London with Elaine!


I am woefully behind (as usual), but I have been putting bits and pieces of this post together since the end of April.  Back sometime in the early spring, my friend Elaine mentioned wanting to go back to London sometime for a girls’ trip.  It wasn’t a hint — she was just talking.  She didn’t expect that I, a mom of 2 with a busy schedule, would be willing to drop everything and go away for a weekend.  But I totally would.  So, excitedly, we (she) started planning (she handled all of the arrangements, my part was mostly to coordinate my proposed absence with Dan).  In the course of a single afternoon, mostly via Facebook message, we had coordinated, planned, and booked the tickets.  We were going to London!!!

Prior to April of this year, I had been away from the kids overnight exactly once (not counting when I went to the hospital to have Liam, which does not count as being “away from the kids”).  The first time I went away, I found it hard to be away from the kids, but I also really enjoyed myself, and I was game to try again.

Elaine truly handled all of the planning.  She asked for my advice and input, but she arranged everything — all of the reservations, the flight, the hotel, all of the scheduling.  That, alone, was like a vacation for me — I’d never before taken a vacation and had to think about so little!

As the day approached, I packed, I did tons of laundry, and I stressed.  Would everything be ok without me?  Would they all have enough clean socks?  Would Dan be totally overwhelmed?  Would I even enjoy myself in the face of all the worry over things at home?  As usual, I spent my first few hours unable to relax.  Between guilt over having left the kids, stress about catching the flight (this time, like almost always, unwarranted), and a constant feeling of having forgotten something important (where are the kids?!?!), I found it hard to initially embrace the whole “girls’ weekend” idea.  Thankfully, for both Elaine & I, I was pretty well adjusted by the time we landed.

Our first evening was pretty much taken up by a Tube ride to our lovely hotel in Kensington and a mad dash to find something tasty to eat before everything closed.  We found a yummy Indian place close to the hotel, had a quick dinner and called it a night.  We had a full parade of shopping and dining planned for the weekend — exactly the kind of stuff I struggle to get to do while traveling with the family, so I was really looking forward to it.  In addition, I was excited to keep up my good fitness habits by running while on vacation (something I generally skip, but I’m feeling a bit more dedicated these days, and not having to tend to anyone else’s needs first thing in the morning helped get me out the door).  So, the next morning I rose early and ran over to Kensington Gardens in the rain (which felt extra impressive).  I got a little lost, saw some swans, and felt very proud for having made a point of exercising.



239Saturday’s plan was for shopping and eating, and we started with a ride on one of London’s ubiquitous red buses (top level, of course, for extra tourist points).  We visited Whole Foods, stopped by some clothing shops, and even saw the T.A.R.D.I.S. at Earl’s Court!  After that, we went and had a lovely (and very fancy) tea at The Connaught, where everything was delightful!  We shopped at Selfridge’s, walked through Soho and Covent Garden, and shopped a little more!  Then we finished our day with tasty cheeseburgers and milkshakes — both of which are surprisingly hard to find (made properly) in Vienna.

I started the next day with another run to Kensington Gardens (and since I didn’t get lost this time, I had more time to actually ENJOY the gardens).  We then went and had fantastic Dim Sum (along with Chrysanthemum tea, which I had never had before), shopped at Hamley’s, and took another self-created impromptu bus tour of central London.  We had time for a bit more 268shopping, and finally some really yummy Eggs Benedict (which Elaine and I have bonded over) at a restaurant where the waiters aren’t allowed to take pictures (in case they might accidentally capture someone who would prefer their photo not be taken!).  We also decided to sample a few macaroons, which were even better than they looked!

Our time was quickly winding down, so we hurried back to the hotel to collect our things and head to the airport.  It was a wonderful, whirlwind weekend, and I’m amazed at how much we fit in.  I was also so pleasantly surprised to find that Elaine is not only a dear friend, but also that we are remarkably compatible travel companions.  We had a busy, full, grown up, girlfriend trip, and I came back refreshed, reenergized, and ready to get right back into things.  I missed my boys, of course, but I also felt truly grateful to have had
some time to remember how it feels to be the part of ME that is separate from being a mom — the part who likes spicy Indian food, clothes shopping (including actually trying things on before I buy them) and having conversations that don’t involve being interrupted every 8 seconds.  It was a definite success, and I’m so very glad we went.




Another visit ends

1752All good things must come to an end, and so it was with our trip home for Christmas last year.  Just like the year before, we got treated to a significant snowstorm the morning of our flight out, but unlike last year, I was mentally prepared for the possibility, so I was able to enjoy it a bit with the kids instead if just stressing about how wet everyone’s snow pants were getting.  (Good thing, too, because we had another disappointing snow year in Vienna this past winter, so it was nice to get some kind of chance to play in the snow together.)  And again, our flight was delayed (though not as badly as the previous year), but before too long we were trekking through the snow to the airport to return to Vienna.


I hate leaving.  Every time.  Doing it repeatedly does not make it easier.  Our time here has gotten long — longer than any of us counted on — so leaving is hard, because part of me feels like we shouldn’t be leaving at all.  But we did.  With help from our family, clear and safe roads, and our boys, we collected up our things and prepared for another transatlantic journey.

Because of a different seating configuration on the plane, we sat differently than we usually do.  Whenever possible, we sit in the middle of the plane, 4 across.  When that isn’t possible, we sit 3 across at the window with one on the neighboring aisle.  This particular plane had only 2 seats near the window, though, so Dan & B sat there, and L and I sat across the aisle in the middle section.  No problem.

Except that it was a red-eye, and when it came time for sleeping, we had a problem.  It’s never easy to do a red-eye with kids.  No one ever enjoys sleeping on a plane, and kids can get progressively less adaptable as they get more tired.  When my guys are a bit older, they might think it’s fun to stay up all night and watch movies as we fly over the ocean, but not yet.  B leaned up against the window and fell asleep.  Dan dozed next to him.  Liam, with no window to lean on and no family member to bookend the other side of him, could just not get comfortable.  We tried putting him on the aisle with me in the middle seat, and we tried me on the aisle and him in the middle.  Whatever we tried, he ended up either sticking an appendage into the aisle or kicking the woman sitting next to him (the one that wasn’t me).  He was so tired.  He cried.  He tried to lay on the floor of the plane.  He could not get comfortable and he could not sleep.  He finally dozed off, laying across me, for maybe 20 minutes when it was nearly “morning” (meaning it was still very much the middle of the night for us).  I didn’t sleep at all.  It was a rough flight.

But, it was at least fast.  We didn’t know why at the time, but despite taking off about 15 minutes late, we landed in London over an hour early.  (We later discovered that our flight was able to take advantage of unusually strong upper level tail winds — we were traveling at over 700 mph!)  Arriving early in London wasn’t as much of a benefit as it might have been, though — we were to have had a 5 hour layover at Heathrow, which would now be over 6.  With a very tired family, it was a bit of a daunting proposition.

Other than rare occasions when we get a direct flight to the US, we usually connect through Heathrow or Charles du Gaulle.  I don’t love either option.  Both are huge airports which require commuting between distant terminals for international connections.  I don’t mind flying TO those airports, but I don’t like flying THROUGH either one.  This time, though, I learned to love Heathrow a little more.

We were lucky to discover that in the terminal we’d be flying out of (some 6+ hours after we arrived) there was a “Family Lounge”.  We didn’t know exactly what that meant, but we decided to find out.  It turns out that it was a spacious set of rooms outfitted for kids of all ages, and only accessible to people actually travelling with children.  They had comfy places to sit, an indoor play area (full of foam-rubber covered obstacles to play on), a nap/quiet room and a game room with TV and foosball (for older kids).  There was also a coffee machine for the grown ups.  It was EXACTLY what we needed.  Not only were the kids able to both run around and rest as they needed, but we were free from the typical airport worry that we were bothering any of the other travellers.

1830The kids started out by running around, climbing on the equipment and playing with the other kids who were waiting.  Eventually, Liam layed down in the nap room for some much needed rest, and we were able to charge our phones, connect to the wi-fi, and let the kids play games on the iPad while we waited.  It gave us some peace and relaxation during a very long day of travel (and has bumped Heathrow up to my most favorite airport to connect through).

The best part about flying back to Vienna from the States is that by the time we get on that second flight back to Vienna, we’re almost home.  That last little flight feels so short in the overall scheme of the entire trip, so it’s not so daunting.  It was another long day of travel, with another transatlantic journey accomplished, but we made it back “home” from another great trip Home.

To Grandmother’s House

201I’ve completely lost count of our transatlantic journeys as a family.  I actually just tried to count, and can’t quite resolve the trips in my head anymore.  I *think* we’ve taken 4 round-trip transatlantic trips together, plus the one-way trip that brought us here (or, if you like, you can think of that as the round-trip we just haven’t completed yet) but I could be missing one.  So, we’ve done at least 9 transatlantic flights together as a family, and though I’m not sure we’re experts, we’re certainly pretty well experienced.  (I mean, seriously.  My kids have each made at least 9 transatlantic flights so far.  I was 37 before I could say that.)  But all of our experience does very little to mitigate the unscripted insanity that invariably awaits us every time we do it.  Every trip has been a little different, and each one has presented its own challenges.  It is, as I often say, always an adventure.

In the past, we’ve usually (always?) flown direct from Vienna to Washington or stopped in Paris.  Direct is great, but pricey, and though Austrian Airlines is pretty wonderful, their planes are not always the most comfortable.  Last year, we opted to fly through Charles de Gaulle in Paris so that we could fly to Washington on the new A380 — the gigantic, double-decker plane.  I said I wanted to try it out because I thought it would be fun for the kids, but the truth is that my years working in aviation left me as kind of a plane nerd and *I* really wanted to try it out.


It was great — comfortable, quiet and convenient, and Air France has stellar service.  But Charles de Gaulle is a headache of an airport, and no matter how long we allow for a connection there (we’ve connected through Paris in the past, flying to other European destinations) we always end up running for the plane, which is a crummy beginning to a trip.  (Last year was no exception.)

So this year, I thought we’d try something a little different.  I was fine with connecting through Paris, but I wanted to allow more time than last year, and I wasn’t set on it being anywhere in particular.  As it turned out, the A380 now flies between Washington and Heathrow, too.  We’ve had some decent experiences at Heathrow before, and it’s a bonus that people in London speak English.  Sold!  We booked our tickets with a connection through Heathrow.

We had no delays getting from Vienna to Heathrow, so I expected than having nearly 2 hours to get to our next plane would be no problem.  Ha!  I had never realized that connecting from intra-European travel to transatlantic travel at Heathrow makes it every bit as much of a headache as connecting through Charles de Gaulle.  It was not pleasant.

We had to wait for a shuttle bus which ran only every 15 minutes, and which took 20 minutes to get to its destination.  Which sounds fine, except that the entire flight of people from Vienna had to get on the shuttle, and we had to wait through 3 rounds of shuttle buses before we got on.  Then we had to go through security again, and there were insanely long lines.  When we finally got to the front of the line, we were told that Liam’s antibiotic (remember how we were all sick for most of December?) couldn’t clear security.  Huh???  No, really.  It couldn’t go through because nowhere on the bottle did it say how bit it was (though it was, quite clearly, the same 100 mL size as the children’s ibuprofen we had — which DID say 100 mL on the bottle, so that was clear to go).  Apparently, it would have been ok if we’d had the doctor’s written prescription with us (but we didn’t), even though it was in its original bottle from the pharmacy, all official-looking and everything.  I explained that antibiotics are the kind of medicine where it’s very bad if you miss a dose.  I offered to take some of the medicine.  I offered to let them gas chromatograph it.  I asked Dan to find someone to call our gate and tell them we were coming while I pleaded with the (not unsympathetic, but unbudging) security guy.  Our flight was due to take off in less than 15 minutes, and we still had a shuttle train to take.  We had to choose between leaving the medicine and running for our flight, or staying to argue about the medicine and getting on a later plane.  We ran.  (Again.)

213I’m not exaggerating when I say that by the time we left security, we had just over 10 minutes to get to our gate.  I was 95% certain we were going to miss our plane.  I figured that, at least, our seats had been given away to someone on standby at this point.  We ran, flat out, to the train terminal.  We ran, flat out to the gate.  We arrived, with about 90 seconds to spare before departure time.  The gate agent said that the only reason our seats weren’t given away is that so many people had missed their connections that there were more open seats than standby passengers.  He told us that if we hadn’t called from security to say we were coming, they would have left without us.  We were the last people across the jetway, they closed the door as soon as we were through it, and we were still walking down the (admittedly very long) aisle when the plane pushed back.  We were red-faced, sweaty, stressed, exhausted and without antibiotic, but we made our flight.  (So much for not repeating the experience we had the year before!)  I wanted to email our pediatrician, to ask if she could email or fax a replacement prescription, but between the dash for the plane and the actual takeoff, there was not a single moment to do it.


The kids were great.  Though it’s not great that we keep ending up in that situation, they’re at least getting used to it, and they know that it’s not a calamity.  (Besides, they’re getting bigger, so they’re getting pretty fast!)  The rest of the flight was relatively uneventful.  The boys are definitely getting more and more accustomed to long flights.  The service on British Airways was as good as Air France (though the configuration of the plane was slightly less comfortable).

246And it was so, so wonderful to see our family again when we arrived.  That is the absolute BEST feeling about being abroad — how magical it feels to come home again.  There are all of these wonderful people that you miss SO much, and then you get to see them, and they’re just as happy to see you as you are to see them, and they don’t care too much what state you’re in when you arrive.  It is the BEST.  (And, we got to meet our new nephew/cousin!!!!)

But after we gave hugs and kisses, collected our things, packed everything up, got to my mom’s house and got semi-settled in . . . we still had the antibiotic to deal with.

303By the time we got to Maryland, it was late at night in Vienna, so I couldn’t reach our pediatrician (though I left her a message).  We had no recourse, except to go to a 24 hour pharmacy and beg for them to give us a single dose of amoxicillin (we figured we could come back with an emailed prescription in the morning, but we didn’t want him to miss a dose).  If at all possible, we didn’t want to have to take poor, exhausted Liam to the ER or an urgent care place to get them to write a new prescription that night.  I discovered that, randomly, I’d taken a picture of the prescription when the doctor gave it to us (I have no idea why — I never do that) so Dan was able to take that with him to the pharmacy.  (It’s too bad that I didn’t realize I had that at Heathrow — he might have let us through with that.)

When Dan went to the pharmacy, he explained the situation.  We were fortunate that the pharmacist was as outraged by the fact that the antibiotic had been confiscated as we were, and he refilled the entire prescription for us, based just on the picture from my phone.  And so, just 22 hours after leaving our apartment in Vienna, after running through the airport, going over the ocean and through the hassle of getting Liam’s medicine, we were, finally, tucked in, safe and sound, at Grandma’s house.







Closing the loop

I’m picking up again on the missing pieces of last year’s summer vacation (my goal is to finish these stories before this year’s summer vacation … which is in 2 1/2 weeks, so I wouldn’t count on it).  The next major part of our trip was our time in Ireland (including one of my favorite days ever in my life so far), but there are two little pieces of the trip in England that I’ve missed, so I’ll share them here.  (Looking back, I realize that there are actually LOTS of little pieces that I missed — the day we spent in England getting lost on purpose, dipping our feet in a lake and wandering through an unfenced field of free range sheep; the sheer entertainment of literally not being able to understand anything a native Glasgowian said at full speed; the pleasant afternoon we spent wandering around Fort William in Scotland and shopping for Scottish shortbread.  I’m sure there are more.  I’m a little horrified at how many little moments never made it to the blog, and which now probably won’t because I’m already struggling to catch up on this trip . . . 10 months after we took it.  I think I’m going to have to rethink this idea of not blogging on vacation.)




I don’t know how I missed writing about these particular moments.  (Chronologically, this piece goes between here and here, more or less.)  Our first time in the Lake District, we had an unfortunately early end to a drive we were taking when we got a flat tire.  We’d been in the process of driving a long loop through parts of the less crowded 20140528-154917-56957688.jpgnorth and west of the Lake District (the route came from Rick Steves’ UK guidebook).  I really wanted to continue and finish the tour, since we’d loved the first part (pre-flat) so much.  The landscape was just beautiful, and we’d had great fun making an impromptu stop along a lake.  So on this second trip, we bravely set off again.  This time, instead of stopping for a wade in a lake, we stopped for a quick hike at the top of the Newlands Pass.  We worked our way up the narrow track until it became too muddy and slippery, and we had to turn back.  The boys were impressively enthusiastic about it, though — I think they would have climbed to the top of the waterfall if we’d let them!  We continued our drive around the loop, passing (with crossed fingers) the scene of our flat tire last time, and found ourselves a little place to stop for lunch, with a yard full of toys for the kids.  It was one of the few times I can ever think of that we’ve been able to sit outside in the shade and enjoy a meal while the kids played mostly independently.  The boys stopped by every so often for a quick bite of a sandwich, and then were off again to play some more.


After lunch, we diverted from the path to try and find a river swimming/wading/splashing spot recommended by our innkeepers.  We did find it, eventually, after driving down a muddy and rutted path that may not have been intended for cars and which was well marked with “no trespassing” (the problem was that once we started down, there was nothing to do but continue), and at whose end Benjamin refused to leave the car (Liam and Dan did enjoy a bit of splashing time, though).  After that, though, we were all very worn out, so rather than finish the loop, we returned by the direct route to the inn for a nap, some tea, and a walk to feed the resident donkeys (which ended in a sprint home to beat the impending rain storm).


If at all possible, though, I really wanted to finish the loop, because we’d so enjoyed all the pieces we’d explored so far.  But, we were fast running out of time in England.  On our last full day in England before we drove north to Scotland, it was rainy and chilly and kind of dreary.  In the morning, we’d been to the Castlerigg Stone Circle (so, chronologically, this bit should go between here and here).  But it was still early in the day and we wanted to explore a bit more.  So, we drove out and again picked up the loop roughly where we had left off, and continued our exploration.  We took a side trip up the “hill” (they have impressive hills in this part of the world) away from the lake.  It was a steep and narrow journey which first brought us to a tiny stone bridge over a roaring creek and then, suddenly, around a corner to an amazing view of the lake (Derwent Water) below.  That vista alone was well worth the journey.


We continued on to the surprisingly remote and tiny town of Watendlath, high up in the hills, but with a lake of its own.  After our journey up into the hills and then back down to the lakeside, we did, finally, finish the loop we’d been working on over two summers. We finally finished the whole “hour-long” drive.  It only took us a year.


The Wild, Hairy Haggises and the Hogwarts Express

And now another installment in my much overdue recounting of our vacation to the UK last summer . . .

Our first day through Scotland last August was a little insane.  We took a 2-3 hour drive and made it into an 8 hour drive.  We drove through or stopped by at least a half dozen places I’d like to go back and see again.  But we were only just beginning.

My main reason for wanting to come to that particular piece of Scotland, both on this trip and on our previous one (where it didn’t work out) was Harry Potter.  Or, more specifically, the Hogwarts Express.  Harry’s journey to Hogwarts in the movies was mostly filmed along an actual train line in western Scotland.  It’s possible to actually ride a steam train along the route they used for filming, but we knew we’d want to explore along the way, so we drove the (theoretical) hour each way.  (Of course, it took us much longer, and we thoroughly enjoyed it!)


We started our day with a trip to the grocery store to pick out a picnic lunch.  (Wherever in the world we are, grocery shopping is always an adventure.)  Once we had managed that, we got on our way.  From the very beginning of the journey, we’d catch snips of views and vistas that were familiar from the movies, but a lot of the scenery was obscured by trees.  No worries, it was still beautiful.  Our first real stop along the way was one of the most iconic images from the movies — the Glenfinnan Viaduct.  It was pretty cool to stop and see it, and a nice piece of our ongoing collection of visits to Harry Potter places.


We walked around a bit, and the boys really wanted to cross the road to check out the loch across the way.  While Dan and the kids began their explorations, I explored the gift shop.  I’d been looking for something small, kid-friendly and iconic to get them as souvenirs, and I found exactly what I was looking for: the “Wild, Hairy Haggis“.

401Most people have heard of the traditional Scottish dish called haggis (which Dan tried on this trip and which I tasted … REALLY not my thing) but the Haggis creature is not as well known (mostly because it’s entirely made up).  They are sweet little stuffed animals with a cute story, so I got one for each of the boys.  It was love at first sight, and our new Haggises were excellent companions for the rest of our trip, immediately befriending Ignis, who was also journeying with us.  (Dragons feel very much at home in Scotland, as it turns out.)

I am so glad that the boys were dying to play at the loch, because it would up being not only one of the most beautiful spots we visited in all of Scotland (which is truly saying something) but also another staple from the Harry Potter movies — this lake, Loch Shiel, across from Glenfinnan Viaduct, is known as the Black Lake at the foot of Hogwarts Castle in the movies.  And it was absolutely stunning.  (I love Scotland.)





438As we trekked on, we again found many places worth stopping for a look.  (Did I mention that I love Scotland?)  And we caught many views of the train line we were following.  The further north we got, the more rugged, and the more coastal, things became.  We eventually started looking for a place to picnic, and found a beach on a river that looked public and promising.  We ate our sandwiches and played in the sand.  B bravely waded into the frigid (even in August) water.  We watched people play with their dogs and saw a big group of kayakers arrive along the beach.  We got a bit chilled and very sandy, but it was a great picnic.




We continued on to our “destination” (pretty much as far as you can go in that direction without catching the ferry to the Isle of Skye, which, incidentally, I wish we’d done) — Mallaig, a tiny fishing town, and the farthest north I’ve ever been in my life.  We stopped for an ice cream and then turned around to repeat the beautiful journey back in the other direction.  It was another amazing, beautiful day in a stunningly gorgeous place.  We chose this place to see where the Hogwarts Express made its trip, but that had almost nothing to do with how much we loved our time there.


Never to be seen again

A few weeks ago, I said I was going to spend a day each week catching up on old things I meant to write but never did.  I haven’t.  But today I shall!  I have a ton of notes and memories jotted down from our summer trip to the UK last year.  Already, some of the details are starting to fade, which makes writing about it daunting … but I also know that my memory is only going to get worse as time goes on, so I’d better get on with it!

When last I wrote about our trip to England, I was explaining about how welcome we all feel when we visit our favorite place in the Lake District.  It’s beautiful and charming with gracious hosts, fantastic food and stunning views.  Plus, it’s in at least one of Beatrix Potter’s stories, so it’s a definite win across the board.  (Go there and stay.  Eat scones.  You’re welcome.)


After a few days, though, our lovely time in the Lake District was at and end.  We took a short journey up to the unintelligible city of Glasgow (seriously, I had no idea what anyone was saying — I do better in Austria).  Glasgow was just an overnight stop on our way further into Scotland, though.


On our last trip, the Scotland piece of our journey got seriously truncated because first B, and then Liam, got sick.  So last time, instead of venturing up into the Highlands, we stopped at Lockerbie (which I think may actually be the first exit off the highway upon entering Scotland) and, from there only got as far as Edinburgh, once we were all (mostly) feeling better.  This time, I was absolutely set on seeing more of Scotland … and I was in no way disappointed.


Our plan for that first day was to journey from Glasgow up to Fort William in the Western Highlands.  It SHOULD have been a 2-3 hour drive plus stops for lunch, leg stretching and appreciating the scenery.  It took us over 8.  Scotland is amazing and beautiful and we could not resist stopping constantly and taking tons of “optional” detours.

20140430-152958.jpgWe played at a playground next to Loch Lomond.  We stopped and got suddenly and thoroughly drenched at the “Rest and Be Thankful” pass (we had hot chocolate there, too).  We drove alongside the ocean to Inveraray where we had lunch and played on the slippery shore of the sea (take a look at a map … it was NOT at all “on the way”).  We spent 10 miles driving through beautiful and rugged Scottish countryside along a raging whitewater river on a single lane gravel road.  (The GPS sent us that way, and every time we had to pass another car I was sure we were about to end up IN the raging river.  I was also absolutely sure we were going to end up as one of those apocryphal stories about “the dumb and fatal things people do because their SatNav says to”.  But we didn’t and it was beautiful.  I’m glad Dan made the decision to continue on that way . . . against my objections.  It sure beat the motorway!)  We took an essential potty break (a new, but important part of travel for us — on our last road trip, it was just the adults using the bathrooms, so there were many fewer bathroom stops) at the Glencoe Mountain Resort, which feels like it actually might be on another planet, at the top of the world, or perhaps straight from the Hobbit.


Scotland — you are beautiful.  The parts of Scotland that we saw (and this was all just our first day!) were stunning, vast, and wildly beautiful.  I don’t know exactly what I expected Scotland to be like, but it wasn’t whatever I expected.  It’s really … big … open … mountainous … and it’s also mostly by the sea.  It is not just like Ireland, nor like England.  It is wonderful in its own right.


And that is why it took us almost 4 times as long as it was supposed to — because we fell in love and could not tear ourselves away.  August 3, 2013 was the day I fell in love with Scotland.  It was worth every single minute of that 8 hour “2 hour drive”, and I would do it all again, anytime.  (Though maybe not in the winter, because those roads were treacherous enough in summer!)




The end of the weekend

Even though I had an absolutely amazing weekend exploring London and generally being a geeky fangirl, I was excited enough to get home to my guys to not mind getting up at 4 a.m. (Not too much, anyway).

I had a great time on the girls’ weekend.  I was shocked at how long it took me to unwind, to turn off the ultra-aware, persistently vigilant Mommy brain and remember how to just relax and enjoy myself.  I think this time away was overdue.  I think it’s something I could use to do more often than once every 5 years.

And we couldn’t have picked a better spot for it.  I love London.  I would live there.  I don’t feel that way about very many places, but I would absolutely live there (and probably spend way too much going to the “theatre” at every opportunity).

The morning of my departure, it was far too early for me to contemplate things like trains, so I opted for the vastly easier (but much more expensive) option of a cab.  I had a nice chat with the driver on our way out to Heathrow — he’s the dad to one daughter, now all grown up, and insisted that mom having a weekend away from dad and the kids truly is good for everyone.

Heathrow is intense, even at 5 in the morning.  Coming up to the airport, I was surprised to already see the line of plane lights in the sky, stretching off into the distance.  (What time do those flights depart wherever they’re coming from?!?)  I was also please to see how efficient Heathrow was — I was able to check myself in, print my own luggage tags and easily make my way to the gate (where, as a slightly odd security measure, I had to show my passport again to enter the gate area) to wait for my flight home.

I had a pleasant and comfortable flight home (British Airways is as good as Air France was on our recent trip home) and I spent part of the time contemplating people.

I think people are great.  I love how we help each other.  How we’re basically kind.  The cabbie, the check-in people, the other assorted staff at the airport.  No one has to be nice to each other, but most people generally are.  I love how we build and invent things, like air planes, like London.  I love how creative human beings are — theater, movies, storytelling.  It’s amazing what we do and who we are.  I love people.

And, on that note, it was time to return home to the people I love very most of all.


Taking the Harry Potter tour


Just in case out first day in London wasn’t touristy (and geeky) enough, we followed it up with a trip out of London to take the Making of Harry Potter tour where they demonstrate, in great detail, a tremendous amount of what went into making the Harry 499Potter movies.  As huge Harry Potter fans, it was an excellent choice for Pam & I (although I admit I felt a bit sheepish for choosing a movie set tour over the many more significant cultural opportunities London offers . . . but not enough to change our plans).  But, we also did expect to be able to fit in some kind of sightseeing in the evening — although the tour is over an hour outside of London, we planned to be back in town by late afternoon.

When I was planning the trip, I debated the best way to get out to the tour site (at Leavesden) and back.  The train was the economical choice, but would have required 2 Tube lines, a transfer to an overground train and then catching a shuttle bus, and with all of that, ensuring we’d make it out there by our 11:00 tour time.  The direct bus from central London, though much more expensive and equally time consuming, had the attraction of being stress and effort free — all we had to do was show up on time, and someone else would take care of getting us there.  In the end, I opted for the bus, and 263after my frustrating experience with the trains between Gatwick Airport and London, I’m glad I did — I think the train would have been fine, but I’d learned we couldn’t necessarily count on it being punctual enough.

The bus was as easy as we’d imagined, and the tour company booked us on a return trip just over 3 hours after the start time of our tour, which confirmed our expectation of being back in London well ahead of evening.

We actually arrived a fair bit before our tour time, so we made the logical first stop — the gift shop — where we went a little crazy.  Very cleverly, the coat check was happy to hold all of our purchases for free while we were on the tour, so we were able to shop without worrying about the volume!  (So many cool things … )


After our excessive shopping, we got in line and started the self-guided tour.  There was so much to see — original sets (the Great Hall, the cupboard under the stairs, the boys’ dormitory, several classrooms and offices, the Gryffindor common room, the Burrow, 482Hagrid’s Hut), original costumes, and so very many props.  There were videos explaining myriad details of movie magic (I was truly shocked by the vast number of things I had assumed were CGI effects that were actually practical, mechanical special effects — like the dishes that washed themselves!) and others detailing everything from casting to animal training to making snow.  We saw the Knight Bus, tried Butterbeer, explored Diagon Alley and stood transfixed, staring at *the* model of Hogwarts, it all its intricate and impeccable glory (the pictures do not do it justice).  Not only was it truly magical to get to see so many pieces of the Harry Potter world up close, but I’m amazed at how much I learned, as well.


It took us a long time to wander through (and, though we didn’t rush, I think we could have taken even longer).  I have no idea how anyone manages the tour in 3 hours.  It took us over 5.


We had, by then, of course missed our bus, but we simply took a later one, and made our way, tired but very satisfied, back to London.  It was an excellent way to spend a day — in fact, I’d happily go back again one day.





On with the show!

For literally the first time in 5 1/2 years, last Saturday I had a true opportunity to sleep in.  I was in London, on my own, with no obligations and a schedule that didn’t kick in until around lunchtime.  But, of course, I DIDN’T sleep in … because I was on my own, with no obligations and a schedule that didn’t kick in until around lunchtime … and I had all of London to enjoy.

After getting up and surprising myself with how little time it required to get just myself ready and out the door, I got some breakfast and some coffee, and reintroduced myself to London’s Tube system, meeting several helpful Londoners along the way.  Navigating the Tube was much easier than I remembered (i.e., without a stroller), and I easily made my way to the first of the stops on my to-do list for the weekend — Sherlock’s house.

(It’s probably worth mentioning that I really like TV, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  Most of my favorite TV comes from Britain, so there was more than one piece of this grand adventure that was initially inspired by British television.  More on that later.)


My destination was, in particular, the place where they film the exterior of Sherlock’s residence in the current BBC incarnation of the story (not at the iconic 221B Baker Street, but instead nearby on Gower Street).  I wanted to see it in person after having watched it so many times on screen.  It was fun to be there.  It didn’t look quite the same (of course) and I got another visiting fan — a young woman who was so excited to be there that she said she thought she might cry — to take my picture.  Neat!  And then, it was back to Westminster for more typical touristy stuff.

060My next stop was to fulfill Benjamin’s request for some pictures with his own camera (which I brought along just for that) — primarily he wanted pictures of Big Ben.  I managed to get a few, plus some with my phone, and even managed a doubly impressive Big-Ben-and-red-double-decker-bus-in-the-same-picture shot.  If I was going to go away to London for the weekend, it was really the least I could do.

Shortly after my Benjamin-inspired photo shoot, Pam arrived and we set out together to explore the city.  We wandered to and through Parliament Square, and then over the Thames to the South Bank for a stroll.  We walked for quite a ways, along the South Bank and back across the river, through 045Trafalgar Square and over to Buckingham Palace, and then back through St. James’ Park (where we saw some very unseasonable looking Cherry Blossoms).  It was great fun to explore London with an old friend (Pam and I have known each other since we were 10 and 11, respectively).  It was amazing to me how much ground we were able to cover and how many hours we were able to walk — I’m used to my walking excursions being severely limited by the energy and patience of a 5 year old (while Liam, on the other hand, pretty much never tires of walking, but hiking is more to his liking).  After years of European exploration with the kids, I’m completely unused to a grown up sightseeing schedule.





And then, in the evening, it was time to prepare for one of the main events of the weekend (and one of the initial motivations for the whole trip) — seeing Richard II at the Barbican Theater.  I’ll admit that my initial interest in the show came from having a bit of an embarrassing crush on its star (who I first watched on British TV), but even if my inspiration for going to see the play might have been a little silly, the experience of seeing it was decidedly not.


To needlessly state the obvious, seeing Shakespeare done by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London is incredibly special.  I don’t think anything can emotionally manipulate an audience like Shakespeare brought to life by talented, experienced artists.  Everything from the sets to the lighting to the music was just perfect, and the level of skill displayed by every single one of the actors was impressive even to my ignorant eye.  I am so grateful to have had that experience.  It was a night to remember, and I will take any future opportunity to experience anything like it.  I’ve been completely won over.


It was a great day.  I missed my family, but my desire to be with them didn’t ruin my time (nor did it inspire me to try to fly home early).  As Pam and I opted for an early night rather than going out after the show, it occurred to me that my concept of a good “girls’ weekend” has certainly changed a lot in the past decade, but I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about this day.