed me and made sure I was happy and had whatever I needed. And not only do I have an immediate ((and extended)) family in the US that supports me, I have one in the UK who does the same. The Darbyshire family treats me like one of their own. They also share the mentality of doing anything for Andrew and I. How lucky am I? And I don’t want to take any of it for granted for one minute.

Mom, Dad, Kate, Greg, Beck, Druce, Keith, Sue, James, Emma, Alex, Rosie, Peter, Stephanie, Nan, Bob, Lynne, Nate, Shawn, Evandro, Donna, Dennis, and since friends are family too, James, Kyle, Lindsay, Angela – THANK YOU ALL from the bottom of my heart for loving, supporting Andrew and I and giving us a bed to sleep in and countless delicious meals in our bellies. You are individually and collectively the reasons we could embark on this adventure. We wanted to spend time with each of you; get to know you even more; bring some adventure and Andrew-and-Mary-brand happiness to your homes; have you get to know us as a couple a little better, which has been a rare occurrence while we lived on the West Coast.

Although I may not fully realize the impact of this past year for some time, I do already feel & understand the gratitude I have for all of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

((There are a number of additional friends and family, who aren’t mentioned by name here, but have loved & supported us unconditionally, and we absolutely appreciate you, too, and thank you.))

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Mary in Paris: The Sights

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Now that you’ve seen/read about my visit to the Eiffel Tower and What I Ate, how about taking a tour around Paris with me to see some of the other sites?

Paris is just as spectacular as you would imagine. Maybe even more so. Sometimes you get so hyped up about a place, which is then followed by disappointment or confusion at it not being what you thought. To me, Paris was every bit that I envisioned. Apart from the amount of street performers playing accordians. I wanted more of that. I only saw two playing on the Metro and one playing on Pont des Arts bridge. I suppose I hoped a sweet old Parisian man would follow me around Paris the entire weekend playing Edith Piaf tunes on his accordion as my own personal soundtrack.

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As with the Eiffel Tower, I am still blown away that I stood in front of each of these famous landmarks. Being in Paris for a weekend meant there really wasn’t ample time to go inside and thoroughly explore each of them. So we admired from a short enough distance, waited for the rain to pass, and got the photographic reminders of being there in that very moment.

Musée de Louvre

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Pont des Arts

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Sacre Cœur

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Notre Dame

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Arc de Triomphe

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I refuse to select a favorite sight, but I will say I was most surprised at how photogenic the Louvre was. Nearly impossible to get a bad photo of it from any angle, and there are lots of angles because that place was huge.

After painfully longing to visit Paris for much of my life, I am left contemplating which location now takes over as the object of my desire. A return to Paris is obviously a must, but it won’t be the same deep longing for someplace I’ve never been. I need a new place to obsess over. Eating my way through Italy comes to mind since we never made it there this time around. New Zealand? Scandinavia? Although I may never deeply long for a solo city like I did Paris, something tells me it won’t take much time at all to feel those reoccurring pangs of voracity to plan another sizable adventure.

How grateful I am to Mr. & Mrs. D for showing me Paris. It was most definitely a weekend to remember.

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Mary in Paris: What I Ate

Food. It is kind of my thing. Ok, completely my thing. Therefore, it only makes sense to tell you what I ate in Paris. Also, you should assume the components below were all accompanied by large amounts of wine or vodka mojitos.

French Macarons
French macarons have nothing to do with those flaky toasted coconut things called macaroons we have in America. It is difficult to believe I tried my first French macaron only as recent as about a year ago at a French bakery in Seattle, called Le Rêve, after a co-worker informed me of what I was missing in life. Seeing and tasting those sugary, fluffy little pillows was love at first sight. Ever since, I’ve been on a mission to try macarons practically everywhere I go. But true French macarons in Paris are taking it to a whole new level.

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I did some research on the best macarons in Paris, and quickly noticed the same two places were always mentioned – Ladurée and Pierre Hermé. I made it my mission to find both, try their macarons, and decide for myself which is the best in Paris.

I didn’t have to go far to find Ladurée because they have a large storefront and tea room on the Champs-Élysées just around the corner from the apartment we stayed in for the weekend. I waited in the long line of people, but before long it became my turn to place an order. The large dessert offering looked like delightful works of art, and I was tempted to stray from my plan of macarons only, but I snapped out of it and requested four macarons ((€1,90 each)): 2 pistachio ((always pistachio)), 1 salted caramel, and 1 lemon. They were incredibly flavorful, but a little on the soft side. I have come to prefer a just slightly harder, crispy outer macaron shell with a soft and creamy ganache filling. The flavors were undeniable, and overall the macarons were extremely nice.

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Later that same day, I found myself at Pierre Hermé. I wasn’t intending to perform my macaron test all on the same day for fear of sugar overload, but there is no way I could have walked by without going inside. It was a small boutique with lots of chocolates, teas, cakes, and other goodies for purchase. Once again, I somehow focused solely on the macarons. This time there was no line, and I had to decide quickly which flavors to select. No messing around, if this is the best, I shall go with SIX please ((€2,10 each)): 1 pistachio, 1 chocolate, 1 lemon, 1 caramel, 1 olive oil & vanilla, and 1 mysterious flavor.

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I am going to get straight to the point. Pierre Hermé macarons have got to be the best in Paris. So what if I only performed my research at two places. I am convinced after a small sample size and many other people writing and voicing the same sentiment – these were the best. I have no idea how the bakers/pâtissiers/creators, or whatever you call a person who makes macarons, pack so much flavor into such a small dessert. The olive oil and vanilla was my favorite of the bunch if I had to pick – because it was unexpectedly creamy and subtle. Each of the flavors were incredibly delectable though. Pierre Hermé gets it right on the macaron front on every level, and tucking into macarons from one of his ten locations within Paris is a must.

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French Onion Soup
My first meal in Paris was at Café Kléber near the Jardin du Trocadero. I wasn’t overly hungry for a big meal, and when I noticed Soupe a l’onion on the menu, I knew that would be my selection.

Delightfully salty, full of soft onions and topped with soggy bread below an inch-thick layer of cheese, my first official onion soup in France was incredible.

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Nutella banana crepes
You didn’t expect me to visit Paris without eating my weight in crepes, did you? I am not sure if Parisians eat crepes, or if it just us tourists, but I enjoy them very much. Why bother with any other flavor that smooth, chocolatey Nutella accompanied by perfectly ripe sliced bananas? Ahhh, bliss.

Croissants & baguette ((and any other bread item straight from the boulangerie))
I am going to be honest here. You have not had true croissants and fresh baguette until you’ve had them in France. All other versions are simply not worthy. I can no longer think of bread the same way. During my visit to Salviac in southern France in January, we would walk to one of the two bakeries in the village and order our morning croissants and baguette for the day. And soon devour them. French bread is so simple and so fresh. The baguettes and croissants are a crispy golden brown on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. Nothing is pre-sliced. There are no preservatives; they are baked that day and meant to be sold and consumed the same day. No simpler and greater lunch in France is complete without a baguette and also it would make sense to include some butter and cheese.

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I cannot help but be disappointed in most bread ever since my two visits to France this year. I am just underwhelmed by the processed pre-sliced junk here in the US ((with the exception of legit bakeries like Camino Bakery in Winston-Salem who do make a mean loaf of crusty bread)). Take me back to France!

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Falafel
At some point over the past year, I read a few blogs about Paris and L’Aus du Fallafel and how spectacular it is. I had no choice but to add it to my Paris list, and track down the little establishment in Le Marais and try it for myself.

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My father-in-law went ahead while Andrew took some photos, and he soon came back to inform me that my falafel place was closed. Oh the disappointment. Andrew suggested we go down Rue de Rosiers anyway, to have a look and maybe take a few photos. I had seen images of the official L’Aus online and knew what to look for. We passed by the falafel restaurant that was closed Mondays, bragging on it’s outside facade that it was the best falafel in the world. HA! That’s not the place I’m looking for, I exclaimed. Guess what? The real house of falafel was open with a line of customers waiting to place their orders. Most of them were Americans. I guess we love our fallafel? I stood in a downpour and placed my order of one classic falafel pita and paid the €6 with the order-taker and waited at the window for my perfect little creation to be passed over the counter and into my arms.

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No big deal. It was only the best falafel of my entire life. Perfectly crispy outside, and not in an overly fried way, with a soft inside. The flavor of the other fillings like fresh cucumber, cabbage, eggplant and hummus or tahini sauce ((can’t recall which it was)) complemented the falafel perfectly, all folded into a beautiful pita. I can’t stop thinking about that little meal full of love, and without a doubt I could eat at L’Aus du Fallafel several times a week. Again, I demand, take me back to Paris!

As usual, I ate my way through the weekend. And yet there is so much more to taste in Paris. One of the countless reasons to return!

What is your favorite thing to eat in Paris?

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Mary in Paris: The Eiffel Tower

Ahhh, Paris.

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What is the one thing that comes to mind when you think of Paris? Must be the Eiffel Tower. That stunning iron lattice structure which is undoubtedly the symbol of romance and architectural artistry. It is the one spot that cannot be missed on a girl’s first time in Paris. Am I right?

After canceling what was to be three weeks in Paris with Andrew in order to come back to the US and help my mom with her recovery after thyroid surgery, I still knew at some point in the future I would get to Paris. It would always be there waiting for me. I just didn’t think I would be there so soon.

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As I was packing my bags in America, getting ready to fly back to England for one final month, I received a message from my father-in-law that sounded like this “Via Eurostar. You start in Stansted [UK]. May 9 – 12 sound good?” I had to read the message several times to fully grasp what it might mean. “To Paris? Absolutely!!” I replied. He then confirmed “Just leave it to your tour operator,” and I was left stunned from the conversation. Am I really going to Paris this year?

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Between that conversation and the actual weekend in May, there was a wedding, a funeral, a wedding party, visits to London & Cambridge, time with the nephews and neice, as well as countless other daily activities to keep me busy. I didn’t think too much about Paris, and didn’t want to get wrapped up in the thought of stepping foot on Parisian soil in case something came up that prevented us from going. I’d rather not suffer the disappointment.

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The morning of May 9th came around and there was no denying I would be in Paris later that day with Andrew and his parents. Quite a fitting way to spend my last weekend in Europe for the foreseeable future, eh?

After sleeping much of the drive from the Eurostar tunnel in Calais, I woke in time to battle Mr. D at a little game of ‘who can be the first to spot the Eiffel Tower,’ which appeared in the distance as we came around a bend in the motorway approaching Paris. I think he beat me by just a split second, but hey he’s done this countless times before and should be the one to win at this game! The four of us checked into our sweet little apartment just off the Champs-Élysées in the 8th arrondissement with not much time to spare for our first and very important activity in the City of Light…a visit to the Eiffel Tower. It is the most-visited paid monument in the world, after all, even though it was originally thought of as a useless eyesore by so many when it was proposed and subsequently completed by Gustave Eiffel and his engineering company in 1889.

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Leading up to our trip to Paris, Mr. D booked the four of us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Tower. It would include a ride to the the 2nd Floor observation platform, a rooftop walk around a small area atop the Le Jules Verne restaurant housed in the Tower, and underground visits to a bunker as well as an area underneath a leg/base of the Tower which contains the incredible hydraulic machinery that operates the lifts ((elevators)).

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Our tour guide, Paul, was incredibly informative, accompanied by his own brand of wit which I enjoyed. He led us around the grounds, underground, and up into the Tower for about an hour and a half before leaving us to enjoy the view at the 2nd floor. If you have ever been to the 324 meter Eiffel Tower, you know the lines in and around it are always incredibly long. Since we were on a 1.5 hour behind-the-scenes tour, we were lucky enough to skip much of the lines and waiting, which was well worth the price of the tour ticket. The four of us decided to forego the long lines and admission ticket to the very top platform, or 3rd floor, of the Tower. We were told it can take an hour and a half wait each way just to get up and back, so we were content with the 2nd floor platform. It felt like we were incredibly high off the ground while up there and not far from the very top, but later looking at the Tower from afar, it seemed quite the opposite! The top is a good distance from the 2nd floor, and the 2nd floor didn’t look all that high off the ground from a distance.

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To be honest, I wasn’t overly taken away with the underground parts of the tour, although it was certainly interesting and unexpected and I would recommend choosing this tour as a way to visit the Eiffel Tower. As clearly as Paul explained how the machinery operates the lifts, it is too much engineering for my simple and non-engineering brain. What I loved about this tour was the view from the small rooftop of the restaurant, it felt like a secret area that only we had access to, as well as taking my time wandering around the 2nd floor platform. It is an absolutely stunning view of Paris, as you would imagine. Even though the sky was somewhat cloudy, the sun was still present for much of that afternoon, and it would turn out to be our best & driest day in Paris.

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After millions of photographs and what felt like enough time at the Tower, the four of us decided we would head to a cafe in order to satisfy our growing hunger. We crossed the Pont d’léna towards the Jardins du Trocadéro, and took a million more photos from here, which could quite possibly be the best spot in Paris for Eiffel Tower photographs. It was even the spot for my classic jumping photo – what can I say, I’m big in France.

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^^ down the stairs we go!

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After dining at nearby Cafe Kléber for my first meal in Paris ((I had French Onion soup, baguette, lots of wine, and nutella & banana crepes, obviously)), the sun began to set and the sky was turning a royal blue – my favorite time of day. The four of us walked back over towards Trocadéro for night time photos of the Eiffel Tower. The iconic structure was just as breathtaking at night as it is during the day. No sooner did we arrive back at the Palais de Chaillot ((the complex overlooking the gardens and Eiffel Tower)), did the Tower begin to sparkle with white blinking lights as we stood there with so many other visitors to the famous city. The crowd gasped and cheered. Yes I had a carafe of rosé with dinner and was feeling happy from that, but I couldn’t hold back the emotion of seeing this magnificent symbol in the city I longed to visit for so many years. It was a moment that I will always remember. One of those moments when everything around you stops and you aren’t sure if you are breathing or if it is real life because it is so astounding that it genuinely hurts. I am truly here right now, I thought. And it felt completely and utterly magnificent.

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No first visit to Paris is complete without going up into the Eiffel Tower. I highly recommend the behind-the-scenes tour, which is €22,90 for adults ((approximately $31)). Be sure to book in advance on the website! Once the tour is finished, you may spend as long as you like on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the Tower.

For the best public views of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, head to Jardins du Trocadéro, Palais de Chaillot, Tour Montparnasse and the rooftop terrace of the Galleries Lafayette.

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More Mary in Paris posts to come!

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Pubs of Southeast England

Samuel Pepys once said pubs are the heart of England.

One of the absolutely quintessential experiences in the UK is to walk to your local pub and order a pint, maybe with a plate of fish and chips or bangers and mash; to meet your friends after work for a few; or to join your family at the pub for a Sunday roast with all the fixings.

Public House: also called a pub or local; open to the public; serves beer/wine/spirits as well as food in most cases; tied to a specific brewery and therefore only serves that brand of beverages

Free House: a type of pub that can serve any brand of beer they wish, and are not tied to a specific brewery

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The amount of pubs and free houses in the towns and villages around where I am based in the UK are plentiful. It didn’t take too many miles to photograph the local establishments. Yet I’ve only been to two of the twelve photographed in this post. Sadly, that is likely the case for more than just me.

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This is because, unfortunately, frequenting pubs for many Brits is on the decline these days. During times of recession and overall financial strain, most people forego a few pints at the pub and spend more time eating and drinking at home. This, in turn, causes strain on the pubs, and sometimes forces them to close down. Some are bought and turned into regular restaurants. Some, because they remain zoned or assigned as public houses, lack buyers and sit in disrepair for years.

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^^ The Three Colts is just up the road from Andrew’s parents home in Stansted and would be our local if it was not derelict for the past eight or nine years.

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Some of the oldest buildings in the UK are pubs. And most that I have come across are truly gorgeous, with such history. Although pubs today do not serve the purpose they once did, much like those photogenic red telephone booths, I hope they will stand the test of time. After all, you can’t go on living without your heart.

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^^ bonus points if you can tell me which famous English chef’s parents own & operate this establishment!

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Each of the pubs photographed in this post are in Hertfordshire or Essex.

Where is your favorite English pub located?

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Chocolate Wasted at Cadbury World

Growing up on Pleasant Street in wee little West Winfield NY, many of my childhood weekends were spent watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at the neighbors, the Danovitz’s, along with my sister and a large bowl of homemade popcorn. I have watched that movie as a child and adult no less than one hundred times. And never get sick of it. I love chocolate, Gene Wilder, and so that movie is everything.

Last Tuesday evening I was trolling the Twitterverse and happened to see a tweet about Cadbury World. WHAT?! Such thing exists? Perhaps you’ve heard of Cadbury creme eggs?? Or Cadbury dairy milk buttons? Well this World of Cadbury does exist, and without hesitation I quickly sprung to action to plan a visit there.

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Browsing the website, I learned CW is located on the outskirts of Birmingham, and on most Thursdays throughout the year, they have a 2 for 1 admission deal called Purple Thursdays, so long as you book in advance. I glanced at the calendar and confirmed I only had two full and one partial Thursdays left in the UK. The following Thursday, Andrew’s brother and wife would be moving into their new home so we’d be helping with the move and/or watching the kids. The Thursday after that, I would be at Heathrow Airport boarding my plane back to the states. It would have to be that week; two days from when I learned of the existence of Cadbury World. I am always up for a deal, but would they have any available spots left on such short notice? I phoned up the kind people of CW reservations Wednesday morning, and they informed me they had a 1:10pm opening for the following day. YES! Sign me up for 2 adults please!

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As Wednesday went along, I couldn’t stop thinking about Cadbury World. Even though Gene Wilder would not be present to keep anyone from falling in a chocolate river, I still thought visiting a chocolate factory is a dream come true.

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Then, all of a sudden, a pang of guilt came over me. Thursdays were usually our day to spend time doing fun activities with the nephews. I thought of my sister-in-law, probably in a panic trying to pack up their house for the impending move. And here I am jaunting off to Birmingham to eat my weight in chocolate. Hmm. Would she let us bring the boys with us? When I suggested this idea to Andrew, he looked at me like I was utterly out of my mind. What do you mean bring two toddlers to a chocolate factory?! Well, once I said it out loud, there was no changing my mind. So long as the parents were ok with it, we would be taking a road trip to Cadbury World with two boys, ages 2 and almost 4.

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Needless to say, sister-in-law Emma thought it would be a great idea and told me the boys would love it. Andrew & I packed up the car with a stroller ((called a pram or push-chair in the UK)), lunches, books, and Thomas’ only choice of music for the 2.5 hour journey each way – a Bruce Springsteen greatest hits cd. On the verge of turning 4 and he already knows good music.

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The boys were so good for such a long car ride. We only needed to pull over once along the motorway – to grab the books out of the back of the car and ok maybe also to turn on the child locks on each back door after one was slightly opened while the car was in motion ((shhhhh don’t tell the parents!)). We arrived at Cadbury World after just a few “are we nearly there?” questions from the back seat contingent. The four of us ate our lunches at a table in the cafe and excitedly awaited our entry to the exhibition.

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^^ simple enjoyment at the vending machines

When you enter the Cadbury World exhibition, you weave your way through a total of thirteen different areas, each telling a piece of the Cadbury story. Such as how it started out as a tea shop before cocoa was brought to Britain. How the chocolate factory and surrounding buildings, housing employees, a school and hospital, was like a village unto itself. Also you learn about how well the factory employees were treated, given benefits and paid especially well for that time.

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What I loved about Cadbury World
- One of the very first things I noticed was how pleasant the employees at CW were. Incredibly kind and friendly to us, they clearly love their jobs. Every single one of them, from the ladies taking our photograph against the green screen, to the gentleman welcoming us to the packaging area, seemed genuinely glad to have us as their guests.
- You may see and peruse each part of the exhibit at your own pace.
- Tasting the warm liquid chocolate with your choice of treat ((I chose rice crispy balls)) in the Chocolate Making Zone.
- Coming home with TWELVE full size candy bars and FOUR small bags of dairy milk buttons, given to us throughout the tour. It is a ridiculous amount of chocolate even for a chocoholic, yes, but nonetheless an appreciated perk of visiting CW.
- Riding Cadabra not once, but two times! Cadabra is Cadbury World’s version of Disney”s Its a Small World. You sit in a car which drives along a track, while animated chocolate eggs sing, dance and feature in all sorts of difference scenes.
- Both boys were allowed free admission since they are under 4. With so many places making you pay for children older than 2 and this being such a kid-friendly establishment, it was a pleasant surprise to see children under 4 could enter for free!

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^^ making silly faces on Cadabra

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^^ the takeaway ((minus 1 bar and bags of dairy buttons))

What I wish was different
- Although it is spelled out in the brochure that Cadbury World is not a tour of the factory and they cannot guarantee everything will be operational during your visit, I still wish we could have seen actual production of the chocolate or chocolate bars. We did get to see demos of chocolate popsicles being made in moulds, and in one of the Packaging rooms, you could watch videos of Cream Eggs, dairy milk buttons, and Roses going through the machines into their respective packaging. I was told via Twitter, that they are working on creating a new section that should appeal to this desire to see the operational factory, so perhaps that will be a great addition to the exhibit.
- I wish the weather had been pleasant so the boys could enjoy the outdoor African Adventure play area, and we all could have wandered through the rest of the Cadbury site & Garden Village of Bourneville where the employees lived, worked, and raised their families. With the temperamental weather in the UK, I am surprised the Adventure play area was not contained in a covered area enabling it to be utilized during rainy days.

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Most my friends and family know how much I love being an aunt to nine sweet children. Spending so much time with all of them during different times over the last nine months has made my heart swell with love. Such a special day with Thomas and Harry on their own at Cadbury World was a definite highlight. They were so well behaved the entire time, and I hope they will remember their Cadbury World outing with Uncle Andrew and Auntie Mary for the rest of their lives.

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^^ sign of a great day

If you are planning a visit to Cadbury World, book in advance to take advantage of deals such as Purple Thursday. Full price adult admission is £15.95 ((or approximately $27)), and children ages 4 – 15 can enter for £11.70 each. As mentioned, under 4s go free! Make sure to allow yourselves a couple of hours to enjoy all CW has to offer. Go with children if it is an option. Seeing each bit through they eyes of children makes it all the more enjoyable and special!

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