April is almost over, so I wanted to make sure I got this post in while it was still somewhat relevant. Last year we didn’t get a chance to participate in the embassy Easter party for the kids as we were in Amsterdam at the time. This year we managed to visit the St. John’s Wood Easter Fayre, have a fun egg hunt organized by some embassy people in the communal garden in front of our apartment building, AND make it to the official embassy Easter Egg Hunt with an official costumed Easter Bunny. So I think we can safely now check off Easter in London.

We also had some Foreign Service friends visiting from Prague. So we got to spend some quality time with them, hit a pub and squeeze in a lovely afternoon tea for the girls. I’m afraid I’m turning into a bit of a snob when it comes to afternoon tea. So many places serve the same sandwiches: cucumber, egg and cress, smoked salmon, and roast beef. I don’t mind the last two, but the first two are getting really old and boring for the price. So I’m starting to chase places with an exciting sandwich menu.

And we nailed it with the Marie Antoinette Afternoon Tea at the Belgraves Hotel in Knightsbridge. We were a bit late as Google maps pegged it about a block from where it actually was. But the restaurant was lovely and we had a fun little booth with a massive colorful pink tea presentation with a fantastic variety of sweet and savory treats. We even received “champagne flavor pearls” as a take-home gift. It was quite a bit more expensive than your average tea. But it sure made for a nice change.

The list of items on the tea tray.

The list of items on the tea tray.

Our champagne flavor pearls.

Our champagne flavor pearls.

The fantastically colorful Marie Antoinette Afternoon Tea.

The fantastically colorful Marie Antoinette Afternoon Tea.

A few days later I got to meet up with another friend that I’d gone to college with in France who hadn’t been able to make it down to Spain for the Girls’ Weekend. So it was great to see her again after so many years and to meet her really cool 8-year-old daughter who spent one evening playing video games with my husband. :)

But before that, I spent the morning with them seeing a few sites around London, and we started our day off right with chocolate crepes. Then they came over to our place in the evening for the above video games, pizza and great catching up. I even got to dig out the photo album from our time in France, which I hadn’t dragged down to Spain. So even though Amsterdam was a lot of fun last year. This year, it was nice to be surrounded by friends.

Our morning seeing the sites.

Our morning seeing the sites.

Ha! I came across this on Facebook the other day. Hopefully the author will forgive me if I leave it unattributed to protect her privacy. We pack out at the end of June. So I think I can safely say I’m approaching Stage 2.

Stage 1 Denial: We’ve got 7 months until packout. TRA LA LA LA.

Stage 2 Anger: We are never buying anything ever again. Do you REALLY need to keep those socks from 9th grade?! They are missing three toes!

Stage 3 Bargaining: Okay, if you haul all the consummables crap from the car, I will go through and sort the clothes to get rid of. Please, not another Costco trip, please. Dear God, I beg of you. We don’t need shampoo! Who uses shampoo these days, I mean, really? We can just go au natural.

Stage 4 Depression: The movers are coming tomorrow and our UAB and HHE is still not fully sorted. Pretty sure we just guaranteed ourselves a miserable life.

Stage 5 Acceptance: The movers are here. There is nothing else we can do, time has run out. Bring the wine and anchor down beside me on the couch. We might never see all this crap again, but really, who cares? Mmm…wine.

Wikipedia.

Wikipedia photo.

That’s right, people! Season six is coming up, and everyone that follows the show has probably heard that it’s going to be the final season. Sadly, we won’t be here when it airs. But it’s been fun being a few months ahead of the folks in the States for spoilers. ;) But while we were here, we couldn’t miss the chance to see the location in person. So we threw an extra day onto our holiday weekend and went to Highclere Castle last Thursday.

Since it’s still a family residence and also an active filming location, it’s only open at certain times throughout the year…two weeks at the end of March (and beginning of April), six days in May, and then for two months between July and September (closed Friday and Saturdays). They usually have two sessions that you can sign up for: a morning and an afternoon.

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Approach from the main gate.

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Me in front of Downton Abbey!

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Catering tents perhaps?

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A lovely view with daffodils.

We were able to get tickets directly from the castle website to visit during their spring opening, which were about £20 each for access to the house, the gardens and the Egyptian exhibit. The site currently says they’re sold out for the rest of 2015 (glad we got in when we did!!). But you can also book through various tour operators like Viator that include transportation from London and trips to other Downton Abbey filming locations nearby. So they might have a certain amount set aside for them.

The house itself was absolutely gorgeous, of course, although slightly smaller than it seems on screen. But the things you can’t see on TV are the amazing amount of detail in the rooms (the gothic main hall is phenomenal) and all the family photos and memorabilia scattered throughout the house. They even had specific rooms labeled if they were used in the show, which was a lot of fun to see.

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The library (internet photo).

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The state dining room (internet photo).

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The amazing Gothic main hall (internet photo).

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The drawing room (internet photo).

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Cora’s bedroom (internet photo).

And the grounds are stunning. If I had to do it again, I’d probably go during the summer so we could see the gardens in full bloom. But we did get to see some sweet lambs in the pastures along the roads. They also had some fun architectural elements throughout the 1,100-acre park that is their back yard, like a bust of Charlemagne, the Temple of Diana, and the Jackdaw’s Castle, which is an 18th century folly built purely to look pretty from the castle.

I would not, however, recommend the Egyptian exhibit to anyone who’s claustrophobic. The collection is interesting as it was all brought back by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who famously discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Kind of major. ;) But where the house has nice high ceilings in all the rooms, the exhibit is in a little rabbit warren of basement rooms with unnaturally low ceilings. These were also quite crowded with other people. So I spent about 20 seconds looking at the first few items and then promptly shoved my way back outside before I freaked out.

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Picnic lunch.

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The Jackdaw’s Castle.

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Spring lambs!

Once recovered from that, they have a nice little gift shop to distract you and a couple cafes. We picked up some sandwiches and a tiny split of champagne and enjoyed our “picnic” on one of the plastic tables scattered around near the stables, complete with horses in them.

We’d left our son at nursery school that day. So it was a blissfully relaxed self-guided tour with my hubby, with lovely long walks throughout the grounds, and the return traffic wasn’t even too stressful. It’s only about an hour and a half west of central London. So if you get the chance, I would highly recommend it!!!

I didn’t think any place could be stricter on pet immigration than the UK. But I was wrong. If you’d like to see what we went through to get our cat here, check out this post from 2013.

So I thought we might have a leg up coming from the UK since there’s no rabies here. But apparently that’s just one of the things they check for in Iceland.

We like the airline-approved travel kennels from Petmate.

We like the airline-approved travel kennels from Petmate.

Happily the really helpful and awesome people at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) know that there are quite a few steps involved with the importation process and will send you a handy checklist and ask you to do the following:

  1. Apply for an import permit through MAST.
  2. Pay for import permit. I put this as its own item because your first instinct will try to be to pay in the requested Icelandic kronur. But shockingly, very few banks outside of Iceland actually deal with Icelandic kronur (including USAA, Bank of America, and even our local British bank). And they will also charge you a fee to transfer the sum internationally. But if you ask the really nice folks at MAST if they will give you an exchanged rate, you can then transfer the cost of your permit in your local currency, which for us was £175 ($260 USD).
  3. Make a reservation at one of the two quarantine facilities (einangrun.is or www.hvatastadir.is). That’s right, four weeks of quarantine is mandatory no matter where you’re coming from. And they will burn anything that shows up in the carrier other than your pet. So don’t send along your pet’s favorite blanket or squeaky toy. Einangrun is near Keflavik, and Hvatastadir is somewhere in the north. Quarantine for a cat will cost 145,000 ISK (currently about $1,050), and for dogs it’s more based on their size. They only allow animals into quarantine on certain days, so make sure and check the online schedule. I didn’t have any luck getting a hold of them directly via email. But they were responsive to phone calls and also replied via email once I’d completed the online reservation form.

Note: We’ve also discovered if you’re looking to adopt a dog from a breeder in Iceland they generally tack on an extra $1,000, because they know you’d have to pay for quarantine if you brought your own into the country. And you can’t bring in any animal under five months old.

  1. Contact your veterinarian and set up three appointments: one for shots (MAST will let you know which ones are required) at least 30 days before import, one for a fecal test (ew) within 30 days of import, and one to complete and sign an import health certificate within 10 days of import.
  2. Figure out how you’re going to get your pet from wherever you live to Iceland. All pets can only come into the international airport at Keflavik. The folks at quarantine will process your pet through customs and take them to the facility. Your pet can arrive one of two ways:
    a.  As manifest cargo through a freight forwarder. The one we were looking at in the UK was going to charge us £526.50 ($775 USD)) for a four-hour flight, and would require an export permit at £165.00 ($245 USD), for a grand total of $1,020 USD.
    b. Or as accompanied baggage with a human passenger for the miniscule Icelandair fee of €44 ($47 USD). So yes, it might actually be cheaper to book a human on a roundtrip flight just to drop off your pet.
  3. Send a copy of the health certificate to MAST, and make sure all the original paperwork is attached to the outside of the carrier when it goes on the flight.
  4. Wait one month, and pick up your pet!

…who will either be damned glad to see you, or will piss in your shoes for leaving her! Good luck!

I was a very religious child growing up and did quite a bit of Bible reading in my day. I was more of a New Testament fan though and didn’t spend too much time on books like Job. Such a downer.

But I came across this passage today…completely out of context…and don’t remember ever reading it. But I love it!

Out of whose womb came the ice?
And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone,
And the face of the deep is frozen. 

-Job 38:29-30

Now that’s just great poetry! Had to share it. :)

Roses beginning to bloom with a carousel in the background.

Roses beginning to bloom with a carousel in the background.

Last weekend we had, not one, but two Easter events…even though Easter was still two weeks away. The first one was the community Easter Fayre on Saturday in St. John’s Wood that raises funds for the local hospice. We’d gone to the summer fair last year, but hadn’t planned very well and ended up having a bit of an emotional blowout at the end.

So this time we planned accordingly, we made sure we had enough money for everyone to eat and drink something…last year we only brought enough for a snack and a few fair rides for our son at £3 each. We also waited in a long line to see Peppa Pig, which made him antsy.

He was still napping at the time, and we stayed for four hours through his nap, so he was exhausted at the end. And there was just a ridiculous amount of people in the summer, so he was way over stimulated.

The Easter Fayre by comparison was far less crowded…probably due to the fact that it was 45F degrees outside and sprinkling rain. We brought lots of cash and ate doughnuts and Greek kabobs and savory crepes with spinach and mushrooms and cheese. I even had a bit of wine in a plastic cup…I was hoping for mulled wine on a chilly day…but settled for the regular red variety.

One of the yummy food stalls.

One of the yummy food stalls.

And our son played an “everyone’s a winner” game and got to pick out his own prize…he chose a toy rifle. I was actually relieved as he’d been eyeing the large bow and arrow set for a few minutes. Phew!

We stayed for less than three hours this time and even managed to get some face painting in. Our son has only had his face painted once before…a tiny pumpkin on his cheek for Halloween when we first arrived. This time he went full tiger, and it was super cute!

By the end of the day though he’d become quite self-conscious as everyone kept commenting on it. When we were walking home he would duck his head so that people we passed wouldn’t see his face. I asked him why, and he said he didn’t want them to think he was a real tiger and be afraid of him. ;)

Our son getting his face painted.

Our son getting his face painted.

The second event was organized by one of the embassy families that goes to our son’s nursery school and lives in the same apartment building. They invited some more families from work, so there ended up being around a dozen kids and two dozen parents.

We started with a lovely little get-together in their apartment, then proceeded out to the garden for a good old-fashioned Easter egg hunt. The kids had a blast, and then our son ran back to our apartment to open his prizes and couldn’t be coaxed out again.

So I left him with Daddy and went back to enjoy the party, which involved champagne cocktails, chocolate croissants and cheese platters with the other parents. Definitely a successful early Easter weekend celebration. :)

Lecture flyer.

I was able to attend a panel discussion on the Future of the Arctic at the British Library for work on Monday. And it was really interesting!

The panel was made up of a “Panel Chair” to direct the conversation, mediate and encourage questions, and four field experts made up of Alan Kessel (Deputy High Commissioner for Canada), Ed Heartney (Counsellor for ESTH issues at US Embassy London), Lord Teverson (Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic) and Dr. Gabrielle Walker (scientist, author and broadcaster).

And it was a clever mix of people for the panel as Canada is the outgoing Chair of the Arctic Council, and the US will be taking over Chairmanship of the Council from May 2015-2017. And since my next post is Iceland, I was definitely keen to hear what they had to say.

If you’ve not heard of the the Arctic Council, it’s a governmental group made up of members from the countries that ring the Arctic Ocean: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Their goal is to protect the arctic environment and it’s animal and human populations. It also includes six Arctic indigenous groups, and several other countries have signed up as observers.

The two most dynamic members of the panel were Lord Teverson and Dr. Walker. It was very easy to imagine Lord Teverson arguing points dramatically in the House of Lords as he spoke with strength and confidence and projected his voice to the back of the room. And Dr. Walker was obviously very passionate about issues at both poles, had been to Antarctica (instant favorite), and was able to paint a beautiful mental picture of how she felt on her first visit to the Arctic .

If you’d like to see some of their work, you can read the House of Lords’ report on the Arctic on the UK Parliament website.

And Dr. Walker has published several books that are available on Amazon, including Antarctica, Snowball Earth, An Ocean of Air, and The Hot Topic.

Since Russia is also on the Arctic Council and has made quite controversial headlines in the news this last year, I think the only thing that would’ve made the discussion more interesting was if they’d had a Russian panel member.

Daffodils in front of the London Eye (internet photo).

Daffodils in front of the London Eye (internet photo).

Since I returned from Spain last weekend, the weather in London has been sunny and gorgeous with temperatures in the 50s. The fruit trees are suddenly flowering, and there’s a really bright cheerful yellow something-or-other blooming along the bus route on the way to work. The daffodils and crocuses in front of our apartment are in full swing. So it seems that spring has arrived!!

But for some reason, I’m a little down about it. Maybe it’s because we had another pathetic winter in London, so it doesn’t feel like it should be over yet if it never really arrived. And also, this is the final stretch of our tour. So once spring transitions into summer, we are out of here!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really looking forward to a summer holiday and home leave and our new life in Reykjavik. But on the flip side there is the joy that is packing up your entire house and unpacking it somewhere else. Putting the cat in quarantine. Taking 15-hour flights with a preschooler. Waiting for your car to arrive. It all just sounds like a pain in the ass. And we really have had a lovely tour. I feel like so many things will be left undone, so many places unvisited.

Maybe part of it is also because we barely left the house last month and have all had colds for weeks on end. We made it to one theatre show and to the Tower, and that’s about it. April looks like it’s going to be packed with fun though. We have not one, not two, but THREE separate groups of friends coming to visit. There’s a community Easter Fayre as well as the Embassy Easter party for the kids, and a visit to Highclere Castle (home of Downton Abbey) planned.

But there’s still a huge list of things to do and see, most of which I’m sure we’ll never get to like:

  • Going to Scotland for the Highland Games
  • Visiting the Keys Creek Lavender Fields
  • The Henley Royal Regatta, and the Royal Ascot
  • The Natural History Museum
  • Bletchley Park
  • The English School of Falconry in Bedfordshire
  • Fishbourne Roman Palace & Gardens
  • Watts Chapel in Surrey
  • The Museum of Somerset
  • Wells Cathedral
  • Fishbourne Roman Palace & Gardens
  • Sherwood Forest
  • The Scott Polar Research Center Museum in Cambridge
  • Goodrich Castle and Puzzlewood Forest
  • Stowe Landscape Gardens

…and entire towns like Brighton, Penzance, St. Ives, York, Whitby, Lindisfarne, Lincoln, Durham, Scarborough, Bath…not to mention most of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

So ya, I still have a massive bucket list, and I’ll be happy if we get to even 1/4 of it in the next few months. I’m not ready for spring yet.

Last weekend I flew to Spain to meet up with a British girlfriend (we’ll call LH) who lives there, and it was so much fun! We were roommates during our respective study abroad programs in France in 1992-93. And I remember her fondly not just for being a great roommate and a wonderful friend but for also taking me around town on a pub crawl on my milestone 21st birthday while we visited her family in Cambridge over the Christmas holidays. She’d also popped over to see me once when I was living in Florida. And I’d popped over to visit her later when she was living in Manchester.

Now that we were on the same continent, we had to get together! We’d talked about trying to get my family down to meet her family…husbands and sons and all. But it looked like it was going to be a bit expensive and take a bit of logistical coordination. So in the end, we decided it would be much easier, cheaper and possibly more fun to just have a girls’ weekend somewhere in between. I was originally thinking Paris or Madrid, but we eventually settled on something quieter in the town of Alicante. And it turned out to be a perfect host city. Paris or Madrid wouldn’t have been nearly as relaxing.

I flew down on Friday from London and arrived around 4:00pm. It was a short €20 cab ride from the municipal airport to the Hotel Sercotel Spa Porta Maris, and we were right on a pier in the heart of the city with a lovely view along the harbor on one side and a Mediterranean beach on the other. After I checked in, I leisurely made my way down to the lounge for a glass of wine, a bite to eat and a view of the sea while I waited for my friend.

Flying into Alicante on a little prop plane from Madrid.

Flying into Alicante on a little prop plane from Madrid.

View of downtown from the hotel balcony.

View of downtown from the hotel balcony.

A little dinner on the Mediterranean.

A little dinner on the Mediterranean.

LH still had to work that day, so she drove up from Lorca a few hours later and arrived around 9:30pm armed with bottles of Spanish wine and cheese, olives, tomatoes, and a baguette. Needless to say, we stayed up until all hours of the night with the door to the balcony open wide eating, drinking and catching up on the last 15 years…and it was like no time had passed.

The next morning, we took advantage of the spa at our hotel and spent a good two hours soaking in the dry sauna, the steam room, the swimming pool, and three temperatures of Jacuzzi hot tub…although technically one of them was freezing cold. What a fantastic way to spend a morning!

As my official local tour guide, LH then gave me the choice of how we should spend our day…siteseeing at the local museums and the nearby ninth-century Santa Bárbara Castle, or sidewalk café-hopping in the sun. I chose option two, and we spent the rest of the day wandering along the wide Esplanada de España and through the narrow streets dotted with palm trees, tiled street signs and pastel buildings looking for suitable cafés, tapas restaurants and cervecerias.

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The lovely long esplanade with wavy marble design.

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Sidewalk cafe (behind the bus stop)…pastel buildings…and castle.

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Yours truly enjoying a “tinto de verano”…aka a “red wine of summer.”

LH as we wandered through the backstreets and alleys.

LH as we wandered through the backstreets and alleys.

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Pretty Soho cafe in the square Portal de Elche with four old Moreton Bay Fig Trees.

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Colorful tile street sign.

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Sunset at the harbor.

Eventually we made it back to the hotel for a rest, a little more wine and food to fortify us for the evening, and then we stepped across the street for some international karaoke. The place was relatively empty when we arrived at 10:30pm, but by the time we left at midnight, it was full. They also had a great selection of songs in English, Spanish and French (and probably German and Italian)…all of which we heard that night and made for a great European flair.

The next morning didn’t dawn quite so pleasantly. But we still managed to get a bit of a sleep in, and then I had to pack for the airport. It was a quick trip, but it was so wonderful to see my friend again and have a chance to catch up and relax and enjoy each other’s company in such a lovely setting. We should make it an annual event!! Here’s hoping that we will still be able to get the boys together someday before the little ones are off to college. ;)

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