Budapest, Hungary

Of all of the cities we were scheduled to see on this summer trip, Budapest was the one I (Jen) was least excited for. It’s silly really — I used to have a friend from Romania and if you’re not aware, the Hungarians and Romanians have a complicated, difficult relationship. For that reason, this friend used to regularly tell me how awful Hungary was and basically, without me realizing it, she planted in me a preconceived notion that I would not like Budapest. Which is ridiculous, because Budapest absolutely wowed me!

We arrived at night so it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized what a beautiful city Budapest was. Separated in the middle by the Dabube River, one side of the river is the Buda side of the city and the other is the Pest side. Full of history, the gorgeous architecture along the banks of the river had me surprised at every turn.

We spent one morning on a river cruise with audio tour — one of my favorite things we’ve done all summer long. Typically I’m not able to give my full attention during an audio tour at a museum because I’m busy wrangling Matteo but here he was contained and enjoying just being on the boat so I was able to actually listen to the tour as we cruised down the river.

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Buda’s Castle

Our hotel was in a great location, just down the hill from Buda’s Castle. The castle itself is stunning, but the views you get when you reach the top of the stairs — WOW! Absolutely amazing. We also spent a morning on Margaret’s Island where we rented a family bicycle (which I thought Matteo would love  — and he did, for about 5 minutes and then it was “this is boring”).

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Climbing trees on Margaret’s Island

On our third day in Budapest, Tony picked up our rental car for the next portion of the trip — a road trip from Budapest to Kosice, Slovakia > Zakopane, Poland > Krakow, Poland > Ostrava, Czech Republic > Bratislava, Slovakia and finally back to Budapest, Hungary to return the rental car and fly out of Budapest and back to Abu Dhabi.

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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!!

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.