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. 🙂
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, by mid-week, I was seriously considering not showing up on account of the dismal weather forecast.
Those temperatures, when combined with 100 percent chance of rain, felt like a big NO in my book. I don’t run in extreme weather conditions, namely the middle of summer when the heat and humidity make East Tennessee feel like an oven. (I go to the gym and do yoga in the summer.)
By Saturday morning, I was still leaning towards no. The forecast never improved or even shifted. I polled friends on Instagram and the majority said HECK NO, don’t run.
A small few, maybe six or seven, said DO IT. A few messaged me and reminded me that I’d probably regret it if I didn’t at least try. I wasn’t aiming for a perfect time anyway. I surrendered the fantasy of PRs – personal records – a long time ago. My only goal now is to finish in one piece, and I honestly believe this basic rule to listen to my body has kept me injury-free for the last decade.
I wasn’t alone in the indecision or concern. The race’s Facebook page was busy with discussion about travel worries and racers deciding it was too risky to cross mountains and plateaus to get to Sevierville. A few petitioned the race organizers to reschedule, but if you have any experience with the racing community, you’d know that wasn’t going to happen.
In the end, I went for it. I drove to Sevierville Saturday night and slept at my parents’ house, who’d only moved to the area last week. (Their house is 11 miles from the start line.) When I left for the race at 6:15 a.m., the weather was exactly as predicted – 35 degrees and raining. I upped my positive-self-talk game: “Only two hours of running and then you can take a hot shower. No big deal.”
Attendance was noticeably down from the last time I ran the Santa Hustle two years ago, and it was a bare-bones set-up. No local cheerleading teams or bands, no extra volunteers in cheerful holiday garb to make the event festive. People huddled around outdoor space heaters or stayed indoors. When the race started (late) at 7:35 a.m., people were ready to get the dang thing over with.
The first four miles was uneventful weather-wise. The steady rain had lessened to a light mist, and, once warmed up, the temperature felt nice.
Around mile five, the sleet arrived and hung around for the next three or four miles, properly soaking my legs and feet. I took two missteps and landed directly in puddles.
At mile nine, the sleet morphed into fat, puffy snowflakes, which pelted me in the face for a steady 45 minutes.
By mile 12, I was over it. Done. Soaked to the bone and freezing. By the time I could see the finish line, I could also see – do my eyes deceive me? – my parents parked on the roadside. I waved to them, and they waved back, and then I noticed my mother was recording the Stay-Puffed Marshmallow Woman running her direction. (The white Columbia jacket I bought for our U.K. trip was PERFECT for a long-distance run in wet weather!)
Despite the weather, the Santa Hustle 2018 was still not my worst race experience. The Oklahoma City Half in 2009 still reigns as the absolute worst. My time was a few minutes slower than normal, but I’m still within range of the last ten half marathons I’ve run.
More than anything, I’m glad I did something hard when I was really tempted not to.
My parents are moving back to Tennessee, and since they are already in the process of the move, it made sense for my sister and her family to spend Thanksgiving here. It helps that I don’t mind hosting and cooking and making everyone as comfortable as possible.
We spent time doing all the usual things – watching football, playing games, and eating until our pants get tight. I tried to make enough food so that we’d have leftovers for a second full day. I was mostly successful!
I also took a few photos of Jacob since it’s his senior year, a reality that I’ve yet to accept. It’s hard to believe the first grandchild in the family is graduating high school. We are all so proud of him!
This is my favorite photo from the long weekend:
We drove to Sevierville to let the boys swim and to check out my parents’ new rental house. I am beyond thrilled that they’re moving back to this wonderful state, particularly since I haven’t lived near my family since 2005. They should be settled in by Christmas.
Other than the fact that none of the teams we root for won this weekend (minus MTSU), we had a lovely, relaxing Thanksgiving together. As always, the time goes by too quickly.
For a dozen reasons, we didn’t want to leave Scotland. How can one look forward to a trip for more than a decade, finally experience it, and leave without crying?
I cried at the airport. Full on. Cried.
We drove 1,468 miles in England and Scotland, which doesn’t account for the miles we walked, nor taking the train back and forth to London. Needless to say, we felt accomplished and took advantage of every opporunity.
View of Scotland as we flew away:
When we were booking our flights for this trip, it was inevitable that we’d have a layover in Amsterdam. Though I’d been to the Netherlands as a kid, Chuck had yet to put his feet on mainland European soil.
So, why not finagle a later flight, get one more stamp in the passport, and tour the city?
We booked a hotel room next to the train station so everything would be walkable. This was our view:
With only a couple of hours until sunset, we unloaded our luggage and took to the streets immediately.
Amsterdam was exactly as I remembered it – all bikes and canals.
Sunset was coming, and we were perfectly positioned for a postcard moment:
These photos were taken with my phone since I didn’t want to haul the camera all night. Not bad for cell phone photos!
Dinner was pizza on a patio:
Cheers to a memorable trip and to being each other’s favorite traveling buddy.
By Day 9, we were acutely aware of how quickly time was passing us by. It was an impossibility to see everything on our respective lists, but we would sure as heck try.
Our Airbnb in Kirkhill was a sweet little one-bedroom house on the owners’ property in the country and perfectly situated to jump down to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle before heading east.
PEAK COLORS, PEOPLE.
Bits of Urquhart Castledate back to the 500s, but its heyday was in the 13th and 14th Centuries when it was a military stronghold. It was a garrison for the Jacobites and their supporters in the 1600s, but the place ultimately fell into ruin in 1715 and thereafter.
From every corner is a beautiful view of Loch Ness.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this photo was taken in East Tennessee:
It was too cold to dip our toes into Loch Ness, but we got as close as we could.
Off we went to Inverness, which could easily pass for the Scottish version of Knoxville or Chattanooga. Give me Inverness over Edinburgh any day of the week.
The River Ness was moving faster than I’d seen a river flow, particularly being that wide and shallow. We even asked the waitress at lunch about how fast it was flowing and she said it’s run faster before. If you jumped in, you’d be in the North Sea in minutes.
You can’t tell by the photo, but Chuck was so happy with his meal that he wore a steady grin on his face the whole time. Even buttering this piece of bread was enjoyable. We really loved carbs on this trip.
We hit the road for one last swing along the coastline to find a graveyard where a few of Chuck’s ancestors could potentially be buried. We drove through Cullen first.
Banff was home to the graveyard where we looked for Camerons. (Doesn’t everyone traipse through graveyards on their wedding anniversary trip?)
We actually found two Camerons, but we weren’t sure if they’re related or not. We took photos to bring home to our family historian, Aunt Linda.
After our graveyard stroll, we stopped in the town of Banff to eat ice cream and then promptly walk off the calories.
Because there were considerable calories.
By now the sun was starting to set on our last night in Scotland. The sadness started to creep in, at least on my part. I knew leaving the next day was going to be hard.
We stopped along the roadside for sunset photos because – again – it looked so much like East Tennessee.
Having spent one full day in Edinburgh and one full day in London, I for sure knew I was a country mouse. We both were excited to get back to the countryside, and our plan for the day was to locate specific places where Chuck’s ancestors used to live. Eventually we’d end up in Inverness.
We checked out of the apartment and headed north. The route was curvy and we anticipated occasional re-routing. If there looked to be an interesting pull-off along the way, we’d stop – like this spot, which is Cargill’s Leap on the River Ericht:
We also stopped at the sweetest little library:
The first stop on our ancestral tour was in Kirkmichael, a tiny village with one school, a little church, a village shop, a fire station, and a couple of inns.
We took a quick stroll through the kirkyard in search of names, but after no success, we went to the pub – of course – to enjoy a pint and talk to the barkeep about village life.
And play darts!
We lingered in the pub for a good hour, curious about life in Kirkmichael and surrounding villages. How did places like these stay afloat? What had the town looked like when Chuck’s ancestors lived there in the 1770s, right before they moved to Townsend? There are fewer than 200 people who live in Kirkmichael currently, and even the barkeep came into work from a neighboring town.
We finished our drinks, bid farewell, and headed north again. Autumn color was brighter in Scotland than it was in England, even with the foggy rain. And the sheep! They were the most delightful roadside attractions. I had a hard time controlling myself with the camera. Sometimes they were close enough to pet, and y’all know I really wanted to pet them.
Though most of Scotland reminded me of East Tennesse, certain parts of the countryside in Cairngorms National Park reminded me fondly of Iceland.
Just look at this face:
Since it had been raining in Scotland for several days, waterfalls and rivers were full and high.
This photo in particular looks like Iceland:
Back on the road we went again, farther north to the Glenlivet Distillery.
No pictures were allowed in the actual distillery, which is a shame because the set-up is impressive. Everyone enjoyed a tasting, and I honestly tried my best. I am not a whisky girl, but I’m also not a quitter. A little water in the whisky helped it go down with less burn.
Our Airbnb was west of Inverness in a town called Kirkhill. It was the biggest space we’d secured yet, and after looking through the visitor’s diary we learned there’d been guests to stay for months on end. (A quick video of the place can be seen on my Instastories.)
We arrived at dusk and, since we had no groceries and nothing within walking distance, we hopped back in the car and drove to the next closest town, Beauly. There, we grabbed dinner at the Lovet Arms and popped into a tiny co-op for a few staples.
Photo of me after dinner:
Either I’d had too much cider, or I was delirious from travel fatigue, but this package of Wee Skinny Ma Linkys had me in stitches and unable to walk fully upright in the grocery store.
We arrived in Edinburgh Thursday evening just as it was getting dark. We were fortunate to find our Airbnb apartment and unload our things before it got too late, but instead of exploring the rainy city right away, we grabbed an Uber to the closest theater to watch “A Star is Born”.
The location of the apartment was perfectly situated across the street from a Starbucks and a grocery store, so on Friday morning, while I watched coverage of Princess Eugenie’s wedding, Chuck made a coffee and pastry run.
View from the bedroom window:
It was inevitable that our good luck with clear weather would end. The next two days in Scotland brought a constant mist and occasional shower, but we were prepared and had appropriate gear.
My expectations of Edinburgh were few, but even then I wasn’t prepared for so little color and flat building faces. Perhaps I’d just been spoiled with blooming flower boxes and bright blue skies in England. Maybe it was the rain that cast a gray shadow on the southern city. Whatever the reason, any bit of color caught my eye, like this purple door:
Or these flags:
Our main goal for Edinburgh was the castle – naturally – so that’s the direction we headed on foot.
The wind was something fierce that day, so when we finally made it to the Royal Mile, we braced ourselves and held on for dear life.
Expansive views from atop the castle hill:
Unlike many of the places we’d visited already, the tourists were swarming at Edinburgh Castle. In some places, it was a tight squeeze. Fortunately I caught a few photos without people obstructing the view.
After touring the grounds, it was easy to see why this castle was one of the inspirations for Hogwarts.
St. Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh:
My favorite spot on the grounds:
My monarchy-loving self also thoroughly enjoyed all of the Mary, Queen of Scots and King James VI exhibits. (Photography was limited.)
The war memorial on the castle grounds was also worth a stop. Here, a tribute to the Cameronians from the Highlands:
On account of the rain, I didn’t have my camera out as often as I normally would, but I managed to snap a few good photos with my cell phone, including a selfie:
One thing I didn’t realize about Edinburgh is that it’s layered – there are literally layers of streets, passageways, and hidden tunnels throughout the city. We’d approach a bridge and I’d expect an alleyway of some sort. But no, it was an entire other street with traffic and people three stories below.
In parts, Edinburgh absolutely feels like Hogsmeade.
Our route for Day 6 took us along the eastern coast of Northumberland and eventually into Scotland. We had two nights in Edinburgh awaiting us, but we didn’t want to rush the drive. On my must-see list was Alnwick Castle, private home to the Duke of Northumberland and his family.
The countryside along the drive was nothing short of spectacular.
The approach to Alnwick was breathtaking. I cannot imagine living in an expansive estate such as this.
Guinea fowl! Chuck and I were excited to see these birds because we’d long wondered what guinea fowl actually looked like in person. (Thank you, Great British Baking Show, for making us care so deeply about identifying ground-nesting birds and other ingredients of a game pie.)
Alnwick Castle is home to the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when the first years learned how to fly on their brooms. Tourists can enjoy the same experience.
We didn’t learn to fly on brooms, but we did practice a little archery.
At every turn, Alnwick was a stunner.
This was the view from atop one of the battlements:
We couldn’t take photos inside the home – cause it’s someone’s HOUSE – but I did see with my OWN EYES the most beautiful library ever, home to 15,000 books. I snagged a photo from the internet, so I didn’t break any rules by sneaking a photo with my own camera.
GOOD GRACIOUS ALMIGHTY.
The library was used in a 2014 Christmas episode of Downton Abbey, and yes, I squealed upon learning this detail.
We took a quick walk through the little town on our way back to the car. (How many photos do I have of my husband from behind?)
We drove north to Bamburgh Castle at the suggestion of Becca and Luke, but by the time we arrived we could only explore the outside. We’d missed the time limit for entr. Boo.
I took this photo with my cell phone from inside the car on our approach to the castle grounds:
Nestled on the seaside, the castle is surrounded on one side by sandy dunes. It is utterly breathtaking!
On the other side of the castle is the tiny town of Bamburgh.
As the sun set, we got back in the car and concluded our time in England. I nursed a little sadness because it felt like time had flown by too quickly. Fortunately, we had four more days together in the UK, and it was finally time to explore Scotland.
Of all the unpredictable details of our anniversary trip – the pleasant weather, the ease in which we navigated the roads, the picture-perfect half marathon despite my doubt – the best unexpected part of our trip was making fast friends with a couple from Newcastle at a pub near our Airbnb in Horsley.
Our stay in Northumberland was brief since it was a one-night stop on our way to Scotland. Horsley, the tiny spot of a town west of Newcastle, offered a cozy spot to sleep and a pub – The Lion and Lamb – within walking distance. We were tired from our busy morning in Oxford and the Cotswolds, not to mention the near-five hour drive afterward. All we had in mind was a hot dinner and a few pints. We settled at a table and ordered.
Across the tiny room was another couple and their little brown dog. (Note: I love that so many European restaurants let in well-behaved dogs.) Of course, I had to make eyes with the pup because I have no self-control. Aware of one another, we smiled and nodded to the humans. But really, I was eye-balling that dog. Eventually, I got up to pet him.
Thus began our conversation with Becca and Luke. The usual questions started – Where were we from? What were we doing in the area? Were we enjoying ourselves? Did you know you sound like Julia Roberts?
They were locals, so I returned as many questions as I could. What was worth seeing in the area? What’s it like living here? Why is Northumberland so perfect?
Then they had an idea – what if they gave us a quick tour by car? Sure, it was dark, and yes, we were strangers, and of course, this sounds totally bizarre. But how about it?
Hmmm. Let me think: – get in the car with strangers – in a foreign country – at nighttime – have no plan whatsoever
Sure! We piled in Luke’s car – Ted the Spaniel jumped in Chuck’s lap, while Becca and I sat wedged in the back seat. Off we went to The Boathouse on the River Tyne.
Our night didn’t end at The Boathouse. Shall we go into Newcastle and visit another pub? OF COURSE WE SHALL. Come on, Ted.
I can’t remember the name of the third pub we visited, but there we met another group of locals who enjoyed Ted’s company as much as we did.
Our conversations circled every topic imaginable, from what we all did for a living, a little of our histories, whether or not we were Trump supporters, whether or not they were Brexit supporters, and so on. At every turn, I found them more interesting, more enjoyable to be around, and I grew more thankful we said yes back at the Lion and Lamb.
At the close of the night, Luke and Becca took us for a quick walk by the riverside and it was there that we realized how similar Newcastle is to Knoxville.
Totally unexpected but completely worth it, we will never forget our one night in Newcastle and the sweet people who made it memorable for us.
Becca and Luke, please come to East Tennessee so we can return the favor.
The plan for Wednesday, October 10, was to spend the morning walking in Oxford and driving through the Cotswolds before the long drive north to Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Before getting on our way, I made breakfast for us in the tiny red kitchen of our Airbnb. The stone building is an old converted pub in Cassington. The owners live in front, and the rental space is in back.
The map for the day:
Ambitious? Yes, of course!
The architecture in Oxford is a magnificent collage of Neoclassical, English Gothic, Saxon, the occasional Post-Modern, and more. It is a vibrant feast for the eyes.
Home to 38 colleges, Oxford University serves as a foundational intersection of education and history. Everywhere you turn, there’s another college paired with a different style of architecture.
Though I wanted to absorb all I could in Oxford for the many reasons Oxford is wonderful, I had one singular item on my must-see list: The Eagle and Child.
The Eagle and Child was home to the Inklings, a literary group formed by C.S. Lewis, his brother, Warren, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other academics. The relationship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien was key not only in their mutual love for creating fantasy worlds (Narnia and Middle Earth, respectively) but also for the constant wrestling with religion. Lewis openly credits Tolkien for his encouraging his return to Christianity.
The revolving group of members (albeit “member” is used loosely, as there were few, if any, rules) kept to a corner of The Eagle and Child where their agreements and disagreements could be shared over a few pints.
We did what was necessary and enjoyed a couple of pints in honor of these great minds. I look a fright in the photo because I’d been crying out of pure joy and disbelief. #truestory
Chuck, yet again, was kind to endure my obsession and sit for as long as I wanted to in the pub. Along with our tour of Hever Castle, the hour we spent in The Eagle and Child is a favorite memory.
Eventually we made our way through Oxford a little further before grabbing a Cornish pasty, the most delightful treat in the world, and getting on the road to the Cotswolds.
Driving through the Cotswolds was a no-brainer since we needed to head north anyway, and this particular Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was somewhat along the way. Known for its quaint towns and charming architecture, we made one stop in Bourton-on-the-Water to walk around.
Bourton-on-the-Water is a favorite stop for tourists, and I could see why. It couldn’t be cuter, especially in autumn.
I would like to live here, please.
We grabbed an ice cream cone each and made a quick pit stop before heading north to Newcastle. If ever we return to the UK, we’ll explore more of the Cotswolds and head west to Wales. Fingers crossed!