Friday, 30 January 2015

Reflections on January in England

This morning, we woke to snow on the ground.  It's quite lovely and when you get hardly any snow, you thoroughly enjoy what little does fall, especially when it actually sticks to the ground.  

England is a crazy place in January, weather wise that is.  It keeps us guessing.  The weather changes hourly.  One morning, we’ll wake up to rain.  By the time we leave to walk to school, the sun is shining.  My midmorning the wind is blowing and dark clouds are rolling in.  Noon – we get a hail storm.  By 2:00, the sun is out again and there’s not a cloud in the sky.  Walking home from school, it starts snowing.  The girls get excited, but it’s short lived.  Ten minutes later the snow is done and the sun is trying to peak out again before it dips from the sky for the night.  Crazy, crazy weather. 

The days are very short and the sun seems oddly low in the sky all day long.  We are living much farther north than anywhere we’ve lived before, yet our winter will be milder.  
Latitudes for comparison:
Indianapolis, Indiana – 39.72
Minneapolis, Minnesota – 44.88
East Midlands, UK (area we live in) – 52.83

Even at noon, the sun is very low in the sky here in England.  When it’s rays spread across the countryside, it casts a different light than any I’ve ever seen at midday – a muted light that gives everything a bit of a golden glow.  It’s beautiful.  When the kids returned to school in early January, it is still completely dark when we get up in the morning.  By the end of the month, the sky has a faint glow when we rise – the sun still has awhile before it will be fully above the horizon, but when you wake and look out the window now, you know it’s morning without having to consult a clock. 

There was an earthquake measuring 3.8 not far from here the other night.  The epicenter was in a village about 40 miles from our house.   I was sitting in bed reading emails on my phone when the bed started to shake.  At first, I thought a big truck must have been driving by, but I found that quite odd as it was almost 10:30 at night and we live in a very rural area.  The bed continued to shake for several seconds.  Not a lot, but enough that I could definitely feel it.  I didn't think anything more of it until the next day when I saw the news headlines "3.8 Earthquake Hits the East Midlands."  Yep - that's what I felt.   Snow and an earthquake in January in England - two things that do not happen every year here.

There are so many places we want to visit and explore around England, but the cold, damp weather and the lack of daylight put a damper on our explorations in January.  We spent most weekends near home this month, but that was okay.  Winter is a time to rest and rejuvenate and once the weather is nicer and the days are longer, I suspect we will spend less and less time at home on the weekend.

We did venture out one weekend though.  We drove to the city of Oxford for a visit.  Lots to see and do there, and what a beautiful city.  And we got to visit a little bit of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry while we were there.  So fun!  I’ll share our visit to Oxford with you next week. 

I’ve become more comfortable driving around the English countryside in my little Ford Focus.  One day, I even ventured into Nottingham by myself to meet the ladies in the Midlands Better Halves club for lunch (in case you missed my earlier post about this Club, this is a group of ladies from Indiana whose husbands all work at Rolls-Royce).  Why is this a big deal?  Because I am from a country where a yellow line down the middle of the road means two-way traffic and a white line means different lanes of traffic heading in the same direction.  In the UK, ALL lines in the center of the roads are white, regardless of which direction the traffic is suppose to be heading.  How do you know if you are on a one-way street with multiple lanes or on a two-way street?  I haven’t quite figured that out yet, so when I drive into an unfamiliar city where lots of roads are potentially one way, it’s very nerve wracking.  I never know if I’m in the right lane or if I’m heading down a one-way street the wrong direction.  To make things more complicated, cars are allowed to park on either side of the street here.  So you pass cars on your side of the street that are facing backwards.  I should probably study up on the rules of the road here.

While in Nottingham with the ladies from the Club, we dined at a Jamie Oliver restaurant – need to do that at least once while in the UK, right?  The food was good, and as always, it was great to sit and chat with fellow Americans for a couple of hours. 

Eric and I spent a lot of January planning our next few trips.  It’s going to be a busy spring and summer for us and I can’t wait.  Right now, with the dreary weather outside, it’s the anticipation of the travel we get to do while living in Europe that helps me get through each day. 

 Eric made his first trip back to Indiana for work since we've been here.  It was a short trip.  He left Sunday and was back home by 8:30 this morning (Friday).  This was all very odd because we are use to him heading to England from Indiana for work, but not the other way around.  Before heading to the airport to catch his plane back to England, he stopped at CVS to pick up some things to bring back.  He usually brings some kind of sweet treat back when he travels for work.  This time, he showed up with Goldfish crackers and mac and cheese, two things the girls haven't seen in four months.  They were ecstatic!  You would have thought it was Christmas morning with the way they were jumping around. 

The other day, I asked everyone what they missed from home.  Ellie said her family and best friend Sophia from school.  She’s always the sentimental one.  Leah said her bed and our yard.  She loves snuggling up in her bed and running around outside.  Back in Zionsville during the winter, they both would go out and play in the snow, but Leah always stayed out by herself, no matter how cold, long past when Ellie came in.  Eric misses football.  We had to listen to the last Packer’s game over the internet and it is not nearly as enjoyable as watching it live on TV.   

And what do I miss?  I miss our fireplace.  From mid fall to early spring, we have a fire blazing away in the fireplace almost everyday warming up our house.  When it’s cold outside, there is nothing like sitting in front of a hot fire for a few minutes to warm up.  Here, there is a chill in my bones that I just can’t get rid of.  I am always cold and no amount of wool socks and thick sweaters can replicate the bone penetrating heat that emanates from a toasty warm wood fire. 

I also miss the feeling of familiarity.  Shopping at stores I’m familiar with where I know exactly what I can get and where to find it, eating at favorite restaurants where I know I’ll get good food every time, driving down familiar roads, going for walks on my favorite trail in Zionsville.  Even though we’ve lived here for four months now, everything still has an air of unfamiliarity about it.  I wonder if that will ever change.  I suspect not, simply because this move is only for two years and that’s always in the back of my mind.  Knowing that four months has already flown by and we will be going home someday makes me almost keep a bit of a distance from getting too comfortable here.

The photos are from the first weekend in January when Eric jumped in the car one frosty morning and headed over to Ashby Castle to see if he could get some good pictures.  I think he did.  Well, they are all from Ashby castle except for the first two.  Those were taken by yours truly just this morning on a camera phone at Castle Engebretsen.  That should explain the difference in quality.  


Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Saturdays in January

What do you do on a Saturday in January when you are living in England?  We find ourselves asking this question most weekends, which definitely has not always been the case in our lives.  Having spent the past five years or so building a house and trying to tame the land it’s on while raising two active girls and maintaining jobs has kept Eric and I quite busy each and every day, including weekends.  But here in England, things are different.  Our lives are slower, significantly slower.  There’s work, school and the regular house chores, but not much else that we are responsible for.  So when Saturday morning rolls around, we find ourselves wondering how to spend the day, as was the case this past Saturday. 

The sun was shining Saturday morning.  A welcome treat as it’s been dreary here in January, and cold.  We’ve gotten a lot more rain this month than in the previous three months we’ve been here.  But there is no rain in the forecast today.  What to do?  What to do?

Ellie sticks her nose in a book.  She’s usually reading two at a time.  Right now she’s tackling Inkheart.  At school, they had to order more books for their library because by Christmas, Ellie had read all of the most challenging books they had onsite (remember, this is a very small school).  Her teacher was bringing books from home for Ellie to read until the new ones arrived. 

Leah's busy creating masterpieces out of cardboard.  England seems to have brought out her creative side.  She’s been cutting up cardboard like crazy, going through rolls of tape, and leaving scrapes all over the house for me to sweep up.  She made a complete set of cardboard furniture for her Barbie dolls, complete with dishes and little books for them to read.  In school, her class has been studying the great fire of London so in art class, they made replicas out of cardboard of houses you would have found in London at the time of the fire.  Leah brought hers home on Friday and promptly made another to go with it.  That meant more cardboard scrapes on the floor for me (yeah), but I can’t let that stand in the way of her expressing her artistic side. 

Eric and I started Saturday morning with some trip planning.  We have a couple of trips coming up over the next few months so there are lots of reservations to make and research to do on our destinations.  Where are we going?  Oh, I think I’ll keep that a secret for now and let it be a surprise when the blog posts are up.

With the sun shining outside, we knew we had to get out and enjoying it, so by midmorning, we packed ourselves into the car and headed to Bradgate Park for a walk.  It’s only about a 30 minute drive from here.  When we arrived, we set off through the park and the first thing we saw was a herd of beautiful deer, but these were not like any deer we had seen before.  You see, Bradgate Park is an enclosed deer park, and has been for 800 years.  Yes, you read that right – an 800 year old deer park.  These are the kinds of places you find in England.  These are Fallow deer, a truly unique type of deer because of their color variation.  They can range from nearly black to almost white, but most are brown with white spots.  They are small, but the males have huge antlers.  To my Wisconsin raised eyes, this combination doesn’t look right at first.  A small brown deer with white spots should be following it’s mother around, suckling now and again, not sporting a magnificent pair of antlers on its head.  

Much of the park is wild and rugged, with outcrops of rocks jutting up from the ground here and there, perfect for kids to scramble around on.  

And lots of gnarly old oak trees dotting the barren landscape, some that are over 500 years old.   The park is huge, 830 acres to be exact, so there is lots and lots and lots of room to just roam around.

We headed towards a tower called Old John sitting way off in the distance, high up on a hill. 

After a bit of a hike, we made it to Old John.  

Katie, Leah's bitty baby, made the trek too in the pack on Leah's back.

What is the tower for?  Well, nothing really.  This tower is referred to as a folly here in England, meaning it was constructed mainly for decoration, and it is beautiful sitting high up on the hill overlooking the entire park.  Old John was built in 1784 by the Grey family who owned Bradgate Park at that time. 

It was wiiiiiindy up on that hill, so after a short rest, it was time to head back down, but by a different route this time. 

Of course, there were more rocks to scramble over.

And then the long walk across the barren landscape.  

As we walk farther and farther down the hill, Old John becomes smaller and smaller behind us.

We pass stone walls, wondering what caused portions of it to crumble.  It's hard to know because it may have happened last month, last year, or maybe 300 years ago.  This Park has been here for 800 years after all.  

We end up at the ruins of Bradgate House, which was built in the early 1500s.  Why it's in ruins, we do not know.  The visitor center is closed during the winter months so we didn’t learn much about it.  We'll have to come back.   

We finished our walk by early afternoon, refreshed from our hike and spending a few hours outside, but also hungry.  We headed to the nearest town and ducked into a pub called The Curzon Arms.  At 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon the pub was packed, a great sign that we could get good food there, but only if there was a table available.  We were met at the door by a very nice gentleman who, after informing us it would be quite a wait for an available table (not an option with two hungry children who had been promised a nice lunch after their hike if there was no whining), picked up the phone and called a pub a couple of villages over to see if they had a table for us.  They did and this very kind man put our name in to reserve it and off we went.  Have I told you how very nice these English people are?

We arrived at The Blue Bell Inn and found a warm, cozy table in a room with a wood fired pizza oven on one end and a fire blazing away in the fireplace at the other, the perfect place to enjoy a pint and some good food after our hike in Bradgate Park.  It’s hard to succumb to the midwinter blues when we can spend a Saturday like this.     

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Our Christmas Vacation Part Five – Heading Home

 Saturday morning. We are heading back home today.  As I woke up in the hotel on our last morning in Salzburg, I pulled back the curtain to get a last look at our mountain view.  What I see is unbelievable!  The sun is just rising and the colors behind the mountain are unlike any I have ever seen before in the sky.  Eric had snuck out earlier to climb up to the wall on the other side of the river to capture some early morning shots of Salzburg before we left.  It had snowed again overnight so everything was covered in a light dusting of white.  He saw the sunrise too.

Waiting for the train.
Reluctantly, we packed our bags, enjoyed one last delicious Austrian breakfast and headed to the train station.  We had a flight to catch in Munich later that day.  Not the original flight we had been booked on however.  Two nights ago I had received a text from KLM, the airline we were flying on.  Basically it said our flight on Saturday "may" be canceled.  "May" be canceled?  No explanation why.  Strange text to get.  Then last night, another text reading, “Your flight to Amsterdam on Saturday has been canceled.  We are in the process of making alternate plans for you.”  I went to bed last night a little uneasy because at that moment, we were no longer booked on any flight back to the UK.  Saturday morning, after catching the spectacular sunrise, I checked my phone again.  Relief!  Another text had arrived at 5:00 am.  KLM had rebooked flights for us on a different airline, Lufthansa, that would take us a different route home, but we would get back to Birmingham that evening at about the same time we had originally been scheduled to arrive home.  And, as an added bonus, the flight out was leaving later so now we would have a few extra hours to spend exploring Munich.  If you remember way back to the beginning of this story, because of a flight delay we had lost the day we had planned to spend in Munich.  But here was a chance again.  Funny how these things work out sometime.
Salzburg - a train station with a view!
We arrived in Munich around noon, stashed our luggage in some lockers at the train station, and headed out the doors to see what we could see.  And what did we see exactly?  Snow!  Lots and lots of snow falling from the sky.  And people!  Lots and lots of people everywhere.  Munich was crowded.  The heavily falling snow had not kept anyone at home.  We were right in the heart of the city and headed towards the Marienplatz, the central square in Munich which, like many cities in Europe, is surrounded by buildings displaying magnificent architecture.   

A snowy Marienplatz.
The street we followed leading to and from Marienplatz was a pedestrian only zone, lined with shops and restaurants, churches and statutes.   

One of the department stores had a colorful, fun Christmas window display of scenes from fairytales using stuffed animals.

We ducked inside to see this beautiful church (and to get out of the snow for a bit).

A statue near the entrance to the market.
From Marienplatz, we headed further down the street towards Viktualienmarkt, which means victuals market.  This gigantic market, dating back to the early 1800s, is spread over a few city blocks and houses 140 vendors selling all varieties of fresh foods and delicatessen.  There are cheese vendors, meat vendors, fruit and veggie vendors.  There was a huge tent under which was displayed more varieties of olives than I knew even existed.  There were bakers selling breads, pastries and other goods, and vendors selling spices, oils and vinegars.  And of course, you could grab something to eat on the go from the many vendors selling sandwiches, sausages, and warm cups of coffee.  I was in heaven!  You see – I LOVE farmers markets.  In fact, back in Zionsville, Indiana, I visit the farmers market religiously every Saturday morning stocking up on most of the food that will sustain our family of four for the week.  We got but a glimpse of this huge, beautiful market in Munich, but a glimpse is all that was needed for me to fall in love.  Oh what I would do to live near a market like this.

Strolling through the market.

By midafternoon, it was time to head back to the train station for the ride to the airport.  We gathered our luggage and set off on a city train for the 45 minute trip.  We walked into the Munich airport and headed toward the departures board to find out which gate we needed to get to.  We would be flying to Frankfurt first, so we searched the board and found the flight.  There was no gate listed.  Instead, we saw the word “Abgesagt."  What the heck does Abgesagt mean?  My heart sank as I looked up and down the board and noticed that same word behind several of the flights heading to other cities in Germany and the surrounding countries.  I don’t think this is good.  My suspicions were confirmed a few seconds later when the English translation for the word Abgesagt flashed onto the screen – CANCELED!  Nooooooooooo!  Our original flight had been canceled and now the flight we had been rebooked on was canceled too?  We probably should have expected this but for some reason it hadn’t crossed our minds.  We had just spent the day walking around Munich getting pummeled by snow the entire time.  Clearly the snow was having an affect on airplane travel given the number of flights listed as canceled on the board before us.

We were directed to the Luftansa transfer center where they would rebook us on other flights yet again.  The cordoned off area specifically for this desk was full of people, the line spilling out into the rest of the airport.  Lufthansa had exactly one person working at this desk trying to help this long line of people.  We got in line.  This was going to take awhile. 

Lucky for us, I’ve seen my fair share of Amazing Race episodes.  There has got to be a better way - a faster way to rebook our flights.  I suggested to Eric that he try calling KLM since it was their canceled flight yesterday with no explanation that had gotten us into this mess in the first place.  Let's see if they could rebook us again.  He did.  Ten minutes later we ducked out of the long line with tickets reserved in our names for a flight out the next morning.  We would be spending another night in Munich.  The friendly woman behind the hotel desk in the airport found an apartment for us in a hotel about 15 minutes away.  A driver picked us up and dropped us off it what turned out to be more like a condo complex in a quiet little residential neighborhood.  We were hungry so we dropped off our luggage and headed down the street towards a little Bavarian restaurant.  It was a lovely walk.  The streets were dark and quiet.   It had stopped snowing and the moon was trying to peak out from behind the clouds.  The fluffy new snow on the ground was too much for the girls to stay out of so they frolicked along playing in it as we walked.  The restaurant was warm and cozy, the food delicious.  We lingered over our drinks and shared some ice cream at the end of the meal.  Yes, ice cream again in the middle of winter and it was as good as the ice cream we had in Austria.  We headed back to our apartment and went to sleep.

Whenever we get to a new hotel, the first thing Leah wants to do is jump on the bed - everytime! 
Bright and early the next morning, back to the airport we went.  In the end, I hadn’t really minded being stuck in Munich for an extra day.  We had enjoyed our quiet, low key evening last night – one more bit of relaxation before heading back to real life.  But today, I was ready to head home. 

The Munich airport was a buzz that Sunday morning, lines of people everywhere, full of the normal travelers with the addition of all those who had been stranded for the night in Munich, like us, because of the snowstorm and were eager to get home or to their next destination.  We checked the departure board.  Whew!  Our flight had a gate assigned to it – a very good sign.  We headed towards security passing the Lufthansa transfers desk we had briefly stood in line at the night before.  The number of people in line had multiplied like gremlins in water.  There were easily a couple hundred people in the line that morning.  Thank goodness we didn’t have to go there today.

We passed through security and headed to our gate with a sigh of relief.  Even though this had been a great trip, we had run into our fair share of problems – arriving in Munich a day late because of the flight delay at the beginning of our trip, the stomach flu incident in the Munich train station, spending two days in the hotel in Salzburg taking turns watching over our sick kids, having not one, but two flights canceled as we tried to get back home to England and finally, having to spend an extra night in Munich.   We were ready to get back home.  As we approached our gate, I glanced at the board over the check-in desk to make sure we had the correct flight and what do I see – the word DELAYED.  You have got to be kidding me!  No, no, no, no, no!  I do not want anymore of this.  Yes, I momentarily turned into a child throwing a tantrum, although I kept it all inside because with two young impressionable kids in tow, we need to keep our cool as parents in the most trying of times, right?  We had a connecting flight to catch in Frankfurt and not very much time between flights.  If this first flight was delayed by more than half an hour, we would miss it.  Ahhhhhhh – I did not want to go through all of this again!

We sat down to wait for more information.  Shortly thereafter, an announcement was made – something on the order of, “Sorry folks.  The plane is still on the ground in Frankfurt.  They need to de-ice it and will take off as soon as they can.  Once it arrives here in Munich, we will get you all on board as quickly as possible so you can make any connecting flights.”   

We were not going to make our connecting flight.  Once it finally arrived and was ready to go, we boarded the plane in Munich at the exact time our flight in Frankfurt was scheduled to take off.  We headed to Frankfurt anyway and would decide what to do when we got there. 

It was a short flight, only an hour long or so.  When we landed, something told me to run.  Our scheduled departure time for our flight back to Birmingham had long since passed, but something told me to run anyway.  So we did.  We grabbed our bags and as soon as we were off the plane, we sprinted across the Frankfurt airport, through the concourse we had landed in, stopping before we exited the concourse to have our passports checked, ran down a set of stairs and through the very long tunnel connecting the concourses, sprinted up another set of stairs and into Concourse B.  We ran towards the sign for our gate and as we rounded the corner, we were meet with a gate full of empty chairs.  Not a good sign.  Everyone was gone – except for the three Lufthansa employees working the gate.  As we approached, the lady looked at us and asked, “Are you on the flight to Birmingham?”   
A huge smile spread across my face.  “Yes, we are.”  
“Well, let’s hurry then.  The bus is about to leave to take the last set of passengers out to the plane.” 

Hallelujah!  Praise the Lord!  Miracles do happen!  Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!  I felt like bursting out into a song of joy that is how excited and relieved I was that the plane was still there and we could still get on it.  I almost kissed her. 

She scanned our tickets and sent us down a flight of stairs where we found a bus full of people heading in the same direction as us.  We had no sooner squeezed onto the back of the bus when the doors closed and the bus took off.  We couldn’t believe it!  We had made it - barely!  How, I don’t know and I really didn't care.  We were finally on our way home!  And to top it off, they serve drinks on Lufthansa flights and let me tell you, a glass of wine, even a airline quality glass of wine, has never tasted so good. 

What a trip!  We made it to three new countries, the Netherlands, Germany, and my favorite so far, Austria.  Salzburg was absolutely a magical place to spend Christmas.  A sleigh ride in the Austrian Alps is something I had never really thought I would ever do.  The food during the entire trip was outstanding.  We collected some beautiful souvenirs at the Christmas Market to take home with us when we head back to the states.  We unexpectedly got to spend a few hours in Amsterdam.  Eric did an amazing job captured all the sights and experiences from this trip on his camera (where oh where am I going to hang all the photos I want to display when we get back home to Indy).  And, by Christmas Eve, everyone had been healthy again and we spent a wonderful Christmas together as a family.  End of story.

Weeeeeeeeell, sort of.  You see, our troubles weren't quite over with yet.  While we made it back to England just fine, our luggage sadly did not.  Remember that race across the Frankfurt airport we had made hoping and praying that by some miracle our flight had not left yet?  Well, apparently whoever was handling our luggage did not sprint like we had.  None of our suitcases made it onto the plane.  We had to put in a claim to have them tracked down and were told "if" they are found (okay - “if” is a scary word to hear when three of your suitcases full of most of your winter clothing and other personal items are missing), the luggage will be delivered to our house.  We stopped at the store on the way home to pick up some milk and toothbrushes, and we waited.  Our luggage did show up – two bags the following day and the third two days later, so in the end, it all worked out just fine.  And that truly is the end of the story.

I'll be back next week with some more postings on life here in England.  These posts about our trip with all the photos took a lot of time to put together (time I am glad I spent because I really do want to chronicle all of these trips for our sake as well as for you to enjoy while everything is fresh in my mind).  I need to focus this week on making travel plans for our next couple of trips.  Oh, life is rough living here in Europe for two years.  Life is rough. :)