Saturday, December 22, 2012

The kids meet Santa

We wanted to take the kids to see Santa, because they were worried he might not bring presents to the ranch and instead leave them in London.  It evidently wasn't sufficient that we had written him a letter and called him on the phone and had received a video for each kid confirming he would deliver the much anticipated gifts to ranch.  So we set off...

We ended up going to LapLandUK after the kids received personalized invitations from Santa's elves to come assist in the building of toys due to a shortfall of toys for the high percentage of children that had been good this year.  They couldn't wait.  Once we arrived, we were greeted by elves, taught elf songs and elf waves, and went off to build toys in Santa's workshop.  Sadly they didn't get to keep the teddy bears they built since the toys were to be passed out to good children on Christmas eve.  After that, decorating gingerbread men and ice skating kept them busy.  The huskies that were roaming around were good fun and a favorite as well. Both kids wrote new letters to Santa and then we were off to meet him.  The kids were so happy that he knew all about them (best friends, class year, favorite lovely's name, etc).  He assured them he would bring them their presents to the ranch and all the world became a better place instantaneously.

Video Highlights:

Texans meet Switzerland

Scott and I had wanted to visit Switzerland since we arrived Europe, but there was always other destinations to go to.  We decided to take a quick weekend trip to Zurich to see what it was like and hoped quietly for nothing more than some snow.  There were several highlights to the trip:

1.  The flight and hotel for both of us was FREE!  I love that!
2.  We arrived Friday night, ate dinner, and then slept for almost 12 hours.  I love sleep.
3.  We ventured out and saw the beautiful old town Zurich.  Cobblestone streets, Alps in the near distance,
      and beautiful rolling hills.  Amazing and just as we had imagined.
4.  We ate some delicious food and drank enough beer to make up for missing the night before.
5.  We woke up Sunday morning to SNOW!  Beautiful and giant flakes of snow covered everything.  The
      beautiful hilly city, was now one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
6.  Realizing we hadn't eaten the famous Swiss chocolate since we arrived, we stopped at the airport
     specialy chocolate shop and indulged.  No wonder it is famous.  It was delicious.

Zurich ended up being a wonderful weekend adventure that I wouldn't trade for the world.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The family actually cleans up!

Our friend Ashley Allen (from Katy) came over again a few weeks ago and did our family pictures again.  It was great seeing her and catching up.  As usual she made our crew look pretty good, all things considered!

A giant thanks to Ashley for traveling, shooting photos, and making us giggle.  We can't wait to see you in Texas!

Here's the video of many of the pictures.  There were so many, that I had to edit out over half!  Thanks Ashley!

Being thankful

Since we moved to Europe/United Kingdom, our Thankgsiving holidays have checked the box but haven't been over the top great.

Until this year.

This year we hosted a Thanksgiving holiday that included people from seven different countries, about 40 years age difference between the youngest adult to the oldest adult, and an array of different occupations.  Most had never participated in an American Thanksgiving.  I don't think anyone was disappointed in the array of food or drink.

Appreciating that we were short on space, Scott hired in a couple servers to help, and an entire Thanksgivings-worth of serving ware.  The feast was all homemade.  The turkey was so large that it wouldn't fit in our oven whole and had to be quartered to cook.  The best part:  the rental dishes didn't have to be washed.  They were stacked and picked up the very next morning.  I am wondering why we can't have rental dishes everyday!

We had such a great time with all of these new found friends.  It is indeed another reason I am sad to be leaving.

Below is a picture of what we started with.  In the midst of eating, drinking and socializing, I failed to get a picture of all of our guests.  I have it in my mind though as one of our best ex-pat holidays.

As Thanksgiving does, it reminded me of the things I am thankful for.  I am thankful for this opportunity to live abroad with my family, to experience other cultures, other people, and other ways of life.  I am thankful my kids have had the opportunity to see so much and understand that different is quite okay, and in many cases better.  I am thankful the friendships we have developed over here, both at work and socially.  It is bittersweet to have this particular holiday as our last in England.  Having said that, I am thankful to have plans to return to our ranch and see our friends and family in a few short weeks...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thai food everywhere!

Scott and I decided to take advantage of being "close" to the Far East and visit Thailand.  Michelle has been phenomenal with the kids, so it was nice to be able to comfortably leave them with someone other than my mom for an extended period of time to go somewhere "close" and exotic.  The "close" part ended up being as "close" as 12 hours on a jet can be.  We spoiled ourselves and upgraded to business which made it not quite as bad as it would have been without the more comfortable chairs and the ability to sleep for a few hours.

Once we arrived, the trip was completely worth the travel!  We spent several days in Bangkok doing everything from the river tour in a long-tail boat, to visiting a snake farm, to eating street food (and befriending the local who ran the...street place), to the highlight of Bangkok: taking a Thai cooking lesson from a local.  While all of the city that we saw was unbelievable to see and experience, by far, our favorite part was going to the local market with our cooking teacher, seeing the live frogs, eels, turtles, and various other creatures, shopping Thai-style and then cooking in her home some authentic Thai food.  It was deliciously fresh and proper Thai spice!!  We did enjoy the hustle and bustle of Bangkok but we were admittedly ready to leave after 3.5 days in the craziness.

Next, we flew down to Phuket.  It was unbelievably beautiful with the small rocky islands out in the sea, the rugged mountains, the magnificent rain forests, and of course the cascading waterfalls.  We stayed for the first 3 nights at an amazing place called the Pavilions.  I have stayed in a few swanky places, but this place beat them all.  It was so hilly that to go from our villa to the restaurant or bar, we needed to call for one of the employees to come pick us up in the golf cart.  It was warm (read: pretty hot), but our private and secluded pool was perfect to cool off in.  Really, if I could live there, I would've loved it!  Perhaps the second highlight of the trip was one night, four people came to our room and set up a barbecue poolside and the chef cooked all kinds of delicious meats, fish, prawns (the size of lobster), and more.  A-m-a-z-i-n-g.  Those who know us well will see the pattern of our favorite things involving really good food...

We did other things besides eat of course.  We went on an eco-adventure which was wild.  It included climbing and zip-lining through the rain forest.  I think the longest zip line we did was 400 meters, which took about 45 seconds to go down.  Exhilarating.  We also were able to see the Gibbons rehabilitation site which was heart warming.  To know that the monkeys are shot from the tops of the trees so that the babies can be used for tourist traps was sad, but it was nice to see the volunteers rescuing these monkeys and training them to be monkeys so that they can be released into the rain forest.  And of course the trip to the rain forest also included playing with the (giant) Asian elephants.  They were massive!
Our last night we stayed on Naka Island at a beautiful resort that is basically the only thing on the island.  It was nice and fun to stay in a hotel where you had to take a five minute speed boat ride just to get to it.  I will be honest and say that the "Tsunami Meeting Point" sign had me a little worried.  Fortunately it wasn't needed.

Overall, the trip to Thailand was a once in a life time adventure for us.  The food was amazing, the country was really beautiful, the sunsets the best I have ever seen, and the Thai people were gracious, pleasant, curious, warm and friendly.  We never went anywhere that we weren't greeted with a smile and a slight bow of the head.  Of course, if I was lucky enough to eat Thai food everyday, I dare say I would be as happy, pleasant and laid back as they were! 

Video highlights:

Honorable mention:

The street food is going to be good and spicy if tissues are on the table...

A "little" unexpected surprise at the snake farm for Scott.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Halloween 2012

As soon as we returned from the trip, we went and bought some pumpkins.  The kids spent about a half hour designing what their pumpkins would look like.  Here's the final outcomes:

We had loads of kids come to trick or treat.  Our kids of course hit the jackpot with candy and then they had fun passing out the candy to the late-comers.  Michelle also had her first Halloween.  I think she enjoyed it as much as the kids!

Friday, November 2, 2012

A tour of Eastern Europe with Mom and KC

Mom and KC came back for a visit in October.  It was great seeing them since we hadn't seen them since last Christmas.  They were here for a few days before we left on our great adventure!

Of course while in London, we had an obligatory pub crawl, which was fun and resulted in us getting free t-shirts (I think KC could have just gone on home at that point, he was so happy).  Mom and KC took Caden to the Eye of London and got some great visuals of London.  It is such a beautiful city.  It is giant and spread out but never lacking anything interesting to see no matter where you might be standing. Our next stop was Berlin.  The city was far more interesting that I thought it would be.  Between seeing checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall, riding our bikes inbetween the "no-man's land" of the Wall, and seeing various beautiful buildings, we also had time to eat some great food and the kids of course were excited about the indoor swimming pool.  Michelle was kind enough to take the kids swimming while the four of us took a bicycle tour.  The information the local gave us was fascinating.  For example, Hitler only won the election by 35% of the popular vote.  The aristrocrats gave him the votes to bump him to a minimum of 50% so that he could be in power.  I was also unaware that the same group (Hitler plus the aristocrats) took the poor and labourers and put them in "labor camps".  Hitler was smart enough to know he didn't need to outright kill them, because the conditions they were living in were sufficient to insure the people would live no more than 3-4 years.  Millions of Germans died in the manner according to our local guide.  Another gem I learned: outside of the large Berlin public library is a hole in the ground with a covered window that you can look into and see basically a cellar-style library with only empty shelves.  The quote next to it remarks something along the lines of "first they burn the books [of the Jews], next they burn the people".  Hmmmmm.... Seems to be good food for thought for our country...

We also happened to be there for the Festival of Lights.  The night shows were amazing!  Berlin turned out to be a favorite for Scott and I.

After Berlin, we went to Budapest.  What a beautiful city!  It certainly made us adjust our rankings of favorite European cities as it bumped its way into the top three.  With the towering palaces, the castles, the 4100 caves (under all of Hungary), the thermal baths, the open city squares, and the cheap food, we were in heaven!  The kids had a blast, which means the adults had a blast.  A must see for any one touring through Europe.

We decided to go through Vienna (our favorite European city) for the night so that Mom and KC could see it.  It was cold there, but again we think there may not be a more beautiful city in Europe...

Finally the highlight was Dubrovnik.  We spent four days sunning on the beach, touring the old world city center, and generally drinking too much beer.  The city is incredible as it sits on rocks and cliffs up the side of the mountain.  Just a few miles away is the country border with Bosnia.  Dubrovnik was warm, the people were kind, and the beer was cold. (-:  The only down side we experienced was the flight back to London from Dubrovnik.  Scott and I fly an often silly amount, but neither of us had ever experienced continuous and extremely turbulent flight for 2-plus hours.  The flight attendants were even a bit ill from the incredible bumpiness.  Mom and KC's bags neither one made it back to London on the return trip, but we're hopeful they have received all their baggage by now!  All in all, an incredible adventure for all of us as well as the children.  We're looking forward to the next one!

Here's the video highlights:

And of course the honorable mentions!

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin...

The somewhat angry king and queen?!?

The very cool memorial to the Holocaust victims in Berlin...

The purple man sunbathing in Dubrovnik?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Nearing an end...

It has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster these last few weeks.  This week, I informed my team at work that I would be returning to the USA at the end of the year.  Of course I cried (as I hoped, and was even sure, I wouldn't do!).  A little of me feels like I have let them down by leaving, and alot of me simply doesn't want to return to the States.  And of course these people, even though technically I am their manager, have become friends.  It's like leaving an entire lifetime behind. 

The part about returning to the States seems so depressing.  Watching the news from afar is honestly far more depressing than living in the news!  It seems while we lived there, I was desensitized by many of the horrible things in our everyday life.  The politics (not just politics but the nastiness seemingly reserved for the USA citizens), the shooting violence, the poor (ever increasing), the sick (also overlaps for many as the poor), etc.... The madness of it all seems overwhelming to go back to. 

Now I feel certain many of my American friends will be offended to hear these things, but one of the things that living overseas has given me is a different view.  While the USA is a great country, many might argue the best in the world, it has so many glaring things wrong with it.  Without going on a political tirade (not the point of this post), I can say that we as a family have found it safer, healthier, more moderate (politically and religiously), more family friendly, and generally just a better place to raise children here in Europe/UK.  Now to provide balance to the argument, I have to say that it is outrageously expensive to live here.  One tank of gas for the car is about $170.  Food is more expensive, housing is more expensive, everything is more expensive.  And also, there isn't good Mexican food (tex-mex or Mexican) and there aren't garbage disposals.  All three of those things are glaring problems with living here!

The things I will miss the most:  walking home from the tube in the middle of the night without worrying about safety; the fresh clean air (yes even in a city of 12 million, but admittedly predominantly due to lack of humidity); the parks on every corner; the produce that was sourced locally that has flavor and natural color (and the minimum amounts of high fructose corn syrup here); the beef that is grass fed (the cheapest and most available option, not to mention the  most delicious!); the mass transit - be it bus, train, or tube; the happy workers that are paid livable wages irrespective of what their jobs are; the fact that if one of us gets really sick - I don't worry about going bankrupt; the civilized politics; the fun and cool adventures we get to go on that are in basically in our back yard; and of course, the people I have met and become close to.

I know that many of these things are simply inconceivable to some Americans.  The idea that anywhere could be better than the good ole U S of A is a foreign concept.  I left the USA thinking that there is simply nothing better, but since it is a short committment, why not.  I was horrified at the idea of nationalized medicine.  I was horrified at the thought of taking the tube or bus anywhere, especially after the bombings.  I was certain that the food we get in Texas is as good as anywhere else.  I was wrong on all accounts. 

We have been so forunate to live here.  The kids have experienced more in these last 2.5 years than Scott and I ever did combined in our first multiple decades of life!  I certianly have grown and changed as a result of this adventure. 

I am excited about getting to see our friends and family in the USA.  I'm excited about going to the ranch again for fun and relaxing weekends.  I'm excited that Scott will be surrounded by adults again during the day versus just having Skype and phones to work through.  And no matter how sad I am about coming over, I realize that there are sooooo many worse things that could happen to us and our family.  We are lucky to not be fighting any terminal diseases, fortunate that we are healthy, fortunate that we have medical care if we need it, fortunate that we have a great house and food to eat, fortunate that we have friends and family to return to... And the list goes on.  So forgive me for being down and melancholy, I can in fact see the bigger picture.  The pity party will end soon.  And afterall, we still have at least two amazing adventures coming before we head back, so those will certainly help to turn this frown upside down!

In the mean time, we begin the tedious preparations for another international move.  I can say that I hope it isn't our last!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

September stayed busy

September was a very busy month for us. The kids kept us running all over the place and the weather, for the most part, was absolutely beautiful.

The Falcons School started back the first week of September. After a good summer break, the kids were eager to go back to school. Weekends were quite busy. We had Saturday mornings at football practice and horseback riding lessons in Richmond Park. The kids have also able to take piano lessons and chess lessons at school which I love! Scott was able to secure a small keyboard for the family until we move so the kids could practice at home as well. I really hope to continue the music lessons once we return to the states. I must admit, one of the biggest things I miss from Houston is our piano and the music playing throughout the house during the day.

The football lessons have demonstrated that probably our children (at least one of our children) will not be athletically gifted. (That's the nicest way I could think to say that Caden would rather pick the grass out in the field than run after the ball...) However, they are both really good at chess and math. Caden can almost beat me in chess already.  (I'm uncertain if that means he is really good or I am really bad?!)

Scott and I also had some fun.  We went and saw a band at Shephard's Bush, and we had multiple delicious dinners on date nights.

At the end of September, a friend of ours Ashley Allen came over from Houston for several days. It was great to see a fellow American/Texan. We had a good time while she was here. That same weekend, we went and saw even more sights, but unfortunately I didn't take my camera. However, in the video, you can see the pictures from Postman's Park. This particular park is one of my favorite places in the city. It is a small green space hidden between some buildings behind St Paul's Cathedral. It is a peaceful but also somewhat sad place. The park is a memorial to those who have died while saving the lives of other people. Many of them are children that are memorialized through small but tasteful plaques. Ashley took several pictures of the kids there so I am hoping that they turn out well. It is such a special place...

All in all, the family was very busy but we definitely enjoyed every aspect of the month.  The sightseeing, the weather, the visitor, the kids, the activities, etc...  We are a lucky little family indeed.

Honorable Mentions:
Keali and I climbed 528 steps to the top of St Paul's Cathedral.  The view over London was absolutely amazing.

This picture cracked me up.  If you double click it to read the sign, you will see why.

The video highlights:

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Coming out of the closet

While this blog has been predominantly aimed at documenting our adventures while living overseas, there has been an occasion to share more intimate stories. One of the stories I feel compelled to share is that of our family's experience with religion while here. I feel confident that my parents will not be too happy with this post, but look at it this way, Mom and Dad: you raised an independent thinker!

I was raised in the Baptist and Methodist churches until I left home to go to university. From that point on, I had little to no religion in my life. I was surrounded by very religious people even after I left home however (I was in Texas after all!). I never understood Christianity. I never understood the believing in it. All I saw were the reasons and science to not just question it, but to understand that what I had been raised to believe in simply couldn't possibly be. I felt very much like this was my secret and (for lack of a better pun) my cross to silently bear.

After I met Scott, I felt better that I wasn't alone. He was/is one of the nicest, most honest, most caring people I have ever known. And all that without religion. Don't get me wrong here, some of my friends and even a very select few of my family had given up on this biblical religion. Even then, it wasn't something we really talked about. We kept up and continue to keep up the good front: Scott and I were married by a Methodist preacher out at the ranch (in possibly the most fun wedding ever!). A prayer was said at the wedding. When we go to funerals and weddings, we of course do the "Our Father who art in Heaven" chant. We participate as sincerely and genuinely as anyone else in the room.

In Texas, Caden attends a Catholic all boys school. It is perhaps one of the best schools in the world. It is a fantastic place for him to learn and to be exposed, yes, to religion. We want our kids to have the option of religion. Part of me wants this so that they have commonality with the many people they will be surrounded with. Part of me wants it so they can experience the good and the bad of those who are "religious" and those who aren't religious. But mostly, I want them to make their own choice.

The thing that living abroad has afforded me is the understanding that this non-belief isn't a bad thing. In fact, living away from the USA, I now understand that the religious movement where we lived in the USA is extreme. I don't mean extreme, as in extremists killing, etc. I mean, extreme in the sense of it being pervasive in everything. If I open Facebook, at least half of the posts will be scripture or variations of scripture. That simply isn't the case here in the UK or in Holland. Most of the people here are open and will tell you without hesitation that they are atheist. (I showed one of my coworkers my FB page one morning on a field visit. He was shocked and said, "If a friend of mine posted anything like that on FB, he would be either joking, or asking for being mocked by everyone else. Either way, he would never do it again!") There certainly isn't a feeling of exclusion because of atheism.

Living here, I have been exposed to more people "like me", come to learn a great deal about Hinduism from my coworkers, and seen the acceptance of people of all religions, as well as no religions. No one looks twice here at a man with a turban on, or a woman with a burqu on. I have come to appreciate this. And, well, I do have a sense of dread going back to a place where you aren't equal if you aren't Christian.

The recent election coverage has made this religious movement even more pervasive than it previously was, to me at least. Now I find that people are actually going to make their decision on a candidate who appears more Christian than another. In fact, one side accuses the other side of being Muslim to further ostricize him from the very religious voters (all the while knowing that he is in fact a Christian... not that it should matter). I find postings daily on FB that they will vote for a candidate because he has "God in his corner" or that we need a "more Godly" man as President. This is so disturbing to me. It suggests that if they aren't religious enough, they aren't good enough. Ridiculous.

What I have found in this journey is that many people who don't believe are often more caring, honest, and generally moral than many of those who consider themselves very religious. (I would say that religion belongs on its own spectrum from morality. They are simply not related. At least not in practice.) Religion doesn't make you a better person. In fact, religion seems to be a crutch for many (not all) to fall back on as they go on to knowingly do things that are clearly not right to do. (The recent speech by the newest VP candidate was a great example of this where he literally presented lies (not twisting the truth, but blatantly lying) about events that had been proven false time and time again in order to get his crowd fired up. How does religion approve of that? How do the truly religious approve of this? I am confused by it because the very religious are the ones supporting this.)

So, I guess the whole point of this post is for me to come out of the closet on religion. I expect I will have some "defriend" me on FB, some may even offer prayers for me, some will politely smile at me next time we meet yet think of me differently. All that's fine. It's fine by me if you choose to believe in God or the Bible. If you are Mormon, Hindu, Catholic, or even a Scientologist, that's great. Believe. Have faith. But don't expect others to just because you do. Don't consider yourself better or more moral. You're not. Religion doesn't make you a good person. Morals do. A person can be moral without being religious.

And as a last note on here, a special thanks to my cousin EJ who shared a Thomas Jefferson quote with me this morning:
"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear."

A busy week at Center Parks

While we have been quite busy exploring this year, we haven't taken off more than a day or two at a time of holiday since February (I took off four days to go to Lanzarote with the fam). So we went all out and took off another four days and strategically scheduled a week away around a bank holiday weekend.

The kids had been dying to go to Center Parcs. Center Parks (or as the Brits would say: Centre Parcs) is a giant park where there are more activities to choose from than anyone would ever possibly have time to do. When you arrive, you park your vehicle at the front and the remainder of the time to move around the camp, you must walk, bike or take the land train. Let me summarize by saying we had a blast, even though it rained for four of the five days we were there.

We lost a half day due to a eye issue with Caden where we had to take him to the doctor, but aside from that, we were extremely busy having fun. Activities including: swimming in the sub-tropical swimming paradise (paradise is an understatement), cross-bow practice for the kids, rock wall climbing, playing in the woods, biking, fishing, playing on the sandy beach, chef school for the kids, and (possibly the favorite amongst the little people) wizard and fairy university. And just for clarification, the fishing really should've been called catching. The kids caught more fish by running the net through the water than using the fishing pole and bait! The squeals of delight made it extremely fun...

The video highlights:

Honorable mention:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Me no zpeek Rushkan...

Scott and I decided to take a quick trip to St Petersburg Russia. It sounds like a long and involved trip, but in reality it is only about 3 hours from England. Involved, though, it is. We had to have Russian issued visas in order to go for the four day weekend. That in and of itself was "involved" and fairly expensive. We were eager to see if the trouble would be worth it.

We arrived on Friday afternoon. The Grand Hotel Europe was simply amazing. We were impressed with just the size of the place as well as the service. For 300 rooms, there were 500 employees which was a pretty amazing stat to me. We weren't sure what to expect from St Petersburg since we didn't have time to research it before going. We had a fun four days while there, but that was certainly all the time we needed to be there!

Pussy Riot was arrested during our trip for "hooliganism" (speaking out about Putin), so we made a point to have a beer in the local pub called O'Hooligans. St Petersburg is a beautiful city, with little to no crime. The fine arts are what one would go to see in this very European (versus Russian) city. The Hermitage is the large art museum (large doesn't really do it justice) that everyone knows. I realize some people could spend days in this building, but I was done in about 30 minutes. Admittedly, I am not very cultured!

It is expensive to eat and drink and the food... leaves a little to be desired. Borsch soup: looks better than it tastes.

The one thing I was hoping to see and we did was one of the "ice cream top" churches. The Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood was a beautiful building. It was massive inside as well with the entire inside being decorated with only mosaics. Without question, it was one of the prettiest interiors, and most labor intensive, of all the churches I have seen. Each of the ice cream tops on the outside seemed to correlate with a small dome inside where a face had been mosaic'ed onto the ceiling.

The video highlights:

Monday, August 13, 2012

Another big day in the Hooper world...

Caden has mastered the art of "cycling" (as he calls it)! (How very British of him!) He was tenacious and determined this weekend and now our family is completely and totally mobile! We have already been out exploring the Thames River. We are proud of him and so excited for this very big step in the world of little-kid-dom.

And if you needed a video to see exactly how cute he is, then this is for you: