Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A York Kind of Birthday

I'll never forget Little Arrow's first birthday party. I held back tears through the entire night, not because my baby was turning 1, but because my husband and I had recently learned that we'd likely be moving to England. I was excited about the move, but we hadn't yet told our families, and as they gathered around our dining room table to sing Happy Birthday, I knew it would be his last family party for a while.

That's the trade-off on this expat thing. Leaving the life you know and love behind for a few years of incredible, exotic moments. We traded birthday parties with the family we miss so much for foreign museums and medieval gardens. Like Little Arrow celebrating his third birthday this past winter by spending the day in the beautiful, ancient city of York.

Our first stop (and quite frankly, what could have easily been our only stop of the day, as it's so big and so much fun) was the National Railway Museum. This is one of those museums that marries children's activities with adult fascinations extremely well. There was plenty for the boys to see and do that they found completely interesting, yet things my husband and I could learn from and enjoy also. Hands-on, but not in a way that deters grown ups without children from also visiting.

Like I said, our day in York could have easily consisted of only this museum. But since we were here, we wanted to see more. (We'd only been one other time, when we were passing through the city en route from a camping trip.)

York is the perfect walkable city. We started by tackling a portion of the old Roman walls, where we could also admire the River Ouse. Then we headed for the shopping area known as the Shambles where the alleyway is so narrow you can literally touch both sides as you walk through it. (Needless to say I don't have photos of that... too busy shepherding small children through narrow walkways.) Street performers abound here, and the boys were equally fascinated by it all.

And we ended on a high note with a stop at York Minster. It's the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, so just taking a look at it from all sides meant we easily burned off those chocolate ice cream cones we also indulged in (we were celebrating a birthday, after all!)

There are many places I hope we get to see again around England before our time here is over and we're once again blowing out candles with our family singing Happy Birthday to our boys. And York is definitely at the top of that list.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Reason to Return to the Algarve: Ponta da Piedade

As we embarked on our move to England, our list of places to see in Europe while we lived here was long. We quickly came to the realization that we wouldn't get to see it all, especially if we wanted to travel at a pace that allows us to actually enjoy the experience. So there was an unspoken rule that we wouldn't go somewhere more than once while we were here.

Rules are meant to be broken though, right?

Of all the trips we've taken in the last couple of years, I came home from Portugal last December overwhelmed by how much I loved it there, and yet somewhat unfulfilled, knowing we hadn't seen as much as I wanted. The cover of my Frommer's guidebook called out to me... that majestic site, Ponta da Piedade, was only 30 minutes from our resort in the Algarve but we never saw it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte near Paris

Like kids all over the world, my boys opened up a brand new tub of Legos on Christmas morning. I  read the age description on the box: suitable for 4-99, and thought, how rare to find something that can be enjoyed by such a wide range of ages.

And that's the task I had ahead of me when trying to find a day trip destination from Paris suitable for a multigenerational group of nine during our Christmas trip. I knew a break from the city during a week-long trip would be both pleasant and necessary. We all crave an escape from the crowds and the fast pace after a while. So I read up on a lot of the usual suspects. Versailles sounded way too big and unmanageable for our crew of nine to navigate in a few hours. Given the typical weather in December and January, Giverny and Normandy didn't sound like good options with young children either.

I somehow stumbled upon Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte's website. And I just had a hunch it was a good fit for us. It was probably my favorite day of the trip, as it was so peaceful and beautiful, and yet still decidedly French from beginning to end. We barely had to share the place with anyone else. The Christmas d├ęcor was unlike anything I'd seen before. Gorgeous, but not gaudy. The kids were pretty mesmerized by the whole experience, too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Peaceful Parisian Moments

One of the reasons that Paris is my favorite European city is that in addition to its spectacular popular attractions, it's never hard to find a quiet spot or a corner where you feel like you're the only people there. I'm not quite sure how the city pulls it off, but having now been there three times, I find it always does. And certainly, after visiting with young children, my appreciation for that quality is higher than ever.

I had several of those moments on our trip over the holidays. Paris is an incredibly popular place to travel to between Christmas and New Year's. Lines at just about every museum and attraction we passed stretched for what looked to be hours. But just as you begin to feel a bit claustrophobic by it all, you walk a block or two, and you find yourself on your own and yet your surroundings are just as gorgeous.

A few examples:

Picture Perfect Paris. As we strolled the Champs Elysees, enjoying a crowded Christmas Market along the way, we eventually detoured over to the Pont Alexandre III. A beautiful ornate bridge, with the Eiffel Tower in the distant background, made for perfect photo opportunities. And without the many vendors found at the Eiffel Tower itself to bother us.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Eiffel Tower as You've Never Imagined It

I try to be a realist when it comes to envisioning our family's travels. I know things aren't going to always be pleasant, and certainly rarely relaxing. I prepare myself for that mentally. But every once in a while, the romantic gets the better of me and I get some crazy idea in my head.

In the case of our trip to Paris, I had my heart set on a perfect photo of all four of us, smiling happily in front of the Eiffel Tower. In fact, I was so wrapped up in this fantasy that on the second day of our trip, we went back to our apartment while the rest of our multi-generational group went to the Eiffel Tower. Both boys were starting to fade from a day of sightseeing and I feared I wouldn't get THE photo that I had unrealistically imagined for weeks prior.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Memories of London's Paddington Trail

My husband first learned of our opportunity to live here in England on a business trip 2 years ago. He spent his last night of the trip in London, and wandered over to Hamley’s to buy the boys each a little gift. He was hoping to get them excited about our potential British adventures. His present to Little Arrow was a small Paddington Bear stuffed animal, and it has sat on a shelf in his room ever since. 

Beyond that bear, the boys were basically oblivious to Paddington. Let’s be honest, he doesn’t have quite the modern appeal of Frozen, Harry Potter, or the current favorite at our house, Lego Ninjago (ugh).

But I saw the trailer for the new Paddington Bear movie a few months ago, and I knew I absolutely had to introduce one of Britain’s most iconic and beloved children’s characters to my kids. In fact, when we went to see the film a few weeks ago, it was Little Arrow’s first time at the cinema. They adored it from the opening scene to the credits and now they’re hooked on all things Paddington. I’m excited to start reading the books with them.
Our Christmas Eve day trip to London came at the tail end of a temporary exhibit of more than 50 Paddington Bear sculptures around the city, called the Paddington Trail. Each was uniquely designed by a celebrity and Big Arrow quickly made it a goal to see as many as possible throughout the day. Fortunately several of them were along our planned route for the day so we were happy to indulge him.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Christmas Eve in London

Do you ever have days out with your family where everything just clicks? Nobody whines. Nobody throws a fit on the train. Everyone has so much fun it sort of feels like your favorite song is playing on repeat in the background all day long.

That is definitely not our every day. But that was our Christmas Eve in London.

I wish I had some behind-the-scenes, magic secret to share with you on why the day was such a success. I don't. It helped that the crowds were very manageable. It even helped that Little Arrow was a bit under the weather, meaning he was content to sit in his stroller for long walks most of the day.

And of course, it helps that London puts on a pretty good show when it comes to Christmas spirit and decorations.

We started at Selfridge's, one of London's most famous department stores. My two made a beeline for the toy shop.