The Return

Picture this scenario for me.

You have just had the best first date of your life. You laugh at all the same things, you talk constantly with no weird pauses, and at the end of the night you just know that you can’t wait to see them again. As soon as you get home, you get a call saying your mother is sick. Then, you have a crisis at work. Then a small fire in your building, forcing you to move. Then, then, then, just one thing after another, constant crisis for months, each of them seeming to be the worst thing that has ever happened. During all this time, you never get around to calling that fantastic date of yours again.

You completely meant to, of course. But you can’t call and tell them about your sick Mom. It’s too soon, you barely know each other.  And you can’t start in on the work problems, because it will just sound like an excuse. With every crisis that comes along, you have more and more to explain until you realize that you just missed your chance. I mean, not calling or a week is one thing. But it’s been months now. For all you know, they’ve moved on. There is really no explaining anything anymore.

But I guess I can try to explain.

That’s right. There was no date, it was all a thinly veiled effort to explain my disappearance and sudden reappearance. I’m honestly not sure exactly how a year passed without a post, but I guess it’s just like I said above. The longer I was gone, the more I felt I had to explain when I came back. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to call, I just wasn’t sure exactly how to explain everything. I’m not going to go into every gory detail, but hopefully an overview will help.

It was one year ago. I’d been struggling with depression for a while. Belgium is a beautiful country and most people I met were wonderful, but it wasn’t a good place for me personally. I wasn’t able to work, not because I didn’t try but because there weren’t a lot of opportunities. I lived far away from most of the people I knew and  I have never been a person who was great at making new friends. It was isolating and rough. I had tried to make the best of it, but we had begun to hit a point where I was drowning underneath the rejection letters and the quilts I had made to ignore the rejection letters. Topping it all off, we had been having trouble with our landlord for a while and were working on trying to move out when our lease was up. Again, I’m not going to get into it. Not only is it in the past, but it would not be fair to give you only one side of the story. Let’s just leave it with the one thing I think we would both agree on; neither of us were fans of the other.

Basically, things were stressful. Eventually we found a new house and moved. I struggled a lot during this time. I stopped writing on the blog, I stopped writing on my novels, I stopped sewing. I didn’t read as much. Somedays I barely managed to get dressed. Worst of all, I stopped wanting to do a lot of that.  I just kind of stopped.

Things weren’t always bad. I had a lot of good days in there too. I worked hard at keeping myself as physically healthy as possible with diet and exercise. I even had bursts of creative energy occasionally. I finished a few quilts along the way. I had the inspiration for a novel, and even a desire to go back and finish one I had started a few years ago. Sometimes I thought about coming back here, but I never quite knew what to say. Do I apologize for disappearing? Do I promise it will never happen again? How much of the lost time do I explain? Every last detail? Pretend I was never gone? Or somewhere in the middle? It was too much to think about, so I kept putting it off.

And then things changed. Two months ago, we left Belgium for England. It hasn’t been an easy transition, and not everything has worked out the way we wanted it to but it’s still been good. We like where we are. We’re settling in, and someday I might even be done unpacking boxes. Maybe. I really hate unpacking. But the point is, things were slowly starting to look up. Even when things were really bad, I didn’t feel quite as down. I even started wanting to write again; and not even just wanting to write, I felt like I had something to say again.

So where does that leave me now? I honestly don’t know. I’m not going to promise I won’t disappear again. If I need to be gone for my mental health I’m going to be gone and I am not going to apologize for that. Instead I am simply going to say, today I am here. Tomorrow, I might not be. I hope you can understand that. If not, that’s fine too. We all have to do what we have to do.

But for those of you who come back, who choose to stick it out with me. Thank you. I don’t know if you’ve ever been low, but it means a lot to have others around to help you back up.

Real Life

When I was a kid, summer break was an amazing thing, an escape from school and a return to my real life.  After all, when you are a kid, what is more real, running around with your friends and playing baseball in the dentist’s parking lot across the street (because I am old enough to have once had free reign that way), or sitting in a classroom memorizing dates while trying to countdown until lunch?  Even though I was too embarrassed to admit it at the time, I liked school.  But I loved summer.

Now, instead of summer being my escape, it is a logistical nightmare.  There are new activities and schedules all the time, unusual eating and sleeping schedules, and mad dashes to try and squeeze in trips before school starts.  Summer is exhausting.

This last Monday, my girls returned to school, which means I should be able to return to my real life.

It’s not going well.

It’s hard to really put into words why this year has been tough, mostly because it involves analysis of my life.  The good, the bad, and the stuff I don’t want to think about.

First things first, I love Belgium.  This is a wonderful country, and for the most part I have met nothing but kind and fun locals.  It’s a great place to live.  For someone else.

I don’t talk much about my living here with my husbands job, because there isn’t much to talk about.  I don’t ask questions about his work, unless it is something he needs to talk about or if it effects the entire family and I tell others much less than I know.  It’s a security thing. Little details can mean big trouble.

This particular assignment has been hard.  Our last base was much bigger.  I was able to work, and while living there I began attending school.  I worked hard, and I have now earned three degrees.  Unfortunately there are maybe 10 jobs out here, and while most of them are in my career field (education), I have been unable to secure any of them.  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why that is.  I mean, sure, there are about 50 unemployed spouses out here, but not all of them are attempting to work, and even fewer of them have Master’s degrees, or even degrees at all.  We don’t even want to discuss how many of those degrees are in a field that is even vaguely related to education.  As much as I try not to say it, it’s an open secret that out here there is a lot of politics in who gets the job.  You don’t want to make a big deal of it, because it’s not necessarily the fault of the person who gets hired, and they shouldn’t have to feel bad for getting the job.  But it’s hard.  It can make you feel bitter and angry.  And sometimes a little depressed.  Or a lot depressed.

It takes a toll on your sense of self worth to constantly hear that you are not what anyone wants.

At first I tried to tell myself this was good.  This would be my chance to throw myself in my writing.  I would finish a novel that would be amazing, get published, and fulfill my every dream.  Yeah.  I don’t think you need three guesses to figure out how that has gone.

To be fair, I haven’t attempted to send anything I wrote out in around a year.  My husband has reminded me that no one can publish my work if I don’t let them read it.  All I can think of is the fact that no one can reject my work this way either.  Let me tell you though, it’s hard to keep creative channels open when you have the idea that it doesn’t matter stuck in the back of your mind.  You just know, no one will ever read it, and even if they did, it will only be another rejection.

I’ve tried the little tricks.  Make rejection a goal, forget everyone else and write only for love, follow your muse, never let it get you down.  Whatever.

And I know, I’m suppose to end this on an upbeat note.  Blog posts like this are supposed to like an old sitcom.  Yeah, there is drama and heartbreak, but at the end of 22 minutes it’s all over and things go back to the way they were before.  But sadly, this is real life.  I cannot force myself into a better mindset simply because the post is over.  The best I can do is take a deep breath, go for a bike ride, and try again.

The Problem with Sequels

August is here, and that means the second session of Camp NaNoWriMo is over.  As I have during both November and April, I took up the challenge and set out to write a novel in one month.  During my first attempt, I completed my novel but did not hit my word count.  The second time, I hit my word count, but did not complete my novel.  This month was the least successful for me personally as I achieved neither. My word count was short, and my story was incomplete.  Even worse, it was crap.  My problem was simple, I attempted to write a sequel.

It is a generally accepted the sequels can be iffy.  It either takes the characters and circumstances you loved and makes them better, becoming the best thing ever, or takes them, strips away all that way amazing, and kills the series.  On occasion you can be really lucky and they simply make a lateral movement, not getting better or getting worse.  It is a risk to create a sequel, and not one of my personal strengths.

For this particular attempt, I was attempting a sequel to the novel I had written in April.  You know, the one I didn’t finish.  I knew how it was going to end, but somehow I had been struggling with the words.  I had continued on, because it was a critical scene I could not seem to write.  I assumed I was just feeling the pressure to get it write and a little distance might prove to be helpful.  So, I skipped it and started working from a half finished outline.  Perhaps it should have been a clue that something was off when I couldn’t even seem to finish the outline.

Yes, there were many warning signs I should have heeded, but well.  I didn’t.  I plowed through completing 20,742 words on a story that was wrong.  I had been unable to write the ending to the first novel because it was going to end wrong.  Then, I began again from the wrong ending.

I have had problems writing sequels in the past.  Simply put, I don’t know how to do it.  The times when I felt a sequel was necessary, I began with an idea.  As I asked myself questions, forming who did what and when and how it will all end, the story gets bigger, too big for the one novel I was working on.  Instead of finishing the first novel as a complete tale, I finish it as a section of a story.  Yes, I have finished the tale I began with, but I left it open for the next part.  Instead of beginning, middle, end I know have beginning, middle of the beginning, and end of the beginning, ready to be followed by beginning of the middle or beginning of the end.  Somehow, it ends up being beginning of the awkward transition.

I have only tried two sequels at this point.  The first time, it required moving the characters to a new place, completely different from where they had been before and introducing some new characters who both fit and didn’t fit into the world.  It was so far from where the first one had been, I felt like I never found my footing.  This time, I tried to bring the characters right back to a familiar place, only to realize later, it didn’t make any sense.  They needed to go somewhere different, because the change in their life was too big for them to stay the same.

There are so many great sequels out there in the world.  Let’s be honest, every time you turn around there is another trilogy, and many of them are really good.  It’s hard to tell, am I simply doomed to only successfully write single books, or will I one day find the formula that makes a good sequel?  Either way, it is time to take a break, and work on something different.  Perhaps in time, the second book will come out.

50 Books- Harry Potter

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I had always planned to finished this challenge with this series. It was my shining light at the end of the tunnel, and as it would have me finishing on Harry Potter’s birthday, I thought it was appropriate.  When I took a little break, I intended to keep going for the most part.  Perhaps every other book.  Then I got so excited reading the books I felt like reading, I couldn’t quite get back to ‘required’ reading.  But of course, Harry Potter is different.

50 Books- The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling

Where did I get the books and how many pages does it have?

I have had many copies of these books in my hands over the years.  The first copies I read (only 1-4) were my mother’s, followed by the books I waited in line to buy (5-7).  Later, my husband purchased paperback copies while he was away on work and wanted to read them.  One of the first books we bought when we bought a kindle was this series, and recently Oyster added them to their unlimited book collection.  During our travels, Big One began collecting the series in different languages, including the original UK version, a copy in Italian, and one copy in German.

I read the kindle copies this time, which don’t have page numbers most of the time, so I’m using numbers from other copies. So many versions of these books exist, I’m pretty sure there couldn’t be a standard number of pages.  Book 1-309 pages, book 2-341, book 3-435, book 4-743, book 5-870, book 6-652, and book 7-759, for a total of 4109 pages, if my math is correct.

Have I read this book before?

Yes.  A few times.  I resisted the pull at first.  I had a problem when I was younger with always wanting to avoid doing things that were popular.  I wanted to think I had more sophisticated tastes, and therefore if everyone was talking about something, I couldn’t jump on the bandwagon.  Yeah.  I’ve always been  uncool, but I wasn’t always okay with that.

Then, one rainy day while I was pregnant with Big One, I gave in.  I had nothing to do, no where to go, and nothing to read.  The first two books were read that day, followed quickly by the next two books.  Let’s be realistic, I knew I had been stupid to resist pretty quickly, and I was converted.  I read and reread the books while waiting for the other releases.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was actually the first chapter book I ever read to Big One, as she laid down to take naps as a baby.  Each of the later books were read in one day, and yeah, I know some people are surprised as the books were long, but I was unemployed, excited, and had a husband waiting desperately for his turn to read.  There were definitely a few times when we wished we had bought two copies, but I think it bugged my husband more than me.  Since I read faster, I got to read first.

My husband really wanted Big One to like the series, and recommended it to her several times, but she didn’t get into it on her own.  Just before she turned 11, we started reading the books as a family, one or two chapters a night, and watching the movies when we were done.  Both girls were converted.

I guess you could say I have read the books a little.

What did I already know?

Um, the first time?  Not much. I knew they were crazy popular, and that they had been protested by several religious groups for teaching witchcraft.  I think that was actually think that may have been what finally convinced me to read them.

As I read, and reread the series, there are always things that get a little better, as well as things that don’t make sense.  I find this series to have fewer inconsistencies than others, but there are still always questions.  One of the joys now, is rereading knowing not only how the stories end, but also the details released by JK Rowling that aren’t in the books.  Knowing how Voldemort began, knowing how Dumbledore became the person he was, and knowing what was going on behind the scenes, the stuff Harry didn’t know at the time.  It all makes you view the stories differently.  Basically, the first time through, you get to be Harry and learn it all as you go.  The second time through, you get to be Dumbledore, and know everything.

What do I think now?

A lot has been written about these books over the years, and I’m not sure I have much more to say.  Yes, it is about love, and friendship, and learning, and sacrifice. Yes it is both wonderfully written, and simplistically written.  As the books are for children, they have an easy style, but they also got a little harder as the series went on, showing a respect for the aging of the characters and the readers.  They were well planned, so you didn’t have to deal with information that was unnecessary to know at the time, but still fit within the lore when you learn later.  It’s all good there.  But let me break it down, a little further.

The Sorcerer’s Stone- A great opening to the series, but not my favorite of the series.  Definitely says that Dumbledore is insane for leaving this crap to the kids, and Harry is arrogant for thinking rules don’t apply to him and that he is smarter than everyone else. Of course, if he hadn’t things could have been bad.

The Chamber of Secrets-This one is my husbands favorite, because of all the ‘easter eggs’ hidden here that apply to the rest of the story.  Mostly I just love Dobby, and Lockhart.

The Prisoner of Azkaban- Big One’s favorite, due to the introduction of Sirius. I liked this book, as it revealed a lot about the night Harry’s parents died, and a bit more about Snape’s relationship with everyone.  I also loved Hermione in this book, but it’s hard to pin point why.  Loved Lupin, but I never really liked Sirius.  He was really pretty horrible, yet crazy self-righteous simply because he wasn’t Slytherin like the rest of his family.

The Goblet of Fire-This one is interesting, because it really expands the world to include other schools. The world cup was fun, the tournament was complex and intriguing, and the relationships between Harry, Ron, and Hermione changed a lot, which was necessary.  I also loved how close the bad guy was for the entire book.  I liked that he was close enough to kill Harry, but knew there was a greater purpose to keeping him alive.  The idea that a bad guy should strike just because he can is overly simplistic, as this proves.

The Order of the Phoenix-This one is my favorite.  To me, this is the turning point, the beginning of the end.  Sure, big things happen at the end of book 4, but they are dealing with them in this book.  I like the anger Harry expresses, because really, he should be angry.  He’s 15, and dealing with a lot.  I like the changes in relationships between people, the fighting, the mistrust, and mostly the fear.  This year also had my favorite Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, Umbridge.  People seem to think she is universally hated, and yes, she is horrible.  What I love about her, is how well she is written.  She isn’t pure evil, though she seems to get enjoyment out of the pain she inflicts on others.  Umbridge is someone who feels they are doing right, and is put in a position of power.  No matter what she does, she can convince herself that it is fine.  What is one person’s pain against the pain of thousands?  If this one person behaves, she can control everything, and that is necessary.  I love it, because it is real.  Wars have been fought for centuries because someone is convinced that they know better than everyone else.  This is just that same concept, on a small, personal scale.

The Half-Blood Prince- I think this is a close second on my favorites list.  I really felt for Draco.  He was in a bad place, and he really didn’t have great choices.  You can see how his entire world was falling apart, not only because of what he had been told to do, but also because of the things he had always believed. He really thought the purity of blood was important, and that there was a joy in the necessity of dominating others.  Instead, he was learning that it was hard and painful.  I’d like to think that he changed after all he lived through, but it’s hard to know for sure.

The Deathly Hallows-This is a strong ending to the story, and I liked how the format changed.  It felt like a real, and necessary change.  However, there were several things that pissed me off.  First of all, Dobby.  He deserved the hero’s death he received, but I wish it hadn’t happened.  Second of all, Fred.  I mean seriously?  Maybe because the twins were always my favorites, or maybe because it felt too much like when I lost my own brother, but this one pissed me off.  It was the only death in the series that made me cry.  Finally, Snape.  I hate that he is called a hero in the end.  To me, he wasn’t a hero.  He was a spoiled brat who made horrible choices, and pushed away his best friend.  I get that he loved Lily, and that he hated James for many different reasons, but that doesn’t excuse his actions.  He was willing to turn her son over to Voldemort.  This isn’t about the stupidity of thinking she would be spared, though he should have known better.  I just really want to know what he thought was going to happen after Harry and James died. Did he think Lily was going to just go running off to be a death eater with him?  If she hadn’t hated him at that point, she definitely would have after that, and considering how hard she had been fighting before, I think she would have stopped at nothing to get a little back for what she had lost.  I understand that things were hard for Snape, but he made his choices.  The only part of his memories that I felt were redeeming at all, was learning that taking George’s ear was actually an accident with a misaimed spell.

Should you read these books before you die?

Yes.  Read the books.  Many times.  Love them.  And do yourself a favor.  Take the house quiz at Pottermore before you get married or you will end up like me.  A proud Ravenclaw, stuck living in a house full of Slytherins.


There is no trip to Belgium that would be complete without a trip to Brussels.  It’s not my favorite city in the world, or even in Belgium, but it does have things to see, depending on your interests.

We started with a trip to the Grande Place.  It is an impressive courtyard, which occasionally has other things in there, including the Flower Carpet when the event is happening.


There are a few museums in this area, which are supposed to be great.  Unfortunately the one we wanted  to see was closed the day we went.  Sad.

This area is also incredibly busy.  There are tourists everywhere, taking pictures of everything.  It can be annoying if you let it get to you, but it also opened up an opportunity to entertain Little One.  After all of this travel, she was getting pretty burned out and needed something fun to do.  All of these cameras led the two of us to sprint across the open area, dunking and hiding as we tried to avoid being caught.  We were security agents, working protection detail for her Grandparents.  The mission; to escort these honored guests around Brussels safely, without having our cover blown or getting caught on camera.  She took this mission very seriously.


Forget being a princess.  Give my little one a chance to turn into a badass for the day, and she is in, every time.

After the Grand Place we took off to find a very famous statue.  I had always heard it simply called ‘the little boy peeing,’ but apparently it has a real name that is even more fun, Mannekin-Pis.


I have heard a few different legends as to why this statue is famous, but no one knows for sure why he had a statue.  The only thing that seems to be agreed on, is that the little boy is a beloved icon now.

On a previous visit, the little boy was naked, but today he was wearing one of the 815 costumes he has in his collection, all available to view in the closed museum.  Sigh.

We spent a bit of time wandering around, just seeing the sights and shopping.


All around the Grand Place are cute little shopping streets.  Some focus on restaurants, others on Belgian specialties.  All of them are amusing to at least walk along and see.

After a while we headed out to find Cathedrale des Saints Michel et Gudule.


This beautiful building is Brussels largest church.  It began construction in 1226 and took around 300 years to complete, meaning there are three hundred years of architecture and art included inside.  This is also the church used for important events in Belgium, such as royal weddings or state funerals.


I didn’t have a big wedding, but man, can you imagine walking down that aisle?


Or having your wedding march played on that organ?

The inside of the church was of course remarkable, with stained glass windows.


A solid oak carved pulpit.


Beautiful statues.


And Little One lighting a candle.


Not long after this stop, we were back in the car making the long drive home.

From the Zoo to Waterloo

I know it is beginning to seem as though this trip will never end, and in some ways I felt that during my travels too, but we are almost done. I have written before about the Pairi Daiza zoo outside of Brussels, so I will keep that part of today short. I’m not good at favorites, but I have to say this zoo makes me so happy. There is just so much there, including of course, Pandas.


But this zoo is so big, we found more here that we hadn’t seen in our first trip.  Up a staircase near the Pandas we found a temple.


There were no animals up here, just a place that reflects the culture of the area from where these species originate.


All of this, just so you know more about Chinese cultural influence.  Outstanding. IMG_3374

We also saw an itty bitty baby elephant.  I think this was possibly the smallest elephant I have ever seen, trailing after Mama.  It’s  little hard to see in the picture, but it was still so adorable. After leaving the zoo, we had planned one more stop on the way home.  On our previous trip, we had been looking for a place to stop and eat, finding a McDonalds slightly down the road.  As we pulled off the exit ramp, I happened to notice a large lion on top of a hill.


It seemed pretty obvious that this was a monument of some sort, but we weren’t really sure what it was. After a moments thought, my husband realized where we were, and that we had happened upon the Waterloo Monument, commemorating the Battle of Waterloo.  We filed the monument away for when family came, and moved on with our lives. Fast forward to this trip, and we were heading up the hill, slightly dehydrated, exhausted, but determined to make it up the stairs.


The view from the top of the stairs might give you an idea how much that walk sucked.  I seriously considered rolling down the hill instead of taking the stairs again, but of course, I behaved myself.


The walk was rough, but the view was amazing.  If you look carefully in the distance, you can see them setting up for a re-enactment of the battle.  We were about five days too early for that, but of course if we had gone then, we wouldn’t have had this peaceful moment on the hill.


It was around 20 years ago that my in laws lived in Germany, and unlike England they have been back since then. Somehow in their other trips back they had never been to see their old house.  We drove through several cities on this trip, and I am honestly not sure I remember what they were all called, but I have some pretty pictures from the trip.

We started out driving along the Mosel river.  The river is in a deep, winding valley, with grape vines growing all up and down the hillsides.  Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures of the hillsides.  As a person with motion sickness, I was keeping my focus elsewhere.

Our first stop was at my in laws old favorite Wine House, or weinhaus.  Right along the river, in a small town whose name eludes me at the moment, it was a beautiful place.  We tasted a few wines, but not too many.

I have a complicated relationship with wine.  Technically I love wine.  It is one of the few alcoholic beverages that I can both enjoy the taste of and not get sick while drinking.  I used to think it was the gluten, but research has told me that some of these drinks are actually gluten free.  Wine has never been a problem for me.  The problem comes because I don’t generally like good wine.  You know the bottles of cheap fruit wines that range from 3-5 dollars a bottle?  That is where I find my happy place.  Sweet, fruity, and no taste of alcohol, but still with a happy buzz.  The bottles that are considered ‘good’ wine are completely wasted on me.  And it isn’t because no one has tried.  I have a brother who is a certified wine expert and sommelier.  I don’t have the heart to tell him the wine he brings for me to try is gross.  Everyone says you have to develop a taste for the dry wines, but I just don’t drink often enough to do that, or care enough to try.  I wasn’t sure I would care too much about the wine tasting, but I still brought home a case of a sweet white wine.  I might not drink often, but I am smart enough to know I should buy what I like when I can find it.

From there we traveled on, looking for a small shopping town my in-laws remembered.  The first city we stopped in was called Traben-Trarbach.


This is actually two cities, each on one side of the river with several roads and walking paths connecting the two.


It was hard for me to distinguish between the two cities.  Both seemed to have the same type of old world charm.


One side.


The other side.  I think if I wanted to spend a long time, living there are researching the city histories I would be able to tell you all of the differences, but I didn’t do that.  In a 30 minute stop, only spending time on one side of the river, it was hard to tell.  Because this turned out not to be the city they thought it was, we moved on.


We found this fountain statue in a city called Bernkastel-Kues.  It’s a little up (or down, not sure) the river from Traben-Trarbach and was completely filled with German charm.


We did a little shopping, wandered the streets, and found the place we had been looking for, and ice cream shop.  Now when my in laws told me about Spaghetti Ice, I was on born instantly.  I mean, seriously, anything with ice cream and I am there.  I was definitely curious however, exactly how ice cream made to look like spaghetti would work.


Spaghetti Ice is an interesting thing.  First they place a mound of whipped cream on the plate, and I mean actual whipped cream not the stuff that comes from a spray can.  Don’t get me wrong, I love some spray whipped cream in a pinch, but it is nothing compared to the real stuff.  Next they cover the whipped cream in vanilla ice cream.  I’m not sure what kind of machine they use, but it looks like they pressed the ice cream through one of those play dough noodle attachments.  The ice cream is then topped with fruit, I went with mixed berry but they had plenty of options.  Topping off this bowl of delicious is grated nuts and a waffle cone cookie.  This was crazy amounts of delicious.  I mean seriously.  I was slightly regretful for picking mixed berry towards the end, only because the blueberries and blackberries were almost too sweet, but the rest of it was delicious.

After our ice cream and shopping we stopped at a restaurant on the water where my in laws were happy to order schnitzel.  The view from the restaurant was pretty good, but sadly I didn’t take pictures.  I’m really regretting that now, since as we left we saw a sign declaring it a biker’s schnitzel bar.  I did’t know those existed, but I am so happy to know they do.


Our last day in England, wasn’t really our last day in England, it was our exit day, and just like our trip in, things didn’t go as planned.  We had only planned one stop and admittedly, we didn’t do much research beforehand.

Big One has wanted to go to Oxford University since she was 11 years old.  This may have been partially inspired by Harry Potter, as it is the closest a Muggle like her can get to attending Hogwarts.  And of course, Alice in Wonderland is one of her favorite stories as well.  When she first said this was what she wanted, we were supportive, but skeptical.  I mean seriously, she was 11 years old.  There is plenty of time to change her mind, and as it was inspired by a book, I wasn’t sure it would last.  Two years have passed and while the Harry Potter obsession has faded some into other interests, the desire for Oxford was still there.

We had been staying near Cambridge in a small town for most of our trip, and Oxford was two hours away, on the wrong side of London from where we were going for the Chunnel trip home.  However, as we had no other plans until our 16:20 Chunnel appointment, it shouldn’t have been a big deal.  Just in case, we didn’t tell the kids where we were going, and just started plugging away, leaving early at 8:00 in the morning.

There were two major mistakes made with this trip.  First, we didn’t research.  I had no idea that there are actually about 10 Universities in Oxford.  All I had ever heard was Oxford University, or possibly University of Oxford.  We didn’t know which one we wanted, so that slowed us down a lot.  Second, the city of Oxford has narrow roads and poor parking, so they highly encourage the use of the Park and Ride.  This is a simple enough system; you park in the large parking lot, and take one of several buses going wherever you want to go.  Just as a little tip, pay when you park.  There weren’t signs that I could see, but when we tried to leave, we received major attitude from an attendant.  The machine let us pay just fine, but he made it very clear we should have known better, and we were lucky he hadn’t issued any tickets that day.  I’m guessing it’s a common mistake, but I’m not sure lecturing tourists helps much.

We found the right bus, but I think it was a miracle.  I am generally good with understanding UK accents.  I have a little trouble with Welsh, but I don’t hear it as much, so I think that makes sense.  The attendant who I asked before getting on a bus only had half of his teeth and a VERY thick accent, so while I understood which number bus, I didn’t quite catch what stop we should get off on.  It stressed me a little, but the kids just love being on top of a double decker bus.  The novelty never wears off I guess.

Eventually, we got off the bus, not at the right stop, but a little early.  A very nice girl who had been sitting near us on the bus pointed us in the right direction, and told us which University we wanted.  I guess it is easy to assume the Americans walking around Oxford want the Harry Potter campus, also known as Christ Church.  We were still a little lost for part of the way, but we found the official campus store, bought Big One an University of Oxford hoodie, and were on our way again.


Christ Church is the most well known campus, partially because that was where parts of Harry Potter were filmed.  The Great Hall in the films is actually here, and I have heard that scenes were filmed in some of the corridors and the library, but I can’t find confirmation of that on any official site.


The outside of the building is beautiful.  We had intended on going inside to see the actual campus, but we changed our mind.  We were slightly worried about time, having hit traffic on our way there and then getting lost.  The biggest factor that kept us to the outside grounds was the necessity to pay 7 pounds to visit, and then having the Great Hall closed for restoration.  We would have been paying to see only half of what we wanted to see, and the fees for six people was a little much.  Big One and I are both still very sad that we didn’t see the library, and if we’d known what was coming for the rest of the day, we might have gone ahead and enjoyed a little bit more fun before meeting our fate.  Heck, we might have skipped Oxford all together and gone on the other side of London where the road might have been different.


No.  With how excited Big One was to see the campus, there is no way we could ever have skipped it.  Even the smallest taste and she is more determined than ever to attend.  She knows it will be hard work, and require at least one scholarship, but she wants it so badly she can almost taste it now.

Big One wasn’t the only one to have fun of course.  Little One loved the bus ride back.  By sitting on the very front of the top of the double decker bus, she was able to pretend she was driving.


She loved it, but she wasn’t very good at keeping her eyes on the road.

The rest of our trip was, well, devastatingly horrible.  We spent at least an hour in stand still traffic, working through a construction zone where no one appeared to be working.  By the time we got through that, we were running excessively late to catch our Chunnel appointment.  Even with a two hour window, we weren’t sure if we would be able to make it.  I tried to use my phone to reschedule our appointment, but the website wouldn’t let me do anything.  By the time we arrived, after what should have been a 2 1/2 hour journey and turned into almost 5 hours, we had missed our window.  Fortunately we didn’t have to pay for a full extra ticket, just another 32 pounds to reschedule our time.  We didn’t get on until 20:50, almost nine o’clock at night, and more than four hours after our projected time.  We arrived back in France at about 21:30, and then proceeded to drive the three and a half hour drive in a mere four and a half hours.  We arrived home exhausted, cranky, and hating being in the car.

But of course our travels did’t end there.  No, we had a few more days of traveling.  These are the times when I understand how the Europeans can consider us nuts.  There is no relaxation in this type of holiday.  But of course, if you want to see everything, you have to keep moving.

England Again

This was going to be our last real day in England, our last day to see what we could see.  We all piled in the car again and were off and away.  Our first stop was Castle Rising.


The ruins are in a nice field, with open space, on a beautiful day.  One brief stop in the gift shop and we were ready.


Little One is ready to defend the castle.

The castle is very run down, but then, that’s what you expect from ruins.  There was still a lot to see.


We went around the ledge, Big One taking pictures and Little One switching between charging to attack and come back to defend.  There were great pictures to be taken from this vantage point, but somehow it gave me motion sickness.  Something about the way the narrow ledge moved differently as it went down into a wider hill bottom was more than I could handle.


Still, pretty nice photo to be had.  Inside was slightly more rundown than many of the other castles I have visited, but it was a lot of fun.


Still defending things!

My in-laws listened to the audio guide, but I travel with a very active seven year old.  There is no listening to audio guides for me.


After this we moved on.  There was a pub stop somewhere along the road, but I was hungry and didn’t take any pictures.  Priorities as usual.

After lunch we went to Sandringham House.  When my in-laws mentioned this place, they seemed to assume I knew where we were going.  I guess if you’ve lived in England, particularly around this area you know this is a vacation home for the Queen.


There is space all over to simply look around at the pretty grounds, and you can also take a tour of the inside if the royals are not in residence.  We were told the younger royals were there before we left, but as usual we had no idea where anyone was.  When we went to Rome we thought the pope was in Argentina, but he was giving a speech.  This time we thought someone was there and we wouldn’t be able to go inside, but we were wrong.  No one was home, so we got to tramp through.

There were no pictures allowed inside, which I completely understand.  Quite honestly, this cemented why I would be a horrible royal.  Beyond the visible tattoos, and American habit of saying inappropriate things occasionally, I’m not sure I would be able to hold the position with any dignity.  Their house is beautiful, but the guides mentioned these rooms were actually used by the royals.  It’s not their private areas, but one room Prince Charles uses as an office when he is there, another room is where they regularly have tea.  I would not be cool with people coming through.  I know allowing this brings in income which helps with the upkeep of the house, but still.  It’s my space, get out.

Big One was happy to agree I would be a horrible royal when I whispered that while the guide was distracted we should get a teacup, but of course, I didn’t and I wouldn’t.  Not really.  She did however find it amusing when I mentioned I would have installed an animatronic me in a window that occasionally yelled out, “Get off my lawn!”  Seriously.  I would be the worst royal.  At least my kids are better behaved than I am.

We also walked through the garages where I also took no pictures, and had an in-depth discussion over whether or not the Queen, or any of the royals for that matter, would be asked to pay if they stopped in the ice cream shop for a popsicle.  I meant, technically she owns all the dang ice cream, but I imagine for profits and accounting purposes having her pay would make sense.  We never decided how it would go.


The grounds were beautiful, and I was happy to see them, but the entire thing seemed strange to me.  I know for many of the royals this is simply their life, and for those who marry in, it is not an easy decision to make.  Everyone has baggage, but this is a commitment to more than a person, it is a commitment to a family and a kingdom.  In essence, they become public property.  I was happy to buy a Princess Charlotte cup, which goes well with my Prince George, my Will and Kate wedding, my Diamond Jubilee, and my husband’s Charles and Di wedding mugs.  (Remember, his parents lived in England in the early 80’s.  I kind of wish they had bought their sons William and Harry birth mugs too, but whatever.)  I like the collection and it’s fun, but Charlotte is so little and yet so many people already have her face in their houses.  I know she is never going to be going over to a random person’s house for tea, but how weird would it be to show up and be served a beverage in a cup with your face on it.  I mean, seriously.  This royalty thing is weird, which makes it, and consequently them, fascinating to me.


I felt so much like I shouldn’t be there, yet at the same time, I wanted to see more.  The guides pointed out the corridor that had the private rooms and I wondered briefly how far I could make it past the rope before determining not far enough to see anything good.  I desperately wanted to sit in the old wheelchairs from past queens, or take a ride in The Queen’s Official Racing Buggy, a tricked out golf cart used when the Queen visits the races.  I’m not sure if it is natural human curiosity, knowing a little and wanting to know more, or if it is the secret desire to do something I’m not supposed to.  Either way, it made me think, so I guess that makes it a successful outing.

We made one last stop for the day on our way back to our cottage, mostly just because it was there, to Ely Cathedral.


As with most places I visit, I had no idea about anything in this town or this Cathedral.  We went to see what was there and enjoy what we found, so when we saw a sign, and the top of the church in the distance, we took a turn.


We didn’t stay long, or take many pictures for two big reasons.

First, choir practice was getting ready to start, and they had it posted very clearly that no pictures or videos should be taken during choir practice.

Secondly, I think I was enjoying my day too much.  I mean really, we saw a lot during our in in England, but I didn’t take a lot of pictures in any individual spot.  I like having pictures to remember my time by, but I prefer leaving with a happy feeling that comes from a good day spent in the moment much, much more.

Well, that was almost all of England.  I think I am getting better about telling my travels, but I promise, this isn’t turning into a strictly travel blog.  Eventually, I will catch up, and July’s Camp NaNoWriMo has already started, so I have much to do, say, and write!

Next time, I’ll tell you the trip home, before getting into our adventures in Germany and Belgium.  Seriously, it was a busy two weeks.

England, Day 2

Waking up in Cambridge, we were ready to move on and move out.  My in-laws had a plan to see as much of what they remember from England in two days.  We started by picking up some provisions from a Spar down the street from the hotel, right next to a great fish and chips place.


I was seriously disappointed not to be able to try the food.  I’m not sure I would even care if it tasted good, these people get an A+ in naming their restaurant.

Adding to our quirky morning was Big One’s treat selection.


They sounded disgusting to me, but tasted a little like circus peanuts.  Big One loved them, but sadly we did not see another bag for the rest of our trip.  We would have gone back to the same Spar, but that was the end of our time in Cambridge.

Honestly, there I wasn’t exactly certain where we were for most of the time we were in England.  I saw it on the map at the time, but since then, I have lost track of where we were.  There was a lot of driving, and several places that we drove by without stopping.  We took a brief stop by the base where my Father in Law used to work, and where my husband was born, but I generally make it a habit to not take scenery pictures on military bases.  We also stopped outside the now closed base where they used to live.  There was no way to actually go on the base and see their old house, but the gate where we stopped was the same location where my Father-in-law was working the day the queen came on base.

For lunch we stopped was a pub in the middle of nowhere, the Sculthorpe Mill.


Thirty years ago, this pub was apparently a club of some sort.  People would pay a small yearly fee to be a member, and then they would come down to socialize while consuming beer, playing lawn bowl, and just enjoying their time.  As the story goes, my in-laws were the only American members for the time they lived here, but while they were here, it was somewhat of a second home for them.  When they left, around 1982, above the old slot machine was a large deer head.  My father-in-law left his cowboy hat on top of that deer, promising one day he would be coming back for his hat.  No one was really sure if the hat would still be there, but he made a promise and had to come back to find out.

Sadly, the hat was not there.  In 2002, there was a fire in the pub.  While the outside was mostly fine, the inside was not.  Eight years ago, a family bought the old place, fixed it up, and reopened as both a pub and a bed and breakfast.  The daughter was working while we were there.  There was no way she was old enough to remember the old days when my in-laws used to visit, but she did remember the hat.  It had kept its place on top of the deer until the fire had ruined both the hat and the deer.


The outside of the pub looked great, with a beautiful garden.  I didn’t remember to take any pictures inside, but I had fish and chips to focus on, so I had my priorities straight.  Food before photos.

We took a few more stops that day, but honestly I can’t remember where everything was.


I don’t remember where this church was, but it’s pretty, isn’t it?

We had another long drive to a place in the middle of no where, looking for a World War 2 memorial.  Like many people, my husband’s family served in WW2.  While my grandfather was in Okinawa Japan, my husband’s grandfather served in England at a base that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  Sometime in the 90’s, he came back with many others from his unit to place a memorial.  This was about ten years after my in-laws left, so they had never seen it.


This memorial was really in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hedges.  Seriously, if you didn’t know something was there, you would never think to stop and look.  We got a little lost, and as a result, learned a little history.

Of course my in-laws knew the name of the base where the memorial was supposed to be, but when we put it into the GPS, we ended up at someone’s house.  While asking for directions, we learned that the house was built where the old train station used to be.  During WW2, English bases were named after the closest train station, the station where the military troops would come in, not the actual location of the base.  This was meant to confuse the Nazi troops.  This way if they heard about a base and attempted to attack, they were more likely to attack a train station.  Still a horrible thing, but much less of a strategic loss.

Seeing this memorial meant a lot to my mother-in-law as her father had passed away.  It isn’t a recent death, but of course, when it comes to losing family, one day or seventeen years, it still hurts.  This memorial was more than just a reminder of fallen soldiers.  It was a memorial to a time in her father’s life, first when he fought for something he believed in and later when he came back to remember those he had lost.

After a long day of driving and things that were, well, not kid friendly, we ended at Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park.


By the time we arrived it was 1630, only a half an hour from when the park closed.  The clerks kindly didn’t charge us for the children, as we weren’t going to be able to see much, but the money goes to preservation so we wouldn’t have minded.


There were lots of birds, of course.  It seemed to be mostly ducks, but there were lots of other birds, both  those that I recognized and many I didn’t.  There were also plenty of bees, which sounds bad, but is actually a good thing.  Well, since none of us are allergic to bees it was a good thing.  It’s nice to look after all of the creatures that are part of our ecosystem.


More birds.


Pretty water flowers.


Beautiful scenery everywhere.


And my daughters conquering a wooden spider climber.  Peaceful all around.

We ended the day back with my in-laws English friends having a Chinese and pleasant conversation.  Their grandson was a lot of fun to talk to.  He seemed fascinated with the Americans sitting in the living room, with our weird accents, and phrasing.  Little One had bought some rocks at Pensthorpe, and he was happy to talk about them with her, letting her know the rocks that were common around that area of England.

Even in an uneventful evening, I was still able to find two exciting things.  First, my father-in-law and I walked a short distance to see the church they used to attend.  It was small, with uneven floors and benches that look extremely uncomfortable, but that was what make it charming.  I forgot to bring my phone with me, so I ended up without any pictures but it was pretty.  Even cooler, inside the church they were conducting bell ringing practice.  The church I attended growing up didn’t have a bell.  In fact, most churches I saw growing up didn’t have bells an those that did never seemed to have them ringing.  Inside this small, old, church, six devoted adults worked hard to pull the strings, ringing the bells to created a beautiful rhythm.  It was kind of beautiful.  I may not have known their names or what they did for a living, but I learned they spent every Wednesday night in a church for bell ringing practice. It was a part of their story that made me what to know more.

The most exciting thing about the night was actually something small.  Many people might not even think it is that big of a deal.  Trust me, it was exciting.  I was offered tea by an actual, real, English woman.  She brewed a pot in her kettle and gave me a piping hot cuppa.  It was both exciting (admittedly in a stupid way) and terrifying.  I drink tea all the time at home, almost every night.  I love tea, and I drink it in many different ways, depending on what kind of tea it is.  However, being offered real English tea by a real English person, I was slightly terrified.  Was I supposed to drink it black?  Was it okay to say yes to sugar and milk?  What about the little bit I didn’t quite have time to finish before we left?  Would she be hurt that I didn’t finish it, or think I didn’t like the tea?  Knowing tea is important in England, it seemed like a dangerous thing to be involved in.  I think we all remember how upset England was when those revolutionaries in Boston didn’t like the tea. The last thing I wanted to do was start another international incident over tea.

Of course, I was overthinking everything,  and she was a delight.  In fact, I’m not sure she would have cared however I liked my tea, or even if I had refused to have any.

Well, we still have more England stories to tell, so I better get moving.  Until next time.