We were happy to host family for Thanksgiving dinner, and it ended up being the first year we mixed both sides of the family. Unfortunately, Hayli couldn’t make it, but we had Tom Jr. here alongside my parents, Grandpa Thomas, and Mamaw. I was happy to cook, happy to serve, and happy to have people in our home. Of course, I was wiped out after the fact, but that’s what comes with the territory.
Mamaw was a surprise late addition to our Thanksgiving dinner, but I’ll always take what I can get when it comes to spending time with her! This photo was the only group photo I took.
The only other photo I captured from Thanksgiving was this one of my and Mamaw’s wedding rings. I never realized how similar our rings are, and in truth, this isn’t Mamaw’s original wedding band. She said they traded in her original bands for this one years ago.
We had two extra visitors for the holiday, though they didn’t join us for dinner. We were pleased to open the Hamster Hotel for our sweet friends who were traveling for a week. Thankfully, Major and Salem are uninterested in the hamsters!
Being nocturnal, they’d sleep all day in their cozy houses and roll around in their balls at night.
They left this morning, and I honestly miss them.
As you can see from the photo, we’ve decorated for Christmas. This is the earliest we’ve ever put up a tree, that I can recall. Again, we’ll host family for Christmas and I couldn’t be more pleased about it. I can’t wait to have my nephews here.
We have a few more weeks of school and then we’re tapping out. We’re all exhausted and ready for a slow-down. I, especially, need to pull back and realign. I did a poor job in 2019 limiting the things I said “yes” to. I broke my own inner vows about being less busy. I got tired of hearing myself tell other people that I was too busy. It’s all so counter-productive. As I plan for the spring semester and map out story ideas for the magazine, I need to work smarter and not harder. I’m pretty sure that will be my New Year’s resolution.
More has gone on here than our trip to England and Wales, so it would be a shame to make it seem like that’s been the entirety of our October and November. It would be terrible if you missed Jackson’s Halloween costume when he dressed up at a retired clown.
He and his friend, Libby, trick-or-treated together again this year, and Jackson received many compliments on his costume!
Jeremy competed in another chess tournament and brought home two more trophies. Between soccer and chess, the shelves in his bedroom are filling up quickly!
In early November, we went to see Ryan Bingham at the Tennessee Theatre, which was a fancy venue for his style of music, I have to say. But that meant Corey came to visit and that’s always worthwhile!
The following weekend we took a quick trip to Chattanooga to celebrate Matt’s 41st birthday, which meant I got some time with Amy!
We became instant friends after Matt started dating her in 2000. So much of my early years of motherhood unfolded alongside Amy’s. Now, whenever we squeeze in a visit, we unload all the toils and joys of raising teenagers, which is a far cry from naptimes, midnight feedings, and what happened on the latest episode of The Backyardigans.
In other news, Jackson wrapped his fall session of equine therapy, and Jeremy finally got a proper haircut. I decided it was time he started seeing my stylist. His hair deserves it, after all.
Peak colors didn’t show up in East Tennessee until early November, but when they finally popped, they were bright and vibrant. I snapped this photo while on a run one foggy morning.
Lastly, we had a brief and glorious snowfall that dropped the same day as Disney+. It was a Tuesday, but it felt just like Christmas morning. Somehow we managed to do some school work.
However, I did notice that this was the first year that the boys didn’t race to play in the snow upon waking up. The last time we had a decent snowfall was January of this year. It was gorgeous, and the boys couldn’t wait to play in it. This time, however, they didn’t mention sledding or a snowball fight. They didn’t even have the curiosity to go outside and touch the flakes. It felt significant, like a piece of their childhood was over.
Maybe that won’t be the case if we get another big snowfall, something grander and long-lasting. Or maybe it means I need to suit up and go out with them.
Thanksgiving is this week, and we’re going to have a full house of family members on Thursday. For the first time in 20 years, we’re mixing sides. We’ve always taken turns – Thanksgiving with one side, Christmas with the other. We’re on the same rotation as my sister and her family, and doing it this way kept holidays fair and uncomplicated.
But as family members have passed away, and others have moved closer to us, it seems silly to keep things separated. We can all be together. We can all share the table. On Thursday, we’ll have ten people here, and I’m happy to cook for all of them.
Already on a Ruth Ware roll, I decided to finish all five of her books and read The Lying Game. Without a doubt, this one was my favorite.
Isa is on maternity leave with her new daughter, Freya, when she receives an urgent text from one of her best friends from high school: “I need you.”
It’s from Kate, and the other two friends, Fatima and Thea, received the same text. The four were at boarding school together, and their friendship sealed a bond that no one could break. If any of them needed anything, at any time, all she needed to do was say the word. They all replied to Kate’s text with the same: “I’m coming.”
The three women, along with baby Freya, take the train to Salten, the coastal town on the English Channel where they met 15 years prior as schoolgirls. They aren’t sure what Kate needs, but they know fairly well what it may pertain to. The four women share many secrets between them, including one big frightening lie that must be kept hidden at all costs.
The Lying Game is pitch-perfect with its pacing, a steady current of unraveling details that lead to more nail-biting questions. I was utterly captivated by every word, and I even thought I had the mystery worked out a couple of times (but I was wrong on both accounts).
Isa is a delightful narrator, one whose voice is familiar to me as a mother and a deeply loyal friend. To what lengths would I go to help my best girlfriends? How far would I go?
On top of the characters and plot, the setting is a scene-stealer. Having been to the English coast, I can clearly picture this sleepy, seaside down with its menacing tide and salty air. I have always loved mysteries that unfold by the water. The ocean is a mystery all its own.
The Lying Game tops my list of Ware’s books, followed by The Turn of the Key. Midway through I considered that this book would make an outstanding film. I still believe that. Hurry – someone buy the rights and make it!
It was our final full day in the UK, and we wanted to make the most of it. Instead of heading straight back to London, we took a long way and swung south to Bath in Somerset. The architecture in this city is unlike anywhere else I’ve seen in England.
The Roman Baths date back to 60 AD (the Romans hung around for a few hundred years), and the Bath Abbey was built in the 7th Century.
I was instantly smitten with Bath. Every corner turned onto another charming, narrow street.
At first, it looked like our stroll around the Roman Baths was going to take hours. Without a doubt, it’s the most touristy attraction in town. Fortunately, they have the process down to some sort of algorithm that keeps the bodies moving forward.
The Roman Baths and Bath Abbey are right next to each other – convenient!
Normally, I’m not into guided tours and listening to recordings. I *never* pick up a headset in museums. However, at the Roman Baths, they just hand you one and tell you how to work it. Turns out, it was hugely interesting to walk up to a part of the exhibit and be told why it’s important!
I’m so glad Chuck this photo! We aren’t big selfie-takers, but I’m thankful he took this one 🙂
After touring the Baths, we went back into the city to explore a little longer and grab a quick bite to eat.
We ended up circling back to where we began, with a beautiful view of Pulteney Bridge and the River Avon.
We’d booked a hotel room at Heathrow that night so we could get to the airport easily Sunday mid-morning, but we still had plenty of time to spare before it got dark. A quick Google search showed us that we could stop in Lacock in Wiltshire, one of England’s oldest villages. This meant more driving through the countryside!
Lacock Abbey dates back to 900 AD and served as a filming spot for several scenes in the Harry Potter film franchise. Also, more recently, Lacock was a filming spot for Downton Abbey. It was a charming village, only a few streets wide and long. I didn’t take my camera around town since it was a little misty, but we enjoyed the stroll and treated ourselves to coffee, tea, and cake afterward.
I’ll live here, please.
It was finally time to admit the trip was over, so we checked into our hotel, Chuck returned the rental car, and we finished the night with dinner at the Hilton and two bottles of wine. Before the night was over, I made a list on my phone of everything we did over the last eight days – I didn’t want to forget anything!
In the last year, I’ve visited England three times. I never thought that’s something I’d ever be able to say. Believe it or not, I’d go back again tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. It is strange to feel at home in a foreign country, but that’s exactly how I feel.
What a gift.
If you want to watch the slideshow video I made of our trip, click here.
Like I said in the previous post, our AirBNB in Nant-y-Derry was a DELIGHT, even though it didn’t have WiFi. Instead of scrolling on our phones in the evening, we watched whatever British game show was on the TV. It was perfect.
How adorable is the house key?
Like so many AirBNBs in the countryside, this building is a converted barn, and it’s updated and stunning inside.
Our original plan was to drive to Pembrokeshire (along the western coastline), but the weather was so wet and dreary that we didn’t want to trek too far. Instead, we drove south and stopped in Caerphilly, which was halfway between our place on the southern Brecon Beacons National Park and Cardiff, the largest city in Wales.
Caerphilly Castle was originally constructed in the 13th Century as part of the Anglo-Norman movement into Wales. It’s the second-largest castle after Windsor, but no one has lived here for many centuries. In its greatest time, Caerphilly Castle was a magnificent fortress with an impressive moat.
Taking pictures was tricky on account of the rain, but I muscled through.
We got back on the road and headed for the coast, this time landing on Dunraven Bay. It would’ve been lovely to see the coast during better weather, but nothing was going to keep us from the seaside. A beach is restorative no matter the climate.
It’s on this coastline in Southern Wales where we took my favorite photo of us of all time. We are the cutest.
For the second time, Chuck gave Karin a quick UK-driving lesson on the backroads. She did a stellar job!
Before heading back to our AirBNB, we made a quick stop in Cardiff just to poke around. We visited a few tourist shops and got a good view of Cardiff Castle before it closed. We were losing steam, and we were soaking wet, so going back home to our cozy converted barn sounded like a good idea.
We had one day left, so in the morning, we headed to Bath.
I was still high as a kite the morning after meeting Philippa Gregory at Sudeley Castle, deliriously happy as we walked around Stratford-Upon-Avon the morning of Day 6. I was also happy to have Chuck with us, my favorite traveling buddy of all time.
Stratford-Upon-Avon is William Shakespeare’s hometown, so it’s a literary mecca for millions of people.
I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare’s work as a rule, but I respect it. It’s important to know what his contribution has been to language and literature.
The Tudor-style architecture is one of my favorites, so walking around Stratford on such a beautiful morning was a feast for the eyes.
We walked along the River Avon for a bit and enjoyed feeding the swans. We couldn’t believe how many of them there were!
I’ll never pass up an opportunity to feed waterfowl. I’m a sucker!
Ducks are my fave!
We packed up our things and hit the road for Hay-on-Wye, England’s “book town” and gateway to Wales. How absolutely perfect for Karin and me to visit Hay-on-Wye together!
Hay-on-Wye is a charmer! Every time we turned a corner there was something adorable to see.
We ate a delicious warm lunch at The Granary, which was probably one of my favorite meals from the whole trip.
Three years later, I decided to give it all a go, starting with Ware’s fifth novel, The Turn of the Key, which was published this summer. This one does a stellar job of using setting as a character since the story takes place in an old Victorian home that’s been internally updated to be a smart house. You get old haunting vibes with the knowledge that anyone could be watching you via cameras.
Rowan Caine answers an ad for a nanny at Heatherbrae House in the Scottish Highlands, but what she doesn’t realize is that she’s walking straight into a nightmare. A child is going to die (not a spoiler) and she’s going to prison for murder (also not a spoiler).
The story is told in epistolary form (via letters from Rowan to her lawyer), which can get tedious at times, but it’s still a clever way to tell a story when it’s almost entirely in flashbacks. The narrative is highly suspenseful throughout and even creepy at times. It’s definitely my favorite of Ruth Ware’s books.
I was so pleased with The Turn of the Key that I immediately went on to The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ware’s fourth novel.
Harriet Westaway, “Hal”, lives modestly in Brighton as a tarot reader on a pier. One day she receives a letter informing her that she is the chosen recipient of a substantial inheritance by her grandmother in Cornwall. That would be great news if Hal’s grandparents hadn’t already died years ago.
However, since she’s desperate for money (to pay off loan sharks) and tired of living pound to pound, she decides to attend the funeral to see if she can get away with accepting the inheritance without anyone being wise to her scheme. Of course, it’s not going to be easy.
The Death of Mrs. Westaway is less suspenseful than The Turn of the Key, but it still kept my interest because I wanted to untangle the knot. Each member of the Westaway family had a secret to keep, and it was a fun ride with Hal to see where each puzzle piece fit.
This book was advertised as an “unputdownable thriller,” but I challenge the “thriller” part. I did get through it quickly because I wanted to know how Hal was related to everyone – or if she even was related to them at all.
Since I was on a roll with Ruth Ware books, I finally picked up her second one, The Woman in Cabin 10, which was published in 2016.
The story begins with a burglary. Lo Blacklock is a travel journalist (dream job!) and had the unfortunate experience of a traumatic break-in. To escape the fear she feels at home, Lo leaps at the chance to take part in a luxury press tour on a Scandanavian cruise. One night on the water, she sees what she believes is a woman being tossed overboard to her death. Lo cannot let this go, despite a full search aboard the ship and everyone reassuring her that she didn’t see anything.
A few things: The initial burglary put Lo in a state of constant anxiety, so her narration was irritating to the point that I didn’t want to hear any more in her voice by the middle of the book.
Secondly, the pacing seemed to drag. I understand the need to create claustrophobia on a small cruise liner, to agitate the reader so he/she *feels* the tension, but I became too frustrated with the slow pacing (combined with the tight living quarters and Lo’s anxiety) that I could not finish the book.
That’s right. I didn’t finish it.
Of course, I wanted to know how it ended, so I read a summary online and immediately felt relieved that I didn’t suffer the rest of the book for that storyline. The Woman in Cabin 10 has been my least favorite Ruth Ware book thus far. I don’t recommend it.
I’ll give The Lying Game a go soon. Then, I’ll be up to speed.
Just when I think I’m done running half marathons, I convince myself to run “just one more.” When I learned that the Haunted Half Marathon in Jonesborough, Tennessee, had a black cat as part of its logo and medal, I knew I needed to run it. Lesli and I rode together to the oldest (and most haunted) town in Tennessee to enjoy a perfect autumn weekend right before Halloween.
Jonesborough is the *perfect* little town to visit in autumn. We were there on October 25 and 26.
The start of the race wasn’t until 9:30 a.m., which is the latest I’ve ever started a race. (Normally these things start at 7 or 8 in the morning.) I was plenty ready to get going (and finish) well before it was time to line up.
The race was incredibly difficult, and not just because I wasn’t as well-trained as usual. The Haunted Half was advertised as having a route with “rolling hills,” but I assure you there was nothing rolling about them. There were REGULAR HILLS, not cutesy little rolling hills. Everyone in my pace group complained about the hills because we were all caught off guard and gasping for breath.
I finished with my second slowest time ever, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t in shape or because I didn’t feel like running. I couldn’t run those monsters. It would’ve killed my knees.
It’s all about the medal though. All I have to do is finish.
I was pretty sore afterward and wondered, per usual, if my racing days were over. Naturally, I signed up for another race that week.
On Saturday, I ran the Secret City Half Marathon for the second time. I still wasn’t impressed with the route (not much to look at) or the bathrooms (there were too few of them), but it was a local race that I could drive to, run, and drive home afterward.
Actually, either my MapMyRun app is way off, or the race directors miscalculated. I ran more than 13.1 miles on Saturday morning!
At any rate, it’s about the medals. Cheers to No. 24!
Now that I’m at 24, it seems silly to not run a 25th. Right?
Our fifth day in England was the most special. Not only was it the day that our driver showed up to take us to Wales, but it was also the day that Karin and I were going to meet Philippa Gregory.
On Friday, Sept. 6, I saw an Instastory post from Sudeley Castle that gave my heart a jump. I screenshotted it and sent it to Karin immediately, texting, “RED ALERT.”
We learned that Philippa Gregory would be speaking at a small, intimate event at the castle on the very night we’d be driving westward. Our route needed to shift slightly, and we’d need to rearrange our AirBNB reservation, but this was doable. We could go. We could absolutely positively meet Philippa Gregory on our inaugural trip to England.
It’s important to know that Karin’s and my friendship is partly rooted in Philippa Gregory’s works of historical fiction. She and I swapped these books back and forth for years, both enjoying Gregory’s depictions of the Plantagenet and Tudor eras. To meet this specific writer together AND in England was a gift I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried.
But first, we needed to connect with our driver. He showed up at the hotel on Wednesday morning in need of a shower and spot of breakfast.
Before leaving Kingston, we stopped by a local artist’s house (who I follow on Instagram) because I wanted to buy a print that I’ve been eyeballing since May. Lisa Tolley is based in Thames Ditton, which is across the river and on the opposite side of Hampton Court from Kingston. It was a delight to meet her, to tell her how much I love her illustrations, and to purchase the piece I’ve been wanting for months.
Off we went to the Cotswolds, specifically to Winchcombe, to explore the area and make our way to Sudeley Castle. Our tickets for the event included a tour of the grounds and remains, though photos were limited because Sudeley is still a private home.
Sudeley Castle was Kateryn Parr’s final home and resting place, where she retreated after Henry VIII died and she was free from her duties as his sixth queen. She married her long-time love but only lived a few more years after they finally got together.
What I love so dearly about Kateryn Parr is that she was the first woman in England to publish her own writing in her own name.
Like so many others, the castle fell to ruin as England’s landscape changed. Though some structures date back to the 12th century and much of it was built in the 15th century, the property wasn’t restored until the 19th century.
Of course, the gardens were stunning.
We finished our tour of the castle and gardens and headed to town to find a place to eat. It was a weird time, something like 4 p.m., so we had a bit of trouble finding a pub that served food before 6 p.m. This is typical, particularly in small towns.
We had not eaten since our full breakfast that morning in Kingston, and we weren’t sure what food options we’d have after the Philippa Gregory event since we’d have to head to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Thankfully, The White Hart Inn served midday soup and sandwiches, and that was better than nothing, so we popped in for “a bite and a pint.”
THEN – in the midst of perusing the menu, IN WALKS PHILIPPA GREGORY.
No lie. She and her assistant walked in casually, no doubt in search of a 4 p.m. meal. I smacked Chuck’s arm (because he was sitting next to me) and said under my breath, “Karin, she’s here. Philippa Gregory just walked in. She’s here. She’s here.”
THEN – she and her assistant joined us at the row of tables next to the windows, with only one empty table between us. How were we not supposed to stare at her? How were we supposed to just SIT THERE like Philippa Gregory wasn’t sitting in our same breathing space?
I froze, so it was Karin who began, “Hi, Ms. Gregory.” We exchanged very short pleasantries, something about how excited we were to hear her speak that evening. I can’t even remember. I was so uncool. It’s no wonder that minutes later THEY MOVED TABLES.
Now, logically, we know they moved tables so they could have a private conversation about whatever was going on in their private and professional worlds. They didn’t need a table of American fans hanging on their every word. Truthfully, I was relieved that they moved tables because I needed my body to RELAX and stop seizing.
Chuck was the sly one who snapped a photo of them while paying for our food at the bar.
Little did we know that wouldn’t be our last personal encounter with Philippa Gregory.
Starstruck, we went back to the castle and left Chuck in the car. (He was less interested in attending the event and more interested in taking a catnap to manage his jetlag.) We arrived in time to get a good place in line and score seats in the third row of the small room. I don’t know how many people attended, but it was somewhere in the 50-75 range.
Philippa Gregory spoke on “the women hidden from history” and how this has been a guiding force in her research and writing. She was just as inspirational as I hoped she’d be. I even felt brave enough to raise my hand and ask a question. After getting our books signed, that could’ve been the end of the evening and I would’ve been fine.
But it wasn’t the end.
As we sipped our wine and stalked Philippa Gregory from across the room, I kept trying to manage the urge to approach her again. I simply couldn’t do it. What would I say? What would she even want to say to me? Why am I so awkward in the moments when I really need not be?
Karin, my seize-the-moment friend, wasted no time waltzing across the room to ask the assistant if we could grab a photo with Ms. Gregory. With a smile on her face, she said we could.
You cannot tell by this photo but I am imploding. The wine must have helped.
It didn’t end there. We talked. We really talked. She started it by saying, “We meet again!” clearly remembering us from the pub a few hours prior. I told her I was a writer – a journalist with a dream of writing fiction – and she said, “I used to be a journalist too.” I swooned.
Bravely, I asked for her advice – what are the steps I should be taking? What should I be doing with my time? How exactly do I make a dream come true?
She said: Hone your craft. Don’t read bad books and don’t write bad books that you know will get published because they’ll still be bad books. Read good books that elevate your writing. Keep working hard. Write consistently. There’s no magic or secret. Don’t quit. KEEP GOING.
Then she said, “What’s your name? So I can keep an eye out for you?”
Shaking utterly and screaming on the inside, I said, “Jennie. It’s Jennie,” followed by silence.
To which Karin added, “…Treadway-Miller.”
I started to cry. Embarrassed, I worked hard to choke back the tears. My inner dialogue screamed GOOD GRIEF, WOMAN, GET AHOLD OF THYSELF. I barely had the presence of mind to speak.
We floated to the car, giggling and asking ourselves if the day really happened. On the way to Stratford-Upon-Avon, I typed everything she said to me in the Notes app on my phone, not that I even needed to. I remember it all. I couldn’t possibly forget a night like that.
We hopped the train again, this time westbound to the tiny town of Windsor. Last year we visited Windsor Castle a few days before Princess Eugenie’s wedding, so St. George’s Chapel was off limits for tourists.
BUT NOT THIS YEAR.
After watching the changing of the guard, Karin and I bolted for the chapel. I didn’t want to miss it a second time.
Taking photos inside the castle isn’t allowed either, but I snapped a ton of photos last year and posted them here. Windsor is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. Much like our luck at Buckingham, the Queen was not in residence when we were there. Maybe one day our schedules will align.
With time and weather on our side, we hopped the train back to Kingston and bolted for Hampton Court via a cab. This would be Karin’s only opportunity (on this trip) to see Henry VIII’s favorite place to hang. (Ha!) We got to Hampton Court with an hour to spare.
The sun started to set as we finished our quickie tour of Hampton Court. I couldn’t believe the perfect weather. In the weeks leading up to our trip I’d fretted about possible rain – and there was rain coming, trust me – but for all of our trekking and training, we’d not experienced a drop! Overwhelmed with gratitude, we walked back to Kingston instead of taking a cab. I wanted to soak in as much Kingston as I could.
We ended the day with wine and Sticky Toffee Pudding at the hotel. We’d managed four days in and around London on foot, on trains, and in cabs. Thankfully, our cross-country driver would be arriving the next morning to take us to Wales.
When Karin said she wanted to see Hever Castle, I didn’t mind one bit. Interestingly, it was on our third day of the trip last October when I went to Hever for the first time. Even though the castle itself was a repeat, Chuck and I didn’t explore the gardens. There was still something new to see there.
If you’re into gardening, you’ve come to the right place.
This was an area of the property I didn’t explore last time. At the end of this corridor of foliage is a large pond that connects to the River Eden.
Honestly, I didn’t even know The Loggia existed, so it was a brand new discovery.
We both enjoyed every second of sleep we got that first night. It is definitely the trade-off for flying overnight. You know the first day is a tough one. Pictures help you remember what you saw and what you did, but it’s really a crapshoot.
Day two was another hard trek, but honestly, I can’t imagine traveling any other way unless I’ve checked into an all-inclusive resort with nowhere else to go. I do NOT waste time.
After a full English breakfast, we took a quick peek at the Coronation Stone in Kingston, which is said to have been the very place where seven Anglo-Saxon kings have been crowned. (Having just taught Beowulf to my high school students, I was all warm and fuzzy about Anglo-Saxons and super happy to see the stone.)
We took a quick walk around the riverside so Karin could see more of Kingston in the daylight. I love this borough so dearly – I actually look at rental properties here in my spare time. It’s a dream, I know. But still.
Eventually, we took the train back to London, this time starting near Buckingham Palace so we could see if the Queen was home. (She wasn’t!) We stopped in the gift shop for a few keepsakes, which is where I took the cutest photo of Karin ever.
We took a long walk through Hyde Park to see the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain and Kensington Palace (all new stuff for me!). The walk was beautiful – perfect temperature and plenty of autumn leaves.
Our discovery of Diana memorials continued when we walked into Kensington Palace. Of course, we were hoping that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would be home, but alas, they weren’t.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana lived at Kensington Palace together when they were married, and Diana continued to live there after they divorced. I was so pleased to see she is still memorialized there.
The bulk of Kensington Palace features the life of Queen Victoria and her sweetheart (and cousin) Prince Albert, two monarchs I know little about other than the obvious bits and facts. I was thrilled by what I learned about this small, feisty queen. I’m eager to get my hands on a book about her.
We learned that Victoria has limited freedom as a young princess, and her relationship with her mother suffered for it.
After our tour of Kensington Palace, we took tea/coffee and cake on the patio to relish the moment.
We took our time strolling back through Hyde Park toward Buckingham Palace and the center of Westminster. Karin still wanted to see a few key spots, such as 10 Downing Street, Big Ben (which is still under construction), and Westminster Abbey.
We had no idea we’d arrived at Westminster Abbey at the perfect time. We knew the abbey was closed to visitors on Sunday, but there was a line forming outside the west door. A quick inquiry told us that anyone was allowed to attend the Sunday evening prayer service (with strict instructions that it is indeed a prayer service and not an opportunity to tour the church). We jumped at the opportunity to join others in prayer at Westminster. We just couldn’t believe it.
As per the rules, I took no photos inside but instead took the opportunity to be still in prayer, gratitude, and thanksgiving.
Since it was dark, we took a cab to Waterloo and grabbed the next train back to Kingston.
When Karin and I met in 2001, we became fast friends. This is actually the same origin story for all of my best friends. Upon meeting, I recognize them almost immediately as one of my people. It’s an instinct and a gift.
Karin and I worked together at a chiropractic clinic. We were both in a young season of figuring out our career paths, and this job provided a paycheck and time to think. It also afforded us time together every day to build and mold our friendship. Karin and I were together on 9/11, while Chuck and I walked through infertility, and when she and her then-boyfriend got engaged and married. We were in our mid-20s when life felt open-ended and full of possibilities.
Our jobs at the clinic ended as she went back to social work and I moved into communications, but we stayed best friends, and not just because our firstborns are five hours apart. Some of our biggest commonalities was a love of reading, all things Tudor, and the shared dream of exploring England together. It was an incredible fantasy considering all of the things that happened in our 30s: more kids, moving across the country, new jobs with no vacation time, divorce. You can’t just run off to England when you have Kindergartners and a new mortgage.
Fast-forward to now. Our lives are considerably different than they were ten years ago – emotionally, psychologically, financially. Suddenly, there is time to focus on ourselves without all the mom guilt. There’s a little more money in the bank, and we’ve learned a few things about how to travel smartly. When I went to England for the first time last year, almost every day provided a moment for me to tell Chuck, “Karin would love this.”
Speaking of, you should know that it was Chuck’s idea – this trip with Karin. He called me one evening in the summer while away on a work trip. We weren’t that far removed from our whirlwind vacation with the boys to France, Italy, and Monaco when he said, “What if we took Karin to England over fall break?”
The idea sounded far too lofty to grab and pull down. How could we even afford that? We were just overseas. Of course, I knew what he meant – we’d watch the fares and pounce when they dropped. We’d use all those hotel points he accrues so quickly. We’d split the AirBNB costs and car rental. We’d figure it out just like before.
When I pitched the idea to Karin, I don’t think she even hesitated in saying yes. I can’t even remember how the conversation went other than jumping right to dates that worked for both of us. Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure we could pull it off. Chuck was always confident, but I, the budget-keeper and family worrier, wasn’t.
Everything wove together near seamlessly, and by October 4, Karin and I were boarding a flight for Heathrow.
The overnight flight meant we’d arrive the morning of Saturday, October 5, with fingers crossed that we could check into our hotel in Kingston and hit the ground running.
The stars aligned and that’s exactly what we did. We wasted no time taking the train to London and walking straight for The Tower. (I didn’t take new photos there other than my photos of Karin, so y’all can enjoy what I took last year.) Though it wasn’t new to me, it was entirely new to Karin. I was so happy to see her wide eyes taking in all the things I knew she’d love.
What was new to me that Saturday was St. Paul’s Cathedral, an incredible place of worship that I was not prepared to see. The place was stunning.
Even the tilework was beautiful.
After touring St. Paul’s, we crossed the Millennium Bridge for a glimpse at The Globe, then grabbed our first dinner in London. Of course it was fish and chips! And cider!
Like zombies, we took the train back to Kingston-Upon-Thames, crawled into our hotel room, and crashed, deliriously happy.
I seem to average one post a month these days, so that’s a good indication of how busy we’ve been and how poorly I’ve prioritized this blog.
Over Labor Day weekend, I tagged along with my parents on a 24-hour trip to West Virginia to attend a family reunion. Mamaw was the guest of honor, and it had been too long since I’d seen her. I don’t get enough time with Mamaw or my Aunt Gloria, so seeing them, no matter how briefly, was well worth the trip.
We also visited Papaw’s grave as a family, which is where I caught this sweet moment between my father and his mother. (You can also see Dallas and Gloria leaning in for a kiss in the background!)
With September brought Jeremy’s 16th birthday, and we celebrated with a low-key party at our house with his friends. (We even sent little brother away to Grandma’s house for the weekend!) We hung string lights in a tree, made a campfire, and provided them a ton of food. Then we kept our distance and checked in periodically to make sure there were no shenanigans going on under our noses. I didn’t even take pictures, which is so unlike me! But, Jeremy wanted to be with his friends, and I don’t blame him. I remember being 16 very well. My friends were everything too.
Since I was so good about not taking photos of his party, I demanded I take his photo on Sunday, his actual birthday. He obliged.
We even snatched a family photo:
I haven’t been sad about him turning 16, just as I wasn’t sad about turning 40 last year. I’ll admit, though, on the actual day I felt surprised, as if I didn’t know it was coming. I was taken aback, like no one told me we’d ever make it this far, that the days really are long but the years really are short. I can’t imagine him turning 18 or 21 or 40 – which is something my own mother says: “I can’t believe my youngest is 41!”
We’re only halfway through the month, but the momentum of the new school is already giving me whiplash. Is summer really over? For real?
At the tail end of July, we celebrated my Mom’s birthday with dinner on the river, then presents and homemade carrot cake back at our house.
The following week was MY birthday, and we were together again on the river since Chuck rented a boat for the day and the weather was completely perfect.
Corey came up to spend the weekend with me too, so we spent my actual birthday lounging with mimosas and doing a little shopping. We became best friends at 14, but I gotta say we look better now at 41.
But back to the river. We keep daydreaming about getting a boat, but honestly, we think renting a few times each summer is the way to go for now. We’re too busy and we want to keep traveling as much as possible. Perhaps owning a boat will be part of our retirement plan, or at least a “The boys moved out! Let’s celebrate!” plan.
We officially started our ninth year of homeschooling on Monday, August 12, and I swear I’m going to take professional photos of the boys. I used to be good about that, but if you know what it’s like to have teenagers, then you understand that taking pictures of them is a crapshoot. Sometimes they’re down for it, but most of the time they’re not.
Our first day of school at home was complete with Salem laying on top of their French work. It reminded me of Henri, le Chat Noir.
Jeremy is in 10th grade and taking the usual suspects: Chemistry, Geometry, English, and American History. He also has French, a Bible class, and chess. Jackson is in 8th grade, also taking French, English, and American History. He’s doing Algebra at home, and Life Science with Dissection at our co-op. We’re only a week in, so no casualties yet.
The weekend before we started school was a complete joy from beginning to end. It was our second Girls Weekend of the year, so hopefully, we’ll grab one more before the close of 2019.
The summer was lovely, a perfect mixture of busy and still. There were a few steaming, hot weeks, as well as that fall-like weather in July (wasn’t it divine?). I kept busy with freelance work, prepping for the school year (I teach four classes), and catching up on reading fiction.
I have to admit – I’m still thinking about our European vacation in May, and sometimes I catch myself wondering if it was real. We are dedicated low-fare hunters now, TRAVELERS ON THE CHEAP. We are looking and booking and daydreaming about what’s to come. And, since I never shared the video I made from our trip to England, Italy, France, and Monaco, here is it for you to enjoy:
Earlier in the spring, my sister asked me if Jeremy wanted to join Owen on his summer youth trip, and I immediately said yes. I asked no questions, so the camp could’ve been in another country for all I knew. Alas, it was only at Wheaton College, which is less than an hour from where they live.
One thing led to another and suddenly the boys were going to Chicago for a week in July, and then I learned that Chuck had a work trip that same week, and that’s when the most delightful realization washed over me: I would have a full five days entirely to myself.
For this introverted homeschooling mom, I hit the jackpot.
To sweeten the deal, Chuck and I would have a couple of days together on either end of that week. It was perfect.
Unlike last year when the boys flew alone for the first time, I wasn’t nervous in the slightest. Off they went, and less than two hours later, Jeremy and Jackson were safely with my sister.
My week consisted of speaking only when I wanted to, working on freelance assignments, and catching up on podcasts. I ended up doing a lot of work from bed, which is something I haven’t stopped doing because I’m desperately trying to hang onto that slow summer feeling.
I ended up finishing a year’s worth of quizzes and assignments for my middle school English class at our co-op, and I’m well on my way to finishing the high school class. I’m “helping my future self,” as Chuck likes to say.
I did see a couple of friends, but I also kept my schedule as light as possible. I wanted to retreat, to lay low, to keep quiet. Those were restorative days for me, and had I been too busy, it would’ve had the opposite effect.
The one activity I planned for myself was a Sip & Stitch at an event center owned by another Knoxville Moms Blog writer. I’ve been teaching myself how to cross-stitch, but you can only learn so much from videos. So, exactly one time, I did my hair and makeup and went out in the world during my week alone. I’m so happy with my creation.
Meanwhile, Jackson enjoyed a week of being spoiled with bookstores and Starbucks.
It doesn’t take much to make this boy happy. I know Jackson enjoyed an alternative “big brother” experience with Jacob, one in which there’s no fighting or silly competition.
Jeremy and Owen had a great time at camp. These two have been “best cousins” from birth since they are only six months apart. They’ve grown into two very different personalities, as you can see from this photo, but they always love being together.
When it was time to get our boys back, we all met in Mason, Ohio, at the Great Wolf Lodge, which we had not been to in ages. The first time we went to a Great Wolf Lodge was in 2009 when we lived in Amarillo and drove to meet my sister and her family at the GWL in Kansas City. Here’s a photo from that weekend:
And here we are from two weeks ago:
The water slides are just as fun at 15 as they are at 5. Jackson doesn’t remember going to the GWL in Kansas City, so it was like the first time for him. He LOVED it.
In fact, he missed out on this photo because he didn’t want to leave the wave pool:
We had 24 hours of swimming, laying by the pool, and enjoying each other’s company. Since we won’t see them again until Christmas, it was important to have a little bit of time together instead of just flying the boys home (which would’ve been quicker and cheaper).
My Uncle Bob and his wife, Carie, came to visit the week of July 4th, and I was more than happy to host them, Grandpa, and my parents for a feast. We made a low country boil and enjoyed homemade ice cream. Chuck did a ton of the work, bless him, so he deserves a lot of credit. Now that I think of it, I’m open to low country boils instead of turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
We took a family photo after dinner, per usual.
Jeremy and Uncle Bob went a few rounds on the chessboard. In the first game, Jeremy beat Uncle Bob in three moves. Not sure he was expecting that! I think a stalemate was the second result.
When our guests had gone and it was finally dark, we lit up a few low-key fireworks and sparklers, which pale in comparison to the week-long firework displays that went on all around us. Our equine and canine neighbors were not pleased!
The next morning, we took Bob and Carie on a short hike so they could get a good view of the Foothills from above. If I’ve not mentioned it before, I absolutely love where we live.
I think Major had the most fun.
When our guests were gone and the holiday weekend was free from responsibility, Chuck, Jackson, and I took to Netflix to binge the third season of Stranger Things.
MAN OH MAN did the nostalgia get me. When I say they nailed the 80s, they really did. The main new set of the third season is a MALL, and the set design was on point at every turn. Starcourt Mall was all 80s all the time. I won’t give any spoilers other than I liked this season more than the last (though not as much as the first, which was near-perfect). I was in tears when it ended.
If you’re a Stranger Things fan, you may enjoy these two articles (here and here) about the theory that Hawkins is actually based on East Tennessee. Fair warning – they include spoilers.
I know, I know – we just went on vacation. BUT, Karin and I like to skip out of town on occasion (like, every couple of years) since we don’t live in the same city, and visiting each other’s houses means we can’t take a break from motherhood. Obviously going to the beach is our only option. I’m sure you understand.
We took a chance on Hotwire and fully prepared to stay at a local dump somewhere on the Emerald Coast. As long as the doors locked and there were no obvious bug infestations, we were going to be fine.
Tucked away in a gated community, the resort is a slew of condos in a desirable neighborhood of million-dollar homes. There are seven private beach access points, four swimming pools, and a lake in the middle of it all. This was the view from our patio:
On site is a little breakfast/lunch cafe and a separate restaurant for dinner, along with a spa, general store, and a couple of other businesses. We could not figure out why the place wasn’t swarming with tourists. The beaches weren’t even close to being crowded.
We finally asked around and discovered that people simply don’t know the place exists. Perhaps people think the gate means it’s private and inaccessible.
There were plenty of covered beach chairs for rent and wide open spaces for a clear view of the gulf. We took a walk towards the neighboring public beach and noticed a significant difference between how populated it was versus our area. I definitely preferred Carillon Beach!
The houses were outstanding. This one is a dream:
Swimming at night is my favorite.
We bought groceries for snacking and eating at the condo, but we did manage one meal out of our swimsuits. We enjoyed a delicious guilt-free, indulgent dinner at Amici 30a Italian.
Two and a half days is not nearly long enough, but I’ll take what I can get.
As promised, we made sure the boys set their feet in London before flying back to the States. A quick Easy Jet flight from Milan made that happen.
Honestly, I got teary seeing the land from overhead. I love England. I love it. I love being there, I hate leaving it. I’ve had a crush on Britain for decades and now I’ve been twice within a year. I’m already planning a third trip.
For our final day of sight-seeing, we grabbed dinner at a pub in Shepherd’s Bush (where I had the most amazing BBQ Jackfruit quesadillas!) and then hopped on the tube for Piccadilly Circus so the boys could have that “Times Square” London experience (i.e., all tourists, no locals). That’s where the LEGO store was, after all.
It was there that I saw the most exciting LEGO set ever: Stranger Things!
I didn’t take a lot of photos during our afternoon and evening in London because I’d already taken 700 throughout the trip, and frankly, I just wanted to walk the streets and enjoy myself. We got out of Piccadilly Circus as quickly as we could (because people!) and strolled through St. James Park and Westminster. Both boys wanted to see Buckingham Palace.
When our evening in London ended, I started pouting almost immediately. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to keep going – head to Wales or Cornwall, maybe drive to Yorkshire and the Lake District. There’s so much more I want to see.
The weather was a bit gray when we left Levanto, an indication that the remainder of our Italian experience would likely be overcast or rainy. I was so grateful the rain held off so that we could enjoy Cinque Terre.
Before leaving our AirBNB, I snapped a photo of the neighbor’s dog who barked whenever he heard people. Just look at that face:
The drive to Milan was uneventful, particularly as we got closer to the city. (The Italian gas stations remain our favorite gas stations of all time.) The first part of the drive was breathtaking because it took us through the National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian and Parma, home to Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano. I wish we could’ve pulled off the highway a few times to take pictures, but everyone just wanted to get to Milan. It was lovely to gaze out the window and see the countryside roll by.
Our AirBNB in Milan was phenomenal. It’s run by Superhosts, so no detail is left undone. We opted for a loft with three sleeping spaces and upon arrival realized it was quite close to a supermarket and metro station. It even came with a secure parking space (i.e., not on the street).
Jackson loved the loft room!
We cut to the chase and hopped the metro for the city center, and right away we were overwhelmed. Milan was packed. As someone who doesn’t handle crowds very well, I was immediately put off. We did our best and maneuvered around the Piazza del Duomo, which was currently set up for a large concert. (That explained the massive crowd.)
The Dome Cathedral was lovely though. We decided to tour the inside of the church the following day when we knew it would be raining.
Ironically, all of the high-fashion, ultra-expensive shops are situated around the cathedral, which also contributed to the mess of people. Everyone was shopping, particularly inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which had everything from Louis Vuitton to Prada.
After wandering around the city center, we heard live music booming from the piazza. Chuck said, “I think that’s Sting,” to which I answered, “That’s someone who sounds like Sting. That’s not Sting.”
It was Sting.
So THAT’S WHY there were eight million people in four square blocks in Milan! We couldn’t believe it. A quick Google search told us that Sting was in town with RadioItalia to promote the local orchestra (or something to that effect). What luck!
Eventually, we went inside La Rinascente, a ten-story shopping center full of – you guessed it – the highest possible name brand stores you can imagine. On the top floor are a couple of restaurants with open-air seating, so after checking the menus, we found a few things we recognized and decided to eat outside with a great view of the Duomo.
The top floor also had an incredible dessert selection.
We were tired and still a little star-struck from seeing Sting, so we grabbed some sweets to-go and headed back to the loft.
Also, this is the best macaron I’ve ever had: vanilla and apricot. ?
By morning, the rain had definitely arrived, so I decided to leave my camera in the loft and only use my cell phone. I wish the following photos were of better quality, but oh well!
We slept in a little, made breakfast, and took the metro back to city center to buy tickets for the Duomo.
Of course, then I really wished I had my camera. The Duomo is magnificent.
The stained glass was exceptional!
After exploring the Duomo, we found a proper football shop where Jeremy bought an AC Milan jersey and had his name printed on the back. Immediately after that, we went to the three-story Ferrari store, where Chuck drove a simulated car.
It was a nice way to round out our Formula 1 experience in Europe!
The rain eased a bit, so we walked to the one place I wanted to visit in Milan: the Starbucks Reserve. There are only five places in the world where Starbucks roasts its coffee beans, and Milan is one of them. In addition to being a roastery (and supplier to European stores), the Reserve offers select drinks and treats that aren’t offered elsewhere.
When I told Jeremy we were walking to a Starbucks, he was unimpressed. Yet, when we walked in, he understood.
“This is a Starbucks?” ?
Chuck and I ordered specialty coffees while the boys enjoyed gelato made right in front of them with liquid nitrogen.
We also talked to the one of the roasters who explained the process to us. He was from England, so there was no language barrier!
After our midday treats, we walked away from the city center to see what else Milan had to offer. Finally, I found a part of Milan I enjoyed and there were so few people! It was great!
We made one last stop, this time in a men’s shop called Gutteridge. There, I saw my two favorite flags.
It was in Gutteridge where we knew our time in Milan was over. We were all exhausted. We made a quick walk back through the galleria, which still had a mess of people in it.
We stopped by the grocery store on the way back to the loft for dinner things and spent the rest of the evening lounging. In the morning, we were headed to London.??
It was hard to leave France, if I’m honest. We had just found our stride with the neighborhood and language, and we felt like we could stay for days longer with no problem. It was only the pull and appeal of Cinque Terre that made it okay to pack up and drive east.
Before we go any further, you need to know that Italian gas stations are phenomenal.
In addition to their clean and tidy bathrooms, Italian gas stations are part specialty shop, part delicatessen. Some of the boys’ favorite foods they ate in Italy were enjoyed in a gas station. Go figure.
Our AirBNB was in Levanto, a cozy seaside town on a hill in the province of La Spezia. On the drive to Levanto, tucked away in the mountainside, we saw little communities of stacked, colorful buildings.
They were little hints of what was to come later that afternoon in Riomaggiore and Manarola, the two (out of five) villages we visited that make up Cinque Terre.
In keeping with the steep terrain, our apartment in Levanto was situated on a hill and gave us an incredible view of the water.
We settled in quickly and headed to the train station. Originally, I thought walking through all five towns of Cinque Terre was doable over two days, and I still think that’s a plausible plan. However, we were already tired from the previous four days that we decided to stick with the two towns we wanted to see the most and forgo the other three. In the end it was a smart move because Riomaggiore and Manarola were swarming with tourists, and we’d heard from family members who just visited the area that the other towns were even more touristy.
Still, I wanted to see these towns with my own eyes, especially since I’d already seen them in pictures AND in a puzzle.
When we spent Christmas in Wisconsin in 2017, my family and I spend a week putting together a puzzle of the Italian coastline that Chuck and I bought from Target. We chose this puzzle for Jacob, who loves all things Italy, and it looked beautiful when it was completed.
Truth be told, I wasn’t altogether convinced this was a real place.
In December 2017, Cinque Terre, specifically Manarola, didn’t mean anything to me, but as we researched this trip and put Cinque Terre on our itinerary, I realized we’d be walking right into that puzzle.
We went to Riomaggiore first and realized that everything we heard about Cinque Terre was true – small streets, stairs everywhere, a maze of walkways. The weather was perfect, so everything sparkled.
It wasn’t long after arriving that both boys wished they’d brought their swim trunks.
We kept walking up since we had the stamina to do so!
We made a pitstop for rosé, as one does in Italy.
And then my boys posed for a photo by choice, not coercion:
If I lived in Riomaggiore:
The back wall of The Wine House in Riomaggiore was an actual wall of rock. It was the literal mountainside!
We hopped the train to Manarola because that’s where I wanted to be at sunset for the best lighting, where the low sun would cast a soft glow on the building fronts.
I pulled up a picture of the puzzle on my phone so we could identify WHERE in the puzzle we were standing.
We grabbed dinner near the water and rested our legs. Then it was time to walk to the other side for that evening photo with the perfect lighting. Jeremy and I headed to one side, Chuck and Jackson to the other.
This was our view:
That’s Chuck and Jackson in the green and blue shirts.
Once the sun was tucked behind the mountainside we headed for the train station and rode back to Levanto.
In the morning, we headed back to Milan. Little did we know that we’d run into Sting that evening.