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.

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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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.

Lessons Learned in England — Week 1

We picked England as our first destination because we figured it would be an easy transition. Since we already speak the language, there wouldn’t be too much culture shock.

Wrong on both counts.

However, we are loving every minute of it. This past week has been fantastic, and we’re all learning a ton. Tonight JJ told us that it is better than he expected because he just thought we would walk past things, and a guide would tell us, “That’s a famous building.” But he is finding that he is really enjoying learning so much history. Missa B. thought that touring buildings would be relatively boring, but she’s finding that she’s enjoying learning about people and places more than she anticipated.

A few of the key lessons we have learned this past week:

  • If a friend tells you somewhere is a good place for a “natter,” it’s not obscene. Nor should you go on an empty stomach. It’s just a good place for a chat. (Although my friend, Lisa, has actually threatened to cook something and tell Hubs it’s a “natter” just to make fun of the dumb Americans.)
  • Kids tends to find other kids. We picked up these American additions to our brood on a city walk and ended up going to the park together.

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  • We do not spell words the same way. Although it is fun to think that our cars have tyres. Or that we wear pyjamas. And for the spelling-challenged Hubs, this has been liberating.

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  • This NOT laundry detergent. And, washing your clothes in fabric softener will turn white clothes blue. Which is not good when you only have a carry-on for 4.5 months. Unless you love the color colour blue in which case you will rejoice (as did Missa B).

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  • Some things are just more fun in England. Why look for an aisle that says “laundry detergent” when you can look for one that says “washing up”? Although that didn’t work so well for us in the end (see above bullet).

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  • Who knew you could get world foods free from herbs, spices, and oils? (See — told you it was fun!)

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  • England is so good about making things interesting for kids. Scavenger hunts, kid versions of audioguides, activity packs — all of these have been successful in keeping our kids engaged for literally hours.

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  • England does, however, need to figure out how to keep kids engaged on car trips. Car trips that parents calculated to be 3 hours. Not knowing that there would be 2 disabled cars, 1 disabled truck, and a major highway closure/detour. So the trip would be 6 hours. Yes, mostly the detour DOUBLED the time of the trip. I guess there just aren’t that many ways to detour through England.

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  • And, when the above does happen, it’s ok to stop wherever you can to get food and a bathroom. Even if that stop happens to be McDonalds.
  • We have potential Shakespearian actors on our hands. They even do death scenes.

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  • And, these actors charm the English. A few words and a smile, and they are handed free candy, “As a special today, kids from the US get to pick out one extra candy stick!” Or because she looked longingly at a plaster of Paris piece, Missa B ended up getting it wrapped up and handed to her as a gift. This is her donor; she is now sending him postcards from the trip as we go.

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  • Geese can be herded. Enough said.

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  • And lastly, don’t take too many pictures of the kids if you want good photos. They eventually can’t handle it.

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  • Or end up with a deer-in-the-headlights look.      

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  • Even the gargoyles are sick of having their picture taken.

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Lessons Learned

34 days until departure.

Today was supposed to be a fun day — a 1.5 hour drive to see the great-grandparents and celebrate Great-Grandma’s 88th birthday. But, Missa B got sick yesterday. A 100.6 fever in the middle of the night solidified the fact that she couldn’t go see “The Greats” for fear of passing on something to them. It also ensured that plans to have dinner at a friend’s house were cancelled for tonight — I think this is 5th time we have tried to get together.

JJ and Hubs did go to The Greats, however, which left Missa B and me home together. We had some breakfast and then settled onto the couch to read a chapter of the final Harry Potter book (we committed to finishing the series before the trip).

As we lay down, I mentioned how the fact that she was sick made me think about what would happen if one of us got sick on the day we were departing (just typing it out makes me think I’ve cursed myself…too many Harry Potter curses on my mind). We talked about how bad it would be to fly across the ocean sick, but agreed that it would have to happen.

Which led into a really interesting discussion about how things could, and probably will, go wrong on the trip. It turns out that she had talked with her grandpa about this who told her that some of his best experiences have happened when things have gone wrong on trips, and he therefore ended up doing something completely unplanned. (No idea if that is true or not, Grandpa, but THANK YOU!)

Now, one would think that with all the travels I’ve done, I would be a bit more flexible. But, I’m not. We all have our faults, and an inability to be spontaneous is one of mine. I often allow myself to stress out when something goes wrong instead of going with the flow. Not a good example for the family. So, I told Missa B about how when Hubs and I were in Cinque Terre, there was a train strike. We took a boat to another town, only to have the weather turn bad, and for us to be stuck in the town for 9 hours. I stressed out, making us go to the station every time I heard a rumor about a train possibly making the trip. Hubs was calm, wanting to lay on the rocks by the water.

It wasn’t like we would have been completely stranded. We even met a nice Canadian couple who offered to put us up in their rented apartment for the night if we ended up stuck in town. But, no, I continued to stress and didn’t enjoy myself nearly as much as I could have done.

So, I told Missa B. that my goal was to be more relaxed when things go awry and to see what we could learn from whatever happens. “Yeah, Mom — if you can’t do anything about it, then you just have to see how it goes, right? Something good could end up happening!”

Oh, what we can learn from our kids.

Although I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is the same kid who, when she was stressed out about something at school, woke up in the middle of the night and wrote herself this note to put next to her bed:

I’m thinking that may need to be our trip motto.

Then I turned the tables. “So, Missa B — that’s what I want to work on during the trip. What do you want to learn about yourself or improve while we’re gone?”

As she paused to think, I realized that I was probably asking a question beyond her reach. Kids her age are learning so much; how can they think about what they want to personally gain? That takes a lot of introspection for a 9 year old.

I underestimated her.

“I want to learn what it’s like to be an outsider. I want to see how people treat me, and how it makes me feel. Are they nice to me? Are they unkind because I can’t speak a language? And, if they are not nice, how do I feel? I think that will help me when I meet people in the future. I have never been an outsider, so I really don’t understand how they feel. But now I will, and that will help me be kinder when I meet new people.”

Oh, what we can learn from our kids.