Konnichiwa!

As always, I’ve put off posting for ages and now I have all kinds of stuff to post…. But for now, I am just here to introduce you to our new life in Okinawa, Japan!  We arrived on island about three and half months ago as the heat and humidity of the summer was starting to let up (mind you, it was still almost 90 degrees and like walking through a cloud of mist anytime you walked outside).  We ended up being able to live off base, which we are thrilled about, despite the fact that our house is even tinier than our house off base in England.  With lots of yummy restaurants and several beaches within a 2 mile radius, I’m happy to report we are surviving 😉

B started work almost immediately, and before we left England, I had been picked up for a fourth grade teaching position at a school on base.  I was not able to start working until the end of September, but since then, I have been beyond busy with lesson plans, teaching, and of course, exploring our new home.  I know we have only scratched the surface of Okinawa, but here are a few of our favorite things to do so far….

  1.  Beaches (DUH!):  Okinawa is a subtropical/tropical island covered with amazing beaches!  I was honestly a little nervous that our kiddos would not take to the beach and ocean well, as they were born in England, where beaches are not exactly tourist attractions.  However, they both pretty much immediately fell in love with the beach, and we typically end up at one at least once a week.

*We live about a mile from one of our favorite beaches, Toguchi Beach.  We end up here often, as it has an awesome little playground for the kiddos, a walkway by the beach that is great for bike-riding, and breath-taking sunsets!

 

*Another fantastic beach nearby is Torii Beach, located on one of the many military bases here.  We ended up there during one of their summer days festivals and had a great time.  There is a splash pad for the littles, water sport rentals, food, and again, a beautiful stretch of beach!

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*We also enjoy strolling along the seawall in various parts of the island.  The kiddos love the water, finding shells, and just hearing the waves on the beach.  We truly live in paradise!

 

2.  FOOD!  Y’all.  The food here is AH.MAAA.ZING. I personally love the ramen, but we have enjoyed everything from ramen to pancakes to burgers to pizza to ice cream. We have yet to be seriously disappointed by a meal.

 

3. American Village: this little area is such a fun place to wander.  It is full of little shops, restaurants, and of course, my kids’ favorite, the ferris wheel!  I love the colorful buildings, views along the seawall, and the fun, energetic vibes. Also, there is a store devoted entirely to Christmas…Oki knows the way to my heart!

 

4. Okinawa Aquarium Churaumi: this aquarium is about an hour and a half from our house, and is amazing (that’s saying a lot coming from me, as I lived in Georgia near the fantastic Georgia Aquarium!).  We’ve only been once so far, but we were so happy with the experience we purchased a year pass so we can visit whenever we want!

 

5.  Southeast Botanical Gardens: this cool little place is right around the corner, and currently has a dazzling display of Christmas lights.  Again, we have only been once, to see the Christmas lights, but plan on visiting again, as I’ve heard there are lots of fun things to do during the day too!

 

 

Needless to say, we are certainly enjoying our new home, though there are definitely things we miss about England (can someone please just build a Sainsbury’s here?).  I am definitely loving the mid-70 degree weather in December, though anything below 75 is beginning to feel chilly!  We can’t wait to continue exploring our island, as well as the rest of Asia–we already are planning a trip to mainland Japan in the spring to see the cherry blossoms and experience some of the rich culture there!  Hopefully I can be better at keeping up with this blog, but I am definitely not promising anything 😉  I still have quite a few European trips to catch up on…

Catch y’all on the flip side–and if you’re feeling a bit chilly wherever you are in the world, our door is open to visitors 🙂

 

2017 Recap & What’s In Store For 2018

Welp, 2018 is officially underway, and it is certain to be one for the books.  I have a lot in store for this year, but I will get to that shortly.  First, a recap of 2017.  2017 was actually a bit of a slower year for European travel, as the hubs went on a TON of work trips and we traveled to the states over the summer.  Here is a peek at what our year looked like…

Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre, Italy

I just love Italy.  A trip to Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre with some family friends was just what the doctor ordered to cure the mid-February winter blues.

 

 

Solo Trip to Toulouse and Carcassonne, France  

I will be writing a blog about this trip shortly, but it was a peaceful and relaxing (albeit wet) weekend away on my own in France.  The quaint, cobbled streets of Toulouse and beautiful walled city in Carcassonne provided a perfect for a little getaway over spring break.

 

 

Three Weeks In the States: Chicago, Milwaukee, Port Clinton, Columbus

Again, I am in the process of writing this post.  We spent three weeks visiting family and friends in the states, including a night in Chicago, a visit to Brandon’s family in Milwaukee, some time on the lake in Port Clinton, Ohio, and about a week in Columbus, Ohio.  It was a fantastic and exhausting “vacation”; it was wonderful to see so many people!

 

 

Jurassic Coast 

While Brandon was back in the states for a work trip, the kids and I spent the weekend with friends at the Jurassic Coast in southern England.  Our day at Durdle’s Door was gorgeous, while our second day was very wet {but what is a trip in the UK without a little rain, right?}

 

 

Childless London

B and I had a quick, childless trip planned to Aalborg, Denmark in September, but then Ryanair had a massive pilot problem and had to cancel a ton of flights.  So our trip was cancelled.  Since we already had babysitters lined up, we decided to take advantage and spend a night in London on our own.  I heart London.

 

 

Failed Trip To The Lake District

Ugh.  The Lake District has been on my UK bucket list since we have been here.  And alas, it still is.  We had a trip to the Lake District planned for a long weekend in November.  First, Brandon didn’t make it back from TDY to join us, which wasn’t a big deal, but still a bummer.  Then, we set off on a Thursday night, planning to stop about halfway in the Peak District to stay the night.  Well, the kiddos and I were almost to the apartment we were staying in when I hear Benjamin say his belly hurt, then promptly throw up down the front of himself.  I guess the winding, hilly roads of the area didn’t agree with him.  Because I knew much of the rest of the drive was going to be the same, we stayed in the Peak District for the night, then headed back home.  We did get a few great views and some yummy breakfast!

 

 

Winter Wonderland/London

Winter Wonderland in London is always a favorite of mine…what could be better than two of my favorite things: London and CHRISTMAS!  Our family friend was in town again in December, so we spent a Saturday and Sunday exploring London and visiting the beautiful Winter Wonderland!

 

 

Algarve, Portugal

We rounded out 2017 with a trip to beautiful, sunny Algarve, Portugal.  I will also be posting about this before too long, but it involved lots of beautiful colors, gorgeous beaches, and fantastic coastlines!

 

Now for some BIG news!  At the end of the year, we also found out that we will be moving to Okinawa, Japan in the summer!  While we were originally really hoping for the base in Italy, we are beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to explore another part of the world.  I’ve heard absolutely brilliant things about Okinawa, and cannot wait for the big move over the summer!  With that in mind, we I have had some serious European travel panic attacks.  There are still so many places to see and things to do!  {I would say that even if I had been everywhere, but it’s so true!}  I have quite a few trips planned before the move, and a hopefully a few more in the works.  As of now, my travel plans for 2018 include:

  • Berlin and Prague (with hubby, sans children!!) in February
  • Moldova in March (girls trip)
  • Croatia over spring break
  • Colmar, France in late April (another girls trip)

We move in August, and we are hoping to have some family visit before we head out.  Hopefully we will get some travel in with them as well– possibilities include Iceland (dreamy!), Scotland, and Germany.  Thinking waaaay ahead, Taipei, Taiwan might be a possibility in the fall/early winter and of course, exploring our new island home of Okinawa!  [If you don’t know anything about Okinawa, just Google it…alllll the heart eyes!]

Cinque Terre: Five Stars for the Five Lands

The moment I stepped off the train and saw the gorgeous, colorful buildings nestled atop and beside one another, paint fading and peeling with age and ocean spray, I was enamored.

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But let me back up.  In my previous post, I blogged about part one of my second encounter with “The Boot” country, which included Florence and Pisa.  We stayed two nights in Florence, then spent an afternoon in Pisa before taking the train from Pisa to La Spezia, and then on to Vernazza {one of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre, which literally translates to “five lands”}.  We arrived late afternoon and immediately found our AirBnB host [even though our communication had been hit or miss due to the trains and service].  Vernazza is one of the smaller of the five towns, so really it would’ve been hard not to eventually find him!  It mostly consists of a single ‘roadway’ (I say that because cars can only fit in a small area of it, then it becomes super narrow, plus I only ever saw vehicles there for deliveries, all other cars were parked up kind of above the town) lined with beautiful buildings in an array of colors leading to a harbor.  All five towns in Cinque Terre are relatively small, sleepy fishing towns along the Italian Riviera.  They are truly like something out of a storybook.

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Anyway, the train from Pisa to La Spezia was about an hour long, then there is a train that goes back and forth between La Spezia, Levanto, and the five towns.  From La Spezia, each of the towns is just a few minutes away by train.  As Cinque Terre is actually a national park, there is also a network of trails that you can hike/walk, but they were unfortunately all closed while we were there.  We were definitely there on the off season, which had its perks and drawbacks.  It was nice to be in the area with basically no crowds.  We often had an entire train car to ourselves, the roads were not packed with tourists, and while I would’ve loved for it to be just a smidge warmer, I can’t imagine what it is like in the brutal heat of the summer!  That being said, there were quite a few stores and restaurants still closed for the season; most began opening in mid-March.  In fact, the two nights we were there there was only one restaurant open each night in Vernazza!  I am not a huge beach person, but it also would’ve been nice to enjoy a few hours on the beaches in Monterosso with the kiddos.  Regardless, I would still recommend visiting these spectacular towns any time of year.  If I could do it again, I would probably try to go in April or May, when everything is more lively and a touch warmer, but we were working with a time schedule.

So.  We arrived late afternoon and our wonderful host took us straight to the apartment, which was literally like a minute’s walk from the train station.  The apartment was fantastic! It was on the second story of one of the charming buildings along the main pathway, with an area to store our stroller at the bottom of the stairs.  It had a very cozy, compact living area, two bedrooms [one with an en suite], and another bathroom.  The host was able to provide us with a single bed for our toddler and a pack-and-play cot for our 8-month-old, which was incredible.  B and I very much enjoyed not having two extra sets of feet kicking us and sleeping at odd angles throughout the night!  While there was no kitchen in the apartment, there was a kettle and assortment of teas/coffees.

We got ourselves settled in and headed out to check out the town.  There was a small convenience store open, but other than that, most shops were closed that evening.  Taverna del Capitano was the only restaurant open in Vernazza that night, so that’s where we went.  I’m not sure exactly what was going on there, but it appeared that there was only one person working, and though the place was relatively small, it was packed.  The one worker was very obviously overwhelmed, frustrated, and annoyed, so service was not amazing.  As I mentioned in my previous post, Marybel had been sick all day, and she still wasn’t feeling well.  About half of my glass of wine into the dinner, she threw up all over me, and I decided it would be best if I took her back to the apartment.  I’ll be honest, I was a little relieved, as I had ordered some sort of seafood pasta, and the seafood looked like it was more work than I was used to 😀  I was sad to leave the wine behind, but the crew brought me my pasta and a bottle of wine from a nearby cafe/store to share once they finished eating.  We enjoyed our wine and chatted for a bit before hitting the hay.

Tuesday was our family’s only full day in Cinque Terre, as we were leaving Wednesday evening (C&S stayed an extra night, lucky ducks!), so we wanted to see as much of the towns as we could.  We ate a small breakfast at the cafe near the water that sold us wine the previous night–Benjamin was beyond thrilled to be able to eat PIZZA for breakfast!  At the train station in Vernazza, we each purchased a day pass for the train that runs between all five of the villages.  It was around 13 euros and well worth it, as we planned to hop on and hop off throughout the day.

Our route looked something like this:

Vernazza–>Monterosso–>Riomaggiorre–>Manarola–>Vernazza–>Manarola–>Vernazza

Monterosso

Monterosso is the beach village of the five.  Immediately upon arrival, we walked out and found a gorgeous view of the ocean.  It was far too cold for us to enjoy the beach while we were there, but it was still pretty to look at!  Benjamin enjoyed throwing rocks into the water, and we all just relished the crisp, salty air.

We wandered our way into town, enjoying some great views along the way (though we didn’t climb all the way to the St. Francis church at the top of San Cristoforo Hill).  Monterosso seemed to be quite a bit larger than Vernazza, and just as beautiful.  More peeling, colorful buildings playing Tetris along narrow cobblestone streets.  It was definitely a bit more lively than Vernazza, although that could’ve been because it was closer to midday.  I split a massive trough {seriously, guys. it looked like a trough} full of pesto pasta with Carla (and Benjamin, as the boy can scarf down some Italian food!), and enjoyed a glass of wine at Ristorante Belvedere overlooking the water.

Benjamin was getting a bit antsy as everyone else finished up dinner, so I took him around the corner to a cute little playground.

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore is the southernmost town, and is built basically into cliffs.  We wandered into a mostly (steep) residential area before finding the pathway that lead to the more central part of town, including the marina area.  We really enjoyed checking out the boats in the marina area, but the rest of the town wasn’t really as appealing to us.  I could see it being bustling in the summertime for sure though!

Manarola  

*Sigh*  Manarola may be my favorite of the towns, and by far the most photogenic, in my opinion.  We arrived mid-afternoon, and made our way through town to the water-front area.  This actually reminded me quite a bit of the town of Oia in Santorini, with the closely stacked buildings, beautiful ocean view, and stretches of pathways perfect for taking sunset photos.  We decided on a mid-afternoon drink at a bar/cafe overlooking the ocean, which was perfect, as the sun was starting to set.

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Brandon took Marybel on a walk along the waterfront cliffs, and texted us from there, telling us we had to come check out the view.  I am not one to miss out on a good photo op, so we headed there as well, and it was definitely one of my favorite places in Cinque Terre!  The pathway provides the most magnificent views of the rainbow montage of buildings making up Manarola.  It was perfect as the sun was setting!  There is even a little playground at the top of the hill, but Benjamin was asleep so we didn’t get to play on it.

Vernazza

We returned to Vernazza with the intentions of freshening up at the apartment, and then eating dinner at the other restaurant in Vernazza (which was the only one open that night).  **By the way, I had a friend highly, highly recommend Il Pirate restaurant in Vernazza, which we stumbled across when wandering at some point, but it was still closed for the season.  Anyway, the restaurant was full and they didn’t seem very interested in trying to give us a reservation for later or even a time to return, so we decided to head to one of the other towns to eat dinner, as it was already getting late.  Hence, our return to Manarola.

Once back in Manarola, we found La Scogliera.  I am not normally a lasagne lover, but I had the most amazing lasagne here!  And I topped it off with a fancy schmancy tiramisu, YUM!

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Sadly, the following day was our last day in Italy.  Though we didn’t leave until evening, we knew we had quite a bit of train and bus travel ahead of us, so we planned on hanging out in Vernazza for the morning/early afternoon.  After another light breakfast, we just relaxed in the sunshine by the water.  Benjamin chased birds (of course) and watched a fisherman on the dock.  Oh, and we had AH.MA.ZING. gelato and picked up some artwork for our collection!  It was a nice relaxing end to our time in Cinque Terre, though I didn’t want to leave!  Finally, B, the kiddos, and I gathered all of our stuff and bid farewell to C&S on the train (we headed to La Spezia to connect to Pisa, while they headed to the only town we didn’t get a chance to explore, Corniglia.  A few minutes to La Spezia, an hour to Pisa station, then a few minutes on the bus and we were back to the airport to head back home.

Italy was already my favorite country, and Cinque Terre just clinched that.  It is so incredibly gorgeous and would absolutely love to return one day!  I hope that if you are ever in the Tuscany/Liguria area you get a chance to fall in love with it as well!

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Paris: The City of Epic Tantrums and the Eiffel Tower

Was it Audrey Hepburn that said “Paris is always a good idea”?

Well.  She must not have had a 2 year old at the time.

Oh Paris.

While I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience your twinkling lights and beauty, I have to say I was decidedly under-impressed.  Now, this could be for a number of reasons: the chilly winter weather {though I feel I was prepared for this}, the fact that I visited shortly after my swoon-worthy trip to Rome, or, perhaps, the apparent disdain my two-year-old had for you.  {To be fair, Paris is not exactly a two-year-old’s paradise.}  Still, I am not so sure I would’ve been overly impressed with the city even without traveling with my littles.

Paris had been on our “to-do” list since we arrived in Europe over three years ago, mostly just because it was such a high-profile city and we were so close; it seemed silly that we would live here for four+ years and not visit.  We actually won a Paris trip through Brandon’s work Christmas party in 2014, but it fell through several times for various reasons {I am actually quite glad we did our own trip, I think the one they had would’ve been incredibly impractical for our family and traveling style}…  Anyway, we ended up using the money from the prize for a different trip, and figured we would just plan our own Paris trip eventually.  This summer rolled around, and with it, the “one year left” mark for our original date of departure from the U.K.  We freaked out a bit because there was so much of Europe we still wanted to see.  Ergo, us planning back-to-back trips in October, November, and December to some of our top destinations: Normandy, Rome, and Paris.  [Since then, we have been fortunate enough be able to extend our time here in the U.K. at least another year, so our travels will continue, hooray!]

I digress.

Like I said, Paris was on our list mostly just because we felt like we had to go.  Obviously, we were excited at the prospect of seeing such iconic landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Arc de Triomphe, but overall, we kind of went into it knowing we would probably be underwhelmed.  And…we were.  It’s funny though, because after the trip, I posted pictures on Facebook and someone mentioned that it looked like we had a great time.  I didn’t necessarily intend for it to look that way, as I do try to be realistic about our travels {but taking photos of crying babies and toddlers isn’t really my jam}…plus it’s not like it was a horrific trip, it just wasn’t as amazing as many of our others.  But, I was thinking about why I do take photos—and I think I have come to the conclusion that I really just try to capture the essence of the places I visit: the beauty, the ambience, the eccentricities and quirks.  And that is how I more or less remember it, through my photos.  Don’t get me wrong- I will never forget Benjamin’s temper tantrums at the Lourve and Sacre Couer, or how my back ached from the long days of baby wearing and hauling Benjamin around in his stroller.  But having beautiful, meaningful photos does help me put on my rose colored glasses 🙂

Again, I digress.

We planned Paris for my winter break, the week before Christmas {December 20-23}.  This was mostly my doing, as I am a Christmas fanatic and figured if we were going to The City of Lights, why not experience it all lit up for Christmas?  For the first time since we arrived in Europe, we took the Eurostar high speed train from London St. Pancras International train station to Paris Gare du Nord.  I would highly recommend this mode of travel, especially if you have littles!  The train was clean, quick, and felt much more spacious than an airplane, especially since we were able to get seats around a table.  To get to London St. Pancras station, we drove to Stratford International Station, then took the high speed commuter train to St. Pancras– SIX minutes y’all!  That’s it!  Another thing I liked about taking the train is that we only had to be there an hour before our departure time, unlike the two hours for the airport.  At St. Pancras, we grabbed some coffee and a light breakfast and made our way through security to the Eurostar waiting area.  Once our train was called, we followed the crowd, and eventually ended up on the platform, where we had to locate our car number and seats.  Like I said, the seats were spacious, we had a table area, and there was plenty of room for our luggage {oh yes. that. we could basically take as much luggage as we needed…I mean, there are restrictions, but we would’ve had to pack for an army to go over. So glorious!}  The train took a little over two hours (everyone slept most of the way except me, surprise surprise), and it dropped us right in the middle of Paris at the Gare du Nord station.  At this point, it was about 10:30am, and our AirBnB wasn’t ready yet, so we took the metro to Gare de Austerlitz, which was one of the larger stations in Paris and literally right next to our AirBnb.  We stored our bags there, then decided we should go pick up our 2-Day Paris Passes, which I purchased through Viator.  We weren’t sure really about the lay of the land yet, so we figured a cab would be the quickest and easiest way to navigate, since we needed to be back by two to meet with our AirBnB host.  Y’all.  If Viator tells you to print your voucher, DO IT.  AND DON’T FORGET THE PAPERS IN YOUR LUGGAGE THAT IS BEING STORED AT THE TRAIN STATION.  Seriously.  The moment we stepped in the Paris Pass office, I had that dreaded feeling.  I just knew we left the paperwork.  Luckily, the lady there was exceptionally nice and allowed me to {after repeated attempts} email her my voucher, so she could print it and get our Paris Passes sorted out.  I am 100% positive she didn’t believe me when I said I did print them and just left them in our luggage…but guys, I promise I did!  Anyway, we got our passes, which we were going to use Wednesday and Thursday.  By the way, this was our first *Benjamin being a butt* experience– he was super crabby at the office, and at one point, hit his head or something silly like that.

Next order of business was lunch, because we hadn’t eaten since our light breakfast at the train station.  We walked a bit, then hopped in a cab back toward Austerlitz, and found a nice little restaurant right by our apartment.  We ate at Au Soleil d’Austerlitz, where I had pasta with foie gras.  To be honest, I didn’t know what foie gras was before I ordered, I just knew it was a delicacy in France.  It was actually pretty good; even Benjamin had some!  Our timing worked out pretty well, we were able to meet up with our wonderful host and head straight up to our apartment after lunch.

The apartment was wonderful!  It was, like I said, literally right next to Gare de Austerlitz, which made getting everywhere super easy.  It was a studio style apartment, but extremely spacious, with a reallllllly comfortable queen bed and a sofa bed, as well as all the necessary items (kitchen, sightseeing info, table, TV, clean bathroom, etc.).  Our host was great too!  I will mention that the apartment was on the 3(?) floor I believe, and there was no elevator.  We are pretty accustomed to this, so I almost don’t even feel like it’s worth mentioning.  There was an entrance area downstairs (within the locked gated area) that we were able to leave our stroller in, so that was nice.

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Our first adventure of the trip was to see Paris’s star, the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We bought a Skip-The-Line Tour Ticket through Viator, and our tour time was 4:45.  Again, we didn’t really know the lay of the land yet, so we figured we would head out and if we were early, we could wander around a bit.  We took the metro again {super easy to navigate!! just pay attention to the stops, as my French is pretty terrible and what they say doesn’t at all look like what the name is!} and ended up right down the street from the tower.  Ok guys, I am cringing and sweating while writing this, because I feel like I’m about to be judged so hard….when we climbed up the metro stairs to the street level and saw the tower over the buildings along the street, I was…disappointed.  Eek. I know. Cringe.  I just expected it to be so….shiny…and massive….  And it wasn’t.  Granted, we were still a bit away from it, but first impression?  Not so amazing.  [Don’t stop reading my blog because of this, I’m sorry Paris and Eiffel Tower lovers]

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Anyway, we had time to kill, so we walked down to the tower and, of course, took some obligatory selfie(s) and 7 bajillion photos from different angles.  I will say I was much more impressed once we actually reached the tower- it was so grand and sturdy.  I think I expected it to be more delicate and feminine, if that makes sense.  I also am pretty sure I expected it to just be “sitting” on a grass field, and it definitely wasn’t- obviously, it is surrounded by the ticket booths and security checkpoints, as well as some shops.  I finally figured out where our tour was meeting (the next street over), so we headed that way.

Our tour guide was knowledgable and friendly, but the tour wasn’t anything over-the-top amazing.  I mostly booked it so that we could skip the line, which is always good with littles.  We went through security and headed straight to the elevators (you can take the stairs but that was definitely not an option for us!).  Our tour allowed us access up to the second level, and from there, you could choose to purchase tickets to go all the way up.  The elevators are a little crazy–they are at an angle so it feels super strange going up, plus they are pretty big so it feels like there are way too many people in them!  I am normally not fazed by heights, but the Eiffel Tower actually kind of freaked me out.  I think it was because it’s not solid– you can obviously see through all of the beams and, while the beams are sturdy and solid, it still feels kind of…empty…  Anyway, because of this, I was fine stopping at the second level- it would’ve been cool to go all the way up, but I feel like I still got an awesome experience!  By the time we got up, the sun had mostly set, so we got to see the city all lit up.  Our tour guide told us all kinds of really cool things about the city, but I am a horrible listener, so ask my husband 😉  I kind of wish we had gone up during the day too, so I could get some daytime pictures, but we took more obligatory photos, and decided to head back down.

Then, my most favorite part of the Eiffel Tower happened: the lights show!  Every evening on the hour, the tower sparkles with flashing lights, making it appear absolutely magical!  Seriously, it might have been my favorite moment from the whole entire trip!

There was a small Christmas market right by the tower, so we strolled amongst the markets, and ate some German food for dinner [I feel like I always do this; my first meal in a foreign country is always something distinctly not from that country…haha]  We finally made our way back to the apartment to wind down and relax after our long day.

Our second day in the city started off with croissants and coffee from a cafe downstairs from our apartment, then we took the metro toward the museum area.  We meandered our way around the city a bit, allowing us to see some of those iconic Paris sights: the Paris Eye and obelisk, the giant roundabout, Champes Elysees, etc…  We used our Paris Pass to go to the Lourve.  The pass came with a skip-the-line deal, but I think we would’ve been ushered to the front anyway with the kiddos in tow.  The Lourve is HUUUUUUGEEEEE.  I mean. GIGANTIC.  And beautiful, inside and out!  It is absolutely an art-lover’s dream, thought we didn’t get to enjoy it much.  Benjamin was being his two-year-old self and only wanted to run around and look out the windows.  We got to see a few sections, and of course, stopped in to say hi to Mona.  She’s so tiny, it’s crazy!  And the room is just swarming with tourists.  But we had to say hello and take our photo!  This is definitely a place I would like to revisit when the kids are on another continent  older, or staying with their grandparents, perhaps 🙂

The Big Bus Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour was included in our Paris Pass, so we hopped on after the Lourve and rode around for a good bit of the afternoon.  It was nice to sit and take in the city from the bus, and Benjamin even got in a bit of a much-needed nap.  I like the bus tours, as they give great information, provide an easy way to get to and from all of the main attractions, give us a good idea of the layout of the city, and Benjamin loves busses!  There are two routes for the Big Bus, so while on this route, we drove by Notre Dame, Musee d’Orsay, the National Assembly, Obelisk, Paris Eye, Champs Eylsees, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Hotel des Invalides, and Opera Garnier.  We hopped off at the Opera Garnier stop, as we were starving.  We had a delicious lunch at a nearby cafe, then tried to go into the Opera house.  Unfortunately it was closed to public for the evening, so we got back on the Big Bus and headed for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame was gorgeous.  We have been to many, many cathedrals, churches, etc. during our travels, and this definitely ranks up there.  It was dark by the time we got there, so it was all lit up and decorated for Christmas.  After taking a peek inside, we walked across the street to check out a small Christmas market, as well as the Shakespeare and Company bookstore.  I only stole a small glimpse inside, but I’d love to go back and peruse their shelves and sip a coffee there!

Thursday we decided to get back on the Big Bus Tour, on the other route, up toward Montmartre.  We had to upgrade our passes for 10 euro in order to keep a second all-day bus pass, which was well worth it for us with the littles!  We passed by the Moulin Rouge (we passed on going in), then stopped near Sacré-Cœur, located high above the rest of Paris, giving amazing views of the city.  We wandered through Montmartre, and stumbled upon an “I love you” mural (where approximately 37,592 Asian tourists were taking 342,341,565,475,678,456 selfies in varying poses).

After a few selfies ourselves, we made our way back to Sacré-Cœur.  I absolutely love the look of Sacré-Cœur.  It’s unique and strong and beautiful and welcoming all at once.  You can climb the stairs to get to the basilica, or you can take a little tram up there, which is what we did–bonus: it was included in our all-day public transportation pass 🙂  It was a misty, gray day, so the views of Paris were okay, but not as good as they could’ve been.  We headed inside the basilica, but Benjamin decided he wanted to throw a tantrum, so I took him outside while B looked around inside.  {Yet another place in Paris I’d like to truly get to see!}  We took the tram back down and ate lunch at Le Studio Cafe, which was right across the street from Sacré-Cœur.  While I am not normally one to eat so close to a tourist hotspot, it was actually pretty good, and we had a great view of the basilica while we ate!

Once our bellies were full, we wandered our way to Gare du Nord, where we were able to get back on the Big Bus.  [By the way, Benjamin was being a crankypants toddler pretty much the whole time, and finally fell asleep as we were waiting for the bus.]  We got off by the Opera house again, and while walking to it, found a candy store with some delicious chocolate 😀  We tried visiting the Opera house again, but the tours that were included in our Paris Pass had sold out for the day by the time we got there 😦  We were super bummed!

Instead, we made our way to the Musee d’Orsay, which was on my list of things to do for sure.  I loved it.  First, it’s in an old train station-SO.COOL.  Plus it has more contemporary stuff, including some stuff from Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Another thing I realllllllly wanted to do while in Paris near Christmastime was visit the Christmas market on Champs-Elysées.  I tried some white vin chad {mulled wine}, which I promptly threw out.  I have tried several types of mulled wine, and have not enjoyed a single one, much to my chagrin.  It’s apparently just not my thing.  Anyway, we devoured some yummy market snacks, “window”-shopped, and let Benjamin ride a motorcycle on the carousel.  By the time we had made it up and down the avenue, it was almost time for the Eiffel Tower light show, so we hung out a few minutes to see it from afar.  Once again, it did not disappoint!  To this day, Benjamin talks about the Eiffel Tower, watches the video on my phone, and points it out in any photo or image whenever he sees it!

It was getting late, so we headed back toward the apartment, and ate dinner at a nearby restaurant before packing up our stuff at the apartment.

In the morning, we gathered our luggage and took it to be stored at Gare du Nord, as we had to be out of our apartment by midday, yet our train wasn’t until evening.  We aimlessly wandered about for a bit [my favorite way to explore], and found the most amazing little lunch spot:  La Maison Bleue.  It was definitely my favorite meal of the entire trip!

We were on a mission that afternoon to find a Seine river boat cruise, and walked alllllllll along the river looking for one.  I love the little bouquinistes (street booksellers) along the river, which have been around since the 15th century.  We ended up getting some street art along the river to add to our travel collection.

We stumbled upon one of the love lock bridges, where we also finally found a river boat cruise at Pont-Neuf.  The cruise was about an hour long and allowed views of all of the major attractions in Paris.  It was interesting to see everything from a different perspective, and nice to be able to relax on the heated boat!  They also gave a ton of in-depth info about everything we saw.  It was extra fantastic because Benjamin absolutely LOVED the boat- he ran around from front to back, up and down, side to side, watching everything.  I think my favorite view of Notre Dame was actually from the boat tour!  I am so glad we decided to do the tour, it was probably a highlight for everyone in our family!

Finally, we had a snack and coffee before heading back to the train station to catch the Eurostar back to London.

Happy New Year {and Groundhog’s Day while I’m at it :)}

Today is February 1, 2014 (in case you couldn’t read the date next to this).  I can’t believe it is already the second month of this new year!  We shall, as always, play catch up…hopefully with some pictures this time!!

Christmas was different this year.  This was my first Christmas spent away from my family and friends in Ohio.  Even when I lived in Atlanta and New Mexico, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel “home” to Ohio for Christmas to be with my family.  (Being a teacher certainly has its perks…and I am talking about the time off, not the *baller* paychecks that afford me to travel, haha)  Anyway, this was, like I said, my first Christmas away from my family in Ohio.  This was also my first Christmas as a married woman, and the first Christmas Day I have spent with Brandon, who is now my official family too.  So lots of change, but not all bad.  My last post was about being thankful, so to add to that, I am thankful for such an amazing, understanding family.  They have not once made me feel guilty about being so far away, and have been nothing but supportive.  We are a super tight-knit family, but we are not phone-talkers or skypers, so we texted our Merry Christmases and such, and sent love in our own way.  B and I received a package from my sister and her husband filled with some awesome goodies they got for us in Hawaii, and just recently, my parents sent a package with some of our wedding gifts and surprise Christmas gifts 🙂  {by the way mom & dad, your package is still sitting in my car ready for the post office….this week, I promise!}  It was perfect.  Brandon and I had some people over Christmas Eve for dinner, drinks and relaxing, then spent Christmas morning opening a few gifts for each other.  We have decided we would rather put our money into traveling here, so we are cutting down on how much we spend on each other (VERY difficult for B, he loves to buy me things!!).  The rest of the day was spent at one of B’s coworkers house, chock full of delicious food.  Like seriously, more food than you could imagine, especially for a bunch of single airmen!!  It was nice to be around lots of people on a day usually filled with family and excitement, so I am glad we’ve made some good friends here.  We made it an early night, because we were heading to London the next morning.

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Boxing Day (12.26) was spent in London, exploring the city and Winter Wonderland.  We booked a day trip through ITT (travel group on base), so we got on a bus early that morning and headed down.  Taking a bus from base had its pros and cons, but overall it was fairly convenient.  It dropped us off right at Hyde Park, in the middle of London, where the Winter Wonderland was located.  The Wonderland was basically just a big area in Hyde Park blocked off for food vendors, shops, lots of beer & mulled wine vendors, carnival rides, and various winter activities.  It was super cute, but definitely geared more for kiddos and/or people planning to get proper snockered.  In the morning, we headed away from Hyde Park with the intention of going to the British Museum.  After walking over two miles, we arrived at the museum to find that it is closed on Boxing Day [duh, something we should’ve checked before!]. We decided on a British pub for beers and chips instead.  We were happy to just walk around London and sightsee, as the last time we were there it was pouring!  Seeing London all decorated for Christmas was gorgeous– lights, wreaths, and trees everywhere!  This year, I want to go back and stay the night during the holiday season to see it all lit up at night!  In the early afternoon we headed back to the Winter Wonderland to ice skate.  We found a pretty cool war memorial on our way back, and of course, took some pictures.  Once we were back, B and I both discovered that we are pretty awesome at ice skating, especially compared to some of the klutzes we ran into (quite literally) in the rink.  I’m not sure that the hour of skating we paid for was worth the exorbitant amount of money we shelled out, but hey, we can say we ice skated in Hyde Park in London now 🙂

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We wrapped our day in London up with a German beer from one of the vendors, and headed back to the bus for our ride back to base.  Overall, it was a lovely day 🙂

Somewhere in the mix of December, we also went to Windsor Castle.  Windsor Castle is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world.  The Queen resides and entertains here during different parts of the year.  There is more info here:

http://www.windsor.gov.uk/things-to-do/windsor-castle-p43983

The castle is about 45 minutes outside of London, and about 2 hours from where we live.  It’s crazy because it is basically situated in the middle of a town, and is massive.  We did an audio guide {hence the sweet headphones in the pics below}, and learned a ton about the castle, both historically and how it is used today.  The sheer size and grandiosity of it left me speechless, let alone the incredibly over-the-top decor.  Many of the rooms in the castle are still used today when the Queen is there and is entertaining.  The elaborate, ornate furniture and authentic, famous paintings blew me away!  It boggles my mind that someone actually lives  in such a place!  We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the castle, so these are only from the grounds:

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The castle was also all done up for Christmas, with HUGE Christmas trees in many of the rooms!  Gorgeous!

So those were our exciting outings for December.  We had a relatively quiet New Year’s Eve, hanging out with [very drunk] people that B work with.  Since the new year, I have just been working, trying to get back into a gym routine, and trying to do better at meal planning.  This week I will be starting a long-term subbing position at the same school I currently work at, which I am looking forward to.  I will be teaching SureStart, which is a preschool program.  The teacher retired in December, and there was a long term sub in there until this past Friday, but she PCSed (moved), so they needed a certified teacher to sub until the permanent replacement comes.  As of now, I have no idea how long I will be in the classroom, but I am excited to have a little more responsibility and hopefully get some experience and get my foot in the DoDs school system door a little more 🙂

B was also gone for work for about a week and a half in early January, which seemed super long.  At the moment, we are planning a trip to Edinburgh for my spring break, a possible weekend trip down to Bath and Cardiff toward the end of April, and a summer trip to Brugge, Brussels, and Amsterdam.  We are also expecting some visitors in both April and May, which is exciting!  I suppose that is enough of me rambling, hope y’all enjoyed!