Monday, March 25, 2013

A Year Already? Bob's Your Uncle!

We arrived at Heathrow on Saturday, March 24 - exactly one year ago! We arrived exhausted but excited to begin this new adventure and happy to see Pete after a 6 week break!  It is cliché to say that it is hard to believe a year has passed but it really is hard to believe! Even the kids think this year has gone fast! And it certainly has not been dull! We have lived life to the fullest, explored this wonderful country and continued to expand our kid's quest for adventure!

Heading to London!
We made it-I slept for a week after arrival!

Tired but happy to see Dad!

Country count is as follows:
France (Jen to Paris 2x, family to St. Jean de Luz and Biarritz)
Italy (Rome)
Ireland (Pete many times to Dublin, family road trip in Feb)
Dubai (Pete)
USA (Pete)
Holland (Pete)
Turkey (Pete)

Stuff we have done in England:
Isle of Wight
Cotswalds (2x)
Stamford, Lincolnshire
Royal Ascot
Queen's Jubilee
Henley Royal Regatta
London Olympics (gymnastics, cycling, swimming, triathlon, beach volleyball, track and field, torch relay)
Blenheim Palace
Windosr Castle x6
Wincester Christmas Markets
Book of Mormon
Lion King
21 Mile walk in Stroud
ATP World Tennis match
Hayling Island (residence camp for Henry)
Hampton Court Palace
Madonna concert (Jen)
Biffy Clyro concert (Pete)
Henry graduating from Year 6 to secondary school
lots of things in London
continued with gymnastics (May)
learned how to pay cricket (Henry)
discovered cross country running (May)
experienced the British health care system (NHS) with a stay in the hospital (Henry)
First outing to London...Regents Park in the spring (my hair has not looked liked that since)!

First day at Polehampton Junior School

Prince Chuck at the Queen's Jubilee street party in Piccadilly!

Well done Queen, well done...trying to catch a glimpse of the
Queen's barge on the Thames during the flotilla

Olympic Stadium during Track and Field

First day of school in September


The whole family in the Masai Mara (red hair)

Fancy dress for the Royal Ascot with the Grimsteads!

Celebrity sightings:
Met the Fonz
Orlando Bloom
Bill Nighy
Hugh Grant
Prince Charles and Camilla

Visitors to date:

Colours my hair has been:

In order to get a feel for where we are at a year into this adventure, I decided to interview the kids for their POV on this big Davis family adventure!

Has the year gone by fast or slow? Why?
HENRY: It has been so fast because it has been so fun, we did a lot of things and experienced everything!

MAY: Too slow. I miss my friends but I also like my friends here.

What has been your favourite thing we have done?
HENRY: I really like going into London because we do new things every time we go. I loved the Olympics, especially the swimming because it was cool to watch and we saw Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. I like Africa because of all the cool animals and I loved swimming in the river and playing in the mud!

MAY: I loved going to Kenya. I really liked seeing GG, Papa, Uncle Will and Rye and seeing all the animals. I like going to all these new countries that I have never been too.

What is the worst thing we have done?
HENRY: All the hiking my Mom makes us do. (I knew he would say that!)
MAY: I don't always like going to London because it is so busy and the streets are crowded. I like going to see the sights and the stores but sometimes it is too crowded.

What has been your favourite thing about England?
HENRY: Meeting my new friends and that stuff here is like a million years older like all the castles and houses.
MAY: I like living in Twyford. You can easily walk to town with your friends and buy candy at the shops.

What do you miss the most from home?
HENRY: Mexican food/chimichangas from Costco, my friends/family, American football, baseball and basketball, chimichangas...did I say chimichangas ? Oh and Smarties and Hershey's chocolate. And root beer!
MAY: My dog, Stella, our big house, my friends and my rope swing in the playroom. I miss the space-these houses are tiny. I miss chimichangas, goldfish and root beer.
If anyone can  find a way to get these for us I think you
would have two grateful kids and one grateful husband...

What do you like better in England than in the US?
HENRY: There is more stuff to do here and I like taking the train/Tube places. And I like the fish and chips, bangers and mash and ginger beer!
MAY: I like the Cloudy Lemonade a lot! I like going to the pubs and hanging out and seeing all the castles they have here. I like it that so many friends come to visit us! The tea and chocolate are better here too.

If you could live anywhere that we have visited where would it be and why?
HENRY: I would like to live in Africa but only at the camps we visited (LOL-spoiled!) And maybe the Cotswalds because of all the countryside and we could own sheep.
MAY:  I think maybe in Kenya. I would like to live where Boni (our guide at Lemarti's Camp) lives and meet all sorts of new people and show them Africa. And the weather is warm most of the year!

Is school harder or easier here than in the US? How?
HENRY: It is harder. You get a load more homework, you have 16 classes and you get detentions for everything. But I have not gotten a detention.
MAY: It is easier I think but has a lot more tests. Math was harder in the US than it is now. You have to wear uniforms, the teachers have British accents and they tell people off all the time!

What do you like better about school in the UK?
HENRY: We get to cook food in Food Tech, make stuff in Product Design and you get more school holidays.
MAY: I like PE better in the UK because we do more fun things. We run a lot which I like!

Where do you still want to travel to?
HENRY: Belgium so I can eat chocolate, Switzerland to snowboard, Normandy for my school trip, basically anywhere in Europe.
MAY: I want to go back to Kenya. I also want to go to Switzerland, Fiji, Barcelona, Dubai and Austria. I want to try skiing in Switzerland too!

What's on tap for the next year:
a visit from the Basch family including a quick trip to Paris
Bruges and Brussels
May's residential trip to Hayling Island
GG and Papa visit with a weekend trip to the Yorkshire Dales and York
Henry's school trip to Normandy
Royal Ascot
Henley Royal Regatta
a visit from Paula and Grover and family
a visit from Roger and Leigh and family
a visit from Kristin and her daughter Kate
a visit from Stacey and her daughter Maddie
a visit from Andrew and Jessica and family
A visit from Dina for Royal Ascot and Wimbledon
Wimbledon with my favourite neighbour to the Men's semi-finals
May's graduation from Year 6 to secondary school
a visit from Pete's sister and her kids with a weekend trip to Edinburgh
Road trip to Normandy to see DDay sites with Pete's sister and her family
Road trip and hiking trip to Switzerland

...and that's only through August...

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Learning to Re-Drive in England

Everyone knows that driving in England is an entirely different experience than what we Americans are use to, right? They drive on the different side of the road then we do, their steering wheels are on the different side of the car, and their cars are itty bitty to go with their itty bitty, narrow roads. My giant Ford Expedition (seating 8 adults comfortably) would not fly here. As it was, our 520 BMW felt too big to drive here without always feeling like I was scraping things on the left hand side. Although I miss the bells and whistles of the BMW (and the automatic engine), I feel better driving in our VW Tiguan now-higher up and not as wide.

Now notice I didn't say the "wrong" side of the road or the "wrong side of the car" where the steering wheel isn't wrong, it's just different to us. Luckily, we have had a year to get our British driving license and are able to drive on our US license until the year anniversary date comes around. I can't imagine moving here and having to immediately take the driving test whilst getting everyone settled, in school and the house unpacked. That would have been majorly stressful.

So we are approaching our first year anniversary in Feb/March so we knew we had get on the details of getting our UK licenses. Of course, none of this is easy or seamless. It's bureaucracy at it's worst! First, we have to get a provisional license which means we have to send in our passports and the needed paperwork. Finding the time when we would not need our passports for at least a month proved to be difficult, not to mention how unsettling it is to send our passports off to a government agency! Luckily we had a tight window in November, after our trip to Rome but before Africa, to send it all in!

Once we had the actual provisional license, we could book an appointment to take the first of two tests, the Theory test (essentially the written test in US terms). Now I don't know if it has been sooo long since I got my US license at 16, but I do not remember the US written test being so detailed. The UK requires people to of course know the rules of the road and the road signs, but also vehicle maintenance, first aid, rules for horses, motorcycles, pedestrians, bicycles and towing a trailer. When in the hell am I going to be riding a motorcycle, towing a trailer or a horse in England?? We downloaded a copy of the Theory test software as well as The Highway Code handbook and began studying (revising they say here).  As well as the 50 multiple choice questions, you have to watch 14 video clips simulating real life driving situations and click on all of the hazards that could/would develop in the video clip-essentially like a video game shooting the bad guys.

I took at least 10 mock tests and passed 8 out of 10. Pete had taken his test already and had just passed so I was feeling confident about taking the test. Some of the multiple choice questions were so unbelievably silly that I thought there is no way any idiot could not pass this test. Questions like: "You come upon an accident scene. What two things should you not do:
a.) keep the injured person calm
b.) offer them a cigarette to calm their nerves
c.) call for emergency help
d.) offer them a drink

Seriously? Who is not going to get that question right? I realize I need to pretend I am an 18 year old British kid when taking this test but surely even an 18 year old can answer that question right. So off I went to take my Theory test 4 weeks ago. And that's when it went horribly wrong. Who's the idiot now?

As soon as I began, I knew I was screwed. I had at least 10 questions (passing was 43/50) I was unsure of-all having to do with vehicle maintenance, towing a trailer and documentation needed for said trailers. I answered the ones I knew and then went back to the questionable ones and tried to logically take out the wrong answers thus leaving me with 1 or 2 good guesses (back to the SAT days!) I got 9 questions incorrect and thus failed my Theory test. I was livid! After making fun of the stupid questions on Facebook and making everyone laugh? Dum dum Jen! That's what happens when you get American cocky!

So I had to book another appointment, pay another £31 to re-take the test and begin revising again on the Theory software. This time I gave particular attention to vehicle maintenance/safety and trailer rules. I took a million mock tests and passed them all. By this time I was a walking encyclopedia of The Highway Code.

So back I went, my tail between my legs, with a new found respect for the Theory test (not really). This time I passed with flying colors (48/50 yo!) and I am now able to book my new nemesis ---bom, bom, bom...the Practical Driving Test!

But first both Pete and I needed to brush up on our British driving skills and find out what is expected of us as British drivers. Now we both have been driving here for almost 11 months, not to mention the 28+ years of driving experience we each have under our belts, so we feel pretty good going into the lessons. We both realize we probably have been doing some things wrong whilst driving here and we just need some "fine tuning", right?? Well, not so fast bucko!

Turns out we need to completely re-learn how to drive a car here, with particular attention payed to the EMERGENCY BRAKE. The E-brake is used in almost every manoeuvre here in the UK. Pete was the first to have his lesson and he came home in a panic! "We are doing it all wrong, we need to practice, we need to know how to reverse into a teeny tiny parking spot, we are signalling incorrectly, we need to use our mirrors, we need our e-brake in all moves...we need to know how to do a 3-point turn!" Well, I know how to do a 3-point turn, easy peasy! Well guess what, I do not know how to do a 3-point turn British-style!

3-Point Turn British Style (Hey Sexy Lady-sorry couldn't resist!)

1. E-brake engaged, shift to 1st gear, check all mirrors, turn and check both blind spots, release e-brake and s-l-o-w-l-y make your first turn
2. stop, engage e-brake up, shift into reverse,  check all mirrors, turn and check both blind spots, release e-brake and s-l-o-w-l-y reverse into your second turn
3. stop, engage e-brake up, shift into 1st gear,  check all mirrors, turn and check both blind spots, release e-brake and s-l-o-w-l-y move into your 3rd turn, pull up on the side of the road, stop, engage e-brake and shift into neutral, take foot off the brake

Wow. That is a lot just to turn around in the middle of the road.

Not to mention the use of the e-brake at any stop light or stop when you are stopped for more than 3 seconds. E-brake on, in neutral, foot off the brake so as not to "dazzle" the other drivers behind you with your brake lights. Really? To me it just seems to be a lot of "messing around" and "looking down" when you should be looking up, ready to drive and get going.

Now, I really am not making fun of British driving rules. They aren't wrong, they are just different. My first lesson went pretty well but I did practice my 3 point turn about 10 times and still didn't get it right. I thought I knew how to parallel park too but, guess what? I don't. You can only use the mirrors and you need to keep both hands on the wheel-no slinging your one hand over the passenger seat and turning to look where you are going. Nope, it's all about the mirrors.

Believe it or not, some people have said I am ornery. Really? Me? I have had several bosses call me ornery. I don't know why. But suffice it to say that Steve, my driving instructor, probably thinks I am a tad ornery. The entire length of my 2 hour lesson I am asking why we use the e-brake so much, when would I need to turn around in the middle of the road, etc...I am sure he hates me.

*So wish us luck on the next bit of our UK driving experience as we both try and pass the Practical test with flying colours! I'll keep you posted!

*Update: I wrote this blog awhile ago after my first driving lesson. I was afraid of posting the blog because I did not want to jinx us! Flash forward a couple of weeks and I am happy to report that Pete and I have both past the driving test! It was not without drama, a failed first go (won't name names) and at least $900 was spent getting us to the testing centre 40 minutes away because the one closest to us was booked out 10 weeks in advance and we had about 4 weeks to get this all done!

So it is over with now. Back to driving the "right" way :-)

Friday, March 1, 2013

From the Emerald City to the Emerald Isle




The kids had Half Term break last week so we decided to hit up the Emerald Isle for a Griswald family road trip. We hitched up the Family Truckster and did a fast and furious road trip through the gorgeous south end of Ireland. Originally we were going to try to find some warmer temps or go skiing, but we wanted a closer destination so Ireland was the easy choice.
We flew into Shannon (60 minute flight!), picked up the Truckster and headed to the Cliffs of Moher straightaway! The sun was out and it was a balmy 50+ degrees...perfect weather for the Cliffs of  Moher viewing. Many people told us if the weather is cloudy/foggy that the cliffs just aren't worth going to, so we really lucked out. There were hardly any people and it felt like we had the place to ourselves. Apparently the day we were there they discovered that the side of the cliffs had been graffiti'd  with some colourful art-of course we could not see it but we read about it the next morning in the papers.The green colours were fantastic and the cliffs very dramatic. I was pleasantly surprised by the Cliffs of Moher-they were breath taking and I was glad my expectations were met.

Cliffs of Moher

Gorgeous day and not too cold-sun was out!

Cartwheels are mandatory at all tourist attractions!

Constant exposure! Love the textures here.

Biggest wave in Europe right there-need a jet ski to get you out to the waves.

After visiting the Cliffs, we jumped in the Truckster and headed to our first hotel. The Adare Manor in Adare, Ireland was ranked as one of the best Irish castles in all of Ireland. They were having an amazing Half Term break deal for a family room, kids are free, full Irish breakfast and dinner included so we jumped on living large for one night. As we entered the manor grounds, it was truly a "wait for it" moment. We turned the corner of the long drive and BAM!...the stately Manor awaits. We did find out a very important fact: manors are for the rich and castles were for defense...big difference! After checking in, we were given a tour of the manor which eventually led to our room. Our room was HUGE! May could do cartwheels galore in it! The kids quickly changed into their swimming costumes (lol! British for bathing suits) and went to terrorize the pool. We had a lovely dinner in the golf clubhouse's restaurant and followed up by drinks in the Manor bar where we were regaled with ghost stories of the Manor.

The next morning the kids and I walked explored the ground of the Manor and the charming village of Adare whilst Pete fly fished the Maigue River. As Pete says, "They don't call it catching for a reason." But he loved fishing with a ghillie (guide) who knew all about fly fishing in Ireland. Very cool! The kids and I picked up picnic supplies, had one more swim and then we headed out to "do the Dingle"!

Adare Manor-in Adare, Ireland was gorgeous!
The lobby
Tea Room and Bar
Gorgeous golf course setting
Ready to hit the pool!

Our huge room!

Royalty for one night only!
Full Irish Breakfast

Cool ruins on the property...although kids have the sad look on their faces
 because we had just seen a cat get hit by a car in town. Traumatizing!

The "wait for it" moment...

Pete and his ghillie Jim

Not a bad view from this hole!

We found out a manor is for the rich and a castle is for defense

Happy Man fly-fishing in Ireland!
We cruised on to the Dingle Peninsula and stopped at several beaches to search for rocks and shells. It was wee bit windy and we ended up eating our picnic in the Truckster. But then we found a wide open beach and spent about an hour tide-pooling and enjoying the protected and unwindy beach. It was heaven!

Not what Avis had in mind when we rented the car...

Climbing up to Pender Lake while crossing Connor Pass
After our beach combing bliss, we headed to Dingle over Connor's Pass, as recommended by the young American girl I sat next to on the plane. Ironically, she was moving to Ireland that day from Portland and had worked at Kells! Connor's Pass was desolate, narrow and a winding road. We stopped half way up and hiked up to a mountain lake. We were the only ones there and had some great fun shouting weird things to echo back to us!
Pender Lake

Essentially the pass turned into a one lane road-it was hairy!

Defacing the Irish stone

Hairy Highway we dubbed it!

Cold and chilly at the top of Connor Pass
At the top of the pass, you can see both sides of the Dingle Peninsula. It was windy and cold up at the top. It was a quick jump out and jump back in picture!
We checked into our cute B & B, the Castlewood Inn, relaxed a little and headed off to dinner in the cute fishing village of Dingle. We were going to try and hit a pub after dinner to listen to some Irish music but we were all so exhausted, we  just couldn't do it!
After an amazing breakfast cooked by the owners (to die for bread pudding!), we did a quick drive up the south side of the Dingle Peninsula to Slea's Head and then back to Dingle to pick up our suitcases. We had a long drive around the Ring of Kerry to get done that day so we had to get on the road! The kids slept most of the first part of the ring drive (which wasn't as stunning as the end bit of the ring drive) so Pete and I just chatted and listened to some Irish tunes (Pete bought a CD of Irish Pub Songs).
Some back history for you: after I lived in Florence, Italy during my junior year of college, I travelled to Greece with some friends and then met my room mates from Italy in Ireland. This was years before the Internet and cell phones so there was no email/texting check in to make sure we all were still meeting or had been delayed. We had picked a date to meet in the train station in Cork and we all meet there on the assigned date. Some how we had it in our brains that it would be fun to rent 3 speed bikes and cycle around the Ring of Kerry. We stored our backpacks at the train station (can't do that anymore can you?), rented our bikes and headed out on a 3 day biking tour of the Ring of Kerry...on a 3 speed bike, without helmets.
Why am I telling you this? Well after driving the Ring of Kerry last week, I can not believe how in the HELL we did that bike ride? It was so hilly, narrow and 112 miles around. So we averaged 40 miles a day with no prior bike riding training? Ah to be 20 again! I am trying to track down these old room mates in the hope they can fill in the parts of the trip I can't remember...I do remember staying in some really dodgy B & Bs...
Cliffs of the Dingle Peninsula

A 2500 year old fort!

Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula

We found this cool tiny little beach with some big surf!

May loves a good beach! She brought home 5 lbs of rocks and shells.

Cliffs on the Ring of Kerry

Another one lane road not even on the can see it go up and
 over those mountains into the left hand corner

We stayed in the charming village of Kenmare at the Coachman Inn. Definitely our worst hotel of the trip and I should have known better than to wait until the day before to find a place to stay. But the town itself made up for it-it was super cute and we had an excellent dinner at Packie's Bistro. Kenmare is know for some of it's excellent restaurants. Many were closed due to the season but in the spring and summer I think it is a very busy village!
Kenmare, Ring of Kerry

Kinsale, south of Cork. Darling town!
The next morning, we were up and out to try and hit the vibrant fishing village of Kinsale. The road was winding and narrow and we got stuck behind a truck so our drive was longer than expected. We had an amazing lunch at Fishy Fishy and strolled the streets of this cute village. We were going to try and stop at the Blarney Stone on the way up to Dublin but we were behind schedule and just headed straight up to Dublin (3 hr drive on a Friday and ran into traffic :-( )

This boy never ate a plate of mussels he didn't like!

Still going and just hitting his stride...

And done!

Trinity Library on the Trinity College campus-wish I could
 have taken a picture inside-it was stunning!
At this point in our trip, we were happy to give up the car and settle in some place for a couple of days. Pete gets an amazing deal at the Dublin Four Seasons through work so we had a sweet set up. Kids loved this hotel-they had kid sized robes for them, a bowl of popcorn and sodas waiting for them in their room. We were spoiled rotten by the service there! And they had a great pool! Win!
Another library-the National Library of Ireland
On Saturday, it was lightly snowing so we headed out early to do the Dublin Bus Tour. We hit Trinity College and Library, the National Library, Dublin Castle, some big Cathedrals, the Guinness Storehouse, Phoenix Park (where the US Embassy and the president of Ireland both reside). The Irish President's residence was designed to look like the original White House. Also, we were told the next Ambassador for Ireland might be Bill Clinton? Wha?

Wish I could say the kids were pouring over an Irish literary classic but no.
They were looking at a 2006 Guinness Book of World Records.

A monument for Dr. Barnardo-a famous Brit who helped many orphans in England and Ireland.
May did a report on him earlier this year so she was excited to see this sculpture.

Hiding from the nuns of the church!

Now we are talking-the Guinness Storefront tour!

Horse with a hat!

Classic Guinness adverts!

The kids loved the tour as much as we did-very well done!

Our complimentary Guinness with a shamrock!

Yum-I am a Guinness convert now!
Let's talk about Guinness, shall we? Believe it or not, I had never had a pint of Guinness. I was scared it would be too thick, too filling, too warm and too dark. Was I wrong. It is delicious. It is smooth, it is light, it is cold and it goes down easy! YUM! I am a new convert! The Guinness tour was excellent. Obviously it was the most crowed place we went but we all were engaged and learned a lot about making beer!
Listening to traditional Irish tunes at the pub in the Guinness Storehouse

Waiting patiently for another pint
 On Saturday night we booked a reservation at a cheesy restaurant that had a set menu, bad wine, good Irish music and hilarious 3rd rate Celtic dancing. The music was fun, people sang along and we all enjoyed it. Then the dancers came on stage. Wow. My jaw dropped to the floor and it was hard not laugh. What they do is impressive and I am sure very difficult, but inside I was dying! Michael Flatley, eat your heart out!

On Sunday morning, we split up. Pete took the kids to the Killmainham Gaol for some harsh reality. They had a great time learning about the Irish Potato Famine and the all the young kids that were sent to jail for stealing bread and coal. I went to Grafton Street and Temple Bar to peruse the shops and take in some of the Dublin street life!
Killmainham Gaol-Dublin's old jail
Kids as young as 7 years old were imprisoned here for stealing food and coal

Yummy-my first Guinness!

We came back with some crazy lookin' Leprechauns!
All in all, we loved Ireland, the people were so nice and friendly, most of the food was tasty, it was beautiful and we loved the Guinness! Hopefully we will get back to see Northern Ireland at some point!