A goodbye

How do I even begin to summarise and neatly package our last four years here in beautiful, wonderful England into a neat little blog post? There’s so much I could write about, yet it all seems so difficult to put into words. The past few weeks have been full of reminiscing, lasts, and goodbyes, but also hopeful looking-ahead. Basically this is me right now:

I just have a lot of feelings

“She doesn’t even go here!”  

 

A lot of feelings. For example, gratitude.  I remember back in college thinking about how I’d love to do a semester overseas like so many friends of mine. I got the travel bug way back in high school when I did my first mission trip abroad to Guatemala and it didn’t seem to be going away any time soon. In college, I thought and prayed about it, and knew a semester overseas just wasn’t in God’s plan for me. I gave up that idea and laid it to rest. Fast forward and here we are. God knows the desires of our hearts, people. I have spent the past four years completely immersed in one of my favourite cultures (I mean heck, check out that superfluous ‘u’ back there). Along with that, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to visit several passport-pages full of amazing places outside England. (Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Belgium, Germany, France, Holland, Sweden, Norway, and Greece – in case you’re curious.) What an incredibly opportunity it is to see so many different places, cultures and landscapes. I will forever be grateful for that opportunity and for the memories-made and lessons-learned while doing so.

Another feeling I have at the moment? True affection for this quirky, densely historical, world-changing place and its sometimes proper and sometimes cheeky people.  I grew up watching Mr. Bean, Hyacinth Bucket, Mrs. Slocombe, and of course reading of Charlie Bucket, Matilda, Harry Potter, the Pevensie children, and so many more from the British literary world. British rock n’ roll and punk has bounced around in my head since I was old enough to be quizzed about musical artists by my dad. And what American doesn’t fondly watch the royal family with wonder and amusement?

But that curiosity and interest has grown into a true love. Despite its foibles (Toilet light switches outside in the hallway? I’m lookin’ at you. Instant coffee? Don’t even get me started.) I am smitten. By living in the local community and working with a British team (and a smattering of lively, lovely South Africans), I have made enough rounds of tea and endured a sufficient amount of (mostly well-meaning) mocking of my Americanisms to feel at home here. You may have noticed I tend to switch between American and British English spellings – well, blame that on being an American in charge of outgoing communication for an English organisation. Jumping in at the deep end would be a good way to describe it. Breakdowns in communication were frequent at first, but always ended with a good laugh. I will never forget one of my first days at work when my Welsh boss asked me to “hire a purple skip” and I wasn’t even sure if he was actually saying real words. Sorry, Andrew. 🙂 Once I figured out the words, I was still equally lost as to what he meant. In case you are too, he meant I needed to rent one of these:

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I now know a skip is a dumpster. Purple is the local brand.

 

Now you know.

I’ve absolutely loved exploring this beautiful country island – Bath, York, Dover, Yorkshire, the Peak District, Snowdonia, Cambridge, Ely, the Highlands, endless markets, castles, estates, parks, gardens, and more – and diving in to the immense history that is often difficult to fathom as an American. We’ve been here a few years and it’s still mind-boggling that so many of the homes, monuments, buildings and museums here are older than my country. Few things can lend temporal perspective quite like standing in the ruins of a 12th century castle or circling the bluestones of Stonehenge that were assembled before Christ walked the earth.

One of the things I’ve connected with most is how England values not only its history and art but also its landscape. Sure, parts are built-up and congested, hundreds of High Streets are probably sadly identical, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a scenic view without scaffolding or a construction crane somewhere in the distance, but you can tell that many British people know they have something special here and do their best to preserve it. There is nothing quite like the varied, gentle, but also rugged English landscape, dotted with breathtaking estates and crooked, picturesque villages. One of my greatest joys living here was being a member of the National Trust (and previously of the English Heritage) and visiting the many lovingly preserved estates and gardens this country has to offer. It has made it so easy to help our kiddo fall in love with nature. While living here in East Anglia, I’ve really missed dense forests of the American midwest, but man, no green I’ve seen back home compares to the stark, bold hues of a wet, English spring and the bright contrast of the iconic red poppies, Royal Mail boxes, telephone booths, and yes, the dog poo bins.

A third emotion I’m feeling? Grief. We are definitely grieving as we leave. We have absolutely loved living here. We feel knitted in to our community, especially at church, and could easily put down permanent roots here and stay. And yet, that’s not the calling we feel on our lives – we feel God calling us back home to the US and we are trusting Him and taking a big step of faith. But that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to leave. We have made deep friendships here – ones that can only be forged by going through day-to-day life together, joyful celebrations, difficult seasons, and times of change. We served at church alongside friends, we worked alongside them, became parents at the same time, dined together, prayed together, vacationed together. I believe we’ve made friendships that will last long after our plane takes off, our boxes get unpacked, and new friendships are made. We are changed because of the friendships we made here. We are better people because of them. And for that I am incredibly humbled and grateful. But still incredibly sad to say goodbye.

Yesterday our family was in a local pub for a quick lunch when a group of older men sat at the table next to us for a pre-lunch round. They sat with their pints, ready to drink, and glanced around at each other for a cue to drink.

One chimed in, “‘Cheers, dears,’ as they say.”

After an awkward pause, his mate replied, “Who says that then?”

It was followed by a hearty laugh from all, clinking glasses, and the standard brief pause while they wiped ale foam from their upper lips. They quickly settled into their obviously familiar chatter. It was such a simple scene, but one that brought massive smiles to the faces of us eavesdropping Americans. That quick interaction pointed to so much of what we’ve loved here and what we’ll miss most – the culture, the wit, the humor, and the connection.

I’ll leave you with one more emotion I’m feeling, though there are several to choose from (including hunger… that’s an emotion, right? This post is long, I need a snack).  That emotion is hope. Mindset might be a better term, but hey. We are so hopeful and excited about our future and the changes we are making as a family. (If you know us but don’t know what I’m talking about, feel free to message me and I’d be happy to explain in a less public context.) We can’t wait to spend more quality time together, to begin our new business adventure, to see what communities and connections God has in store for us, and ultimately to be closer to family and to be able to invest more in those incredibly important relationships. This next season is going to be difficult, opening up a new set of challenges and vulnerabilities, but I also know it is going to rock our socks off. (Which, if you know my husband, is saying a lot. That guy loves his socks.) We are fully trusting God to “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20, NIV) through us for His glory; we are ready for this next adventure.

So, it is with immense gratitude, true affection, yes grief, but ultimately hope that I say goodbye to this season of our lives abroad.

Cheers dears,

Leslie

The Scottish Highlands

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Recently our family went back to bonnie Scotland with one goal in mind – to explore the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, one of the most famous landscapes in the world (oh yeah, and the hubs wanted some Scotch too). For years I have soaked up literature, t.v. shows and films set in the Highlands. The mountains and hills, lush riverbanks, and endless lochs create a ruggedness, mystique, and yet a delicate beauty. Imagine a tale of faeries in a wood, medieval soldiers fighting hand to hand in a steep valley, a mountainside trek for survival, or heck, even a unicorn in a hidden glen, and any or all of these scenes could take place there. In our family, we’re heavily in favor of back roads and we saw our fair share in the Highlands; every one seemed to slice across acres of expansive farms and livestock (an endless chorus of: sheep! cows! horses! sheep! tractor!), small but busy villages of locals going about their day, and then wind through dense, dark pine forests, like a bad omen in any cautionary tale.

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The scenery was truly stunning, and it was only made moodier by the (almost constant) rain and low clouds. As the River Spey rose and raged, spilling over its banks, the landscape became increasingly saturated in every meaning of the word. Fields turned into a patchwork of greens and hedgerows burned bright with the yellowest gorse. It was breathtaking. Thankfully. Because did I mention rain? Yeah, it rained a lot.

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We stayed in a small town called Nethy Bridge on the bank of the River Nethy, a tributary of the River Spey. Our B&B backed up to the river, only hidden by a small wood, and as the rain came down the river grew louder. One night we left the window cracked – the sound like the crashing waves from an ocean-side balcony.  While we were reassured that we were staying in one of the driest micro-climates in Scotland – in the Cairngorms National Park – the forecast said otherwise, so for day 1 we went for an indoor activity: touring the Glenlivet Whisky Distillery.

It turns out toddlers are not readily welcome in distilleries. Who would have thought?? We had planned on putting him in the carrier and all taking the tour together – he’d be safe and contained! Nope. No “under 18s” allowed. My husband loves Glenlivet and was really looking forward to the tour so I told him to go ahead – I’d hang with the kiddo. Puddle jumping it is! For an hour. In the Scottish rain. After a minor tantrum (the toddler, not me). But hey, that’s how memories are made, right? 🙂

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After the tour we didn’t want to call it a day yet, despite the weather. The rain was steady but not too hard so we donned our waterproofs and set out on a walk. A nice thing about the great British pastime of walking is that in places like this there are endless possibilities – small walking trails connecting villages, footpaths cutting through fields and farms, and more established trail heads are everywhere. You can bust out your Ordinance Survey map and traverse the whole country if you’d like. Or, you can be like us and drive until the area looks especially pretty and you see a “public footpath” sign by a gate and then pull over and park. It turned out to be a beautiful, soggy and squishy walk along a wide grassy clearing and then through a thick, lichen-covered birch forest. Like much of the highlands, it was quiet, serene and felt strangely magical and wild. Later that day we saw a majestic white horse in a field and it seriously could have been a unicorn with a spell-hidden horn. We all thought it. That’s part of the charm of the Highlands.

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The next day called for rain in the afternoon so we thought we’d gamble and try an outdoor activity in the morning. Opting for something slightly more kid-friendly than a distillery, we visited the Highland Folk Museum. The open-air museum boasts free entry, over a mile of outdoor space, and over 30 historical buildings to tour, dating from the 1700s to the 1960s. One area is set up as a 1930-40s village, complete with a schoolhouse, candy shop, post office, homes and a working farm. It was fascinating for us and for the kiddo, although he was a little too eager to pet the ducks and chickens. Plus, there were TRACTORS. Super exciting.

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My favorite part was the 1700s village, rebuilt using traditional methods where a similar township once stood.  (Scenes from the HBO show Outlander were filmed there!) Something about the dark clouds hovering over the thatched roofs, surrounded by rolling hills (and a strange amount of ducks) made it easy to picture them huddled around the fire sharing a meal or going about their work on the same hill hundreds of years ago… Until a fellow tourist with a thick brogue piped up and asked, “But did they even have ducks back then?”

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With a bit of whisky and culture under our belts, we had one more goal.  The hubs was insistent: “I want to climb a mountain.”  While I didn’t want to be a spoilsport, I did remind him we were travelling with a toddler, so he might need to temper his expectations a bit. Regardless, we found a mountain and got hiking! The clouds looked ominous, but the forecast said we had a few hours to go until rain, so off we went to the Glenmore Forrest Park, in the Cairngorm Mountains. Their website nicely summarizes the path we took:

“For a real work out, you can hike up Meall a’ Bhuchaille – the hill of the shepherd – straight from Glenmore Visitor Centre. The path doesn’t stop climbing all the way to the top at 2600 ft. (810 metres), but the views are superb.”

The views were superb, and no that path sure did not stop climbing. Ouch. The rain held off for most of the hike and we were able to see clearly from the top – no obscuring clouds, thankfully! And may I add, my stud of a husband did the entire hike with a 25 lb. toddler on his back. Swoon. He even came to the rescue with songs from Frozen when our little guy was ready for a nap but we still had an entire mountain to go down. He finally started to drift to sleep in the carrier right as the visitor centre came into view and the rain started to come down. Silly, sweet memories.

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But what a beautiful, calming, varied place the Highlands are. As we took our time driving down endless back roads, soaking it all in, my husband and I agreed, “Yep, we could live here.”

Toddlerparenthood

What a wonderful, terrifying, difficult, and beautiful thing it is to be a parent of a toddler. Most days it still feels unreal that I made this tiny human who follows us around, eats all my food, demands to be held, and copies everything we say. He looks at the world with such fascination, such intrigue and adventure. Every rock is worth collecting, every flower must be smelled – real or fake, and every motorcycle that passes is clearly Daddy. If he sees a tractor, bulldozer, bus or airplane it is the best thing ever and must be pointed out STAT.IMG_3166.JPG

Recently I find myself trying to quiet my mind and stay present as I parent, if only to see things a little more like he does, rediscover things with him, and share in life’s simple joys – all things that he is naturally great at. One of his first phrases was “Wowww” said with exaggeration and wide eyes. Now he says, “Let’s go!” with the same vigor. This kid doesn’t stop. When he’s awake, he rarely pauses – except for the occasional zone-out in front of CBeebies or nap time, thank goodness – instead it’s go go go, all day, all the time. When he’s awake, he’s awake.

He gets it honestly, really. I don’t rest well, though it’s something I’ve been working on. I’d rather be doing, because there’s always stuff to be done, right? I’ve been reading “Present Over Perfect” by Shauna Niequist this past week. If you’ve never read anything she’s written, she is a fellow Midwesterner with a heart for Jesus, food, hospitality, friends and family. Although it is cliche, there is nothing better to compare her writing to than a rich, filling meal shared with friends. Her writing is delicious, deep in flavor, with unexpected notes that linger in the best way.  Though you may want to devour it, something tells you to slow down and savor it, to not miss out on a bite. This book specifically felt like it could have been written about me. She, like me, is a doer – was, I should say – and this book is written all along her journey of coming out of the fog of accomplishment, of achieving, of always doing and going and instead reawakening to the small pleasures of life, relearning how to rest with family, be vulnerable, and soak up quiet times without filling the space.

I couldn’t have read this book at a better time. As the realization that I’m not working settles in, and as I look towards this summer (albeit a busy one) being home with my son, I don’t want to wish the days away, or fill them with meaningless tasks. (What? You want to play soccer again!? But this laundry isn’t gonna fold itself, kid!) I want to cherish the days, look forward to when my sweet boy begins his morning crib-chatter, gabbing away until I go to fetch him. I want to notice and remember his little chubby hands, how they so steadily and purposefully point out my nose, my chin, “eyeballs!”, over and over. I want to remember his weird little toes, the middle one always resting on top of the others, wriggled into the picnic blanket as we sit in the sun eating cheese and crackers. I want to memorize his clear blue eyes, just like his dad’s, always with a hint of a smile. When he looks at me I want to really notice, meet his eyes, stare until he giggles and flashes his bashful grin, shrugging one shoulder at me.

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Because – all parents, prepare to say “duh” – parenting a toddler is hard. HARD, I say. It’s sweet and special and wonderful, but that doesn’t make it less hard. Toddler tantrums are not to be downplayed. But even as I learn how to deal with a toddler very stereotypically pounding his fists on the floor because he couldn’t have my raspberries (he had his own), I’m trying to remember that this moment is just as important as picnic cuddles in the sun. That helping this little magical bundle of kid-energy handle his emotions, learn about sharing, learn the meaning of “no”, etc. is a good thing, and a beautiful thing in itself. Sure, it may be a different kind if beauty than bedtime stories, exploring outdoors together, or singing and dancing in the kitchen, but it’s no less important, no less developing – for both him and for me. I’ve heard a few times, from a few wise people, that the important things usually aren’t the easy ones. No one has ever said raising a toddler is easy (and if they have, they don’t have kids – I guarantee that), but it is a brilliant, stretching, soul-bursting, thing, and truly, it’s an honor.  Hopefully I will remind myself of that the next time my sweet boy dissolves into another almost-2-year-old-tantrum-puddle… because we all know that’s inevitable.

Writing

I think it’s a wonderful thing that almost 30 years into life, there are still parts of myself that I’m figuring out, quirks I’m better understanding, giftings that are coming to light, and interests that I’m discovering. What a wonderful thing it is to learn, grow, find confidence, and do new things as time goes on.

Lately I’ve come to realize that I enjoy writing. I’m far from penning the next great American novel – really far; no, farther; like, imagine a far distance and when you finally get there, blow past that exit on the highway – but regardless, I enjoy it. Fingers settle on the keyboard and the steady clicks begin (and then pause, resume, repeat). Or stark ink flows on lined paper, cursive scratches coming together forming whatever is in my head.

The nice thing about this new hobby is there’s no pressure, no deadline. It’s mainly for me, and it’s still fun. I’ve mainly used this blog for travel writing, or updating on major life events (and by looking at blog posts alone, it would seem as if neither of those things have happened in about a year) but I’m going to start writing on here more. About whatever. Travel. England. Being a momma. Jesus. Coffee. Who knows. But I’m putting this out there mainly to keep myself accountable. We’ll see how it goes. You don’t have to read, but I’m going to write.

Change

Isn’t it odd how occasionally in life we go through times where routine abounds, days can blur together – in a good or bad way – and we have this deeply buried nagging, a hidden stirring, for something new, some sort of variation? I am someone who loves routine, craves it, yet sometimes in the midst of even the good, enjoyable, and fulfilling days I get that itch. For change.

It’s universal, I think. I recently read the book “Through Painted Deserts” by Donald Miller and I 100% recommend it. I’m a sucker for travel/roadtrip/wonderlust themed non-fiction; I get sucked into the mental and emotion journey the author takes as well as the physical stops along the way. Donald Miller starts his book by talking about how we all have this built-in desire to leave. To just go. Because part of us truly desires change.

“It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out. I want to repeat one word for you: Leave.
Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”

So sometimes change is like that… Intentional and purposeful and needed. We sense it should happen so we make it happen.

But other times change smacks you in the face. Or tiny changes beyond your control sneak up on you, looming in the distance, until you’re surrounded. You have to face them.

OR sometimes all of these kinds of changes (intentional/purposeful and not) decide they get along really rather well and throw a big ol’ party right in the middle of your life. How fun.

This may sound off topic, but I realised the other day that I have worked 15 different jobs in my not-quite-but-pretty-close-to 30 years of life. Ya know what that represents to me? Change. If you look at your life you probably have a similar “stat” that points to change as well – maybe the number of apartments you’ve lived in, how many crazy hair cuts you’ve had, how your family has grown or changed over the years, etc. Or, if you want to really talk about change, just look back at a school picture from your awkward adolescent years. I’m guessing you’ve changed – probably for the better – am I right?

That’s because change isn’t really unusual, is it?

To quote one of my favorite bands, OK Go:

“Nothing ever doesn’t change, but nothing changes much.”

 

Change happens constantly. Look at the creation we’re surrounded with – blooming, budding, growing, dying, transforming, breathing… constantly and consistently. God models change in every millisecond and at the minutest detail of his creation.

And yet change throws me for a loop every time. It requires me to be intentional about my use of time, my attitude, my motivations. (Ewww…. so much work, right?)

But it also reminds me, often later rather than sooner, that change can be good. Even the hard change that makes us want to fast-forward, God can use in our lives. We can open our eyes to what God is showing us and we can decide to make the best out of what we have no control over. Because you know what’s sometimes difficult to remember but also incredibly encouraging? Our God is unchanging. He doesn’t even need to change. He’s the definition of perfect. Perfect LOVE, no less. And he’s the one thing solid in my life when the change party rages on long into the proverbial night.

“[He] is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

(Hebrews 13:8)

That changes everything.

I can change and I can embrace change because I have a rock to stand on.

So I echo the sentiments of Donald Miller again…

“I want to keep my soul fertile for the changes, so things keep getting born in me, so things keep dying when it is time for things to die. I want to keep walking away from the person I was a moment ago, because a mind was made to figure things out, not to read the same page recurrently.”

So I’m along for the ride. I’m backing away from the fringes of the change party – resisting my wallflower instincts – and jumping in on the fun.  Not just because I know God can use this all for his glory, but because I am hopeful trusting that he will

 

Ireland, I love you. (Part 1)

First of all… hello again, blog. It’s been a while. Remember me? I’ve missed you.

Enough of that sappiness. Back to our adventures.

A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away… actually just months ago and only a short ferry ride away… we went on the road trip of a lifetime around N. Ireland and Ireland.

When I found out we were moving to England a few years ago I assembled a sort of mental list of must see places. When we found out last year we were expecting a baby I knew we should probably knock a few off the list before our baby burrito was born. So, babymoon #1 was to Santorini (heaven, I tell you) and #2 was to Ireland.

Is an extended road trip around Ireland easier pre-baby than it would be after? Yes. Is it maybe not the best idea with a third trimester baby belly and your kiddo dancing on your bladder? Ha, I’ll let you guess the answer to that. (I’d like to take this moment to thank my dear husband for the many MANY stops we made so I could waddle to the nearest restroom. Let’s just say I saw a lot of Irish countryside.)

Anyway, moving on…

Let me tell you, Ireland is my kind of beautiful. I’ve always been captivated with stories that take place in those green, misty, rolling hills. The moody terrain completely lived up to my expectations. And, over the long week we spent, I was constantly amazed at the varied landscape. I love a place that challenges my vocabulary… I just kept uttering, “wow…” and “it’s so beautiful.”  I could happily live out my days in a little farmhouse or cottage in the Irish countryside. That’d be fine by me. You’d visit, right?

We started our trek by taking an overnight ferry into Belfast. I’ve heard Belfast is an interesting city, obviously fully of history, but our first priority was countryside so we just grabbed some breakfast and hit the road headed north. I had heard there were beautiful country roads between Belfast and the North coast and dang, were they right. We headed towards the Dark Hedges, a tree shrouded road made famous by Game of Thrones and several other shows and movies. It was incredibly windy and a bit brisk but definitely worth the stop. We were thrilled to have the area to ourselves, with only a few cars passing the entire time we lingered.

(click on any of the pictures to enlarge them)

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From there we drove to the coast but never seemed to go for more than a few miles without stopping to get out and take pictures. Every turn in the road led to new landscapes of grazing livestock, old and grayed but very-much-active farms, winding footpaths or lanes, and then finally the glistening North Channel.

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Pastures for miles and miles

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Hello Sheep!

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Our first view of the sea

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This was him telling me to get out of the way.

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Clearly livestock has the right of way.

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Ireland has the kind of scenery that makes you want to get lost. On multiple occasions we took random turns, ignored our gps (or just didn’t care that it had no idea where we were), and stopped the car to get out and take it all in. One of my favorite views was our first glimpse of the north coast. We stopped in a little seaside village and were blown away by the beauty and the fresh sea breeze.

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I couldn’t get over this cute seaside village.

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Our next stop was further up the coast line, to the striking and enigmatic Giant’s Causeway. The strange, jutting basalt columns are a notable Irish landmark, and I was so excited to see them that I was actually equally worried they wouldn’t meet my expectations. As a science teacher I often showed my students pictures of the Giant’s Causeway, longing to see them in person. I’m relieved to say I was far from disappointed. The columns jut out of the water like pedestals, begging for you to climb them, which thankfully you are allowed to do. The scale of the causeway is difficult to capture in pictures, but the columns vary from just a few inches high to towering columns pointing up the cliffside. We spent an hour or two stepping up column after column, taking in the jagged coastline meeting the sky behind us and enjoying the crisp air. I got a few crazy looks from fellow tourists (I was pretty pregnant after all, staggering up the columns with my rain jacket barely able to zip over my belly), but I wouldn’t have missed that experience for anything. I hope our Little Man loves exploring God’s creation as much as I do.

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Just down the road are the ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle, perched right on the cliffside. Compared to other castles, Dunluce isn’t the most majestic, intimidating, or sprawling, but once I walked its walls and saw the views of sea and surrounding countryside I understood why it was such an important and cherished place long ago. It’s worth a walk through, even if just for another chance to stop and stare at the sea.

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We finished day 1 by working our way anticlockwise around the coast to the wooded hills of Lough Gill, just outside of Sligo, the land of treasured Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Our b&b sat on a hillside overlooking Lough Gill, or radiant lake; the very same one mentioned in Yeats’ poetry. County Sligo (and nearby county Letrim) offer miles of wooded walking paths, and we happily took advantage of them. As we returned to our car for our post-hike reward of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we passed a father and his young son getting out of their car. At the same moment a golden retriever came bounding by and the little boy exclaimed with the cutest little-kid Irish accent, “Isn’t she gorgeous?!” It still puts a smile on my face. 🙂

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The view from our bed and breakfast

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Loch Gill

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Not a bad view!

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Our walk in Hazelwood Park

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The city of Sligo itself was pretty but also slightly disappointing. Unfortunately we arrived the day after the annual WB Yeats festival, only catching remnants of the previous days’ celebrations. Also, most businesses and many restaurants in city centres (except for typical chain “High Street” stores) are closed on Sundays, so we meandered past interesting looking but sadly closed stores.

Our next stop on our Great Irish Road Trip was County Clare. If you’re a fan of driving winding country roads, you will LOVE Ireland. We could have done nothing but drive for the entire week and I would have still enjoyed the trip – the landscape was that varied and entrancing. Several times we had the roads to ourselves, which we were grateful for on many single-lane unmarked roads.

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We stopped to stretch our legs at the oddly moon-like Burren: a bare, cratered expanse of limestone poking up through rich, green pastures. After getting very lost while looking for the start of the walking trails and anywhere (please, anywhere) for this prego lady to relieve herself, we finally found a trail head. I had great intentions of hiking to the top of the hill, but alas, it was hot and I was tired and frankly food sounded a lot better at the moment. So, we returned to the car for a snack and found a more wooded and shaded spot to hike.

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Dinner that evening was at the delicious Gus O’Conner’s Pub on the coast of County Clare. The pub is almost 200 years old and is famous for it’s nightly traditional music. The place was hopping with locals and tourists alike, but thankfully we found a tiny antique sewing table in the corner to settle down in. We ordered some Guinness stew (sadly the only Guinness I could imbibe at the time; whose poor planning was that?) and passed the time until the music started with some quality people watching. The music didn’t start til 9pm, which – and I know this sounds pathetic – was very late after a long day of hiking and driving. We managed to stay awake long enough for a few songs before heading out, and it was well worth it. I love the look of musicians absorbed in their craft, tuning everyone else out completely. One of the men was playing the spoons, which reminded me so much of my Meme who used to two-step around the kitchen playing the spoons to the sounds of old gospel bluegrass. I’ve always appreciated Irish music, probably because of the familiar rhythms and twang.

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Next up were the Cliffs of Insanity Moher. If you like beautiful views slightly obscured by coaches, selfie sticks, and people taking pictures with iPads, then I recommend showing up right around lunchtime for optimum tourist viewing. If you’d rather skip the coaches, I’d recommend arriving bright and early right when the parking/visitors’ centre opens. We did just that and were able to see the beautiful cliffs and walk along the cliff tops unbothered for much of the morning.

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Guys, those are PUFFINS!

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This picture really shows you the crazy scale of these cliffs. And the “little” rock to the right is Puffin Rock from the picture above.

When walking along the cliffs, I was equally impressed by both the cliffs to one side and the pastures to the other. You can get up close and personal with some beautiful Irish cows and sheep – I loved them!

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After working up an appetite we popped into the visitors’ centre for lunch. With full stomachs we walked back out for a second hike and were surprised to see a thick fog had rolled in (along with the many coaches that were now arriving) and the cliffs were almost completely obscured! We lucked out arriving earlier when we did. But, the foggy mist was beautiful in it’s own way, making the green hills appear even brighter. You can always rely on a good rain to bring out the colors of nature.

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Yikes.

You’d think by now – 4 days in to the trip – we’d be tiring of the landscape and sightseeing, but that was far from true! Every turn brought new views. Every restaurant and inn had the kindest proprietors (every request was met with a cheery reply, “Course ya can!”). And every day brought a new adventure.

Ireland already had my heart.


Watch this space for my post about the second half of the trip… at the rate I’m going, it should be up by 2017.  🙂

 

 

Giving Thanks

Recently it seems it’s difficult to mention Thanksgiving without an outcry against the holiday’s unsavory roots. Social media has helped point out major flaws in the elementary textbook history that most of us learned about the supposed “first thanksgiving.” Turns out it was not a friendly feast between natives and newcomers; a supposed joining of two cultures. Because of this, many feel it’s an odd holiday to celebrate – and rightfully so. But who really celebrates Thanksgiving as we know it because of what pilgrims did or didn’t do years ago? Sure, I may have a picture somewhere of childhood-me with in a little sailor-style dress with a construction paper pilgrim hat adorning my 90’s hair, but that’s really not what it’s all about. (Though I was darn cute.)

Actually, Thanksgiving seems to be one of those cultural things that is difficult to put into words. I find it difficult to explain Thanksgiving well to my English friends –

“We gather around, give thanks, and eat. Then rest for a bit, talk, hang out, and eat more. Because we’re thankful. Oh, and some people watch football. Or parades.”

“But why?”

Because it’s nice? And we get good food?  And good company? And we would get fat if we ate all that food on our own?

Kidding.

(Not really).

But… temporarily setting the controversy and Thanksgiving’s sad roots aside, the modern celebration of it – the pausing to show thankfulness and gratitude (don’t even get me started on how this goes out the window the next day. ugh.) – is something I just love. While the world is a difficult place, and horrible things happen every day, most of us have at least a few things to be thankful for. Many of us have so much more than that .

Here are a few things I’m thankful for today.

First of all, for healing. Two years ago I just made a tiny mini-Thanksgiving dinner for us and some visiting family. Because I was recovering from an extremely painful surgery to repair my pectus excavatum, I couldn’t even stoop to lift the turkey in and out of the oven. I couldn’t help with the dishes afterward (oh darn), or go for a much-needed long walk to walk off the turkey-induced stupor. It was a time of waiting. Of resting and recovery. Of growing pains. Before the surgery I often wondered (and worried) if I’d be able to have a healthy pregnancy and support a baby full term because of my condition. But then at this time last year at this time, I had just had my bar removal surgery a few months before and we had just found out we were expecting a baby! Now, here we are a year later, a thriving family of three, and we feel so incredibly blessed. Looking at his little grin is a reminder of God’s perfect love for us all, and his plan of healing and recovery in my own life.

Secondly, for community. When living away from home, holidays are bittersweet. You yearn to be with family, to experience those traditions you grew up with. To vie for a spot in the front of the food line (yes, we’re all about the potluck buffets in my family) before the rest of your family towers their plates up. To rub shoulders and catch up with your cousins over a slice of pumpkin roll. But, we’ve been so blessed by the community we’ve found over here and it makes holidays rich again. Our church has become our home away from home. We’ve been so thankful for the relationships we’ve made over here and my heart felt so full when I looked around on Thanksgiving and saw a table full of people to be Thankful for. And this year for Thanksgiving we had the best problem ever – we didn’t have enough room around our table to invite all those we wanted to! How blessed are we, that we had more friends than seats available?!

Finally, I am thankful for memories. I have so many rich memories of Thanksgiving. Today I remember fondly my MeMe and Papaw, two of the best people that ever graced this earth. A few years for Thanksgiving we would pack up and drive to their cabin in the mountains of Virginia. They lovingly built that cabin themselves. It was bare bones, nothing luxurious, but I loved that place. I’m positive the mountain water from the cabin’s kitchen tap, icy cold in a metal mug, is the most refreshing drink in the world. I can still remember the taste, almost 20 years later. Upstairs in the loft were twin beds in rows, heaped with my MeMe’s homemade quilts and hand-stenciled pillow cases.  The loft was warm and stale (like a large linen closet) and the sounds of the cabin echoed off of the low ceiling. Up in the loft my cousins and I could hear every creaky floor board, each mid-night toilet flush, and the symphony of snores from the adults below. My movie of memories from that cabin includes sitting on Papaw’s lap in the recliner as he told stories, watching MeMe throw on her blaze orange vest and ball cap to go for a walk in the woods, driving to Dollar General in town to use the payphone or pick up essentials like cheap craft supplies. We dined on buttery biscuits made from scratch, and played games of canasta over scraped-clean dinner plates. No television, no phone, no internet, no timelines, no hurry, no interruptions. I am so thankful for those memories with MeMe and Papaw and the rest of my family. And thankful for the legacy they left.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with memories in the making as well as those wonderful warm-fuzzies from thinking back on holidays past. After all, that’s what this holiday is all about.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Babymoon: Santorini, Greece

Have you ever heard of a babymoon? It’s one of those new words that kind of makes my stomach turn (like “bae,” or “YOLO”, or the use of “chill” as an adjective), but regardless, I’m all about the idea of it.

A babymoon is a relaxing, romantic holiday for the mom and dad to-be, before the baby arrives.

When we moved to England, I knew that I really wanted to go to the Greek Isles. I wanted ocean views and cliffs covered in those famous white and blue buildings. So, when we found out that Baby was on its way, I said, “You’re taking me to Greece.”

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After a long day of travelling, we arrived on the island just as the sun was going down. We couldn’t see much – just a dim purple stripe over the water as the sun set. The soft white of our home for the next few days – Agali Houses – glowed in the dusk and a cool breeze blew around us. Immediately, I was relaxed! Everyone at Agali Houses was so kind and welcoming – they whipped up a snack for us and gave us a free bottle of Greek wine.

The next morning we awoke to the most breathtaking view. I just kept thinking, “Is this real life?!”

The view from the kitchen of our own little villa.

The view from the kitchen of our own little villa.

I might not hate washing the dishes as much if this were the view from my kitchen window!

I might not hate washing the dishes as much if this were the view from my kitchen window!

Our villa was absolutely perfect. It was private, comfortable, pristine, and had a wonderful front patio. We ate breakfast and lunch out on the patio every day.

Our villa!

Our villa!

The view from our Villa

The view from our Villa

The view really was amazing. We were perfectly content sitting on the patio or by the pool for hours, just reading and taking it all in. This was not a trip for adventures or delving into the culture – this was for pure relaxation. And let me tell you, Santorini is the perfect place for just that!

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Agali Houses – this place was perfect! And in the best location on the island.

We didn’t just sit on our hineys the entire time… Every morning we would wake up, eat breakfast on the patio, and then venture out for a walk. We were located in the perfect spot on the island, in a town called Firostefani (between the main cities of Fira and Oia). It was much quieter than the “bigger” cities, and we could walk to everything. We enjoyed walking the paths that lined the cliffs, seeing the view change as we went, and catching glimpses of those who live on Santorini. Peak-season is June through September, so when we went in May things were just starting to gear up. So, we saw lots of people setting up their stores and restaurants for the season, washing down windows, cleaning pools, and repainting and repainting and repainting. The repainting must be a constant project on the island – and I bet they go through massive quantities of white paint!

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After our walk, we’d return to our villa and spend the afternoon napping, lounging by the pool and generally enjoying being together! 🙂

The pool behind us, the sea (and volcano!) in front of us. Not bad at all.

The pool behind us, the sea (and volcano!) in front of us. Not bad at all.

We went over a month ago – and life has been busy and full of change since our return – but I still think back to those lazy days spent on the island and smile. It was such a lovely time to spend together, connect with Baby D, and relax!!!

I highly highly highly recommend a babymoon (or two!), even if it isn’t to a place like Santorini. But on that note, I highly highly highly recommend Santorini and specifically Agali Houses. It was truly luxurious, idyllic, and relaxing from the moment we arrived. And also, I’d recommend Santorini in May. It was hot enough for us to lounge by the pool and sweat on our walks, (the pool was still too cold to swim in) and the island wasn’t too busy. We kept hearing from the locals that it gets reeeeeally hot and reeeeeeally crowded in the peak-season, so May was a perfect time to visit. Either way, check it out, eat your weight in olives and pastries (I recommend Svoronos Bakery), take a deep breath and relax.

Highclere Castle a.k.a. Downton Abbey!

Can you hear the theme song now??? Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun duhhh….. (Okay, that’s not the easiest song to describe in that way…) So let’s just watch the opener to get us really excited. Shall we?

I can assure you that the walk up to the castle was just like that opening scene. We saw the castle perched in the distance and excitedly hurried up the green lawns and walkways to the main entrance – I think it’s fair to say we weren’t quite as sophisticated as Lord Grantham and Isis strolling along casually, but could you blame us?

There she is!

There she is, basking in the sun!

(By the way, you can click on any picture to enlarge it).

Before I dive into the details, please allow me to explain how this opportunity came about. Highclere Castle is only open to visitors during July, August, and a few other random weeks throughout the year. They sell out almost immediately. Upon seeing via Facebook that tickets were available, my amazing friend Erin smartly snatched up six of them and she very kindly offered me one. Thank you again, Erin! 🙂

Hi, Erin!

Hi, Erin!

The tour of the castle did not disappoint, but unfortunately no photography was allowed inside. The tour was fascinating for many reasons. Firstly, as a Downton fan it was exciting to see where they filmed so many of the memorable scenes from the show. The salon, the beautiful red library, the dining room, and many bedrooms seen in Downton are filmed inside Highclere Castle. Displayed throughout the house were pictures and plaques displaying what the room was used for in the show. One of the volunteers said that they have to be the ones to move and remove furniture, open window shutters, etc. as the people who come in to film basically aren’t allowed to move or touch anything not agreed upon! If you’d like to see photographs of the inside of the castle, please click here to visit Highclere Castle’s web gallery.

Here’s an interesting video about the filming of Downton Abbey at Highclere castle. It also makes me miss all of my favorite characters that they’ve killed off!

We were able to walk through most of the ground floor and first floor (that’s the US second floor), where those rooms are located. But as we were walking through we found we had so many unanswered questions! How many rooms are there in total? How many people would have been needed to fully staff the castle in it’s peak? etc. I’m not sure if you can tell from the picture below, but the shutters to the upper floors were completely closed so we couldn’t even snoop in from outside – what is up there?!  So I did some online snooping researching…

IMG_8067According to the famous historian W. I. Kipedia and the castle’s website, Highclere Castle was remodeled and basically rebuilt in the 1840s by the famous architect Sir Charles Barry who also designed the Houses of Parliament. It sits on approximately 5,000 acres of land, and though we almost blew away, we were able to walk around some of its gorgeous grounds.The castle has 11 bedrooms on the first floor, and then a whopping 40-50 bedrooms on the second and third floors. (Sidenote, can you imagine having a house big enough where the margin of error is 10 bedrooms? “Yeah, there’s like 40 or 50… I lost count…”). In the castle’s heyday it required approximately 60-80 people working and living within its walls to support the castle and the family. Talk about high maintenance…

But in all seriousness, the castle is incredibly high maintenance. Before Downton Abbey came along, the family who currently owns the castle, the 8th Count and Countess of Carnarvon, were at their wit’s end. Just as recently as 2009, the 40-50 bedrooms upstairs were uninhabitable and severely water damaged. The castle itself needed almost $2 million in repairs and the repairs of other properties and grounds brought the total up to about $12 million! Unsure of what to do, the family moved into a “modest cottage” on the grounds. Then came Julian Fellows and Downton Abbey. Because of the surge of tourism to the castle from the show, the family is now able to repair the upper floors and turrets, which they’re working on slowly but surely. They now live in the castle during the winter months and retire to their cottage when the castle is open to visitors.

Not a bad place to spend your winter months.

Not a bad place to spend your winter months.

Another fascinating thing about the castle was finding a bit more about the family and their ancestors who lived there.  If you’ve seen Downton Abbey you may recall that Lady Sybil welcomed soldiers to their estate to recover after the war. Well, in real history, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina, did just that. She opened the doors of Highclere to many convalescing soldiers during and after WWI. It was fascinating to see old photos of soldiers relaxing out on the lawn, or reading in the regal library, cast resting on the arm of the settee. If you’d like to read more about Lady Almina and her place in Highclere’s history, you can check out the book Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey written by the current Countess of Carnarvon.

If you haven’t heard of Lady Almina, you may have heard of her husband, George Herbert, the 5th Count of Carnarvon. In the early 1900s he developed a penchant for automobiles. Importing some of the UK’s first automobiles, he took up racing, going up to 80 mph in the rickety cars of his day. After an accident in 1901 left him severely injured, his doctor suggested he go someplace warm to recover. (Sound doctor logic, right?) So, the Count took off for Egypt. It was there that he became obsessed with Egyptology. After making connections with the locals he began obtaining access to smaller dig sites searching for ancient treasures and tombs. Years later, after essentially moving to Egypt, he was granted digging rights to the now famous Valley of the Kings. There, he and his partner Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922 – one of the most important archeological discoveries of all time! After years of wading through the various treasures and burial chambers, his tomb was finally ready to be opened in 1923. Unfortunately for the Count, he cut himself shaving only months before while still in Egypt, developed sepsis and quickly died. According to his family, his beloved dog stood up, yelped, and fell over dead at exactly the same time all the way back at his home in Highclere Castle. This led to many newspaper articles attributing his death to the Curse of the Pharaohs. Regardless of any “curse” the history contained in the walls of the castle is completely enthralling. The cellar of Highclere Castle, which once held the servants’ quarters and kitchens, has now been converted to a museum documenting the discovery and opening of King Tut’s tomb.

The front entrance to the castle.

The front entrance to the castle.

Anyway, that’s enough history for the day. Here are a few more pictures of the castle itself.

Now that's a door knob.

Now that’s a door knob.

The back portion of the castle has been added on to, to accommodate a tea room among other things. It was still beautiful.

The back portion of the castle has been added on to, to accommodate a tea room among other things. It was still beautiful.

I couldn't get enough of that view!

I couldn’t get enough of that view!

As we were walking around the gardens, the dark clouds began to roll in. I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like lounging by the large fireplace in the library surrounded by walls and walls of books, listening to a thunderstorm roll in… But instead, we booked it back to the car, thankful that the rainy weather held off for as long as it did!

Regal, isn't it?

Regal, isn’t it?

On our way out, we drove the winding roads through the castle’s follies, passing this beautiful structure built in the 18th century, called the Temple of Diana. It was pouring down rain as we passed and I remarked, “Wow, that reminds me of Pride and Prejudice.”  Well, turns out, I was right.

The Temple of Diana

The Temple of Diana (taken from the car… hence the terrible picture!)

Does it look familiar to you? Mr Darcy’s jilted proposal dramatically captured in the 2010 film Pride and Prejudice was in fact filmed here. “In vain I have struggled…”  Ahh, I love it.

So there you have it! It’s amazing what you can learn during a few hours at a castle, 6 hours of driving (hehe) and a few minutes of poking around on the internet. I love living in England.

Thanks for reading! Cheers for now! (And hopefully it won’t be another 5 months til my next post…)

The Berlin Wall

Though I’ve been back from our trip to Berlin for a few weeks it seems appropriate that I write this post today, on the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the Berlin wall. After days of protest and years of division, on this day 25 years ago the borders were opened and the fall of the wall began.

Berlin Wall 1986

This image was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir at Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

When compared to the many cities I’ve been to in over a dozen countries, no other city has had quite the intrigue of recent history as Berlin. Recent history might seem contradictory, but as we walked around Berlin I couldn’t help but think of how the city was divided and how the wall had come down in my lifetime. People from my generation lived in Berlin when the wall was still splitting families and stunting dreams. Remnants of the wall remain in various places around the city and bricks embedded in pavements and roads mark the other areas where the wall ran.

Our tour guide, Mark, indicting where the wall once ran.

Our tour guide, Mark, using his nice red Docs to indicate where the wall once ran.

The East Side Gallery

The East Side Gallery

The first rendering of the wall was constructed overnight. People of Berlin awoke on the morning of 13 August 1961 to the realisation that their lives would never be the same. I remember visiting the Air Force museum as a kid and seeing a piece of the wall, with  manikin sitting atop it victoriously. They also had a recreation of check-point Charlie. I don’t think at the time I realised how recently those artefacts had been in their original place. Because of this, I was absolutely fascinated by the East Side Gallery and Berlin.

The East Side Gallery is mile-long portion of the wall that is now a gallery and memorial for freedom. Featuring original murals (some recently repainted by the original artists) and new amateur scrawlings, the paintings are bold, hopeful, frenetic, celebratory, and often sad. It is worth the trek to see. Here are some of my favorite images from the gallery.

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By happy accident we were in Berlin on German Unity Day, celebrating the anniversary of when Germany was reunified on 3 October 1990. Though indications of Berlin’s past are everywhere in the city, the people of Berlin were kind, warm, and enjoying their freedom. The architecture and memorials may easily point to the East and West, but the current culture is very much one of acceptance and unity. I’ll have to write another post soon to tell you about everything else we loved.

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