Posted in England, Iceland

Thanksgiving Trip to London

We stayed in a vacation rental just off of Marylebone High Street.

Tomorrow is December 1, so I think I can say, “Happy Holidays!” and not be too late for Thanksgiving or too early for Christmas. I hope you all had a lovely Turkey Day. We took advantage of our federal holiday and some ridiculously low airfares on EasyJet (£75 each roundtrip!), added a few leave days and went to London for the week!

And what a fabulous trip it was too…for A and I anyway. My hubby is dealing with some medical issues that he’s not thrilled about, so he was a bit stressed and spent several hours in doctors’ offices having tests. But we still managed to round up some great stuff to do between doctor visits and enjoyed being in London.

Here were my personal highlights:

  • Spending time with special friends, some that lived in the city and some that made the trip all the way down from Lancashire!
  • Catching a movie with one of the above girlfriends at a luxury cinema that served food and wine.
  • Enjoying the vast array of things on offer in grocery stores, book stores and patisseries.
  • Visiting pubs for bangers and mash, brunch at the Ivy Cafe, dinner at Burger & Lobster, and mulled wine ice cream at Fortnum & Mason.
  • A low-stress Chinese-takeout Thanksgiving with good friends!
  • Enjoying the Christmas lights and decorations throughout the city.
  • Seeing some great London sites like the British Museum, the Leighton House Museum, the Science Museum, and the Brompton Victorian cemetery.
  • Having a science-themed afternoon tea!
  • Enjoying a crowd-free wander through Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland.
  • And I can’t articulate enough how much I enjoyed hanging out with the ladies, so I will mention that again here!!

I also had my annual checkup and blood tests, and it should come as no surprise that with all that fun they want me to cut back on the tasty food and wine. I’ve promised A that I’m going to live to be 100, God willing. So I guess I should make some kind of an effort to stay healthy, but this was definitely a special occasion.

To wrap things up, here’re a few fun pics from our trip. 🙂

Brunch at the Ivy Cafe.
N and A checking out the Egyptian collection at the British Museum.
Mulled Wine Ice Cream with Cranberries and Poached Pears at Fortnum & Mason.
Girls’ Lunch at the Hollywood Arms pub in Chelsea.
The super cool science-themed afternoon tea!
Posted in England, Iceland, R&R

R&R Installment #3 – London & Paris

London

From there we went on to London where, again, we didn’t have much ambition to do tourist stuff, but we took care of some medical appointments at the embassy, got another girls’ night out, afternoon tea, and had a couple great playdates and a picnic in Hyde Park with friends we had before, and new friends we’d made in Iceland that had been recently posted to London.

Family picnic with friends in Hyde Park.
Lovely family picnic with friends in Hyde Park.
Afternoon tea at The Swan.
Midsummer Night’s Dream Afternoon Tea at The Swan.

Paris

I had been actually quite nervous about our trip to Paris after the attacks in Nice. And honestly probably would’ve cancelled that portion of the trip, if I could’ve done so easily. But I could not and tried to proceed with as little trepidation as possible. I think it helped that I was completely distracted by the tummy bug that I’d picked up in London that kept me running to the bathroom all night and worrying about whether or not I’d be able to get on a plane! But the travel meds worked, and we jetted over to France without incident.

We spent the first two days making leisurely use of the hop-on-hop-off bus system and making a bee line for the Eiffel Tower but seeing some great sites on the way. We made a special stop at my favorite chapel of Ste. Chapelle, and A was super good and didn’t make much noise at all. We’ve had to whisk him out of quiet places in the past as he won’t stop talking in the loudest voice possible.

The antique carousel across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
The antique carousel across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
Inside the high chapel at Ste. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.
Inside the high chapel in Ste. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

We also tried to do some special things for him like getting treats at the patisseries, visiting the fun fair in the Jardin des Tuileries next to the Louvre, and spending some time at the boating lake in the Jardin du Luxembourg. He only had one little meltdown when he was really tired and had walked quite a bit…and laid down on the floor in front of the register at one of the patisseries when we told him he had to wait to get home to eat his treat. Being a kid is SO tough, isn’t it??

Boating on the lake in the Jardin des Tuileries.
Boating on the lake in the Jardin des Tuileries.
Pâtisserie Gosselin around the corner from our rental.
Pâtisserie Gosselin around the corner from our rental.

My hubby also wanted to visit the Louvre, so we shoved our way through the crowds to the Mona Lisa. Actually it wasn’t really that bad. We went fairly early in the morning and the rest of the museum was quite pleasantly uncrowded. I had read that there’s a special “tactile” exhibit for seeing impaired and for children that you can touch.

Unfortunately the room was quite small and hot with hardly any pieces in it. So A was much more excited about getting to take pictures throughout the museum with his little point-and-shoot camera. And the sweetest part was that the last 20 or so photos that he took were all of me and my hubby just walking around. Love that boy.

That wraps up the blog posts on our first big family R&R! Hope you enjoyed it half as much as we did!

A taking photos at the Louvre.
A taking photos at the Louvre.

 

Posted in England, Iceland, R&R, Scotland

R&R Installment #2 – Scotland

Edinburgh

My hubby and I had both been to Edinburgh before, so we didn’t have a huge amount of local tourist sites on the list. So the first day he showed me a few of his favorite haunts, such as the Italian place that serves Haggis Ravioli, and we visited the castle with our son.

My big motivation for Edinburgh was two day trips to places (which were actually across the border in England) that had been on my bucket list since we lived in London…Lindisfarne, the first place the Vikings sacked when they arrived in England in 793, and Hadrian’s Wall, a 73-mile-long wall built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD. They were both well worth the trip.

And I was equally excited for two additional locations that were included in the tours…Alnwick Castle where they filmed several scenes from the Harry Potter movies and had the cutest “Broom Training” activity for kids and parents, and Vindolanda Roman Fort that I’d read quite a lot about in my Roman Britain online class from Oxford in Belize. Bonus!!

Approaching Alnwick Castle.
Approaching Alnwick Castle.
The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory.
The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory.
A view of Hadrian's Wall.
A view of Hadrian’s Wall and the English countryside.
The active excavation at Vindolanda Roman Fort.
The active excavation at Vindolanda Roman Fort.
A few Roman souvenirs. ;)
A few Roman souvenirs. 😉

Inverness

This was another spot that I’d visited before, but I hadn’t really explored much. So we rented a car from the airport and spent a week checking things out. We drove along Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle, took the funicular railway up Cairngorm Mountain for a bit of Highland hiking, drove through the whisky valley and stopped at a couple distilleries and the Walker shortbread factory for small tastings, and visited the Culloden battlefield.

We also attended the Inverness Highland Games, which were surprisingly unexciting compared to the enthusiastic versions in the States. It felt more like a community college sports day with a shocking lack of whisky on offer. 😉 If you get a chance, I recommend the ones in Orlando, Florida, and Estes Park, Colorado. The one at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina is also on my bucket list.

Urquhart Castle and the Fraser Clan marker at Culloden Battlefield.
Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness and the Fraser Clan marker at Culloden Battlefield.
A bit of hiking in the Highlands at Cairngorm Mountain.
A bit of hiking in the Highlands on Cairngorm Mountain.
The caber toss at the Inverness Highland Games.
The caber toss at the Inverness Highland Games.
A wee dram at the Glenfarclas Distillery.
A wee dram at the Glenfarclas Distillery.

Other than one near-death experience in the car, this portion of the trip was lovely and relaxing. And my hubby was fantastic…he did all the driving (I loathe driving on the left) and cooked big Scottish breakfasts every morning with lots of sausage and black pudding. I think we’d all be happy to go back to Scotland at any time!

Posted in England, Iceland, R&R

R&R Installment #1 – England

As promised here’s a more detailed post about our fabulous first big family R&R!

Accommodation:

When we weren’t staying with friends, we booked all of our accommodation through booking.com, and it worked out really well. Since we didn’t have to pay for our major transportation legs, we splurged on the housing, and we got some really neat places. Like this awesome vacation rental in Edinburgh with a view of the castle. We also had a lovely little apartment near the river in Inverness. And in Paris we had a great place just a few blocks from the Louvre that had a café and convenience store across the street and a patisserie, pharmacy and ATM around the corner.

Edinburgh Castle View Apartment.
Edinburgh Castle View Apartment.

The only place we did NOT like was the Premiere Inn County Hall in London. The UK was in the middle of a heat wave when we arrived, and this hotel was one of the many that did not have AC. So our room was hot and stuffy, which made it impossible to sleep. We had a triple room, but the room itself was so small, that if my hubby had his suitcase open, I had to open mine in the bathroom. So we checked out after one night, and they were kind enough to reimburse us 3 of our 4 unused nights, and we moved around the corner to the Park Plaza and (after asking for a room with a view) got a much bigger room with AC and a stunning view of the London Eye. No complaints there!

View of the London Eye from the Park Plaza County Hall.
View of the London Eye from the Park Plaza County Hall.

Freckleton/Blackpool

Our first stop on our trip was a tiny town called Freckleton where one of my awesome girlfriend’s lives with her husband and daughter. We didn’t have much on the itinerary at that point except spending some quality time and visiting, which we accomplished! And we still managed a girls’ night out and a trip to the pier in Blackpool where the five-year-old got ridiculously lucky and actually managed to snag a stuffed toy out of one of those rigged grabby machines on his first try. We were almost as stunned and excited as he was! As always, we were sad to say good-bye.

Kids cuddling in Freckleton. :)
Kids cuddling in Freckleton. 🙂
Posted in England, Iceland, R&R

First Big Family R&R!

Broom training at Alnwick Castle, England.
Broom training at Alnwick Castle, England.

Sorry I’ve been offline for so long, but I have a good excuse! We’ve been on our first big State Dept Family R&R. R&R stands for Rest and Recuperation, and your eligibility is based on where you’re posted. Hardship posts usually get one or two, but zero hardship posts do not.

So we had one R&R during our two years in Belize and used it to go back to the States for Xmas in 2012. London had no R&R because it’s awesome, and you don’t need one. Iceland is only 5% hardship but still gets two R&Rs in three years due to its isolation and long dark winters.

You have to use your own vacation leave and pay for all of your expenses, but State will pay for your plane tickets to the States, your designated R&R location (Iceland’s is Rome), or you can cost construct your own trip. If it’s less than the cost of a ticket to your designated R&R location, you’re in the clear. If it’s more, you pay the difference.

For our first Grand Family R&R we were originally going to do Greece and Italy, but it didn’t quite work out. So we opted to head back to the UK and hit some of the spots we’d missed that were on the bucket list when we lived there. We also had some friends we wanted to visit. So our R&R looked like this:

  • Flew into Manchester, visited friends and had a girls’ night in Freckleton, then went to the pier in Blackpool.
  • Took the train to Edinburgh, spent a day in town, then did day trips across the English border to Alnwick Castle & Lindisfarne Priory, and Hadrian’s Wall & Vindolanda Roman Fort.
  • Took the train to Inverness, checked out the town, went to the Highland Games, rented a car and drove to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, visited Culloden Battlefield, took the funicular up and hiked around Cairngorm Mountain, visited a couple whisky distilleries and the Walkers shortbread factory.
  • Flew to London, visited friends, had a girl’s night, afternoon tea, playdates and picnics in Hyde Park, went to the embassy medical unit for doctors’ appointments, did a bit of supply and clothing shopping for A and mailed it all back to Iceland.
  • Flew to Paris, did a two-day hop-on-hop-off bus tour, visited the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Saint-Chapelle chapel, visited the fun fair in the Tuilerie Gardens, sailed toy boats on the pond in the Luxembourg Gardens, ate pastries and drank French beer with lemon syrup and relaxed in the outdoor cafés. 🙂

We booked all of our accommodations through Booking.com and were only disappointed once (Premiere Inn County Hall in London) and moved hotels the next day. But the rest of the time we stayed in vacation rental apartments, and they were all fantastic. Photos and details to follow!!

Posted in England

Departure Blues

Our living room mostly packed.
Our living room mostly packed.

So it’s been kind of a rough week! PACKOUT: First of all, we had our HHE packed out on Monday and Tuesday. It was fairly uneventful, barring the fact that they were 30 minutes late and sent three guys instead of the four they’d said were coming. But they still managed to get it all done in two days. They’re coming back next week to collect the UAB.

The annoying part is that we supposedly have 7,100 lbs worth of stuff. We are only allowed 7,200. So all the items we were planning to get out of storage and all the supplies we were planning to buy for Iceland on home leave…are now obsolete, because we would be over our shipping allowance and have to pay for international shipping out of pocket, which we can’t afford.

The really curious thing though is that we only had 5,000 lbs of stuff when we packed out of our four-bedroom HOUSE in Belize. And we got rid of quite a bit more after we got to London and realized we had no space for it in our comparatively little apartment. Yet somehow we’ve supposedly acquired an EXTRA 2,000 POUNDS. I might have to call bullshit on that one.

DAMAGES: We also had to pay $200 in damages for various bits of government furniture for the first time (scratches on dressers, etc). But I suppose it could’ve been worse.

OAKWOOD: We have stayed at the Oakwood corporate housing properties twice during training. The first time we were there for about two months and got a two-bedroom apartment. The second time, we were there for a month, were told that there were no two-bedrooms available and squeezed into a one-bedroom where our son slept in a crib in the living room. This time we’re going to be there for less than a week but again were told we’d be in a one-bedroom.

We put our housing request in back in February. So I spent a couple days going back and forth with them because I couldn’t believe that there was not a single two-bedroom available in the half dozen properties in the DC metro area when we’ve given them almost six months’ notice.

And then they gave me the long and short of it. They prioritize according to family size, length of stay…and I would guess pay grade, even though they didn’t say it. So basically we will never get what we want unless they have no one else to give it to. Another reminder of the lovely government hierarchy.

KID: And our son is not handling the changes well. He was two the last time we moved and didn’t seem to care. This time, he’s almost five and is on an emotional rollercoaster. He doesn’t seem particularly worried that he’s leaving nursery and all his friends (and is quite excited about moving on to big boy school).

But he’s acting out in other ways. The first day he came home after the movers had left, he realized the TV was gone and burst into tears. I’d like to think it was just an outlet and that he’s not actually emotionally attached to the television, but who knows.

Every night since then he’s come into our bedroom once in the middle of the night, and again around 5am. At that point I can no longer sleep since I have to be up at 6:30, so I usually let him crawl in with us. Both mornings I got out of bed before he did, and he was completely irate that I’d left him there sleeping…even though his daddy was crashed out next to him. I’ve done that many times in the past, and it was no big deal. I know he’s stressed, so I’m trying to be patient with him. But I’m stressed too!!

CAT: Yesterday, I took the cat for her third and final vet visit, but she knew it was coming this time and clawed the crap out of me. Then they gave me the bill, which came to almost $500 USD for three visits. Maybe it’s better that we’re no longer buying a bunch of supplies in the States!

And then somewhere on the 15-item checklist on “how to import your cat to Iceland,” I missed two little words. They wanted copies of her paperwork “at least” 5 days before she arrived. I’d gotten it in my head that it was “within” 5 days before she arrived. Just like her health certificate has to be “within” 10 days before she arrived. So yesterday I received a nice email from the Food and Vet Authority saying that I’d missed the deadline, and the cat was no longer going to be allowed into the country.

That’s about the time that I completely fell apart and started crying at my desk.

All that work!!! All that money!! I couldn’t even blame it on the vet strike. I had f*d it up all on my own!! So I had a good cry, then sent them the paperwork and a pathetic email. And…happily…they accepted my late documents and approved her import. Still keeping our fingers crossed that the vets don’t go back on strike on July 1.

So, yes, I am officially ready for home leave and a much-needed vacation…and a COLOSSAL margarita from some awesome Mexican restaurant in Arizona. And I promise that someday soon I will again post something fun and upbeat on this blog. 🙂

Posted in England

Wordless Wednesday: Coolest Polar Vehicles

Ivan the Terra Bus. Specialized passenger transport vehicle manufactured by Foremost (Canada) that resides at McMurdo Station and is part of the US Antarctic Program fleet.
Ivan the Terra Bus. Specialized passenger transport vehicle manufactured by Foremost (Canada) that resides at McMurdo Station and is part of the US Antarctic Program fleet. (Photo: http://ciresblogs.colorado.edu/antarcticuavs/2012/10)
The Tundra Buggy fleet in Churchill, Manitoba, manufactured by Frontiers North Adventures for polar bear tours.
The Tundra Buggy fleet in Churchill, Manitoba, manufactured by Frontiers North Adventures for polar bear tours. (Photo: http://breathinstephen.com/the-next-great-adventure)
The MAN 8x8 off-road Personnel Carrier, originally built for the German army and now used in Iceland for glacier tours.
The MAN 8×8 off-road Personnel Carrier, originally built for the German army and now used in Iceland for glacier tours. (Photo: http://www.get-married-in-iceland.com/clacier-vehicle-from-ice-explorer)