By now most of you know my parents are in California on account of a medical emergency with my dad. They’ve been there for nearly a month, but we’re hopeful they’ll come home soon. In their absence, we did our best with Christmas. My sister and her family still came down, and we used technology to stay connected to Mom and Dad. It was a weird holiday, but we embraced the time we had together.
As the boys have gotten older, we’ve shifted the way we do Christmas. Across the board, everyone remembers our Christmas in Hilton Head to be the best ever. No big gifts, no big dinner. Just time together and the ocean.
Long gone are the days of mounds of gifts. We were never really those people anyway, but they definitely receive fewer gifts as they get older. Instead, we buy with intention. I did the Four Gift Rule for years, and now I focus on the one or two things they really want.
For Jeremy, that meant getting an AI chessboard. He was totally shocked.
For Jackson, he received his first digital filming camera. Again, totally shocked.
He also got a Rose Bowl t-shirt since two of his teams were playing each other.
Both boys received enough pairs of socks to last a full year.
More than the gifts, we were all so grateful to be together. We watched movies and went hiking. We slept in and stayed in our pajamas when we could. Becky and I drove up to Mom and Dad’s house one afternoon so I could check on their cats and grab the mail, but that afternoon had us looking at old photos and reminiscing about our childhood. It was a precious time.
We adults took the opportunity to grab dinner one night at a local place I’d been wanting to try. It’s expensive, but it’s also an experience. With kids old enough to stay home (or in our case, run around town together without us), we gussied up and enjoyed the kind of food you only eat once or twice a year.
I also took some quick photos… because time flies.
I mean… Look at my boys!
Christmas would’ve been perfect if my parents were home, but that’s just how life is sometimes. We can’t map out every day the way we want it to be. We can only do our best with what we have and look forward to what we hope for.
This post would be insufficient if I didn’t mention my gratitude for the hubs, who in fact just celebrated a birthday. He’s been a place of comfort and sanity for me. We’re lucky to have him.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂