Friday, January 22, 2016

Scotland Itinerary Part 2 - the Highlands

So, it has all been pretty mellow so far, but it is about to get crazier. After leaving Edinburgh, we started to really move and shake across Scotland.  We tried not to drive for more than 3-4 hours a day. We also tried to include at least one interesting place to stop on each drive.  We were also very lucky in that the weather was quite nice for this time of year.  We only had one day where it was rainy and foggy the entire day!  I think that is good for Scotland in October. If you are planning a trip, I think you really need a minimum of 7 days for Scotland. It would be better to have 10-14. We covered a lot of ground and saw what we wanted to see, but there are places I would have liked to have seen (Isle of Skye, sniffle) and places where I would have liked to have spent more time.

Another tip for saving money and time is to rent apartments with kitchens.  We always ate breakfast in the apartment.  I brought along a bunch of UHT milk, as well as cereal.  We bought eggs and bread at local shops.  We drank a lot of instant coffee that week because coffee makers are not de rigeur in Scottish apartments.  That said, I won't hold it against them. It is still a great place. 

We also skip touristy spots for more authentic locations. The Scottish Historical Society Explorer Pass was a steal for our family at around 100 euros. It covered entry to almost all of the castles and properties that we visited. Government run museums are almost always free and quite engaging and interactive. We didn't visit the Whisky Experience, Madame Tussaud's, the Edinburgh Dungeons or any other tourist traps beckoning in Edinburgh. I'm certain these are fun, but they are also quite expensive.

Day 5 -Stirling Castle and Inverness
We left Edinburgh in the pouring rain and I'm sad to say that it didn't get much better.  We stopped at Stirling Castle, en route.  While Edinburgh castle is a defensive castle, Stirling is more comfortable and luxurious.  It was the home of the Stewart monarchs and Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to James here.  The castle has lots of actors throughout who play characters typical of the time period.  It is situated on a hill in a beautiful part of Scotland and should have views of the nearby Wallace Memorial. In reality, we spent the day more like this:

Ha!  Scottish weather. It is what it is.  Anyways, it rained all the way (3 hours and 45 minutes), but we made it to Inverness by nightfall. Our hotel was an apartment on the river.  With a super strange bathroom:
Chris demonstrating the size of the downstairs bathroom.

Inverness at night

Day 6:  Culloden Moor and Clava Cairns and the Highland Folk Museum
This was a great day.  Culloden had guides that involved the boys in a history lesson about putting on kilts, the Scottish clan system, warfare and a myriad of other topics. It did, however, start raining on us right when we started the battlefield walk in Culloden.  We ended up SOAKING wet.  Clava Cairns is a remote, untouristy spot with real standing stones. Y'know, like the ones in Outlander.  The Highland Folk Museum is free and absolutely amazing, for people with kids and without.  They have actors, such as a school teacher and farmers, who tell you about life during that time.  This also happens to be the place where the Outlander episode "Rent" was filmed.  I didn't bring along a pop-up Jamie, but I'm definitely a huge fan of the books and the series. 
Culloden moor, right before the rain came

Day 7: Inverness and Fort William
Now, we are getting to my very favorite location in Scotland.  We left Inverness and visited Urquhart Castle en route.  This is a ruined castle situated on Loch Ness. Nope, no sign of Nessie.  We looked. The drive itself was beautiful and took us toward Fort William.  The Fort William area and Glencoe, in the far west of Scotland, feel like the ends of the earth. It is isolated, remote and pristine. I would have loved to have spent more time here, and to have ventured further west to the islands there. I found a quirky hotel off the internet that was across one of the large lochs outside of the city. We could either drive 3 hours around the loch or take a 10 minute ferry that deposited us into the Inn's parking lot.  Um, we chose the ferry. The Inn at Ardgour is a quirky, old school and mellow inn, which was comfortable and memorable.  

Castle Urquhart and Loch Ness

Our view from the window of the Inn

Right beside the Inn

Violet was the only one keen on swimming

Day 8: Glencoe and Glasgow
 Our time in the highlands was, sadly, at an end.  We visited the Glencoe Visitors Center where we did a nature hike and learned more about the infamous Scottish massacre. Then, we drove on to Doune Castle - aka "Castle Leoch" (Outlander) aka "The Monty Python Castle" from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This one was a huge hit with everyone. The audio guide was narrated by Terry Jones and the gift shop had coconuts they would lend you for photo ops.  Or, if you are Violet, you just carried them around through the entire tour. It was also a ruined castle, but restored enough to get a good idea of what it looked like.  The size was also quite manageable. It was definitely one of our favorite stops. Our hotel was on the outskirts of Glasgow and we saw none of that city.  It looked much bigger, modern and industrial than our previous stops.

Day 9: Return Home
We packed out of our hotel, enjoyed a huge Scottish breakfast (black pudding (blech), bacon, eggs, toast, potatoes, fried mushrooms and tomatoes), and hit the road.  We did stumble upon the remnants of Hadrian's wall perched atop the hills in Northumberland.  We didn't have time to stop for long, but we did take a few pictures. That afternoon, we boarded the ferry to return home.  
If you look closely, you can kinda/sort of see Hadrian's Wall. There isn't a ton left, but it is there.

The view of the Newcastle coast as we headed back to Amsterdam

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Scotland Itinerary

So, one reason I wanted to resume blogging was to showcase some of the super fun itineraries I've created for travel in Europe. We are beyond thrilled at how easy it is to travel here. And it is relatively inexpensive compared to Beijing. By that, I mean that food and hotels is EXPENSIVE. But, the travel costs are low. Especially if we can drive. And attractions are often free or low-priced as well. There are family passes available and many museums here are free for children or students. My Scotland itinerary was developed with the help of some friends who had already been there, done that. I really appreciated their advice and feedback. It made the trip much more cohesive and interesting. I'm breaking this post into 2 installments: Edinburgh and then the Highlands.

Day 1 - Ferry from Amsterdam to Newcastle. Boarding time is 2:30-4:30, ferry leaves at 5:00. So, I didn't know many people that had done this, but thought that it would be great if we could take the overnight ferry so that we didn't have to drive all the way through England to get to Scotland. Newcastle is only a few hours from Edinburgh so this gives us a big head start. It turned out to be a wonderful idea. The boat was clean, they had family rooms for 5 and the food was good albeit very expensive. They even had a play area for children with a ball pit where Violet made friends. We all slept very soundly and arrived the next morning ready to go.
Chris' reminder in the car so we could remember where we should look.

Tight fit, but yes, 5 people will fit here. There is another bed above mine where Chris slept.

Sunset at sea

Day 2 - arrive Newcastle 9:30 a.m., drive to Edinburgh (3 hours and 14 minutes), Stop at Melrose Abby (covered by explorer), arrive and check in to
The Knight Residence By Mansley Serviced Apartment.

This day is pretty self-explanatory. We bought an explorer pass for the family, which covered admission to many of Scotland's sights including Edinburgh castle. This was well worth it. You also get to skip the lines and just walk right up with your pass. Melrose Abbey was beautiful and isolated and a really nice respite from the drive. Once we got checked into our hotel - which was amazing and one that I highly recommend - we headed right down the street to Mary's Milk Bar for hot chocolate floats. Those were every bit as delicious as you might think. We did a bit of grocery shopping that evening and looked around Old Town. Chris and I debated heading out after we got the kids settled for a whisky flight, but were just too exhausted!

Day 3 - We woke up early to tackle Edinburgh Castle. We even stayed to hear them fire the "One O'Clock Gun" across the city. We walked along the Royal Mile, ate at a place called Frankenstein's (kid-friendly but unremarkable) and then headed to Arthur's Seat for a hike. Now, one thing I hadn't fully accounted for is the fact that it would start getting dark every day by 3:30. We were at Arthur's Seat around 2:30. There appeared to be a lengthy path up, but we were concerned we might not make it before sunset. Alex, with my support, then decided that we could take the path less traveled. You know, the one that went straight up the side of the mountain. This was a fast, terrifying, extremely difficult way to get up the mountain. But, I'm happy to say that we all made it. Whether or not this was an appropriate way to get up the hill is the subject of some debate. After seeing sunrise, we headed home and stumbled across Violet's favorite park anywhere. It had a zip line and she could have spent hours there in the dark and cold. The rest of us were not so inclined. We grabbed fish and chips and headed home where we collapsed.

We were all sweaty and red and asked a hapless passer-by to snap a pic

This was really much worse than it looks here. By the end we were on our hands and knees grabbing for grass.

Day 4 - We spent the morning at the (free) National Museum of Scotland which did a good job giving us a bit of background into the place. It also had a dress-up room and lots of nature stuff for kids. We had lunch near the Elephant Bar - this was where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter - because the actual Bar was too crowded to seat us. We then wandered about Greyfriar Kirk to attempt to find the Tom Riddle grave.That evening we did a Mercat Ghost Tour of an underground vault where people in Edinburgh once lived and worked. When the city build bridges, these vaults were covered up and unused for centuries. It was interesting, but not our favorite thing. I think we would have preferred a straight up history tour without the ghost stuff.

Alex is a big fan of Irn-Bru

The remnants of the old Edinburgh city walls

This little dog sat by his master's grave for 14 years

Dress up at the museum

This sweet store had the BEST tablet!

Introverts and the Expat Life

So, having survived our first official FS transition, this subject is near and dear to my heart.  Merriam-Webster defines an introvert as "a shy person : a quiet person who does not find it easy to talk to other people.'  I think introverts CAN learn to talk easily to others and don't always even present as terribly shy. Many learn coping skills and can turn "on" a more outgoing persona when required.  I've learned this over time. At our core though, we find being around other people draining and need time alone to recharge.

Extroverts are a distinct minority in the expat and FS community.  I think the reasons for this are fairly obvious.  Transitions are hard for introverts, they often dislike change and the idea of having to make all new friends every few years is often more horrifying than exciting for this personality type. BUT, just like among extroverts, there are all different types of introverts. I dread change, but I seek it out.  I dislike making new friends, but a clean slate is really exciting.  I think there are definite advantages to this personality type in this lifestyle.  I don't mind being alone.  In fact, I love it.  This can make the isolation that is a definite part of this life something far less burdensome than it is for more sociable people.

I married another introvert AND we are raising 3 introverted kids.  Parenting as an introvert is another interesting topic that I haven't seen fully explored anywhere.  It means that you are always "on".  The ability to turn inwards into yourself and recharge AWAY from others simply doesn't exist.  Especially when they are little and around 24/7. I also struggle with my own tendencies and to have to address them in my kids is pretty difficult.  I dislike making phone calls, for example, but this is generally required in order to be a functioning adult. I also dislike situations where I have to deal with customer service at the phone company, bank, etc. etc.  I will avoid these situations like the plague.  But, once again, they are an essential part of being a functioning adult. So, I do them.  And yes, this lifestyle increases these types of interactions by a thousand-fold.  I know the challenges are good for me, but they can be a definite struggle. Thankfully, a lot of tasks can be accomplished over email nowadays.  This mitigates some of the sting for introverts and allows them to complete the tasks without some of the anxiety that these situations can provoke.  Especially when a different language is involved.

I recently read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I really thought I knew pretty much everything you could know about my personality type.  Turns out, I didn't.  I highly recommend this book for introverts or family members of introverts or extroverts who are curious about the "other side."  It discusses the latest educational models in schools that focus heavily on group projects.  Although these do teach valuable skills about how to get along with others, these types of models typically favor extroverts. Introverts often do not shine in these types of projects. Cubicles and "group think" type environments, which are very trendy in business environments, also are not a great fit for many introverts.  Introverts do their best work and make their most valuable contributions when they have time and space alone to recharge.  I'm a bossy introvert who was very strong academically.  As such, I often functioned as the leader in these types of projects.  But, when it came time to present, I would beg a more extroverted classmate to actually stand up in front of the class.
Anyways, it is both interesting and horrifying to watch your own kids begin to navigate the social/emotional world.  To find their fit, what works best for them, how they address their social needs while maintaining their space.  At our previous post, socialization wasn't an option. It came to you.  We lived in a compound where you ran into neighbors at the grocery store, the bus stop, the gym, the pool.  Making friends was extremely easy, even for introverts.  People, quite literally, would meet you somewhere and invite you all over right then and there on the spot.  That was, indeed, our experience on our very first day at the bus stop in Beijing.  At this post, you make your own fun and you make your own friends.  Ample opportunities for socializing exist through the school and the embassy community, but nobody is going to grab you and pretty much force you to socialize. I don't think any of us are terribly lonely. BUT, we don't socialize that much either. It is definitely harder to establish a safety net of friends that you can call in an emergency.  There are definitely lovely people here that would help me if I HAVE to call, but not those friends that you know will help without even asking.  Not yet, anyways.  This is on me. I have to do better at getting out and connecting.  

I think one big difference between struggling with introversion as an adult instead of as a child is that I KNOW what is going on and what steps should be taken to fix it. I know which things have to be done versus being choices.  Kids don't have this insight yet.  I applaud all of my children's courage every time they start a new school and begin this process all over again.  It is so terrifying and I know it is so difficult for them.  I think and hope it is giving them more courage and resiliency.  Their nature won't change, but their confidence in their abilities can and will evolve. 
Playing around in a phone booth, but I really hate the phone:)

Catch up on 2014

My Google Photos app made this fun movie of our 2014.  Our big trips are well-represented here.  In 2015, we didn't do much.  Except, you know, move;)  Just thought I'd share.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Europe With Kids

We have lived in Europe before - 20 years ago - gulp!  At that time, I was single or newly married.  I did not have children. Now I do. 3 of them.  Teens and a grade-schooler. Thankfully, I no longer have anybody in high chairs or strollers because those would be pretty impossible here. Young, single and/or newly married folks love to wander about the streets without an agenda.  They love to people watch and experience new and novel sights and sounds.  They enjoy sitting in a coffee shop sipping a cafe au lait or a chocolate chaud.  For very long periods of time.  They like boat rides, touring churches and admiring works of art in a museum.  Ah, can't you just see the quaint cobblestone roads of Europe and the winding rivers and picturesque cathedrals?....Now, insert children into the picture.  "This is so boring."  "What are we doing here?"  "I've seen churches before." "It is just a tower, a stupid tower."  "Where are we gooooooing?"!

So, the whole serendipity and wandering thing doesn't work out that well.  At least not with my children.  Perhaps it will with yours.  Mine very much like having an agenda and a purpose to the day.  Even if that purpose is a museum, this is apparently much better than having NO purpose.  Now, as you know, I've traveled with mine before. Like all through Asia.  However, Asia isn't typically a leisurely, "wander-about and let the spirit take you" type of place.  It is a full-on onslaught of sights, sounds and smells that will leave you reeling. Or it is a beach resort in Bali or Thailand where everyone is happy because there is water to splash in and mango to eat.

After an ill-fated trip to Bruges where our family pretty much bickered our way through the city, I've revised by entire take on how we do European cities.  And, I'm happy to say that my formula has been quite successful.  With the new and improved formula, we have spent days and days in Scotland, France and Belgium with relatively happy kids - and happy parents as well. We even attempted another trip to Bruges and it was MUCH more successful.

My secret formula - always, always plan out your day.  Like in detail. I'm pretty sure my family might call it "annoying detail" but it helps us see the sights in an organized fashion. Do not go somewhere if you cannot find some type of activity to fill in the time.  Seriously.  Yes, it might be the loveliest village ever but if there is no museum/zoo/castle, you will all be miserable. It is even better if there is something active they can do - hike a mountain. climb a zillion steps to a belfry. Pretty much anything with lots of steps is good.  Get tickets to major attractions ahead of time if you suspect crowds.  This is a HUGE one. Otherwise, you will waste long periods in line and you will ALL be miserable. If you can look ahead on Tripadvisor and figure out some food stops, this is even better.  Food makes most things better. You should also never arrive at your location hungry because this leads to ill-advised dining decisions.  Ask Chris about his hamburger in Ypres....Oh, final tip.  Boat rides should be short and sweet. 
Not enough food or activity

Happy at the start of this boat ride...

Boat ride gone bad...

Alex - in Amsterdam where we did a boat ride and the Van Gogh museum

Durbuy, a lovely small Belgian town with a topiary park, a market and a castle.

Teens often don't look happy, but secretly are.  They tell their friends how cool something was LATER.

Um, what do you say - but sorry!

Dear Diary - or blogosphere - or whatever,
It has been almost 2 years since my last blog post!  Did we fall off the Great Wall?  Choke to death on the pollution?  On the contrary, I can assure you that we are all alive and well.  And I've once again got some motivation to make something of this blog. Honestly. I love to write. I should be capable of at least updating this weekly. I also have a lot to say. For an introvert, anyways;)  Well, for one thing, we are no longer in China!  We left last May and are now living in sunny Brussels.  Okay, maybe not so sunny.  But amazing and quite home-like.  We all love it here and have taken advantage of this opportunity to travel to the Netherlands, the UK (Ah, Scotland), Germany and France.  We haven't hit Luxembourg yet, but that is a day trip and very much on my agenda.  Our trusty Sienna arrived and we've been road-tripping fools. In fact, I'm quite thrilled to say that I've been here 5 months and haven't had to fly once! I'll end this "welcome back" post with a few pics of our new home.  The peeing boy is well represented here.  Kids keep growing up.  Alex will graduate in 18 months, which is unbelievably shocking.  Ethan is a full-on teenager and Violet is a tweenish 3rd grader.  Life just keeps on chugging along.