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 Рthe 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 Рin the Cairngorms National Park Рthe 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? ūüôā

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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‚Äô Bhuchaille ‚Äď the hill of the shepherd ‚Äď straight from Glenmore Visitor Centre. The path doesn‚Äôt 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 Рno 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.”

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. ūüôā

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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. ¬†ūüôā

 

 

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! ūüôā

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! ūüôā

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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First Trip Back

I¬†recently¬†returned from three weeks in the U.S. ¬†This was my first trip back to my home country since living in England. ¬†So after that and a year in England, I think I might finally be in a position to point out some day-to-day differences between the two countries. These observations are small – nothing earth-shattering – and have probably been noted by many others before. But, they¬†were moments of realization in the US and when I returned. I’ve had several people ask me, “What’s the biggest difference between the US and the UK?” It’s really more little things than just one big thing… So here’s an attempt at answering that question.


 

Tax

You could say there’s been a bit of¬†history between England and the US surrounding taxes… But, a few hundred¬†years later, of course taxes still exist in both countries. There’s a major difference between the two countries in the realm of sales tax. In Ohio, sales tax differs by the town, but in my area it was 7.5%. Here in England, sales tax (called “value added tax”) is a whopping 20%!

However, to soothe the pain of seeing the price increase that drastically at the register, the UK includes the VAT in the listed price. So, if the tag on a shirt says¬†¬£16, the 20% income tax is already added in. That way, if you’ve just grabbed¬†¬£90 worth of groceries you don’t cry and pitch¬†a hissy fit as the screen on the cash register shows your grand total as¬†¬£108. Just imagine the tantrum you would throw when seeing that increase if purchasing furniture, a car, or a house! Best if you don’t have to be constantly reminded of it…

When I was back in the US, I popped into a small store to buy¬†a tube of chapstick (Sidenote: why can I¬†never find my chapstick? I think the pots of gold at the end of rainbows are actually filled with half-used chapsticks, hair ties, bobbypins, and matchless socks. Ugh!). The sticker said $3.50, so I counted out¬†my change. She¬†rang it up¬†and said, “$3.75.” ¬†I stood there confused, with the $3.50 in my hand, and asked¬†if she could please double check the price on the sticker.¬†This woman, by the way, is known in the town for her grumpiness and lack of customer service skills. She looked at me like I was an idiot who managed to squeeze through the public educational system without knowing how to complete a sales exchange¬†from the easier end of the transaction. (Hear money, hand over money! Simple!)¬†Realizing her glare wasn’t successfully communicating the problem, she managed two words: “Sales tax.” ¬†OH YEAH! That exists. And it’s not added in already. And I’m not in England anymore, Toto.

By the way, I’m all in favor of adding the tax into the price before you get to the register. It would have saved me at least two periods of teaching time when covering percentages in math class.

 

Light switches

Muscle memory is a fascinating thing. My body is trained to reach around the corner when entering a room to find the light switch and flip on the lights. When I first got to England, I kept trying to¬†flip switches that are in fact unflippable. They are more¬†pushable,¬†like a button. A picture will help explain this better… Note the UK switch on the left, and the US switch on the right:

 

UK vs. US Light switches

UK vs. US light switches. (The one on the left is “on,” the one on the right is “off,” as it so helpfully says).

It might seem like a small difference, but it is amazingly confusing when entering a dark room in a jetlag stupor. I experienced this again after returning from the US… my brain had flipped back to the US flip-switch in just three short weeks.

Another interesting light switch phenomenon in the UK is that bathroom (or “toilet”) light switches are often outside of the room in the hallway. There were numerous occasions when I first moved here, where I’d go into the bathroom and try to simultaneously close the door and turn on the light, only to end up awkwardly¬†standing in¬†a¬†dark, switch-less bathroom. I’d have to reopen the door and sheepishly stick out an arm to switch on the light¬†before¬†continuing¬†with my business. The switch’s outside-the-room placement¬†also provides the opportunity for cheeky friends to leave you in the dark. Lovely.

 

Driving

Driving is very different in both countries. In the US you will see many more traffic cops, sitting along the highway waiting for someone to speed by. In England you’ll see speed cameras, but not before being warned by numerous signs¬†on your approach. It makes it pretty easy not to get a ticket here.

Besides the fact that we drive on different sides of the road, the most iconic difference between US and UK driving is the stop light/sign vs. roundabout debate. First of all, know that both countries do use both types of intersection maneuvers, but each is clearly associated with one place.

"I'll be the roundabout..."

“I’ll be the roundabout…”

Which do I prefer? The roundabout. Hands down. Even when people are hesitant and don’t know what they’re doing, the roundabout seems to be faster and more efficient. Mythbusters even proved it, so you know it’s true.

Bonus: every now and then while driving ’round a roundabout I get the¬†awesome song Roundabout by Yes stuck in my head. That never happened with stop lights or stop signs. No cool song associations there…

 

Air Con

In England, they abbreviate air conditioning to “air con,” much like how we abbreviate it to AC. This was one of the first things Sam and I giggled at when we arrived in England. After hours, and I mean¬†many many hours, of travel to move here, we sat bleary eyed in the office of a rental car company. The woman renting us the car explained that we would love our car because it had a, “brilliant air con.” Sam and I made eye contact and¬†chortled sleepily.

The difference is not in the vocabulary alone. We in the US looovve our air conditioning. With hot and humid summers that seem to never end, it makes sense. Almost all shops, churches, restaurants, homes, etc. are air conditioned. The main exceptions to this seem to be college dorms, prisons, and oil-change garage waiting rooms. In fact, a group of prisoners in Texas are currently taking legal action to get their dormitories air conditioned; temperatures in their living areas soared to over 100 degrees, hotter than is even allowed for livestock holding areas.

But, it usually just doesn’t get hot enough in England to justify spending the money on air con. Our home doesn’t have it. Most don’t. In fact, it feels like a wonderful luxury to walk into a shop or restaurant that has that crisp, artificial AC’d air. It’s usually not a problem, but last week I returned to a very hot England. I was experiencing those same temps in the US, but there I had the option of just popping back into an air-conditioned home when the heat became too much. But, thankfully, we never get more than a few weeks of “summer” weather in England, and I think we’re already coming out of it. It was a pleasant relief to wake up feeling chilly two nights ago, and I was actually thrilled to wake up to the sound of rain today. Bring on Autumn! ūüôā

 

Food variety

This may be an unfair assumption, but based on¬†what I’ve seen, we have a much more diverse restaurant scene in the US. Yes, even in Ohio. Perhaps it’s our unflappable American ability to take any food and think, “Hmm, I should add cheese and bacon to that.” or “I could make this more fattening.” But, before you get carried away with bashing Britain’s food… yes, I’ve heard the joke about how in hell the British do the cooking… let me just say that we love the food here. The beef has more flavor. Everything seems slightly less greasy than its American counterpart. And man, do they know how to do meat and veg! A well made Sunday Roast is a thing of beauty. Sam has even converted from his potato-hating ways since being here.

All I’m saying is that in the US there seems to be a bigger¬†variety of restaurants than what I’ve seen around here. Obviously there are exceptions. For example, you can probably find whatever the heck kind of food you’re looking for in London. But, bear with me here. In the time I was in the US, I had wonderful fried¬†pressure cooked chicken and waffle fries, a “three-way” (spaghetti, chili, and cheese) and chili dogs (both with¬†Cincinnati-style chili containing chocolate and cinnamon, no less), the absolute best thin-crust pizza stacked high with finely diced toppings, thick crust pizza with award-winning sauce and ooey gooey stringy cheese, yeast donuts with icing and sprinkles, cake donuts with cinnamon sugar, soft-serve peanut butter frozen yogurt with bananas and chocolate mixed in, hand-dipped ice cream galore, snow cones, burrito bowls, enchiladas, queso dip and tortilla chips, and much much much more. But I’m sure the fact that us Americans like our food won’t come as a surprise to many.

Holy Heart Attack, Batman.

Holy Heart Attack, Batman.

This does bring me to another thing I’ve noticed about life in Britain. Processed food seems to be less of the norm here. Yes, there’s junk food. Yes, there’s processed food available. But I rarely see a British recipe that calls for cans of condensed cream-of-something soup (or a British equivalent) or a pound of “cheese food.” Recipes and menu items alike seem to have fewer ingredients and are just simply done well. I’ve grown to appreciate that simplicity.

 

Fit (But my gosh, don’t they just know it)

(*Note, in England “fit” often¬†means attractive, while it means “healthy” or “in shape” in the US).

I had an epiphany after returning to England. I was jetlagged, so take it with grain of salt, but here it is. And remember, I’m talking¬†big picture.¬†

Americans can be very extreme in their health choices. On one hand you have morbid obesity and McDonalds. On the other hand, you have marathon runners, Beach Body consultants, and don’t even get me started on CrossFit. Both extremes can be a defining characteristic of someone’s life, or at least their Facebook feed. ūüėČ

However, in England, I’ve noticed people seem to be much more moderate in their health. It is very common in our area to see people walking or riding their bicycle to work. Yes, even if they live miles away. And yes, the infrastructure is better suited to handling it than in parts of the US, but maybe that’s because there’s a¬†demand for it. ¬†Here in England I see¬†far more active¬†senior citizens than I saw in the US. They’re still walking their little terriers daily or riding their bikes into town. It’s a lifestyle, once again, but less extreme. I’ve grown to embrace this as well. I love walking into town to pick up¬†a few things.


 

 

I’ve noticed as I’ve been writing this post that I’ve used the term “we” to refer to both England and the US. Though I am clearly American and have spent much more time there, I do feel at home in England and there are so many things I love. I noticed as I was back in the US that I was a bit homesick¬†for England. I missed a good cup of tea, walking Toby around town, my British friends and church, the markets and pubs, the more relaxed attitude. But when I’m here in England I miss my family, friends, the convenience of Target, the cheaper cost of living, and – of course – the variety of food.

Both feel like home in different ways, and that’s okay.¬†

Paris

In my experience, no other city has created such a broad spectrum of opinions as Paris has.

Hello Paris

The following are opinions of Paris that I have read, seen in movies or on television, or have heard from friends and acquaintances:

(Note: These bullet points are not my views).

– Paris is magical! Heaven on earth!

– It’s filthy. Trash everywhere on the streets, and it stinks. It’s so gross.

– From Midnight in Paris, “This is unbelievable! Look at this! There’s no city like this in the world. There never was…Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain?” (More on Paris in the rain later…)

– The Eiffel Tower isn’t that great. Don’t get your hopes up.

– The Louvre is boring and crowded, don’t waste your time.

– Paris would be nice if it weren’t for the French. (Ouch!)

– There’s never enough time to see all there is to see in Paris.

– Paris just screams class and elegance.

 

With all of those ideas bouncing around in my head, I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I wanted to see it for myself. When Sam’s parents visited, we thought it was a perfect opportunity.

We packed up the car, drove to Folkestone, and hopped on the Eurostar train to take us under the English Channel to Calais, France. The Channel Tunnel (usually referred to as the Chunnel) is ~31 miles long and includes two high-speed trains. You can read a bit more about it here. When crossing at this point, it takes about 2-2.5 hours to cross the channel by ferry, while the Chunnel only takes around 35 minutes.

After checking in and waiting to board, you just drive onto the train! You can’t even see the Channel from the port so it takes away some of the eerie feelings of, “Wait. I’m going under water?!”

About to board!

About to board!

You stay in your car – or you can walk around the train – for the quick journey. It was an easy trip, although the cat in the car behind us seemed to think differently.

Once we arrived in France, we drove about three hours to Paris. Right as we approached the city center, our GPS decided to stop working, so we took an accidental, yet scenic, drive through the center of Paris. Sam was a pro navigating the city; he even safely drove us around the Arc de Triomphe roundabout (infamous for causing numerous accidents) before taking us to our accommodations, Hotel Odessa.

Paris is divided into twenty zones known as arrondissements. We stayed in the 14th one, called Montparnasse. I had read somewhere that it was a residential area with many cafes and restaurants; we found that to be true. Creperies were everywhere, there were several places within walking distance to hop on the Metro (their subway system), and a market just down the road. Our hotel was very affordable for Paris. I loved the view from our window as well… Perfect for people watching!

A room with a view

A room with a view

This creperie was hopping all evening.

This creperie (far left) was hopping all evening.

These men were having a lively discussion over espresso and cigarettes at about 7am on day.

These men were having a lively discussion over espresso and cigarettes outside the creperie one morning.

In fact, one of our first stops in Paris was at a creperie. I was surprised to find savory buckwheat crepes alongside the traditional sweet ones. I ordered a “coffee” and received espresso, forgetting that was the norm there. It was delicious though! Along with the espresso I downed a savory buckwheat crepe with mushrooms, ham and cheese. By the way, if you ever go to Paris, you’ll want to know the French words, “jambon et fromage.” Ham and cheese. You’ll find them on almost every menu in numerous ham, cheese, carb combinations. But hey, no complaints here!

From where we stayed, it was a few mile walk to the Eiffel tower area. It was doable, but a little tiring. Our transportation in Paris was split between taking the Metro and walking. So, with crepe filled bellies, we walked to the Eiffel Tower. It really does tower over the city, visible from most places. The Eiffel Tower also generates some split opinions. For every person who finds it beautiful and grand, there is someone else who see it as just a big, tasteless hunk of metal. One famous hater is French novelist Guy de Maupassant, who is said to have eaten lunch at the Eiffel Tower restaurant daily because it was the only place he could enjoy a few hours without having to look at the tower. He sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t he? ūüôā In the early 1900s it was quite trendy to hate the Eiffel Tower… Now, the crowds gathered around the tower’s lawns indicate otherwise.

Selfie!

Selfie!

The view of the River Seine from the Pont d'Iéna bridge.

The view of the River Seine from the Pont d’I√©na bridge.

The view of the Eiffel Tower from the Esplanade du Trocadéro.

The view of the Eiffel Tower from the Esplanade du Trocadéro.

There are huge gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower, with large lawns, empty/dry fountains, and massive swaths of dirt. I wonder if the fountains are only filled during the summer… but the first view of a large dirt area with some empty fountain areas didn’t match the beauty surrounding it. However, walk towards the grassy areas and you’re met with a stunning view of the tower and lively, happy people. Crowds of tourists (of course) taking pictures and locals picnicking spot the lawn. It seems like most people have a certain picture in mind that they want to capture with the majestic tower in the background. Others seemed to panic and strike a fast, random pose as their photographing friend counted up to 3. We saw some strange poses including, but not limited to, The Saturday-Night-Fever-Disco-Point, The Playing-It-Cool-Shoulder-Shrug, The Make-It-Look-Like-I’m-Kissing-It, and The Cheerleader-Toe-Touch. But the most popular of them all was the selfie. ūüôā We will admit to that too, don’t worry. ūüôā

Guilty also!

These guys were selfie pros by the end of the trip.

One phenomenon witnessed there that I found hilarious was the extendable selfie pole. Nothing screams tourist quite like that!

In any touristy area of Paris (and many other European cities) I can guarantee that there are 1) street peddlers and 2) pickpockets. The street peddlers in Paris all seem to be selling the same things: Eiffel Tower models, key chains, little wooden trains with letters attached to spell out names, or kids’ foam airplanes. They have their merchandise dangling from big metal hangars or sprawled out at their feet. Outside the Louvre, the sight of a policeman on bike sent them scattering, only to reappear a few seconds later. The pickpockets are difficult to identify so you just have to assume they’re always present. Ladies, keep your purse openings facing you and in sight. Men, watch your wallets. Don’t trust anyone in a crowd, even if they look like a “normal” local. We almost got pickpocketed in the Metro so our guards were up. It’s a sad but expected part of traveling in many places.

On Sunday morning, we woke up, gobbled down a few croissants for breakfast, and then headed to Monmartre, a hilltop portion of Paris famous for it’s artisan culture and it’s church, The Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart). Although we got rained on (for the second time) on our way there, we were still able to enjoy the beautiful views of the city from above.

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The Montparnasse area where we stayed is right next to the very tall building on the right. (Click on picture to enlarge). By the way, can I please take this opportunity to say it drives me crazy when people use their iPads to take pictures in public??

We happened to arrive at the Sacre Coeur just in time for the 11:15 service. The music (and acoustics!) were incredible. It was one of my favorite parts of visiting Paris. A sign outside the church said, “For over 125 years, here night and day, someone is praying to the Lord.”

The Sacred Heart Church

The Sacred Heart Church – Clearly, the sun came out!

As you can see, the sun was back out by this point. Our weather in continental Europe was quite fickle. It rained often but not for long, so we spent a few euro on umbrellas and rolled with the punches.

After we left the church we walked through the portion of the town that was also on the hilltop. It was quite touristy, so we rushed through it to the quieter area just downhill.

Everyone seemed to head this way from the church.

Everyone seemed to head this way from the church. Many people here had no concept of manners or personal space – an elderly lady lowered her head and shouldered right into me like a football player! – so we left the area quickly.

Tourist see, Tourist do. ;)

Tourist see, Tourist do. ūüėČ

These did look tempting but we held off until we reached somewhere quieter.

These did look tempting but we held off until we reached somewhere quieter.

One of my favorite parts of the city was just down the hill… We walked through a beautiful and quiet residential area into a hopping section of Monmartre. On one small block of the street there was a produce grocer, a boulangerie (bakery), and a few delis and cafes. I could just picture Parisians popping into the boulangerie for a baguette, picking up an espresso and walking off to work. In fact, we saw quite a few people do just that. Before going to Paris, I thought that baguettes were just a stereotype… We’ve probably all seen a painting or illustration of a beret-adorned woman with a baguette sticking out of her handbag, or a bicycle leaned against a white Parisian building with a bottle of wine and baguette in its basket. Well, let me tell you, that stereotype is 100% true! Almost every person we saw who seemed to be a local was either snacking on a baguette or had one casually tucked under an arm or in a bag for later. We did our part to blend in in that area. ūüôā

Quite a view!

Quite a view!

Picturesque, I think.

Picturesque, I think.

To add to the classic Parisian vibe, there was even a man trying to fix his broken down classic car on the street corner.

To add to the classic Parisian vibe, there was even a man trying to fix his broken down classic car on the street corner.

We popped into the boulangerie for lunch: baguette sandwiches and pastries. We ate out on the sidewalk, people watching and resting our tired feet.

Lunch!

Lunch!

Second lunch!

Second lunch!

From there, we headed to the Louvre. We exited the Metro near the rear of the Jardin des Tuileries (gardens) and – in the span of less than an hour – sat and soaked up the sun, then hid under trees and umbrellas to dodge the rain. The gardens are beautiful, containing hundreds of sculptures and fountains.

After dodging street peddlers and crowds, and after taking many pictures of the famous glass triangle… we headed in! The line wasn’t too long, surprisingly!

I have many pictures and could go on and on about the Louvre…so I think I’ll save that for a second post. ūüôā

In the Jardin des Touleries

In the Jardin des Tuileries (click to enlarge)

Almost there!

Almost there! (click to enlarge)

After wondering around the Louvre for four hours (until they closed) we were exhausted! After a quick nap back at the hotel we walked down the road to a cafe in the Montparnasse area. The food was delicious and affordable (it’s not too difficult to eat affordably in Paris, as long as you’re realistic). We enjoyed sitting under the covered (and heated) patio while we ate.

There was even some cat watching while we ate.

There was even some cat watching while we ate.

We had yet to see the Eiffel Tower at night, so we had a mission!

The Eiffel Tower at night did not disappoint. It “sparkles” on the hour after dark, and that was pretty magical!

Handwriting by Mike, Picture by Sam. :)

Handwriting by Mike, Picture by Sam. ūüôā

All four of us!

All four of us!

Overall, Paris really was beautiful. The stark white stone buildings gave the city a clean, classy air. I didn’t find it to be dirty or trash-filled at all. I loved the thousands of balconies with shutters open and flowers in bloom. Though the only French people we really met were those working at restaurants and our hotel, they were all kind enough. I think as Americans, we often expect others to be as warm and neighborly as we can be, but we must remember that’s not the norm in other parts of the world. I never felt belittled by them, though I did feel embarassed by my lack of French knowledge. Monday morning I bravely left the hotel by myself with the mission to find a croissant and coffee, not realising that Monday is typically a day off, even for cafes and groceries. After finding a locked door at the boulangerie we breakfasted at the day before, I headed down to a Starbucks. I greeted the woman politely and ordered in French. She nodded and asked me a question… in French… and I froze. (I didn’t learn that phrase! Were those even words?) With a small, polite smile and barely a pause, she asked, “Your name, please?” DUH! That is usually what comes next when ordering a drink at Starbucks… Oh well, can’t win them all. She continued the rest of the transaction in English, and I at least got my coffee and croissant, even if it was from Starbucks.

bicycle parisshutters and flowerbalconies

For those few minutes as I walked back from Starbucks, I could picture life in Paris, surrounded by beauty and enjoying the relaxed yet lively setting. I would love to go back and enjoy a picnic on one of Paris’ many jardins. Or pop into one of the many other museums for a quiet Sunday afternoon. I’d love to go to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, grab a book and sit with a cup of coffee in an outside cafe for hours. Rarely does a city that large and bustling maintain a relaxed atmosphere; I was impressed. It’s not my favorite place I’ve been, but it had so much to offer – there’s so much more to see. So, I guess you can add my opinion to the list above.

Dublin

Sam and I returned last night from a quick trip to Dublin with his parents; our last stop on our whirlwind trip with them. We traveled all day yesterday and even though it was already past my bedtime, I sat down at my laptop, still basking in the glow of the trip, eager to tell you all about Dublin.

You can only see so much of a city in 2.5 days, but I saw enough to confirm that I want to go back and explore the beautiful, diverse country of Ireland. As soon as possible, please. Here’s what won me over…

Our time there was short, but it was marked with two of my favorite things: conversation and music (and a little bit of Guinness thrown in the mix).

We had the privilege of meeting and staying with a friend of Mike and Terry’s in Dublin. Mary is a retired American missionary living in Dublin, a joyful, gracious host, and an excellent tour guide! Upon arriving in Dublin we met up with Mary at a parking garage and immediately set out into the city! As soon as we left the parking garage I was met by the sweet sounds of a guitar and banjo streaming from a corner pub in the Temple Bar area. Sam and I were drawn in by the music and stayed for our first Irish pint of Guinness. It did not disappoint.

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The Temple Bar area is vibrant and lively. Famous for its pubs, it also offers markets, record stores, coffee shops, and even a fish & tackle shop. Every demographic was present and they seemed to be enjoying themselves! Young and old, tourist and local, many different people groups and styles. It was a visual feast if you’re a people watcher like me. We stopped in the market and I picked up some potato cakes for breakfast the next day. My MeMe used to make them all the time and they are delish. The ones we got at the market were superb!

The courtyard between Chester Beatty Library and Dublin Castle. A memorial for police officers killed in the line of duty had just concluded. We spoke with three lovely Dubliners who had known a few of the officers. They were so kind, warm and chatty that we thought Mary knew them. She said that's the Irish way, especially with the elderly. As we parted, they sent us off with a merry, "Cheerio!"

The beautiful courtyard between Chester Beatty Library and Dublin Castle. A memorial for police officers killed in the line of duty had just concluded. We spoke with three lovely Dubliners who had known a few of the officers. They were so kind, warm and chatty that we thought Mary knew them. She said that’s just the Irish way, especially with the elderly. As we parted, they sent us off with a merry, “Cheerio!”

We moved on to the Chester Beatty Library. I had never heard of him or his library, so I was not sure what to expect. I pictured an actual library in a beautiful old, building. What I found was a massive and incredibly impressive display of one man’s collection of books, manuscripts, bindings, papyrus, and more. The first level displayed the history of book making and binding with elaborate leather bindings and colorful hand-illustrated stories from many centuries and countries. The second floor held important historical texts from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, as well as beautiful and intricate copies of their major religious texts. It was powerful to see papyrus copies of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of John dating back to AD 100-250. There was one copy of 1 Corinthians 13 (you can see it here) dating from around AD 200 where the Greek was still as plain as if it had just been written; Mike pointed out a few of the several mentions of the word ‘agape’ in the text. That specific copy dated only a hundred years or so after Paul himself was killed. It was powerful to see these ancient texts that were key in spreading of the word of God!

Christchurch Cathedral

Christchurch Cathedral

Next up we walked through Christchurch Cathedral. Parts of the cathedral date back to 1200! It was beautiful inside and had some interesting quirks. For example, when staring down the knave of the cathedral, the wall to the right visibly leans (9 degrees, if I remember correctly). The funny thing is, it was built that way, though probably not on purpose.

See the right wall leaning?

See the right wall leaning at the top?

Below the cathedral are the dark, mysterious crypts full of artifacts and sculptures. My favorite were these guys:

Cat and Mouse

Cat and Mouse – Sorry for the nightmares…

Apparently in the 1800s the cat chased the rat into the church’s organ pipes, and they both regretted it for the rest of their lives. The mummified remains were found years later. Though admittedly creepy, it was interesting (and funny!) as well… you could even still see whiskers! These are the critters James Joyce alludes to in Finnegan’s Wake: “…As stuck as that cat to that mouse in that tube of that Christchurch organ…”

 

Stained glass shadows in the cathedral

Stained glass shadows in the cathedral

The church's tiles were made of numerous patterns, colors, textures and originated from several different centuries.

The church’s tiles were made of numerous patterns, colors, textures and originated from several different centuries.

After a delicious dinner of Guinness Beef Stew we headed out to a local cultural center to hear some traditional Irish music. As she described the casual gathering of local musicians that we might get to see, I pictured Glen Hansard bringing Marketa Irglova to the musician’s party in Once; singing “Gold” and other heartfelt traditional choruses. My dream, basically. (If you haven’t seen that movie please please go watch it). We arrived at the cultural center only to find four musicians and two audience members. It seemed more like a practice or private lesson than a jam session. The bodhran (a type of Irish drum) player looked quite disinterested. They weren’t always in time. It wasn’t the scene from Once that I had dreamed. But I still enjoyed it. These were local Irish people who were spending their Friday night at the cultural center playing music that had been passed down to them. Things picked up a bit after a children’s concert at the center let out (that we had just missed) so there were more people popping in to play and listen. Several older ladies and gentlemen joined us in the audience, clapping and humming along. One of them Irish step danced even as she sat. Though it wasn’t what Mary had expected, nor did it match the image in my head, I felt like I got a peek into the lives of these local men and women. Just to top off the picture of Irish heritage present in modern Dublin, as we were leaving a man put down his flute and began to belt out the refrain, “Oh Danny boy…” as the old man to his right solemnly played his violin. Not a bad evening at all.

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Our next and last day in Ireland completely exceeded my expectations. The morning began at Mary’s church. Once again, music enriched our time together. I’ve had the opportunity of worshiping our great Creator in many countries with many different nationalities and it is always a moving experience. As we gathered with Irish and non-Irish alike in the gymnasium where Mary’s church meets and we sang the line “Lord of all creation…” I was reminded of how big our God is and how Jesus’ love spans the nations and his grace is for everyone who will have it. What a big and GOOD God we serve.

After lunch we gathered at the nearby pub for a carvery. Corned beef, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes, cabbage, peas, carrots and parsnips, gravy, basically a feast.

YUM

YUM

But the best part of lunch was the conversation. We spoke with several of Mary’s friends from church and learned a bit more about the Irish culture. For example, we experienced first hand the Irish art of ‘slagging off’ a friend (giving them a hard time), we were introduced to the Irish national sport of hurling (think ice hockey and lacrosse combined), and soaked in the Irish accent. I’d say we learned a ‘ting or two. ūüôā

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But we couldn’t chat for long… we were off to tour the Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate, home of the Guinness Brewery.

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Some of you might think that this is not for you because you don’t drink… I understand your viewpoint; I’m not going to start a debate here. ūüôā But, just let me say two things:

1) The story of Arthur Guinness and his business model is fascinating and lesson-filled. He was a man of faith who lived out what he believed. If you’ve never read The Search for God and Guinness by Stephen Mansfield, I highly recommend it!

2) Even if you’ve never had a drop of beer in your life, I think you’ll find the Storehouse interesting and fun!

The experience is very interactive, taking you through the brewing process but also the history of the company and the people who worked there. Guinness is still an important part of Dublin and the Guinness name is still contributing to society in a very positive way.

Arthur Guinness was not messing around. Because water is the most important ingredient in brewing beer, Arthur Guinness wanted to ensure he always had the best location with the purest water... So, he signed a 9,000 year land lease in 1759.

Arthur Guinness was not messing around. Because water is the most important ingredient in brewing beer, Arthur Guinness wanted to ensure he always had the best location with the purest water… So, he signed a 9,000 year land lease in 1759.

The exhibit walks you through the four ingredients of the brewing process: water, barley, hops, and yeast (the same strains originally used by Arthur himself).IMG_3917 IMG_3931IMG_3944

The exhibits lead you upwards through the storehouse. After several floors of teasing, you finally get your free pint of Guinness at the top (or a soft drink of your choice). The Sky Bar was beautiful and offered 360 degree views of the city. The bartenders estimated that they pour about 2,500 pints of Guinness there a day. That may seem like a lot until you consider that Guinness produces 3 million pints of the black stuff every day.

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By the way, if you ever tour the Storehouse, I highly recommend buying and tasting the Guinness Dark Chocolate… it didn’t last long. ūüôā

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BUT, even though we had truly enjoyed our trip so far, the best part was that evening. Mary took us to Arlington Hotel to see Celtic Nights. We spent the evening listening to the very talented band P√ļca and were amazed by the speedy footwork of the Irish dancers. I really enjoy Irish music, so I sat with a giddy smile on my face for most of the evening. Here’s a video of one of my favorite songs they performed, Dublin City in the Rare Old Times (originally by the Dubliners):

We were already in heaven, soaking in the truly excellent music and dancing, when they asked for a few volunteers. Sam and I shot our hands up and ran to the stage. Sam was quickly whisked up on stage to dance with one of the women. He spun very very quickly. I got a quick 10-second lesson before I was spun around on stage myself. While we were reeling the dancer asked me, “Are you dizzy?” Clearly “no” was the wrong answer, because he spun me faster. I took a dizzy bow and he had to walk me down the stairs, my head still spinning from the dance and my mind buzzing with excitement! Seriously, what an experience! Not only did we get to hear an amazing Celtic band and see talented step dancers up close, but we got to DANCE WITH THEM. It was seriously one of the most fun evenings of my life. When can I go back?!

Oh, and on our walk back to the car we passed Pentatonix on the sidewalk. Some of us were a little starstruck. ūüėČ

Terry was still feeling sick, so she stayed a home. We missed her!

Terry was still feeling sick, so she stayed a home. We missed her!

As I write this post and think back on all of the things we were able to do, I’m amazed we were only there for two days! Our busy, and sometimes tiring, sightseeing times in town were balanced by the calming, cozy hours spent in Mary’s home. Her house is beautiful and welcoming. Books, flowers, comfy couches, tea and coffee, a wonderful host, and a friendly cat. Why did we only stay two nights?? Thank you again, Mary, for having us! I hope our paths cross again. ūüôā

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Lunch with the Queen

I’ve been to London a handful of times now. Every time we go, I feel a little more comfortable. I can navigate the Tube with more certainty, only checking the map on my phone three or four times between stops. Streets look familiar. I feel less like a tourist, even though that’s exactly what I am.

Samuel Johnson once famously said, “Once a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Well I’m not there yet. Not even close.

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We knew that Sam’s parents HAD to experience London when they visited. We prefer to do a few things well rather than hurry through several sights, so that’s what we did: enjoyed a leisurely day full of the best of London.

First stop: Buckingham Palace

It’s only right to stop by and say hello when in the neighborhood… After getting off the Tube, we took a leisurely stroll through the city and Green Park, before realizing it was in fact time for the changing of the guard. The crowds had already formed but we snatched up a great vantage point and seat on a wall surrounding the Victoria Memorial roundabout. We dined on our packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as we watched the plumed hats of the guardsmen bob above the crowd, all the while serenaded by the guard band.

Scoping it out...

Scoping it out…

Not a bad vantage point!

Not a bad vantage point!

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Last time Sam and I were here we were smooshed up against the fence. We had a much better view from here!

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There they are!

We were wrapping up our lunch as Mike noticed a row of important-looking vehicles approaching the palace. There were several dark security vehicles and, tucked in the middle, was the Queen’s state car and Her Majesty!

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Plain as day, in the back of that roomy Bentley, sat the Queen. Her famous white curls adorned by a lovely pastel hat. She didn’t wave – the car zipped through the gates into the palace too quickly – and we didn’t have time to snap a picture, but we still counted it as eating lunch with the Queen. Not a bad start to our trip.

Changing the Guard was not yet finished but we grew antsy and, well, we had already seen the Queen, so we continued on. We passed through the beautiful St. James Park on our way to Westminster.

 

There were many beautiful birds - Sam and Mike took many pictures - but this guy was my favorite.

There were many beautiful birds – Sam and Mike took many pictures – but this guy was my favorite.

 

Westminster: Big Ben, The Elizabeth Tower, Parliament

It was a bit chilly for part of the walk... They were rocking the unibomber look. ;)

It was a bit chilly for part of the walk… They were rocking the unibomber look. ūüėČ

The sun came out!

The sun came out!

Upon coming to London you just have to see “Big Ben.”¬† Many of you might already know this, but I won’t feel like I’m properly informing you if I skip over it: The tower is not named Big Ben. It is actually called the Elizabeth Tower. Big Ben isn’t even the clock face. Big Ben, though a suitable name, is actually the title of the largest bell within the clock tower.

But we didn't see the Doctor.

But we didn’t see the Doctor.

Anyway, Elizabeth Tower hovers over the Thames at the end of the Palace of Westminster – an equally impressive and iconic sight. We were hoping to tour Westminster Abbey but, sadly, it was closed.

London in it's true form: cloudy and rainy.

London in it’s true form: cloudy and rainy.

As we began to walk back to the Tower, we noticed many cars parked in front of the palace and a clear police presence. I approached a security guard and naively asked, “Hello. Is there an event of some sort going on today?” He chuckled and gave me a look of equal parts pity and derision.

“An event?” he haughtily replied.

I smiled stupidly¬†as I¬†realized what that “event” was…

He looked back at the looming building and replied,Parliament is in session.”

DUH. Thank you. I’ll just hand back in my visa and be leaving…

But, despite my American ignorance, he kindly informed us that we could sit in on a parliamentary session for free if we just continued to the next entrance. A short walk and a security check later, we were in Westminster Palace on our way to sit in on a meeting of the House of Commons.

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You first enter through Westminster Hall under an arching, wooden roof built during the time of King William II (est. 1097!!!).¬† It has England’s “largest clearspan medieval roof” (thank you, Wikipedia) and has hosted many debates, trials and royal banquets. It has been used for lyings-in-state for many royals and even Sir Winston Churchill.

The left side was being renovated, but you can still see the grandeur.

The left side was being renovated, but you can still see the grandeur.

After proceeding through the hall, you are ushered through quiet hallways and stairs up to the public viewing area. Coats and bags are checked, and then you’re in. There are two separate chambers where the House of Lords and House of Commons meet respectively. We were there during a House of Commons meeting, so that’s the only chamber we saw. The public viewing area is a part of the actual House chamber but is separated by a large, soundproof, glass partition to block any projectiles or chants (friendly or malicious) from reaching the members. Conversation from the floor can be heard through tiny speakers mounted on the back of every bench.

It was not nearly this full when we were there… (click through for source)

 

The House of Commons is famous for its tense debates and animated members, but all we witnessed was a calm, even polite, discussion on water treatment plans. I was surprised to see only about 15 House members attending the session and about the same number watching from the public viewing area. After soaking in a few minutes of public policy and all it represented, we excused ourselves – out past the security guards watching horse racing on t.v. – and returned to the busy streets of London. As we continued on with our day, I wondered how many of the tourists we passed were just as oblivious as I originally was to the fascinating bit of UK politics occurring just behind the palace walls…

 

Police on horseback

Police on horseback

Final stop: The British Museum

Mike suggested we visit the British Museum and we gladly agreed. Though it was on our list, we hadn’t visited yet. After resting for a much needed sit and cup of coffee in the massive, sunlit atrium, we spent the afternoon absorbing all the history we could.

The main entrance

The main entrance

Not a bad spot to rest for coffee.

Not a bad spot to rest for coffee.

 

The ceiling of the atrium.

The ceiling of the atrium.

Even after walking the halls for a few hours, we only saw a small portion of what it has to offer. Because our time was limited we picked out what we specifically wanted to see and optimized our route around the museum. The highlights of the day were seeing the Rosetta Stone and the large mummy exhibit.

The Rosetta Stone!

The Rosetta Stone!

One one of the many halls of the Middle East wing.

One one of the many halls of the Middle East wing.

Ramesses the II, dating from ~1270 BC.

Ramesses the II, dating from ~1270 BC.

Our feet were aching, our minds were full, and we knew we had big things ahead (like PARIS), so we called it a day and headed home. More adventures to come!

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P.S.: Did you know you can subscribe to my blog via email by clicking “follow” and putting in your email address on the right side of this page? Facebook doesn’t always share my blog updates on everyone’s newsfeed for some silly reason, so the best way to keep up with our travels is by subscribing. Let me know if you have questions. ūüôā Thanks!

Keukenhof Gardens, Holland

I know I’ve already posted about our recent trip to Holland, but I simply had too many pictures of the beautiful Keukenhof Gardens that I couldn’t help but make a separate post for them all. ¬†So here’s that post and here are those pictures. ūüôā

First of all, Sam took some excellent photos using his favorite “camera toss” method. The rows of bright colors framed by the blue sky were perfect for this technique. Check these out:

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Here are my pictures. And yes, I can assure you, it was actually¬†more beautiful and bright in person than I was able to capture in my pictures. If you ever have the chance to go there this time of year, do it! ūüôā

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 The areas next to the pond were breathtaking!

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 The patchwork tulip fields in the distance did not disappoint:

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We went up in the windmill for a bird’s eye view. The man working the windmill was wearing wooden clogs!

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I took many of these overhead photos… With thousands of tulip heads – of many different textures, shapes and colors – bobbing in the breeze, it was too beautiful to avoid!

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I think that last one looks like a painting!

Even as we were leaving, and we had each snapped hundreds of pictures, I couldn’t help but take one more on the way out. It was early in the afternoon and the gardens were getting more crowded, yet we were still surrounded with so much beauty. God’s creation is certainly diverse and vibrant!