Sep 29, 2014

Russia Highlights: Swan Lake & A Midnight Sunset


Even though our tour around St. Petersburg was a bit of a bust, we still had an evening of iconic Russian art ahead of us. After returning to the ship to quickly freshen up (I'm talking we had 1 hour to shower, dress up, and shove a snack in our faces), we hopped another bus to take our entire travel party to the Aurora Palace Theater for a performance of Swan Lake. We were all very excited to be seeing such a famous ballet in its debut country...talk about a HUGE unexpected check mark off the bucket list! Upon arriving to the concert hall, we noticed it was going to be a small performance, likely just put on for cruise passengers and private tour groups. This discouraged us a bit, but there was a champagne reception, so we all took advantage of a glass or two and made our way to our seats still looking forward to the performance ahead. After being seated for mere minutes, we noticed how incredibly hot the concert hall was. No A/C and we were all dressed up (boys in ties and slacks)---typical of Europe and Russia, but we failed to take that into consideration when dressing for the evening. You could see the disdain painted across the boys faces. They already weren't happy about leaving a night of cigars and drinking on the ship to join their ladies at the ballet (oh, the horror!). Put them all in ties in a hot, stuffy room at the ballet and BOOM...they instantly wanted to divorce us all. In hindsight, I almost don't blame them.

10 minutes into the first act, we began to realize that this performance might be less than outstanding. While still better than some ballets I'd watched in my many years of viewing dance competitions and recitals (via my lovely dance-inclined sister), it was missing the grandeur, poise, and preciseness that we'd expected. It seemed sloppy and forced, like the ballerinas were all made to dance that night and really couldn't be bothered with it. The side eyes us girls were giving one another through the whole first act were all too frequent and at times, almost had us laughing. It was all we could do to keep from being overcome with disappointment. Yet another point in time on this cruise that we were all SO thankful to be on vacation as a group instead of as solo couples. After the first act was over (it was over an hour long--comprised of 2 scenes), we bum-rushed the bathrooms and champagne stands to unload our feelings on the whole thing. Even though the majority of the performers were students or graduates from the well-known Vaganova Ballet Academy (an associate school to the highly touted Mariinsky Ballet), we still felt like we'd been duped into a sub-par touristic Swan Lake experience. We thought long and hard about complaining to our guide...or even asking the bus driver to shuttle us back to the ship without seeing the second act, but after another glass of champagne and some laughs, we decided to rough it out. We were still in Russia after all! We sat the boys together towards the back of the theater (the place was barely 1/3 full) so they could commiserate quietly away from the stage (re: fall asleep), and the 5 of us girls braved a few rows back from the orchestra pit. 


Interestingly enough, the second & third acts were much better than the first. It's like the principle ballerina found her groove during intermission and returned with breathtaking pirouettes and much more chemistry with Prince Siegfried than ever before. I imagine they were sweating to death, too (it progressively got hotter in the concert hall throughout the evening)...but they powered through the final acts with some lovely moments, slightly redeeming themselves for their iffy first act performance. Would I consider Swan Lake worth seeing while in St. Petersburg? Absolutely. We can still say we saw Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake IN RUSSIA. Amazing. Just make good and sure you know what theater and what company will be performing for you before you book your night at the ballet. See all the good things you guys are learning from our stupidity? You're welcome. ;)

When our ballet experience was over, we made a short drive through the city and returned to the ship to find it in full on party mode. We changed into our White Party attire and slid right into the conga line without missing a beat. Even though we had a rough start to the evening, it ended up being one to remember. Our reward for making it through a night in Russia? A stunning midnight sunset on the Baltic Sea. With the time difference, being so far north, and finding ourselves in the height of the summer, we got to witness a cotton candy pink sunset just as the clock stuck 12am. I've never experienced a natural phenomenon like it! We all grabbed lounge chairs along the bow of the ship and sipped cocktails as we watched the sun sink into the ocean, reminiscing about all the craziness of our cruise...and we still had 3 days left! We may have had some hiccups on that sailing, but we still appreciated the opportunity to travel to so many fascinating places and to experience them with friends that had become like family to us during our time abroad. Next up on our Baltic adventure, my most favorite stop...Tallinn, Estonia!

Sep 26, 2014

FRESH FACE FRIDAY [& Blog Hop!]: Irrational Fears

I more of a worry wort than most. I tend to gravitate towards the positive side of looking at various situations, but I'm also always on high alert. At any given moment I know Murphy (as in that pesky law no one likes) can strike, so while positive, I'm cautious in nature. With this cautiousness comes many irrational fears. Probably more than I should ever care to admit, but for the sake of using blogging as a form of cheap therapy...here's 3 of my most irrational of fears. No laughing. I know I'm nuts.



1) I'm terrified of passing out while driving and killing myself (and anyone in my path).
I feel like I have some rational justification for this one...sometimes. Other times, I think I start thinking about passing out while driving and get so worked up about it that I almost feel like it is actually happening. The mind is an insanely powerful thing, y'all. I'm not a stranger to passing out (I've done so at least 4 times in my life thus far), but never while driving. Needless to say, I'm not a huge fan of driving. I can't really put my finger on why, but I'm convinced it's probably the way I'll die. Either that or falling off a building into a pool and drowning. Another irrational fear for another blog post.

2) Long underground or underwater tunnels. 
I'm slightly claustrophobic. Elevators are borderline scary for me at times. So driving through an excessively long underground or underwater tunnel where no light seems to be at the end of it--someone pass me a Xanax. I blame Will Smith and the ridiculous movie Independence Day for this one. You know the scene with the explosion in the tunnel and his whole family somehow magically finds the one tunnel door they could hide behind and not die? Yeah, I'm always looking for that door. Just like airplanes defy the law of gravity, tunnels are just an accident waiting to happen, in my head at least. Oh, and if an underwater tunnel looks leaky (re: you can see moisture or water dripping around it), don't even drive me through it.

3) Open closet doors, or drawers, or any door that someone can come out from behind & murder me at night. 
I can't sleep with our bedroom door open. If a drawer is slightly ajar, it's gotta be closed before sleep can happen. Same with blinds...must be closed. If there was ever a chance for someone to glare at me with devil eyes from one of those open spaces, I'm positive I'd up and have a heart attack. I realize no one could actually fit into a drawer to come out a murder me, but snakes and rats and bugs could be in there. Close it so they can't get out...until morning when all murders and death creatures venture off to some other part of the world and I can freely open things. I also can't sleep on the side of the bed closest to the door...unless it's not the typical side of the bed I sleep on at home. Then, well, I choose the lesser of two evils. Totally legit, right? OMG, I'm certifiable.

Please don't let me be the only one with crazy irrational fears, y'all! Link up your top 3 to the hop today if only to make me feel less insane. Crazy loves company, you know? And don't forget to check out the two mentally stable bloggers below! Come back on October 10th for the next Fresh Face Friday...that is, if no closet killer has gotten me by then. Fingers crossed.

[FFF ad spots still 25% OFF with code FFFDEAL!]

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I'm new to Anna's blog (Slightly Astray) and I must say, what a gal! I've so enjoyed getting to know her and living vicariously through all her wanderlust-worthy adventures. Anna took a leap of faith and left her job for a life of travel. So far, I'd say it's working well for her! She's got a real knack for writing and a fun way of drawing you in with unique stories of her time in Europe, South America, and across the USA. She's got lots of foodie tips to share, so make sure to check out those posts, too! If you love to go on "virtual vacations", don't miss getting to know Anna today!

Anna's Favorite Posts:
My Favorite Posts:


Ever wanted to travel to Iceland? Love the idea of exploring Scandinavia? Then Melanie's blog, A Tale of Wanderlust, is one you should be reading! Melanie is a German native and avid traveler just fresh off a stent of living & studying abroad in Norway. Not only will you find beautiful recaps of her travels on her blog, Melanie also shares heartfelt peeks into her life as well as some lovely photos revealing what it's like living as an expat. I also love seeing some of the Germany adventures she posts! Makes me miss Germany a little bit less. :) Make friends with Melanie today, y'all!

Melanie's Favorite Posts:
My Favorite Posts:

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Welcome to the
FRESH FACE FRIDAY BLOG HOP!

Hosted by: Casey @ We Took the Road Less Traveled

This week's writing topic: 
Tell us 3 of your irrational fears.

Rules for hopping:
1| Follow your host & co-hosts (first 3 links), pretty please! 
2| Link up your post! Please only link up the FFF writing prompt post...all other entries will be removed.
3| Hop around, meet new bloggers, and leave them love!
4| Have fun? Spread the word and share this blog hop with your friends!
5| Want to be a co-host? Click here for more info! 

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Sep 24, 2014

Baltic Cruise: St. Petersburg, Russia


When we were planning our Baltic cruise, we all agreed one country absolutely had to be on our itinerary…Russia. It's not a place any of us could really visit unless it was part of a guided tour (for job reasons, as you can imagine), so knowing our sailing included an overnight in St. Petersburg made this cruise all the more exciting for our entire group. When the day came for all of us to hop off the ship into a country none of us had ever visited before, we had stars bursting from our eyes! What good fortune to be able to visit such a fascinating, seemingly untouchable country! I had high hopes for St. Petersburg.

 Truth be told, it turned out to be one of my least favorite stops on our Baltic vacation. Total bummer. I'm far from ashamed to say it didn't meet any of my expectations…in fact,  it left me scratching my head a bit. Why, you ask? Well, a few things. First, it just didn't scream RUSSIA to me. I know, what the heck does that even mean? I'm not even really sure I can articulate that to you. I guess I thought I'd be submerged into a world that looked and felt uniquely "Russian"--the touristy Russia I must have painted in my head thanks to TV, movies, and the news (kitschy nesting dolls, a plethora of colorful helmeted cupolas, yadda yadda). I wholeheartedly expected to have that "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" kind of moment. Instead, I was surprised to see so much European influence ingrained throughout the city. It was like I hadn't left the continent of Europe at all. Had I done my research beforehand, I'm sure I wouldn't have been so confused by St. Pete's architecture (it is called the "Venice of the North", after all). I think I was expecting to be met with more medieval architectural features, but the city was far ahead of my stunted dreams with Baroque and Neoclassical buildings littered around every turn. The only piece of the city that held to my medieval yearnings was the beautiful Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Romantic, commanding, a nod to nationalism--absolutely stunning! I could have stood there and marveled at its richly decorated facade for hours and hours. If it wasn't for all the cars and foot traffic huddling around the church, our brief 15 minute stop there would have been the highlight of my trip. Leave it to modern conveniences to make iconic areas less appealing. 


Secondly, having to explore the city within a tour group was the total pits. Because Americans must have a visa to visit Russia (and because cruising provides you a sort of automatic temporary visa for the days you're visiting), you must be a part of a guided tour to enter the city and sight-see. We got to experience Russian immigration and were rewarded with that coveted passport stamp (very cool and only slightly unnerving--no smiles to be found in that place!), but having to spend the rest of the day attached to a group of whiny elderly tourists made the experience less than enjoyable for me. We've taken tours in the past and they'd all been pretty wonderful, but this one, SHOOT ME. Par for the course for that cruise, I suppose. Everything felt rushed and we hardly had time to snap photos or read signage before moving on to the next attraction. They tried to stuff way too many things into 12 hours that day. Not to mention…12 HOURS. Longest vacation day ever. Even though we saw a lot, I still felt like I saw nothing. 


The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Now that's how you name a church! 


The canals were a pleasant surprise. Larger and more industrial than those of Venice and Amsterdam, but it's always nice to have water run through a city. Adds a little charm. 


Because of all my preconceived notions about what Russia would look and feel like, I think I robbed myself of having an awe-stricken experience with St. Petersburg (well, that and the fact that tour groups sometimes suck). While there were some shiny gold star moments (the Spilled Blood church, seeing Swan Lake at the Russian ballet and an amazing midnight sunset--more on those to come!), there was still so much lacking from our short 2 days there. I wish I'd done more research beforehand to give myself more of an open mind, or at least a less surprised one. Take that as a lesson, fellow travelers! Check your expectations at the border! If given the chance to visit again, I actually think I would...but only if I'm able to plan the itinerary myself and have time to enjoy it all without being herded like cattle from one attraction to another. That might never happen, but one can dream! This just goes to show, not every place you visit will be one you hold dear. We all have our failed travel destinations...this was just one of mine.

Sep 18, 2014

We Took the Road Less Traveled Photo Shop!

ATTENTION BLOG WORLD! 
I recently took a little leap of faith and opened up We Took the Road Less Traveled Photo Shop featuring all my favorite high resolution photos from our European travels! EEEK!




Some backstory: I would have never ever thought to do this until my wonderful mother-in-love put a little bug in my ear. Aren't moms great? She said I should seriously consider selling some of my prints from our travels. I, of course, was flattered she thought any of them we're frame-worthy, much less something other people would want in their own homes. A part of me figured, well, she's my MIL--moms are, like, cosmically required, bound by the laws of Motherhood to thinking their kids (even by marriage) do awesome things. Then I got to thinking...maybe she's totally serious? Maybe people would be interested in having a piece of our travels in their home? I'm my own worst critic, I know I'm no where near the best photographer in the world. But, it is something I've grown to love and nurture since starting this whole blogging thing almost 4 years ago. What better way to keep our travels alive? So, BOOM! I uploaded a smattering of shots I still moon over (and few that are even hanging on the walls of our new home!) and now you can have a copy of your favorite photo, too! Big hugs and thanks to Mama B!! ;)


For the next 2 months, you can get any print at an introductory 20% OFF. No code needed! You can also choose various print sizes and what material the photo is printed on to make it fit your style and your home. Super easy, right? The holidays are right around the corner (I know, sorry for the reminder), any of these would make a lovely gift for a travel-loving friend or family member. New prints added monthly! As always, thank you for supporting my creative space! 

Ready to shop? Head on over!

Sep 16, 2014

Baltic Cruise: Helsinki, Finland


Moving right along through Scandinavian waters, our next cruise port was the capital and largest city in Finland---Helsinki! You can go ahead and add this destination as another place I never thought I'd travel...and end up liking. Thanks to some travel-savvy friends (that was one awesome thing about living abroad with the military...we had lots of friends interested in the very same activities we were!), we teamed up and Google Mapped out a few of the must-see attractions in Helsinki. I'm less spontaneous when it comes to cruise travel, so having a plan to maximize our limited time in each port is crucial. With our map and plan in hand, we hopped a bus from the port to the city center and got exploring!

Wandering on foot is our ideal way to take in a new city, but I've got to say, Helsinki is a pretty big place. When we started our walk from where the bus dropped us off to our first sight, the Rock Church, we had no idea how far we would be walking. We wandered for what seemed like forever, finally reaching the Rock Church, sweat dripping off our foreheads. The weather was much warmer than we expected in Finland...you just don't think of the Baltic states being hot, even in July! But I digress. Upon arriving, you could tell Helsinki's Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Church) was quite unique. It's basically an entire church excavated into a mound of rock. The exterior was interesting, but it was the interior that really wowed. The ceiling skylight was made entirely out of copper and it shined as the sun blazed through its panels sending this ethereal glow throughout the church. I've really never seen anything like it. After spending some time in the church, we decided we couldn't hoof it to all the sights we wanted to see around Helsinki, so we snagged a ride on one of the city's many trams and made our way to another famous Helsinki church.


Helsinki Cathedral had a much more commanding exterior than the Rock Church...the white stone literally radiated down the alleyways. It stood perched atop a hill of stairs that overlooked the cutest square, complete with bubbling fountains and happy tourists. The interior, compared to the Rock Church, was nothing to write home about. In fact, it was modest compared to most cathedrals we'd visited around Europe, a testament to its neoclassical style and construction time period. After snapping a dozen photos and enjoying a rest on the steps, we decided lunch was in order. Enter, Bryggeri Helsinki!


It was here that we experienced local Helsinki brews (as well as their versions of world favorites) and tried one of Finland's traditional dishes, reindeer stew! I was a little hesitant at first, but when in Finland, right? The reindeer was surprisingly tender and not as gamey in flavor as I expected...in fact, it fell right off the bone. The price tag, however, was steep...so we ordered 2 dishes and shared it among the 8 of us. We all much rather spend our money on beer...and that we did!


With full bellies, we set out for some shopping and to find Helsinki harbor & Market Square (Kauppatori) where we knew a large market was held daily. There were stalls upon stalls of craftsmen selling their wares and even more food tents with traditional snacks to sample. We tried some of the fresh fish caught that morning and even sampled fried anchovies. Not too shabby!


While not my favorite of our stops along the Baltic Sea (not enough kitsch for me), any city you tour with friends becomes a city to remember. We had a lovely day and tried lots of new things, a cruise port nicely explored. :)

[Additional photos courtesy of our travel buddy's Helsinki album! Thanks for sharing, Jon!]
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