Oxford

Our last day in England, wasn’t really our last day in England, it was our exit day, and just like our trip in, things didn’t go as planned.  We had only planned one stop and admittedly, we didn’t do much research beforehand.

Big One has wanted to go to Oxford University since she was 11 years old.  This may have been partially inspired by Harry Potter, as it is the closest a Muggle like her can get to attending Hogwarts.  And of course, Alice in Wonderland is one of her favorite stories as well.  When she first said this was what she wanted, we were supportive, but skeptical.  I mean seriously, she was 11 years old.  There is plenty of time to change her mind, and as it was inspired by a book, I wasn’t sure it would last.  Two years have passed and while the Harry Potter obsession has faded some into other interests, the desire for Oxford was still there.

We had been staying near Cambridge in a small town for most of our trip, and Oxford was two hours away, on the wrong side of London from where we were going for the Chunnel trip home.  However, as we had no other plans until our 16:20 Chunnel appointment, it shouldn’t have been a big deal.  Just in case, we didn’t tell the kids where we were going, and just started plugging away, leaving early at 8:00 in the morning.

There were two major mistakes made with this trip.  First, we didn’t research.  I had no idea that there are actually about 10 Universities in Oxford.  All I had ever heard was Oxford University, or possibly University of Oxford.  We didn’t know which one we wanted, so that slowed us down a lot.  Second, the city of Oxford has narrow roads and poor parking, so they highly encourage the use of the Park and Ride.  This is a simple enough system; you park in the large parking lot, and take one of several buses going wherever you want to go.  Just as a little tip, pay when you park.  There weren’t signs that I could see, but when we tried to leave, we received major attitude from an attendant.  The machine let us pay just fine, but he made it very clear we should have known better, and we were lucky he hadn’t issued any tickets that day.  I’m guessing it’s a common mistake, but I’m not sure lecturing tourists helps much.

We found the right bus, but I think it was a miracle.  I am generally good with understanding UK accents.  I have a little trouble with Welsh, but I don’t hear it as much, so I think that makes sense.  The attendant who I asked before getting on a bus only had half of his teeth and a VERY thick accent, so while I understood which number bus, I didn’t quite catch what stop we should get off on.  It stressed me a little, but the kids just love being on top of a double decker bus.  The novelty never wears off I guess.

Eventually, we got off the bus, not at the right stop, but a little early.  A very nice girl who had been sitting near us on the bus pointed us in the right direction, and told us which University we wanted.  I guess it is easy to assume the Americans walking around Oxford want the Harry Potter campus, also known as Christ Church.  We were still a little lost for part of the way, but we found the official campus store, bought Big One an University of Oxford hoodie, and were on our way again.

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Christ Church is the most well known campus, partially because that was where parts of Harry Potter were filmed.  The Great Hall in the films is actually here, and I have heard that scenes were filmed in some of the corridors and the library, but I can’t find confirmation of that on any official site.

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The outside of the building is beautiful.  We had intended on going inside to see the actual campus, but we changed our mind.  We were slightly worried about time, having hit traffic on our way there and then getting lost.  The biggest factor that kept us to the outside grounds was the necessity to pay 7 pounds to visit, and then having the Great Hall closed for restoration.  We would have been paying to see only half of what we wanted to see, and the fees for six people was a little much.  Big One and I are both still very sad that we didn’t see the library, and if we’d known what was coming for the rest of the day, we might have gone ahead and enjoyed a little bit more fun before meeting our fate.  Heck, we might have skipped Oxford all together and gone on the other side of London where the road might have been different.

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No.  With how excited Big One was to see the campus, there is no way we could ever have skipped it.  Even the smallest taste and she is more determined than ever to attend.  She knows it will be hard work, and require at least one scholarship, but she wants it so badly she can almost taste it now.

Big One wasn’t the only one to have fun of course.  Little One loved the bus ride back.  By sitting on the very front of the top of the double decker bus, she was able to pretend she was driving.

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She loved it, but she wasn’t very good at keeping her eyes on the road.

The rest of our trip was, well, devastatingly horrible.  We spent at least an hour in stand still traffic, working through a construction zone where no one appeared to be working.  By the time we got through that, we were running excessively late to catch our Chunnel appointment.  Even with a two hour window, we weren’t sure if we would be able to make it.  I tried to use my phone to reschedule our appointment, but the website wouldn’t let me do anything.  By the time we arrived, after what should have been a 2 1/2 hour journey and turned into almost 5 hours, we had missed our window.  Fortunately we didn’t have to pay for a full extra ticket, just another 32 pounds to reschedule our time.  We didn’t get on until 20:50, almost nine o’clock at night, and more than four hours after our projected time.  We arrived back in France at about 21:30, and then proceeded to drive the three and a half hour drive in a mere four and a half hours.  We arrived home exhausted, cranky, and hating being in the car.

But of course our travels did’t end there.  No, we had a few more days of traveling.  These are the times when I understand how the Europeans can consider us nuts.  There is no relaxation in this type of holiday.  But of course, if you want to see everything, you have to keep moving.

England Again

This was going to be our last real day in England, our last day to see what we could see.  We all piled in the car again and were off and away.  Our first stop was Castle Rising.

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The ruins are in a nice field, with open space, on a beautiful day.  One brief stop in the gift shop and we were ready.

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Little One is ready to defend the castle.

The castle is very run down, but then, that’s what you expect from ruins.  There was still a lot to see.

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We went around the ledge, Big One taking pictures and Little One switching between charging to attack and come back to defend.  There were great pictures to be taken from this vantage point, but somehow it gave me motion sickness.  Something about the way the narrow ledge moved differently as it went down into a wider hill bottom was more than I could handle.

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Still, pretty nice photo to be had.  Inside was slightly more rundown than many of the other castles I have visited, but it was a lot of fun.

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Still defending things!

My in-laws listened to the audio guide, but I travel with a very active seven year old.  There is no listening to audio guides for me.

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After this we moved on.  There was a pub stop somewhere along the road, but I was hungry and didn’t take any pictures.  Priorities as usual.

After lunch we went to Sandringham House.  When my in-laws mentioned this place, they seemed to assume I knew where we were going.  I guess if you’ve lived in England, particularly around this area you know this is a vacation home for the Queen.

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There is space all over to simply look around at the pretty grounds, and you can also take a tour of the inside if the royals are not in residence.  We were told the younger royals were there before we left, but as usual we had no idea where anyone was.  When we went to Rome we thought the pope was in Argentina, but he was giving a speech.  This time we thought someone was there and we wouldn’t be able to go inside, but we were wrong.  No one was home, so we got to tramp through.

There were no pictures allowed inside, which I completely understand.  Quite honestly, this cemented why I would be a horrible royal.  Beyond the visible tattoos, and American habit of saying inappropriate things occasionally, I’m not sure I would be able to hold the position with any dignity.  Their house is beautiful, but the guides mentioned these rooms were actually used by the royals.  It’s not their private areas, but one room Prince Charles uses as an office when he is there, another room is where they regularly have tea.  I would not be cool with people coming through.  I know allowing this brings in income which helps with the upkeep of the house, but still.  It’s my space, get out.

Big One was happy to agree I would be a horrible royal when I whispered that while the guide was distracted we should get a teacup, but of course, I didn’t and I wouldn’t.  Not really.  She did however find it amusing when I mentioned I would have installed an animatronic me in a window that occasionally yelled out, “Get off my lawn!”  Seriously.  I would be the worst royal.  At least my kids are better behaved than I am.

We also walked through the garages where I also took no pictures, and had an in-depth discussion over whether or not the Queen, or any of the royals for that matter, would be asked to pay if they stopped in the ice cream shop for a popsicle.  I meant, technically she owns all the dang ice cream, but I imagine for profits and accounting purposes having her pay would make sense.  We never decided how it would go.

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The grounds were beautiful, and I was happy to see them, but the entire thing seemed strange to me.  I know for many of the royals this is simply their life, and for those who marry in, it is not an easy decision to make.  Everyone has baggage, but this is a commitment to more than a person, it is a commitment to a family and a kingdom.  In essence, they become public property.  I was happy to buy a Princess Charlotte cup, which goes well with my Prince George, my Will and Kate wedding, my Diamond Jubilee, and my husband’s Charles and Di wedding mugs.  (Remember, his parents lived in England in the early 80’s.  I kind of wish they had bought their sons William and Harry birth mugs too, but whatever.)  I like the collection and it’s fun, but Charlotte is so little and yet so many people already have her face in their houses.  I know she is never going to be going over to a random person’s house for tea, but how weird would it be to show up and be served a beverage in a cup with your face on it.  I mean, seriously.  This royalty thing is weird, which makes it, and consequently them, fascinating to me.

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I felt so much like I shouldn’t be there, yet at the same time, I wanted to see more.  The guides pointed out the corridor that had the private rooms and I wondered briefly how far I could make it past the rope before determining not far enough to see anything good.  I desperately wanted to sit in the old wheelchairs from past queens, or take a ride in The Queen’s Official Racing Buggy, a tricked out golf cart used when the Queen visits the races.  I’m not sure if it is natural human curiosity, knowing a little and wanting to know more, or if it is the secret desire to do something I’m not supposed to.  Either way, it made me think, so I guess that makes it a successful outing.

We made one last stop for the day on our way back to our cottage, mostly just because it was there, to Ely Cathedral.

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As with most places I visit, I had no idea about anything in this town or this Cathedral.  We went to see what was there and enjoy what we found, so when we saw a sign, and the top of the church in the distance, we took a turn.

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We didn’t stay long, or take many pictures for two big reasons.

First, choir practice was getting ready to start, and they had it posted very clearly that no pictures or videos should be taken during choir practice.

Secondly, I think I was enjoying my day too much.  I mean really, we saw a lot during our in in England, but I didn’t take a lot of pictures in any individual spot.  I like having pictures to remember my time by, but I prefer leaving with a happy feeling that comes from a good day spent in the moment much, much more.

Well, that was almost all of England.  I think I am getting better about telling my travels, but I promise, this isn’t turning into a strictly travel blog.  Eventually, I will catch up, and July’s Camp NaNoWriMo has already started, so I have much to do, say, and write!

Next time, I’ll tell you the trip home, before getting into our adventures in Germany and Belgium.  Seriously, it was a busy two weeks.

England, Day 2

Waking up in Cambridge, we were ready to move on and move out.  My in-laws had a plan to see as much of what they remember from England in two days.  We started by picking up some provisions from a Spar down the street from the hotel, right next to a great fish and chips place.

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I was seriously disappointed not to be able to try the food.  I’m not sure I would even care if it tasted good, these people get an A+ in naming their restaurant.

Adding to our quirky morning was Big One’s treat selection.

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They sounded disgusting to me, but tasted a little like circus peanuts.  Big One loved them, but sadly we did not see another bag for the rest of our trip.  We would have gone back to the same Spar, but that was the end of our time in Cambridge.

Honestly, there I wasn’t exactly certain where we were for most of the time we were in England.  I saw it on the map at the time, but since then, I have lost track of where we were.  There was a lot of driving, and several places that we drove by without stopping.  We took a brief stop by the base where my Father in Law used to work, and where my husband was born, but I generally make it a habit to not take scenery pictures on military bases.  We also stopped outside the now closed base where they used to live.  There was no way to actually go on the base and see their old house, but the gate where we stopped was the same location where my Father-in-law was working the day the queen came on base.

For lunch we stopped was a pub in the middle of nowhere, the Sculthorpe Mill.

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Thirty years ago, this pub was apparently a club of some sort.  People would pay a small yearly fee to be a member, and then they would come down to socialize while consuming beer, playing lawn bowl, and just enjoying their time.  As the story goes, my in-laws were the only American members for the time they lived here, but while they were here, it was somewhat of a second home for them.  When they left, around 1982, above the old slot machine was a large deer head.  My father-in-law left his cowboy hat on top of that deer, promising one day he would be coming back for his hat.  No one was really sure if the hat would still be there, but he made a promise and had to come back to find out.

Sadly, the hat was not there.  In 2002, there was a fire in the pub.  While the outside was mostly fine, the inside was not.  Eight years ago, a family bought the old place, fixed it up, and reopened as both a pub and a bed and breakfast.  The daughter was working while we were there.  There was no way she was old enough to remember the old days when my in-laws used to visit, but she did remember the hat.  It had kept its place on top of the deer until the fire had ruined both the hat and the deer.

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The outside of the pub looked great, with a beautiful garden.  I didn’t remember to take any pictures inside, but I had fish and chips to focus on, so I had my priorities straight.  Food before photos.

We took a few more stops that day, but honestly I can’t remember where everything was.

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I don’t remember where this church was, but it’s pretty, isn’t it?

We had another long drive to a place in the middle of no where, looking for a World War 2 memorial.  Like many people, my husband’s family served in WW2.  While my grandfather was in Okinawa Japan, my husband’s grandfather served in England at a base that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  Sometime in the 90’s, he came back with many others from his unit to place a memorial.  This was about ten years after my in-laws left, so they had never seen it.

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This memorial was really in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hedges.  Seriously, if you didn’t know something was there, you would never think to stop and look.  We got a little lost, and as a result, learned a little history.

Of course my in-laws knew the name of the base where the memorial was supposed to be, but when we put it into the GPS, we ended up at someone’s house.  While asking for directions, we learned that the house was built where the old train station used to be.  During WW2, English bases were named after the closest train station, the station where the military troops would come in, not the actual location of the base.  This was meant to confuse the Nazi troops.  This way if they heard about a base and attempted to attack, they were more likely to attack a train station.  Still a horrible thing, but much less of a strategic loss.

Seeing this memorial meant a lot to my mother-in-law as her father had passed away.  It isn’t a recent death, but of course, when it comes to losing family, one day or seventeen years, it still hurts.  This memorial was more than just a reminder of fallen soldiers.  It was a memorial to a time in her father’s life, first when he fought for something he believed in and later when he came back to remember those he had lost.

After a long day of driving and things that were, well, not kid friendly, we ended at Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park.

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By the time we arrived it was 1630, only a half an hour from when the park closed.  The clerks kindly didn’t charge us for the children, as we weren’t going to be able to see much, but the money goes to preservation so we wouldn’t have minded.

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There were lots of birds, of course.  It seemed to be mostly ducks, but there were lots of other birds, both  those that I recognized and many I didn’t.  There were also plenty of bees, which sounds bad, but is actually a good thing.  Well, since none of us are allergic to bees it was a good thing.  It’s nice to look after all of the creatures that are part of our ecosystem.

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More birds.

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Pretty water flowers.

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Beautiful scenery everywhere.

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And my daughters conquering a wooden spider climber.  Peaceful all around.

We ended the day back with my in-laws English friends having a Chinese and pleasant conversation.  Their grandson was a lot of fun to talk to.  He seemed fascinated with the Americans sitting in the living room, with our weird accents, and phrasing.  Little One had bought some rocks at Pensthorpe, and he was happy to talk about them with her, letting her know the rocks that were common around that area of England.

Even in an uneventful evening, I was still able to find two exciting things.  First, my father-in-law and I walked a short distance to see the church they used to attend.  It was small, with uneven floors and benches that look extremely uncomfortable, but that was what make it charming.  I forgot to bring my phone with me, so I ended up without any pictures but it was pretty.  Even cooler, inside the church they were conducting bell ringing practice.  The church I attended growing up didn’t have a bell.  In fact, most churches I saw growing up didn’t have bells an those that did never seemed to have them ringing.  Inside this small, old, church, six devoted adults worked hard to pull the strings, ringing the bells to created a beautiful rhythm.  It was kind of beautiful.  I may not have known their names or what they did for a living, but I learned they spent every Wednesday night in a church for bell ringing practice. It was a part of their story that made me what to know more.

The most exciting thing about the night was actually something small.  Many people might not even think it is that big of a deal.  Trust me, it was exciting.  I was offered tea by an actual, real, English woman.  She brewed a pot in her kettle and gave me a piping hot cuppa.  It was both exciting (admittedly in a stupid way) and terrifying.  I drink tea all the time at home, almost every night.  I love tea, and I drink it in many different ways, depending on what kind of tea it is.  However, being offered real English tea by a real English person, I was slightly terrified.  Was I supposed to drink it black?  Was it okay to say yes to sugar and milk?  What about the little bit I didn’t quite have time to finish before we left?  Would she be hurt that I didn’t finish it, or think I didn’t like the tea?  Knowing tea is important in England, it seemed like a dangerous thing to be involved in.  I think we all remember how upset England was when those revolutionaries in Boston didn’t like the tea. The last thing I wanted to do was start another international incident over tea.

Of course, I was overthinking everything,  and she was a delight.  In fact, I’m not sure she would have cared however I liked my tea, or even if I had refused to have any.

Well, we still have more England stories to tell, so I better get moving.  Until next time.

England, pt 1

Ah, England.  I feel as though I should preface this part of our trip with a little bit of information.

First off, there were parts of this trip that I believe were literally out of experiences in hell.  I don’t actually like road trips, as anyone who grew up with motion sickness may understand.  Additionally, my in laws and I travel very differently.  I tend to stay in larger hotels, figuring the room is an insignificant portion of why I am there anyway.  I also have no problem eating lunches or dinners in a fast food place such as McDonalds.  If saves a bit of money that can be used for more fun things, and feeds everyone quickly.  It’s an all around win in my book. However, my in-laws prefer to stay in bed and breakfasts, and eat in pubs.  It’s not like I don’t like these ideas, but it all comes together to make it a very different experience on this trip.

Now to the hell of our first day.

When my in laws first discussed coming to visit us, they made a request to travel to England and Germany as well.  It is surprisingly common for people to want to visit other countries when they visit us, even in conversation.  I guess not everyone knows what to find in Belgium, but they can see how close it is to countries.  It’s sad.  Anyway, my father-in-law is retired from the US Air Force, and was once stationed in both places.  The desire to return has been there for a while.  It’s been over 30 years since they had been to England, and they were anxious to return.  Additionally, my Mother-in-law was very excited to take the chunnel, (officially the Eurotunnel).  Approximately a decade ago she gave a speech on the chunnel and really wanted to go through.

We left early in the morning to drive out.  The plan was to drive the three and a half hours to the chunnel, cross, then drive up to our B&B and check in early enough to still see some of England that afternoon.  This first drive wasn’t too bad; a little traffic, a few stops for gas and relieving ourselves of bodily fluid, but nothing excessive.  Until we arrived at the terminal.

We had given ourselves an extra hour and a half from our scheduled chunnel crossing.  We figured that would give us an hour of extra time, plus our checkin.  With the time of day we were traveling we didn’t think we would need more. By the time we arrived, we were beginning to push our time limit, and were worried.  Buying a chunnel crossing in advance is significantly less expensive than a last minute fare, and we didn’t want to miss out slot.

As we arrived, there was traffic due to construction.  We were following the signs to where we needed to be, but somewhere along the way we got a little mixed up.  Trying to find the right lane for us we asked someone for help.  Their English was either not good, and my French is horrible.  We thought we were communicating, telling him “touriste” lane.  Somehow we were directed to the lorry lanes instead and being herded long with the large trucks.  We couldn’t get out, but we also couldn’t get through.  Eventually we found someone who could help us get out and to where were were supposed to be, but we had already missed our checkin time.  Luckily for us, the nice woman informed us that we actually had a two hour window, and we would still make our crossing.  We got in the correct lane, and on we went.

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The chunnel is a pretty cool thing.  You drive right onto this train thing, park your car, and when you drive again 35 minutes later, you are across the English Channel.  This wasn’t my first time crossing, so I was mostly just wanting to get it over with.  Trust me, if you are claustrophobic or have a very sensitive stomach this isn’t going to be very fun for you.  However, if you are my Mother-in-law, you will be giggling like a school girl.  It was adorable how excited she was.

Arriving on the other side, we continued on towards the B&B we had booked the day before.  We were out in the middle of no where, lost and looking for a place called the Brambles.  Pulling over to ask for directions, we learned that somehow we were in the wrong town.

While waiting for good directions, a nice English man pulled up next to us and gave us a friendly greeting.  It was adorable how surprised he was to discover than in spite of seeing a Belgium license plate, it was a van full of Americans.  We talked about American football, because apparently there was a recent game in London with a couple of NFL teams coming over to play.

After we received directions we moved on, driving to our B&B.  As soon as we arrived, we were greeted with a large dumpster filled with construction waste and a locked door. When we finally found someone to talk to, we were informed that our reservation had been cancelled the day before.  We should have received an email.  We did not.  We were now in the middle of England, outside a closed B&B, planning on staying for three days and having no place to sleep that night.  The only good news we received for the next four hours was a random phone call from my husbands work informing us we would be receiving his rank promotion soon.  It didn’t solve the place to sleep problem, but it still improved my mood a lot.

We drove around for an hour or so, receiving very little help from places nearby until we finally found a Travelodge in Cambridge where a very kind man named Georgi was able to get us situated into rooms for the night.  Unfortunately, no matter how much he wanted to help us, there was no way for him to book us for more than one night at at time.  In order to book a room for more than a night, we needed to go online to a faulty website which used up my 30 minutes of free internet access and still didn’t get us booked.  It was exhausting, and frustrating, but with the help of a kind person we had a place to sleep.

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The view from our room wasn’t that bad either.

From there we went out to see some of my in laws old friends.  It had been over thirty years since they had seen them, but it was as if they had never been apart.  It’s always nice to see real true friendships like that.  We went out to a pub for dinner where I began consuming my typical UK food, fish and chips.  I’m not supposed to eat them, as the gluten in the beer batter does make me sick, but I LOVE fish and chips and there is no where better to overdo it on fish and chips than England.

The pub was a cute place, slightly rustic and everything you would want from a stereotypical English pub.  Somehow I ended up with only one bad picture from inside the pub.  I guess that is a good statement on the food there.

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Seriously.  I have no idea how I ended up with this as my only picture.  I guess it wasn’t my day.

In fact the only disappointment was having regular peas instead of mushy peas.  Most people I know, whether they like peas or not, hate the mushy peas that seem to come with every order of fish and chips.  I actually love them.  With a little salt, they taste just like split pea soup.

While we had thought we might be continuing to rent our hotel rooms night by night until we left, we were also able to book a small cottage for the next two night which would cost half as much as the Travelodge.  It was too dark that night to take a picture of where we were staying, but we were able to snap this picture later.

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Adorable, right?  Everything inside was so tiny, my husband actually hit his head on a door frame.  It was like a dollhouse.

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We were informed that this house was once owned by a Mrs. Bradford, and named after her daughter Hilary when it was added to the property of a Bed and Breakfast.  While I can’t help but feel as though we wouldn’t have had any trouble with where we were staying if we had booked a hotel from the beginning, it was definitely cool staying in a house with history.

So that was our first day in England.  A mess, exhausting, but ultimately good.

And for anyone who is wondering, the story with the first B&B did have a bit of a happy ending.  Sure, it was an inconvenience having our reservation canceled almost instantly after it was made, but a couple of days later (we had a lot of internet issues while we traveled) my in laws received an email from them.  They said they had been trying to reach us, they were very sorry for the problems it may have caused us, and in addition to the refund, they refunded us the cost of an additional night, knowing last minute accommodations can be more expensive.  I can’t be sure of what went wrong, but I have to give them credit for trying to make it right.  And no, I don’t think they have an idea that I would be writing about it on a blog, or that this would reach enough people to ruin their business (which I don’t think it ever will).  They made it right simply because they felt they should.

Vaalserberg

While my in-laws were in town there were a few days where we wanted something to do, but it needed to be something small.  This was partially due to Big One still needing to attend school occasionally to complete her finals for the year.  Luckily for us, not far from her school is Vaalserberg, the location of the triborder point and the highest point in the Netherlands.

So, first things first, to clarify, we live in Belgium, yes, but our daughter attends an international school in the Netherlands.  It’s a thing, partially a thing that has her riding a bus for an hour and a half every day, but she is really happy there, so it’s all worth it.  These are the kinds of things you can do when you live within an easy drive of several other countries.

We went looking for the triborder point from her school, climbing up windy mountains in the Netherlands. It was quite beautiful, but as I get motion sickness, I took no pictures.  Our GPS didn’t know exactly where we were going, but managed to get us close enough a nice person in a cafe could point us the rest of the way.  (Thank you anonymous Netherlander!)

When we first arrived, we weren’t actually sure where we were.  Truth be told, I had never been, I just figured it would be a nice trip instead of staring at the outside of my daughters school.  The first place we found was actually a large staircase that brought you about five stories up to see into Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany.

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I’m pretty sure this was Germany.  I think a sign said that church was in Germany.

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Maybe this was the Netherlands?  I don’t remember.  I was mostly hanging out towards the middle with Big One who is terribly afraid of heights and was being incredibly tough even going up there with us at all.

After we climbed the tower we went in search of the actual triborder point.  Technically this place is known as Drielandenpunt.  It sounds pretty impressive until you realize it literally translates out to three land place.  Somehow I ended up with no pictures of the actual spot, but my mother-in-law took a video of Little One running through three countries in a matter of seconds.  We were all very impressed.

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Sadly, I couldn’t get that video to load, so instead enjoy Big One and Little One conquering the highest point in the Netherlands.  Okay, technically the highest point is that pillar behind them, but they conquered the plaque.  That’s something, right?

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My husband and I also conquered the peak, though I could have sworn I looked better on the day than I do in the picture.  Is it just me, or do I look like someone morphed my face with Miss Piggy’s face?  Whatever.  It was fun either way.

There was little left to do as we were planning an early start the next day.  But of course, that is another posting.

Tongeren Market

Over the last two weeks, my in-laws were in town.  We traveled a lot, slept only a little, and sent them off to the airport exhausted.  I will get all of the traveling posted, but it will take a little while, so be prepared.

They arrived Saturday evening, and on Sunday morning, we started off.  Tongeren is a city halfway-ish between where I live and Brussels.  While there are many things to do there (I am told), it is best known around here for the antiques market that takes place on Sunday mornings.  I had never visited this market before, but it sounded like the kind of thing my in-laws would love.

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This market was huge.  There were vendors going in many directions, with many different things.  Some places seemed like a glorified yard sale, while others held secret treasures.

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And Tongeren is a beautiful city on it’s own.  All along the market was this cool old wall, left over from some other time.

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Here is a view from above the market.  Stalls everywhere, and only a very small portion of the market.

We found a few hidden treasures, classic beer signs for my father-in-law, and a wooden foldout cabinet thing that reminded me of my grandmother. I’m not even certain if my grandmother had one, or if it is just a feeling, either way, I brought it home. I slightly regret not taking home a set of pewter goblets that I really liked, but knew would end up in storage for a while as I have no place to keep them.  They would have been fun for my wine last night, but sadly no, they stayed behind.  We might go back, look for my goblets or even just wander around.  We might even try to see more of the city than just the market.  It’s worth it.

A Good Cup of Coffee

People drink coffee differently in different parts of the world.  Traveling though America, almost every shop you visit will make your drink in a cardboard cup.  Occasionally, you are lucky if the coffee in your cup came from real beans.  It’s not always consistent, but every coffee lover has their favorite shop.

Outside the states it is a little different.  Finding good coffee to go in Belgium is difficult, and not only because Starbucks are almost exclusively in airports or train stations.  This varies slightly country to country, but for the most part, coffee houses are an experience, not a simple stop.

It’s hard to determine which coffee shop style I like better.  I miss the quick stop to get a latte on my way to work, but I enjoy sitting and enjoying the atmosphere as well.  During my trip to Edinburgh last summer, I fell in love with their coffee houses.  Maybe it was knowing I was sitting in the exact same place where JK Rowling had worked on parts of the Harry Potter series, and the delusion that perhaps I was soaking up left over inspiration.  Maybe it simply the relaxation that comes with being on vacation.  Either way, I felt a fire lit beneath my creativity, pushing through the pieces of my broken heart, knowing I would likely never be able to visit again.

I wanted to return, or even better get my own local coffee house where I could occasionally work.  One month ago, that dream became a reality.  A short, five minute walk from my front door is a new neighborhood coffee shop, Brogela.

First off, I have no idea what the name means.  I assume it is a play on the name of my tiny town, but Google translate can’t help me.

Six months ago, this lovely little shop didn’t exist.  Instead, it was an open room with a variety of vending machines.  Looking inside now, you can slightly see the conversion.  Cement floors have been left, and imprints where machines used to live are on the floor.  However, they added a bakery, windows, and a variety of delicious coffees.

I can admit it, I was a little scared to go on my own the first time.  I had so many hopes for a place I could work when I needed to get out of the house.  There was a lot of pressure on this little visit.  My daughters were more than happy to accompany me to check the place out.

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Now, I am not exactly a coffee purist, but I did choose to keep it simple with a chocolate cappuccino.  Sure, I could have gone with a plain cappuccino, but when you are in Belgium and they offer to put their amazing chocolate in or on something, you take it.

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Big one chose a Mars Latte, delicious coffee with excessive whip cream, caramel, and miniature Mars Bars.  Somehow it still wasn’t sweet enough for her.  I try not to worry, but I think it’s warranted here.

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Little One chose a similar option, the Snickers Latte.  It was kind of cool to see the caramel melting down into the drink in little trails.

Between the three of us, we all agreed it was a great place, one we will continue to visit.  On my own, I’m almost afraid to try to work there.  I want my coffee shop work space, but it is so different from what I already do.  Trying something new could be brilliant, or it could be a disaster.  Either way, I will only be living near this particular shop for another six months.  If I hate it, oh well, it was a failed experiment.  If I love it, it doesn’t matter, because it is temporary.  Sure, maybe I could write the best works of my life, but then I would leave and always wonder if it was me or the shop.  Maybe Dumbo flew without his feather, but we’re not all flying elephants.

In spite of the potential risks, I think I’ll have to try.  After all, big risks, big results, right?  Time to get me a good cup of coffee.

Searching…Again

My creativity seems to go through cycles, not only periods of inspiration and darker periods, but also times when I am more inspired in one way than another.  Sometimes I just go with the flow, writing when the words are there, sewing when the spirit moves me, whatever.  As long as something was created that day, I was usually all right.  Other times of course, I am not as relaxed.  I want to create using a specific medium and I want to do it now.  By now of course, I actually mean right now.

April’s session of Camp brought me about 75-85% of the way through the novel I was working on and I decided I wanted to get the other 15-25% done in May, giving me June to prepare for the July session of Camp.  Easy enough, right?  I know, famous last words.

Of course, the words have been stalled.  I’m not sure if it’s a story issue, or simply that I have been pressing too hard for too long.  The outline for the story is still there, but my inspiration seemed to disappear.

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Even without my inspiration, I have been sitting daily, getting at least a few words in.  Realistically, 1000+ words a day isn’t even that bad.  It’s more of the feel of the writing that has changed.  Yes, I am still writing daily, but I don’t seem to be connecting as well as I feel I should be.  It’s a petty problem, but it still stalls me out.

I’ve mentioned before one of the ways I push my inspiration higher is through travel.  Overtime we go on a trip, preferably for at least 3 days, I come home feeling relaxed, renewed, and ready to write.  I think it comes from reconnecting with the world.  I am seeing new things, watching people and seeing how they live their lives.  It shapes my writing by keeping me in reality.  Yes, I am writing fiction, but it needs to feel as though it could be fact.

Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly the type of fix that is possible right now.  Instead, I decided to see what I could do to capture that feeling at home.  I started with a couple of realities.  First, I had to be able to walk to where ever I was going, and second, it had to fit into the time frame I had before Little One would be dropped off by the bus.

My town is small, mostly residential with a median age of about 60, though I think it is slowly getting younger.  We have houses, a small grocery shop, a butcher, a new coffee shop (I’ll get to that in another post!), and of course since we are in Europe, a large church.

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You may have noticed, when we travel, we go to churches.  A lot.  The churches out here are different from the ones I saw growing up.  These are not modern buildings with benches, pulpits, sound systems, and jacuzzis they claim are only for baptisms.  These old churches are works of art, works of art that usually hide even more works of art.  It’s beautiful.

I’ve never been inside this church, inspire of living in its shadow for two and a half years.  (And I do mean in its shadow, I can see it from my backyard.)  I took a visit today, but I still haven’t been inside.  Firstly, because I am still deeply uncomfortable visiting churches without dressing up.  I may have moved away from the religion I grew up with, but it seems disrespectful to enter a church wearing jeans and meditation beads.  Maybe a rosary would have helped, but oh well.

The real reason I visited the church today was the cemetery.  I am a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know there was a cemetery at the foot of the church until a few days ago.  I had past the church at least a hundred times, but never really paid attention to what I was seeing, and then poof.  It was there.

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The cemetery was small, with tombstones dating from the early 1930s to  the late 1960s.  My Flemish isn’t great, but it seemed to be a combination of priests who had served in the church with a few parishioners.  Some of the stones were old and worn, making it hard to even read the words.  Others  were shiny and new, as though they had only been put in yesterday.  There were plots with planters, where flowers could be growing, and others covered in marble.  Some of the graves seemed as though they had been forgotten, and others had clearly been visited recently, with gifts of flowers, wreaths, and even a candle (not lit anymore).  There was so much to see in such a small place.

I know, some people out there are instantly asking, why did I go there?  I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t leaving flowers, or cleaning.  Simply put, I went to visit those who were gone.  Each of these people had a story.

The priest in the back, who died in his seventies, and was born in the later years of the 1880s.  His plot was large, covered in white marble with a simple black cross above his name.  As a priest, he obviously did’t have a wife or children, but someone felt it was important to bury him with well.  Even all of these years later, the tombstone is clean and well cared for.  It seemed obvious that he was well loved in his time to get such a tribute.

There was the couple buried under the large tree.  The husband was almost fifteen years older than his wife, but she died within two weeks of his passing.  People talk about dying from a broken heart; maybe she just couldn’t stand the idea of continuing on without him.

In a tiny corner, a plain cross marked the grave where a four year old was laid to rest.  The plot next to him was empty, perhaps still waiting for his parents to join him.

It is said that no one who is remembered is ever really dead.  I don’t know these people, but how they were laid to rest tells me a part of their story.  It’s stories of love, and heartbreak.  Most of our everyday lives are filled with routine, the boring things that must be done for us to continue on.  When we die, everything we ever were becomes clear because that is how we are remembered.

If this isn’t inspiring, I’m not sure what is.

Keukenhof

I’ve been living in Belgium for a couple of years now, but because of it’s location often our day trips take us to different countries.  Having grown up in Northern California, the idea that I can travel for a couple of hours and be in a new country is still a little exciting.  On that note, a couple of weeks ago we made a trip to the Netherlands.

There are many things that the Netherlands are known for; wooden shoes, windmills, debauchery in Amsterdam, and tulips.  One of the best places to go for tulips in the spring is Keukenhof, a large garden.  It’s only open for a couple of months out of the year, but when it is in bloom, it is amazing.

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After a two hour drive, we found a parking spot and walked up to the unassuming outside.  This was my first trip, but I had an idea of what was hiding inside.  I was not disappointed.

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Fun dandelion fluff fountain!  It was the closest thing to a weed in the entire park, at least that I saw.

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As expected, the inside was filled with flowers.

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Lots of flowers.

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In lots of different colors.

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Seriously.  Lots of flowers.

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I mean.  Flowers everywhere.

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I know, it’s a flower garden, what would you expect.  But there was more than just flowers here.

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Little one is always ready for a picture, so we went for it.

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We went walking on these wooden platforms through a pond.  It was strange, as solid as they were, I still felt like we were about to fall at any minute.

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The platforms brought us very close to these lovely swans.  It may have taken about 30 shots to get one without their head in the water, but they were still cool to see.

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We watched a giant game of chess.  Little One was bummed that she was not allowed to move any of the pieces, since someone else was playing.

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We even visited the pigs.  Little One LOVES pigs, and she has since she was tiny.  I guess knowing they become bacon gives them a special place in her heart.

Each year, Keukenhof has a theme, something they use to create a special flower feature.  This years theme was Van Gogh.  Now, I’m not huge on art in general.  I mean, I like it, but I don’t know all of the nitty gritty details.  I’ve never studied art or art history, I just know what I like, and I like Van Gogh.  I was looking forward to seeing the flower portrait based on one of his self portraits.  However, as the line was very long to get on the platform, and I could see from the ground the colors were off, we didn’t wait.  I mean seriously, there are about a hundred different kinds of tulips in a range of colors.  Why choose hot pink as his skin tone?

Instead we visited the selfie garden.  Since Van Gogh loved his self portraits, they created a small section designed to give a modern twist.

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Big One refused to be a part of this, as she is opposed to selfies in any way shape or form.  Instead as usual, Little One and I were in the pictures.

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Say cheese!

All right, so this was more pictures than words, but let’s be real.  It was a trip to a flower garden.

Happy travels to everyone!

Editing

I worked throughout April on a new manuscript as a part of Camp NaNoWriMo.  This is no secret, and was actually a part of my temporary radio silence.  At the end of the month, I had met my word goal by writing 40,111 words, but had not actually finished the story.  I suppose I should have aimed for a higher word count, but based on the last couple I had written, my young adult first drafts tend to hit slightly on the lower side.

While I am still completing this novel, I am also beginning to think about the next step.  No, not publication and inevitable success.  (Okay, maybe occasionally.  I am an unapologetic dreamer after all.)  No, as I finish my mind begins to turn to the dreaded task of editing.

There are different views to editing, and honestly different needs based on the writer.  Many successful writers have made statements indicating that editing was a key part of their success.  True or not, Ernest Hemingway is credited with stating, “The first draft of anything is shit.”  Of course there are others who only edit for spelling errors, and are completely happy with their end results.  So who is right?  I don’t know, and I don’t really care.

For me, I hate editing.  It requires me to be objective about my own writing and my own story.  I begin to second guess everything and suddenly I not only believe Hemingway, but I realize that no matter how much you polish, a turd is still a turd.  I take everything about my own writing personally because it is technically personal.  This is something that came from inside me.  Even if it’s not actually my biography there are parts of me in every character and every choice.

It’s much easier to be objective and honest when I am working with someone else’s work.  I’ve done beta reading before, reading the draft of a story and giving honest feedback.  I feel like I can give constructive criticism without making it unnecessarily cruel.  It’s not about what I like or don’t like, it’s about what makes sense.  Occasionally, I even do it without thinking.

I recently finished a novel, a new adult story that at first seemed like a straight forward girl goes away to college and falls into the middle of a love triangle.  Instead it felt to me to be several books in one.  As I read I could not help but cut through the chapters mumbling to myself about what was unnecessary and what was distracting or weird.  To me, this book needed some severe editing and should not have gone to print without it.  But then, as far as I could find, the writer is at least reasonably successful so my opinion may be the unpopular one on this book.

I hate editing because at the end of the day it is going to arbitrary.  There are many books I have read and wondered how the hell they got to print through a major publishing house without someone saying something about editing the story in some way.   If I had been the agent, or publishing house rep, I would have sent it back and said redo it and we’ll try again.  But no one did, and the world (or part of it) thanks them for sending it through as is.  I can look at someone else’s work and whine about how they should have done things, and doubt all of my own work, but at the end of the day I am only one reader.  My opinion is not the one that makes decisions, and clearly I shouldn’t be the one to make those decisions.  I might have saved the world from some poorly written books, but I also would have saved myself and everyone else from a large quantity of money.

So what does this mean for my own editing?  Hell if I know.  I guess it means I will be one of those writers who needs someone else to help me sort through my own mess.