April 18, 2014

Eggsuberance!

It's Good Friday and you know what that means.  It means that there will be a full day of prayer - the kids love it! - marking the anniversary of Jesus' death by crucifixion.  We will remove all flowers and shiny objects from our home, and we will also fast.  :-)

It also means that I will venture downstairs into the cellar and retrieve my supplies to make Ukrainian Easter eggs:


I used to decorate eggs with my family when I was a kid, but we used a kit like this:


When I was really young, I wanted to eat those little tablets up (they looked like candies), but as I grew older and wiser, having surreptitiously sampled one and realizing that THERE WAS NO SUGAR IN IT AT ALL!, I grew to be happy with the chemistry involved in the preparation of the dyes.  My brother and I fought over who got to be the one to add the tablespoonful of vinegar to the tablet to make it fizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz like mad.

My Mom's side of the family is Ukrainian, but no one in our family decorated eggs in the old style.  My Nana made perogies, which she called petta-heh (phonetic spelling here, will someone please tell me how to spell that properly?) and paska (Easter bread) but she didn't make pysanky.

I had always obsessed over the single pysanka in my Nana's china cabinet, but I wasn't allowed to handle it.  In addition to the prized egg, the china cabinet housed all sorts of forbidden fruit:  my Dido's sizeable calculator "collection" can you say hoarder?, the sour balls, the chocolate bars past their prime, the cribbage board, and the tins full of coins.  I wanted to get into that cabinet and I vowed that one day, I would learn how to make an egg like that.

Fast forward, twenty years later.  At age 27, while working at the National Library in Ottawa, I saw an advertisement for an egg decorating workshop at the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral.  Sign me up!  I learned this ancient art from a Pysanky master who showed her eggs around the world.  I eggsulted over my good fortune.  Here's the egg that I made in that workshop:


What a beauty!  Clearly, I'm a natural.  The children have since broken this egg, the brats.  They probably shook it which is a total NO-NO, and which is everyone's immediate reaction when they pick up a pysanka for the first time.  Why the hell do you want to shake it, people?  You can feel that it's all dried up inside, dammit.  DON'T SHAKE THE EGGS!

Rant over, although there will probably be another, if I'm honest.

I took some pictures for those of you who would like to learn how to make your own pysanky.  I find egg decorating to be usually very meditative and relaxing except when a child's hair is on fire or another child tries to burn down the library during a workshop that I'm leading, and that is a good thing for someone like me.  Here's my set-up at the dining room table, where the magic happens.  It looks like my crack smoking kit, but it's not, honest.  Pictures of that to come.



The newspaper and paper towel are for hot beeswax spatters, and the red kistka is used to apply the wax to the raw egg.  You dip the copper funnel at the tip of the kistka into a candle flame to heat it up.  When it's nice and hot, you scoop the funnel into the beeswax and it should go in like a hot knife through butta.  The tip of the kistka is applied to the egg and the wax should run freely.  Beeswax is used because it has a low melting point (useful for when the wax is removed at the end) and as an added bonus, it smells good:


This is a plateful of kistky.  The white one makes the thinnest lines, the blue - medium, the red - thick and the wooden kistka is a homespun one.  I use the blue one the most.  



Here are some of the dyes that I use.  These are not food grade dyes, and they will stain everything, so don't wear your Easter finery:





Here's my cheat sheet, which I made up for the workshops that I teach:


Today, I decided to make the egg in the picture below, on the bottom left.  I have just started to apply wax to my raw egg:


A closeup of the same egg, right before it's dipped into the yellow dye.  The only white on the finished egg is beneath the beeswax.  Does this make sense?  Once I dip the egg into the yellow dye, all the white that you see here will disappear, reappearing only when I melt the wax off at the end of the process:


My egg has been removed from the yellow dye after about 5 minutes, and I have added more wax to it.  These new lines of beeswax will have yellow beneath them.


And into the orange we go, after the application of more wax:


Dark pink is next:


Then a quick dip into red to brighten the colour:


And finally, the black.  Here's the egg right before I begin to melt all that wax:



The wax is removed by holding the egg at the side of a candle flame and wiping off the excess wax on a tissue.  You don't hold the egg above the flame because doing so will leave carbon marks like this:


I don't know why the carbon is only at the top of the flame and not at the side.  It must rise as it burns off?  Help me out, chemists!

Here is my favourite moment.  It's like watching a baby being born:


Tada!  It's gorge.  I think I like my egg better than the one in the book!






And because I can't end this post without my favourite Easter Bunny joke EVAH...

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Ether.
Ether who?
Ether bunny.

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Cargo.
Cargo who?
Cargo beep beep and run over the ether bunny.

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Boo.
Boo who?
Don't cry.  The ether bunny be back next year.

Happy Easter, everybody!


The Thrill Kill Kult is for all of you Devil Bunnies out there:





April 10, 2014

Toyboat (Say it 5 Times Fast!)

Sandy Claws brought the family a cruise!

People are funny about cruises.  They either love or hate them.  Before I went on my first cruise in 2011, I was sure that I would belong to the latter camp.  I am an active holidayer, and the thought of being stuck on a ship with two thousand others did not appeal to me.  I have also suffered from seasickness, and I worried about how I would handle that.  

So I found myself delighted when I realized that I loved a cruise holiday.  It was super-fun and relaxing, I didn't get sick and I laughed a lot every single day of the cruise.  I liked it so much that RB and I talked about taking another.  I decided to blog about this second cruise, so that people have an idea of what it's like and what you might experience.

And so, without further ado, let me introduce you to the Carnival Pride:


Isn't she a beaut?


Here we are at port, probably in Grand Cay




You can see our ship way out in the sea


And a last glimpse of the ship, shot from a tender (a small boat that ferries passengers from sea to shore):



You can't really understand the magnitude of the ship until you're onboard - it's truly enormous.  



So without further ado, let me tell you all about the food and booze, cabins, onboard activities and our days in port.  

Food and Drink

Food is important.  For some it's their raison d'ĂȘtre.  I might fall into that category and so I was very happy to see that there were two daily menus with a lot of choices:

1) the "everyday" menu, in which all items are always available

2) the "today" menu, which changes daily.


the mahi mahi was delectable, and my kids wouldn't stop eating the flat iron steak



It is impossible to go hungry on the ship.  You are able to order more than one appetizer if you are so inclined (Nathaniel and RB "needed" two helpings of sushi) and you could also order more than one main, if you are truly piggish and some people at our table of four were and are.

While the Normandie (the main dining room on the 3rd floor) is open only for breakfast (7am - 1pm) and dinner (5:45pm - 10ish), there is usually a buffet open on the Lido (9th floor), and the Pizza Pirate bar (made-to-order, surprisingly delicious, thin-crust pizza) and the grill (fries, chicken fingers, hotdogs, hamburgers, chicken burgers et cetera) never close.  You can also help yourself to frozen yogurt and soft-serve ice cream 24-7.

Some of the food we ate was not as hot as I would prefer it to be (e.g. filet mignon); however, I found the presentation and preparation of all of the dishes to be excellent, and the ingredients fresh.  The chefs were particularly skilled at preparing fish and I ordered it frequently, sometimes twice a day.  Yes, it was a bummer that both of my steaks were lukewarm.  I should have sent them back immediately.  If I was in a restaurant on land, as opposed to an onboard restaurant, I would have sent the food back to the kitchen pronto.  I have no qualms about doing that.  I am a bit annoyed with myself for settling for a subpar steak.  Coulda, woulda, shoulda.  Bah.

One of my favourite meals was escargot, and martini braised basa fillet with tomato, chili, and fennel and on another day, it was haddock in lemon sauce.  I was usually too full for dessert, but I twice tried the chocolate melting cake served with vanilla ice cream, which is sinful and just a bit too rich to finish. Nathaniel had this every night of the cruise!

image from zydecocruiser.net
I found staff to be generous to the point of unwittingly enabling gluttony (and obesity?) in the passengers.  For instance, I saw a woman in a wheelchair help herself to a single chocolate chip cookie.  A staff member immediately grabbed a plate, put 7 more cookies on it, and handed it to the woman, without even asking her whether she wanted 7 additional cookies!  Ridiculous.

My jaw dropped one morning when Nathaniel returned to our table with a gigantic mound of bacon - there must have been 15-20 strips!  I admonished him for being greedy; he said that he hadn't asked for all that bacon, but RB and the kids devoured it in seconds.  Good thing they have a collective high metabolism.  I saw many, many individuals eating what amounted to entire packages of bacon in one sitting.

At a food and wine pairing at David's, the $35-a-plate steakhouse, the chef showed us a piece of cheesecake.  It was titanic.  I could not have finished that piece of cake if it was all that I had to eat for dinner.  On our way out of the restaurant, one of the kids pointed at the cheesecake again, indicating its size and I remarked, "that's why so many people are obese," earning me a snarky glare from the steakhouse manager.    I hope I gave her something to think about.

Another word about David's, which Carnival bills as "the reservations only, alternative dining room".  The restaurant is located at the highest point of the ship and it is totally over-the-top.  With its faux David and gigantic frescoes, flashy lights and atrium, it is Disney meets Italy; however, it really does afford stunning views of the sea and sky:

image from cruiz.info
Casino-esque for sure
We did not dine at David's; however, we did attend a free demonstration in which the chefs prepared some of the restaurant's specialties and offered us small plates:  mushroom cappuccino, spinach salad with blue cheese dressing, Beef Stroganoff and Grand Marnier cheesecake.  We watched a chef ice and decorate a layer cake, while another professional carved flowers and other designs into a watermelon:  



On another occasion, we paid $15 for a food and wine pairing:  Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon were the wines on offer.  The sommelier was knowledgeable and interesting; I enjoyed the food and wine pairing immensely.  

Each morning and evening we dined in the Normandie restaurant because I like table service and white linens.  We could have dined with the riff-raff in the buffet on the 9th floor, but that's a bit food court-ish for my taste.  Dinner was always fun and delicious; we relished trying the "didjas": frog legs, shark, alligator fritters, sashimi, escargots and tree rat  (heh heh).  

Here's Gwen on formal night with two of our servers:  one hails from the Ukraine and the other from the Philippines:



Staff was required to wear identification bearing their name and homeland.  I enjoyed seeing the countries of origin (only 7 of the onboard staff were American).


a typical table in the Normandie dining room

making dinner selections


We elected to choose the "dine on your time" dinner package.  We did not want to be stuck with the same dinner hour every evening as the onboard activities change, and we were concerned that we might miss out on some fun.  As it turned out, we ate between the hours of 5 and 6 every evening anyway.
The two floors of the Normandie
image from public.fotki.com

Booze and Other Liquids

While the cruise is billed as all-inclusive, it should be noted that quite a few things are extra (booze, bingo, gambling, specialty coffees, excursions).  I saw no evidence of free drinks; however, there were nightly happy hours (all drinks $1 off if you wear white!).  Hardly a savings for cheapskates like us.
Because I like wine, we opted for the 5-bottle package of wine with dinner for $114 (three tiers, we went for the least expensive one although I wanted the $160 package - regretting that now).  Beer started at $4.95, wine at $7 a glass and fancy drinks at $8.95.
Every adult is permitted to bring a 750-ml bottle of wine or champagne onboard.  We of course did this, but forgot a corkscrew.
If you wanted a booze cruise, you would pay for it.  The ship offered a $49.95 daily drinking pass, which would get a party person up to 15 drinks of their choice, no sharing allowed.  All adults sharing a room would have to purchase this same package (e.g.  if RB ordered it, I would also have to opt in or they wouldn't sell it to him).  We did not take "advantage" of the $100 all-you-can-drink  pass per day.  I definitely have a low tolerance, and it would not have been worth it.
Water, iced tea, lemonade, tea and coffee were always available at no charge.  Fruit juices (except at breakfast) and soft drinks were extras.  Again, you could purchase a special cup for the kids so that they could guzzle pop all week, but we did not.  The kids have enough cavities.

Cabins

Our cabin on the 6th floor had one king bed, or rather, two singles jammed together to make one.  This was not apparent to me while I lounged and/or slept, as there was a large and cushy cover on the mattresses.  The bed was extremely comfortable.  The kids had bunk beds.  They fought over the top bunk.  All the time.

Here's a view of our cabin.  I am reclining on the bed - you can see my foot.  There's a tv and mini-fridge (cold Heineken $5.95).  Storage is great with three closets and plenty of cupboards and drawers (not visible).  Our balcony is to my right and the bathroom is to the left.  A word on shower pressure:  I loathe a weak, trickly shower.  I need good pressure.  For whatever reason, the water pressure on board is better than most 4 and 5 star hotels.  The water is also hot and plentiful.  For this reason alone, I recommend that you take a cruise NOW.

I slept like the dead every night and RB and the kids also slept well.  The room temperature was perfect; the room couldn't have been better.

we watched very little tv while cruising - there's too much to do!

Our cabin steward, Nenjah, attended our room twice daily.  He made the beds, tidied up the bathroom, provided clean towels and dealt with any special requests (we needed a corkscrew once and he delivered it).  The kids loved the chocolates and towel creatures:


Gwen liked these creations so much, that she and I had to attended a towel-folding seminar with the Cruise Director in the Taj Mahal (the ship's over-the-top theatre):


We even spent $12 on the towel folding book! 


Because I know that you are all here for the towel animals...




On the day that I took these photos, we were supposed to be docking in Freeport.  The previous day, we were docked in Half Moon Cay where we swam, sunbathed and snorkelled merrily.  Upon our return to the ship, the captain notified us that one of the ship's engines had failed and could not be repaired until we arrived in Baltimore, meaning that we would not be stopping in Freeport.  I was fine with this as I had been to Freeport before, and the sunburn on my back was beginning to ache.  To pacify their passengers, Carnival offered every cabin $200 in onboard credit, and another $60 per person in refunds, plus the chance to book your next cruise at 25% off (before mid-2016).  Nenjah told me that the towel creatures on the deck chairs were there to make people happy.  They certainly made Gwen happy!





Onboard Activities

There really is something for everyone on a cruise.  On days at sea, you can read and relax, and swim or sit in the hot tub:

on our balcony, trying to spy sealife

the kids swam constantly
There are loads of games to play:

Gwen in some sort of contest in which she had two minutes to put on as much clothing as possible

The kids also participated in a Ride the Pony contest.  Much funnier were the drunken adults who also participated.  Everyone was assigned numbers, a pair of large inflatable dice were rolled and if the team's number came up, they had to "ride" to the next station.  I laughed, as one by one, the old ponies grew tired and could no longer carry their passengers.  Nathaniel carried Gwen around the "track" twice and they won!

Kids are high-fiving after they realize they've won.  Genuine joy here.

Other fun things to do:  work out in the fitness centre; watch movies, live musicals and theatre in the Taj Mahal; participate in trivia, games, and contests; take dance classes; attend lectures (anti-aging, money management, excursion tips, back pain etc);  play basketball or mini-golf; hang out in Camp Carnival with other kids; people-watch; stroll the decks and look out to sea; shop; make crafts; hang in the casino; play board games; relax in the library; drink wine and chat;  swim or hang out in the hot tub; relax in the adults only area etc.  I spent most of my time reading, people-watching, knitting, sewing, and watching the kids swim, which they did constantly.  If we were the kind of parents who wanted their own vacation, we could have sent the the kids to Camp Carnival every day and night.  I think they went once.  They met some friends and that was it.  They were much more into the pool.

outside the Taj Mahal theatre

in the Atrium 

In the photo below, the kids are posing with Elton, the ship's magician.  He was truly amazing and ridiculously funny.  The kids would not leave him alone, but he was good-natured and tolerated all manner of parasitic and overly familiar behaviour.  He made cantaloupes and oranges appear out of thin air, and had an astonishing repertoire of card, ball and string tricks.  My favourite?  The disappearing child trick, natch.

Ice carving demo
The last activity that I should mention were the evening portraits.  I forced the family to pose for portrait after portrait and they hated it.  By the end of it, RB and N were still haters, but all that posing grew on Gwen and she started asking to get her picture taken solo.  I did get my comeuppance.  One evening, Gwen was begging for a picture and the cray-cray photographer made it her mission to torture us.  As you feast your eyes on the picture below, keep in mind that my back is as red as a lobster and as tight as a sausage, there are 140 lbs of kid on my sunburned back, I have had more than two pina colodas to deaden the pain but the burn still BURNS, and Nathanimal - the DEVIL- is pinching my neck directly on my sunburn because he's ten, and that's what ten-year-old boys do.  I may have peed a bit from laughter.  I was in severe, no, DIRE, pain.  My face says it all.


We could have purchased this portrait for the bargain price of $21.99, but I was reduced to "taking a picture of the picture" because I wasn't going to spring for it.  As funny as it was, I'd like to forget it.  I can still feel the pain.  
Here's the picture that we purchased.  Another picture of a picture because I don't have a scanner.   And no, we did not plan the colour coordination, although it worked out nicely!



Days in Port and Excursions

Grand Turk was our first stop, on the third day of the cruise.  We hung out on the beach for an hour and a half before embarking on our "Ultimate Snorkelling Adventure" excursion.  It poured for 10 minutes, but cleared up immediately with no rain for the remainder of the day.

You can see that it's about to pour:

beachcombing before snorkeling



On the boat, on our way to the reefs:


the equipment provided looked bad but worked well



The snorkelling was excellent, we saw many schools of fish just like these (I think they're Blue Tangs) and myriad varieties of sea life:

image from chukka.com

Half Moon Cay

We took tenders to the shore of Half Moon Cay.  The ride was less than 10 minutes; each boat held 300 passengers, with no seats to spare.  We spent the day in the sunshine (well, RB and the kids did, I relaxed in the shade with a book and a pina colada, then went for a walk on the beach where I stepped on no less than two of the spikiest burrs imaginable).  The cruise ship had an island barbecue set up for us with jerk chicken, burgers and dogs, salads, fresh fruit and desserts.  This was an unexpected surprise; I thought we would have to pay for lunch.

that's the Pride in the background

the boys, at play in the sand

I hung out in the shade because I'm an idiot and didn't apply enough sunscreen the day before

gorgeous bougainvillea

Well, I am going to stop abruptly here as I'm sick of writing about the cruise and it's time to watch Survivor (yes, I'm a Survivor junkie).

Here is a video that RB made of our last cruise (2011).  We were on the same boat (The Pride), but stopped at different ports (Grand Turk, Half Moon Cay, Freeport):



Musical pairing is Cruisin' (of course!) by Smoky Robinson: