Friday, December 12, 2014

Colin David Phillips

We welcome with love our new son, Colin David Phillips!

He was born December 5, 2014 at 8AM. He weighed 7 lbs 2 oz and was 20.5 in long. At his one week check-up he was already at 7 lb 6 oz. He loves to try to hold his head up and watch his older brother and sister.
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Saturday, November 08, 2014

Liana Turned Two!

I completely forgot to write this, and actually thought I had already done so. She is a sweet little girl, but also stubborn at times. She isn't sleeping by herself, and we can't really enforce it living in an apartment as she just screams. (She hasn't been a good napper since about April/May). She eats a good variety of food, but grazes and won't eat much in one sitting generally. She saves it for later and eats all day. She is very good on her feet and loves to climb, almost more so than Nolan! She is counting to 10 and can kind of say her ABCs. She knows most of her colors and animals. She is a pretty good talker and understands pretty much everything we say. Her and Nolan like to play together sometimes (and sometimes it just generates screaming). She misses him while he is at school. She likes to take care of dollies, it is pretty cute. She still won't let us put anything in her hair, even though it gets nasty with food and she pushes it out of her eyes all the time. I believe she is around 34 inches tall.
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She had a little help with this

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Goodbye Ireland, Its Been Grand!

It has been a tiring week, emotionally and physically. Running around, packing, movers, hotels, flights, taxis. Monday our furniture went away, we finished packing our suitcases, and we moved to a hotel. Tuesday our belongings were packed up and we wrapped up some things around town. The cleaners also started at the house. Wednesday the cleaners finished and we handed our keys over. Our lovely landlord brought gifts for the kids, it was very sweet. On Thursday, me, my wife, and our two kids, two cats in crates, and 21 things (11 checked bags, 2 car seats, stroller, 7 carry-ons) got in a shuttle and traveled to the airport. It all went very smoothly! We had some time for breakfast before our 6 hour flight. The flight went so fast, I barely finished a movie. We then collected all the items and Nolan and I got in a van for Rhode Island. Kacey and Liana got a car and came down after us. I got some food and litter for the cats and let them investigate the apartment, and we got some Panera to eat before we all crashed around 8pm.

We are quite sad to leave Ireland. And I can't even really describe it much right now. But, here is a list of things I will miss, and some things I am looking forward to back in the good ole US of A.

Miss...

Roundabouts - Love them, and the few in the US don't seem to function correctly.
Easy flights to Europe - We have seen so much history, culture, scenery, and food, we are very fortunate.
Dun Laoghaire Presbyterian Church - Such a loving and well-ministered place!
People's Park on Sundays - Even when it was raining, I looked forward to heading down the hill.
Guinness - I never had a Guinness before entering Ireland, and I had only recently started to enjoy darker beer before moving to Ireland. And as I tried many stouts and porters, there is a reason for the reputation of Guinness. From the tap. In Ireland. It is just good.
Fuel prices that never change - You never really had to worry about the price of diesel, it is always expensive.
Coke made with real sugar - I love coke, and because of that I don't allow myself to drink it very often. It is a special treat once or twice a month. But it tastes so much better in Europe! I don't think I will drink it in the states unless I find real sugar coke.
Saying "grand" and "brilliant" and "thanks a mil" all the time - Common Irish phrases that you find yourself saying, because everyone there says them.
Father Ted - Great comedy from the late 90s, nice and dry. Find some DVDs and check it out!
Safe power outlets - Great, safe design that I will miss.
Brennans Bread - Delicious, healthy sandwich bread. Nothing like it in the states.
Friendly people everywhere - I think the percentage of friendly people is higher here than most places.
Our home - This was our home, full of wonderful memories, in a lovely suburb town of a lovely city, and will always be cherished.

Looking Forward To...

On-demand hot water and house heat - Imagine wanting to take a random shower at 3pm in the afternoon. No, wait! First turn on the hot water, then wait a while. Was the house cold yesterday yet warm today? Tough. There is no thermostat.
NFL
Seasons - I miss fall. And snow.
Mexican food - Where it does exist in Ireland, it is a huge disappointment.
Inexpensive fuel - DON'T complain about the cost of gas. It costs less than half of Europe.
Handbell choir - Presbyterian churches don't do this in Ireland. I miss playing.
Understanding all the dialects of the land - Sometimes, we just plain couldn't understand someone from the far north or far west or far south. But here, I can understand people from all over the country.
Good beef - The Irish love their beef. But it just flat out doesn't taste as good as US beef!
Sinks that mix the water for you in a single faucet - Want to wash your hands with warm water? Too bad!
Turn on red - Turning left on a red is illegal in Ireland, no matter how clear the view is. I already enjoy getting to turn right on red here!
Showers that don't open to the bathroom - I miss shower curtains! No more 10% of your shower water ending up on the floor.
Big, fast washer and dryer - Imagine being able to do only two very small loads of laundry a day. Or for my european friends, imagine doing the weeks laundry in just a few hours once a week!


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Leaving the airport

Friday, August 08, 2014

County Donegal

We finally got up to County Donegal for bank holiday weekend. We were once again fortunate to dodge a lot of rain (started while in the car, stopped when we arrived). This is a beautiful area and due to its proximity from Dublin, most tours stay away.

Friday afternoon we drove to Belleek, a small town on the Ireland/NI border that is known for its pottery. We booked a little bar B&B there and then drove to Donegal town for dinner. I thought more of the town was on the water, but the bay barely makes it in to the town. After a brief walk through town, we ate at a restaurant that was top rated, but it really wasn't any good (except for their sticky toffee pudding). We then walked out by the docks and ended up at the old Friary and Abbey Cemetery. This was a pretty area against the setting sun.

The next morning we got up and went next door to the Belleek Pottery factory for a tour. It was a nice little tour and Kacey even got away with a little something extra. We then stopped by the SuperValu to grab some lunch food to eat while driving to Slieve League Cliffs. We also stopped at Wool N Things in Donegal, and the Donegal Craft Village, for Kacey to check out the goods.

We got to Slieve League and the parking was a little confusing. There was a small area for parking, packed with a few cars waiting to park. There was a small road that looked blocked off, possibly for services. After we got parked, we noticed a few cars going in and out, but we started the walk. After a tough walk along the road, we realized at the end that we could have driven and saved the legs. The views were quite nice. I only walked about half way up the hill because it didn't really look like the views of the cliffs would get better. Our next thoughts were to try to drive part of Rick Steves drive near Bunbeg and Dunfanaghy but people were tired and it was raining pretty good, so by Glenties, we changed course to Letterkenny for our hotel.

The next day our first stop was Glenveagh National Park to see the castle. We arrived right after a few tours did so we had quite a wait to get in. The castle is small but has very nice grounds and great views on the lake. The rain started right as we got in the car for our drive to Bunbeg. The fog was way too thick to see Mount Errigal, but I am sure the west side of it is quite beautiful. We got to Bunbeg and what we thought was town was quite small as expected. The only place we saw for lunch was a little slow and as we left town, we saw that town was a bit bigger than we thought. We drove out to the beach and once again it was a stunning view. The drive north was nice and scenic, and the rain kept trying to come, but never too much. We stopped at Cnoc Fola, which is the Hill of Blood or Bloody Foreland due to the color of the heather at sunset. We stopped at the Dunfanaghy Work House, but didn't go in as we wanted to get to a couple other places still.

Next we drove out to Horn Head. The views here are pretty nice, even when it is trying to rain. We also drove over to the WWII shelter, which can be seen to the west of Horn Head. Our next stop was just outside of Derry, an old ring fort. Grianan Ailligh is a 2000 year old fort (restored over 100 years ago) with grand views of the hillsides all around. After letting the kids run a bit, we drove in to Derry to our B&B. We drove around the old walled town and the murals a bit to see them without having to walk around in the rain.

The next morning we drove around the murals again and took some decent pictures, but we had to get on the road to make it to Malin Head, and then home. Originally we had hoped to drive the Inishowen 100, but we knew we didn't have for it. We decided to drive straight to Malin and see a few things up there. We started at Five Finger Strand. This is a big, beautiful beach area where low tides reveal what look like fingers. We played here a bit and collected shells. Then we drove to Malin Head. This was getting a bit crowded for parking, but we got in. Nolan and I hiked down toward the Head point. What I learned is that the marker is actually located on a set of rocks separated from the mainland by a raging ocean and steep cliffs. We were fortunate that the weather was absolutely gorgeous this day and the view and hike were nice. Next we drove south on the Inishowen 100/Wild Atlantic Way toward Malin town to find lunch. There were more nice views along the way. We stopped at this place that looked like a community center that was also serving lunch. We stopped at Northern Bites and it was nice with good people and information. We learned about a few other sites to see, so we set out with new GPS coordinates and sites.

We now knew where Wee House of Malin was, and it was close. So we saw this little cave and old cottage, with again, nice views of the ocean. We also set out to see a few high crosses on our way south, as well as an old stone circle. The Bocan Stone Circle was in a guy's field, and we parked in the mud. We then set out for a high cross, but the GPS coordinates led to some guy's field with no cross. Next we drove for Carrowmore Cross and found Cloncha Cross and church, the one we couldn't find! Too funny. Carrowmore crosses are just in a field with no where to stop really, but we did anyway. We set out for home via Moville, where we stopped for Cooly cross, in a little cemetery with a few sheep grazing inside. They were all great to see and learn about.

Donegal is beautiful and not too busy due to being far from tours and Dublin. I now see why the Wild Atlantic Way is quickly becoming quite popular.

Pictures can be found here.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Krakow

Our last city to visit was Krakow. We wanted to visit Krakow four years ago, but didn't get to it. We are really glad we did now as this is a great city that we really enjoyed. We arrived in the afternoon in time to get to the hotel and get out for pierogi dinner. The first place we had read about was not open during July, and the second place was a bit hard to find. But U Babci Maliny was pretty good. A small place where you order at the window and wait in the little upstairs or downstairs for your number. It was pretty tasty, but three plates wasn't enough and we headed back to something we spotted earlier, a summer festival at Mały Rynek square. I asked the girl at the beer tent (as her english was quite good) and it was a food and misc festival that was there all week. Awesome! We ended up here every night! We had pan fried pierogi, sausage, beer, kraut, potatoes, kebabs, and grilled oscypek cheese.

Our first day we scheduled a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Salt Mines. We knew this would be a long day, but we had a private driver who took care of everything and made it a doable day. We started at Auschwitz for 1.5 hours and then headed to Birkenau for an hour. Our tour guide was from the area and she did a great job taking us through. All I really want to say is everyone needs to visit here. Thoughts of this place are permanently engrained in my head. (Pictures from Auschwitz are here). After these tours, our guide took us to Wieliczka to tour the salt mines. He dropped us next door for lunch (pierogi and a delicious Mocno Dojrzale polish porter) and we started that tour at 5pm. This place is pretty interesting and an UNESCO world heritage site. The miners took a lot of pride in their work and carvings, especially the cathedral! After the main lift breaking and walking out to another lift, we didn't get back to Krakow until 8pm. And guess where we ended up for dinner...

The next day our plans were to talk around Market Square and just take in the sites, and then walk around Kazimierz (Jewish quarter) a bit. We watched the opening of the alter in St. Mary's Basilica and this church was quite interesting. We also visited the little church next door (made from left over bricks from St. Mary's), which contains the tomb of Jakub Wujek, who translated the Bible to polish. I took a quick trip up the Town Hall tower, but the view is obstructed as you can't get outside; you only look through 3 small windows. After eating some food at, guess where, we stopped at the hotel for water and toilets and then walked to Kazimierz. We checked out a couple synagogues and got some ice cream (lody) at the place our guide said was the best in Krakow. The place is possibly called 'Pracownia Cukiernicza Stanisław Sarga'. Lines form in the summer, but our line was only about 5-7 minutes. They use real fruit and it tastes great! For dinner we went to Zapiecek for pierogi. Another great place!

Our last day we went to Wawel Castle. The ticket process is a little cumbersome, but we bought several different tickets and spent the afternoon visiting places. Getting food here is a bit tricky unfortunately. Some of the sites sell out, so don't come up at the end of the day. I think I liked the cathedral best of all, which doesn't sell out at all. The views from the Sandomierska Tower was not that great as you only get to look out a few small windows. We finished our day by walking out through the caves, known as the Dragon's Lair, which lowers you down to the river. At the end once you are outside, there is a stone dragon statue that breathes fire! We finished by going back to Zapiecek and then the food festival again. Then, it was time to catch our night flight back to Dublin.

Krakow was our favorite, and I think Poland is a place we could drive around for a week. Nice people, yummy food, a tough history with resilient people, and beautiful countryside. Also, it is easy on the pocket book!

Pictures from Krakow and the Salt Mines can be found here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Stockholm

Our second city on holiday was Stockholm, Sweden. We had two full days and our plan was not to run around too much and just enjoy walking around. The first night we arranged to fly in to have time to eat dinner there. We asked for a recommendation at the hotel and ended up at a place that had the food we were looking for, but a bit touristy. The food was ok but the atmosphere was not quite right. We stopped by a bakery/coffee house still serving some dessert and had a little treat.

Our first day, the plan was to tour the City Hall (where the Nobel Prize Banquet is held each year) first. There were some nice views of the city across the islands from there. The tour is pretty average, but some places of the hall are quite interesting. I climbed the tour for more views of the city and it was a good viewpoint. Next we walked toward Kungsträdgården to just walk around the park. Along the way we stopped along the Drottninggatan pedestrian walkway and ate at the Pickwick Irish bar, as they also had some Swedish food. Kacey got a delicious Jansson´s temptation, sliced herring, potatoes & onions baked in cream. We were considering a canal tour and while walking around we read more about it and booked a boat tour of the city for later in the day. We walked around the park a bit enjoying the sites before getting on the boat. The boat tour was good. It was nice to see lots of islands and different parts of the city. We even saw the two beaches they have. Not having done many of these tours before, I learned that I much prefer live guides as opposed to electronic headphone-only guides. After the tour we were going to walk the pedestrian way back toward the hotel and find food along the way. We couldn't find any local cuisine so we ended up at an Italian place for pizza.

Our second day was spent in Gamla Stan, the old town. We started off going to the Cathedral. Then our plan was to visit the different areas of the palace most of the day. We went to the royal chapel, apartments, treasury, Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities, Tre Kronor Museum, and the Royal Armory. We also visited the Royal Coin Cabinet next door. Most of these places were no photo, but there was nothing super special here. It rained a bit while going in the first few places, but we were fine and it stopped by time we were done. We walked toward Stortorget square to find some dinner. We stopped in a bakery and had a delicious hazelnut cream cookie. We ate dinner at De Svarta Fåren and we had pretty good food. I had a moose burger and Kacey's delicious raw spiced salmon with Västerbotten cheese, fennel, red onion, dill, horseradish and Swedish mustard sauce. The kids and Kacey got ice cream afterward at Lejonet & Björnen. We slowly walked back to the hotel along the pedestrian street, and I once again went to the bakery nearby the hotel for my treat.

The next morning we got up for a long bus ride to the far away Skavsta airport to get to Krakow. Stockholm was an ok city. It is pretty in parts, and the food is good if you are lucky enough to find a good place (but we found this was hard), but once again expensive. There are some nice outdoor areas which we didn't have time to visit.

Pictures from Stockholm can be found here.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Copenhagen

For our big summer holiday, we picked three cities to visit. We started first in Copenhagen, which is rated as one of the top cities to visit in Europe. We got a hotel close to the station and Tivoli, which is a decent location. Copenhagen is expensive (worse than Paris I think) so just be prepared if visiting. Everything is about double what it should be.

Our first day there we went to visit Rosenborg Palace. This is a little castle with nice gardens and a treasury in the basement. When we were done, it started hailing and didn't stop for a while. We got quite soaked making our way to some lunch. After struggling to figure out how to spend the rest of the day, the sun had some back out and we dried out a bit. We walked through Nyhavn a bit and made our way to Amalienborg Palace and the Marble Church. We were able to visit Christian VIII's palace, which is a little museum now. The church was different and interesting. We then headed toward Strøget, Europe's longest pedestrian only shopping street. We took in some sites and shops and kept an eye out for dinner. I went up the Round Tower for views while Kacey and the kids watched a street performer on a unicycle. Next on the street was the Lego store! Nolan played for a bit in there while Kacey shopped some. We could not find a good restaurant with food for kids, so we ended up getting Chinese takeaway for the kids and Kacey, and I watched the US world cup game against Germany at a bar filled with Germans. I had some Jacobsen Brown Ale (from Carlsberg) and quite enjoyed it.

The next day we went to Christiansborg Palace first and visited the palace, ruins, and royal stable. We ate a little lunch near Nyhavn and then decided to take an "under the bridges" canal tour. It was nice and the city is quite pretty in places. We even saw the royal family out on their ship (the tour guide was convinced the family was on board due to staff and flags at use). We also saw the famous Little Mermaid statue. Once done we walked Strøget some more and found an Italian place for dinner; probably a little touristy, but really one of the best options we could find. I tried a drink (can't recall the name) where beer is mixed with sprite. I would not order it again.

The next day was our day at Tivoli, an amusement park right in city center. But first we stopped in the City Hall (next door) to see Jens Olsen's astronomical clock. Pretty impressive craftsmanship. So next we walked next door to Tivoli. It isn't huge, but the big prices keep it from getting too ridiculously busy. Once you pay to get in, you quickly realize you should just buy an unlimited pass for rides. We were able to buy a child plus adult ticket, which meant that either Kacey or I could go with Nolan on a ride (but we couldn't do one by ourselves). Nolan had a lot of fun, and Liana got to play at the little kids area for a while too.

The next day, craving some big breakfast, we actually went to the Hard Rock for their American brunch. It was good for Nolan and now it was time to fly to our next city, Stockholm. Copenhagen isn't as great as we were expecting; more expensive than Paris without the sites of Paris. Yes there are some pretty streets, palaces and museums, but we didn't quite understand the hype.

Pictures from Copenhagen can be found here.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Nice and Monaco

This past bank holiday weekend, we traveled to Nice for a little getaway. We had heard good things about this little southern town in France and were looking forward to going to a place where we could just wander around and not feel like we had a lot of things to do (as you can see from most our trips, we are heavy into site-seeing). Nice is a great place for this! The Cours Saleya market is full of food. The Castle Hill has great views of the town and ocean, and a nice playground (as well as a lift up for those hot days). The old town has plenty of little shops, ice cream, and food to keep you interested for a few days. There is a 2.5 mile pebble beach with a Promenade for bikes and walking. And, Monaco is a 20 minute train ride away, to see how the 1% lives.

Our highlights were playing in the Promenade du Paillon, with water features and playgrounds, Castle Hill, throwing rocks in the ocean, taking a bike tour, walking the markets, and eating ice cream. Fenocchio is well known for its crazy flavours, and we tried quite a few (beer was average, a local specialty torte de blette was quite good, cola was great on a hot day, violet was quite good, and cactus was quite good). None of our meals were outstanding, but eating at Patin Couffin was probably the best meal we had there (even though the service was probably the worst; they completely forgot my food). I did try frog legs and I did enjoy them; it is like delicate chicken. We stayed at Hotel Univers and I do recommend them if needing a triple. We also walked to see the Russian Orthodox church when we were out by the station, but it was closed. We were able to just take in the view from the street, though.

Monaco is quite small, but the large buildings and the hillside make it seem larger than it is. We took the bus from the station to the old town and walked out toward a lookout. There are beautiful flowers everywhere. We walked through the gardens toward the cathedral, and then a couple blocks to the palace. We didn't go in to see the car collection, but just took in more views of the port and town from there. We could see that stopping at the port/harbour area looked less interesting than we expected, so we just took the bus to Casino Square. After walking for a bit and enjoying some more gardens, we took the bus back down to the station to head back to Nice. We only needed two or three hours to walk around and eat lunch, and it was enough.

Pictures from Nice can be found here.

Pictures from Monaco can be found here.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Southern England

Last week we met Kacey's parents in England for a week holidays. We took the Rosslare ferry to Pembroke Port and drove through southern Wales to meet them in Bath on Saturday.

Bath

We all arrived around 4pm. Bath is rated quite high in the places to visit in Great Britain. Honestly, I think Canterbury had a better feel, but seeing the old Roman baths was interesting. Bath is quite expensive, but we did enjoy dinner at the Bath Brew House. Granted, most food in Great Britain is pretty good. We also checked out the Bath Abbey and then spent some time in Sydney Gardens to let the kids play a bit before our drive to Amesbury on Sunday afternoon. The drive was a nice country drive with plenty of yellow rapeseed/canola fields, which looked brilliant on the sunny days we were enjoying.

Pictures from Bath can be seen here.

Stonehenge

We stayed at the George Hotel in Amesbury, a 5 minute drive (without traffic) to Stonehenge. Recently, they have invested to preserve the area around Stonehenge by building a large carpark and visitor center about a mile away from the site. It is still crazy, though. I recommend going when they open at 9:30 and having a reservation. The traffic getting to the site backs up for miles by lunch (partially because you can see Stonehenge from the highway, and everyone rubbernecks). It is surreal to see this site. The large blocked off area around the site helps it not feel too crowded. I was even able to get pictures with no people visible. As you walk around the site, the light hitting different areas and the different formations make it seem to change every 20 feet. The cafe was decent for a quite bite before hitting the road to Dover.

Pictures from Stonehenge can be found here.

Dover

We arrived in Dover and headed straight to the castle. When purchasing the english heritage pass at Stonehenge, it made Dover Castle almost free (sites in England are expensive). We had 2-3 hours to visit, which was plenty. Plus, many people had left by the time we arrived. This is one of the nicer castles we have visited, with many buildings restored, and actors providing some interactive exhibits. This was all very similar to Sterling Castle in Scotland. We enjoyed the sun and some nice views of Dover as well.

The next day we got up to hike the White Cliffs of Dover. We were blessed with another sunny day, and beautiful views of the cliffs (and France). They really are spectacular and rise up out of no where. They change in the sun and clouds, it was interesting to watch the clouds move and see how they change. We hiked out to the lighthouse, taking the scenic route along the cliff edge along the way. After a quick snack, we took the shuttle back to the carpark and headed toward Canterbury.

Pictures from Dover can be found here.

Canterbury

We found a spot in the close carpark and we were basically already in the town center. We toured the cathedral first, in case Easter week services closed it later. It is rated as one of the top cathedrals in europe to visit. I don't know if it is #1, but it is up there. It is in a really nice setting with a park to the back. King Henry IV is buried here, which I thought was cool (until visiting Westminster Abbey). Also, I saw a clock here, which is seldom found in these old cathedrals.

Walking around Canterbury town, it is a grand little town with lots of people wandering around and lots of old shops. We were directed toward what was supposed to be a great chipper, but honestly wasn't that super (next to the Canterbury Tales exhibit). We watched some fudge get made and popped in a couple other shops before driving in to London. Canterbury had a nice feel where a couple more hours could maybe have been spent wandering around.

Pictures from Canterbury can be found here.

London

We arrived Tuesday night, which gave us 4 full days plus Easter service on Sunday. We had planned out the first two days pretty well, and a couple more activities to do on the last two days. On Wednesday, we visited St. Paul's Cathedral, and walked through Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the Eye. No photo is allowed in St. Paul's and I get why. It does a ton of visitors and they were having problems with everyone posing, slowing everything down (Westminster Abbey is the same way). This is a grand church with a big, open crypt as well. I did the tower climb for views of London. This church does remind one of St. Peter's Basilica. While London attractions are very pricey, they do usually include an audio guide for free. It was nice to listen to information about the church while walking around. We grabbed a bite at Pret and then took the tube up to Hyde Park. We walked around a bit, then headed down Constitution Hill toward Buckingham Palace. After a few pics and some frolicking in the flowers, we walked to Big Ben. We hung out for a bit in Parliament Square, taking in all the sites. We walked across the Thames toward the Eye to learn about it costs and line lengths. It is crazy long wait and crazy expensive. We found the Wahaca mexican restaurant; it was awesome!

Thursday we were using a London Pass to visit a few sites. We started off cutting the big line at Westminster Abbey. This place is incredible. Kings, history, poets, scientists, all buried here. Next we headed to the Tower of London. This is a castle in the city surrounded by a moat. There were a few lines for things inside, and they were huge. We did see the crown jewels, but the exhibit seemed smaller than expected. Next we went to Tower Bridge to check out the exhibit. This was cool, seeing the inside of it, and how things work and how it was designed and built. Lastly we finished off our day with a boat cruise on the Thames back to Big Ben and Parliament. It was a nice ride with great commentary along the way. We walked up toward Trafalgar Square to see the area and to find some dinner. We ate some delicious pizzas and pasta at Fratelli La Bufala. This is a fantastic international Italian chain. We then enjoyed some gelato from around the corner at Gelupo. We headed toward Piccadilly Circus to see the aluminum statue, but it is covered and being renovated. So, we headed back to the hotel.

Friday we were going to maybe go to a museum, so we headed toward the Natural History Museum. We didn't have tickets to a special exhibit, and the queue was huge, so we decided to walk toward Harrod's and Hyde Park. I had never heard of Harrod's, but it is huge, and we were able to score some Belgium chocolate at the Neuhaus shop there. After lunch at Wagamama, we walked toward Hyde Park to play and relax some. Kacey and I rented some city bikes for a while to see the park and liked seeing the Princess Diana Memorial fountain as well as the Albert Memorial and the Italian Gardens. We tried to visit the British Museum, but it was closing early for Good Friday, so we only walked around the atrium, no exhibits for us. We found a bite at Verdi and headed back to get some rest.

Saturday we had a plan that we were all getting up early; the boys were going to the Natural History Museum, and the girls were going to Notting Hill and markets. We got to the museum about 10 minutes after they opened and only queued for 10 minutes. Inside was great, even without tickets to the Dinosaur exhibit. We spent about 4 hours there and a decent lunch at the cafe. Then we headed next door to the Science Museum, which had no queue. This museum was pretty good as well with a wide variety of exhibits. We walked toward a couple restaurants that looked good and ended up at Bumpkin. It was pretty tasty. We, of course, got some gelato at Scoop and went to rest in preparation for Easter services the next morning.

On Sunday, we got up and checked out to drive to Westminster Abbey for services at 10:30. Our goal was to get there by 9:30-9:45, but it was almost 10 by time we got in queue. It was moving quick and we ended up sitting right next to the Shakespeare memorial in Poet's corner. We had some views of the front, and could see a large monitor of the altar. The message was meaningful and the music was powerful. While Liana wasn't really having it, and although they had no nursery, it was still a memorable service (and, Kacey ended up sitting next to the organists for a while, as well as the Jerusalem Chamber where King Henry IV chose to die). After grabbing some Pret, we got on the road to drive through the Cotswolds.

Pictures from London can be found here.

The Cotswolds

Today was a bit rainy, but we were in the car most of the time. We decided to drive through the Cotswolds region to take in some of the scenery. We decided to drive to Minster Lovell first. This is a small village with an old church that you can walk to. Thatched roofs and folks out walking around made for a nice stop. We next stopped in Burford, but this was a main street with lots of shops all targeted for older people with money. Lastly, we stopped in Northleach and Kacey walked out to the Old Wool Church. We stopped in Gloucester for dinner and got in to Cardiff Bay in time for bed.

Pictures from the Cotswolds can be found here.

Cardiff

We got up and walked around the Bay a bit. This is a neat little area to walk around, but only a few things to do. We got on the road to meet our ferry around lunch.

Pictures from Cardiff can be found here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Liana is Eighteen Months Old!

My how time flies! She is a brave little explorer. She loves to climb and is learning how to get herself down from situations. She also knows she can ask me for something not in the room so she has time to climb up on the couch. She says water, baby, happy, memaw, papaw, Nolni (for Nolan), dada, momma, apple, nana (for banana), cat, and a few more words. She loves to say neigh-neigh for a horse.

She hasn't enjoying sitting still to read as much as Nolan did, but we are starting to do a little more lately. I have been reading some color books to her. She also likes to build things with her blocks occasionally. She is a happy girl and likes to dance to music. She makes silly faces with me too.

Pictures of Liana

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

St. Paddy's Day in Dublin

Last weekend we spent some time in Dublin for St. Paddy's Day! And, by the way, it is Paddy's, not Patty's. We had heard the parade is crazy, but we decided to go for it anyway. We got to a spot on the route almost 2 hours ahead of the start, and within 15 minutes of being there, all good spots on the fence were gone!

We brought some snacks, as well as two strollers, and we needed both. There are many foreigners here, and lots of young Irish in for a good time. The fence was maybe 10 people deep where we were by time the parade started.

There were several American marching bands, and many groups with strange dancers and props. Many of these groups were quite colorful.

Pictures can be found here.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Southern Spain, Gibraltar, and Morocco

What a trip! Nolan had mid term break, so we planned a week traveling around southern Spain. Also, we wanted to see Gibraltar, located in southern Spain. Then as we researched, we added a day trip to Tangier, Morocco. It was a lot to see, but we tried to make it reasonable with the kids. We flew in to Malaga out of necessity, but left as soon as we landed.

Ronda

First we stopped in Ronda on our way to our hotel in Gibraltar. Ronda is a hill town with a large, well-known bridge connecting the old and new towns. Even though we had mapped to a parking lot ahead of time, it was still hard to find. We had 4-5 hours to walk around and eat. Our first site was Spain's oldest bullfighting ring. While we didn't tour it, this is our one regret as we didn't even try. It is pretty small compared to what we have seen previously. We peeked in a few shops in the area and took our first look over the Puente Nuevo bridge. It was just incredible!

After buying a couple treats, we walked out to the viewing area of the hillsides. From there we could see the hike down to the viewing point of the bridge and it definitely looked reasonable. We walked across to the old town and stopped in a few more shops along the way. We made our way to Santa Maria la Mayor. We decided to pay to walk around inside for a bit, and then sat in the park for a few minutes outside. Then, we did the hike down to the viewpoint for the Puente Nuevo bridge. Just as we started taking pictures, the sun popped out! It was quite a view!

So eating dinner with kids in Spain while traveling is hard. We couldn't find anything open serving food for quite a while, but finally found some little touristy restaurant next to the bullfighting ring that was good enough. We got on the road for the 100 minute drive to Gibraltar in the dark.

Pictures from Ronda can be found here.

Gibraltar

I had read horror stories about the border (due to UK/Spain tensions), but I figured going south at night would be quick. I was correct; there was no line and neither side cared much about us possibly we were American. It was late by time we were ready for bed at the Queens Hotel, but the itinerary allowed for sleeping in the next day.

After english breakfast, we walked to the cable car for our ride up. Great views! We had perfect weather for the day too. At the top, there are several good viewing platforms to look different directions. Also, the apes hang out up here, and tried to grab Nolan's bread (we didn't know they were this high up away from the trees). We made the hike to St. Michael's Cave next. These are pretty small, but included in the Nature Reserve ticket, and Nolan liked it. We decided to skip the Mediterranean Steps to conserve energy; we were already enjoying the views.

We walked next across to the Great Siege Tunnels (skipping the Ape Den). Nolan enjoyed stopping and playing with the hundreds of iron hooks attached to the rock. The lookout near the tunnels provided great views of the frontier, aka the airport runway. We saw it blocked off while one plane landed, and another took off. It was interesting, and something extremely unique. The tunnels were interesting, packed with information about their creation and use. Next we walked down to the Moorish Castle. This is basically a tower with views similar to the free ones above, so we didn't climb it. Nolan had fun playing next to the pond for a few minutes.

We took the well marked short-cut stairs down to Main St. It was full of pubs and english shops. We ate lunch at the Gibraltar Arms and headed to the car for our drive to Tarifa.

Pictures from Gibraltar can be found here.

Tarifa

Tarifa is a little sleepy surf town with a big port. The ferries to Tangier city leave out of this port, so we booked a room for the night prior to our departure. The town was pretty inactive this time of year; most places didn't open in the morning until 8:30 or so, and on Sunday afternoon when we arrived, most things were closed. (A nice culture, but not when you are a tourist!)

Pictures from Tarifa can be found here.

Tangier, Morocco

Originally, we were planning on taking the 9am ferry and returning at 4:30. But, on Sunday, we decided to ease up a bit and catch the 11am ferry. So I bought tickets early Monday morning and upon arrival, we learned there was no 11am ferry this time of year! Boooo! So, went back to the travel agent and he arranged a one way ticket at noon on one ferry line, and another one way ticket back at 4:30 on a different ferry line. So, we rolled with the punches and accepted that ~2.5 hours in Tangier would probably be enough to soak it in.

We arrived and knew approximately where to walk and which way to get there. We headed toward the Bab Elmarsa gate to walk up to the Grand Socco. We kind of missed the gate the first time, but found the other smaller gate to walk in to the old city. We stopped in some shops along the way. The shopkeeps were all very nice, and most spoke english well (we heard they would not). We enjoyed talking with a few guys for a while! We made our way to the Grand Socco. We took a few minutes to take it all in.

We then walked around behind the mosque to possibly see the park, but we ended up in a market buying tagines. They were cheap, so we bought some extra! We decided it was time to start meandering back to the port. We stopped at a couple more shops along the way and by the last shop, we realized we needed to walk kind of quick back to the boat.

We were excited to have the chance to visit Africa; a culture so different than anything we had ever seen before, yet so close to Europe! Except for a few pushy people wanting to be tour guides, people were very nice! The arts, crafts, and clothes for sale were interesting and beautiful.

Pictures from Tangier can be found here.

Arcos de la Frontera

Kacey had come up with the idea to stop in this little white hill town for dinner on the way to Seville. So we squeezed our car up to the Plaza del Cabildo, took in the view, and found dinner at Don Fernando. It was pretty good food! (Except that I think the first course made me sick that night) I also found the coolest light switches here; I want them some day!

Pictures from Arcos can be found here.

Seville

We stayed at the Hotel Petit Palace Marques Santa Ana, which was our first car elevator experience! We had two nights and one full day here, which would have been perfect had I not been ill. But, I was in bed until 1pm so I had a bit of a late start. Kacey took the kids out for breakfast/lunch and shopping. We all met at the bullfighting ring at 1:50 for our tour in english. This bullfighting ring was similar to Madrid where we toured a few years ago, and I think the tour was better in Madrid. But, Seville had some interesting things in their museum.

Next we walked to the cathedral, the world's largest gothic cathedral, and the world's third largest church. By the way, the streets are lined with orange trees in this region! Anyway, this church also contains the tomb of Christopher Columbus! We spent a lot of time walking around, taking it all in. Unfortunately, the world's tallest High Alter is closed off for renovation. Some areas were well lit from windows, and some areas were very dark. The Christopher Columbus tomb was very dark, so the pictures are dark, but it was cool to think about its history. I didn't climb the tower due to not feeling well. The church also had an orange grove, quite cool!

Next we walked across the street to the Alcazar, or palace. We had about an hour before closing, and it was trying to rain, so we ran in and started walking around. We didn't follow our guide very much, we just kind of walked around and enjoyed. As we left, the sky cleared up giving beautiful views of the cathedral. We then searched out and found nun cookies! So there are a few places where nunneries bake cookies and sell them, and one of here (one was also in Arcos, but we missed it's open hours). The shop for this one is not run by nuns, which means you see the person selling you cookies (others where the nuns run them, they are hidden from site). We went to the room to rest for a bit before tapas later that night at Restaurante Cinco Jotas.

The next morning I went back down the street to Los Angeles Bakery. It was so good! One of those places you wish you could stop in and visit each morning.

Pictures from Seville can be found here.

Cordoba

Our plan was to drive to Cordoba for a few hours, then continue on to Granada to our hotel. On our way to Cordoba, we saw the Gemasolar Thermosolar power plant. I am sure most foreigners would be confused as to what they saw, but I knew what it was. We found a lot near El Mezquita and walked over the verify its hours. We then grabbed some tapas for lunch at Bodegas Mezquita. The meatballs were amazing! We were pretty happy with lunch, except the aubergine never made it out. I was feeling much better today, so I got Liana up on my back and we headed for El Mezquita.

We had heard this is quite the site, but we really didn't know what to expect. It is such a mix of two different cultures, it was neat to investigate and walk around. It is about half muslim and half Christian, and the history of how it came to be was intriguing. This church also had an orange grove. After about an hour, we walked outside to the Roman Bridge and Islamic water wheel. The islands in the river now inhabit many birds, instead of the old flour mills from centuries ago. We then walked around the Jewish quarter for a while, snacking on some pastries. By 5:30 we got on the road for the ~2 hour drive to Granada.

Pictures from Cordoba can be found here.

Granada

We arrived in time to park the car and walk down the street to one of Rick Steve's top rated restaurants in the area, Bodegas Castañeda. It was awesome! Our hotel, Hotel Anacapri, was in a great location with very helpful staff.

When we got up, our plan for the day was Alhambra. I had heard it could almost take all day, but in actuality you really need about 4 good hours. Booking tickets here is a little tricky, but being off-season, our hotel helped us book the night before. We got up there around 10am, and our Nasrid Palace ticket was for 11:30. We first walked around the Alcazaba, which has awesome views of Granada, as well as Sierra Nevada.

After bathrooms and a snack, we went to the Nasrid Palace. This was a very unique place; so many different architectures not seen before. It wasn't huge, but everything was very detailed. Some of the ceiling textures were amazing and unique; I tried to capture it with the camera, but it's three dimensional nature (looks like miniature stalactites everywhere) made it difficult.

Next we checked out the Carlos V Palace and museum. I thought more would be here, but it is mostly just a big round arena-type area without much to see. If you buy the full ticket, you can go in the museum, but for us it was a quick walk through. We then walked up to Generalife, which we had to be in by 2pm. Generalife seems to be a palace built up the hill a bit to "get away" from the real palace. Garden spaces and fountains make this a more tranquil place. We enjoyed walking around and taking in the gardens, scenery, and architecture.

We headed to the hotel for a bit of a rest, then walked to the Cathedral. We first, unknowingly, went in the Royal Chapel. Then, headed to the Cathedral. This was massive, and reminded me somewhat of the Lesser Town St. Nicholas church in Prague. Nolan made a couple friends here; a family with two boys was also walking around, and they got a little loud at times running around. Apparently this family had been on the road for a month, so the kids had a bit of fun.

For dinner, Kacey found a Moroccan restaurant highly recommended, and only a couple blocks from our hotel. As soon as we walked in Restaurante Arrayanes, we smelled deliciousness and knew it would be good. I got a tagine with lamb, prunes, and almonds. It was all very tasty! And, the manager was very friendly, and Mustafa, the popular owner, even popped in for a bit.

The next morning, we walked to Plaza Nueva for some yummy pastries and then took the bus up to the San Nicolas Viewpoint. The clouds were in today, but it was great views of Alhambra (and I am sure Sierra Nevada too, but too cloudy). After taking in the view and letting Nolan play in the dirt, we headed back down for some lunch. Kacey found Los Diamantes in Plaza Nueva. It is mostly seafood tapas, but everything we ordered was lightly deep fried, so pretty tasty! Eggplant, calamari, and chicken; the aubergines were like little french fries, so the kids liked them. It was time for our scenic drive to Malaga, driving south to the sea first, then west along the coast.

Pictures from Granada can be found here.

Sierra Nevada

So funny story... I had no idea Sierra Nevada was just outside of Granada. As we drove in to Granada, we saw a huge snow-capped mountain sitting behind the city and said "What is that?!" So, we did a little research and learned about the road that goes up to the ski-resort town of Sierra Nevada. We decided to drive up there after Granada (we had some float time on Friday) and just check it out. Since this day was cloudy, once up there, we couldn't see down, but it made for beautiful views of the snow covered mountains once up there! Nolan and I even got out for a little snowball fight!

Pictures from Sierra Nevada can be found here.

Nerja

Kacey was doing some reading on the drive up Sierra Nevada and with our new route we would be passing by the only town recommended along the coast, Nerja. This town has a cliffside balcony walk, and some caves just outside of town with the world's largest stalactite/stalagmite column. So we checked the GPS and learned we could get to the caves an hour before they closed, so we adjust coordinates and headed there! The caves started off a little slow, but then we got in to the big room with the column. This thing is massive! Someone estimated that it took one trillion drips to form the column. The cave is a little expensive, we think because when it rains in the peak-season, everyone in towns comes to the caves for something to do. It was still cool to see, and there was a playground there as well, so the kids got some play time before we headed in to town for dinner.

We parked in the main lot close the shops and stuff in town, and walked out to the balcony as the sun was setting. It was a very pretty area! For dinner, we didn't want to wait too long and wanted something easy, so we popped in a pizzeria with a view. It was good enough, and we saved room for gelato. We got loaded up for the 50 minute drive to our hotel next to the airport.

Pictures from Nerja can be found here.

Conclusion

Here is a map of our driving route (http://goo.gl/maps/EgIRR). This was a good trip that wasn't too busy (per our standards). Seville is a town that one could easily spend an additional day in. Tarifa kind of shuts down off-season, making food a little tricky. Tangier is a day trip I highly recommend, but it can be intimidating to not-well seasoned travelers. I found the drivers in this area to be terrible, worse than any country I have driven in. Speeds vary widely (a 90kmh zone will have people going 50 and 130), no one signals for anything (especially in roundabouts), and roundabout cut-offs are quite bad (and people pass at night on blind corners). The roads were pretty good, though. The road from Granada to Malaga (along the coast) is fairly new, and coarsely cut through the mountains. Driving is definitely the way to get around southern Spain. The hill town Ronda is definitely worth a visit. It has a great feel, wonderful views, and interesting history.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Liana is 16 Months!

Liana is 16 months old! She still gives great hugs and kisses. She even blows kisses to people. She has become a little shy around people, and will only wave and say hi when they aren't looking. It is almost a little funny. She started saying her first 2 syllable word; happy! She is also trying to say water, but it sounds more like aqua. She had two bottom molars break through a few weeks ago. She is pretty fast and likes doing the slide at play time (even though she still falls backward occasionally, ouch!). She is very close to climbing up on the couch unassisted, but sometimes she moves something to stand on so she can get up. We are currently working on sounds that animals make. She kinda knows a few, but only the cat sounds obvious. She still usually takes 2 naps a day, and I am trying to work out a new schedule, but she really likes 2 naps still!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Currency exchange rates and moving money between currencies

People need to move money between currencies all the time for many different important reasons. For me, we get paid in USD yet have to pay bills in EUR. So, we have to move enough money over to pay bills from a local bank account. I have seen many people doing this and many think they are saving money with their methods they use. But, there is a hidden fee hidden in many services; the adjusted conversion rate! And worse off, many people don't even know they are paying this fee! Below, I will do my best to explain these hidden fees, show how to find out these fees, and then show ways to avoid them.

At the time of writing this post (January 2014), the USD-EUR exchange rate is ~1.367. So if you withdraw €100 from an ATM, it will cost you ~$136.70 from your US-based account. For the following math examples, I will use this rate. But beware; this rate slightly changes daily, and even more so in the long run. A great place to check the daily exchange rate is here (xe.com).

Ways Banks Get Your Money

Trust me, people make money off of you when you move money! There are 3 ways institutions can make money from you. One is the currency conversion fee, or CCF. Your US-based bank may, depending on this bank's ATM you use, charge a CCF. Some US-based banks never charge this, some (like my credit union) sometimes charge this, and I am sure some always charge this. My CU charges 1% if I use the wrong bank's ATM. Generally, Visa is the reason you get charged this. (For me personally, if I use an AIB ATM, I do not get charged a CCF, but if I use an Ulster ATM, I will get charged a 1% CCF).

The other way your bank can make money from you here is just a flat rate fee, common in the US. This is usually disclosed at the terminal, but not always. So, I generally take note when I get charged this to ensure not to use these ATMs in the future. Also, you may not know if you are charged this until you see your monthly statement (if you don't reconcile your accounts, you may never find out).

The last way banks can make money from you here is the adjusted conversion rate. You won't necessarily get charged a separate CCF, you will just get a conversion rate that has been adjusted. So, this is a hidden fee that you only realize if you do the math from the amount withdrawn and compare that rate to the daily exchange rate. In my experience, banks adjust your rate by .05 (not percent) for their wallets.

Lastly, let me state that this isn't always banks performing the above methods. Maybe you use PayPal to move money (very popular and easy to get around restrictions). Maybe you write a check to yourself and cash it locally. Maybe you perform international wire transfers (IBAN and SWIFT codes). Maybe you use a service like CurrencyFair. Maybe you use other services not listed here. But trust me, everyone is doing something to make money from you; some just don't disclose how much, yet lead you to believe they are charging nothing (by using a hidden adjust rate).

Am I Really Losing That Much?

Sometimes I believe people don't think they are losing that much money, or are losing none at all. And, yes, I said losing money, because you could be costing yourself hundreds of dollars more than you need to. Let me attempt to show some examples with some math. We will acquire €1000 to Europe in our example. We will use an exchange rate of 1.367. We will use a 1% CCF (sometimes this can be 2% or even 3%). We will use an adjusted rate of 0.05 as I have seen this quite often (if you like percentages, 0.05/1.367*100 = 3.66%)

Your bank charges a 1% CCF:
€1000 x 1.367 x 1.01 = $1380.67

Your bank adjusts the rate by .05:
€1000 x (1.367 + 0.05) = $1417

Your bank scheme charges both:
€1000 x (1.367 + 0.05) x 1.01 = $1431.17

You find a method with no CCF or adjusted rate (how much you should get):
€1000 x 1.367 = $1367

With this example, you lost $64.17, just moving money, that you didn't need to lose!

Well Then, How Should I Move Money?

You may have to do what I did. I moved $10/€10 with a few different services to calculate what rate I was really getting. Here is what I learned.

Paypal: Paypal generally charges no fees. But, when I transferred money, they adjusted the going conversion rate by 0.046. On €1000, this equates to $33.82 in added fees that you didn't realize. This method does easily work both ways (USD->EUR or EUR->USD).

ATMs: I found a bank in Ireland (AIB) that when I withdraw euros here using their ATM, my CU doesn't charge me a CCF or a flat fee at the terminal. Also, I have gotten 0.005 better on my exchange rate than the average daily rate, so I know that I am generally getting a great exchange rate using this method. But, when needing to move thousands of dollars, and having a withdrawal limit of $500/day, this takes several trips to the ATM and then the bank. This method starts to break down. And, this method only works to get USD to EUR when in Europe. But, I do frequently use this method to get money to Europe.

IWT: International wire transfers can be tricky. Fees can vary widely depending on both banks, and the conversion rate won't be disclosed until you are done. My CU does not have IBAN, so I was unknowingly charged a couple percent by JP Morgan, the intermediate bank. But, some banks actually have free transfers! I believe some Charles Schwab accounts do this for free, and I do know Charles Schwab gives very competitive conversion rates. So if you have good banks, this can be easy and cheap! If you have bad banks, this can be very costly. Try moving a small amount of money first to test the waters. If you have a CU like mine which charges a large standard fee to send money out ($40 for me), then it isn't really worth testing this method.

CurrencyFair: I found this company and after doing some sanity checks, they became my favorite way to move money. They charge a flat rate per transaction (~$4-6) and they show you the exchange rate before starting the transfer. They adjust the rate by ~0.003, quite small! (http://www.currencyfair.com/) This method works great both ways as well.

Selling a US check to your European bank: Some banks will buy a US check off of you (similar to buying actual currency). They will have a combination of a flat fee or adjusting the exchange rate. If you can find a good local bank that gives a good exchange rate by testing the waters, this can be a good option too. You won't know how competitive their rate is until after the fact once all the processing is done. So, try a small check first and then calculate their rate, and look up the historical average on that day. XE.com lets you pull up the average exchange from a given day.

But What About...

I am sure there are some other options out there, but the same rules apply. Find out how they are making their money, and compare their competitiveness with other methods.

Finally, I will delete any comment that appears to be spam. So if you have a service you like, make sure you don't sound like a representative of that company :) Show me the math!

Monday, January 06, 2014

Nolan's First Lost Tooth

On our red-eye flight home to Ireland, Nolan lost his first tooth! It took us by surprise; he had only just said something hurt in his mouth when we got to the airport, but he said nothing felt loose. Then, just a few minutes later, there was some blood and it looked loose, and he acknowledged it felt loose. Then after dinner on the plane, he had something in his hand. He said "Mom, I have something that is white". It was his tooth! So we let the tooth fairy know where we were and hid it under his armrest. When he woke up, he had a dollar in his armrest!