Zakopane, Poland

Ah, Zakopane. Poland’s sporty resort town.

The drive in to Zakopane was really beautiful and fun. Nestled next to the Tatra National Park, as we wound our way to the center of town we passed trail heads that were absolutely BURSTING with tourists and hikers. Our Airbnb in Zakopane was further into town, walking distance to the pedestrian only strip of the shopping area.

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It was in Zakopane that we dealt with poor weather for really the first time during our summer travels. It started to rain on Saturday evening and pretty much didn’t stop until Monday. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of what we could Friday evening after arriving, and Saturday morning/early afternoon.

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Trail running in Zakopane

Tony hit the trails for a run early in the morning on Saturday while Matteo and I were still snoozing and then we went out as a family, first stopping at the park for Matteo to get some play time in. From there we went to the “downtown” area and checked out the shops, cafes and restaurants and then back to the park for some more play time.

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Once the rain started, it didn’t let up. This gave us time to catch up on some reading, Netflix, and podcasts, and to do a little bit of nothing too. Our airbnb was comfortable enough that vegging and not doing much felt like an okay choice. I still stand by my assessment that I really don’t mind the rain if I have the right gear, but we had nothing other than flimsy rain jackets (our umbrella broke in Toronto so we didn’t even have that) so we felt a bit stuck.

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We still pick up a postcard in every new city we visit. This is our pick from Zakopane.

Leaving Zakopane ended up being a bit of a pain — in addition to the heavy rain, we were leaving a tourist town on a Sunday afternoon, along with what seemed to be the WHOLE OF POLAND, to head in to Krakow. Add rain and lots of cars on the road to a ton of unexpected construction, road closures, and a few accidents and what should have been a 90 minute drive took a full 4 hours! I was mostly worried about Tony, who typically loses his patience in traffic, and Tony was mostly worried about Matteo (bathroom breaks? temper tantrums?) but honestly all three of us did just fine.

What else can you do but take in in stride? This has been a long, beautiful summer of travel so far so what is one day of headache? A small price to pay!

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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.

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!

The Gift of Time

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By far the best part of the move to Abu Dhabi so far has been how much more time both Tony and I seem to have. On my end, it’s quite obvious — when you go from working full time to being fUNemployed, you naturally have more time. I spend 40 hours more a week with my son. That is amazing! Staying at home with Matteo means that I can get chores — things like laundry, cleaning the house, working out, etc. — done during the day so that when Tony is home from work, we have time to spend as a family. I know there are “fights” in mommy land about which side has it tougher, working moms or SAHMs, and I don’t want to weigh in on that — they are completely different lifestyles and not all women get to choose which role they fill. I know SAHMs who wish they were working and I know working moms who long to stay at home. Both have challenges, pros and cons. All I can say is I’ve found myself saying over and over again that I don’t know how I managed to do all of the “household” stuff + work full time. No wonder I was always ready for bed by 9:30 pm! Thank goodness for our wonderful Auna, who took care of Matteo during the work day for us. I know now more than ever what a blessing she was to our family in the 2.5 years she cared for Matteo.

Tony has significantly more time on his hands as well. As he did in the US, he leaves for work around 6:30 am, but instead of getting home at 5:00 (during the off season) or 7:00 or later (during the soccer season depending on game day vs. practice day), he is home at shortly after 3:00. That’s a minimum of 2 hours more a day not spent at work! The attitude here is just different — you are expected to go home at the end of your workday and spend time with your family. Family is valued here, it is the most important thing. Work is important too, of course. During your office hours you are expected to work hard and produce results, but at the end of your contract day you go home. There are no raised eyebrows about leaving the office on time, no guilt trips when you go home to be with your family.

This slower lifestyle is great for us at this point in our lives. All parents know, your child is only little once and the time goes so fast! What a wonderful gift for all three of us to have more time to spend together! We’re also reaping the benefits of being able to travel during Tony’s time off work. Though we both worked in the school district back in the U.S., my position was on a 12 month schedule and I did not have near the amount of time off work that the 9, 10, and 11 month employees were granted. That meant that if we wanted to travel during fall, winter, spring, or summer breaks granted to Tony, I had to dip in to my vacation time. Now we get to enjoy the breaks built in to Tony’s schedule without worrying about requesting time away from my job.

Of course there are things I miss about working — for one, I worked with the BEST core group of people in the district office. I miss them very much. I also liked knowing that the work I put in brought a financial contribution to our family. Tony and I have been a “shared money” family since the day we were married, but its still taking some getting used to knowing that I’m no longer depositing a pay check in our bank account each month.

Along with a sense of adventure, appreciation for travel, and a desire to go after what you want in life, Tony and I hope that this experience abroad also helps us show Matteo that there’s more to life than punching a time clock. Work hard, YES! A work ethic is an invaluable trait to to pass on to a child, but we also want him to grow up knowing that what he does with his time off the clock is just as important. From my point of view, there’s no better way to spend that time than loving on your family.