Monthly Archives: November 2012

Taking Things for Granted

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Here I am, reflecting already. Perhaps not so much on the learning or the culture, but still, I am reflecting. On a subject that is probably quite important to us all, but one we, in Canada, may take for granted.
Toilets.
Sometimes, when we use a public “washroom” at home, we may be cranky because the toilet paper is not of a high enough quality, or there are not enough stalls, or perhaps they have run out of paper towel or something. But there are certain things you can count on.
Like a seat.
Seems pretty basic, right? Not an added luxury or anything. Well, in many areas of Europe, it apparently is a luxury, and one not often bestowed on us frequent users of public toilets. The holes on the back of the toilet in which the screws should be, holding the seat in place, are there, but no seats. Why? It is unpleasantly cold and uncomfortable to sit on the rim of a toilet, and very nearly impossible to squat over it. So, what’s it all about? Is it a conspiracy; all the Europeans got together and decided to remove the seats as some twisted practical joke?
We would walk into a Motorway Services WC, and if it was really clean and modern, we would breathe a sigh of relief. Until we opened the stall door and realized the seatless toilets are not just a feature of old, outdated, or rundown bathrooms. They are also prominent in the newer ones. I cannot understand it.
But what I understand even less is a public bathroom without soap. We came across many. And I don’t mean the dispenser had run out of soap, I mean there was no dispenser to begin with. This is not just uncomfortable, it is disgusting. Unhygienic. Unhealthy. Gross.
But not quite as gross as the toilets we encountered just outside the Mont Blanc Tunnel, on the border of France and Italy. Yes, the classic and ought-to-be-long-forgotten holes in the floor. We had been driving about five hours when we got to these ones, and it was only our second day on the Continent. It did not bode well for the remainder of the trip, but thankfully this was our only altercation with these archaic toilets. Or could you actually call them toilets? Not really, I suppose. A toilet is an actual thing, whereas these are just the absence of a thing.
Even after five hours in the car, one of our children simply refused to use these. And really, who can blame her? I mean, in this day and age, there’s just no need for it, is there?

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Home Comforts.

We are back in England, and the gray, misty drizzle is strangely comforting. It means we have survived another leg of our adventure, and now we can settle for a bit in a place that feels like home. We can relax, reflect upon our experiences, learn from them, and see how long it takes the wanderlust to set in! And of course, we will have to start planning for the next phase.
The past couple of days has been full. We left Paris in a whirlwind – the taxi had arrived half an hour before we expected, so it wasn’t exactly a calm exit. So much so, that we left without loading the map into the ipad, so actually getting out of the city once we got to our car was not easy. Quite stressful, in fact. But we did it, and made it to Vimy Ridge without so much as a wrong exit. I won’t mention our attempts at getting from there to Bruges; it will suffice to say we are not yet navigators up to Liah’s high standards. I keep telling her she just has to trust us, but she says every time she does that, we lead her to nowhere. Ok then.
Anyway, seeing the Government of Canada signs upon our arrival at the Vimy Memorial was kind of exciting, and we had the unique experience of being the only ones there for a brief time. It was, again, a cold, gray and misty day, and as we approached this isolated and remarkable monument, we tried to imagine the conditions at this ridge during the war. The freezing mud in the trenches, the loneliness and fear of the soldiers. The interpretive centre gave us more insight with several artifacts and a really informative video that helped the kids understand what it might have been like at this time in history. The whole experience was very moving, and made us feel proud to be Canadian. Although Mairi did argue that we didn’t really have any right to Canadian pride since we were “mostly British” anyway, and our relatives didn’t even live in Canada then. Whatever. Next.
Bruges was fantastic. Like a postcard. What can be bad about a place famous for beer, fries, waffles and chocolate? Hard to beat. For a great summary, check out mairionthemap.wordpress.com.
And now, we are almost home, and the kettle is on, apparently, ready for a cup of tea – expect more reflections later!

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Sorry, Paris is Closed Today.

I have blogged before about the frustrations of getting used to the different hours of opening in Europe. And we have been more aware of that lately, and have tried to plan around it. So, some Paris museums are closed on Mondays, others on Tuesdays. The palace at Versailles was closed on Monday. The famous ice cream parlour, as we discovered yesterday, is closed Monday and Tuesday…you get the idea. We thought we had it all figured out, so here was our plan for today. Get up and go to the Catacombs (which we took a few days to get psyched up for, making sure everyone was ok with it, building a little spooky excitement, and all that), then head to an actual destination for lunch (a recommendation from our Paris Guru) to avoid a fiasco like yesterday’s, and then go down to Champs d’Elysee and end up at Arc de Triomphe (and go up it for a great view of twilight Paris). We are excited. My only reservation about the plan is the number of steps it involves – at least another 1000 – because my calves are pretty sore from yesterday’s steps.
So, out we go this morning and head to the subway. I have checked online to make sure everything is open. All good. We have to take two lines to get to the Catacombs, for a total of 23 stops, so we have some time to chat about why the bones of 6 million Parisians are actually stacked down there, and what it might be like. We eventually come up from the Metro and walk aimlessly for about 10 minutes looking for the entrance, which I know from my research is tricky to spot. We ask someone in the street, and we are there within the next five minutes. We are greeted by this sign:

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Part of me is really disappointed, and part of me thinks God is trying to protect me from all the steps. We decide an early lunch is the cure for this, and get back on the Metro for another 16 stops to reach Saint-Denis. It’s a good thing the Catacombs weren’t open or we would have been having lunch at supper time. It took a while, but we had an interesting walk around the neighborhood. We found it in the end and sat down for a good meal, and tried to get warmed up by drinking a little red wine with it. I don’t think we drank enough, because we were still chilled when we left.
OK, it’s off to the next destination. We have a little time to kill, so we decide to walk down to the Louvre and just look at the outside. Then we are freezing again, so we hop back on the Metro and get off closer to the Arc de Triomphe. We try to sneak past the Disney Store when we get off the train, but it’s just too bright and inviting in all its Christmas finery, so we have to go in for twenty minutes or so. Not all that cultural, but a fun time for the kids. Out for another walk, and then when we get cold again, we slip into Jack Wolfskin for a bit to feel the warm cozy fleeces and try on hats and mittens as if we intend to buy them.
Finally, we make it down to the Arc, take a few pics, check out the eternal flame, and head for the entrance so we can go up to the top and see what the “etoile” is really all about. Here’s the sign this time:

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I’m starting to think I may have inadvertently jinxed the day by complaining about my calves, because there goes the other attraction with the many many steps! Someone clearly didn’t think I was up for it!
The kids are a little disappointed and we are all really tired, so we get back on the Metro and end our day on our familiar Moulin Rouge corner, do a little souvenir shopping, and grab something for supper.
We still had a great day, but it was not quite what we expected, and I think Paris was pretty successful overall. Even Liah didn’t hate it.

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A Day In Paris

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I am way too tired to write this blog, and my feet are still complaining quite loudly from climbing way too many steps, but it has been such a huge day, I feel I must make a valiant attempt at recording a bit of it in case it gets lost in tomorrow.
I will start at the beginning – The Eiffel Tower. Mairi insisted we walk up it, even though there was hardly a line-up at all for the elevator. Not surprisingly, there was nobody in the line-up for the tickets to walk up…anyway, walk we did. The 670 steps not only gave us our day’s workout, but also provided some pretty great views of Paris. My legs were shaking just a little when we got back down, but by the time we had done the obligatory photos in front of the tower, they were back to normal and we were off to Notre Dame. The plan was just to have a look and move on, but we were drawn inside by the fact that it, too, was pretty quiet. It is a stunning cathedral, and the girls loved pointing out features they had seen in The Hunchback of Notre Dame – even the floor is the same as the one Esmerelda was thrown onto, apparently. And the gargoyles are the very ones that befriend Quasi Modo. Imagine.
Quick walk to Pont Neuf so Liah could see where Madeline fell into the Seine and was rescued by Genevieve, the dog, in the Madeline books. Hard to believe she could have survived that 50 foot fall into such a fast-moving river. Mmm.
All good so far. Then began the slightly less successful part of the day. We walked to the Latin Quarter because the guide book said it was full of street performers and really cool places to grab a quick, cheap, but good lunch, and we were pretty close by….not. It looked close on the map, but we miscalculated and ended up walking for about 45 minutes. We were all getting very tired, and the kids were really hungry by this time. When we finally arrived at THE street, it was kind of lame. Nothing much happening, and no real lunch options we felt we had time for. We ended up getting a sandwich at a boulangerie and eating it standing up.
By this time, Liah was done, so we revived her by telling her about the world famous ice-cream maker with 70 flavours of ice cream. Yay! Then we took a metro back to the islands, walked to the ice cream place, and found that it only opened Wednesday to Sunday. Oh.
Well, while we’re in the area, we might as well walk up to the Pompidou Centre to check out all the street artists. That might be fun, right? And we’ll get a treat somewhere else. But there were none. No street artists. No treats. Wrong time of year, perhaps?
By this time, we are all getting pretty exhausted, a little cranky, and feeling like going back to our apartment for a rest, but I had received a text from my friend Kim that morning telling us that we should go see her friends Andrew and Jules in Place de Tertre. Just go up and knock, she says. They have a great view of Sacre Coeur – it will be an experience. So, since we haven’t taken any of her advice so far today, and I dread her wrath, we decide to push ourselves a little further. We make our way via Metro to the nearest stop, which involves climbing about 200 steps to get back above ground. My feet are not happy. Neither are my legs.
Then, we check the map, determine which way to go, round the first corner and see in front of us about another 500 steps to get to Montmarte and Place de Tertre. I moan a little inside my head. Well, actually, I moan quite loudly outside my head. But I meant to moan inside my head.
By the time we actually get to the apartment (which is on the top floor of an elevator-free building, naturally), I am in a lather. Which is good in a way, because it’s pretty cold out and now I’m warm. But I’m literally dripping in sweat, which is not so great. We knock on all three doors at the top because we don’t actually know which it is, and luckily only one door opens. We say we are looking for Andrew and Jules, and the guy looks at us blankly, but says yes, he is Jules. Then the other guy comes to the door and quickly realizes we are the Canadians sent by Kim. We are welcomed warmly and ushered in. And we spend a fascinating hour looking at their incredible view, and chatting about various things. Including the fact that Andrew used to be the Queen’s butler. What?!?!
He shows us a photo album with pics of him and Princess Diana, and other members of her family, tells us funny stories about the Queen Mum, and other Royals. Oh, and more pics too. Of him and Maggie Thatcher, who was apparently not all that “Iron” when he worked for her. And then there was King Fayed of Saudi Arabia. And the Onassis place where he used to vacation with Christina. Oh, the list goes on. The girls are enthralled. Well, we all are really.
And then there’s Jules – Paris hairstylist to the stars. You know that Shakira video for She Wolf? Guess who did the hair? Rihanna’s colourful funky styles? Yep, Jules. As if the girls weren’t impressed enough by Andrew’s scar he got from the pet black panther in Kenya! (Oh, a whole other story…)
And in their down time they offer Secret Romantic Dinners Parisian style. So if you ever want to propose to your significant other with a backdrop of the Sacre Coeur, this is your big chance! Or maybe you want to celebrate another special occasion in style – this is something totally unique and especially tailored to what the customer would like. Amazing. I might come back someday when I’m a bit more up-market.
Anyway, after having a cup of tea and a scone, and using their bathroom/art gallery, we are feeling revived and refreshed. We venture back out into Montmarte and stroll around as it starts to get dark, basking in the afterglow of our little adventure. We decide to walk home, and pick up some great food on the way.
Ten hours after leaving our apartment this morning, we are back, eating our meal. My only regret of the day? I really should have asked Jules if he could do a little something with my self-imposed mullet-like hair style. I could have come out of there a whole new woman!

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What do you mean, Budget?

We left Tarragona this morning, a fabulous little city I will write more about later.
Because tonight I need to discuss other things.
We are en route to Paris, and so we calculated seven hours from Tarragona, and booked an Ibis hotel just off the autopiste to break up the trip. We made great time, and to Liah’s astonishment, did not get lost once (because we are just that kind of people, if you haven’t heard). Anyway, we pull off the motorway, and five minutes later we are in the parking lot of our hotel. Perfect. We get our bags out (which are mostly long-life grocery bags and garbage bags), and head inside, anxious to check in and freshen up. The lobby is bright and spacious, clean white decor with accent splashes of fuchsia and lime green. There is a kids play room right there in the lobby, and posters of the rooms on the walls celebrating their “thick comfortable duvets”, all decorated in classic cream and taupe. The girl at the reception desk doesn’t speak English, but we manage to check in. I feel good.
Until I gather the girls and head for the hallway marked chambres, and she calls out, “no, no”, and points outside across the parking lot, “la bas”, she says, “Ibis Budget”. Hmmm.
Ok, probably not much of a difference, right? I mean, this reception area is so nice…perhaps we wouldn’t get the extra thick duvets, but that would be ok…it’s not cold or anything.
So, off we trudge across the parking lot and into the Budget version of the Ibis, where the reception is actually a machine into which you put your credit card, and it assigns you a room number and a code for the door. Maybe that’s how they save money, I think hopefully. We already have our code since we checked in next door, so we find the elevator and ascend to our two almost-adjoining rooms.
They are not exactly taupe. More of a nicotine-stain sort of colour. Which may be the case since there are ashtrays on our bedside table, and the room smells faintly of stale smoke. The carpets (ish) are blue with a variety of darker areas in different shapes and sizes. I wonder if those could have anything to do with the fact that you can bring in a pet for three extra euros?
The shower cubicle opens into the room. The sink is right there in the room. And the toilet is in yet another cubicle that is so small I have to leave the door open when I pee because my knees won’t fit in.
Not only is the duvet not extra thick, it is not even there. We do, however, have a 1970s bedspread in an orange and blue splatter print. It’s shiny. And the skinny little bunk above the double bed is not yet made, but it has a scratchy blue blanket and a sheet waiting for your sleeping pleasure. If you can get up the spindly metal ladder.
I want to go back to what I now know is The Ibis Styles. But we already have our bags in, and the kids have used the bathroom, and to be honest, princess syndrome is not what I want to teach them on this trip. So I decide to suck it up. I am feeling grossed out, but trying to hide it. Then Dev farts and as I am about to utter the usual admonishments, Mairi interrupts me, “don’t worry about it, Mum, it will probably improve the smell of the room”. You know it’s bad when…
We decide to go out to eat to kill some time before bed, and make ourselves (me) feel better. But it’s Remembrance Day, and the only place within two miles that seems to be open is McDonalds. Oh, Boy. McCheval anyone? We go, and even Mairi is hungry enough to order chicken nuggets, and she has refused to eat there since she was very small on the grounds that it is not actual food. Liah wants to play in the softplay area, so based on what we have to go back to, we let her. By the time we leave, I feel like things are crawling on my skin, and if I didn’t have kids for whom I must set an example, I would stamp my foot and demand we get a room in the duvet-filled sister hotel next door. I have a Visa card, and this is what it’s for.
Instead, I have cuddled my littlest girl to sleep, and connected to the (miraculously) free wifi to write this blog.
I have to go to bed soon because we have a long driving day again tomorrow and my senses need to be sharp so I can navigate us out of Liah’s bad books. I am determined to convince her that we are not, in fact, that kind of people.
We will be leaving way earlier than necessary.

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Silly Signage

I’m having a love-hate relationship with signs. They frustrate me, but they sometimes make me laugh too. There are many that I just can not read because they are not in my language. Especially those flashing ones that hang above the motorways to tell you of some unintelligible emergency situation up ahead that you should probably avoid. Only the people who speak the native language are able to avoid those particular emergencies. Which is fair. Or not. And then there are the less life endangering, but no less frustrating ones that tell you how to get out of the underground parking lot. Or indeed, how much the parking lot actually costs. Case in point:

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Yes, you read it correctly. It costs .044328 euros per minute. Hmmm. What if you only stayed for 3 minutes? Is there a coin for that?
There have also been a few signs I can’t read even though they are in my language. Now, I certainly do not expect everything to be in my language, but I’m thinking if you are going to bother getting a multilingual sign professionally made, you would make sure the English version was actually English? Seems to make sense, right? It is hilarious how many “English” signs there are with random French words thrown in where an English one was seemingly unavailable. Spot the odd word out on this one:

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And now for my personal favourite, which will always make me laugh, despite the fact that it took us some time to figure out how to get gas at this self-serve pump near Sauto with its carefully crafted, and very friendly sign in three languages. Take a look at this one:

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Back on the Horse in Barcelona

Well, we took the train to Barcelona yesterday, a trip the kids had been dreading due to the fact that every person we’ve met over the past month who has been there has had a tale of woe about theft, a touchy subject with us still. We originally intended to go by train while we were in Sauto, and perhaps stay a night. In some ways, I wish we had, because a day wasn’t nearly enough.
Anyway, we knew this first venture back to a big city was important. The kids were convinced we would just spend the whole time lost, wandering aimlessly looking for the sights we had wanted to see, but couldn’t. They were also fairly sure we would be “pick-pocketed”, and our bag would be grabbed off Dev’s back (to the point that two of them held onto it for most of the day). They also suspected that when we returned to our car, parked in Tarragona, a window would be smashed, and whatever random junk was in it would be gone. So, Barcelona had a lot riding on it. It was our “getting back on the horse” moment.
Knowing this, we did our research thoroughly. We spent a couple of hours on line planning our route, finding the locations of the Gaudi buildings we wanted to see, getting directions to the Picasso Museum, studying the Metro lines, jotting down potential train times to come back to Tarragona…we even packed a lunch to avoid wasting time looking for a good spot to eat. We were well prepared.
And I am happy to report, it was a success. We did not get robbed, or lost, and we saw everything we expected to see. We walked miles – but none of them were aimless – found our train station easily, and negotiated the Metro without a hitch.
Barcelona is a beautiful city, and despite its size and reputation, it seemed infinitely more friendly and well kept than Rome or Athens. We have been so impressed by the tree-lined pedestrian areas in Spain, like La Rambla in Barcelona, and even Rambla Nova in Tarragona. There are lots of benches in pleasant areas, parks and green spaces, huge squares, and graffiti has been at a minimum compared to most places we’ve been.
The Gaudi buildings were amazing, and to add a little appeal for the kids, very Dr Seuss-like. We did regret not being able to go into La Sagrada Familia though. Massive lineups we just didn’t have time to wait in. In retrospect, it probably would have been a better idea to wait for that rather than go to the Picasso museum. It really wasn’t as big a hit as the Dali one, even though the two older girls spent an inordinate amount of time on his early work, looking at each painting from every possible angle, and seemingly examining every detail. We had to go drag them out of the first three rooms (knowing there were 12 more to go). We needn’t have worried though, because they kind of whizzed disgustedly through the last rooms, the ones with his later works. Why would someone with such immense talent decide to start painting like a little kid, anyway? Mad.
We have since done a little more research into Cubism, and so it all makes a bit more sense. But still, at the risk of sounding like a total philistine, I have to agree. I don’t really get it.
Anyway, all in all, we had a great day, and we are all breathing a little easier about our impending trip to Paris now that we are back on the horse!
Having said that, I asked the girls to write a persuasive piece about Barcelona this morning, and although two of them were positive, the third one was entitled, No. First sentence?
Barcelona is not a good place for a nine year old to visit…

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Things You Wouldn’t Necessarily Do Under Normal Circumstances

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There are definitely some things I wouldn’t do if I were at home. But here on the road, it’s different.
For example, I would never decide to cut layers into my own (dry) hair because it was really flat one morning. And as a follow up to that, I also wouldn’t snip a little more off here and there every time my hair “didn’t go right”. Nope, I wouldn’t do that.
Another thing I wouldn’t do is let my kids go for days without showering. Or brushing their hair. Or changing their clothes. And when they said something like “Mom, I think this is dirty – I’ve worn it four days in row”, I would not say, “Unless it has stains all over it, it’s clean”.
And back to me. I wouldn’t leave the house without blot powder, eye liner and mascara. It’s been over a month since my shiny face saw any blot powder, and my eyes have all but disappeared due to lack of eyeliner.
I wouldn’t use toilets without seats.
I wouldn’t feed my kids a pack of cookies for lunch.
I wouldn’t “do math” while carving a pumpkin. (But just in case you ever want to, the possibilities are endless! Circumference, estimation of number of seeds, counting by 100s…the list goes on.)
I wouldn’t watch Danse Avec Les Stars on tv. Or Legally Blond in Spanish. Just because.
I wouldn’t inadvertently spend £15 on a big hunk of something I don’t even like at a French open market.

And that’s it for now. Although there are many more. I think this post will warrant a Part II.

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Firsts…

On the eve of our leaving the Pyrenees Orientales, I feel compelled to mention some of the previously unmentioned amazing things we have experienced here. There have been many firsts for me. Here are just a couple of them:

Cave Paintings – always been on my bucket list, so when the boss of this trip (you know who you are) reminded me of some fairly local prehistoric caves, off we went to the Ariage to visit Grottes de Niaux, an amazing cave whose enormous mouth right on the side of a mountain is visible from the road below. This experience was a little different from the one I blogged about earlier. This system of caves was in more of a natural state – uneven, sometimes slippery floors, no lighting other than the flashlight provided at the beginning of the tour, and a few fairly narrow tunnels. It was a bit of a hike to get to the parts with the actual paintings, and along the way there was some “modern” graffiti on the walls. As in, 1605ish. Crazy. At that time, the people doing the graffiti didn’t know they were defacing prehistoric paintings because they didn’t know there were prehistoric people! It’s nuts. Really hard to get your head around. And when you get to the Salon Noir, where the really spectacular animal paintings are, it is just mind-boggling. They didn’t have language. They couldn’t count. But they could paint. And not just paint, but paint well. The likeness to the animals they depict is incredible. 13,000 years ago! Remember back when we were amazed at the age of the city of York? Built by Romans and Vikings? That was only 2,000 years ago. Like I said, mind-boggling.

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Hot Springs – another phenomenon I’ve never experienced. So, off we went the other day to one of the many thermal baths in the area. We would have taken this one in sooner except that we had no bathing suits, but this particular place rented bathing suits, so that’s what we did. Weird, yes, but better than buying a $50 suit I’ll never wear again. And WAY better than Dev buying a Speedo, because that’s what the men-folk have to wear in there! It was great. Good for a few giggles due to the rented bathing suits, but all forgotten once we submerged. The sensation of being in steaming hot water while surrounded by the chill of the autumn air was both restful and invigorating. We could see the snow covered mountains all around us, and actually, we wished it was snowing, because that would have made the experience even more of a paradox. Anyway, we loved it, (what’s not to love?), and the kids loved it, despite some initial protestation from the one who does not like hot water.
Ugh, it makes my muscles feel all soft and floppy – like I can’t stand up. It’s called relaxing. Give it a shot. It’s good for you.

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There’s more to say, but now I need to pack. A bientot!

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Time to Move On

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If it wasn’t already obvious that we’ve all been using our little mountain house as a bit of a crutch, it is glaringly so now. The kids are sad – they don’t want to leave. We are all pretty grumpy, in fact. And the long and the short of it is, we had a bad experience, and this place has been the embodiment of security since we arrived. It is tiny, safe, and we were here long enough for it to become home, and therefore, comfort. It was just what we all needed to recover and regroup.
And now it’s over and we’re going back on the road tomorrow. The little one is scared of things going wrong, the big one doesn’t want to go to any big cities, and the middle one doesn’t want to leave her dog friends, who have been the real life replacement for the ones she lost in Rome. This tranquil village has reminded them of their own home, so that makes it harder for them to leave too. You know when you go on vacation, and you have a great time, but when it’s over, you’re just ready to be home again? It’s like that, only they aren’t going home, and sometimes they get kind of mad about that. And sometimes I do too.
Obviously, I’m not looking for any sympathy here, and I haven’t forgotten how unbelievably lucky we are to be doing this. It is the experience of a lifetime, and even if it doesn’t feel like that every single day, especially for the kids, it is. As a friend and travel-with-kids veteran told our girls, “you may not appreciate this trip right now, but when you’re older you’ll realize how cool it was of your parents to do it!”. And I guess that there are days when we all need to hang onto that one. Because sometimes we are homesick, sometimes we are tired of our own company, sometimes we are scared, sometimes we really miss our family and friends, and sometimes we really just want someone else to figure it all out for us.
Because, you know, as great as it is, it can be pretty exhausting. And I’m sure if you’re reading this after getting in from an eight hour work day, you’re scoffing contemptuously right now, but I’m all about the honesty of this experience, and I’m telling you, it’s not all raindrops and roses. Most of it is, but not all of it.
So there.

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