Finding Cheap Flights to Europe (aka Travel Agent Extraordinaire)

Cheap flights to Europe

I’m not a coupon clipper. I have no particular strategy for saving money, other than the strategy of walking into a store as seldom as possible. Which is actually not a bad strategy. When Tony and I got married a million years ago, we registered at Target. So we ended up with lots of exchanges and gift cards and stuff having to do with Target, and we went to Target at least two or three times a week. Every time we walked into that store, we spent a hundred dollars! At first it was gift cards, which are kind of like fun cash–it doesn’t really feel like you’re spending real money. After we started spending our own, we decided we just needed to stop going to Target. There’s nothing like not going to the store to make you not realize the bewildering amount of stuff you (don’t) need.

But I digress. I’m not a coupon clipper; however, I do excel at one money-saving skill: budget traveling. I can do international travel on a shoestring. It’s not always comfortable, and it’s not always convenient (although since when is anything involving 14-hour plane flights either one of those things?), but it is cheap. And really, you haven’t lived until you’ve debated whether it’s worth it to stay in a mosquito-infested nipa hut with no A/C or add two random legs and a weird layover to your flight itinerary to save fifty bucks. Or maybe that’s just my personal brand of masochism.

At any rate, I love getting good deals on airfare. My challenge this time was one-way tickets to Athens, Greece from Orlando, Florida the week of March 16, 2015. My baseline is usually Kayak.com, since I’ve found it to be the cheapest aggregator, especially for international flights, so I checked there first. Sure enough, they had a flight operated by the Russian carrier Aeroflot. I monitored it for several weeks, and the price fluctuated from $617 per person to $657 per person. There were two stops (New York and Moscow), and counting all the layovers, the total trip time was 39 hours and 35 minutes. So, really long. But cheap, right? In fact, a whole $200 per person cheaper than Expedia’s cheapest pick, a United flight for $817 per person.

Yes. But I was sure I could find cheaper. Because while it might be more convenient to let the airlines combine flight itineraries, it’s not always less expensive. Since this flight is Trans-Atlantic, I think of it in two parts: getting to Europe (anywhere in Europe), and getting to Greece. Theoretically, all I had to do was find a cheap flight across the ocean, and then another cheap flight from somewhere in Europe to Athens. The only constraint was that my flight across the ocean had to end in the same city from which the flight to Greece originated.

I figured I should start with the harder task, which was finding a cheap flight to Europe. So I googled that exact term (“cheap flight to Europe”), and one of the first results to come up was Norwegian. And indeed, when I visited their website, I saw that Norwegian does have very cheap flights from a few North American airports (mostly in Florida, lucky for us) to quite a few different European destinations.

On the getting-to-Greece-from-Europe side, there were even more options. Budget airlines are a big thing in Europe, and when they say budget, they mean budget. Southwest is a luxury airline when you compare it to the likes of Ryanair, our personal nemesis (although also the reason that we have visited beautiful Trieste). Travel on European budget airlines is not for the faint of heart. But it’s been a good six years since our Ryanair debacle, and we are ready to try our luck again. So I popped over to the invaluable Low Cost Airline Guide’s page on Athens. It lists every budget airline that flies into Athens, and from which country. Turns out pretty much everyone in Europe vacations in Greece. Key word “vacation.” A lot of my leads turned into dead ends, because a good percentage of budget airlines that fly to Greece do so only during the high season, between April or May and September or October.

Find Cheap Flights to Europe

In general, there are a few things to watch for when booking with budget airlines:

  • First, everything is an extra. Including checking your bags, meals, seat assignments, and anything else you can think of (I think there was even an infamous incident when a particularly enterprising airline started charging for using the restroom during a flight). If your airline prepares an itinerary with multiple legs, there’s only one baggage charge. But if you use multiple budget carriers to plan your own itinerary, you need to factor in the cost of multiple baggage charges. These typically amount to around $30-$50 each.Traveling with only carry-ons is a great solution, except if you’re moving to Greece with only what’s in your suitcases.
  • Second, many budget carriers only fly certain routes on certain days of the week, so if you’re planning your own itinerary, you might fly in on a Monday, but not be able to fly out until Wednesday. That’s what happened with my hypothetical Paris itinerary. Once I added in the costs of baggage and a couple of nights in a Paris hotel, the total was going to be at least as much as the Aeroflot flight.
  • Third, budget flights, especially to “vacation” destinations in southern Europe, tend to be very seasonal. Even if you initially find a flight on an aggregator, be sure to go straight to the airline’s website. All the budget airlines provide flight calendars so you can determine which days the airline flies to which destinations, during which parts of the year, and exactly what the prices are, and how they change through the week and through the year. The fares are far less volatile than other airlines'; in fact, they tend to be more or less fixed by time of the year and day of the week. It’s the difference between clipping coupons to shop at a regular grocery store, and shopping at Trader Joe’s, which never issues coupons, but does have consistently reasonable prices.
  • Fourth, which airport are you using? Many cities have more than one airport (London, for instance, has six international airports). The budget carriers often use smaller airports located outside the city, or in an adjacent smaller city. Here in Florida, for instance, one can get cheaper flights to Amsterdam flying from the tiny Stanford airport on Icelandair than from the larger Orlando airport. On the other hand, maybe you can drive a couple of hours to a major airport and get a direct flight. The flight we ended up finding is on Norwegian, and departs from Miami, which is a four hour drive from our house, three hours longer than the hour to the Orlando airport. It’s totally worth it, though, because Norwegian’s flight out of Orlando has two stops (and costs over $100 more per person). Our flight doesn’t leave until almost midnight, so we’ll leave for the airport around four in the afternoon, have dinner on the way, and be ready to check in by 9 p.m. or so.
  • Fifth, hub cities are where it’s at. Every budget airline (well, every airline in general) has at least one hub, and flights to and from that city tend to be quite inexpensive. So it’s a case of beginning your trip planning in the middle, rather than the beginning or end. London turned out to be the perfect hub for us. It was one of Norwegian’s cheapest trips (second only to actually flying in to Norway, I think), and there were quite a few budget carriers flying from London to Athens, even in the early spring. Our Norwegian flight is non-stop from Miami to London’s Gatwick Airport. So when I was looking for budget flights from London to Athens, I had to make sure they originated in Gatwick, and not Luton or Stansted, the other budget-friendly London airports. While airport transfer bus routes do exist, they typically have to go all the way through London, and take at least three or four hours, depending on the airports involved. Kayak.com does now include the budget carriers, and several London-Athens flights popped up for under $100 each, mostly on Ryanair and Easyjet. Easyjet was the only one flying from Gatwick, and to my great delight, they had a flight that left 2 1/2 hours after ours arrived. Which leads me to:
  • Sixth, you’ll have to go through passport control and customs between flights if you book your own itinerary, have crossed an international border, and have checked bags. This is kind of a pain. At least we have both EU and American passports, so we can use whichever line is shorter. Which I think is not actually kosher, but might be useful if we’re running late. We’re planning to split up, and have Tony go with one kid to retrieve and re-check the luggage, while I stay with the the other kid and carry-ons “airside” (inside of security and customs–as opposed to “landside,” on the outside of security and customs). The official minimum connection time (MCT) for Gatwick (yes, every airport and airline has these) is two hours, so we should be OK with 2 1/2. Fortunately, Gatwick airport also has a special desk to facilitate these types of non-official connections, so hopefully all will be well.

Anyway. Now that you know the long of it, the short of it is, the four of us will be flying from Florida to Greece for a grand total of $1558. Yes, that comes out to $389 per person. I am pretty impressed with myself.

Here’s the breakdown:

Expedia: Orlando – Washington, D.C. – Zurich – Athens

Total Trip Time: 17.35 hours

Total Cost: $3268 ($817 per person)

 

Kayak: Miami – Moscow – Athens (or Orlando – New York – Moscow – Athens)

Total Trip Time: 36. 15 hours (or 39.35 hours)

Total Cost: $2444 ($612 per person)

 

Me: Miami – London – Athens

Total Trip Time: 15.25 hours

Total Cost: $1558 ($398 per person)

Looks like I win!

photo credits: Miami Airport, Gatwick Luggage Carts

My Favorite Walks Around the World

I found this post mostly completed in my drafts folder, and thought I’d share, since it’s been awhile since I did a nostalgia post. One of the beautiful things about moving often is that you experience the “little things” of life in so many different ways. Like the smell of the plants outside your window. Or the way different fruits taste when they’re in season. Or the cadence of stray overheard phrases in different languages.

Among the constant yet changeable things in my life is the evening walk that Tony and I have taken ever since we got married. Besides being a great time to reconnect as a couple, talk about what’s on our minds, and get some fresh air, our walk also helps to explore whatever neighborhood is ours at the moment. Since we so often view the outside world through a car window, walking lets us take a slower, more intimate look at the scenery and notice things we wouldn’t otherwise see.

We have lived in so many places and become acquainted with so many evening walks that I can’t list them all. These are just a few of my favorites, in no particular order.

Our walk in Tunisia began like this:

And ended like this:

Or on very special nights, like this:

Another favorite walk was in Ireland. We’d walk out to (I kid you not) the most idyllic cow pasture in the world. It’s funny to me how fondly we still speak of “our” cow pasture.

1992

Our route left town just a block or two from our apartment in Mullingar, where we took a path that paralleled the Royal Canal.

1989

At the time, we were reading Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and I thought about it every time the train went by. This walk and the picnic we usually had at the end of it always made me feel like we were re-living some lost Victorian country childhood. This photo makes me remember so many things about Ireland: the authentic Irish brown bread that I always made, the wellies my kids lived in, and how very little they were back then.

1977

And then there was our beautiful little Italian village. Here’s how our walk started out there:

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And then, you know those stock photos of the road between trees that converges on the horizon with a perfection that looks like it can’t possibly really exist? Ours did in fact exist, although this photo is less about the perfection of the road than the exuberance of a very pleased little Axa.

1266

After the tree-lined walk, it opened out into beautiful Alpine fields backed by mountains.

2002

We had similar beautiful walks in Vancouver, Washington, where the spring was a delicious parade of different flowers that seemed to go on for months, and in Carmel Valley (San Diego, California), where we lived in a neighborhood where all the houses followed a strict Spanish-style architectural code, the sidewalks were always perfectly swept, and there was nary a blade of lush green perfect lawn out of place.

In La Jolla, we walked by the Mormon temple every night, enjoying its dramatic beauty and our memories of getting married there. Even here in Florida our walks through our little suburban neighborhood are nice, although it’s sometimes so hot and muggy we only make it once around the block. We’re looking forward to beautiful walks on Kea, where the walking paths date back to the ancient Greeks, and the Mediterranean is visible from all over.

Guest Blog at The Exponent

I was invited to blog this week at The Exponent, a Mormon blog focused on women’s issues. They’re currently in the midst of a two-week focus on international voices. So if you’re interested in similarities and differences between Mormon congregations in various countries, you might want to pop in and have a read. My article is here.

Planning an International Move

Stock MonkeysYou’d think planning for an international move would be old hat for me since we’ve done it so many times. Unfortunately, we actually haven’t done it that much. The planning, that is, not the moving. We’ve moved plenty, but it’s mostly been on the spur of the moment, and after a mad few weeks of planning. The last time we really took a long time to plan was nine years ago, before we went to the Philippines for the summer. If you’ve read my book, you’ll remember that despite the exhaustive planning, we were such rookie travelers we ended up in the airport with no money and no place to stay, after having spent all 13.5 of the 14 hours on the plane with tomato juice all over my white pantsuit.

I’m pretty much an expert at winging it and improvising, but it’s always been my dream to have at least four months to plan and execute an international move. And this time I do. Now that I actually have the time, though, it doesn’t seem that exciting. Still, now that I’m here, I might as well do it. So here goes: my exhaustive list of

Things To Do Before My International Move:

  • Buy Plane Tickets (I have been obsessively checking Kayak to make sure that the flight we’re planning to take doesn’t disappear or go up radically in price–not that I could do anything about it if it did–but we want to iron out housing before we get our tickets to make sure that the dates work)
  • Arrange travel for sugar gliders (This involves researching how the airline feels about pets, going through airport security with them, which carrier to buy, etc.)
  • Check with airport veterinarian in Athens re: sugar glider importation requirements
  • Get certificate from U.S. vet + letter stating that sugar gliders don’t get rabies
  • Sell stuff on craigslist (lawnmower, old sugar glider cage/aquarium, washer/dryer, computers, Curtis’ desk, other desks, chest of drawers, couch, futon, etc.)
  • Buy International Health Insurance
  • Pack (One little word, but easily the most work-intensive activity on this list)
  • Put stuff in storage (We’re not shipping a container to Greece just yet, so we’re leaving furniture, books, and stuff in storage here)
  • Sell car
  • Stop auto insurance
  • Check passports, American/Italian (I am pretty sure at least some of these are expired, since we haven’t been out of the U.S. in three years. Both our U.S. and Italian passports need to be up-to-date, because we need to present the U.S. passports to leave the U.S. and the Italian ones to enter Greece. Who said dual citizenship made your life less complicated?)
  • Unlock phones/research phone service in Greece
  • Housing (We are considering several different furnished rentals. Renting sight unseen is risky, and we’ve had some rather interesting experiences with it in the past, but it’s the reality of our life)
  • Internet (This will probably end up being via an internet key)
  • Buy laptop
  • Buy luggage (We have an assortment of luggage that we’ve dragged all over the world, but most of it is in tatters and unlikely to survive another transatlantic flight/bus/ferry. Our favorite large suitcase just broke a wheel after having been pressed into service for the past two years as weekly transportation for our library books)
  • Buy homeschool supplies, etc. (You know. All that stuff we don’t want to pay insane international shipping for sometime next year)
  • Plan packing list (Yeah, this should go up before “Pack”)
  • Notify banks/credit cards of foreign travel

And this is just my off-the-top-of-my-head list, so I’m sure I am forgetting some things. If you’ve done a move like this, did you have a list? Care to share, so I can make mine even more unmanageable?

photo credit

Expatting Again

Well, while we’re on the subject of announcing major life changes, I should probably let you in on where we’ll be moving next. Hint: our destination is neither U.S. nor subtropical. Because let’s face it–we have now lived in Florida for 2 1/2 years, which in Familia time is about two decades. By the time we leave, we will have lived in Florida for over three times as long as we’ve ever lived anywhere else. Oh, the ironies of life. The weird thing is, I think my internal clock is set according to moves rather than time in any specific location. So I don’t feel like more time has passed while we were living in Florida than Tunisia (8 months) or Ireland (3 months). I’m not sure what that says about my existential state.

But anyway, here’s the announcement: next year we will be moving to Greece!

DSC_8694

To be more specific, our destination is an island in the Cyclades group called Kea. Bonus points if you can find it on this map:

map-of-greece-980b

Did you find it? If not, you’re not alone. It took me quite some time to find a map that actually named Kea. With so many islands, I guess it’s hard to keep track. So let me give you some help. The Cyclades are the darker pink islands southeast of the mainland, and Kea is the Cyclades island closest to Attica, the part of mainland Greece where you’ll find Athens. With it being so close to Athens, you’d think it would be heavily touristed, but it’s not on the main ferry line, so it’s escaped the hordes of foreigners, and mostly serves as a weekend getaway for Athenians, many of whom have second homes on the island. Here’s a google maps screenshot of Kea:

Kea

Isn’t it so cute? I am in love. As you can see, there are not a lot of major urban centers on Kea. The population is around 2500, with most of those centered around Korissia, the port, and Ioulis, the capitol.

It’s mostly an island renowned for its natural beauty, both on land and under the sea, where some of Greece’s best scuba diving can be had, including the dramatic wreck of the HRHS Brittanica, sister ship to the similarly unlucky Titanic.  The reason we’re moving there is that our friend Stathis, whom we met while we were living in Florence, is from Greece. His family owns several hundred acres on Kea, and he’s working on developing it for eco-tourism.

That sounded good to us, so I screwed my courage to the sticking place and asked my boss if he would be OK with me working remotely from Greece. And he said yes! So sometime early next year we will be packing it all up and moving to a picturesque little Greek island. I still can’t quite believe it myself.

NMS_8697

Now we can turn our minds to the details, small and large. Tony and the children have Italian citizenship, which greatly simplifies our setting up residency in any European country, including Greece. I can come in on his coattails, so in the six years since Tony became an Italian citizen, I have not gotten around to applying for Italian citizenship by marriage, even though I always mean to do it. Fired up by our decision to move to Greece, Tony called up the Italian Consulate in Miami to find out when I could submit my documentation and have my interview.

You know an organization is truly dedicated to customer service when you have to call a 900 number just to set up an appointment with them. Three dollars and fifty cents later, Tony had been informed that the next available appointment to apply for citizenship is not for two years! So much for that idea. I guess my next chance to apply will be from the Italian embassy in Athens. Italian efficiency + Greek efficiency. I can only imagine.

We also need to jump into the Russian roulette of buying plane tickets. Will they be cheaper now? Or in a month? Or in six months? And speaking of Russian, by far the cheapest flights from Orlando to Athens connect in Moscow, and are on Aeroflot, an airline owned by the Russian government. It will still be safe and sane to stop over in Russia next year–right? I mean, yesterday when President Obama coordinated expanded sanctions against Russia with the E.U. and accused the Russian government of “setting back decades in genuine progress,” how many decades did he mean exactly? I’m sure it will be fine, but Russia is kind of wigging me out lately. In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter how we get there, just as long as we end up here:

DSC_8687

Map credit

Exciting News!

You know all those times people told me I should write a book about our international adventures? Well, last week I indie published my very first book. Here it is:

Paradise Interrupted: Romantic Adventures Backpacking Across the Philippines, Baby in TowParadise Interrupted: Romantic Adventures Backpacking Across the Philippines, Baby in Tow by Sarah Bringhurst

 

It’s available on Amazon for Kindle here. Check it out!

Why I am Voting for Barack Obama

Polling for this presidential election is nearly constant, both in “key battleground states” and in the nation at large. As a bemused inhabitant of one of those key battleground states, I admit that I check the polls . . . well, we won’t say obsessively. But often.

Recently, however, a rather unique poll was brought to my attention–the UPI/CVOTER/WIN-Gallup International Poll. The poll asked 26,000 people in 30 countries outside the U.S. how they would cast their vote for President of the United States of America if they were allowed to vote in our election.

A whopping 81% went with Barack Obama. Many countries polled well over 90% for him. In Iceland it reached a nearly universal 99%. Romney, on the other hand, led the polls in just one country: Israel. And even in Israel, his 65% was anemic compared to the overwhelming popularity of his rival everywhere else.

Although Obama’s lead is also widening at home, the race is much closer here than it is for people abroad. What is it that makes them all so sure? Well, I’ll let the candidates speak for themselves.

Here’s Romney’s foreign policy in a nutshell, straight off his website:

“I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”

Do you hear what I hear? Step out of your own shoes for a moment and imagine that you’re hearing about Romney’s “conviction and passion” with the ears of an Englishman, a child in Afghanistan, or a woman in Sudan. What can you expect from this man if he becomes the most powerful man in the world?

To round out the general impression, we have what can only appear to the outside world as a systematic campaign of insults to other countries (politely described as “gaffes”), along with Romney’s blusteringly naive description of the President’s brilliant tactful diplomacy as “weak.” As Karl Inderfurth puts it, in Romney’s projected foreign policy we see a return of the “swagger” of George W. Bush. Heaven help us all.

By contrast, here’s an excerpt from President Obama’s speech to world leaders at the United Nations this week:

“So much attention in our world turns to what divides us. That’s what we see on the news, and that consumes our political debates. But when you strip that all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes from faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people – and not the other way around.

The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations, for our own people, and all across the world.”

The vibe’s a little different, isn’t it? In Obama’s message, and in his actions as president, I see a strong ability to listen to and communicate effectively with people of other nations and cultures. I see a skillful use of tactful diplomacy to resolve problems, avoid escalating conflicts, and calm the strident voices that scream for war. I see a real commitment to respecting the leaders and people of other countries, and working together to make the world safer, more prosperous, and better for all of us.

He lacks the hubris that puts the United States at the center of the universe. He quotes Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He appeals to the “better angels of our nature.” And so to me, it’s no surprise that people polled around the world look to him as someone they can trust to put the interest of humanity above narrow national interests.

Well, why does it matter? Those people can’t vote anyway.

No, they can’t. But that doesn’t mean that the man in the Oval Office doesn’t affect their lives. Sixty-two percent of polled individuals said that American elections highly impacted their own countries. America influences the world economically, culturally, militarily, and in a myriad of other ways. The world desperately needs a U.S. President who can build on common ground, bring people together, and set an example of wisdom, restraint, and moral courage.

To put it bluntly, when I consider America’s superior military capability and the past ten long years of wars abroad, it is clear that for many people, the choice of who becomes President of the United States may be literally a matter of life and death.

I believe in God. And I believe that every person living on this earth is a child of God. Every person. Italians. Pakistanis. Colombians. Congolese. Iranians. In this election, I vote for my brothers and sisters who can do nothing but look on in awe, in suspense, in dread, as in a very real way we decide not only our own fate, but the fate of the world.

These people may speak different languages, pray in different ways, and live very different lives from mine. But like them, I long desperately for a world of hope, of understanding, and of peace. This election, I vote for them; for us; for the belief that we can stand together and choose respect, love and solidarity over superciliousness, hate and war. My vote is a vote for the voiceless.

photo credit

We’re Famous . . . Again!

When I was dating Tony, one of the interesting things that he told me about himself was that he had lived with his family in Indonesia as a teenager. While living there, they spent a summer visiting family in a little town in Idaho, where their exotic expatriate exploit made them instant celebrities. An article even appeared in the local newspaper about the American family who were living in Southeast Asia, and had now brought their international selves home to grace tiny Aberdeen Idaho.

It became an even better story after the same thing happened to us. In 2008, we moved our little family to Chiusa di Pesio, Italy so that we could reconnect with our Italian roots and claim our long-lost Italian citizenship. It was the first time such a thing had ever occurred in Chiusa, and our very existence there  caused something of a sensation. It seemed that everyone had already told everyone else our story. Still, in due time, we were visited in our home by a local reporter, who wanted to publish an account of us in the weekly paper, just in case someone had missed it.

We were flattered, but a little embarrassed, especially after we read the article, and she gushed so liberally about us. Still, it was quite a novelty to read a story about ourselves in the newspaper in the first place. I mean, how often does it happen that you end up in the paper just for being you?

Well, not as infrequently as I thought, apparently. A few weeks ago I was contacted by a reporter from the Daytona Beach News Journal. He had stumbled upon my blog, and remarked that he thought we didn’t really fit in here in Deltona. In fact, he went on to speculate that we probably weren’t going to be around long. I guess reporters can say anything.

Mark turned out to be very nice, though, and we spent a lovely morning chatting. It’s not every day that a captive audience spends an hour and a half listening to your life story, acting really interested and even taking notes. I found I enjoyed it thoroughly. Yesterday, we bought a paper so we could clip it out for our scrap book. And since our family scrapbook only exists in the form of this blog and our family website, here it is:

If you can’t read the small print, the full article is here. Mark took some liberties with the quotes, and bit more with the facts, so if you know us well you can amuse yourself by spotting errors. But at least when he quoted my mom he got it perfect.

Paris, His Dark Materials, Phineas Finn, and Food

Paris in Love: A MemoirParis in Love: A Memoir by Eloisa James

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for expat memoirs. So I picked up this one as a matter of course, without even glancing inside the cover. Maybe I should have looked a little closer.

As an author, Eloisa James’ normal genre is romance novels. But I don’t think even that explains the bizarre format of this book. It is, I kid you not, a compilation of her Facebook status updates for the year she spent in Paris. This means that the entire book consists of disjointed 5-10 line paragraphs. There are a few longer sections (of 2-5 pages each), which I paged through and read. But the rest of this book is virtually unreadable.

If you have a hankering for Paris, instead check out Adam Gopnik’s delightful memoir, Paris to the Moon.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tony and I watched the movie that is based on this book, and he asked me to check it out for him. So of course I ended up reading it myself too. This did turn out to be one of those cases where the book was better than the movie, mostly because the plots were very similar, and the movie was visually stunning. Nicole Kidman was lusciously villainous, and Pullman’s alternate-reality-London was gorgeous.

My favorite part of the book/movie was the premise of people’s souls (called “dæmons” in the book) walking around outside their bodies in the shape of animals. Sort of like a cross between a best friend, a smart pet, and just a really good justification for talking to yourself. All in all, this was a fun book, but nowhere near as profound as it was trying to be.

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one was OK, but not nearly as interesting as the first one. I personally think that authors who are working with multiple universes should just stick to one or two, because there’s not really time to develop the differences in more universes, and they end up being boring caricatures. Also, the plot in this one kind of meandered. In fact, I can’t even really remember it a week and a half after finishing the book.

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This trilogy was already mediocre by book 2, so the only reason I read this one was that I was sick in bed, and it was the closest thing at hand. Unfortunately, even just compared to books 1 and 2, The Amber Spyglass is exceptionally bad. Not only does the narrative fall apart, but Pullman’s already thin allegory crosses over into pages and pages of downright preachiness.

Evidently, some Christians have objected to the series (and the delightful movie based on The Golden Compass) on philosophical grounds, but I object to it on purely artistic grounds. Still, if your teenager is reading this and your family is not atheist, you might want to have some discussions about the author’s rancorous portrayal of both religion and God.

Phineas FinnPhineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am, of course, still reading this series. One of the things I love about it is that I am still looking up new words (with the touch of a button–I love my Kindle!). I highly recommend reading Trollope to anyone preparing to take the SAT or GRE.

I’ve also unbent my feminist ire a little. In Phineas Finn, bad husbands are given no quarter, and the woman are portrayed as well-rounded, complex characters. Trollope is still not exactly progressive, but he might not be as bad as I thought. Plus, I’m even getting interested in 19th century British politics. Who’d have thought?

The Deluxe Food Lover's CompanionThe Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This replaces A History of the World in 100 Objects as my bathroom book. What a wonderful, informative, fascinating book. Whether you need to know what picadillo is or how to pick a good kohlrabi, if it has to do with food, it is in here.

Today I perused the cheese glossary, and found that I’ve tried 47 different kinds of cheese. There are also glossaries of sausage, shellfish, sauces, pastas, and herbs, among others. And then there are the many tips scattered throughout the book for ripening persimmons, creating a quick brown roux, and six steps to the perfect hamburger.

With gilt edges, a ribbon bookmark, and profound culinary quotes beginning each chapter (“Cooking demands attention, patience, and above all, a respect for the gifts of the earth. It is a form of worship, a way of giving thanks.” — Judith B. Jones), this is a book to be treasured, read, and referred to often.

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How I Made Friends With Facebook

I have not always been a friend to Facebook. I am way too old to have grown up using it in high school. Actually, I’ll admit it, I’m even too old to have used it in college. I found out about Facebook from my kid brother long after all the cool people were already on it. I finally broke down and joined on 12 November 2008. According to Facebook, that important date (which appears prominently in my snazzy new Timeline) ranks right up there with being born and graduating from college.

Like most users, I experienced the initial infatuation with Facebook, as it put me back in touch with various long lost friends. And although I never took photos of myself kissing Zuckerberg’s photo, I do have warm fuzzies over Facebook’s important role in the Arab Spring. Since then, however, my feelings about Facebook have deteriorated from sarcastic ambivalence to downright hostility.

However, Facebook has recently undergone a rehabilitation in my affections. Here’s why:

I never experienced small town life until we moved to Italy, and lived in a beautiful little village on a mountainside, with a river running through it. If that sounds just unbelievably romantic, it was.

There was a church bell tower that chimed the hour, a tiny, cobblestone village square, and a picturesque castle up on the hill, within whose ruined walls we once held a very memorable family home evening.

But what was really a change for us Southern Californians was the fact that everybody seemed to know each other. And not only did they know each other, but they seemed to actually have time to talk. They would have lengthy conversations with anyone they met while out and about in the narrow, cobblestone streets. Which generally happened several times a day.

The result of all this, as anyone who has ever lived in a small town knows, was that everyone also knew everything about everyone else. Especially about the bizarre Americans who had dropped in from nowhere claiming that their great-great grandfather was Italian. We even got written up with embarrassingly complimentary exaggeration by the local newspaper.

At first, it was startling to realize that my everyday doings were common knowledge, and I should consider pretty much the whole town friends (or at least acquaintances). But after a while, I got to kind of like it. It was something feeling like you belonged somewhere and would leave a real hole if you went away. And sure enough, eventually, we did go away. In fact, we’ve moved several times since then.

From my peripatetic perspective, it’s near impossible to picture living my whole life in the village where I was born. But I have to admit that the idea fascinates me. What if all my favorite people did live in the same little village? What if I had the chance of bumping into them every day on my way to buy bread before dinner? What if I casually knew what was going on in their lives, whether I’d talked to them lately or not, because word just gets around in our little town? What if?

Here’s the problem: my favorite people are scattered all over the world. Everywhere we go, I meet new people  that I’d love to have as friends forever. By now it’s far too late for all, a majority, or even a reasonable plurality of my friends to live in the same geographical area.

And here’s where Facebook comes in. In a kind of a virtual sense, Facebook allows me to have that sense of community I crave with people who, in Goethe’s words, “though distant, are close to [me] in spirit.” Because I want to know more than just the “important” things that turn up in a yearly Christmas letter. I want to hear the little, mundane things that make up the majority of our lives. I want to know the funny thing your kid said, what your new hairdo looks like, and that mortifying mix-up that happened at work today. You know, the instagrams of life.

Really, what I’ve noticed lately is that a few minutes spent on Facebook is a bit like that walk to the bread shop in Italy. I can climb a volcano in the Philippines with Jerry. I can peek in on Erin’s lovely picnic in England. I know what Shelly got in her CSA basket in Washington this week and what Kelly in Utah thought about Spiderman. Jo Ann keeps me posted on how much garbage has been thrown lately on our beloved Tunisian beach. If I’m lucky, sometimes Carla even gives me a glimpse into the life of that lovely little Italian village.

So while I may never transplant my life permanently to a tiny village where everyone knows my name, maybe I don’t need to. Facebook is my global village.