Thursday, May 27, 2010

The GREEN CT Realtor Returns to Europe!

It's been a long time.  It's been so easy to find excuses with 2 small children and a busy real estate career, but we're doing it - traveling to Europe en famille per la prima volta.  (I mix my French & Italian because I feel like it just rolls off the tongue.)  

For everyone who has been asking...here it is...the crazy, hectic "I can't-believe-we're-really-going-to-do-this" itinerary of our European Summer Adventure.  Looking back at the "we'll never do that road trip again" vacation of last year, and feeling like we needed a vacation after our vacation, I'm still surprised that we're doing it.  Wish us luck!

For starters, we're flying Air Canada for 3, maybe 4 reasons.  I like the convenience of flying out of Hartford with 2 kids and not having to get to JFK or BOS.  We stop in Montreal (I wonder if they have poutine at the airport?) and then on to Paris.  My pilot neighbor Don talked me out of taking an airbus last year, so I had to find another option.  Also, I figure Air Canada is less of a risk for terror attacks seeing as how everyone seems to get along with Canada and Canadians are very polite.  It's not just a stereotype - it's quite true, thank you very much.  Now if that Icelandic volcano can be still until the Fall we'll be all set.

Travel advice: renting apartments/condos/houses on sites like homeaway.com can save you money and get you into cool neighborhoods so you can get more of a local vibe.

We've rented a tiny apartment in Paris in an awesome neighborhood for a lot less than I could find a hotel.  The French lady who owns the apartment moved us 4 times before we ended up here, but we couldn't be happier!   (I'm pretty good at doing the French 'what are you gonna do?' shrug anyway.)  Here's a photo hubby took from the door of our building in the 4th arrondissement.

  

We have 3-4 packed days in Paris before we head to Brugge, Belgium.  Don't get me wrong, I'm very excited about Paris, but I've been there before, so for me Brugge is REALLY exciting.  A Gothic city with canals, chocolate, beer, the relic of the Holy Blood, fries, swans, the marketplace, bicycling around the city...it's just so much to fit into 2 days!  We're staying at a great little B&B - check out the view from our room!

From Belgium we head to the coast and follow the coast down to the Bretagne region of France, where we'll be staying with friends.  While hubby spends 2 weeks there every spring, this will be my first time visiting.  Looking forward to hanging out with the French teachers who have been staying with us every year as part of the exchange program where hubby teaches!  This a really interesting region to me, and I'm looking forward to exploring the medieval cities, St. Malo, and the forest from whence (Arthurian legend has it) Merlin the Magician hails.  The kids are simply happy that our friends live near the beach and there will be other children to play with.  Like last year at French camp, Julien's going to have to draw on his French to communicate.  He's come such a long way - I'm so proud of him!

While we're in Dinard, I was thinking I might check out a few real estate listings, like this sweet dream:


They were asking 750,000 Euros and it's under contract.  Isn't it darling?  The grounds are gorgeous too.  

Leaving Dinard we have a big day (for me) because we'll be visiting both of my ancestral villages.  I've always known that I was 100% French.  We've always said French Canadian though, because my families on both sides were among the first French colonists in New France in the early 1600's.  In one of the villages, there's a museum dedicated to the first group of settlers (you have to ask for the key at the town hall to get in) where my ancestor's name is on the wall.  (Apparently Celine Dion's family is from the same village?)  I've seen it online and am looking forward to walking the same streets or paths my ancestors once did.  We're packing a picnic lunch to enjoy in the second village.  I think it's pretty wild that both sides of my family came from only 45 minutes apart.  It reminds me of my mom telling me that she remembers my dad's father visiting her family on horseback in Quebec (my dad's family didn't have a car) back when she was a child.  Would she have ever guessed back then that she would marry his youngest son thousands of miles away wearing a mini dress in Florida 20 something years later?

The Loire Valley is next!  I've always wanted to either bike or hot air balloon the valley, to take in the castles, but with the kids...well that's a bit too much at this point.  Instead I found a charming Inn in a converted mill just down a path to the Chateau at Chenonceau and they have a pool and grounds plus we can borrow bicycles and ride to the castle!  We've already made our dinner reservation in the restaurant :)  


The history of the chateau many believe to be the most beautiful of the Loire Valley is very interesting.  I am most excited to see it, and appreciate that hubby is willing to do this again despite having been here before.  At the night the gardens are lit and they play classical music - can you think of a nicer way to spend the evening?  Our 2nd day in the valley we'll be visiting a 2nd castle, probably Chambord.  

Next we head to Montpellier, where we can't wait to see old friends Albert, Seb & family.  The amazing thing about French people is that while it can take them a while to warm up to you, once you're friends, you're friends for life.  We're there for about 3 days.  Travel advice: I go by the 3 day rule when staying with friends.  Guests, like fish, start to stink after 3 days, or something like that.  I really, really like Montpellier, and I'm looking forward to maybe taking the kids for their first dip in the Mediterranean!

On to Provence, where we'll stay with more friends for 3 days, including Bastille Day!  I've only seen Provence from the windows of the TGV (high speed train) and it's been a dream to spend time there.  Of course I want to visit places like Avignon and Aix, but I'm happy to go along with whatever our gracious hosts suggest.  (I'm just happy to be here, folks!)


(This is the Provencal house used in the film A Good Year, based on the Peter Mayle book, and starring Russell Crowe.  Fabulous property.  I'm seeing a slight resemblance to my Bretagne house above...) 


Leaving Provence we bid au revoir to France as we drive through Monaco & the Cote d'Azur into Italy and on to Firenze.  

Travel Advice: When booking hotels or B&Bs, I read the reviews on tripadvisor.com.  I also write reviews on there because I feel that it's such a valuable resource.  Also, ask if there's a cash discount for B&Bs - there often is.  I found a top rated Bed & Breakfast with a big room and supposedly one of the best cappuccinos in all of Florence.  We saved 10% by paying cash, which is enough to buy lunch the next day!

Finally we meet up with friends from home in Lucignano, Tuscany, where we've rented a villa for a week.  (I posted a photo of the villa some time back - it's dreamy!)  It'll be nice to spread out and have a little space to ourselves after spending almost a week between friends.  With a centrally-located home base, we'll do day trips to Cortona, San Gimignano, Sienna, Florence, and other spots, returning to cool off in our pool and have fabulous dinners & wine on the terrace.  Since we've spent time there before, it keeps the pressure low to have to see every sight and we can focus on favorites or the ones we may have missed.  Seeing as how Scott spent 10 summers in the area, he's more keen on visiting old friends and drinking vin santo.  The children are excited that we'll be meeting up with playmates.  I may have to stop by and visit some of the real estate offices to build up my international real estate networking base.  I'm working on my Certified International Property Specialist designation :) 

Our month-long odyssey ends in Roma, the eternal city that feels like home to me.  Mille grazie to Monica & Gaetano for lending us their apartment.  They are simply the most amazing people.  I can't wait to see them - it's been waaaay too long.  I wanted to share a picture of the last time we were all together, only my scanner doesn't want to communicate with my iMac.  If you're looking for a fantastic place to stay in Rome, you should check out the hotel Scott's friend owns.  It's the Albergo Cesari  and has got to be the best location in Rome - near Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, etc.  This is a view of the new rooftop terrace at dusk.  It books early, so give yourself plenty of time when making reservations!

 
There you have it!  It's going to be quite an adventure for the GREEN CT Realtor & family.  Time to brush up on my French & Italian, and maybe pick up a few Flemish phrases while I'm at it!

Keep it GREEN my friends! 








Thursday, May 20, 2010

ReSnackit? Yes Please. Pesticides? No Thank You.

Guess who just got one step closer to becoming the QUEEN of GREEN lunches?  Oui, c'est moi!  Not only is my 6 year old carrying waste-less lunches, but now my preschooler has her own reusable snack/sandwich bag by ReSnackIt.  This is the work of  Avon, CT "mompreneur" Kristin Webster on a quest to create waste-free lunches and drop the plastic bag habit.   Picked up a gender-neutral orange design at Whole Foods so that it gets maybe a little more use in that maybe my son might use it too, but I can already see we'll picking up more of these for days when we're out running errands, etc.  My son has his eye on the skateboard print!

Newly Reported Dangers of Pesticides

As if there weren't enough health risks posed by pesticides, new studies reported this week have associated certain pesticides (or residues) to ADHD in children.  Read the Time Magazine article here.  All the more reason for me to keep up my garden and continue to buy organic produce.  I do hear a lot of people say that organic isn't affordable, and if you only shop at the local supermarket, it's not only expensive, but it's pretty lousy too (*with the exception of the frozen store-brand organic produce - I think those are pretty good.)  I agree with both statements.  I do 4 things to keep my organic spending in check. 1.) No secret - I grow my own. 2.) I shop at Trader Joe's, where organic doesn't cost an arm & a leg.  Sure, I have to drive 30 minutes to get there, but I combine trips or stop when I have to be in the area for work, and a neighbor and I pick up stuff for each other when one of us makes the trip.  3.) I shop Whole Foods too - but only the organics that are on sale.  4.)  I follow the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides with the Dirty Dozen & the Clean 15:


The Dirty Dozen (Worst at the top)  
Celery
Peaches
Strawberries
Apples
Blueberries
Nectarines
Bell Peppers
Spinach
Kale
Cherries
Potatoes
Grapes (Imported)


The Clean 15 (Best at the top)
Onion
Avocado
Sweet Corn
Pineapple
Mango
Sweet Peas
Asparagus
Kiwi
Cabbage
Eggplant
Cantaloupe
Watermelon
Grapefruit
Sweet Potato
Honeydew Melon

Would you like to read a disturbing statistic?  (You may want to avert your eyes or skip over this part.)  I read that if a person gets their 5 servings of fruits & veggies a day from the items on the dirty dozen list, they're probably ingesting 10 pesticides a day.   Does that turn your stomach?  I'm NOT feeding my kids 10 pesticides a day!  I got that from foodnews.org, and while I don't necessarily trust everything I read, it's a reminder that it's so very important to thoroughly WASH any produce.

On a different note, I realize I haven't been sharing as much info on the GREEN side of real estate/home improvement lately.  It seems I keep getting excited about so many topics these days.  For those of you who've shared with me your dreams of building GREEN, I will have an interview coming up soon with friends here in CT who has been going through the GREEN building process for almost a year now.  We'll talk about the things you need to know and what advice they have for those of you looking into environmentally-friendly homes & construction.

Finally I want to pay my respects to a former real estate client of mine who passed away unexpectedly yesterday.  I found her to be both a spit-fire and an elegant lady, and we shared a love for our gardens as well as our copies of Martha Stewart Magazine.  Rest in Peace, Helen Condon.




Thursday, May 13, 2010

Gardening is the Original GREEN

I'm not sure why I was so completely mortified in 6th grade when my mom told the whole school that I loved to garden the night I was named student of the year.  Why was that soooo embarrassing then?  (Looking back, I should have been more embarrassed by that crazy 1980's dress I was wearing!)  Gardening has been a part of my life forever.  My parents both grew up on farms, everyone I knew had a garden.  We'd go to visit an uncle and spend the morning picking or planting together.  My cousins own a huge commercial farm.  It's in my blood.  It might just be in my children's blood too!


 


I'm one of those gardeners who buys the leftover seeds at the end of the growing season.  You know, the ones in a basket tucked under some shelf that you have to get someone to help you find because you just know they're hiding somewhere?  I take my kids and for 25 cents per pack I let them go wild.  Big spender, right?

Well, I've amassed quite the collection of seeds, as you can imagine.  Seeds last well beyond the date on the package, by the way, they just have a lower germination rate, so plant a few extra if you're using older seeds.  I've got some from 5 years ago that are still sprouting for me!  Vegetables, perennials, annuals, herbs... I've got them all.  Some I start as early as January, in little clean yogurt cups with the kids.  Some I plant as soon as the ground is ready, like my peas & lettuces.  Some I share.  I mean, am I really going to plant 80 organic turnips?  (OK, the truth is I would LOVE to plant that many.  I love turnips more than anyone should.  I just don't have enough garden space for it.  Enough land, yes, but not enough of it is garden.  I'll have to work on hubby to get more space!)  To continue with the turnips as an example, BTW, if your garden helper is say, 3 yrs old and you let her plant the seeds, don't be surprised when only 5 come up.  I'm just saying :)



This year I've already shared over a dozen strawberry plants.  I've handed out onion sets.  I have pepper plants to share, and most likely after my trip to Urban Oaks this weekend, I'll have an extra tomato plant or two to pass along.  The list of perennials I'm willing to share is pretty extensive.  Come harvesting season, this one in particular, I'll have LOTS of veggies & fruits to share, especially while I'm away and I've invited family & friends to come and harvest.  As long as no one touches my asparagus - it's not ready to harvest for another year!



                                    


My goal in the summer time is not to buy any produce from grocery stores, with the exception of organic lemons.  I grow a good variety of things, and what I don't grow I buy from farmer's markets.  I'm already harvesting my own lettuces & spinach, and let me just say that none of my friends should have to buy mint for mojitos or for tea for the entire summer!





My non-gardening friends sometimes ask why I'm out there so much.  It seems like a no-brainer, but also it's the way I grew up.  Let's see...I can put in veggies & herbs for a fraction of the cost of buying them at the chain grocery store (after they've been sitting in a warehouse somewhere, and had to be trucked in from out of state.)  I know they're organic.  I can walk out my door and have a salad ready in minutes.  I like teaching my children where food comes from, and I LOVE that they're outdoors digging in the dirt instead of inside in front of any screen.  I like the way fresh warm strawberries taste right off the plant - the berries at the supermarket are flavorless in comparison.  I like composting all of my kitchen scraps (and coffee grounds - sometimes I pick up bags of still warm grounds from Starbucks on my way out the door!) and opening the bottom of my Earth Machine composter and finding that rich black compost at the bottom makes me feel so GREEN!  We've really reduced the amount of garbage we produce the past few years thanks to recycling and composting.  Most of all, I like the idea of being somewhat self-sustaining, and of being able to share.      

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Good News for Alternative Energy in CT & Farmer's Markets!

I've been a little engrossed in real estate lately - it's that time of year, and when you add in the crunch we had to get in under the tax credit wire, well, let's just say we're lucky I can still speak in somewhat complete sentences.  That's my excuse for not knowing about the Energy Bill that was going before the CT House of Representatives this week.  It passed 81-40.  Click here to see who voted for it.  Let's be hopeful that it now gets signed by Governor Rell.  (BTW,  you can call her office 800-406-1527 during business hours to ask her to support Senate Bill 493.This bill would subsidize alternative energy production such as solar, wind & hydroelectric power, and calls for a 15% reduction in electricity rates (yay!) plus tougher regulations of the retail marketing of electric power to both residential & business consumers.


As much as an energy bill makes me happy....farmer's markets & spring markets make me absolutely giddy!  Although some of my favorite markets (Florence Griswold Marche en Plein Air, Ashlawn Farm &  Coffee Roasters) don't start until we're farther into the growing season, many are open early for plant sales!  While I don't have much room left in my gardens for more plants, I can't help but fall in love with some of the new beauties out there!  Makes we want to dig up another patch of lawn :) 


Now when I'm on the lookout for organic produce or plants, here are some of my CT Favorites as well as those I've been meaning to visit:


West Hartford Farmer's Market on LaSalle Rd is already open for the season!  What it lacks in ambience it makes for in convenience.


Farmington's Hill-Stead Museum is hosting its annual May Market this weekend - note there is an admission fee.


I would be remiss not to mention one of my favorites - the Lyme Farmer's Market at Ashlawn Farm is always packed full of farmers with great produce, organic meats & cheeses, & baked goods!  This is a farmer's market set in a field next to barn and you can see animals and fields of flowers while you shop, but they also have AMAZING organic coffee.  It's a great location and you can pick up some really yummy foods there.


For a very quaint country artisan's market, I like the Middle Haddam Farmer's Market at the Middle Haddam Library.  The guy with the homemade artisan bread is a culinary genius.  His bread, some goat cheese, and fresh fruit from Rick Walker's gorgeous table at the market make for an incredible lunch!    


Elizabeth Park in Hartford is hosting its annual plant sale on May 15th from 10-2.  I've always wanted to volunteer my time in their gardens....one of these days I will!


I've been meaning to visit Urban Oaks in New Britain for some time thanks to my fellow realtor Carl Lantz of West Hartford.  This organic farm is known for it's fabulous tomato plants and their seedling sale is coming up Fridays & Saturdays from May 12-June 12.  I will most likely be picking up my few tomato plants there during their sale. 


BTW, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme has an ongoing Garden Fest through the end of June.  


There are just SOOOO many great markets out there, and if like me, you're not happy with what you find at Stop & Shop, take the time to search out a farmer's market where you can buy fresh & organic food directly from the growers.  Support your local farmers, or even take the time to plant a few seeds yourself and see what grows!