Things I’ve learned this year

So I recently celebrated a birthday. And completed a fairly arduous year at STEP. And graduated from Stanford (again) and am entering a new phase of life/the working world (again). And am on a plane with nothing else to do but update this LONG NEGLECTED blog. As is fitting for a teacher of English and a student of learning (or something) let’s journey back through what I’ve learned this year, loosely defined as starting in April 2013 when I last did a life-update post.

In April 2013, I left DC and moved temporarily back to Redlands en route to coming to Stanford. I learned: that I am directly responsible for one marriage and emigration from China, that Malaysian noodles are a dish best enjoyed late at night and probably mostly in Malaysia, that just because a couch wouldn’t fit through an apartment door doesn’t mean you can’t wrench it out.

In May 2013, I took the Social Science CSET, a test required of social studies teachers in California. I learned: there is more to California history than Junipero Serra.

Padre Serra in the Capitol, 4/19/13

Padre Serra in the Capitol, 4/19/13

I traveled to Paris and learned: that Benjamin Franklin’s nickname in 1780s Paris was The Lightening Ambassador, that you can have a bad meal in Paris but it’s not very likely, that entry to the Disneyland Paris hotel is for guests only but if you walk with purpose you will be fine, that you must know the storyline of Phantom Manor (the Disneyland Paris Haunted Mansion-equivalent) in advance to understand the intricacies of the ride, that “Get Lucky” was about to be a Song of the Summer, that the line for Notre Dame is very long at all times always.

Small World America room, 5/27/13

Small World America room, 5/27/13

Then we went to Geneva. I learned: that Chez Ma Cousine and its chicken is as wonderful as it was in 2006, that the Wall of Reformation is larger than I remembered but the Reformation Museum is smaller, that the Movenpick ice cream store is not properly positioned on Google Maps, and that CERN really just looks like an office park.

The Wall of Reformation, 5/30/13

The Wall of Reformation, 5/30/13

At the start of June 2013, we were in Grindelwald. I learned: that the Swiss Alps are truly delightful, that no one does hiking signage like the Swiss, that there are many types of mountain transportation available, that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is terrible, and that my love for my water bottle knows no bounds. Later I learned: Zurich is really expensive.

Selfies with timers are hard, 6/5/13

Selfies with timers are hard, 6/5/13

Then Italy. In Milan I learned: that pointy cathedrals are amusing, that Lord Byron stole a treasured lock of Lucretia Borgia’s hair, that you should not stand directly in front of the automatic doors at “The Last Supper,” that amazing food can be stumbled upon anywhere. In Bologna I learned: that sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a cab rather than drag luggage over yet more cobblestoned blocks, that aperol is not good, that food souvenirs are the best souvenirs, and so are vintage fashion magazine covers purchased from street vendors. In Ravenna I learned: Galla Placidia is an excellent historical character, that green is the best color for mosaics, that beach parties don’t happen on weeknights. Finally, I learned: that transport strikes can derail your rail-to-San-Marino-and-get-a-new-country plans, that Ferrara is a good back-up plan, that the Sforza reign was dramatic, mighty, and fairly brief, that sage/squash/browned butter is a winning combination, that Sicilians make excellent mussels.

The pointiest of them all, 6/8/13

The pointiest of them all, 6/8/13

I started STEP. I learned: that they weren’t kidding about it being busy, that Munger is an excellent place to live, that the Tresidder Southwest Chicken Salad is as good as I remember but still too stuff-heavy.

In July 2013, I learned: that sixth grade is actually kind of amusing, that Little Brother ™ has a switch on the back of his neck (spoiler alert!), that the math building Thai Café is still $6 and still a model of efficiency, that kale is plentiful and wonderful in California.

English STEP at summer school on my bday

English STEP at summer school on my bday

In August 2013, I learned: that on Fridays we wear orange, that the Olsen film Holiday in the Sun has aged very well, and that learning speech cues like “say more” in our Literacies class would have a lasting impact on the conversational gambits of many STEPpies. 

In September 2013, I learned: That you should never set up your tailgate at the lowest point of the lot when rain is predicted, tthat I am definitely allergic to Ambien and that Chinese lanterns ala HSM2 make a wonderful way to end a wedding.

Peace Corps wedding reunion, 9/14/13

Peace Corps wedding reunion, 9/14/13

In October 2013, I learned: that most of the Stanford class of 2008 has aged well, that the panda vest keeps one extremely warm, and that three times is the right number of times to celebrate Halloween. 

Stanford Halloween Party 1

Stanford Halloween Party 1

In November 2013, I learned: That I am the best at planning Napa trips (let’s be real, I knew that already), and that it is very difficult to determine which Oak Glen ranch makes the best apple cider.

Chilling in the kitchen at French Laundry, 11/11/13

Chilling in the kitchen at French Laundry, 11/11/13

In December 2013, we went on a Panama Canal cruise. I learned: Puerto Vallarta makes for a fabulous food tour, that there are no sloths on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, how locks work, that I’d been misattributing the number of countries I’ve visited (should be either 58 or 48 depending on your definitions). I also learned that Lil Jon can come on to DJ extremely late.

Puerto Vallarta food tour, 12/24/13

Puerto Vallarta food tour, 12/24/13

In January 2014, I learned: that I like Great Expectations a lot more on a second, adult read, that Petaluma makes for an excellent day trip, and that iPhones are much sturdier than you might think.

In February 2014, I learned: that taking four graduate classes, teaching one class, and applying for jobs makes for a busy existence, that going directly from the airport to the party is the correct way to start a Vegas weekend, and that crowd safety and control is not something taken appropriately seriously. 

In March 2014, I learned: that I make an excellent Miss Havisham, that you should not try to go down a steep unmarked path near Half Moon Bay while holding beach chair and you should not attempt to go up it at night.

Miss Havisham, 3/14/14

Miss Havisham, 3/14/14

In April 2014, I learned: that Carmel Valley is a lovely place and so is Point Reyes, that Stanford’s Ram’s Head can put on a great musical, and that even when the parameters of a job search are well-defined there are no sure things.

Carmel Valley, 3/30/14

Carmel Valley, 3/30/14

In May 2014, I learned: PACT (the performance assessment that most California credential programs use) isn’t actually that bad, that making others listen to you reflect on your teaching journey has its amusing parts, that deep fried moon pies actually aren’t even that good but artichokes always are, that I am fabulous at murder mystery games, and that there is no cell service in Dorrington, California.

Castroville Artichoke Festival, 5/31/14

Castroville Artichoke Festival, 5/31/14

In June 2014, I learned: you can store a lot of tissues in the sleeves of a graduation gown, that there is no good way to wear a mortarboard, that it is possible to go do a bar mitzvah, bar mitzvah party, two-hour drive, wedding, and wedding party in one day, and that this is a thing that necessitates having seven pairs of shoes in the car.

Post-graduation ceremony, 6/15/14

Post-graduation ceremony, 6/15/14

I learned things in July too! But that’s going to be a new travel-centric post of delight.

Updates to the Blog

Unfortunately this isn’t a true post, just a note to say that, in the interest of image minding on this blog now that I’m officially teaching, I’ve been doing some minor edits and have privatized a few posts. If you’re ever interested in reading a post from the archives that’s now private, feel free to message me for the password.

Anyway, more generally, I’m happily ensconced at Stanford and enjoying myself. We’ve completed one week of orientation and one week of Stanford class plus TAing and observing at a middle school summer program in Sunnyvale. More details to come. Plus, ideally, some day I will finish up those DC travel blogs plus the ones I now owe you from Eurotrip 2013.

Colonial Williamsburg Weekend

Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps (I would have been in this were I a local child for sure

Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps (I would have been in this were I a local child for sure

Why: My love of things related to historical reenactment is no secret. I first visited Williamsburg during our most epic RV trip from CA to VA in June 1997. (That was the same trip where I first visited Disney World and hand-wrote our ride-by-ride schedule). At that time, aged almost-11, I was at the height of my interest in American Girl and American history, so it was glorious. I even still had Felicity dresses of the 1770s to wear. So I had long intended to return to Williamsburg during my DC sojourn. When I found out that Peace Corps friends-turned-Arlington transplants Chelsea and Whitney also wanted to go, we planned a weekend trip for shortly before my move.

Williamsburg stocks in 1997 and 2013

Williamsburg stocks in 1997 and 2013

When: April 13-14, 2013. Williamsburg is something like a 2.5 hour drive from Arlington, so we headed in on a Saturday morning and went straight to Williamsburg. We stayed overnight, and in the morning we visited the Jamestown Settlement before heading home. The weather was perfect–72 and sunny.

How: Williamsburg itself takes a few hours–we were there from about 11:30 until just before closing at 5, and that was plenty of time to see everything we cared to and to feel satisfied. Jamestown took a little over two hours.

We stayed overnight in a cheap motel I got from bidding on Hotwire. In a situation like this, where hotel location doesn’t matter because we have a car and everything is close, and where hotel quality doesn’t matter that much because we are all people who have stayed in $1-a-night hovels in China, a bidding-for-travel scheme works nicely. I recommend researching any travel bidding schemes online before you start (just Google “bidding for travel”) and you’ll get plenty of evidence from forums about acceptable bids. After winning a bid, I also recommend calling the hotel to confirm and to make any simple requests, like for type of beds or for a rollaway, which Hotwire won’t guarantee but which most domestic hotels will do. We got the Days Inn bid for $45, which saved $20+ from the cheapest-available online rate.

How Much: A one-day ticket to Colonial Williamsburg costs $42. They had a promotion when we visited for Virginia residents, who could get an annual pass for that same price with proof of residency. The motel–Days Inn–cost $51 with tax, split among us. The Jamestown Settlement cost $16. Other costs included meals and gas. Whitney drove her car.

Williamsburg Milliner with Chelsea

Williamsburg Milliner with Chelsea

What We Did: I hadn’t done a ton of planning about what we would see at Williamsburg, since the exact schedule of what’s open changes daily and since we received a detailed schedule/map upon arriving. Williamsburg is small enough that you can basically wander through each of the main areas and see almost everything open in a few hours. Besides chance encounters with colonial folk in the shops and on the street, are also special events that are more performative. On the day of our visit, there was a series of skits lasting about an hour in which colonists and soldiers reacted to the start of the American Revolution. Some shops you walk in and out at will and check out whatever’s happening; other’s have more elaborate happenings on a specific schedule (e.g. every half hour).

We ate lunch at one of the colonial eateries–an outdoor BBQ-sandwich type place that got the job done. We planned on dinner at one of the upscale restaurants in the shopping village on the edge of the colonial district, Berret’s. The cioppino was lovely, FYI.

After the decent Days Inn-provided breakfast on Sunday morning, we debated what to do among Jamestown Settlement, Yorktown Victory Center, Williamsburg outlet shopping, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and assortment of other historic towns in our midst. The beach also would have been an option if it had been a little warmer. We decided on Jamestown since it was close and seemed most interesting, and that turned out to be a good choice. Even if we got slightly confused about the difference between Jamestown Settlement (the historically re-built and reenacted extravaganza) versus Historic Jamestown (the archeological site of the actual Jamestown remnants, which we did not visit).

Jamestown Settlement - Some 50+ people would sail on one of these ships

Jamestown Settlement – Some 50+ people would sail on one of these ships

Jamestown Settlement features a surprisingly-excellent museum of pre-colonial and early colonial Chesapeake history (good prep for the California state social studies credential test I was taking a couple weeks hence), and various features like a movie about Jamestown that we didn’t watch. The site itself has three main sections: the Indian village, historical ships in the harbor, and the fort, each of which includes reeneactors and demonstrations in the style of Williamsburg. All in all, it was a nice complement to Williamsburg for seeing the earlier history and for rounding out the weekend.

 

Great Falls and Harpers Ferry: Casual Hiking Day Trips from DC

Great Falls

Great Falls

Why: Every once in a while, you want to see some nature and breathe some country air. For a couple of hours, anyway.

When: Great Falls on Sept, 29, 2012, a nice early-fall day. Harpers Ferry on April 6, 2013, windy and coolish but sunny.

How: Having friends with cars helps. In each instance, Chelsea drove from Arlington. Great Falls should only be a half-hour drive from Arlington, but we got lost a bit (my faulty usage of iPhone navigation being to blame). Harpers Ferry is about an 80-minute drive from Arlington (no getting lost that time). We picked Great Falls since it was close and a coworker gave me a tip on the popular Billy Goat Trail (Section A). We picked Harpers Ferry because I wanted to visit West Virginia (Robert’s home state) before leaving, and this is both the closest point to DC and a good hiking spot.

How Much: Parking fees at national parks like Great Falls and Harpers Ferry were $5 and $10. For Great Falls, we parked at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. For Harpers Ferry, you can park by the visitor center and then take a shuttle to the historic town area where there are trailheads.

What we did: Hiked! Nothing serious, but enough to get some good breaths of fresh air, some good pictures, and get away from the city for a few hours. The Billy Goat Trail features plenty of scrambling over rocks–usually not my favorite activity, but this was so much tamer than my last rock-scramble hike in Sumatra, it was NBD. This was the kind of place where you could customize the length of your hiking experience by adding additional loops or trail sections in the park, or not. A couple of hours later, we were satisfied and headed back into town for a top-notch Sichuan linner in Falls Church. This was a trip of four China Peace Corps Volunteers, after all.

For Harpers Ferry, we planned to do a moderately strenuous 5-mile section of the Maryland Heights trail, but group interest cut the hike slightly shorter. After enjoying some lovely vistas, we walked around the historic/quaint town of Harpers Ferry, reading up on our Civil War history. We elected to skip lunch in Harpers Ferry itself because never have I seen a whole town with such pervasively negative Yelp reviews, and instead stopped in Leesburg on the way back for Mexican. Though, note to self, why can I never remember I shouldn’t try to eat Mexican in DC?

I’ve gotten a few other recommendations of hikes in the greater DC area, like Old Rag Mountain, VA and Sugarloaf Mountain, MD (you know how I feel about Sugarloaves), and for more serious hiking, but those will have to be saved for another DC life.

Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry

Good Morning, Baltimore: Day Trip from DC

Sometimes I wish I had a boat

Sometimes I wish I had a boat

Why: I’d been meaning to get to Charm City for months. Seafood galore!

When: Sunday, April 7, 2013. Lovely first sunny-springy day of the season.

How: On Tuesday, Theo and I talked about going to a baseball game at Orioles’ park thanks to a ticket hookup. By Friday we had roped in more friends and decided to cut the game and just visit the city on Sunday. I researched activities on sites like New York Times 36 Hours (they’ve covered Baltimore 3 times in 7 years), mapped out a few activity options, and left the rest up to be played by ear. Since our group included four carless DCers, we rented a Zipcar for the day. The drive from downtown DC took just over an hour.

How Much: Costs included the car rental, lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks. We didn’t pay entrance fees at any sites (e.g. the aquarium is around $30 pp, American Visionary Art Museum is $16, Fort McHenry is $7) because most of our activities involved either walking around or eating/drinking. Instead of renting a car, it would have been possible to take the train or bus from DC and rely on public transportation, like the excellent/free Charm City Circulator bus.

Harbor view from Federal Hill

Harbor view from Federal Hill

What we did: My main priority was seafood eating, so the first stop of the day was L.P. Steamers, recommended for its “authentic” vibe and blue crabs. Well, actually, our first stop, upon realizing the restaurant wasn’t quite open yet at 11am, was a wine bar. Another good thing about travel, it doesn’t feel weird at all to drink in the a.m.! It was the rest of the group’s first Maryland crab experience, and as Theo put it, “That was absolutely the correct choice to go there, but I never want to do it again.” I, of course, like high-activity/DIY meals (e.g. fondue, artichokes, Korean BBQ) and was therefore delighted.

Next up was a stroll to For McHenry, famous for its role in the War of 1812 and the inspiration for Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner. Hey, do you know this story? Key actually wasn’t at the fort; he apparently sailed his ship out directly into the midst of the British forces and was captured, so he spent the night sitting as prisoner watching the battle unfold as the British attempted to take the fort. Obvi, when he saw that banner yet wave in the morning light, he knew the Americans had held the fort. Sidenote: our attitude about the War of 1812 is slightly ridiculous; this is a topic about which I feel fairly strongly. Anyway, there’s a nice museum and movie that are free to visit; we elected not to pay the entrance fee to visit the fort itself (seeing from the outside=almost always good enough!)

Cannolis from Piedrigotta

Cannolis from Piedrigotta

From Fort McHenry, we drove towards the Inner Harbor, passing the American Visionary Art Museum and stopping by Federal Hill Park. Twelve minutes in the parking meter got us a walk up the hill, great views over the harbor and city, and a walk past some of Baltimore’s tonier real estate.

After depositing the car in a downtown lot, we debated between visiting the aquarium and eating again. Guess which won. Another great thing about traveling in the age of iPhones is that it’s so much easier to stray from the original plan and find fabulous alternatives. Walking through Little Italy, in response to group desire to drink coffee, a quick Google/Zagat search turned up an amazing Italian bakery two blocks away, Piedigrotta, which lays claim to the invention of tirimisu. Now, you know how I feel about cream-based desserts, but this cannoli made me a believer.

We continued our stroll along the waterfront towards Fells Point, which is filled with cute cobblestone streets, bars, and restaurants. We secured a waterfront table at a wine bar (more wine, always wine). Two members of our party are serious fans of Roy’s, the upscale Hawaiian chain whose only East Coast outlet is in Baltimore’s Harbor East. The much-discussed butter fish did not necessarily meet the group’s overly-lofty expectations, but it was still a very good and festive way to conclude the day.

Day Trips from DC

I say I love travel of any and all kinds, and that extends not just to exotic adventures. Local travel–day or weekend trips around one’s hometown–can often be planned on the fly, can feel just as excitingly “away from it all,” and often costs little more than a weekend spent at your usual neighborhood haunts.

Especially given my impending departure from the East Coast, I’ve been trying to get in as much “local” travel as possible. For your travel inspiration, I’m posting a roundup of new musings on day or weekend trips I’ve taken from DC: cities, nature, history, beach, and everything in between. I’ll be updating these links as each new post goes live!

Williamsburg (April 13-14, 2013)

Baltimore (April 7, 2013)

Harpers Ferry, WV (April 6, 2013)

Northern Virigina Wine Country (Mar 2-3, 2013)

New York (Mar 13-17, 2013; Nov 2-4, 2012)

Long Island (Jan 26-27, 2013)

Great Falls Park, VA (Sept 29, 2013)

Atlantic City (July 6-8, 2012)

Gettysburg (May 26, 2012)