Life

Adventures in Michigan: Holland, Saugatuck, and Grand Rapids

Ah, vacation season! You've finally arrived!

Andrew and I have been calling 2018 "Do Everything Year," because we are literally doing all the things. We're (mostly) out of the ickiness that characterized the early part of our marriage. We're pre-kids. We're young and our expenses are manageable. No time like the present, right?

In planning our 2018 getaways, we didn't fully consider the big picture in regards to scheduling. Our vacations were scheduled for late June/early July, late August, and mid September. So for the first half of the year, we waited and waited and waited to get to this point! Now that we're finally here, we basically get to party for 3 months. Birthday Month (August) and Love Month (September) are already month-long celebrations in our family, and now we get to add Vacation Season into the mix! HUZZAH!

Our first vacation was a family trip to Western Michigan with Andrew's immediate family, coordinated by the world's best in-laws. Seriously, friends, I won the lottery when I married an incredible man, and as a bonus, he came with delightful parents. They sought out the family lodgings, and we ended up staying on the north side of Holland in a big lake-side vacation rental. 

The views were glorious.

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Also, this was our first trip with our brand new mirrorless camera, and thus we have even more photos than we would usually have of said glorious views!

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We happened to be vacationing in a heat wave, which is unusual for the Holland area. Temps were in the 90s most of the time, and the house didn't have AC outside of a spare window unit or two. Eeek! Regardless, we managed to have a lovely time, enjoy the scenery, and explore the surprisingly abundant offerings of Holland, Saugatuck, and Grand Rapids. 

Holland, Michigan

If you like to be on the water, Holland is for you. There are plenty of opportunities to get active out on Lake Macatawa: paddle boarding, jet skiing, boating, tubing, and fishing to name a few. And just down the road, you can go to the beach and pretend you're looking at the ocean. Lake Michigan is certainly big enough to mimic a coastal beach environment! There are ice cream stands, hot dog shacks, and everything you might expect to find in close proximity to a beach. We enjoyed walking down to the General Store for some seriously yummy--albeit melty--ice cream with cousins and kids in tow.

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Alas, Andrew and I aren't beach people. I don't like being hot, and water creatures freak me out. Andrew also hates being hot, and prefers to be more active on vacation. But even with the beach and water activities out the window, we were not at a loss for things to do and see in Holland. The farmer's market is impressive, packed with great local produce and a surprising number of vendors. The downtown area is charming, lined with fun shops and restaurants in a compact, walkable area.

Our favorite downtown Holland find was Cherry Republic, a regional store connected with a farm that sells a bunch of products inspired by Andrew's favorite fruit. The original cherry salsa is a game-changer, and if you don't believe me, you can taste-test it in the retail store along with many other delectable goods like chocolate covered cherries, cherry barbecue sauce, and yes, cherry wines. But back to the salsa. Buy the salsa. Buy a jar, then buy a second and third jar to hide from your loved ones, because this stuff won't last long! 

By divine intervention, a delicious Dutch bakery had a location right down the road from our vacation rental, and people. Listen. The cake donuts and muffins were phenomenal. Ignore the regular donuts, they were mediocre. But the cake donuts and the muffins in flavors like lemon pistashio, cranberry orange, raspberry...oh goodness. I'm drooling. In fact, they were so good that I have zero photos to evidence the pastry feasting that occurred on multiple occasions. We ate them too quickly to even stop and consider taking a picture. Just go to Deboer Bakkerij and try the goodies for yourself. They also offer a full sit-down breakfast menu!

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The Dutch influence in Holland is hard to miss. The city was founded by Dutch Americans, and the remnants of that history are evident today. Almost everything in Holland shuts down on Sundays, for example. The Tulip Festival is legendary, and we hope to get up north for that some day. But year-round, attractions like Nelis' Dutch Village remind you that yes, indeed, you are in a town with Dutch history, and darn it, you will immerse yourself in it!

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Dutch Village is hard to explain. It's a kid-friendly attraction plopped down in a strip mall parking lot that attempts to recreate the ambiance of an actual Dutch Village. The result is something campy and touristy, but also weirdly charming and fun for young kids. Andrew and I visited entirely because of peer pressure, and with a good deal of reluctance--Dutch Village is not our normal vacation pit stop. But regardless, we had a fun time running around with our niece and nephew. The all-inclusive entry fee is stellar because you can hop on rides as many times as you want without juggling tickets or paying per ride.

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Dutch Village also features a petting zoo, including terrified bunnies who are daily harassed by toddlers. Poor lil bunnies. They're also for sale, which means a bunny could be permanently and irrevocably abducted by a not-so-gentle toddler! I wouldn't wish that sort of life upon any of the animals present, chickens and llamas included, but the kids love the animals. And I got my bunny snuggles in, too. Here's a photo of me trying to instill a particularly frightened bunny with telepathic vibes of calm and false safety.

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So, if you're looking for a place to let the kids run wild, ride a carousel, pet a bunny, or buy a custom pair of Dutch wooden shoes with your name burned into them, there you have it! Dutch Village has the whole package.

Saugatuck, Michigan

About 15 minutes south of Holland is Saugatuck, a teeny little lakeside town with an artsy vibe and a walkable shopping/gallery district. I cannot overstate how tiny this town is. You can easily walk the full shopping area in half a day, with plenty of time to wander and peruse the goods. There were a lot of B&B's and inns scattered around the town, which left us scratching our heads. Perhaps some people do spend more than half a day in Saugatuck.

We started our morning in Saugatuck at Grow, a cafe I selected in advance thanks to good ol' Google. 

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Our breakfast was so good that we went back to the restaurant a few hours later to grab a lavender lemonade, which was also delightful. We shared the off-menu daily special (smoked fish salad with pickled eggs, crudite, and crostini) as well as the carrot cake pancakes. The pancakes were good, but the smoked fish was downright heavenly. 

The service was excellent, our particular server was attentive and knowledgable, and we had an all-around fantastic experience. In the name of review integrity, I have to tell you that the patio chairs wreaked havoc on both of our backs. We actually went to the car, retrieved our ground camp chairs, and nestled them into the patio chairs to improve the experience. Never before have I loathed a chair that much. Uncomfortable seating aside, though, we would certainly return to Grow in the future.

The rest of our morning in Saugatuck was spent wandering the shops and art galleries. We didn't find anything that we actually wanted to buy, although we nearly walked away with some goodies from American Spoon, a gourmet grocer with tempting samples available for tasting. In general, the collection of shops and galleries in Saugatuck seemed scattered and random. It was a fun little day trip experience, but not the sort of place I'd want to stay for days at a time.

We wrapped up our time in Saugatuck with a large group lunch at Coral Gables, a large restaurant with a nice waterfront patio. The menu was basic, but the food was tasty and simple dishes like a veggie wrap had creative touches that were pleasantly surprising. Traditional American diners will be pleased with the gargantuan portion sizes. 

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Oh, Grand Rapids. What an unexpected delight you were!

Long before we actually left home for vacation, Andrew and I planned a half-day date excursion into Grand Raids, an easy 35-minute drive from Holland. We originally planned to go the botanical gardens, but it was a zillion degrees, so we opted for an indoor eating marathon instead. 

Our Google research helped us to hone in on the East Hills neighborhood for an afternoon and evening of foodie heaven. The neighborhood was lovely, walkable, and home to some of truly fantastic culinary finds.

We started the afternoon with a late lunch at The Electric Cheetah. This restaurant is officially my dining establishment spirit animal.

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For starters, the entire menu is Hamilton-themed, and bursting with so many references that I photographed the whole dang thing in stupid amounts of detail. 

Exhibit A:

Work! 

The kitchen specializes in craft root beer and mac and cheese. I mean, who came up with that combination? Weirdly, it works. We sampled two varieties of root beer and ordered "The Brothers Mac and Cheese Plate" per our server's thorough recommendation. Everything we consumed was magic, particularly the mac and cheese. 

In case you aren't sold yet, there's an unexplained Karate Kid reference on the back wall of the restaurant.

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And because the owners of this place are about as fun as humanly possible, there's a sandwich on the menu called The Yahtzee. When you're finished with your meal, a server delivers dice to your table on a tray. If you get a Yahtzee in three rolls, you can shout YAHTZEE! super loud and get your sandwich free of charge.

Ah! I miss the place already. 

From there, we wandered up to Lake Drive for a digestive respite. Le Bon Macaron was fine. The tea was fine, the atmosphere was fine. We didn't go for the macarons, so I can't speak to those. But after visiting The Electric Cheetah, something about the place left us feeling a little "meh." I probably wouldn't return unless I was really hankering for a place to sit down and drink tea pronto.

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Now that I'm spelling out this afternoon in Grand Rapids in writing, it sounds positively gluttonous, but I will press on regardless. From tea we walked next door to Brewery Vivant. Evidently, Grand Rapids has a CRAZY craft beer scene. There are microbreweries and pubs on every block, and the city has lovingly adopted the nickname "Beer City, USA." Founders is actually based out of Grand Rapids. Who knew, right?

Brewery Vivant piqued our interest for a few reasons. First, the beer reputation. Second, the food reputation. And third, the bar and dining area housed inside of an old chapel. The result is a warm, inviting neighborhood pub that just may be the grown-up (I mean, real?) version of the Great Hall in Harry Potter. Andrew and I both felt that we could've stayed there all day, eaten ourselves into blissful oblivion, and probably made a bunch of new friends amongst the local patrons.

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The menu was tempting on multiple counts. Since we had dinner reservations in a couple hours, we skipped the duck nachos, but obviously those would be worth a try! Instead, we opted for dessert and an appetizer from the seasonal menu: strawberry shortcake with grilled berries and a sweet biscuit, and the "bread and butter" platter with bone marrow herb butter, tart berry jam, and house-made spent grain bread.

Though the presentation left something to be desired, the food was excellent. I considered ordering a second round of strawberry shortcake because the biscuit was so tasty. And yep, you saw that right -- that's a photo of a demolished bread and butter plate, because again, too good to remember to photograph in advance. 

We also created our own beer flight, which allowed us to sample four of the brewery's finest. I loved the Tropical Saison, and Andrew, for some reason, was charmed by a limited seasonal release: rhe Blackberry Tart Side. Sours are definitely not my thing, but kudos to Vivant for pleasing my husband's selective palate.

We very nearly cancelled our dinner reservations and stayed put in the comfort of the hall, but our curiosity for dinner won out in the end. Keep doing your thing, Brewery Vivant. We'll definitely be back soon.

Grove is part of a Grand Rapids restaurant group called Essence that quickly rose to the top of our foodie dining list. Though the other restaurants were tempting, we elected to visit Grove because of a seasonally-inspired, creative American menu, and the option to order from a separate vegetarian menu was refreshing in that region. 

The flexibility of the menu was fun. We created our own tasting menu of smaller plates, sampling items from both the regular and vegetarian menus, and the resulting meal was a culinary adventure. We were both uncomfortably stuffed by the time we were done--to be expected with the food marathon we knowingly embarked upon--but we also finished the meal feeling immensely satisfied.

The vegetable carpaccio was appropriately light and refreshing for the hot outdoor temps. Yellow watermelon paired well with tomato tartare, ricotta vinaigrette, and herb tuille. Plus, the presentation was gorgeous. 

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The pea cheesecake was next, and it was the star of the show. Our waitress struggled to describe the dish when we asked about it, but after trying it, the dish title really is all you need. Imagine a savory cheesecake made from whipped pea puree and an everything bagel crust. It was unique, it was light, it was seasonal, and we loved everything about it. Perfection.

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From there, things got heavy. The duck egg raviolo was too tempting to ignore when perusing the menu, but unfortunately, the description was such that we weren't expecting it to be deep-fried. And deep-fried it was! Imagine a 3x5" ravioli deep-fried in duck fat, and then stuffed with a fried duck egg. Yummy? Of course. How could that not taste good? But it was also stupid and unnecessarily heavy. Why do so many chefs insist on frying things? Food tastes good without frying it. Cut it out, yo! I prefer to eat good stuff without destroying my insides.

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Alas, we ate the veggie hand pies with mushrooms after the duck egg raviolo, when we were just about ready to explode. That was a darn shame, too, because the hand pies were right up there with the pea cheescake. Presented with ramps, sauerkraut, maitake (mushroom) ketchup, and chili crema, this dish was surprising and packed a major flavor punch with every bite. Even after I felt that I could not possibly eat another bite of the hand pie itself, I couldn't refrain from eating sauerkraut smothered in the maitake ketchup and chili crema. The combination was absolutely genius. I mean, mushroom ketchup? Amazing.

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All in all, I wish we could have eaten in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids for an entire week. My belly limitations were irritating with such interesting and widespread culinary options laid out before us. Literally, all in one spot. Though we managed to cram three meals into six hours, we barely scratched the surface; we have yet to sample the goods at Cherie Inn, Furniture City Creamery, Maru Sushi, or the Green Well Gastropub, all on the same stinking block as Grove and Brewery Vivent! Man oh man. East Hills, you have captured my heart!

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Kudos, Michigan. You surprised us! In particular, Grand Rapids is a great spot for the beer connoisseurs and foodie adventurers our there. Gas and food prices were a tad high compared to St. Louis, but other than that, Western Michigan offers an affordable, fun vacation spot that can probably keep just about anyone happy. 

Stay tuned for upcoming travel reviews of New York City, Paris, Dijon, Strasbourg, and Lucerne. Cheers to "Do Everything Year"! 

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

I debated about whether or not I should write this post. The title and content inherently scream 'rant,' and that's truly not my jam. I don't want to eat up blog space with that sort of negative content, whining about whatever is bugging me the most in any given moment. There's plenty of that to go around already. 

But feelings aside, it is objectively true that I run into a lot of professional obstacles because people simply don't understand what it's like to be self-employed, especially as a creative. In an effort to educate, be vulnerable, and explain some of my most frequent professional and personal decisions, I created the list that follows.

From my experience as a self-employed writer and career communication coach, these are the 5 most important and misunderstood realities of self-employment. These are the the most abused characteristics of my professional life, the things I so wish I could get you to grasp in our daily interactions as friends, family members, acquaintances, or strangers. I hope that the items listed will challenge your existing perspective on self-employed professionals, and help to improve your relationships with others who share my professional status.  

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

Photo by  Laura Ockel  on  Unsplash

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

 

1. Routine is vital, especially for creative work. 

Being self-employed requires a great deal of self-discipline. I am CEO and worker bee, Marketing Director and Writer, HR Director and Finance Director. I am personally responsible for balancing every single aspect of my work, and as a result, I wear a bunch of different--and competing--hats on a daily basis.

On top of that, creative work has its own set of rules, and there are unique challenges that come along with it. The capacity for creative work comes from a different internal space than more straightforward tasks like running data in a spreadsheet, or drafting emails. The effort to produce creative work requires a crap-ton of intellectual and emotional fuel, especially at the beginning of a writing session. This was earth-shattering for me at the beginning of my writing journey. I was totally caught off-guard by the fact that creative work takes so much fuel. 

Both of these issues--multiple hats and the nature of creative energy--are most easily managed by a consistent daily routine. I work from home, and am surrounded by my personal to-do list every time I get up to use the restroom or get a snack from the kitchen. I see errands that need to be run, and laundry that needs to be washed. Routine keeps me focused, productive, and more empowered to separate my professional and personal responsibilities. 

When I wake up, I put on my CEO hat and tackle strategy for big-bucket priorities. For the next couple of hours, I put on my Consultant hat, making sure my clients' needs are met with excellence. If client work is slow, I put on my Marketing Director hat to develop communication plans, blog about my services, and share success stories. I do what I can to identify new clients, and reach out to new people whom I believe I can provide a meaningful service for.

After lunch, every single day, I put on my Writer hat. As much as I want to fight it because the work is challenging and vulnerable, I sit my butt in my office chair and make myself write. And at that time, every day, by body recognizes that it's time to write. The creative mind 'wakes up' and responds naturally. When I start writing at the same time every day, the hardest part is over, and the words flow freely. Some days are better than others, but the consistency of sitting down to write at the same time every day is huge. 

Disruptions that seem minor--like a doctor's appointment at 1:30 PM--are anything but minor. Trying to write at a different time of day is like trying to push a semi truck uphill, by myself. The next day, when I have no disruptions, my body is not in its usual rhythm. It requires a great deal more effort to get the creative wheels turning, to 'reset the machine,' so to speak. 

That effect is multiplied for larger routine disruptions like vacations. Being away for several days creates an avalanche of mental clutter that I have to clear out upon my return. On top of the time spent away from my desk, I lose a significant percentage of my returning productive time because it takes so much effort to reset the clock. It's true that commitments like doctor's appointments and vacations are inherently good things--of course they are! But that doesn't change the impact that these appointments have, so it is absolutely fair to name them as disruptions for my professional routine. 

2. Professional self-worth is a constant challenge.

The world sends me constant messages that my work is invalid because I haven't sold a book yet, or don't make a certain amount of money each year. We'll explore that more in Item #4. But on top of that, there are little voices in my head while I serve my clients or work on my novel, whispering lies about my professional identity:

You have nothing important to say.
You aren't really helping anyone.

You will never finish this book.
You have no idea what you're doing.
Nobody will ever buy this.
You are a terrible writer.
You are wasting your time. 

This is daily, people. Independent of anything you might say or do, I am already doubting my own professional self-worth. I have to fight the lies every day, and remind myself that the work I'm doing has a significant impact on the people I serve. I have to remind myself that writing touches lives in a way that is beautiful, and profoundly mysterious. It is a constant, uphill battle.  

As hard as it is to admit, your requests for me to ditch work for a few hours, or hop on an airplane and leave for a few days aren't helping. These requests imply, however unintentionally, that my job isn't a real job, and that it isn't as valid or valuable as someone else's. I can pick up and leave whenever I want. Yes, it is technically true that there is flexibility in my situation. But is it right to stop working whenever I want, just because I technically can? Isn't it good to pursue work that matters, to commit myself professionally, to hold myself to a certain number of work days each year like everyone else? 

This leads me right into my third point. 

3. I am at the top of everyone's daytime help list.

This is absolutely the hardest point for me to share with you, because I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I WANT TO HELP! I hope you'll keep that in mind as I explain.

I get a constant stream of completely legitimate requests for my time, ranging from a couple of hours to a full day. I am at the top of everyone's list, because I am flexible, technically available most of the time, and I don't have young children at home.

These requests span a variety of needs:

  • Babysitting
  • Rides to the airport
  • Hanging out at your house to meet contractors or deliveries
  • Dropping you off at the auto shop, then taking you home, then bringing you back later
  • Providing emotional support on a hard day

Well-meaning friends often ask me for my time during the day, frequently for a commitment spanning half a day of work including travel time. As I mentioned above, the hardest part is that I WANT TO HELP! The requests are coming from you, after all--a friend, a loved one, someone I desire to support and serve. But I also have a job, and these requests do--however unintentionally--imply that my work is less important than your current need. Where do I draw the line? At what point do I say 'no' to protect my professional self-worth, and when do I set my work aside to serve others? 

This is a balancing act that I have yet to master. I have no idea how to get it down to a system without feeling like a selfish jerk most of the time. But for now, until I figure it out, I practice saying 'no' a lot. I say 'no' because I get too many of these requests, and I just can't manage them all. I say 'no' because routine is vital, and professional self-worth is a daily challenge. You may see a massive blank-spot in my schedule because I'm not accountable to a traditional supervisor, but that isn't the case. I'm accountable to myself, and to my work, just as much as anyone else is. My husband goes to an office every day and works his tail off so that I can stay home and do what I love. I have a responsibility to him, too, to honor his sacrifice and not waste the opportunity he gives me every day.

The best advice I can give you is to be specific--give me all of the details when you ask for my help, including the specific time range, why you need help, and what you expect of me. In the case of an emergency or extenuating circumstance, I'm more likely to say yes. But you have to tell me that's the case in order for me to know. I am not a mind reader, and I cannot meet every need that comes my way. 

Don't stop asking for help because you've read this, but don't assume I'll say yes because I work from home, either. Identify some other people to rotate through when you have a daytime, weekday need. Maybe acknowledge that my work matters, and that you realize you're asking me to give up something more than just time.

Above all, know that I care about you and your families, even when I say 'no.'

4. Success isn't measured by annual salary.

On occasion, people literally laugh when I tell them what I do. Others are more subtle in their disapproval and skepticism. I've had people follow up with, "Are you successful?" This is code for "But do you make money, and if so, how much?" I mean, think about that for a second! Imagine meeting someone at a cocktail party. You ask what she does, and she says she's an accountant. Is your follow-up going to be "Okay, but how much money do you make?" How do you think that would feel, on her end? Would you consider that approach to be polite, or respectful of her as a professional?

I know that many people don't understand the reality of creative work, or the value of it at all. I understand that many people are accustomed to working a 9-5, getting a regular paycheck with benefits, and having a certain number of PTO days. Everything is neat, orderly, and data-centric. My work is admittedly different, but that does not make it less valuable. There is no valid reason to be suspicious or disapproving of my profession as a creative. 

It all comes down to how we, as a culture, define and measure success. If you measure success by your paycheck, I'm so, so sorry. That is a narrow, shallow definition of success that leaves your professional self-worth and success dependent on the economic success of your employer. Instead, I try to define success more broadly--by the impact that I have on individual lives with my clients, and the future impact of the stories I write. I measure hours, effort, client satisfaction, and words on the page. 

You may not believe me to be successful--fair enough. But I would ask that you consider why you feel that way. What is it that makes you so determined to measure someone's professional value in dollar signs? What truths do you believe about yourself, about the people around you? I invite you to explore your own perception of identity, and at the very least, to assume the best when you do not understand someone else's job. Ask questions, and be curious. 

5. My work is just as challenging as yours, every day. 

Though the schedule and individual components are radically different, self-employment is just as challenging as a 9-5. These challenges are consistently present, and they are 100% real. 

Here's a quick summary of my greatest professional challenges, with some reiterations of the points above:

Self-Discipline
Doing my job every day, even though nobody is making me do it. When I'm tired, getting up early with no external accountability or appointments. Putting words on the page every day, even though I might never sell a book. 

Boundaries
Saying 'no' to laundry and errands, and 'yes' to my work. Sticking to a schedule, because my work is valuable. Saying 'no' to friends during the day, because eventually I have to get something done. Working a full day, even if my husband comes home early from work.

Isolation
Being alone most of the time, especially during the winter. Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder with the realities of working from home. Finding ways to be social and counter loneliness, without dramatically sacrificing my work time. 

Creative Energy
Understanding the realities of creative work, and how that energy is best fostered. Giving my creative mind what it needs in order to succeed. Being satisfied with 3 hours of creative work, because it takes a lot of fuel to make it happen. Balancing the reality of creativity with my desire to get a project done. Being patient as I learn to understand my creative self.

Self-Worth
Refusing to believe that I am defined by dollar signs. Daily affirming that my work is valuable, no matter what the world says. Charging a fair rate for my coaching services, and having the guts to charge friends or family members. 

Inconsistent Work Flow
Managing busy seasons of multiple clients, and adjusting to slower seasons. Identifying new clients, and maintaining a routine despite seasonal fluctuations. Setting goals when I can't predict how many clients I'll actually have. Budgeting for an unknown amount of work. 

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are challenges I'm not even aware of, or items I've forgotten to mention. The point isn't the specifics of each challenge, even--it's the fact that these challenges exist, and that they are significant. I'm not lazy, and I'm not sitting at home every day watching Netflix, even though I'm regularly tempted and able to do so. 

My work is not a playground. Yes, my work is fun, and I love what I do! But it's still work, and it's still broken, just like more traditional jobs. 

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I hope these points are illuminating for you. I hope you learned something, and that you came away with an understanding of self-employment that you didn't have previously. That said, this is absolutely not universally applicable to every self-employed person in the world! Don't assume that my perspective is the same as someone's else's. Instead, ask questions, get to know your self-employed friends, and challenge your own assumptions about their work.

Above all, let your self-employed friends--especially the creatives--know how much you value their work. Remind them know that their work matters, and that it's freaking awesome that they get to pursue something like fiction, photography, or dance. We need to hear it. We need to know that there are people out there who don't think we're foolish dreamers, wasting time and wasting space. 

We need people who are willing to read this blog post all the way through, who care enough to ask questions. Thanks for making it this far, my friend! If you have any follow-up thoughts or concerns, let me know in the comments below, or reach out directly

Food Lover's Guide to St. Louis

Happy Tuesday, my sweet friends.

First of all, I want to take a moment and acknowledge the overwhelming responses to the recent post about my history of abuse. Your words of encouragement and support have been a balm to my soul, and your stories of similar treatment and pain have moved me to tears. It is good to celebrate healing and to challenge abuse in all of its forms--thank you for walking that path alongside me, and for being a part of the conversation.

As the holidays are upon us and I find myself frequently indulging in seasonal treats, food has been on the brain (and in the belly) a lot. This week, I thought it would be fun to share a lighter post about exploring the dining scene in St. Louis.

The love language of my marriage is literally eating together--a specialized category of quality time, in my opinion. We can consistently be observed in the middle of a fantastic meal, when I take a bite of something delicious, make eye contact with Andrew mid-bite, and tearfully exclaim, "I just love you so MUCH!" 

Weird? Probably. But we love our personal brand of weird.  

Because of our great love of food and dining, Andrew and I have surveyed many of the wonderful culinary establishments in the area, and frequently find ourselves in a position where we are delivering dining recommendations to others.

Even though we're self-declared experts of eating in our city, this was a difficult guide to approach. Should I organize it by neighborhood, each with its own colorful personality and emphasis, or by type of cuisine? In the interest of time and in an effort to avoid writing a full-fledged St. Louis dining guidebook, there are good restaurants missing, and attributes that I've failed to list. Nonetheless, for locals and out-of-town visitors alike, my hope is that this guide will introduce you to a new gem in the St. Louis dining world, and that you will enjoy a bite of something scrumptious with a friend, family member, or foxy date. 

A few disclaimers:

  1. I do not claim to be the definitive expert on dining in St. Louis -- the guide below is purely opinion and experience-based. There are still many great St. Louis restaurants we have yet to visit. No need to get saucy about your neglected favorites or despised inclusions!
  2. I do not eat everything. You will find no steakhouses on this list, nor will you find many meat-centric options. 
  3. I value ambiance, service, and experience in addition to the quality of food offered. For example, especially in the fine dining category, if the service is overly stuffy, I generally don't remember the experience fondly. I appreciate it when servers are willing to smile, or heaven forbid laugh. Some fancier restaurants are not listed as a result.

Now that those warnings are taken care of...

Move over, Ian Froeb! Without further ado, I am proud to present...

The Food Lover's Guide to St. Louis

Here it is, my friends. My St. Louis favorites are below, divided into the following categories:

  • Sweets and Beverages -- there may be "real" food, but the treats are best
  • Ultra-Casual -- sweatpants permitted without substantial judgment
  • Casual-Classy -- no-fuss date night, jeans-friendly
  • Special Occasion -- get fancy and celebrate
     

Sweets and Beverages

Clementine's Naughty & Nice Creamery

Neighborhood: Lafayette Square and DeMun
Claim to fame: All-natural homemade ice cream, in boozy and regular varieties

Hannah's Take: Clementine's brings some seriously delicious competition to the ice cream scene in St. Louis. The creative concoctions--boozy ("naughty") and regular ("nice")--are made with the best ingredients, and no artificial crap, including dyes. In addition to their ice cream, they make their own whipped cream and waffle cones/bowls in house. Ice cream lovers, rejoice!

Nathaniel Reid Bakery

Neighborhood: East Kirkwood
Claim to fame: Internationally-acclaimed croissants, pastries, and happiness.

Hannah's Take: If you don't know who Nathaniel Reid is, you're going to thank me soon. This award-winning pastry chef won some serious accolades for his delectable, gorgeous treats, then decided to open an unassuming little strip-mall bakery in East Kirkwood. Go for literally anything that screams your name from the irresistibly gorgeous counter case, but don't miss the croissants. 

The London Tea Room

Neighborhood: Tower Grove South
Claim to fame: A rockin' loose-leaf tea selection in a decidedly English setting. 

Hannah's Take: An accessible, bright English tea shop actually owned and operated by honest-to-goodness Brits. The loose leaf tea selection is unparalleled in St. Louis--visit for a casual pot of tea in the storefront seating area, or book a reservation for high tea in the more formal dining room. Pastries, quiche, and lighter fare available. 

Gelateria Del Leone

Neighborhood: South Grand
Claim to fame: Thoughtful hot beverages and the creamiest gelato on earth.

Hannah's Take: Don't be fooled by the name--the Gelateria offers much more than delicious, creamy gelato. In addition to an impressive pastry selection, be sure to try a hot beverage. My order is always a London Fog--steamed milk, Earl Gray tea from the nearby London Tea Room, and a hint of vanilla. In good weather, the patio is divine.

The Cup

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Great cupcakes, and the world's best buttercream frosting

Hannah's Take: Seriously, the buttercream frosting is to die for. There are seasonal, rotating, and standard cupcake flavors available, and none will disappoint. The Cup has even been crowned as the official cupcake of the St. Louis Cardinals--what more do you need to know? They've even added delivery service. You don't even have to leave the house, so your excuses not to try The Cup are down to zero. 

Handcrafted by Bissinger's

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Handmade chocolates including caramels, truffles, and creams--oh my!

Hannah's Take: Though they've recently expanded to a full cafe menu in the Central West End, the chocolate is still what shines the most. Try a truffle, caramel, and cream for a good sampling, and don't miss the more expansive dine-in dessert menu offered exclusively in the evening.

Vincent Van Donut

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Inventive, delicious donuts

Hannah's Take: Only Clayton could house a donut shop with such flair. These uniquely square treats are ultra-decadent, and not for the feint of heart. Rumor has it that they also make homemade poptarts, but you have to get there crazy early to snag them! I have yet to try one. Instead, we go for regular donut varieties like the cookies and cream, or blueberry cheesecake.

Pint Size Bakery

Neighborhood: Northampton
Claim to fame: Seriously delicious, inventive, gorgeous baked goods.

Hannah's Take: Pint Size is a recent discovery for us, and Andrew and I are both obsessed. After reviewing their holiday goodies menu, we immediately texted Andrew's mom and said, "Umm, can we please bring dessert for Christmas?" So far, I'm convinced you can't go wrong here, but try the salted caramel croissant or a hand pie for a delectable treat!

Ultra-Casual

Andrew's Pizza Pick: Pi Pizzeria

Neighborhood: Multiple including The Loop, Kirkwood, Downtown, Central West End
Claim to fame: Pizza nested in a deep-dish cornmeal crust.

Hannah's Take: I don't really understand everyone's obsession with Pi. That might have something to do with the fact that it took me several years to try it out, and people raved about it constantly until I finally tried it. I was underwhelmed, but Andrew still insists that Pi is his favorite pizza in town. Give it a try and decide for yourself!

Hannah's Pizza Pick: Blackthorn Pub

Neighborhood: Tower Gove South
Claim to fame: A pizza on top of a pizza, with the city's best sauce.

Hannah's Take: Blackthorn Pub is definitely the weird uncle of the STL pizza scene. It's a dive bar in Tower Grove South, with dollar bills taped all over the walls and ceilings. They have one oven, limited pizza toppings, and less-than-awesome customer service. But the pizza sauce is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of heat, and the pie is essentially a pizza on top of another pizza--double cheese, double toppings. Call ahead--wait times can exceed an hour, but the pizza is worth the effort. 

Pho Long

Neighborhood: Olivette
Claim to fame: Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup you never knew you needed.

Hannah's Take: If you've never tried pho, you are missing out! Enjoy a warm, flavorful, satisfying noodle soup with varieties for every diet. If you're like us and tend to be more flexible in your restrictions, try our personal favorite: the vegetarian pho with tofu, swapping in the beef broth from the classic house pho. 

Colleen's Cookies

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Baked goodies and an impressive menu in a neighborhood cafe setting.

Hannah's Take: Colleen's is an absolute gem. Their baked goods selection is overwhelming, but you can't go wrong no matter what you choose. The cafe menu has expanded over the years, offering a great--albeit random--selection of breakfast and lunch items, including some wonderful homemade biscuits. There's some patio seating out front, and the staff are all warm and welcoming. You'll feel right at home!

Salt + Smoke

Neighborhood: The Loop and Southhampton
Claim to fame: Texas-style BBQ and thoughtful sides.

Hannah's Take: The trashed wings alone are worth a stop at Salt + Smoke. I can't attest to many of the center stage meat options, but this BBQ joint definitely knows its stuff. Don't miss the surprisingly inventive side dishes, like the white cheddar cracker mac. 

Sweet Art

Neighborhood: Shaw
Claim to fame: Vegetarian and vegan fare, including bakery goodies.

Hannah's Take: I'm 150,000% certain that Sweet Art makes the most flavorful, amazing veggie burger that I will ever eat in my life. Try the "Make it Funky" for an extra good survey of what they have to offer. The kale salad is a worthy and surprising compliment to the main entrees, and no stop is complete without a cupcake--vegan or regular. Breakfast is good, too. Everything is good. Just go. 

Like Home

Neighborhood: Grand Center/SLU
Claim to fame: French cuisine made by actual French people!

Hannah's Take: If you aren't charmed by this place, there is simply no hope for you. Run by a young French woman and her mother, this cafe offers fresh, quality French dishes and pastries in an adorably homey corner cafe. Mind the operating hours--the schedule can change seasonally. 

Zen Thai & Japanese Cuisine

Neighborhood: Crestwood
Claim to fame: Cheap, authentic Thai food with bonus sushi.

Hannah's Take: Tucked back in a strip mall with Aldi, this hole-in-the-wall restaurant is easy to miss. During my undergrad, a Thai professor brought our class to this restaurant for an authentic Thai food experience. You simply will not believe how good the lunch deals are on weekdays, but even outside of those times, the food is reasonably priced and well-prepared. 

The Mud House

Neighborhood: Cherokee
Claim to fame: Hipster-friendly cafe fare that doesn't disappoint.

Hannah's Take: The Mud House is bittersweet for me because it's so excruciatingly busy on the weekends, but still absolutely worth a visit. Go during the week if your schedule allows. Breakfast and lunch dishes are consistently fantastic, as are the beverages and baked goods. If you can snag a table in nice weather, the back patio is glorious. Don't miss the chocolate chip cookie, my favorite in the entire city (thus far)!

Seoul Taco

Neighborhood: The Loop, and wherever the food truck is
Claim to fame: Korean-Mexican fusion, on the cheap.

Hannah's Take: My first experience with Seoul Taco was their food truck--I had a taco, and it was not super noteworthy. I later visited and ordered a chicken burrito, and I have been singing the praises of Seoul Taco ever since. Don't underestimate the heat, or overlook the restaurant for the simplicity of the menu. A cheap, delicious burrito awaits! 

Benton Park Cafe

Neighborhood: Benton Park (duh)
Claim to fame: All-day breakfast and diner-style fare, except way better.

Hannah's Take: Also excruciatingly busy on the weekends--especially in the AM--Benton Park Cafe offers diner-style American fare that is a step-up from your average diner. The food maintains the fatty-indulgence of a traditional diner (ie: the McGrittl This, a pancake sandwich with eggs and sausage in the middle), but with some quality alternatives and good ingredients. Don't miss the breakfast potatoes, best enjoyed with a little sriracha or hot sauce.

Kounter Kulture

Neighborhood: Northampton
Claim to fame: Carry-out spot with incredible Asian-inspired fare. 

Hannah's Take: Another recent find for us, Kounter Kulture is a delightful surprise. They offer no indoor seating, but what they do offer is an outrageously yummy take on sweet buns--basically a gigantic taco wrapped in a massive sweet bun, filled to the brim with slow-roasted pork, tofu, or spiced catfish. There's other stuff on the menu, but why would you not order a sweet bun taco?!? The service is incredible, especially given that this is just a carry-out joint. You will not be disappointed. 

Casual-Classy

Taste

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Craft cocktails and delectable small bites.

Hannah's Take: When you mostly want a craft cocktail but also want some quality small plates, Taste is the place for you. Everything that Gerard Craft touches turns to culinary gold, so have no fear--for the non-locals, just take my word on this one. 

The Fountain on Locust

Neighborhood: Midtown/Grand Center
Claim to fame: Ice cream and soda fountain in a hand-painted art deco setting. 

Hannah's Take: The specialty ice creams desserts are well-known, but the food is just as delicious at this Midtown gem. Try the dill pickle soup for something unique and, frankly, magical. Obviously don't skip dessert--the ice cream is sourced from a dairy in Wisconsin, the only one known to age their ice cream. All toppings and sauces are made in-house.

Element

Neighborhood: Lafayette Square
Claim to fame: New American fare with a killer view of downtown.

Hannah's Take: We've visited Element several times, and the food seems to improve with every visit. The setting, of course, is impossible to beat--enjoy a rooftop bar overlooking downtown St. Louis. While you're there, check out the view of Climb So Ill, the city's go-to rock climbing gym housed in the same building. 

Prasino

Neighborhood: St. Charles
Claim to fame: Actually delicious food, west of 270. 

Hannah's Take: If you suddenly find yourself west of 270 and surrounded by fast-casual chain restaurants, don't panic! Prasino in St. Charles provides a welcome relief from the tragic, far-west county dining scene. Offering "craft New American cuisine," lunch and dinner at Prasino are great, but brunch is the real standout. Don't miss the truffled potatoes!

Russell's on Macklind

Neighborhood: Southhampton
Claim to fame: Neighborhood favorite with stellar local fare. 

Hannah's Take: Whether it's a breakfast pizza, gooey butter cake, pulled pork sandwich, or a simple salad and sandwich combo, Russell's knows how to dish out good food. They get crazy on the weekends, and the patio fills up fast in good weather, but this neighborhood favorite is still well worth your time. 

Cafe Osage

Neighborhood: Central West End/Fountain Park
Claim to fame: Farm-to-table fare, right in the heart of the city.

Hannah's Take: Hungry for some home-grown goodness in the midst of the city? Look no further than Cafe Osage, a combination garden store and cafe. They grow many of their ingredients on site, and the freshness is evident in both the breakfast and lunch menus. For the best experience, come when the weather is nice and enjoy a thoughtfully prepared meal al fresco. 

Small Batch

Neighborhood: Grand Center
Claim to fame: All-vegetarian fare, and a massive whiskey selection. 

Hannah's Take: Vegetarians rejoice! You can eat everything on this menu, and the flavors are anything but bland. Known for an impressive whiskey selection, this member of the Bailey's family is also a welcome addition to the St. Louis food scene. Small Batch is a great stop for a pre-show dinner in Grand Center. 

Whitebox Eatery

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Counter-service cafe with a pinch of sophistication.

Hannah's Take: Every time my mom is in town, she says, "Oh, maybe just a soup/salad/sandwich place?" And every time she asks, I rack my brain trying to come up with a place. Fortunately, I can turn to this surprising little cafe in downtown Clayton. Order at the counter, and enjoy quality food with refreshing service attention. Brunch is especially good. 

Avenue

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: European cafe with a rock-star staff.

Hannah's Take: A little piece of Europe tucked away in downtown Clayton, Avenue is the stop for anyone used to the quality food and service found in overseas dining. Weekend brunch is excellent, and they've managed to hire the best servers in town for an enjoyable experience at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or brunch. Ask to sit in Becky's section, and visit John behind the bar. 
 

Special Occasion

Bar Les Freres

Neighborhood: Clayton
Reservations: Probably a good idea.
Claim to fame: The best French restaurant in STL.

Hannah's Take: If you've got a pretty lady you're looking to impress, this is the all-around best date stop in the city. Start to finish, the experience is exquisite--excellent cocktails, incredible French food, attentive service, and a quiet, romantic setting. If you're calling for a reservation and get persistent busy signals, keep trying--they often leave the phone off the hook on accident. Don't worry, they'll make up for the minor annoyance at dinner!

Stone Soup Cottage

Neighborhood: Cottleville, MO (40 minutes northwest)
Reservations: Definitely, probably a month or more in advance.
Claim to fame: Incredible farm-sourced tasting menu in a charming setting.

Hannah's Take: Not for the feint of heart, Stone Soup Cottage offers the ultimate fine dining experience in the St. Louis area. Dinners are hosted on a farm in Cottleville about 40 minutes northwest of the city, in the romantic dining room of a charming farmhouse. The service is exquisite, and the tasting menu is an experience you don't want to miss. The worst part is driving back to the city afterward--consider booking a nearby room for the night instead!

Claverach Farms

Neighborhood: 20 miles west of STL
Reservations: Definitely, probably a month or more in advance.
Claim to fame: Farm-sourced, family-style experience in an open-air barn.

Hannah's Take: I like to think of Claverach as a less-intimidating, family-style Stone Soup. Dinners are held in an open-air barn on the farm about twenty miles west of St. Louis. Best experienced with a group, enjoy a seated dinner at long picnic tables featuring the freshest seasonal ingredients from the farm. 

Sidney Street Cafe

Neighborhood: Benton Park
Reservations: Probably a good idea, but drop-ins have a fighting chance.
Claim to fame: Inventive New American in the ideal date-night setting.

Hannah's Take: The exposed brick and street lamps in the main dining room of Sidney Street Cafe combine beautifully to create a charming, romantic, laid-back date night setting. Ask to be seating in that main room, and enjoy a fantastic meal with someone special!

Brasserie

Neighborhood: Central West End
Reservations: Probably a good idea, but drop-ins have a fighting chance.
Claim to fame: Excellent French fare, and a procrastination-friendly brunch.

Hannah's Take: Another of Gerard Craft's victories, Brasserie is a French stop in the Central West End, now offering lunch during the week in addition to dinner, and brunch on the weekends. The patio is spacious, and if dinner is a little too intimidating for you, go for brunch. The croque madame and benedict are both marvelous, as are the breakfast potatoes. Unlike many of the area brunch stops, you have a chance for a table if you show up sans reservation around 10:00 AM.

Herbie's

Neighborhood: Clayton (formerly Central West End)
Reservations: They have gobs of space--you're probably fine without one.
Claim to fame: French-inspired American fare with quality service. 

Hannah's Take: The recent move from the Central West End to downtown Clayton makes sense for Herbie's. This fine dining spot now boasts a massive patio, and the neighborhood suits the sophistication of the menu, service, and ambiance. While arguably less inventive and more traditional, the food is well prepared, and the service is excellent. 


Honorable Mentions

Vicia

Neighborhood: The Cortex
Reservations: Definitely, though not too far in advance.
Claim to fame: Vegetable-forward fare that is turning heads on a national level. 

Hannah's Take: I had to include Vicia, because absolutely everyone is talking about it! We have yet to visit, but are excited to give it a go in January. For a preview of a similar philosophy, watch the Chef's Table episode about Blue Hill. The team behind Vicia spent several years with Blue Hill, and the philosophy is noticeably similar.

Pieces Board Game Bar & Cafe

Neighborhood: Soulard
Claim to fame: Super fun board game cafe with better-than-expected fare. 

Hannah's Take: Go for the games, stay for the food! This innovative board game bar and cafe is thriving, right next to the farmer's market in Soulard. For a $5 game fee, play as many games as you like for as long as you'd like. For every food or beverage item you order, they'll deduct $1 off your game fee. The food is better than expected, and the service is fantastic. Basically, Pieces is heaven for foodie nerds. Get your geek on!

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And that's a wrap! I'll try to update this guide and re-post it periodically, when we've visited new favorites. In the meantime, I hope I've left you drooling for something listed above. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you try any of these places out, and if there is something not listed that you think I should try, drop a suggestion in the comments below.

Updated: January 22, 2018

The Freedom to Choose

The holidays always prove to be a busy season, and this year is no exception thus far. After returning from our river cruise in Europe, I was sick for more than a week. Then we traveled to Indy for Thanksgiving, and I got to enjoy a week-long visit with my family. I came back home feeling well-fed, rested, energized, and ready to work.

Unfortunately, while I was away, I came to an unsettling realization about my current work-in-progress: I had to start over. Yes, all the way over. 

Writing the project had been challenging, more so than I expected, especially the further that I went into the story. While I was away, I realized the problem: my main character was too far removed from the action of the story. My current project is a love letter of sorts to Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I wrote my own main character to be a reporter--not a magician, like Harry Dresden. As a result, the pace felt slow, and I found it difficult to get my heroine believably engaged in the action of the story. 

Reluctantly, I sat down on Tuesday afternoon and made a pros/cons list about starting over. The pro side won overwhelmingly, and I started a draft of a new Chapter 1. Fortunately, the writing has been quick and smooth as a result, and I seem to have accurately identified the problem. But I had to step back and make that decision in order to move forward.

Working from home and being my own boss creates a stream of decisions that I have to make, choices that guide my day, and determine the fruit of my efforts:

When my alarm goes off at 6:20 AM and I technically have no appointments to be up for, will I dismiss the alarm, or get my butt out of bed on time? 

When I do eventually get my butt out of bed, how will I start my day? Will I immediately check the news, which almost always puts my in a sour mood? Will I make myself a hot mug of tea, eat a good breakfast, and do a little morning yoga to wake up my body and mind gently? 

Will I prioritize time with God and the Word so that I am firmly planted in the truth of the gospel, and my identity as a daughter of the King? Or will I rush into my to-do list, frantically trying to tick as many boxes as I can before I have to be in the writing chair at 1:30 PM? 

When I get moving, will I let the dirty dishes, dusty floors, errands, or home improvement projects take priority over my own work? Will I choose to value myself professionally, to value the words that I write, or flee to the immediate gratification of more immediately 'productive' activities?

When I set the new window treatments down in the kitchen, break something, strip the screw for the mounting hardware and subsequently cry all over the clean dishes in the right side of the sink, how will I respond? Will I acknowledge the choices that led me to this moment, and the choices I'm actively making in my response? 

Will I step back, breathe, smile in the knowledge of grace and an eternity in heaven, and thank God that I don't have to have a perfect day, a perfect home, or a perfect manuscript?

When I make the wrong choices and do all the wrong items on my list, will I decide to actively redirect my day and get my butt into the writing chair anyway?

Yesterday was a bad day. It was bad all the way through the kitchen incident where I broke a food storage container, and cried on the clean dishes. It took me all the way until 3:35 PM to take a deep breath, and take a hard look at the day I'd just lived out:

I didn't set myself up for success in the morning.
I made some unfortunate choices about how to spend my time, and ran around like a basket case trying to get things done.
I didn't eat enough food, the rookiest move of all. Hangry people are never happy people.
After several spectacular failures, I still decided to pursue another house project involving power tools and balance, in a storm of raging emotions.

But at 3:35 PM, I made a choice to step back and slow down. I put the power tools away and opened my Bible. I focused my sights on heaven, and got an appropriate and accurate perspective on my life. I reminded myself of the magnificent, mysterious blessing of grace. Because God showed me how, I forgave myself.

I chose to have a better day.

 When life gets frustrating or chaotic, it's so easy to sit back, scream at the heavens, and forget how much control we have in our own circumstances. There is freedom in the decisions that we are able to make for ourselves each day. Even if I make those choices imperfectly, I still have the ability to choose. 

The holidays seem like an ideal time of year to remember that. I can choose to focus on the right messages this season. I can choose family and relationship over busy-ness and material junk. I can choose to do my work, even when it feels like I should be doing a million other items on my list instead. 

And I can choose to have a good day. I invite you to do the same, my friends. 

Travel Review: Viking Rhine River Getaway

Back in March, Andrew and I were in the middle of the inspection period for the sale of our condo. My parents were gushing about their recently-booked Viking River Cruise for mid-November, and we were completely jealous.

On a Tuesday evening, our condo buyers demanded a third radon test--yes, third--for our basement. 

Needless to say, we were a little fed up.

We were sitting at the dining room table feeling a bizarre mix of rage and apathy when we looked at each other and said, "Why don't we call Viking? We can just get information. We don't need to book anything, of course."

Half an hour later, we'd booked a Rhine Getaway river cruise for late October. Impulsive? Probably. Worth it? Definitely. Oh, what a blessing it is to have something to look forward to! 

The pre-trip icing on the cake was Andrew's recent offer and acceptance of a new job, a much-needed change for him professionally. He wrapped up at his previous position two days before we flew away to Europe, and was thus completely detached from work on our trip...also known as the perfect vacation scenario!

Now, I know what you're thinking. Trust me, we got the question about a zillion times on the boat--actual quotes from our fellow passengers were as follows: 

"Aren't you a little young to be on a Viking river cruise?"
"Were you aware that you'd be surrounded by senior citizens?"
"So... why exactly did you decide to book this cruise?" 

The wisest and most polite passengers, in my humble opinion, said something like this:

"Good for you! Travel as much as you can while you're young. We waited too long, and regret not traveling more before having kids." 

The rest of this post is an in-depth review of our cruise, covering the itinerary, onboard accommodations, food, service, pros/cons of a river cruise, my recommendations for those considering Viking, and yes, a description of our experience as young people onboard. I hope that my comments prove to be helpful for you as you consider your own future adventures. 

Itinerary: The Rhine Getaway

Day 1: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Day 2: Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
Day 3: Cologne, Germany
Day 4: Koblenz, Germany
Day 5: Heidelberg, Germany
Day 6: Strasbourg, France
Day 7: Breisach, Germany
Day 8: Basel, Switzerland

The Rhine Getaway can be experienced in either direction: from Amsterdam to Basel, or Basel to Amsterdam. At the recommendation of the Viking representative we spoke with at booking, we began in Amsterdam and gradually traveled south into warmer weather. 

Day 1: Amsterdam

We arrived in Amsterdam around 8:30 AM local time, and were met by Viking representatives just outside of baggage claim. They cheerfully ushered us outside to a comfortable charter bus, which whisked us--and probably 10 other passengers--away to the docking location. 

Our room was not available upon arrival, because we arrived so early and the previous cruise was wrapping up that day. However, the staff greeted us warmly, offered to store our bags for direct delivery to our rooms, and invited us to rest in the lounge if desired. We were given a helpful, detailed map of Amsterdam, and opted to explore the city on our own for the morning. Viking provided regular shuttles to and from the city center, and distributed paper shuttle schedules from the reception desk. 

Based on some prior research, we ate lunch at a local establishment, and visited a gorgeous local chocolate shop. Conveniently, the chocolate shop was directly across from a cheese shop which offered complimentary tastings. Nonetheless, we were jet-lagged and I was travel-cranky, so we headed back to the boat around 2:00 PM to check in to our stateroom.

Though we were unaware of the option prior to arriving, Viking did offer multiple walking tours of Amsterdam that afternoon. They provided shuttles into the city and local guides for the tour. Again, we were pooped, so we did not attend. However, for those worried about 'missing out' on the Day 1 stop, you may be able to go out on a guided tour depending on your arrival time.

Our Stateroom

A member of the staff escorted us down to our stateroom, located just at the bottom of the stairs near reception. We traveled aboard the Viking Hlin, and booked the cheapest stateroom they had to offer--a standard room, room #100. The friendly staff member pointed out some of the basic features of our room, though he failed to indicate the dial in the bathroom that heats the floor. Don't miss the heated bathroom floor feature, my friends. The dial is located right next to the bathroom outlet, and the result is absolutely glorious

Our stateroom was clean and comfortable, and we immediately unpacked, one of the perks of traveling via river cruise--there was no need to re-pack or move our belongings between destinations. The room included a decent amount of hanging closet space, a safe, shelves in the closet, drawers, and a hidden mini fridge. The TV was loaded with dated but functional Viking applications, including a weather report for upcoming destinations, pre-loaded movies and television shows, itinerary information, and some super-creepy spy cams that allow you to view programming in the Lounge, or to see the view from the bow of the ship. 

The bed was fairly firm, but that's not uncommon in Europe. We tried to research the size of the bed and found that it was not a standard size, but somewhere between a queen and king. We have a king at home, and were perfectly comfortable during our trip. One item worth noting is that there is no clock in the room--the TV has the time on it if you turn it on, but in the middle of the night, there is no other way to check the time. Bring a watch, and plan to use your phone or other device for morning alarms.

Arguably the most important item waiting for us in our stateroom was a copy of the Viking Daily, a printed newsletter that is the bible of daily activities each day. Beginning in the evening on Day 1, the Daily is delivered to each stateroom during dinner, waiting for you upon your return to your room. 

Day 1: Evening Activities and Dinner

We took a nap and completely slept through the afternoon programming, which included a wine and cheese tasting in the Aquavit Terrace, a lovely, bright space adjacent to the Lounge on the 3rd level of the ship. Later on, we made our way to the Lounge during the standard 5:30-7:00 PM cocktail hour and were present for the Welcome Briefing at 6:30 PM.

DSC03178.jpg

During this briefing, we met our Program Director Daniel and were given some basic information about what to expect onboard. In addition, we were informed that there was a mandatory safety video loaded on our TVs that we were required to view within the first 24 hours onboard. If we did not view it, the other TV programming would be "frozen" until the safety video was observed. This was a quick video and not a nuisance at all. 

From there, the Program Director proceeded to give his Port Talk, a brief 10-15 minute presentation about the following day's activities, recommendations, and tips. I expected these talks to be boring and unhelpful, but they were actually quite informative as we considered what we might like to see and do the following day. I recommend attending the port talks, or creeping on them via your TV Lounge Spycam.

For dinner, we opted to dine in the restaurant on the 2nd level of the ship, the more formal of the two dining options. The menu in the Aquavit Terrace is much more limited, and as a result we never opted to have dinner in that setting. We did, however, enjoy lunch on the Aquavit Terrace once or twice for a change of pace. 

Dinner was less formal than I anticipated, and I breathed a sigh of relief over that--I'd refused to pack multiple fancy outfits in the interest of space, and crossed my fingers that I would not be out of place as a result. There were mixed attire choices, but most people were in jeans or trousers and a nice sweater or blouse. Very few men opted for ties or jackets, on any occasion. "Dressed up jeans" is a perfectly acceptable attire choice at dinner time, if that is your jam. 

The meal itself was lovely. We're pretty critical about food, and selected Viking largely because of their reputation for quality food and service. Fortunately, we were not disappointed, though I would argue that the effort and attention to meal preparation varied throughout the trip. The first and last meals were the best by far.

At both dinner and lunch in the restaurant, we were presented with a printed menu outlining multiple options for a first course, entree, and dessert. In addition, there were always a few boring standards available for the less adventurous eater, like a caesar salad and chicken breast. Be adventurous, my friends! Options generally included a more interesting salad, soup, fish, and plenty of red meat. Vegetarian options were less common, though I'm 100% confident the ship's kitchen staff would be able and thrilled to accommodate dietary restrictions.

For our first meal, we enjoyed a cheese souffle with sour cream sauce. I opted for a cod with poppy seed cream sauce, pureed peas, cauliflower, and baby corn for my entree. Andrew enjoyed the vegetable quiche with saffron sauce. And for dessert, we shared a "chocoholic" plate as well as a cheese selection. Each evening's menu included cheese as a dessert option, presenting two new cheeses each day. We found everything to be well-prepared, and the service was absolutely marvelous. More on the staff and service later on.

After dinner, the schedule indicated a 9:00 PM program in the Lounge: "Suited: A Nostalgic Music Trio." We were not interested, but heard good things about this Amsterdam-based cover band performing musical selections from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. 

Day 2: Breakfast and Kinderdijk

Ah, breakfast in Europe. There are few things as enjoyable, in my opinion, as an exquisitely varied, massive European breakfast spread. On the Viking Hlin, we were given the option to have a continental breakfast in the Aquavit Terrace from 6:00-11:00 AM, or have a full breakfast in the restaurant available from 7:00-9:30 AM. We always opted for the restaurant, which had a better spread, and was still primarily served buffet-style. 

In addition to the generous breakfast buffet, the daily breakfast menu gave diners the option of ordering french toast, eggs benedict, and other basic dishes. We never opted for these, as we found the buffet to be more than sufficient. Behind the buffet bar, a member of the kitchen staff manned the omelet station, and also was available to cook eggs according to preference.

After breakfast, we left for the included excursion to the Kiderdijk Windmills. The optional excursion--Dutch Cheese Making--occurred early in the morning, leaving those individuals time to explore the windmills also upon their return. 

While interesting and lovely to behold, the windmills were a bit of a 'dud' for us. Unless you're really interested in flood-management systems and the history surrounding them, this might not be your favorite day. That said, our tour guide was solid, and we definitely learned a few things about windmills, including the fact that they are often used as residences for the person caring for the windmill.

We returned to the ship for lunch, again enjoyed in the restaurant, and the ship cast off around lunch time. We spent the afternoon sailing, and as a result, the Daily included multiple afternoon activities onboard to keep everyone entertained.

We skipped the wheelhouse tours on the sun deck--an opportunity to interact with the captain and learn about the ship's navigation features. Later, we attended a Dutch teatime from 4:00-5:00 PM in the Lounge, which was mostly an excuse to eat pastries, desserts, and tiny sandwiches. We did not object.

At 6:15 PM, the captain and staff officially welcomed us on board and handed out various bubbly beverages for a toast. Both the captain and hotel manager individually went around the room to clink glasses with all attendees, something like 175 people. They also entered to the Star Wars theme, which we respected.

We enjoyed the official Welcome Dinner in the restaurant, savoring our two fish options: salmon with corn sauce and caviar, and seared halibut with mashed potatoes and melted leeks. Dessert was chocolate and peanut butter crunch with yoghurt ice cream, an interesting and surprisingly tasty combination.

Curious, we briefly visited the Lounge for the 9:00 PM programming, featuring the regular onboard musician, a pianist and vocalist named Gigi. During lunch in the Lounge, cocktail hour, dinner in the Lounge, and post-dinner in the Lounge, Gigi entertained guests with covers of well-known hits, backed by some sort of digital tracks that were synced with his keyboard. While endearing, we were not terribly impressed by this entertainment, but others absolutely seemed to enjoy Gigi's performances. Many people jumped up to hit the dance floor by the bar.

Day 3: Cologne, Germany

Day 3 was our first example of an unexpected inconvenience with the itinerary--itinerary cities do not necessarily equate to port cities. The ship docked in Zons at 9:00 AM, where passengers interested in the Cologne tour were invited to board buses into the city center. The ship itself did not reach Cologne until 12:30 PM. We had planned to explore Cologne on our own, so this was a little irritating for us. However, we were invited to take the bus into the city with the rest of the passengers, and were reassured that we were welcome to explore on our own and part ways with the rest of the tour groups. 

That we did! Again, we were given detailed maps of the city, including the docking location of our ship. We explored the gorgeous Cologne cathedral on our own, had a pre-lunch treat at the Schokolademuseum cafe, and then enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the Fruh am Dom brauhaus, a recommended stop from a few friends, as well as Viking.

In the afternoon, many passengers opted for the paid excursion to the Bruhl UNESCO Palaces. We opted to enjoy a more leisurely afternoon, but heard nothing but good things about both the morning tour and the afternoon palace excursion. The ship presented an 'Enrichment Lecture' at 5:00 PM entitled "Germany Today," which we also skipped. 

Per our request the night before, we left the ship again for dinner at a staff-recommended restaurant on the river, Fischmarkt. Dinner was fine, but not our favorite experience. It was difficult to tell if we simply ordered the wrong dishes, or if the restaurant was a poor recommendation. Either way, we still enjoyed a lovely evening outside under the heaters, and took a night walk across the love locks bridge to peruse a permanent fair on the far side of the river.

We returned to the ship in time for the evening program, "Classical Music Journey" featuring a cellist and pianist from the Cologne Symphony Orchestra. This was a lovely program, tainted only by the rude behavior of a few select passengers who were apparently bored--and even offended--by classical music. Perhaps it had something to with the fact that bar service was suspended during the program out of respect for the musicians.

During the program, we enjoyed a bottle of champagne and strawberries that were gifted to us in honor of our wedding anniversary. Our actual wedding anniversary was in September, but upon booking our cruise, the Viking representative told us that our 'new' anniversary would be in Cologne, and we would be celebrated accordingly. We did not object!

Day 4: Koblenz, Braubach, and Rudesheim

We were warned in advance that Day 4 was a good day to stick with the group, so we ate breakfast and disembarked for the included excursion to Marksburg Castle. Viking transported us to Braubach by bus, where our ship later met us. The bus ride was comfortable and not too long.

Marksburg Castle was probably our favorite excursion on the cruise. Our tour guide was excellent, and the castle itself was fascinating. Even the gift shop proved interesting, and there was a small cafe onsite for anyone who was ready for a mid-morning treat after the tour. This was probably the most demanding excursion, and the terrain within the castle was reasonably difficult to manage for anyone with mobility limitations. The guide, however, was quite helpful in identifying alternate routes for anyone who needed them.

After the castle, we were bused down through Braubach to meet our ship. We opted to have lunch on the Aquavit Terrace for two reasons: 1) the weather was absolutely magnificent, and 2) the afternoon program was scenic sailing along the Middle Rhine with commentary from our Program Director. The terrace and sun deck provided the best viewing opportunities for this scenic sailing.

The staff provided print maps of the Middle Rhine, identifying villages and castles that we would be passing. Program Director Daniel provided commentary over the PA system, available to anyone in the Lounge, Aquavit Terrace, or sun deck. There were absolutely many beautiful castles and villages, and it was a relaxing afternoon spent on the terrace.

The commentary ended a bit early to allow time for the Rudesheim Coffee Demonstration and Teatime, where the staff showed us how to make traditional Rudesheim coffee and served it along with tea, sandwiches, and various treats. Afterward, Daniel presented a program in the Lounge about other Viking cruise opportunities, which we skipped.

At 5:00 PM, we arrived in Rudesheim and left at 6:30 PM with a group for the "Dine in Rudesheim am Rhine" paid excursion. We boarded a multi-car tram dubbed a "mini train" and endured a chilly, bumpy ride into the heart of Rudesheim.

The town itself was charming, but the excursion was a bust. Dinner was a set menu with mediocre food, offered in a boisterous, Americanized setting. The obviously talented band was wasted on cover songs clearly directed at the cruise crowd, and we were pulled from our seats regularly to participate in activities like Schnapps shots or a cowbell performance. 

I would not recommend the excursion for future sailers, but do think Rudesheim is worth exploring in the evening. We walked back to the ship, winding our way around the town, and were charmed by the sights. 

When we returned to the ship, Andrew went up to the desk to make a request that warmed my heart. While we were eating our mediocre dinner on our excursion, the menu in the restaurant on the ship included a white and milk chocolate mousse for dessert--one of my absolute favorites. Around 10:00 PM, Andrew inquired as to whether or not we might be able to have some leftover mousse from dinner. The staff member at the desk left immediately to the kitchen, and return with a fully-plated dessert for us to enjoy in our room.

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This was one of many examples to highlight the exceptional service on board, and the willingness of the staff to move mountains for any and all passenger requests. 

Day 5: Heidelberg and Speyer

During the previous evening's port talk, Andrew and I absolutely groaned over the Heidelberg schedule. The bus would depart from Mannheim at 9:30 AM for a 30 minute bus-ride into Heidelberg. From there, the walking tour would move through various parts of town, including a bus ride midway to a different part of town. There would be some free time, but all in all the excursion would take nearly 6 hours, and most of that would be guided or on the bus.

We opted for Speyer.

After breakfast, a leisurely morning on board, and lunch with probably a handful of other passengers who stayed behind, we docked in Speyer around 1:00 PM. The staff provided walking maps and recommended the Technik Museum, which we decided to explore. My oh my, what a find!

Though this was definitely more Andrew's thing than my own, I was still impressed and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the Technik Museum's collection. There were two giant hangers filled with cars, planes, firetrucks, and motorcycles. In addition, the surrounding grounds were packed with planes, ships, submarines, and helicopters that you could climb into. The piece de resistance, of course, was the giant Lufthansa 747 suspended high above the ground that we could climb in and on. Children and adults alike squealed as they flew down the enclosed spiral slide, an optional exit.

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After the museum, we walked to Speyer's cathedral and enjoyed a fantastic piece of cherry something in a local cafe.

Dinner on board that evening included a mesclun salad with figs, shrimp egg rolls with ginger sauce, honey bbq salmon with leeks, and a porcini mushroom ravioli. 

Day 6: Strasbourg, France

Ah, Strasbourg. I smile just thinking of you!

One of the reasons we booked this particular Viking itinerary was to explore the Alsace region of France. We wanted to determine whether or not we should return to this region for our next international trip, an in-depth exploration of France.

We learned the we are quite fond of the region, and of Strasbourg in particular. This is a good city to explore on your own, if you find yourself tired of guided tours by this point in the itinerary.

Once again, the ship (unexpectedly) did not dock in Strasbourg. Instead, we were across the river in the German town of Kehl. The included tour bus ride was going well out of the way into the city, taking a one hour scenic tour "on the way". As an alternative, the staff told us how to take Kehl's tram into Strasbourg, a 5-minute walk away and a 20-minute ride into the heart of Strasbourg. I believe the tram cost something like €1,70 per person. 

Upon arriving in Strasbourg, we quickly noticed that every two storefronts or so were home to a boulanger, or French bakery. We immediately found one that looked promising and walked out with some pain au chocolat and another pastry that we could not identify. Neither disappointed--the French know what they're doing with breads and pastries. On top of that, everywhere you turn in Strasbourg is postcard-worthy. 

We wandered Strasbourg, and eventually found our way to our pre-determined lunch choice for the day, Au Petit Tonnelier. Based on our research, we selected this particular restaurant because of their menu, reviews, and proximity to both the Cathedral and Palais Rohan. 

Our meal was lovely, and included a regional pinot blanc, goat cheese salad with bacon from some sort of small bird, vegetable gratin featuring an unknown autumn variety, and a filet of fish with cream sauce. The English translations were a bit vague, so we weren't entirely sure what we were eating, but everything was delicious!

After lunch, we headed back to the Cathedral, the highest medieval building in Europe. Both the interior and exterior of the Cathedral were breathtaking--I could not help but feel that someone knew my exact preference for design and built it accordingly. Photos do not begin to do it any sort of justice. Worth noting: the Cathedral was closed for lunch, and reopened at 2:00 PM.

When we left the Cathedral, we walked to a nearby tea room that we identified in our research of Strasbourg: Au Fond du Jardin. Intimate and floral, they did not have any available reservations for afternoon tea, or speak much English. But the tea house is known for its madelines, delicate, edible works of art. We purchased two to sample, as well as two homemade marshmallows. Many of the treats are infused with various types of flowers, which can be a bit disorienting for the unaccustomed palate--AKA most people.

By mid-afternoon, we felt that we had enjoyed a nice overview of the city, and met a Viking guide at a pre-determined location to walk us back to the shuttles, offered periodically throughout the afternoon.

We skipped two afternoon onboard programs: a cooking demonstration, and an enrichment lecture on Alsace during WWII. 

In the evening, we enjoyed the "Taste of Germany" dinner in the restaurant, which was essentially a giant buffet of German meats complemented by Kolsch beer. There were pretzels, meats, and cheeses on our tables when we arrived, and we were entertained by a violinist and accordionist who wandered the ship playing traditional German tunes. Many of the ship's staff were decked out in their Octoberfest costumes, and they gave a short little chat about lederhosen just before dinner.

The evening program was an International Music Trivia contest in the Lounge, which we again opted not to attend.

Day 7: Breisach and Colmar

Day 7 has very little to do with Breisach, and much more to do with the included and optional excursions available: the Black Forest, Colmar Village, and the World War II Tour of Colmar featuring the Colmar Pocket Museum.

Based on web reviews, we decided not to participate in the Black Forest tour. This included four hours mostly on a bus, touring the Black Forest and stopping at a cuckoo shop. I believe black forest cake was involved, at some point. Our acquaintances who went on the excursion had a good time, but I think they were all seriously interested in purchasing cuckoo clocks, which may have had something to do with it.

Instead, we decided to explore more of Alsace and went on the paid excursion into the Village of Colmar. It took about 30 minutes to get there by bus, but our guide was with us on the way there and provided some commentary along the way. We semi-reluctantly went on the included walking tour, then wandered Colmar on our own for an hour or so before we had to leave. 

The village is lovely and full of history. Its major claim to fame is that it was home to Frederic Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. There are tiny plates on the sidewalks throughout town to remind you that this is Bartholdi's home town, in case you forget.

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But the rest of the village is quite charming, and lovely to walk through. We enjoyed several shops, including a bakery stop for pastries and a biscuit shop that our guide pointed out on our tour. 

We returned to the ship for lunch and a leisurely afternoon on board, then reluctantly attended the Farewell Dinner, sad to see the trip coming to an end. 

The meal was a wonderful send off, and was stretched to four courses to mark the occasion. Courses 1, 3, and 4 still included options, while the 2nd course was set. We immensely enjoyed everything that was presented to us, including salmon tartar, roasted forest mushroom veloute (soup) with mushroom chips and truffle sabayon, pumpkin mousse ravioli with lamb loin, grilled marinated perch with couscous and balsamic brown butter, a crisp dark valrhona chocolate tart with mango salad, and apple strudel with vanilla sauce. 

Gigi played in the Lounge after dinner, but we opted to pack our bags and relax before departing the next morning. 

Day 8: Basel, Switzerland

I'm sure Basel is lovely, but we did not see much of it due to our 10:40 AM flight. In the morning, we set our bags out according to the schedule Viking provided and enjoyed one last breakfast in the restaurant. The Aquavit continental breakfast was open extra early for the unlucky few departing between 4:00 and 6:00 AM; fortunately we were not among them!

Just as we arrived, we were bused to the airport and accompanied by a Viking representative to the ticket counter. The airport in Basel is small, and was mostly deserted. It was a smooth trip home, though our connection in Frankfurt--including a pass through customs--was definitely tight. We were half-running to get to our gate in time, but did make it with a little room to spare. 

 

Pros and Cons of a River Cruise

Pros

We booked our cruise because we have been extremely busy and stressed for the last year or two, and wanted someone else to do all of the worrying for us on vacation. The Viking staff, ever attentive and proactive, certainly did that marvelously. It was luxurious to be treated so well, and to be driven around without a care in the world. The staff provided helpful tips about interacting with the local culture, and any warnings that might be relevant, such as pickpocketing on tours near the major sites.

The food was good, the accommodations were comfortable, and I would argue that the service was as good as it can possibly be. By mid-week, staff members were learning our names and greeting us as friends. They went well out of their way to make our trip as good as it could be--Andrew even overheard a staff member on the phone trying to arrange a horseback riding excursion on behalf of a passenger. 

Unlike an ocean cruise, the river cruise allows the boat to get much closer to the port cities. Though we did have to endure a bus ride or two, we were rarely on the bus for more than 15 minutes, and were still much closer to our destinations than an ocean cruise can offer. Because of the size of the boat and the number of passengers, the staff were extremely attentive, and the amenities were a bit more luxurious. From what we've heard, the food on board was significantly better than the food offered on ocean cruises, probably for the same reasons. 

Cons

The two biggest hangups for us were 1) the forced socialization at meals and 2) the lack of introvert space. In the restaurants, tables are laid for 6 or 8. If you want the good food, you have to sit with other people. For people traveling as a group of 4 or more, this was no problem at all. But for us, we often found ourselves sitting with new people, and going through the small talk routine over and over. Yes, most of the people we met were absolutely lovely! But it would have been nice to enjoy a good meal alone on occasion.

By Day 5 or so, we finally caved and migrated toward the other young people. Yes--there were other young people on board! We were as surprised to see them as they were to see us, I think. There were two young couples on board for their honeymoon, another couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary, and a sibling pair traveling together. We found meals with this group to be much less exhausting, as they spent more time laughing and joking, and less time going through the small talk routine.

The boat was on the smaller side, for sure, so there wasn't a lot of opportunity to be on our own. The river cruise really is more about what happens off the boat, as opposed to ocean cruises which offer more extravagant performances and productions. This is all a matter of preference, in my opinion, and not really a con so much as a heads up.

Even though we didn't care much about onboard programming, we still felt that the programming was oriented strongly toward the older crowd. Many of the other young people on board were content to have drinks in the Lounge after dinner, but that just isn't our scene--we're not 'partyers' in the traditional sense. It didn't really prove to disrupt our experience much, but the onboard entertainment left much to be desired, especially as younger people. 

As I mentioned above, if you want to explore on your own there can be some hangups in doing so. We planned to do our own thing in Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and Colmar, but were sometimes forced into group transportation at the least, and sometimes into a tour. The logistics were not given in advance, so it wasn't easy to plan our own activities. The staff was extremely helpful in making every effort for us to explore independently, but the trip certainly isn't designed for that kind of independent exploration. 

Recommendations

So who should go on a Viking river cruise? 

For their target demographic, Viking does an excellent job of exceeding expectations. Individuals, couples, and groups in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s (yes, 90s!) will be delighted by the quality of service and the programming that is tailored for their preferences. Several times on board I thought to myself, "Man, my parents are going to have a blast!"

For young people, there are a few reasons that one might choose to go on a cruise. For us, it did prove to be a relaxing, low-stress way to see places we probably wouldn't see on our own independent international vacations. The world is big, after all, and you can only see so many places. The cruise provides a nice way to 'knock out' multiple destinations in a short amount of time.

For others that we encountered on board--both young and old--the cruise provided a way to "practice" traveling internationally for the novices, or a safe space for anyone anxious about interacting with non-English cultures. Many passengers seemed anxious about attempting to speak the local language, or offending the locals out of ignorance. Other passengers could have benefited from being more concerned about these cultural interactions. We were a little embarrassed on behalf of our country on multiple occasions, but that is to be expected, I suppose.

For anyone into tours, architecture, history, and educational insights in combination with your international travels, you will probably have a marvelous time. The value for the cruise is maximized by anyone who dives in for every included excursion, eats most or all meals on board, and drinks all the free wine they can stand during meal times. 

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In summary, we found our time on the Viking Hlin to be relaxing, rejuvenating, and fun. We were certainly reluctant to return home, and would have happily stayed put for another week or two. If you have any additional questions or are curious about aspects not mentioned in my review above, drop me a note in the comment section below! 

Measuring Progress: Thoughts on Effective Goal-Setting

'Type A' is a little bit of an understatement for me.

My Passion Planner—a gift from my intuitive, thoughtful friend Rachel—is a goal-tracker’s playground. There is enough structure to get you focused and to encourage reflection, but there’s also enough blank space to make it your own and have some room to play. It's one of my go-to tools for goal-setting and progress-tracking, another being the Gleeo Time Tracker app. 

At the beginning of every month, I dedicate some time to reflect and project; I review my progress on goals from the previous month, and then set my goals for the next month, breaking the larger goals into weekly segments. I feel like I’m constantly re-evaluating these goals; at first, an approach seems like it will work, but in practice something about the goal is off, and I end up tweaking something for the following month. 

Honestly, it’s a little annoying. But I also believe this is a process worth digging into. 

Here’s why:

When setting and tracking goals, we get the most accurate picture of our progress when we’re measuring the correct goals with the appropriate units.

Let’s use my previous goals as an example. For July, I set the following targets:

  • Read 3 books
  • Write 20,000 words for my work-in-progress first draft
  • Write and share 1 blog post per week

At first glance, this is a perfectly reasonable list of goals. As a writer, I should definitely be reading and writing; these tasks are my bread and butter. Blog posts are also a logical step for developing my business while simultaneously getting some additional writing practice.

It all sounds good, right? But in practice, these goals were not working at all. Why? What got in the way? 

As I took a closer look, the major issues related to my goal-setting fell into the following categories: the motivation behind each goal, distinguishing action items from goals, and measuring success appropriately and accurately. Let’s break these down individually.

Goal Motivation

Why? Why is the tool with which we determine goal motivation. 

Reading is important to me; I want to be consistently absorbing the work of other writers, learning from their techniques and developing my vocabulary and writing toolbox. I chose the goal of at least 3 books per month because that would allow me to more-or-less reach my reading goal for the year: 40 books. 

Here’s the rub: establishing a reading goal measured by the number of books completely fails to support my motivation for reading! The goal that I set encourages me to read for speed over depth, to select shorter books, and to read without really dedicating much time to unearthing the nuggets of wisdom in the text. 

So how can I repair the issue? I go back to my original motivation for wanting to read regularly: to develop my own writing abilities, and improve my vocabulary.

When examined in this light, my truest, most motivation-aligned writing goals would be to 1) read the right books and 2) read them slowly, with space to take notes and absorb the information.

KABOOM. All of a sudden, my title-hungry reading goal has no business sticking around. With a clear purpose at the forefront of my planning, the goal becomes reading the right books, and reading them well. Is this goal still measurable? Sure! All I need is a list of books worth reading, and consistent time spent reading them with intention. 

One might even go so far as to argue in favor of the following effort: Spend as many hours reading a good book as possible. 

Goals vs. Action Items

Oh, reading...you sneaky little fiend.

Guess what? Reading isn't one of my goals at all -- it is an action item. By incorrectly viewing it as a goal, I lost on two fronts: 1) reading received more priority and weight than it deserved, and 2) the actual goal that reading is related to was distorted and did not receive an appropriate amount of attention and effort. 

Try this exercise that helped me get my goals and tasks in order. 

Make a chart with three columns, or whatever organization works for you. In one space, list all of the professional goals you want to achieve. Don't worry about being specific or giving a timeline for the goal just yet -- really dig deep and lean into the heart of what you want to do. 

To make sure that you're really listing goals, ask yourself WHY you want to do each item on your list. If there is an answer to that question, the answer is probably your goal. If your response is "Because that's what I want to do," you've probably arrived at an actual goal.

Here is my version:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
  • Practice and become a better writer.
  • Serve more people via career communication services.
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

Now, in the next space, translate these general goals into SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Bound versions of what you've listed on the left.

This is where things get interesting.

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.



 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.


     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Effectively prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network conversations, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

It was SUPER tempting to put action/task items into the SMART Goal column. For example: blog weekly. I had to add and delete "blog weekly" from the SMART Goal column next to "Serve new people" more than once during this exercise. Why? Because blogging weekly isn't my goal. Finding new people to serve via communication services is the goal--my goal is to identify new clients or referrals. People I can serve is the unit I'm measuring...not blog posts. Blog posts are just a task that I will schedule that will actually support 2 of my SMART Goals: becoming a better writer, and identifying new people to serve. 

Closely examine your lists, verifying the connection between Core Goals and SMART Goals, and ensure that no action items have snuck their way in.

Got it? Okay--now you actually get to translate goals into action items. Time for Column 3:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.






 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.






     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Daily prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 



     
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

Action Items

  • Block client-specific time into the first two hours of my schedule, daily. Create daily to-do lists and ensure client priority.
  • Schedule 3 daily hours of writing time each afternoon. Identify writing prompts or "play" topics. Log writing time in Gleeo.


     
  • Make a list of people to speak to and get in touch. Blog weekly, cycling in career communications content. Plan, promote, and execute free webinars. Offer free workshop for job seekers.
  • Add to the draft daily, resisting the temptation to edit yesterday's work -- use comments in Scrivener instead to make notes for future edits. 

Neat, huh? Suddenly, we are left with a thorough breakdown of SMART goals with corresponding, ready-to-go action items. It's super tempting to drop this blog post right here and get all of this incorporated into my Google calendar and planner; in the name of productivity and follow-through, I will resist!

Measuring Success

The last hiccup that I identified in my goal-setting was that I wrote my goals in such a way that I was measuring the wrong thing, or at least measuring inaccurately. Let's look at writing as an example.

My July writing goal was 20,000 words for my work-in-progress draft. As I began writing and editing, I realized that I was being cheated in my progress tracking--often, I came in and started working from a mid-way point in the text I wrote the previous day. Because I'm human, I found sections or words that I didn't care for at all, deleted them, and re-wrote them. But because I was measuring the amount of words added to my draft that day, I didn't get any "credit" for the work that I did on top of existing text. 

Writing isn't easy, folks. Don't make it worse by minimizing what you've managed to achieve.

There are a couple of ways to solve this particular problem. One option would be to completely refuse to edit any of yesterday's work, and only move forward in the draft. For me, that just isn't feasible. For the sake of continuity and sanity, I have to be allowed to back up and overlap my efforts each day.

So in my case, the answer is to stop measuring words and start measuring time. After all, writing is not all about typing out words -- thinking, staring into space, visualizing a scene, having out-loud imaginary conversations with your characters, Googling facial expressions as visual aids, and various other insane strategies that we utilize as writers do not get included in your progress when you only measure word count. What is the one thing that all of these tasks have in common that is measurable?

The time that I spend working. Voila. If I measure time, I measure success.

Friends, I hope that this reflection is helpful for you today. If we know what our target is, we can identify what actions we need to take to aim appropriately; ready, aim, fire.

Now all that's left is to get moving! 

Cultivating Joy

I wrote the post below almost exactly one year ago. After receiving some surprising and heartbreaking news yesterday, I found myself hunting for these words again this morning. 

Though this post was written for an old blog in a different (and much darker) season of my life, the wisdom and truth that I reflected on are just as relevant today. I hope that these nuggets of hope--one from my grandma, and one from the lyrics of a favorite hymn--will be encouraging to you in the midst of your circumstances today. 


My Mamaw was a strong, vivacious woman. And she loved to dance.

 

In the photo above, Mamaw is dancing with Papaw at my brother’s wedding. If you’ve seen this image before, you probably know why it’s so special.

Mamaw and Papaw stood up for the song she requested (“I Hope You Dance”) and they made their way to the dance floor. Despite her health condition and the difficulty she had standing up and walking, she was not about to sit this dance out; it was the song she requested after all. And if I have my dates right, in this moment, she got one last slow dance with her husband before he passed away.

Mamaw seized every moment. She was present, and loved her family fiercely. I admired that about her.

The last time I saw her, she was in the hospital, and I went with my dad and brother to visit her. We were fairly certain that it could be our very last visit with her — Mamaw knew it too. Nobody wanted to waste that time. So we prayed over her, and she shared some of her life lessons with us as a parting gift:

“Spend time with your family and loved ones, as often as you can.”

“You can’t always find happiness, but you can always have joy.”

Now, I’m going to be completely honest. That last one has been kind of irritating for the last 6-7 months. There isn't a lot of joy in the mess we’ve been walking through, or at least it doesn't feel particularly joyful. But that is only true if I am measuring and mourning an absence of happiness. Joy, on the other hand… joy is much more resilient.

For this icky season of life, I have been absolutely obsessed with a hymn that I don’t hear very often in church. And I think that’s a real shame, because it speaks so much hope into seasons of darkness. I have played it on the guitar over and over and over again and cried out to God in some of my most desperate moments. The entirety of the lyrics are below, or for the music people, you can check out the Indelible Grace version at this link (fair warning — you will feel all the feels if you listen to it):

Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
all to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
all I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.

Let the world despise and leave me,
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
O while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
foes may hate and friends disown me;
Show Thy face and all is bright.

Man may trouble and distress me;
’twill but drive me to Thy breast.
Life with trials hard may press me;
Heaven will be bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me
while Thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’twere not in joy to charm me,
were that joy unmixed with Thee.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure,
come disaster, scorn and pain.
In Thy service, pain is pleasure;
With Thy favor, loss is gain.
I have called thee Abba Father,
I have stayed my heart on Thee.
Storms may howl and clouds may gather;
all must work for good to me.

Soul, then know thy full salvation.
Rise o’er sin and fear and care.
Joy to find in every station,
something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
think what Father’s smiles are thine,
think that Jesus died to win thee,
child of heaven, canst thou repine?

Haste thee on from grace to glory,
armed by faith and winged by prayer,
heaven’s eternal days before thee;
God’s own hand shall guide us there!
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
soon shall pass thy pilgrim days!
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
all to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
all I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.

I’ve known the joy of Christ before. With certainty, I can say that I lost sight of that joy in this season. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the “now”, the discomfort and needs and pains of today. But even on those worst, awful days, and also on the increasing number of light days, I live for the 5th and 6th stanzas, and seek to saturate my soul with these truths:

The Spirit of Christ dwells in me.
My incredible Father smiles upon me, even when I suck. Or when the world sucks. Or when absolutely everything seems to suck. 
Jesus died so that I could know His love and draw near to God.
Someday, everything else will melt away, and I will finally be in my true home.
And NOTHING that ever happens in this life is going to change any of that. At all.

That is the joy that Mamaw wanted me to know, daily. She had a deep understanding of this gospel truth, that the love of God is resilient, and that the good news of the gospel can warm my heart, even when everything else is falling apart. Maybe she even knew that I really needed to hear her say those words, right at that moment, in the middle of a storm.

“You can’t always find happiness, but you can always have joy.” Always. No matter what. 

Path to Writing

Looking back, I find it completely hilarious that I never saw writing coming. It has been sneaking up on me for years, and in my typical unobservant fashion, I had no idea. Completely, 100% oblivious.

Growing up, I was absolutely a reader. I devoured scads of books in record time. Late into the night, my parents would often find me on my bedroom floor with a box of Club crackers, a package of pepperoni, and my nose in a book. I couldn’t stop, and quite frankly, I didn’t want to. I read through meals, and periodically in the car on longer road trips, though it made me nauseous to do so.

Specifically, I was a delighted reader of fantasy. I was a proud member of the blessed generation that was the same age as Harry with each book release. Hermione was my homegirl...she understood me. At every opportunity, I hungered to be whisked away to another world, more magnificent and adventurous than my own.

I wept and rejoiced with my fictional friends, but never really thought of creating fictional stories myself. There was a brief period where I snuck my parents’ typewriter into my room and made up some two-page stories. The feel and sound of the keys was divine, but I struggled to come up with content. Frequently, I ended up with an unfinished and unsatisfying tale about an encounter with a cute boy at summer camp.

My first journal entry is dated October 12, 1998, which puts me around 10 years old. The diary itself is about 4”x4”, glossy white covered with rainbow colored hearts, and capped with a little gold lock and release button. I handle it with fondness even now, though the content is absurd. And I always hated the word ‘diary’ -- it was too frilly for my purposes. I took journaling very seriously. Which is pretty ironic, considering the rainbow hearts.

I have upwards of 20 journals spanning 1998-2016. Though the habit has died out a bit, writing has never ceased to be a cathartic and necessary part of my life. The format and content have gone through countless iterations: Xanga poems about middle school crushes; a blog about the challenges of being 15; notebooks full of song lyrics; another blog about restaurant and recipe critiques; thoughts on my experiences, fears, pain, joy, dating life, trauma, disappointments, and spirituality.

But all of this was happening in patches of spare time, while I focused on the “really important stuff.” I got a bachelor’s degree in music after studying to be a high school choir teacher for 3.25 years…a terrible, hilariously ill-suited career choice. Graduating with honors, finding Mr. Right, and figuring out how to pay my bills were my absolute top priorities.

Then came depression, hopelessness, and a bittersweet end-of-the-rope experience that led me to Jesus. I won’t tell that story today. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to do it justice when I do.

Even then, armed with a better foundation for my identity and purpose, I flailed when it came to career direction. In the five year period following my undergrad studies, I held the following positions, most of them full-time:

  • Assistant Manager at a rock climbing gym
  • Sales Specialist at Apple
  • Executive Assistant to the General Director at an opera company
  • Admission Counselor at my alma mater
  • Director of Operations at a non-denominational church
  • Search Associate for an executive search and strategic planning consultant company

From 2014-2016, I had four separate careers. When I say that I “flailed” professionally, I am not exaggerating. I had no idea what I was meant to do with myself. I have always excelled in the broad base of skills one needs to succeed in the 9-5 world. My performance reviews were always sky high, yet I felt like a prisoner every time I tried to make that sort of traditional career “fit”. I took every career and personality assessment on the market, and time and time again, the professional involved would say, “Hannah, you just won’t be content until you work for yourself, or have a significant amount of freedom.”

“That’s super!” said Hannah at 23. “But I have bills to pay. So I’m keeping my 9-5 in the nonprofit sector because I can get behind the cause. I’m working toward something meaningful. I’ll be just fine.”

I was never fine. I lied to myself over and over again, and was bored out of my mind. I cried in the bathroom at work and wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just suck it up and do my job like everyone else seemed to be doing?

I got engaged to my best friend and the best man I know in December 2014. I made a transition to working for the church, and he was also pursuing work in full-time ministry. I was elated. We were on an energizing, joyful path, and I couldn’t be happier.

That season leading up to our engagement was the closest I had ever come to professional contentment. When I was working for the church, I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule, I was treated as an equal even with my lack of experience, and I was surrounded by wonderful people. True to God’s nature, though, he had better plans. So havoc wrecked my world for the next 18 months.

In the time leading up to and following our wedding and honeymoon in September 2015, all hell broke loose. I am not exaggerating. One church leader called it “the perfect storm of awful communication, timing, and circumstances,” among other things. We have many colorful names for that particular season of life.

I lost my roommate and was having anxiety attacks. As a result, I moved once, and then again after six weeks. An important relationship in my life turned destructive, and I endured months of manipulation and psychological abuse. As a result, I was later diagnosed with complex PTSD. With no alternative employment, I left my job at the church, and Andrew left seminary to pursue his original line of work in the business world. We had no income. I quickly took on a job to pay the bills, but my PTSD symptoms made it impossible for me to continue on in that position. It just wasn’t the right fit, and I wasn’t ready to work. Full of shame and self-defeat, I resigned after four months. Andrew’s job search continued for an additional four months.

Needless to say, it was an exhausting season. There was a lot of crying, and a lot of Netflix. And fortunately, there was a lot of support and encouragement from our wonderful family and friends. Perhaps most fortunately, our marriage survived the madness. We joked often about writing a marriage book years from now, based on the absurdity of our first year and what we learned from it. Perhaps we’ll do that, someday.

In addition to vegging and binging our favorite TV shows, there was also a lot of reading in that season. The local library was suddenly a paradise of entertainment as a household with no income. I think I read the entire Dresden Files series in something like four weeks. We read the existing Way of Kings books, and many, many others.

On September 2, 2016, we sat on a picnic blanket in Lafayette Square watching one of the annual Gateway Cup cycling races. (Bless you St. Louis, and your abundant, free events!) It was a beautiful evening, and we were having a lovely date night. Andrew was quiet, as he often is, and then mused, “What would you write about if you could write a fantasy story? What would your magic look like?”  

It would be dramatic and wonderful if my response had been “Eureka! That’s it!”, but it really was more of a slow realization. A revelation that became more exposed by the millimeter, melting warmth and light over my life like a sunrise.

Our conversation continued for the rest of the evening, considering possible systems of magic, character backgrounds, possible underlying themes. And the conversation hasn’t really stopped since.

I’ve never been so thoroughly and pervasively eager to make something a reality. I bought a notebook 3 days after our date, and went to the library more times in those first few months than in the previous 5 years combined. As I always have, I devoured books on writing speculative fiction, and a number of prominent books in the field of fantasy and science fiction. I created my first system of magic for my first project, axed that system, and replaced it with a better one.

I spent 3 months brainstorming, researching, developing characters, and outlining plot. Then I wrote my First 350 Words. The project continued to grow into something surprising and wonderful, and it was a delight to wake up and make a story unfold every day. I finished my first draft of my first book on March 15, about 6 months after that first lightbulb moment. Subsequent (and more marketable) projects have developed since, which I continue to pursue daily, and I love it.

Not to say that it isn’t daunting. It’s daunting as hell. Initially, the writing process was literally just thousands and thousands of questions:

Who is my heroine? How old is she? What does she look like? What are her relationships like? How does she view herself?

Well, that depends…

Where does she live? What is her culture’s world view? What is the landscape like? What resources do they have? How does that affect trade? Is her region part of a larger world? Where is this world? Does it follow the rules of Earth?

What does magic do in this world? What can it do? What can it not do? How is it limited? What happens if you try to use it the wrong way? What fuels it? What is its origin? Has it existed in time before this story? Who can use it? How do they learn to use it? How do non-magical people respond to it?


And on, and on, and on, and on, and on it goes.

So yes, it’s daunting. And normally the lazy person in me would throw up her hands and say “Ugh, whatever! I’m taking a nap.” But I can’t get enough of the writing process. It feels as if the words are a part of my flesh… a subconscious biological process like breathing, and my body doesn’t consider stopping.

Thanks to these moments along my journey, I can say that I’m here today. I’m an author; I’m a writer. I haven’t been published, but I thrive on writing. I embrace the thrilling opportunity to craft a reader’s experience through fictional stories. I hope to have the opportunity to share those stories with you someday.

Do something you love today, friends. And whatever that may be, embrace the experience as the extraordinary gift that it is.