Finally Vienna (and Budapest, Brno, and Bratislava)

A few weeks after I got back from Poland, Chris and I had planned to visit Vienna.  It was a place that we’d always wanted to visit and what better time then Christmas.  Chris got a bit overly-ambitious and also planned for us to see Budapest, Hungary – Brno, Czech Republic – and – Bratislava, Slovakia.  This meant we’d see a lot more places and Christmas markets, but that I’d also be driving a lot more.  I just prayed that it wasn’t bad weather.  Like the previous post I’ll be doing my Top Ten (because I’m a slacker).  If you want more detail then you can always check Chris’ blog posts.

Vienna (and its neighbours) Top Ten

1.  Budapest, Hungary

I have to say this was my favourite part of this visit even though it was FREEZING!  We caught the train early in the morning and spent the day in Budapest.  We got to explore LOTS of Christmas markets and it was a very picturesque city.  I could have probably spent more time there (I didn’t get to see the Synagogue – not pointing any fingers….. Chris).  We took the City Sightseeing Tour, which included all the different routes and boats and everything.  We stuck to the first line and after 45 minutes on the open top of the bus, we pealed ourselves from the frozen seats and got out to see the market.  But it was a beautiful city!

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2.  Driving Through the Countryside

We decided on one day we’d visit the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  It sounds like a lot, but they were all very close and only a few hours at the most away.  I was so glad that it was nice weather.  It was foggy, which kind of ruins sightseeing while driving (and pictures), but that cleared and led to some off track sights and beautiful countryside.  Oh by the way, check your rental car for the Vignette before you pay for a new one for only a few hours – right Chris?

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Ode to Conchita Wurst (said in a think Austrian accent – by me). 

No idea who she is?  Well, SHAME!

 

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3.  Brno, Czech Republic

After finally parking the car in what might have been the tiniest car park ever (ever mindful of the rental deposit), we took a nice walk to the town centre to see the Christmas market.  Chris and I both remarked about how strange it is that you can cross a border (Austria to the Czech Republic) and immediately see the influence of the Soviet Era.  It was a quaint little market with a live nativity lots of little stalls and yummy food.  I really like the smaller markets, they are less commercial and have a lot more atmosphere. 

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4.  Bratislava, Slovakia

This little town was suggested by a wonderful friend when we once had a conversation about the places we have loved to visit.  I knew with her suggestion we couldn’t go wrong planning in a visit.  Vienna is only 30 minutes away and so we added this gem to our visit.  I wasn’t disappointed it was a lovely little town, one that I’d never visit otherwise, but well worth it.  We found a place to park just as the sun was setting so we didn’t get to see a lot of the scenery.  We walked past a little preview of a market and followed the crowds to a huge market!  Like most, it was in the shadow of an old church.  We walked around the stalls and through the Old Town.  I would love to go back here too!  A few hours wasn’t enough.

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5.  Schonbrunn Palace

The next day we had the whole day to spend in Vienna.  Unfortunately it was raining…. a lot.  Luckily we made it to the Schonbrunn Palace before it started to pour.  Chris really wanted to visit here because he’d seen in on TV.  It was spectacular!  We didn’t know it but, we got a Christmas market to boot!  It was pretty packed with school trips and LOTS of tourists.  It was quite the setting.  It may be the one place in Vienna I’d like to go back and see.

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6.  Vienna

I cant do a top ten of Vienna without adding Vienna, can I?  To be honest it wasn’t my favourite place ever.  I don’t think that helped that it was freezing and absolutely pouring down!  Would I pay to go again, no.  Would I go if someone paid for me, yes.  I am sure it has so much more to offer than what I got to see.  But, in-between the downpours I did see some lovely architecture and it is really nice to be completely surrounded by history.  Later that evening after drying off we headed to a concert we had tickets to.  We stopped by another market and, luckily it had stopped raining.  The market was WAY to commercial for my liking but it was a nice setting.  We tried Kinderpunch (the non-alcholic version of their version of mulled wine).  It was really nice and we even got a free mug! (Okay, not free they charge you a lot for the drink). 

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Did I mention it was raining… a lot…

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Equality street signs – I loved these.  They were left from when Vienna hosted Eurovision earlier in the year.

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7.  Audio Tour by Rick Steves

I find it crazy that Chris doesn’t know who Rick Steves is.  I spent many Saturday morning with him when I was growing up (maybe that’s what ignited my wanderlust).  I guess he is just an American treasure.  Anyway, this American treasure has an app to download free walking tours around Europe.  I found one for Vienna and decided that it was a great idea.  Unfortunately the rain, cold, and Chris had other ideas.  I was chuckling to myself during the first part at all of his lame jokes (they didn’t translate for Chris).  Before we turned it off and went to seek cover, he took us to an amazing memorial for WWII.  It was out of the way of the bus tour so I’m glad Rick (yeah, we’re on a first name basis – well at least I am) helped me find it.  From Chris Blog:

It is located in the triangle of Augustinerstraße, Fürichgasse and Tegetthoffstraße.

There are 4 carved granite columns (the granite comes from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz in Austria). Behind and to the middle of 2 of the columns is a cast iron statue of a Jew that was forced to clean Anti-Nazi slogans from the streets of Vienna afterAnschluss. This statue showed just how much the Nazi’s were prepared to degrade and humiliate the Jews and those not of the Aryan race.

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8.  Strauss “Concert”

While we were waiting for the sightseeing bus, we got accosted by a man dressed like Strauss (or that style) telling us about a concert that night full of Strauss and Mozart.  Chris was sold at the word Strauss (his favourite composer) and I was sold (well I was sold before we even met the guy – I was looking at tickets the night before) by the word Opera.  We got to the Palace Auersperg and got to see a semi-professional concert.  It was really beautiful, but don’t believe the guy when he says he’s giving you a deal because he only has a few seats left.  There was a great mix of ballet, instrumental, and opera.  The venue made it even more impressive.  We couldn’t record anything or take pictures during the show, so you’ll have to just take my word for it.  Worth the money?  Not really but if you love Strauss or Mozart you wont be disappointed. 

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9. and 10.  The FOOD

Okay, lets just pretend that I had 10 things I loved from this trip.  After looking through all the pictures there is one thing that is highlighted more than any other – the food.  The markets were full of unique food and I don’t think we’ve ever tried so much of it!  So here are some of the things we got to try.

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Belated Warsaw

In December, after much convincing and procrastinating (Chris convincing and me procrastinating), Chris and I decided that it was be fun to go to Warsaw and see the Christmas markets.  Its a favourite tradition of ours to go to Christmas markets.  This year was bound to be a little different since we were officially separated, but we were looking forward to spending time together exploring Poland.   We got a flat in the town centre which had a great view.  It was in a good location that was pretty central to everything.

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Since it was nearly 6 months ago, I don’t remember a lot of the finer details (you’ll have to use Chris’ blog posts for that).  But, I didn’t want to go without writing about it so I decided I’d do a Top Ten of the trip.

Warsaw, Poland Top Ten

1.  Wandering the streets of Warsaw

I quickly learned that walking in Warsaw was  A LOT safer than driving (its crazy there!!!!).  There were so many things to see that it was hard to take it all in.  I really had the motivation to walk around a bit more during this trip.  The sites seemed to be quite close together (or relatively close depending if you as me or Chris).  It was really nice to take in the sights.  You definitely get a different perspective when you are walking in and out of alleys and parks and its a bit easier to take detours and find a way out on foot instead of by car.

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2.  The crosswalks in Warsaw Town Centre

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I guess when you’re visiting the birth country of Chopin, you get street crossings of piano keys.

3.   The Jewish Ghetto

During the war Warsaw was divided and there was a wall put up to keep the Jews in one place.  The conditions in the ghetto were horrible.  We found that there was a place in Warsaw where that wall was still standing so we went to search for it.  When we finally found it we were surprised, although we probably shouldn’t have been, that it was through a block of flats.  Very inconspicuous and if you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t know it was there.  There was a reverence here that I’ve found at every WWII memorial I’ve visited.  It was quiet, except for the occasional resident coming or going.  Chris and I wondered what the people there think about it, if they even do.  Through the whole city there were markings of the border of the Ghetto.  To me it was a constant reminder of the past.

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4. Christmas market in Warsaw

One of my favourite things is to go to another country, explore their traditions, and take in the culture.  I think one of the best places to do this is the Christmas market.  It doesn’t feel like Christmas to me anymore without visiting a market!  The atmosphere is one that you cant get anywhere else.  You get to see the locals – the local food, toys, gifts, music, clothing, and traditions.  At this market we discovered some yummy squeaky cheese and delicious chimney cakes,  A lot of the markets are in log cabin style stalls, but this one almost looked like it was straight out of the desert.

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5.  Driving in the country

While it can be VERY overwhelming to drive in a different country, there are so many advantages I cant pass up the opportunity to get out of the city and dive into authentic countryside.  Poland wasn’t a disappointment.  Once I got out of the mayhem that is Warsaw, we were treated to beautiful countryside and a taste of the country.  The houses were very worn down and you could tell that it wasn’t a very affluent country.  But, there was still a certain charm.  The traditional houses, coupled with the antiquated churches make for a very nice drive.  The only problem we had this time was the lack of sunlight in December.

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Driving in Downtown Warsaw vs. driving through the countryside

6.  The home of Chopin – Zelazowa Wola

Luckily we got some beautiful sunlight for the visit to Chopin’s home.  The gardens were lovely to walk through and a good opportunity to get some pictures.  The house on the other hand…. well, lets just say it wasn’t worth it at all.  It isn’t even the real house that he was born in (its been rebuilt a few times), they definitely don’t put that in the tourist pamphlets!  If fact, when we went there were zero tourists at all, and we felt it especially when we walked into the house feeling full of excitement to learn more about him and leaving feeling like common criminals.  The FOUR ticket takers (surely that isn’t the right name for them) accosted us upon entry and as we travelled room by room we were followed, not so stealthily by a security guard.  Very awkward.  The gardens were well worth it – the house, not so much.

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The fake/real house.

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A very photogenic garden – even in winter!

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Making being “Just Friends” look easy!

7.  Treblinka II – Nazi extermination camp

One of the biggest blessings of living in England has been the opportunity to see a different side of WWII.  Poland was no exception.  Poland was devastated during WWII and there is still evidence of the horrors of the war.  We were going to go to Auschwitz, but it was too far for the short time we had.  As I was looking through my many, many brochures from the tourist office (Chris always gives me a hard time about how many I collect) I read a little about Treblinka II.  We decided that it would be a pretty interesting place to visit.  As we were driving we were running out of daylight.  When we finally got there (no thanks to the Sat Nav for taking us up a bike path at one point) it was dusk and it really added an eerie atmosphere.  There was no one else there and it was set in the middle of a dense forest.  The Nazi’s built a railway right to the entrance, but when you walk up you only see the skeleton of the rails.  Then you walk a bit further to see stones with different countries names on them.  Then you look up to a large stone memorial – the Jewish Tombstone.  This is surrounded by 1700 stones to represent just some of the nearly 800,00 people who died in that very spot.  The crematorium is marked by a large rectangular pile of stones.  It is hard to comprehend, impossible really, what devastation occurred where I was standing.  It was a sacred place.  I wanted to stay longer but unfortunately it was getting too dark so we tried to find the visitors centre.  It was closing just as we pulled up so we missed out on that, but the feeling of standing among those stones – I will never forget.  Good thing I picked up that brochure!

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8.  Nozyk Synagogue

Its a silly thing to say, but if I wasn’t LDS I would want to be Jewish.  As cliché as it sounds, I decided this the first time I watched Fiddler on the Roof.  I admire their faithfulness and traditions.  I am very interested in their religion and so I was happy to get the opportunity to visit a Synagogue while in Warsaw.  It was the only Synagogue that was left standing out of 400 during WWII.  It isn’t overly decorated like a lot of old churches are.  When we went in Chris had to cover his head.  There were men in a back room learning and singing which only added to the atmosphere and my admiration for their dedication and faith.

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9.  Warsaw Uprising Museum

This was one of many WWII museums in Warsaw.  It was a very large museum and after 2 hours we felt like we didn’t spend the time to see everything and read everything.  The thing that impressed me the most was that in the middle of the exhibit when you walked in there was a wall that spanned the ground and first floor.  It had bullet holes in it and it had a constant heartbeat when you put your ear up to it as a reminder of the sacrifices during the war, both of the people and the solders.  The museum is set up as a walk through-time line with A LOT of memorabilia.  There are also videos which are pretty hard to watch, I had to walk away several times, about what the Jews of Warsaw suffered through.

10.  Warsaw Town Centre

The “Old Town” of Warsaw isn’t too old at all.  It was completely destroyed in the war but was rebuilt just 60 years ago – and you’d never know from looking at it.  It was full of Christmas decorations and had a unique atmosphere.  At times it felt like Italy, Germany, Russia, and several other countries.  It was quaint and really fun to explore.

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Warsaw was unexpectedly wonderful.  It is a place that I’d love to go back to and explore more – not only because it is very inexpensive.  I’m glad Chris talked me into going.

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Baltic Cruise 2014–Helsinki, Finland

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Sibelius Monument

1.  We got off the ship after a very stormy night – I was so happy to be on solid ground!  We only had a half a day in Helsinki and we had a nice bus driver who took us around to see the sights – he wore a nice yellow suit and really struggled with English, he was quite charming and friendly – but, read from a script (as he was driving) and you could tell he was more of a bus driver than a tour guide.  Our first stop was the Sibelius Monument.  Do you know who Sibelius is?  No, me either, but I bet you know his song: Finlandia – no?  How about “Be Still My Soul” – yeah, me too.  I had never heard of him but Chris, who is a big fan of classical music was very interested in seeing this monument.  It was set in a really nice, quiet park on a lake and we were lucky enough to be able to walk around without a lot of tourists.  There is also a sculpture of his face (it was impressive, but I liked the pipes better).  That and the pipe monument is impressive enough, but add in the forest-like surroundings and it was very serene.

2.  As we drove through Helsinki we noticed how clean and quiet and orderly it was.  There wasn’t much rubbish, cigarette butts, or gum on the streets and everywhere looked like it is was in really good condition.

3.  As we drove and walked around the town you could see the Russian style influence on the buildings.  It was strange, in Estonia it looked dark and subdued but here in Helsinki, even though it was Russian inspired, it was clean and white.  So you could see that the style had seeped over to Finland, but not the influence of the “dark” iron curtain. 

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4.  We didn’t do much research about this area/town before and just left it up to our tour guide to show us the good spots.  At one point he stopped in a car park.  I looked around and wondered what was so special about this???  Then he told us we’d have an hour or so to walk straight up the street to the rock church.  We hadn’t heard what this was, but we just followed everyone else and started a leisurely walk up a pretty steep street.  When we got to the top we were met with a very strange building.  It looked like a rocky hill with doors.  So we walked inside and we were met with an even stranger sight.  It was a church – built right into the rock.  There were windows for a roof which had a very dramatic effect and next to the organ you could see the remnants of water running down the stone.  Everyone was a bit more quiet, since it was a church, and it had a nice peaceful atmosphere.  I could imagine that during rain it was pretty neat, but I like thinking of it during snow – nice and warm inside, with snow falling outside.  Maybe we should start building all churches into a mountain.

5.  Now, even though we visited in May, Santa Clause was still big business.  Before I had moved to England I had never heard of Lapland but, its a place in Finland where Santa Clause is rumoured to live.  So there is kind of a year-round Christmas feeling to the whole town.  Its quite nice.

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6.  After my bout with food poisoning the night before, I didn’t have much breakfast and was quite hungry by lunchtime.  Luckily we were in the market by this time and saw all these stalls for food.  They all advertised salmon soup.  It sounded pretty yummy, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to have fresh salmon…at the port… in Finland.  There were some other regional foods, that I wouldn’t touch with a pole – but I was very happy with my soup.  It was very hearty with big chunks of salmon and potatoes.  They also had carrots, onions and LOTS of dill.  I think every time I eat dill again I will remember Finland.  Chris, on the other hand, settled for sausage and chips – how boring!!

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7.  One of the things we found was that the market was FULL of all kinds of things made from reindeer antlers (see, more Christmas themes).  There was stall after stall after stall of bottle openers, pens, knives, frames, key chains, etc.  But, not much of anything else.  It was kind of a let down, but if you are in Finland and want unique reindeer antler…. anything – you know the place.

8.  When we were travelling around I had the distinct feeling that there was much more of Finland that I would want to explore!  We didn’t have nearly enough time to see everything.  Chris and I sat in the cabin that night trying to figure out how we could get back to Finland (it isn’t the easiest place to get to) and explore the whole country, not just the centre.  When we drove out to the monument at the first of the day you could see tree covered roads leading away from the centre and my travelling spirit just wanted to follow them and explore.

9.  As we drove around I noticed a lot of people out walking.  Walking with their kids, friends, or on their own.  There were loads of bikes too.  One thing I’ve noticed is that the European countries are so much more active than the UK and USA are.  This was only doubled when we went to Scandinavia.  And I am sure there is a correlation between the outdoor lifestyle and exercise and the fact that Scandinavia is home to some of the happiest people in the world (really, I didn’t make up that fact!).  It really inspired me and so when I got home I started to walk the 2 miles to pick the kids up and take them to school instead of driving.  The kids weren’t too happy about it but, it was really nice to be able to exercise first thing and enjoy the relative quiet – there’s definitely something to it. 

10.  No matter where I travel, I always like to find out where the temples/churches are nearby.  I find it interesting to see how close we are and how many there are – it gives me an idea of how many Mormons there might be around us.  When we were driving we found out that the temple was only a few miles away – I would have loved to see it and kept hoping we’d pass it, but we didn’t.  I guess its one more thing I’ll have to go back and see Winking smile.

Helsinki, Finland overall:  We definitely didn’t have nearly enough time in this stop (have I said that already??).  Like I said, it felt like there was so much more to discover and we just weren’t there long enough.  I would love to go to Lapland and, I would love to take a road trip through all of Scandinavia.  But Helsinki was absolutely beautiful and had the potential, if given enough time, for quite a few days of exploring.  As far as the tours go, the port was about a 10 minute drive from the city centre and we didn’t see any hop on hop off type busses so we were glad we used a tour from the cruise this time.  But, if they had a shuttle into the heart of the town, we probably would have done that and explored on our own.  The only thing we would have missed out on was seeing the Sibelius monuments – which were worth seeing.  If given the chance – visit Finland. 

Belated Bruges Blog

I am a bit delinquent in my posts – I realized I didn’t ever do a post about our quick trip to Bruges in early December – until I started thinking about doing posts for our cruise a week or so ago.  Oops! So here is the Cliffs Notes version via bullet points:

 

  • Original destination?  Aachen, Germany – Christmas Market
  • After a very early tunnel crossing (no more ferries for me, I think) we drove for about 1 1/2 hours through Belgium.  Upon Chris waking up and me taking off my headphones we heard the car absolutely squealing!
  • Cursing the car under our breath, stopping, looking under the bonnet for who knows what, and then getting back on the motorway the screeching stopped….
  • Then it started again.
  • Stopping at other rest stop.  Called our breakdown service and couldn’t figure out where were were located.
  • Tried to communicate with a friendly (but unhelpful) German who didn’t know what was wrong with the car and just shrugged.
  • Continued to try to “locate” ourselves.
  • See a man walking towards our car – a bit nervously say hello and… HE REPLIES IN ENGLISH!!
  • He looks at the car and says it is the fan belt and not to worry “It’ll get you to Germany, I’ve driven worse!”
  • I still have my worries and so we go to the nearest town and try to find a mechanic who can speak English.
  • 3 tries later we find a car dealership who will help, but we’ll need to take out a small loan to pay for the work (which we were both a little wary of anyway).
  • Decide to turn back and just get to Bruges a bit earlier (we were going to drive back to Bruges latter that night after the Market in Germany).
  • FIANLLY find the hotel through the cobblestone streets – navigating through pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and horse drawn carriages – oh and canals.
  • Checked in to our ultra small hotel room (remember we only were going to sleep there in our original plans) with a see through bathroom door (I HATE THAT).
  • Explore the Bruges Christmas Market and find somewhere to have dinner (a stinky little Italian place).
  • Wake up the next day to cloudy skies but no rain and decide to walk to the town square and then take a tour of the local chocolate factory.
  • Get caught in a thunderstorm with pouring rain – for 5 minutes and then the sun came out!
  • Walked to the chocolate factory – it wasn’t there.
  • Looked at a map and found we’d walked the totally wrong way.
  • Luckily it was lovely weather so we decided just to walk around and see what we see.
  • Finished our walk with an authentic Belgium Waffle.
  • That was the best decision we made – Bruges is absolutely beautiful!
  • Headed back to the crossing – we were met in France with pouring rain and high winds (much like our last trip home in August).
  • Surrounded by rainbows during the drive back to the tunnel.
  • Said a prayer of thanks that we were going home through the tunnel, not suffering on the ferry in the weather again!
  • Lovely drive home – with a pit stop at Taco Bell (the only one in the UK).
  • Home in little over 48 hours – loaded with yummy chocolate, our traditional magnet souvenir, a few regrets about missing Germany, and a car that never made another peep the whole rest of the trip after we turned around and headed to Bruges – I guess we were just meant to miss Aachen and explore Bruges!

There were so many pictures that I will just put my favourites in a slideshow (all of them are available at www.chrisandjamie.info) …

 

A Hop, Skip, and a Jump

When I say that we live close to mainland Europe, people sometimes don’t quite get it… but we are…

See…

Salt Lake City, Utah to Las Vegas, Nevada                      6 hours              425 miles

Salt Lake City, Utah to Yellowstone National Park     6 hours              381 miles

 

Cambridgeshire, England to Aachen, Germany           6 hours              393 miles

Cambridgeshire, England to Bruges, Belgium             5 hours               252 miles

 

Now, of course this is according to Google – but I’d say the times are quite comparable – wouldn’t you?

So, tell me, if you were this close to Europe – wouldn’t you explore too??

 

The next few days we’ll be here and here.

 

Pictures to come!  Hopefully this will get me in the festive mood and excited for even more European traveling in December!!

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Countdown to Christmas Day 12

Today I had to nanny in the morning.  I was expecting to have this whole week off, but I ended up working all week long – but I didn’t mind.  The kids were so excited for Christmas and we tried to fill our time with Christmas crafts and other fun things that we normally wouldn’t do (like watching a movie or going to a biscuit party!).  Today as I was leaving the dad handed me a large bunch of beautiful red, green, and white flowers along with a very touching Christmas card signed by all of them and a bit of a bonus. 

I started looking after these kids about 4 years ago.  I love them as much as I love my own nieces and nephews and I couldn’t have better parents to work with. This arrangement kind of (luckily) fell into my lap those years ago and I am so grateful for it.

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Countdown to Christmas Day(s) 8 and 9

I know, I forgot a picture yesterday – well I didn’t really forget, there just wasn’t anything too memorable that happened yesterday.  Rain, Waiting in the Car,  Rain, Cold, Still Waiting, etc.  Anyway…  I will make up for it today with 4, yes 4 pictures!

The twins and I were invited to a cookie decorating party today, thrown by a lovely Sister from church.  Because we go to church near the American Base, I am lucky enough to have started to meet and make friends with some amazing women – who happen to be American – who happen to do “American” things like throw cookie decorating parties.

We had such a good time.  The twins couldn’t stop talking about it and I had a really nice time getting to know the women better.  The best thing about it was, that I was invited to the party before she even knew that I was looking after the twins.  That might not be a big deal to most, but as someone who has been excluded from lots of family and church things here in England because of my lack of children – it really made me feel good that I was invited to a child based event – EVEN THOUGH I DIDNT HAVE CHILDREN! SHOCKING!  It feels so nice to be included as a friend, not excluded because of my infertility.

Anyway…. (I could say a LOT more but, I’ll leave it – seeing that this a public blog).  Here are some of the pictures:

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There were so many cookies – gingerbread and sugar cookies and lots of fun decorations!

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“M” and I decided to be twins and she got the reindeer clips for her hair and I got matching earrings (lucky me!).

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Keeping with the “American” feel of the day, We got back to the twins house and I put on FM100 – Here it is playing one of my favourite cheesy Christmas songs – “Hey Sannna” (That is how they said it in Utah).

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Here is “M”’s Lego nativity.  Pretty creative, I’d say!

Today was such a fun day.  It has been really hard this Christmas to be away from family – but making new friends who I have a lot in common with both religiously and culturally (I realize now how much I’ve missed being around fellow Americans) really cheered me up and has been a great highlight of this year’s Christmas.