Escape the Heat–At Least for A Meal

It’s hot, hot, hot!

No, I’m not starring in my own cheesy 80’s-style musical performance. Hot, hot, hot, is what I find myself saying these last few days–okay, many days–every time I sit down in my car, touch our front door’s handle, or foolishly step outside without shoes on. The heat and humidity have gotten so bad that my new favorite hobby is cruising the AirBnB app for possible places of refuge. Maybe like Alaska.

Unfortunately our vacation budget for 2016 has already been spent on our upcoming beach getaway next month (woohoo!), so Alaska will have to wait. For now the best I can do is try to turn this weather-induced frown upside down, and what better way to do that than with a bit of imagination? No, the heat isn’t melting my brain–this weather is wonderfully tropical! Code red air quality my arse–let’s enjoy this wonderful equatorial weather.

Still not convinced by these lies that the weather’s nice? Well, maybe our imaginations need some props to help us along… Continue reading

Finding Happiness, One Latte at a Time

I never like to start things on a negative note, but the last couple months have been a bit rough.  To be fair, I still live in a nice little house in a relatively nice neighborhood, and I still have a job and enough money to eat. Believe me–I can hear the peanut gallery asking what’s so rough about my 1st world life. I’ll tell you:

  • My ill-conceived wish to be part of my neighborhood’s HOA recently came true. I now spend a chunk of my leisure time–already missing 6 hours a week because of a class I’m taking–on that weekly when I’d rather be enjoying time with family and friends.
  • Our cute little puppy has been having anxiety attacks. At least, that’s the only explanation I can find for him eating massive holes out of the carpet and scratching up the walls near our front door.
  • Bonus: Our older dog revenge-pooped all over the house because we gave the puppy so much attention. The carpet is trashed.

On top of it all, I still spend pretty much every day/week doing my best to balance work, school, and maintenance of a household with my selfish goals of improving my physical fitness and finding time for the occasional bubble bath. Despite the hustle and bustle of this day-to-day grind of an existence, I don’t actually find myself stressed at bed time or wishing for a lie in when my alarm goes off on a weekday. I think I may have actually found the cure for being stressed out by a busy life.

Are you ready for this? It’s revolutionary: Continue reading

A New Year, A New Leaf

I really thought 2015 was going to be my year. Truly. Genuinely. I really believed 2015 would be the culmination of all that I’ve learned so far about finding balance between enjoying the good parts of life and enduring the not so great parts as well. To be fair, 2015 was actually an excellent year for me, M, our mastiff, and the sweet new puppy we adopted over the summer: we started new jobs, we started in a new town, and we finally started making time for fun again.

It was with enthusiasm for all these new beginnings that I started this blog early last year. Life was so busy, though, and then so awesome that I barely paid any attention to my page at all. I’d jot ideas down, but then get distracted by hanging out with friends or catching up on sleep. I didn’t post again until two of our best friends made the move back to Italy, a change that left a big gap in a previously active social life. And then there was The Purchase.

Any hopes I had for additional posts last fall flew out the window when we decided to spend finance a purchase for a ridiculous amount of money–money that we obviously didn’t have in hand given that we signed on for several years to pay off The Purchase. First I felt panic–what had we done!? and in the same year we bought a house!?–but that quickly turned to disgust. How could I claim to be living the good life on a budget when I’d clearly spent way beyond my means to buy something that wasn’t actually adding to my day-to-day happiness?  I lost faith in myself and my priorities, and I shamefully let my blog fall by the wayside.

But after some time to really process it, I’ve made my peace with what’s been done. If given the chance to go back in time, I’d probably find some way to avoid spending so much in 2015, but I don’t think I could have come into 2016 so strong in my belief that money can’t buy happiness without any hiccups. And now that there are four months of distance between me and my big mistake, I can see that by sharing a little bit about what makes my days wonderful, maybe I can help someone else make the mistake of confusing the power to buy with the power to find happiness. If anything, at least writing about all the ways we find happiness will remind me not to confuse the two or make the same mistakes this year!

An Epicurean Summer

I’ve ignored this blog for far too long! I could say that I’ve been busy–and I have, really–but that wouldn’t be a completely honest answer. The problem with making time to blog here hasn’t been one of time management, but rather a problem unique to lifestyle blogging: If you’re truly enjoying your lifestyle, blogging might not be the most enjoyable use of your leisure time. Luckily, I’ve come to realize that, to fulfill and live out my personal philosophy, it isn’t enough for me to just enjoy life and be happy–I have to help others do the same.

If I’m going to live this philosophy, though, I should first give some introduction and explanation of a certain philosopherBut Briella, I just want to live the “vita bella,” what should I care about dusty old philosophers? You should care a lot! Philosophy can teach us a great deal about happiness, not least of all when we consider the words of Epicurus. Now, Epicurus doesn’t have anything to do with that recipe website, or with the gluttony a lot of people think of when someone is said to be “epicurean.” No, Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BC, and he–being the genius that he was–determined that there are only 3 keys to real happiness. He posited that one could attain peace and tranquility with only the following:

  1. Freedom, as in the freedom to make decisions for yourself without being constantly bossed around
  2. Time to think and analyze your feelings
  3. Friends, and the time to enjoy them often, not just occasionally

Now, I can’t say for myself that these are the only things you need, but if you have these three then you’re further on your way to happiness than I believe many people these days are, or could ever hope to be in our ultra materialistic culture. That’s why I decided this year to dedicate these few warm months to living an epicurean summer. What has this mean for me and my family? It means that we’ve taken jobs closer to home and with kinder bosses so that we have more flexibility to make decisions about how we spend our days. It means that I’ve committed to some brief time daily for meditation, prayer, yoga, or just some quiet time alone with a book. It means we’ve made time to eat dinner with our friends at least twice a week, laughing and talking late into the evening.

Thinking about it now, I certainly couldn’t have imagined a year ago that I’d spend a summer so full of relaxation and joy without ever leaving the state for a vacation, let alone my own neighborhood. Yet here we are. Aside from a few hiccups (well, one tremendous hiccup involving a flooded, mold-covered basement and the loss of $10,000 in personal property) this summer has been so fantastic I’m a little sad to watch it begin to fade. We’ve had a few rough moments–bad or rushed workdays, surprise dog poo on the carpet–but I would say living my Epicurus’s 3 rules this summer has dramatically improved our quality of life. For the first time in years, I fall asleep in minutes, no longer doomed to toss and turn against the insomnia of anxiety. But, then again, how could I sleep badly before a new day, when the one before it ended as happily as this?:

Carbonara Dinner
Just a night with friends around a big bowl of carbonara 🙂

What have you done to make yours a memorable summer? And what do you think about Epicurus and his philosophy of happiness?

One Pot of Pasta. One Bottle of Wine.

Isn’t life just exhausting? We work, and work, and work, before we come home to cook, and clean, and maybe–just maybe– kill half an hour or so unwinding with a drink and some TV before we doze off to the glow of an iPad. There’s so much toil for so little reward!

At least that’s what I used to think on dragging myself out of bed for yet another day of long hours and grueling commuting. Even with the luxury of living with my parents–a true luxury if you consider that I only rarely had to cook meals or do very intensive cleaning around the house–driving an hour and a half to and from my swanky job in Georgetown still left me exhausted and wondering if driving, working, and bolstering my resume were all there could be to life. I wondered this even more bitterly since building my career was the only reason I hadn’t followed my husband when his military service sent him halfway across the U.S. But just as today’s modern pace of life began to push me to my breaking point, I made a drastic change: I quit my job, spent the better part of a year living in America’s heartland with my husband and our Neapolitan mastiff, and later moved back East again to work in the wine industry at just a few dollars above minimum wage. And yet, despite making less than a third of what I used to make in my swanky corporate job, the three of us are happier than ever.

I could chalk up this difference in quality of life to our time in Kansas. Life in the Midwest gave us time to find ourselves where folks are friendly whether they’ve known you a few hours or a few years, and where the weekends were long and the land untainted by bumper-to-bumper traffic. We made friends there we’ll never forget, and actually spent time hanging out and enjoying each other’s company. Needless to say it was a drastic departure from the rat race that consumes so many of us within a certain radius of our nation’s capital. But I don’t think I can credit our short time in the Midwest with any lasting transformation. In fact, returning to the east coast only seemed to stress us out more than it had before, especially after having a taste of the slow life. Wistful for our days in Kansas, we found ourselves sucked into the mire all over again.

If anything changed our outlook for certain, it was meeting our friends Lorenzo and Alli.

I may be happy with where I am in life now, but I was definitely disappointed on coming back east when I realized all we’d be able to find for work for a while were jobs in retail. Surrounded by people and a culture constantly striving to make a little more money and have a little more stuff (all between rushing from home to work to home to “enriching” activities and back), we couldn’t help feeling down about how little money we had, or the fact that we had moved in with my parents to save up for a house. I often found myself at work hauling wine boxes around and musing that the last hour’s work–minus taxes–could barely buy me a value meal at a fast food place, let alone any of the bottles of wine I sold to our fancier clientele. The thought was so depressing to me that I lost my mind for a moment and actually expressed it out loud. Hearing my dejection, my new coworker, Lorenzo, took pity on me and invited me over for coffee. It was an offer I’d taken friends up on in the past, and it always made me feel better about whatever was ailing me, but I couldn’t have known just how mood- and outlook-altering a simple cup of coffee could be.

If his name wasn’t certain indication, I’ll tell you: Lorenzo is from Italy, land of amazing food, stellar wine, and a very different pace of life. And while you can take a man away from his home country, it’s much harder to take away the habits he’s learned there. In Lorenzo’s case, it means that he’s found ways to keep savoring life even amid the hustle and bustle of the DC area, and even in spite of making just as little per hour as I do. His wife, Alli, who hails from Puerto Rico but spent several years studying and working in Italy, shares his appreciation for all things fun, delicious, relaxing, and delightful–even when the budget leaves little to no room for dinners out or nights on the town.

When I entered their apartment after work that day, the little metal espresso maker on the stove had already filled the space with the rejuvenating smell of strong coffee. Alli and I sat at the small table set with four simple chairs–a bowl of peanuts was laid out for peckish guests–while Lorenzo finished preparing the coffees. We snacked and talked, my mood lifting almost immediately, though I immediately regretted helping myself to the peanuts since Lorenzo brought not only the coffee to the table, but a plate of cookies and treats from their last trip to Italy. We sipped and ate, talking all the while of work, home, life, and wishes.

How delicious they were! Not just the refreshments, but the ability to relax with kind friends. We spent two hours at that table, getting up only when we realized that the sun was quickly fading. But even on returning home I still felt myself relaxed and happy. I had been transformed by a mere cup of coffee, a few cookies and, not least of all, some very good company. And it was no fluke either.

The next time I visited Lorenzo and Alli, my husband and I joined them for a weeknight dinner. With hugs and hellos they ushered us in and revealed a masterpiece in progress: pasta alla carbonara. If you’ve never had carbonara, I’ll sum it up for you: it’s pure genius, born of simple kitchen alchemy. With a couple eggs, some cheese, a box of pasta, bacon or ham, and a bit of onion or garlic, a practiced cook can transform humble ingredients into a silky, savory dish brimming with rich, delicious flavors. Lorenzo opened the bottle we’d brought as Alli grabbed the pot of piping hot pasta, the pop of the cork heralding the arrival of the carbonara at the table.

It was the best night we’d had in a long time.

Was it the food? Was it our new friends? I’d say it was both, but there is something that was most certainly not the root of our joy that night: having a lot of money or stuff. On the way home I considered all the old friends I’d had–the ones I’d lost to their own focus on climbing the corporate ladder or being as busy as possible–and I wondered if they could possibly be happier than me at that moment. I could tell from their proudly displayed Facebook pages that many of them had taken new 60 hour/week jobs, shelled out for lavish cruises and vacations, or blown who knows how much on a big fat commercial wedding within the last year. I had often felt jealous of what they had. But–call it a carbonara revelation–it quickly dawned on me that all their working (or all their debt) would surely be an obstacle to regular enjoyment of something so simple as spending a Tuesday night with friends enjoying a bottle of wine and a comforting bowl of something homemade and delicious. Suddenly working 5:30AM to 2PM, making enough to pay bills and invest in some really amazing home cooked meals didn’t seem so awful in the grand scheme of things.

And that is why I decided to start this blog. You don’t need to kill yourself working or make six figures a year (ha!) to enjoy life to the fullest. It took a little inspiration from our good friends for me to see it, so I’m hoping to pay it forward and inspire you, too. If all you can afford right now is a cheap bottle of wine and a box of pasta, you’re already well on your way to living the Bella Vita, the good life 🙂