Monday, July 30, 2012

#makesmesmilemondays Fancy Pants Weekend at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

This summer, my kids have experienced the best of both worlds.

We've been camping twice already, and so they have spent many days a their muckiest and sweatiest, wearing their most well-worn clothes and flip-flops, dining fireside in the middle of a forest. I too have reveled in camping style: being make-up free, wearing an old t-shirt and shorts, my matted hair wrapped up 24/7 in a ponytail.

This weekend we traded in our camping and everyday duds for our finest dresses, suits and ties. hopped on a small plane to one of the prettiest and fanciest islands in the world: Mackinac Island, where we stayed at the historic and lovely Grand Hotel.

Catching the Wonderful Lakeshore Express Flight to Michigan's UP
We flew with Lakeshore Express. If you have ever endured the 8+ hour drive to the UP, you will understand how wonderful it was to pull right up to this private terminal on the grounds of Midway Airport, relax in the lounge, and then catch the quick 1 hour flight directly to the UP. Service was excellent and the flight was smooth (even though I warned the kids to expect bumps). We enjoyed the view of Lake Michigan from above, were served drinks and snacks, and before we knew it, we'd landed.

The Grand Hotel is one of those hotels that you simply can't miss in your lifetime. It always manages to sweep me back in time. There are no cars allowed on Mackinac Island, so the Grand Hotel shuttles its guests to and fro the same way it did when it opened way back in 1887 - by horse and buggy. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Grand Hotel celebrated its 125th birthday this very July!
The Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel has a requested dress code: suit and tie for men and no slacks for women. Though I also love mucking it up with my kids while camping, there is something oddly satisfying about dressing my kids (and myself) up to the nines and enjoying formal lunches and dinners. I adore seeing my son in his suit and tie and my daughter in sailor dresses. On this trip, my son and daughter practiced using their best manners. They enjoyed dressing up fancy just as much as they enjoy getting down and dirty while camping. 

Chiara casual dining  
Chiara fine dining 

We attended a beautiful and very hopeful family wedding, we ate fudge, we lounged around on the Grand Hotel's biggest front porch in the world and we swam in the Esther Williams swimming pool.

Brother and Sister on the porch of the Grand Hotel
We also biked around the island - 8 miles in all! I pulled Chiara in a burley attached to my bike. We stopped to dip our toes into Lake Huron and Daniel climbed a boulder.
Daniel on a boulder, overlooking the crystal clear Lake Huron waters

Daniel loved the freedom of biking around a car-free island and told me that he plans on living on Mackinac Island when he's older. I might surprise him next year and sign him up for the children's sailing school on Charlevoix.

View from my bike rear-view mirror. Can't really see her, but Chiara is in that Burley Trailer!
So yesterday, Chiara and I (Daniel is staying on a bit longer with his cousins) took a horse and buggy to the port, sailed by ferry from the island to the mainland, caught a shuttle to the airport, flew to Chicago, and then drove home. It was a planes, horse and buggies, bikes, shuttles, ferries and automobiles kind of day! And then Chiara woke up this morning, and asked me, "Are we going to "Macaroni" Island again today, mama?"

Soon, dear, soon - next summer, I promised.
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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sunday Afternoon with My Favorite 11-year-old

This past Sunday, Daniel and I rode our bikes all the way to Wrigley Field to catch a soccer game. Can you guess who was playing?
Roma vs. Poland's Zaglebie Lubin!

As we biked (3.5 miles each way, through the city streets!), we passed by countless Polish and Italian flags. Daniel was decked out in his Roma gear, and I was worried that we might be hit in the head with Pirogi...

Finally, my chance had arrived: Francesco Totti would be in Chicago. "It's now or never," I warned Daniel. "If I run off with Francesco, you'll understand, right?" (He's got a great sense of humor.)

My boyfriend, Francesco. And no, I don't know what he's putting in his shorts in this photo. 

And yes, since I am blogging from Chicago, as you can guess, I didn't run off with Francesco. I enjoyed this lovely, fun game (that Roma won 4-0) with one of the most charming people I know. And then we biked home, stopping only to refuel at Scooter's
Before I had my son, I prayed for just a healthy baby: God graciously went above and beyond when he gave me my son! 

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Monday, July 23, 2012

#makesmesmilemonday Thelma's Gypsy Girls

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am obsessed with the Amish, Appalachians, and Gypsies.  I am just completely interested in learning as much as I can about these unique cultures - I admire so many aspects of each for so many different reasons. I have watched every single Netflix or online documentary related to each. Yep - I'm obsessed!

So I'm thrilled to see that there is a new series on the British Channel Four: Thelma's Gypsy Girls follows along as a group of young traveller women learn the ins and outs of dressmaking alongside famed and over-the-top wedding seamstress Thelma Madine.

Am I the only one obsessed with Traveller (and Amish and Appalachian) life?

Yes, I realize. Probably.

Check out the show's website or watch part one of the first episode on YouTube.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

It's not the Caribbean - it's Lake Michigan!

Usually, morning pick-ups and drop-offs are not something I look forward to. But this summer, my son is training to be a Jr. Lifeguard, so pick-ups and drops off are at the beach... giving me yet another excuse to squeeze in as much beach time as we can.

Is it just me - or does Lake Michigan appear especially sparkly and wonderful this summer? I've lived here forever and yet I'm still amazed. 

Chiara the Beach Bunny
My Junior Lifeguard

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Diaper Dabbler : Sample a Variety of Disposable Diapers

Here's a great gift for the mom-to-be or new mom in your life: Diaper Dabbler, a sampling service that lets you try  up to eleven different types of disposable diapers. 

With both of my kids, it took awhile to find a good diaper fit. Inevitably, I was left with a few full boxes that failed to connect well to my kid's butts. Diaper Dabbler lets you dabble in a variety of diapers for the cost of a single pack of diapers. 

Fellow working mom Beth Dolar started this company because she knew herself how hard it can be to find the right diaper for a new baby. "New moms are often overwhelmed with all the choices and the challenge to find the one that works best without spending a fortune on the wrong ones," explains Beth. "It's frustrating spending $20 on a pack of diapers, only to find out after using one or two that they leak, cause a rash, don’t fit properly or you just don’t like them."

To learn more, visit
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Disclosure: Beth kindly donated a pack of diapers for me to gift to one of the many teen moms I work with during the school year, but all opinions are my own!

Monday, July 16, 2012

#makesmesmilemondays Humboldt Park, Lighting the Wishes Lantern, Pensive Boy

Chiara running around like a wild woman in the Humboldt Park play fountain

On Friday, I took Chiara to Humboldt Park, where she ran around the play fountain like a crazy woman. As we were about to hop on my bike for the return ride home, I noticed my chain and side panel were broken.
Luckily a group of gentle, kind young men, disguised as full-blown thugs, came to the rescue. "Can we help you, Ma'am?" They fiddled with their hands and then one of them pulled out a large switchbladed knife and unscrewed my broken panel. 

Launching the good wishes lantern. It burst into flames and never took off, but it was quite a sight while it lasted!

On Friday night, a group of my most amazing, hip mama friends came over for a clothing swap. We gathered all of our hand-me-downs, placed them on a table, and everyone did their picking and choosing and chatting. I love replenishing my kids' clothing and seeing their old duds experience a second and third life on familiar faces. 

A pensive Daniel overlooking a south side harbor
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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Three Chicagoland Places I'm Sad I'll Never Be Able to Share with My Kids

Every time I pass by the corner of 1st and North Avenue, I shed a small tear. I will never be able to take my 2-year-old daughter to Kiddieland, the tiny land of fun that was razed to the ground to make way for a Costco parking lot. When I was a kid, summer would not have been summer without a few trips to this magical kiddie wonderland. We would start with a ride around the park on the tot-sized train, ride the Merry-Go-Round, then make our way around each and every ride in the park. The Tilt-a-Whirl was the wildest one ever, and my cousins and I tried out all sorts of placement strategies to make our car whip around faster. We killed thousands of aliens on the Flying Saucers and braved the raging seas on the mini-boats. My parents went to Kiddieland when they were little children. And I was lucky enough to enjoy several visits with my son (age 11). But Kiddieland remains only a happy summer memory.

Ebenezer Floppen Slopper's Wonderful Waterslide 
Recently, I drove past the hill, overgrown with weeds, at the corner of Roosevelt Road and Route 83. "There used to be an amazing water slide here!" I explained to my son, "and before that, it was a garbage dump. The water was brownish-yellow. It was the best!" My son looked at me as if I were nuts. But it's true: one of my best summer memories involved a trip to Ebenezer's with my cousins, followed by a trip to Venture, where my mom bought my cousin and I a pair of matching jelly shoes. Here is a video a man made as he hiked the now-defunct water slide (warning: he becomes extremely winded from the hike).

Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom and Castle of Toys
"There was also a castle near here," I explained to my son, "filled with toys. And an amusement park." Once again, he looked at me with a puzzled expression, assuming I'd just invented it all. Dispensa's Castle of Toys in Oakbrook opened in 1977, the amusement park in 1975, just a couple of years after I was born. I clearly remember the castle, filled with the latest toys, with wooden toy soldiers guarding the entrance.

Can you think of any other Chicagoland places that you enjoyed as a kid but no longer exist?

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Giveaway! Camping with Cottonelle #NameIt Sponsored Post

Our house, in the middle of the woo

Here's yet another thing to add to your camping packing list: Cottonelle Flushable Moist Wipes. 

I cannot even tell you how many times these wipes came in handy while camping, and even while traveling in the car. Let's put it this way: our family camps primitive style - meaning no running water or electricity - and these wipes helped us to freshen up while happily stranded in the middle of the woods. 

I managed to potty train my two-year-old daughter before the age of two. At this point in time - she's a little past two and a half - she never has accidents. That said, she hasn't yet reached professional wiping standards. I don't want to revert to kiddie wipes, and even I find soft wet wipes useful, as do the other members of our family, so this is a product that I appreciate: a simple, no frills box that always comes in handy. 

Cottonnelle has introduced a two-step process (paper + wipes) but since no one wants to market something bathroom-related called a “process.” We need to name it something creative. Something fun, funny-yet-tasteful, and that gets the point across. I propose naming it the Two SWipes You're Done Process. 

Use the widget below to enter your own, creative name, and you could win a year’s supply of Cottonelle! (Click here for official sweepstakes rules.)

UPDATED 7/14/12: Congrats to Bonnie! the winner of the Cottonelle giveaway! I'll be in touch via email with your prize, Bonnie!

I have a Clean Care kit from Cottonelle to give away to one lucky reader. The Clean Care kit includes...
  • 1 tub of Cottonelle Flushable moist wipes
  • 1 pack of Cottonelle Ultra Care toilet paper
  • 1 travel pack of moist wipes
  • 1 solo pack of moist wipes
  • 1 pack of Name It post-it notes
To win, tell me what you would name the two-step process (paper+wipes) via Rafflecopter below: 
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thank you again to Cottonelle for sponsoring my post. Visit them on Facebook to share your name! I was selected for participation in this program by the Clever Girls Collective. #NameIt #spon

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Monday, July 9, 2012

#makesmesmilemondays Beauty and the Beast; God Himself Visits Our Church

Friday I took Chiara and her friend to see Beauty and the Beast, on stage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier. What a delightful show! The Beast was just slightly scary enough, and Gaston was a riot. The lesson to be learned: Give a smart girl a library full of books, and you'll win her over for sure. I did remind the girls that women should not be held responsible for bringing out the beauty in the beast. That most certainly flew over their heads. In fact, the following day, Chiara put her fake green garden snake in my teapot and brought it to me, asking if I knew how to turn it into a prince...

Sunday was topsy turvy day. My son went to a waterpark with a friend, and Chiara was busy with her Dad, so I sneaked out and brought Chiara's little friend, who is visiting all the way from China (!), to church with me. As we entered our beautiful church, she smiled sweetly and asked, "Is God going to be here today?" and I tried my best to explain how God is everywhere. That, too, may have flown over her head. Later, when the priest came, in his long robe, leading the procession to the altar, she exclaimed excitedly, "God is here!!!"

Ah, to be child, and still believe in frog princes and a God that visits church with a big white beard and robe! 
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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Summer Staycation at Chicago's Omni Hotel

Last week, the kids and I enjoyed a staycation at the Omni Chicago Hotel. Located in the heart of the Magnificent Mile, the Omni Chicago is a four star diamond rated luxury hotel, with all the perks that make a family hotel stay enjoyable and dare I say it - restful.
Omni Chicago Hotel
Photo courtesy of
We live in a northside Chicago neighborhood, Logan Square, and though Chicago's Mag Mile is an El train ride away for us, our staycation in this "fancy" hotel gave us a chance to stay just steps away from some of our favorite shops, restaurants and sights. It's not every day that we can stroll past the old Water Tower, dine and shop at the new Water Tower Place (hello, Lego Store and American Girl Place!), and then head back "home" to a peaceful haven where the beds are made and turned down, where there are no dishes to wash and no toys to pick up. 

As the mom of both a 2 and an 11-year-old, our family suite at the Omni was the best facet of the hotel. The deluxe, separate living and sleeping areas, both featuring large flat screen televisions, meant that I could put my daughter to bed while my son enjoyed some late night cartoons. 

The Camp Omni Program, with rates starting at just $155 per night, offers families deluxe, discounted accommodations, complimentary breakfast for kids 12 and under from the buffet or children's menu, a $10 giftcard for kids to use anywhere in the hotel, and a welcome amenity backpack filled with s'mores-flavored marshmallows, a map/coloring and activity page, crayons, a collapsible water bottle, and a lanyard kid inside a cinch-up backpack. 

Of special note was the breakfast buffet offered at the in-hotel 676 Restaurant. What a delight it was to roll out of bed and enjoy breakfast in this bright dining room overlooking Michigan Avenue! The buffet was brimming with healthy goods for kids, including a huge selection of freshly cut up fruit, a kids-sized oatmeal station featuring a variety of healthy toppings, a delicious selection of fresh breads and jams, and so much more. I appreciated the fact that 676 features fresh and organic goods from local farmers, and I liked to read the origin of each item. In my experience as a travel focused blogger, I rarely come across a hotel that works hard to create a rich yet affordable and healthy menu with a local emphasis. Our breakfast at 676 gave us plenty of healthy fuel to get our busy day underway. Perhaps best of all, as part of the Camp Omni package, kids under 12 dine for free!

For more information on the Camp Omni Program, visit:
To book your stay, visit or call 1-800-The-Omni.

You can also get more information on Omni Hotels by liking them on Facebook and following them on Twitter @OmniHotels; For more Camp Omni reviews by fellow bloggers that have just recently stayed at Omni Hotels across the U.S., follow hashtag#CampOmni 

Camp Omni Terms and Conditions:  Subject to availability.  Blackout dates apply.  Based on availability from June 1 - September 16, 2012.  See participating property for details.  Not applicable to groups, conventions or in combination with other savings or special discounts.

Disclosure:  I wrote this compensated blog post while participating in the SocialMoms and Omni Hotel blogging program. The opinions and ideas expressed here are my own.

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Cherishing the Sights of Life

Without healthy vision, the most beautiful and amazing sights of life are foggy at best. In our sweet home Chicago, there are so many wonderful sights to cherish, and maintaining healthy vision allows us to see them vividly, in all their splendor.

My daughter is only two, but I'm pretty sure her most cherished Chicago sight is the wide expanse  of blue that is Lake Michigan.
When I asked my 11-year-old son what his most cherished Chicago sight is, he immediately answered: Museum of Science and Industry. Indeed there is so much to see in this fun and educational museum, my son's favorite city destination. You'll find everything from an entire German submarine to a tornado (!) in this hands-on, landmark museum. My son recently failed a vision test at school. An appointment with an opthamologist determined that while he doesn't yet need glasses, we will need to keep a close watch on his vision with annual screenings.
The Museum of Science and Industry
I cherish riding my bike through the city's streets and parks, even better with my daughter riding in her bicycle seat and my son trailing behind on his own bike. I think the best way to experience the sights of Chicago is by bike! Thankfully, I have 20/20 vision. That said, I think some Chicago car drivers could use a good vision screening.
Pedaling the streets of Chicago with my daughter in tow

 Our top seven family sights in Chicago in Chicago are...

1. Lake Michigan - take a boat ride or enjoy the beach!
2. Willis Tower - the view from the Skydeck is amazing! 
3. Millenium Park - the "Bean" and splashing in the fountains
4. The El: we love seeing our city from the elevated tracks!
5. The Art Institute of Chicago
6. Lincoln Park Zoo
7. Our Ethnic Neighborhoods: you can travel the world right here in Chicago!

This summer, Transitions Optical has set its sights on Chicago! Transitions Optical, in partnership with Vision Works, will be in Chicago at the Taste of Chicago Festival on July 11-15, 2012. Attendees can come by their booth for the Ultimate Sightseeing Experience including free vision screenings for the whole family and the opportunity to get your photo taken in front of a scenic backdrop! Learn more here.
Location: Grant Park, Chicago, IL
Dates and Times: July 11-15, 2012. 11am-9pm
Admission: Admission and events are free, but you have to pay for food and drinks. Purchases are made by ticket only. Tickets are sold in strips of 12 for $8. Large items are generally 9-10 tickets, side portions 6-7 tickets, soft drinks 4 tickets. All daily restaurants offer a small "Taste" portion for 2-3 tickets -- a great way to sample a large variety of all the food available. Tickets are available for purchase on the day of the event.
Food and beverage tickets can be purchased in advance of the Taste of Chicago at all Dominick's stores in Illinois with a Fresh Values Card from July 5-10 for $7 a strip (12 tickets to a strip), limit 4 strips per person . Tickets can be purchased after July 10th at all Dominick's stores for $8 a strip, until supplies last.

For more information on on Transitions Optical, visit or Follow @transitions on Twitter 
Want to win the Ultimate Sightseeing Dream Vacation? Capturing everyday moments through photography gives you the opportunity to cherish memories for a lifetime. Enter the Official Sponsor of Sightseeing™ Sight of the Day Photo Contest for your chance to win the Ultimate Sightseeing Dream Vacation! Learn more here.

Disclosure: I received compensation to participate in a SocialMoms and Transitions Optical blogging program. The opinions and ideas expressed here are my own. To read more posts on this topic, click here.

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Camping, Again

For the past few days, we were camping, our second trip this summer.

The morning we departed, Chiara woke up at 6am, raring to go. She's just two, but was all dressed, and even wearing a bicycle helmet (?), when she tapped me awake, "Mom - time to go camping!"
Me and my girl on a kayak
I can't even express how thrilled I am to see this budding sense of adventure in my little girl. She just can't seem to get enough of all things outdoors. This trip I taught her how to poke rocks out of the ground using a branch. She learned to spot places where raccoons might sleep. She took a few new brave steps when it comes to swimming: dunking her head on her own, lifting her feet and kicking and heading out to the deeper waters (wearing a life preserver, of course). She relished being mucky and sandy and muddy, and then washing it all away with a delicious dip into a cool lake. When I asked her if she wanted to go kayaking, she jumped to her feet and ran to the boathouse, donned her lifevest and enthusiastically helped me pull the kayak into the water. We paddled through lily pads, looking for frogs and floating flowers, and toured the small lake.  She was in 7th heaven the entire time.  
Daniel brought along his friend from school this trip. Jaleel had never been camping before, and adapted well to middle of the woods, no electricity/no running water living. These two boys spent just about the entire trip in the water, jumping on and off a pier anchored in the middle of the lake.  They were helpful when it came to collecting sticks and setting up the tent, stoking the fire, and eating roasted marshmallows.  
Chiara in her "Camping Rocks!" chair, eating a fire-baked quick bread

Camping requires a lot of teamwork and I always need a day or two to recover from camping trips, but oh - the memories we've made! I'm looking forward to a longer camping trip this upcoming fall. 

P.S. Have you heard of the Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights?

Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights

Every child should have the opportunity to:
  • Discover wilderness – prairies, dunes, forests, savannas, and wetlands
  • Camp under the stars
  • Follow a trail
  • Catch and release fish, frogs, and insects
  • Climb a tree
  • Explore nature in neighborhoods and cities
  • Celebrate their natural heritage
  • Plant a flower
  • Play in the mud or a stream
  • Learn to swim

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Free Summer Reading Program at Chicago's Open Books

Have you heard of Open Books

Open Books is a nonprofit social venture that not only operates an extraordinary bookstore but also works hard to promote literacy in Chicago and beyond. Its huge bookstore, located at 213 W. Institute Place, holds more than 50,000 donated books for sale! 
This summer, Open Books is working hard to make sure that no child falls victim to a summer reading slump by offering a special Kids' Club: all you need to do is request a Kids' Club card at the store's front desk. 
During each visit, kids can have their card punched, and can then redeem it for a free book of their choice on the fifth punch or fill 2 cards for 3 free books. The store features 10,000+ kids' books of all reading levels - so your child is bound to find a few good reads! The club runs through August 31, 2012, and no purchase is necessary to participate. “This is a fun, creative way to incentivize reading when kids are faced with so many other diversions, ” said Erica Hawkinson, Marketing Manager at Open Books. “We hope that the Kids’ Club Card will show kids the many ways that reading is rewarding!”

To learn more about the Open Books Kids' Club, visit 
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#makesmesmilemonday P.S.: La fontana di Trevi

I forgot to add this one photo to my last post, Travel: Early and Often: Here is my son the first time he set eyes upon the magnificent Trevi Fountain. Look at those wide eyes and grin! He was mesmerized by the old lady that fishes for coins (an estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown in each day!) - she's in the background, just to the right of me. 

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