Writing, traveling, cooking & looking for ancestors….1 person at a time.

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What’s on your holiday playlist?

I often make playlists from my iTunes library.  Some of them are one time affairs, like the playlists to burn for a specific CD or the playlists for a specific road trip.  Other playlists are more enduring, including my Holiday playlist which is a combination of the sacred and the secular with a dash of the possibly profane thrown in for good measure.

My current Holiday playlist contains 1318 songs.  There are some duplicates of titles, as I have many copies of some songs as performed by various artists.  For example, I have 9 different versions of Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.   It’s not the perfect playlist in that respect unless you shuffle the songs up a bit.  

When I was originally making up my playlist, I was a little short on actual holiday music. So I improvised a little and included any song whose title contained words that were holiday related:  Mary.  Gift.  Red.  Silver.  Gold. Presents.  Angel.  Over time, I’ve expanded the holiday portion of the playlist, but I still like to add those other songs that give the playlist its quirky feel.  

So while I’m decking the halls, I might be listening to Mama Mia by Abba (from the Abba GOLD album) as well as Silent Night (19 versions, by 19 different artists).

What’s on your holiday playlist?


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Jan 15-19: Walt Disney World: Wild Africa Trek

Weather: Partly cloudy, 36° F
Song Playing on iTunes: Mal Bhán Ni Chuilionáin by Áine Minogue
Current Book Being Read on my Kindle: The Reluctant Countess by Windy Vella
Up Next in the Kitchen: Coffee-Rubbed Rib Eye from the Jan 2013 issue of Bon Appetit Magazine
Relative of the Day: Thomas Stanton Gill, 1866-1954 (3rd cousin, 4 times removed, per

A few trips ago, I discovered the joys of taking a private group tour that introduces you to things you can’t find in the guide books.  The first time I tried this was on a trip to San Francisco.  I did read the guide book well enough to realize that a walking tour of part of the city would make the experience that much more fun and personal.  So I went with one of the recommended private tour companies and had a fantastic time walking through the city and hearing about its past and its present as we went up and down streets that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.  We even finished it off with a wonderful luncheon for the entire tour group where we exchanged travel stories.  It wasn’t an expensive tour, and the three hours were time and money well spent.

So when I returned to Walt Disney World in October, I decided it was time to take on one of the many behind-the-scenes tours which they offer to their guests.  The Wild Africa Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom sounded perfect from the description, although I couldn’t find a lot of additional information outside of the webpage which describes the experience and a few blog posts.  So while this side trip didn’t fall into the inexpensive category (the cost was about $200/person), I decided to take a chance and book the tour.


Hippo and ducks

I’m including three of my own pictures from the tour, but the Disney people do a great job taking fantastic pictures with a very fine camera.   As part of your tour package, you receive a CD with all the photos taken during your group’s three-hour behind the scenes trek.  If you’re an avid photographer, you might want to take your own camera.  If you’re like me with a little point and shoot number, then you might want to just leave the camera back in the room.  The Disney people take pictures of everything you see, and they take lots of pictures of you and anyone else in your group.

You will need to follow the directions that Disney gives you about what to wear (and what not to wear) for the tour.  Personal belongings, including phones, will be stored in lockers before the tour begins.  If you do take that camera with you, it has to have a strap to attach to the safari vest you wear for the tour.  I suspect the Disney people don’t want to retrieve missing articles if something falls out of a pocket while a guest is leaning out to take pictures, but I would think that requirement is also a safety component for the animals in the park as well.

The first part of the tour involves getting suited up with a safari vest that has some serious looking hooks and clips attached to it.  Don’t worry about taking water.  It’s provided for you.   Need sunscreen or bug spray?  Your tour guides have that for you as well before you get started on the tour.  One thing that I’d suggest for picking a tour time is to take into account how early you think you can catch a bus to the Animal Kingdom (if you’re staying on site), and how warm the day is supposed to be.  We were there in October on the second tour of the morning, and it was still hot and humid, especially with the extra layer of safari vest which is worn for the tour.

The first part of the tour takes you briefly through part of the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.  I’m only mentioning that because I didn’t realize that I’d be wearing my headset and vest out where anyone else could see our group.  Yes, people do turn and stare, but probably because they wish they were on the tour at that point.  After a few minutes your tour group goes through a private gate, and the real tour begins.


Top layer of our mid-tour snack

The first part of the tour is all walking.  The terrain is uneven, but it’s about on par with any easy level hiking trail.  Your group stops several times to see the animals, and each time Disney does a great job of providing an expert to give you a talk about what you’re seeing.   I can honestly say that I never expected to be so up close with the animals.  You can’t reach out and touch them, of course, but this is pretty up close for a wildlife experience.

After a bit, your group switches to a truck that goes along part of the same road as the Kilimanjaro Safari ride.  Your ride is a bit more personal, and several times you’ll stop and pull off the main road for a private talk about the animals while the ride trucks go by on the main road.

There’s also a lovely snack included about halfway through the tour.  There’s a chance to wash your hands, run to the restroom, and then eat a delicious and refreshing meal which served as my lunch that day.  The food comes in a pail with two levels.  The top layer has an edible flower. The bottom layer contains the bread, dessert, and more substantial offerings on the menu.  It’s a beautiful presentation, and there’s plenty of time to eat and take a look at the surroundings.


A giraffe came to visit while we were eating.

While we were eating, a giraffe came up to have a bite as well. He was on the other side of the fence from us, but he was much closer than most giraffes in the zoos.  He was also quite obliging when it came to posing for photographs.

Another feature of the tour is the animal conservation aspect.  The tour guides answered every question I heard asked about the animals, how Disney cares for them, and the guides were eager to tell how Disney’s efforts in Florida help support animal conservation around the world.

If you are an animal lover, this would be a fantastic addition to your Disney experience.  You’ll want to read the Disney tour description before booking this one, though.  There is a lot of walking and a little climbing.  There are some moderate heights.  It’s a fun adventure, though, and it was the perfect set up for the rest of our day  at the Animal Kingdom.  I was definitely ready to head for the Kali River Rapids afterward to cool down with a good splash!  After that huge snack during the tour, we were able to wait and have  dinner at Yak and Yeti during the afternoon parade.  We were seated by the window so that we had a front row seat of the parade as it went by the window.  Between that experience and the private morning tour, I’d have to classify this as my best Animal Kingdom experience to date!

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Jan 10-14: Series Review for Her Royal Spyness

Weather: Rainy, 63º F
Song Playing on iTunes: I’m About to Come Alive by Train
Current Book Being Read on my Kindle:  I don’t know! I have a lot of downloaded samples. Which one should I read next?
Up Next in the Kitchen: Cheese and asparagus flan from England’s Heritage Food and Cooking by Annette Yates
Relative of the Day: Ruby Faye Francis Woodring, 1898-1981 (3rd cousin, twice removed, per

I finally finished reading the Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen.  Well, I say I finished the series.  There’s a short story length prequel titled Masked Ball at Broxley that I haven’t purchased and read, but that’s mainly because it appears to be a short story.  I’d buy it as part of a longer work, because I’d love to read it.  The author is that good, but it’s presently priced at $2.99 for an estimated 44 pages of material.  From where I’m sitting, buying a book is a much better investment than paying for a short story.

In reading order (as of this date), the novels go as follows:

  • Her Royal Spyness
  • A Royal Pain
  • Royal Flush
  • Royal Blood
  • Naughty in Nice
  • The Twelve Clues of Christmas

Two things you should know before you start this series.  First, these aren’t deep, serious works.  They are  light and funny mystery novels with a hint of romantic interest and a lovable cast of recurring characters.  I love the historical period in which the novels are set – early 1930’s.  I adore the fact that Lady Georgiana (our heroine) is a distant member in the British line of succession with no acceptable means of supporting herself outside marriage to the right person by that era’s standards.  And I truly love the fact that Georgie stays true to her character despite the situation.

Second, this is a series that definitely should be read in order.  While you can pick up at any point in the series and figure out who the main players are, you’ll care ever so much more if you read the series in order.  I had actually downloaded a sample of book two awhile back and deleted it before I purchased the first book.   Then when I was reading the series in order, I realized that I’d already read the first part of the second book.  The scene in the A Royal Pain with Prince Fishface is far more amusing if you have read about Georgie’s encounter with him in Her Royal Spyness.

While all of the books were well done, my favorite so far is the most recent novel, The Twelve Clues of Christmas.  I like the mystery angle used for that story, and I was delighted at the inclusion of recipes and game descriptions at the end of the novel.

I’m now definitely a new fan of the author, Rhys Bowen.  I can’t wait to explore her other two series (Molly Murphy and Constable Evans).  I believe there’s even another book in the Royal Spyness series coming out later this year!   What a wonderful New Year’s treat – a new author with lots of books I haven’t read yet!


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Jan 9: Dinner with the Washingtons Walking Tour

Weather: Rainy, 54º F
Song Playing on iTunes: San’a “Neddemem Wa Nakhda” by Rabita Andalusa
Current Book Being Read on my Kindle: The Twelve Clues of Christmas (Royal Spyness #6) by Rhys Bowen
Up Next in the Kitchen: Spinach Soup (crock pot version, new recipe from The Everything Indian Slow Cooker Cookbook by Prerna Singh
Relative of the Day: Rebeka Fredrick Davis (married to James Davis), 1810-1862 (4th great-grandmother, according to )

First of all, the  spinach soup listed above turned out far better than expected.  I used extra spinach and extra carrots, then added a little extra water to compensate for that difference.  The result was a thick, nutritious soup that was perfect for a rainy day!

Second of all, the weather makes me think of traveling to other places – warm, sunny places, or even just places where there are people available to do all the cooking and washing up afterward for me.  (Yes, I realize – restaurants offer that last part, but a restaurant in another location is always far more exciting than one closer to home.)

So I’m going for a travel memory for today’s blog post. Back in October, I went on a road trip through Virginia, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina.  While on this odyssey, we did several side trips including a day at Mount Vernon, the final home and resting place of George Washington.  If your guidebook tells you that it’s a bit of a challenge to locate Mount Vernon, the guidebook has it right.  It was a little difficult to find the place, but we persevered and finally arrived.

Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, October 2012

It was a brilliantly sunny day for our visit, although it was a little chilly.  The house does face the Potomac River, and it was October.  We bought tickets for the house tour, and then we splurged and bought tickets for one of the specialty tours which the property offers.  This one was the Dinner for the Washingtons walking tour.  The cost was only $5 extra/per person, and it was money very well spent.

The tour takes you through the upper gardens from the perspective of how the food was grown and prepared on a daily basis, both for the Washington family and their multitude of house guests.  Our tour guide was very knowledgable about the plants and how things were raised during that period of history.  The tour also includes a trip through part of the basement to discuss storage and such.  I have to say it’s very cool to say that you’re standing in George Washington’s cellar.

From the basement, the tour continues along through part of the grounds near the house that relate to food preparation.  You walk through another garden, and then the tour ends with a complimentary beverage in the greenhouse.

Mount Vernon also offers other specialty tours.  I think the tours may vary by the day of the week and the season of the year.  If it’s something that interests you, definitely call ahead or ask at the ticket window when you first arrive.  No matter when you go, I’d definitely recommend adding on a specialty tour to your day’s experience.  I felt that it made the entire tour that much more special, and I got a lot more out of the house tour having taken this extra tour which talked about things at greater length.


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Jan 6-7-8: Finally Finished Reading Sherlock

Song Playing on iTunes: Walking On Air by Kerli
Current Book Being Read on my Kindle:  Naughty in Nice (Royal Spyness #5) by Rhys Bowen
Up Next in the Kitchen: Pesto with fusili col buco pasta/pan-roasted salmon with fennel salad
Relative of the Day: Martha Emma Echols Daily, 1856-1940 (2nd cousin, 4 times removed, per


I first read The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when I was 9 years old.  It wasn’t my first idea of reading material, but I was bored with everything the library had to offer.  My best friend (who was probably way brighter than I) announced that she had just read it, and that was all I needed to hear.  If she had read it, so would I.  I didn’t really know what it was about, save that Sherlock was a detective and the stories were set in England.  I didn’t care much for Nancy Drew, but I did like the idea of being a detective in England.  So I started reading the book and finally finished it by the end of that summer between 4th and 5th grades.

I liked those stories so much that I saved up my money and bought the book.  I didn’t have a lot of spending money back then, so that was a huge investment for me.  Most of my purchases were cheap paperbacks, but this was a hefty, hardback volume which I still possess.  It’s not a book that I reread often, though, so I hadn’t even thought about them until I started watching the BBC program Sherlock.  At first, I refused to watch the show, because I’m picky about how Sherlock and Watson are depicted.  Lots of movies have been done with their characters, and lots of stories have been written which try to recapture the magic from the original works.  I’ve tried lots of times to like a new incarnation of Sherlock only to find that it doesn’t meet the mental image I hold of the characters.

(If you haven’t seen the BBC version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, you really should find it and watch it.  The premise takes the characters and stories and puts them into a modern setting.  It sounds like a horribly dangerous premise, and yet it works wonderfully well in the hands of Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss.)

The TV show inspired me to go back and reread the stories once more.  I spent a delightful few weeks returning to 221B Baker Street, and I enjoyed the stories every bit as much now as I did the first time that I read them.  I tend to reread a lot of books, but this one had been sitting on the shelf for far too long.   If you’ve never read the original stories, take a few minutes and sample a few.  Start with A Study in Scarlet, and then go onto The Sign of the Four.  The writing has that unique style which can often be found in writing of that era, but you’ll be transported to another world where the game is afoot!





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Jan 5 – Basil

Weather: Cloudy, 44° F
Song Playing on iTunes: My Mystery, performed by Edward McCain
Current Book Being Read on my Kindle: 98% done with The Complete Sherlock Holmes
Up Next in the Kitchen: Nothing.  I ate out tonight at Pei Wei
Relative of the Day: Ida Ruth Edwards Pickard, 1922-2009 (my 3rd cousin, twice removed, according to

Ever since I discovered that homemade pesto tastes amazingly different from the package or jar versions, I have been on an eternal hunt to grow basil.  I’ve tried growing it from seeds.  I’ve tried buying plants already growing.  I’ve had mild luck with the second lot, but I’ve never had that continual supply of large basil leaves with which to cook.  I suspect it’s my lack of a green thumb, or possibly it’s my lack of understanding how to successfully grow things.  Marigolds and okra are about the limits of my growing expertise.

Anyway, while I was out searching for other things today, I made two stops.  The first was at Whole Foods to pick up some fresh basil.  They have had a lovely selection of hydroponic  basil with large leaves.  It’s also under $3/package which for once is less expensive than the organic basil which I have found elsewhere in the city.  The Whole Foods packaging also includes an entire plant from all appearances, so you’re getting a whole lot more for your money this week at least.

Then I stopped by Publix and picked up a tiny kitchen basil plant.  I know that I said in the first paragraph that I’ve never had a lot of luck growing basil, but what’s that saying?  You never truly fail until you stop trying.  (I don’t know who originally said that, but it wasn’t me.)  Anyway, I bought some better dirt in a bag to give to my new plant. If it survives longer than a week, I’ll take a photo and post it.

Now back to counting down the hours until the Season Three premiere of Downton Abbey!


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Jan 4 – Almost Back to Downton Abbey

Weather: sunny, 44° F
Song Playing on iTunes: All Will Be Well – The Gabe Dixon Band
Current Book Being Read on my Kindle: 97% finished with The Complete Sherlock Holmes & trying to finish that before I launch into anything else
Up Next in the Kitchen: leftovers (see yesterday)
Relative of the Day: Herman Lewis Estes, 1890-1949 (1st cousin, 3 times removed, according to


Like most of North America, I’m counting the hours until the return of Downton Abbey.  The local PBS affiliate is having a fundraiser and viewing party for the Season Three premiere.  If I had the right sort of hat, I would seriously think about going myself.  I really think that a Downton Abbey viewing party requires a good hat.  In fact, I’m still looking for just the right hat because it looks so wonderful to always wear one in the show.

I’ve been doing a mad rush to view all the episodes from season two before Sunday night.  It leaves me trying to imitate the beautiful accents which one hears on the show.  That’s always followed by a huge desire to visit Great Britain and Highclere Castle.  Of course, I realize that the characters and places seen on Downton Abbey are fictional.  At best, they’re based on the types of events and places one might have seen during that period of British history.  And who doesn’t love a good story that takes us to such a believable past?

I still have two more episodes to watch of Season 2 before Sunday arrives.  I should be able to make it in time.  And I still have two days to find the right hat!