Posted in Iceland, Italy, R&R

R&R in Rome!

Vatican Square.

When it rains, it pours! And I’m definitely not complaining. We hadn’t really gone anywhere in the last six months, and then woo hoo! I get two trips in less than a month. First the Girls’ Weekend in Prague at the end of March, and then we used our second R&R in April and went to Rome for a week. Normally I would’ve tried to space it out a bit more. But this winter was really long and boring, and we’re hoping to spend our summer holidays exploring a lot more of Iceland. So a nice spring trip to Rome seemed like a great idea.

And what a fabulous week it was! We dropped the dog off at one of the few local pet boarding places just north of Reykjavik on Saturday and flew out at a reasonable hour on Sunday morning. We arrived late on Sunday night and checked into a lovely little vacation rental that I’d reserved on (I love that site!) There were a surprising amount of modern places available, but I wanted something with a warm Italian feel to it. So we ended up in a lovely two-bedroom apartment with a wrought iron balcony in a rustic yellow building right by the Tiber River.

The entrance to the lovely building that contained our vacation rental.
Our balcony among others.

Sadly, my hubby had injured his knee a couple weeks before while ice skating, so he wasn’t up for the three-hour walking tour of the Colosseum the next day. It turned out that A and I weren’t really up for the entire thing either…once we found out it was actually three hours and 40 minutes. But we made it through most of it and made a slightly early exit from the Palatine Hill. But we got to see the main things that we’d signed up for like the private areas below the main level of the Colosseum where they kept the animals.

A loves gladiators, so we’d intentionally been waiting until he turned six to go to Rome so that he could attend Gladiator School! And it was so worth it! The kids first got a little bit of history, and he wowed his instructor when he correctly informed him (in Latin) which of the gladiator styles was his favorite. Then they did some fun training exercises, had some basic instruction on sword techniques (with wooden swords), and got to spar with each other in the end. He had so much fun!!

The Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum.
Always make sure they’re dead!

We had originally planned another three-hour tour, this time in the Vatican. But I realized before we left that none of us were going to be able to pull that one off. So I cancelled it before we arrived, and it remains on my bucket list. I’m sure A will appreciate it more when he’s older anyway.

However, we were still in great shape for a pizza-making class! We were the only ones in our group, and I highly recommend booking your class through Pinocchio Tours because it was one of the few that I found where A and N could make the pizza, and I could sit and drink wine and eat antipasto…ha! So that was awesome.

The trattoria where we had our pizza-making class.
N putting his pizza in the brick oven.

We also did a quick day trip to Venice. I had been before and really loved it, and N wanted to see it before it sinks into the sea…it could happen! It’s a long train ride but a short cheap flight on Air Italia. Unfortunately I waited a little too long to book it…so it ended up being not as cheap as we’d hoped. Our flight from Rome was delayed due to fog, so we spent hours and hours in the airport at both ends and only a few hours in Venice, and we felt a bit rushed.

We booked a water taxi from the airport, but you couldn’t really see anything because you’re sitting inside facing a bunch of other people. We disembarked in Piazza San Marco and had enough time to stop for lunch at a little restaurant down a quiet alley. The food was okay, but not great. And it wasn’t nearly as cute as a bunch of restaurants we passed later. It was ridiculously crowded being spring break, and the walkways are all fairly narrow. We basically just walked from the south side of the city to the north side and caught a bus back to the airport. So I’m glad the family got to see it, but we all agreed that we probably wouldn’t do it again. I still love Venice though. I just think Rome is much more family friendly.

The edge of Piazza San Marco in Venice.
A gondola in one of the many canals.

Back in Rome, we made a special point to visit the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. Largo di Torre Argentina is an excavated square a few blocks from the Forum. It’s the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed by Brutus. So that’s pretty cool. It’s also home to about 150 cats and is maintained by a group of volunteers and a resident vet tech. It’s a wonderful organization, and I’m looking forward to making a contribution this month in memory of my mom’s birthday.

We spent the rest of our time in Rome wandering the alleyways, checking out little restaurants and ornate cathedrals, and taking in the easy sites like the Trevi Fountain (we threw in our coins appropriately), Spanish Steps, Vatican Square, Forum, Altar of the Fatherland, and Campo de’ Fiori market. We had beautiful weather, and we also ate gelato…every…single…day. Needless to say, neither A nor N wanted to leave. 😉

Looking for cats at Largo di Torre Argentina.
The Trevi Fountain.
Posted in England, Iceland, R&R

R&R Installment #3 – London & Paris


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.


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


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. 😉


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!


When we weren’t staying with friends, we booked all of our accommodation through, 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.


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 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 Belize, California, R&R

Our First R&R

Hello and Happy New Year! It’s been about a month since my last post, but I have a good reason. We’ve just returned from our first official R&R! If you’re new to Foreign Service blogs, R&Rs are granted as a break from your current country based on the level of hardship associated with it.

So if you’re in London, there is no R&R. Our entry-level post in Belize has one R&R. If you’re spending a year in Iraq, I believe you get two R&Rs, etc. R&R is not a free vacation; they only pay for the plane ticket. So you have to use your existing vacation time. I think it’s great. They understand that travel is expensive, and if you don’t get away at least once, you might lose it. Plus it’s supposed to be revitalizing and makes you more pleasant to work with.

For our one and only R&R in Belize, we chose to go back to California and visit family for the holidays. The visit was great. Our son got to meet grandparents and aunts and uncles that he hadn’t seen yet, so he is now loved by a whole new group of people. And we were excited to see them too, as it’s been close to five years since we’d last been together.

And we got some good vacationing in. Belize doesn’t have a movie theater, so I got to see Les Miserables with the girls, and my hubby and I went to The Hobbit on a date night. They were both fantastic, and I highly recommend them. We also hit some fast food places like In & Out Burger, McDonald’s and Taco Bell, as well as some yummy local restaurants such as Italian Cottage (a great Northern California chain since 1965), the restaurant in the Sierra Nevada Brewery, and newer ones like the T. Bar & Fusion Café, the Spice Creek Café, and Crush.

We did miss a few things that I was hoping to hit like La Comida (Mexican, ironically), Zot’s Hot Dogs, Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins. But we only had two weeks that spanned two holidays. So lots of things were closed…including my childhood playground in the park downtown. I was so disappointed the day we went that our son couldn’t see it. Hopefully next time.

But my hubby still managed to get his hair cut, and we did a bit of shopping in Target and spent about four hours in the Arden Mall in Sacramento. It’s a weird feeling wanting to buy everything in sight because you’re finally in a decent commercial area, but then realizing that you’re going to either drag everything back in your luggage or ship it, so you might as well order it from home. And you end up doing a lot of window shopping instead.

Unfortunately, the trip itself was a bit of a nightmare physically and logistically. We bought a special rolling car seat attachment, so we could bring it on the plane and not have to bring a stroller. But the wheel broke on our way to board the plane in Belize. So we got to carry the broken piece of junk, the giant car seat, and the baby, in addition to our carry-on luggage, all through the Dallas airport. On the way back, we checked the car seat in a special bag, and the airline lost it altogether but recovered it the next day and delivered it to us in a taxi cab.

We were also sick the entire vacation. Not with the flu that’s sweeping the nation, but with a good old-fashioned head and chest cold. I didn’t have any problems landing in Dallas with my head congestion, but Sacramento was a different story. Apparently the pressure in my ears had increased, and my ear drum actually ruptured during our descent. So I spent the next 10 days with partial hearing loss and feeling like I had someone’s finger stuck in my ear. We also had some tummy troubles as we weren’t used to all the rich and processed food. I guess it helped keep the holiday weight gain down.

On the way back, we missed our return flight out of Sacramento, which was totally my fault. Through the entire vacation, I could’ve sworn we were leaving at 6:30am, but it was actually 6:00. And 30 minutes is simply not enough time to go through check-in, take the tram, and go through security at SMF. I turn into some kind of feral animal when I’m late for a flight, so I will just say that I am not proud of my behavior in the airport. But my husband was awesome and amazingly patient, which is kind of a role reversal for us. Our son was actually really well behaved for getting dragged out of his travel crib at 4am, even if he was a little fussy and wept quietly on an off in a security line that was twice as long as it should be at 5:45am.

Miraculously there was an identical flight three gates down that had been cancelled and rescheduled from the day before. So were able to jump on that one and make it back to our midway point. The connecting flight out of Dallas was delayed for two hours as someone had puked on the plane, then the cleaners had dumped a ton of chemicals on it that had sent one of the flight attendants to the hospital. So they eventually gave us a whole new aircraft. And we eventually landed safe and sound back in Belize…where we crept down the dark Western Highway… at 30 miles per hour…in the pouring rain…until we… finally…made it…home.

But it was worth it. 🙂