Helsinki, Finland

I’m pretty sure I could write “Go to Helsinki” and feel like I covered the most important part of this blog post. It really is a beautiful, beautiful city. Particularly in early August. Our entire summer trip this year was more or less built around Helsinki and a great price Tony found on a KLM business class flight to/from Toronto. With Helsinki mapped out as a main destination on our trip, everything else fell in to place, including Tony’s decision to sign up for his first marathon.

Tony has been running for years, becoming more serious about it in the last several years. He ran his first official half marathon in February 2016 up in Ras Al Khaimah and I think that very positive experience planted the seed of interest in him to sign up for a full marathon. With the dates aligning well for the Helsinki City Marathon, its like it was meant to be.

Originally we had booked at Airbnb for our stay in Helsinki but it was cancelled just before we left Abu Dhabi in early July. Luckily, Tony was able to book us in to stay at the Klaus K Hotel on points thanks to our Starwood membership. The location of the hotel was great, but otherwise we had a rather underwhelming stay at the hotel. I don’t have anything overtly negative to complain about, but the room was small (even by European standards) and the customer service was lack luster. Still, as I said it was a great location and for that we were grateful, especially considering the city was largely booked well in advance for this marathon weekend.

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Preparing to start the race

Jet lag hit us pretty hard in Helsinki. It was a 6 hour time difference from Toronto, and there’s just not a great way to get over that quickly. The first day there, Matteo and I slept until nearly 1:30 pm! Tony was up at 11 am, with some effort, but since it was Thursday and the marathon was on Saturday, I admit having some worries about how jet lag would affect Tony come race day. He remained optimistic and concentrated on getting quality rest when he could, and eating well in preparation.

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At the 14 km mark

The marathon didn’t begin until 3 pm which meant that the jet lag wasn’t as big a problem as I’d been expecting. Matteo and I joined Tony down at the starting line, cheering as the race began. The 14 km mark wasn’t far from our hotel so we made a plan to see him there too (scheduling it based on his expected km/minute time) before we made our way down to the finish to cheer him some more. It was such a cool thing for Matteo and I to watch Tony succeed in this marathon, after months of training and preparation. While Matteo is too young to vocalize it, his excitement as he cheered for his daddy as he crossed the finish line was absolute magic. Such a special moment for our family!

With the marathon complete, we had most of the day Sunday to relax and enjoy the city before we flew out Sunday evening for our next stop on the trip — Budapest, Hungary. Though our time there was relatively short, Helsinki made its mark on us and would definitely be a preferred repeat destination for the future. Clean, walkable, friendly and safe — it was everything we had hoped it would be.

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USA and Toronto

After our time in Tallinn, we were ready and excited to arrive in North America and see so many of the family/friends whom we’ve been missing while living in Abu Dhabi. Last year, we visited all three states where we have family (Michigan, Arizona and Ohio) but this year we skipped Arizona.  The Phoenix area is beautiful, but HOT in the summer and we get more than our fill of heat in Abu Dhabi, plus its another 2 time zones to cross and to adjust. Mom and Dad Galietti and Brian/Angie/Enzo made the trip to Michigan for a week so we still got to enjoy some of the best parts of Arizona, without having to actually visit it.

For visiting Tony’s side of the family, we all made our way north to Traverse City, Michigan. I’d heard stories of the family’s vacation to TC when the “boys” were young and was excited to experience the town myself, particularly with Matteo. Living in Abu Dhabi gives us a lot of perks, but one major con is the summer heat which prevents us from being outside (unless we’re in the pool) from basically May through September. Traverse City beckoned, with promises of outdoor time!

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Family photo in Traverse City, Michigan

Our week up north was lovely — we stayed in a beautiful vacation rental, along with Brian/Angie/Enzo, Kyle/Candice, and Brady/Rachel. Tony’s grandparents, parents, and aunt/uncle stayed at a nearby hotel. This arrangement maximized family time for the week, with a balance of activities as well as the down time necessary when traveling with kids. A highlight of the week was celebrating sweet Enzo’s first birthday (albeit about a week early).

At the end of the week, we drove back down to Livonia to spend the night in the Grand Thom Suite (i.e. Tony’s aunt/uncle let us stay in their SUPER COMFY finished basement when we’re in town and its the best) so that we could break up the drive from Traverse City to Cincinnati where my side of the family was waiting. I was especially excited for this trip because this time last year Julie was 8 months pregnant with our little Shawn which means I hadn’t actually met him yet — though we video chat regularly.

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Most of the time in Cincinnati was spent letting Matteo run wild with his cousins. It was awesome, and just what he needed at the mid point of our summer travel when time with just adults was getting a little stale. Millie is 17 months older than Matteo and David is 17 months younger so they’re both a really good match for Matteo when it comes to playing together. Poor little Shawn — that boy clearly thinks he too is a big kid, and wanted to be wherever they were the entire week! It was precious. Matteo also got to see my brothers’ children — Case (1), and the oldest cousins on my side, Gracie (8) and John (6). It was the best version of cousin overload imaginable and we massively enjoyed catching up with everyone. While in Cincinnati, we got to eat great food, visit the zoo, spend time with family and friends, and marvel at the mess that continues to be Cincinnati traffic (that bridge closure, HONESTLY).

We left Cincinnati with enough time built in to ensure that we would a relaxing, non travel day before the second half of our summer travels began. This meant returning to the Grand Thom Suite and getting an extra evening to visit with Tony’s grandparents. On Saturday, August 5th though, it was time to say goodbye. Aunt Chris drove us back across the US/Canadian border to the train station in Windsor where we caught the train for the 4 hour trip up to Toronto.

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Casa Loma

We stayed in Toronto for 3 nights — enough time to be enchanted by the city. Particularly with American politics in their current state, it was refreshing to be in a North American city that felt a little less —- what’s the word I’m looking for? Trumpy.

Toronto’s Hyde Park and Casa Loma enchanted us as did the poutine we tried. Our time in town also worked out well to meet for lunch with my friend Lisa, someone I’ve known for years but hadn’t actually met in real life before (its a long story, but with a happy ending where we met and neither of us ended up murdered). We dealt with a bit of rain, but took it in stride.

With our time up in Toronto, we made our way to the airport (Toronto loses some charm points due to horrid traffic) to prepare for our flight back to Europe, Helsinki specifically, via a long layover in Amsterdam. One note on that 8 hour layover, we booked 5 hours in Amsterdam airport’s Yotel — affording us a bed and shower, which made ALL the difference in the world when it comes to an overnight flight, not enough rest, and too long a layover.

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In our room/pod/cave, what have you, at Amsterdam airport’s Yotel

We arrived in Helsinki jet lagged, but excited. Tony’s marathon was days away and we were looking forward to the second half of our trip, where we would get to knock some more cities off of our travel to do list.

Coming soon, Helsinki!!

Tallinn, Estonia

Leaving Riga, Latvia, we took a bus for the 4 hour drive to our next stop, Tallinn, Estonia. Again, we booked this trip all with the end goal in mind — Helsinki, Finland for our flight to Toronto. Tallinn was the perfect next location because it is right across the bay from Helsinki.

The bus ride was actually AWESOME! All four of us were surprised by how much we enjoyed it. The bus was new, and comfortable, with wifi and in-seat entertainment — the library of movies/tv was better than many flights we’ve taken! Driving through the countryside to Estonia was as comfortable as it could be, and all three of us were able to get short naps on the way.

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Tony and Matteo preparing to get on the bus to Tallinn

When we arrived at the train station in Tallinn, we grabbed a cab to take us to our next Airbnb. We stayed in a third floor apartment in a new building only 5 minutes out of Tallinn’s Old Town. This Airbnb was PERFECT for so many reasons — not only were we walking distance to the Old Town, but we were right next to a grocery store (so nice when you’re traveling with a child!), and the apartment itself was incredibly family friendly. There were lots of toys for Matteo to play with, and he ended up being so comfortable that he told me “this place is way more better than our apartment.” Um, thanks Matteo.

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Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn is BEAUTIFUL. It quickly climbed to the top of the list when it comes to favorite cities we’ve travelled to. It is beautiful and charming, with its well maintained, yet ancient walled fortress that makes its beautiful, famous tourist area. Coincidentally, we also had a fantastic Mexican meal in Tallinn (if you’re there, check out Taqueria). I was more than content spending all day just wandering the streets of the Old Town, stopping in cafes for a well priced bite, and go back to the Airbnb full and happy at the end of a Fitbit-record step-kind-of-day.

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St. Olaf’s Church — Tallinn, Estonia

It’s not an easy place to get to from North America, but man, if you have the chance to visit Tallinn (especially in the summer) DO IT. The weather was phenomenal — so beautiful that I googled residency visa requirements about 2 hours after we arrived. We were only there for 3 days, but it was enough to make an impression.

When it was time to leave Tallinn, we took the ferry over to Helsinki. Calling it a ferry is deceptive really, because we were on what looked like a huge cruise ship! The trip took about 2 hours from dock to dock. I was excited to arrive in Helsinki because it meant we were that much closer to seeing our family and friends in America.

We stayed just one brief evening/overnight at the Holiday Inn in Helsinki. It was raining when we arrived so there wasn’t any venturing out to explore, but we were okay with that because we knew that we’d have 4 nights in the city on the return part of our trip after our time in North America.

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On the right, Tony sleeps on the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. On the left, Tony sleeps on the train from Toronto to Windsor.

We left Helsinki and flew the brief 1.5 hour distance to Amsterdam where we had a long enough layover to get some food and relax. The next leg was Amsterdam to Toronto, about 8 hours. We were blissfully in KLM’s business class, which meant lay flat seats and the opportunity to rest. We all got several hours of sleep.

When we landed in Toronto, we cleared passport control/customs, gathered our bags, and grabbed a taxi to the hotel room we booked even though we were only going to be there for about 10 hours. We landed a little before 8 pm and although the hotel wasn’t really that far from the airport, traffic meant we didn’t arrive until after 9 pm. Still, we were tired enough that when we did arrive, we all crashed and ended up sleeping until 4 am the next morning (remember, we were working with an 8 hour time difference at this point, so sleeping till 4 am was GREAT!).

Our train left Toronto at 6:45 am and from there it was an easy, enjoyable 4 hour ride to Windsor, where Tony’s aunt and dad were waiting to pick us up. We were so excited to start the American part of our summer trip.

Summer Travels — Riga, Latvia

We are in the middle of our great summer of travel right this very moment, but if I don’t start blogging, I’ll get even more behind and will end up not doing it at all. So with the advice of Tony’s Grandma, Shirley, I’m taking a few minutes to catch up on where we’ve been/what we’ve been up to so far this summer.

Tony’s last day of work for the school year was Thursday, July 6. On Friday, July 7th we left Abu Dhabi for our first stop, Riga, Latvia. Several people have voiced surprise/interest as to why we chose Riga as one of our stops. Really, the entire trip was planned around a great deal Tony found flying KLM business class from Helsinki>Toronto (and then back) with a layover in Amsterdam. Once we booked the return trip tickets, we had to figure out how to get to Helsinki and that’s where Riga came in to play. It was inexpensive to fly to from Abu Dhabi, we were able to find a well rated Airbnb apartment, and the cool climate of the Baltics was appealing after another year in sweltering Abu Dhabi.

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Matteo and I in Riga’s pedestrian only Old Town

I personally didn’t have super high expectations one way or another when it came to Riga, so I was surprised by how much I liked it. Tony and I were both blown away by the beauty of this city in the summer time. Parks bursting with beautiful flowers were seemingly around every corner! We had perfect, warm weather that made it inviting to stay outside all day. Food/drinks were cheap, and sidewalks were wide making it an easy city to stroll with Matteo.

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Tony and Teo ready for our relaxing river cruise in Riga, Latvia

Highlights of our time in Riga include the beautiful, pedestrian only Old Town, a river cruise down the Daugava River, a morning spent at the KGB museum, and our time exploring the large indoor/outdoor market. Matteo loved renting a “power wheel” jeep in the park and practicing his driving skills much to the giggles of his parents.

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Matteo ready to drive!

Riga was a great start to our summer. You could stay as busy or relaxed in this city as you choose — by staying at an Airbnb, we started off our summer relaxed and excited for the stops to come.

 

 

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!