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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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.

Favorites

A fan/reader (ahem, my sister — hi Jules!) suggested I write a post all about travel favorites/memories from the year 2016. I loved the idea and think its a great way to reflect back on such a fun year.

So here goes, all answers are 2016 travel specific:

What was your favorite city/location?

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Our Airbnb in the Highlands — this beautifully renovated Oat Mill set us up for an experience that made both of us list this location as our favorite of 2016. I think we’ll be talking about that trip for the rest of our lives.
  • Tony: After thinking about it silently for a few moments, he finally settled on the Scottish Highlands. He was debating between there and Paris.
  • Jen: Same answer for me, the Highlands! It was just otherworldly, misty and cool, green and lush. I’m sure it helped that we visited in the summer and stayed at an amazing Airbnb. Also, Paris was a close second. We had great weather for the end of December and really loved the beauty of the city at Christmas time.

Where/what was the best meal?

  • Tony: KöD Copenhagen. The meal was a splurge, but was so worth it! The steaks were fantastic.
  • Jen: I loved the fantastic breakfast I had in Paris at a cafe called The Hardware Société. I don’t know if its just because I was so hungry, or the excitement of being out and about exploring on our first day in Paris, but the breakfast blew me away. All of the food in Paris was fantastic.

Most memorable travel moment?

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Tony in his first class, Etihad “apartment”
  • Tony: The chance to fly in the Etihad first class apartment to and from London in the spring. A once in a lifetime experience — made possible through the wonders of booking on points!
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Standing outside Guerlain
  • Jen: I know it will sound silly to some, but I really loved my morning exploring the Guerlain Perfumery on the Champs Elysses in Paris. It was amazing! So amazing, that even though I was there just to look, I ended up going back two days later and purchasing a bottle of their perfume, one who’s scent I couldn’t stop thinking about. For a beauty lover like myself, exploring that store with decades and decades of beauty indulgence was perfection.

Most kid friendly location?

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Exploring in Amsterdam, summer 2016
  • Tony: Amsterdam. We didn’t go out and do too much because of the terribly jet lag, but overall there was a lot to do with kids.
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Happily playing with cousins in the USA last summer
  • Jen: The USA is what first came to mind — mostly because Matteo had the chance to play with family, specifically cousins who shared their toys! Non-family trips though, I think my answer is Copenhagen. I felt like we could take Matteo pretty much anywhere with us, the Danes were very friendly, and the city itself felt very accessible with a stroller. They also had a GREAT children’s exploratorium/museum. None of the locations we visited  were outlandishly unfriendly for kids — the worst was probably Malaysia as the time change/food choices were rough for him.

Where do you want to go next?

  • Tony: When I asked him this, I got an audible sigh back. He hates hypothetical questions! But with a little prodding, he answered with this list: The Balkans, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, stating that they are all currently on his travel hacking radar.
  • Jen: Croatia and Iceland are at the top of my wish list, with New Zealand not far behind. I would also welcome another trip to France, maybe in warm weather and venture out in to the countryside this time.

 

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.

Edinburgh, Scotland

The quiet, open spaces of the Highlands were such a contrast with bustling London — and made for a great opportunity to relax and gear up for the next stop on our trip, Edinburgh. Tony and I had been particularly excited to see Edinburgh — we both have heritage in Scotland (Tony’s maternal great grandfather was a butcher in Edinburgh, and my side goes further back but has Scottish roots as well) and my oldest brother and sister in law spent a summer in Edinburgh many years ago that made an impression on me as a teenager. So needless to say, we were excited.

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Watch out for sheep!

Unexpectedly, the drive to Edinburgh was one of the highlights on the trip. Normally, long car drives just feel like something you have to get through in order to get to where you really want to be, but in this case it was so enjoyable. The Scottish countryside is MESMERIZING. The roads were hilly and winding, the sky was vast and beautiful, wildflowers were everywhere. For much of the drive, there were no other cars in view and so we could slow or stop to snap a photo, pointing out ruins to each other or pulling to the side to let sheep pass as needed. It was really fun!

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Edinburgh — Such a beautiful city

Once we made it to Edinburgh, I was surprised both by the size of the city and the beauty. The hills made for some incredible views. We snagged an Airbnb apartment right on the Royal Mile, putting us at a 5 minute walk to the Castle.

We loved so many things about beautiful Edinburgh. The weather was lovely and cool, and we only had a few instances of rain (we’d been prepared for far more moisture).

Highlights of the trip were definitely visiting Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s residence when in Scotland) and, for Tony, Arthur’s Seat. Edinburgh Castle was incredibly crowded on the day we were there, and was not stroller friendly, but even with those annoyances we thoroughly enjoyed seeing this historic site. The weather was absolutely perfect and the views from the castle walls were breathtaking!

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Edinburgh Castle

Holyrood Palace is on the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the castle. We toured the castle and grounds in the morning. The highlight of this tour for me was the special exhibit of the Queen’s fashion — including items the queen wore when she was only 3 years old (beautifully preserved) all the way to present day. The items were beautiful and included information about each designer. It was interesting to see the garments and notice that as she grew up, she developed a very clear sense of style as most of the later garments were very similar in shape and style. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photographs inside the palace, but we did get a few nice photos on the grounds.

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Holyrood Palace

With the recommendation of my sister-in-law Melissa, we knew we wanted to venture up to Arthur’s Seat for the fun of a hike and the reward of more beautiful views. Because we would not be able to take Matteo, we decided to do the hike separately. Unfortunately, on the day I wanted to go we had rain and a cranky Matteo, so I didn’t get to do the hike, but Tony did and shared his lovely photos.

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Tony’s view from atop Arthur’s Seat

Because it’s Tony, he of course tool the long way and decided to run up to the top of the hill. In addition to being a great workout, he was greeted with gorgeous, albeit windy, views of Edinburgh.

Our time in England and Scotland went by so quickly. It left such an impression on us — it was love, really. If there’s one location we’ve visited that we think ANY AND EVERY ONE would enjoy, it’s the UK.

 

 

 

Scottish Highlands

After four nights in bustling London, we packed our things and made our way back to Heathrow for our flight to Aberdeen, Scotland. London traffic on the way to the airport had me nervous, but the flight was short, easy and uneventful. At this point, the hardest point about traveling with Matteo has very little to do with Matteo — it’s all the “stuff” we have to bring (like the carseat and stroller).

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At Aberdeen’s airport, we picked up the rental car that Tony had reserved. I was quite nervous about driving in the UK — simply because I think the habit to want to overcorrect to the right side of the road would be difficult to overcome. But Tony did so well! I served as navigator and we were on our way for the roughly 3 hour drive from Aberdeen to the Airbnb we booked in the Highlands.

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The drive was lovely. Very little traffic and fairly straight forward with directions. We stopped on the way at a grocery store the Airbnb owners had recommended so that we could stock up on kitchen basics before we got in to the Highlands and away from store options. Every mile further we drove, the views became more and more impressive. Expansive, rolling green hills with gorgeous wild flowers everywhere you looked.

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The Airbnb we booked is without a doubt our favorite booking so far. We stayed in a renovated oat mill. The mill was the perfect set up for our family — beautiful and rustic, so comfortable, and in a location that made us feel the Highlands. All three of us loved it. It was the perfect place for us to stay with Matteo. The owners, knowing we were traveling with a  little boy, even left several of their sons old toys for Matteo to enjoy — including a train set that entertained him for hours.

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The Highlands felt like the opposite of London. Where London was a place to expend energy and fit as much into a day as we could, the Highlands made the perfect place to recharge and relax. The house had wifi but no television, and it was a testament to the beautiful set up that Matteo didn’t even notice the lack of television during our stay. We spent the days reading, walking, taking in the view, cooking, playing with Matteo’s toys, running*, and trying to figure out ways to move to Scotland permanently.

I think we could have stayed in the Highlands for a month without getting bored. The beauty of this part of the UK — its unrivaled by any place I have traveled to before. It was like love at first sight — an instant connect and feeling of compatibility. With so many beautiful locations on our planet, we try not to visit the same place twice. The goal is to see as much of the world as possible! But Scotland…that’s a place we’d like to visit again.

All good things come to an end. After a quick 3 days/2 nights in the Highlands, we packed our things and hopped back in the rental car to make our way to the next stop on our summer travels adventure — Edinburgh.

*On our first full day in the Highlands, Tony decided to go for a run. His plan was to stick to a 6 mile path/loop that he’d found on a map. He took off around 7:45 am — by 10 am he wasn’t back yet and, knowing his mile time,  I was officially nervous. Another hour passed, and I started to panic. I had decided to give him until noon to get home or else I would have to go over to the cottage’s owner place across the street and ask for help. I was terrified that something had happened to him! Luckily, at 11:45 Tony made it back. He had gotten horribly lost on the poorly marked path and had to figure out a way back to our rental by manner of cutting through people’s farms. He even was zapped by a cattle fence in the process! All said and done, he made it back — filthy and exhausted — but okay. Because I had been so afraid that something terrible had happened to him, we made a pact to never go running without letting the other person know the route we planned to run — particularly when we do not have GPS to rely on.  Funny story now, but at the time I was a wreck!