Pack List for Vacation Rentals


a photo of our vacation pack list
Packing these items makes life in a rental house or apartment so much easier!

Tomorrow we leave for Croatia and with the weather here holding at 8C and rainy, the 24s forecast for the Dalmatian Coast cannot come fast enough. Brrrrrrrr. *Snuggles down into comfy chair with pot of tea for the day*

Today I’m packing for our trip and realized that after four years of vacations spent primarily in rented apartments and homes throughout Europe, we’ve got packing experience worth sharing. I’m not talking about clothes or shoes, because that varies so much based on where you’re going and when. I’m talking about a handful of household items that we’ve learned through experience can make life in a rental so much easier.

These items may not be necessary if you’re staying in a major metropolitan area with a mega-store right down the way, or if you’re hoteling it, but if you’re staying in out of the way places, or traveling without a car, both of which are the norm for us, this pack list for vacation rentals can make a huge¬†difference. Read more

Embracing Comfort Food

photo of home-made chicken fingers
My kids’ new favorite meal: Home-made chicken fingers

I’m a foodie. I love food and, on more than a special-occasion basis, I like fancy food. While my kids are good eaters, sometimes they get tired of my chutneys and sauces and garnishes and just want plain old comfort food.

Between my insane aggressive writing schedule and the kids’ after school activities, we need quick (<30 minutes to prepare) meals 3-4 nights a week. And I can't make every. single. meal. in the slow-cooker, no matter how much I might like to. Enter exhibit A: healthy, home-made (even gluten-free!) chicken fingers. My kids' new favorite meal. Ingredients:
4 chicken breasts, sliced into 1-inch wide strips
2 egg whites, lightly beaten with a pinch of salt
2/3 c fine-ground cornmeal (I’ve heard crushed cornflakes work too!)
herbs & spices


  1. Preheat oven to 225C (450F).
  2. Pour the cornmeal into a wide shallow bowl and season heavily with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and whatever spices go with the rest of your meal. Try taco seasoning, italian herbs, cumin, smoked paprika (not all at once!), or whatever your kids like. Mix thoroughly. You want to be able to see spices in the cornmeal mix. If you can’t, you haven’t added enough!
  3. Dip chicken strips in egg white.
  4. Dredge them in the cornmeal mixture, making sure every bit of the chicken is evenly coated.
  5. Arrange on a baking tray so that the chicken strips don’t touch.
  6. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until chicken is cooked to the internal temperature you prefer.
  7. Cook veggies & starches while chicken bakes. In the picture above, I made a veggie pilaf with quick-cooking brown rice, and kale salad.
  8. Serve with ranch, ketchup, or whatever sauce your munchkins love.

Happy Birthday, Brother…

I knew I was off as soon as I opened my eyes this morning. When I sat down to write today’s words, nothing came out. I felt tired and lackluster. I hid my nose in a book for a while, hoping I’d feel better. I didn’t. I jumped in the car to pick up the kids and mid-way through the short drive, my heart felt like it was expanding, in that uncomfortable way that forces hot tears out. I hate crying. Get a grip, I told myself, you’re driving.

Sometimes the words you want to write are not the words you need to write. Today I need to say a few words about my brother, Jeff, who died in July. Because it’s his birthday today. He’s been on my mind ever since I looked at the calendar this morning and realized it was the 17th, but reminders have been everywhere today: Facebook, a nice SPAM-mail reminding me to wish him a happy day, messages from family members.

It’s a strange thing to grow up with a brother who is 16 years older than you are. He was driving before I was born. So my first memories of him are as an adult, with a young family of his own. We never lived under the same roof, we’re not even of the same generation in some ways.

His sweet children are closer in age to me, and have been on my mind today, too. Jayson, who spent so much time with us growing up that I think more people assumed he was my brother than realized he was my nephew. Jaymi, who grew into this amazing, fashionable, gorgeous mama-bear seemingly over night. Megan, who was the first baby I got to watch through every step from birth to beautiful adulthood. And Justin, who is impossibly taller than I am (by a lot) now, an amazing athlete, and on the verge of adulthood himself.

Jeff was quick with a smile or a joke and more than a little inclined to break the rules, which just increased the cool factor in my young eyes. I’ve mulled over many favorite memories today, but the one that stands out is of him, shirtless, sunglass-clad, one hand on the wheel of his ski boat. We screamed over the water in that boat, summer after summer, the wind making my eyes tear and taking my breath away, the sun blazing off the surface of the lake.

When he slowed down on the particular day I remember, his wife, Karen, was already snugging fingerless gloves onto her hands in preparation for what came next. Someone tossed the tube into the water and Karen jumped in after it. She climbed on and we all cheered. He gunned it and she rocketed forward the second the slack left the line holding the tube to the back of the boat. Laughing like a maniac, he circled again and again, tighter and tighter, until the tube tipped sideways and Karen, still hanging on, cartwheeled across the water with the tube, until it finally shot her across the surface of the water in a heap. She came up sputtering with a few sharp words about his crazy driving, but laughing as well. He took it easier on the littler ones when we were in the tube, but more than one cousin lost swim trunks in that lake, and I ate more than my share of water on those wild rides.

There are other memories less bliss-filled than this one, as there always are over the long trajectory of any family’s life. But this is the one I want for his birthday today: one with sunshine on the water and joy in all our hearts.

A moment of perfect happiness

At a certain point this summer, after months of expat uncertainty, some very, very difficult goodbyes, and the death of my oldest brother, I started to wonder if I’d hardened myself as some sort of defense mechanism against all the grief and chaos. I’m the type of person who cries through all the Budweiser and Olympic commercials, who never fails to alarm my children by blubbing during kid movies like Maleficent, and who can be moved to tears by a beautiful flower, guitar riff, or piece of writing. And yet, when faced with the harsh, gut-wrenching stuff that adult life sends my way, sometimes I find it hard to cry.

Maybe all those saved up tears were just waiting for an excuse to spill out, or maybe I’d just held them in as long as I could, but tonight, watching Hook on the couch with my family, they streamed freely pretty much throughout the entire movie. We retreated upstairs for a whole-family cuddle afterwards and I felt my heart swell with love and gratitude for my family just as it ached with the losses we have experienced.

Caught up in this sublime moment, I hugged my squirmy children and said, “Shhh! Let’s just feel this moment of perfect happiness together.” They stilled for just a moment, so that I could hear all four of us breathing together and I really thought my heart might burst with the poignancy of the feeling. As if he could sense it, my almost ten-year-old, my sweet, sweet, boy, reached his hand across my chest, as if to draw me closer in the already tight embrace four people experience when crammed together into a double bed.

And then he stuck his finger right up his sister’s nose in a fit of giggles. “I just couldn’t help myself,” he cried, as my daughter screamed “Gross!” in indignant rage and leapt from the bed. At another time in life, I might have thought FML and stormed off, myself indignant that my perfect moment was spoiled by such goofiness. But not tonight. Tonight, I know it was just exactly what I needed.

Books for your 8-12 year olds

Last week’s post on children’s books spurred some great discussion on Facebook about my recommendations for children’s books. As much as I love-hate all the memes going around, whether they’re asking me to list my top ten books (only 10?!) or challenging me to surpass the BBC’s assumptions about how many books I’ve read from the canon (trust me, it’s more than 6), anything asking me to provide a finite list proves a great challenge.

That’s because I’m obsessive when it comes to reading. Take a look at my Goodreads account and you’ll see that I’m genre-promiscuous. I’ve read the complete works of Shakespeare, but I also (re)read Twilight and *gasp* thought it was a great story. I read fiction for very young children like Neil Gaiman’s sweet Remember the Milk and at the same time, I really enjoy a meaty piece of literary or historical fiction like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Read more

A Foodie’s Dream Day Out

raw ingredients
The raw ingredients for our Emo Cooking Class

One of my favorite traditions in our expat community is the PTO’s Cooking Club. About once a month, someone invites a group of ladies over to their house and shows them how to cook a meal from their home country. In my time here, I’ve attended Japanese, Russian, Korean, Hungarian, Polish, French, Indian, and German cooking classes and have co-hosted three consecutive Thanksgiving cooking clubs.

This month, the cooking club did something a little different. This time, our cooking club was hosted by one of Helsinki’s hot new restaurants Gastrobar Emo. Owned by the same folks as Michelin-starred Olo, Emo adds a dash of European flavor to its reasonably-priced menu, earning it a Michelin Bib Gourmand.

I love eating gorgeous food. But I love learning to cook it myself even more. Especially when Matt, my favorite sous-chef (ha ha!), is by my side and there’s a glass of sparkling wine in my hand. Oh yeah, did I mention that a sommelier came with the class? How can I order one of those for home use?

On the menu for the three course lunch and cooking class were two things that I still struggle with in the kitchen: scallops and venison. Both notoriously easy to overcook, I looked forward to expert advice and I wasn’t disappointed. We seared half the scallops and marinated the others in a bit of lemon juice ceviche-style. Served with hand-whisked dill mayo and pickled cucumbers and radishes, it was divine. Read more

In Defense of Mr Business

Like most other elementary school parents in the known universe, I <del>endured the torture of</del> took my kids to see the Lego Movie this winter. And while I found the 3D glasses unnecessary and the plot schmaltzy, the final scenes between Mr Business and Emmet/Will Farrell and his son almost made it worth the Everything is Awesome ear worm. Almost.

Since we saw the movie just over a month ago, we’ve been working on a LEGO city of our own in the play room.

Read more

Because Bacon!

a large plate of bacon
A big plate-o-bacon

I’ve been struggling with what to write about this week. I’d love to say something meaningful about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death, but I think I like what Russell Brand had to say better than anything I could put together. Likewise, I’d love to offer my thoughts on the upcoming Sochi Olympics. But I’m home with a sick child and not feeling great myself, so instead of stalking FB all day for news of my soon-to-arrive nephew (!!) I’m going to talk about bacon. Because bacon, duh!

A friend and I were talking last week about the rage induced by kids futzing around in the morning instead of getting ready for school. The potential for rage only increases when you add cooking a healthy protein-laden breakfast to the mix of morning chores. Oh how I long for the days when I could eat a piece of toast with my coffee and not have to take a mid-morning nap to sleep off the carbs…

Anyhow, here’s one easy solution I’ve come up with to the protein in the morning dilemma. Because while I’ve embraced eating leftover steak for breakfast, I’m not quite up for left over arctic char. Read more

A Few Cutting Remarks

WP_20140130_001On G’s seventh birthday, we bought him a gift that many of our friends and parenting peers thought was both insane and inappropriate: his first pocket knife.

I grew up a consummate tomboy and I have the scars to prove it. I still enjoy whittling a green sapling to spear a marshmallow over the campfire, and nothing makes me think of my father more than sharpening a knife on a whetstone (although I use honing oil now instead of spit. Sorry Dad!).

So when my six-year-old son asked for a pocket knife so that he could whittle sticks, I had a hard time saying no. Matt didn’t have any concerns either, so we got him a knife. And over the past two and a half years, he’s done great with the knives (yes, he has more than one now). He has carved home-made birthday presents, his own marshmallow-roasting sticks, a couple of olive pokers, a few spoons, and more whittled-down-to-nothing nubs than I could count. Read more

After Hiraeth

hireathWhen The Displaced Nation shared this word from This Page is About Words¬†today, it resonated. Like kummerspeck (grief bacon), it’s a word that should exist in the English language, or at least in the expat language.

What I love about this word, hiraeth, is that it sums up what for me is both the greatest joy and the keenest sorrow of the expat life: the fact that each place you live becomes a part of you (the joy) and each place you leave keeps a little piece of your heart (the sorrow). All those transitions, over a decade or more of moving around, create a very complicated form of nostalgia that I will now refer to as hiraeth.

And expats spend a lot of time talking about transitions, by the way. But transitions in the expat life go well beyond getting used to a new location. What about the transition when your first good friend, the one who bought you your first cup of coffee in a new location, herself moves on to a new post? Or the exodus that happens each December, because corporate calendars aren’t always aligned to the school year?

As if the goodbyes this past December weren’t hard enough Read more