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Friday, October 10, 2014

The journey home

My blog posts are trickling in so slowly that J’s have almost caught up. This one gets us home to Indiana.

The morning after we visited Stonehenge, we were up early for our flight back to the US. We had some time to kill at Heathrow before our flight, and the kids ran out a good amount of energy in the children’s play area. Seriously, every airport should have one of these. The soft-play places we encountered at Heathrow were staffed with friendly women who played with the children; they had areas for toddlers as well as older kids to climb, slide, and run. When we boarded the long leg of the flight from London to Houston, our kids were primed to start the trip with a nap after spending an hour climbing and running around the play area. Amazingly, our flight was largely empty; having several rows to your self makes a world of difference on a 10-hour flight. Want to stretch out for a nap? No problem: put your feet up on three empty seats. Kids kicking the seat in front of them? No problem: there is no one there to turn around with a disgruntled look. Kids need to make multiple trips to the bathroom? No problem: there are no sleeping neighbors to wake up.

One of several staffed play areas at Heathrow. We waited about 15 min before this one opened.

We arrived in Houston on time but waited in long lines to get through customs; the only reason we made our connection was that our flight was delayed. That final flight in a completely packed plane seemed much longer than three hours. It was L2’s last flight as a lap child. While I’m not looking forward to paying for a fourth ticket from now on, I’m glad he will have his own seat because it is really crowded to have a 30 lb child wiggling around and trying to stand on your lap to get to the window or look at passengers in other seats. Don’t even think about trying to eat or drink. But we made it to Phoenix Sky Harbor at last, flying over the familiar brown landscape: the mountains and buildings and highways. When we finally landed in Phoenix, all of our luggage was there, as was our ride from the airport. Yeah! We were home! Sort of.

We spent almost two weeks in Phoenix with our families. J’s parents had been looking after our elderly dog, Paddington. When we left Indiana in December with Paddington curled up in a small space carved out for him among our belongings in the back of the car, I had prepared myself that he might not make the trip home because he was increasingly showing his age. But several months with the grandparents was like a vacation at a spa; he was more cheerful and spry than I’d seen him for ages. So once again, we packed the car with Paddington in the back, and took six days to drive home to Indiana.

Cooling off in Phoenix

Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus from the Dinosaur Museum in Tucumcari, NM

My highlight was visiting friends in Santa Fe. For the boys, their highlight was visiting the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum in Tucumcari, New Mexico. The museum is unexpectedly good for being in a small, dusty town of just over 5,000 people. When people ask L1 what his favorite part of traveling was (perhaps expecting riding donkeys in Greece or swimming in the sea), he replies, "The dinosaur museum," and occasionally says wistfully that he wishes we had a dinosaur museum here.

New Mexico vista

Sleepy but not sleeping in hotel

The home stretch: Missouri vista
The last several days of driving were some of the most trying of the entire trip: we drove about six hours each day; the kids were wound-up, even with breaks and swimming in the hotel pools at night. They didn’t sleep and we had used up all our tricks to make the car ride fun. We all were just ready to be home, really home. We drove up our driveway and opened the car doors with a cheer – or maybe it was a sigh – I only remember that we were happy to stop driving. 

We each went our own way: the kids to their toy box, Jim to his lawnmower, and me to unpack and wash clothes. Maybe that is an anti-climatic end to a six-month international journey. However, I am grateful to have a place that we are so happy to come home to. It doesn’t have a view of the Aegean Sea (ok, that was pretty nice and I miss it), but the yellows and reds of the autumn leaves in our yard right now are world class. Compared with the uncluttered, orderly places we rented to stay in Europe, our home is a jumble of toys, books, and papers. But it is ours, it is warm, and lived in. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Stonehenge and Kew

We have been back in the US for over two months now, and I have been meaning to post a blog entry, but have been unsatisfied with everything I write. There are many subjects I have thought of writing about: our trip to Stonehenge and Kew Gardens on our last day in London; our flight home to Phoenix; our drive home to Indiana; thoughts about living in Greece in general and the town of Rafina in particular; things we liked about living in Europe and things we missed about the US; a travel guide for visiting Athens, Prague, London, Bergen, and Edinburgh with young kids; tips for traveling with young children; how L1 and L2 behaved and grew on our travels; what was most memorable about our the past months; and how it feels to be home. Maybe I have too many ideas running through my head to make a cohesive entry. Maybe my thoughts about our trip have changed as the freshness of our European memories recede. Whatever the case, in an effort to break through my writer’s block, I am narrowing this blog post to an update of Stonehenge and Kew Gardens.

On our last day in England, we booked a bus tour to Stonehenge (3000-1500 BC). I’m so glad that I finally got to see this most famous of archaeological and UNESCO World Heritage sites, although the two hours allowed on our tour was not nearly enough time to explore it.  Simply being there in person, in the shadow of Stonehenge was remarkable. Beyond that, what made an impression on me was seeing the barrow mounds on the horizon all around Stonehenge. Stonehenge was associated with burials and cremations from its start during the Neolithic, and later barrow mounds from the Bronze Age can been seen in all directions. I suppose one of the big reasons why I love visiting places in person, rather than virtually through pictures is that it changes the way I think of a place, Stonehenge in this case, from a zoomed-in, solitary image, to a larger one in a broad framework including the geography of the place as well as sounds, scents, and feel. The boys had no interest in stones that they were not allowed to climb on, but were happy to play in the wide, grassy field surrounding Stonehenge.

As we returned to London, our bus driver and tour guide, Benson, kindly dropped us off at Kew Gardens. We had only a few hours to stroll through the gardens and they were lovely; but I have to say that the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the Desert Botanical Gardens are still my favorites. J loved the treetop walkway at Kew, a metal platform built several stories high so you can walk in the tree canopy. The boys liked the tram ride that we shared with a friendly group of older visitors, who were patient with L1’s insistent chatter. I was excited to glimpse a golden pheasant, though I didn’t get my own picture.

Next up: travels home.
By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, May 19, 2014

Bergen, Norway

Bergen, Norway

We are in the last days of our European sojourn before we fly back to the US. Tomorrow we fly from Bergen, Norway to London. We have one full day in London and then make the long flight to Phoenix.  It has been a grand trip, but we are all tiring and ready to be on our way home. We spent four full days in Norway, and two of them have been “lazy” days, where we’ve stayed at our Airbnb rental, slept late (as much as the kids will allow), done laundry, and watched the kids play in the garden.

The other two days here have been full tourist days. May 17 is Norway’s Constitution Day, and we spent it in downtown Bergen among the crowds of celebrating Norwegians. While I do not love crowds, the crowds on this day were fun to see. The majority of people were in traditional dress, and those who were not dressed traditionally wore their best clothes. There were many parades, people with flags, and lots of helium balloons in shiny-mylar animal shapes. At one point L1 pointed to the sky and said, “Look at the run-away horse!” and indeed, there was a balloon horse galloping across the sky.

Not everyone was in a party mood.

Near the fish market in downtown Bergen on May 17, Norway's Constitution Day.

The next day we took the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour, which strings together rides on trains, buses, and boats to give you a tour of the fjords.  We had a full day, getting up at 5:30 to catch the 7am bus to town for the 8:45 train, and finally returned around 6:30pm. All the grand adjectives apply to the fjords: magnificent, splendid, stunning, majestic, imposing, resplendent. The weather cooperated too, showing off the steeply carved mountains and smooth water at their best. L2 was thrilled just to ride train after bus after boat, and even L1 commented on the landscape out the window. We brought lunch because eating out in Norway is expensive, but we did have several snacks, including lefse and a waffle pastry, and which L1 kept mispronouncing, “Can I have another bite of offal?” (or maybe awful).

Bergen train station, ready for Norway in a Nutshell.

Sleeping on the train.

After two busy days and two kids a bit under the weather, we decided our last day in Norway should be quiet. L1 and L2 have played with the toys of our host family, and we found a playground hidden on the mossy slopes with a long slide that the kids slid down over and over. Now, only three more plane rides and three days before we are “back safe, home again” as Richard Scarry says.

Misty hike in the woods.

Favorite slide at the park. No ladder, just climb up the hillside and over the boulders.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Travel catch up

One of our last beach days in Rafina, Greece. Look at that lovely blue water!

Since I haven’t kept up with posting here recently, this entry is intended as a quick catch up of events. Since my last post, we visited Prague and said goodbye to Greece. Prague is a picturesque city where even the New Town is more than 600 years old. We stayed with friends and the boys’ favorite part of the trip was no doubt playing with their children. We have discovered that outings with other children are generally easier and more enjoyable because the kids keep each other entertained and the adults can trade off watching the kids. Our visit was too short, but we had a fantastic time in Prague.

Bubble street performer in Prague

The kids riding in a horse-drawn carriage around  Old Town. The Tyn Church is in the background. Tycho Brahe is buried there. 

We finished our stay in Rafina, Greece at the beginning of May. We enjoyed over-wintering there, and saw the spring arrive. A wide range of plants seems to thrive in the Mediterranean climate, from redbud (Cercis sp) to agave, orange trees, and pomegranate. As we left, the weather was starting to become truly beautiful and I can see why May is the beginning of the tourist season. But even through the winter we had lovely days and the water was always amazingly clear and turquoise blue.

Outside the Tower of London. Also note the Shard skyscraper.

At the top of the London Eye.

Tower Bridge

We followed spring to London, where we spent two days before taking the train to Aviemore, Scotland in the highlands. J attended TRACE (Tree Rings, Archaeology, Climate, and Ecology conference) and the boys and I enjoyed a few days in a lodge at the MacDonald resort. The daffodils and apple trees were blooming, and rabbits could be seen nibbling grass. The last night of the conference ended with a ceilidh; we hired a babysitter for the kids, and J and I made a date night of it. The banquet started with haggis ceremonially presented by a bagpiper, and ended with everyone taking part in traditional dancing. It was fun and chaotic, and we were all breathless by the end.

Woodland Lodge at MacDonald Resorts, Aviemore, Scotland

From Aviemore, we took the train to Edinburgh. Our first full day here was Mother’s Day. My pick for a Mother’s Day tradition has been to hike somewhere. We have done two Mother’s Day hikes in Indiana; last year was in the White Tanks, Arizona. And this year, we hiked Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh; this one will be hard to top. Clouds building up over the hills made the sky dynamic, and the hills were covered with the yellow blooms of scotch broom. The kids impressively climbed up the entire way, and rode our shoulders down. We tired L2 out, and he fell asleep almost as soon as we got to a path flat enough to pull out the stroller. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the National Museum of Scotland (free admittance and very kid friendly), ending with a full afternoon tea at the Tower Restaurant in the Museum (crust less sandwiches, scones, Dundee cake, cookies, and fruit tarts). When we left Rafina, with all the details of wrapping up our stay there, I felt more ready to go home than to start traveling again. But even with the planes and trains, this last week has felt like a holiday as every day we are treated to lovely scenery, venerable buildings, and even the sound of bagpipes out our window.

Edinburgh in the rain

Mother's Day hike up Arthur's Seat

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Delphi, Mycenae, and Napflio

Last week I was a little homesick. It could have been that Jim was traveling, and it was rainy so the kids and I had to stay inside, and it was rather a bear of a day with the kids “testing their boundaries,” or pushing my buttons, or however you want to say that they were misbehaving. We are at about the halfway point in our European stay, and my thoughts have turned to home more often. We have also visited many of the major places in Greece that we wanted to go, and I feel our time here drawing to a close.  Of course there is much, much more that we could see and do (the islands of Santorini and Crete top the list), but I feel like I’ve had a sampling of many of Greece’s main attractions. We have visited two islands (Mykonos and Hydra) and Athens several times. For our last major excursion in Greece, we rented a car to drive to Delphi, and then to Mycenae on the Peloponnese, seeing more of Greece’s landscapes, from mountains to olive groves, along the way. I asked an archaeologist who works in Greece what her "must-see" sites were, and Delphi and Mycenae topped her list. They were both truly impressive, and well worth the drive; I'm so glad we were able to visit them.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi

L2 overlooking the Delphi theater

J, L1, and L2 at the stadium, Delphi

Athenian treasury, Delphi 

Delphi: breath-taking classical Greek site on Mount Parnassus, among the pines. Known for the temple to Apollo and the oracle.
Stayed at the Pythos Rooms.
Feat of endurance: carrying both kids up the mountain to the stadium shortly before the site closed.
Kids’ favorite: eating cookies and playing with a Greek boy outside the museum.
J’s favorite: being in the mountains.

Sanctuary of Athena, Delphi

Ancient Mycenae: massive, stonewalled, fortified city dating to around 1350 BC.
Most impressive: the Lion Gate.
Kids’ favorite part: building pine needle houses while waiting for mom to tour the museum, and drinking fizzy lemonade while waiting for dad to tour the museum.
I will remember the scent of orange blossoms, the buzzing of bees among the wildflowers growing thickly among great blocks of stone, and the chatter of French school kids.
Stayed at the Petite Planete, which served an excellent dinner and breakfast on the patio.

The Lion Gate

Grave Circle A, where Heinrich Schliemann excavated the "Mask of Agamemnon"  

Photo by L2

L1 at Mycenae

Drove to Napflio on a whim because the guidebook described it as the prettiest town in Greece.
Built in the 1700s, it has three massive stone forts protecting the city. Today, it has an abundance of gelato shops.
Kids’ favorite part: fruity drinks by the sea.

Napflio fortress with bougainvillea

Prettiest setting for a playground, Napflio

Sleeping at last on the way home.