A blog about me and my adventure as an ex-pat.
Because someone told me to... Thank you Gaby.

Monday, July 29, 2013

UP north in the summer

My brother and his family are here! Yay! They have come all the way from Kent in the South East of England - it took them all day to get here but they were in pretty good shape when they arrived and it is so nice to have them here! I'm sure I will write a post or two about their trip but for now I wanted to talk about this last weekend.

We were invited to stay with friends at their family holiday home on the Shanty Creek Resort - the place we stayed when we went skiing with them. The resort is a little north-east of Traverse City (about 3/4 of the way up the main part of Michigan - the lower peninsula or mitten).

This time we were going for some summer fun. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas!

Thankfully the sunshine came out just long enough on Friday for us to enjoy a few hours on a pontoon. We hired one and headed out onto the local lakes... Lake Bellaire, Torch Lake and Grass River which connects them. We stopped for lunch on the river just near Lake Bellaire, parked up on the sand bank and jumped out for a swim. It was paradise.

The weather was a bit cloudy but it was sunny and warm enough for a swim (and for me to get a bit red on my back... whoops!). The kids loved every bit of it - we all did! From helping to steer the boat, to jumping off the back into the water, to sunbathing on the leather seats - it was all a new experience for us and such a fun one.

The weather took a turn for the worse on Saturday - it was cold and cloudy - so we took a drive up to the most northern part of the lower peninsula (it took about two hours) and a ferry over to Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island. It's somewhere that we have wanted to go since we moved here and heard all about friends' holidays 'up north'. It's a small historical island (only a few miles across and 8 miles around) which only allows horses and bicycles for transport. You can take a horse drawn carriage ride with guided tour or you can jump on a bike and do it yourself. With 5 fidgety kids between the two families we opted for the latter and took off. It was a bit crazy busy getting the bikes so we went a bit fast at the start and missed a couple of things but we all settled into it and spent a lovely two hours touring round the island, seeing the sights and racing each other. Most of the kids were attached to an adult's bike with a mini unicycle that had pedals so the kids thought it was great fun to pedal as fast as possible to beat Mummy or Daddy's bike.

We grabbed some lunch, took the kids to the park to burn off some steam, purchased some fudge (because it all looked so tempting and every other shop is a fudge shop!) and before we knew it, it was time to head back to the mainland on the ferry.

As it was our first time up that far, we couldn't resist driving over the Mackinac bridge or 'Mighty Mac' as its also known. It's 5 miles long and crosses the Mackinac straits. It cost us $8 for the privilege of driving across it to the Upper Peninsula, turning around and driving back across, but it was interesting and it's definitely a tick on the bucket list.

Some of these were taken from the ferry and the others during the drive across

Sunday was our last day and the weather was still too cold for the beach so we headed out to a local farm and picked sweet cherries and raspberries - neither of which we have seen growing before and both of which were delicious!

So even though it was not typical July weather and not what we had planned for, we had a fantastic time with a great family who always make it fun. There were some particularly funny moments which will always make us laugh out loud when we remember them, including Jeremy's hilarious walk through the fly screen, complete with comedy legs as the screen fell away but he had nowhere to step and the spray of boiling hot tea all over himself and the deck! (He escaped without any burns, though it took a while to stop laughing so hard, wipe the tears and check he was OK!)
And hopefully there will be a rematch of the game Sequence... I am going to practice without the 2 G&Ts, CC and half bottle of cider so I have half a chance next time!

Thank you Martinson family for a fabulous weekend and a great adventure 'up north'.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

little fishes

Warning... Very proud mama moment...

The kids have just completed a two week intensive course of swimming lessons.

We managed to get in with Miss Bethany, the lady we had last year. She is a college student who teaches kids in her back yard and she does a great job.

I thought the kids did great last year but they blew me away this year.

We booked six 30-minute one-on-one sessions with each child and she managed to get them both swimming on their own.

Toby struggled with putting his eyes in the water but with some encouragement - which involved me sitting on the side and him having fun splashing me whilst he swam past - he is now happy to do it. He also had some trust issues on his back but this weekend he seemed happy to kick around on his back.
By the end of the second week he could swim, with his eyes in the water, from the deep end all the way to the shallow end. She is teaching them the front crawl so he was practicing big scoops and keeping his eyes in the water.
He didn't quite conquer the big slide but happily went down if she jumped with him! He is a cheeky monkey because he was supposed to do it on his own but he knew she would help him if he got to the top! He did happily jump off the diving board - I think he liked making a big splash!

Charlotte went from strength the strength and by the end of the two weeks was jumping off the diving board and swimming front crawl to the shallow end, going down the slide on her own and beginning to learn how to lift her face to the side and take breaths during the front crawl.

Both kids had their moments of glory and also days where they dug their heels in and refused to co-operate. It was hard to watch and I would often go and sit in the car if they were not behaving. Everyone has a bad day and I guess I admire their strength of character!

Monday, July 22, 2013

camping in a thunderstorm with hungry fish

We are halfway through the summer already! (Sorry to those in the UK who have kids still in school but we don't get to enjoy half term breaks. This is it for our kids until they get a few days at Thanksgiving.)

And it has flown by! Anyone else find that they worry about filling up the days only to find that halfway through the holidays you've only done a few of the things on your list?!

We ticked off a few more this weekend when we went camping.

And when I say camping.... What I actually mean is that a nice family lent us their tow-along, air conditioned, 2 bedroomed camper van with shower, fridge freezer, stove and microwave... So the only time we were under canvas was when we were asleep! (The ends folded down to make beds.)

I think camping is something you relax into so a weekend probably isn't long enough. I'd say by Saturday evening we were getting into the swing of things and by Sunday we were so relaxed we almost didn't come home!

Of course the kids were way too excited to go to bed on the first night. We tried splitting them up but they soon found each other. We finally got them to sleep around 10pm.

And then the thunderstorm made for an interesting introduction to camping Michigan-style! We have camped out a couple of times in the UK and it rained (of course!) but nothing like this. I had just come in at about 10:30pm as the mosquitoes were beginning to really eat me alive but I told the hubby to stay out and enjoy the fire pit. Luckily he didn't because within a few minutes I spotted lightning out of the tiny kitchen window closely followed by thunder. We checked the radar and at first it seemed it would miss us but within no time the rain started. Really heavy rain that sounded like corn popping (only louder!) and then the wind started howling and it made the camper shake and the curtains on the bedrooms blow wildly. We thought there was a break so we attempted to move Toby into Charlotte's room but it started up again and he quickly woke up.

We waited and waited and wondered if we were in the right place (we were wondering if we should move to the car but were assured we were safe in the camper) so we attempted to go to sleep. I think it went on until around 1am. It was more annoying than scary as I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep! But I had to laugh and figured it was part of the adventure.

We survived the night and woke up to a beautiful sunny morning. Unfortunately friends were not so lucky. I know a couple of girls who live on a housing estate about 15 minutes south of where we were staying and their yards and houses did not fare so well! Fences were destroyed, trees and branches blown over and power lines brought down. The plastic siding on the side of their houses was ripped off and it looked like a war zone when they woke up. Thankfully all of them and their pets survived but there was a massive clean up operation the next day.

After we woke up on Saturday and came round with a cup of tea and a bowl of cereal, we headed to the beach. We were staying at a local campsite which had full hook up ie we could plug into electric and water and use all of the luxuries that the camper van afforded us. Anyways the site had 2 playgrounds and a lake with a swimming beach.

Charlotte and I had gone for a swim on the Friday evening whilst the boys set up the camper. We'd gone to the playground to get out of his way whilst he parked up but it was just too hot! So swimming seemed like a good idea.

But I jumped up and ran right out of the lake after about 15 minutes of swimming. Why?! Because I got bitten (well nibbled) by fish! Most of them were minnows but there were some big ones too which could give you quite a nudge! I hadn't come across this before so it was quite a shock at first! Of course that frightened Charlotte who then took a while to be convinced to go back in but they turned out to be a lot of fun. They really liked me and would come right up and try to nibble me. I was a little worried I'd lose one up my swim suit so I had to keep an eye on them!

It seemed I was quite a tasty treat because once we returned to the camper for dinner, the flies decided to have a nibble of my ankles. And they do hurt when they bite! And of course later on the mosquitoes had a go too! What can I say... I am obviously too tempting to the local wildlife.

The rest of the weekend was spent in the lake with the kids practising their swimming. They are doing really well and are happy to swim under water and without life jackets. We were with them the whole time and never more than an arm's length from them. The great thing about the small local lakes is that there is never a tide and they are pretty shallow for a long way in. Also they are not salty so the kids don't mind putting their faces in. Plus they are usually pretty warm which means you can stay in there for hours!

We did take a trip to a little town called Plainwell, to try their famous ice cream sold in an old fashioned ice cream parlour... And it was delicious!! The portions were massive but worth putting on a pound or two! As we were looking out of the window, a procession of classic cars drove by! Quite surreal given we were sitting in a fifties style diner and fun to 'ooh' and 'ahh' over the beautifully restored vehicles. The town is full of pretty buildings and we even saw on old drive-in movie theatre on the way up. I would love to do that one day!

The weekend was full of sweet treats as we also toasted marshmallows to make s'mores. The kids loved giving it a go (supervised of course!) but impatient Charlotte could not wait for hers to melt and that kind of makes for an awkward shaped s'more! It was definitely one of Toby's favourite things to do and he was all for skipping dinner and going straight to the "fireworks" (fire pit) to toast his marshmallows!

We ate pretty well over the weekend, though we made it easy with canned veg, microwaveable hot dogs and meat balls and pasta. Having a fully fitted kitchen obviously helped too!

Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head home. The kids had a fantastic time, they thought the camper van was the most exciting thing ever (Toby sobbed when it was time to return it) and we all loved some quality family time.

Would we do it again?!

Yes. I think we could do an annual camping trip. I have to admit I am a city girl at heart, who gets excited about bright lights and big buildings. I love the comfort of a nice hotel and the excitement of discovering a new city. But I loved the relaxation you get with camping. Enjoying the great outdoors and coming back feeling refreshed... And ready for a long shower! Camping makes you appreciate how simple life can be... And also how nice it is to come back to your home.

Thank you so much to the family who lent us the camper. We very much appreciate your generosity and are grateful that thanks to you, we got to enjoy a wonderful weekend away!

Our home for the weekend in amongst the other camper vans and RVs on the campsite

Clockwise from top left: 
The swimming lake; standing up to eat because he couldn't reach; 
yummy raspberry kriek; one of our sleeping areas; 

One of my water-babes; the hungry fish;
playing on the campsite; snuggling in Mummy's bed

Toasting s'mores; oh yeah!;
all american s'more; fire pit! 

Downtown Plainwell; the drive-in movie theatre;
another shot of downtown Plainwell; icecream! 

Sleeping babes; colouring outside after breakfast;
fluffy white clouds; my boy 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

just dance...

June also meant Excel's dance recital. We love being a part of the Excel 'family' and were excited to attend Charlotte's recital again.

This year she had two dances - a group (3 classes performed at the same time) tap dance to 'Hound dog' and then her class did a ballet dance to 'True Colours'.

It was a wonderful evening, and the little kids stole the show. There were plenty of the older kids, including the performance team, dancing beautiful ballet numbers and energetic tap numbers. But it is the little ones, all dressed up in sparkly costumes who make you coo and ahh and yes I admit it, shed a tear!

Charlotte did really well but it was a bit late for her. She was tired and hungry by the time we collected her from the changing area at 8:30pm.
But she really enjoyed performing and did a great job with both of her numbers. None of her class could do the whole routine perfectly and they still have their teacher on stage so all of their eyes are on her. But they get up on a huge stage, walking on in the dark and performing in front of an audience of hundreds! And they do it with a smile on their faces! Kudos girls, I am not sure I could have done it!

Left: 'Houndog'; Right: 'True Colors'

She was excited about wearing make up. On rehearsal day, her friends were telling her all about how they were wearing their Mom's makeup. So I decided to give her a full face of makeup! I couldn't quite believe I was putting blusher and mascara on my little girl... And I was so jealous - she has inherited her Daddy's long black eyelashes!!

On the way and after the show

I want to give a big shout out to all of the teachers and volunteers who make the whole thing happen. Months of preparation and many many helpers on hand to change the girls into their second (or third / fourth!) costumes, fix their hair and walk them to the stage and back as well as look after them for 3 hours! There were 2 days of rehearsals and a number of shows over Friday evening and all day Saturday. It was quite the extravaganza! Thank you ladies!

We loved every minute of it and hopefully will get some great photos and DVD from the official photographer.

Until then - here are a few shots my friend and I managed to get at the rehearsal...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Chicago with a rock star...

Although my friend Ruth hasn't released an album or toured with a band, she is a rock star in my eyes!

The crazy girl flew into Chicago from England on Friday evening and flew home on Sunday evening, just to spend 48 hours with me! Bearing in mind the 8 hour flights (not to mention the 4 hour delay), the 6 hour time difference, and that she had to leave her two gorgeous girls at home for 3 days (in the capable hands of their Daddy!). And she managed to stay up until 6am her time! She definitely rocks!

So I thought I would give you a guided tour of our weekend. Chicago is a wonderful city, full of sky scrapers and great architecture (though some of it appeared older than it could possibly be!), sidewalks decorated with hundreds of flowers and a sparkling blue river! With breathtaking views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan, plus lots of fab places to shop, eat and drink!

Jeremy booked us a room at The Allerton Hotel which is on Michigan Ave - also known as the "Magnificent Mile'. We walked out of our hotel and right onto the busy street, full of shops and restaurants.

The city was especially busy as they were celebrating with the local Hockey team - the Blackhawks - who won the famous Stanley cup and paraded it down Michigan Ave on Friday evening. There was also a Gay Pride parade and of course it's summer, so the perfect time of year for a girls' weekend away in the big city.

I arrived before Ruth so popped out to get a few snacks and, of course, couldn't resist a quick visit to the Disney Store to get the kids something. My plan was to focus solely on clothes and jewellery shopping the next day!

Ruth arrived at dinner time, and after a quick change, we headed out to The Little Goat restaurant. Situated west of the river, it is a posh 70s style diner. With classic items on the menu but done gastro-style we had plenty to choose from! We went for a pulled pork sandwich and fish tostadas, both of which were delicious! And of course washed down with a cocktail... I had a Fool's Russian (Vodka, cucumber and lemon juice) and Ruth chose a French Intervention (Mezcal, Lime Juice, Grenadine and Grapefruit), both of which were delicious and refreshing!
I loved the atmosphere in there - busy enough to be bustling with conversation but no wait for a table. We sat at the bar near the kitchen which was fun to watch the chefs, but got a little warm after a while! Quite a young, hip crowd I think... It was a bit dark and I was so hungry that I mainly focussed on the menu!

We topped off the evening with drinks in the bar at Sixteen which is located in the Trump Hotel at the Trump Tower. It used to be one of the tallest buildings in the world but has slipped down the rankings  in recent years. We got some wonderful views of the city as we managed to get a seat by the window. Unfortunately the terrace was closed due to thunderstorms but that didn't spoil the fun and the cocktails were delicious! We ordered a Manhattan and a Sidecar. The Manhattan was a little strong for me so I'm glad I ordered it 'over ice'. I don't know what they did to the cherries in the garnish but man they packed a punch! In a good way!

The next morning we went next door to the Water Tower Place shopping centre for breakfast. They have a fab food hall with delicious home made / organic / upmarket deli foods. Ruth went to Foodease for a cinnamon roll dripping in frosting and almost went back for a second as it was that good! The Sacred Grounds bakery and cafe provided me with a wonderful cappuccino and blueberry muffin.

Full of sweet baked goods, we headed to Nordstrom to start our shopping. I wanted some jewellery and Ruth was shopping for an outfit for a Wedding in August. We did not do too well for the first hour. I had done loads of research on Nordstrom's website but it turns out we should have gone to Nordstrom Rack (their outlet store) as there wasn't much to choose from in the main store and most of it was way out of our price bracket! After a quick refuel in their food court, we headed back up Michigan Ave and that's where the fun began! We found lots of clothes and accessories in The Limited, Banana Republic, The Loft, Ann Taylor and Express. We actually ran out of time, which is probably good as there were plenty more stores to use our credit cards in but I am not sure how happy our husbands would be when they got the bill!

We must have timed it right because almost every store we went in had a 25 or 40% off sale. On everything. Even the items already on sale! I found a $130 dress which I bought for $50 (or £30!) and Ruth found a navy dress for the Wedding for about the same price! Win! I also got lots of bright jewellery and a jacket which at $100 was worth putting back on the rail for a second thought, but when I discovered it was only $60, was quickly retrieved and purchased! And I love it! I now had a black jacket and bright red jewellery to wear with my white top and skinny jeans.

We decided on smart casual for our nights out and it was perfect. Smart tops, dressed up with bright jewellery, skinny/slim dark wash jeans and heels. I found a great pair of stretch jeans in The Limited, which I admit were not exactly perfect skinny jeans but I felt great in them and I am working on slimming down my thighs to fit in proper skinny jeans one day! The heels scared me a little as I am so out of practice and I swear my feet grew during my pregnancies but I managed and it felt great to be walking tall in a pair of heels. Ruth made me laugh as we were walking back the first night and she telling me off, saying that I needed to lean back.... I must of looked like I was staggering a bit, which I blame entirely on the heels and not on the two cocktails I had consumed!

Saturday night we headed to a wonderful asian restaurant called Sunda which was just a few blocks from our hotel. Jeremy asked a couple of the ladies he works with at the Chicago ad agency for recommendations on restaurants and cocktail bars and they did a great job! 

We loved Sunda... Mouth-watering sashimi, surprisingly tasty brussel sprout salad, stunning sushi rolls and tasty puddings with a couple of pear sake cocktails made for a fabulous dining experience. We literally wanted to eat everything on the menu but had to restrain ourselves! The staff were helpful in helping us choose and we also ordered the things that people around us were eating that looked delicious! 

After dinner we got a cab over to The Navy Pier to watch the fireworks. The Margariteville bar served us the funniest cocktails so far. A frozen Pina Colada and Strawberry Daiquiri served in plastic cups, which were quite strong actually! Unfortunately it started to rain just before the fireworks but we enjoyed them anyway and I was glad I'd brought my umbrella. We were worried about how long the line would be for cabs as it's quite out of the way but we lucked out and got in one straight away!

We finished the night off at The Peninsula Hotel for more cocktails. A very swanky hotel with an elegant, more traditional bar. We were seated in comfy chairs but it was so dark we could barely read the menu (or take a photo of our drinks!). Two more delicious cocktails and it was time to call it a night. Ruth almost fell asleep but a short walk delivered us back to our hotel room.

Sunday was spent sightseeing (after a delicious waffle breakfast courtesy of the Water Tower food court) with a walk down to see Cloud gate or the Bean as it's sometimes known, the fountains at Millenium park and a trip back to Navy Pier for lunch at Bubba Gump and a ride on the ferris wheel.

Jeremy and the kids joined us for the afternoon. The children had been so sad not to be able to get on the train with me on Friday, so they took the 9am train out of Kalamazoo, arrived just after 11am and we had the rest of the day until we had to get the return train at 6pm. It's not quicker than driving but it's easy and fun for the kids and more comfortable than squeezing into a car for 2 or 3 hours.

(We looked so tired in this photo!) 

Ruth is Charlotte's Godmother so it was nice for them to have some time together. Any time we can get with friends and family is so precious. There is the phone, emails, facebook and skypes, but nothing beats a cuddle with your loved ones.

What a wonderful, amazing, fun, surreal, exhausting trip to the big smoke! I am so lucky to have a wonderful friend who will fly across an ocean for 48 hours with me! And lucky to have a very generous and loving husband who surprised us with this fun trip. I enjoyed a fun few weeks had a planning where to eat and go out and more importantly... what to wear!
I miss my shopping and drinking buddy, but I have some special memories to keep me going until next time I see her!

Cheers Ruth! x

P.S. I almost forgot a Chicago tradition.... Garret's chicago mix popcorn. The shops constantly have lines out of the door full of people waiting to get their fix of caramel popcorn mixed with cheese flavour! ... Try it, you might like it!