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

Monday, October 21, 2013

a whole lotta water...

Day 5 in Toronto.
We are going a little bit mad! We are all tired and getting under each other's feet.
There is a reason why people only do city breaks for a weekend.
Having said that, we have approached this trip in our typical fashion of 'see everything within 3 days / stay busy at all times / walk everywhere'!

It has landed us with sore feet , worn out shoes (we should not have let Charlotte walk to the mall and back in her new Princess shoes... my Toms however were already on the way out!) and two over-tired kids!

But we are seeing lots of cool things and giving the credit card a good work out too!

Today was our Wedding Anniversary... 8 long years! Only kidding sweetheart!
Anyway we decided to head down to Niagara Falls for the day. It's a 90 minute drive from Toronto so we thought that would give the kids' legs a break!

We parked near the casino (the parking was $15 in a manned parking lot opposite the casino) and it was a short walk down to the water front.

The views just hit you! You turn round the corner, look through a garden and there is the 'American  Falls' in all of it's splendour! Water crashing down and mist rising up! Stunning!

We had to make sure we stayed on the Canadian side due to a lack of passports. It was funny to see America over a small bridge but great that my mobile phone picked up an AT&T signal with 4G!

The first thing we did was the 'Maid of the Mist' tour. 5s and under were free and it was about $20 each for us (cheap compared to the CN Tower!). We thought it would be a good idea to avoid the weekend crowds and I'm glad we did. I can imagine in the peak season over the summer that you could wait in line for an hour or so but we didn't really wait for anything.

They give you disposable ponchos and man did we need them. We got absolutely soaked on the 20 minute trip. It was really windy and you get blasted in the face with the water! The kids were not exactly impressed but we thought it was fantastic!

Someone did not like their poncho! 

I gave up trying to use my good camera as the lens kept getting too wet but my iphone did pretty well. It was tricky to stand still to pose by the horseshoe falls but that was part of the fun!

We then walked back up the road to Planet Hollywood for lunch. We all loved it, the kids especially! I have never been into one before but have seen them on tv so naturally was excited to go in!

They loved the movie trailers and music videos on the big screens. I was a bit annoyed that they were not censored for daytime family viewing but there were so many pieces of memorabilia we managed to distract the kids during Michael Jacksons Thriller video!

I thought Matt Damon's outfit from 'Good Will Hunting' was pretty cool! 

We then made the kids walk the mile to the main Horseshoe Falls to do the 'Walk behind the Falls' tour which was also around $20 per adult.

The famous 'Horseshoe Falls'

They were not too happy about this and kept asking when we were going back to the hotel but I think they are just ready for a bit of normality!

"Toby - I'll give you an Oreo cookie if you smile for the camera!"

If you didn't have to bring your kids, I think you would enjoy it more.
Our kids will probably never remember today as they are too young but they did enjoy exploring the tunnels behind the falls and I'm always happy to go on family adventures.

Watching the water crash down from a look-out point in the tunnel system behind the falls

I am so pleased that we went - what a trip of a lifetime - but we need a quieter day tomorrow!
You never know, we might just find our passports are ready in the next 24 hours...

Saturday, October 19, 2013

visa renewal in Toronto...

We are up up/over in Canada to renew the visas in our passports. Our current visas expire in February so we needed to get on and get them extended.

We have been told that they will add 2 years on to the end of the current ones so it didn't matter that we were renewing them 4 months early.
We can apply for this 2 year extension, then another 2 years and then we will need green cards if we  stay in America.

We decided to do the renewals in Toronto for a number of reasons, but mainly because at least two families suggested it was a good idea. You have to leave the country and we should really have done them on our next home leave trip, but given we are only going back to the UK for a week, that wasn't going to be possible.

So we drove from Kalamazoo to Toronto on Wednesday. The drive was so easy. We took the north route through Flint as apparently the border control is less busy. And it was - it was virtually empty. We didn't have to queue at all. We stopped for a second breakfast / bathroom stop, lunch and another bathroom stop so it took almost 8 hours but went by really quickly. A sweet friend has lent us some travel toys and the kids were excited to open the bag and delve in! There were lots of magnet books and trays with magnets in so they could have those on their knees - genius idea for a long car journey!

We are staying in downtown Toronto, in a hotel which is about 10 minutes walk from the Eaton Centre which is the biggest shopping mall I have seen in a long time! I am excited to go to the Canadian department store 'The Bay as they sell UK brands like Bench, Planet and Dorothy Perkins.

We went to the US Consulate, which is only a few minutes from the hotel in the car or a reasonable walk.
We booked the earliest appointment we could. We only applied for it on October 1st and managed to get one for less than 3 weeks later so settled for a 10am appointment. They start as early as 8am and we were advised to get an early appointment. The website suggests you arrive 20 minutes before your appointment time so we arrived there around 9:30am. There was already a queue of people outside and it just got busier and busier! By the time we left 2 hours later, there were huge lines all over the place and no seats left!

The appointment took about 2 hours in total. You check in with security at the gate having waited in line outside. We forgot our umbrella but thankfully it didn't rain! I think we were outside for about 30 minutes.
Then you see someone at the front desk and get your papers in a folder. Then another line and another check in desk where you get your number. Then you sit and wait. You will be called to go upstairs and pay a fee, called to another window to take your fingerprints and then called to do the interview plus pay another fee.

They say that you cannot take any electronic goods, food and drink or large bags in with you. There is nothing to do once you get in there and nowhere to buy a drink or snack. Another good reason to go straight after breakfast!
Our kids did amazingly well for 2 hours with nothing to amuse them other than a piece of paper and a pen. But there was a bit of a meltdown in the restroom towards the end. Hey, I was bored so I can only imagine how the kids felt! And you can't snooze because you have to watch out for your number! They announce it, but only quietly! We did bribe them with the promise of a trip to the Disney Store - which they held us to as soon as we left!

We brought a paper map with us so we could find our way back to the hotel via somewhere for lunch. We could have probably brought a few more things for the kids but there is nowhere for them to play and we kept losing our seats as we went to each window. You have to take the kids with you each time you go up to a window so they ended up on our knees.

But all in all it was an OK experience, the kids did great and I would recommend that office to anyone.
We are now 'hanging around' in Toronto waiting for our passports to be sent to a local office called Lumis. They say it can take between 2 and 5 working days. We are supposed to get an email to tell us when they are ready but we can also log into the website to see if they are ready. Hopefully we won't be here too long!

Toronto is a great city and there is loads to do here so I'm sure we won't get bored. Though be warned - it is not cheap! The CN Tower cost us over $100 though we did pay extra to go up to the highest view point. It was stunning to be up there but you get a great view from the glass floor level too.
And the zoo is pretty expensive too! But worth it - they have Pandas and Polar bears, Grizzly bears and White Lions! Plus lots of other exhibits. We spent all day walking around and just about saw everything!
There is also a new Aquarium by the CN Tower which we might do if it rains plus a huge shopping mall with a fantastic food court! We've had thai red curry twice already!
We hope to go to Niagara falls too as that is only 90 minutes away by car. Obviously we will have to stick do the Canadian side as we don't have our passports!

We decided to do the renewals a few months early to catch the weather. It has been sunny but cold and it's due to rain this weekend and we didn't want to be stuck in a city in the snow. They do have a huge network of underground tunnels to get around the city plus a tram/trolley system but I'm glad we have come at this time of year. It's not too busy during the week and not so cold that we don't want to leave the hotel!

So fingers crossed we get our passports back early next week and we can get back home.

Friday, October 18, 2013

a visit to see Gene the Pumpkin man...

Last weekend we went to see Gene the Pumpkin man.

You can't help but love this man! "Since 1957"

The kids love pulling the orange wagons around.

His farm is about 30 minutes drive from our house on the M43. It's a really fun place as everything is orange or decorated with pumpkins! 
The younger kids love it but it's only small so you can 'do it' in about an hour or so.

Our kids loved playing inside the huge metal pumpkin.

And of course, Charlotte made a bee-line for the Princess carriage.

He has rows and rows of pumpkins - a sea of orange! 

Local friends - go and see him before Halloween. He does a great deal on pumpkins and has gourds of all shapes and sizes. I took a bag full of mini pumpkins home to glitter! 
And see if you can spot all of the other orange or pumpkin shaped things around his farm.

Friday, October 4, 2013

books that i've been reading...

I've been reading quite a lot of books recently and thought I would share them with you in case you were looking for some inspiration.

I read them all on my Kindle, so I can also access them on my phone. Which is great when I have 45 minutes to kill at dance or gym class. The books go everywhere with me (well at least everywhere I take my phone or kindle!). I don't have big chunks of time to get lost in a book, though I did read a whole one on our camping trip! So having them on my phone makes it easier to finish a book before I have forgotten who the characters are and have to re-read half of it!
I do love the feel of a real book and love having them lined up on a bookshelf. But we have run out of space on our shelving and I don't go to the bookstore that often, so the Kindle is just too convenient.

Here are some of them:

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

A wonderful and touching story based in South Korea it gives a real insight into life there and the complicated relationships that can be found within a family.

The Guernsey Literary Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows

This is a novel based on a true story, narrated through an exchange of letters. I wasn't sure how I would find this style of writing but I was pleasantly surprised. A post-war, heart warming story with it's fair share of drama and heartbreak. Based in Guernsey (again, surprise!) and London, I loved this book and did not want it to end! 

Where'd you go Bernadette by Maria Semple

A witty, easy to read novel based in Seattle. I read this in a weekend and loved it! The story line is a little far fetched in places but if you don't take it too seriously, you'll enjoy it! 

2030 by Albert Brooks

'The real story of what happened in America'. They have cured cancer but America is struggling through a huge recession then something happens that changes everything. Loved it! A fascinating insight into what could be and in a time frame that I hope to be around in. Do I think they will have cured cancer in the next few years? Probably not, but an interesting take on what might happen as a result. 

Let me know if you get chance to read any of them and what you think!