Italy (October 1-3, 2014)

One of my best friends from college, Tammy, was coming to Italy for a few weeks. I knew I had to find a way to see her! Charlie originally planned to come with us, but the flights were outrageously expensive on the days he was able to take off work, so Connor and I gathered up the courage to take our own adventure!

This was the last time we had seen each other until Italy…Connor was about 4 days old!
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Wednesday
We left in the afternoon to drive about an hour and twenty minutes to the Frankfurt-Hahn airport. It is a small airport in the middle of nowhere, but it was easy to park and get inside. Our flight arrived in Pisa at 9:30pm. After picking up our bag, we hopped into a taxi, and within a few minutes we were at the doorstep of our hotel. Tammy had arrived earlier, checked-in, and emailed me the room number, so we just walked right up the stairs and knocked on the door…and there was Tammy! We hadn’t seen each other since Connor was a few days old. Connor warmed right up to her, and he enjoyed reading a bedtime story sandwiched between the two of us.

Ready for take-off!
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Thursday
Connor was so exhausted from the trip that I had a rare opportunity to shower and get ready while he was still sleeping. Once all three of us were ready, we ventured out to see Pisa. Tammy navigated us just a few short blocks to the Leaning Tower and Baptistry. She had read a lot of Rick Steves’ books, so she was able to tell us a lot of information about everything we saw. The weather was absolutely gorgeous: bright blue sky, puffy white clouds, plenty of sunshine, and perfect temperatures. After walking around the Tower and Baptistry for a little while, we walked back towards our hotel and stopped at a café to pick up breakfast: lattes and sandwiches with Brie and prosciutto. Yum! We ate in the courtyard of our hotel, along with a hungry cat who clearly was used to table scraps, then picked up our bags and checked out of the hotel.

It’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa!!
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Baptistry and Duomo
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Breakfast!
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Tammy lead us on a walk through Pisa as we headed to the train station, and she gave us lots of information and history along the way. After having the ticket machine at the train station eat our money and patiently waiting for an employee to help us, we found our platform and waited for our train. We boarded and relaxed for the one-hour train ride to Florence. Once we arrived, we walked about 20 minutes to our hotel, enjoying the breathtaking views of the Duomo along the way. Our hotel was actually a convent, and we ended up with a huge room with 5 single beds!

Pisa
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On the train from Pisa to Florence
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Duomo in Florence
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After settling into our room, we started walking towards the Accademia art museum. Tammy had already reserved tickets for the afternoon so that we wouldn’t have to wait in a huge line! Connor fell asleep shortly after we entered the museum, and we took advantage of the opportunity to really take our time enjoying the exhibits. The highlight was Michaelangelo’s David statue, which was incredibly impressive. Connor woke up in time to see it, and he stayed pretty content while we finished in the museum.

Michelangelo’s David
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We spent some time meandering around Florence, relaxing on the steps of a Piazza (with Connor’s best buddies, the pigeons), and then indulged in real Italian gelato. Connor chose chocolate, and he loved every bite! We wandered around some more, listened to a few street musicians, and then stumbled upon a carousel. Connor had fun riding it before we started walking back towards our hotel. We found a restaurant for dinner and enjoyed our Italian specialties: ravioli filled with pecorino and pear for Tammy, ravioli with tomato and meat sauce for Connor, ossobuco for me, and tiramisu to share.

Those pigeons get him every time!
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Mmmmm, gelato! I’m pretty sure some strangers took pictures of our spectacle…
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Friday
After a simple breakfast at the hotel, we headed out for the day. Tammy lead us through another part of the city we hadn’t seen yet. We saw the Palazzo Vecchio (Town Hall) and the Uffizi Gallery, stopped for some souvenirs, then arrived at the river. We walked across the famous Ponte Vecchio, a bridge lined with jewelry shops, then shared a pizza for lunch at a small café. It was time to go to the Uffizi for our reserved time, and I thought Connor would be ready to fall asleep for his nap. He wasn’t having anything to do with sleep, but he managed to stay happy enough for us to see the museum. We took advantage of a conveniently-placed gelato shop right outside the museum, and I made the smart choice to give Connor a spoon to share with me this time :). We walked back towards the Duomo and tried to look inside since the line wasn’t long, but, there was an extremely strict dress code. I was wearing shorts and couldn’t go in, so Connor and I stayed outside while Tammy went in. She said the inside wasn’t nearly as impressive as the outside, so I guess I didn’t miss too much!

Palazzo Vecchio (Town Hall)
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Ponte Vecchio
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Pizza for lunch!
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Connor had been a patient little man all day, and we were ready to find a place for him to run around. We walked back to the hotel and he had fun racing around the garden for a while. Checking out of the hotel was a little complicated since the nuns at the convent spoke no English, but Tammy managed to communicate that I needed to go ahead and pay even though she was staying one more night. Tammy walked halfway back to the train station with us, then we said goodbye and there were lots of hugs among the three of us. Connor and I walked the rest of the way to the train station while Tammy stayed for one more night in Florence. My little traveler and I managed to buy a ticket and find our train back to Pisa, then find the shuttle bus to the Pisa airport.

Our flight didn’t leave until 10:00pm…and did I mention that Connor hadn’t napped all day?? He held it together as we boarded and took off, but shortly into the flight he was finally ready to sleep. I was able to pretty much keep him asleep as we got off the plane, picked up our bag, and walked to the car. He went back to sleep in the car and slept the whole way home. It was an incredible trip, but it went by too quickly! Even though it was a lot of traveling for the short time we got to see Tammy, I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was so amazing to spend time with her – in Italy, no less! – and share my new stage of life with her. Things have definitely changed since we met in college!!

This is the best picture we managed to get of the three of us
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My little sleepyhead on the flight home
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Rothenburg, Dinkelsbühl, & Sinsheim (August 30-31, 2014)

So many places to see, and less than a year left in Germany! We are determined to take advantage of the 4-day weekends throughout this next year.

Saturday
After a later-than-planned start, we were on the road to Rothenburg, which is about 2 hours away. It was an absolutely gorgeous day with perfect temperatures. No chill, not too warm. We parked just outside the city walls and walked into the medieval city. After picking up a map, we ventured out to see a few sights: a beautiful overlook, a church, and the Rathaus.

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Connor had finally fallen asleep for a late nap. We noticed there was a tower above the Rathaus, so we decided to climb to the top for a view of the city (and continue my streak of climbing church towers while carrying Connor!). After walking most of the way up, it got to a point where it was just too narrow and steep for me to go any further with Connor. Charlie went all the way up and took pictures while Connor and I people-watched in the town square. Well, I people-watched while Connor continued to look at the back of his eyelids.

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Views from the top of the bell tower

Once Charlie came back down, we found a quick snack (a Schneeball…a disappointingly dry regional specialty that was sort of like a funnel-cake-ball). We walked into Käthe Wohlfahrt, the huge Christmas store. We have one of those stores in our BX, but it certainly felt more authentic to be inside the Rothenburg store! Connor woke up and enjoyed looking at the nutcrackers, and once we went outside, he couldn’t get enough of the “Christmas truck” parked in front of the store!

The original plan was to spend the whole afternoon in Rothenburg, then drive to our hotel in Dinkelsbühl and see that city the next day. However, the weather was so amazing that day and the forecast was so awful for the next day that we decided to go ahead and see as much as we could of Dinkelsbühl while we had the chance. On our walk back to the car, we found a playground and relaxed for a little bit.

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After a half-hour drive, we arrived at our hotel in Dinkelsbühl. It was old and charming, and right in the center of the town. It was already late in the afternoon, but we took advantage of the beautiful weather and took our own mini walking tour. Charlie navigated us around the outskirts of Dinkelsbühl, stopping to admire the gates and towers of the surrounding wall. After walking along the wall halfway around the city, we walked back towards the center and had a late dinner. Our meals were good, but nothing too spectacular, especially considering we were finally in the Bavarian region for the first time.

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Sunday
After breakfast at the hotel, Charlie ran across the street (in the rain) to see if the church’s bell tower was open for us to climb. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open until 2:00pm. We checked out of the hotel and hopped into the car for a rainy drive to Sinsheim. When I say “rainy,” I actually mean it was POURING for a while. Sinsheim was on the way home, and a little over an hour from our hotel in Dinkelsbühl. We visited the Technik Museum, which was full of cars, airplanes, tractors, tanks, a huge bulldozer, a mini-monster truck to sit in, and more. Connor loved it! We had already been to its partner museum in Speyer twice, but this one had some displays we hadn’t seen before, like two Concorde jets that we were able to climb into. We all climbed through the first one, but Connor and I decided to wait at the bottom while Charlie went into the second one. It was too narrow inside and set at such a steep angle. While Charlie was in the Concorde, Connor and I admired the Huey helicopter display. I told him that Granddad used to fly that kind of helicopter, and he wanted to know where Grandma sat!

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Concordes

It was time to drive home (a little over an hour), and Connor settled into a nap. Before he fell asleep, we asked him what his favorite part of the museum was. His answer? “Mommy, Daddy, and Connor.” We assume he means that he loved being together as a family :).

Stay tuned for our October adventures: a short trip to Tuscany for Connor and me, and a family 3-day weekend to Bonn and Koblenz.

Grandma & Granddad’s Visit (July 27-August 20, 2014)

We were thrilled that Charlie’s parents came for such a long visit! They were here during Charlie’s block leave, so he took two weeks off while they were here. Connor was so excited to see Grandma and Granddad in person, and he warmed up to them within moments. We took it easy for a few days while they adjusted to the time zone, then piled into the car for a 5-day, 4-country road trip.

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One of Connor’s favorite activities was reading with Grandma

Charlie chose the destinations for this trip, and you will quickly notice that they are mostly centered around WWII history. I kept Connor entertained so that Charlie and his parents could enjoy everything fully, so this blog will lack a lot of the historical facts and details. Hopefully Charlie will fill in the gaps!

Friday, August 1 (Luxembourg City)
We left in the morning for Luxembourg city. As soon as we pulled out of garage, Connor said, “Daddy, I forgot something!” Luckily, he was kidding. What a comedian. After a 2-hour drive, we arrived at the American Military Cemetery. It was beautiful and so well-maintained. There are over 5000 soldiers buried there from WWII. The highlight for Connor was watching the lawnmower and a tractor with a leaf-blower. We drove a few minutes down the road to the German Military Cemetery. This cemetery looked smaller, but there were 4 soldiers buried per headstone, which was about 10,000 soldiers total. We took a break in the shade while Connor finished his nap, then drove to the hotel to check-in. The hotel room was small and simple, but it was adequate for the night. Connor and I had a double bed to ourselves while Charlie had a single bunk above us.

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American Military Cemetery

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German Military Cemetery

We were all starving by now, and crankiness started to set in. We clumsily navigated through the Grund area of Luxembourg City in search of a place to park so that we could eat and then see the Bock Casemates. We finally found a place to park and walked to an outdoor pub for a quick late lunch of paninis, bruschetta, and pizza…probably not a regional Luxembourg specialty, but it did the trick nonetheless. We drove to the city center and eventually found another place to park. We saw some of the Casemates as we were driving, but didn’t have the chance to get out and walk inside. The Casemates are underground tunnels that were used as bomb shelters during WWII. We walked to the Place de la Constitution, which offered amazing views of the city. We were surprised with the elevation differences within Luxembourg City. The area where we ate lunch seemed like it was down in a valley compared to the city center. After looking inside a church, we walked back through a pedestrian area with shops and restaurants. We followed the sound of band and stumbled upon a local community band’s performance.

Connor was a trooper on our first day of travel, and I was so relieved that there was an amazing public playground right next to the garage where we had parked. He ran and climbed for a while before heading back to the hotel for dinner and bed. By the time we got back to the hotel, I showered Connor and scraped together some dinner for him from the snacks we had packed from home. He was ready for an early bedtime, and Charlie brought back dinner for the two of us from the hotel restaurant.

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Hooray! We are almost at the playground!

I was amazed at the vast differences among the areas of Luxembourg City that we visited. The cemeteries were quiet and wooded with nothing else nearby. The Grund area where we ate lunch was old, complete with cobblestone streets. Moments later, we were in the modern and bustling downtown area!

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Luxembourg City (Grund area)

Saturday, August 2 (Bastogne, Belgium)
We were all up and ready for breakfast at 7:00am, but quickly decided that the hotel’s offering wasn’t worth 7.50€! We drove less than an hour to Bastogne, Belgium and found a grocery chain where we bought some breakfast. Our first stop for the day were the Bastogne Barracks, but we quickly learned that there was no longer a 9:00am tour, and we would have to wait another hour! Instead of wasting an hour, we drove to the new Bastogne War Museum, which had just been recently built. On the way, I remembered that it doesn’t open until 10:00, but we were able to visit the Mardasson Memorial first since it was in the same complex. It was quite an impressive monument. We walked up to the top, and Connor entertained himself (and me) by pretending to toss recycling bags into the recycling truck. (He was inspired by the yellow markings on the floor of the monument, which reminded him of our yellow recycling bags at home. Love my creative little man. A few minutes later he was picking up twigs off the ground and pretending to feed “hay” to the imaginary horses.)

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Mardasson Memorial

We went into museum, and it took a while to get past the entryway because Connor loved the tank so much! He took a short nap with me, then we looked at another tank for a while. He also enjoyed pretending to fix an anti-aircraft gun turret. Meanwhile, Charlie and his parents were able to take their time and look at everything in the museum, so it was a win-win for everyone. We found an open area to run around while Charlie went to gift shop, then had sandwiches and salads for lunch in the museum’s cafeteria.

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Bastogne War Museum

We drove back to barracks, but since we were early for the next tour, we walked through the cemetery across the street. Finally it was time to start the tour, but we quickly realized it was yet another bust. The guide spoke French, German, and only a little bit of English. We knew that a 2-hour tour without being able to understand the tour guide would be a nightmare, so we decided to make a break for it. After getting back in the car, we followed signs to the 101st Airborne Museum but couldn’t find it. After driving through the quaint center of town and deciding to look for our hotel instead, we happened to stumble upon the museum. Everyone enjoyed it, and then we drove down the block to our hotel.

Our hotel room was clean, modern, and spacious. Connor had a blast running back and forth as he explored all of the exciting things in the room, like the stereo and phone. After a nap for Barbara and playtime for Connor, we walked a few blocks to the town square, looked at a tank monument, then found a café for dinner. We finally had some regional specialties: Croque Madame (basically a grilled cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top), quiche Lorraine, and Belgian beer for Charlie. Across the square we got dessert at a chocolatier. Connor and I chose to share a gelato cone, which he didn’t share very well! Can’t blame him…I don’t like to share ice cream, either! We headed back to hotel and Connor was asleep by 7:30 after enjoying a bath in the fancy hotel tub.

Sunday, August 3 (Bastogne, Belgium; Margraten, The Netherlands; and Cologne, Germany
After a nice hotel breakfast, a tour guide met us at the hotel to take Charlie and his parents on a private guided tour of Bastogne. They were able to see actual battlegrounds and other sites that they never would have otherwise seen. Meanwhile, Connor and I kept ourselves busy near the hotel. We found some cows and donkeys to look at, made our way back to the tank in the center of town, then found a park to run around in for a little while. He napped on me as we walked back the hotel and waited for the rest of the family to return from their tour.

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Enjoying our morning while the others were on a guided tour

Once Charlie, Mike, and Barbara returned, we all piled into the car and headed towards the Netherlands. After a stop for lunch, we arrived at the Netherlands American Cemetery. Charlie had been there once before when the Army Band played at the Memorial Day celebration. It is an absolutely beautiful cemetery. Each grave is “adopted” and maintained by a Dutch family.

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Netherlands American Cemetery

It was time to get back into the car and venture into our third country for the day! Thankfully, Connor was a patient passenger throughout our whole trip. We found our hotel, which certainly wasn’t a hotel we would have chosen had we seen it from the street, but once we were in our rooms it was good enough for our two-night stay. The highlight for Connor was the real key and keychain for our room (instead of a key-card). He entertained himself for quite a while “locking” and “unlocking” the bathroom door…fun for him, but not so fun for the person trying to have a bit of privacy :). After debating whether or not Connor was able to survive dinner at a restaurant after three days in a row of short naps, we took our chances and walked down the street to a Biergarten. Much to my surprise, he hung in there just fine. He played with coasters and colored with Granddad at the table, and I went outside with him for a little bit before our food arrived. This was the best meal I had during the whole trip, and judging by the amount Connor ate from my plate, I’d say he agreed. My dish was Maultaschen, which is sort of a German version of a big ravioli, filled with pork and spinach. This variation was topped with cheese and prosciutto and then baked. Charlie’s Käsespätzle was a big hit, too. Oh, and he spilled the rest of my beer and lived to tell about it. Do I get a medal for that?

With full bellies, we walked back to the hotel and got Connor to bed by 9:30…so late for him! He must have been exhausted, because he didn’t even flinch throughout our noisy night: someone trying to unlock our door, the phone ringing, huge claps of thunder and lightning, pounding rain, a loud noise next door (turned out to be Mike and Barbara’s window slamming shut because of the storm), and a knock on the door. He may look like a Brokovich, but every once in a while he sleeps like a Mraz!

Monday, August 4 (Cologne)
We slept in a little and had a decent breakfast at the hotel. After driving through the downtown area of Cologne (which seemed to be entirely under construction), we found an open parking garage. It was a great location and we found the docks for our boat ride as soon as we exited the garage. We took a one-hour boat trip up and down the Rhine River. It was a great way to see Cologne, and we all enjoyed the view from the top deck. After our boat trip, we meandered through the center of Cologne, taking in the sights of the town square area, Gross St. Martin, Rathaus, and the Dom (Cathedral). We have seen many cathedrals throughout our travels, but this one was the most incredible that I have seen so far. I took advantage of my opportunity to admire the inside of the cathedral while Connor was still sleeping on me. He continued to nap as Charlie and I began climbing the 533 steps to the top of the bell tower. He woke up in time to see the amazing views from the top! After climbing back down, finding Mike and Barbara relaxing in the shade, and letting Connor run with pigeons for a few minutes, we walked back to the town square to find lunch. We all enjoyed schnitzel at a Biergarten. It looked like rain was coming, so we window-shopped as we walked towards the car and made it back just in time. We drove to a grocery store next door to our hotel for a few snacks and drinks, then back to our hotel for the evening.

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We made it to the top of the bell tower!

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Dom

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Ready for lunch!

Tuesday, August 5 (Cologne)
It’s our last day of a whirlwind trip! After breakfast, we easily found our way downtown again. We walked to the Dom and waited for the mini-train to take us to the Schokoladen Museum/Lindt Factory. Connor loved the train ride, and it gave us another opportunity to see the sights of Cologne. The chocolate museum was pretty neat, but definitely not enough free samples! Charlie and his parents chose ingredients for a custom-made chocolate bar as a souvenir. Connor napped through some of the museum, but woke up in time for the train ride back. We headed back to the car and started our journey home. I think the drive was around 3 hours total. We stopped at a rest area and there was a playground for Connor to enjoy while we had a snack. Connor was a content traveler the whole ride in the car, especially once he discovered how to take selfies :).

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Riding the Bimmelbahn to the Schokoladen Museum

As usual, this post is already longer than I intended, so here is the Reader’s Digest version of the rest of Mike and Barbara’s visit:

Kerwe: They enjoyed the food and festivities of Hochspeyer’s annual Kerwe (carnival), which included watching me run on a relay team with our American club! Connor LOVED the Kerwe Parade, and he “played parade” with Grandma everyday afterwards, pretending to throw candy and play the bass drum.

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Blowing a kiss to Connor as he yelled, “Never give up!!”

Reilly’s 8th birthday party: Mike got to meet two of Connor’s best buddies, Reilly and her mom Amy.

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Speyer Technik Museum: We spent a morning at the museum, enjoying all of the airplanes, trains, cars, and tanks. Charlie and I had been there before, but it was even more fun this time because Connor was old enough to really get excited about everything that he saw!

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Having fun outside the museum…then and now :)

Idar-Oberstein: It was a gorgeous day, and we all survived the hike up to the castle. On the way back down, we went inside the Felsenkirche, which is a church built into the side of a mountain. (For more about our previous trip to Idar-Oberstein, see this post.)

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Heidelberg: We took a day trip to see the castle, rode the funicular rail all the way up the hill for an incredible view, and then walked to the famous bridge. After driving home, we ended the day with a great meal at the Bremerhof Biergarten. (For more about our previous trips to Heidelberg, click here.)

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In-house babysitters: Charlie and I had the opportunity to go to a friend’s surprise birthday party and leave the little man at home. It was a great evening out for the two of us, and Connor had so much fun with Grandma and Granddad! Granddad had another chance to have some quality time with Connor another day while Barbara and I got pedicures.

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Connor loves looking at “funny pictures” (old videos of himself)

Mike and Barbara left on August 20 to go on a cruise around Europe. We probably won’t see them again until we move back to the states next summer. It was fun having them here, and we can’t wait to be together again!

A Visit from Gram and Grandpa (June 3-13, 2014)

My Dad and Marilyn made their second trip to Germany and we all had a fantastic time! Connor already “knows” his Gram and Grandpa thanks to talking on Skype about once a week and visiting them last summer, but I still thought it would take him a little time to warm up to them in person. He sure proved me wrong! Within about thirty seconds of greeting them at the airport, I was chopped liver! Connor requested that Grandpa read to him before his nap when we got home, and even crawled into bed with them for some pre-nap cuddle time. After a nap for everyone, we ventured out for an errand, then back home to relax. Gram and Grandpa took Connor to the playground while I had the rare opportunity to cook dinner without my sous-chef. The following day, we enjoyed a beautiful morning at the Volkspark. I squeezed in a run while the little man played with Gram and Grandpa, then we all fed the ducks, followed by a quiet afternoon at home.

Reading with Grandpa before a nap
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On Thursday morning I had to drop off the car for service. It was nice that I could leave Connor at home with his “babysitters” and not worry about moving his car seat. Oh, that reminds me…I didn’t mention that Charlie isn’t in town. He left for France the same morning that Marilyn and my Dad arrived. He played for several D-Day ceremonies in Normandy, and had an absolutely incredible time. (He says he will write a blog about it…) We miss him, but it’s nice to have company while he is away. My friend Amy drove me back to pick up the car in the afternoon, and Connor talked for days about me getting into the “red car with Amy and Reilly!” We ended the day with a fun dinner for my final German class. The restaurant had a playground, so Connor got to play with Gram and Grandpa (plus his friends Asher and Audrey) while my class did a little bit of work, then we all enjoyed a nice dinner together.

On Friday, we drove to Heidelberg for the day. We took the train up the hill to the castle and wandered around the grounds, taking in the beautiful views of the city and river below. Connor took a snooze while we transferred to the funicular rail and went all the way to the top of the hill for an even more incredible view. Lucky for him, he woke up just in time for the ride down. He enjoyed watching the conductor “drive” the train. We were all hot, tired, and starving, so we stopped for an afternoon meal. I usually just share my meal with Connor at restaurants, but thanks to eating with his friend Audrey the night before, he specifically requested schnitzel. Raising our German boy right, I suppose :). We all enjoyed a fantastic meal, and then set out to walk along the Hauptstrasse. Connor, having only managed a thirty-minute nap, was in no mood to walk where we wanted to walk, so we quickly decided to go ahead and see the famous bridge before calling it a day. Once we found the bridge, we had a great view looking up at the castle. Marilyn bought a few souvenirs, and we were on our way back home. My dad was proud that I successfully navigated us into and out of Heidelberg!

Saturday was another hot day. We went to the farmer’s market in Kaiserslautern in the morning, marveling at all of the fresh meat, cheese, eggs, bread, and produce. After strolling around and eating some lunch, we headed home to rest for a while. Later in the afternoon, we went to the Bremerhof Biergarten with a few of my friends and their kids for dinner. We had tables right on the playground, so the kids had a great time! Marilyn and my dad enjoyed their first true Biergarten experience.

We relaxed on Sunday and did some laundry and packing for our trip the next day. After Connor’s marathon nap, we went to the Bazaar on one of the Army bases and Marilyn enjoyed picking out some souvenirs and gifts to take home. I told Connor he could go in the bouncy house after we were done inside, but when we came back outside they had already folded it up…even though it was still ten minutes before closing time! Thankfully he wasn’t too bothered by that, and we had to stop by the commissary anyway, so I dropped off Connor, Gram, and Grandpa at the nearby playground while I made a quick run into the store. We picked up Greek food from a restaurant near our house and called it a night.

On Monday morning, we drove to Hirrlingen to spend a few days with our German relatives. Once we arrived, we spent the day with the Zugs. Elisabeth and Matthias hosted us for a delicious lunch (where Connor ate his weight in dumplings and spätzle), then Alex, Annette, and Nina took us to the town of Haigerloch. We walked through a unique museum, relaxed in the shade for a while, and then walked through the castle grounds. (Meanwhile, Charlie arrived home from France and we were able to finally talk on the phone. Connor was so excited to hear daddy’s voice!) After picking up Döner for dinner with the Zugs and hearing performances by Nina on violin and Alex on bagpipes, we made our way to Annette’s house to settle in for the night.

Connor loved hearing Nina and Alex play some music!
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Tuesday morning brought a sudden rainstorm and some (very brief) relief from the heat. After breakfast, we piled back into the car under sunny skies to head towards the Bodensee (Lake Constance), which is along the southern border of Germany and Switzerland. Annette was our fearless tour guide, and her son Julian and nephew Samuel (both 14) were with us as well. After driving for a little over an hour, we arrived at our hotel and dropped off our bags, then ventured out for the day. I think the highlight of the trip for Connor was all the forms of transportation we used! After a train ride and a short bus ride, we arrived in the beautiful town of Konstanz.

Konstanz
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We strolled through Konstanz, then took a one-hour catamaran ride to the town of Friedrichshafen on the other side of the lake. Connor napped for most of the boat ride while I enjoyed my first view of the Swiss Alps…amazing! In Friedrichshafen, we toured a Zeppelin museum (blimps, not Led!), then found a table at a Biergarten for dinner. After our leisurely dinner, we took the catamaran back to Konstanz. Connor entertained himself by climbing in and out of the seats as he pretended to be the captain of the boat. Lucky for him, the excitement continued as we boarded the bus and then the train to get back to our hotel!

Connor wanted to do everything with Julian and Samuel!
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Watching our catamaran pull up to the dock
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Enjoying his first gelato
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We were all hot, sweaty, and exhausted. Everything in the diaper bag came in handy that day as we encountered the hot sun, leaky diapers, scraped knees, hungry bellies, wet clothes, and a bump on the head. Connor and I shut ourselves in the bathroom as soon as we got back to our hotel room so we could shower before getting everything in the room dirty! After a decent night’s sleep (which would have been a little better if I had figured out how to open the window for some cool air), we enjoyed a nice breakfast at the hotel and checked out. We boarded the train once again, then had a leisurely walk with time to stop on the shore for Connor to throw rocks into the lake. Next, we boarded a small boat for a short trip to the island of Reichenau. The island was so picturesque! We walked a little ways, then took a bus to the other side of the island. Connor napped while Julian and Samuel took a paddle boat out for a while. We took the bus back to the other side of the island again, then found a place to eat. We enjoyed an incredible lunch of fresh fish (caught that morning) and salad that was all grown on the island. With full bellies (well, except for Connor, because he was more interested in looking at the lawn mower than eating), we hopped on the bus again to get back to our boat. After one final train ride, we were back to our cars, hot and sweaty and ready to drive back to Hirrlingen.

The picturesque island of Reichenau…Annette loved the flowers!
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Trying on Annette’s hat
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We went straight to Friedrich and Carmen’s house for dinner. After two days exploring the Bodensee, Connor was thrilled to be able to just sit on the floor and play with cars and trucks! We had a delicious dinner of salad, Maultaschen soup, potato salad, and dessert. Marilyn and my dad stayed awhile after dinner to enjoy everyone’s company while I brought Connor back to Annette’s for bath and bedtime.

On Thursday morning, Connor and I were surprisingly the last ones down for breakfast! Normally he is up around 6:30 or even earlier, but he finally slept until after 7:00am. After eating, Connor and I played outside while Marilyn and my dad went for a walk with Annette. Connor had fun playing with trucks and watching Elias (Annette’s oldest son) mow the grass. The highlight of the morning was riding on the forklift with Benjamin! Bernhard’s house is directly behind Annette’s, and Benjamin (the youngest of Bernhard’s three children) is doing a lot of renovations on the house now that Bernhard has passed. Connor loved seeing a “jobsite” up close and personal, including a big crane and forklift! After Annette, Marilyn, and my dad returned from their walk, Annette took us into Bernhard’s house to let us pick out a few special items to keep in remembrance of Bernhard.

Working hard with Benjamin!
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It was time to start our drive home, and it’s always sad to leave Hirrlingen. Our German relatives always make us feel so special and loved. We are taken care of as if we are close family members, even though there is some distance between us on the family tree. Connor was exhausted after our trip to Hirrlingen and the Bodensee, and he practically fell asleep mid-sentence in the car and slept the rest of the way home.

We arrived home mid-afternoon, and Connor was excited to be reunited with all of his toys! And to make things even more exciting, Charlie came home from work shortly after we got home! Since our trip to Hirrlingen overlapped with his trip to France, Connor and I hadn’t seen him for 10 days! Marilyn and my dad were glad to finally catch up with Charlie, too. We all enjoyed a relaxing evening at home, complete with takeout from our favorite local Italian restaurant.

The next morning, Charlie drove my dad and Marilyn to the airport :(. Connor still yells around the house for Gram and Grandpa! We had such a great time while they were here, and it’s always hard to see them leave. We look forward to one more possible visit from them at Christmastime, otherwise, we will see them next summer when we move back to the states!

Two bittersweet trips to Hirrlingen (March 18-19 and April 2-3)

I remember my 5th grade family heritage project so vividly: gathering photos and family tree information from my Grandma, my dad helping me make spätzle for the class…I never would have thought that I would actually be HERE in Germany, standing where some of those pictures were taken, and meeting people on the family tree! I feel so incredibly blessed to have the chance to get to know my German relatives while we are living here. Charlie has enjoyed meeting and spending time with them as much as I have, which just makes it even more special.

One of the relatives we spent a lot of time with was Bernhard. He is one of my Grandma’s first cousins, and I first met him many years ago when he visited the states. His daughter, Annette, reached out to me when we moved here and invited us to come for a visit. (Little did she know we would keep coming back!!) Bernhard was often emotional when we arrived and when it was time to say goodbye. Even though he didn’t speak English, it was clear how much it meant to him to connect with his American relatives.

Bernhard always had something special he wanted to do with us or show us: a certain restaurant or cafe, a cuckoo clock shop, or a museum he knew we would enjoy. He was like an Opa for Connor…taking him on his tractor or buying him a special sheepskin rug just like all of his own children had.

Bernhard passed away in his sleep on March 12. It was unexpected as he had been in good health. Connor and I were able to drive to Hirrlingen for the funeral, but Charlie had a concert and was crushed that he couldn’t get away. I was grateful that I could attend the funeral and represent the American side of the family. It was a nice Mass with lots of music, and afterwards everyone gathered for refreshments.

Charlie, Connor, and I drove to Hirrlingen again on April 3 for the burial of Bernhard’s ashes. I know that Charlie was relieved that he had the opportunity to say goodbye. There was a small ceremony at the gravesite with close family, and we were so touched that Annette allowed us to join them. Afterwards we all went to a café for coffee and ice cream and enjoyed an afternoon of socializing. We went back to Annette’s house for a little while, then back to the church for a special Mass.

Although the reason for our visits was a somber one, we nevertheless enjoyed the opportunity to see so many relatives and even meet a few new ones. Everyone was in remarkably good spirits; it seemed like they were focusing on celebrating Bernhard’s life and rejoicing that he is now with his late wife Renate. We made so many memories during these two short trips, and Connor still talks about so many of the relatives by name.

Bernhard, we are blessed to have known you.

Happy 2nd Birthday, Connor!

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You have been growing and changing so quickly over these last few months! Watching as you develop your language and creative playing skills has been incredible. I’ll try to keep your update short so that I can work on another post about our two recent trips to Hirrlingen.

At your 2-year checkup on April 17, you weighed 28 lb and were 34.5″ tall (50th percentile for both).

Talking and Signing
I stopped writing down your new signs after the last post. Even though you are talking now, you still love learning new signs. You especially love watching the “little girl” on YouTube teach us new signs and sing songs using them :). (MySmartHands if anyone is interested!) When I wrote the last post 3 months ago, you were only saying a handful of simple words like mama, daddy, oh no, and whoa. Now you can say almost anything!! You can imitate almost any word (not perfectly, but you get most of the sounds), and you have a large vocabulary of words that you use without any prompting. It’s amazing to hear you speak in sentences already, even if they are broken sometimes. Some of our favorites are: “Mommy, more (fill in the blank…) please!” and “Daddy, build blocks please!” You are curious about people and always want to know “Who be there?” or “That man name?” With some prompting, you will ask, “What’s your name?” and can respond when someone asks you the same question.

I think you can pretty much say the whole alphabet and sign each letter. You can count up to 15, but often skip numbers :).

Favorite Toys
Legos, cars and trucks, and your play kitchen with its countless food/kitchen toys are your favorites. You enjoy doing puzzles and reading books, too. It’s so much fun to see you completely engrossed in what you are playing with! You are incredibly creative in your play, and you love to pretend to be other people, trucks or tractors, a fireman, etc. I constantly hear you exclaim, “Connor be Reilly!” “Mommy be Amy!” or “Connor be digger!”

Favorite books
Opera Cat, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, Love You Forever, anything about cars or trucks
I love hearing you quote your favorite books randomly throughout the day :)

Mommy’s little helper
You still enjoy helping with the laundry and cooking in the kitchen. You are able to follow directions and complete tasks pretty well, like putting away your toys.

Sleeping and eating habits
You like to eat, and you continue to enjoy most everything that I cook. Your favorite foods include eggs, beans, corn, broccoli, meat, oatmeal, and dried fruits. Bedtime is around 7:45-8:00pm (starting in your bed and crawling over to me at some point), and you usually wake up around 6:30am. Naptime lately has been about an hour and a half somewhere between 12:00-2:30. A few days ago, you napped by yourself for a little over 2 straight hours. That was a first!

And now the most important part of the blog…more pictures!

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Fixing the wall

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Decorating Easter eggs

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A new Lego fire truck and cement mixer!

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Connor’s new “walking bike”

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Happy birthday, little man. We love you to the moon and back!

A Long Weekend in Belgium (February 14-17, 2014)

We finally ended our traveling drought and took a weekend trip to Belgium. Connor was excited, but a little confused; he kept signing and saying “bell-gym” and then “girl” because he was thinking about the two little girls in his gym class. Overall, it was a great trip! We survived rain, wind, map-reading mishaps, and a toddler who wanted to walk (or run) everywhere.

Friday
We arrived at our hotel in Brussels in the early afternoon after hitting a short stau (traffic jam), stopping for gas and one restroom break, and tackling confusing roads surrounding our hotel. Connor and I had a nap in the car, so once we checked-in, Charlie napped while Connor and I explored the hotel. Now that everyone was rested, we left for our first adventure with Rick Steves’ guide in hand.

Our view as we walked

Our view as we walked

It was a 20-minute walk to the Grand Place, which was Brussels’ market square for 1000 years. Our map didn’t have every little street labeled, so once we were close, we weren’t sure exactly how to get to the Town Hall in the Grand Place. Thinking it would be obvious, we kept following the signs, and when we reached a large, impressive-looking building, we thought we had found the Town Hall. I pulled out Rick Steves’ “Grand Place Walk” and started narrating. I was confused when the book pointed out buildings across the street or next door that I didn’t see, and finally realized we weren’t at the Town Hall! (For those of you who have been to Brussels, we were actually at the Bourse. Whoops.) We got our bearings and felt pretty silly once we actually arrived in the Grand Place. It was quite an impressive sight! It had been lightly raining since we left the hotel, but our spirits lifted as we finally experienced the heart of Brussels. A group of girls asked us to take a picture of them, so Connor found his “bell-gym girls” after all :).

Town Hall in the Grand Place

Town Hall in the Grand Place

The King's House in the Grand Place

The King’s House in the Grand Place

Another Grand Place view

Another Grand Place view

Thankfully, I was able to navigate the rest of our walk without any mishaps. The rain continued, but we enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate (Connor’s first, and he approved!), bought a tin of Neuhaus chocolates, and explored the rest of the sights near the center of town: Galeries Royales St. Hubert (a large, glass-covered fancy shopping mall), a busy “restaurant row,” Church of St. Nicholas, the Bourse (stock exchange), 13th-century convent ruins, and finally the famous Manneken-Pis statue. Yes, the statue is just what it sounds like: a little boy peeing into a fountain. It’s one of the more famous tourist sights in Brussels, but it was a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting a huge statue, not one that was less than two feet tall!

Manneken-Pis...Connor was not amused!

Manneken-Pis…Connor was not amused!

The rain was coming down harder by now, and Charlie managed to navigate us back to our hotel with our sub-par map. We didn’t want to go back out or sit down at a restaurant for dinner, so I picked up Chinese food from the restaurant next door to the hotel. Yes, we ate Chinese food on our first night in Belgium and we aren’t afraid to admit it!

Relaxing in the hotel after a rainy afternoon

Relaxing in the hotel after a rainy afternoon

Saturday
During our hotel breakfast, Connor enjoyed pointing out the people while eating his weight in eggs. With a 0% chance of rain and a blue sky, we were ready for the day’s adventures. We walked just a few short minutes to the metro station and took the train to Parc du Cinquantenaire. The huge arches of the park were impressive! The arches were built in 1880 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence. Our first stop in the park was the Royal Army and Military History Museum. We spent most of our time in the aviation section, where Connor excitedly ran around yelling “Eh-PLANE! Biiiiii!” as he marveled at all of the big airplanes. I was grateful for a wide-open hangar with few other people there so that Connor could get a little energy out. Charlie enjoyed all of the planes and other military aircraft, and the highlight for me was seeing how happy my boys were!

Parc du Cinquantenaire

Parc du Cinquantenaire

Parc du Cinquantenaire

Parc du Cinquantenaire

Royal Army and Military History Museum (You can see that my little blur is already off and running towards all of the "eh-PLANES!")

Royal Army and Military History Museum (You can see that my little blur is already off and running towards all of the “eh-PLANES!”)

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Love his cheesy smile!

Love his cheesy smile!

After walking through to the opposite side of Parc du Cinquantenaire, we walked about 15 minutes to see the outside of the European Parliament building. We stopped inside the Parlamentarium, which is a free hi-tech tour of the Parliament, but decided we weren’t interested in taking the tour. Connor was starting to get sleepy, but we thought he would be excited to see the dinosaurs at the nearby Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences before he took a nap. We quickly figured out (the hard way) that the location I had marked on the map wasn’t quite accurate, and after asking for directions at a hotel and still not finding the museum, Connor had fallen asleep. (Luckily, he didn’t ask where the dinosaurs were when he woke up later!) Charlie and I decided to continue our windy walk and go on to the Musical Instrument Museum. It was a really neat museum spread among several different floors. The audio guides played musical examples as you walk near each exhibit. Connor woke up about 15 minutes into it, but he stayed pretty happy as we took turns letting him walk around while the other perused the exhibits.

On the 10th floor, we sat down in the crowded café for a much-needed late lunch. The view from the café provided a great birdseye view of Brussels. I secretly started to panic because all of Connor’s toys, snacks, etc. were in the backpack which we had to leave at the coat-check before entering the museum. Thankfully, he was content eating from our plates, with a few breaks to have one of us walk around with him. Charlie ordered a sausage and sauerkraut dish, and I chose black and white pudding with mashed potatoes and apple compote. A trip to another country just would not be complete without a menu blunder from yours truly. I knew that black and white pudding wasn’t “pudding,” but I was still caught off-guard when my plate arrived with two sausages. Charlie mentioned that the dark one might be blood sausage, but that didn’t really sink in at the moment. I must have been too hungry! I ate it, and Connor enjoyed the sausages, too. As I’m writing this blog, I looked it up online, and sure enough…blood sausage. Yum. I suppose that will help our iron count??

A view of Brussels from the 10th floor of the Musical Instrument Museum

A view of Brussels from the 10th floor of the Musical Instrument Museum

Refreshed after eating, we ventured back to the Grand Place to look around the shops. We bought beer, more chocolates (or, as Connor started saying, “chot-let”), and bought frites to munch on while we walked back to the hotel. (Frites are basically French fries, but they are fried twice so that they are extra-crunchy. They are probably the most popular Belgian street food, along with waffles. This was Connor’s first French fry experience, and he was happy to continue sampling!)

Stopped for a family shot as we walked back to the Grand Place (You can see the top of Connor's hat...does that count??)

Stopped for a family shot as we walked back to the Grand Place (You can see the top of Connor’s hat…does that count??)

We walked back to the hotel, unloaded our goodies, then went back out to look around at the shops near our hotel. As soon as we told Connor that we were going to the store, he started signing “orange.” Lucky for him, we found an express grocery store where we bought an orange for Connor and bottled tea and water for Charlie. Next door was a little café with prepared foods that you could eat there or take with you. We picked up salads, soup, and sandwiches to take back to the hotel for dinner. Connor scarfed down the entire orange faster than I could cut it up for him!

Playing in the hotel room after a long day of sight-seeing, and excited to discover that his letter magnets stick to the radiator!  (Don't worry, the radiator isn't on...)

Playing in the hotel room after a long day of sight-seeing, and excited to discover that his letter magnets stick to the radiator! (Don’t worry, the radiator isn’t on…)

Sunday
After another hotel breakfast, we hopped on the train to spend the day in Bruges. After a transfer from the metro to the Belgian Rail, we settled in for a one-hour train ride. The train was full, so we ended up sitting on the floor between a second-class car and a first-class car. The first-class car was nearly empty, but we didn’t have the guts to take any of the open seats. Good thing we didn’t bother trying, because when they came through to check tickets, they kicked a few people out that didn’t have first-class tickets! I thought Connor would love the train ride, but he suddenly decided that a morning nap was more appealing.

Enjoying the train ride to Bruges

Enjoying the train ride to Bruges

Once we arrived in Bruges, we followed the rest of the tourists across the street and started heading towards the center of town.

It was a beautiful day in Bruges…
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After a 15-minute walk, we arrived at the Markt (Market Square). Charlie narrated Rick Steves’ “City Walk” for us. We saw the Belfort (the bell tower that has stood over the Markt since 1300), Basilica of the Holy Blood (it wasn’t open yet so we couldn’t go inside), City Hall, and walked through the basement of a hotel to see the ruins of a fort and church from 900 A.D. By this point, Connor had finally perked up and he wanted to walk or run everywhere instead of staying in the carrier with me. Rick Steves clearly didn’t have a toddler in tow when he planned his walks! We managed to enjoy several canal views, followed by a quick look inside the Church of Our Lady. All three of us were ready for a break, so we stopped at a café for lunch. Charlie had a panini while I had quiche and a salad, then we shared our first Belgian waffle. The waffle definitely lived up to all the hype!

Market Square

Market Square

City Hall

City Hall

A canal view

A canal view

We headed back to the Belfort so that we could climb the 366 steps for the best view of the city. The line was long when we were there in the morning, and it wasn’t any shorter at this point. Connor had fallen asleep on our way there and stayed asleep the entire looooong wait in line. That was definitely a blessing, because there was no way he would have wanted to wait in that line if he had been awake! He woke up when we were about halfway up the narrow, winding staircase. I certainly didn’t see anyone else climbing the stairs with a toddler on the front and backpack on the back!! (Did I mention that there were 366 steps??) We made it all the way up to see the carillon bells and a fantastic view of Bruges, and even survived the walk back down.

We walked alllll the way up the Belfort!

We walked alllll the way up the Belfort!

Views of the Market Square from the top of the Belfort:
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This is the face of a man who just got pooped on by a bird. At least it didn't land in the frites he was holding...

This is the face of a man who just got pooped on by a bird. At least it didn’t land in the frites he was holding…

Heading back to Brussels on the train

Heading back to Brussels on the train

On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped at a waffle truck. This waffle was even better than the one we had earlier in Bruges! After we got settled at the hotel, I walked down the street to pick up burgers for dinner from the Brussels Grill. Poor Connor…I told him we were having meat and green beans for dinner, but the meat was too red for us to feel ok about giving to him (which seemed pretty ironic after I realized I fed him blood sausage earlier that day), and they accidentally gave me fries instead of green beans. He didn’t complain, and found enough to eat from the food we had brought with us from home.

Monday
After the best night’s sleep of the whole weekend (for me, at least!), we packed up the suitcase and had one last breakfast at the hotel. We loaded up the car, and on our way out of town, we took a detour to see the Atomium, which was the symbol of the 1958 World’s Fair. Charlie pulled over to take some pictures from the outside, and then we hit the road towards home. Connor fell asleep halfway through and didn’t wake up until we got home. Vacation is hard work!

The Atomium

The Atomium

Where should we go next?

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