Ostrava, Czech Republic

We left Krakow and made the drive (with two toll stops) to Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Ostrava: The dud of our summer.

Sorry, Ostrava, but it’s true! Our Airbnb was nice, but a bit more in the suburbs than other places we’ve stayed which took some of the walkability out of our stay. Still, it was only two days in Ostrava and what the city lacked in exciting attractions, it made up for in letting us catch up on our laundry.

We did visit a castle in Ostrava — and it was the strangest castle I’ve ever been to. Well, the castle itself wasn’t strange, it was the mini museum inside the castle. With a display of fish in an aquarium, followed by a display dedicated to dinosaurs…then UFOs and aliens…then vampires? And demons? And the coal industry? Honestly, it was so weird. Maybe it would have been a little better if the placards had an English translation, but I can’t be sure. Ostrava was one of the places we’ve visited where we had the most trouble being English only speakers. We stood out quite a bit for speaking English and had to rely on gestures and body language to close the language gap (or at least, bridge it a bit).

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We did enjoy a gorgeous Sunday morning in Ostrava’s downtown area. It was nearly empty, even at noon, leaving us the opportunity for a lovely brunch while Matteo ran and played in the square. He then found himself too tempted by the open fountains and ended up running right through them, getting soaked to the bone. But there again, that’s when the beauty of the Airbnb and laundry access come in to play.

So yeah, Ostrava. Not one that I would recommend going out of your way to visit. I don’t think they get many tourists, because we couldn’t find a post card for our collection anywhere, so that’s on the list to order online once we’re back home and settled.

Leaving Ostrava meant we had just one more city on our summer 2017 list before heading back to Budapest for our flight out: Bratislava, Slovakia.

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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!

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!!

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. 

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

UK & Amsterdam via airbnb

Even though summer seems a long way off, when planning a trip to a popular destination domestic or abroad it is essential to secure lodging as soon as reasonably possible to ensure availability and avoid paying astronomical prices or staying in an area that is inconvenient or unsuitable for the occasion.   While booking our accommodations for the UK, we saw this firsthand — especially in London which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.  We were hoping to book one of the two Hyatt properties in London using Hyatt Gold Passport points at the Hyatt Regency Churchill or the Andaz Liverpool Street for four nights in early July.  Currently these properties are going for $560 and $340 per night respectively for there standard room, and neither property has award availability for all four nights of our booking (and we were trying to book 8.5 months out!).  Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 9.36.49 PMAfter a call to Hyatt Gold Passport I was able to secure three nights at the Andaz Liverpool Street using the points + cash option bringing the cost down to $150 plus 12,500 points per night.  We ended up booking the Holiday Inn London City for our first night in London since it was the only really good option under $200 per night that is close enough to both the Heathrow Express and the Andaz for an easy transfer after check out.  This will allow us to stay in London over a busy July weekend at a very reasonable rate and then make our way north.

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When we booked the UK we immediately knew that we wanted to visit both London and Edinburgh, but that still left us  enough time in our trip to choose a smaller, seaside location in between the two large cities.  After a bit of research we settled on the small seaside town of Whitby in the North Yorkshire region of England.  As the case with many smaller towns, there are not really a lot of traditional hotel options in this region, and as a result we opted to rent a private home via Airbnb for our two night stay that allows us to be in a great location that is walkable to all the goings on in town.  We are looking forward to staying in a house with local neighbors and being able to walk around town at a slower pace while having a full kitchen and enough space for us to spread out and relax in separate rooms for a few days (makes such a difference for Matteo!). Airbnb is a great alternative to a hotel for those looking to experience life more like a local than a tourist.

After booking our house in Whitby we decided to look for another rental property in Edinburgh for four nights which will allow us to stay in a prime location along the Royal Mile.  We found a lovely 2 bedroom apartment with a full kitchen located in a historic building that is a 1 minute walk from Edinburgh Castle.  The price for both airbnb properties was competitive with hotels in the area and we could have easily spent a bit more money or a bit less for other area properties; we were able to find rentals that fit our needs in terms of location, space, and amenities.

For our return back to Europe and Abu Dhabi we booked 3 nights in Amsterdam since it is served directly from Detroit and Dubai.  When we looked at Amsterdam we originally were hoping to stay at the Andaz Amsterdam which is a Hyatt property that we were hoping to book on points.  Unfortunately they were out of space for award travel and the paid rates were $350 per night so we decided to turn to Airbnb one more time.  We were able to find a fantastic city center apartment with two bedrooms in a quiet neighborhood that was under $150 per night in mid August.  Sweetening the deal, we were able to take advantage of an American Express offer with Airbnb that gives us a $50 statement credit for booking an Airbnb during November.

Now we can sit back, relax, and get excited about spending 10 days exploring the UK next July and a three day stopover in Amsterdam in August as we make the trek back to the UAE.