2017 Year in Pictures | Ridgewood photographer

At the beginning of each year I put together my Year in Pictures slideshow with images from all family and children sessions I’ve done prior year.  I love seeing all these images together, remembering laughter and silly faces.  I am a lucky lucky girl because I get to capture all these amazing memories for all these wonderful families!   This slideshow made me smile – watch it and I am sure it will put a smile on your face as well!

 

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Christmas Goose, A Fire In the Oven, DC Monuments and more – Our Christmas Break in pictures (and words)

I am so lucky that I have a second career a family photographer that I absolutely love and that I believe is so important – I truly believe that photographs are some of the most important possessions you can own.  I love being a Ridgewood family photographer and meeting and photographing so many wonderful families all over Bergen County.

Working for yourself definitely is not without challenges but there are so many great perks.  My boss is wonderful and very understanding when I take some time off to recharge and spend time with family and capture my own family memories:)

And every year after a busy fall I take a break at the end of December till sometime in January to hang out with Victor and the girls and once Victor goes back to the office and the girls go back to school – to enjoy some alone time.  I’ve really enjoyed it and definitely needed it – I needed time to sleep in, to watch movies and sort through our photos, design personal albums (although there are still a whole lot to be designed!), to clean out closets and sort through papers (I ended up shredding piles and piles and piles of old bills and statements) and to do a whole lot of housekeeping stuff at Live Love Laugh Photos.

I am slowing emerging from my break (already had a couple of studio sessions this year) and one of the first things on my To Do list was blog our Christmas break, like I do every year.  This Christmas break seemed very short (the kids only had a week and a day off school) and Millie was very much missed but it was a nice break nonetheless.

We hosted our family on Christmas eve (all 19 of them!) – the girls baked white chocolate chip candy cane cookies and I made a goose (my first and most likely last). A fire that started in the oven (my quick thinking sister threw a glass of water at it, which took care of the fire but resulted in very watery sweet potatoes!) made the gathering so much more memorable!:)

On Christmas day we opened presents, spent half of the day in our PJs, went to the movies to watch Star Wars and had sushi for dinner (all local Chinese places were super busy and we could not get through).

We spent a day being tourists in the city with my sister and her two girls – think lunch at Alice’s Tea Cup and Rockefeller Center Christmas tree:

and we managed to go to DC for a few days to explore monuments (by day and night), eat great meals, sleep in, visit the pandas and introduce our kids to the comic genius of Seinfeld:

A holiday bash at my parents house in Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve and a viewing of Jumanji on New Year’s Day completed this short but fun winter break!

And now I am almost ready to catch up blogging client sessions so stay tuned!

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Happy Holidays!

Its the end of the year and as of today I am officially on my stay-cation!  I am planning to do nothing but relax, spend time with family, bake cookies, watch Christmas movies, on a little getaway to DC and enjoy holiday season.  May your holidays be merry and your 2018 be happy and healthy!  Till next year!

 

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Fun Ridgewood family photo session with two boys and their parents

When I first met this Mom and Dad at their pre-session consultation we just clicked and I  knew that their family photo session would be tons of fun!  It was several months in the making but definitely worth the wait because it was even more fun than I thought it was going to be! This session had it all –  the yummiest made from scratch (by DAD!) organic bread, toy race car competition, a game of football, quality time of swings and climbing up slides and lots and lots of laughter.

And after spending some time at their home we headed to Ridgewood for a few portraits in one of my secret locations in downtown Ridgewood.  This spot does not look like much but the images there come out so well!

When the parents came in to my Ridgewood studio for their in-person viewing session to see images from their session they kept awwing and ooohing at every single image and Dad asked me if I knew that certain pictures would come out the way they did and told me that there was no way he could take pictures even closely resembling mine:)

They loved their images and ordered a whole lot of wall art including a beautiful collage of nine 12×12 acrylic prints to be displayed in their family room.  And when they saw the finished product there was even more awwing and oohing:)

 

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Our trip to Havana | What you need to know when planning a visit to Cuba

If you know me in real life or followed my blog for a while you know that I LOVE to travel.  I love to go places near and places far, touristy places and places off the beaten path.  Cuba has been in my To Travel list for a while;  I was very excited when travel restrictions to go to Cuba were eased and after spending a significant amount of time convincing Victor that we needed to go to Cuba before it changes even more and becomes more westernized, I finally booked our tickets in May of 2017 – just three weeks before an announcement about tightening travel restrictions was made.  And about a month ago all four of us got our Cuban Visas and tickets stamped and boarded a plane headed to Havana.  It happened on the morning after Trump made another announcement stating that moving forward all people-to-people travel to Cuba had to be done through an authorized travel agency and no independent travel was allowed any more.  We are not tour people – we’ve never travelled with a tour group and I don’t see that happening in the near future so we were thrilled that we made it there just in time.

We absolutely LOVED Havana!  It is a stunning city – beautiful very colorful buildings with amazing architectural details – a LOT of them are very dilapidated – they almost look like they were build 100 years ago and not maintained since then – which very well might be the case.  I’ve been to many third world countries and have seen buildings in bad state so it did not bother me much – it almost added to the charm of the city.  It was pretty cool seeing old american colorful cars (mostly full of tourists) all over Havana; there were plenty of old Soviet cards as well – brought me back to the days of my Soviet childhood;)  First time we took a taxi in one of those cars Mia was very concerned about the lack of seat belts in it:)  We walked all over, ate a lot, took lots of pictures and did a lot of touristy things.  We were wondering how the girls would take it – given that the only places they’ve traveled to were a lot more developed – but they took it all in stride.

A lot of people (friends and clients) asked me about this trip so that’s why I am writing a much more detailed description of it than I normally do of our travels – and if you scroll below you will see lots of practical info about Cuba travel – from visas to money to restaurants and tours.

Upon our arrival to Havana we took a cab from the airport (super easy and about $30 to Old Havana), settled into our AirB&B and went to explore.  We had lunch, fed stray cats and dogs our food (more on meals below), got some ice cream, listening to Salsa music and strolled through old town.  We were exhausted and called it a night pretty early.

Next day I was up bright and early and went for a quick photo tour while the rest of my family slept.

 

after breakfast, armed with our umbrellas we went to the Museum of Revolution… To tell you the truth the idea of going to the Museum of Revolution did not sound that appealing to me but I have to say it was pretty fascinated – at the bare minimum the building where the museum is housed is simply stunning and is in a pretty great shape.  And it ended up being pretty fascinated be there – seeing a cabinet where Castro came to power and looking through lots and lots of propaganda:

after the museum we picked our an old american convertible and arranged a city tour for the following day:

and then went to explore Malecón – a pretty nice area by the ocean:

 

After lunch we walked all over on foot and by the time we got back to the apartment we were exhausted!

That day we also got tickets for a dinner and a show at Buena Vista Social Club (see below) which was pretty fun and ended up with our girls dancing salsa on stage!

On our third day (our last full day in Havana) we got up a bit early and went out to take some family pictures:

and after breakfast we were on our way exploring Havana in an old american convertible.  Originally we got it for 3 hours but ended up extending it because Havana is HUGE – who knew? – certainly not me!

 

They took us to the Revolution Square –  pretty interesting:

 

cigar factory – could totally avoid it if you short on time; although the building next to it was so colorful and worth a detour:

Colon Cemetery – although it sounds a bit morbid visiting a cemetery but when it is a as stunning at this one is I think it is OK to go sightseeing at a cemetery.

Havana Forest – an absolute must-see – if not for jungle scenery ( which was pretty interesting in itself) but for the collection of all tourists traveling in these bright old cars – every color of the rainbow:

One of the highlights of the tour was a visit to Fusterlanding – an area of the city that is just a few blocks wide but is super awesome – all the buildings/fences/etc are covered in mosaic and very cool art!  We all loved it and it was unlike anything we’ve seen before.

We finished a tour with a drive by National Hotel (did not have time to stop by) and Malicon where I got ‘baptized’ as our driver said by the waves!

Then, because one tour is never enough, we ended up taking a horse and carriage tour through Old Havana  (more on that below) , which was great as well:
And dinner at the nicest joint in town (with smoking a Cohiba because when it Cuba that’s what you do!) concluded our last day in Cuba:

Practical Info

I want to say that all of this info is based on our trip that we took in November 2017 – if you are planning to go to Cuba you need to check the latest travel info and restrictions.

Visa

You need to get a visa to travel to Cuba.  Friends who visited Cuba told me that visas could be purchased right at the airport – before your flight.  Since we were traveling with the girls I decided to use an agency and get our visas beforehand – I did not want to be stressing out about visas and thought that a $30 service per visa fee was worth it.  We used Cuba Travel Services – they were very speedy and we got our visas in a few short days.

Lots of people got visas at the airport though – looked like all they needed was to fill out an application form, pay $50 visa fee and that was all.

Stay

There are a number of hotels in Cuba – some supposedly 4 and 5 stars but I’ve heard that they were not what we would expect from a western 4 or 5 start hotel.  We opted for staying at an AirB&B and I was so glad we did.    We rented an apartment and it was awesome – it was roomy (2 bedrooms/2 bathrooms), in a great location, with a wonderful lady cooking us breakfast every day ($5 per person per day – so worth it!), and with a host who was very helpful and answered any questions we had.  If you are looking for a place to stay in Havana I cannot recommend the AirB&B highly enough – here is a link to it.  And here is a picture from our balcony:

Restaurants

If I am being honest I cannot say I loved food in Havana – it was not bad but to me it was not super memorable.

The best meal we’ve has was at La Guarida – this is a special occasions restaurant located in a VERY cool and old building.  I chose it because of its high TripAdvisor rating but when I asked our AirB&B host for restaurant recommendations this was the first place he recommended as well – so that made me feel very good about my dining choice:)  You need to make reservations there and preferably make them a few days in advance – I booked a table for us a week in advance and they did not have my first choice of a date available.

Another place we liked was 304 O’Reilly – it is very centrally located – close to the Cathedral Square.  The food was pretty good and their desserts were even better – we ended up going to this restaurant for a second time!

El Patio Restaurant – we went there for our first meal in Havana – did not have high expectations because of its spectacular location – right in the Cathedral square overlooking the Cathedral – we assumed it was touristy and it was.. The food was not cheap (by cuban standards) but not good at all… we ended up feeding most of our lunch to the stray cats and dogs who seemed to really enjoy it though:)

Water and Food Safety

Don’t drink tap water there – it’s as simple as that.  We used bottled water for everything – from brushing our teeth to drinking.  In restaurants we would asked for drinks with no ice; did not eat any salads or fruits/veg that had to be rinsed off with water.  We were probably over cautious but who wants to get sick while on vacation?

Shows

A lot of my friends recommended to see Tropicana show and based on the research I’ve done – that’s THE show to see.  However min admission age for this show is 16 and given that the girls are not even 10 we could not do it.  Instead we saw Buena Vista Social Club show, which turned out to be pretty awesome.  There are lots of people all over town trying to sell you tickets to this show but we did not know how legit those tickets were so bought them directly from the theater.  There is a ‘show-only’ option and a ‘dinner and a show’ option and of course the ‘show only’ option was sold out.  I had zero expectations for the dinner (especially after reading some reviews) but it turned out to be pretty great – maybe because my exceptions were set so low.   And the best part (well, maybe not THE BEST but a pretty great part) was the kids under 10 were free – for both dinner and a show!  A dinner/show option is $60 per person so we ended up spending $120 for a dinner for FOUR and a show – a pretty great deal if I may say so myself!

Tours

When in Havana you must go on a tour of the city in an old american convertible – sure, it is a VERY touristy thing to do but guess what – if you are visiting Havana then you ARE a tourist so own up to it;)  Our AirB&B host offered to organize a 4 hour tour for us for $210 which friends of mine who’d been to Cuba before said was too much.. So instead we came up to one of the guys who was hanging out by a whole row of colorful american convertibles outside of the Museum of Revolution, picked out a car and arranged a tour for the following day.  Originally we decided on a 3 hour tour – for $120 but then extended it.   The guy gave us his number and we ended up using his taxi services to go to and from restaurants and shows for the next couple of days.

And because why stop at one tour when you could do two, we ended up taking an hour long carriage ride tour around Old Havana – the guy we used was great – spoke good english and was very entertaining!  Don’t remember the exact price but I think it was around $25/30.

We ended up leaving 15%-20% tip for our tour guides/drivers.

Shopping

We bought a few paintings of Havana – they were small (as we are running out of wall space at home) and were anywhere from $25 to $50.  You can buy cigars (Cohibas are not cheap even in Cuba) and tons of rum.. We bought Rum at the Rum factory but you could easily buy the same rum (for the same price) at the Duty Free at the airport in Havana.

Money

Again I want to say that all my info is as of November 9, 2017.   At that time US based credit cards or ATM cards were not accepted anywhere – so we had to bring cash.   You can exchange US$ for Cuban currency – however they charge you 10% for it.  So what I did was to get euros back in the states – go to your bank and ask them about purchasing Euros – I found my bank had a better currency exchange rate than American Express travel agency.  Everybody I spoke to told me to bring more money than you thought you needed.  Our AirB&B was paid for but that was all – we needed money for food, tours, souvenirs, etc.  We stayed for 3 nights and I thought that 700 euros would be enough… then I got worried that it might not be and got 300 euros more… and then I got worried that even that would not be enough and took $300 extra – just in case.  You can exchange money at the airport – it was pretty straight forward – there is a money exchange kiosk right outside of the airport – and at the banks.  All you need is your currency (my advice – get euros) and your passport.  We ended up spending all 1100 euros we brought – we probably did not need to bring that much but better safe than sorry right?:)

Misc

If you want to help locals and are staying at an AirB&B bring some toiletries to leave behind – we bought a whole lot toiletries, feminine products, makeup, candy, etc and left it all with our AirB&B hosts.   I was hoping I would not offend them by offering all that stuff but she later told Victor (who speaks spanish and was able to communicate much better with them) that they really appreciated it all because a lot of times they would go to stores and would not be able to buy anything (even if they had money) because stores were empty.  So things we take for granted are really needed and appreciated down there.

Safety

Havana is very safe – we felt perfectly fine and safe walking around at night and during the day.   People are the nicest we’ve ever met!

In summary I want to say that all of us absolutely loved the trip!  I am so thankful we were able to go and I hope that the policy will change again and Americans would be able to go back without having to go with a tour group.  Cuba is a wonderful country full of stunning building and very nice people and if you can go there – I highly recommend you do!

 

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