Thursday, July 23, 2015

Portugal, continued...

If you should ever find yourself in Lisbon and in need of a rental car, I am going to suggest that you not go to Budget Rent a Car. In fact, I would strongly encourage you to crawl on your hands and knees, dragging your luggage behind you, all the way to your beach rental house, before you even consider renting a car from Budget. It will ultimately be easier, faster, and far less painful.

I originally reserved a rental car beginning a day and a half after we arrived, figuring we wouldn't need it while we were in the city. But Bart thought it would be a pain to go back to the airport to pick up a vehicle, so he wanted to get the car right when we arrived. Okay, fine. Only I couldn't change the reservation through their website. So I decided to simply stop by the rental car desk when we arrived and ask them if we could change the reservation.

The rental car employee looked up our reservation and said that no, unfortunately, there were no cars available.

No problem, I said, thanks for checking. Can you direct me to the taxi stand?

Well, she replied, hang on, let me check with my manager.

After a lengthy conversation in Portuguese, she told me they did have one car available, but the price might be a bit different. How much different?, I inquired. Well, she said, there's no way to know until we process the sale. We can go ahead and change the reservation, and if you don't like the price, we'll just revert back to the original reservation.

Seemed weird, but okay.

We spent the next hour going through the process. First, I had to choose a car (turns out, they went from zero cars to 4, which should've been my first clue something was wrong). Then we had to choose all of the options. Then we had to find a GPS and load it up in English. And on and on. But finally we had a car, and for only $1000 dollars. $1000 for an entire week? Not bad, and pretty much the same price we'd originally gotten.

But wait, it was $1000 for the additional 1 1/2 days. That works out to more than $500 per day. Per day.

Needless to say, I was pretty pissed that they'd wasted my first hour of vacation. We cancelled the transaction and went to find the taxi stand instead.

That was the easy part. When we went back 2 days later, it took us THREE AND A HALF HOURS to get a car from them. That's three and a half hours when I was not lying on a beach in Portugal. Three and a half hours when I was arguing with them about whether they were cheating us on the size of the car, and whether they should've mentioned that they only stock standard shift vehicles, which I can't drive. Three and a half hours of arguing with an employee about whether we were responsible for a scratch on a car that we hadn't even driven away in yet. Three and a half hours of trying to locate a GPS. Three and a half hours of moving luggage in and out of three separate cars.

It was an absolute nightmare.

The only thing that made it remotely tolerable was that Uncle Sean was with us, which meant the kids were entertained the entire time and we had a willing victim to keep our airport Starbucks mugs topped off.

But no. Avoid Budget Rent a Car at all costs. Disaster from beginning to end.

Eventually, we did make it to the beach house (no thanks to Budget's GPS, which didn't actually work properly and kept trying to force us off the highway at random). The rest of the family showed up shortly afterwards, and the real vacation commenced.

The cousins played, the siblings were too busy to fight, the mom (that'd be me) drank glass after glass of vino verde and sampled every kind of cheese the Portuguese grocery store had on offer. Sand got everywhere. Naps were taken. Pool toys were inflated and then popped.

It was lovely.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What I did on my summer vacation.

We're back from a long-awaited, all-too-short trip to Lisbon, Portugal.

The trip was planned as a 50th anniversary gift to Bart's parents (who refused, while there, to give us any advice on how to reach that milestone ourselves).

All of the brothers and cousins were there, along with two amazing sisters-in-law (yup, that'd be me and C). I'm telling you, I lucked out in the in-law department, because I love them all, every last one.

We arrived in Lisbon before the rest of the family, so we spent a day exploring the city before hooking up with the rest of them at our beach rental house.

A whole day to explore - but with 6 people to cart around, we didn't get far. It's okay, though. We did exactly zero prepping for the trip, so had only a vague idea of what we wanted to see. I had exactly four things on my to do list, and we managed to do three of them: we saw the Torre de Belem and the Castelo de São Jorge, and we had an amazing seafood meal. Okay, so maybe I'm the only one who had the seafood. But I guess since I'm the one who made the to do list, it's only fair that I got what I wanted.

We asked the concierge where we should go for dinner late that first evening when we rolled into town. He only had one solid recommendation, so we headed there and took seats without even asking to check out the menu. Well, it turns out it was a seafood restaurant. As in, that's pretty much all they served. I should mention here that Portugal isn't maybe the best place to vacation with 2 vegetarians and 3 kids who don't like seafood. The waiter was baffled when he came to our table bearing a tray of whole raw fish from which we were expected to make our dinner selection, and we asked instead what he could make that wasn't fish-related. He agreed to ask the chef to make "something out of vegetables." (It turned out to be one of the most delicious pasta-and-bean stews I've ever tried, anywhere.) Ainsley and Kyra then asked if he couldn't make them steak instead of fish, and he cheerfully agreed to that, too. I was the only one who ordered off the menu, and I've been dreaming about that garlic-shrimp-bread soup ever since.

The next morning, we walked from our hotel down the main street to the waterfront. (No need to mention the name of our hotel, as I really didn't like it at all, but the people who worked there were so unfailingly kind that I hate to complain about them in public.) The front desk clerk estimated it would take about 30 minutes to walk the distance, but she was waaaaay off - it was more like an hour and 30 minutes. Plus or minus stops for coffee and cups of fresh sliced mango and watermelon.

The main street was beautiful, with trees growing into canopies in many places. And yet I still got fried to a crisp that first day.

We walked down to the water, then hopped on a tram to the Torre de Belem. That's it, back there behind us. It was built on the Tagus River back in the 1500s, in part to defend the city and in part as a sort of ceremonial gateway. These days it's a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I had hoped to see the nearby monastery, but by the time we finished our tour of the tower, it was well beyond lunch time and the kids all needed a break. And a hamburger.

Later that evening, though, we found our way to another place I really wanted to see: the Castelo de São Jorge is perched high on a hill overlooking Lisbon and the Tagus River. The views from up there - amazing.

We walked all around the castle walls, stopping every 3 feet to take more photos. There really weren't any bad places to snap photos up there.

When it was time to leave, nobody wanted to walk down the steep narrow streets, so we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the bottom. It was maybe a 15-minute drive? But at the very end of the week's vacation, when I asked the kids what their favorite part of Portugal was, they all agreed that those 15 minutes in the tuk tuk were the best 15 minutes of the whole week. It was a bit, how to say?, terrifying. But we were all buckled in and we made it safely to the bottom.

At the bottom of the hill we wandered through a touristy street of cafes until we found one where I could try more seafood while the rest of the family could enjoy more not-seafood.  It was here that I first sampled vihno verde, a mildly sparkling Portuguese white wine. I'm ashamed to admit that once I tried it, I didn't stop drinking it for the entire week. So good.

We snapped the shot below while sitting in the tuk tuk. We laughed at the time, but I think it cursed us because tomorrow was much, much worse indeed.

But today. Today was lovely.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Monday, June 29, 2015

And she wrote back.

We lost another tooth this week.

And because it is summer, and because we are reading and writing and doing other school-ish things to pass the time, she decided to write a letter to the Tooth Fairy.

Can you read it? Here it is again, up close:

"thank you for the mone [sic] you are the best tooth Fairy
Please write a letter back!"

There was much excitement in the house the next morning when it was discovered that not only did the Tooth Fairy write back, but she wrote back with a pink pencil! And with such beautiful swirly letters!! And with exclamation points shaped like hearts!!!

"Wow," she said. "The tooth fairy really loves punctuation."

That she does.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Christ the Saviour Cathedral

Christ the Saviour Cathedral is located on the bank of the Moskva River, a few short steps from the Kremlin. We chose Father's Day to visit because nothing says Father's Day like letting the dad choose the day's outing.

Technically, it's a brand new church, but it has a long history. It was originally built in the 1800s, to commemorate and celebrate Napoleon Bonaparte's retreat from Russia. But in 1931, the Soviets had it demolished. They planned to build a monument to socialism on the spot, but they didn't have enough cash, so eventually they decided instead to convert it into a gigantic outdoor swimming pool. Makes sense. I mean, there must have been a spectacularly deep hole in the ground where the church originally stood.

Famous old picture of the 1931 demolition. I don't know who, if anyone, gets the photo credit, but I find it sort of haunting.
Some people aren't fans of the cathedral, simply because it was very recently restored - in the late-1990s - so it still has that new church smell. I actually like it for precisely the reason of its newness. The Russian government didn't have the funds to rebuild the church, and so they called upon ordinary Muscovites to donate to the cause, and donate they did. I like the idea that it was important enough to regular Russians that they banded together and got the church put back where it belongs.

You can find some amazing photographs of the cathedral if you dig through the internet. Sadly, we didn't get any amazing photos - we discovered after we arrived that our camera battery was dead because somebody (*coughbartcough*) left the camera on overnight. So we had to resort to taking a few poor quality phone pictures. Oh, well. It's almost to the point where it wouldn't be a real family outing without some sort of camera malfunction. I'm already wondering how we'll screw up our much-anticipated vacation photos later this summer.

I have no idea how to caption this photograph. But if you look closely, you'll see all 5 of my loved ones up there.

Me n' K. Photo credit A.

Me n' A. Photo credit K.

Taken from the bridge over the river.

After wandering around the cathedral for awhile, we took Bart out for pizza at a restaurant on one of Moscow's little pedestrian side streets. I won't recommend the restaurant because, while the pizza was great, the service was incredibly slow. Bad news for the kids, good news for me: it took so long to get our pizza that I changed the name from lunch to dinner, and I didn't have to make dinner that night. But it was all kinds of hilarious to see my kids' faces fall at 6 pm when I pulled a Father's Day cake out of the refrigerator and called it dinner. What kind of kid is disappointed at the idea of cake for dinner? My kids, apparently.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Goodbye, Again

Can it really be that time of year already, when houses empty out as people head on to new posts, leaving the rest of us behind?

I feel like we just did this: just said the tearful goodbyes and hugged best friends for the last time, maybe ever.

For me, it isn't such a big deal this summer. Truthfully? I can count the number of people I'll miss on one hand, and even that leaves a few fingers behind for typing. Maybe it's me, or maybe it's just the way this post works, but I haven't really bonded with too many people here. In fact, in the past year, I've been invited over to someone else's house, socially, for something non-work related, exactly two times. Not for lack of trying - we've invited plenty of people over here. I think people here are too busy somehow, or too closed off. Or maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places. Still, it's a stark contrast to Amman, where people floated in and out of each others' houses on a weekly basis.

It's different for the kids. Some of them have made fast friends this past school year, and saying goodbye to them is just so hard. There have been lots of tears shed over the past week. Just today, my youngest had to say goodbye to her "BFF," as she calls her friend B. I wasn't there when they said goodbye to one another - I didn't know exactly when the family was leaving, so I missed the traumatic goodbye scene. But she ran straight home and into my lap, cheeks flushed, eyes red with tears.

It never gets easier, the goodbyes. When I see my small babies hurting like that, and I know that we did this to them, that this transient life we lead did this to them, well, it just stings.

I know it's temporary. I know she'll have a new best friend within a few months, as will my other child, who had his own tearful goodbye this week. But even knowing that, it still hurts, because I can't make it better for them.

"Why do people always leave?" sobbed Ainsley, and how could I answer her? I don't know why, I told her. But I'm here. I'm not leaving you.

So we're circling the wagons as a family, trying to spend the long summer days together and hoping that in August, when the new families start rolling off of the airplanes into Moscow, there will somebody new for us to love.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Her last year of single digits. 

She's funny, kind, determined, stubborn, smart and frustrating. 

I love this girl.

She chose sushi and a pink chocolate cake for her birthday dinner. She says she wants to be a spy when she grows up so she can "fight bad guys."

Happy birthday sweet K.
Please. Write your own stuff.