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.
We scheduled a morning to sleep in and take our time, which was necessary for happy moods and getting some laundry done. Once everyone was sufficiently awake, we packed up our Eddie Bauer packable daypacks, which I love, and headed for Billionaire’s Bay.
I knew Jeremy would enjoy every minute of the morning. He has loved the water since birth and could spend inordinate amounts of time just observing what’s down below. The water was cooler than he would’ve liked, but man oh man was it crystal clear.
We kept following the trail, which was virtually empty, save a couple of hikers here and there.
Jackson was the first brave soul to enter the chilly Mediterranean Sea.
You only live once! Jump in!
I can’t get over how beautiful this place is. It was only a 20-minute drive from our apartment and it was free to the public.
We headed back to the apartment to clean up for Cannes, which was only one train stop west from Antibes. (The train fare was $3.20 per person.) We had zero expectations for Cannes because we had no clue how the film festival would transform the city and make it either less convenient or more convenient for travelers. So, we hopped the train and kept an open mind.
There was a lot of this in Cannes:
At least half of everyone walking around were in tuxes and nice dresses. Some had lanyards around their necks, which signified they could enter the festival, but others carried signs saying they needed a ticket or two. We supposed the film festival was invite-only.
The coolest thing by far was Jeremy’s pick-up game of chess. We came upon a chessboard surrounded by Frenchmen so we stopped to watch them play.
We encouraged Jeremy to play the next free game and were SO PROUD that he wasn’t too shy to jump in. He didn’t win, but he kept his opponent playing for a while and earned the respect of older onlookers.
Scattered throughout the square adjacent to the Palais des Festivals were imprints of movie stars’ hands, foreign and domestic. We stumbled upon a few American actors and actresses:
One thing we opted out of was staying to watch the Cinéma de la Plage (Movie on the Beach), which is free to the public during the Cannes Film Festival. Each night is a different film, and we crossed our fingers hoping it would be an English-speaking film (American or otherwise) the night we were there. Alas, it was a foreign film so we decided not to grab four seats and stay.
The previous night, however, they showed Boyz in the Hood. ?
We also decided not to linger in an attempt to see Sylvester Stallone, who would be walking the red carpet later that night. We did see Adrien Brody on the boardwalk though!
Dinner in Cannes was one of our best experiences on the entire trip. We chose a little restaurant on a side street where we could sit under an umbrella and people-watch. Our waiter was terrific and took care to help the boys with their French.
The boys wanted ice cream for dessert (we promised them we’d eat tons of ice cream on this trip!), but Chuck and I wanted Nutella crêpes. Holy moly. Get in my belly.
The night in Cannes concluded our time in France, and frankly, I was sad to leave. Everything about our French experience was wonderful. But, it was time to go back to Italy, so we packed up our things the next morning and headed to Levanto and Cinque Terre.
If you’d have told me as recently as January that I would want to go to Monaco for a Formula 1 race, I wouldn’t have believed you. Thanks for everything, Drive to Survive.
When we learned that the Monaco Grand Prix was slated for the exact dates we would be in the area, I immediately researched how to buy tickets. There was much to learn! Where do we sit? What if it rains? What can we afford? Do we know anyone with a yacht?
Spoiler: We did not know anyone with a yacht.
For our first Grand Prix experience, we opted to go to a practice day instead of the actual race. Part of it was a financial decision (adult tickets were $90 each, kids 15 and younger were free!), but part of it was because we would be in Italy come race day, and we didn’t want to undo plans and rearrange everything.
But first, breakfast. Chuck was our resident boulangerie shopper. He went to the bakery each morning to order quatre croissants.
The train ride to Monaco lasted all of 45 minutes and cost around €8 roundtrip per person. We had already fallen for Antibes, but we were about to crush hard on Monaco.
Our initial and lasting impression of Monaco is that it’s the most beautiful city/country in the world. It’s completely perfect, other than the fact that the majority of the world cannot afford to live there.
The streets are spotless. As in, no garbage remnants, no cigarette butts, no tiny pebbles along the curbs. Everything shines and sparkles.
I imagine we looked like lost children wandering the streets of Monte-Carlo, trying to figure out where we entered for Tribune T, taking in all the glorious sights of team gear and apparel for sale, wondering where all the alleyways and side streets led… Eventually, we found the Fan Zone, where Chuck and the boys raced for Aston Martin Red Bull.
The first practice was at 11 a.m., and we wanted to be seated and ready since our seats were across from the pit lane. That meant we could see everyone (drivers!) walking to their cars.
Serendipitously, our seats were directly in front of the only American-owned team, Haas. We were giddy!
The giant screen in front of the pit lane gave us a view of the entire practice, thankfully! When you’re in the stands, all you see is what’s directly in front of you, and since the cars move so quickly, you can’t blink!
People were camped out in balconies, tree lines, and slopes, wherever they could find a free spot to watch the practice.
I’m sure there are celebrities in there somewhere, unless they are all on yachts. It makes sense that the Cannes Film Festival and Monaco Grand Prix fall during the same few weeks.
After the first practice, we walked around more of Monte-Carlo. Since the city/country is less than one square mile, we can say we literally walked around an entire country in an afternoon.
I dare you to find one piece of litter in Monaco.
I’m going to need a wall of plants, please.
A walk around Monaco means you’re constantly walking up or down a hill. The country is on the side of a mountain, so everything layered and stacked.
On account of the Grand Prix, the casino was closed. It’s a shame since Chuck wanted to gamble a minute and I wanted to enjoy the view from Café de Paris. I guess we’ll just have to go back!
McLarens and Ferraris were everywhere.
There were also tons of landmarks and signage honoring Princess Grace.
Seriously, is this real?
One stressful thing happened while we were in Monaco: We couldn’t get cash out of an ATM, which made me think there was something wrong with our cards. It was also impossible to use the data on my cell phone, so calling our bank wasn’t working. (Monaco has its own WiFi, which visitors have to pay for. I didn’t know this!) Thank goodness we found a Starbucks. I used their WiFi to contact the bank, which assured me all was well on our end. It must have been that the ATM was out of money or there was something faulty with the machine. While I decompressed in Starbucks, worrying that we’d have to make whatever euros we had on hand last the day, Chuck found another ATM that worked. All was well.
We went back to our seats for the second practice at 3 p.m.
When the practice was over, we took one last stroll around Monaco, this time climbing the hill to the castle. The views were outstanding.
Monaco’s flower game was on point!
None of us were prepared to be blown away by Monaco, but we were all in love by the end of the day. Jeremy announced he’s moving to Monaco when he grows up, so I’ll be sure to let everyone know where he lands so you can visit him.
Back in Antibes, we grabbed pizza for dinner – ordering en français, s’il vous plaît – and went back to the apartment to put up our feet. We were sleeping in the next morning for sure.
It was a genius move to sleep in the hotel connected to Gatwick Airport because our Easy Jet flight from London to Milan was incredibly early. Props to all of you who wake up at 4:30 a.m. by choice on a regular basis!
We got a beautiful view of the Alps from the airplane:
Flying to Milan was a financial decision, an inexpensive way to get us to Continental Europe. At $67 per ticket, it was a no-brainer. We landed by 9 a.m., grabbed our diesel Fiat rental, and headed for the Mediterranean.
We were all exhausted, but only the boys grabbed a catnap.
To be honest, our initial impression of Italy was nothing special, as we weren’t anticipating miles of rice fields outside of Milan. It wasn’t until we left the Lombardy region and entered Liguria that the terrain started to look pretty, like everything you see in photographs.
Knowing we had three days in Italy at the end of the trip, we didn’t make any stops and headed straight for Antibes, a small city between Nice and Cannes on the Côte d’Azur.
Our two-bedroom AirBNB apartment was perfectly situated with a view of the Mediterranean and only a short walk to a small grocery store and the train station.
The weather was perfect, so we unloaded our things and headed for the coastline and Old Town.
The water was as blue as I hoped it would be, but little did I know that in two days we’d explore another spot in Antibes that’s even more gorgeous.
The Old Town of Antibes is everything you think a small French town would look like. This is why you have to get out of the big cities and explore where regular people live. Paris doesn’t fully represent France, just as London doesn’t fully represent England, just as New York City doesn’t fully represent the United States. I will always advocate for staying in small towns!
Vive la France!
We eventually found a spot for dinner and the boys ordered their meals entirely in French! I was so proud.
We attempted everything in French first, even if it was simply asking the waiter if he spoke English (“Parlez-vous anglais?”). Knowing simple questions, including please and thank you, will get you very far in a foreign country. By making an honest attempt, it shows you respect the people and country hosting you. We were always greeted and treated graciously by everyone we encountered in France.
After dinner, we explored the narrow streets of Old Town and found a beautiful square to get the boys gelato and us another glass of rosé. (Chuck discovered he enjoys wine in France!)
Last year, when Chuck and I flew to the UK, we opted for an overnight flight so we wouldn’t lose a day of sight-seeing. A quick nap upon arrival gave us enough energy to power through the jet lag.
This time, however, remembering how rough it was on the boys when we flew to Iceland, we decided to surrender a day of sight-seeing for a day of travel. We flew out of Chicago at 9 a.m. and landed in London close to 11 p.m. By the time we were settled in Kingston-Upon-Thames and had eaten our room-service pizza, it was time for bed. Despite the incredibly long day, I think it was easier for the boys to acclimate.
I love Kingston-Upon-Thames and couldn’t wait to return, particularly since we had plans to visit Hampton Court. It’s southwest of London, perfectly situated on the river as the name suggests, and entirely walkable.
The 30-minute walk to Hampton Court took us through the town and over the Thames, and it made me love the city all over again.
I’m tempted to draft a long history of Hampton Court’s significance, but I won’t torture those of you only came here for the photos. In short, Hampton Court was Henry VIII’s favorite place to be. It was transformed from a stately home to a true palace under the eye of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who failed to secure Henry’s first divorce from Catherine of Aragon and therefore secured his fateful death.
It was also where the Protestant King James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland), who reigned after Elizabeth I died, held a conference to discuss the translation of the Holy Bible into English for the faithful to read. (Spoiler alert – he had the first English translation named after him.)
Hampton Court is essentially two palaces in one – the rose-brick Tudor palace from the 1500s and the baroque palace of William III from the 1700s.
At various points throughout our tour, I kept thinking certain places looked familiar as if I’d seen them before. Sure enough, a quick Google search reminded me that certain scenes of The Favouritewere filmed here, as Queen Anne was the last Stuart monarch and spent a lot of time at Hampton Court.
I couldn’t wait to get my eyes on The Great Hall, which is practically a shrine to Henry VIII. My photos of the stained glass don’t do them justice.
If you’re able to zoom in on the stained glass, you’ll see all the wives’ names and their subsequent mottos.
Aw, poor Jane. She is buried with King Henry at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor. Henry considered her his true wife. She was wife No. 3 and the only one who bore him a living son, Edward VI.
My favorite, however, is Anne Boleyn. Her motto was “The Most Happy.” My sweet husband was such a champ to endure my Queen Anne fandom last October when we visited Hever Castle, her childhood home. It ended up being one of our favorite things on that trip.
It was Anne who gave us Elizabeth I.
One area where photos weren’t allowed was the Chapel Royal. (Below is a photo from the official website.) It was in this chapel where Henry’s son and future king, Edward, was baptized. It’s important to note that it was Henry who commissioned the vaulted ceilings in the 1530s and the blue starry sky was painted by Sir James Thornhill for Queen Anne Boleyn. She didn’t enjoy the ceiling for very long since she was executed in 1536.
Here’s a better view of the starry ceiling:
That’s Chuck walking out of the right side of Hampton Court into the gardens (note the baroque style from William III’s contributions).
The grounds were phenomenal and largely attributed to King William III and Queen Mary II.
The great surprise of Hampton Court came to Jackson, who loves ALL THINGS related to Guinness World Records. At the far end of the gardens is the largest grapevine in the world and there’s even a plaque there to prove it.
He wept a little, unprepared to see a Guinness World Record in person with his own eyes. He wanted to take his own photo of the certification.
With plenty of time left in the day, we took a quick drive to the seaside to visit Brighton, a Myrtle-Beach sort of vacation spot. It gave us an opportunity to show the boys the English Channel.
It was on this pier that we got ice cream cones. However, only three of us finished our cones since a seagull swept down and stole mine right out of my hand. I thought they were only interested in french fries. Alas, no! Beware the seagulls!
If you’ve been to my home, specifically my home office, you know I love bunting. England has bunting in spades and Brighton is no exception. Everything looks happier with bunting! Hang ALL THE BUNTING!
At some point during winter, Chuck and I started talking about where to take the boys on a summer vacation. We like to travel as soon as we’re done with school, which ends at the onset of Mother’s Day (a lovely gift I give myself). Also, traveling before Memorial Day weekend tends to save a little money and definitely cuts down on the crowds.
Our original thought was to take the boys to California since they’ve never been. Rent a car, drive the coast, venture into L.A. so Jackson can marvel at the Hollywood sign… It sounded like a good idea.
But then we started seeing unbelievable fares out of Chicago, which is where we planned to fly out of since we were going there for Jacob’s graduation. When a fare to London showed up at $398, we decided to jump on it. We’d fly roundtrip from Chicago to London and see what could happen in between.
By mid-March, we’d made loose plans. We knew we didn’t want to stay in the UK since Chuck and I just did that in October, and we knew Easy Jet could take us almost anywhere in Europe for cheap. When a fare to Milan popped up for $67, we decided Italy was as good a country as any.
Then we started researching where we could drive to from Milan. The Mediterranean Sea was a four-hour drive from Milan. We thought, let’s go there! Why not! Let’s go to France! Is Spain too far away? Where else could we go?
Sure enough, the Monaco Grand Prix was scheduled for the exact week we planned to be in the French Riviera. We researched logistics and bought tickets for the first two practices. Unreal.
Our trip started to take shape by the end of March, but it was on the road to Nashville for the Mumford & Sons concert when Chuck and I wondered when the Cannes Film Festival was – because wouldn’t that be funny if the Cannes Film Festival was during the same time as our vacation to southern France!
Sure enough, it was.
After France, we went back to Italy and explored two towns that make up Cinque Terre’s five towns. Stunning, stunning.
We finished the trip with an afternoon in London and caught a flight back to Chicago the next day. We wore ourselves out, but every second was worth it. Yes, we are already talking about where to go next.
I took an obscene amount of photos (of course I did!), so it will take a week or longer to sort through them and upload posts that fully describe the trip. Since this blog serves as a scrapbook for our family, I will include all the highlights. I did the same thing with our Iceland trip in 2017 and our UK trip in 2018, and I still enjoy going back to read those posts.
Several years ago, as a gift to myself, I decided that as long as we are homeschooling our academic year would end the Friday before Mother’s Day and not resume until after my birthday in August. I am so good about making that happen.
We wrapped the 2018-2019 school year last week, and though we’ll continue with our French lessons and math review throughout the summer, the boys’ final grades have been turned it. Glory be, it’s summer!
For Mother’s Day, I woke up to the start of the Barcelona Grand Prix, which was exciting, and then we met at Grandpa’s apartment for lunch.
It was a relaxing day, for the most part. We went to a couple of shops and hung around the house. That’s all I want for Mother’s Day – little to no responsibility.
I can’t remember the last time I saw my mom in person for Mother’s Day, but now that we live near each other again, we should have no problem arranging it!
Look at my teenager, y’all.
And this one will officially be a teenager in less than a month, though I told him that after 12, we start counting backwards, which means he’ll turn 11 in June. He doesn’t believe me.
We have a few things planned for the beginning of summer, but otherwise it should be a slow-moving couple of months. Jeremy will continue his part-time job with the pool business, I’ll work on freelance assignments and other writing projects, and Jackson is determined to watch and review as many movies as possible.
If you missed my latest post for the Knoxville Moms Blog, click here.
I don’t know if this is a short-lived phase or the beginning of something, but I’ve become a Formula 1 fan, and it’s pretty bad.
It all started when Chuck texted me from the den on Friday, March 8.
Don’t you love that threat at the end? I don’t waste time on bad television, so yeah – It better be good.
We finished the short series in a matter of days, and I am here for it.
Since March 8, I have Googled a million questions about Formula 1, researched teams and drivers, learned what chassis and front wingmeans, and studied the 2019 World Championship Race Calendar. F1’s 1000th race happens this weekend in China, and I cannot wait to watch it.
I’ve lived in the south for the bulk of my life, and not once have I been interested in Nascar. Even when Chuck texted “documentary about Formula 1,” I had to clarify, “Racing?”
I fully acknowledge that I could get burned out and lose interest, but so far, I’m going strong. I’m throwing out terms like I’ve known them my whole life, critiquing slow pit stops and holding my breath when a driver overtakes on a tough turn. I’m acting like this is how it’s always been.
But really, it’s not even been two months, and I’m biting my fingernails wondering how it’s gonna go down in China this weekend.
Just when I thought I’d be bored until football season, I have ten races between now and September to keep me satisfied.
Warning: Watch “Drive to Survive” at your own risk. You too could get sucked in to the world of Formula 1.
When I became a Mumford & Sons fan, Chuck and I were in the midst of trying to move back to Tennessee after living in Texas for two years. He was already back home, but the boys and I were stuck in Amarillo waiting for our house to sell. I don’t remember the exact phone call, but at some point in the fall of 2010, Chuck told me about a song he’d heard on the radio, and he thought I’d like it. As soon as I listened to “Little Lion Man,” I was hooked.
I wore out Sigh No More immediately, and, after moving back to East Tennessee in March 2011, Chuck and I drove to Asheville in June 2011 to see the band in concert. We were blown away by their energy on stage. They sounded exactly as they did on the album, which is always a sure sign of a good artist.
We headed to Nashville Friday afternoon in time to grab dinner and drinks before sunset.
It was windy on that rooftop bar, so when I tried to take our photo, a gust of wind rolled through at the exact moment the camera snapped, whisking away the menu. I couldn’t have staged a better photo if I tried. This image captures our marriage perfectly – Chuck is calm and collected. I am freaking out. It’s all about balance.
This was the view across from our hotel, which was nicely situated next to Bridgestone Arena. I stared at the museum for several minutes before realizing the reflection showed piano keys in the design.
But onto the most important news: The concert. It was a low-frills show, a centered stage with modest lights. That didn’t bother me because I don’t go to see the band. I mainly want to hear them. Minus one song (which isn’t really a song but instead a recitation of Paradise Lost), I loved everything I heard. I sang and jumped and clapped and smiled. It was marvelous.
The only song I captured fully on my cell phone was their cover of “Hurt” – which I anticipated them playing since I’ve been following their set lists the entire tour. Originally a Nine Inch Nails song, which is great on its own, Johnny Cash also covered the song on American IV: The Man Comes Around.
In my former life, blogging was an almost-every-other-day thing. I had so much to say, so much to post, so much to SHARE about our life. It was easier then, when my world was a little less public and there were fewer eyes reading the posts. I didn’t care to share (almost) everything. This site has been a scrapbook of sorts, and I remain immensely grateful for the ability to look back several years, even a decade if I want to, and catch a glimpse at where we were.
Today, however, it’s a little more complicated. I’m sensitive to the boys’ privacy, I’m careful with my own, and I want to be sure that, while I’m more selective about what I share, I am still showing you what is real and true.
That being said, here’s a quick glimpse into 2019 so far:
Jackson continues to enjoy equine therapy (aka, “Horse Hangout Hour’) and finally found the courage to trot! It was a huge hurdle for him to cross since trotting makes him feel off balance and the fear of falling off the horse entirely is real. A couple of weeks ago, after tons of encouragement, he finally did it. You can see a video here.
Yesterday, the weather was so delightful that the class rode their horses in the field next to the barn. It was a beautiful way to wrap up the winter session.
Jeremy has been enjoying success on the local chess tournament circuit. After playing chess for several years at our co-op, and finally getting a quality chess coach, he entered a few tournaments recently and has had a great time playing other students in the area. The most recent win was a team win, and since I don’t have permission to post other kiddos’ photos in this space, I’ve blurred their faces. 🙂
We are nearing that time of year when we’re tired of school and aching for summer, a level of academic fatigue that comes full circle in April. Still, I’m enjoying my role as an English teacher at our co-op and am already preparing for next year’s courses. It is still a surprise to me that I like teaching, but I also recognize that I get to teach in a space with limited restraints (unlike the traditional school system). Perhaps that’s made all the difference. Plus, it’s only once a week.
On co-op days, I’ve made a habit of using my lunch break to visit Grandpa Thomas, who moved here in January. I still can’t believe he’s here, actually. (Hi, Grandpa!) I’ve never lived in the same city as any of my grandparents, and I’m still getting used to the fact that my parents are only 45 minutes away. If you’d told me this time last year that both Grandpa and my parents would be here with us, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Finally, East Tennessee received a beating on Saturday with a record-setting 17+ inches of rainfall. By Sunday morning, entire neighborhoods and streets were underwater. Our neighborhood, mercifully, was spared any damage, but that isn’t the case for thousands of other Tennesseans. In fact, on the way home from equine therapy last night, a couple of the roads we usually take were still underwater, along with adjacent homes.
Chuck and I took time to drive the missing link Sunday afternoon and stopped by the Townsend Wye to see what the water levels looked like. The usual Class I and II rapids were easily Class III and IV on account of all the water. The area in the photo below is typically a calm pool for swimming in the summertime. Not the case this week!
Finally, there’s an addition to this website, but it’s not my personal work. Jackson decided he wanted to start writing book and movie reviews for tweens and teens, and I made his year by telling him I’d post them on the blog. Overjoyed, he got right to work on The Reviewing Rabbit. I assume the quality of content will improve over time, but he’s already doing a good job! He’s created a backlog of posts, and three are already live.
That being said, if there’s an age-appropriate film or book you’d like Jackson to review, please email me and I’ll pass it along to him. 🙂
I love a story with a good twist. Better yet, I love a story with several good twists. I enjoy the shock and surprise of learning I was completely wrong.
Behind Her Eyes presents two narrators – Adele, the pretty yet fragile wife of a local psychiatrist, and Louise, a single mom and the psychiatrist’s secretary. David, the psychiatrist, is the third person in the triad, but we don’t have a POV from him.
Here’s the catch – the Louise and David had a clumsy kiss in a bar prior to her starting the job, before they knew they’d be working together. So, when Louise and Adele meet and strike up a friendship, there’s already a secret in play. It’s a big mess, but that isn’t the point. There is something else going on in the story that looms larger than their little white lies.
The quick pacing kept me enthralled, particularly because more lies lead to more secrets and you know it’s all going to come to light eventually. The question is WHEN and HOW, so I kept going.
Then there’s this other plot point that starts to creep in, one that involves lucid dreaming, and I started to feel like I was reading The Anatomy of Stars, which I didn’t enjoy. Finally, in the last couple of chapters, the purpose of the lucid dreaming is revealed.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while, and when a BookTuber I follow selected it as the January pick for her online book club, I thought I’d read along.
Full disclosure – We Need to Talk About Kevin is disturbing, and it will not leave you with warm fuzzies of any kind.
The novel unfolds through letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin, so we approach the story entirely from her point of view. Right away I wasn’t a fan of the epistolary format, and the first 50 pages were slower than I’d prefer.
However, there is a threshold somewhere around the 50-page mark that shifts the pacing dramatically. It took me weeks to crawl there, but once I crossed over, I couldn’t put down the book and ended up finishing it in a weekend.
It isn’t a spoiler to tell you about Kevin. From the start, he is a different sort of child. He’s curt and ominous as if there was a dark streak in him from birth. That’s why, when, at 15 years old, Kevin murdered a handful of classmates, a cafeteria worker, and a teacher, and subsequently lands in jail, you aren’t surprised. You knew it was coming, and it was only a matter of knowing how you wound up there.
The letters from Eva to Franklin are heart-wrenching, particularly because Eva knew there was something off in her son. Franklin, less so. As their disenchanted lives unfold in the suburbs, Eva becomes increasingly worried about Kevin, and he is well aware of her concerns. Kevin enjoys and exploits them.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is… unnerving. It is not a beach read or a cozy mystery. It is troubling and shocking and terrifically sad. And yet, it is so well done that Lionel Shriver must have dug deep into the dark minds of young murderers in order to write one so perfectly. Winner of the Orange Prize and numerous other accolades, Shriver is an impeccable writer and storyteller.
We don’t get a lot of snow around here, but when there’s a threat of an inch, schools and businesses close in precaution. (Don’t make fun. We don’t know how to drive in that stuff.) Unfortunately for Jeremy and Jackson, the Miller School for Boys is open every day, snow or no snow.
Still, we make little allowances for the delightful weather. It’s nice to not have to go anywhere. We sleep in a little later, take our time getting to school work, and this morning was no different. Jeremy, who protested that one to three inches of snow was no big deal, was the first one to throw on some layers and take the dog out. It’s Major, after all, who loves snow the most.
The meteorologist called for one to three inches in our specific area, and sure enough, that’s what fell. It was beautiful.
I tried to get pictures of our neighbors, but the snowflakes were so fast and fat that I couldn’t get the horses in focus, and it was too cold to cross the road to get closer.
The temperatures will continue to drop overnight, which gives me pause when I think of the surrounding trees and the heavy snow covering all the limbs.
Major really is the happiest boy in the snow.
Salem, on the other hand, took one look…
…and went back inside.
Once the snow stopped and the clouds cleared, we had blue skies once again and the sun melted all the remaining ice on the roads.
However, there are two other artists who’ve been on my list to see, and one nearly happened last year. I bought tickets for Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats as a birthday gift to Chuck last year, but a work conflict left us unable to go, so I sold the tickets and put them back on the To See Live list.
The other artist was Gregory Alan Isakov, a singer/songwriter who’s less well known than the other three. I stumbled upon his music in 2013 when I started working on my first novel. I wanted calm, steady background music, and after perusing iTunes for a bit I found “The Stable Song.” That was it. I was hooked.
Several albums later, I listen to his music when I’m driving long distances or settling in for a long bout of work or writing. It soothes me, and I love his lyrics. Until recently, I never considered that I’d catch him on tour near me, but when his last album dropped and I checked the tour schedule, voila! He was going to be in several cities within easy driving distance. I had to make it work.
I bought tickets for the only weekend show I could attend, this one in Asheville. My parents could keep the boys, and Chuck and I could make a weekend out of it. Perfect.
Then came the flu.
Jackson woke up Monday morning with a fever, something that’s happened only a few times in his life. I might be tempting fate here, but we are rarely sick. Maybe once a year? Once every other year? We already had an appointment scheduled on Tuesday to establish with a new family doctor, and funnily enough, it was my suggestion to test him for the flu. (The nurse said it looked like Strep.) It came back positive, and she came back into the room with facemasks.
Wednesday morning Jeremy woke up groggy, sniffly, and that’s when I decided the concert that Saturday was for sure not happening for me. What if we all got sick? What if we starting falling like dominos, one right after the other? I canceled our AirBNB, told Mom she was off the hook, and wondered how I could sell my concert tickets.
However, by Wednesday night Jackson was fever-free and Jeremy seemed fine. We were all on Tamiflu as a preventative, and the illness I felt confident was coming our way didn’t seem to be showing up. By Thursday night, I was heartbroken, the irony not lost on me. We didn’t succumb to the flu, for which I was grateful, but the upcoming weekend in Asheville was a bust.
Enter my sweet friend, Kori, who offered herself up as a traveling companion along with a hotel room via points. She had no clue who this Gregory guy was, but she was game. I argued with her, stupidly, but then I realized she was giving me a precious gift and I’d be foolish to reject it. Chuck stayed home with the boys (Jackson still had a smoker’s cough), and off Kori and I went to Asheville.
The Orange Peel is a small venue with mostly standing room, though there were a few barstools in the back for those who showed up early. I was not interested in standing for two hours, nor was Kori, and mercifully, there were two stools available when we made it inside.
I kept telling her that it would be a mellow concert, that his music was so chill that you could practically fall asleep to it. Sure enough, at one point during the concert, Gregory joked that he’s popular at preschool naptimes and yoga studios. 🙂
I’d checked the set lists from his previous concerts, and he regularly started with “She Always Takes it Black,” which is a favorite of mine. As soon as he took the stage, he strummed a few lines of music that everyone recognized as that song, and we all cheered.
He played a handful of favorites, and despite a few tall people who kept standing in front of us, I was pleased with the whole event. I’m not sure my phone captured the sound perfectly, but in person he sounded just like he sounds on his albums.
The encore was “The Stable Song,” and everyone sang along.
I don’t need to see him again unless he actually comes here (then I’ll want to), but I’m grateful for Kori’s willingness to tag along, for Chuck’s willingness to hang back, and for the opportunity to scratch Gregory off my To See Live list. It was all worth it.
January is supposed to be an inspirational month, a time when folks have the most amount of resolve to improve upon themselves. We should all be ripe and energized, attacking our day with fervor and hope.
But good gracious almighty – how is that supposed to happen when East Tennessee is under a perpetual gray cloud? This may look like a black and white photo but it’s not. This is what the sky looks like from my back patio, and this is how it’s looked for most of January.
As a result, we’re drowning.
If we had snow to accompany the gloom, we’d embrace it. We’d relish it. We’d go sledding in the front yard and open up all the curtains.
But one dreary day after another does not help anyone’s mood. We are all unmotivated, uninspired, and snippy. None of us can seem to find a kind word. Nobody wants to do anything or go anywhere. Nearly every day in January has been one sludge after another.
Currently, as I type, there’s the tiniest peek of blue sky coming through the clouds. Sunlight may follow, if I don’t jinx it with these words and the forecast is actually true. We’re supposed to have sunlight this afternoon. Real, live, refreshing sunlight, and if we do see the sun today, I’m making everyone sit outside in its glory for a solid hour. My goodness, we need a recharge.
It’s a curious thing – the power the weather can have over me. Not only do the shorter days make me want to sleep later, go to bed earlier, and not exercise, but I find myself having extreme thoughts about quitting my freelance jobs or redecorating entire rooms in the house. I daydream about expensive travel, the sort of trips that only happen once every few, five, or ten years. None of this is helpful since major changes should never be made under a perpetual gray cloud, literally or figuratively, but it’s a pattern I’ve noticed throughout the month. The gray cloud in the sky hovers over my head and holds my brain hostage.
I’ve connected those dots, so no rash decisions will be made on my end. But geez – what if I wasn’t mentally strong enough to recognize it? How many people are out there being ridiculous when all they need is a little sunlight and perspective?
I think the sun is trying, though. I can see it now. Lord help us all, I can see it.
I’m not sure if double or triple timelines is a trend that authors are choosing independently or if literary agents and editors are pushing for it. Either way, I keep choosing these books. I don’t mind necessarily, but it’s a format that I’ll soon need a break from.
I Found You takes place primarily in a seaside town in England called Ridinghouse Bay. Cynical single mom Alice wakes up one morning to find a man sitting on the beach outside her house. She approaches him only to find out he has no idea who he is or what he’s doing on the beach. Instead of leaving him there, she welcomes him back to her house for a shower, a hot meal, and eventually, a short-term place to stay until his memory returns.
A second part of the book takes place in London and focuses on Lily, a newlywed whose husband would normally go to work and come home like clockwork. When he doesn’t come home one day and cannot be reached on his cell phone, Lily calls the police and thus begins a missing person search. Matters aren’t helped when Lily realizes she knows little to nothing about the man she met and married in a whirlwind romance.
A third narrative takes place as well, but this time it’s in the past (1993) and follows Gray and Kirsty Ross, a brother and sister on summer vacation with their parents in Ridinghouse Bay. All was well and good until a charming young man, Mark, starts paying too much attention to Kirsty, and Gray doesn’t trust a single thing the local boy says.
I Found You is a true mystery in that the first overarching question readers have is if the man on the beach is Lily’s missing husband. The second question is how Gray and Mark from 1993 fit into the future narrative. The answers come at the beginning of the third act (last third of the book), and then the question becomes, “How will this all turn out?”
I wasn’t blown away by I Found You in the way I was with Sometimes I Lie, which remains one of my favorites, but it was still a good read and one that kept my interest until the end. It reminded me of a Liane Moriarity book, so if that’s your type of fiction, give it a go.
Honestly, we did our best. It was a tough year, so it’s hard to be festive during a time that’s meant to be shared with family. Chuck and I focused on the boys and kept our days lazy.
We had Tom Jr. with us for several days, Chuck’s cousin who lives in a nearby home for adults with developmental disabilities, as well as a quick 24-hour visit from our niece, Hayli.
Per usual, the gifts we give our boys are minimal but exactly what they wanted or needed. The Four Gift Rule is still in play, though sometimes there’s an extra small thing or two thrown in.
Jackson has had a terrific year with good grades and a cheerful attitude, not to mention the dozens of times he made the right decision in a moment of tension or stress. He will be 13 this year, a number I cannot even imagine for my little Jack, but after hearing him say over and over again, “I’m going to start saving for a Nintendo DS,” I suggested to Chuck that we go ahead and surprise him with one. We’ve actually never bought a device of any kind for our kids, so it was a big treat.
He was speechless.
Jeremy, too, was surprised to find two new soccer bags, a Liverpool soccer ball, and a note in a water bottle that informed him we’d signed him up for an indoor soccer season. His reactions were also satisfying.
I captured both of their reactions on video:
My favorite photo from the day is this one: Jackson is reading one of his new flag books while Joshua, his Build-a-Bear bunny rabbit, enjoys his new Miles Morales (Into the Spider-Verse) outfit.
Jackson was thrilled to learn we had not forgotten about Joshua.
I made a simple meal and enjoyed visiting with Hayli while I cooked. We took a quick photo together with my cell phone (forgive the low quality), and after we said goodbye to her, we all slid back into pajamas (for those of us who got dressed for the day) and watched Christmas 2018 fade away.
It wasn’t terrible, but it was different. It will always be different after family members leave us. Fortunately, the low-stress method was the right way to go. No muss, no fuss.
In 2017, I settled into a genre that doesn’t seem to be waning. I’ve always enjoyed a good whodunit, but that’s morphed into thrillers and mysteries that do a good job of hijacking my brain. The best books are the ones with top-notch character development, a plot you can’t dissect, and pacing so swift that you can’t look away for a moment without wondering what might happen next.
Not all of my favorites from 2018 are thrillers, but most of them are. (Keep in mind these aren’t necessarily books that debuted in 2018.)
The Secrets She Keeps follows two storylines – Agatha is a pregnant thirty-something who works at a dreadful grocery store. She longs to have her ex-boyfriend back in the fold of their impending family. Life is pretty miserable. Meg, on the other hand, is a pregnant mommy blogger who enjoys a happy, public life married to a handsome sportscaster. Agatha’s life is notably less desirable than Meg’s, and after watching the pregnant blogger shop in the store where she works, a plan starts to form. Obviously, Agatha is jealous of Meg, and it’s this emotional drug that keeps her watching and waiting. When their stories finally align, the pacing and tension is everything you need it to be.
As soon as I finished Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I knew it was going to be a 2018 favorite. Additionally, I recommend you listen to this book instead of read it because the narration by Cathleen McCarron is an absolute delight.
Eleanor Oliphant is a special lady. Thirty years old and full of quirks, she is likely somewhere on the autism spectrum, though fully capable of living an independent life. Her mother is a constant nag, and her co-worker Raymond provides a lovely contrast to Eleanor’s cut-and-dry lifestyle. Unfortunately, something bad exists in Eleanor’s history, an event we don’t yet understand. However, as memories unfold, the tragedy comes to light, and Eleanor’s life will never be the same.
The book is a perfect mixture of serious and funny. There are laugh-out-loud moments followed by pure heartache. Gail Honeyman deserves all the applause.
If you’ve asked me for a book recommendation in 2018, it’s likely I told you to read Sometimes I Lie. Hoo-boy, it was good.
Told through three timelines – Now, Before, and Then – we learn about Amber Reynolds’ life. DuringNow, she’s in a coma. Before puts the pieces together of how she wound up in that coma. Then includes passages from a diary written by a young girl in 1991 and 1992.
Lest you think three timelines is hard to keep track of, no worries. The story is impeccably written, an admirable feat for Alice Feeney, as Sometimes I Lie is her debut novel. If you love fiction at all, read this one.
If you asked me for a book recommendation in 2018, it’s also likely that I told you to read Homegoing, which is not a thriller. It begins in 18th Century Ghana, where two half sisters, Effia and Esi, don’t know the other exists. Effia is married off to a wealthy and influential Englishman who oversees the British slave trade headquartered on the Gold Coast. Esi, the daughter of a tribal warrior, is sold into slavery and is kept in the dungeon of the same castle where her half-sister lives. She eventually passes through the Door of No Return to board a boat headed for America.
Thus begins a 300-year journey that follows the descendants of Effia (in Africa) and Esi (in America). It is exhaustive, emotional, and absolutely necessary to read if you have any interest in trying to understand the African American story. I was shocked to learn that Yaa Gyasi did not win the Pulitzer for Homegoing, but I was pleased to know she was at least in the running. Before my boys graduate high school, they will read this book.
My final favorite book I read in 2018 is The Word is Murder, which I love even more whenever I think of it. Anthony Horowitz was given the go-ahead by the Conan Doyle Estate to write two Sherlock Holmes novels, so he was well-equipped to craft The Word is Murder.
To explain this book well takes more than a paragraph, so I encourage you to click on the link above or do your own research if you want to know more. Essentially, Horowitz writes himself into the book as the narrator and main character. He’s an established novelist, doing just fine, when ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne (the obsessive, sharp Sherlock character) asks for his help to document a murder investigation. After some hesitation, Horowitz morphs into the Watson role, and the pair investigate the murder of Diana Cowper, a woman who walks into a funeral parlor one afternoon to prepay for her future services and is found murdered in her apartment later the same day.
If you have any interest in Sherlock Holmes at all – the TV series or the original works – The Word is Murder is a must-read.