Thursday, May 30, 2013

Planning the Perfect Local Vacation

Over the past year, I've been all over the world.  I've talked to lots of local people.  Tasted local foods.  Tried local experiences.  Asked locals what they like about where they live.  One thing I can tell you is that nearly everyone I meet says to me, "WOW!  I have never been there", or "I don't know, I've never done that".  It seems we are all willing to put aside money to travel to distant places, but we spend very little time exploring our own cities, states, and countries.  What a shame when there is so much close at hand to enjoy right in our own back yards.

The view behind me is Milwaukee from the Allen Bradley Clock tower- opened for a special day of tours
I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and have been here for less than 10 years.  I've spent the last year or so also trying to become a local expert.  It's not really easy to find out about all the quirks and fun stuff.  Sure you know about the major concert venues or museums, but there are so many other things that make a city special, and you have to dig.  IF your summer mission is to explore your own backyard (so to speak), and you CHOOSE to accept it, much fun lies ahead.  I'm going to tell you how to get started, and the internet makes it so much easier.

I like to think that Milwaukee is unique, and not just because we freeze all winter long and sweat all summer, and the perfect weeks are very few.  I know there are plenty of other places that have a lot to offer. The first place to start is Tripadvisor.  Put in your city and see what is listed under things to do/attractions.  Have you seen them all?  They also show restaurants, and maybe you want to check out some of the top 10 in that category.  Tripadvisor is different from using travel books because you'll get reviews from people of all income levels and backgrounds.  Yelp is very similar and can be useful when looking for museums, food, and all other attractions.  You put in a search word and zip code or city name and it will supply anything that fits your search.  It always surprises me with something I haven't heard of yet.  Both of these websites have smart phone apps.

Frommer's writes a set of travel books that you've probably seen at your local book store.  What you may not know is that they also publish an astonishing array of walking tours and city destinations for free on-line.  Go to Frommer's and put in your local destination and prepare to be amazed.  Check the local travel section of books at your hometown bookstore or library too.  Often there are books written by local authors that include fun places to visit.

Roadside America is the place to go for weird and quirky.  At the top of their page, put in an attraction, city or state.  I'm still working on visiting all the locations nearby me in Wisconsin.  Atlas Obscura is another place for unique.  Click on the "search" link to find something near you, or just browse the many places you can visit.

If you like the great outdoors, download Oh Ranger!Park finder so you can instantly find parks near you when you're out driving.  You can also go to their website, but so far it's still in the beta phase and only seems to have the state parks.  The smartphone app finds local parks too.  See if your county or city parks have a website by searching for the name of your "city/county parks".  That will help you find park maps, events, and information about places to enjoy free concerts, movies, skating, swimming, and fishing...just to name a few.

Use Pinterest!  For Milwaukee, they have their very own pinterest page.  I can click on a photo and find out what webpage the photo is from with the accompanying information.  There are also users who accumulate pins for things to do in various places, and you can choose to follow their pins.  If you have never used pinterest, don't be intimidated.  Jump in and take a look.  Do a search for your city and see what comes up.

Do a web search for "36 hours in ____"where you fill in your city.  Or maybe "72 hours in _____".  The NY Times is especially likely to have published a list of the top attractions in larger cities, but often there are unknown writers who write local lists that often include attractions and food.

Do a websearch for blogs and your city/state.  For example, if I was looking for someone who blogged about their trip to Milwaukee, I could search "blog Milwaukee".  Often bloggers are people who do a lot of traveling and have an interesting perspective on your city.  They may write about restaurants they visit or sites they thought were strange or wonderful.  I tend to do this for every destination we travel to and have never been disappointed by the information.  It has helped me to find great sunset spots, the best coffee in town, and some incredibly great shopping.

Try a local version of a national race or fun run.  Last year we did the Milwaukee version of the Color Run and had a blast.  We also biked the Tour de Fat, a bike ride sponsored by a brewery.  You can usually find out about these events for searching rides or 5K runs.  These types of events bring lots of people together, are priced reasonably, and can be a good family event.

Try your own city's tourist office.  Pick up a brochure for places you haven't seen yet.  Go to the chamber of commerce.  Get the state's latest travel magazine and find what's near to you.  This is how I found out about an Amish community just a couple of hours from me.  It's also how I learned about the local breweries and took a tour.  Take factory tours.  Find out what makes your state famous and explore that aspect of it.  Take garden tours- both where they grow it for sale, and botanic gardens.  See if there are any historical places or houses you can visit by visiting your local historical society.  Check the bulletin board at the local library.  Find your local paper on-line to see if they have a seasonal section where they post events.  Lots of these places are free and can be entertaining if you have out of town guests.

Read your local paper.  Usually the Thursday or Friday edition will have weekend happenings that include street festivals, neighborhood events, and other fun things to do.  Just because you don't live in a neighborhood, doesn't mean you can't visit it for a street party.  It will definitely give you a different flavor of things.  Be active.  Participate in your community.

Get on Facebook and search for any businesses that have your city's name in their page.  "Like" their pages and create an interest list so you can get their updates for local happenings.  I've gone to some free walking tours and concerts that I found this way.

Take a walking tour, food tour, or photography tour of your city.  I enjoyed doing this last summer with a trained professional photographer.  Not only did I enjoy hearing about so many of the local attractions, I learned to take better pictures.  I found the tour through Groupon.  Subscribe to your local Groupon  or Living Social, and you will hear of all kinds of local deals.  You can tailor the choices they send you to your personal interests.  Using Living Social I was also able to find outdoor activities in nearby cities- like a kayaking trip in Chicago.

The latest fun site I found is called Schemer.  I found it when we were traveling to Japan and it gave me lots of ideas for things to do.  You can create a list of things you'd like to do, but you can also read what others are suggesting for a specific place.  Open the site and put in your city under "Find Stuff to do".  Photos with ideas should appear and you can click on each and decide if you want to add it to your list.

Do a web search for "things to do in ____" and fill in your city.  It's extremely likely that someone somewhere made a list of stuff for kids, stuff for free, and stuff for locals.  If you have a local university, you might google their events calendar too.  Often they sponsor speakers or schedule concerts that are fun even for people who aren't attending school.  My sister works at a university library and I always check in to see what the latest art or photography display will be and where it will be hosted.  Student exhibits are really interesting too.  Often, if you are lucky, there will be a grand opening event where they even have music and food...FOR FREE!  I love it!

Whew!  What incredible resources we have at our fingertips!  So that should be a means to get you started on looking out for fun in your own backyard.  Good luck and let me know what's on your list!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

100 Things...Making Your Bucket List

Just over 10 years ago I was going through a class for people who were newly divorced.  It was sponsored by a Green Bay church, and we met once a week.  Every week we had an assignment that was supposed to help us grow as individuals.  In addition to spending more 'alone' time, the leader of the class encouraged us to try doing activities we used to enjoy as children, and to add new activities to our lifestyle.  One week, we had an assignment to interview people and get a list of 10 things they had already done that they had really enjoyed doing.  We could use personal interviews, phone calls, e-mail...whatever means would get the job done.   Once we had their lists for inspiration, we should brainstorm a list of 100 things we'd like to do over the course of the rest of our lives.  Some of them should be easy, and others should seem unattainable.  This was before the movie, The Bucket List (released in 2007), so it was a new concept for me.  What is kind of funny now is that I asked Abdulhamid for his list via e-mail.  We hardly knew each other back then, and had just been co-workers for a brief time a few years before this.  Neither of us knew that we both were recently divorced.  I reached out because I knew he'd lived a very different life than my own.  I guess you could say, this is what brought us together and he's the reason my bucket list got done.  His own list is pretty far reaching too, so I've enjoyed being with him on some of his adventures.

When we traveled to Australia in January, I read an article in the Qantas in-flight magazine about an Aussie man, Sebastian Terry, who'd made a list of 100 things he'd like to do. He called it a wish list.  His list was inspired by a friend who had died at age 24.  I was so inspired by his list that I cut it out and put it in my bag.  He had some pretty huge goals, as well as some fun ones.  I followed up with him and recently received his new book in the mail.  He has a website and a facebook page where you can follow his activity.  People started sending him their lists so now there's a place on his website where you can link with others to get help or receive help doing what you have on your list.  The point is that when you share your list with others, people have a natural tendency to help and you'd be amazed at what you're able to do.  He set as one of his big goals to raise $100,000 for charity and it seems he's really going to do it.

So my list is finished, and among the things I've enjoyed are: riding a camel at the pyramids, seeing Machu Picchu, learning to rollerblade, visiting my pen pal in Japan, cruising to a tropical place, learning about a non-Christian religion, trying new foods, take better photographs, learning to cook foreign dishes.... I never thought I'd be done so quickly.  Remember at the time I made this list, I was a single working mom with no means to achieve more than 10 items on my list! I didn't even own a digital camera.

Now it's time to make a new list, although I doubt I can still come up with 100 more things, so it may be shorter.  What I've enjoyed more than completing my own list though has been bringing others along with me on the way.  My own kids are big thinkers too and they are so much fun to be with.  I've also met so many nice people along the way.  It's made my life richer in so many ways that I never imagined.

So now I encourage you to make your list and tell everyone you know what's on it.  Post it on your refrigerator or bedroom mirror and think about how it can happen.  You'll be amazed at how your life can change!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Scottish Highlands

The Scottish Highlands were all I thought they'd be...and much more.  I had always imagined there would be mist rolling in off the mountains, grazing sheep, and Highland Cattle.  There were peat bogs, waterfalls, deer, old castle ruins, and above all, a deep dark history of the Scots who have survived centuries of struggle.  We only had a day to see it all, so we booked a tour with Highland Experience.  It was a van that took you from Edinburgh to Inverness and back in one day.  A full 12 hours of driving and touring.  It was a long day in the van, but at least I wasn't driving.  During the tour, our driver played Scottish music appropriate to the location (think ballads about war heroes) and told us stories of Kings, battles, and brave men who made Scotland what it is today.  They even call the tour, "Monsters, Mountains & Massacres", as we did take a boat tour on Loch Ness.  Sadly, we never even saw a sign of Nessie, as she is affectionately known.  We did see the ruins of a Urquhart Castle, one of the largest in the area.
We stopped here for a boat ride on Loch Ness and had a bite of lunch.  You could buy EVERYTHING 'Nessie'

Urquhart Castle sits on Loch Ness
The drive from Loch Ness, we headed down along the other side of the lochs to Glen Coe, a very  mountainous region with waterfalls sprouting all along the terrain.  It was raining almost all day, so the views weren't as good as they might have been.  You can see snow on the mountain tops. We were told that in summer the hills are covered in purple heather.  It must be quite beautiful.  People today still talk about the battle that took place here in 1692, when a group of Campbells led by Captain Robert Campbell arrived during a snow storm.  Scottish hospitality dictated that when weather was bad, a person had to open their doors to anyone needing shelter.  The MacDonald clan gladly took them in and fed them for days. They were repaid by the Campbells who murdered the men, burned the homes, and left the women and children to die of exposure in the cold.  At least 78 people died.  It was after this that the Scots were chased out of Scotland and could be the main reason we have so many people of Scottish descent in the USA today.  If your name is Campbell, you are still unwelcome in parts of Scotland.

Glen Coe, the place of a massacre in 1692
We also stopped briefly at Stirling Castle and learned about the man featured in the movie "Braveheart", William Wallace.  Although the movie doesn't accurately depict history, I enjoyed it.  Hearing the real stories, I thought they could have made a good story even without Hollywood romance.  We also learned about the great King Robert the Bruce.  They both had been guardians of Scotland, but at different times.  The castle is set high atop a hill, so you can understand it would be an excellent place to hide out.  You can see for miles in all directions.  Even Mary Queen of Scots had been brought here as an infant for protection.  These hills are rich with history.  If you are a history buff, you should add this interesting place to your bucket list.
Stirling Castle atop the hill
King Robert the Bruce statue at Stirling Castle

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Following the Harry Potter Trail in Edinburgh and London

The Hogwarts Express train
Glenfinnan Viaduct

Since watching the Harry Potter series with my son Omar, I've become a huge fan of JK Rowling's books.  I came into it quite late in the game though, and just really began reading them when there were only 2 books left to be released.  It's quite a good thing, especially if as you are reading this, you're just now becoming a fan.  You can go without sleep for a week and cover the whole series with no anticipation of waiting for another release!  Or cheat and just watch the movies in a long weekend, although I have to say the books have so much more detail.

I watched the interview from British television with JK Rowling- "A Year in the Life", from 2007.  You can watch the full show on You tube.  It gives rare insight into who she was and how she came into writing the books that changed her entire life.  After this, I was inspired to visit the places where she wrote while she lived in Edinburgh, and the buildings and people that inspired the storyline.  We also took a day trip to the highlands of Glen Coe and Fort Williams,  where they filmed much of the outdoor scenes. Seeing the viaduct and the train shown above were very interesting, as was seeing the peat bogs and foggy mist where Hagrid's hut had been.  We didn't have much time to stop and take photos, but the stories and seeing those places firsthand were fun.

 I'll include the BBC's documentary here so you can learn more about the author with a dark past who wrote her way into the homes of millions.  Her books are available in 65 languages!  I love that she says she wants to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.
So how do you know where to visit?  Rick Steves, the travel guru, works with a writer Gene Openshaw,  who made an extensive list of places where the movies were made.  There is also a comprehensive UK tour map which also includes many London spots.  Of course, London has the bulk of the list, and I had been to some of those places unexpectedly last summer. I revisited the Thames river near the tower of London with my husband on this trip, when we had just one free night, before leaving the UK because the place is simply magical after dark.  This is the place where Harry takes a night broom ride in the film, "The Order of the Phoenix".
Tower Bridge on the Thames
Once you're in Edinburgh, there's a free tour (donations are accepted) that starts every day at Greyfriar's Bobby bar for 90 minutes of Harry Potter trivia- much about the author, inspiration to write, and local flavor.  You'll get a nice walk and enjoy stories from young people who seem to know everything about Harry Potter.  You can read about The Potter Trail at their website, but you can learn more by reading reviews on Trip Advisor by people who have recently gone on the tour.  Well worth your time, if you're a fan.  If you want to do this on your own, you can download the JK Rowling & Harry Potter Walk & Map of Edinburgh.
Meeting place for the Potter Trail Walking Tour
Just behind the bar is Greyfriar's Kirk- a church and graveyard with the headstones for characters featured in the books, including the place where Voldemort is reborn- the grave of Thomas Riddell.  This is a fun place to browse and enjoy the variety of historic graves, which are in pretty good shape when you consider how old some of them are.  Walk to the back of the churchyard and peek through the iron gates to see George Heriot's School, said to be the inspiration for Hogwart's School of Wizardry.
Voldemort is reborn here
George Heriot's School- possible inspiration for Hogwart's 
During the Potter Trail walking tour, you visit some of the coffee shops where JK Rowling used to sit and write journals for the books.  She wrote everything long hand in spiral notebooks, so I've learned. We had dinner at the Spoon Cafe (formerly Nicolson Cafe) one evening.  It's been said they brought it back to its original state, after it had been a Chinese buffet for awhile.  It's quite cozy and unique.  On a rainy, cold day we sat by the window and watched people walk by with umbrellas overhead. You will likely notice that although none of the furniture matches, and the menu is quite limited, it is a great experience.  The food was fresh and delicious, and I will now forever want to eat homemade fries with rosemary.  We also stayed at the Balmoral Hotel during our 4 nights in Edinburgh because it has such an original Scottish flavor.  Of course a writer could get some peace here and be inspired by those surroundings.  The room where she stayed there has a signed marble bust, and they have kept it exactly as she found it.  You can stay in that room for 1000 pounds per night.  Perhaps if you need a little inspiration to write the book that is within you, it will be worth it.  For many others, a tour through the lobby will suffice.  Just ask the kilted door man for a peek.  Or have afternoon tea here and relish the beauty of the place.  It will be an experience not soon forgotten.
The Balmoral Hotel where she stayed and finished her 7th book in privacy
The Elephant House has a small sign in the window indicating she was there
The Spoon Cafe where JK Rowling wrote in early days

A few days in Historic Edinburgh

My husband had been in London for the Somalia Conference, so it seemed a good time to meet him and choose an exploring destination.  Neither of us had ever been to Edinburgh, which seems odd since I lived in the United Kingdom for 5 years while I was in the Air Force.  Back then, we rarely seemed to have time off or money enough for touring though.  As you get older, you find the time and money to do things you might enjoy.

I flew into London and we spent the night there together before flying to Edinburgh.  It was a short flight from the smaller City Airport, a place I didn't even know existed before he booked the tickets.  It was also the cheapest option.  There was a bus directly from the Edinburgh airport (look for bus 100) for only 3.50 pounds, which took about 35 minutes to the city center/train station.  We stayed at the historic Balmoral Hotel which is just above the train station, so it was an easy walk to the hotel where we were greeted at the door by a very tall Scotsman wearing a kilt.  In our room, we had life size movie photos of Sean Connery in the bathroom, but I heard others had Mel Gibson (Braveheart) or Liam Neeson (Rob Roy).  You immediately knew you were in Scotland!
Balmoral Hotel

Our hotel bathroom artwork
The city is a treasure trove of historical places.  Look in any direction and you will see a statue or monument to someone who did something extraordinary.  The buildings are remarkably maintained when you consider their age.  And the most amazing part is that the whole city seems to be built on a piece of rock.  You have layers of streets and bridges that connect neighborhoods without crossing water.  The old moat has been converted to a park.  The city itself is a world heritage site, with about 75% of its buildings being recognized.  Since it is quite compact, the easiest way to see it is on foot...unless you have a problem walking in the rain.  It rained every day we were there, but a dear friend who had been there several times advised us to get out and enjoy it anyway.  Perhaps she knew that it just isn't going to get much better.  We were sorry we hadn't brought mittens and hats, in spite of it being May.

View from deep inside the park that was once a moat
They have a whole city block full of sightseeing buses that run from about 9am until 5 pm.  You can choose a variety of tours and just pay the driver.  They even take credit cards.  We did the World Heritage tour because it drove around the old city, new city, and then went out to the Botanic Gardens.  They are priced similarly, and you can get discounts on some if you book more than one day.  All of them are double decker, so if the weather is clear, you get a great view by sitting on the top.
Edinburgh Castle as seen from the top level of the sightseeing bus- you can see it's very tall!
Azaleas were in full bloom at the Botanic Garden
One simply has to do the Royal Mile, as it is the main pedestrian street in the city and has shopping, restaurants, sightseeing, churches, and no less than 2 castles- Edinburgh Castle and Hollyrood Palace.  You can download a free walking guide at Frommer's, which even includes suggestions for meals.  Most of the shops close in the evening, but you can always find a tour of the underground buildings or history walks at night.  Until a few years ago, these underground vaults and passageways had been closed to the public.  The city is so old that they built right over the old city.  Alleyways were simply roofed over.  It was also a place where people died during the years of the gripping plague, so it's said to be one of the most haunted places in the world.  Look for signs at the coffee shops or churches for free walking tours too.  Many of the tour guides are colleges students who have studied history and work for tips.
With an umbrella and the right gear, you can have fun even if it rains
There's a large hill in the area called Calton Hill, another world heritage site.  If you have nice weather at any point it's a good place to oversee the entire city.  I had read in someone's blog that it was a good place for sunsets.  I also found it was a great place for a sunrise when you have jet lag at 4:30 am.  It has a cluster of monuments and from one side you can also see the sea.  Another good place for a city view is atop the Royal Scottish museum where they have a terrace with roof garden.
sunrise at Calton Hill by the National Monument
When the weather is wet, there are plenty of indoor places to visit.  The city is full of museums and art galleries.  There are places for musicians, artists, writers, history buffs....well anyone can find something there of interest.  The library also does public exhibits! If you only see 2, I'd recommend the Museum of Scotland and the National Gallery.  Both are large and best of all, FREE!  The Museum of Scotland is really too big to see in one day, so I recommend a lunch break in between or go back on another day since it's free.

If you are planning your very own trip to Scotland, I'd recommend a blogger from Wisconsin, called the Traveling Savage, who has become somewhat of an expert on Scotland.  You can peruse his blogs and make a plan.  Let me know what you decide to see.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Pug Fest

The 9th Annual Pug Fest was held in Milwaukee over the weekend and by all measures, it seems to have been a huge success!  It's a fundraiser for pug rescue.  This was the first time I've ever been to such an event.  I don't have a dog, but my son and grandson are crazy for small dogs, so it seemed like a great place to take them for a Sunday afternoon.  We timed it so we were there for the costume parade, and it didn't disappoint.  If I had to guess, I'd say there had been more than 1000 dogs there over the day.  There were many fewer for the costume contest, but they were as cute as ....well....pugs in costumes!

What I loved about this event was that all the proceeds benefit rescues, and that they have a full weekend that includes out of town guests.  There were bus tours (bring your doggie along) and a local hotel that welcomed dogs.  Even lunch at a restaurant where (you guessed it) pugs could eat with their owners.  You could buy anything you wanted pug related- lots of choices for harnesses, bedding, food, grooming tools, t-shirts, and even food for humans that looked like pugs.  We tried some pug cupcakes and they were delicious!

You do have to be prepared for a little mess.  You can imagine that with that many dogs, there is some hair shedding all over the place.  And of course, you can't resist petting them so there may be slobber involved too.  It was all worth it, never the less.

I'll post some very cute pics for you to enjoy.  If you have a pug, or are interested in attending such an event, you can follow them at the pug fest link.  Enjoy the cute little dogs!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Making a Grassless Front Yard

2013 May
The yard in full summer bloom 2012
This time of year I'm in love with my front yard.  When my neighbors are out fertilizing and mowing later this month, I'll love it even more.  Taking out all the grass was, for me, the best thing I ever did for my yard.  In the Summer of 2010, I had used way too much effort and $$$ just trying to get grass to grow.  We already had about a third of the front yard in flowerbeds back then.  We had dandelions, violets, crabgrass, creeping Charlie, dead spots, grubs....and the list goes on.  We seemed to have everything but nice green grass!  I wasn't willing to turn to the really toxic stuff to get rid of the weeds and whatever was sucking the life out of the grass roots, so I took drastic measures.  On a whim, while my husband was on a business trip, I started to dig up the rest of the grass.  I remember the weather being especially nice that Fall and my son was in school all day, so it was a pleasure to work outdoors.  Then I realized that taking out all that sod was BACKBREAKING labor and I needed help.  My husband came home and offered the services of a friend who rented a sod cutter at Home Depot for a half day.  WOW!  What a difference.  There was still plenty of work in removing the grass, but it sure went a lot faster.

Details of the walkway

The yard in 2010
Once all the grass was gone, I had to have a plan.  I measured all the space that was dirt and went to the Better Homes & Garden website where you can see loads of garden plans for free.  I spent a couple of days taking bits and pieces of 3 different plans and put together something that I thought would work for me, incorporating plants that I loved along with others that were suggested for butterflies or just had lovely scents.

To break it up and make it easier to manage with weeding and planting, I wanted to build in a walkway, but I wasn't sure what it would look like until I went to a local quarry and chose the stone you see here.  My cousin Al suggested stone, and I thank him for that!  I bought a ton of lanstone, which they delivered, and thought whatever was left over I could find a place for.  As it turned out, I used every bit of stone to make 2 distinct pathways- one horizontally across the yard, and another that reaches from that point to the sidewalk.  I think somewhere I read that doing this makes it more inviting. Under the walkway, I put sand to help level it out, but still wanted dirt underneath so I could plant in the crevices.

I left a space for "something" in the way of structures, but I didn't really know what I wanted until our neighbor across the street suggested a swing.  I have thanked her mentally every day since, because Omar and I sit out there every day it's nice and eat popsicles or talk about the day.  It's a great place to chat with neighbors.  The kids love to sit out there and swing.  I found this rustic swing on a website and loved that it came in a box and was about $200.  Those I had seen in stores were much more expensive and didn't seem to be so sturdy.  What I hadn't considered, was that it would come to me in about 50 pieces and I'd be left assembling a huge lincoln log set!  It took me all day, because there were no directions.  And then I realized once I had it built in my driveway that it was way to heavy to move to the garden location on my own.  I had to get some help from my neighbors.  It quickly became a 'community project'!

Swing as it arrived
I have a little VW GTI so I decided to get plants on my own and stuff them in the car.  It took about 4 trips to various garden centers with manure, peat moss, plants, and mulch.  You really can do a lot with a hatch back though!  When I couldn't find some of the suggested plants, I asked for advice from one of the garden center plant experts.  I was also at a loss because it was the end of the season, so there wasn't a huge variety of plants.  At least they were cheap.  I got 50% off many of the shrubs which put the entire project at under $500, which included the swing and stones.  I also filled in spots with plants from other places in my yard to save money.  Because the rest of the yard already had tulips, I also picked up several hundred tulip bulbs to plant between the shrubs and plants. I once took a landscaping class at the Green Bay Botanic Garden, and the person teaching it said to choose your tulips, and then multiply by about 10 times so you get the right number.  It was good advice.  I love the look of so many flowers in bloom.   It took about 2 more days of digging holes and planting, but I finished just before the first frost and was pretty happy with how clean and neat everything looked.  Let me tell you, that is the only time it ever looked so finished.  As the years go on, I've played around with what's there- adding some lilies and annuals, removing daylilies that got too big, replacing some plants that died after the first winter.  I've added a section of herbs and put in some very heavy yard art.  I had originally used some cute smaller pieces that had solar panels on and would light up the pathway at night, but those were stolen during the first year.  Now I've learned that it has to be heavy, and the artist who placed my iron & rock sculpture suggested putting it right in the barberry plants because if someone really wants it, they will dearly pay for it with scratches.  If I ever get another piece, it will go in the rose bushes.  You live and learn.  I love it more every day though and enjoy meeting passers by who enjoy it too.

As far as maintenance, there really is very little work.  Of course I need to pull weeds.  There are always dandelions and grass that tries to take over if I wait too long.  The first year I tried to pull out the violets, but now I'm starting to embrace them, as I realize they will win in the end.  Then there's the normal clean up you would do anyway with dead plants.  What I don't miss is the mowing, fertilizing, and trimming.  Somehow this seems like an easier option over having a lawn.  I always have fresh flowers to bring in the house.  If it's too dry, it needs watering.  I also use miraclegro about 4 times during the summer.

Hope you've enjoyed my story, and if you're in Milwaukee, WI, you can always drop in and sit on the swing with me and have a popsicle.  If this inspires you to pull out your front lawn, be sure to let me know how your project turns out.

You can really fit a lot into this little car!
Creating a walkway with stones
Laying out all the plants

Immediately after planting

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The First Ever Somalia Conference- Coming to London

This is a very exciting time if you have links to Somalia.  And it should be a hopeful time for those still living in Somalia, or who hope to return to their homeland.  My husband has been very busy talking with friends and family about what's going on there, and watching the BBC for the latest news.  Their foreign secretary, William Hague, was in Mogadishu last week and mentioned that they felt it was time to support Somalia, so they reopened the British embassy in Mogadishu, which was closed 22 years ago.  For a place that has seen daily gunfire for the past 2 decades, this is quite a change.  When I first met my husband he talked about how the Somalia was that he grew up in, but over the past 10 years, we've heard that it doesn't exist any more.  The homes and buildings in his neighborhood were shelled with years of violence.  He hasn't been back to see the devastation, and it's just recently that people outside the warfare have safely visited and can report their findings.

The population of Somalia is now 60% women.  The UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, says it is one of the worst places in the world for women to live.  She recently interviewed Somali women at refuge camps and those who have been displaced, and they all say they want to return home. Guns are a huge part of the culture, not just for the al shabaab, but for the local militias, so disarming everyone will be a priority.  Until there truly is peace, it can't become a great country to live.

The focus of the conference being held in London next week seems to be all about gaining control again- police, justice, financial management.  More than 50 partner countries and organizations have been invited, along with Somalia's 'friends and neighbors'.  My husband is on the guest list and he's excited to hear what will be said, but stresses that there are many needs yet to be met like infrastructure development, job creation, making safe places for people to learn and worship.  Unfortunately, I feel like in many of these instances when a government comes to help a country, they only have their own needs to meet- like who is going to use up Somalia's resources and make a profit?  They have vast oil reserves, and the potential for crop development and seafood farming.  Unfortunately, we'll have to wait and see what happens and it won't happen over night.  I've already heard that there will be protesters outside the conference center.

Last year, we attended a diaspora conference where Hillary Clinton spoke about how people living away from their home countries can help rebuild.  Like so many countries during unrest, there is a huge brain drain- those who have the means leave, so those left behind to do the fighting are often unskilled.  It's important to bring people back who have necessary skills and are willing.  Britain realizes this too and for that reason had a pre-conference working with disapora women who live in the UK.

For more information about the conference and to watch some videos about people who recently visited Somalia, go to this conference link.