Saturday, March 30, 2013


0309_4387-1 Otherwise known as Vienna.

The city's true name (in German) is Wien, which is pronounced like VEEN.  Say it in a loud, deep voice. We did, and continue to do so when we refer to our stop there.

Vienna sounds so pretty.  But VEEN?  Considerably less so.  It's just so... abrupt.  Matter of fact.  No nonsense.  Gold star to the Anglicized version of the city's name.


After leaving Salzburg we loaded up our rental car with our suitcases, our children, and 5,000 snacks for Caroline, and headed down the road to VEEN.  It should take a couple of hours, but we thought we'd go the scenic route through the Alps.  The backseat was not impressed.  But we did get to see this town, which was totally charming.

A few memorable things about Vienna:

I could die a happy person if I never left a Viennese coffee shop.  Most of them have a stately (if slightly shabby and comfortable) grandeur about them, with marble topped tables and high ceilings.  The atmospheres are low key and the servers expect you to stay awhile and enjoy your treats.  And they know what to do with espresso and milk.  Big time.  And the CAKE.  Sachertorte is the best known kind... chocolate sponge cake layered with apricot jam, and covered with dark chocolate icing.  And then you get a big dollop of whipped cream on the side.  So yes, I'd die a fat and happy person if I never left one of those shops.

Vienna is grand.  Old and grand and historic, and it's obvious that it was once the seat of major power and prestige.  After Austria found itself on the losing side of WW1, the city no longer holds the kind of status it once did.  But the incredible buildings and palaces and squares and churches remain.  They're incredible.

The Hapsburgs (former Holy Roman Emperors and rulers of Spain and Austria) are fascinating.  We so enjoyed learning a bit of their history, with the scandals and the wealth and the extraordinary power throughout Europe.  Their former home in central Vienna, Hofburg Palace, continues on for forever.  Building after impressive building.  I think many of them are museums and libraries now, in addition to government-related purposes.  What else do you do with such massive and amazing structures when your ruling family gets kicked out?

And when those Hapsburgs tired of city life each summer?  They'd head out to their summer palace, Schonbrunn.  With "only" 1441 rooms, it was the smaller of the two palaces, and has really incredible gardens.  It's often compared to Versailles in France.  But what's funny about it is that it's only a couple of miles away from The Hofburg, still very much in Vienna.

I just can't handle city life any more.  So I'm going to walk 20 minutes to my other palace.  In the same city.

Aside from power and prestige, the Hapsburgs are also widely known for inbreeding as a way to keep their positions secure.  Cousin to cousin.  Uncle to niece.  And the like.  Obviously, over time that can lead to some significant genetic problems. 

Rabbit trail alert: The most serious case of Hapsburg inbreeding came to a head with Carlos II of Spain in the 1700s.  I find his story fascinating, and I do realize it has very little to do with Vienna.  All eight of his great-grandparents were actually descendents of the same two people, leaving him physically and mentally disabled, and significantly disfigured.  His tongue was so big that his speech was difficult to decipher, and he had a major drooling problem to boot!  Not surprisingly, that strain of the Hapsburg line ended there. 

All of that to say, we felt that the family symbol, the double-headed eagle, was well chosen. 

Caroline is so young that the historical significance of the Hapsburgs, the grandeur of the palaces, and the various architectural styles around town are completely lost on her.  Yes, she's getting these fabulous European experiences.  But her priorities are stroller snacks, Hello Kitty gloves, Happy Meal toys, and open space to romp around.  To her, the incredible gardens of Schonbrunn are simply another park with grass, pigeons, and the opportunity to get out of the stroller to run around.  And she can enjoy Sachertorte with the best of 'em.

We love that.

We loved VEEN.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

The hills are alive...

0315_5009-1 ... with the sound of children crying in the airport.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

(I did fly with the two girls solo.  And Caroline did have a full-blown temper tantrum in the airport.  But the trip was worth it.)

As I mentioned, we got back from the States, we re-packed our suitcases and were gone again three days later.  This time for a trip to Austria and the Czech Republic.  I'm not going to lie... I was initially pretty resistant to back-to-back trips with our two little kids.  But Josh won me over.  And with the exception of a few minor hiccups, the kids were great.

Our first stop was Salzburg, Austria.  With the Alps as a backdrop and stately baroque architecture throughout, it's a fabulous destination for any tourist looking for a quaint spot in central Europe.  But those are not the reasons I've wanted to go there since I was six years old.  It's because one of my all-time favorite movies was set and filmed there:  The Sound of Music.

Josh had business to do in town, which left the girls and me with the better part of three days to explore.  So what did I do?  Embraced my inner-nerd and found as many Sound of Music locations as possible of course!  If you follow me on Instagram you'll already know this about me and this trip, since I posted pics like this:

So do la ti do re do. {Also, we totally came across a teenaged tourist girl in her own homemade green damask dress making the rounds on her own tour of the Do Re Mi spots.}  When you know the notes to sing...
According to Josh's coworkers, the film isn't all that popular with Austrians.  But the Americans tourists can actually book bus tours to see all the sights.  The girls and I didn't go that far, although I might have had the girls been older.  We actually met an American teenager who had made her own green damask dress and was hunting down the same locations as us.

Beyond my Sound of Music obsession, our days in Salzburg were glorious.  My extremely fond memories of that city are most likely colored by the fact that we experienced three sunny 65 degree days.  And that was coming off a trip to the snowy Midwest and a rainy few days in London.  No coats necessary during daylight hours!  The kids and I shopped, ate ice cream and pretzels, had lunch in outdoor cafes, and played in gutters.  Okay, that last one was just Caroline.  Salzburg does have a lot of pedestrian-only streets, which was great for letting her out of the stroller.  She needs nothing more than an empty water bottle/stick/pretzel and some space to explore, and she's a happy camper.

And then Josh would join us for dinner and some more strolling around town in the evenings.

It was a teensy tinesy shame we didn't get to see Salzburg in the summer.  All the fountains were covered up, and there was some significant construction going on prior to the beginning of the tourist season.  But I guess that's just a reason to go back!

Here are some pics and more fond memories of our time there:


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Kenilworth Castle

Who needs a proper playground when you have castle ruins to climb around on?

Old ruins like this one have something for each of us.  Josh and I appreciate the history (this place was built by the supposed "great love" of Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, in 1575) and Caroline is more than happy to scamper about on steps, hills, and stones.  And Juliet sleeps in the Bjorn.  Perfect.

So when we found ourselves with a free Saturday in early February, we took advantage of the opportunity and took a short drive to find this place.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

USA all the way.

This post is going to fall into the "quick and dirty" category of blog life.

But then, what doesn't these days?

We just returned from a fabulous trip to the States on Sunday afternoon, and will embark on a trip to Salzburg/Vienna/Prague on Wednesday morning.  I'm fairly sure we're walking a tenuous line between ambitious and just plain crazy.

But while we're here in the UK we'd like to see as much of Europe as we can possibly afford see.  And when the girls and I can tag along on Josh's business trips it really helps toward that end.

So, back to the US of A.

We spent a fantastic two solid-packed weeks of grandmas and grandpas and cousins, snuggles with our dog Riley, hugs from friends, water parks, and twin baby boys.
0218_2679 0217_2749

The kids both did great on both flights, praise God!  We dumped Caroline into Juliet's baby car seat both ways and it worked like a CHARM.  I'd highly recommend this strategy!  The lap belt becomes a game of how crawl out of it.  But a 5-point harness?  Perfection.  Not to mention a nice incline for good sleep.  And Caroline may or may not have watched Cars 2 five times over the two flights, so kiddie head phones were perfect.
0216_2766 0303_2514

Miss Juliet got to meet all kinds of family and friends.  I'm so glad we were able to travel with her when she was still tiny.  She got to meet 6 of her 7 great-grandparents, along with countless other family members and friends who have been loving her and praying for her from afar.

0217_2748 0218_2680

0219_2655 0217_2725
My Oma, Ben's girlfriend Annie, my brother Ben, and my cousin Erin with baby Juliet

My grandpa and mom

0217_2733 0217_2734 0301_2560 0216_2772
My cousin Elizabeth and Aunt Jo, my Grandma (who MADE that awesome quilt as a baby gift for us!), my Oma, and Juliet's cousin Aiydan

I got to take some pics of Montoya's kids - aren't they cute?



We threw my two in there for a few shots as well.


The only thing getting Caroline through the photo shoot was a sucker!

We adults got to catch up with loved ones, too.  As much as Skype and FaceTime help us feel close to people back home, it just isn't the same as sitting on a friends' couch, enjoying breakfast out at with grandparents, or laughing around a kitchen table over glasses of wine.

And NOTHING comes close to holding new babies.  My BFF and cousin Erin went into labor with her twins two days before we arrived in the States.  I was afraid I'd miss their birth all together, but those handsome rascals decided to make their appearance at 35 weeks.  I'm confident they just wanted to meet Auntie Jessie. 
0220_2653 0218_2723
Holding hands with Hendrick, handsome Andres.

Since they were tiny, they spent 10-ish days in the NICU.  I got to visit them there almost every day I was in town (thanks to my parents, who babysit my kids!)  I loved seeing their precious little faces, and even getting to hold and feed them.  But I loved getting to see Erin become a mama even more.  She's amazing at it.

My mom postponed her annual Valentine's Day breakfast so that we could be a part of it. The tablecloth and the pancakes in particular take me back to my childhood, when she would get up early and make us a special candlelit breakfast complete with heart-shaped pancakes before we went off to school.
0218_2700 0218_2702 0218_2704 0218_2701

After a few days in Grand Rapids, we headed up to Northern Michigan (Traverse City) with Josh's parents (who had generously agreed to fly to Michigan from Texas, sparing us yet another flight with the girls) to see Josh's grandparents AND stay at the Great Wolf Lodge, a fantastic indoor water park.
0222_2644 0223_2608 0222_2622



Josh's grandparents with Josh and our girls.

0223_2611Caroline and Josh's mom (Nana) playing stickers.  Nana always comes prepared with treats!

0223_2597 0223_2596

After Traverse City we headed down to Columbus (by way of Ann Arbor for dinner with the LeComptes) for a few days.  And I took way too few pictures!  But suffice it to say we enjoyed several breakfast, lunch, and dinner dates with old friends.  WE MISS YOU ALL!
0227_2578 0225_2586

And then the girls and I were back in G-Rap for a hot minute before we flew back to the UK.  But those two days gave us the chance for family fun at my parents' gym, and one more opportunity for me to snuggle Erin's twins (who were home - hooray!)
0301_2568 0301_2562


0302_2544 0302_2543 Josh and I spend countless conversations hashing out differences between US and UK life.  And in the course of those I like to hand out the "gold stars."

History.  Quaint.  Old.  Castles.  Abbeys.  Cathedrals.  Medical care post-childbirth.  The River Thames.  Charming little towns.
Gold Star UK

Restaurants that provide enough ice and ketchup.  Oyster Crackers.  Goldfish.  Barbeque.  Low prices.  Pay-at-the-pump gas.  Pei Wei.  Good pizza.  Drive-thrus.  Low prices, again.  Graeters and Jeni's Ice Cream (for Josh).  Larger parking spaces.  People we love.

And Target.
Gold Star USA

Suffice it to say we indulged in a variety of old US favorites in addition to spending lots of quality time with friends and family.  And as much fun as we're having in the UK, there's truly no place like home!