Venice with Grandma and Grandpa {October 2014}

We could hardly contain our excitement to meet up with my parents in Venice for our October school holiday.  They spent the previous week exploring Rome, Positano, Naples and other parts of Italy since it’s their first time there.  Venice has always been on my short list of destinations to see, so I was grateful we could share this time with them.

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We had a few hours before they arrived, so we walked around Venice – taking in the incredible and unique atmosphere.  Wow!  There’s really no place like it on the planet. The floating city consists of 117 islands all connected by little footbridges (over 400 of them) between the 150 canals.  It didn’t take long wandering the connecting islands to get lost.  But it didn’t matter because around every corner was a picture-perfect sight.  I’m still amazed at how they were able to construct buildings straight out of the water.  Many are showing signs of sinking, which is a huge threat to this World Heritage Site.  Most of the buildings date back from the 13th to 18th centuries.


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We learned that each little island was required to have a church built first before it could be inhabited, so even the smallest little islands have a church.  We stopped in a few.


After the most delicious Italian meal (seriously worth every calorie), we finally caught up with grandma and grandpa!  We’ve been so excited to have my parents join us in Europe, especially after last year’s trials, and beyond grateful my dad’s health has improved enough for him to come.  Tyler always has the weirdest item on the menu wherever we go.

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We grabbed dinner at the hotel and had an early night to gear up for the adventures of the coming week.  This was the best mozzarella I’ve ever had!  They made delicious pasta with ragu too.



The next day was spent exploring the lagoon city and all its wonder.  It felt like summer still and the crowds were pretty thick (averaging 50,000 people a day), but we were able to see the Rialto Bridge, lots of little shops and churches along the way.


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Along the way we stopped for delicious treats – you can’t go wrong with a Nutella Cream Crepe!

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St Mark’s Square

In the Piazza San Marco, surrounded by incredible buildings and beauty, the big hit of the day for the boys was playing with the pigeons!  It’s always the little unexpected things, but they could have stayed there for hours feeding them birdseed and trying to catch them.  Lynn actually caught one mid-flight and we all laughed hysterically as feathers flew.


St Doge’s Palace

Once we ripped the boys away from the birds, we made our way inside the Doge’s Palace – once the seat of Venice’s government and home to its elected ruler.  It’s unique white limestone and pink marble exterior in classic Venetian Gothic style has been rebuilt or restored constantly over the centuries.

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We meandered through the private rooms, council rooms, jail cells and the most impressive room – the famous Higher Council Hall.  This is where the Republic displayed its magnificence to thousands of aristocracy with all of its decoration and paintings.  It still boasts the largest oil painting in the world – “Paradise.”

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The Bridge of Sighs connects the Palace to the New Prisons.  It was named this as prisoners would get their last glimpse of freedom passing through it before incarceration.


St Mark’s Basilica

St Mark’s Basilica had the longest line, but we split up and had the kids hang out with pigeons until we could get in.  Nicknamed the “Church of Gold,” and nearly 1,000 years old, the Basilica was erected to house the supposed relics of St Mark.  We learned it houses 5,000 square meters of mosaics inside, only lit for 1 hour.  Unfortunately, the exterior was being restored so it wasn’t as pretty as normal.


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Also in the Square was the enormous Campanile Tower and Torre Dell’Orologio Clock – the official timepiece of Venice.



Next up was our daily gelato fix.  Pistachio and Nutella were the best!


Gondola Ride Down the Great Canal

I can’t imagine coming to Venice and not doing a gondola ride, it was our favorite highlight!  We decided to let grandma and grandpa have a more romantic ride, keeping all the boys in our boat.  Side by side, we floated down the Grand Canal.  Seeing the sights from the water was idyllic and memorable for sure, especially passing right under the Rialto Bridge.

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Fresh pasta, pizza and caprese were on the menu for dinner.  We took a private boat taxi back to the bus station.  The boys thought it was super cool hanging out in style.  The city looked beautiful all lit up at night.

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Day 2:  Murano

A quick little ferry ride and we were on  the island of Murano, world-famous for their blown glass.  The island is quite small, but so charming and nearly every business along the canal is a unique glass blowing store.

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It’s not the easiest place to take kids who want to touch every breakable thing, but we enjoyed window shopping and seeing the incredible glass art.  They made glass everything!


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One of the stores had a glass demonstration which really helped us understand the art and skill to make such beautiful pieces.  A master artist took  sticks of glass and after melting it in an extremely hot oven and manipulating it many times by rolling it and stretching it, turned it into a cute fluted vase.

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Grandpa and grandma fell in love with an amazing glass vase that will look great in their newly remodeled lake house with these new turquoise and lime colors.  The vase is made with five different techniques from five master artists all combined into one unique, collectible piece.


The salesman let the boys each pick out a glass paperweight to take home and sent for a private boat to take us back to Venice.  The boat driver was so nice, letting each boy take a turn driving.  He pointed out the island George Clooney had recently stayed during his wedding.


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We couldn’t let the day slip away without more gelato (and pigeons).

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Jace was so pleased with his glass souvenirs.


We spent the rest of the day wandering the canals and all its beauty and eating way too many calories.  Tomorrow we’re headed off at a ridiculous hour for the next leg of our holiday – Prague!

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Learning to Paint

Many years ago, I took oil painting lessons every Saturday morning and remember how fulfilling and relaxing it was.  So when I got to know a sweet and talented Iranian artist living nearby, I was thrilled to start the boys in painting lessons.  It was a great way to get out while homeschooling last year and have an official art class.

We showed up with all our supplies, but weren’t quite prepared with what we would paint.  So the first round of paintings were selected from art books our teacher had.  I wasn’t sure how it was going to go with one teacher and four beginner boys, so I assisted in helping them the first couple weeks.  They got to drawing and painting the first layers and I think everyone was surprised with how many sessions it would take to complete their pictures.

Jace chose a sunset picture since it was one of the easiest choices.  He liked the bright colors, even if it meant many coats of paint to complete.  He had a little help at the end with the trees since he got a bit carried away with some of the branches.  He was so proud of his masterpiece and couldn’t wait to show his daddy!


Jace really wanted to paint a double-decker bus for his second picture, but we couldn’t find one easy enough for his skill level.  So he ended up painting a tree picture instead since he could dab on the leaves any way he wanted.  He had fun dipping and dotting the leaves on and had a little help again with the tree branches to pull it all together.  His attention span was pretty short since he’s only five, but he was pleased with his new painting and began drawing at home so much more, calling himself a “little artist.”


Nathan chose the cherry picture to paint.  He was very good at mixing the paint colors to get the right shade.  He tried hard to be as accurate as he could so it would look realistic.  He is very critical of his work and wanted it just right.  I think he was to most surprised as to what he could create, having never done anything like this.  Each week he would add new details until it was finished and beautiful!

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For his second painting, he wanted to choose something Lego related, of course.  Without much to choose from, we ended up finding a Ninjago picture online to do.  He worked really hard and painted it so many times to get the deep colors.  We realized near the end that the printout of his picture wasn’t accurate to the original, so he was kind of critical of it not being exactly what he wanted.  But it turned out so cute and will look great in his room with all his Lego sets.


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Nathan had the opportunity to paint another picture at his activity days event at church.  Our art teacher had all the kids pick a flower to paint and he was able to complete it in one session, compared to the weeks it took him for his other paintings.


Cade was a natural when it came to painting.  His artistic ability really shined as he was able to accurately draw the outlines and had the patience for detail to get it the way he wanted with as many layers as necessary.  He chose a picture of Italian architecture.

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He probably spent the most time figuring out his next picture, trying to find the perfect animal to paint.  He loves giraffes and found a colorful picture he liked that he wanted to paint on a large canvas.  After a little help in drawing it, he got to work on the background.  The funny thing was we didn’t realize the printer goofed up and printed the background with stripes, even though the original didn’t have them.  So Cade painted all the yellow strips, but by the time we realized the mistake, we decided it looked better that way!  This painting took many, many sessions – but he stuck with it and did a fantastic job.  By the end, we all couldn’t believe how amazing it turned out!

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Once Cade started school in the fall, he was most excited about his art class.  Having more confidence in his art skills, he took more risks and put a great deal of effort into his projects.  He produced many great things for his portfolio, but his favorite was his pastel creation of Henry VIII.  He said he combined Robert Downey Jr’s face with Henry the VIII.  His art teacher told him it was the best in the class and it hung in the halls of the school for a few months.

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Tyler chose a landscape scene for his painting.  Since it didn’t require much drawing, he was able to get painting sooner than everyone.  He was very meticulous about getting it accurate.  Over time, he gained more confidence as to his abilities and learned how things can evolve over time with multiple layers, which was sometimes hard to envision.  He was very picky about his mistakes, but in the end it turned out great, especially as his first.  He attempted to start another custom painting of the Japanese “Great Wave off Kanagawa” with the Japanese rising sun in the background, but abandoned the project after a few sessions.  I was hoping he would finish it, but now that he’s in school and sports, has little time (or patience) to complete the difficult piece.

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Once the kids were settled in after our first few weeks, I decided to join them because I wanted to paint a piece of London I could take home as a souvenir.  I love the bright, abstract style of Leonid Afremov’s paintings and chose to recreate his Big Ben scene.  Drawing it out is my least favorite part, especially on a canvas this size.


For months, our Wednesdays were my favorite day of the week so we could share this painting experience together.  It wasn’t always easy – two hours was a little much for Jace and Nathan, but they were happy to play with our teacher’s baby when they got bored.  The older boys stayed pretty focused, until they started a paint war with each other.  We have a few stained outfits, but all in all, they really enjoyed the experience.  Sometimes I would have to pinch myself that here we were, all learning to oil paint in the middle of London.  It was such a stress-relieving, fun outlet to do together.

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Painting the sky was so fun, but oh so time-consuming!  I would have to dip my brush in paint with nearly each small brush stroke.  It probably has ten layers of different colors piled on each other that had to dry in between.   This is what my brush looked like at the end of our sessions.  Not easy to clean I tell you.

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I really enjoyed painting the reflection of the water and learning how to use the knife pallet to add dimension to the painting.  I had no idea how challenging this undertaking would be (or how long), but I was so happy it was finally complete in time for my parent’s visit so they could see it.  Oh, and Lynn didn’t have any idea what I had been working on for months, so it was fun to surprise him!  Hopefully I’ll be able to get it home without any problems.  I’m going to have to take it off the wooden frame and roll it up and reset it at home.  Wish me luck.


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I wasn’t able to get started on another painting until all the kids were back in school, but couldn’t wait to have some time to myself without interruption to work on my next one.  I wanted to do something completely different — something calming and that required me to learn a new technique of painting.  I chose a landscape scene that used a circular motion to create all the clouds.  I love how forgiving it was to be able to blend different colors together to create a unique sky.  I couldn’t believe after one session how it looked nearly complete (though it would take a couple of months).


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After many sessions and a few revisions, I was really pleased with the outcome.  I now have something soothing to hang in our hallway – let’s hope it has the calming effect on the boys I’m going for!

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We couldn’t leave Lynn out…  Ironically enough, his office had a team building activity at one of their conferences, and over one hundred people gathered to paint something after just a short mini lesson (by a different teacher).  I’m not sure what the theme was, but he chose to paint an abstract piece that symbolized “looking for the gold” as a way to inspire people to dig deep to find the positive in all situations.  Or something like that…  We were just happy that he had a painting too and could better appreciate all the time and effort we’ve put in the last year to our creations.


We were able to honor our lovely art teacher at a Teacher Appreciation celebration our church held for the youth to acknowledge the great teachers in their lives.  She has been such a patient, wonderful mentor in teaching the beauty of art and helping the boys blossom into little artists.  It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of our time here!



Out at Oxford – {August 2014}

Oops – this post is out of order.  I’m so behind on blogging that I forgot about our trip to Oxford the last weekend in August, but it was so fun, I don’t want to forget it!

Now that we’re back in London and have seen most of the city sights, we’re venturing out a little further to try to see as much of England as possible.  Oxford was first on our list.  A quick train ride and we made our way out to the historic, architecturally rich university town.

We chose to do the hop on/off bus to get around the town since it’s too large to walk through.


The city of Oxford, or the city of Dreaming Spires, was founded in 1096 and consists of many universities or colleges with amazing architecture and history.

Our first stop was Christ Church where the boys spotted a field of cattle and had to interact. It’s always the little, unexpected things that end up being the highlight.  I think the boys could have hung with the cows all afternoon, but we had to say goodbye and move on with our tour.




The grounds of Christ Church were beautiful.  It is unique as the largest college in the University, but also has the smallest cathedral in England.  It is also where Charles Dodgson wrote the famous Alice in Wonderland stories.



We stopped to see the pretty War Memorial Gardens.



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The bus looped us around the city, showing us all the major famous buildings and well-known people who studied there.

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The University Church of St Mary the Virgin – Oxford’s largest parish church.


We strolled through the main city center and ate street food, stopped in cute little shops and listened to local musicians.  The kids loved checking out the Harry Potter store and had to buy the nasty Jelly beans that taste so horrible, they were daring each other the rest of the day.

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My favorite stop was the Fudge Kitchen, where we got some really delicious treats!

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A few more stops along the way.  I wish I could remember all the stops.

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The Sheldonian Theatre – Sir Christopher’s Wren’s second major design in 1664 used for concert, lectures and ceremonies.


The Radcliffe Camera – a reading room for the Bodleian Library.


The Bodleian Library – Oxford’s main research library.


Hertford Bridge – much like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, or a mini Rialto Bridge.


On our walk to the Museum of Natural History, the boys spotted a few “Hobbit houses” and wondered who lived in such dwellings.


The Museum of Natural History had some cool dinosaur exhibits and many other extinct animals.

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Since the boys were pretty well-behaved along the tour, we treated them to a stop at their favorite candy store, Hardee’s.  They each picked out a goody and we headed back in to London.

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Despite the boys’ worries of being bored all day, they actually had a fantastic day out in Oxford!

The Fray {Sept 2014}

At the end of September, Tyler mentioned that the Fray was in town, knowing how much I love their music.  I didn’t give it much thought since it was a school night and all.  But then I got thinking – when am I going to have this chance again?  So the morning of the concert, I looked to see if there were any tickets left assuming they were sold out.  As luck would have it, there were two tickets for the floor – standing only.  Little did I know we’d be standing for 4+ hours, but I snagged the last of the tickets and surprised Tyler as he returned home from school.  We rode out to Shepard’s Bush O2 and joined the massive line around the building.


They were on a European tour for their new Helios album – which is fantastic.  They haven’t toured in over 5  years, so I’m glad we jumped at the chance.


Photo cred: The Fray

The opening act was a really good band from Ireland.  I wish I could remember their names, but I’m getting old and forgetful.

Surrounded by screaming fans, the Fray finally appeared and sounded awesome live.  We were so close to the stage, though I wish I were taller to see over everyone’s phones.  At least Tyler’s height came in handy and he took a few pictures and videos for me.   They mixed all their new songs with their well-known hits and even threw in a few off-album ones I loved.  The concert rocked is all I can say.  It was so fun!

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Tyler accurately pointed out every guitar brand and model they played with amazement.  He knows all the specs and was genuinely impressed with their musical ability, having recently taken up the guitar himself.

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After the last song, Isaac took this picture of the crowd.  Poor Tyler got blocked, but he was to my right.  He was a genuinely nice, charismatic and talented guy.  They all were – great band.


What an unforgettable night in London I will forever cherish with my Ty Ty.  Five hours on my feet, up til midnight on a school night…we really need to do this more often.