November 30, 2009

Glorious Returnable Gifts

Last Friday, my Roman extended family decided to throw me a little bon voyage dinner. It was fun, and sort of special being the guest of honor among no less than sixteen people (and that's not even the half of us...). Plus, and I totally wasn't expecting it at all, which made it even more thoughtful, my cousins all pitched in to get me a going away present. However, in a moment of communal dysfunction, they sent the one cousin who was probably most incapable of choosing the gift to buy it. Actually, according to him, he was all set to buy me something I would have actually liked, but being self-conscious about  his ability to pick out a gift for a particularly picky female cousin, he let the stupid sales girl talk him out it, letting her convince him that I would definitely prefer this much trendier alternative. Obviously, he couldn't have known that I obstinately dig my heels in against trends, especially ugly ones, so I don't blame him at all for picking me out a purple felt purse (he was originally going to get me a grey one, which I definitely would have preferred - purple, yuck - but then I wouldn't have the rest of this story to tell).

Had he bought me the grey one, I probably would have liked it enough to not bother exchanging it. But given that I was never going to be seen in public with a purple felt purse, I diplomatically told him I liked the style, but I might want to exchange it for another color. My cousin, who had prefaced the whole gift-giving moment by saying I should definitely exchange it if I didn't like it, immediately gave me the receipt.

So today I went to the store intending to simply exchange the purple purse for the grey one and be out of there asap (it was pouring rain, I was on my scooter without a raincoat, I was cold and wet, and I wanted to go home). But I had also misjudged the situation. I thought I was going into some chic little boutique with one shirt, three purses, two pairs of shoes, and a snooty sales lady, so the only choice I would have would be to change color on the only style of purse they carried (many little Italian shops work like this). Instead, it was this adorable little shop with all kinds of cute housewares, purses, scarves, jackets, and they even had a little stationery section! Instead of darting in and out, I easily lost myself for half and hour in there. And instead of going straight to find the grey purse, I browsed around a bit looking at all the other cute stuff they had. And then I saw the most adorable little carry-on luggage set (an overnight bag and a shoulder bag). And both bags together came to six euros less than the purse I was exchanging! I could trade in one so-so bag for two much cuter bags and still have money left over!

So obviously, in about three seconds flat I was in the stationery corner finding something to put those six euros towards. I settled on the cutest little set of four black and white polka-dot and striped notebooks (two big, two small). Okay, so those came to little more than the six euros I had left over, three times more to be exact. But I was more than happy to invest twelve euros towards the total  in order to trade in my gift purse for two adorable travel bags plus four adorable notebooks. And the sales people weren't even snooty! They were the sweetest middle-aged man and woman, both sort of hippie-ish, with long white hair, who were incredibly patient with me while I picked out all the stuff I wanted and dripped rainwater all over the store with my umbrella and helmet.

So the moral of the story is (if this can even be considered a moral) if someone insists you take the receipt because they're afraid you may not like the gift, they are already insecure enough about their taste in gifts for you that they won't be offended if you do decide to exchange it, and this way, you can end up getting six amazing things for a wee bit more than the price of one thing you weren't that crazy about to begin with.

Clearly, I'm not going to leave you hanging without any visual of how cute these things really are. So here are some pictures (and if you need a before image of the item I was trading in, just imagine a purse you don't really like, made out of purple felt).

The carry-on luggage set:



available from Reisenthel

The notebooks:



available from semikolon

Très cute, n'est-ce pas?  Over all, I'm very happy with how this all turned out. Even more so because I wasn't expecting a gift at all, so it was a pleasant surprise to get one, and because the designated gift chooser was so unsure about his choice being the right one that he was practically the one who told me I had to go exchange it, so I had no guilt in doing so.

In unrelated news, today is November 30th, which brings us to the end NaBloPoMo 2009. It has been a pleasure and a challenge writing every day for thirty days, trying never to be dull, and I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have, and will continue to follow me even without the guarantee of daily entertainment. You have all played a part in helping me stay on track, because without all your lovely comments and encouragement, I would have lost my faith very early. I will try my hardest to post as often as possible, and I'll being doing NaBloPoMo again next November. Thanks for reading!



November 29, 2009

101 in 1001

I jumped on the 101 in 1001 bandwagon. It's kind of boring, because everyone else is doing it, but I do think that setting out and trying to stick to realistic goals in a realistic time frame isn't a stupid idea. 1001 days (which is exactly 2 years, 271 days) is a long enough amount of time to try to make things happen, but it's short enough that it doesn't let you postpone indefinitely (unlike "things to do before I die" lists). And 101 goals are a lot, but when you break them down into different categories, you start to realize how much you actually want to achieve in each part of your life.

For lack of a more significant starting point, I'll make mine start as of tomorrow, November  30, 2009, which means my 1001 days will expire on August 27, 2012 (I sort of haphazardly did this calculation, so if any math genius realizes I made a mistake, please let me know. The fact that there's a leap year thrown in the mix sort of confused me).

This is how I will update the list to show my progress:
Not yet started
In progress
Completed

So without further ado, I give you my list of 101 goals in 1001 days, in their respective categories.

For My Brain (school and work)
1. Apply to Grad School
2. Re-learn Spanish
3. Get into Grad School
4. Read at least one non-fiction book every two months (school reading excluded)
5. Do all my required course reading on time
6. Pass all my exams
7. Maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher
8. Have an article or paper published (even in a school publication)
9. Graduate with an Master's in International Affairs
10. Get a job with an NGO (non-governmental organization)
For My Peace of Mind (relaxation and entertainment)
11. Read at least two books each month (school reading excluded)
12. Spend 10 minutes a day not doing anything
13. Go for a long walk every week
14. Watch all of Hitchcock's movies (that I haven't seen yet)
15. Watch all of Audrey Hepburn's movies (that I haven't seen yet)
16. Take a relaxing bubble bath at least once a month
17. Host a formal dinner party with cocktails
18. Join a book club
19. Write a short story

For My Threads (sewing)
20. Learn to use an invisible zipper foot
21. Sew a dress with an invisible zipper
22. Learn to use as pintuck foot
23. Sew a pintuck-front shirt
24. Sew a tailored shirt
25. Sew a pair of trousers

For My Friendships
26. Try to see my best friends living in other cities at least once a year
27. See my local friends as often as possible (once a week/once a month)
28. Send my friends cards for special occasions

For my Family
29. Spend more time with my mom
30. Spend more time with my dad
31. Spend more time with my brother
32. Remember my cousins' (and their children's) birthdays (all 18 of them), and send them cards

For Myself (beauty)
33. Get a manicure
34. Get a pedicure
35. Get a massage
36. Get a facial
(maybe I can really make an effort and do all of these more than once :)

For My Inner Wanderer (travel)
37. Visit Turkey
38. Visit Greece
39. Visit England
40. Visit the south of Italy (again)
41. Go someplace new once a week (a city, restaurant, park, whatever)
42. Take a road trip
43. Go on a boat

For My Inner Epicurian (food)
44. Cook something Thai
45. Cook something Indian
46. Cook something cajun/creole
47. Make puff pastry from scratch
48. Make a three-tiered cake
49. Make chai tea cupcakes
50. Make earl grey cookies
51. Grow (without killing) an herb garden
52. Eat ten things I've never eaten before

For My Security (money)
53. Apply for financial aid for Grad School (and get it)
54. Stop relying on my credit line for emergencies
55. Get a part-time job during Grad School
56. Put 20% of income in ING savings account
57. Become 100% independent from my parents
58. Only by shoes when necessary

For My Hands (crafts)
59. Learn to Use a Sewing Machine
60. Sew myself an article of clothing
61. Sew a purse
62. Re-learn how to knit
63. Knit a sweater
64. Knit a blanket
65. Make at least five gifts each year
66. Only send hand-made greeting/christmas/birthday cards

For My Body (health)
67. Exercise regularly (at least twice a week)
68. Take a yoga class
69. Lose 15 lbs
70. Run a 6-minute mile
71. Do 250 consecutive sit-ups
72. Do 50 consecutive push-ups
73. Beat my brother at arm wrestling (never going to happen)
74. Get health insurance

For My Cultural Growth (art and culture)
75. Re-learn to play the piano
76. Learn five new pieces
77. Go to the Orchestra (at least once)
78. Go to the Ballet (at least once)
79. Go to the Theater (at least once)
80. Visit a museum/gallery at least every two months
81. Take more photos

For My Improvement (skills)
82. Learn to properly drive stick shift
83. Become somewhat competent in html/coding
84. Learn to use photoshop
85. Learn to use my manual film camera

For My Inner Shopper (stuff)
86. Buy a better digital camera
87. Buy a good external disc drive
88. Buy a means of transportation (scooter or car, depending on where I end up)
89. Buy a brown leather jacket
90. Buy a pair of rain boots

For My Blog
91. Get and operate my own domain name
92. Improve my food photography
93. Add a separate Food Blog page
94. Add a separate Photography page
95. Add a separate Travel Blog page
96. Post at least fifteen times a month
97. Do NaBloPoMo every November
For Other People (altruism)
98. Volunteer with kids or Volunteer teaching English to adults
99. Set up an Etsy shop (which my mom can borrow to sell her lovely cards)
100. Make a charitable contribution each year
101. Help an old lady with her groceries


November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving Envy

Before thursday I was all, "I don't need you, Thanksgiving. I have Spaghetti allo Scoglio. I have bruschetta. And Extra virgin olive oil. And pizza margherita. I'm in Italy. And you're not. Na na na na boo boo."

But after browsing through google reader and seeing everyone's amazing delicious-looking post-thanksgiving recaps, I'm feeling very strong thanksgiving-envy... and getting some pretty strong cravings for turkey and pumpkin pie. I might have to roast a chicken tonight, pretend it's a turkey, and make some pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes.

Dammit... I forgot I don't have an oven. And I certainly won't stoop to microwaving a chicken (if that's even possible).

Well, I give up... You win. I'm going out for sushi. Screw you, Thanksgiving. Maybe next year we can be friends again. But we'll have to see about that.


Oh, and don't forget to check out my Everybody Wins! Giveaway... just participate, and you automatically win!


November 27, 2009

Black Friday: What I Would be Buying if I Were Shopping Today

(except I'm in Italy, where black friday doesn't exist, and I have to work anyway, so I won't be shopping today)


But, that doesn't mean I can't indulge in a little bit of virtual window shopping, while I have a lull in my morning. So I bring you my first annual Black Friday Virtual Shopping Spree (this in no way guarantees that there will be a second annual Black Friday Virtual Shopping Spree, but I liked the sound of "first annual").

So starting in the obvious place, let's take a little look at Etsy.

I'm a huge fan of paper goods. I think in my next life (or later in this one, if my lucrative career in the non-profit sector never takes off) I want to own a paper goods store - a Cartoleria, as they are so aptly called in Italy. If I could spend every day surrounded by beautiful cards, notebooks, pens, paper, I would die happy.



This little notebook is adorable,
because it has dots in it!




These amazing fabric and paper cards are so beautiful too.
I think I might have to actually buy them (esp. the winter berries).


But I also love vintage stuff. 



Although it totally isn't my style, I love this amazing vintage vanity.
It would make getting ready in the morning so much more fun.




And this awesome vintage pitcher, with the little blue fish,
I would give to my mom, who has a nice little pitcher collection
(although now if I do get it, it wouldn't be a surprise...darn)
(although I might have some else in mind for her. Don't worry, Maman :)


And of course, I wouldn't be myself if I didn't mention something food related, right? Don't these look delicious?




Yum. Gingershap Chewies.
'nuff said.


Okay, and we're done with Etsy. Actually, I think we're done altogether, since this took me longer than I though and I still have to take a shower and prepare my lesson before I head out. I hope you enjoyed my virtual shopping spree!

And don't forget to check out my Everybody Wins! Giveaway... just participate, and you automatically win!


November 25, 2009

Everybody Wins! Giveaway

This is my first giveaway, so I thought I'd be a little generous. It isn't a giveaway of the traditional contest type, because I won't be randomly choosing just a few lucky winners. Think of it as more of an early non-denominational holiday gift from me to you, all my lovely readers. I was originally thinking of just posting the link, and letting all passerbyers help themselves, but I decided I did want to keep some semblance of a real giveaway, and that includes commenting. So if you want the goods, you've got to have something to say. Sorry! :)

The good news is, everybody who participates wins!

The Rules: You must be a follower, and leave me a comment with your name and email address, telling me what you'd like me to feature in my next real giveaway (like with real winners and stuff - not just this feel good crap where everybody is a "winner"). Do you like crafty stuff? Beauty products? Holiday things? Accessories? Paper good? Any guys want me to feature something less girly? This is the place to help shape my decision about what I'll choose to be giving away next time. (If you don't want to leave your email address in a public comment thread, feel free to email me your answer at lookingformypearl@gmail.com) As soon as you comment (and I come to know about it) I'll email you the link to download the prize.

The Prize: A Printable Rome Photos 2010 Calender, put together by moi, with photos I took myself (I know, it sounds lame, but read on...)

I spent all of last night procrastinating slaving over an awesome full-color 2010 calender featuring photos of Rome I've taken during my stay here over the last two and a half years. I know, it sounds sort of self-promotional (she's giving away her own photos?) but the idea actually came to when I was brainstorming stocking stuffer-type gifts for my family and friends, and then when I realized I'd be making it on the computer and into a PDF file, I thought that it would be super easy to share with a bunch of other people too. And the idea to feature it on my blog came when I realized that all of the photos of Rome I'd already featured here got great reviews, so I thought that the people who liked them the first time around wouldn't be too bummed about getting a nice, new collection of them for free (you may have already seen a few of them, but most I haven't posted yet).

To be clear, this isn't an actual physical paper calender. Although I totally wish I had enough time/resources to print out and snail mail each of you a paper calender. It's a PDF file composed of 12 printable calender months, each with a photo and a blank monthly template. And because it's a PDF file, you can save it, and print it out as many times as you'd like for yourself . It's cool because you can print out and use one month at a time (because they're all separate and not stapled together like a regular paper calender) without getting the other months all dusty and curled with age (don't you just hate when your calender doesn't lie flat against the wall?) You can ever print it out and give it away as a gift, or gifts. Or what the hell, give away the PDF file too for good measure. Circulate it as much as you want without ever needing to link back to me. Okay, maybe this is a little self-promotional, since I secretly included my name and url on every month, but oh well, I'm the one giving stuff away for free, I can self-promote as much as I want!

My only condition and request for sharing a personal creation of mine with all of you is that you not modify the file in any way, or use the photos individually/separately from the calender layout. Sound fair?

I thought I'd feature a little preview, so anyone who's still confused about what exactly this entails can get a visual. By the way, the size is standard 8.5 x 11, so in a pinch you can print it on regular printer paper (although I've never known anyone to be in "in a pinch" for a calender, haha). Otherwise I suggest printing it on a slightly heavier card stock - matte finish, if you have an ink jet printer, so it doesn't smudge.

Here's January:


 Do we likey? Ok, good. Now run along and get commenting, so I can send you the other eleven months!


Anti-Thanksgiving Special: Spaghetti allo Scoglio

Before we begin I'd like to address something that has just come to my attention: this is my 50th post, yay!

It might not seem like much, at least to all you veteran bloggers out there with hundreds of posts to your name, but considering I started this little baby blog a mere two and a bit months ago, I think it's quite an achievement for such a short time. But I'm always one to give credit where credit is due, and I don't think I would have reached the big five-oh so quickly if it hadn't been for NaBloPoMo. This little self-challenge really kicked me into gear.

Okay, that's enough self-lauding for today. Now on to the meat of my post (which is actually a little pun I made especially for you, because this post is about seafood... aren't I clever? :)

This post is dedicated to all American ex-pats currently unable to celebrate thanksgiving in whatever foreign counties your in.

I'm boycotting Thanksgiving this year. I'm not sure if I can still call it boycotting if I don't have any say over the matter, but because I like feeling like I'm in control, I'm choosing to use that term - semantically accurate or not. Either way, I'm not just going to boycott Thanksgiving by not getting to eat traditional Thanksgiving fare, I'm going to cook up the meal most opposite I can think of to turkey and potatoes and pumpkin and squash and cranberries and pie and... Ok I need to stop because I'm starting to drool. I was saying, I'm going to cook up the meal most opposite to Thanksgiving dinner (that I already had the ingredients for), which I think is seafood pasta. It's Italian, and it comes from the sea, which I guess also applied to the Pilgrims, but that's pretty much the only similarity you're going to find between Spaghetti allo Scoglio (literally spaghetti from the rocks, ie. the ocean rocks where yummy shellfish live) and Turkey, Pilgrims, Native Americans, stuffing, and all that other good Thanksgiving stuff.

This is an in-my-head recipe that I don't have an actually measured out recipe for, so bear with me if my quantities aren't up to Martha Stewart standards of precision - luckily a little modification won't really change anything. EXCEPT don't use too much wine, and make sure it isn't sweet wine - I accidentally did that once, and for all the garlic and hot pepper I put in there, it still tasted like a syrupy wine spritzer. Stick to the dry stuff.

And I'm totally not going to re-type up the recipe instructions sans pictures at the end, because they would be just as vague and lacking in precise measurements as the captions to my photos (which are still terrible because my kitchen it the bane of my existence). But I will do you the favor of bolding the ingredients, so you can see them at a glance.

So without further ado, I present my Anti-thanksgiving Special:

Spaghetti allo Scoglio.

The very first step is excruciatingly easy, but very important, and easy to forget: Put a pot of water to boil. If you finish your sauce and realize you don't have any cooked pasta to put it on because you forgot to boil water, you will want to kick yourself, which is actually kind of difficult, and pretty dangerous in a kitchen with hot oil on the stove.

There are two star ingredients in this recipe, and neither of them is seafood. The first is hot pepper. Whatever type you have on hand is fine, as long as it's spicy. Ground is ok, but it tends to lose it's oomph fairly quickly, so I'd go with fresh, or dried whole. These I bought fresh in Calabria in August (I'm not sure what kind they are, but I think the lady said Peperoncino Fragola - Strawberry Hot Peppers - because of the shape), and they eventually dried out naturally on their own. You're going to want to mince these, if you want it spicy, or leave them in little chunks, if you want to be able to pick out the spicy pieces later. Although the seeds are really what determine the hotness. I used half of one of these, which are about the size of a small strawberry.


 Peperoncini Fragola Calabrese

The second star is garlic. Lots of it. I think I put around four or five cloves in this sauce (which serves two to three people, depending on appetite), and another minced one as garnish, but it's obviously all about what you like. Chop it up real nice and tiny. Or if you don't like eating little bits of garlic, gently crush each clove and add them in whole. I like chopping up the hot pepper and the garlic together, so the flavors really intermingle, like so:


Minced Garlic and Hot Pepper

Generously coat the bottom of a large (enough to hold all the cooked pasta) saute pan with extra virgin olive oil (about two tbsp.), heat the oil, and then toss everything in and give it a stir.



Then immediately turn down the heat to the minimum. There's enough heat in the oil already to cook the garlic, and the last thing you want to do is burn it - burnt garlic is about as tasty as burnt chocolate (which is pretty gross).

Meanwhile, take out your beautiful, fresh, washed cherry tomatoes,


about two handfuls,

and chop them up. I usually just quarter them so that when they break down in the sauce they still have a little shape; chop them up any more and they turn to mush.



Turn the heat back up a little (not too much) and go ahead and add those tomatoes to the saute pan. Mix everything up so the spicy garlic oil coats all the tomato bits.



Salt generously (because we all know that salt and tomatoes are best friends) and let this all mingle for a bit. You might even want to cover it and let it simmer for a minute. This gives you time to get out your seafood mix and the white wine (dry white wine).

Now about the seafood. I sort of cheated and used a frozen pre-mixed seafood medley made for risotto, which included clams, mussels, calamari, shrimp, octopus, and totani, which I'm pretty sure is just another type of calamari. But feel free to use whatever you like, mixed up, or just one seafood ingredient at a time - this would be nice with just  some big juicy shrimp. Either way, I used more or less 250 g, which is about half a pound.

Whatever you end up using, gather up your seafood, and toss it into the saute pan. Let it "fry" a little bit, as much as it can in the tomato juices, just to get covered in sauce a bit. When things look like they're all nice and saucy, splash in some dry white wine. But be careful. A little at a time. You can always add more later, but you can't take it out. And believe me, you don't want your delicious Anti-Thanksgiving Special tasting like a wine spritzer with a hint of garlic, it's gross. Eyeballing it, I'd say about a quarter cup of wine, total.



Turn the heat down to low, if it isn't already, cover, and let everything simmer for a few minutes. This is a good time to add a baby handful of kosher salt to the water, because it'll take a bit for the water to get back to boiling.

Meanwhile, "measure out" your spaghetti (or whatever long pasta you're using, as I and all Italian grandmothers discourage  the use of short pasta with this dish). And by "measure" I mean grab a couple of handfuls. Half a 500 g pack is good for two to three people, a whole 500 g pack is good for four to six people, depending on who you're dining with.



This is as much as I grabbed for myself,
and it ended up being two portions too many.

When you the water is back back to its rolling boil, toss in the spaghetti, making sure to push it down until it's all completely submerged (this may take a minute and some skilled efforts to not burn yourself).



 (If you were wondering why my pasta is so yellow looking, it's partly because of the crappy lighting, but mostly because here I used whole wheat pasta. I would have used normal spaghetti, but I didn't have any, and this wasn't a bad alternative. It's a little browner, denser, and nuttier - probably better with a tomato sauce than with sea food - but not noticeably in a well-flavored sauce).

All this time you should have been checking on your sauce, adding another splash of wine (or water) if it's starting to dry up, taking off the cover and turning up the heat if it's still too liquid, and generally evaluating the sauce situation and making the necessary adjustments.

When the sauce is done - the tomatoes should no longer be acidic, the seafood should be cooked through but not rubbery - turn off the heat so it doesn't dry out any more, and wait for the pasta to finish cooking. Regular spaghetti should take between 7 and 8 minutes. Drain it when it's still al dente (a little firm on the inside) and then add it to the sauce in the saute pan, stir it together, and let everything mingle in there for a minute, which allows the pasta to finish cooking through.



When you have the feeling that the pasta tastes as delicious as the sauce, plate it up, and garnish with a little chopped parsley and garlic and some freshly ground black pepper.


I didn't have any parsley.

Then eat it all up, but remember to enjoy a glass of that dry white wine with it. Or two.

So there you have it. My Anti-Thanksgiving Special. I hope you all have a chance to make Spaghetti allo Scoglio, I'm guessing about ten days after thanksgiving when you've been eating turkey and squash leftovers for so long that anything Italian with seafood will look like the most amazing dish ever created.


November 24, 2009

Crafty Christmas

I've always liked making things with my hands.*

I'm not one of those people that makes it a full time hobby, but mostly because I don't have the discipline to really see those types of projects through, and I haven't really had the right conducive environment (college was sort of a crazy time, and in Italy there are like zero craft supply stores that aren't ridiculously expensive), so my lack of will/materials/time is sort of a hindrance. But every once in a while, I manage to throw something together. Remember my Halloween costume? I totally downloaded that pattern online and then sewed that cape myself, in one afternoon. Which was pretty snazzy, if I may say so myself. And I've made some pretty sweet earrings on occasion. I even made whipped coconut body lotion once. And those moments just serve to make me think of all the other amazing things I could be making.

My mother is a sculptor, so I grew up in a super artsy household - always taking art classes, having all kinds of craft and art supplies at my disposal, making Christmas cards, Halloween costumes, and all kinds of other fun things from scratch. It was tons of fun. But I never really missed it until I started coming across the dozens of amazing craft/fashion/vintage blogs, and of course, Etsy, and I started seeing all the amazing things I wanted that people were making... with their own two hands... at home. And then I started thinking, "Hey if they can do it, I can do it too."


Pretty Things On Etsy That I Want
(earrings here, headband here, wallet here, bracelet here)

Thanks to the combination of my parents - my mom the artist and my dad the crazy eccentric Italian scientist/professor who insists on fixing/making everything himself - I was raised thinking "why buy something when you can make it yourself?"

Ok, before you let your imagination get carried away, let me just clarify that we weren't that crazy family you're thinking of that uses cloth diapers and makes its own soap and grinds its own organic almond butter at home in a mortar and pestle. No dice. I had whatever awesome cartoon character diapers were in style in 1985, I've had a life-long obsession with store-bought beauty products - no home-made hemp soap for me, and on the odd occasion that we did grind our own organic peanut butter, it was totally in that awesome peanut grinding machine they have at Whole Foods. Rather, the theory applied to things like greeting cards, or Christmas ornaments (or fixing VCRs). Why spend $12.95 on 8 identical generic holiday cards, when for about $4 of supplies you can make 20 unique Christmas cards that are so much cooler? Why buy those tacky, glittery, green and red Christmas balls, when you can make delicious peanut butter cookie ornaments (that your dog will totally eat off the tree, littering the house with the little gold threads)? (Or why buy a new VCR when you have eight old broken ones sitting around that you can take apart for pieces?) Well, aside from the fact that the end product is much nicer, and the original supplies are cheaper, the process is more fun!

The only downside to this is that now I generally assume I'm capable of making anything. Ok, not anything. There are a lot of lovely things on esty that I'm perfectly aware of being unable to recreate (like the pretty things I showed you before). But still. That doesn't mean I can't at least try. Worst case scenario I'll make a crappy change purse which I'll try to pass off as a coaster, and no one will ever have to know how badly I failed...

"Why yes, there is an explanation for why you have a zippered compartment under your wine glass, Sir..."

Best case scenario I'll end up making some pretty awesome stuff that I can give away as Christmas gifts - also because this holiday season my finances are a little "economically challenged," so to speak,  so necessity, and not just unbridled enthusiasm for all things hand-made, is the deciding factor in my decision to try for a crafty Christmas.

I already have some ideas, like this adorable Buttercup Bag:


(original pattern by Made by Rae)
(which I actually found at Whims and Inconsistencies)

And this only requires me to learn to use a sewing machine, which, let's be honest here, with my inherent crafty skill? Pshhh, easy. as. pie. (I hope). And I can mix it up for different people using different fabric.

Or I could knit some stuff. One time I knit my friend Molly a 10 foot long fuzzy orange scarf that ended up being used as a sort of wall hanging - when she wasn't using it as a full-body wrap to fend off those icy Chicago winter winds (note to self: versatility is good). (By the way, I'm really sorry I don't have a photo of it - it was pretty awesome). But that means I have to remember how to knit.

Or I could make some more jewelry. I made these last Christmas (as a little gift for yours truly):


Earrings with cut crystal beads
Necklace with milky glass beads

Cute, yes, but there's room for improvement. (I also have a new found respect for people who photograph their own creations and do it well, because this photo sucks).

But those aren't enough ideas. And it's no guarantee that I'll successfully sew a Buttercup Bag my first time seriously using a sewing machine. And what about the men? They can't wear pretty earrings or use pretty purses.

So this is where you come in. Have any ideas or suggestions for me? What gifts have you made in the past that have been well received? Not a crafter? How about just answering this question: if you were to receive a handmade gift, what would you want it to be, and what would you definitely not want it to be? This way I focus on things people actually want/need,

"You crocheted me potholders again? Oh you... you shouldn't have. Really."

And steer clear of presents that are easy to make, but make crappy presents,

"How did you know? Of course I needed a painted rock that doubles as a paperweight!"

So there you have it. You have your homework, I have mine, and together, we can make my Crafty Christmas a success! And maybe, when I finally get my act together (which probably means not before I leave Italy), I'll actually do that giveaway I talked about! Maybe I'll even give away something I made myself! Aren't you just the luckiest readers...



*Kate - I know what you're thinking, and no, I don't plan on making "working with my hands" my livelihood, and no, I don't think you're a "leech" on society. (Can you believe the number of ridiculous conversations we were part of? Oh man. Good times.)

November 23, 2009

Monday Musings

I'm feeling uninspired again. This NaBloPoMo is really taking it out of me. Some days I have ideas flowing out left and right, enough to write two posts in one day and then "delay-post" one of them (or whatever the expression is) and some days I feel like starting a blog was a stupid idea because I'm never going to have enough to say. Then that feeling quickly fades, because I always have something to say - but it's not always something nice - and you know what they say about when you don't have anything nice to say. (Yay! I just won the record for using "say" the most times in a single sentence!) And sometimes it's not necessarily something mean, but it's just not blog-worthy (like how I'm mad that it's cloudy and cold again). But it's okay. Today's crappy post is excusable because it's Monday, and every knows Mondays suck. A lot. And on Mondays  nothing should be fairly expected of you. Here it's not even four pm and I already get the feeling the sun is taking its leave, so you can't really blame me for lacking creative thoughts when the day has already decided to call it a day (haha I made a little joke!) and I haven't even left the house yet.

On the bright side, later I get to have a lesson with my two favorite little girls, and today we're learning about the body, so we're going to play body parts memory (which I totally designed, printed out, and pasted onto cardboard, and cut out myself - I know, I'm the awesomest English teacher there ever was), do the Hokey Pokey and sing "Head Shoulders Knees and Toes" (I know you guys are totally jealous of my afternoon) AND do some barbie coloring pages - because what better way is there to learn about the human body than by associating it with the extremely unrealistic proportions of America's favorite doll? Normally this would be a lesson from hell for me - singing and dancing when I haven't been drinking? -  but these little girls are very special, and they love love love doing English, so that makes it fun for me too. I wish I could remember all their witty/hilarious comments and share them with you, because these girls crack me up on a regular basis. But I'll settle for one. The other day the little one (who just turned three and already knows all the colors and can count to 20 in English!) informed me that because she was wearing underpants, she should get to use the scissors. I didn't really get the connection, until I realized she was explaining to me that because she wasn't in diapers anymore, and wearing big girl underpants, she was therefore a big girl who should get to use big girl scissors, and not those stupid plastic ones that don't cut anything. Unfortunately for her, despite her surprisingly logical argument (for a three year old), she still didn't get to use the big girl scissors, but mostly because her mom said she couldn't. I personally think that if a child that age is verbally coherent and logical enough to explain to you exactly why she's old enough to use the scissors, then she is old enough to use the scissors.


November 22, 2009

Hate Mail: Freezing Floors, Drippy Faucets and Uncooperative Pyjama Pants

I promised you some hate mail, and here it is.

Dear Freezing Tile Floor,
I have a bone to pick with you. Why? Why do you insist on being freezing all the time. Get with the program, floors! The rest of the house is warm (at least during the 2 hours a day we put on the heat), the air is warm, even the walls are warm! And yet you feel the need to keep your general temperature about a bazillion degrees below the ambient one. I've learned to live with you during the day (slippers, and thick socks - for when I get up to do something  without putting my slippers on and don't want to die of a coronary from the shock of putting my feet on what feels like a slab of ice). But at night? How am I supposed to remember how cold you are when I'm half asleep? My only crime is needing to pee at 4 am, and you feel the need to torture me? Why? I try to outsmart you by wearing socks to bed, but you know they never stay on my feet (I also blame you for my slowly dwindling sock supply - I have a theory a lot of them are lost in my sheets somewhere), and so when I get up, I'm barefoot again. That little bedside rug I also thought would outsmart you? Yeah, well, all it does is delay the inevitable moment you freeze off my feet until I'm actually standing - which is a lot worse than if I were still sitting on my bed, tentatively putting my feet on the cold floor. Well I've had it with you. And you're lucky that the floors I'll be walking on in America in a couple of weeks are hardwood, otherwise I might be forced to "accidentally drop" something really heavy and putting a crack in you. So watch it.
Your Sworn Night Time Enemy,
Julia

Dear Dripping Kitchen Faucet,
It's like you and Tile Floor (and Broken Oven) are teaming up to make my short two-month stay in this apartment as inconvenient as possible. What is your deal? We have tried so hard to fix you (granted, without the help of a professional plumber it's a little difficult for us to know what were doing), yet you continue to torture us with that constant drip.....drip.....drip.....drip.....drip. And it's not even like you're dripping into a silent, noise-absorbing ceramic basin - you're dripping into aluminum! Which amplifies the sound to the point where even I can hear it, and I'm in the furthest room from the kitchen. It's a miracle my roommates in the rooms adjacent to yours haven't taken a hammer to you yet. We've tried over and over again to stop the dripping, and when we finally thought we'd found a solution, your handle went and broke on us, so the problem is even worse now! What kind of sadistic kitchen faucet are you? Well, the jokes on you, because this apartment is being sold and the new owners are totally going to rip you out and put in a new, silent faucet, that doesn't waste liters of water a day.
Your Verge-of-Insanity Housemate,
Julia

Dear Pyjama Pants,
I want to love you. I really do. I even wrote you a love letter the other day, remember? You are warm, soft, comfortable. You make cold nights livable. Your friend, Pyjama Top, is awesome. I just have one little itty bitty problem with you.Why must you ride up my legs all night? I know I go to sleep all curled up, but then I want to stretch out, and when I do, you're all like, "no deal, missy, I'm staying right up here, around your knees." Do you know how uncomfortable that is? I'm almost 25 years old and you've got me wishing I still wore footsie pyjamas - that's not right. It's like you and Tile Floor are plotting together to make me wear socks to bed, since tucking you into socks is the only way for me to get you to stop riding up my legs. It's also oh so cool looking and comfortable. Why don't you have a little chat with Pyjama Top and figure out how you could be awesome too: stop riding up my legs!
Trying Really Hard to Love you Too, But Finding it Difficult,
Julia


November 21, 2009

I Occasionally Like to Make Lists: Ten Reasons I'm Going to Miss Italy



Ten Reasons I'm Going to Miss Italy


10. The Traffic. People may be driving-retarded here (stay tuned for upcoming list: 10 Reasons Why I Won't Miss Italy), but at least they're all in a hurry and they move. Fast. I didn't realize how much I appreciated the expediency of Italian driving until I was back in the US in June, stuck behind the biggest cars, manned by the slowest drivers, taking their sweetest time. Here, those little hatchbacks fly around the city, and people really understand urgency. You'll swear the whole way to where you're going, but it'll only take about 10 minutes.
This might look dire, but you'll get through it in minutes on a scooter.

9. The Gelato. I still haven't managed to go back to La Fata Morgana. Tsk tsk, Julia! I will miss the creamy (but low fat!) deliciousness, in all sorts of wonderful and original flavors. Lime Bergamot, Honey, and Caramel Meringue... come to America with me?

My friend Domina, enjoying a giant Gelato at Piazza Risorgimento

8. The Coffee. I'm not a huge coffee drinker, but man is this stuff good. I got dangerously close to an addiction my first few months here (I was consuming about 5 espressos a day - which actually might explain how I lost 20 lbs in 2 months), but once I became a little more reasonable (and put the weight back on, boo), I've come to appreciate it for what it is: little intervals of pleasure, interspersed throughout the week.

A typical breakfast Cappuccino

7. The People. In the private sense (I'll explain what I hate about the "public sense"of people in the next list). They are warm, caring, accommodating, and they always try to make you feel like part of the family - not in the corny Prego Italian Pasta Sauce commercial way, but in the sincere, welcoming way that makes you realize that it's a real pleasure for them to have your company.


6. The Scenery. Italy, and Rome in particular, is beautiful. Yes there's some smog, and some trash lying around, but where else can you drive around the corner coming home from work and suddenly find yourself face to face with the Colosseum, or St. Peter's. What a beautiful country.

The Roman Forum
Smack in the middle of a dirty, smoggy city - not too shabby, eh?

5. The Cars. There is the occasional Jeep or Hummer (and I always curse them to never find parking), but Rome is mostly filled with little cars, many of them luxury (little mini BMWs, Alfas, Benzes), who fit so perfectly with the spirit of the city. You'll see your average business man, all important looking, coming out of a million euro deal, and instead of getting into his huge I'm-a-big-man SUV, he'll get into a little three door Alfa Romeo hatchback, where he literally has to fold himself up to fit inside. Is it emasculating because it's so small and powerless looking? No. It's small, parkable, efficient, and most importantly, fast. Those little cars can run. And the vintage cars? Well, that's a whole other reason to love this city.

Me hugging a teal Fiat 500 in Manciano, Tuscany. So cute!

4. The Parks. Once upon a time, Rome used to be populated by a ton of poor people and the occasional filthy rich family who owned the equivalent of a park in private land. At some point in recent history, these properties became public (the families died off, or lost their power and money), and were transformed into parks, filled with museums, cinemas, zoos, and other public attractions.In Villa Borghese, there's even a hot air balloon! The grounds of the Villas are incredibly well maintained, and they are open to everyone. And they are all over the city.

Villa Pamphilij, and the maze garden
(my future house...someday)

3. The Historic Center of Rome. I can walk through Piazza Navona, or Piazza di Spagna, or the Pantheon, or Fontana di Trevi hundreds of times (God knows I have) and never get tired of bored. The tourists are a little tiring, but they're also part of the atmosphere. Those places (and all the less famous, but no less beautiful ones) have an aura of untouchable history and beauty that will never wear off, no matter how many Japanese tourists take group photos, or how many obese Americans abandon their McDonald's wrappers, or how many punky Italian adolescents litter their hang out spot with cigarette butts. These places are immune to modernity, and you feel it every time you walk through them.

The Pantheon by Night

2. The Food. Prosciutto di Parma, Pomodorini Pachino, Mozzarella di Bufala, Bucatini all'Amatriciana, Gnocchi Quattro Formaggi, Fettuccine Carbonara, Patate al Forno, Affettati Rustici, Pizza e Mortadella, Pastiera Napoletana, Cannoli Siciliani, Ravioli alla Zucca, Gnocchi Burro e Salvia, Arrosticini, Porchetta, Carne alla Brace. Have I said enough?

Prepared for and totally undaunted by the 10 or so dishes in Frascati

1. My Family. Both of my parents immigrated to the US in their twenties, ostensibly just to study, but then they never left! So both of my extended families--except for an aunt--all live in Europe. This time I've spent in Rome has given me the chance to really spend time with and get to know my father's family, whom I was so lucky to be able to see every summer growing up, but whom I've really only even spent time with one month out of each year--and when everyone was on vacation! Now I've seen my cousins in their school/work environment, I've had countless casual dinners with my aunts and uncles at home. It's been a pleasure and a privilege to spend two and a half years with some of my favorite people in the world!

Christmas Dinner 2007, at the "kids" table. 







November 19, 2009

UNICEF: 20th Anniversary of the Convention on The Rights of the Child

On November 20, 1989 the Convention on The Rights of the Child was unanimously approved by the UN General Assembly, and then ratified by 193 countries. Today we celebrate the 20th anniversary of this historic day, by applauding the progresses made in the last twenty years, but also by remembering that many challenges still lie ahead of us.


This video, the music and the photographs, is really beautiful.
Take a minute to watch it.

"Lullaby: The UNICEF Anthem" is a new composition by UNICEF Canada Ambassador Steve Barakatt.
The Anthem was composed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Produced in collaboration with other UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors, musicians and video artists from around the globe, Lullaby is dedicated to the world's children and the realization of their rights. Mr. Barakatt also directed this music video featuring stirring images from UNICEF's photography archive.
To learn more about the Convention on the Rights of the Child...please click here.

Progress We've Made in the last 20 years:

Child Survival:
The annual prevention number of global under-five deaths has dropped from 12.5 million in 1990 to less than 9 million in 2008. 
Micro-nutrient Supplementation: Fully protecting children in developing regions with two doses of  vitamin A has risen from 16% to 62% since 1999.
Routine Immunization: Of three doses of DPT3 vaccine has increased from 75% in 1990 to 81% in 2007. 
Vaccines: Save millions of lives and have helped reduce global measles deaths by 74% since 2000.
HIV Prevalence: Has declined among women aged 15–24 attending antenatal clinics since 2000, in 14 of 17 countries with sufficient data to determine trends. 
HIV Treatment: For children under 15 has risen dramatically, most significantly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Improved Drinking Water: More than 1.6 billion people have gained access to improved drinking-water
sources between 1990 and 2006.
Primary School Enrollment: The number of children out of school declined from 115 million in 2002 to 101 million in 2007.
Primary School Completion: Survival to the last primary grade for children in developing countries was more than 90% in 2000-2007 according to international survey data.
Gender Parity in Primary Education: Is improving, with the gender parity index at 96% or higher in most
developing regions.
 

But There are Still Many Challenges Ahead:
 

2.5 Billion people still lack access to improved sanitation facilities
1 Billion children are deprived of one or more services essential to survival and development.
148 Million children under-five in developing regions are underweight for their age.
101 Million children are not attending primary school, with more girls than boys missing out.
22 Million infants are not protected from diseases by routine immunization.
19 Million infants in developing countries are born with low birth weight.
8.8 Million children worldwide died before their fifth birthday in 2008.
4 Million newborns worldwide are dying in the first month of life.
4 Million children under-five die each year from just three causes: diarrhea, malaria or pneumonia (all easily preventable and curable).
2 Million children under fifteen worldwide are living with HIV.
More than 500,000 women die each year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
HIV Prevalence among young women in Eastern and Southern Africa is 3 times higher than among young  men.
Lifetime Risk of Maternal Death is 300 times greater for women living in the least developed countries than it is for those from industrialized countries.
Up to 1.5 Billion children have been affected by violence.
150 Million children 5–14 years old are engaged in child labour.
70 Million women and girls in 29 countries have experienced female genital mutilation/cutting.
More than 64 Million women aged 20–24 in the developing world were married before age 18.
14 Million young women give birth between the  ages of 15 and 19 years old.
1.2 Million children were trafficked each year as of the year 2000.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. As you can see, there's still a huge amount of progress to make.
See the full Report Summary here.

Pass this information on to as many people as you can. Apathy is a terribly dangerous thing, and raising awareness among the people who have the will and means to make a difference is the only way these children will ever have a chance at a brighter future. Thanks!


Love Letters: Earl Grey, Shoes, and Jammies

Combining Laura's suggestion that I write a "letter to the editor" type post, and my idea to express appreciation for certain main players in my life, I decided to start a semi-regular virtual mailing of love letters to my favorite things (mostly inanimate objects, but we'll have the occasional live one). And maybe one day, when I'm feeling particularly ranty, I'll start a series of hate mailings to the things that drive me crazy. But today I'm feeling positive, so let's spread some love.

Dear Earl Grey Tea,
Thank you for being there for me in the morning, when I'm out of it and incomprehensible. All I have to manage, in my catatonic morning stupor, is drop you in a mug with a little hot water, and your sweet aroma starts to gently caress me into a state of wakefulness. I love to steep you and watch the swirls of tea color the water. Paired with your best friends, milk and sugar, you are divine. The warm, soft flavor of your black tea base, with hints of tart Bergamot, is second to none, and you need nothing more than a simple croissant to help me start my day in a lovely mood. I hope our friendship will be a long one,
Your Morning Companion,
Julia


Dear High Heels,

I know you feel like I've been neglecting you. I used to wear you every day, matching you to a classy work outfit, and take you out on the town. Now you spend more time in the closet, lined up in little rows, than on the street, and for that I'm sorry. I miss you, and having you make my feet feel pretty. I know you're feeling a little jealous of Sneakers and Boots, but it's winter, and I work with children now. And for all your wonderful qualities, dear heels, working with children is not one of them. I risked it once, with Mary Jane Pumps, and they ended up smeared with finger paint. I doubt they'd want you to share their same fate (I had some trouble getting green paint off the heel). And it's cold now. Peep Toes, you are so lovely in the warm months, but standing outside in the cold other night, I was really thankful for Boots. I just wanted to say that I'm thinking of you all, and I hope to be able to take you out soon. Perhaps today, as it's sunny and I have no lessons with children, I'll pick a lucky pair of you to come to the UNICEF Conference with me.
I miss you dearly,
Julia


Dear Flannel Pyjamas,
You have no idea what I owe you. This new house is freezing! And because of my stingy roommates, we turn on the heat for a total of one hour before we go to sleep. It's warmer outside at night than it is in this ice house! But still, no heat. During the day, I manage with layers: tank top, long sleeved t-shirt, wool sweater, scarf (yes, often in the house too) but sleeping with layers is so uncomfortable! Which is why I love you, my warm, soft, red and white polka dotted Flannel Pyjamas. At night, I'm warm as toast (with the help of your good friend, Duvet), and in the cold, frosty mornings, you help me overcome my fear of getting out of bed. You and Furry Slippers make quite a pair, and I owe you my winter comfort. Yes, you sort of make me look like a giant strawberry, and yes, I've actually had dreams about being mortified in public, still dressed in you. But this isn't about looks; I love you for what you are, not what you look like (even though I happen to think red and white polka dots are pretty snazzy). And you are what helps me sleep at night. Excellent job, Flannel Pyjamas. Keep up the good work,
Your chilly night-time guest,
Julia

November 18, 2009

Weekly(ish) Photo Essay: Green Theme

So while you little brainstormers were hard at work thinking up awesome things for me to write about in future posts, I stumbled across a lovely blog, The Little Things We Do, and found my next idea.  A sort of color themed scavenger hunt, where you have to find seven things in your house of the chosen color, and post pictures of them. Lauren (of The Little Things We Do) suggested green, so I went with that (since it's also my favorite color!) This will also double as this week's photo essay (for a refresher, see my past photo essays here and here).

So here are the results of my search for green:

My Adorable Green Satin Flats

My Grandfather's (now mine) Old Pencil Box,
formerly a tin of caramels.

The Box where I Keep my Bracelets
(can you tell I like green and polka dots?)

My Shampoo and Conditioner

A Green Basket of Green Zucchini

Our Awesome 1970s Toaster

My father's Vintage Samsonite Suitcase

So those are the results of my green themed scavenger hunt. Now it's your turn. I challenge you to find seven things of the color.....red! And then post about it.


p.s. This has nothing to do with the Green Theme, but it was parked yesterday outside my office and I almost squealed with delight when I saw it. Isn't it adorable? My favorite car....in pink! I want to give it a hug!

Oh Fiat 500, how I love you so!