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Tour de Doldrums

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“Alas, you know, ’tis far from hence to France…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry VI, Part III, IV, i)

I haven’t felt like writing anything lately.  Every year around this time I, along with countless others around the world, enter a real phase of melancholy brought on by le fin of the Tour de France.  For 23 days each July, cycling fans are glued to all types of media to garner every possible detail about the 22 teams racing around France.  We watch 198 professional riders roll off the start line on Day 1, perched on the edges of our seats and waiting for the inevitable stories of human drama that will unfold over the next three weeks.  We count down each kilometer as they make their way on winding French roads through unimaginable and literal mountainous obstacles. We hold our breath with every crash, suffer through unending commercials from revenue-hungry networks, and cheer on our fan favorites as they turn themselves inside out for historical glory.

And then all of a sudden we blink and we’re watching the weary and wounded roll into Paris three weeks later, on the last day of the race.  The contingent is usually around 160 riders by that time, depending on the number and severity of the crashes, the amount of sidelining sickness within the peloton, and the number of stupid mistakes yet made by some (yes there are still, incredibly, unbelievably, riders who still get thrown out for doping in this day and age [thankfully it was only one guy this year], but this year’s “DUH” award goes to the rookie rider who though it would be ok to hitch a short ride in a team car in order to get a flat tire fixed.  Jumped in the backseat right in front of the race referee…they should’ve given him a bobble head trophy which continually shakes its head in disbelief.)

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For me, my typical Tour day here at home would involve getting up early to catch the live broadcast each morning (both on TV and via online links to European stations), which would begin anywhere between 5:00-7:00 AM and would usually last around 4 hours.  (I always feel bad for the Australia fans during the Tour, coverage for them is in the middle of the night, from about 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM.)  Then there was an evening recap broadcast from 7:00-10:00 each night but I would usually only watch the last hour or so of that one to catch any new interviews or analysis.  (I would walk 3.5 miles on the treadmill each day while watching the morning live race so that I wouldn’t feel quite so couch potato-ish.) 

During the in-between hours, I would catch up on Twitter for race and rider commentary, team videos, and news stories, which probably took another 2-3 hours each day.  Then there were online podcasts to listen to from journalists at the Tour, another hour or so daily.  (The Tour is the most reported-on sporting event in the world each year, so there is a copious amount of information available each day.)  I was on vacation from work this entire time, so the Tour became my stand-in occupation.  Would that I could only be paid for the vast amount of Tour de France knowledge absorbed by my brain during the month of July…I’d be a rich woman.

Signs seen in Leeds storefronts for the 2014 TdF,

Signs seen in Leeds storefronts for the 2014 TdF, “Yellow is the New Black; Proud Supporters of the World’s Greatest Cycle Race.”

A supporting storefront in Harrogate, Stage 1 of 2014 TdF.

A supporting storefront in Harrogate, Stage 1 of 2014 TdF.

I can’t really explain my obsession (although I did try in this past post).  It’s tough to be a cycling fan after the revealing history of the past several years.  Part of it comes from the two Tours I’ve had the privilege of seeing in person – in France 2010 (in the Alps) and in England in 2014 (for the Grand Depart).  Once you’ve felt the electric current of the race up close and personal, once you’ve experienced the biggest sporting event in the world in person, you watch with a certain loyalty and nostalgia of one who remembers the awe.  It does take a lot of loyal fan commitment to stick with the race through three entire weeks.  But when you really take time to learn the race and see what it takes for one man, let alone 160 of them, to finish this massive accomplishment, often limping through the final stages with broken ribs and bandaged limbs but surviving on hope of riding into Paris on that last day – well, it just kind of hooks you I guess.  

Mark Cavendish before the Grand Depart on Stage 1 in Leeds, 2014 TdF.

Mark Cavendish before the Grand Depart on Stage 1 in Leeds, 2014 TdF.

Press Commentary boxes on the finish line in Harrogate for Stage 1, 2014 TdF.

Press Commentary boxes on the finish line in Harrogate for Stage 1, 2014 TdF.

And after that last Sunday, when the final rider has rolled across the finish line on the famous Champs-Élysées and the volume of Twitter chat takes a sudden plunge a few hours later, fans are left to face the following days in an empty vacuum.  The romanticism of the race has ended for another year.  We wonder what to do with empty hours that used to be filled with fantastical images of French scenery (we miss you, polka-dot cows).  We manage a small smile in wistful remembrance when overplayed commercials we used to hate now populate other programs.  We flip the calendar to August and hobble back into work (a few pounds heavier for all the croissants we’ve consumed), wondering which races the riders will do next (and how can we secretly watch them while at the office).

But mostly, we just start counting down to next July.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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Tour de France 2015 Croissant Comparison

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“This is the excellent foppery of the world…” ~William Shakespeare (King Lear, I, ii)

The 2015 Tour de France is just over one-third of the way through its 23-day jaunt around the French countryside, having started on July 4th in the neighboring Netherlands and slated for its traditional finish in Paris on July 26th.  One cannot profess to be a serious Tour de France fan without consuming at least a few handfuls of croissants (and/or baguettes) during those three weeks, and so, as a pure service to fellow French pastry fans (of course, there was no personal gain in this for me whatsoever, ahem) I have conducted a thorough comparison of some of the rumored-best croissants in the Austin area.

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d'Huez).

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d’Huez).

I did some of my own croissant research ahead of time to find out the highest rated and most popular bakeries in the area to help me decide where to go.  I decided to compare both plain butter croissants as well as chocolate croissants from each source, because, well, they’re both very delicious options.  (In French we say “pain au chocolate” instead of chocolate croissant, and it’s important to know this doesn’t mean it’s made from chocolate dough, but rather there is supposed to be a bit of chocolate piped into the middle of regular pastry dough.)  I also did limit myself geographically to central and north Austin (to save on gas $$$), and I put an upper spending limit on what I’d buy: no more than $3 per croissant (because anything more than that is just crazy talk).

The reviews are also listed in the order in which I purchased and tried them, not necessarily in ranked order.  Croissants were sampled from:

  1. Upper Crust Bakery
  2. La Madeleine Country French Cafe
  3. San Francisco Bakery & Cafe
  4. Quack’s 43rd St Bakery
  5. Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

You now have two more weeks of the Tour to take full advantage of this very important information, so allons-y, read it and eat:

1)  Upper Crust Bakery (4508 Burnet Road, Austin 78756; cocktail/small size Plain Butter Croissant $1.45, cocktail/small size Chocolate Croissant $1.90)

Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe

Upper Crust Bakery

I’d heard about Upper Crust for quite a while now but for some reason I’d never been there since moving to Austin.  It’s both a large full bakery and a cafe with quite a bit of seating for those wishing to dine in.  When I arrived around noon, they were already sold out of their regular-size croissants so I had to settle for their “cocktail” size options instead, which was fine because they were still a decent size and less than $2.00 each.

The plain croissant had nice layers inside but no flakiness of the crust (which I consider essential to a croissant), the bottom was nicely browned but not too much, I could taste the butter (and visible yellow egg layer) inside, and it had very nice “pull-apart” action from the ends with a decent chewiness.  I thought it was good but not great.  The chocolate croissant had a cinnamon-sugar topping which I didn’t care for at all (it made it too sweet in addition to the chocolate), and a decent amount of chocolate inside that was not overly sweet (which is good).  However it had a soft donut-y cake-y type texture instead of typical croissant layers; for that reason and because of the topping, it was my least favorite of the chocolate croissants in this review.

2)  La Madeleine Country French Cafe (9828 Great Hills Tr, Austin 78759; Plain Butter Croissant $1.89, Chocolate Croissant $2.79)

La Madeleine

La Madeleine

La Madeleine is a chain-restaurant mostly in the south and southwestern US that also has within each location its own small bakery, focusing on French-themed pastries.  The butter croissant was a great size for the cost and had a very buttery taste indeed; the color on the outside was a little too brown in my opinion, but it had good pull-apart action, a very good chewiness on the inside, and its taste overall was very good.  My main issue with this croissant was that it had too much space/air inside of it and not enough substance (see picture below).

The chocolate croissant had a really nice flakiness on the crust and decent layers inside, and its butter flavor was good and not too strong.  The chocolate was a nice dark-tasting chocolate but unfortunately there was just hardly any of it – as you can see from the picture below, the chocolate “tunnels” inside were near-empty; my other issue with this one is that they gave me an extremely small size croissant from the bakery rack, which was probably half the size of the ones in the display case – I had to hand it back and ask for a regular-sized one instead of a mini-one.  The baker seemed miffed at this and said “well they all proof to different sizes.”  Ok then, if you’re going to give me a mini-one, charge me for a mini-one ($.99); if you’re going to charge me nearly three times the cost of a mini-one, then give me a decent-sized croissant.  Thank you.

La Madeleine - near empty chocolate "tube"

La Madeleine – near empty chocolate “tube”


La Madeleine - big empty space inside butter croissant

La Madeleine – big empty space inside butter croissant

3)  San Francisco Bakery & Cafe (2900 W. Anderson Ln, Austin 78757; Plain Butter Croissant $2.09, Chocolate Croissant $2.39)

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

I’ve been to San Francisco before for lunch with a friend but hadn’t tried its pastries before.  They have a small bakery case up front by the register but the place is mostly a cafe.  I thought their butter croissant had a great butter taste and smell, excellent dough-y layers and chewiness, and great flakiness of crust.  It was a good size, not too large or too small, and although the bottom of it was a little too browned, in my opinion this was the best of the bunch that I reviewed.

Unfortunately the chocolate croissant was not the best of the bunch, mostly due to the overly sweet and too-rich chocolate inside – there was a decent amount of chocolate but it had way too high of a sugar content for my taste.  The crust was also too dark and the croissant part itself tasted a little bland; however there were good layers inside, good crust flakiness outside, and it wasn’t at all cake-y.  My biggest issue at San Fran was the prices – for the size of the croissants, I thought they were pretty expensive.  Many of the chocolate croissants in the display case were literally half the size as some of the others, yet they were charging the same price for all of them.  Ask for a larger-sized one and they’ll give it to you.

4) Quack’s 43rd St Bakery (411 E. 43rd St, Austin 78751; Plain Butter Croissant $2.25, Chocolate Croissant $2.99)

Quack's Bakery & Cafe's HUGE croissants

Quack’s HUGE croissants

I’d never even heard of Quack’s before I did the research for this post, but I’m glad I know about them now.  They had a LOT of fantastic-looking baked goods in their multiple display cases, and when I saw the croissants I had to ask them “are those the giant sizes, do you have any regular or mini-sized ones?”  (They don’t.)  Their croissants are HUGE, which is good because they’re also expensive, but really it’s like you’re getting two croissants in one so it’s not so bad.  Their plain butter croissant had amazing flaky crust layers outside and a good color, while the inside was very airy (almost too much so); it had a good chewiness but there was a lack of a real buttery taste inside.  It was very good but not the best I’d had.

Airy layers of Quack's butter croissant

Airy layers of Quack’s butter croissant


Impressive flaky layers of Quack's chocolate croissant

Impressive flaky crust layers

However the chocolate croissant – oh my WOW.  The best layered croissant by far that I sampled (see picture below), both outside and inside.  Excellent layers.  The croissant was a bit flat and not raised like some of the others, but I’m assuming that’s because all the butter in those layers weighed it down a bit.  This croissant was also humongous, way larger than any of the other chocolate ones I tried, but unfortunately its chocolate tunnels were tiny in proportion to its size and there was a minimal amount of chocolate inside.  The chocolate that was there though tasted high quality, dark-chocolatey and not overly sweet.  The non-chocolate part of the croissant tasted just ok, but it was really the layers that made this one shine.

The unending layers of Quack's chocolate croissant.

The unending layers of Quack’s chocolate croissant.

5) Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery (6808 N. Lamar, Austin 78752; Plain Butter Croissant $2.00, Chocolate Croissant $2.00)

I’d also never heard of Tous Les Jours before this project.  They’re a Korean bakery that also makes French and European pastries and apparently it’s a chain with 30 US locations; the atmosphere inside the Austin location is nice and they have trays and trays of breads and pastries laid out in the non-cafe area; you’re supposed to grab a tray and some tongs, pick your pastries, and then the cashier goes through this elaborate ritual of putting each pastry in its own swanky little plastic bag and sealing it with a gold twisty tie.  I’m not a fan of breads and pastries being out in the open air, where just anyone (most of the trays are right at kid eye-level) can put their germy hands and fingers on them if they want or flies with poopy feet can land on them if they make it in through a door.  I guess I like it better when they’re in pastry cases or behind the register where the baker can hand you your baguette if you will.

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Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

My first impression of the butter croissant selection was that most of them were pretty small for the $2.00 price.  On the other hand, I thought that the same price of $2.00 that they were charging for the pain au chocolate was reasonable.  They did also have teeny-tiny mini-versions of each of these too, literally maybe two bites max, for $1.00 each.  (They were the smallest chocolate croissants I’d ever seen, I didn’t even know you could make them that small.)  The butter croissant was probably my least favorite out of all the ones tried – it was almost completely flat, as if the doughy layers inside were just too heavy to hold themselves up.  There was a decent flakiness to the outside crust, but inside there was a yeasty rather than buttery smell and taste; in fact, I couldn’t really taste any butter in it at all, although the inside was very greasy.  Overpriced for the quality.

Unfortunately their pain au chocolate was not much better.  It had a strange shiny, sticky glaze over the outside top layer which did not smell or taste good, and glued down all the flakiness; I actually had to peel off the top layer because I found it very unappetizing.   This croissant was also very flat, the dough layers were good but too heavy, and there was a very minimal amount of chocolate inside (I had a hard time even tasting it).  I couldn’t detect any butter taste at all, and like its companion, I wished it had been more airy and less heavy.

One bakery/cafe I can highly recommend that I’ve been to before but did not include in this review is Baguette et Chocolate Authentic French Bakery (12101 Bee Cave Rd, Bee Cave TX 78738), it’s just too far for me usually.  I did go to a few other bakeries that had been recommended but didn’t get croissants for them for different reasons:

  • Texas French Bread (2900 Rio Grande, Austin 78705) wanted $3.75 PER CROISSANT (!!!)…and they were about half the size of Quack’s bigger croissants; when I asked why they were so expensive I was told “we use real butter and cream.”  And?  Are those particular cows dipped in chocolate and rolled in gold shavings?  Sorry, those prices are way too high for me (and probably for most university students in the area, but they tend to cater to Austin’s “celebrity” clientele I hear, *coughlancearmstrongcough*).
  • Phoenicia Bakery (4701 Burnet, Austin 78756) told me they only make/offer croissants three days a week, but the guy behind the counter couldn’t tell me which specific days.  There were none available when I was there.
  • Bee’s Knees Bakeshop (109 Cypress Creek Rd, Cedar Park 78613) is gluten-free only, so they don’t make bread items like croissants.

Well, my job here is done.  I do believe I’ve eaten my last croissant for the next 12 months or so, and I may have to fast now for the rest of the Tour.  Next year’s Tour de France food review, I’ve already decided, will be the Battle of the Baguettes.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 2: Yorkshire and Le Tour de France

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“I pray you, do not push me…”  ~William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, III, ii)

Welcome to Part 2 of my Tour de England series, accounting my recent three-week trip to the sceptered isle.  This week’s post is a sporting one, describing my time in the Yorkshire region of England to see and be part of the world’s biggest and most beautiful bike race, Le Tour de France.  If you missed Part 1 of the series last week (recounting my time in Windsor, Surrey & Bath), you can read it here.

On my 7th day in England, I boarded a train in Bath and settled in for the 3.5 hour journey north, to Yorkshire county and its biggest city of Leeds.  Home to famous windswept moors and dales, the largest county in England was a magnificent choice to host the first two days – the Grand Départ – of the 2014 Tour de France.  From there the race moved south, starting in Cambridge and finishing in London, before the teams then flew back to mainland France for the duration of the Tour.

Yorkshire county, England

Yorkshire county, England

Many people are surprised to find out that the Tour forays quite frequently into other countries, having started outside the French borders on at least 20 occasions now.  It’s a great opportunity for cycling fans of other lands to participate in the spectacle that is the Tour, and Yorkshire did not disappoint.  I’d seen the Tour in France in 2010, during a fantastic turn around the Alps region, but when I heard the announcement that the 2014 version was starting in England – well, let’s just say I started planning this vacation a long time ago, over a year in advance.  For an admitted Anglophile and a longtime fan of the Tour, this was a kickoff not to be missed.

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I arrived in Leeds on a Wednesday afternoon, with the Tour slated to start on  Saturday morning.  I wanted to give myself plenty of time to become familiar with the area and also have time to explore before the big day.  Yorkshire had been planning for this for over a year, and the Tour spirit was in overload from the moment I stepped off the train:  huge banners in the train station welcoming the Tour crowds, visitor centres overrun with Tour merchandise, and the color yellow everywhere you looked.  (For my non-cycling fan readers, yellow is the color of the jersey that the leader wears during the race and is the coveted final prize at the end for the overall winner.)

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Even King Richard got a yellow jersey.

The Tour itself is a virtual traveling city, with 2,500 people moving each day from stage to stage in different cities, including not just the teams and their management (and huge team buses) but all of the hundreds of journalists & media personnel, the staff who set up and take down all of the start and finish sets, course marshals, security & police personnel…it’s really quite amazing to see it all up close.  I’d seen it before in 2010 and I was in awe again this time to see the magnitude of this daily transient grand operation.  But the other thing this means is that any hotel room within several miles of the start/finish points is reserved well over a year in advance, and any that aren’t are accompanied by shockingly high nightly rates.

So I considered myself lucky to find a fairly nice secluded hotel 2.5 miles away from the city centre for not much more than my allotted nightly budget.  This meant however, negotiating the bus system from the train station to the nearest drop-off point and then walking almost another mile (uphill) to get to the hotel.  The outside of the hotel was beautiful, with lovely gardens, but unfortunately came with a bed that was a spring-laden miniature torture chamber (so no they did not get a great TripAdvisor review).  That night I ventured back down the hill for some adventurous Algerian food for dinner, and tried to get some sleep (but without much success).

The next morning I took the bus back into the city centre and examined the square where the race would kickoff on Saturday.  The Town Hall and Library were rolling out the yellow carpet, literally, for that evening’s team parade prior to the opening ceremonies.   I stood on the starting line where the cyclists would roll out on Saturday, and walked the length of the street where they would ride on their way out of town.  Leeds is apparently known for its elaborate shopping “arcades” or covered-lane mall-type areas, so I walked up and down all the pedestrian-only streets, not so much to shop but just to absorb the atmosphere.  Leeds is a big city anyway, but hosting the Tour meant extreme crowds everywhere you turned, so I felt I had to be extra-vigilant at all times.

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I headed back to the city centre to wander through some special cycling exhibits at the Leeds Public Library and then the Leeds Museum before grabbing an afternoon tea.  By this time I’d scoped out a good spot to watch the team parade on a grass planter and went to stake my spot around 4:00.  The parade wasn’t due to start until 6:00 but already a huge crowd was massing.  The English woman sitting next to me was a Tour Maker, one of the tens of thousands of Tour volunteers for the Grand Départ and very visible in her bright blue official shirt, and for the next several hours we formed an impromptu friendship (as one must do, especially for spot-saving when one has to run to the loo).

The team parade was great!  All of the 198 cyclists from all 22 teams rode past us at a relaxed, leisurely pace, followed by their team cars, before continuing onto the coliseum up the hill for the evening ceremony events.  I had contemplated going to the opening ceremony but tickets were about $85 for just the cheap seats, and I figured I could see all of them anyway during the two-hour parade.  Some of the cyclists were taking pictures of their teammates with their phones while they rode, others were waving to the fans, and of course the crowd favorites were treated to huge unending cheers all along the parade route.  Marcel Kittel’s hair was in perfect form of course and got its own cheers.

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One of my favorite teams, Orica Greenedge from Australia.

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The crowd favorite Team Sky & defending Tour champion Chris Froome.

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British sprinter & crowd favorite Mark Cavendish

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Team selfies & Marcel Kittel’s perfect hair

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Shut Up Legs

The next morning I decided to take the train for a day trip to Harrogate, the finishing town for the first day of racing the following day.  Even though I would be going back to Harrogate on Saturday to see the finish, I knew it would be extremely crowded and impossible to really move around or see the town like it would be if I went a day ahead.  And I’d heard Harrogate was really lovely so I wanted to take that time to see it.  I’m glad I did!  (If I haven’t mentioned yet how much I love England’s train system, let me do so now – it’s really a marvel and so easy to get around…except when it’s not, which I’ll cover a little later.)

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate, as seen from my train window.

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It was a 1.5 mile walk from my hotel to the Burley Park station north of Leeds, but a short 30 minute train ride to Harrogate, (for what would take the cyclists 5 hours the next day to get there on a long roundabout loop) and when I arrived I was even more impressed with the Tour spirit that I saw in this much smaller quaint town (72,000 people compared to Leeds’ 750,000).  There were yellow bikes displayed EVERYWHERE!  Restaurants, hotels, offices, pubs – every single house and place of business had a sign or a bike or something displayed related to the Tour.  And thousands of feet of bunting strung up everywhere, made up of little baby knitted cycling jerseys.  And a huge Fan Park with big screen TVs and cycling history exhibits.  And trees carved into Tour de France works of art.  Fantastic effort by Yorkshire, chapeau!

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Sir Bradley Wiggins, 2012 Tour winner & Olympic champion but not chosen by his team for this year’s race, was missed by his British fans.

After I got a pretty good drenching from a brief British bout of rain (of course this happened right after I lost my umbrella but before I could dart to buy a new one), I met up briefly with a contact who works for French TV and the Tour.  He’s a retired French pro cyclist but now is the one who calls all the TV shots for what is broadcast to the rest of the world covering the Tour.  He also owns the travel company with which I traveled in 2010 to see the Tour then, so I’d met him before and had stayed in touch a little over the past few years.

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FranceTVsport truck with it’s huge telescoping TV screen

He agreed to meet up in Harrogate to say hi and was nice enough to take me behind the crowd barriers to give me a brief tour of the inside of the FranceTV media truck where he works, as well as the other broadcast stations where sports commentators from around the world sit and call the shots for their home telecasts.  He also walked me over to the NBC American broadcast truck; he knows Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll so he introduced me as they walked out and we chatted for a few minutes, which was great!  I was super surprised to see recently-retired American Christian VandeVelde also walk out a minute later (I didn’t know then he’d been hired for the commentating team!) so I met him too.  Actually I’d met Bob Roll once before in 2010 when he was broadcasting then and he signed my Texas flag, which I reminded him of, but it was great to meet and talk with him again.

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

After another afternoon tea on the sidewalk of a Harrogate cafe and a stroll around the shop-lined streets to scope out where I thought I could watch the finish the next day, I boarded the train back to Leeds.  That evening I ate in a little cafe run by a Romanian couple and had a nice time chatting with the wife about how they found themselves in Leeds, England of all places.  I was continually struck during my entire time in England about the diversity of peoples you find nearly everywhere in the country, from all over the world.

I knew the next morning would be an early one.  Foregoing a free breakfast at the hotel, I was standing outside waiting for a taxi at 6:45 AM to take me to the train station, where I dropped off my luggage at a holding area and then walked the few blocks back up to the city centre where the Tour would start.  By 7:15 AM I had found a spot right against the barrier on the sidewalk of the main street, right at the corner where the riders would turn in to go sign in on the race podium before heading back out to line up for the start, which was about 50 yards up the street.  It was a primo location…but also a receptacle of back-aching pain.  The race wouldn’t start until 11:00 AM, which meant 4 hours of standing in one very crowded, very small spot of concrete.  Many people around me had been there since 6:00 AM or earlier to get a good spot.  It takes a serious fan to queue for a Tour de France viewing location!

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My vantage point of the sign-in podium on a rainy morning.

Standing right next to me were a father-son pair from Lincolnshire who’d made the trip to Leeds and who were among the many Team Sky superfans there to support their team.  They were very nice and agreed to save my spot when, around 9:30, I decided I should try to find a bathroom.  A much-scaled-down version of the publicity caravan had already passed by on the route, but the riders weren’t due to show up until 10:00.  Leeds did a great job of organizing the Grand Départ with one notable exception:  NO PUBLIC TOILETS.  Anywhere.  What the heck Leeds???  I was forced to run several blocks over to a mall, then up 4 escalator flights to a pay-toilet, and by the time I sprinted back, it had been about 25 minutes.  By this time the start-line crowds were 10-deep or more on both sides and crammed in like sardines.  I squeezed and pushed my way back through to my spot, which now was half the tiny patch of concrete it was before, and was actually boo’d by those I bypassed…the father-son companions had genuinely-scared looks on their faces as I professed many thank you’s to them, telling me “You almost caused a riot, everyone was yelling at us for not moving your backpack and letting someone else in your spot!”  There was a particularly mean-spirited very short grandmotherly woman standing right behind me who shot dagger looks at me the rest of the morning and kept shoving me into the barrier (which I thought was very un-English of her).  So this begs the question:  how does everyone else do it, how do they stand there for hours upon hours without bathroom breaks, and especially after drinking all that TEA?  Adult diapers?  Severe self-dehydration starting the day before?  I still don’t get it.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan's prize buckets.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan’s prize buckets.

Well anyway, at 10:00 all the riders started rolling up to sign in and do interviews on the grandstand, still in relaxed and festive moods.  And then they started lining up right in front of me in the Neutral Zone area, awaiting the 11:00 rollout.  The father-son duo went gaga when Team Sky & British defending Tour champion Chris Froome stopped right in front of us to make some bike adjustments, and it was fun to see their pure joy reaction at getting a little smile from him when they shouted “Good luck out there Chris!”  I watched British sprinter-star & stage-winner favorite for that day Mark Cavendish give an interview about two feet in front of me, multiple microphones thrust in his face, none of us knowing that it would be his first and, sadly, last day of this year’s Tour (more on that later).  I could’ve reached out and touched controversial Alberto Contador as he cleaned and twisted his bright yellow sunglasses.  I could hear Fabian Cancellara laughing as he joked (in Fabianese) with the riders sitting next to him. 

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

The rider on the right just wants to get going already...

The rider on the right just wants to get going already…

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Cycling fans love cycling because you can get that close to your favorite riders – at the start, the finish, on the rest days, and on all the roads in-between.  It’s a true fan’s sport, cycling, with so many nations represented and so many different dramas going on within the race.  Yes it’s had its obvious struggles and challenges and it’s been tough to not get disheartened over the years, but cycling is changing, and the fans know this, so they stick with it, even if that means standing in one spot for hours until you can no longer feel your feet or lower spine.

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The official start line for the Grand Départ

I’d never been right on the start line of any Tour stage before, much less the Grand Départ, and the atmosphere was absolutely buzzing.  I’ve heard that there were 280,000 people crammed into that start area with me that morning in Leeds – it seemed like more.  With the last rider signed in, the final countdown started and with a cacophony of pedal clips they were off, slowly making their way through the massive crowds and into the distance to begin their 3-week adventure/sufferfest.  We cheered them off and then cheered some more as each multimillion dollar team bus rolled through the start line after them, those impeccable imposing team refuges that harbor the riders before and after each stage and transport them around the Tour.  The bus that got the biggest cheer though wasn’t Team Sky’s shiny black “Death Star” – nope, it was the tiny little cartoonish camper van bus at the back of the pack, belonging to the wildcard team NetApp-Endura, who had never been to the Tour before and whose entire team budget is a meager one-eighth that of the juggernaut Team Sky.  With barely any windows and no chance of getting stuck under a finish line gantry, they became immediate crowd favorites for their underdog status.

The riders were on their way to Harrogate that day for the finish, and so was I.  But this blog post is already crazy long so I’ll continue the tale in the next entry.  Stay tuned to hear about the world’s longest train lines and glimpses of royalty (specifically, their feet).  More Tour de France up-close-and-personal next time!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 1: Windsor, Surrey, Bath

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 “I dare meet Surrey in a wilderness…” ~William Shakespeare (Richard II, IV, i)

I’m in tea-and-scone withdrawal as I write this, having recently returned from a wonderful, exhausting, memorable three-week solo vacation to England.  I organized my trip around another fantastic opportunity to see the Tour de France, with the rare occasion of the three-week race kicking off in the beautiful Yorkshire region of the UK (before then heading back to France).  Before too much time passes, I wanted to write down the details of my trip in an anglophile account of my own personal Tour de England.

Tour de England 2014

Tour de England 2014

(Disclaimer: Tour de England posts shall be longer than my usual rantings, there’s a lot to cover!)

This is post 1 of 3, and the series will cover my itinerary as follows:  Week 1- Windsor, Surrey & Bath; Week 2 – Leeds, York & the Tour de France; Week 3 – Shakespeare Country & London.

When I went to England last time in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival, just prior to the 2012 London Olympics, I stayed for 9 nights/10 days, which sped by in the blink of an eye.  I told myself then that I wanted to go back to England for a longer amount of time, to see more of the country than I had before, and to go at a time when the rest of the entire world wasn’t there at the same time (like they were for the very-crowded Olympics).

Because I was able to use my frequent flier miles to get a free airline ticket this time (well, $192 in taxes & fees which is pretty much a free ticket to London in peak July), I was able to budget to stay a little more than double the time of my last trip.  Three weeks is a very long vacation, I discovered, both in terms of time and expense.  I think it may be longest “real” vacation I’ve ever taken, and if I had to do it over I’d probably decrease it by just a few days – maybe.  But I realize how lucky I was to be able to even go on this trip at all, so I’m not complaining!

(The price I paid for that “free” ticket was unfortunately the smallest, most cramped economy seat I’ve ever been in, on a Virgin Atlantic flight, setting very close to a brand-new college graduate on a celebration trip to Europe who was on his ways to run with the bulls in Spain but who smelled like he’d already done so.  The service on Virgin was also unfortunately really bad, so I won’t be flying that airline again unless by some miracle I have a first-class fold-down.)

I wasn’t able to sleep at all on the flight over, so by the time I got to London Heathrow I was already pretty tired.  I’ve always heard though that the best way to combat jet lag is to not go to bed when you get there from an overnight flight – that you should stay up the rest of the day and then go to bed at the new-country time.  Trouble is that means you’ve been up about 36 hours straight by that time.  That didn’t work out for me too well on my 2012 trip when I spent my first day on a blurry trip to Stonehenge, and it didn’t work out this time either so I didn’t learn my lesson apparently.

My plan this trip was to head directly from the airport to Windsor via bus, drop my bags at my B&B, then head to Windsor Castle to walk off the jet lag on a transitional day.  The first part of that plan went well, and after a short 30-minute bus trip west of Heathrow, I was at the Castle by 10:00 AM.  Because I was traveling alone and not part of one of the huge bus groups snaking around the block, I was told to bypass the lines & go right in.  I immediately caught a warder-led tour of the grounds and I was the only one to show up to the meeting point, so I got my own personal tour which was very nice.

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However, by this time as I wandered around the rest of the castle grounds on my own, I started to feel not-great.  I hadn’t had anything to eat in a while, I know I was dehydrated, but mostly I was just sleep-deprived.  As I walked through an archives exhibit in one of the castle towers, I started to feel very lightheaded and fuzzy, spacey.  I sat down for a while, but after only two hours I decided to go back to the B&B.  It was unfortunate, since it cost $32 to get into the Castle (which I think it pretty pricey for what you actually have access to , which is not much, including a very underwhelming Henry VIII tomb), but jet lag seemed to be hitting me much worse this trip than the past few times over the ocean.

I succumbed to the sleepiness, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better nap than I did that afternoon at that B&B – in a second floor room with the window open, a cool British breeze blowing in, overlooking the sights and sounds of a cricket practice field session.  I felt much better a few hours later, good enough to venture out to a pub down the street for some dinner and then a walk around the neighborhood, including down by the riverside.  I followed that same river walking path the next morning as I ventured back into the town; Windsor is actually a nice little town, overshadowed by the Castle of course but with some other quaint aspects too.

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A floating flower/plant canal boat shop! (In Windsor)

After a relaxing river cruise through the waters of Windsor and a stop at a coffee shop with a castle view, I got on the train for my next destination: Surrey.  Surrey is a county in southern England, just slightly southwest of the greater London area.  It’s very popular with London commuters for its proximity, and is said to have the highest percentage of millionaires who live there over any other county in England (and therefore the highest property values outside of London proper).  It’s also the most wooded county in the country, with almost a quarter of its land covered by forests, heaths & woodlands, which make it a very beautiful place.

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Surrey County, England

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Surrey County map – my base was Godalming

Many of you reading this may have never heard of Surrey, or the town of Godalming, which was my base for 3 days while visiting the county.  When looking at the map above, you won’t see any world-famous tourist towns within those county lines (although true fans of ‘The Office’ will notice Slough, hometown of the original British series).  So why was this region on my itinerary?  It was actually perhaps the part of my trip I was looking forward to the most, as I was on a genealogical quest to explore the part of England from where my family surname originated.

Through some web research several months earlier,  I’d found a man who is a genealogical and historical researcher in his spare time and maintains the British website for that research pertaining to our common family name.  I reached out to Martin to let him know I’d like to visit the area during my trip to see the land of my ancestors, and he graciously offered to be my tour guide for a day.

And what a day!  Martin drove down from Woking to pick me up from my B&B and we set off as new-found long-lost cousins; over the next several hours we drove through lush Surrey countryside and impossibly perfect English towns.  We stopped in six different locations to view some of the earliest existing tombs and graves of our family ancestors (at incredibly ancient churches in Thursley & Lynchmere that date back to Saxon times, that’s 450-800 AD people), peek through fences at some of the original property sites and homes of the earliest family members, and my favorite: visiting the actual site of the spring well pond after which our family is named.  The pond (located next to the petite hamlet of Bowlhead Green) only fills during the winter, so I was actually able to stand in the middle of the dry spring well bed and think of what it was like to live there almost 800 years ago (yes you read that right – the first recorded mention of our family name was in the year 1235!).  I like to imagine a hardworking agricultural laborer taking a break from his work for a nearby estate owner, relaxing by the welcoming banks of this still, clear, well-spring in the shady glade, and deciding to make a fresh start with his family by forming a new name for all of them.

(By the way, my Marvel-crazy nephews will love finding out that the small village of our ancestors, Thursley, draws its name from Old English Þunres lēah meaning lea of the god Thunor or Thor [in his northern guise], and was probably a site where he was worshipped).

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Saxon-era church in Thursley & tombs of some of our earliest family ancestors

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It was a fantastic memory-making day with my walking-history-book guide Martin, and I was very appreciative that he was willing to share his research with me and drive me around his beautiful Surrey lands.  After our visit Martin began a new quest to enlist the help of nearby residents in restoring and rebuilding the pond to its former glory days, which gives me a great reason to return one day and sit by the banks of our namesake’s nature retreat.  I feel as if I’ve made a very real connection to England now, both in terms of existing family members (distant though they may be) and historical links to the land to which I’ve always felt drawn.

I spent the other two days of my time in Surrey exploring the towns of Godalming and Guildford.  I walked the town streets, perused the street market stalls, and strolled along the river paths and through castle gardens.  I talked to locals about what it was like to live in this area (and learned what a Scotch Egg is).  I attended a play in Guildford called “The Other Shakespeare,” about the Bard’s wife Anne Hathaway and her reaction to being left by him for much of their married life.  My gracious B&B owners invited me to accompany them one night to a special exhibit at the Watts Gallery, which was amazing; before this trip I’m embarrassed to say I’d never even heard of the artist George Frederick Watts, but I’m definitely a fan now of his gargantuan sculptures and evocative paintings. (The exhibit by the way was about his young wife Ellen Terry, one of the earliest Shakespearean star actresses in silent films.)

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The town church of Godalming; perhaps my favorite picture of my whole trip that I took peeking through the garden roses.

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Guildford castle grounds

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Godalming’s famous “Pepper Pot.” (By the way, Godalming was the first city in the world to install a municipal electricity supply!)

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My time in Surrey was definitely the most meaningful segment of my entire journey.  I’m so glad I got off the beaten path and chose to take the non-tourist road less traveled.  I was sad to leave Surrey for my next stop of Bath, but…I LOVED BATH!

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  • That wasn’t my first reaction.  In fact, the afternoon I arrived in Bath and walked around the city to gain my bearings, I thought “Ugh, every building looks EXACTLY the same, how boring.”  But then I saw the gothic Bath Abbey, and Pultney Bridge over the river, and the buildings of the Roman Baths…and then on a fantastic free walking tour the next day, the famous Circus and Royal Crescent buildings, the Assembly Rooms where Jane Austen danced & socialized…and the beauty of the city really began to grow on me.  Every building (by law) is indeed built out of the same famous Bath sand-colored stone, but the uniformity and symmetry and Georgian architecture is actually quite mesmerizing after a while.

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I really enjoyed the tour of Bath Abbey, where I climbed the 200+ steps to the windy rooftop and peered out at the sand-colored city below.  I chose to explore the Roman Baths by torchlight at dusk, once the crowds had died down, and was struck by the history and significance of the structures surrounding the waters (and yes I drank some of the sulfuric pump water, you have to try it at least once).  I regularly exercised my Bath-given right to daily afternoon tea and scones, the best of which were at the Jane Austen Centre Regency Tea Room.  I popped in to the Tallulah Rose Flower School to introduce myself as a longtime Twitter follower.  And after exploring the stately Holburn Museum and adjoining garden grounds at one end of the city, I walked the long way back to my B&B through real (non-tourist area) neighborhoods, which I like to do whenever possible in order to see what’s on the other side of the curtain.

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Oh and I practically brushed shoulders with actual royalty in Bath: Prince Edward was at Bath Abbey the same day I was to oversee the university graduation there in his role as chancellor, I saw him walk out at the front of the procession; and then he was apparently just a few minutes behind me at the Baths that evening (I was told when I bought my ticket not to mind the police dogs and bodyguards inspecting the site in advance).

I would definitely go back to Bath, and would like to see some of the surrounding countryside next time, which is supposed to be breathtaking.  I’m really glad I budgeted three days there and that I gave it a good chance – next time I may even splurge to swim in the healing bath waters.

Stay tuned for the next post when I cover Leeds, York & the Tour de France kickoff in England!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

“Alone or Not, You Gotta Walk Ahead”

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 “…the time of life is short…” ~William Shakespeare (I Henry IV, V, ii)

“The thing to remember is, if we’re all alone, then we’re all together in that too.”  Any fellow romantic comedy fans out there recognize this (and the title phrase) from one of the classics?  Yes, it’s from 2007’s “P.S. I Love You,” which I just finished watching for about the twelfth time.  I don’t even like Hilary Swank all that much but I do like this film, mostly because of all the Ireland scenes; Kathy Bates was great in it too.  (And of course Jeffrey Dean Morgan, holy hotcakes.)

I’m headed back to Ireland’s neighbor next week for another solo UK trip.  For my trip in 2012 just prior to the London Olympics, I had basically decided on a whim to go when I found a really good airfare deal about six weeks prior (yes that’s a whim amount of time for me).  And then I quickly planned every detail literally down to the minute for the 9 days I was there.  It was a great vacation but exhausting, as I tried to pack in every single sightseeing occasion as if I’d never return.

But I am returning, and for this trip, I decided about a year ago that I would head back with the impetus of wanting to see the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in England’s Yorkshire region.  The kickoff will take place over the first three days of the Tour before the teams head back across the Channel to mainland France to continue the race.  I was also lucky enough to be able to use my frequent flier miles to get a “free” airline ticket this time (not really free because I still had to spend lots of money to get all those credit card miles and still had to pay the hefty taxes & fees for the ticket, but it still feels almost free).

I had hoped to be a Tour volunteer as part of the organization in charge of the kickoff, and was actually accepted through the application process, but had to drop out due to not being able to be there in time for the required in-person training sessions.  I’ll still be in Leeds and York to cheer the riders on as each of those first two stages set out, and might be able to also get to Harrogate to see the finish of Stage 1 on the first day.

In addition to the Tour in Yorkshire, I’ll be making a tour of my own to several other parts of the sceptered isle.  I’ll start off in Windsor to walk off my jet lag by visiting the Queen’s weekend home at the castle for a day, and then head to Surrey county south of London to meet up with a distant family relation and explore the area from where my ancestors hail (near Godalming).  Then I’m off to Bath for a few days in Jane Austen country before heading up north to see the Tour.

After Yorkshire, I’ll head back south, stopping over in Nottingham for a day before continuing back to the boats (see blog header picture above) and onto familiar territory in Stratford-upon-Avon to get my fill of all things Shakespeare again.  I hope to explore the Cotswalds a bit and do some real relaxing before heading into London for the final few days of the trip.  I’m really looking forward to visiting the famous New Covent Garden flower market in London this time, as well as a day of catching up with an old college friend who lives just outside the city.

It may sound all planned out, but really it’s just the itinerary of where and when, and I do of course have my accommodations all reserved.  But beyond that, I’m leaving things a little more up in the air this time in terms of how I’ll spend my time in each place.  If I’m being honest, I’m also a little more apprehensive this trip about traveling solo, and I’m not entirely sure why.

I’ve been trying to figure it out, and it just seems that as I get older, there are more things to worry about in terms of health and safety and the unknown.  Issues which appear magnified when I travel alone.  I know I’m strong and independent and resourceful, and capable of handling problems if they do come up, but I guess it’s just the worrier in me that’s got me feeling a little anxious.  I should be used to being alone and walking ahead on my own by now, but sometimes it’s just a little disconcerting and leaves me feeling vulnerable.

On the other hand, I know I should feel lucky and grateful to be taking such a trip, and I do.  A family member of mine lost a close friend this past week at a very young age and to tragic circumstances; it was a heart-wrenching loss for those left behind who cared about him.  It’s got all of us thinking about the fragility of life and how none of it makes sense sometimes.

At the end of “P.S. I Love You,” the main character Holly says “This is my one and only life, and it’s a great and terrible and short and endless thing, and none of us come out of it alive.”  Great and terrible, short and endless.  I guess that’s why I continue to go on these big solo trips, as I have now every two years since 2010.  As daunting as it can be to spend a lot of money and go out there in the world to explore unfamiliar places on your own, it’s empowering at the same time.  It’s a reminder that I’m alive and able to experience new things during this short and endless thing we call life.  I’m not sure how long I can continue this tradition I’ve started, but will at least give it one more whirl this time around.

©operationUNunhappy

©operationUNunhappy

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Forays and Flowers in Fourteen

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“How joyful I am made by this contract!” ~William Shakespeare (Henry VI Part 1, III, i)

I hope this post finds each of you at least a little recovered from the whirlwind holiday season, with all of its chocolatey temptations, superfun family time, and shocking credit card statements.  Back to reality we go now in the new year – a depressing letdown for some, but a chance at new starts and a fresh slate – a blank contract – for others. I don’t make resolutions anymore, but I do make plans – and I have a brainful of blueprints that are itching to be put into action.

I actually really enjoy taking down all the Christmas decorations each year and getting back to the minimalistic, uncluttered normalcy of things again.  It feels refreshing, like when you have a big garage sale and get rid of some of the extemporaneous stuff that seemed nice at the time but now you can’t figure out why you hung onto it for so long.

For me, 2014 will bring some big changes and exciting voyages that I’m really looking forward to.  Things are so different for me now than they were a year ago at this time; a year ago, I was sick as a dog (in urgent care on Christmas morning actually) from my germ-laden job and saw no hope in anything that the immediate future held, professionally or personally.  The new year brought no joy, only more resentment and desperation at having to return to a workplace I despised and job duties that were literally sucking the life out of me.

I started this blog six months ago at the end of June as a way to document my journey towards a less miserable (UNunhappy) existence.  And one month before that, I finally quite that horrible job as the first concrete step on that path.  Since then, I feel a little like I’ve been speedwalking in slow motion – I have so many ideas and so much I want to do (and write), but I’m purposefully taking it slow so that I don’t get overwhelmed and burned out before I even really begin.  I have pages and pages of to-do lists, but instead of burning through them at record speed, I’m allowing myself the time to appreciate each accomplishment as it happens.

I have two main focuses (foci?) this coming year: one will be the launch of my new floral design business, which I have aptly named (drum roll please) “Much Ado About Flowers.” Its namesake play (Much Ado About Nothing) is one of my Bard favorites and considered by many one of his best, and it just felt right to name my business after something I’ve also held dear for so many years. I filed all the necessary contract and business/license/permit fees with the city, county and state a few months ago and finally have it all in working order to be able to officially do actual business. I’ve established accounts with all of the floral wholesalers in town and am establishing networking contacts.  Yes it’s terrifying and I feel like I’m stepping off a cliff sometimes, but I’ve decided it’s better than feeling dead inside.

I will still keep my part-time job at the university, but will spend a good amount of my remaining time on building up my supply and workspace inventory, developing online and social media resources, learning about how to run a small business, and expanding my knowledge of all things flower-related.  I do have some ideas in mind for how I would like to see things develop, but I’m also open to new and different opportunities along the way. I’m leaving the definition of “success” for this business open for now, and not boxing myself into any pre-set expectations or obligations.

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Click on the photo to be taken to the Facebook page for
Much Ado About Flowers.  Please “Like” if so inclined!

For about a month between November and December, I watched in awe as my handyman (also known by the clever alias of Dad) gutted and converted the small storage shed in my backyard into a walk-in flower cool room.  The boardwalk was put into place first so that feet won’t be muddied as trips are traipsed back and forth:

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One step, board, and floor tile at a time, I’m getting closer to another realization.  (My handyman got paid by the way in many thank yous and several loaves of pumpkin bread, and I hope he knows how grateful I am for his help).  I’m pretty intimidated by how much I still don’t know, and by how long of a road I have ahead of me, but at least I feel that I’m on the right road for a change.

And speaking of roads, the other focus of 2014 for me will be getting back out on the road and across the pond to take England by storm again.  I was there in 2012 (right before the Olympics) for the World Shakespeare Festival, and had a great experience.  This time, I’ll be volunteering for the organizing group of the Grand Depart of the 2014 Tour de France!  This is a huge deal for the UK & Yorkshire, with 3 days of racing in England before they head back to France to continue the Tour.  I’ll be in Leeds and York for the first two stages, but that’s just one part of my trip. I’m hoping to also get to several other corners of the country that I missed last time.

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I love planning a trip like this, and I’m in the thick of it right now; for me it’s half the fun.  The challenge and satisfaction of finding just the right little B&B within my budget; the process of mapping out my itinerary along the maze of train tracks and bus routes that crisscross the countryside; and the anticipation of real life forays into the places I’ve read about and seen in my favorite legends, movies and TV shows.

Although I have big aspirations of ogling a whole slew of sights during this trip, I’m also determined to try to enjoy it more than the crazed pace I set for myself last time.  I want to slow down, spend more than one night in most places, and really let myself relax into the English way of life if possible (while still hitting the highlights, of course). 

In addition to travels to new towns, I look forward to going back to Shakespeare country for the historic 450th anniversary celebrations of his birth this year, as well as hopefully meeting a few new Twitter friends I’ve made since my last trip there.  I’ll be avoiding London during the pricey time of Wimbledon, but will manage to spend some time there before I leave.  I will no doubt rack up a pretty penny of debt with this adventure, but what’s that saying about not being able to take it with you once you’re gone…

So those are my blueprints for now.  No big deal.  Just completely changing course in life and taking leaps that may or may not work out.  Thanks for continuing to read along as the path winds through it all.  Here’s to a great Fourteen for all of us.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Easing Up On The Brakes

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“Frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.” ~William Shakespeare (The Taming of The Shrew, Introduction, ii)

Last week, I took my car into a small local brake shop to have some squealing noises looked at (the car, not me).  The owner of the shop was a nice guy and seemed thrilled that I’d chosen his shop instead of one of his competitors, who I told him had treated me badly in the past.  While I usually hate taking my car into any shop for any kind of work because I feel (as I imagine most women do) that they’re taking advantage of me (and I hate admitting that I’m actually pretty hard on my brakes when I drive), this guy actually seemed honest and dare I say genuine, and didn’t try to sell me any unnecessary services.

In fact, he almost seemed to be one of those too-chipper people that I was complaining about in a past post.  He seemed way too happy about a new granite countertop that they’d just had installed in the waiting room.  And then he said something that made my jaw drop:  he was talking about working there at the shop and helping people with their car problems, and he said “This is the best job IN THE WORLD.  I’d do it for free if I could!” 

And he was being totally, completely serious.

This guy works in a hole-in-the-wall greasy mechanic’s shop next to a busy, noisy freeway, with six meager seats in the waiting room and frustrated customers who are having to sometimes spend a lot of money on costly auto repairs.  And yet he is HAPPY to work there.  Joyous, even.  What is going on??  How is this possible??

Is it because he’s the owner of the shop and feels pride in something that is his, to run under his own tutelage and direction?  Could be.  Is it because he actually really enjoys working on cars and now has a shop where he gets to do just that all day, every day?  Hopefully. Does he live for the days when cars break down just so he’ll have a chance to fix them and help people out? 

It’s still such a shock to me when I meet people who are genuinely happy doing the jobs that they’re doing, I guess because the grand majority of people I’ve known are in the opposite camp and are miserable in their jobs.  In any case, that guy’s statement and genuineness around it made an impact on me.  Maybe because I’m more UNunhappy lately, I’ve been able to notice it more in others?

When I look back at the past few years, it feels like my life was being driven in emergency-brake mode. Grating, pressured, dragged down by resistance.  Unable to move forward with any real progress or meaning.  Stuck.

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It’s nice to finally feel – sometimes, not all the time – that I’m able to ease up on the brakes and just breathe, reflect, ponder.  Move more freely and with more purpose.  I’m trying not to pressure myself with time constraints when possible, although in our hurry-up society, that’s not always easy.  But slowing down naturally without slamming on the brakes, recharging, allowing – we should all make time for these life-charging aspects.

Many people I see when at my new university job ask me “So how are you liking it here so far?”  I’ve had the surprising pleasure so far to be able to say “I really like it” and actually MEAN it!  I was also pleasantly surprised when I started another new job last week and the company owner exhibited concern and gratitude for my contentment and labor.  Why are we so surprised when people are nice and kind to us?  What does it say about our society when we are sometimes more suspicious than thankful of people who demonstrate consideration towards us?  Because that’s the temptation, isn’t it?

(There’s a great moment that embodies this tendency in one of my favorite movies, “Sense & Sensibility,” where Elinor states to Edward “The unkindness of your family has made you astonished to find friendship elsewhere.”  Like a tragic sucker-punch to the gut, that line.  One of the best movies ever made, period, based upon the masterpiece by Jane Austen.)

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I had another moment of pure joy yesterday when I booked my plane tickets to go back to the UK next summer.  I’d signed up a while ago to volunteer for the organizing group of the 2014 Tour de France kickoff in Yorkshire, England (yes the French race is starting in England, then they’ll fly back over to France after the first three days of racing).  Buying the tickets for actual dates has made it real!  There’s a wave of anglophile happiness that rushes over me when I think of going back to England, but it’s also because I feel good about making something happen that’s important to me and that I want to do.

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(The other reason why I was so stoked at the moment of booking: because I “beat the system” of maddening frequent flier reservation sites that give you the worst flight choices and mandate eleven-hour layovers in Detroit…  I was able to use a combination of miles from two different credit cards/airlines to get exactly the flights I wanted on the dates I wanted, reasonable layovers, and with all of the cost covered except for those darn fees and taxes. It took a week of searching and finagling but when I finally did it, I had saved $1,200 and felt like I could conquer Kilimanjaro at that point.)

I’ll be staying three weeks this trip, which should give me plenty of time to explore some corners of England I didn’t even get close to when I was last there in 2012: Cornwall, Bath, the Cotswalds…and I’ll definitely be going back to Shakespeare country and hopefully ticking off a few more London boxes.  And of course the Tour kickoff in Leeds and York should be amazing.  I’m giddy about planning the itinerary, even though I’ve told myself I’m going to be more relaxed about the trip this time and less over-scheduled. I want to truly relax and rest while on the sceptered isle, take in the tea and the scones, and relish in the wonderful rain-soaked afternoons.

savrain

So while it hasn’t been all good things in the past week or so – I got TWO tickets from an overzealous sheriff’s deputy, I’m still getting over a case of shingles, and I have yet to conquer my chips and queso addiction – focusing on what IS good is indeed good work if you can get it.  The good things act as tonics against the not-so-good, don’t they?

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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