Italy: April 6-14, 2017.

Hi guys! I haven't even written up my last trip to Paris yet, but let's tackle Italy while it's still fresh in my head.

We've been thinking about Italy for quite some time now and ruled it out last year because Bubba's spring break coincided with Easter. Given the proximity of Vatican City and Rome, we were scared that the crowds would be too much during Holy Week. This year, Bubba's spring break coincided with Easter week yet again, but this time we didn't care. YOLO.

I'm a planner. I like things organized. I do stuff like this in Apple Numbers:

Italy 2017

Yes, I seriously am serious about being as prepared as I can and having important information all in one place.

Rome

I was researching hotel after hotel in Rome and I wasn't too excited about the options (be it availability, location, or price). I didn't want to gamble with Hotwire Hot Rates because we've never been to Rome and we didn't know the area so we went with AirBnB again. I was drawn to the apartment we booked because of the natural light and the decor. I had no idea what Via del Corso was and I wasn't even sure if being near the Spanish Steps was good. Turns out, we were literally in the heart of the city! Everything was within walking distance. Piazza del Popolo was 2 blocks to right. Villa Borghese was just beyond the Piazza. The Spanish Steps were a 5 minute walk. Trevi Fountain a 15 minute walk; same for the Pantheon. The Colosseum wasn't far off either, but we opted to take a taxi there (more on taxis later). Food and shopping were steps away too! The unit itself was very spacious. We were checked in and greeted by Abi, the manager. She took the time to show us around the unit and gave us her number in case we needed anything. There was some water and milk already stocked in the refrigerator. There was a learning curve to opening the front door of the apartment, but eventually, we figured it out. During the day, we could hear the hustle and bustle of Via del Corso from our room. It was a real treat when we could hear a street performer singing below our window; she had a beautiful voice and her song choices were soothing (Olivia even commented "she sings so good" and always wanted to stop by to put "coins" in her jar). At night, it was pretty quiet though so noise was not an issue for us.

Colosseum Tour

The one thing we all agreed we needed to see was the Colosseum. We opted to do a children's tour because Bubba loves Roman history and Roman mythology. I knew this was something he would dive right into. I looked through Trip Advisor for reviews and ended up with Pinocchio Tours. I emailed them to coordinate a time and day and they were nothing but amazing! We like to get up early in the morning to do things because of the potential crowds and the potential heat so we chose an 8:30am tour.

The area surrounding the Colosseum is blocked off to through traffic, so the taxi dropped us off right in front of the "wedding cake" building. We walked past the forum to meet our tour guide, Francesca, in front of the metro exit. Francesca knew her stuff! She was eloquent, passionate, friendly, and very good with children! She's an archaeologist and would share personal stories regarding finds in the area. She walked us through the tour line and we started on the third level. Before she began, she said we would be playing a game; kids versus parents. She would share information and she would ask us questions throughout the tour; whoever answered first would get the points (and extra points if we wrote in roman numerals). Bubba was all in. Competitive mode took over, but so did his knowledge. We were so impressed how he held real deal conversations with Francesca. He knew everything about everything. She was talking about the she-wolf and Bubba says "Lupa." She said in all of her years doing this, no one has ever known the Italian word name for she-wolf. The highlight of Rome was seeing Bubba in his element. Obviously, he did end up winning the game. Francesca had a prize for Bubba and Olivia at the end of the tour; an archaeological set for Bubba and a Colosseum snow globe for Olivia. Francesca has a soft spot for mosaic tiles, so she picked up a special rock during our walk up the Palatine Hill and gave it to him as a souvenir.

The tour included the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. Knowing that we have children, she made sure to stop and note when there was a restroom (because there are very few) or a vending machine for drinks. We didn't bring our stroller because we knew it might be difficult to use it in certain areas and Olivia did just fine! The 3 hour tour didn't ever feel long and not a single soul complained! We all loved it. Bubba loved everything and Olivia loved roaming stairs and open fields.

Vatican Tour

I was really hesitant to try the Vatican tour. I kept reading reviews that it wasn't that great for kids, but Niti wanted to go so I booked.

The crowd at one point.

We started our tour by meeting Walks of Italy at the green cafe in Piazza de Risorgimento. A bunch of people were waiting in a line to be checked in and were all spread into smaller groups. Our group consisted of all adults (although other groups had children and strollers; we didn't bring ours) and our tour guide, Tong. He handed us all headsets and from the cafe, we walked to the entrance of Vatican City. While waiting, he told us little details about the Sistine Chapel because that would be our first stop. You're not allowed to talk or take pictures in the chapel, so he wanted to tell us as much as he could beforehand. Of course everyone knows the Sistine Chapel.. Michelangelo.. art.. history.. genius.. but I've never learned the little details. All of it can be googled, but it's pretty awesome to learn something new while you're actually there in person. Our tour guide was pretty funny too.

Throughout the beginning of the tour, Olivia wasn't really feeling it. Bubba was kind of bored part way through too. We only lasted a little under 2 hours before we just had to go (I think it was supposed to be 3 hours and 45 minutes long). We apologized to our group, returned our headsets, and made our exit toward St. Peter's Square. The Vatican is the Vatican.. but kids are kids. If they weren't enjoying it.. we weren't either.

We went to the square, found some gelato, and just hung out.

Villa Borghese

During our last evening in Rome, we walked up the Spanish Steps and around to get to Villa Borghese (this is the long way). When we stepped into the gardens, we only wish we had gone here everyday. It's amazing. So kid-friendly. Gazebos with rides for children. Carousels. Playgrounds. Fields of green to walk/run around. Bicycle rentals. A mini train/trolley. We loved it. The sun was setting as we were leaving the park and we came upon a terrace with the most beautiful view. We exited toward Piazza del Popolo where the kids ran through bubbles. It was a great way to spend our last night.

Food

Antico Osteria Brunetti was down the street from our apartment. We went here on our first night in Rome. We didn't have reservations so stopped by right when they opened. Bubba ordered a delicious pasta alle vongole. I ordered the steak in a red wine reduction. Service was so-so here, but we enjoyed our meal.

We didn't have reservations for dinner at Babette either. Niti called in and they said they don't have any opening, but if we went in right at opening and left before 9pm, they'd be happy to welcome us. They had a vegetable soup as a complimentary appetizer and surprisingly, Liv loved it. We ordered the carbonara, some steak, and a seafood pasta for the kids. My fav thing there: the bloody mary. I never drink, but when I do, it's that. One of the best ones I've ever had. Service was very warm and welcoming.

We needed a quick bite to eat when we returned from the Vatican, so we looked up restaurants within a street away from our apartment. The weather was perfect so we sat outdoors at La Luna d'Ora and had a simple lunch. No surprise.. we ordered steak again (with a side or arugula). We tried their carbonara as because the waitress said it was better than most, but Niti preferred Babette's.

Osteria 140 definitely hit the spot for seafood. Every dish we ordered from the raw bar was SO good. The prawn sampler. The oyster variations. Everything. This restaurant was the furthest out we ventured but worth it. The cooked dishes weren't our favorite, but the raw bar alone would be why we recommend this place. They had the best service as well. They treated us like family. They even brought out live uni (sea urchin) for the kids to see and touch.

The asian cravings kicked in so we decided to try Zuma. We have one in Miami but have never been. It was good, but nothing awe-inspiring. Best dish we had was the wagyu tataki.

Hamasei was another stop. They grilled their salmon to perfection. We ordered the lobster sashimi alongside a sashimi platter on the menu. We had some sushi. Tried some tempura items. It was your typical Japanese/sushi restaurant.

We stopped into Ginger to order daily green juices/smoothies for the kids. It gets pretty busy here, but if all you want is a smoothie, just let the host know and they'll let you right in.

Gelato

Gelateria was our first gelato stop because it was on the way to our apartment. I didn't try it, but it was gelato so the kids loved it.

We stopped into Don Nino on our way from Trevi Fountain to the Pantheon. The espresso was too strong for me. Bubs had chocolate. Liv had pink (strawberry). Niti ordered Pistachio. I felt the flavors were kind of flat. There was no oomph. The place itself was beautiful though.

There was usually a line at Venchi. The pistachio here had more depth to its flavor than the others we tried.

We had some lemon gelato at a snack stand outside of St. Peter's Square. Not the biggest fan of lemon/lime flavors, but this one was surprisingly good.

Giolitti was our favorite gelato place in Rome. We tried pistachio, strawberry, and chocolate. We stopped in during our walk back from the Pantheon.

Francesca recommended San Crispino to us, but we didn't get to try it.

Florence

We pre-booked train tickets to Florence to coincide with check-out of our AirBnB and check-in of our hotel in Florence. We opted for one class higher than economy for a bit more comfort. The ride took about 1.5 hours to get to the S.M. Novella train station in Firenze. We walked from there to our hotel (10 minutes).

We stayed at Firenze Number Nine Wellness Hotel. Florence is so tight-knit and cozy that everything was within walking distance. This hotel was a great location and the staff were very friendly. Breakfast was included in our rate and we really enjoyed it. One of the best breakfast buffets we've had in Europe.

I definitely prefer the vibe of Florence over Rome. It felt slower-paced and more chill. People were friendlier. Crowds were smaller. I could understand why people fall in in love with Florence. There wasn't much to do with the kids, but we loved going to the carousel in Piazza della Repubblica everyday. If we needed a quick snack or a short break, we'd go into the book store right next to Hard Rock Cafe. Olivia loved playing in the cubby hole they had for kids upstairs.

We walked past the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore everyday when heading to the main hubs of the city. From there, you'll go past Palazzo Vecchio it's a short walk to the river and to Ponte Vecchio. We didn't visit Michelangelo's David because the lines were always so long and we didn't want to put the kids through it.

Food

During our first night in Florence, we looked up Impressione Chongqing and decided to give it a try. There was a line full of asian tourists upon arrival so we knew there must be a reason why. We put our name down and the wait wasn't that long. They do not hold back on flavors here. Everything we had was pretty good. The two dishes I remember are the spicy crab in a wok and the fish with sauerkraut (not the kind you put on hot dogs; the green pickled asian one). We ordered other things too and I don't think any dish was bad. Out of all the restaurants we tried in Italy, this one was the bang for your buck. 

Mercato Centrale is a must-go. It's a food hall. Plenty of options from pasta, burgers, steak, and seafood. We went an hour before we had to leave Florence, which was not a great time because a lot of restaurants (even around the city) close from 3/4pm til 7pm. We ordered a bone-in steak and a burger. The Vietnamese in me thought about the asian markets next to Impressione Chongqing and how we could've bought sauce-making ingredients to Mercato Centrale to eat at the steak and seafood restaurant (which were next to each other).

Gelato

Gelato in Florence > Rome. We tried both Perche No! and Grom. We're creatures of comfort and tried the same flavors we had in Rome, with the addition of mango. All the flavors were yummy!

Side Notes:

Taxis in Italy were not my favorite. One driver didn't want to take us where we asked to go and told us to walk. Another driver assumed we were ignorant tourists and tried to tell us fares were flat rate; we walked a block down to another taxi stand and he used the meter. At night time, a different driver took us back to our apartment and made up a fare. When we asked about the meter, he pretended to check and said it said x amount, when it was actually off. When we got into the airport train station from Florence, we needed a taxi to get to our hotel near the airport. None of the taxis wanted to drive that way because it was too close. The taxi line coordinator told us to walk down to the other taxi stand. At stand #2, none of the taxi drivers here wanted to take us either. Luckily, there were local cab drivers across the street. They were pretty expensive for such a short ride, but apparently that's the norm (we asked the hotel staff).

The VAT refund process at FCO was so much easier/simpler than CDG. We didn't check in any bags, so we went through security first. After we got through security, the detaxe lines were right around the way. There were two separate lines for Global Blue and Premier Tax. We stood in a short line, handed over our forms and were asked if we wanted it in cash or back to our credit card. Because refunds are higher in Italy than in France, we opted for cash in euros (since we're heading back to Europe in June). It's so nice not to have to wait around to see if our credit card is actually credited. Sometimes, they lose the forms or it gets lost in the mail, so ALWAYS take photos of your forms before mailing them out! If you're heading out of gate E, take advantage of the duty-free savings. They had the lowest prices of any other duty-free I've ever been in. For reference: Valentino rockstuds were 595 euros, D&G Taormina pumps were 595 euros, an Hermes twilly was 119 euros.

Was Rome/Florence as crowded as we thought it might be during Holy Week? No.. not really. We could easily use our stroller while roaming the streets. There were some areas with cobblestones, but Liv didn't really mind the bumpy ride.. she thought it was fun.

Bunny Bash 2017.

We didn't have a party. We didn't host an event. I had a dose of inspiration and needed to see it come to life. Yep.. the things I do for fun.

Tons of balloons on the floor = my favorite go-to for party decor. Olivia loves it! She enjoys running through it.. throwing it.. "swimming" in it. Balloons are always a hit. A balloon air pump has been one of my smartest buys ever.

Beautiful desserts from The Little Sugars.

I adore Olivia's dress. It was love at first sight. Perfect for Easter and for spring/summer. Find it here, here, or here. Bunny ears are from Target's dollar section.

Main thing swirling in my head: bunny balloon arch thing. With some pointers from The House that Lars Built, I cut up an Amazon box and got to work.

I taped the bunny frame to the wall using Frog Tape and used all kinds of sticky goods to get the balloons to stay on (double-sided adhesive, zots, photo squares, and scotch tape).

Last year's bunny favor bags were so cute that I wanted to try a different variation.

Supplies:
Treat Sacks (I purchased mine from Michael's)
Pink Vellum
Pom Poms (Cotton balls work too!)
Rope
Runner's Tape
Zots
Adhesive photo squares
Scissors

Cut the sack down to 5 inches. (If you're sticking the headband in the sack as the bunny ears, cut the sack to 5.5-6 inches.)

Use the top portion of the sack to cut out bunny ears. Use those ears to cut out bunny ears with the vellum, but trim the vellum ears about 0.5 cm all around. With clear runner's tape, stick the vellum onto the bunny ears. Attach the ears onto the sack. Draw the bunny face on.

On the back of the sack, attach the fluffy bunny tail. I used bunny pom pom stickers from Target's dollar section.

Cut white rope to about 13 inches. For a clean look, cut out a small square of scrap paper and line one side with adhesive. Stick each end of the rope onto the squares and place a zots on the opposite side; attach to the inner sides of the open sack.

 

Shop The Post

Worth.

10 years ago, someone told me I wasn't raised right.

I was raised in 1 bedroom apartments with my parents and 5-6 of my siblings. I was raised in section 8 housing and welfare. I was raised in 7 states and more schools than I can count on my fingers.

I was raised in a household with an on/off drug-addicted parent for 18 years of my life. Where he would ask to borrow his children's money and we would never see it back. Where he would leave for days at a time when our mother was pregnant with a sick baby. Our baby sister didn't make it.

I was raised in an environment where it wasn't uncommon to be told you are worthless. That you have nothing to show for. I was even told that having me around was worse than having a dog around.

I was raised in a world where I kind of shut down and barely spoke from middle school to early high school.

I was raised in a world where no one knew I was sexually abused by an uncle and a family 'friend' when I was just about both of my children's ages.

Growing up was conflicting for me. Maybe I wasn't raised right. But that never defined me as a person.

Jada Pinkett Smith once said that she turned the pain of her childhood into power. That was her motivation. This past year has been the most challenging of my life. Everything came crashing down. Past, present, and future. Not knowing what I'm doing. Not knowing what the future holds. Not feeling like myself. In a way, forgetting who I am. I've never felt so powerless. I've never felt so.. weak.

Being in that place made me question everything. Through it all, I think I forgot to take care of myself. It's not something I ever considered. Honestly, I'm still trying to find my way there. My saving grace is the very fact that I'm a mother.

I've spent the past 10 years of my life doing the best thing I will ever do in this lifetime: raising my kids. Raising them to have big hearts and kind souls. Raising them to respect people and to respect themselves. Raising them into good/great/amazing human beings.

As a parent, my biggest fear is to repeat the mistakes I've watched countless people around me make. It's not easy when it's all I've known. It's an internal battle that I fight every single day.. to be the mom my children deserve. To be their champion. To be someone they can turn to. To guide them and to protect them. To make them feel loved. To let them know that I will always be their home.

This is something I will never stop fighting for.. no matter how many times I think I fail.. because they are worth it.

This is something Olivia and I repeat daily. This is my hope for her and for her brother.

I am pretty.

I am pretty smart.
I am pretty kind.
I am pretty strong.
I am pretty loving.
I am pretty loved.

I respect life.
I respect people.
I respect my family.
I respect myself.

It’s okay to ask for help.
It’s okay to make mistakes.
And if I fall...
Still, like air, I rise (maya angelou).

I am worth it.
I am important.
I believe in myself.
Because I got this.
And so do you.

The New Normal.

I've contemplated whether to write this post for awhile now (nearly a year).. How much of my personal life do I want to share with the world? This blog is a random place for me to post DIYs, our traveling adventures, and to talk about my kids every now and then. This affects every aspect of my children's lives and it definitely changes mine too.. so here goes.

My friend and I used to talk about our 30s. Most people cringe at the thought of aging, but I always told her I'd look forward to it.. That hopefully, we'd figure things out or, at the very least, we'd understand ourselves a little better.

While I do have a better sense of who I am, it turns out.. I don't think there will ever be any time in life where anyone figures everything out. We give and we take.. and we learn how to roll with the punches. I celebrated my 30th birthday this past March. Never had I imagined I would be saying goodbye to the past 10+ years of my life, moving out into an apartment, and learning how to co-parent two children.

Divorce. It's like taboo, but I don't necessarily view it as a bad thing. If we don't make each other better people and we aren't a team in that way, then what are we doing? There's a lot of history and I'm not going to delve into details, but we just don't work. It happens. That's okay. No matter how many people think it's their business to interject.. this has and always will be between the two of us.

Life as a single parent.. I don't see it that way. Our number one priority is Nathaniel and Olivia. We are still a family. Unconventional.. but we make our own rules. We respect each other as parents.. plain and simple.

All of our lives will be different. We're all learning how to adapt to this new normal. Nathaniel will be staying with his father as he finishes off his last year of elementary school. Olivia and I will be moving into an apartment.

The decision to have our children living separately wasn't/isn't an easy one. We get the inquires.. We get the heat.. but it's so much easier to judge from the outside looking in. All of this is new to all of us. What we do know is that we love both children with every fiber of our being. We are both good parents. We are going to do right by them. And we're going to co-parent the heck out of this.

 

Disneyland Paris: July 18, 2016.

The last time we were in Paris, we only explored inside the city. This trip, I knew for sure that we had to take the kids to Disneyland Paris. Disney is such a magical place anywhere in the world.

Prior to the trip, I did a bunch of research. I read that July was one of the busiest months. I was hoping the weather would be cooler, but it kept creeping up to the 80s as the days progressed. We went on a Monday because Versailles and the science museum were closed on Mondays. It would be our only day if we wanted to do all three sites. The high was 86 that day so we opted to head to Disney around 3pm. We hired a private driver to and fro because by the time Disney closed, it'd be 11:30 pm and the metro shuts down at 12:30am. It could take about an hour to get back to the city and we didn't want to have to figure things out so late in the night in a city we aren't completely familiar with.

It took an hour to arrive because of some traffic heading out on Rue de Rivoli. IS Prestige is definitely a service I recommend if you need it. It cost us 150 euros for both ways. I believe a taxi would've cost about 100 euros per way. The metro is definitely the least expensive option (from our hotel, we would've only needed to transfer once from the metro to RER A).

From the point the driver dropped us off to the entrance of the park was about a 5 minute walk. We purchased our tickets online a week prior to our trip. They were offering a 2 parks for 1 price deal (although we only made it to the main park).

It was definitely a tad hot upon arrival and we remembered to buy sunscreen before heading there. Olivia napped during the ride and walk to Main Street in the park. As soon as we woke her up, Elsa and Anna were riding by on a horse carriage. We followed them down Main Street and started our Disney adventure.

It cooled down real quick around 6pm. We waited no more than 30 minutes for any ride.


Here's an idea of the wait times:

Snow White - 10 minutes but it is kinda scary. Liv plugged her ears because most of the ride is about the queen making the poisonous Apple and turning into an old lady, running through the dark woods and the dwarves chasing the evil queen.

Pinocchio - 10 minutes and also a bit scary. 

Peter Pan - 30 minutes. This was one of our favorite rides. Such a pretty set up! You really feel like you're floating on a boat in the air.

Princess Pavilion - We skipped seeing Ariel and Aurora because it was a 75 minute wait.

Fairytale boat ride - 5 minutes at 630pm.

Casey Jr. Le Petit Train du Cirque - 5 minutes.

Alice's Curious Labyrinth - no wait. It's a maze with the Queen of Heart's castle at the end. You can climb up the castle into the two towers for an amazing view of Sleeping Beauty's castle.

Buzz Lightyear - 20 minutes. This is also one of our favorite rides at Disney World. It's interactive because you get to shoot laser guns.

Space Mountain Mission 2 - no wait at 9:05pm.

Phantom Manor - 5 minutes.

Dumbo the Flying Elephant - 20 minutes at 930pm. Liv and I went on this on our own. The view from this ride is magical. It's located near the back of the castle.

The first tower of the Queen of Hearts' castle.

For a late lunch, we ate next door to the Peter Pan ride (Marionette). We ordered the rotisserie chicken meal, the hot dog currywurst meal, a side of chicken nuggets, and two drink. It cost about 34 euros.

We headed back to Main Street around 10pm for a spot near the pavilion to watch the Disney Dreams show that started at 11pm. We didn't want to be further from the castle because leaving the park would've been a task with the crowd. Niti took Olivia to the gift shop to buy a souvenir (aka a princess dress) to remember the trip. My 10 year old is apparently too old for the Disney gift shop . Niti also went to buy some hot dogs because we wanted to make sure the kids had another bite to eat before our drive back to the hotel (which they would probably fall asleep).

The show was spectacular! It was a series of famous Disney songs with scenes being projected onto the castle. Fireworks would light up the sky during parts of each song. I read that the show would end soon after you hear Peter Pan so we left during the show at 11:15pm to beat the crowd.

We scheduled our pick up with IS Prestige at 11:30pm, but he was already there upon our exit with a name card. From there, it was a smooth ride back to the hotel where everyone knocked out!

We had an amazing time. The timing was perfect and the weather was better toward the end of the night. The wait times were short and it's still a different experience from Disney World (Orlando). It was definitely worth it. Now, we're hoping to head to all the Disneys of the world one day.