One Year

Today, I looked at our family photo calendar and realized that next week I need to turn the page.

So I went ahead and peeked at June, and saw this:

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A year. Next month, it will be a year since we left on our adventure. At exactly this time last year, I was in full-on Brain Spin mode. Planning, thinking, worrying…and wondering. Wondering if we could pull it off. Wondering what the rest of the year had in store for us. Wondering if we would be the same or different when we returned.

I often get asked what we would do differently if we were to do it again. Or if we have any regrets.

I do have one regret.

I regret that I haven’t taken the time to really reflect on our 4 1/2 months abroad. That I allowed life to pull us back in so quickly that I haven’t stopped to think about all we did, about how we grew as individuals and as a family.

It hits me once in awhile. And, it’s a pretty cool realization when it does.

For some reason, it often hits me when we’re doing something completely ordinary. Like the dishes. I’ll look over at Hubs at the sink (yep…he actually likes doing dishes, but do NOT ask him to fold laundry), and I’ll think, “Wow. We did it. We really did it.”

Sometimes I’ll say exactly that out loud. The first few times it happened, Hubs looked at me completely confused, “We did what?”

“We actually went abroad for 4 1/2 months. We did it.”

“Um…yes…I know that. I was there.”

The conversation usually stopped there, and now, it just goes like this:

“Wow. We did it. We really did it.”

He doesn’t even ask, but just automatically responds, “Yes, we went abroad for 4 1/2 months. I get it.”

But I know he really does get it. That he knows there is so much more emotion behind those words. That sometimes it’s like I step outside of myself and think, “Man, we REALLY did it!”

This past weekend, a dear friend and her daughters came to visit us. She asked questions about our time in Europe, and she asked if  we were ready to come home by the end of the trip.

Hubs who, ironically, was doing the dishes, said, “No. Honestly, I think we could still be there. We did great, and we could have still kept going.”

Which led us into a conversation about how well the trip went, how the kids have changed, how traveling was actually pretty easy overall.

It led us into a conversation of reflection.

Maybe we need to do the dishes more often.

Top 15 Things We Learned in Southern France

Once we had finally arrived safely at our B&B in Antibes and had a good night’s sleep, we were ready to spend the next 10 days exploring southern France. In addition to Antibes, we spent time driving the Moyenne Corniche through Nice, stopping in Eze, and oohing and aahing over Monte Carlo. We then spent time a little further north in Avignon before heading down and over to Montpellier (where I lived over 20 years ago), Carcassone and finally Sarlat.

So, what did we learn during this part of our adventure? Here are 15 of our top findings traveling with kids in southern France:

1. Kids find figuring out SIM cards and cell phone plans boring.

Especially when Mom and Dad drag them to 3 different stores. Which takes an entire day since everything closes for a few hours at lunchtime. Orange, however, became the clear winner as they had the coolest games.                                                                                                                              20150804_154212

2. It is HOT in southern France. Really, really HOT.

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If there was water…
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we stopped for it (even though we had water bottles).

 

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This became a common sight at the end of the long, hot days.

3. If you really want to beat the heat, find a friend with a boat.

Fortunately, our B&B owners had a boat, and they took us out on the water for the day, complete with a picnic on a small island. Definitely a highlight of our trip.

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Whether we were on the boat, or swimming in the Mediterranean, we loved it!

4. French highway reststops are fun.

Especially in the summer when there are free “animations.” A man walked up to JJ at the playground and handed him two sunhats, CDs, card games and sunglasses for him and Missa B. Because that’s just what they do there.

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5. Souvenir coins are destined to follow us everywhere we go.

For 2 Euros each, they are actually a great to way to find a small souvenir at every destination. And, they are prolific in France. I am still unpacking them from boxes and pockets 4 months later.

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6. The Pont du Gard is beautiful.

It is as spectacular as I remember it from 20+ years ago. However, it is also now extremely commercialized. Entrance fees, cafés, and souvenir shops were some of the shocking things that greeted my eyes. But we did appreciate the museum which gave us a ton of information on the importance of the aquaduct.

I had never taken advantage of swimming under the Pont du Gard as I didn’t really know about that on past trips. It was an amazing way to beat the 99+ degree heat. Missa B., being the daredevil she has been from the time she was born, took to jumping off the rocks immediately.

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A nice climb led us to this gorgeous viewpoint.
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That woman in the water below Missa B? Yep, that would be Mama Bear.

7. Old friends just get better with time.

Cathy was 16 when I last saw her. She is now a mom of two awesome boys and an English teacher.

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Can you spot the kiddo who didn’t really want to be in the picture?

8. New friends can teach us so much.

Meeting Franck and Isabelle was a delight. And when “grandmère” brought over her homemade soup for us to try and insisted we eat the tomatoes from her garden, we fell in love with her.

The stories we heard of how Isabelle’s parents had to house Nazi soldiers on their property when the troops came into Antibes brought WWII to life for all of us. She thanked us, as Americans, for allowing her family to regain their property.

This was a place we  found hard to leave.

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9. We can do cobblestones!

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Every kid for him(her)self.

10. It’s worth staying up late for views like this.

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Carcassonne, France

11. Clapping on someone’s birthday is universal.

And this girl LOVED having an entire restaurant sing “Joyeux Anniversaire!”

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12. There are substations all over the world.

And Hubs insists on stopping to take pictures of them.

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13. If you can afford the TGV first class, it’s worth it.

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14. Street performers are fun.

Sarlat was full of street performers, and the kids loved going into the pedestrian area at night.

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15. Pillow walls may not be effective.

And Missa B. may not have been exaggerating when she said it was difficult to share a bed with JJ.

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Journey to the French Riviera

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It’s August 3rd, and our plane from Dublin to Nice had a time change. Usually, when that happens, it’s an hour or so, right? Not when you’re flying Ryanair. It is now departing 7 hours later. Meaning we land in Nice at 9:45 pm.

But luck is on our side.

Our car rental is at the airport. So, unlike most of the car rental locations in Europe, it has extended hours and will be open when we arrive. And, our B&B owner lives on site and can accommodate late arrivals. She promptly emails me the code for the gate to the property, tells me she will put the key in the door to our room, and will see us at breakfast on the patio the next morning.

All goes well with the flight…if you ignore the fact that I terrify some poor kid on the tarmac in Dublin.

See, I’m one of those people who observes everyone…all the time. And that includes being curious enough to look at the luggage tags of the people around me. I get it. It’s weird. But sometimes, it pays off.

As we’re walking onto the tarmac, I look at the tag of a girl who is probably about 8 years old, and I am pretty sure I see the word “Deerfield,” but I can’t see the rest of the tag. Deerfield?! I’m FROM Deerfield!

Yes, there is more than one Deerfield in the US. And, I actually don’t even know that this girl is from the United States, but based on the general appearance of her family, I’m going with Americans.

But, I can’t let it go. I have to know if she’s from my hometown. So I oh-so-casually follow her. She speeds up. I speed up. I am leaning down, squinting at her baggage tag. I am ready to pull it off the bag if needed. She heads to the rear door of the plane. I head to the rear door of the plane. My family, who has been trained to follow me, asks me what I am doing considering we are in row 5. I ignore them and basically accost this kid.

“Excuse me.”

She jumps and looks at me.

“Are you from Deerfield?”

I’ve now succeeded in separating her from her parents. “Yes,” she answers timidly.

“Deerfield, ILLINOIS?!” I screech.

“Yes…”

“That is SO cool! So am I!”

She isn’t impressed. I guess when you’re 8, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal to meet some crazy lady on a runway in Dublin, Ireland who claims to be from your hometown.

“I saw your luggage tag, and I couldn’t believe it said ‘Deerfield,’ but then I thought maybe it was a different Deerfield, but I thought it could be the same Deerfield, and that would just be wild, so I wanted to see if it was the same Deerfield, but I couldn’t read the rest of your tag, so I wanted to ask you…”

I am pulled away by JJ who is thoroughly embarrassed, and the poor girl sees her escape and takes it.

I still think it’s cool.

We arrive in Nice, get our bags (because when you fly Ryanair, carry-ons can pretty much be no larger than a pencil), and find the rental car agency. Well, actually after an amazingly long walk which included an entire group of us heading up the wrong ramp to a dead end and having to turn back, we find the rental car agency.

After a long wait, I get to a cool desk where you sit next to the agent, and I start the conversation in French. She responds in French. So far, so good. She can’t find the reservation, and we talk about how the flight changed so maybe it’s showing up as an earlier rental? This is still all in French. She finds it, and we talk about all the possible upgrades, which I politely refuse. 15 minutes into this, it dawns on me that she has not switched to English. It’s been 20 years since I’ve had this extensive of a conversation in French, and it’s working! Even when I can’t come up with a word, I’m explaining it differently in French, and she’s getting it. And NOT SWITCHING to English. This is cool.

The four of us go out to find the car. We’ve been upgraded. It must have been my French.

This is an awesome start to the trip even if it is now 11 pm, and we have no idea how to get to our B&B in Antibes.

As we exit the parking lot, our GPS (from home) isn’t working. No worries — it just needs to find the satellites. We take a turn that, based on a really meager map in the Rick Steves book, appears to take us in the right direction.

We drive. It’s pitch black. We continue driving. The GPS still isn’t working.

We take another turn. Onto a toll road. I am pretty sure we don’t want to be on a toll road.

I tell Hubs to pull off the road so we can get the GPS working. We pull into a dark parking lot and sit there staring at the GPS. We turn it off. We turn it back on. It’s not working. Our phones have Ireland SIM cards and don’t work in France.

No map. No GPS. No phone. We started this journey on Monday. It’s now Tuesday.

The kids, who at this point are beyond exhausted, start to whine. We politely explain that we are lost, and could they please be patient?

Oh, who am I kidding. They whine and fuss, and we yell. It’s not pretty.

And then we start whining and fussing. I feel myself getting a bit frantic. We don’t know where we are, and it’s really dark. 24-hour stores don’t exist in France, so who are we going to ask for directions? We’re going to drive around forever. We’ll sleep in the car. We’ll get mugged. (Don’t ask — that’s the Chicago girl in me rearing her ugly head.)

Hubs suggests that we try the car’s GPS. I tell him, in a voice that is quickly going up an octave, that we didn’t pay for the GPS, so it won’t work; don’t even bother. He looks at me like I am a bit nuts. Actually, come to think of it, he looks at me with the same look I got from the girl on the tarmac. He turns on the GPS. I continue to insist it won’t work.

It works.

We put in the B&B address and start on our way. Just as our own GPS figures out its location. So we have two of them babbling at us — one in French, and one in English. But they both have us headed the same way, so I’m good with that.

At about 12:30 am, we arrive at our B&B. We turn on the AC since it’s still 88 degrees and crawl into bed.

We made it.

Bienvenue en France.

 

 

 

 

From Trump to North Korea and Everything In Between

In our everyday life, we are a family that dines together the majority of the time. It definitely gets tricky with the kids’ sports schedules, but if we aren’t all sitting down together, it’s sports, not work, that is getting in the way. It’s a priority we have set for our family, and we do our best to make family meals happen.

So I thought we had pretty solid family conversations at the dinner table.

I was wrong.

Let me set the scene. It’s August, and we’re in Bruges, Belgium. It’s been a bit rainy, and we decide to try a fondue restaurant for dinner. Stepping inside, it’s intimate and comfortable. You would almost swear you were in Switzerland except that the fondue comes with all you can eat fries.

Before we order, I say to Hubs, “Did you see the newspaper headline about how Trump is doing?” He replies, and suddenly Missa B jumps in.

“Who is Trump?”
We give a basic explanation.

“Do you like him?”

We respond.

“Why don’t you like him? What does he do that you don’t like?”

So, we go a bit into some of the comments Trump has made (at that point), and who he has offended.

“So who do you like? And why do you like them?”

What started as general questions turned into, I kid you not, a 2-hour conversation about the American political system, the current candidates, previous candidates, what issues divide Americans, and I can’t even remember the rest. It then somehow evolved into an explanation of fascism…and racism…and the political situation in North Korea…and the war in Syria…and refugees….

JJ didn’t say a word for two hours, but it was obvious he was listening, taking it all in, and trying to process. As for Hubs and me, we were pretty much exhausted by the end of the conversation. But, we figured it was a good conversation, so it was worth it.

And then it started up again the next morning.

“So, is it good for the Democrats if Trump does well? Will that help the Democratic Party? How do you think he’ll do?”

And, over two months later, it hasn’t stopped. Except that we visited the D-Day beaches in between, so now Hitler, more information about fascism, and the Nazi party has been thrown into the mix. Even JJ became fully engaged and starting asking lots of questions as well.

I find that sometimes, I just want to sit down to dinner and talk about the weather. And it does happen once in awhile. But, more often than not, the conversations seems to be about past and current world events. We’ll get a break for about a week or so, and suddenly Missa B will, out of the blue, say something like (and these are her words), “Trump is continuing to gain more and more followers. He must be saying something that people like. What makes people want to support him? What is he saying that people want to hear?”

I look at her and have to remind myself that she just turned 10.

That particular question she posed yesterday about what Trump is saying led to a conversation about how politicians phrase messages in general. Which led to questions about whether politicians lie. Which led to a conversation about whether it is ok to lie to get into office.

JJ (age 7) told us adamantly that it is not ok to lie. “And, if I decide to run for President,” he informed us, “I will not lie. And people will look into my eyes and know I am telling the truth so they will decide to vote for me.”

Missa B waffled a bit. “If everyone is lying, then how can you win if you don’t lie? You might have to lie because everyone else is lying as well.”

Seeing the perfect “over-the-top Mom message” moment, I seized it: “You are going to face times in your life when people want you to do something because everyone else is doing it. That’s when you really listen to your heart.” Somehow I went from there to lecturing talking about getting into a car with someone who had a few drinks and having it be the last day of your life. Yea, I know — I tend to go the dramatic route. Subtlety has never been my speciality.
At which point, Missa B said, “Mom. Your whole point makes no sense. You are talking about kids in high school. They can’t drink because they aren’t 21, remember?!”

Right, she’s only 10. She has no clue what is ahead of her.

Or maybe, based on the past 4 months of conversations, she does.

And maybe I need to brush up on politics and world events so I can keep up with her.

Traveling With Kids in Europe — The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

 

As we planned this trip, people constantly told me we were crazy.

I heard things like “How do you plan all that?” Or, “Can you really take the kids out of school that long?”

But honestly, those aren’t the questions I asked myself.

My questions were more along the lines of: “Can I really be with the kids 24/7 for that long?”

Don’t get me wrong. I love my kids. A lot. But I am not one of those people who does the Mom thing naturally. And I admit that I get jealous of my amazing friends who do. I look at Facebook and see the posts of the elaborate cakes they made for birthday parties, but I breathe a sigh of relief when my son decides he wants donuts from the grocery store for “something different”. Although, if I attempted to make some of the things I would love to try on Pinterest, he would get “something different” indeed.

Bottom line is – I’m realistic. I wasn’t harboring any fantasies that we were going to jet off to Europe and glide through countries acting like the Cleavers from Leave It to Beaver. So I headed into this with a practical, albeit slightly skeptical, eye. Now, 3.5 months into the adventure, I’m learning that traveling this long with kids has some pretty trying moments, and it has absolutely wonderful moments as well.

To read my full account of what’s it been like traveling with kids in Europe, check out my guest post on Jo’s blog.

Word of the Day: Wayworn

My friend, Jennifer, gets the “Word of the Day” emailed to her. Yesterday, the word was wayworn, the definition of which is “worn or wearied by travel.” She sent it to me with a note asking, “Is this you?”

It was actually quite good timing. We have really enjoyed our past month here in La-Charité-Sur-Loire. There is something comforting about being able to send the kids out to the local boulangerie and know they’ll come back with the right orders. Or having the owner of the crèmerie next door wave as you go by or usher you in even though he’s closed because he doesn’t want your daughter to not have her favorite cheese for lunch. We know our way around this town, and we’re quite settled here.

How can you not relax in a town like this?
How can you not relax in a town like this?
They are really going to miss their balcony.
The kids’ terrace.
Out our back window....
Out our back window….

And I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past week or so because on Thursday, we head out on the road again. And I think a part of me is dreading it. There have been quite a few times this past week when I’ve wished we were ending the trip here. That we could go from this relaxed pace back into our old routine at home. That we wouldn’t be back to driving across borders, catching trains, and pre-booking museum tickets. That we could simply get on a plane and head back to our old life.

And then I wonder why I feel that way. The pace we were at before was tiring at times, but I never wanted it to stop. I enjoyed all the exciting things we were seeing and doing.

And we have so much to look forward to over the next 4.5 weeks. I get to see another friend whom I haven’t seen in over 20 years, and I can’t wait to see her. We get to go to Italy, where I first took Hubs 4 years ago (almost to the day), and he loved it. I certainly can’t complain about going to Venice, the Tuscany countryside, Florence and Rome. And then we end it all in Paris…with a fun surprise that I’ll share when the time comes but that will be good for all of us. A touch of the familiar in a foreign city.

So I rally. I get ready to pack up those bags again and try not to think about the fact that we’ll be living out of suitcases again for the next month. I prepare to give away the groceries we didn’t use and put out of my mind the fact that we won’t be doing our own cooking for awhile. I spend my last few days conversing in my second language and don’t worry that communication is about to become a lot more challenging.

I remember that we are travelers. And we’re good at it. So off we go again. Wayworn will not be our word of the day. It won’t be our word…period.

Climb Every Mountain

We knew we would be doing a lot of walking this trip, and that’s a good thing. We knew we’d probably climb towers and up into hilltowns, and that’s a good thing too.

But I swear it feels like we are hiking up some rampart, castle tower or belfry every flippin’ day at this point. I have seen more towns from above than I have actually seen at street level.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the views, and I like the exercise. But I feel like we’ve become a family that says, “Climb 300 feet straight up to the top of the tower? Of course we will!”

And it’s all done by a series of ladders? Awesome! Or by little, tiny, narrow spiral staircases where you have to smash up against the wall if someone is coming the other way or even go back UP to get to a tiny landing to let them pass? Even better!

And we PAY to do these things!

But even I will admit that, asthma inhaler in hand, the climbs are a blast, and the views make it worthwhile.

At Warwick Castle, it’s quite easy to do a portion of the castle walls and towers. If you’d like to tackle Guy’s Tower which is 39 meters tall, you can take a look at each of the five stories as you climb. Or perhaps you’d prefer Caesar’s Tower which is 500 steps straight up to the top?

Or maybe you’re like us, so you do both towers, plus every single castle wall and tower in between.

We have many shots where Hubs stays behind and takes photos of us up ahead. He eventually catches up to us.
We have many shots where Hubs stays behind and takes photos of us up ahead. He eventually catches up to us.

Or maybe you want to visit York and walk a portion of the city walls to enjoy the view. Or walk all 2.5 miles of them, which doesn’t include the portions that are no longer walled in, so you have to detour. Or you get lost and take a LONG detour. Fortunately, the York City Walls have lots of bars. Unfortunately, bars is what the gatehouses are called so no drinks are served. If only that had been explained to me BEFORE I agreed to this outing!

They always stand a little too close to the edge for my liking.
They always stand a little too close to the edge for my liking.

If we go too long without a climb, the kids will find one. It’s as if the fact that they haven’t been viewing life from a perch for a few days is too much for them. So they look for ways to gain a higher perspective.

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When we got to Ireland, we found lots of great places to climb along the Ring of Kerry. We hiked up hills to get to beautiful viewpoints. And had to pay for that too — just to park! I would have gladly paid if it had meant someone would shuttle my rear end to the top!

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And we loved the circle forts which gave us lots of places to climb and play.

Going up is always easier than coming down.
Going up is always easier than coming down.

We even found an abandoned castle that wasn’t in any guidebook thanks to a family we met at one of the forts. This was probably one of our best exploration climbs. And it would have NEVER happened in the States as it has injury lawsuit written all over it.

That's Missa B up there although we all made it up to the top.
That’s Missa B up there although we all made it up to the top.

Also in Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher was definitely one of our favorite views. Absolutely spectacular, and the rain held off for us!

This doesn't even begin to do it justice.
This doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
We do need to work on our sign reading.
We do need to work on our sign reading.

Sometimes we’ve found that just walking on walls gets a bit mundane, so we mix it up a bit like Missa B did here at Charles Fort in Kinsale, Ireland.

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And in Kilkenny, Ireland, we HAD to climb the St .Canice’s Cathedral round tower — it’s one of only two round towers that people can climb in all of Ireland! Who can say no to that? Well, actually, I could have, but my family didn’t give me a choice. It’s climbed by a series of internal ladders going straight up. Don’t get me started about what it’s like when people are coming the other way. And, we even had to get special permission for the kids because you have to be 12 years old to climb it. Somehow our 7 and 10 year old convinced the people there that they could do it, and so they did.

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Sometimes, it’s not towers we’re climbing, but into hilltowns. As in, park your car at the bottom and hoof it. This is the view we had when we finally made it to the top of Eze, a gorgeous town along the French Riviera. Except you hike straight up to the top of the town. Did I mention that it was 97 degrees that day? And for some insane reason we left our water bottles in the car? Missa B was ecstatic when we found a place to get a drink.

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And of course, Carcassonne’s ramparts beg to be walked. A city that glows in the evening when viewed from afar. The problem is that if you’re staying inside the walls, then you have to climb back up after taking in the view. Although our car was in the car park at the bottom, and I almost considered staying there for the night.

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And even in Brugges, Belgium which is flat, we found a place to climb. The belfry, standing 82 meters, offered us an amazing view of the city. And, we timed to be at the top when the bells rung which was well worth it.

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Another one of those shots that Hubs stayed behind to take.
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This picture was at the bottom before you bought your tickets, along with a lot of warning signs about the climb. Not exactly a good sales technique…

There have been a lot of other climbs along the way, but these are some of our favorites.  At this rate, the Duomo in Florence and the Eiffel Tower should be a breeze!

If we don’t collapse first.