Saturday, March 31, 2012

London By Night

Late Night Call
One of my very dearest friends from California came to visit last week.  One night we left all five kids with a sitter and headed to London for a Night Photography Tour.  We were in a rush so instead of a lovely dinner together we grabbed a croissant (her) and a Snickers (me) and made a beeline for the meeting place.  It was freezing cold and the two hour tour was still going strong when we left 2.5 hours into it.  But we had a great time together.  And we got some really fun shots of London by night as well.

The London Eye and City Hall

View from the Westminster Bridge.  I love the light trails made by passing buses.
This is something I would definitely like to do again.  Preferably on a balmy summer night.  Preferably after a lazy adult only dinner with wine.  And certainly with my wonderful friend. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Things I Loved In Amsterdam:

Visiting the Anne Frank House
I must admit this was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Amsterdam.  I wanted to see that Secret Annex with my own eyes and imagine what it must have been like to be a young Jewish girl in WWII.  Our visit there was one of the highlights of the trip.  We booked our tickets in advance to avoid the long queues and walked right in a special entrance.  There were no strollers allowed in the museum and unfortunately, no photography either.

The self-guided tour did a beautiful job of explaining the story of the Frank family and giving the visitors a peek into what life was like during that time.  The photos of Anne and her family brought tears to my eyes, and all of us were so humbled when we got to go behind the bookcase and up the secret staircase.  It was a very moving experience.  The rooms of the annex are unfurnished (as was Otto Frank's wish), but the postcards and photos Anne pasted to the wall are still hanging in her room, and the pencil marks tracking her growth are still visible on the wallpaper.  There was also a small map on which Otto Frank monitored the progress of the allied troops.  It was all so heartbreaking.  The Anne Frank House made a big impression on all of us, including the kids.

Getting to Know the Dutch Masters
My daughter has been studying the work of Johannes Vermeer in school so seeing some of his original work was one of her top priorities in Amsterdam.  Two of his well known paintings are on display at the Rijksmuseum, which also houses Rembrandt's famous "Night Watch".  

Rembrandt's house in Amsterdam has been completely recreated as a museum and we enjoyed seeing how this wealthy artist lived in the 17th century.  Apparently, he lived above his means and was forced to declare bankruptcy.  All of his possessions were carefully documented in court records and those records have been used to recreate his house exactly as it would have been at the time. 

My favourite art experience in Amsterdam was the Van Gogh museum.  It was fascinating to walk through the galleries, arranged in chronological order and see how Van Gogh's style changed throughout his ten year career.  I had read books about Van Gogh with the kids and they enjoyed searching the galleries for their favourite paintings.  At the end of the visit, a docent let each child choose a postcard of their favourite painting.  My son now falls asleep listening to this darling "Bedroom" music box he carefully selected from the gift shop.

Canals and Architecture
Amsterdam is such an interesting city.  There are hundreds of bridges over the many canals.  The buildings are tall and narrow with the trademark gabled roof lines.  We took a one hour canal boat ride and enjoyed seeing the city from the water.  We were all fascinated by the houseboats permanently moored in the canals.  It was a lovely way to tour the city. 

See those hooks at the top of all the canal houses?  Since the doors and stairways are so narrow, that's how the Dutch get the furniture in and out of the houses.  These hooks also provide an excellent distraction for little eyes while walking through the red light district.  "Oh sweetie- look up there at that hook, how many more can you find?"  Keep their eyes focused up and they won't notice the scantily clad women in the windows at street level.  Worked like a charm! 

The Windmills of Zaans Schans
Visiting this recreated Dutch village a short bus ride outside of Amsterdam was a highlight for the kids.  Wooden shoes, working windmills, and Dutch cheese were all on display.  
There's one in every family . . . . .
Yummy Dutch pancakes!  Crispy along the edges, gooey in the middle, available with any type of sweet or savory topping you can imagine.  They're not just for breakfast anymore.

Everyone rides a bike in Amsterdam.  We saw whole families on a single bicycle.  The stacks of bicycles parked along every road adds to the charm of the city.

There was so much to love in Amsterdam I was able to overlook all the smokers, and cigarette butts, and litter and grime.  And despite what many people might think, Amsterdam was a lovely city for a family weekend getaway!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Three Years

That's how long we've been expats.  Today is our Expativersary.  (I believe my friend Laura coined that term).   Three years ago today we landed in Australia and started our life abroad.

Arrival in Sydney- 2 kids, 9 suitcases
Exploring Balmoral Beach for the first time.
Since then, we've made new friends, and kept the old.

We've visited 9 countries on three continents.  Always with our kids.

We've grown exceptionally close as a family.  We welcomed a new baby.

We've started new schools and new jobs and handled the transitions remarkably well.

One of us became an expert at assembling IKEA furniture. 

I still complain about the ridiculous 4-wheel-drive shopping trolleys that are impossible to steer. (Haven't any of these grocery store execs been to America and seen the beauty of our 2-wheel-drive carts?). 

We regularly use words like "rubbish" and "brilliant" and I can't help but smile when my 5 year old asks to climb into the car "through the boot."

I can drive on the left, think in kilometres, and know that 21 degrees feels just right.

We're experts at using public transportation, navigating ferries, buses, trains and the tube with familiarity and ease.

We've cuddled koalas and fed kangaroos.  Snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef and seen the rugged coastline of Tasmania.  We've visited Europe's castles and cathedrals and museums and monuments.

We've learned about history, and architecture, and art.  And along the way I've learned something about myself too.  I'm more adventurous than I thought I was three years ago.  I'm more confident.  I'm willing to try new things and put myself in new situations.  This is one of the beautiful gifts that comes with being an expat.

Exploring Hampton Court Palace on one of our first UK Adventures

I don't know how long this adventure will last, but I don't worry about the future any more.  I live in the present, enjoying today and appreciating all the opportunities we have here.    It's been the most amazing, challenging and rewarding three years of my life.  And I can't wait to see what comes next.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Best Deal Ever (or How I Got a £415 Dress for £65)

I was tempted to keep this little secret to myself.  But it is too good not to share.
Last weekend I went to a fundraiser for my daughter's school in this gorgeous dress.  And the best part:  I only paid £65 for it.

The secret?
Wish, Want, Wear.
It's an online dress hire company in London.  Here's how it works:
  • Browse their selection of gorgeous dresses online and place your order. I ordered 3 different dresses in 2 sizes each.   UK dress sizes are smaller than US sizes so remember to order up one or two sizes.
  • On the selected date, the dress(es) arrive carefully packaged and ready to wear. 
  • Wear your beautiful dress and feel like a million bucks all the while knowing you only spent a fraction of the retail price.
  • After your event, place all the dresses in the prepaid bag and drop off at your local post office.
  • You only pay for the dress you actually wore.  The rental price of the unworn dresses is refunded (less shipping costs)
Isn't that brilliant?  I will definitely use this service again the next time I need a dress for a special event or even just a night out.

At midnight, after the event when I realized I didn't get a photo of the dress!
I love that I didn't have to leave my house to find the perfect dress.  And I love that I didn't have to spend a small fortune on a dress I'd only wear once.  And most importantly,  I loved the way I felt in that beautiful dress all night.

*If you want to give them a try, send me your email address and I'll send you a code for 15% off your first order. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Clock Tower Tour: Big Ben Up Close

There's something magical about climbing to the top of a city's most recognizable landmark.  I felt it last year when I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  And I experienced it again this week when I climbed the Clock Tower and got an up close look at London's Big Ben.

And as much as I did want to see the interior of the Clock Tower, I had a bit of an ulterior motive as well.   A few months ago I was bemoaning my lack of a social life to my wise and funny friend Allison.  She suggested I plan something fun and invite others to join me.  So that's just what I did with the Clock Tower tour.

The free, small group tours are open only to UK residents and must be arranged in advance through your Member of Parliament (MP).   If, like me, you don't know who your MP is, just click here

After filling out some forms and clearing the background check we were assigned a date and time for our 75 minute tour.
View in the stairwell
 Our excellent guide led us up all 334 winding steps of the Clock Tower.  We made 2 stops along the way to learn about the history of this amazing structure which was completed in 1859. 

The center "train" of the great clock
 First we viewed the clock mechanism which is a working antique.  It as quite a feat of engineering at the time.  The minute hands on the clock face are 14 feet long and a special mechanism was invented to prevent the wind from impacting the movement of the hands.  Because of this mechanism, the clock is accurate to 2 seconds.  Clock makers still check the accuracy several times a week and make adjustments by adding or removing pennies from a shelf on the pendulum rod.  It's an amazing piece of machinery.
The Great Bell aka Big Ben
 Did you know that the nickname "Big Ben" actually refers to the largest of the bells housed within the tower?  It weighs over 13 tons and is nearly 9 feet in diameter.  We were given ear defenders (earplugs) to wear when the great bell struck twelve.  It was quite an experience!  There are also four smaller bells in the tower which together ring the Westminster chimes to mark each quarter hour.  Each evening the BBC broadcasts the Westminster chimes worldwide.

A look behind the dials
My favourite part of the tour was walking behind the giant clock faces.  They are framed in cast iron and each glazed with 312 separate pieces of opal glass.   The dials were originally lit by gas, but now 28 energy efficient light bulbs illuminate each side.  The clock faces are due to be cleaned this year.  Wouldn't it be fun to see those real-life "spidermen" dangling up there on ropes?  It's a dangerous job, not only because of the height, but also because the hands keep moving the whole time!

Photo credit:  here
Touring the Clock Tower was a great day out with some lovely friends and we learnt something too.  Next on my to-do list:  schedule a tour of Parliament so I can plan another girls day out in London!

*No photography allowed on the tour so these interior photos are courtesy of UK Parliament 

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