{my top three} things to do in my city

I've been through a lot of phases in my life. When I first discovered country music, I was certain I wanted to live on a sprawling farm with 2 rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. After traveling the world a bit, I decided that a sophisticated metropolis was more up my alley. 

Instead of wide open spaces or city living, God gave me the surprising Option C - charming small town in Minnesota nestled in the bluffs of the St. Croix Valley. All the benefits of living in the city, such as walkability, local small businesses, and every store you could ever want, combined with the friendliness and community of living in the country. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Stillwater, MN
Here is a quick tour of my favorite free or cheap spots around town. 

1. Parks

Even though we don't have a yard of our own, we don't need one! The plentiful parks more than make up for it. 

First up is Teddy Bear Park. Cute bear sculptures, multiple playgrounds, and a giant sandbox - this park is a dream for the under 7 set!

Pippa's hat!
Pioneer Park has the best view of the river, hands down.

And let's not forget a picnic on the banks of the St. Croix River itself! With pathways, benches, and a cute gazebo, this is the hot spot to watch the lift bridge, well, lift, people watch or just enjoy a good book once the weather turns nice in Minnesota (June-August if we're lucky).

In all honesty, I'm not really even scratching the surface of parks here in Stillwater. These are just a few of our favorite spots.

2. Restaurants

So on principle, and mainly because there's not a lot of room in our budget for it, we don't go out to eat much. (help me I'm poor). Maybe a few times each year at best. And usually when we do, it's to celebrate a special occasion or because family is visiting.

So obviously, there are way more discerning palates out there to tell you about the best foodie spots in the area. I'm here to tell you where the budget spots and the bests drinks are.

Nacho Mama's has a small, intimate dining space, but large, not-so-intimate portion sizes and margaritas. Best place to share a platter of nachos and a marg!

We always walk past these little outdoor dining joints with pizza and one with Chicago-style hot dogs, and we finally gave in and tried it yesterday!

Anyone who knows me is aware that in college I almost switched my major from education to buccaneering, but I heard there were not a lot of jobs opening up in the pirate field for college grads, unless you wanted to swab the deck for minimum wage (come on, I'm an educated human - that's just degrading). So I stuck with Spanish and education, and decided that maybe becoming a pirate could be a career move in my 30s or 40s. 

Anyway, all that to say that Smalley's Caribbean Barbecue has a pirate theme, and I dig that.
Plus also the most fabulous jerk chicken sandwich ever to grace my lips. And rum drinks in Mason jars.

3. Strolling Main Street

Boutiques, ice cream, coffee shops, and a darn good view of the St. Croix. 

If you made it through all those pictures, you deserve a medal. 

We're feeling pretty good these days to call Stillwater our home base. 
Come visit us!

sunny days

Spring has been a long time coming in Minnesota. Today was only the fourth time in 2014 that we have hit 70° in the Twin Cities. I'm often tempted to be negative about the slow warm up, bemoaning the time cooped up indoors and feeling sorry for myself.

And then a day like today happens - a Sunday with nowhere to be and a forecast of 70° and sunny. When compared with the coldest winter I have ever experienced, and this dreary excuse of a spring, this day felt incomparably good. Just intensely nice.

I honestly don't know if I would have been so grateful for it if I received the gift of good weather every day. The kind of good weather where you don't even feel anything. You're not hot or cold, you're just existing. I like to think this whole winter was leading up to this very day. 70° is always nice, but man does it feel good after months of 0°.

To enjoy a perfectly sunny day by the river after church and a nap - this is the Sabbath as the good Lord intended it. A day of rest and renewal. (Hopefully it's not a big deal that I cleaned out our fridge - it wasn't that hard of work, though.)

These are the days I want to collect and remember. The days spent with my people in the sunshine. Yeah. It doesn't get much better than that.

no hay mal...

The mother of all winters. 49 days at or below zero. Piles of snow taller than people. Polar vortex after polar vortex. Blizzards, deep freezes, and slippery road conditions. Welcome to the Minnesota winter experience.

If you Google "how to survive a Minnesota winter," or "things to do in Minnesota during winter," you will find encouragement to continue to enjoy the outdoor activities so popular in this great state. Hiking, snow shoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and skiing. I have had to refrain from throwing my laptop across the living room at the discovery of these suggestions, as anyone with a small child at home can relate to. Not only would it be impractical to bring a child along on (most of) these adventures, but incredibly dangerous given the weather we have had thus far.

I would be hopeful that spring is coming as the advent of March approaches, but then I hearken back to the previous winter, during which I genuinely thought I would be giving birth during a snowstorm. My due date was June 3rd. Yes. Snowstorms through the month of May made outdoor "spring" sports near impossible. It doesn't give me much hope that the White Witch's spell will end any time soon.

I'm sounding pretty bitter at this point, aren't I? If you could hear me read these paragraphs aloud, though, you would realize that I'm saying them with an incredulous grin at the absurdity of it all. You would hear me chuckle about last year's winter extending all the way into the summer months. You know, taking it all in stride because I'm a Midwesterner, of German and British and Scandinavian stock. But you would also detect the crazy eyes, and you would probably hear my laugh turn slightly maniacal, driven to the brink of insanity by being shut indoors for days on end.

So anyway, the point of this is not to get anyone to feel sorry for me; Minnesota is not the only state surviving this vindictive winter. It is not to ask for advice on how to get through it, because we all do that the same way - one day at a time. It is simply to observe that there is some good to come out of this ridiculous season of my life. There is a saying in Spanish: no hay mal que por bien no venga. There is no bad from which good does not come.

So, in the same way I encourage my young volleyball players to learn from their losses instead of being sad about them, in the same way I appreciate paying for college myself because it helped me learn to be frugal and manage money, I think there is some good and some wisdom to come from this punishing cold.

We are going to appreciate this summer. A lot. Because, dang it, we worked for it.

We are going to spend every waking moment outdoors. We are going to have drinks on patios, and hike, and explore, and eat ice cream, and sit on a bench and take in the sun. And we are going to love every second of that humidity and heat. I am going to buy a pair of $2.50 flip flops from Old Navy and wear them until they have conformed to my feet. And then I will kick off those cheap sandals and feel the blades of grass in between my toes. And it shall be glorious.

You should have seen the people here in the Twin Cities when we had an almost 40° day a few weeks back. Picture the people of Munchkinland after the Wicked Witch of the West was killed. That was us. Doing heel clicks and skipping and patting our neighbors on the back with a wink and a smile.

If 40° can do that to us, imagine what 70° will feel like.

No hay mal que por bien no venga. We can't have the good without the bad. We can't have the sun without the dark. We can't have the warm without the cold. The good will come.

no hay mal que por bien no venga

palm trees in snow

The other day at my Bible study group, I mentioned that the winter blues were starting to get to me, and asked the other ladies what they do to survive the Minnesota winter while cooped up inside with their offspring. I cannot thank them enough for bringing my attention to the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. 

Throughout winter my general outlook is that of a bear - hibernate. I desire to wrap myself in a fluffy blanket burrito of warmth and fall asleep at the stroke of 7 pm. This instinct is compounded with the addition of a baby bear, mostly because getting her bundled up and packed up for a day on the town takes about a year.  

Fridays are generally a free day for me, and I often end up only seeing the light of day when we take Pablo for a short walk. Because I had been singing the winter blues all week long, I was leaning toward making Friday a cozy day inside again. But something snapped within me. I think it was that Matthew McConaughey advice about wanting to be where you are. So I shut my laptop, stuffed everything we needed for the day in my trusty North Face backpack, and hit the open road. 

In a mere 25 minutes we found ourselves at the absolutely stunning conservatory. How this hidden gem escaped my attention for the 4 years I have lived here in the Twin Cities I will never know. I decided I didn't want to be bogged down my a stroller, so I tied on the Moby wrap in the car because it was still 0° outside. I tucked my little kangaroo in the folds of fabric to keep her warm, then sprinted to the door because I accidentally forgot my gloves. 

You guys, if I had all the money, you know I would be on the next flight to Peru or Costa Rica or Argentina. But as it so happens, I am still clawing my way out of student loan debt, so the Como Park Conservatory is the next best thing. Lush greenery, humid air, and sunshine wrap their arms around you, a safe haven from the harsh Minnesota winter. Tropical plants from every warm part of the world fill the gardens, and the scents of spices rise before you as incense. But enough of painting a word picture. I will let my actual pictures invade your eyeballs.

The nicest girl who happened to be a photography student offered to take some pictures of us.

This girl could not get enough of the greenery and chatted nonstop as we walked through the gardens. 

We bumped into some friends who took this lovely picture of us. 

Checking out the fishies

I miss Ecuador! Take me back!

Spring will come...eventually. Until then, we will definitely be returning to the conservatory for more warmth and green. 

Is there a botanical garden or green house in your area? Where do you escape to in winter?