Before we even arrived in the UK, my hubby had wanted to do the VIP Supercar Experience. I’d seen it advertised on Living Social a few times, and it looked pretty cool. So when it came up again right before his birthday, I snapped it up. It was the only real gift I got him other than our trip to Scotland.

And can I just say how much I love Living Social?? It was on sale for £90, and when I went to make the reservation with our voucher on the website, I saw that it normally retails for over £450, which at the moment is over $700 USD. Personally I can’t imagine paying anywhere NEAR that amount for a few trips in a car around a track. But happily we didn’t have to, and the boys had a really good time.

The track is north of London up in Hemel Hempstead. My hubby got to self-drive three laps each in all three of the following vehicles: a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Porsche 911 Turbo, and an Audi R8 V10 Spyder. (The 2015 MSRPs for those vehicles are approximately $215K, $150K, and $130K.)

He also got to do a couple laps as a passenger with a professional driver in a KTM X-bow. Surprisingly, he enjoyed the ride in the Porsche the best…I would’ve thought the Lamborghini would be the most impressive. But apparently it was really uncomfortable, and the Turbo was a little monster.

Our son also got to have a spin in the KTM for an extra £20, which I was far from comfortable with. Anytime I have to sign a waiver for my four-year-old in case of accidental death and then let him drive off with a total stranger…I am not going to be happy. But my hubby assured me all would be well…and it was. He had a blast! And the driver got a kick out of it as well.

The line up.

The line up…all right hand drive.

The Lamborghini Gallardo.

My hubby in the Lamborghini Gallardo.

The pro driver and our son in the KTM.

The pro driver and our son in the KTM.

I think the most stressful part of the day was the actual drive from London to the track. I had Googled it the day before and printed out a nice little map to compliment my hubby’s occasionally spotty GPS, and it had quoted us a time of about 35 mins. So we left 90 minutes early. Once we plugged in the GPS, it gave us an estimated travel time of 1 hour and 56 mins for a journey of less than 25 miles.

Needless to say, I freaked out. Apparently there was a huge accident on one of the roads leading off of the highway. But we gave it a shot anyway, decided to bypass our suggested exit, take the next one, and spent the next 30 minutes winding our way through terrifying single-lane country roads stuffed between tall hedgerows. More than once we had to throw it in reverse to find the last pull out and evade oncoming traffic.

But we finally made it with minutes to spare…only to find out that they were accommodating all the late comers from the morning who had stayed on the highway…so we ended up sitting and waiting for the better part of two hours. But the boys still enjoyed it, and the drive home was much more relaxing by comparison.

 

I am a planner. And I like to think that I’m a very good one. As you can imagine, one of the things that requires a great deal of planning is the arrival and departure process between posts. You end up with a to-do list that’s a mile long and looks something like this:

  • Register for training class at FSI.
  • Request temp housing in DC.
  • Begin vaccinations and registration process for cat quarantine.
  • Book vacation rental for home leave.
  • Update medical clearances.
  • Give notice to nursery school (1 month in advance).
  • Submit request for travel orders.
  • Request all plane tickets through travel office.
  • Book cat transport with airline.
  • Internal embassy checkout procedures (return house keys, etc).
  • Cancel cable and internet.
  • Close local bank account.
  • Change car insurance policy.
  • Update all postal addresses.

And that’s just a partial list. In order to do all of these things, you need one key element. Dates!!

WHEN would you like to attend training?
WHEN are you going to be leaving post?
WHEN do you need temporary housing?
WHEN is your cat arriving at quarantine?
WHEN will you be needing the vacation rental?
WHEN is your child’s last day of school?
WHEN is your child’s first day of school at your next post?
WHEN can we pick up your car?
WHEN will you be vacating your residence?

Everything hinges on dates.

And I have them all meticulously sorted out so that each step flows smoothly into the next one…four days of training…the mandatory 20 business days (not including holidays) of home leave…which gets us to post about three days before school starts.

There’s just one little catch: TED…Transfer Eligibility Date.

Even though you’re a full-time employee for the Department of State, each overseas assignment is like a contract. You are given official orders that determine when you can arrive and when you can leave your overseas post.

We arrived in London in September. Our contract is for two years. You are allowed to leave post within 30 days on either side of your TED without much trouble. If you want to leave earlier than that, it requires a longer chain of approvals…starting with your supervisor.

If your supervisor doesn’t approve then it can all come crashing down around your ears…along with any illusion you may have had about being in control of your own life…and reminds you where you really stand in the scheme of things as an OMS.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

We finally made it to the Harry Potter studios!! Most of the major movies in the UK (think James Bond) are filmed at Pinewood Studios west of London, and as far as I’ve been able to determine, it’s a closed campus. Harry Potter, however, was filmed north of London at the Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, which used to be a Rolls-Royce factory and WWII airfield.

This massive 200-acre studio complex is wide open to the public. That being said, you can’t just show up…you have to pre-book your tickets online. You can also arrive on your own or take the special Harry Potter bus from London for an extra £17 per person. We opted for the bus to keep things simple, and because it looks awesome! We’ve seen it many times while waiting at random bus stops downtown.

The Harry Potter bus from London.

The Harry Potter bus from London.

Main studio entrance.

Main studio entrance.

And they’re fairly strict about entrance times. You have to select one when you buy your ticket, and they keep you in line inside waiting to open the doors until your precise ticket time. Once they open the doors, they funnel about 200+ people into a room with a large screen and show you a little “making of” clip. Then you get to enter the first part of the set, which is the Great Hall.

I had been waiting to go during the holiday season specifically because they add festive décor to various sets to mirror the ones in the films. So the Great Hall had the whole Christmas feast laid out as well as the Christmas trees and ornaments that were used during those scenes. It was truly impressive!

Cupboard under the stairs.

Cupboard under the stairs. You can see this while you’re waiting in line for the tour to start.

Great Hall holiday style.

Great Hall holiday style.

Feast table and Christmas trees.

Feast table and Christmas trees.

Cute penguin cake.

Cute snowman cake.

You’re given about 15 minutes in the Great Hall as it’s independent from the other sets, and they need to keep the traffic moving. But after that you have as much time as you’d like to wander around. The rest of the sets are all housed in one huge soundstage and are a permanent exhibition.

Other highlights of the tour include props, costumes and major sets, such as Dumbledore’s Office, Diagon Alley, the Ministry of Magic, Gryffindor Common Room and Boys’ Dormitory, Hagrid’s Hut and a 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts Castle, which was dusted with snow for the winter theme. I also loved the Yule Ball ice sculpture prop and testing out the brooms and flying car with the family on the green screen.

Yule Ball ice sculpture prop.

Yule Ball ice sculpture prop.

Close up of amazing detail.

Close up of amazing detail.

Harry & Ron's room.

Harry & Ron’s room.

Potions class with Snape costume.

Potions class with Snape costume.

Just a few of the MANY potion bottles.

Just a few of the MANY potion bottles.

Diagon Alley.

Diagon Alley.

Ministry of Magic.

Ministry of Magic.

Snake door from Chamber of Secrets.

Snake door from Chamber of Secrets.

Exterior lot: Privet Drive.

Exterior lot: Privet Drive.

Detail on the Hogwart's Bridge.

Detail on the Hogwart’s Bridge.

Inside the Night Bus.

Inside the Night Bus.

1:24 miniature of Hogwarts with people on the side for scale.

1:24 miniature of Hogwarts dusted with snow for the holidays and with people on the side for scale.

Me in front of Hogwarts!

Me in front of Hogwarts!

Another close up with amazing detail.

Close up of the little bridge behind me.

Our four-year-old even made it through the three hours that overlapped with his naptime without a single meltdown…although he did complain loudly about being tired a few times. I think his favorite part was running endlessly back and forth across the Hogwart’s Bridge and drinking Butter Beer. (Hint: it’s nonalcoholic and tastes like a cream soda ice cream float). So if you get a chance, I highly recommend it!

One of the fun things about planning for your next post is researching your new culture. I’ve even started a little Pinterest collection were I’m pinning all kinds of new things to see and do in Iceland. I’ve also come across a few interesting bits of art and history.

Apparently the Brits actually invaded Iceland, however politely, during WWII because Iceland was neutral, and they were concerned about German ships in the North Atlantic. The Brits eventually handed the baton to the Canadians and then the Americans.

One of the things the Americans did was build the Keflavik Naval Air Station in the early ‘40s. My great uncle was actually a Navy Seabee and posted to Iceland during this time. I still have photos that he took and coins from his collection, which I think is really cool. Unfortunately, the base (and embassy-friendly commissary) closed in 2006.

I haven’t watched it yet but there’s a 1996 Icelandic film called Djöflaeyjan (Devil’s Island) about a group of otherwise homeless families living in barracks abandoned by the US Forces after the Second World War that looks good…sad, but good.

Another really interesting-looking Icelandic film called Djúpið (The Deep) came out recently in 2012 and is based on the true story of a man who was the only survivor of a capsized fishing boat. The fact that he survived is the miraculous part as he swam for six hours in 41°F water to the nearest island.

“Reaching the shore of Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, he found himself at the most dangerous section of the islands coastline, due mainly to the waves hitting the coastal lava rock formations. When he finally got to land he had to walk across rough lava before he reached a town. When he arrived at the hospital, his body temperature was below 93°F, yet he showed only mild symptoms of hypothermia.” (Wikipedia)

The last pieces of great Icelandic art I’d like to share are by prolific painter Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval. He was born in 1885, died in 1972, studied in Copenhagen, and his work reminds me of a cross between Gustav Klimt and Where the Wild Things Are. Enjoy!

Lava at Bessastadir, 1954

Lava at Bessastadir, 1954

Skjaldey

Amazon Woman of the Mountain, 1961

Kiddi og jeg, 1950

Kiddi og Jeg, 1950

Can I just say how happy I am with the exchange rate at the moment?? When we arrived in September of last year, the exchange rate between pounds and dollars suddenly jumped and has been climbing since we’ve been here. It’s usually about 1.5 or 1.6 USD to 1 GBP (Great British Pound…or if you work at the US Embassy and are trying to confuse the locals, it’s BPS for British Pound Sterling), but at our bank it has been hovering around 1.8 for the longest time.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but for most of our tour, when I pay the £1010 GBP per month for my son’s nursery school, it costs me close to $1900 USD. Today, I paid his fees, and it was less than $1600. That’s $300 saved!! And good thing too, because things are getting kind of tight around here financially.

Normally it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But now we’re looking at transferring posts possibly in July, so it’s time to start saving for home leave, and the joy of dragging your family around the States and then back overseas…not to mention the cost of setting up shop in a new country, vehicle registration ($350 USD), quarantine ($1,100 USD), etc…

So yay for the exchange rate! And I hope it continues to descend.

2013 GBP to USD exchange rates.

2013 USD to GBP exchange rates. (source: http://www.x-rates.com)

2014 GBP to USD exchange rates.

2014 USD to GBP exchange rates.

When we were in Belize and got posted to London, all I could think of was the cheap European travel that would be at our fingertips! Paris is a quick train ride away. Ryan Air is dirt cheap and flies all over. Alas, that’s not quite how things have turned out.

Maybe when I was 20 and staying in youth hostels it was cheap. But now that we’re a family of three, I want a decent-sized hotel room in a safe neighborhood…preferably with a separate space for our son to sleep so we don’t keep him up at night. And I found out that Ryan Air is certainly cheap…but you have to fly at 4am out of crazy local airports like Luton and Stansted that are nowhere near London…not like Heathrow and Gatwick are really that close either. But still!

So in the full year that we’ve been in London, we’ve only taken three trips outside England…Russia for my birthday, Amsterdam for Easter, and Orkney for my hubby’s b-day. I know, I know…I’m sensing you’re not feeling my pain. ;)

But hopefully you can still imagine my delight when my hubby had to pop over to Dublin for a few days for work last week, and we actually had enough notice to be able to take a few days off and join him. AND Ryan Air happened to have a great rate from Gatwick to Dublin at the very reasonable time of 12:30 in the afternoon. So we managed to get a free hotel room and two roundtrip tickets for me and my son for a grand total of $184 USD. Now THAT’S the cheap European travel I was looking for!

Of course we had to pay extra if we wanted to have checked luggage or reserve seats together on the plane, so we went carry-on only…and found out that Ryan Air actually has window seats on an airplane with NO windows. I feel like that should then not be identified as a window seat…but I digress.

Unfortunately, my husband did have to work for the majority of our trip. But we had two lovely days of mommy-son bonding and were able to take in the Book of Kells and the Brian Boru harp at Trinity College Library as well as St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We also happened to be at the cathedral when they’d set up a craft table for a school group that was coming later, and they let my son quietly play with glue and cellophane while I snapped a few photos of the amazing thousand-year-old Gothic interior (founded in 1191). Although I missed the tomb of Jonathan Swift. Will have to keep an eye out for that next time.

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I have finally learned that if my son’s not happy, I’m not happy. So I also planned some fun things for him. And we spent some lovely leisure time in the playground at Stephen’s Green, fed the ducks in the pond behind our hotel, and wandered aimlessly through the interactive Dublinia Viking and medieval Dublin history museum, which I highly recommend to anyone with children. It also has a bridge over the road that leads to the ground floor of Christ Church Cathedral.

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Saturday was a bit more of a challenge. We had thought of doing the Viking Splash tour (their version of a duck tour in an amphibious vehicle through town and across the River Liffey), but my hubby got pulled into work in the morning. And then we had to switch hotels as we’d only been able to reserve three of the four nights in one place.

So we didn’t make the Viking Splash tour. But we did manage to make it  to lunch at the oldest pub in Dublin, The Brazen Head (1198). Unfortuantely our son stuck his finger in the candle on the table and burned it, so it was pretty much downhill from there.

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The new hotel was awesome though. It was the Clontarf Castle Hotel, which was an actual castle built in the 1500s and beautifully renovated. It also happened to be where Embassy Dublin was holding their Marine Ball. So my hubby was able to procure us two tickets before we left London, and a fellow embassy employee hooked us up with one of their babysitters who came out to the hotel so we could pop downstairs and attend their ball.

I was a little worn out and definitely not as wired as I had been for the one in London. But it was really neat to actually be able to see the ceremony this time. There were probably half the people in attendance as there were in London, so we even got pieces of the birthday cake! And mine happened to have the word “Marine” across it. I thought that was pretty cool and was a great way to end our trip to Dublin.

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I was excited about going to the Marine Ball before we even joined the Foreign Service. I’d read about them in FS blogs, and loved the idea of celebrating such a significant occasion and having an excuse to get dressed up. Kind of like the Midwinter Dinner in Antarctica. Three years after joining, we finally got a chance to go.

Our first post was too small to have Marines, so there was obviously no Marine Ball. Last year, the ball was about a month after we arrived, we didn’t know anyone, had no babysitters, my hubby’s job hadn’t started yet, and we had spent most of our savings on home leave. Not to mention that the venue was out in Greenwich, which is like an hour away and real pain to get to, AND they were charging $250 USD PER PERSON. Not to mention the cost of said fancy clothes. So ya, we skipped it.

This year, on the other hand, they cut the ticket prices in half and held it at an amazing venue: the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which is gorgeous and historic (built in 1997 to look just like the one built nearby in 1599)…and was only 20 minutes away by taxi. So I guess it should’ve come as no surprise that the tickets literally sold out in five hours. Happily, I managed to wander on over at the right time and bought two of the last five tickets they had.

But as the event drew closer, my enthusiasm started to wane. For one thing: we weren’t able to get seats at the same table. So our romantic evening out would be spent separately. All we could do was hope that we knew some of the people at the tables where we were seated.

View of St. Paul's from south of the Thames.

View of St. Paul’s from south of the Thames.

Me in front of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

Me in front of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Me and Shakespeare.

Me and Shakespeare.

And the clothing was becoming a problem. My hubby ordered a custom kilt for the event several months ahead of time. But his family’s clan is an old one and relatively rare. So it didn’t arrive in time. He had to go rent a different one instead.

And don’t get me started on the dress. Months before the ball, I ordered a lovely little dress from David’s Bridal. A month later, it still hadn’t arrived. I contacted them, and they had no record of the order. So I tried something locally, as time was running out. I found two lovely (and cheap!) purple dresses on eBayUK and ordered those. They arrived quickly and were beautiful! Technically they fit…but they looked AWFUL on me. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten to shop for my body type. So I decided that separates would be the way to go.

I ordered a black sequined skirt from another site that I thought was in the UK. Turns out it was actually in Los Angeles…and three weeks later, my order was still “pending fulfillment.” They didn’t respond to my attempts at contact, further internet research said they were a scam. So I had my bank reverse the charges.

By that time, I had pretty much given up on a glamorous night out and just wanted to wear something that wasn’t horrible. Finally, I ended up walking a couple blocks up the street to Marks and Spencer…and spent a mere £39.50 for a long black satin skirt. The night of the ball, I pulled a green blouse out of my closet from Dress Barn that I’d bought a while ago but never worn.

I still tried to make the event somewhat special though. I made a hair appointment and got some nice ‘40s waves. Then I let my four-year-old son pick out a nail polish color, and he actually picked one that matched better than the one I originally had. I put on the sparkly jewelry I had worn at our wedding, and voila! Time to party!!

Champagne!

Champagne!

One side of the room.

One side of the gorgeous room (yes, that’s a giant tree on the left…no, it wasn’t real).

Candelabra with drippy candles.

Candelabra with drippy candles.

Our sitter arrived on time and was pleasant and professional. Her mother was also one of the nurses at the embassy, so we figured our son would be in good hands. We had decided to take a taxi and save my feet walking to and from the tube station in heels (thank god!), but became slightly nervous when we read that half of the downtown bridges would be closed due to the Lord Mayor’s parade and Guy Fawkes Night celebrations. But it all worked out in the end. We directed the driver over the Westminster Bridge, and there was hardly any traffic.

We had only one more hurdle to overcome. We had accepted the fact that we wouldn’t be sitting together. But when my hubby got to the table where he’d been assigned (we’d double checked the seating chart on the way in)…the table was full, and there was no seat for him. So when the ceremony started he was the only one in the room…standing politely next to his table…waiting for the staff to sort it out. So instead of squeezing a 12th chair into his 10-top that had obviously been screwed up, we kidnapped him over to our table, the staff brought him a chair and a place setting, and the rest was history.

The decorations were beautiful, the champagne was flowing, and the food was great. We got to sit together after all and actually knew (and liked!) all of the people at my table. My hubby looked great in his rented kilt, and I got lots of compliments on my hair. We even got a few dances in and witnessed one Marine proposing to his girlfriend, which was super sweet, before we had to get home to the sitter. The party lasted until 2am, but we made it home around midnight since the poor girl had a 45-minute commute, and we knew our son would be up at the crack of dawn anyway.

The only really disappointing part of the evening was the fact that our table was placed behind a huge pillar…so I actually wasn’t able to see a single part of the Marine cake-cutting ceremony. But hopefully CLO will have some pictures up eventually and our professional portraits will arrive as well.

But I can honestly say that we truly enjoyed our very first Marine Ball! Happy 239th birthday, Marines!!

iceland flag

…Reykjavik!! Woo hoo!! I am beyond excited about this. I spent almost three weeks in Iceland as a tourist back in 1999. At the time I was transitioning between jobs and relationships, and it was the isolationist break that I needed to really ponder what I was doing and where I was going with my life. And the country was absolutely stunning geographically and culturally with so many amazing natural resources.

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Me (far right) and the group of travellers I met on the road. Together at Jökulsárlón glacier lake.

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Me at the Arctic Circle sign on the island of Grismey (left), checking out one of the many geothermal vents on the tourist trail (right).

I had wanted to bid on Reykjavik the minute I saw it on the projected bid list. But preliminary conversations with the school informed me that they were dropping their kindergarten program, so my son would have no school. And they don’t have much for EFM jobs because the embassy is so small.

But then my husband found a position that he is now actively pursuing as a direct hire, so he might be away from post training at some point anyway. And we’ve heard of a few other possibilities in Reykjavik if that doesn’t pan out. And a new international school opened up with a kindergarten program that would accept my son’s “late” birthdate. So Reykjavik was suddenly back on the table!!

The bidding process was predictable yet stressful at the same time. Not necessarily because of its lack of transparency but because it took so long! We “lobbied” for five posts including Reykjavik and submitted our bids the first week of August when bidding season opened. But it didn’t close until the middle of October. Who needs the better part of three months to submit a bid list??

In the meantime, I contacted the posts I was really interested in and sent them my materials and the NINE references some of them requested. I had several phone interviews and one in-person as the hiring manager was in London for a conference. Two of the posts I didn’t hear a peep out of the entire time.

Three of them expressed interest in hiring me but forced me to tell them how they were ranked on MY list of priorities, which was probably the most stressful part. What if our #1 didn’t want us after all, and now #2 and #3 weren’t interested because they didn’t think we were?? In the end, I just went for utter honesty to keep things simple. And we were blessed with our first choice. So thanks to the Universe for keeping it all together!!

I recently came across this group on a great travel blog (Unlocking Kiki), and although I’m at the upper end of their demographic (21-45), it looks like a really neat organization for women living abroad and looking to meet up with like-minded ladies.

They’re called Girl Gone International, but I keep transposing the first two words thanks to the movie that just came out. They’re still working on their website, but they have a magazine that you can subscribe to that looks like a fun cross between Cosmo and Condé Nast Traveller.

They also have fun little travel posters like these (obviously not in numerical order). Oh, how true they are.

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One of the things that I was really looking forward to when we arrived last year was the embassy Halloween party for the kids. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a little disappointing. It was a tad disorganized and chaotic, we’d barely been here a month and didn’t really know anyone, and there were people intentionally scaring the little children and making them cry, which REALLY made me angry.

So this year, I had pretty much decided to skip the embassy Halloween and venture out into the neighborhood for some traditional trick-or-treating instead. I had seen a few costumed kids cruising around by our apartment last year and was pleasantly surprised that there would be enough interest here in London. Plus this year they had the embassy party on the same day as the actual holiday, so it kind of had to be one or the other.

And I’m so glad we chose to go out! We dressed our son up as a knight since we’re in the UK (even though he wanted to be a Transformer…maybe next year), met up with some friends…namely Spiderman and Superman, and hit the pavement.

I had read about the best neighborhoods near us for trick-or-treating and plotted them out on a map so we wouldn’t be wasting our time in candy-less cross streets. But I really need not have bothered. There were probably a thousand people out roaming around, and a ton of houses got into the spirit of things, so to speak.

I truly cannot emphasize enough how many people were out. We started our evening around 6:30pm and came across at least half a dozen houses that had “out of candy” signs on them already. And who could blame them? You’d have to spend hundreds of dollars to fill that many buckets. But after an hour, we managed to score a decent little load, which we then supplemented from our kitchen stores, and everyone was happy!

We ended the evening with drinks for the grown-ups back at our place while the kids continued to run around the apartment in costume occasionally asking someone to open a candy wrapper that was too tough for them to tackle. I think it was a great way to spend our last Halloween in London…and a great place for our son’s first official neighborhood trick-or-treating experience.

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Spiderman and our knight venturing into the dark streets of London.

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The first spooky house.

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My favorite house of the night…must be the cats in the windows.

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Another one with lots of great detail.

 

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