Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fun and Games at Work

Work has been super busy lately. Luckily, my company has also had some really fun things going on as well, so I've been able to maintain my sanity through some busy deadlines with this fun stuff:

During my company's United Way campaign, we do an activity called Show the Way. Basically people can create teams and participate in various campaign activities to earn points for their team. You can also earn points by getting other people to participate and give points to your team. So basically, it's a way to make sure lots of people participate in the United Way campaign. I created a team called the United A-Team and our goal was to be as hard core as these guys: The A-Team

Our team got super organized and decided who was going to bring stuff for the bake sale, who would create a mini-golf hole, and who would put together a booth for the Taste of AESO (more on that event in a later post) and because we were so organized (and let's face it, the other teams were scared by our intense photo) we won! The prize was a half-day off with pay, which I plan to use soon.

At the beginning of November, we had an offsite meeting at the Calgary Zoo for my whole department. For a team building activity, we got to feed the giraffes! It was a little scary at first (I had been told that giraffe slobber is really sticky and gross) but the giraffe's tongue wrapped right around the carrot stick I was feed it and didn't touch me at all! Those of you who are familiar with my views on animal slobber will know this was a great relief to me.

Isn't that tongue crazy long? They tell you that a giraffe's tongue is purple, but I thought it just looked greyish-brown.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mission Trip Part 2: The Great White North

After our adventures in Ukraine, we went up to Finland for about a week. I had been really nervous about going back to Finland, I was pretty sure my Finnish would be terrible and I wouldn't be able to communicate with anyone and that no one there would remember me.

We got off the airplane in Helsinki and we had to find a store in the airport that would carry a SIM card for our cell phone. It was so exciting to see the R-Kioski (like a 7-11 in Finland, they're everywhere) - I was able to ask the girl at the counter for a SIM card and chat a little bit, and when I told her that I had lived in Finland for 15 months about three years ago, she complimented me on my Finnish. So I guess it wasn't terrible ;)

We attended church in the Haaga ward, where I served the first 9 months of my mission. It was so surreal to be back and see the people I had known there and to take the same walk from the train station to the chapel that I had taken so many times. After church I took Benjamin for a walk around the neighbourhood (our apartment was only a few blocks away from the chapel) and point out the corner store where we bought milk, the park where we went runnign eveyr morning (including the dirt path where my companion fell and injured herself), even going to our old apartment complex and pointing out the balcony where a companion had climbed up my shoulders and let herself in the balcony door when we locked ourselves out. It was mostly those kinds of little details that I loved seeing in Finland.

At the train station right by my old apartment
The second day in Finland we went to explore Suomenlinna, a fortress built in the Helsinki harbour from the 1600s-1800s that was designated a UNESCO heritage site. There are battlements and tunnels everywhere, and they are almost all open to the public to explore. We climbed through the fortress and up an old lighthouse and watched cruise ships sail by through the tiny lane between islands. We enjoyed a picnic in the Nordic sun sitting on fortress walls hundreds of years old and climbed through the tunnels and through the old cannon holes in the wall to get the best views. When I was a missionary in Helsinki, we used to come here on our P-day to play capture the flag, and it was the best place for capture the flag I have ever seen.

I loved going to the grocery store in Finland and finding my old favourite foods. We ate rye bread every day for lunch and when I woke up in the morning, I always had granola with vanilla yogurt, my favourite mission breakfast. I even bought a mustalaatikko (liver casserole) for Benjamin to try, and he liked it as much as I did! Now I need to find a recipe...

We took a day trip to Turku, one of the cities that I had visited for zone conferences but never really seen. We took a tour through the almost thousand-year-old castle and ate dinner on a boat in the river. We followed it up with ice cream in a sunny park.

One of my most frequent memories in Finland was eating the ice cream. I don't know how they do it, but Finnish ice cream is creamier, richer, and more delicious than any ice cream I've ever had anywhere else. I loved picking up a cone after an evening of tracting or contacting in the park in the summer. I loved sharing all those memories of ice cream on a long golden summer evening with Benjamin.

I personally think that the Helsinki temple is one of the most beautiful in the world. I remember going there often while I served in Helsinki and attending the temple there with Benjamin was another of the favourite memories of this trip. 

After the temple, we went to a restaurant in downtown Helsinki that I had found out about online before we even left on our trip. It is one fo the few places that serves reindeer year-round, and I was not about to let Benjamin go to Finland without eating any reindeer! We got fed all kinds of reindeer and elk and moose by members in Finland, and it is so tasty! We ordered a sampler plate that had reindeer, elk, reindeer sausage, and one other piece of game that I forget. Benjamin got a kick out of "eating Rudolph" as he now claims.

Mmmm, Rudolph is so tasty!
 The only other place I served in Finland was Oulu, about 200 km south of the Arctic Circle. In planning our trip, I was thinking that a flight up to Oulu would be too expensive, so I didn't think we would go. Daddy convinced me that compared to our flights over to Europe, the short flight was cheap, and besides, when would we next be in Finland? I'm so glad he talked me into it, and especially glad that one of my Finnish friends from Oulu pointed me towards a super discount airline over there, because taking Benjamin waaay up north was definitely worth it.

We spent a day in Oulu, wandering around the city (which I had never seen without snow, despite living there for 6 months) and visiting a few members that I had known. It turned out that the night we were there was Institute, which was perfect timing because we were able to get into the church building to show Benjamin around and see lots of the youth that I had known in the branch before, there at Institute! It was also the night of a Branch Presidency meeting, and who should be there as the branch Executive Secretary but a wonderful young man I had tracted into only 3 weeks before I left to go home! It was such a blessing to run into him there and see how well he was doing. I also enjoyed seeing the branch president, who had served as the branch mission leader while I was a missionary.

After a day in Oulu, it was up north for a visit to the Arctic Circle with a quick detour to Sweden. We drove this little beauty about 250 km into the great white north and Benjamin surprisingly fit quite well! You can see in the background the quintessential Swedish institution, IKEA. The little Swedish border town isn't really much of a destination, but it houses the only IKEA for hours, so the Finns from Oulu drive up there and give it plenty of business.

At the Arctic Circle we got to visit the REAL Santa Clause (no pictures, though - we didn't want to spend 30 euros for the official photo) and take our picture standing on the very edge of the Arctic. It was a long day of driving there and back, but I always think that it's such a fun trip to say you've been to the Arctic Circle. Benjamin loved it too.

From Oulu we flew back to Helsinki and then on to Frankfurt. We had one night in Germany before our trans-Atlantic flight, so we put it to good use by finding a beautiful German restaurant in the applewine district. We drank the most delicious apfelsaft (homemade apple juice) and I ate schnitzel, while Benjamin had bratwurst. It was the perfect way to end our holiday, sitting in a sun-filled garden and sipping homemade cider and talking about our favourite parts of our amazing vacation.

Monday, July 23, 2012

MIssion Trip Part 1: The Former USSR

Back in May Benjamin and I went on a 17-day trip to visit our respective missions in Ukraine and Finland. And I'm finally getting around to posting some pictures. 

Our first destination (by default) was Latvia. I had found some cheap flights within Europe on Air Baltic, so we flew through Riga, Latvia three times. The first night we had a choice of either a 6-hour layover with a 2 am departure or a 16-hour layover with a flight to Ukraine at around 11 the following morning. After a red-eye to Frankfurt, I thought we'd enjoy a night in real beds, so we booked a room in the gorgeous Hotel Monika Centrum right in the historic city centre, about a 15-minute walk to the town square. 

I loved Riga. It was a beautiful city full of turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau buildings. 

We ate Latvian food and were completely charmed by the long spring evening that we enjoyed on our long walk around the city. I was sad to leave. Maybe we'll go back someday, and actually see the country. 

Next stop was Ukraine, where Benjamin served about 7-8 years ago. We visited church in the small town where he started his mission, Kherson. So many of the members there recognized him, even after so long! We got to see the lovely little branch building that was under construction when he served, and he also took me to see the old Soviet kindergarten where the branch met while he was a missionary.

The quaint/sketchy kindergarten
The beautiful new building

It was so fun to see this little city and meet some of the wonderful people that Benjamin knew there.

Next we spent several days in the Crimea. We did a little sightseeing (including riding a cable car up to the top of a mountain with a gorgeous view) and went to the Super Secret Submarine Base in Balaklava. This was such a cool museum. There was a Soviet Submarine Base there that was literally so secret that the town of Balaklava was not on any official maps. People from the town worked in the front end of the base all their lives and never knew what was behind the doors. I spent the majority of the day learning how to say "Super Secret Submarine Base" in Russian. It is now one of my best phrases in that language.

One of my favourite days in the Crimea was the day when we drove to the cable car mountain. It was beautiful and sunny and we took a small highway through the mountains instead of along the coast. We found some hidden gems:

Benjamin buying honey from a truck at the side of the road

An old soviet bunker from WWII
Benjamin insists that it's not sketchy to buy jars of honey form some old man on the side of the road who keep his hives in an old trailer, but I maintain it's kind of random. That won't stop me from eating the honey, though!

We had a quick 24 hours in Kiev, where we visited the temple and ran into some girls from a branch where Benjamin served! Some might call it coincidence, but we felt so blessed that Heavenly Father arranged so many little miracles like that throughout our trip.
Outside the Kiev Temple
The Kiev Temple was beautiful. What a wonderful experience to attend the temple together where Benjamin served.

We left Kiev by night train to the city of Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine. The overnight train ride was definitely an adventure!

Our train compartment
 One of the highlights of our Kharkiv visit was a trip out to the dacha (cottage) of some members that Benjamin had known and loved on his mission. This little cottage was out in the country and had a gorgeous garden. The couple that brought us out to visit made a delicious lunch of borscht, salad, and bread that was some of the best food of our whole trip.

Another wonderful experience in Kharkiv was when we made arrangements to visit another family from the branch. We showed up to their apartment and there visiting at the same time was an investigator that Benjamin had taught and become quite close to. This investigator was from Russia and happened to be in Kharkiv for a few days and on a whim (which we know was a prompting from the Spirit) decided to go visit his old friends at the same time that we had arranged to visit. It was a very happy reunion for Benjamin.

From Kharkiv we took another night train to Kiev and were on our way to Finland. But that's a story for the next post!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Little Pedro

My little brother ("Pedro", as I have lovingly nicknamed him) has a birthday coming up in a few days, which will be his last before he leaves for a mission at the beginning of June. I will miss him so much, although I promise to write him more letters than he wrote me (so at least 2). Pedro and I have always been and still are pretty close - I remember taking him out for brother-sister dates when I was a teenager, where we'd usually go for pizza and a movie. Lately he loves to come over to our place and play board games with Benjamin and me as we are total board game junkies and there's only so many two-player games. Last weekend, he came over just to hang out with me while Benjamin was away for the weekend, and we watched Bollywood movies and ate perogies. Because Pedro and I are cool like that. We also love to take pictures in kung fu poses:

Showing off our ninja skills in Christmas jammies.
Kung Fu poses are appropriate for all occasions.
The bathrobes in the Tokyo hotel were begging for our classic shot.
Mummy asked me if I would make Pedro's birthday cake this year. Let me insert a small account of the history of birthday cakes in our family. Growing up in my family, we all ate a lot of birthday cake in November. It started with Daddy's birthday on the ninth, then sisters' birthdays on the eleventh, eighteenth, and twenty-third. Needless to say, by Nenzie's birthday on the twenty-third, we were all pretty sick of cake. Kudos to my amazing Mummy who made four birthday cakes every November growing up.

On the other hand, Pedro and I were born in April, one week (and seven years) apart. We always got awesome cakes by my Mum as well, including probably 3 years in a row when I was little that she made panda cakes for me. Now that my sister and I are both married to April birthdays and my other sister had an April baby, we have another birthday season in the family - the entire month of April, which also requires the few requisite cakes.

I've always loved baking, but I started really loving cakes in particular when I took a cake decorating course at Michaels with Nenzie and Mummy. I'm not like all those people you know on facebook who make fondant cakes with perfect gumpaste replica's of their child's favourite cartoon characters, not by a long shot. But I do love making delicious cakes is scrumptious flavours with tasty filling.

Two weekends ago I made a devil's food cake for Benjamin with raspberry jam filling and chocolate buttercream frosting. We shared it at Mum and Dad's place for a combination of Benjy's and Little Skinner's birthdays. I had so much fun icing it. However, my cakes are usually big enough that they last a long time, so we had leftovers for my birthday last week.

I especially love making cakes for Pedro. He somehow appreciates my cakes even more than most people. It started many years ago when I made him a lemon curd cake from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, which, now that I think about it, I think he even bought me for Christmas. I knew we had some sort of connection over my cakes! He's made so many of them possible through the gifting of my favourite cookbook ever!

Anyways, He loves this lemon curd cake. I've made it for him several times, including the variation that he requested this year, raspberry curd cake. I've had a great morning making it for my favourite brother (just because you're my ONLY brother doesn't mean you can't be my favourite!) who I will miss so much when he leaves for his mission. I can only let him go because I know he will love it and he will be amazing. Happy nineteenth birthday Pedro, I love you!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Blast Off, Baby Luke!

At the risk of having you all think that this has turned into an exclusively crafty blog, I want to post one more project that I worked on over the Christmas holidays. Last summer when Benjamin and I went to Spokane, I absolutely had to go to Jo-Ann's. I found all sorts of great fabric on sale and brought it home, even though I had no sewing machine and had no idea what I would do with the fabric. Once I got my sewing machine in October, though, I decided it was time to put the fabric to good use and started making a baby quilt with some adorable fat quarter bundles I got that had a little spaceman theme. Check out the patterns, aren't they awesome?

I especially love the one with the alien googly eyes and the little boy in the flying saucer with the three-eyed alien.

While I was working on this quilt, I had a phone conversation with my sister Katey, who is expecting. She already has three boys and although she and my brother-in-law insist quite truthfully that they would be ecstatic no matter what the gender of their next baby was, I kind of knew they both thought a little girl would be nice. I told her that if their fourth did turn out to be a boy, then at least they could count on getting an awesome spaceman quilt for him.

Katey found out that they are having a boy (with a delivery date coming up pretty quick, I'm really excited!) and I promised her the quilt. What was even more perfect is that they are naming their baby Luke. And his parents are big Star Wars fans (maybe Jason more than Katey, but I know at least that Katey likes Star Wars). They are very keen to point out that their baby will not be named after a certain main character from the movies, but I think it's appropriate that Luke have a space blankie.

They were going to be in town over Christmas, so I had to stop procrastinating and put the top together with the batting and backing and quilt it and bind it before they came. This is my first binding ever (the only other quilt I've finished was a simple turned inside out edge) and I have to say I really enjoyed it. It didn't take nearly as long as I though it would (probably more because of its size than anything else) and it turned out really nice. The backing and the border is a really nice soft flannelette that is so snuggly, I almost wanted to keep the quilt for myself. I hope baby Luke likes it!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Stockings

Ever since I bought my sewing machine a few months ago, I've been dying to have a sewing day with my sister, Emily. She was the one who told me how great the BabyLock machines were and I totally covet her giant sewing room with built-in shelves for fabric and a cute little orange desk for her machine. Once I found out that I had a few extra vacation days from work, I figured that the best way to use one of them would be to go down to Emily's house and sew. I ordered fabric online to start some quilts and was super excited. However, by early this week, the fabric hadn't arrived yet and I had to decide on another project. Emily was planning to make a Christmas stocking for her youngest boy, so I figured that a stocking for Benjamin was in order. 

Mum made this gorgeous stocking for me when I was a little girl and I love it. I love that it's Christmassy without being too childlike. I love that it's kind of sophisticated, but still fun. Even tough Benjamin says that it's too small, I think it's just the perfect size. I decided that I would make a similar one for Benjamin for out first Christmas as a family. 

I found some perfect red velvet at Fabricland and also got some perfect gold rickrack and white edging with tiny pompoms. Emily refreshed my memory on chainstiching and french knots and by the end of the afternoon, I had his stocking finished. (Although halfway through embroidering his name on the top, I wondered why I had to marry someone with such a very long name.)

I've hung our stockings on the wall for now, since we don't have a fireplace or any kind of mantle-like place in our little apartment, but it'll do for this year.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Candies

(mine will not be wrapped in anything near such a picturesque manner)

Since this was my first Christmas with a family of my own (yes, I view Benjamin and myself as a family, not just a couple) I decided I should make some Christmas goodies. I've been collecting Martha Stewart Holiday Special Editions for several years, and there was a recipe in one of them for gingerbread caramels that I had been dying to try. Never mind that I've never made candy before and had no idea what soft ball stage was supposed to look like. All you need is a recipe and a candy thermometer, right? Right?

Turns out that although those will suffice, I'm sure, it helps to have someone around with a modicum more candy-making knowledge than oneself. When it turned out that my largest pot was too small for Martha's giant recipe (as the boiling sugar, butter and cream threatened to bubble over onto the stovetop), Benjamin was the one who warned me that taking it off the heat would only cause the sugar to "crystallize wrong" - whatever that means.

Despite having to move half of the boiling batch into another pot to prevent a sticky mess and only having one incorrect candy thermometer for two pots of caramel, the candies seemed to turn out ok. As long as you don't try to unwrap them when they're not freshly chilled in the fridge. Oh well, they taste good, and that's all that matters, right? Ok, maybe most of what matters.