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.

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Taking Off For 4.5 Months: The Money Thing

One thing many people ask is how we managed this financially. I don’t actually find this question offensive, as some worry, because I get it. It seems unattainable, so how do you actually make it work? Based on the number of people who have asked me this, I thought I’d write about our process.

We started planning about two years prior to our departure. One of our first arguments discussions was over how to set aside the money we needed. I wanted to set up a separate account strictly for the trip. Hubs didn’t want another bank account, preferring that the money just be in our savings account. I manage the daily finances, so I won.

I opened a new savings account, labeled it “Sabbatical,” and started saving. I own a small…ok, very small…it’s just me…consulting firm. It’s not enough to support us. Oh, who am I kidding? It couldn’t support us for even 2 weeks, but it does bring in some money. And, both Hubs and I are Adjunct Faculty at our local university.

But we should be living solely off of Hubs’ main salary. So that’s what we did. I took the university paychecks and any money from my consulting gigs and put it into the sabbatical account. If there was any extra money that came in from bonuses or tax refunds (yeah, right), I put that away too. And I swore that I would not touch it.

And then I looked for a credit card that had no international fees as I knew we could waste a ton of money on fees alone. I highly recommend the Bank of America Travel Rewards card — no annual fee, no international fees, and a great rewards program.

And then I nickel and dimed the heck out of lodging. I actually drove myself a bit crazy trying to find the best deals. I would have 10 webpages open: comparing prices; looking up TripAdvisor reviews; figuring out bedding options; getting into such minutiae that by the time I resurfaced, I would find that I was 200 miles from the original location I was considering. Finally, I gave up and tried to do bookings with the most generous cancellation policies possible so that when I had time, I could do more research and change the bookings. For the record, I never did change them (well, except once in Belgium, and that is fodder for a different post).

Did we set a budget? No, we actually didn’t. We figured out the major things such as flights, rental cars, trains, and lodging, and then we estimated the rest of the costs. We calculated in the fact that certain expenses don’t go away: we would still have a mortgage (although we did amazingly end up with renters for 4 months); still pay car insurance (which we were able to reduce significantly for the time we were gone); and we would be paying for medical insurance as we considered that critical. We came up with a VERY approximate figure of what we needed, and realized we could manage it as long as we stayed close to that number. We knew that if we stuck to a strict budget, we would be continuously stressed out and not enjoying the experience the way we planned. And, honestly, in the back of my mind, I figured I would either ramp up the consulting or go back to part-time work if I needed to when we returned. To me, it was worth it.

The one thing we also decided was that we wouldn’t go crazy on souvenirs. We planned for our pictures to be our most precious souvenirs, and decided we would buy a few things along the way if they really called to us.

One of the things we did worry about, however, was the kids. We assumed they would want 1,000,000 souvenirs, and we weren’t really sure how to manage that. So, we talked through it as a family. The kids had saved a fair amount of money, and they were also given some money for the trip by special family members. We explained to them that their savings would count for the bulk of their souvenir money, and that they would still receive allowance on the trip.

Little did we know what an amazing decision that would be. We gave each kiddo a journal for the trip. At the back of the journal, we had them start a ledger. They put in the amount of their savings accounts in dollars. When we arrived in England, we took the current exchange rate and helped them do the conversion. Each Sunday, we had them add in their allowance. And, when we became desperate, we instituted a 1 Pound (later to become 1 Euro) sleeping bonus for each night they went straight to bed. We continuously reminded them that those sleeping bonuses weekly added up to even more than their allowance. I think I would have paid almost anything for peaceful sleep.

So, what did they subtract from this ledger? I do have to say that once in awhile, they subtracted a Pound or a Euro due to sheer brattiness. I actually, in one of my better parenting moments, tried to take away 50 Euros from Missa B, but Hubs decided I probably just needed to eat and would then be more rational, so he overruled me and doled out a much more reasonable consequence (thank you, Hubs!)

And, the kids subtracted their souvenirs. We agreed to pay for all postcards and additional journals if needed (Missa B filled up three), but informed them that they would be paying for all additional souvenirs. This is a page from J’s journal:

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The “math” lines are to correct for math errors after we went back and did monthly balancing. 

Best decision we ever made. Not ONCE did either kiddo ever beg for a souvenir. They went into stores carefully evaluating their options to figure out how they wanted to spend their money. They never asked us to buy them anything because they knew that wasn’t how it was going to work on this trip. And they made amazing decisions. Missa B decided to collect bookmarks, so she always looked to find special ones at the sights we visited. JJ decided he wanted magnets, and he found amazing ones along the way. They also bought larger souvenirs at special spots, but they were really conscious about their choices, and we were so proud of them.

And SO relieved we were not constantly having to say “No”. We ended up being willing to go into almost any souvenir store they asked to visit because we knew it would be a pleasant experience.

We also agreed we would pay to send souvenirs home. Didn’t budget for that one, but man, we should have! It costs SO much to send things overseas! But, traveling lightly was key for us, and that meant sending souvenirs home.

So, now we’re back. We all have souvenirs we love; we have literally thousands of pictures; and we have tons of happy memories. And soon, we hope to once again have a savings account.

 

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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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.

Connections

Many people have asked how much we think the kids will remember from the trip. Of course, we want to say that we picked the perfect ages, and they’ll remember everything. Then I realize I can’t even recall where we stayed in Avignon without help…and that was 4 days ago.

As for Missa B, she has been writing a journal that puts us all to shame. She will sit and write about details that we hadn’t even noticed in the first place. It isn’t unusual for her to write 4-5 pages about one day (look for another guest post soon). So I’m actually not worried at all about what she’ll remember because she’ll have her amazing journal (actually journals by the time she is done) to jog her memory.

Getting JJ to write, however, is more of a challenge. I think he is possibly only on the 2nd week of our trip. But, he will pull facts out of his head that we have all long forgotten. Dates come back out of nowhere, and we realize he has been retaining more than we had ever imagined.

What I am enjoying most, however, is the connections they are making — connections with people and connections between experiences.

One of the strongest connections we saw was in Ireland. We were so fortunate to meet relatives there who opened their home to us. The kids loved being with relatives and are very much hoping to see them again next year when the eldest son attends school in the States. And, they were kind enough to take us to Hubs’ family’s homestead — Finnoe House. This is where his great-great grandfather was born — the kids’ great-great-great grandfather. The place is falling apart, but after a bit of adventure when the family dog chased all the cows into another field, we climbed over/under wired fences to get to the crumbling building. Teenagers had used it to party, and there were bottles and mattresses everywhere. The stove had been stolen, and it was pretty much a mess.

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  That’s me and our cousin, Luke, upstairs, not ghosts.
Finnoe House
Finnoe House

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But that is not what the kids saw. They saw the place where their family began. We stood and marveled about how the children born in that house now, just a few generations later, have descendants living in Ireland, the US, Canada, Vietnam, and Africa. Missa B and JJ were enthralled with the meaning the house held for them. And we were in awe of how they “got” it. So much so that they had to take part of the house home with them. Which is why we paid over $100 to ship back roof tiles and a horseshoe. Yes, roof tiles and a horseshoe. Customs will have a heyday with that one.

They searched the cemetery for relatives.
They searched the cemetery for relatives.

Not only are they connecting with people and places; they are also connecting the dots. A few evenings ago as we wandered through a charming French village at night, I asked Missa B to stop and admire how beautiful the town was. She looked at some wooden buildings and said, “It really is. It reminds me of Stratford-Upon-Avon.” And, seeing what she was seeing, I realized she was right.

Not all she sees is positive. She hates the fact that so many people smoke in France and worries they will die young. “We didn’t see this many young people smoking in England or Ireland, Mom.” Can’t wait until she asks about the smoke when we get to Amsterdam tomorrow.

As for JJ, he blew me away yesterday with what was, to him, an offhanded comment.

“Mom — it’s pretty cool. First, the Neanderthals, then the Cro-Magnums and their cave drawings, then Knowth and Newgrange, and then Stonehenge.”

On his own, the kid took lessons from the Dordogne region of France, Ireland, and England and built himself a timeline. Not because he’d read about it, but because he’d seen it. And it made sense to him. And it stuck.

So, I’m not going to worry about what they’ll remember. I’m going to focus on what I see them learning now. And probably rely on them to help me remember things I hadn’t even noticed in the first place.

Préhistoparc where we learned about Neanderthal life.
Préhistoparc where we learned about Neanderthal life.
A visit with Cro-Magnum man.
A visit with Cro-Magnum man.
Knowth in Ireland.
Knowth in Ireland.

Ch…Ch…Changes

I have been fascinated watching Missa B over the past 7 weeks.

Right before my eyes, she is evolving into a more outgoing, more confident young woman. Yes, her birthday is Monday (we have been reminded daily of the countdown since the start of the trip), so some of it is simply that she is maturing. But I have a hunch a lot of it has to do with what she is experiencing.

Let me set the record straight. Missa B is outgoing…when she wants to be.  Reminders to look people in the eye when talking to them, however, are not foreign to her. Or reminders to smile when talking to people and to let them know she is interested in what they have to say (or sometimes fake it a bit when necessary).

And she is extremely confident. This is the girl who, after all, intends to go to Stanford on a basketball or volleyball scholarship and then join the FBI. Or become the President of the United States. She hasn’t quite decided yet. But, she is the same girl who won’t ask where a bathroom toilet is located.

Case in point. Early in the trip, we were in England on the motorway when we heard the usual call of, “When is the next stop? I drank way too much water!” For Missa B, once she decides this, it becomes a desperate situation (in her mind) within about a minute. She will pretty much ask us/harass us continuously until we find a place to stop.

So, we stopped and decided to get gas petrol at the same time. And Missa B would not get out of the car. We kept telling her she needed to go in and find the toilet, but she wouldn’t. She finally went in, and then came right back out saying she didn’t see a toilet. We told her to ask. She wouldn’t. When we got really annoyed, she begged her brother to go with her (we were both doing things with the car and couldn’t go immediately). He, of course, did. And, it turns out, he (although he is 2 years younger), did the asking for her. Which is pretty typical. Generally, he becomes her voice when interacting with strangers.

At least that’s what used to happen even just a few weeks ago.

But pretty much for the past 7 weeks, Missa B has had to interact with strangers. The only people she has known for the past 7 weeks have been me, Hubs, and JJ. And that is where we’ve seen things begin to evolve.

I first noticed it in places like Blists Hill when we went into the Victorian-era stores. It started with Terry, the plaster-of Paris artist. She liked hearing his story and listened intently. He noticed, and when she eyed a piece that her mom told her we couldn’t get (there has to be a villain in every story), he gave it to her. And she gave him one of her best smiles and biggest thank you’s. And then, after we left the shop, she decided she wanted to send him postcards from the trip. So, she went back and asked him for his address. By herself.

Terry -- a hero in Missa B's eyes.
Terry — a hero in Missa B’s eyes.

She was also very interested in the blacksmith. We visited his shop, and we talked with him a bit. Later, we were waiting for a train ride near the shop, and she went back in on her own. When I came to get her about 5 minutes later, she was fully engaged in a conversation with the blacksmith and gave him a huge smile and wave when we left.

As we meet B&B owners, I watch her interact with them. I see her look them directly in the eye when introduced, greet them, and give that smile that lights up her entire face. She engages with the people we meet, and you can see she knows they have a story to tell and is hoping to learn it.

And, now she wants to please people. Now, believe me, I have never wanted to raise a child who feels they have to please people. But I do want to raise a child who wants to be a bigger part of her surroundings, who wants to work well within society, and who wants to get along with others.

What I am seeing is a girl who wants people to see her as kind and helpful. Her “thank-you’s” now come completely unsolicited and are fully genuine. She is starting to go out of her way to thank people — even going so far as using her own money to tip street entertainers she really enjoys. She wants people to know she appreciates what they do for her.

I’m seeing a girl who brings in her breakfast plate to the B&B grandma and is praised for being so helpful. A girl who then the next day brings in all of our plates just so the grandma will be proud of her. And continues to do so every morning. A girl who beams when, at the end of the stay, is told by that same family that she and her brother are “cherubs” and that they could be brought anywhere because they are so polite and helpful.

B&B owners and
B&B owners and “Grandma”

And I see a pre-teen who, yesterday, told her brother not to come with her when she needed to ask the store owner for change. In French. And who, today, asked the restaurant server where the toilets were located. In French.

“Mom…he told me in French, and I didn’t understand a word he said. Luckily for me, he used his hands to talk as well, and I only saw one door. So, I tried it. And I was right!”

And she beamed as she told me.

But I don’t think she beamed because she found the toilet. I think she beamed because she found a confidence she didn’t even know she had been missing.