Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Mcs greatest hits...

we say goodbye to this stage of our life on Thursday, and b/c everyone's been asking, here's some of  my favorites and bests.....
  • favorite family vacation: Algarve, Portugal (hands down, didn't have to think twice)
  • favorite European cityParis (again, not even close.  LOVE!)
  • most AMAZING ancient sightseeing:   Ephesus, Turkey (not blogged yet)
  • best book/movie sightseeingFraulein Maria's Sound of Music bike tour
  • best WW2 history:  Berlin
  • coolest kind of quirky destinationThanksgiving Day in Leiden
  • favorite Eastern europe destination:  Wroclaw, Poland (not blogged yet)
  • favorite cheese town: Alkmaar, Holland (not blogged yet)
  • favorite harbor town:  Volendam, Holland (not blogged yet)
  • most picturesque village: Riquewihr, France (not blogged yet)
  • best European meal: Dona Barco Tavern in Portimao, Portugal  (now called O Barco)
  • best shopping: Boleslawiec (and a yet unblogged 2nd trip)
  • best main square Brussels
  • favorite girls' trip:  London
  • most surprising fun: 2 moms, 5 kids and a van just outside Regensburg, Germany (not blogged yet)
  • favorite day trip: Amsterdam
  • oddest hotel:  Mercure Hotel in Nuremburg (not blogged yet)
  • best Christmas market: Trier
  • most over-rated destination: Malta (not blogged yet)
  • favorite local hangoutCafe Liege
  • most beautiful sceneryScottish Highlands
  • best grown-up only destination: Venice
  • biggest, "whose wicked-cool life did I wander into by mistake?" moment: the Russian Ballet
  • favorite castle: Vianden
  • place I most want to buy land and stay a while: Sicily (not blogged yet)
I'm sure once we get settled in stateside and the wanderlust hits, I'll eventually get around to blogging the unblogged portions of this list (as well as the many unblogged trips that didn't make the cut).  It's certainly been a fabulous ride!

Friday, December 23, 2011

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

Merry Christmas!
I didn't send letters with this year's Christmas Cards. Instead I directed folks to the blog.  "Find our Christmas letter at," I said.  I guess I better put up a Christmas letter, huh?

St. Nikolaus on the Christmas Train.
Dear friends, 
2011 has been a good year for us.  The big news is that it's also been our last year in Europe and we move back to the states in March of 2012.  We're going back from whence we came, to Warner Robins, Georgia.  We are excited to be back in the South with its mild weather and plentiful sunshine. As you might imagine the details of moving are threatening to overrun the Holiday season, but for the most part I'm successfully keeping them in a box until the New Year.

We've been so fortunate to be able to do oodles of traveling while living here, most of which you can read about by clicking the country categories on this site's navigation bar, so I won't rehash them here. (I am admittedly months behind in the travel blogging department.  I usually get caught up in the Winter when the weather is so totally nasty that  there's nothing more appealing than to sit inside at your computer, so if you're interested in our ramblings, be sure to check back.)

As far as how life goes when we aren't out seeing the sights....

The boys are 6 and 3.  C started first grade this year. And he loves it.  It was a bit of a transition at first as this is his first year in a traditional classroom, but he's taken to it well and I'm frequently amazed at both the depth and breadth of what he learns at school.  He's at a DOD elementary school in a very small class with a supremely dedicated teacher.  I think we've been spoiled, for sure!  Here's hoping our tansition into the Georgia school system goes smoothly.

This is B's second year in the German kindergarten and he continues to do well there.  He'll frequently announce to me that when he's at kindergarten he's a German kid and when he's at home, he's an American kid.  We're undecided if, when, or where he'll be doing any kind of preschool stateside, but I'm envisioning having to explain to him that he is actually an American kid, 24-7.

D stays busy at work. Which is about all I can say about that, here. He was selected for Major this year and in between his stints here and there "saving" the world is one class away from finishing his Master's degree. We're proud of all his hard work.

As for me, I manage to keep busy with all the typical SAHM things: volunteering at the elementary school, coffee with friends, playdates with pals, and when the weather's nice long walks and bike rides over the beautiful (but sometimes smelly) farm fields.  I'm basically simply trying to soak up every last ounce of atmosphere before we leave.   While I look forward to being back in the USA and  having Publix and Target around the corner and to being able to complete a (as in ONE) load of laundry in under 4 hours, I love village life.  I love being able to ride my bike to anywhere I need to go and am not at all looking forward to reacclimating to suburban sprawl.

This time of year as the boys flip through toy catalogs and wander through stores and tell us all the things they want for Christmas, we try to talk them about Christmas really being about giving, not getting.   (Mercifully, Armed Forces Network doesn't air commercials.  Which stinks at Superbowl time, but is super convenient this time of year).  Local organizations sponsor Angel Trees and we take them shopping for angel tree toys and try to explain to them how fortunate they are that they want for nothing.  It seems that everywhere you turn these days, people are wanting.  Times are hard, for many.  There are lots of excellent charitable organizations out there doing outstanding work to meet the needs of those in need around the world.  If you're considering additional holiday giving, but don't know where to direct your donations, consider some of these worthy organizations.

The Ronald McDonald House  or the Fisher House  which provide lodging to family members of sick children and wounded warriors, keeping families together under devastating circumstances.

Donate Animals  and feed a family.  In most of Asia, rural economies dominate and donating chickens or milk-producing goats can provide a family mired in poverty with both food and longer term income generation.

ENTRUST, an organization founded by an old friend that uses professional mentorships and monetary donations to help local people in Haiti and Honduras create, manage, and grow their own businesses, breaking the cycle of poverty. Their people- helping- people, invest- in- the- community model of giving offers long term hope.

Compassion International:  Sponsor a child; change a life.

We hope you and yours are well this holiday season.  There's not enough time left for us in Europe to invite you to visit us here, but if you find yourself traveling the I-75 corridor in middle Georgia and have time to sit-a-spell, holler at us!

Do you facebook?  If so, friend us.  It's probably one of the easiest ways for us to not lose any of you as our contact information is constantly in flux.

May your 2012 be filled with love, peace, and great joy!

love, The Mcs :-)

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Operation Scenic Route to Spain

In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two (1492) Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In two-zero-one-one (2011) we did too; it was tons of fun!

In the summer of 2010 we followed a big ol' Mouse all over Northern Europe.  We had a great time on board Disney Cruise Line's (DCL) The Disney Magic, so much so that when I blogged that trip  I wrote at the end that I might just "space-A home for a visit next spring simply so we can cruise back to Europe with the Mouse."

we spent a lot of time holding shirts
Well, that's exactly what we did.   The Disney magic left Port Canaveral May14 bound for Barcelona, Spain.  She arrived two weeks later and in between stopped  in the Bahamas; Funchal, Portugal; Gibraltar; and Cadiz, Spain. Of the 14 nights on board, 6 of those were  at sea crossing the Atlantic between Castaway Cay, Bahamas and Portugal's Atlantic island, Madeira.  Almost everything we've done over here falls somehow/someway into a "best ever" category, but it was indeed "the best ever" (or at least very very cool) to wake up on day 3 and look at the map on your stateroom TV and see the boat smack dab in the middle of the ocean, to stand at the rails and see nothing but ocean all around you and know that yep, there really is nothing but ocean all around you.  Six days trapped on a cruise boat with no where to go but on another lap around the deck might be a little much on any other cruise line, but I think I could spend 6 weeks on a DCL cruise and not once feel the need to send anyone up the crow's nest looking for land.   All the glowing things I wrote about our first DCL experience holds true, especially the dining room staff who made it their mission to get my picky two year old to eat something other than chocolate milk.

luxury of time
And because this time there was more time, plus Grandma to pitch in with the kiddos,  I got to do ALL the cheesy Disney things -- take the tour that explains the art and decor on board;  learn how to draw Donald and Mickey, and  test my trivial knowledge. (D and I cleaned up at TV theme song night, btw.  No, we weren't latch key kids who spent every afternoon watching reruns on TBS, not at all.).  This trip there was time to go to all the broadway style productions and  to see a number of movies, King's Speech and a red carpet PremEAR of Pirates 4 among them.  And there was more time to try all the yummy recipes on board and to pop into Palo, the on board signature restaurant, for brunch.  But with so many days at sea, we also had more time to interact with cast and crew, some of whom have really remarkable stories of how they ended up sailing with DCL. Surprisingly, there weren't very many kids on board, so a number of the staff took a special interest in mine, which made their two weeks even more fun. (And helped me feel less guilty all those days we left them on the boat while we went ashore exploring.  Seriously, I didn't feel *that* guilty.  I know what it is to navigate Europe with the pint-sized set.  Furthermore, they know what it's like.  I think all parties involved would agree that the kids spending port days in the Oceaneer Club is a win/win all around.)

Pirate Night

(Full Disclosure:  Some of my continued  DCL enthusiasm comes from the fact that in the months since our eastbound transatlantic with Disney we have taken an  eastern Mediterranean cruise with another major cruise line, and while that was a great trip with some of the most AMAZING sightseeing, the cruise experience on that other boat can't compare to DCL's.  If we had never sailed with Disney, we would have loved sailing this other line, but as we had already sailed Disney we were left thinking this other company needed to find  itself a stash of pixie dust somewhere)
Castaway Cay

Didn't much care about spending the day on CASTAWAY CAY (Disney's private Bahamian island) but that's mostly because we were coming off two weeks at our own private beach house (AKA Grandma's house).

smak dab in the middle!
"The Rock"
My favorite port was GIBRALTAR.  We took a van tour of the Rock, stopping at all the main sights --to see the Monkeys, and the bunkers -- and learning about the Rock's history.   I can't really imagine what it must have been like living there before Spain opened it's borders.  Our tour guide remembers going with his father on day long trips into Spain to shop.  Day long trips because they had to get to and from Spain via a ferry from Morroco instead of  simply walking 10 minutes to the border. Speaking of Morocco, I was supposed to spend a few days soaking up the African sun last winter and had to cancel at the last minute when my kid-care fell through. I only got slightly perturbed when we stopped to look out over the Straits of Gibraltar at Morocco and the African continent. Oh well, at least I now have pictures of Africa, even if I didn't get to step foot there.  After touring we ate lunch in town and did some shopping. I designed my own champagne flutes at Gibraltar Crystal, where the crafters hand make their items on the island itself.

What a final resting place!
WW2 Tunnels
One of the most difficult landings anywhere. They have to shut down the road for planes.
Stalactites or is it Stalgmites?
the most famous Gibraltan resident
beautiful Madeiran flowers
I also very much enjoyed MADEIRA, Portugal.  We made port at Funchal and took a sightseeing bus up into the mountains.  We saw some stunning scenery and ate a wonderful lunch of  Espada, the local catch,  at a cliffside patio cafe.  Then, we rode the bus back downtown to shop for lace and wine.  Here's another thing I like about DCL: We landed in Funchal on a Sunday, yet DCL made prior arrangements with some local shops to be open. (In contrast, that other cruise line  put us ashore in Malta on a Sunday where not-a-thing but a few tacky souvenir stands and bars were open.) Because it was Sunday, we couldn't go to a tasting at  the most famous of the Madeiran wine bars, but the wine shops we stopped into did tastings for us and of course we came home with several bottles of the famous spirit.  The Bordal lace "factory" also opened  and we saw where generations of Madeiran women have made lace products by hand; they still make their lace by hand at this factory. And although lace isn't really my style, I now have a far better appreciation of just how much work goes into producing one lace tablecloth.
View from our table

drying Espada
CADIZ:  We spent one morning in Cadiz, a not-so-picturesque, yet very "Spanish feeling" harbor town.  We followed a self-guided walking tour we picked up from the local TI office.  We've done self-guided walking tours all over Europe but what was unique and so user friendly about the Cadiz tours is that the city has painted colored lines all throughout town.  They provide four walking tours and each is designated a color. So if you're following the purple, Medieval District tour, you simply wind your way through town following the purple painted line on the ground.  
Cadiz Cathedral
lush gardens
War Memorial

Las Ramblas
I visited BARCELONA (and London and Paris and Munich and Rome) way back in 1991 as high school Junior and it's been good fun to go back to some of these cities now, as an adult, and compare today's experiences to what my 16 year old self remembers.  I was keen to visit Barcelona this trip because back in 1991 Gaudi's Cathedral was 20 years less completed than it is today AND not open to the public.    This time not only did I get to walk around La Sagrada Familia, but I also got to go inside.  We left the boat early and scooted to the subway and made the Cathedral our first stop.  As it was, we had to wait in line about 25 minutes.  I'm guessing that by the time we left, the line to get in was at least an hour, if not longer.  After learning all about Gaudi, we walked through Barcelona's oldest historic district, following a Rick Steve's walking tour which happened to begin at a square that was being occupied by Barcelona's unemployed youth. This was months before it became the cool thing  to "occupy [insert major city here]."  (Although Barcelona's unemployment rate among young people  is close to40 % percent, so you certainly understand the frustration).  The Barcelona police were in the process of trying to clear the square when we got there.  Barcelona's futbol team was playing in a championship game that night and the city anticipated needing the square for victorious futbol celebrations.  Except, we found all this out later.  At the time all we saw were lines of police in full riot gear, oodles of news crews, and helicopters circling overhead.  In researching the event, it apparently got pretty ugly, but fortunately we were there ahead of or behind the real violence.  We also spent a couple hours strolling Las Ramblas before heading back to the boat for dinner and one last evening on board before disembarking.

Barcelona Market
school children celebrating
people protesting
helicopters circling

Gaudi's Passion

Having spent 26 nights, total, cruising with DCL, I'm still one of their biggest fans.  I can't tell you how disappointed I am our move back to the States isn't going to coincide with a westbound transatlantic reposition.  BUT, I've heard a rumor that DCL is planning a Mediterranean itinerary out of Venice in 2013 and if the stars align........

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gobble! Gobble!

I haven't yet made my top-five-coolest-things-we-did-in-Europe list, so I'm not sure which of our ramblings will make the cut. But whenever I do make such a list, our Thanksgiving day adventure in Leiden definitely gets a spot.
Leiden Centrum
Not many Americans in my neck of the woods have heard about the American Thanksgiving service held each year at the St. Pieter's Kerk  in Leiden, sponsored by the organization Overseas Americans Remember.

(*I can't find a good web link to the organization, but they sponsor a half-dozen events a year, all in the Amesterdam or Den Haag area.  In addition to the Thanksgiving service, they organize a MLK breakfst, a Friendship celebration in April, commemorating the date Holland first recognized the USA as an independent nation, a 4th of July celebration, a "Who's Your President" breakfast, the day after election day.)

Why Leiden???  The group of early-American settlers we usually call the Pilgrims lived in Leiden from 1609-1620.  It is from Leiden that they boarded the Speedwell and left for the New World.  The Speedwell wasn't sea worthy, however, and they made land back in Southern England and tried  again this time on the Mayflower.

Our plan for they day was this:  leave early enough to make the 2.5 hour drive to Leiden and be at the church by 11.  Grab a snack. Head to the Pilgrim Museum. Eat Thanksgiving dinner.  Drive home.
If you go, note that parking in Leiden is more than difficult.  There's really no parking at the train station, and very little down town.  There are two lots (one at the Groenoordhallen and one on Haagweg) where parking is plentiful and from where free shuttle buses run to the city centre. The shuttle buses run until 2:00 AM and parking is cheap, by Dutch standards. We paid about 10 euros for the whole day.

St Pieter's Kerk interior
The church service was well attended, with about 400 people. Attendees were mostly Americans and the day   began with a civic service including the presentation of the colors, patriotic songs, and historical readings.  I had forgotten that before he was the nation's second President, John Adams had  been the  ambassador to the Netherlands and that he and his wife, Abigail, had written about their respective visits to Leiden. The letters of Abigail Adams constitute a chapter of my now-irrelevant-opus, so I should have made the connection between Adams and Leiden before she was quoted in the civic part of the service.  If you want to read the letter that Adams wrote  her sister about her visit to Leiden, her travels throughout Holland, and her insight into the importance of the relationship between Holland and  young America, you can see an online version, here .  

While Pilgrim leader John Robinson is buried in St Peter's church, most of today's historians agree it is unlikely that the Pilgrims actually worshiped in the church; they were a fringe religious group in Leiden society, and as such likely held their services in smaller, less official venues. Although, they most certainly were in the church from time to time.
This is Hooglandse Kerk .Can you believe I didn't take a picture of the outside of St. Pieter's Kerk?

After the civic service, there was an interdenominational religious service, consisting mainly of hymns and readings, representing Catholic, Jewish, and various protestant traditions.  There was no sermon to speak of, simply various members of the American community in North Holland, sharing personal Thanksgiving reflections.  (This part of the service was kind of labored-- didn't need to hear quite so many variations on the theme.  One or two would have been plenty.)     Kids were definitely most welcome.  The church is very large, and a number of families with little ones stayed near the back while their restless ones toddled around the narthex.  We sat on one of the less crowded wings, to minimize whatever distractions the kids might throw in.  B watched a movie during most of the service (which clocked in at close to 90 minutes). C was interested in the singing and the musical performances, but he played his DS during many of the readings and reflections.

At the conclusion of the service, they served coffee and cookies and we toured the church, which has an impressive  pipe organ above the altar.  Then we moseyed Leiden, grabbed a quick bite at the local Bagels and Beans, and popped over to the Pilgrim Museum, a very very small museum commemorating the Pilgrims' years in Leiden.  The Pilgrim Museum was very crowded (probably their busiest day of the year), so we didn't stay long.  As the weather was lovely, we meandered some more, over to the Leiden Castle.  Leiden's Castle is really simply a fort, but it offers fabulous panoramic views of the town, is free, and perfectly suited for boisterous little boys to storm and climb.  Who needs playgrounds when there's 12th century ruins around?  After our little legs finished exploring, we meandered some more, over to the train station, in order to grab a train up to Amsterdam to partake in our traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

My littlest turkey
The Holiday Inn in Leiden was offering a traditional Turkey and all the trimmings buffet, but didn't open until 18:30 and we wanted to eat a little earlier so we could still make it home at a decent hour.  The only other establishment google led me to that promised traditioanl Thanksgiving fare was the Hard Rock Cafe in Amsterdam, which turned out to be a fabulous choice as Hard Rock Cafes are usually loud, perfect for masking the loudness we bring with us.  Dinner consisted of corn chowder, turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, dressing (stuffing), broccoli, and pumpkin pie.  And it was good.  Not as good as my home made feast would've been, but better than what I was expecting.

While we caught a tram from Amsterdam Central Station to Leidesplein and the Hard Rock, we walked back. Each little square along the way was decorated with lights and  festive with mini markets of Gluhwein and waffles.We found Dam Square  jam packed with people waiting for  the famous De Bijenkorf department store to turn on its lights.

As you might imagine it was a really really long day and the kiddos, whom I often brag about here for being fabulous goers and doers, weren't in their most cooperative state, but 'twas still an unbelievably wonderful experience, even handicapped with whiny munchkins. (Both of whom fell asleep the instant their heads touched their car seats, so at least it was a peaceful drive home).   We were most certainly the only non-North Holland dwellers present in Leiden that day, many were surprised we drove all the way up from Limburg to give thanks, but if you ever find yourself anywhere near Leiden the fourth Thursday in November, make it a point to stop and take in a little trans-atlantic history.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

One night in Bangkok (AKA 36 hours in London)

 Here's the secret to a successful European assignment:  It's all about the bucket list.

We've done lots and lots of traveling in the three years we've been rambling (more traveling than evidenced by this here blog).  Admittedly, my list was over ambitious to begin with, and truthfully grew a bit out of control once we got here and started swapping stories with our jet-setting buddies, but with four short months left on our current European go-round, I still had three major trips left. Normandy and Northern Portugal will likely have to wait for another day, but thanks to an agreeable husband and a good friend with a matching list seeing the London production of Wicked.....  CHECK!

It was a whirlwind trip, leaving home Friday AM, back in time for Saturday dinner, but without the kids in tow, we covered a lot of British ground.  We flew into Gatwick, grabbed the fast train into the city, jumped off at Victoria Station, giggled with glee when we passed the Apollo Victoria Theatre  and its larger than life Wicked marquis, stashed the bags at our hotel, and promptly headed out for an afternoon of sightseeing before that night's performance.

We made it to Harrods and saw Big Ben and Parliament. We happened upon a small Occupy London protest, the bulk of the protesters having gone home and taken the day off in honor of Armistice Day. We toured Westminster Abbey and breathed the royal air, realizing that if you were a  regular-ol-guest at William and Kate's nuptials,  you really couldn't see very much as the choir stalls blocked the view for most of the congregation.  (Family and VIPs were seated right behind the altar, in front of the choir stalls).     Then we ducked into a cafe for a champagne tea, stepped into Westminster Cathedral and walked back to our hotel to change clothes before the show began.

The performance was outstanding.  It's a little ironic that seeing this particular musical made it onto my bucket list, as I *hated* the novel, but Wicked, the Musical is far better written than Wicked, the novel.  Its story is more streamlined, its characters and their motivations more clearly developed, and its intertextual connections to the original Wizard of Oz more skillfully utilized.   The signature number, Defying Gravity, is indeed a show stopper. (The link is to a you tube video, if you wanna see). Now that I've seen the London version, I do believe seeing the New York production tops my  stateside list, even though most reviewers report the production quality in London is better.

After the show, we wandered down the street and into a local watering hole, closing down the pub drinking warm ale with a bunch a middle aged locals.  (British Ale is typically served warm and the pub's last call wast midnight, so closing it down wasn't that much of a feat).   The next AM it was back to the airport for our flight home.  Lots more of London to see, for sure, but I feel like we saw and did enough to make the short trip worth it.  Made some great memories with a great gal-pal and most importantly, showed that blasted list who's boss. :P