What Was Your Favourite Part?

It has been some time since the last blog post, but I have been re-inspired since returning home by the number of people who have told me how much they enjoyed reading it. It’s funny to run into acquaintances, friends, and neighbours who have been reading along with our travels, because you never really know who’s out there while you’re actually writing. And when you see people for the first time, it really changes that initial conversation completely. You start in a totally different place.
People who have followed the blog ask about a specific place, or tell me how much they could relate to a certain post, or how much they laughed over me hiking in the Pyrenees in flip-flops, for example. Because they know where we were, they know which parts were good, and which were not so good. They understand the joy, or the frustration, of the experiences that moved me to write.
People who haven’t been following along ask me, “what was your favourite part?” And I am struggling to come up with an answer to that one. The girls have said the same thing – the experience seems so vast, that it is very difficult to come up with a favourite part. Or even a favourite place.
I don’t think there is anywhere I can honestly say I would never want to go again; almost every place we visited seemed to be cut too short, if anything. Even after spending several months in the UK, I feel like we only just scratched the surface. Some places were like appetizers; we spent such a short amount of time in them, and in a way, it would have been smarter to see less, but give ourselves more time in each place to really absorb the culture. On the other hand, even being exposed briefly to places like Cinque Terre and Santorini makes me want to come back for the main course some other time. Places as magical as those inspire you to plan future travel. And to be honest, some places are well worth a visit, but you wouldn’t want to stay longer than it takes to see the iconic sights. Venice, for example – a must see, but too busy and expensive to spend more than a day or two. And Athens – again, you are sort of obliged to go for its historical and cultural importance, but really, you wouldn’t want to stay! You really wouldn’t.
Anyway, I do have a lot more to say about this trip. There are still many unrecorded places and adventures. Sometimes, too much happened in the space of a few days to blog about it all. Sometimes, I didn’t have any Internet for a while, and when I finally did get it again, we had moved on. Sometimes, I didn’t have time. And sometimes I just couldn’t be bothered.
But it’s not over. And I look forward to writing about the missing bits. And the learning that no doubt will continue for a long time, despite the fact that we are home. Sort of. Actually, I wonder if it’s possible to seamlessly morph this roadschooling blog into a building-your-own-house blog.
I have a feeling there may be some interesting moments to come…
Cinque Terre

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Santorini

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Venice

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Athens
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And Athens

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Home

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Grits, Girlfriends and Garburators: Culture Shock Stateside

When we set out to travel Europe, we knew we would be in for a bit of culture shock, but heading back to our own continent seemed like going home. Even though we were going to the Southern US, and we live in Atlantic Canada, I think we all expected it to feel more familiar.
And to a certain extent, it does, (they speak English and drive on the right side) but I, for one, was unprepared for it to feel quite so different. I guess I expected to recognize stores and restaurant chains. I didn’t expect to have to search for a grocery store (Publix? Who knew?) or a pharmacy. And I did not expect there to be fresh fruit and vegetables in Walmart.
And here are just a few of our other unexpected moments of culture shock:
On our first morning, we went out for breakfast and I ordered tea. It came with ice cubes. And as the girls inspected the menu a little more closely, they told me I could have had “teamonade” instead! But if I actually wanted a cup of tea (which I did) I would have had to order “hot tea”.
Then when I ordered my omelette, our server drawled, “you want grits with that?”. Maybe. If I actually knew what they were. But probably not.
The next day, out for lunch, the waitress bounced over to our table, and said to our reserved little girls, “Hey Girlfriends, how y’all doin’? Can I start y’all off with a soda?” Might as well have been a different language.
And then there was the garburator in our apartment. USA’s answer to composting. Shoving food down the sink so it can be cleaned and treated along with waste products. Hmm. You’d think that would use quite a bit of energy…

So there you go. Different. I mean, to be fair, I always get cranky when Europeans or Brits assume I’m American, and I am quick to point out the difference. So why did I expect them to be the same?

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The Best Laid Plans

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You would think, after all the travelling we’ve done this year, that I would know better. That I would never assume things will always go smoothly. That I would have a contingency plan.

You would think, for example, that when booking a flight from the UK to Florida, I would realize that it wouldn’t necessarily go on time. And if it did happen to be delayed by an hour or four, that our arrival, which, in Florida time, still sounded reasonable, would actually be midnight British time.

So if we had been up since 4:45am, we might be tired-ish by then. So having to pick up a rental car and drive for 2 1/2 hours to our final destination might not seem like such a good idea.

You would think, that being the seasoned travel-planner that I am, I would have just booked us into an airport hotel, or somewhere nearby. Just in case.

Because arriving at your hotel 23 hours after you begin your day might create a few problems – people might get grumpy, or irritable, or so exhausted that their immune systems succumb to the 12 hours of plane-germs and they spend the first three days of their dream beach vacation in bed.

You would think.

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Geometry, Naturally.

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Two of our girls are currently studying geometry, so they are all about shapes right now. Walking by a fence the other day brought on comments from Darragh about parallel lines, a sidewalk stone evoked observations of perpendicular sides and right angles, and we just measured the perimeter of our cheese and crackers at snack time!
But the best one yet, I think, was a recent trip to Malham Cove in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The place itself is beautiful; you walk across sheep-manicured fields and descend into a valley flanked by an 80 metre high curved limestone crag formed by a waterfall after the last ice age. It’s when you climb up to the top that the geometry happens; it is covered by limestone “pavement”, and is one of the few places in the world you can see this pattern of fissured rock known as clints and grykes. The actual lumps of limestone (clints) are shaped by deep fissures (grykes) formed by the flow of water from Malham Tarn, and deepened by the slightly acidic rainfall. Liah pointed out, and then jumped on, a trail of triangles, parallelograms, kites, trapezoids, squares and rectangles – not because I asked her to, just because she noticed, and we had the shared experience of learning the names of these shapes earlier in the week. So much more fun than drawing them on dot paper, and well worth my two days of very stiff calf muscles…

I guess geometry is perhaps the easiest math to make “real” for students, but I wonder if they would be making this many real-life observations if we hadn’t actually shared this learning with them? Roadschooling is giving us a unique opportunity – because we are so in tune with what our kids are learning, we can help make it relevant for them. And sometimes we don’t even have to help – it just happens naturally. In nature, even!

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I can feel those sore calves coming on!

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And did I mention scenes from Harry Potter Deathly Hallows were filmed here?

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The Pencil Museum. Yes, that’s what I said.

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I’m back in The Lake District again. Because I couldn’t leave it without telling you about the Cumberland Pencil Museum. Don’t scoff – it’s really interesting. Yes, it is.
So, on a cold and rainy afternoon in Keswick, when we don’t really feel like hiking, we decide to try out this place. It’s exterior is pretty uninspiring, just on the edge of the town centre with the actual pencil factory as its backdrop. And when we first go in, it doesn’t seem that much better, really. But we pay our entrance fees, and the kids are offered a quiz to complete as well as a sketching contest to do on the way around, and we are off and running. We go through into the first room, which turns out to be the only room, and I wonder how long we will actually be able to stay out of the rain – it doesn’t seem like it will take more than half an hour to get around everything.
I am wrong.
The kids explore the first display and learn about graphite mining and the actual process of making a pencil, spurred on to learn more by the quiz they have been given. Legend has it that after a huge storm in the area, Borrowdale farmers discovered a black material under some uprooted trees which turned out to be graphite. And the rest is history. A cottage industry materialized, and eventually led to the UKs first pencil factory in 1832. Then we look at the way coloured pencils are made, which is actually pretty fascinating. In fact, the whole place is pretty fascinating.
And because we are not in a rush to get back out into the rain, we explore it in great detail. We see the jewel encrusted pencil made for the Queen’s recent jubilee. We watch a video of how Raymond Briggs created his famous Snowman animated stories with Lakeland coloured pencils. And perhaps the most interesting of all, the WWII exhibit which tells the tale of when the craftsmen at this pencil museum were commissioned by MI 9 to create a pencil the looked at functioned like a regular pencil, but that contained a tiny compass in the eraser, which could also be unscrewed to reveal a map of Germany!

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The other great thing about this museum (besides the Guiness Book’s largest pencil in the world) was the fact that little tables full of different types of coloured pencils and watercolour pencils were scattered around, and you could just sit and draw or paint, something most of us would never take the time to do. And when we had finished looking around, there was the Techniques Room, filled with even more art supplies and video tutorials so we could have a crack at some of the more impressive techniques. The kids spent at least an hour in here while we enjoyed a nice cup of tea in the cafe, which also had art supplies on the tables!
And at the end, when all that was left was the gift shop, all those fabulous art supplies were available for sale!
And yes, I do see the connection there, but surely buying fabulous art supplies is ok, right? I mean, it is educational.
And creative.
And useful.
We did buy, and I am happy to say, those supplies made painters of us all. Inspired by the beautiful surroundings of The Lakes, we became artists. Really. We did.

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by Mairi

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by Darragh

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NOT a Theme Park

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We recently drove down to Warner Bros Studios in London to celebrate our daughter’s 14th birthday with a Harry Potter Studio Tour. This was a much anticipated visit, one she’s been waiting for ever since they opened about a year ago. In fact, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, the only two places she really wanted to visit during our year of travel were this one and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Florida. So, we finally booked our tickets, which seemed to me to be very expensive, and rose at the crack of dawn for the three hour drive.
Six and a half hours later, as we were leaving, those tickets felt like a bargain. And when I think how much we will be paying next month to visit Universal Studios, they seem like even more of a bargain! This is no theme park recreation of your favourite Harry Potter locations. This is the real thing. The place where the young Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint spent a vast amount of their childhoods, where all eight movies were filmed, where the almost-life-sized model of Hogwarts was designed and built, where the sets were lovingly created in an unprecedented amount of detail, and where the magical creatures of the wizard world came to life. Here, you can see the philosopher’s stone, stroll down Diagon Alley, and say hello to the hippogryph. You can examine the shelves in Snape’s Potions classroom, see the dishes washing themselves in the Weasley’s kitchen, and fly a broomstick against a green screen while watching yourself chase the golden snitch in a Quidditch match. You can even visit the backlot to see the massive Knight Bus, created by welding a few London double deckers together somehow and painting them purple, have a little rest in Mr Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia, and knock on the door of 4 Privet Drive.
But the tour isn’t just about the excitement of standing where Harry stood. It is an incredibly informative glimpse into film-making in general. Looking at the makeup tables and racks upon racks of costumes, the creature shop and all the prosthetic goblin faces and realistic feathered beasts, the graphic design department with its technical drawings and enough concept art to fill the Louvre, and the special effects where they tried prototype after prototype to get the flying cars and brooms just right – it is inspiring. It made me want to work in one of these departments. The possibilities for a creative mind are endless, and this place is a great way to showcase all that. It was, unexpectedly, one of the most exciting and educational field trips we’ve taken in England!
Of course, the tour did end with the obligatory overpriced gift shop, but even that was entertaining. I think the Wizarding World in Florida will pale in comparison.

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Superfan

I am sure that as I write this, there are many parents lining up for hours with their eleven year old daughters (even after a particularly late and indulgent night out), waiting to catch a glimpse of Justin Beiber or Harry Stiles, or some other teen sensation, giving up their time and sanity so their super-fan child can hold onto the memory of a fleeting encounter with their idol. And maybe even get an autograph or a picture to solidify the experience…
I did this on Saturday morning with my eleven year old daughter. But it was not The Beebs who inspired our three hour wait, although he is, in fact, in the country touring at the moment. Nor was it those cute little Simon Cowell prodigies, One Direction. Nope. Who did we stand in line for, jostling and sometimes perhaps even shoving a tiny bit to get a good view of the microphone so we’d be able to see him? And after the “performance”, frantically try to determine which of the queues to join for the best chance of an autograph?
David Attenborough. Yes, the 86 year old, slightly disheveled, silver-haired face and voice of natural history. The man who has been bringing exotic places like Africa, Antartica, and The Galapagos into our living rooms for the past 25 years.
And she did get to see him, and listen to him speak for five whole minutes. And we did pick the right line-up, so she was one of the last of the few that were able to say a quick hello and get an autograph and photo. She had written to Sir David a few months ago telling him of her love of animals, her concerns about the environment and how it might affect them, and about how she makes little mini documentaries on her iPod, inspired by the hours spent watching documentaries like Planet Earth, and The Blue Planet. She did receive a lovely response from his daughter as he was overseas filming, but now she has her letter signed personally by the man himself.
The wait was so worth it.

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London is Not Calling

20130228-000145.jpgI have just realized that despite the fact that one of my most recent posts was about making your kids do stuff even when they don’t want to (the character building and all that), we have just let them write off our trip to London. I think I am a hypocrite. Or I’m just being lazy. Or smart. Or all of the above.
The story is, we were planning a little trip to London, just three nights, one day to do The Globe and a few other bits, another for the bus tour around the cities main attractions, and the other at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour. Then the kids got wind of it, and although they wanted to go to the Studio, they whined about the rest. Which they often do.
Now, normally, we don’t care about the whining. We try to ignore it, and go anyway, and they either tolerate, or actually enjoy, whatever it is we are doing. We are doing these things for them, after all.
But this time, we just caved. The gist of our decision making conversation centered around the fact that we were spending a lot of money to go down there for three days, and they were just so done with cities, they had no interest in going, and it really was for them this time. We have been before. In fact, we took our two oldest down for the Olympic triathlon in August, so even they have been…etc etc. So, we just ditched. We are still driving down to do the Studio Tour since our tickets were already booked, but no overnight. And no Big Ben. Or Buckingham Palace. Or Globe Theatre. Or Picadilly Circus.
I feel hoodwinked somehow. Like I just didn’t notice what was happening here. We gave in, and it is a slippery slope. Good thing I noticed now so I can avoid such blatant manipulation in future. This trip is not about the kids having a good time, after all, it’s about forcing them to do stuff they don’t want to do. Or they don’t think they want to do.
Oh well, we will be in England again in the future…maybe they will appreciate it more when they’re older…

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Lakes and Literature

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

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Although it’s still a little too early for the daffodils, having recently spent some time in England’s Lake District National Park, it is not hard to see why its inhabitants have produced some of the finest poetry ever written. The Romantic poets of The Lakes, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to name a few, were clearly inspired by this stunningly beautiful area of England. While the glorious fells (mountains) and shimmering lakes define the landscape here, there is so much more – tumbling waterfalls, green valley floors littered with sheep, and separated by dry stone walls, beautiful little lakeside towns and villages, and ancient stone circles. This is a place where the rain doesn’t matter. And that’s what you need when you are in England, because let’s face it, it does rain a lot.
I don’t really know where to begin to blog about The Lakes, and I’ve been putting it off for such a long time that the thought of trying to fit it all in overwhelms me somewhat. It might suffice to say that on this trip, where we have strived never to go to the same place twice, we have been drawn back here not twice, but four times. The first time, we hiked Aira Force, a beautiful walk that takes you past three waterfalls, through an old deciduous forest, a pretty little village, rolling farmland hills, and down a bubbling stream.

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During our visits here we also hiked around Derwent Water, just outside the gorgeous town of Keswick, and several of the many other lakes in this remarkable area. We did stop to visit the old-fashioned sweet shop in Keswick a few times too!
Well, not a few really.
If I’m honest, I think we went every day. There’s just something so magical and nostalgic about buying bulk sweets right from the jar, and eating them out of the cute little paper bags…but I digress. This post is supposed to be about literature, not sweets. But to be fair, the sweets make the literature so much more appealing to the kids. Especially the little one, who will venture on even the most arduous hike or trail around the most boring museum if there’s the promise of a sweet shop at the end of it. So, it is relevant really.
Naturally I myself would rather focus on the literature than the sweets. Ahem.
One of the most beautiful villages, and lakes, we visited while we were there was Grasmere, and Dove Cottage where Wordsworth himself lived and wrote. He is buried there in the little churchyard so aptly full of spring daffodils. And at the risk of going back to food again, they also make the famous Grasmere gingerbread here in a tiny little building which used to be the schoolhouse where the young Wordsworth studied. This stuff is amazing, and not like any gingerbread you have ever tasted before. In fact, the recipe is kept in a guarded vault and people have literally died trying to duplicate it!

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But again, back to the literature. Since the kids are still a little too young to appreciate much of the romantic poets’ work, they were more interested in another famous Lakeland author who they could remember from their own childhoods. There are probably not many children who are unfamiliar with the works of this writer, although there won’t be many who know where she is from. Beatrix Potter, the author of such children’s classics as Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, and Benjamin Bunny lived much of her life here in The Lakes. You can visit Hilltop, the farm she bought in 1905 in Sawry, near Windermere, or you can visit a gallery of her drawings at Hawkshead, near Ambleside, in the building that was once the law office of her husband. Her farm became the setting for many of her books, and the scenery of the area can be found in all of them.

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This place is so beautiful and inspiring, that one of our own daughters has since written several stories with Lakeland settings, and the last time we went, she started writing as soon as we arrived at our cabin. If you are naturally inclined to write, or be creative in some other way, the Lakes just pulls it out of you. It seems to create a need to somehow record it – make it tangible. For some of us, that has meant taking photographs, and others sketching, painting or writing. But each of us has felt this place, and fallen hard for it. Maybe someday we’ll have our own little Wordsworth inspired by the very scenery that started him on his literary path.

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It’s in Their Genes.

You know what’s cool? My husband and my oldest daughter (and her cousin) just got back from Scout Camp. Dirty, stinky, exhausted and exhilarated. But that’s not the cool part. The cool part is that my husband went to this same camp as a scout about 30 years ago with his dad. He was a scout with this same troupe for most of his childhood, and his old Scout buddies are now the leaders. So they all got to go camping together.
Sometimes, we take these things for granted – these moments in our lives where we get to share a piece of our past with our children. But if you don’t live in the same place you grew up, this kind of experience is pretty special.
So, we’re not travelling as much as we had hoped at the moment, but look at what our kids are getting by staying in this one place for a while. They are getting to know life here. They are developing relationships with cousins, aunts, uncles, great aunts, and great grandmas that they may never have had. Not to mention quality Nana time! They are experiencing some of the people and places of their dad’s childhood, and their mum’s too. They are having family time, and extended family time. And not just the rushed, sometimes forced, two-week-vacation kind of time. The real life time. The kind that is interrupted by school, homework, swimming lessons, and doctors appointments. The kind that is just hanging out and being a part of people’s lives. Taking the dog for a walk, putting the garbage out, walking across the road to visit a relative…going to scouts with your cousins and listening to stories of when your dad and uncle used to go. Stories of their mishaps and adventures. Only now you have your own stories of scaling and gutting fish, and cooking them on the campfire. Or playing tug o’ war across the stream. Or your cousin cutting her eyelid open on a barbed wire fence while playing survival games in the dark, only to be told something like that was bound to happen because “it’s in her genes” (her dad was often transported from scout camp to the nearest emergency room). These are important experiences to have. Maybe more important than the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Colosseum, or Buckingham Palace.

Someone reminded me recently that it’s not about where you travel to, or how far you go, it’s about making memories wherever you happen to be. And I think we’re making some pretty good ones right here.

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