Our English Christmas

Decking the Halls

Preparing for Christmas was quite a bit different than usual.  Since the only decorations we brought from home were our stockings, we had to find a way to decorate our sparse apartment.  Calvin, our sneaky little elf on the shelf, must have a fear of flying because he didn’t make it here (despite packing him after digging through dozens of Christmas boxes in October in our garage to find him).  Oh well, one less thing to have to be stressed about.  The pressure to keep up with the creative parents out there is a bit much!

Living in the city and having no car made getting a tree a challenge.  Corner flower stands have been selling the real ones, but they’re tiny and would look silly with our tall ceilings.  So we went across the street to Argos to see if they had one.  When you go into Argos, all you see are catalogs and computer screens.  You look up whatever item you want from furniture, to toys to and everything in between. You write down the item number and take it to the register where they retrieve it in a warehouse underneath the store or order it to be shipped to you.  They happened to have an 8’ artificial tree that we hoped we’d like since it was non-refundable and we couldn’t see it until we put all 137 or so branches on.  Thankfully it wasn’t hideous.  Cade insisted on carrying the heavy box home and up to the 5th floor since Lynn was gone.  That boy can be determined when he wants something.

Next were the lights.  We’re used to grabbing a bunch of cheap $5 boxes from Target, but that’s not the case here.  The lights are these fancy LED things with 8 functions that twinkle, fade, flash, etc. and they cost about as much or more as the overpriced tree.  The boys and I made the trek out to Home Base to get garland, wreaths, ornaments and stocking holders that we stuffed into backpacks and lugged home on the bus.  I’m really missing my car about now.  And all my decorations we’ve collected over the years.  But we’re excited to have an English Christmas, so we’re making due.  Thankfully we got some fun ornaments in Paris and Germany representing some of our adventures to add to the tree.  My mom sent some cute London ones too.


Ready for Christmas. I couldn’t find a big enough wreath for above the fireplace.



I fell in love with these stars in Germany. You’re suppose to hang them with a light inside.


The little boys woke early each morning to open another piece for our Lego Advent Calendar.




I love this hand-carved wooden Holy Family I got in Germany. Baby Jesus can be removed from Mary’s arms.


The Paris Disneyland Castle. This ornament won’t be going on the tree!


A royal crown and Big Ben


Another Big Ben


I got this hand-blown glass Father Christmas ornament at the German market.


Paris Disneyland


Another handmade German doll


My parents sent this Lion with tickets to see The Lion King


I got this swan at the Neushwanstein Castle


A little handmade German boy – reminded me of the kids playing in the snow there.


Lynn surprised me with this Swarovski crystal Mickey Mouse. Another ornament that won’t be hanging on the tree.

We got the apartment decorated just in time for grandma and grandpa to arrive before we headed out to Munich.  I’m so behind on Christmas shopping and being organized with the whirlwind of my life the past 2 months.  Thankfully we prepped the kids that we’re simplifying this year.  At least we’re trying to.  I was so grateful grandma was able to bring a few extra suitcases of gifts we ordered on Amazon for the kids.  Except that I thought I ordered things I hadn’t, so I ended up scrambling a day before Christmas to find a few things.  Not easy to do here.  What a zoo!

Going to Munich was wonderful because it really got us in the Christmas spirit.  When we got back, Tyler was able to go with a friend to a Christmas concert at Royal Albert Hall and did caroling with the youth group.  We enjoyed our church’s Christmas program and loved watching the primary children perform the nativity later that night.  A homeless man interrupted and scared the kids with his profanity before being escorted out by the bishop.  Just another reminder we’re living in a big city with all sorts of people.  The kids have really seen a lot of strange and interesting characters I doubt they would ever have experienced in their lives.

It was a crazy couple of days before Christmas with Lynn working long hours for the year-end push and me trying to last-minute shop in one of the busiest, tourist ridden places on the planet.  Especially since I was relying on public transportation and had to cart everything home in my arms.  Amazon.uk saved me with its one-day shipping.  Just seeing the store window displays is worth going out in the sea of people, I can’t believe I didn’t take a single picture of any of them!  They are absolutely amazing!


Shopping on Oxford. We always have to check out the Swatch store for Tyler.


One final trip to Harrod’s and I forgot my wallet.


More Christmas shopping

A few days before Christmas, I took the boys to Hamleys, the oldest (and one of the largest) toy stores in the world to get their brother gifts for each other.  I wasn’t prepared for the insanity of seven floors of overwhelming toy chaos with demos of toys flying, racing, beeping and talking all around as crowds pushed to find the perfect gifts.   Of course all the Legos were on the top floor, but worth the effort since they had exclusive sets and life-size models of the Royal Family, telephone booths and soldiers the kids had fun with.  We enjoyed a root beer float and candy at the soda shop up top before distracting the kids while I bought everything.


Sitting with the Queen – the Lego one that is


Lego William, Kate and Harry


Cade wants to make a call


A demonstrator was giving out giant balloons to all the kids–the kind you use the little straw with


That evening, we took the bus over to Westfield Mall in Shepard’s Bush to get last-minute gifts.  One foot in and Lynn was ready to leave.  It was so crowded and unbelievably huge.  He avoids the mall like the plague and usually goes just once a year at Christmas.  I think he lasted 30 minutes before taking all four boys back and leaving me for hours by myself.  Merry Christmas to me!


Westfield Mall was gorgeous. It had an ice rink and concert going.


Shopping at the mall with boys is always a treat!

I’m not used to cooking a full Christmas Eve dinner since we’re either at my parents or Lynn’s and just bring a side dish or two.  So we did what the locals do and went to the Borough Market over by Lynn’s office to pick out our feast.  Getting there was the tricky part.  A major wind and rainstorm rolled in as we started across the Blackfriars Bridge crossing the Thames River.  The two umbrellas we brought were useless and snapped in the violent gusts of wind leaving us blown to pieces and blinded as we squinted and ran to meet Lynn at his office.  He laughed when he saw us until he stepped out in it himself. The trash cans along the street were overflowing with broken umbrellas.  It was hilarious.

We found a nearby bus that dropped us off right at the market, glad to see it was still open.  What an awesome mixture of fresh produce, pastries, cheese, prepared ethnic foods, meats and deliciousness.  I can see why it is London’s most renowned food market.  We picked out the perfect fresh British turkey at a friendly man’s booth.  The boys wanted to try pheasant and rabbit too, which I agreed to cook but not eat.  After eating a few samples and buying a few more items, Lynn went back to work and Tyler held the 20 pound bag as we made our way back home in the storm.  As we were riding home on the tube, Cade yelled out something, disturbed the turkey’s leg had broken through the bag and scared him!  We must have been quite the show for the poor people around us.


Borough Market with live game hanging everywhere. A little intimidating


Picking out the turkey


Besides going through withdrawals not having a Costco or Target nearby, I am really missing my holiday baking.  I went out and bought a mixer just so I could make cookies for a cookie exchange at church and was mortified by the way they turned out.  The ingredients here are so different, I can’t even find powdered sugar anywhere.  So we will miss our favorite frosted sugar cookies, caramels, and homemade Oreos among other traditions.

Christmas Eve

What I didn’t know, was that in London, you have to make an appointment to see Santa and get your picture. We should have gone when we had the chance at Harrod’s, but the elves were freaky and they wanted to go elsewhere.  Everywhere else I tried, they were sold out until next year.  So we went to the only other place I could find on the final day he was there – Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park.  We had been in the evening and didn’t stay too long.  I couldn’t believe how massive it was during the daylight.  There was an ice rink, loads of rides, all the Christmas markets, an ice palace made completely of ice, a circus, and tons of other things.  If it were warmer, we would have stayed and done more rides.

The storms had lessened, but one was on the horizon.  We grabbed our surviving umbrellas and waited in line out in the freezing cold and drizzle for over an hour to let Father Christmas know we had moved and to make sure he knew the little boys’ wish list.  Seeing Nathan’s confused face as Santa asked if he’d been a good boy made me laugh.  I was glad he was worth the wait—he looked like the real deal!  Lynn met up with us and we checked out a few Christmas markets and ate some goodies before heading home.  A few more errands later amongst insane amounts of people and we were ready.


Back to Hyde Park to see Santa with loads of people


Finally, our turn with Father Christmas!


“Have you all been good boys?”


We were too freezing to go on any rides


The Star Flyer – an intense swing ride way above the park grounds. No thanks!


Just a few of the many rides in Santa Land

Exhausted, we decided to go out to eat and save our feast for Christmas day.  Unsure of where to go, we just walked down High Street Kensington and found a darling and delicious French restaurant right up the street.  Since the Europeans eat late, especially with midnight mass, we lucked out and got in just at the right time.  Dinner was wonderful.  I discovered the pure awesomeness of French butter.  Yikes.


Christmas Eve dinner

When we returned back to our apartment, we noticed the front door’s peephole was missing.  The boys thought it must have been the elf trying to sneak in and deliver their Christmas pajamas.  Sure enough, they found their packages on their bed and wondered how he got in through such a small hole.


Christmas pjs from the Elf!


Silent Night…

 It felt strange not to have our traditional Christmas Eve nativity re-enactment, piñata, carols around the piano and favorite foods with family this year.  We watched a few spiritual Christmas messages online and let the boys open one gift as usual.  It was simple and nice to connect and hang out.

If we had been more prepared for the evening, we would have attended the local midnight mass at the beautiful church on the corner, but we had too much to tackle and tired kids.  We tucked them all in and got to work.  My tradition of watching “A Christmas Story” while wrapping and arranging was not to be.  The viewing selection here is not the greatest.  Even with a downsized Christmas, we didn’t make it to bed until 2 am.

Christmas Day

Our idea of waiting until 8:00 am didn’t work.  At 7:00, the kids were ready and anxious to see if Santa arrived.  We spent the day opening gifts, eating, listening to Christmas music, napping, building way too many Lego sets and connecting with loved ones.  We loved seeing grandma and grandpa Jenkins on Face Time. The kids showed them all their new gifts.  Here’s a few of them.


Going through their stockings


His favorite dinosaur


Now Cade can build a mini Eiffel Tower


We found these cute VW bus banks at the Christmas market


ace having fun crashing his double-decker bus into the tube train.


Cade wanted this Car Wall Rider that drives on walls and ceilings. They say it’s the hottest toy in the world this year. He sure loves it!


What you don’t see is 5 minutes after I built this, this little guy decided to completely take it apart. Ugh.


Santa didn’t realize this European DS doesn’t play all the American games. Too bad he ripped the box to pieces so looks like it’s a keeper.


They were happy with ipod touches. Tyler got a new Swatch and a pocket watch too.


Cooking the turkey we got at the market took twice as long as expected. With both ovens going, I didn’t realize the larger one with the turkey had turned off, so we ate pretty late, but it was good.  Dinner included turkey, herbed potatoes, gravy, roasted beets and carrots, green beans, rolls, mini steak and ale pies, coconut shrimp and chocolate yule log cake with ice cream for dessert.


We ended the day with smiles and grateful hearts for all the wondrous blessings in our lives.

Boxing day is the day after Christmas here and Lynn had the day off.  We avoided the sheer madness of all the retail shoppers.  Just seeing pictures of how crazy it was, made me glad I stayed home.  It looked worse than any Black Friday I’ve ever seen.

I think the kids stayed in pajamas for two days straight, just playing with their new toys and watching the Star Wars trilogy on tv.  We kept up the traditional movie outing to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which I loved.


Lots of Legos


Legos are about the only toys they have here and they keep entertained for HOURS! That’s why they got so many. Keeps them off videogames!


Lazy day watching Star Wars


The house of carnivores loved the pheasant and rabbit I roasted the next day, even if it took a few times to get it done.  I wasn’t going to try it, but their rave reviews convinced me to have a small bite, and they were right.


As the year comes to a close, we have reflected as a family on the amazing opportunities and blessings we have experienced in 2013.  It’s going to be a hard one to top, but we’re looking forward to making many more memories and experiencing the joys of life together.  We miss our dear family and friends and look forward to going home to Seattle next month for a few weeks too!  Best wishes to all for a healthy, happy, wonderful New Year!!

Munich at Christmas

We wanted to go somewhere with grandma and grandpa during Christmas and chose Germany because of its festive markets and fun activities for the boys.  Tyler has been dreaming of visiting there ever since his WWII fascination began in Kindergarten.  We packed in a full itinerary for four days tailored just for him, thanks to grandma’s great planning.


Headed to the airport on the tube bright and early


Look who we found in the airport? The Snowman from the play we just saw!

In less than a two hour flight, we arrived in Munich.  We lucked out again with fantastic weather considering it had snowed a week prior, but had warmed up with blue skies and sun for us.

We checked in to our little Hotel Exquisite right near the famous Bavarian Christmas markets they’re so known for.  Our first day was for exploring and shopping in the cute markets.  We saw all kinds of hand-made gifts, ornaments, nativities, clothing, toys and German food at the decorated stalls.  The hand carved nativities and blown glass ornaments were my favorite.  Smells of roasting nuts, cinnamon, baked pretzels, gingerbread, bratwurst, wine and chocolate filled the air.


One of many Christmas markets



Amazing German Christmas Pyramid atop a food market that reminded me of one my parents got here years ago


Handmade ornaments galore




I ffell in love with these lit stars


I love their hand carved wooden nativities. They have a Christmas market just for them.


The steak sandwiches, seasoned fries and sausage dogs were a big hit.  There’s something about their bread that is so light, crispy and addictive!  Tyler and Cade had to try the Kinderpunsch, which tastes a lot like wassail.  Jace loved the pretzels and ate a whole one every day at the breakfast buffet.  Nathan couldn’t believe how gigantic the hot dogs were and shocked us all by eating the whole thing and asking for more.



Our favorite place for Kinderpunsch and cookies


The best Lebkuchen cookies – like a spiced gingerbread.


Sipping the kinderpunsch


Nathan loved the hot dogs here!


Jace’s daily pretzel–he took it to go

Munich was different than I expected.  I hadn’t realized eighty percent of it had been bombed and destroyed and has since been rebuilt from the 50’s.  While there is still some beautiful, original architecture, a lot of the buildings are basic and plain looking, given their lack of funds after the war.  We did admire the intricate Glockenspiel, bell towers and churches.  I have loved seeing the beauty and craftsmanship of each country we’ve explored.  You can see the similarities in structures from one to the next too.  Their arc of victory and obelisk weren’t quite as impressive as in France.


The famous Glockenspiel



One of the beautiful churches we peeked into



We got a good recommendation for an authentic Bavarian restaurant, dining around a large round wooden table on little cushions.  The brave ones tried different entrees of weinerschnitzel, meats with gravy and sausages and we pretty much steered clear of the bread and potato dumplings.  The best part was the apple streudel and giant bowls of mixed ice cream for the kids.


Delicious apple streudel


After a delicious breakfast buffet with the best breads, hot croissants, fruity jams and potatoes, we split into two groups.  Grandpa, Lynn and the older boys went out on a walking tour of WWII.  Grandma, the younger boys and I took a tour on the hop on/off bus around Munich.


The guys met up with a tour guide who led them through various former Nazi buildings.  The beer hall was where Hitler first spoke in 1920 to a group of 100 or so supporters.  Although Munich was decimated with bombings during the war, the majority of the Nazi headquarters were unscathed.  It felt surreal and creepy for them to walk these haunted places.


The tour guide takes the on a walking WWI tour


The beer hall

On a lighter note, our first stop of our Munich tour was at the Nymphenburg Palace.  We didn’t have much time, but took a quick tour inside the enormous, baroque palace.  It was erected in 1664 in celebration of the birth of the Bavarian elector’s son, Maximillian.  It was the Bavarian rulers summer home.  Many additions were continually made over the years by various heirs to become the impressive grandeur that it is today.  Inside, we saw various rooms with original furnishings and walls and walls of art.  My favorite was the open grand hall with delicately painted frescos on the ceiling.  Its 3 levels of windows overlooked the expansive gardens in both the front and rear of the palace.  If we had more time, I would have admired the symmetrical, lush gardens and seen the rare collection of stage coaches.


Nymphenburg Palace


My camera couldn’t fit the expansive palace all in the shot!



Our bus tour stopped at the Olympic Park for a minute where we were able to see the Alp inspired stadium and  Tower.


Olympic Tower

After meeting up for lunch, we took the boys over to BMW world for a tour.  My car enthusiast guys loved checking out how it all began and seeing the many classic  and fantasy cars from its inception.  By the end of the tour, they were eagerly convincing Lynn to get one after learning how well they are built!  There was also a section up top with Rolls Royce cars since BMW bought that car company a few years ago.   I found it quite interesting how the famous goddess of speed hood ornament came into existence and distinguishes this luxury brand.  The boys knew better than to try to convince Lynn to get a Rolls Royce, but they had a fun time admiring them!



BMW Museum and showroom



Racing their favorite cars


The “spirit of ecstasy”


Another carb-filled, delicious breakfast and we returned to the Marienplatz to watch the Glockenspiel come to life at 11:00.  Different scenes played out depicting the marriage of a local Duke and his love in the 1600’s and below them a customary dance dating back to the 1500s that symbolizes loyalty and perseverance following a German plague, that continues to be a tradition today.


Back to the Marienplatz



Watching the Glockenspiel come to life


Because of Tyler’s interest and knowledge of WWII, we decided to go see Dachau, a Nazi labor and concentration camp.  The clear blue skies of the morning suddenly turned to dreary grey and shivers of cold immediately upon arriving.  It was a somber, heartbreaking journey witnessing the very place of so much evil.  I won’t elaborate on it much because I really haven’t processed all that I learned and it’s just too horrific to imagine what occurred there.



A chess set one prisoner made from wood and his kitchen knife


Several churches are now on the site


Across the street was a fabulous bakery that helped lift our spirits as we sampled all sorts of German goodies.


We ended the night at another recommended authentic Bavarian restaurant with overloaded plates of food.  It was interesting trying to order since our waitress spoke no English.  Tyler has enjoyed the food here more than any of us, even daring to eat the potato dumplings.  Another round of mixed ice cream for the kids, and we went home stuffed.






Jace enjoying his mountain of mixed ice cream. That boy can eat dessert!



We ended the trip on a high note (literally), making our final destination a tour of the Neuschwanstein Castle.  We booked a private tour with a friendly South African guy who loaded us in a giant van and took us through stunning German countryside to get there.  The boys were excited to drive down the Autobahn, shocked to see the various cars whiz by at crazy speed.



Munching on cookies from our tour guide’s girlfriend


We arrived in a little German village below the castle.  It was picturesque surrounded by breathtaking Alpine mountains, great lakes and snow topped Bavarian rooftops of cafes, stores and churches.  Set high atop the rugged mountainside on either side are two fairytale-like castles.  We trekked up the slushy trail to arrive at the palace doors.  You would think my boys have never seen snow.  They couldn’t stop throwing snowballs at each other and touching it.  At least it kept them distracted from complaining about the climb.



What a gorgeous view once we reached the top!  The castle was fitting for a princess, although one never lived there.


Neuschwanstein, meaning New Swan Stone, was built at the direction of King Ludwig II (who was the son of Maximillian, whom the Nymphenburg Palace was built for).  It’s a 19th century Romanesque style castle inspired by the many operas of Richard Wagner the King was so enthralled by.  He was quite an interesting, curious man.  Ludwig II was raised in the yellow castle, Hohenschwangau, across the hill.  If we had more time, I would have toured it as well.  Once King, he spent uncontrollable amounts of money on several lavish castles to the point his family had him deemed insane.  He was arrested at the castle and the next day found drowned in a lake with his psychiatrist–a mystery that has never been solved.


Hohenschwangau – where Ludwig II was raised


This castle took seventeen years to build and was never completed by the time he died.  In fact, he only lived in it for less than 6 months.  Shortly after his death, the castle that was built as an escape from the world was opened to the public, with over 60 million people having toured it to date.  Walt Disney was so inspired by it to create Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland.

I am now fascinated with the history of this eccentric family and their castles.  I wish I understood German so I could watch the recently made movie “Ludwig II” which is filmed in these castles and makes the story come alive.  No English subtitles that I can find. I might just watch it anyway, it looks so good.

Back to our tour–our guide led our group through the winding staircases up to amazing rooms that they did not allow us to photograph.  The walls and ceilings were covered in paintings depicting scenes from various operas Ludwig loved.  It’s impossible to describe the interior—it needs to be seen to appreciate.  Google has several images of the interior to see.  The whole thing was a bit of a fairytale existence inside, including a fake cave and hidden doors.  His love of swans is captured throughout the structure, inside and out.  The views from the top of the castle’s windows outside are absolutely incredible.  Too bad the Ludwig II was nocturnal and probably did not appreciate them.  I found it completely unbelievable that this enormous castle was built for a single King who lived it in for a matter of months.


Grandpa, Tyler, Cade and I followed our tour guide up a slick and steep, snowy hill to Marie’s Bridge to get the most fantastic views of the castle and surrounding mountains and valley.  Wow, was it ever stunning and worth the hike to see the beauty below!  I nearly had to ski down the hill in my boots, grateful our tour guide kept me from falling.



The little boys and grandma rode in horse’s carriage down the steep hill.  Without much time to spare, we grabbed our last bratwurst and sped back to the airport in time to catch our flight back to England.


Even the airport had a big Christmas market outside.  We said goodbye to charming Germany and each of the boys said it was their favorite place we’ve seen so far.  It will definitely live in our hearts forever as special memories with grandma and grandpa!


Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s visit

How exciting to have Grandma and Grandpa Smith come visit us!  We were feeling a little lonely for the holidays, being used to large extended family gatherings on both sides, that we were thrilled they could come spend some quality time with us.


We asked each of the boys what they wanted to do with their grandparents.  Jace was eager to take them on the top of a double-decker red bus and Nathan wanted to go feed the ducks and swans.  We loaded up on the bus and took them to Kensington Palace and Gardens with crackers and bread.  The boys are getting pretty good at attracting the birds to land on them; Nathan even made a few feathered friends.  We enjoyed the unusually warm winter weather, walking around the park a bit before heading back.




Trying to set a record for bird holding


Finally, Nathan figured out how to attract the birds


Kensington Palace


Lynn and I had his work Christmas party that night so the kids got to spend the evening with tired grandparents.  We were grateful they were there to help out and felt bad leaving so quickly.  The party was fun, even if we were the only ones not decked out in “roaring 20’s” attire.  Boy, they really got into it with rented costumes and everything!  It was great to meet so many co-workers and spouses there too from all parts of the world.


That next morning, Tyler got his pick to take grandma and grandpa to Portobello Market.  He’s been dying to go and we’ve held off until they arrived.  It’s an extremely crowded antiques market with a mile long road of everything vintage you can imagine.  We’re really not sure where Tyler’s obsession with old things comes from, but he could have spent all day there.  He has his eye on some old pocket watches.  Nathan found a 100 million year old fossil rock to add to his collection and Jace fell in love with a little soldier bear.  Cade, as usual, didn’t want a thing.


Tyler’s in heaven looking for antiques



Jace loves bears just like grandma!



Nathan’s fossil from Madagascar


This was a brave moment for Jace!

Tyler also wanted to show them Blackfriars, where our first apartment was.  He’s determined to eat at this pub before we go back to the states.  It’s so small and always so crowded.


We barely made it in to St. Paul’s Cathedral to hear an evensong and prayer.  I need to make sure we come for a Christmas choir while we can.  The acoustics are so powerful.


St. Paul’s Cathedral

Lynn wanted to take his parents to the new office, which the boys always love.  It was a beautiful night on the roof.  On our way down, a filming crew was wrapping up and Lynn’s mom said, “I recognize that voice!”  Sure enough, it was Maggie Smith, Britain’s most recognizable actress who played the witch McGonagall in Harry Potter (and is also in Downton Abbey, which I have yet to see).  She was clearly not in the mood for fans, but we found out they were filming the sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  I’ll be looking forward to seeing that.


A view of the Shard

Our next adventure was to take them to see all the Christmas lights on busy Regent Street and Oxford.  A sweet English lady sat next to us and was our own personal tour guide of the city.  I love how knowledgeable and friendly people are here in sharing their city’s history with us.


After church and a quick nap, grandma had a special project for the boys.  They each got their own gingerbread man to decorate.  Keeping the candy on the cookie and not in their mouth was the hard part!  We haven’t been able to carry on our normal holiday traditions here so this was such a treat for them to do!



Gingerbread boys


Taking sugared-up kids out, we ended the night with Cade’s choice– to take his grandparents to Big Ben.  We couldn’t have asked for nicer weather, considering how freezing it is back home too!  Parliament was lit up with Christmas trees and lights everywhere.  I love this time of year!  Nearby was Nelson Mandela’s statue with a memorial for his recent passing.




Grandpa took the older boys to Holland Park while Grandma, Jace and I went shopping.  It’s dangerous living in the midst of so much retail!!  I haven’t had the chance to really shop (having all the boys with me all day), so it was wonderful to get out and see what’s out there.  It’s a mix of familiar stores (even if their names are a little off—TK Maxx) with unique European ones.   A trip to Harrod’s was necessary and we had a lot of fun.  We got some ornaments to add to our tree and to send to family back home.  I’m pretty sure getting lost in there is their mission.


Shopping at Harrod’s


For family night, we went to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland.  What a crowd, it was massive!  We looked through the small Christmas market for gifts.  Once the little boys spotted the rides, they wanted tickets.  I ended up going on the double-decker bus ride and Jace was brave and went on a few more by himself.  Somehow Tyler and Cade talked me into going with them on the most extreme ride of my life.  I can handle just about any ride, but I wasn’t prepared for the intense thrill rides of Europe!  What was I thinking, having a fear of heights?  We got strapped in by rushed Germans with no patience, and I had no chance to back out.  Within seconds we were whipped up incredibly high above the park grounds, which would have been a spectacular sight, had we not rotated 360 degrees as we raced down nearly skimming the ground and back up, flipping upside down at alarming speed.  Over and over—it got faster each time.  I was so terrified, I wasn’t even nauseous.  I squeezed my eyes shut and begged for it to end.  After a little panic attack as we were stuck high above the ground while they unloaded the others down below (because the boys were swinging their feet and teasing me), I could have kissed the ground when we got off and vowed to never do anything like that again!





Warning–this is more terrifying than it looks!

The park was huge and extremely packed, not the place for Lynn’s headache so we ended the night early after a few treats and games.  Cade tried to earn £20 by climbing to the top of a rope ladder, but didn’t quite make it.   Nathan bought powder that turns into fake snow.  It’s pretty cool, although I’m sure we’ll regret the mess!



Another fun night spent together was going to see the new musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”  It’s one of the few shows I’ve seen that encourages eating candy while watching the production!  We thoroughly enjoyed it, adults and kids alike.  The sets and special effects were exceptional.  It was a bit of an updated version from the original, but not in the creepy Johnny Depp kind of way.  It stayed true to the classic storyline with humble Charlie and his poor family (loved the grandparents), but the other kids who win golden tickets are more modern, annoying characters you’re glad to see swept away. The boys favorite part was when this bratty boy got sucked into a video game and his mom pulled him out of the tv and he was this little miniature squealing boy.  Still not sure how they did that, but it was cute.  If you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend it.



A night out at the theatre


Covent Garden near the theatre


The kids loved having grandma and grandpa come to see and experience our new life here. We spent the next day getting ready for our holiday trip to Munich Germany.  What an adventure that was.  Details to come…

Disneyland Paris

We overslept after all our Paris sightseeing.  Upon opening our door, we were immediately greeted by 3 friendly geese that waddled up from the pond.  We stayed in a wonderful place on the Disney golf course called the Marriott Village d’Ile de France.  It’s like staying in a classic French townhouse in the countryside.  We went this route to get more space and so glad we did.  Lynn and I had our own suite upstairs and down below it had a kitchen, laundry machine, big family room, kids’ bedroom and two bathrooms.  There’s a little store on site to get groceries, which has been very helpful.  We made lots of crepes with Nutella and whip cream.

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Arriving at Disneyland, we were pleasantly surprised by all the Christmas decorations.  I didn’t realize they’d be all decked out and it made the experience that much more special.  There were classic Christmas carols playing all throughout the park, fake snow that made us feel cold every time we walked by, and festive trees and garland everywhere.  It really felt like the “happiest, (merriest) place on earth.”

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The park was larger than I expected.  We saw a lot of familiar rides and landmarks, but what stood out was the stunning, grand castle right as you walk through the downtown area.  I remember being disappointed in Anaheim at the small scale of the castle, but this one impresses and is so detailed and beautiful from every angle.  One of the coolest things about it is a dark cave underneath where a sleeping dragon lives and wakes to roar and breathe smoke.  Jace was fixated watching it and keeps asking if dragons are real now.  I really can’t convince him otherwise.




The boys spent some time running through the Swiss Family Robinson tree house which was extremely high up.  Our first ride was Pirates of the Caribbean which Jace wanted to repeat about 2 seconds into it.  They also liked the haunted mansion, which I didn’t care for at all.

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Pirates of the Caribbean


Le Manoir de Paris- Haunted House

Thankfully the lines weren’t too long on any of the rides our first day, except for Thunder Mountain.  We got a fast pass and were able to get on pretty quick and avoid the lines.  This was another ride I liked better than Anaheim.  Thunder Mountain is on it’s own little island and the ride starts across the water with a dark tunnel that takes you under the water and up the mountain.  It felt like a longer ride than usual and was quite the adventure for our group!  It was really the only roller coaster type ride we were all able to go on together.


Thunder Mountain

One big bummer is that the height requirement for some of the faster rides is quite a bit higher than America’s.  Nathan was able to ride things when he was 5 that he wasn’t tall enough to ride here now at age 8.  The one ride he was so looking forward to was Space Mountain.  Since it goes upside down, he didn’t make the cut.  I have to say, I liked it so much better here and so did the older boys.  Definite repeat.


Space Mountain

The other big bummer is dealing with just about everyone’s cigarette smoke.  Not sure why Disney allows it, it makes such a mess.  Not fun to be standing behind someone in line with it, but we got used to it.

Some rides are in English, but most characters spoke just French.  Star Tours was hilarious with C-3PO and R2D2 screaming in French.  It didn’t phase Jace, he could have stayed on that ride all day.  Even Buzz Lightyear and Zurg spoke French, which made all laugh for some reason.  They were hard to take serious sounding like that.


Star Tours – Jace’s love


It was probably a good thing the Tower of Terror was in a different language so Jace didn’t know what was coming!  He was brave and rode with us twice, but steered clear every time we asked if he wanted to go again.  The rest of us loved it!



Jace doesn’t know what he’s in for!


Two nervous boys the second time around


Indiana Jones was quite a bit different, being a roller coaster here.  Lynn and I felt like we needed a chiropractor after one jerky spin around the tracks.  Tyler and Cade loved it and went without us again.


Lynn & the boys on Indiana Jones


Indiana Jones et le Temple du Peril


We didn’t spend too much time in Fantasy Land, thankfully.  Full of little kids and strollers with long lines.  Small World was a must-see. It was fun to see England’s section with the bridge and buses.  America’s part was funny–they must think we’re all cowboys or Hollywood movie stars.  I was glad they mixed up the repetitive song with “Jingle Bells” too.


Small World


London in Small World


The Wild American West


USA – it was strange to see the Twin Towers represented


Fantasy Land


Time for a cotton candy break


Entering Fantasy Land from the backside of the castle


This was my favorite among many darling little shops


Tradition to fill a tube with flavored sugar powder.


Thankfully we had two days to spend in both parks.  Walt Disney Studios had some really fun rides.  The Toy Story Playland was so cute all designed with huge toys from the past.  Jace and Nathan loved riding up and down on the army man parachutes–it was like a child’s version of Tower of Terror.  The Slinky Dog and RC car ride were hits too.


Entering the magic of Walt Disney Studios


Toy Story Playland




We went to a few shows, the boy’s favorite being a stunt car one.  We sat up in the bleachers watching cool motorcycle and car stunts.  They showed us how they do crazy stunts in movies and even had a guy crash his bike and slide into fire and become fully engulfed.  I’m really hoping they don’t get any ideas here.  Lightning McQueen made an appearance too.



The older boys were excited to go on some more thrilling rides, so we waited in line for the Aerosmith Rock n Roller Coaster.  Nathan was surprisingly tall enough to join us and so excited for his first real adult-type ride.  Tyler loved checking out all the cool autographed memorabilia leading up to the ride.  We got strapped in and within 2.8 seconds were going 60 mph.  It was crazy, we were going so fast, upside down and all around in the dark with loud music and a colorful light show.  They said you experience more G-force than an astronaut does on a space shuttle launch, and I believe it.  We all ended up loving it and deemed it our favorite ride there.


This is right before they shoot you out like a bullet!



An extreme start to the ride. Poor Nathan is too short to see.


That’s a happy scream!

It seemed like every time you turn around, there’s a new parade.  It’s about the only time we saw characters, so we’d stop and watch.  Father Christmas made his appearance with the elves.



The most spectacular show was the Disney Dreams one at night which was made for the 20th anniversary celebration.  I’m not sure how they do it, but they project animation from different movies onto the front of the castle.  It featured a lot from the new movie Frozen.  No one does shows like Disney; the music was phenomenal, there were lasers, lights, mist, shooting water features, special effects and fireworks that entranced us all.  What a neat show!  I filmed all 20 minutes of it so we can experience it again!


Disney Dreams!!

Disneyland is lit up so pretty at night.  If only it was a little warmer…

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How is that we always end up with weapons as souvenirs?  Jace had to have this blue Western gun with a badge, handcuffs and cowboy hat.  Nathan picked out a sword and mini pistol and Cade wanted a Pirate revolver.  Tyler added to his new collection with a Mickey Mouse watch.  The funny thing was we were nervous everything would be confiscated as we tried to board the Eurostar back home, but they all breezed right through security and I got stuck with my souvenirs–a bag full of ornaments all wrapped in tissue.  They unwrapped them all and admired them, checking out the tags and studying them all before trying to rewrap and finally sent us on our way.  I wasn’t happy to find one broken when we got back.


What we take away most are the treasured memories we will all have of this wonderful Thanksgiving weekend together.  We had a lot of laughs and hilarious moments that made the trip unforgettable!



What a magical place!

Thanksgiving in Paris – Day One

Bright and early, we loaded up on the Eurostar for our Thanksgiving weekend in Paris.  With Lynn having the time off and Europeans that don’t, we thought it would be a great time to go.  We planned to see the best sights in Paris for a day on a hop-on-off bus tour and then head over to Disneyland for two days in the parks.  I’m so glad we chose to go now because the weather was decent and Disneyland was all decked out for Christmas, which I didn’t even realize would be the case.  It was so gorgeous!  More on that later…


Gratefully, the train ride is a quick two hours and we arrived right in time for lunch.  We wandered around all the delis and cafes and found the busiest one, assuming it was the best.  We ordered grilled Panini sandwiches to go, which no one ended up liking, except Cade.  Seeing all the crepe places, we had to try one.  We all got Nutella crepes filled with whip cream.  I love how they roll them up like an ice cream cone.  So delicious!


Check out the mountain of Nutella behind Tyler


We walked the streets for a while, just taking everything in.  The architecture here is so beautiful; I love all the wrought iron and stonework.  It has a more feminine feel than England, it’s interesting to compare.  We were surprised by their public transportation system though, now appreciating the cleanliness, modernization and ease of the UK’s more.

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Our first destination was Notre Dame.  It’s unbelievable to think this Catholic cathedral is 850 years old.  It did take nearly 200 years to complete.  We marveled at its size and French gothic architecture,  the gargoyles, statues and stained glass windows.  The detail was incredible.  We decided not to wear ourselves out right away by climbing the 387 steps to the top to see the famous bell and views of Paris.

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Once we finally found our red bus tour, we hopped on and set out to see the other 8 major places.  We bundled up and got a front row seat up top with great views of the city.  It was almost too much to take in and process with spectacular scenes all around.  Half the time we had no idea what we were looking at, but it impressed nonetheless.

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We walked along the Seine River and looked at the cool street artists, which Tyler loved.  We happened upon the “Love Lock Bridge” and of course, had to get one.  We had all the boys write their names on it with ours and surprisingly found a spot to attach it.  We locked it up, kept a key and tossed the other key in the river.  It was a moment to remember and my heart was so full of love for this family of mine.  Nathan ended up with his own lock; some guy gave him so he and Jace signed it and locked it on the bridge.  Brotherly love.  At least for the moment.

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Next up on the tour was the Musée d’Orsay (a museum of French art) and the Opera (for ballet, operas and concerts).  We opted not to tour the inside due to time and lack of interest from the boys, and just rested our legs and kept on moving.  This would be such a different experience without kids and more time, but we did our best to see as much as possible without completely wearing the kids out right before Disneyland.

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One of the main sights we wanted to see was the Avenue de Champs Elysées.  It is the most famous street in Paris.  The streets were lined with darling Christmas markets and lights and then there was all the retail, cafes and luxury stores right up to the Arc de Triomphe.




The Place de la Concorde is also there, which the boys loved learning about.  It’s a large open square with fountains and statues.  During the French Revolution, statues were torn down and replaced with a guillotine which was used on thousands of people, including kings, queens, princesses and many others in front of cheering crowds.  Hard to imagine.

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The giant Luxor Obelisk stands in the center of the place.  It was a gift from Egypt, originally at the entrance of the Luxor temple there with its twin. It is 3300 years old and marked with hieroglyphics honoring their ancient king.


The most impressive monument was the Arc de Triomphe, which shines at the end of the long Avenue.  Napoleon ordered it to be built to honor the French Army, which had been successful in conquering most of Europe at that time.  He wanted them to return in victory passing under the Arc.  The names of battles, armies and generals are written on the stone walls.  We watched a French army march out with a band for some type of memorial.

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The kids were freezing at this point so we decided to warm up with some hot cocoa at McDonald’s.  The boys like checking out the different menus there wherever we go too.  They had a separate bakery counter with macaroons (yes, I had to try one) and all sorts of pastries.  We went upstairs and found a table and unloaded all our backpacks on the chairs next to us.  Since we weren’t checking into our hotel until later that evening at Disneyland, we had to wear our backpacks all day through Paris.  What we didn’t notice were the guys behind us plotting to rip us off.  At one point, Tyler noticed Cade’s backpack on the ground and the guys acted like they were helping return it, but looking back it was their first attempt at stealing it.  By the time we were warmed up and ready to get back on the bus, we realized Cade’s backpack was gone and so were the guys.  We looked everywhere, but never found it.

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We wanted to minimize the shock and sadness for Cade so we immediately found a Gap store and got him all new clothes.  The only thing we weren’t able to replace was his swimsuit (they’re nowhere to be found this time of year).  I wish I could have seen the thieves’ faces when they opened his bag and saw it filled with kid’s clothes.  They did get his Nintendo DS too, which is a bummer.  But of all the bags they could have taken, at least they didn’t pick the one with the passports, cameras and iPads.  How do people live with themselves stealing from children?

That little snafu put us way behind schedule, so we zipped through the next site without stopping so we could make it to the Eiffel Tower before the bus tour ended.  We admired the Grand Palais along the way.

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Our favorite moment of the day was arriving at the Eiffel Tower and watching it sparkle like diamonds.  It was stunning with the fountains below and seeing the view from above.  It was the perfect ending to our Paris tour.  We got suckered in to buying a bunch of light up towers for the boys.  They want to use them in their Lego sets!

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We jumped on the train and made it to Disneyland right after closing.  We found our hotel and ordered dinner from the hotel restaurant and brought it back to our townhouse, eating at 11:00 pm.  No turkey dinner for us.  It definitely didn’t feel a bit like Thanksgiving, but it will be an unforgettable one!  We have so much to be grateful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!!