Girls’ weekend begins . . .

I actually thought I might vomit before I could leave the house last Friday.  Part of it was anxiety about the trip — I tend to worry much more than is called for over missing buses, planes and trains.  Part of it was being uncomfortable with traveling alone — as much as I’m a well-seasoned European traveller (this would be my third time to London), I’ve only travelled a very little bit on my own.  But most of it was worry, stress and sadness at the thought of leaving my boys for just over 65 hours.  I’m just not used to it.

It was my first trip away from Liam, and my first trip away from anyone since we’ve been in Austria.  I’m actually a little grateful for my over-anxiousness about missing my flight.  Without it, I might not have overcome the paralysis I was feeling about actually going.  Eventually, my stress over missing my flight overwhelmed my stress about leaving the kids, so I was able to actually go.

Within the first half hour I was away (I hadn’t even caught the bus to the airport yet) I was stunned.  I had so much downtime.  What was I supposed to do with myself?  For most of the trip to the airport, I just sat and looked out of the window.  I have lost all of my habits for idle time — most of the time I’m with the kids or attending to something pressing, and in the few moments I actually have “free”, there’s always at least SOMETHING that needs my attention (outlining my next blog post, sending cute pictures of the kids to my family, making a grocery list, planning our next outing).  I had nothing that I had to do.  No errands to run, nothing that needed my attention, no endless questions to answer, no one to keep entertained, no one to shush or calm down or keep safe.  It was really weird.  I had no one to talk to and lots of time on my own.  I truly did not know what to do with myself (and I’d been out of the house for less than an hour).

I adjusted.  It took a while to even think of reading, watching a movie on my phone, or listening to music.  Once I was able to get used to actually being able to focus on something for leisure, it was really pleasant (but still, there was no place I would rather have been right at that moment than home getting ready for movie night with my family).  The flight was great, and eventually I stopped jumping to attention every time a child on the plane would cry.  It actually became pretty pleasant to snap out of my focus on my book only to remember that my kids were at home and I could go right back to reading — a little like waking up before the alarm in the morning and getting to enjoy snuggling back into bed for a while.

On my own, I had a lot more time for random thought, too.  Standing in the forever-long “all other passports” UK Border line, I contemplated what passport control must be like for moderately famous people.  I imagine they have to wait in the same line as everyone else (unless they’re SUPER famous and this disruptive to the process, then maybe there’s some other provision), which must be awful.  I figure they’d get bothered, asked for autographs or whatever, but there would be nothing they could do to get away!  That must be even worse than just waiting through the line as a regular person, which isn’t any fun, either.  (This is what happens to my mind when I don’t have kids to entertain, apparently.)  Also, I spent a little time contemplating how/why people can’t tell where I’m from.  I had a British person think I was British (after talking to me?!?) on the plane and a woman in the Customs line came up and spoke to me in an impressive stream of Russian — then, after seeing my confusion, apologized in fluent English, saying she thought I was Russian, too.

It was odd to be on my own — not just being an off-duty mom, but being completely solo on my journey.  It was strange to not have anyone to coordinate with.  When my train from the airport was delayed by an hour and a half, I didn’t have anyone to hash out an alternate plan with, nor to pass the time with.  And when I finally made it to Victoria Station after midnight, there was no one with whom to debate the various merits of taking a cab or the subway, so I got to decide on my own.  (After midnight, raining, with luggage and not 100% sure where I was going — I opted for a cab, and I think it was the best £10 I spent the whole trip.)

I made it, all on my own, from Vienna to London.  I managed to remember how to read a book on a plane, hail a cab and watch TV in a hotel room (that wasn’t a cartoon).  The trip was going great already, and the really fun stuff hadn’t even started yet!

Girls’ weekend in London

I interrupt my heartfelt reminiscing about our Christmas at home … with a trip to London!  This evening I’ll be flying over to meet a friend for a girls’ weekend.  We’re going to see a show, take in as many sights as we can, do the Harry Potter tour and probably have a pint in an actual pub (though Pam will probably opt for a glass of wine).

It is my very first time doing anything like this since I’ve been a mom.  It will be the first time I’ve ever spent the night away from Liam, and the first time I’ve ever been away from either of them overnight just for fun (I came to Vienna from the US for a weekend before we decided to move here — before Liam was born — and was away from B overnight when Liam was born).  So this is really strange for me.

I’m half thrilled and half anxious.  I’m struggling to comprehend traveling on my own and am already feeling how much I’m going to miss my boys.  I can’t wait to see my good friend and explore an exciting city together and I’m hoping the boys have so much fun having their guys’ weekend with Dan that they barely notice I’m gone.  This all feels very grown up and sophisticated.  There’s really no way to say, “I’m meeting a girlfriend in London for the weekend” without sounding very fancy.  But I don’t *feel* more grown up or fancier than usual, so it does seem a bit strange.

It’s a little weird to me that I’m going so far away for my first weekend away.  But I think that’s because it’s an international flight — really, though, it’s only a 2 1/2 hour trip.  I’m not actually going that far.  In a way, it’s probably good that there’s a plane ride between me and my boys — it will help to discourage any middle of the night urges to just go home (though I do expect that the desire will still surface).

The boys keep asking who is coming to stay with them.  We keep reassuring them that Dan will be here the whole time.  At first, I thought they were confused (why would Mommy go and Daddy stay?) but I got the impression today at lunch that they understand just fine that it’s only me who is going — they just want to know who ELSE is coming to take care of them.  They keep asking if our downstairs neighbor (our regular babysitter) is coming over to take care of them (which came from a conversation where Dan & I were discussing that she’s offered to be “on call” in case he needs help at any point).  They just can’t seem to quite accept that it’s going to be JUST them and Daddy this weekend.  (That’s ok — I’m not sure I can quite accept it either!)

So off I go to live it up for 62 hours in London.  I’m sure we’re going to have a great time and make some fantastic memories.  I guess it’s the consequence of being a mom, but some of the things I’m looking forward to the most are some of the simplest — sleeping all night (maybe even sleeping past 7:00 in the morning!) and being able to choose restaurants based on what I want to eat.  That, plus spending time with a good friend, should make it an excellent weekend.  (It remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to relax, or if I’ll spend the majority of the time worrying about what’s happening at home!)

R’s house

Although I’m an introvert, I like to talk to people.  It’s fun getting to know new people, hearing their stories, finding out what life is like for them.  It’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed about all of our travels, and one of the (very many) things I’ve loved so much about visiting England, Scotland and Ireland — since I speak English, connecting with the people we’ve met there has been the easiest and the most rewarding.  On our first trip, we met lots of new people, and this last time (back in July and August of this year), especially since we went back to some of the same places, we made some good friends.

Our single favorite place to stay has been Littletown Farm, where the food is amazing, the rooms are cozy, the scenery is stunning and the company is warm and charming.  Besides, one of the Beatrix Potter stories I grew up with was actually set at the farm.  (What’s not to love?)

Along with our wonderful hosts there, Rob and Sarah, are their children.  Their youngest, R (he’s not my child, so I’m not putting his name on the Internet!), is only a few months younger than Benjamin, and on our first visit, the two of them instantly bonded over a love of Lightning McQueen.  Ever since that first trip, Littletown has been known as “R’s house” in our family, and both of my boys would often ask when we were going back to “visit our friend R”.  (In fact, everyone we met on our entire trip to the UK who asked the boys what we were doing on our vacation was told that “we’re visiting our friends in England”.)

My boys were so happy to be reunited with their friend on this most recent trip.  Each morning, and after every meal, the constant question was, “Where’s R?”, and Benjamin explored all over the property seeking him out to play.  (I think R enjoyed it too — he apparently talked in his sleep about playing with Benjamin, too.)  B even got to explore some parts of the farm usually off-limits to guests, since he was escorted by R.

My boys loved playing with R.  They started asking about our next visit to R’s house before we got back to Austria.  I’m so happy to see my kids making new friends as we travel, too.  And I’m sure we’ll make it back to R’s house again.

Stone circle


On neither of our trips to England so far have we made it down to Stonehenge (although it’s on the list, probably for the next trip).  I really want to go — I’m certain it’s very interesting, most likely even more impressive and intriguing in person than in the images I’ve seen, and I imagine it will be goosebump-inducing, on account of its mystique, at the very least.  Besides, it’s “just one of those places” that you want to see when you go to England.  (At least, I do.)


236We found out that there was a stone circle — Castlerigg Stone Circle — in the Lake District, though, very close to where we were staying, and it seemed like an excellent place to check out on a rainy morning with some free time.  Although it lacks the renown of Stonehenge, it was fascinating, very old (one of the oldest stone circles in Britain and all of Europe, constructed around 3200 BC) and also quite beautiful, with misty views of the mountains and valleys of Cumbria in every direction.


238We loved it.  It felt like an appropriate part of our British trip, and, from a practical perspective, it was a great place for the kids to run around a bit outside.  They liked it mainly because rocks are fun to climb on (although it may have been uncouth to do so — we did it anyway) and there were lots of great puddles to splash in.  The circle had a great ambiance and stunning views, and we were lucky to visit between your buses, so it wasn’t very crowded.  For whatever purpose the ancient inhabitants of the area constructed the circle, they certainly chose an excellent spot.  We went just on a whim, and I’m so glad we did.


The National Trust

Along with our amazement of and appreciation for the public footpaths in Britain, we’ve gotten to experience a few parts of the National Trust — a program that preserves all sorts of historic, scenic or natural places all across the England, Wales and Ireland(Scotland has a separate National Trust, which we also visited and enjoyed), and opens them to the public.  It’s fascinating and wonderful, and we’ve included several parts of the National Trust as pieces of our adventures in the UK.


I first learned about the National Trust through my mom, but experiencing parts of it firsthand makes me appreciate its importance even more.  What’s interesting and different about the National Trust as opposed to regular National Parks (which also exist) is that a wide variety of kinds of places can be placed into the National Trust, not just the stunningly beautiful natural places you might expect (like the Giant’s Causeway), but even small places (gardens), functioning places (farms and pubs), things (such as historical artifacts) and whole villages (we’ve visited at least two of these — Buttermere, and tiny Watendlath which is FAR off the beaten path).  It felt like every time we went to explore somewhere new, we’d end up crossing paths with the National Trust.


Although I’m not 100% clear on how it all works, I do understand that it’s a pretty profound way to preserve and share so much of Britain’s essence.  The places that belong to the National Trust can’t be sold or developed, and they’re preserved, maintained and opened for everyone to share.  We’ve gotten to explore a tiny piece of these national treasures, and I think it’s so wonderful that they’re looked after in this way — we’ve certainly enjoyed them.

Public footpaths

049All across England, Scotland and Ireland, we encountered signs marking public footpaths.  These are (relatively) maintained walking paths that the public has a right to use.  It’s remarkable to me because, out in the country, they’re everywhere — not just along the edge of the road, or through parks or other public spaces, but very often through and across private land.

Following several of these public footpaths in England (we did less exploring on foot in Ireland and Scotland) we went across meadows, around lakes, into forests and through (occupied) sheep pastures.  (All of the pictures I’ve included in this post were taken while we were on a public footpath.)  Many of these areas are enclosed by fences and you have to pass 132through a gate (or a stile) in order to enter the field.  As a horse owner, and someone who spent a lot of time during my growing up years on a sheep farm, I’m astonished that this actually works.  (But, I guess it must, because I imagine that otherwise, something would change.)  I would have nightmares about my animals getting out, or someone getting trampled and suing (although things are different outside of the States when it comes to litigation).  Most of the gates we encountered were either kissing gates (basically a livestock comparison to an airlock door) or weighted to fall closed on their own, which is good, because people are generally bad at remembering to close gates (especially when the animals in question aren’t theirs).


Even so, I think it’s a wonderful system, and I’m amazed, yet thrilled, that it exists.  Vast parts of the English countryside are open to the public, allowing so much of the beautiful land to be explored.  We weren’t limited to public parks and sidewalks, we really were able to explore.  It was fantastic.






“Drive on the left!”

Whenever we rent a car, it’s never so easy (or inexpensive) as JUST renting the car.  We need two car seats and a GPS as well.  (We own car seats for both boys, but dragging them around the world is impractical, and the navigation provided by our phones is only free in Austria.)  It adds up to a lot of expense — the cost of the GPS and car seats is usually as much as (or more than) renting the car itself.

It’s entirely worth it.  Although I do miss our wonderful car seats from home, they’re heavy and bulky and I’d worry about them being cargo when we fly.  And the GPS is essential — not so much to get us where we’re going (we could look up directions from anywhere we could get wi-fi) but because it enables to deviate from our planned route, always knowing we’ll find our way back.  Sometimes we do that out of need (stopping for a potty break or looking for lunch) but, even more often, we do it by choice.  We can take the “scenic route”, explore an interesting looking turn off of the main road, or just drive, always knowing we’ll be able to get back to wherever we were headed.  We do it all the time — it’s one of our favorite things to do when we travel (that’s how a 2.5 hour drive became an 8 hour one in Scotland, and how a 2 hour drive became an 8.5 hour one in Ireland).  It’s how we have some of our favorite experiences and get to see some amazing places.  So we feel the GPS is always worth it (though with what we’ve spent renting them, we probably should have just bought one at this point).

We had fun with ours on our most recent trip to the UK and Ireland, setting the English language accent as appropriate to where we were (English, Scottish or Irish).  And we also laughed each time we turned it on, because EVERY TIME we started it up, it gave off an alarm sound and reminded us to “Drive on the left!” (including the exclamation point).  That still didn’t stop me from ALSO reminding Dan myself that he should drive on the left, not only each time we started out, but also almost every time he made a turn from one road to the next.  Dan did an amazing job, though — he drove on the correct side the entire time!  (And I’m incredibly grateful to have gotten to experience far-flung parts of England, Ireland and Scotland without having to drive at all.  I would have been a stressed out mess on those tiny roads AND driving on the “wrong” side.)  It is amazing how ingrained the habit of driving on the right is — I kept wanting to get in the car on the wrong side, and crossing the street, I had to constantly remind myself to look both ways VERY thoroughly, because if I didn’t think about it, I would forget which direction the traffic was likely to be coming from.

It’s funny, though, because I don’t recall our GPS shouting and dinging at us to “Drive on the left!” the last time we were in the UK — and even though the two GPSes we rented during this trip were different models, they BOTH had the warning.  (I wonder when they added that feature — and I wonder if it makes UK drivers crazy, or if there’s an option somewhere to turn it off?)

(As a note, we had Tom Tom GPS units on both pieces of our trip, and in both cases we had good experiences.  Again.)

No rain, no rainbows

On both of our trips to the British Isles, we’ve had incredible luck with the weather.  (We actually seem to have fantastic luck with the weather wherever we go.)  England and Ireland are known for being gray and rainy.  And although we’ve had more dry days than wet ones when we’ve been there, I’ve never been disappointed by a rainy day in the UK or in Ireland.  After all, the only way the countryside can be so wonderfully lush and green is for a lot of rain to fall.  Not only that, but we kind of WANT to have appropriately British weather when we’re visiting Britain — otherwise, it feels like we’re kind of missing out on some of the experience.


In addition to making everything vibrantly green, the persistent rain showers in England also seem to create excellent rainbows.  We saw several rainbows during our most recent trip (all of them in England, although I have to imagine that Ireland can spawn some impressive rainbows as well — not only because it’s an equally drizzly country, but also because of the ubiquitous folklore and imagery that ties Ireland and rainbows together) but one was particularly outstanding.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  It was a double rainbow, and the bottom arch was visible across it’s entire length — from the ground, up into the sky and back to the ground again.  We were so struck by how vivid and complete it was that we pulled the car over and got out to see.  For the first time in my life, I could actually SEE the rainbow’s end (it was at the base of a tree in a cow field not very far from where we were).  I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the whole “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” thing, because I’d never before been able to see where a rainbow ended.  They have always dissolved far above the ground, leaving a vague sense of their destination.  But this one was clear.  It was amazing, and it lasted for quite a while (we stopped, stared, exclaimed, gazed at it and took lots of pictures before getting in our car and heading to dinner, and it was still there).  As the rain shower which created it marched off down the valley, the rainbow shifted slowly up the hillside, but only lost a bit of its clarity.


We were so impressed that we were still talking about it the next morning at breakfast, and mentioned it to our host, who smiled and gave us a look that clearly said, “Yeah, you’re not from around here.”  I guess the perfect rainbows just come along with the verdant hills and the need to carry a raincoat everywhere.  Just another amazing thing from that part of the world.

Pilot and copilot

I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that we travel a lot more than average with our kids.  My boys have each already logged more airborne miles than I had by the time I was 30.  But for some reason, we’d never done the whole “visit the cockpit” thing — I’m not sure why.  It might be that we haven’t flown airlines that are likely to invite a child to stop by, or that we often have felt stretched pretty thin while flying, or that we were always supposed to be the ones that suggested it, and it never occurred to us.  (Is it something that even happens anymore in the US these days?)

A few months ago, a friend posted pictures of her grandson sitting in the copilot’s seat of an airliner, and it seemed kind of odd to me that it was something that my boys hadn’t yet experienced, so I made a mental note.  But I didn’t know how it would work.  Who should we ask?  When?  The first day of our most recent trip involved too much stress and literal running to even think about it (besides, one plane actually waited at the gate for us while we raced through the airport and had our Legitamations cards scowled at by German passport control, so they’d already done plenty for us).

But on the second day of our trip, early in the morning, we were the first to board, the cockpit door was open and the flight attendant was immediately friendly to the kids, so we asked.  She said we couldn’t do it before takeoff, but she asked the pilot and he told us to come back after landing.  B was so excited.  He started telling me about how he couldn’t wait to see the front of the plane, and how he needed to learn how to fly it because he’s going to be a pilot one day (the first time I’d heard that particular aspiration) followed by Liam’s enthusiastic, “Yeah!”


After a quick trip to Edinburgh, we stopped by after landing.  The pilot (who looked closer to Benjamin’s age than mine) was happy to have both boys visit.  The kids were so happy.  B was a little overwhelmed by all of the buttons and levers, but Liam wiggled his way right in and started pushing buttons and flipping switches.  I was afraid they were going to do something catastrophic, but the pilot assured me that everything was off and that as long as the parking brake stayed on, we were good.  After a moment, both kids had made themselves at home and were completely thrilled by the experience.  They loved it.


We had such a good time that the next time we flew, B asked — all by himself! — if they could go in again, and again, they got to go — they even got to bring their dinosaurs along.  This time, the pilots seemed a bit wary of Liam’s desire to mess mostly with the foobig red buttons (the ones that seemed like maybe not the best choice for operation by a 2 year old), but they were still great about showing the kids around, and even demonstrated what all the warning lights looked like.  (We tried again after our next flight, but they said no — and I was impressed at how well the boys took it.  They seemed to completely understand.)

Both boys already love flying, and I have the distinct impression that this is something they’re going to make a habit of.  I expect that flight attendants around the world will now be subjected to the sweet, polite, super cute requests of Benjamin and Liam.

Lost luggage

It was bound to happen eventually — after 9 or so international journeys (I’m losing count) our luggage was lost on our trip to the UK. It’s easy to see how it happened. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and we got to the gate without a problem. Then, just at boarding time, our flight disappeared from the monitoring screen at the gate — never a good sign. Then “all passengers connecting to London” (us, plus a woman named Dorothy) were called up to the desk. Our flight was delayed, and the airline was worried about us missing our connection, so we were rebooked on another airline, connecting through Cologne. We were assured our luggage would be rerouted, too, and of course we were only ACTUALLY booked from Vienna to Cologne, but we had to go “right now” to make our flight, and so we did.

We were only booked standby on our new flight, and although we got seats, they weren’t together. But while the first person I asked to switch so B and I could sit together actually said no (Dan worked out seating for himself and Liam), another passenger switched with me, and yet another switched so that B could have a window seat, and all was well.

Until THAT flight was delayed by about 45 minutes, which resulted, after a trip to the check-in counter for another booking, in a flat-out “Home Alone” style sprint through the Cologne airport while they actually held the plane at the gate for us while we got through security and passport control. Of course, we didn’t have seats together on that flight either, and the plane was literally backing away from the gate while we sorted things out. (Again, one person gave up their seat so B & I could be together while another volunteered to switch so that B, who wasn’t even whining, could have the window. People are awesome.)

So, sweaty and exhausted, we made it onto a plane bound for Stansted airport, and, 2 hours later than we’d planned, we finally arrived. But our luggage did not. So there we were, day 1 of an 18 day trip, with two kids, no bags and an early morning flight the next morning to Edinburgh (after which we planned to rent a car and drive 3 hours further away).

On the bright side, everyone we talked to from the airline was thoroughly helpful. Also, we didn’t have much luggage to drag to our hotel. And, I got to do a bit of unplanned shopping for the family at a mall outside of Edinburgh. By late the next evening, our bags had been located, and, with our carry on stuff, the fruits of our shopping excursion, and the kids’ clothes kindly lent to us by our bed & breakfast hosts (who have a 4 year old son), we barely missed a beat of our vacation. Both suitcases were delivered on the fourth day of our trip, safe & sound. (Never have I been so glad to see old socks.)

Our trip is going wonderfully (lost luggage aside), but we fly to Ireland tomorrow, and I can’t help over-thinking every single thing I pack in our carry on — instead of packing light and taking just what we need for the trip, I feel a little like I’m packing the carry on for wilderness survival for a week. We managed quite well for being without our bags for about 72 hours, but I’d really rather not do it again . . . especially not on this same trip.