Thursday, May 26, 2016

In The Blink of an Eye

Life is fragile.

I type that, then am stumped. Stare at my blank screen with a blank mind. Heart hurting and chest squeezed. I just don't know what to say. Or how to say it. Or who to say it to. Or who to be angry at. Because I really, really want someone to be angry at. We've lost a luminous light. A beautiful young man who ran tame in my home for years. An honorary big brother and best friend to my son, a fearless, fiercely alive force who wrung out every last drop of joy in living. Gone. Far too soon.

And I don't know who to blame. Surely there's someone at fault. There's got to be somewhere to direct all this... whatever this is that I'm feeling. Sad, angry, unbelieving, horror, fear - oh so much fear. I want to gather my family and lock them up tight, hold them so closely that nothing can ever happen to them. I want to keep them safe from the whims of fate - but how?? Of course, I can't. There's no way to protect them from life. From death.

As deeply as I grieve, my family grieves, my son grieves... I cannot even try to imagine what his mother is feeling. Just the thought of her pain, crushes. And I have such angst, such panic, at the possibility that I may ever experience what she's going through. It's paralyzing, that fear. Absolutely petrifying.

We've experienced so damn much grief in the last few years. Deaths of dreams, of hopes and possibilities, and now the loss of such a special life. It just jangles in my mind like a discordant note in a song.

All I can do is keep moving forward. And if sometimes, moving forward means simply not sliding back, that's ok. I wish I could ease my loved ones pain. I wish I could soothe my fellow mother's heart. What I can, and will do is continue to be here. To try not to hold too tightly. To love unconditionally, and keep pushing fear back. To go on finding joy, even within grief.

And I'll remember the laughter. So many years of memories that are wrapped in the sound of the boys laughing. I'll treasure that. And I'll continue to believe in happy endings. For all of us.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Few Travel Tips (Lessons Learned)


I can't believe we've been back a week already! I thought I'd share a few things we learned during our travels - some tips and packing selection. Hopefully they'll be helpful to any of you who are planning some traveling. Understand that our travel was limited to England - specifically, London, Bath, Stafford, and a few outlying areas.

As you know, we traveled carry-on only - this was the most freeing experience! I can't imagine trying to lug suitcases through the Underground, over cobbled streets, up and down stairs (lots and lots of stairs), on and off trains. The trick to carry-on only is a carefully planned capsule wardrobe. I packed and repacked, and repacked again (lol) until I had it as finely tuned as I could. I also worked with a color scheme - white/black/grey. Everything could work with everything else. Every item was interchangeable (you'll see photos below).

Luggage...
Bill used the Tortuga Pack, while I had the Tortuga Air. Mine was smaller, for sure, but my torso is just too short to handle the full size. I worried that I wouldn't have enough room, but once you unzip all the expansions, there's plenty of space. Additionally, utilizing packing cubes further increased space. I roll pack, meaning that I roll up individual pieces of clothing tightly to compress and save space. I've seen a lot of other methods, but mine works for me - it's efficient, I don't have to unpack everything to get to one item, and it prevents wrinkles (there's a picture below).
  


Clothing...
Shoes - 1 pair.
I went back and forth on this, prior to departure, and for the sake of space, only took 1 pair. They're easy to get on and off for airport security, they're extremely comfortable for extended walking, and being flat black, they go with everything. These are what I took. They handled the miles with ease, and dried super fast when they got wet (walking in the rain and tromping through wet churchyards).

Pants - 2 pair jeans/leggings.
One pair black, one pair dark blue. These are amazing jeans/leggings. Amazing! Super soft, stretchy, and perfect for mix/match outfits. These are the black ones.  And these are the blue ones. Don't let the fact that they're juniors stop you from checking them out - truly, they're incredible (and really inexpensive at $25/pair!)!

Tops -  5 tops.
2 black sleeveless v-neck, 1 white sleeveless v-neck, 1 black/white stripped tee, 1 black tanktop.

Sweaters - 3.
1 knit hoodie sweater. 1 black/grey sweatshirt style top that could be casual or nice. 1 grey dressy sweater.

Jackets - 2. 
1 heavy coat, 1 blazer (here's the blazer). I had asked StitchFix specifically for a blazer that was travel friendly, but could double as dress up and daily casual - this one fits the bill! Soft & comfy, stretchy, and crazy versatile! This is my new favorite item!

Pajamas - 1 pair 
(I probably could have done without, but I have a fear of middle of the night hotel evacuations and being caught in my birthday suit doesn't work for me, lol).

Accessories - 1 belt, 1 purse, 2 scarves (1 thick, 1 pashmina) and 1 hat .
I didn't pack any jewelry or other accessories - simply wore my everyday earrings, necklace, rings, and fitbit.

Underthings - 12 pairs underwear, 3 bras (2 support bralettes, 1 regular), 3 pairs liner-socks and one pair cozy socks to wear on the plane.

Makeup - Before leaving, I'd invested in a new line of makeup from my favorite brand, Tarte. The Rainforest of the Sea line is incredible! It was light, breathable, had built in sunscreen, and (no kidding) easily lasted 18 hours without smudging or smearing. Absolutely amazing! Best Makeup Ever. And the travel kit was perfect for my daily skin-care.

Extra Bag/daypack - for souvenirs. These came in so handy! So glad we took them. They come rolled up - about 3 inches long. You unpack them and they become Santa's sack! We were able to cram all our shopping into them for the return trip and they counted as our 2nd carry-on. Perfect size! Worth every penny. Once back home and emptied, they roll back up into themselves and become 3 inches long again.


Things I left behind...
Dresses/Skirts - I had planned to take a dress and a maxi skirt, but the more I (over)thought, I realized that I rarely wear dresses or skirts, so why would I wear one on vacation. So... I skipped them. This allowed me to also eliminate the pair of wedge sandals that went with them. As our trip progressed, I definitely made the right decision there - pants/tops were the way to go. Easy, simple, comfy.

Boots... I'd planned to take a pair of walking boots but for space, left them at home. Glad I did - absolutely no need for them on this trip. That said, when we go to Ireland, a pair of wellies are on must-pack list.


Here's the contents of my capsule wardrobe. This wardrobe took me through 10 days.


Here you can see just how much space  you save by rolling. The clothes to the side with the shoes are what I wore on the plane.
Doesn't look like so much now, right?

Transportation

From the Airport - You have several choices... bus, taxi, underground (subway). The cheapest, by far, is the Underground. It took us about 45 minutes to travel from London Heathrow to the station closest to our hotel (which was very near Piccadilly Circus). The underground is clean, well signed, and easy to navigate once you clear the OMG-we're here-fog, lol. When trying to get back up to the surface, simply follow the signs that say "Way Out". And always, "Mind the Gap". Lol. Platforms don't always hit at the level of the tube. Sometimes you've got a bit of a step to manage.

Oyster Card - if you're sticking around London, this is a must! The public transportation there is phenomenal, and if you've got an Oyster card, it's so easy to get wherever you want to go. You can purchase one before you go, or you can pick it up in the airport. You put a set amount on the card, and can top it up whenever  you need. When you're ready to return home, you can pull any leftover funds off the card in cash. Pretty sweet. Also, when  using the card, it automatically gives you the cheapest fare no matter what time you're traveling (prices for tickets change throughout the day - rush hour is more expensive, for example). It's so very worth it. Anytime you travel the Underground, simply pass your card over the reader and follow the signs to your platform.

Bus Hopper Pass - we bought these (15 pounds) when we got our Oyster Cards - they allow you to hop on and off any bus for 48 hours. Totally unnecessary for us. For some tourists, it might be a good thing, but we simply walked wherever we wanted to go.

Taxi - Taxi's are readily available throughout London. They're also cute as a button - and about as big. There are apps that will aid you in setting up a ride, or your hotel concierge can do it for you.

Uber - In London, Uber is readily available. However, when we traveled to Bath, Stafford, and Stoke-on-Trent, Uber wasn't an option. Use the app to discover where you can uber. Additionally, you can UberPool - share a ride with strangers traveling roughly the same area. We did this once, and met a couple of locals who were just returning from a trip to the States. Lol.

Technology

Wireless Internet - Prior to departure, I had rented a TEP. It's a nifty little device that for $100/week would  provide us with non-roaming internet wherever we went. It arrived promptly, I read through the instructions, then dutifully packed it up. Upon our return, I simply popped it in the return mail and was done. Now... two things... first, Bill hit up Verizon the day before we left to get the international package turned on (it's free, fyi) and they gave him a wireless device (exactly what the TEP is) free. Yep, free. To keep. I could have saved $100 bucks if only I'd known (and my company is Sprint, they don't offer that, yet another reason I'd love to switch to Verizon, lol). We packed both devices, thinking maybe one would come in handy if the other had a glitch... and never needed either. Not once. The hotels, the restaurants, the transportation hubs... all offer free wifi.

Power Converter - I packed this one. It came in seriously handy as we could charge all of our devices at night.

Portable Charger - Used this a LOT. We were taking so many photos that our phone batteries were dying faster than normal. I simply popped the charger in my purse along with a cord and we could recharge whenever we needed to. A must have!

Hair Dryer - I debated long and hard over whether to pack a hair dryer or not. Finally decided to take it with us, just in case. I  had purchased a dual-voltage one that I was assured would work in the UK. Ha!! First, the hotels generally don't have a hair dryer in the room. No problem, I had mine - Problem, it wouldn't run! Yikes! I spent the majority of our trip with air-dried hair (not a flattering look on me, lol, and why I wore my hat so often). The last night, I did find a hairdryer in the room (yay!). I'm positive I could have simply asked the front desk and they could have supplied one, I was just too busy vacationing, lol.

Apps

Rome2Rio
download in the app store
Rome2Rio - this is my new favorite app! Anytime we wanted to go from here to there, we just popped it into the app and it showed us how to get there - options included: rail, underground, taxi, walking... just pick the method you want and click on it then away you go!

London Official Guide - fabulous! Let us pick destinations, restaurants, etc we want to visit, and save the info offline. It also has an "explore" feature that was fun to play with.

TrackMyTour
download in the App store
TrackMyTour - Allowed our family and friends back home to follow along our trip every step of the way. We could visit a place, upload a photo to the app & comment on it, then everyone could see it. Pretty darn cool!

Others that came in handy... TripAdvisor, British Airways, Fancy Tips, National Rail, and GeoBlue.

A quick note on tipping... Generally speaking, you don't tip in restaurants and bars. Servers are paid a full wage, unlike here in the states. That said, you'll sometimes note a service charge on  your bill - that's a built in tip. If you don't see one, you have the option of leaving a tip if you believe you've had great service. 10-15% is perfect. In bars... they really, really don't like tipping. Will, in fact, refuse a tip. The way around tipping is to buy the bartender a drink for himself. They can choose to do so or take it in cash. But... they'll only accept it once.

About dining out... When it comes time to pay the bill, if you pay with a credit/debit card, they'll bring the card machine directly to your table. Your card does not leave your sight. Wish we did that here.

Additional note about credit/debit cards... While some places can still take a card that doesn't have a chip - you're better off if you have one. Several times we had to switch cards to one with a chip in order to complete a transaction. Contact your bank about replacing your card with a chip card.


Travel Comfort

Neck pillow. On our trip out, we decided not to take neck pillows - surely the plane would offer pillows, and we didn't want the bulky accessory to deal with throughout the trip. As we disembarked the plane in London, we vowed to purchase neck pillows for the return flight. Seriously - it's kind of a necessity on a long flight. However, on that return, the pillows I picked up in the airport were highly cushioned - too cushioned to be comfy. Booo. The neck pillows we had left here at home were just the right squishy cushy - lesson learned is check out your pillow before you buy - and yes, you need one. Lol.

Blister Bandaids - This might sound silly, but these were an absolute must. The longer we walked, I discovered that the miles increased the difference in size between my feet. Not kidding. What normally doesn't bother me much became a real issue as my right foot swelled within my shoe. Weird, right? Those blister bandaids saved the trip.
Is that crazy? Normally it's not that noticeable,
but the extended walking clearly had repercussions. 

Other items... earbuds, earbud splitter (so both of us could listen to a movie together), ipads (loaded with tv shows and movies for the flights), snacks & water, cozy socks.

Insurance & Other Stuff

Medical Insurance - turns out that our medical insurance doesn't cover us when we travel internationally. But... Blue Cross has a solution! GeoBlue. I was able to purchase coverage for the both of us for the duration of the trip, then downloaded the app which would direct us to medical assistance should we need it. It wasn't expensive, and it did a lot to relieve my travel concerns. And honestly, I should have used it when I split open my chin. Lol.

Driving Legally - while we ended up not needing it, we went ahead and got our provisional driving permits for the UK before we left. Had we decided to rent a vehicle, having that document would clear the way. It's good for a year, so when we go to Ireland, it'll come in handy.


So, there you have it. Those are my novice traveler tips. ;-)  I hope they're of assistance to someone! Lol! And you world travelers out there - I'd love to hear your tips!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Honeymoon Journey in Photos!

Allrighty! The photos finally (read: FINALLY) downloaded. Lol. And I'll warn you now, there's about a gazillion in this post! As you know, this trip was our 10-long-years-delayed honeymoon, taken for our 10th anniversary. Timing is everything, right? Absolutely! This journey was beyond words. We planned only our flights and first two nights hotel. Everything else we left open to the possibilities. And WOW! It was the right decision! So... here's how it went...

Thursday we headed to the airport, with only our carry-ons (lol) and away we flew! Two flights, one layover, and a long day later, we arrived in London at 9:00 am Friday. That's Friday, May 6th - our anniversary! ;-) It didn't take us long to figure out how to get to our hotel (hello, Tube!). Now, navigating from the platform up to the streets... that was a little more tricky, lol. As we (at last!) found our way out and walked toward the sunshine, we were met by a gorgeous, lush, green park. Fountain straight ahead, beautiful grass & flowers - stunning!
 



We used our trusty google-maps to walk over to our hotel... The Stafford London. They were amazing! I know, I know - I'm using that word a lot. ;-) They got a kick out of our last name :-) The staff was super welcoming & gracious. Our room was wonderful! Just look at that canopy! Once we regrouped, we were off to explore! On our return, we discovered the hotel had delivered a bottle of their own Stafford Claret and a gorgeous flower arrangement - along with monogrammed slippers. So cool!

Is it naptime yet? Lol







Saturday dawned bright and sunny - we're told that's a rarity in London. It was incredible. We decided, after perusing all the "touristy" things to stick with the family heritage sites we wanted to see - and that meant the Tower, and Tower Hill.  BTW - the greatest app we used over and over again, was Rome2Rio. If you're traveling in the UK, it's a lifesaver!

What we didn't know (remember, no planning) is that the Tower isn't just a single Tower -it's a freaking city! Ha! We walked until our feet ached! It was incredible! Hours and hours we spent seeing and experiencing it. We saw Big Ben & the Parliament building (so very impressive!!!). We then wandered until we found a dockside place to have lunch, with a view of the Tower Bridge (so cool!). From there we thought we'd head back, maybe take a nap... what actually happened is that we got a bit lost, inadvertently discovered we were steps away from one of the places we didn't think we'd be able to see - St. Dunstan in the East (a church that was bombed during WWII and left to become a city garden). Unbelievable. It was so peaceful, so... sacred. Back to find our way back, we ended up traveling through Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus... It was amazing! We walked more than 10 miles, according to our fitbits. Lol.
 





 



We watched both of the Changing of the Guards... the horsemen and the palace. FYI, if you can only watch one, the horses are more spectacular. Though you can catch them both if you hoof it - the Horses change guards at 11am, then march yourself down to the palace for the guard change at 11:30.  It's pretty cool.
 

 








 

 


 


 

 

The Tower
 



 

 



 

Tower Hill, where Bill's ancestors lost, ahem, their heads. 
 



St. Dunstan's in the East




 

 

 

We were kinda all over the place! Lol! 
 

 

Piccadilly Circus

We thought we'd head on up to Stafford to see the castle, but then learned that the Castle is closed on Mondays. Shoot. What to do? Several folks had recommended Bath, so we hit up the Rome2Rio then bought train tickets and away we went!
 


Bath turned out to be the BEST surprise! What a fantastic place!!! We hopped on a double-decker to tour the town and surrounding area, had amazing pizza with a super-cool view of the Abby, I had an unfortunate encounter with a bathtub (klutz strikes again! tripped over the bathroom threshold and met the tub chin-first... split it open. What a mess!), and ended the day exhausted. We slept most of the next day, lol. Jet lag finally caught up to us.

We toured the Roman Baths (really amazing!), listened to the church bells ring, wandered, ate, did our own pub-crawl (lol!). Then the next day took a tour out to Stonehenge.  Now, there are lots of tours, but we were pointed to a specific one - Mad Max. I highly, highly recommend it!! NOT a commercialized-touristy tour. This was small (about 14 people plus the guide), and we got to Stonehenge just as they opened (and before the tourist busses arrived). We were able to enjoy the stones in peace. Beautiful! From there, we headed to Avebury - one of England's best kept secrets. The stone circle is larger (a lot) than Stonehenge, and you can wander freely, touch the stones (dodge the sheep, lol)... it was... surreal. Quiet. Majestic. Peaceful. Reverent. An awe inspiring experience.
 

 

 

 

Yum!

Courtyard dinner with an amazing view! 


 

 

The Roman Baths
 

Yep! We drank the water! Very mineral-y  lol. 

This is officially my favorite fast food! Amazing flavors, FRESH, all natural!
The pole-caught tuna & cucumber baguette is my favorite! 
This church is right by our hotel. Can you read the plaque?
The history here is amazing! 
The park beside the River Avon
 

 Off to Stonehenge!
 




Avebury...









 




From there, the tour took us through the Cotswolds to Lacock - a lovely city where many tv shows and movies have been filmed. Including Harry Potter! It's like a place out of time. If you remove the cars on the streets - you'll think you've stepped back to another age. The  youngest building was built in the 1600's. It's amazing. I also enjoyed the BEST fish & chips there! Yum!


 


Next stop was Castle Comb - another incredible village that stayed in an era gone by. Beautiful.

 






 



It was such a great day! That tour alone, was worth the trip! We're so glad we visited Bath!

End of a great day! And yes, my chin is still swollen. Lol. 

The next day, we hopped back on the train and headed to Staffordshire. We headed to a hotel recommended on Travel Advisor, but they were booked. We ended up booking just down the road, and after checking in, we walked back to the first hotel to book for the following night. Lol. About the only thing going for the hotel we were in was that it had it's own bathroom. Anyway, after perusing the map, we decided to taxi up to the Castle.


 

 



The castle & grounds were beyond our expectations. Beautiful and sad. The castle sits at the top of a hill, surrounded by a dense wood where the light is green and the air is filled with bird-song. Magical.






 





 



During WWII, it had been used as a military garrison until the Luftwaffe bombed it. Today, only the outer walls and portions of the towers still stand. We were alone there, the only ones wandering the site. Bill's family has traced their lineage back to the castle, so it was one of the "must do" items for our trip. We spent hours there... wandering, touching the walls, imagining what it had been like throughout the ages. The first castle was built there in 913 by the Saxons, then replaced in the 1070's, and again in 1347, and so on. It has an incredible and rich history - and some mystery as well. The Stafford legacy is long and fascinating with villains and heroes alike. I'm pleased to say that when we left the castle, my husband's head was still firmly attached to his body (a little Stafford/Henry VIII humor, lol).






 





 

 

 



At one time, the floors were covered by those tiles - the Stafford knot and the Stafford Chevron.
Today, these were the only ones we could find as people over the years have scavenged the ruins.
Bill has the Chevron in his tattoo. 

 



This is the site of the actual castle garden! They're restoring them now.
After touring the castle, we walked back to town (only 3.5 miles, lol) then did more exploring...

 



This is the street - they drive cars on this! The designs are so pretty. 







That night, we enjoyed dinner at The Bear (fabulous burgers!), then a beer at a pub. We got to chatting with some locals, who asked about our trip and why we were there - we talked a bit about the family history and connection to the castle, and the two men encouraged us to "ring up" Lord Stafford, as he's "really quite a nice chap, a very likeable bloke" who has a love of history and genealogy and would "quite likely speak with you while you're here."  There's no way, we thought, but agreed to try. The next morning, guess who Bill was talking with on the phone! Yep! Not only did he take the call, but turns out, Lord Stafford had commissioned a book done on the history of the Staffords, and would sign a copy and leave it in his office for us. He was leaving shortly, or would have met personally. How freaking awesome is that???

We tried to Rome2Rio the trip out to the Stafford Estates, but it was pretty convoluted so we elected to hire a taxi. Gotta give that driver credit - he took on the trip with only my google map to guide us. Lol! Swynnerton is a gorgeous area, and we hope to go back someday to explore. The book was waiting for us - so cool!!  It was hard to pull Bill out of the book after that, lol. I'm looking forward to reading it, myself.

That night we were booked at The Swan (the hotel we'd tried to get into the first night). What a great place! So much atmosphere, history, and beauty! Plus, it had connections to the castle! We learned all sorts of fun facts, and a few fascinating theories about the Family at the Castle. Very cool :-)

Friday, we hopped back on the train to London and checked back into The Stafford. We spent a fabulous last day out and about, and though we'd had an unbelievably wonderful trip, we were ready to head back home.
Oh yeah! 

Great beer at World's End!

Goodbye, Stafford Hotel! We've loved it!!
We covered some ground!
FYI - if you're taking a trip and want your loved ones to be able to follow along as you travel,
check out the app TrackMyTour. It's amazing! 

I don't think it's possible for the trip to have been any better. We came home renewed & refreshed, inspired & thankful... and already planning the next one! I'm thinking we'll be following more of the family legacy over to Ireland!