Thursday, October 26, 2017

Bummers, Bonuses, and Bumuses

  • Castles (and history in general that is older then the Colonies). 
  • Palaces (not the same at all...I honestly hadn't really considered that before coming here)
  • Literature - so many of “our” classics are really “their” classics. It’s so amazing to see the places we’ve been reading about forever and see what the authors saw as they created their characters and worlds.
  • No American news outlets - only what shows up on my Facebook feed
  • Free museums
  • Train and bus systems are awesome
  • Good, fresh bread is super cheap
  • Indian food...and all the restaurants in general. If there's one thing that the Burg doesn't do spectacularly well at it's food (unless you want to live off of crab dip that is).
  • Biking is super easy and normal here. It’s fun to just hop on the bike to run errands
  • My new gym has way more classes available then my gym at home
  • Getting to go to Aquinas lectures at Blackfriars and hear Mass and sing Vespers with them
  • Tea and biscuits
  • Beautiful old buildings covered in ivy


  • Can’t find any decent salsa. The only ‘salsa-ish’ thing that I’ve found is a Mexican spiced cooking sauce and it was not good (at long last found some tortilla chips though - with hummus they are amazing).
  • Hardly any homeschoolers around and everyone is pretty well plugged into schools for community I guess because there’s not much for school aged kids going on otherwise.
  • The libraries here are…I don’t want to speak ill of my host country but…I don’t know where all those council tax dollars are going but they are not going into the libraries, that’s for sure. I was really counting on a rocking library system here to help with the schooling this year since getting books overseas was not easy. C’mon, Oxford! Get it together! The world expects more of you! Thank goodness for Amazon Kindle.
  • Shopping is such a chore. This bummer will gradually get better the longer we are here because they have almost everything that I want available in this country (unlike when we lived in Italy - don’t even get me started!) but I just can’t FIND it! I know that they sell say, an air mattress or peroxide for cleaning contacts or material for halloween costumes, etc, etc, etc. But I don’t know what kind of store would have it. Whenever I finally find something it makes sense but it always takes such work and googling and driving hither and yon and parking my giant vehicle to find the darn thing. The stores here just group things together slightly differently then we do. So we finally found air matresses at a bike/car store. It sort of makes sense to have a few camping things there but it’s not where I went first, or second or third. The grocery stores are the same way. They have everything, it’s just organized differently so…I find the whole thing exhausting and need to schedule a whole day if I need to pick up a few things. That will get better.
  • Aside from biking, it is really a pain in the puhtookas to get around here. We are 2 miles from Blackfriars and it’s a 20 minute drive without parking/walking. Parking is a beast, driving is a beast, a lot of the drivers are beasts. I do not think it is helping us that we have a French license plate since that’s where we rented the van from. On the other hand, John and I figure that when we make a driving mistake at least the French are getting the blame, not Americans. The French and English have been enemies much longer then we ever were so for them it’s really a lost cause anyway. If you just ignore that pesky War for Independence we really get on well with the Brits. May it always be so…Sorry French drivers. 
  • Everyone wants to ask you about Trump and guns. I just can’t even…

  • Our van. It’s super new and cool looking. It has awesome skylights and GPS and keyless start and great gas mileage. It’s huge for England (8 seats). BUT it has only eight seats. That means that if two people are fractious they can’t be separated. And let me tell you, there are always two people who are fractious. So, small for America and for us and we can’t wait to spread out again. Also, annoyingly it is small but has a really terrible turning radius and makes parking the darn thing a huge pain.
  • Our house. We LOVE our house. Skylights, great location, beautiful kitchen, woodburning stove, room for guests. It’s just perfect. But we have to move out in December, right before Christmas. Finding the next house is not impossible and we have a few leads but none of them are as great as this one. So, we are trying to enjoy it while we can and not think about moving.
  • Food. Some things are way cheaper and some things are more expensive. So we will be eating a lot more ground beef (minced beef) here then chicken breasts. A good thing since apparently the doctors thinks Anthony is anemic (?!). Sausages are cheap cheap cheap. I finally figured out that they put a lot of wheat in their sausages and so it’s less meat, I think. Hence the cheaper price. Anyhow, I LOVE them and am so happy that we can eat them all the time. 
  • The thing about Anthony reminds me about the National Health Service. On the one hand, thank goodness! Here we are and we can see doctors and dentists when we need to and unfortunately, we have needed to. On the other hand, the waits are long and they prescribe a LOT of antibiotics from my extremely limited anecdotal experience. Out of three doctors we've seen two of them did not do a thorough job checking out the problems/ordering up followup care/explaining the issues and the other one was perfect and I HEART her. She's my gal and she might regret being so trustworthy because I might be calling her a lot.  

The next Bumus deserves it’s own pro/con list because it is the biggest reality we face day to day. It’s only a Bumus because it is temporary, it would be a Major Bummer if it was a longterm lifestyle choice. At least for me. 

Almost No Community To Speak Of. 

Bonus part of no community- 
  • We have so much time together. I am able to watch movies and read books with the kids like we used to when they were little (too little to remember most of it) and really build a family culture instead of always running out to different (great!) activities.
  • We are able to enjoy each other and have all sorts of inside jokes. 
  • We can have routines that rarely get interupted. 
  • More time with dad around.
  • Less running around means better/healthier/more regular meals.
  • More time with online friends (well, IRL friends but communication via the internet) who we miss in our regular life.
  • Almost no inflexible outside obligations. We could disappear tomorrow for three weeks and no one local would know. Hmmm…don’t tell any murderers out there that I said that.
  • Slower pace of life. At home in the Burg we are a pretty typical American family. Running here and there, in separate directions sometimes (though we homeschool so we are still together for large parts of the day, at least the kids and I are). It’s nice to take a break from that and know that all the fun things will still be there when we get back (because ultimately I wouldn’t drastically change our lifestyle at home - just tweak it maybe). 
  • This is almost like going back to the earliest years of motherhood. When I was home all day long for the first time and I just had a little guy or a couple little guys and gals to keep me company. Any outings we chose to do out were purely optional. The difference is that I have all these bigger kids around and we can read and talk and cook and watch things together. It’s isolated but not really lonely this time around. 

Bummer part of no community-
  • We have so much time together. Time to get on each other’s nerves and learn everyone’s buttons perfectly.
  • We are both cooped up and also run ragged. It’s sort of a “feast or famine” in terms of activity. We only have a couple of regular outside things to break up the routines of homelife but we take these big-push day-trips to see incredible things. So, a lot of the time we either have cabin-fever or we are exhausted because of the degree of umph it takes us to get something awesome done. 
  • No opportunities to help people - to watch someone’s kid, to water the chickens when they are out of town, to pick up their kid from an activity, no making a meal for a family with a sick family member or new baby. True, these things “interrupt” my routines at home and I am enjoying have regularity of routine here - however - it is not good for me to have my life uninterrupted by the needs of those around me but outside my immediate family. It’s not natural. I really miss the tiny bit of helping I'm able to do when at home.
  • Other people are awesome. Friends truly make the world a much, much, much better place. Talking to a friend or running into someone in the grocery store can often banish the thundercloud that has been following me around all day at home. We miss our people. Friendship is a gift. And you can’t make old friends quick. Thank GOD this is temporary - I could never live like this longterm. I love my people! Maybe I'm more extroverted then I thought...

So, the moral of this story is that if my family and friends could come, start a Mexican restaurant, build some bigger roads, and bring a lot of books then we could make a utopia here. I don't think that's too much to ask.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Dining Room Table

Since venturing out into the wider world I have found much joy, and sometimes comfort, in sitting down together around the dinner table. After such a rough, rough entry period my two happiest moments that next day were buying groceries at Aldi (oh the comfort of the familiar!) and then serving my family dinner and sitting down at one table to feast on food prepared by our own hands. It seemed to put all things that had gone awry back to rights. 

I was SO happy to be able to buy groceries in an economical way that I got a little choked up. I'm pretty sure that John didn't know until then just how deeply runs my love of frugality. I'm still not really over those $45 Icelandic croissants. I have never felt richer then handing over those 35 Euros and taking out bags and bags of groceries. Rich as an Aldi queen!

The kitchen was about the correct size for our 3 year old. She washed dishes to her hearts content.

But before dinner we made sure to have wine and cheese and bread. We were in France, after all. 

Dinner and beauty can sooth much pain.

I mean, foundationally, there’s the simple ability to provide sustenance for your little people. It doesn’t get much more basic then that. It took me almost no time (a couple of days only) to start feeling the stress and sorrow at knowing I couldn’t do anything to fill hungry bellies those first three days on the road (chaos and rushing being the culprits, not money or availability). Obviously, I do not equate our bad travel experience with true poverty or any such thing - that would be outrageous. I just mean to say that, even though the experience was short lived and was never dangerous, it was still a tremendously fulfilling moment to place a plate of their favorite food, hot and ready in front of them and then sit down together and be a family around a shared meal.

Seats for everyone! Pasta! Smiles! Filled to the bursting!

Every house we stayed in, except one, had a big enough table to seat us all. And every time we sat down around it and ate something (even if that something was fish sticks and frozen peas) I gave such thanks, "Bless us oh Lord, and THESE, THY GIFTS...". It remained, has remained, one of my greatest takeaways from being so far from home. If we can sit down together at a table and share a meal, then we are rich. If we can sit down together at a table and share a meal, then we are at home. Even if that table will only be home for a day or for a week or for 90 days. 

In Krakow, Poland - made it into our 9th country at this point. Pierogi and kielbasa was on the menu. Luckily that meal  crossed the gap between old family favorite comfort food AND local cuisine.

In Bavaria, Germany we had two tables that seated all of us. Although this one was surprisingly tippy.

A feast of local desserts in Vienna while on the hunt for the famous Sacer Torte.

Also in Bavaria, Germany. This table was plenty big enough for us but the light was better in the morning as they trickled down from bed to have some morning cereal.

Dinnertime has become even more of an anchor in my life during this wild travel then it consciously was before. My memories of childhood and adolescence center greatly around the dinner table though, if I think about it. Did my mom ever leave the kitchen? 

I had a spy club. I kept notes in a notebook and kept track of comings and goings (some of which were very interesting in my drug-infested neighborhood in inner-city Detroit. If only the cops had my list of license plates they could have had a leg up on the crack-dealer’s main clientele. Had they been interested. Which they weren't). And I can assure you, spying on my mom was...predictable. 

She was in the tiny kitchen that was covered in white-painted pegboard and lined with pots, pans and spoons hanging from the hooks. Just like her father’s tools had hung in his shed when she was growing up. He had his tools and now she had hers. She would be washing dishes using her specific system of one bowl of soapy water and one bowl of rinsing water. In the morning she was making pancakes. Every day - no cereal in the Kresta home. They were half whole wheat and half white flour, an adjusted recipe from the More With Less Cookbook. A Quaker-compiled cookbook that several of my contemporaries are familiar with because of our Baby Boomer mothers. There was one day that she tried to pass off buckwheat pancakes on us as if it was an exciting new addition to our breakfast repertoire. When we acted horrified at the first bite she chuckled and shrugged like she’d known all along that wasn’t going to work but hey - nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

As for lunch, when I was somewhere in my early years of education I requested that she send me to school instead of being homeschooled. Knowing what I know now about the quality of the public schools in my neighborhood I’m sure that it wasn’t only high ideals that had inspired my mom to keep me home. When prodded a little further about my reasons for wanting to go to school down the street it was revealed that the driving force was my desire to have a lunch box and walk down the street. Since watching kids walk past the house with lunch boxes was the only first-hand experience I had of "school" I suppose it makes sense that I honed in on that as the thing I was missing out on by staying home. My mother obliged and packed me a sack lunch. I took my little brother’s hand and we walked around the block and returned home - brimming with purpose and importance.

Dinner time was, at least in my memory, sacrosanct. One of my first memories is playing on the floor of the kitchen, smelling meat sauce simmering on the stove, wondering why I suddenly felt SO hungry, and hearing the bong, bong, bong of NPR. Based on the house we lived in then I couldn’t have been more then 2, or a young 3. My best friend growing up recently told me that whenever she would be over to play for the day it seemed like there was no food anywhere (we were never ones to have snacks handy, whereas at her house there was a veritable bounty of Jello and crackers available on demand) but then at dinner time, out of thin air would appear a piping hot delicious meal. She always thought of my mom as a sort of magician (she wasn’t wrong). 

She made amazing things too. Pekora - an Indian dish was our favorite Family Game Night meal. Many Battleship Destroyers sank while us captains feasted above on Pekora. She made a Peanut Tofu dish that I chose several times for my birthday dinner. And no, I don’t like tofu any more then you do. She was always trying things from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook. I found this book recently in a second-hand shop and thought I’d pick it up for the sake of nostalgia. After flipping through it a bit I realized just how out of my league this book is. I’ll be sticking to Betty Crocker. 

I do not have any memories of running around in the evenings or eating out on a regular basis. Dinner was such a given. Mom would have dinner ready. To not have dinner ready or to scrounge around  or eat in front of a tv with something out of a freezer was such a strange idea that when I became a mom and talked to other moms about menu planning and cooking I had to ask them, “What do you mean you don’t cook every night? What do you eat if you don't cook?” Well, it turns out that I grew up in very rarified air - as regards the dinner table.

As I grew older and had more outside evening engagements of my own and eventually moved out of the house my parents had dinner guests almost every night (the how and why being a little too long and complicated for this post). This was perhaps the highpoint of the Kresta Family Dinner Table. [Although, when we are all home for Christmas or summer and the table is crowded with my nieces and nephews and my children I’d be hard pressed to think of anything as better.] The food was amazing (I DON’T know how she did it. I really don’t.) and the talk was even better. Joyful, rowdy, interesting, and always engaging. 

On the road (as we were) and far from home (as we are), the dinner table has been a place of refuge from the changing scenery. It’s where I most feel like we are still ourselves even though everything around us looks different day to day. It is my anchor. I am certain that this anchor was given to me through the service of my mother who laid the foundation with dinner after dinner after dinner. She set me up to recognize "home" in the gathering at table. May I give that same gift to my children.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Day 2 of Travail: The Crux of the matter

So, I woke up on Day 2 to a strange smell. Definitely some sort of asian flavored food. I turned over to peek out the window directly next to my rock bed and jerked back from the curtain with alarm. There was an older Asian couple sitting about 2 ft away from me in a screened in porch. They were loud. Really loud. That is probably why I was awake even though I was still dead tired. John was gone - having driven out to Oxford to pick up the Damnable Biometric ID Card. There was no coffee anywhere. There was no kitchen attached to our "apartment" and we were in the middle of a residential neighborhood in a London suburb. 

It is important for you to keep this fact in mind. No coffee. Much of the next several hours of travail take place coffee-less. Some of you will know what I mean. I will be sure to remind you periodically. [COFFEE-LESS]. That is what the reminders will look like.

I stumble around, trying to make as much noise as possible showering and getting dressed. I turn on the lights and start trying to rouse children. Nothing doing. No one twitches a muscle. It's MY job to get them up and the bags ready to go so we can go pick up our Damnable Biometric ID Cards. This is the Proposed Timetable:
9:00 John returns triumphant from Oxford and we leave to pick up Damnable Biometric ID Cards (leave older kids at apartment bc car is too small? Do I need them WITH me? Oops. Didn't think of that).
9:30 John loads up luggage from house and drive to airport to drop off rental car. I get our 7 Damnable Biometric ID Cards and then take taxi with kids to airport while John drives rental car. We meet at the airport train station.
10:00 Reconvened, we take the train to Paddington together from the airport.
10:20 Take the Underground to another London station, Kings Cross/St. Pancras, to catch the dlltrain to Dover port.
11:30 Catch Train to Dover
1:00 Get Taxi to Port
2:00 Ferry to Calais
4:00 Van picks us up (which we will have for 9 months)
5:00 Drive 3 hours to Normandy
8:00 Arrive in Normandy after a long day but it's all OK because we made it.

Somewhere in there I'm imagining breakfast and coffee and lunch and dinner will be obtained. I can't say that I've planned for bathroom time but hey…we are just “travelers” - there’s no time for bodily needs.

We start out strong. John is amazing and gets back near the appointed commencement time (with his card!) and me and the kids's bad news. Some of them are still asleep. We are all furious and exhausted and no one's dressed and the bags aren't ready. OK. Oh well.
I hop in the car with John, and the kids. ALL the kids. In a tiny, two door compact car. The babies are sitting on laps and the four others are stuffed in like Flopsy Bunnies in Mr. McGregor’s sack. I had spent the last part of my morning on the phone trying to get a taxi to come and pick us up but all of them were at least a half hour long wait and we didn't have that time. So - shove them in we did. 

It's amazing what a "say cheese!" can do for a brief moment in time...except for Thomas and Gloria. Their faces don't lie.

We drive to the Post Office for me to pick up our Damnable Biometric ID Cards and...Well, let's just pause here to give you an idea of what driving is like for John at this moment.
1. Most obviously, it's on the "wrong" side of the road. This means that people pass on the right. The round-abouts (of which there are a tremendous abundance and variety - some connecting to each other like the olympic rings) all move clock-wise instead of counter clockwise. It means that making a right turn is actually the same as an American left turn - where to look for oncoming traffic is just mind-boggling. Overall, an absolute myriad of ways to get confused.
2. It's LONDON. It's kind of like NYC driving (very aggressive but at least it’s fairly universal so you know what to expect) combined with DC driving (totally chaotic with no real system because no one is actually native there but people are always in a hurry and therefore angry). Plus, it’s tremendously congested.
3. It's a standard transmission. This is extra-specially confusing because you have to use your left hand to shift gears instead of your right. Also, the shifting is all flipped around like a mirror image. So, you are operating the gearshift completely opposite as what your instinct tells you - WITH your left hand. No. We did not see that one coming.
4. Your wife is freaking the heck out.
5. Your kids are jet-lagged, hungry and incredibly squashed.
6. This is all super illegal.

So, we are trying to get to this post office. Post offices here can apparently be anywhere. 

A convenience mart. A grocery store. A gas station. Anyone and anything can be a post office. So, finding the one we were looking for is nearly impossible. We get to the correct neighborhood but there's roadwork on the street that this mysterious postoffice is on and the street is completely shut down. So, John drops me off with the children. We start walking toward where I think the post office is and then I realize that I DON'T HAVE THE PASSPORTS. I chase John and hail down the car. We all pile back in to drive another harrowing drive to the apartment. We pull up in the driveway and I get out and...oh my gosh. I DID HAVE THE PASSPORTS. [COFFE-LESS] They were in a really special, safe place in my backpack. OK. (“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”) 

Back in the car. But not before we tell the Asian people that we are not going to be checking out in time (no idea if they understand us). And calling the train company to tell them that we will be missing our train. By paying a change fee we switch our train tickets to “flexible” tickets and hope that we can somehow still make it to the ferry on time even by a later train. THE RUSH IS ON. Another absolutely harrowing drive back to the postoffice neighborhood and John drops the kids and me off and speeds back to the house to load up the luggage and return the rental car to the airport. I have arranged with a cab company to pick me up in 30 minutes and take the rest of us to the airport. Because getting these Damnable Biometric ID Cards can’t take longer then a half hour. 

We file up the street. Me and my procession. We are looking for this post office. We file up the street. We file down the street. We file up the street. [COFFEE-LESS] There a McDonalds! There is FOOD at McDonalds (if you want to fact-check that statement, feel free. However, at this point, gum off the ground could have been considered food) and COFFEE!!! I made a mental note and planned on popping back after the postoffice. Some kind Indian immigrant must have recognized my bewildered Fievel Mousekewitz expression and showed me the post-office. There’s a bit of a line but whatevs, we made it! I’m a hero! Do you see me?! 

We creep up closer and closer. It’s probably about 15 minutes of waiting in line and, mercifully, the jet lag was working in my favor. The kids are slumping against any surface that will hold them up. Bleary-eyed and almost completely silent. The little ones fall asleep in their strollers. I’m hoping to get the young, friendly, efficient looking woman behind the counter. No such luck. I draw the surly, can’t-be-bothered, won’t-be-rushed older gentleman behind the bulletproof glass. Fine, whatever. I’m still a hero.

The kids clamber around me, sliding down the wall until they are all in a pile on the floor dozing. He takes his time. Each card in in a separate envelope. He is He scans. I sign things. He checks passports. I’m can feel sweat dripping down my back. My phone starts to ring…super weird since no one except John has my number. I answer the call and can’t understand a single word being spoken.  I’m thinking it’s a wrong number and then I decipher the word, “taxi”. Oh my gosh. It’s been at least 30 minutes at this point, although truth-be-told I’m trying to just “be in the moment” because the whole time-table thing is such a disaster that I can’t even go there. I explain that I’ll be out soon. 5 minutes, maybe 10. He is not amused. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. 

Ten more minutes go by. Mr. Surly has heard the entire call but doesn’t even flinch. He is in no hurry. Another call from the cabby. Another stream of frustrated sounds come out - none of which I can understand except “McDonalds”. OK, great - meet you there. I’m feeling like less of a hero now even though I have all of the Damnable Biometric ID Cards.

We file back out of the store that is also a postoffice. The kids are drowsy and asking for food but have really been amazing all morning. It’s been truly awful and I’m hella impressed. I find the annoyed cabby who is clearly not going to take it well if I bring up the possibility that I go and buy my children breakfast at this McDonalds so I silently say a sad farewell to the possibility of acquiring food and coffee at this time.

He drops us off at the airport where we are waiting for John to show up with the luggage after he drops off the car. It starts raining. We run inside of the terminal. I have a mild case of PTSD come upon me at the sounds of the airline announcements and the sight of luggage trolleys. Apparently the kids respond the same way because before John appears we have kids screaming, punches thrown, and bloody noses (that is not hyperbole).  Every single child is furious with every other child about something.  6 kids x 5 siblings = 30. That is 30 tension-filled relationships. Throw me in there too, for good measure, that brings us up to 42. I look out of the door and there’s John. Carrying ALLLLL the luggage. Four rolling suitcases, two camping beds, two boosters and his backpack. Everyone feels appropriately bad for him and rallies to help. It is beautiful what a little compassion can do to a fractious group of people. Never be afraid to be the weak one or the needy one because being the helper is often what other people need the most. We reconvene as a team.

Heading down to the catch the train the kids start begging for water. We have no water. They also need to go to the bathroom. There is no bathroom in the station - you have to go back to the airport. OH WELL. Not happening. Hold it, friends. We exit the train at Paddington Station. 

Head directly to the bathroom. Loooonnnngggg queue. Apparently the turnstile is broken and so people aren’t able to pay. Oh bloody, stinking heck. Pay toilets. I had momentarily forgotten. I haven’t had time to take pounds sterling out! After a fruitless search for another bathroom and/or ATM we remember the pounds that Becca gave us the night before we left! Glory, Hallelujah! YOU ARE THE BEST, BECCA! I say a prayer that at that moment someone blesses her with kindness. We head back down with the ziplock bag of coins. I have no idea which coin is which at this point and am clearly fumbling along with several small girls doing the unmistakeable dance of urgency and so someone in line tells me that kids go in free. Well! That’s great - just wish I’d known 20 minutes ago. 

After we are all relieved, we head back upstairs where John is waiting with…water! And…coffee! We drink deeply and gratefully.  

We have lost more time though, so the rush is back on. We get set in formation - each with a suitcase or stroller and our individual backpacks. John is the front and I’m the caboose and everyone else is in between. 

In formation!

We head into The Underground. It’s a mess from the beginning. We try to get through the turnstiles and get stuck. There are SO many platforms that have no elevator to them - only stairs. There are so many people that we are inconveniencing. We have several changes and we are all so sweaty and hot from lugging luggage and strollers up and down stairs by the end that I think I’m crying off and on, though I can’t be sure because I’ve mostly blocked it out. People were kind and helped when they could and only one employee looked at us and sneered with clear disdain, “Well, THIS isn’t ideal.” Really? Is it not? Because THIS is what I had in mind the whole time. This is my dream European adventure. 

This picture is a perfect example of why we call Cece's attitude, "The Power of Positive Ce." She can switch from miserable to joyful on a dime. Sometimes a very perfectly timed dime. She sometimes sustains me in my hour of need.

In spite of our rushing and huffing and puffing we have missed the train that would get us to the ferry on time. So it’s time for more phone calls. We change our ferry tickets to a later ferry. We call the van rental place and change our pickup time. We email the lady whose house we are renting in Normandy and tell her that instead of arriving at 8ish we are hoping to be there by 11. Money is just flowing through our fingers. And it’s raining. And, there’s been no food all day. We are out of water again. It’s now somewhere around 3:30. Well, they will probably have food on the train. Nope. That’s another 1.5 hours with no food and nothing I can do about it. 

Hurry up! And wait. Hurry up!!!! And....wait.

“Kids, I promise you food when we get the the ferry.” Well, no. We need to wait an hour before we get on the ferry in a building that has some vending machines but no ATM machine and we don’t have correct change for food from it. At least there’s a bathroom. These last bits of time where we are not moving but sitting and waiting (train and port) but have no food are the hardest mentally. I am feeling like such a schmo of a mom. I am not able to give them the most basic things.

Mush, mush! Up the longest corridor ever.

We finally get on the ferry and head directly to the cafeteria where there is what, in any other scenario, would be bland (at best), overpriced and greasy food but to us is an absolutely lavish banquet. We spent SO much money on that ferry and didn’t regret a single penny. 

Yes. That is a meat pie, mushy peas and fish and chips. "That's a right Bri-ish meal, right there, that is," according to the cafeteria worker.

I cried a bit. It felt so, so good to be able to provide my children with what they legitimately needed in that moment. It was dry, there was a bathroom, there were places to sit and mostly, there was water and food. We hadn't eaten more then a smattering of pretzels and croissants (and not much of those) in 54 hours. We were run ragged.

Dry! Sitting! Eating! Drinking! 

We even recovered enough to pull out our individualized travel guides/coloring books and mentally get excited!

It was an incredibly good two hour respite for all of us. I wish that I could say that everything after that went swimmingly but it didn’t. However, having been fed, watered, and dried out, we all coped much better with the rest of the night.

Getting the van took an hour and a half and by the time we were going to start our three hour drive to Normandy we realized that our landlady was going to meet us there at (if google maps was accurate) 2 A.M. 

This van represents freedom. We are so American. We are all about the open road.

No way, even if we could do the drive ourselves (and John claimed he could) we would never ask that of her. So, we made one last cancelation phone call and told her we would find a hotel. We tried one place but they were full. We tried another place but they never even came to the door. We tried another place, we couldn’t get them to open the gate to drive into the parking lot. We tried another place that was full. Eventually we came upon this place called, “F-1 Hotel”. It was cheap and had rooms! John managed to finagle the automatic sign up machine outside to give us two rooms - it was amazing! But, the gate wouldn’t open for us to get the van through. There are apparently no humans who work at these F1 Hotels at night (the place turned out to be a scant step up from a Hostel) and so we were just sort of stuck outside on the street, having paid for the rooms. I was trying to prepare to climb over the high fence after parking the car is some parking lot a ways off. The kids were, I think, unaware of just how difficult it was proving to find a hotel, which was good. They were still reveling in the novelty of being in “private transportation” after the stress of public transportation. 

This van was our home on wheels for 7 weeks. Now it's just our occasional use van.

Eventually another family opened the gate somehow and we drove in behind them, leaving the travail behind us.

I cranked up the volume on the stereo and blared at top notch, “Going the Distance” from Rocky. YES, I DID. We had done it. We had gone the distance. Welcome, to France. Welcome to your next seven weeks. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Day One of Travail: The Never Ending Day

This is a tale of traveling travail.

I must begin this tale with a list of excuses. To do otherwise would be to allow more stupidity then I am already going to admit. And there’s a good deal of it to go around, have no fear. I will, in no way, come out looking like the brightest tool in the shed or the sharpest crayon in the box, regardless of these excuses. The list follows and will make no sense until you have read the post (feel free to skim and return to them later). Nevertheless - I am putting my excuses front and center. 

  1. We had to book the houses for the road trip before detailed planning for the move to England (in January to be exact - think about renting a beach house on the coast - one must begin at least six months in advance to get something decent).
  2. We had to rent the van in France because it was thousands of dollars less expensive. 
  3. We had no way of knowing about needing to pick up the identity cards until after we applied for them (instructions at the end of the process) and you can’t apply for them before a couple of months before your trip.
  4. Googlemap time estimates in Europe are hours off. Much different then the States where they are more or less accurate plus or minus an car accident or two.
  5. My husband thought of (thinks of) this tale as a tale of triumph. I think of it as a tale of mishaps and lost efficiency and a great deal of failure - of travail. But, we are still around and "what doesn't kill you it makes you stronger",  so I guess he is righter then me.

OK - on to the stupidity and failure.

On July 31st we awoke to the sound of waves in Rehoboth, Delaware. We had just finished 5 days with the best in-laws a girl could want. It was the perfect breather between packing up our home to prepare for our tenants and our 7-week European road trip which was going to culminate in moving into our Oxford home for 10 months. Around noon we packed up our few beach things, said our final goodbyes and drove 4 hours to drop off our van and catch our ride to the airport. 

We took 2 medium suitcases, two small suitcases, two travel camp beds, two boosters, two strollers and a small army of backpacks and kindles. Got to the gate with no problem. It was the last time I’d feel like, “I got this. I am ROCKING this.”

Our flight left at 8ish on a Monday night. I passed out the Melatonin gummies I had packed for this trip while the kids answered to siren call of Icelandic Air’s inflight entertainment. I tried to sleep, I did. But IT WAS HAPPENING!!! I was going to Iceland! To England! To Europe! I was NOT packing up my house! That might have been the best part in that particular moment. The only kids who slept a wink on the flight were the two who also had fevers (because, of course…). So we landed in Iceland at 2:30 AM EST. (6:30 a.m. Icelandic time). Honestly, the entire Iceland situation is a blur of utter and complete exhaustion for me.
There was at least 1.5 hours of kids collapsed on the airport floor in a dead sleep while John hunted around for the strollers (that ended up being checked all the way through to London). So we were stroller-less and had no plans except to wander around Reykjavik and discover cool Iceland stuff (the tours we had initially planned on doing were all too long for our 10-hour layover). There was also very long walks in search of a bakery. When we found the bakery there was a line. When we ordered eight croissants and paid for them we discovered too late that it cost $45. No way were they that good. The rest of Iceland for me was spent just trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other, carrying a small child or two and keep other kids moving. There isn’t a coffee or a 5-hour Energy strong enough to deal with that degree of tired.

I have pictures of Iceland that are beautiful and wonderful
However, this is the internal story, not the external story.
And these pictures are more accurate a portrayal of the experience
even though that does not reflect the awesomeness that Iceland is.
Somehow we made it onto the next plane and landed in London at 9:30 pm that day. As we are getting off the plane Thomas (9 years old) starts wailing. Thomas is NOT a public wailer. He ascribes to the "real men don't cry" school of thought.
So we were pretty quickly alarmed. He went to the side of the gangway and just curled up in a fetal position on the floor. We requested a wheelchair and started thinking about how to get him to a doctor to rule out appendicitis. Parading through the airport, we picked up our luggage and then went to wait in line  for customs. The line was…absolutely amazing. Winding around and around and around a huge room. But, because of Thomas’s wheelchair we got into a very short and fast medical-needs line! Woohoo! But a very subdued woohoo because it wasn’t worth the price of the poor child’s pain. We were through customs by 10:30, which was awesome. Thomas’s episodes of pain seemed to be coming slower. Then it was revealed that it had been several days since he'd visited the bathroom in a particularly important way. Ahem. So at least at that point we were pretty sure we knew what was happening. He was still uncomfortable but we didn't think it would require hospitalization.

You'd think that at this point our night would be nearly over and light was at the end of the tunnel. And so it was, sort of. But before we could leave the airport John had to go rent a car for the morning run to Oxford (details on that ridiculousness to follow) and get SIM cards for the phones. He ran off to slay those dragons and I was there with the kids, the luggage, and the wheelchair.
All we had eaten in the last 35 hours were airplane pretzels and those highly over-rated croissants in Reykjavik so I hauled around all that stuff and all those people in search of some chips or chocolate (the only things available at 11pm on a Tuesday night in the airport). I ended up buying some very weirdly flavored Cajun Cheetos accidentally. Tired. So tired. Hungry. So hungry. So hangry, truthfully. It took forever. We didn’t leave the airport until midnight. We were now at 36 hours with no significant food or sleep, two kids with fevers and another one doubled over with abdominal pain. 
         John stuffed the tiny compact car with most of the luggage and most of the kids and drove them a harrowing half hour to an apartment we had rented for just that night (more will follow about the complication he encountered on his first UK drive). Rosie, Gloria and I took a taxi drive to the apartment. It took for forEVER to figure out how to get in. The kids were all crying or punching. In fact, we first walked into what was clearly some other person’s kitchen (at 1 am - poor folks - we probably scared the begeesus out of them). Finding the correct door we walked into a very cramped place without enough beds. The kids started collapsing onto beds here or there. Thomas was asleep the SECOND his head hit the pillow. A pain-induced first in his entire life (never has there been a more restless sleeper than him, usually). There weren’t enough beds for all of us so John and I put together the camp beds. I fell into my own bed in my clothes and hit a rock. I mean, it was technically a mattress but it was as hard as plywood. Of course. That’s about right. End of Day One. 

Kid-o-bunks in action. Cece on the bottom, Anthony on top. We used the heck out of these and we are still using them everyday in Oxford.

Day Two would be used for recuperating. NOT!

        This is where things get complicated. The devil is truly in the details. We needed to rent that compact car at the airport because John need to leave at the butt-crack of dawn to go and pick up his Damn Biometric ID Card (do you sense how I felt about that situation?). These are ID cards that we needed because we would be returning to the UK as residents. We needed to pick them up within 10 days of arriving but we were immediately leaving for France to pick up our van (see excuse #2) and we couldn’t delay for a day to take care of this business of moving (see excuse #3) because we had already booked 7 weeks worth of “holiday homes” on the continent and couldn’t just bump our itinerary back a day (see excuse #1). 
         In our planning phase we had learned this information in such a way and in such an order that our gentle entry plan with our day of recouping after a draining travel day just kept getting squashed right out and looking more and more unmanageable. To make matters worse our biometric ID cards had been mailed to separate post offices. Seven of them (the kids and me) in London near our one-night-stand apartment and John's to Oxford, near our future residence. Hence, John rented a small (cheap) car for the morning to 1. buzz over to Oxford. He was supposed to be back in time for us to get from the apartment, to 2. the other post office for me and the kids to pick up our Damn Biometric ID Cards (found out later that all 6 kids had to be present in order for me to pick up), 3. catch the train to 4. the Tube to 5. another train to 6. the taxi to 7. the ferry from Dover to France where 8. our van would be waiting and we would drive 3 short hours to arrive in 9. Normandy. With all the luggage. And the six kids. Having barely slept or ate. (Insert maniacal, devilish laughter because the DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS). 
          If you are wondering why we didn’t just plan to get a van and drive with the kids and the luggage to run these errands and then over to the ferry then you will be answered with the feeble excuse that it seemed absurdly expensive to rent a big enough van for one day and drop it off in a location other then where it had been rented. In retrospect, WORTH EVERY PENNY, is what it would have been. 
        I want to take a moment to refer you back to the aforementioned excuses. Did we think this would all work? Well, one of us had a lot of hope and optimism and one of us...didn't. 

Day Two in our next installment of my Tale of Travel Travails. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

A Feast of Identity

As I write this I am wondering if anyone will find it interesting. I have been asked several times how we went about planning the road trip of Europe (part 1) but I have no idea if those people were being polite by showing interest in my obsession or were actually curious. So, in the case that someone out there wants to understand our schema for the trip we planned I am going to write my “big picture” answer down here without continuing this apologetic prelude. 
In the beginning when John and I realized that we were about to be given a rare and once in a lifetime opportunity to travel with our “large” family (if you knew my crowd you’d know why it’s appropriate to use quotation marks even though according to the NYTimes we fall into .05% of families in the USA having eight of us under one roof) we sat down that night  and sketched out a brainstorming page about what we would do, see and experience. It was crazy how absolutely in line we were in our priorities. It was easy peasy to set out a basic scheme. And in execution it looks remarkably similar to that very first flurry of ideas and enthusiasms.
I say it’s crazy because there are an enormous amount of good reasons to travel and to lap up an opportunity like this. There’s the much sought after growth of open mindedness - expanding our horizons by encountering the other and finding in it the familiar at the same time. This is a very good motivator for travel and one I’m happy to have been able to give to the children, having had the opportunity myself growing up. There’s language acquisition in a natural environment (though most of the our time this year will be in England). In addition, cultivating a sense of adventure can certainly spice up life. Chasing beauty in art, music or nature is an excellent reason to travel. And there’s the allure of Living History which is the flame to my moth of a homeschooling heart. And then there’s the FOOD. That alone…
But, there is also a weird Travel Worship thing that makes me uncomfortable. An idea that it’s a wasted life to stay home and run soccer duty and do the conventional thing. As if you are not REALLY living unless you are traveling and experiencing all that life has to offer (which even on a budget is out of reach for moderate to large families the vast majority of the time). I find that insulting and narrow, actually. As if the only way to broaden one’s horizons is to go beyond the horizon. If you’ve ever read the children’s book Toot and Puddle you will have come to the conclusion that I have come to. Toot travels all over the world (loving every minute) and Puddle stays home and enjoys the finer things of the domestic life (loving every minute). There’s nothing wrong with either emphasis. If one wants to traipse and alight here and there and everywhere then, OK. I am certainly more of a rooted sort of person. I want to be making the home that you will come back to eventually. I am more a Puddle then a Toot. But hey- I’m not going to turn down an opportunity to Toot! And Toot the heck out of my children, that’s for SURE.
In the year leading up to leaving I thought a lot about what our emphasis for our trip would be - where to focus our energies and attention. When Europe is laid at your feet the only problem is narrowing down to the most perfect exciting and amazingly interesting things out of the amazingly interesting things. When we looked at our brainstorming we discovered that everything fell into one of three “tracks” for our journey. 1. Family History 2. Saint Patrons and 3. Cultural Highlights. It wasn’t until we were actually weeks into our big road trip that I tuned into the common denominator: developing a sense of identity. John and I had both been shaped in significant ways during our travels in highschool and college and intuitively knew what we wanted to give the children before it was even explicit in our own minds. 
The idea of answering the question, “What makes our family different then every other family on the block?” was a really helpful exercise offered in the book, “The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family”, by Patrick Lencioni. Lancioni guides your answer by saying that if it’s only your religion then that’s too easy an answer, even if it’s true. (Or, as another friend told me the other day, “You need to give them more then Catholicism so that they have something else to rebel against.” #realism) Lencioni suggests looking into what made you fall in love with your spouse and he said that will be a good starting point to identify what you most desire to pass onto your children. This trip was an amazing opportunity to be able to pass on in really tangible ways pieces of our identity.
We were able to pass on to our children a sense of family pride. John’s grandfather was a distinguished admiral who commanded the naval forces at Sicily, North Africa and finally, and most grandly, at D-Day. My Great Uncle died for his country in the unfortunate last gasp of the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge and we were able to visit his grave. We were able to visit the place that John’s mother made her first communion in Germany  - where all the gruff men in town toasted her as they slung her up onto the bar in the pub after what was the first of many communions - a defining aspect of her life to this day. We were able to weed and and tidy the forgotten grave of my Great Great Grandfather and Great Great Grandmother in Vienna, praying for their souls and thanking God for their role in bringing about each of our lives. Leading up to the trip we read books about the relevant battles and the kids are now writing papers and following up with more research and reading family memoirs by some of John’s family. Knowing where we have come from often leads to a greater knowledge of where we are going.

Looking out over Omaha Beach near the American cemetery.

Descendents of the Head of the Western Task Force and the Admiral of the D-Day ships. And they better never forget it!

American Cemetery at Utah Beach. Acres of sacrifice.

Another part of our family are the Saints. We each have several patron saints and being able to take the kids on pilgrimages to each of their name saints (we aren’t quite done yet but the ones we have done have been so absolutely worth they hype) is just an astounding opportunity. I could cry thinking about how meaningful it has been. We also visited lots of saints that are more peripheral for us but are very meaningful to our friends and so we are enlarging our sense of family all the time - both on Earth and in Heaven. Opening up wider and wider to bring more people into our fold both those in the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant (which sounds significantly more brutal then it is). We carried with us the prayers of hundreds of friends and communities and we lit candles all over the continent for those intentions. Space and time shrink in eternity and spending time with our friends in the Heavens have brought us closer to our friends on earth.

Patron Saint Therese of Lisieux, France. 

In front of the kitchen hearth at St. Therese's family home.

In the garden behind the house. 

The basilica of a tiny little nun who is now a doctor of the Church.

The family home of 3 saints (at least). St. Therese, and her father and mother Sts. Louis and Zelie.

At St. Therese's parish church. Praying for all our friends and family who entrusted their needs to us.

The third track was things that have been significant in Western Civilization. It could be musical, artistic, nature, historical. Oh my. This is sort of a catchall except that it’s not when you are focused on developing a sense of identity. What do I want to pass on to my children? What is significant to my sense of self and valuable enough to make room in a packed itinerary? This is how we ended up seeing a Mozart concert in Salzburg, visiting Monet’s Water Lily Gardens in Giverny, seeing Corrie Ten Boom’s house in Haarlem, and spending a wonderful week soaking in the beauty of Venice. We were certainly limited in what we could do given the ages of the kids (for example my husband took just the three older kids to Auschwitz and took them on an abbreviated tour that hopefully had the effect of pointing their moral compass true north but won’t cause nightmares and PTSD) but we didn’t just tour science museums and parks either. Seeing Mozart’s house made them more interested when I put on Mozart for music study. It was worth putting up with a lot of whining and bellyaching for certain culturally significant things and not for others (sorry Schonbrunn).

Monet's house in Giverny. You can barely see it for all the flowers.

While the boys ran hither and yon exploring the incredibly expansive gardens the girls and I sketched the pond. The amount of tourists that took our picture was hilarious. All over Asia we are memorialized in photo albums.

Just me and my girly on the Japanese bridge. Chilling next to this poor lady who immediately dropped that phone in the water after the picture was taken.

Monet's incredible kitchen in his incredibly colorful house. He was certainly no "starving artist" when he went.

We were really living the dream, that's for sure.

I don’t know how much of it will stick, certainly more for some then others. But I also don’t know how big the seeds will grow. During this school year we are following up on a lot of the things we just saw. Reading and researching and writing and watching documentaries. I feel so incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to superintend this rich feast that has been laid before my children. It’s up to them to partake but it has been offered and we will continue to nibble away at it for years once we are back in the cozy confines of our personal Woodcock Pocket, like Toot returning from his journeys.

P.S. Italy houses SO MUCH of what we want to share with the kids that we are hoping to take a full month there in the spring. That is why Rome and Florence are so underrepresented in my examples.

P.P.S. Upon re-reading this post I think it is clear that John and I thought more about the opportunity for forming our children then about the pure enjoyment of any particular place. Well, yeah. Anyone who has travelled with children to anywhere except Disney (and maybe even there) knows that they will suck the joy right out of anything with their demands and varying levels of interest and disinterest. And when there are six of them then you are guaranteed to have at least one very unhappy, obstinate person with you at all times - no matter how much ice-cream you feed them.
Also, there was very little leisure for “soaking up” any particular environment. If that is what you are trying to do then I’d certainly wait to take a trip when the kids are older or gone :) Verily. However, we both had pockets of time alone and together to breath deep and take a good look around. The kids really needed objectives to enjoy themselves - we would have been more content with wandering and eating. That will have to be a different trip though. No one here is disappointed with what the trip was and wasn’t. Life with these little folks has prepared us well for travel with them. They are the same kids here, there and everywhere. For better or for worse.