Author: Lauren Fenner

Hobbiton

After going under the earth in Waitomo, our next stop took us to see Middle Earth.  Lord of the Rings enthusiasts already know this, but for the rest of my readers, Hobbiton is the permanent movie set location where all of the scenes from the Shire were filmed for director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.  It’s actually located in the middle of a huge private family farm, and was originally intended to be torn down after the movies were completed.  They had halfway completed tearing it down in the early 2000’s, but then rebuilt it permanently in 2011 for the filming of the Hobbit trilogy.  It is now a popular tourist attraction that garners millions of dollars and visitors from all over the world every year.

Our tour guide, Dave, was full of fascinating stories about the making of the Lord of the Rings.  One tidbit that stood out to me was the fact that about 1/3 of visitors to Hobbiton have never seen any of the movies or read any of the books – they are largely grandparents who go simply to make their kids and grandkids jealous, haha.  I particularly enjoyed Dave’s explanations of how the creators of the movies used forced perspective to make it look like the normal-sized actors were actually Hobbit-sized, such as having small hobbit holes on one side of the road and large hobbit holes on the other, or making the hobbits walk several feet behind their human companions, to make it look like they were smaller.

Dave also had plenty of anecdotes about Peter Jackson’s directoral brilliance /  insanity – at times it was hard to tell which term was more accurate.  He told us about how they spent months constructing a large part of Hobbiton that only showed up for a couple of seconds in only 1 of the 6 films that were shot there.  We heard about how Peter Jackson imported hundreds of black-faced sheep from Scotland, even though the farm already had thousands of white-faced sheep.  Or about how he insisted on hand-wiring on hundreds of thousands of fake leaves to the oak tree above Bilbo Baggins’ house, and then decided that the leaves were the wrong shade of green, so the set designers had to unwire the leaves, paint them a different shade of green, and then re-wire them back.  Dave even gave me a leaf that was partially painted with both shades of green as a souvenir :).

Our tour through Hobbiton concluded at the famous Green Dragon pub, where we got to spend some time enjoying our amber ale and ginger beer in front of the crackling fire and enormous hand-carved wooden dragon.  We wrapped up right as the rain started coming down in torrents, so at least Michael and I had some fun stories from our time in Middle Earth to laugh about as we continued our drive through New Zealand, since there wasn’t much to see of the countryside through the pouring rain.  Overall, it was a delightful little day trip that I throughly enjoyed and would definitely recommend, but probably would not go to again – I didn’t enjoy it quite enough to pay those overpriced admission prices a second time!

Hamilton and Waitomo

Upon leaving Auckland, we decided to follow up our trip to the Winter Gardens with…you guessed it, a trip to another garden.  One of the most incredible gardens in the world – at least, so says the International Garden Tourism Network, who rated the Hamilton Gardens as the international garden of the year in 2014…and who am I to disagree with that? 🙂

In all seriousness, though, Hamilton Gardens is truly a unique experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to go.  What started out in the 1960’s as a desolate city dump has been transformed into a several acres-wide series of gardens that celebrates the history, concept, and meaning of gardens over the ages.  It consists of several separate gardens, each one honoring the uniqueness of the traditional gardens of that specific place and era.  There is an English Flower Garden, Tudor Garden, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Chinese Scholar’s Garden (one of our favorites!), American Modernist Garden, Italian Renaissance Garden, Indian Char Bagh Garden, Herb Garden, Tropical Garden, Te Parapara Maori Garden, and several others, as well, plus numerous other enclaves and walkways, all meticulously maintained.

Even in the middle of a rainstorm, with light sneakers that quickly got soaked through all the way to my poor little toes, it was a stop well worth making.  The umbrellas that we borrowed from the visitor’s center certainly helped, so I was grateful for those.  Bonnie and Nancy, the ladies who were working at the desk when we arrived, were lovely old ladies who were absolutely delighted to find some young tourists willing to stop and listen to them for a while.  That was a trend I noticed throughout our trip – it’s amazing how often you can find people who are willing to talk and listen to you, if you are willing to slow down long enough to engage them in conversation.  I resolved yet again, as I often do when I travel and have the chance to slow down, to make the effort to slow down in my normal life back in the States, as well.  It’s always worth the effort.

But Hamilton was just a side trip on our way to Otorohanga.  Once we decided we had gotten wet enough by traipsing through the gardens, we got back into the car and finished our journey to our next Air BnB’s house, Liz.  Liz was certainly not the same level of host that Vee was, but she wasn’t a bad host…my biggest complaint with Liz was that she kept the windows open in her house, even though New Zealand is pretty close to winter by the end of May.  It was always so frigid in her house, that Michael and I mostly kept to our room while we were there, trying to huddle by our little space heater and conserve body heat.

The next day, we made our way to the Waitomo Caves, about 15 minutes from Liz’s house.  We wanted to go to Waitomo to see the famous glowworm caves, which house a unique glowworm that does not live anywhere else in the world.  These insects live on the cave ceilings and emit a bright blue light, which in some places makes it look like the ceiling is covered with brilliant twinkling little stars.  It was truly breathtaking.

Of course, you always get bonus points if you get to mix a little action and adventure with your beautiful sightseeing, so we elected to see the glowworms by going tubing through the one of the caves, the Ruakari Cave.  Just getting into the wetsuits was a harbinger of what was to come – the water still in the suits was bitingly cold.  By the time we finished our tubing adventure, my feet were painfully numb to the point where I almost could not walk on them.  But the wetsuits did their job – the rest of me was relatively warm, so I was definitely grateful to have them.

Although tubing certainly isn’t on the top tier of activities as far as adventure activities go, it was still tons of fun.  On several occasions we did have to jump backwards down a waterfall in pitch black, and just trust our guides (Vaungh and Rachel) that we’d land properly on the bottom, so that was pretty scary.  Awesome, though, as scary things often are :).

We finished our tour of Ruakari Cave in early afternoon, so once we had warmed up a bit we decided to do some more exploring.  We had a couple of duds at first – went to see a museum that had been recommended to us by Liz, but wasn’t open; then we went to a Kiwi House around the corner, but decided we didn’t want to pay $24 a person to try to see nocturnal birds in the middle of the day.  In the end, we went for a drive to try to find Mangapohue, a natural bridge that one of our guidebooks recommended.  The long, twisty mountain road we found ourselves on almost gave us pause for concern, and we probably would have turned around had we not finally seen a sign that reassured us that we were on the right track.  We didn’t spend long there, but it was a fun little side trip.  Definitely an amazing sight to see this huge natural bridge in the middle of seemingly nowhere.

A host who offers a haven, not a house

Although the Great Barrier Reef was incredible, after 4 days in Australia I was ready to move on to the next adventure.  We had a nice lazy late morning flight out, which went fairly uneventfully.  Except apparently I look like a major security risk to airline security officers in multiple nations.  At 7 of the 8 flights that we had over the course of our trip, I was asked to step aside by the security agents for a “random” bomb screening.  Random, my foot.  It became a running joke between Michael and I, to see if I would make it through security without getting screened.  But I never did.  Countries of the world, watch out – a diminutive little American girl is coming!

But thankfully, I always was allowed to leave those bomb screenings, so other than having a fun new inside joke to laugh about together, we arrived in Auckland without incident.  We continued our experiment with AirBnB in New Zealand, and I must say, I am glad we did.  Our host in Auckland, Vee, was absolutely the most amazing host we could ever have asked for.  She offered to pick us up from the airport (mind you, we landed around midnight), which was definitely a lovely start to this leg of the trip.  The next day was even better.  She was supposed to volunteer somewhere, but decided to cancel and spend the day with us instead.  She took us to a strawberry farm that made homemade ice cream and fruit pies from their fresh grown strawberries.  I particularly enjoyed that, because it took me on a nostalgic trip down memory lane – my family used to go pick strawberries and buy homemade ice cream from a mennonite farm when I was a kid.

After that, we went to the Winter Gardens in Auckland Park.  I enjoyed it, but Michael loved it – he’s such a sucker for flowers.  To be fair, there were definitely some lovely flowers represented there, especially considering how close it was to winter  (I found it very disorienting having to reverse the seasons in my brain, being on the opposite side of the world and all…).  I wish I had known more of the names of the flowers that we saw, but that’s ok.  Getting to spend some time with Vee, and reveling in the glorious colors all around us was wonderful, regardless.

On Vee’s recommendation, we had fish and chips for lunch.  New Zealand doesn’t have a lot of culturally significant food, so I guess the next best thing would be to try culturally significant foods from their colonizer, England.  I must say….I’ve never had English fish and chips, but the ones from New Zealand were absolutely delicious.  Apparently the seagulls on the boardwalk where we ate thought so, too.  We were completely surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds of birds.  At first it was kind of cute and novel.  But then they started getting closer and closer, and I started to become worried that we were about to reenact a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”  Eventually I left our boardwalk perch to finish my meal in peace and let Michael and Vee deal with the horde of human-food-obsessed seagulls.

As I’m sitting here writing, I’m thinking about how different our time in Auckland could have been.  We had no plans that first day there, and Vee could easily have stuck with her original plans and left us to ourselves that day…if she had, we would probably have just hung around the house.  I’m so grateful that she chose to spend her time with us instead.  Memories were made, friendships were strengthened, and I was inspired to be the same type of host when I have people in my home – the kind who offers not just a house to stay in, but a haven of peace and happiness.

Australia!

After almost a year of my poor passport gathering dust in the corner of my room, I finally got to use it again a couple of weeks ago.  As of this point, I was only missing 1 (inhabited) continent, so the choice as to where I should go was an easy one for me.  On Friday evening after work, Michael and I made our way to the airport to begin the 32+ hour trip to Australia.  Every time I start looking at plane tickets or discussing a trip, I’m always reminded of my friend’s comment to me several years ago, when he said “Lauren, you look at flights around the world like most girls look at clothes – ‘Oh this looks nice, I’m going to get it!'”  Makes me laugh every time….

Anyway, other than seeing someone bring an odd life-sized packing-tape man onto the train with them, the trip was fairly uneventful.  American Airlines seems to have a love-hate relationship with their partner airlines, Qantas – it is apparently a known issue that you cannot use the self-check-in kiosk if you are going to Australia.  Oh well.  Lesson learned for the next time I go Down Under.

Before we even got to Cairns, our final destination, we met Gaylene, a lovely Australian who was a wonderful introduction to the country.  She was traveling from Brisbane to Cairns for work…we struck up a friendly conversation with her on the last flight over, and upon landing she offered to share a taxi and then ended up paying for our side completely.  It was a very nice welcome for two tired, travel-weary Americans.

We landed on a Sunday afternoon, and were definitely feeling the 14-hour time difference.  It was all we could do to go to the store and get some groceries, cook dinner (crocodile sausage, mmm!!), and then fall into bed at like 6:00 pm.  We travelled the entire trip through Airbnb, which is a website that allows people to rent out their empty homes or guest rooms for a fee that is usually much less than what you would see in hotels…plus you sometimes get the added bonus of meeting some really awesome people!  It was my first time using Airbnb, and I must say that I was thoroughly impressed with it.  The Airbnb place in Cairns was a full flat all to ourselves, with a nice bedroom and pullout couch in the living room, a fairly well-stocked kitchen, and even a little balcony in the back.  It provided a lovely view of the parking deck behind us, haha.

The first day after our arrival, we did very little in the way of…well anything, really.  We went to a big pool that Cairns locals refer to as the “lagoon,” walked through a lovely park, and tried not get run over by the cyclists who were constantly trying to avoid us as we inadvertently walked on the wrong side of the walking paths.  Do you know, I never even realized that walking paths mimic the rules of the regular road until I was constantly having bicyclists beep their tinny little horns at me in Cairns because I was walking on the wrong side of the walking path.  I suppose it was good practice for New Zealand, when we would be having to navigate not just walking paths, but actual roads!

The next day, Tuesday, was definitely the highlight (and the original purpose!) of the entire trip.  We spent a day on the beautiful tropical waters of Australia, going to 2 separate locations to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef, on both the inner and outer reef.  I must say, the inner reef stop, Green Island, was less than impressive.  Michael and I both left that island thinking “Is that really it?” (Although in hindsight, it was actually very good that we went there – gave us good snorkeling practice before we moved on.)  But we were not at all disappointed when we got to the outer reef.  The Great Barrier Reef really is everything that is it cracked up to be.  Sparkling (albeit rather chilly) waters cover acres and acres of pristine marine life.  Animals of all types – sea turtles, angel fish, damsel fish, and plenty of others whose names I haven’t the faintest idea of, flitted in and out from among every type of coral you could imagine – stag coral, elk horn coral, plate coral, brain coral, lots of soft corals, and even a giant clam or two.  In some places the coral is so close to the surface of the water that you cannot even swim over it.  My personal favorite was when a mini-school of absolutely giant fish swam right past me – they were so close I could literally touch them!  I even got a video…check it out below!!

Our last day in Australia was fun, but honestly still somewhat of a letdown after the Reef from the previous day.  We took a scenic train through the foothills up to Kuranda, a cool but admittedly very touristy little town above Cairns.  The time went quickly in conversation with a lovely British / American couple, Susan and Steve, who gave us great recommendations on local foods to try, as well as some helpful driving tips for driving on the wrong side of the road (for example, “it’s always the passenger’s job to say ‘keep left!’ whenever the driver turns”).

We had a few hours to kill in Kuranda, so we amused ourselves by browsing the many tourist shops that dotted the small streets.  My personal favorite was the store that sold things entirely made out of fur – including a super fancy man’s vest / tie and woman’s bikini set.  Oh my word…I couldn’t imagine actually wearing that atrocity!  After lunch, our bus came and took us to “Rainforestation”, where we got to see some more exotic animals and take a trip on an antique army duck, a 6-wheel drive amphibious vehicle made by women during WWII.  This Rainforestation park has the largest collection of army ducks in the southern hemisphere – only around 2,000 were ever made, and they have about a dozen of them to take tourists on trips into the rainforests and swamps around Kuranda.

I enjoyed seeing and hearing about “Jack the Ripper”, a 15 foot long crocodile that lives up to his name – he has eaten his last 12 girlfriends!  I made sure to stay a safe distance away from that one!  The rainforests in Australia, while comprising only a tiny fraction of the total global jungle area, are the most diverse in the world.  We saw water dragons, and bright blue Ulysses butterflies, and all kinds of ferns, and stinging trees, and golden orb spiders, which must have been what Rumplestiltskin used to spin his golden thread, just to name a few.  It was incredible – pictures of all and more are included in the photo album below.  Aside from the incredible diversity of flora and fauna, however, my favorite part was definitely when we drove straight into the water in the army duck.  It’s definitely a rather unsettling experience to intentionally drive straight into a body of water!

The return trip from Kuranda was made not by train, but by one of the longest cable cars in the world.  We had a fun time enjoying the breathtaking views and admiring the rainforest from above on our way down.  So, when I said that our rainforest excursion was something of a letdown, do not misinterpret me and think that I did not enjoy it.  It was lovely, fascinating, and definitely an experience to remember.  It is only when it is compared to the absolutely breathtaking and completely otherworldly experience of the Great Barrier Reef that it pales :).  See below for lots of pictures!

 

Treading water and walking on it

Sinbad has been rather quiet lately.  I’d love to say that it’s because I’ve been so full of things going on that I haven’t had time to write.  But sadly, the reality has been a little more sobering than that.  I’ve been battling a lot of challenges – physical, spiritual, emotional, the whole gamut – over the past 6 months or so.  Work has definitely been difficult, a black hole that seems to suck up all of my time, energy, and emotions.  I’m sure that my official diagnosis of sleep apnea with a side order of a cardiac arrhythmia has not helped matters – there are many many days when it feels like it’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed, go to work, put in my time, and then come home and go to sleep.  But after lots of expensive sleep studies and doctor’s appointments and discussions of various equally pricey treatment options, I’ve finally started getting it treated.  Hopefully I am on the road to recovery…I have not seen any real impact yet, but I am cautiously optimistic.

But it hasn’t been all bad.  I was spoiled by getting to go to the Fox Theater not once, not twice, but THREE times over the past 6 months with various amalgamations of the Meeks’ family.  I went with Michael and his parents to see Wicked, with Michael and his brother and brother’s girlfriend to see the comedian Bryan Regan, and then I had Michael all to myself when we went to see the Blue Man Group.  They were all excellent performances and I enjoyed them all a lot…but Michael and I both decided after the last one that we would take a break from the Fox for a while, lol.

And of course, I would be remiss indeed if I did not mention April 10th.  That was the day that Michael, my best friend and confidant, asked for my hand in marriage.  He sent me on a scavenger hunt all over town, leaving clues and letters from friends all over the world at various significant places in our relationship.  While he wasn’t with me for most of it, he did make sure that 2 of my best friends in Atlanta, Amy and Elizabeth, were with me to keep me company.  After lunch, he met up with us and together the two of us went down to Albany to finish the scavenger hunt.  We ended at my folks’ place, where he popped the question with all of my family there looking on.  Of course I said yes…the big day is September 27th! 🙂  It was a beautiful, surreal day that I am not likely to forget any time soon.  What with all of the preparation that Michael had put into the proposal, I cannot exactly say that I was surprised…but I still felt like I was walking on water.

On the whole, however, other than that obvious glaring exception, my life over the past few months has been one of largely treading water rather than walking on it.  It really has been quite hard on me.  I am constantly amazed that Michael still wanted to marry me, even after all of the emotional breakdowns I’ve had over the past year.  I guess that just shows what a keeper he is :).  I did go on a big trip to Australia and New Zealand last week (more on that in the next update), which was amazing.  I am praying that that trip will mark a shift to better things this year.  There are definitely lots of big changes ahead in my life over the next few months!  Stayed tuned for more updates from “Down Under”…

Ice-sweeping and treeline-soaring

My zest for adventure and learning new things sometimes takes me to unexpected places.  For example, when the owner of Wicked Westie hosted a curling event for all of his volunteers, I was all for it (after my initial scoffing, at least).  The only thing I knew about curling was that it was that sport in the winter Olympics that everyone makes fun of – something about sweeping ice to make a stone slide faster, right?  But I’m always up for learning new things, and so I gave it a shot.  Turns out that curling is a lot more than that.  Like every new skill I am introduced to, I left with a much deeper appreciation of the skill required by professional curlers…a skill that makes something that’s actually quite difficult look effortless.

In some ways, I feel like learning how to curl is like learning how to drive a manual car.  Every limb is doing something different, and none of it feels natural.  You push off with your right foot, and balance with your left arm, aim and thrust a 42 pound curling stone with your right hand, all while balancing on your left foot on a piece of Teflon designed for reduced friction on the ice.  It was…tricky, to say the least.  I would be surprised if anyone in the entire group of 30+ people didn’t end up wiping out on the ice at least once during the course of the night.

But surprisingly….curling is also really darn fun.  If I didn’t have something else going on almost every other night of the week, I would have seriously considered joining the league.  I guess I’ll have to stop making fun of the curling matches I see in the winter Olympics, lol… 🙂

My other big adventure lately took me to the trees of rural Georgia, on the longest canopy zipline in the world.  For Christmas last year, my parents bought a family ziplining package for all of us to enjoy together – complete with matching shirts for “The Fabulous Fenners – Superheroes in disguise.”  It was a fantastic gift.  The ziplines and rope bridges were fun – and it was definitely a blast to see different members of my family navigating the tree-top courses.  And there was a fantastic lodge with an incredible view that we got to enjoy when we finished the zipline course.  But the real enjoyment, for me, came from just being together.  We spent the night in a nearby cabin, so we didn’t have to worry about any event or deadlines or expectations…we were just together.  We went on walks and played board games and read books and watched a movie and talked and laughed…it was just a really special time.  Sadly, Chris had a job that came up last-minute, so he wasn’t able to make it, but we know that he was there in spirit!  Mom and dad are already planning on what to do next year – which is awesome!  Good memories are a much better gift that some random item picked up from the store out of obligation instead of interest :).  Already looking forward to the next Fabulous Fenner outing!

Ringing in a quarter century

Well folks, it finally happened.  I am now officially 1/4 of a century old.  Michael planned a dinner at Red Lobster with some Atlanta friends the night before my birthday to celebrate, but other than that the actual day passed by fairly uneventfully.  The next weekend, however, I went to a dance event, and a couple weeks later I went to visit my dear friend Sarah in Houston.  I have decided that those were the rest of my birthday celebrations….your 25th birthday only happens once, might as well make it last the whole month, right? 🙂

The dinner at Red Lobster was nice, albeit quite low-key.  I was originally a little sad because a lot of my house church friends were still out of town, but that just meant that it ended up being a whole new group!  Chris and Julia, Michael’s parents, and my mentor from church and her husband were all there, along with several house church people who were still in town.  I felt very loved and cared for.  We were going to go bowling after, but instead we all went to my house to watch Million Dollar Arm, which had been given to me as a gift earlier that night.  I do so very much love having people into my home :).

The dance event, Sweet Side of Swing, is possibly my favorite event out of all the ones I’ve ever been to.  The leveled classes making learning easier for everyone, and every detail is attended to with such care that it makes it almost impossible to NOT enjoy yourself.  This year was even more special by the “Swing Literacy Development Training” course that I took.  This was an add-on that was offered in addition to the regular workshops and social dances….8 solid hours jam-packed with tips and techniques for teaching swing dance more effectively to beginner and intermediate dancers alike.  It was a really well-done workshop…I’m very much looking forward to implementing the things I learned at the weekly Atlanta swing dances!

But, as fun as Sweet Side of Swing was, the crux of the month was definitely my visit to Houston.  Aside from my brief dinner with her last year while I was in Houston for an interview, it’s been years since I’ve seen my dear friend Sarah.  We saw each other a lot while we were in Korea, and keep up regular phone conversations now that we’re both back stateside…but phone calls can’t hold a candle to seeing beloved friends in person.  I took advantage of the long weekend around MLK day to go see her…only got to spend a couple of days with her, but a couple of days is vastly better than nothing!  Sarah and Donnie are incredible hosts – possibly the best I’ve ever met – and also great friends….the two of those together made for one very happy houseguest!  Sarah picked me up at the airport, and then I was greeted at their home with a welcome sign and guest basket.  Over the course of 2 days, we managed to pack a lot in – game night, puzzles, church, a tour of NASA (Donnie works there), walking around an adorable little boardwalk and mini amusement park, and even a round of restaurant hopping (messy burgers in a sports bar with lots of character for dinner, and then drinks and cake at a gem of an establishment nestled right on the water afterwards).  And yet, somehow, I never felt rushed or overwhelmed.  I guess that’s what happens when people who care for each other a lot just get to spend some time enjoying each other’s company.  I have decided that, even though they’re short, weekend trips are much better than nothing, and I’ll be making every effort to make more of them in the future!  So glad to be blessed with friends all over the world with whom I can pick life back up when I see them, no matter how long we’ve been apart!

 

The most wonderful time of the year

I have been looking forward to Christmas time since….well, probably since last Christmas, really.  It is definitely the most wonderful time of the year for me.  I love the lights, the weather, the foods, the gifts, the music (I am one of those people who start playing Christmas music in October)…it’s just such a festive, beautiful time of year.  I always do everything I can to make the most of it. Because I enjoy the season so much, Christmas festivities always start very early for me.  I think that the kick off this year would probably be the Tour of Homes that I took Michael on for a date in early December.  I don’t know what it is about home tours, but I find them exceedingly fascinating and enjoyable.  I’ve always enjoyed riding around and looking at homes from the outside…perhaps it’s just the extension of that activity that I find so much fun.  Whatever the reason, it was a blast.  There were 7 homes and 1 historic church on the tour, although we only made it to 6 homes before it ended for the day.  But even so, it was worth our time.  All of the homes were gorgeous, and on top of that most were decked out in all of their Christmas glory.  There were also different restaurants from around town that were offering food tastings at all of the houses.  We had apple and cheese wedges and a fancy meat and olive sampler and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup and key lime pie dessert shooters and lobster bisque and I’m forgetting the other one but they were all DELICIOUS.  Oh, and gawking at the gorgeous houses was pretty fun too, of course :).

The tour of homes was followed shortly thereafter with Michael taking me to see A Christmas Carol at the Alliance Theater, which was FABULOUS.  I’ve wanted to go see that for years, but could never muster up the willingness to bite the bullet and pay the steep admission costs.  But Michael finally got me there, and it was totally worth it.  The set was beautifully done, and the actors and musical numbers were brilliant.  This version of the classic story also had a marked “gospel music” feel to many of the characters and songs, which was a new and enjoyable twist to a very well-known story.

A week or so later was my company Christmas party.  Michael has gone every year since the tradition was started, but this of course was my first time.  The highlight of the Brightlink Christmas party is the gingerbread house competition.  There are 3 rules – things can be prepared in advance, but nothing can be assembled ahead of time; everything must be edible; and you only have 1 hour to assemble your house once the contest gets going.  Some of the entries have gotten quite impressive.  There have been nativity scenes, a barn, an iconic building on the Georgia Tech campus, and an angry birds fight that involved a blowtorch and flaming marshmallows launched in a catapult-like contraption, just to name a few.  Employees are generally paired into teams with their spouses, but since Michael and I are dating we were also put into a team together.  Before this year, the gingerbread house that Michael was most known for was “Snowpacolypse” – he knew he wouldn’t get a house standing, so he put a bunch of marshmallows over the battered gingerbread and said a snowstorm had come through.  Oh dear.  I had actually never before built a gingerbread house in my life, but I knew that I wanted to at least get one standing, lol.

What we ended up with actually far exceeded my expectations.  We decided on a “beach house” theme, and I spent a long time the weekend before prepping everything I could beforehand.  I even made the gingerbread – Michael said that it look liked it had been store bought, a comment which I considered high praise, indeed.  We dyed blue icing for the water, made some grey icing for the mortar on the walls, and used a variety of different types of food to make the designs and textures that we were going for.  Some of my favorites included dried dates for the stones on the walls, triscuits for the roof, green peppers for the trees, fruit roll-ups for the towel and hammock, and crushed up cheerios for the sand.  It was fantastic!  I was so very pleased with the result….winning “chef’s choice” (the caterer’s vote) was just icing on the gingerbread (pun very much intended, haha)!

And then, of course, I also hosted my own Christmas party before leaving for Albany.  It is becoming a tradition – this is the third year that I’ve done it.  It was a blast, as always.  And this time I didn’t try to cram all of the prep work into a single day, which meant that I had enough energy to actually enjoy it by the time that people started showing up.  We had a nice dinner, decorated gingerbread cookies, played some Christmas games, made some silly photos in front of the Christmas tree, and then did a white elephant gift exchange that was really a blast.  Last year about 2/3 of the gifts were some form of chocolate, so this year I forbade anyone from bringing that, and it seemed to ignite people’s creative juices when it came to white elephant gift-buying.  There were books, and funny hats, and blankets, and house decorations, and even a bungee-cord chair.  That’s the one I ended up with :).  I really do very much enjoy hosting, and I love Christmas, and so throwing this Christmas party has probably become one of my favorite events that I host all year.

After the bustle of celebrating Christmas in Atlanta, though, it was nice to have a toned-down week in Albany.  Michael came with me, but we had very little in the way of planned activities.  One night we all went out to see Christmas lights, my grandfather took us out to dinner once, I went clothes or grocery shopping with various members of my family, and we watched several movies together (if you haven’t seen Annie yet, go see it!  It’s fantastic).  And then Michael cooked dinner for my entire family the last night that he was here to celebrate my birthday, which was lovely.  He really blessed all of us a lot over the course of the week.  But overall, Christmas week was a pretty low week, which was just what I needed.  A little R&R is a great way to start a new year! 🙂

Springing into fall

As we are moving into winter, I am finally finding time to wrap up my stories from the fall.  I suppose I have already told most of them (I did leave out the apple picking excursion that Michael and I went on, but really the best story from that is the delicious apple butter and caramel apple muffins that resulted from it :]).  The noteworthy fall tale that hasn’t yet been told , of course, is Thanksgiving.  I’ve always gone home to Albany for Thanksgiving…so it was definitely a new experience to have my family come up to me this year.  We spent Thursday with Michael and his family, then went to the other end of town and spent Friday with Chris and Julia and her family.  And then, I got my family all to myself on Saturday.  It was a wonderful weekend….I’m so blessed to have such incredible people in my life.

It’s rather amazing how different the three days were, however…the Fenners, the Meeks, and the Purcells are three very different families, lol.  Our afternoon with the Meeks was mostly spent playing games – after eating, of course.  It was a big potluck dinner – everyone was responsible for a different portion of the Thanksgiving meal.  That meant that we ended with a much larger variety and quantity of food than we would have otherwise had – not that I’m complaining, mind you.  My coconut pie and my mom’s chocolate pecan pie were big hits :).  But anyway, as I was saying….all of the Meeks love games – as do most of the people in my family – so we were all perfectly content to play word games and strategy games and party games and….well, you get the idea.

Chris and Julia and the Purcells, however, are not game people, so that did not even factor into the equation on Friday.  Mom and dad had bought Chris a turkey fryer for Christmas last year, and he’s been putting it to good use since then.  He fried 3 turkeys for us for Thanksgiving – one for the Purcells, one for my parents, and one for us all to eat.  We were all somewhat mesmerized by the bubbling oil and sizzling turkey skin from the fryer.  After dinner, Julia’s mom took out a box full of questions.  Some were silly, some were serious, some were long conversation starters and some elicited very quick responses.  Cindy passed the box around the table and we all pulled out 2 slips of paper.  We then took turns answering the questions that we had drawn.  It was a great way to foster conversation and learn more about the people around me.  I heard stories from my parents that I had never heard before, and was surprised by the depth and insight that some of my younger siblings showed in answering their questions

My day spent with just my family was marked by little in the way of specific activity except for just enjoying each other’s company.  Of course that could have more to do with them being tired than us actually not wanting to do anything per se :).  We did go shopping with Julia at IKEA for a little bit, which was fun.  And then in the evening dad took us all to a movie together, a rare treat with our busy schedules and the rising cost of movie admissions.  But mostly we just enjoyed each other, and it was so lovely.  I am trying to develop my gift of hospitality, so getting to practice on my beloved family just made it all that much better.  I bought a bed the week before Christmas to put in the spare room for my parents (and other guests) when they came, and put up a Christmas tree just a few days before Thanksgiving, so it was a very cozy, homey environment by the time my parents and little siblings showed up.  I am blessed and grateful that I am able to offer such a comfortable, welcoming place to people to come to my home.

I’m going somewhat out of order here, but I did also want to mention the fall camping trip that I went on a few weeks ago with some friends from house church.  The idea was to “camp” in my parents’ unfinished cabin in the northeast Georgia mountains – we were going to head up there after work on Friday, have a campfire dinner, and then bundle up for the evening and go on a hike the next day.  But, as I’m sure you all know, life doesn’t always go according to the plan.  We all left later on Friday night than we had wanted to…and then hit lots of Friday afternoon traffic…so by the time we got up to the cabin it was nearly 8:00 pm.  With lots to do – we still had to start a fire, get dinner started, warm the house up, yada yada yada – I was in a hurry to get to the cabin.  So we finally get there, and….my key didn’t work.  It was even worse because there is no cell phone service at the cabin.

So I drove away a few miles until I could make a call, and called the only people I knew to call – my great aunt and uncle, who live about 15 minutes from the cabin.  After explaining the situation, they very simply offered all of us to come stay with them for the evening.  They let me and 5 of my friends whom they had never met before come stay with them at a moments’ notice…I was floored by their generosity.  When one of my friends thanked them for letting us come over, Uncle Bill very simply said, “well of course.  Lauren’s family.”  Their simple and enduring love for me nearly brought me to tears.  Although I don’t get to see them very often, it’s amazing knowing that they are always there for me if I need them.  And it ended up (in my opinion, at least) working out much better than if we had stayed at the cabin.  I got to see Aunt Rose and Uncle Bill some in the evening, and much more the next day – Michael and Amy and I stayed and had lunch with them while everyone else headed back to Atlanta.  And I still got to go on a hike, and didn’t even have to freeze on Friday night!  Now if only I can learn to actually not freak out when things don’t go according to plan…

Rejoicing in my blessings

I’ve been blessed this summer and fall to get to see quite a bit of family members that I don’t often get to see.  First was my uncle, who came all the way from California to spend the week in Atlanta with Grammie.  They had a busy week, but I managed to snag them for an evening and have dinner with them.  It was great to see them both, but particularly Uncle Jeff – I see Grammie whenever I go down to Albany (which still isn’t as much as I’d like), but I haven’t seen my uncle in years.

I also recently got to have dinner with my mom’s side of the family for my Great-Aunt’s birthday.  Even though they live in and around Atlanta, I see them very rarely, so it was wonderful to catch up with them.  Actually, through unforeseen circumstances I ended up being able to spend almost an entire day with some of them the next weekend…but more on that in the next entry :).

Next on the list was my mom and sister.  My mom has decided that if she wants to see her kids, she just has to go and do it – there will never be a great time, and if she waits around until everyone is in town she will never see any of us.  So she just tries to come up to Atlanta as often as she can, and sees whichever of us happen to be around that weekend.  I’m very appreciative and blessed with that perspective that she has taken.  She came up a few weeks ago; it actually happened to be one of my busiest weekends of the whole summer, but I adore my family, so I made a point of seeing them for at least a little bit.  I got off of work early on Friday and was able to spend the afternoon with them.  First thing we did was take mom shopping for some jeans – 2 hours and lots of laughs later, she finally found some.  Poor Hope was getting very bored, though, so we took her mini-golfing as a consolation prize :).  (Oh….and as a side note….another result of this shopping trip was that I tried out a new way to hem pants that actually keeps the original hem!  It was a life-changing revelation.  Now short people can actually have pants that fit, too! :] ).

After the putt-putting Michael and I were already planning on going to Andretti, an indoor go-kart racing place right by my office, so I thought that after putt-putt I would have to part ways with mom and Hope.  But they decided that Andretti sounded like fun too, and so they tagged along with us there.  You should have seen Hope scurrying up the rock wall!  She was like a mountain goat.  The girl has no fear…it’s truly incredible.  That evening mom and Hope stayed the night with me, so I got the pleasure of spending even MORE time with them!  It was really an awesome day; I so rarely get to spend time with just the ladies in my family these days…

Come Saturday, though, it was off to work again.  Michael moved that weekend, so I was part of the muscle crew that helped him out.  Actually, I didn’t move much furniture at all…Amy and I stayed behind and cleaned his apartment after the guys had taken the stuff over to his new place.  I firmly contend that I had the much harder job, lol…  But it was worth it.  Because Amy and I cleaned the entire apartment while Michael was moving into his new house, he was able to just hand the keys into the office and walk away, and not have to worry about coming back later to clean.

But I must admit….helping Michael move wasn’t done entirely out of pure motives.  Stone Mountain was having their last laser light show of the year that night…and I really wanted to go!  We ended up finishing moving in plenty of time, so we drove out and met his parents for a picnic dinner on the grounds.  We did that because we wanted to get there early enough to get a good viewing seat, but that also meant that we had plenty of time to walk around the park and see the sights.  I had actually never been to Stone Mountain, even though it’s only about 30 minutes from where I live (which is really nothing in Atlanta terms).  They had a little village all decked out – although it seemed a bit confused, as it was sort of a mash-up of both fall and Christmas decorations.  But…I suppose you could say that gave it extra character?  But regardless of which holiday the folks at Stone Mountain were celebrating, my favorite decoration was definitely the pumpkins – they had a whole pumpkin scene set up that depicted the characters from Despicable Me.  Really a very cute idea, and very well executed, too.  And then of course the light show was spectacular.  I’ve actually heard mixed reviews about the light show at Stone Mountain, but I would definitely recommend it.  They did an excellent job melding animated lights, music, and pictures depicting a variety of topics and famous people from Georgia’s history – all on the side of a mountain!  There were even some parts in which they incorporated the enormous carving that makes Stone Mountain famous into the light show itself.  I found it absolutely mesmerizing.

And then of course, I would be much remiss in a post about family if I left out my visit to New Jersey a few weeks ago.  It has been several years since I’ve seen my mom’s parents, and I had a little bit of unused vacation time left from work, so I decided to take a day off and go visit them while I could.  I got up at an absolutely ungodly hour – the plane left at 6:00 in the morning from both locations – but I suppose the plus side of that is that once I landed I still had almost the entire day before me.  And my boyfriend Michael took me to and from the airport in Atlanta, and my cousin Michael did the same in New Jersey…so I really can’t complain about having to get up so early.

Anyway, the days I spent with my grandparents were well worth whatever inconvenience it took to get there.  Even though we didn’t do much, I treasure the time that I got to spend with them.  An added bonus was getting to see my Aunt Joan and Uncle John for most of the day on Sunday.  They came all the way from Connecticut, a 3-hour or so drive each way, just so they could spend a few hours with me.  Because my visit was so short (and I didn’t have any means of transportation), I really couldn’t take the time to visit my other family who lives in the area, so I had just thought that I was not going to be able to see them.  I felt very loved and cared for from them taking the time and initiative to make the trip to come see me in New Jersey.  I was very grateful for the stories and laughs that I shared with everyone while I was there.  As my grandparents get older, and the time I have left to spend with them becomes less and less, it becomes more and more valuable.

I’m so very blessed to have such a wonderful family.  Sure, they have their quirks.  There are of course times when they frustrate me to no end.  But at the end of the day, they are awesome and I love them dearly, and couldn’t imagine life without them.  Don’t take for granted the friends and family that God has put in your life.  Don’t forget how blessed you are to have your own personal cheerleaders.  Don’t nit-pick over their small flaws, but make the effort to see the whole package.  Rejoice in them and take the time to thank them as often as you can for how well they love, care, and look out for you.  And if you feel like you don’t have people in your life who do that…rejoice in the fact that God always will :).