Tuesday, January 29, 2013

20K miles in one month

For the second time in a month, we've traveled back across the Atlantic to England.  We returned to wet weather, but that's no big surprise.  I must admit I like the January appropriate temps over here rather than the upper 70s we were unprepared for while in Texas for three days.  

The girls have returned to school this morning and I will head into London in about 30 minutes to go visit the Kenya Embassy.  Their tourist visa application is a brief one page.  All I have to do is show up in person between 9:30 and noon to pony up the completed form, a visa photo, our passports, copies of our travel itinerary/confirmed flights to Nairobi and £30 each for the younger daughter and I. Then I just return a mere 72 hours later to pick up the Kenyan travel visa they've attached in our passports.  Easy peasy!

We're almost unpacked from yesterday.  A mere six loads of clothes later, I'm more or less caught up with the dirty laundry.  About all that remains are the two carry on pieces of luggage with the important stuff.

The teen is a member of Operation Smile at her high school, a group that fundraises to help support doctors who perform cleft palate surgery on children in third world countries.  Her group is holding a valentine themed fundraiser and so we hit the stores in Texas to gather up some highly prized American candy to be sold next week along with the baked goods.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Texas Tornado

We hit the ground running yesterday afternoon when our plane landed in Houston. Within 24 hours, we had enjoyed meals at Cheesecake Factory and Pappasito's. For me, the best part is always the bottomless iced tea. We also got passports renewed for both girls and the teen bought a prom dress at the Galleria.

This afternoon, we drove up to College Station and checked out some off campus housing options for the teen to consider. Tomorrow morning, the vet school student son of a guy who works with my husband will give the (hopefully) Aggie-to-be a campus tour. And then we'll head back to Houston for a bit more shopping before flying back to England Sunday afternoon.

You can't visit Texas, even for just three days, without hitting Wal-Mart. As luck would have it, these sweet little girls were peddling Girl Scout cookies and so we had to help out the cause. Not that my ever expanding gut needs any Thin Mints... but they're just so darned tasty.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Realizing that we needed local currency in Kenya for tipping purposes during February's photo safari, I went online and ordered some for our trip during the upcoming winter break.  Figuring £750 would be sufficient for a week long visit to Africa, I dropped by to pick up the Kenyan shillings this morning.  

Accustomed to the crappy exchange rate from American dollars to British pounds every time we move over some of the husband's salary for living expenses, I was a bit shocked to receive a mafia-sized wad of cash.  While £750 will get me $1200 to spend in the US, that same amount of pounds translates to 96,000 Kenyan shillings.  

I was afraid my purse wouldn't be big enough to hold the huge envelope of Kenyan cash I was given.  I made it home with my 96 one thousand shilling bills.  I must admit, they are rather attractive... especially the wildlife on the back.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Snow Storm, Jan 2013

Oh sure, I'll admit snow storm is a bit of an exaggeration.  However, it's the most snow we've seen since moving to England.  Plus the girls got a day off from school yesterday, so we're gonna go with storm.

Above is what it looked like Friday morning around 9:00 am when the snow started falling.  Below is what it looked like by the time it all ended late Sunday afternoon.  

We had a break in the snowfall Saturday, thank heavens, since that's when we had to get into London for our appointment at the travel clinic.

On Friday it was really coming down and getting swirled all around by the wind.

On Sunday, tiny little flakes fell for several hours, which is why school was cancelled yesterday.  The girls didn't enjoy it as much as I thought they would. However, the dog was thrilled with this chance to play in it.

The one above is typical of Ollie.  Whenever he hears suspicious sounds in the back garden's shrubbery perimeter, he balances on his hind legs like a meerkat.  The better to see you, my dear.  

There are several rose bushes around the back patio and this one unopened bloom was the only bit of color in our green and white back yard over the weekend.  

I was at the kitchen sink and looked out the window to see this little bird hopping along on the snow covered front drive, looking for something to eat.  

Saturday morning I had to go fetch the 6th grade daughter from a sleepover at a friend's house.  It was only a mile from where we live, but still nerve wracking since they never plow or toss road grit in gated developments with private roads. 

Yesterday we stayed indoors like hibernating bears and I made some chicken taco soup in the crock pot, which really hits the spot on a cold day.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Snow, Snow, Go Away...

...because the girls and I need to fly to Texas Thursday morning to get their passports renewed.  

School was cancelled for today via text message to all parents yesterday evening.  The oldest daughter immediately asked me to drive her into town on the snowy roads so she could shop and have lunch with her friend on what has turned into a surprise three day weekend.  That's right - the school bus company believes the roads are still icy and dangerous, but it's okay to risk sliding our personal vehicle into a ditch so the teen can get a new shirt and eat a bowl of noodles.

It turns out that I didn't have to worry about cranking up the SUV and switching on the four wheel drive because we all lounged around the house like total sluggards all day.  I did make a crockpot full of chicken taco soup and wash a couple loads of clothes, but that was about it. Tomorrow the girls will return to school and I'll start knocking items off of my to-do list for the week.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

An ounce of prevention was pretty pricey yesterday at a travel clinic in London, where I had to shell out £425.  There are places around the city that specialize in providing health services to folks traveling abroad.  I had booked an appointment earlier in the week for the girls and I Saturday afternoon, so we braved the leftover snow and trotted over to a pretty little area off Oxford Street.  All visitors to Kenya must show yellow fever vaccination certificates in order to enter the country, and so the three of us lined up like ducks for it.

The nurse was really sweet and knowledgeable.  She has lots of family living in the US and we had a nice time chatting with her.  Each of us received yellow fever vaccinations plus anti-malarials.  I also got two other shots, the DPT cocktail and typhoid.  I can't even recall the last time I had a booster of anything and have no desire to return from our Africa trip with a communicable keepsake.

Now all we have to do - besides travel to Texas on Thursday so the girls can get expedited passports - is get our visas for Africa at the Kenyan embassy in London once we return from our little passport trip.  That will be the final hoop we have to jump through before departing on our photo safari. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Trash TV

The 6th grade daughter was flipping through channels and stopped at "Toddlers and Tiaras" while I was puttering around in the adjacent kitchen.  She announced to me, "These people are white trash".  Unaware of the program she was watching, I asked her why she thought they were white trash.  She replied, "A bunch of them are missing a whole lot of teeth."  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Snow Day

After much ballyhoo about the possibility of accumulating snow today, the girls awoke to nada, zip and zilch of the fluffy white stuff.  However, about an hour after they left for school, it really started coming down out there.

I kept Ollie home from doggie daycare and made a run to gas up the SUV (it has four wheel drive and can handle the snow better than the little hatchback) plus buy some groceries.  Lordy, lordy, you would have thought we were entering the next ice age based on all of the folks at the store stocking their pantries.  The worst case scenario described by the BBC weatherfolks was a whopping 4" of snow. However, the Brits weren't taking any chances.

I received a text from the school that they're dismissing classes early at 1:30 today.  Since the girls aren't around to enjoy the snow with me while it's still falling, I took my furry son out to play.  

He absolutely loves it and is now pacing between the window in the stairwell, glass paned french door leading to the back patio and back of the couch in the bay window of the family room, whining because he wants to go back out into the snowy landscape. I can just imagine what I'd be hearing if the little beast could talk... Just one more time, mom, five more minutes, please, please, please. I won't ask you for anything else.  So typical of boys his age.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

(Still) Expanding My Vocabulary

I continue to learn new British vocabulary and/or slang on a regular basis.  Here are some of the more interesting words I've discovered and continue to hear in everyday conversation or read in magazines.

Nick or pinch - to steal

Wheelie bin - the large garbage cans you roll to the curb

Trolley - shopping cart

Lippy - lipstick

Dodgy - risky or suspicious

Manky - scruffy, dirty or disgusting

Cheers - not just a toast, but rather a catch all phrase that also seems to convey thank you and goodbye

Squiffy - a little drunk; tipsy

This has been one of my favorite things about living in the UK, hearing the differences between American vs. British English.  I especially like the last one... just sounds so appropriate. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Best Laid Plans Gone Awry

After more than two years here in the UK, you'd think I'd be wiser.  Everything moves at the pace of molasses in winter and there's not a darned thing you can do about it but grit your teeth and persevere.  In the US, you can get expedited service for a passport or visa, but not so at the US Embassy in London.  

I have been on the brink since yesterday, teetering between a nervous breakdown and screaming conniption fit.  Both of the girls have passports expiring at the end of March.  Therefore, we need to get them renewed before February break gets here since three of us are headed to Kenya while the fourth is going to Romania. We are up against a finite window of time that doesn't allow for the whims of a bureaucratic system in a foreign country.

The whole problem circles around the fact that passports must be valid for six months AFTER we return from Kenya (and Romania) for February break.  So I went online to book a passport renewal appointment at the US Embassy in London for both girls.  I realized we would be needing them before they would return to us on the back of a jellyfish that floated across the Atlantic after going overland tied to the shell of a snail. I've got friends who have expedited passports and/or visas in the US over the course of 24-48 hours, so I was all prepared to pony up the extra cash to get the passports ready in time.

After spending over an hour searching every link, nook and cranny on the embassy website before calling a number only to find an automated voice that never answered my question, I finally located a valid email and asked them about the expediting process.  Surprise, surprise, there is no way to knock it out any sooner here in the UK... at the US Embassy... to get a US passport renewed... for a US citizen with all of her paperwork in order.

Plan K (as in 'kay, maybe this plan will work because I just don't have any spare time to spend in a straight jacket) is to fly the girls to Houston next Thursday for an appointment at the regional passport agency Friday morning.  That means we'll get them either that afternoon or Monday morning so we can haul it back to England on a flight leaving Houston that evening.  The girls will have to miss three days of school and get a fourth for free since it's a staff development day for teachers next Friday and thus no classes.

Since we'll have Saturday and Sunday to cool our heels in H-town, that means we can drive the senior to her two front runner Texas universities for a looky loo now that students have returned to classes for the spring semester. This allows the teen to count two of the three class days she'll be gone as college touring days.  At least there is an upside to this whole passport renewal rigamarole that has had me tied in knots trying to figure out a way to untangle all of it.  It's like I've become trapped in a Dr. Seuss book gone horribly wrong.  The head thunker can't thunk up a solution to the stunk system that makes her wanna get drunk. The bureaucratic cat makes her wanna get a bat and wail on his fat a**. How about that?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Alamo Bowl

Our fourteen day trip to the states for Christmas break was chock-a-block full of commitments like doctor's appointments and dental cleanings, but some of it was fun.  On Saturday, December 29, we attended the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.  It pitted the University of Texas (#23) against Oregon State University (#13).  I had kinda assumed UT would get their asses handed to them by OSU merely by glancing at the poll results and season records, but I was pleasantly surprised the game kept us hanging on until the bitter end for a home state win.

The husband is a Longhorn alum and my brother-in-law and nephew are big fans.  Plus the bro-in-law's dad is a dyed in the wool supporter. He was a member of the 1963 UT football team that won the first national championship, led by famed coach Darrell Royal, and has the ring to prove it. My husband was able to wrangle a few extra tickets for these die hard Longhorns and they were thrilled to join us for the big game.

The pic below was taken from our seats with no zooming in - that's how close we were to the field.

We had some fabulous seats on about the 50 yard line, row 10 behind the Longhorn's bench.  By halftime, UT had fallen behind, but they rallied in the final quarter for a last minute win.  Hook 'em Horns!

I included a few pics (above) and a couple videos (below) that I took on my less than fabulous camera phone because I was too lazy to take the Canon.  It was easy to tell who the different players were on the field, but it was more difficult in the stands because fans from both sides were wearing some shade of orange.  

Since I no longer resemble a college co-ed, but rather have one at home or will this fall, I opted for a solid turtleneck and UT scarf with dangling silver Longhorn pendant I ordered from the Co-Op in Austin. Gotta represent, right?  Plus it was easy to remove and put in my purse in case the team didn't pull out a win. Or stuff in the mouth of an overly zealous OSU fan who might feel compelled to heckle the losing team after one too many cups of beer in the third quarter. But "we" won, so it was all good.  

The above video is dedicated to the memory of my high school English and journalism teacher, Betty Jo Tucker.  She was a proud UT alum that wore her burnt orange Longhorn puffy vest to school every fall on casual Fridays in support of her alma mater.  She passed away a little over a year ago, but every time I hear "The Eyes of Texas", I think of her.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

There is a Difference

I just returned home from my second conference with the younger daughter's combo English/reading teacher and now I feel really bad.  I've gnashed my teeth and slapped my forehead and sent a couple emails to the school's headmaster, assuming this teacher is stupid.  Come to find out, he's just ignorant.

If you'll recall, I've climbed atop my soapbox and ranted a few times on this blog about the incompetent boobery of various teachers in the past.  No profession is without its slackers.  Phone up the village, we've found your missing idiot teaching 7th grade history.  

But seriously - this guy really is clueless, along with several of his peers.  I've likened it to teaching in the 1950s and come to find out, they're not much beyond that. They know Bloom's Taxonomy exists, but they aren't employing it either informally or formally.  They know memorization can be good, but they're unaware that critical thinking is infinitely more effective. How many SAT or ACT questions ask you to regurgitate a fact from a passage instead of inferring or drawing a conclusion? If you guessed none, you would be correct.  If this teacher doesn't start getting his students to interact with literature, then they are gonna be lucky if they graduate from high school, let alone be prepared for the four year college of their dreams.

So I've decided to cut him some slack because he can't help it and he really doesn't know any better.  I'd like to think that my meeting with him (where I shared some critical thinking questioning stems) coupled with my emails to the headmaster regarding the lack of higher order thinking skills will bring about some change as they rethink how to improve upon the art of teaching.  As for us, we're heading back to the Texas public schools where they've had all of this down pat for years.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Three days ago I was feeling terribly superior because I stayed up all day Thursday since we arrived that morning on an overnight flight from Texas.  While the girls piled up in their beds for long, on-and-off siestas until late into the afternoon, I stayed busy and only dozed off once for about 30 min when I took a break on the couch.

Now I'm not feeling so terribly intelligent anymore because my strategy to thwart the jetlag didn't exactly work.  I slept like a hibernating bear Thursday night, waking up Friday morning at 9:00 am after eleven hours of uninterrupted sleep.  The teen went into London with a friend for some ice skating and even extended an invite to her 6th grade sister, even though her ulterior motive was to have the younger one snap pics of the girls skating at Hyde Park's final days of winter wonderland.

While they were gone, I sat down to watch a bit of TV with the dog and dozed off for more than an hour.  I thought I was all good until we hit 9,10,11 and then 2:00 am before any of us were tired enough to attempt sleep.  And thus we slept until close to noon on Saturday and didn't roll out of bed until 10:30 am this morning.

Classes resume for the girls tomorrow and I need to get busy putting up the holiday decor, in addition to beginning their passport renewal process as well as arranging for yellow fever vaccinations and tourist visas to Kenya.  I'm all about fun stuff these days.  So yeah, we're all gonna be dog tired and it will be a really long day since the alarm will go off at 6:15 am tomorrow morning.  

However, we're gonna muster some enthusiasm because it's the first day of the last semester of high school for the teen.  The next semester she begins will be her freshman year in college this fall.  *sniff, sniff*  All senior parents received an email yesterday about buying the expected half page in the school yearbook to publish a special message to them, including some pictures from when she was a little girl.  My how the years have passed in the blink of an eye.  You can't wait for them to walk and talk and start school and then they're getting ready to leave the nest and you wonder why you seemed to wish it all away, looking forward to each milestone that gets you one step closer to them beginning their own lives.  It's a surprisingly tearful thing to contemplate, especially since I'm not a particularly sentimental sort, but I'm gonna continue to wish and hope that each step into her future will be bright and shining.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

We returned to our house in England this morning and were greeted by some good news.  I passed the Texas state certification test for special education while the teen was accepted to Texas A&M University.  I hadn't checked her status on the university website since we rushed out of town the minute semester exams were done.  It seems an acceptance letter was sent to our house in England on Dec. 17, but it hasn't arrived yet.

Ollie, my furry child, will be dropped off from doggie daycare any minute now.  We haven't seen him in two weeks and we missed the little goof.  Thanks to my mother-in-law, I returned to England with just one set of dirty pajamas for each of us since I ran two loads of clothes through her machines yesterday evening.  So that just leaves a bit more unpacking to do before we store the big suitcases until the next school break in mid February.

It was sad to leave the husband in Texas, but we're about to enter the downhill slide of the teen's senior year.  We'll be crossing weeks off the calendar and holding on for school holidays so we can all be together again as a family.  I'm gonna suck it up, do the single parenting gig and take advantage of our last six months of living in Europe.