I Heart Containers

Big Cutie was on a school field trip today across the city that required four train changes, and so I insisted I go and pick her up.  It was one of the more complicated and stressful train adventures I’ve had in our years in Tokyo and on the way to meet her, I was so focused on finding the location that I didn’t notice much about my surroundings.

But on the way back, hand in hand, we chatted and looked around, and started popping into stores as we walked since Little Cutie would not be home until much later from Karate class.  We made some great finds!

Since we both were hungry, we stopped at an adorable tempura shop where we each had a heaping platter of vegetables, miso soup and tea for a grand total of ¥800.  Yummy and a bargain ~ what more could we ask for!

tempura

Much to our delight we found not one, but two Hyaku Yen stores {the Japanese equivalent of Dollar Stores} that were so large they were two stories!  We found tons of things we couldn’t live without and were willing to schlep home on all those trains ~ the ultimate justification of impulse purchases in Tokyo!

But my favorite by far were finding organization trays for my kitchen drawers that were large enough for my American utensils and gadgets and had adjustable inserts.

When The Cuties were doing their homework later I got to work since I was starting with messes like this {which is what happens when you have the good fortune to have both ample drawer space in a Japanese apartment and family members who all help unload the dishwasher}.

messydrawer

And five minutes later, with my new containers and adjustable dividers in place!

miniutensils

{in case you’re wondering why we have so many small utensils, we are not elves ~ however we do entertain quite a bit with appetizer and dessert-only parties and just find them handy}

Because I’d never seen trays like these before and they came in two sizes I bought up what they had and reorganized the rest of my island drawers.  I was able to better organize by like items and when my Cute Helpers unloaded the dishwasher after dinner they gave a big thumbs up.

Here’s all the baking items {yes, I have multiple cookie scoops.  I have issues.  We already know that, people.}

baking

Regular serving pieces {it made me slightly nuts I couldn’t configure the first drawer to fit the cheese knives.  See above statement on issues.}

serving

All the extra gadgets, but most importantly the bottle opener and corkscrew since this drawer is located right across from the wine fridge.

gadgets

At this point I was moaning and groaning that I’d run out of containers to use and had a drawer of complete kitchen miscellany.  And then I realized that the cute tray I’d bought with no purpose in mind on my last Ikea trip that didn’t seem to fit anywhere would, in fact fit in the drawer when turned sideways.  And it would be a great catch all for the often-used straws and lids for our Tervis Tumblers.

straws

Sigh.  So lovely.

I may or may not have made a few unnecessary trips through the kitchen and opened a drawer for no apparent reason.

I think I’m actually a bit bummed that our last little find before heading to the train station was this and I won’t have to cook breakfast in the morning and get to rave about how easy it now is to find a whisk.

donuts

But I’m pretty sure donuts will make The Cuties much happier than containers make me.

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What to Wear When Traveling

One of my Top Three posts last year was Packing a Carry On for International Travel {it’s also one of my most pinned posts on Pinterest!}.  I’ve received many follow-up questions asking me what I wear on long international flights, so I thought I’d share.

As a child, my sister and I often flew as Unaccompanied Minors to visit my grandparents for Spring Break.  We always wore cute new outfits on the plane because back in the Dark Ages people dressed up to fly.  Even as an Old Fart, I have trouble letting go of that mentality and just can’t bring myself to wear sweats even when flying for fourteen hours at a time.

But I promise I’m comfortable.

Here’s a typical outfit I wear on the trip back and forth between Japan and America ~

International Travel Outfit

I like to wear a pant with some stretch to it.  The J.Crew Minnie is a great choice because it comes in both twill and light-weight wool, so depending on the time of year, I’ve got a pair that works.  They also don’t wrinkle, even after snoozing for a few hours in an airplane seat!

It’s important on airplanes to always dress in layers as I often find myself chilly or overly warm.  For that reason, I wear a tee and cardigan year round.  I like Three Dots tees as they are thicker than a lot of t-shirts.  This is important if you spill something and need to wipe yourself off ~ it’s a little easier to scrub a spot out on a more substantial fabric {trust me, I know this from experience!}.  I usually wear longer cardigans or sweaters on planes as they give me the option to wrap myself up.  I seriously have a dozen different ones as they are a wardrobe staple ~ this one is from Nordstrom.

Ballet flats like Tieks that fold up are a great choice when traveling.  I travel with a pair of foldable slippers in their own pouch since airline slippers rarely fit me.  When I get onboard, I take off my outdoor shoes, put them in the pouch and back in my carry on and put the slippers on for the flight.

Since I travel with all my good jewelry for a trip in my carry on, I can simply throw on a few bangle bracelets and a necklace and feel put together upon arrival.  Not a bad thing since flying from Asia to America often means arriving in time for a meal or two and thus having to actually see people!

As for The Cuties, here’s their traveling ‘uniform’ ~

Kids International Traveling

 

Like me, I have them dress in layers.  Over the years, we’ve found they’re most comfortable in tees, cardigans, elastic-waisted circle skirts and leggings.  The leggings are a good option for two reasons: one they help with modesty while sleeping in a skirt on the plane and two; if we are traveling from a colder climate to a warmer climate, they can just slip the leggings off upon arrival.  They usually wear Converse sneakers when traveling since they’re doing a decent amount of walking through airports.

My only other advice is if you’re the Mom ~ dark colors are your friend.

Because Murphy’s Law says that if your kid spills or gets sick on a plane, YOU will take the hit.

 

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Trip of a Lifetime: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our Vietnam Adventures ended in Ho Chi Minh City {read about them here and here} and we traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Let me just go ahead and put this out there now so we can get it out of the way: Cambodia should be on everyone’s Bucket List.  Go there sooner rather than later, because I promise you will want to go back.  I’m pretty much running around in my best Yenta voice telling everyone Have you been to Cambodia?  You have to go to Cambodia!  Why aren’t you going to Cambodia?

We got off the plane and headed straight to Ta Prohm, considered one of the most mysterious of the Angkor temples.  You may think you’re unfamiliar with this temple, but you’ve likely seen it in the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie, starring Angelina Jolie {and of course, totally explains her love affair with Cambodia – Have you booked your trip to Cambodia yet?  Why haven’t you called the travel agent yet?!}

When French archaeologists began restoring Ta Prohm during the Colonial Period they deliberately attempted to preserve as much of the existing condition as possible, which meant they left much of the jungle envelopment intact.  As a result, the Temple buildings are smothered with roots of giant banyan trees, which are simply incredible.

taprohm2 taprohm

familyroots

From Ta Prohm we headed over to Angkor Wat to watch the sunset.  You can spend a lifetime reading about Angkor Wat, which is the world’s largest sacred monument and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was pretty amazing despite being an overcast day.

angkorsunset

angkorpana

{the full panorama view to include the bridge}

The next morning we woke up at 4:30 AM and hopped on tuk tuks to head to Angkor Wat in time for sunrise.  Yes.  You read that correctly ~ AM.  We waited for dawn with many other crazy people die-hards and watched as the sky turned from pitch black to a slight glow and then finally, the sun peeked through the towers and rose up in full glory to applause from the crowd!  Totally worth the early wake-up without the assistance of Starbucks.

angkorsunrise

We spent the rest of the morning touring Angkor Wat.  The beauty of starting our day so early was that it wasn’t very crowded and we could really explore to our heart’s content.

angkorpeople

angkorwat

After Angkor Wat we headed to another temple that ended up being the family favorite: Bayon.  The last of the Angkor Temples, it is noted for it’s more than 200 faces around the structure {not including ours, of course!}.

familyfaces

facesbayon

It was a little bit like Where’s Waldo trying to find as many faces as possible!

And because I never met an elephant I didn’t love, we took advantage of the opportunity to tour all of Bayon on elephants! {Don’t you think Big Cutie and her Daddy’s elephant looks like he’s wearing a toupee?  Tee Hee!}

ellie

We went back to our hotel and had lunch and a nap, and then went for a boat ride on Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia {quick, anyone have any idea how many boats we’re up to yet?}.  My camera battery died at this point, but we learned a lot about the eco-system there.  Most interesting of all, during the peak of the wet season, the Mekong River gushes into the lake and reverses its current, which increases the surface area four-fold!

On our last day in Cambodia we toured a silk farm and as a special treat went to a photography studio where The Cuties had hair and makeup done and were dressed in traditional Khmer clothing for a photo session.

khmergirlies

As if they didn’t already know they were our princesses! ;-)

At the very last minute, we spontaneously took a helicopter ride over all the temples of Angkor and Siem Reap.  This is one of those things where my children’s enthusiasm encouraged me to do something I’d never otherwise do and I’m so very grateful.  It.was.awesome!

And truly, the perfect way to see the temples we couldn’t possibly fit in visits to.

heli

overview

So that’s our story.

Best 16-day vacation ever.  No fighting.  Amazing history.  Incredible culture.  Lovely people.  Beautiful countries.  Delicious food.  And The Cuties carried their own luggage.  What more could I ask for?

Changed the way we viewed vacations forever more.

And I hadn’t even finished unpacking the duffles when The Husband had another guidebook out and started talking about next winter break…..

So?  Where in the world are you going next? :-)

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Trip of a Lifetime: Central & Southern Vietnam

We left Northern Vietnam {read all about our adventures here} and flew to Da Nang.  We arrived and drove a half hour or so late at night to Hoi An.  It was dark, we were tired and so we joined the resort’s New Year’s Eve celebration in medias res and barely made it to 11 o’clock.  All we knew was that we’d made it to the beach.

Boy were we in for the most wonderful surprise the next morning.

We awoke to breakfast by the water to start an incredible day.  Hoi An was once Vietnam’s most active trading center for centuries, and the architecture of the city reflects the influence of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, French and British traders.  We all couldn’t stop taking pictures wherever we went!

We spent our first day on an eco-tour of the local farming and fishing communities, and had a great time.  We first started out on bicycles, where The Cuties promptly teased me for missing my beloved mamachari and having to actually pedal on my own!

bicycles

We then met up with a local farmer who graciously gave us each a ride on his water buffalo.  We may go down in history as the first women in monograms and Lilly Pulitzer to ride a water buffalo, but it was quite fun, despite my intense fear that the beast was going to toss me into the water!

waterbuffalo

We then went to a local farm where the cutest 74 year old woman taught us gardening skills.  She also smoked me in her ability to carry two loaded watering cans and use them in harmony while I shuddered beneath half the load she carried and splashed about franticly.  I loved her.

wateringgarden

As we continued riding, we passed all the local farmers working hard in their rice paddies while our guide explained the rice crops of the different regions of Vietnam.  We then arrived at the Cua Dai Sea and boarded a boat to start our fishing tour.  First, we took a little side excursion in traditional round bamboo basket boats.  There was much showing off amongst our two crew members as to who could performer the best tricks while steering the boats.  But The Cuties’ favorite part was the accessory-making out of coconut palm fronds!

basketboats

We then met an adorable couple who had been married and fishing together daily for forty years.  They brought us onto their boat and taught us to cast and retrieve the homemade nets and The Cuties even caught a few!

fishing

For the record, I’m pretty sure we hadn’t even had lunch at this point in our day!

We then rowed onto the beach and learned another fishing technique and each had a few tries at casting the nets from shore.

casting

The next day we explored amazing Hoi An and just simply fell in love.  It’s such a cute little city filled with color and charm at every turn. hoianstreets

For me, however, what I loved most about Hoi An, were the amazing silk lanterns hanging from nearly every shop.  In many of them, families were sitting making them right there ~ bending the bamboo frames, gluing the silk and in a few cases hand-painting the silk with scenes of birds, bamboo, temples and more.  It should come as no surprise that I made my way to a local post office bearing more than a dozen large lanterns I’d bought to ship home with the hope of someday hanging them from trees in a backyard back in the States.

lanterns

One of the things Hoi An is known for are its custom tailors and custom cobblers.  People travel there from all over the world to have things designed or bring favorite items to be replicated in a quick twenty-four period.  Keeping this in mind, and knowing our long-standing struggles to fit Big Cutie in shoes {her CP causes her feet to be two different sizes}, we thought it would be a special treat to let her have a pair of dress shoes designed.  After much thought and many leathers to choose from, she got the cutest pair of silver pointy-toed flats.

flats

And in true form to my daughters’ individual personalities, when we then turned to Little Cutie and asked her what she would like, here’s what she picked ~

cowgirl

She will be styling during horse backing riding at camp this summer!

Our last day in Hoi An we found craft classes! Seriously, did you ever doubt me?

We started the day learning traditional Vietnamese ink painting.  While a little similar to Japanese sumi-e, it was different enough for me to be just as frustrated as The Cuties and my husband that we couldn’t make our brushes do what we wanted.

paint

Then we each made a mini silk lantern.  Which only gave me greater appreciation for the lanterns I loved all over town, as it was ridiculously hard to make and by the end, all of us had managed to snip a small hole in our silk while trimming our edges.  I seriously wanted to cry.

lantern

After craft classes we headed to Da Nang to climb the Marble Mountain.  At the top were several beautiful temples and pagodas and an amazing view of China Beach.  Little Cutie and I continued the hike a bit more with our guide and went into a cave that had served as a Viet Cong hospital, while Big Cutie and her Dad climbed down and checked out the amazing carved marble shops in the surrounding area.

marblemountain

After Hoi An we flew to Ho Chi Minh City, colloquially known as Saigon still.  In Saigon we toured the Reunification Palace, which was an interesting contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s house on stilts in the North.  We ate delicious Pho for the first time, and were lucky enough to sit at the same table President Clinton and Chelsea did for their visit {I suspect our visit will not be memorialized in photographs on the walls to the same extent!}.

The next morning, we boarded a boat on the Mekong River {notice a theme?  anyone keeping track of just how many boating adventures we’ve had so far?}, and traveled South to Cai Be, the agricultural heart of Vietnam.  We first stopped at a coconut candy making establishment and had a snack of the local treat and then for lunch, where we had the local specialty, elephant ear fish served whole.

elephantearfish

As you can see, we kinda liked it!

fishbones

We went down river a bit further and arrived at a local family’s guesthouse, where we spent the night!  We learned how to make and roll our own spring rolls and slept together in a communal room.  Look at us with our cute host family!

hostfam

{check out Little Cutie with her flowers ~ she turned the Big 10 in the Mekong Delta, continuing her streak of birthdays in exotic locales!}

On our last day in Saigon, we headed West to Cu Chi, where we toured the extensive network of underground tunnels.  I think it was one of the more interesting lessons about the War for The Cuties, gave them some perspective, and many things to think about.

cuchitunnels.

Although as always, I adore the innocence and brilliance of children, and appreciate the simplicity of Little Cutie’s question: If no one really wins a war, and people on both sides lose so many lives, why don’t people stop fighting them and just skip to the peace talks?

Yeah, why don’t they?

Next time…Cambodia!!!

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Trip of a Lifetime: Northern Vietnam

When we signed on for Expat life, it was with the agreement that we’d do our best to take advantage of our time in Asia and travel as much as possible while in this part of the world.  For the most part, due to location and timing, we’ve ended up primarily at beach and tropical locations.  So in planning this year’s winter break, the husband and I really wanted to do something a bit more cultural and adventurous, and we planned a 16-day tour of Northern and Southern Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia with The Cuties.

And what an adventure it was!

After culling through two full SD cards, and all of the smartphones photo albums, here are some of the many highlights of our trip  {broken into a few posts for ease of reading!}.

We started in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.  In preparation for the trip, we had The Cuties read The Vietnam War from the Usborne history series for kids to help them have a beginner’s understanding of the complex history of Vietnam, Communism and the War.  They were able to ask good questions of our guides, and it gave them a basis for our visits to places like Ho Chi Minh’s home on stilts, his Mausoleum and the “Hanoi Hilton.” {all very interesting, and well worth visits, but not terribly blog~photo friendly}

We visited The Temple of Literature where we learned about Confucius and the first national university of Vietnam.  We were fortunate to see graduation ceremonies on the grounds the day we visited.  You know I have two hundred photos of those amazing dragon and sun roof lines!

templeoflit

In addition to the beautiful structure, it was The Cuties’ first opportunity to see beautiful áo dài up close.

aodai

We spent a half day at the Museum of Ethnology learning about the 54 different native peoples of Vietnam.  It was extremely cool seeing all the different ways of life, manners of dress and styles of homes.  The Cuties especially liked this home, built with a very sloped roof to manage water run-off during the rainy season and up on stilts so that roaming elephants could pass freely underneath!

vietnamesehome

A big treat was stopping at the Metropole Hanoi for high tea.  The Cuties liked looking at the long list of famous people who had stayed there.  But the snack was loved even more!

hightea

While in Hanoi The Cuties were mesmerized by the traditional Water Puppet Show we attended.  These involve lacquered wooden puppets on long rods, and are performed in a waist-deep pool by performers hidden behind a bamboo screen.  The art form dates back to the 11th century and were originally performed in flooded rice fields.

waterpuppets

The best part of Hanoi, however, was simply wandering the busy streets, dodging motorbikes, and playing our family game of Who Can Spy the Best Thing on Wheels!

bikecollage3

After three days in Hanoi, we traveled east three hours to Hon Gai, the gateway to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  On the way, we stopped at My Company, Ltd, which employs people with disabilities in handicrafts.  It was fascinating to watch the incredible artisans at work and we bought a few of their beautiful things.  And in looking around the shop floor, we also said a prayer of special thanks that with all we’ve been through in Big Cutie’s life, we have had access to amazing doctors, early intervention, therapists and more.

mycompanyltd

At Ha Long Bay, we spent a night aboard a traditional junk.  The Bay was beautiful and our weather was superb.

halongbay

One of the coolest things about spending two days on the Bay was seeing so many different kinds of Vietnamese boats.

boatshalong

The highlight of the Ha Long Bay trip though was the Thien Cung Caves.  Filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and lit with spotlights, each anteroom was more breathtaking than the next.  Well worth the hundreds of steps we had to climb to get there!

cavecollage

We then went for a small boat ride in search of monkeys.  We didn’t find any except the two we brought with us, but had a nice jaunt anyway.  ;-)

boatride

We played on the nearby beach with our girls to burn off some energy before bed and watched the prettiest sunset.

halongbeach

The North was great fun and not as cold as Tokyo {and certainly nowhere near as bad as our friends and family were experiencing back home!}.

Stayed tuned to hear about Central and Southern Vietnam next!

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Craving Order

Like many of you, I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

End of the school year parties, goodies to be baked, holiday parties, and sadly, when you’re an Expat, sayonara parties to attend.  Additionally, we are leaving on an adventure in a few days, so my lists and piles are accumulating at a rapid rate {but I’ll share all about that soon enough!}.

Last night I opened my desk door to find the staple remover and saw this ~

deskmess

It was clearly my breaking point and it was a bit of chaos I felt I could tackle.

{interestingly, the aforementioned staple remover is from a set I had on my desk in college 20+ years ago ~ I have no idea why it’s the rogue item that seems to have followed me all these years}

Like any organizing project, I emptied the entire drawer and grouped like items.  I took things like the fancy binder clips that have never actually been used and offered them to Big Cutie.  I moved the spare headphones to the lower drawer where I keep my charging cords and put all the stamps in an envelope on my French bulletin board to keep them neat.  I then regrouped everything when I put it back.

deskclean2

MUUUUCH better.

Now the things I really need to access the most are easiest to reach.   The top section has a mini stapler, stapler remover and the two sizes of post-it notes I use the most in my daily calendar {in rainbow order, of course!}.  The middle section has correction tape, double-sided tape {Japanese envelopes do not come gummed, so it’s helpful to have this on hand}, a small sampling of washi tape {about ten times as much lives in the craft room!} and paper clips.  The bottom section is a “personal” one, holding a nail file, spare reading glasses, band-aids, hand sanitizer and an EOS lip balm.  And finally, the side section has a few rubber bands, a tape measure, an eraser and an automatic reinforcement dispenser ~ possibly my most favorite random Japanese stationery store purchase ever!

I was so inspired after finishing this project, that I managed to completely clear the surface of my desk as well, which included filing the outstanding insurance claims and properly storing things in their assigned 3-ring binders.

And of course, because it was a perfectly clean surface, I woke up this morning and discovered that the husband had decided it was the perfect place to move all his electronic devices for charging!

What’s up with that?!!!

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The Year I Completely Blew Off Hanukkah

And there’s no making up for it since the Miracle that was Thanksgivukkah won’t happen again for almost 8,000 years.

Talk about blowing it as a blogger.

But I just wasn’t feeling it this year.

The whole Expat-Thanksgiving-lack of family-hard to get a turkey challenge, combined with Hanukkah falling so early it was November and not December kicked my butt.  Then the kids had most of Thanksgiving week off and my husband couldn’t take vacation days and well….

Like I said, I wasn’t feeling it.

So much so I didn’t even pull out the Hanukkah bins.  No popsicle stick Stars of David from preschool to decorate the apartment, no nuts glued onto wood menorahs covered in wax to light each night.  Nothing.  I was like the Hanukkah Grinch.

I didn’t even wrap a single gift for The Cuties since our tradition is an experiential gift from the two of us, so this year we took them to see One Direction in concert, which happened a few weeks before Hanukkah even started.

So instead, I packed bathing suits for me and The Cuties and we took off for Guam.  And as the only adult, I had to be the “Fun Parent,” a job usually bestowed upon my husband, and always well-earned.  I didn’t read but a page or two in my book, didn’t sip a fruity drink and didn’t nap on a chaise lounge in the sun.

I did, however, take an archery class with The Cuties, repeatedly go down water slides, and by the last day, finally make it across the suspended walkway on the water, a la Wipeout! {Note to Self: future efforts at being the Fun Parent will be easier if you remember to pack the strap to your strapless bathing suits!}

photo (59)

We saw Catching Fire within a week of it’s release, without subtitles and for a normal price.  This is a really big deal, in a you have to live in Japan to understand kind of way.  We ate at places like California Pizza Kitchen and The Hard Rock Cafe and we shopped at KMart to buy things like Sensodyne toothpaste and NyQuil.

I am sure I never once thought this would be a vacation I would plan and enjoy ;-)

But all good things must come to an end, so we returned to Tokyo to see the Daddy, whom we missed very much, eat some yummy Japanese food and I made one last ditch effort at finding my Hanukkah Happy and so I cooked some latkes.

And like the Miracle of Hanukkah itself, there in the bottom of the Rubbermaid bin I was able to dig out exactly enough candles to light our menorah for one night.

And as I was cleaning up and doing the dishes I turned and got to see my very favorite part of the holiday ~ that moment when the candles have burned down all the way and you just see flames in the menorah and they quietly burn out.

Next year Hanukkah is right in the middle of December.

And I’m already feeling a little more genki about it.

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