April Showers

After our return from Paris, the weather here in our corner of the world took a dramatic turn for the worse.  In the UK, April 2012 ended up being the wettest month in 100 years and the coldest since 1989.  It was miserable.  Some days were a mixed bag with a few glimpses of sun, but it was completely unpredictable.  One moment it would be sunny, and two minutes later it could be pouring (or hailing!).  Other days were simply unending rain (with varying degrees of intensity).

Hail! Doesn’t everybody go outside to play when it’s hailing?

It was impossible to plan outdoor activities without expecting to get wet.  The weather definitely complicated our efforts to explore England, but we did our best to dodge the raindrops and get out and about.  One thing I was quite keen to see was some of the famous bluebell woods that appear each spring.  As it turns out, bluebells are everywhere around here!  We found a spectacular area of them along Frank’s Walk on nearby Leith Hill.  

We also found bluebells at Hatchlands Park, a stately home and estate near Guildford.  We had a pleasant ramble throughout the grounds and play areas at Hatchlands (and hardly got rained on at all).

Sam was really hoping this garden was a maze.

The big family event in April was Joey’s birthday.  We now have a nine year old in our midst!  We marked the occasion at home with a cake and presents, and in lieu of a party we decided to take Joey (and the rest of our gang) to visit The Making of Harry Potter at London’s Warner Bros. Studio.  Because it’s an extremely popular attraction, we couldn’t get tickets until May.  I’ll post our pictures of the visit in the May recap post.  

Thanks Netley and Uncle Mark!

Sometimes the weather just called for indoor type activities.  One Saturday we went to our local theater, Dorking Halls, to see Disney’s most recent version of Winnie the Pooh.  

We also went into London and visited the Natural History Museum.  This place is huge, and we really just scratched the surface of all there is to see.  

Note the ominous clouds mixed with sunshine and blue sky in this picture – typical of this month.

Sometimes we just decided to brave the rain.  This proved to be a great tactic for visiting Chessington World of Adventures.  Because it was a rainy day, we were able to enjoy the park with very few other visitors.  It was wet, but fun!  

Feeding nectar to the lorikeets was a highlight.

During a lull in the rain one Sunday afternoon we visited Clandon Park, another local manor house with beautiful grounds.  Unfortunately the gardens were closed off due to the wet conditions, but we did tour the house and checked out the Surrey Infantry Museum onsite.  The boys had fun trying on some of the military uniforms.  

It was a soggy month.  We kept trying to think of the fabulous “May Flowers” that all the rain might bring, but we all got pretty fed up with the wet weather.

Because it’s cute, I’m closing with some bedtime photos.  Tom and Sam always have stories read to them before going to sleep.  Paul usually does the reading, but sometimes Joey helps out.  

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Paris Part 4

This is the final installment on our Paris trip.  Phew!

We started off this day with a visit to a Tabac where Paul purchased a folding knife.  While it’s not a true Laguiole knife like the ones he’d been looking at all week, it is a serviceable knife that makes a nice souvenir.  

While we walked the streets of Paris this week, Paul and the boys came up with a few “good” jokes.  Want to hear them?

What does our family have in common with exterminators?
We are both looking for Paris-sites.

Boys, make sure you don’t fall into the river.
Why, Daddy?
Because that would be in-Seine.

Pretty lame, but yet hilariously funny when you are ages 8, 5, and 3!

From the tabac, we meandered towards Ile de la Cite.  We passed the famous bookshop Shakespeare and Company.  

As we crossed the Seine, we checked out the “love padlocks” that couples attach to Parisian bridges to represent their eternal love.  

As we crossed onto Ile de la Cite we saw Notre Dame from a different angle.  

Since we never pass up a playground, we spent a few minutes at the little park in the shadow of Notre Dame.  

As we walked through Ile de la Cite we saw the Paris Flower Market (which is also the bird market on Sundays) and La Conciergerie.  

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great on this day.  We had hoped to take a ride on one of the sight-seeing boats on the Seine, but the cold and gray weather stopped us.  We’ll just have to save that for our next Paris trip!

We crossed back over the Seine to explore the Marais District.  

We passed by Rue Nicholas Flamel which Joey and Tommy thought was great because they were familiar with Flamel from Harry Potter.  We also passed by the Hotel de Ville and Place de la Bastille.

We enjoyed window shopping as we wandered through the little streets in the Marais.  For a snack, we stopped at L’As du Fallafel and shared what has to be the best falafel sandwich I have ever eaten.  Amazingly good.  

Because of the weather, we decided to make a short day of it and headed back to our apartment (with a little detour to our local playground).  

On our final day in Paris, we took a long stroll on the Champs Elysees.  We started at Place de la Concorde and walked all the way to Place de la Porte Maillot near Bois de Boulogne.  

Grand Palais in the background.

We were all impressed with the Arc de Triomphe.

Heading down to the walkway under the roundabout to get to the Arc de Triomphe.

From Porte Maillot, we took the little train that brought us through Bois de Boulogne to the Jardin d’Acclimatation.

Waiting for the train at Porte Maillot

The Jardin d’Acclimatation is a great little amusement park, although when we were there it was clearly just waking up from the winter.  It was easy to imagine that it would be a really fun place in the heat of summer.  

And that was it!  The next day we drove back to Calais and took the return ferry to England.  We all loved Paris and had a fantastic time.  

Some tips for anyone considering a vacation trip like ours:

  • Rent an apartment rather than stay at a hotel.  Having a place to go back to that was spacious and comfortable was a vacation-saver.  We liked to be able to eat some of our meals at the apartment, have a place to do laundry, and generally have a more home-like base.  It also allowed us to get more of a feel for what it might be like to live in Paris.  The cost can be quite reasonable when you compare to booking a hotel with enough bed space for a family for a week.  Try VRBO or HomeAway to find a rental.
  • Be realistic about what you can see and do.  We didn’t do a lot of museums  or dining out in restaurants.  It would have been a different vacation entirely if it had been just Paul and me!  As a family, we did a lot of walking and contented ourselves with seeing the outside of many of the iconic Parisian landmarks.  We tried to mix adult agenda items with kid agenda items.  We sometimes armed ourselves with candies to dole out judiciously when we were doing something particularly “boring” (e.g. browsing cooking shops).  Every day we built in a stop at a playground.  It was fun for the boys and relaxing for everyone.  Thankfully, Paris has some lovely parks and playgrounds that we would have wanted to visit anyway.
  • Get children’s books about your destination and read them prior to the trip.  The boys were really familiar with many of the sights from their books and this made the trip so much more meaningful for them.  We were quite impressed with the number of places that they could identify on sight just from having read about them!
  • Build in fun vacation routines.  For our family, it was Nutella sandwiches and stories on the Metro, baguette sandwiches for lunch, making up silly jokes and songs, and going to a playground every day.
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Paris Part 3

This is the halfway point in our week in Paris!  On this day, we started off with a walk through the Latin Quarter.  

The boys wanted to see Rue du Chat qui Peche which they learned about in one of their Paris books.  It is reported to be the most narrow street in Paris.  

Notre Dame Cathedral was just a little but further down the street.  

We lit a candle in front of the Joan of Arc statue in Notre Dame.

From Notre Dame, we walked past the Pantheon on our way to Jardin du Luxemborg.  

We all loved the Jardin du Luxemborg.  We enjoyed our baguette sandwich lunch (per usual) and then rented a sailboat at the little pond in the park.  We sailed our little “Japan” boat all over the pond.  

From the sailboat pond, we wandered through the park to the playground area.  

Tom and Sam loved the carousel.

On our way back to our apartment, we stopped for some baguettes.  Joey enjoyed practicing a little French to make the purchase!  

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Paris Part 2

Today was the day for the Paris sight the boys had been waiting for:  The Eiffel Tower.  Rather than take the Metro directly to the Tower, we rode to a stop across the Seine where we could see the tower from the Palais de Chaillot and the Jardins du Trocadero.  

We then walked to the Eiffel Tower across the Pont d’Lena.

Being hale and hardy Mainers, we climbed the 600 steps to the observation platforms.  It was a hike (especially with Sam on my back!), but it was a fun and worthwhile way to get up there.  

From the second level, we had no choice but to take the elevator to the tippy top.  Paul wasn’t sure he wanted to go up that high, but I think he was glad he braved the trip.  It was a beautiful day to see Paris from above.  

After making it safely down from the Eiffel Tower, we wandered a bit through the neighborhood nearby to search for picnic lunch supplies.  Once we were well provisioned, we had lunch in the Parc du Champs de Mar at the base of the Eiffel Tower.  

After lunch, we relaxed and let the children play in the Champs du Mar playground.  How amazing is that to play in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower?!  This plan of events became our daily routine during our week in Paris:  sight-see in the morning, have a picnic lunch, play at a playground in the afternoon, and finally squeeze in a little more sight-seeing if everyone was up for it.  It was a schedule kept everyone happy!  

From the park, we walked to Les Invalides.   It was a grand and imposing structure.

Joey was NOT supposed to be on those cannons, but I got a photo before the guard asked him to get down. Oops.

From Les Invalides, we strolled along the Seine for a while until it became clear that we were all ready to call it a day. 

The next morning, we started our day with a visit to one of the local markets in Boulougne-Billancort.  We enjoyed browsing through the stalls checking out the fresh produce, cheeses, and meats.  Paul bought some tea and corsican dried sausage.  Tommy had a morbid fascination with the chickens that were on display at the meat vendor that still had head and claws intact.  He kept wanted to go back and look at them!

From the market, we took the Metro into the Les Halles area of Paris.  It became a daily tradition during our week for the boys to enjoy Nutella sandwiches and a story from Paul on our journeys into the city.  

Our first sight was the Centre Pompidou.  While the boys were somewhat impressed with the inside-out architecture of the building, what they really enjoyed was chasing the resident pigeons.  

Being the home of former central market of Paris, the Les Halles area has a number of fantastic cooking stores.  We browsed in a few, and Paul bought a tureen (he plans to make homemade pate) at the popular Dehillerin cookware shop.  

By now it was lunchtime, so we bought our baguette sandwiches at a little shop and walked to the Seine.  We found a lovely spot with views of Pont Neuf where we ate lunch and watched the boats go by on the river.  

After lunch, we walked along the Seine to the Louvre (which wasn’t open that day).  We waved to the Mona Lisa inside, and continued onward.  

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and relaxing in the Jardin des Tuileries.  The boys, of course, loved the playground.

On our way back to the Metro to head home, we saw Place de la Concorde and the Luxor Obelisk.  

Tommy also spotted the Church of the Madeleine while we were walking through this area.  He was able to recognize it because in preparation for our Paris trip, we had purchased a few books to help the boys be familiar with what they might see on the trip (Not for Parents Paris Everything You Ever Wanted to Know by the Lonely Planet, This is Paris by Miroslav Sasek, and Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans).  By reading these books with them, the boys really were able to spot and look forward to seeing many of the famous Pariesan landmarks.  

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Paris Part 1

I’m finally getting around to sifting through the mountain of photos we took during our fantastic week in Paris. There are a lot, so I’m going to post in parts. Here’s the first installment…

For this journey to France, we decided to try the ferry from Dover to Calais. While I suppose it was nice to be able to move about during the trip, we all felt that the channel tunnel was probably the more efficient way to get across to France. We were glad we gave the ferry a go, but we probably wouldn’t do it again!

From Calais, we had about a three hour drive into Paris.  It was a smooth journey, but it had been a long day of traveling.  We were all glad to finally arrive at the apartment we rented in Boulogne-Billancourt which is in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris.  This was a perfect place for us – plenty of space to relax after our days in the city, convenient to metro stops, and it had toys for the boys!

On our first full day in Paris, we set off early and walked to the Metro.  There were two stops conveniently located near our apartment.  

We passed these scooters for sushi delivery almost every day, but we never ordered any.

Stay behind the white line!

Our first stop was to visit the biggest flea market in Paris:  the Marche aux Puces de St. Ouen.  Joey was in the market for a telescope, Tommy was looking for an African spear, and Sammy was hoping to find a green bunny.  We didn’t end up buy anything other than snacks and some Eiffel Tower keychains, but it was fun to browse through the “stuff” ranging from high-end antiques to cheap trinkets.  

From the flea market, we wandered toward the Montmartre area of Paris.  We enjoyed seeing the Parisian architecture and soaking in the atmosphere of the city.  

Street-side produce market in Montmartre area.

We were all impressed with Sacre-Coeur Basilica.  Sam almost missed it because he was napping, but he woke up in time to see it.  

View of Paris from Sacre-Coeur. Joe and Tom were able to spot several famous Parisian landmarks off in the distance.

From Sacre-Coeur, we continued our exploration of the 18th Arrondissement and found ourself in the Pigalle (red-light) district were we saw the famous Moulin Rouge.  The boys were unimpressed with the nightclub, but they absolutely loved the huge air vent that was across the street.  

It became our tradition during our week in Paris to pick up baguette sandwiches for lunch at local shops and eat them while sitting in a park or pretty spot.  On this day, we purchased our sandwiches for a late lunch and ate them in the little park in front of Eglise de a Sainte-Trinite.  This was a perfect location because it also had a small playground.  

After lunch (and some playing), we decided to make our way back to the Metro and head to our apartment.  On the way, we passed the Palais Garnier (Paris Opera House).  

Two tired guys on the Metro after a long day of sight-seeing.

The tired boy was revived with a bit of Nutella on toast enjoyed while sitting on the apartment balcony.

It was a successful, fun, and tiring first day in Paris.  Off to a good start!  More posts to come about the rest of the week…

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Does the London Eye Go Upside Down?

March found us feeling increasingly settled into our lives here in Dorking. 

Major renovations are being done at the school to the delight of Sam and Tom.

I did a good bit of volunteer work with the parent-teacher organization at the boys’ school which was fun and rewarding.  Joey ran in two cross-country races with his school against other local primary schools (and he did very well).  He also participated in the Mole Valley Music Festival.  This was quite an event:  nearly all the local primary schools sent a group of children to the local theater to join together and present a musical performance called Jake and the Right Genie.  Joey (and all the St. John’s children) did a great job.  Parent-Teacher conferences were held this month, and we learned that both Joe and Tom are doing wonderfully in school.  Finally, both of our young scholars received certificates of recognition at the end of term for having 100% attendance at school.


Of course, we also got out and about!  One Saturday we had really nice visit to London.  As usual, we rode the train from Dorking and took the London Underground to see the city.  

Big Ben

On this trip, we experienced the London Eye and went to the London Aquarium.  

We took a long walk along the river Thames.

Crossing Millenium Bridge

We ended up at Borough Market where we braved the crowds to buy snacks and some fancy food items to take home (wild garlic, mushrooms, and sausages).  We also shopped at Neal’s Yard Dairy where Paul purchased some stinky cheese – much to Sam’s dismay.

Yummy Snack at Borough Market

Neal's Yard Dairy

After our busy day in London, we were ready to relax in nature.  We once again headed to Box Hill where this time we hiked to the summit via the Stepping Stones trail.  Beautiful.

Stepping Stones Across the Great and Mighty River Mole

March 18th was Mother’s Day here in England.  I had hoped to double dip and get to celebrate Mother’s Day twice this year, but it looks like the guys are going to make me wait until the US Mother’s Day in May.  We did visit the Claremont Landscape Garden which was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. 

For some reason, Sam thought it would be a good idea to fill his camellia blossom with dirt.

Stump Tunnel

Tree with Mistletoe

At the end of March, at long last LegoLand opened for the season!  The boys were thrilled.

There were lots of Star Wars characters in the park on the day we were there.

Lego Giraffes

Tom was in heaven operating his own digger!

Lego London

March was another great month in England!  Stay tuned to hear about April’s adventure in Paris…

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What? No castles this month!

February started off with some snow.  This pleased the boys greatly and they really enjoyed being able to play in it.  It also was amusing to see how a little bit of snow can really slow things down over here.  The snow didn’t last long, and by the end of February we were beginning to see hints of spring arriving.  

We took a trip into London early in the month an visited the Science Museum.  This place is huge!  We could have spent several days here so did our best to make the most of our visit.

Sam on the train to London.

We are standing in front of a huge functional mill engine powered by steam. It was constructed in 1903 and was used in a textile mill.

The guys are waiting for the show "Flash Bang Wallop!" to begin. This was an excellent presentation about combustion and explosions.

In "The Garden" play area.

Hard at work in "The Garden" play area.

This Tucker Sno-Cat crossed the Antarctic in the 1950s.

Tommy couldn't get enough of this tractor exhibit.

How could this ever have gone out of fashion?

The boys had their winter half-term break in February.  We were thrilled to have a surprise visit from Memere during the vacation week!  It was a relatively quiet week – the boys mostly played with Memere, but we also went on a few outings.  

We went to a Lego exhibit at Denbies Winery.

We also visited the Zoo at Chessington World of Adventures.

The only sad part was saying goodbye to Memere. Hopefully she'll be able to visit us again.

The weekend that Memere left, we went for a hike at nearby Box Hill.  This National Trust site has beautiful hiking trails and will also host the Olympic bicycle road race.

The hill just begged to be rolled down!

The town of Dorking is in the valley below.

This is the grave of Dorking eccentric Peter Labilliere. He apparently requested that he be buried upside down here at his favorite spot on Box Hill. The story goes that he felt the world was so topsy-turvy that one day he would be right side up.

This fort on Box Hill was built in the 1880s to protect England from invasion from continental Europe.

Towards the end of the month, we took a little drive to the southern coast of England.  We thought we’d stop and explore the town of Brighton for a bit, but when we got there we decided we’d all prefer a less citified beach experience so we continued driving along the coast.  We eventually found a pretty spot with a rocky beach.  We relaxed, had a snack, and some of us got a little wet!  

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First Day of School Redux

In the spirit of fully embracing our England experience, we enrolled the boys in the public school near our home here in Dorking.  Joe and Tom are students at St. John’s Church of England Primary School.  Every weekday, the boys don their uniforms and we walk (well, some of us scooter) to school.

It's hard to get a serious picture of Tom these days.

Joey has adjusted amazingly well to his new school.  He likes his teacher and has already made several friends amongst his classmates.  At first he wasn’t pleased about having to wear a uniform every day, but he became accustomed to it pretty quickly.  He’d stand out even more in class if he didn’t wear the uniform!

This was their first day of school in England.

It was a more challenging transition for Tommy since his only school experience prior to moving to England was nursery school.  Because school is compulsory in England at age five, so we decided to give it a go for Tom.  I won’t lie, the first few weeks were rough for him, and we entertained thoughts of pulling him out.  We chose to persevere, and I am happy to say that he now is doing just fine.  I wouldn’t say he adores school, but he seems content and definitely likes being with other children.

Joe and Tom were very pleased to be awarded certificates of recognition (presented in front of the whole school!) after their first week for doing such a good job adjusting to their new school. 

The boys have been participating in many of the afterschool activities that are offered.  At Christmas time, the school did some caroling at a local church.  We were pleasantly surprised to find a photo in the local newspaper of Joe and Tom caroling with their schoolmates!  

I have started to become involved with the “Friends of St. John’s” group, which is essentially the school’s PTO.  It should be a nice way to be a part of the school community.  We all have been made to feel very welcome at the school, and we have been impressed with the programming and the teachers.  Now we just are waiting for the boys to pick up English accents!

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Eggless Chocolate Crinkle Cookes

Our family’s “foodie” pursuits are hindered slightly by Paul’s allergies to eggs and several varieties of tree nuts.  Honestly, it doesn’t bother him all that much – he’s lived with it his whole life and doesn’t know what he’s missing – and we’ve become pretty creative at home with egg-free cooking.  It’s been fun to adapt and to perfect recipes so that the whole family can enjoy them.  In this blog, I thought we could share some of our eggless cooking original compositions for those who maybe have the same allergies or who perhaps would just like to make a tasty treat for Paul!

The first recipe is for Chocolate Crinkle Cookies.  I was hoping for a really rich and chocolaty cookie with a nice sugary coating, and this fits the bill.  Real dark chocolate makes the difference, I think. 

As usual, I had my able and willing sous chefs to assist with the process.  

This is a nice cookie to make with children because the rolling and sugaring process is really fun!  When we first made these cookies (trial #1 of the recipe), we didn’t have any powdered sugar so we rolled them in granulated sugar prior to baking.  This time I had planned on just using powdered sugar, but Joey suggested we do both types of sugar because the granulated sugar gave a nice crunch to the outside.  So, we double-rolled these guys!  Joey has excellent chef sense sometimes. 

The finished product looks beautiful and tastes nice and sweet with good depth of chocolate flavor. 

Lately Tommy has been quite interested in sounding out letters, and he worked very hard to write out the recipe for these cookies.  

Click here for the recipe.

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Train to France

It’s not every day that you can say you took the train across the English Channel, but over the last weekend of January, our family did just that.  We got an early morning start and drove from Dorking to Folkestone were we caught the Eurotunnel car train.  This was quite an experience.  We drove our car into the train in England, parked, rode the train for 35 minutes, and then drove off the train in Calais, France!

Lining up to drive onto the train.

We were on the second level of the train.

Ready to ride to France.

In France!

From Calais, we took a short drive to the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer.  While lovely, it was clear that January is not the ideal time to visit – it’s definitely more of a summer tourist spot.  Nonetheless, we had a nice time exploring the town.

We found a open air market where we purchased some snacks.

Boulogne Cathedral.

Paul really wanted to purchase some French cheese (“stinky” cheese as we lovingly have dubbed it), so we stopped at Phillippe Olivier, a well-known cheese maker.  Sam wouldn’t go inside the shop because of the “fragrance” of all the cheeses!  

We found a great place to stay (Apart’hotel Le Canville) that had plenty of room for us to spread out and relax after our days of adventure.  They even had an indoor pool (which was actually kind of cold, but the boys were undaunted).  

We had a kitchen and dining area, so we could eat "at home" for some meals.

On our second day Daddy wasn't up for a dip in the cold pool, so these silly guys had a "swim" in the tub instead.

The highlight of this trip was definitely our visit to the aquarium Nausicaa.  This is an exceptionally well-done attraction and we were so glad to have seen it.   The boys particularly loved seeing sea lions up close and feeling the rays in the touch tank. 

Nausicaa is right on the beach.  We enjoyed watching the waves, walking on the sand, and playing at the playground.  Unfortunately, it was also terribly cold and windy, so some of us enjoyed this experience more than others!  

We explored a little of the coastline around Boulogne on our way back to the train station in Calais.  At the rocky beach in the Deux Caps area we collected some seashells for souvenirs.  

It was a great trip and we are hoping to head to the continent again at some point during our time living in England.

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