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).

21272145_10100352815324124_8876342581785278749_n
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.

21390653_10100352440031214_161120245_o
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.

21392832_10100352802469884_202071039_o
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!

Advertisements

Getting Ready for Kindergarten

18700604_10100298264329754_4993597147577802101_o
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.

18720860_10100298758788854_838764894_o
“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.

18697582_10100298770026334_350198538_o
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

18451418_10100294704393894_499318762502829686_o
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!

Geneva, Switzerland

On Monday the 26th, we packed up our things and prepared to leave Paris. The second stop on our Christmas vacation was Geneva, Switzerland.

Tony booked tickets on the high speed railway, leaving Paris and arriving in Geneva in just about 3 hours. The train made for a very comfortable trip! It was so fun to watch the scenery change from the city of Paris, to a more industrial area, to finally countryside for the remainder of the trip. According to the screen at the back of the train car, the majority of the trip was travelled at 290 km/hour.

15697681_10100231611502554_21165847409170749_n.jpg
Matteo and Tony on the train

 

We arrived at the train station in Geneva on time and ready to make our way to the Airbnb. While we had good weather for Paris in late December, much of the trip was under gray skies so it was a welcome change to see sunshine and blue skies staring at us. Our Airbnb host had told us which tram to take to get to her place, a short 10 minute ride away.

15732440_10100231619262004_3080344087012116537_o.jpg
Our Airbnb in Geneva

The airbnb Tony selected from this trip is one of my favorites (nothing can beat the renovated Oak Mill in the Highlands, though!). It is far larger than I was expecting for a centrally located city apartment. Well decorated and comfortable, with a better than average stocked kitchen for a vacation rental, I knew we would feel right at home here. Matteo was so happy to have a place to run around and play, and a HUGE bathtub to enjoy too.

15726275_10100231928427434_653594572728556074_n
Visiting St. Pierre Cathedral

As tends to be the case, after a week of traveling Matteo was starting to feel fatigued, so our time in Geneva has been far more relaxed and slower paced than Paris — which is fine, because its a much smaller city. We have taken advantage of the opportunity to simply wander the streets of this picturesque city — taking in the natural beauty that surrounds it. It reminds both of us a bit of both Salzburg and Innsbruck, Austria though has a distinct charm that is all its own. The not-as-big city feel is always my preference, so of course I’ve spent the last several days dreaming about what it would be like to live here.

15697289_10100231928537214_2847374050482546806_n
The Jet d’Eau fountain behind us

Today is our travel day. Our flights home were booked on award points, and unfortunately there wasn’t availability for all three of us to fly direct from Geneva to Abu Dhabi, so while Matteo and I will take that flight this evening and arrive early Friday morning, Tony will first fly back to Paris and then have a layover in Doha, Qatar before landing in Abu Dhabi mid day on Friday. I don’t love that we’ll be traveling separated, but it is what it is — I am glad that we’re all flying on points rather than $$ (thanks travel hacking!)

Once back in Abu Dhabi, we’ll  welcome the New Year before Tony returns to work on the 2nd. Matteo has more time off, as school doesn’t start until the 8th for students. I’m hoping to plan some play dates for him next week as he greatly misses his friends from his class.

It’s been a wonderful Christmas vacation. Two weeks in Europe — we feel so lucky! Of course, this is what we had in mind when pursuing and accepting the position in Abu Dhabi, and that has meant sacrificing time with our family and friends in the US, whom we certainly missed over the holidays. Lots of love to you all — we’re excited to see everyone in summer 2017!

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.

outside
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.

fishing
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.

ggparents
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.

mi-family
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.

Park Hyatt Dubai

During the first weekend in May, Tony, Matteo and I packed up and made the 1.5 hour drive to Dubai for a long weekend spent at the Park Hyatt Dubai.

Park Hyatt Dubai

We love to stay at Hyatt properties because of our award status with the chain, which gives us extra benefits like suite upgrade when available, late check out, free breakfast, etc. This Dubai property followed in the footsteps of the other Park Hyatt properties we’ve stayed at, it was absolutely beautiful with fantastic service.

The property is spread out, with separate buildings attached by breezeways and walkways. Every square inch of the property was gorgeous — with the blue and white theme, and modern, luxurious furnishings leaving us saying “wow!” throughout our stay.

Upon check in, we were upgraded to a suite which meant that we had a large bedroom and a separate living area (where we could roll Matteo’s cot at night). Also of note? The gorgeous bathroom that featured a HUGE tub!

With several restaurants, a great pool, gym, and spa, we didn’t feel the need to leave the property for the duration of our weekend stay. Because it was Mother’s Day (US) weekend,  Tony and Matteo surprised me with a morning at the spa where I received a wonderfully relaxing massage.

Our weekend was quiet and relaxing — the perfect preparation for the end of school year crawl that awaited us back in Abu Dhabi as we wait for our mid July summer break and the exciting line up of travels we have planned (UK > US > Netherlands).

grounds

We will definitely make plans to return to the Park Hyatt Dubai property for a future visit when we want to get away, but don’t have the time/inclination to leave the UAE. A great, relaxing weekend!

Istanbul

Trip One: Abu Dhabi – Istanbul . December 1 – 5

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 6.56.17 PM

Our first upcoming trip is scheduled during the first week of December as it falls over a combination of local holidays in the UAE.  One of the holidays is National Day — a two day government holiday that celebrates the unification and founding of the United Arab Emirates (this year is the 44th year as a nation) on December 2 & 3.  The other is Martyrs Day, celebrated on November 30 to serve as  memorial for those who have lost their lives while fighting and serving in the military.  This year the two holidays were combined giving government employees a total of three days off leading up to the regular two day weekend. This will give us just enough time to explore Istanbul, Turkey for four nights.  We decided upon Istanbul because it is under a five hour (direct) flight, is only one hour time difference (no jet lag), and though it is definitely off-season, the weather is still mild with no worries of snow or extreme cold that would prevent us from exploring this city that serves as a bridge between Asia and Europe.

When planning this trip, we considered a few other destinations such as Sri Lanka and Cairo but ultimately we both were interested in exploring Istanbul, as its such a historic and iconic city. When we saw that the flight and hotel options were very reasonable, we pulled the trigger. Etihad offered a great direct flight out  of Abu Dhabi at 9:30 am that then arrives at 12:50 IST time, and then allows us to return on Saturday night at 8:30 pm — just in time for the work week to begin on Sunday.  When it came to looking at lodging in Istanbul, we lucked out with off-season rates.  The weather will likely be cool and possibly rainy with averages in December falling between 40 F – 50 F.  Because we are going before the busy Christmas holiday season, the hotel rates are excellent. We took advantage of Hyatt’s recent diamond challenge and were able to earn “diamond” status through our travels over the summer, so we were aiming to stay at one of Hyatt’s two Istanbul properties. The Park Hyatt Istanbul rate is $240 per night and the Grand Hyatt Istanbul is$135 per night, leaving us an easy choice. We gladly chose the Grand Hyatt –in addition to the lower price it’s in a better location for sight seeing too as its located nearTaksim Square versus the Park Hyatt which is situated closer to high end shopping and nightlife.  Due to the lower occupancy rates, we were also able to use one of our free “Diamond Suite Upgrades” for the year. Hyatt had an available suite for the four nights we will be in town, so we made the upgrade.  Diamond status with Hyatt entitles us to complimentary access to the hotel’s lounge where we can enjoy free breakfast, cocktails, and snacks throughout the day.  This means that for a mere $135 per night due to our Diamond status at Hyatt we will  stay in a large suite with free breakfast and cocktails each day and have a late 4:00 pm checkout.  Since we are paying for the stay out of pocket,  we will also earn more Hyatt Gold Passport  points on our stay that we will then save to use towards award nights during the busier (thusly more expensive) travel seasons on later trips.

By paying now, we will be able to utilize our points and redeem them during the expensive season, which will give us more value in the long run.