Saturday, June 30, 2012

Disney's Magic Kingdom- My Magical Secret Tips

A Man with a Dream
The Magic Kingdom really is the "Happiest Place on Earth."  I say that without ceremony or fanfare because I am just stating a fact.  No other place can you see smiling faces while waiting in line with thousands of people in one hundred degree heat.  No other location has patrons spending hundreds of dollars for stuffed animals, princess costumes or mouse ears with wide-toothed grins.  The magic of the Magic Kingdom is, as corny as it sounds, that everyone feels like a kid.  You forget your troubles and worries.  All thoughts of budgets, bills and balancing checkbooks fly out the window while riding Peter Pan's flight.  Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom is a real world manifestation of J.M. Barrie's Neverland.  Inside the park, no one ever grows up.  I know there are those who would beg to differ, but I think even the most hard-nosed adult must admit to the rush of adrenaline at the first site of the castle as he enters Main Street, USA.

Our whole family was fit to be tied as we caught our first glimpse of Cinderella's Castle.  Though Disney has many photographers stationed along the main street to capture that moment for each family, we opted to take our own photo of just the kids.  As I was positioning the children on the crowded street, a kind Disney cast member offered to take our whole family's picture.  If this isn't a picture of happiness, I don't know what is:

The secret to staying happy while at Disney World is to have a plan. So many times I have been there and witnessed families aimlessly strolling through the streets.  You can't do that and accomplish much!  We entered with our game on!  For example, Greg and the kids caught the end of a parade while I rushed to Peter Pan's Flight to get our first fast passes of the day. After shooting our five park tickets into the machine and getting five timed entries for later,  I met a lady attempting to get a fast pass who had no idea how they worked.  I explained, "You place your park ticket in the fast pass machine and it gives you a timed ticket for entry to that ride. It is like the ticket is holding your place in line. You may not get another fast pass until the time marked on the pass.  If your return time is over two hours away, it will usually give you an earlier time to get another fast pass."  She stood and stared at me, then asked, "What am I supposed to do until time for me to ride?"  Now it was my time to stare.  I was thinking, "How did you manage to get here in the first place if you don't have more sense than that?"  But I said, with as little sarcasm as I could, "There are many rides that do not have fast passes.  While you are waiting for your time, go ride one of those."  Again, she stared.  With a look that said, "Good Luck!" (I mean, come on!  It's a fast pass not brain surgery!) I left and hurried to meet my family down the hill at the Haunted Mansion where everyone must wait in line... no fast pass entry, but they had a cool, new interactive graveyard to entertain all while waiting in line.

And so our magical day went... Greg and the kids would maneuver to a ride where we had to wait while I ran to get our next fast passes.  By working together and having a plan, we managed to see and do all the major rides and keep our cool, if not stay cool, at the same time.  Emma rode Space Mountain for her first time and lived to brag about it!  (Although she may still be a little hoarse from all her screaming; I know I am still a little deaf from sitting in front of her.)  When we were hot, we ducked in for a show or a cool water ride.  (Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World rides are always refreshing.)

Getting their sassiness on with Tink
Another secret for a fun day at the park is to be flexible.  Don't feel you must all do the same thing.  Case in point: the girls wanted to meet Tinker Bell at the new Pixie Hollow, but Wyatt and Greg had no interest in seeing fairies so they went to ride something while I waited with Anabel and Emma.  Other times, we felt it important to all try something another suggested.  We had never been to the Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor, but Wyatt really wanted to go so we all popped in after the fireworks and laughed till our cheeks hurt.

If you are staying at one of the twenty-one Disney resorts, my final secret tip is to plan your day at the Magic Kingdom for the day with the late night extra magic hours.  During the summer, the Magic Kingdom closes at eleven p.m., but on special nights, it stays open for guests with resort room keys until two in the morning.  We couldn't hang that late, but we did stay until 12:30 to ride several of our favorite rides one more time without any wait.  No fast passes were needed; we just flashed our room keys and hopped in the very short lines.  And the weather was cooler, too!

Tired, but happy kids
With our day in Neverland coming to an end, I began to hear the tick-tock of time chasing us like the alligator stalking Captain Hook.  There is no tired like Disney tired, but even as I fought to put one foot in front of the other to make it back to the hotel I was thinking, "I can't wait to do it all again!" Time to start saving our reward dollars for when the new Fantasyland opens next year... Thank you, Walt Disney, for creating this huge fantasy land for all kids- big and small.  No matter how old we get, we can always be young at heart at the Magic Kingdom.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Disney's Typhoon Lagoon

At Disney World, entertainment surrounds you.  This is true in all four theme parks and in the two water parks.  I can't believe I'm writing this, but Disney even makes waiting in line fun with intricate details layered in the lines as well as the rides.  Every park is a treat to the eyes, if not the feet.

Since we were on a tight budget, we decided to try a water park instead of a third theme park with a one-day ticket being $35 cheaper. (Disney theme parks are $90 and water parks are $55 per adult ticket.)  While Blizzard Beach was the newer of the two water parks, we chose to visit the older Typhoon Lagoon for its tropical ambiance.  (We had been wet and cold in Scotland for three weeks so we did not need nor want the surreal feel of snow at Blizzard Beach in our bathing suits.)

The premise of Typhoon Lagoon is that a massive storm has just blown through the island leaving a boat stranded on top of a volcano and lots of dangerous water rushing down the hillsides.  Every thirty minutes, a whistle blows and the volcano explodes with water spouting through the ship and every ninety seconds, a giant wave crashes in the enormous wave pool.  When we arrived, all the bathers in the wave pool were shouting, "Wave, Wave, Wave!"  Suddenly, a loud boom sounded, followed by a surge of water making the delighted bathers squeal in unison.

Though the pool looked fun, we wanted to get wet with some sharks.  At the Shark Reef, we snorkeled (with sanitized Disney gear) across a 50-foot reef created around an overturned submarine.  The pool contained leopard and bonnet head sharks, stingrays, and other tropical fish.  Emma was a little frightened at first, but once in the water she relaxed and became mesmerized with the fish.  The Shark Reef was a great way to safely introduce our kids to the wonders of underwater life and the thrill of seeing them first hand.  

It was hard to beat swimming with sharks, but we searched for bigger thrills and headed for the water slides.  Greg and Wyatt started with the biggest- HUMUNGA KOWABUNGA!  The two big boys rushed down one of three, 5 story tall, enclosed water slides.  Can you say wedgie?  The girls opted for a smaller start at the three Storm Slides.  These were body slides that twisted and turned through rocky canyons and caves.  Next, we tried the water roller coaster called the Crush-N-Gusher where water actually pushes your raft up hills so you can shoot down another hill.  We took turns riding together and separate so we could experience all three runs.  It was awesome!  Full of thrills, we hopped on a inner tube and floated Castaway Creek, a gentle stream that flows through the park.

After a meal of mediocre amusement park food (hot dogs, BBQ and chicken wraps), we ventured to the other side of the park.  Our kids were too big for Ketchakiddee Creek (a water play area for kids under 48") so we jumped in line for Gang Plank Falls.  This water slide is a family ride with room for four on one float.  Of course, we have five in our family so we had to ride three and two to a raft, but it was still fun.  We quickly rode the next two slides, Mayday Falls and Keelhaul Falls, which were both single person raft rides.  With time to spare before the park closed we returned to the body slides and the water coaster.  Anabel even braved the Humuga Kowabunga!  The whole family voted these the best rides in the park.  We ended our day in the wave pool and squealed with delight when the waves hit just like the first bunch we heard when we arrived.  There's something about big waves that makes everyone scream like a little girl.

To be honest, I was not looking forward to a day of standing in line in a wet bathing suit (I don't know a forty-something woman who would.)  However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun we had and I was again thankful that we had taken this retirement year with our kids.  Running up stairs after Emma to our third water slide in a row (where were the lines now so I could stop and breathe?), it hit me that there would be very little chance of me enjoying Typhoon Lagoon in my sixties (or fifties, if I can be really honest.)   Thankfully, I was still in my forties and I had a ball!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Making Lemonade

We desperately want to go home.  After thirty-eight days on the road, our family is pooped!  Unfortunately, we have no available home to go to.   Our Fripp vacation home is rented for the summer and the lease on our Canton home doesn't end until July 16.  Our Finnish tenants in Canton offered the possibility of vacating the property early; however, my version of early did not coincide with their work schedule so we have two weeks to fill before we can sleep in our own beds again.  This could have sent us into a homesick depression, but I brainstormed a way to rally the troops:  Disney World!

How can we possibly afford Disney World after a year of expensive travels?  We have two aces up our sleeves:  a Disney points credit card that, thanks to all our travels, has been accumulating points for a while and five unused Disney theme park tickets because vacations have not always gone our way.

Stranded, USA
A couple of years ago, we planned a dream Christmas vacation to Orlando.  Sadly, our holiday soon turned into the vacation from hell.  Our car broke down just outside of Valdosta, Georgia.  While Greg had a mechanic at an all night truck stop check out the problem, Emma started throwing up in the car.  Luckily, the truck stop had showers.  After cleaning her up, I hosed the car down with lysol and crammed all her clothes and the coat I had grabbed to catch her vomit into a trash bag I had stolen from the truck stop waiting room.  (A mother does what she must... don't judge me.)  On our way once more, we made it to Gainesville when the car started making the same noises.  We spent the night in the first motel we could find.  By morning, Emma was feeling great and we discovered Providence had led us to a motel next door to a repair shop and a laundromat.  Greg had the car fixed while I washed the clothes.  By noon, we were finally headed to Disney World.  Unfortunately, the fix was temporary and we were completely stranded on the side of the road less than two hours later and only thirty miles to the Saratoga Springs Disney Resort.  Important Notice: there is a Bermuda Triangle/No Taxi Zone approximately twenty miles from Orlando.  We had our car towed without a problem, but no taxi would come get our family of five sitting on the Florida Turnpike.  Greg and I paced the fence line trying number after number while the kids sat with the luggage and the sun rapidly set.  (If you're traveling the turnpike, look for the crimped fence wire near mile marker 278 to see evidence of Greg's frustration.)  Finally, Greg convinced our Volvo roadside assistance agent (located in Canada) of our exact location and a pimped-out van with shag carpet and velour seats picked us up.  I have never been so happy to see velvet dice hanging from a rearview mirror in my life.  All our troubles magically disappeared as we checked into our one bedroom suite at the Disney Vacation Club resort.  My sister and brother-in-law had sent Emma a birthday surprise from Minnie Mouse and the ticket concierge "magic-ed" our stay by giving us five one-day park tickets.  We had already purchased tickets for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party which we used our first day and were saving our free tickets for the following day.  We had an amazing time in the Magic Kingdom at the Christmas Party and stayed until midnight to watch the snowfall along Main Street, USA.  Everything seemed perfect... At two a.m., Wyatt woke with a 104 degree temperature.  I stayed up all night trying to bring his fever down.  It finally broke around seven a.m. when Emma came down with the same fever.  Needless to say, we never used our free tickets.  We picked up our twice-repaired car (to the tune of $1500) and headed home.

Sick Little Boy Disney Dreaming

After this year is over, we will not be traveling anytime soon...  We can't go home... Why not use those tickets and spend our Disney Dollars?  I thought about this on a rainy night in Scotland and booked three nights at the value resort, All Star Movies, in Disney World while rooms were on sale for twenty percent off.  We had enough reward money to pay for three nights' hotel, one day theme park tickets and one day at a water park.  With our free tickets that gave us three days in the parks- free!  The kids have been such fantastic road scholars this year while traveling and learning around the USA and the UK; Greg and I wanted to take them some place just for fun.  Over pizza in London, we told the kids of our Disney Redux plan and they were thrilled.  The idea of amusement parks in their future immediately cured all homesickness.

So, after three wonderful nights with our cousins, we are headed for three nights in Orlando.  With six nights of our "two weeks till we're home" taken care of- Here's to making lemonade out of life's lemons.  Cheers!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Headed Home
Is there a better welcome home than seeing smiling family faces as you exit the airport?   It took three trains and one plane traveling almost five thousand miles and sixteen hours to see those happy faces, but is was worth it.  We grinned through exhausted faces, thrilled to be back in the good ole USA. 

After exchanging hugs with cousin Wendy and her kids, Megan and Emma, we headed to pick up our familiar, family Truckster that was now fixed thanks to Donny, Wendy’s husband.  Driving our own car for the first time in weeks, Greg and I reflected on how lucky we are.  We had such an amazing adventure with our immediate family and were so fortunate to return to extended family that were excited to take us in for three nights.  And they fixed our car to boot! How did people without good friends and family make it in this world?  It may not be the middle ages where people needed to band together inside their castle fortresses for protection; but we need a network of united friends and families forming modern day clans for survival in this ever-expanding world of uncertainty.  For a successful life, it still takes a village.

We were also lucky to safely land and make it to the Wendel’s condo during Tropical Storm Debby.  Driving across the causeway between Tampa and Reddington Beach, the waves crashed and splashed across the road.  Just minutes after arriving home, the road department closed all roads between Tampa and the beaches.  Mother Nature’s way of saying, “Welcome Back!” 

Inside, safe, dry and glass of wine in hand, I thought about the symmetry to our year; we began our sabbatical year with Hurricane Irene and we were ending our sabbatical year with Tropical Storm Debby.  Both storms gave great excuses to sit inside, relax and talk with family.  Again, I appreciated the ability of reading signs.  When the cheapest airfare to London (within 500 miles of us) was in my long lost cousin’s hometown, it was meant to be that she and I reconnected.  It was an added bonus that our kids got along so well.  Both sets of kids had a terrific need for family connections so we gave them three full days of bonding time.  Wendy and I shared so many childhood memories, but since losing our common grandparents, we drifted apart.  After five minutes of conversation, the years fell away and it was just Jenny and Wendy talking, laughing and reminiscing.  Unfortunately, our children do not have grandparents that foster extended family gatherings as we did when we were growing up. Either everyone lives too far away or too much in his own little world- Like I did before this transformative year. This fortuitous trip demonstrated the importance of making the effort to see family because nobody knows you like family and nobody loves you like family. (Which is why nobody makes you as mad as family…. Ahhhhhhh! The yin and yang of life!)
Cousin Time

With our planes and trains portion of the trip over, we began our final journey in our automobile.  After all the planning and scheduling of rental homes or hotels for eleven months, we only have two weeks left to fill before returning to our own beds in Canton.   We will be hopping from family to friends and can’t wait for our visits to catch up with everyone. 

Thanks you, Wendel Family, for your love and hospitality!

Next stop: Our good friend, Mickey!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bath Basics

We sojourned for a week in Bath, England.  Once the sought after holiday destination of Regency and Victorian socialites, Bath is now the perfect southwestern England location to travel around the country being within two hours of the coast, Wales, Stonehenge, London, Windsor and other historic sites.  But it has much more to offer than just a great location.

Swim Anyone?
Ancient History- The Roman Baths
After the Ancient Romans conquered the Celts, the Romans paved roads and created cities throughout Britain.  One important metropolis was that of Bath, named for the natural hot springs below the city.  The Romans built a massive temple to their goddess Minerva and attached a huge bath spa for spiritual and physical retreats.Basically, people vacationed here for two thousand years.

Touring the Ancient Roman Baths and the temple ruins are must-see activities.

The Middle Ages- Bath Abbey
Founded as a monastery in the 7th century, Bath Abbey is still an active place of worship, but open for tourists at certain times. The fan vaulted ceiling and memorials make it worth a visit inside.

Renaissance- Sally Lunn's Buns
The oldest house in Bath, located just around the corner from Bath Abbey, is Sally Lunn's.  The French Huguenot pilgrim brought her baking skills to Bath in the 17th century.  Lighter than scones, the quaint tea room's toasted buns served with cinnamon butter or clotted cream and lemon curd are the perfect treat at any time of day.

Yum, Warm Mineral Water!
Jane Austen- The Pump Room and the Jane Austen Center
A tour of the Roman Baths must conclude with taking the waters in the 18th century Pump Room.  Frequented by Austen's characters in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, the waters, pumped straight from the hot spring, were believed to have healing, medicinal qualities and so everyone who came to Bath had to drink the water.  Today, the Pump Room is a gorgeous example of Georgian design and a relaxing way to spend the afternoon by sipping tea, eating scones and listening to live classical music.  Even our travel worn family felt refined and elegant during afternoon tea (plus we needed something to get the disgusting taste of the warm, mineral water out of our mouths.)

Jane Austen had a love/hate relationship with Bath.  She enjoyed it during her youthful visits and used the town as the setting for her first written/last published novel, Northanger Abbey.  After her family moved to Bath for five years, she did not like the society and grew to dislike the town.  Her unhappiness caused a writers block and she wrote no novels while living in Bath.  Her final book, Persuasion, reflects her distaste for the town and its crass social climbing.  With this said, the Jane Austen Center is located in Bath.  Anabel and I toured the Center and like Jane, had a love/hate reaction to our visit.  The opening lecture on Jane's family history and her life was a wonderful literary history lesson.  The self-guided tour below stairs was quite silly containing only a few pieces of clothing and furniture from the Regency time period and nothing much relating directly to Jane Austen. The Center would have been more interesting if they brought some of the historical information into a guided tour to incorporate more facts about Jane Austen.

These are the Bath Basics that every visitor should see, but Bath is so much more... like walking the Circus and the Royal Crescent... or shopping and having cream tea at an outdoor cafe... or frolicking in the Victoria Park... or....

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Queen's Life

Is it good to be queen?  I asked the kids this question as we toured two of her royal palaces: Holyroodhouse, her official residence in Scotland and Windsor Castle, her weekend retreat.  Their first response upon seeing the entrances of each was a resounding, YES! 

We visited Holyroodhouse on our last day in Edinburgh.  Beginning with the Queen’s Gallery, we viewed a tiny portion of the Queen’s royal art collection.  From Faberge eggs to Rembrandt portraits, the priceless display boggled the mind.  And this was only a fraction of her treasures!  The audio guide included in the tour gave much detail on each piece making the gallery an excellent art history lesson for all of us.  The tour also had a family activity pack for the children to search the collection for specific pieces like ISpy.  The kids stayed engaged the entire time!

Wyatt on Guard

Next, we entered the palace.  Queen Elizabeth was not in residence at the time so we were allowed in a couple of private quarters, as well as, the formal staterooms.  Room after room, we were amazed at the splendor.  The Grand Gallery, where awards and honors are presented, contained more priceless works of art with portraits of all the Stuart Royal Family, including the most famous Stuart, Mary, Queen of Scots.  But I preferred the personal touch of a little room Emma discovered.  Just off the Grand Gallery, the palace had a small family activity room.  Outfitted like a nursery or playroom, there were royal dress-up clothes, a wooden castle with dolls and furniture, and a large drawing table with coloring sheets of the Queen and her dogs and royal word search puzzles.  I thought this a very nice touch for visiting children and was surprised they thought of such things.  It’s something I would imagine Princess Diana would have done, not the Queen.  Emma tried on clothes while Wyatt and Anabel took a word search for the train ride to Glasgow.

The oldest section of the palace housed the rooms that Mary, Queen of Scots inhabited during her brief stay.  Much to the delight of many, the audio guide described in detail the stabbing of Mary’s secretary in the corner of her antechamber.  A plaque in the room noted the specific location of the killing and the number of stab wounds.  Yikes! Nothing like a brutal murder to get the attention of tourists!  People have been paying to see these rooms for almost 400 years.  Viewing executions and touring murder sites was hot ticket entertainment before horror movies.

We ended our tour with a walk through the gardens.  With the beautiful flowers and the incredible view of Arthur’s Seat, I would have tea in the garden with the Queen daily.

The Royal Standard
From our base in Bath, England, we journeyed to Windsor for the day to tour Windsor Castle; the Queen’s retreat- The oldest inhabited castle is a weekend getaway.  As fantastic as the Palace at Holyroodhouse was, Windsor Castle made it look like the redheaded stepchild (no ginger joke intended.)  At least twice the size and scope of the Scottish palace, Windsor reminded me of the grand old dame, Queen Elizabeth, herself; older, wiser, commanding, and more beautiful with age.  (And her flag was flying showing she was in residence while we were there!)

We began in the castle’s church: St. George’s Cathedral…Another gorgeous Catholic to Anglican cathedral.  How many amazing examples of great architecture can one process during one trip?  I know it sounds awful, but I started going, “Yeah, yeah.  Lovely buttresses.  Yeah, yeah.  More masterfully, stained glass.  Yeah, yeah.”  I was at my art intake limit, but not my limit for history.  Buried here are the great monarchs from Henry VIII, the lady-killer, to King George V who reigned during WWI, the war to end all wars (if only!)  Two tombs fascinated me.  First, the saddest place in the cathedral was Princess Charlotte’s tomb with its shrine to King George IV’s only child who died in childbirth.  The marble monument showed a corpse with one hand extended out from the draped sheet.  Above the dead princess was her soul and stillborn child being carried to heaven by two angels.  Her shrine materialized the pain even a royal family would feel in  the very sad, but very common cause of death in the 19th century.   Out of a horrible situation came Great Britain’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, who was next in line after Princess Charlotte’s death.  The second moving crypt was that of Queen Elizabeth II’s family: King George VI, Queen Elizabeth (the queen mum) and Princess Margaret, her party-loving sister.  The tomb moved me because I fell in love with Bertie, her father’s nickname, in The King’s Speech.  (Maybe I just fell for Colin Firth, again.  I don’t know if you noticed this, but I relate my world to the cinema; A casualty of being a film major, I’m afraid.)

Next, we found our way around the cold and windy North Terrace, which we’re told Queen Elizabeth the first added to the castle so she had a sun-proof place to walk.  From here, we entered the official staterooms, after viewing Queen Mary’s mammoth dollhouse.  Anabel and Emma lit up at the sight of the tiny palace rooms and furniture.  All pieces were the real deal.  Artists made tiny copies of their paintings, tables, vases, and silverware. 

The official entrance, where heads of state are greeted, reminded me of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg with the massive show of weaponry- guns, swords and knights in armored suits surrounded the room.  We wandered from grandeur to splendor.  And that’s when Anabel said something amazing, “I don’t think I’d want to be queen.  You have all this stuff, but you can never be alone or have a pajama day or go shopping at Harrod’s.”  Well said, daughter.

Maybe it’s not so good to be queen.  I thought about all the regimentation of the Queen’s life.  My over scheduled life was nothing compared to hers over the past 60 years.  I bet she would have liked to take one year off to spend with her kids.  While I would love to be queen for a day, I don’t think I’d take the job permanently.

Friday, June 22, 2012

London Gratis

Though I have vowed not to fret over money, I don't want to be a spendthrift either; so I searched for complimentary things to do in London.  Not an easy task in the most expensive city for tourists in the world!  This year has been about enjoying life and seizing the day; unfortunately, both of those require seizing the checkbook.

Greg suggested our first free activity: a visit to Abbey Road Studios.  By midmorning, we arrived outside the landmark studios where classic albums such as Pink Floyd's opus, Dark Side of the Moon, and Cliff Richards' humble request, Listen to Cliff, were recorded.  Greg just stood there in awe; not over Sir Cliff or even Roger Waters nearby genius, but because Abbey Road Studios recorded all of the Beatles' brilliant work from 1962 to 1970.  He had seen the birthplace of their talent in Liverpool, and now, he was at the location where their gifts were captured to share with the world.  Inside the studio walls, Rubber Soul, Help!, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Let It Be, and their final recorded album, fittingly entitled Abbey Road, had been performed and recorded.  The world would be so much less without the work completed here.  I, oblivious to literal signs (as my usual), thought we could just walk in because the gates were wide open.  The "sign" in my mind's eye read, "Gates open at Abbey Road Studios. Walk in and hang out with the bands."  As I gravitated towards the entry, the vegetarian catering truck missed me by an inch as it delivered lunch for the musicians.   So much for signs and opened doors.

Denied groupie access, we placated our fanaticism with graffiti.  I happened to have a Sharpie in my purse so we each took turns writing our names on the street wall as many had done before us.  I was very popular with other pilgrims on the street thanks to my trusty Sharpie!  Next, it was time for the crossing of the street.  Thousands of people come to Abbey Road every year for a picture of their party crossing Abbey Road like the Fab Four in 1969.  There is even a webcam set up to capture these passages.  It felt a little silly, but another group offered to take our picture on this busy traffic day so I said, "What the heck!"  The kind photographer captured us and several cars about to run us down.  Surviving another narrow miss, I took a better photo of MY fab four walking safely across.  The kids can share the photo with their grandkids and tell of how they almost got hit by a London taxi crossing Abbey Road.

With no vandalism or jaywalking tickets given, we left one gratis outing for another:  The British Museum.  Walking up to the entrance, Wyatt asked, "Why do they call it the British Museum?  Why don't they just call it The Museum like they call the British Open, The Open?"  I had no answer because I knew it was a rhetorical question.  Even though I'm not sure he knew what that meant, I knew he was an eleven year-old boy who loved sarcasm.

Inside, we ventured first to the Rosetta Stone- the codebreaker for Egyptian hieroglyphics.  This single, carved stone unlocked an entire civilization.  We followed the path from this keystone to the Egyptian exhibits.  The British Museum housed the most Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt, much to Egypt's chagrin.  We toured the floors viewing everything from daily Egyptian life to their strange obsession with the afterlife.  Egyptians didn't stop at preserving bodies for the hereafter.  Mummies were buried with all the accouterments they may need in the afterlife.  Gold, jewels, games, food, and sometimes even pets, were placed in the tombs for the dead's use.  A copy of the Book of the Dead, lain on top of the mummy, contained words or incantations to transport the deceased to the next world.  Staring at each display case with fascination, I suddenly felt as though I were violating the dead.  I again felt ghosts nearby.  With a shake of my head, I walked on to the Greek and Roman artifacts.  Cold Roman marble and Grecian urns housed no specters.

We headed to the Picasso drawings for our final museum destination.  From 1930 to 1937, Picasso produced a hundred drawings intended for a book to be published by one of his patrons, Ambroise Vollard.  Greg and I had seen an exhibit of Picasso's in Atlanta's High Museum and loved the emotion he captured in his work.  Though the Vollard Suite were etchings and not his colorful paintings or sculptures, we were not disappointed.  Love, lust, anger, hate, compassion, fear, and sympathy leapt from the papers.  How Picasso transported the viewer to his studio at a particular time amazed me!  Some drawings made me smile at his egotism; others made me blush at the raw passion on the page.  Greg and I examined every drawing while the kids had fun playing rock, paper, scissors on the bench after a five second glance at the "naked people," as Anabel put it.

After pizza and salad in Seven Dials, we walked Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus taking in all the sights of the West End along the way.  Meeting Londoners bustling about on this Friday afternoon, I imagined I was a character in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.  My story-arc would be told only to give way to a stranger's narrative after I passed him on the street:  Jenny Brooks perused the shoppe window wishing she had a new frock for the Dalloways' party as Big Ben struck two o'clock.  "Oh, dear, I must be getting on to the butcher's."  She headed down Shaftesbury passing a young man and wife at the corner.  The young man mumbled to himself, "Evans, Evans....."   I loved Virginia Woolf's 1920s London!

Back in the twenty-first century, our storyline followed Piccadilly to Hyde Park and on to Knightsbridge.  Our last free, must-see activity in London was Harrod's department store.  The kids had no idea where I was leading them, but once we entered this massive land of Capitalism, they grinned from ear to ear.  We glided along the Egyptian themed escalators as an opera singer (live!) serenaded us.  Making our way to the Toy Tree and Children's area, our mouths hung open with incredulous wonder.  How could there be this much stuff in one building?   Harrod's is a rich man's paradise and a poor man's hell.  We had a ball playing with the toys, but it was painful pleasure.  Once again, I found myself worrying about money.  I hoped the children would understand why we could not spend a pound more...

From Paddington Station, we returned to our temporary home in Bath carrying only our memories as souvenirs of our "on the house" day in London.  While our arms were light, our minds were full..... Who am I kidding?  Wouldn't it be great to really go to all these places and not fall prey to the lust of souvenirs?   I lied.  We bought a t-shirt at the British Museum and a couple of thank you gifts at Harrod's for family and friends back home.  So in the end, the day turned out to be: London non gratis... C'est la vie.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Five thousand years ago, the ancient peoples of the British Isles erected a monument that measures time. Today, no one is sure if this was why Stonehenge was built in the Salisbury Plains of England, but on every summer solstice, the sun rises precisely over the heel stone and shines through an arch directly on the center of the monument.  Each month, the sun shines through a different spot counting the days like clockwork.  Like Stonehenge, our family has marked a year, but rather than well placed stones, I have measured the time with places and words.

Last year, on June 20th, Wyatt and I started summer camp in Atlanta while Greg and the girls began packing up our life in Canton.  We were full of big plans, but no idea of what lay ahead for our family.  Thrilled to be taking a retirement year to spend traveling with our children, we were still ignorant to the amount of work it would take.

A year later, on the day before the summer solstice, our family walked side-by-side to one of the oldest manmade monuments on Earth and our ninth world heritage site this year. (We have visited: Independence Hall, Old City of Quebec, Grand Canyon, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, Liverpool, City of Bath, and Stonehenge.)  We have achieved much in the span of one year, but looking at the ancient stones and hearing about the people who built the structure, our accomplishments felt small in comparison.  During the fifteen hundred years of construction from the early timbers to the final manifestation of two rings of giant rocks, the stone age builders loved, breathed, ate and slept; thousands of people were born, lived and died.  Their graves dotted the countryside surrounding Stonehenge.  For a year now, it has seemed that everything revolved around our travels, homeschool, and our experiences.  Standing at the ancient monument, our lives seemed so small and insignificant, yet precious and fleeting.  Once again, I was overwhelmed by the passage of time.

Back in Bath, we took a cruise up the River Avon, admiring the beautiful vegetation and homes on the river banks.  Afterwards, I walked Wyatt and Emma back to the Royal Victoria Playground for a romp before the rain.  I sat and watched them play, contemplating life.  How lucky we were to have healthy children! How lucky we were to have our health!  The torturing thought that racked my brain was that it can all change in a second. Questions haunted me.  How does one balance the appreciation for one's good fortune with the knowledge that fortune can turn on a dime?  How can one enjoy good fortune when another is suffering?  This day has been filled with incredible fortune for my family, but terrible pain for others.

On the playground, I saw many mothers with their children: some playing, some scolding, some nursing, some dozing.  Though we have a kinship of sorts with our common experiences, not one of us have shared the exact same pleasures or pains of life.  However, we all have an obligation to raise our children as best we can for the future of society.  We have a requirement to support each other with kindness and understanding and pass this empathy on to our children.  Maybe the best thing we can do for one another is to appreciate our unique fortuities.  We can strive for something more; but isn't being content with life a great gift to those around us?

Walking home from the park, we met an American expat.  He and his wife had emigrated to England fourteen years ago for a change of scenery.  He shared with me that his wife had successfully battled cancer, but though he didn't say it in so many words, I understood that his daughter had lost her fight with disease.  They sought solace in a new place.  Now retired, he told me he wished he had taken a year of retirement with his children and wife while they all had their health and not worried about money and career.  He said, "I have so much I would like to do now, but don't have the energy to do it."

Emma enjoyed petting his dogs while we talked, but Wyatt grew impatient waiting.  I did not intend to have a long conversation with another stranger; I only asked him about his dog who was in a wheeled harness.  Hearing my American accent, the man took the opportunity to reminisce about the States (good coffee and stores open past six in the evening) and the positive outlook of the American people.  I have found it amazing that showing a little interest in another human's condition opens up some very interesting conversation.  After parting with the gentleman, I explained all this to Wyatt.  We have an obligation to care about the life experiences of others, and, if we are lucky, learn from them.  Another positive of this year has been the opportunity for teachable moments like this and the time to do my best with them.

Marking the difference between June twentieths: last year, I was longing for my children's simple baby days and plagued with discontent over their childhoods of nonstop activity and desperate for a change.  This year, I am at ease with their transformations through childhood to adolescence and feel privileged to be a witness and a part of their lives.  Greg and I are like Stonehenge.   We are the Sarsen stones set firmly in the ground and our children are the lintel stones, resting on our shoulders.  Years from now, I hope they appreciate this time they had with us as much as we have appreciated this precious time with them.

Greg thinks I made too big a deal out of Stonehenge: it's really very small.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Homesick Highland Blues

After two days of steady rain, we had cabin fever and a terrible case of homesickness.  In novels, authors often kill one character to make the others appreciate life.  In our case, being away from home this year has helped us appreciate the tender comforts of home.  What was mundane or even held in contempt before, has become clean and fresh in our mind's eye.  For example, this morning, Anabel waxed on about things she can't wait to do when we return: run in the backyard with the neighborhood kids, pick leaves from our own woods, unpack her suitcases with help from friends, and sleep in her own bed.  How many thirteen year-olds pine for such simple activities?

We feel our homesickness most deeply for our friends and family.  For ten months now, we have lived away from our nearest and dearest.  While email, phone, Facebook and texts have kept us in touch, it is the close connection that we lack.  The banter, the laughter, the gossip and the daily interactions are desperately missed.  We have secured our immediate family relationships, but have left our kinfolk to fend for themselves.  We have been seeking balance in our lives, but left our friendships greatly tilted off center.  I look forward to many days of righting this grievous wrong.  Being away from my home - for longer than I ever have in my life - has given me a new appreciation of my friendships, old and new.

No Carolina or Georgia BBQ in Scotland
No offense, family and friends, but I also miss our food.  What I wouldn't do for a plateful of creamy grits with extra salt and butter!  The British are very fond of their meat and potatoes, which has suited Greg quite well, but I'm a country girl at heart and desperately need my veggies.  I know in Georgia the home gardens are springing forth with okra and squash, begging to be fried, and tomatoes politely requesting to be sliced, seasoned and eaten.  Boy, would I love a tomato sandwich right now!  Then, there's the grilling.  Nobody grills over here.  We ordered a steak at Loch Ness because it said char-grilled.  The quarter-inch steak did taste grilled-what little there was to taste.  I can't wait to get home and have a two-inch ribeye with grilled onions, baked potato (no more chips, please) and a real garden salad with ranch dressing.  (It has honestly killed our kids to be without ranch dressing for over three weeks!)

I could go on for hours I miss home so much... Wait a minute; it stopped raining.  Are those sailboats?  Is that a bagpipe I hear?  I feel like that miserable kid at summer camp who wrote home begging for his parents to come get him until the sun came out and there were fun things to do.  Remember, Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda...

New Mates
Well, the sun came out in Scotland and there were fun things to do!  So for our last day in Scotland, we sang our homesick blues with a little Highland music as backup at the Bicentenary Pipe and Drum Competition.  While the kids played games and jumped in the bounce house, we made new friends corralled near the beer booth.  I learned about competition grades for bagpipe and drum bands and how much it costs to outfit a piper (over £700!)  Greg talked music with his fellow drummers and bonded with a bluegrass music fan.  He enjoyed the conversations so much that he continued talking in the local pubs until one in the morning.

Learning to twirl sticks with pom-poms.
While I still can't wait to have a three-hour lunch of country vegetables with friends from home, it felt pretty fantastic to meet local folks, and learn how people live on other planets- or countries, as the case may be.

Do you like my new hat?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Going Our Separate Ways

It wasn't too much togetherness that drove us apart; it was irreconcilable differences: Greg and Wyatt wanted to see The Beatles' Liverpool, and the girls and I wanted to see Beatrix Potter's home in the Lake District.  We made a good go of it, but with differences in taste like this we were bound to split up sooner or later.

Starting on the same train for the long day's journey, the girls disembarked at Lancaster to change trains for Windermere while the boys continued onward, to change trains at the next station for Liverpool.  (The National Rail service is amazing and extremely convenient for traveling.  I wish we had rail service like this in America.)  The trip for boys and the girls took around 3.5 hours each way.  We would have loved to share our separate interests with one another, but we only have 9 days of travel on our Brit-rail passes, so we divided and conquered to please all parties.

The girl party arrived in Windermere, England around noon and went directly to hire bikes for the day.  I thought we would have plenty of time to leisurely cycle around town, cross the lake and head up to Beatrix Potter's farm, but discovered that we must have the bikes back by five (so much for leisure.)  I also learned that much of the bike route was uphill and on main roads.  Yikes!  Greg wasn't there to help me decide.  Were the girls up for such a strenuous endeavor?  More unlikely, was I?  What won out was the argument that has guided me all year: when would we have this opportunity again?  On new bikes, we headed out of the train station.

The boy party arrived in Liverpool around one o'clock and headed straight for lunch.  Priorities, you know.  Next, they walked to the famous Cavern, where The Beatles got their start in Liverpool.  Greg felt as though he were on hallowed ground.

Meanwhile, the girls trekked through fields and pastures to the sound of sheep and cows happily grazing.  The UK has a fantastic public trail system that allows anyone the freedom to walk or bike through open pastures and lanes.  Our route took us through private lands that were open for public passage.  Most of the first leg of our journey was downhill and off road so I wasn't worried about Emma biking.  Just before the ferry, we entered the main road and chose to get off our bikes and walk as the cars whizzed by us.  Paying £1 each, we crossed England's largest lake, Windermere, by ferry.  Gorgeous!

After touring the Cavern Club, the boys climbed aboard the Magical Mystery Tour through Liverpool.  The bus ride took them past each Beatle's childhood home and the locations of many of their musical inspirations: Strawberry Fields, Eleanor Rigby's grave, and Penny Lane- complete with its roundabout, bank, and barber shop.  The National Trust now owns Sir Paul McCartney's and John Lennon's childhood homes where the first classic songs were written.

The girls via bikes made their way COMPLETELY UP HILL toward Hill Top Farm in Far Sawrey.  Honestly, I admit I hoped the name of the farm was a clever ruse to confuse tourists from visiting and thereby, preserving the beautiful, untouched countryside.  But alas, it was not.  As we climbed in first gear, only to finally get off and push our bikes up the hill, Anabel said, "She should have named the farm Mountain Top!"  We arrived at Miss Potter's next door pub, Tower Bank Arms, and refueled with an English lunch of soup, ham, and roast beef sandwiches with hot mustard.  Then, it was on to tour Hill Top.

I admit my eyes misted over (or was that more sweat?) when I spotted a rabbit nibbling on grass in the tiny meadow in front of her home.  Anabel was over the moon. She has been a fan since she was tiny and began writing her own Potteresque tales.  Anabel's story called Mrs. Miggins endeared me more to Beatrix Potter than any of Miss Potter's original works.  Any author that inspires a child to write is brilliant in my book!

When we entered the farmhouse, a curator handed each girl her own petite copy of The Tale of Samuel Whiskers and pointed out locations in the home Beatrix Potter had illustrated in the book.  The girls carried their books like they were treasure maps as we strolled from room to room, walking in Miss Potter's footsteps.

Speaking of footsteps, Greg and Wyatt completed their tour back at the Cavern Club where they imagined John, Paul, George and Ringo, young and full of excitement and dreams, playing their way into immortality.  Wyatt summed it up simply, "It was awesome!"

Even the camera was misty over the moving day in Miss Potter's world.
Funny, though we had separate days, that's exactly what the girls said about their outing.  When we compared notes, no one could out do the other to call a clear winner.  The boys felt their inspiring day of being in the birthplace of the greatest rock-n-roll band of all time was the best day any musician could dream.  The girls believed their day biking (over 15 miles!) and sauntering through the land of Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck was the best day writers could imagine.  Personally, I think we all won.