Friday, January 31, 2014

Currently: January

I thought I would squeak this one in just before the month ended... This week was going to feature a post about hiking, one about life in general, a continuation of last week's road trip and/or a straggling "best of" post that has been waiting for over a month to get posted. But instead, you get this.

Current Book - Fall of the Giants by Ken Follet: I am about half way through and am liking it so far. It's a good story while still teaching me a lot about WWI. I am also listening to an audiobook: A Beautiful Blue Death. 

Current Running Path - 



Current Drink -Vanilla Bean Black Tea 

Current Excitement - Weekends! They are filling up fast, but there are so many fun things to do. I have a trip planned to see Lisa, an SF Beer Week weekend, a couple of big race weekends, and a trip to the Grand Canyon!  

Current Fashion Trend - Patterned tights. They are everywhere, and are normally paired with tiny shorts.

 

Current Favorite Blog/Website - I have been trying to catch up with some current events, so have been spending some time on sites like NPR and BBC World.


 Current Garden Item - Lemons and Camellias  

Current Love - Audio books! I get so much more "reading" done with them, since I can read them while running and/or going to the gym. And you can borrow them from the library! Double score.  

Current Food -White Bean soup made with homemade turkey stock 

Current Indulgence - 

 

Currently Pondering - What to do with my itchy feet...I am really feeling the need to do some traveling!


Current Mood - Overwhelmed 

Current New Find - My library has a site where you can download music, it's called Freegal. You can download 3 songs per week or stream up to 3 hours a day. The library also has a site for learning languages, finding new book suggestions and reading magazines and newspapers online. As you know, I am a huge fan of the library! 

Current Outfit - Lately I've been hanging out a lot in hoodie and jeans. 

Current Peeve - sparkly iPhone cases, bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk, people who put their backpack on the only empty seat on the bus
 
Current Song - 



Current Triumph - I am ready to do my taxes. Mind you, I have not FINISHED, but I am ready to start, and that is triumph enough!  

Current TV Show -  Cash Cab, BBC World News 

Current Wish-List - A round the world trip. Seriously. Like I said, itchy feet.  

Currently Delaying - buying my ticket to Boston. I am still waiting for prices to go down / waiting to firm up dates..

What are you watching these days? Do you have any fun trips planned this year?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Kudos to Capitaine Train


Find your train.
There are two ways to get around Europe inexpensively--no-frill planes or trains.

If you enjoy struggling to find out-of-the-way airports, being pretzled into a seat that only comfortably fits someone 4'11", and packing only one pair of jeans and a toothbrush, maybe the no-frill airlines are for you.  But once you add on $10.40 for every pound of luggage over 33, factor in the fee to board first and the seat fee itself, you discover these no-frill airlines are not necessarily low-cost.

I prefer train travel because it's cheaper and much more comfortable.  Buy tickets three months in advance, and you'll pay only $39 to ride a spacious train from Paris to Milan or $30 from Paris to Brussels.  You'll also find the station right there in the middle of town.  No taking an expensive taxi ride to a remote airport.  All the other advantages to train travel, and there are many, were outlined in the last post.
Join the waiting crowd.
So, now that you're convinced train travel is the only way to go, all you need to know is how to buy tickets.  And that process has been tremendously simplified thanks to a wonderful new website called Capitaine Train.

While many train tickets for European travel have been relatively easy to buy thanks to English versions of several countries' ticket sites (for example, Trenitalia in Italy and Bahn in Germany), France's SNCF has long been the hold out.  They, and their subsidiaries--Rail Europe in the UK and the States--had a monopoly on e-ticket sales.

To take advantage of the advance sale tickets called "prems," you had to be proficient in French to navigate the SNCF site and pretend to be from another country.  If you switched the SNCF site to the English language version and identified USA as your home country, you were automatically re-directed to the Rail Europe site. But when forced to use Rail Europe, you would not find the sale prems and would consequently pay steeper prices, e.g. $120 instead of $32 for a ticket from Paris to Nice. 

That's why Capitaine Train is so wonderful.  Since SNCF lost its court case and has been forced to allow all travel agencies to sell its tickets, a couple new ticket sites are now contenders on the web.  The best one for Americans buying French train tickets is Capitaine Train.

Capitaine has made it incredibly easy.  A simple sign-up process (They make this a 30-second painless procedure and promise not to use your information for nefarious purposes.)is required, and then you access a no-ad uncluttered site that quickly gives you the cheapest prices available for both first and second class train travel.  You can also choose your seat and whether you want to be facing forward or backward as you travel.  If you do have any problems, it's easy to shoot the webmasters an e-mail to which someone will promptly respond in English.  Print your e-ticket at home or pick it up at any SNCF ticket machine using a code Capitaine provides, and you are good to go.

Not only is the Capitaine website incredibly easy to use, but the people who maintain the site are downright friendly.  I've received a welcome e-mail and another reminding me that the staff members are there to help with any problem I might encounter.  That's quite a contrast to the SNCF agent in Paris who refused to change a train ticket for me because my French wasn't up to his standards!

Get on board.
So, don't hesitate to buy your train tickets to take you all over Europe.  It's now easier and cheaper than ever!

Practicalities -

Mark Smith has an award-winning website, The Man in Seat Sixty-One,  where you can learn how to travel and buy train tickets for trips all over the world.  For Mark's overview of French train ticket sales, see this page.

Read about the de-regulation of the SNCF ticketing system and the creation of Capitaine Train here.

UK residents may find it helpful to buy SNCF tickets from loco2.com.  This site is similar to Capitaine Train, but only sells to UK residents.

Monday, January 20, 2014

It's a Small World After All

Thanks to MLK, I had an extra day to play around with this weekend. It was going to be a road trip with a couple of friends, but when they both flaked out, I decided to just go on my own.

I actually like (and even love) traveling on my own. If I want to stop for a three hour run that may become a 1 hour run or a 5 hour run, I can. If I feel like taking photos of rocks, I can. If I am hungry, I eat. I never have to worry that I am putting someone else out or that they are not having fun or that I am making them wait.

Originally, I was going to go to South Lake Tahoe with two people. Person number one LOVES to gamble, loves to drink, but does not ski, doesn't really like to hike, does not run, does not love waiting for someone who is taking photos of flowers.

Person number two does not run, loves to hike and ski, does not love to gamble, likes to drink, and does not love waiting for someone who is taking photos of flowers. So, having the two people with me would have been interesting.

Why? Because I do not like to drink that much, am not a huge fan of gambling and would go to Tahoe mostly for activities (mainly skiing, hiking or running). But both people did not go. So, after a little consideration, I went alone. The main thing holding me back was the cost. A hotel room is a lot cheaper when you are sharing it with two other people! However, I threw away my frugal hat and decided to go for it, regardless of cost.

I left Oakland on Saturday morning around 7:30 am. My first stop was Starbucks (yes, it was) for a road trip coffee. You cannot have a road trip without coffee. It's just not possible. My second stop was an old favorite in one of the agricultural areas of California. It used to be a tiny fruit stand when I was a young child, and has now blown up to a fruit stand, snack stand, pit stop. They still have some of the cheapest and freshest fruit and veggies around! I got some dried fruit, some real fruit, and some nuts for the ride north. Again, a road trip would not be a road trip without SNACKS!

My plan was to stop somewhere for a run in the middle of my trip and then head north to Tahoe, where I would take photos of mountains and lakes and sunrises and then get some dinner.

So, first I stopped along the way near Auburn, where I ran on the same route as the Western States 100 mile race (WSER). I have to admit, I was not really in the mood to run, but it was a nice route all the same. The views of the American River are stunning.

ws sign
I went UP.


american river
Middle Fork American River

After the run, I ate most of my road trip snacks (dried strawberries anyone?) and headed up the road. I arrived at the lake about 20 minutes before sunrise and I checked into my hotel and took a shower at warp speed, so I could hustle back out to the lake to get some good shots while there was still light.





Afterwards, I was on a mission. As a lone traveler, I want a dinner place where I can eat at the bar so I don't have to sit at a table alone. However, I don't really want it to be ONLY a bar, or to have crappy bar food. I also wanted to find a brewery with local beers that I could try while also having fabulous food. I found 2 of my 3 requirements. I actually stumbled upon a nice pub where I found more than I could ever ask for.

First of all, I wanted to sit at the bar. When I got there, the bar looked full, but I said to the guy that I kind of wanted to sit at the bar and he not only made a place for me, but he introduced me to the guy I would be sitting next to. I ended up having not only a great conversation with my new friend, Dozer, but also getting a ton of great recommendations for hikes and food for the next day. In addition, it turns out he used to be contracted to the same company I used to work for, he grew up near where I live now and he has traveled to many of the same places as I have. Now, before you get the wrong idea, I would like to state that he is probably in his late 50s, so there was no romance there. However, I had a great time sitting at the bar chatting with him while having a great meal.

Speaking of a great meal, I got a hamburger that was ground in-house and was on a bun that was also made in-house. Not only was the hamburger delicious, but the bar staff was kind and the local flavor was top notch. Plus they had Pliny on tap. To top it all off, when I got the bill, I noticed that they had given me the local discount, which was 20 percent off my bill. Basically for under $20, I got a homemade hamburger, a couple of delicious beers and a great conversation. I call that a major win.

After that it was back to the hotel for some reading. Why is it that reading when you are traveling is so much better than reading at  home? All in all, it was a great first Road Trip day! 

Do you prefer traveling alone or with someone else? What kind of snacks/drinks do you like to have on your road trips? Do you go out to eat by yourself? If so, do you meet/talk to people or do you stick to yourself?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Traveling Europe by Train

In a recent New York Times article, writer Daniel Klein talks about the joy he now derives from what you might call "non-travel."  Instead of darting about Europe, trying to see as many places as possible within a limited time frame as he did in his younger days, he now prefers to stay put.  One place, for a month or two or three, suits him just fine.

I agree with Klein's philosophy and will probably want to stay in one place, too, when I'm in my mid-seventies, but for the moment, David and I are still "darters," albeit slow-paced ones.  The trip we're planning for June is no exception.  We will be averaging at least four nights in most places and a week in the Alsace region of France, but we plan to visit four distinct regions in two different countries.
London's St. Pancras train station
To make sure we see as much countryside as possible, though, our transportation of choice between major cities or from one country to the next is always the train.  I've listed a few of the reasons down below, but the most important one is that, unlike airline tickets, we are always assured of getting sale prices by ordering as far in advance as possible--ninety days in advance for most tickets and 120 days in advance for the Eurostar--and the savings are considerable. We will almost always save at least fifty percent and often more.

Our London to Paris train trip in 2012 cost £56 instead of £112 because we bought Eurostar tickets four months in advance. (See the article about that purchase here.) A ticket from Paris to Amsterdam costs €35 if bought a couple months in advance or a whopping €130 if bought the day of travel, according to The Man in Seat Sixty-One, the best website about European train information.  So, the message is clear.  Buy early and take advantage of guaranteed low prices. 

And with the de-regulation of France's train ticketing system, buying inexpensive tickets has never been easier.  In the next post, I'll tell you all about the new ticketing site that makes train ticket purchasing a breeze.

Practicalities -

The advantages to train travel are many beginning with the starting point.  Rather than take a long taxi or bus ride to the airport, the train station will most likely be located in the center of town.  That means you can spend extra time in the city instead of a waiting room.  Even the wait time is less because trains require you arrive only  twenty to thirty minutes ahead of departure time, not an hour.

Take all your luggage with you without worrying about being charged for overweight bags.

Pack a lunch or grab a bite from the restaurant car.

Sit back and truly enjoy your trip because you'll have room to stretch your legs while viewing fascinating scenery right outside the window.
 

Friday, January 17, 2014

New Air Travel Search Sites

Before you squeeze yourself into another airplane seat, make sure you squeezed the best price possible from the airline.  This article, "How to Choose an Air Travel Search Site," by Seth Kugel, the New York Times frugal travel reporter, will help you in your search.

He didn't mention my favorite place for information, ITA software, but he does supply the latest sites that will help you decide on the best airline for your particular destination.  Check out the article and discover some newbie sites that provide valuable information.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Coffee Talk

Thanks for meeting me for a virtual coffee! I'm glad you're here!






If we were meeting for coffee today, I would get a large french roast with milk and splenda and you would get your favorite coffee and we would catch up on what we have been up to lately.

- I had a great time at New Years with friends. It was a very small group, which is the way I like it. I wore my comfy pants and ate a ton of crab and listened to Michael Jackson. At the end of the night though, two of my friends had an argument about whether or not one of their photos should be put on Facebook and one of them left in a huff. It was a strange beginning to the new year.

- I have started learning how to pickle things. Do you know how easy it is? It is so easy! All you need is some vinegar, salt , sugar , jars, dill seeds and peppercorns and whatever you want to pickle! Put the raw item in the jar, heat up the vinegar, salt, sugar and the spices to a boil, pour in the jar and voila! You have pickles. I didn't really use a recipe, but you could use this one if you want to give it a try. I made pickled cucumbers, picked green beans (dilly beans), green tomatoes, pickled jalapenos and pickled beets. So far, they have all been pretty good!

- I signed up for the Boston Marathon again (back in September). I looked into airline tickets the other day and they are Expensive! It may be because it is also Easter weekend, or maybe just that it's also the Boston Marathon, Patriots day and the Red Sox game...whatever it is, I can't decide whether I should buy them now because they may go up more, or if I should wait and hope they go down. I always do the same thing, wonder if I should buy now or wait.

- I started using the library again. For a while, I have been using the Kindle, especially since it if often lighter than the books I get from the library and it was giving me a backache to carry around the darn things! However, I am tired of reading the bargain books from Amazon and want some more recent ones, so back to the library I go! Of course, when it rains it pours, so I have about 10 books to pick up tonight after work!

Other than that, it's work, running and life in general. What have YOU been up to? What did you do for New Years Eve? Have you ever tried canning? What's your take on buying airline tickets? Do you use the library?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Best Of 2013: Books

This was not a stellar year for reading, both in quantity and quality. I did not really read many books that I couldn't put down. I also did not really read very many books period. However, there were still some that were pretty darn good. Here are the top five in no particular order. 

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum: I usually enjoy WWII books, and this one did not disappoint. This is a dual story about a modern day daughter of a German woman who went through the war. The daughter tries to find out more about her mother's story, even though her mother does not want to talk about it. At the same time, we learn the mother's story, and it is a heart-wrenching story of survival.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell: This is an interesting take on how success is not always due to brains, but sometimes is due to positioning. For example, it opines that the best hockey players are born in a certain month, giving them a few month's advantage on the other players and causing most of the pros to be born in this month.
 
The Boleyn Inheritance by Phillipa Gregory:  I like how Gregory takes a real story and embellishes it enough to make it interesting but doesn't lose the truth of it all. This is a story about Anne of Cleves, Jane Rocheford and Katherine Howard, and of course, King Henry VIII, who you see as a gouty womanizer. Anne of Cleves is one of King Henry's only wives that he doesn't have killed, and as you know, he had a lot of wives! The story is full of lies and deceit and adultery. It's very entertaining.
 
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hossein: A story about two women in Afghanistan, where the rights of women are not quite the same as you or I are used to. The two woman are two generations apart and both end up forced into the same household, yet they find a commonality and a friendship that cannot be matched. 

State of Wonder by Anne Patchett: This story was strange but it drew me in because of it's subject matter. A story about an Amazonian tribe in Brazil and a scientist who goes there to try to find out about a miracle drug that is causing miracles within the tribe. The characters find out some pretty interesting things about the tribe, find out what's causing the miracle, and they make friends and learn things about themselves along the way.

Hopefully this year I will get more chances (or MAKE more) to read and will find a lot of new great books for 2014! Do you have any recommendations? 

What were your favorite books for 2013? What is your favorite book ever? 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Out With The Old

I had high hopes for a nice long run on New Year's day, but instead I had one of those days where you start one tiny project and it leads to another and another and all of a sudden the day is over. Maybe it didn't quite go the way I wanted it to, but I did get a lot done.

My mom's friend says that she always does a big clean out on New Year's day: the fridge, the cabinets, the closet. So I took a page out of her book and did the same. It started out with writing my Thank You notes for Christmas, which led to cleaning out my stationary box, which led to my file box. I threw away all my old files and scraps of paper that I had saved for (??) some reason. I threw out all of the pens that didn't work, and the envelopes without matching cards.

This led to the sock drawer, which led to the other drawers, which lead to my closet. I threw away any sock that had even the tiniest hole, even though my instinct is to save them "just in case". I threw away all of those too short shirts, which I was going to "wear under a sweater" and then kept accidentally wearing and having to tug down all day. I threw away those pants that I would "fit into some day".

Then I went to make lunch and noticed the salad dressing in the fridge was past due, which lead to a fridge clean out, which led to a freezer clean out. Freezer burned veggies, be gone. Old hot sauce? See ya! It felt so good.

expired
Yes, this was in the fridge.

I also completed a lot of small projects that I have been meaning to do, such as backing up my computer, downloading photos and creating my master address list that I update after each Christmas. All in all, it was a very productive day. 

So, I am all ready for 2014 with hole-less socks and non-moldy salad dressings.

Are you ready? Do you do any "winter cleaning"?