Kindergarten!

We arrived back in Abu Dhabi last week, getting off the plane at around 1 am on Friday morning. After an annoying wait at the luggage carousel, we realized that our stroller was not coming and made our way to the lost luggage desk to make a claim, before grabbing a taxi to our apartment. With as much as we travel, I remain so glad that we chose an apartment only 15 minutes from the airport.

It was great to be home. Matteo, though exhausted, took the time to say hello and goodnight to his favorite toys (ahem, and his video games) before heading to bed. Tony and I briefly unpacked before doing the same. I was glad to have the weekend together to adjust to the time change (2 hours ahead of what we’d adjusted to in Europe) and to regroup before the busy week started.

Tony was back at work on Monday (Sunday was a holiday) and Matteo I spent his last full day of summer break at the pool. On Tuesday morning Tony met Matteo and I at his new school for kindergarten orientation. We’ve been waiting for this day! We spent the morning checking out his new classroom, playground, and meeting his teacher and classmates.

Last spring after attending a “practice morning” for the new students, I met a group of other moms and we set up playdates for the kids throughout the summer so they could start school at least knowing some other kids. That has been wonderful for Matteo (and for me)! One of the kids from the playgroup is in his class and it has really been great for Matteo to already have a friend in his class (it’s also great as a mom to have faces I recognize at drop off/pick up).

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Matteo’s first day of school

Wednesday was the first day of school and I knew wake up would be difficult. I woke him at 6:30 and…well, let’s just say it will take some time (for both of us) to adjust to the new schedule. Uniform on and lunch packed, Matteo and I were off to school. As most schools are on the first day, it was crowded and a bit chaotic but when we got to his classroom, Matteo was READY. Smile on his face. High-fiving his teacher. A quick “bye mom!” and that was it. No tears, no fear, just excitement. A huge change from last year’s first day of preK drop off.

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Matteo and his friend Anvi — so glad they are in the same class!

I struggled quite a bit after I dropped him off. By the time I got to the car the tears were flowing. As excited as I am for this next stage and the excitement of having a school aged kid, I’m also mourning the end of Matteo being a “little one.” It helps that I absolutely love his school and know he will be safe, have fun, and learn so much.

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Pick up time!

The second day drop off was much easier for me as I joined a group of my friends afterwards at the school’s coffee shop (how genius is it to have a parent coffee shop???) where we compared notes on our kids’ first days and chatted about everything we’re learning as new parents at the school.

Thanks to those who sent me notes and messages of well wishes and good thoughts for Matteo on his first day. We felt loved for sure!

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Farewell, Dolphin Class

Today was Matteo’s last day in the pre-kindergarten program at Yellow Submarine Nursery. He started in the upper preK class, the Dolphin Class, last September. We enrolled him in the program the previous April, having been warned that spots fill up quickly and we spent all last summer talking up the idea of being a big boy and going to school with other children.

He wasn’t having it. The first term of preK was frankly a struggle — a struggle to get him on a good schedule after our summer travels. A struggle for him to feel comfortable when I would leave him in his classroom. A struggle to eat his packed lunch each day. Many, many mornings were spent wrangling him to get dressed and out the door on time.

Just as he was starting to turn a corner from school being something he had to go to, to something he enjoyed, Matteo’s beloved teacher Ms. Leslie announced that she was moving back to the UK. Matteo was very close to Ms. Leslie — she had a soft spot for our sensitive little boy and an understanding that his shyness is not a character defect that needs correcting, but rather a personality trait to be considered. She was exactly what he needed in his first months in the preK program, a loving and encouraging presence. We were all very sad to say good-bye.

Then we met Matteo’s new teacher Ms. Emily.

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Matteo and Ms. Emily

Ms. Emily challenges Matteo. She, too, has a loving personality but she’s also firm — pushing him to do a little more each day. While this was hard for him initially, eventually Matteo wanted to make his teacher proud and would try something new just for the joy of being able to tell Ms. Emily of his efforts. The combination of Ms. Leslie and Ms. Emily was exactly what Matteo needed this year.

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A small sampling of some of the keepsake pieces of Matteo’s work from preK

Matteo has learned so much this year. About letters, numbers, shapes, colors, animals, a little bit of Arabic, and a lot about the world around him! He also learned to be one child in a classroom of 16; that he enjoys playing with some children more than others. He is learning to share and collaborate, to be a part of a group and to consider how his actions affect those around him. His understanding of the world has really grown, and he loves telling us about his friends’ home countries: “Sebastian is from Peru! Mia is from England! Paula is from Brazil! Ms. Emily is from Australia!”. We look on a map together and point out the home countries of his friends and teachers, all the while noting that even though we’re all from different corners of the world, we all ended up together in Abu Dhabi.

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A page from Matteo’s term report. Red ink is Term 1, blue ink is Term 2, and black ink is Term 3. So much progress over the school year!

Earlier this week we received Matteo’s end of year portfolio and his end of the year term report. It is amazing to see the measurable growth he has made since starting prek! I know kindergarten will be another challenge for him come September, but I really feel like this program has given him a good base on which he can build.

To say that we are proud of our little boy is an understatement. When we made the decision to move to Abu Dhabi in 2015, a big consideration for us was how a move across the world would effect Matteo. Overall I think it’s benefitted him, but of course its been hard too. Weekly video chats with his cousins is great, but its not the same thing as being able to play together on the regular (thanks again for the playdate invite for this Saturday, Millie. I wish we could make it, but we’ll see in a few weeks!). But one massive benefit of the move is being able to put him in great schools with talented teachers, starting with his preK program and looking forward to the great school we’ve chosen for him for his primary years.

I have two hours before I pick Matteo up from the Dolphin Class for the final time. We have a few weeks before our summer travels begin and I’m looking forward to lazy mornings and plenty of pool time. Congratulations on finishing your first year of a school program Matteo! You did great and now your reward is your very first SUMMER BREAK FROM SCHOOL!

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First day of school, September 4, 2016 vs. Last day of school, June 15, 2017

Getting Ready for Kindergarten

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As of the end of PreK, Matteo wants to be a scientist when he grows up

Yesterday was Matteo’s preK graduation program! What a proud day for our family, as Tony and I watched Matteo and his classmates show so much of what they have learned since September — colors, shapes, letters, numbers, and even a bit of Arabic! Seeing the difference in Matteo from his first school performance back in the fall (where he barely participated!) to yesterday (he sang EVERY song!) was exciting for us as his parents but what was even better was seeing Matteo engaged and enjoying himself. Though he has officially “graduated” from preK, Matteo will continue to attend his school for most of June (the ceremony was early because Ramadan begins this weekend).

This morning, instead of heading to preK Matteo and I got in a taxi to attend a play morning at the kindergarten he will begin attending in September. Teo has been hearing so much about “big school” both from his preK teacher and at home from Tony and I so today’s visit was perfectly timed.

The morning was structured so that parents could accompany the children to the classroom and then leave in order to give the children time with each other and the teachers. The school has a coffee shop on its second floor where the parents were invited to wait — there was a table set up with second hand uniforms for sale as well a student staffed bake sale and toy drive with proceeds going to provide relief for the current Somali famine crisis. I spent the morning happily chatting with the other parents.

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“Time to leave Matteo!” and he pretends he can’t hear me

When the parents were invited to return to the classroom to pick up the children, I saw a very  happy (very sweaty!) Matteo. He quickly glanced up from the toys he was playing with to say “Oh, hi mom!” and then continued playing. When I told him it was time to go, he responded by asking if we could please stay a little longer. He then pointed out to me all of his new “buddies”. Once I could pry him away from the classroom, he told me all about the fun things there are to play with in kindergarten — including a sand box, water table, big slide, etc.

HE HAD SO MUCH FUN.

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The children were invited to play on the playground, hence this very sweaty boy

I second guess many decisions I make when it comes to raising our precious Matteo, but after this morning his school enrollment is a decision I feel confident in making. It was the only school he expressed a preference for during the application/interview process, and he’s already asked if we can go back tomorrow. This is a big deal!! I was equally impressed by the school today, in particular by the grade 6 student who was assigned as my guide. She has attended the school since she was Matteo’s age and was a poised, well spoken young lady. Impressive all around!

All that to say, we have (finally) decided on Matteo’s school and all three of us are really excited about it. If I have to send him to school a full year earlier than planned (by US standards), I’m glad I’ll be entrusting him to the people in this school. Now we have the summer before us to help him get ready, buy his uniforms, and get him okay with the idea of riding the school bus!

P.S. The school we’ve chosen is British curriculum, so what I’m calling “kindergarten” is technically called Foundational Stages 2 (FS2). While we applied to American curriculum schools as well, this one was the best fit for Matteo.

P.P.S When we eventually return to the US, we will have more decisions to make as Matteo will be a grade ahead of other kids his age. That means we can either have him repeat a grade, or keep him on his current schedule, meaning he could potentially be a year younger than the other kids in his grade. That’s a decision we’ll make later, and will largely depend on how old he is when we return. Because he’ll be in a British curriculum school, the idea of repeating a year if necessary doesn’t really bother me since he wouldn’t be repeating the exact same learning standards. 

Not Just a Travel Blog

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Happy Matteo outside our building on the walk to preK

I realized recently that while I love writing and traveling, I don’t love writing about traveling. At least not exclusively. This blog was originally intended to be a journal of sorts to remember the travels we take as a family, particularly during our expat years. And while I still want it to include details of our trips here, I also want to open it up to include other information about our lives. I want to remember what this time in Abu Dhabi was like beyond just our travels.

While we are nearing the end of Tony’s initial 2 year work contract, we are not planning to move back to the USA this summer (we are visiting). About a year ago Tony and I began the “what if” conversations and decided that as long as he had the option, we wanted to extend our time here at least one more year. Planning beyond that is difficult, as much depends on how the next year goes. For now, the three of us are very happy here and the benefits to staying another year are clear — the continued opportunity to travel, save money, and have quality time together as a family. Tony remains very happy with his job and so will extend his contract for the 2017-2018 school year.

Matteo is doing well. He is enjoying his class at preK and has a “best friend” — a little boy from Peru who shares his love for superheroes. Tomorrow is his preK graduation ceremony, though the term continues through most of June. I’m not sure yet when Matteo will take his summer break — for now, I plan on him going as the time with the other children really benefits him. This boy — he is our pride and joy. He brings us so much happiness ever day of our lives and we feel so grateful that we get to be his parents.

In Abu Dhabi, children begin kindergarten when they are 4 (by September 1st). That means Matteo (my baby!) will be going to kindergarten in September. Kindergarten spots in Abu Dhabi are incredibly competitive, but we are happy that he has spots at two great schools. We are leaning towards one over the other, and will have to decide in the next week where we want to send him. Will share more information about that soon :).

We’re getting very excited for our summer travel plans. Tony has outdone himself in planning a summer packed full. Want to feel dizzy with me? Here’s a bulleted list of the places we will be visiting this summer (please don’t hate us):

  • Riga, Latvia
  • Tallinn, Estonia
  • Helsinki, Finland
  • Livonia and Traverse City, Michigan (USA! USA! USA!)
  • Cincinnati, Ohio (USA! USA! USA!)
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • A few more days in Helsinki (where Tony will be running his first marathon!)
  • Budapest, Hungary (we will pick up a rental car to road trip the rest of our time in Europe)
  • Kosice, Slovakia
  • Zakopane, Poland
  • Krakow, Poland
  • Ostrava, Czech Republic
  • Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Back to Budapest for our flight back to Abu Dhabi

I am equally excited and nervous for the summer ahead. I guess Tony decided that in case this is our last summer as expats, he needed to pack the travel list FULL. I’d say he succeeded.

So thats our brief update from Abu Dhabi. I hope we can see as many family/friends as possible when we’re in the USA this summer. More to come!

The Elusive Upgrade

Happy New Year!

We are back home in Abu Dhabi after a really great travel day last week. On Thursday morning, Tony packed up and left Geneva for Paris. He booked our flights on points and for our return flight there was not reward availability for all three of us to book the direct flight Geneva to Abu Dhabi. Instead Tony booked two business class seats on that flight for Matteo and I, and then booked a three leg flight path for himself that would take him home by going Geneva back to Paris, then to Doha, Qatar where he would have a 7 hour layover before flying to Abu Dhabi on Qatar Airlines. Tony genuinely enjoys flying and had not yet flown on Qatar Airlines so he was excited for the chance to check it out — especially since he was able to book first class seats for the latter two legs of the trip.

Tony left in the morning, leaving Matteo and I the majority of the day to pack and relax. Our flight was at 8:30 pm, so there was no rush to get to the airport. Our Airbnb host kindly let us move check out from the default 11 am until 4 pm — which we greatly appreciated! We were lucky that there was not another guest scheduled to come in on the same day. I scheduled an Uber to pick us up from the apartment shortly after 4pm and Matteo and I made our way to Geneva International Airport.

The airport was very busy with holiday travelers, but we found the staff kind and professional. Because we were so early for our flight, we had to wait for about an hour before we could even get in line to check our suitcase with Etihad, but we passed the time as best we could. Matteo hung out in his stroller (we still love our City Mini!) and watched some downloaded episodes on his iPad while we waited. Once it hit 5:30, three hours before our flight, we were able to check in for our flight, make our way through security, and go to the lounge to wait. The lounge had light snacks and beverages, wifi, comfy chairs and bite sized swiss chocolates that kept Matteo happy while we waited.

When we got to our gate to board our flight, we were quickly called for boarding. Upon giving our boarding passes to be scanned, the Etihad employee asked me to step aside as they needed to print new boarding passes for us. I just reminded them that I was traveling with a minor and asked that they make sure our seats were together — he double checked the computer, smiled, and let me know that our seats were still together, but we were being upgraded from business class to first class.

I was so excited! I knew the flight wasn’t sold out, and even though I’ve heard of frequent fliers being upgraded before, I’d never experienced it for myself. This was a great flight for it too — I was flying by myself with a 4 year old, and it was an overnight flight where the added comfort meant a far better chance for sleep. When we boarded the plane, we excitedly checked out the first class cabin. Matteo and I definitely got some skeptical and worried looks from fellow first class passengers, and I totally understood as we all know that a small child can be a wild card on a flight. I was so proud, though, as he quickly showed his skills as a frequent flyer. He sat down, fastened his seatbelt, enjoyed a water and a cookie, and was asleep before the plane even took off.

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Just boarded and settling in to his first class seat

I stayed awake longer than I would have had I not been seated in first class, but I wanted to experience it! The Etihad service is phenomenal — kind and attentive. They were so helpful with Matteo too. Noticing that he was already asleep, a flight attendant grabbed me right after take off (when the crew is up and moving, but passengers are required to remain seated) so that we could recline Matteo’s sleep in to the bed position and get his sheets and blankets right away. I thought that was so kind! It worked too — Matteo was asleep from before take off until I had to wake him upon descent in to Abu Dhabi airport.

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Trying to get back on schedule! I try to wake him, he tries to sleep.

Longer trips are definitely harder on Matteo now as compared to when he was younger. We arrived last Friday morning, and as I write this on Wednesday morning we are still struggling to get him in bed before 11 pm Abu Dhabi time — and we are only dealing with a 3 hour time change between here and Paris/Geneva. Thankfully, we still have until January 8th before Matteo has to go back to school, so there’s still time to adjust. Getting back in to the routine of school will be great for him — he is really missing his friends.

It is always nice to be home, but made even more so as we returned to Abu Dhabi at its prime season — lovely mild weather and tourists everywhere. To our family and friends who are/will/might consider a trip here — whether to visit us or not — this is the time of year to do it! It is gorgeous!

We don’t have any trips booked yet for 2017, but have some ideas we’re working through and will be excited to share them as they are booked. For now, we’re ready to enjoy January here in Abu Dhabi, and plan to do some activities here as we enjoy the city that will be bursting with tourists for the next few months.

Arriving in Paris

Bonjour from Paris!

Christmas vacation is here! That means we get to spend ten days in Paris and three in Geneva!

Before the vacation could begin though, we had to get to Paris. Fresh off of practically 24 hour travel days getting to/from Malaysia, I was so relieved that this time we would only have to deal with one direct flight Abu Dhabi to Paris. Utilizing our American Airlines points, Tony was able to secure Business Class seats for the 7.5 hour flight.

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Frequent Flier

When booking an Etihad flight with American Airlines points, you don’t get to choose your seats and so while we ended up with two seats next to each other, the third seat was four rows up and on the opposite aisle. Up in row 8, Tony got to relax, sip champagne and watch movies while back in row 12 with Matteo, it took me 4 hours to get through a 1.5 hour long movie, and I ended up logging about 1,000 steps according to my Withings watch with only 2 steps between my seat and Matteo’s.

I kid, I kid. Honestly, Matteo was great on the flight, but he was busy; wanting/needing snacks, distractions, the iPad, his headphones, his batman toys, activity pack, stickers, all at different times and then back out again once I had put them all away. Oh well, he still does GREAT flying and for that we are so grateful.

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Matteo outside the beautiful Notre Dame

We arrived in Paris at around 2 pm local time. Getting through passport control and collecting our bags was a piece of cake. My favorite part of flying business class with Etihad is their chauffeur service — a ride to/from the airport. By the time we left the airport in Paris, we were beginning to hit rush hour. It ended up taking almost 2 hours to get to our Airbnb apartment in the Opera district but we just got to sit back and relax.

The Airbnb we’re staying at is a first floor, 2 bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and tiny bathroom. We’ve been very pleased with the location. The only negative is that the washer/dryer isn’t working — which is a bummer as when packing as lightly as possible, we factored in being able to do laundry at the 2 Airbnbs we’re staying at on the front and back end of the trip. For what it’s worth, Matteo’s doing his part to lessen the dirty laundry pile by insisting on wearing the same superhero shirt for the last three days.

Each day, we choose a “big” attraction to see in the morning (when Matteo’s at his best) and then “secondary” sightseeing for the afternoon. So far we’ve been able to visit the Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, and we’ve taken a river cruise down the Seine as well as vintage shopping, visiting the Lego store, shopping at Galeries Lafayette, and browsing the shelves at the beautiful book store Shakespeare & Company.

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View of Paris from the Sacre-Coeur

The food we’ve sampled so far in Paris has been wonderful! One of the ways we save money when traveling is by only eating two meals a day (a late breakfast or early lunch + dinner) and thanks to the Airbnb, we’ve been able to grocery shop in order to avoid eating out every meal, but what we have had, we’ve enjoyed. Of note was a beautiful breakfast/brunch near the Sacre-Couer at a restaurant called Hardware Society. YUM. We’ve also indulged a bit in street food — there’s a crepe stand about a block away from our Airbnb. We also walked through the Christmas market at the Champs Elysees, and each sampled a treat along the way (Tony ordered mini pancakes with fresh strawberries, I had a beignet).

We are really enjoying our time in Paris so far. The good thing about being here for 10 days is knowing that we can take our time — our days don’t have to be packed from morning to night in order to see it all. And that slower pace is nice for Matteo too, who definitely needs a break now and then in order to stay happy as we travel (that, and a stready diet of Goldfish crackers and McDonald’s chicken nuggets).

Tomorrow we check out of the Airbnb and in to the Park Hyatt. It will be fun to get to see another Paris neighborhood and we know from experience that the Park Hyatt amenities will be second to none. I’ll be looking forward to sharing more of our trip over the coming week.

Au revoir!

p.s. Thank you to Tony’s high school French teacher, wherever you are. He retained enough knoweldge from his two years of French to do quite nicely ordering food and asking simple questions. I am so impressed!

Michigan

We left Edinburgh and flew back to London where we stayed the night before departing Heathrow for our flight to Detroit. Flying out of Heathrow is a pain in the ass. No way around it, no point in sugar coating it. The drive from our hotel to the airport was full of traffic, and therefore stressful, but we did find the agents working at Heathrow professional and kind.

Our seats were Economy Plus which means we had a little more leg room than the regular economy class. It’s just enough extra room to make a longer flight more bearable. Writing this a month and a half after the fact, I can’t remember too much about the flight itself — which means it must have been fairly easy. At this point, Matteo is truly a pro on a plane. We don’t have any qualms about flying with him — even long flights. We let him choose where he wants to sit (typically the middle) and he loves using the inflight entertainment system. I do remember that this was the flight where he watched Finding Nemo three times in a row!

We landed in Detroit, grabbed our bags, and made our way to where Aunt Chris was waiting to bring us back to her place. Although Michigan was hotter and more humid than average, it still felt nice compared to what we’d been used to in Abu Dhabi! The time change from London to Detroit meant that we had a 5 hour time difference to contend with, but we quickly learned that traveling east > west made time change transitioning much easier.

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Summer fun with Uncle Jerry

Over the next dew days, we had a blast with Chris, Jerry, Grandma and Grandpa Thom, Kyle, Candice, Brady, Rachel, Stella and Jax. It was particularly fun to watch Matteo enjoy some of the classic, summer playtime activities that Tony and I enjoyed during our own MidWest childhoods. There were sprinklers, water guns, soccer, tee ball, and games of hide and seek. Matteo definitely remembered staying at Chris and Jerry’s house last year — and was SO excited to play with the awesome pirate ship and castle toys that he’d enjoyed last summer. Another highlight? Aunt Chris took Matteo fishing — and he caught not one, but TWO fish! It was so exciting! I think it’s safe to say Matteo  is an Aunt Chris fan for life.

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Matteo’s first fish

We also got to visit Tony’s grandparents at their new condo. Last year, they were preparing for their move, and this year we got to see them settled in their lovely new home. We were treated to lunch and dinner at their place and Matteo had a blast pretending to be a superhero who was fighting bad guys as he ran through the hallways.

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Matteo and his great grandparents

After nearly a year away, what can I say other than it was just so enjoyable and wonderful to sit with family, chat, catch up — just be together. I enjoyed driving again (I don’t have my license in the UAE) and, of course, shopping at Target.

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Our Michigan Family — we love you guys!

We always feel so welcome when staying with Chris and Jerry. On top of two people who definitely have the gift of hospitality, there’s nothing quite like seeing the people you love, love your child. I could have watched quietly as Matteo played with his great grandparents, cousins/aunts/uncles, and cousin-dogs all day long. There’s nothing better, truly. It was also awesome to be able to play outside again since the heat of Abu Dhabi had us housebound for much of May and June. It definitely made me think of the positives of living/growing up in the midwest — there really is nothing like a midwest summer!

After about a week of family time in Michigan, it was time to get on a plane again, this time to Arizona.