Up North

As I enjoyed the 70 + degree weather today, my mind goes immediately to our holiday last October, when we also experienced unseasonable 70 degree weather.  Our Indian Summer, or Autumn holiday we experienced Up North, which is a special term generally referring to a place in Michigan in the Northwest part of the state.  My husband had the idea of a Fall color tour; I researched southern Indiana, Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and some other places.  But then we both decided over Sunday breakfast one day that the State of Michigan’s economy could use our tourist dollars, and was also less driving time with kids.  So Up North was chosen.

I was born and raised in Michigan, but I never spent much time in the Northwest area of the state.

Glen Lake view

And may I say WOW!  It is beautiful!  Good Morning America’s viewers recently voted Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the most beautiful place in America (read story here) and now I see why.  You can stand on a sand dune and peek over to Lake Michigan on one side, with the Manitou Islands in view, while still seeing Little Glen and Big Glen Lakes on the other.  The trees were beginning to turn.  It was absolutely magnificent!  We could have easily spent days there, as the entire national park encompasses an area over 30 miles.

So now for a refresher geology course, courtesy of the National Lakeshore.  Glaciers carried a lot of sand and sediment, and when they melted, large hills were left.  Combined with the wind off the lake, a sand dune is formed.  Imagine how big those glaciers once were to leave such a large sand dune!  In Michigan, we are surrounded by sand dunes.  And Glen Lake actually used to be connected to Lake Michigan as glacial erosion carved out both lakes during the ice age.  Then a sand bar developed, which is actually where the present day village of Glen Arbor sits – where we lodged during our journey.

More facts we learned on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which includes both the dunes and a maple-beech forest: how the dune got its name.  The Sleeping Bear Dune has thick vegetation, resembling a bear with its dark, shaggy appearance.  And the Chippewa Indians tell this story:

“Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire.  The bears swam for many hours, but eventually the cubs lagged behind.  Mother bear reached the shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to wait for her cubs.  Too tired to continue, the cubs drowned within sight of the shore.  The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the faithful mother bear.”

View of Lake Michigan & Manitou Islands

The two islands, now named North and South Manitou Islands, can be visited via ferry boat, daily in the summer season and less frequent in the off season.  From what I understand, they are remote camping islands, and for this family, will be visited in the future when we can do it as a day trip.

In true family fashion, we set out to climb the dune, not really understanding what was in front of us.  Sure we could see the top of one dune, but little did we know there were actually about four more ridges to climb over after that one in order to see Lake Michigan!  About half way up the first dune, we realize our two year old has a dirty diaper.  But thinking that were almost there, we trudge ahead.  By about the third ridge, a crying two year old, whining four year old (are we there yet?), and drill sergeant husband all combine to one heck of a tiring morning! But the beauty was magnificent.

After finding lunch at a local tavern, we head south toward the visitors center in Empire, Michigan.  Our children have just fallen asleep, so we seek out another scenic drive and head over to Bar Lake – it looks interesting on the map.  We pass a public beach, but much smaller and rural than ours at home, and then notice some beautiful homes in the distance.  Imagine owning a house here, literally sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Bar Lake on this sliver of land, probably no larger than 50 yards.  Needless to say I bet they don’t have basements!  The drive eventually turned into a private road so we turn around.

Chateau Grand Traverse Winery

We were lucky to have a few hours without the children to tour the wine country on Old Mission Peninsula.  And we also got an impromptu refresher on remembering how to read a map when the GPS fails.  This small sliver of a peninsula in Grand Traverse Bay offers about 7 or so wineries and the drive was absolutely beautiful.  At the tip, there was a lighthouse we could tour.  And it was not only for wine lovers; my husband also found one of his faves – the Jolly Pumpkin Brewery – and we had a nice lunch there too.

We ventured to Leelanau Peninsula on our next driving day.  While larger than Old Mission Peninsula, it was a big farther from our hotel so we really just took it as a driving tour of another magnificent scenic drive, complete with wineries and a lighthouse museum again at the tip.  Oh, and a snake family I almost stepped on at the lighthouse!  I am not a serpent lover, so I quickly hopped over them. They were either very young (imagine large worm-sized) or some type of very small species.  Yuck!

Although Traverse City is the major city in that region, we didn’t spend a lot of time there, other than some short, memory-making pit stops:

  •  Finding a playground on Grand Traverse Bay at an opportune time when my children really needed it, and my two year old wading in the Bay when we had the unseasonably warm mid-70 degree weather;
  • My husband finding another local brewery that just so happened to have a salon in the same building where we could get the kids’ haircuts;
  • Stopping for pasties at the side of the road, reminding us very much of our Cornwall, England adventure

The mission of this trip was really to explore the natural wonders of our state.  And we were so blessed to have the opportunity!  It is amazing what might be in your backyard that you never knew about.  Ahh, one of the few things I remember from my seventh grade Michigan History class, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you!”

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Real Women Have Curves!

So where can you go work out and have great conversations with other strong women of all ages?  No, it’s not your mama’s workout gym.  It’s a phenomenon that has changed women’s fitness.  It is Curves, and Curves franchises are popping up everywhere.  It is the ninth largest franchise in the country.  I have just learned there is one Curves for every two McDonalds in America.

Since I’m not walking as often as I was, living in London, I decided I needed to do something, on a regular basis, and it needed to be quick, with two small kids at home.  When I visited Curves a few months before joining, I had misgivings.

My misconceptions:

“I’ll be the only one under 40.”

“Will it be challenging enough?”

“Will it work?”

No.  Yes.  Yes!

The brilliant thing is that you can truly do it at your own pace.  The more you put in, the more you will get out of it.  The circuit takes only 30 minutes to complete.  And the time flies because usually you are chatting it up with others working out, as the circuit sits in a circle so you are facing each other.  They’ve added a workout incorporating Zumba, which is fun and challenging.

So I’ve been indoctrinated.  Now I’m a believer.  On any given day, I work out next to women in their 20s or women in their 80s (I believe my local Curves’ oldest member just turned 90 this year…go Dinah!).  So check it out.  I feel better and have more energy.  Soon I’ll be running circles around my kids…which, if you know them, this is saying a lot!

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The Pacific Northwest

When I say the name Pacific Northwest, one word comes to mind – OUTDOORS.  I’ve always thought – and here comes a generalization – as though people who live there spend on average a much larger portion of their day outside.  And as a result – or maybe just as correlation – they are generally more relaxed also.  After visiting, I think this is true.

We had the fortune of traveling to the Pacific Northwest and the end of summer, and what a trip! Sunshine literally every day, even in Seattle, which I hear is rare.

A few points that are typical of (US) travel with kids that I had kind of forgotten about.

  1.  No matter how attractive the Southwest Airlines fare – do not – under any circumstances – arrange a stopover in Vegas, if you have small children. I had forgotten there are slot machines literally everywhere in the airport.  My almost two year old doesn’t quite understand the 18 and over only signs and didn’t understand why mommy wouldn’t let him push the buttons.  Luckily for us, it was a short layover.
  2. Just don’t change planes with kids, if you can help it.  With all their stuff, you really feel like a clown act, unpacking it all for a very short flight, to repack it, and then do that all over again on plane #2.  We get caught by that rule every time.  We see a cheaper fare by $100, and think, “oh, we’ll just change planes.”  Once the day comes are we’re actually doing it, we say, “wow, it is totally worth the extra $100 to NOT change planes.”  So find out what your dollar “breakeven” point is – and keep that in mind when booking.  And if you must change, make it on the way there, when you have the most energy.

We landed at the Seattle Tacoma Airport, and jumped into the rental car and drove directly toward Vancouver, arranging a stopover in Bellingham, Washington, a cozy little seaside town.  Knowing this would be 10 days filled with many hours in the car, I arranged to stay at a hotel with an indoor pool; sometimes my children, ages one and four, only remember the pool, or when asked what their favorite part of the trip was, it was swimming!  We toured historic Fairhaven, with its cute downtown area, reminding me quite a bit of my home town of New Buffalo, Michigan, except with hills.  Surrounded by unique shops, art galleries, and of course, coffee shops (more to come later), in the late 19thcentury Fairhaven was believed to be the next Chicago, with rumors that the second northern transcontinental railroad would be built to terminate there.  However, these plans changed, and the railroad chose a site further south.  But Fairhaven remains a very quaint, cute place, and with nationally designated historic district as most of its downtown.

The Village Green

They have a fabulous town square they call the Village Green, pictured here, with its decorative wooden pergola, looking as if it was specifically made for hosting many outdoor events and farmers markets throughout the week.  With a downtown as inviting as this, it just calls you to enjoy the outdoors.

We ventured down the hill to the cruise terminal, where boats leave for Alaska and the San Juan Islands, both of which are places on my list to visit.  By late morning, it was back in the car.

Vancouver, British Colombia, has an earthy, urban feel.  We were lucky to stay with friends who used to live in Chicago, to avoid the exorbitant lodging costs.  With Vancouver only

Peace Arch

about a three hour drive from Seattle, it was a place we couldn’t miss. We managed our way through Border Crossing in about 30 minutes, which was fun with kids.  We discussed with our daughter what it was and why the officers checked our passports.  I love travel planning and sometimes I plan out each day – what we see, what we do, sometimes even where we eat!  But for this trip, I had basically figured out the lodging, and that was it.  It is sometimes fun not having an agenda.  So we did what we usually do when we’re in a new city.  First, ask, “What do all large cities have for kids?  Zoos, aquariums, parks, museums, and in this case, waterfronts.”  So into our GPS we programmed our first destination – the Vancouver Aquarium.  Along the way, we were not at all prepared to enter Stanley Park, a 1000 acre oasis situated on the North coast of Vancouver, and the city’s first public green space.  It was a beautiful a combination of forest, waterfront, play grounds, splash pad, trains, a theatre, and the reason we came – the Vancouver Aquarium.  It had a unique indoor/outdoor footprint so we were able to enjoy the beautiful weather while we watched the dolphin show.

After having lunch, we wandered into Klahowya Village, an authentic First Nations exhibit honoring some of present day British Colombia’s first inhabitants, and giving a glimpse into their culture and heritage.  In the US, we use the term Native American for our native population; in BC and other parts of Canada, they use “First Nations.”  There were aboriginal performers, dancers, story tellers, and crafts, and the miniature train ride was themed to an ancient legend “The Raven Saving the Sun.”  What a great day!  And it was fabulous to find so much green space in an otherwise very densely populated city.

Day two was spent in Granville Island, filled with markets, shops, street performers and its

Street performer in a box!

own kids market, complete with indoor climbing structure and outdoor splash/water park area. I was reminded of what I miss about large cities: being able to get just about any type of food you want, made any way you want, at any time of day you want.  Indian at 2 a.m.? No problem.

Granville Island Water Park

Gluten free pizza crust with no sugar added tomato sauce?  Not an eye was batted.  Our kids had a blast staying with friends that were close in ages to them, and we were lucky to come back to a home, rather than hotel room, each night.

After two glorious days in Vancouver, complete with biking hills for the guys, and shopping at Whole Foods for the girls, followed by a foot massage, we made way to rural Washington State, whose beauty of tall trees and cliffs I believe is one of America’s

Washington State

hidden gems; and its bounty is surprisingly similar to my home state of Michigan.  We passed multiple farm stands advertising local berries, peaches, pears, corn, grapes and of course, apples.  It was an opportune chance to speak to my children about farming and growing; my inquisitive four year old was excited to see so many “Christmas” trees growing in the mountains!

Washington sunset

I was impressed by one of the most perfect sunsets I’ve ever seen, and that is saying a lot since I grew up near the water.

After a few days taking in the rural beauty, we headed to Seattle.  Now, I took a few minutes before we left on our journey to speak to the children about what we would see.  Not ever having been there, my knowledge was limited.  But of course I knew of the Space Needle and monorail, which was maybe enough for my daughter’s four year old mind.  We chatted a few minutes and that was it.  So many days later when we arrive in Seattle, she is asking me about the “Space Pin.”  My husband and I laughed out loud, and it just goes to show that sometimes kids really are listening to what you say even when they are standing there with that silent, confused look!

Seattle really is the city of coffee shops.  Of course, we had to trek to the very first Starbucks in the bustling Pike Place Market with my coffee loving husband.  Eleanor got

Fish Market

the celebratory ice pack on her head at the fish market.  Pike Place Market is sometimes called the first farmer’s market.  As the story goes, back in 1906, the cost of onions had risen tenfold in a year.  Outraged consumers found a friend in city councilman Thomas Revelle, who proposed using a public space for farmers to sell their produce directly to the consumer, cutting out the middleman.  The site would be at the corner Pike Street and First Avenue, and on that first day, eight farmers showed up to sell their bounty – and the crowd that showed up to buy was close to ten thousand!  The produce ran out at 11:00 a.m., and many consumers left empty handed, but out of that chaos, a new concept was born.  And by 1907, the indoor market building was completed, and each space was filled.

Pike Place Market

Today, space is still rented by the day, and occupied by approximately 100 farmers and 190 crafters; and they are joined by 240 street musicians and entertainers, making Pike Place Market one of Washington State’s most frequently visited sites, by up to approximately 10 million people per year.

There is great seafood and a good selection of ethnic foods.  We wandered into an Indian grocer across the way from a German deli and store, near a Polish bakery and then an ice cream shop.  And kudos to the German jerky we purchased – delicious!

But even beyond Pike Place, there really is coffee on every corner.  And there were even unique signs posted about where you can – and cannot – consume coffee – like this one at the Seattle Children’s Museum.  It reminded us yes, coffee is everywhere, but where and how you can consume your coffee can be regulated; according to the sign, it must have a spill proof lid, and it even gave brewing temperature guidelines!  We walked for two days straight, mostly along Seattle’s waterfront, went up in the Space “Pin,” and spent our final day on a harbor cruise overlooking the markets on one side and Mount Rainier on the other.

Ten days is a long trip with children.  We had our requisite DVDs, car toys, coloring books, travel games, etc., which helped us get through the long stretches in the car.  But you definitely wouldn’t need to force me to go back again.  In fact, we moved around so much, that we really want to go back when we can have more time in each spot.  What I tell my husband – once the kids are out of diapers and car seats (and sleeping through the night, which ours are not) – all of a sudden, travel will become much easier!

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Home, or on Vacation?

After spending almost two years living as expats in London, my family and I have settled back into U.S. life, adjusted to new pre-schools, culture and it has been interesting watching my daughter.  We left when she was just age 2 1/2, so I doubt she remembers much before leaving for London.  I’m finding many of her memories exist there.  Not only in vocabulary – it’s pram instead of stroller, and a bin instead of garbage can – but also in her many, many questions.  She is in that “Why?” stage and many of her inquiries circle around everyday life and culture.

“Why are we driving everywhere?”  (Because it’s cold.)

“Why aren’t there trains?”                  (Because most U.S. cities are so spread out.)

“Why is there food at the store that is bad for us?  (Because it’s cheaper to make.)

“Why is it so cold?”                            (Because we live in Michigan.)

While we adults know we have returned home to the US, it may seem like a holiday for her, as just yesterday, she said she didn’t want to get on an airplane unless it was going to London.

As great as it was living abroad, you do feel like a section of your US life is missing.  I remember this well when I studied in Rome in 1993-94 especially, before the days where everyone had internet, mobile phones, and laptops, since news happenings were not as fluid as they are today.  Still, there are news stories we missed (hey who is Casey Anthony?), not to mention births, marriages, deaths, etc. of friends and colleagues.  Speaking of news cycle, the news abroad is definitely more world-centered rather than US centered, so while we missed some US stories, we were well versed in what was happening in Africa, Europe, and everywhere else.

We are in a rural area of Southwest Michigan, and live about four blocks from the beach, and it’s beginning to become tourist season here.  Dear daughter’s pre-school has finished for the year, another sign of impending summer, vacation, and holidays.  You can tell your in a resort town when the local bank has a sign such as this posted in its window.

Rural life has become a bit slower, but it has been nice to slow down.  Friends of ours recently moved to Australia with their two children, so I guess it’s our turn to live vicariously through them for a little while.

Perhaps the key to really enjoying life where you are is to live like you are a tourist in your own town.  So we’re walking to the beach; seeking out playgrounds and ball fields; visiting the local school carnival; eating ice cream; playing in the rain.  One thing traveling has taught me is to live it up where you are because you never know when you might be back there again.  No harm in adopting that attitude here I don’t think?  It is easy to fall into the trap of being so focused on where are we going and what are we doing that we don’t enjoy life to the fullest.  My goal this year is to live in the moment.

In a recent article posted at WholeLiving.com, Sister Karol Jackowski wrote “The Road to Real Success: Four Simple Steps.”

  • Be glad to be you
  • Love what you do
  • Don’t give up
  • Don’t be a know-it-all

I’ll be incorporating these into my new “live in the moment” attitude.  And maybe I’ll spot you at the beach this summer?

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An Education

So our short time in London has come to an end.  I can hardly believe 18 months has gone by.  While living abroad, I’ve learned about myself, others, nations, culture.  I’ve seen the pyramids in Egypt, the hills of Ireland, countless castles and was whisked away on the two hour Eurostar train to Paris for the weekend.  My daughter talks often of the “great big world we live in and how many places there are to see, like Egypt, and Spain and California and London.”  My challenge now will be keeping the perspective fresh for her, and instilling this perspective in her younger brother as he grows.
As much as I miss my family, travel is what makes me tick.  It is what I love, what I live for.  Sure I also missed many of the American comforts, like large washing machines, clothes dryers, “lazy boy” like driver’s seats, even driving a car.  But I love travel.  Folks may say it has made me more worldly or smart (clever, as they’d say in England), but really it has been an education.  To live in London, as cosmopolitan as it is, has been an education on people, culture, nations, races.  I was lucky to have the opportunity and hope to have the chance to live abroad again.  What a fantastic way to learn!
Sitting in a café as I wrote some of this, I was thinking how I’ll miss my cappuccino and pain au chocolat, our lovely child care provider who has given me the freedom to write (and exercise regularly!) a couple mornings a week, who the children absolutely adore.And there are more practical things I will miss:  Walking everywhere; more free museums than one can imagine; finding green parks everywhere; groceries and milk delivered to my door; my daughter’s fabulous pre-school.What I will not miss:  Walking everywhere; traffic jams all hours of the day; our tiny flat; finding no grocery stores open past 5pm on Sundays.
While this is the end of living abroad (for now!), it is not the end of my blog, as I have so much more to write about, like our Eurostar adventure to Paris; our beautiful long weekend in Ireland, and quirky things like what the heck are “man size” tissues?  And some new topics to talk about too.  I hope you’ll keep in touch as we re-acclimate to American life.

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London Transport Museum

We happened upon the London Transport Museum one sunny afternoon in search of air conditioning.  What we found was so much more: loads of history on all forms of transportation, in a compact museum nestled among Covent Garden’s outdoor cafes, shops and street performers.

I thought I knew quite a bit about London’s tubes, busses and tramlinks, as it is our primary mode of transport, not owning a car.  Now knowing the history makes it even more fun to jump on the bus!

In 1800, most Londoners didn’t live beyond walking distance of their work, shops, and churches.  Everybody walked. The first real mode of public transport became known as the Hackney Carriage, a horse drawn carriage from the Hackney area that would be hired out for travel between London and outside the city limits, solely by the wealthy.  The name stuck, as Hackney Carriage remains the official name of London’s “black cab” today.

With the railway boom of the 1830s-1840s, all modes of transport were leading to London, creating busy and dangerous roadways.  A solution was proposed in 1860’s: an underground railway system.  Construction began with the “cut and cover” method: shallow ditches were dug, then roofed over to create the tunnel.  By 1884, three underground lines were up and running.  While this was an amazing technical accomplishment, using steam trains underground created quite an odor and haze.  As described in a Times Editorial, the stench while riding the Underground was a “form of mild torture that no person would undergo if he could conveniently help it.”  By the early 1900s eight core underground lines were operational, and not until the 1960s was capacity increased with the addition of the Victoria Line.  Today, the 13 lines of the London Underground carry approximately 3 million people daily, and if you squint you can probably see all 13 on the map, right.

Another advent around the birth of the “tube” was the tramway, better described as a horse tram, as early as the 1850s in Britain, following the 1830’s example in New York and New Orleans. George Francis Train gets credit for these, and in 1870 tramways became the first mode of transport that most Londoners could afford to use.

In the 1890s, many other cities had electric tramways and taxis, but by 1900, London was still using 50,000 horses to pull passengers from one corner of London to the other.  For one vehicle to operate for one day, six horse changes were required, or 12 per vehicle per day.  But London finally got on board and by 1915 most transport was by auto or electric.

In 1929 George Shillibeer invented the first “omnibus,” from the Latin, meaning “for all” for local transport of passengers within London.  It was not cheap but it was less expensive than hiring a stagecoach.  It was also the first time customers didn’t have to book in advance and could pay the conductor directly as they boarded.  The first route was from what is now Paddington Station to Bank Station.

Busses quickly became more popular than trams as they were more comfortable and also easier to maintain.  The famous red Routemaster bus, pictured here, from 1959, still runs two routes in central London, and you can usually catch it near Trafalgar Square.

Today, with two children and no car, we typically go on “nap” rides on the bus when we all need a break…a great and cheap way to see the city!

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Please, Let Me Give You Money!

OK, dear Husband, I got your attention, didn’t I?

Another frustrating shopping experience in England!  I arrived at the department store make-up counter at 10:15; the store had opened at 9:30.  After asking several clerks (standing around doing absolutely nothing) if anyone might be able to help me at the Estee Lauder counter, I get frustrated with waiting five or so minutes.  Unfortunately, I want to try a few things and I’m not exactly certain what I want.  The others explain that while they may be able to find a product, they don’t know anything about it and can’t help me try anything and it’s best to wait for the designated clerk to show up.  I ask when that will be.  They tell me they don’t have any idea; maybe she is late or maybe she is sick today.  So after a few more minutes I decide to leave.  Yeah, I know…impatient American.  But it goes deeper than that.

I had a similar experience at a shoe store last weekend.  The “adult” shoe clerk could not help size my child’s foot while the “child’s” shoe clerk spent 10-15 minutes on one kid alone; so the first clerk proceeded to clean the shelves while we waited.  My mother, visiting from the U.S. observed that back home the clerk would not only be helping that first kid try on his shoes, but would be sizing my daughter, and welcoming a third or fourth to the store, apologizing for the wait and offering to call another staff member to help momentarily.  Has no one in England heard of cross training the staff?  Does this bother the English or are they content with it?

My husband, only half jokingly, mentioned he’d make a standing consulting offer to many English shops with staff in the service industry to let him run it for a few weeks and he could make a good living splitting the increased net profit.

I know, I know, the answer I get from people when I talk about these things goes something like “the concept of ‘customer service’ is just not part of the culture here as it is in the U.S.”  (Understatement.  Understatement.)  Baloney.  Ask anyone from Marketing 101 and they will explain to you the causal link between positive customer service and increased sales.  I’m sure the English like to make money just like the rest of us.

My husband’s approach when receiving particularly bad customer service is to walk away, stating “you’ve just lost a sale” or “thanks, we’ll take our business elsewhere.”  But most of the time this really doesn’t bother those in the service industry I have come across.  And it’s honestly very difficult to find that “elsewhere.”  Please, I’d love to hear back from anyone who knows of customer friendly shops in London.  You’ll have some new customers straight away.

Now off to buy that make up if I can get anyone to please take my money!

*UPDATE*

My faith in English shops was restored after a very positive boot shopping experience a few days later, and decent clothes shopping journey just today.  I was approached by a sales clerk in good time after entering both shops, and received help the entire time.  I still believe this is more the exception than the rule, but you never know…maybe those good old American customer service ideals have begun to swim across the pond.  😉

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