Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Day Being an Expat Got Easier

I've been pretty up front that the first few months of life as an expat were difficult for me. I think I managed it pretty well and usually had a smile on my face. But I also refer to this time period as "the blur." I barely knew what end was up most of the time, and each day seemed to present a series of challenges I could never anticipate. I have a lot of fond memories from this time, too, don't get me wrong. But I'm happy to be past that initial "settling in" phase.

Because at some point, it just gets easier. This seems to be true for almost every expat I know. I'm not sure there's a definitive timeline to that. For some, it's probably just a few weeks or months. For others, maybe a full year or more. I can clearly picture my moment of serenity in my mind.

I was hiking on a footpath just a couple of miles from my home.

The fact that I was out hiking at all is probably the biggest indicator that I was finally adjusted to life in England. It was one of the two mornings each week that both boys were at school. What had seemed like a never-ending to do list of errands, appointments, "get-stuff-figured-out" had finally subsided and I found myself with free time. As in, 90 minutes until I had to hop back in the car and start picking them back up. But hey, a multi-tasking mom can get a lot done in 90 minutes!

In the previous months, I had noticed lots of footpath and bridleway signs all over the area. So without the least bit of planning, I parked my car on the side of the road (as you do here), pulled on my wellies, and took off down a path.

I was thoroughly enjoying the fresh air. The wide open fields leading to a tunnel of trees into a forest. The way my boots squished into the mud. Everything about it was gorgeous and I was immediately planning future Tuesday morning hikes as a way of charging my mental and physical batteries.

And then I looked up ahead and saw what appeared to be an abandoned manor house.

I didn't figure out what this place was until I got home, asked a neighbor, and googled it. (It's called Wothorpe Towers.) It was such a profound example of why living in England is so special... that you could just be out on an ordinary walk and stumble upon a castle.

I looked at where I was at that moment and appreciated it for what it was. I had the day-to-day living part figured out. The hassles of knowing where to shop for what, how to work my household appliances, and who to ask for help was mostly behind me. There was (and will be) so many more discoveries still ahead of me.

Turns out, this is a popular trail in the area. But in my mind, it will always be my own little hidden place. Something that appeared on that path just for me to find. A reminder that even though international moves with kids are stressful, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only make discoveries about a new country, a new culture, a new way of life, but also to learn a lot more about myself, my husband and my children.

I remember when Big Arrow was a newborn and people said, "Oh, it gets easier." I always wanted to punch those people in the face, quite honestly. But for some reason, I was very encouraged by all the experienced expats who told me things would improve once we were settled. And this is my testament that it's true. It does and it will.

My advice to any new and future expats? You'll always be a little homesick. Missing friends and family never goes away. But the chaos will subside, the uncertainty and confusion will be replaced with a new sense of confidence. (The desperation for a box of Cheez-Its will lessen, even.) A feeling of, if I can do this, I can do anything. Open yourself up to the experience with a positive attitude and a willingness to try new things, and you will truly be able to begin enjoying the beautiful place that surrounds you, that you now call home.

I shared this trail with my family this weekend. It wasn't quite as serene with a 30 pound toddler riding on my shoulders and his 5-year-old brother singing "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" at full volume. But it brought me great joy to watch them discover the manor house, whack sticks against the trees that lined our path, and collect leaves as we walked. I think in their own way, they appreciate these moments as much as I do.

I've done lots of subsequent Tuesday morning hikes and I'll be sharing more pictures soon. Or you can follow my walks at #TuesdayMorningHikes on Instagram. (Every once in a while I live on the edge and hike on a Friday instead. I'm such a rebel.)

This post is a part of Friday Postcards at Walking on Travels.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Tips for Visiting Kylemore Abbey

I've seen a lot of gorgeous old buildings in my travels. And I've seen a lot of beautiful, natural landscapes too. Rarely have I been lucky enough to witness the two merge together quite like they do at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, Ireland.

The Abbey is nestled into the bottom of the Twelve Bens, a mountain range in this northwestern part of the country. As if the building and its setting at the base of a mountain that is blanketed in green trees weren't enough for your eyes to feast on, it is situated directly in front of a lake. I think Mother Nature knew this view was so special, it needed to constantly show off its own reflection.

Fortunately, while my husband and I stood around and gawked at this incredible sight, there was plenty of fun for the kids to have, too. Here are a few tips to maximize your day at Kylemore Abbey.

1) Dig you camera out in the parking lot. One of the best views of the Abbey is unveiled as you walk toward it from the lot. So don't wait to get that camera ready... start snapping immediately. (I also find my kids are much more patient for posed photos right at the start of an adventure. Now is the time to grab that Christmas card photo that will impress all your friends!)

2) Walk to the Gothic Church and play along the way. We only took a brief tour through the Abbey itself. My kids weren't that interested in it, and my husband and I were happy to get back outside and continue to admire the views. Families will be happy to know that the walk from the Abbey to the Church is a large part of the Children's Play Trail that runs throughout the property. There were several areas for children to stop and partake in an activity along the way.

We loved the variety. There were musical instrument stations, friendly characters to climb on, etc. The kids were excited to see what the next station would offer them. And I was just happy they were both walking without complaining. (If the weather is wet that day, most of the walkway is under a heavy growth of trees, so you're somewhat protected from the rain.) The trail is very stroller friendly.

3) Make time for the Victorian Walled Gardens. Having already been at the Abbey for over an hour, we almost skipped the Gardens. They're quite a distance from the Abbey itself and the shuttle hadn't started running yet. I'm so thankful we made the time. The Gardens were my favorite part of the visit. Again, there are several areas for kids to play, plus they'll love running around among the flowers and trees. And the setting, much like the Abbey, is just spectacular.

If your kids are a bit older, I noticed a document that lists many of the plant varieties on display near the garden entrance. This is the type of place that begs for a scavenger hunt!

4) Speaking of the Gardens, take the shuttle bus. It is possible to walk from the Abbey to the Gardens, but it's quite a distance and mostly uphill. Certainly young children should take the bus. If they have extra energy after your visit to the Gardens, you could always walk back (when it would be mostly downhill). When you're buying your tickets at the entrance, just ask what time the shuttle will start running and how often (it varies seasonally).

4) Fuel up. There is a café near the entrance off the parking lot and also one near the Gardens. If the weather is nice, I recommend the latter. The garden café had outdoor seating and you could relax and let the kids play outside. The garden cafe's hours were more limited, however.

Or, do what we did, and just grab a snack at the entrance café, and then fill up with a proper pub lunch in the nearby village of Letterfrack after your visit to Kylemore is over. It'll give you more time to chat as a family about your favorite part of the day.

5) Make this your stop in Connemara. We were lucky to have three days in the region. But if you're just passing through on the way to or from other areas, then I'd highly recommend this as your go-to attraction. It offered some of the best views, especially of the mountains, and had enough to entertain our children. That said, give yourself at least 2-3 hours to spend here. And if you're visiting on the day of a performance or special event, you could easily fill an entire day.

The Abbey has been used for many purposes in its history. First as a castle, then as a Benedictine abbey, and finally as a girl's boarding school. But dare I say it has found its true calling at the present, which is to delight visitors with its peaceful setting, gorgeous grounds, and family fun.

This post is a part of Travel Tips Tuesday at Walking on Travels and Suitcases and Sippy Cups.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Visiting Connemara, Ireland

If I were handing out awards Oscar-style to the different portions of our trip to Ireland this summer, here's how it would go:

Most Luxurious Moment: Adare Manor
Best Cinematography: Cliffs of Moher
Best Surprise Performance: Connemara Region

My husband wanted to visit the Connemara region because he never had the chance to come when he spent a semester living in Ireland. It was the one part of the country he hadn't been. Quite honestly, I assumed there was a reason for that, and thought we might be a bit underwhelmed by what we found there. And because my husband requested that I not plan too much for our days there, I hadn't even read much about it in advance (somewhat unheard of for me).

But take a look at what we found. And I think you'll agree that it was definitely worthy of our three days there.

It was everything you hope for in an Ireland vacation: remote villages, charming cottages, rolling hills that fall into deep blue water, sheep dotting the fields. We even saw mountains and beaches.  It even rained the entire time we were there! And what we loved most is that it still seemed a bit undiscovered. Sure, there were fellow tourists there admiring the views just like us. But it wasn't overrun with travelers like some areas of Ireland.

More on the rain and how we didn't let it stop us still to come...

This post is a part of Friday Postcards at Walking on Travels.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Cliffs of Moher: A Dream Fulfilled

I'm not really big on regrets.

But if I could do my college years a bit differently, I would have studied abroad. In fact, sometimes I think that this opportunity to live in England is my second chance at having that experience (albeit with two little kids instead of a carefree college lifestyle...)

When my husband returned home from his own study abroad experience in Ireland, I spent a lot of time looking at his photos. Of all the amazing places he went, I got completely fixated on the Cliffs of Moher. We hadn't been able to travel to this spot on the west coast of Ireland when I visited him because the logistics just didn't make sense. But ever since, I have longed for the chance to see it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Falconry Course at Adare Manor

I'd love to say that my kids are always up for an adventure. That they're brave beyond their years, happy to try new things. But that's simply not always the case. I suspect that's true for most children.

For some reason, both my boys are quite scared of animals. I'm sure that's partly because we don't have any pets (Big Arrow is terribly allergic to dogs and cats.) When we were asked to participate in a falconry course at Adare Manor in Ireland,  I was relatively certain it was just going to involve lots of hysterical crying and two boys clinging to my legs while I tried to get them to participate.

So to convince them that this was a good idea (indeed, one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities), I had to dig deep into the parenting bag of tricks and drop the ultimate incentive.

Harry Potter.

Big Arrow has been begging us to read the Harry Potter series to him for a year now, so when I told him HP has an owl and that we were going to get to hold some owls, his initial look of terror transformed into a "how quickly can we get started" look.

Monday, September 8, 2014

5 Things to Do at Adare Manor with Young Kids

If you're a lover of Ireland travel (and who isn't?), you may have heard of Adare Manor. It is widely considered to be one of the finest hotels and resorts in the country... a country known for its fair share of fabulous places to stay. When I had the opportunity to experience a stay at Adare with my family in July for a review at Ciao Bambino, I was a bit intimidated at first. My boys don't exactly sit still with their hands in their laps for even 5 minutes. I wasn't sure we belonged in a property as luxurious as this.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Making Summers 2/18 and 5/18 Count

I read somewhere that you only get 18 summers with your child. Isn't it a little mind-boggling to quantify such an ethereal thing like "summer."

I'm sure before I became a parent, I would have thought that 18 sounded completely reasonable. But now, with two boys growing up rapidly before my eyes, 18 seems so terribly inadequate.

How can you possible fit in all the melting popsicles, cannon balls into the pool, underdog pushes on the playground, and smells of charcoal grills and musty tents in just 18 years?

My very best memories from my childhood are planted firmly between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. Maybe that's because my mom was a teacher, and had so much more time to do fun things with us during the summer. Maybe because our vacations, when my dad was blissfully away from his job, almost always took place in the summer. Camping trips to Vermont and Maine with my cousins, swimming at my aunt and uncle's pool, the summer reading program at the local library, runs through the sprinkler, and the taste of Bomb Pops. There's something so wonderfully magical about summer.

We're halfway through the British summer. We've spent our first month making amazing memories. Such a sharp contrast to last summer, when I didn't even know where the grocery store was, let alone anything fun. I wrote this post about savoring our first British summer, but the truth was, we spent most of our days waiting in line at the cell phone store or the bank.

This year, we've done a bit of exploring, including our trip to Ireland, but mostly it's been about picking strawberries. And splashing around in fountains (that date back to Elizabethan times... this is England, after all). Trips to the park and the beach. And riding scooters up and down the street with the other kids in the neighborhood.