Travel Think Tank

The Best Souvenir I Ever Got

The best souvenir I ever got was one I didn’t want. It was too expensive. It was a complete luxury item. Most of all, it added to my already overwhelming schedule! i mean, let’s face it, usually we bring home a few little trinkets so that we can smile fondly and remember a really great experience. We do not bring home obligations! In fact, I recently participated in a Zoom show and tell for travel souvenirs. People brought all kinds of things: kitchen gadgets, cultural tchochkes that represent the far away place that was so much fun. Actually, I had participated with my beloved Freddie Mercury Kokeshi doll that I found in the Plaka in Athens. A very clever find, but not my best souvenir.

Let me rewind just a bit.

My husband and I had decided to move to Japan based on Uncle Sam’s insistence. We had three elementary aged kids who were all, bless them, handfuls. On top of relocating, the settling in would be entirely up to me as my husband would ship out often with his command.

We were dealt a few blows during this particular relocation. The biggest one being that we would need to live “on the economy” instead of in base housing. That story was for another day. Anyway, lease signed, electric turned on, and moved in. About one year later, I collapsed for a nap while my husband took the kids out for a little fun at the local superstore complex, Viva Home. Then it happened.

Big News

My nap was interrupted by the bustle of three kids being reminded to take their shoes off and struggle to remove their coats quickly. There was news and they needed to tell me. “Mom! Mom! Dad found a puppy!” You’ve got to be kidding me. Seriously. I literally started praying. Lord, I’m trying to do my best here and I’ve got quite a full plate as you can clearly see. This would be a really good time for you to intervene.

“There is no way on God’s green earth that we are getting a puppy! Thanks for making me the bad guy in this! What in the world could you be thinking?! Don’t you think I’m overwhelmed as it is!?” Unfortunately, my mom filter was not working. “Babe, you gotta see this little puppy.” Really? You leave in a month for deployment! Ugggh. Little did they all know that I had a concrete out that I was just waiting to use at just the right moment.

Nope, nope, nope.

Fine, I’ll go see the puppy. Let me just run and get my heartless, unfeeling self together and we’ll go see the puppy WE ARE NOT GETTING! Folks, this was the cutest puppy I ever saw in my life. And interestingly, the guy running the pet department was really happy to see us. Maybe happy wasn’t the correct word. He looked relieved. So, I held the puppy and she was everything a puppy hungry person would hope for. She had cute little curious pointy ears. Her tail curved up into a perfect circle and she was the perfect amount of white floof. Not too prissy but not too laid back either. The problem was is that I was not that puppy hungry person.

I had three kids to get to school every day. Plus, I needed to teach 23 second graders then get everyone back home again as I happily took advantage of every cultural opportunity that Japan had to offer. A puppy! They were crazy and my husband was their leader. “Well, I’d love to get this puppy but our lease does not allow any dogs.” I told you. Concrete.

Case closed.

No dog, no more adding to my work load. It was over. Spoiler: it was not over.

I was whined at. I was pestered. They got their big tears out. I was not budging and neither were they. To put an end to it, again, I said the following: if the puppy is still there when we move into base housing, we will get it. Agreed. My plan was working again. They didn’t know the facts. We were number 34 on the list and that dog would be bought and long gone before anything would happen.

That night, I got online and looked up this strange puppy breed I had really never heard of before. Shiba Inu: a Japanese breed used to hunt in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. Shiba’s are very cat like. They are not recommended for the novice dog owner. Shibas are the national breed of Japan. Expect to pay about $1700.00 for a well bred puppy in the Tokyo area. We are so not getting this dog.

God has a sense of humor.

The next day, I picked up our mail on base. Sitting on the very top of the stack was our letter detailing our quarters assignment on base. Holy mother of Buddha! How in the world could this have happened?! More importantly, how could I hide this information? Too late, my husband had gotten the call while at work. I made my gamble and I had lost.

I admit that I was not a good loser. The entire drive, I peppered them with questions. Who will walk her? Who will give her a bath? And who exactly will be in charge of the kennel training? I got the typical “can we get a dog” answers knowing the whole time that the real answer was me. Our guy in the pet department once again looked relieved to see us. In broken English, he asked if we wanted to see the Shiba. Yes, we did. Out she came looking like the very popular local cellphone ad for Soft Bank. We forked over far too much money than I care to admit to a very relieved store clerk and walked out with the national dog of Japan on a pink leash.

All over Tokyo

She needs a name.

We had heard other people name their dogs cute Japanese names. At the top of that list was Sakura which means cherry blossom. Another top contender was Sushi. Our puppy, who had already wet the floor and fell off the couch didn’t seem to fit any of those. She needed a name that represented her new tribe. A name that let you know that she belonged to our family. Then, it came to me: Sumimasen, Gomenesai. It was the first words I had learned in our mandatory cultural manners class when we arrived. It was the words I probably said more than any others: excuse me, I’m sorry. Sumi for short.

Sumi, the best travel souvenir I ever got.
In my classroom during those very early days.

Sumi spent the next six weeks hidden under my desk in my classroom by day and keeping us up with potty breaks by night. She was just too young to leave alone. We were finally settled on base and Sumi was just big enough to get up a stair. And teething. She was loving up to her breed standard as a catlike drama queen on all fronts. Collar? Nope. Regular dog food? I think not. In a kennel? Umm, I’m a dog of royalty, move over. One day I found her in my closet, chewing on a brand new pair of shoes that took me weeks to have shipped from the States. Another day, I found her tearing apart my clothes in the hamper.

This means war.

Sumi finally put me over the edge when I found her eating yet another pair of very expensive shoes that belonged only to me. She never went after my husband’s things or anything that belonged to the kids. What’s the deal?! The internet promptly told me that she was exhibiting proper pack behavior. She was vying for the coveted spot of alpha female and I was her main competition.

Well, furball, you are not winning this round. Query: how to let your dog know that you are the alpha? Answer: bite her on the ear. The next day, that dog went searching for a shoe sized teething ring again and I took it upon myself to ensure we were all clear on this alpha issue. After a VERY dramatic reaction and subsequent pouting session, Sumi and I were on the same page.

The Sumi shenanigans continued as she figured out how to get out of the gate. It happened so frequently that it felt as if we were calling for man overboard drills every time she got out. We always knew that we could find her in one of two places: the smoke pit or at the fence where a rather handsome sesame Shiba named Pedro lived. One stormy night, she decided she was afraid of the sound that our stove vent made because of the wind. That was the night that she began sleeping in our bed ALL of the time.

Sumi in our family portraits.
Part of the family.

Seriously though.

Our little life in Japan with our Japanese puppy was quickly coming to an end. It was almost time to go back to the States. Then March 11th happened. In short, the Earth shook, the tsunami came, the power plant flooded and all hell broke loose. The decision to evacuate was made and everybody, including the dog, was on the next available flight out. As you can imagine, there are a lot of emotions that are attached to this story.

For Sumi, it meant getting a health check to get cleared to fly. She also needed to get in a kennel (which was the equivalent to giving a cat a bath). I took her to the hangar where the vet staff had set up shop. While we waited over three hours, Sumi became more and more alarmed. The only time she calmed was when the base chaplain came over to us and gave her a small blessing.

Through all of this pandemonium, through all of the chaos, I kept it together like a good Navy wife should. First, we closed our house and made a wish that everything we owned wouldn’t wind up at the bottom of the Pacific. We arranged our flights. Then, I kissed my husband goodbye. He had to stay with his command. I boarded a flight with one dog, three kids and a ton of luggage. We said goodbye to Japan. A country we had come to love and respect. Through all of that. I never shed a tear.

Then it happened.

As we landed at O’Hare, I was exhausted. With customs to clear and another leg to DC to endure, we exited the plane to collect our things. In baggage claim, all of our suitcases were accounted for and we waited by the over sized cargo door for Sumi’s crate. She was one of seven dogs on our flight and six crates had been waiting. Where was Sumi? Minutes passed by and nothing. It was at this moment, in the middle of baggage claim in the international terminal, that it all caught up with me. I sat on the edge of the belt and the tears just came. And bless my handfuls, they all tried to comfort me.

Then it happened. I heard a little yip. On the other side of the hall, a little commotion had begun. And I knew. That was my girl. That dog that I didn’t want. That dog that caused me so much work and ate too many shoes. I knew that girl was mine. We were so very relieved to see our fluffy white dog that looked just like an arctic fox. She belonged with us.

Sumi in the beach in Maryland
Surveying the shoreline.

Little Did We Know.

We learned a little more about the Shiba breed. For example, in certain corners of Japan, it’s said that a Shiba is not chosen. Instead, a Shiba chooses you. In fact, some go as far as to believe that once a Shiba has made up its mind, it can not go to another. Gosh, that really explained the relieved salesman back at Viva Home.

These days, Sumi still runs away if she can but only to wait out in the yard so that she can get a treat when she is called back inside. She still sleeps on our bed making sure one paw is touching me and another touching my husband. Most of all, she is still the center of attention in most matters. If she is not, you can put money on the fact that she is pouting or giving you some serious side eye in her very passive aggressive way. Shibas are like that.

For more on Shiba shenanigans and loyalty check out this book: Hachiko about an unbelievably faithful dog (an Akita plays the starring role, they are the bigger version of a shiba)

Souvenirs are so special! They bring back incredible memories. Be sure to leave your favorite souvenir in the comments below!

Travel Dreaming

Athens, A First Visit To An Icon

In ancient times, the goddess Athena looked after Athens as the patroness of the city. The small but mighty city crowned with the Acropolis has been the longest continuously inhabited capitol in Europe. It has seen its glory ebb and flow over not just centuries but millennia. So, what is it about this vacation magnet that keeps travelers coming back over and over again? What makes travel to Athens so appealing?

Greek church domes in blue.
Beautiful blue domes dot a mid century modern cityscape.

First Impressions

At first glance, Athens is not the prettiest city you’ve ever seen. With about half of Greece’s population residing in and around Athens, the overall urban sprawl of the place is staggering. Driving through the streets, I find myself asking why Athenians don’t see the overall decline of the area around them. Then, I realize, they are too busy living life. For Athens can be only defined by its people and they are- what’s the word I’m looking for? Kallos.

Greek Evzones, soldiers who ceremonially guard the tomb.
Iconic Evzones change the guard at Hellenic Republic’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Go on Sunday morning for the full ceremonial change.

Plan Strategically

Athens is big. So big, in fact, it’s hard to envision covering it all in one trip. Most visitors (Xenos) focus on the area in and around the Plaka or old town. Making your home base in this area makes the most geographical sense as it makes probably 80% of your itinerary walkable. While some may say that this is the most “touristy” area of the city, there are plenty of options for everyone’s taste. If you do choose another neighborhood, be sure that you have transportation options easily available.

A Greek orthodox church in the plaka.
One of the Plaka’s charming Orthodox churches.

Eat Absolutely Everything

If there is one thing that makes me look forward to Athens it’s knowing a fresh cucumber and tomato salad waiting for me. Let me be clear: my first meal in Greece will always be a salad with a fresh tomato that tastes like a tomato! In fact, the last time I was in Athens, I was reading an article at breakfast that was about GMO free regions within the EU. And who is on that list? Greece! No wonder the food still tastes like food! Just like any other country, there are familiar dishes like gyros and souvlaki as well as dishes you may not have heard of like keftedes and pilafi. Hear me now! Eat it all!!!!!

Food in the Plaka
A table full of meze.
Hermion in the Plaka
My mom at Hermion with our lifelong friend Costa.
Food in the Plaka
Summertime means zucchini!

I’d love to give you a perfectly vetted list of authentic restaurants but, in all honesty, I’ve never had a bad meal in The Plaka. Instead, try Hermion for a quiet meal and Kazakos Pantelis for the rooftop view that tucks you right in under the Acropolis.

RoofTop 360 Restaurant
RoofTop 360 with our good friend Stavros, the proprietor and lead jeweler at Dimos.
The Plaka Steps
The iconic Plaka steps that are full of amazing views and restaurants.

The Central Market

Getting your head around the food choices in Athens can be a bit overwhelming. There are distinct differences between the touristy menu and the typical Greek menu especially in the Plaka. A great way to learn more about Greek food is to visit the central market. With two distinct parts devoted to meat and seafood on one side and fresh produce on the other, you can get a true sense of what makes Greek cuisine so yummy. Getting there first thing in the morning gives you a sense of the energy that it takes to get Greece’s menus out to her customers every day.

Central market
Open arms from a local fish monger.
Central market
Olive-palooza!
Central market
All smiles at the butcher’s stall.

The Plaka’s Treasure

Browsing through the Plaka’s generous supply of stores will keep you busy for days. There are plenty of amazing shops to check out. While touristy t-shirt shops will always be a staple, there are plenty of gems to be found. Some of the legacies that you will find deep in the Plaka include Jewelry Stores that specialize in Byzantine styles. I highly recommend Dimos Jewelry You will find owner, Stavros, making great quality pieces that truly reflect that Byzantine style that made the Plaka’s first jewelers so famous. Another incredible jeweler named Tom (Thassos in Greek) can be found at Old Orient Jewelry. While the name is a bit deceiving, make no mistake, its history is well founded in the treasures you find down at the National Archaeological Museum.

Tom and my mom talk jewelry
Tom and my mom talk jewelry and catch up on their 35 year friendship.
Plaka jewelry
One of Tom’s new masterpieces.
A Greek Orthodox priest peers in to Dimos while my mom checks out Stavros’ new creations.

I’m Worried Someone’s Watching Me

It’s not your imagination! You are being watched by thousands upon thousands of evil eyes. Don’t let the name fool you, evil eyes are an old superstition meant to keep evil away. You’ll find them on absolutely everything from soap to pillows. Join in the fun, everyone buys them and has them in their house. I always look for the most creative ones to enjoy. If you are still worried, check out the beads that are strung to look like over sized bracelets. These worry beads are another Greek staple that’s well worth the enjoyment.

Evil Eyes
Pillows with the Evil Eye motif in a store on Adrianou Street.
Evil Eyes
Helen’s store is full of Evil Eye jewelry to ward off any evil spirits.
Adrianou Street
Adrianou Street holds store after store of Greek souvenirs.

The best place to get your evil eye swag is at Helen’s which is just in front of Hermion. Check out this old school shop for all kinds of fun stuff to bring home and share. I’ve gone year after year and always have a great time visiting the owner. For more modern inceptions of the evil eye, check out the shops along Adrianou Street.

Plaka shopping
Our great friend Helen in her flagship store.

The Acropolis

While not the crowning achievement of the Ancient Greeks, the Acropolis is certainly the most famous of all the marble piles. Tackling a visit to the City on the Hill can be quite daunting without a little preparation. There are three distinct places to visit to take in the whole story: The Acropolis, The Agora, and The New Museum.

Parthenon
In front of the Parthenon (that’s the building) at the Acropolis (that’s the hill top complex) as it continues its never ending restoration.

Honestly, I don’t think that there is any right way or correct order in which to visit the sites. The museum does a great job telling the age old story. Then again, the Agora does a fabulous job of explaining ancient daily life. Of course, the climb is so iconic that you may not want to wait. See what I mean?

Know the Controversy

If there was one thing to make sure you know before going to Acropolis, it would be the story of the Parthenon Marbles. Known also as the Elgin Marbles, this group of friezes from the Acropolis. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Way back in 1801, Lord Elgin asked the ruling Ottoman government if he could have his pick of the ruins on top of the Acropolis. The government said okay and he took what he wanted including 75 meters of the frieze. That seemed to be the end of it. Fast forward to post WWII Greece.

The Acropolis Museum
Sitting on the overlay at the entrance of the museum where ancient ruins continue to be discovered.
Acropolis Museum
An active archaeological site, the museum continues to learn about the daily lives of ancient ancestors.

The modern and current government feels that the marbles were taken under incorrect circumstances and would like them returned. England is not a fan of this idea since the marbles take center stage in London. There are many twists and turns in this story and it is well worth researching. It will also explain the empty floor at the Acropolis Museum.

Night time with the Acropolis
Night time falls over the Plaka and the Acropolis.

Make The Climb

It’s hot and dry in Athens during the Summer but don’t let that deter you from planting your feet high above the modern skyline. Here, at the top of one of the seven hills (just like Rome) that surround Athens. Stop. Take it all in. Take in this crowning glory of ancient times. Walk around the Parthenon and examine the massive columns. Envision that great goddess Athena in all her glory filling the space inside. Study the intricate copies of the Caryatids that have held up the porch of the Erechtheion opposite the temple. Check in with the restoration projects to see how they are holding back the erosion of time. It’s an overwhelming moment for any traveler.

Acropolis gate
Climbing up through the gates of the Acropolis.

Last, walk out to the Greek flag. Here, learn the story of Konstantinos Koukidis and why he is so important to modern Greece. Be sure to also view the amphitheater and the main gate to get a full feel of what this hilltop must have been like in its prime. I would say that climbing to the top is a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s the Summer heat that will do you in more than the hike.

Caryatids
The graceful Caryatids. and yes, even with all of the visitors, you can still get moments to take amazing pictures.

On your way down, be sure to seek out a moment to climb the stairs to the rock where St. Paul talked to the Athenians. As in “a letter from St. Paul to the Athenians”. Yes, those passages in the Bible happen right at the foot of Athena’s home turf. Whether you are interested in religion or not, the stop is an interesting one to pause and think of time in terms centuries and millenia. It’s just astounding.

St. Paul's site
Standing in the Saint’s footsteps…I am humbled.

Get Out Of Town!

Athens is full of amazing sites and treasures. Just ride the subway to see that even when you are getting from point A to point B, you will run in to museum quality antiquities. Between the Evzones and stunning churches, and even a hilltop observatory, Athens has plenty to keep any traveler busy. I know it’s tempting to check as many museums as possible off your list and if that’s your thing, check away! But, if you are like most, you are probably wanting to balance ancient ruins with bougainvillea covered tavernas that overlook dreamy sea views.

Plaka shopping.
My mom and I shop in an olive wood store in the Plaka. Check out the clear floor which enables you to see ancient ruins.

If that’s your idea of fun, head south to catch the ferry to Hydra. This little, traffic free island has all the charm you can take. Enjoy the people watching and browse the little shops. Greece will not leave you wanting in the souvenir department. Most of all, pull up a chair. Order a drink and something delicious. Relax. Enjoy. You’re in Greece!

Donkeys on Hydra
Rush hour on Hydra.

Another amazing side trip is to set your sights north toward a town called Meteora. World renown for it’s monasteries that are sky high, this little corner of the world is quite magical. Tour one of the monasteries and then enjoy the little downtown tavernas in the evening. This is a side of Greece that rarely get seen by the first time visitor.

offering candles
Offer up a candle anywhere in Greece.

If you plan to include the Greek Islands in your travels, check out our amazing post about seeing them here!

Where We Went: Travel To Athens

Greek interactive map
Travel Dreaming

Travel To Bruges

So very many people ask me about travel. And, I have to say, probably the most common question I get is “where should I go first?” I always answer with “the place you are hoping I will say!” More often than not, when prospective travelers really, truly think about it, they know what they want to do before they even ask. However, my inner traveler wants to scream “travel to Bruges!” Why? It’s very simple, Bruges is the perfect example of everything that travelers are looking for in Europe.

Europe 101.

If someone were to make a checklist for the beginning traveler, Bruges would encompass the entire thing. Looking for charming streets? Got it! Interested in regional cuisine? Yup! Obsessed with art and history? Bruges delivers! While there may be no royals in residence, there are even castles to stay in. It literally has a little sprinkling of every fairy tale aspect that we work to discover as we travel throughout Europe. Quite simply, it’s the perfect first steps into global literacy.

It smells like chocolate and waffles here.

Getting the lay of the land in Bruges is quite simple. The entire city center revolves around the main square with the bell tower. It’s an easy enough landmark that allows you to wander then simply walk back toward this tallest structure in town to meander your way back. While strolling along the cobble stoned streets is lovely, I suggest arranging for bicycles to really enjoy all that Bruges has to offer.

Probably the most telling sign that you are close to the city center though is the smell. And what a smell it is! It seems as if the entire town smells just like the two local favorites: waffles and chocolate! I love a city that literally comes with a daily reminder to dig in to the local food scene.

Is that music I hear?

Right in the middle of all of these quintessentially Belgian treasures, stands the town’s bell tower. Bruges’ bell tower hold a unique musical instrument called a carillon. Basically, a carillon allows a musician to “play” the tower’s bells like a piano. By striking the keys, the player rings a connected bell and adds to its tune. There are two ways to enjoy the concert of the carillon. The first is to enter the courtyard of the bell tower and listen at the posted times from benches provided. The second, and by far my favorite, is to find out when the bells will play and listen to the concert while enjoying a meal at one of the many restaurants that ring this lovely square.

And they got it back.

One of the most interesting and fascination objects in Bruges is Michaelangelo’s Virgin and Child. More famously know as the Bruges Madonna. Located in __ church, this was the only work the great master allowed to leave his beloved Italy during his lifetime. It’s certainly a masterpiece. However, much like the Mona Lisa, the Bruges Madonna, found itself far more famous after it was essentially kidnapped.

You may have seen the story of the Bruges Madonna in the great movie, Monuments Men. Basically, the Nazi’s were after all of the art they could get their hands on. That included the beautiful Madonna. Thanks to some brave military men, the masterpiece is right back where it belongs for all of us to enjoy. Find the Virgin and Child inside The Church of Our Lady. It happens to hold more art and history along with the sculpture. A Bruges must.

No, wait! That’s even prettier!

Sometimes the prerequisite boat tour of a town is far more underwhelming than it is helpful and charming. I can think of so many towns where a canal boat ride is such a waste of time. Bruges is not one of them. The medieval town has preserved its canal system and has taken it from industrial waterway to a dreamy movie set complete with weeping willows and majestic swans. Boat rides pick up at various points around the city center and are narrated in a few different languages. Have your camera ready! You need to be prepared because around every corner is yet another postcard perfect shot.

Bruges canals
Bruges canals
An eco sculpture of a whale on the canal
Swans on the Bruges Canals
On the Bruges canals

Deep in Bruges history…

Tucked into the corner of the Burg Square, The Basilica of The Holy Blood is a different kind of church experience. This dark and small Romanesque church is a refreshing change from the airy Gothic churches that dot Europe. With two chapels to explore and a connection to The Crusades, it’s well worth the stop.

Originally named St. Basil’s, the church was renamed due to its holy relic, a piece from the Crown of Thorns. Enjoy the tapestries, carvings, and well restored paintings that are found in both chapels.

Basilica of the Holy Blood
The upper chapel

A walk through history.

Back out on the main square is a very interesting attraction called the Historium. Here, you can immerse yourself back in time as you discover the history of a famous painting by local legend, Jan van Eyck. The audio guide takes you through room after room as the story unfolds and you learn more about Bruges and art.

I’m not normally a fan of these kinds of attractions but this one is worth it. It’s an interesting way to get kids to look at art as more than old stuff. Additionally, It gives a good overview to why Bruges was so important and why it seems to be stuck in time.

Playing dress up at the historium
One of the many lovely buildings on Market square in Bruges

Blowing in the wind.

Much like its neighbor, The Netherlands, Belgium has long relied on the windmill to accomplish tasks in daily life. The best way to get out and see the 23 remaining windmills in Bruges is to get those bikes out. Start at the St. Janshuys Windmill to get a good understanding of the mechanics then enjoy the others that dot the town’s old moat.

A typical windmill of the region.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s SO much more!

Travel to Bruges is filled with interesting moments around every single bend. From the lace making to the chocolate making, there is something for everyone. Eat fries and chocolate and waffles and mussels and… well you get the picture. There are plenty of good art museums as well as ruins to explore and Belgian beer to drink. Expect Bruges to please every finicky traveler on your manifest!

Enchanting signs hang all over Bruges.
Mussels are a popular dish served in Belgium.
Lace was a powerful industry here and part of the town's history.
At Blind Donkey Alley