Just in the Nick of Time

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I snagged a great parking spot yesterday. Do you know that wonderful feeling when you enter a parking lot that looks full, you turn the corner, and there, in front of you is a fabulous parking spot? That was me yesterday. I drove into the parking lot at the absolute perfect time, just after someone had left but before another car pulled in 30 seconds after me.

I firmly believe that much is determined in my life, or life in general, by doing something just in the nick of time. This idea came to me last month, during my trip to Scotland. Over a period of about 5 days, David and I road tripped all over central and northern Scotland. We zig zagged and crisscrossed this beautiful country and drove some big distances. Even though we were on vacation and were relaxed, we had to always keep track of time to ensure we arrived at each location when it was open or not over crowded.

There was one day of our trip, as we traveled from the sweet village of Braemar, deep in the Highlands in the Cairngorms National Park, all the way down to Edinburgh. I had packed a lot into our itinerary that day and was nervous that my plans could fall apart and topple over like dominos if the timing wasn’t right.

We woke up early and enjoyed a tasty homemade breakfast of fruit, eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes at our bed and breakfast. We packed up the car and were on the road just after 9:00 am. This was day four of our trip, so by now we had figured out that roads don’t go straight in Scotland and that distances are much further than they look on a map. Put together windy twisty roads, driving on the other side of said roads, in a manual car and we definitely had some challenges. But with enough time, we knew it could all work.

We drove directly south from Braemar, through thick forests and mountains.  As the road continued to curve, we left forests and made our way through what I had always visualized was the true Scottish Highlands. We saw bare rocky mountainsides, with sheep grazing. The sun was shining and the sky was blue (okay not typical Scottish but it worked for me!). We even drove past a ski resort. I looked at my watch to check the time and told David to pull over so that I could take a photo of a chairlift, in the middle of Scotland.

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Packing up early that morning in front of our B&B
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I had to stop and take a photo.

Edradour

I jumped back in the car and we made our way to Edradour, a small, unique single malt Scottish whiskey distillery. We parked and walked into the visitor’s centre to enquire about joining a tour. The lady at the info desk said, “You arrived at the perfect time. Our next tour starts in about 10 minutes.” We bought our tickets and had just enough time to make our way leisurely to the tour meeting point.

After our tour, led by a most entertaining, plump and friendly guide who is definitely a bit of a lush (and a sample or two of the product), we got back in our car and continued south. We were heading into an area in central Scotland with so many sights to see that I knew we had to choose carefully. By now it was about noon and I knew that many attractions closed between 4-6 pm.

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Selfie with our whiskey before we left Edradour

Doune

We decided to make our way to Doune Castle, a fortress built in the 14th century by Robert Stuart, the Duke of Albany. I had read good reviews and also knew that Monty Python’s famous Holy Grail was filmed there. We entered the main courtyard just as a pair of “historic comedians” had begun a live action tale of the castle’s history. They were funny, witty and very entertaining. I learned a lot about 14th and 15th century Scotland and about the castle where I stood. We then toured the buildings and grounds and were back on our way again.

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We took a moment to get a photo of David outside Doune Castle
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These two were just hysterical and made our visit to Doune Castle very memorable.

Stirling

Our next stop, only 15 minutes down the road, was Stirling Castle. This famous, and enormous fortress, was the home of Scottish royalty for much of the 15th and 16th centuries and has a major historical significance because of its location along the River Forth. I didn’t know exactly what time it closed or when the last guided tour would be and was nervous as we pulled up in a busy parking lot around 3:45 pm. We found our way through the maze of people and asked about guided tours at the info desk. The friendly lady at the counter smiled at me and said, “You arrived at the perfect time. Our final tour of the day begins at the well at 4:00 pm. You have just enough time to make it there.”

And so we did. Our colourful guide started the just as we walked up to the meeting point at 4:00 pm and gave us a thorough behind-the-scenes tour of this spectacular castle. And just as our tour was coming to an end, as we stood beside the medieval chapel, we heard bagpipes blaring as a wedding was set to begin. Our tour group looked like the local paparazzi as they pulled out their smartphones to record the event.

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This is the entrance to Stirling Castle. Does your house look like that?

At this point it was 5:00 pm. We picked up a little snack and I felt great that we had toured three important places in central Scotland. We had more than enough time to make our way to Glasgow for the evening to have dinner with a new-found distant cousin. But David wasn’t ready for Glasgow. First, he wanted to drive over, just an 8 km drive, to the William Wallace Monument, to pick up a specific souvenir.

The Morning Star

I freaked out. I figured for sure it was already closed and we had visited this place a few days before when we first arrived. This monument is situated high up on the top of a hill that is accessed by foot or a rare shuttle bus that is inconsistent. David had seen his dream souvenir, an actual replica Morning Star, at the monument’s gift shop three days earlier and suddenly decided he had to have it. All my timing had gone well all day and it was about to fall apart.

I finally gave in and we drove the short distance to the monument’s base. I figured it would be closed and we could be on our way quickly. We arrived in the parking lot at about 5:45 pm and learned that it was open until 6:00. But there was no way we could hike back up to the monument in time. Oh, no problem, said the person at the info desk. She called the shuttle driver, and a moment later we had a private vehicle taking us up the mountain to the monument.

We got out of the vehicle at 5:55 pm and our driver said he’d be right back to bring us down the mountain. We walked into the gift shop and there it was, David’s Morning Star. Fifty Pounds later David had his precious souvenir, just as they were locking the doors. We walked outside and there was our driver, ready to take us back down. Talk about just in the nick of time.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner in Glasgow that night with our new-found Richler cousins, got a tour of the University of Glasgow then drove to the airport to return our car. Then we hopped on the last tram of the night to the city at 10:30 pm and pulled up to our hotel in Edinburgh around 11:00 pm.

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A photo with my Richler cousins, Sam and Emma, in Glasgow

We were exhausted and fell over soon after into a deep sleep. David and I had traveled a huge distance that day, with an ambitious itinerary, and we did it. We did it all, because time was on our side. Whether it’s arriving at an attraction, joining a tour or snagging that special parking spot, doing it in the nick of time feels great.

Halifax is my Home away from Home

Halifax

I have had a bit of a whirlwind summer and have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit. As I have written many times, travel is the greatest gift I can give myself. Sometimes it is exhausting and frustrating but the stress and fatigue that come with travel are worth it. This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit and enjoy one of my favourite cities, Halifax. I have visited this city so many times that it has almost become my home away from home.

This summer I have spent every weekend in a different place. It all began with my trip to Scotland. The second weekend was spent at my family’s country home, near the southern shores of Georgian Bay. Then I had a weekend in Toronto, as we hosted family from abroad. And this past weekend I was in Halifax, the city I love so much.

The reason I traveled, with my family, to Halifax, was for the annual visit to our beloved Camp Kadimah, where my children go to overnight camp. Yes, I put my children on an airplane each summer and send them hundreds of kilometers away to Nova Scotia to go to camp. Besides the fact that Camp Kadimah is the greatest place for my children to spend a summer, it gives me the chance to visit Halifax in late July.

What is so special about Halifax, you ask?

First of all, it has all the amenities, history and culture that you get in a big city but in miniature. It’s not to say that Halifax is tiny, but it is a small city. It’s easy to get around, with polite drivers and friendly pedestrians. Fellow cars let you in when you change lanes and gently stop at crosswalks to allow you to walk across the road.

Then there is the waterfront, or as the signs say, the “Harbourwalk.” The heart of downtown, by the water, is a sprawling, clean boardwalk. It goes on and on, from the historic seaport where new immigrants docked in Canada for decades, all the way into the harbour to the casino. Along the boardwalk are restaurants, cafes, a couple museums, benches, stores and even a small playground. It’s adult and child-friendly, and during the summer it is populated by locals and tourists alike. We walked up and down this fabulous stretch in the morning, afternoon and even late at night and always felt welcome and safe.

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Nessa kind of enjoyed our first afternoon on the Harbourwalk with her grandmother and cousin
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This was my view from dinner on Friday evening
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This is the boardwalk, where everyone can be silly.
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Nessa invented a new kind of pole dancing at the Seaport.

Do I sound like a paid advertisement for the city of Halifax? Eek, that’s not the intention here. There is just this warm feeling I get when I am driving around, walking the streets or even checking into my hotel. And sometimes I wonder, when I bite into a fresh piece of halibut, tuna or haddock, if the reason I eat fish today is because of this city. I didn’t like fish of any kind until I tasted the real, fresh kind. I ate more fish this past weekend than I eat all year.

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We found a new Japanese restaurant and loved the tuna tataki in particular
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Enjoying a snack downtown with roadside food.

Every time I visit Halifax (and I have visited too many times to count) it draws me in and I begin to imagine what my life would be like if I lived there. No, I’m not selling my house tomorrow and moving to Nova Scotia. But the thought, the feeling, the question, jumps into my head over and over. People seem happier, more at ease and more full of life in this east coast city.

They are a stone’s throw away from beautiful maritime towns like Lunenburg and Mahone Bay. You can smell the fresh saltwater air even on a hot day downtown. It is not just okay but it’s encouraged to paint your house bright red or pale yellow. There seems to be a bar at every corner, if you like that kind of thing. When Waze tells me it will take ten minutes to drive across town, it actually takes ten minutes. There is a new unique central public library and also a Discover Centre. And Camp Kadimah is only a 90-minute drive.

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Need I say more? BEST ice cream.
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Selfie at COWS. Enough said.

Maybe I am just coming down from a high after an exhilarating four-day weekend away when I didn’t have to cook and clean. Maybe I am suffering from a bit of heat stroke after I walked the city for hours in what felt like forty-degree heat. Or maybe Halifax really is as great a city as I have hyped it up to be and there is a good reason why I consider it to be my home away from home. For now, I will keep visiting, and we will see where life takes me.

Ahhhh the Wedding

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I don’t attend too many weddings. Maybe I don’t know enough people. Or maybe I’m at an age when most of my friends and I guess family too, are either married or not old enough yet to tie the knot. No matter how good, or bad, the wedding is, it is nice to attend them.

So many people lead very busy lives, with little free or unprogrammed time in the schedule. Children go to school, activities, camp or play with friends. As adults, we spend much of our time working, cooking, cleaning, shopping or if we have kids, chauffeuring them too. Sometimes it seems that one day just flows into the next, with a hectic schedule from dawn to dusk.

I will admit that I don’t put aside nearly enough time for myself, to relax or do stuff that I love. And I mean stuff for me and only me. My recent trip to Scotland was definitely for me (ya I guess David too), and it gave me the chance to recharge my battery. But I will say that I definitely make time for family and for family celebrations, like a wedding.

In the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, we often turn down invitations to celebrations or events because it’s too expensive to attend, too hard to travel or we just don’t have time.  We say, “Oh I can’t come this time but I will try to make it next time.” And we continue on with our busy day. We see the photos and hear the stories and we think wistfully of the next event, when we will attend.

David and I try to attend as many family celebrations as we can. I will admit that we can’t make it to everything, but we try our best. With family and friends who live all over the world, and with our love of travel, we have participated in a fair number of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, milestone birthdays and weddings. It can be a financial strain sometimes and the timing can be a challenge, but really, it’s worth it.

On Monday we celebrated the wedding of our nephew, Joseph, to his wonderful new wife, Hadas. I will not do a rundown of all the details of the day, from the elegant but simple flowers to the dinner’s main course (oh my gosh they served roast beef and it was cooked perfectly!). If anyone wants a full detailed analysis, you know how to find me.

It was a small, intimate wedding, with family and a number of their close friends. David’s sister, Linda, lives in London, Ontario, and we traveled the easy two hours down the highway on Sunday afternoon to join the festivities. A wedding is not just the short ceremony and party. It also includes the days leading up to the big event, day before, day-of activities and even breakfast the next day. It’s a bit of a package deal, if you want to get the full benefit. Sometimes the best part of a wedding can be a BBQ in the backyard the night before or running around the following morning to the liquor store to secure the right kosher liqueurs!

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Having fun the night before
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Last minute liquor purchase, phew.
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Nessa enjoyed some entertainment from her cousins before the wedding, at Walmart, of course.

The faces of the bride and groom as they walk down the aisle or how they look at each other during the ceremony are special moments. And will he break the glass on his first try? Family photos – who won’t smile and who will blink when the camera flashes? Which child will throw a tantrum? What was the best appetizer passed around during cocktails? Which dessert was the tastiest?

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The moment they walked down the aisle
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They kept eye contact for much of the ceremony.
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He got it the first try.
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She didn’t sit still and had a wonderful time.
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It’s not a wedding without a big family photo

You have to be there to experience it. I know it’s not always so easy and I’m so glad every time we make the effort. A wedding is fun and it creates such wonderful memories for not only the bride and groom but for all the guests. We have another family wedding, for a cousin, in a few weeks, so who’s next?

A Little Bit of Airplane Courtesy Please

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In my forty plus years I have traveled on many airplanes, all over the world. The older I get, the crankier I get. Air travel is no longer considered a luxury, where passengers kick back, relax and are pampered along the way. It’s stressful, tiring, long and sometimes, just miserable. Airlines are eking out every last inch of space (and comfort) on their planes, in an attempt to increase profit. Knowing this is the reality today, as passengers, we need to work together to make the experience better. And that begins with some airplane courtesy.

Why are travelers so aggressive? Why, for the most part, do I feel like I am in competition for space, a spot in line or the last drop of coffee, when I’m flying to my destination? After almost three weeks of travel and four different flights during that trip, I learned a few lessons and picked up a few tips. Here I will share some of my thoughts and offer a bit of advice on how we can bring forward some airplane courtesy and hopefully make air travel a better experience for everyone.

I won’t go through the whole airport experience, as that is a blog post unto itself. No doubt the airport experience has been made increasingly stressful because of security, a tighter limit on baggage and the sheer number of people traveling. The main thing I will say about getting through an airport is to give yourself a ton of time. If you think you need our hour, come 90 minutes early. If you think you need two hours, give it almost 3.

Let’s focus here on bringing courtesy to the airplane experience and how we can all work together to make that happen.

Getting on the Plane

The airlines try to bring some order to the onboarding process, but for the most part, they do it really badly. Air Canada, for example, thinks that the business class passengers at the front and Elite members should board first, as a courtesy to them. But why board the front of the aircraft first, creating a log jam? Why not board from back to front, making it smoother for all? And why does the pre-board for passengers with young children or those who need extra assistance also happen after the business class group goes on? Makes no sense.

But since, for the most part, this is how it works, how about everyone stands in an orderly line and allow people space to get through in the order they are called? If I am traveling with my young children, with a stroller and bags, let me through the tight crowd so that I can get on the plane before your zone is called. And when I am walking down the tunnel with my kids, moving slowly, don’t shove me aside and try to pass me. The plane won’t leave any sooner and your seat will still be there.

Once on the plane, try your best to put your hand luggage above in a relatively swift manner and don’t block the aisle. If just one person blocks the aisle no one can board. It slows down the whole process and people get crabby.

Reclining your Seat

This may be the source of most of my crankiness on an airplane and possibly one of the areas where showing some courtesy would go a long way. I just traveled on four different planes on British Airways, where only 1/3 of the plane was, let’s call it, the economy section. The rest of the plane was made up of first class (wide individual pods), business class (smaller pods) and premium economy (regular seats, but wider and more leg room).  The economy seats were small, barely cushioned and had the minimal pitch allowed between seats. I’m a small person and I felt cramped.

Add to the fact that I had a baby on my lap (I’m not paying for a seat for the baby until she turns two, I’m too cheap), I had very little room. So, when the person ahead of me, just after take-off, reclined his seat all the way, I had maybe a few inches between my face and his seat.

Now I will admit, according to the rules, a paying passenger is perfectly within his or her rights to recline the seat. If the seat can recline, one can do it. If it’s a long flight, overnight maybe and the lights are out, okay, recline your seat. But all the way? And right after take-off? Could you show a bit of courtesy and notice that you had a woman behind you with a baby on her lap, with no space? Or at least move the seat back up when the food is served so that my tray didn’t constantly fall on my lap?

We are all on this tightly packed airplane together. If we show some courtesy and work together to be comfortable, it’s a better experience for everyone.

Getting Up and Down and Walking the Aisles

I like to sit in the aisle seat when traveling. I recognize that I have much less personal space on the aisle than the window but I just need to know that I can get up when I need to. Never mind that anytime I see the “vacant” sign show up on the toilet I run there. I’m always worried about being stuck in my seat and having to go. It’s just a personal obsession.

But, my seat is mine. It’s not a spot to lean on when chatting with your friends in the aisle. If you are sitting behind me, it’s not a tool you use to get up and down, pushing me forward or backward. We all have limited personal space on a tightly packed airplane, but show some courtesy for the person in the seat in front of you, especially if that person is asleep.

And on the issue of the aisles, these too have become tighter as airlines cram more seats across the plane. I know the seat and legroom are small, but please try to keep your legs/feet/arms out of the aisle. I don’t want to trip over you or walk into you and get the evil eye from you when I do so.

The Toilet

Every time I get on a plane I calculate how many toilets are on the plane and how many people need to share them. The big planes used for overseas flights have a higher toilet to person ratio, but there are never enough. But I can accept that. What I can’t accept is people abusing the toilets and treating them like their own dumping grounds. Can’t we all show some courtesy and keep them clean?

Some simple suggestions to keep the toilets clean:

  • Wipe the sink area if you spray water everywhere
  • Flush the toilet (I shouldn’t even have to say this, but really?)
  • Pick up any toilet paper or paper towel you drop on the floor and throw it out
  • If you finish the toilet paper, paper towel or soap, ask the flight attendant to load more
  • Use your time efficiently and please, if you can, don’t take too long. Again, the toilet to person ratio isn’t great. No one wants to wait too long to use the facilities.

Getting off the Plane

Once we have landed at our destination, everyone on that plane can’t wait to get off. No matter how aggressive everyone is lining up to get on, it’s nothing on how people behave once the plane has landed and arrived at the gate. We get off front to back, and it always takes a bit of time. So why do people at the middle and back have to jump out of their seats, leap into the aisle and push their way through? There’s nowhere to go. If I am in the row in front of you and I can’t go anywhere, why do you think you can, or why do you think that shoving me out of your way is good behaviour?

The basic courtesy of getting off the plane is to let people off row by row, patiently waiting for the people in front of you to collect their items from under their seats or above and walk forward. If the person needs a few extra moments, be patient. Maybe offer to help them? Smile. Don’t push them aside or jump in front of them. Let them get off the plane. And if we all do this in an orderly and courteous way, the process will probably move much faster.

Some other Quick Tips to show some courtesy:

  • If the touch screen for the audio/video system does not respond immediately to your fingers, don’t pound on it. It will work soon, and remember, pounding the screen means pounding on the back of the person in front of you.
  • If you have the window seat, you don’t have to open or close your blind but be aware of the people around you. People may be sleeping, so lower the blind. If the plane is landing and there’s a great view outside, open the blind and let others look too.
  • The arm rests are for all of us to share. While you may have one on each side of you, remember that you are sharing one (or both) with the person or people beside you. Resting your arms, or worse, pushing your elbows out, can be considered obnoxious.
  • Use your headphones. If you are watching a movie or TV show on your own device, no one else wants to hear it. Put on your headphones and keep them at a moderate sound level so that only you can hear what you are watching.

It’s hard to behave your best when travelling. From beginning to end the process is exhausting. It is my belief that airlines aren’t making it any easier for us. If you are willing and open to spend a bundle of money, it is definitely more pleasant in any and all of first class, business class or premium economy cabins, but that’s not an option for most people. So, my advice is simple, be courteous. We will all be better off.

What to Expect when Traveling to London with Children

London

I have been traveling to overseas destinations with my children since my eldest was just 17 days old. Some people think I am crazy. Others may be envious. And a few more have applauded me. Over the past eleven years I have traveled with my children all over the world, from New Zealand to France to Hawaii to Israel and many other points in between. This past week I added England to the list, or more specifically, London.

Traveling with children is not necessarily an easy thing to do, no matter the destination. Even in an English-speaking environment like London, with all the amenities I could ever want at my fingertips, we faced a few challenges. Over the past few days, as my family enjoyed a short stay in this fantastic city, I took mental notes about what to expect and what not to expect, and hopefully I can share some advice with others who are planning a trip with children to London.

Accommodations

London is a very expensive city, and a simple, clean, small hotel room in a central location can be expensive. I discovered the joys of Airbnb a few years ago, when we traveled to Rome, and I never looked back. For a reasonable amount of money (not cheap but fairly priced), a family can stay in an apartment (we booked a two-bedroom flat near Piccadilly Circus) that is spacious, has a kitchen and separate living area. You can save a bit of money if you book a space with no elevator. Grab some groceries at a local supermarket and enjoy breakfast before going out for the day. And you get a bit of a flavour of local London life too thrown in this way.

What to expect at an Airbnb: more space, great location, a more personal way to stay in an international city.

Don’t expect: a sterile, formal space. It is someone’s home. Treat it with respect.

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Having a snack at the Airbnb. Spacious and convenient.

Food

You can find every kind of cuisine in London, and like the accommodations, it’s expensive. My children eat with their eyes and want everything they see. They eat two bites and suddenly they are full. So, I picked up fresh bread, cheerios, bananas, oranges, chips, and chocolate (Cadbury Dairy Milk of course) at the local supermarket and carried them with me all day. We snacked on everything from sandwiches and pasta to sushi and pizza throughout the day as well (which were partially consumed), but all the snacks were demolished. The kids asked for treats at every street corner, but we learned to say no. One could go bankrupt just buying food in London. Don’t fall into the I’m hungry trap with children. Throw them a banana and some chocolate and they will settle down.

What to expect when buying food: to see the same price you pay in dollars for basics, but you are paying in pounds (3 pounds for a latte? Yep, that’s almost 6 Canadian dollars).

What I didn’t expect: cheap groceries. Fresh baguette was only 9 pence (that’s about 17 cents!) at the end of the day, and it was good.

Transportation

Public transportation is world class in London, but for an outsider it can seem confusing. When I first did a Google search on the topic I was overwhelmed. There’s the Underground, DLR, trains and buses. Don’t forget the famous black taxi, and Uber has arrived too. I can’t bear to spend fortunes to travel from the airport to my accommodations or to sight see, and I highly recommend using public transit. You can buy an Oyster Card at Heathrow airport (card has a five-pound deposit which you can get refunded at a machine when you leave), or tap your credit card to enter public transit as well.

I won’t go into all the details of how to use the system, but I will just say it’s efficient, it’s cheap and the kids love it. My kids could have spent a whole afternoon riding on the top floor, at the front, of a double decker bus and been happy. Don’t panic when you see the many transit options. Do your research and it will make sense.

What to expect when traveling around London: A tube station every few blocks and more double decker buses than cars downtown.

What I didn’t expect: kids under 11 travel free on the Underground, light rail and buses.

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They could spend all day and night on the double decker bus
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Now that’s the way to ride a bus.
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This is the way to travel through London – the Tube. And wow, it’s deep underground.

Sight Seeing

There are so many things to do and places to see in London, depending on your own personal preferences. My kids are like border collies and need a daily run. Like I did in Israel, I stood by my mantra to Keep It Simple Stupid. While the museums are incredible and I personally could spend hours at the British Museum or Victoria and Albert Museum, children don’t always have endless patience (or stamina). The torture chamber and historical re-enactment of a siege was a hit at the Tower of London as was our afternoon in Greenwich, where they could stand on Earth’s Prime Meridian (longitude is 0 degrees, so cool) and run up and down the deck of the famous Cutty Sark sailing ship.

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Who wouldn’t enjoy learning about torture?
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Nessa wasn’t impressed with the reenactment at the Tower of London. Sister Agnes took it all in stride.
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Standing on the edge of time.
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The famous Cutty Sark sailing ship is a child’s delight. Nessa ran everywhere.

For me, the best part of traveling to a city like London is walking the streets and soaking up the local culture. We walked and walked, well over 20,000 steps each day. We walked past Westminster and Big Ben, London Bridge, the London Monument and St Paul’s Cathedral. Trafalgar Square. Through famous historical neighbourhoods And of course over to Buckingham Palace.

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Family photo at Trafalgar Square
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Best shot we could get at Big Ben, with the ongoing renovations
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The London Bridge isn’t gorgeous, but we had to snap a photo
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Matthew and Julia learn about the famous Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

I could write a whole post just about the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Surrounded by thousands of people, many of them crammed together to get a good view, it was a bit underwhelming. You need to arrive at least 30-45 minutes in advance to secure a decent viewing point, and we chose the top steps of the statue of Queen Victoria (but don’t sit on the top of the statue, Queen Elizabeth doesn’t like that). A bit of advice: the ceremony begins at 11 am and continues for a half hour. Start walking away, towards the Wellington Barracks, at 11:20 am. The path to those barracks is quiet, and the “old guard” walk this route at 11:30. They march right past you and the band keeps playing. The kids were thrilled to see the famous guards up close.

What to expect at the changing of the guard: big crowds, aggressive people

What I didn’t expect: the band played a selection of ABBA. And it was great!

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Nessa brought her new bear with her to Buckingham palace. He’s a guard too.
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Taking a break from the guards marching behind us to snap a selfie
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It’s hard to get a good view of the action. I stayed on the Victoria statue and David tried to lift Julia (in purple jacket) up high.

And here is a little more advice:

DO:

  • Wear a pair of comfortable shoes, a warm jacket (like a packable down) and carry an umbrella. The weather changes like my kids’ moods.
  • Take a boat ride on the Thames. We used the MBNA Thames Clipper and loved it.
  • Buy tickets to attractions in advance on the internet. No line to enter (they will scan a bar code on your phone) and it’s about 20% cheaper online.
  • Stay in a central location, on the Piccadilly Line. Why? Heathrow airport is on that Underground (subway/metro) line and it’s so convenient (and cheap) to take the tube to and from the airport and your accommodation.
  • Check out the seemingly endless choice of Cadbury chocolate, at supermarkets and convenience stores. I have no self-control.
  • If you love the theatre, buy your tickets online in advance. Unlike New York, where there is a plethora of discounted shows through TKTS, there are few day-of deals in the London West End. Like everything else in this city, theatre is expensive.
  • Remember that they drive on the left side of the road. Look down before you cross the street – and read if you should look left or right.
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Emma learns which way to look when she crosses the street.

DON’T

  • Choose an Airbnb above a bar or night club or on a street with a busy night life if you don’t like noise or the kids go to sleep early. Our place was great, but it was a bit noisy.
  • Stand at the front, right at the gates, of Buckingham Palace, for changing of the guard. You see much less and you are stuck there for the whole ceremony.
  • Let a little rain or dampness stop you. That’s what London is all about. Take it in stride.
  • Waste your money and time in a long line to see either Madame Tussaud wax museum or the London Eye. These are overpriced tourist traps. There are so many better things to do.
  • Buy souvenirs at one of the many stores that line the streets of the city. You can snag a deal at a stand on the street or sometimes pick up a quality, more personal item, at an attraction’s gift shop.
  • Only travel around by public transit (or taxi). Get out and walk. London is a flat, easy-to-navigate city. Most of the best attractions are a short walk from each other.

London is a great city, and I look forward to returning there with my children someday. Our visit was too short, as we only had two full days to explore. We covered a lot of ground, ate some good local food (okay, we ate a lot of Cadbury chocolate) and even spent an evening with my cousin, Jacob. It’s loud, lively and expensive. And I loved it.

The Personalities of a Field School

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When you travel, you meet all kinds of people along the way. It’s part of the fun of being in a new place. It’s not just the sights, sounds and smells, but also the locals. People watching I call it. Some people you come across share similar characteristics while others are rather eccentric.  Where we are staying now, in Ein Gedi, in the desert, beside the Dead Sea, at a Field School run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, there are many different personalities.

There are many places just like this one all over Israel. With simple but spacious accommodations, a field school is a wonderful way to see Israel. During holiday times the field school attracts hundreds, if not thousands of families. It provides a good home base for hiking, sight-seeing and just relaxing.

It’s where you meet real Israelis. The challenge for me when I travel is that I want to get a flavour of the real culture of where I am visiting. How do locals live and what do they eat? How do they spend their free time? In Israel, the field school is where local families go on vacation. And here, I get a true mix of local personalities.

Bohemian Religious Man

I saw this man in line at dinner the other night. Dressed in what I could only describe as pink nurse’s scrubs and sandals, he had a long grey beard, long curly grey hair to match, and of course a kippah on his head too. He was surrounded by a large family, spoke a mix of Hebrew and English and had a friendly, Santa Claus look on his face.

Cool Boarder Nature Guide

We had the opportunity to take an incredible hike at night organized by our field school, through a dried-up wadi (river) near Masada. We were led, in the darkness, by two experienced, 19-year-old guides who were a wealth of knowledge of astrology, the local area and its geological history. One of the guides was a brown-haired, curly-haired guy with a big smile. The Canadians in us quickly discovered that he likes to snowboard but really, he is in to surfing and skateboarding.

Children, so many children

One can find gangs of children all over the field school. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are everywhere. The children speak in rapid Hebrew (that I can’t understand) and run around the place like wild animals. They wake up early in the morning, and with their loud voices and rapid footsteps, they are a great alarm clock.

Generations

Something that intrigues me about the field school is that one often sees three generations from one family all here together. Our group is a great example of that, but we are not unique. It is not uncommon to see a grandparent chasing a two-year-old down the path or a man explaining the various food options at dinner to his father. It’s actually kind of sweet that the field school is a place for multiple generations of one family to congregate together.

Gold Chain Wearing Man in a Wife Beater Shirt

There are always a few of these, here with their families. This is one of those situations where a picture is worth a thousand words, but I don’t have the guts to take a photo of one of these men. He’s typically tall, has dark hair, has on a tight shirt with some jewelry and speaks in loud, rapid Hebrew. He thinks he’s cooler than life itself and boasts to all around him how great he is. And oh, is it ever entertaining to listen and watch him.

Friendly, Quieter Religious Women

Israel is a place with a wondrous mixture of people, including many religious Jews. They travel and experience the country in the same way as other locals, including visits to a field school. Many (but not all) of the religious women cover their hair and dress in a modest manner. Sometimes they are followed by a brood of children of all ages. And they are a staple of the field school experience, often sitting at the same table as the gold chain wearing man in his wife beater shirt.

Overweight Head Cook in the Dining Hall

Not only does one get a family-style accommodation at a field school, but for a reasonable fee, breakfast and lunch are included. It’s not five-star dining, but there is a good variety of food, including tons of fresh vegetables, fresh dairy at breakfast and meat at dinner. There is a hard-working team of cooks preparing the food. Each field school I stay at the team is always led by a slightly overweight cook, who only speaks Hebrew and has a permanent frown on his face. He is probably harassed every day by annoying people like me asking if there is plain yoghurt or more fruit in the back. He appears at some point during every meal and quickly runs and hides in the kitchen before another guest whines or complains to him.

I could go on and on describing the various personalities one comes across at a field school. To really understand the unique nature of this place you have to experience it for yourself. You get great views, the most beautiful scenery and of course the most interesting personalities.

**Disclaimer: that’s my mother-in-law, Barbara, and my father, Barry, in the feature photo. While they are not the typical personalities one finds at a field school, they are both an important part of my experience! And in this photo they are sitting in front of our rooms, with a view over the Dead Sea.

It must have been Hot when they Wandered the Desert

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I am at one of the lowest points on Earth. Well below sea level. I am surrounded by mountains, rocks and the deadest piece of water you can ever find. As I write, the sun has set, the moon is rising and there is a warm breeze outside. I’m in the desert. And it’s beautiful. And during the day, wow, it’s hot.

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Sunset over the Dead Sea and Mountains of Moab

People often ask me, when they hear that I blog or when they start to follow my posts, “Where do you think of all those ideas?” It’s easy. This blog is about my musings. Everywhere I go I get inspired by the people I meet and by my surroundings. Sometimes someone says something to me, and I have to stop and take note so that I can write about it later.

That happened to me today, in the desert in Southern Israel, when I visited a fantastic historic site called Tel Be’er Sheva. This is the ancient site of the city of Be’er Sheva. The modern city sits west of this small national park, where layers of civilization from a few thousand years ago remain.

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Some information on the ancient ruins I visited

It was a hot day, with blue skies and a blazing sun above us. As we walked towards the ruins of this ancient walled city, my mother joked, “It must have been hot when they wandered the desert.” And boom, my blog post came into being. Just a comment, a thought, a sight or a random meeting can inspire me.

So yes, it must have been hot when they wandered the desert. It’s hot in the desert. But I am amazed by the desert. When I see a small shrub growing out of dry rock and sand or a small stream of water making its way through the ruins of an ancient city I am astonished by the beauty of the nature around me. The desert is truly beautiful.

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Shades of deep green, lime green and brown, with camels, on the edge of the desert
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Look carefully at the beautiful delicate flower my daughter picked, in the middle of the desert.

And when the desert blooms, it’s even more beautiful. After we left Tel Be’er Sheva we drove along a windy road, with big signs saying dangerous curves ahead and descended hundreds of feet, deep into the desert. The landscape turned from deep green to lime green to brown, and each kilometer became more and more beautiful.

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500 feet above sea level. We have a long way to go.
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100 feet above sea level. Going down!
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Sea Level!
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100 feet below sea level and still descending!

And then suddenly, before our eyes, was the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth. It is a body of water with such a high salt content that nothing can live in it. It’s pretty much, well, dead. We continued to drive until we reached our destination: Ein Gedi. This is an oasis in the desert. It’s not some kind of strange mirage that you see in the distance in a cartoon. It is a place of beauty, with palm trees, grass and flowers, surrounded by a brown desert.

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My first glimpse of the Dead Sea

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Our group is fortunate to be staying at the Ein Gedi Field School – run by an organization called, in Hebrew, Haganat Hateva, and in English, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. We are high on a hill, with spectacular views of mountains and the Dead Sea. It makes you forget that you are in the middle of the desert. When I walk outside and soak in the beauty around me I understand why, even though it was hot, people have been wandering in the desert for thousands of years. Not only am I at the lowest point on Earth, I may be at the most beautiful one as well.

Sealed with a KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid

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Keep it simple stupid. It’s a phrase that is not necessarily associated with travel, but on our first full day in Israel it was my motto. After a long and sometimes stressful couple of flights (details in a future post), we arrived in Israel on Monday. Oh, how nice it was to feel the first blast of hot humid air on my face as I walked off the plane. The chaos of Ben Gurion airport, while totally insane and absurd, was a warm welcome to me to a place I had not visited in three years.

There’s so much I love about Israel, and over the next couple of weeks I will try to give a flavour of all the sights and sounds around me. On our first full day here, we decided to spend the day in the bustling city of Tel Aviv. It’s easy to get overwhelmed while visiting this city, so I stuck to my motto to bring success, keep it simple stupid.

Actually, I think it’s a good motto to have when traveling, especially when traveling with children. Complexity brings chaos, anger and confusion. Keeping it simple brings order, happiness and joy. And that’s what our day was all about.

With six kids in tow (that’s right six), I knew we had to keep things simple. Our group included my three children, my niece who is traveling with us, my niece’s friend who lives in Israel, as well as another niece who also lives in Israel. Age range of the children: 22 months to 12 years. Girl to boy ratio of said children: 5 to 1. Maybe that’s why my plan worked?

My day’s success was partly determined by the children’s willingness to walk, a lot. My favourite way to explore new places, anywhere in the world, is on foot. You can feel the vibes of a city by walking around its streets. You experience the culture by smelling the spices in the markets, touching the fabrics in the stores and eating at small cafes. On foot, you can scoot around quickly or meander slowly.

That was what we did. After a short train ride to the city, my plan was a walk through downtown, on both big boulevards and crooked narrow side streets, with a goal of getting to the beach and dipping our toes in the Mediterranean Sea.

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We made it to Tel Aviv!

Tel Aviv didn’t disappoint. The horns were honking, cyclists were cutting us off on the sidewalk and people were screaming. We took our time getting to our first stop, picking up a local SIM card for my phone and lunch for some of the kids.

Then here is how I decided to keep things simple. I had intended to walk through a local craft market, called Nahalat Binyamin. It only appears on Tuesdays and Fridays, and we headed in its direction. We took one wrong turn and ended up in another, very different market, called Carmel. While Nahalat Binyamin is full of local artisans and craftspeople selling beautiful pieces of art and jewelry, Carmel is a packed and cramped long path where local merchants sell everything from junk and household items to spices and fruits and vegetables.

I didn’t back track or panic or become angry. I went with the flow and realized that junk, candy and fresh fruit made the kids happy. They all picked out a bag of candy from one vendor and we enjoyed fresh fruit smoothies from another (I had pomegranate, pineapple, mango and passion fruit. Wow, so good).

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The candy buffet in the Carmel Market

Once we passed through the market we continued to meander through the city, and again, while I had at first intended to show the kids the Bauhaus district, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, I could see they were restless. They needed to run around and get off the street. I needed to keep it simple. So, I made a quick turn and headed in the direction of the beach.

The Tel Aviv tayelet, or boardwalk, is one of my favourite places in the world. The city of Tel Aviv is on one side and miles of sandy beaches and the Mediterranean Sea is on the other. I thought to myself as we arrived on the tayelet, let’s walk up the promenade and enjoy the long stretch of beach.

The kids would have none of that. No sooner did I blink and their shoes were off and they had all (okay, maybe not Nessa but she pointed) ran onto the beach and into the water. That’s right, fully clothed, into the water. They splashed, they squealed with delight and I smiled from ear to ear. I even gave up keeping Nessa in her stroller and let her bum walk her way through the sand and to the water’s edge.

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Will she or won’t she? Does Nessa want to check out the water?
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bum walking beach baby
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My niece showing off her acrobatic skills
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silhouette sand castle building with just their hands

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. No bathing suits, towels or sand toys. No beach umbrella or picnic lunch. Just two adults and six rambunctious children, living it up in the sand and the sun.

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Playground on the beach? Check.

I think we walked over 10 kilometers, ate more junk food than I had planned and got sand in places I would rather not discuss. It was a perfect day. It was a perfect, simple day because I sealed it with a KISS. Try it some time. It will make your travel experience fantastic.

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We actually got a family photo on the beach

Leading up to an Overseas Family Vacation

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I love to travel, and if I could, I would take many trips around the world every year.  I can’t afford to do that, but hey, a girl can dream. But I don’t always have to dream, as once in a while I am lucky enough to go on a big trip. I’m leaving on one in a couple of days. And I’m not going alone. I’m taking my husband, my son, two daughters and niece too, to Israel. We are going on a long overdue, overseas family vacation. And I’m freaking out!

I have traveled many times with my husband and children, and we even took my nephew with us the last time we went to Israel, three years ago. Traveling with children does not scare me. I think that going on a family vacation is something wonderful and adventurous. If one can, travel is the greatest gift a parent can give to a child.

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Our attempt at a family selfie in the Old City of Jerusalem during our last visit to Israel 3 years ago

So why am I freaking out? Well, first of all, I think I always do in the final days leading up to a big family vacation. Whether we are driving to David’s family country house in Quebec or flying around the world to New Zealand, all the details that go into the booking, planning and (wince!) packing for a family vacation are stressful.

Most of the booking and planning is complete. The planning is actually the fun part. In some ways, you get to stretch the trip out longer when you surf the web and do research about activities and excursions. I’m now in the packing phase, which is always challenging. When I travel by myself, no problem. But I have set a lofty goal to pack efficiently and get everything our family of 5 needs into just 3 suitcases.

How many shirts? Did I remember to pack pyjamas for the baby? Since we are in Israel over Passover, did I make sure to throw in nice (clean) clothes for everyone? We will be in the desert, where it’s hot, for a few days. But oh, evenings are cold. So, I guess we need light jackets? Socks. Underwear. Toothpaste. Enough children’s Advil and Tylenol if the kids get sick. All of this swirls through my head night and day in the days leading up to our family vacation.

But it’s not just the packing. Just because I am going away, it doesn’t mean life at home stops. Okay, so I turn down the thermostat, shut off the lights and lock up my house. My daily life and daily routines comes to a halt. But the people I interact with every day keep living their regular daily lives.  I always need to prepare myself for that reality.

Who do I need to alert that I will be away? Are there services providers I need to contact? I don’t receive a daily newspaper anymore, so no worries there. I can monitor my home alarm from anywhere in the world. And in the technology age, I travel with my cell phone and am reachable at the top of Masada, on the beach in Tel Aviv or a windy road in the Galilee.

But there’s still so much to do. I work a few hours more in the week leading up to the family vacation to ensure I don’t leave any of my colleagues in the lurch while I am away. It reminds me of a study released back in January by ADP Canada (my main communications client right now where I spend most of my time) that examined how many hours Canadians typically devote to work before and/or after a vacation. Over 70% of people admitted having to put in much more work in the days leading up to vacation.

And for me and my family right now, as I have written about on a few occasions, life is stressful in general right now. Our work-life situation is rather unstable, and we don’t quite know where life will take us in the coming months. Is this the right time to go on such an ambitious family vacation? Should we be so far from home and potentially miss the next great opportunity?

Is all this freaking out on my part worth it?

The simple answer is, yes. I need a vacation. I really need a vacation. My family really needs it. No matter how many times I freak out in the next couple of days and wake up with night sweats paranoid about remembering to pack enough diapers for the baby for the plane, it’s all worth it.

Once I stand on my mother-in-law’s balcony, looking west to the view in the distance of the Mediterranean Sea and to the east view of the Jerusalem hills, I will feel better. Most of what I am feeling right now is normal. Going on a family vacation is a tremendous luxury, one that I appreciate more than ever right now. It doesn’t mean I will freak out less.  But it does mean I may enjoy it just a little bit more.

A Visit with Family in a Special Place

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David and I are lucky to have family who live all over the world, from New Zealand to England and Israel to Washington State. We are even luckier that our family has invited us to visit them, stay with them and experience their local culture. We have taken full advantage of our family’s warm hospitality over the years, and we often plan our travel expeditions based on where various members of our family live at any given time. A visit with family is always wonderful, and a visit with family who live in an interesting place is even better.

Matthew, Barbara and I are having a great trip to Seattle, and this weekend we had the opportunity to have a trip within a trip. We spent the weekend in the San Juan Islands. More specifically, we had a visit with family on the island of Friday Harbor. Don’t know where that is? Well, it’s a series of beautiful islands off the coast of Washington State, northwest of Seattle. Look it up on Google Maps. You may want to visit sometime too.

David’s first cousin, Pema, lives on Friday Harbour. She generously hosted us this weekend, along with other members of the family. Pema lives in, what I believe, one of the most beautiful places in the world. On first look at her house it seems like she lives in a treehouse. Her home overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and it’s built on bedrock surrounded by trees. It welcomes you as you approach.

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View from the second floor of Pema’s house. Like you are in a treehouse
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There are deer all over Friday Harbor. Here’s one hanging out near our car.

A ferry boat brought us from the mainland to Friday Harbor on Friday morning. I felt an immediate sense of calm as I drove my car off the ferry and into the streets of the island. There are no traffic lights on Friday Harbor, and there’s no need. People are friendly and polite.

A visit with family always begins with warm greetings and hugs upon arrival. A visit with family in Friday Harbor then includes getting cozy on a comfortable couch near the wood stove. That’s what we did. Pema’s house is open concept, and once we found our comfortable spots around the house, we dug in for an afternoon of relaxation. Or at least most of us did.

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Pema and Barbara show off the new tablecloth – a gift from Barbara

You see, the other great part about a visit with family is eating with family. David and I are also lucky that we come from families in which food plays a central role in all gatherings. David’s extended family, especially the Hart family, plans all gatherings around food. Much of the conversation is focused on what the last meal was and what the next meal will be, all while eating the current meal.

So, while some of us lazed around on the comfy couches, others, including our host, Pema, planned the meals, prepared the meals and cleaned up too. We enjoyed a wide range of delicacies this weekend, like roast chicken, vegan pot pie, cheeses, black cod, homemade fish cakes and more. And the desserts. Pema’s homemade apple pie and lemon tarts from a local bakery. Wow. I also just snacked on a pain au chocolat from the same bakery that had more dark chocolate loaded into it than any other I have ever tasted. Another wow.

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I can’t resist a local farmer’s market. Even Demeter bakery has a booth!
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The lemon tarts from Demeter. Amazing, don’t you think?

I would love to write that we took full advantage of the great outdoors and scenery around us this weekend, but really, we spent most of our time indoors. It was freezing outside. It even snowed a bit. We took one short walk all weekend, which was pleasant, but it was nice to return to the couch and warm house. And to get ready for more food.

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Matthew and Barbara on our walk
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Matthew climbed up the hillside, that has a greenhouse on top.
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Wall of moss. Will climb.
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It’s convenient when another member of the family is house-sitting, where there is a hot tub

I love to see the world and have a visit with family in some great cities like Hong Kong or London. But I also love a quiet weekend with family in special places like Friday Harbor. The warmth of the wood stove warmed my heart, but so did my time with close family.

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We can’t resist a selfie, especially on a ferry.
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We just had to take another selfie