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Dec 14, 2015

Blending Traditions: Christmas at Home

Steeped in tradition, the Christmas season is one we all look forward to rolling around each year. In our family, as I'm sure it is with most, there are dozens of traditions that make the holidays feel like the holidays to us. Some we've passed down from generation to generation, others we've recently acquired as our family trees branch off into newer branches. When D and I moved to Germany in 2011, we couldn't go home that December, so we spent our very first Christmas alone as a couple. Even though we couldn't be with family, we still kept with our Christmas traditions from home...so family never felt that far from our hearts. As the years passed by, we also began to adopt holiday traditions from our gracious host country. These days, we've got a good blend of family customs and adopted traditions that make our Christmas just that much more special.

 Christmas traditions may vary from country to country, family to family, person to person...but one thing we all can agree on is that they bring us all together during a magical time of year. Here are just a few of the ways holiday tradition has influenced Christmas at Haus Cote...

When I graduated college and D were in our first year of marriage, I decorated the WHOLE DARN HOUSE. I loved going to Garden Ridge (my Greensboro peeps know this) and buying all the Christmas decor I could stuff in one shopping cart. Obsessed, just like my momma (who has a Santa Claus shower curtain, not kidding). With all the moving we do thanks to Uncle Sam, I've slowly opted for simplicity in my holiday decor. Because lugging around 15 tubs of Christmas decor is a bit much, no? These days, we do a tree, preferably real...but I've got love for the fake ones, too. This year, thanks to the Florida heat, we're going fake...and I'm cool with it. Less pine needles to micro-manage all month, that's for sure! With the tree comes our extensive collection of ornaments we've collected on all our travels. Next year, I'm afraid I might have to be one of those people who has two trees, because we're bursting at the seams with ornaments I can't bear not to hang (thank you, Lord, for your abundant travel blessings!). My favorite ornament? I love all the ones we acquired at the German Christmas markets we frequented. Especially the pickle. While not exactly something the Germans claim as their own tradition, the fun of "hiding the pickle" continues to spread joy to tourists and locals alike.

Another fun piece of holiday decor I brought home from Europe is a wooden sled we found at a Polish antique shop in Bolesalwaic. It adds just the right amount of rustic kitsch to our living room and reminds me of the fabulous antiques stores I used to wander through during our travels. We also have a few German smokers and authentic nutcrackers scattered around the house. I couldn't leave Germany without snatching up such famous Christmas handicrafts! They'll be pieces I pass down to generations to come.

This is a tradition we haven't quite started yet in our family just yet, but it's waiting in the wings for when we have children. Families all over Germany participate in Sankt Nikolaus Day at the beginning of the advent season. Children leave out their shoes the night of December 5th, and wake up on the morning of December 6th to find all sorts of treats left in them from jolly ol' Saint Nicolas! It's such a sweet and meaningful tradition for countries all over Europe, but experiencing it firsthand while living in Germany made it all the more exciting. We loved hearing the church bells ringing in our town as Sankt Nikolaus (or der Weihachtsmann) wandered through, signifying the start of the Christmas season. I like to think of this holiday tradition as a sort of "Elf on the Shelf" for Europe. If the kiddos are bad, twigs and coal are left in the shoes instead of treats. In some areas of Germany and Austria, these bad gifts are given by Sankt Nikolaus's evil counterpart, Krampus!

I happily adopted many traditions from our time living in Germany, but none more tasty than the mug of piping hot gluhwein. Oh, the many mugs of gluhwein I've consumed the last 4 years. I bet you could wring me out and it would all be gluhwein, no joke. When the holiday season rolls around, it doesn't take me long to dust off the 53 Christmas market mugs I collected abroad (yes, you read that right) and make my first batch. In fact, I love the stuff so much, I spent quite a few hours in the kitchen perfecting my own mulled wine recipe. Don't worry, you can find it here. As long as I am living, this spiced holiday libation will be a part of our Christmas season.

Since the year D put a ring on my finger, I've mailed out a Team Cote holiday card. It's a tradition most celebrate, but one I credit to my mom, who has faithfuly sent out a holiday card from our family since I was a little girl. I used to watch her spend hours flipping through catalogs, choosing the card that reflected the perfect sentiment for the year. Once they were delivered to the house, she would sit on the couch with her address book and blank envelopes and hand-address each card, allowing me to place a stamp on the finished ones. There are years I think, ehhh, maybe I won't send any out (I'm too busy, too tired, too cheap)...but then I remember how much joy they bring me when I receive sweet cards from my friends & family. So, I continue the tradition. Even hand-addressing them just like mom. :)

The holidays are largely driven by food...good food. And rightly so. Food and tradition go hand in hand so well! There are SO many incredible treats that have become Christmas staples in our family. Every year, my mom makes a large batch of Chocolate Peanut Butter Balls (Buckeyes to Northerners, as I've been told) and gives them out to the mailman, friends at church, and family across the country. We're always lucky enough to snag a few morsels before they're divvied up, thank goodness! We also make sugar cookies from scratch in fun Christmas shapes and decorate them with colorful icings and gobs of sprinkles. This is a food tradition we've been a part of as far as my memory will go. I remember many Christmases at MeeMaw's house, all the grandbabies around her tiny kitchen table, rolling out dough, covered in flour. A tradition I most definitely will be keeping around for years and years to come (you can read more about this family tradition here). OH, and that yummy, caramel-colored doughy ring on the right there...that's our Christmas Day Monkey Bread. It isn't Christmas Day until those and Granny's Sausage Balls arrive on the breakfast table!

Sometimes they match, sometimes they don't. Sometimes I wear them after Christmas, sometimes I hide them in my pajama drawer until, well, forever. No matter the year, we open our Christmas jammies on Christmas Eve...a tradition my mom started when we were a bit older and had an appreciation for such a quirky pre-Christmas gift. Truth be told, it a gift I always look forward to, mostly because I'm curious to see whether we'll all get silly Santa onesies or something more fashionable. Even while we lived abroad, D and I continued the tradition between the two of us when we celebrated Christmas far from home. I mean, who doesn't love new jammies?!

The culmination of all traditions through the holiday season come to a head this day. It's the Big Kahuna, so we send it out with a bang! The kids (even now that we're not quite kids anymore) are the last to wake...we always find mom and dad in the kitchen sipping coffee and waiting patiently for us to come barreling down the hall. Now that we're older, we have enough restraint (although not much more than before) to be able to eat breakfast as family rather than diving straight into the presents. A smorgasbord of monkey bread, coffee cake, bacon, and sausage balls are the typical fare. Calories don't count on Christmas morning. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Once breakfast is done, we all grab a spot on the couch and the gifts are distributed. Stockings are opened first...then on to the good stuff! Instead of diving in all at once, we each take turns opening a gift...and round and round it goes until all gifts are opened. Takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R (especially when all family is in town), but that's just how we like it. Christmas lasts longer this way (in our minds, at least). 

After the living room is turned into a wrapping paper war-zone, we usually call or Skype with our Kansas family...then spend the rest of the day Christmas movie watching and snacking on holiday treats until Christmas dinner is served. Again, calories don't count and a holiday ham is always in attendance. My dad's face in this last photo...the most accurate portrayal of his disdain for photos ever captured. God love 'em. ;)

I hope you've enjoyed this little peek into our holiday traditions!

What are some favorite traditions you hope to pass down to your family someday?

**Be sure to check out all the holiday tradition and cheer found across the globe over on the Expat Holidays landing page on MontgomeryFest! Happy holidays to all!**

Dec 8, 2015

A Florida Bucket List

With sunshine and good times on high almost everyday, there are few things not to love about the great state of Florida. When D and I got orders to the Sunshine State in 2014, we knew we were in for loads of beach days, Disney trips, and experiencing unlimited days of summer. So far, we've done all that and more, but there's still so much to see and do here! As much as we traveled around Europe those 3 years living abroad, we've had high hopes to keep our travel bug well fed. Thankfully Florida has no shortage of incredible destinations fit for exploring. One interesting observation we've made our short 1.5 years living here thus far...this state is HUGE. 65,755 sq miles sort of huge. Crazy, right? Living in Germany, we were able to drive 2.5 hours and be in Belgium, or France, or the Netherlands. Drive 2 more hours and we were in Switzerland or Italy. If we drive 3 hours North, South, or West from our current...we're still in Florida. With so much land to cover, we figured it was time to jot down the Sunshine State sights we just have to see. Without further adieu...here's our Florida Bucket List!

So far we've already visited: St. Augustine, Orlando, Tampa, St. Pete, Destin, Cocoa Beach, and Daytona Beach. That's primairly why you won't find any of those places on our current bucket list. We've already hit 'em! But you should, too. And I swear I'll blog about them...someday. ;)

The first time I ever heard of Sanibel Island was from my German landlord's wife, Tanya. No kidding. She and her family visited the states a few years back and spent a week on the Florida gulf coast and said Sanibel was one of the most beautiful beaches she'd ever seen. Which is a big deal considering she's traveled all over the world! From that moment on, I knew if we ever got stationed in Florida, Sanibel would HAVE to be on our "must-see" list. Sanibel Island is most known for having beaches covered in millions of colorful shells making it one of the best beachs in Florida for shelling. The vibe of this island is seclusion, so rest and relaxation are the only two modes you'll need to set your watch on.

Is it weird to say I'd love to watch alligators from the comfort of the seat of an air boat? Truly a sentence I'd never thought I type out...but it's true! And I feel like the coolest place to do that would be in the Florida Everglades. Spanning 1.5 million acres in Southern Florida, the Everglades wetlands preserve is full of beautiful mangroves, sawgrass marshes, pinewood forests, and is home to hundreds of different animal species. Who wouldn't want to explore the world's largest remaining subtropical wilderness? And the whole air boat fascination? Well, let's just say I have a need for speed. ;)

"Named for Princess Amelia, daughter of George II of Great Britain, Amelia Island is the only place in the United States to have been under the dominion of eight different flags. It’s been home to an array of cultures and colorful characters: Timucuan Indians, European explorers, pirates, bootleggers, Gilded Age millionaires, and shrimpers all make up the colorful tapestry of this treasured island’s rich history. They’ve left behind a legendary legacy (and much to explore.)"  -- AmeilaIsland.com

Not much else to say except, when do we leave?

I'm sure you aren't surprised that a beer fest is high on our list of things to do while living in Florida. D's a major beer snob and well, I'm along for the ride! After living in the land of beer for 3 years, D and I both grew to love frequenting all of the German (and Belgian) beer festivals that seemed to happen more often than not. In moving back to America, we were pleased to learn that Florida has a strong craft beer scene and loves festivaling just as much as any German would. Not only is Key West an incredible vacation destination (we got a nice taste of it during our Disney cruise this past spring), but it's also holds one of Florida's coolest beerfests of the year. Key West Brewfest is held every Labor Day weekend and draws in thousands of island-going visitors from all around the USA. With over 150 beers to sample, it's easy to see why we've got to get our festival on at least once while we're Florida residents!

So, we're laying in bed one night flipping through the channels and D stops on the Travel Channel and this gorgeous scene of a couple canoeing down a palm tree-lined river. The commentator mentioned it being a "best-kept secret," a "secluded paradise," a "unsuspecting gem in the middle of the state." Well, I was hooked. Turns out this secluded paradise is in the middle of Central Florida! Wekiva Island is a favorite local gathering spot on the Weikva River and just outside the Wekiwa Springs State Park. This natural area is chock-full of outdoor activities like canoeing, kayaking, fishing, paddleboarding, swimming, and volleyball. Or you can spend the day sunbathing and vegging out on their "river-banas" (river cabanas in case you were confused) and festive Adirondack chairs lining the Sweetwater Canal. Visit in Florida's cooler months and you can enjoy S'mores at their riverside fire pit. Sounds dreamy doesn't it? I'm already planning a post-holiday de-stress session around that fire pit. Thanks for the recommendation, Travel Channel!

Operated as a SCUBA dive training and recreational facility, Devil's Den Springs in Williston, Florida has quickly become a popular place for nature lovers and divers alike. Devil's Den is a subterranean river thats roof has collapsed, leaving a cave-like den formed by the exposed body of water. Not only is it known as a wonderful place to dive, but it's also quite the snorkeling gem. While not quite a cave, it could be the closest thing to a cave dive (or snorkel) you can get in Central Florida...so why not?! Plus, it's such a natural beauty! Reminds me of Mexican cenotes. Feel free to Google away.

Will Smith said it best "Party in the city where the heat is on...all night on the beach till the break of dawn"...yeah, Miami, you're on our list! Miami is one of those vibrant cities that you are just drawn to. The beaches, the nightlife, the Cuban influences, the art deco buildings...I'm getting psyched just typing about it. D is originally from a town outside of Miami, so he loves to tell me about all the cool things this iconic Florida city has to offer. South Beach is what I've got my eye on. I can just see myself on the beach in front of a luxurious surfside hotel, cocktail in hand. Can't you see yourself there too? Let's just go, ok?

Basically any place with "nap" in the name, I'm on board. Doesn't hurt that this is also ranked one of Florida's most beautiful beaches and that it's only a few hours drive from our home here in FL. While I love living a 10 minute drive from our own beach here on the East Coast...there's just something about the Gulf Coast that is totally swoon-worthy in its own rite. Turquoise waters and a white sand beaches have a lot to do with the swooning, to be honest. While we're here, we'll probably venture inland to Sarasota and see trouble we can get into there. We hear there's lots of fab restaurants to be found. Beach and then food...sign me up!

How cute is he?!?! Located in Marathon, FL in the Florida Keys, The Turtle Hospital is a non-profit organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles. Once they're back in tip-top shape, they're released back into their natural habitat. In addition to helping rehab these beautiful sea creatures, the hospital also aims to educate people about sea and beach pollution while also doing research with local universities on how to aid turtles in their ocean homes. Visitors to the Turtle Hospital can take educational tours of the hospital facilities & rehab center, as well as feed the turtles! 

Have you ever been to any of these Florida destinations? 
Share your experiences! Any Florida sights we should add to the list?

Dec 2, 2015

Walled city of Valletta, Malta

As I might have mentioned a time or two, Malta was never really on our travel radar. I like to think of this stop on our Adriatic cruise as a bit of bonus...mostly because we had no clue what to expect from the country, but also because it gave us a good excuse to add another exciting destination to our ever-growing list of places we visited while living in Europe. When I started researching the port of Valletta and sights we "couldn't miss" prior to sailing, photos like this and this from Pinterest kept popping up in my search. What are those GORGEOUS balconies doing here and why is this city FULL of them?! Instantly the architecture of Valletta was fascinating. Not only is the city surrounded by stone walls and Mediterranean Sea, but the streets are narrow, hilly, and lined with these colorful balconies. I've never seen so many in my life! More on those in a bit...

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Valletta has much to offer the history buff. With over 320 monuments and numerous well-preserved 16th century buildings related to the founding of the Renaissance, you'd be hard pressed to see and learn about it all in just one day. Sadly, we had just one afternoon to explore. Per the usual...all I wanted to do was wander around and snap photos. So, that's precisely what we did!

In the 17th century, Valletta became the epicenter of the Maltese balcony architectural trend. The increasing influence of the Baroque movement had much to do with these ornate, and in many cases, colorful, verandas popping up on buildings all over the city. In addition to balconies being a prominent architectural feature, they also held important socioeconomic roles in determining certain classes of individuals. Today, those roles are much less a factor for their existence, but remain an important part of Maltese history nevertheless. Keeping with tradition, the balconies also provide a canvas for showcasing religious and parochial favor during feast days. There are dozens of types of them adorning city buildings across Valletta, but the most common (and the most interesting to photograph, in my opinion) are the closed wooden balconies. They're reminiscent of the Victorian bay windows famous to San Francisco, but with a hint more charm and in much greater number per square foot of city street. I was the epitome of a tourist that day...with my camera and head turned to the sky down every alley we wandered. Hard not to be transfixed on such a eclectic place like Valletta. 

Valletta gave off such a cool vibe, even aside from its captivating architecture. I loved standing atop one of the city's many hilly streets and peering right out over the water. The shops, the restaurants, the streets...all bustling with locals and tourists alike. Even though the city was compact, it felt quite large, especially looking at the city from the bow of a cruise ship. City walls have a way of making any community feel commanding. Would I recommend a visit to Valletta? In a millisecond. This city (can Malta as a whole) was such a pleasant surprise to us. 

I've got one last post to share from our time in Malta. For one 10 hour day, we sure did cover a lot of ground! Coming soon...the caves of the Blue Grotto!

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