In Which I Embarrass Myself in French, and we begin our plan to eat all the carbohydrates in Paris

19 years ago, I travelled solo to Europe in the summer before starting medical school. One of my favorite memories from that trip was having a picnic lunch on the Champs des Mars park in front of the Eiffel tower with a gathered  crew of like wanderers from the youth hostel. The girl has also had a lifelong (9 WHOLE YEARS) wish to visit Paris and see the Eiffel tower. Thus, I decided to end our year with a week in Paris. But then it turned out we could spend a few days in Reykjavik on layover on our way home, so that changed a bit. But that’s a story for another blog post. 

We flew in relatively early, landing in Paris before noon. The first thing we saw was sunshine, glorious glorious sunshine, and coming from Ireland we nearly lay down on the airport sidewalk to soak it up, but thought it might be frowned upon. We hopped into a taxi to get to our flat, and I began speaking French with our driver. This proved only moderately successful.  I took French from 7th grade through some relatively advanced college courses, at one point was conversationally fluent. I remember my French professor, a thin sprightly woman named Sophie who had dark-rooted blond hair that frizzed past her shoulders in messy waves, who always wore all black clothes with a black leather jacket and smoked a cigarette outside before class. She was really far too cool for San Diego, land of cargo shorts and flip flops. She always yelled at me for my terrible grasp of the negative construction.  When I tried phrases in my mind before arriving here, Spanish words would worm their way in so that I was speaking some bizarre form of a mutated Romance language patois. Our Algerian taxi driver, however, was a patient listener and helped me to figure out some of the words, and having been here now for a few days it’s coming back to me. I’m sure I sound like a three year old, and at one point told the hostess at a restaurant that “she need to go sit outside” instead of asking if we could sit outside, garnering a furrowed brow and slightly offended look. I corrected myself, she broke into a smile and waved us to a table.

The view from our 4th floor flat, across the street from St. Denys

We’ve a little flat in the Marais, clean and modern in what’s clearly an old building. The Marais is one of the oldest districts in Paris and the one least touched by modernization. Whereas much of Paris is characterized by large grand boulevards and Haussmanian architecture, the Marais retains its near-Medeival heritage. Many houses are fronted by large double wood doors that open into a courtyard, created for horse and carriage to pass through and then have room to turn around. “Le Marais” literally means “the swamp,” and was a waterlogged area for vegetable gardens until drained for French nobility to build grand mansions. After the Revolution in 1789, the nobility declined as did the area, becoming a more working class neighborhood. It then became an important Jewish & immigrant neighborhood, before turning into a gay friendly neighborhood, before being completely gentrified by what our taxi driver referred to disparagingly as “bobos” and what we would call yuppies, if we even use that word anymore.  For visitors like ourselves, however, this means a delightful place with small narrow streets filled with boutiques, bars, restaurants and museums. 
 

Crossing the bridge to Ile de la Cite, the breeze flapping up Stitch’s ears

After dropping off our bags, we went on a mission to find crepes. This proved surprisingly more difficult than we’d anticipated, and we didn’t find a restaurant until we’d wandered onto Île de la Cité, and were grandly rewarded for our efforts. We continued to Notre-Dame, and walked in to look at the cathedral, built and remodeled over the years. I particularly like the gargoyles myself, edging the stone as protective spirits. In that they shuttle rain away from the structure, in a way, they are literal protectors as well.

 

In front of the famous cathedral, the breeze has died down making Stitch once again lop eared

Ironwork detailing on the doors

Our Catholic schoolgirl lights a candle for St. Therese

We continued on to the very tip of Île de St Louis, to see the love locks left by romantic hopefuls on the fences surrounding. You engrave your name, close the lock on the fence, then throw the key into the Seine. The more famous bridge with love locks is the Pont des Artes, where they’re cut down as they damage the structure. Honestly, I get the idea behind it, it’s sweet. But it seems to me a modern and damaging form of graffiti that will eventually destroy the beauty and the structure itself, is this the legacy you wish to leave? Not to think of the keys rusting at the bottom of the Seine, which I can’t imagine are good for the environment or the fishes. Akin to carving initials into a tree stump, what is it about young love that requires some form of violence to prove it’s legitimacy? Call me a curmudgeon if you will.

 

Across the bridge to Shakespeare and Company, an English Language bookstore on the Left Bank. Opened by an expat American, Sylvia Beach, its other branch in Paris had been a literary hangout for Hemingway, Joyce and other authors of their ilk. That branch is closed, but the one across from Notre Dame remains. No pictures are allowed inside, sadly, but to wander among the tall narrow winding pathways filled with gorgeous books is an experience. Upstairs is a quiet reading area that echoes the reading library at the former space, complete with nooks and slumbering cats, where you’re welcome to sit and relax.

The only picture we got outside the shop, taken the next day. The girl kept trying to photobomb and I got so annoyed that I just walked away instead of waiting to get a picture without the random tourist in the background.

Here, of course, is where we were when a terrorist decided to attack a police officer with a hammer just across the street at Notre Dame. Eric writes about this eloquently in his post here.  I was at the front register when I heard two loud sounds from outside. Couldn’t possibly be gunshots, I disbelievingly thought to myself, but I’d turn out to be wrong.  I had been waiting for an employee to bring me a copy of “American Gods,” so we were still in the store instead of walking past Notre Dame right when it was happening. (She showed up with the book, but it was a heavy hardcover and I felt too guilty to get it, knowing that we’re carrying everything with us. Now of course, it feels like a talisman protecting me, as had we not been waiting for it we likely would have been walking across the plaza at the time. I went back a day later to buy the book, and alas, it was sold out.  I bought a copy of “Anansi Boys” instead, I hope it serves the same protective influence.) The store employees closed the doors and told us to all stay inside. The kids were nervous and scared, but sat in a corner reading books calmly.  After sheltering in the store for a while in limbo, I asked someone scrolling on their phone what was happening and learned that it was one person with a hammer who’d been shot. Feeling safe to do so, we left through the side entrance and took a long route home, staying well clear of the Notre Dame area. Later on, we talked it over with the kids, and over the next few days answered more questions from them as well, hoping to help them process what had happened. 

 

Eric and I dropped the kids at home and went to find bread, cheese, vegetables and wine for supper.Given how expensive Paris can be for food, our goal was to eat in as much as possible.  As always in a new neighborhood, it took a little longer but home we came and after a deliciously fresh sandwich, to bed, content at our first good day in Paris, terror attack and all.

 
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Given that it’s bright here until well near 10 pm, we slept in in the morning before heading out for a leisurely walk through the Marais, stopping by the remnants of the old city wall and various other architecturally interesting buildings, ending at the St.Paul Metro, where we hopped on board to get a bit outside the city and meet Bruce for a bike ride along the Marne. 

Remnants of the medieval wall, now surrounded by cellphone checking teens. Bookends of new and old in Paris


Bruce is an American who’s lived in Paris for many years and runs bike tours in Paris and also in the countryside. If you are planning a trip to Paris, I highly recommend his tours to get out of the city – email him at French Mystique Tours. We did a three hour bike trip along the Marne, and it was lovely. As we wheeled past the geometrical French cottage houses, the boy burst into song, “Little town, it’s a quiet village, every day, like the one before…” 

Cycling in France is a bizarre experience, in that cars respect bikes on the road. Vehicles on the right have right of way, which is respected by car and bike alike. If we were going slowly on a narrow one way road, cars slowly trailed us until they could go past, with not a one getting too close or trying to squeeze around. Used to being nearly run over by Irish drivers, we were hesitant at first around the cars until we realized they really weren’t going to hurt us. 

 At one point, the girl’s front tire slipped on a curb and the bicycle tumbled sideways, throwing her off of it onto her palms. Without tears or wailing, she picked herself up slowly and rolled up her pants leg to see how badly her knee was skinned. We waited back, asking if she was okay. “I think so,” she replied. “My thumb hurts.” In all honesty, I was worried she could have broken her wrist, as she landed on outstretched arms. A quick finger and wrist exam, though, didn’t reveal anything other than some bruising, so off we went again. That girl, she is tough.

 

Returning to the town of St. Maur des Fosses, we walked back into the quiet center for a drink and a waffle at an outdoor cafe before returning to Paris, our cozy little flat, and a well deserved night of sleep. 

Attacking waffles with a Viking manliness, and YES to rose in French summer


-S

In which I share some thoughts on leaving Ireland, and the children assure me they’re not sociopaths

It’s nine o clock on a Monday night, our last in Ireland. Even though we’ve got a few stops before getting back to Denver, this day feels like the end of the year we had planned. Ireland is giving us a proper Irish goodbye, with gray rainy weather and low cloudy skies. You’d think that packing up a life of six months with all of its attendant detritus would be overwhelming, but not really. Over the last few weeks, we’ve packed 4 duffle bags, one large, one medium, and one small, and one extra small rather like the bears of fairy tale, or perhaps like luggage matroyshka dolls, and have sent them across the ocean with those who have come to visit. What was left was clothing, some shoes, a few souvenirs, and lots of mugs, which we couldn’t really send home early as we needed them for our daily morning tea. At this point, we’ve managed to pack everything we are taking with us into our original travel backpacks, plus one additional small backpack for each of us and one extra medium sized duffle bag. 
Today was spent packing for a few hours, after which our friend Alena came by to cart away things which were staying behind, including those which she had kindly lent to us, like her bicycle and a corkscrew. We also packed grocery bags full with food that wouldn’t get eaten, though as for that we did pretty well and didn’t have mass quantities of food to give away. After she left, there wasn’t much to do until the last load of laundry finished drying so we piled into our rental car and Eric and the kids went swimming while I went to a coffeeshop to finish up the last blog post. Pizza for lunch, then a matinee showing of “Wonder Woman” (mostly liked, can’t say I loved) and then back home.
The kids took off on their bike (singular, yes, as the boy rides the bike and the girl rides standing on pegs that stick out from the back wheels) over to their friend V’s house a few blocks away, their last hour of being able to take off and simply yell “we’re going out!” that they’ll have for a while. They said goodbye and then left the bike there for V before walking over to their friend S’s house, who ended up trotting home with them. They all played a card game called Exploding Kittens, but not before first creating a Minecraft world in which one could actually make a kitten explode so that when a poor feline was decimated in the card game, they could recreate this in the pixellated world. I expressed my concerns about animal cruelty and it’s future bearing on sociopathy, however they seemed unfazed, and reassured me that no actual kittens were being harmed.  

I have trouble characterizing my feelings today, as it comes at the end of what feels like a fairly epic journey. Wistful, perhaps, comes closest, but not quite. I relate it to the feeling of having completed some big event in your life, and once it’s over, feeling a sort of empty space inside where you previously held the emotion you used in planning the event and then experiencing it. Even though I know the adventure isn’t entirely over, for in less than two months we’ll be moving to New Zealand, it’ll be different in that instead of bouncing around from place to place in a peripatetic existence, we’ll be more rooted in one place and well, I’ll be back at work. Something about the thought of that fills me with profound sadness. There are those who never like to really go anywhere, to remain settled and find comfort in that. I’ve always been the opposite, mostly happy when I’m moving hither and to.

In two months I’ll be back in a hospital seeing patients again. I wish I could say that I really, really missed working, that a year away has made me realize how aimless my life is without my vocation, and that I’m itching to get back to use my skills again. I would, however, be lying. I’ve quite enjoyed being away from the high-stress world of medicine and the headaches of hospital administration. This isn’t to say that I think I’ll be unhappy once working again, but just to say that life without it hasn’t been the doldrum plodding I’d feared.

Mostly I think I’m feeling the inexorable passing of time, in that I cannot believe all that has passed since we left home. Looking back, there are perhaps a few things I’d do differently, but sitting here it’s hard to say exactly what those would be. Friends, it’s been a full year, and I hope I can say the same after the next. 
-s

In which I describe the Weeping Hour, and we nearly ride away on the Kelpies

Side note on travel & dinner:

There is a time of day I’ve started to call “The weeping hour.” This is the time directly before any meal, when the boy is at his nadir of exhaustion and apex of emotion, and will begin to sob uncontrollably over some slight offense. Once, it was because I started to play a game of “we went to the zoo and saw…” and then each subsequent person adds on an animal. He simply couldn’t tolerate even an imaginary trip to the zoo, which he sees to be gulags full of creatures who live in desperation at their captive state. No amount of pointing out that we were not, in fact, going to a zoo and instead simply waiting for dinner would mollify him, and we had to change the game to “On our travels around the world, we saw…” and continue with the animals. After food has been processed by his digestive system and the subsequent glucose molecules have transported across the blood-brain barrier into his cerebral cortex, good humor is restored and he can usually laugh at his prior foolishness, though he maintains his views on real zoos.


As a last quick trip before leaving Ireland permanently, we hopped over to Edinburgh for four days in which we had no visitors. Friends, I wasn’t expecting much from Scotland. How different can it be than Ireland? I surmised. Greenery, gaelic, and gloomy weather I expected, and was entirely surprised by how much I loved it.

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A  view of Edinburgh castle from across the park

After learning that the tours we would have wanted to take were booked, we decided to rent a car instead. Saving some money by renting a midsize manual car, we showed up to find that we had a free “upgrade” to a large passenger van! Still manual, but now that I’ve had plenty of driving experience in Ireland I was comfortable with it. I wish I could say that the garbage cans put out for collection in the narrow-streeted villages were as comfortable with my side view mirror, but I digress.
Our first evening we wandered around the city, stopping by the Elephant Cafe where JK Rowling first wrote “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” which is, well, a cafe. We walked on. Behind it, however, is Greyfriars Kirk with a picturesque cemetary and where Rowling was inspired for some of the character names in her novel. There’s also a tribute to Bobby, a loyal dog who came to the cemetery every day to sit on his master’s grave for 12 years, eventually becoming something of a mascot and garnering a burial spot of his own, though alas, as the cemetery is consecrated ground he could not be buried alongside his master. Short shrift for the dog, eh?


The next day was a driving one, and off we went to see the Falkirk Kelpies, a massive outdoor art sculpture. I’d seen photos before, as you will below, but nothing really prepared me for how enormous they are. The Kelpies are mythical beasts, who lure people to ride them due to their beauty, and once they’re astride, dive into the water to drown them. The sculpture rises out of the horizon, far overhead, and is a dramatic example of when large scale public art really words. We were entranced by the statues and nearly hopped on ourselves. One of the horses is getting a little work done, and we chatted with the workers who told us that this was the first day since 2013 that they had needed any maintenance. They reached over onto the scaffolding and handed the kids a set of nuts and bolts from the original statue, to wide eyed thanks.

 

 

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The Kelpies rising up over the horizon

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More importantly, the Kelpies sit on a large complex of parkland and as we had driven in, the kids had espied a playground off to the left. Back we went to check out the structures. A super high slide, speedy merry go round, spider web structure kept us all in play mode for a good half hour. The kids say it’s one of their top five world playgrounds, among the ones at Sydney Harbor, Timisoara’s Parcul Copilor, New Zealand’s Raglan Beach, and London’s Hyde Park. That is some high praise from these two.

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Even Eric took a turn on the slide!

Onto to Stirling castle after this, a Renaissance castle about an hour away. While the initial castle was built during Norman times (12th c.), due to various occupants and occupations had been torn down and rebuilt such that the current structures date from the 16th century onwards. The king responsible for most of the changes was highly influenced by Renaissance ideals, and the palace is filled with and surrounded by artworks carved from wood and stone. A large restorative effort has gone into the castle to regain its former splendor, down to a ten years long project in which seven large scale tapestries depicting the hunt of the unicorn were woven by master weavers, using the ancient techniques. The original tapestries currently hang at the Cloisters in NYC, and to see them brought back to full life was stunning. There was also a restored painted ceiling of carved wooden figures, repainted as they would have been during the time of the kings. I loved seeing the restoration, to get an idea of how the castle would have actually looked, not just in the semi-ruined state you usually see.

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The carven ceiling, here you can see Caesar in the center,and other Roman gods around.

At lunch yesterday we’d stopped off at a little bar/restaurant called the Mockinbird, and it was here we returned for quiz night this evening, run by a convivial host named Anna, who is a fellow American. We all had a blast and WON, if you can believe it, getting pounds 30 knocked off our bill!


Friday was our Edinburgh day, and we started off by a visit to the National Museum. This place is incredible. The building architecture itself is spacious and full of light, and the museum is arranged in four parts from east to west and then vertically so that if you were interested in, say, Scottish history, you’d start at the ground floor of the East hall and then go upwards to stay within a topic. Alternatively, you could wander across a floor and get a cross section of Science, Paleontology, Fashion/Design, and History. Filled with interactive exhibits, you could easily spend a few days here and not run out of things to see.  We also popped into the St. Giles, where there was a display of a Scottish diaspora embroidery project, some of them pictured above, though my favorite has to be the one from India showing a lassi on the left, whiskey on the right. On the plaza outside was a motley crew of characters, including a blue-mohawked woman spinning yarn, “singing” Scottish ballads loudly. For a fee, you could take a picture of her, however I chose to abstain.


Our last full day in Scotland we headed to Doune Castle, a true Medieval castle just an hour out of town. While not on the radar as one of the most important castles in Scotland, it had a high importance to us as the filming site of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” We spent the time wandering about and chatting about the average wingspeed of unladen European swallows, as they kept flitting about overhead and into the castle through the open windows. Both children farted in my general direction quite often as well. The audio tour walks you through the scenes where it was filmed, and adds in its own bits of humor. Oh, I suppose it also talks about the history of the castle and how it was used in Medevial times, but pish tosh.  (For Outlander fans, it’s also Castle Leoch so you may recognize it from that, the gift shop certainly does.)

 

After a delicious lunch at the Buttercup cafe in Doune, we headed over to Loch Lomond. While Loch Ness is the famous highland lake, we didn’t want to spend five hours in the car to get there and back, and instead headed west to the far more accessible Loch. At the first stop in the excellent visitor center, the Ranger gave us tips on hikes and we set out. First a short hike around the visitor center, where a soft path leads through a forest and to a waterfall. The path is surrounded by bluebells in high flower, the trees coated in fuzzy moss, and with the constant chirping of songbirds around us, it felt as if we had passed through the veil and into fairieland. At a wildlife hide we sat and watched red squirrels feed and scamper head first down trees, crossbeaks and great tits vie for birdseed at the feeders.

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Public art along the path, eerie to see the reflections in the woods

 

Westward to Loch Lomond, we headed off for a hike up a nearby hill for panoramic views of the lake and the islands. It is possible that on the way up this hill, there was a slight tiff in the family due to fatigue, interrupting words and a bit of the weeping hour setting upon us, but by the way down all was well. This is where I should start to sing the “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road” song, or Loch Lomond as it’s properly known. Apparently, the high road is meant to represent death, as the rebels heads would be displayed along pikes on the high road, and hence why the singer will never meet his true love again “On the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.” What else do you need but pictures here?

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-s

In which we have a few visitors from across the pond

The Era of the Visitors descended upon us. Because Irish weather can be utterly miserable before May, and because most of our friends are tethered to the school calendar in some way, everyone who wants to visit us is doing it now.
This is fantastic, though when we spend time with people on sunny days here I feel as if it’s a little unfair, as if they aren’t really understanding the doldrums of gloom that the weather can bring.
The first of the crew was Eric’s parents. The kids were so excited to see their grandparents!

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The first few days we took Cheryl and Dave into the city, where they saw the Book of Kells and then we went to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which I hadn’t been in before. A Protestant Cathedral, it houses an altar, seats, a museum exhibition of the history of the cathedral, and a gift shop all within the main space. The overall effect is one of an overstuffed attic.
I was most impressed with the detailed needlepoint cushions that hang on the back of every chair, hand embroidered by people from all over the country.


We took a side trip to Cork, the second largest Irish town, and other than a stop at a pub that was putting on a traditional Cinco de Mayo burlesque show, we didn’t spend much time there. We drove down to Kinsale, which is really very pretty. A hike along the coast, a stop for lunch and then to the Charles Fort, a preserved stellate fort from the 1700s, and still used as an army garrison until 1922. Legend has it of a groom who, on his wedding day, was shot by his new father-in-law due to a bit of confused identities. The bride flung herself over the ramparts and is said to haunt the grounds still.

 

Cheryl and Dave went further west and north the next day, while we returned to Maynooth. Our friend Wren popped over from Chicago the next day, and as she is a huge Harry Potter fan as well, the kids very sweetly spent time preparing her room, complete with a breakfast menu titled “Espresso Patronum,” and hid a speaker in her closet to play the theme music as she entered. Wren and I and Eric wandered about Dublin while the kids were in school (yes, they’re still in school despite evidence to the contrary), and over the course of a few days going into Temple Bar, Christchurch, and Trinity University among others.

 

 
The weekend was for a quick getaway to Galway, but not before we welcomed our friends Tim and Amy to Dublin! They arrived exhausted as expected off the plane, but gamely met up with all of us for lunch and a pre-train beverage.

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First pint of Irish Guinness is always an occasion to be documented

Galway is a cute little town on the western coast of Ireland, known for the university, traditional music, and apparently quite a party town and home to many stag and hen parties (bachelor and bachelorette for those of ye from the states). The central part of Galway is little more than three or four cobblestoned streets, lined with shops, pubs and restaurants, and seems to be lively at any time of the day.


We happened upon a delicious tiny pie shop straight out of a movie set for a fantasy film, where perhaps cloaked characters might stop in for an ale and a meat pie before heading off on their journey. In the afternoon we made our way to a microbrewery in Salt Hill, and then to a Gaelic Football match. I personally find the most entertaining part of these matches to be how the audience screams at the players, the coach screams at the players, and the players scream at each other, all laden with expletives and a lot of passion.

 

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Back in Maynooth the next day, Tim and Amy joined us again and we had two rousing evenings of Dungeons and Dragons hosted by the boy, where much merriment was had though perhaps little progress in an actual game. A walk around the Maynooth campus and a stop in at the Russell Library, the old library housing the ancient manuscripts of the University. Tim took his time reading mathematics texts. I’m always enthralled by these old books, that each piece of them from the papers to the inks and quills and of course to the writing itself all had to be created by hand. The immense effort it took to produce one book rendered them precious objects, so different from the mass production of paper and words today, or even “ink” on a screen where words are cheap.

 

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Our last set of visitors before we leave this little country were our dear friends Rudy and Liza and their boys. We’ve all known each other for almost 8 years now, ever since our kids became friends at preschool and it turned out we lived up the street from one another, but what really seals the deal is Rudy’s ability to take anything innocuous and make it seem vulgar. Here in Ireland, this talent blossomed as he found himself free to create limericks, an art form that lends itself to crassness. As this is a family blog, I will not detail these limericks further, but buy me a pint at home and perhaps I’ll share. We also got to spend a night with David Hicks, who was in Ireland for a writer’s retreat and found the time to come out to Maynooth to see us for an evening after a long day of travel from the West of Ireland and before heading back to the states the next day.
Our two families went to Glendalough for a few days, a lake nestled in between two mountains and home to an ancient monastic site complete with a well preserved round tower.

 

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While they arrived on a sunny day, these were the visitors who finally got a glimpse of the Irish gloom. Readers, they could only tolerate it for 2 days before complaining of the desperation one feels being deprived of the sun. We fortified ourselves with pints of Guinness and a peat fire, spending the evenings catching up at the Air BnB. I got to spend so much time with Liza, and as it always is with the good friends in life, we fell into step with each other with little pause.
Side note : this Air BnB is apparently rented out as a yoga retreat, complete with a studio and outdoor meditation hut. It also had a copy of something called “The Transformation Game,” which you play to change your life. With instructions such as “pick three angel cards while you hold your spirit intention in your heart” and “if you have not been born naturally after your third die roll, you will have a spiritual caesarian and may enter your life loops at the top space,” this game was not for sarcastic heathens such as ourselves who left our healing crystals at home and instead mercilessly mocked it.

We’re off in a few days, our time spent saying our goodbyes and figuring out exactly how much we can pack into our bags. Most of our visiting friends have also been turned into luggage mules for us, hauling back duffle bags of various sizes with clothes, yarn, books and snow globes, leaving us with a much simpler job of getting our belongings out of the country.
More importantly, I’m just overwhelmed with the love that people have to come out and visit us when we’re abroad. It’s such an incredible feeling to know that there are people who care for you enough that they will board a plane and cross an ocean to spend time together, and I feel grateful to have all of them in my life.

-s

In which I feel a bit homesick, and later am told that we’re a pagan family

A few weeks ago I took a short trip back to America, to visit my sister and my brand new nephew!

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Look at this adorable family!

I thought he was pretty cute. Here he is in some of the handknits I’ve made for him, and there will be more.

Being with a newborn again makes me reflect on parenting in general, especially as my children start to begin the process of pulling away even more. Your baby is wholly dependent on you for care and often for food, and you are quite literally their whole world. You’re physically in contact with your baby for most of your waking hours, and often much of your sleeping hours as well.

 

Over the years that changes, to where the kids separate more, to feeding and toileting themselves, dressing themselves, and to now where there are large swaths of time where I have absolutely no clue exactly where they are or what they’re doing. At night, we still have snuggle time where I crawl into bed with the kids and we chat for a bit before I kiss them goodnight and they go to sleep. I sense, however, my time doing this is coming to a close especially for my older one. At some point it’ll feel weird and I don’t picture myself getting into my 16 year old’s bed to snuggle anymore, just maybe a kiss on the forehead if that. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, in that I’m happy for this independence and I certainly wouldn’t want it differently, but the difference is stark and made me nostalgic for those heady early days, where despite the sleep deprivation and difficulties, you had a tiny little being that only wanted to cuddle in your arms all day long.

 

Being back in the States was fantastic. It can get wearisome to always feel like a stranger, so to be in New York where I just understand how things WORK was such a relief. I was also lucky enough to have friends  who could travel to see me and got to spend time with them, and marvel on what good friends I have. This was soul-reviving, to be with people who I could just relax with instead of having to feel like I was “on,” and I’ll admit that I was feeling quite homesick after the journey.

 

Back in Ireland, I returned to spring break and a trip out west. First stop was to get the rental car from the airport. Eric had made the reservations and so went to pick up the car, but when he arrived, it turned out that his US Driver’s license had expired! Of all the details to overlook. So out I went to fetch the car, and did all the driving along the way. We did upgrade to an automatic transmission, which I was glad of after I nearly got into an accident on the way home in one of the roundabouts. Tricky things, those are.

 

As I sat down to write this blog post out, I looked through the pictures I took of the trip. For once, there just weren’t all that many. I wish I could tell you that this was due to some nobler purpose of being so involved in the moment that I couldn’t pull out my camera, but I feel the truth is simpler – I was feeling a bit travel weary on this trip. It’s a complicated moment in our time away, where I’m simultaneously itching to move again, bored with being in one place, and yet tired of feeling like we’re on a trip. That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy this leg to see more of Ireland, but we couldn’t help but feel that we would have enjoyed it more from a warm beach, with an umbrella-garnished cocktail in one hand.

 

We started in Dingle, a peninsula on the southwest coast. We checked in to our hotel and started chatting with the proprietor about living in Maynooth and the kids being in Catholic schools, given that it was Easter weekend. She asked, “If you don’t mind, what religion do ye follow?” I didn’t mind at all, shrugged my shoulders and replied, “We’re really not religious, don’t follow anything in particular.” At which point the girl piped up and said loudly, “We’re Pagan!” as the boy nodded vigorously beside her. The hotel owner looked simultaneously shocked and entertained, I tried to correct the kids but they kept insisting that they were indeed pagan as they believed in the Norse gods, and Greek gods, and Hindu gods, and what have you. I suppose this summer we’ll be dancing around the Beltane fires at this rate.

A stop on the Slea Head drive around the coast

A favorite stop was the Dingle Brewery where we had a glass of Crean lager and chatted with Paudie, whom the girl informed “had a name that sounds like ‘bathroom’ in America.” Awesome. She’s making friends all over this island. Tom Crean is a local hero in Kerry, and rightfully a proper badass.  Known as a famous Arctic explorer, he took three separate trips to the South Pole in the early 1900s, was turned around each time, dealt with frostbite, starvation, team members dying, and at one point walked solo across the ice for 35 miles to save a colleague. After the last trip he returned to Kerry, settled down to raise three children and opened a pub. I’m happy to report that the lager brewed in his name is quite delicious, made from spring water near the brewery itself. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a glass of fresher tasting beer, and it made me appreciate lagers again after years of being an almost exclusive IPA drinker.

Enjoying a pint in a recreation of the arctic sailing vessels

Next was a drive northward to Westport, where we stopped in at the stunning Cliffs of Moher along the way. Also known as the Cliffs of Insanity from the Princess Bride, or the Horcrux cave site from Harry Potter, a sheer 600 foot drop from the edge to the ocean is carved out of rock. A signboard tells you of the types of birds that nest on the cliffs, and upon seeing this I yelped “PUFFINS!” so loudly that Eric jumped. Like daughter like mother, I suppose. Thankfully, we were well inland when this happened, else he might have had a long journey down. I was so excited to possibly see a puffin (puffins!) but alas, they had gone sea fishing in the afternoon and I was disappointed. You know you’re not in America when there’s nothing to block you from a cliff edge other than a few signs that warn “danger” in a half-hearted way.

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The next day the girl woke with a fever. Because I’m a medical parent, and I have little sympathy unless you have an obviously broken bone or an active hemorrhage, we popped a few ibuprofen into her, proceeded to rent bikes and took off on the Great Western Greenway. This is a 27 mile long trail from Westport to Achill island, with exit points along the way. We decided to go for the 19 mile section and take a shuttle back. It’s almost all entirely car-free, which is a rarity for cycling here and was utterly gorgeous. The mountain Croagh Patrick is in the distance, and all about you are peaceful rolling hills and grazing sheep, goats, and some curious cows. Around mile 15 of 19, the trail became almost entirely uphill, and the girl may have wept a bit at this point. We may have said things like “Come on, we just have to keep pedaling!” and she may have wailed back “Fine! Fine! Just leave me behind!! You don’t even care about me, DO YOU?!?!”  After about a mile of this, however, the trail again turned downhill, she hopped on and returned to her usual sanguine self.  I swear, I don’t know many adults who would have been able to do what she did, she is so, so tough.

 

Our last stop was to Donegal on the Northwest coast. Along the way, we stopped in at the Country Life Museum. I’ll be honest, I was expecting a dark room with a butter churn and walls covered in text, as I’ve seen in some other museums. This is however an incredible place. Displays about Irish rural life from prefamine to the 1960s bring to life what was clearly a very difficult existence. I felt like I was walking in a real life “These are the people in your neighborhood” song from Sesame Street.

Listening to school lessons, trying his hand at the butter churn (yes,there was one after all), and hand woven straw baskets


 We tried to hike up Slieve League the next day, but were stymied by fog. Another high cliff like those of Moher, there’s supposedly a gorgeous view up there but it was not to be for us. I looked for signs of puffins as well, and again they were not to be.

 
The Donegal Yarns workshop was a delight. Rooms filled with beautiful yarns and handwoven and handknitted scarves, sweaters and hats. Fun fact: most wool in Irish products does not come from sheep living here, and is imported from England, New Zealand and Australia. One Irish season is enough to turn the softest sheep’s wool into Brillo pads, and as such the wool is exported for upholstery. Most of the adorable lambs you see tottering about on the side of the road are fated to end up on your dinner plate in the next few weeks.

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Upstairs is the weaving room, where fabrics are created as they always were, on long hand looms with foot pedals, by one person at a time.  Behind that is the spinning room, where the dyed fleece comes in and is mixed into skeins for the weaving, and then the sewing room where the fabrics are made into their final product.
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Here he is in action, the rhythmic click clack of the loom with each shuttle pass taps out a cadence for him to follow. Unfortunately, the sound didn’t record so you’ll have to use your imagination.

On the way back home we visited the Corlea Trackway Museum, where an ancient 2000 year old wooden bog trackway has been preserved. No one knows what this road was for – there are many such roads along the spongy bogs, which were heavily trafficked as ways to cross over without sinking into the sludge, but this one remains pristine. It was a long road, and took months and many people to construct, and as such is a mystery as to why, after all that work, it remains unused.

 

We’re back in Maynooth now, and glad to be here. We pulled up in the rental car, I dropped Eric and the kids off to go and return it, and when I got back the kids were nowhere to be seen, having run off to join their friends somewhere in the green of the estate. I think I’ll have a glass of the Crean’s lager we brought back with us.

 

 

In which I go grocery shopping and face a wall of mustard and some guy named Bob Lung

Grocery shopping in any foreign country is always an adventure. First of all, you’re not sure where anything is and since you can’t just scan signs or aisles because of the language, you have to actually walk down each one and look at the pictures on merchandise to figure it out, given that you’re a functional illiterate. As a result, it takes three times longer than usual shopping. Most of the time it works out in the end, but sometimes you can end up with surprises like the time we thought we purchased tofu onigiri in Japan and it turned out to be mashed tuna. Things that you take for granted as being a typical food just isn’t so everywhere. Cheese in Japan was relegated to a small corner, and here in Romania things like fresh cilantro are nowhere to be found. On the plus side, Japan had more choices for noodles than I’ve ever seen and fresh sushi at the market and Romania has a ton of choices for sour cream, paprika and chocolates. If they’re on the shelves, that is.

In fairness, most shelves are well stocked.

You can use google translate, but other times even that doesn’t help. I wanted to get arborio rice to make risotto, but none of the “orez” was labeled as such, just had labels like “bob lung” written on it. Who’s Bob Lung? I wondered. (Means long grain, I’ve since figured out). Ten minutes of examining each individual clear plastic bag of rice to see which one looked like a short grain starchy rice, and found one called “camolino.” A google search and translate of camolino yields that it translates as….camolino. All the other pages were in Romanian. Another tricky one is the cheese – in the cheese section you’ll find a whole row of “branza,” “cascaval,” and “telemea.” Google will tell you that these are all “cheese,” so then you have to spend five minutes searching for the difference between them, staring at your phone like a moron in the dairy aisle while literate Romanians walk around you, grab their cheese and get out in ten seconds. (Telemea and Branza are feta like cheeses made from sheep and cow’s milk respectively, cascaval is a cheese akin to colby with a smoother taste in case you were wondering.)
As in Vietnam, you have to weigh your own produce at scales in the produce section, which spit out a sticker with the price on it. Thankfully, these are coded with pictures as well as words so it’s not entirely impossible. Fail to do so, and the checkout clerk will snap at you in disdainful Romanian, leaving you shamed in front of the line. God forbid you mistakenly identify your produce. There was a funky pear like thing here which I thought would be fun to try. I couldn’t find the sign for it so I just picked the picture that looked most like it on the scale and hoped for the best. The checkout clerk looked at my lone fruit in the bag and chattered at me in Romanian, clearly saying “This isn’t a pear, you fool! It’s a (something)!” And then she called a different clerk over who took the fruit away. I thought maybe he would weigh it correctly and bring it back, but no, it was simply not to be. No fruit for you! (I’ve since learned that it is a quince.)

Produce is all largely unrefrigerated here, woe is the endive

The scale for weighing

The stores are not arranged in any logical order either. You enter and to the left is a section for produce, behind it bread and wine. In the center of the store and seemingly blocking your path to the other side is a labyrinthine section of spice packets and some noodles. Beyond those are school supplies. Between the school supplies and some cookies there is a narrow entryway leading you to the other side of the store where you’ll find the dairy section, rice, and beer. It makes absolutely no sense and half the time is spent trying to figure out where the hell you have to go to get something in the first place.

Special offers in the front, like a wagon of cabbage. To tthe left is an electronics section. The actual produce section is clear on the other side.

Even in different stores, the illogical ordering of stuff persists. One “hipermarket” which I think is akin to our SuperTargets has an aisle with plastic wrap, tinfoil, but also hideously ugly bathmats, bath towels, and random plastic toys. One cool thing – they sell the plastic wrap rolls and such separately from the boxes, which is a brilliant way to reduce waste, I think.

Bulk frozen food!! Genius! Saves on packaging.

There are walls of mustard, yogurt, cheese, wine and beer at most places too. I love the “foreign foods” aisle, which stocks “oriental” food next to Swedish and British.

THE WALL OF MUSTARD

THE WALL OF OF PLAIN YOGURT. there isa nother wall for flavored yogurt.


The final gauntlet is the checkout line, which I have yet to see be less than five people deep, no matter the time. The clerks pick up each item, rotate it maddeningly slowly to find the barcode, then slide it over the scanner before moving it to the other side where you bag your own groceries. I have never missed the self checkout lines more.
Despite all this, I’ve managed to make some nice meals here with some twists! I couldn’t find ground coriander at first, so I had to make do with a meat tenderizer and a plastic bag. No chocolate chips exist, but that’s easy to do with just chopping up bars of chocolate. I don’t have any real measuring cups but using mugs works just as well and estimating spoon sizes has been fine too.

Coriander smashing technique

Quiche!

Butternut squash risotto, turns out camolino works just fine.

Curried vegetable and tofu soup

No poli to be had, so I made some! Not bad for a first try

Granola, of course

In which we pay to ride and experience claustrophobia in the Cu Chi tunnels

We’ve arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals prefer to call it, Saigon. After a day of relaxing we booked another Grasshopper bicycle tour, met our guide Nguyen, and were off. Man, it was hot and humid. Due to our inability to convert inches to centimeters and thinking we’d have a chance to fit the kids for bikes, one of the bikes was almost comically small. Thankfully, the boy took this one and did just fine with it.

It was a muddy, bumpy ride through the countryside, and it was so fun! Passing by rubber plantations, we stopped at a rice paper making factory, where almost all the work is done by hand. You know those little lines when you get the sheets? It’s from them drying on the bamboo mats! I always just thought they were decorative.

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tapping the rubber tree

We stopped at a local roadside stand for a snack, and our tour guide told us that it was owned by a former Viet Cong. Eric asked if it was weird for him to have Americans in the shop, and Nguyen answered “No, here in Vietnam we forgive and forget after the American war.” (The Vietnam war is called the American war here) So surprising, given that the Vietnam war still has such a strong and negative legacy in our country and that there was so much damage inflicted by us on their country as well.

After 30 km of riding, we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels. With the bike tours, you go to the far side of the tunnels, less visited by foreign tourists, much quieter and more of the original size entry holes preserved. These were a large series of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong used to hide from and attack American troops during the war. They were so well hidden that Americans only found about a third of the tunnels, even after carpet bombing the area. The tunnels were all dug by hand, a vast network of 75 miles near Saigon, with exits popping up every five to ten meters or so. The tunnels have three layers to them, a top layer just below the ground, and then subsequent layers about 7-10 meters below the previous. There were booby traps in case American soldiers did make it through. Air vents were disguised as termite mounds, and the entrances were barely large enough for me to fit through. After crawling through them for 30 meters, my heart started to pound and fear took over. I’m not normally claustrophobic, but to be in a tight space in utter darkness…I don’t know how the VC were able to stay down there for weeks at a time.

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Diorama of the tunnels at the site

 

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Inside the tunnels, at the exit point. So cramped and tiny, even the girl had to stoop

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Creepy mannequin recreations of rooms under the tunnel, here’s a meeting house where the kids take part in a planning session

A lovely meal on the riverside after that, then back home to Saigon, and all in all a delightful day.

-S

On the road! DEN–AKL

Our last day in Denver was getting a few last minute things together, throwing in an extra set of warm hats and mismatched gloves into our bags and getting to the airport. Our initial flight was delayed but I’d given us a big layover at LAX so that wasn’t a problem. Surprisingly, security through LAX was a breeze and we had a lot of extra time. (Side note: no security cares about those liquids anymore as long as they’re 100 ml or less)

The 12 hours to Auckland was nice! One trick I learned from traveling with my parents at a young age is to always order the special “Asian vegetarian” meal. You get served before everyone else and the dish is always tasty. The girl was in heaven in a little cocoon made up of blankets and pillows and quilts and couldn’t believe she got a whole tv all to herself that came with a anything she wanted to watch and even games. Long haul air travel has come a long way since my last flight!

Customs checkout line was looking, so the boy used it as an opportunity to play some tunes while waiting.


Once we got in and through the airport, we had a few hours before we could check in at our Air BnB. Man, these were rough hours. We were tired and gross and just wanted to get to a bed. We found a little breakfast place called Scarecrow, an organic farm-to-table place and had a very tasty breakfast. 

At this point, the kids were being absolute angels, peacefully chatting with each other about the beauty of Auckland. Or maybe they began needling each other.


After we got into our apartment, we enjoyed the view for about 10 seconds before promptly going to sleep. 


When we woke up it was time to explore Auckland a bit!

Auckland has a population of 1.4 million people which is about a third of the island’s entire population. That’s incredible! The rest of the island must be very sparsely populated other than the other smaller cities in the island. There is a lot of Asian influence here, which you see in the people walking about and in the food available. Given the chilly drizzle, nothing seemed quite as tasty as a bowl of hot ramen! We found a hold in the wall and popped on in. 


After this we took a bus to the Auckland Museum. The bus drivers make change for you, which was a pleasant surprise! 

The Auckland Mseum was fantastic. After we exited the bus and looked like lost tourists, a very kind lady asked if we were heading to the museum as she was going that way and she would walk us there. She turned out to be one of the head volunteer guides and gave us fantastic mini tour of the collections when we got there! The Auckland museum has the largest collection of Maorio art and artifacts in the world!  I found it fascinating that before the Maori, the island was entirely unpopulated by people and also by any mammals other than bats. There were plenty of large birds which had descended from the dinosaurs, which were largely defenseless and promptly killed by Europeans with guns when they arrived on the island. Way to go.

At the museum they had a Maori meeting house that they were refurbishing. Here are the kids making their best fierce Maori faces. 

After all that, we were beat. We dragged ourselves back to the apartment and ordered pizza – one of which was a butter paneer pizza! Tasty and so different. All we had the mental bandwidth for was to watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos” to which I have 2 comments – one, those were pretty funny and we laughed out loud,   and two – really Carleton? How the mighty have fallen. 

Today we are off to the coromandel peninsula, renting a car for our first left hand driving experience. Wish me luck.

Ps – I’m typing these up on my iPad and the connection lags a bit, so forgive any typos! 

Last night in Denver

And so after many years of planning and saving, the day of leaving is here. Tomorrow we board a flight for LA and then New Zealand. We’ve got a place to stay that first night, and then after that I don’t actually know exactly where we’ll be. I think that for many, this would be a situation of unease and fear, but I love it. I love the idea that I don’t actually know what next week will hold for me. For quite some time, the overall cadence of days and weeks has been relatively predictable. I know that I’ll be going to work, I know that the kids are going to school, and while the details may vary, the essential framework remains unchanged.  I will miss people, of course. Over the last few weeks it has been a period of many goodbyes and realizing that the little times you spend with friends – working a shift together, going out for lunch, having dinner-  makes up the fabric of your friendship and these little times will not be happening for the near future.

To change the subject, though, let’s talk packing.

What do you take on a long trip like this? I don’t know what YOU take, but here’s what we’re doing:

That picture above is the sum total of our bags. After I took this picture I realized some things were missing which I list below.  But since all of that will fit into the bags above, you get the idea. We hope to do the trip with only carry on luggage as much as possible.

Here’s the girl with her stuff: 4 bottoms, 4 shirts, 3 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of underwear, long sleeved shirt, rain jacket, swimwear, pajamas and of course, a sloth mask, a kindle with a sloth sticker, and a stuffed sloth. 3 pairs of shoes – chuck Taylor’s, flip flops, and keens.

The boys pack is pretty much the same, minus the sloths and plus a backgammon set.


I decided to use the packing cube system given that we’re using backpacks – seems like it’ll be easier to manage  that way. Here’s the girls stuff all put into the cubes. I initially bought a cheap set off eBay, but the zippers were of poor quality and I could tell that I’d eventually find them annoying and will likely break soon. I splurged on slightly more expensive (yet still pretty cheap) sets off amazon for the other two. Each one comes with 4 cubes of varying sizes and 2 laundry pouches.


As for me, not really all that different than the kids except that things are bigger so do take up more room. Since I don’t really want to have my underwear on public display (even if it is all the really boring sort) I’ve left it in the cubes here and have laid out the toiletries instead. Packed my shampoo, conditioner, some makeup, and sunscreen for my face. I also have a small first aid kit with some band aids  and polysporin in it.


Things not pictured: travel guitar, camera, iPad, my knitting, kids coloring books and pencils, and 2 small backpacks for putting stuff in for shorter trips and to have on the plane. I did get a collapsible water bottle as well, let’s see if that’s any use. Eric packed the meds we’re taking : pepto, cipro, azithromycin, and flagyl.

Not bad, though I do feel like it’s still too much! As for when we hit winter in Romania, we are having a few things shipped though I think we’ll be shopping at Romanian secondhand stores for clothes we can wear and then discard, contributing to the great circle of thrift store life.  I’m really hoping I get some super stylish 80s Eastern-bloc era duds to wear.

And off we go – next time I post will hopefully be from NZ (unless the flight to LA is particularly bad then I’ll. post here to complain.

-s

FAQ

We have just a little more time before we leave. I know I’m not supposed to say on the interwebs when we’re leaving for vacation, but given that we have people coming to stay here right away I feel okay about it.

Much like a wedding or pregnancy, when you have a major event upcoming in your life all conversations focus around that. I know that people are interested out of love and concern, but one does get a bit tired of answering the same questions repeatedly. Here, then, is a collection of the questions I seem to get asked most often in order of frequency, with answers.

  1. Are you excited? – Far and away the most common question I get asked. Perhaps it is meant to be rhetorical. I always answer “yes, super excited.” Though sometimes I want to add to that “and I also have some bone crushing nausea and anxiety if I try to think about it too much.” But YES I AM EXCITED!
  2. What are you bringing? – We are each bringing one hiking backpack on the trip. Yes, that is it. We bring about a week’s worth of clothing and plan on doing wash as we go. Given that the weather is mostly temperate or warm  (except for the first week in NZ) we should be fine. If not, we can buy stuff along the way! Except for Eric of course once we get to Southeast Asia, because even the largest size of pants there will probably come to his kneecaps. We are planning on mailing a small box of winter stuff to Romania. Partly for warmth and partly because we will all be tired of looking like characters in a play who wear the exact same outfit for days on end. Eric will have his laptop, we are bringing the Ipad and we each have our own kindles. We have bets on who will get their kindle stolen first (ha, who are we kidding, it’s going to be the little girl)
  3. What are you doing with your house? – We have it listed on VRBO and it has already been surprisingly successful! This leads me to think we have it priced too low. We’re nearly booked for all of August and September, and given that most people don’t book more than 1-2 months ahead of time, I think we’ll be fine.
  4. Are you home schooling the kids? – This is the one I answer least honestly. The answer I give (truth part) is that I intend for the blog to be the homeschool. It’s a way to look up and learn about places we go, write about it, correct their grammar and so on. The rest of the answer (lie) is that I plan on dealing with math when we get to Romania. I do not know if this will actually happen. I’m kind of relying on the Irish Catholic Nuns to whip them into mathly shape in Spring semester as the kids will be enrolled in same sex Catholic schools, uniforms and all. This is really to everyone’s benefit. Have you ever had me try to teach you anything? No? Consider yourself extraordinarily fortunate.
  5. Do you have enough money for the trip? – God I hope so. Otherwise I hope I can ply my skills as a burlesque dancer along the way to support the family.
  6. When are you coming back? – Not entirely sure. See Question 5 as that will decide a bit. Sometime next summer.
  7. Are you going to be working/doctoring abroad? – No.
  8. Where are you going? – asked and answered in prior post
  9. “I’m so jealous/I hate you” – well, you should. I’m pretty fabulous.

I really want a 10th thing because all good lists have 10 things but I just can’t think of one more.

-s