Saturday, 21 January 2017

Back in Melbourne for the past two weeks

We've been back in Melbourne from our Christmas/family holiday for nearly two weeks now. Although I miss constantly having family around, I have enjoyed getting back into the routine of our lives here. I have especially enjoyed returning to the southern hemisphere for the summer, and leaving winter behind! Luckily as teachers we don't go back to work until the end of January, and so have still been on holidays these past two weeks.

Ella seems happy to be back in the familiar surroundings of our house. As soon as got back home from the airport she promptly walked over to her little sofa and sat down, grinning from ear to ear. She has spent a lot of time on that little sofa, reading books to herself and playing with all her little toy animals on her own. She is starting to role play more now, she does things like pretend her animals are talking to each other, or tries to give them her bottle, or dummy, or some of her food. It's very cute. Her main Christmas gift from my parents is a toy kitchen, this one from IKEA:


We haven't built it yet - it needs to be fastened to the wall for safety, so we just have to double check with the landlord that we can drill into the wall. It's times like this that I long to stop renting and own our own house!

We have been having typical Melbourne weather since being back. That basically means that it varies wildly from day to day. Some days it is so hot you can barely be outside, some days are a lovely perfect temperature with a mix of sun and clouds, and some days we get a cool change and it feels like autumn is already here. Mostly it has been good though. We've been enjoying lazy summer mornings, keeping our pyjamas on and playing with Ella in the house, or taking her to the park and swimming at our local pool, Brunswick Baths. I've been trying get ahead by cooking and freezing food for Ella, in preparation for the busyness that will no doubt descend on us as we get back into our work routine. I am going to be working four days a week this year, which I will admit I am not looking forward to at all! 

Last weekend we were pretty busy, catching up with lots of friends. On Saturday we checked out Brickvention, a Lego Expo held at the Royal Exhibition Centre in Carlton. The main hall was filled with some very impressive Lego models, including replica cities and very elaborate train sets. This isn't normally my thing, but I'll admit the creations were very impressive.




On Sunday we had an early morning catch-up with my mother's group at the park near Collingwood station. This is where we used to meet every Tuesday afternoon when our toddlers were just little babies. Oh, the memories! We used to just sit on picnic blankets while the babies stayed in one place, happy to just gaze at the trees or play with a little toy. (I'm purposely not remembering the times when a baby would be crying inconsolably, and that mother would have to take it on a walk around the park to calm it down. That happened at least once an afternoon!) They are not so easily amused now, and were running around, playing with cricket bats and balls and climbing all over the playground equipment. Being back there made me really sad that I can't catch up with these ladies and their little ones on a regular basis anymore.

Andy, Ella and I then went for brunch at our old local, Mavis the Grocer. We shared the zucchini and haloumi fritters, and Ella enjoyed a green smoothie:


After lunch we headed to Little Creatures Brewery in Geelong. It was just over an hour drive, and Ella slept pretty much the whole way. It's always a major win when her nap times fall into place with driving times on a packed day out! Little Creatures is super kid friendly, with lots of outdoor seating and a sand pit for kids. There were lots of children running around so Ella fit in perfectly. Our friends with an 8-month-old were also there, and Ella was fascinated with him. She kept pointing to him, saying "baby" which was cute. We spent a good few hours there trying different beers, eating good food, and enjoying the sunshine before heading home.

After a very busy weekend it was nice to have Ella in daycare on Monday so that Andy and I could get a few house jobs done. I'm not going to lie, we also enjoyed brunch in peace at the fabulous Kitty Burns, conveniently located near the daycare. I've been virtuously ordering the "Kitty Greens" (pic below) which still seems indulgent despite being solely made up of green veggies. I've also been sampling cold brew coffee from different locations. Cold brew is coffee brewed in cold water for 24 (or so) hours, and then served over ice. It can be slightly bitter, I guess based on the beans or length of brewing time. I've found it to be smoothest, not to mention presented the best, at Kitty Burns.





Daycare drop offs have been a bit harder since arriving back. Ella gets very tearful when we try and leave, which she never was before. She is obviously used to having us around all the time and is not happy to leave us. Apparently she is okay again a few minutes after we leave, but that still doesn't stop me wanting to cry as well when we say good-bye. Hopefully after a few weeks she will be back into routine.

During our free days we have been working on our citizenship application, which I just finalised this morning. We had to list all of the countries we have visited in the last 10 years, so it took some time to get all those straight! Now we just wait for our application to be processed before we are given a date for our citizenship test. The current waiting time is 80 days.  I also wanted to get some furniture for our balcony so that I can enjoy the lovely summer weather while it lasts. That required a trip to IKEA, which is never a simple or quick task. Andy and I managed to complete this still married and talking to each other, so although long, it was a successful IKEA visit in the end. Furniture bought, we now need to build it, a project I'm hoping to complete this weekend!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

California Holiday Highlights

This is my fourth (and final) post on our Christmas holiday in California. Read part one about flying with a toddler here, part two about our time in Tahoe here, and part three about our weekend in Santa Rosa here.

We spent the majority of our three weeks in California at my brother's place in Campbell, California. Campbell is located just outside of San Jose, about 45 minutes from San Francisco, in the heart of Silicon Valley. My brother moved here 10 years ago to take a job as a video game programmer, and is now working as a software engineer for a start-up company. His girlfriend Ashley works for Google. Yes, their jobs are way cooler than mine.

Here are some of the things we got up to and places we went to while we were here:

Eating, eating, and more eating. Mixed in with some drinking. I think we sampled the majority of Campbell's eateries during the time we were there. A highlight was Ashley and Mike's favourite restaurant, Orchard City Kitchen, owned by a former Michelin-star chef. OCK has a creative range of cocktails and a tapas style menu, so we were able to sample a lot of different dishes. We also loved Aqui's, a Mexican restaurant serving healthy, organic food at affordable prices. I think we ate here three times as the food was so good, on top of being quick, cheap, and Ella-friendly.

Barefoot Coffee. It's hard to find good coffee in America, especially when you are used to Melbourne's finest. The place is saturated with Starbucks (there were three within a ten minute walk of Mike's place). However walk a little bit further and you get to Barefoot Coffee. We visited this place almost daily - best coffee in Campbell - or maybe even all of California! But also slowest coffee in Campbell. We waited nearly 20 minutes once and Andy swore we would never go back. The next day we went to Starbucks, and while it only took three minutes to get our coffee, it tasted like shit (or more specifically, hot milk with a little bit of terrible coffee mixed in). So we sucked it up and went back to Barefoot the next day. When on holidays you can afford to choose quality over speed. I LOVED one of their speciality coffees: the Cacophony. A cappuccino with cocoa, cayenne pepper and cinnamon. So yum. I have already tried to recreate it now that we are back home, with very pleasing results!

Los Gatos Creek. The trail following the creek passes close to my brother's place, so we spent a good deal of time walking, jogging, and cycling along it. Yes, that's right, I said jogging! Andy and I went on a few runs and it felt good to get back into running after what seems like a long break, even if we only ran 4km each time. Slow and steady! Campbell Park, located off the trail, had a good size playground that we took Ella to a few times. It's where I snapped this pic, one of my favourites of the holiday of Ella and her Nannie:

Loving the merry-go-round with Nannie!

Going down the slide 

Redemption
: A shop on the main street in Campbell that sells only "socially conscious" California-made products. I wanted to buy pretty much everything in this shop. I settled on some moisturising oil from By Nieves. My brother gave me a sampler of their products last Christmas and I loved the "C" Perfect Skin product. Also, the owners are a married couple, and the guy is from Melbourne! (His wife is a local). Such a nice guy, I totally recommend supporting this shop.

Campo di Bocce (Los Gatos). We played Bocce Ball here one evening which was really fun. It reminded me of when we were all in Australia for Christmas 2014 and played lawn bowls. We played on (heated) outdoor courts lit up with fairy lights, which gave it a magical feeling. Ella loved watching and "helping" by throwing the balls around.



Happy Hallow (San Jose). This is like a mini-amusement park for little kids. Ella went on her first merry-go-round and also two rides on her own! She was a bit hesitant at first and I think confused when we buckled her in and then left her to watch from the sides. But once the ride started she was loving it. The only hard part was that each time a ride stopped she screamed as she wanted it to keep going. There is also a small zoo here so plenty to do for a full day with kids.

Enjoying her first amusement park ride
Loving her second ride
Children's Discovery Museum (San Jose). This was another amazing museum aimed at kids, similar (but different) to the one we went to in Santa Rosa. Why don't we have places like this in Melbourne?!! We wisely left the water play area until last, and predictably Ella loved it and probably could have stayed there for hours. Also, fun fact: The museum is located on Woz Way. Sounds like a stupid street name, until we realised it was named after Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple.

Driving a Fire Truck
Running through a giant tunnel made of tape

Fun times in the water activity centre


Santana Row (San Jose). Fancy shopping street. We stopped in to a Tesla display room which was kind of cool. I have never EVER wanted to spend a lot of money on a car, or even cared what kind of car we own. But I could make an exception in this case... It is after all, very environmentally friendly! There are high end designer stores on this street, mixed in with shops like H&M and Lululemon for us regular folk. There are some good eating options as well, we ate at Pluto's which had amazing roast sandwiches and fresh salads made to order. There were very healthy options for kids, Ella had roast turkey with peas and broccoli. (It may have come with a rice krispie treat that Andy and I may or may not have eaten in secret.) At the end of Santana Row is Westfield's Valley Fair, your regular American shopping mall.

Santana Row - the only shop I can afford, H&M!
Checking out her future car
Winchester Mystery House (San Jose). My parents took a tour here one afternoon. Andy and I declined as it was a bit pricey and not Ella-friendly. The house was built by Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester Arms Company. After the death of her husband and daughter she felt her family was cursed, and went to a psychic for advice. The psychic told her that there were many spirits angry with her for all the deaths caused by Winchester rifles. In order to appease the spirits, she would have to build a house for all of the spirits. If construction of the house ever stopped, she would also die. So she took this advice and for the next 38 years she had builders working on the house 24 hours a day, 356 days a year. The result is a gigantic, complex house that is now open for tours.

Alcatraz (San Francisco). We only spent one day in San Fran, on our way to Santa Rosa. We booked tours for Alcatraz in advance as they tend to sell out - in fact we went at the end of December and there was a sign saying the next available tour was Jan 5. It was pretty eerie to walk around a former prison, but interesting to learn about the history of Alcatraz and the stories from the time it was a prison. The tour was self-guided, which I was initially disappointed about, however I thought it was really well done. The recording was of former guards and prisoners telling first-hand accounts of what it was like in Alcatraz, giving it an authenticity you wouldn't get from a regular tour guide. 

The Rock

Of course, the best part of the holiday was watching Ella get to know her Canadian (and American) family a lot better. She was very comfortable with everyone within a few days and even started saying "Mike" near the end of the trip. It was sad to say good-bye, as it always is, but a bit easier this time as we are all meeting in Bali for a holiday in April. Although it is hard living so far away from family, I am, as always, thankful that we all have the means to travel and were able to spend this quality time together.

Friday, 6 January 2017

New Year's in Santa Rosa

This is the third post about our Christmas holiday in California. Read part one about flying with a toddler here, and part two about our time in Tahoe here.

After Christmas we spent the week at Mike & Ashley's place in Campbell, just outside of San Jose, California. I'll write about what we got up to there in my next post. The next weekend was New Year's and on Friday we drove north to the city of Santa Rosa, located in the heart of wine country, Sonoma County.

Sonoma is a pretty expensive part of the world to stay in, so when booking our options were pretty limited unless we wanted to spend tons of cash on accommodation (we didn't). We ended up in a 2-bed Airbnb with a futon in the living room. It was a tight squeeze for the seven of us, but in the end we managed pretty well. Our hosts lived in the house next door, which was built in 1907 after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The earthquake destroyed a lot of Santa Rosa, our host told us it was the hardest city hit per capita. Our actual Airbnb was built in 1968 on the site of the original horse carriage house.

Saturday morning Andy, my dad and I took Ella to the Children's Museum of Sonoma County. This place is awesome! Designed for children under 10, it's full of different hands on exhibits and areas to explore. The main exhibit is the Science and Imagination Gallery, where Ella enjoyed having the freedom to wander around, checking out anything that piqued her interest. There were different rooms set up for imaginative play, such as a doctor's office, a dentist, a hardware room, a diner, etc. She was especially taken with a train that circled around the ceiling that you could watch ride by on the second floor. There was also a bubble room with huge sinks of soap and giant bubble wands. Ella is obsessed with bubbles at the moment so it was hard to get her to leave this room! In addition to the main exhibit there was also a room for "under 2s" called TOTopia which Ella also loved and was a bit calmer than the rest of the museum. It was kind of like being at her daycare where she is free to roam around and play with anything there in a relatively safe environment. Outside there was more to do - a river and water play area, a life size tractor and helicopter to play in, a pretend farmers market with fresh veg and herbs grown in the garden. I feel like I'm not doing justice to the amount there was for kids to do here. If we lived nearby it is a place I'd be taking Ella to on a weekly basis. I'm already trying to work out how I can get a similar place up and running in Melbourne...

Bubbles!
Pretend Kitchen
Activity board
Ball pit in TOTopia
Doctor's office
River demonstration
Life size helicopter

The Children's Museum is right next door to the Charles M. Schultz Museum. Schultz is the creator of the Peanuts cartoon and spent a lot of his life in Santa Rosa. There is also a Peanuts themed ice skating rink that looks like a Swiss Chalet beside the museum. We didn't visit either as we didn't think they were very "Ella friendly" activities, but both have really good reviews and would suit older children. There are a lot of Peanuts statues around the city in homage to Schultz:


Charlie Brown statue

After our busy morning at the museum we thought Ella might have a nap back at the Airbnb while we watched Canada play the USA in the World Junior (Ice) Hockey Championships. Watching this annual tournament is normally one of my favourite things about the Christmas holidays. It starts every year on Boxing Day goes for about two weeks. (I can now sadly report the Canada lost the gold medal to the USA in the final game last night. They lost in a shoot-out after being tied 4-4 in regular and overtime. Devastating!) Ella had other plans, however, and refused to take a nap in her cot, so Andy, my mom and I took a walk into the main part of the city so she would sleep in the stroller. This worked like a charm and Ella was asleep within minutes, while the three of us got coffees and browsed the shops on the main street in Santa Rosa.

We didn't have any New Year's plans for dinner, so instead of trying to get a last minute reservation we had a late lunch at Amy's Drive Thru. Ashley recommended this place - Amy's kitchen is a vegetarian brand of convenience and frozen organic food, and they opened their first restaurant in 2015. It's homemade, vegetarian fast food, at very affordable prices. I think my dad and Andy were skeptical - as soon as you use the words organic/vegan/vegetarian those two roll their eyes, even though they end up liking pretty much anything they eat. The food was delicious, healthy and cheap so in the end everyone was happy. Even Ella enjoyed the lentil soup and veggie chili! On the way home Mike, Ashley, Andy and I stopped in a Whole Foods to get some snacks for New Year's eve. Cool fact: Some Whole Foods stores have a Wine and Craft Beer Bar. A bar in a supermarket! Awesome! We thought we'd get a drink there while picking up our snacks, but unfortunately I left my ID in Ella's diaper bag, which was with my parents. Despite being a sleep-deprived, 35-year-old mom with no makeup on, in a Whole Foods on New Years Eve (surely no self-respecting, underage drinker would be trying to get booze from a Whole Foods on New Years Eve?), I was denied the right to even sit in the bar! I always forget how strict they are with showing ID and alcohol in the USA. Fortunately the other three weren't that bothered about having a drink, and didn't make me wander around Whole Foods while they enjoyed a craft beer. So we just got our snacks and went back to the Airbnb.

We arrived home to find Ella bathed and running around with my parents, not looking like she was ready for bed at all. She played with everyone for a while, demanding more food (she is obsessed with oranges at the moment) and then finally getting cranky, signalling her bed time. We've been pretty flexible with her bedtime while we've been here. I hope she has enjoyed it, as once we are home it will be bedtime at 7pm sharp like usual! Once she was asleep we spent the evening eating, drinking, and playing games: Catch Phrase and Secret Hitler. I was Hitler twice and won, woohoo! (That will sound very weird if you don't know the game...)

There was no TV in our Airbnb so I had to scramble to try and find a live airing of a ball drop - not an easy thing to do when you're on the west coast, I found out! We had a pretty anti-climatic countdown, toasting the New Year with our own estimated countdown (midnight confirmed by the sound of fireworks outside) and then pretty much going to bed. Things are pretty rock and roll when you're in your thirties and have young children. Sleep takes priority over pretty much everything, drinking included!

The next morning all of us except Andy and Ella went for a $25, hour long "Foot Reflexology" treatment at Michael's Reflexology Centre on 4th Street. At that price I wasn't expecting much, but it was advertised as coming with a back, shoulder, and head massage so I was looking forward to that, especially in my slightly hungover state. The five of us were led to the back of the "centre" (shop) where a bunch of huge leather chairs were set up. There was already one woman there having her treatment, and she did look relaxed. At this point I was thinking "a massage on New Year's Day, on your own, what a great start to the New Year. Why haven't I thought of this before?!" Anyway, the treatment ended up being a full body (fully clothed) massage (with particular attention paid to my butt, which was probably needed), and was one of the best massages I've had, ever. And I've had my share of massages! It was probably the best $25 (plus tip!) I've ever spent. We all left feeling like we were walking on clouds. I'm thinking a New Year's Day massage should be a new family tradition.

Next Ashley, mom and I did a bit of shopping at Crossing the Jordan. This is a consignment shop, with proceeds going to support their Life Transformation Program. This program helps women who have experienced some sort of trauma (trafficking, addiction, abuse) get back on their feet. I wish there were more stores like this, where you can shop for a good cause! I got a cute dress for Ella, plus a jacket and a work dress for me. The girls working there told Ashley they thought Andy looked like Ryan Reynolds. Lol. I don't even think that Andy even knew who he was, but he has since googled him, and I don't think I'm ever going to hear the end of it. An example of a recurring conversation we've had nearly every day this week:

Wendy: Why do you take so long to get ready in the morning? What are you even doing?
Andy: It takes time to look as good as Ryan Reynolds.
Etc, etc. You get the picture.

For lunch we went to Russian River Brewing Company. It's a pretty popular place, and we were told it would be about a 1 1/2 hour wait for a table for the seven of us. Ella was ready for a nap, so my parents took her for a walk while the four of us went to get a little snack to tide us over. We ended up at Tex Wasabi's, which serves BBQ and sushi. Weird combination, but surprisingly good. Unfortunately we had little time to appreciate our food, as minutes after we ordered we got a text saying our table was ready at Russian River. They were a little off on their table wait times! Scarfing down Edamame beans, we hurriedly paid the bill at Text Wasabi's and rushed back to the brewery. My parents and Ella were already there, with a tasting platter of 16 different beers. (There are normally 18, but they were out of two). Once we had all decided which was our favourite, we ordered some excellent pizza and beers to enjoy.

Tasting beers at Russian River Brewing Company

Bellies full, we took a walk down to Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, and Juilliard Park, playing with Ella until the sun started to go down. We had beautiful sunny weather the whole weekend, but once the sun went down it would get very cold.

Luther Burbank Home & Gardens

Juilliard Park playground
The next morning my parents took Ella back to the Children's Museum while the four of us packed up the house. After grabbing a quick lunch we headed back to Mike and Ashley's for our final week in California. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Christmas in Tahoe

This is a continuation on my last post on our Christmas holiday in California...

Upon arriving in San Francisco we immediately left for the four hour drive northeast to Lake Tahoe, in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The lake straddles the border of California and Nevada and the surface sits at just under 2000m. We arrived on Monday night, the same day we left Australia. Travelling back in time 19 hours makes for a very long day! 

We spent the first three nights in South Lake Tahoe, which, as you may have guessed, is located on the southern shore of the lake. We had an amazing Airbnb that looked like a typical Swiss ski chalet:






On Tuesday Andy, Ella and I had a very lazy first day. Ella had a three hour nap after a fairly rough night, and Andy and I spent that time cozied up in the chalet: reading, eating and generally just relaxing. Perfect start to the holidays, in my mind! (My activity loving husband may have had a different opinion on that.) Once Ella woke up we took her for a walk, checking out all of the other chalets. Ella loved these deer lawn ornaments:


Definitely an animal lover, that girl!

On Wednesday we woke up to a light sprinkling of snow, giving the area a very Christmassy feel:


We took a walk down to the lake and stopped for a drink at Jimmy's at The Landing Resort. The location was perfect, right on the lake, and even though it was cold and lightly snowing we decided to sit outside around the huge fire pits out on the patio. We ordered some hot cocktails - coffees and hot chocolates spiked with whisky and liqueurs, and enjoyed the view of the lake with snow covered mountains in the background. The picture below does not do it justice:


I have a book called The Wish List, that I’ve had for nearly 20 years. It is basically a checklist of cool things to do in your lifetime. I haven’t looked at it in years, although it is still on my bookshelf at home. Mike somehow remembered that one of the "things to do" in the book is to drink wine on a beach while gazing at snow covered mountains, or something to that effect. So we got some wine and plastic cups from the grocery store, ignored the sign saying “No alcohol” on the beach, and drank up (quickly, as it was bloody cold), toasting being all together for the holidays.  


On the walk back to the chalet we stopped in some of the shops, checked out the Christmas displays in the centre of South Lake, and watched the ice skaters. I can’t wait until Ella can try ice skating! 



Once we got back to the chalet Mike, Ashely, Andy and I went for a dip in the hot tub while the sun set. Sitting in a hot tub in sub-zero temperatures while the sun sets over a lake surrounded by mountains… priceless. I’m gutted I forgot to take a picture but it probably wouldn’t have turned out that well anyway.

That night my dad, Mike, Ashley, Andy and I went out for Mexican and then out to see a comedy show at the Improv while my  mom stayed home with Ella. It was fun to have a night out without the baby! 

Thursday morning we packed up our chalet and headed to the north side of the lake to our next Airbnb in Truckee. We stopped at Emerald Bay, which is located about 30 minutes west of South Lake, at the southwest end of Lake Tahoe. The bay is a gorgeous deep blue colour. We went on a short hike (about 3.5km roundtrip) to Cascade Falls. We couldn’t quite make it all the way as there was too much snow and ice and Andy was carrying Ella in the baby carrier, so it was a bit too dangerous. We did have a view of the falls from afar and the scenery throughout the duration of the hike was stunning. One of those places where you take millions of pictures even though they are all pretty much of the same thing.










We stayed in a super cute Airbnb in Truckee which looked like a log cabin on the inside. The living area was double story and had full length windows giving an epic view of the huge Pine and Fir trees outside.


Thursday night and Friday morning we had huge amounts of snowfall. Cue fun winter activities: sledding, building snowmen and snowball fights. Friday afternoon we headed over to Resort at Squaw Creek in Squaw Valley. This is where Mike and Ashley usually stay when they visit Tahoe. A few years ago Mike was training for the Tahoe Ironman and needed to do a lot of high altitude triathlon training. They fell in love with the area and now visit quite frequently. The resort is gorgeous, and inside there were lovely Christmas decorations that we all enjoyed. 

Resort at Squaw Creek
Life size gingerbread houses


Winter wonderland!
Saturday Mike and Andy spent the day snowboarding at Squaw Valley. The rest of us met them there for their lunch break and then spent some time walking around the resort, which was home to the 1960 Winter Olympic Village. The snow was falling pretty heavily so my mom and dad took Ella home, while Ashley and I waited for the boys to finish snowboarding. I was much happier that we were sitting in a bar drinking a hot buttered rum than snowboarding.


We spent the evening the same way we have spent most of our evenings: playing games Mike has introduced us to. I can highly recommend Secret HitlerMonopoly Deal, and Love Letter if you are looking for any new games to play. 

Christmas morning was a smaller affair than we are used to. We had agreed on no gifts, just stockings for everyone. Ella was the exception of course! Although she is not yet old enough to be anticipating Santa's visit, she has definitely got the hang of opening presents. She got her first doll from my parents, a baby Cabbage Patch Kid complete with it’s own dummy. Ella keeps trying to take the doll’s dummy to give to her bunny, so I guess she still loves her bunny more for the time being! 




We had Christmas dinner at Ashley’s grandparents in Reno, Nevada, which was about a 45 minute drive from Truckee. We arrived in the early afternoon and took advantage of the clear blue skies to go for a Christmas day walk. There were some pretty awesome Christmas decorations on people’s lawn. This is something about Christmas I really miss in Australia. We also found a really fun park to play at with Ella - working up an appetite for our dinner! 

Christmas Day walk in Reno


The next day we headed back to Mike and Ashley’s, returning to warmer weather and saying goodbye to the snow.