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Just for Fun

Two Weeks in Italia

Once every year or so I plan a big trip with Best Friend Kaity Kline. We’ve gone road tripping down the California coast, penguin spotting in Argentina and decided it was time for us to go to Italy.

Kaity’s had Italy on her list so when we saw $500, round-trip flights on Scott’s Cheap Flights, we pulled the trigger. Into Naples, out of Florence. The details we’d figure out later.

This post is not another influencer post on how to “do Italy in 2 week” with comp’d hotels and private drivers. This is a travel post for gals in their 30’s who want to travel like normal human beings, but still enjoy the finer things of life.

We learned when to pay 15 euro to have our bags delivered by a porter and when a cheap bus ticket was the best option. A fine line between splurging and savings.

Kaity is a planner and a foodie so MAJOR kudos go to her for finding the best places.

Here’s a brief itinerary and helpful tips we picked up along the way. We called it the trip of a lifetime, but you be the judge.

Quick Itinerary Summary

  • Flew into Naples, spent one night there.
  • Day trip via train to Pompeii on our way to Sorrento
  • Ferry to Positano, 3 days there. Boat trip to Capri + beach time.
  • Bus to Sorrento, then train to Rome.
  • 3 days in Rome – our favorite city! Vespa tour, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica, dome climb.
  • Train to Florence, rental car to drive to Tuscany/Montepulciano.
  • 3 days in Tuscany – Wine tastings, relaxing and hot springs.
  • Drove back to Florence – 3 days there. Free walking tour, Uffizi Museum, Galleria, cooking class, Dumo climb.
  • Forece to Home

Travel Tips & Tricks for Italy

  • Get a travel pass ($10/day) for your cell phone so you have service
  • The best, most authentic restaurants are named for their founders. Da Tonino, da Enzo, etc.
  • Always get the house wine
  • Tuscan bread is bland since there’s no salt! Legend says it’s because of a long-time rivalry with Pisa
  • Sidewalks are uneven, a 15 minute walk with your rollerbag doesn’t sound bad, but it might be worth a cheap taxi to get to your hotel
  • While food anywhere in Italy is great, read reviews before sitting down. We avoided bad places a few times when looking for a quick meal.
  • Florence is known for its leather, Sorrento for its sandals
  • Italy is a no tipping culture
  • Make sure you watch Lizzie MacGuire & When in Rome before or during your trip for a truly immersive experience

All the Details: Italia 2019

Day 1 – Flew into Naples. Pizza at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. The “best pizza in the world” of Julia Robert’s Eat, Pray, Love fame. We went at 5pm and waited 5 minutes for a table. Heard others who went later that day waited 1 to 2 hours. 5 euro for a pizza (2 options to choose from) and beer or Coke. Best pizza of our trip.

We didn’t love-love Naples and were only there a few hours. Spent the evening catching up on sleep and fighting jet-lag.

Day 2 – Train to Pompeii, then onto Sorrento. A 45 minute train ride from Naples to Pompeii via the Circumvesuviana train from the Naples Centrale station to Pompeii Scavi station. Trains depart every half hour. Bought tickets at the station.

Pompeii is literally right next to the train station. 5 min walk. We chose to store our bags at the train station for 4 euros/bag. Pompeii has free bag storage on a first-come, first-serve basis and probably should have done that. Also bought an unofficial walking tour from the train station. Regrets. Buy a walking tour from the park (8 euros) or go with a tour group.

We spent about 3 hours walking around and exploring areas of the city. Fun to get lost and explore crevices and old brothels in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. We had a quick lunch at the Pompeii cafe in the park before heading back to the train station. Opted for the commuter train, should have paid more for the express train to Sorrento. Trains were crowded and delayed, but was a truly local experience.

In Sorrento, we stayed at Hotel Regina. For dinner we walked to Bagni Delfina. Lovely seafood restaurant on the water. Delicious pasta and house wine and amazing views of Sorrento to get there on little footpaths. We called for reseservations ad got there right as they opened.

The quaint little town of Sorrento is known for its sandals. Kaity bought an adorable pair of flip flops and we both got matching straw bags at the market. Cute little town to walk around and sample limoncello.

Day 3 – Took the ferry from Sorrento to Positano. 15 euros/person and took about an hour. Before we left, had lunch by the water and by the ferry depot at Ristorante Bar Ruccio. There’s an elevator from the top of Sorrento to the water for a few euros. We walked down the first time to get ferry tickets, then bought tickets for when we had our bags.

When arriving in Positano, we planned to walk to our Air BnB. Thankfully there were guys at the ferry depot in blue shirts shouting, “70 steps to the top, log walk”. We later realized they were ANGELS. The Positano Porters would deliver our suitcases for 15 euro/bag to our place. We hadn’t planned on using them, but my goodness, we would have paid double. Turns out it was 200 steps to our place and we would have probably actually died if we did it ourselves. For us normal people who aren’t staying in 5-star resorts, pay to have your bags delivered.

Days 4 & 5 – Positano. Positano is everything you’ve heard. Beautiful, one million steps everywhere and overpriced. But dang, it’s worth it. This part of our trip was everything beach, sun and water-related.

Private boat tour around CapriGianni’s Boats. 180 euros cash for 4 hours for the 4 of us. We ferried from Positano to Capri (20 euro/person; 40 mins) where we met our captain, Luca. BYOB.

Luca toured us around stunning grottos where we could swim in the Mediterranean.

We went to the Blue Grotto because you have to when you’re that close. Lots of tour boats waiting to get in. We somehow cut the line and paid the 14 euro entrance fee + a hefty tip to the row boat that let us go in ahead of others. Fine and you have to do it, but wouldn’t recommend if you’re tight on time since there are so many other beautiful grottos and places to boat. One of our favorite excursions. You truly feel like queens.

Restaurant La Tagliata – Recommended by a few friends and totally worth it! Set menu of 45 euros/person since “we’re all family here”. 6 courses of food that just kept coming – veggies, meat plates, pastas, desserts and unlimited wine. Made a reservation in advance and they picked us up at a hotel in town. 25 minute ride to the restaurant up the hill to a quiet little enclave outside of downtown.

Beach Chairs + Umbrellas – We’d had every intention of hiking the Path of the Gods, but instead opted to rent beach chairs and an umbrella and spent the day sipping pina coladas and reading. 20 euros/person for front-row seats (17 euro for second row). You’re in Positano, get the front row.

Day 6 – Bus to Sorrento, then train to Rome. Big travel day to get up to Rome. Took the SITA bus from Positano to Sorrento. Bought bus tickets at the Tobacci shop at the top of the hill in Positano for a few euros. Sat with the locals on the 45 minute, turny ride. Convinced my best friend not to throw up.

Once in Sorrento, we took the Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to the Naples Centrale station (trains depart every half hour). Lovely trains with reserved seats. Bought our tickets a few days before at the train station when we first arrived in Sorreto.

Private Vespa Tour in Rome – Another one of our favorite activities that we splurged on. Referred to Valerio of Dearoma Tours from a coworker.

Booked a 3 hour vespa tour of Rome and got to feel like a local while seeing more remote spots of the city. Great intro on our first day!

For hotels in Rome, we stayed at a boutique near the Trevi Fountain. Great location, good price and central to most things. The Trevi Fountain was always, always crowded. We liked going there best at night when it was all lit up. Don’t forget to throw a coin (or two or three!) into the water.

Days 7 & 8 – Rome

Rome was our favorite city and we’re so glad we booked three days there. It’s historic and beautiful and larger than life. Something ancient on literally every corner, you can turn around and see something new. No joke, we accidentally walked by the Pantheon one night – oh surprise! Look at that.

We booked two big tours in Rome: one to see the Colosseum and one to see the Vatican.

For the Colosseum we booked a “skip the, skip the line tour” through Viator. There’s a 3,000 person capacity for the Colosseum and our 7-person group walked right past people who had been standing in line for hours.

One thousand percent worth it, especially because of our fantastic tour guide, Erturk. He also does private tours around Rome – highly recommend! He was our favorite guide of our trip. The afternoon Viator tour included the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. (Morning tours went to see the Pantheon which we were disappointed at first to miss, but Palatine Hill was so much cooler).

We also booked a skip the line tour for the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peters Basilica. Worth doing since you’re there, but not one of our highlights. The tour group let us walk right in without waiting, but the place was crowded, despite our tour guide being pleased how un-crowded it was.

It was cool to see the School of Athens and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. We weren’t that into St. Peter’s Cathedral. We climbed the cathedral Dome (8 euros to climb the stairs). Tight little steps that start to slant when you get to the top. Great views of Rome and worth the exertion.

Kaity found a cool pizza place a 20 min walk from the Vatican that had traditional square Roman-style pizza called Pizzarium. Place wasn’t crowded when we got there at 4pm, but we could only imagine how busy it would get. They cut pizza by the slice with scissors and weigh it. Very rushed ordering, but got to enjoy it at the standing counters outside.

We walked around the Spanish Steps and Borghese Gardens on our own. The Orange Garden is serene and has great views of the Vatican.

For food in Rome, our vespa guide gave us a hot tip: the best, most traditional restaurants in Rome have their owner’s name. We ate at da Enzo and da Tonino, both excellent. We loved da Tonino – cheap, delicious pasta in the Trastevere district. No reservation, went at 8pm and got a table in 5 mins. The Trastevere was a quieter neighborhood with local places. Da Enzo only takes reservations for 7:30. We couldn’t get one so lined up with the rest of the peasants and waited 90 mins for a table. There were 3 parties seated at our table and it was tight and busy, but food was good.

Days 9, 10 & 11 – Train to Florence, rented a car and drove to Tuscany. From Rome, we hoped back on the train and went to Florence. We walked 5 mins from the train station to the Hertz to get our rental car. We also met back up with our two friends and the four of us piled in and headed for wine.

Tour & Wine Tasting at Castello di Verrazzano – We visited this rustic winery from the 16th Century. Bigger production, but the best dang balsamic we had. Planned to bring some home before we saw the 48 euro/3 ounce price tag.

Had a tour, tasting and light lunch at Capannelle. One of our tour highlights! Staff was lovely, place was small, quiet and remote. We had the entire space to ourselves. Juliana, the 75-year old Italian cook, made us one of the best meals we had. Pastas, leek souffles and desserts to die for. Wine was also good. Reservations required, highly, highly recommend for a top-tier experience. 50 euro/person.

We stayed in a very remote villa in Montepulciano we booked through Air BnB. Lots of steep hills and blind turns to get there.

One day, we booked a wine tour through Tours of Tuscany Montepulciano/Montalcino. They picked us up at 9am and our party of four joined two others as we visited 3 wineries and had lunch. They dropped us back at our Air BnB around 4:30pm.

Motepulciano is know for “vino nobile”, a delicious, medium-bodied red wine made from Sangiovese grapes. loyal red drinkers, Kaity and I were in heaven.

Had dinner at Ristorante la Grotta and one of our favorites! Classy/casual place – welcome wine + appetizers from the kitchen. Homemade pastas and delicious wines. Made a reservation the day before, but you may be able to walk in if you get there early enough.

Kaity and I had an extra day in Tuscany. We slept in til noon, then went to the Gattavecchi Winery in Montepulciano for lunch and a tasting. Love, love! Ate on the terrace and enjoyed the best service and perfectly made pasta. Got the potatoes with cheese and regret nothing. Ended up buying a bottle there, the place was so darling and welcoming.

That evening, we drove to the hot springs, Bagni San Filippo. You park on the side of the road and hike maybe 10 minutes until you find an open spring. It was dark when we were there so we were hilariously stumbling over everything. Almost sat down in a lukewarm pool before we found truly hot, shallow water and shared a space with a German couple. Hug out maybe an hour before we were done and tired of smelling like sulfur.

Driving in Florence, Montepulciano and Tuscany was no joke. It was quick and tight and you’re surrounded by sneaky vespas! Kaity got her international driver’s license through AAA so we kept it legal.

Days 12, 13 and 14 – Drove from Tuscany to Florence. Woke up and made the 2 hour drive back to the city. Stayed in a darling Air BnB 3 minutes away from the Ponte Veccio and the downtown area.

Did one of our favorite things to do and booked a free walking tour of Florence at 10:30am on Day 1. We’re a fan of Reign (the Mary Queen of Scots teen drama) and were enamored with the de Medic family and how they influenced the city.

Tour-wise, we hit the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia, booking normal tickets on the museum websites for both. The Uffizi we walked through in about 1.5 hours and the Galleria we spent 20 minutes in since it was built solely to house Michelangelo’s David.

We reserved tickets ahead of time online to climb up the dome of the Duomo, one of the most unique buildings we saw. Tickets sell out so reserve your spot before you go.

Our tickets to climb the dome also got us into the museums where the original Gates of Paradise are. Very cool to see the bronze doors.

We took cooking classes and made pasta and tiramisu after having a market tour. Very fun, especially since we met some cool people and the wine was flowing very liberally.

At the market, we got to sample cheeses, meats and chutney and some of the best sweet hot pepper jam.

Diner highlight in Florence was 4 Leoni – I splurged and got the bistecca Fiorentina, the famously huge steak from Florence. Cuts start at 55 euro for 1 kilo. *gulp*. Kaity had the best eggplant parm of her life.

The best gelato in Florence we found at Sbrino. All locally made and delicious sorbets, too. Tip from our tour guide from the walking tour.

He also told us to try lampredotto, which is a traditional Florentine dish made from a cow’s stomach.

Kaity and I could’t stomach the stomach and nearly threw up. I repeat, do not try lampredotto.

From Florence, we took a taxi to the airport where we had 20 long hours of traveling ahead of us. Italy, you were bellissima. Thank you for delicious food, savory wine and too many memories (some of which we’ll never share). We will be back!

Just for Fun

An American in Canada

On April 17th, I received an email from my boss about a job in our Canadian office. “It’s an opportunity that we should discuss,” he said.

And discuss we did. What would it look like for me to relocate from Pittsburgh–the city where I grew up, where my friends are, where I go to church, where my mom, dad, brother, sister, nephew, aunts, uncles, cousins live–and move to Toronto, Ontario?

Beyond a new currency and figuring out the metric system, it would mean picking up and moving to a new country where I knew only my coworkers. The job itself was appealing – a role where I could build out a team and grow an arm of our digital marketing services. I couldn’t find a reason not to do it. I love new things and it sounded like an adventure.

On April 26th, the eve of my 30th Birthday, I sent this message to my soon-to-be-ex-boss, “I think we’re doing this!”

And do this we did.

I signed the papers, quit my commitments, said my goodbyes and moved to Toronto, Ontario on June 28th, 2019.

I gave away furniture, clothes, dishes and random items to friends that just wouldn’t fit into my new Canadian lifestyle (or the Uhual). I met friends for going away happy hours, dinners, breakfast and Target runs. My mother cried for days. Happy tears and sad tears; tears that I knew meant she would miss me.

It’s now September and I’ve been in Toronto for 2.5 months. My high-rise, 1 bed + 1 den apartment is 95% furnished (pink velvet couch included). I’ll post pics soon.

I’m making friends, finding a good church and discovering the benefits of having a fully-loaded Presto card. My commute to work consists of a 17 minute walk (with one right turn). I rarely take my car out from the underground garage and will probably sell it soon. I now buy shoes based on their comfort level and walkability since I walk close to a hour each day.

The move also gave me something I haven’t had in a long time: space. Space to think, space to be alone, space to wander. Any friend will tell you the 2-week waiting planning period required for my schedule in Pittsburgh. Now, there’s flexibility for happy hour to go extra long or to pop into breakfast with a coworker because I’m in the neighbourhood. I’ve got to tell you, this freedom – it’s intoxicating.

My Canadian coworkers here have been nothing but welcoming. We work together, sample cocktails together, eat tacos after work and go to the beach. It’s week 2 of rec league volleyball and our team is thriving.

One downside to moving across borders and downsizing to live in the 4th largest city in North America is you’ve got to be selective about your belongings. My bins (and bins and bins) of yarn was a “phase 2” delivery and so I moved here relatively empty handed. Yes, this is a confession: I have’t crocheted in 2.5 months.

And so that’s it. That’s the big news in JJCrochet’s world right now. After living in Pittsburgh for 30 minus 2 years of my life, I’ve moved to Toronto. If anyone is interested in applying for a 3-year work visa, moving to Canada or the details of universal healthcare, I’m now an expert. Send me an email.

I have my hooks and needles, of course, but there wasn’t room for yarn. Before I left, I made a large drop-off of yarn to the library and my old knitting group (The Knotty Knitters) who I’ve no doubt will put the skeins to good use.

The weather here in Toronto has turned cooler in the mornings and evenings; autumn is almost here.

It’s Saturday morning and I woke up with the thought that today I would blog and make a trip to a yarn store. Space. It’s a wonderful, freeing, empowering feeling.

Just for Fun, Videos

Speed Crocheting & A Little Energy Savings

I have a friend who has a friend who has a coworker who works at an energy company.

When I found this out, my first question was, “So tell me, is it better to keep my apartment cold while I’m at work, then crank it 10 degrees when I get home or should I keep it moderately warm during the day?” He told me it’s better to keep it cold, then warm it up.

jayna grassel fastest crocheter

Which means my apartment is a cool 53 degrees when I’m gone. I bump it up to 64 when I get home from work, but it’s a little frigid, brr. I keep whatever crochet project I’m working on in a basket in my living room so while my place warms up, I’ll work a few rows (and keep my hat on because again, brr).

My friends call me cheap for living in the cold, I call them fools for heating rooms when they’re not home. Since my apartment is over 100 years old, I’m always looking for ways to save a few bucks while staying warm.

When Duke Energy asked me to partner with them on an energy saving video, I was thrilled. I love saving money on my electric bill and of course, I love crocheting.

On a cold January evening, I literally packed a suitcase full of yarn (there wasn’t much room for anything else!), interspersed crochet hooks in my luggage in case TSA confiscated them (they didn’t, by the way – crochet hooks are fine to take on airplanes) and headed off to Boston.

The following morning, I found myself in Foxboro, Massachusetts working on an energy video and speed crocheting.

To prep for the shoot, I made three things:

  1. A chunky teal & green sweater (6 hours)
  2. A pair of mittens (20 mins)
  3. A draft door stopper (1 hour)

If you follow my blog, you know I like to stick to my hat-making so it was a treat to branch out and try new projects.

Making the video was SO MUCH FUN! We kept quoting the scene from Arrested Development where Lindsay and Tobias say, “…Cause then you have it,” when debating whether or not to take a particular shot. The team was incredible to work with and it was a full day for everyone. So much yarn everywhere.

Ironically, while we were making this video on how to winter-proof your home, Boston got slammed with the infamous Bombcyclone. This meant my flight the following morning was cancelled as feet of snow covered the city. I was stuck in my hotel room… with my crochet hooks… and tons of yarn… and a bottle of wine. I mean, I can think of worse ways to spend a Friday. J

I also got to do a little how-to video of working a front post double crochet. This is a stitch that works up nice and textured. It’s pretty similar to a double rochet, just worked around a stitch instead of in the top loops.

How to Make a Front Post Double Crochet

Pattern is worked across an odd number of stitches in the round. You can use any size hook and yarn, suitable for your project. I used worsted weight yarn and a size H hook.

Chain 10 + 2 (counts as first double crochet).

Rounds 1: Double crochet in each stitch across (11 double crochet). Turn work.

Rounds 2: Chain 2 (counts as first double crochet). Work front post double crochet into next stitch. Double crochet into next stitch. Repeat pattern across row, ending with a double crochet. (11 stitches). Turn work.

Rounds 3: Chain 2. Work double crochet into next stitch. Front post double crochet into next stitch. Repeat pattern across row, ending with two double crochet. (11 stitches). Turn work.

Repeat Rounds 2-3 for desired length.

I’m so thankful I got the chance to meet and work with some great people, sharing the craft I love and learning how to cut down on my heating bill.

You can check out the full write-up here (no judging!): https://illumination.duke-energy.com/articles/she-crochets-her-way-into-energy-savings

Energy efficiency tips provided by Duke Energy. Visit Energy.gov for more ways to save this winter.

 

 

Just for Fun

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Review of California Zephyr

Emerson said, “life is a journey, not a destination.” When I heard about cross-country train trips, I knew I had to go. My dad, mom, sister and I spent three vacation days taking an Amtrak train across the US (well, almost).

The quick review is GO. The train is a romantic way of travel, the views are incredible. Just prepare yourself for it to be a little hobo. If you’re ok going with the flow of things and making your own rules, it is a fantastic relaxing vacation.

Plus, you’ll forever be able to tell your friends, “oh yeah – this one time when I took a train cross-country… it was awesome.”

02 - Train

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The Planning

It began by telling my dad plans to take a solo train trip from Pittsburgh to San Francisco on the California Zephyr and evolved into a week-long family ski trip (don’t ask me how – it escalated very quickly and included an atlas). Rather than ride the track the entire way to San Francisco, we decided to hop off in Utah to ski. I wanted to experience the magic of train travel; my family was mostly interested in the travel after the train.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr officially runs from Chicago to San Francisco. A one-way coach ticket will cost you about $200, while a ticket for a sleeper car costs double that, though does have meals included. Amtrak’s website can be tricky to navigate – you don’t buy a “Zephyr ticket”, but simply input your departure and arrival stations (train speak!) and it’ll calculate the cost.

Zephyr Route 2

Zephyr Route 1

We found it was only $10 more to include the leg from Pittsburgh  to Chicago so we purchased Amtrak tickets from Pittsburgh, PA to Provo, Utah. We opted to get off at Provo for two reasons: it has fantastic skiing and it let us ride through the majority of the Rockies (thanks, atlas).

Our 2,000 mile trip included a daunting 43 hours of train travel from start to finish (9 hours from Pitt to Chicago, with a 5 hour layover, then 34 continuous hours from Chicago to Provo). When my mom convinced my sister to come with us, she mistakenly told her the trip was 28 hours. It wasn’t until day two that she found out it was much longer. Needless to say, she was not happy.

The Trip

We arrived at the Pittsburgh Amtrak station two hours before our train departed since Father Bill likes to be early. I was unprepared for how casual the boarding process was. You wait in an indoor boarding area (similar to an airport gate), then a few minutes before you’re ready to board, you take your bags and walk onto the train platform. Someone scanned our tickets, assigned us four seats, we walked what felt like 5 blocks to a passenger car and were off. Simple as that.

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Amtrak wasn’t strict on their carry-on or luggage policy. We had two large suitcases and each had two carry-ons. Again, super casual – you carry on your luggage, stow on the bottom car, then find your seat on the upper level.

We left Pittsburgh at midnight and arrived at Chicago a little after 9:45am. This was poor planning on our part (though the cheapest option) since this meant we essentially slept on the train and didn’t get to do/see anything until we arrived in the Windy City the following morning. Sleeping on a train isn’t bad, but it’s not good. The chairs recline 45 degrees and have two foot rests (the bottom of your seat extends and the other is a bar that pulls down from the chair in front of you). Still, not ideal and my sister and I traded taking shots of Zzzquil to help us sleep. But for $10, it beat having to fly to Chicago. We brought pillows and “train blankets” and settled in for the ride.

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I’d been to Chicago years ago and was excited to show my family the city. We only had a 5 hour layover but took advantage of the time. We checked our bags at the station ($18 for 24 hours) then walked from Union Station to Millennium Park to see the iconic Bean. It was freezing out (9 degrees!), but the 1 mile walk was refreshing. Afterwards, we enjoyed deep dish pizza before walking to the oldest library in the city. We explored the historic building, shopped a bit, then Uber’d back to the station.

01- Bean

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We barely made it back in time since we got our track number wrong (Track #5, not Train #5!), but thanks to Amtrak’s lax boarding policies, we ran up to the platform, had our tickets scanned, boarded and 10 minutes later, we were on our way out West. Close one. Father Bill was sweating.

The first 20 hours of the second leg weren’t exciting. We headed from Chicago into Iowa, through Nevada and towards Denver. The land we could see for 3 hours until the sunset was flat and uninteresting. After that, it was darkness and a restless night’s sleep until we got to Denver.

The train arrived at the Denver station a little before 8am. My sister and I woke up from our Zzzquil-induced stupor to the train loudspeaker announcing this was a ‘fresh air’ stop. We  immediately started mapping a route to the nearest Starbucks.

We arrived in Denver, bounded off the train, asked a man for directions as we jogged out of the station (“You can trust him because he’s wearing Patagonia,” asserted my sister) and found a Starbucks three blocks away. My mother did not support our coffee dreams and said if the train left, we were on our own. We made it back with a few minutes to spare and didn’t even show tickets as we walked around the  corner of the train station building and back onto the train. Nothing stands in our way when coffee’s on the line.

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Our hop-off, hop-on stunt made me feel a bit like a hobo, but like Michael Bluth says, you’ve got to watch for hop-ons… cause you’ll get hop-ons.

After Denver, the scenery started to get interesting. We immediately began our ascent through the Rockies, going through what someone said were 26 little tunnels as the train slowly increased its altitude. We spotted a large herd of elk in the hills beyond Denver and were enthralled with the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. I don’t know if it was the flatness we endured in Iowa, but I was loving the views. They were incredible. This is the reason you take a cross-country train trip.

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My dad and I spent a few hours in the sightseeing car and took in the endless snow-covered mountains. Anna and my mom soon joined. We’d point out mule deer or coyotes as our eyes scanned the breath-taking landscape. At one point, my father turned to me and said, “Thank you for taking me on this trip. It’s incredible.” Those are powerful words coming from an engineer. When trying to get my sister to appreciate the same views, she said “Jayna, I have been looking at the same rocks for the past five hours. I don’t want to look.”

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The sun set behind the red hills of Colorado and it was amazing having nothing but mountains surrounding you for miles.

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It was close to 11pm when our train halted to a quick stop in Provo, Utah. We said goodbye to our metallic home for the past two and a half days and hailed an Uber. We couldn’t get to our horizontal hotel beds fast enough, no Zzzquil needed.

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The Food

Having read a few articles beforehand, we went in with the assumption that train food was unappetizing and expensive, so we packed snacks for our journey. My thoughtful mother brought chocolate (of course), granola bars, nuts,  PB&J sandwiches, water and lots of fruit. We had enough food to last us during our two days on the train, but did break down and bought hot dogs ($5) the last little part of the the trip.

The Amenities20160112_153037

  • Two outlets at each seat
  • Reclining chairs with plenty of leg room
  • Sightseeing car, dining car, sleeper cars and coach seating for the paupers
  • Four bathrooms per coach car
  • No showers, no wifi, intermittent cell service

Not a luxury ride (we didn’t spring for the sleeper cars), but a lot better than expected. We passed the time talking, sleeping, reading, walking through the sliding train cars and taking in the landscape.

The Consensus

If you’re considering taking an extended Amtrak trip, DO IT. It’s an experience. It’s slow, it’s soothing and it’s unlike any other form of “modern” travel. You’ll adopt a new standard of hygiene (we wore the same clothes for three days) but you’ll get to see the heartland of America.

My friend sent me this horrifying article detailing the perils of Amtak travel the day before we left (thanks, Mel), but we found it to be an overall great experience. Bathrooms weren’t horrible, the ride was relatively smooth and the train people (conductors?) were friendly.

9 out of 10 we’d do it again.

The Final Leg

After saying goodbye to the train, my dad, sister and I skied at Robert Redford’s getaway, Sundance Mountain Resort, and enjoyed the steep hills and  notoriously fresh powder of western US skiing. My sister rated it one of the best days of her life.

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From there, we drove to Salt Lake City, flew to Denver, rented a car and drove 2 hours to Vail, CO. We stayed at an Air BnB, then skied the following day in Vail (conditions were a little worse than Sundance and the mountain drive treacherous), but when you come that close to Vail, you ski Vail.

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Our trip ended in an uneventful drive back to Denver and evening flight to Pittsburgh. My sister expressed her gratitude (multiple times) that we were not taking the train back and I’ll admit it was nice to cover 1,500 miles in 3 hours instead of 40.

Overall, it was an action-packed family vacation. We got to travel through small towns, sweeping mountains and secluded forests. Moral of the story is that if you’re considering taking a cross-country train trip of any length on an Amtrak, GO! One thing that’s certain is you’ll have an adventure.

Just for Fun

A Trip to Asia: Vietnam, Thailand & a Little Shanghai

My last post was about making last-minute Christmas presents. How embarrassing! What’s even more dismal is that I’ve not had much time to crochet in the past weeks. I’ve been traveling and planning the trip hasn’t left much free time. I promise, there will be new projects soon!

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For this vacation, I met up with friends who are living in Shanghai and we took a two week trip to Vietnam (Hoi An and Saigon/Ho Chi Mihn City) and Thailand (Koh Lanta and Phi-Phi Island). It was magical! It was my first time in Southeast Asia. I probably knew only 10% of all I saw, tasted and experienced before I went on this trip. I even got to spend 3 days in Shanghai which was fantastic as well.

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Highlights: 

  • Scootering around the Thai and Vietnamese countrysides on motorbikes
  • Snorkeling with sharks in Phi Phi
  • Eating like kings for about $4/meal (favorites were Bahn Mi, dumplings, Korean BBQ, baracuda tar-tar, pho, multiple curries, Thai pancakes and fresh mango smoothies)
  • A Thai cooking class where I learned that unlike American cuisine that keeps most flavors separate, Thai food seeks to feature all four flavors in one dish (sweet, salty, sour and savory)
  • Surviving nine flights, one of which was on Air Asia
  • Watching multiple sun sets over the Adaman Sea/Indian Ocean
  • Touring the My Son ruins in Vietnam
  • Crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels the Viet Cong used to hide in during the Vietnam War
  • Dining in the dark – the entire meal is served in total blackness and you have to use your sense of smell and taste to identify your food. All servers are blind
  • Ringing in the Chinese New Year on a rooftop bar
  • Traditional Thai massages (painful!)
  • Beating Escape rooms (twice!)
  • Releasing lanterns on the beaches of Thailand and floating rives of Hoi An
  • Sipping caipirinas on the beach

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It was such a nice break from the freezing temperatures we’ve been having in Pittsburgh (went from 0 degrees to 95 degrees Farenheit!) and the responsibilities of life. Who doesn’t love vacation? Can’t wait to go back!

 

Craft Shows, Just for Fun, Knitting

Pittsburgh Knit & Crochet Festival: 2014

Last weekend (March 14 – 16th), I attended the 10th annual Pittsburgh Knit & Crochet Festival in Cranberry, PA. I’d heard of the festival before, but was never in town to attend. The festival attracted over 70 different booths and some big name teachers. I talked to the coordinator, Barb, and she said there were well over 3,000 attendees. Not too shabby for a knitting festival!

Pittsburgh Knit & Crochet Festival

From my perspective, the festival was largely geared towards knitters, but I didn’t mind – it seems to be the preferred craft among fiber artists (don’t worry, crochet, you’ll always be my first love). I’d say about 90% of the classes offered were knitting; only a few were crochet. Vendors also offered knitting patterns and had knitted samples of sweaters, blankets and accessories, but only a few crochet items.

I purchased a two day pass for Friday and Sunday and zipped up to the festival after work on Friday to check things out. I got there for the last two hours and spent the time looking at vendor booths and talking with other crafters.

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On Sunday, however, the real fun began.

I’d purposefully signed up for “Borderline Personalities: Knitting on the Edge” for the sole reason that it was taught by my all-time crochet hero, Lily Chin. While Lily is a master crocheter, she’s probably better known for her skills with knitting needles. Meeting her was a DREAM COME TRUE. She’s a feisty 5-foot tall woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone. She kept the class moving, called out students who were knitting the wrong thing, yet was personable and talked with me at the end.

An exclusive, inside look at what a knitting class looks like (I know you’ve wondered).

Lily doing what Lily does best - teachin' knittin' class.
Lily doing what Lily does best – teachin’ knittin’ class.

The class was 3 hours long and the best $50 I’ve spent in a while.

Lily Chin and Me. I know, RIGHT?! Lily the crochet master Chin.
Selfie with Lily Chin. I know, RIGHT?! Lily ‘the crochet master’ Chin.

I didn’t end up purchasing anything at the festival (I’m on a yarn sanction), though I did pick up a mannequin bust for $55. I envision using it to 1. display scarves rather than begging my roommate to model and 2. taking it to craft shows as part of my display.

The other notable part of the weekend was getting to see two Olympic sweaters from Sochi. One of the few things I love more than the Olympics is knitting, so to see both combined in the sweaters for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies was a dream come true. (I hope my true excitement is coming through – If not, maybe this picture will convey my love for the games.)

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 Opening & Closing Ceremony Knit Sweaters from the 2014 Sochi Olympics

Opening & Closing Ceremony Knit Sweaters from the 2014 Sochi Olympics

Overall, great weekend, even though I didn’t spend much time at the festival. Next year, I’d like to go with other people who knit/crochet because you can only walk around a large hall filled with yarn so many times by yourself before you look creepy. If you get the chance and are in town for next year’s Pittsburgh Knit & Crochet Fest, definitely make it a priority to go!

Just for Fun, Knitting, Projects

Trying Our Hand at Arm Knitting #Pun

About once a month, my coworkers get together for “Craft Night”. Each girl takes a turn hosting and all from the office are invited. We’ll sometimes work on a joint craft like glitter pumpkins, or sometimes we’ll bring individual projects to make. Wine and cheese are necessities. 

This month, we chose to test our hands (literally) at arm knitting.

Arm Knitting

The inspiration came from Vickie Howell’s project.  The week leading up to Craft Night, Pinterest links were shared and talks of yarn combinations took place on the way to (and sometimes during) meetings.

Arm knitting is relatively new to the craft world and pretty simple to pick up. It’s gained popularity through its instant gratification and short supply list – all you need are your hands and some yarn. The craft uses similar principles as ‘real knitting’, so those familiar with needles will have an easy time grasping the concept. The entire group (Jenna and Dani, we’re looking at you…) made great scarves.

The group learned by watching Vickie’s how-to arm knit video (highly recommended) and by the end of the night (about 45 mins?), each of us had a lovely, hand-knit scarf.

The rockiest parts of the project were getting started, though once we learned how and what to loop and over which hand and when, it all came together. The key, we learned, was all in the yarn. A few strands of super chunky strands made the best scarves.

If you’re thinking about arm knitting, go for it! Call up a couple of friends and learn together. It’s a great wintery night activity to do with a group.

The following day, we wore our scarves to the office after making feeble, though sincere promises the night before, “Of course I’ll wear mine if you wear yours!” Coworkers complimented and boys belittled and we were proud. We, the women of DSG, had conquered arm knitting!

What’s next on the list?

Just for Fun

If You Have Etsy + A Website, Use Etsy Mini

I had to give my blog a facelift a couple weeks ago and the new layout deleted my “Etsy Mini”. I just got around to putting it back up on the right sidebar and it’s something I should have done weeks ago.

(If you don’t know what an Etsy Mini is – read “What is an Etsy Mini and How Do I Make One”: https://www.etsy.com/help/article/216). If you have a website and Etsy shop, I highly recommend you set yours up. It’ll take you no more than 2 mins.

As proof, here are my shop analytics. Can you tell when I added it back to my site?

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Statistics for JJCrochet’s Etsy Mini

I was pretty shocked to see these numbers for such a simple task. You upload code to your site one time and from then on, Etsy automatically displays recent product listings (I use the 5 x 2 option).

Etsy Mini isn’t a new feature, but it’s one I’ve rediscovered – figured I’d pass along. Has anyone else seen similar results from using this plugin?

Just for Fun

Book Review: Women in High Gear

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During ice-cream-after-work that turn to dinner-and-tea, my friend Rachel told me about a book her husband’s aunt had written. (Her husband, Andrew, and I studied Entrepreneurship together and can’t help but chat  about web stuff when we’re together. He’s brilliant and runs a growing inbound marketing agency in Pittsburgh).

The book is about successful women in business, as told by Anne Deeter Gallaher and Amy D. Howell. Rachael and Andrew both said I’d enjoy and gave it to me to borrow.

They were correct.

I was able to finish the short, 13-chapters this morning (while eating vanilla granola from Trader Joe’s).

The book, Women in High Gear, is packed with practical advice for women who want to take control of their professional developments. It was inspirational and one of those, “Let’s get out and do it!” books. The kind that wants to make you forget your friends and pour 20 hours a day into making your business dreams a reality.

As a lifelong business-lady (read: business camp during high school, career day speaker, FBLA, B.S. in Entrepreneurship, and JJCrochet), I can’t get enough of material like this.

I especially appreciated the charge to create strong networks with respected people in the industry and local communities, as well as the advice tailored to corporate women in their 20s. Often the only content us 24-year old girls hear is how to make our gel manicures last longer (prime your nails with lemon juice), but never how to advance our careers.

Amy advises:

I often tell young women in their 20s without children yet to work hard while they can and use this time to invest in their careers. It’s so important to their futures… Assume you know nothing. Don’t try to exert your wisdom if you don’t have it. You must earn your place by working hard and self-study. If you try and push, you’ll get the push back you are looking for. If you do, be ready.

What great advice.

The women also talk about having emotional intelligence and resilience, being decisive, and the power of being able to tell your own story–both on and offline. Though a short book, I found it refreshing to hear from women who have used social media and business accumen to transform their careers into “high gear”. Both the women are Christians which to me, makes their stories more relatable.

If you have an hour of two and are looking for something to give you that boost you need–whether for your craft business or corporate job–I’d encourage you to check out this book!

 

Just for Fun

Best “Hey Girl” EVER: Ryan Gosling + Crochet

I love Ryan Gosling (who doesn’t).

I love crocheting (who doesn’t).

And I love yarn (as any crocheter should).  So when my sister-in-law sent me this “Hey Girl”, I had to share.

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If you don’t know about “Hey Girls”, it’s pretty much sexy images of Ryan Gosling saying romatinic/ridiculous/dreamy things that every girl wants to hear.  A browse through a Pinterest search for “Hey Girl” will help you get caught up.

Aaaand, if you want some truly corny laughs, check out Hey Christian Girl – the Christian version of these.  Nothing like Bible jokes to get you roaring, ha.  Some of my favs:

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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2010 Sundance Film Festival - "The Kids Are Alright" Portraits