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Of Grandmas and Poodles

In just a few short weeks, my grandmother will be turning 88!!!

Now, let me fill you in on birthdays and my grandmother. She is notoriously unhelpful when it comes to celebrating/recognizing/planning them. Year after year, our birthday conversations go something like this:

Me: What do you want for your birthday present?
Grandma: Nothing. I don’t want you to buy me a thing.

Me: What kind of cake do you want?
Grandma: I don’t want a cake. I’m on a diet.

Me: Where do you want to go out to eat for your birthday?

Grandma: No where. Let it be just another day.

There is, of course, a lot more back and forth that I am failing to include, but you get the gist.

Now, before you say that not everyone wants to celebrate their birthday, and she is obviously one of those people (she’s not, trust me), I will let you in on a little secret. . . The couple of times that I’ve done exactly as she asked (no special present, no cake, and no special meal), she was madder with me than a wet hen. And they get really mad. I was on her out list, basically. Needless to say, I’ve learned my lesson. 

So, this year – just to change it up a little – I’m not asking any of the above questions. At all. Instead, I came up with the perfect way to recognize her birthday. But to explain it a little better, I’m going to illustrate another conversation that we routinely have (Not anymore, though).

Grandma: I don’t guess I’ll ever get to see where my little brother is buried.

Me or Sometimes My Mother: Why not?

Grandma: No one will take me.

Guilt trip, much? 

So, this week, we gave her an early birthday present, and it was exactly what she wanted. Not my usual fare of a pretty new blouse or purse, but something I think she enjoyed even more because it was completely unexpected.

A trip all the way to Louisiana to visit Great Uncle Bobby’s grave. . .

Uncle Bobby Grave

And an overnight stay in nearby New Orleans. 

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Little Alfred (who isn’t so little anymore – 57 lbs at his last weigh-in) got to tag along with us. Luckily, we stayed at the Downtown LaQuinta Inn and they were very dog friendly. I mean, very dog friendly. I counted at least three other four-legged guests just on our trips out to potty. Btw, this is not a sponsored post. . . . I (and Alfred, of course) was just very impressed with the welcome we received and they deserve a shout out. 

Alfred felt like he’d landed in a plush doggy heaven. From his walks in nearby Lafayette Square (yep, named after that Lafayette – America’s favorite fighting Frenchman. . . . two points if you know what current hit musical that line is from!!) to lounging in the bed and catching some Zzzz’s with Grandma (he slept with her all night, kid you not) and then waiting on the valet (seriously, there was practically no free parking in downtown NOLA and every single hotel I looked at had valet service), Alfie really enjoyed his trip.Alfred NOLA  Of course, after riding in the car most of the morning, he and Grandma were ready for a nap. So, we left them to it and set off to do a little exploring. And ghost hunting.

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If you’ve never gone on a ghost/history tour, what are you waiting for?!? Do it! I love a good tour because they’re a great way to learn a bit of interesting, sometimes obscure history about a city that you might not otherwise hear. Ever heard of the Axeman of New Orleans? I sure hadn’t. On a side note, I kind of wish it had stayed that way – yikes! But I digress. The tour we took was entertaining as all get out! Horror stories. Ghost stories. Stories about celebrities. History. Architecture. And a rainy afternoon spent meandering through a beautiful city. What could be better? 

But enough about that! After the ghost/history tour we stopped off for a to-go order of beignets from Café du Monde, which we promptly took back to the hotel just in time for Grandma and Alfred to wake up from their afternoon naps.  And Grandma fell in love (no pictures of that moment because, well, my hands were covered in powdered sugar), so much so, that she wouldn’t leave New Orleans without another helping of those sugary, fried treats. 

The next morning, we went for a little ride on one of the many streetcars down Canal Street and all the way to City Park before packing up and heading home. 

 

So, the big question. . . Did my grandmother enjoy her early birthday present? You bet! She loved it! In fact, she loved it so much that she has told everyone from the receptionist at her retina specialist (macular degeneration, you know), the nurse, the actual doctor, other patients, and every one she could all about it. 

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National Cancer Prevention Month

February is National Cancer Prevention Month, which strikes a strong chord in my heart.

Cancer is, sadly, very common in my family. . . . it’s the genetic curse that just keeps showing up uninvited. Ruining health. Bringing sadness and grief. And stealing loved ones away. 

From skin to liver to prostate to breast cancer, it seems like almost everyone in my family develops at least one form of cancer.  Just in my immediate family: My mother has had oral and cervical cancers and melanoma. My grandmother has had multiple melanomas removed in the last few years. My grandfather did, as well.

Then, about a year before he died, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His health had deteriorated too much, by then, and there was nothing that could be done. Time went by, his condition worsened even further, until he was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t walk. A few weeks before he died, his doctor started mentioning the possibility of mesothelioma as being the cause of his health issues, but we never found out if he actually had it.

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My grandparents’ oldest child, my Uncle Jerry, died in his early twenties from stomach cancer. . . . Uncle Jerry and GrandadI know that I’m already at a very increased risk for developing cancer just based on genetics alone and believe me, I’ve tried to limit exposure to anything cancer causing. I’ve never smoked. I’ve traded tanning beds for the lovely and pale look – and an occasional spray tan. I’ve cut back on bacon, sausage, and red meat consumption. I’m scheduled to have a suspicious mole checked. And I’ve seriously considered genetic testing, although that bullet hasn’t been bitten, yet. But for now, I’m more than willing to do everything else I can to try to keep the disease at bay, and the more knowledge that we share about the evil “C Word” and the small steps that we can take to prevent it, always helps a little. Hopefully, one day soon, there will be a cure.

The Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center shared a few tips for preventing cancer during all times of the year, which I am to elaborate on. They aim to raise awareness of the rare but preventable cancer mesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos exposure, a toxic material that many do not know is still legal and widely used.

Cancer Prevention Month Checklist

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12 London/Edinburgh Travel Tips

I’ve had time to discuss this and ruminate on it to come up with the best tips to make any trip to London/Edinburgh better. Although, any trip there is already pretty fantastic as it is. But there were some things that I agonized over, that turned out to be no big deal.

Such as the first tip:

Getting Around.

While most travel websites praise the Oyster Card for getting around London (the Oyster allows you to travel via public transportation in and around London) and the London Pass for entry into certain attractions free, there’s a little known option called the 2 for 1 Travelcard which can potentially offer even better savings. For our trip to London (two adults), we saved over $100 by choosing the 2 for 1 Travel Card over the Oyster Card/London pass option. 

The 2 for 1 Travelcard allows you unlimited travel on the trains in zones 1-2 in London (where most of the main attractions are located) and the red bus network. It also allows you to visit any of the participating attractions (and there are at least 150 – including Kensington Palace and the Tower of London) and only pay admission for one person, simply by completing the included vouchers (or you can print your own) and presenting it and your travelcard at each attraction.

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But here’s the tricky part. You can’t get a 2 for 1 travelcard just anywhere. They are not available at any Underground stations (the Underground sells their own travel card, but it’s not eligible for the 2 for 1 admission to attractions). Instead, you can only purchase them at certain National Rail Service stations. We purchased ours at Paddington (again, not Paddington Underground station, but the above ground one). 

You can purchase a travelcard for 1 day or 7 days. But please note, that you have to have a passport type photo for the 7 day Travelcard. You can easily take your own photos, upload them to a website such as PassportPhoto4You!, then print them out somewhere like Walmart or Walgreens (which is what I did). 

Exchanging Money.

There are plenty of places to exchange currency once you get to the UK. . . Thomas Cook, banks, Travelex, Asda (think Walmart), and the post office to name a few. But the least expensive method is, usually, an ATM.  

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Tired of walking?

You can rent a bicycle to ride around London. Boris Bikes (nicknamed after the mayor of London, Boris Johnson) rent for ₤2 for 24 hours with the first 30 minutes of the journey being free. With over 700 bike docking stations, there’s plenty of places to rent or return a bike.

Even Hyde Park!

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A Quick Tour.

Want to take  a quick, sort of inexpensive tour? Hop in a taxi. London and Edinburgh’s taxi drivers are highly knowledgeable about their cities, and have no problem taking you for a little ride around. Not only that, but they’ll give you a little history lesson, or philosophy, or politics, or any number of other subjects, along the way. 

Need a doctor, but it’s not an emergency?

Call 111, the NHS’s non-emergency helpline. It’s easy and free to call. Just answer a few questions about the symptoms you’re suffering from and your location, and the staff will advise you on what to do. 

Getting Around Edinburgh.

Most of Edinburgh’s main tourist attractions are located on The Royal Mile or nearby, which means that it is a very walk-able city. . . although, comfortable shoes are a necessity (cobblestoned streets, you know?).

Edinburgh also boasts an extensive network of bus routes in and around the city center, with a Plusbus ticket giving you unlimited travel on nearly all Lothian (the largest public transportation company operating in Edinburgh) buses and trams for ₤3 a day. 

Changing Your Mind.

We traveled from London to Edinburgh via Virgin East Coast Trains (which were super nice, the trains and the employees, we earned miles). Once we reached Edinburgh, we decided to stay an extra day.

For ₤10 per ticket, you can change the date and time of your advance ticket. Just make sure to do it at least 2 hours before the original departure time. Even earlier than that is better. . . the return train that we changed to was nearly sold out just 24 hours before departure with only 2 adjacent seats remaining. Also, don’t discard your original ticket, you’ll most likely need it when the conductor comes along to check tickets. 

By the way, should you need any assistance from Virgin trains, you’ll get a much quicker response by contacting them through Twitter or Facebook (in my case, within an hour versus nearly 2 weeks later when contacted by the contact form).

Airline Tickets.

It’s well known that the flight over is the most expensive part, and the same was certainly true for us. But I saved a ton of money by following a few simple rules. Only searching for flights in private/incognito browsing, leaving and returning on certain days (leaving Tuesday and returning Tuesday was the cheapest for us at that time), searching on certain days and at certain times (early in the week and in the mornings had the best prices during the weeks before our trip, with a lot of websites reporting Tuesday at 3AM as the optimal time), and of course, being flexible about the dates you leave and return. 

Other options are budget airlines, such as Norwegian and WOW. WOW, an Icelandic carrier, is currently offering one way flights to Dublin, Ireland from Boston next year for $199. And, yes, there’s a reason why I know that 😉

Pickpockets.

Pickpockets are everywhere in big cities, especially London. In fact, it was fairly obvious to spot some of them in the crowds near the more popular tourist sights (Westminster and Trafalgar Square), and other times it wasn’t quite so obvious. I’ll admit, even though I’m usually hyper vigilant, I very nearly fell victim to one in an Underground station. Luckily, my travel companion and mother noticed his intentions and spoke up. 

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Pickpockets thrive on distraction, whether it’s by causing a commotion, targeting the crowds watching street performances, or taking advantage of lost tourists carrying multiple bags.

A money bag or a crossbody purse that zips (worn under your jacket/coat, if possible, and especially if there’s an inner pocket that zips) are both great ideas. As is, only carrying the money that you’ll be using that day, and keeping it in more than one secure place (the virtue, “Don’t keep your eggs in more than basket,” is the perfect advice). 

And don’t think that all pickpockets look alike. Some are just as you’d picture, some are well-dressed and blend in with the crowds, and some are, sadly, children. A taxi driver warned us of a particularly popular pickpocketing scam involving children approaching tourists in a cafe. While you’re distracted by one child, the other one is leaving nothing behind but lint. 

But the best defense against all of that is alertness. Keep an eye on your surroundings and a hand on your bag. 

Navigating The City.

In both London and Edinburgh, there was nearly always free Wi-Fi available, which meant that we easily relied on Google Maps for our directional needs. But just in case, I took a screenshot and sometimes just a photo of the directions and map before we left for each excursion. And in the times, when we were in between signals, I was very happy to have them.

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Another reliable tool for navigating about London is the Plan A Journey feature on the Transport For London website. 

VAT Refunds.

When you purchase certain items in the UK, you may notice that the amount that you pay is the same as the amount on the price tag. That’s because the tax is already added to the price (VAT – Value Added Tax). Something that I, honestly, loved. 

Here’s the actual tip part of this tip. . . . International visitors that meet certain requirements are eligible for a VAT refund.

The requirements are:
You have to have spent less than 365 days out of the 2 years prior to making the purchase living in the UK.

And you must also be leaving the EU by the end of the third month after making the purchase.

Also, not all shops participate in VAT refunds, and shops that do may have varying minimum purchase amounts. You will also most likely have to request the VAT refund form from the shop (shops that participate in VAT refunds usually display signs that they do), show proof that you’re not an EU resident (passport), then present the goods, receipts, and the form at the airport when you leave. Make sure to arrive early at the airport as the one counter that I saw at Heathrow for VAT refunds had an extremely long line.

Washing Up.

We stayed in four different hotels, three of which did not stock any bath cloths for guests, only large towels. So, if you absolutely can’t do without one, bring your own. 

 

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Our London and Edinburgh Trip.

I’m baack.

Actually, I’ve been back for about two weeks now. But I’m finally back, rested up from the trip, and completely finished filling all of the wholesale orders that I had received before the trip. 

Which means, it’s the perfect time to share a few photos/videos from the ultimate bucket list trip. Here goes. . . .

My travel companion.

20151005_162104 My poor mother, who I drug on more planes, trains, and automobiles, than either of us had ever even seen.

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And even bicycles. In Hyde Park.

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We saw London.

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And Edinburgh.

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We ate and ate and ate. From Burgers. . . .

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To haggis (which was delicious). . . . 

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To Irn Bru. Which, to me, tasted like a mix of bubblegum and orange soda. . . . I think I’m obsessed with it (by the way, Publix sells Irn Bru!).

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Now, let me tell you something shocking.

If you’ve read this blog long, then you know that London was my favorite place in the world and always at the top of my Must-See Dream Trip List. And seeing it was fantastically amazing and better than I ever could have imagined, but. . . . Yes, there’s a but here. Edinburgh is at the top of that list now.

It was so awe-inspiring. The narrow, winding streets.

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And closes and wynds.

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The castle watching over the city.

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The vaults and ghost tours.

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And since most of the sights to see are concentrated in one main area, The Royal Mile. . . .

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There was always something interesting around every corner. Edinburgh is such a wonderfully old, historical city that felt more like a small town (even though it’s population is just shy of 500,000). It felt like a waking dream to this history geek.

Actually, the whole trip did.

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My mom enjoyed the trip, too. Which was totally surprising to her. Before we left, she made sure to tell everyone, “It’s her dream trip. I’m just along for the ride.” Shocker of shockers. . . As we were waiting for the plane to leave London and take us back to the US, she said, “Start saving because we’re coming back here.” 

Look for a post about the tips I learned on our trip and of course, a couple of London/Edinburgh inspired recipes coming up. . . . Scottish tablet candy, anyone? It’s delicious!

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Tray Chic with One Kings Lane

I was so excited when One Kings Lane invited me to be a part of their Tray Chic campaign. 

Because I love trays. Well, actually, I love being organized. Sometimes a little too much. . . . my closet is organized by category, sub-category, and color. Seriously. Winter to summer, coats to jackets to cardigans, and cream to black. Please say I’m not the only one.

Don’t get me wrong, not everything in my life is that organized. Don’t even dare peek at my soap shipping filing cabinet. It’s a hot mess. Or the laundry/soap room. I really need to set my sights there next.

But give me a little space and the necessary tools (i.e. baskets, a few cute boxes, and yes, even a tray or two) and I can be organized. And for me, something as simple as a tray is a perfect organizational tool.

Let me share with you some of the ways I love using a tray:

They’re perfect for pool towels.

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Or for jewelry.

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For soap. 

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Something I’ve learned from being a soap maker is that props matter, and trays, dishes, and baskets are some of my favorites.

By the way, above is one of my favorite new soaps: Mermaid Dreams. 

As a catchall by the door.

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 Trays are also perfect for a little holiday decor.

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And of course, food.

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As a sort of desk. There really isn’t enough room in this house for an actual desk, so most of the time my blogging set up looks a little like this:

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But my favorite tray is the one on my new nightstand.

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It’s the perfect container for essential odds and ends, like tissues, glasses, and the most essential of all, my kindle.

By the way, I just love my new nightstand. . . Marked down to clearance last week, and of course, I brought it home and painted the cream colored drawers black. But I really do love it!

And I have to show off the London pillow I found on the same day. It practically called my name, and no way could I walk out of that store without it!

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Of course, any photo shoot around here usually ends up like this.

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The girls insist on being in the middle of everything. Naturally 😉 

Sophie: You piled these pillows up here just for me, didn’t you?  

sophie2I guess I did. 

Hop on over to One Kings Lane for a huge selection of trays and be sure to check out their Style Blog for tons of fantastic inspiration.