Thursday, March 30, 2017

UK Spring Break

So first, I realize that a lot of the pictures and tales from our trip to England last week were well documented by Erin on Facebook over the course of the week. But in an effort to more permanently (and more accurately, given the authorship) record our good fortunes, I thought I'd write up a blog post as well. I'll try not to replicate too many of the previously posted pictures.

But before I get into the details of our journey, a few bits of guidance for all who live in the United Kingdom. We Americans know you're continually looking to us for guidance on everything from politics to social issues to how stinky you should like your cheese, so here are a few tips based on our experiences.

1. It would be permissible for you to put a shoulder on your roads. ANY of your roads. We'll let the whole "wrong side" thing go for now. But really, a berm or concrete wall is not the best way to line your roads.

2. You can build roads that give more than an inch of clearance on each side of the vehicle. The high speed limits are appreciated (60 on secondary roads is the norm, for those who don't know). But I'm pretty sure that Erin lost years off her life as lorries sped by at 60, just inches from her door.

3. A mounted hand-held shower nozzle does not count as a "shower." I know, this is common across all of Europe. But in our cottage in the Cotswolds, I couldn't even stand fully upright in the "shower" to get under the nozzle.

4. Toilet paper should not be of a sufficient thickness and smoothness to double as writing parchment.

5. A two pence coin should not be the approximate diameter of a small donut. My pocket should not have torn out over carrying around 8 pence.

6. Lemonade is very sweet, very lemony (sp?) and very still. Nothing should fizz about lemonade.

7. Just because every other building in your country was built prior to the 16th century doesn't mean you should insult us over our "complete lack of history" during the tour at the Tower of London.

8. We know that you don't bathe in a bathroom or rest in a restroom. But it just sounds more pleasant than always having to ask "Where's the toilet?"

9. We'll give you "lift" over "elevator." That one is reasonable.

10. And finally, back to the roads, a "mid-size" car rental should be able to accommodate two suitcases without breaking out the back glass.

So without further adieu, here are some memories from the trip.

Day 1
We arrived after flying overnight (but not really, due to the time change) at 6am London time and immediately hopped in the car toward THE WEST, as the signs all noted. As I figured out how to drive all switched around (at high speed on the M4, luckily), we took our first stop at Castle Combe. We were all doing surprisingly well on so little sleep, and Castle Combe was so lovely that it made a wonderful first stop.
As you can see, one of the benefits of our timing was that all of these little quaint villages were completely dead since it was off season. This worked to our advantage most of the time.

After leaving Castle Combe, we headed west to Chepstow, Wales for a quick bite and then on to Tintern Abbey. I found this to be a fascinating stop, but definitely one that the kids didn't really get, I don't think. And by this time, everyone was starting to feel the jet lag coming on.

Finally, we made our way to Stow-on-the-Wold, our home for the next few days, and dinner at the Bell Inn. At the end of a long day of driving, I managed to fall completely flat in the middle of the busy bar, knocking over several chairs and other patrons. The good news is that it was our first night in town, and the Bell was right across the street from our cottage, so we planned to visit a lot. They didn't forget me. I did have trouble getting served on our second visit though.

Day 2
This might, in retrospect, have been the favorite day of the trip. We visited the Cotswolds Farm Park, run by someone who is apparently famous in the UK but of no note to Americans. The kids got to wander around petting animals, stepping in all kinds of foreign crap, and eventually buying a bunch of foreign crap. A great time was had by all.

That afternoon we visited the lovely Bourton-on-the-Water, a slightly more touristy Cotswolds village. And for dinner, we landed at the Red Lion in Chipping Campden. The kids loved the Red Lion because our dining room featured a cranky parrot that we were warned had a penchant for snapping off fingers with his beak. Very relaxing for parents of three overly curious children.

Day 3
A visit to Warwick Castle. In the rain. Followed by a drive through Stratford. In the rain. The upside of the day was Indian food at The Spice Room in Moreton-on-Marsh, just a few minutes from Stow. The food tasted fantastic but required a visit to Seat-on-the-Loo later.

Day 4
Harry Potter. Well, almost. First we drove through Oxford and visited the Pitt-Rivers Museum. The museum was fascinating (who doesn't love a shrunken head or blowgun?) but the traffic in Oxford was pretty unbearable. So after a brief stop, we made our way toward London for the studios where Harry Potter was filmed.

I was admittedly not terribly excited about all this on my own. But seeing the kids so excited was certainly nice. In the end, the studio was fascinating in that it showed just the scale of how much art had to be created to produce all of those movies. Really something, even for someone who has only seen a couple of the movies.

Day 5
The big event for Day 5 was seeing the Lion King. As it turned out, the terrorist attack a mere blocks away from us ended up being the big event. Praise God that we were one stop short of getting off the tube right as the attack happened. In the end we were still able to enjoy the Lion King and make the most of a somewhat traumatizing experience. Crazy things can happen at any time, and it was a good lesson for the kids. Dinner was a pub called the Lamb & Flag near Covent Garden. A truly classic pub, and one of at least six plates of fish and chips consumed by Grant during the trip. Actually, he consumed two plates at the Lamb & Flag alone, due to an error by our server. He wasn't complaining.

Day 6
Grace and mommy did afternoon tea, while the boys visited the Natural History Museum. Grant wasn't too keen on all the biological displays at the museum, but Grace enjoyed tea. I purposefully made Grant walk past every anatomical display multiple times, just to watch him squirm.

Day 7
We started off at the Portobello Road market and then made our way over to the Tower of London. I've done the tour at the Tower at least three times now, and each time find it fascinating. So much history in one spot. I especially appreciated our tour guide this time around spending some additional time describing the gore of several executions on the site. Nothing like leaving town with the image of someone being publicly hacked to death. At day's end, we made our way to Greenwich and took the obligatory pics in two hemispheres.

Day 8
Our final day in London. We started the morning at a local park and then decided to make our way to Picadilly Circus to see Beauty and the Beast in the theater. In the back of our minds, we all knew it was the last day, so we were just trying to make the most of it.

My inadvertent "What's the Story?" shot in Covent Garden, for you music fans...
Overall, it was a fantastic trip. The jet lag didn't have much of an impact on any of us, and the kids really soaked up the whole adventure. In the end, I think we could have stayed in the countryside even longer, but I'm glad they got to see London as well. Definitely one of the best trips we've taken.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

On a Boat

This past week, the family loaded up in the minivan with NeNe and Papoo (Erin's folks) in tow and headed for New Orleans to take a cruise to Mexico.  The kids were excited.  Grant devised that he could eat at least 10 ice cream cones per day for a week, and the rest of us would enjoy the sun and relaxation, not to mention watching the burgeoning of Grant's dairy intolerance.

Indeed, once we arrived on the boat, Grant immediately began his assault on the soft serve machines.  I think in the first two days he knocked down around 15 cones, so short of his prediction, but still pretty mind numbing (or brain freezing.)  Erin and I had worried about a number of things prior to going to New Orleans, mostly based on our previous cruising experiences.  Would we get seasick, as we had in the past?  Would we be able to really relax while chasing the kids around?

In the end, it was a good time, but not without its flaws.  For starters, Erin didn't inform me that the ship we were on, the Carnival Triumph, was the same one that floated about the Gulf of Mexico while filling with raw sewage a couple of years ago and was dubbed "the poop cruise" by the media.  I appreciated her sheltering me from this fact, but it did come as a surprise during the boarding process.  For someone with OCD, it was difficult to shower without allowing my feet to touch the previously infected floor.

The fact is, the Carnival Triumph is almost 20 years old and just doesn't feature the same level of amenities that the newer ships offer.  This was a calculated move on our part though, as neither Erin nor myself wanted to spend a small fortune on a trip, only to find out that one of our kids is rendered immediately seasick upon taking two steps onto a ship.  So lesson learned -- we can go a little bit bigger next time.

Browsing the Lucas de Galvez market in Merida
Overall though, the kids had a great time.  In addition to getting to experience a little bit of Mexico in Cozumel and Mérida, they got to eat, swim, and play to their heart's content.

Trent, in particular, continues to amaze with his unbounded personality.  Every time we passed a live band, Trent broke out in dance.  Every woman on that ship knew Trent, as he'd danced with all of them at various points during the week.

Grace enjoyed the on-ship entertainment, particularly a "men vs. women" challenge that involved adults stuffing medals into their rears, shimmying across the stage, and dropping them in a bucket.  Our little toilet-humored Chinese kid can't contain her laughter, even now, when we discuss that evening.  Erin and I were grateful for a chance to forget about our jobs for a few days, and just watch our kids enjoying life.

After returning to New Orleans, we made our way home via Memphis.  We spent the following afternoon on a tour of New Orleans, featuring the world's most informative tour guide -- "There's a pretty house over there."  "That's a museum!"  It was as though the tour company had given a homeless person $10 to point at things.  Such is life.

We had a great "last night" on Beale Street, where street performers entertained the whole crew.  The kids were particularly engrossed in a group of guys who could do 10+ flips down the center of Beale Street.  Pretty amazing.
Hanging out on Beale St

This has been a rough year for us, in some ways, and we needed the break.  The cruise just reinforced for me how blessed I am, and how the best times in my life are out with my whole family.  As always, Erin started planning the next trip on the drive home.

Monday, June 06, 2016

A Great Backyard

Childhood bliss, I tell you.  Childhood bliss.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Quick Spring Break trip

Gatlinburg 2016

We don't go to Gatlinburg because we love it.  The mountains are pretty, but the go carts, wax museums and sub-par tourist food isn't a real draw for Bret and me.

But, for kids, it's glorious bliss, all within a short drive.  Here's the quick recap, more for me than for you... but nonetheless.

Day 1
Arrive, play, bathe, bed

2. Easter Sunday
Church, lunch, walking and shopping in Gatlinburg, and Magiquest.

Day 3
The movies and rolling down the hill in giant hamster balls, followed by swimming and catch your own trout for dinner.  You know--everyday vacation fun!

Day 4
Glorious hike until the last mile when the three-year-old melted down... followed by shopping and a ropes course.

Day 5
Amusement park fun at Dollywood

Day 6
Go carts, mountain coasters, Magic show fun and more national park romping.

Overall, a great trip... full of plenty of memories, that's for sure.