Monday, October 25, 2010

Traveling on the Cheap

This past week I had the fabulous opportunity to travel to Poland, with the goal of trying to develop an international collaboration between some NC schools and Polish schools. If you want to check out the details of the trip, hop over to my other blog. This post will focus on the details of traveling on the cheap, while not sacrificing any of the experience.

1. Travel on someone else's dime, if possible. I had the opportunity to take this trip through the local university, since it was a partnership between the universities and K-12 schools in both countries. Other trips I've taken, I try to weave in some professional experience so that I can apply for grants and scholarships to help offset the expenses, including plane tickets, lodging costs, and museum/conference fees.

2. Make lodging inexpensive. Most countries abroad (especially in Europe) have a hostel network, home-stay network, or university lodgings that are significantly less expensive than the cost of a hotel. For this trip, we stayed in university lodgings that were dorm style, with each room having its' own bath. The lodgings were the typical sparse dormatory feel, but they were certainly sufficient, since we didn't do much there besides sleep. These lodgings also provided breakfast, so that was one less meal that we had to pay for. The cost per night was about $30; much less expensive than a hotel in the area. When I've traveled in other countries, I've done the home-stay thing, which gives you a much better sense of the local culture and day to day life. If you're looking for inexpensive lodgings in the States, most KOA campgrounds have camping cabins that are quite serviceable and cost about $15-20 per night. For these, you have to provide your own linens and plan on trips to the bath house, but going this route frees up more funds for sightseeing and other expenses.

3. Follow the local culture in terms of meals. In Poland, we found that there is a tradition of a light breakfast around 8:00, then "second breakfast" around 10:30 (this term makes me thing of The Hobbit... anyone else remembering that?), and a heavy lunch around 2:00-3:00 in the afternoon. Dinner is either skipped or is a light sandwich around 10:00 pm. Following the local culture in terms of meals and food means that you get a more authentic experience and aren't disappointed when restaurants close earlier than anticipated. With this particular trip, the local university in Poland treated us like royalty, so there were very few meal that we had to pay for overall.

4. Pack light. When I travel in a plane, I have learned not to check baggage unless absolutely necessary. This means that I don't run the risk of the bag not arriving with me at my destination, I don't have to wait at baggage claim, and I can make easy use of public transit to get me from the airport to my lodgings. It also means that I don't have to pay a fee for checking baggage, which is becoming more and more frequent and popular with airlines.

5. Choose small, but meaningful, souvenirs. I often make my souvenirs a local street artist painting of a typical scene in the area, a Christmas ornament, tea towel, or something edible (condiment, tea bags, etc. make sure it's in a sealed package, so you don't have a hard time with airport security). Depending on my packing space, I choose one of these, or some combination. (My grandmother always likes to bring home jewelry for the same reason.) This time, I was able to find a painting, Christmas ornament, and something edible that would all easily fit into my carry-on luggage. I like the paintings because they're small and flat, which means they easily pack away, and the Christmas ornament can be padded with clothing. Generally, I come back with some condiment that seems indicative of the area, so this time it was some rose hip jam, with which I'll make thumb print cookies at Christmas. If you get too carried away with souvenirs, especially large ones, it can mean paying for shipping or an extra checked bag on the return flight.

6. As I've mentioned before, make use of public transportation. We found the tram/trolley system in Poland to be very easy to navigate, once we learned the main routes. The particular city we visited was also very pedestrian friendly, so it was easy to walk to the market area or bakery without losing our way.

7. Take advantage of museum deals or entertainment. A few people from our group attended a ballet at the local opera house while we were there, and found the tickets to be quite reasonable with the conversion rate (about $12). I opted for a night walking tour of the historic square that evening, with window shopping and people watching included for free. I find seeing a new place at night an interesting way to learn more about the local culture and more about the pop culture, since this is usually when the younger generations have time to bar hop, play street music, etc. There is often one day of the week when museums provide discounts, so this is another way to take in the culture. When I was in Germany, this day was Sunday, so it was easy to go to a few museums in the course of the day and end up paying less than the cost of going to one on a regular week day.

So, what about you? How do you travel on the cheap, while still enjoying the scenery? Do you have any tips for sight seeing or eating on the cheap while you travel? I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Master Bath Redo Phase 1

This afternoon, I was feeling inspired so I took advantage of a few minutes to put together the first phase of our bathroom tub area revamp. I was slack and didn't take any before pics, but here are a few after shots.

We love how the branches fill the space in that corner, while still allowing you to see through to the wall color. The original plan was to stain the branches, but when we got them home, we realized that the natural color fit right in with the shades in the tiles on the tub surround. The contrast of the organic texture of the twigs is a nice contrast with the graphic weave of the pottery basket (used to be an umbrella stand, I think).

Now, we have to figure out what to do with the little one on the opposite side. Do you have any budget-friendly or free ideas? Do you think the white frame collage will be too much with the twiggy deal in the corner? I'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Decorating Mini-Project

We've been slowly working on getting our master bathroom just the way we want it. There's this large shelf/deck around the garden tub that has been a bear to figure out what to do with, especially since we're realizing that the tub has become a large built-in hamper, rather than a tub. (We realized that we designed the bathroom for resale, not for us... we're not bath people. Dumb decision in retrospect since we see ourselves being here for the long haul.)

When we were cleaning out my grandmother's house, we found two cool white woven looking ceramic planters. So, we brought them home, cleaned them up, and they've found a nice home there behind the tub on the deck/shelf thing. They suit our taste and fill the space nicely, but there was still something missing... they needed some height and movement. Enter road trip...

On our recent trip to Charlotte to visit friends, we managed to squeeze in a visit to Ikea (our first ever... amazing). We were scoping out several things, but we stumbled upon these super cool twiggy things that suit our needs perfectly. And for $5 for a bundle, we picked up two bunches and wiggled them into the Jetta for the road trip home.

This weekend, we went to Michael's here (yes, there's one in the High Country now!), where I used a gift card to purchase some floral oasis/foam to stuff in the bottom of the planters to anchor the twigs. Putting all this together will be one of the projects this week.

But now, the wall is behind these cool things is looking a bit bland... so I hopped over to one of my favorite blogs, YHL, to find this inspiring feature. We love the collage of empty frames over the master bed and think this will be a cinch for us with some Goodwill frames (and those we've found in our basement cleanout) and some white spray paint. I think it's just the kind of textural interest we need, without detracting from our other art that's going to go in the space.

So, what're your new decorating projects? Do you have any tips for laying out the collage thing on the wall (because it seems a bit daunting to me... though I think some large newsprint and outlining the frames might be the answer)? I'd love to hear from you!

October Menu Planning

So, I finally sat down this weekend to plan out our October menu. As usual, there's always a little wiggle room and flexibility as new ingredients pop up unexpectedly (such as a share in a friend's CSA if they're out of town that week) or we just run out of steam one evening and use the go-to frozen pizza or 15 minute pasta meal. Here's the plan for the month:

Week 1: supper club meal (turned out to be shepard's pie made with venison... yumm), beef and cheddar pie, acorn squash chili

Week 2: barbecue chicken and black bean burritos (recipe from Cheap. Fast. Good!), crockpot vegetable soup (with homemade stock and frozen garden veggies from the summer), fruit and yogurt salad for lunches/breakfast, roasted butternut squash with sausage and apple stuffing (recipe from Joy of Cooking)

Week 3: French Toast Casserole (to make use of more berries from the freezer), sausages on buns (sausages were on sale at HT), perogies (free from a friend) with canned tomatoes, supper club meal

Week 4: Sausage and wild rice casserole (mom's recipe), chili with sausage and beans

We're using batch cooking several times this month. I cooked a pack of chicken thighs in the crockpot today, so we'll have the meat for the burritos and the stock for soups later in the month. The beans are easy to fix in the crock pot and freeze in one and two cup portions so they're easy to put into any meal. We'll also make some flexible Mexican filling (also from Cheap. Fast. Good!), since the farmer's market will close at the end of the month, we want to stock up on local beef for this recipe before then.

Breakfasts will be toast from homemade bread or homemade muffins that I make in the evenings or weekends to have throughout the week. Lunches are always leftovers, with yogurt, crackers, or granola bars to round things out. (We try to eat the more European way with a larger lunch and lighter dinners... it means we have longer to burn off the calories and we've got more energy to get us through an afternoon at work.)

We've done really well sticking to our $100-$150 a month grocery budget, although we went a little over last month to stock up on essentials and restock spices and baking products. This month, we're really going to work out of the freezer and do more to use up stuff that's stockpiled in the pantry and basement. Couponing has really helped, as has the grocery game. (If you decide to sign up, let me know! If you put me in as the person who referred you, I can earn a free month. :))

How's your monthly menu planning going? Have you found new coupon tips and tricks somewhere? I'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Seasonal cooking

Fall has officially set in here in the High Country, with night time temps hovering around 40. The fall wreath has been put on the front door, and the debate about pulling out the down comforter has begun. We'll see if we can make it through the month without turning on the heat. (We're typically the last hold outs, so we ought to be able to hang in there until November 1.)

With fall comes acorn and butternut squash, the "nut man" set up down the road with all sorts of local wares (pecans, hazelnuts, walnuts, etc.), apples, pumpkin, and cabbage. We love fall, with comfort foods and hot cider. For us, this means lots of soups, apple crisp, and potato hash with sausage, cabbage, and apples. One of our new favorite soups is this acorn squash chili, though we've substituted butternut squash sometimes and it's just as good. We threw some together last night for us and made another batch to share in our supper club.

My grandmother's recipe for apple crisp has been a hit at small group, and it's fabulous with vanilla icecream. It's super easy and comes together in a flash, so I thought I'd share the recipe. We also love these pumpkin cheesecake cupcakes, although we'd use something less labor intensive for the frosting.

Apple Crisp (from the Betty Crocker cookbook)

4 c apples, peeled and sliced
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c water
3/4 c flour
1 c sugar
1/3 c butter or margarine

Place in buttered 10x6x2 baking dish 4 cups of sliced, peeled apples. (Usually 4-6 apples, depending on size.) Sprinkle with 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp sale, and 1/4 c water. Rub together (use your hands) in separate bowl 3/4 c sifted all purpose flour, 1 c sugar, and 1/3 c butter or margarine. Mixture should be a coarse sandy texture. Drop mixture over apples. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Topping should be crunchy. (We sometimes have to use the broiler to help it along.) Serve warm with cream, ice cream, or plain. Serves 6-10.

I'd love to hear about your seasonal culinary adventures, so please leave a comment or two!