Tag Archives: traveling

Shopping in Ireland

Living in the UK is really expensive.  I forget sometimes, since we’ve been here over a year and a half and you just get used to things costing what they cost.

Then we travel somewhere and I look at price tags and I’m like SO CHEAP! BUY ALL THE THINGS!

There were tons of gorgeous cool shops in Ireland and items seemed so reasonably priced.  I had a hard time not going on a full shopping spree!  If I had more room in my luggage to get things home, I probably would have succumbed to the temptation.  I was really impressed everywhere we went with how many great options there were for clothes and home goods and shoes. 

There was one shop, though, that I absolutely, positively wanted to visit while we were there.  I don’t even remember where I first heard of it, but Avoca was high on my To-Do-In-Ireland list, and on our very first night in Dublin we happened to walk right by it!  Thankfully my family was on board with a little shopping.  In fact, it was such a cool shop with so many amazing items that I actually had to DRAG my boys out when we were ready to go! 

Avoca is an Irish-run business with their own mill where they create amazing and gorgeous blankets, scarves, gloves, shawls and more.  They also have an in-house design studio where they create clothing, home goods, ceramics…you name it.  It is a seriously cool company and the store was visually just beautiful.  Avoca goods are available in shops around the world, so keep an eye out for them.

I’ve said before how I have a bit of a throw blanket addiction, so this shop with stacks of wool, mohair, cashmere, herringbone, and Irish knit throws was like my own personal heaven.  I couldn’t fit one in my suitcase, though, so they were sadly not an option on this trip.

The other thing that really caught my eye was the stack of cashmere/wool stoles.  They’re bigger than a normal scarf, smaller than a full wrap, and soft as buttah.  There were some gorgeous neutrals, and I try to be sensible and get items I can wear with lots of stuff, but the one that I could not resist was actually neon orange.  It came home with me and I wore it like 4 out of 5 days in Ireland and almost every day since I got home.  Best. Purchase. Ever.

If you’re going to Ireland, I would add this shop to your must-see list.  And leave space in your suitcase for all the treasures you’ll want to take home.

A Weekend in Stuttgart, Germany

germany_hohenzollern-view

We flew to Stuttgart, Germany for a long weekend over the kids’ half-term break in October.  Autumn is the right time to go to Germany; it reminded me a lot of New England in the fall.  The weather was chilly but not freezing and the foliage was gorgeous. 

Once again, we rented an Airbnb rather than get a hotel room.  It usually makes more sense for our family since we’d need two hotel rooms, however in this case I think a hotel might have been better.  Although our apartment was perfectly nice and had plenty of space, we didn’t actually need the kitchen at all — not once did we cook OR eat in the apartment — and it was located pretty far outside the city center.  Looking back, we’d have been better off spending a little more money on two hotel rooms downtown and not having to drive 20+ minutes minimum to get to anything we wanted to see.  Regardless, though, we had a nice place and a rental car, so it wasn’t really a big deal.  Just a thought for next time.

The first day of our trip was the only one with rain in the forecast for the afternoon, so we planned an indoor activity that day.  Sensapolis is an indoor amusement park that, to be honest, I really wasn’t that excited about before we went.  I figured it would be basically a big indoor playground, which would keep the kids happy for a few hours but that wouldn’t necessarily be that cool or special.  I was so, so wrong.  It was the COOLEST indoor play place I’ve ever seen.  There were enormous play structures with different themes: a space ship with tons of crazy slides of differing levels of speed and twistiness (some of which were so fast and steep that the two younger children weren’t even allowed on them), a giant castle with secret passages and dungeons to explore, a woodland climbing playground made entirely of natural materials with rope bridges and cargo nets, rock climbing walls, a zip line, a pirate ship playground, and the scariest, most difficult ropes course I’ve ever seen or done.

I am not exaggerating when I say I was absolutely astounded at the level of difficulty of the ropes course.  I have no fear of heights.  I love roller coasters and you can’t make them fast enough or twisty enough for me.  I’ve done obstacle courses in the military, run obstacle races for fun, love zip lines and really would like to try bungee jumping.  And I was terrified on this ropes course.

I went through it with Gabe and Bridget and about 15 seconds into it, I was shaking both with fear and exertion.  I would have absolutely dropped out and not finished it if there had physically been a way to do so.  The course was made of ropes and actual tree branches and logs and was suspended from the ceiling about 3 stories in the air with no net whatsoever underneath it.  In fact, it hung above the food court and a concrete floor.  I didn’t realize until I was on it how ridiculously high above the ground it was or that the climbing elements were all free-swinging.  It required real strength to get from one obstacle to the next because they would swing away from each other if you didn’t hold them together with your legs and arms, and then you’d be hanging in a split 50 feet above the ground.  Several times the distance between two obstacles was far enough that I had to let go completely of the obstacle I was leaving and lunge forward to catch hold of the one I was going to next; if that was the case for me, it was even worse for Gabe and Bridget.  I was shaking, sweating, and swearing through the whole thing.  Bridget, who has even less fear of these type of things than I do, at one point summed it up: “This seems unnecessarily hard, so much so that it’s not actually that fun.”  I agreed.

When we finally got back on the ground I told Matt it was insanely, ridiculously, appallingly difficult and it was a good 10 minutes before the adrenaline rush subsided and my hands stopped shaking.  Naturally, Matt had to try it then too.  He came back in a full sweat and confirmed my claim: it was the hardest ropes course he’s ever done too.  I am sort of proud I did it, amazed that my two older kids did as well (twice, actually, because they went back with Matt when he went through), and relieved that Matt agreed with me that it was incredibly difficult.

We spent probably 5 hours at Sensapolis and the kids would have stayed longer, but Matt and I wanted to get outside once the weather cleared up.  We headed over to Schloss Solitude on the outskirts of Stuttgart where we wandered around the grounds and gardens and took in the views.  It was gorgeous.  We didn’t do the inside of the castle, because it’s only possible to go inside with a guided tour but we missed the timing for the English language one; to be honest, we were all perfectly happy to walk around outside.

The next day we got up and headed south to Hohenzollern Castle, which is the ancestral seat of the Prussian Royal Family and one of the coolest castles I’ve seen so far in all of Europe.  We did take the guided English tour there, and it was great.  To make the experience even cooler, the Royal Family was actually in residence that day, an event that is apparently fairly rare; no one lives there and the family actually only visits a few times a year, so it was sort of a lucky coincidence to be there on a day they were there too!  Even better, the reason they were there was because that night was a party at the castle celebrating the relationship between the Prussians and the Romanovs, so the Romanov Royal family was there too!  This was super, extra exciting to me since I studied Russian in the military and have a particular interest in and affinity for the Romanovs; to be there that day while they were there too felt like a little gift!

The castle itself is gorgeous but what makes it most special is its location situated on top of a sharp rise looking out over the most gorgeous valley in all directions.  It was a serious hike up the paths to get to the castle up top, but the views were absolutely breath-taking.

hohenzollern-hill

We had lunch at the castle too, enjoying some traditional German foods: rote wurst, wiener schnitzel, and curry wurst, which we all really loved.  After lunch we trekked back down the hill to the car and headed toward our next destination: Triberg Waterfalls in the Black Forest.

This was one of my very favorite things we’ve done so far in all of Europe.  The waterfalls are stunning, but the forest itself was just as amazing.  We hiked the paths, searched for fairy houses, and just breathed in the smell of autumn.  The Black Forest was one of those places where, as soon as we arrived, I felt peaceful.  I felt happy and calm and definitely like there was some magic going on in those trees; if you’d said people claim to spot fairies or gnomes on Black Forest paths I’d have nodded in agreement and kept a sharp lookout.  Some places are just magical like that.

triberg-falls

As we strolled through the forest paths, we occasionally walked past little booths where Park Guides sat.  Outside each of them hung a picture of a squirrel with something written on it in German.  Finally Matt and I figured out that you could buy a small bag of peanuts from the Park Guides and that squirrels would, theoretically, come up to you in the forest and eat peanuts out of your hand.  Obviously I immediately bought one; I was instantly imagining myself traipsing around the forest like a Disney Princess with woodland creatures following me and eating from my hand.  I didn’t take into account, however, that the squirrels must actually come up to you to eat from your hand, and they won’t do that when you’re walking through the forest with three boys who make enough noise to scare off a bear, never mind a tiny woodland creature.  Bridget also wanted to Disney Princess it up, so we tried to walk AWAY from the boys while still keeping sort of together.  No luck.  I didn’t see a single squirrel.  The boys spent half the walk pretending to be Army guys taking cover behind fallen trees and rocks and shouting military instructions to each other, and the other half trying to climb the trees and shouting at me to look how high they’d gotten.  And then they ate all the peanuts, since we wouldn’t want them to go to waste and the squirrels were clearly not coming for them. 

kids-in-triberg

Our last day in Germany was spent at Ludwigsburg Palace at the world’s largest pumpkin festival.  The actual biggest pumpkin ever in the world was on display, sitting next to a Smart Car which was dwarfed by the pumpkin.  Kind of crazy!  We are pumpkin and spaetzle pizza (SO YUMMY) and cinnamon sugar pumpkin seeds (less yummy).  The kids climbed Rapunzel’s Tower — like the actual tower that inspired the story — and we just soaked in all the autumn goodness.  Good final day.

ludwigsburg-palace

There were fewer people in Germany who spoke English than we’d encountered in France or Italy, which meant we had to work a little harder to communicate, but that was okay.  The roads were so smooth and wide compared to England; driving was lovely.  And although we DID go on the autobahn, the fastest we drove was 140 kilometers per hour — only about 85MPH. 

We had a lovely weekend and I would definitely go back, especially to explore more of the Black Forest area or to either the Porsche or Mercedes museums in Stuttgart, which we just didn’t have time to see.  We’d also like to go to Munich, which we couldn’t fit in on this trip but which looks amazing.  Every time I check a location off our list of places to see, I add three more!

Traveling vs. Vacationing

hohenzollern-view-4-kids

There’s a huge difference between traveling and going on vacation. 

We’ve been on vacations before, and although there is certainly a good argument to be made that traveling with kids is almost never a vacation, we have taken trips that were about relaxation and fun far more than they were about experiencing a new place.  I like those trips just fine and can always do with a little downtime. 

But I’ve come to learn that, given the choice, I far prefer traveling to vacationing.

Traveling is not about lying on a sunny beach and baking to a golden tan, a fruity drink in hand and a dip in the pool your only concerns.  That is a vacation.  Vacations are fun. 

But I want to travel.

Traveling is going to a new place and learning about what makes that place worth visiting.  It’s finding the landmarks, learning the history, trying the local food, and at least attempting to speak the language.  It’s hard work more often than not.  But that, I believe, is what makes it worthwhile.

When I successfully communicate with a cab driver in Rome who speaks no English but wants to tell us all about the amazing sites we’re driving by, and I’m then able to turn around and explain what he’s saying to my kids, that is traveling.  When we navigate the metro in Paris even though none of us read French anything like fluently and none of the maps or signs are in English, that is traveling.  When Matt drives a right-hand drive, stick shift, 7-passenger van through morning rush hour in London to get us to our new home in the English countryside, that is traveling.  When we try the haggis, that is traveling. 

There are so many places to see and paths to walk, so many languages to learn and foods to try.  When I travel, I make my world a little bigger.  I make my kids’ worlds a little bigger.  We know what it looks like to eat breakfast in the sun on a porch overlooking the Mediterranean.  And we know what it smells like to walk through the Black Forest in the autumn.  We know what it feels like on top of the Eiffel Tower in the wind and drizzling rain, and how long it takes to walk up the long hill to Edinburgh Castle. 

Because we know those things, it makes it easier to imagine other things, even less like what we’re used to in our normal lives. 

We’ve stretched our understanding, and with it, our imaginations.

There have been moments, more than just a few, when we’ve been lugging bags through train stations and airports and convincing tired children that if they can just hold on a little longer, we’ll find a place to eat and sit and relax, when I’ve wondered if all the hard work and exhaustion and confusion is worth it.  There have been many times when I stood, uncertain, before someone whose language I didn’t speak and who didn’t speak my language in return, and wondered how I would communicate. But we find a way to make it work.  We learn something new, we smash down the walls of our comfort zones, and every time we do it, we grow.  In the end, every hard moment is worth it.  

It’s worth it when your 10-yr old son makes a comparison between the architecture in Germany and the architecture in Italy.  When your 12-yr old daughter reads and translates the signs in French.  When your 8-yr old son declares that the curry wurst in Germany is one of his favorite foods.  When your 6-yr old son sees a picture of Il Duomo on a magazine and exclaims with excitement that he’s been there, it’s in Florence, and he had the best gelato ever sitting in the square beside that dome.  Every long walk, delayed flight, argument with an overtired child (or an overtired spouse), they’re all worth it when you see how much it’s changed your understanding of the world.

Travel — real travel — is hard.  But it is worth it.  And I will take it over a vacation every day of the year. 


Also, a trip doesn’t have to be far to be meaningful.


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Travel Woes

train-sleeping

Last night we got home from a long weekend in Stuttgart, Germany and it was really great.  This was our sixth country in the last year and we are all really getting good at navigating unfamiliar places, trying out phrases in new languages, and sampling new foods. 

But we’re also learning that not every trip can go well.  Our weekend in France in May was our first real experience with a major travel snafu, and we’ve been really lucky in the last 15 months that we can point out just ONE time that things got messed up pretty badly.

Last night would be time number two.

Flight delays happen all the time.  We’ve experienced them more times than I can count.  But sometimes they just really, really suck.

Our flight home was scheduled to leave Stuttgart at 8:50PM on Sunday night.  We got to the airport reallllllly early because we wanted to eat a full dinner before getting on the plane, not just an airport snack.  We had almost three hours from the time we had checked our bags and gotten through security to the time we were supposed to board the flight, and that was largely by design so we could sit and eat at a restaurant in the airport without any stress about making it to our gate.  We ate slowly and leisurely, even getting coffees and hot chocolates after the meal, and walked to our gate without incident about 30 minutes before we were supposed to board.  And then, about 15 minutes later, they made the announcement that the flight was delayed an hour and ten minutes, putting our new estimated departure at 10PM.

It’s no big deal to have a flight delayed.  Sure, it’s annoying, but it happens.  For this particular trip, though, we were flying in and out of an airport on the opposite side of London from where we live.  Once we landed, we’d have to take a train from the airport into London, transfer to the Underground to get to Kings Cross station, and take another train out to the station near our house where our car was parked.  In total, it took us about 2.5 hours to get from our car to the airport on the way out to Germany.  That’s a long time to travel tacked on to the time you’re already spending in the airport. 

We bought the tickets from the further airport because the prices were so good — half the cost of flying from the airport closer to our house.  And though we’d never flown out of this further airport, we knew people who did use it and it seemed like no big deal.  Unfortunately, we didn’t take into consideration the toll it would take to travel for so long with luggage and the four kids, transferring trains, waiting on platforms, hoping to find seats, managing bathroom trips, etc.  It was fine, but it meant we basically left home at noon to just make it on time for a 5:40PM flight out on the way to Germany.

Now we were sitting in Germany facing a flight that wouldn’t leave until 10PM and even once we got to London we’d still have 2.5 hours of travel ahead of us to get home.  Suddenly the good deal on plane tickets didn’t seem so good anymore.

In addition, because we’d be arriving so late we had to determine if there were even trains still running to get us where we needed to go.  Matt searched the timetables and found the schedule for the airport express into London.  The last train left at 12:15AM.  We should be able to make that train, then we’d have to switch to the underground and get to Kings Cross to make the final train out toward our house, which would leave the station at 1:35AM and arrive at our destination at 2:50AM.  Then we’d have to drive the 15 minutes home.  At best, we’d get in at just after 3AM.  At worst, we’d have to get hotel rooms in London for the night and then make the trek during Monday rush hour with all the kids and the luggage.  I could almost see Matt’s skin crawling with the thought of that.

To complicate things, the flight was delayed another hour, with a new estimated departure at 10:49PM.  We realized that if we landed by 11:15PM (London is an hour earlier than Germany) and could get through passport control, customs, and get our baggage, plus make our way from the North terminal of the airport we’d land in to the South terminal where the train station was located in 45 minutes, we could get the last train into the city.  Basically we’d have to hope the passport lines were quick and we’d have to run for it. But if we were late at all, there was simply no way to make it to all the connections and get home that night.

As we sat in the airport in Stuttgart after a long three days of walking and exploring and the clock ticked later and later, the kids started to nod off.  Quinn fell fast asleep.  When we finally got the word to board, he was simply out cold and wouldn’t be woken up, so I had to carry him onto the tram that took us across the tarmac and then up the flight of stairs onto the plane.  He never woke up.  In fact, he slept through the whole flight.  The rest of the kids fell asleep within minutes of take-off.  I knew though, that we had HOURS of traveling ahead of us, so although I closed my eyes and dozed a few times, I couldn’t fall asleep because I felt like that would just be worse.  It’s easier for me to power through than to get some sleep and then have to wake up and run again.

When we landed, we woke up all the kids because they’d have to be able to be awake to get through passport control.  We speed-walked to the baggage claim, got our bags right away, and made our way as fast as possible to passport control, but the lines were already long.  As we stood there watching the minutes tick by, Matt went and checked with one of the agents to be sure we were eligible, and then went online and registered for priority clearance — which we had to pay for — so we jumped out of the long line and into a very short line.  We probably saved 30 minutes of standing in line, but even still, at that point we had less than 10 minutes to get across the airport to the train station, buy tickets, and get on the 12:15AM train that was the last express into the city.  We RAN.  The kids, exhausted and groggy, were absolutely awesome.  We made it literally by seconds, dashing down the escalator into the open train doors just before they closed.

Then we had an hour train ride into Victoria Station, where we’d transfer to the tube, get to Kings Cross, and finally head home.  The kids crashed out on the train, sitting on their luggage and sleeping with their heads leaned up against each other because the train was full and we didn’t have seats.

We made it to Victoria Station, but realized that the Underground had already stopped for the night.  It was 1AM, and we stood outside the station with our four kids and all our bags and saw the taxi line of people in similar situations waiting to get in cabs.  We knew we wouldn’t make it to our train in Kings Cross if we had to wait, so instead of getting in the cab line, we walked out to the main road and called an Uber.  Our driver was 7 minutes away.  When he arrived, we explained that we had to get to Kings Cross to make the 1:35AM train or we were stuck in the city — and he was so great about trying to get us there in time.  I watched the ETA on the Uber app on my phone — it literally had us arriving at Kings Cross at 1:33AM, then went up to 1:36AM — TOO LATE — and back down to 1:32AM again as we drove through the quiet late-night city.  We still had to unload our luggage from the Uber and buy the train tickets, too, so even with 3 minutes to spare we were cutting it close.

As soon as we pulled up I grabbed my suitcase which had been by my feet in the Uber and ran into the station to get tickets as Matt unloaded the rest of the bags and got the kids.  He checked the platform on the departure screens — which was easy because it was the only train still listed, the last of the night — and got the kids running toward the correct platform while I hit the ticket machine.  A guard at the station saw me frantically trying to get the right number of tickets and yelling to Matt and the kids to keep going and I would get there, and asked if I needed help. 

“We just need to be on that 1:35 train!” I gasped.  I didn’t pay much more attention, but I do think he called over to the engineer on the platform.

I finally got the tickets ordered; they printed individually, painfully slowly, and I flat out sprinted through the deserted train station to catch up to my family. 

Matt and the kids were climbing on to the train as I ran down the platform.  I looked up at the clock at the end and it said 1:34:32 as I jumped through the doors.  The engineer on the platform blew his whistle as I climbed on board, and the doors instantly closed behind me.  We had made it with less than 30 seconds to spare.

The kids fell asleep again almost instantly, but I was so adrenaline fueled, it took me a little while to calm down.  We made it back to our station, woke the kids again with some difficulty, trudged out to our car and loaded up the bags and drove home, pulling into our driveway at 3:10AM.

This will become one of those family stories, I think, that we tell again and again — at least this isn’t as bad as that one trip home from Germany! — but it is not something I want to repeat.  We’ve learned that a good deal on flights isn’t always a good deal, because we have to take a lot of other factors into consideration.

We also learned, though, that when we’re in a tight spot, we can make things work.  To be honest, I would probably have given up on trying to get home while we were standing in the passport line with 10 minutes left to get on the last train into London.  But Matt SO did not want to spend a night in a hotel, which would have cost hundreds of extra pounds because we always need two rooms with our big family, and then make the 2.5 hour train trip home on Monday morning during rush hour with luggage and children.  He really, really needed to try to make it home.  So we all rallied and ran and weaved through crowds in the airport and lugged suitcases down escalators even though we were exhausted and the kids were dead on their feet.  At one point on the train from the airport into London, Owen just stood there crying silently because he was so tired he just wanted to lie down and go to sleep.  But he pulled it together, wiped his eyes, and made the last bit of the trip without complaining.  I was really proud of him and of all of us.

Matt and I have learned a lot in the last year, about ourselves, our children, our strengths and weaknesses, about traveling and down time and how we want to shape our lives.  Last night was just another lesson.  Even though it sucked while we were in it, it was also a victory because we did it — WE MADE IT HOME!

But next time, we’re flying out of the close airport, even if the tickets are 5x more.


Also, our terrible initial arrival in London a year ago.


 

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